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Damascus

By Joan Albright
(First published in Warp and Weave vol. 10, no.1 (Fall 2011))

“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.”

Subject 175 relaxed enough to let out a brief laugh. “No I guess not. But if you can get me access to the full floor plan of the station and the work schedules of all personnel, I’ll take it from there.”

Doctor Andrews let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “I think I can manage that.”

—–

“You wanted to see me, Doc?” a voice asked from the doorway.

Doctor Andrews turned from perusing his latest simulation data and saw Subject 175 leaning discreetly against the frame of his office door. The doctor removed his reading glasses and waved the young man inside, gesturing for him to close the door behind him. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said. “I have those things you asked me for. Sit down; you’ll have to use my computer.”

In the week since their conversation in the observation room, Subject 175 had been a model of good behavior. Doctor Andrews could almost have been fooled into thinking that the youth loved his work and was completely satisfied with his lot in life, if not for the light he had seen in the Subject 175’s eyes. Now, as he sat watching him study schedules and schematics from the other side of the room, Doctor Andrews could see the weight Subject 175 was carrying on his shoulders. It was an honest weight; the weight that suffering and injustice placed upon a still-innocent soul. It made him a little bit envious.

“So, assuming that you can get yourself off the station,” Doctor Andrews asked cautiously after a while, “what are you going to do about the pursuit? You have to know the Foundation won’t just let you go.”

“I’ll move around for a while, lay some false trails, then find some backwater planet and disappear. I have no reason to ever come out again,” he said, his fingers dancing across the computer screen.

“And your locator chip?”

“Damaged by an EM pulse while I was in the field. I … neglected to pass on the order for a new one.”

Doctor Andrews raised an eyebrow. “Been planning this for a while?”

“I like to keep my options open,” Subject 175 answered distractedly. “Part of the training, and all.”

“Still … it would be much easier to vanish if they thought you were dead,” Doctor Andrews mused, tapping his chin with a finger.
“That’s a bit of a tall order.”

“Yes,” Doctor Andrews admitted, drawing the word out lazily, “but you know, I think I could arrange a little accident for you. A parting gift, perhaps.”

Subject 175 stopped, turning from his study of a list of maintenance personnel, and gave Doctor Andrews a direct look. “Doctor. If anyone finds out that you helped me -“

“I trust in your abilities – we trained you, after all – and I have a few tricks up my own sleeve. And actually … there is a favor I’d like to ask of you, if you can make it out.”

“A favor?” Subject 175 sat back a little in his chair and settled his arms across his chest. “I’m supposed to be disappearing.”

“But if I make sure there’s nobody even looking for you, it won’t hurt to take something out with you, will it?” The other man frowned at him thoughtfully. “Just some research that I’m getting nowhere with here – nothing that will slow you down.”

“I suppose I could handle that,” Subject 175 said, eyes calculating.

“Good! Good. So. What did have in mind for getting off the station?” Doctor Andrews asked, wheeling his chair close.

Subject 175 seemed reluctant to share his plans at first, but they were working together now. “Well, there are delivery transports which arrive pretty frequently, but I think my best bet is the waste disposal transport. It’s only crewed by one man, and …”

—–

“Andrews! Doctor Andrews!”

Doctor Andrews looked over his shoulder to see a rather upset-looking man in a white lab coat coming up the corridor behind him. When he saw who it was, he wished he had pretended not to hear.

“Ahh. Doctor Balakirev. What can I do for you?”

Balakirev was not Doctor Andrews’ direct superior, and they rarely worked closely together, but he had the favor of the Foundation’s top executives, and he had a way of making certain that nobody forgot the fact. Subject 175 didn’t know half of the experiments being conducted in the laboratories of the isolated space station, but most of the worst of it was Balakirev’s work.

“I thought we agreed that the Savant unit was not ready for a manned test flight,” Balakirev said, catching up to him. “There are still gaps in the programming.”

“Doctor,” Andrews said crisply, not stopping but reluctantly slowing his pace to something more conducive to conversation. “Tomorrow’s exercise is hardly what I’d call a test flight. We will merely be fine-tuning the calibration of the thrusters. We only need to take the unit just beyond the influence of the artificial gravity generators, and there won’t be any need for the advanced functions.”

“You don’t even have a working prototype for your precious control system,” Balakirev said with a not quite sneer. “Anyone could fly the unit right now – so why is Subject 175 doing the calibration?”

