Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Fiction: The Four Hundred Thousand by Livia Llewellyn
I stand on the balcony outside my parent’s cinder-block apartment, watching contrails drift apart in slate skies. My left hand grips a just-delivered letter, crushes it. I can’t help it, the tracking device that the officer has shot into my hand makes it impossible to uncurl my fingers just yet. It burns.
By direction of the President… the following personnel are ordered to active duty… on that date, the named will proceed to ______ __ Military Facilities for the retrieval of said personnel out of Jet Oberaan(yr-15)/ovaries-2:
In the living room, a printout of number and letter combinations sits on the couch: four hundred thousand, one name for each egg follicle inside me, one name for each potential soldier. I’d stopped reading after the fourth page—there are one hundred and nine pages more. By my calculations, and the doctors’ latest report, I’m twenty-six healthy divisions full of death to our enemy. No surprise I’ve been called. I always sort of knew. I just thought I had more time. I have five days.
Inside, Mom still shouts with joy. She’s been waiting for this moment since the day I started my period, when she dragged me to the registration office. She’d said if I got picked, we’d all get rich. A credit for every vat-grown baby forced into adult soldierhood within a year of conception, a credit for every soldier shipped into space, with a bonus if they were modified. Then I’d have a room of my own instead of sleeping on the couch, and Mom could buy us real food. Dad could get a new heart, which they couldn’t afford because all the money from Mom’s factory salary was going to me—for pills to jump-start all the plumbing and for doctor’s fingers poking inside me every six months, from the time I turned five. It was my fault he didn’t have the right pills or the right heart. That’s what Mom said. Of course I signed, the day my period started. I didn’t know any better. I was nine.
My neighbors across the way are staring at me. Faces peer out from a grimy square of glass, barely large enough to see out of. They’re surprised I’m out here—there’s not much of anything to see. Their balconies are the same as ours, the same grey concrete and steel. If I stood on the railing and jumped, I could almost reach them. To my right and left, hundred-story high apartment buildings sit in rows, bits of laundry fluttering from tiny open windows. Eighty stories below, a neon-lined strip of street glows in shadow. I’ve walked for miles and never seen the end of our street, never seen the end of this metal canyon, the beginning of somewhere else. Somewhere up above me, a war is being fought, has been fought for as long as anyone remembers. My made-to-military-specification sons and daughters will cram themselves into ships, soar past the curve of the planet. Will they crowd the windows, stare at the dwindling city before space and time swallow them whole? Will they see the end of my street before I do? Probably.
It’s so quiet out. I pull the oxiclamp from my nose and sniff the air. Metal and fuel.
Building by building, row by row, lights flicker and wink out. Airbase sirens sound through the chilly air. The city sobs. The latest corps are about to launch—little more than one hundred thousand in all. Rumor has it, something terrible happened with the deep space travel modifications to the last draft. They had to destroy half the crop. And the last two female draftees disappeared—ran away, or killed themselves. That’s why they needed me so soon, I bet. I stare at my hand. Under the brown skin, a dot of garnet winks at me as it burrows deeper. No one’s taking chances this time.
“Jet, get inside.” Mom reaches out from the doorway, plucking at my sleeve. I go in and lock the door behind me, sealing it air-tight. Mom bangs the thick steel shutter over the window. Everything has to be protected. The burn-off of battle cruisers floats through the air for days, bright cinders of liquid fire, beautiful and deadly. Sometimes it burns right through the walls. I grab my pack off the couch, fastening it to thick rubber straps at my side. Everything I need to survive is in it: food and ammunition, credits and bullets, tampons and hemlock. For barter, or for use.
“What about the list? Jet, take the list!” Mom struggles with her own pack, trembling hands snapping the locks into place. It’s hard to see anything in the garnet glow of the single emergency light over the door.
“It’s too big, I only need the letter.”
“Put that away, and get the list! It’s military property, we need to bring it with us when you go to the hospital.”
“No, we don’t!” Mom never listens to me. She rips her pack off and opens it, trying to cram all the paper inside. The hall alarms kick in, and we wince. My earplugs are somewhere in my pockets. We have two minutes to get to the inner stairwells.
“Mada, we don’t need the list,” Dad shouts from the bedroom doorway. His pack is crammed with plastic bottles: heart pills, all my vitamins and supplements. I see how his hand presses against his body. I recognize the stance. He’s holding a knife.
“Dad, I won’t need those anymore.” I hold out my hands to take the pills. “Not after next week.”
Dad stares at me, open-mouthed. He hasn’t thought about it. None of us really have, until this moment. We’re so used to doing the same things, over and over again. Now it’s all changed. He shakes his head, no. He stares at my winking wrist. I say nothing.
The building trembles.
“She’s right, Essam.” Mom looks up from her pack, pulls loose strands of her hair away from her shiny face. The air is getting hotter. Or maybe she’s been crying. I realize I don’t know how old she is. Mom could be close to fifty, or no more than thirty. She stands up, the pack slipping to the floor. Behind us, the safety override on the front door clicks on. We’re in here for good now, for at least a day. One less day of freedom left for me.
I press my hands against my body. Everything depends on two small, soft sacs of flesh and all that they hold inside. The vibrations of the battle cruisers crawl up my legs as their engines reach full power. I wonder if the egg follicles feel it, wonder if my children will crowd the curved walls of the ships a year from now, remembering that they first felt that thunderous power from within their mother’s flesh.
“If I went through all this for nothing,” I scream over the noise, “I swear I’ll—”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Mom’s face crumples as she speaks, and I feel my heart stopping. “I didn’t mean to—I wasn’t thinking. I’m so tired. I’m just so tired of this, this life. I only wanted us to be happy. That’s why I did it.” She stretches out her arms, so thin in the black fabric of her unisuit, and I reach out mine. But she walks into Dad’s embrace. She wasn’t talking to me.
