Egg white walls cup my shock couch like a womb. Outside those walls spreads boiling nothing – space heated by sunlight and specked with the first molecules of upper atmosphere. In just under twenty minutes light from our weapons discharge like a small supernova will reach me. By then, I’ll either be ash tumbling in the atmosphere of an unexplored world, or I’ll be on the ground of that planet, alone, and if the battle is truly lost, then I’ll be the last of my species.
I hear sweat trickling down my cheek. You don’t know silence until you’ve been alone in a pod with few moving parts, floating in space. The heartbeat of this body, my body, makes an audible and faintly foreign thump. Blood pulses in my veins like a many limbed insect moving inside a chrysalis. My stomach churns audibly, and the metaphoric butterflies squirm up my throat and behind my eyes. All of these sensations, amplified by silence and the pressure of hanging fate, are also new, and intensely alien. This is my body. It is female, black haired, dark skinned and muscular. All of these things are new and strange. I was not female before.
Before the upload to my ship’s collective, I was male, thin, scarred by years of conflict. After the upload, I remained male in my self image. We shared our thoughts in free market of ideas and decisions. We piloted our future to the stars, redefining ourselves as we went.
Sweat stings my lips with salt. My suit cycles perfectly warm air, but the biology still thinks it needs to sweat. Nerves. The suit wicks the moisture away for recycling. When I was in the collective I didn’t miss having nerves. Churning stomach acid and butterflies are biological baggage – pointless distractions from the work at hand.
Thought of the collective sends the sudden choke of grief rushing up this throat to pinch these eyes with wet. I’ve fallen out of a warm nest and have yet to hit the ground. I can’t help the feeling that if I could just listen past the organic noise of this body I’d hear the voices of the collective. But they’re gone, gone from my mind as I am gone from them, gone from this star system in a last desperate jump, and very likely gone into the chaos and fire of the enemy’s weapons.
I suppose I have a moment to grieve. There’s nothing left to do until the pod impacts the ground or until a flaw in its construction leads to one of a thousand possible ways this body might die.
The walls of my egg prison hiss like snow sliding off a tin roof. It starts quiet, but in a few moments it’s loud enough to drown out my heartbeat.
The pod skin starts spinning. Gyroscopes in my couch counter the force, keeping me still while the tiny world turns. Carbon dust left over from the fabrication of the pod slides across the wall, stirred by friction from the spinning shell.
Twelve billion dead, Sheln told me, as I floated away from The Titan’s hull in a cloud of shining diamonds. Twelve billion stored souls lost to battle damage. Three quarters of our occupancy, lost to the weapons of a relentless enemy we did not understand.
The search for new earth had endured for years and light-years. We examined sites and rejected them. We wandered the teeming dark, and wondered why it was silent. There had been no other sails on the horizon of our endless ocean. So when we came to the black hole, a whirlpool of light in the sea of dark, we stopped to look. The accretion disk blazed with incandescent gasses, glittering with x-rays and the warm glow of infra-red. A black bullet shape resting among those gases drew our attention – an anomaly, likely engineered, possibly a ship. We hadn’t seen any others. We drew close, sent signals of prime numbers and scraps of music. Waited.
They answered us with weapons, and we learned why the night is silent.
Maybe if we’d shot back in that first moment, instead of running. Maybe if we had fired weapons, not music. But those choices went too quickly into the immutable past. We never saw them again, never knew where to send our return fire. Maybe if we’d shot back in that first moment The Titan, whole and hale, would be in orbit. Twelve billion wouldn’t have died. I wouldn’t be alone in a pod I made from The Titan’s shed skin. Maybe if we’d waited to find this planet until after we’d dealt with them. I voted for that. Why search for someplace to settle, when we couldn’t stop? But I was over-ruled. We saw no end to the conflict. We could think of no path but to continue on our way and hope if we went far enough, they would leave us.
They did not.
My tightening grip shifts bones in my left forearm, reminding me the arm is broken. Painkillers make the break numb and abstract. The suit keeps the loose parts secure and seals torn flesh. My diagnostic HUD says the wound is a compound fracture, but inside the suit, I can hardly tell. My breath sounds loud in my ears, almost as loud as the hissing vibration passed up my legs and spine.
It’s grown unbearably hot. Sweat pours down my face and I have to keep my eyes closed. Sound rises like a rushing wind and the hiss of coal in fire, loud and constant. The walls shake, but the couch stabilizers leave me hanging and still.
“Cortex to auditory mode.” My voice comes out a whisper, dull and painfully inefficient. It’s soprano but ragged. Unfamiliar. Alien.
“Auditory mode engaged.” The voice of the exosuit’s cortex might be male or female. Its polite calm hails from the speakers in my collar as if they were tunnels to some other and forgotten place of safety. “Your wireless implants are not responding. Your suit temperature is outside the rated bio-static safety zone by sixteen degrees. How much would you like me to compensate?”
