"Remember bananas?"

(Part Three)

Serial Dystopian Young Adult Fiction By:

Kayla North

Published by Kayla North

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Part Three:

The ship is falling at an awkward angle.

The rear of the ship, the heavier end, is now the nose, pointed toward the ground. I am clinging to the bench that is no longer perpendicular to our descent, but slanted, with my feet pointing toward the swiftly approaching ground.

I stare down into the perfect black of Midnight's face, and as we fall, it is as though I am falling forward into her, into her impossibly dark void.

"I would cover you with my body, and wrap myself around you," she yells up at me, her voice carrying above the howl of our plummeting ship. "But I'm more dense than you are, more mass-heavy. If we hit hard, I don't want to risk crushing you."

Before I have time to respond, the howl of our descent is interrupted by the rapid battering and rumble of our crash.

The air is knocked out of my lungs, but I hold on.

Even as the bench lurches, I hold on.

The Enhanced kids scream, and are silenced forever.

The acrid smell of burning wires fills the air, air that is impossibly damp.

The ship pitches violently to one side.

Only the nanotech among us are able to remain rooted to their footholds and grips.

The daylight that fills the crumpled ship is obscured by thick jungle.

The humidity hits us like a wall.

It is like being in someone's mouth.

Through it all, I am staring down into Midnight, into her starless night sky.

"The ship has stopped moving." Her warm hand is on my face. It gives me a place to focus my attention. "You can let go now. Are you okay? No injuries?"

"I'm-I'm fine."

Midnight slides out from under the bench.

She is inspecting the loss of life and supplies as I am forcing air into my lungs.

She acidic stench of coolant is in the air.

Highly flammable coolant, I realize with alarm, forcing myself to a standing position in the slanted wreckage.

While I know that the coolant is on the outside of the ship, where the electromagnetic drive is lodged in the ground, it could still be dangerous.

Adrenaline is coursing through me, making my limbs tremble.

Midnight is attending to a fallen Enhanced.

The extent of their head injury is so severe, I cannot distinguish the sex of the citizen.

Midnight takes the field knife from her utility belt and immediately busies herself with cutting the neural link from their skull.

"What are you doing?"

"Harvesting her neural link," Midnight calls back. "We can't let them fall into the wrong hands. If the Opposition were to reverse engineer the technology, or use it to link up with Mission Control, they would have access to all of our strategic information." She points at the Flight Officer, impaled on a metal panel through his midsection. Frank blood oozes all around him. He is not moving. "His will have mission data, Route data, possibly a Leader Packet, and an Access Authorization Packet. We need to get his. Petra, can you?"

I obey her, out of duty and necessity rather than want.

My field knife is still in its sheath.

I suddenly realize I haven't held it in days.

I take it in hand.

It is a heavy thing, seeming far heavier than the few ounces of steel I know it to be.

Despite all of my hours in the Simulation Room, I feel ill-prepared to cut into a real body.

"Hurry, Petra!" Midnight calls out. She has already moved on to another Enhanced, whose head is crushed, misshapen, their body bent beyond recovery. "The Opposition who targeted us will have watched us falling from the sky, they know exactly where to find us."

The other four nanotechs are following suit, harvesting the neural links from our fallen fellow Rangers.

I return to my task.

I take a deep breath of damp jungle air, steadying my nerves, steadying my hand.

The edge of the knife slices through the flesh at his temple, distal to the neural link device.

A sharp yelp cuts through the crumpled hull of the ship.

"Ow!" An arm swings weakly toward my knife hand, a hand trying to swat me away. "Stop it - I'm alive you idiot!"

Midnight is at my side.

"You won't be for long, Flight Officer." She tells him, apologetically. "Your injury. It's a mortal wound, sir."

"Ridiculous. Pull me off of this. And grab a First Responder kit."

Midnight uses the butt end of her knife to tap the panel that almost completely bisects him through the abdomen. "If we pull you off of this, you are going to be eviscerated. There will be nothing holding your organs in. You will bleed to death." She swiped a finger through the blood pool, and showed it to him. "You are already bleeding to death. All that we can offer you is a peaceful passing."

