Gorixi’s house was located on the concave side of a shallow curve, which meant I could crowd his side of the street and remain hidden by the other property. I approached at a walk, contorting my face into a pained grimace and placing my hands high up around my rib cage to give the impression of a tired runner in case anyone was watching the scene. I had my stunner in my right hand and was attempting to hide it between my body and my elbow. When I reached the low rock wall that surrounded Gorixi’s front garden, I studied the outline of the singular guard on that quadrant and executed my move several times in my head. I hopped over the wall, landing silently despite the protests of my now disastrously weakened left arm that I used as a pivot point. I approached the guard quickly from behind and shoved the stunner between the collar of his combat suit and his skin. I pulled the trigger twice and he crumpled instantly. Though I was trained in tech-deprived combat, most soldiers wouldn’t enter a battle without a fully charged combat suit. The main function of the combat suit was to act in an ablative capacity to reduce the effects of plasma blasts and a reactive capacity to reduce projectile and explosive impact, though the suits also acted as Faraday cages to counteract stunner shots. Most, including those worn by Gorixi’s guards, also augmented the strength and speed of the user by functioning like a powered exoskeleton. I wanted to trade my uncomfortably tight and not all protective running clothes for the guard’s combat suit, but I was worried the time cost would be too great. By taking this guard, I had set a timer for an alarm to be triggered; when he didn’t check in on schedule, my job would become orders of magnitude more difficult. And I didn’t know if that timer was set for fifteen minutes or two. I banked on the latter and hoped for the former.
In lieu of taking the guard’s combat suit, I removed his weapon from where it was holstered on his hip. It was a standard military and police model dual action pistol. A flip of a switch could set the gun to fire either lethal plasma rounds or the typical electrified stunner bolts. The combat suits could withstand several shots from either setting of the pistol, but that wasn’t really a problem; I was confident enough in my aim that I was sure I could land a fair amount of headshots from quite a few yards away. I wasn’t, however, sure that I wanted to risk killing the guards. Even if Gorixi was a Verge operative, his guards might have had the same wool over their eyes that Branch and I had only recently torn from our own. I pulled the power pack from my own stunner and tossed the now useless weapon into a bush. I slid the power pack into the butt of the guard’s pistol and smacked it home with the heel of my hand, feeling the solid click as clamps closed over the fluted edges of the cartridge. I flipped open the small access port for the pistol’s electronics without looking. My eyes were trained across the garden where another sentry could appear at any moment. I quickly toggled a switch back and forth in the control panel that selected which power pack – the spare one inside the grip that I had just added, or the one inside the chamber – charged the blasts. After a two dozen rapid clicks, I pushed the switch carefully to its midpoint. This trick tended to make the pistol shoot overcharged stunner blasts. Overcharged to the point that, while the insulating property of the combat suit still protected the wearer from any damage, the electronics of the combat suit would be overloaded and sent into diagnostic mode. During this procedure, the magnetic microfilament that ran the length of the suit would engage, effectively freezing the wearer. The guards would still be able to shout for help but in the time it took them to shake off the surprise of not being able to move, I thought I would be able to move in close and silence them nonlethally.
I crouched low and approached the other end of the garden slowly. The back of a second guard came into view. I shot him in the back from a good distance away, hoping that he was familiar with the occasional hard reset of combat armor. I heard him grunt a split second after the arcing blue electricity made contact with his suit. I froze, my ears straining to hear his response to the attack from across the yard. Eventually, he let out something between a disgusted scoff and a short chuckle. I could hear him say, “This is 3, my snugs just went into reset.”
Good. He thought it was a normal malfunction. Hopefully no one on the other end of the radio had any better ideas. I stayed frozen in place as I listened to see if he made a response to any incoming transmission. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ll just hope I don’t have to scratch my nose for the next minute or so.”
