By Ken McGrath
The shuttle docked smoothly, piloted in carefully by a combination of human hands and the sort of mathematical steadiness that only computers could bring. The crew were oblivious to the consistent explosions lighting up the horizon, like the flashes of numerous giant cameras, as if God himself wanted to document the end of this world. They had made this run many times now and besides those bombs never seemed to get any closer. It was always ‘over there’ that there was trouble erupting. It seemed to be a constant give and take when it came to victories and land gained, then lost, then regained.
Down in the hold the cargo started to wake as they were eased out of stasis, as if the grapples now binding the shuttle to the bay had shaken the sleep from their eyes. Fluids were drained, oxygen was pumped and limbs that had been asleep awoke, initially stiff and tight but slowly loosening and gaining feeling. The men emerged naked and dripping from their holding pods and were brought into the new world blinking, like they were babies again, emerging from the womb, their walking as unsteady as foals on ice.
Private Jim McGuirk was greeted by an orderly dressed in a sterile white coat who helped dry him down, before handing over a pair of grey coveralls. The young soldier eased himself slowly into them, those creaking legs of his still not fully accustomed to movement. His fellow grunts were having the similar difficulties.
Private Thompson was muttering to himself as he struggled with the zipper of his coveralls, fingers not yet fully alive were as useful as lead and unable to complete the task. But he refused to let an orderly help him, a hangover from an overprotected and coddled childhood which he never forgave his parents for and as a result had been making up for it ever since. Private Steiner, off to McGuirk’s right had no such compunctions, lifting his legs and arms like a child being dressed by it’s father as another orderly, with startlingly white hair, helped him into the plain suit.
The man helping Jim was quiet and meticulous, making sure that everything was buttoned and zipped up correctly before stepping back, as if to admire a job well done. He turned and signalled for the grunt to follow him.
The lights were bright to look at and Jim squinted as he was led down the corridor, half-remembered thoughts swimming around the edge of his consciousness like fish ducking and darting through the submerged roots of pond plants, pulling at the trails of memories. He focused on the ground instead, carefully placing foot after foot after foot after foot, trying to build up a rhythm, trying to calm the swirling sensation in his head.
It was hard to believe he was on an alien world now, that somewhere out there beyond these cold, super-metal walls the enemy was crawling ever nearer in a big to try and eradicate them. How much closer had they advanced, he wondered. Or had the push back worked? He hoped so, but so long as it wasn’t finished then the solider was happy. He hadn’t come all this way not to fight. That was what made him who he was.
Foot after foot after foot, the slap of feet on the floor echoed around the corridor, following them like a shadow.
Memories of his training, what seemed like only yesterday but had in fact ended just over fives weeks ago, bubbled to the surface like oxygen escaping from water. The heat, the dirt, the blood, the shouted orders, the kickback from a cannon and the blistered hands, all preparation for where he was now. It was all there, coming to him in waves as his mind shrugged off the last of the lengthy, drug-imposed sleep. The coldness of the pod as he’d eased himself into it. The hiss and solid clunk as the door swung shut, encasing him in its strangely soothing grip.
And something else just after.
Foot after foot after foot after… No, not a foot at all, but a face. A mirror, a reflection and a moment of recognition.
Five weeks, was that all? Or was it longer? No way to tell.
The footsteps stopped and the orderly paused, pulling open a door from a seemingly endless row of similar ones.
“The doctor will see you now,” he said, gesturing for Jim to enter, eyes blank and emotionless. Jim took the door and stepped into the room, the orderly scurrying off back down the corridor no doubt to collect another grunt, the echoes of footsteps a constant accompaniment.
“I trust your journey was uneventful,” the doctor said by way of greeting, indicating Jim towards the examination table. The name badge on her left breast had ‘Dr. Bell’ printed on it. He realised where he was staring and turned away quickly. “Jim McGuirk. Private. That’s right isn’t it?”
“And how do you feel Private? Any nausea? Blindness?”
Her voice was soft like her hands and surprisingly comforting. As a soldier he wasn’t used to things being gentle or easy, but it wasn’t that. It was those tail ends of memories which kept snagging in his mind.
“Private, how do you feel?” she repeated
When he didn’t respond she stopped and looked at him, questioning. It wasn’t uncommon that the grunts were a bit out of sorts when they arrived. It was always better to let them come alive themselves instead of trying to force them. Rather than second guess the issue Dr. Bell always let them ask any questions, in their own way. It revealed more that way. She saw this everyday, but it was brand new to them. Brand new each and every time.
“No I feel fine,” he said, voice rusty as a tool that hadn’t been used for a long while. “Sorry I’m just a bit distracted. I keep half remembering a dream I think I had when I was en route.”
“Yes?” the doctor looked intently at the soldier perched on the table. “Can you tell me what it was about?”
