THE HUMAN I NEVER WAS • by Jeremy Szal

I gaze down at the new body they’ve slotted me into. It’s a hulking one this time, all slick black and gunmetal gray with a hint of red. The limbs meticulously designed, the metal folded over each other like overlapping scales. I’m strapped in a mechanical cradle, watching greasy engineers scrambling to build my body, piece it together like some sort of puzzle. A coil of guts spills out from my kneecaps, twisting cables and jet-black rivets. Tubes coil down from the ceiling, anchoring me. I try to move, try to get up, but my joints refuse to budge. It’s like being set in concrete.

One of them glances up from a flexi-glass monitor. “Hey, he’s awake!”

Took them long enough. One of the scientists strides up to me. She’s got greying hair and wrinkly skin – way past her expiration date. Heels click on the polished marble floor. Voices flash through my mind. Faces, names. A woman’s face, someone I’d known. Handing me a figure swaddled in quilts that can only be a baby. Their names are swimming somewhere in the back of my mind. I struggle to reach out and grab it, but it slips away

“It’s a marvellous body this time.” This new woman’s voice cuts the memory to shreds. “You’ll see.”

She’s probably told me that before. Slowly, slowly, I swerve my eyes around and spot my last iteration lumped on a desk. It’s a smaller model, all charred and twisted from battle. I can even see the ravaged chest plate, peppered with bullet holes, the metal eaten away by cerulean-coloured acid. I remember how much it hurt getting shot. Back when I was still human.

“Won’t be long.” She rests a frail hand on my arm, offers a semi-sincere smile. Seriously, the old hag should have kicked the bucket years ago – how the hell is she still alive?

A holoscreen flickers in a corner. Words scroll across images of smoking buildings and ravaged city streets. A frantic voice booms out of the speakers. Tetrahedron-shaped objects hover in the sky, a horde of objects spilling out of its belly. I want to ask someone to explain it to me, but suddenly I don’t know how to form the words. I’ve forgotten the sound of my own voice.

In the corner of my eye I see more parts coming in on convenor belts. Hands. Arms. Legs. Torsos. Rifles. Railguns. All being split into various segments. They slide out of my peripheral vision.

Someone’s coming over. Suddenly my entire world is rattling, my head filled with the sound of a massive drill boring into my thigh. Numbness shoots up my body, spreads across my chest. The white-clad engineer offers me an apologetic smile, like it means anything. He switches to my shoulder and the rattling grows. Another smile, bigger this time. My spine creaks, the metal across the nape of my neck tightens and my vision goes out of focus.

Finally he finishes and steps away. Wipes away beads of sweat. White-clad engineer number two paws at his datapad with fat sausage fingers. I feel a jolt as my pieces slide into place. My vision sharpens back, gears whirling inside my head. “Calibration complete. We’re good to go.”

“Excellent. Zone him out.”

Don’t you dare! Blackness crawls at the edge of my vision. I make one last effort to move, to object, to do anything at all, but the shadows swallow me whole.

A moment later I’m staring out into space. I can finally move again. I’m stuffed into some sort of pod, a million lights flashing in my face. I strain against my anti-grav harness and gaze outside the portal window. I’m falling down to a dark green planet, orange licking the sides. Dozens, no, hundreds of ovoid-shaped objects are falling with me, burning through the atmosphere like crimson hail. Shavings of blood-red light slips over the horizon, and beyond that are stars, a shifting blanket of colour. Any other time and it just might have been beautiful.

I’m slammed backwards; gel-padding protecting me from the impact as the pod crashes down, splitting the ground open. My vision’s blurry, a high-pitched whine ripping through my head. I tear free, ram my shoulder into the pod door. It bursts open, light pouring in. I stumble out onto mushy soil, my sight still hazy. Gunfire rattles from a billion miles away

Get moving. I scoop up an autorifle from the ground, the weapon glowing like an old lover as I clutch it, hug it to my chest, like the child I should have had.

The scream of twisted metal fills the air, mechanic grunts and weapons being discharged. Bodies dash past, vehicles roaring and billowing ribbons of smoke. I stumble over fallen bodies as I charge towards the enemy. My HUD detects a grenade thrown my way. I dive for cover but I’m too late and it blows a chunk of my chestplate away. I’ll make sure to bill them.

Suddenly a red beam spits out and suddenly I’m spinning through air like a flipped coin. Heads or tails? I wonder as I crash to the ground with a crunch, pieces of my body raining down.

Then suddenly it all comes rushing back, like blood to the head. I remember it all. I deep in my mind, memory fragments of myself running towards the enemy. Young, stupid and green as grass. I see myself being torn apart by the railguns, bullets punching through my stomach, shattering bones and shredding my body. I lay there for hours, my mind intact as I waited and waited and waited for someone, saying my wife’s name over and over and over.

I see a shadow and manage to roll my eyes upwards. MedBots stream through the air, coming to retrieve my old body and collect the scraps.

Darkness looms. Not again, I think, the sound of battle fading around me. Not aga—


Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 in the outback of Australia and was raised by wild dingoes. His science-fiction and fantasy work has appeared in Nature, Abyss & Apex, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, The Drabblecast, and has been translated into multiple languages. He is the fiction editor for Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa where he’s worked with authors such as George R. R. Martin, William Gibson, and Joe R. Lansdale. He is represented by John Jarrold of the John Jarrold Literary Agency. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia. Find him at jeremyszal.com or @JeremySzal.


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