I moved up behind him, balancing stealth and speed. I threw my arm around his neck, the backside of my elbow pressing against his throat, and squeezed until he fell limp. I continued blocking his arteries for a 5 count before gently setting him down on the ground, the combat suit holding his body rigid. This wouldn’t keep him out for long, so I rolled him on his back, then unzipped the suit down to his waist, stepped back a few yards, and fired my stunner at him. Two guards down and no alert raised. Good, but that trick wouldn’t work a second time and my time was probably running out before a radio check.
I decided to take out the remaining guards – however many that was – with speed. A particularly violent jolt up my arm reminded me that if I screwed up this mission and got myself killed, I was only squandering a few days and sparing myself some intense pain. I walked toward the back of the residence down a side yard, my back hugging the outer wall. A third guard emerged around a corner and I fired my stunner before I even realized what was going on. The woman’s forward momentum didn’t fade despite her frozen suit and she fell forward onto her face. I ran up beside her and yanked her subvocal microphone from her neck, the adhesive taking some skin with it. She could lay there and yell, but I would be in the house before anyone heard her.
I bolted in through the large glass double doors of the house and found myself in a spacious living room with a large fireplace in full burn. I fired twice at a man in a combat suit watching the television from where he leaned on the back of a couch. Footfalls to my left drew my attention up to the top of the stairs where I trained my weapon. Another female guard sprinted down the flight, not noticing me until she was halfway down. I fired a half dozen bolts at her before two hit and her combat suit rebooted itself. She was a good shot; a plasma blast had burned into the ceramic tile less than two inches away from my foot. Maybe I was getting sloppy.
I ran up the stairs, pistol still at the ready, but no other guards made themselves known. I found Gorixi in his office, his hand just finding the telephone receiver. Whether it was to call the police or check in with his head of security I didn’t know. I didn’t care.
Gorixi’s face went from startled to confused when I burst through the door. “General?” he asked.
I shook my head. “You’re with me,” was all I said to him, yanking the Congressman out of his chair by his expensive suit. I shoved him out the door and down the stairs, hitting the prone but yelling guards a second time with the stunner to keep their suits frozen.
“Where’s your car?” I asked Gorixi. He point to a door beyond the kitchen, just our side of the open wine cellar. “Keys,” I said to Gorixi as I leaned sideways to snap off a pair of bolts in the direction of the female guard outside.
When he didn’t respond, I swung the pistol his direction and pressed the muzzle into his chest. “Keys!”
I gripped the back of Gorixi’ s neck as firmly as I could manage with my spasming left hand and directed him through the door to the underground garage ahead of me. I shoved him into the passenger seat of the sleek, black town car. Before reversing up the driveway and onto the lawn where the first two guards were probably at least partially awake, I set the pistol to fire plasma blasts and lowered the driver’s side window. I reversed as fast as the whirring electric motor would allow. As soon as the vehicle shot out of the garage, it was hit with several well-placed plasma blasts. If the car wasn’t reinforced to withstand exactly this kind of attack, the rear tires would have been crippled. As it was, the big sedan simply rocked on its springs, plasma blasts splashing on the ablative barrier like heavy drops of rain. I shot my own pistol as fast as my finger would allow, aiming slightly below and in front of the guard who still wore his combat suit unzipped to the waist. Thick clouds of dark, fertile soil erupted between us and obscured his line of sight. The plasma blasts began hitting the vehicle in less critical zones, then missed altogether.
By the time the guard had moved to a better location, Gorixi and I were speeding down the road. We drove in silence for a long while; across Bainbridge, over the floating bridges, and drew close to the Olympic Mountains. We were passing through the town of Sequim when Gorixi finally spoke up.
“That looked believable, but I don’t know why you didn’t just contact me from the drop. Has it been compromised? And,” he paused, looking my direction, “I’m glad you didn’t hurt any of my detail. They’re a good group.”
I stared at Gorixi for a moment, waiting for more, waiting for something that would make sense. Nothing came. Did Gorixi think I was another Verge operative?