I fit my earplugs in, adjust the clamp at my nose, making sure the oxygen still flows. Lift-off: the engine scream hits us, and we drop in the hot air. They built the airbase a few years ago, less than half a mile away. No one bothered to relocate us. There isn’t anywhere else to send an entire ghetto to.
Dad lifts me up, carries me to the bedroom. As he lowers me to the bed, his fingers press against my flesh, trapping the tracking device before it sinks any further inside. The blade lowers, presses against the veins.
You can’t. I see his lips form the words in the red-tinged darkness. There is no war. You’ll be murdering your children. I’ve heard his lies before, but still I freeze. He waits for me to nod my head, yes or no. Mom’s hands reach out, grabbing him, grabbing me. We lay in a huddle on the thin mattress, our hands clasped in a circle, waiting for my answer. Engine after engine roars into the air. It’s raining black and red now, pocking the metal balcony doors with burn marks. The walls hiss. Despite the noise, I hear Dad’s heart, or think I can—the soft fluttering of something that’s been dying for years. We’re all dying, I realize. It will always be this way, for us. But it doesn’t have to be this way for my children. And despite the noise, I know they both hear me when I scream over and over until I almost pass out from the roar and heat of my own anger, yes I’ll do it yes I’ll go yes I’ll give them up yes I’ll save us all—
Only then does Dad let go of the knife, and my wrist. The garnet dot disappears. He never wanted this for me. He’d say anything, any lie, to stop me. He just wants us all to let go, to stop making soldiers and guns, to lay down and let them come, let them bring death, or bring peace. Anything other than this life. But it’s too late. It was too late the day I turned nine, the day I signed. Mom falls back on the bed and smiles. I close my eyes and hold him. He cries.
Outside, battleships rise and burning fuel falls.
Mom sits at the kitchen table, under the dim light of the bulb, carefully turning the pages of a pamphlet. The pages are glossy and stiff, crowded with fancy writing and bright photos of apartment buildings covered in sheets of light blue glass. I bet the people who live in those places have never seen their stairwells.
Dad sleeps in the bedroom. It’s been a few hours since lockdown ended, and after thirty-six hours in the stifling apartment, burning debris pounding against the outside walls, you’d think we’d want to be anywhere except here. But there’s nowhere else to go.
“We’re out of food.” I stare into the metal cupboard. All I see is half a tin of crackers, and two cans of soup. Dad may get hungry later on, so I shouldn’t eat them. For once, I can go without.
“Then go downstairs. Take Essam’s prescription with you.”
“Do you want anything?” I stand in front of the table. Mom doesn’t look at me. She pushes her hair behind her ears as she turns another page. I sigh. She looks up, annoyed.
“What do you want, Jet? Do you want me to tell you to be careful? It won’t matter what I say. You never listen to me.”
She stares down at the pamphlet again, then picks up a pencil and draws a circle around an apartment floor plan.
“I’ve never understood why you hate me so much.” My tongue feels dry and swollen in my mouth, and the words are hard to pronounce.
Mom doesn’t look up. “I don’t hate you. I’m tired of you.”
At the end of the hall, half a block down from our door, I push the swinging door into the eightieth floor communal bath.
The air smells of mold and disinfectant, sloughed-off skin.
Steam rises in thin wisps from a single nozzle—Thabit stands under a stream of light brown water. I slip off my unisuit and pad across cracked tiles to the next nozzle.
“You look lovely,” says Thabit as he points to my red nose and bloodshot eyes. “Heard you spent lockdown in your apartment. You missed Solomon bugging out in the stairwell. Took four shots to take him down.”
“The stairwell’s for pussies,” I say, pushing at a small soap dispenser on the wall, then activating the shower head with the circuits in my wrist—wiring given to each occupant of our building. The water is hot, but there won’t be much. The timer is ticking, I have three minutes to find some semblance of clean. Thabit’s shower shuts off, and he shakes the water off his long pale hair onto my face.
“You love living on the edge, don’t you?”
“I don’t live on the edge. I am the edge.” We laugh. It’s our old saying, our old routine. Stupid, but it belongs to us.
“Draft girl!” Thabit’s sister Badra emerges from a toilet stall, naked and smiling. Her spiked white hair glistens with traces of soap. She pulls on her suit, fastening hooks and clamps, sliding weapons back into place. Badra was my first, and then I was with her twin brother, who was just as gentle and cautious—because of the draft and the doctors, there are things I still can’t do. Thabit and Badra are cool with that. They’re two years older, but we’ve always gotten along. We’re family. As soon as I turn sixteen, we’ll make it permanent.
“It’s no big deal.” I point my head into the stream, let the water push the soap out of the stubble of my black hair. Dad buzzed me last week. No hair is ugly, but easier. “How did you find out? I haven’t told anyone.”
“Your mother made sure everyone knew the second the doors unlocked.” Thabit says the words lightly, but I wince. Already, she’s dividing us from the rest of the floor.
“Sorry,” I mutter.
“I have to go downstairs, get some food, fill some orders. Are you with me?” Badra locks her gun into place. There used to be minimarts on every floor, but when the elevators stopped working last year, they shut down. Now every trip to the street and back is an exercise in planned pain, especially for those higher up. Badra is paid to shop for others, for things on the market and off.
“Yeah. I need to get my father’s prescription refilled anyway. But I have to be back by tomorrow. In three days—” The water shuts off. I stand, naked and shivering, hands clasped against my breasts. Three more days before a knife splits my skin, and the four hundred thousand report for duty. Thabit and Badra stare at me. I feel bad. They have no idea what to say. Neither do I.
Two more people wander into the bathroom, adults from the other side of the hall. They’re trying not to stare. Everyone knows. Badra stands up, hand on weapon, a sweet smile on her face. They walk to the benches on the other side of the room, acting like nothing’s changed. Thabit throws me his damp towel as I step off the wet tiles. “We’ll get you back by morning, no worries,” he says.
