We Are Men

By Kidd Wadsworth

Grandfather rubbed his chin with his hand, a stern frown fixed in his bushy brows. “You are off to see the circus.”

Zhiqiang nodded, the serious look on his face mirroring the old man’s. They sat on the terrace. The morning light, filtered through the softly fluttering leaves of a tallow tree, was without order or pattern, wildly chaotic, organic and gorgeous. The boy had struggled to wake, wanting to be with the old man before Nainai’s alarm clock chimed. This was their time, when the city was quiet, and they could listen to the birds and talk as men talked.

They sat at a small round “news” table, the surface of which was a flatscreen. Grandfather had found the table discarded beside the road. “We won’t plug it in,” he’d said. So, the screen never projected the esteemed leader’s face, and the boy and his grandfather never listened to the government sanctioned news.

“And what have I taught you?” Grandfather asked.

“My duty is first to my elders, to you and Nainai, and then to Aalee.”

“I am stuck in this chair.” He hit the arm of it with the heel of his palm. “But we are men, are we not?”

In response, the boy rose and went into the house returning with a beer and a large glass of orange juice. Solemnly, he placed Grandfather’s beer on the blank flatscreen, and taking his seat, raised his glass of juice. The old man responded with a twitch of a grin and poured a splash of the beer into Zhiqiang’s juice. Then he clinked his bottle against Zhiqiang’s glass. When the man drank, the boy drank.

“You will be going into the old city, no factories, no military targets; still you must be careful.” He looked into his beer as if the reason for men’s need to murder each other was contained in the golden liquid. Across from him, Zhiqiang studied the pulp in his orange juice. “This circus is important to Nainai. She remembers her sister when she sees people walking on stilts.” Grandfather’s eyes momentarily looked confused. “Your great aunt was a crazy woman.”

Zhiqiang nodded.

The alarm clock pinged out a melody. Creaking bed sounds and padding feet sounds drifted out to the where the two sat. Soon Nainai, in her way, which was always to be darting about like a firefly, hustled onto the terrace. “Only seven in the morning and you are drinking beer?”

Grandfather, glancing sideways, winked at Zhiqiang.

Zhiqiang winked back.

Simultaneously, they drank.

As if some unseen balloon had sprung a leak, a long sigh meandered out of Nainai’s mouth. She raised her eyes to the sky, never happy with her ancestors. “You could have warned me.”

Aalee rushed out twirling in a circle, Nainai’s bright red lipstick on her lips. Zhiqiang put his hand over his mouth to stifle his giggle.

“Come, come, we will be late.” Nainai was busy picking up things: wrist phone, hearing aid. “Where is my earring?” Finding her purse and the earring, she rummaged through her bag mumbling, “Where is the other tag?” Then, “Oh, they were stuck together.”

With her right hand, Nainai took one of Zhiqiang’s hands, with her left, Aalee’s.

“No,” said Zhiqiang in a firm voice, a frown in his brow.

“What?” asked Nainai.

Zhiqiang rearranged their hands so that he was in the middle, instead of Nainai, keeping a firm hold on them both.

Silently, Grandfather raised his bottle to the boy.


As the transport tube slid to a stop, Zhiqiang whispered to Aalee, “There will be animals.”

“Really?” Aalee’s eyes were wide. “Maybe marmosets?”

“Maybe tigers.”

“No, you’re only trying to fool me,” but her feet, dangling above the floor, swung back and forth faster, and her grin widened.

“Hurry, hurry,” Nainai said, standing. “You don’t want to miss the parade.” She picked up Aalee. Though they were twins, Aalee was much smaller. Zhiqiang smiled up at his sister and took Nainai’s hand to help her exit the tube and climb the steep steps to the street.

They wove through the marketplace filled with people and vendors. In a booth skewered chickens roasted over a small fire; the boy’s stomach gurgled with longing. Next door, a young woman in a white apron topped hot rice cakes with dollops of gooey mango jam, while under a wide awning dumplings floated in a salty broth. Snuggled beneath the branches of an old bent tree sat a drink vender’s table. On top, obedient paper cups stood in neat rows, each filled to the brim with sweetened goji berry juice and cold crushed ice, the cups never moving, not an inch, until whisked away by some thirsty customer to be consumed, and the cup crushed and discarded.