“I didn’t kill those guards because I thought they were citizens of United Earth, not Velesian dogs like you,” I said, trying to put a fear into him. It was also the truth.
Gorixi exhaled a single laugh, not defiant or condescending, but of genuine amusement. He eased back in the passenger seat. “So where are we off to?”
My mind reeled. What was Gorixi playing at? Why did it seem like he thought he knew me? I pulled the car off the main road and into a dirt parking lot with a few hiking trailheads leading off into the lush forest.
“General Ulm, are you feeling alright?” Gorixi asked.
“Who is General Ulm?” I asked the Congressman, turning in my seat to face him, my right hand resting on my pistol.
Gorixi’s confused features slowly began to resolve into understanding. “You do look younger than the last time I saw you. I just assumed it was prosthetics for some other cloak and dagger work. You’re not Ulm.”
“No, my name is Colonel Laird.” I pulled the pistol out from the waistband of my running pants and placed it in my lap. “If you want to get out of this car, you’ll answer the questions I’m going to ask you.”
Gorixi nodded and I pressed the top of a coin sized recording device in my pocket to begin the session.
“How did a Velesian get a seat in the United Earth Congress?”
“Colonel…who do you work for?”
“If you don’t mind, Congressman, let’s work with one question at a time. How did you get your position?”
Gorixi hesitated, wringing his hands together while he stared out the window. I had a feeling I was about to get the answers I wanted. As soon as I pressed the top of the recording device again, the conversation would be compressed into a quantum data package and sent back to Lizaraga on the station. Within days, the Bataar Army would be preparing an assault on Veles and liberating United Earth.
“I work for Creighton Ulm, a general in the United Earth Army. Gorixi, as I’m sure you know because you seem to have sought me out specifically, is the Velesian spelling of a common Polish name. My real name is Ostretsky. I was born in Poland. Moved to eastern North America when I was 3. I’ve never been off the planet; not even to the Moon or Mars.”
He paused there, but I motioned for him to continue. The air in the car felt like it was becoming frenzied; warm and charged, like lightning could erupt from nothing at any moment. The only analogous sensation I could pull out of my memory was the feeling of being hit with a stunner bolt. I assumed it was the psychosomatic manifestation of my adrenaline, directionless anger, fear or death, and woe of loss. I tried to compartmentalize those feelings as best I could and pull my consciousness away from the odd feeling.
“Ulm came to me shortly after the signing of the signing of the Treaty of Cydonia,” Gorixi – or Ostretsky – continued. “I was a nobody. In fact, I can’t imagine how I could have been less of a somebody. I worked in my dad’s deli slapping sandwiches together. They were good sandwiches and I had a few regular customers who swore by my kielbasa reubens, but-”
“Don’t pull any stalling bullshit on me. I know we have a limited time before this car is tracked.”
“This car has no tracker.”
I gave him a dubious look.
“OK, fine. I’ll pick up the pace. One of the Velesian battleships that warped into near Earth orbit during that last-ditch bombing campaign took out our deli. My dad was in it at the time. To keep my mother afloat, I signed up with United Earth Home Defense and helped with the cleanup. Ulm found me on a database somewhere a year later and came to recruit me. He needed an unaccented English-speaking Polish nobody for an operation he wanted to run. He was on Mars during the Treaty proceedings, placing nanotransceivers in the rooms of the various Verge groups and, I guess, something he heard from the Velesians made him worry about future attacks.”
If any of this was true, Ulm’s activities on Mars were exactly what I would have done. They were illegal and could compromise the peace process, but they could yield invaluable information. I started to put faith in Ostretsky’s tale, but that didn’t change the feeling of the charge in the car. If anything, it had gotten stronger. Any higher and my hair might stand on end. I had started sweating.
