The bullet strikes me in the lower abdomen as I’m climbing the stairs. If it was a normal bullet, it wouldn’t be lethal. But normal bullets haven’t been used in years.
The bullet disassembles in my gut, splitting into millions of microscopic machines. The nanobots move from cell to cell like a cancer, ripping me apart. I know that I’ll be dead in less than a minute. I don’t care. I’ve died ten times this week.
My brain isn’t normal. For longer than I remember, it’s been a mix of flesh and machinery filled with chips that keep track of every firing of every neuron. I clench my teeth, and the chips transmit their data to the server. By the time the nanobots devour me, I have been saved.
The server transmits me back to base, and the machines begin piecing me together. They start with the heart. Ventricles and atria, arteries and capillaries, cardiomyocytes smaller than grains of sand, printed out and assembled into a new heart identical to the one eaten by the nanobots.
The heart begins beating, without blood, without a body to surround it, without any ounce of humanity. The machines move, creating lungs and a nervous system. They create a spine, then the kidneys, then the liver. A few minutes later, they move on to making bone and muscle and skin.
They save the brain for last. It would be cruel to make me conscious before my new body is created. They download the data from the server into my new head, and just like that, I am alive again.
It always feels wrong, living in a newly printed body. My muscles have never stretched before; my joints have never bent. My lungs have never taken a breath of fresh air, and my eyes have never gazed upon the morning sky. Everything is stiff and painful. It’ll take weeks before I get the new body broken in, assuming I last that long.
My head always hurts when I am reborn. The data upload isn’t perfect. Minor interferences in the signal, minor flaws in uploading to my new brain, they add up to over thousands of rebirths. I can feel myself changing ever so slightly, every time I die.
I don’t know if I’m still the same person. I don’t know what I am. I know that I am a copy, that the previous iteration is now a pool of oxygen and hydrogen and carbon dripping down the stairs. But that old me is gone now.
The old me was a copy too. I don’t know what number; I’ve lost track. The original died so long ago, I question if there ever was an original. My memories, our memories, they feel fake. I know that I never lived them. I don’t know if anyone did.
This body isn’t the same as the original’s. It’s stronger. Smarter. Faster. Perfectly engineered for war. The body of a perfect soldier who will never die. A soldier who will die a million times by the time the war is over.
There are other copies of me out there. They make as many of us as they can, reusing the data on the server for a dozen bodies at once. They send us to our deaths, and our memories are given again.
I don’t know if the war will ever end. I don’t know what I will do, what any of me will do, if we don’t have an enemy to kill. What is the point of a weapon without a target?
I can end it, anytime I want. I can just sit there when the nanobots tear through me, letting the reaper finally claim his quarry. But I know that won’t change things. I know I’ve made that choice a thousand times, and I’m still here, still fighting, still dying.
I do not believe in an afterlife. If one exists, then surely whatever I am will not be permitted. But I know that hell is real, for I have spent eons walking across its fields.
Casey Jarmes is a writer and game developer from Iowa. He is the author of Double Elimination: The Machine and the developer of the visual novel, Smoke and Mirrors.