The world had gone dark for only a week, and they already wanted to fashion a weapon out of me.
“You’re one of the few whose bodies are compatible with the energy source.” My handler’s hair collected ash, which I imagined to be snow. We stood facing each other, under the shadow of the clocktower, lights taken from a football stadium serving as a proxy for the sun.
“Do you intend to turn me into a bomb?” I asked, slightly amused at how soon we’d come around full circle. Bombs were the reason half the world was buried. They were the reason why I was being held hostage in my own university.
“No.” He removed his hat, his mustache gathering white. I imagined I was shivering, that it was blizzarding out. “To be frank…” He did me the service of at least a partial disclosure. The world was too dead to take much sugar-coating. “Something far worse.”
They were pulling babies from what used to be buildings, what used to be nurseries and neonatal ICUs. The body bags were too large, so they had locals bring out pillow cases to wrap the youngest of the dead in.
They tugged bodies from the rubble, volunteers in night vision goggles, whatever the army had on-hand. I couldn’t help from where I was, in the university that had become a prison. I watched from the feed the military had provided me to instill “nationalistic feelings.” A rescuer had ended up on his knees after extracting a toddler headfirst from crumbled concrete. They were slapping him, screaming at him to get it together, bringing their palms to his cheeks. There were more children buried in the ruins of the homeland, in the ruins of their own houses. And he was one of the few with the physicality and equipment to pull them out.
He lifted himself off the ground, retracted the goggles, and smeared his tears with the hands of others. He was staring forwards, like some smothered statue, caked in ash. And they ruffled his hair, white snowing down from where it collected, and pushed him onto the next victim.
The girl in one of the next dorms, of which there was a surplus because the university had become mostly a ghost town, told me she’d seen footage of the enemy hauling picnic baskets up to lookouts. That they ate their dinner on foldaway chairs and tables, watching the fireworks that bore craters into our country. That rained ash over all of us.
“They’re an evil people.” She said, shaking her head, body resting on her doorframe. “I didn’t know humans could act like this.”
“The enemy is not human.” I said, matter-of-factly, so she did not confuse me with a sympathizer. And she didn’t take it as well as I thought, only sniffled, sucking back tears, and slammed her door shut.
One of the reasons why I was not allowed out of university grounds was because the campus was considered a safehouse. I could watch the destruction unfold around me, knowing it would never penetrate whatever shield my handlers had set up.
Here, the bombs were the only things I could see without aid from night vision goggles. They’d start as orange dots in the horizon that you would say to yourself were stars, then they’d grow until you’d swear you’d discovered the sun again since this winter started. Then that sun would multiply and grow a comet’s tail. Phosphorous. That stuff cooks you from the inside out. Causes organ failure, melts your skin down to your bones, and your bones down to stardust.
I was watching one. The window surrogated the back of my eyes. Two camera obscuras, shrouding most of the world as unseen matter. I could see the telltale dot swelling from the skyline, of a false sun, trailing poison as it ripped through the sky. Though I knew I was safe, that didn’t keep the fear at bay. Deep down, I was beyond terrified. It was the kind of fear that cut like a knife, that turned me cold. That made my breath hitch when I saw the bombs deployed because I thought of the people that would be struck by them, and for a moment, their bodies were an extension of my own, and I could feel my skin smolder and my blood boil. And there was nothing I could do but watch.
When the blast first reached our shore, it came as a ring of sound and wind that would dissipate as it neared the interior of the landmass, then recede and spread back again. Over the course of weeks, the incoming waves of pressure would expand and collapse as aftershocks. Those were the test runs, performed on other countries, nuclear warheads dropped from planes, disintegrating all allies. The enemy really knew how to corner us.
The real blasts, the ones that turned my country into a wasteland, came in this eternal night that was newly blanketed over us. We had no way of seeing it, and if we even could see anything, we had no way of communicating it to anyone.
The enemy started with missiles, then dirty bombs that exploded shrapnel into their blast radius. And then, when we thought they had used the last of them; nuclear weapons. They dropped them on hospitals and churches first. On the places that would cripple our communities. And then, they engaged the military targets. Finally choosing a destination for their fireworks that was not civilian.
I was halfway through my thesis when all of this went down, studying data of stars’ positions in the sky, of changes to their size that may indicate black hole activity or just natural death in the star’s life-cycle. Looking back, such an organic dying process, even if it was that of a star, was something to envy. The enemy had conjured up the most painful ways to kill. Makes being slurped up into yourself as your light dims and kills the planets you once illuminated seem more ideal to nuclear fission. But, to our relief, by the end of the first barrages, we were notified that the enemy had run out of its nuclear weaponry. Or at least, that was what our specialists surmised from intelligence reports.