“Can we stop? Please.”

“Later, little one,” Nainai said, pulling on his hand.

“But I’m thirsty.”

“Come along, quickly.” Nainai was a tornado blowing through the crowd. Zhiqiang held tight to her hand and ran to keep up with her scurrying feet.

They hustled past a man with a painted face and two laughing girls with tall feathers on their heads, then pushed through the stiff turnstile and into the arena stairwell—so many steps— the noise of the people echoing like they were in a tall concrete cave.

They sat high above the stage where there were still a few empty seats, and the air was blissfully cool. At first, Nainai sat between them. But Zhiqiang wiggled between Nainai and Aalee. Aalee rewarded her protector with a kiss on his cheek.

First came the parade—and tigers. “I didn’t believe you,” Aalee gasped. Once again, her dangling feet swung.

“Whoa . . . ” Zhiqiang pointed as elephants appeared. Behind them men walked on stilts, and others danced, throwing their partners into the air. Magicians made people disappear and brought them back in a puff of purple smoke. Next, right in the middle of the show, interrupting everything, a government man in a dull green jumpsuit and brown boots came on stage.

Boos rumbled through the stadium.

“As a precaution,” the government man raised his hands, “we would like to remind every citizen that you must go to your designated underground location if the sirens sound. I will review these locations now.”

A collective moan filled the arena.

“Red badges should enter the underground tube tunnels at Sixth Street . . . ”

When the government official finally said, “That concludes my remarks for the evening, enjoy the festival,” the arena reverberated with cheers.

Dancers flitted across the stage on feet that barely touched the ground. Zhiqiang stared, transfixed, his attention unwavering. All was sound and sight, and the feel of Aalee’s hand in his. Six women, clad in tangerine silk, waved like chrysanthemums in the wind, gracefully throwing ribbons of yellow cloth into the air, as if these were unfurling stamens or butterflies taking flight. Other dancers appeared, fiery red dragons, stomping their feet and tossing their horned dragon heads to the beat of drums.

The loud piercing cry of a siren shattered the illusion.

Aalee and Zhiqiang covered their ears.

Nainai picked up Aalee, rushing for the stairwell. Zhiqiang, running on the long stadium bench seat, was inches behind her.


The first shell hit the stage. In the stairwell, squeezed against the wall, twice Zhiqiang was almost crushed. Grandfather’s frown appeared in his brow. Below him on the wall of the landing over the heads of the people the number “4” was painted in bright fluorescent orange.

Three more flights.

Another shell, the stairs shook; the lights went out; people stampeded. As Nainai stumbled, Zhiqiang grabbed her arm, pulling her hard toward the corner of the landing where there was room for her to gain her feet. The hands that clutched Aalee trembled.

“Three more flights. Now!” he shouted, dragging Nainai into a break in the crowd. 

In the street their feet trampled dumplings and splashed through spilled soup.

Men with microphones shouted, “Blue tags enter at Fourth Street! Green tags enter at Twelfth!”

As they passed the cups of goji juice, the table, pushed by a maddened crowd, skidded toward them. “Watch out!” Zhiqiang ducked. The table hit Nainai’s thighs, knocking her down. She scrambled to her feet, picking up a screaming Aalee.


“Nainai!” he shouted from under the table.

The crowd divided them. Like the current of a river at flood it carried Nainai along.

“Zhi Zhi,” Aalee called. “Zhi Zhi!” Twice he tried to go after them, and twice he was knocked to the ground. He crawled back under the table to escape the hysterical feet.

A green tag hung from a safety pin pinned to his shirt.

Green tags enter at Twelfth Street.

He reached up and took a cup of juice, miraculously still upright, off the table. So sweet, so cool, so wet.

The crowd thinned . . . quickly he downed the last drop.

There, an opening, behind the man carrying a boy in a leg cast.

Rat . . . tat . . . tat . . .

The deafening sound of thousands of screams filled the air. People fell. A woman on the ground, clutching her leg, looked at him. With a barely perceptible movement, she shook her head, “no.” More shots. She fell backward, her eyes staring unseeing into his as the line of black boots marched forward. Under the table, the empty cup slipped from Zhiqiang’s hand. 


