One moment, I feel the solar wind tickling my skin, the comforting hum of cosmic rays, the coolant fluid flowing through my veins. I see the ionized iron glowing in the distant Sun’s corona and the ammonia clouds swirling on the world below. I hear the constant information exchange in my innards. As my body wakes up, I taste a change in the ventilation systems. I’m gazing inside my own body and at the stars at the same time, and then—
The other second, I glimpse the danger, a fraction too late. A passenger who arrived on yesterday’s ship, walking calmly through my corridors, suddenly raising his hand towards one of my panels. Entering a sequence I recognize. Before I can react, he enters the last character and I no longer can. My panels and speakers are inaccessible to me. I’m mute.
A traitor! How did he know the sequence? Someone from ours must have told him, and someone else must have entered it too to override my accesses . . .
Only later I notice the approaching ships; moving by inertia before, burning hard now. Glowing with bright beauty against their cold starry background.
This is it, I think, strangely calm, cut off from much of my autonomic circuitry. At the same time, I observe a distant quadruple star system and record its infinitesimal motions; I probe the light coming through the atmospheres of unreachably distant worlds; I feel for the shudders of spacetime itself. I wait for the newcomers to board.
But something goes awry. The smaller neighboring stations and ships have noticed what’s happening. A frantic exchange of narrow-beam calls; weapons flashing; hell breaking loose.
I see a small swarm of heavy accelerated torpedoes. And suddenly, I’m free again.
My reflexes are quick. I roar with an alarm. My point defense reacts. I ready the escape pods.
But even I am not quick enough.
I seal several sections to minimize the damage just a millisecond before I’m hit. There were people inside but they were damned anyway.
I fire from my particle accelerators and feel the exhilarating rush of excitement. People flow through my cavities, directing towards their escape. The energy flow in my veins reorganizes and surges into weaponry. With some detachment, I observe my inside, while gazing outside, where a few infra-bright dots close upon me from several directions.
I take out one. Then a second, third . . .
A sharp sting of pain where my cooling panels had been. Then another, closer to my heart. I feel the air rushing out of me, emptying me, freezing into a mist of beautiful tiny crystals around my crippled form.
And they are still coming.
I contemplate self-destruction—my people are all escaping or dead—but in a fraction of a second, a hit severs me from most of my body, irrevocably this time.
I’m blinded. I’m deafened. I cannot taste nor smell. And all I feel on my skin is suddenly a distant, dumb coldness, as if my body belonged to someone else. Something touches my skin. Is it my skin? It feels rubbery, dumb and wrong. I still cannot see anything. I cannot perceive anything but the pain clearly: a hollow pain spreading through my suddenly shrunken and unreal body. Suddenly it is joined by a sharp sting of pain in my neck.
Neck. I have a neck? I contemplate this thought dizzily as I fall into the embrace of an all-encompassing darkness.
Light. Sharp. Painful. Pain, everywhere . . . What happened?
Where? No data. No senses.
No; wait. Wrong. Some . . . but unfamiliar . . .
Trouble finding words. Memory. Something wrong with my memory.
Opening my eyes.
My eyes . . . My eyes.
Soft and sharp at the same time, below. A . . . fabric. Unusual sensation. Sounds horrendous, though.
Off-white and sweet above. A . . . ceiling?
Should be panicking. But am calm, almost. Drugs?
A woman in white coat. Hurries toward me. Asks questions. They smell like some . . . spices?
I don’t understand her.
Recall comes back slowly. As well as language.
Maybe a week elapses. I finally understand their words.
They’re doctors. Treating me. Physically, I can hardly move. Mentally, I’m nearly back. They stimulated some centers and got me re-learning the very basics. Not long ago, I would pinpoint the centers and name them. I struggle to remember them now.
They don’t tell me. Avoid it, actually. Once I’m able to ask, they talk of unfortunate events, saving me and how I’m making progress. Or they dodge it: remain silent or change the topic.
I know. I had been attacked. They pulled a part of me out. Destroyed most of me.
And why didn’t they kill me completely?
Maybe three weeks elapse before I can sit up and speak more than two sentences in a row.
That’s when the man in gray comes.
Gray everything: eyes like a ship’s hull, hair like Moon regolith, severe suit like microparticles of space dust settling on my surface, waiting to be repelled by my surge of static . . .
I cannot breathe, until I can. I feel the calmness settling throughout my body again. The drugs react quickly.
“Miss Montova,” he says with a serious face. “You have made tremendous progress. Let me congratulate you on your recovery.”
“Recovery from what?” I ask. Despite myself, I’m proud of the coherence of my speech.
