I saw him first, but mistook him for a machine. He was bigger than most humans and he moved like I did. Giant red discs covered his eyes, and a utility belt hung at his waist. He wore a slick camo bodysuit that blended into the rainforest. The material masked his face, open at his lips and his ears. My eyes focused on the suit’s weak point: a gap near his neck where pieces fitted together. He carried a long camo rifle nearly as invisible as he, which he pointed at the treefall ahead. I recorded the sight in my black box. I decided he was human–or at least like me.
Soundlessly I swung to a lower branch for a better look. The air smelled heavy with tannins and decay. Something on the rough bark tickled my hand. I looked. A line of flattened Legionnaire ants marked my palm. Two survivors raced across my skin. The shadow inside me twitched. I remembered the piranha school I’d shredded barehanded–hundreds of them, three at a time, darkening the river with broken bones and fish guts. Blood on the water, and the shadow–
No. I dilated my eyes and focused. Overhead, the leafy canopy blocked most light. A macaw screeched. Below me, the man lowered his gun and took a small container from his belt. He removed two yellow pills and swallowed them without water. I decided he hadn’t come from a beanbag. Human for sure. I glanced at his genitals, but the suit obscured them–he looked as smooth as I did. He turned halfway towards me, still watching the forest, and raised his gun. The shadow surged. I resisted, but it darkened my mind. I wanted to kill–kill– I clutched the tree and snapped a twig. Instantly he spun and fired at me.
The shadow took me. I ducked the blast, dove from the tree, and rolled to his feet. Frenzied, I tried to tear his leg off, but the suit resisted me. He kicked my head and shoved the gun at my ear. I threw him down–pinned him–ripped the gun away–lunged for his neck, sweet killing–
No. I will not. I stared into the darkness, spread beneath me like pyramid layers. Here at the top, my consciousness lighting the lower levels–the ones that searched the Net before it attacked me, the ones that kept me breathing and moving, and there–there, below that, I knew myself, saw the shadow. I witnessed it. My active mind could stop it. Like a candle into the abyss–no, no, no, no–
Both of us breathed hard. I straddled his body–one hand on his shoulder, the other on his head, wrenching his neck at a terrible angle. My vision glittered as I stared into his goggles. Finally I let go and climbed off him. I sat on the ground, between him and his gun. My head ached and my hands shook. I had beaten the shadow–this time. I wasn’t sure I could do it again.
After a moment, he started laughing so hard he couldn’t talk. He yelped hysterically like he was sucking down air. “You’re broken,” he choked out. “Oh my God. You’re so fucking broken.”
“Who am I?” I asked him, my heart racing. “Who are you? What’s this place? Who created me?”
He kept laughing. “Goddamn corporate sludge. We need the fucking military. They’ll blow this shit to pieces. None of this cost-saving bullshit.”
“I really will kill you if you don’t answer me.”
He sobered and gave me a spiral-red stare. “Why didn’t you? You should have fucking nailed me.”
I said nothing, but I crouched on all fours like I’d spring. He flinched and said, “Okay, all right. Calm down there. Um… shit. Look. The gun wouldn’t have killed you. It’s a tranq. Would’ve stopped you, yeah. But–listen, can we talk?”
“I’m listening,” I said, without moving.
“I’m going to sit up now. Okay?”
He sat up and rubbed his neck. “Here’s the thing. We don’t have much time. I’ve neutralized most of the threats in this biosphere. But there’s a few left. I need your help.”
“I thought I was one of the threats.”
“Me too,” he said, lifting his goggles and looking at me. Distinctly human eyes, I noticed–river-colored and creased at the corners. “But–you stopped. You–you shouldn’t be able to do that.”
I remembered the shadow rising. It transformed him into a vulnerable collage: his fragile neck, his soft eyeballs–those breakable goggles. Yes. If I destroyed the suit, I could crush his kidneys–
No. No, no, no.
I looked him in the eye. “Tell me everything.”