“We don’t exactly have a surplus of experienced pilots at our disposal. Unless you’ve taken up flying lessons recently. No?”

“You could have chosen someone less valuable. There are at least three other fully-trained soldiers on the station right now.”

They approached an intersecting hallway, and Doctor Andrews finally stopped walking – partly because was disgusted with the whole conversation, and partly because he did not want Balakirev following him to his destination. “They’re all valuable. Thousands of credits worth of research and conditioning went into creating each one, including your most recent … acquisition.”

Doctor Balakirev noted the disapproval in the words and his eyes narrowed. “Since when did you grow a conscience?”

“Even I have limits,” Doctor Andrews hedged. “To answer your question, One-Seven-Five has been asking me for a while to let him do something different. He has an incredibly wide range of talents which we are not currently making use of. Besides … I should think you already have everything you need from him by now.”

Balakirev scowled at the jibe, but he seemed to do some mental calculating. “It’s true that he has lost quite a few of his protégés lately. Perhaps his performance would improve if we give him a distraction. You have my permission,” he said as if the decision were his to make, “but I will oversee the exercise personally.”

Doctor Andrews had put on a smile that he meant to be placating, but it quickly slid downward into a grimace. “Why, of course, Doctor Balakirev. We’ll be happy to have you. Now if you will pardon me, I have some calculations I must review before tomorrow’s exercise.” Balakirev nodded curtly and turned on his heel, and Doctor Andrews made sure that he was down the hall and around the corner before continuing on himself. He didn’t head toward his office just yet. He had quite a few things besides calculations to ready before morning, and he had just added a new one to his list.

—–

“So this is how you’re going to kill me?” Subject 175 asked, looking over a simple control unit that Doctor Andrews had assembled for him. They were in the launch bay, and Subject 175 was settled in the cockpit of a refitted mining craft which had the misfortune of being Doctor Andrews’ test unit. It was battered from use and barely had any paint left, but it was the best that his research budget could get him at the moment.

“Well, only in a manner of speaking, of course,” Doctor Andrews said, eyeing the dented hull sardonically. “If everything goes according to plan, you won’t be anywhere near this unit when it goes. Now,” he said, turning back to the small rectangular box resting on Subject 175’s lap, “you’re familiar with the basic controls, of course, but here are the new ones you need to know. This switch right here is a little something I cooked up last night. Turn it on before you eject, and no one will be the wiser. Don’t do either until you’re on the way back though; we don’t want them calling off the exercise before we’re ready.”

“Right.”

“Now this knob here – the black one – don’t touch it until you’re ready for your big finale. Crank it all the way to full, so it’ll fry the control circuits; we don’t want anyone to be able to tell what the remote device was for.”

“Doc, are you sure about this? If you sabotage your own project, they might not replace the test unit. They’ve already cut your budget once.”

“How did you hear about that?”

“Word gets around. I’d hate for you to get fired over this.”

Doctor Andrews pursed his lips, looking at the young man in the cockpit. “Don’t you worry about me, kid.”

Subject 175 narrowed his eyes, titling his head to one side slightly. ” … That’s what you meant by ‘research you were getting nowhere with’, isn’t it. You’re giving yourself an out if they cut the project.”

Doctor Andrews hid a rueful grimace. “Get in there already. I’m going up to start the pre-flight.”

—–

In the control room, the observation team was waiting, including a rather impatient-looking Balakirev. Doctor Andrews took his time going through the pre-flight checks; if the man chose to stick his nose where it didn’t belong, Doctor Andrews wasn’t about to powder it for him. Subject 175 responded to each query through the audio link – there wasn’t much to see in the cramped cockpit, so video was pointless at the moment. He sounded completely calm and collected, as if he cheated death on a daily basis.

Finally Doctor Andrews ran out of systems to check – he’d considered making some up just for Balakirev’s benefit – and Subject 175 launched. The monitors switched to an external view of the space station, and the Savant unit drifted into view. It was vaguely man-shaped; its fat, elongated body had two bent and footed legs for landing and main thrust, and two jointed arms for fine control and manipulation of objects. It was nothing like the sophisticated battle machines used in combat, but all it really needed to do was provide a similar interface. Doctor Andrews’ Savant system would respond to the pilot’s brain waves and react much more quickly than any manually operated machine could. At least, that was the theory.