“Your imprisonment. We freed you, do you remember? You were their slave, chained into the heart of the station, made into the control node in the station’s system. Your brain forced into a data integration center. It was monstrous, inhuman. But you are safe now.”
“No,” I whisper. “That’s not how I remember it. I volunteered. I was a good candidate. I wanted to become the station’s control center.”
I remember lying on the bed, helpless, unable to even pick up a glass of water and bring it to my dry lips. So weak. Rare progressive muscle dystrophy, I recall a phrase (In my memory! My own!). Incurable. Unstoppable. Irreversible. Robots and people cared for me as I grew more and more unable to do so myself. Eventually, machines breathed for me, kept my heart beating for me, moved my bowels for me. I could sometimes use an exoskeleton available for the clinic’s patients, one for more than a dozen people. It was exhausting and ranging from uncomfortable to painful, so I rarely used it. I spent most of my time immobilized, submerged in my own virtual world. Until I heard of the call for a new station master. Only people with very specific cognitive abilities were eligible. My unusual sensory processing made me a suitable candidate.
“That’s how they wanted you to remember it. It’s hard, I know, but you must believe me. Luckily, we managed to cleanse your body of most of the artificial metabolites and reverse the atrocities they did to you to some extent. You were completely immobile when we found you, a wreck of a human being to behold, but we tried experimental cell transplants and they worked. With some rehabilitation, you’ll be able to move freely again. It’ll take a lot of hard work to relearn it and get used to the proper sensory input but I have faith in you.”
I close my eyes. Even with my external memory and back-ups gone, I can still imagine the gentle touch of the solar wind on my sensor-loaded metal skin . . .
He perhaps interprets my silence as a sign of uncertainty.
“Don’t be afraid. It really is over.”
He doesn’t know that this is precisely my greatest fear.
At first, everything is either dull and muted, or sharp and painful. It’s exhausting.
It takes months for my sensorium to start resembling the normal human state. I stop experiencing synesthesia. Its attacks from the first days now seem like a drug-induced dream. I wonder if I still possess the unique cognitive processes which had led me into this situation.
Eventually, I’m able to remember the way normal people do. I no longer feel confusion whenever I think of something and cannot immediately access my external database.
In six months, the clinic releases me into the world.
My name is Ana Sofia Montova. I am twenty-nine years old. As of now, I have Earth Union citizenship. I’m coming to understand it wasn’t always this way. I was born on Mars before this political unit even came to exist. Moved to a hospital in the main belt as a child, to ease my health in the negligible gravity. But the part of my life I recall most and yet only as a strange dream, I spent in the far, far reaches of the system in stationary orbit around Clymene, gazing towards the distant Sun or down on the massive cold world. I knew and saw everything.
The Earth Union now spans the entire system to over two hundred au away from the Sun, where I had spent years being the central node of an independent station, one of many that were becoming a serious political and economic threat for the inner system, or so I’ve heard. The people behind Kuiper were not organized and they did not share the values of the inward system, including how people can and cannot be transformed. Cannot I be a station again? Let my outer shell be caressed by solar wind. Smell the escaping atmosphere of Clymene. Gaze onto the cold icy comets passing us; distant planetary systems bathing in alien starlight; far early galaxies with my multi-spectral eyes.
I still get panic attacks whenever I think of my life so unexpectedly interrupted. But they grow less frequent and severe as the microelectrodes implanted in my brain do their work.
When they release me, they send me to a special home supposed to help my integration into society. I attend regular therapist meetings and I’m now preparing for entering the work force. I’m learning new words. Sometimes I can even comprehend their meaning without having to memorize it.
Slavery: When a person is owned as property by another person and is under the their control, particularly in involuntary servitude.
According to the Earth Union, I was a slave.
I didn’t feel like one.
I felt like a god.
Four months later, I’m working part-time as a human analyst of sky surveys’ images, trying to catch what automatic algorithms had missed.
They said I have an eye for detail.
In other words, I’m strange, too focused on trivialities, socially incompetent but meticulous. I cannot do any harm here and I don’t meet many people. There are a few exceptions. Marika is my boss. She’s a stumpy sixty-something woman with a hard voice and even harder look but there is something reassuring about her. She’s predictable. She cares for our results and doesn’t get personal, but she’s fair and her knowledge is vast. I wonder how much can one cram into one’s head without the externities I had used to have.
Apart from her, I see few people and retain even fewer in my still recovering memory. One has appeared at work several times, exploring the use of our data to his work.
His name is Nalin and he works as a freelance artist. He mostly does commissions for hotels or sometimes cities. He says that genuine artwork draws Earthling tourists to Mars more reliably than any stunning 3D-scape.
