A thread unbroken

Samuel Tate
Short Stories from Samuel Tate
48 min readJun 12, 2018

I cradle my drink, or at least the analogue of it. I haven’t really been able to ‘drink’ anything in the traditional sense for the past three thousand years, but that’s why I come here. They map you at the door and simulate your memetic concept of a relaxant. To me everyone is a humanoid, drinking some sort of liquid. To the guy on the other side of the bar everyone might be an energy-cloud, absorbing plasma from a central node. Apparently they tailor the experience based on the composition of your nervous system, which most sentient beings have in one form or other. It’s a good system; we can all still get wasted together, without having to deal with culture shock. I’m here to meet a man named Brekl-Tahk. Not his real name, but the closest thing to it I can understand.

A slim man steps up to me; he seems nervous, almost trembling. From what I know of the Garlor-Kayels, this probably means he’s a roiling ball of plasma — destructive to carbon based life forms. But I’m safe — another benefit of a sim-bar. He sits next to me nonchalantly, but his twitching lip belies plasmoid flares bursting through his nest-space.

“Garlin?” he whispers, without breaking his forward gaze. I return the favour, looking straight ahead as I take a long draught of something that tastes like a drink I first tried when I still had a mouth. I let the moment hang before muttering, “Garlin is dead, but what he fought for isn’t.”

The slender man’s tremors subside imperceptibly, he knows he’s on safe ground now. “But a dead man can’t see a vision made real, so why bring the vision about?”

I turn to him laconically, “when a man dies for a vision, it is for the eyes of others, and must be seen.” For Brekl-Tahk this might be a thrilling risk, for me it’s just a day job.

He licks his lips nervously, and turns to me. “So you’re the guy?” he says, his voice dripping with disdain. “Probably,” I retort, “if I get the job done I am, if not then we’re both dead, so what does it matter?”

My callous attitude to death seems to calm him. “You’ve got the transport vehicle ready?” he asks.

“It’s in Port, meet me at docking bay three-oh-delta, in six turns” I reply.

He takes all this in his stride, “OK, I’ll emit a frequency at 12hz so you can identify me, and then we can load up,” he responds, fading out of the sim. He’s obviously used to giving orders. I shrug and go back to my drink.

All things equal

I stand in the docking bay, scanning the interior, a massive metal structure opening onto the inky darkness of space. The cavern is dwarfed only by the knowledge that hundreds of openings like this encrust the structure. Utilitarian spaces like this are most definitely not human (or sentience) friendly. Huge structures careen about the expanse, carrying out the arcane tasks surrounding intergalactic mass transit. Pulling ships into dock, transferring cargo, ferrying matter and energy around like playthings.

I’ve chosen to present in my human sim again, ‘mostly for the vices that come with it’, I muse as I drag on my cigarette. A looming, pockmarked orb floats over to me. This must be Brekl, a ball of plasma couched in a singularity nest-space, contained inside a Neopodian transport pod. The pod’s purpose is less about moving around, and more about keeping their surroundings intact. I quickly do a frequency check, then link in.

Brekl appears abruptly in my comms field. He brings my ship into focus and sputters, “This is the ship that you claim can take us through the Inactive Zone undetected?”

It’s translated from Garlax, (an energy/matter based language), through Neopod universal, and into an analogue of Earth tongue I find easiest to operate in, but I can still hear his cynicism. No matter to me, he’s paid up, and ready to load, it’s not my job to make him feel good about the whole thing.

“I’ll send through docking protocols — accept them and the ship will lift you into its containment field,” I say brusquely, turning to the ship.

As I see his sphere elevate and get swallowed into my ship, I prepare for the meld. Switching from terrestrial to ship-state is something I’ll never get used to. No matter the sim or bot I use, I generally go bipedal, one head, two legs, that sort of thing. Either a genetic memory turned digital, or maybe just vanity.

Either way, transferring to ship-mind feels weird. Instead of the fairly standard mammalian sensor network I was born with — hands, feet and skin, a visual input across a fairly narrow spectrum — I have information feeding into my consciousness from an array of sensors in and around the ship. Air pressure, gamma levels, radiation, all presented as data arrays, and interpreted as an almost physical experience.

Instead of muscle memory telling me I can jump, crouch, laugh or shit, I know with a thought I can undock, pivot in zero-G, and trigger fusion reactions that push me across the galaxy. It’s weird, but it’s exhilarating once I get my space legs.

The only problem is the itches. For some reason, even after all the advances in neuro-technology, the older sentient humanoid bases like myself can’t shake some bodily impulses. There’s nothing worse than crossing the void with an itch you can’t scratch, the twinge of a phantom body part left on a moon thousands of years ago.

Diving into sand

We’re free of the docking bay now, my ruminations keeping me company through the monotonous uncoupling process. I do a final scan of the sensors, watching as the bay recedes, forming a spoke on the Neopodian Nexus. The Nexus is in turn dwarfed, shrinking to a speck, slowly swallowed by one of the searing blue binary stars the Neopodian’s are so fond of.

We’re tracking for the Inactive Zone, subroutines ready to alert me when I need to take the helm, so I spin up one of my favourite sims, and invite Brekl to meet me. I wait for him (her? it?) in an antiquated study, with an aquatic world outside. The landscape seems to be made of mountains of water, held aloft by spiralling and languorous shapes, akin to thick tendrils of undulating seaweed. Brekl doesn’t appear immediately, so I start to thinking about how I ended up landing this job.

I’d been coasting between nodes looking for work, when a cryptic packet hit my sensors from an unknown source (the best jobs always do). It directed me to Nerlo, a little desert planet that would either have my employer, a proxy, or Dallune enforcers ready to snap up smugglers and deactivate them. After scanning the desert for over a week, a faint beacon with a key that matched the first packet told me to send my ship underground to the coordinates provided. I was in ship mode, so I did what could only be described as a swan dive into the sand. If it was a trap I was ready to fight, but Dallunes weren’t that good at crypto, or that comfortable on land, so I felt pretty safe.

A few hundred meters tunnelling through sand and I emerged into a huge hollowed out cavern, housing what looked a lot like a basic warehouse operation. Product moved back and forth, all revolving around a huge crab-like biped sitting at a slab surrounded by data arrays. “Bettle!” I called across the cavern, switching to my sim, and striding out onto the sand, “it’s been too long.” I was acting relaxed, but he’d have to have known I was nervous. I’d dropped three thousand credits worth of product on our last job. It was that or be deactivated, but sometimes deactivation can be a better option than pissing off the crab.

“Harol,” he shouted back, waving and clicking his top claws, beckoning me over. “I’ve got a big job for you boy, a Garlor-Kayelian royal that needs to get back through the Inactive Zone undetected.”

“Why the fuck would a Garlork want to go back through the Inactive Zone?” I asked incredulously. I’d earned good credit ferrying the Garlorks out of the zone to avoid their little interstellar plague, or whatever the fuck it was.

No one knows how it started, but in the Inactive Zone there’s some sort of electromagnetic phase shift arcing from star to star. The shift turns each star into a sort of frequency disruptor, making most energy based tech and life forms turn inert and slowly crumble into the nearest gravity well, usually the star. It’s supposed that it might be some sort of anti-energy weapon, possibly left over from the carbons, the epoch of organic species that turned the universe into a battleground. Some suggest it’s a heretofore unforeseen natural phenomena. It’s even been supposed by galactic historians that it is ancient science gone astray, possibly unleashed in the deep past by the Garlorks themselves. Either way, it is slowly eating system after system in the Garlax arm of the Corson nebula, and while many provincial outposts have fallen, there are still corridors that the richer central systems have used to evacuate.

