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There was no light switch in his cell.
That particular right to choose, along with so many others, wasn’t one that he had earned back yet.
Curt looked up at the bright fluorescent light and barely noticed the headache that was already forming. The pillow had fallen from his face in the night, his woeful attempt to get enough darkness to sleep, and now it lay abandoned beside the uncomfortable camping bed that was the one piece of furniture in the cell.
A camp bed with hard green canvas, a thin pillow that provided no support, a thin blanket so scratchy that it was almost more painful to use than it was to suffer the chills without it, a toilet, a plate and a cup.
And all of this was an upgrade from-
A siren blared, and he looked to the plate and cup. The cup filled with water, two pieces of toast and one tiny pat of butter appeared on the plate. Food. At least the food was regular now. He still expected every bite to be poison, to be Petersen cruelly allowing him a false sense of security before finally killing him with a sandwich.
But as every minute ticked by, that possibility seemed more and more remote. Petersen wasn’t subtle. If he wanted him dead – as every moment of his first few weeks had indicated, then he would be dead.
Not that Petersen hadn’t tried.
Not that Petersen hadn’t succeeded.
There had been the life he had known. It hadn’t been a normal life, but it had been the one he’d known for the past couple of years. It was a job, albeit not one you could just apply for with a resume.
There had been his normal. There had been the moment where normal had shattered. Then there had been pain.
And the pain had lasted so long. Time had lost all meaning.
Curt slowly bit into the corner of the toast and chewed.
Petersen had- It would have been one thing to hurt him in all the ways that it was possible for one human being to hurt another. But Petersen wasn’t human. He had far more tools at his disposal, and he was creative.
Sometime during that, Petersen had recruited him. It had been a choice of dying or agreeing to recruitment. Death now, or death delayed. Petersen had left him with a form, a pen, and a deadline.
And with bloody hands and melting lungs, he had signed.
The form had changed some things, or maybe it had coincided with Petersen simply running out of new ways to torture him. Almost out of new ways to torture him. Almost done with the old standbys.
The dark room, its floor always covered in dried blood and shit, had been changed for this stark cell. Horrific ministrations had been swapped for- Less frequent visits.
And it was nothing but waiting.
He took another bite of toast and used the second piece to spread the half-melted butter around.
Time passed, and he did the best he could not to think, not to feel, not to do anything but barely exist.
Maybe he was dead. Maybe this was the afterlife he had earned for himself.
Another alarm. A sandwich consisting of two pieces of bread and a single slice of plasticky cheese.
A knock jerked him from his empty, thoughtless existence.
Sweat immediately beaded on the back of his neck as he fought to stand from the bed. As middling as the stretcher bed was, it was a luxury compared to the floor, so he wanted to be away from it, lest Petersen smash it while-
One thought fought for space in amongst his fear.
Petersen didn’t knock.
His heart pounding in his chest, his limbs waiting for pain, his head waiting for a gunshot, he looked towards the door. ‘Hello?’
There was the sound of a heavy lock being disengaged, and the door opened. He shuffled back as far as he could, tried to look as meek as possible, as demure, like someone not trying to run, not trying to give the visitor any excuse to-
Farnshaw stepped into the room.
He hadn’t been conscious the first few – many – times he’s encountered Farnshaw. Petersen had played his games and sent whatever was left of his body to medical to put back together, a jigsaw ready to be ripped apart the next day.
Petersen was the mastermind, and Farnshaw was complicit. But unlike Petersen, Farnshaw had eventually started to treat him like a human being. A prisoner, yes; and a monster. But a human being all the same.
He suspected that a lot of the better treatment that had come after he had signed up to be a recruit was a result of Farnshaw’s programming not allowing recruits to be treated as badly as prisoners.
And even if he didn’t like the agent, he had to be grateful that so far, Farnshaw had always put him back together with his limbs around the right way, and leaving him without the scars that Petersen’s fun should have left on his skin.
‘You’re being transferred,’ Farnshaw said without preamble. He stepped fully into the room and closed the door behind himself. A plastic chair appeared, and the agent sat, a coffee stain visible on his lab coat, showing that it had been a busy day in the world outside of the cell.
Curt sat back down on the stretcher bed. He understood the words, but they still didn’t make sense. ‘To where? To a permanent cell?’
‘I’ve been lead to believe that most of the opinions about Brisbane are largely exaggerated,’ Farnshaw said with a small smile. ‘I think in order for you to understand, you…need to understand, and I’d appreciate knowing that you will listen to me, and not simply scream your people’s rhetoric at me while I try and have a conversation with you.’
‘I don’t know you, and I’m not pretending that I do, so I am making some assumptions about your ignorance, but not unfair ones, I think. What I imagine, Recruit, is that you know next to nothing about how my people work. I know a fair number of Solstice genuinely think that we’re robots, with all of the attendant physical circuitry.’
