FROM HERE TO THERE
Barrier on, the device declares.
“When you initiate the force field,” the Head Agent instructs, “you lock yourself in an impenetrable membrane. It will keep danger out. But it will also keep you in.”
Barrier off, the device declares.
I engage Search: Force field, noun. Popular Articles. The invention of the force field (neochrome). The invention of the force field (electromagnetic). History of force field usage in Post-Contemporary warfare. [New in TECH] ‘Defense Fields’ for Civilian Homes in Final Stages of Development.
The Head Agent claps her hands. I exit Search. “Field practice with the neochrome next week. Dismissed.”
We salute in unison.
“What happens if you walk through a force field?” M-2 asks at my left. I turn to examine him. Raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth. Inquisitive. He is one of the preliminary cadets to join the M garrison and is much older than I. He was modeled after a lab specialist who died in one of the first base attacks.
“Did you not use Search?” I ask.
M-2 blinks. “I will use Search. Engage Search. Search. Searching. ‘What happens if you walk through a force field?’”
“All right, M-2, you’re coming with me,” says a female voice. I turn to examine the woman and she smiles at me—friendly—as she pats M-2 on the shoulder. Her name tag reads TS-43, Tech Specialist. Underneath it is ‘Afua’ in large letters. It is an alias. Some of the scientists still keep them. I do not understand why. A second designation is inconsequential.
TS-43 takes M-2. The rest of us march back to the East Wing to power down for the night.
“Turn to your partners. Say hello,” the Head Agent instructs. Her voice intones humor. Every M Agent and U Agent turns to face their partner.
“Nice to meet you,” Agent U-16 says. A friendly smile. She extends a hand. I shake it.
“Likewise, Agent,” I reply.
“How formal,” she laughs. I tilt my head to express confusion.
Her eyebrows raise. Shock (negative)? Surprise (neutral)? They are difficult to differentiate. She is still smiling. She shakes her head. “Never mind.”
The Head Agent claps for our attention. “Each pair must use their force field device to move through the simulations. Remember what I said—you trap something out, you trap yourself in. Treat this seriously! If either one of you is compromised, both have failed. Understood?”
“Yes, Agent,” we chorus.
“Let’s ace this thing, huh?” Agent U-16 whispers. I tilt my head to express confusion.
She touches her hair. “Oh, sorry, I forgot. It means–”
“Let’s ace this thing,” I repeat. It feels strange in my mouth. “A colloquial phrase meaning, ‘Let us succeed.’”
She is surprised (positive). “Yeah. Yeah?”
“Yes.” I test the mechanism to return her smile. I think it works because she slaps me on the back. Her eyes are wide. Pleased.
Together, we ace the thing.
“Let’s head to lunch,” Agent U-16 says, wiping the sweat on her neck. She smiles, as usual.
“Sounds good,” I say, smiling back. It’s a new term she has taught me. Within the past two months, it has become one of the top 10 most commonly used phrases in my Colloquial Dictionary.
I do not—or don’t—need food to function. Sitting with our partners while they eat is what the Social Specialists call ‘bonding time.’ It’s supposed to improve our teamwork. Bonding time equates to more communication, which calibrates my recognition software.
I understand my partner with 70.34% accuracy when we converse. She is distinctly difficult to read.
The lunch on her tray is the same as yesterday’s. Chicken breast. Peas and carrots. A pear. I calculate nutritional value.
“Are you looking forward to the mission?” I ask. Small talk, the specialists told us. Prompt the conversation.
She looks up from inspecting her food. “What? Looking forward?”
“Yes. Are you eager to embark on–”
“I heard you,” she says, frowning. Concerned (negative)? Displeased? She is trying to read my face. “No, not really.”
I frown as well. “Why not?”
“Because,” she frowns, deeper. But does not continue. “…It’s nothing. Don’t ask me things I can’t answer.”
I nod. “Understood.”
“No, wait, that’s not…” She pushes her tray away. She pushes back her hair. “You know, I don’t like telling you what to do. Well, I don’t know if you know, but… it’s okay for you to ask questions, is what I mean. You don’t have to stop talking when I tell you to.”