Subject 175 drifted to a safe distance and began checking the thrusters. The technicians took over the tedious details of data collection. As long as everything went smoothly, he would simply observe until it was time for the return flight.

“It pulls a little bit to the left,” Subject 175 reported after a simultaneous burn of both main thrusters.

“How much is ‘a little bit’?” came a voice from Doctor Andrews’ right; Doctor Balakirev; he had been silent up until then.

“Point-one-three millimeters per meter,” came the instant reply.

Doctor Balakirev looked startled. The instruments in the unit couldn’t even detect a deviation that small after such a short burst. Doctor Andrews hid a smug smile. Subject 175 could calculate the speed and trajectories of thirty missiles simultaneously; he was a mathematical genius, thanks to the two years of gene therapy treatments he’d endured. The commander of his old squad at the front petitioned the Foundation for his return about twice a month.

If they had been conducting a real test, Doctor Andrews might have put the unit through its paces a little more, but there was really no further point to the exercise. The plan was for Subject 175 to begin his return to the station and make the unit appear to be damaged en route by an electrical malfunction. He would go EVA briefly and ride the unit’s momentum in, and Doctor Andrews would fake the biological evidence later.

“I think it’s about time to head back,” he said.

“I don’t think I can do that, Doc,” said Subject 175, and suddenly all eyes were on the viewscreen. The Savant unit had stopped dead in space.

“What?” Doctor Andrews said, confused. “You’ve got to head back so we can…”

“Doc.” Subject 175 cut him off abruptly. “I don’t care about any of your plans. It’s never going to end – you’re just going to use me up like you used up Hassan, use me until I’m dead or I break from the strain.”

“One-Seven-Five, You know I would never –”

“Goodbye, Doc. Thanks for everything.”

Suddenly, every electronic device in the room went haywire – the monitors rolling blurrily, the speakers giving off a rhythmic whine, and even the lights dimmed. It lasted only a few seconds, but when it stopped, the monitor showed a blank white screen for a moment before the image resolved into a star field littered with red, glowing bits of metal.

“One-Seven-Five? One-Seven-Five!”

There was no reply.

—–

Doctor Andrews paced nervously back and forth in front of the airlock doors, waiting impatiently for the space-suited salvage crew to bring in the last twisted remnants of the Savant unit. That is, he would have been pacing if the gravity weren’t so low in this part of the station. Instead, his path was more like that of a slow pendulum. Step up one wall, push off gently, plant one foot in the center of the corridor, then push off the opposite wall again. Back and forth. Back and forth. Finally the outer station doors were closed and the doors opened with a hiss of pressurized air.

Doctor Andrews glided over the railing, ignoring the stairs as thoroughly as the salvage crew did on their way out. Their supervisor nodded to him as he passed; they had worked far into the station’s night shift to bring in what they could of the wreckage. They would be back to help him sort it out in the morning, but Doctor Andrews couldn’t sleep until he had confirmed a few things for himself.

Peering through the scraps intently, he didn’t hear one of the salvage workers approach until the man was right in front of him. Doctor Andrews straightened his shoulders and opened his mouth to send him off, but the other man spoke first.

“Did you miss me?” he asked in a muffled but familiar voice.

“Y-you!” It took Doctor Andrews a moment to do anything beside sputter. “You scared the living daylights out of me!”

“Good; then I take it everyone believed you were genuinely surprised by my untimely death,” said Subject 175, cracking open his faceplate.

“Why, you impudent young hellion!” Doctor Andrews exclaimed in a rush of breath, the purple in his face fading. “You could have been killed, ejecting so far from the station!”

“What harm is a little extra EVA going to do to me? Aside from being a lot colder than I expected.” He rubbed his suited arms for emphasis. “Besides – I didn’t want to do any damage to the station.”

Doctor Andrews scowled his disapproval. “You did something; a simple overload shouldn’t have caused the whole unit to explode.”

Subject 175 merely shrugged his shoulders, face unreadable behind the helmet. “Reckless scoundrel,” Doctor Andrews muttered under his breath.

“So is everything ready to go?”

“It’s ready,” Doctor Andrews grumbled. “Wait for me here, and keep out of sight of the cameras until I get back,” he said as he headed through the doors and down to his office.

