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Pathfinding!

Content note: child endangerment and death

 

1.

When the children are ready, they go in the simulator. There are only ten children left by now, so there’s plenty of scheduling time to go around. They all jump the low bar of the necessary diagnostics: medical, psychological, emotional, physical. If they break in there, the diagnostics assure, it will be along other faultlines than these.

Nobody relays this to the children. Instead they say: we’ve set up a new game for you. But you can’t all play at once. You will have to take turns. They say this with an overblown enthusiasm that reminds 06 of a birthday-party clown she saw once, a lifetime ago, and distrusted even then.

The children will go in singly, and in what’s left of their designated pairs, and if that goes well, in rotating squads of three and four. Building and testing and calibrating the thing took a healthy bite out of the dwindling pile of the Director’s funding, but it’s well worth it for the children’s safety. The Director does not know how to assure the children that they only fear her in the way they fear the doctors down in Medical: a necessary good misperceived by childish naiveté as evil.

She is content to play this role. A fairy godmother, vivid and glorious in her malevolence—until, at some late stage in the children’s story, she is revealed to have had their best intentions at heart all along. The Director savors this eventual revelation as she blinks at the machine’s interface, making selections. SUBJECT. PLAYFIELD. OBJECTIVE. DIFFICULTY. DURATION. She cannot wait to see the looks on their faces when they see what they have become.

The working definition of “ready” is vague. The working definition of “safety” is vague. The working definition of “children” is vague. They go in the simulator all the same.

 

2.

06 in the simulator.

Today is Wednesday. 06 knows today is Wednesday, because Wednesday is 06’s day in the simulator, and here she is. Days otherwise are slippery, like sidewalk earthworms after rain. Hard to hold on to. She has not seen the sun for many sleeps now. The last day she was outside was hot. It smelled like baking pavement, car exhaust, summer heat, scorched metal, old blood. Somewhere, across the city, other children laughed. They sounded younger and happier than her.

06 considered laughing along with them, distant and unknowable as they were, just to see what it felt like. Then almost immediately reconsidered. Instead she picked up the dead mech’s busted pilot module and rolled it down the empty street like a bowling ball three times the size of her. It skidded over a broken barricade and out of sight, leaving her dissatisfied.

She is back there now, in the simulator. The streets are identical. Even the smells are the same. They are being piped into the closed room of the machine, she thinks, or else delivered directly to the smell-centers of her brain by some sorcery the Director has devised. 06 knows better than to put this past her.

The simulator traps the idea of the city the way a seashell holds the echo of the sea. Thus, 06 reasons, if she listens hard she can maybe hear those distant children laughing. If she walks far enough down those broken streets, she might find them. She wants to see what they’re laughing about. What non-event can possibly be so fucking delightful in this non-place.

She walks and walks. She does not find them.

 

3.

There used to be more children, but they do not go into the simulator because they are dead.

Their names were: 01, 03, 04, 07, 09, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48.

The ones that remain: 02, 05, 06, 08, 11, 21, 22, 28, 33, 42.

Their days, like their names, are numbered.

 

4.

They have other names too, of course. They assume the Director must have one also. The Director knows their real names because they had them when they came to the facility, war-orphaned, bewildered, bleeding from the ears or knees or eyes, alone. These people-names went into their files. The Director and her staff use them sometimes, but the newsfeeds do not.

The children are not supposed to use their people-names with each other. So they whisper them to themselves and to each other in the dark, when they think the surveillance is shut down for the night. (It isn’t.)

By day the other children call her 06, just as she calls them 05, 22, 42, and so on, and in this way they are all good children, the kind that get cookies and juice after their weekly trips to Medical. The Director calls 06 Catherine, sometimes Kit. The newsfeeds, reporting on her exploits, her obedience, the success of her metamorphosis, and the wake of her destruction, call her 06. So does the simulator screen. The number floats above her head like a halo. Like something that might fall on her and knock her out, or kill her, but never does.

06 is anyway notoriously hard to kill. That part isn’t in her file. It doesn’t need to be. The fact that her file is still open at all conveys this clear as day.

 

5.

The Director removes the nameplate from her desk whenever one of the children is sent to her office for chastisement. None of them have observed this object personally. For all they know it doesn’t actually exist, and she is exactly as they see her: last name Director, first name The. The aura of mystery this lends her is thick enough to cut.

Half the children are convinced this unobtainable relic is a figment of 06’s imagination, so if it were to be located, vast sums would pass hands, and 06’s pockets would be pleasantly lined for days to come. The children have no money, so their currency is split between the hoarded, the given, the traded, the stolen, and the found. 22, for instance, who couldn’t bluff his way out of a wet paper bag with a map and guide, will owe 06 his entire month’s cookies if she gets her hands on evidence of the Director’s name.

Some think this kind of slick incentivizing is why 06 gets in trouble as often as she does. The Director knows better. 06 is trouble, top shelf, full stop, to the hilt, the whole way down. More, she’s the worst kind of trouble. The kind whose detonation is inevitable, whose trajectory is unclear. She sheds dangerous potential like a virus.

The Director plays the hand she’s dealt. She lets 06 catch sight of the glinting metal of the nameplate, now and again, mid-disappearance into one of the Director’s many locked desk drawers. Intellectually she realizes the danger she is courting. She knows full well that 06 could snap her like a toothpick if she so chose. Carve her up like a radish rosette. She’d be dead before she hit the ground, and she’d hit it in several disparate wet thumps.

The Director fancies herself a sort of modern-day lion-tamer, thrusting the fragile architecture of her skull into the maws of beasts. She wants to see how far 06’s obedience can be stretched before it snaps.

 

6.

The simulator is state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, bleeding-edge, etc. Immersive. Exquisite. Indistinguishable from reality.

These are the promises made to the Director by the assemblage of contractors and sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors she hired, directly or indirectly, first to build the thing, then to program it, then to iron out the bugs.

