Maru’s law: nothing may circumvent the right to die.
The only light came from a surgical spotlight, burning white on a long mechanical arm. Kim stood with his back to the darkness and his eyes on the table in front of him where the body of a young woman lay. A delicate incision interrupted the soft white flesh of her brow, one errant trickle of blood ran along her eyebrow and her eyes stared wide into the blinding white glare of the surgical flood light. Saaga was awake.
Kim bent over, there was a cruel looking tool attached where the index finger of his right hand should have been, this he placed into the laser thin crack which now traced it’s way around the circumference of her skull. He worked his way carefully around her head, widening the space bit by but until suddenly, with a very satisfying pop, blonde hair and all, her skullcap released unto his hand. Heavy bleeding was to be expected, in fact, a drop in blood volume sped up the CBF replacement process. The table was designed to channel blood tissue into a drain under the patient’s head. Kim took a moment to admire her brain, setting the skull fragment aside with a dim clink, he ran one hand across the undulating grey pink contours, untouched by human hands, not even nano trackers. She was pristine.
He looked down to see her eyelids trembling, tears welling at the corners of her eyes and pupils constricted.
“I’m going to make you a goddess,” he bent down, and with sterile, cybernetic lips, he kissed her cerebral cortex.
The desert stretched out forever in every direction, pock marked with craters and strewn with rocks. Four red stars shone high in the pale grey sky, beating down with what had once been scientific accuracy. But now, in these late days of war and of steel, they boiled down onto the barren land with blinding, rays and ruthless, red light.
Along the edge of a large crater, a pillar of black smoke rose, to dissolve into transparency in the high, grey heavens.
At it’s foot, the smoking wreckage of a crude flying machine, all wheels and steel and rivets, crumpled, under it’s own inertia, into the orange cliff side.
The pilot lay still, across the flight console, blue eyes, half open under the flight helmet. Breathing slowly, her head spinning, she drifted toward consciousness. With a jerk, she sat up, staring, for a second in bewilderment at the cliff face above her. Her eyes drifted down, assessing, processing, weighing the things that stood in her way. One hand jutted out slamming a red button with her palm, the cockpit opened a crack. Saaga shifted her weight and worked her fingers under the glass, with a violent, creaking groan of metal on metal, it slid back three inches. She stopped to breathe, once, twice, and with her minimal weight she managed to widen it a foot.
Saaga discarded her flight helmet and let her pale hair shake around her ears, her lips were dry, but her face was young, just sixteen with the dead, staring eyes of a broken old soldier.
She was thin, raised since childhood on military rations. Her head and chest easily slipped through the opening. she hooked a knee through, stopping to breathe in a well balanced and undignified pose.
And glancing down once, she let herself drop onto a crouch on the rocky ground. She sat very still for a long moment, she was not alone.
He came from across the desert, from where far off in the eastern horizon, the opposite edge of the crater loomed. She watched him approaching, and rather than hiding, she stood up straight. A cruel combat knife tucked against her forearm.
“most people choose a garden!” he shouted when he was within earshot. “ seems trite, I know, but there it is.” he was wearing a formal outfit, one she had seen many times on the elders of her people. “you like the getup?” he said with a swagger. She frowned at his dark face in wonder. he stood three feet from her, long dreadlocks bound in a metallic cuff, fists on his hips, flashy white grin, big gold sunglasses.
“do you have any idea how lucky you are, honeybee?” he slowly removed the sunglasses, his eyes sparkled with a terrible green light.
“Who are you?” Saaga demanded.
“Kimba Yeshiemebet Checholech, how about you call me Kim?” he looked at her intently, a calculating intelligence “and what’s a proper name for you, mystery girl.” he stepped closer, peering down at her.
“colonel Saaga Hlogan Fliecher,” she breathed out, “seventeenth airborne,”
“good, military is good,” he cleaned his glasses on his robe and tucked them into the collar, “that orbital platform doesn’t produce much ultraviolet radiation… does it?“ he observed her with an intellectual detachment, “Explains the melanin deficiency.” he clicked his tongue behind pursed lips. Studying her. “there’s no easy way to say this… Saaga.”
