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Fiction

The Observer

And so we went in.

Combat formation, all five of us, me first, face masks on so tight that the edges of our eyes pulled, suits like a second skin. Weapons in both hands, back-ups attached to the wrists and forearms, flash-bangs on our hips.

No shielding, no vehicles, no nothing. Just us, dosed, altered, ready to go.

I wanted to rip something’s head off, and I did, the fury burning in me like lust. The weapons became tools—I wanted up close and I got it, fingers in eyes, fists around tentacles, poking, pulling, yanking—

They bled brown, like soda. Like coffee. Like weak tea.

And they screamed—or at least I think they did.

Or maybe that was just me.

The commanders pulled us out before we could turn on each other, gave us calming drugs, put us back in our chambers for sleep. But we couldn’t sleep.

The adrenaline didn’t stop.

Neither did the fury.

Monica banged her head against the wall until she crushed her own skull.

LaTrice shot up her entire chamber with a back-up she’d hidden between her legs. She took out two MPs and both team members in the chambers beside her before the commander filled the air with some kind of narcotic to wipe her out.

And me. I kept ripping and gouging and pulling and yanking until my fingertips were bone. By then, I hit the circuits inside the door and fried myself.

And woke up here, strapped down against a cold metal bed with no bedclothes. The walls are some kind of brushed steel. I can see my own reflection, blurry, pale-skinned, wild-eyed.

I don’t look like a woman, and I certainly don’t look like me.

And you well know, Doc, that if you unstrap me, I’ll kill the thing reflected in that brushed metal wall.

After I finish with you.

#

You ask how it feels, and you know you’ll get an answer because of that chip you put in my head.

I can feel it, you know, itching. If I close my eyes, I can picture it, like a gnat, floating in gray matter.

Free my hands and I’ll get it out myself.

Free my hands, and I’ll get us all out of here.

How does it feel?

By it, I assume you mean me. I assume you mean whatever’s left of me.

Here’s how it feels:

There are three parts to me now. The old, remembered part, which doesn’t have a voice. It stands back and watches, appalled, at everything that happens, everything I do.

I can see her too—that remembered part—gangly young woman with athletic prowess and no money. She stands behind the rest of us, wearing the same clothes she wore to the recruiter’s that day—pants with a permanent crease, her best blouse, long hair pulled away from her horsy face.

There are dreams in her eyes—or there were then. Now they’re cloudy, disillusioned, lost.

If you’d just given her the money, let her get the education first, she’d be an officer or an engineer or a goddamn tech soldier.

But you gave her that test—biological predisposition, aggression, sensitivity to certain hormones. You gave her the test, and found it wasn’t just the physical that had made her a good athlete.

It wasn’t just the physical.

It was the aggression, and the way that minute alterations enhanced it.

Aggression, a strong predisposition, and extreme sensitivity.

Which, after injections and genetic manipulation, turned her into us.

I’m the articulate one. I’m an observer too, someone who stores information, and can process it faster than the fastest computer. I’m supposed to govern the reflexes, but they gave me a blocker for that the minute I arrived back on ship, then made it permanent when they got me to base.

I can see, Doc; I can hear; I can even tell you what’s going on, and why.

I just can’t stop it, any more than you can.

#

I know I said three, and yet I didn’t mention the third. I couldn’t think of her, not and think of the Remembered One at the same time.

I’m not supposed to feel, Doc, yet the Remembered One, she makes me sad.

The third. Oh, yeah. The third.

She’s got control of the physical, but you know that. You see her every day. She’s the one who raises the arms, who clenches the bandaged and useless fingers, who kicks at the restraints holding the feet.

She’s the one who growls and makes it impossible for me to talk to you.

You know that, or you wouldn’t have used the chip.

An animal?

She’s not an animal. Animals create small societies. They have customs and instinctual habits. They live in prides or pods or tribes.

She’s a thing. Inarticulate. Violent. Useless.

And by giving her control of the physical, you made the rest of us useless, trapped inside, destined to watch until she works herself free.

If she decides to bash her head against the wall until she crushes her own skull or to rip through the steel, breaking every single bone she has, if she decides to impale herself on the bedframe, I’ll cheer her on.

Not just for me.

But for the Remembered One, the one with hopes and dreams and a future she squandered when she reached for the stars.

The one who got us here, and who can’t ever get us out.

#

So, you say I’m unusual. How nice for me. The ones who separate usually kill themselves before the MPs ever get into the chamber. The others, the ones who integrate with their thing, get reused.

You think that the women I trained with—the ones not in my unit, the ones who didn’t die when we got back—you think they’re still out there, fighting an enemy we don’t entirely understand.

I think you’re naïve.