There are a lot of bugs. Every time one is dealt with, a dozen more spring up in its place.

Under SUBJECT-PLAYFIELD-OBJECTIVE-DIFFICULTY-DURATION, the Director inputs 06/22-URBAN WARFARE-CIVILIAN ESCORT-MODERATE-60MIN. 06 and 22 sneak and dodge and strafe and snipe, lay down suppressive and/or covering fire, take point, hold the line, execute their game plan, devastate the enemy forces, etc.

A person-shaped huddle of pixels whimpers behind the virtual meatshield of their doubled combat stance. Come on, 06 whispers to it, knowing better. It’s okay. It’ll all be over soon.

22 shoots her a look. You know this isn’t real.

They are fifteen years old, which each of them wears differently. 06: defiance, nobility, misplaced nostalgia, surgically precise rage. 22: indifference (false).

Gun in one hand, sword in the other, 06 rolls her shoulders at him. Don’t you miss games?

This gives 22 pause. They’ve been in the facility several years now. Which is to say: forever. Already he is losing so much. A sense of time. A sense of place. A sense of who he used to be. Who he’s supposed to be now. He has dreams, sometimes, that he hatches from an egg like a baby velociraptor. But the dream switches, as dreams will do, and then he’s the egg, and it cracks, and there’s nothing inside at all.

Still, every morning, as he brushes his teeth, the mirror display asks him to rate his quality of sleep on 1-10 scales of: restfulness, pleasantness, refreshment. He stares down the ones, then makes himself blink at the tens, firmly, one by one, before spitting toothpaste contemptuously down the drain. To surrender even this stupid dream to the Director’s scrutiny feels like a betrayal, however obscure. Besides, his frame of reference is fading fast. Does he remember restful sleep? Pleasant sleep? Refreshing? What the hell does that even mean?

If he strains his brain hard enough to hurt the backs of his eyeballs, he can just about recall a real bed in a real house. Or was it an apartment? He can picture a—blue?—blanket, with something printed on it. Robots? Spaceships? Trees? When he tries to focus on the pattern of this blanket, he sees the city burning. Buildings blackening, crumbling, falling as ash.

It’d be a weird goddamn thing to print on a little kid’s blanket. Rationally he knows this. But he can’t rid himself of the conviction that’s been seemingly planted in his mind. 22 shakes his head to clear it. It doesn’t take.

06 elbows him. Simulator fucking with you?

What simulator? asks the civilian-shaped pile of pixels they’re escorting, real quick in the space it takes for 22 to figure out what to reply. Then it explodes, misting 22’s uniform in a fine red spray.

Then it keeps walking, the exploded blood-cloud of it, down a side street as 22 and 06 stare. It walks right up to a mech and runs headlong into its foot, booping against the armor again and again, leaving weird stippled patterns like a sponge dipped in paint.

It strikes them both as oddly pretty.

 

7.

The Director’s team will iron out this bug, and the next one, and the next. The one that sends 21 flying straight up into the air like there are rockets on her boots, and the one that drops 11 straight down into the ground like the pavement’s opened up to swallow him. The one that turns 02 invisible, the one that turns 28 intangible, the one that bursts 06 and 22 into fractal patterns edged with neon light. The one that turns the streets to something like acidic glue and the one that melts their guns and turns their swords to wet noodles and the one that solidifies the air around them, trapping 33 and 42 in it like flies in amber. The one that teleports 05 right off the street and into the mech she was fighting. The one that catches 08 in a death loop for two hours before the techs come back from an overlong lunch and realize what’s happening. They pull the plug and drag him out, pissing himself and shivering. They promise him a whole package of cookies, all to himself, if he doesn’t tell the Director. They needn’t have bothered. It’s several days before 08 has snapped out of it sufficient to remember words. And by then the Director, as so often happens, has bigger problems.

 

8.

Said problems include but are not limited to:

  1. Lack of funding.
  2. Lack of morale.
  3. Civilian protests, growing in recent days both more numerous and more inventive.
  4. Untrustworthy subordinates.
  5. Bad publicity.
  6. Worse dreams.
  7. The children are falling ill.

7a. Very ill.

7b. Two from the final dozen have already died.

7c. Nobody knows exactly why.

 

9.

When 17 died in his sleep six years prior, bleeding out every hole in his head, and the on-duty medic made the 3am emergency call that brought the Director straight to the facility, two-fisting energy drinks in the back of her self-driving car, it was assumed to be an accident. A fluke. Some kind of dirty-weapons mess he might have picked up somewhere out there in the city, had the children been released for duty at that point. A few years later, when the first pairings were sent to the front, injected into the war like a syringe of nanobots into a tumor, this will be a rational conclusion to reach, if not for the Director’s team than at least for the media, which is enough. Standing over the red-soaked bundle on the table, remembering the progression from occasional coughs to nosebleeds to bruising to this, the Director knew better.

How do you want me to write this up? the medic asked carefully.

I don’t, the Director said. Not yet. Keep a lid on it ’til morning. I need to think.

In the morning she didn’t remember the ride home, or unlocking her front door, or kicking her shoes off, or climbing back into bed. She only remembered the dreams. They were the realest and most vivid thing about her day so far, until she rode back into work and 17’s corpse was waiting for her there too.

 

10.

Today, 06 coughs, and the tech buckling her into the simulator harness startles like he’s been goosed. He cannot tell her that he, along with the rest of the Director’s staff, has been tasked with keeping a tally. Quantity and duration of cough. Quality of same, re: depth, wetness, violence.

Ditto bruising. Ditto nosebleeds. Ditto anything else out of the ordinary. 17’s autopsy six years ago, and 38’s the year before last, revealed: massive internal bleeding, cascading organ failure, generalized liquescence. But all this started somewhere. With something innocent. Something like 06’s cough. The cough they all have now. The cough that landed 05 in Medical yesterday, choking up black clots, putting all the staff on high alert.

