Mapping Time: Lessons
by Northlight

"Eyes front, soldiers!" Colonel Harris had thundered. His voice had reached towards the room's high ceiling, bounced back towards sensitive ears with added strength. They had stood in straight lines, bodies held still and spines rigid and they had looked at the restrained X3 in front of them. "You are to watch this, and you are never to forget," the Colonel had continued.

X4-392 had been a good soldier, and a good soldier always listened to his ranking officer. He had watched and he remembered this scenario clearly, even with a compacted lifetime of horror between then and now. He doubted that the memories currently rising back to the surface were those that Colonel Harris had spoken of that day.

X3-220 had mirrored their stance as closely as she was able with her arms bound behind her back. X4-392 could still remember the look in her eyes: she hates us all, he had thought then without any understanding.

"X3-220 is defective," Colonel Harris had stated. The room had been quiet, waiting for the Colonel's words, his orders. Silence was a commandment they had long ago learned to follow, and the sound of his sidearm being readied was clear. X3-220's body had tensed, so subtle a change that human eyes would not have noticed the movement. She had made a low, keening sound when the Colonel shot her in the left thigh. Her body had swayed towards the ground before X3-220 had pulled herself upright.

The sound of gunfire was integrated into X4-392's life. It was something to always be aware of, and part of his mind always tracked the sound. It was no longer something that made him jump with surprise and fear. In recent months, weapon's training had begun in earnest. X4-392 had thought himself to an adequate shot, well accustomed to the feel, scent and sound of guns. He hadn't been able to stop from flinching when the Colonel shot 220.

The targets on which X4-392 had practiced didn't bleed. He hadn't imagined the sight of it, the heavy scent of fresh blood that tickled at instincts in the back corners of his mind. Bullets sounded different when they tore through flesh and bone. Targets didn't have huge green eyes that brimmed with pain and betrayal when he shot at them. Their cheeks weren't wet with pain.

"X3-220 has failed her mission," Colonel Harris continued, and shot X3-220 again, in the right thigh. Her lips had turned tight and white with pain, but X3-220 had remained on her feet, held straight by what seemed to be will alone.

"X3-220 has failed her unit," the Colonel said, and his voice hadn't changed at all--still calm, still untouched by what he was doing.

X3-220 gasped and curled over as the Colonel's third shot tore between her ribs. Her shoulders had jerked as she tried to bring her hands to her wound, an instinctive, futile action. The restraints held, and there was no defiance left on X3-220's narrow face. She looked small and pitiful and X4-392 remembered that the Colonel had told them never to show weakness.

"X3-220 has failed her country," Colonel Harris concluded and his gun lifted higher.

The Colonel had still been a better shot than X4-392 then. Blood had erupted on X3-220's forehead and her body had finally tumbled to the floor. X4-392 had witnessed deaths on training videos, but they hadn't even been able to approach the scent, sight and sound of it all. X3-220's body had jerked and quivered even as her eyes went blank. They watched as she bled out, lost control of her body, soiled herself.

X4-392 could remember that X4-216 had been breathing quick and heavy at his side. He hadn't wanted to look at her. He hadn't wanted to look at any of his unit.

He was a good soldier, better now than any of those who had overseen his training. He was a good soldier. . . just--not quite good enough, not when he was supposed to be one of the best. He was X4-392, and the barcode blazed across the back of his neck meant that anything less than perfection wasn't to be tolerated.

X4-333 excelled in hand-to-hand combat. X4-302 could handle anything to do with electronics. X4-411 was the fastest amongst them, X4-409 the strongest, X4-216 had the best hearing. . . and amongst such soldierly perfection, 392 was nothing special. The runt of the litter, he thought with a bitter twist to his lips--well, hell, he had passed 'Common Verbal Usage' with flying colours.

A unit was only so strong as his weakest link, X4-392 knew. And he was it.