“Minimum to sustain cognitive function. Power preservation is priority two.” I force the words through gritted teeth. My throat aches, nose runs, and I have to talk past a lump and what feel like cramps in my cheek muscles, which keep trying to warp into a frown. Crying. I’m crying. Despite the heat, the pressure, the shaking that force every muscle to clench in self defense, I cry tears that vanish into sweat.
I’d forgotten what crying felt like.
I clench my fists and focus on what comes next. Resist the temptation to ask the AI how long it will be until I strike ground. Calculate first. Keep the biology sharp.
Started at estimated 4.3 kilometers per second relative groundspeed. Available data suggests atmospheric density similar to earth, so the pod’s terminal velocity should be roughly forty meters per second. Airbraking to reach that speed should take about a minute and a half, if I got the approach vector right. I forgot to set a timer (in the collective, that information would have been automatic) but it’s been at least a minute since the hissing started. By now the spinning shell will be using vortex mechanics to generate lift and steer the pod’s descent to strike the ground at an oblique angle, then the same spinning shell will serve as a wheel, but the impact may still be severe. Hitting the ground at forty meters per second, then crashing to a halt on unknown terrain won’t be graceful.
The hard part was steering the pod onto a safe descent angle, which was achieved with plasma bursts from my sidearm. Benefits of modern weaponry.
No good against the enemy, though. Our last shot from The Titan’s drive-core, harnessed as a weapon, shredded a Neptune sized gas giant in this system’s outer orbit like a tomato struck by a hammer. We thought they were hiding inside it. They weren’t. Their reply nearly split The Titan in two, silenced three of the five control personalities, and wiped out our AI damage control core. I have no memory between that wound and the moment Sheln, the last working control, printed me into this body.
Disconcerting, to wake up in one of the biology cores, naked in a pool of embryonic fluid amid showers of high energy sparks from which I’d already developed scars. Rows of artificial wombs lay in shambles, many with half-grown versions of this body gutted by shrapnel or seared to greasy smoke by plasma. The stink of my own burnt flesh like hamburger cooked into coal. The organic goop of my genetic material, reduced to sewage by violence, clogging the air and cloying to my skin. Cold. Windy. Hull breach claxons. The scream of escaping air. Arching lightning. Glass and fire searing against my bare skin.
This body was born in hell.
Sheln, the last working control, Hungarian, male, voice as deep as a landslide, bellowed from a speaker in a bulkhead laced with cracks.
“Lellwyn, are you there? Your implants didn’t take. There’s an exosuit in the locker. We have two minutes until enemy weapons recharge. Someone has to reconnect the port power array or we won’t have enough q-cores to jump. That side of the ship has been severed. Lellwyn, this is up to you. The antibody control circuits are fried. Your implants didn’t take, but no other bodies survived to maturity. You have to hurry. The other bio-bays are too far away. You’re the only one. Lellwyn? Answer me? There’s a fabricator in storage on the way. Go!”
That fabricator now hangs before me, secured to the pod’s struts by a webbing of silken strands. It looks like a huge rifle, with diamond-synth high pressure tanks for the tiny, magnet-controlled nano-bots it uses to turn available resources into diamondoid composites and high carbon plastics. I used about a quarter of its tank getting the Titan enough power to flee, then about half that much again turning loose wreckage into this pod. Though it looks weapon-like, it is no weapon. It’s my hope for the future. If it doesn’t survive the landing, then my life will be very hard, and very brief.
I waste a few moments in pointless regret: if I had known when I woke in that fiery hell where I might end up, I would have taken a few seconds in the bio-bay to fill the exo-suit’s pockets with tools that would be useful to further the species on this alien planet. But the future of this body did not feature in my thinking. This body is a clone, one of the emergency models designed to be deployed should our AI repair systems fail. My consciousness is a copy of Llelwyn, one of the control personalities chosen because of his unusual capacity for adapting to new bodies rapidly, wide array of technical expertise and experience at high stakes zero-g movement and repair. I was made with one purpose: repair the Titan, permit it to escape before the next enemy discharge. I fulfilled that purpose.
The fabricator strains toward me against its webbing. I thought it was the heat making it hard to breathe but no, the pressure of deceleration grows with every breath. Its great hand presses with enough weight I can barely reach my teeth with my tongue, and grows stronger from there.
The heavy agony of pressure leaves no room for thought.
It goes on, and on.
At last pod hits the ground with a jolt like a baseball flung by a giant. Everything spins. The lights go out. The impact bruises my gums as my teeth slam together. The fabricator sways in its harness and its bulk drives the last wind from my body like a battering ram. My ribs creak. The world alternates red and black as blood rushes into and out of my head. I clench my neck and every muscle. A long, piercing screech is my own voice against my teeth and the visor of my helmet.