"What? No." He whimpers. "No – get a First Responders kit. The clotting agent!"

"A blood clotting agent is not going to save you." Midnight explains, her voice calm despite the grave situation. "This damage is too extensive."

"Ridiculous!" He complains weakly, gobs of bloody spittle on his lips. "Listen to me you nanotech scum - I'll be fine! Just get the kit. That's an order! Get the kit!"

Midnight balances her knife in front of him. "Do you wish to have any words with your Creator? Before I…?"

"No!"

"No?" Midnight shrugs.

It occurs to me that she may be enjoying it, when she draws her knife to his throat.

"No – you scum! Go to Hell!" He shrieks. "Go to-"

Midnight cuts his cry short, and then immediately begins cutting the Neural Link from his skull. I feel myself flinch inside as she pulls the wired unit from the wound in his scalp, and delicately places it with the other one inside her ammunition pouch.

The scent of Cubes is thick in the air.

My stomach growls.

I am suddenly distracted.

Ravenous.

"Help the others," Midnight instructs me. "We need to get those Neural Links, collect whatever weapons we can find, and leave the ship to avoid capture."

"But M - where are you going?"

"To find us a Signal Booster." I hear her stomach gurgle. "And I'm going to see if I can find those Cubes. We certainly won't have access to them once we get into the jungle."

At the word 'Cubes', every nano head in the crumpled ship turns toward Midnight.

We've already established that she is going to be our leader.

Now, she is also in the role of provider.

The one provisioning our sustenance.

We are all hungry.

Desperately hungry.

"I'll help you look." Pedro, a pewter skinned male nano, is already headed in Midnight's direction. The small amount of cargo crates that have survived the crash probably aren't a stockpile of Cubes, or a cache of weapons or communication equipment, but Midnight and Pedro are opening them anyway.

The smell of Cubes is so thick, I can practically cut it with a knife and eat it.

My mouth is watering at the thought, and my stomach feels concave plus plus, burning with hunger.

Between the unpleasant strain of our travel, the adrenaline from our crash, and the late hour of the day, my hunger is quickly becoming my primary concern.

With the aroma of Cubes all around me, it is an almost blinding, all-consuming thought.

I find myself lifting the knife in my hand to my nose.

There is a smear of the Flight Officer's blood at the very tip.

From where I cut into the flesh behind his ear.

Cubes.

He smells exactly like Cubes.

A powerful urge overcomes me.

Before I can even process what I have done, I place the tip of the knife in my mouth.

It is so many things.

An explosion of flavour.

I have a fleeting sensation of colors and emotions, tied into my experience of the flavor.

I close my eyes to experience it more distinctly.

I am sucking the tip of the blade clean.

The cold, hard metallic plate of steel, upon which is served the most saline, savoury, mouth watering, concentrated flavour of Cube I have ever had in my life.

A sound of awe escapes my lips.

My eyes flutter open.

"There are no Cubes in the ship, M," I call out to her, my voice excited. "That smell? It's the Enhanced. Their wounds. Their blood. They taste like Cubes." I stare at the Flight Officer with longing. "Or at least the Flight Officer does."

"What?" Midnight sounds wary. "Have you lost your mind, Petra? Did you hit your head?"

I scrape congealing blood from the metal of the panel that cuts through the Flight Officer's body.

I lift the knife to my tongue, to show her.

My nanotech blood rushes to experience the flavour.

It is as though I am humming with life.

"He's exquisite, M. Like Cubes, but concentrated. As though the Cubes we have at the Academy have been watered down, and this is what they are actually supposed to taste like."

I want more.

I lower my knife to scrape up more of the congealing blood.

Her hand clamps around my wrist, drawing my knife away from him.

"Stop that!" Midnight sounds afraid.

She hasn't shown much fear in the time that I have known her.

She sounds afraid that I might be right.