An hour later, we walk outside. I try not to gag as I turn my oxygen feed on. The air is soupy down here, rancid garbage, urine and human sweat mixed with the unyielding tang of soot and gasoline. No one looks at each other. Everyone rushes along, anxious to get their things, to get home, to stay alive one more day. I stare down the street. The neon-tipped end disappears in the rows of buildings, as always. I don’t know what I expect this time—perhaps that the horizon will open to me because it knows that I’ve changed. I just want to know where it is my soldiers will be going, what they’ll see.
Someone jostles me as they push by, and I reach for my arm blade, ready to give them a little “lesson knick”. Thabit’s hand stills me. He shakes his head. He’s the calm one. If Badra had seen, there’d already be blood hitting the sidewalk. I frown, but stand down. Thabit’s right, of course. He’s seen what Badra hasn’t yet, what I realized twenty flights down. In the shadow of signs and storefronts, two soldiers in civilian unisuits stand, nonchalant in pose but aware at all times of who they guard, and how many. They’re letting me know I’m surrounded. Safe.
Thunder rolls through the canyon. I look up. Light flashes in thick clouds. As the first dirty drops of rain hit my cheeks, Badra grabs my arm and spins me off the sidewalk, into the shops and bazaars making up the first floor of the block. Most stores are shuttered, out of business for good. We wander poorly-lit corridors, listening to the distant boom of the storm. Badra picks out square packs of food, slips them into a mesh bag at her side as she swipes the credit bar on her sleeve. She doesn’t steal. No one does. I’d shoot her myself if she dared.
“The prescription.” I remember the disk in my pocket. “I should go ahead, the lines will be long.”
“I still have a list of people to shop for,” Badra says to Thabit. “I’m going to be a while. Go with her,” He nods, and we walk together out of the store, his hand resting lightly against my waist.
“So soon,” he finally says. I was wondering when the subject would come up. I’ve been dreading it ever since I got my orders.
“I’m old enough. We knew it would happen sooner or later.”
“Sometimes, I hoped—” Thabit doesn’t finish that sentence, but I know how much he wants children. I know what he wanted to say.
“Do you know who’s been drafted to fertilize the eggs?” Thabit stops at a kiosk, running his fingers through loops of brightly-colored plastic tubing for oxygen masks. I can tell he didn’t want to ask.
“They won’t tell me. I don’t think I get to know.”
“So it could be anyone. Someone you already met, or a complete stranger.”
He doesn’t know what I do, that soldiers sent into space don’t look like us, that they’re monsters. Half human, modified into half something else. “It’s not like I’m getting married. It’s just an operation. They pick parents for compatibility, nothing else. I’ll still belong to you two.” I touch the dingy grey tubes snaking out of my nose clamp, then lift bright red strands from the pile and hold them against my face.
“You’ll look like your nose is bleeding.”
I drop them back down. The man in the kiosk glares, but says nothing.
“A daughter.” Thabit pushes his goggles into his white hair. Pristine circles of skin surround his blue eyes, untouched by the gritty air. “That’s what I’d like. I want to be the father of the daughter of divisions. A girl just like you. You are going to ask them, right? Ask them to hold back an egg?”
I imagine holding something small and squealing as it’s pulled from my flesh. Will it look like Thabit, or its space-bound brothers and sisters? Guns for hands? Will it even have a face? My stomach turns.
“We’ve talked about this before,” I say. “You know I don’t know if I want my own baby. I still haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, it’s time you do think about it. If we’re going to be together, if we’re going to be a real family, we have to decide together, and soon. In two days, there won’t be any more time.”
“I told you I haven’t decided, so back off!” My voice echoes off the exposed ceiling pipes. Thabit blanches, but he doesn’t back down. He takes me by the arm, leads me around the corner to a dead-end. The lights are low here, no one else is around. The soldiers, always discreet, are nowhere to be seen.
“I’m sorry, Jet,” Thabit say, “I know this is rough for you, but you don’t have the right to yell at me or command me. I’ve done nothing wrong. I deserve better than this.”
Angry and ashamed, I nod my head. He’s right—but he’s also not. He has no idea what I’m going through. No one does, not even me.
“You also don’t have the right to decide for us, even if it’s by not deciding at all,” he continues. “We’re supposed to be together. You know, I’ll never get the chance to choose how many children I get to have with you, or when I can have them. Something’s been taken away from me, too. I’m just saying, we all have to deal with this. Me and Badra both, as well as you.”
“I know.” The muscles in my face stiffen as I try not to cry. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have freaked. I’m sorry.” I sound just like Mom. Thabit pulls me close, holds me.
“I know you’re frightened. But we’ll get through this. This is what families do, we get through things together.”
My body feels unbalanced, swollen. I don’t want him to touch me. I pull away, staring into his face as I speak.
“I’ll find out about having my own baby, I promise. If I’m allowed, I’ll have an egg set aside and frozen. Then we can make a decision later. No matter what happens, the three of us will decide. I promise.”
“You’re not alone. Don’t forget that.” Thabit kisses my forehead, then my lips. I feel bad for him, for us, but I don’t know what else to do. Badra’s voice crackles softly, and Thabit breaks off, speaks softly into his headset. “Yeah, we’re still in line for her dad’s medicine. We’ll be about—fifteen minutes?” He looks at me, and I nod, glad to do anything but stand here and pretend to know what to say.
We walk to the drugstore and stand in line, acting as if the conversation in the corridor never happened. The pharmacist behind the counter doesn’t need to tell me what to do. I’ve known him since that day I turned five. He nods in greeting as I insert Dad’s medical disk into the groove in the bulletproof glass. The pharmacist removes it and disappears behind a door, then reappears with a small flat package wrapped in recycled brown paper. Right away I can see: it’s not Dad’s usual prescription. The pharmacist puts it into the hollow space under the counter. Our eyes lock as I open the door to remove it.
