Chapter five: Kill switch
Maru’s law: nothing may circumvent the right to die.
Finally alone, Saaga placed her hand between her legs. She explored with her fingers. Groping at every inch of flesh. Ear lobes, nipples, shoulders, lips. Her own, gentle caresses feeding in vivid detail up her spine. Her eyes glowed softly with relief a background fear lifted from her face. She sniffed her fingers, her armpits, tasted her mouth, nothing, no body odor whatsoever.
Kimba had left her with nothing to clothe her with but the silky nanofiber sheet.
Abandoning it, she hesitantly approached the mirror. A flat image designed so that her brain interpreted it as three dimensional, looked back at her. Peering close at her own face, her chin, where she had had irregularities, scars, blackheads, there was only pearly, perfect, touchable smooth skin, or something very like it. Barely noticeable seams cut through her joints, creating a smooth, regular pattern down over the graceful, slightly idealized curve of her bottom. There had been a scar, not disfiguring but noticeable, which had creased her throat since the age of ten, it was gone. Her fingers lingered at her right eyebrow, passed through the impossibly soft, white blonde hair, and dragged their way down the tight band of her sternocliedomastoid. No scar. No pulse.
The sudden pressure in her chest told her that she had forgotten to breathe.
Staggering, half blind from sudden vertigo she stumbled back to the operating table.
Saaga picked up the sheet and pulled the slippery fabric around her shoulders. She stared into the mirror across the room. A machine stared back.
The blue white light of the surgical lamp threw the reflected image of her body into jagged chiaroscuro. She pulled the blanket tight around her, falling sideways, curling her hands close to her body, tucking her knees up to her chest.
She shut her eyes tight (they did not contort her face in anguish, they simply moved into the inactive position and sealed) and drank in the horror of what she had become.
Something had seized at her soul. Something terrible and horrible and deep and it hurt. In her distress the subroutines that regulated her breathing and ocular lubrication did not initiate crying, so without a hiccough or a sob she blocked out the world with the palms of her hands and listened to the screaming human in her head.
The wound, the never healing wound, the stripping of the flesh and the grinding of the bones, lungs full of blood and nothing between her and the arms of death.
There are wires in my brain.
The little girl in her head was screaming, pinned her to the sandy floor of a half demolished farmhouse.
They put wires in my brain.
A razor, six inches of cold steel had slid across her windpipe, tearing the skin when she struggled. And again when she came.
They took me and they stopped my heart and they hacked my skull to pieces with the whining, screeching, saw!
“Hey,” Kimba’s voice came softly to her ear, “Saaga?” he touched her shoulder and she jerked away, hands clutched around her throat, every motion a shuttering hesitation, her breathing was quick and loud and choppy.
And he was inside me and he touched me and he took away everything I had ever known.
“Saaga, “ he whispered sincerely, “can you hear me?”
She thought she could hear distant gunfire.
The plane was burning around her, eject, escape, freedom from the claustrophobic shell of mechanics. There were wires in her brain, and whining in her ears and up her spine, and hydraulics in her hips and ball bearings in her gleaming blue eyes.
She was trapped.
She couldn’t feel her legs.
Someone was calling her name in the language of the stars.
One hand released from her throat and reached for Kimba. He took it, and sitting beside her on the worktable in the quiet darkness of his lab, pulled the shaking, broken machinery into his arms.
My body is not my own.
Kim’s voice floated through to some little bit of her conscious mind, speaking a strange and ancient tongue, “And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’” his hands ran up and down her arms.
“Go if you want to Saaga,” he caressed her face, “it is our only unbreakable law. Nothing can stop you. Your life is your own.”
She whimpered into him, a sound she thought she had forgotten how to make.
He rocked her slowly, the movement reading hypnotically in her magnetic stabilizers. The soothing bars of an Ethiopian lullaby sung below the threshold of human hearing vibrated the table below them. His fingers passed through her hair.
“You never said it would hurt so much,” Saaga whispered.
“If it’s any consolation,” he rubbed her shoulder, “it doesn’t hurt any more than being human.”
There was no heat between them, and the strappy metallic legs he chose to go about on were not at all comfortable. But what he could offer was touch, kindness and patience. She was dangerously close to the kill switch, and he had grown rather fond of her. He leaned over her body and reached for a nearby cabinet, rather than moving her, he let the sections of his arm telescope the extra foot. He opened a small drawer and retrieved a bright red plastic package.
In the year 3500 there are approximately ninety three million narcotic chemicals known to science. There are uppers and downers, methamphetamines, lysergic acid diethlamides, cannabinoids, desomorphines, endorphines, pot, khat, crack and robitussin.
Mushrooms for fun hallucinations, mushrooms for deep hallucinations. Exotic kelps from the seas of Aksirani, which did fantastic things in the temporal lobes, pills for getting thinner, pills for getting blonder, or right handed, or smarter, or more socially competent. You could spend a week in a serotonin bath hallucinating about sex parties with underage celebrities. And nobody would judge you for it.
A cyborg could enjoy any cocktail of neurotransmitters, or dial up the Zed in their systems, for a heightened sensory experience and a feeling of euphoria. Or, if they were wealthy, and willing to go through the Catalinian, enjoy more natural remedies, grown and bred in vast indoor greenhouses on the Martian plains, far, far away across the Gulf. And anything, any mood stabilizing, appetite suppressing, hallucinatory trip could be enjoyed without fear of addiction, brain damage or overdose, the best high of your life, every single time.
Saaga lay back into Kim’s arms eyes half open, staring into the perfect, silent darkness. The screaming was gone; the fevered, broken hurt had melted out of her, through the floor and into open space. The wires in her brain barely itched.
There were antidepressants, and anticonvulsants, barbiturates, psilocybin, mdma and PCP, there was peyote, and some kind of powder made with bugs, and alcohol, and nicotine and caffeine, and nothing, in the whole expanse of the galaxy and of scientific knowledge, that ever, for a moment, beat heroin.
She breathed steadily, her O2 valves set to an automatic rhythm. Her interface put on standby while the drug ran its course, any neurological damage would be fixed within hours. But for now, her hands curled around the little baggie in Kim’s hand. She looked down at the label, it said it was Human made; all opiates were, smuggled in over the Gulf from the distant stars of Sol and Centauri. Poppy fields of Persia, stretching on forever under an alien sun.
“Where’s Earth?” Saaga asked in the deep silence her interface had finally started to reboot.
“Very far away.”
“it‘s beautiful,” she spread the label on the plastic bag, a rolling field of red flowers rose against jagged mountains, the blue sky was broken by minaret’s and a crescent, she couldn’t read the fancy gold calligraphy.
“Doesn’t actually look like that.” Kim said. “At least it didn’t the last time I was there.”
“That’s too bad,” she sighed, “it looks nice.”
“It was, once upon a time,” he found himself absentmindedly touching her hair. It wasn’t a popular feature amongst cyborgs, but he had always found it exotic.
“hu-X-mau-razu-a-rum.” he pronounced, clicking the x through his lips with a mechanical pop and dragging the last syllables into subsonic notes that Saaga could feel on her chest..
“What language is that?”
“High Golgathan, in vulgar Chalbian, the dialect you are programmed to understand, they are called humans.”
“But I’m human,” it didn’t bother her as much that her memories were slipping away, what had they called themselves?
“No, my dear, you are nothing like them.” his hand froze in thought. “A human is a thing that spreads, that multiplies, and kills, displacing all other life, and feeling no mercy for those they destroy. It is a life form that stopped growing, a fetus, left to gasp and die outside of the womb, an unhatced egg, a soul marred with age and crippled by the fetters of flesh, or so the authorities would have us believe.”
