Holes had been drilled in her arms, strung through with metal threads. Her veins had been drained of blood, the marrow stripped from her bones and replaced with alloy. Her skin had been removed completely. What remained of her organic form had been dipped in metal lighter and more flexible and infinitely stronger than aluminum foil. Sharp claws curled where her hands had been, and her legs terminated in flat, toeless stumps. She wasn’t a human being anymore, by any measure of what could be called a human being by any dictionary on Earth. She was barely a living thing anymore, just a brain and a couple of necessary organs kept alive by a sophisticated life-support system. But she could fly. She could fly higher than any bird ever born, and could hit any target on earth with deadlier accuracy than any weapon previously conceived. She didn’t need bullets, even though she had thousands of them at her disposal. She was a bullet. She was a bomb.
Far below her, on the ground, was her target, and rising up from that tiny building she was going to eliminate, that wafer-sized square she was going to crush into clouds of ash and broken cinderblock, was the enemy’s own weapon of choice, coming up at her like a tiny shimmering spear of light. Valerie squared her shoulders and dove headfirst towards the target, hands together, over her head, as though she was diving into a backyard swimming pool.
* * * *
“You can’t be serious,” protested Martha, eyeing her daughter with great concern. She frowned angrily as another car suddenly cut her off, assuring that their wait to exit the gridlocked freeway would be at least another ten minutes. “You’re so smart and pretty, and you have so many things to do still.” She reached out and touched Valerie’s hand lightly, briefly. “Don’t you want to get married, have a family? You’re too young for children now, of course,” she added hastily, then changed her mind. “No, you’re not too young. Not if you’re contemplating never having children. If having a baby will make you change your mind about this, then I give you permission to have as many babies as you want.” She blinked back sudden tears, squeezed the steering wheel tightly. “Are you pregnant? Is that why you’re even considering this?”
“It’s for a good cause,” Valerie replied calmly. The recruiter at her school had coached her on what to say, easily preparing her for any arguments her mother might present. “I’d be saving lives, right? Thousands of lives. Wouldn’t you be proud knowing your own child saved thousands of other children’s lives? Besides, what’s the point of having my own children if they’re not going to be safe?”
“Then I just won’t allow it.” Tears itched again at the corner of the older woman’s eyes, and she brushed them away angrily. “Dammit, you just can’t do it. I fucking forbid it. You’re fucking grounded just for bringing it up.” She slammed on the brakes as the car in front of her flashed its own brake lights. “I spent too much fucking time and energy and love on you to have you just give it all up like this. You just can’t do this to me.”
Again, Valerie was prepared with an answer. As if she was reading a cue from a card, she calmly recited, “I understand the sacrifices you made to raise me, Mom. This is why I’m dong this, to pay you back for what you’ve done for me. Let me make the sacrifices now. Let me do this for you, for our country. For my country.” She smiled at her mother beatifically, waiting for the next well-rehearsed part of the argument. She was more prepared for this conversation than anything that had ever come before. “And you know, legally, I can do anything I want. I didn’t even have to tell you I signed up for this. I only told you so that you wouldn’t be worried when I left.”
“You fucking zombie,” muttered Martha, shaking her head and staring straight ahead of her. “Jesus Christ.” She regained a bit of her composure, then turned to face her daughter. “You’re not even in there anymore, are you?” she said. “You’ve already left me, and I don’t even get a say here. Fucking seventeen years old,” she continued, turning back to the road ahead. “Seventeen years old, and you’re already dead. Fuck!” she screamed, banging on the horn in frustration. The car in front of her honked back, several times. A boy, around the same age as Valerie, hung his head out the window and jeered, “What’s the problem, grandma?” Martha briefly thought about driving her car straight into the back of his, but knew it wouldn’t do any good. Even if she had a real accident, one that landed them all in the hospital, the military recruits would still come for her daughter’s battered, broken body, would still take her to her assignment.
