by shukyou (主教)
He could remember: four years old, the fruit bowl on the table, anaphylactic shock, being rushed to the doctor, a bustle of injections and barked instructions, his father’s nervous pacing, the doctor’s mechanical eyes — and then, when it was all done, a stern, clear lecture about how he was never again, under threat of a fatal reaction, to consume anything from the yashberry family again so long as he did live. He remembered it all clearly as he uncapped the bottle of yashberry brandy and took a long, deep drink.
At least, he tried to take a long, deep drink. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and he nearly spat out the whole first mouthful as the alcoholic burn ripped at his tongue and throat. He managed it down, though, clutching the edge of the counter and steeling his spine, willing himself not to vomit or pass out. It’d all be over soon; he could stand it that long. He felt the brandy hit his stomach more like a solid than a liquid, but the first drink was done, and the second was easier. He managed five whole full mouthfuls before he couldn’t make himself take another sip. That finished, he walked over to his bed and lay down to die.
He closed his eyes and wove his fingers together over his stomach, feeling the way they rose and fell as he breathed. He waited for that rhythm to change, for the reaction to take over, for his throat and nasal passages to close. He’d made sure that the brandy wasn’t just flavored; no, it had been made straight from fermented yashberries, hugely alcoholic and the same pretty purple tint as their flesh. It would happen any minute now.
If he was going to be honest, here in these final moments, he’d have to admit that he was afraid of dying — not of being dead, he’d mostly resigned himself to the nothingness of that, but of the actual dying process. So he focused instead on the wrongs that had been done to him, hoping that they’d be more painful than his body’s eventual histamine reaction that suffocated him. To death. Suffocated him to death. That part was important.
The doctors who’d poked and prodded at him, who’d talked about him as though he weren’t even alive, much less in the room. The lawyers who’d explained his status as a nonperson in the eyes of the law, wholly owned property of Stormchild Force Management Solutions, LLP. The top brass who’d explained to him what he’d have to live up to, who’d yelled at him when he’d failed to perform to expectations, who’d screamed about legacy and responsibility and failure at every available opportunity, of which there were many. His own stupid body and his stupid stupid brain, both of which were too stupid to be any good. The real General Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim hadn’t been stupid. The real General Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim had been a hero. And a genius. And … and all sorts of other good things, he supposed. Not like him. He was a legacy and a responsibility and a failure.
It was around this time he realized he not only wasn’t dead, he wasn’t particularly dying. He took a deep breath, and it went in and slid back out as neatly as any that had come before it. His eyes snapped open and he tried to look over to the clock on his bedside table, only the effort of turning his head made the whole room spin. He grabbed hold of the bed, but it wouldn’t stop spinning; somehow, he’d thrown the whole building off-center. His fingers gripped panicked handfuls of blanket, but they ripped right off the bed, providing him no stability. This wasn’t good. Maybe the ground would be better.
He hit the floor with a thud that he was afraid might have bloodied his nose, except that when he brought his hand up to check, his mostly just slapped himself in the face. He’d brought the clock down with him, and now its bright green display read 52:11; he could tell that was a real time upside-down, but he couldn’t manage to do the math to figure out what it really should have been. He’d started this at just past eleven in the evening, which meant it had been … some number of minutes. More than one. Less than an hour, maybe a lot less. Was fifty-two upside-down twenty-five or still fifty-two? Either way, it was too long to not be dead.
The room was still spinning, and now it was getting worse, so that even when he closed his eyes, he could still feel it. He could remember training for high-speed flight, horrible simulators, great centrifuges. That’s what it felt like, only now they’d somehow loaded the whole room into one, and he was plastered to the floor, helpless, weak. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but all that came out was a sad sob. He’d just fucked up again.
He rolled to his side and felt something cold press against his cheek: his phone, which must have been by the beside, which had come with him on his great fall. It was hissing its tinny little dial tone, and he slapped at the number pad, trying to make it stop. After a few of those slaps, he realized he wasn’t hitting it at random; he was dialing a number. Great, so he couldn’t remember advanced calculus or any of several key martial arts disciplines or the history of the North Karghian wars or how to play the piano or even how to commit proper suicide, but he could pull off a booty call? He was even more pathetic than anyone realized. He was the pathetic-est. General Pathetic. Generally pathetic. He felt nauseated.
The other end of the line picked up on the third ring. “How did you get this number?”
“Zani?” He tried to sound authoritative, in control — perhaps even seductive — but all that came out was a little kitten’s whine. “Zani, I think I…” He couldn’t finish the sentence, though, because the world gave another great lurch, and he needed all his concentration just to make sure he didn’t fall off it. Even floors could be dangerous at times such as these.
He lost track of how long he lay there, just spinning in his misery, fading in and out of consciousness. He was clearly not dead, though now he wished he were even more than he had wished it before he’d started drinking what he’d hoped was going to be deadly poison. At least it had sort of tasted good at the time, though now he licked his lips and found the lingering sweetness there made him retch.
The sound of his front door woke him, though, and the green lights of the clock swam in front of his eyes: 90:21. Hell of a time.
“By all the gods and their prophets, what the fuck is wrong with you?” asked a deep, steady voice from the doorway, and he was at once filled with so much despair and relief that he almost threw up on his rug.
As for the question, though, he didn’t know. A lot of things, that was for sure.
He registered next the sensation of moving, even though he wasn’t the one doing the moving. Or he was, but not on purpose. He was being moved, that was it, being dragged all but by the scruff of his neck like a kitten from the dignified muted half-light of his bedroom to the angry bright of his white-tiled bathroom. Suddenly it was raining, and he was in his clothes, being soaked. His entire life had taken place in the passive voice.
He was crying now, deep racking snotty sobs that washed away under the shower spray, and he wouldn’t have blamed Zani for turning right around and marching right back out the door. When he looked up again, though, General Tel-ar-Zaniriyya was still standing right there, his face unreadable. He’d never been able to read it, not even before Zani had grown a beard, not even before he himself had died. One more thing his predecessor had pulled off that he couldn’t.
Sodden and hopeless, he sat beneath the stream and began the excruciating process of becoming sober again.
Still, Gadosi supposed as he hauled his hung-over corpse down to the laboratories the next morning, it could have been worse. He kept his sunglasses drawn over his eyes as he walked the halls of the barracks, not even bothering to look the clones in the eye. It could have been worse because he could have been one of them, designed to be packed to the gills with information but bereft of all but the most rudimentary free will. They hadn’t even been given proper names; they were called things like Twenty-Six and Forty-One. He’d never met a single digit and could only speculate on what had gone wrong there.
They all looked the part, though. Towering head and shoulders over everyone around, they had been unquestionably cut from the same fabric as the real General Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim. They had his piercing eyes, so pale blue they were almost white; their jaws curved at the same strong angle; their hair was regulation-short and clung in tiny curls to their scalps. They were symbols of power in the way he had been, engineered down to the bone and then cloned in the hope of recreating their initial success. They were all failures.
Gadosi was a failure too, though of a different sort. He walked down among them, made aware by contrast of his less-than-average height and slender build. He didn’t know if they looked at him with such icy gazes because they thought so ill of him or because they did not think of him at all.
Ral-im-Isra was the first in once he’d gotten himself secured by the nurses, and Gadosi was glad; Isra was the kindest of the bunch — if ‘kindness’ could be applied to anything happening here — and spoke to Gadosi as though he were a sentient being, which was better than he got from many of the other scientists on the project. “How are you feeling today?” Isra asked, turning his elderly yet sharp eyes on Gadosi.
Naked and strapped to a table by his throat and wrists, Gadosi wished he were more a stranger to this kind of scrutiny. “Fine,” he said.
“Have you been dreaming?”
That was a nice benefit of passing out blackout drunk and crippled with shame; he’d only slept four restless hours, but they had been dark and quiet ones. “No.”
Isra made a note on his chart, frowning. Dreams were supposed to be a sign that the procedure was taking effect, that his brain had been given so much information that it needed resting hours to process the overflow. And if they made Gadosi wake up in a cold, screaming sweat from time to time, so what? They were only dreams. They didn’t matter.
A mousy assistant shuffled in with a tray of vials; he looked no older than Gadosi did, though Gadosi supposed the assistant had earned those sixteen-odd years, while Gadosi had slept through an accelerated version of them. It was odd, being both a teenager and an infant at once, and he knew it was odd because he had something of a basis for comparison living in the back of his brain. It should have been living at the front of his brain, but scientists didn’t always get everything they wanted. Isra took one and loaded it into a syringe, then injected it into the base of Gadosi’s neck. “Have you eaten anything today?” he asked, pulling the monitor toward Gadosi’s face.
Gadosi shook his head. “Wasn’t hungry.”
That earned him another scribbled note and another frown, though less of one. “I’ll make sure the Nutritionist on duty sees you before you leave.”
He’d considered starving himself, but his food intake was monitored too closely for that. The real General Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim had been on a diet so calculated and restricted that Gadosi shuddered to think what slop the clones ingested without complaint. Gadosi supposed he should tell the Nutritionist about the allergy, or lack thereof. Just add one more dissimilarity to the pile.
