By Ferrett Steinmetz
Read by Mur Lafferty
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Originally appeared in Asimov’s
All stories by Ferrett Steinmetz
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated 15 and up for violence
“Run,” Bakri Says
By Ferrett Steinmetz
“I just want to know where my brother is,” Irena yells at the guards. The
English words are thick and slow on her tongue, like honey. She holds her
hands high in the air; the gun she’s tucked into the back of her pants jabs
at her spine.
She doesn’t want to kill the soldiers on this iteration; she’s never killed
anyone before, and doesn’t want to start. But unless she can get poor, weak
Sammi out of that prison in the next fifty/infinity minutes, they’ll start
in on him with the rubber hoses and he’ll tell them what he’s done. And
though she loves her brother with all her heart, it would be a blessing then
if the Americans beat him to death.
The guards are still at the far end of the street, just before the tangle of
barbed wire that bars the prison entrance. Irena stands still, lets them
approach her, guns out. One is a black man, the skin around his eyes
creased with a habitual expression of distrust; a fringe of white hair and
an unwavering aim marks him as a career man. The other is a younger man,
squinting nervously, his babyfat face the picture of every new American
soldier. Above them, a third soldier looks down from his wooden tower,
reaching for the radio at his belt.
She hopes she won’t get to know them. This will be easier if all they do is
point guns and yell. It’ll be just like Sammi’s stupid videogames.
“My brother,” she repeats, her mouth dry; it hurts to raise her arms after
the rough surgery Bakri’s done with an X-acto knife and some fishing line.
“His name is Sammi Daraghmeh. You rounded him up last night, with many
other men. He is – ”
Their gazes catch on the rough iron manacle dangling from her left wrist.
She looks up, remembers that Bakri installed a button on the tether so she
could rewind, realizes the front of her cornflower-blue abayah is splotched
with blood from her oozing stitches.
“Wait.” She backs away. “I’m not – ”
The younger soldier yells, “She’s got something!” They open fire.
Something tugs at her neck, parting flesh; another crack, and she swallows
her own teeth. She tries to talk but her windpipe whistles; her body
betrays her, refusing to move as she crumples to the ground, willing herself
to keep going. Nothing listens.
This is death, she thinks. This is what it’s like to die.
“Run,” Bakri says, and Irena is standing in an alleyway instead of dying on
the street – gravity’s all wrong and her muscles follow her orders again.
Her arms and legs flail and she topples face-first into a pile of rotting
lettuce. The gun Bakri has just pressed into her hands falls to the ground.
Dying was worse than she’d thought. Her mind’s still jangled with the
shock, from feeling all her nerves shrieking in panic as she died. She
shudders in the garbage, trying to regain strength.
Bakri picks her up. “What is your goal?” he barks, keeping his voice low so
the shoppers at the other end of the grocery store’s alleyway don’t hear.
Why is he asking me that? she thinks, then remembers: all the others went
insane. She wouldn’t even be here if Farhouz hadn’t slaughtered seventeen
soldiers inside the Green Zone.
It takes an effort to speak. “To – to rescue Sammi.”
“Good.” The tension drains from his face. He looks so relieved that Irena
thinks he might burst into tears. “What iteration? You did iterate,
“Two,” she says numbly, understanding what his relief means: he didn’t know.
He’d sent her off to be shot, unsure whether he’d linked her brother’s
technology to the heart monitor he’d stuck in the gash in her chest. It was
supposed to trigger a rewind when her heart stopped. If he’d misconfigured
it, Irena’s consciousness would have died in an immutable present.
