"You - you're gonna take care of all this for my family, right?"
Dr. Pall grunted noncommittally. He didn't know what kind of arrangement the Foundation had made with this particular subject. He didn't particularly care to know. It didn't help him do his job to know. It didn't help him sleep at night, knowing.
It was too late to change the outcome either way. The subject had already gone through surgery to implant all the neurowire and circuitry the process required. It wasn't like they could back out now, strapped down as they were. Whether they pleaded or made peace, faced the end with eyes open or squeezed painfully shut, it ended all the same for them.
Dr. Pall finished his prep checklist, filled out some readings from the monitors, and signed off on the final paperwork. Then he hit the button that would erase the person in front of him.
He picked up the dossier that came with this particular Engram. The Foundation didn't need whoever this John Doe was. The one they wanted was...
Achieving awareness as your personality overwrote someone else's was an experience I found distasteful.
On top of that, the flip side of the coin was that I had to have died first in order for this experience to be necessary. Naturally I avoided it wherever possible. Sometimes it wasn't something that could be avoided.
I waited patiently while the egghead fussed over readouts from machines connected through my chair and into the base of my skull, like some kind of ripoff Matrix thing. It gave me time to sort through all the memories I'd just... re-inherited.
This part of the process always felt peculiar to me. On one hand, I could recall everything in adequate detail. On the other, reviewing them felt like looking through a lens at events that happened long, long ago. They felt... removed. Sometimes I wondered if the others had the same experience. It wasn't a topic I discussed with my peers, nor the site therapist.
With a certain morbid satisfaction, I "remembered" how my last life had ended. Sitting at the base of a nuclear device was definitely top five, maybe even top three for me.
"Who's my JD, Doc?" I asked, as the egghead finished unstrapping me.
Wordlessly the man handed me a single page prinout with a bunch of clinical details. Lots of information, but very little that told me anything about who my body donor was. I tried to commit his name to memory, but I knew I'd soon forget it, just like I'd forgotten all the others in time.
"They'll want you down in the Command Room right away," he said.
Oh, I imagined they would, given what had transpired in Sector D.
It was disturbing how fast Centurion Actual had mercilessly slaughtered Centurion 3 and 6. I pulled the entirety of Hoplite off sectors to bear down on Stood. I don't know if he knew somehow, but as soon as I gave the order, he sprinted straight for us.
Hoplite 3 was standing in front of me. He'd just emptied his magazine into Stood. I was in the middle of doing the same when Stood's fists went flying. None of our hand-to-hand training mattered against that anomalous power - Kaejarn didn't last long after the first blow crumped his chest. Stood's wounds caught up to him quickly after. As he bled out on the ground, I heard him say something peculiar.
"Harmony is not with us," he breathed out, before lying still.
We'd both seen the book before, I realised. Three of us had in total out of the first detachment. Stood, though - he had walked right up to it. It did something - tried to twist us, but its hooks were deep in Stood. He'd been acting strange all night. I should have noticed, his team must have noticed... Now half of them, and one of mine, were dead in the span of a minute.
The book wasn't done with us, though. Somehow it had seemed harmless when we first approached. The bloodstained floors and all the mutilated bodies near it had seemed completely unimportant. We were just carrying out a totally routine investigative action. Hoplite had set security while Centurion went in first.
Now, as the lingering echo of gunfire in the tunnels faded into silence, the book seemed to exude an actual aura of menace. Clinically I recognised signs of mental compulsion. The draw to go up to it, to reach out and touch the book, to learn about it and learn from it - that desire was unnaturally strong. The others were probably feeling something similar.
Centurion 2 and 5 moved up to check the bodies of the fallen, even as I moved forward, yelling at them to get away from the book. Centurion 4 - Strac - caught on straight away, grabbing Centurion 2 and staggering back towards the entrance. I shoved Centurion 5, yelling at him to move. Maybe the book was trying to make them ignore us.