The children are supposed to be reporting on these things already. This is the entire reason they’ve been partnered, to put extra eyes on each other when the Director and her army of medics and techs and surveillance cameras and security bots aren’t looking. Less, initially, for the reporting of symptoms not yet known to watch for, more for the data that would otherwise slip through the monitoring net. The things that the Director, for all her budget, cannot see. Discontent. Depression. Disobedience. Having an early warning system when one of them starts exhibiting vanguard symptoms—blacking out, or losing time, or suffering hallucinations they might hide from Medical but not so easily from a 24/7 partner bond—is gravy. Nevertheless, somebody dropped the ball on 17 and someone else on 38, and someone else, by the looks of it, on 05.

Twice is a coincidence. Three times is a problem. The Director’s funding campaigns can’t take another hit of that magnitude. The company shareholders aren’t overmuch fond of exsanguinated nine-year-olds. Or thirteen-year-olds, as the Director has learned. She doubts they’ll like 05’s fifteen-year-old corpse any better. They’ll protect their investments. Burn their bridges. There’s a war on, after all, and everyone likes a scapegoat. They’ll close ranks on her like a bear trap snapping shut.

06 is side-eyeing this jumpy tech with bland curiosity.

You all right? he asks her. Thinking of 17 on the cold table down in Medical, a fresh sheet draped over his head like he’s hiding from monsters in bed. Six years ago or sixty, he’ll take this image to his grave.

The tech watches 06 cagily, like she’ll open her mouth and spew blood on his freshly laundered coat. Given how spectacularly 05’s condition has deteriorated in the past twenty-four hours, this is not an unreasonable conclusion.

Allergies, 06 says.

This brings the tech up short. There are no allergies noted in 06’s file. What are you allergic to? he asks, resolving to make a note of it. Mold? Dust? He just stops himself from saying pollen? because it’s not like 06 gets exposed to much of that. His bet’s on mold, really. Some sectors of the lower levels smell like a shower stall that nobody has literally ever cleaned.

Beatifically, 06 smiles at the tech. And, by extension, at the Director, through the grainy filter of the feed. This place.

 

11.

06/22-CHEMICAL ATTACK-THREAT NEUTRALIZATION-DIFFICULT-5MIN.

They exchange a look. Five minutes?

That’s why it says DIFFICULT, the tech says helpfully. Come on, guys. You love a challenge.

22’s left eyebrow raises infinitesimally. He sneaks 06 a solidarity glance, but she’s got her game face on and dialed up to twelve. He sighs. Leave it to 06 to let her seething hatred of this place be overridden by something so fleeting and inconsequential as competitive instincts.

That said. As their lenses interface and calibrate and the playfield boots up on each of their respective fields of vision, the elaborately bored expression 22 is leveling at his loading screen is rapidly revealing itself to be what could charitably be described as questionable and more precisely as bullshit.

I’m gonna destroy you in there, 06 murmurs, barely moving her mouth.

Misplaced adrenaline spikes and settles behind 22’s sternum. He does not want to enjoy this. He refuses to enjoy this. Control, he commands himself. Control. To her he says: We’ll see.

It’s a shared objective, guys, the tech reminds them. No individual mission parameters in this playfield.

Of course, 06 says. My mistake. But below the edge of the observation window, where the tech’s spying eye and the cams and the bots cannot see, she is letting fly a kick at 22’s left boot.

Wordless, her meaning is clear enough. At least it is to 22, who is more at ease in 06’s presence than he is in his own skin. This kick says: Prepare to be annihilated.

Eyes front, he lifts his chin slightly, like a nod forgot what it was doing halfway through. 06, to whom 22’s every streamlined gesture and understated expression is more familiar than the taste of her own teeth, reads this just as accurately: You are, as always, most welcome to try.

The loading bar fills. The world smash-cuts. In they go.

 

12.

Competitiveness or no, partnerly rivalry or no, the simulator has other plans for 06 and 22. Their boots hit pavement and the bugs come out in a swarm. 06 keeps rubberbanding back to the starting zone, and 22 teleports into the side of a building and gets stuck there, randomly glued to the side of its sheer glass face a couple meters off the ground, legs dangling, mortified.

Meanwhile, here comes the chemical attack, as promised. A fleet of drones sweeps in fast and low from the northeast, deploying its payload as its V formation banks between the nearest buildings into the open ground of the street where 06 has stabilized just enough to grab 22’s boots and haul him off the building, laughing her entire ass off at the look on his face.

Clouds of pinkish gas plume out and disperse in the wake of the fleet.

Neutralize threat, 22 thinks. He shakes 06 off and assesses. A dozen drones. Their payload is nearly invisible against the sunset. This alone probably accounts for no insignificant fraction of the mission’s difficulty rating.

No matter. 22 takes the deepest breath he can and holds it. Then he draws his pistol and unloads it into the flame-colored sky. Half of the drones fall, spitting sparks. To his moderate irritation, he sees the other half have already crashed to splinters, courtesy of the pistol 06 is now spinning flamboyantly, like a movie cowboy, before shoving it home in the holster.

Threat neutralized, 22 clasps prim hands behind his back, awaiting extraction.

Nothing happens.

Off to his four-o’-clock, seized by some iceberg of rage she usually only discloses the tip of, 06 begins skewering as many drone corpses as her blade will hold, like she’s picking up litter at the park. Each stab craters pavement. When the sword is full, she waves it at some unseen eye in the clouds.

Is this it? she howls at the sky. Is this all you got?

 

13.

It isn’t.

 

14.

They try to walk their way out. Run their way out. Climb their way out. Dig. There is no off switch for the virtual reality in which they are now stuck. No escape hatch. No ejector seat. 06 yells some more. Nobody comes to rescue them.

Maybe it’s like a dream, 06 ventures. Maybe we can control it.

She gathers her considerable strength beneath her and leaps, then crashes.

Can’t fly? 22 inquires, deadpan.

