“And you will come upon a city cursed, and everything that festers in its midst will be as a disease; nothing will be worthy of pity, not insects, animals or even men.”
Modern Combat Manual Joshua 6:17
Live forever. The thought lingered like an annoying dog, to which I had handed a few scraps.
I felt Megan’s fingers against my skin, and smelled the paste—breathed the fumes gratefully for it reminded me that I wouldn’t have to wear my helmet. Soon, but not now. The lessons taught this, described the first symptom of spoiling: When the helmet no longer felt safe, a sign of claustrophobia. As my troop train rumbled northward, I couldn’t tell if I shook from eagerness or from the railcar’s jolting, and gave up trying to distinguish between the two possibilities. It was not an either‑or day; it was a day of simultaneity.
Deliver me from myself, I prayed, and help me to accept tomorrow’s end.
Almost a hundred of my sisters filled the railcar, in a train consisting of three hundred carriages, each one packed with the same cargo. My newer sisters—replacements with childlike faces—were of lesser importance. Megan counted for everything. She smiled as she stroked my forehead, which made me so drowsy that my eyes flickered shut with a memory, the image of an atelier, of a technician brushing fingers across my cheek as he cooed from outside the tank. I liked those memories. They weren’t like the ones acquired more recently, and once upon a time everything had been that way. Sterile. Days in the atelier had been clean and warm—not like this.
“Everything was so white then,” I said, “like a lily.”
Megan nodded and kissed me. “It was closer to perfect, not a hint of filth. Do not be angry today, Catherine. It’s counterproductive. Kill with detachment, with the greater plan.”
I closed my eyes and leaned forward so Megan could work more easily, and so she wouldn’t see my smile while smearing paste on my scalp, the thin layer of green thermal block that would dry into a latexlike coating, blocking my heat. The replacements all stared.
“Do you know what to expect in Uchkuduk?” one of them asked. “It’s my first time—the first time for most of us. They mustered us a month ago from the Winchester atelier, near West Virginia. How should we prepare?”
“It’s simple,” I said. “There’s one thing they don’t teach in the atelier: Bleeznyetzi.”
Several of them leaned closer.
I nodded. “It’s Russian for twins.”
“You are an older version,” one said. “We speak multiple languages, including Russian and Kazakh, and we know the word.”
“Then you know what our forces call us—the humans.”
The train squealed around a sudden bend, pushing me further against the wall. I braced a boot against Megan, who had just fallen asleep, to keep her from slumping over.
“Bitches and sluts. The tanks taught English too, right?”
They left me alone after that. It was no surprise—we all learned the same lesson:“Watch out for defeatists, the ones near the end of their terms. Defeatism festers in those who approach the age. Ignore their voices. Learn from their actions but do not listen to their words. When you and your sisters reach eighteen, a spoiling sets in, so pray for deliverance from defeatism and you will be discharged. Honorably. Only then will you ascend to be seated at His right hand.” The replacements wouldn’t associate themselves with me for fear that I would rub off on them, the spoiling a contagion, and for some reason it made me feel warm to think I had that kind of power.
“You’re incorrigible,” I whispered to Megan. “It is not your turn for rest,” but she didn’t hear and exhaustion showed on her face while she slept, in thin lines that I hadn’t noticed before. “I’ll tell you a secret: Hatred is the only thing keeping me from spoiling, the only thing I have left, the only thing I do well.”
The armored personnel carrier’s compartment felt like a steam bath. Heat acted as a catalyst, lowering the amount of energy it took for the phantom dead to invade my mind, and I focused on my hands, thinking that concentration would keep the hallucination at bay. It was no use. The APC engine roared like a call from the past, and Megan melted away to be replaced by the dusty outskirts of Pavlodar, a bird jibbering overhead as we jumped off from the river. Five Kazakhs stood in an alley. They looked at me as if I were an anomaly, a dripping fish that had just stood up on two legs to walk from the Irtysh, and they failed to recognize the danger. Our girl named Majda moved first. She sprayed the women—who began to scream—with flechettes, her stream of needles cutting some of them in half as she laughed. Majda wouldn’t laugh for much longer. A rocket went through her, leaving only a pair of twitching legs . . .
Megan was shouting at me when the vision evaporated.
The APC compartment reappeared. We sat encased in a tiny ceramic cubicle, strapped into our seats and struggling to breathe alcohol-contaminated air as the vehicle idled.