The serum began to take effect, and Gadosi felt come on him the familiar sensation of being wrong, of needing to shed his skin and grow into a bigger one. His limbs stopped too short, didn’t respond enough when he moved; his lungs didn’t take in enough oxygen; his heart didn’t pump enough blood, didn’t speed and slow on command. The expression on his face made Isra smile: There, they were summoning the ghost.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” said Isra, flipping on the monitor — and there it was, that sick dissonant feeling of watching something foreign and familiar at once. Footage from great battles scrolled across the screen, bloody conquests and artful tactics, things he did and didn’t understand at once. Noiseless explosions rocked the silent screen, though his brain provided the soundtrack without hesitation; lips moved and he knew the voices behind them. This was life through the eyes of the dead man he was supposed to become.
Instead of throwing up again like he wanted to, Gadosi sank into the sensation and concentrated. Repetition would rewrite his neural pathways. Similar stresses would provoke similar results. His personality was a fluke; he should have been as blank as the clones, only you couldn’t write something onto nothing, they’d explained to him. The sooner he could stop being himself, the sooner he’d start being what they wanted of him.
Why bother finding a new way to kill himself when the scientists who owned him had so generously provided him one already?
Not an hour but hours later he was finally unstrapped and placed right into a scanning tube. The scientists who monitored the readouts told him nothing, but he could see the results from the looks on their faces: some, but not enough. Gadosi wanted to be mad — at them, at himself, at fate — but was too tired to muster anything more than a grunt of despair.
He dressed in the near-dark of the scanner room, lit only by its dim blue halo. They didn’t even bother letting him have real clothes; they dressed him in bodysuits that gave him nowhere to conceal a weapon — or anything else, for that matter. He wondered sometimes what fashion sense he would have, if he were allowed to have it. Something perhaps that didn’t make him look like the runt of the litter that he was.
When he stepped out into the antechamber, he was wrapped in a cloud of self-pity that measured at least three miles deep, and as such, he didn’t register for a long moment that he wasn’t alone.
In a chair on the other side of the room sat General Tel-ar-Zaniriyya, looking formal and terrifying as ever in his full uniform. From the shiny black hair on his head to the shiny black boots on his feet, he was little more than a shadow himself, just beyond the light’s attention. He looked old. Zani had never looked that old; he’d always had that ageless sort of face, sharp and unlined and even. They’d joked he’d look thirty from twenty to eighty, but here he was somewhere on the north side of fifty, a changed man. Perhaps it was the beard, or perhaps it was how tired he looked. Neither of them had slept much last night.
“How did you get my number?” the General asked.
Gadosi ran his hand over his face, then back through his hair. He could still feel the ache of having been grabbed by the latter on his way to being dumped under the shower. “I knew it,” he said, trying to sound even slightly less pathetic than he felt. He didn’t think it was working.
The General’s face didn’t change. “Don’t call it again.”
“I won’t.” Gadosi sighed, looking down at his feet.
With a curt nod, the General got up and left.
It was all Gadosi could do to keep from bursting into tears. He made a fist and punched himself in the face with it, then got even more depressed because the real him had been left-handed, and here he was, dealing self-injury with his right. Could he do nothing correctly?
Those ten words were the most Zani had said to him since before he was himself, if he didn’t count last night. And he wasn’t sure how much he intended to count last night on any front, as it seemed to have been successful on none. Gadosi was still alive. There had been no booty call to speak of. And Zani was still treating him like the abomination he was, not the man he wasn’t.
The irony was, it had also been the closest Gadosi had gotten to Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim. Remembering Zani’s phone number — hell, thinking of him as ‘Zani’, and not by more formal terms — would have been all the proof many of the researchers needed that the great General’s essence was indeed living inside of this not-quite-empty shell. Maybe if they’d known, they would have stopped conditioning him with trauma, opting instead for coaxing out the desired personality with brandy and memories of nights tangled in sheets, sweating, laughing, moaning.
He couldn’t tell them, though. For as much as it might likely have improved Gadosi’s life, it would have gotten Zani taken off to a detention center. There was, after all, no statute of limitations on crimes against nature.
Project Gadosi was a secret only beyond certain circles; in other, smaller ones, he was a celebrity and a curiosity. Thus, his presence at the President’s Gala was something of a command performance, an occasion where the well-off and well-connected could get to see what the Empire’s dollars had been funding down in the labs this time.
It was a small comfort that being something of a lab rat seemed to mean no one’s social expectations for him were particularly high. He smiled at people and answered some direct questions, which seemed to be enough to amuse them all. Had he ever done well at functions like this? He didn’t think so. He had no memories of social graces, nor of times when he’d felt drawn to large groups of people. He had always been different, after all — first physically, then in fame after his meteoric rise through the military ranks. Then, they had looked up at him in awe and thanked him in adoring tones for his service. Now, even the ladies could look him straight in the eye.
There was a brief moment when the group talking to him (at him, really) turned away, but another hadn’t yet caught upon him, and Gadosi took the opportunity to excuse himself to no one in particular and start making his way toward the back of the room, near the exits. If anyone caught him, he would say he was going to the bathroom. Even failed supersoldier experiments had to pee, didn’t they?
He was almost out — ten steps to go, maybe nine if he really put his hips into it — when he saw Zani alone in the corner, in his high-collared dress uniform, looking toward the front of the room with no particular interest.
All good sense told Gadosi to keep going, which was why he cursed his bad instincts even as his feet turned and headed for that lonely corner. He snagged a pair of champagne flutes as he made his way there, imagining that they would serve as a bit of a peace offering. Zani didn’t like champagne, and neither did he, but on short notice, it was the best either one of them was going to get.
Zani didn’t look surprised when Gadosi appeared next to him, and Gadosi supposed that Zani had been keeping an eye on his whereabouts all evening. That was why Zani was so good at his job, why he had clearly been promoted time and again, until the front of his uniform was so decorated it looked like his honors could stop a bullet on their own. He didn’t look, though, keeping his jaw set and his eyes forward, like a hawk about to strike. He was a man of few words and lengthy patience, which had suited him well in combination. That was a thing that he and Taqim had had in common, their shared affinity for long silences. They’d never much needed to talk; they’d always had ways of making themselves understood.
But monsters lived in Gadosi’s silences, and as such, he was always determined to fill them as soon as possible.
“The beard looks good,” Gadosi said, getting the words out as quickly as he could. He didn’t know how long he had before Zani just up and walked away, and he intended to make every second count. “It looks really good. It’s that last little, what do you call it, gravitas? Anyway, that’s it.”
Zani’s eyebrows shut up toward his hairline. Well, that had gotten his attention.
“You look sharp now. Like a real general. Not like a toy soldier.” Gadosi only half knew where this was coming from — he’d shut off the good-sense filter that usually monitored his conversations, choosing instead to just say whatever first came to mind. Maybe whatever it was would be what Zani missed. He had to hope it was something. “I didn’t tell them about calling you. Or about … about anything. With us. Now or before.”
Zani turned to him then, and oh, those eyes, they were the same. He looked angry, but he had always looked angry. Taqim had known him for almost a full year before realizing the extent of what Zani was hiding beneath his undisguised contempt. Gadosi couldn’t see beneath it, not yet, but he had to believe there was something else there. He could remember. “Why not?” he asked.
Gadosi extended one of the flutes of champagne, and when Zani didn’t take it, he set it on the high table between them, taking a sip from his own. “Mostly it’s none of their business,” he said, trying to stay calm even though his heart was racing. “But they wouldn’t believe me. They’d think it was some other junk memory that got kicked up. Something else I saw and pretended was real. They keep a list of those, all the times I’m wrong.” This wasn’t anything Zani wanted to hear, but he didn’t know if he could stop talking now he’d started. “It’s one of their tests. They’re always about war. I get them all wrong. I can’t tell the difference between one raid on a bridge and another. So even if they didn’t think I was making it up, they probably wouldn’t care.”
He forced himself to bite his lips together, then, to wait for a response. He counted out sixty seconds, the another sixty, then again, all the way to five minutes of nothing. His hands were shaking as he held the champagne flute between them, careful to keep pressure in the places that wouldn’t shatter the glass. He had broken many glasses, once upon a time, and other fragile objects to boot, while learning the limits of his strength. When he’d had that strength.
At the five-minute mark, though, it was clear to Gadosi that this had been a bad idea and a disaster all rolled into one. He swallowed the rest of his drink in one gulp and put the glass back on the table. “Okay. Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “You don’t have to — I just wanted you to know, I won’t. It doesn’t matter. Okay.” Gadosi squared his shoulders and turned to go.
“Wait,” said Zani.
The noise in the room made the syllable barely audible, but it crashed like an avalanche against Gadosi’s ears. His feet stopped in place. He waited.
Zani took a deep, heavy breath, and let it out in a sigh of equal weight. Then he took the proffered glass of champagne and did the same as Gadosi, draining it to the bottom. Then he looked at Gadosi. “It’s fine once. But no more.”