“Understood,” I say. “I do not have questions at the moment. Correction, I don’t. I don’t have questions at the moment.”
Her facial features relax. “All right then.”
I notice a produce sticker stuck on the pear in her tray. It is not to be consumed. She has not noticed. I reach over and peel it off.
When I return from the trash chute, she is looking at me. Intention unclear.
I try what the specialists taught us: “I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”
“What? No, you haven’t.” She blinks, before shaking her head. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just thinking too much.”
“…The mission.” She smiles. It’s a little different than usual. I catalogue it. “To be honest, I’m a little anxious. But I’m always anxious, so it’s nothing new.”
“Nothing new. Don’t worry, Agent,” I say. I reach for her hand, a motion I learned from the Contemporary films. “We are here to protect you.”
“We? What do you mean we?” Emotion recognition failure, my software notifies, before attempting to calibrate again. I dismiss the error.
“We. The M garrison,” I say.
“The M garrison.” Her face is still and smooth.
“That is correct.”
“Oh,” she says. “I see.”
“Yes,” I say. I dismiss the error again.
She finishes her lunch. I note the contents of the meal in her dietary records. When she leaves the cafeteria, I follow behind, sending an email to the physician to coordinate a routine check-up
We are walking—strolling, the Agent tells me—along a pathway in the central garden. The dome ceiling is high, its peak close to 9.51 meters tall. My measurements seem to interest her.
She raises her arms as she walks the line between concrete and gravel. Her face is warmer than usual, pleased. Her steps are fast, slow, fast. “Do you ever think about your parents?”
She is not interested in my measurements. I note my mistake.
“I don’t have parents.”
“You could. The woman you were modeled after, or the engineers who made you. Those could be parents.”
“Those could be parents,” I repeat. “You use it as an analogy.”
Her eyes wander over the scenery. “Sure. But it’s a literal thing, too. Not all parents are biological.”
“Yes. The verb, to parent, can also mean, to act as a mother or father. Understood.”
“Close enough.” She returns to the middle of the concrete path and drops her arms. “So who were you modeled after?”
“A Tech Specialist. Her civilian name was Mara.”
“Her civilian name? You should know your history better than I do. There was no distinction between civilian and soldier back then. That started during the war.”
“I suppose you are correct.”
She stops in front of some yellow-rimmed leaves. Image Search yields Sansevieria trifasciata, a plant native to West Africa. This one has grown flower stalks, though they have not yet bloomed.
I point at the buds. “That is rare,” I tell her, according to the internet.
“Yeah, it is.” She pauses. “I only know this because my dad had a real green thumb.”
“Green thumb. Someone who has an exceptional aptitude for gardening.”
“Yeah. Well, before he passed he was sick all the time and he couldn’t go outside much, but that was because he had to give up gardening after we moved to the city, so he was devastated, and he started collecting all these house plants…” Her shoulders shifted up and she inhaled. “Our snake plant was a flowering one, too. He didn’t care for it though, since it didn’t take much effort to grow. He loved a challenge.”
I attempt to sort the information.
“Sorry,” she says, turning around. She waves her hands in placation. “I asked about your parents, but I babbled on about mine instead.”
“Not a problem.” I sift my database for the appropriate phrase. “It is a pleasure to hear about your father.”
She snorts. “You can stop using that on me. I’d rather you be socially inept than spout that automated bullshit.” She claps a hand over her mouth.
As her ears turn pink, I step forward. “Are you all right, Agent? Your body temperature is higher than normal.”
“I’m fine.” She rubs her forehead. “God, I’m sorry. Forget I said that. I’m a mess.”
“I will not mention it. Why are you a mess? Is it because of the mission?”
“The mission? Oh,” she laughs. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.
The afternoon alarm rings. She doesn’t seem to notice it.
“That’s our cue,” I say. She’d taught me that last week.
She hears me. “Huh? Oh, right.” Eyebrows slightly angled, corners of her mouth turned down. Worried. Pupils restless. Distracted. “Good job remembering that,” she says. “Sometimes I think you remember things a little too well.”