“You’re spoiling,” she said. “You were laughing.”
I nodded and tongued another tranq tab—my third in the last hour.
“It’s an insanity,” Megan continued, “I worry. The spoiling seems to be worse in you than in any other and someone will report it. One of the new girls.”
“It doesn’t matter. Soon we will kill again and then it will be as if nothing was ever wrong, as if destruction was a meal, maybe toast and honey.”
The turbine for the plasma cannon buzzed throughout the vehicle, vibrating the twenty cubicles like ours along each side, and three large ones down the vehicle’s spine. We had two ways out. The normal way, a tiny hatch in the floor where we would come out underneath and roll from between the APC’s huge wheels, and an escape hatch in the roof where we could pop out in an emergency. It wouldn’t be long before everything stopped and time would dilate with excitement, with the freedom of movement and a sudden breakout into the open where one could find targets among men.
The turbines went quiet and I saw a tear on Megan’s cheek.
“It doesn’t matter,” I explained, “not because I don’t care about you. I do. It doesn’t matter because we’re dead anyway tomorrow. And I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want to be discharged.”
“You speak like them, like the nonbred.”
I shook my head, ignoring the insult, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to live past the age? Maybe the spoiling goes away. Fades. I have more killing to do, and they will rob me of it at eighteen.”
Megan shook her head. She turned and I saw from the movement of her neck that she had begun sobbing, which made me feel even worse because my actions ruined the moment. This was to have been a sacred time. It was said that in quiet seconds during battle, when the firing paused as it sometimes did without explanation, one heard His voice in the wind or in the silence of the suit, His hand on your heart to let you know that you were a sacred thing among the corrupt. So the time before an engagement was to be used for reflection, to prepare for glory in an hour of meditation that climaxed with a flash of anticipation, of wanting to prove one’s worthiness. But words ruined everything.
There were plans and strategies, mapped out in advance by semiaware computers and human generals to calculate just how far we could go before our systems reached their limit. It was a ritual beyond us—the way our leaders communicated with God and channeled His will. Nobody gave us the details. For the past two years neither Megan nor I knew why the war existed, except what we had caught in passing during interactions with men, with human forces, the nonbred. But those were glimpses. They weren’t enough to answer all the questions, and soon we stopped asking because it was enough to know that we fought Russian men, and we prayed that God would make the war last forever. A feeling of satisfaction filled me as I thought about it, as if knowing that God was a part of the plan was enough, something that made us invincible because He trusted us to cleanse this part of the world, to allow a Lily like Megan to exercise her will.
We would move out soon. Far below us, the advance shock wave of our sisters was already attacking, underground, pushing into Russian tunnel positions and killing as many as they could before we followed with the main force—a mixed army of humans and my sisters, exposed aboveground for the greater glory. Our attack would make Megan feel better, I was certain. Waiting never helped, but war?
War made us feel fifteen again.
They played it over the speakers when we were born at fifteen-equivalent—the hymn, a prayer known only by the faithful, our first lesson and a call to the faithful:
“This is my Maxwell. It was invented over a century before I was born but this one is new, this one is mine. The barrel of my Maxwell consists of an alloy tube, encased by ring after ring of superconducting magnets. I am shielded from the flux by ceramic and alloy barrel wraps, which join to the fuel cell, the fuel cell to the stock. My Maxwell Carbine has no kick, my carbine has a flinch. It is my friend, my mother. My carbine propels its children, the flechettes, down its length, rapidly accelerating them to speeds ranging from subsonic to hypersonic. It depends on what I choose.
“My carbine is an instrument of God. I am an instrument of God. Unlike ancient firearms, the flechettes have no integral chemical propellant and are therefore tiny, allowing me to fill a shoulder hopper with almost ten thousand at a time. Ten thousand chances to kill. My flechettes are messengers of God. My flechettes are killers. The material and shape of my killers makes them superior armor penetrators. But my killers are not perfect. I am not perfect. My killers are too small to work alone and must function as a family. But I shall not worry. My Maxwell will fire fifty flechettes per second, and fifty is a family. With my Maxwell I can liberate a man of his head or limbs. With my Maxwell I will kill until there is nothing left alive.
“With my Maxwell, I am perfect.”