“Mutrrhi.” she muttered.
“In truth, they are where we came from, but not what we are. Many would have you believe that they are incapable of complex emotions, many of us make them into monsters, or troglodytes, mindlessly breeding, fucking, splitting, like bacteria that wipe out planets. But the truth is Saaga, whether we are built of steel, or stone or flesh, inside we’re all still human.” he traced the shell pink ridge of her ear with one finger, she had a brass ring through the earlobe, a decoration he had added to fill the empty holes he had seen on her corpse. Only noticing after the tops of her ears had been cut off by the bone saw. “And know this; they are our oldest, and our most malicious enemy, from whom we have kept the secret of our survival for the last five hundred years. The humans can never know we exist, it would start a galactic war.”
The ship creaked around them.
“I want some more of this.” she pushed the plastic baggie into his hand. “Then tell me more about Earth.” she curled up against his cold body.
“Just this once,” he said, unsealing the package with dark, clever fingers, nine of them. “It’s only for emergencies. You can develop a habit when you can pay for it yourself.”
He filled a clear acrylic delivery pod which fastened into her nostrils.
And then she was being fucked by God.
The hot clear light of Sol beat down on her eyelids, from over and beyond the echoing passages of space and the slinking, churning rivers of time. An ancient longing for that primordial star burned in her brain, “home.” She whispered, feeling Kim’s long fingers lace between her own.
“Let me tell you the story of Earth.” he began patiently after what might have been hours, speaking, once again, with the flowing, musical syllables of the cybernetic tongue. A language which all could understand, and very few could speak. It was the only way to properly tell stories, according to the ancient oral traditions of their race. “Earth, is a planet which, like so few in the galaxy, was born, dense, and packed with life, a billion varieties, each one, growing in harmony with those around it, living for generation after generation, in the tender embrace of nature.“ images of a wet, green planet filled her mind, trees, taller than the tallest buildings on her world blocking out the electric blue sky with a dense canopy of leaves. “A few of those life forms developed languages, and arts and civilizations, and they called themselves Homo sapiens. Their great experiment worked, too well.”
“They started multiplying, and building, and making, and little by little they stomped out the other life forms, and built great, artificial mechanisms to replace the ways of nature. They used their technologies to move to a nearby planet, where cyborgs, not just like us, but very similar, gradually turned the barren red desert into fields of grain and seas of fresh water. And one thousand years ago, that was where I was born.”
Saaga shifted her weight, her interface was going offline again, but this time she told herself to listen, to hold on to the sounds that her body made, the sweet, and woven phonemes borrowed from the rumbling music of the stars and the ancient tongues of Earth.
“Suzuki Maru, I don’t know if you remember me telling you about him before. He became very wealthy after he wrote the program behind the Cherub drones. His company was called Mar-Co a bit of a pun, not actually funny. Anyway, he came to own the copyright for that bit of hardware in your skull called the Cortical interface.”
“Around the same time, Earth was suffering a population crisis in the wake of global urbanization. To deal with this, the planetary authorities offered anyone who wanted it a small stipend to purchase teraformation equipment, a plot of land and a free ticket to Mars. Naturally it was an opportunity which many of the poor and the disadvantaged took with enthusiasm and hope.”
“But, humans were not made for that barren waste, and if you wanted to survive, artificial advancement was necessary. The first cybernetics companies were set up in TelAres; Mar-Co, Honda, Mechadro, Der Arztschmied. People, like Suzuki Maru, would lend out money to poor landowners, they would use the loans to purchase cybernetics, from their lenders, and either give up their land parcels after they were done with the teraformation process, or spend the rest of their lives paying off their debt. Oligarchy. Nothing ever changes.”
“That’s where you were born?” Saaga found her fingers wrapped around one of the structural metallic struts which crossed his torso.
“Yes, in twenty four ninety two. My father was a partial integration cyborg, big, chrome arms, like armor. He emigrated from a region called Africa with his wife and two children, my mother was a prostitute.”
“We were poor. The little that would grow in that terrible waste was sold back to earth. Both of my brothers were enhanced, in order to better work the land, but when year after year came around and our meager crops came up stunted and dry. The debt just built up.”
“Word got around that Mar-Co was working on a project which might finally, after years of failure unlock the key to true integrated cybernetics. They were offering millions of dollars for any child between the ages of four and eight with a specific genetic marker. He knew the dangers involved; everyone had heard the stories about poor Brian Lawrence, and all of his dead children. But I was a burden, and, turns out, I was one in a thousand.” Saaga made a sound of discomfort, shifting her hips experimentally.
“You’ll be more comfortable if you depolarize.” he informed her, suddenly breaking from his narrative.
“What?” she mumbled through the opiate mist, her eyes cracking to icy blue slivers.
“I have to do everything,” he grumbled, reaching around to the tablet which never seemed to leave his side, it was still wirelessly connected to her interface. A moment later she felt the tug of magnetism release. She giggled at the strange sensation of sudden weightlessness, held in place by nothing but Kim’s arm across her torso and her own inertia, Saaga stretched out her legs past the end of the table, tension leaving her body.
“Where was I?”
“One in a thousand,” she muttered.
“Right, it made my family rich. For a little while. Paid off our debts, bought the neighboring properties, all they needed to give up was the bastard.”
“My father cried at the airport, one of the only things I remember, it was so long ago.” he watched Saaga’s eyes close, “I’m a prototype, you know that? One of the first twenty. The first to survive the operation with my mind intact.” he looked down at her, then at the tablet. She was asleep. Deeply, happily asleep.
Kimba lowered the light levels with a hand signal and slid carefully out from under her. He polarized her to the cold steel, slowly, so not to wake her. He watched her for a long moment, tracing the contours of her lips with his eyes. He smiled down at her, at that moment he felt like they were the oldest and the youngest in the whole universe.
“That I could be bounded in a nutshell,” Kimba touched her hand, “and count myself a king of infinite space.”
Chapter four: ghost
Cyborgs don’t feel pain. At least not in the way humans do.
It is necessary, for full integration, to effectively cripple the limbic system. Heart rate and body temperature regulation being unnecessary and inconvenient for the owner of a cybernetic body. Body functions are primarily regulated by a part of the interface devoted to internal systemic regulation, homeostasis, artificial data storage and preservation, making organic processors redundant. But the most important reason for threading atom thin wires through the soft pink blob of the hypothalamus and pulling, is to stop the pain.
The pain is, primarily a byproduct of the structure of artificial nerves, which gather much more data than an organic peripheral nervous system. This surplus of information will be interpreted as extreme physical discomfort by the organic mind.
Being first plunged into a cybernetic body one will be incapable of processing any meaningful information from environmental sensors. An extended period of unconsciousness follows while neuro-regenerative agents are being filtered into the patient’s CBF supply.
At first, movement will be erratic and motor control will be limited, an anticonvulsive must be administered in large doses, reduced eventually to a constant chemical cocktail which maintains neurological stability and grants the ability to use the interface’s primary form of conscious control, fixed hallucinations. This is called Zed.
The first thing she was aware of was the cold, a cold that isn‘t a cold of skin, a cold that goes down to the core of you, not deadly, not problematic, but ubiquitous. She was in some kind of fluid, it oozed around her body. Her face could have existed anywhere within three feet of her brain and her skin felt dead, sparkling with the worst pins and needles she had ever experienced.