“what.” she straightened, defensive, judging whether he was a threat.
“you are standing on the edge of death.” he let the inherent gravitas in his words drop them to the sand like rocks.
“what’s that supposed to mean?” she spat, “I’m fine.” she let the last word hiss between her lips.
“no, you’re not.” he looked at the ground then back up to her face. He sighed, “listen…” he held out one hand, wanting to touch her but refraining. She looked so cold and so deadly in that flight suit, all straps and buckles and khaki and insignias. With nothing of the soft vulnerability he had carried down through the decks of their ship, into the cybernetics lab. “of all the spaceships, in the whole galaxy, you ran into me, now I call that a chance in hell, and I know better than to say no to providence.”
“what happened?” her frame slumped, worry passing across her face.
“your organic body can no longer support the functions required to maintain electrical activity in your brain, you blood will not carry the oxygen which your lungs will not seize, you’re dead Saaga, or very nearly.”
“no, I’m fine,” she shook her head, taking a step backwards, “I just… I just walked away from a plane crash.” she stumbled a step backwards.
“and before that?”
“I don’t remember…”
Her breathing became suddenly heavy and she dropped her knife, clutching her chest in panic.
“it’s fine,” he spoke with soft vowels, passing one hand through the air. “you’re fine, Saaga, you’re safe.”
“but?” she looked back at the wreckage, the long, smoking gash it had left in the sand, “how can I be dead?”
“well…” he held out a reassuring hand, touching her shoulder, pressing down her flight jacket over thin bones. “if you’d let me finish.”
She nodded mutely.
“I was able to remove the most important bits, and connect them to an interface, directly routed into a computer simulator, where guided by the subconscious, it created a place you could feel safe…” he frowned up at the dark pillar of smoke.
“this isn’t my body…” she looked down, lying one gloved hand on her stomach.
“it feels like my body!” she asserted, her hand snapping down into a fist.
“that’s because you want it to.” his tone was sad, his eyes fixed on her gently.
“how much is left?” she asked as one who had both seen and suffered terrible injury, bodies hacked to bits for the glory of one tribe or one faction.
“kill me,” she demanded, “I can be mortal alright. Better than an eternity of knocking around my own skull.”
“there IS an alternative…” he waited for her to look him in the eye.
“and what’s that?”
“I want to offer you a gift, mystery girl,”
“cybernetics.” he relished the word. ”the last great hope of mankind.”
“and what’s that mean?” she snapped, shoving one shaking hand into her trouser pocket.
“it means survival.”
“I can…” he studied her, sighed and then decided that she was not the type to appreciate the delicacy of prevarication. “hardwire your brain into a robotic body which will serve as a vessel and a preservation matrix, I can make you into a cyborg.”
“what does it feel like?”
“I…” he blinked, the pages of his long life flickering backwards, “I don’t remember.”
“well that’s reassuring,” she sneered.
“Saaga,” he said with a laugh, “it was a thousand years ago.”
“so… so… you’re a Cyborg?”
“you don’t LOOK like a cyborg.”
“don’t I?” for a moment the flickering shadow of a gleaming, mechanical lens shone from one eye, a band of riveted steel, nailed into his forehead, the garments shifted to reveal smooth, gleaming red metal straps, all woven with wires and bolts and decorative detailing.
“it was, you!” her memory came rushing back all at once, “it was you, in the ship!”
“yes.” he nodded.
“you saved my life?”
“I’m in the process.”
“and you’re, uh, you like it?” it was an inane question, but her brain seemed to have gone suddenly blank. “being a… that is?”
“it has it’s perks.”
“and it’s downsides?”
“Everything changes. There can be, occasionally, psychological problems, over time. Some amnesia. You will probably lose your sense of taste and, uh, smell. But you know, there are more efficient means of… gathering sensory evidence. Touch, is, different. Better!” he reassured her, “but I won’t pretend it’s the same.”
“and the perks?”