I tilt my head. “Confirmation—does that have a negative connotation?”
“No,” she sighs. She walks ahead, leading the way. She no longer gestures or asks for me to follow her anymore—she knows I will.
She scans her ID at the entrance leading to the North Wing training facilities. There is a sign taped on the door: BROKEN LIGHTS. I scan the back of my hand. The door closes behind us.
Her voice is quiet, but it echoes in the dark tunnel. “I didn’t mean ‘too well’ as a negative. Remembering, I think, is never a bad thing. More of us should remember that.”
The tunnel gets darker. I activate my night vision. She is walking, slowly, but steadily, her hand on the wall. In front of me, she glows. Almost like a—
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“I thought I heard you say something.”
“I’m not sure.” I check my activity log and find nothing unusual. I run a quick system diagnostic. Nothing. I make a note to visit the tech ward.
“It was probably my imagination. Be careful where you step.”
I wake up on my back, facing a gray ceiling.
As I recalibrate my location, I review my activity log and conduct a surface security scan. I learn I am in the tech ward. I had experienced an unidentifiable malfunction during training. In my secondary camera, there is a recording of two tech specialists, transporting me on a wheelchair.
I run diagnostics. No errors.
I turn. My partner is sitting in one of the plastic chairs. She waves. I wave back.
“You froze during the drill. Do you remember what happened?”
“I remember. Are you all right, Agent?”
“I’m fine. It was just a drill after all.” She stands, dusting off her clean pants. “I’ll get going then. The TS in charge went out for lunch. He said you’re good to go.”
I pull up the weekly calendar. “You have field training at this time. Why are you here?”
She smiles. “The mission is tomorrow. What would I need training for?”
My joints are slightly under-greased. It is difficult to move. I manage to get off the examination table, while my partner watches me. She has assisted me in the past. Today, she does not.
“Training is important. Training prepares you for the fight.”
“The war prepared me to fight.” Her voice is shaking. “I don’t need someone to tell me not to die. You think out there, you’ll have someone blowing whistles for you? You think everyone has time to prepare?”
“I apologize. I have overstepped a social boundary.”
She pulls at her hair, fingers twisting into her ponytail. She is angry and I don’t know how to fix it.
She grabs my shoulders and shakes. “It’s not your fault!” Her voice is hoarse, as if she has not used it in a long time. “It’s not your goddamn fault.”
She cries. It is my first time seeing real tears. In the middle, her arms wrap around me in what is called a hug, and when she is done she finds me a tissue to wipe the wetness off my breastplate.
Barrier on, the device declares.
Through the force field, we watch the explosion light up the horizon. Skyscrapers around our building crumble. The sound rumbles through my core. The heat comes after.
I fold my arms over the roof railing. My partner is doing the same a few feet away.
“I’m going to miss coffee,” she says.
I flex my gloved hands. They are burning. I run a quick diagnostic, but nothing is detected.
“Is that your favorite drink?” I ask.
“Oh yeah, you haven’t had coffee before, huh?”
“I have not.”
“If you get the chance one day, I recommend it.”
“I will remember.”
She laughs. Her approaching footsteps are in iambic pentameter: drag… tap, drag… tap. Search suggestion: William Shakespeare’s most famous works. I dismiss the screen.
“You shouldn’t move,” I say. A boom again, from somewhere in the city. “Excess movement will strain your injury.”
She looks down at her thigh. The fabric covering it is red and wet. “This?” She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t feel it anyway.”
Her wound is too deep for her not to feel it. But somehow, I know she is telling the truth.
A call rings in from Agent U-50 on the core dispatch team. I accept and request affirmation. “Agent M-8. ‘Down the river.’”
“’Up the bend,’” he answers.
“Affirmative.” They have not been compromised. Through the joint video feed, I see what he sees. In his hands is a black suitcase. Perhaps its contents could end the war. “We have the Grail. On our way.” The call ends.
My partner is pulling at the ripped slash in her uniform pants. The fire and smoke outside the neochrome makes the blood on her leather gloves look like it’s shining.