“The first state is a state of thought that occurs in our intellect;” Kimba read aloud from a very old book, “the second state is a state of love that occurs in our will. As the second state begins and progresses, a change takes place in our minds. There is a reversal, because then the love in our will flows into our intellect and leads and drives it to think in agreement and harmony with what we love.” he looked up, closing the book and walking close the glass.
“You awake Saaga?” a voice whispered in her ear. She jerked and opened her eyes. Dark shapes moved past the glass. Their voices were muffled. Someone laughed.
Saaga put forth one hand, her palm collided with solid glass. She saw the figure place his hand across from hers.
Her body was weak and clumsy, like she was operating a marionette.
“good.” it was Kim, “see, she’s doing very well.”
The other man spoke but she could not make out his words.
“Well if all you care about is your investment,” he sniffed, then cut off her audio link. There were a few rushed, frustrated words, and the other man left, Saaga watched him disappear into the fog.
She tried to speak but found that her mouth was inoperable.
“I’m just testing motor control, you’re doing just fine.”
Clumsy phalanges found her face and touched a hard, steel cold form of a skull. Her hands hid the light from two cold orbs set into eye sockets, slicing it to ribbons, her jaw hung and clacked weightlessly, teeth on teeth. Her fists struck the walls of the tank she had been imprisoned in, in fear and rage and silence burned all around her.
“ The nanites aren’t finished Saaga, be patient, my dear.”
She pulled herself towards the edge of the glass, chords and wires tugged at her body, looking down she saw her left hand, cold, skeletal remains. But here and there, white residue had begun to gather, growing, slowly to cover the masses of wires and overlapping black mesh muscles. Following her arm up to her chest she saw only gleaming, bare ribs and an open void straight through to her iliac crests. The black, barbed coil of her spine arched bravely into the gaping cavity where her intestines weren’t and down further there was nothing but a deep red shadow where her legs should have been.
Something inside her head was screaming.
“Shhh,” Kimba put one finger to his thick lips. “Its okay, your okay. Go to sleep.” he must have drugged her because the next moment she heard the clink of her bare skull against the glass.
“What’s your name?” a patient voice came through the darkness, deep and clear without the fluid barrier.
“Colonel Saaga H. Fleischer... Seventh… airborne.” the words seemed to float through the blackness.
“Not anymore, my dear.”
“What’s the name of your home planet?”
“I…” she couldn’t remember, it nagged at the surface of her brain. But the words wouldn’t come.
“What’s three plus two?”
“five.” she answered quickly, these questions were getting stupider.
“And what’s your mother’s name?”
It was a long time before she answered, “I can’t remember, it’ll come to me.”
“It’s ok…” a long moment of silence. “I’m bringing your interface online, try not to panic.”
It was most akin to the sudden feeling of falling that comes at the tail end of a dream. A sudden, collision with two hundred and six graphine bones, a pull of muscles in six hundred and thirty nine directions, stitched together with nanofibers and glues and constant, aching friction. There were wires in her brain. She wanted to stretch and shake off these pinching shackles but she found she could not move from the prone position she found herself in.
“I hope you don’t mind, I made a few aesthetic alterations,”
“What?” Saaga asked and she was surprised to discover that she could speak albeit weakly. Her voice was dry and mechanical, “no saliva.” she observed out loud.
“Yes, well, there are more efficient means of lubrication.” she heard him walk close beside her. “Can you open your eyes?”
Her eyelids were sluggish and everything moved in a blur of white.
“You have to calibrate the retinal input matrix with the vision centers in your brain.” he instructed patiently.
“You speak Nazan?” she observed and for the first time realized that her mouth wasn‘t moving properly, “but…” her teeth ground together at odd angles.
He took a long, hissing mechanical breath valves in his chest clicking, “no, your speaking Golgathan,” he turned her head towards him, once again, the green lens gleamed in his left eye socket, “try to focus on my face.”
“How can I speak a language I don’t know.” patches of numbness chased each other around her body.
“It’s,” Kim stared blankly past the floor, attempting to explain the complexities of neuro-linguistic engineering, “a very slick bit of programming which converts electrical impulses in the speech centers of your brain into a phonetic code, much more elegant than the grunting whimpers you were using when you came in.”
“But, before, on the ship…”
“You could understand me?” there was a creaking noise, “that’s excellent”
Another creaking sound from the other side of her body.
“Can you feel my hand?” he asked.
“no.” he made a sound that might have been worry, “is that bad?”
“It’s ok,” she heard the gentle whir of delicate equipment, then the whining of a rotary tool, “I can just recalibrate…” she felt her head jostled.
A wave of sensation spread suddenly from her collar downward, prickling and sparkling down her body. Nipples, lips, groin, fingers. Kim‘s soft, acrylic skin was cool against her own where his fingers wrapped her wrist. The sheet over her legs was woven from millions of nanofibers, the air was heavy with carbon monoxide and some invisible force pushed her body down. Saaga opened her eyes.
“There’s… gravity, where are we?”
Kim grunted mechanically, “not gravity.” he said the word with contempt, “you’re polarized to the ship‘s EM field, it allows for all the convenience of weight, with none of the… side effects. Can you focus?”
“Yes,” she blinked, crosshairs and guides moved across her vision, “what’s a…”
“Oh sorry,” Kim laughed, “you’re a bit cobbled together, the eyes came from a dead guard agent, top of the line, I’ve been saving them for a special project. They’ll need reprogramming, a good starter project for you.” he flopped over her, placing the silver tip of his tongue in the corner if his mouth.
“What? Ah,” Saaga flinched, as he fearlessly placed a finger on the outside of her right eyeball, there was a click and her vision went black, appearing a moment later, much clearer and without the guides.
“Better?” he leaned over her like a sculptor would lean over an unfinished statue. He flashed a genuine, enthusiastic smile and dashed back to the screen he had been working at.
“I can’t move,” her voice was weak.
“Baby steps my dear,” he moved around outside of her field of vision, he seemed full of energy and passion, almost manic in his delight. Saaga found that she could move her eyes enough to see the surrounding room. The shadows hid endless secrets, bins upon bins of parts and tools, jars glowing softly, wires looped from the low ceiling, hands and feet hanging by exposed bones pale in the soft light. And amongst a huddle of screens, her doctor, with his great white teeth, and the long locks of black, woven hair, and the green light in his mechanical eye.
“you are a type five, fully integrated anthro bionic Cyborg,” he said from the darkness, “you are operating a type six thousand Lawrence cortical interface, capable of processing three hundred billion operations a second, you can survive vacuum, poisonous atmospheres and temperatures up to eight hundred degrees Kelvin, you can crush diamonds in your teeth.” he came close to her, placing a glowing tablet on her stomach.
“Lovely.” Saaga smiled, it felt strange, how the artificial muscles tugged at the skin around her lips.
“Yeah,” Kim poked the tablet, “way cool.” he reached one hand behind her head and unscrewed something. “Alright, I’m taking you off automatic ventilation. I need you to inhale.”
“How do I AAH!” she felt a horrible pressure in her chest as the machine which had been filling her O2 reserves and emptying her body of built up carbon monoxide suddenly turned off. The sudden outward rush of air forced her head back, her reflex was to clutch at her throat but she found that she was still paralyzed.
