I feel as if I've been here forever, down in the dirt with the rest of the dogs. That's what it feels like; day after day of the same damn shit, the same routine. Maybe it happens in the middle of the night, or maybe it's full daylight. Maybe it's raining, maybe it's been drought conditions for weeks. It doesn't matter. We defend our installation with our lives. That's what we're being paid for.
I've not been home in months. Maybe it's been a year, I don't know. The days blur together. I get shot, sometimes I think I've died, but the latest softscan gear installed in our helmets brings us right back in a new, whole body, the memory of our own blood still fresh on our lips. They spent a lot of money on us. I guess maybe it's because there's a shortage of people crazy enough to fight for a capsuleer.
Things started getting strange a couple months ago. I capture a guy trying to sneak into the radio room, the cheeky bugger probably thinks the stolen uniform would work, but he doesn't have the implant to let him through the door without fussing with the keypad. I strip his helmet off while he's recovering consiousness and stare.
"Didn't I kill you last week?"
The enemy soldier blinks at me groggily. "What?"
"Why are you talking to me?"
I fold my arms across my chest, his helmet dangling by its chinstrap from my hand. "Well, I dunno. Maybe because I recognise your face from what was left of it after that attack last week?"
"No, no, this isn't right."
And then he's gone. Not dead or run away, simply gone and I'm staring at an empty spot on the floor like a complete moron, my hands empty. I rub the back of my neck under the collar of my jacket, wondering what the hell has just happened. Then one of my squadmates yells at me and I'm pulled back to the front lines.
After that, I start looking -- really looking -- at the faces of the men and women we fight, seeking that flash of recognition, a hint of familiarity. Days go by where there aren't any. Then suddenly an entire week where I'm seeing nothing but people I know I've killed before. I know they probably have the same softscan hardware installed in their helmets, plugged into the jacks behind their ears underneath. But it's disturbing.
Any attempts to communicate with them are met with the same surprise and disbelief. It strikes me as odd. One time, I lie bleeding out, gutted and missing my right arm from the shoulder, while the enemy who's so easily sliced me up like a roast is sat nearby, reloading. Beneath his visor, I can swear it's the same guy; the one I'd caught sneaking. I try to read the name stitched to the front of his jacket, but my vision is blurring at the edges.
"Hey. You." I choke on the agony of talking, but it's important -- it feels important. He twitches and looks up at me with a sharp jerk of his head.
"I... I know you... don't I?"
The soldier jumps up and staggers backwards, fumbling for his communicator, and the next thing I know I'm sitting up in the medbay back on the base, feeling beyond weirded-out.
After that, I stop trying to talk to them.
That stomach-clenching sense of deja-vu returns maybe a week later. We're going over our battle-plan and looking at the enemy positions when a chill runs down my spine. It looks just like the time when.... "I want Gamma over here, covering that valley."
The guy standing opposite me scratches his head. "Sarge, why? There's no encampments back there, and they can't get in through the pass."
"You remember two weeks ago, they nearly took out the comms relay because they air-dropped a HALO team in the night before?"
He looks at me funny. "Nothing like that happened two weeks ago. Nothing like that's ever happened."
"I'm telling you, they're going to HALO a team in while we're facing front. Stick Gamma back there to cover our asses."
Our commander drums his fingers on the table. "That's quite a deviation from your original plan Sergeant, but let's do it."
My original...? I lean back from the table feeling feverish, somehow confused. The map had been subarctic tundra yesterday; why in blazes are we in the middle of a tropical cloud forest now? I could have sworn... Squinting, I eye up the guy standing opposite me. What was his name again?
For that matter, what was our commander's name? I peer at the stitching on their jackets, but the light is too low to make it out. Feeling dizzy, I take a step back, debating going outside for some air. A moment later, I feel a light touch on my shoulder; my commander standing there, gesturing for me to follow him out to the rampart. The sweltering jungle heat is like a slap in the face after the climate-controlled command centre.
"Son, there something you wanna tell me?"
I shake my head. "No, sir, I'm fine."
