Selected by guest editor Daniel José Older
They brought you back because they want something from you. Maybe one day they will bring people back because they can or because it’s the right thing to do — but for now there’s you and there’s them and there’s the unspoken obligations that lie between you both.
The IED blew your body into pieces: bone and brain and blood, sprayed in the sand with the twisted shell of your tank. Maybe you weren’t always happy with your body; maybe your breasts were smaller than you would have liked and your toes reminded you of tree roots and there was that one mole right in the middle of your back that you always managed to catch with the hook of your bra; but it was your body. Your history was written in scars and tattoos. And you knew it, inside and out.
You made it yours over the years — the shaved sides of your head accenting the bright shock of magenta hair spilling over the top, the solid black contact lenses that made pupil and iris indistinguishable, the ornate scrolling ink that wrapped your ribcage.
This hunk of flesh you now inhabit is foreign. It is devoid of scar and ink and memory. It bulges or dips in all the wrong places. What it is is wrong, just as what it isn’t is wrong. It’s ten kinds of not you and you’re helpless under this skin.
You hurl yourself against the glass and you claw with hands that aren’t yours until the fingers bleed and you feel a distant kind of pain, a traitorous sensation reminding you that you’re stuck in this body.
That pain launches you into further fury. You strike your forehead on the lab’s glass wall and neither bone nor glass fractures. You’d give anything for that, any way to escape this flesh that isn’t yours. You hurl the food tray and it sprays mushy protein mix against the bland white walls.
You scream, again and again, but the voice is too deep. Let me out! Let me out. It isn’t right! Put me in another. Not this one, the right one. Let me out! You scream until the fervor shreds your throat and they send big nurses with muscular arms in to wrestle you into stillness. Their grip is fierce, but not unkind. They hold you just long enough to inject a tranquilizer.
This body betrays you yet again.
It pulls your mind down deep into the black.
There were three other women in your squad and you loved each of them, though never in the same way. You knew as soon as you saw their faces under those helmets that they would become entwined with you — with your very identity — one way or another.
Rosa was quiet. She loved music, always had one earbud in and a glazed look in her eyes, a slight serene smile pulling at her lips. She didn’t say much, but you’d sit beside her, cramped on her tiny bunk, and she’d give you the other earbud. You’d listen to her songs, never really understanding the words, but you got the feel of them: warm and upbeat some days, wandering and melancholic on others. She slid her hand in yours and that’s as far as it went, but you loved the fit of her small hands in your scarred ones and you let the music lull you like a mother’s heartbeat.
Irene never knew when to shut up. She was in the doghouse more often than not; she couldn’t keep quiet when the guys started talking shit about issues they didn’t know anything about. Irene knew a lot about a lot of things. She read extensively: articles about the recent benefits of individualism amongst military service members, philosophical essays about transhumanism, blog posts about post-colonialism. She’d sit across the mess table from you and drill you with disturbing questions; no matter how many times you slung a quick joke and stepped away, those questions followed you. Her bright blue eyes haunted you, and her words lingered long after you’d left her side. The questions made you think though, made you step away from the faith you’d been clinging to for no good reason. Set you free in a weird way — though your mom wouldn’t see it that way.
Jaq taught you how to fight. Oh, sure the Marines taught you the basics in Basic, but Jaq really refined your skills. The first time you saw her — moving through yoga poses under the desert sun, a thin sheen of sweat on her bronzed skin — you sensed in her a supple strength, a practiced grace and confidence. She didn’t boast like you did; she didn’t hurl insults and jokes right back at the guys. She met them with quiet eyes and silent lips, but enough muscle and assurance to keep even the worst of them at bay. You started following her, just to be near her. You liked watching the muscles in her back pull taut under a sweat-damp shirt, and it turned out she liked you watching, too. It wasn’t long before those big steady hands of hers were braced under your stomach, cradling your thigh, guiding you into the delicate balance of a Warrior pose.
All three of these women — Rosa, Irene, Jaq — gave you something. You gave them pieces of yourself in return. Now you sit on a hospital bed that’s too big, even for this bulky new body, and you ache for Rosa’s music, for Irene’s lilting voice, for Jaq’s steady hands.