Ostretsky hadn’t stopped his rambling explanation. “Apparently, Veles is worse off after the Verge war than anyone thought. And they blame the Treaty of Cydonia and United Earth. Ulm thinks Veles is going to attack United Earth with unconventional warfare. Terrorism. He helped install me as a Veles-born Congressman assuming I would be approached by Velesian agents. And I was. I think some of my security detail are Velesian. I sweep the car each morning and remove every bug I find, regardless of what agency put it there. That’s why…”
Ostretsky continued, but the air in the car had gotten very thin. I felt like I was drowning. Each breath felt like nothing but pure, sparking electricity. The color began to fade from my vision. The last thing I remember seeing before submitting to the blackness was Ostretsky lean forward and ask, “Colonel?”
The period of darkness in which I was both awake and not was broken by a single hazy scene. I was laying on the gravel near the black sedan. Some yards away, a low orbit dropship landed on the highway. Ostretsky waved his hands fervently and then gave me a thumbs up. The blackness washed up over me again after that.
When I finally awoke, I was in a hospital. Not a prison like I expected. I moved my right arm and felt no restraints. My left arm wouldn’t move. Unlike the usual waking experience, like from a nap, this one felt like I was emerging from some type of hibernation cocoon. As each layer was peeled off, like a freshly picked onion, my perceptions grew more acute. When I finally felt like myself again, I searched around the room for a remote control that was connected to the holovision above my bed. I found one and pressed the power button. A holographic image looking down on a black sedan in the forest grew into existence in front of me.
“-al Congressman Paul Gorixi escaped an attempted kidnapping today,” came the voice over from the news reporter. The image changed to one of Gorixi/Ostretsky standing on his destroyed lawn. He had a split lip and a few scratches on his face, injuries that weren’t there when I last saw him. He was speaking into several microphones at once.
“The assailant incapacitated my entire security team and forced me into my car at gunpoint. I was able to overpower him and jump out of the moving car in the Olympic Mountains. I narrowly avoided being caught several times before authorities arrived. I think it’s important to draw attention to the nature of this attack; the man who kidnapped me was a vehement anti-Velesian. The Verge war is over! We need to put the violence of war behind us and begin rebuilding. That cannot be achieved when the lunatic fringe insists on keeping war alive. I will be making a further statement tomorrow, but right now I’d like to phone my wife.” Gorixi/Ostretsky turned on his heel to the applause of supporters gathered in front of his home.
That press conference and the fact that I wasn’t in prison convinced me that the Congressman had been telling me the truth. Turning my kidnapping into an anti-Velesian assault was smart; he was now a hero and would advance his own political clout. At the same time, Velesian groups would want to use the attack to convince him to work against the United Earth government. The news had gone to a commercial, so I turned my attention to my left arm. I was able to rotate my shoulder after a few minutes of working at it, but I couldn’t coax any movement from further down; it just hung limply by my side. I was in the last stages of Birk-Verge. Soon, it would be a battle between organ-rupturing seizures and cessation of neural activity to kill me first. And how had I progressed with my mission? I hadn’t. I fell for bait designed for Velesian terrorists.
A large uniformed figure slowly opened the door to my room. “Jesus. I didn’t expect that,” I said.
The man laughed. “That’s exactly what I said when I found you in the Olympics. Exactly.”
The man’s face was strikingly similar to my own. Not in the way a father or brother would have been, but more. It was the same face, aged ten or fifteen years.
“I’m General Creighton Ulm,” the man said, holding his right hand to shake mine. I gave it.
“I’m Laird,” I said, guardedly. I was completely shaken. What was going on?
“Colonel William Laird, United Earth Army, trained in espionage, field tactics, and close quarters combat. I know. I oversaw your training.” Ulm shook his head, “This is weird.”
“What the fuck is this?”
