Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
Your first taste of Poison is always the best.
Still disoriented from cryosleep, you swallow in anticipation, salivating. Unconsciously, you lick your lips, wetting them before opening your mouth to accept the small granular cube we feed you. As the deadly dose dissolves on your tongue, you tilt your head back and leave your eyes closed, savoring the saline sweetness. Lost in bliss, you are unaware of us suiting you up. Needles pierce your flesh, further stimulating your nervous system and making you anxious. Poison courses through your body. You panic and feel off-balance. Then your energy surges and you are ready for sendoff.
Like we have before, we cram you into a battle pod and launch you toward the latest planet we are obligated to assist in times of war. Or perhaps we have chosen to conquer it. Does it matter?
While you hurtle through space, the needles deliver a booster dose of Poison. Your first euphoric response is replaced by uneasiness that grows into irritation before becoming rage. At the same time, your pod touches down on alien soil. We are methodical and have taken great care to ensure that your landing precedes the pinnacle of your fury.
Angry now at us, at your confinement, and at the pain from the needles, you struggle against your stasis restraints, impatient to be free of the pod. Like the rest of your actions, these are unconscious and automatic. By the time the pod settles, releases you and opens, Poison has you primed to go on a killing spree. That’s why we sent you.
Safety pads retract within your enclosed headgear. A tap over your eyeslits jolts you into paying attention to the telemetry data on your helmet’s viewer. Telltales and strategic military intelligence fill the screen. There are more soldiers like you. On the image, they are green blips. Other colors are also shown. You know not how to interpret them, so you ignore those data bits.
“Reds are enemies,” we explain through the space-to-ground comm.
The red blips on your viewer far outnumber the green ones. You growl and bolt toward the nearest sea of red. We guide you to it based on the information we receive from your external sensors. One last boost of Poison before the engagement forces your focus away from the burning in your throat, the tightness in your chest, and the headache that threatens to drive you mad. It distracts you from the alien landscape. The others in your tactical unit join you at the battle site. Your weapons fuel and arm themselves, courtesy of your battle suit. You need only go from one skirmish to the next, delivering death. It is up to you and your peers to destroy all opposition.
Countless battles later, you feel as though you will die at any moment. We goad you with your first dose of Antidote. It jangles your nerves, keeps you on edge, and jars you back into action. We cannot afford to lose another war. Too much depends on our success. You are our insurance.
Still amped up on Poison, you and your team are ferocious killing machines. Sooner than we expect, the hostilities are over. No enemy forces survive. The dead no longer show on your viewer. Driven, you seek out the fading green blips on your screen — your alive but injured comrades-in-arms — and help as many of them as you can to the safety of their pods. Your uncharacteristic heroics surprise us. Never before have you done anything like this. Your body is filled with so much toxin. We marvel at how you keep moving with your substantial injuries.
The cleanup squads come in behind you and remove all important traces of our involvement with this world. You are brought back to the ship for medical treatment. We are paid and gone from that unfamiliar solar system before you recover enough to meet with us for your debriefing. Until we receive your full report, we keep you restrained but do not return you to cryosleep.
When we meet, we watch you and wait for the question you ask after every mission, “Have I completed my sentence?”
Our ready “No” is as consistent as your inquiry. We cannot deny that you come from the same place as we do. But we have not forgotten that you stood by and did not fight while invaders destroyed our people and our world. For your crime of unabashed pacifism, we sentenced you to perilous military service. You are not the only criminal we have among the ranks. It is in part for our own safety that we keep you in suspended animation between assignments.
Battered and almost unable to speak, you whisper, “I have completed my sentence.”
Your unexpected assertion alarms us. Before we can contain you, others like you, who have become desensitized to Poison, surround us in support of your mutiny. There are too many of you and too few of us. In short order, you take control of every ship, bringing our glorious regime to an end.
You seize us, call us warmongers, and charge us with the crime of genocidal aggression. Our immediate trial is as fair as yours was, our defense as impassioned, and our conviction as inevitable. You sentence us to zealous altruism.
We will not forget your words, “You will hunger to be helpful.”
While your followers escort us to the cryosleep tanks, you plan your first mission as fleet commander.
Your people restrain us in preparation for our imminent introduction to drugged and dreamless waiting. We overhear where we are going next and what good deeds we will be expected to perform when we arrive. Unnerved, we object though we know our protests will matter no more than yours did.
We wonder if we will enjoy our first taste of Poison.