You’d think after seven tries, I could get the living part right, or at least be a pro at dying, but both are still messy and painful. At least dying doesn’t scare me anymore.
I yank Olshevski back into our wrinkle of black basalt before the Eatees mist his head.
“Keep it down,” I say, my voice tinny in the helium tri-mix of my armor’s helmet. As if it matters; if the Eatees don’t get him, something else will.
To either side of me, prone soldiers in combat armor bead the lava, like dewdrops on a burn victim. Overhead, sunlight reflects off an arch of orbiting debris, which in another fifty million years will coalesce into the Earth’s moon, the same moon under which I will lie as a kid, fantasizing about fighting space aliens.
A streak of fire scratches the sky.
“A shooting star,” Olshevski says. His chuckle crackles through the radio-link. “Make a wish.”
He’s a first incar, fresh down the well from 2075 or some such. Like most firsts, he’s gung-ho and stupid and won’t live through the day. I’d like to think I wasn’t as stupid as Olshevski, but I suspect I was. Then I died. And died again. And again.
Voices buzz through the radio-link. The Eatees are forming up across the no-man’s land for an assault on the prize: a steaming pool of long-chain proteins, RNA, and protobionts that may one day evolve into Earth’s higher carbon-based life, provided we stop the Eatees.
“Cut the chatter,” Tanner says. He mutes the squad’s mics. The sudden silence presses on my ears.
I’ve known Tanner since we were first incars. He was a good soldier then; he’s a good leader now.
Olshevski pops up again. Before I can pull him down, an Eatee sonic shears the top half of his body clean off, the atoms of his suit and every living cell vibrated apart by the high energy noise. The pink mist floats away on the methane wind, and Olshevski’s legs tumble over like felled trees.
If he’s lucky, his genetic algorithm never finished transmitting to H-Station, and he can find peace in the Big Dark.
The Big Dark sounds good. It doesn’t matter if Christina is there or not anymore, either. I hope she is, but—
I scramble over the basalt lip and charge the cluster of black lumps in the distance. If I hadn’t known what I was looking at, I never would have recognized them as alive—featureless lumps of metalloborane, no head, no eyes, only a hole that periodically gapes open, presumably to breathe when it isn’t emitting blasts of high frequency noise.
“Sam, what are you doing?” Tanner asks.
Behind me, soldiers scramble from the trench into the glassy no-man’s land.
The Eatees rotate toward us. Their orifices open. A sonic blast glances off my armor hard enough to knock me down.
I struggle to my knees and launch an O2 cluster bomb. The skittering pellets explode, washing the Eatees in reactive oxygen. Their bodies fizz and glow, catch fire and burst.
Eatee sonics shimmer across the battlefield. The whine grates my eardrums.
My right arm vibrates, all the molecules shaking like ping pong balls in an earthquake. I’m lifted off the ground, spun around, and I lose all track of up and down. Then the glassy basalt crashes into my helmet plate and my feet flop over my head as I fold in half.
Red mist covers the right side of my visor. I struggle to recall who had been next to me.
Warnings flash across my HUD. Suit breach, and I realize my arm is gone. Whatever hasn’t spray-painted my helmet has been splattered into the wind. But I’m still alive.
Dammit, I’m still alive.
I lie on my back, laughing at my misfortune through the haze of pain blockers.
Overhead, meteors etch fiery lines across the sky, like tiger claws opening up skin. They trace graceful arcs that anytime else would have been beautiful. I remember the time Christina and I made love in a Nebraska wheat field beneath the Perseids. They were beautiful. She more so.
Through the narcotic haze, I sense something wrong, but it takes me a full minute to realize what. One of the lines is shortening and growing brighter. Pressure sensors scream as the hammer of air pushed in front of the dropping meteor crushes—
—I sit up, clutching my right arm and gulping bites of air.
“It’s okay, Sam, we made a full recovery.” Kim’s hand is soft and smooth and warm.
H-Station’s recovery room is a morgue: antiseptic and harshly lit. Odd, because H-Station is a mathematical construct cycling through nano-cores lodged in Hilbert space. You’d think they could create something more friendly to wake up in.
Algorithms or not, the cold metal beneath me burns against my balls.
At the foot of the table are a folded flannel shirt and familiar denim jeans broken in by hard use.
Kim rips a sensor patch from my neck.
I grab her wrist, a lightning quick reflex that makes her gasp.