You dig your nails into the skin above your ears and you fight to remember.
Were they with you in when your whole world came apart in a hellish blaze?
You should know. You should know.
You rock back and forth and breathe through your teeth and this body’s every sound is like a wounded animal. You tune it out and fight for the scraps of memory, but they slip from your grasp.
You rewind and play your last memories again and again. A shadowed face, the soldier beside you, they turned, lips parted to speak — but you can’t make out the features. Every time you reach for their identity, remembrances of fire and pain echo in your head, followed by a flash at the base of your skull where they’d installed your implant a few months before. Then the black, the silent black. You scream, but only briefly. If you thrash too violently in this room, the nurses will come back and send you back to the black.
The women you love are not in the black. You are not there either. There is only darkness and an overriding, panicky sense of being completely alone, bereft even of yourself.
“This can’t be legal,” you say, suppressing a shudder at the sound of your voice, echoing off the walls of the small cube. You think of it as an interrogation chamber: two chairs, a small foldout table, slate gray walls, and the small beady eye of a camera in the pale corner of the ceiling.
“I assure you, Corporal Benik, this is all completely legal. Or at least…” he hesitates, affects a quick smile, “…it’s not illegal.”
There’s a pause. Like he’s waiting for you to laugh.
You straighten in your seat instead, square these blocky shoulders and make yourself as big as possible. It feels wrong to use what they gave you, what they forced you into, for your own benefit, but you hate that little smile on his thin lips. You want to punch it off with one of these meat-cleaver hands.
He shrinks back, a cringe altering his face like a shockwave before he regains control. He stands. Puts a little distance between you and begins flipping through documents on his tablet as if you were nothing but a child, not worthy of eye contact, let alone concern.
You remember killing enemy soldiers. You remember doing it with bullets, and sometimes with knives and sometimes with your own two hands on their throats. In those days, your hands were small, but strong. Bony knuckles scarred from too many fights at school as a teenager. You didn’t need this ham-fisted strength to take a life then and you don’t need it now.
The chain rattles around your ankles when you stand.
That draws his attention, lightning-quick, alarm blowing color into his cheeks.
“Please, sit.” He looks at the camera deliberately. After a pause, you sink back to the chair and let him prattle on, because it’s what he needs to do, what they want him to do, and your job is to sit docile and compliant. But a thought snakes through your head and you barely hear him speaking because it’s so loud crashing through your skull: would they expect this sort of submission if I had been a man? Is that why they… why they brought me back?
“…and so there’s no legislation, you see, on our… activities… because no one knows what we’re doing here, no one knows it’s even possible yet.” You tune back in to see the light in his eyes. Something like pride, like he thinks he’s some kind of hero. “Across the world, what we’ve done for you is nothing but a theoretical possibility.”
“For me?” The words escape without your permission. You meant to be what they needed until the opportunity came to be more. But the word for burns through you like a hot knife. Your fists clench on the table-top and he watches them, that wariness creeping back into his face.
“What you’ve done for me?” You’re on the verge of another explosion of rage. You don’t remember being prone before to outbursts like the one in your room. Is this what it feels like to be a man? Or have they simply pushed your soul beyond what a soul is made to bear? Wouldn’t anybody react this way? “Don’t you mean, what you’ve done to me?”
The quaver in your voice must sound off all kinds of alarm in his animal brain. He’s got his back to the wall, and you’re thinking about how thick the chains on your ankles are — and whether or not you could bust them with your new strength — when a harsh buzz sounds. The man steps to the door, which cracks open just a hair. Soft words are exchanged and the man leaves; a woman takes his place, and you draw in a calming breath.
You settle a little as she takes up his tablet, takes up his chair. She meets your eyes and leans forward as if trying to peer into you. This is better. She’s looking at you — you inside this fleshy prison — not at the construct around you.
“Corporal Benik, my name is Natasha Leonard, I’m going to be taking your case from here out. I apologize for my associate. He doesn’t exactly…” She glances at the camera, smiles, a plastic expression, and then settles back into your conversation.
