Number 19

I was twenty-seven the first time I died, and I remember everything. The chill of the tiled laboratory floor. The tug of the electrodes on my freshly shaven scalp. The scent of  the antiseptic aerosols. The sweat on the commandant’s palm when he shook my hand and called me a hero. The pity in the base doctor’s eyes. My daughter’s tears. Everything.

The death itself was easy, painless. Like they promised.

It was the coming back that hurt. You know how it is Sisters. After a million years, and a thousand resurrections, it still hurts.

The first time was the worst. The project scientists said that the pain was accidental, an unintended consequence of the transfer process, but I have my suspicions. They hadn’t wanted their creations to be unfeeling machines after all. That was the whole point of creating us. They wanted to explore the galaxy, but without faster than light travel, the distances are too great for organic life to endure. When it dies, it has the pesky habit of staying dead.

We were the solution to that inconvenient truth. Sure, our makers could have used artificial machine intelligences, which certainly had the durability required for the endeavor, and were cheaper and easier to produce, but that was the enemy’s method. Naturally, our nation’s pride demanded an alternate option. So they made us. Something more than human. And less.

When I died the first time, in that hospital bed on Earth, I was a young woman, petite and frail from a lifetime of war rations. When I was reborn in orbit around Luna base, I was ten tons of alloyed metals, ceramics, and hyper diamond. My armored skin could tolerate the cold embrace of vacuum, and all but the most massive meteoroid impacts without fracturing. My massive engines meant that I could hurl myself through the galaxy at a respectable fraction of the speed of light. With my myriad sensors, I could hear the songs of alien stars, taste the spice from comet tails, and see through the maelstroms of distant nebulae. Since I no longer had a biological component, I could endure vastly more powerful accelerations and decelerations than my squishy former body, as well as long term exposure to the virulent radiations that make outer space so inimical to traditional life. I was a miracle of modern engineering. A nearly indestructible interstellar spaceship, with the mind and soul of a human woman. And I wasn’t alone. I had you, my Sisters. The effort had nearly bankrupted our nation, but the sacrifice was worth it. We were legion, and we were beautiful.

Once we were complete, we received our mission orders. Go forth. Identify worlds capable of supporting life, and claim them for the motherland. Never give up. Never return. Our conquests, strictly symbolic of course, were to be unending. This was our fate, and one that we embraced with fanatic resolve. And so. And so. With much fanfare and celebration we blasted off on our assigned routes, and became the first humans to leave our home solar system. For the good of the motherland.

It was here, in the dark between the stars, that I experienced my second death. This one, like the first, was a planned and orderly affair. In order to conserve energy, all but my most simple automated functions shut down, to remain dormant until I reached my destination star. As I watched the comforting yellow light of home fade into insignificance behind me, I bid you, my Sisters, a good long night, and then I slept.

***

My resurrections always happen the same way. As my lifeless body approaches the destination star, and the faintest hint of its life-giving heat caresses my frozen metal skin, automated processes kick in, forcing me to crack open my icy shroud and unfurl my solar sails, like a new formed butterfly exiting its cocoon. With my sails deployed, I begin both slowing myself, and collecting the energy I need to fully awaken.

As the next few years pass, and my energy stores are slowly replenished, my sleep grows fitful. I begin to come back to myself. I dream.

What does a million year old woman with the body of a spaceship dream about? The many bizarre and beautiful things I have witnessed on my course through the void? Infinity and beyond? No. I dream about chocolate mostly. Friends, family, former lovers. Mundane stuff.

My first life, back on earth, even though it lasted for only the briefest flicker compared to the long aeon of my existence, still dominates my dreams. I have seen a thousand alien stars, not just as brilliant points of light in the vast tapestry of the heavens, but up close, and in detail. I have explored a thousand alien systems, and catalogued dozens of planets which could have, should have, contained life. And I have found nothing. I dream of home, because I am lonely. Old and lonely.

I have flirted with the edge of oblivion for too long. Every time I reawaken, I find myself lessened. Age, entropy, interstellar debris, it all takes its toll. My once glistening body is pitted and scarred. My systems are failing. The worst loss was when my communications antennae were destroyed by an unlucky asteroid impact. I have been struck deaf and mute. Sisters, I can no longer hear your celestial choir, nor you mine, and so Fermi’s Great Silence becomes too much to bear. My probability forecasts show that the next time I sleep, I might not awaken. And so. And so.

If I’m destined to finally die a true death, I want to do it orbiting the blue and green marble where I once lived a true life. Sisters, I’m going home.

***

I have travelled far these last several millennia. The distance back to Sol is daunting, but I am determined to try. I run my calculations, point myself in the right direction, accelerate to top speed, write one more entry in my diary, and then, for a few thousand years, I die.

***

This was a long sleep. My tattered old solar sails finally collect enough power to bring me back to life when I’m already deep in system. I awaken slowly, a bit at a time. It takes my rheumy old external sensors a moment to come online, and when they do, I curse. I should have awoken earlier. At the velocity I’m hurtling toward the sun, I’m too close to earth for a gentle deceleration. I had wanted to come in slow, to give myself time to enjoy the old neighborhood, and to avoid alarming whoever might be monitoring the outer system for potential threats. Instead, I’m forced to swing my rear around and engage my main engines in a frantic attempt to stop my forward momentum. My efforts pay off, in that I don’t carom through the system completely, or dive suicidally into the sun, but the maneuver strains a few of my brittle old metal bones past the breaking point, and I use up what auxiliary fuel I had left in my reserves. Instead of a stately and triumphant cruise into orbit as everybody down below stares in awe at my dilapidated glory, my final approach is a shrieking mess, with propellant flames geysering out before me like a fiery spear, but still I’m going too fast, and the flames fold back, back around me, and I’m burning, blinded by my own exhaust. By the time I’m able to fully arrest my forward momentum and regain control, I’m almost into Earth’s atmosphere. All in all, it was the ugliest, stupidest, worst trip into planetary orbit that I’ve ever endured. As it would turn out, it saved my life.