Kim’s face is different again. Her narrow eyes have grown rounder, the sharpness of her nose has dulled, and her hair, once black and thick, has lightened to a sun-bleached tan. Today her hair is pulled back into a ponytail, revealing a morning-clean face with freckles splashed like the Milky Way over her cheeks and nose. The same as—
I release her and pull the shirt over my shoulders; focus on pushing buttons through their holes.
Kim rubs her wrist.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I should have warned you.” She turns away as I pull on the jeans.
When I look up, a desk and chair have appeared, and the morgue table is gone. The lights have softened to the gold of a Nebraska sunset. As a new recruit, I had found H-Station’s sudden shifts disconcerting, like the architects had gone to great lengths to create the illusion of a real world, but had never finished the programming. Like living in a movie—the unimportant stuff had been cut away, leaving only the scenes necessary to move the story forward to its inexorable climax.
I’ve never taken a shit on H-Station.
The chair squeaks as I sit. The leather cools my back.
A window behind Kim opens onto a field of wheat and a curtain of blue sky. Sometimes that window has familiar Colorado mountains or a slice of Caribbean beach or a hillside of golden poppies. Tanner thinks we have subconscious control over what we see on H-Station, and that Kim uses this information in her work.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“A meteor,” I say. It isn’t what she wants, but if I give her what she wants too quickly, I would have to leave.
Kim taps a yellow pencil against her cheek.
After every recovery, Kim is here. I sit in the same chair and answer the same questions. The only thing different is the view out the window. And the way Kim looks.
“I got hit by an Eatee.”
Out the window, the wheat bends over in an afternoon breeze. I expect to see Christina in her jeans and floppy hat checking its ripeness by the angle of the heads.
The lump in my throat hurts.
“And how did that happen? You getting hit.”
Each visit, I find it harder to concentrate on the interview. I get distracted by what lies beyond the window or by the changes to Kim’s face or the clothes I’m wearing. I see ghosts of my past everywhere, but I know they’re not here, except in my head. No matter how I try, I can’t seem to get rid of them.
Every death seems to chip away a flake of my sanity. Eighths and ninths talk about not being whole anymore. As a third, I thought it would never happen to me. When I was a sixth, I fought it. Now I’m a ninth . . .
“I sighted the enemy, and I charged.” I feel oddly disconnected from the room and the moment. When I blink, I see Olshevski’s legs tumble over on the back of my eyelids. Something that horrible should have crippled me, but it didn’t faze me at all. “How many were recovered?” I ask.
“There was no order to advance. What were you thinking when you made the decision to charge?”
“I don’t get paid to think.”
“You don’t get paid at all.” A half-grin slides across her face, her lips parted to reveal perfect teeth.
Christina had perfect teeth.
My knuckles pop as I crack them. The noise surprises me, and I look down at my hands. The scars I remember having are gone, because they are not part of my genetic algorithm. The physical ones, that is.
“Why did you charge?”
I forget sometimes that Kim knows everything that happens on the battlefield. These post-recovery sessions allow her to learn why. Kim has been tasked with optimizing our fighting force.
H-Station sits in Hilbert Space, just up-well of a white hole that opens into the solar system four and a half billion years in my past. H-Station is a haven of sorts, safe from the Eatees, but disconnected from space-time as we humans know it. It’s also the critical junction point for down-well travel, because you can’t send matter down-well, only information, in this case a soldier’s genetic algorithm, a multidimensional information array that captures a person’s genetic code and a neural map of the brain. The problem is, H-Station can hold only a limited amount of information, so Kim is searching for the optimal soldiers to fight this war. So we fight and die and learn and change, each time spawning new incars that Kim tosses back into her battlefield experiment. At some point, one of our incars will reach the zenith of our martial skill, and Kim will delete the rest of us.
“Why did you charge?” Kim asks again.
“I saw an opportunity.”
Kim doesn’t say anything.
Does she know I’m lying?
Kim resumes tapping her pencil against her cheek. “How do you feel otherwise?”
“Like hell. I just died, for the eighth time.”
“Fair enough.” Kim’s pencil scritches against the pad. With her head down, I see her scalp in the wide part of her hair. The skin is pale and smooth.
The familiarity unsettles me. “Is that all?” I ask, wanting to get away.
She doesn’t look up from her writing. “Are you ready to go back?”
“No, but it’s what I signed up for.”
H-Station is a maze of memories half-remembered. Maybe it’s the shared human condition, distilled by algorithms into surroundings that are both numbingly generic and achingly familiar. Like the wheat field outside Kim’s window.