“No more,” Gadosi echoed, actually lifting a finger and crossing his heart to prove his sincerity. They would go back to leaving each other alone, continuing the long, heavy silence that had stretched the length of Gadosi’s short life. He would cease trying to contact Zani, either in public or in private. He would be good. He was good at being good.
The best he supposed he could hope for was a paternal combination of not mad, just disappointed. But Zani was disappointed and mad, as least as far as Gadosi could see from the restraints the MPs had him in. He wanted to tell them it wasn’t necessary, that he did not possess the strength of his predecessor, his former self, but decided that his pride had taken enough of a blow that evening. Let them think he could break ordinary handcuffs with a jerk of his arms. A reputation wasn’t the worst thing to have.
The MPs were all cowed by him, which was why they were impressed by Zani, who was not. While they walked around Gadosi as though he were a field of landmines, Zani strode through the room undaunted. He looked at Gadosi, then looked at the MPs. “Leave us,” he told them.
A long beat of silence followed, where no one did anything. “Sir,” the closest guard began, “he was found–”
“This is not new information to me,” Zani interrupted, cutting off all discussion with his deep, icy tone. His business was information, intelligence, strategy. Taqim’s wars had been fought with guns and explosives; Zani’s had happened in a world of subterfuge and information. He had always loved being invisible. Gadosi realized how much he must now hate having to be General Tel-ar-Zaniriyya all the time, all his camouflage stripped by fame.
Seeing there was no further explanation, the MPs filed out and shut the door behind them. The detention room seemed even smaller now with two people instead of seven. Gadosi supposed they had to be the right people.
Still standing, still glaring, Zani crossed his arms across his chest. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asked, his voice a soft, dangerous rumble.
Gadosi tried to shrug, but the restraints they had him in prevented movement. There was going to be a bruise on his cheek soon, he could tell, from where he’d hit his face when they’d tackled him. Some little bit, deep inside, was proud of himself. There were lots of restricted areas he could have chosen to bust his way into, but he had picked the right one.
“Were you sleeping?” Gadosi asked.
Zani’s lips thinned into a single line, which meant that, yes, he had been. Gadosi wondered how much of his bedroom was the same, if his bed still felt the same, smelled the same. “They could have shot you.”
“They should have shot you,” Zani snapped back. “Not everybody knows about your shareholder value or development fund investment return, or any of the other reasons Stormchild uses not to throw you back into the trash.”
Gadosi’s lip curled in a sneer. “I’m not trash!”
“Then what are you?” Zani roared back, his voice echoing off the close walls, cowing Gadosi back into submission. “Because all I see before me is a corpse.”
Gadosi recoiled as though he’d been slapped physically as well as emotionally. He bit the insides of his cheeks as hard as he could to make his expression look like anger instead of being on the verge of tears. When that didn’t work, he shut his eyes entirely, taking deep breaths. Once he had been good at this, at being calm. He’d gone through prisoner-of-war training to make him impervious to mistreatment like this. He should have been able to laugh Zani off while begging, please, don’t hurt me with your words, anything but that.
At last, Gadosi had his composure together enough to say, “You told me not to call you.”
“And?” Zani asked.
“And.” Gadosi lifted his hands, tugging against the restraints as much as they would allow.
“So … you weren’t looking for anything in Building 8?”
Gadosi shook his head. “Is it still chemical weapons research? Did they finally move that somewhere else?” When Zani’s eyebrow twitched a fraction, Gadosi nodded. “Moved it, okay. So no, I don’t even know what’s in there anymore. But I knew who they’d call if I breached it.”
Was that a flicker of a smile he saw at the corner of Zani’s mouth? Or was he wishing it so hard he was imagining things? “Why?”
“Can you…” Gadosi tugged against his restraints lightly again. “I’ll tell you if you get me out of these. I won’t jump you or try to run. We both know you could snap me in half like a twig if I tried.”
After a moment’s deliberation, Zani reached for the cuff of his uniform jacket. There was a panel there, sewn into the fabric, and Zani pressed his fingertips to it for identity confirmation, then tapped twice more. The metal chair gave a hiss, then retracted its various cuffs and collars, until Gadosi could move again. He fell forward with a grateful groan, stretching to get the sensation back into his limbs. Once, for prisoner-of-war training, he had stayed inside of one of those chairs for three days, with all the horrors that entailed. That had been before.
Zani took one of the room’s other chairs, sitting facing Gadosi as though there were a table between them, as though they might be at a strategy meeting, or a romantic dinner. But those things belonged to the past as well. “Why?” Zani repeated, his voice no less stern for his more relaxed posture.
Gadosi ran his hands back through his hair. It was so long now, such a shaggy mess. He didn’t even like it that way; he just liked that he knew it shouldn’t be this way. “You’re not the only one who doesn’t want me,” Gadosi said. “They don’t want me, the doctors, the project heads. I wasn’t made to be me. I was made to be him, but everything they put in there is stuck and it can’t get out. I can almost feel it. But the parts that come out aren’t the parts they want. They’re the parts that remember” —the way your skin tastes, the feel of your body against mine, the rare sight of your smile— “your phone number.”
There was skepticism in Zani’s eyes, but far less than Gadosi would have expected, given how utterly bizarre his last several sentences had been. He supposed that weird was his normal, though. His baseline was a freakish existence; why should anything else about him be usual? “Continue,” Zani said.
“Okay,” Gadosi said. “Okay, so … I thought that maybe if I saw you again, I’d get a little more of it shaken loose. Talking to you already draws it out. A little. Or maybe it doesn’t and I’m just making things up. I don’t know. I can’t tell these things. I was never supposed to have to tell these things. There never was supposed to be a me. I was supposed to be gone before I even woke up.”
“I know,” Zani said, his voice even as ice.
“Then you know that this” –Gadosi gestured in the general direction of his entire existence– “isn’t what they want. Look, I don’t care. You don’t have to … I mean, I’m not going to…” There was no good way to end that sentence, so Gadosi abandoned it and tried again. “I know you don’t like me. And that’s what I’m saying. I think if you spend time around me, I’ll be gone, and you’ll get him back.”
Zani’s jaw tightened. “I don’t want him back.”
Gadosi’s eyes widened. “What?”
There was a pause, then Zani went for his sleeve again. Three more taps brought forth a faint humming sound, one that Gadosi had never heard before but still recognized as a way to jam any listening devices in the room. Even with that level of protection, Zani leaned closer and dropped his voice. “I mourned him,” Zani spat.
“Sure, okay,” said Gadosi. That was natural, wasn’t it? He’d lost so many men to war, and yet he himself had never lost a thing.
“Do you know what it was like?” Zani growled. “Do you remember that? Have they shown you that in your little film reels?”
Why had Gadosi never asked? It seemed now to him to be such a logical and obvious prospect: If one were the semi-reincarnated version of a previously living human being, wouldn’t one have the good sense to ask why that person’s living status is only previous? But no, no one had mentioned the death of Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim, and Gadosi had somehow never thought to inquire.
Zani nodded, his expression gone past blankness into open anger. “And then, they tell me they’re going to bring him back? Not just once, but as many times as they can? Mass-produce him? Just looking at you is a knife in my gut.” Standing, Zani turned away. “I don’t want him back. If they want it, they can reach into your brain themselves and pull him out. But they’re not going to use me for it.”
“They–” Gadosi balled his hands into fists at his sides. He took a deep breath before he had the strength to speak again. “They … they didn’t.”
“They didn’t send me, okay?” Even though he knew it was childish, Gadosi got done from his chair and sat on the floor, pulling his knees up to his chest. He felt smaller that way, less of a target. “The research team has no idea I’m here. They’re probably going to shit themselves when they find out.”
That was when Zani turned to him and looked — really looked, not just the cursory stares and glares he’d gotten through every one of their interactions before. Gadosi tried to look up at him, unafraid, but he was afraid. He didn’t want to disappear, but everyone else wanted him to disappear, and he knew how the odds were stacked in that particular battle.
“Hey,” Gadosi said after a long minute, “why’d you come when I called?”
Zani’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Uh, a lot of reasons?” Gadosi drummed his fingertips on his shoes. “Like how you hate me?”
“I–” Zani began, but there was no end to the sentence, no matter how long Gadosi was prepared to wait for it. At last, Zani cleared his throat. “Stand up,” he said. “I’ll tell them it was a misunderstanding. No harm done, no corporate secrets violated. Go home. Immediately.”
By the time Gadosi opened his mouth to speak, the hum was gone; they were back under surveillance again. All he could do, then, was watch as Zani’s familiar, comforting form turned and left the room — and him — probably for good.
At the labs the next session, Gadosi made the mistake of asking about his former self’s death. For his sins, they told him.
In fact, they not only told him, they showed him: from every angle that they had, every inch of the torturers’ broadcast from fifteen years previous, over and over again. Sometimes it was in slow motion. Sometimes it was while clamps were being applied to parts of his body to mimic the agony he was seeing on screen. Sometimes it was while he was held down, with the screen only inches from his eyes. Sometimes it was played directly into his neural cortex, as shoddy as that transfer process always was.