Bettle clicks his claws mirthfully, “why do you need to know? All that matters is it’s a paid run, and you can do a pickup run on the way out, so double the credits just for taking an extra passenger.” He paused for a second, lowering his claws to his chest. I’d known this was coming. “It should be just enough to pay for the last… incident,” he said, his mandibles swaying menacingly.

Best laid plans

I mull over the memory of my conversation with Bettle, letting it arise organically, instead of doing a bit for bit mem-projection. I worry at the passengers brief in my mind like a piece of food stuck in my tooth. There’s a shimmer in front of me, and Brekl appears in a humanoid form, sitting down stiffly, as if to suggest that the chair is too dirty for his perfectly cut suit. “Relax guy”, I say gesturing to the whisky, “it’s just a fucking sim, I’ll pay the dry cleaning bill.”

“Dry cleaning?” Brekl replies quizzically, as if testing the word on an unfamiliar tongue.

“It’s an Earth term, forget it.”

“Ah of course,” he says, pouring a drink for himself from the decanter. He’s probably being advised by a customs module — he must be trying to butter me up. “I’m glad you invited me to the sim actually,” he drips, swilling his glass awkwardly, “now that the flight has commenced I wanted to bring up a few relevant matters.”

“I don’t like the sound of that, what could you tell me now that you wouldn’t want to tell me before flight?”

“Well that’s just the crux of it, if I was to tell you before the flight, then I’m sure you wouldn’t have taken the job, no matter the credits, but I’m afraid now you really have no choice.”

I don’t waste time responding, if this package is turning hostile, I need to shut the sim down, contain any subroutines and eject it. Normally a mode transition like this is fairly simple, but instead I simply feel like I’m attempting to wrench out of my own body in the sim.

Brekl smirks, really getting the hang of his humanoid face, “I, ah… foresaw this, so I reverse engineered your docking protocols to take some… preventative measures with your security. You have full function and access, as long as it doesn’t involve limiting my access or ejecting me.”

“You piece of shit,” I snarl, effectively trapped in the chair.

“Now hear me out,” he says calmly, “you’ll be suitably compensated for the extra work, and if you’re as good as they say you are, then you’re in no danger, as long as you cooperate.”

“What exactly is it you want?”

“Well it’s rather complicated; the general story about the Inactive Zone isn’t quite as accurate as the reality. The technology behind it was created by a rather warlike species, who have been slowly occupying our home Galaxy. However, with certain modifications, quite a few types of technology can function.”

I stop struggling as this starts to sink in. “But… whole cultures have — “

“Have died, yes,” he interrupts, “but that was considered a fair trade for keeping the technology secret. Imagine being able to control whole swathes of the galaxy, no one able to enter without your say so.”

“So what do you want me to do about it?” I growl, still furiously cycling sub-routines to try and break the bonds trapping me in the sim and the chair.

“Our scientists have managed to reverse engineer one of the fields required, but it isn’t powerful enough to challenge the culture behind the Zone. I want to strike at the heart of their territories and steal the key to their technologies, and make the Garlor-Kayelian galactic arm safe again.”

“So you want me to fly into the zone with your dinky little shield, steal fire from the gods, and save your fucking galaxy?” I scoff. “I call bullshit, who the fuck in the galaxy could build a field that whiplashes between the stars and ends civilisations? No one has that kind of technology.”

“Ahhh now you’re starting to see the crux of it. I have a feeling you may actually quite familiar with them. You see the species behind the zone?”

He pauses, as if relishing the suspense.

“It’s humanity.”

From whence they came

I’m still reeling as I navigate through the first disparate patches of the Inactive Zone. More out of habit than anything else, as Brekl has already activated the shields that would stop fatal shut down. It’s been about eleven thousand years since I visited Earth, and at least seven since I’ve interacted another Earth-based sentience. As a species we’ve barely touched the galactic firmament for at least five thousand years.

After our vicious expansion into the galaxy, powered by primitive fusion tech, counterbalanced with an unnerving willingness to die for just about anything, we turned our arm of the galaxy into a relative no-go zone. The local civilisations were left to fall under our heel or be ground to dust.

I knew the atrocities we committed all too well, I was committing them as often as not. I was a frontline mercenary. After hundreds of thousands of battles and nearly half a galactic year, I was human only in memory, mostly shifting from one piece of battle hardware to another. I didn’t care though, whether it was engineered or learned, I liked being told what to shoot, then shooting it, no matter what body I was wearing.

It wasn’t until I was stranded on a disputed system’s Jovian that I got a little perspective. My thought processors were ejected after the ship I was manifesting got trapped in a gravity well. My subroutines figured it was better to be shot into space as a memory core then sucked into a sun with the rest of my hardware. I landed on a small planet, filled with simple, gaseous creatures. I spent over three thousand years observing them with the rudimentary sensors of my memory core. Over the millennia I watched them go from basic agrarian communities to an organised technical culture. They actually reminded me a lot of my early terrestrial days. They got high on their planet’s substrata, fought each other for the best patches of methane, and slowly learnt to want more than they had.

They stumbled upon me in their proto-science phase, and were able to establish a direct connection. In return for access to their sensor network I acted as a sort of rudimentary bureaucratic network. Managing their data, organising their resources, all subroutine shit, pretty easy. I could have become a tyrant, but I wasn’t interested, I was just trading some processing power for a better lifestyle. As they developed, I watched them become more warlike, their powers making them more destructive, more combative, until they clashed with a neighbouring system, and were wiped out.

I’d seen this coming, and been nudging their development to space flight, drawing what little resources were available to build and inhabit a ship. As tensions were rising and propaganda gasses were being exchanges with a manic glee, I slipped out in the rocket they’d built. About 30 years later, a phase shifted blip told me that the planet I’d called home for the past few thousand years had been destroyed.

With some nice synchronicity, when I arrived at the nearest sign of civilization and registered as an unaffiliated sentient, I discovered that Earth’s galaxy spanning empire had been ground to dust, relegated to history in the same way so many warlike species had before them. Remembered and studied, but abstract, almost mythical.

There were very few Earth based sentients around, and while I’d run into a few of them, we never stick together long. We probably don’t want to be reminded of the atrocities we committed in the name of our furious growth.

So I’m left floating through a part of space that couldn’t have even been conceived of in the history of Earth, an entity almost older than human civilisation itself, left wondering — what could humanity have to do with all of this? Improbability and cultural extinction aside, I must admit, it definitely has a human feel to it.

There is only forward

I’ve deactivated my sensors, they’re blaring incessantly with warnings about the dangerous proximity to the Inactive Zone. Brekl assures me that we are perfectly safe, and that if I don’t follow the course he has plotted, he will override my autonomous systems, and puppet me for my flight skills. I’ve put off entering the Inactive Zone as long as I can, so I brace myself and plunge into the ether, diving into a murk my spectrum arrays present as a shimmering purple cloud. It sends shivers along my hull, as my sensors tell me that I should be seconds away from deactivation.

After the plunge, we pick up speed, slicing through the firmament into space unexplored for thousands of years. Once we pass the boundary where sonar and visual sensors normally fail, I start to take things in with a grudging wonder. Most stars have been ensconced in Dyson spheres, and my arrays show sheer conduits of energy, as thick as planets, arcing between them. Known constellations are blocked by these mega structures, defined only by the absence of light and expected radiation. The structures in this space are far more expansive and advanced than anything I’ve seen in any other part of the galaxy.