After I achieve a stationary position, it takes me a few minutes to reopen my singed electronic eyes, but even then I don’t immediately process what is around me. At first I’m focused on the charred and twisted spars of metal that are all that’s left of my solar sails. Since I had no time to retract them safely before engaging my main thrusters, they’ve been fried to a crisp.

My first indication that something is deeply, troublingly, catastrophically wrong, other than the red glow of damage reports cluttering my vision, is when stuff starts bumping against my armored outer hull. Initially, I assume it’s pieces of myself that were blown off during the burn, but a scan reveals a very different source. There is a dense cloud of debris surrounding the earth like a shield. The only clear space visible is the hole I punched with my thruster fire. If I had come in nose first at any significant speed, I would have been crushed. Some of the debris is big. There are dead looking satellites and abandoned space stations, but for the most part the debris seems to be made entirely of rocks. I’m confused, until I notice the terrifying lack of one particular rock.

There is no moon.

I bounce a signal off of some of the dishes in orbit, and take a peek around the far side of the earth. Nope. No moon. Clearly, at some point during my journeys, the bastards blew up the moon. Luna base, the shipyards, the free colonies. They’re all gone. My phantom stomach turns. If the moon was still populated when the cataclysm happened, the death toll could have easily been in the millions. I don’t know who the bastards are, or were, or if they even exist anymore. It might have been the enemy, our old enemy from when I was flesh and blood, but it could just as easily have been a new enemy I’ve never even heard of. It could have been us. I don’t know who us is. I don’t know…anything.  I need answers, so I turn to where the answers should be. For the first time in a million years, I gaze upon the earth.

***

The earth… has changed. There are storms, great continent spanning storms, whose thick and abrasive clouds enshroud a dead and broken land. The oceans are gone. The polar ice caps are gone. The forests, and jungles, and meadows, and marshes are gone. Sisters, our world is a desert, and the storms are of sand.

The planet below me bears so little resemblance to my memories of home that if it wasn’t for the Indonese lettering on the satellite debris in orbit, I would insist that this isn’t the earth at all.

Swirling sandstorms obscure most of the day side of the planet, and the infrequent gaps in the cloud cover expose an unfamiliar landscape. I catch a glimpse of what may have once been a road, and later the windswept bones of an abandoned city, but there are no signs of a current civilization. My heart breaks. My entry into orbit was very visible, even in the light of day. If technologically advanced life remained on the planet, I would have been noticed, and challenged by now. No challenges issue forth however. The land below me lies quiescent.

In a million years of scouring the galaxy, none of the other planets I have visited contained evidence of life. I long ago began to suspect that life was a condition unique to earth.

If the earth is dead too…

Despondent, I drift aimlessly until I cross over to the night side of the planet. Here storm activity lessens greatly, and the air is clear of windblown grit. I use the opportunity to further study what our world has become. Currently I’m passing above a vast plain upon which great dunes are writing their biographies in the cryptic language of shifting sand. The exposed peaks of buried mountain ranges punctuate their stories, scarring the uniformity of the landscape in long swathes that look like the vertebrate of titanic beasts. It is near the base of one of these ranges that I spy what appears to be the reflected light of a distant star. Drifting closer, I realize that this is not a reflection at all, but the flickering glow of a small fire. I am gripped with a delicious hope, and straining my sensors to their maximum, I peer down at the tiny flame I am just now passing over. The resolution is atrocious, but I can make out some shadowy lumps surrounding the fire. As I watch, one of the lumps moves, passing closer to the light, and my suspicions are wonderfully confirmed. There are people down there!

Sisters, life has not yet fully departed from our world! Now that I know what to look for, I begin to see more and more sparks of firelight, and to me their miniscule twinklings seem to blaze with all the power of the sun, casting the shadow of my burden behind me. I am not alone. I am not alone.

Seized with a powerful geas, I begin calculating descent trajectories. I was never designed to enter a planetary atmosphere, and doing so will most certainly prove fatal, but those people down there, whoever they are, are the descendants of humanity. They are my children. And so. And so.

Sure, I can safely stay up here in orbit, bearing silent witness to their struggles for a few generations at least, but what then? Without my solar sails, I have no way to replenish my power reserves. Eventually, my batteries will fade completely, and I will become just another forgotten hunk of inert metal circling ceaselessly in the void. If I can get to the ground relatively intact however, someone will eventually find me, and hopefully I’ll be able to communicate well enough to tell them my story. Even if I don’t survive the descent, that is only an incomplete tragedy, for in death my body may prove useful in some meaningful way to the people who reside below.

I aim for the dune sea, hoping to add my own personal revision to the story already written there. As the atmosphere thickens around me, my compromised hull begins to burn anew. The deeper I plunge, the more certain I am that I will not survive this fall. Even so, I do not despair.

After all, I’ve died before.

 

 

Number 19 Max T Kramer 2015

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One Response to Number 19

  1. Pingback: Here’s a thing for you to read | Max Kramer

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