I almost pulled the marigold. We had just run back to the front in order to meet the pick-up, which me missed anyway and there it was in the middle of the field. Single and lonely. My hands wanted to reach out and grab its subtle petals. It looked so simple. Pluck it, take it and win. It would all be over.
I knew there were land mines embedded in the dirt or they made me believe there were. Their mind games were enough to make me interrogate myself. No intervention necessary. Long gone were the waterboarding ear-cutting days of yesteryear. They developed the technology to make people torture themselves. It was cleaner and much more cost effective. The cruelty of having one gouge their own mind became accepted practice, born out of accepted compromise.
Before I could plan out a strategy, a soldier of the opposing force got to the marigold first. Foolish mistake. In some jumbled zigzag fashion, they ran to the middle, thinking they could outwit the hidden trip wires. They got to the center and took pause. The marigold had entranced them. The flower gently tilted its petals to meet their eyes. The soldier's fingertips spread, reaching out to touch it, longing for the embrace. A moment of truth and then the ground exploded.
We took flight. Everything around me was floating. What remained of the puller’s torso I saw suspended in midair. I was a bird in flight who had lost control of life and limb. A feeling I tried to capture. Freefall felt beautiful yet the thought of the loss of my life was horrifying. A wall of dirt rose from the ground forming a dark curtain that turned into a string of beads as it shattered down to the earth.
The sky remained midnight blue as I landed violently. On my back, I surveyed the flattened howling grey landscape. Nothing. The marigold had vanished. I thought about a bag of popcorn and the smell of sweet, melted butter. My thoughts were interrupted.
“Begin your search for marigold.”
With those words the mission rebooted. My blinking eye was a magic wand as the scenery disappeared and reemerged again in an instant. Whatever happened before now was erased. We were back at the beginning again.
There I was, somewhere else in the same place, leaning against a wall. The wall felt good. I searched my memory. It told me that this was after nine hours of trudging through sludge and dodging lasers, my body needed to rest, and the stench did not bother me anymore.
We already had the prototype, we just needed to make the escape. It was the most sought-after military product on the planet. It had the power to make or break the human race, it always did.
All sides were chasing the same thing, kill what had to be killed, steal what had to be stolen and get the orange petaled marigold flower in the middle of the battlefield. The first team to pull it, gets the win.
The marigold was never in one location. It could disappear and reappear at any moment. We had to stay until it was pulled. If something went wrong, we could not leave. We would have to start the search for it all over again. All that got us there were war games for political gain. Stealing secrets but whose secrets were they in the first place?
All the powers that be wanted those secrets. So, they brewed a story and turned it into a war. They used an old recipe: one-part political propaganda, two parts civil unrest by the citizenry of one nation, instigated by the foreign government of another, three parts attacks on citizens abroad from said foreign government and four parts half-hearted diplomacy.
In that reality we were fighting humans and androids and cyborgs. Many things had to be remembered. Shoot humans in the neck. Shoot androids in the left eye socket.
The programmers were in charge of filling and controlling all content. I could not complain, they were reliable and very good at what they did. I was prepared before I knew I was ready.
Lamdba found the stockade.
“Let’s go,” she said.
We had to get our hands on munitions. Our lasers had fallen asleep. The ten of us ran single file. The Sarge went up first then signaled back for us to follow. Through the darkness we ran. Tumbled cargo crates and defunct carrier pods lining the oddly angled corridors became the enemy to our bodies. Bumps and bruises were our new battle wounds.
It was difficult to see. Power grids were out all over the planet. Over half of them had been taken out. Hackers had infiltrated all the major systems and incessantly tricked the programmers. Hackers competed with other hackers too. They turned on a grid in order to turn it off, undermining the work of competing hackers in order to highlight their own work. The power came on intermittently because of this cyber battle.
The true virtual war was all but useless because of them. The partial virtual war would have to suffice. Nothing beat bodies on the ground. It was the most reliable warfare resource.
In the stockade, everything was done in the dark. Ammo and weapons were rapidly thrown into our packs, we would have to figure out which belonged to which later. Iota stood guard outside the door. Sarge radioed him.
“What shape are we in?”
“It's still clear out here.”
“Copy,” Sarge turned his attention to us, “They'll catch up to us soon enough.”
“What are we going to do here?” Lambda said.
“Wait,” Sarge said.
“The right time to make our move.”
Stuck in the stockade, we finally had a chance to assess our damage. Theta’s bandage was red with blood. Rho’s head was wrapped from under his chin to his forehead.
“Who’s in charge of the mission now?” Kappa said.