Can’t yet, she grits, and jumps again. Then again. Then she scales a skyscraper and takes a running leap off that. No dice.

06 stands, hands on knees, coughing, catching her breath. The hell?

Her tone hooks 22’s attention. What?

Look.

22 turns. 06 has got something sparkly in her hand. Sparkly and pink. There’s more on the street, scattered in patterns that almost look like language. 06 toes a drone carcass over and more glitter spills out.

Chemical attack, my ass, 06 says. Fucking bugs.

She scuffs out the mess with the sole of her boot. As the patterns dissolve, a sudden breeze brushes the backs of their necks like a sigh.

 

15.

The Director watches the simulator training sessions, such as they are, from the bug-free safety of her desk. The feed displays directly on the smart surface. She kicks off her pumps, puts her feet up, sips her coffee, and watches as chemical warfare plays out on the faux-mahogany backdrop.

After a minute she gets up, the feed still playing. Goes to the supply closet. Comes back with a surplus box of long-stale peanut butter cookies, which she rips into and dips the contents of, sequentially, thoroughly, into her rapidly cooling subpar company-store coffee. By the time the feed finishes playing and her desktop reverts to glossy auburn grain, her coffee is not only too sweet to drink, but sheened with oil on the surface, like a pond in which something sizeable has died. She sets it aside, goes to replace the cookie box, realizes it’s empty.

Whatever. Lots more cookies where these came from. She has the inventory people buy them in bulk. Each child’s favorite flavor has been immortalized in his or her file, and she’s always made sure to stay fully stocked with all of them. Sugar cookies for 21, peanut butter for 38, white chocolate macadamia for 17, lemon poppy seed for 28, chocolate chip for 11, double chocolate chip for 42, snickerdoodles for 33, rainbow cookies for 06, black-and-white cookies for 08, biscotti for 05, oatmeal raisin for 22, and peppermint candies for 02 who doesn’t like cookies, which suits the Director just fine because she can’t exactly itemize all this in her funding requests and peppermint candies can be bought in ten-pound sacks for the kind of money she finds in her couch cushions.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, the Director’s mother used to say, and surprisingly enough, this handy adage applies to genetically modifying children into superweapons with minimal drama just as effectively as it applies to winning friends and influencing people. For difficult medical procedures, for displays of obedience, for bribes and hush money and incentive and bait, and for germinating the delicate case of Stockholm syndrome the Director is attempting to cultivate in her remaining charges, cookies are an excellent, shelf-stable, cheap, one-size-fits-all solution. Cookies are the Director’s first line of defense.

This, the Director reflects, is yet another way in which the company has outdone the old-time government military. Start with children. Children, if you get them young, are super easy to handle. Most days, cookies will get you most of the way there. And there’s good old-fashioned discipline for the rest.

Belatedly, morbidly, she realizes she should have eaten the biscotti instead. 05’s cookie ship has fairly definitively sailed. Her supply is just going to go to waste now. The almonds will probably turn rancid before the casualty paperwork is finalized. Autopsy report. Incident report. Case file closing requests. Final case report.

The Director remembers how, six years ago, she entertained a fleeting vision of putting a box of 17’s cookies with him when his corpse got brought downstairs and put in its drawer. An offering. An apology. Sentimental, she chides herself, feeling the same notion rise up when she considers 05 down in Medical, her body losing ground to itself one cell at a time. She pushes the idea away.

 

16.

Time passes weird in the simulator. Days and nights swoop over their heads, almost definitely too fast to be real. 06 yells for help. She knocks down buildings. She rips up the street and hurls it in chunks at the presumed dome of the sky. What is wrong with this fucking thing, she rages. Let us out.

She pauses, glances over to find that 22 has planted the silent flag of himself in the mathematical dead center of the street. If his aim is to signal adamancy, 06 won’t give him the satisfaction of any number of snarky comments that leap to mind.

But no. He’s just watching the stars.

What he can only think of as the landscape here is reminding him of something else deep-buried in the flaming wreckage of his childhood. He’s seen, once, a time-lapse video of a starscape taken from the bottom of some kind of canyon. Riverbed, rock walls, the Milky Way stuttering across the visible slot of sky.

Replacing riverbed with eight-lane street and rock walls with skyscraper frontages matches 22’s current locality to this memory with startling accuracy. That, and the transit of this place’s stars is smoother.

My mom read me a story once, 06 says, appearing silent as thought at 22’s side. Some kids were walking in the woods and saw this ring of mushrooms just, like, growing there. This impossible perfect circle.

Improbable, 22 corrects her, still watching the sky. If it were impossible it couldn’t be there.

06 gives him a look. Her eyes flash in the dark like errant stars.

So they step into this impossible perfect circle, she continues, and they’re never seen again.

22 ponders this. Well. By the people telling the story, you mean.

What?

Maybe somewhere else there’s somebody telling a story right now: “Some kids appeared out of nowhere, and they didn’t know where they were, and when we asked them where they came from and how they got here, all they talked about was woods and mushrooms and circles that shouldn’t exist.”

22 pauses a moment, tracking the thought a little deeper down the hole.

I mean. If they could understand each other’s language at all.

He tilts his face back to the false starlight, oblivious to 06’s incredulity. So who has the weirdest story? The people who lost the kids or the people who found them?

Silence. It stretches long enough that he turns to regard her. Distantly he realizes he’s hijacked her story and is about to meet the consequences. Knowing 06 the way he knows the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, he’s aware that these consequences will come with all the quiet devastation of a blade so sharp you don’t feel the cut until you’ve bled out: subtle and exacting and neither more nor less than he deserves.

However:

Trick question, 06 says at length. The kids do.

 

17.

They pull 06 and 22 out of the simulator, blinking and disoriented. Both are shaking. 22 may have peed a little, though he would happily have all his nails peeled off and fed to him in order of ascending utility before admitting this.