* * * *
But Mom, I’ll be able to fly, Valerie thought as she spread her gleaming metal gliding wings and began her circular descent. And then the flash of memory was gone, and all she could see was the painful patchwork creature crawling up the sky to meet her. Valerie shuddered inwardly as the thing came closer, a boy, she guessed, a little younger than her. In their attempt to compete with the scientists that had worked on Valerie, whoever had worked on this new thing had completely sacrificed finesse and beauty over speed and function. Where Valerie had been promised that she would be able to lead a life of adventure even after her mission, that the beautiful new body she had been given was hers for the rest of her life, the boy who had volunteered to become this ragdoll of twisted metal and septic-looking patches of exposed organic material obviously knew he was on a one-way trip. He didn’t fly so much as claw his way up through the air, swinging first one arm, then the next, up over his head as he neared Valerie. As he drew closer, Valerie could even see his original face was completely covered with a clear plastic shield, a hose pumping oxygen trailing from one side to a tank mounted on his back. The eyes that stared up at Valerie were bright and angry against a pallor of sagging, dying flesh.
Valerie eyed the boy coolly, automatically willing the projectiles in the palms of her hands to slide into place. It wouldn’t be any big deal to just circumvent the boy completely, but she hadn’t had a chance to try her tiny bombs out on anything yet. She sized up her opponent as he drew nearer, deciding that the large, cumbersome tube grenades strapped to his forearms would be no threat to her.
It was funny, or ironic, how she felt right now—she wasn’t sure which. The short time she had spent in her nearly-adult body as an adolescent, she had been riddled with insecurity about her body, her body language, what she was supposed to talk about with friends and what she was allowed to say to boys, and the whole experience had been just awful. But now, just weeks after officially joining the military as part of their Elite, she felt perfectly in control of everything around her. Everything. The boy below her posed no threat on any level. He could either attack her or try to kiss her, and she would have been able to deal with either situation perfectly.
“Wouldn’t it be strange if he did try to kiss me?” she marveled suddenly, almost giggling aloud, then shuddered. The boy was a brutish pile of sharp metal parts and exposed tubes and wires and flapping pieces of loose flesh. His mouth was an angry snarl of teeth, lips dry and split, gray. He probably would not try to kiss her. Valerie regained her composure, coolly took survey of what she took to be vulnerable areas and aimed accordingly. She paused, not sure if she should just shoot the newcomer and get it over with, or if she should wait until he was within earshot and say something menacing, or brave, or comic-book corny, like “Nice killing you!” or “Next time, make sure your arms match your feet before taking off, Lunkhead!”
It seemed as though her attacker was thinking the same thing. As she watched, the boy tried to shape his malformed mouth into words, finally settling on some sort of gesture which Valerie decided must be insulting. It had to be. She made a gesture of her own in return, then aimed carefully and fired.
Pain raced through her body. The world went pure white, then black, then she could see again, and she was falling. Something was lodged in the spot where her stomach used to be. Pieces of her opponent were falling with her, pieces of her own perfect new body mingling in the wreckage and falling like bits of shiny metal rain. He must have a got a shot off, too, she thought as she spread her arms as wide as she could and tried to go up. “Fly!” she screamed, and her voice sounded tinny and mechanical. “Fly!”
* * *
The woman woke up to find her house empty. She wandered from one room to another, not really worried, but curious, calling her son’s name out at the entrance of each doorway. She finally gave up and went into the kitchen. Breakfast dishes were in the sink, and half a pot of coffee was still hot on the stove. “So at least he was here,” she muttered to herself distractedly. The older that boy got, the less she saw of him—and, she had to admit, that was how it was supposed to be.
It wasn’t until she stepped out the front door and saw the children dancing, dancing, in the street in front of her house that panic began to set in.
“He’s a hero!” gushed one girl, barely in her teens, one of her son’s classmates. She rushed up to meet the woman and threw a wreath of wildflowers around her neck. “Jola’s a hero!”
The woman felt a cold knot of empty growing in her stomach, balling up to become something solid and hard until the weight of it couldn’t be held up any longer. Words like “why” and “how” and especially “no” fell out of her lips, but so quietly only a few of the celebrants nearby could hear her speak.
Bio: Holly Day was born in Hereford, Texas, “The Town Without a Toothache.” She and her family currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches writing classes at the Loft Literary Center. Her published books include the nonfiction books Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, and Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, and the poetry books “Late-Night Reading for Hardworking Construction Men” (The Moon Publishing) and “The Smell of Snow” (ELJ Publications).