You wake up this morning as you do every morning, at the sound of the bull grox grunting in the fields. You go through all the essential ablutions, washing your face, feeling the cold water on your skin. Then you don the dungarees and head to the kitchen. There is uncut grain in the jar, the result of last month’s harvest. You make a porridge, adding sweet berries you’d picked the day before.
The farm wakes up after you do, the farm hands running up and down with their errands. Feeding the animals, preparing the hydroponics farm beds for the next crop. The solar panels need repairing, the water refinery needs new filters, the chores go on. But you are happy. Satisfied. Everything is lovely, and you feel well. Plus, he’s coming home.
He comes home every month. He says it’s about his work. You think you know what he works as, but you do not ask any questions. He is a mercenary, of some sort; he is tall, broad and heavily muscled. You often wonder if he is either gene-smithed or had had stimms pumped in. His face is chiselled like marble, big-boned, and always warm to your hand. He keeps you safe, and you love that.
He returns, as expected, like clockwork. You frown, worried at the sight of new wounds on his body. He heals very quickly, but still the scars remain. He brushes off your concern, saying that getting injured is common. You fuss over him. It is about evening time when the headaches come back. A sharp shard of pain pierces through the sides of your head, another needle of heat burns through the base of your head. You wince, you need to replenish the medication.
You brush off the pain, just as he brushes off your questions. You do not know the cause of the pain. You do not even know your past, only that you woke up in a bed with him sitting beside it. You are a blank canvas. You sometimes imagine what you were in the past. A highborn? A member of the regiments? A hive dweller? You keep these questions to yourself. You have asked him before. He says he does not know, only that he rescued you.
‘From what?’ you asked.
‘An accident,’ he rumbled back in his gravelly voice.
You do not make love. Instead, you cuddle next to him, hearing the twin beats of his hearts, your hand stroking his chest. You feel the hardness beneath his tattooed skin, like a smooth carapace. He cannot make love. Being a warrior prevents him from doing so, he says. It does not matter. His presence matters.
He sleeps on even when the grox calls. You do all the usual things you do. It feels like a brand new day whenever he is back. You are happier. The hydroponics farm needs your attention. You love the cool environment of the farm, the mist on your face, like… the hiss of engine pistons…
You start at the intrusive thought.
You brush it aside. The farm requires your attention. The lycops need harvesting. You hold the huge orb in your hand. Crimson, gleaming… like blood running down white skin…
You flinch. The thoughts are coming back. You might have to ask the local general medicae to give you stronger medication.
After your porridge, eaten with the last of the berries, you head towards the hydroponics farm.
Then, you see it.
The huge – massive – machine sits right smack in the middle of the grain field. It has an almost-canine head, a snarling cockpit with black panels for windows. Its ‘shoulders’ are wide, hunched over, as if the machine is hunting, sniffing for prey. It is painted blue… like the colour of a summer sky. The arms are trains attached to it, the watering hoses reminding you of… cannons…
Cannons that could level cities. Cannons that could kill…
The headache pierces your head once again. This time, it is a white-hot knife slicing through your brain.
You scream and fall into darkness.
When you wake, you stare into his eyes. They are midnight-dark with worry, his face perturbed. He strokes your brow gently.
‘What happened?’ he asks.
‘I don’t know,’ you answer, shaking still. ‘I saw the… machine… and I just had this headache…’
His frown deepens. He looks almost angry. You flinch. You have never seen him angry.
You suddenly realise you do not want to see him angry.
‘It’s just an agri-walker,’ he explains then, the anger fading. He is back to being gentle once more. ‘I have chastised the farm worker who parked it there.’
You recover from your collapse, and the incident is soon forgotten.
The dreams come back. You had them when you woke from the bed, when you were recovering from the accident.
You dream of battlefields, of columns of dark smoke and the howls of beasts. Metallic beasts the size of buildings. Some of the beasts are the size of mountains. You are in one of the metallic beasts, sitting on a throne. You are in one of these gods. You are a god.
Moderati, two steps forward and fire the inferno gun.
The beast you sit in, the beast god you have become, screams its fury.
You are a god.
You sit up, your heart pounding painfully. You look for him and suddenly remember he is away once more, on one of his missions. You miss him terribly. The dream scares you. You wonder why you know so much about buildings, how tall they are… The closest thing you have seen is the habitat blocks in the small town. Metal beasts that look like men? Gods? Your mind swirls.
The headache is back. You take one of the pills and hope it dulls the pain… and the dreams.
The farm worker whom he has chastised has been found dead. In one of the irrigation ditches close to the few fruit trees. It is a sad day on the farm. The workers hold a small funeral for him. He is planted under one of the fruit trees.
‘Choked to death,’ one of his friends says, shaking his head. ‘He’d bruises around his neck. Looks like his ‘ocal chords were crushed by a big hand.’
You console him and the worker’s family. You toast the farm hand. To you, they are your family.
At certain times of the day, the headache is back. Not fully back, but in the background, sneering and waiting to strike. Like a feral creature.
You reach up and touch the back of your neck. It is terribly tender and sore to the touch. You know that there is a mark there, a scar. You injured yourself during the accident, he has said. The scar is a keloid scar, almost the shape of a full circle.