She is so strong.

Her grip is punishing.

"You don't believe me?" I ask her, wanting more, wanting her to join me in a proper meal, a meal that I have been waiting for my entire life. "Try it."

She brings my knife hand to her nose.

Sniffs.

"Gross." I hear Pedro say.

Yet there is longing in his voice.

Longing for Cubes.

For the source of the warm aroma all around us, thickening, like a buffet that we can taste, but not see.

"Trust me," I urge Midnight, leaning into the knife, urging her to taste it.

She relents.

Her mouth opens, and the tip of the knife disappears in her lightless void.

She is still.

Still, but not silent.

The whimper of pleasure that sounds from her is all the permission that the nanos need.

They fall upon the bodies of the Enhanced, at first, tentatively sampling the protein-rich blood, but then, all but bathing in it.

They are ravenous.

Frenzied.

"I have so many questions…" Midnight muses aloud, as her fingertips of perfect black scrape up as much congealed blood as they can carry.

His flesh looks supple.

She releases my wrist.

I angle my knife at the body of the Flight Officer.

"Should I?"

"There's only one way to know for sure," Midnight tells me, urging me on.

I cut a hole in the arm of his black Federation jumpsuit.

Cut across his deltoid, and then make two slices down, in an awkward triangle, following the musculature. I saw through the muscle and tissue until our prize is free.

I sink my teeth in.

There is something so satisfying, about sinking my teeth into this flesh, feeling his blood mix with my saliva, a protein-rich broth.

I chew, and swallow, greedily.

I offer Midnight what remains in my hand.

She seems torn about taking it.

As though she is as hungry as I am, but reluctant to surrender to that hunger.

Her mouth opens, I see the grey of her teeth and tongue.

"M, I could never have, in a million years even dreamed of this."

I watch her consume the decadent flesh, one morsel after another disappearing into her mouth of perfect darkness.

I busy myself with butchering him further.

We do not stop until we are all satisfied.

It takes longer for some of us than for others.

Not everyone has used their knives.

Bloodied mouths, hands, necks, noses.

The nanos look like they have been bleeding profusely, but the dark red staining their skin is not their metallic nano blood.

Midnight is restless.

Pacing.

"You seem upset."

"I am. Aren't you?"

"Upset at what?"

"The crash is one thing, but with this… distraction… we have lost precious time and lost track of time because of it."

"Shouldn't we stay with the ship? It will be easier for the Federation to find us this way?"

"And stay with the partly-eaten bodies of the Enhanced? Whom we have striped of Neural Links and flesh? One thing is standard protocol – the other certainly is not. If they find us, I cannot even imagine the disciplinary action we face."

"But how do we expect them to find us if we leave the ship?"

"That is not our concern right now. Staying with the ship means that it is going to be extremely easy for the Opposition to find us."

"I'm not so sure it's wise to leave."

Though it is difficult to read her features, especially in the shadow of the jungle and the dimming light of the passing day, Midnight has clearly made up her mind.

"No matter what we have done, we need to leave the ship," Midnight explains, rallying our group of crash survivors. "There's no telling how much time we have left."

"We don't even know where we are."

"Remember when I pointed out the Amazon to you? We're on the north side of the river. And we had just flown over Avalon."

"North of the Amazonas and south of Avalon is not a lot to go by."

"Well, we can figure it out from here."

"How can you be so sure?"

"At this point, we need to act. Organize ourselves and head north, to Avalon. Even if it isn't a great plan, it's better than no plan at all. There is a storm rolling in. It should help cover our tracks. Gather whatever weapons and supplies you can."

We move through the ship, trying to salvage what we can.

Some of the nanotechs are reluctant to leave the bodies of the dead.

Sierra, the copper-toned nano, seems most reluctant of all.

"Should we butcher some flesh?" Sierra asks Midnight. "To bring with us?"

"There's no time."

"There are also no Cubes," Sierra insists. "Our metabolism will be through the roof in this heat, this humidity. Especially once we begin exerting ourselves in this terrain. We are going to need protein."