For a moment, I’m airborn again. Sky shows through a whirling crack in the shell, then dirt and sky alternate in a grey blur and spraying debris stings my face, rattles from the walls in a deluge of sharp pieces.
“Helmet integrity compromised. Synthesizing reinforcements.” The AI’s dispassionate voice seems an afterthought to the chaos, distant and unalarmed.
The stinging spray stops. Dirt flavored with chlorine and iron clings to my sweat, stings and cakes, and rattles inside the shell of my visor and off my closed eyelids.
The body’s stomach heaves, but I fight it down. I’ve never eaten anything to throw up.
Before the upload I endured extensive training to be able to resist the confusing dizziness of spinning. I could write q-core program code while sitting in a chair doing 25 rpm in three axis. This body hasn’t endured that training, but mind and body must match. I am good at using new bodies. The best. But the spinning is harrowing. Too much, even for me. I clench the body’s every muscle. Cling to consciousness. If I fall unconscious, the body will relax, and all blood will leave my brain. I will die.
Spinning slows. A sudden jolt. Stillness.
I hang against my harness, motionless, and facing the floor. My breath scrapes in my ears and this heartbeat pulses in the broken arm and in the fingertips and toes. I’m still, but the world turns inside its own afterimage.
That’s it. I’m on the ground. Not dead yet.
I let my eyes open slowly, afraid of the dust. My fear was warranted. The dust burns my eyes and they cloud, unfocused.
“Cortex, use suit optics. What’s my current environmental position?” Dust cakes on my tongue in an explosion of dry flavors too intense to catalogue.
“You are in an emergency planetary entry pod. The pod has sustained structural damage. Three major fractures. The exit hatch is compromised, but departure may be possible through the largest fracture. Is this planet colonization candidate number 1143?”
“Define cardinal directions using spin east or magnetic north?”
“Minimal available data suggests you are on the north continent, in the alpine plateau of the south-east corner, current altitude unknown, exact position unknown.”
“Can I open my helmet?” Two probes were sent to sample this atmosphere, and found it to be a very close match to pre-industrial earth, so close the air should be breathable. The closest match we’d ever found. Reason enough to linger. Reason enough to fight, or so the other controls thought.
“Possible, but not recommended. Suit sensors detect airborn smoke and dust dense enough to cause respiratory irritation. No samples have tested for biological poisons or pathogens. The atmospheric pressure outside is two standard atmospheres above your current-”
The helmet hisses as it slides open. Dust and pebbles tumble out of it toward a floor littered with a tangle of white hull material, red grass-like leaves and brown dirt. A cacophony of smells crashes into me. Chlorine, iron, beets? Smoke and carbon. Like sticking my face into a pressure blaster pushing the smoke of burning swimsuits. My ears pop like little fireworks, and my head swims. Pain. Like plunging to a depth of ten meters salt-water in an instant.
I choke. My eyes water and my nose runs. I close my helmet again and sigh as the sterile air washes over me and the suit pressure returns to comfortable. I’ve probably just infected this body with a dozen alien diseases, but I had to clear the visor. Hopefully the suit’s anti-biotics work, but there’s no guarantee.
I release the crash couch harness while the cortex continues to drone about atmospheric composition and soil samples. My weight falls against the fabricator, which sags as the strut it’s secured to bends on splintered fibers.
My breath and the cortex are the only sounds. “Cortex, activate environmental microphones.”
Sound rushes in around me. Distant rumbling in tune with the vibrations through my gut, the croaking of some form of insect, the hiss of cooling earth, the whistle of wind through the cracks in the shell around me, swirling the hanging orange dust.
Cortex described three major cracks in that shell. Two as thick as my arm, one is nearly the width of my body. All converge behind my couch, where presumably they fail to meet, because if they didn’t the whole device would have fallen apart. I lower my feet to the floor. Scraps of shell crunch into the pool of dirt under my exo-suit’s boots. The light comes in through the cracks as full spectrum daylight, slightly red, and my helmet’s visor corrects for any shadows too deep for my human eyeballs.
Blood rushes to my head. I sway and lean on the fabricator. Slow breaths. Dust that didn’t escape goes up my nose and I choke, then sneeze.
It stinks of chlorine and iron.
Tastes like fried carrot chips.
I shake some of the sneeze detritus off the inside of my visor, then lower myself to a crouch. Beyond the big crack waits a matt of tangled red grasses hiding a few slivers of sapphire sky.
“Tell me more about this planet.” The crack in the hull widens a centimeter at my first kick, which knocks dirt from above like a shower faucet.
