Serial Dystopian YA Fiction By:
Starting at the beginning would be a predictable, boring, and cliched act on my part, so let's just jump right into things, shall we?
I am not a perfect person.
I wasn't created that way, and I really don't aim to be.
I'm not the smartest student at the Academy, but I am smart enough to know that it would be futile to strive for perfection.
It isn't in my nature, or my hardware, to be perfect, so I have decided not to expend energy trying to attain a state that neither nature or science will support.
My intelligence isn't artificial, or Enhanced, but human and flawed.
While the nanotechnology bound to my body is generous with sharing certain gifts, it does not enhance my cognition or memory.
With neural net technology in short supply, the Doctor wasn't about to invest that precious artificial intelligence upgrade in a cadet who is destined for the high-risk environment of the battlefield.
What I wouldn't have given for a cognitive upgrade, though.
Even just the Basic Installation the Enhanced cadets receive upon enrollment...
But neural nets are reserved for the higher class, the masterminds of our Civilization.
Those being groomed to become science officers, leaders and military strategists.
The upgrade would have been considered wasted on a nanotech grunt like me.
A grunt who would soon be clearing the jungles of threats, and protecting the citizen settlements of the Federation.
In the manner that the nanotech heavy metals augment my muscle fibers, bone matrixes, dermis and organs, it does make me stronger than the average human girl, but it doesn't do much to enhance my skillset, otherwise.
Skill is something that needs to be acquired over time, through study and repetition, and if I were remaining at the Academy a bit longer, I could have honed my skills a lot better.
With my months of training now coming to a rather abrupt end, I guess it's a matter of sharpening my skills in the field, on the job, in the jungle.
I will consider myself lucky if I hit a target even half of the time, never mind with a kill shot.
My instructors at the Academy call me a Lead Waster, and a Dull Edge.
Meaning that I waste a lot of ammo missing targets at the shooting range, and dull a lot of blades striking blade, or armor, or earth, or tree instead of flesh, and bone, and tissue.
As you may have gathered, I'm not particularly clever, either.
Which earned me the title Dull Wit, after the first few rounds of Ranger Cadet Preparation Exams.
My RCPE scores are definitely not flattering.
As for my engagement skills?
Not exactly delicate, but ultimately effective.
I prefer quick and dirty methods of confrontation, rather than elaborate, strategically planned assaults.
Which earned me the name Wrecking Ball in the Simulation Hall, but you know what, I'm okay with that.
If the combat boot fits, secure it.
Granted, I lack the finesse and intelligence of the Enhanced kids at the Academy.
But I don't dwell on it. I know my strengths, and I play to them. What I lack in grace, artificial intelligence and the ability to solve puzzles in a split second, I make up for with that little something special that the other orphans in my age class don't have.
I'm invincible, or damn close to it.
The Doctor explained that my only really weak spots are my orifices, and the organs beyond them.
Nose, eyes, ears, mouth, urethra, vagina and anus.
Which is why I wear my lenses, mask, headset and pelvic gear like it's a goddamn religious practice.
A Ravager's talons wouldn't be able to slice my metallic skin or crush my metal alloy bones, but if I weren't wearing body armor, and they were tactical in their assault, seeking vulnerable openings, well, I'd be toast.
Jury is still out on that one, but I'm not about to put it to the test.
I've got a life to live, contributions to make, jungle to clear, Ravagers to kill.
You may be stuck on the word anus.
Go ahead and giggle if you must.
If you get tripped up by a word like anus, you aren't going to be long for this world.
Not my world.
A world with too many Ravagers on the prowl, taking out our settlements, and not nearly enough of us Rangers on patrol.
Yes, I'm officially a Ranger now.
With too many vacancies in their ranks, on account of seasoned human Rangers getting themselves dead, the Recruiting Officers has begun borrowing Enhanced and nanotech cadets who aren't yet fully versed in all things Ranger, but who can contribute well enough to the cause.
Which means that since my rushed little graduation ceremony has wrapped up, I get to eat supper and then must promptly pack my essentials bag and catch the transport to my first posting.
First, and hopefully not last.
I'm not afraid, but there are a lot of unknowns in my future.