When I first came down-well, nothing about H-Station was familiar. Yet each time I come back, I see more places that remind me of my past. I suspect it has something to do with Kim’s work.
This time, the processing room is a smoky bar with a low ceiling and barely enough space to breathe. It reminds me of the beaten honky-tonk on the outskirts of Omaha, where a fresh-faced girl from the wheat fields snookered me of forty bucks at eight ball. She was nice enough to share her garlic fries with me, confident enough to kiss me afterward, and stupid enough to spend the rest of her life with me.
Why do I remember this? There’s no pool table here, and the air smells of anticipation, not garlic.
I recognize few faces; most are firsts and seconds I don’t want to know.
Against the wall with his arms crossed, Tanner raises his chin to catch my eye. I slide through the crevices between conversations, but before I can reach him, a woman grabs my collar and kisses me on the lips. “Hey, lover,” she breaths across my cheek.
From the patch on her uniform, I see she’s a fourth, but I’ve never met her before. “You’ve mistaken me for someone else,” I say.
She frowns. “You don’t recognize me, Sammy?”
Then she sees the patch on my shoulder and looses an expletive. “Sorry,” she says, straightening my collar. “I knew a third—”
I raise my hand. She knows an earlier incar of me, a third, but not my third. I don’t know how many different incars of Samuel Hohlman exist, but each one is spawning branches in the probability function that is me. Kim is betting that one of us is an optimal soldier.
Before I can say anything, the woman turns her back to me and pretends I don’t exist.
I continue through the crowd until I get to Tanner. He shoves a glass tumbler in my hand. Vodka on the rocks.
I see from his patch that he’s a sixth.
Tanner arches an eyebrow when he sees my own patch. “Lava?” he asks.
I’ve served with many of Tanner’s incars, so there’s always a good chance we can find common ground. Tanner and I decided long ago not to associate if we had more than a four-incar difference—too much personal misery to overcome.
“Methane explosion?” he asks.
I nod, recognizing how I died as sixth. This incar knew me two or three lives ago.
The lines pinched into Tanner’s forehead relax. “So a ninth,” he says. “Still no command?”
My patch has the crossed swords of a G. I. grunt. “I’m not leadership material, but it looks like you are.”
Tanner flushes. As a sixth, this is his first command.
“Who’s the fourth?” he asks, motioning with his glass. “She’s hot.”
I shrug. “Never met her, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t . . .”
Tanner makes a noncommittal sound. He’s died enough to understand.
As a second and third, I screwed everything and anything willing. There are probably three dozen incars making it in the bar’s backroom right now. Dying is still scary to them, and they don’t fully appreciate that they’ll be back again and again. To cope with the fear, they seek solace in the most base and carnal of human actions. It’s a way to forget, at least for a little while.
Tanner searches the bottom of his glass and asks, “Is it still worth it?”
He knows he isn’t supposed to ask questions like that; it violates our agreement. Even so, I find myself answering. “I don’t know,” I say softly.
Tanner frowns. I’ve said too much. I remember being a sixth, when I started to realize the senselessness of the dying.
“But we’re still here, so we must win.” The uncertainty in his eyes is gut-wrenching.
That isn’t how it works. Our lives are an arrow, always moving forward, and we can never know the future until we get there. The future has no bearing on my past. If we fail to save humanity, I won’t simply poof out of existence. I’m fighting the Eatees for some other humanity. I’m not fighting for Christina, because she’s lost three years in my past, and while one day there may be another Christina, she will not be my Christina.
That thought drains the noise from the room, and all I hear is the roar of silence in my ears.
My drink tumbles from my shaking hand and shatters on the floor.
What the hell am I doing here?
The conversations crash in around me, like a cave collapsing. I can’t make out any voices or words. It’s all just noise.
I leave Tanner standing alone, staring into his glass.
The noise dies around me as new deployment orders flash across my visual cortex.
It’s time to die again.
I inch to the top of the trench and peer through the heat-ripples distorting the no-man’s land. I can’t be certain that I’ve been here before, but I get an unsettling sense of déjà vu.
I’ve heard ninths and tenths talk about rejoining battles they’ve already died in and sometimes even meeting earlier incars of themselves. It’s never happened to me before, but if it did, I think I would tell myself to find a way to put an end to the circle, to join the Big Dark.
My HUD picks up movement and zeroes in on a line of Eatees half a kilometer away. Like a train of charcoal briquettes, they move in formation across the jumbled basalt, venting trails of pinkish gas from their orifices.
