Chapter 1: Soldiers
Manticore, February 2009
X5-452, known to her unit as Max, sat huddled in the corner of the cold room, with her arms wrapped around her knees and her head leaning against the brick wall. It had been days since she had seen her unit; her brothers and sisters.
The X5's hadn't been trained to feel self-doubt. They simply had to know their flaws and improve them without being caught off-guard. That was all. But this had been her fault, and she wished that she could take it back.
It wasn't a big deal, really. She had gone longer than these four days in isolation before, but like all times, she missed her family.
Krit would have helped her; she knew he would have. He had tried. But he had come in last in the obstacle course the last two times, and she knew that if he had been caught with her or instead of her, he would be in for worse than this.
Their mission had been pretty straightforward. It was a simple training exercise; go out in the woods, find all the markers, and don't get caught. By the enemy soldiers, or by the traps that had been set out for them. Without their knowledge.
She had been so stupid! All it would have taken to avoid this whole mess was a little bit of attention. She had looked ahead, seeing Krit duck behind a tree, and she had stepped in a bear trap. An X5 in a bear trap! It was just so absurd.
As the metal teeth had bitten into her leg, Krit had turned to help her. But the enemy had been too close, so she had sent him away.
And now here she was, down in the basement of Manticore, hearing the screams of the 'nomlies. Her leg had healed, but she was still alone, afraid and miserable.
Footsteps echoed down the hallway outside. Max rose to her feet. What was going on?
Two officers came into view, stopping in front of her cell. They were dragging a boy between them. Max frowned. What the hell?
"Got some company, 452," one of the officers spoke offhandedly. He took a key ring from his pocket and sifted through the various keys until he found the one that opened her cell door. The two of them haphazardly dropped the boy onto the grey cot on the other side of the cell and left, locking the door behind them.
It made no sense.
This was isolation. Solitary. Why would they put two soldiers in the same cell? It wasn't as if there was any shortage of room; there were seven other cells - empty cells - in this corridor alone.
The boy on the cot moaned, trying to sit up.
Max looked him over, surveying his injuries. His left eye was swollen shut, and his face was littered with ugly bruises. Both of his wrists were bloody, as though he had been chained down and had struggled greatly to free himself. Any other wounds were concealed by his Manticore fatigues.
He was around her age, but she guessed he would be a little taller than she was. He was clearly an X5, but she had never seen him before. Perhaps he was from another unit.
With another moan, the boy gave up on trying to sit. He wrapped his arms around his chest, curling into a ball on the cot, his back to her.
Tossing her confusion aside, Max approached him cautiously. She reached out and gently touched the back of his shoulder. He instinctively jerked away from her, hissing with pain from the sudden movement.
"It's okay, I won't hurt you," Max whispered softly. She moved toward him again, placing her right hand more firmly on his shoulder. Turning her back, at least temporarily, on all those times she had been told emotion was a weakness, she slid her hand gently along his arm and twined her fingers in his, then climbed onto the cot behind him. She curled herself around him, stroking his close-shaven black hair with her left hand; comforting him.
He slowly relaxed, cuddling into her warmth. "Why did they . . ." he began to ask, his voice soft and quiet.
"I don't know," Max replied.
He squeezed her small hand gently in his slightly larger one. "What's your designation?"
"My name's Max," she whispered back, as if revealing some deep secret. She supposed she was. Her name was common knowledge to her unit, but the officers didn't like it when any of them assumed any kind of individuality.
In the silence that spanned between them, something let out an inhuman scream. But cuddled together as they were, the two of them weren't as afraid as they would have been alone.
"You didn't answer my question," the boy said.
Max frowned slightly behind his back. "I'd rather have a name than a designation."
The boy shook his head a little, and moaned slightly at the motion. "We're . . . unh . . . We're together in here. There's nobody else. When we're in here . . . we're a unit."
Max paused in the lazy circles she had been tracing in his hair. That was a new idea . . . it was weird. But the comfort she was giving him was something she had shared with her unit; her family. Back at the barracks, he was neither. But here . . . maybe he was right. Maybe it was different here. "What does that have to do with my name?"
"I don't have a name . . . soldiers in units are the same, aren't they?"
"We're not soldiers in here," Max reminded him. They may have been some new kind of unit, but they definitely did not behave like soldiers.
"That doesn't . . . doesn't matter."
"You could have a name too . . ."
"No . . . Max is a name you share with your other unit. Please?"
This conversation was alien to her. She had never had one like it in her life. It was about something so simple. . . . Had anyone else asked her what her designation was, she would have said it immediately. But it had become more than, 'what's your number.' She didn't know what this conversation was, but it wasn't just that.
Off her silence, the boy continued. "When other people say your designation . . . what do they sound like?"
"Well . . . the officers shout it . . . they sound mean and angry. My unit hardly says it when we're alone."
"But when they do?"
This was absurd. Why would she bother to pay attention to what people sounded like when they said her designation? She didn't understand where he was going; she didn't understand at all. But somehow it felt important that she answer.
"I guess . . ." She couldn't find the words. "Once, Zack asked our instructor what the word 'love' meant. Jondy had wanted to know, because she heard one of the nurses say it . . . something about it. The officer told him that love is meaningless and can only get in the way. He said it was . . . phony. That it was nothing that a soldier should ever think about, because it wasn't real. He said that love was a made up story that was used to gain advantage. When my unit says my designation, it's like that. Made up. Phony."
The boy began to nod, but stiffened and stopped. Why did he keep doing things like that if they hurt so much? Couldn't he just use words?
"When we say it . . . it won't be like that," he told her. "It won't be mean or phony. A designation can be a name, if you say it right."
Words were words. But 'Max' was a word . . . and it made her feel special. This kid was weird, but he was smart.
"My designation's X5-213," the boy whispered.
". . . X5-452."
It was the first time in her life that she didn't have to shout it.
End Chapter 1