Charlie Squad sloshed away from the canal, each soldier grinning widely. They had fought to stay afloat with all their gear, and had finally found a place to crawl out three-quarters of a mile downstream. They were soaked, the water more than likely full of hazardous industrial runoff. They had a long march ahead of them to get to their extraction point. Still, they grinned, looking over their shoulders every few steps to glance at the cloud of dust where once the Toriyama Bridge stood.
“Good shot, Three,” said 266, clapping his identical twin on the back.
231 was grateful to still have his original squad. They had all been hatched on the same day. The squad had trained together and fought alongside each other for almost ten years. On one mission, they would be Alpha Group, on another, Charlie Squad; but every time, it was 223, 231, 254 and 266. They called themselves Team 3146, and thought themselves very clever.
The Goliaths skirted the East approach to the separatist command bunker, then picked their way through downtown New Corinth. The towers gave way to skyscrapers as they moved away from the financial district. Wind whistled across broken windowpanes, whipping up clouds of dust and ash. Once, they saw a single patrol double-timing it toward the ruins of the bridge. Otherwise, it was quiet.
254 chuckled suddenly, and they all turned to face him. “We gotta tell 234 about this.” He nodded at their special weapons tech. “You remember when he bet you-”
They whipped up their rifles at the voice. To the left, from the rubble-strewn lobby of an office building.
“Come out! You have five seconds!” 231 barked.
The woman stepped from behind her cover, hands raised and shaking, eyes wide and dripping. At the sight of a human survivor, the clones instantly lowered their weapons. 231 caught his breath and motioned to 223. The two Goliaths jogged toward the woman.
“Please don’t hurt me! I’ve been here for two days, since they…” her voice broke off into sobbing, her hands clutching her ash-encrusted hair. She stepped back as the clones approached.
231 stopped a respectful distance away and raised his hands. “Milady, we will not hurt you. We can take you to safety.”
She looked at him desperately. “Thank God. Oh, thank God.” She hesitantly moved toward the soldiers, then leaned on 231’s arm. Her left ankle was swollen and caked with blood. 223 stepped to her right side, and they escorted her outside. He looked nervous, 231 noticed.
254 had already dug the antiseptic and spray bandage from his pack. “Milady,” he said as they sat her down. “I should tend to your ankle wound, for your safety. I may need to touch your foot. Is that acceptable?”
She nodded vigorously. “Thank you.”
“Hey. One,” 223 whispered.
231 looked up at him. He was definitely nervous.
“There… hasn’t been anyone for miles.”
“Yeah?” Now, 231 was getting nervous. He could feel something coming. The woman hissed in pain as 254 sprayed on the antiseptic.
266 growled. “I can’t get through to command! Let me try getting a better-”
“He can’t get through,” 223 whispered, breathing hard. “That’s…” He looked excited.
223’s eyes sparked. “We could take her back inside, and no one would see. No one would hear.”
For a moment, 231 felt like he was falling. “Three.”
“We could be the first Goliaths to do it with a girl, One!” His voice was dangerously loud.
“Signal’s getting better. Almost got it,” 266 called from his vantage point.
A girl. The idea was overwhelming. But… “Three.” 231 was squad leader. He had his orders.
“Six, wait!” 223’s eyes were locked on the woman, his breathing more and more rapid.
“Ah, signal’s back! Wait for what?”
“Let’s do it, One,” 223 whispered, his eyes unwavering.
231’s chest throbbed. He clenched his eyes shut and tapped his comm. The first time he tried to say it, his breath caught, and he turned away. He leaned down and rasped, “Emergency channel.”
“This is command,” came the voice immediately. The voice only he would have in his ear.
The burning in his chest surged. “This is Goliath 231,” he whispered. “223 has… implied a threat of bodily harm to a non-combatant.”
“One, hey,” he heard 223 say. A large hand rested on his shoulder. With a rush of anger, he swatted it away.
“Confirmed, 231. You are ordered to dispose of Goliath 223 immediately. Give the order.”
231 opened his eyes and looked up. 254 was gently helping the injured woman to her feet. 266 was staring down at him, confused. And 223 stood, head lowered as though in disappointment, or shame.
Give the order, they said.
223 caught 231’s eye. The same eye, set in the same face, that they all shared. If Goliaths had brothers, 231 thought, that’s what we’d be.
The special weapons tech made no move to resist as the squad leader snarled, raised his weapon to bear, and shot him in the head.
The woman screamed. The two other Goliaths had their weapons ready before 223’s body slumped to the ground. The scream echoed from the tall buildings all around, and all was silent.
When 231 looked up, everyone was standing very still, eyes locked on him. His squadmates’ jaws were both set. They didn’t know why, but they knew the law. 254’s eyes glistened.
231 fought down the rage enough to speak. “Milady,” he said to the wounded woman, “I apologize if I frightened you. I was following orders. Please don’t worry.” Against his will, his eyes flicked to the dead clone, then back to her.