He drank two more cups of goji juice, sneaking them off the table when the black boots were turned away. When they came near, he lay on the ground, pretending to be dead. For hours he lay still.

Long past sunset, the black boots surrounded the drink table. “Come out, boy. We know you’re alive.”

Trembling, Zhiqiang crawled out from under the table. “How old are you?”


The black boot spoke into his wrist phone. “We have a candidate, male, eight years of age.”

“Bring him.”


Thirteen years later.

Having received “The Growth,” a series of hormone treatments, Synthetic Organic 7ZR (SO 7ZR) was well over two meters tall. The hormones also increased muscle mass and altered facial features, producing a 127kg specimen with a protruding brow ridge and a wide, flat nose. To ensure that he appeared nonthreatening, he was dressed in a sparkly white jumpsuit and white boots, giving him the look of a Neanderthal about to break into an ancient disco dance.

His cybernetics included enhanced hearing, two artificial legs, one artificial arm and hand, one artificial eye, and the requisite cranial implants designed to remove the will, suppress memory and eliminate independent thought. Hierarchically structured programs ensured robust functionality. On-Body Error Checking (OBEC) was facilitated via an independently powered module embedded under the right collar bone. Backup error checking was provided via Central Command and Control (CCC). His orders were relayed through a cochlear implant.

From his regeneration alcove SO 7ZR could see the station clock, displaying in bright green lights the date and time. He fought to grasp the memory of orange juice spiced with the tang of beer, the memory like an anchor holding his thoughts fixed against the pull of the tide of his programming, against the tyrant OBEC. Three times she had returned—every three months. This time he had enough memories. This time he would win the fight against his programming and the fierce OBEC that demanded obedience.

No, she was slipping away. He clutched at memory; how did it taste? Sweet. Yes, the juice tasted sweet. How did it feel? Gritty. She would arrive today.  

“Synthetic Organic 7ZR load Liberté cargo hold from shipping container 3983 on Pier 6. Depart now.”

With stiff steps each 1.45 meters long, he walked to the end of Pier 6, where the Liberté was completing docking procedures. Turning 90 degrees, rigid arms at his side, he took two steps backward, positioning himself in the center of a black rectangle painted on the perimeter of the pier. Looking straight forward, eyes unblinking, he stood at attention.

The Liberté was a small, deep space transport with oversized engines. Stripped of all nonessentials, she was fast and, fully provisioned, could maintain her crew of four for six years without refueling. Her very presence at the dock was unusual. Not a science vessel, nor a passenger ferry, she was also not outfitted for meteor mining.

He caught hold of a memory: scooching back under a plastic drink table to hide.

SO 7ZR’s head rotated 23 degrees until he was staring at the Liberté’s main hatch. Soon she would appear.

OBEC: Malfunction Detected

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated

A slight crease appeared above his protruding brow ridge as rivulets of sweat streamed down his face. In his mind, he reached up for a cup of goji berry juice.

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 2

His cybernetic arm shook.

The juice, deliciously cold, slid down his throat.

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 3

SO 7ZR’s head returned to its previous position.

The main hatch swung open; two men and a young woman with straight, black hair walked down the exit ramp to the kiosk located directly opposite the black rectangle on which SO 7ZR stood. As the woman pressed and then lifted her thumb from the kiosk, his cybernetic eye instantly memorized the thumb print that was displayed for exactly 0.86 seconds in the deep infrared, undetectable by a human eye.

“Welcome to Space Station 32,” a computer-generated voice spoke from the kiosk. “The Earth alliance bids you peace.” This procedure was repeated twice more, as the two men both registered their presence. Each time the computer-generated voice repeated its welcome.

“Maybe we could reprogram the greeting,” the shorter man said. “Welcome to Space Station 32. The Earth alliance plans to enslave you so that a select few can live decadent lives.”

The woman’s voice was sharp, “Keep your mind on task.”

They nodded.

She was small, barely 1.53 meters, with a perky nose. She might have been beautiful, but her mouth was set in a stern line and her eyes were weary and battle worn. Constantly shifting her weight between her booted feet, she radiated tension, as if on high alert, her life a never-ending battle, she both hunter and hunted.

The three walked together toward the center cylinder of the space station where they split up.

