Chapters:

Birk-Verge Syndrome

I couldn’t say when I woke up. I had ditched my alarm clock long ago and I kept my quarters darker than the deep, black depths outside the window. Even when the sun was on the other side of the station, the shining pinpoints of light had a tendency to keep me awake. I needed total darkness to sleep. I had tried swapping quarters, but my sleeping disorder wasn’t uncommon. The few rooms with windows to the outside had been hot commodities in the early days, reserved only for officers. Even then, a lottery system was designed to dole them out. Now, the windows were a constant burden; nightlights without an off switch, a reminder of the world we couldn’t touch, a reminder of our prison.

I dressed quickly, pulling my clothes from the previous day off the floor and onto my body. I had an extensive wardrobe. We all did. After the war ended, it was nice to have access to civilian clothing. We had been in planetary combat uniforms for what felt like our entire lives. A lot of the noncoms had taken to calling them “pukes” on account of their disgusting camouflage pattern and uncomfortable fit. At first, I tried to point out that the acronym would only make sense if the abbreviation was PUC, but my protests fell on deaf ears. Pukes they were, and pukes they would remain. I eventually got over myself and picked up the term, too.

The shops that had been in the commercial district of the station had all stayed in operation when the public port was purchased by United Earth and converted into a “temporary” medical refuge for veterans of the Verge Wars that had fought on New Ceres and Ulaan Khuree. Business had boomed in the first few months, maybe as much as a year. Spirits were high. The war was over, we thought a cure was coming, and – though we couldn’t leave the orbital asteroid-cum-space station – our veterans’ benefits came in regularly. With nowhere to go, we all went on a shopping spree. Millionaires trapped in a mall. After years away from civilization and consumer goods, we stocked up on all the latest timewasters, fashions, and foods. We lived like royalty. I personally ate beluga caviar like it was condensed soup. We began to realize, some of us quicker than others, that we were kings in exile. The rare goods to which we had access began to sour in light of our discovery. We stopped shopping, so the shops closed; the robotic clerks sitting motionless, welcoming grins frozen in place, behind their shop counters. It was creepy. We didn’t go down to the commercial district much.

The social district was still open. We couldn’t avoid eating and most of us couldn’t avoid drinking in the evenings. I’m not sure there was a soldier aboard the station who didn’t get a warning against liver disease from the robot doc when they went in for routine physicals. I walked slowly down E Corridor, admiring the new graffiti that had sprung up on the octagonal tube overnight. Or…yesterday at noon. I had completely lost touch with time. I put out my hand, tracing the beautiful green dragon that snaked its way along the metal wall. It rose up and arced across the top of the tube to come down on the other side. At the end of the walkway, the dragon’s mouth opened, making it appear as though I walked in to the belly of the beast when I emerged into Bay 17 or, as we called it, Jansson’s Folly. Jansson was a lance corporal in the early days of our occupation, back when every day was like shore leave. Jansson’s Norwegian blood had drawn him to a bar called Targa, the walls of which were decorated with hundreds of round, wooden Viking shields. High on heritage and mead, Jansson decided to chat up the most beautiful woman in the bar. Though initially met with rejection, Jansson persisted and started to coax a few smiles out of her. The problem was that this woman, a highly decorated sniper, had recently taken up residence with Master Sergeant Park, easily the biggest, meanest man I’ve ever met. When Park walked into Targa, everyone fell silent. Except for Jansson. He continued with his silly, almost innocent pickup lines right up until Park’s fist smashed into his jaw. To call it a bar fight would be inaccurate; what happened next was brutality, pure and simple. I was sure Park wouldn’t stop until he saw Jansson’s brains on one of the shields. It took seventeen shots from my stunner to knock Park out. Men have been killed at fourteen. Though I stopped Park’s onslaught, Jansson died from internal bleeding a few days later. I hadn’t been back to Targa since.

Lost in my reverie, I almost passed my favorite breakfast spot. I turned quickly and entered Diner 17. I sat down and waited for a bot to roll over for my order, browsing the music selection in the little tabletop jukebox to kill time. For a long time, the song selection had been static. I’d heard Sig Templeton’s Sol Jazz enough times to wish for death when it came on. About eight months ago, the company that owned Diner 17 had sent along new jukeboxes that could be remotely updated with the automated barge that brought the food. Finding some interesting stuff, I passed my ID card under the reader and made my three choices. I had just chosen an ancient Tom Waits song when the old, stained bot rolled up and softly, though clumsily, bumped into my table.