Irena looks back at The Save Point, stashed underneath a pile of crates, a
contraption that’s totally Sammi; it’s several old X-Boxes wired together
with rusted antenna and whirligig copper cups, the humming circuitry glowing
green. It looks like trash, except for the bright red “<<” arrows Sammi spraypainted onto the side. That, and the fact that it just hauled her consciousness back through time. Bakri gives her an unapologetic nod: yes, I sent you off to die. “We can’t let the Americans get it.” “No,” she agrees, then runs out to the street, headed four blocks down to where the prison is. She closes her hands into fists so her fingers don’t tremble. She’s been shot. She will be shot again, and again, until she rescues Sammi. # “Run,” Bakri says, and this time she pushes the tether up around her arm – it’s wide enough to slide up over her bicep, underneath her abayah’s billowing sleeves – but the guards are panicky. They shoot her when she crosses the chain they’ve strung across the road to the prison entrance. God damn you, she thinks. I’m not like Sammi. I don’t want to kill you. But they’re terrified of what Fahrouz did. He cut the throats of seventeen men before anyone heard him; it’s why the Americans rounded up anyone who had any connection to the resistance last night, including her brother. They think Fahrouz was a new breed of super-soldier; they believe any brown face is capable of killing them. But she’s just a girl who’s never fired a gun, not even in Sammi’s stupid videogames. “Run,” Bakri says. She tries climbing the high fence around the prison, but the barbed wire rips at her hands and the guard on the wooden sniper platform scans the prison every sixty seconds. He is inhuman, never tiring (at least in the fifty minutes she has before The Save Point’s power fades and she’s pulled back to the alleyway) – and his aim is infallible. He introduces her to the horror of her first headshot; when she reappears in the alleyway, her brain patterns are so scrambled she has a seizure. “Run,” Bakri says. She tries different approaches; she smears her face with blood, yelling there’s a shooter in the marketplace. She weeps, approaching as a mourner. She sneaks from the shadows. Anything to avoid killing them. They yell that they have orders to open fire on anyone crossing the line. Though they wince when they pull the trigger, open fire they do. “Run,” Bakri says. She tries prostrating herself upon the ground. As she kneels to place her hands on the concrete, the tether slides down her arm. The sudden movement causes them to fire. “Run,” Bakri says. She’s getting good at dying, now. The trick is to go slack, so you don’t flail upon waking when you rewind. Yet surrendering to her body’s shutdown is like dying before she’s dead. And every time she returns, Bakri’s grabbing her with his sweaty palms, demanding to know her goal. “Stop it.” She slaps his hands away. She shakes the iron bracelet at him; things inside it rattle. “You gave me a tether that looks like a damn bomb. No wonder they’re shooting me! You have to restart it – Sammi made a tether you could bite down on, so no one could see – ” “That one broke when they shot Fahrouz in the head,” Bakri snaps back. “You’re lucky I could build any tether at all. You’re lucky I’m here. Everyone else thinks this machine just drives men mad. They want Sammi to die.” The stitches from where Bakri implanted the heart monitor never stop hurting, her gashes always bleeding in the same way. She’s always thirsty; her body can never relieve itself as she loops through the same time again and again. She gorges herself on stolen drinks from the marketplace between the alleyway and the prison – but then she’s back with Bakri, dryness tickling the back of her throat. Why didn’t she drink before Bakri started this? Why didn’t anyone tell her to start the Save Point when she was lying down, so she wouldn’t keep falling over? “Run,” Bakri says. She wishes she could tell Sammi about her improvements. All this hard-earned knowledge, lost. It becomes a game of inches. The babyfaced soldier is hair-trigger, ripping her body to shreds the moment anything unexpected happens – oh, Fahrouz, you put the fear of God into these Americans, you were only supposed to steal a laptop – but he’s also a softie, arguing with his older compatriot if she’s crying. The older black man is hard-edged, by the book; he yells that he will shoot if she comes two steps closer, and he always does. Sometimes the babyfaced one vomits as she’s dying. The soldier on the wooden sniper platform always looks down like a distant God, crossing himself as she bleeds out. Then Bakri, asking her what her goal is. “Run,” Bakri says. She doesn’t always die. She can usually get to the button on her wrist. But dying never gets easier. Her mind understands what will happen; her body cannot. No matter how she steels herself for the bullet, her body overwhelms conscious thought with dumb animal terror. “Run,” Bakri says. She learns to optimize. If she’s crying this way to tug on the younger one’s emotions, and creeps that way when the older soldier’s busy bickering with the young one that they can’t help, then how far can she get before they fire? There’s a wet newspaper flattened against the street, then a tire track a little further, then a rusty coil of barbed wire next to the entrance. She can get past the newspaper consistently, nearly getting to the tire track before they blow her apart; what can she say that will get her to the barbed wire? “Run,” Bakri says. Their conversations become monotonous variants: Sir, she needs help. We have orders, soldier. Nothing she can do will make them discuss the weather, or tell her what cell her brother’s in, or even smile. Just the same recycled topics, chopped into different words. It reminds her of home, listening to Sammi outwit AI guards and their recycled vocabulary, back when Sammi built bombs and played videogames. “Run,” Bakri