Ulm smiled somewhat sadly and looked down at his shoes. He sat in a chair near my bed. “When the Verge Alliance launched their coordinated first strike against our orbital platforms and asteroid bases, we were left totally defenseless beyond the asteroid belt. We had the combined power of ten worlds gunning for us and even our technologically advanced warpowers couldn’t defend against that. We needed to take the fight back out to the Verge systems, but there weren’t enough active troops.”
Ulm paused and met my eyes. “You’ve seen the people on this planet, interacted with them some. They’re not cut out for war. There are a few who still believe in human work ethic and human strength, but most are content to let their automata do their work for them while they play their days away and live on wages far too high for a 20 hour work week. We needed bodies and minds that didn’t exist, William. We-“
“Laird,” I interrupted him. “Call me Laird or call me nothing at all. The only people who call me William are my parents.”
“That’s…kind of where I’m going with this. I headed up a program to clone the best military personnel we had on hand so we could at least try to slow down the Khagan’s unstoppable Bataar Army. You are me, Laird. We have the same skills, the same innate gifts and hindera-“
“Bullshit, Ulm,” I interrupted again, this time with much more vehemence. “Do I look stupid to you? How old are you? 40? Maybe 45? I’m 31. Unless you headed up that program when you were 15, there’s no way a cloning procedure could be completed. Besides, the United Earth Congress doesn’t allow cloning outside of extreme circumstances.”
“Military research and development in the Silicon Desert found a way to vastly speed up the maturation process. And…the United Earth Congress was never told. I said I headed up the program. I did. But you know the type of work people with our training do during war; ethically complicated, pragmatically necessitated. It was a black project.”
“No. This whole thing stinks, Ulm. Your fake Velesian Gorixi, your convenient story of cloning. It’s bullshit. I was sent here to find evidence that the Velesians had taken control of United Earth and were pulling the strings for the rest of the Galactic Coalition. I think I found it. I don’t know how you changed your face so quickly without evidence of surgery, but I’m not falling for this.”
Ulm stood, looking a little pissed. “You’re dying, Laird. Why would I waste my time lying to a dead man?” He walked toward the door. “I know someone who might be able to talk sense into you. Always works for me.”
An hour later, Ulm returned. Branch strode in with him, her face softer than I’d ever seen it. Her hair, which was normally long and pulled into a tight, complexly woven bun was short and messy. She wore reading glasses and the soft skin under her eyes were lined with more wrinkles than I remembered. It couldn’t be Branch. Not my Branch, anyway. They couldn’t have known Branch and I were together; most of my comrades on the station hadn’t known. They must have picked a Branch look-alike because she was my commanding officer, because they knew we would all follow her into Hell if she ordered it.
“Colonel Laird, I’m Meghan Whitehouse,” the Branch look-alike introduced herself in a striking British accent, which I wasn’t ready for. Her eyes lingered on mine for a long moment. “You look at me like Creighton does. If you don’t mind my asking, were you and Branch romantically involved?”
I wanted to stare her down with my most scornful look, but I couldn’t. Despite the accent, it felt like the prayer I kept reciting in the supply shuttle had been answered; to see Branch again. “How did you know?” I asked.
“It’s that look. My God,” she laughed, “it really is exactly the same look Creighton gives me. Both of you have a hard stare, almost a thousand yard stare, but with surprising intellect behind it. When Creighton looks at me, though, it softens. I can see the child he used to be. It was how I knew he was in love with me before we had even gotten through our second date.
“Colonel Laird, please have a look in the files I brought with me,” Whitehouse handed me a datapad with several windows open. Her file was there, as was Ulm’s. As I scrolled through I saw Lizaraga, Gunny Xu, and even Jansson. The latter had been discharged from the army after making one too many drunken passes at a commanding officer. There was no way the Velesians would have been able to put together such a comprehensive forgery in one day. I knew for a fact that there had been no leak from the station; no one gave a fuck about retired soldiers in an orbiting rock. Besides, some of the details about the temperament of soldiers I knew well were too on the money to be anything but truth. I set the datapad down, nodding.