What happened? 06 asks, wiping clammy hands on her jumpsuit pants. How long were we under?

The techs raise eyebrows at each other, identically, simultaneously, like two mirrors propped to face each other. 06 wants to wave her hand between them, to break the effect. But her energy is sapped. How long had she spent in there, no food, no water? Her only rest either curled up on the cold pavement or propped up shoulder blades-to-shoulder blades against 22, who sleeps with his sword balanced across his knees and grinds his teeth besides? She can barely move her arm.

One tech makes a note of something. 06 cranes her neck with difficulty but can’t make it out. To her mind, the techs’ murmurs are the aural equivalent of the glitter patterns: significance not yet quite dialed into focus.

Watching 06 and 22 closely, the other tech taps the simulator display.

06/22-CHEMICAL ATTACK-THREAT NEUTRALIZATION-DIFFICULT-5MIN

He watches their gazes track and snag on the end of the readout, where the five minute counter has ticked down to zeroes and now waits, blinking, for a reset.

A shiver passes through 06, soles to scalp, like someone’s walked over her grave. Only 22 knows why.

 

18.

You could fill a very large box indeed with the things these children do not understand. None of them know much at all about the war they fight in, or why, or have met or even know the name of the CEO of the corporation of whose army they are the tactical speartip. They have only the vaguest recollection of how they got here. If pushed, they can bring to mind a white room full of children, still with the bruises and lacerations and broken arms that are their only souvenirs of the houses and high-rises they used to live in before the bombing knocked them flat, with the children and their vanished families inside. They don’t know why so many people cluster on the green, green lawns of the company building, signs in hand, yelling for company blood. (Excellent hearing and vision is part of their optimization, however, and from the rooftop they can pick out the slogans and diatribes word for word, though their freight of history and meaning is unclear. Nevertheless, 06 memorized one of their signs once—WATER-FOR-ALL™ MEANS WATER FOR ALL.—and wrote it on the cafeteria wall in ketchup after a particularly unforgivable punishment. The roof is off limits now.)

And they don’t know why the simulator is acting up. Why the bugs are out in force. Why each mission in there is just one long prolonged multifaceted serialized glitch.

22’s theory: sabotage. Some mysterious benefactor/adversary hacked the machine. One of the angry people with signs out there on the lawn, trying to tear the facility down from within. The simulator is one of the children’s most-utilized learning tools, after all, one of the Director’s most practical diagnostics. Without it, the children might lose their edge. Get rusty. Go soft. Decalibrate. Degrade. Open to eventual attack like so many flowers to the sun.

06’s theory: the simulator itself is attempting to communicate. Its language is just one more item on the endless inventory of what they don’t yet comprehend.

 

19.

During her ten minutes of daily unscheduled free time, 06 signs up for extra simulator sessions. However, she is no 02 or 33 to volunteer for additional instruction, so her abrupt enthusiasm raises plausible suspicion, misgivings that must be allayed before the Director can in good conscience sign off on the request. Here she is, standing at attention before the Director’s carefully nameplate-less desk, ready to state her case.

06 is canny as the day is long and knows a minefield when she sees one. Laid out before her invisibly is the fine line she must walk in order to get what she wants.

I’m sorry to bother you, she says. It’s just—

06 makes herself falter. Pauses a moment so that this apparent weakness can be savored. Ever so slightly, she toes the carpet. The Director prompts her with her eyes.

It’s just… 06 swallows calculatingly. Mia makes fun of me because all my training scores suck compared to hers. She says I’m stupid. Slow. So I—

The Director raises an eyebrow. Mia?

Sorry. 28.

And don’t say suck.

Sorry, Director. My scores are— 06 feigns searching for a word she had locked and loaded well in advance of setting foot over the threshold of the Director’s sanctum —suboptimal.

And you wish to better yourself. The Director smiles wide, priming the trap 06 can smell a mile off.

06 lifts her chin. I don’t like being made fun of.

The Director’s face falls. Oh.

I want more training time, and then I want to partner with 28 next time we spar, and I want to obliterate her.

Obliterate her?

In the match. Make her eat her words.

I see.

To keep talking would be to add more surface area to her argument, more handholds for the Director to grab on and turn it to her own advantage. So 06 leaves it there and waits.

A bit of healthy rivalry might be good for you, the Director says at length. Beyond what you already have with—with 22. Shake things up a little. Competition is, after all, the backbone of the entire social order. She smiles. 05 is a bit under the weather these days. I will schedule you in to her timeslot. Do Saturdays work for you?

06 has four separate replies, all caustic, burning on the tip of her tongue. Instead she snaps to attention and treats the Director to the sharpest salute in her arsenal. She makes sure to smudge its edges ever so slightly, though, just enough to leave the Director confident that 06’s newly-budded work ethic is just the ticket. Its roots and source are immaterial. What matters is how it can be shaped in growing.

Yes, Director. Thank you. I won’t let you down.

You never do, Catherine, the Director lies. Dismissed.

 

20.

33’s nosebleeds are worsening, and the beds of his nails are beginning to ooze. 05 has vanished altogether. The children are told she has been buried on a peaceful hill beneath a blossoming cherry tree. This is flat-out crap. She is downstairs in hermetically sealed cold storage, along with 17 and 38. Within two weeks, 33 will join them. The Director is visited by a recurring dream in which the children are candles on a colossal birthday cake, and she is there in her party hat, blowing them out one by one.

 

21.

22 also dreams. He is chronically unable to tell when he is dreaming. He only knows he has in hindsight, when he wakes feeling less well-rested than before he slept. Even his eyes feel as though he has not closed them, as though he’s spent those hours wandering, staring into the dark for something that refuses to reveal itself.