says. Now she can always hit the tire track. Sammi always played videogames. He hated going outside. He got political at thirteen after Mother was blown apart by a smart missile programmed with the wrong coordinates. Even then, Sammi never placed the bombs. He just handed people boxes of death, with instructions where to place them. Irena remembers how he’d tinker with his explosives and then play first-person shooters to relax, as though they were aspects of the same thing. “Run,” Bakri says. Sammi was a genius with wires. When the Americans jammed the cell phones he used to activate his bombs, Sammi set the bombs to go off fifteen minutes after the cell phone signal cut out. And when the Americans got a jamming device that fuzzed the signal but didn’t kill it, he switched to proximity sensors. Then he started working on other sensors – sensors that predicted when people would walk by, sensors that sent signals back to twenty seconds before they were disconnected. By the time he was seventeen, bombs bored him. He started other experiments. “Run,” Bakri says. Now she’s consistently past the tire track, her fingers halfway to the barbed wire. She’d gotten janitorial jobs for Sammi’s volunteers, after they’d finished their trial runs with The Save Point. They made lousy employees. They knocked over cups of coffee and stared at the spill for minutes, then sobbed in relief. Irena understands why, now. They were grateful the spill stayed. Something remained changed – unlike her thirst, unlike the gash in her side, unlike the endlessly soft-hearted boy soldier and his hard-assed sergeant. “Run,” Bakri says. Now her fingers always touch the barbed wire. Now she knows how to die. Now she fires the gun when they’re perfectly distracted. She aims for the young one first because he shot her first, it’s only fair; the gun’s kick almost knocks it from her hands. She fires three more times, gets lucky, the third shot catches him in that babyface, a wet red fountain, and as he tumbles to the ground she laughs because she’s no longer scared. She knows why Fahrouz killed seventeen soldiers. He was just supposed to get a laptop and get out, but how many times was he beaten before he slipped past the spotlights? How long did he endure the fear of being shot before he realized the Save Point erased all consequences? The guards’ dumbstruck surprise as she kills them is the repayment for a thousand torments they can never remember. “Run,” Bakri says. She does, now, eagerly. She’s going to kill them as many times as they killed her. # Irena realizes she’s drifting off-mission when she starts shooting Bakri in the face. She didn’t mean to shoot him; it’s just that Irena had gone down in a particularly bad firefight with the soldiers, one where they’d shot her left arm before tackling her to the ground, and she’d barely jammed the tether-button against the pavement before they hauled her off to prison. And she’d fallen over again once she’d rewound, and Bakri’d grabbed her and yelled “What is your goal?” and she yelled that her goal was to shut him up and she shot him. It was a good idea, as it turns out. She needs to shoot well, and firefights aren’t a good time for lessons. So when Bakri says “Run,” now she walks down the alley, takes aim, and shoots Bakri in the head. The marketplace shrieks when they hear the gun, but she just empties the clip at a garbage can and presses the tether-button. “Run,” Bakri says. Bakri should be the one running, but he doesn’t know. He’s always surprised. If her first shot doesn’t kill him, he weeps apologies. “Run,” Bakri says. Then, once she jams the gun into his belly, he blubbers: “I know I should have told you the heartbeat monitor might not work. But you might not have done it then – we can’t let Sammi’s ideas fall into their hands!” She doesn’t care about that. That was weeks ago. “You drove him insane, didn’t you?” she asks. “He wanted to stop, didn’t he?” “Him who?” Bakri is dumbfounded. Fahrouz was just yesterday for him, and already he’s forgotten. She shoots him. “Run,” Bakri says. She feels a pang of guilt once she realizes that Bakri might not even know what he did. Yet she knows what happened all the same: they told Fahrouz he had to get the laptop, and condemned him to God knows how many cycles of breaking into the Green Zone until he returned with one. Bakri and Sammi would never have turned it off until Fahrouz brought them results. The machine doesn’t drive people mad. Its controllers do. “Run,” Bakri says. She tortures Bakri for a while, trying to get him to turn off The Save Point. He won’t, and she can’t break him in fifty minutes. Bakri knows Sammi will reveal The Save Point’s mechanisms once they start in with the serious interrogations. He tells her he’d die a thousand times before he let the Americans have this technology. “Run,” Bakri says. “Run,” Bakri says. “Run,” Bakri says. Irena gets up to three hundred and seven deaths before she takes Bakri at his word. She thinks about shooting The Save Point to end it all. But Bakri barely got it working, and Sammi’s told her there’s a shutdown sequence. What if she unplugs it and everything freezes but her? Her brother’s technology is as vicious and unpredictable as Sammi himself. She doesn’t dare. Her aim’s improved, though. She stops shooting Bakri and goes off to start in on the soldiers again. She’s getting closer; she can catch the sniper on his wooden tower one time out of three now, and she almost always kills hard-ass or babyface. Though she’s shot them enough that she thinks it’s no longer their fault. It’s the damn machine. It puts them into position like chess pieces. If it wasn’t for the machine, they could see the sunset, quench their thirst with lemonade, do something other than be railroaded into a shootout. The machine reduces them to inputs and outputs. Was Sammi ever angry? She doesn’t think so. That thought slides under her skin like a splinter as she re-runs the four