He approached me first, asking about my job and explaining his. He wants to do a non-commissioned piece to show people the beauty of deep space, he says. I don’t know if that’s possible. They would need to see what I had seen, what I can barely remember now but still feel the longing . . . He sees something in my eyes and backs off politely.
But he returns the next day.
The third day, he invites me to have dinner with him. I have understood enough of common social behavior to think it likely that he has other than work-related reasons to do so. It surprises me. No one has approached me this way for as long as I remember.
I think I preferred men back then, before my transformation. I study this one. Does he elicit any possible sexual or romantic response? I’m not sure. I suppose it’s worth trying. After all, they told me I need to work on my interpersonal relationships.
Two years after my presumable rescue, I feel truly alive for the first time. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that I’ve moved to work on a more satisfying position, or that I’ve started living with Nalin and so far both changes seem to work. No, it’s something far simpler.
We go hiking in Noctis Labyrinthus with Nalin. Even with high-oxygen mixtures in our tanks, the hike is demanding. We have to climb the rock wall sometimes. My body is still not as strong and muscular as those of Martians who hadn’t spent most of their lives with atrophied muscles inside a space station, but I can feel my new strength now and can rely on it.
We scale the wall, silent, focused, determined. I can hear my breath and the blood pounding in my temples.
Hold, pull up, rest. Find another hold, repeat.
Walk. One careful step. Another.
The solar rays falling onto my skin . . . filtered through the compulsory thin protective layer, but still vaguely familiar . . .
And then we’re at the summit and I see the vast landscape bathed in the late afternoon light, clad in impossibly bright tones of orange, red and brown.
I’m feeling something not quite familiar, hard to describe. Only after a while I realize that I’m happy.
A faint spot of light turns my ordinary life upside down.
“It’s moving,” I say to Marika. “Fast. The trajectory is peculiar.”
She studies the images and a dark frown comes across her face. “Have you told anyone else yet?”
“So don’t. I’ll handle it.”
Two days later, after many careful questions as well as straightforward calls, they make the announcement.
“They already knew about it on Earth,” Marika comments wryly. “We just made them reveal it a little sooner. I guess someone else would have stumbled on it in the matter of weeks anyway.”
The alien ship seems to be decelerating hard. In a year, it should enter the inner Oort. In two years, the Kuiper Belt. Then perhaps the inner system as well.
The whole Earth Union discusses nothing else. People argue vigorously about how we should proceed. A political schism opens when several independent groups use their access to high-power antennas to transmit to the visitors. Official messages follow shortly.
“What do you think they want?” Nalin asks me one evening.
How should I know? I, who cannot fathom most human beings, too scarred by my past?
I think about it. After a long pause, when he perhaps no longer expects me to reply, I say: “Beauty.”
Nalin looks surprised before he realizes I’m answering his question. “Beauty?” he raises a brow. “Why not knowledge? Sense of companionship? Meeting other cultures?”
How can I explain? Beauty encompasses all of this. It can be everywhere.
It’s in the images I study. It’s in Noctis Labyrinthus. It’s in Nalin’s art. It’s the sunshine across the spectrum, the hum of distant galaxies.
I haven’t felt such beauty for an eternity.
But instead of hanging onto that desperate longing, I smile sardonically. “I thought you’d be glad. They might like your work! Haven’t you always imagined yourself as an ambassador of humanity?”
He laughs with me, yet I feel a strange emptiness. Have I developed a sense of humor without being able to actually feel it?
Sometimes life keeps getting back at you, no matter what you do. I have learned to live a bearable if not too happy life after my alleged rescue. Here I am, an Earth Union citizen living peacefully on Mars.
While the alien ship had shed several smaller units which decelerated rapidly. Two of them were still passing fast through the inner Oort.
One entered the orbit of Clymene.
Nalin is patient with me, trying to be understanding. In our years together, I have told him fragments about my time as a station controller several times.
I have a life. I cannot change the past. Besides, if there still was a permanent settlement around Clymene, would they have come there?
I will never know. I can only try to fight the returning dreams of my surreal existence and nightmares of waking up in that stark white room.
Few big news about the alien pods reach the inner system, even though the people are hungry for nothing else. Contact plans are being drawn carefully, they say.
Whoever attempts to reach the pods without permission will be terminated.
I actually hope someone tries it. How would they react?
One day, an older man in gray stands in front of my door. His features seem vaguely familiar. But I have never developed the same uncanny ability to instantly recognize faces other people seem to possess.
“Miss Montova? May I speak with you inside?”