I've never been in the real jungle.
Completed plenty of jungle sims in the Simulation Room, where they crank up the heat and the humidity, thicken the vegetation, turn the floor into muck beneath your feet, send all sorts of nasty bloodthirsty bugs and animals your way.
Super fun times in sim.
Likely to be much, much worse for reals.
Even though the Federation is surrounded by jungle, I haven't stepped foot in the real thing.
I've seen Ravager exoskeleton parts, behind plexiglass in the Analytical Mechanics lab, same as the other cadets, but I've never seen a whole Ravager up close.
Certainly not a whole, intact operating one.
A simulated Ravager is fast, real fast, so much so that you could barely track their movements with the human eye. That's where a neural net upgrade would have come in handy. I would have been able to track the trajectory of the damn things, be fed the live analytics of their velocity, momentum, weak spots in their engineering, chinks in their armor.
It is going to be a real disadvantage in the field, not being able to access that tactical information during a live encounter.
Because sure as shit, the Ravager will be running their own calculations on me.
Taking them out in a sim is a hell of a task.
A real expenditure of effort, plus plus.
Taking them out in the real world… Odds are that I can maybe walk away from a tussle unscathed, once it is down, but as for any of the Enhanced cadets without nanotech – their soft flesh won't stand up to a Ravager assault, and body armor can only do so much when one of those things goes into berserker mode.
I don't expect to be given special privileges over citizen cadets.
Nanotech grunts aren't Citizens.
Just as neural nets aren't intended for us, a lot of privileges aren't intended for us.
But it isn't like we have a totally shit life.
In a few minutes, I'm going to get eat the first piece of cake I have ever had in my life.
I look down at my edible fiber plate, at the naked leafy greens and the dark red protein gelatin Cube that is my standard protein ration.
The citizen kids call Cubes disgusting, but I find Cubes delicious.
I obsessively look forward to eating mine at every meal.
After a long day of sims and study, my supper Cube is always the highlight of my day, and I always feel invigorated after eating it.
When I am menstruating, the Logistics Coordinator ensures that I receive a double ration.
Which is doubly disgusting for the other kids, but I find it doubly satisfying.
I am currently the last in line for cake, standing behind a nanotech male named Doja.
Doja differs from me slightly. His flesh is lighter, the color of razors and blades.
My skin is the color of pewter. Dark lead. Gunmetal.
He is humming to himself.
A song I don't know.
"Doja, what song is that?"
"It's not really a song," he says over his shoulder. "It's the sequence of the transport engines, in cool down mode."
"It's lovely. I wish I had a talent like that."
"It's nothing really." He seems embarrassed. "It's just pattern recognition and repetition. Anyone can do it."
A citizen comes rushing to the queue, and steps in line ahead of us.
Citizens before grunts.
"Sorry," the citizen cadet mutters.
Doja and I exchange a look.
It's quite unusual for citizens to utter apologies to grunts.
We both take a few steps back, providing the respectful social distance expected in the new pecking order.
"Do you know what kind of cake it is, Petra?" Doja asks me, his silver eyes shining.
I'm glad he isn't wearing his eye protection.
He has beautiful eyes.
It is safe here in the Academy dining hall. Outside of the campus structures, we would be wearing full body armor, just in case.
I wonder what he thinks of my eyes.
Does he feel a kinship, in seeing the nanotech?
So different than human iris and sclera?
Gazing into his eyes is a great comfort for me.
And we see each other so infrequently outside of the classrooms.
I would have liked to see him more.
I realize he is waiting for me to answer.
"No, I don't. But I am curious about what kind of cake it is."
He turns toward me and I see his plate has two Cubes on it.
He isn't menstruating, but as a male, he is entitled to the additional protein ration.
I feel my mouth salivate at the sight of all that beautiful ruby gelatin.
"Have you ever had cake before?" Doja keeps his volume low, out of respect for others.
"No. Have you?"
A cadet from a much younger grade walks by with a large piece of cake on his plate.
Youngest before oldest.
The youngest citizen cadets would be served first, the eldest last.
And then the grunts.
It is the simple order of things.
We are almost always like an afterthought in the organized chaos of the Federation in the New World.