“What can I get you today, sir?” it asked in its synthetic voice.

“Corned beef hash, eggs over easy, sourdough toast with extra butter, and black coffee, please,” I said. I couldn’t wait for the delicious taste of the roasted beans. Our coffee used to be pre-ground and freeze dried, but one of the few changes we had lobbied for and gotten passed – a small victory, like the jukeboxes – was that our coffee be sent up whole. A few different soldiers had spent time reading up on roasting, grinding, and brewing methods. In my opinion, Gunny Xu was the best master roaster on the station, and Diner 17 was the only place to get his beans in Jansson’s Folly. I could have headed over to Tower Park where Gunny Xu’s café was, but I was a slave to Diner 17’s hash.

I was staring down at nothing in particular, enjoying the old earth music when two figures slid into the booth across the coffee-stained table from me.

“Morning, Laird,” said the hulking figure on the left. The significantly shorter woman to his right only nodded in my direction.

“Morning, guys. Any word on the referendum?” Branch, the thin woman, winced at my question, and I guessed the word wasn’t good. Formerly a one-star general, Branch had been one of the first on the station to push first the military, then the United Earth congress to expand our rights. As one of her most trusted battlefield strategists and intelligence operatives during the Verge Wars, I was her first choice when she needed help planning her political moves and intuiting the possible motivations of other politicians. It had been a tough slog and, noting the premature grey sprouting at her temples and streaking along her hair into her bun, it taken more of a toll on her than the actual fighting. Most recently, we had been pushing for a colony in an unsettled meteor crater on Ulaan Khuree. Though one of the major belligerents during the Verge War, Ulaan Khuree fought for representation in the United Earth congress and not complete independence, unlike Veles. As the Treaty of Cydonia had granted congressional seats to Verge planets who wanted them, Ulaan Khuree was now an ally. Khagan Temujin, leader of the Ulaanic forces during the War, had even been the one who had come up with crater settlement. According to him, it was the least he could do for being partially to blame for our plight; it was one of his biological warfare facilities that had created the Birk virus.

“The bastards in congress sloughed it off to the Intersystemic Health Agency for approval. You know that means it’s going to be buried for years,” she seemed on the verge of tears. I had never, never seen Branch display any emotion other than satisfaction or anger. This outburst – outburst may have been an overstatement for wet eyes in anyone else, but for Branch it wasn’t – made me feel awkward. I wanted to look away, to stand at attention facing the wall and wait for an order, but Branch wasn’t technically my superior officer anymore. When the war ended and we were placed in the station, we were all decommissioned. Just citizens. Most of us shed our titles. No one called me Colonel anymore; I was just Laird. Even Gunny Xu, who had been a Gunnery Sergeant during the War, retained his title only as an homage to the gunny sacks the coffee beans were shipped in. Some of us held on to the military life for a while. After so long, it was all we knew. Once we all realized that United Earth had turned their backs on us, though, we dropped it. We wanted to cut all ties with the dishonest politicians and sheltered military brass. We felt more akin to the Ulaanis whom we had fought for so long.

Branch continued, her lower lip beginning to tremble, “We might all be dead before the referendum gets back to congress.”

The bot brought my food just then. I was thankful for the interruption; it would give me time to let the news sink in. Branch and Lizarraga, the giant of a man who acted as her bodyguard – both during the War and now – ordered coffee of their own. Lizarraga also ordered a half stack of pancakes and a mushroom omelet. The table fell into silence again as the bot left to put in the order. I noticed that Branch’s eyes had dried, though her lip still trembled. A charge of fear shot through my core.

“Branch…”, was all I could manage to say. The question, or observation, or whatever the hell it was stuck in my throat, choking me. She looked at me, a hard stare. I wouldn’t have known what it meant had Lizarraga not nodded his head slightly and then cast his gaze to the jukebox.

“How long?” I asked.

“I noticed it yesterday, but I could feel something, the itching electricity like the others said, the day earlier.”