I slide down the trench wall and check my weapon. Working on military muscle-memory, I chamber an O2 grenade without thinking.
By now, others have seen the Eatees. Chatter pollutes the comms.
“Keep it down,” Tanner says.
The second incar on my left stares at me with saucer-big eyes. For a moment I see Christina’s face through the helmet shield. Not her face as the cancers ate her body, but her face on our wedding day. Even though her hair had already fallen out, she never looked more beautiful.
I squeeze my eyes shut. I have done everything I can to forget her and make the pain go away, but she never seems to leave me.
The recruit with big eyes touches my shoulder. “You okay?” she asks through the private touch-link.
I recognize her now. I know her, or at least who she will be. Her sixth saved my life, back when I was a fourth, and paid for it with her own. I died a few seconds later, but I’ve never forgotten her. A few more deaths, and she’ll be a good soldier.
I brush her hand away.
I’m not okay. I came down-well to get away from everything that reminded me of what I have lost. I needed to kill something, to become less human, so I could stop feeling. What Christina and I had is too strong, however, and now it eats at me like her cancer ate her bones.
My only way out is the Big Dark, but I can’t have that.
My teeth vibrate painfully as Eatee sonics discharge nearby. The chatter in my helmet ends as Tanner kills the comms so his orders can be heard. We’re to lay down a wall of O2, and make sure the Eatees don’t flank us. It all strikes me as pointless.
“Get down, Sam!”
Tanner’s words jar me, and I realize I’m standing and firing my weapon over and over. My HUD tells me I’ve launched a half-dozen O2 grenades as a seventh whumps from my launcher.
Across the smoldering cinder, an Eatee swivels. Its orifice opens and the world ripples. I close my eyes and see Christina.
My heart starts to vibrate and come apart.
“You’re safe, Sam.”
It takes a moment to put a name to the voice . . . not Christina . . . Kim.
“It hurts,” I say. It’s not supposed to hurt—because I am no longer that person—but it does.
“It’ll pass. Your brain is still reconciling what happened.”
The cold metal gurney presses against me. Shivers wrack my flesh.
“Try to calm down,” she says.
I raise my head from where it’s tucked against my chest. This time, her eyes are amber, flecked with gold. They aren’t Kim’s eyes; that isn’t Kim’s face.
“We made a full recovery,” she says.
“No,” I say.
Her brows pinch together. I know she is checking H-Station’s data-core, confirming a full recovery of Samuel Holman, tenth incar.
But I’m no longer complete, no matter what the genetic algorithm says.
Kim helps me to a sitting position, and I pull on the clothes at the foot of the table. When I look up, Kim is sitting at her desk. Outside the window, aspens quiver at the edge of a lake, glassy smooth and filled with clouds. I recognize the place immediately: the Montana cabin where Christina and I spent a week every summer, and where—
“Tell me about this place,” Kim says.
I am surprised for a moment by the change in script. “No.”
I expect her to pry, but she doesn’t.
Backlit, Kim’s ponytail is pulled so tight she looks bald.
The silence picks at my resolve. I exhale, and my body deflates like a punctured bladder.
“Every summer, we’d come to this place.”
“This is a special place then.”
“I hate this place.” The lump in my stomach threatens to come up my throat. “Christina died here, the day after we were married.” I have never talked about Christina with Kim. I’m sure she knows about her; she knows everything about me.
Kim’s pencil stops, frozen mid-tap. Everything seems to stop—the shimmering trees, the clouds on the surface of the lake—like the program that is H-Station has crashed.
“She had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. They tried chemo and radiation, but it didn’t work. The cancer spread into her lungs and bones. When the doctors gave her a week to live, she asked me to bring her to the cabin. We were supposed to have a life together.”
Christina is motionless behind the desk, the pencil frozen near her perfect lips. It’s not her, I tell myself.
“I want to forget because it hurts.”
I hear a pounding sound that starts in time with my heartbeat, but slowly slides out of synchronization. When I blink, Kim’s pencil is tapping again.
“Is that why you volunteered?”
There are as many reasons for joining up as there are soldiers. What does it matter if I came here to lose my past? It’s not like I volunteered as a way to commit suicide.
My fingernails are square and perfect, not chewed to the quick like when I enlisted. Every time I’m recovered, the scars of living are polished from my surface.
“Everything back there reminded me of Christina. The way the wheat bent was her smile. The smell of sunshine was the fragrance of her hair. Now, everywhere I look here. . . . I don’t want to go on.”
Kim studies me quietly. After a moment, she says, “That’s not up to you.”