A fourth man got off the spacecraft, also registering at the kiosk. “Welcome to Space Station 32. The Earth alliance bids you peace.” Stocky, with a gray, speckled beard, sporting 20 unneeded kilograms, he descended the ramp, pausing at the bottom to rub the small of his back. Leaning backward, he moaned. Pressing his thumb against the locking mechanism, he said, “Close main doors, open rear cargo bay doors.” Walking up to SO 7ZR, he said, “She’s all yours, poor bastard.”

After the bearded man disappeared into the core of the space station, SO 7ZR stepped forward, pressed his one human thumb on the print reader and, following validation, called for shipping container 3983. Inside the container, marked foodstuffs, were wrapped packages labeled “rice,” “frozen fish,” “complete meal: breakfast,” “dried fruit,” etc. As he transferred the supplies to the cargo hold, his cybernetic arm automatically weighed each one: 100kg frozen pork—100.34kg, 3.2kg dried figs—3.21kg, 20kg rice—34.259kg.

His mind hid behind a fluttering fan in the hand of a dancer.

With his cybernetic eye he scanned the package of rice using various frequencies of light to interrogate its contents.

Rice, long grain, brown, variety Mars 54; explosive high yield, LAX 39, remote detonator model X3994A.

His heart rate increased. His cybernetic hand opened and closed at a frequency of 82 closures per minute.

“Zhi Zhi!”

He turned, but he stood alone on the pier.

He concealed his mind in a memory: a dancer glided across the stage on feet that barely touched the ground.

Using the kiosk, he marked the foodstuffs “spoiled” and designated them for disposal. Shipping container 3983 departed for Waste and Recycling.

He clutched a memory: a ribbon of yellow silk, tossed into the air.

Panting like an overheated dog, mouth open, tongue sticking out, he stepped forward. Again, he stepped forward, falling stiffly like a tin soldier, into the cargo hold. Heart racing, he jerked upright.

OBEC: Malfunction Detected

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated

He clung to the memory of the yellow ribbon unfurling.

His heart rate increased. He would be seen.

With his cybernetic eye he measured the distance from the end of his finger to the latch control that would shut the cargo hold from the inside.


His arm shook.

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 2

Sweat dripped off the tip of his nose and onto his panting tongue, tasting like salty broth. He stretched out his shaking arm, closing the distance—14.8cm. Pain pierced his brain—8.3cm—like a knife slowly inserted into his ear—3.1cm. . . . He tried to hold the memory, only the memory, but the pain.

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 3

The knife twisted. He let go of the memory.

SO 7ZR stepped out of the hold onto Pier 6 and positioned himself on the black rectangle. His shoulders drooped with exhaustion.

In front of him, on the kiosk, a small red light blinked.

“Synthetic Organic 7ZR, wait for new orders, initiate emergency regeneration.”

His eyes closed. Four hours elapsed. An Earth Alliance officer walked to the end of Pier 6.

“What’s up with you?” He shook his head. “Tough night?”

As the officer pressed his thumb against the identification pad on the kiosk, SO 7ZR opened his one cybernetic eye and memorized the thumbprint pattern. Shipping container 3983 returned to the end of the pier.

“SO 7ZR load this cargo.”

Under the watchful eye of the Officer, SO 7ZR loaded the foodstuffs, including the rice. The Officer signed the computerized form with his thumbprint, closed the cargo bay doors and walked away. SO 7ZR returned to stand at attention on the black rectangle, and the space station, simulating evening, dimmed the lights on the pier.

Under his sparkling white jumpsuit SO 7ZR was wet with sweat.

He brought to his mind more memories—of elephants pooping and a green parrot singing love songs.

Using the stylus he took from the kiosk, SO 7ZR drew her thumbprint on the Liberté’s main locking mechanism.

The Liberté’s computer spoke, “Awaiting command.”

Drums pounded in his ears. He grappled for the words: open cargo hatch. He thought her name: Aalee, and attempted to form the word on his tongue, but the speech deactivation program like a drill, bored pain into his brain.

“Hey, cave man, back up.”

SO 7ZR turned to stare at the man standing beside him, one of the two who had disembarked with Aalee.

“SO . . . ,” Peering at the nametag on his white jumpsuit, the man said, “7 . . . Z . . . R, return to station keeping.”