The tremors were almost always the first sign of Birk-Verge Syndrome, the reason why we were all on this damn station to begin with. Birk-Verge was a degenerative neurological disease that was an unintended side effect of the Birk virus. Unlike other neurological diseases, Birk-Verge moved fast. At the most, Branch had two weeks to live. At the least…she could be gone in three days.

The Birk virus was designed to be a noncontagious biological weapon that could be used to demoralize the United Earth Ground Army on the Khaganate worlds of New Ceres and Ulaan Khuree. The virus caused almost immediate hemorrhaging and swift death. As a way to die, it probably wasn’t as painful as a plasma blast to the gut or as prolonged as a projectile or edged weapon severing an artery. It did, however, leave an absolutely horrific sight for the medics and soldiers who came as rescue and reinforcements. The Ulaanis who created the virus were noble warriors; it killed quickly and was intended to leave no lasting damage once the war was over. In the final days of fighting, as we were marching through Uud, several members of an artillery squad who had been on Ulaan Khuree in the earliest days of fighting began convulsing, showing signs of intense mental decline, and dying from organ failure. The medics shipped the bodies back to earth for testing and, on the same day as the signing of the Treaty of Cydonia, the Intersystemic Health Agency released a document outlining the effects of Birk-Verge Syndrome and how the original Birk virus had mutated and infected those who hadn’t come into direct contact. The current theory is that the Birk virus merged with a planetary pathogen native to Ulaan Khuree. This would explain why no cases of Birk-Verge have been reported in native Ulaanis; their immune systems had already developed antibodies to one of the strains. The Intersystemic Health Agency recommended that all personnel who had served on either of the Khaganate worlds be quarantined until a cure could be developed.

The bot arrived with Branch and Lizarraga’s order. A sip of her steaming black coffee seemed to spur Branch away from her inner world where she was no doubt wondering when her mind would begin to go. “Listen, Laird, Lizarraga and some of the others have been talking. I know his group is less,” she paused, clenching jaws together, “diplomatic than you and I have been, but I think you need to hear what they’ve come up with.”

I sighed and shoveled a large bite of hash into my mouth. I talked around the delicious salty meat, wishing they would have never showed up so I could have enjoyed my breakfast. I looked at Lizarraga. “Look, Lizard, I don’t care how mad you are – I don’t care how mad I am about losing my freedom, but we don’t have the manpower or the weapons to launch an attack on United Earth. We couldn’t even take a goddamn refueling station! We have fucking pea shooters –“

Lizarraga held a hand up to stop me. I moodily shoved some toast in my mouth and looked at him, raising my eyebrows in a nonverbal cue for him to talk.

“Laird, I still want to blast those fuckers for abandoning us here. I’d give a lot to see one of those suits from congress have his face melted with a lazrifle, but you’re right; we can’t. And it won’t get us anywhere, either. They’d just blow this rock out of orbit. Hear me out, though.

“The army assembled to battle the Khaganate worlds was the largest in human history. Almost as large as the United Earth forces on all other Verge planets combined.” He paused for dramatic effect and I rolled my eyes, “What if we didn’t win?”

I nodded and motioned for the bot to refill my mug.

“That’s nuts, Lizard,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand to deflect any bits of potato that might fly out. “The fighting was tough at first, but we obliterated Uud and Sukh-khan. When we broke their defenses in the Hamaj Dunes, the Bataar Army stood no chance against us. It was horribly one-sided. That’s why they had to turn to biowarfare in the first place.”

Lizarraga contorted his face into an ugly, humorless grin. I could tell he wanted to slap me. It probably didn’t help that I was using the nickname his drill sergeant gave him in basic training on the deep space transport.

“We won, Laird. But what if United Earth didn’t win? What if all the other planets went in favor of the Verge? Veles almost matched United Earth in their ability to churn out warships and technology, but they couldn’t match us in numbers or tactics like the Ulaanis. Veles and the other Verge planets knew they would have to go up against us next and, even if they managed to snuff out our fire, they would take huge, irreplaceable losses. We might have even taken a few planets with us when we realized we were losing.”

Maybe Lizarraga had a point. A small point, but a valid one. Our combat group did have several World Destroyer nukes assigned to it. I could see why the Verge planets would want to avoid a conflict with us. And we were disarmed once we arrived at the station. He could see I was listening more intently now, and continued.