“You have nine incars of me, and probably dozens more I don’t know about. Why can’t I retire?”
“There is no retirement here, Sam.” Kim’s lips continue to move, but I don’t hear her through the pounding of blood in my ears and the rasps of breath through my lungs. Those are the sounds of life, but I’m not alive anymore, so how can I make them?
Kim scribbles on her pad with her pencil; then she looks up at me. “I need you to go back.”
The words stab me like a cruelly curved knife. I can’t go back there. Why can’t Kim see that? “I’m finding it hard to be a good soldier,” I say. “I don’t know what I’m fighting for anymore.”
“Maybe you didn’t come here to forget. Maybe you came here to remember.”
It sounds like something Christina would have said when I was belly-aching about something ridiculous.
“You need to go back one more time, Sam.”
My HUD flashes to life with new deployment orders. I squeeze my eyes shut, but I still see them on the inside of my eyelids.
It’s time to die again.
The basalt crunches like broken glass as I step off the drop-ship. More ships streak in low across the crimson sky, their engines sun-flaring as they pivot and drop. The clouds glow as the orbital battle continues; each flash is one of our ships bursting and burning.
A concussion wave from a distant explosion vibrates my faceplate. Even though the surface battle is a kilometer away, first and second incars dive into a laser cut trench at the edge of the drop circle. Their chatter is loud and fast in the comms.
A ship booms overhead and skims the battlefield, stirring up dust and sulfur steam. From its bottom, cluster bombs whiz toward the ground. They explode, killing Eatees and humans alike.
My third incar died from friendly fire. It had been painless—a bright flash, intense heat, like I had been dropped into the middle of a supernova—and then I awoke on H-Station with baby-new skin and another hole in my psyche.
My visor lightens as the flash fades and the glowing battlefield cools from white-hot to red to glassy black basalt.
Tanner taps my helmet, opening a touch-link. “Orbital’s picked up an Eatee incoming; we got ten minutes ’til this place gets hot.” He dashes off toward the rally point.
The last drop-ship lifts into the red sky, vanishing slowly into the methane clouds, like a fleck of copper sinking into blood. For the moment, the world is quiet.
The edge of the landing zone drops off into a steaming pool of scummy organics and proto-life. In a hundred million years, this pool will be teaming with the first anaerobic lifeforms, which will produce oxygen as a waste product of their metabolism. It’s that oxygen that will make this world uninhabitable to the Eatees, and will make it my—
No, it will never be my home.
I close my eyes and see Christina’s face, beautiful and smiling. Every minute I had with her is something to cherish, not forget. Maybe Kim is right.
Movement to my right catches my attention. A third has stepped up to the edge and is looking down into the steaming pool. Maybe he’s thinking about throwing himself in. It’s hard to say with a third; they’re a critical transition incar, from the wide-eyed newbie to either a well-adjusted soldier or to someone who will eventually be like me.
I’m not sure why, but I place my hand on his shoulder, opening a touch-link. “It’s not high enough to even damage the suit,” I say.
When he turns toward me, I stumble back. He grabs my elbow and saves me from tumbling over the edge.
His face has the same lines as my own, only fresher, and the same eyes, only more alive. He shows no recognition of who I am, even though he looks into his own face, half a dozen deaths later. I am no longer the same person, but am I so damaged he does not recognize himself?
But he is also not the same person I was as a third. He has been shaped by different experiences and today he will likely die a different death, which will make him a different fourth, and a different fifth, and so on. Yet, in his eyes is the shadow of our common bond, and I know this grief will force him down a path parallel to my own.
His eyes narrow, but they do not yet glimmer with recognition. “You okay?”
Afraid he will release my arm, I seize his wrist to keep the touch-link open. “I’ve learned something recently,” I say softly. “Our past makes us who we are today. If we forget what happened before we came down-well, then our past is only this: war, dying, and more dying. How can that be any good for anyone?”
“I—” His eyes widen then, and he sees what could be his future, but I also know he’s smart enough to realize the future holds infinite possibilities, and that I am not necessarily his fate.
It’s too late for me—my scars are all below this perfect skin—but I am only one possible future for Samuel Hohlman. How many of my thirds are out there, forging new futures and trying to get it right? Maybe, because of me, this is the one that will get it right.
I release his wrist, breaking the touch-link. I move toward the rally point. He follows me at a short distance, but stops when our HUDs come alive. The Eatees are here.
Time for me to die.
© 2013 by D. Thomas Minton.