It was then, at fifteen, when Megan and I met our first humans. Until that point the technicians kept us in atelier tanks—alive and conscious, fed information and nutrients through a series of cables and tubes. The tanks gave us freedom of motion so we could put movement to combat scenarios played out in our heads, lending our muscles the same memories fed to our brains. Fifteen-equivalent was our birthday, when we became the biological equal to a fifteen-year-old human and slid from the growth tanks to feel cold air bring goose bumps and, along with them, a sense that the world was both a hostile and a promising place, full of danger but also the opportunity for redemption.
First steps were awkward. Megan had stumbled when trying to stand and crashed into me, sending us both to the cold floor in a heap. We giggled. I’m Megan, she had said, and I told her my name, after which we looked into a mirror and I thought, She looks just like me—skinny girls, with leg and arm muscles that flexed like pistons under gravity, and which I knew could be used to kill the human technicians around us in hundreds of different ways. They had hair. Our heads had been shaved perfectly smooth and Megan and I sat there, on the floor, rubbing the tops of them and tracing our fingers over the scabs where only a few days before, cables had penetrated, and the thought occurred to me that if I killed one of the humans we could take his hair, to glue it onto our heads just to feel what it was like. But the technicians were kind. They helped us both up, guiding us to the dressing area where they gave us our first uniforms, orange and bright enough that their color glowed under fluorescent lights; and the sounds— unmuffled by the gallons of thick fluid that normally surrounded us in the tanks— were enough to make me dizzy. I vomited on the floor.
A new voice spoke through the speakers while we organized. “Glory unto the faithful. On this, the day of your birth, a choir of angels sings your praise in heaven, telling God that he should watch for the time when you join him, to sit at His side after serving mankind. This you shall do, in honor of your creators.
“It is said that ‘all the earth shall be devoured in fire. For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, which they will serve my Masters with one accord. From beyond the rivers the daughters of His dispersed ones shall bring offering. On that day I will not be ashamed for any of my deeds in which I transgressed against God; for then he will take away from our midst those who spoiled, and they shall no longer be haughty in His holy mountain. He will leave in our midst a meek and humble people, and we shall trust in the word of our Creators.’
“Rejoice, for you are His daughters and ours, a holy Germline, Germline-one‑A, and you will bring to Him eternal glory through death and with sacrifice. So sayeth the Modern Combat Manual.”
While the voice read passage after passage, Megan helped me into my orange jumpsuit and when we looked at each other I knew she was the one.
It didn’t matter now, in Kazakhstan, that those memories were old; it was the same look I gave her on that afternoon, when we slid from the bottom hatch of our compartment and stretched outside the APC under a dim sun. We smiled. I didn’t need to say it to her: it was an amazing day, cold and bright like on the day we were born, and we would be together when the enemy turned to face us. My hatred burned with an intensity it hadn’t mustered since the day before and both legs trembled, wanting to move out regardless of whether or not the others were ready.
Our APCs had stopped across the border, west of Keriz and inside Kazakhstan where vehicles spread across the countryside. To our north, contrails marked the passage of autonomous fighters, semiaware drones that calculated probabilities in less than a second, twisting through the sky in patterns like braided white ropes. Russian ground-attack craft tried to cross south, the APC’s making an attractive target as they stopped in the open to assemble, but so far our fighters had kept the aircraft away. Every once in a while you saw a black streamer fall, followed by a cloud of fire and then a distant thud.
“It is here,” said Megan, “in the air.”
I nodded. “Death and faith.”
“I will kill all I see.”
“And we will bathe in the blood of mankind, washing ourselves of their sins.”
She said, “Let it go. Detach.”
But I didn’t answer.
You can tell a battlefield from its smell. Burned metal tinged with rot, acrid enough so that it felt like the tissue in your nose would singe, foreign enough that it made you clench fists with the impatience to wade in. Only about half of us remained. Many of my sisters—the ones who had led the shock assault earlier that day, underground—had partially melted armor, bubbled from plasma attacks. Several were absent an arm or a hand. Despite the wounds, they would feel nothing because the nerves would have shut down, and blood vessels had sealed themselves to prevent further fluid loss. A plug of ceramic—locked in place with quick paste—would seal the suit breach and maintain thermal integrity. I felt proud. This was my unit, and none of us had spoiled to the point of being combat ineffective, so that our dead now looked down from heaven with the same sense of pride. Our wounded were the new girls, the replacements, and before they helmeted you saw that their faces still glowed, but now it wasn’t the glow of nervous expectation; it was the glow from having killed, of knowing.