They were wrong, though. Of all the memories he had, all the ghosts they’d conjured up, he had none of that. Taqim’s death might as well have belonged to someone else entirely; Gadosi felt nothing familiar resonate inside him. He felt only disgust as he watched his better self die again, and again, and again.
So instead he thought of Zani. Maybe this was what it was like in Zani’s head all the time, which made Gadosi sad to think. Surely he had watched this live as it was being broadcast, just like everyone else in the country had.
When that grueling day was finished, Gadosi stumbled to his feet and began to pull on his clothes again. There were a pair of doctors on the other side of the room looking at his charts and results on screens. “The neutral reconstruction is actually deteriorating,” one said, pointing to a group of numbers Gadosi couldn’t interpret.
The other nodded. “Is this temporary or permanent degradation?”
“I suspect permanent,” the first said. “The structure for the transfer simply wasn’t stable enough to hold the full personality matrices. We thought this was a problem that would disappear with time, as the pathways strengthened themselves. But now they seem to be regressing.”
“Is it worth trying to halt the degenerative processes?”
“For now, yes.” The first doctor switched to a difference screen, and this one had not biological data, but monetary values on it. “For the long term, I can’t say. We’re on the verge of a sunk-cost fallacy.”
The second doctor nodded again in agreement. “Can we convince the board to fund another?”
“I don’t see why not, if the first has demonstrably failed.”
Hey, Gadosi wanted to tell them, I’m a person. But that was the problem: He wasn’t a person. He was a placeholder.
That was when he decided to run away.
He didn’t think long or hard about it, because if he had, he would have decided against it and resigned himself to his fate. But there was a little spark still in him, a stubborn patch that refused to give up no matter how overwhelming the odds might be. It was that spark that led him out from his barracks apartment, beyond the gates of the compound, and into the city.
He’d never been here before, but it was louder and more crowded than he remembered. Thus, he went straight for the loudest, most crowded parts he could find, letting the neon direct him. He stood out in his bodysuit, so he hopped the city rail down to the parts where no one respectable went after dark. He knew them because he’d been there before in his early days with the company, sent out on informal missions to retrieve AWOL troops. He didn’t want to retrieve anyone this time, though. He wanted to disappear.
When the rail car doors opened, he knew he was in the right spot. Everyone here was a combination of youthful and freakish, such that ordinary would have been stranger than anything Gadosi could work up. He didn’t have much money on his chip, but the company allocated him a small spending budget for incidentals. He supposed this was incidental enough.
He tried not to stare as he walked down the streets, but it was difficult: The lights were beautiful, the people were beautiful, the way the night disappeared was beautiful. There were vendors lining the street, speaking dozens of languages he could neither understand nor recognize. Small children ran around, oblivious to the late hour. A few shabby forms huddled in darkened corners, but mostly there were no darkened corners, because everything was neon and xenon and sparkling LEDs.
It felt childish to run away — stupid, selfish, self-indulgent. He could hear them now, telling him that the real Taqim would never have pulled such a stunt. Yeah, well, what did they know? He had the real Taqim hardwired into his brain, and he wasn’t hearing shit from the guy. Whatever senses of duty and honor and nobility and sacrifice he’d had grafted to him, they sure weren’t kicking in now.
As he walked through the streets, he tried not to draw attention to himself, even though he wanted to stop and touch and even smell everything, though the latter occasionally made him recoil. That didn’t matter, though; what mattered was that this was real, an entire tangible world of people who made their choices themselves, and not because someone else thought someone other than they would have wanted it that way. He’d never gotten this, having been decanted from an incubation tube only a few months previous. But Taqim had never gotten it either. From his sheltered, medically monitored youth to his enrollment into Stormchild’s supersoldier experimentation program, Taqim — back when he’d only been ‘Taqim’, before titles and honorifics — had also been trapped inside sterile worlds of someone else’s design.
In fact, as far as Gadosi could tell, there had only ever been one real, deliberate choice that Taqim had made for himself. And that choice now thought Gadosi belonged in the garbage.
He didn’t pay any attention to the establishment other than that it had the loudest, meanest bass on the street; even standing outside, he could feel its low vibrations thrumming through him. Clubs like this wanted identification, but he had none, and he looked precisely as underage as he was. He didn’t know what to do, so he stood and watched until another man opened a blue door in the wall and let himself outside. Quick as he could, before it closed, Gadosi dashed and slipped through the entrance.
Inside was pure magic. The noise was so loud Gadosi couldn’t hear himself think, bodies were pressed together so tightly that he could barely move, and he couldn’t tell anymore where he ended and everyone else began. He pressed deeper into the bodies, until they were no longer crowded around the bar, but had moved into a writhing, pulsing organism on the dance floor. He pressed into it, and it parted for him, taking him in until he was a part of it.
A pair of hands alit on his hips, and Gadosi was startled by the touch. He turned to see their owner, though, and found they belonged to a handsome young man with a bright purple beard. That was when Gadosi looked around and finally allowed himself to register the bodies in the club as something other than anonymous and interchangeable. There were a few feminine faces here and there, but most of the patrons seemed to be men. They were grinding against one another, pushing together and pulling apart, sweating with the effort of movement. And like the purple-bearded man who’d found him, they seemed very interested in Gadosi.
Just his luck, he’d found where his fellow crimes against nature hung out.
Sex and sexuality as concepts had never had much appeal to Gadosi, given that he had always felt odd about the idea of building a relationship with a body he was intended to hand over; in a sense, he didn’t want to do anything wrong and cultivate desires that the real Taqim would one day be horrified to find he’d re-acquired. But he could be honest with himself now, here. Maybe his body wasn’t his, but as long as he was here, it wasn’t Taqim’s either. It belonged to anyone he wanted to give it to, include the purple-bearded man whose neck Gadosi threw his arms around. The man grinned as they rocked against one another to the heavy beat of the music.
After that, he spun into the arms of a young, willowy person with soft, genderless features; Gadosi found there that he was now the neck with arms around it, the steady body against which someone else rocked. Two lovers with matching outfits caught him between them, kissing one another passionately over his shoulder as their bodies rubbed up against him. Other hands and arms drew him close and then rocked him away, passing him from one to another as though they were some great organic being, a shared consciousness beyond self-consciousness. Many bodies were hard, including Gadosi’s, but he felt no shame about it as they moved together. They were all in the same boat, after all.
Then he turned and came face to face with another beard. This one wasn’t purple, however; it was black, dark as the eyes that stared Gadosi down.
Gadosi supposed he was meant to be cowed by this, the hunting dog come to retrieve the escaped convict. Instead he grabbed the lapels of Zani’s jacket and pulled him close, melting against him as he felt Zani’s arm reach around his waist. His hand came to rest at the small of Gadosi’s back, and Gadosi laughed. Zani leaned down and growled in his ear, “You ran away.”
“I did!” shouted Gadosi, not bothering to disguise anything here. So what if they were seen? Zani was all but unrecognizable out of uniform, and the euphoria of contact made it so Gadosi no longer cared who knew what about him. “Fuck you!” He met the rhythm of the music with his body, pressing up against Zani as he half-jumped and danced.
Zani’s arm tightened, pulling Gadosi close with brain-rattling force. “We have to go,” he said, though even he was moving his body to the beat as well, whether he knew it or not. All the better to blend in, sure. That could be the reason.
Gadosi took advantage of that and draped both his arms over Zani’s shoulders. “Fuck you!” he shouted again, right in Zani’s face. He had no reason for behaving like this, except it felt so good, and why shouldn’t he feel good? Life was short, and his was meant to be shorter than most. Fuck anything and anyone that would deny him this. His hair slicked almost flat to his scalp with sweat, Gadosi pressed his cock against Zani’s thigh, moaning honestly at the pleasure of pressure and connection. “Do you remember this?” he yelled.
The arm on Gadosi’s back held him in place while Zani’s other hand grabbed at Gadosi’s hair, yanking him back an inch from dangerous points of contact. “We can’t be here,” he said, though Gadosi didn’t so much hear the words as feel them rumbled through where their bodies met.
“Do you remember this?” Gadosi shouted again. He didn’t know if he could feel Zani’s heartbeat or the music’s drumbeat, or if there was any difference between the two.
Zani looked around the club while rolling his eyes, which Gadosi supposed was an advanced skill. “He would have hated this,” Zani said, leaning down to press his lips almost flush against Gadosi’s ear, so that his speech could be heard over the din.
“I’m not him!” Gadosi practically screamed. It felt like ripping open his own chest to say it, but it was true. He was a failure: an empty box that wasn’t empty, a storage container that held a hundredth of what it promised on the label. He was a disaster, a mistake. But by all the gods, he was still here.
And if he was still here, it didn’t matter what he did. He could wallow in a swamp of self-pity and try to poison himself ineffectually. Or he could grab Zani by the sides of his face and kiss him. He chose the latter.