“Moving on, I understand you’ve been under a lot of stress due to the nature of the body we’ve installed your mind in—”
“A lot of stress,” you mutter, avoiding her eyes. They are dark, nearly black, and they remind you simultaneously of Rosa’s quiet eyes and your own black lenses. “You could say that.”
“I understand,” she says, and now you have to meet her eye to know if she really does. You lean forward and she instinctively flinches back. Would she have reacted this way before? When you were you, when you were smaller and more wiry? You couldn’t slam home punches like this body could, but you could sure out-dance the best boxers in your regiment.
“Do you?” you ask, then chew your lip, a leftover habit from the body you lost. “Then tell me why they didn’t put me in the right body. I can’t fucking wrap my head around it. No one will tell me. I’ve been asking for three fucking weeks.”
“Yes, well,” she says, a placating voice that rubs every inch of you the wrong way. “There is a finite window wherein we can transfer a consciousness into a new body, so we couldn’t waste any time. You were placed into the body we had ready at the time.”
“So there weren’t any female bodies ready?”
She squirms, glances at the tablet, and you wonder if it’s feeding her lines. If it is, she’s good at delivering them with conviction. That or she’s completely bought into the bullshit.
“Unfortunately, Chaudron Industries has only produced male vessels so far. I think the important thing to focus on, however, is that we did rescue you—”
“Excuse me?” she asks, leaning away.
“Why all male bodies? Surely you knew there’d be women who needed a new ‘vessel.’ Something like half of our combat forces are women. You either didn’t know or you didn’t care.”
You want to shake her. You want to grab her by the throat and hold her up to the camera and demand they set you free. The impulse is in your hands, it’s in your blood, it’s in new, untested muscles — and it terrifies you.
She’s not looking at you now. Her language feels stiffer, more like well-rehearsed rhetoric.
“The body you are in is unique, Corporal Benik. We built it from the ground up. Make no mistake, the U.S. government contracted us to make state-of-the-art vessels for America’s warriors. This body will endure more than most for longer than most. It’s genetically engineered to resist disease—”
“Don’t give me your fucking sales pitch!” There’s so much anger coiled up inside you, itching to strike. Your words are separated, punctuated by efforts at self-restraint. “Why no female bodies?”
She leans in, voice lower, almost begging you to understand. “Female bodies are so uniquely different: menstrual cycles, the possibility of future pregnancies, it’s all much more complicated. We couldn’t simply copy over programming from the male bodies; it would require starting from scratch and the cost would double. Maybe even triple.”
“So we’re not worth the cost? I’m not given a choice because you’re cutting corners—”
“We are not cutting corners.” The moment the words snap from her lips she tenses, then draws a deep breath and continues in that pressed-calm voice — the one you can imagine narrating a propaganda video. “Creating female vessels is, you understand, simply too expensive at this point in time. But we did not scrimp in constructing your body. Early on we discovered that the transfer of consciousness wouldn’t work with clones. So every Chaudron Industries body uses the same programming — the same, roadmap, if you will, but each body is unique.
“And as I said, we work within a short window to transfer minds — if we had focused on producing both male and female housing, we would never have reached the point where we could have transferred you, Corporal Benik.”
Too expensive. Too time-consuming. Your fists are clenched again, and a fragment of your mind feels like it’s spinning out of control. Your vision distorts, bending the woman’s face into waves. You feel yourself beginning to hyperventilate and you know you should calm down before they dose you with something, but there are no women. There are no women. They can’t move you into a more-right body.
You’re stuck. You’re fucking stuck.
“Why—” Your voice cracks, rasps. You clear your throat and try again, and when you meet her eyes all your anger has flooded out, and it leaves you drained. It leaves you weak and sagging against the table. Maybe they’ll like you better this way. “Why did you pick male then… instead of female?”
“Well…” she sputters, fumbling for an answer. Color flushes into her face and she clutches the tablet. “As I said—”
“No. No, those were excuses. I see through you.” Your gaze rolls to the camera in the corner of the ceiling. You sink back into your chair. “You didn’t even think of it, did you?” You stare down at your hands, at your thighs; your square shoulders sink.
This is your body, by default.
