Diallo goes out screaming. Hell is an echo chamber, full of shouts and seawater and clanking metal. Monstrous shadows move along the bulkheads; meshes of green light writhe across every surface. The Sāḥil rise from the moon pool like creatures from some bright lagoon, firing as they emerge; Rashida’s middle explodes in dark mist and her top half topples onto the deck. Kito’s still dragging himself toward the drying rack, to the speargun there— as though some antique fish-sticker is going to fend off these monsters with their pneumatics and their darts and their tiny cartridges that bury themselves deep in your flesh before showing you what five hundred unleashed atmospheres can do to your insides.
It’s more than Diallo’s got. All he’s got is his fists.
He launches himself at the nearest Sāḥil as she lines up Kito in her sights, swings wildly as somewhere nearby, a great metal creature groans and gives way. The floor drops and cants sideways; the moon pool crests the walls of its prison, sends a cascade of seawater down the slanted deck. Diallo flails, knocks the rebreather from the intruder’s mouth on the way down. Her shot goes wide. A spiderweb blooms across the viewport; a thin gout of water erupts from its center even as the glass tries desperately to heal itself from the edges in.
The last thing Diallo sees is the desert hammer icon on the Sāḥil’s diveskin before she blows him away.
Sound of running water, metal against metal. Clanks and gurgles, lowered voices, the close claustrophobic echo of machines in the middle distance.
Diallo opens his eyes.
He’s still in the wet room; its ceiling blurs and clicks into focus, plates and struts and Kito’s stupid grafitti scratched into the paint. A web of green light still wriggles dimly across the biosteel, but all the murderous energy has been bled out of it.
He tries to turn his head, and fails. He can barely feel his own body— as though it were made of ectoplasm, some merest echo of solid flesh. It fades into complete nonexistence somewhere around his waist.
A dark shape looms over him, an insect’s head on a human body. It speaks with two voices: English, and an overlapping echo in Ashanti: “Easy, soldier. Relax.”
A woman’s voice, and a chip one.
Not Sāḥil. But armed. Dangerous.
Not a soldier, he wants to say, wants to shout. It’s rarely a good thing to be mistaken for any sort of combatant along the west coast. But he can’t speak. He can’t even whisper. He can’t feel his tongue.
Diallo realizes that he isn’t breathing.
The Insect woman (a diveskin, he realizes distantly: her mandibles an electrolysis rig, her compound eyes a pair of defraction goggles) reaches past his field of view, retrieves a tactical scroll and unrolls it a half-meter from his face. She mutters an incantation; it flares softly to life, renders a stacked pair of keyboards: English on top, Akan beneath.
“Don’t try to talk,” she says in two tongues. “Don’t try to move. We haven’t even booted your larynx, much less your lungs. Just look at the letters.”
He looks at the N: it brightens. O. T. The membrane offers up predictive spelling, speeds the transition from sacc’ to script:
Not soldier fish farmer
“Of course. Sorry.” She’s retired the translator; the Akan keys flicker and disappear. “Figure of speech. What’s your name?”
She pushes the defractors up onto her forehead, unlatches the mandibles. They fall away and dangle to one side. She’s white underneath.
“I’m sorry, no. We didn’t get here in time. Everyone’s dead.”
Everyone else, he thinks, and imagines Kito mocking him one last time for insufferable pedantry.
“Got him.” Man’s voice, from across the compartment. “Teka Diallo, Takoradi. Twenty-eight, bog-standard aqua— oh, wait; combat experience. Two years with GAF.”
Rising panic. Diallo’s eyes dart frantically across the keyboard:
No only farmer not
“No worries, mate.” The woman lays down a reassuring hand; he can only assume it comes to rest somewhere on his body. “Everyone’s seen combat hereabouts, am I right? You’re sitting on the only reliable protein stock in three hundred klicks. Even twenty meters down, you’re gonna have to defend it now and again.
“Still.” She turns in the direction of the other voice (a shoulder patch comes into view: WestHem Alliance). “We could put him on the list.”
“If you’re gonna do it, do it fast. Got a surface contact about two thousand meters out, closing.”
She turns back to Diallo. “Here’s the thing. We didn’t get here in time. Truth be told we’re not supposed to be here at all, but our CO got wind of Sally’s plans and took a little humanitarian initiative, I guess you could say. We showed up in time to scare ’em off and light ’em up, but you were all dead by then.”
“Yeah, Teka, you too. All dead.”
You brought me back
“No, we didn’t.”
“We gave your brain a jump start, that’s all. You know how you can make a body part twitch when you pass a current through it? You know what galvanic means, Teka?”
“He’s got a Ph.D. in molecular marine ecology,” says her unseen colleague. “I’m guessing yes.”
“You can barely feel anything, am I right? Body feels like a ghost shell. That’s because we didn’t reboot the rest of you. You’re just getting residual sensations from nerves that haven’t quite figured out they’re dead yet. You’re a brain in a box, Teka. You’re running on empty.
“But here’s the thing: you don’t have to be.”
“Hurry it up, Cat. We got ten minutes, tops.”
She glances briefly over her shoulder, returns her gaze to Diallo. “We’ve got a rig back on the Levi Morgan, patch you right up and keep you on ice until we get back home. And we got a rig back there that’ll work goddamn miracles, make you better’n new. But it ain’t cheap, Teka. Pretty much breaks the bank every time we do it.”
Don’t have money
“Don’t want money, Teka. We want you to work for us. Four year tour; then you go on your way, nice fat bank balance, whole second chance. Easy gig, believe me. You’re just a passenger in your own body for the hard stuff. Even boot camp’s mostly autonomic.”
Not WestHem, Diallo saccades.
“You’re not Hegemon either, not any more. You’re not much of anything but rotting meat hooked up to a set of jumper cables. I’m offering you salvation, mate. You can be Born Again.”
“Wrap it the fuck up, Cat. They’re almost on top of us.”
“Course if you’re not interested, I can just pull the plug. Leave you the way we found you.”
No Please Yes
“Yes what, Teka? Yes pull the plug? Yes leave you behind? You need to be specific about this. We’re negotiating a contract here.”
Yes born again Yes 4 year tour
He wonders why he feels this shiver of hesitation— this tiny voice whispering maybe dead is better. Perhaps it’s because he is dead; maybe all those suffocating endocrine glands just aren’t up to the task of flooding his brain with the usual elixir of fear and desperation and survival-at-any-cost. Maybe being dead means never having to give a shit.
He does, though. His glands aren’t quite dead yet, not yet. He said yes.
He wonders if anyone, ever, hasn’t.
“Glory Hallelujah.” Cat proclaims, reaching offstage for some unseen control. And just before everything goes black:
“Welcome to the Zombie Corps.”