A disoriented young man opened his eyes to discover that he was one of many lining the walls of a drab metal barracks. Like him, the others were braced by rubber hooks under their armpits. They appeared eerily similar to each other and wore the same synthetic unitard.
“Today is your first day of life. No doubt, this will come as a surprise to you. You carry memories from over twenty years of existence.”
He looked down and saw a tattoo on his left hand: STEVE-38.
“You are a clone created for one purpose: battle. Today, you will fulfill that purpose.”
Steve-38 tried to speak but only produced a throaty rasp.
“You have no vocal cords. You do not need them. Your purpose is to listen and then to act.”
Steve-38 felt his neck for a wound or scar but found none.
“Do not allow yourself to dwell on doubts. You were not released from the vats to address a personal existential crisis. You live only because you are needed for immediate combat.”
Steve-38 searched his memories. Disorganized thoughts swirled in his mind. He concentrated and recalled growing up on a farm with an older sister, but he couldn’t remember her name. He tried to form an image of his parents, but their features refused to take shape.
“You are not a robot. You may choose to abandon your people in their time of need. You may choose to reject the gift of existence you have been given. You can decide to forego your place of honor and remembrance by those you are meant to protect. But know this, you have one day of life. This is it.”
Steve-38 slid a hand along the front of his abdomen and found it disconcertingly concave, as if he had no bowel or internal organs. Still, he felt stronger than ever before. The rubber hooks released. He lurched forward but steadied himself with unexpectedly deft reflexes.
“Many men squander their lives in a vain search for purpose. You will not. You have a purpose, and that is to kill and die. You can choose to ignore one of those but not both.”
Steve-38 found a rifle on the table next to him. He could not recall having ever touched a weapon yet instantly recognized this as an MK-48 assault rifle. He checked the magazine. As anticipated, it contained forty detonating fragmentation rounds.
“There will be no tomorrow. I repeat. There will be no tomorrow. You will be released into battle in five minutes. You will encounter carnage fiercer than you can imagine. Fan out and engage immediately. If it moves, fire on it.”
Steve-38 instinctively slung the rifle and an ammunition satchel over his shoulder.
“You will not feel pain. The cloning process extracted that and all other negative sensations. This is a kindness to you, an acknowledgement of what you are meant to endure. You will show your gratitude by fighting bravely. March through the door to the deployment zone.”
The door at the side of the room snapped open. Steve-38 followed the identical copies out. They barely seemed to register his presence, their eyes focused on the open doorway.
“You have memories from an idyllic human upbringing. They are not yours. These have been implanted to give you an understanding of what you fight for.”
The farm. It felt so real. Steve-38 remembered framing a wooden grain shed like it was yesterday.
“Treasure these memories, but do not trust them. You have battle training implanted in your mind. Trust this. You have only been alive for six minutes. You may only live for another four. Do not waste this opportunity to be part of something larger. You will never know love, but you must know that you are loved. The billions of men and women on your home world cherish you for what you will soon do for them. Earn their adoration through valor.”
The platoon took positions on the rows of squares in the adjoining room facing a large sealed door. Gunfire cracked and explosions thundered on the other side, the brief silences in-between punctuated by inhuman screams. A barely perceptible scent wafted into Steve-38’s nostrils, and his heart began to race.
“We have made our enemies pay for their atrocities, but the war is not over. Crush the resistance. Do not concern yourself with tactics. Find the fury within yourself. This is your strategy.”
The faint scent in the air intensified. The other members of the platoon furrowed their brows and clenched their teeth. Images of fire and violence flooded Steve-38’s brain. He recalled the smell of a burning farm then heard a rapid staccato of small explosions that echoed in his head and ended with a single visceral thud. He gripped his weapon as a remote sense of terror stalked the edge of his thoughts, desperately searching for a way inside of his mind.
The door at the front of the room hinged at the bottom. Beams of light exploded through the seams as the great door fell. Wisps of smoke and dust whipped into the gaping exit. A klaxon sounded and the front row rushed out, firing blindly.
Steve-38 marched forward with the next line and took a deep breath. His palms were sweaty, but he felt strangely resolute. This was his first and only day of life. Whether his own or implanted, his memories demanded retribution, and they would have it.
“You will serve humanity in its moment of dire need. Move swiftly. Unleash your aggression. If you wound your enemy, press on for a new target.”
Steve-38 shouldered his rifle and bent his knees, anxious to advance with the next wave. He rubbed his wet fingers against his thumb in anticipation then felt a sudden jolt. He lifted his hand from his weapon to examine it.
Lodged in the tip of his thumb, Steve found a small wooden splinter.
The klaxon rang.