“What if the Treaty of Cydonia was in full favor of the Verge? The Verge worlds, now in control, could order us to be imprisoned on this station. Birk-Verge might not even be from the original Birk virus. You know as well as I do that our medics can’t find the markers the IHA claims are there. Birk-Verge might be something new they shot at us when they knew they had won. They might even be dosing us with every shipment of goods that comes up.”

“And if there was any evidence of that, Lizard, I would back your every move. Branch, you usually keep his mouth on a shorter leash. What gives?”

Branch sighed deeply, her eyes locked on the swirling geometry of white cream in her cup of coffee as she spoke. “The United Earth Army virologists were recalled again. They were only three days out. And Laird,” she said, finally looking up, “the only proper medical attention any of us have had was when they packed us into the shuttles before they brought us here. There’s no way those blood samples are good anymore.”

“And the robot doc is only good for the casual colonoscopy,” Lizarraga added. “He can scan for known pathogens, but not identify properties of them or cook up a vaccine.”

“There’s still a big difference between negligence and conspiracy,” I said.

“They turned their back on us, Laird,” Lizarraga said loudly, almost shouting. “We fought and died for United Earth and they won’t send us four fucking labcoats to even pretend they’re working on a cure. That’s criminal, man. United Earth was really good about supplying us with food, water, weapons, and mobile hospitals during the war. We never worried about starving like the story of that group of Velesian scouts on Zamosc Beta. That kind of negligence is something foreign to United Earth. They care about their people. They cared about us. It doesn’t make sense that they’ve swept us into the corner like a bunch of inconvenient dust bunnies.”

“OK,” I said, taking a long drink from my coffee mug. “Ok. Say that’s true. My earlier point still stands; we can’t wage a war. We have bodies but no weapons. We have a few thousand police-issue stunners, fewer projectile pistols, and even fewer shotguns. If we could somehow break through planetary defenses in some hotwired goods barges, all we would be met with is a blood bath. If your goal is to die in battle before succumbing to Birk-Verge…,” I stopped myself before going any further, aware that my words must have fallen on Branch like body blows.

Her face impassive, Branch continued from where I had interrupted Lizarraga. “If we’re being duped, Khagan Temujin is being duped, as well. During one of our talks, he mentioned that United Earth seems to be treating him more harshly than other Verge planets because he hasn’t received a single shipment of goods or personnel for reconstruction yet. We’ve used the station’s observation relays to confirm that. If the Verge planets hatched this plan and left the Khaganate out of it, you and I both know how Temujin will respond.”

“Reforming the Bataar Army and marching on his traitors.”

“If we can uncover proof of a plot like that, we won’t need to worry about being unarmed.”

“Because Temujin will supply us with anything we need,” I finished.

Branch leaned forward and put her hand over mine. “What do you say, Laird? Are you in on this op? You’re right to have concerns, but we’re just in the intelligence gathering phase now. It won’t hurt to look into it.” That touch said more than Branch would ever let escape her mouth; that she needed my help, that she was scared, that she was lonely and afraid of death. That she needed to feel like she had done one last good thing for the men and women she had commanded and then served as their political voice. In the early days of life on the station, Branch and I had shared a bed a few times. Even so, this simple touch, her palm on my knuckles, felt more intimate than all our sexual encounters combined.

I placed my free hand on hers, sandwiching it. “Yes,” I said. She held my gaze for almost a full minute before she withdrew her hand.

“Give it to him, Lizarraga,” Branch said, stony-faced again. Lizarraga flipped a pin at me like it was a coin. An eagle behind a shield. The last time I had seen my Colonel’s insignia, the shield had been emblazoned with the United Earth crest. That had been buffed out. Now, etched into the metal, was a stylized medieval lion. Branch noted my confusion at the symbol and explained, “It’s the Caledonian – Scottish – crest. During the Roman conquest on Earth, Caledonia was the only part of Britain to remain free. The Ninth Roman legion also went missing in that region and some historians think they disbanded after a crushing defeat and took up new lives with the locals, possibly even fighting against their former countrymen at times. It seemed too poetic to pass up.”

