Last and Alone

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 , 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 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?”

“Yes.”

“Define cardinal directions using spin east or magnetic north?”

“Spin east.”

“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.