Looking over a sea of upturned faces, X4-392 thought that he understood what he had seen on X3-220's face that day. Being the slowest, the weakest, always having to struggle to be better than he was, had given X4-392 what he imagined to be a unique perspective among his unit. He had been waiting for this cut to come for most of his life, and a sense of vast unfairness about it all had had time to mature and take root within him. There was more than this, there had to be. He looked at the X5 ranged before him, and they were so young, so foolish--they would live the same life as had he. They would stop flinching at the sound of gunfire, they would stop dreaming of dead bodies, they would fight and kill and die on the orders of men who couldn't tell one of them from the other.

He knew he understood X3-220, because he hated these children as she had hated his unit.

"X4-392 is defective," this Colonel said, and X4-392 could already imagine the pain climbing from legs to head.

The X5s would watch him twitch and die on the floor. They would watch him bleed and loose control of his body and soil himself. He would be a lesson in death, the first they would horror at fully before killing became as automatic as breathing. Colonel Harris had left X3-220's body to decay where she had fallen. The room stank of death as she rotted, but after a while, X4-392 had stopped noticing her while he trained with his unit.

By the time X3-220's remains had been removed, none of them had cared anymore. She had been reduced to a thing, and the horror of her death had been forgotten. The lesson had not: do not fail mission, unit, Manticore.

X4-392 had done everything that had been asked from them. He had pushed himself, body and mind to become more, to become even better than what had been bred into him. He had suffered through agony and humiliation for mission, unit, Manticore--and he had only earned himself an execution by those that he had been trained to obey.

And it was not fair. He had seen slivers of the world, and X4-392 knew that there were possibilities beyond what Manticore had given him. He could have been more. He should have been more, and duty, mission, Manticore was not worth a long rot in the center of Manticore's main training room.

Colonel Harris wouldn't care. Colonel Lydecker, holding a gun upon him, would not care. The X5 watching him with wide, wary eyes would not care. His unit, long used to the loss of fellow soldiers, would not care for long. He wouldn't have. He hadn't.

But he could make them care. He would make them care, because he wouldn't stand to attention as Colonel Lydecker shot him to death a bit by bit. His mind split thoughts as it had been designed to do, and X4-392 was aware of everything in his surroundings. Maybe he wasn't the best, but he was still fast, still better than the Colonel, and X4-392 blurred space and time around him.

He had lived his entire life fearing these men, hating them, but this was easy. He had never suspected--easy, so easy. Finally.


The precisely tuned clock in Zack's mind counted away each second with immense patience. At the fifteen minute mark, he slithered out from underneath his blanket and fell into a crouch next to his bunk. He waited again, letting another minute tick away. The silence outside the barrack's locked doors held steady.

Rae was still awake. Her nose had been broken weeks earlier, and the injury had not yet fully healed. Her distinct breathing pattern had not yet evened off into sleep. She was three bunks away, to the left of Zack's. He calculated trajectory, distance and speed before dropping the rest of the way to the floor and pushing off into a roll. The move was quicker than crawling and kept him lower to the ground. The move was practiced ease and natural grace. Tinga and Ben's beds hid his body from the cameras as he passed under them.

Zack came to a stop at Rae's bed. He scrambled into a tight crouch against the wall and the head of the bed. Rae's eyes were waiting for him in the dark. She had curled onto her side, one pale hand hanging over the edge of the bed. The others were playing at normalcy: the darkness was filled with small snuffs of breath, the rustling of sheets and the squeak of bed-springs. Do not give into the comfort of routine, Colonel Lydecker had told them, predictability is a weakness to be exploited. Their nighttime activities differed every time. Zack tapped out his message against X5-Rae's dangling palm. Her hand twitched in acknowledgment.

Zane was across from Rae's bunk, and another four to the left. Rae had rolled free from her own bunk by the time Zack reached the other boy. Another quick set of hand signals passed between them before both boys slipped off towards their respective ends of the barracks.

