by Luke Jackson
part 1 of 2
Behind the sergeant, the dull black sphere rotated in space. The land was a wasted stretch of charcoal; its oceans a brackish green. It was an ugly planet, pockmarked and misshapen, a smirch on the velvet black smoothness of space. It cried out to be cleansed and eradicated.
My suit gave me a familiar pinch in the neck, then the drug exploded through my system. The world became frozen and dead as the drug accelerated time; brief hallucinations of pain and blood flashed at the edges of my vision.
The sergeant strode back and forth before the viewscreen, his head completely bald except for the tattooed hieroglyph of his sect. He licked his chapped lips; his eyes had come loose in his skull. His black uniform twinkled with medals and insignia, clear demarcations of death.
“Pathetic, emasculate virgins, prepare for manhood,” the sergeant shouted, a leer on his thick lips. “We have detected survivors after our bombardment. The poor fools chose to preserve themselves for what is to come.
“Let us be their emissaries of death,” the sergeant shouted, his heavily muscled arms held up in the air. He brought a long, sharp machete down on his brow, working it into the flesh and drawing blood into his eyes.
“We shall remind them of their mortality — their lives a brief illusion against the vast eternity of death.” He licked the bloody blade, cutting his tongue.
The soldiers around me began bellowing and stomping their feet, while others laughed, all enjoying the spectacle. We turned our hand cannons upright, banging the stocks against the metal floor in unison.
“We are most alive near death!!” we howled-chanted the familiar mantra, gun butts thudding.
“Bring me spoils, boys,” the sergeant grinned, as the black sphere hove closer into view.
* * *
I hadn’t always wanted to go into the Army. During my childhood on Quetzalcoatl, I had been an introspective and thoughtful boy, more interested in developing my mind than my body, before I learned that that was weakness.
“Hey, midge,” said one of my mother’s many mates, a thin, twitchy man whose only clothes seemed to be his undertoga, and who always stank of the experimental drugs he brewed in our waste space. He reached out and smashed my spectacles between his fingers, his knuckles bleeding glass shards. “How do you plan on reading those books now?” I still remember his loopy, broken-toothed grin.
“Leave my boy alone,” my mother said absently, staring out the window and pulling her hair from her head, strand by strand, with her shaking, veiny hands. By the time of her death, she was nearly bald.
We couldn’t afford the simple surgery to correct my vision. I never read again.
I still remember the head nabob for our commune, an emaciated man with protuberant nose and a lighter shade of skin. His sermons, delivered in a raspy, disembodied voice throughout our commune, replaced my books:
“We all know that life is pointless. Humanity is a virus, spreading throughout the universe like a virulent plague. The labor of the lower classes has been outmoded, is no longer necessary. Planets are sentient, and human habitation hurts them. The only pertinent philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide, and to this question we respond an emphatic ‘Yes’. Our overpopulated worlds fairly beg us to.
“To those who selfishly choose life,” the reed-like man sighed, “stop breeding. And escape. Somehow. All life is suffering. There are avenues: true, genuine ignorance, pleasure drugs, lobotomies. But you must escape, somehow. It is better to escape rather than actively participate in the diseased human experiment.”
Hunched on the floor, barefoot and destitute, we would murmur contemplatively, absorbing the words of the wise nabob. We knew that some devotees would not be there when we next met, those devotees having been brave enough to have made the ultimate sacrifice, overpowering their own base survival instinct. I hoped that one day I, too, could overcome my fear of death.
* * *
My seat on the troop transport was right next to 243, a heavily-built clone probably from the same gene stock as our sergeant, but much younger. His bald, sect-tattooed head gleamed in the spacelight, his long goatee was curled away from his jutting chin. I noticed that he was staring fixedly at me, nodding his head rhythmically, making high-pitched keening noises.
“Hey,” I said quietly to the war clone, more as a demarcation of personal space than greeting, making sure to appear strong and at ease. The war clone kept bobbing his head repetitively, but his smile became deeper, more cruel and manic.
“Hope for survivors,” he growled through smiling, clenched teeth.