Gadosi was prepared for anything, from being smacked in the face to being thrown across the room. He hadn’t dared to hope for what he got, though, which was Zani’s mouth back against his, open wide and kissing hard in return. His hand tightened in Gadosi’s hair, making sure he didn’t go anywhere, not that a battalion of tanks could have dragged him away from this. Zani’s mouth was everything and nothing that he remembered, a familiar thing that he’d never experienced before. The beard was new, to be sure, but the taste beneath it was the same.
He didn’t want the war. He didn’t want to fight, to lead troops, to plan attacks, to strategize violence. Taqim had wanted that, and those desires still belonged to him, probably, somewhere. Taqim had wanted this, though, and that alone had remained.
“Because I remember this,” Gadosi said, moving to kiss at Zani’s ear as they rocked together. “I remember being spread on your bed, Zani, taking you in my ass until neither of us could move. I remember pulling you into bathrooms and trying to suck you off before anyone else walked in. Do you remember too? Whatever he was, whatever they could get out of him, the only part that we both want is you.”
Zani’s groan at that was inaudible, but Gadosi could feel it through his chest. He turned in Zani’s arms so they were facing the same direction, so Zani now had a hand splayed flat on Gadosi’s belly. Gadosi leaned back against him and ground his ass up against him, and oh, Zani was as hard as all the other dancers had been. Gadosi reached his arms over his head and locked them behind Zani’s neck, feeling the heat of Zani’s panted breath against the back of his ear. He was smaller now than Taqim had ever been, but the size difference wasn’t bad, not when he could move like this.
Whatever else was true in the world, it was true that Zani wanted him. Hated him too, maybe, sure, that was not a contradiction Gadosi had any trouble understanding. But wanted him too. Whatever happened next, that at least was true. That was at least worth living for.
As the song faded away, before the next could spin up in full force, Zani stopped moving and stood still. He reached down to take Gadosi’s hand and gestured to the door Gadosi had snuck in in the first place, and Gadosi nodded, letting himself be led through the crowd to the door he’d come in. It was still loud back on the street, but the alley they were in was sheltered from the main drag, and few people saw themselves in or out that fire exit. There, hidden from sight, Zani took a breath and began to speak, as though he wanted to have a conversation.
But Gadosi didn’t. He was sick of talking, and he was so hard he could barely stand. Before Zani could even get a full word out of him, Gadosi was on him again, kissing and practically climbing Zani’s tall, sturdy body. This was not something they could have done when they were comparable heights and weights, but now Gadosi was barely a slip of a thing, probably not even as heavy as Zani could bench-press. He pushed Zani up against the wall and kissed him deep, biting like the pest he was.
All he found himself thinking was that this could be it, the last time Zani would even let Gadosi get within ten feet of him, much less be somewhere alone with him. If it was his only chance, he was ready for it. He was still a virgin himself, but one who remembered a great deal about quick sex in unlikely settings. He slipped his hand down the front of Zani’s pants and was overjoyed to find that Zani was as hard and ready as he could remember. When he squeezed Zani through the fabric, Zani groaned and gasped against Gadosi’s mouth. That was all the encouragement Gadosi needed to fall to his knees.
The alley was filthy, and they were far from the only people who’d had the idea to expel bodily fluids there, and Gadosi didn’t care. Without hesitation or concern for the state of his clothing, he opened his mouth and took Zani’s cock to the root — or at least he tried to, as he found out unpleasantly midway through that his mouth was much smaller now than he was used to. He didn’t care, though; he drew in breath through his nose and tried again, opening his throat until he could get his lips all the way to the root of Zani’s cock.
“Fuck, fuck,” muttered Zani, grabbing for Gadosi’s hair with both hands. Taqim’s hair, always shorn scalp-short, hadn’t been nearly this fun to grab, and Gadosi relished the idea that he had at least something over his predecessor. Zani’s cock twitched in Gadosi’s mouth, and Gadosi sucked harder. He wanted to linger and enjoy the taste, but this was not the place for that, and he worried that if he hesitated even a moment, Zani would come to his senses and make this stop. Gadosi didn’t want this to stop. He didn’t know if he’d ever wanted anything in the world as much as he wanted this.
Had Zani had other lovers in the interim, since his death? Surely he had. Women, probably, since he’d never been particular about one or the other, and sex with them at least didn’t carry the threat of capital punishment. From the way Zani was reacting, though, Gadosi could tell he hadn’t had it like this. He was going to make his one shot memorable.
He was hard, too, but he’d already learned to put that aside, or at least to regard it as abstract fact. His own pleasure wasn’t important; Zani’s was, and being able to focus on that gave him the same quietude the roar of the club had. He licked and sucked and squeezed Zani’s balls through the fabric of his pants, grinning with pride every time Zani swore or grabbed his hair a little tighter. Some things, at least, one didn’t forget.
Zani didn’t give any warning before he came, such that Gadosi wondered if his orgasm hadn’t surprised them both. He swallowed, though, his reflexes expert as he sucked Zani dry and then some. Even after he began to feel Zani’s cock soften in his mouth, he didn’t want to let go. This was the only time he had felt good — about himself, or about anything else — since he could remember. What a fucking pathetic state of affairs, that a back-alley blowjob with his former self’s former lover was the highlight of his happiness. But nonetheless, he shut his eyes and tried to commit everything to memory. This, at least, would be his.
At last, Zani slumped against the wall and encouraged Gadosi to his feet. Gadosi did so, but did not try to touch or kiss him as Zani zipped himself back up again. Instead, he simply stood as close as Zani would let him, practically vibrating from the touch and noise. He felt equal parts like he was about to ascend straight to heaven and like he was going to throw up. He settled for grabbing Zani’s hands and holding them in public. That was something he’d truly never done before.
“What did they tell you?” Zani asked, bypassing the entire incident in true Zani style.
Gadosi blinked a few times, trying to bring himself back from the world of sucking Zani’s cock. It was harder than he thought. “About?”
There it was, a cold shock of reality. Gadosi’s stomach turned sour at the thought of those torture reels. Filmed from five different angles, force-broadcast by hackers over all the country’s networks, the murder of Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim was a bloody, visceral spectacle that seemed to Gadosi the absolute opposite of the euphoria of the club. “I saw it,” Gadosi said.
“Saw it,” Zani echoed.
“Yeah, saw it. Like a thousand times, I saw it. Every angle. Play-by-play. With commentary, like it was a sports event.” Gadosi felt bile and come alike rise in his throat; he turned and spat on the sidewalk, feeling grossed out on several levels.
Zani’s jaw set. “So they’re lying to you too.”
Exhaling hard through clenched teeth, Zani nodded back in the direction of the street. “Cab station down there, by the hotel on the corner. Go back now. Use the same chip you used to get here — and yes, that is how I found you, so thank you for making my job easier by being an idiot.”
Gadosi groaned. Rookie mistake. “What if I don’t want to go?” he asked. Weren’t they going to talk about this? Didn’t he at least get a gold star for giving head?
“If you do not go,” said Zani, tightening his grip on Gadosi’s hand to a near-crush, “I will have no authority over the next person they send to retrieve you.”
As someone with semi-clear memories of being that very person, Gadosi shuddered and nodded. “What’s wrong?”
“Tell them to stop the propaganda tapes,” Zani said, his voice weary despite its sternness. He looked so old and young at once, and the contrast broke Gadosi’s heart. “If they don’t know what you mean, go higher. Find someone who’s got the clearance level to make that make sense. When you’re done with that … well, if you can dial my phone number, then you can find where I still live.”
Gadosi nodded and made as though to leave, then turned back and went for another kiss, wanting to feel Zani’s body once more against him. But Zani stopped him, holding up his palm flat against the center of Gadosi’s chest. “What…?” asked Gadosi, hit by the whiplash of rejection.
Zani shook his head, his arm keeping the distance firm between them. “When you do remember,” he said, turning away, “you know where I’ll be.”
“What do you mean?” asked Dr. Kal-ai-Araj, who looked like a sandalwood statue seated behind his project manager’s desk. He had once been a scientist, maybe, or an actual medical doctor, but he wasn’t either anymore; now he sat behind a desk and managed Stormchild corporate research and development interests. That included Gadosi.
“I mean,” said Gadosi, trying to keep his face even, “I don’t think they’re all right. I’m sure you and your team have done a lot of hard work. But I think … some of them are maybe not right.”
Araj’s meaty hands folded together atop the papers on his desk, fingers interlaced. “Can you be more specific?”
Gadosi took a breath and chewed at his lower lip, as though he were just thinking of this himself for the first time, coming to a conclusion all on his own. “Some of the things you show me, they feel very familiar. They … what’s the word?”
“Resonate?” offered Araj.
Gadosi nodded. “That’s it. They resonate. But some things don’t.”