“Gravity 0.94G. No moons. Axal tilt, 19.2 degrees. Solar day, 30 hours. Orbital period, 290 local days. Surface coverage, 84% salt-water ocean, 10% dry land, 6% polar ice. High concentration of mountains and many islands suggest active tectonics. Diverse bio-sphere includes at least some species of land animal. Flora exhibit an abundance of carotenes.”
And that’s it. That’s all our two probes were able to transmit before our ship was hit.
I keep kicking until the gap widens enough to squeeze through.
One of the scraps of shell has an edge, and I use it to cut the fabricator free of its webbing. Then my fabricator and I squeeze one at a time through strands of clutching red grass, and out into the new world.
I roll onto my back. The scrap of sharp shell falls from my hand.
Blue. So blue.
Earth’s sky wasn’t so blue since I was very young. Not since before the prolong treatments. Before the q-core processors, cognitive upload samplers and cloned bodies made us immortal. Before the superstorms. Before the blue-green algae mutations, and the poison clouds of acid rain. Before we killed ourselves and our world.
An insect chirps, somewhat like a cricket, but deeper and slower. A cross between a cricket and a bullfrog. Intermittent – like there’s only one of them, not a whole chorus. Odd. Save the rush of the wind, it’s very quiet. This body has so few senses, not like The Titan. I miss the tingle of cosmic rays across my skin, the coruscating shimmer of infrared and ultraviolet through the interstellar medium, the deep pulse of x-rays, the whispering songs of radio, the burnt charcoal smells of stars and the silent, rushing power of the drive.
These eyes see only one direction at a time.
For a few seconds, I let them see only blue. I want to feel that wind over my skin like I did when I was young. It’s strange to hear but not feel, like I’m playing a game.
Deep in the eye-blistering blue, faint points of light scratch white scars, radiating from somewhere south, and very far away. I turn my head, arching my neck inside the helmet to see. Frazzled strands of black hair partly block my vision.
The horizon in that direction rises to a line of mountains – jagged peaks tipped white with ice, such as has not decorated the peaks of earth mountains in my lifetime. Above those peaks fiery veins like comets rise into the sky, climbing the outside of a column of dark smoke a sixth the width of the horizon. Lightning and fire flash in that boiling haze.
“Cortex, load planetary impact analytics.”
“Planetary impact analytics ready.”
“Identify my distance from the impact I’m seeing.”
“Recording video. Analyzing. Current altitude not available. Use best guess?”
I watched about a third of The Titan float way in the silence of void. It was shaped like a coffin, with the semiconductor material of its internal circuitry a near black, and its diamond armored skin trailing stars. It might have struck this planet. If it struck hard enough, the planet will die.
“Judging by the horizon line and rate of ejecta spread at best guess atmospheric densities, you are roughly 2320 kilometers from that impact. Seismic effects will arrive in 2 minutes 13 seconds. Ejecta will arrive in 8 minutes 26 seconds. Airblast will arrive in 116 minutes 38 seconds. Your implants are not responding, should I remind you audibly?”
“Yes. Is that impact from wreckage of The Titan? Could it have been accelerated so much?”
But I know the answer is yes. I saw the flash like a smaller, longer big bang as The Titan slipped between universes in a blaze of light, and in the afterglow, the shining storm of its wreckage launched at this planet like a shotgun blast of shooting stars. Other parts went other ways, but the big chunk went here.
I sit up. My body aches and the bones in my left arm slide against each-other. Tears and sweat stick to my face and my scalp itches. I don’t have to pee anymore. I must have, during the crash. Salt and dust fill my mouth and my gums ache in that distant way that says the painkillers are still working.
“Tell me about the seismic effects,” I say, watching the distant cloud spread in slow motion. Above it, a cascade of high-altitude ejecta re-enters the atmosphere to burn momentary lines of light. Despite the fear curling in the left side of my chest, my lips almost smile. Those brief fires seem familiar – the matchstick lives of missiles, meteors, and humans, spending themselves against the sky.
I’m surrounded by the faintly rolling hills of an alpine plateau. Mountains in every direction make a jagged toothed bowl. Alternating patches of different colored plant life collage the hillside, equal parts thin bladed grass the color of wild rose and darker blobs of something that grows in a matted tangle of fine fingers of a slightly darker hue. My pod cut a long scar in that turf. Tufts of sod peel away from that scar like skin, exposing a rocky, red dirt underneath. The pod plowed to a halt against the slope of an exposed dune of finer soil, almost sand. Similar mounds poke from beneath the blanket of grass here and there along the plateau. Up the hill a little way stands a wide spire of some more tough stone, sturdy and weathered. At its base I can see the mid-afternoon sun glinting off the face of a pool of liquid. Probably water, judging by this planet’s abundance of that substance.