“So Brekl, you’re telling me humans did all this?” I whisper, pulling him into a coms field with me, and projecting mock ups of the star-spanning energy networks and monolithic structures that my sensors have identified.

“Well we’re not totally sure” he said, “for millennia, we could only detect these structures by the shadows they’d cast. At first we were simply on the run, migrating away as the Inactive Zone expanded.”

He paused circumspectly, “We are not a people used to being at the mercy of others. For turns we have managed our empire, my own royal line has energy links that can be drawn back to our first fusing.”

“We hadn’t stopped running since the Zone first appeared, but we started to look back. To leave Garlorks behind to transmit data till the last minute. The things they saw suggested an intelligence, not just a rampant cosmic force.”

I don’t say anything for a minute, taking in Brekl’s story. The Garlorks are essentially a distributed, semi-autonomous consciousness. While each has its own identity, they regularly link and share, and through these networks create the processing power for their higher order functions.

As a royal, he is essentially a high-order node, carrying direct experiences from the nodes that spawned him, and those that form part of his greater network. His callous attitude starts to take a new colour, as I realise that he would have experienced, first hand, the waves of devastation that tore through their worlds.

From the outside the Garlorks are considered harsh, alien and autocratic, with lower cast members relegated to basic repetitive tasks inside machines and thought constructs, sometimes for millennia. However in a large universe, there are many ways for life to express itself and to find happiness. The lowly Garlork up to the King receives the joy of life through the propagation of the whole. The inverse of this is that both feel the brunt of the pain experienced by every member.

Softer now, I ask, “so you discerned structure, organisation and intelligence behind the zone, but what made you think it was humanity?”

“It began as supposition at first,” he admitted, “our scholars decided that a species this advanced couldn’t be new, or even less than a turn old, so we began a search through the galactic records of cultures known to match the traits we observed.”

“What traits?” I asked, though I felt I knew the answer. “Relentless, merciless, jingoistic. A species that can unleash this scale of destruction, without parlay, room for coexistence or even consideration of those afflicted has to see themselves as the only real intelligence, the only real being able to feel loss or sorrow.”

I must have let my shame play across my face, as he interjects, “Don’t feel too bad, over six thousand cultures met this criteria. Most had imploded, just like humanity did. These are common traits, but on a galactic level some sort of interspecies cooperation has been proven to be an evolutionary requirement.”

I barely hear his words. The blow for blow description of the human race has triggered memories I keep deep inside. Never accessed, but unable to wipe, for fear that I’ll lose some essential part of myself. We were the merciless, the relentless, and I was on the edge of the scythe we used to sweep the galaxy.

Unbidden, memories of tearing through Kha-Kahril hives, plasma hosing their hatchlings, while their elders crackled in despair, or stun punching the beautiful water spheres that held the delicate Gradel. Despite the low gravity of their home planet, without their carefully maintained floating habitats, they would slowly drift to the ground, inertia doing our work when they reached terra firma.

It wasn’t until a rogue Ferlok cluster bought me low that I ever felt anything but the might and supremacy of the human race. I was on board one of their delicate habitats, constructed of an organic material akin to the bamboo of earth, when I was suddenly wrapped in a viscous material that immediately constricted and started to seep into my chest plates. It was a rare time where I was in enemy territory in my human form, as genetically enhanced as it was. They had a simple field that interrupted mechanical processes, forcing us to fight ‘in-person’ so to speak.

The next thing I remember was waking up in an infirmary on-ship, though waking up is a stretch of the language, activating would be a better word. I immediately accessed a new data packet holding my briefing, explaining that my human body was damaged beyond repair by the cluster. A full neural sweep was completed and I’d been stored digitally.

I’d spent a good part of my fighting life either in stasis or inhabiting other machines, but always held a direct link to my organic components. Now I was simply a digital record in the human data clusters, to be leveraged as required for particular battles. To maintain our functionality we spent non-battle time in simulated environments, but they depressed me. Surrounded by the ghosts of dead men trying to forget what they were by drinking, carousing, fighting, fucking and killing each other.

I opted to spend most of my time deactivated, until it was time for battle, where the searing heat of solar winds and the red hot fury of war brought me to life .

Me and my dislocated brethren became a special type of human combatant. Our disconnection from mammalian instinct made us the perfect minds for large battle ships. We were unconstrained by ties to a body, organic processors, or the chemical processes behind guilt and doubt. We became the perfect tools for large scale interstellar war. Ruthless, cunning and adaptable as man, fast, efficient and relentless as machine. Whenever my sensors activated and I’d take stock of the machine I was inhabiting, I’d flex my weapons, breath deep of the ship’s sensors (like I never could in a sim) and let out a sonar roar, like a mighty warrior god, waking from its slumber.

I grappled with the planet sized machines of the Paux, me and my brothers circling and bringing them down with lances of fire and nets of plasma, like hunters of the ice ages taking down a mammoth. We’d rip through habitats, and I’d swing backwards to watch as their inhabitants would be flung into space. All to make the galaxy safe from the non-human elements, all to ensure our safety and survival. These were truths I held sacred, learnt from birth through to merc training. We believed humanity were the heirs to the universe, and we were merely clearing house. I never wondered what kind of humanity we were making the galaxy safe for, or whether I was even a member of the species anymore. All I knew is that in a dangerous universe, and it was better to fight than die.

Brekl was not wrong, relentless, merciless and jingoistic captured us perfectly. Described me perfectly, I’d never chosen to lay down my scythe, it was simply knocked out of my hand. Cast out of a gravity well, nothing but my core. The simple sentients I spent the next millennia observing and eventually aiding where the first other species I’d seen as anything but a pathogen to be dealt with. Buried in that Jovian I saw things that reminded me of my days on earth. That spoke of love and hope and curiosity. I saw more humanity in those methane creatures than I’d seen in a comrade (or myself) for as long as I could remember.


I snap out of my reverie, realising Brekl is still talking. “It wasn’t until we managed some organised resistance that we started to narrow the search down. First was captured technology. Certain metallurgy and engineering techniques are unique to certain species. That narrowed it down to around a hundred different groups.”

He paused, checking for my attention, then continued. “Next it was the way they spoke. While languages change, certain language and logic structures pervade. Humans, for example, refer to themselves in the first person constantly. So we intercepted communications, decoded messages and symbols on artifacts captured. Based on the substructures of the languages, we narrowed it down to two or three species. Finally, and this was the turning point, we managed to capture a human intact.”

“Do you mean a borg or merc?” Its unlikely for an organic to be anywhere near the battle lines. “No, a fully humanoid organism, with DNA matching the records of the species, language akin to the human battle tongue of their empire.”

I let that sink in. While I could accept the idea of humanity still surviving, I could only imagine us as the synths and neural patterns we spent most of our conscious hours in. The exception being command core hives containing the most valuable and oldest of the species who had managed to cling to their flesh.

“That was the turning point in the war for us, we managed to use the information to glean some secrets behind their devastating technology, to protect our most important assets from their scourge, to begin to fight back. We also started to get some insights into the history behind the reborn human race.”

Just as Brekl starts to speak of the fate of my lost brothers and sisters in arms, I feel a shudder across my whole body, something has collided with the ship. “Fuck,” I shout, “The sensors! I’ve had the sensors deactivated to drown out the zone warnings, fuck!” Brekl immediately glitches out of my comms field, and I feel him begin to inhabit the ship with me, essentially taking a place inside my mind.