“Calm, Saaga, just inhale, you can do it.” Kim’s arm was around her shoulders, “it has to be you, control it,” her wide blue eyes flashed with red warning lights as she lost consciousness. Deftly Kim cradled her in his arms and placed his mouth over hers. Regulating her pressurization valve was only a matter of elevating O2 levels, and another cyborg was the perfect breathing machine. She gasped, and with a few shuttering wheezing clicks, she started breathing normally. Her head lay across Kim’s arm, eyes at half mast, blonde hair, copied from her memory print, splayed on the steel, pale and soft.
“You went into lockdown, breathing, can be difficult at first, you’ll get used to it, remember, you don’t have any muscles.” that last phrase tugged on her soul.
Moving the tablet to her chest Kim activated a new system.
“You should be getting motor control.” he frowned into the light of his tablet. “Try to squeeze my hand.”
Saaga looked down at the delicate digits, sticking out flat and stiff from her palm.
“I can’t.” she gasped, tucking her lips between her teeth.
“patience.” he lovingly massaged the tendons in her palm, forcing her fingers to jump and curl inward. He tapped on the tablet again, his fingers moving faster than she could see. With a jolt, Saaga felt her back arch, her stomach clench, her arms curled close to her chest and her feet kicked at the operating table.
A pathetic whimper of discomfort came from her throat, she felt Kim’s hands on her, forcing her to relax, forcing her hands open.
“Hey,” he caressed her, “sh, sh, sh, you’re doing fine, honey bee. Just relax, can you open your eyes for me?”
Saaga looked up at him, exhausted. She opened and closed her fingers, testing them. He took the tablet away and she tried sitting up but that caused her head to swim. She tried to move her legs and they responded sluggishly, her movement felt jerky, unnatural like the recoil on artillery fire. She felt Kim lift her and carefully reposition her onto her side, the changing weight distribution pinched and pulled at her insides, she grabbed clumsily for the sheet and curled herself into the fetal position. Desperate to account for all of her extremities.
Kim’s fingers ran down the length of her spine, scanning, carefully mapping nerve fibers.
“Good,” she felt his strong fingers change from analytical to tender, rolling over the contour of her waist.
“I feel awful.” she blinked.
“That’s ok, you just need some sleep.”
“I forget how to sleep.” she muttered.
Kim chuckled, “I’ll give you a reminder.”
The drug coaxed her into unconsciousness, the strange dream of steel and wire faded away into a long, black, uninterrupted shadow.
On the far shore of sleep she woke in fear. A thing of steel and science and riveted, stapled, plastic. A perfect beauty, with all the illusions of flesh. A machine, hacking out the will of programming. A soul, sealed in the inescapable box of this cold robotic frame. She couldn’t hold onto the whimpering shriek, a sound which vocal chords would never reproduce, the sound of her brain screaming.
Her hands, her hands were gone, the pain receptors which had endured torture, and the muscles which flown fighter planes since the age of eleven. The scars were all gone, the memories, the touch of someone’s hand, the rough, hard grip of soldiers, stronger than her. The shame and fear of rape and the gentle urgency of love. She would never be touched again.
A dream about saws faded into a single sound. A mechanical whine, the clicks and groans of her body. The tug of plastic on graphine, on steel, the shifting, grating friction of carbon on iron, on oxygen, on a tiny scrap of flickering conscious flesh.
“Saaga?” Kim’s voice was urgent, accompanied by the hiss of a hydraulic door and a sudden burst of light.
“Don’t tell me you heard that?” she mumbled. Pushing herself up onto her elbows, resting her forehead on the cool steel table.
“Damn near half the ship heard it.” he scoffed, tenderly crouching down to look at her face. “How you feeling?”
“Nauseous, disoriented…” a shallow bowl appeared before her eyes seconds before a stream of oily, yellow fluid escaped her mouth. It floated for a second before it was drawn into the base of the bowl.
“Magnetic vomit.” she observed.
“Yes!” he smiled, “there’s going to be some residual organic crap in your body for a few days, just… try to get it all out.”
Saaga grunted, spitting into the bowl and rubbing at her nose. A few gentle swirls of red marred the thick fluid.
“So I’ll never smell blood again.” she observed, considering how much more enjoyable her previous occupation would have been had she not been encumbered by olfactory data. She gagged as a second wave of fluid escaped her mouth.
“Why would you want to?” Kim removed the bowl and disappeared into one of the many recesses in the lab.
“I don’t suppose you’d get it.”
“It’s not that I don’t understand, Saaga.” there was a sound of running water and a few clinks. “It’s just really human, you know?”
“right.” she slowly managed to settle herself on her knees, her forehead pressed into the table.
“Are you hungry?” he called to her.
“Do I eat?” she asked.
“What?” Kim frowned down at her, holding a bowl, “of course you eat, child.” he looked incredulous. “Sit up.” he watched her struggle to right herself. She swayed precariously, grabbing his arm, a bit harder than she intended. “Your brain requires nutrients and minerals to function.”
She took the offered bowl, it was filled with something that looked suspiciously like what she had just gotten rid of.
“What is this?”
Saaga frowned down into the bowl in disappointment. “But what is it?”
“Looks like machine oil.”
Kim shrugged, “you can live off organic protein, if you have to. You’ll have to download a patch for your nutrient processing software and you’re not going to like it anymore, I promise.”
Kim stood by and watched her patiently as she took a curious sip. It ran down the corners of her mouth she choked and gagged.
“You have to hold your breath to swallow.” he instructed patiently. She felt like an infant on a mother’s tit, with barely the physical ability to feed herself.
The liquid was at first flavorless, but slowly, something came to life in her mind, and the taste, or was it taste? The synesthetic polysensory rush of evidence, was like nothing she had ever felt. The fluid was delicious in a way which played out like music and rainbows and sex. She tilted the bowl up to her face, savoring the sweetness and how warm it tasted, though the bowl in her hands registered the same temperature as the air around her.
“It’s called Nectar.” Kim chuckled at her appreciation. “and it’s everyone’s favorite.” he flopped in front of the large jumble of view screens in the corner, littered with bits of machinery and blanketed in soft florescence.
She suddenly found that she was starving, and suffered the indignity of licking out every corner of the bowl. It was during this process that she first discovered the wonder of a cyborg tongue.
Saaga placed the dish down beside her, eyes wide with strange wonder as she explored the interior landscape of her teeth. Hard, cold and sharp.
“Good, now I want you to try to stand up.” he disappeared, and returning leaned against a beam, watching her intently.
Saaga moved herself to the edge of the table, one foot dangled in open air, then two. The silky nanofiber cloth fell away from her chest. She looked down and touched her breast, “I see what you mean.”
“Oh no,” Kim smiled, “you’re polarized to the center of the ship, the magnetic nodes are distributed evenly around the body with some… uh… discretion.” he blinked and shrugged. “you had quite a bit of scar tissue, I took the external measurements from your dna, ideal fat distribution, muscle mass, you weren’t exactly in the best shape…” he meant it artistically and intended no offense.
“Where are my clothes?” she gathered the cloth at her chest.
Kim laughed at her, ”I’ve seen it, don’t worry,” he tapped at his computer and a perfect mirror image of Saaga appeared on the largest screen, “I need to have a look at your… structure, anyway.”
Slowly Saaga dropped her feet to the cold steel floor, she tripped only once, an indignant state which Kim coolly watched her recover from, her bones seemed to shake against the downward pull. But there she stood, after only a moment’s difficulty, reflected in the gleaming surface, skin new as an infant’s, eyes blue as earth’s own sky. Breathing steadily, Homo Bionica.
