“Xeros” by Zak Zyz

This is a story about what goes on inside the head of a victim of brainwashing. “Traitor” is a prisoner in an end-of-the-line penal colony on a remote space station in an empire that is about to be overwhelmed. The mission his team is being groomed for is the empire’s last chance, a suicidal stab at the very heart of the enemy.

However, their training follows the finest tradition of military idiocy. They are being beaten into shape: physically and mentally assaulted to destroy their individuality, to turn them into single-minded automatons to do the impossible.

And the wonder of it is that we actually understand how Traitor feels. How he hates his teammates and glories in the gory details of their punishment. How he loves his own mistreatment because it means he has goaded his torturer into noticing him.

This internal battle is supported by a dense external reality of imaginative futuristic science, mainly concentrated on military hardware. The names, capabilities, and statistics of battleships and fighters roll out with consummate authority.

At the same time, an ideological conflict is set up, between the militaristic ultra-right attitudes of the jailers and the errors of the soft, degenerate Reconcilers who allowed the Empire to fail. These traitors are not given the dignity of appearing in person but are only present in the harangues of the drill sergeant and chief torturer, Tsuros.

The suspense builds imperceptibly as the molding of the hero is completed and his group is whittled down to the final three who make the attack. Then, finally, we get the action, as they make their ultimate run to the target, avoiding an increasingly desperate series of high-tech and traditional space battle defenses.

I must admit that after a while the suspense in this continuous battle plateaus, as the hero reaches velocities, gravities and levels of pain that begin to numb our ability to empathize. Eventually, it’s all over, and we have a surprisingly appropriate ending for a story that started as a suicide mission. Conflicts are resolved at all levels, plotlines are tied up and “happily ever after” hits new levels of duration.

Highly recommended for those of a thoughtful and psychological turn of mind.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

This review was originally published on Reedsy Discovery.

 

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