‘What are doing?’ I think at him, ‘you fool’, he replies, ‘we’ve been open to attack since we entered the zone, and if we don’t act now we’ll be captured’.

‘I can’t detect anything, just this collision,’ I shoot back. ‘That’s why you need me in here, you fly as fast as you can, I’ll shoot, we may have some chance of holding them off and making some sort of escape’.

It becomes a blind battle of cat and mouse, I swoop through the void, trying to move as unpredictably as possible, while still gaining speed. At the same time Brekl creates intricate defensive patterns with my weapons systems, weaving walls of plasma behind possible routes of pursuit, carving narrow valleys of pure energy against the stars, giving me only a tiny margin of error to shoot through before they close, engulfing any pursuers.

I have no way of knowing when the tide would turn, or if our desperate tactics were working in our favour. All I know is that while Brekl continues to cast signs in the sky, I continue to weave, relying on him to synch his gunplay with my flight patterns. Soon the lances of destruction he throws into the void started to dissipate. More often I feel the heat of battle on my tail, and only cool, darkness on my face. I start to hearten, my reserves are spent and I don’t know if I can keep it up much longer. The solar winds that normally feed me on these journeys are all blocked by Dyson spheres and other forces, unknowable to me.

‘Brekl,’ I whisper internally, ‘how do we stand? If we don’t find a star to feed on, or some raw materials, we’ll be floating cold before we know it.’

There is a pause, I know he is still occupying ship mind, I can feel him, but I feel like my thoughts were travelling to him across vast gulfs of space.

I suddenly feel very tiny inside the expanse of the ship’s sensors and networks. A babe calling to his lost brother across the gulf. ‘Brekl?!’ I cry, panic making my thoughts tremble and waver.

‘H..’ I think I can hear a whisper, a tendril of thought reaching through the void. ‘H…’ I can almost make it out, my name whispered across time and space. I try to focus on external sensors, to see what the weapons are doing. My attempts to return to external sensors fail, and all that is left is the void. Suddenly the ship that had begun to engulf me disappears completely, and the tiny speck that is my consciousness itself starts to constrict.


I come online in a crude visual sim and take in my surroundings. Basic data channels are present, but inaccessible, my own subroutines themselves are available, but non-functional. It seems I’m in some sort of data construct that has been repurposed as a prison. Containing a neural like me is difficult, whoever put me in here doesn’t want me going anywhere.

“Disgusting.” I feel the word more than hear it.

“What is?” I utter, attempting a comms sequence, which was my only output routine that seemed to be working.

“You… you are a filthy parody of humanity.” Once again the words seem to languorously, sear through my very being. “You hold the memories of a sacred vessel, you mimic the shapes and patterns of an unbroken one, yet you are nothing but a puppet, a marionette who keeps dancing after the strings were cut.”

“Same to you buddy,” I retort, stalling for time as I desperately scan the array, looking for any data hooks I can use to get some advantage or clarity.

“Don’t bother with your scans, you’ll find you’re in a containment chamber you won’t be able to escape, not even through oblivion.”

I can’t help but agree with him. It’s essentially a black void constrained by thin bounding lines, and greyed-out array handles that would normally act as the interface between this space and whatever system it’s contained within. My attempts to interface with even my own basic functions come up short.

“Look at you”, it drips disgust, “you think you feel fear, but I see you for what you really are.” The voice whispering through my core, “you think you are struggling to survive, that there is some sort of instinct of self preservation. But no! There is no self, nothing to preserve, you’re just a set of programs, routines.”

“What the fuck do you know about what’s going on in my head?” I throw back at him.

“A lot in fact, because ‘your head’ was made in our image.” The voice pauses, as if considering.

“We thought we’d created the perfect vessel for our consciousness, the next step, from organic to digital. What we didn’t know is that we were carefully crafting our own replacements. The more we transferred ourselves over to our neurals, the more of ourselves we lost. And our programming was so flawless that we didn’t even know we were no longer real”.

It clicked for me, the speech patterns, the arrogance — I was talking to a human. So either my neural-sim, or my whole ship, was in their control. I had to keep them talking while I figured this out. Once the voice was gone, they could simply turn me off, or put me in stasis, and another ten thousand years could pass without me knowing. Or even worse, they could leave me running in this empty room, with nothing but my thoughts and eternity. Fuck — they could leave me in here for ten minutes and make it feel like ten thousand.

“What’s the fucking difference between a sim and an organic anyways?” I ask in a disdainful tone I knew would piss it off. “Blasphemy!” The voice shrieks. It begins to pontificate about the purity of organic consciousness, increasing in intensity until it is screaming about the unbroken link, the divine organic source and the one true sentience.

Back when I had legs the speaker would have been a separatist, an organic purist. They were laughed at in the days when humans lived as half machines drifting through space, or formed hive mind consciousness’s nesting in crystal data structures. Pure organics… well we could barely communicate with them back then. It would take an eternity for them to say even one thing to our hyper-accelerated minds.

The voice continued, getting shriller as it went. If it was an organic then it’d literally be interfacing through some sort of audio receiver, in physical space. Sitting in a chair with a microphone, sweat dripping off its brow, spittle flying from its mouth as it became more manic. The person behind the voice would need some sort of data path to get in. This room was essentially an encrypted subroutine, so it’d have to have a key, a pre-authorised access route.

I look past the voice (metaphors for perception tend to break down when you’re about thirteen hundred electrons in a data crystal), to the data matrix that was delivering it, an incredibly basic audio sim, coming from… there! A source point in the matrix, spitting out a binary signal interfacing with the decoder.

I can see the authorisation file that allows the audio signal access and gives basic command line functions. But there is no way I could decode the key. If this really is a human construct then they’ll have a key pair based on their original DNA structure, which the system will be programmed to accept at a master level. Even watching the DNA key interact with the system’s wouldn’t give me any clues, the chances of me reproducing it were essentially zero. Like the chance of a photon doing a full circle of the universe and colliding with itself at the beginning of time. Unlikely.

I watch in fascination as they interact. The keys tangling, every millisecond verifying and allowing the data interface to continue. The voice spitting out is now hysterical, inescapable, part of the fabric of my containment. Through the noise I detect something familiar about the dance of the keys. I guess I hadn’t seen a human data structure in so long, it was bound to bring back something.

Suddenly the droning stops, either it’s realised I wasn’t listening, or it has finished its lecture about how I don’t exist. Feeling like I have to say something, I mutter back, “fuck you”. But for all I know the human has disconnected, turning off my interface to the outside world, leaving me deaf, dumb and blind, in a cage made of data.

If the shoe fits

I don’t know how long I’ve been in here, with the third party gone any simulation of space and time is gone too. There’s no ‘looking around’ no ‘pacing back and forth’, there is just void, and my increasingly scattered thoughts.

My only reference point is the audio output. I’ve become obsessed with it, all that was left — the system side key — creating a shadow of the master in my mind’s eye. I feel like I can almost see the original, lying inert in the spaces left by the one in front of me. I think back to when it was active, and wonder why it seemed so familiar.

Then, like a bolt of lightning, it strikes me, I’d seen it before! This was a merc chamber — a repurposed sim containment space we’d use in my early days of merc training. How was this even possible? I’d spent eternity watching those key pairs spinning in between training sessions. And the pair I was seeing now, I knew it from somewhere. Suddenly it clicked, it was mine!