“They have the Grail, Agent,” I say.
“Finally.” The building beneath our feet shakes. She looks out over the city. “Hey. Can I tell you a secret?”
Her breathing is uneven. “My civilian name, from before—it’s Gwen.”
“Gwen,” I repeat. “You are not supposed to tell me this, Agent. Protocol has been breached.”
“Our conversation in the garden.” She grips the railing. “Do you remember it?”
“My parents gave me that name, but they’re dead. There is no one else to remember them, but me. And there is no one to remember me. Do you understand?”
The core team crashes through the rooftop entrance. Agent U-50 runs straight for the aircraft on standby with the Grail.
“Call me Gwen,” she says.
Two others come through the door, one injured. The last hesitates. He looks in our direction. He waves his arms.
“Understood,” I say. “Gwen. You should get into the aircraft.”
She does not move. “Look at that. They want you to pull the switch. They’re going to leave you behind.”
“You must go, Agent. The craft can only carry five people.” I approach the force field device and set the timer to 30 seconds. I place a finger on the power switch.
“No,” she says. She limps over to kneel beside me and removes her helmet. Her face is wet. Her eyes are losing focus.
Someone pulls the last core Agent inside the craft and slams the door shut, just as Gwen pushes my hand into the switch.
Barrier off in 30, the device declares. The aircraft begins to rise up to the peak of the force field.
“Gwen. I will call them–”
“I won’t get on.”
“You will die.”
She smiles. She pulls off my helmet.
“No,” she says. “I will live.”
The aircraft sways in the sky, hovering just under the force field, the peak close to 22.4 meters tall.
She leans in. “Do you want to live?”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You can start with a name.”
“Any name,” she says. “Mara.”
“Mara,” I repeat.
“Mara. Nice to meet you.”
She holds out her hand.
I shake it.
“Gwen. Nice to meet you.”
“All right, then. Let’s ace this thing.”
It is approximately four hours into the truck ride when my system begins to overheat. We are too close together—the Agents are sitting with their weapons and bags between their knees. Occasionally, a shaft of light comes through the curtain from the gap in the partition, and we all turn our faces towards it.
I bend forward. My system can’t cool because there is no air. I can’t ascertain the temperature. I am an old model. It is too hot for my sensors to detect much detail.
“We almost there, you think?”
“We should arrive after sunset.”
My partner nods. He did not pay attention to the Captain’s announcement. “Right,” he says. “I guess we’ll know when the sun sets.”
A few of the Agents look in our direction.
My partner leans in again. “Hey.” Although it is dark, his eyes glitter, black. “Did you pick a name for yourself? Everyone here uses names.” When I don’t reply, he scratches at his neck. “You know what a name is, right?”
“I am aware of what a name is.”
His mouth twitches. “Well, okay. Sorry.”
The truck soon stops. We hear orders being shouted outside. Crunching footsteps and slamming doors. The luggage being pulled off the ridged roof of the car.
The back door swings open. The U Agents blink at the sudden light. A few M Agents wake their sleeping partners.
“Single file,” the Sergeant orders.
We secure our belongings and form a line. The U Agents stand behind their M partners. In my rear camera, I can see my partner looking around, curious, his hands swinging at his sides.
Hedges of burnt foliage line the road. The gravel beneath our feet is dusted with ash. We march until we reach a towering gate.
“Welcome to the A.H. United Forces,” a guard says. He’s wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a 1990s American cartoon character on the front. He has no visible firearms. “The main entrance is straight that way. Watch your step, we’ve been fixing the sidewalk.”
“What the hell,” my partner says as we pass through, “it’s not even dark yet.”
It isn’t. The sky is gray and pink, ridged with clouds, and though the sun is dim, it is up. Only the footsteps of the platoon and the guard’s voice can be heard. Everything else is still.
“This used to be a hospital wing,” the Sergeant says, turning on the ceiling lights. They flicker on, one by one.
The room has three rows of bunk beds. There is a large bookshelf. There is also a stripped bathroom area in the corner, where dried taps jut from the tiles. I engage Search. It was likely used by surgeons during the war.