‘Blue,’ Curt said, as he stared at the floor. ‘I mean, I don’t know everything. But. Nanite formula.’
‘Full marks. That is what we are, but I would also imagine that you don’t have the first idea of how we are.’
Curt blinked. ‘Huh?’
Farnshaw waved a hand, and Curt flinched, ready for the hand to strike him, to hold him, to force his head underwater, or to-
Farnshaw seemed to notice his reaction, folded his hands and placed them in his lap. ‘It’s inelegant wording. It’s so hard to discuss when you have absolutely no baseline of what I’m talking about. It would be so much easier if your people educated you in the slightest, but then again, if they did, you probably wouldn’t hate us.’ The agent sighed. ‘Let me ask you this: does it still hurt from when you scraped your knee when you were twelve?’
‘I’m going to say “no” so that you can make your point.’
‘The first insult that comes from a Solstice against us is that we’re artificial. We’re proxies, robots, simulations of something living. This is true. I’ve got an operating system like your computer or your phone. I’m also a person. This isn’t a contradiction. But we are created with a purpose, and we must serve that purpose before we serve ourselves. In order to have the room to love, to hate, to spend time with model trains, we fulfil our Duty every moment of every day.’
Curt stared at the floor.
He tried not to think. Tried not to-
He wished he was holding back tears, wished he was having anything close to the- He only cried when he slept now. Wakefulness brought on the knowledge that it was pointless to-
‘We do a hard job,’ Farnshaw continued. ‘Scoff now, if you’re going to. We live in a way that means we lose friends, see horror, and go through lots of intense moments. We don’t have the luxury to take six months off after we deal with a case where we find bodies mutilated beyond all sense. If we lose a child, we still have to show up to work the next week. It’s Duty first, always Duty first.’
‘Okay?’ Curt said, feeling like the agent expected something from him.
‘We feel things, like any person does. With the same intensity. Love and hate and grief and sickeningly violent revenge. But… It passes. So much more quickly than it does for a human. When we have these moments, they burn bright, then they burn out. What residue remains becomes part of our baseline, and we go back to normal.’ The agent paused for a moment. ‘Petersen will never stop hating you, but for right now, he’s done with you. He just wants you gone. If you stay, if you pass in front of him again, he will probably kill you and- Not bring you to me for resuscitation. Shipping you off is not- Is not what he wants. But at this point, I don’t think he can have a satisfactory conclusion. Out of sight, out of mind, it’s the only ending that can be.’
The idea that he was- It wasn’t freedom, and he couldn’t mistake it for such. But- Something better than the harsh brightness of this small cell- No. That was probably hoping for too much. Just because he was getting a change of location didn’t mean he was getting a change of-
He furrowed his brow and forced himself to look at Farnshaw.
‘It would be remiss of me-’ the agent paused and looked uncomfortable. ‘What I’ve described. The way we are. It’s almost as if the memories age faster. It’s the same reason that you no longer care that you fell off a bike, no longer feel the pain of skinning your knee. You remember it, but you don’t feel it.’
‘I understand. I could infer-’
‘Let me finish.’
The rebuke was quiet, but he waited for Farnshaw to stand, to hit, to-
‘I know the Solstice lie. I don’t know what you think of your people or mine right now. I know you were probably brought in by careful lies and matey obfuscation. I still think you’re culpable for every life you took, every act of violence against a sentient creature. I think you’re a monster, and I don’t know if you deserve the freedom you’re getting. I think in a lot of ways it would have been kinder all round, if at some point, when you were placed in front of me, half-dead and begging for the other half, that I had given you what you wanted.’
He tried to say “you probably should have”, but he couldn’t bring himself to form the words, lest the agent grant the wish.
‘All of that said,’ Farnshaw said, his hands trembling. ‘He went too far. I’m eighty years old, and I have never had to pump so much blue into a single person as I have done with you. You’re still running at a higher percentage than most recruits, but you’ll be stepped down by your new medical team after they’re sure that the last round of- That you’re fully healed. He went too far, and for the sake of my soul, I had to do the same. It doesn’t work as well for a recruit, but some of this, some of the last few weeks, it’ll age more quickly. It won’t be a skinned knee from a decade ago, but it’s a chance. I don’t know if you deserve it. I don’t think you do. I think you owe it to every life that you’ve taken to earn it. Balance the ledger, balance it a hundred times. It won’t change what you’ve done, but it’s making something of the chance you’ve got. Because if you don’t, then why are you still breathing?’
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It started with a bang; not an explosion but atoms accelerated toward infinity. That was the end of my so-called ‘ordinary’ life. Fate guided me into the line of fire the same day a madman sought revenge for his bruised ego.
Once upon a time there was no such thing as Glimmer Girl, or even Kaira Cade. This is my story.