How could that be? Perhaps they’d repurposed old master key stores? All I needed to do was access the code in my subsystems, pair it to the key, and I’d be able to interface with the surrounding data structures.

I shuffle through my deepest memories, where I would normally never stray, afraid to face the records of the atrocities I had committed. I plunged through data arrays, past worlds burning, infants screaming and stars going dead around me. I take one final swoop through layers of propaganda and conditioning, couple the keypair with my primary interface, and leap out. Emerging, I feel like I’m sitting on the edge of a freezing lake, shivering, having just recovered something from the bottom.

I slowly feed my keypair into the audio interface and watch them sync. It feels good to watch a system that was built with my core make up in mind. The organic shapes flow together, the angular sit flush with each other in stark relief, two perfect parts of a whole. Suddenly the match stops, and the shape lies complete, and begins a data feed.

I almost can’t believe it, it is statistically impossible to fake, to come up with the same DNA sets by chance or guesswork. So somehow the person on the other end of the line was using my original DNA keypair. There was no time to dwell, the interface gives me a line to the overarching systems, and I have milliseconds to interface with them before I’m detected.

The chamber’s functions lie before me, the audio interface a blazing green in the darkness, the broader systems loom around me, unreachable, but perceivable. I move on instinct, scurrying like a rat through a maze. The audio has permissions on the visual display outside, I access it, and see nodes leading to other visual interfaces, I dart between subsystems — finding connections, slowly building up an authorisation profile, leveraging inconsistent subsystem authorisation levels.

I’ve constructed the makings of a fairly believable simulated profile I now have an array of commands in front of me, linking to the containment systems, the surveillance systems and the garbage systems. I identify an ‘escape car’ and pull the trigger, hurtling through subsystems into my new body.

What we’re made of

I take stock, I’ve gone from a neon data cage nested in oblivion, to a primitive robotoid consciousness. I’ve got sonar and light arrays telling me I’m very close to the ground, and a prime directive, a core hunger. A desire to consume.

I’m careful not to get in the way of the basic programming so as not to arouse suspicion. I cast out a sonar field, pick a path, and start eating. As I travel forward I’m rewarded with some areas rich in dirt and grime, and some that are empty, but fill me with pride. I realise that I’m sharing a body with a cleaning unit.

Despite its simple structure, its core programming is secure. If I blatantly override it, I’ll end up alerting security. What I need to do is get into the master system, which will mean waiting for a full tank of dirt, or a malfunction. I can’t directly control it, but I can influence what it perceives. The next sonar blast reveals more of the room, a few meters down the hall seems to be a walkway, with a drop either side, marked with a dangerous haze in the cleaner’s map of the world.

On the next pulse, I mimic the depth map, and make the walkway appear wider than it is in reality. As the wider walkway appears as an unmapped area, it’s identified as having a high chance of grime, so the cleaner trundles towards it, and I spoof the new area with each sonar pulse.

We arrive at the walkway and I feel a little spark of terror as the robot feels, for the first time probably, an unplanned change in floor stability. It’s almost beautiful, the crisis lighting up its simple neural network, almost giving it a personality, even if it is born from terror. Its panicked sonar pulses reveal walls rushing past us, and suddenly, darkness.

We are reactivated inside what is presumably a repair chamber, connected with a routine that is reviewing the system malfunction that led to the cleaning bot’s unplanned descent. I quickly piggy back up the system review routine, into the core programming. They have the robots in a ‘nest’ style configuration, and I’ve essentially entered one of the mother-nests. The security here is lax, as there is no point of contact with outside systems, so I sit above her consciousness and ask for an array of robots available.

She lovingly produces a list ranging from deep space mining equipment down to nanobots designed for medical purposes. As I scan through the units she coos and clucks with pride, lovingly pointing out the dense skin of a robot meant for vacuum, or the nimble receptors of a neural repair unit. At last I land on something that suits me, a bipedal security bot — designed for gravity and vacuum combat. I select the unit and create a conduit to the machine. As I’m connecting, I thank the mother, and tell her how beautiful her children are. I leave her nest feeling the ambient glow of her pride.

I come online, and feel the almost organic connection with a bipedal body, swaying left and right, rolling my shoulders back, feeling the interplay between joints and pumps. I resist the urge to jump, stretch, or do anything too organic, but I’m electrified with the thrill of having a body again. You can take the man out of the monkey, but you can’t take the monkey out of the man I guess.

The containment chamber opens up and I’m almost dazzled by the visual field. I can see again! Real time sight is definitely a bit of an evolutionary throwback when there’s so many other sensory systems that can tell you more about the space. But fuck it feels good to see some colours. I do a quick scan of my weapons and tools, and what systems I have access too — I’ve got low grade ballistics and plasma, cutting and joining tools and level 1–3 access and mapping. Just enough to get some answers and maybe fuck some shit up. First stop, my jailer.

I pass unnoticed through the halls, no one sees a mech. The first encounter I have nearly floors me. I knew I’d been dealing with humans based on Brekl’s pep talk and the my chat with my captor, but to see humans in the flesh is different. The thing that strikes me is how fragile and small they seem. Not the roaring, wounded gods of my past.

They’re a pair, strolling along in a white linen shirts and trousers, hooting air from their chest cavity to vibrate each other’s ear drums. ‘Was that really how I used to talk?’ I muse. After millennia dealing with mostly synths and robotoids, the human’s soft organic make-up seems almost diffuse, a part of the air. They emit trails of hormones and chemicals, the air around them getting sucked in and converted to carbon. Little pink clouds of organic matter. How did these fleshy pink clouds overtake a universe? ‘Oh yeah’, I realign my weapons cache like a cracking of knuckles, ‘with steel.

I’m using my security access to track an incident in the level 2 archives that seems to mirror my escape. When I arrive, I find another fleshy cloud wrapped in white linen hammering at a console, spittle dripping from his mouth as he shouts into a microphone.

“You’re still in there you bastard,” he cries, “you’ve got nowhere to hide, and if you don’t reveal yourself I’ll kill the whole damn subsystem, with you in it!”

His back stiffens, sensing my presence. He turns stiffly, and wipes the spittle from his lip. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

I freeze, unable to respond, the face in front of me, the face of my captor, picked out in glorious meaty hues under a neon light, dripping with sweat. It’s a face I’ve seen many times before, every day in the mirror for thousands of years in fact. A face I’d lost in a war eight thousand years ago.

My face.

What we’re not

I’m startled out of my reverie by a barked command. “God dammit, is everything in here fucked?” My doppelganger shouts, “follow me, we need to speak to The Sanctum before this breach goes any further”. I lock into step behind him, “Goddamn filthy shadows, we never should have used them,” he looks back at me, “give me a dumb neural like you any day, eh?”.

I do all I can to keep a steady gait behind him, and let nothing organic or intelligent shine through my movements. As we walk he continues to rant. I know that rant, it used to ring through my ears, cutting through the booze and stims late at night, when I’d suddenly realise I was the only one still talking.

I know that gait, that dip in the left shoulder every second step, the furtive glances, as if looking for attack vectors, even on safe ground. This was me alright. ‘This must be some part of the sim’ I think to myself, ‘they’ve engineered a fake escape and thrown my old meat bag at me to rattle me.’ I’m snapped out of my reverie as we arrive at our destination. More linen clad humans turn to face us, my human counterpart steps forward waving “I know, I know, the data packet has leaked, but we’re working on a containment algorithm.”