"Look - it's bright yellow."
"The color of dandelions. Probably a dandelion tincture."
Of course it would be dandelion. Our insignia was not the sun, but the dandelion flower. Our flag, the dandelion flower. The emblem on my helmet, the dandelion flower.
Doja's silver eyes sparkle with mischief. "Two credits say that it is also dandelion flavoured."
"You don't have two credits." I tease him. "Grunts can't hold accounts."
Because property legally cannot hold accounts.
And we are the property of the Federation.
"I'm not much of a gambler anyway." He nods his head in the direction of the next piece of cake we see. "They say cake is sweet."
"I don't really like sweet. Except for a short window of time each month."
"I like salty. Savory." Doja smells his plate in anticipation. "Like Cubes, and flesh, when we can get it."
The citizen in front of us makes a gagging noise.
They don't like it when we talk about Cubes, or flesh.
Neither Cubes nor flesh is intended for citizens.
Cubes and flesh are for nanos.
The citizens have a very peculiar diet, yet become nauseated by our fare.
"Petra, where is your name from?"
"I don't know. There is a city of ruins in Old Africa that was called Petra, but I don't know if that is the origin of my name."
"Where did you come from? Before the Academy?"
"An Orphanage near the mountains."
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen. How long have you been at the Academy?"
"A few months. You?"
"A few months." He stares off into the distance, seeming worried by something we have discussed.
I try to keep the conversation going. "Which Orphanage did you come from?"
He lowers his voice to a whisper. "An Orphanage near the ocean. Our train was attacked. We were airlifted here by transport. Some of the nanotech cadets were redistributed elsewhere. I overheard something I don't think I was supposed to hear. That they are being overrun. That they may not be able to repair the tracks."
"Too many Ravagers?"
"Too many detonations. The Opposition took out fifteen kilometers of track, and two bridges."
"We do not know what we do not know." The grunt motto was a good fit.
"You got that right."
The line moved forward again.
"What is your earliest memory?" Doja asked.
"You mean, in general, or…?"
"Your earliest memory."
"The train ride here, from the Orphanage. A train that was mostly empty. In our car, there was just myself, three other nanos, and the two officers escorting us. Outside the window, many of the valleys and hills were scorched. I assume from forest fires that could not be tamed. Eventually, we came through jungle. Past a few settlements. Arrived at the Academy. And I began my studies."
Doja looked frustrated.
"Don't you find it odd, that we can't remember the first fourteen years of our life? An organism lives for fifteen years, and can't recall anything beyond a few months?" He inclined his head toward a table where much younger cadets were seated. "Those Enhanced kids can't be more than seven or eight years old. Why are we nanos only coming here at fourteen, fifteen years of age? And with no memory of the time before that?"
His questions send a shiver through me.
He is right.
There is something we are not being told.
As with many things, it is beyond a grunt's need to know.
"We do not know what we do not know."
"I know." His silver eyes seemed to darken. "And it troubles me."
Doja is next in line.
He takes his cake without moving.
"Dine with me." He says. "I'll wait for you."
It is my turn to receive the parting gift of cake.
The baker's gaze sets for a long moment on the red Cube on my edible plate.
Her gaze finds my eyes, her nose wrinkles in disgust.
She says nothing as she places the small piece of yellow cake on my plate, as far away from the Cube as she can manage.
The cake is so yellow, it is almost hard to look at.
"Well are you just going to stand there?" the baker sneers.
I step out of line and hear her mixing profanity beneath her breath.
I join Doja at the small table he has selected.
A table for two. He clearly wants to speak privately.
Yet we cannot speak freely.
The Logistics Coordinator is seated at a table within earshot. Our Landforms Instructor joins him.
The only thing on their plates is large pieces of cake.
The Landforms Instructor brandishes his fork with a flourish, and dives in. He seems very excited about the cake. "Oh man. This flavour. This brings back memories. Remember bananas?"
The Logistics Coordinator cuts into his cake. "Do I? I miss them every goddamn day. The ripest brown ones were my favorite, soft and sweet and flavourful".
The LI stifles a moan of sheer pleasure. "This is banana alright. You know, as good as this is, I preferred mine on the green side, nice and firm, almost tart, not too sweet."
