by Luke Jackson
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Mundo and I had been in boot hell for a year, stranded on an asteroid with the worst of the war clones to toughen us up and make us men. Mundo had been the dunce, the one too fat to get up over the obstacles, the one too feckless to complete the clones’ humiliating tasks of ego destruction. He was still chunky and sloppy, but now he also seemed like a cracked version of himself.
“Greet, Gilgamesh,” Mundo said in a low voice, wheezing slightly. “You see the signal?” he asked.
I nodded perfunctorily.
“Me too. It looks female,” Mundo said, a little too excited. I certainly wasn’t going to get into that conversation with Mundo. I’m sure he had his fair share of lies to tell. We all did.
“You know why we’re here?” Mundo asked, disappointed that his first choice of conversation would not be pursued.
“Don’t know. Don’t care,” I grunted back. “’Ours is not to pontificate, ours is to annihilate,’” I said, repeating an Army mantra.
“Right,” Mundo nodded his head quickly, like a puppy. “But I overheard an officer; we’re here to put out a meme-fire. A major myth-meme.” Mundo’s voice was breathless, excited.
“They must have angered the Oligarchs somehow, which is never wise.” Just like the Negativists did.
The Oligarchs were far beyond human; the disembodied, all-encompassing entities each had absolute power in their sector of space; to defy or deny them always resulted in death. If they weren’t omniscient, they were close to it. Everyone knew this, why did some resist?
We kept slogging through the polluted wasteland, my boots making grotesque sucking noises in the moist earth.
“My nose itches,” Mundo complained, rubbing where the bitten-off tip should be.
I abruptly waved Mundo down; the biosign was drawing near. Peeking over the twisted metal of a collapsed skyscraper, I made out a lone figure, shivering in the torn rags of a flowered nightgown. She was a woman; but she was pale, the color of a corpse. I imagined I could see blue pulsing veins through her transparent flesh.
“She looks like a ghost,” Mundo whispered.
She did. Figuring she could be a nonhuman, I requisitioned information from my visor. The system froze for a few moments, then a diagram of a ghost-white humanoid splayed across the screen, and a monotone voice said in my visor:
“The Caucasoid race: a subgroup of homo sapiens, allegedly existent in prehistoric times when geographic barriers prevented reproductive intermingling; no reported sightings since pre-Oligarch times, therefore objective existence unverifiable; believed to be eradicated during the Timento period, when racial stratifications was deemed an illicit meme; common in the myth and folklore among the lighter-skinned Khazars of the Epsilon system, before those memes were supplanted...”
“Cut,” I said.
“I think it’s human,” I told Mundo.
“What could do that to her?” he whispered. “She’s the same color as her teeth-bones. She’s grotesque.”
“Irrelevant, as usual,” I said. “You know what we’re here to do.”
“Can’t we save her?” Mundo asked, the lust in his eyes glittering through his visor.
“I thought you just called her grotesque...”
“She is, but then maybe she’d be just mine, if we caught her. I wouldn’t have to share her,” Mundo said, licking his puffy, chapped lips under the visor.
“Victors get spoils,” I muttered, waving Mundo along behind me as I stood up from behind the shattered steel and glass skyscraper, leveling my hand canon on the sobbing woman’s heaving bosom.
“Gel!” I yelled at the woman, first flipping to send on the visor translator in case she spoke one of the known languages. At any rate, she didn’t move; she remained on her knees in the ravaged wreckage, holding human bones in her hands.
“Bones? Heinous!” Mundo squealed girlishly to me, his shortened nose wrinkling up. “Is it her culture, or some kind of psyche meltdown...?” Mundo whispered.
I cut him off with a wave of my hand. I knew that she was mourning the loss of her entire world and its people, even if I couldn’t share in her mourning.
The woman stared at us for several moments, her strangely green eyes looking lost to this, or any, world. Her wild hair was in disarray, she was wearing rags, and her flesh was phantom white; but despite all that, I found her mournful stance strangely beautiful. She began speaking in a strange, foreign tongue, which sounded harsh and guttural to my ears.
“I think she’s asking for forgiveness, in the name of her Oligarch,” Mundo said, half-comprehending. I had turned off my translator’s receive mode; it tended to make my job a little too complicated when I understood their words.