Tonight he dreams of 06. He often dreams of 06, as she often dreams of him. In tonight’s dream they are back in the simulator. Each enemy soldier they kill opens up like a piñata and money falls out. 06 and 22 stuff it in their pockets and bring it to the Director. They don’t have a crystal-clear idea of how money works, but they do have an awful lot of it, so much in fact that it is overflowing their pockets and fluttering behind them as they powerwalk down the halls. Their secret plan is to use that money to buy the entire building and burn it to the ground. But when they pull the simulator-money from their pockets in triumph, it’s not money anymore, it’s cookie crumbs. These scatter around the Director’s shiny shoes while she looks on disapprovingly.

Then there is a hand over 22’s mouth, and he snaps awake. 06 is standing over him. He blinks up at her, bewildered. The dream still clings to him greasily. On neighboring cots 33, 08, 42, and 11 sleep on. A wet cough sounds in the middle distance. Someone stirs.

22 has not yet figured out how 06 manages to sneak past the sentry bots guarding the respective doors of the girls’ and boys’ dormitories. When he has something to say to her, he walks straight past their unblinking eyes, and lets the Director dress him down in the morning. Stealth is not his strong suit. Resilience is. Adaptability. Strategy. Loyalty. Patience.

When the civilian glitched out and got blood all over the mech’s foot, 06 whispers, and it’s a moment before 22 realizes she means in the simulator. Did the bloodstains look random to you? Or like a pattern of some kind?

He stares up at her in silence, waiting for her to realize she has to move her hand if she expects a reply. He doesn’t wait long. The simulator isn’t talking to us. It’s a box. Let it go.

It’s a highly sophisticated piece of equipment, 06 hisses, affronted, as if she’d engineered the thing herself. Our guns are smart. Our uniforms. The fucking walls. Why not the simulator? If anything in this place should be, it—

It didn’t look like a pattern, 22 tells her, hating himself, because even as the words leave his mouth he’s already unsure if they’re true.

 

22.

For weeks the simulator is on its best behavior. This is infuriating to 06, obscurely validating to 22.

I’m here, 06 says, standing atop a virtual high-rise, virtual arms flung wide to a virtual thunderstorm. She’s drenched and shivering. I’m listening. What do you want?

It wants to run its program in peace, 22 shouts up at her, his face tilted back to the rain. Smugness does not become him, but it’s been ages since he’s shown her up at something. The temptation is delicious.

06 does not elect to dignify this with a response. She lets out a long slow breath, like she’s taking aim, and waits.

The sky opens up and lightning smashes the gravel rooftop inches from her toes. She is sopping wet, standing in a puddle, holding her sword aloft in challenge to the storm. She doesn’t stand a chance.

06 falls like a cinder. 22 leaps and meets her mid-air. Just before he catches her, the world blinks out and the fluorescent light of the facility shoulders in to replace it. 22 loses more sleep than usual that night, wondering whether they exist there still, some version of themselves, one rising, one falling, forever.

Over the next three months the simulator electrocutes 06 four times, drops her from the roof of a building twice, drops a building on her once, and kills her with mechs six times in five different ways. She gets hit with incendiary grenades and burns alive, resonance grenades and slowly jellifies, fléchette grenades and wheezes to death with titanium slivers lodged in her lungs. She breathes in nerve gas and dies via cardiac arrest, breathes in hallucinogen bursts and dies via mistaking the blue flare of a mech’s discharging gun-arm for the fluorescent lights of Medical, breathes in necrotizing nanoparticles and rots like roadkill in the summer sun. She sees the words MISSION FAILED splashed across her retinas so many times it seems to take up residence there, searing neon against the backs of her eyelids every time they close.

She doesn’t give up. That’s the thing about 06, the bright coal ever-burning at the flammable heart of her. She never gives up. Sometimes she wishes she could. But she hasn’t the first fucking clue how.

 

23.

06-ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT-LIVE CAPTURE & QUESTIONING-DIFFICULT-15MIN

06/22-DIRTY BOMB-ANALYSIS & CONTAINMENT-EASY-5MIN

06/22-ANTICORPORATE DEMONSTRATION-NONVIOLENT DISPERSAL-DIFFICULT-20MIN

06-HOSTAGE NEGOTIATION-CASUALTY AVOIDANCE-MODERATE-30MIN

22-AIRBORNE FIREFIGHT-EVASIVE MANEUVERS (HELICOPTER)-DIFFICULT-5MIN

06/22-ROGUE MECH-DEFEND & DISABLE-DIFFICULT-30MIN

06-DOUBLE AGENT-IDENTIFY/NEUTRALIZE-EASY-15MIN

06-HOVERBIKE CHASE-COLLATERAL DAMAGE WITHIN BUDGET-MODERATE-10MIN

06-CORPORATE ESPIONAGE-ISOLATE & INFILTRATE-DIFFICULT-2HR

06-HOSTAGE TRANSFER-UNDETECTED RENDEZVOUS-DIFFICULT-40MIN

 

24.

06’s simulator scores are getting worse, not better, the more often she goes in. To the Director this is faintly baffling. She has the vague sense she’s being handled, but isn’t sure quite how, or to what end. Anyway she has bigger fish frying. 33 went in his drawer earlier this week, and 28’s medical file has officially advanced her cough from occasional/sporadic to habitual/chronic. The Director can barely look at cookies anymore. She has to avert her eyes from the bakery section at the supermarket. It’s gotten honestly that bad. Yesterday she had to make up a story about a gluten allergy to explain to concerned strangers why she was weeping silently over a display of fresh-baked snickerdoodles.

 

25.

Two seconds into 06/22-RIOT-DISPERSAL (ANY MEANS NECESSARY)-MODERATE-15MIN, 06 drops her reflector shield projection and wades out, unprotected, into the fray.

22 cuts a path toward her. Any means necessary. This is virtual, but anywhere else he’d do the same. Work is work, and directives are directives, but 06 is 06. He’d cut a path to her through hell. What exactly are you doing?

Shush. Drop your shields.

This, to 22, is the tiniest bridge too far. He sets his jaw. Not happening.

He glances over and is abruptly staring down the barrel of 06’s gaze. Do you trust me?