“OK. So, you’re not Velesian agents. But does this mean my men and I have been trapped on that orbiting station because we’re illegal clones? We didn’t ask to be made and now we’re stuck on that fucking rock?”
Ulm and Whitehouse exchanged a short look. Ulm’s face had gone from stoic to sad in mere seconds. Whitehouse looked on the verge of tears. “It’s worse than that, Laird. Birk-Verge Syndrome isn’t what you think it is. The original Birk virus was created on Ulaan Khuree and was used against you by the Bataar Army, but the syndrome isn’t a chronic infection of the mutated strain.” She paused again, trying to compose herself. “Birk-Verge syndrome is a side effect of the accelerated cloning process. There is no cure and it will happen to each and every clone. I’m surprised there haven’t been more deaths.”
Those words dropped like a bomb, somehow more astounding than the realization that I wasn’t technically a real person. It sort of made sense; my memories were hazy, I couldn’t recall names or faces of my parents or siblings, couldn’t remember if I had ever had a dog or where I went to school. All those memories were just corroded neural patterns donated by Creighton Ulm. I had been born on the dropship and come out fighting. I had never lived. No one on the station had ever really had a life. Ulaan Khuree was our playground, the station our retirement home. It was hard to imagine all the life on that station, all that palpable desire for freedom leaching away with a series of body-breaking seizures. It was hard to imagine a world without my friends. I was already living in a world without the one person who meant the most to me and I had never said anything to her about it.
But Ulm and Whitehouse were together. Branch and I in another life, a life where we did grow up and grow old. Lizaraga was a drill instructor in Hawaii. Jansson was alive and, if I knew Jansson, drinking and trying to get laid. Maybe we, the clones, really were non-people. A child had never been born on the station. Only a select few, like Gunny Xu and Branch, ever did anything with themselves after the war. We had no authors, musicians, comedians, playwrights. We had no society. I realized it had been a long time since I had said anything.
“Lizaraga is waiting for my report. We’ve convinced the Khagan to reform the Bataar Army with my battle group at its head to attack United Earth if the government had been taken over by Velesian agents. I need to tell him the truth. I need to tell all of them the truth.”
Ulm spoke up. “Who’s to say Lizaraga won’t go ahead with the attack once he finds out he’s been lied to?”
“He might want to,” I said. I thought about that. “He’ll definitely want to, actually. Not everyone will go along with him, though. I know for sure the Khagan won’t. I think the best way to come out of the situation with the least loss of life would be to send a diplomatic mission to the Khagan and fill him in. Then allow my battle group to take up residence on Ulaan Khuree like we’ve been pushing for.”
“That sounds like a reasonable option, Laird.” Whitehouse put her hand on my shoulder. A rush of sadness filled my chest, so much so that I almost thought I was going to have another seizure. The touch was so like that of Branch that morning in her quarters. I didn’t speak.
“Go ahead and record a video message. We’ll delay sending it until the diplomatic mission reaches Ulaan Khuree,” she said, and the pair left.
I sat down in front of the terminal and booted it up, but had a thought. We weren’t a society. We had no authors, artists, musicians. Maybe I could be our voice. A voice that lived on after we were gone. Instead of the video recorder, I opened up the word processing application and started typing my message to Lizaraga. I kept typing after it was done. I wrote about our battles on Ulaan Khuree, about the station, about our community and Jansson’s part in it. I told our story. I typed until my right arm suffered the same fate as my left, then used an eye tracking application to write more. I wrote through broken ribs caused by violent seizures, though internal bleeding caused by those ribs piercing my lung, through the cessation of activity in my heart. I wrote when my body was more dialysis machine, iron lung, and artificial heart than living tissue. I wrote until I lost sight in my right eye. I finished my account and signed it William Laird, UEAF with my last remaining mote of cognitive control. Then I closed my eye, opened my palm, though of Branch, and welcomed death.