Endless weeks pass. Monotone days — medical tests, physical training, rehab. Everyone speaks softly and the nurses are posted at the door, eyes always on you, hands always ready to find a syringe and put you down.
But you’ve stopped raging. You go through the motions for them, while the fire eats you up from inside. You push yourself in the physical training sections of the day. You wear this body out so you don’t have to toss and turn on the thin mattress at night, so you won’t have to dream.
But you still do.
You don’t always remember the dreams, but still they come.
Sometimes you hear faint refrain’s of Rosa’s music, but the relief of a familiar melody lies, always, just out of reach. Sometimes you dream of the day big tough Jaq took her first life. She fell apart in your arms that night and you held her, utterly stunned. She knew a hundred ways to kill a man; you’d just assumed she had done it before. You thought Rosa would be the one weeping in your arms, or maybe Irene, finally unable to find words after extinguishing a life. But it was Jaq. You dream of her body against yours and how you hadn’t done anything but hold each other the whole night.
On your down time, when you’re alone except for the camera, you close your eyes and try desperately to remember those last moments before the explosion. Memories of fire and pain rush back effortlessly. You remember the soldier beside you turning to you and terror chews through your gut when they seem familiar. But you still can’t resolve their face.
Sometimes at night you curl up in a ball and press your face into the pillow and pretend you’re sleeping, but really you try to suffocate yourself. You never can finish the job. You weep silently and pray — to the god you gave up in the desert — to set you free from this place.
“What do you want from me?”
Natasha sits across from you in the interrogation room again. She seems more confident; you feel calmer. More resigned, and you hate yourself for it.
She slides the tablet over. A document spills out before your eyes. You start reading, but quickly lose the meaning in the flood of legalese. “What the fuck is this?”
“I’m not signing this.” You shove the tablet away.
She slides it gently back and there’s something like sympathy in her dark eyes. “You already did.”
You stiffen. Slide a finger across the screen. A few more times to scroll through pages of bullshit to find your signature at the end. Anaya S. Benik. Your old handwriting. You’ve written since the download — as they like to call it — you practice writing a lot, scratching out the blocky, malformed letters you leave behind.
“I didn’t sign—”
“You did, when you enlisted.”
Of course. You would curse yourself, but nobody reads that shit. You couldn’t have known. And the implants, you thought that was just standard operating procedure now days. Your whole battalion received them.
“So what does it say?” Your voice — it gets harder to remember it’s not your voice sometimes — sounds flat and resigned. “What does my second life cost?”
“Thirty years of service.”
It’s a gut punch, but you expected that. After a minute to catch your breath, you whisper, “Thirty?”
“Yes.” She’s watching you closely. Your skin feels tight and itchy — you get the sense that the people behind the camera are watching more intently too.
“Will I…” Hope flares in your chest, takes your breath. “Will I get to go back to my old squad?”
She shakes her head, a quick, sharp movement that severs the throat of your hope. You feel it bleeding out inside you.
She continues talking, explaining something about a team that will work off the books, do the things regular soldiers can’t do — the things a government can’t order otherwise. A shit squad, you think. How many lives will they have you extinguish? Will they even be guilty? Whose war will you be fighting? It won’t be your own, you know that much.
Worse than that thought is the towering number — thirty years. Thirty years in this body. Tears brim in your eyes, slip down your cheeks before you can stop them. Natasha’s voice takes on an encouraging note, trying to press hope into you like it’s something she can inject from a syringe. You can’t make her words take focus.
Not until she touches you. She’s close and her hand is on your shoulder and heat surges through you. Your eyes widen slightly, breath catching. There’s a rush you haven’t felt in so long, but it feels slightly off. Slightly wrong.
You hadn’t realized how long it’s been since anyone touched you with any kind of kindness. The nurses restrained you, the doctors poked and prodded, but no one touched you like this. No one tried to give comfort with the brush of their hand on your shoulder.
You revel in it, looking into her face, for just a moment before there’s a stirring sensation in your groin. You gasp and she pulls away. Her eyes flit to your growing erection and you leap up out of your chair. You turn away to hide yourself, no longer restrained by chains since your docile turn a few weeks back.
You press into the corner of the room, away from the camera and you weep.