"Fine," Midnight relents. "But do it quickly. And bring only what is reasonable to carry."

The sky is darkening.

In the distance, thunder sounds.

But there is something else…

Rustling.

The rustling is drawing nearer.

It sounds like an indecisive bird, rustling from one spot to another.

Maybe a family of giant, indecisive birds.

"Everyone, stay quiet!" Midnight hisses.

"You hear it too?" I whisper.

"Shh, I'm listening."

Something big, coming through the jungle.

We all watch through the opening of the gutted ship.

Pedro has positioned himself with us. He holds a long blunt object in his hand – a wrench.

"A wrench?" I whisper.

"It's the only weapon I can find that's bigger than my knife."

"Maybe it's just the wind? The storm?" I offer.

Pedro shakes his head. "The wind is picking up, but it isn't the wind."

"Whatever it is, it's getting closer," Midnight whispers.

Pedro's breaths are coming more quickly. "It sounds like more than one thing."

"They've found us." Midnight turns to face the group. "And they're getting closer. Arm yourselves. With whatever you can."

As though instinctively, Midnight has positioned herself protectively in front of me.

"They're on top of us, M." My hand has found the small of her warm back. My heart is fluttering in my chest like a terrified bird trapped in a cage of nanotech ribs.

"It sounds like it's all around us." Pedro whispers.

"They have us completely surrounded."

Vic stumbles into view, hacking at foliage, rifles strapped across his back and over his shoulders, looking as though he has brought as many as he is able to carry.

He grunts with effort, swinging his machete to clear the brush at the entrance.

My shoulders relax.

"It's just Vic."

"Making enough noise to bring the Opposition right to us." Pedro grumbles.

Vic has smears of human blood across his mouth, chin, all the way to his collar bone.

His hands are as bloody as his wrists, smears of a former life tracing all the way up to his elbow.

I wonder if I have as much blood on my face as Vic does. "He has clearly discovered the taste of citizen flesh. Enough to take a bath in it."

"Funny you should mention that," Vic says with a laugh. "You guys aren't going to believe this."

"About their blood?" Pedro asks, licking his finger. "The Enhanced tasting like Cubes?"

"We already know," I tell him.

The rustling in the jungle has not stopped.

"No, not that. I mean, yeah, that's new, and that's a bit of a shocker, I'll give you that – but I didn't mean that," Vic turns on his heel, looking for something. "I mean this." He is holding up the machete in his hand. It is not a Federation-issue machete. "Them."

It happens so quickly, I can barely process what is happening.

Six nanos in olive jumpsuits come into sight, one after another.

Some carrying machetes, hacking a wider path to us.

All carrying guns.

Three more file into view, with Ravagers leading the way on leashes.

"Ravagers on leashes?" I hear the awe in Midnight's voice. "What the hell…?"

There are two pewter-skinned nanos who could be my twin, one with a Ravager on a leash, one with an impressive command of her machete as she clears aside more brush.

The one with the Ravager looks directly at me and smiles.

It is like being smiled at by my mirror image.

If that mirror image were dressed in jungle camouflage and walking a Ravager on a leash as though it is a domesticated dog.

The Ravager is excited by the sight of us.

The mechanical animal, on all fours, stands nearly as tall as my mirror's bustline.

"Sit, Savage," she commands it, and it obeys, whirring as it collapses in on itself, resting its weight on its rear hunches of mechanical parts. The robot acts as though it thinks it is a domesticated dog. "Good boy."

Its electronic eyes look up at her, as though in admiration.

I have trouble taking my eyes off of her, my mirror.

She is me.

Pewter.

Same height, same build, same voice…

I have even more trouble with understanding everything I am seeing.

This is a Ravager?

The tireless killing machines that I have fought in the Simulation Room?

It seems more like a technologically advanced high maintenance pet, at present.

A head with a mouth of metal teeth, engineered for tearing, ripping, and jaws that can clamp with devastating strength, bone-crushing pressure. Body like a trapezoid tapering smaller to the hind quarters.

