Man with duffel bagA genetically modified soldier makes an audacious request of a neuroscientist working on a research station far from Earth.

First published in Warp and Weave magazine’s Fall 2011 issue, DAMASCUS won the 2nd place prize in their short story contest.

“You’ve gotta get me out of here, Doc.” Subject 175 peered through the observation window as he spoke, hands clenched tightly on the brushed-steel railing in front of him and his voice strained with the effort of holding back his emotions. “I don’t think I can handle losing another one like this.”

On the other side of the window, one blue-masked nurse was pulling a blood-stained sheet over the face of a dark-skinned young man on the operating table, while another moved various medical instruments onto a wheeled silver tray. Doctor Andrews imagined more than heard the implements clinking together.

“I told you it was better not to watch,” Andrews said as he sat back in his chair and scribbled a few notes onto his data pad. “Every one of them – of you – knew what you were getting into when you signed on. Subject Eight-Thirty-Nine was no exception.”

The blond-haired youth shook his head, turning around to lean on the rail. Though his tone was even, Doctor Andrews could see the tension in every well-toned muscle. “It’s not just the deaths I’m talking about, or even the pain they endure during the treatments – I lived through it myself. It’s getting them this far and then losing them.”

Subject 175 met his eyes for a moment, then turned toward the window again, his slightly tousled hair swaying but his back rigid. The glance left Doctor Andrews speechless for a moment – those blue eyes had been more intense than any he had ever seen. For a moment, the doctor was shaken, jolted loose from his assumption that he understood the soft-spoken young soldier.

Subject 175 continued in a quiet voice, still looking through the window. “His name was Hassan. He spent the first eighteen years of his life being shuffled around from one relative to another, sometimes leaving because they beat him, sometimes because he beat them back. In his whole life, nobody ever once told him he was worth something, that he mattered. He was a lot like me, actually. Two weeks ago, I got him to smile for the first time.” Subject 175’s voice grew strained, almost bitter. “He was finally starting to see himself as a human being, and now on his second to last treatment … just, gone. Like that. I’m not doing it again, Doctor.”

Doctor Andrews leaned forward in his seat, setting his clipboard aside and waving toward the empty chair, which the other man reluctantly took. “Look, One-Seven-Five, you know the Foundation only let you come back here to provide encouragement for the new candidates. You’re doing a fantastic job, despite what happened today; training losses have been cut in half since you came back from the front. If I walk down there and tell them you won’t do it anymore, you’ll be contracted out to some unit on the front lines within the week, and I know you didn’t –”

“I don’t want you to have me transferred. I want out. I quit.”

Doctor Andrews blinked. “You can’t just quit. The contract you signed …”

“Forget the contract.” Subject 175 pounded a fist on the short desk between them. “The Foundation squirms its way past legality all the time. I don’t have to see the numbers to know what’s going on. Half of these treatments are illegal, and you and I both know it. Standard gene augmentation programs operate under a one percent casualty margin, and we have what … seventy percent, since I came back? Not one of those poor guys who sign up has any idea what they’re getting into, what you’re doing to them, or what’s going to happen once you’re finished.”

Doctor Andrews held out his hands placatingly. “Whatever legal issues you may think we have here notwithstanding, I hope you understand the irony of your standing there, fit and trim, with an intellect much more keen than when you walked into this facility eight years ago, complaining about it. Would you go back to the way you were – just like Subject Eight-Thirty-Nine – knowing what you know now?” Subject 175 visibly checked his anger and considered the question, but his eyes flickered with doubt for only a moment before he responded. “No. If I hadn’t come here, then I wouldn’t have saved the lives I have, and they wouldn’t have gone on to save more lives on the battlefield, and … well,I could go on. But there’s more at stake here than that. We waived our rights as human beings when we signed that contract. We’re research materials. Did you know that if the Foundation were ever to come under scrutiny from the IPL, we could all be ‘sold, seized or destroyed’ to cover the evidence, all under the terms of that contract?”

“It would not surprise me to discover as much,” Doctor Andrews admitted. “Given that legally, all of you are dead already.”

“And this doesn’t bother you?” Subject 175 asked, fixing him with that blue gaze as if willing him to admit that it did. Or daring him to admit that it didn’t. Doctor Andrews was silent for a long, uncomfortable moment.

“I suppose there might be something I can do. But it won’t be easy,” he said finally, shaking his head. “I can’t exactly sneak you out in a duffel bag, you know.”

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