In this sci-fi tale, a soldier uses a talisman from the past to stay human—and pays a price for his decision
Author: Zhao Ankang 赵安康
Zhao Ankang, born on October 22, 1994, is a law graduate from the Henan Police College. Since July 2018, Zhao has been working at the Kaifeng Municipal Ecological Environment Bureau. The Precious Thing is his only published story.
He lay on top of the dune, motionless, his camouflage uniform conveniently blending into the sand.
The wind howled past, and the ground was like asphalt in summer, generating an unbearable heat.
But he remained still. Beads of sweat gathered into wriggling streams on his face, only to be totally absorbed by the dry air before they could fall. He used to be an excellent soldier with determination. Of course, he still was.
He held his breath, and with full attention, he stared at the battlefield in front of him, which was almost distorted by the scorching sunlight. Although the area was obscured by the sand every now and then, he had to fix his eyes on it, and kill every enemy as soon as they appeared in his sight.
In a world populated only by sand, the bodies of enemies were almost welcome embellishments. He blinked slowly. Two consecutive days of guard duty had overloaded his nerves, and such days seemed likely to continue.
Three days ago, when he left the bunker, headquarters had given him an order that had to be obeyed. With mixed feelings, he looked at the vintage-style telegraph transmitter beside him and cursed in his heart: that damn old thing. This “antique” had countless problems—when he sent messages to headquarters, they were able to receive them, and this had already been proven; but he had never received any information back. Still, he could not throw it away, because after all, under the current circumstances, it was his only companion.
He just never thought that he would be in this situation one day—nobody had thought that.
Physically, it was unbearable. These days, even when peeing, he dared not move his eyes from the battlefield. He let out a deep sigh. After all, he was not a machine: he had emotions, and he used to have his own family. The long war had dehumanized him. During the war, he relentlessly killed the enemy soldiers; the enemy women and children, whom he kept alive only due to mercy, would probably kill him once he turned his back. To win, everyone had done unethical things. Although his treatment of enemies was somewhat brutal, it worked. Long-term killing had gradually dulled his conscience.
Subconsciously, he touched the metal thing hanging from his neck and smiled. In his indifferent heart, there were still some tender feelings left. A girl’s face was irregularly painted in acrylic on the surface of that metal thing, but with the passage of time, some paint had scraped off and the metal showed through at the corners. Over a hundred years ago, people called this thing a phone case.
“Heh,” he smiled, as if mocking himself. “It has been a long time, and my memory is also aging.” Maybe that was the reason he smiled.
He was not a natural person, but a new product of this lamentable age—a clone.
The girl on the phone case was a classmate in his grade at police academy. Both her charming smile and sweet voice had left a deep impression on him; for such a petite girl, she showed such tenacity. During military training, there were some tasks that even he wanted to quit, but this lovely girl persevered without any complaint. Although her shooting results were bad, on the whole she had excelled much more than he did.
He had gradually fallen in love. Whenever he was close to her, he would feel short of breath, just like there was something heavy on his chest. When he got this beautiful photo of her, he printed it on his phone case. He was the kind of person who always had his mobile phone in hand, so each time he took it out of his pocket, he would see her smile. However, as he was shy and not an eloquent talker, he never confessed his feelings to the girl, just watched her quietly. After graduation, the girl made her own career, and he knew that she’d gotten married and lived a happy life…until one day, when she and her husband were traveling abroad, the world war broke out.
The enemy country did not keep to the international laws, so at the start of the war, everyone from his country who traveled there were seized as hostages, then killed, including her…Peacetimes were always rare throughout human history. Only in turbulent ages did people know the preciousness of peace. It was funny to think that in history, people could wage wars for various strange reasons: religion, land, resources, and even the smile of a beautiful girl.
The scale of the war had gradually expanded since the beginning, and as other countries joined, the struggle became like a seesaw. As time went on, both sides were short on soldiers. People like him, who had police training, also joined the army to answer the country’s call (or just to avenge some woman), and involved themselves in the war. Since he showed outstanding performance in battle, he was received by the president, and his blood samples were preserved.
In the middle of the war, some bastard pushed the launch button on nuclear bombs, and the war was immediately escalated. Nuclear bombs exploded everywhere, just like firecrackers, and the explosions did not stop until the surface environment of the Earth was obliterated. Countless people perished, but neither side won, and this had been his last thought before he died.