I pinned the eagle to my lapel, then stood. The message was clear; I was with them, but I wanted to think over the intrigue alone, put some pieces together. I had a paucity of intelligence channels at my disposal now that my military privileges had been revoked, but I would consult all the remaining ones for more evidence that United Earth or Earth under control of the Verge governments was plotting against us. I saluted Branch and scanned my ID on the edge of the table to pay for my meal. “Nice to have you back, General,” I said.

“Just a temporary duty assignment, Colonel,” she smiled thinly. “Let’s meet to discuss tactics tomorrow night at Targa.”

Targa hadn’t changed since the Jansson incident. As I walked through the corridor and along the bar, I knew exactly where I had stood when I took down Park, could feel the cold steel of the stunner in my palm. It could have happened last week.

Branch’s group was at a large table in the back, near a panoramic viewport of the Mongol system. Ulaan Khuree hung in the inky blackness like a drop of blood floating in a glass of fernet. Looking out the window, so much bigger than that damned hole in my quarters made my imprisonment hang on me like a burden of lead. It was probably another reason why I avoided Targa.

"Colonel Laird. I was beginning to think you weren’t coming," Branch called from the head of the table. Her lip quivered more than ever, but she made no effort to hide it. She wore it like a service medal, a reminder to all of us what United Earth and the Verge wars had cost us.

"Morning calisthenics took longer than I remembered," I said, taking a seat at the wooden table and grabbing a pitcher of beer to fill the upturned glass in front of me.

"Thank you," she said, a slight huskiness in her voice conveying more than simple gratitude. Then she got right to business, addressing her troops. I wondered to myself if we could be called troops anymore; were we insurgents now? Branch went over the facts that she had outlined for me in Diner 17 and concluded with the statement that both she, as acting military commander, and the Khagan needed hard information before banding together and declaring war on United Earth. The best way to get that intel was to send one person, one quick-witted operative trained in espionage and intelligence analysis. I saw what she was getting at. Saw who she was getting at. Most of our intelligence officers had been killed in the opening months of fighting on the Khaganate front while trying to find weak points in the Bataar Army’s defenses or had been reassigned to other warzones. Of the few that remained and were transplanted to the station, some had succumbed to Birk-Verge while others took a bullet or stunner blast to the temple in a final effort to escape our prison.

I was the only one left.

It was an asshole’s move to ask me if I would volunteer to undertake the mission in front of the assembled soldiers, but I saw why she deemed it necessary. She thought my will had finally broken. She thought my routine of breakfast at Diner 17, a pick-up game of some sport at the rec complex near B Corridor, and enjoying the various illicit substances and company available in the Neon Hangar was indicative of my acceptance of our new way of life. It was not. I craved open skies, horizons, and the ability to stare, unbroken, for more than a thousand feet. The winding, tubular corridors and large, dark hangars made me feel like a drone in a colony of wayward ants. I hadn’t given up, I just hadn’t found a way to put myself to use.

Branch had finished speaking and glanced my direction. I noticed others locking eyes with me, too. Expectant, hopeful looks. I felt like telling them all to go fuck themselves.

Maybe I had given up.

I took a slow sip of my beer, trying to center myself, to calm myself. Trying to draw up the courage to answer. There is a face every person has that few others ever see. It never slips out in casual conversation. I have seen it revealed in dying soldiers while I held their hands and comforted them, I’ve seen it from soldiers grieving for the dead. I’ve seen it in the instant after the height of sexual intercourse. It’s the true face, the one even the owner doesn’t know they have. It’s the face of the real human living beneath all the shit society shovels on top of us. I had seen Branch’s human face before; once during the war when I shared her bunk and once on the station. Looking at her while I sipped my beer, I saw it again. She truly needed me, needed to make this plan work. She was dying, probably closer to death than life, and she needed to make one final act for her charges. I was the force that would either allow her to do that or crush her soul before her body gave out.

I set down my beer and shrugged, “Of course I’ll go.”