22 listens to himself say um. Evidently the dilemma has short-circuited his higher functions.

Drop your shields. They won’t attack. They only retaliate if you engage. I ran this one last week. I requested a do-over today of this scenario specifically because I knew we’d be safe.

That’s what you’ve been doing all this time? All those failures? 22 asks, his voice gone soft-edged with something close to reverence. Whatever 06 is playing at, it’s a deep-buried enormity he knows full well he can only see the edge of, and only because she lets him. You’ve been running recon on the playfields?

06 grins like lightning. Yeah.

Why?

Drop your shields. Then I’m gonna show you something cool.

 

26.

22 drops his shields and the whole world stops. Even the countdown timer in the corner of his field of vision freezes: 00:13:42. As he stares, it ticks down a second, then another. Slowly, slowly. But the rioters, and the bug-helmeted riot cops, still don’t move. Grenades and bullets float mid-trajectory, lodged in nothing. He plucks an armor-piercing round from the air between gloved fingers. Lets it fall. It doesn’t.

Like a slap to the face, all at once, all his suspicions are confirmed. Somebody did hack the simulator. They’re being sabotaged. They’re going to get stuck here like they got stuck before. That stupid story of 06’s goes swirling through him like sickness: so they step into this impossible perfect circle, and they’re never seen again.

He is absolutely, positively, one hundred percent going to puke.

Okay, what— he begins, then realizes he’s lost sight of 06 entirely. No: there she is, poking her head out of an alley up ahead, making impatient come-on-already gestures with the entire upper left quadrant of her body.

22 checks his countdown. 00:13:29. Obviously, whatever this is is utterly insupportable.

And yet. The seconds move so slowly here. He’ll catch up with her if he runs.

 

27.

Of course they love each other. Just not in the way you are probably thinking.

 

28.

He shadows her down one street, then another, then another after that. He has no idea where she’s taking him. He knows better than to waste his breath asking. Even with the weird time-slowdown glitch, even with both of them moving at superhuman speeds, 22’s countdown is displaying 00:10:57 when 06 finally skids to a halt outside a nondescript door.

22 half-expects to see something on this door, something scrawled or smeared or scratched there indecipherably, some meaningless random imperfection which 06 will now a.) erroneously accord significance to, and b.) outlandishly claim to have parsed.

With a charitable lack of ceremony, flourish, or I-told-you-sos, 06 opens the door. A smell wafts out, lush and piercing. To 22, and to 06—and, to be fair, probably to anyone else who’s spent half their life locked in a series of sub-basements in an experimental facility—this smell is indescribable. But it’s the smell of dirt and rot and green things growing.

06 strolls in empty-handed. 22 draws his sword and follows.

 

29.

Trees. A path. Stars. They may as well have walked out onto an alien planet. This green is old and dark, and watches them. Superpowered teenage killing machines or no, here they are insects on the back of an indifferent colossus. The smell in the air is the closest that either of them will ever get to religion.

22 glides level with 06. He opens his mouth to hiss in her ear: this is no playfield, this is a trap, we’ve been compromised, we have to go, we have to go right now—but what comes out instead is a whisper, one part disquietude, three parts awe: What is this place?

What it looks like. Somewhere they can’t find us.

 

30.

You won’t believe me if I tell you.

They’re sitting on a low-hanging limb, easily a foot in diameter, sticking out perpendicular to the massive trunk of a tree 22 immediately misidentifies as a maple. Four feet—two booted (22’s) and two bare (06’s)—swing over the drop.

22 marshals all his innate skepticism, shoves it in a box, slams the lid and sits on it. Try me.

When we used to go up onto the roof. Did you ever look out over the other side? The side away from the lawn and the city?

If he has, the vagueness of the memory sparks no significance now. Rather than admitting this, he waits.

There’s, like, a forest back there. Out past the edge of the city. You can kind of see it from up there.

22 considers this. Had he seen it? Would he have remembered? Landscapes tend to enter his range of notice only tactically. But he’d never been sent to fight in any forest, never had to strategize any skirmish among trees. He chides himself for the blind spot. Then, pride stinging, gives ground.

I don’t recall.

06 has the good grace to meet him halfway. Well. It’s just a little one. Not like this.

She resumes kicking her feet, but she’s gone quiet now. Hesitant. Almost sheepish.

I always liked it though, she continues, her voice so soft that if 22’s hearing were less acute, her words would drift away in the breeze before reaching his ear. That little forest you could just barely see if you stood exactly right and squinted against the sun. I always wanted to walk there someday. But…

She clams up again and stays there so long 22 begins to wonder if a bug in the simulator has glitched her somehow. 00:05:32. 00:05:31. 00:05:30. This is such un-06-like behavior that 22 is at a loss how to address it. Her silence sits there between them like a solid object, a bomb he hasn’t the faintest inkling how to defuse.

00:04:59. 00:04:58. 00:04:57.

I think the simulator made this place for me, 06 blurts finally.

22 clamps down hard on every reflex he has to deride this. Instead he forces a nod. A strangled little do-go-on-tell-me-more sound comes out of him, a kind of noncommittal mm.

I know, I know, 06 says. It’s just a box. A dumb machine. Somebody hacked it. You think I haven’t been wondering these things myself? And okay. Maybe somebody did hack it. Maybe somebody feels sorry for us. They want us to have, like, one nice thing. I don’t know. I don’t care. But the point is somebody, either a person or the simulator itself, put this place here for us to find. Does this look like part of the city to you?

He resists the urge to remind her that there’s a grand total of one (1) building the interior of which they’ve observed in recent memory. On the other hand, 22 has seen some shit in his day, but to suggest he rationally believes there is a door in this city that opens onto some kind of pocket forest universe would be to turn his back wholesale on upward of sixty percent of his most salient character traits.

So he steers toward option C. He lifts his chin fractionally, decisively, at the riot of greenery that surrounds them. I like it.

