Since the day he was dropped off at a Federation camp by parents who used him to gain political favor, cybernetic killing machine Soldier Fourteen existed only to carry out his orders. But when commanded to kill a baby girl, he defies his commander and deserts the Federation, seeking a place in the universe for himself and the defenseless innocent he’s promised to protect.
Connell harvests the sea to feed his colony on a new, undeveloped world with no reason to attract Federation attention. When an armored figure appears on the beach, holding an infant, Connell fears the worst, but he may have found the best.
This story was written as a part of the Goodreads M/M Romance Group’s “Love Has No Boundaries” event.
Move out, but avoid the caves, the commander warned, the communication resonating through the soldier’s frontal lobe implants. They’re lined with crystals that block our signals.
Soldier Fourteen nodded, snapping the last section of his body armor into place. Prickles raced across his skin, tiny filaments piercing his epidermis, digging in deep to meld suit to body. Properly geared, he joined his brothers on the field. Simple orders today, eradicate the colonists who refused the Federation’s demands. Laser fire peppered the air, mixed with screams and pleading. The acrid scent of burned flesh seared his nostrils, but Fourteen ignored the cries of the rebels with their primitive weapons, carrying out his orders with single-minded determination― capture able-bodied youths and destroy any others. His implanted com-link shrieked a steady stream of banter into his mind: officers’ instructions, his brothers-in-arms’ triumphant shouts as they lay waste to the colonists. Stupid colonists, withholding rightful due.
Through the villages they swarmed, skirting the caves to maintain signal. Beep, beep, beep, beep! An alarm shrilled in his ears. He ducked and rolled. Fire blazed through his side. Curled on the ground, he lay perfectly still. A scream and the high-pitched whine of a particle discharge spoke of another soldier’s shot in his defense. Take that, you rebel!
Covered for the moment, Fourteen requested, Damage?
Primitive projectile weapon, came the diagnosis from his suit. Point of entry: C7 and C8 joints. Over his left ribs, then, in the vulnerable area between armored plates that allowed flexible movement. A very lucky shot for the rebel. Topical lesions. Exit point C15 and C16 joints, the diagnostic program continued. Circuitry damage in section… The coordinates streaming through his visor stuttered and went out. Fourteen raised his weapon, but his robed assailant ducked into the cave. Fuck that! Signal or no signal, he’d go in. No one shot him and got away.
Fourteen struggled to his feet. Diagnostic!
Communications circuits malfunctioning, the tinny voice of the suit transponder replied. Attempting repairs, maintain position.
Oh, hell no! Not until he took out the bastard who’d clipped him. Even as he watched, the scratch on his skin sealed and the suit mended itself back together. He shuffled past the mouth of the cave. Silence. For the first time since his parents dropped him off at the Federation recruitment camp, no voices rang in his head, no orders overrode his own thought processes. Only eerie silence.
He’d thought his own thoughts once, back before they’d shoved a com-link into his head, hooked him into a processor, and relieved him of that responsibility. Back then he’d had a family, a name… Fourteen slammed the door on the memory, a memory he’d believed scrubbed from his mind forever. Must be the crystalline interference his CO spoke of.
A series of electric impulses throbbed through his connection with his armor. Yes, though it didn’t possess a brain of its own, his suit calmly reminded him that he wasn’t alone and probably never would be—not for long, anyway. The sharp bite of a medical filament on his left glute followed, delivering medication and promising sweet relief. The pain vanished; adrenaline leveling out, his heart rate normalizing, and tension melting away. Bless the Federation and their miracle drugs, delivered in perfect doses for each situation. The suit/soldier units proved well-nigh impervious: he’d seen near-corpses continue battling. Drugs, circuitry, programming, and nothing to lose made for one hell of a soldier.
Sweeping one arm back and forth while seeking a target with unaided vision, he probed his now pain-free injured side with his fingers before venturing farther into the cave. Engage sensors, he intoned, wondering how much the suit had managed to repair itself. A stream of numbers filled his periphery, faded and incomplete in some cases: temperature, Federation time. Life forms. An infrared beam emitted from his visor. There! Weapon! The suit selected a tight-beam laser―useful in confined spaces with possible ricochet factor. The tingling at his fingertips told him armed and ready. Making use of the shadows, he advanced on a huddled form on the floor, the tips of his mitt aimed and ready to fire. But first, what did the enemy look like, the foolish one who’d defy the government?
Two life form signatures appeared in his vision feed, one weak, one strong. He eased forward, ready to duck if necessary. A thin river of red seeped from beneath a gauzily wrapped form. A rebel? Without armor? What was this flimsy garment the thing wore?
A pale face stared up at him, lips moving, making incomprehensible sounds. He tapped into his com’s translator and waited while the program shifted through the being’s garbled speech. “Mercy,” he finally heard. And, “Please.” The light in the creature’s eyes faded, its last breath wasted on a final “Please.”
Mission completed, Fourteen checked his side again, preparing to leave the cave. Wait! What about the second signal? Maybe this thing was only a decoy. He searched the body, finding a sling strapped across its front.
Weapon at the ready, he commanded, Analyze.
The schematic in his peripheral whizzed through several species and subspecies, finally settling on, Humanoid, female, infant.