The table erupted in cheers. I informed the group of what I had learned while scouring the few information channels at my disposal. Branch assigned some of our medics to study up virology, some of our engineers to have a go at constructing laboratory equipment. We wanted to confirm the biological markers that linked Birk-Verge Syndrome to the Birk virus. When the official meeting was concluded, I was handed countless mugs, goblets, steins, and tumblers. Everyone wanted to wish me luck. I had little idea what each held, but I drank all of them in hopes it would dull the fear buzzing through my body like electricity. At the end of the night, I stumbled to Branch’s quarters; she had left many hours before. She answered her door in a nightgown that was just sheer enough to see the outline of her naked form beneath. She pulled me in, knowing why I had come.

We woke late the next morning and ate together in Branch’s bed, languidly enjoying the delivered dehydrated fruits and granola from a health food bar near Branch’s quarters. It wasn’t the greasy heartiness that I was used to, but it was a nice change. Branch’s bright bedroom, cool white sheets, and windowless walls were also a nice change from my dingy hole. Around noon, we dressed and walked together to Victory Port, the only hangar on the entire station that hadn’t been converted to communal quarters. This hangar was the entry port for the automated barges that delivered all the station’s consumables. Its metal surfaces gleamed, banners of United Earth hung on the three walls that weren’t egress points, murals depicting iconic battles of the Verge War flanked the banners. The United Earth gave us a hero’s welcome when our dropships and troop barges first reached the station, and we bought it. In the first few months, maybe even the first year, Victory Port was the primo place to drink and feel like you were constantly on parade for your heroism. A one hundred foot tall holographic display replayed thousands of thank you messages from the citizens of United Earth in a loop. Once the shiny balm United Earth slathered us with started to wash away in the downpour of captivity, no one had set foot in Victory Port. It looked just like it had when I stepped off the last dropship from Ulaan Khuree.

Lizarraga and a handful of other soldiers from Targa were assembled in the Bar de Terre-Unis passing around a bottle of sweet vermouth. The plan was simple; we would stall a supply barge from returning for a few minutes by having it enter a system diagnostic. Lizarraga and his team would unload the return garbage and recycling from the cargo hold while Branch helped me into a hazardous environment suit, which would keep me warm in the empty hull of the supply barge. Since I would be stuck in the hold for about two weeks, Branch and Lizarraga had packed plenty of food, water, and leisure materials for me. There was also a zero gravity bungee pack inside so I could work out in a simulated full gravity and lose no muscle mass or bone density. Once the barge reached the Lunar refueling station, I would shed the evo suit and try to gain access to a planetary shuttle. It was an easy mission. More than anything, I was worried about the sheer boredom of the trip in the supply barge. I had to wonder if my assessment of my own feelings was accurate, however; I could feel the jittery tension of fear creeping through my left hand. While we made our preparations in Victory Port, I kept my hand jammed in pocket as much as possible to save face.

The barge was loaded and I was ready to embark on my journey with ten minutes left on the barge’s diagnostic. Branch ordered everyone out of the hangar. We didn’t say much, knowing it would be the last moment we would share together. Branch would be dead before my barge reached the Moon and we couldn’t risk equipping me with any sort of communication device lest the United Earth government detect an anomaly in the continuous telemetry signals of the barge. We held hands until the barge’s large hull door began to slowly close, then stood rigidly staring at one another until I was trapped in the absolute pitch blackness. I sat cross-legged on the floor and attempted some breathing exercises to calm my nerves. My fear was still manifesting itself as a nervous tremor in my left hand. I couldn’t believe how weak-willed I had become in the years on the station. I had walked, unarmored, across battlefields at a saunter during the Verge Wars; fourteen days in a tube shouldn’t have put me on edge as much as it had.

The next morning, the nervous twitch had intensified. In fact, it woke me up. When I realized what it meant, my heart sank. Would I make it to United Earth before I succumbed to Birk-Verge Syndrome?

To compensate for the weakening nerves in my left hand and forearm, I took full advantage of the bungee exercise system. By the time I emerged from the cargo hold on the Moon, I had regained the warrior stature that had steadily been atrophying since the end of hostilities on Ulaan Khuree. As the large cargo hold door opened, I could see that the barge had come to rest in a large hangar in a neat row of other supply barges. A refueling crew was working a few barges away. An automated loader was scanning the ID code of each barge, removing the trash and recycling if there was any, and rolling back on its industrial casters with a load of fresh supplies. I waited in the hold – using my free time to get rid of the evo suit, which would be recycled by the loader – until the loader blocked the refueling crew’s view of my barge and then walked swiftly away, carrying only my stunner and the audio player Lizarraga’s crew had packed for me.