blocks to the prison. When her mother died, Irena didn’t have time for anger. She had to feed her family. She hustled pirated DVDs, worked tables, whatever it took. But she cried when no one was looking. Sammi never cried. He just played videogames and built bombs. She’d yelled at him for playing the Americans’ videogames, but he went on about how well-designed they were. “Run,” Bakri says. As she runs, she remembers a conversation: “Does it ever bother you that your bombs kill people?” she’d asked Sammi one night, as he harvested yet another X-Box for parts. “That’s the goal,” he agreed, not looking up. “No, but. what if it kills the wrong people?” “Bound to happen.” He plucked a chip out, held it to the light. “Sometimes, people are in the wrong place.” Irena flushed with anger. “Mother was in the wrong place.” He frowned, seemed to notice her for the first time. “Well, yes.” He cocked his head and squinted at her, confused. “She was.” “Run,” Bakri says. Those four blocks are getting longer. She’d told herself she couldn’t judge Sammi’s genius by the standards of other people. Besides, the bombs paid for their apartment. But now, running, she wonders: did Sammi make bombs to avenge his dead mother? Or was it a convenient excuse to make things that interested him? “Run,” Bakri says. She’s always running for Sammi. And by luck more than skill, she finally shoots all three. Clean headshots. They fall to the ground, the sniper toppling from his roost. Irena stands over their bodies, dumbfounded. I’m just a girl, she thinks. How did I kill three wary soldiers? Then she remembers how long she’s been doing this. Months. Maybe years. She’s almost forgotten what she’s supposed to do now. She searches the older soldier’s body for the key, praising God that this is just a holding location – a real prison would have thumbprint scanners and cameras – and she wonders why reinforcements aren’t charging out of the gates. Then she realizes: this has all taken perhaps ninety seconds in their time. Nobody knows yet. She flings open the door to see a dank prison lobby in dreary bureaucrat beige, plastic bucket seats and buzzing fluorescent lights and a battered front desk. A receptionist sits at the desk – not a soldier, a local boy in an American uniform, looking strangely out of place. He glances up, surprised, from a phone call. “Where is Sammi?” She smiles. It’s been so long since she had a new conversation. She aims the gun at him. He puts down the phone. “S-Sammi?” he stammers. She’s surprised he doesn’t know already, then remembers this is all new to him. It’s a pleasant reminder that the whole world hasn’t been reduced to Sammi’s Save Point. “Samuel Daraghmeh.” “He’s.” He looks it up. “In cell #8.” “And that is where?” He points down a hallway with trembling fingers. She presses the gun barrel to his temple, whispers in his ear: “If you alert anyone, I will kill you every time from now on, and you will never know why.” She removes the gun from his holster, shoots the phone. She hears a wet dribble on the tile as he pees himself. The prisoners see the young girl with the gun walking through the halls. They rise, bruised and bleeding, begging her to save them. Their words are canned. They will say the exact same thing whenever she returns. She ignores them. The guards inside don’t wear bulletproof vests, making this easy. The prisoners cheer as she fires. And there, bunched in with ten other sweaty, beaten men, is Sammi. He looks miserable; the other men have crowded him out until he’s perched on the dog-end of a cot. His lower lip sticks out as he stares at a urine stain in the corner, so concerned with his own fate that he hasn’t even noticed the other men cheering. No wonder she has to rescue him. He’s supposed to be reclined in a La-Z-Boy, a game controller in hand, not in a place where people actually get hurt. She motions the other prisoners aside, presses her face against the rusted bars. “Have you ever seen one of your bombs go off?” He registers the voice, not the words, jumping up with the same boyish thrill he gets whenever he beats a final boss. “Irena!” he shouts, running to the bars. His eyes well with tears of relief. She unlocks the cell door. “The rest of you run,” she tells them. “I need to talk to my brother.” “Irena.” Sammi’s chest heaves. “I knew you’d come for me.” “Always. But listen. Bakri is dead.” That much, she thought, was true; she’d taken to strangling Bakri and burying his body under the garbage as a matter of routine. “How do you shut down the machine?” “Oh, it’s better than I’d thought,” he says, eyes shining. “You’re a part of my project! How many iterations did it take to get in? A thousand? Two thousand? You must have improvements.” “I do,” she agrees. “I want to understand how it works. Tell me how to exit the loop.” He does. It’s simpler than she’d thought. She hugs Sammi. “You did it,” she whispers. “Your machine is perfect. It makes an untrained girl into an unstoppable killer.” He squeezes her in triumph. She lets him ride his moment of absolute perfection, judging when her brother is happiest. Then she jams the gun against the base of his neck and pulls the trigger. His face explodes. She clutches his body until it ceases quivering. Then she drops him. Should she be sorrier? She probes her numbness and feels nothing. She shrugs, starts the walk back to The Save Point to shut it down and dismantle it. It’s not until she gets to the lobby that the tears come. It takes her a moment to understand what’s triggering them. From under the desk she can hear the muffled sobbing of the receptionist. He must have hid when the prisoners escaped. She stops long enough to tug him out, struggling, from the desk, then embraces him tightly. He shivers, a frightened bird, as she nuzzles him, wetting his shoulder with tears. “I don’t have to kill you,” she says, smelling his hair, feeling his clothes, loving him more than anyone she’s ever loved before.