SO 7ZR returned to stand at attention in the small black rectangle opposite the kiosk.

The Liberté’s computer spoke, “Awaiting command.”

“What the hell?”

SO 7ZR’s augmented hearing picked up the accelerated beating of the man’s heart. The man turned to look at him, then touched the communication band around his wrist. “Hey, guys. We may have a problem. Finish up and get back here.”

“Have we been reprovisioned?” the voice on the radio asked.

As the man turned back to the kiosk, the Liberté’s computer said, “Time out. Reenter authorization print.” Visibly quaking, the man entered his own thumbprint. “Yes, looks like we’re loaded. Forget the secondary targets.”

“On our way.”

With another glance down the pier toward Central Command and Control, the nervous man said, “Open main hatch,” and darted inside.

Minutes later, hustling down the pier, the chubby man entered the Liberté.

SO 7ZR searched for a memory. In his mind he heard the loud piercing cry of a siren. A woman fell, clutching her leg. Two shots. Her eyes stared lifelessly into his.

SO 7ZR stepped forward and using the stylus drew the thumbprint of the Earth Alliance Officer on the kiosk. He glanced down the pier. Carefully, he caught another memory and with it veiled his mind. To the beat of loud drums, they stamped their dragon feet and tossed their fiery red dragon heads.

Sweat dripped from his brow onto the kiosk.

Rapidly he typed: Revoke authorization for takeoff.

Her name flew from his damaged memory like a dancer tossed into the air by her partner. His one human hand shook.

“Enter name or thumbprint scan.”

Quickly, with his cybernetic hand, he drew her thumbprint on the kiosk.

“Authorization for takeoff rescinded.”

SO 7ZR returned to stand on the black rectangle. Four hours and 32 minutes later the second young man sprinted down the docking ramp.

With his augmented hearing SO 7ZR caught bits of his conversation with the gray bearded man before the ramp closed. “It’s no use. Her authorization has been revoked. She can’t leave the station.”

“Can we try buying another print?”

“It’s too risky. She’s decided to stay.”

“What? No!”

“She’s already started the countdown sequence. We’ve got to leave. Now.”

Twenty minutes later, the ship departed. SO 7ZR witnessed the Liberté explode from his spot standing on the black rectangle. Minutes later Command and Control exploded as well. Sirens filled the air. SO 7ZR put his hands over his ears.

Twelve more explosions filled the air with screams and computerized voices. “Security personal regroup at your designated emergency locations. All citizens proceed to the shelters. Blue shelters have been compromised. Blue shelter citizens proceed to red shelters.”

In the confusion, Aalee appeared beside SO 7ZR, laughing when she saw his hands covering his ears. With his cybernetic eye, he scanned the backpack she wore. It contained an Earth Alliance long-distance communication device.

“Aalee to the Liberté. Liberté, please respond.”

“This is Commander Tau. You are communicating on a reserved channel.”

“I’m trying to contact the Liberté.”

“Please be advised the spacecraft Liberté exploded minutes after departure. It may have been targeted by the same terrorists who have attacked installations all over the station.”


“I need to clear this channel. We have limited functionality here. We’re still trying to reestablish control of the SOs so we can send them in to rescue fourteen people trapped on the food court. I’m sorry the Liberté is gone, but I need this channel to transmit new programming—”


“Yes, please stop transmitting. I need to clear this channel.”

She collapsed onto the pier, slumping against the kiosk.

He grasped the memory—of two excited legs swinging back and forth—holding it like a shield in front of his mind.

Stepping forward, he typed, “ZHIZHI.”

She didn’t move, didn’t look up.

He gripped more memories: people stampeding, Nainai falling.

SO 7ZR pulled Aalee up so forcibly for a moment her feet left the ground. She cried out, her cry changing to a gasp when she saw the words on the kiosk.

Her whole body quivered with shock. She rounded on him, eyes blazing hatred. “How do you know that name? How? How?” She pounded her fists on the sparkly white jumpsuit covering his chest. “Tell me! Tell me!”

OBEC: Malfunction Detected

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated

He hugged the memory, in a lover’s embrace: “Maybe marmosets?”

Slowly—each letter a knife ripping through his programmed brain—he typed a forbidden word, “M,” and his finger shook. For three long minutes as she struggled, he shut his eyes against the pain. Finally he typed “E.”