Something in his words, in the tone in which he says miss Montova, releases a floodgate of memories. Clad in gray. Gray like the Moon dust.
His is the face from my nightmares.
He slips inside, past me, and only when I manage to overcome my paralysis and close the door, he introduces himself.
“My name is Adrian Jensson. I see that you remember me. Good. May we sit?”
I’m too startled to protest. Not waiting for my reaction, he sits down and starts talking in his low quiet voice. At first, I don’t speak. I’m shocked by his sudden appearance and overwhelmed with dread and anxiety. But gradually I become more aware of his words than the memories and feelings his presence brings back. He speaks of the bidesi, as the world eventually started calling the aliens for the lack of their own self-designation.
He speaks of the lack of reactions to all the countless transmissions we had tried.
Of the unsuccessful missions—one unable to elicit any response, the other coming in too close and then destroyed without warning . . .
“Wait—there were no reports of any crewed missions,” I interrupt him, speaking for the first time.
“That is right. Previous attempts were kept covert for many good reasons. However, we’re turning to other potential solutions now that the previous approach did not fully succeed—”
“Failed, you mean,” I correct him. I have become cynical in those years as a normal human, haven’t I?
Jensson lets it pass. “We think that they may have a vastly different set of sensory perception. The worlds we see may barely overlap. We’ve tried sending AIs, but . . .” He pauses.
“Enlighten me. What went wrong there?”
“You’ll receive the file with all pertinent information should you choose to cooperate. Suffice to say that the vicinity of Clymene now seems to be their domain. None of the AIs returned with useful data—if at all.”
I’m honestly surprised that the Union did not choose to show its own force, if not truly retaliate with force, after the loss of a crew and so many failed attempts to communicate.
“That brings me to why I’m here. We’ve arrived to the conclusion that people such as you may represent a potentially favorable choice for a different kind of mission.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His sudden appearance on my doorstep, the talk of the bidesi and the possibility of non-overlapping sensory perceptions . . .
It’s so absurd that it almost makes me laugh. “Really? You had half-wittedly destroyed those who could help you now, driven us back into the gravity well, crippled me, and now you come to me for help?”
Jensson stays calm. “Miss Montova, please realize that you’re one of a mere handful who managed to lead normal lives after they’d been freed.”
Wouldn’t those who didn’t live normally be a better choice? I almost ask but then waive the question away. Of course it meant didn’t survive, failed sooner or later. A corner of my mouth twitches in a sarcastic almost-smile.
“Well, you weren’t expecting me to leap and shout out in ecstasy, were you? If so, you’ve been so, so wrong . . . Fuck off now.”
He seems taken aback by my response. I sneer at him. He stands up.
“You’ll reconsider,” he promises between the door.
I’m sure I won’t. When he leaves, I finally drop my mask of control and sit down, shuddering.
I lead a functioning life now. I have no obligation to help them. And my previous life, that is long gone, even if my brain could adapt to it again. I see no way back. There’s no way I would just set aside all these years in between and become that pure glorious being again . . .
Well, you did it once before. You were no spiritual pure being when you were dying of muscle dystrophy and waiting desperately for a miracle.
I bury my face into my palms.
But I’d been a teenager then. I’ve led a life now. I’m bitter, cynical . . . and even if that didn’t matter, my brain can no longer form new pathways as easily as back then.
New ones aren’t entirely necessary. There are remnants in your brain, waiting for signals coming through again, pathways not entirely destroyed by the cure when you were “freed” or by plain aging. You’re still unique and have a ground to build on; others lack even that . . .
They could take dying children or adolescents. They must have the technology, or they wouldn’t even be asking me.
Well, they are asking you. What if you were not their first choice? What if those presumed children failed before the mission could even commence? And, most of all, what the hell do you think to achieve if you don’t take up the offer?
Nalin finds me crouched in the bathroom, paralyzed, staring onto the blank wall. When he touches my shoulder, I flinch.
I see his quizzical look and kind eyes surrounded by small wrinkles . . .
Wrinkles in spacetime, emanating from distant neutron stars—
“I’m sorry,” I say.
Moments before they wire me in, time slows down for me. I have an eternity to mull over my decision. I can still go back. Even after the extensive tests and training, even after the biochemical modifications, I can still say no.
Nalin may still forgive me. They will find someone else to take my place. I’ve proved that I can lead a normal life. I could spend many decades doing just that.
Instead, I may walk into an uncertain future. Potentially quick failure and brain damage, or the ultimate failure of my mission at Clymene.
Where do I really belong?
I know the feeling. I’m scared.
But I know that I will no longer be in a moment. There will be something vaguely approximating fear, but different, more analytical, deeper and calmer . . .