The repeated orders eventually sank in. I keyed the radio, instructing Hoplite to fall out, back the way we came. I wanted to get closer to the book, which meant the book wanted me closer, which meant what we actually needed was distance.
"We need to move away, we need to get away from the book," I kept saying, for my own sake as much as the others'. Maybe some of us would make it out of this, if we just got the distance we needed.
The feeling of dread at my back didn't recede as we moved, though. If anything, it got worse. A few hundred metres down the tunnels, the sound of an impact and a wet thud behind me prompted a few in Hoplite to turn, guns raised. Wordlessly Hoplite 2 shrugged, stepped over Strac's body, and sheathed a combat knife.
"Drop your weapon, right now," someone said. Hoplite 2 just smiled and raised their rifle. Someone pulled the trigger first - a clean headshot. Hoplite 2 dropped to the ground, lights out.
Nobody moved for several moments after.
"Lets go," I prompted as I started moving.
"Fuck... That thing must be infecting us," someone said, followed by a chorus of murmuring.
I cursed under my breath. Not because of the revelation, but because now everybody would be too busy worrying about each other to worry about getting out. I noticed immediately how the last two Centurion members formed up slightly askance of the rest of Hoplite.
There was a division in Hoplite itself, too, a line drawn between buddy teams. There was nothing rational about it. The presence of the book within the facility, like a physical weight on our shoulders, was turning up our paranoia to the max. It wanted us to be afraid of each other. It wanted us to kill each other.
"Hey, watch where you're waving that weapon!" somebody called out.
"What? Don't point that at me, are you going to go crazy next?" came the reply.
"Hey! Get it together!" I yelled, but Centurion and half of Hoplite were already aiming guns at each other. The two Hoplite operatives still with me held their rifles tensely, muzzles down, watching the situation unfold.
"I'll get it together when they put their guns down!"
"You're just gonna murder us if we do that, aren't you?"
The aggressors in Centurion and Hoplite were backing away from each other, instinctively moving to cover. I gestured to the Hoplite buddy team still with me to back up further down the corridor. Before long, the opposing pairs had gone firm, scoping each other up.
"Hey, don't just fuckin' leave us here! You're gonna let them kill us!"
I don't know which of the two sides fired the first shot, but it wasn't at each other - it was at our retreating group. It went through my lower abdomen.
"Ahh, fuck," I wheezed. Hoplite 5 grabbed me by the vest and pulled me around the corner while the firefight errupted. I didn't know how bad I was hit, but I figured I was probably on a relatively short timer.
Hoplite 5 kept me moving while Hoplite 6 - Logan - covered the corner in the direction of the firefight. Two figures eventually emerged. Logan shot them both immediately.
"Can I borrow your sidearm?" I asked. Hoplite 5 handed it over. I held it in one hand, the other over my bullet wound.
"I'm good from here. Keep an eye on him," I said, indicating back to Logan.
As soon as Hoplite 5 turned around, I shot him in the back of the head and made a break for it. We were all dead men now, but if the book was going to burn, there was no point in me taking risks.
Logan called out, then fired in my direction. I felt one round graze my helmet, then another through my shooting arm. I transferred the pistol to my off-hand and fired a few times behind me before ducking into the structure leading to the nuclear devices we'd found on our way in.
Blood loss was already starting to kick in as I rounded the final corner. A few rounds ricocheted past as Logan pursued. I crouched behind one of the nukes, near an access panel. I shot a few rounds back down the tunnel to keep Logan off me a little longer, painfully retrieving the PDA with my bad arm.
I pressed a few buttons, connected to the device. Then I wiped the PDA on my pants to try get the blood off the screen. I fired Hoplite 5's pistol until it clicked. I started the countdown sequence.
I don't know whether I got them or whether they ran, but Logan never showed up to finish the job. Instead I just leaned back against the nuke's frame, exhausted. No point checking the countdown on the PDA screen, too much blood on it now. I closed my eyes and waited.