"These kids will never know what they're missing."
"Remember kiwis?" The LI asks.
"Never had one." The LC replies. "Never even touched one. I was stationed on the East Coast. We never actually got them in, on account of the restrictions from New Australasia. And the embargo."
"I had a slice of one once, my Professor brought it in, sort of a treat for our group completing a project for the University, a hard-won prize for studying the amino acids in chicken eggs for the better part of a month. Eating that bit of kiwi was worth it. It was like a religious experience. The rind was brown, and hairy, unbelievably hairy."
"Like peach fuzz?"
"Rougher. Peach fuzz is soft by comparison. Kiwi is covered in something like prickles. The fruit itself is almost neon green, and sour, but sweet, so acidic, it made my tongue burn, but fibrous, with tiny seeds inside, like poppy seeds. What I wouldn't give to have some of those seeds to germinate now."
"You'd be a very rich man if you did."
"You mean kiwi seeds, or poppy seeds?"
The two men share a laugh, the punchline of the joke truly understood only by the older generations.
"God, I miss bananas." The Landforms Instructor muses aloud, and then catches himself, as though he has overshared something. "Well, I must get back to it."
"Same," the Logistics Coordinator says, rising from his chair.
They dispose of their plates in the nearest compost receptacle, and leave the dining hall.
"Shall we try it?" Doja's eyes are shining again. "See what all the fuss is about?"
I examine the cake, uncertain of where to start.
The color of dandelions, meant to be a jubilant, celebratory color.
My fork sinks through the wet layer on top. The spongey base is less dense than edamame bean loaf.
I lift it to my nose.
It smells sweet and faintly floral.
I put it in my mouth.
They said it was banana flavored, but that doesn't actually mean all that much to me.
I have never had a banana anything before, or a cake anything, so I don't really have anything to compare it to.
They may as well have called it stardust flavour, for all the difference it made to my tongue.
Whatever a banana truly tastes like, it sounded to me like it has a range of flavors.
I try to picture it – I can't say that I have ever seen one in person.
I know it's a fruit. Shaped like a half moon.
A starchy fruit, from what I learned in Classical Biology lessons.
Yellow, when ripe. With some properties that make it effective at treating certain gastrointestinal ailments.
Actual fruits from Classic varieties are rare these days, like everything else in Creation.
I mean, hell, for any variety of fruit or veg that doesn't have their seedlings started in a Federation laboratory right now – you can pretty much play a game, place bets on what chaos it was that wiped the species out of rotation.
Pick your plague from the spinning wheel of misfortunes: blights, mites, locusts, fires, droughts, rising waves, warfare, invasive species, genetic fading, human pandemic, radiation, climbing temperatures, famines, a crippling lack of pollinators both natural and artificial…?
The outcome of the game is basically lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose and lose. No matter how you play it. Spin the dial, land on any one of them, it is a Bad Dream Machine all on its own.
And if you were to set ALL of those pieces into play in the span of the last two hundred years?
It's nothing short of a blazing miracle that there are any people left walking the world.
Like, at all.
And I'm not talking about we grunts, or the madmen who make the Ravagers, either.
I mean common folk.
The breeders, farmers, weavers, poets, masons, miners, bakers, healers, brewers, tradesmen, shepherds, clergy, leaders, followers.
People people. Homo sapiens.
The people I was designed, created to protect.
Even if I wasn't nanotech, I wouldn't be able to just stand by and do nothing, while the entire human species just teeters on the brink of extinction.
Pockets of thousands of them left, in human settlements, around the globe.
Maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, here and there, in the more densely populated clusters.
But that is rare.
And mostly a luxury of the technologically advanced enemy.
Civilization is slipping into a tar pit of our own make, grasping frantically at anything within reach, to drag ourselves back to safety, and prosperity.
And I use the term "our" loosely.
Technically, I am mostly human, but also a whole lot of technorganic heavy metal nanobots thanks to the CRISPR Whisper technology created by my ancestors.
I can thank dear old Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Grandpa Labcoat and his merry band of geneticists and nanotechnologists for asking the question: "I mean, we could, but should we?"