06 startles up. Yeah?

Yeah.

Some unseen weight lifts from her shoulders. From beside her, 22 feels it go.

Good.

 

31.

06 in the Director’s office, at attention. Her salute is flawless today.

The Director sits at her desk. She’s been swiping through 06’s latest batch of simulator results. 06 and 22 have been in there more in the past twelve weeks than they have in all the previous months since she had the thing installed. 22 volunteering for more practice, that the Director could just about get her head around. But 06?

Come to think of it, she’s never actually witnessed 28 making fun of 06, and her simulator scores were never all that bad. Maybe the long-game time-biding that the Director will go to her grave fatally mistaking for 22’s obedience has been rubbing off on 06.

And well it might. They’re practically joined at the hip, those two. Though the results are undeniable. They’re utterly useless apart, complete screwups really, but together they get the job done with time to spare.

Even in the simulator, these results hold. Though something weird keeps happening, some bug the tech team has been evidently having trouble with. Earlier this week, for instance, the whole playfield up and froze seconds after 06 and 22 zoned in, then dropped the feed entirely, which nobody realized until the timer ran out and MISSION ACCOMPLISHED splashed across the display. Whatever they’re doing in there, the Director concludes, it’s obviously working. They haven’t had a failure in days.

The Director’s been rolling all this around in her mind for the better part of an hour. She doesn’t understand it, but the numbers do not lie.

But—and here’s what she keeps coming back to—she doesn’t understand it. Data she can’t make sense of is a physical itch in her brain.

Hence: 06. Standing in very-un-06-like level silence under the weight of the Director’s gaze. A gaze the Director dials up to eleven, just to watch 06’s bearing wilt beneath it. It doesn’t.

The Director’s nameplate is on her desk today, faced backward. She watches 06 ignore it.

At ease, the Director tells her. Knowing full well how many bets 06 will win if she reaches for that piece of metal and plastic. It’s not two feet from her. She could have it in her hands before the Director has even seen her move.

Leash loosed, 06’s posture relaxes. She does not take the bait.

Whatever else 06 is, the Director reflects, she is a monster, a piece of luck the Director pushes at her peril. Whatever else 06 is, she is a child, and the Director is long practiced in forbidding things to children such as her. Chiefest of which, perhaps, is the satisfaction of her fear.

Do you know, the Director asks her, why I called you in today?

If 06 has something to hide, as the Director suspects, she’ll prevaricate. Play dumb. Certainly the 06 that stands before her is the very picture of innocence. The Director folds her arms, awaiting victory.

I was hoping, 06 says, it was about the simulator.

Against her not inconsiderable will, the Director blinks.

Go on.

The extra training time you let me have. I wanted an opportunity to thank you. It’s been really helpful.

Ah yes. Your rivalry with 28. You’d like to spar with her again?

Further bait. 28 has been in Medical for weeks, rallying and weakening at intervals as her body settles in to reject itself one atom at a time.

A beat of total silence. But only one.

Actually, 06 says, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.

A feeling begins to steal over the Director, a sense that she is irretrievably marching into deep, deep water. She has set up this meeting, not 06. This situation is hers to control.

About 28?

Yes. Hesitation flashes over 06’s features, lingering just as long as it needs for the Director to notice it there. Well. About all of the others, really. But 28 first.

Interesting. Time for the big guns. Speak freely, Catherine.

Pure clean hit of relief, scrawled gratifyingly across 06’s face. Thank you, Director. It’s just. I thought. 06’s posture shifts two millimeters one way, then the other. I’m sorry. I didn’t have this prepared.

Sorry is better. Fidgeting is better. The Director breathes easier, footing found.

This?

This…request. No. This proposal.

The Director raises an eyebrow. Proposal.

It’s just. The extra time in the simulator has really helped me. More than I thought it would, honestly. I guess it’s like …

06’s face performs deep thought. Performs choosing words wisely. Performs resolution.

Like when we go for lessons. We learn more if we review the facts as much as possible. Performs mild chagrin. At least I do.

It isn’t just you, Catherine, the Director says, gentle as velvet. The brain is wired to learn from repetition.

Repetition! Yes! That’s exactly what I mean. I was thinking. If I’m going to beat 28 in a fair match. When she gets better, I mean. 06 smiles. Spreads her hands before her. It’s the most she’s moved since walking through the door. We’re all supposed to work together. To win the war. I don’t want to see any more of my friends killed in action. Like 33, and 05.

The Director, who knows on a visceral, haunted level, what really killed 33 and 05, swallows involuntarily against an onslaught of images that she, for all the money she’s thrown at her therapist, hasn’t figured out how to unsee.

Understandable.

All in a rush 06 says: So I guess what I’m asking for is permission. To bring 28 into the simulator. With me. I know she’s sick, but in the simulator that doesn’t matter. We get killed in there all time. It doesn’t feel like anything. Maybe in the simulator she won’t feel as sick. I thought. I don’t know. It might help her.

This is an attractive possibility the Director hasn’t yet entertained. She thinks of the bodies in cold storage. The empty drawers, each ready with its identification plate. The war of attrition that plays out in the body of the eager girl at ease before her, creeping invisibly toward its tipping point, even now.

And while she’s in there, I can teach her. And after her, if it’s okay, maybe the others?

The Director steels her face. Teach the others. Simulator results or no, this goes against every metric by which these children have been classified. The Director does not say, incredulously: you?

Oh yes. This time 06’s grin is genuine. If nothing else about it, the Director recognizes this. There’s so much in there I want to show them.

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Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace is the author of the Norton Award finalist Archivist Wasp and its sequel, Latchkey. Her adult SF debut, Firebreak, is forthcoming from Saga in May 2021, and her middle grade SF debut, Jillian vs. Parasite Planet, is forthcoming from Tachyon in July 2021. She lives in New Paltz, NY with her family. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com or on Twitter @wirewalking.

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