It would be a while before people had the decency of instantaneous atomization in lieu of the more painful, drawn-out deaths to come.
While I waited to be turned into a warhead, I occupied myself leafing through half-eroded journals. My studies in astrophysics, of the birth and death of stars, was long forgotten, rendered too frivolous for the current winter. My telescope, the largest of others among most universities in the north, was being disassembled and smelted down into another one of the war machines.
The study would haunt me, would possess me like a second spirit. Every equation, every proof, was somehow preserved in the back of my mind, only to resurface at night just when I was at the precipice of sleep. It would torment me. I would think in series of numbers, in formulas; would feel the click of my calculator, as a phantom, beneath my fingers.
I missed the stars. I missed the sun most of all. There was no warmth at the time. Only ash and darkness. And my studies proved exceptionally useless in alleviating this situation. I worked in the theoretical, not the physical. I could map the lifespan of a heavenly body but I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to produce hot water using what remained of lost technology and no sunlight. I’d crouch, with a flashlight between my teeth, and wish I had done something more mechanical with my time in school, that I had both the motor skills and technical expertise to coax the flow of electrons from a grounded state to a more excited one.
I was never successful. I waited, like everyone else in the university, for the army corps of engineers to piece together what they could of the surviving infrastructure. And for the first time since the winter set in, there was light. Enough light for me to scrawl equations onto the empty backs of notebooks, to finish my thesis in vain. Because I didn’t care that the world was going to consume me and spit me out a killer in a matter of months. At the time, I was still human. At the time, I needed to pretend that the world would always see me as such. As someone in the same ranks as those who brought the light back to Americans. Not as the one who extinguished it across the ocean.
American physicians performed surgery on soiled hospital floors, without anesthesia, with fewer doctors than they had last month because they had lost almost half of them in the war so far — the enemy was adamant on calling this barrage on civilians a war — and the screams through the special military-grade transmitted television were enough to make me spit bile.
This would all be my fault in a period of months. Children with their names written on their arms because they would be too shellshocked to remember, their entire families yet to be dug up. Did you know that nearly half of the US population consisted of children right before the big bombs were deployed by the enemy? Children made up a majority of survivors. And of Martyrs. And soon, I would be the one producing skeletons on the other side of the ocean in their remembrance. It would be my turn to power the killing machine.
The enemy kept circling back to the first events that started the war. They cited beheaded children, and butchered civilians, evidence of which could not be produced. And the statements were eventually retracted, but it was too late. The world thought we were inhuman, and that is how they would proceed. With the slaughter of animals. The damage had been done. Our whole country, and its children, were named complicit in a killing conducted by rogue soldiers on foreign soil.
The enemy talked of tearing America down, flattening it completely, and renaming it “equinox” after the nightclub where the insurgents first struck.
The enemy said that terrorists ran our hospitals, so they bombed them. They said that American patriots were cowards, using women and children as human shields. And they just kept bombing until our sky turned black. Until they’d disabled all infrastructure and communications, leaving the country completely dark. No sight, so the world could not see the atrocities they were about to commit. So there would be no one to record the slaughter. That it would be locked in by the current winter, that the ash would do enough to silence. That all those who bore witness would be turned to ash.
By the time the second wave of bombs fell, the world learned that most of the US consisted of pockets of refugee camps, from the ruins of neighboring states, and from Mexico and South America. The world found out that our enemy was bombing the most helpless of civilians, and their children. And when they tried to flee, up to Canada or down to Mexico, the borders were sealed. We were locked in, all of us. In the place where the day and night bled into each other because the enemy had pummeled us so badly with their warheads, that we lost the sun.
They told me to leave no one alive. And I did not. When they disconnected the electrodes from me, millions of fading heartbeats were reverberating through my ears. When they stripped me of the insulating suit and cast me naked into the stabilizing liquid, I could still feel shrapnel rip through one thousand times over, could still feel the roll of ignition liquidize the ground and then make bodies go airborne with the aftershock.
Afterwards, they’d ask me: reporters and angry civilians, who’ve gotten too proud once they’ve seen the light again, why I bombed a hospital. A refugee camp. A food storage facility.
I did not answer them. Weapons don’t have to say anything. I was not scared of public opinion. I was death from above. And they did not feel what I’ve felt; a million bones crushed, bodies charred through-and-through, the kinds of screams that will never die, even in memory.
They asked me why I did not fight my handlers. Why I let them turn me into a human weapon. To that, I said that I was no longer human. I was only a weapon. I was only death. I was their deaths too. That the enemy was not human either, and they would do unto us a-million-fold what I’ve done. And I was the one to provoke them.