I can also thank him for the agonizing growing pains I experienced through childhood, and straight into puberty and NOW, thank him also for the crippling menstrual cramps I get when my fifteen-year-old body decides to shed its uterine lining.
Oh, and the mid-cyclic pain, when my fifteen-year-old body decides to drop an egg.
Super fun times.
It's a whole thing.
And the Doctor doesn't want to alter my cycle with hormone treatment, because, get this, it could impact my fertility. Which the Federation won't risk in case they need to breed more of me.
They already have I don't even know how many of my eggs harvested for their use.
And samples of my DNA in cryo in vaults all over hell's acre.
I wouldn't even be surprised if I bumped into my own doppelgänger one day.
For all I know, I might be a clone.
Neither Whisper descendants, nor clones of Whisper descendants, have the rights and freedoms extended to Civilians of the Federation.
That's the thing about being nanotech.
As a Whisper project descendant, you are Federation property.
You aren't wholly a person.
Your body isn't your own.
You are a copyrighted intellectual property.
There is a patent on your bloodline.
Ownership exists for the right to reproduce you, as your owner sees fit.
My designer, my owner, is registered in the archives of some Patent Office that time forgot.
And so is Doja's.
Do we share a common lineage, however ancient?
"So, what do you think?" Doja has a quizzical look on his face.
I realize that I have been quiet for a long while.
"It has a sickly-sweet flavor that reminds me of the flavoured antiviral they made us kids drink when the last pandemic swept through."
Wood tick season in the jungle had meant drinking an ounce of that sickly-sweet syrup every day for a month.
Doja offers an explanation. "Maybe that was banana flavored, to make it more palatable, and we just did not know it."
The texture of the cake is like something that can't be trusted: a weird combination of moist and dry, soft and firm, with that thick squishy mud-like layer on top.
I would prefer a dandelion salad.
At least that, I can identify, relate to, and trust.
I mash the rest of the cake up on the plate to make it look like I have eaten the majority of it.
It is the same technique I use to mash edamame bean loaf, to make it look like I have eaten it.
I would rather go hungry than have the aftertaste of that loaf in my throat all day.
"What, you're not eating it?" Doja asks.
"It's too sweet."
"And tastes like medicine," Doja agrees, "But only God knows when you will be in a position to eat cake again."
"Do you want it?"
"God no." He is disgusted by the prospect, but not disgusted enough to dispose of his cake.
"I'm going to let the compost pile have it."
I eat around it, the leafy greens, the Cube that I have been looking forward to the whole second half of the day.
My mouth runs with saliva. I always save my Cube for last. Delayed gratification makes my skin tingle with anticipation. I feel my pulse quicken with excitement.
The other cadets don't know what they are missing.
I live for Cubes.
There's never enough of the Cube to properly satisfy my appetite.
In this moment, I am at my happiest and most excitable, but also my most frustrated and irritable.
I feel like I could have three plates piled high with Cubes, and never have enough to quench the hunger inside.
Swallowing the last of the delicious gelatin in my mouth, I casually fold the cake mushed plate in half and toss it in the waste receptacle when no instructors are looking.
An instructor spots me returning to the table where Doja remains.
If I am not eating, I should not be in the dining hall.
Everyone knows that.
It's time for me to pack my essentials bag, and head to the transport platform.
"And so ends my time at the Academy." I declare, disappointed that I can't spend more time with Doja. It would have been wonderful to spend some real time. Not dining hall time. But some sort of… companion time, becoming friends. "It was really nice talking with you, Doja."
"Wait - where are you being posted?" Doja asks, seeming frustrated by the brevity of our visit.
"We do not know what we do not know." I say with a shrug.
As I walk away, I notice that Doja is forcing himself to take his time eating his Cube.
Small, painstaking bites.
I could never do that.
I haven't the self-restraint.
My taste buds are all but screaming at me for another Cube.
I have to physically force my gaze away from the Logistics Counter where they dispense them to us in perfectly cut squares of ruby bliss.
I have no idea what they serve nanotech soldiers for field rations in the jungle, but I hope that there are enough Cubes to go around, and no more goddamned banana cake.
_ End of Part One _