The Vessel’s Choice

I pin the insignia denoting my sister’s newly earned rank as major to her uniform, and Faith tips her face in my direction. “Promise to protect the verity, defend the honor, and guard the felicity of this family when Grace and I are gone.”

I cannot help the shock rippling through me. “Don’t talk like that.”

“I’m serious, Hope.”

“So am I.” I straighten my own uniform, fingering my pinless collar, my rank nonexistent as a Vessel, one in a rare set of soldiers with identical genomes trained since childhood. I have always known I must do my duty as a Vessel and assume Grace’s memories, taking on her rank and mission, should she die in service after doing the same for Faith. But I prefer not to dwell on such dreadful eventualities.

“Promise me,” Faith insists.

Something in her eyes makes me agree. “I promise.”

The words still ring in my mind seven years later as the austere lab comes into focus before me.

“You’ll feel more than a pinch, Colonel Dennison,” the woman in the lab coat says, for today I fulfil my obligation as a Vessel.

I grimace, bracing for the pain I know will come. I was there when Faith was implanted, and I was there again when Grace received the chip to claim Faith’s memories in the wake of our eldest sister’s death three years ago. Now it is my turn to carry the burden of my sisters’ memories, the intelligence they gathered for the war effort to reclaim Alterra for humanity. Mother squeezes my fingers, her greying hair slipping from the clip at the back of her head. I sigh; she is not nearly grey enough to be relinquishing her third daughter to active duty in the Alterran Armed Forces, the AAF.

“Promise you’ll come back to me, Hope,” she begs, unshed tears glistening in her large hazel eyes, just like Faith’s, like Grace’s, like mine.

I know I cannot promise such things, for Faith and Grace both swore the same, but I want to, and I do, the words heavy on my tongue. “I promise.”

The technician grips my shoulder and injects the microchip at the base of my skull. My body jerks and I grunt at the pain. The woman helps me lie down. Mother releases my hand, and with the press of a button, the table on which I lie slides into a dark metallic tube. The door closes, cutting off the light and sealing me inside.

I wait for the download to begin, my palms sweaty. I am the last triplet, trained since childhood to be a soldier and take Grace’s place, the only person who can access my sisters’ stored memories and make use of them in this never-ending war, and already I feel the pressure to succeed where they have failed. My back grows stiff as I await the influx of data my brain will sort and identify, separating the important from the rest, so that I may seamlessly resume our role in this war.

A screen flickers, an animation of Earth appears, and a voice I know well, the voice of General Malcolm Alcott, says, “Over a hundred years ago space and time bent, and the eastern hemisphere of Earth was replaced by half a planet called Galmae, which occupies our place in the universe in an alternate dimension.” The animation shifts to show the familiar geography of our planet. The general continues as the animation rotates on its axis, “Our ancestors renamed this alternate Earth, Alterra, and humans became known as Terrans. In the aftermath of this grave tragedy, there were talks of peace, but the Galmaens wanted the land, our land, for themselves. The Galmaens do not belong here; this is our land, and it is our duty to uphold the Terran leg–”

The screen freezes on Alcott’s face, many years younger but still recognizable, and I think for a moment something is wrong with the recording I have watched countless times, but my head turns on my neck of its own volition, and I realize I am caught in a memory.

“Propaganda!” a man intones, his accent marking him as Galmaen although his grasp of the Terran tongue is admirable. I try turning to see him properly, but I am a slave to the memory. My sister struggles, and I realize our body is bound to a chair. I am relieved of my curiosity when the man steps in front of us, his grey skin and pointed ears confirming my suspicions about his heritage.

“What would you know?” Faith or Grace demands with our vocal chords.

“The other side of the story, Major Dennison,” he says.

This is Faith’s memory, I realize, for Grace earned our promotion to Colonel. I am pulled back into the memory by Faith’s bark of laughter leaving our throat.

“Don’t believe me? I’ll show you,” the Galmaen says. “I have logbooks showing the studies humans conducted to procure a new planet as they realized Earth was dying beneath them. They planned to glom onto alternate realities until they found a version of Earth that was whole in a parallel universe.”

“That’s preposterous.” Yet both Faith and I sense the kernel of doubt.

Suddenly, the memory skims past as if in fast forward and stops on a new memory.

The same Galmaen stands before us, but this time Faith and I stand on our own two feet.

“What do you expect me to do, Kylos? Abandon my people?” we demand.

“They made their choice when they decided to mess with the Continuum,” he said. We sigh and rub the bridge of our nose as if hearing this argument for the hundredth time. “Humans already destroyed Earth; would you have them do the same to Galmae?”

Time speeds up.