The Cortex answers me: “Richter scale: 9.8. At current distance of 2317 km, will upset loose objects or simple structures, human observers will notice minor shaking, and will be woken if asleep.”
“Well that’s not too bad,” I frown, “I doubt there’s anyone to be too bothered. But the shake could still trigger volcanic activity and landslides.”
“Insufficient information.” The Cortex answers.
I catch myself waiting. “Tell me about the ejecta.”
“Mean Fragment Diameter: 155 microns. Average Ejecta Distributed Thickness: 7.13 mm.” Its answers are always prompt, like it knows more than me and wishes I’d asked sooner.
“A light snow. Enough to block out the sun for a while, but probably not enough to wipe out all life.”
“Yes I know. What about the air blast?” I want to do something, not just sit here watching the impact cloud spread, but it’s pointless to act until I’ve gathered information.
“Peak Overpressure: 21,900 Pa. Max wind velocity: 47.4 m/s. Sound Intensity: 87 dB.”
“A little bit breezy.”
Strong enough to knock me tumbling if I’m not braced or under cover. At those speeds, the air-blast will most certainly dislodge further debris in the mountains, and may overturn or bury my shelter, or myself.
My sigh is loud in my ears. Priorities: Water, shelter, food. In that order. Complication: major extra-planetary impact may endanger all local life.
I count breaths. No-one responds. No vote. My heart leaps in momentary panic. My fingers clench grass. The voice of the wind doesn’t form a consensus, or even words. The collective is gone. I will not hear their voices again. I know this. I breathe the knowledge into my body.
“Cortex, load program Caruso.”
“Caruso, for use when a crew member has been stranded on-“
“I said load, not describe.”
“Program Caruso activated. Unpacking. Caruso standing by.”
“Upload the Caruso schematics to this fabricator.” The thing lays like a bit of driftwood in the rose-colored grass. I wonder how sharp the blades are, how they’ll feel against my skin.
“Yes Ma’am. Connecting.” Somebody programmed Cortex to sound happy when attempting to make a wireless connection. It’s first emotion. “Connection failed.” It seems disappointed.
“My best guess? This fabricator’s wireless network access components are damaged. I’d recommend initiating manual repair diagnostics. I can narrate a checklist if you’d like?”
Cortex seems… perky.
“No.” I hoist the fabricator onto my shoulder. Its weight settles my feet deeper into the flora, but with the servos in my exosuit joints, the drag from those fingers doesn’t slow me. I wonder if this body has strength enhancements, or for that matter any genetic tailoring at all. I never had time to ask. Rapid gestation and maturation would be standard, as well is increased bio-immunity and better oxygen metabolism, giving longer life and improved aerobic fitness. Many things are possible beyond that, from digestive tuning to match alternate diets to zero-g fitness through nano laced tear and mucus ducts, bone strengthening and digestive facilitation. I hope that this body does not have those enhancements. Nano weaves designed to facilitate mucus evacuation in zero-g (a job normally done by gravity) would be tremendously annoying in gravity, it would lead to a very dry nose and very clogged throat.
“Cortex, this soil looks volcanic and these mountains look young. Can you verify?”
“I sure can. Recording video. Analyzing. Interesting. We don’t seem to have enough information. For example, the mountain ridges are sharp, suggesting they’re still growing, but we don’t know very much about the atmosphere or rates of rain-fall and seasonal temperature shifts which would be the main controls on how quickly they erode. We haven’t been here long enough yet to gather the data we’d need to run useful simulations. I’ve been working on that for less than a minute. What do you say, should I keep at it?”
My eyes sting and I want to lay down in this grass again, but this biology is full of adrenaline, and its survival still hangs in the balance.
“Cortex,” I ask, examining the geology around me, “Why do you suddenly sound like a chipper young male?”
I set out for the spire.
“Well, maintaining mental health requires emotional exchange.” He replies, thoughtfully. “Program Caruso includes a personality construct with an array of useful and affirming behaviors which will be deployed based on your psychological needs. That’s me! On another note, your current position seems to be reasonably secure from landslides.”
“I know, Cortex.” My boots crash through the thick grasses which, though tightly woven, give way before my shins. I’m either very strong, or the plants are very weak. “But I want to get into the lee of that spire before the shockwave hits.”
Pillars of smoke slowly thicken over the mountains in every direction. The flash from that distant impact may have ignited fires in places where the foliage was more dry. Lucky for me this plateau doesn’t seem to be burning, or even smoking, though now I look, I can see a little haze here and there.
Add wildfire to the list of ways I might die.
“Cortex, are you using my optics?”
“Yes Ma’am. Would you rather I didn’t?”
“Yes. Deactivate the personality construct. I need to preserve power.” Even as I say that, I know the construct doesn’t use a meaningful amount of power. I just don’t feel like having a chipper sidekick at the moment. His babble sounds over the silence of too many voices.