I moved unhindered through the crews of the Lunar refueling station. I received a few curious glances on account of my civilian clothes being too trendy for the usual Lunar resident. The reproachful glares I got when meeting the eyes of those studying my wardrobe told me that they suspected I was a denizen of United Earth come to the Moon to observe the productivity of the working classes. The clothes may cause the opposite reaction on United Earth, as they were probably a few seasons behind the current trend. I didn’t care as long as it didn’t lead to undue scrutiny, and it shouldn’t; fashion crimes weren’t yet punishable by law on United Earth.

Getting planetside was as simple as colliding with a member of the upper management on the Lunar station who looked at least passably like me, stealing his wallet, and purchasing the ticket. Once on United Earth, I threw the entire stolen wallet into a panhandler’s can and used some of the cash I had pulled out to check into a moderately priced motel. The constant trembling in my hand was annoying, but what felt most uncomfortable to me was the gravity of United Earth. Our station back home rotated at a speed to match the 1.22 Gs of Ulaan Khuree. Even though I was born on United Earth, every step I took felt like I was about to float away into the atmosphere. Somehow I thought going “home” would awaken a kindred feeling in me, something I never felt for the station. Instead, it drove an even greater wedge between me and United Earth. The citizenry didn’t help; every one of them had flawlessly smooth skin, perfectly colored and cut hair, and slim bodies with a minor amount of muscle that was probably only obtained for aesthetic reasons. I wondered if even that small amount of musculature was something real these citizens worked for or just achieved through cosmetic implants. I thought of Branch, her greying temples, and the fine scars of battle on her strong but feminine jaw. Within two hours of landing, I knew I belonged on the ruddy dust-covered lands of Ulaan Khuree, among people who met the hardships of life head-on without help from automata.

A spasm from my left hand acted as the physical representation of an exclamation point. I would never see that planet again.

I had landed in Puget City, a gleaming megalith conglomerated from the pre-United Earth cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and several surrounding suburbs. Before I had left the station, Branch and I began planning my moves. An extensive search on the U-net didn’t turn up any information that indicated a Verge takeover of United Earth. That meant the Verge worlds were acting with more subterfuge than we thought they would. That meant it would be harder to find proof for my troops back on the station and the Khagan. It also meant the upcoming battle against the Verge worlds involved in the plot would be easier; we might get aid from United Earth once the plot was exposed. Hidden somewhere among the large estates across the Sound from Puget City proper, on Bainbridge Island, was the residence of Puget City’s representative to United Earth Congress, Paul Gorixi, the man Branch and I agreed to be the most likely Verge political operative planted in Congress. The name, Gorixi, tipped us off. It was a corruption of the Polish name Gorecki that was common to Veles, the most prosperous of the Verge worlds and one which chose independence instead of a seat on the United Earth Congress at the signing of the Treaty of Cydonia. Tensions still ran high between Velesians and citizens of United Earth, so it was rare to see one planetside at all, much less acting in a governmental role.

We weren’t able to find the exact location of Congressman Gorixi’s house, but Branch and I were able to narrow it down to a street. I bought some fashionable running attire and retired to my motel for the night. Finally in a space that didn’t inspire slight claustrophobia, lying in comfortable bed made even more plush by the weak gravity, and able to fully seal the room’s one window against intrusive light, I thought I’d get some much needed sleep. It was the worst night of my life. Once I finally escaped the hours of lying flat on my back trying to ignore the incessant and increasingly violent tremors in my left arm, I entered a fever dream state somewhere between sleeping and wakefulness. I could hear Branch calling my name, her gruff though still feminine voice echoing off metal walls. I ran down E Corridor along the dragon graffiti, the writhing image of the beast’s midsection was interrupted by a single clawed foot, then another, then another. Twelve feet in all before I reached Jansson’s Folly. Once there, Branch’s calls had started coming from behind me. I turned to find the dragon’s face moving, lifting away from the walls. Branch’s voice was definitely coming from inside the dragon. I rushed back toward the corridor-cum-fang lined maw to rescue her, but I wasn’t fast enough. The dragon’s jaws clamped down on me.