“I should offer my congratulations, but I’ll miss your visits,” he says. I guess he heard the news, too. “I’ve known you since you were a little girl—I almost think of you as one of my own daughters.”
“I’m sure I’ll be back, after, you know,” I say.
“Tell your father he needs to inject this once a week, otherwise it won’t work. The side effects are immediate. Read the paper.”
“Ok.” I turn the package over. No instructions. “What kind of side effects—”
The pharmacist turns and walks away without another word. Something’s wrong. I feel Thabit’s eyes fixed on me as I slip the package into the folds of my unisuit. Behind him, Badra hovers in the door, and behind her, the soldiers hover in the shadows. Everyone watches me, everyone’s waiting for me to bolt, to run, to slash my wrists, to stab my stomach. To do anything they don’t want me to do. They don’t know I’m already doing it, and I don’t even know what it is.
“Come on,” I say, grabbing his hand and pulling him to the door. “I’m starving. Let’s get out of here before I put a bullet in someone’s head.”
“That’s my little trooper,” says Badra as we head for the exit.
I hate it when she calls me that. When I get back from the hospital, I’ll make sure we all decide to never say it again.
The living room is dark when I open the door. I’m careful to keep quiet, it’s still night, and Mom and Dad are probably asleep. I put my pack on the couch and unbutton my lapels. The package is warm from the heat of my body. I turn on the light over the table, and sit down. I’m careful, I don’t make a sound. My kids will be good soldiers. They’ll know stealth.
The paper is easy to open, the tape slits apart with just a touch of my blade. It’s a miniature syringe kit. I can tell before I open it, I’ve seen them before. Inside, two syringes made of hard plastic nestle within molded foam, needles already in place. They’re ready to go. I rock the kit back and forth. A thick silver liquid slides back and forth in the tubes. The whole thing looks like a child’s toy.
“It’s not for you.”
I drop the kit onto the paper. Dad stands in the room, tying his bathrobe with shaking hands. I didn’t even hear him close the bedroom door. So much for stealth.
“But it’s not for you, either,” I say. “So who’s it for?”
“It’s heart medicine, for dissolving clots if I have an attack.” He picks up the kit and closes the cover, then slides it into his bathrobe pocket.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. “It’s poison, isn’t it? You’re going to kill me, or try to kill the soldier who’s supposed to fertilize the eggs.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dad says. “You’re my daughter, and I love you. You drive me crazy sometimes, but I’d never harm you, or your soldiers. Hand me the wrapping paper.”
I slide it over to him. Dad smoothes it out against the table. For a moment, his face relaxes, and I see something of the father I remember from when I was young, when he taught me how to read and write, took me for walks in ancient parks under dying trees. Now all the parks are gone.
“You know, your mother took the hormones, too. She registered for the draft, but they didn’t pick her.”
“What?” Shock slides through me, prickly cold. “She never told me.”
“She didn’t want you to know. She was so ashamed. Her parents went bankrupt from the cost. After that, no one would have her, she was damaged goods. But I saw something in her, so beautiful, so—” His voice cracks. “I should have known it wouldn’t last. Nothing that fragile ever does. Greed always wins.”
Dad folds the paper into neat squares, and the softness disappears.
“She didn’t get her money, but that didn’t stop her from finding another way. That’s why she gave birth to you. As far as she’s concerned, you’re her second womb. Nothing more.”
Outside, night rain pelts the window.
“You’re lying,” I declare. “I don’t know why you’re saying these things, but they won’t make me change my mind. And if you think that that needle or your disgusting lies will stop me, you’re wrong.”
Dad reaches across the table, pressing the folded paper into my hands. I try to drop it, to pull my hand away, but he won’t let go. I’ve never seen him look so old, so worn.
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t plan on stopping you.” His voice is low and gravelly. He has trouble speaking, as if he’s about to cry. It makes me ashamed. “When you see what it is that you’ve been responsible for creating, I’m hoping you’ll realize that all this has to be stopped. I want you to make that choice yourself, because then you’ll be acting as an adult, not as a child who simply does as she’s told.”
“What I’m responsible for is creating soldiers that will help us win the war. My soldiers, not my mother’s, not yours.”
“I keep telling you, Jet, there is no war.” Tears trickle down his face. “Open your eyes. There’s never been any war. We send our men and women into space, and nothing comes back? Not a single message? Not even a bomb from the enemy? Nothing?”
“But then where do they all go? We send soldiers to their death, just because? I don’t believe that.”
“Don’t be so naïve. I taught you better than that—I’ve told you time and time again, this is a war-based economy. There probably was a war, a long time ago. But it’s over, and we’re forced to keep pretending, simply so that a corrupt military government can remain in power. We live in coffins and crowd in stairwells, barely alive, while we pour all our resources into sending our children into space only to shoot them down.”
“I don’t believe you, that’s just more lies!” I struggle again to get away, but Dad tightens his grip, drawing me up and toward him. His face glows.
“It’s not just burning jet fuel that falls on us. It’s broken battle cruisers, broken bodies. From our ships, not the enemy’s. Remember the time I snuck you out of the stairwell, when you were ten? I showed you. You saw—”
“I saw nothing! I was little, I don’t remember anything!”
“I remember.” Dad’s voice grows calm, and his hands slip from mine, fall slack at his side. His stare is distant, cold. It frightens me.
“I remember how the ship split apart like an eggshell. I remember men and women falling like comets over the city. Their burning flesh left contrails in the air. They didn’t scream. All you could hear was flame, wind, impact.”
He unbuttons his nightshirt. I’ve never seen my father undressed before. Melted folds of flesh appear, scars upon scars, with an angry red line running down the middle.
