None of us thought it would end like this. When the government said that it had found a way to make better soldiers, who could handle more pain, who could move faster and his stronger and fight with more strategy, we were overjoyed. We thought the technology would mark an end to the war, to every war that we had been fighting for decades. We thought it would save lives. How impossibly wrong we were.
The first one to let us try on him was no more than a kid, nineteen-years-old. He was from Oklahoma, a little farming town with few people and little hope of getting a better life. “My family needs the money, sir.” He had whispered softly when asked why he was volunteering, knowing his death was likely. “My family needs the money more than they need me.”
At first, everything seemed to go fine. We implanted a chip full of technology behind his left ear, hoping it would help enhance his senses and his general knowledge and ability to think. The surgery went flawlessly, and our device had been tested in labs on everything from mice to giraffes. Everything should have gone perfectly.
It didn’t. Subject One woke up about five hours after the surgery, but he didn’t speak. If asked to do something he would without question, but he seemed to possess no original opinions. We assumed it was a minor side effect and sent him home with his mother, and we crossed our fingers and hoped as the next dozen were wheeled into the operating room.
The first time I understood something was wrong, I was walking between the beds, watching them lay motionlessly staring at the ceiling. They were young men, healthier than I could believe, and the chips weren’t malfunctioning. But when I asked Subject Twenty-Two about his three-year-old daughter, who before the surgery he had never stopped being proud of and talking about, he just looked at me with lifeless eyes when he asked “who?”
I wanted to shut the whole project down. It had only been a month and already hundreds of soldiers had come through the doors of the hospital. I emailed the man in charge of the project over and over, but he never got back to me. I didn’t understand why until I showed up to his office and saw the scarring behind his ears.
His voice was impossibly dull and blank as he pointed to the file, the remarkable increases in strength and dexterity and everything else and I could barely keep myself from asking at what cost do you gain those things, sir. What was this man not willing to do, to end every war? I wondered if he thought their humanity was a fair price.
I considered snagging the file from his desk, but only a few weeks before I had treated a three-year-old who had come in with four broken ribs and a destroyed shoulder after she had taken her daddy’s cup of water to take a drink. He had stood silently in handcuffs, hair still not grown in around the scars.
I didn’t steal the file. Three months after the first surgery, they increased it. “They want us to do what?” I heard one of the doctors ask one tired morning when there was frost on the windows. The sun barely made it over the mountains in the distance. Two days later, three of the patients in my unit had bandages over their eyes and scars on both sides of their faces. I did not ask what they had done.
By the six month anniversary of the first surgery we were doing hundreds a day. Every single new recruit came through our doors with excited eyes, talking about what they were going to do and how they were going to help people and such and they walked out with eyes that we were all starting to know too well.
The surgeons went on strike during the seventh month. One moment they were doing surgery and the next there were beds full of patients waiting and there were no surgeons who could do it. Sure, there were other hospitals, but none in our district and so I wasn’t truly surprised when the next morning, they showed up with hair covering the sides of their heads, avoiding looking us in the eyes. I knew what I would see there.
After about a year, and millions of surgeries, I met the person who I would later learn would change everything. His name was James and he was impossibly skinny, all tense muscles and bones pressing against damaged skin. “I don’t want to do it.” He whined, fingers wrapped around the bed frame with terror in his deep blue eyes. “Don’t make me do it. Please.”
There had been theories all around the internet for months about the surgery. Stories came from parents and siblings and spouses and children and friends of those who had the surgery writing and speaking and screaming about their family members, about them coming back different, about the anger and the pain and the haunted screams in the night that wouldn’t stop but I had never known if anyone was actually reading them. The quantity of people coming through our doors never slowed down, so it didn’t seem like it was having a major effect
It was. Three weeks after the last time I had seen him, James led a group to break into our wards and steal out the patients who had yet to have the surgery. They took over two dozen, running like the wind over the parking lot as they rushed towards the forest and were gone before the guards even got close. I didn’t ask how that could be possible.
We never saw those guards again, but less than a week later we got new files on a new procedure. We were to remove their hearts and replace them with metal. Even the soldiers seemed stunned this time, the ones who still had the ability to be. They started refusing to have anything done, and more than once I was physically forced out of a room by an enraged patient. None of us wanted to keep doing this but they wouldn’t let us stop. They’d never let us stop.
One of the other nurses was the one who gave me the paper, folded and slipped into my coat pocket when she gave me a muffin she had made a few days before. I found it once I was home, stripping off my coat and greeting my son, who threw himself into my arms, eyes bright and happy and so alive I could almost forget how blank the other eyes I had seen that day were.
The paper was crudely written, careful words written with careful hands. Resistance Front. It said, above a list of dates and times that were far neater, clearly having been copied from something else and I didn’t think I could breathe because I couldn’t do it I couldn’t risk them and go but that little girl flashed in front of my eyes, pigtails stained with her blood screaming in pain. Screaming.
There were only a dozen of us, James standing in front on an old fruit crate as he spoke, his words fierce and angry. “They are taking our humanity!” He shouted, as loud as he dared, voice echoing around the warehouse. The woman next to me was nodding, red-rimmed eyes and shaking hands and I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason for her pain had lay in my ward, if it was in some small, impossible way, my fault.
It was so cold. The wind whipped over the square where we stood, shoulder to shoulder, huddled together to keep warm in the frigid air of early morning. James had pulled himself up to stand on the feet of a statue. “They are taking what makes us people. They are destroying lives!” He shouted, the crowd roaring in delight, more people than either one of us could have possibly imagined standing in the square. We knew the guards would come we just weren’t sure how long we would have.
They came, faster than we could believe. James threw himself into the sea of people, hidden by their bodies as he ducked around them. I lost track of him half-way to the streets as we all ran, the screams of those behind us impossibly loud and I just kept running until there was nowhere left to go.
They caught me in the end of an alleyway, trying desperately to climb over the back wall. I woke up hear, in preop, in a room I knew all too well. How many days had I walked among the patients here waiting? How many lives had I stolen?
James was tied to his bed next to mine, eyes frantic and desperate as he gasped out “please,” the look on his face showing he didn’t even know what he was begging for. I wasn’t tied, the nurse at the foot of my bed had known me for fifteen years and her eyes were soft with sadness. She didn’t tie me, fingers slipping under the ropes to loosen them enough.
“I don’t want to do it.” James whimpered, breathless and terrified. “Don’t make me do it. Please.” I slipped out of the bed, tugging the ropes on him free until he could move, too. The alarms were sounding; we both knew any escape was impossible. There were guards now, watchtowers. No one got out. Not once they went in.
His fingers slipped down to his ankles, tugging out two small pistols from their hiding places in his socks. There was a question in his eyes as he offered me one, his hands twitching with fear as he tilted his head. “Please.” It wasn’t a question.
The weapon felt foreign under my fingers as I took it. I raised it towards him, but he shook his head, fingers on my wrist tugging me forward until it rested against his head. “Has to be close.” he mumbled, the only signs of fear the terror in his eyes, his hands so steady as the front of his gun rested on my head. “Can’t be far. They’d save us just to do it to us. Make everyone know what happens to people who don’t obey.”
They were close now, footsteps coming from the hallway getting closer and closer and closer. James closed his eyes, fingers curling around the trigger as his free hand clung to mine. “Ours will win, you know. They’ll always win.” James nods, tears running silently down his face. “Yeah. But we won’t see it.”
And then the guards were at the door and his whole face tightened. “Please.” He whispered. It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a choice.
The sound of the gunshots were the only thing that could be heard.