The pain of my dream death startled me awake, but the sensation didn’t subside. It felt like a full-body cramp. I couldn’t move voluntarily, but my body quaked as muscles fought and strained against one another. I was having a seizure. I had entered the second stage of Birk-Verge. For the rest of the night, once the seizure had passed, I alternated between light sleep and tiredly running mental calculations about how long I could expect to live.

I rose from my bed and showered with sun, feeling entirely unrested. I changed into my running gear and threw my stunner and a few flasks of water into a small shoulder pack. I fit in perfectly with the early risers of Puget City; most were dressed for fashionable light cardio followed by brunch before starting their half days of work. I returned the myriad smiles, nods, and waves I received on my walk to the vintage ferry that connected the Market district and Bainbridge Island. Once on the island, I had another short walk to King Street where I began my run. The conditioning routine I had forced myself into while traveling in the supply barge made it no work at all to jog at a moderate pace down the seven mile stretch of pavement on which Gorixi lived. Several houses – if the sprawling residences could be called anything but mini-mansions – were staffed with private security. Almost all were dressed in suits with tell-tale weapon bulges near the hip or under the arm, though the degree of stoicism varied greatly. Some peered at me with all the suspicion of a Martian convenience store owner, while others calmly smiled, waved, and returned their attention to their tablet crossword game. On mile 5 I was beginning to worry that I would have to prod the security of each house in some way and identify Gorixi’s place by the security response. Then I passed an unassuming – for this street – light blue Alpine half-timbered structure. Here, the perimeter guards wore black, full-body combat suits. The suits didn’t look quite as heavy as the ruddy brown one I wore during the Verge war, but they were still formidable. This was the house. I studied the guard positions out of my peripheral vision as I ran past. At the end of the street, I took a breather and drank most of my water. I also formulated my plan of attack for the assault on Gorixi’s residence.

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 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 pointed 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!"

"In it."

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 flipped over the collar of my snug running shirt to show him the rank pin with Caledonian lion and pulled the pistol out from the waistband of my 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 Lizarraga 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 to identify 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 Colonel 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 Lizarraga, 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?”

Ulm and Whitehouse exchanged a short look.

“Jesus Christ,” I said, realizing what the look must have meant. “You’re murdering us. Birk-Verge isn’t a Velesian plot, it’s a United Earth plot to wash their hands of an unsanctioned project!” I tried to stand, but my right foot had grown weak from small tremors. I fell hard onto the tiled floor.

Ulm’s face had gone from stoic to sad in mere seconds. Whitehouse looked on the verge of tears as she spoke. “No, Laird. We’re not capable of that degree of immorality.”

Ulm reached down for my hand, to lift me to my feet. I knocked it away. “Not capable. What was that you said about what we do, Ulm? Ethically complicated, pragmatically necessitated? I’d say getting rid of us falls in that category.” With great effort, I managed to pull myself to my feet and fall back into my bed.

Whitehouse wiped away a tear. “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. Something fundamental in our genes brought us together in both incarnations. I looked at Ulm, his knuckles brushing Whitehouse’s to give them both strength; Branch and I in another life, a life where we did grow up and grow old. Lizarraga 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 even though we were all fertile. 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.

“Lizarraga 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 Lizarraga won’t go ahead with the attack once he finds out he’s been lied to?”

“I guess your Lizarraga has anger problems, too, huh? 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 Lizarraga. 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. Thankfully, my mind, which is often one of the first organs to show deficit, stayed spry through it all. I wrote until I began to lose sight in my right eye. The result is this account. I’ll finish with this thought: Lizarraga, don’t attack these people. A lot of them never married or procreated; the Verge war hit during their prime and took that away from them. They feel like we’re their children. Children who were given up for adoption. The genetic donors have been following our situation as close as they could without arousing suspicion among superiors who were out of the loop. The pain they feel as they watch our numbers shrink is significant and adding to that emotional pain with physical won’t do anyone any good. Will you feel better about losing your own life after taking that of others? Go to Ulaan Khuree and enjoy what Branch and I, what Ulm and Whitehouse, are giving you. Cherish it. Pack a full life into the few years you have left.

When I finish my edits, I’ll close my eye, open my palm, think of Branch and the work I’ve done speaking for my men, and welcome death.