But her poise only lasted a moment, Saaga staggered into a short chair, uncomfortably, and minimally shaped, a magnetic anchor for Cyborgs to hang their bodies on. Kim passed one delicate hand over his mouth, watching her intently, she looked at him, standing up, her hands instinctively hiding her mouth and groin. Kim rotated one finger slowly in the air and Saaga turned around. Kim gazed upon her for a long moment he thought to himself that she resembled Botticelli‘s Venus in that pose, lead white skin, eyes of tempera and lust.
“Good,” He crossed the room in a few long strides, “sit.” Saaga pulled herself into the chair. Kim opened a drawer in a shadowed cabinet. She watched him walking, noticing, for the first time that most of his lower body was not even really humanoid, the metallic straps and rivets which crossed his chest wound down to thin, robotic legs which did not even attempt the illusion of flesh, but showed open places in his thighs and ended in spikes where his tibias should have been.
Do cyborgs have sex? She wondered, letting her eyes linger on the tangled mass of hardware at his groin.
He returned and stood in front of her with a pair of scissors open in midair, the tip of his steel, barbed tongue showing and his brow furrowed. Deep thought and speculation played across his features. Saaga looked into his face, her hands folded on her lap, he looked back, at the pigmented nano polymer and the complexity of robotics and neural integration. He moved the shears toward her face and Saaga closed her eyes in fear. Tsssssssssssszt, went the little blades, Cool metal brushed her forehead, and the soft fibers of artificial hair fall across the bridge of her nose.
“There,” Kim was smiling in satisfaction, “Pygmalion.”
“What?” Saaga asked, opening her eyes.
“Your done.” he smiled, assessing her through the green lens.
“Am I?,” she whispered, oddly numb.
“There are some things you should know.” he placed his hands on his hips, “you owe your life to Golgotha, and your body, to captain Nash.”
“Am I expected to serve under him? I have no allegiance to your...”
“You think that hardware in your head is free?” he laughed.
“You have to work for your brain Saaga, the galaxy runs on debt, not honor, debt, smack and carbon. It’s just how things are, he’s an honest man, he’ll grant you freedom once you’ve paid your arrears, till then, he has every right to take back his property.” his voice dropped with gravitas.
“If that’s how things are then,” Saaga folded her arms. “I’m brand new in the galaxy, you said it yourself, you’ve never seen anything like me. How am I to know anything of your customs, or economics, I’m already enslaved, some birthright.” she narrowed her eyes, snakelike.
“It was this or death, Saaga, you want freedom, you know where the kill switch is.”
She caught her breath, it was a bit like pressure breathing, pulling five g’s in a nosedive over enemy territory with an atomic payload and nothing to lose.
Of course she knew where the kill switch was, every cyborg did, at the very core of their being, a single thought which in a moment, without pain or the passage of time would close shut the doors of eternity.
“Nothing may circumvent the right to die,” he laced his long fingers through each other, “but when at all possible, you should choose to live.”
There was a long silence, “I…” Saaga’s voice was beginning to clear up, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re doing fabulously, if it’s any consolation,” Kim’s green eye piece glinted mysteriously.
Kim looked as if her were about to respond but he stopped, looking suddenly distracted, “I… have to go. I’ll be back in a bit, try to get some rest.” and without further formality, he left, a hydraulic door slamming shut behind him.
Chapter 3: Once upon a time on Earth
Brian Lawrence was a genius. By the time he hit twenty two he had graduated with a medical degree from Yale and had opened the first ever institute of cybernetic research outside Philadelphia (which is a city on earth). He pioneered a new age in medical science, opening up areas of study which had been little more than science fiction twenty years earlier. Photographs of him show the dashing confidence of a young billionaire in his prime. In 2456ad Brian gave the world his greatest gift. The cortical interface. It allowed for true integration, but who would volunteer? To be ripped from their bodies and wired up to a computer? Everyone said, it was genius, Mozart, the most elegant use of bionic rewiring, gentle, beautiful, but who would take it? And that was where it all fell through. Suzuki Maru the CEO and founder of Marco robotics offered to fund Lawrence’s work, he had offered Martian settlers tremendous sums of money in exchange for integration volunteers, one hundred souls, beautiful, perfect pink brains, and with a blessing from the most powerful man on the planet.
Twenty never woke up.
Thirty never spoke.
A few survived to send a their broken moans and cries of fear through the digital speech synthesizer.
And all the rest just died.
Brian was changed for good. Those who knew him said that he looked pale. Those who didn’t said he was dying. They kept the experiments secret from the public, not difficult, at that time, on Mars. But after a few months, word got out, one of the technicians who had carried out the discarded flesh came out anonymously on the Redgate network. He painted a grisly picture of men being slaughtered like pigs, wading through pools of blood on the waste barge. Of the horrible, synthetic screams of the DSS monitors.
What had been a hot new market only decades earlier went quickly from unfashionable to taboo.
Brian was bankrupt by a few well aimed lawsuits. He found himself destitute. He sat in the rain on the fortieth floor of the unfinished Lawrence building outside Philadelphia, his only cohort was the companion drone which Maru had given him as a gift. He liked her. And anyway, they had notoriously low resale value.
It was somehow refreshing to know that sitting there, in the rain, as he swung his feet over oblivion, the decision long since made, she would love for nothing more than to unzip his pants and suck his cock.
Brian took her hand and kissed her middle knuckle.
“I like your stubble, Brian.” She smiled at him.
“thanks.” he whispered, caressing her neck and cutting off power. She froze and dropped her head onto her chest. Brian sighed and without a moment’s hesitation, he pushed off from the cool cement, into the wind and the low grey sky.
But death was not in his book of fate on that day. An unexpected gust threw him back into the building, where he cracked his skull on an exposed I-beam and was thrown through the unsealed windows two floors below.
When Brian woke up three weeks later it was as a criple, he found himself paralyzed, he could not speak or breathe on his own and with the exception of almost enough dexterity to write with in his left hand, he was helpless. There was no one to look after him, he was an embarrassment to his peers and a disappointment to his family. His companion drone had shut off and been lost. So it was at least a day before the nurses who came to change his bedclothes found that he had scratched something with the pencil they had placed in his hand.
At first the nurse did not recognize the symbol on the paper, she thought that it was just damaged nerves attempting to fire, Brian coming through a bit. She placed the pencil in his hand a second time, and once more he drew, intentionally and slowly the same random lines.
The nurse passed the pad around to everyone she knew, everyone seemed to agree that her patient was too far gone to ever make legible writing again and that she should stop trying to make a miracle happen. She was about to give up when an idea occurred to her. She posted an image of the symbol on a website that catered to linguists. It was Japanese, a name, Suzuki Maru.
The man who got rich off the companion drones. Flamboyant Japanese trillionaire with an IQ well over the price of good inari on the streets of Tokyo and a thing for robot girls.
What a tremendous philosophical achievement, to teach a machine to love. The most advanced AI in existence, a sex drone. Every nuance of human expression, the algorithims of sex, every motion, every curve, the perfect shade of lipstick, the perfect small talk, fashion sense, bust size, makeup and of course pheromones. The geishas of the stars, the courtesans, the odalisques, venus del milo, the ladies of the night. He copyrighted the Cherub program, that remarkable feat of engineering which created sentience out of programming, and it made him extremely wealthy.
In 2460 the earth was quickly turning against the cybernetics movement , a more conservative generation was coming up and many of the more religious nations still considered it immoral. The moon was largely uninhabited as all the major manufacturing corporations had moved their headquarters to TelAres . it was both cheaper and more comfortable since mars was nearly completely terraformed by this time. It was because f this that many out of work partial integration cyborgs were seeking better waters and looking anywhere for employment.