“I remember how they came through the buildings and streets, putting bullets into every body, every heart. I thought if I lay still, they’d think I was already dead, and pass by. I was wrong.”
We stand silent in the dark. Through the distortion of my tears, for a moment I see a younger Essam, the shadow of what he used to be. And then his shoulders slump, and he covers his chest.
“Does Mom know?”
“No. And she never will.” His voice is firm.
“How many died? I don’t know. How many are alive? I don’t know that, either. The men and women who saved me, they said there were others. But we keep apart, we blend in. It’s safer. I’m one of the lucky ones, I wasn’t augmented. I can pass.”
A small spark of understanding—“The pharmacist,” I say. “He’s one of you, isn’t he? Oh. He’s your brother…” Now it really hits me. I sit down.
Dad doesn’t answer. I realize he never will. He’s still loyal. But I have to be loyal, too.
“Nothing will change if I say no, if I run away, even if you use that needle.” I hold up my wrist. The tracking device swims somewhere below the surface. “They’ll just find me, kill me, take out my ovaries. Then they’ll kill you and Mom. I can’t let that happen.”
“Everything can change, and without anyone knowing. Without anyone firing a gun or saying a single word. No one will die.”
“I’m doing this for you, you know. So you can get a new heart, so you won’t die!”
“I’m already dead, Jet. This isn’t being alive.” Dad bows his head and shuffles back into the bedroom, leaving me alone.
I grab the paper and unlock the balcony door. Light rain lashes my face as I lean against the railing. It’s freezing outside, the street below barely visible. A few kitchen window lights glow, weak sparks of life in the blue-black of early morning. I think about how easy it would be to climb onto the railing, to spread my arms and leave everything behind. Somewhere in the silent rows of buildings, tucked into invisible spaces, soldiers stare at me, watching. They’ll never let it happen. They’re loyal, too.
In two days time officers will come to the apartment again, disarm me and strip me down. I’ll be clean. They’ll do the same with Mom. But Dad has a history of heart problems. He’s an old man, and his hands tremble. They’ll let him keep his medical kit. If I tell them what I think is going to happen, they’ll put another bullet in him, and this time they’ll get it right. If I don’t—Someone is going to die, no matter what. And despite what my father said, I can’t say it won’t be me.
I straighten from my hunched position over the railing, and open my cramped hand. The folded paper is wet, and threads of blue ink stain the brown surface like spider veins. I unfold the squares. The writing is smeared and blurry, but I can still read my father’s name in neat block letters: ESSAM OBERAAN. Larger letters bleed through the surface, from writing on other side. I turn the paper over.
Someone has drawn an eye, large and almond-shaped. It’s filled in completely with deep blue ink, no pupil or lid to be seen. It stares up at me, unblinking. I hold my breath and wait.
Nothing happens, of course. A gust of wind throws more rain against me, and the eye dissolves into indigo oblivion. I ball the paper up and throw it high into the air. It disappears. I feel powerless, stupid. The daughter of a soldier, and I’m useless.
I speak to my armed guardians, silent and surrounding me.
“Tell me what to do.”
If they answer me, I can’t hear them. All I hear is rain.
The last two days burn as fast as rocket fuel, and taste much the same. I say my goodbyes to Thabit and Badra. We pay a kid to stand at the bath door and chase people to the other floors, while we spend several hours alone. I tell them the truth, the thing they don’t want to hear. There will be no egg left behind, no spliced-gene daughter for the three of us. It’s Thabit who cries, but I expected that. Badra tells me they’ll wait for me, that we’ll talk about it again when I come home, but none of us believe what she says. “Are you with me?” I ask, and they say yes. Yet Badra’s voice is ozone cool, and so are Thabit’s lips. Already, they’ve moved on.
The escort guard lets Mom and Dad come with me, when they come. It’s their right, as I’m technically a minor, even though I’m now in the army. People gather around my door, but I don’t see Thabit and Badra. I didn’t expect to. I recite the loyalty pledge to my city and planet in front of everyone, and there’s polite applause, and then I’m whisked down the long hall. People stand in their doorways, whispering and watching. Someone’s been making curry again, the smell of it seeps through the walls. One of the officers activates the supposedly-dead elevator, which causes a small riot. Dad helps me past the surge of people, but he won’t look at me. I assume that somewhere in his unisuit, the little syringes wait. I don’t want to know. The elevator rushes past the basement level, and I’ll admit I get a thrill when I realize where we’re going. I’ve heard there are underground transports, but no one gets to use them anymore. Well, except for military. That’s me, now. Private Jet Oberaan and her four hundred thousand. The sirens sound, faint and mournful, as we stand on the sub-level platform. In a year, they’ll sound for my children.
More papers. I sign until I think my hand will fall off. The train rushes through tunnels so fast, I can’t see what’s outside. Mom wants to know when we’ll get the credits for the eggs, and almost passes out when they tell her they’ll cut an advance against conception right at the hospital. I try to get Dad’s attention, but he stares out the windows, ignoring us both. My gun and blade are gone, they disarmed me back at the apartment. I feel light-headed and off-balance. I think of Thabit and Badra. I sit up suddenly, knocking the papers to the floor. I’m hungry; no, I’m thirsty. I don’t ask the woman in uniform if they’ll freeze an egg for me. I do ask if the soldiers will have faces. I don’t remember anyone’s answer. I can’t stop thinking, I can’t stop asking questions, I can’t stop pacing back and forth, I can’t oh god I can’t I can’t oh daddy don’t do this don’t do this don’t make me choose—
The color is beautiful. Pure white. No dirt, no grime. I never thought any wall could look so clean. The woman sticks an inhaler against my nose, and I take another breath as she pats my back. I’m calm now, I don’t even remember when we got here. Drugged to the gills. Panic attack’s over. I feel good.