Despite the assistance from the suit, my breath comes with more and more difficulty and the weight of the fabricator presses hard into my shoulder. My left arm starts to sting, and so does a strip of flesh from my left buttock to my right shoulder, where a bolt of electricity slid across my skin when I was still half-conscious on the floor of that shattered birthing chamber back on The Titan. That burn shears with phantom heat as the muscles under it heave with the effort of running.
“Are you sure?” Worry makes the Cortex voice rise a few notes. “I can’t make suggestions if you turn me off, and mental degradation is possible after only a few days in isolation.”
“I’m sure,” I grunt through gritted teeth as my foot sinks into a hole in the uneven terrain.
I stumble but don’t fall. Each step launches me further than it ought to in the 0.9 Gs of gravity.
“Okay, well turn me back on when you need me,” Cortex chirps, then falls silent.
I come into a shadow. For an instant my heart leaps with panic at the thought it must be the ejecta cloud arriving early, but it’s the shadow of the stone I was running to get behind.
I move past that shadow, putting the spire between me and the spreading apocalypse to the south. Though the stone stands fifty times my height, it still seems like holding up my thumb and imagining it might block the moon.
In the fabricator’s internal memory I find schematics for an earthquake resistant shelter. The Caruso codex would have more and better options; this one’s designed for generic, any-world and multi-purpose use. It looks like a long-legged spider with an ovoid body. Good. The legs will get me up out of the ejecta carpet and provide a wide, almost unflipable base. If I build it in the shadow of something stable, like this spire, it will provide as much security as one could hope for.
The fabricator exudes its silken strands and they weave themselves in a web, bulge, spread and pulse, and then harden. Air rushes past as the nanites leach carbon. I’ve run its reservoir to half empty. From now on I’ll have to find multiple uses for everything I make.
The spider shelter rises before me. Its carapace groans and cracks as it hardens, then the fabricator chirps.
A few late pops rush to catch up with the rest and then it’s silent. The ‘mouth’ is a hatch, with a ladder tongue. I climb up. The three meter ladder is higher in real life than it was in my imagination when I reviewed the schematic. My left arm should hurt. I stop, hanging from the third to last rung. Oh, yes, the exosuit is supporting the weight. I must be getting tired. Adrenaline wearing off? It hasn’t been long enough. My head feels light, almost sleepy.
It’s been a while since I dreamed.
A lever inside the doorway brings the ladder up behind me on easy gears. The shape of the door suggests if I pull it closed, it will seal and remain airtight. The design included passive CO2 scrubbers to keep the air inside breathable. It has two compartments, the first and larger of the two has a sink and a number of shelves and racks, all empty. I’ll need to find a way to pipe water to the sink before it functions. The second chamber is small, round, and padded with something that looks soft. A bedroom. Every surface is translucent the color of moonstone, striped with the black lines of the high carbon support struts. The floor is a maze of those, where the gears are housed for moving the spider’s legs. A reciprocating engine in the belly should run on vegetable or mineral oils to power the legs and pumps. The fabricator can handle such simple machines easily.
I’ve tracked red dust and weeds all over my beautiful new home. Nothing for it. I had to get inside. I’ll have to make a broom out of the flora to sweep it out. Shouldn’t be too hard.
“Seismic event in fifteen seconds.” I like how calm Cortex sounds.
I sit and touch the control to retract my helmet. Cool air washes over me, a marked contrast to the stinking inferno of the crashed pod. The carrot and beet smells seem intensely pleasant, like a welcome home meal I’ve longed for finally delivered.
My stomach growls. Traitor. It was trying to throw up just a minute ago.
Silence. Stillness. The walls are white like paper. The faint rumble of the quake comes and goes, perhaps anticlimactic, but a prelude to worse still on its way.
Six minutes until the ejecta arrives. Over an hour until the air-blast.
I wait for my heartbeat to slow. No sweat wets my body, all wicked away by the suit like a second skin, but I’m covered in red dirt. Red dirt cloys to my hair and my face, itching and heavy. My lip is split, and my scalp stings and trickles from several small cuts. I feel utterly wretched.
And yet, triumph sings a song in my aching bones.
Here I am.
And here I will remain. The note sours.
There’s the thing I’ve been trying not to think about. The Titan, that vessel of all our hopes and dreams, of every last living soul and the sum of earth’s history and memory has slipped away into space, wounded and pursued by a relentless enemy we can neither see nor fight. Leaving me.
My heartbeat seems a drum in a space that doesn’t echo.
It has been more than seven minutes since they jumped away. Seven was the minimum until enemy contact, eight and a half the max. It’s been more than ten.