Suzuki Maru wanted off that damn planet. He clutched a little ceramic cup of sake and frowned contemptuously into the hazy Martian sunset, one big hand jammed into the pocket of his pinstripe suit. He needed a plan, a chance to expand, something new, something that would change the market, something only he could provide. The MarCo tower commanded a wide view of the TelAres skyline and the graceful, sloping cone of Olympus Mons. He sipped angrily from the cup and placed it on the tray which his companion drone held helpfully.
“message sir,” she smiled.
“yeah?” he grunted, stuffing his free hand into his other pocket.
“from Dianne Fesbrew director general of the university of Pennsylvania hospital.” This got Maru’s attention, “urgent, do you have any connection to or knowledge of one, doctor Brian Lawrence. Urgent, respond immediately!”
Maru stood still whispering the name over and over , “Brian Lawrence, Brian Lawrence.” He scratched his beard and turned to his companion drone. “love, look up Brian Lawrence.”
“Brian Lawrence, former director general of the northeastern cybernetics institute. Best known as the inventor of the…”
“The integrated cortical interface!” he said triumphantly, “I remember him, nothing ever happened with that, guess he still owns the copyright…”
“Shall I respond for you?”
“Yeah, I know Brian, from, ah, from school, bit of a weirdo.” Maru nodded.
She closed her eyes, the message was sent. Maru stared out the window down over the red city, everything dusty and dim, his wish was to be granted, because within twenty four hours he would be taking off for Earth.
The hospital room was lit by the cool north American light, Brian’s once muscular frame seemed sunken and atrophied under the cool, white cotton sheets, there was a plant in the window, for air quality, and the lights were dimmed for ever sleeping eyes. A nurse opened the door and let the light of the waking world through for a moment, followed by Suzuki Maru’s podgy form. He ordered his companion drone to wait in the hallway.
The small man approached the bed quietly, someone had, very thoughtfully, turned on the radio, Mozart tinkled away into the silence and the death and the terror. Maru put out a hand to find a chair, he couldn’t take his gaze off the young man, he had expected his eyes to be closed.
Brian’s gleaming brown irises focused about six feet in front of his face. He hadn’t blinked or moved since the accident, automated drips moistened his corneas, an artificial breathing machine kept him alive.
“I think I know why you called me.” Maru whispered to his friend in Japanese, “and the answer is yes, I can absolutely do it.” Brian’s face twitched in what Maru hoped was a smile. “but you know what happened, why all those projects were abandoned. It’s a great risk.” for a long moment Maru sat in silence, expecting the comatose man to speak, Mozart mixed well with the mechanized breathing.
“Muua-u,” Brian whispered, slurring through the unresponsive half of his mouth. The broken voice pulled his eyes upward, Brian’s lips trembled with terrible effort, the slack right side of his face dragging his mouth into a weak diagonal slash. Seeing his struggle Maru silenced the music and moved in closer to listen to the dying man’s desperate effort of speech, “I… I know, wwhat went wron-” he could have sworn the flash of a smile shone out on the animated half of his face.
“What was it? if it’s within my power, I will do what I can.” maru whispered earnestly in Japanese. Brian’s eyes were still fixed, blank, and blind.
“so ssssimple, i’sss juss so, so simple,”
“what is it?”
Brian made some choking sound in his throat coughing through the hole which had been drilled into his trachea. He moved his lips silently and after a moment of frustration he spoke one word; “gravity.”
By “gravity” he of course meant a lack of it, which was of course the missing ingredient. Brian Lawrence, the first integrated cyborg. A brain in a box. They implanted him immediately in a very basic mechanical frame, it was said that he clung to his own limp body for long hours, in a frame of steel and plastic he could do nothing but grope at dead flesh.
Suzuki Maru eventually moved out to the asteroid belt, pulling together a great many asteroids into the shape of the Japanese islands. He employed what was left of Brian Lawrence to program many of his more complicated inventions and it was largely thanks to his work that true integration finally gained popularity and the cybernetic culture finally escaped the confines of flesh.
Brian became integral to the computer systems on the Suzuki asteroids. During the Asteroid war, in the last battle, I took him, what was left of him anyway with me aboard one of the last ships to leave Sol. I did what I could to help him but, he was already so far gone. I installed him in the computer matrix which governed our ability to make long jumps in space. At the core of our largest ship, the Achilles.
That was where he finally took the plunge into madness. He believed himself to be the god of time, with the great engines of the computer matrix all around him, part of him.
He died in that stellar storm, an EM wave hit our flagship, there were explosions, and all those delicate bits and pieces were scattered far across the universe. And I think,” Kimba’s voice was suddenly clear and distinct, “from what I discovered on your ship, one of them may have stuck in the depths of the Kundilini nebula, in the neutral territory where Humans fear to go.”
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
Chapter one: Saaga
“In the pale morning, he will call my name. When the sun falls, and the ground moves beneath me He will carry me to the stars. When my body shatters and the demons of fear tear with long claws into the my heart, He will make me anew. He will call me to his bulwarks in the four starred heavens, He has built for me a tower of black stone. He has armed me with shining arms. In the twilight, and the wilderness he has marked a path. In the desert he has made a spring. In the midst of war, he has brought me peace. He has fed the weak, he has thrown down the oppressor and hung a banner from the city gates. Praise him.”
A dead man‘s hands look no different from a living man‘s. The fingers curl inward, cupping softly onto air, fingertips touching, nails manicured, palm creased and all that ashen shade of pallor, like the hands of a marble statue. The tendons fasten to the phalanges like ropes around pulleys and the skin stretches tight enough that, on a thin man, it doesn’t sag, or lose the form of life. An engineered bundle of tiny bones and white threads, stitching knuckles to palm, to carpus, to phalanges. A perfect machine, so elegantly balanced that even after death, the chords in the wrist and the palms and the forearms, will still pull the fingers inward, so very like a living thing, to wrap around the world, to touch.
The feet will lose their weight bearing architecture, the stomach slumps, or bloats, the thighs bow under gravity’s cruel weight on flaccid meat, the genitals shrivel and the features lose all expression, eyes glazed to a dry finish like eggshells, skin, hanging down in folded ridges, lips pulled flat against teeth. And who would say, this stiff, bloated thing once caught the light of heaven in its eyes? So different is he from the living, in every part of his empty shell, every member of this corpse is cadaverous, hollow and cold. Every part of him dies, every cell, deprived of oxygen, will toxify and self destruct. Every organ will cease to perform its required function. Every muscle will fall slack, everything changes, except for the hands, which just stop moving.
Saaga Fleischer did not have a problem with killing. In most cases she rather enjoyed it; the struggle, the knife, the blood, the tremble in the limbs as they went slack, the rush of power, adrenaline fueled rage, and then...
She breathed slowly, looking down upon the corpse at her feet.
She had never been troubled by the dead. There was no pain in the grave, no suffering when the fight had passed. The dead held no allegiance. Corpses stacked like wood in shallow sandy pits, slack and pale or brown with blood, or black with carbon cracked and reeking in the sun. The dead feel no hurt, ask for no pity, inspire no pathos, the dead do not scream.
The corpse was wearing strange clothes, his face was shaven and the hair on his head was unnaturally dark. There had been a woman too. She had rounded hips and a shrill voice, she had disappeared screaming.
Who were these people? Saaga thought she knew.
When she shot him she was positive.