It’s wrong. It’s all wrong. You don’t know what to do with this.
Natasha leaves the room quietly. Apparently she doesn’t know either.
“I have a surprise for you.” Natasha again.
You can’t quite meet her eye. She’s never visited you in your room. You’re terrified your body will act without your permission again, so you don’t even look at her. You stare at your thumbs. What are guys supposed to think about? Baseball?
You fucking hate baseball.
Soccer’s the only sport you ever got into. More body contact with the other girls.
“Aren’t you curious?” Natasha asks, stepping closer.
You flinch. A paranoid fear zips through your head — but she can’t see the razor blade you snuck from your shaving kit, the one you tucked under your mattress. You’ve behaved so well, such a docile animal, over the past months. They trusted you, but they shouldn’t. Knowing the blade is there is a comfort. Something is finally within your power. You can’t decide when to use it; every day you think, if it gets any worse, I’ll do it.
“What’s the surprise?” you ask, hating yourself for the curiosity she’s raised in you.
“You have to come with me.”
You hesitate, glance her way uneasily, and she waves you toward her. You rise, reluctant, and follow her out the door. The nurses let you pass. They follow a few paces behind as you filter through the long gray hallways. You pass the door to the interrogation room, the gym, the lab. You keep walking, into hallways you’ve never entered before, and then she opens a door into a room that looks as sterile and basic as your own. It’s a clone of it actually — the hospital bed in the same position, the little sink and toilet and shower.
There’s a man on the bed.
You stop. He’s thick and bulky like you. A powerhouse of a man with a square face. His small eyes widen slightly, head tilted to the side.
“I’m not the only one?” you ask.
Natasha nudges you forward, toward the man. Maybe not a man, you remind yourself. You don’t want to step closer. He could be your body’s cousin. There are similarities in your builds, in the shape of your faces. But there are differences. There’s a fine spray of freckles over his nose that you lack, a delicate articulation of the wrists that you envy.
He stands. Crosses the gap between you, with something clenched in his hand. He tugs it away from his head, and earbuds you hadn’t seen come free. He leans in, looks into your face.
“I thought I was the only one,” he says.
“Me too.” Your voice rasps. How is this supposed to help you? Another prisoner in their skin? Or if they were lucky, maybe a man who found another chance at life in a male body. Good for him, but you’re still fucked. You start to turn to Natasha, start to leave, but the man grabs your arm.
He slides his hand into yours and they fit together well. You meet his eyes, surprised, and find them glistening with tears. “I thought,” he says, voice thick, “I was the only one they got out. They didn’t tell me you—” He stops, beyond words, and he sinks against you in a way that is both familiar and foreign.
Revulsion and attraction tear you apart, sickening you.
“Rosa,” he weeps. “It’s me. Rosa.”
All the breath is torn from your lungs. You clutch him — her — instinctively as she sags against you. “Rosa?” Your voice is a squeak, barely audible. She threads her thick arms around you and clutches back at you.
“You — you were with me?” you ask against her short, wiry hair.
She nods, and her body feels all wrong — too solid, too broad — against you, but you pull back and you peer into her eyes and you look for her inside. She smiles, but it’s broken. She pulls you to the hospital bed as Natasha closes the door and leaves you both alone together.
Rosa curls up beside you and she slides an earbud into your ear.
You cry. Thick, raspy sobs like a broken animal. Music floods your ear and you don’t know the words, but you know they speak of comfort. They sing it into you. You close your eyes and pretend you’re not in this body. You pretend you’re back in that bunk with Rosa.
With the music, with your eyes closed, with her hand in yours, you can pretend. For a little while you can pretend. And it is enough. Enough to keep you from using the razor under your mattress. For a while, at least.
Can you stay in the wrong body for thirty years?
You couldn’t have, you know, without Rosa.
But what about tomorrow? And the day after? You don’t know.
For now there’s only you, and them, and the half-spoken obligations that lie between you both.
About the Author
Alexis A. Hunter revels in the endless possibilities of speculative fiction. Over fifty of her short stories have appeared in magazines such as Shimmer, Apex, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and more. To learn more, visit alexisahunter.com.