Benton walked into the operating room with trepidation, knowing he would not be leaving, at least not how he came in. He was certainly not averse to making sacrifices for his country, but this was a little excessive for his taste. He knew there was no chance that he could resist – it was so far from feasible for a human to overcome the mechanical guards that the only option was to let events happen as they would. The guards seemed amicable enough, but he knew that his life had absolutely no meaning to them.
He sat down on the slab in the operating chamber, acutely aware of the weapons trained on him from the hallway. The guards made no attempt to conceal their actions – nobody with that much power in their hands had any need for duplicity. The doctor gave his report only a cursory look – likely he knew that for Benton to get here, the report had been scrutinized thousands of times by thousands of different machines. One injection, and a few seconds later, the operation that would end Benton’s life as he had known it.
The doctor nearly bisected him with a single adroit movement – he had clearly performed this exact operation many times before. Once Benton was sliced open, a much stronger liquid than before was tubed into his arm – one that would theoretically make him impervious to pain. A few minutes later, something new was injected, sending a flush of pain through Benton’s limbs. He grimaced with the last of his strength. The pain serum was the most painful thing that existed – well, the second. As for the most painful, it was within a few feet of him.
On the slab next to him was a feathery tool that the machine would use. Each wire that composed it was so fine that it could slash someone in two without the feeling any pain. With so many though, that could not be further from the truth. The machine took the device and began to meticulously excise every nerve in Benton’s body, scraping each one clean of now-useless flesh. Benton knew he would not die – far from it. He would simply be put into…something else. With the detached, roaming mindset that the chemicals caused, he thought not about the burning pain that spread literally through every fiber of his being, but about the fact that it was such an amazing feat for technology to extract the very quintessence of a person and keep it alive outside of the flesh that once housed it.
The pain finally faded as Benton was removed from his body, and now came the part that truly put his life – well, he could hardly call himself alive without a body, so his existence – in the most jeopardy. If he failed to take hold where he would now be placed, he would slip away into nothingness. He was placed in the capsule and pressed downwards into the core of the planet.
A generic voice spoke in his mind, filling him with a sudden flush of nostalgia for even the most tiresome moments of his former life. “As you know, you will now become the guide for this planet. You will likely experience some pain as you spread throughout the entirety, but that will soon fade. You are the One who must make the sacrifice for the Billion, as hundreds before you have. You will be put into a comatose state now, so that you can spread throughout the planet before the surface is settled.”
Weeks later, Benton woke up. He felt what he remembered as hunger, though he knows that it was actually an insufficiency of heat in his core. He spread feathery wing-like structures out into space, to trap the light of the sun into his grasp. He felt a strange benevolence for the people now living on his surface, though he had no idea whether it came from him, or from the computer now attached to him at all times. As more time passed, he had enough energy for the collectors to withdraw, and suddenly, for first time in months, he felt the impetus to move. The floodlights scattered around his surface blazed to life, acting like second and third suns on each of the buildings. From the heart of the planet that was his home and body came a beam of light, pushing the world away from there it rested. In his new shell of stone, a hundred million people living on his surface, Benton pushed himself away from the star he circled and into the infinite void beyond.
Bobert sat down on the floor of the holding cell, muttering to himself angrily, and began to muse on the events that had gotten him there. He thought he had been stealthy. He had spread the thefts out across months. Only a couple Kretegins worth had ever vanished at once, and he doubted that the storeowner had even known someone was stealing. Certainly, no cameras had caught him, he made sure of that. “It’s uncanny,” he said aloud. “How did they know? It almost feels like they never stop watching us.”
Hundreds of miles below, Benton monitored every event on the planet that over two billion called home – the planet that Benton now thought of as nothing more or less than his very self. He let his mind wander as the assistant computers processed the massive amount of information coming in from the sensors hidden around the planet. These assistant computers allowed Benton to be nearly omniscient with respect to the events on the surface. There was no investigative police force anywhere on the planet. Benton did a better job than they could. No malicious murderer or skulking thief could hide from him. No matter how scrupulous they were at removing even the smallest trace of their presence, nothing could prevent them from being caught, because the sensors and cameras watching every square meter of the planet allowed Benton to see what they were doing, even if every sign of their presence was successfully expunged.
Feeling the flush of cold that he felt as hunger, Benton fell into orbit around the nearest star. While this area of space was technically in enemy territory, Benton was cloaked by a thick nebula that he only had to disperse in front of him to suck in the power of the star. Even if he was found, the fact that his consciousness resided at the center of a planet made him essentially invulnerable. Aside from that, he could harness the strength of the star at any moment – and a sufficiently large laser tended to be a panacea when it came to an assault. Comforted by these assurances, Benton disabled the floodlights that were no longer needed this close to a star and allowed himself to fall into an inactive state that was as similar to sleep as anything he could experience in his planetary sheath.
He was awoken a few hundred hours later by an attack warning. A large swarm of spacecraft, heavily armed, were approaching rapidly, and firing metallic projectiles into the nebula. Benton thought a few curses and began trying to ascertain the capabilities of the approaching belligerents. Seconds later, he came to a realization: while these were certainly enemies of his, they were also foes of the nation that actually controlled the space. But as projectiles peppered his surface, he knew there was no time to think further, and lashed out with the most energetic pulse he could muster.