There is more to the mark, but he is not saying much. ‘The past is the past,’ he rumbles. You nod. There is wisdom in that. Sometimes, you just want to move on.
The memory of the agri-walker will not go away. It has burned itself into your mind like a mark, like one of the various marks on his body. The marks make you uneasy. He says that the symbols belong to the deities he prays to. You are not religious or even spiritual: you see yourself as bound to the sun and the earth. You accept the fact as you have accepted him. You don’t want to argue religion with him. There is no point.
You pick the ripest lycos from the lush green vines. They are ready for sale in the night market. He loves the night markets. Night is better suited for his eyes, he says. He tolerates daylight, often wearing a large woven hat to shield his sensitive eyes. He often buys you night-blooming flowers from the night markets. You love them, but find them creepy. They have long, pale, tendril-like petals that unfurl at the light of the rising moons. You find out that they are actually flowers from some cacti species. You end up growing a grove of them.
The hydroponics farm… The hydroponics farm is your idea. You want to grow something, but you want to be kind to the earth. Broken landscapes, torched by war… You want to cultivate things, grow things, make the earth green again. Grow grain, fruits, flowers. Something green. You love the forest close by and how you can forage for berries and wild greens.
Somewhere in you, you feel guilt. Wounds in the earth, burning smoking…
You push the migraine back, snarling, into its dark corner.
You find yourself standing before the agri-walker. You step towards it and place your gloved hand on cool metal. You somehow want it to stomp forward, roaring its challenge to…
Who am I fighting?
Why am I fighting?
You find yourself climbing up the agri-walker, opening the cockpit, and sitting in it. It smells of metal, old leather, and men’s sweat. You settle in the… throne, your hands resting on the arms.
The reactor of the agri-walker growls like a giant beast’s heart. You feel the power throb through you, and your heart begins to beat in tandem with the reactor.
Moderati, we walk. Verity wants to hunt!
Her name is Bright Verity. You have shortened it to Verity. You feel her in your blood, in your bones, in your mind. Her growls are your voice. Your voice is her roar.
You/Verity move like a canine war god. When you walk, the earth shakes.
‘Vera, get down from there,’ a voice shakes you out of the reverie.
You jump. Vera. Vera. Vera.
Verity walks the earth!
I am Verity!
It is him. He is back from his trip.
‘Please come down,’ his voice is pleading, edged with sorrow. ‘Vera, please.’
You do not know if you’d listened to him or not. Your body is on auto. Then you find yourself out of the cockpit, climbing down the agri-walker, and onto solid ground. Your legs shake. They often shook after a mission.
‘I am sorry, Vera, I have… had to do this.’
He is holding you in his arms. He smells of leather, too, and some sort of… ceramite. It is ceramite. You wonder why and how you know this.
He smells of old, crusted blood.
‘Do what?’ you murmur. The sharp pain is back once more. You fear you might black out and never come out of it. Somehow, you feel that oblivion is a better option.
‘I rescued you,’ he says, his voice a quiet growl. ‘From a burning wreckage.’
You remember the bed, and the odours of antiseptic and medicine. You ache all over. Your body is just pain, pain, pain, pain. The scar on the back of your bed burns.
You cling onto him, the only thing solid in your life. Everything seems to be falling apart. Everything is shaking, shaking, shaking.
We are being attacked, princeps! By the…
Then, the pain.
Then the horrible death scream in your mind.
‘Who are you? What am I?’ you sob.
‘WHO ARE YOU?’
Pain, pain, pain, pain.
He does not say.
The pain becomes a living fire. You close your eyes, feeling hot tears run down your cheeks. Vera. Vera. Vera. Is that even your real name? Do I have a name? You are falling fast. You are disintegrating. Who am I?
Pain, pain, screaming, pain.
The sound of metal tearing…
You are screaming, Verity’s death scream is flooding you…
At the time, you just wanted to be free from pain.
Salvation from eternal pain.
He is rocking you gently.
In your fragmented mind, you see a pair of red eyes staring at you while a gigantic hand reaches for you. The eyes are part of a helmet, skull-white, and marked with strange symbols and a blood-red hand print.
And you scream and never stop screaming.
Moderati, fire at will!
Princeps, more are arriving.
We do what we can, moderati. We are Verity. We do not hide from traitors!
The agri-walker screams its rage and rampages through the farm. Its cannon arms tear the hydroponics, burn the trees, and turn everything else to cinders. Even the earth is turned, churned up, like vast tears or open wounds weeping mud and silt. The wheat stalks burned to nothing. The nearby forest feels the scorching heat of the fire, but is left unscathed.
He just watches you destroy the farm—a silent observer. Sometimes, silence is a kindness. But this time, silence is a weapon.
You scream your rage. Your loss.
They did it out of anger.
That is what the farm workers would tell the investigators.
For some strange reason, they left the night-blooming cacti alone. So strange. They loved them flowers. They were such a loving couple. Loved the night markets, ya know.
You sob. They do not know the whole truth—the agri-walker roars.
There is a fire in your head, burning you inside out. What you know as truth is now gone. What you know as love has now vanished. Why did he ever save you?
You know the truth.
The truth hurts.
Who am I?
About the Author
Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Their fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, and Accessing The Future. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Their RPG experience started with Demon: The Descent (Onyx Path). They write about werewolves in Singapore and werewolf clan wars in space.