“Everybody,” Sarge said.
“We’ve become an army of one among many.” Kappa said.
“If you can help your brother or sister, then go ahead. If you can save yourself to complete the mission and carry our story back, then do it,” Sarge said.
Delta found a corner and sat alone in the half-light. I walked casually to the back of the room, falsely checking empty shelves for hidden ammo, truthfully looking for a way to get closer. I reached her and took a seat on the ground. I dipped my chin and leaned my lips to her right ear.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I peed on myself,” she said
I could hear the timbre of shame in her voice, it frightened me.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not. It’s all rigged. I don't want to die and live to die and live all over again. I hate it.”
Just then Kappa joined us. “Hold yourself together,” he said. “We'll get the marigold and get back this time.”
Delta looked like fear personified and Kappa was foolishly self-assured, but I had to calm her down or none of us would meet our pre-determined destinies, so I let him slide.
“What did you do back home?” I said to Kappa.
“Should we be talking about this right now? Shouldn’t we keep our minds on the marigold?” Delta said.
“We could, but we’re human beings. Our minds wander and imagines all types of scenarios. We need to think about better things,” I said.
“I know I’m a human being and how my mind works,” Delta said.
“I know you know. I’m just trying to help.” Changing the subject, I turned to Kappa, “So, what did you do before you got into this spin cycle warfare?”
“I was a social media influencer. I made a million dollars a year getting alpha males to buy beauty cream and get Botox injections,” Kappa said. “Here, touch my face.”
“Soft. Baby smooth,” I said.
“I’m surprised it’s held up,” he said. “I can't wait to get home.”
“My Mom’s in a coma.” Omega’s voice carried from another corner of the stockade. “Before I left, I didn’t bother going to the hospital. I was sick of seeing her there, dead but alive. I didn’t think it mattered. I wish I had gone there. I wish I had the faith to believe that she could hear me. Now I think about it all the time, what if she could hear me? What if she’s wondering where I am and why she hasn’t heard my voice in so long? I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t let her know that I wouldn’t be home and she shouldn’t worry. No me esperes. Mami te quiero. Lo siento mucho. Te echos de menos.”
She sounded as if she was chanting. We all paused to listen and meditated on her sweet words of sorrow.
Sarge, who always knew how to move and motivate us, jumped in, and restarted an old conversation left unfinished.
“Who did you see the most times?” she said.
“Prince, I saw him seventeen times before he died,” Sigma said.
“I saw mine twenty times,” Kappa said.
“Who was that?” Sarge said.
“Stevie Nicks as Stevie Nicks and in Fleetwood Mac.”
“After I hit it in Vegas, I saw Billy Joel twenty-three times at the Garden. Fifteen of those times in a row,” Xi said.
“Holy crap,” Sigma said.
“I’ve got you all beat,” Rho said.
“How’s that?” Sarge said.
“I saw Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige once and that beat it all.”
Our laughter started then ended in an instant, Iota ran in.
“We’re dead if we stay in here. Let’s go,” Sarge said.
The opposing force was closing in. There were always too many of them and too few of us.
Running was our most trustworthy ally. We ran, not chaotic, but with choreographed, synchronized and quickly paced movements, as if Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham had used bodies in combat. We dashed and dived from trajectories, used pirouettes as strategic maneuvers as the scenery provided fire cover.
Down a staircase and out through a backdoor, we reached the grey green exterior of the sprawling military complex. We started towards a forest which began a few feet before us. Enemy fire began again. They had found the staircase and the way out. A fire fight erupted. We scattered behind the trees.
I looked to my right and saw the marigold in middle of field. My crew had moved ahead of me, yet I knew what I needed to do. I fell to the ground then tumbled and rolled toward it. A soldier from the opposing force ran to reach it. They stood up too high, and their body was turned into a starburst by a bullet.
I reached over to the marigold and felt the stem between my fingers. My mind were transfixed. The flower, radiating its bright orange petals, called bees to pollinate. Two little children ran through a soft field of florescent green and electric marigolds, that turned into a sandy narrow path. An overlook in the distance, gave sight to the ocean. A pier jutted out into infinity where the sea met the sky. A pathway to the secrets of life.
And I heard the bees, and they buzzed overhead, swarming while forming a dark cloud juxtaposed to the midnight blue sky. They took my last breath and fed it back to me.
I awoke with the buzz of a helicopter. I looked down below at my passed brothers and sisters in the carnage. The honeycomb ceiling sky opened up. The organic sky was revealed, and I overheard the words:
“Begin your search for marigold.”