Kim smiled slowly, “you can discover those for yourself.”
Saaga rubbed her nose, “I need a minute,” she turned away from him, staring at the shattered fuselage, angrily tearing off her gloves and letting them fall to the ground.
She was a sixteen year old girl. She had been trained and conditioned from childhood to kill, to march and to fly. She was already a machine, forced into functionality. And yet… those hands.
“I don’t want to die.” she admitted in a gasp, her blue eyes gleaming in the pale daylight.
“then shall we get started?”
Somehow Kim managed to show every one of his teeth in a wicked grin.
He vanished in a flash from the simulation and Saaga was left alone with the wind.
“Kim!” she shouted but her voice was cut of. The world faded into darkness a long deep timeless void. Unbroken and vast and ancient and holding her in with its immensity.
“Has it ever occurred to you,” a voice broke through the dark, she could not see Kim, crouched over her skull, brow knitted in concentration. He had opened the seam which ran along the midline of her face, delicately separating bone and muscle and the two front teeth. “That your brain is the most valuable thing you will ever own?” she did not feel the molecule thin blades dissect away her cerebellum, nor did she feel his gentle fingers guiding nanofibers along the synaptic passageways of her mind. “Has it ever occurred to you that it is in fact your property? A lump of goo half the size of a football and not nearly as aerodynamic. All abuzz with electrical systems, pulsing with arterial blood glowing softly in the darkness of the jewelry we call a skull,” one thumb ran along the marrowed edge of her temporal bone marked with the regular mechanical lines of a saw blade. “What a terrible puzzle for ethicists and philosophers, the yawning threat of existential void. Our very being dangles on a neuron above an abyss,” only one thick, white organic rope ran down to her heart, he took a patient breath, “waiting to let go.” and cut.
There are two types of people in the galaxy. Category A, (most of us), who when shown open space will cling to whatever comes within reach, and attempt to assure their safety. And category B, very few people, who when shown an open airlock, jump.
Why would you jump? A person of category B may not be able to readily answer that question. Upon further reflection it will seem silly to them, their initial urge would be suppressed and they will never know what it feels like to die in the black vacuum of space.
Would you step into the abyss? Cut off everything but the light of your own consciousness. Strip away everything. Your face, your hands, your eyes, skin and hair, cut off your lips, your eyes. Could you enter the bloodbath? Where men are massacred, where their hearts and lungs are stopped and ground into dust and carbon. Would you die, to be reborn, a cyborg?
Has it ever occurred to you, that your brain is the most valuable thing you will ever own?
“While the brain exists, the soul exists,” Kim’s voice returned after an eternity of darkness, “where the soul exists there is life. The soul is defined by law as he who can say “I am.”
“this is why no one is converted before the development of speech. Every cyborg was born human, organic and weak, every cyborg knew the cradle of flesh.”
“we are bound together, our fates intertwined, an eternity of loneliness, the inevitable alternative to solidarity.”
“We were a people lost in space. Turned away from our home world, abandoned by the cruel gravity of Earth and her inhabitants, pushed to the dark crevices of the galaxy. we had come together, at the edge of known space, to seek out a new world, with a gentler hold on a darker sky. Somewhere we could live out our long lives in peace.
Lead by nothing but hope, we struck out into the black. Soon the light of Sol vanished in the spangled velvet dark, and seven hundred ships tunneled madly across the rippling currents of space .
We wandered, for five hundred years. A fleet of seven hundred ships, pointing their noses into the gleaming mystery of the cosmos.
We wandered and grew old, tattered, rough, but we knew a child would not grow from one of us in that vast cold-hot nothing. The endless expanse of space, filled with photons and radiation and darkness and nothing. And it wasn’t as if we had brain cells to spare for proper cloning.
So we were careful, we protected and loved each other, and in the long cold night of space, we formed a new civilization. We devoted ourselves to scientific research, anything to buy us another hundred years of neurological stability, long after our brains should have turned to earth in six foot graves in the crowded cemeteries of our incunabular home. We developed new methods of propulsion, more advanced scanning technology, the most elegant robotics, the most powerful weapons.