But you’re preparing a study, something for the government so that they’ll know this experiment is failing. Not the chip-in-the-brain thing that allows you to communicate with me, but the girl soldiers, the footsoldiers, the grunts on the ground.

And if they listen (ha!) they’ll listen because of people like me.

Okay. I’ll buy into your pipe dreams.

Here’s what everyone on Earth believes:

We don’t even know their names. We can call them The Others, but that’s only for clarity purposes. There are names—Squids, ETs—but none of them seem to stick.

They have ships in much of the solar system, so we’re told, but we’re going to prevent them from getting the Moon. The Moon is the last bastion before they reach Earth.

That’s about it. No one cares, unless they have a kid up there, and even then, they don’t really care unless the kid is a grunt, like I was.

Only they don’t know the kid’s a grunt. Not until the kid comes home from a tour, if the kid comes home.

Here’s what I learned on our ship: Most of the guys never came home. That’s when the commanders started the hormonal/genetic thing, the thing that tapped into the maternal instinct. Apparently the female of the species has a ferocious need to protect her young.

It can be—it is—tapped, and in some of us, it’s powerful, and we become strong.

Mostly, though, no one gets near the ground. The battle is engaged in the blackness of space. It’s like the video games our grandparents used—which some say (and I never believed until now)—were used to train the kids for some kind of future war.

The kind we’re fighting now.

What I learned after a few tours, before I ever had to go to ground, was that ground troops, footsoldiers, rarely returned. They have specific missions, mostly clearing an area, and they do it, and they mostly die.

A lot of us died that day—what I can remember of it.

Mostly I remember the fingers and the eyes and the tentacles (yes, they’re real) and the pull of the face mask against my skin.

What I suspect is this: the troops the Others have on the ground aren’t the enemy. They’re some kind of captured race, footsoldiers just like us, fodder for the war machine. I think, if I concentrate real hard, I remember them working, putting chips places, implanting stuff in the ground—growing things?—I’m not entirely clear.

And I wonder if the talk of an invasion force is just that, talk, and if this isn’t something else, some kind of experiment in case we get into a real situation, something that’ll become bigger.

Because I don’t ever remember the Others fighting back.

If Squids can look surprised, these did.

All of them.

#

So that’s my theory for what good it’ll do.

There’s still girls dying up there. Women, I guess, creatures, footsoldiers, whatever they want to create.

Then we come back, and we become this: things.

Because we can’t ever be the Remembered Ones. Not again.

But you know that.

You’re studying as many of us as you can. That’s clear too.

I’m not even sure you are a doc. Maybe you’re a machine, getting these thoughts, processing them, using some modulated voice to ask the right questions, the ones that provoke these memories.

Since I’ve never seen you.

I never see anyone.

Except the ghosts of myself.

#

So what are you going to do with me? Reintegration isn’t possible; that’s been tried. (You think I don’t remember? How do you think the Remembered One and I split off in the first place? Once there was just her and the thing. Now there’s three of us, trapped in here—well, two trapped, and one growling, but you know what I mean.)

Sending us back won’t work. We might turn on our comrades. Or ourself. (Probably ourself.)

Sending us home is out of the question, even if we had a home. The Remembered One does, but she’s so far away, she’ll never reintegrate.

Let me tell you what I think you should do. I think you should remove the chip. Move me to a new location. Pretend you’ve never interviewed me.

Then you’d just be faced with the Thing.

And the Thing should be put out of its misery.

We should be put out of its misery.

Monica and LaTrice weren’t wrong, Doc. They were just crude. They used what methods they had at their disposal.

They were proactive.

I can’t be. You’ve got all three of us bound up here.

Let us go.

Send us back, all by ourselves. No team, no combat formation. Hell, not even any weapons.

Let us die.

It’s the only humane thing to do.

© 2008 Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Originally appeared in Front Lines edited by Denise Little.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has won a couple of Hugos, a few more Asimov’s Readers Choice Awards, an AnLab award, and a couple Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Choice awards—and that’s just in the last few years. Her novels have hit the USA Today bestseller list, the Wall Street Journal and Publisher’s Weekly lists, and the extended list of the New York Times (before anyone was allowed to say the extended list was important). She’s also had bestsellers in Great Britain and France. WMG Publishing has just reissued all of her fantasy novels, including the seven volumes of the extremely popular Fey series (with more to come). She’s also writing two science fiction series—one in the Retrieval Artist universe and one in the Diving universe, two mystery series under the name Kris Nelscott, two goofy fantasy romance series as Kristine Grayson, and one really strange futuristic romance series as Kris DeLake. And that doesn’t count editing the new anthology series, Fiction River. No wonder she never leaves her house.