He let out a heavy breath and ran his tongue over his chapped lips. Now he was a little short of breath—the sun poured its heat onto the ground without any reservation, and as he had been lying on the hot sand for so long, he felt some symptoms of dehydration. Although there was a water bottle tied to his leg, he dared not make any big movements. The enemy knew that he was in this area, and perhaps they had already sent soldiers to kill him.
He tried his best to collect a little saliva in his mouth, and then he swallowed it. He gently moved his left hand to his chest and touched the phone case.
The corners of his mouth curled upward.
When he’d woken up in the bunker, he could hardly believe it. His country had mastered cloning technology before the war, and some low-level clones had already participated in various dangerous tasks during the war. Today, as the cloning technology was much more advanced, it only took four months for an embryo to grow into an adult, and some cloned soldiers even had their own consciousness.
Was he still himself after being cloned? He had been thinking about it for a long time. As a cloned adult, at the moment he woke up, he retained all the memories he had had as a natural person. He could remember the taro cooked by his mother; he could remember the happy moments he spent in internet cafes with his friends; and naturally he could remember her, the charming girl in university…But now he was just a tool that could walk, a machine made to kill.
The enemy also mastered this technology, and this meant that the war would continue. How funny it was! You could never escape it even when you died. Although the enemy soldiers were also clones, as long as he thought that one of them used to be the natural person who’d killed the girl, it was difficult for him to let go of his hatred.
A large number of cloned soldiers had been sent out of the bunker. More than a hundred years had passed, but the damage that the Earth suffered was still too monumental to be healed—the surface had become desolate due to nuclear explosions, and the ecological environment was totally destroyed. However, even under these circumstances, the survivors didn’t consider how to make up for the mistakes they had made, how to recover the ecology of the Earth. Instead, they were thinking about how to continue the unfinished war.
Due to a shortage of materials, many clones did not even have clothes. The clones on the ground dared not violate the orders issued by their superiors in the bunker. When the first batch recovered their memories, they were dissatisfied with their superiors and rebelled. Thereafter, all cloned soldiers were implanted with remote-controlled bombs, and had no choice but to fight and kill the enemy. If they were lucky, some were able to take the enemies’ equipment and other belongings.
Did any of these new clones doubt what they had been told? At least he did not. In this immoral war, he could be considered as having an outstanding military service record. When the superiors, on behalf of the military, asked him what rewards he wanted, there’d been no expression on his face. His family had disappeared a hundred years ago, and the military would not waste their limited resources to clone them. Therefore, he asked the superiors to replicate his old phone case, so as to remember his futile love.
There was a smell of danger in the air, and he felt a little pressure in his chest. Was he nervous? He smiled sardonically, his breath automatically quickened. He tried to slow it down. Was anyone around? He dared not to neglect his own instincts, a sensitivity cultivated by the long war. In police academy, he ranked second in the camouflage training program. This meant that without professional equipment, it was difficult for average people to locate him, and at this time, advanced equipment was precisely what both sides lacked.
Three days ago, he, who had survived numerous dangerous situations, had followed orders to visit this area with two comrades as well as a vintage telegraph transmitter. The headquarters commanded them to stick to this area. They had faithfully stood guard for three days, and killed more than a dozen enemies. Although their location had already been exposed, they did not retreat. Those were their orders!
The enemies might continue coming here. As long as the resources stored in their underground base were not used up, cloned soldiers would continuously appear. They were only machines made for the war, and no one would grieve their deaths.
In these three days, apart from killing more than a dozen enemies, they had other gains, but he could not take possession of the spoils of war. Therefore, through the telegraph transmitter, he sent messages about them to headquarters. This morning, the bunker had sent people here to take those things, including several broken guns, some dry food, and all the clothes he had grabbed. In the end, he managed to leave himself two compressed biscuits, because he had already run out of food.
When he and his two comrades arrived, they had not brought much food. One comrade died the first day, and during the night, he and the other comrade dug out a few rats under cover of the darkness. Those little creatures were tenacious enough to survive a nuclear war; they may be the eventual winners.
