Lieutenant Sam Douglas woke up and stretched. The single sized mattress must have been made of springs and tissue paper, but Douglas couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept so well. Life at the Kilauea Rest and Relaxation station was a huge improvement over what he and his soldiers had in Phoenix. No constant calls for formation, head count, or being parceled out as labor to assist whatever civics project didn’t have enough robot workers that day. Still, even that was better than living aboard a spaceship.
When their time came for a platoon R&R pass to Hawaii, morale picked up immediately. A transport ride across half the Pacific and their five-day vacation began. Douglas took the first day to do nothing but sleep.
He swung his legs over the side of his bed and set his bare feet against the linoleum floors. The touch stung his feet like he’d stepped on a live wire. He jerked his feet up with a yelp and looked at the floor, half expecting to see broken glass. Nothing but an off-white tile. He pressed a hand against the bottom of his feet; they felt fine.
“Weird.” He tapped his feet against the floor with no ill effects. He stood up and stumbled forward, catching himself on the back of a chair. His legs felt like rubber as they struggled to support his weight. He hadn’t felt this weak since his last twenty-mile road march back at Fort Benning. A sudden headache pressed a vise against his temples.
He hadn’t been drinking. Food poisoning from the resorts robo-kitchens?
He picked up his Ubi from off a nightstand.
“Call Sergeant Black,” he said. Maybe he wasn’t the only one feeling like this. The call rang, but no answer.
“Call Sergeant Newell.” The Ubi slipped from his hand and clattered to the ground. Douglas flexed his fingers, unable to feel them. He looked down at the Ubi and saw drops of blood falling against its screen. He wiped blood away from his lips. Why couldn’t he taste it?
Douglas lurched over to the sink and let the blood drip down the drain. He wiped his hand across his mouth. Ribbons of flesh came away from his face. Douglas looked into the mirror and saw his cheeks melting off his face.
He managed a ragged scream before collapsing to the ground.
Stacey watched the footage of Douglas’s final moments, her jaw slack.
“I told you,” Ibarra thrust a holographic finger at the probe. “Told you a six day grow was too fast for the proccies. Look at this mess.” His finger snapped to the screen.
Stacey turned away, unable to watch any more.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.
“Thorsson, what’s the damage?” Ibarra asked.
The blond-haired Icelander was on a screen, calling in from the procedural factory on Hawaii. He wore a hazmat suit, one that looked as if it had gotten a fair amount of use in the last few hours.
“96 percent loss on the batch,” Thorsson said. “The other four percent look to be stable—physically. Mentally, that’s a different discussion. Lab says their lysosome organelles are defective, which is why they…melted.”
Ibarra put his hands on his hips. “Can we fix that? If there’s an easy solution then we’re still in the game.”
“Jesus, Grandpa,” Stacey said. “Men and women are dead. Can we take a break from the mad-scientist bit for a second?”
“Time is the fire in which we burn, little one. I’ll put on a hair shirt for this later,” Ibarra said.
“It appears that nine days of gestation is our operating limit, for now,” the probe said. “Given the threat, it would be unwise to waste more resources until we can afford to fail in another experiment.”
“I never thought there’d be a day when producing fully grown and educated humans in two hundred and fourteen hours wouldn’t be fast enough,” Ibarra said.
“There is another option,” the probe said.
“No!” Ibarra shook his head. “Absolutely not. We’ve already discussed—”
Ibarra froze mid word, as if his hologram was on pause. The screen with Thorsson went dark.
“I’ve been with Marc for almost a hundred years,” the probe said. “I’m beginning to lose patience with him.”
Stacey backed away from the probe. “What did you do?”
“I suspended his matrix. He isn’t aware of what’s happened or what we’re going to discuss,” the probe said.
“Why are you and I going to discuss anything?”
“You are humanity’s ambassador. Our next choice will be of interest and discussion to the Alliance. What I’m about to show you is anathema to many cultures.” The probe floated from the central dais, its silver light spilling across the deck. “Please come with me.” The Xaros doors opened, deconstructing as tiny grains of the basalt-colored material skittered away from the center to allow passage.
Stacey waved a hand in front of Ibarra’s face. She snapped her fingers next to his ears.