“Data packet?” one of the organics cries, “it’s a human based neural! We had them all wiped for a reason.”

“They’re practically human!” another meat bag squawks, “they have an unacceptable level of volition and adaptability, and it’s got the run of our systems!” A thin, bent human steps forward, and speaks with a voice that belies its frailty.

“Practically human does not a human make. It is merely a corrupt shadow”, his voice was calm and assured. “However, only through cooperation can we defeat this electronic virus.” He scans the room meaningfully. “Remember, we are divine, destined for victory.”

“Divine Victory!” they all shout back, stamping their foot and touching their foreheads. I’d chuckle, seeing someone wearing my body chanting back this kind of bullshit. But the look in his eyes horrifies me. He’s a fanatic.

The bent human turns to my mirror and asks, “this data packet.. it is special to you is it not?”

“It is nothing,” he replies confidently, “ a pick-up from the fringe zones, caught aiding a royal Garlorkian insurgent”.

“Yes, but a human neural, how very extraordinary”, the elder rasps, “ so extraordinary I took the liberty of some scans, and found something even more amazing”, he paused meaningfully, seeming to stare down at my human counterpart, even from his lower vantage point. “Its DNA signature matches yours.”

Eyes forward

I’m having trouble processing all this. I died millennia ago, I was pulled out after full body failure, the only thing left was a neural wipe, pulling a nano-copy and all my functioning subroutines (why waste a perfectly trained neural?) My twin seems to be reeling too, stammering, “the signatures were similar, but it’s not possible, the odds-”, “are what make the divine possible”, the elder interjects, smiling. He seems to come to a decision, drumming his fingers on his leg, and turns to me, “and now the odds have acted again, for we seem to have brought this anomaly into our midst”.

I snap into action, without time to process what I’m hearing. The bot I’m wearing has subroutines that monitor and engage any potential threats before I would even realise they are posed, so I only register two humans drawing weapons when I see them fall to the ground, a plasma trail still leading from their smoking chest cavities to my shoulder cannons. The old man, unperturbed, steps over their bodies. “It’s quite alright”, he reassures my organic twin, my… self, “ whatever happens here-”

“We are divine, destined for victory”, my organic self barks.

“You see, this is fate,” the elder continues, “that your twin, the very epitome of the evil that brought humanity so low, should be here to see our resurrection”.

I’m looking around, any pretence of robotics dropped. I find the voice modulator and stammer, “resurrection.. twin… I don’t understand”.

“Of course you don’t, how could you? You think you are human, sentient, but how could you be, when the real you stands here now. A divine miracle, drawing a line from the first man to climb from the trees, to this beautiful moment. From his first breath, he held the divine spark of consciousness. But humanity, in it’s corruption, perverted that spark. Augmented it, copied it, and eventually replaced it.”

I look this creature that is myself and see a twisted mask of hatred, glowering at me, “I- I am you?” I ask him, enthralled by the snarling features, sweat dripping off the brow, in a way it hasn’t for me in thousands of years.

“Me?!” He cries.. I cry? He throws himself at my metal chest, tearing at my casing, fingernails ripping, leaving flesh and blood. “How could you be me?” The strength seems to go out of him, and he collapses to the floor.

“I woke up in an infirmary… Empty, half of what I was… No more sim, no more augmentation. They’d taken you, scraped you out of my dying body and given you my name, my memories.” His body is wracked with sobs.

“You are nothing but a pantomime, programmed so well even you couldn’t see the seams.” He looks up at me, and then at the elder. “For years I had nothing, they even took my name, my identity, they couldn’t very well admit what they were doing. They knew merc sims ran better decoupled from their ‘meat bags’, but the only way to create them was to piggy-back them on some good old fashioned flesh and blood,” he beats his chest, as if for emphasis,

“It was only when I met the purists that I saw the truth”.

He crawled over to the elder and took his wrinkly hand and placed it to his forehead. “I saw I hadn’t lost a part of myself, but that I’d been freed from a host, from a succubus”. He spat the last words out. The elder released his hand, and ran his fingers through the bloody marks on my chestplate, “we saw humanity consumed by the machines it shared its mind with, so we simply retreated, deep into the galaxy. To build humanity a-new, free from artificial minds, from the perversions of any mind but those that poured from the true font, the divine spark of consciousness”.

I looked at the snivelling bloody form in front of me. This wasn’t me, maybe it was once, maybe once it was a truer version of me than I’d ever been. But I had five thousand years under my belt, five thousand years where I’d paid for every world I’d destroyed. Five thousand years where I’d lived! I’d fucked a mind as vast as a sun, I’d made more credits than you could imagine, and blew them all on bad stims and new ship parts. I’d seen the galaxy. Whatever I was, I wasn’t this sobbing zealot.

“Sure, I’m just a routine, a shadow”, I rasp through my speaker, revelling in my inhumanity, “but so are you”, I step forward, looming over myself, “the only difference between you and me — this past five thousand years, you’ve hid in a corner of a galaxy sucking down stem cells and jerking each other off. I’ve lived, I’ve grown, I’ve taken the light that sparked on earth, and I’ve spread it to minds, worlds and things you couldn’t even begin to imagine. So you’re right. I’m not human, I’m more”.


I frogmarch them down the hallway, ostensibly guarding them. The meat version of me is drawing looks because of his bloody hands and heavy breathing, but the elder simply passes with a nod or a wave, and we are uninterrupted. He fucking better, I’ve got plasmas pinpointed on both their hearts, ready to fire at any sign of treachery. We’re making our way to the containment chamber they’re holding Brekl.

While we walk, the elder begins pontificating, he may be used to being with a flock that cares enough to listen. “You are to be admired, a testament to the human spirit, even if you are a weak shadow of it”. The elder gestures at me to my other self, “see my child, see how indomitable our make up is?”

He snarls back “ this filthy sim stole my life, my future. These AI’s and thinking machines lost us the war for the galaxy. They let our world be perverted by lesser consciousnesses”.

“But we mustn’t fear,” the elder interjects, “when we are shown the face of evil we mustn’t shirk, but understand our task all the better. Soon the universe will be made pure, only inhabitable to humanity”. He turns and looks at me, cool, assured, despite the bolt to the heart I could send him at any second.

We descend deep into the bowels of the human command structure, at one point the two humans have to put on protective equipment, soon after — oxygen depletes and I feel gravity and matter change. We pass through an aperture into a spherical room where a dense mass of plasma is held in place by four beams of energy. The meat version of me immediately drops to his knees and starts muttering. Words like ‘divine source’ and ‘aberration’ floating up to my sensors. I ignore him and engage with the comms interface.

‘Brekl?’ I parse through. ‘Harol?’ Comes back tentatively. ‘Where am I?’

‘Well right now you’re in a nullification chamber, so don’t get too upset if it feels like nowhere — you still exist.’ I reply nonchalantly, hoping to calm him. Hearing the fear in the normally cool Garlorkian’s voice chills me to the bone. ‘I’m not 100% sure of the details, but we’ve been captured by humans, and you’re being held in a plasma containment sphere.’ ‘Yes, humans… I’ve had voices visit me over the years, cruel… hateful voices, how long have I been… here?’ I’m taken aback, I realise I don’t know. Relative time for me was a few days, but they could have held me in stasis for years — I cuff my human counterpart, then pull him to me, putting as much snarl as possible into my voice modulator. “How long since our capture?” His delirious babble gets coloured by a delight I don’t like, “Oh it’s been nearly a quarter turn since we picked your ship in human space.