We stood. We screamed our defiance with the most awesome of weapons. Our death throws might have torn apart the fabric of this universe if we had not shown restraint. Instead we were cut apart. We bled. We fled again and again until now, until one final escape for one last seven minute breath, a final seven minute chance.
Leaving me, by accident, alone.
It would be foolish not to assume I am the last. That enemy has been more remorseless even than death, which with long work and subtle engineering we had set to flight. It seems foolish, thinking back, to imagine we had conquered death. It wasn’t banished, but waiting in the form of that faceless enemy in the accretion disk of a black hole for opportunity to strike at us, to remind us in terms final and complete that this universe, these suns and planets, quazars and nebulae and yes we too, shall end.
But for a while at least, we breathed or works into the void.
“Cortex, is it possible for this body to be inseminated?”
“I need to know if this body is fertile.”
“Available sensors aren’t capable of comprehensive analysis, but macro-biological markers suggest yes.”
I knew that much.
The wind moans over the shell of my little shelter. My face itches and I scratch off some dried dirt with the red-caked fingers of my right hand.
In the collective, if I considered such a problem, subroutines would have suggested all necessary information directly to my consciousness. I’d have known instantly what the technological requirements would be to clone sperm from my own DNA or to induce parthenogenesis – the process of fertilizing one of this body’s eggs without sperm. In the collective, a moment’s focus would have brought me the progression of tools I’d have to build to get from where I am to there. The Caruso program has all that information, but the interface feels painfully slow. Biological memory supplies only that the technologies would be mostly chemical, for which the fabricator may be a tremendous help, if I spend its resources wisely.
“Query Caruso: Does a path of technological progression exist which will lead to sperm cloning or viable artificial parthenogenesis before this body becomes infertile?”
I wait for its answer. The air in the pod seems hot, close, high pressure, like some vast and unseen weight looms about me.
“No.” it answers, and my heart floats, strangely buoyant in a pressure bath of sudden sweat. “Probability of a single individual successfully achieving DNA cloning or stem cell technologies from available resources inside a forty year timespan is less than 0.002%”
“Query Caruso: what about an artificial womb? Can the fabricator create one?”
“If I expend resources on an artificial womb, can I then develop the technology to impregnate that womb inside my lifetime?”
A slow breath fills my chest and shifts my body. The burn down my back aches. For reasons I don’t really understand, I have a strong desire to remove the exo-suit. Maybe it’s the contrast between its comfort and the scratchy dirt on my face. Maybe it’s the sound of the wind, a sound I’ve not heard since the day we left earth. But the suit is the only thing holding my arm together.
“Okay,” I say.
The roof of the shelter hums under the touch of wind. My footprints on the white floor look like rust or blood. I will not be making new humans, either by impregnating this body, or with an artificial womb.
This body is the last.
The thought repeats. I speak the words, listening to them against the moonstone walls and the sounds of wind. The shelter threatens to collapse under the weight of human recollection.
My thoughts supply no consensus or even majority. Only myself. I had a room on old earth, gone now, left behind to the dust of thousands of years from the foreshortened time of relativistic travel. The room was in a sunken ship, visited once in exo-suit when I planted an all-senses camera, and then again over and over in immersive virtual reality. Steel walls textured by fractal colonies of rust, the dead bones of sea-weeds unable to live in a sea too hot and too toxic, and the brined detritus of humanity: cups, plates, tables painted with decay and paintings vanished into the sea to leave empty frames. A chandelier still hung from a gold-plated chain. Its crystal beads glittered in the camera’s light. I went there to be alone, to float in that shining trove of vanished history, weightless, cold, free of the burdens of choice and action which hounded my day to day life even before the upload.
I miss it.
My tongue rubs like sandpaper against the roof of my mouth and my throat feels like a deepening desert sink-hole. I’m thirsty.
On to smaller problems. The earthquake has past. The cloud of ejecta particulates from the impact will be arriving soon, and I’ll need water. Whatever else, I’d rather not die of thirst.
I rise and exit the structure. Some part of my mind starts to scream.
Outside, a black cloud paints the sky into a yin-yang of light and dark. Dust and stone accelerated into the upper atmosphere at hyper-sonic speeds have burnt up, and now drift down in a wide and spreading cloud of ash masquerading as snow. That psudo-weather front hasn’t arrived yet, but it will in a few moments. The pillar of falling ash, lit by the setting sun, reaches all the way to space, far beyond the ordinary heights of clouds.
The bottom of the spider has a hatch that opens to a hose on a wheel. This unfurls as I walk it down to the edge of the little mountain pool. A hand-crank will pump water up into the cistern, until I can find a way to make oil for the engine.