But as the years went past and the world we had been promised seemed further and further away. Our probes came back empty handed from every star, too much dust, too much wind, too much gravity, too hot, too cold.
And that’s when disaster came, on his pale horse.
We had known about the Ch’thu for centuries, they were always a distant threat, once or twice we had to turn away raiding parties, but they were mostly just another xenophobic alien tribe, knocking around their local star systems with whatever technology they had managed to develop. But, upon entering the Carbonic Arm the story changed entirely.
One of the first systems on this side of the Gulf is called Nepsphau, our probes scanned the planet from afar and they seemed to indicate an advanced civilization. Five of us decided that we would take one of the smaller ships and uh, go see about aboriginals. I’ve always been a bit of an anthropologist.
But, when we got there, the planet had been ravaged, the Ch’thu came through, with their matter transfer beams, round up the people, enslave some, kill the rest, next they drain the planet’s atmosphere of oxygen, nitrogen, water and whatever minerals sparkle the brightest, especially iron, carbon and gold. This, as you might imagine, destabilizes the planet, causing it to collapse in on itself. And all in a matter of hours.
From that point on we were ever vigilant, watching the stars for any traffic whatsoever, so that when the Ch’thu did at last come for us, we were ready.
They ride in ships strapped to the backs of mighty space faring beasts. They shoot missiles from afar, and they sparkled against our shielding, and we held our ground.
Three times, the Ch’thu attacked, and three times we turned them running.
But the forth time… they call it the battle of Minrau. The assassin star.
Of course, we, being from out of town, did not realize that this particular star had received that particular epithet for a very good reason. Every fifty or so earth years, the proximity of Tsoleia, a neighboring star, causes Minrau to erupt in fantastic storms, which can arch out light-years into space. The Ch’thu, after taking heavy losses, retreated through the center of the system, we, stupid and overconfident, pursued them, taking the majority of our military fleet close to the star.
A storm system struck without warning. It was terrible, we lost three hundred ships in the first six hours, and hundreds more were crippled beyond all hope. We fled, taking those we could, with only two hundred and thirteen ships remaining there was little we could do.
The Ch’thu had vanished a moment before the storm struck, the area wouldn’t be safe for organic life forms for a while. But we did not doubt they’d be back.
We didn’t have the resources to maintain the population. I’ll admit that I was prepared to do some horrible things, we all were, the dream of our people had burned in my heart for so long, we were willing to give ourselves up to see our hopes realized.
And it was then, in our hour of darkest need, that the Aksirani appeared. We owe them a debt, a debt greater than any other.
They helped us, and in their apparently fathomless knowledge of the universe, they found a world where our people could make a home. But we had to make a deal. There is a small system, with a star called Barishe that shines a cool blue on it’s only two satellites, two planets, Rama and Golgotha. Now Rama has been called Eden, paradise, all the best parts of earth, and none of the uncomfortable bits, it’s a pristine wilderness, all water and trees and pale white light on the horizon, and in that ancient forest, there lives a population of something a bit like humans, and a bit like Neanderthals, and covered in fur. And they were right in the path of destruction which the Ch’thu were ripping through the Carbonic Arm.
Of course such a wilderness is torture to us, too much gravity, too much moisture in the air, too much dust. But Golgotha… The place of the skull. It was far outside of Barishe’s gravity well, barren, virgin, stone pressed right up to the vacuum, no atmosphere, minimal EM field, and best of all, we discovered when one of their drones returned with a crust mineral analysis, lots, and lots of carbon.
And it was ours, and all we had to do, was protect the Rama from the Ch’thu.
And in the year three thousand two hundred and twenty two, the city of Chablis was founded, the compass point from whence the galaxy would be divided, ordered and ruled ever after.
Above the throne of skulls, in the high halls of the city of Chablis on the cybernetic home world, the Darksphere, Golgotha, is written these words:
Shine on, shine on, little star
how we searched so long and far
For we who seek to never die
The diamond city in the sky