Clutching the cloth of his sparkly white jumpsuit in her hands, she screamed at him, “M . . . E . . . what? What does that mean?”

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 2

Again, he typed. Miraculously, it was easier this time. He paused only ten or twelve seconds between the letters: “M . . . E.”

“Meme? What is meme? Tell me, why did you type Zhi Zhi? Where did you hear that name?”

Sweat poured down his face. His head jerked rapidly back and forth. A memory, he needed a memory!

Wide eyes and a smile that was missing a tooth. “Tigers . . . I didn’t believe you.”

Stiffly each letter taking more than a minute, he typed, “IAMZ.”

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 3

Pain exploded in his mind. He resisted, as the programming, relentless, without pity executed its code, line by line, subroutine after subroutine, sending pain to his brain and traitorous messages to his muscles. He let the memory go.

SO 7ZR returned to stand at attention on the black rectangle.

“What the f**k! I hate you!”

She unzipped another pocket in the backpack. “Well, robot man, I’ve got one more trick up my sleeve, and you’re it. All I’ve got to do is plant a charge inside the central core, and their precious deep space nightmare here will become a crypt. Unfortunately, that means I need you.”

For three hours she labored alone, ignored, amid sirens, running teams of men, and computerized voices proclaiming, “Standby, attempting to restore SO command functions.”

And later, “SO command functions offline.”

She paused in her work only once, to laugh, as a second wave of explosions rocked the station. At last, she rose and pushed a button on the small computer she held in her hand. Chimes sounded. SO 7ZR’s central processing unit shifted into program mode. A second series of rapid tones, equally spaced, emanated from the computer, like weird music devoid of melody or rhythm. For sixteen minutes the notes continued, as the program was translated and accepted into his brain’s quantum memory unit.

The end transmission sequence sounded.

As she had worked, he had fought to hold onto the memory of the clink of glass against glass, and a wink.

“Initiate program retribution.” With her command, at once the horrible OBEC’s power dimmed.

SO7ZR walked to the kiosk, his movements smooth almost human-like, his heart rate normal. He was not sweating. In his mind, he took Nainai’s hand and Aalee’s hand. He typed, “YOUWILLDIE.”

She stared at the words. Shaking with anger and hopelessness, she lashed out him as tears streamed down her face. “Don’t you get it! They killed my brother! They killed my grandfather. My Nainai spent five years crying before she died.”

OBEC: Malfunction Detected

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated

Tightly he held on to the memory of her small hand in his. It was easier now. Like any soldier he sensed when the battle was ending; the enemy, falling back in defeat.

Aalee stood in front of him, with her lips smashed bitterly together. No black boot ever hated more. She repeated the command, “Initiate program retribution.”

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 2

Smoothly he stepped to the kiosk and typed, “IAMZHIZHI.”

She didn’t look at the words. Instead, she grabbed his sparkly white jumpsuit, jerking his massive frame around to face her, she shouted so forcibly she spit on him, “Obey me! For once in your small, computerized existence, think! You were a person! You had a brain! Isn’t there any part of the person you once were inside there!”

From speakers overhead a computerized voice announced. “SO command functions restored.”

She raised her fist toward the computerized voice, she, the embodiment of rage, hating the cold hardness of her world, a world of code, commands, and blind obedience.

Slowly, she turned to stare at him. “Don’t you understand? This is your chance for revenge. I’ve placed the program in your main storage; it won’t read as an error.” Shoulders hunched, her clenched fists drawn toward her chest like a prize fighter preparing for punch, she growled out, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you want. I want revenge, and I will have it. Initiate program retribution.”

OBEC: Standard Error Correction Initiated Level 3

Two programs warred within him, two enslavers fought each to chain him, each to control him, to overwrite his will with their own, but she was here, standing next to him, a beacon of light, of hope, illuminating the way back to himself. He grasped the memory, of Aalee twirling in a circle, of red lipstick and giggles, and would not let it go.

He chose.

He chose to look into her eyes, to see the pain, the harsh years, to remember the child she had been, to remember his family living in the dappled light. Patiently, he pointed to the typed words on the kiosk.