* * *
On my fifteenth birthday, my mother took the ultimate, final step. I had returned home after begging in the high-prole levels of Tenochtitlan. We could evade the archaic security machines of the high-proles, but not the truly emancipated’s nanotech ones, which would instantly sink into our flesh and devour our bones.
I had been excited at the day’s pull. I had marked a hugely fat man, black as coal and his flesh embedded with jewelry, and had managed to extricate some jewels with a little anesthetic while he foolishly dozed in a park. They had glittered in my pockets as I tore through the curtain to tell my mother.
My mother would have been proud; but she was dead. On Quetzalcoatl, life is a constant battle with rot bug, and I could tell what had happened by the overpowering stench before I saw her bloated body, cracking open with egg sacs. I didn’t cry then; I had thought it must be a wondrous relief for her. After briefly giving thanks, I had vaporized every inch of her body to prevent infestation.
Shortly thereafter, the Oligarchs had decreed that Negativism constituted an illicit meme. Our Oligarch’s projected head had appeared in the night sky, all glittering eyes and tentacled mouth, to issue the decree. Negativism was thenceforth banned: all believers had to voluntarily submit to state-sponsored lobotomies by dawn, or else their physical selves would be expired. I could hear the wailing noises of millions of Negativists throughout the multi-leveled structure of Tenochtitlan, wailing like trapped, dying dogs.
* * *
I was without family, and without faith.
On jets of air, I had spun around the ancient steel columns holding the levels up, tempted to soar into the nano-infested heights and burn through the sky views of the wealthy palaces. Would the truly emancipated notice my burning flesh outside their crystal glass windows, or would they be too consumed with their own intrigues, their own lavish luxuries, to notice me?
Eventually, my lateral deltoids had grown sore, and I returned to the moist, fungal floors of the lower levels barefoot. I had waited near the levitator, hoping to ascend to the next level without being burned alive, but knowing that the selection machine would never alight on a grungy outcast like me. I was frozen in hope of ascent, knowing that the hope would melt, and I would be forced to consider my future without parent or commune. Communes did not eagerly accept teen midges who only traded in theft.
“You are not a real man until you take the life of another,” had suddenly sprung into my mind. I had a vision of myself, tall, muscled and wingless, my head close-shaven, my eyes grown gelid. I was wearing the Army uniform, and a hand-cannon was held diagonally across my newly massive chest. “Have you the mettle?”
The image dissipated, and I knew that it was the flare of a meme-bomb strafing the long lines for the levitator. My calloused mind usually ignored the bombs, but I was without options. Here I was offered escape from Quetzalcoatl: a new, more powerful body and mind.
An officer-drone immediately approached, a synthetic smile plastered on his face and holding out his hand. I had shaken it, weakly, still shaking the meme-bomb out of my cobwebbed mind.
“You will never reach the upper levels,” the drone had said matter-of-factly, gesturing at the levitator. “Emancipation protects itself from incursions below. But the Army does want you... in fact, it needs you.” The officer had then painted a glorious picture with words, with myself as the main hero, protecting the all-wise Oligarchs from distant, unenlightened malefactors, earning glory, power, and identity for myself in the process.
Mostly, I had wanted a place for myself, preferably with a roof and meal.
“Yes,” I had said to the officer, after which nanobots instantly defoliated my skull, inscribed the glyphs of my sect on the new blankness, and burned off my unnecessary wings.
* * *
We were down in it, now. The planet was even uglier up close; the black-red sky roiled with churning, tortured clouds and the earth below was a black-green muck of shattered buildings and human bones. Good thing we were all suited up; I didn’t want to have to smell this place.
“I want survivors. Where are the survivors?” 243 said, stroking his hand cannon lovingly.
“Mellow, Two-Four-Three,” the young officer in charge said, a lanky, pimply midge younger than most of us. “We’re still reading for biosigns.” His narrow gaze was fixed on the flashing displays illuminating his visor. “Something west, can’t make it out with all this atmospheric interference. Gil, Mundo, go fetch,” he told us.
“Check,” I replied, starting west and not looking to see if Mundo was following. The clone made a low, growling noise.
‘Of all the people to get stuck with,’ I groaned inwardly.
Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson