He shoved off her helmet and mussed her hair

"He shoved off her helmet and mussed her hair. "Love you too, sis."

Lailani walked up to them, like a child in her father's uniform, her pants baggy and her helmet wobbling. She spoke in a soft voice. "I've always hated Christmas. It was a dangerous time. A time when thieves would move through the slums. When those better off than us celebrated in their homes, but we had only the turkey and pork bones we found in the trash the next morning." She looked at Marco. "If we ever get out of here, can I celebrate Christmas with you, with your family? I promise to just sit at the back and not bother anyone."

"I'll give you the best seat in the house," Marco said. "And the biggest piece of turkey and the biggest slice of ham. So long as I'm with you, Lailani, you'll never want again."

"Want what, turkey?" Lailani said.

"Whatever it is you do want."

She leaned against him. "You."

Addy made a gagging sound. "So sweet I'm going to throw up." She shook her head wildly. "Anyway, we should invite everyone to Christmas." She looked around her at the other soldiers. "You'll all fit! Sergeant Singh, and Lieutenant Ben-Ari, and—"

"Sergeant Singh is Sikh," Marco said. "And Lieutenant Ben-Ari is Jewish. They don't celebrate Christmas."

Singh, who was walking behind them, smiled within his black beard. "I would be happy to eat some of that turkey," he said.

"As would I," said Ben-Ari. "And nobody has to salute me while carving it."

Marco was silent for a moment. Then he said, "It's hard to remember things. To think about home. Somehow it makes the darkness even blacker, makes the pain more real, makes this place worse. It's like when I was back at Fort Djemila. The hardest time wasn't marching with the radios, wasn't our journey through the desert with the litters, wasn't even the lack of sleep. It was one moment—the moment when I called my dad at home, when I heard his voice. That is the only moment in basic training that broke me. And I don't know exactly why."

"Because it made you human again," Ben-Ari said, voice soft. "Basic training is all about depriving you of humanity. That's why we raced you, shouted at you, harassed you day and night. We didn't want to give you even that one moment to think. To be a boy again. We had to turn you into machines, thoughtless, mindless, emotionless. When you called your father, you were human again for just that moment—and all the pain hurt so much. But right now, here in the dark . . . I want us to remember. I want us to be human, not machines, even if it hurts. Because I want us to have hope. To know what we're fighting for, what we'll see again."

Not machines, Marco thought, turning to look at Osiris. The android walked behind them, silent. Soot covered her uniform and skin, but her metallic, platinum hair had not a strand out of place, and her eyes still shone.

"Masters," the android said, "may I join you at Christmas too?"

Marco nodded. "Of course."

"Do you want to hear a joke, masters?" Osiris said. "What kind of tree grows in your hand? A palm tree. It's funny because palm means a tree of the family Palmae but also means the part of the inner surface of the hand that extends from the wrist to the bases of the fingers."

"Yes, thank you for explaining that," Marco said.

"You're welcome, master. I have five hundred and twelve other jokes in my database. I'll save them for Christmas."

And you'll be with us too, Kemi, Marco thought. I promise you. I will find you. I will bring you home.

For a few moments, they walked in silence.

Finally Elvis spoke. "If we ever go home, we won't be the same. We won't be human anymore. Not the way Ben-Ari said."

They turned to look at him. Normally Elvis was the one singing, dancing around, telling jokes, but now his face was solemn, his eyes haunted.

"You mean we'll go home as cyborgs?" said Addy. "With metal limbs like Corporal Webb had?"

Elvis shook his head. "I mean we'll be different inside. Sort of . . . broken. Like my brother. He served in the HDF for five years. He came home, and . . . he was empty inside. He wasn't wounded. He was still tall, strong, worked in the fields with us. But he never laughed anymore. He never danced, sang, told jokes. Never dated a girl." He lowered his head. "A year after he got home, he killed himself. We found him in the barn. His suicide note only said: 'I'm sorry.'""