We lie in a bed, the sheets a mess around us, a muscled grey arm threaded under ours and across our stomach. We turn in the embrace, and only my sister’s memory keeps me from cringing away from the alien and his touch as he tenderly brushes a lock of hair from our face. Our lips pull up in a smile, and I see the heat of desire in his eyes, feel it mirrored in our gaze, and this time I am glad when time leaps forward.

I change my mind when we scream in agony. Our stomach is huge, and a Galmaen woman standards at our feet instructing us to “push.” Kylos holds our hand, and I feel the bones and sinews in his fingers creak as we crush his hand in an iron grip, pushing with our entire being.

Another flash forward, and there are three little girls, all pointy-eared and creamy-skinned playing in a lush field. My heart almost stops in my chest as our mouth forms the familiar words I have replayed in my mind for years, “Verity, Honor, Felicity! Come inside; it’s time for dinner.” We speak the latter portion in Galmaen, but enveloped in my sister’s memory, I understand everything. Turning back into the house, we smile at Kylos stirring a pot on the stove.

I cling to the beautiful scene with the ferocity of Faith’s own love, but the memory fades.

Faith’s hands hold a gun to our chest, directly over our heart. Grey-skinned hands try to coax the gun aside, and we look up into Kylos’ agonized face.

“There has to be another way,” he says.

I feel tears wet on our cheeks as we say, “There’s no time. This must be done; no one can discover what I’ve done, and Alterran forces are closing in.”

Kylos’ mouth is hot and urgent against ours, and I feel the desperation in his kiss. Voices sound in the background, and Faith pulls us apart.

“There is no time,” we say, deft fingers shoving the gun into Kylos’ hands and training it once again on our heart. “You know what must be done; pull the trigger, and wait for Grace.” After a pause, we choke back a sob and add, “I love you.”

“I love you, Faith,” Kylos says even as pain blooms in our chest and we stagger backward, falling to our knees, ears ringing.

“Go,” we gasp, the world going dark.

My own heart pounds in my chest, having just experienced death and feeling a miraculous survivor. Before I recover, I am in another memory, this time sure it belongs to Grace.

We stand before Kylos, older yet still the same.

“You came; she was so sure you would,” he says.

“Protect the verity, defend the honor, and guard the felicity,” we say, echoing Faith’s words. “Of course I came.”

We glide into a new memory. In this one, we exit the council chamber in AAF Headquarters and duck down halls and stairways until we are in the bowels of the sprawling building. We huff a little laugh. “Okay now, Hope. Pay attention.”

I start at my name, but I focus as Grace takes us in a circuitous route through the underbelly of the complex. We stop outside an unmarked door; our badge grants us entrance and we grin like a fool. “Guess being a colonel is good for something other than better rations,” we mutter, pulling a device from our pocket. “Hope, this bit of tech is important. Remember where I place it, and push this red button when you wake up; it will level this building and destroy the electromagnetic field causing a curve in the Continuum and release Galmae from our reality. That means, anything or anyone on the Earth side of Alterra will remain here, and everything and everyone, all those we love, on the Galmae side will go back to their universe, and there will be no going back. But Kylos, Verity, Honor, and Felicity will be safe.”

We have hardly placed the device when a final memory solidifies.

We smile without humor. “I suppose I knew it would come to this,” we grit out, the sound of bullets cascading on the walls just beyond our hiding place making us duck down even further. “Everything is set, now all you need to do is wait for Hope.”

We press the blade to our chest, and our hands tremble. “Help,” we whisper.

“I can’t. Not again.”

“They’ll never believe you escaped unless I’m dead. Hope’s innocence must remain above reproach, and the girls need you. Help me,” we repeat, stronger this time.

Kylos’ hands are gentle on ours. “I’m sorry,” he says, closing his eyes as he presses the knife between our ribs.

I snap back into myself, grasping my chest and half expecting to find a bloody hole, but the metal tube is cool and featureless around me. I take a deep breath and fix my expression to one lacking concern as I emerge, even though all I can think about is who I will choose to disappoint; my mother, or my sisters.

The choice is too easy after feeling the love and conviction of my sisters, and I hold back tears that threaten to fall.

“I love you,” I tell Mother as we leave the lab, taking her fingers and squeezing them tight. “I promise not to leave you. Remember that.”

“I love you too, Hope.”

I turn away, afraid she will see the lie in my eyes. “I have a long day tomorrow; I better get back to the barracks and get some rest.”

Alone, I try not to run to AAF Headquarters, walking with purpose down the nearly-empty halls. I find the lab by the memory Grace gave me and find the device we hid.

My finger hovers over the red button, afraid.

Faith and Grace both faced death, and now it is my turn. I will not shy from it, not after their sacrifice.

I push the button and the lab is engulfed in flames.

My last thought is of my nieces and how fitting it is that three should die so that three might live.

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