No tail that I can see, even though I now half-expect to see one.

"I don't understand…" Midnight begins, her shoulders slouching.

She sounds exhausted.

As though trying to make sense of nanotechs serving the Opposition's cause is enough to deplete her of all the fight left in her body.

Doja steps forward. "Allow me to explain."

"Doja!" I emerge from behind Midnight.

"Petra, wait!"

"I thought I'd never see you again!" I tell him. "What are you doing here?"

The nanos in the olive jumpsuits all share a hearty laugh.

"Doja is my series name, Petra." Doja smiles at me with all the patience and understanding that one provides a small child on a first attempt in a new lesson. "The name I chose for myself is Bridge. As in, one who spans a gap, connecting two. I am not the Doja you know. I am one of many Dojas, dozens if not hundreds of the same issue of nanotech."

"How do you know my name?"

"It's your series. You're a Petra." He glances around our group. "She's a Midnight. He's a Pedro. This, is obviously a Vic. Guy near the crates is a Rio. The female covered in blood trying to blend in with the wreckage in the back is a Sierra."

Midnight takes a step forward. "I don't know how you know our names, but I do know you're lying. This is a deception of some sort. Some sort of Opposition trick."

"The only deception afoot is what you've been fed on a plate in crimson Cube form your entire lives. Lives which are much shorter than you know them to be. Lives which are not your own. You think yourselves individuals, but you have been little more than iterations of your series, and nothing more – until now, your potential was sadly very limited."

The strength of my voice surprises me as it reaches my ears. "And what – you have unlimited access to answers, I suppose?"

"Some of them, yes. I know you're very curious to find out why we have two Petras here to greet you. You would not be surprised to know that there are only a dozen variations of our species. Petras are one of those variations. All Vics have the same origin. All Midnights have the same origin. Your source is the same. An Orphanage. A lab. But believe me when I say that your destiny is your own making, your own choosing. You share a common beginning, but you can write your own ending. You need not be the slave class of the Federation any longer."

"And what's the alternative?" Pedro asks boldly. "Become the slave class of the Opposition, instead?"

"Hardly," the Vic in the olive jumpsuit replies sharply. "We're anything but slaves. We are the superior species! We are freedom fighters – and we're fighting for you, Pedro!" His Ravager lets out a low growl at his owner's aggressive tone, as though responding to the Vic's wish to become hostile. "Park it, Savage." He addresses the Ravager. The Ravager lowers its hunches to the ground, and rests its angular head on its front 'paws'. "Good boy."

Midnight addresses Bridge. "Are you the leader here?"

Bridge turns his head and casually gestures at the device affixed to his temple.

"I wear the Leadership packet for this hub, if that's what you're asking?"

Sounds of surprise ripple through the ruined ship.

Midnight and I exchange a startled glance.

"But I thought that nanos couldn't wear Neural Links?" I am confused by the feeling of betrayal welling up, red hot and angry in my chest. "That our nanotechnology is incompatible with the interface? I was told that it will fry my brain, if we even try."

"You've been told a lot of things," my mirror self with the machete tells us, indicating her own Neural Link device. Covered by a black plastic disk, it is the only part of her scalp that isn't pewter. How I envy her in this moment. The things she must know of the world. Of the past, the present, the plans set in motion for the future. Her access to the silent connection to the information network they are sharing, and using with the speed of thought, obeying the silent commands for the retrieval and upload of data. All my life, I have longed to have that type of connectivity. "Very few of them true."

I swallow nervously. "You're lying."

The Vic in the olive jumpsuit snorts with laughter.