Three kilometers away from their position, there was a small pond with dirty water. During peacetime, even animals wouldn’t drink from there, but he and his comrade gulped greedily, regardless of the nuclear pollution.
The other comrade died the second day. They had been attacked by seven enemies, who were out to kill. However, as their abilities were better, the enemy did not succeed. All seven attackers were killed, but his comrade was also hit. Although the injuries were not in the vital parts, he had to watch the life of his comrade slip away, because he had neither antibiotics nor any medical instruments. Finally, after the repeated pleadings of his comrade, he had suffocated the poor man with his hands.
He did not find any rats on the second day. So what was there to eat? Headquarters did not end up collecting his comrades’ bodies. For one thing, they could use their genes to re-clone them. For another, their bodies appeared to be missing some… parts. The cloned soldier who came to collect spoils said nothing, but just shrugged and left.
The enemy came!
Looking forward, he saw two enemy scouts lying on the ground about a hundred meters away.
He sneered, feeling extremely excited, because that was the spot where he had previously killed dozens. He moved to his current position and looked at the two scouts now.
This time, the enemy soldiers might be more skilled. After all, the enemy had already lost a large number of troops. His heart thumped, and his breath became quicker and quicker.
What was the matter with him today? Why did he feel so uneasy? He touched his phone case and thought, “Protect me.” He gripped his AKM, which had killed dozens of enemies. Although he preferred to use the Steyr rifle, in today’s situation, it was lucky for him to have an AKM. This assault rifle was produced by the Soviet Union about a hundred years ago, and it must have been a fine product back then.
He raised the rifle, held his breath, and aimed at the two scouts.
Gunshots sounded. The two enemy scouts struggled a few moments, then lay still.
“Did I get them?” he thought. “Are their scouts so useless?” With the caution he had acquired in police academy, he fired a few more shots at the scouts. Then he coldly switched on the safety, picked up his telegraph transmitter, and carefully crawled backward.
Now, he started envying those dead enemy scouts, because at least they had companions when they died, but he had already been left alone. His two comrades had died one after the other, while he was still alive. After becoming a clone, he would sometimes wonder: If he had been brave enough to bare his heart and be with her, what would have happened?
If they traveled abroad before the war, they might also have died together. “We ask not to be born on the same day, but to die at the same time”—that was the ideal of a couple. Or what would have happened if the war had not broken out? Those politicians might not have put their citizens’ lives at risk for the sake of their so-called “benefit.” Who knew those kinds of things for sure? He used to think that after graduating from the academy, he would work for a few years to gain some experience, and then try to obtain a certificate and become a teacher. The sudden outbreak of the war had turned him into a soldier instead of a teacher.
How sad it was! He had become an excellent soldier who continuously killed enemies on the battlefield, but after so many battles, what did he get? All he owned now was this injured body, as well as the phone case hanging from his neck. Right now, the AKM he held in his hand, and the telegraph transmitter, whose functions were insufficient, might be more precious than him. The waywardness of human beings had totally destroyed the ecosystem, so there were not many natural resources available now. One of the scouts he just killed wore only underwear, but they should have brought some useful things with them.
These two were dead, right? Since he had started to retreat, those two soldiers did not make any movement. Death? He sneered. The battle had finished, why was he still so nervous? If he had not been a soldier, he might have peacefully died in the bloody nuclear war and would not have been cloned to continue fighting. Over these one hundred years, how many generations of those natural people hidden in the bunker had lived and died? Those people could have their own children, but people like him could only be cloned and used as cheap weapons. Perhaps if he died in battle, the things on his body would also be taken, including his phone case.
He continued to retreat, without knowing why a person as tenacious as himself could suddenly become tired of the war…but he was unable to kill himself, because when clones were created, they were programmed to become weapons that could not commit suicide. On that thought, if he committed suicide, would the superiors re-clone him? They might not, because a person with a fragile heart was worthless in the war. At this point in his thoughts, he ironically smiled.
A shot sounded, and the stone beside his leg was blasted away.
Were there other enemies ambushing him? Why didn’t he detect it? Shocked, he quickly rolled over on the ground, and subconsciously trained his gun. He froze. That was the reason for his quickened breath, his nervousness, and the heaviness in his chest. That was the reason…
He did not shoot. He was already unable to do so. The enemy’s second shot hit his chest, and blood immediately gushed out.