The swarm dispersed, only to converge on the other side of the planet seconds later. Within a minute, Benton was englobed. It was pointless to resist at this point. No matter how many craft he destroyed, the enemy would simply send more. Their philosophy was that humans were produced rapidly enough to be as good as worthless, while usable planets were extraordinarily finite. The population that lived on Benton’s surface began to flee in escape pods as the enemy landed and began to execute any who failed to flee in time.
Hundreds of hours later, the owners of the sector of space arrived with an impressive show of force and began to besiege the soldiers entrenched on the planet. As battles began across the surface, and the crust began to be torn apart, Benton began to consider fleeing. As swathes of sensors were wiped away, Benton began to become surer. As holes were blasted clear to the other side and self-replicating materials began to proliferate throughout the interior, Benton became entirely certain. The billions clashing on the surface of the planet never noticed a jellyfish-like tangle of wires and nerves leap off into space, as Benton abandoned the chaos below to bequeath his consciousness to another, safer planet.
Stobnon pulled away from the knot of family and friends and into the spaceport, rushing to get in before his granny caught him. She was a bit old-fashioned, tended to ramble on and to Stobnon’s constant aggravation, as spry as someone half her age. To his dismay, Stobnon crashed into her as he dashed towards the entry gate and hunkered down for the speech. “Look at my grandson, going off to defend his country! So proud…” Stobnon groaned, and said, as he has probably as many times as Granny had been through years, “I told you, patriotism was dead a century ago. I just want to come back with some money.” Her mouth opened to deliver another lecture on how a military man should behave, but thankfully, the computer announced that it was Stobnon’s turn to board.
The military base where he had applied was at least two hundred light-years away, and there was no access wormhole, giving him a good ten months to think about his choice in a comfortable cabin room that he was forbidden from leaving. He really didn’t care about his country, except so much as it affected him directly. There was only a single reason he had decided to enlist: 10 Kretegins an hour. Very little under ordinary circumstances, but this was twenty-four hour pay. He planned to enlist, go through training and quit once the pay could no longer be cut.
He eventually arrived and went to the ‘welcoming ceremony’ without changing out of the shirt he had been wearing for the past week. The ceremony typically included a speech, after which the recruits were sorted into battalions. After this, Stobnon excitedly waited the best part—receiving a paycheck for the time he spent in transit. Stobnon entered the room four minutes late and found the other three recruits sleeping in the comfortable chairs. An explosive sound rang out half an hour later, signaling that the lieutenant had finally deigned to stop watching internet videos and give his presentation. The first words out of his mouth shocked Stobnon worse than anything he had heard within the past decade.
“You each owe us 50 million Kretegins. While we have access to generators that never run out, and the transit to this location genuinely cost us nothing, we as the benevolent government certainly deserve compensation for the money we would have spent if we had spent it. While the debt will be suspended while you are in the military service, it will of course have to be paid on the spot if you should decide to leave.” As the officer rambled on, lecturing mostly about his own rank and accomplishments, Stobnon realized that the government knew his tactic in advance, and that he would probably have to spend the rest of his life in the military service. The 70,000 Kretegin paycheck was much less impressive after the massive debt had been incurred.
The next few days passed in a blur. Stobnon received the mandatory injection that would make him capable of using the machinery (a small fee of 10 million Kretegins is applicable for this service), he was given his beam pistol (this is a rent, not a loan, and the price is 20 million Kretegins) and eventually he made his way to the training. In a tired voice showing he would rather be in bed playing cards, the Lieutenant explained that Stobnon and the others would be spending six months in an area of altered time and exiting an hour later. Stobnon originally believed that this was very useful, because he could quickly receive an intensive training. The Lieutenant quickly set him right. “No, it’s so we only have to pay you for one hour.” After this revelation, and a 30 million Kretegin fee, Stobnon plodded into the chamber, much discouraged.
The training would have been exciting, if not for the fact that it was so repetitive. The Lieutenant set them to the same exercises long after they had mastered them, simply because he could not be bothered to set up new ones. Combat training in the simulator was boring with only three partners, and there was a 200 Kretegin charge for each shot. This was, of course, the price of the energy to fire the weaponry, and while this did not actually apply in the simulator, as the Lieutenant explained, “Your benefactors in the government give you so much, with extreme effort, out of your very own pockets. They dedicate billions on all sorts of Hypothetical costs, for your own benefit, and only get paid on what little is left. They deserve a break, and some money to finally have what they most want. Paying for a few Hypothetical expenses by yourself for once should be a light burden to pay.”
When one of the recruits pointed out that this charge was not in the handbook, and asked if the numerous extra charges had to do with the fact that the Lieutenant was paid more the more he extracted from the troops, he was fined for his disrespectful demeanor, and it was explained to him that the Lieutenant had to add these fees, as the more he collected, the more his superiors would receive. After this state of affairs was likened to one of the ancient Pyramid Schemes, the lieutenant was quite offended. “It’s nothing like those. They were illegal, and impossible to tax. This is government-sponsored, and legally tax-exempt.”
By the time their first real combat was to begin, Stobnon and the other three were as burnt out as the other 60 in their battalion, and felt like they had been working in the military for, perhaps, as long as they would have to if they wanted to pay off their debt.
Meir Waxman is a freshman at The JEC High School in Elizabeth, N.J.