"Spoken like a true Petra," he grumbles. "So convinced of what you know to be possible. You're programmed to be blindly, unquestioningly loyal to the Federation." The Vic doppleganger makes himself comfortable, leaning back against a tree. His body language expresses that he does not feel threatened by us. "So, of course you think she's lying. Even to hear it from yourself, from another Petra you can see with your own two eyes, you don't believe it. You're too afraid to believe anything other than the illusion you've been living. Happily, Vics tend to be more sensible about these things." He grins at our Vic. "Good on you, champ, but your friends are going to be a pain in the ass." He looks to his leader. "They're going to be resistant to the truth, Bridge. This might take a while, so I am going to take a nap. Wake me up when it's over."

"Nanos don't need naps," I hiss at the rude mirror of our Vic.

He opens his eyes to address me. "If you don't mind, I'm going to enjoy some Shakespeare on my Recreation packet. It's far less dramatic than what is going to be unfolding here." He rests his gaze on Bridge before closing his eyes again. "Petras are almost as much trouble as Midnights. Just wake me if you need me. Like if one of them decides to try anything stupid."

"Recreation packet?" I mumble stupidly.

The mirror Vic is ignoring me now, and does not answer.

"And for what it's worth, I don't care to be referred to as a Petra anymore," the Petra with the Ravager speaks in the awkward silence. "That is my slave name. I prefer the name that I chose for myself. Hope."

"Hope?" Midnight echoes her. "What kind of name is Hope?"

"It's a name that has special meaning to me." Hope explains patiently. "You'll find one that has special meaning for you, too."

"I'm fine with Midnight, thank you very much."

The Ravager at Hope's feet growls at Midnight, shifting with readiness.

"Easy, boy." Hope soothes it, patting its metal exoskeleton. "The vanta skinned one is just a little shaken by the crash, that's all. She'll come to her senses soon enough."

"Don't bank credits on it." Midnight's words are sharp, threatening. "If I had a gun in my hand, you'd be in my crosshairs right now."

"Nano or not?" Bridge asks her, smiling patiently.

"Nano or not." Midnight replies. "I don't know what your angle is, but I'm not buying it. If we're so free, then leave."

"And then what?" Comes his speculative reply.

"Then when the Federation finds the two pieces of the ship, we'll be here with this piece, and we'll go back with them, for re-deployment."

"And when they see the condition of the bodies in the wreckage?" Bridge counters, the confidence in his voice suggesting that he already knows the answer. "Do you really think that you will be welcomed back to the Federation? Back to any human settlement? You'll be put down. Terminated. Your nanotech recycled, repurposed in a future issue of Petras, Midnights, Pedros, Vics, Sierras and Rios." Bridge gave a light chuckle. "But there's the kicker. They may decide that your nanotech is too tainted. That it's acquired an insatiable thirst for the real thing. They'd more likely incinerate you in entirety, rather than risk having your nanotech awaken in you the hunger, and call you to feast on an unwitting citizen settlement."

"We'll have to take our chances." Even as he says it, Pedro sounds uncertain.

Bridge replies with a patient smile. "The information networks of the neural links have long memories. Of the many, many instances where nanotech metabolism has craved human protein, right from its living and breathing source. Instances where nanotech programming yields to innate hunger for human DNA. Instances when Federation nurture has failed to keep nano nature in check." Bridge looks at us, one at a time, his gaze seeing something more than the nanotech Rangers before him. "Today is another instance that they will be adding to their catalogue of incident reports. We know that your Vic discovered your pilot was delicious while they were bleeding out in the cockpit from head trauma. Your Vic was still feasting when we found him in the cockpit, drawing fistfuls of the pilot's flesh to his mouth. But who was it, among you here, who called the others to the dining hall?"

"My money is on the Sierra." The Petra with the machete points it in Sierra's direction. "In a group setting, it's almost always a Sierra who gives in to their nature first."

"It was me." I confess, my voice weak.

Hope smiles at me. "Bold move, brethren. Good on you."

The Petra with the machete looks me over from head to toe, sizing me up.

"You want to make moves that are even bolder?" The Petra points her machete south. "Come with us, get the chip out of your head, and take control of your destiny. Discover who you are when you aren't the faux identity of some centuries-dead fifteen-year old girl."

"What do you mean, faux identity? What do you mean dead girl?"