“One through sixty in line, settle in,” the Sergeant says. “You’ll be staying here indefinitely. The rest of you, follow me.”
The Sergeant leads us down a hallway of rooms. “The rest of you have been partnered with an Agent, so you will be staying with them here. Peacemaking operations will begin soon. You must refine your social skills.”
“Find your assigned quarters. Dismissed.”
We salute in unison.
I find my designation on the third door from the end of the hall. I knock.
“Come in,” my partner says.
I go in. “Hello, Agent.” The room is narrow. I catalogue a bunk bed, two drawers, a closet, and a desk. There is a window facing the training fields. Further away is the perimeter wall, and then tops of the trees in the forest on the other side.
My partner is lying down on the bottom bunk. He does not look up from his book. “You can put your stuff on top.”
The sun is setting. I stand at the window to observe. The sky turns many different colors, before turning into a dark blue.
It is my first time seeing real stars. I catalogue 20 constellations, 2 military satellites, the glow of Mercury.
“I know you don’t get why it’s creepy to stand there for an hour, but I’m telling you now that it is.”
I turn to face my partner. He is reading a different book now. I notice the light is on. I recalibrate my sensors.
“I apologize. Is it not socially acceptable?”
He puts his book over his face. “Honestly, I don’t care. But you probably shouldn’t do that in public.”
I climb the bunk and sit. From up here, only the grass is visible through the window.
“Why did you do it?”
I incline my head in the direction of my partner’s voice. “Do what?”
“Kill that Agent.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
His face appears over the edge of the bunk. He stares up at me. “You haven’t heard the gossip? There was a droid that went crazy and killed its partner.” He smiles. Intention unclear. “My uncle was a Lieutenant at your base. He was there, at her funeral.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
He whistles. “They weren’t playing around when they wiped your hard drive.” I sense him adjusting his position on the bed. Cotton fabric is pulled over cotton fabric. “I don’t care whether you killed her or not,” he yawns. “Now I know what they do to traitors.”
He sleeps. I engage Search, keywords: droid, crazy, kill, partner. There are no results.
When I power on, my partner is halfway though the door, tossing a peach into the air with one hand. He catches it and takes a bite.
“Thought you were dead,” he says.
I climb down to the floor. “Are you returning from the cafeteria?”
With the peach in his mouth, he sits on his bed and bends down to change into his. “Mrrgh.” I assume it is an affirmative.
“Agent, we are supposed to eat together. Bonding time is crucial for the improvement of our teamwork.”
“You were charging or whatever. What was I supposed to do?”
“You are supposed to ask me to wake up.”
He rolls his eyes. “Of course, silly me.”
The afternoon alarm rings. He throws the peach. I catch it.
“Don’t get your wires all twisted. I’m usually too busy shoving food into my mouth for any bonding to happen anyway.”
The door slams behind him.
Conventionally rude behavior, I note. I move to the window. It is evening, still light. Slightly windy. As I observe the landscape, I review my activity log and draft a plan for readjusting my methods of communication with Agent U-197.
As I complete bullet point five, my hand senses something wet. I look down. The peach is leaking juice between my fingers. The skin and flesh had been bitten through completely to the pit.
“The skin of a peach is edible,” I say.
“Sure,” she says, “but at what cost?”
“The skin is not toxic. You will not be harmed.”
She takes the peach out of my hand and stabs a hole into it with her pocketknife.
“Eating it would cost me my enjoyment, not my life.” With the knife in one hand and peach in the other, I watch her open the window. Outside, the moon is bright.
“Tonight is a Blue Moon.”
She laughs, short. “You know everything, don’t you?”
As she skins the peach the breeze blows her hair sideways and onto her shoulder, where it stays for the rest of the night.
Gloria Yuen is a part-time wandering spirit who recently graduated with honors in English and a minor in Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania, probably with the help of witchcraft. In addition to creative writing, she dabbles in illustration, sentimentality, and most things creepy. Reach her on Instagram @zygoim.
Illustration by Gloria Yuen