“Coming. Coming. Could you teach me to do that to him?” she asked the probe as she caught up to it. They walked side by side down the almost featureless passageway. Stacey felt her pulse quicken as she remembered being chased by Xaros drones around these same corners.
“No. Tell me, have you encountered the Yuun-Tai species on Bastion?” the probe asked.
“I don’t believe so.”
“The Yuun-Tai evolutionary path was very different from yours. Almost a pure predator species, you would describe them as bipedal alligators, but with fur. They give birth to litters of live young. Once the babies are a few days old, the mother consumes the runt of the litter.”
“What? That’s horrible!”
“To you. You have standards and expectations when it comes to child care. The Yuun-Tai consume the runt to rebalance the mother’s hormonal balance to enable lactation. Without this, the other babies will starve and the Yuun-Tai will end. Humans and many other species find this abhorrent, yet it must be done for survival,” the probe said.
“I assume there’s a point to this story,” she said.
“What I’m about to show you is necessary for survival. Look at it that way.” A door opened ahead of the probe, leading to a large room. Inside was a large glass tube that could have held two or three people. The end caps whirred with internal machinery.
“My models show that the true-born humans will likely accept the procedurally generated individuals. As for these, my math is inconclusive. Let’s begin,” the probe said.
Thin mechanical arms extended from the end caps of the cylinder. The tips sprayed dark red material that hung in the air. The arms worked so fast they almost blurred. Stacey watched as a human skeleton took shape within seconds. Organs came into being and Stacey had to look away.
“This disturbs you?”
“There’s a reason I studied astrophysics and not biology,” she said. “If we just failed to make a new person in six days, how can we do the same thing in sixty seconds?”
“I’m not making a person. These constructs are approximations of human beings. They are neither truly alive nor truly sentient. You can look now,” the probe said.
A fully grown man was in the tube, nearly seven feet tall and built like he could rip a drone apart with his bare hands. His lumpy face looked like he was already a veteran of a gladiator arena. His skin kept her attention, mottled patches of copper and dark green.
“They will all be male for the sake of waste elimination—but are incapable of breeding—and better societal acceptance of their purpose,” the probe said.
“Good call on the waste elimination. What is their purpose?”
“I believe the term is ‘cannon fodder.’ They are much less intelligent than the procedurals, only capable of limited problem solving. But they will know how to fight. They will be loyal to humanity and they will be legion.”
“They are purpose-built biological machines. Variance in their appearance is a byproduct of their construction.”
“The proccies, they’ll be the officers, the bridge crew and the pilots,” Stacey said, gleaning the probe’s plan. “These will be the…the poor bloody infantry.”
“Will they be accepted?”
“They’ll be slaves. That’s what you’re creating,” Stacey said. “Slave soldiers with no sense of agency, no choice in if they fight. Why stop at creating soldiers? Make laborers. House-hold servants. You will open a Pandora’s Box showcasing the worst humans have to offer if there’s something we can abuse. Something we can label as ‘not really human’.
“You disagree with their production?”
“No,” Stacey shook her head and sighed. “I see their value.” She put her hand on the glass and looked up at the soldier’s face. “I see how they can save us. They can carry a gun big enough to destroy a drone with a single shot. We’ll need them, because there won’t be enough of us when the time comes. Do it. Make as many as you can. I’ll consign millions to death on the battlefield for the sake of us all.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“I am not!” The soldier stirred at the sound of Stacey’s shout. “Look at what we’ve become. We’re mass-producing…people. Like they’re animals on a factory farm. These-these doughboys will bleed. For what? For our own precious survival. I don’t know if humanity ever really had a shred of decency to it. But this…this means we have lost ourselves. When it’s all over I don’t know if we’ll be able to stand what we’ve become.”
Stacey pressed a hand against her face.
“I can sell this to the Alliance. I don’t know how Grandpa will sell it to Phoenix if he’s not on board.”
“He’ll come around. He always does,” the probe said. “Full details of the program will be transferred with you to Bastion. Are you ready to leave?”
Stacey tapped on the glass.
“What will you call them?”
“Given military history and the particulars of their construction, I agree with your earlier moniker—doughboys.”
She turned away and made for the door.
“Just get me out of here.”