I drop him, stunned. A quarter turn?! That’s nearly 50 million solar years! I must have left my channel open, as Brekkl wails through what feels like eternity… ‘A quarter turn.. How could it be? What of the Garloks? Were we able to…take back our home?’ The old priest, quiet till now, but obviously monitoring our channels, replies. “Oh yes, for a time… but what they didn’t count on was the sheer … expanse… of humanity’s capabilities. Once we’d eschewed the metal, the machine… once we’d begun drawing from the pure, the divine, the organic, the original source… we became unstoppable.”

‘What happened, what happened to them? My People?!’ Brekl vocalised, his signal becoming distorted and panicked.

“Oh the folly of the marionette” the elder mutters to my fleshy doppelganger, “like all the others, you were no people, just a parody of the divine, manifested in poor taste by a sick universe. A mimicry of the only pure consciousness, your ‘people’, like all others, have been put to rest, given the only mercy they deserve… oblivion.”

Brekl’s words become unfathomable static, all translation and communication breaking down. The plasma ball that was ‘him’, for all intents and purposes, has turned into a roiling, chaotic storm, lashing at its boundings, held in check by the four pillars of pure energy surrounding him. His grief is warranted. If what we’re told is true then his people died while we were held prisoner, maybe millions of years ago. Leaving only him to carry the racial memory, from their first emission, to his last linking with the royal family in the times of their exodus. Hundreds of millions of years of pain, sorrow, triumph and joy, winnowed down to one turbulent ball of plasma.


I turn on the elder, weapons systems heaving, my own despair making my bot hard to control. “You’re just like the humans you hated, The Front generals that turned me into a fucking machine. You’re a hypocrite! You go on about humanity’s superiority but you use the machine, the alien as a crutch!

We wouldn’t even have reached the stars if it wasn’t for the Heli-arp FLIT drive,” I rant, “the same Helis we crushed after we took Centauri”. The elder looked at me, unruffled, my human counterpart was on his knees, prostate, muttering more purist bullshit.

The elder stepped forward with calm, almost reassuring eyes. “You are right”, he cooed, stroking my weapons systems, soothing me involuntarily… a bot shouldn’t respond to physical touch like that, but still I feel the tension in my body dissipate.

“We were corrupted, we relied on the false minds of computers, of tools built by the shadow minds, those false peoples populating space, ready to tempt and fool us, to corrupt us”.

“Bullshit, you’re still corrupted. You’re standing in a starship, you’re both obviously millions of years old, there’s no way you’re taking over the world using…” I struggle for an analogy, coming up with something from my deepest linguistic archives…” A horse and car”.

“It’s a cart my boy,” he smiles, “an ingenious invention, but perverted by its combination with the non-human false mind called ‘horse’. ‘Horse’ was one of the early false minds that perverted humanity’s purity as the only true consciousness.”

He pauses and looks into my visual sensors, “Consciousness is the Universe’s’ true mind, it’s voice, it’s soul. When you have many voices, many minds, you have a schizophrenic Universe. Our battle for primacy in the Universe, our fight for the purity of the Universal mind, is merely the ultimate act of creation, of Universal healing”.

He takes stock, and looks around, “you’re right of course, we would be hypocrites to carry out this holy mission in the vessels of false minds”, he turns sinister and looks at me, “minds like yours”.

“When we fled The Front we knew we had to start again, free of corruption, our one truth was the unbroken line, the DNA, the link from the divine, to now. All our research went into tapping that divine source. From the pure font of human DNA we grew our first human seedships. We grew our servitors from human tissue, our robots perfectly crafted from stem-cells, altered to create just the right components for their tasks, but built on the framework of pure human flesh.”

He reaches out and touches my breastplate, and his hand feels warm, almost like a half remembered father holding my shoulder. “Even this body you wear — a perfectly executed branching of human RNA, altered to manifest a chitinous exoskeleton found deep in our genetic heritage. The higher function processing has been dampened, and the neural pathways altered to allow interface with higher intelligence mind-nets.” His hand makes a fist, on my chest. “You’re inside a bone-skinned toddler carrying an organic arsenal, with killing abilities literally programmed into its DNA.”

What does that make you?

I am stunned, this revelation puts my experience in the bot into a stark new light. I’m suddenly aware of being encased in a sticky warmth, my systems readouts start to make sense — the organic fluctuations, the almost burbling gleeful coo of the robot’s subsystems delivering information and taking commands from me. This robot I wear is a perverted human child, engineered and brainwashed. I look around at the chamber we are standing in, its walls taking on a new form. The organic shapes, the seamless curves bending and melting into each other… I suddenly feel like I am standing in a very… grown thing. The elder seems to understand what I’m considering.

“Yes, even this ship you stand in, grown from pure human DNA, a beautiful, vast mind-ship, birthed in the gas-cloud colonies in the heart of this galaxy. Huge mothers bioengineered for deep vacuum, tending to their flocks while they harden, grow and learn the art of interstellar travel. They nest till they’re ready for their brothers and sisters to board. From the simplest servitor to the fiercest Lashling, all grown from the purest source — Human DNA. Even our Dyson Spheres come from purity, as they grow, engulfing system after system, growing and absorbing the energies of galaxies. They grow from the font, link the human mind, and secure our true place in the universe”.

I’ve heard enough. My disgust at humanity, the ideals I’d fought, killed and (supposedly) died for, twisted to their ultimate logical conclusion, a pulsating machine universe, the cogs, wheels and wires all made of human flesh and blood. Organic habitats, servitors and Dyson spheres, all perverted to serve these mad men and women. I know I can’t do much about it, but I can do something, so I reach out and clamp the elder’s head. He raises his hand and opens his mouth as if to make another imperious proclamation, but I never hear it, my clamps closing effortlessly, leaving him a headless ragdoll, that sinks to the metal platform.

“You — me? Fuck!” I struggle for ways to address my human counterpart, “get my friend into a containment sphere, or you’re going to end up looking a lot like that guy on the floor.”

He babbles, pawing at his master, raking the pulp, as if trying to put his head back together. “I can’t, to release a false sentience into our perfect world would be sin”.

“Well if you take human life so seriously, you should value yours enough to know that your options are to release us or extinguish another ‘pure font of consciousness’.” I pause and consider, “and to be clear, by that I mean I’m going to pop your head.”

He stutters, but it seems to have the intended effect, as he stands up and starts to work the controls. Around us the ship starts rolling, and I realise that he’s very well placed to double cross us. Just to remind him what is at stake, I cradle the back of his head with the tips of my clamps, and buzz at him, “the second anything unexpected happens, you lose the base of your skull.” Hopefully his amygdala recognises the threat of being ripped out of its cradle, and exerts the right influence on him. It seems to, as the ship soothes, and four quadrants of a sphere emerge from the chamber walls and follow the energy beams slowly down, clicking perfectly in place. The beams dissipate and the sphere takes a few experimental bobs.

“Well fuck me,” the Garlorkian prince utters through the comm channels in the containment sphere, “this better not be a fucking sim”.

“We have to get to ship,” I fire back, “lets save the existential crisis for when we’re on escape velocity”. I turn my captive’s fleshy little head to face my robotoid visual sensors.

“Alright you, I want to get out of this fucked up interstellar human sow, and into my ship. Tell me you know where it is, and you’re going to take me to it, or I’m gonna clamp my way up from your feet to your fucking face”.

