Fittingly, the first thing Eight ever saw was the rim of light in the distance. It was faint, peeking at him shyly around the edges of a large metallic cylinder, but it was there, and for some reason he found it comforting.
It was just strong enough for him to see, to observe the rest of his world. He reached toward the light, noting the tubes streaming from his arm, until his hand bumped into something hard and smooth, something clear. The word for it came to him. It was… glass. Yes, that was the word. And he was inside a round container of it.
Eight wasn’t sure how he knew words for the things around him. He didn’t remember learning them, and sometimes they seemed to come to him reluctantly.
But he did know them.
He raised his head as much as he could — which was very little — and looked down at himself. He possessed muscular arms and legs. He noted with some amusement the tangle of dark hair blanketing his chest and perched above his junk. The last word made him giggle. He knew it wasn’t the proper use but liked it better.
His own face, faintly reflected in the glass, also amused him. He twisted it into absurd expressions and laughed.
Soon, Eight grew bored with looking at himself. He tried to move in the thick liquid he shared the inside of the glass container with, but all the tubes in his arms and legs constrained him.
Then Eight began to… dream. Yes, that was the word.
He dreamt of a smaller version of himself, full of energy. He was often in the presence of a woman. And a man. They smiled a lot. They would play with him and hold him and the three of them would talk. It was wonderful.
But when he awoke, the inside of the glass container seemed so inadequate. So confined. And he didn’t know where the dreams came from. They were not memories. He knew nothing but the world inside the glass. The dreams made him feel like an imposter.
He was beginning to grow unhappy.
Then one day the most wonderful thing happened. There was a loud grinding noise. His glass container jerked, and the light — the only thing that gave him comfort in the world — grew closer. It shone more brilliantly around the edges of the metallic cylinder in front of him, and he basked in it.
The grinding sound made him think of gears.
For a long time nothing happened, but Eight felt sure it would. If it had happened once, it could again. This belief sustained him. He could ignore the boredom.
His dreams changed. He saw himself shouting orders that other people obeyed without delay. He saw himself giving a speech at some kind of celebration he knew was in his honor, a crowd of enraptured faces staring up at him.
He wondered if these events might still lie ahead for him and hoped it was so. The thought of himself as someone important felt right somehow.
When one day the gears ground again and the light grew even brighter, his beliefs were confirmed. The inside of this glass container wasn’t his destiny. That was waiting for him with the light. And he knew it would be wonderful.
After the second time, Eight never doubted, patiently waiting no matter how much time passed uneventfully — usually with a stubborn smile plastered across his face. And his affection for and dependence on the light strengthened, almost to the point of… worship. Yes, that was the word.
His patience was always rewarded. The gears would grind and the glass container would jerk and the rapturous light would brighten.
Six times the light grew, and Eight felt sure his time was at hand. He would think constantly of what he might find. Could it be the people in his dreams? Perhaps they had been premonitions instead. How perfect that would be! Eight laughed aloud at the thought.
Finally, the day he’d longed for arrived. The gears ground, the light grew impossibly bright around the edges of the metallic cylinder in front of him, and then he heard voices. They were muffled, but he could just make them out.
“What is this?”
“No good. Seven hasn’t developed properly. We’ll have to dispose of it and move on.”
“How did we not notice?”
“The vitals checked out. It happens. All part of keeping our ‘immortal’ general alive. Come on, we’re running out of time.”
There were some loud banging noises, and the metallic cylinder before Eight rocked from side to side, causing the light to pulse wildly. For some reason, he suddenly felt terrified.
Inexplicably, the gears started grinding again, mere moments after the last time.
This was it.
The metallic cylinder in front of him fell away — revealing just before it vanished a glass front with the silhouette of a man inside — then Eight looked up and saw his destiny.
On the other side of the glass were two men in lab coats, standing in the middle of a white room. Two rows of bright lights ran across the middle of the ceiling — the source of the light he’d grown to love. On a bed behind the two men was a third man, bleeding badly from a head wound, wearing the uniform of a… general. Yes, that was the word.
And he recognized the general’s face.
He’d been staring at it reflected back in the glass his entire life.
“Eight looks good,” one of the men said. “His brain activity is too high though. It happens. Sometimes the patient’s memories transfer through the DNA used for the lab-grown copies. Gives them some semblance of conscious thought. Hell, it might even think it’s a real person. We’ll have to do a wipe before the consciousness transfer.”
The truth of his life struck Eight like a hammerblow as one of the men moved to a console beside his container. He was nothing but a copy. Inside the glass was his destiny, the dreams someone else’s glory, and now it was over.
Before the light disappeared forever, Eight felt nothing but a deep… sadness. Yes, that was the word.
Paul Miller lives near Dallas with his beautiful wife and three young children. He enjoys writing short speculative fiction in what spare time he can find. His work has appeared in various online and print publications, including Silver Blade and Kzine.