They asked why I didn’t cry at the sight of what I’ve done, and I reminded them that I was a weapon. I didn’t cry anymore. The valium pump in my inferior vena cava did not allow me to. The implant at my thalamus made sensation impossible. Couldn’t they remember that I wasn’t human anymore? That they might as well be talking to the tanks or the missiles, or the surviving atom bombs. I could not give them what they wanted. I could not give them remorse. I was responsible for the damage, not the aftermath.
“I can’t feel anything, remember?” I addressed them, casting wetness down my cheeks. And they took photographs of me like that; grainy, black-and-white, from old tech cameras, of the weapon with tears in her eyes.
My handlers took me back in, blared “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as they shoved me into a padlocked door and through the tunnel system under the destruction, to a place where no one would know to look for me. I was the best kind of weapon. Easy to hide, to move. To pass off as anything but.
I screamed and screamed about the enemy, melting into the floor, a slobbering mess of a girl. At least I thought I could still be called that despite everything. I wished I could. I screamed and screamed things I never thought I would even think, but war and death did these things to me, turned me into something I didn’t know ever existed inside me.
“I’m going to kill them!” My voice ripped through my throat, raw and stinging. And it must have been what the handlers wanted to hear, but too crazed. Too emotion-laden. They wanted something bloodthirsty but mindless. I still had too much of what I was told to leave behind. “I’m going to kill them all!”
Adrenaline rushed cold through me, warping my surroundings. I couldn’t feel properly with all the tubing feeding into my sensory centers, but I could feel something and I hated it. I needed it to stop. I could only be annihilation or human, not something straddling the line between the two. Nothing can survive the split. I was the only living thing that could remain in the divided state, body sectioned off into organ systems, picked apart by sensory nerves. I had switches to kill, sections to excise from my being, another version of me to break off from myself.
There was a memory that hit me, as my hands began to work at my skin, of a woman working for a relief organization, who told reporters that her toddler, who lived on base with her, was beginning to show signs of distress only reserved for the field of military psychiatry. The kid tore her hair out and clawed gashes into her thighs. My condition wasn’t much better than hers; I scratched at my skin, at the instruments going through me, at the monitors and tubing and things holding me back.
I screamed some more, imagining I was digging into the earth’s crust and I was also the planet. It was all so painful; I was destined to rip the earth in two, could fit the world between my teeth. And I bit down, on myself, into the pulp of my palm, drooling red, spittle foaming at the corners of my mouth as I groaned in both surprise and some kind of retaliatory relief.
I woke up with a morphine pump opposite to the valium. I felt like something was constantly drilling the back of my head, rattling my brain. They’ve installed other equipment I couldn’t see, but I knew were there. Some in my brain. Some on my adrenal glands. They were forming the most obedient anthropomorphic weapon. And I had no choice but to become what I had been resisting. I had no choice but to take the world with me.
The enemy let loose from their warships flyers with a colored dot in the center reading: “You are here,” with almost cartoonish imagery of their weaponry surrounding. “You are surrounded.” Sprawled the bottom of the page. “The only way out is south.” So, the masses fled to Texas, where there were more bombs waiting, smothering the ruck in the consequences of collision at a subatomic level. The enemy, as it seemed, had a surviving atomic weapon. And their first target was a helpless crowd of refugees.
As far as the war effort went, the enemy was growing closer to their objective of flattening us. The stretch from California to Montana had been rendered unlivable, with no surviving infrastructure to sustain life. All the inhabitants of Austin, Texas had been vaporized, a level of destruction I was still incapable of. They were still working on ways to make me stronger, to make me deadlier. All of that came to a crescendo when Texas was atomized.
And then the killing stopped, on both ends.
I was told to reserve energy, so they locked me in a healing tank while they braced for any enemy attacks. And they waited, while I floated in the ultraviolet stew, still holding their breaths. When I was released from the tank weeks later, there was yet to be a bombing, a missile strike, or any other form of warfare on the enemy’s end. They were quiet.
My handlers called them a sleeping giant, they were so massive and powerful, that they would just turn the other cheek to our attacks and wait for the right moment to deploy any countermeasures. Our country was in ruin, with only the New England area left with surviving infrastructure. The enemy did not need to do much to deliver a final blow.
As the apparent armistice went on, we counted the dead and saved whoever we could unearth. We waited, with bated breaths, for the earth-shattering we knew would come. We waited for the sky to grow dark again, for the sun to be blotted out by clouds of ash and radioactive waste. But nothing ever came.