At the last moment of his life, he held the phone case tightly.
As the enemy’s bullets rained down on him, he died with a smile.
The enemy soldier reloaded her gun with an expressionless face. After making sure there were no snipers around, she came up to his body and silently searched for anything of use.
There was something clutched tightly in the left hand of the corpse. What was it? The enemy soldier tried hard to pry his fingers away, and found that it was a worn phone case. But why was there an image of the girl on it so similar to herself? The enemy soldier was confused. She looked at the corpse and felt there was something familiar about this strong soldier, who had killed more than a dozen of her comrades, but she couldn’t remember anything beyond that. She did not even know what she was supposed to be remembering. But now there was no time to think, because she needed to continue to search the area and kill every enemy she saw.
All she took was the AKM rifle. The phone case was thrown in the sand. Her personal information had been discovered by chance by the senior figures of the military, who found out that she had been the top student of the police academy in the enemy country. Her camouflaging skill ranked first among her class, and her other skills were also outstanding. So she was cloned.
Originally, she was assigned to another area, but when the scouts found there was an enemy death squad lurking around this area, she was sent here. She did not disappoint her superiors, because she succeeded in the task that had failed seven people yesterday.
Inside the bunker, two researchers were looking at the information on the monitor with tired expressions on their faces.
“Our cloning technology can already accurately and selectively eliminate clones’ memories,” the first one said before taking a sip of synthetic coffee and stuffing a biscuit into his mouth—material conditions unimaginable for people on the ground. “The spies said that the enemy mastered this technology earlier than us, and they have already applied it to their soldiers.”
The second one yawned, saying, “We should also apply this technology as soon as possible, if only to preserve the combat skills of cloned soldiers, and eliminate useless things. Maybe without the interference of their memories, both their abilities to fight and to survive would be much more improved…”
As he spoke, the second researcher pulled up the data of the system’s top-ranked soldier, “Let’s start with this guy. His record is currently the best in our zone. His clone was killed by a female enemy solider not long ago. Hey, according to the spies’ intelligence and old information in the database, the female enemy soldier used to be his classmate when she was still a natural person. They were both trained at the police academy, and her grades seemed to have been a bit higher than his.”
“Oh? That’s interesting indeed,” the first one sneered. “Then let’s apply our new technology on him.”
He lay on the ground silently with his automatic rifle held in hands. He loaded the gun and readied himself to kill enemies at any time.
Just now, he’d mustered all his skills and finally killed a female enemy soldier. That female soldier had been very skilled, and after he’d shot her, he found that she had a pretty face. But no matter how beautiful she was, it was still insignificant on the battlefield.
He had a vague feeling that he knew this beautiful female soldier…but he could not remember anything. Besides, he was too busy to dwell on this strange feeling. The enemy was skilled and strong. How could he dare let himself be distracted?
“That dead woman should only blame her bad luck in meeting me,” he thought indifferently.
At this moment, he suddenly found that a well-disguised enemy was quietly hidden in a place not far from him. The enemy got up and rushed towards him with a high-explosive grenade in her hands. With a glance, he found that this enemy had the same pretty face as that female soldier he’d just killed.
But he had no time to feel surprise. All his muscles instinctively contracted, and he quickly raised his automatic rifle, pushed aside all the distracting thoughts, and decisively pulled the trigger.
– Translated by Zhang Yuqing (张雨晴)
Author’s Note: I wanted to give a unique birthday gift to the girl I like, so I created this story with her as a character and with some memories of our school days. The photo of that girl is indeed on my own phone case. By “Precious Thing,” it refers to the phone case held by that cloned soldier. The soldier had lived through countless battles, and the phone case is the only comfort for his life. In times of peace, the ordinary details of life are what’s cherished: Ties of blood and friendship are what gives a person the will to live. But in wartime, people may lose their families, their friends, their humanity, and finally their sense of self, becoming just like mindless clones. Originally, the clones were not intended to have memories. But to add more drama and push the plot, I finally let him have the ability to remember. It’s mentioned in the story that a war destroyed the Earth’s ecological environment, and I have been working for an ecological environment bureau since I graduated, which is an interesting coincidence.
“The Precious Thing” is a story from our issue, “The Stand-Up Issue”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.