Saaga leaned over him, watching the slick, red smear of blood dripping from above the black hair. He was unlike anyone she had ever seen, so red and dark and short… only a bit like the Mutrrhi.
She cast her eyes around the room, it was cold, the spare, green and white electrical lights reflected in chrome tabletops and strange machinery. The shattered wreckage of her plane lay half overturned, dominating the already cramped space with its shattered bulk. The wings and the tail had been sawn through by some strange device which left the bare edges of sheet metal softly glowing. One bisected engine hung above her head, leaking bits of wire and sparking into the shadowy ceiling.
The ground shook. Throwing Saaga to her knees, one hand, thrust forward to catch herself found its way to the dead man’s belly which trembled and undulated under the sudden impact.
But Mutrrhi were troglodytes, backwards, worshiping their little statues high on the mountains, watching the four red lights in the sky, star counters, waiting for some revelation from on high.
They did not make gleaming labs, or flashes of light like a nuclear bomb. They did not shave. They did not saw through the cockpits of planes, or shine terrible hot lights into her eyes, they did not strike her down in the hour of her victory. They did not take prisoners.
There had been something on her radar. Too fast for a missile, too small for a plane, shaped without any thought to aerodynamics. The bursts of plasma had exploded through the windows, making her scramble for a breathing mask as the cockpit depressurized. She had never seen anything quite as beautiful.
Trembling fingers touched the cold steel floor. It had all happened in an inexplicable rush. Seventeen hours into the mission, high above enemy territory, the height of technological advancement tucked into the belly of the plane like it was pregnant. Pregnant with fire.
And then she was crashing. Into the wide desert, crawling with enemy combatants.
Had she been taken prisoner? Snatched from the sky?
Stimulants raced through her brain, chattering along her nerves, pulling her pupils tight like the light of battle in her eyes.
Is this how it feels then?
A metallic grinding shook the room, massive machinery working in the depths far below her.
Saaga reached out to grab a hold of anything, but instead of falling forward she felt a lightness fill her limbs.
The corpse lifted from the ground.
Saaga took in one deep, shuttering breath, her gun suddenly in the air before her, shaking slightly. But he just hung there, one foot still resting lazily on the chrome floor. She went to stand up and felt her body lifted.
Someone had turned off the gravity.
“Where am I?” she whispered, her feet tipping forward. And who did I just murder? Panic flooded tight in her chest.
Four red lights in the sky, they talked about the lights in the sky. In the churches and the hospitals, in the darkness of her own thoughts, curled against the bodies of others for warmth in the desert night. Wounded in the sand and the dust, coughing up blood, the aching rattling in her lungs, at the edge of death, tortured, imprisoned, raped, beaten, broken, and numb, she had prayed to the lights in the sky.
Saaga’s eyes snapped open, feeling the gentle pressure of a structural beam at her back.
The legends spoke of men in heaven, the place where you flew, where they would go when they were…
Saaga breathed, once, twice, her heartbeat hammering inside her skull.
Which is when the gas in the air became dense enough for her to taste.
She came to, sort of.
Assessing her body she counted several important details.
She was bound in hard steel. At the wrists and… she tried to move her feet and discovered they were free, just the wrists then. She smiled a bit, stupid.
Her gun was gone, bit obvious. But… she turned her ankle experimentally, the knife in her ankle holster was still there, amateurs.
Two voices echoed across one another, there was anger and fear and little else she could understand. The language was yappy and nasal, and broken by sobs.
Saaga opened her eyes and the light was terrible. She quickly closed them, flinching.
And then the woman’s voice was close to her, Saaga could feel her spittle misting on her lips. Something struck her, and her face went sharply to the left. She sighed heavily, she had been here before.
Saaga opened her eyes slowly, letting her pupils contract, blinking. The round bottomed woman was being held by the wrist by an older man with a mustache and a wrathful glance in Saaga’s direction. She suspected that whatever they had put into the air supply had been nullified by the stimulant she had taken fourteen hours into her mission. Her captors had not had time to run a chemical analysis. They must think she was still drugged. Perfect.
He said something unintelligible and angry. One beefy hand clutched a pipe on what had been the ceiling, the other held his companion in place.
Saaga watched her, patient for the moment the round woman calmed down and looked at her, she knew she could destroy people with her eyes. A thousand light-years away, they focused on a tiny light which no one else could see. She had seen wives and men and children shy away, afraid of whatever grisly memory that blank stare concealed. She had seen, and done things, the bare reflection of which would drive this round, high pitched woman mad.
The squeaky woman’s lips twitched, her eyes were bright with tears. She looked at Saaga for a long moment in silence, muttering as if in secrecy to her companion. After a while, he released her and she came up to her captive with a kind smile.
These people were NOT professionals.
Saaga felt her hand on her shoulder, soft, motherly tones.
And then her neck was between Saaga’s thighs. She took advantage of the negative gravity to force her body against the wall, twisting and pulling with her knees at the space between her jaw and her clavicles, closing the joint tight around her windpipe.
“Unlock the shackles.” she hissed, and he did not understand her words.
He hesitated, stumbling back, hastily tapping on a computer on the wall immediately to her left.
She felt the drowsy rush of relaxants in her blood. They weren’t very effective. She could feel the woman’s long nails clawing desperately at her skin, incapable of making any sound to accompany the gaping scream in her mouth.
“RELEASE ME!” she lunged forward violently. Twisting hard so that the other woman’s whole body jerked and twitched, just a bit more pressure and the vertebra would slide apart.
The man stepped back, drawing a weapon, he was speaking slowly, trying to make her understand. Saaga’s head shifted to the side, birdlike and vicious, her eyes burned like chips of glacier.
The tense, deadly tableaux lasted for only a few seconds.
She kicked the woman’s now limp body up, with a crunch, propelling her through the air and into her companion‘s groping arms. With a violently graceful kick, she cracked the glowing screen he had used to control the drugs being pumped into her body. To her immense relief, the cuffs loosened, so that when the man with the gun caught his injured companion, she was able to wiggle her bony hands out of the cuffs.
She made quick work of the remaining… she didn’t know what to call these people…
They sure squealed like Mutrrhi when they died.
Her weapons were floating in a mesh container. She wouldn’t need the flight helmet, but the pistol was safely stowed in her thigh holster, she rummaged through the pockets of the vest retrieving another knife, a radio and a small package of dry brick shaped field rations. Which she stashed in one of the big pockets in her pants.
Automatic hydraulics opened the only door when she approached. Saaga pressed her body into the wall peering around the corner, her pistol cocked and raised in both hands beside one ear. A clean hallway, paneled with brushed steel ran about twenty feet ahead of her, at the end of it was a large, reinforced iris.
She used painted red rungs to guide her body up, towards the round aperture.
The room was dominated by a twenty foot window which she did not realize was actually an electronic screen.
She was in space.
The endless, endless stars bored into her, glittering against a nearly perfect field of darkness. Standing up in violent magenta slashes, arching across the void, pillars of gas loomed all around the ship. And the silence was bottomless.
A weak voice came from the dais which held a swiveling command chair.
Looking down Saaga saw the curled body of a girl, younger than herself, facing the window, white hands clinging to the side of the chair.
Saaga didn’t answer, the girl was not a threat.
She came closer, the girl spoke again. But looking up at Saaga she understood that communication was impossible between the two of them.
Saaga sighed. Debating whether to keep her alive. She might be useful but with the obvious language barrier… Saaga quietly drew her knife holding it against her forearm. But before she could make another move the girl’s body trembled, she let go of the chair, eyes closing and her whole body going stiff.