The enemy’s major generals were contacted, with a single question in the transmission:
[Is this a ceasefire?]
There was more silence for weeks. And then a reply, as if they were reluctant earlier to share such information:
[The weapon is unwilling.]
No one knew how to respond. Linguists were brought in to decode any possible mistranslations, as if it wasn’t apparent at first what they were trying to say. That their weapon was someone like me. That they had been using living, breathing beings to unleash the atom bomb. That this whole time, it was people who were turning the sky black. Who were locking in a global winter with every blast, with every detonation. There was a human behind it all. One for each pole, for each end of the earth. And we could have split the world between the two of us, could have torn the planet apart if we didn’t show the restraint our supervisors lacked. If we weren’t human, then we would have killed every living thing. We would have committed total slaughter, of an entire race, of an entire world.
The United States military replied, as simply as possible:
[Weapon is willing.] And it was not a lie. Not yet.
I still had the death drive in me. Still had the urge to level the enemy the way they did to us. I did not forget what they had done; my handlers had made it impossible to think of anything but, a neural chip in my hippocampus subliminally looping news feed of the bodies, of the destruction, steady power warping buildings, the slopes of entire cities caving into themselves. I wanted to cut into their warships, to slice the bellies of the enemy’s C-17’s and rain their supplies down the way they did ours, the way they destroyed the food banks when they had winter locked around us.
My thirst for vengeance was not something that could be dissolved so easily.
There was no activity on the enemy’s side, and I had not been forced to destroy anything for months. The military shifted its focus to reconstruction. They re-paved destroyed roads, rebuilt hospitals and housing, reconnected electricity and internet lines. Though contained to the northeast, the remains of America were growing stronger. I was growing stronger too, having been spared from expending myself as a weapon for so long. I began to feel human again.
I took tours with the national guard, greeting people as their savior. As the one who bullied the enemy into their months long silence. The general public didn’t know about the enemy weapon’s reluctance. They did not know we were theorizing that the ceasefire would quit once a suitable replacement was found. Then, the new weapon, with the young verve that all those unexperienced with genocide had, would rain down onto us all that was supposed to hit long ago. We were supposed to be annihilated by now and then built anew, turned into the enemy’s playground; luxury apartments over where the bodies of a family still lay, huddling together in death and decay. And I saw the stars collapsing in on themselves, still saw my work in my head because I could not let that part of me go. I thought for a moment that we must not be so different from the stars, that our life cycles were the same. Grow bright and then destroy yourself. That must have been our destiny this whole time.
My handlers told me that in the instance of enemy retaliation, then my power would be used in one short burst to produce an effective countermeasure, most likely killing me. They told me their thermal physicists believed the energy of it all would boil me from the inside. Then, I would be given a martyr’s burial and swiftly replaced.
I always imagined it would be my neighbor, from the next dorm, that would be my replacement. That she would be forced to give up her body for her country, and for the destruction of what remained of the world. And she and the enemy’s new weapon would circle each other like sharks, never delivering a killing blow. Maybe it’d be because they knew how much it would take to lock the world in a nuclear winter forever. Maybe they knew that their objective was wrong from the start, and that data would be passed onto the weapon’s next host.
Maybe I didn’t want destruction after all. What good would it do if I killed their children too? What would be put into the world other than death? There was no more light for me to create other than the death strobes. It was time I drank my body in and collapsed, sucking in all matter until I was a pinprick on the fabric of space, with enough gravity to tear right through, until everything I’ve destroyed down here on earth became an afterthought. Because there would always be bigger destruction. Because I could always destroy others with myself.
It was night when I transmitted the message. Spending months in the same portion of a military base, with partial free range, gave me a good lay of the land. I was able to memorize logins and passwords, mechanisms for communication, and when the enemy’s scientists were online.
I trailed my machinery with me as I tripped through the control room. I was heavy and so augmented that I had more tubes leaving my body than vessels inside. I was no longer human, by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t even look it anymore.
I sat at a workstation with the same familiar ease as taking a seat on a bus. Like I belonged there. Like there weren’t armed guards who wouldn’t hesitate if they saw me.
I typed in a string of letters and numbers, successfully logging in. By the time I set up the interface, I could already see the soldiers nearing through the glass. I had no time, and so much to say. I wanted to scream at the enemy that they would destroy themselves with us, that we would all destroy the world together and there would be no one left to benefit from it. That they had made me a monster, and I had made them inhuman. But there wasn’t enough time. I only had time to enter a string of four words, no punctuation. I only had one sentence to deter humanity from its own suicide. So, I typed:
[The weapon is unwilling.]