Then my universe explodes.
My senses. Oh, my senses . . . It’s like I’ve been shut out in a sensory deprivation chamber all those long years, and now I’m overwhelmed. I almost cannot bear the intensity and range of the long-forgotten impulses, and I’m barely at a few percent of the full sensory input yet.
And my body—it’s suddenly complete. Not as vast as it once had been, but wider and fuller than the tiny human shell I’ve been locked in for so long.
Being human, being with Nalin, it all seems like a dream now, though it had felt real then. I recall words from an ancient song . . .
You’ve almost convinced me I’m real . . .
I start singing it in my head. My organic memory isn’t so bad after all.
But now—I’ve become so much more again.
I merge with the interface smoothly, and the song—just becomes more real than the reality.
Years fly by while I’m inside my ship, my new body. Clymene is currently over 300 au away from the Sun. It’s almost hilarious: the Earth Union had gone to such trouble to drive away a couple of independent colonists to tighten its control over the system and humanity’s future, and thus vacated the realm for the bidesi.
My time ticks slowly like the seasons. I listen to the universe. Yet I still manage to retain a lot of my humanity from my years on Mars. I feel it fading with the pace of glaciers, and try to hold onto it for some reason.
Finally approaching Clymene, I feel something new: a part of me is like an utterly calm ocean surface, taking in all the peculiar sensations, while deep down, conflicting currents fight for their dominance.
Anger. Fear. Bitterness. Regret. Longing. Curiosity. Hope.
And then I’m flying by for the first time after what now seems like someone else’s life, and I’m seeing the strange pod with so many of my own senses. Its protruding rods glow in the infra-red on the background of the uniformly dark hull. The engines are silent. No radar ping reflects of my own hull. No beam of light falls onto me even for a fraction of a second.
Yet even if they’re observing just passively, they have had to see me . . .
I decide to ping them. The reflection that returns shows me barely more details than I’ve seen in the visible and infra-red.
I lose them, flinging by the planet. Oh, the familiar vast swirling clouds of hydrogen and ammonia, and the eerie sprinkle of particles caught in Clymene’s complex magnetic field . . .
Yet something is different here.
I had known this as my home, no, a part of me. I know its slightest changes, the seasonal change for which glacial is too fast a word, and I know that the composition of particles around Clymene has changed. The difference is tiny, barely perceptible—but some of the molecules whose spectra I see have never been here before.
Then I swing back by the bidesi pod and notice another change, a difference compared to my previous fly-by. A very low density of complex molecules that would normally originate much, much closer to the Sun.
And I realize why none of the preceding missions has succeeded.
The solution is so simple and yet absurd that I would laugh if I still could.
Chemical communication, so laughably inefficient, outright ridiculous in space!
There is no way it is their usual mode of conveying information. Perhaps long ago in their original environment. But they wouldn’t have made it into space, even to other stars, if they didn’t shift to other means of communication. No; it is a test. They wanted to see whether we would see through their riddle.
I run through the reactions they may want as the answer, and produce a mixture. I release the cloud of molecules, and wait eagerly.
The bidesi answer.
And I fire my engines and come closer.
It takes us weeks to develop some rudimentary communication. I wonder then they decide to make the switch to other, more reliable and efficient methods, but stick to their rules.
The bidesi first make sure we can understand each other on a simple level, then start what may be questions. First about me. What am I? How many beings in my pod?
And then . . .
Are the others like you? they seem to be asking. Intelligent?
I almost intuitively say yes, but then hesitate.
They did not understand the bidesi. I did. They are not like me.
I recall the fate of the failed mission that got too close without permission.
A small part of me ponders upon revenge, and I imagine the course of events:
Do I betray the rest of humanity—
—repulsive, abominable, small-minded, thickheaded humanity—
—to these creatures, or will I show mercy? Empathy? Understanding?
. . .everything they lacked in regard to me . . . but not everyone, no, I would be unfair thinking that . . .
The alien envoy is waiting for my answer.
So am I.
But no. This is not what happens.
I can feel the faint sunlight glistening on my metal skin. I hear the song of the universe, a wonderful symphony across all frequencies. And modulating it, the myriad of molecules scattered everywhere . . . How do I begin to describe it? How could they understand?
Yet they do. Those who are waiting patiently for me to respond.
Why take revenge? It would be so human.
I’m full again and I’m contented. I’m happy.
And I’m just about to take a step on the road towards humanity and its branches’ future.
Turn left; turn right. I know what choice to make.
The world is vast and full of wonders. So is our future.
• • •
Copyright © 2016 Julie Nováková