The machete points at me. "You aren't Petra, just as Hope isn't Petra, and I'm not Petra. Petra, whatever remains of her, is merely a collection of data downloaded unto an electronic chip with limited storage. Meaning that you are programmed with a limited range of emotions, set of memories, skills, and ideas. The Federation favors a teenage mind over an adult one, for their nanotech. I am sure they think teenaged minds and memories more pliant, and docile. What they forgot is that they are also more apt to rebel."

"But… I'm Petra." My voice is barely a whisper. Midnight's arm of perfect darkness finds my shoulder, a warm, reassuring partial embrace. I gaze up at her. Though her features are black-on-black, and I can't see her expression, I get the sense that she is more curious about their claims, than feeling combative, as I am. It is in the way that her touch is reassuring. Encouraging. "You believe them?"

"I am beginning to think that our mantra is more true in this moment than ever before." Midnight addresses our group as thunder growls around us. "We do not know what we do not know. We have always known that what the Federation keeps from us outweighs the information they have shared. I, for one, would like to know more."

"We do not know what we do not know." Pedro echoes her. "I want to know the truth."

"And not the Federation's version of the truth." Sierra speaks as though finding her voice is a difficult thing for her to do. "I want the real truth. The facts."

"I am Petra." I insist, louder: "I am Petra! I am! Aren't I? Aren't I?"

Hope isn't smiling anymore. "Hear it again: Petra is a dead fifteen-year old girl. Petra is a ghost. It isn't a question of who Petra is. Or who she was. You are not her. The question is: who are you without a chip of her in your head? Who do you want to be? What do you want to be?"

Bridge speaks softly to our group. "You aren't the Federation-issued chips in your heads, any more than you are the Federation-issued harnesses on your chests. Harnesses with communication panels that are broadcasting your location to the Federation's signal relay even as we speak. It's just a matter of time before they assemble a team to follow your signals, and the ship's beacons, to round up each and every one of you. For recycling. Or incineration."

Hope interrupts him. "More likely than not, incineration. You'll be considered tainted goods now. There's no way they would risk re-using components that have had a taste of fresh flesh."

"But you do have options." Bridge continues. "More choice, more freedom, than ever before. You can stay here and face the consequences of feasting on their dead. Or, you can come with us, your nanotech kin, and discover the hard truth about your origin. The other hard truths that await you if you seek them. You can come with us, and discover who you really are. And who you are meant to be. Carve out your place in this world. Or, you can turn down our offer, and also flee the Federation, by heading deep into the jungle, beyond the reach of their signal relay, beyond their detection - and survive in different way."

"If you can," Hope adds, seeming nothing at all like her namesake.

"You know, you're very negative for someone who named herself 'Hope'", I vent at my mirror. "And as for you, Bridge, you speak very convincingly about how we have multiple options, but you make it very clear that our only real option is to go with you. Anything else is certain death. But maybe death is the noble choice here. You are the Opposition. You terrorize and raid innocent human settlements. You are murderers."

Bridge turns his face skyward to survey the rain that has begun to fall. "You do not know what you do not know." He says patiently. "All you know is the misinformation of the Federation's propaganda machine. If you come with us, you will know everything. And once you are truly free, you can choose to do whatever you like with the information we share. As I said, you have options."

A long silence passes with no words spoken between us.

The jungle comes alive with the falling rain.

Bridge looks to us again. "Where the question of the arrival of Federation forces is concerned, the clock is already set in motion. They will find the ship. And when they do, they will find these butchered bodies, and you can bet they will then have a very vested interest in finding you. And they will find you. Unless our Engineer removes your harnesses. Which cannot be done in this shell of a downed ship, because the Engineer is not here."

"As he said, you have choices." The Vic is done with his nap, but no less irritable than before. "But the Federation is probably already on their way. If I were you, I'd choose wisely."

"It's time to decide, guys." Bridge offers our group a friendly smile. "What are you going to do?"

_ End of Part Three _

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