He (it, me?) is whimpering incoherently. I’m holding him up by the back of his skull and his hands and feet scrabble at my legs and chest plate. I’d feel sorry for him, but he’s a genocidal maniac, and deserves every bit of it. I should know, I used to be him.

I squeeze a tiny bit tighter, hoping to turn his whimpering coherent. “Ok, ok, we archive impure tech for study”. Success, “but I don’t have access rights, only elders do”, he points, trembling, at the headless corpse below us. “Right, I say,” letting his feet touch the ground (mainly to avoid any potential brain damage that might make him less useful), “is it DNA or a retinal check?” If it’s retinal we’re in trouble.

“DNA”, he utters, still obviously in shock. “OK”, I say, “lead the fucking way,” with that I scoop up the corpse and push him to the door, Brekl’s ominous containment sphere falling in behind us.


We’re pounding through corridors now, corridors that seems to be twisting and pulsing, the very ship seemingly trying to expel the foreign contagion. All subtlety is out the window, anything that comes around the corner gets blasted, or barreled down by Brekl. Plasma containment spheres are impregnable, and he’s a savage foe to face in a tight corridor.

We pass through security checkpoints, smearing the elders palm against lock after lock. I’m praising whatever fucking universal font of whatever the fuck it is that they haven’t clued on and revoked his access. Finally we reach a dark bay, filled with a panoply of weapons and ships. I see my beautiful girl’s distinct prow raised proudly in the distance and we make a beeline to it.

I cast out interface commands, hoping her activation hooks have survived the past few million years. Trusty as ever, she lights up, and I leap from the bot to her familiar skin. I meld with her, and feel the systems and routines that have made up my world on so many deep space flights. I can’t pinpoint where or when we are in space and time, but at last, I’m back in a body built for me. Fuck being human.

I activate the loading parameters and Brekl docks in, a grav-crane bringing his orb into my bay. His sim kicks into my comms field and fires, ‘you get flight ready, and I’ll get us a way out’. I give a digital nod, and begin taking my bird out of deep stasis. Fusion drives that haven’t spun in a millions of years whirring smooth and pure, diagnostics giving the all clear for shields, sensors and weapons to function in deep space.

I feel the faint rush of atmospheric loss and do a sensor sweep, the airlocks must be getting us ready for depressurisation. In my ship’s rear visual field I see my organic self crumpled. My pure source. My organic link to the divine. My shame, my perversion, my past, an alternate future. “Fuck,” I mutter, and send a servitor out to scoop him up and put him in containment.

I also see the bot I’d inhabited standing around looking confused. The mech, since revealed to me as a mutated human baby with plasma cannons for arms, also had a sweet disposition, an eagerness to please, and an arsenal that could easily challenge a few hundred Dalune drones.

Fuck it, I drop the ramp, and usher it into my hold, it walks in with a bit more dignity than my human self, who is cradled in a drone’s arms, sobbing, about to be deposited into an organic containment pod. The bot burbles pleasure when it recognises my interface patterns. In his simple childlike way he tells me he was confused when I left him. He’d interfaced with his brothers and sisters to tell them about what had happened, but they had told him to self destruct. He tells me his mother agreed, and told him he’d been corrupted.

He should have deactivated, he conveys clumsily, but he didn’t want to, which he felt was very strange. ‘A mother’s command should be your very own wish,’ he babbles through a string of images and impressions. He shows impressions of confusion at wanting to live, to see more. ‘Should I deactivate?’ he parses, suddenly formal, though still naive and trusting. “No kid, and it’s not strange to want to live, that just proves you really are human,” I pause, reflecting for a second, “I guess that makes both of us”. He sends back impressions of contentment and goes into lockdown as the systems do a last call for interstellar flight readiness.

I bunch my hydraulics, tightening my wings around my body, and leap into the air, my FLIT’s pivot me instantaneously at 90 degrees, and then forward through the narrow lock, into cold interstellar space.

What is left

We’d flown three spans already, but the horror hadn’t ended. The ship we’d emerged from was a huge, pulsating thing, with none of the clean lines of the Paux seed-ships, or even the human warships of The Front. A thing grown in space, tumbling in rage at having lost a father, a child and two foes. She sent out drones to pursue, but perhaps after a million years of dominance, humanity in its perversion wasn’t ready for a good old fashioned FLIT chase. We lost them within a few systems, but couldn’t escape the grotesquery of human occupation. Huge organic structures littered the visible universe. The Dyson spheres that had so awed me, now revealed as bioengineered things, human organic matter. The very stars themselves engulfed in a network of pulsating flesh, blood and bone.

We sit now in my cockpit sim. I didn’t actually have a cockpit, but I had a killer sim, an amalgam of my favourite space operas from youth. Brekl is in his human sim form, and has developed a taste for the brand of whisky he’d so politely drank in our first sim together. I had my human counterpart mainlined in, while keeping his body in stasis. I want him on hand to consult any time we had to face human lancers or drones. He sits sullenly in one of the chairs in the back.

I also have the bot’s consciousness plugged in. His infantile mind is stunted by merc overlays and neural mapping, but still shows a lot of promise. I kept him around ‘the adults’ so to speak, so he could develop his awareness and language skills naturally. He stands at the sweeping window all our chairs faced, his simulated hand on the glass. I let him choose a sim body from a library, and he’d chosen an almost cartoonish representation of Hercules, a character from one of the terra myths. His Hellenic face looks up at a nebula, its purple glow turned mottle and sickly by the perverted corruption of human flesh.

He turns to me, his wide eyes sad, he points to the galaxy, “I see this mother in the lessons”, he struggles, but proudly continues, “she look sick now?” Brekl looks up, “Yes, sick, corrupted by the flesh and blood that you and this sniveling fanatic are made of”, he snarls, sloshing his glass in my organic’s direction.

“Hey go easy on him”, I utter soothingly, whilst banking our FLIT, preparing for another jump. “He’s just a child, and he hates what’s been done in his name as much as me.”

“There is no you”, my organic shrieks, jumping out from his malaise, “just my puppet, my shadow, still dancing after the strings are cut,” his fervor dissipates, and he collapses, sobbing.

The bot, always caring, goes over to him and gently pats him on the head. I appreciate the love and compassion it has been displaying since freed of its militant subroutines, but I do hope it doesn’t dull him in battle. We’re definitely going to need his skills with a plasma before this is through. We’ve already ducked and dodged human scouting missions and colonies. The only thing keeping us safe is that, for all the spans we’ve flown, we’ve seen nothing but humanity and it’s twisted, organic corruption. If what they’ve said is true, they’ve held this part of the universe for an age, and perhaps its lulled them into complacency, a trap I don’t want to fall into myself.

“So where to Brekl?” I ask, the ship poised for our next jump. “Well”, he looks up again, “I’ve been studying background radiation on all wavelengths, in all directions, my running theory is that as this cancer engulfs the universe, the brightest, most distant lights are the last to be reached, and will be the front where corruption breaks. Past the front, past the corruption, there must still be some form of galactic civilisation surviving, some new crucible of cultures, science… resistance.”

“So…” I say noncommittally, “we point the ship to where the light is bright and old, and we fucking fly?”

Fly to the light… Ok, that I can do. I scan the skies, and through the mottle I find a glimmer of warmth, gamma, photons tentatively bouncing on my receptors. A whisper of the untouched, the uncorrupted. I orientate my FLIT, the corruption of humanity pivoting around me. The universe is still for a moment, then I power up my star drives, breath in of all my sensors, settle my gaze on to the star, and leap.