“There’s nothing to forgive. Death is universal, life is fleeting. Turn off your translator, Mundo,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Something about this dirt being the source of all life, or at least human life,” Mundo continued. “Something like, ‘Why have you destroyed the dirt, or earth?’” he said, imitating a high-pitched woman’s voice. “I think her neurons are dissolved,” Mundo concluded.
“Switch your translator, or I’ll switch it for you,” I spoke as I neared the crouching woman, my hand cannon carefully trained on her chest. Mundo babbled into his translator, and his visor spoke in the woman’s guttural tongue.
“I told her that I don’t mind if her mind is defective, as I’m just using her body,” Mundo grinned at me.
A tortured scream exploded from the woman’s throat, as she sprang up from her crouched position, pulling a long machete from her nightgown. She lunged at Mundo, about to plunge the blade into his throat,
Despite my inclinations, I pulled the trigger on the hand cannon. Her pale, wretched figure instantly erupted into flames, dripping bubbling flesh into the muddy, bone-encrusted ground.
“Whoa,” Mundo said, suddenly shaky. “Near-death experience.” There was no need for gratitude; I had done what we had all been programmed to do at boot hell.
“Next time, don’t let lust manhandle you,” I said to him quietly, knowing full well he would do the same thing again. I approached the steaming heap of her flesh, surprised to note that some sort of talisman had survived: it looked like some sort of mathematical sign, a steel cross with a longer bottom section.
Dangling the symbol between my gloved fingers, I tried to decipher the symbol through visor information.
“Prehistoric. Believed to be an ancient torture device, to which individuals were nailed and left to die through blood loss, starvation and exposure to the elements. Common to pre-Oligarch myth-memes...” the voice droned.
“Cut,” I said again. I had heard enough. This planet was rife with meme-fire; even after the interstellar bombardment, symbols of it still survived. It was apparently some sort of sadomasochistic death-sacrifice cult, far more extreme than the Negativists. It presented an obvious danger to the Oligarchy, and I did not want to jeopardize myself further by delving into pre-Oligarchy memes.
“I want it,” Mundo said like a petulant child, taking the symbol from my fingers. “To remember her by. She might have been my private girl, not like the service girls...” he sighed dreamily, putting the symbol into one of his pockets.
I was glad that I had eradicated the woman; better that than leaving her to Mundo. She had gained the ultimate escape of nonexistence. I briefly wondered if her myth-meme was perhaps a more extreme variant my abandoned meme, Negativism. I could have been subjected to her fate, back when I was a believer, I realized. I quickly brushed the thought aside.
* * *
On the vessel headed back to port, we let out triumphant howls and cheers, letting more recreational substances flow through our beings, no longer concerned with battlefield efficiencies. The service girl hid in the lower levels, shaking, before the bellowing and inebriated troops pulled her out by bodily force and dragged her, kicking and screaming, up to the pleasure lounges. She must have expected this, but to fight it out was more thrilling for the troops. Tough gig, being the sole service girl after-mission.
“Gil,” 243 said to me, his bald, glowering head towering above me. I was taken aback for a moment, but stood my ground, staring back up at him. “I heard you ended life,” he said.
“Yuh?” I grunted back warily.
“A woman,” he continued in his painful attempt at conversation.
“Yuh,” I said, not knowing if he approved or not.
“Good,” he said, the demoniac leer returning to his goateed face. “Could have saved her, but good.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or was mocking me, but then he grabbed me around my shoulders and held me to him.
“Gil, what’s plunder without the spoils?” asked another war clone.
“Don’t worry, brother,” 243 grunted to me, holding on tight. “I have spoils.”
I realized that we war clones had all we needed, here, and what we didn’t have we took by force. The world outside the war room only held failure and poverty; even those who succeeded in the petty socioeconomic games in the heights of Tenochtitlan could have it all stripped away, painfully and instantly. Everything they had was dependent on, and derived from, our power. Here, we were men; here, we were prepared.
I followed the war clones to the pleasure rooms, passing by the squat and forlorn Mundo. He was still fingering his souvenir.
“Death-wishing?” I asked when I noticed what he was holding. “If you’re going to hold on to that thing, keep it hidden.” Our entire mission had been to eradicate myth-memes, and here Mundo was, fingering a remnant after-mission.
He looked through me, into space, and kept rubbing his talisman. I left him there, before I could be associated with the myth-memes starting to cohere in his small, self-destructive mind.
Copyright © 2006 by Luke Jackson
[Author’s note: originally published in Ultraverse, November 2005]