We’re escorted through the hospital corridors, on our way to meet the man who’ll be the father of my twenty-six divisions. Not man, the doctor said. Male. The male who’ll contribute the second half of my little army. He’s not human, that much info they gave me. I’m so high. I smile at my father, a loopy grin that he doesn’t return. Mom stayed behind the waiting room. She wore makeup today. There’ll be booze and black market food, and lots of handsome men congratulating her on her daughter’s plentiful ovaries. “I bet the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”, one will probably say, and she’ll blush and laugh, not knowing what he means. Dad never took her to the parks. She’s never seen an apple, or a tree.
We pass through weapons sensors and wide walls of x-ray machines, past doors four feet thick and twenty feet high that take ten minutes to swing out. We’re sprayed for stray bacteria, and little badges with foreign symbols are placed on our chests. “I hope that’s not a target,” I joke as a woman fastens it to me, but she doesn’t smile. She looks pretty damn scared. She makes me take one more hit of the anti-panic gas before she runs back down the hall.
Behind the last door is a room, bigger than all the rooms I’ve been in, put together. All along the walls, stories above us, men and women in white coats peer down from observation windows. The walls are dotted with lasers and cameras. Hundreds of soldiers—half-human, bristling with machinery in their ugly faces—surround us, weaponry sweating in the heat. The air stinks of oil and cement dust and chemicals. At the center stands a cube of two-foot thick glass, and in the center of the cube stands the male. The officers draw their weapons and escort me to one side of the cube, to the metallic round of a speaking window, then back away.
The creature’s eyes are long, almond-shaped pools of mercury. They widen as I step forward, and his lips pull back, revealing a dog-like set of fangs in a jutting muzzle. That’s what he is, he’s a dog with the thick body of an over-muscled soldier, coated in bristling black fur. Except, he’s not a dog, or a man. My father stands beside me, disappointment washing over his face. He can’t get to the creature behind all that glass. He can’t use the syringe on it. Of course, there’s no glass surrounding me. Guess I know who gets the poison now. Under the haze of the drug, I giggle.
“What is he?” Dad asks.
“This is the future of the military.” Behind me, one of the officers steps forward. I can tell he’s memorized his answer by the way he stumbles over the words. “By combining the high intellect and reasoning skills of humans with the brute strength and longevity of this species, we’ve been able to create the perfect space-faring military weapon. Excellent for stealth missions, almost telepathic in communications skills, and blind in loyalty to their commanding officers. Loyal to the death. This is the future of the military. You’ll be pleased to know that the divisions you and he create will be the first wave of that future—a future that will ensure us both victory and peace.”
The officer stands beside us now. He looks satisfied. My father mouths, prisoner of war. I pretend not to see him.
“What is he? Where is he from?”
The officer smiles. “That’s classified.”
I ignore Dad’s “I told you so” smirk.
“Does he have a name?”
“He has a number.”
“That’s stupid. He needs a name. I’m going to call him Sidabras. For the color of his eyes.”
Now the officer looks a bit pained. I think he’s getting tired of the giggling girl before him, even if she is the mother-to-be of twenty-six divisions of death. I swallow down another nervous laugh, and try to look serious.
“Will the babies—the soldiers—look like him?”
“Not quite. A bit more human, more like you, less—” he waves his hands, as if unable to express the disgusting alienness of the creature standing before us. “You’ll be quite pleased. And I think your darker skin tones will help.”
“What?” I can feel Dad’s anger as he speaks, his hands gripping into my skin.
More hand-waving. “No, it’s not that, not at all. The last two batches with this male were produced with lighter-skinned females, which led to problems with the stealth capabilities of the fur and skin. Someone with coloring closer to his will correct that. We can’t afford to destroy any more batches.”
“Have you already, you know—” I glance down.
“Oh yes. It’s harvested and good to go.” The officer pats me on the shoulder. “We’re all just waiting for the four hundred thousand to report.”
The creature’s snarl has faded. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. His children, maybe, destroyed or sent to space to die. “Does he understand us?”
“You can speak to him,” the officer says. “We’ve wired him with a communications system.” He flicks a small switch by the metal circle, and an intercom crackles to life.
We stare at each other.
I lean forward, open my mouth. But I don’t know what to say.
Wide hands rise, both large enough to cover half my head with just the palms. He places a finger against his neck, flicks a switch with a sharp nail. A delicate movement—I bet he’s good with weapons. Small wires run down one side of his neck to the front of his throat, ending in an electrical plate bolted on an armor-like chest of calloused skin. He opens his mouth again, and several short bursts of harsh sound shoot out. Seconds later, I hear the translation.
ARE. YOU. LOYAL.
“Yes,” I say, not sure what he means. I look him directly in the eyes, and he does the same in return. It’s what you do with animals. I think we both know that. “Are you?”
The translator crackles, unable to understand the sharp bark. I jump at the sound. My heart pounds faster, and it’s getting hard to breathe. The anti-panic gas has worn off, I’m freaking out. “I’m so sorry you’re in here.”
He must mean his children. Ours. “I can’t go into space with them, if that’s what you mean. I would if I could.” The lies come babbling out. What does he want to hear? “They won’t let me go. I’ll never see them. If I could—”
The glass fogs as ivory fangs appear from the red of his mouth, and his face distorts in the steaming air. His growl sounds like thunder in the canyons.
I step back. “Can we go now?” Dad reaches out with his hand to draw me away. I see a flash at his fingers.
“No!” I grab his wrist, and we struggle. The officers watch, dumbfounded. They don’t see the syringe, they only see a stubborn old man resisting his daughter. “I won’t let you kill them!”
“You stupid girl, it’s not for you—!” We collide, and I cry out: something just punched my heart. Dad pushes me away.
The syringe sticks out of my chest. It’s empty. I stare up at Dad. He points to one eye, his finger tearing the lashes as tears stream down his cheeks.
“Be loyal,” he says.
I say something, but my voice sounds so small and distant, I can’t hear the words.
Behind me, the creature roars. I hear him slam against the glass, and several hundred soldiers start as the entire cube shifts forward with an ear-splitting shriek. I scream—hands pull me back and under the cover of limbs. Doctors are shouting at the soldiers, trying to push through the wall of weapons and armor to get to me. Dad pitches sideways, hits the cube and slides down. I see him clutching his chest as soldiers surround him, weapons clicking.
“Don’t kill him!” I grab my throat—it burns. My heart is on fire from the poison, and the fire is spreading up. I press forward as the soldiers jostle their guns in confusion. They’re waiting for orders to shoot or save my father.
The dog soldier looks out, down, and our eyes lock. All that storm cloud mercury fills my mind, and I feel the words drop out of me like bullets or babies newly formed, even as the doctors finally pin me to the floor.
sidabras. don’t let him die. be loyal.
I don’t think I spoke.
The creature rages. Plumes of white gas curl from the cube’s ceiling, even as soldiers surround it like beetles on rotting food. The glass cracks, shatters all around us in sharp rain. Gunfire and sparks in the smoke—
I’ve done it before, like when I was jumped during an all-night party that turned into a riot, several years ago. I shot three men. Didn’t feel a thing. There’s a part of you that shuts down, and the lizard part blossoms, cold and bright and uncaring. There’s a man trying to rape you: stab him to death. The doctor straps you to the gurney: don’t fight it. Wake up, feel the gauze at your waist, you’re not a woman anymore: forget it. Ask the officers about my father—they don’t know anything about a syringe or a shot. You were high, hallucinating, remember? They do know something about a heart attack, but your father refused treatment: you say nothing. They tell you your mother left the base with a suitcase in one hand and a pamphlet in the other. She remembered to take your money, but forgot to leave her new address:
And now I stand on the apartment balcony, gripping an honorable discharge. Inside, Dad runs a hand down the front of his mended unisuit. Underneath, a new heart beats—a chop shop job I got on the street, after he collapsed again on the train ride home. It was that, or let him die. Guess I’m not loyal. Dad hates me for it, says he loved the old heart better. It was the heart he fell in love with his wife with, the heart he loved me with. The heart of a soldier. Now the wife’s gone, the heart’s gone, the money’s gone, and I’m the monster.
I open my hand, and the wind whisks the papers away. I stare at the distant buildings, silver and slick. I fall to my knees, fall asleep. I dream of mercury, and unblinking eyes.
Sirens wail as I run the tip of the pen over the last white square. Black fills up the space, and now the calendar is complete. One year gone. Outside, battle cruisers prepare for lift-off. Already the buildings vibrate from the engines springing to life. There are more cruisers this time, three times as many. Whatever was in that syringe, it didn’t affect the eggs. The dog soldier and I, we did good. The letter on the table, delivered today, tells me. Four hundred thousand, every damn one of them grown up, armed, and ready to go.
“Mom should have waited before she dumped us. She’d have twice the money now.” I push the letter across the table toward Dad, then hold the bank chip up to the light. A credit for every soldier shipped into space, with a bonus for “extensive” modifications. Just like they’d promised. Not that it matters much now. Things are bad—food supplies low, water dwindling, medicine non-existent. The power is off half the time or more. Everything tastes and smells like rotting metal. Something’s gone wrong in the world, but no one knows what it is. This time, there are no rumors.
“Are you listening to me?”
Dad stands at the balcony door, a silhouette in the pale morning light. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he’s been waiting for this day as much as me. He’s their grandfather.
“Fine. Whatever,” I say to myself. Dad doesn’t talk anymore. He hasn’t spoken to me since we left the base a year ago. Not one word. He’s healthier with the new heart, he even walks downstairs once a week. But he can’t forgive me for not stopping the war—for not dying when he stabbed me, for not dying when he stabbed himself. At least he didn’t kick me out. I have no place to go. Thabit and Badra don’t live in the building anymore. It seems they weren’t with me, after all. They were with a girl from another floor, the one I heard Thabit knocked up. I can’t blame them.
Something whispers in my ear, little half-caught words I can barely understand. It’s Dad, muttering under his breath again, whenever I look away. This is what he does instead of speaking, and it drives me crazy. I slap the chip onto the table, knocking the chair over as I stand.
“I am so sick and tired of your mumbling. If you have something to say to me, just say it!”
The light bulb fizzes, and winks out. I can hear the power dying in the building, all the ticks and hiccups of machinery shutting down. The sirens fade.
“Great. Just great.” I stumble into the living room, feeling around for my pack. “Come on, close that door and let’s get going. If we go now, we might still find a good place in the stairwell.” Silence, of course.
“I swear it’s like talking to a child…” I find my pack and strap it on, then feel my way into the bedroom. Dad’s pack is on his bed. I reach for it, then stop and cock my head, hearing the absence of engines. The battle cruisers. Have they already gone? Have my children already gone?
The pack slides off the bed, contents clattering onto the floor. I reach out, grab—
My hand shoots back, stung by the tip of a needle. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I see syringes. Empty syringes and full ones, too many to count, roll around my feet. I pick one up. It’s the same type that entered my chest. Even without a light, I see traces of silver glowing inside the hollow tube.
Everything tastes like metal, smells like metal.
“You son of a bitch.” I run to the kitchen, clutching the syringe. He’s not there. “You bastard! What did you do to me?” I kick the fallen chair aside, and step out onto the balcony. In the strange silence, my clumsy movements sound like thunder.
Dad sits on the railing, one leg thrown over the edge. His body leans into empty air, as if he’s looking for something in the distance, the right place to jump to. I don’t move.