She wasn’t breathing.
That solved that problem.
The radio crackled when she activated it.
“Command this is unit seventeen Agra one, do you read.“
Her hair hung weightless before her eyes, shining white in front of oblivion. “Come in command,“ she spoke into the radio. “This is Colonel Fleischer, do you read?“
She took a deep breath, reaching out a hand towards the command chair. She was shaking uncontrollably, as fear, adrenaline and drugs mingled in her guts her stomach seized and she attempted to aim away from the control console. Standard issue field rations and the bitter aftertaste of pills.
She watched calmly as a swarm of nanites consumed her vomit like flies, and with no direction to fall, she closed her eyes and fainted.
When she finally awoke after untold hours of unconsciousness she discovered that she was not in her bunk at the Coriolus air force base at all. The air was stale, her mouth was slick with saliva and her body ached. The lack of gravity did little to alleviate the pain in her limbs she felt red burn marks beginning to rise around where her skin showed through the flight helmet.
She was alone with the stars.
“Command this is Colonel Saaga Fleischer, unit seventeen Agra, the first republic fighter wing.”
“I’m hoping someone’s getting this, I don’t know where I am.” she wanted to say more but…
She frowned out the wide window which arched across the front of the ship. Saaga could not tell if they were moving, the little lights hung still against the infinite black.
She found herself thinking of god, slowly she removed the little red book from her pocket, the icon on the front had been copied from one of the old books.
“Lights in the sky.” she muttered, a shadow falling across her brilliant blue eyes. “You lying pigs.” She wanted to cry and scream, the years of fighting and killing, the national pride, the prayers in the dead of night, when she was young, or sad, or when she lay wounded in a fallow field under the pale grey sky. She had looked up to those four red stars. But now… she laid one thin hand across her stomach. She became suddenly aware of the weightless mass of her gun in her hand.
“They’ll think I’m a hero,” she wondered out loud to the quiet stars.
Feeling a bit stronger she maneuvered herself to a station with a large screen, there were no buttons. Gingerly Saaga touched the still black surface and an animated three dimensional abstract form appeared before her, covered in writing which seemed to her to be high Celestial, the mysterious and ancient tongue of the holy books. She wasted little time bemoaning her lack of attention to language study in her youth and attempted to translate the text set before her. The one word she immediately recognized was some declension of the noun “writing”. She poked this experimentally and it opened a page of text with several brightly colored boxes off to the right, she tapped the first of these.
“Were starving,” a thin voice crackled from the speakers. “It’s so cold, send rescue, please, if you can hear us…” static took over for a moment, “day three hundred and four, this is Patrick Hoss, signing off.”
Hoss, first in the line of patriarchs.
She clutched the back of the command console, wanting so badly to fall. Pushing off she hung against the ceiling, a vain attempt to put space between herself and the Abyss. It wasn’t silent, but the creaky ambiance of the ship seemed to stand out against the background void. Every sound was an interruption, breaking the silence which had always been, and would fall for another long eternity behind her. The arching pink bands of plasma rotated slowly into view, and far, far away, like a grain of sand against a mighty whirlpool, hung Neasparata, but she did not recognize her home world, slipping away into oblivion.
“And now I’m alone,” she whispered to the stars, the cold, silent stars, burning holes into the void.
Suddenly a claxon sounded from the front of the ship, a button was flashing red, without a moment’s hesitation she slapped it.
The ship lurched, for a moment she could feel inertia push her feet against the ground and then the nebula spun out of sight, something rumbled in the belly of the ship, engines.
She would die in this steel tomb.
The silence of dead space pressed into her, and the dark hours rolled on without sun or custom to measure them. At some point she found the lavatory and vomited, she lay across the cool bowl of the vacuum toilet for a long time, consciousness ebbing away, coming back in a sudden blaze of pain. Handfuls of fine white hair pulled free from her scalp.
How long had she been there? How long could she keep herself alive? And why did she shoot the bastard?
A selfish kind of regret plagued her thoughts as she buckled herself into the command chair.
The dead girl was propped in the seat to her right. She had shown no signs of either life or rot. A puzzle which would have intrigued her, had she had the strength to care. The field rations were still in her pocket, but she was too nauseous to eat.
She weakly picked at the hardened blisters which had erupted across her cheek. And pressing one hand into the soft fabric at her gut, closed her eyes tight.
With a flash of light, and a silent shockwave, space was rent open. The roaring, shaking hole gushed radiation into void and with a stillness that fell into silent space, closed.
In its place a ship hung, lazily spinning on the sea of vacuum, reflecting the stars, gleaming clean and black and cold.
The infinity key was dwarfed beside the sinuous mass of the other ship. With a slow, deliberate grace, she was drawn into the outstretching arms of the larger vessel, green lasers traced around every contour, scanning, measuring.
The radio crackled, and a high whine cut through the stagnant air.
Saaga didn’t move.
It came through again, a strange pattern of whining, clicking music.
She opened her eyes a crack, but lacked the energy to move, or to respond, her brow wrinkled very slightly as her eyes shifted up to the view screen.
Hallucinating, she thought, won’t be long now.
She closed her eyes, tight, willing the images to go away, not wanting to see the strange, looming face which stared coldly from the monitor.
If she could only sleep, sleep until radiation, and starvation and cold killed her.
Sleep through the end.
Her head tilted to the side, breathing short, one white hand still pressed her sidearm into her lap, the other tucked securely under the flight harness.
She hated the feeling of freefall.
Saaga heard the barest memory of footsteps.
Footsteps? What was it about footsteps which made her so uncomfortable? Was it the fact that she was completely alone, or the fact that feet wouldn’t fall in space?
The footsteps were soon accompanied by voices which she did not understand speaking a hurried language filled with clicks, music and phlegm.
With a violent motion she unhooked the restraint and drew her weapon. Kicking up towards the ceiling. She was shaking with the effort of movement, her every joint and muscle screamed out at her.
There were five of them, dark, robotic forms, bristling all over with steel and rivets. They watched her, exchanging chattering strings of phonemes, clacking, rustling, whining laughter.
She let the gun hover at the closest one’s chest. He smiled with dark lips.
Even at her peak physical condition she could not have dodged the attack. The gun was torn from her hands just as she fired. Lightning fast hands like biting steel coils seized her wrists, holding her immobile in the air.
The bullet had struck one of her attackers in the shoulder, he did not bleed, or even seem to register the damage.
The face which leered down at her was black with gleaming white teeth and long ropes of hair. Some kind of device was riveted to his skull and his cheekbone, the sinister green lens which covered his eye gleamed in the starlight.
He made a low note in his chest, resonating with clicks and alien vowels. Saaga kicked and fought as hard as she could but her captors only laughed, they did not yield the slightest weakness to her twisting, blistered wrists.
She watched in horror as the skin in his hand parted neatly, his finger folded back and was replaced with a vicious looking syringe. Lovingly he caressed her straining, white neck.
“Please don’t, please, please,” she cringed away from him as much as was possible but could do nothing to stop the cruel barb from sticking in her flesh,
He picked her up, smiling with the enthusiasm of an artist. Her body was slight in his arms, thin strands of white hair hung about her face. She was showing the grim marks of late stage radiation sickness. She stank and her arms were thin like winter branches. Her skin was pearly white and etched all over with pink burns.
“It’s all right,” he spoke to her gently, a kind, telepathic intrusion which brushed aside language barriers in exchange for a common morphology of emotion and significance, “I just want your brain.”