We began our advance, following on foot behind APCs that moved at jogging pace, sending sheets of mud and snow into the air and coating our suits in a dripping mess. Our feet made sucking sounds as we plodded. On either side of us, a full Division of Foreign Legion and Marines advanced at our flanks. Human.
There were no words to describe it, no way to understand except through experience. Trudging. Fighting against the mud with every step so that within five minutes your muscles screamed, and then having to continue like that for thirty minutes, an hour, two. I was near the edge of our formation, close to a group of Marines. You could see some of them, their armor almost new, as they twitched with every explosion or dropped to the earth at the first hint of tracer-flechettes. Many of them began stumbling and barely lifted themselves, falling behind as we continued. Nobody cared. The exhaustion got so thick, so fast, that it was all anyone could do to keep one’s eyes open, let alone pull a straggler from the mud. I could have blocked the pain, willed it away the same way I twitched a finger, but the sensations reminded me that I hadn’t been discharged yet and so they became comforting things, reminders there was more killing. Pain was familiar now. Welcome.
At times a walking plasma barrage moved ahead of us so that we moved faster, jogging over a crust of hard glass. It was a Godsend, and I heard Megan whisper her thanks. We spent the whole first day of the advance like that, walking then jogging, and soon I remembered that distances in Kazakhstan killed resolve almost as easily as the spoil. A tree on the horizon might look close. But as you walked through the day, it barely changed position, and was enough to drive you mad with the feeling that you would never reach it.
Then, at last, contact. Close to sundown, Megan and I found ourselves in a hole with three Marines. One of them screamed as Russian grenades cracked on every side, sending sprays of thermal gel over our position to hiss and smoke as the droplets melted whatever they touched. The other two men were hardly better. Both huddled at the bottom of the crater, screaming to us that we had encountered the outermost positions of a Russian defensive line.
I kicked one. “How can you aim from there?”
“Get up and fight,” said Megan, but the men cursed at her.
She grabbed the grenade launcher from one and peered over the lip of the hole. I fell beside her. A hundred yards away, behind a small rise, tiny flashes marked the position of a Russian grenadier whose helmet and shoulders the low sun outlined, and we had to duck when a spray of white tracer-flechettes kicked up the dirt around us. Megan dialed in the range. At the same moment she popped back up and fired, I sprinted from the hole, doing my best to zigzag through the mud toward the Russian position, not able to think through the haze of fatigue.
We continued like that for a few minutes. I would drop to the ground when she stopped firing, until her grenades started detonating ahead of me again—my sign to get up, keep going. Finally, I got close. I waited for her to stop and almost immediately saw the shape of a Russian behind the edge of a fighting position. His helmet was black, with paired, round, blue vision ports instead of a single slit like ours, and a series of cables connected the outside of the helmet to a power pack, so that they draped over the man’s shoulders like thick strands of hair. You almost forgot why you were there, transfixed by the realization that he was so close, his proximity releasing an influx of hatred that made you want to scream. The man shimmered in the light. I saw all of them then, the ones who jeered at us as we waited for the cars in the railyard, who pelted us with empty food packs, but especially the ones in white lab coats, always there when we returned from the front, eager to punch data into their tablets as they forced us to answer questions. This was a man. It was rare to get this close, and it made you want to savor the moment, to get even closer and rip his helmet off so you could watch his expression change with death.
I slipped a grenade from my harness, hit the button, and waited for its detonation before rolling into the hole to push aside the dead Russians. “Check fire, Megan. Clear.”
A set of three shafts led straight down in the center of the hole, the only way the Russians could have survived our plasma barrages. I tossed in grenades to make sure the shafts were empty, and then let the exhaustion wash over in a warm tide, numbing my muscles and nearly sending me to sleep. The sun set at that very moment and according to our locators we had made it to a point west of Karatobe. They were in Karatobe. The Russians had retreated there to establish a major defensive line on either side of the Syr Darya River, with Shymkent well to the south.
Tomorrow, I thought with a shiver. Tomorrow is our day.
Megan flopped down next to me and yanked off her helmet. She laughed. I removed mine before kissing her, after which we lay against the dirt wall of the hole and stared up—the sky turning an unbelievable reddish orange as the sun’s light faded—waiting for the stars, something we never got tired of seeing. Megan especially loved stars, and they always brought wonder to her face. Soon I would dream. Sleep was a thing feared, something that resurrected buried memories and then twisted them into nightmares, a time to avoid. But you couldn’t evade sleep any more than you could avoid the men in white coats.