On the way there, he stopped and had the automatic comm system quietly page Doctor Balakirev. When the Savant unit had exploded, they had all stood there in stunned silence for a moment, but Balakirev had been the first to recover. He’d reprimanded Doctor Andrews right there, humiliating him in front of his own staff. It was time for some payback.

Doctor Andrews collected a few things from the bottom drawer of his desk, then waited with an ear to his door until the weary-sounding footsteps of Doctor Balakirev passed by. He stepped quietly out of the office, activating the device that would scramble the signal from the camera down the hall – the same type that had scrambled the data recorders in the observation room, but on a narrower frequency – and called out.

“Doctor? Where are you going?” he asked, and the other man gave a start, slowing down just enough for Doctor Andrews to catch up with him and press a small black object against his side. Balakirev crumpled to the floor, unconscious. The startled look on his face was priceless. Quickly, Doctor Andrews dragged him onto a gurney and covered him up, took his key card, and hurried toward the laboratory with the camera scrambler.

It didn’t take long to reach the laboratory, even with the one detour he made to dodge a janitor with a vacuum cleaner. Getting in took a little more doing, even with Balakirev’s card, but finally the door opened. Doctor Andrews set his things in the doorway to keep it from sliding shut behind him, and licked his lips in anticipation as he prepared to pilfer one of Balakirev’s most precious projects.

—–

By the time Doctor Andrews returned from the laboratory, Subject 175 was obviously getting impatient. He folded his arms across his chest and quirked an ironic eyebrow at the small black duffel bag which Doctor Andrews was carrying. Doctor Andrews shifted the burden on his weary shoulder and handed the younger man a small data device. “Here are my research materials; there are instructions about where to leave them on the disk,” he said, then gingerly passed him the duffel bag. “And this belongs to you.”

Subject 175 took the bag uncertainly, carefully sliding the zipper open. When he saw what was inside, he straightened abruptly, giving Doctor Andrews a hard stare. The bag made a small cooing sound as it was jostled. “You said there was nothing that would slow me down,” the man accused.

“My research will not; project Damascus is something I managed to acquire at the last minute.”

“Damascus?” Subject 175 seemed uncertain what to do with the duffel bag and its occupant.

“You were … you were right about the Foundation ignoring certain restrictions,” Doctor Andrews admitted with a grimace. “Cloning research, for example. I was never party to this one. If you take her with you, I can ensure that the man in charge of the project is discredited before this goes any further.”

“Her?” Subject 175’s tone said that he did not completely absolve Doctor Andrews of blame, but was giving him the benefit of the doubt. His eyes … well, Doctor Andrews tried not to look too closely at his eyes.

“She’s not an exact clone, but she has a great deal of your DNA. The idea is that nobody will think to inspect the Foundation’s new line of super soldiers if they’re not physically identical. I don’t know who her mother is, or even if she had one – we’ve never had a female test subject survive the treatments.”

“Why are you really doing this?” Subject 175 asked, carefully settling the bag over his shoulder.

Doctor Andrews hesitated. “Maybe, just maybe, I feel a tiny bit responsible for this one. Maybe my hardened little heart still has a soft spot for children. And maybe you should stop asking questions and get on board that waste disposal transport before the real pilot shows up for his shift.”

Subject 175 stood there staring at him for a moment with that accusing blue gaze. Then he shook his head and let it pass. “One more question. Does she have a name?”

“Do you?” was Doctor Andrews’ response.

Subject 175 grimly nodded his acknowledgement, then shut his helmet and walked out through the airlock doors, disappearing around the corner. Doctor Andrews let out a breath, then set about changing a few important details using Doctor Balakirev’s key card at the nearest computer station. He spared a glance out the window once, when felt the distant rumble of a ship launching.

Doctor Andrews finished up his work at the console, yawning and allowing himself a small smile of satisfaction. It was time to wheel Doctor Balakirev back to his quarters before he woke from the stun device. If Doctor Andrews did his work well tonight, the overbearing Balakirev’s career was about to come to an abrupt end. His own funding might peter out eventually – probably accelerated by the complete demolition of the only test unit he had for the Savant system – but his research would survive, and he would find someone else to back him. And if he was really, really good, he would have not just one of the Foundation’s precious Savants to test it with, but two.

Whistling, Doctor Andrews set off down the hallway in his bubble of camera-blinding interference. He still had work to do.

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