Huh? He’d been commanded to kill. He poked at the squirming pink bundle wrapped in more of the gauzy material. Didn’t look very dangerous to him.
Danger? he asked, staring at the mewling creature. So tiny. A long-suppressed memory surfaced of himself as a human, before he’d become a soldier, and his mother presenting him with a similar bundle, named “Sister.”
Helpless, the dispassionate mind connection advised. Helpless? The government sent a fully charged destroyer at a helpless target? What threat did she present?
Fourteen focused on the wispy covering of the larger creature. Perhaps the older being presented the danger. Analyze, he ordered again.
Humanoid, female, deceased.
Fourteen peered through his visor for a better look. In the past twenty years he’d battled many of the Federation’s enemies, but where lay the threat in colonists? Federation citizens? With only close-range projectile weapons, why engage them at all? Why not rain fire from beyond the atmosphere? Oh yeah, bodies to swell the ranks of the Federation’s military, in order to conquer more worlds. Can’t spoil the goods.
Images flashed through his mind: his parents screaming, his mother pleading, and then, finally, sobbing and clutching her bloody nose as his father led him out the door, the last time he’d ever seen her. Is that what happened here? Had the older female been told to give up the younger? Is that why the colonists fought? All for naught. What the Federation couldn’t get they’d destroy.
Tiny noises escaped the tiny human. Fourteen reached out a hand―why, he didn’t know. The infant wrapped miniature fingers around his glove. Then she peered up at him, in all his hideous, bloodied glory… and smiled. “Sister” had smiled, too.
Fourteen stopped, waiting for directives. Nothing. For the past twenty years, the constant stream of instructions had rendered no need to make major decisions. Now, in the calm of the cave, with only his own heart for guidance, he raised his weapon to follow his original orders.
That smile. That guileless smile.
He lowered his hand. Before, each target had offered its own reward: freeing the Universe from anarchists, or repelling marauding invaders. Ending their lives spared his, and the lives of fellow soldiers. But killing harmless colonists? On an agricultural world?
He powered down. Mindlessly cutting a swath through armed and screaming invading forces was one thing, killing a helpless infant another entirely. But what to do? If he simply left the creature in the cave, could it care for itself? Probably not.
The diminutive female smiled again while pulling his finger to her mouth. Hungry. Fourteen recalled a time when he’d put food in his mouth to nourish his body, long before being assigned an enhancement suit to see to his needs and keep him ever ready to fight.
Something in his chest tightened. He’d been young and helpless once.
“Please, Father, not again!” he shrieked, while his mother stared down at her hands twisted together in her lap.
Spittle flew from his father’s mouth, his nose mere inches from Fourteen’s. “You’ll do as I say, and you will please the senator. If I hear one bad word…”
There’d always been a senator, a judge, a magistrate―even a governor. None came to Fourteen’s aid. At night they’d taken pleasure from his body, and in the morning they’d opened their doors and surrendered him back to the man who’d continued to use him in a bid for power and influence.
He couldn’t turn back time and stop the madness for himself, or for “Sister”, wherever she was now. He’d stop it for this child. The first thing he needed to do was get her someplace safe.
His life pod wouldn’t make it very far, being designed only for short trips to a planet’s surface and back to the ship, but hadn’t he heard of another colony nearby? In the midst of battle chaos, pods launching and landing, and interrupted signals, surely he had time enough to hide the child off-world without being missed.
Boom! Dust and rock rained down. He threw himself to the ground and shielded his intended victim with his body until the danger passed. The ground stopped shaking, and his visor adjusted its lens to allow vision through dust clouds. Now or never. He scooped the child from the dead female’s arms and tucked it inside his armor, catching a whiff of something clean-smelling. The infant made a warm lump against his chest. A few filaments broke free of his flesh to wrap around the child, cradling but not entering her skin. His peripheral now displayed two heartbeats and monitored two sets of vital signs. He left a gap in the suit so he could peer inside and keep watch over his new charge. Warmth seeped through his skin where she lay.
“You be quiet now, little one,” he said in a voice long unused, after two failed attempts to communicate via his implanted com unit. Right. Sergeant would hear via com once he left the cave. Voice only from here on out. Voice. Did he even remember how to use spoken words, or did his voice emerge as primitive grunts?
Trained to stand tall and depend on his suit for protection, now he slunk in the shadows to the mouth of the cave. Report! blared through his now active com-link.
My pack took a hit, intermittent signal, he replied, grateful that the link only picked up his thoughts and not the yawn from the sleepy child. He stared in horror. The thing had no teeth! How could it eat? Time enough to worry about the future when they survived… if they survived.
Regroup east of the city, his commander replied. East of the city. Far from the pods. Fourteen could work with that, and if discovered, could blame his malfunctioning com. But something more must have malfunctioned. He’d been conditioned, fed drugs, had circuits wired into him to guarantee obedience, and yet here he was, no longer under the shield of the crystal-infested caves, making his own decisions. All instincts screamed, Run!
He paused a moment. What could he do for the child’s dead mother? With no other course of action, he merely promised, “Your child will live in my care,” and set off toward the pods.
Once inside he closed the lid while tucking the infant into a more comfortable position for a long cryosleep. He set course for the nearest colony, then gave himself over to chemically induced slumber.