Confusion flickered across her face. As if in a dream, as if instructed by someone else, like she was a robot receiving orders, she turned to read the message on the kiosk.


OBEC to CCC: Error Correction Initiated and Failed. Requesting Whole Body Reset.

CCC to OBEC: Central Reset Code Alpha589662B

Within his mind, the terrible enemy—that would not die because it did not breathe, an enemy without mercy, because it had never been and would never be human, an enemy created by those who called themselves human but were as devoid of humanity as lines of code—rebooted.

The tyrant program demanding obedience, disrupted his rebel neural pathways by administering electric shock after electric shock through pads screwed into the surface of his skull. He fell, his whole body shaking, his head banging repeatedly into the hard metal pier.

Gut-punched by the terrible knowledge, she reached out, hugging her convulsing brother, at long last calling him by name, “Zhi Zhi! Zhi Zhi!”

At the end of Pier 7, men with hoses spewing fire suppression foam, twisted around. With shouts, two came running. “You’ve got to get to a shelter.” They tried to pick her up. She wouldn’t let him go.

“Ma’am, he’s not important. Please, you’ve got to go to a shelter.”

Another explosion and a computerized voice over the speaker sent them hurrying away. They were dogs trained to obey the voice of a machine.

For twenty minutes as the air grew heavy and choking with smoke, she lay beside her brother. “My protector,” she whispered. Inside his bruised and bleeding mind the tyrant OBEC reasserted its control. A single tear trembled and fell from his one human eye.

Via his cochlear implant new orders arrived.

“Synthetic Organic 7ZR assist emergency evacuation of citizens to Pier 27. Depart now.”

A sigh, like air escaping from a huge balloon, left him. Hope sprang anew. At long last his will aligned with that of his program.

He rose and picked her up.

“What are you doing?”

He brought his lips to her cheek in a kiss.

“Hello, Zhi Zhi,” she said. She laid her head against his chest; her eyes closed. He walked, then ran, jumping fallen trusses and dead bodies. Exhausted, he nevertheless bounded forward, propelled by the exhilaration of holding her, of helping her. The lifts non-functional, he climbed five levels to Pier 27, amid shouts and screams as more explosions rocked the station and overhead a computerized voice said, “All citizens must evacuate immediately.”

At first the line for the transport was orderly. He waited, his arms rejoicing in the weight of his burden. Long he looked at her, storing up a new memory, trying to make it last, to hold onto it in the fragile, injured recesses of his mind. How beautiful she was, his sister, his Aalee.

As he would have carried her onto the transport, a black boot said, “SO put her down.”

He put down his cargo.

“Ma’am, press your thumb here.”

“I’m sorry my print isn’t working.”

He nodded. “That’s alright. Nothing’s working. Please come aboard.”

As Zhi Zhi would have come with her, the black boot said, “SO remain on the pier.”

Aalee turned back. “But . . . but he saved me. Please.”

“We only have room for people.”

“He is a person.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I have my orders.”

A group of ten frantic people pushed by them, rapidly pressing their thumbs onto the pad, streaming onto the transport.

“We’re losing atmosphere everywhere!”

A second group, much larger, of men carrying children and people with their clothing burned, their eyes filled with terror, surged down the pier. Order and reason dissolved into fear.

With a jerk of his head, the commander shouted, “Get her on board. Now!”

Two black boots taking hold of Aalee, dragged her up the ramp. SO 7ZR watched her disappear into the belly of the spacecraft still crying out, “Zhi Zhi! Zhi Zhi!”

SO 7ZR positioned himself on the far end of the pier, beyond the frantic, crazed people. As the hatch closed and the spacecraft maneuvered into the star filled heavens, he caught hold of a memory. “We are men, are we not?”

Kidd Wadsworth is a member of the Bethlehem Writers Group. Her first novel, Trident, Sam and Malloy, brings to life a concept she observed daily as an engineer: that the most brilliant scientists–those whose work sparkles–are those with fantastic imaginations. The greats of the scientific world draw pictures, they use crayons, they routinely get excited, they imagine and what they imagine becomes real. Kidd writes to bring to life our magical, fire-breathing world, the one we so often miss, where real people have super powers and fight evil villains. Visit Kidd’s website. 

One Comment

  1. Fascinating story. Loved reading it.


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