The little pool of mountain water catches a handful of sky amid the red grasses. In an hour, its face will be choked with ash, but now it peers up, innocent and nearly empty, wearing the yellow of the setting sun like a gossamer veil. Tiny fish swim in the sapphire depth, the size of tadpoles. I see no insects at all, and in all the wide landscape nothing moves but me, the weather, and the gentle lap of the pond.
The wind breathes across my face. It smells of snow.
I walk into the water and feel nothing until it reaches my neck. Then shocking cold climbs my throat and slides across my chin. The suit, a second skin, doesn’t fill, so my body seems in a different space. Split lips sting, then smile. My barely contained hair wicks water, gets heavier. A sudden depth opens beneath my feet.
Cold closes around me.
I am unafraid. Peaceful. For no good reason. I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t care.
I open my eyes to a world of red stone, crisscrossed by the dancing lines of light through liquid. Dust clouds away from my skin, and a few quick scrubs clean it away, but the suit smokes dust like a phosphorous fire. I want badly to shed it.
Tiny fish, startled by their new companion, swim close in a school. They have topaz eyes.
My breath makes no surge or worry. Holding it is effortless. The clips on my exosuit twist under my fingers. Cold water rushes in, pushes along clammy flesh unaccustomed to contact, wets tiny hairs and seeps long fingers down my thighs to cool my toes.
The weight of the water leaves me in equilibrium, floating in my cloud of dust.
I remain. Eventually, breath begins to beg. Water enters my mouth, sweet, clean, probably full of micro-organisms against which I have no protection. Easier to die by drowning. Cleaner. A little struggle, and then gone. A convulsion, floating in an empty world.
The first specs of ash touch the water’s face.
I’m crashing. The distant corner of my mind which has been screaming since I stepped outside calms to a clear voice: The painkillers, energy chems, adrenaline, shock and loss are all taking their toll. I’ve stepped outside without my visor. I’m now floating in a pond. I need to not be doing these things.
Cold and weightless, I watch the fish circle me, passing in and out of light beams made by my red cloud of dirt.
We sent two probes onto this planet. They’ll know more about the diseases. If Sheln had half an instant to spare before he jumped The Titan away, he may have sent them the commands to begin synthesizing treatment plans to adapt colonists for the local flora.
One of those probes landed on this continent, in the lowlands beyond the end of the mountain range.
I kick. My boots hit the bottom and I rise like a torpedo. Water splits against my face. Flecks of white ash tumble from the sky to speckle the water’s surface. The tiny fish investigate with probing mouths. They seem to be eating it.
I tread water and the touch of air makes my skin shiver and goosbump.
“Cortex,” I say into a growling wind, “add the payload and structure of a planetary exploration probe to the resource list for program Caruso, then re-run the last set of queries.”
Thunder rumbles through the mountains, long and groaning. Maybe thunder, maybe a landslide. I can see no disturbance.
“Yes. Several technology development paths exist which will result in one of artificial insemination by cloned sperm, induced parthenogenesis, or a functionally supplied artificial womb within the estimated lifespan of your body.”
“How long will the shortest path take, assuming a single worker who must also tend to their own basic needs?”
“Reliable parthenogenesis may be achieved with three thousand eight hundred work days of sixteen hours, including average rates of human error. This estimate has a margin of error of 30%, and assumes availability of certain, commonly abundant, chemical resources.”
I hardly hear the second half of the answer. Between seven and thirteen earth years. Printed bodies like this one are typically birthed at the end of the adolescent phase, and even if this one was born a little early or late, there should still be plenty of time, if I can stay alive.
I pivot to look out across the landscape, following the direction of the growing shadow past the teeth of the mountains to where, far beyond the horizon, the probe waits. Its data burst included photographic evidence of large land animals akin to rhinoceros. It will be a long, hard journey. I have yet to weather the air-blast, and I still don’t know if there’s anything on this planet I can eat.
But after that journey, after seven to thirteen years of work, there may come into being another human. A new mind. The opaque wall of the future opens a narrow gap. Genetic historians estimate the entire population of the Americas before European colonization, some 120 million people, were descended from no more than seventy individuals who crossed the Asian-American land bridge together. Those seventy individuals were enough. Perhaps with an artificial womb and genetic variance algorithms I can produce seventy. Perhaps they may be enough. My chest shakes and water gurgles into my open mouth. I paddle and splash with my teeth bared in a manic grin. Laughing. This is laughter.
As I laugh, light blooms in the sky. A second sun spreads shining petals above the ash cloud. I cover my eyes and grin up through the slit in my fingers as water and light drip against my face.
It’s been thirty-five minutes since The Titan’s weapons shredded a gas giant in the outer system. The light from that detonation coruscates through silver and gold in a brilliant, soundless pageant of futile might. The silhouettes of dying meteors make shadows across that blaze and the pillar of ash spreads above me like a starless night.
I’ll live on.