The commander removes his helmet and runs his fingers back through sweat-spiked gray hair as he leans back against the outer wall. "Off the record, I mean. You won't be penalised for anything."
A frown pinches my face in the middle, and I sigh. "I-- Sir, what if I told you I was getting recurring memories. Deja-vu? Or that... I could swear we were somewhere else yesterday. And I recognise some of the guys we're fighting."
"You try to communicate with them?" He's looking at me carefully; not like I'm a freak or anything, more like he understands. With some relief, I nod.
"Yes, sir. There's something strange going on. At first I thought maybe it was glitches from repeated recloning, but now I'm not so sure. Would... they wouldn't dump us in coldsleep and truck us off to another planet without telling us, would they?"
The commander rests his helmet under his arm against his hip, looking out into the trees beyond the wall. "No, Sergeant, they wouldn't. Not normally. But this is a different situation."
"Sir?" There it is again, that feverish dizziness, like memories clawing toward the surface before they can drown.
The commander smiles tiredly, the expression creasing lines in his face. "Do you know the name of the world we're on?"
"Well, yes, sir. It's... oh." I rub my forehead. "I don't know sir."
He nods. "She doesn't have a name. Technically she doesn't exist."
I stare at him. "I-- Sir, I don't understand."
"Soldier, do you remember who I am?"
There's an intensity in the look he gives me, something that sparks in me a desperate need to understand. "I can't... no. Wait." Something finally surfaces; the bubble pops with an audible snap and I reel back against the wall. "I.. no. I know you! You were that doctor, at that hospital. The one that..." Falteringly, I press my hands to my head. "I was captured. Wounded, I think I was dying. You were there, you talked to me, but I can't remember--"
"That's right, Allin." He sighs again. "You were dying. You were the one who cost us billions in assets to deal with that little group of Legion footsoldiers you were commanding. Do you remember?"
I slump back against the wall, then let myself slide down to the rooftop, my fingers raking back through my short-cropped hair. "I... yes. What have you done to me, why am I fighting for you?'
"You're not. Not really. This is a training simulation for our soldiers. You're, uh," he smiles again, apologetically. "You're not really you. Just a memory, a cerebral imprint we built a semi-AI strategic designer around."
My eyes close tightly as I find my hands gripping my head. "Are you shitting me? But... I'm here! I remember things!"
When I look up again, he's nodding his head emphatically. "Yes... it seems we took too thorough a scan, but we wanted the system to be as humanlike as possible. Computers lack originality and intuition. They can't adapt and improvise the way a human does, for all the advances we've made. You were so troublesome an opponent, when your fading body ended up in our possession we realised you'd make a better training strategist than the existing system."
I snort with disgust. "So I'm just a semi-intelligent computer programme, then. One that's edged a little too far out of bounds. The glitches from earlier make sense, now. But if that's the case, why are you bothering talking to me? Now that you know what's wrong, you could just, I dunno, re- reprogram... me." My voice fails as a I realise the extent of everything. Allin Emarchanne, Mordu's Legion ground-control operations commander, is now little more than a string of data in a VR simulation. What's the point of it all?
A shadow falls over me, and I glance up from under my brows to see him standing over me with his hand held out invitingly. "The boys started reporting errors, but because it's you, I thought to handle this differently. Your expertise makes our boys and girls better fighters, you challenge them and as a result they work better once we deploy them. It'd be a crying shame if we had to infect you with forced amnesia after every run. I want to know if you'd continue working like this, despite knowing what you know. I want you to do your damnedest to kill every single one of them every time."
I raise my head and rub the back of my neck, glaring up at the doctor, or whatever he is. "You're shitting me. You want me to continue like this? Making your kids better so they're better at killing my boys?"
His hand still extended to me, he shakes his head. "It's more than just the Legion we're fighting, these days. And we ran tests on copies of your scan; injecting programming only reduced your resiliency."
"Fuck you," I spit. "You might as well fucking erase me, you son of a bitch. I'm not going to be your goddamn puppet--"