“If you want to jump, fine. I’m not going to stop you,” I say. “But first you tell me what you did to me. What is this shit and what does it do? You owe me an explanation!”
“I never used them on you, not after the accident, at the cube—” Dad’s voice cracks, and he stops. It’s been so long since he’s spoken, we’re both surprised at the sound. He clears his throat before beginning again. “I told you they weren’t for you, you never needed them. They were intended for me, only for me. I’m sorry.” He leans out, raising his free hand high.
“Wait, don’t jump! Please—” I reach a hand out to him, slow and deliberate in the chilly air. “I promise I believe you, whatever you say. But please just tell me what why you’re doing this. Just talk to me for once.”
i’ve never stopped talking to you.
I drop the syringe, staring.
what did I tell you? do you remember?
His lips aren’t moving.
everything will change, and—
“No one will say—”
Dad raises a hand to his lips. He points one finger up, just below his right eye. Flecks of silver swim in the brown, like neon in the night, like open doors.
a single word
I don’t even have to concentrate. All I have to do is be still.
“It won’t last. Before the pharmacy shut down, I bought as much as I could. But it’s not an endless supply, it was never meant to be. Eventually you’ll have to do it.”
Whispers, behind me. Inside me. Familiar and soothing, like when I hold Mom’s pillow to my face and breath deep, inhale the faint fading scent of her skin. I pull the oxiclamp from my nose. Smoke from burning trash lingers in the air. Somewhere beyond hundreds of miles of crumbling city blocks, the sun rises. I lean over the rail, stare at the dark thread of the street. I follow the line to the horizon, and look up.
One building ripples with movement, then another, and another. It spreads, as if the canyon is a wound, bleeding drops of water that take on the colors of concrete and sky. The droplets spread, pouring themselves toward me, growing larger with every second. Not water, but iron, bone and blood, camouflaged to move like rain in the wind. But this place is too narrow for the stealth of so many, and the quiet of morning reveals their sounds. They push the air before them, and it carries the rustling of weaponry, the soft click of claws and guns, the scent of singed fur and leathered skin. Hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands. They keep coming. Hundreds of thousands. Four hundred thousand. Four hundred thousand, and one.
He appears in midair as his stealth armor deactivates. I watch the creature—Sidabras, that’s what I’d named him—soar in a graceful arc, claws striking into steel-plated walls. Sidabras holds, pauses, then leaps again. Once there were birds, and they flew, and never had to walk. Is this was it was like, before the war? To watch creatures fly above us, and not cower from burning fuel and fuselage?
Several low explosions echo back and forth down the canyon, rattling balconies. “Bombs,” I say, panic creeping over the wonder. “This is really happening. They’re destroying the base.” Dad steps up behind me, gripping my shoulder.
“This had to happen.”
“There’ll be nothing left but chaos.”
chaos is change.
Engines concuss the neighborhood—the battle cruisers are springing to life. And now the stealth armor of all the soldiers fades, and everything around me turns black. I gasp and cling to Dad. All of these people came out of me. Soldiers hang all around us, cling to balconies and ledges beside us, above, and below. Male and female and other, dark-skinned and muscular, four hundred thousand in all. Silent, waiting for me to command them. I can see their wide eyes—dark brown pupils floating in silver seas. They have something of me in them, after all. How much of them do I have in me?
The balcony edge blurs, flickers, and he is there. Sidabras stands, tongue lolling from the edges of his fangs in a soft pant. Blood dots his strafed armor, oozes in a sticky line from the fur of his upper arm. I didn’t realize how large he is, how much space he takes. There’s no glass between us now.
Dad pushes me forward, gently. I smell singed flesh, sweat, steel. Sidabras lowers his head, and I stare in his mercury eyes. His breath smells of the long-gone parks, of damp black earth beneath trees. I reach up, touch the matted fur of his muzzle. He doesn’t move away.
you are loyal.
His words sound clear and crisp this time. I notice that the communications device has been ripped from his throat and chest, leaving raw wounds. I turn to Dad, but he steps back, as if handing everything over to me.
I look around us. In the clear morning air, my children stare at me, open and expectant. I catch the eye of one, a young man almost as large as Sidabras. He stands on the balcony opposite us, a large rifle in his hands. He has hands. He has a face. He smiles. My heart feels like it’s on fire again.
“My son. He’s my son.”
“He’s your soldier,” says Dad. “They all are. And so am I. Tell us what to do.”
All around me, the four hundred thousand watch as the world opens up before me. I can leave. I can stay. I can destroy the city, maybe the world. I can disappear into the great mystery of space. I can stand here and do nothing, until the buildings crumble down. I feel Sidabras’ hot breath on my face, feel the distant vibration of the cruisers. Feel my children, feel Sidabras and Dad, waiting.
“Are you with me?” I ask my father. He smiles.
“I’ve always been with you, sweetie.”
I turn to Sidabras, but he’s already raising his hand, signaling to the rest. He knows my thoughts as I think them. Movement, all around. Dad gathers his pack and the remaining syringes, and I wrap my arms around the father of twenty-four divisions, lash myself to his armor, hold tight.
“Mom should have waited,” I whisper into his fur. I’ll never see this apartment again, never sleep on the little couch, never huddle in the stairwell, trapped in sleepless fear. A large hand steals over mine, and some delicate emotion seeps from Sidabras into me, comforting and warm. There will be other trees, it seems to say, other families. New possibilities. New loyalties and love.
And now the moment of sorrow is gone, and so is everything old and tired. Only the empty space before us exists, space and the rising sun. Behind me, I hear Dad laughing, like he used to long ago. I’d look back, but I don’t need to, ever again. I see how we move in the world. We unfurl like the wings of some long-dead god, resurrected and in flight, to the end of my street, and up, and beyond. We will all of us wear the stars—father, daughter, four hundred thousand, and one.