Leaning back in his chair, Araj nodded and let his smile widen, the picture of relaxed confidence. Gadosi wasn’t foolish enough to think that a single one of his motions was unplanned or uncontrolled. “Well, of course. That’s only natural. You yourself have mentioned in your reports that the grafting has felt in many ways incomplete, hence the unfamiliarity. Strengthening pathways of cognition and recognition will in time fill in those gaps. I trust some of the more foreign memories will begin to resonate sooner than you think.”
“Maybe,” said Gadosi. He leaned forward in his chair, bracing his elbows on his knees. “But I don’t mean degrees of resonance. I mean resonance at all. And I didn’t realize it until last session.”
One of Araj’s eyebrows crept up with interest. “Yes, I was reviewing the records,” Araj said, gesturing to the screen at his left hand. “That seemed a curious request, to view such a brutal and traumatic element.”
“That’s just it. It wasn’t traumatic.” Gadosi stood, stretching his arms out above his head as he walked around Araj’s office. It was a large office, after all, with so much wasted space; why not put some of it to use with a stroll? “I didn’t like it, but the trauma was about watching it, not reliving it.”
When he looked back, Gadosi could see at least a crack had begun to form in Araj’s serene, wooden face. It was small, just a vertical line between his eyebrows, but it was enough that Gadosi knew he’d scored a hit. “Well, naturally, some things are more difficult than others to–”
“No, no.” Gadosi walked over to the window and looked out over the sprawling city. In this direction, there were buildings straight out to the coast, high-rises and skyscrapers blocking his view of the point where the water met the land. “I’m not saying it’s difficult. I’m saying it’s fake. And I’m saying I think you know it was fake.”
“Why–” Araj cleared his throat. “Why would we show you false information?”
“I didn’t know that either,” Gadosi said, drumming his fingertips against the windows. He left smudgy fingerprints behind and was childishly pleased. “Until I thought, maybe when the transfer wasn’t immediate and perfect, you thought you could improve.”
Araj cleared his throat again, the guiltiest sound Gadosi could ever recall hearing. “Improve?” he echoed dumbly.
Gadosi walked back over, and it occurred to him in that moment that Araj was afraid of him. Behind his mask of condescension, he was terrified that Gadosi might at any moment snap and come into his purported strength. They were all scared, Gadosi thought. They treated him like an object, and by that they kept him cowed and at arm’s length. They had set out to create a nuclear bomb with a personality, then said a prayer that it would behave. Taqim had always behaved. But then he hadn’t been Taqim.
“If you want him back, you’re going to have to be honest.” Gadosi leaned over the desk, resting his weight on his ten fingertips, like some panther ready to strike. “I’m failing, aren’t I?”
That furrow between Araj’s eyebrows deepened. “You know that your project has had the highest–”
“Don’t bullshit me.” Gadosi had tried to play nice, to play meek and dumb. That hadn’t gotten him anywhere. “I’m failing. The numbered clones failed. I’ve seen them, floating like they’re in some weird zoo. You push vital data on the screens when the money people come through, but no one bothers to do that for me. You’ve made them empty shells. Shit, you can’t even keep them alive outside the tanks, can you?”
Araj not only cleared his throat, he went for his collar to unfasten his shirt’s top button. Gadosi was making him sweat. Good.
“So you get me,” Gadosi said, and now he really was thinking through this aloud. He’d trusted Zani, of course, but hadn’t stopped to consider the why of it. Now, though, he couldn’t stop. Maybe there was still some of that genius left over for him. “So you get me, and you stop my growth at an age where I’m old enough to fend for myself but still malleable and capable of adult reasoning. But when the transfer isn’t perfect on the first try, you think, oh, okay, the original wasn’t that good either, maybe we can improve! How am I doing?”
Araj took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “What is your point?”
“I’m failing.” Gadosi pointed a fingertip to his head like he might have pointed a gun, if there had been one nearby. “You know I’m failing. And you want me to fail, so you can start again, before anyone comes to the conclusion that the reason I failed is that you were feeding me lies and hoping I couldn’t tell the difference.”
“What do you want?”
“The truth. The real tapes, the documentation, the cognitive grafts, the cortical imprints you pulled during his autopsy. You wouldn’t be so stupid as to destroy them,” Gadosi said, hoping that last statement was as true as he needed it to be. His inner Taqim told him that ass-coverers were often exactly that stupid. If they were, he was out of cards to play.
Instead, he saw Araj’s mouth set in a heavy line. “Why?” he asked, his composure long since broken.
Gadosi straightened his spine. “I’m doomed either way. You disappear me into him, or you just disappear me.” He folded his arms across his chest, the condemned man bargaining for the only thing he had left to lose: his dignity. “Give me a chance to prove I can get it right.”
He didn’t know if he felt better or worse when Araj, after a long moment of consideration, nodded.
He saw Zani’s eyes open even in the heavy dark, because he was only inches away from them. Zani’s reflexes were good, but he had grown old and comfortable behind the walls of his apartment, and Gadosi weighed at least a hundred pounds less than he had the last occasion he’d had to sneak in. He hadn’t made a sound until he was right on top of Zani. Maybe he didn’t have the weight anymore, but he had the element of surprise and, properly applied, the leverage. Instinct made Zani try to free himself, but he was pinned fast by his intruder who had, indeed, remembered where he lived.
“You killed me,” Gadosi whispered through clenched teeth.
To his credit, Zani didn’t so much as struggle. “I did,” he said, his voice low and fogged from sleep.
Gadosi’s grip tightened around Zani’s wrists. “You killed me!” He lifted Zani’s arms, then slammed them back against the bed, the way he imagined someone might shake a hysterical person. He wasn’t hysterical, though. He was calm. He was calmer than he’d ever been in his whole short life. The scratching inside his head, the uncomfortable shifting of an ill-fitting suit, was gone now. The doctors had looked vaguely disappointed after the procedure; according to all their instruments and readings, nothing had happened. In their short-sightedness, they couldn’t tell that somewhere deep inside Gadosi, something mismatched had finally aligned.
Zani leaned his head back as far as he could against the pillow, baring his throat without hesitation. “Then take what you came for and be done.”
The flesh of Zani’s neck was smooth beneath the line of his beard, and Gadosi knew every muscle and vein that lay just below the skin. He knew where to hit to wound, and he knew where to hit to kill. He could use his hands. He could use his teeth.
Instead, he pulled back enough to look at his murderer caught beneath him. The room was all but dark, but Gadosi could see what he needed. Light from the various electronics gave the interior just enough glow that he could find the shape of things. And what he couldn’t see, he simply knew. “Tell me why,” he said, pulling his voice down soft again.
Zani sighed and shut his eyes. He looked so resigned like that, a condemned prisoner glad to see his execution date come, knowing that for all the hell to come, at least his wait was over. “What do you remember?” he asked.
“A fight and a gun and then you shooting me in the fucking head,” Gadosi snapped. Keeping himself emotionally level was a struggle he was doomed to lose tonight. He slammed Zani’s hands back down against the mattress hard enough to make the springs creak. “I loved you! I loved you and you fucking killed me!”
Maybe he was hoping the sound would make the neighbors call the police, or maybe he simply no longer cared what the thought, but Zani didn’t hush him. “So kill me,” Zani said, the sound almost a plea.
“No!” Gadosi let go of one of Zani’s hands to punch the headboard, cracking the cheap particle wood. Like everything else in Zani’s life, it was standard-issue, economical, and ultimately disposable. “Not until you tell me why.”
“Does it matter?” asked Zani, eyes still closed.
“Of course it fucking matters! Because you loved me too!” Gadosi was crying now, and when had he started that? Had it been since he’d pinned Zani down and heard him admit with no hesitation his sins? Had he ever even cried before? They had in front of one another, though, once upon a time, and every time one of them had he’d made the other swear never to tell, and the other never had. They’d been as close as two people could be in secret, living separate lives that joined only in the places no one was looking. They’d talked of leaving, not just Stormchild but the country and even the empire itself, throwing everything away so they could drive into an anonymous future together. It had been ridiculous, of course, the pillow talk of two professional soldiers who would never walk away from the positions they’d spent their lives establishing. And that had seemed good too, until one of them hadn’t been alive anymore.
Zani didn’t respond, and Gadosi didn’t know what he expected him to say. He’d died without either one of them ever saying ‘love’ about one another, and yet here Gadosi was, tossing it around as if it were nothing to confess. So instead, Gadosi focused on his new memory. He wanted to believe that it was the lie and the slow, brutal public execution was the truth, but for all Araj’s other bullshit, his talk of resonance had been correct. It was spotty — the scrappy bits of memory salvaged from a dead man’s brain half-destroyed by gunfire, more absence than presence — but it wasn’t wrong.
The broadcast had been a fake, a low-quality mock-up to stir up sentiment against one enemy or another, and by the time they’d been wiped off the map, there was no one left to protest that, no, they had done no such thing. In that sense, it had been politically expedient and effective, but it was also of no concern to Gadosi. What it was hiding, though, was another matter entirely.
“There was … a test,” Gadosi said, poking around the edges of the memory, to the parts where things were only starting to take shape. “An experiment. A drug.”