“I… It was like I was in the pod before take off and I hadn’t fully gone under yet… and then… then I saw my own face. I saw a hand rubbing the other side of the glass and peering through. It was my own face looking in at me,” he caught her watching him intently and glanced away, half-embarrassed with himself now for bringing it up. “I tried to talk, to say something, but my mouth was filling up with gel and I couldn’t. I don’t think it could hear me anyway. I think that’s it, I don’t really remember anything else. It was weird though because it doesn’t feel like a dream, like it really happened. It was as if I really saw someone that looked like me out there, looking in at me. Sorry, that probably sounds crazy or deluded or something. I’m probably still only waking up. Has it been even an hour?”
“It’s absolutely fine,” Doctor Bell said, flashing a brilliantly white smile that put him somewhat at ease. “You’d be surprised how often we hear things like that here. It’s the journey and the shock of coming out of stasis you see. It can kick off odd things in your mind while you’re under. Most don’t recall anything, but occasionally we hear stories like this. Can you lift your arm for me please? Let me know if there’s any pain, but yes about your dream, it’ll be fine. You’ve spent a long time under and you’re bound to be disorientated. Apart from that you’re fit as a fiddle and should be battle ready in a day or so. I’d recommend you hit the gym on Basement-Level 3 for a mild work-out, but only after eating and orientation. It’ll do you the world of good Private. You’ll feel like a new person afterwards I promise.”
She smiled again and he felt stupid now for even mentioning it, there was a war on and they needed soldiers not loonies. That was why he was here, to protect the interests of his people from these upstart factions.
Still, that image of looking out through the glass and seeing his own face staring back at him continued to niggle, tugging away annoyingly. He’d never had a dream before that was so concrete and life-like.
But then he’d never been in stasis before so maybe it was just from that.
“You can hop down from there and head on to orientation,” the doctor said, guiding him across the room to a door opposite to where he’d come in. “If there’s anything else or if the dream persists just come and let me know.”
“Thanks Doc,” Jim said quietly, moving out into the harshly lit corridor.
The door swinging shut was like a cloud passing over her face as the smile dissolved and she walked over to a wall mounted communicator, fingers gliding over the screen to activate it.
“Doctor Bell,” the voice at the other end was gruff, belonging to someone who clearly didn’t like being disturbed unless it was absolutely necessary. The picture that appeared after a moment’s pause verified this, revealing a face that looked like an aerial view of a ploughed field, all deep furrows and creases.
“Brigadier Graham,” the Doctor stated calmly. “We’ve got a potential identity concern with one of the most recently received disposable units. Private McGuirk, Jim. It seems our donor couldn’t resist taking a look before sending it off and this time the memory has surfaced. I’ve sent him on to orientation. You can pick him up whenever you want.”
The man’s face creased further. “Christ. Right, well we’d best get it sorted. I’ll arrange for it to be sectioned, then I’ll contact the Facility. We don’t want a repeat of the Steiner incident now do we?”
The Doctor sighed as she remembered. Six months back a whole shipment had been lost when Steiner, a low level grunt, and ironically enough a member of McGuirk’s squad, had quite literally run into himself on the battlefield. The team that Steiner was with at the time had, wrongly it turned out, been reported destroyed in an attack by enemy forces, so a new batch had been dispatched from the Facility.
But somehow Steiner’s team had survived. The replacements had arrived after five weeks as per usual and were immediately deployed to the battlefield, where Steiner had come face to face with Steiner. Low lever bullet stopper that he was Steiner was none the less quite an intelligent guy at times and both of them called it in at the same time.
Command had tried to pass it off as an enemy ploy but they didn’t buy it. Clone had come up against clone and things were not looking good. In the end Command had to resort to strafing the region to stop word getting out and spreading amongst the other units in the field. After all, when you got an infection you had to stop the spread, as the Doctor knew very well.
“We certainly don’t sir,” she said finally. They really didn’t want the same thing happening again. The merest hint of suspicion could result in the loss of an entire unit and they cost a lot to grow. So now McGuirk remembering seeing himself looking into the tank before shipping off, well you didn’t want something like that spreading amongst the troops. You never knew what reaction it’d cause in the still confused minds of the rest of them.
“Thank you Doctor, I’ll have someone eliminate the problem right away,” the Brigadier said. “Be sure to check the rest of this run thoroughly. If there are any further problems I’ll be in my office.”
Doctor Bell nodded and ended the call, the man’s wrinkled face disappearing from the screen and her own face stared back at her from the faint reflection. Looking away she tapped an icon on her wrist-array to let the orderlies know she was available to conduct another examination.
Hopefully there wouldn’t be any further cases like McGuirk in the rest of this shipment because the last thing she needed was another identity crisis. They always gave her a shiver those ones. Besides, nothing made you query your own existence like lying to someone who was questioning theirs.