Late at night, those of them with sensitive enough hearing could make out the soft hum of the surveillance equipment hidden throughout the barracks. Jondy's hearing wasn't as good as some of her unit's, and she had said something angry into the darkness one night. Colonel Lydecker had come to them minutes later, the steady thump of his boots barely giving the X5s enough warning to scramble back under their covers. The Colonel had taken Jondy from her bed and hadn't brought her back for hours.

The sound of the surveillance equipment had been a constant background noise, and it had taken them hours to figure out what the sound meant. They had almost stopped talking to each other at all after that, each of them aware that their earlier late-night camaraderie had been recorded and observed. Colonel Lydecker had been willing to use those observed friendships and rivalries to intensify their training exercises, and relationships had strained under the necessities of combat. Zack had bent under months of silence, and he had finally agreed to have the surveillance equipment temporarily disabled.

The unit's members all recognized that taking such an action was a risk, but the Colonel had never specifically ordered them against tampering with the equipment. Zack was a stickler for the rules--so long as they were precisely laid out. He had no trouble finding loopholes in the rules, those areas left vague or unspoken. Zack was careful with his exploitation of that which was left unstated. Never take anything for granted, Colonel Lydecker had said--and Zack thought it possible that the Colonel knew what they were doing and allowed it to continue so that he could judge their ingenuity. Max called him paranoid, but never sounded quite positive when she made that claim. So, Zack allowed them to creep from their beds to disrupt the smooth operation of Manticore's equipment only rarely.

The darkness was as nothing to Zack and his eyes cut through distance easily. Rae gestured her success and Zane followed suite a moment later. A secondary count started up in Zack's mind even as he nodded his approval and cocked his head in a silent signal to regroup. "All clear," Zack said. The rustling of sheets rose and broke into the expectant silence as the rest of the unit's members abandoned their beds.

They crouched together in a ragged circle in the wider path cutting through the center of the barracks. Zack cut two of those with the best hearing away from the others and ordered them to serve as watch. The others remained primed for immediate dispersal at the first sign of approaching outsiders. The quickest route back to their bunks had already been plotted. Each of them could still remember that first night when the Colonel had walked into the barracks and the tense moments during which they had feared that he would discover Brin curled tight under Jondy's bed. All eyes focused on Zack as he flicked his fingers, giving them that night's time limit. That done, his hold on them gave way to the words that had been pressing within each of them that day.

Zack's thoughts split into different streams once more. Still maintaining countdown, Zack also devoted a corner of his mind to the whispered conversation unfolding around him while the great majority of his concentration turned towards his own thoughts.

If any of his unit had felt the same sense of amazed possibility at X4-392's actions as had Zack, they did not speak of it. Zack had known what the Colonel was planning to do, future events had been spelt out in both the Colonel and X4-392's body language. Jace's voice rose towards a near-wail as she defended Colonel Lydecker's intentions: "Colonel Lydecker has our best interest in mind. He's just trying to make us better!" Yes, Zack agreed, except that there was more in the Colonel's actions, too.

They weren't like the Colonel and the others at Manticore, Zack knew. He could read that difference in their bodies and voices and words. Even Colonel Lydecker, who told them what to be and how to be, wasn't really one of them. He was slower than the X5s, and weaker. The Colonel couldn't hear, see, feel, taste or scent everything which they could. He commanded them, but sometimes his words were so distant from Zack's reality that it hardly seemed possible that they were inhabiting the same world.

Those were not thoughts Zack felt comfortable sharing. They were not comfortable thoughts to have. Watching as X4-392 had attacked, watching as Colonel Lydecker had bled, something immense had trembled at the edges of Zack's awareness. That growing recognition had shattered before it reached its full growth as armed guards had flooded into the room. The shards were still there, though, and Zack suspected that they would come back together again some day.

Zack's full focus snapped back towards his first stream of thought. "Time!" he called. The signal sent the X5s darting back to their bunks with inhuman speed.

Zack pulled his blanket up over his chest and folded his arms atop it. He stared up at the darkened rows of fluorescent lights above him. Thoughts split and split and split, each following the same question along a different path.


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