Zani’s dark eyes opened again, searching Gadosi’s face. “Do you remember what it did?”
“It … made me angry.” Gadosi shook his head. “Aggressive. It was supposed to make me aggressive.” He paused, then shook his head again; that wasn’t right either. “No. It wasn’t supposed to make me do that.”
Zani nodded, a fractional movement. “It wasn’t,” he agreed.
“But it did.”
He could feel that aggression now at the center of his mind, sitting like a phantom stone still so heavy it made it hard for him to breathe. It wasn’t his, though; it was as foreign to him as the grafted pathworks had once been, but it didn’t belong to Taqim either. Something else had brought it in to make him truly fearless, to push an already-superior supersoldier into godlike territory. He had volunteered for it, because who didn’t want to be a god? Who didn’t want to face down an army and not only show no fear, but feel none?
But it had broken him instead. It had reached into his skull and cracked it wide open, replacing him with that stone. It had torn apart his mind and left tatters in its wake, and he had killed fifteen scientists and eight guards with his bare hands before Tel-ar-Zaniriyya had walked calmly in, raised his gun, aimed between the eyes of the man he loved, and pulled the trigger.
Gadosi looked at him. “I was gone,” he said, his voice soft again, this time with wonder.
“They would have calmed you down,” Zani said, sounding so far away, “and then they would have put you down. Or … I’ve seen what they can do, with their drugs. I’ve seen them hollow out a man. And I–” Zani laughed bitterly then, trying to turn away despite behind all but held in place. “I could never do much for you. Ten years, and I spent most of it worrying about letting anyone see. But I would be damned if I stood back and let someone who didn’t love you take you away from me.”
“Oh,” said Gadosi. He should have had something better to say to that, something more profound, to acknowledge such devotion. But it would have to do.
A quiet smile began to curve the corner of Zani’s mouth. That had been his favorite expression of Zani’s once, that smile that crept out when he was too tired to keep it at bay. “So come on,” he said, resting back against the pillow, his throat still exposed. “You know what you’ve come for. You can say it was in self-defense if you do it right.”
He could, he knew. He knew how to make it look like a struggle. He even knew the story he’d tell: invited over in the middle of the night, propositioned, horrified, forced to resort to violence to defend his honor. Or he could get ahead of having to explain at all and run; there was cash in the wall safe, and the combination was probably still his birthday, knowing Zani. If he didn’t make the same mistakes this time, he could get far, deep underground in the neon slums, or maybe beyond the reach of the city entirely. Was he enough of a lost cause that they’d just let him go without pursuit? He didn’t think so, but he might get lucky.
Instead, he went hard for Zani’s mouth in something that was part assault, part kiss. His teeth caught Zani’s lip between them and began to tug and suck while Zani groaned beneath him. He tried to move against Gadosi’s body, but Gadosi had him trapped, and he wasn’t letting Zani go anywhere.
Gadosi had gone home from the club that night so hard he hadn’t been able to think straight, and before he could sit and contemplate the colossal danger he was in, he’d needed to jerk off a few dozen times to the memory of Zani’s body against his, Zani’s cock in his mouth. Those weren’t the only memories there, either; he’d been brought back to a flood of sordid scenes of bodies tangled together and mouths pressed to skin. He wanted that again now; he ground his body against Zani’s and was pleased to find that despite the somewhat awkward circumstances otherwise, they were both hard.
This was the point where Gadosi knew he should roll over and present his ass. He’d been the powerful soldier, the mighty general, and yet all he’d ever wanted was to bend over and take it as hard as Zani could give it to him, to be fucked until he couldn’t see straight. He’d lived for that surrender. More than a few times, it had been the only thing to get him through some grueling campaign or hideous experiment: knowing that as soon as he could, he’d be back in Zani’s arms, and Zani would take care of him.
That didn’t seem right now, though. That had been what Taqim had wanted. Gadosi wanted something else as well.
He let go of Zani only enough to roll him over, forcing him on his stomach. Zani slept only in loose boxers, and it was no effort to get those down his legs, exposing his ass. Zani gasped, which made Gadosi grin as he looked down at his lover and former lover’s backside. There was a lot of power in this position, clearly. He intended to make good use of it.
Gadosi unzipped his bodysuit to between his legs, baring the median of his body from his throat down to his balls. The bedside table was the same cheap, ratty table Gadosi remembered, and the top drawer still held books and loose coins and other assorted items. But the bottom one had everything he needed. He had never rolled a condom onto his cock before, and he was perhaps a little surprised when it wasn’t quite as big as his memory wanted him to be. That was true about a lot of things, though, and he hadn’t let that stop him yet.
Now how did this go? This was more than just a failure of memory on Gadosi’s part; he had never topped before, not once in all their time together. They had fucked countless times, and every time he had been the one begging to be topped, to be taken. Now it was time for something different. He started with the lube, letting it ooze from the bottle onto his fingers, then rubbed his slicked hand over his cock. What came next? He tried to remember what it had been like to be in Zani’s place (or was Zani now in his?), then settled on pressing his fingers against the entrance to Zani’s ass.
Zani turned his face into the pillow and groaned loudly then. Gadosi had never heard him make that sound before, so he pressed again, greedy for more. His own cock jerked as he felt Zani push back against him. He couldn’t wait any longer; they’d both waited so long.
Bracing himself on his knees and hoping he wasn’t about to make a colossal mess of things, Gadosi slipped his slicked cock inside of Zani. He was surprised as how easily it went, how receptive Zani was to him, and as soon as he was in to his hilt, he had to stop and take several deep breaths so he didn’t come right then and there. Zani was so hot and tight, and the very thought of having him again at all, much less like this, was at the edge of overwhelming. He bit his lip and took a deep breath, then placed his hands on Zani’s hips and started to move.
Zani grabbed at the pillows beside him, looking for something to grip. He didn’t need to, though; Gadosi had him and was not going to let him go, not for the world. Gadosi bit his own lower lip as he thrust again, fucking Zani with increasing intensity.
When they’d first met, Zani hadn’t been a virgin, not by a long stretch, but Taqim had. Filled with desires he couldn’t reconcile, restricted already from so much normal interaction, he had resigned himself to a life of celibacy and being married to his work. That resignation had lasted until exactly eight days after meeting the young Tel-ar-Zaniriyya, which had been all the time they’d needed to go from a first introduction to all-out fucking in the private medical suite Taqim had warranted being assigned. From then until his death, he’d never had anyone else. He’d never wanted anyone else. He couldn’t imagine it.
Gadosi now was the same. He should have left Zani alone to his life and his grief, he knew, but he also knew that he never could have. He bent over Zani’s body and grabbed his wrists, holding him down to the bed as he began pumping into him. It was almost like doing push-ups at that angle, except every repetition brought the sensation of being deep inside Zani again. Taqim had always been good at push-ups. Gadosi hated them, though he was willing to make an exception for this.
He remembered the first time they’d kissed, over beers and take-out in Taqim’s old quarters, but he also remembered the first time they’d kissed, up against the wall in the alley. One wasn’t better than the other, or more real than the other. They were just two things that occupied the same space, forever converging without unifying, the way Gadosi and Zani’s bodies did now.
As he held Zani down, he kissed the back of his neck, just below the base of his short-shorn hair. “I have you,” he said against the soft skin there.
Zani nodded and pushed his ass back against Gadosi, begging him deeper without saying a thing. That was all right; Gadosi understood. He used his leverage and pumped harder, driving deeper and faster into Zani’s prone body.
It occurred to him that Zani probably thought of this as some sort of punishment, a kind of expiation for his sins. That was fine enough, Gadosi supposed; Zani could take what he needed, and there was no shame for needing it. But he wanted to make sure that there was no doubt about his own intentions, so he kissed Zani again, pressing kisses down his spine until even his own flexible back could bend no further. Instead, he stretched himself atop Zani’s body as close as he could, no longer pinning Zani’s legs with his own ankles. He placed his mouth against the curve of Zani’s ear, snapping a love bite before soothing the skin with a kiss.
“I forgive you,” he whispered, and whether it was Gadosi or Taqim speaking, there was no clear way to say now. The distinction didn’t seem to matter as much as it once had, or even at all.
Zani choked out a little sob that was caught between pleasure and agony, but Gadosi just pressed his lips to the soft flesh behind Zani’s ear. “Fuck,” Zani gasped, and Gadosi could almost laugh at the perfection of that reaction.
“Yeah,” Gadosi agreed, “fuck.” And he did just that then, doubling his efforts until he was plowing into Zani just as hard as Zani had once moved against him. He was like the noise at the club now, his pounding driving out everything else in Zani’s head. He wanted to be that good. He could at least do that.
He reached down beneath Zani’s body and the sheets, wrapping his lubed hand loosely around Zani’s cock and giving Zani something to push into with every one of Gadosi’s thrusts. Zani practically yowled at the touch, bucking his hips in search of more sensation. Gadosi gave it to him, tightening his fingers until his fist was a snug tube, again holding Zani tight. Once, Zani had done that for him. It was his time to return the favor.
He was surprised when Zani cried out and came, shooting hot into Gadosi’s hand; he had almost forgotten that this wasn’t something that could last forever, a perpetual motion machine of sex and bodies. He bit his own lip and pushed inside Zani again, fucking him for nearly a minute more before he was there too. He gasped against Zani’s neck as his orgasm overtook him, making no other sound as he rode through his climax and everything after. At last, he collapsed against Zani’s body, panting.
They lay there for what might have been seconds or hours, until Zani reached back and tapped Gadosi’s hip. “Get out,” he said, his voice gruff.
Gadosi’s eyes opened wide. All this, everything between them, and he was still being rejected and ejected?
After a moment of Gadosi’s hesitation, Zani snorted. “Of me, dipshit.”
“Oh!” That made much more sense, and Gadosi was already half-out anyway. His cock’s softening while it was still inside the condom had started to make a mess, and he hopped off the bed and dealt with that quickly. He thought back to what Zani had always done next, then got a pair of washcloths from the cabinet in the bathroom. Their romance had never trumped practical concerns.
When he returned, Zani was stretched out on his back, his own cock snuggled softly against the flesh of his belly. He looked exhausted — he had been asleep, after all, at least until some rude night visitor had interrupted his rest — but he also wore that precious little hint of a smile. How lucky Gadosi was to be able to see it again.
“I’m not him,” said Gadosi, shifting his weight on his feet. “I mean, I am, but I’m not. I can’t be all the way him, and he can’t be all the way gone.”
“I know,” said Zani, sitting up. He patted the mattress next to him, and Gadosi went over to sit, curling his legs up under him.
“I can pretend to be, though,” Gadosi said. “I think I can. If I concentrate.”
Zani shook his head, then held out his arm. Gadosi leaned into the embrace, toppling like a tree into Zani’s chest. He put his cheek on Zani’s shoulder and let Zani stroke his hair, an affectionate indulgence they’d never allowed one another once upon a time. Maybe he wasn’t as good at pretending as he thought.
“No,” said Zani after a long silence, so long that Gadosi had nearly drifted off to sleep. “No. Be what you are. Maybe it’s time for me to change as well.”
Gadosi didn’t know what to say to that, so he let himself be settled into bed next to Zani. They’d almost never afforded themselves the luxury of staying the night at one another’s quarters, but here he was, being tucked into the sheets like it was somewhere he belonged. Small changes were like distant thunder, Gadosi thought, heralding a storm moving in from the horizon. Then he closed his eyes, and thinking was done for the night.
There were three bangs on the lid of the trunk, and then it opened. “We’re here,” said Zani.
Gadosi’s first thought was that it all smelled so green. He knew the smells of cities and beaches and war zones, but this … this was something else. He lifted his head, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the light. He’d lost track of how long he’d been in there, rattling around over old dirt roads, humming along highways. For all the remote monitors at Stormchild could tell, he’d led Zani along a merry chase, always staying one frustrating step ahead as Zani remained hot on his tail. And if the two dots on the trackers occasionally converged, so what? That only meant that they’d sent the best man for the job; no one would have concluded that both hunter and prey were traveling in the same car.
Taking Zani’s hand to steady himself, Gadosi got out of the car, groaning as his knees popped. They were in a forest now, a dense glade, though Gadosi could hear what he assumed to be the rush of a river just beyond the closest trees. There was so much nature here, he wasn’t quite sure how to handle it.
“You ready?” asked Zani, pulling a massive, sharp probe out of his jacket.
Gadosi gave it a skeptical eye. “You sure you know how to use that thing?”
“Absolutely not.” Zani flipped the switch and the blue light at the base started to glow. “Come on.”
Taking a deep breath, Gadosi turned and bared the back of his neck. A second later, there was a sharp stab and the sensation of a trickle of blood running down his back. “Ouch!” he yelped.
Zani snorted. “One down. Four to go.”
With greatest reluctance, Gadosi offered each of his wrists, his right armpit, and his left hip. Four more punctures later, and Zani was left with the spike in one hand and five bloody, disengaged trackers in his other. Even knowing the procedure was necessary didn’t make it sting any less. Gadosi rubbed his hip, the worst of the bunch; that one had been deep, and he had no doubt it would bruise.
“Now me,” Zani said, handing over the tool.
Having enlisted into technology developed nearly three decades previous, Zani only had three: the back of his neck and each of his wrists. Gadosi held his hand steady, wincing only a little each time the probe broke the flesh and returned with a tracking chip. Zani didn’t so much as flinch, the stoic bastard. Gadosi wanted to poke fun at him for it, but he decided it could save that for later. There would be a later, now. There would be all the time in the world.
Zani tossed the trackers into the car and pulled two hiker’s backpacks from the back. Then he sat behind the driver’s seat and put the car into drive. Gadosi followed along beside him as he drove the car across terrain it wasn’t supposed to cover, mowing down saplings and leaving ruts through muddy patches. Once, Gadosi had to get behind the car and give it a shove over a particularly obnoxious tree root. Together they led the vehicle along its final slow march.
When they came to the end, Gadosi’s eyes went wide. There was a river there, a wide, white-watered thing, but it was at the bottom of a great gorge, some five stories below them. Zani put the car in park, then got out. “Strip,” he said.
Gadosi knew better than to argue. By the time he was naked, Zani had new clothes waiting for him: shirt, trousers, and boots, all plain and anonymous. While Gadosi got dressed, Zani put the bodysuit in the passenger seat, then lay his own uniform out where he’d been sitting moments before. That finished, he put the car into neutral and gestured to Gadosi to get behind it again. The ground was smoother here, flat rock instead of soil, and there was no resistance to speak of as the two of them pushed the car off the cliff.
It tumbled down, beating against the wall in horrible collisions Gadosi could hear but not see, until at last it came to rest with a tremendous splash. As someone who had once led full-scale invasions of major cities, Gadosi was still impressed by the level of destruction.
Zani dusted his hands off on his pants and started heading back for where he’d left the backpacks, leaving Gadosi to follow. “That should be enough to convince them,” Zani said.
Glancing back over his shoulder, Gadosi couldn’t help recalling the few yet definitive facts he knew about forensic investigation. “Won’t the lack of bodies be a problem?”
“Not after how long it’ll take them to find it,” Zani said.
“If they’ve got our trackers and the car’s tracker, shouldn’t it be pretty quick?” asked Gadosi, looking around. “Where are we, anyway?”
“To answer your questions in reverse order” –Zani scooped up one of the backpacks and handed it to Gadosi, then shouldered the second himself– “the Northern Border, and they’re going to have their hands full for quite some time.”
Zani lifted his wrist to show the face of his watch, which carried the time as it usually did, but was also now blinking red around the rim. “Why is it doing that?” Gadosi asked.
“That tells me the bombs just went off,” said Zani, starting out walking perpendicular to the gorge, heading upriver.
Startled, Gadosi took several seconds to realize he should be following too. “The bombs?” he sputtered.
By the time he caught up enough to see Zani’s face again, he found a bright grin there. “Congratulations. You’re truly one-of-a-kind again.”
Gadosi hardly knew what to say. It was so easy to imagine: the fireballs ripping through the data centers and halls, melting down the samples and the specimens, letting the numbered clones finally have the long rest they’d earned. They’d never make another one of him again, if they ever even made anything again.
“Wow,” Gadosi said, shaking his head. “You’re taking this whole theft of corporate property thing to the next level.”
Zani shrugged. “They’ll probably think you did it.”
“Gee, thanks,” Gadosi said, punching Zani in his upper arm.
In the end, it wasn’t that the grafts hadn’t worked; it was that Dhu-ar-wa-Taqim had never been the man they’d thought him to be. He’d always been there, laid so closely over Gadosi’s mind that what the scientists understood as deterioration was in fact only the last moments of alignment. Gadosi hadn’t been the one rejecting the glorious war narratives; Taqim had been, pushing back against the violence that had been artificially grafted on him. Once there was nothing to fight, they could have peace with one another, and with themselves.
“So,” asked Gadosi, “where are we going now?”
“We’re going to cross there,” said Zani, pointing to a valley off in the distance. “And then … well, where do you want to go?”
It was a question he had never been asked before, not so long as he could remember. “Somewhere warm,” Gadosi said, drawing his backpack a little tighter to his body to block the high escarpment winds. “And quiet.”
“Warm and quiet,” Zani said, nodding. “You know, I never imagined I’d live to see retirement.”
Gadosi snorted. “Shit, I didn’t, and I’m doing just fine.”
Zani was trying as hard as he could, Gadosi could tell, but he couldn’t keep his full, wonderful smile from blossoming on his face. They walked on toward their crossing in silence, shedding their old identities as they went. By the time they reached their destination, they would each be someone else entirely, but also still themselves. Gadosi would do this for Taqim, who could not, and for himself, who could, and with every step, the distinction seemed to matter less. On the other side of the valley, it would no longer matter at all.