A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT OF SHARED DESTRUCTION
by Joe Jablonski
I remember little of the shockwave that brought down our ship.
We were minutes from entry, our ship hovering above a class C planet waiting for the storm sensors to clear us.
A light dinged green. The order was given. Three clicks later we plunged into atmosphere.
Something on the planet’s surface sparked midway through descent–a single pinprick of glowing blue light lost in a sea of endless snow. It was gone in seconds.
Next: an explosion. A scream. The hiss of high velocity. The hull groaned. The hull cracked. A 23 second drop followed.
I was ejected on impact.
I awoke quivering on a frozen wasteland, my back against a bolder, disoriented and too weak to move. My environmental suit was covered in sliced liaisons–my faceplate a shattered void. Blood pooled below me. Shrapnel filled holes within my flesh I swear weren’t there moments earlier.
It was dawn. A pastel sunrise floated on the horizon. The first rays of a red giant glinted off an object in the distance. I rolled my head in its direction on a neck too weak to hold it, gazing out though blurs to where an obelisk stood erect. It towered in the center of what looked to be a city in ruins.
“This is a purge,” said a voice from somewhere unseen. It was barely a whisper. Feminine, with a throaty drawl. An echo of a memory not my own.
I tried to speak with suffocated breaths as I sucked on cold, dead ozone. Liquefied lung was the only reply I could managed. My chest heaved violently as I gasped. The pain of it was blinding.
A com-link spoke garbled nonsense from inside the remnants of my ship just feet away; its once smooth exterior now a jagged pile of twisted metal. Its engines burned. A plumb of black smoke hovered above a fractured port door.
There was a sound to my right, a mini avalanche of pebbles too dense to be natural. I stared as my sight faded, my last vision that of my captains lifeless blue porcelain head scuttling from the wreckage atop a clustered mass of smooth red beads.
I opened my eyes to a pair of glowing sockets. Refocused. Flinched. A robot hovered over me, its face inches from mine.
“My apologies, sir,” it said as it became vertical. Its body was sexless, covered in plates of rusted platinum. The voice module was set to female. Digital. Proper. An old model medical droid. I didn’t know any were still functional.
I took in my surroundings as the robot moved somewhere out of sight. I was in a semi-domed room with cracked white walls. Most of the paint had chipped away. Patches of plant life sprouted from various places between floorboards.
“Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to make you more comfortable,” said the robot. Its accent was barely understandable.
I tried to respond. I tried to tell it I was fine, that all the pain was gone. I tried to tell it how swell a job it was doing. The words wouldn’t come. My month felt and tasted like it was filled with lead.
It was then I realized I hadn’t been breathing. I tried to move. I couldn’t feel my body. I couldn’t feel anything.
“What is this?” I yelled, panicked. My voice was unrecognizable. It came from a speaker dangling on a single wire anchored to the ceiling above my head.
“Please, sir, calm down,” said the robot. It slid into view, the head of my captain teetering atop its upheld hand. The same mass of bloody marbles from the crash site snaked up from somewhere within the robot’s arm and into my captain’s neck. Her eyes and mouth opened and closed sporadically as if shocked into a mimicry of agonizing pain.
“What the hell did you do to her?” yelled the dangling speaker.
“Sir, I need you to calm down,” the robot repeated.
I didn’t calm down. I didn’t do anything but curse. This was completely fucked. I said as much through the speaker.
“Sir, I will not tolerate foul language. If you cannot calm down I’ll be forced to put you back under.”
I didn’t hesitate. “Do it.”
While I was out I dreamt I was back on my home world. I dreamt of my house before I signed the contract with exploration team. I dreamt of my daughter when she was a child, how she would run around with the head of a stuffed turtle peeking from the collar of her shirt. I dreamt of my ex-wife, eyes like emeralds, straight black hair. I dreamt about the way she would dance for me after two bottles of wine.
And so it went.
In real life, the life that led to me being left stranded on a planet 79 light years from that home, bloody and dying, was a life where I would never see any of the things of my dreams again. I had thought I’d already put that past me. It wasn’t true though. Not really. I wanted to stay in the dream forever.
It was a wonderful dream.
An electric shock was my alarm clock. It was followed immediately by the voice of that goddamn robot. “Sir, I certainly hope you are doing better now.”
“You should have left me to die.” I muttered the words without opening my eyes. The emotions of the dream still lingered.
“My programming would not allow it.” it said casually. “Please relax.”
“Can you at least tell me where I am? What you want with me?”
“It would be better if I showed you. In fact, this will be a good test of your motor functions. Stand if you are able. The neural imprint should now be calibrated correctly.”
I stood on legs that looked made of a thin mesh of tangled wired. My arms were the same. I felt weightless. My body was numb, like an asleep limb seconds before pins and needles. Even so, my new stick figure body moved with perfect precision.
“Mirror,” I whispered. It came out a static roar.
I looked down. The speaker was now installed in an oval chest plate. It was copper in color and about the size and shape of what was once my forearm. The same blood red beads crawled around it. I was infested.
“Don’t touch them,” said the robot as I recoiled. “They’re called nutrodites. They’re the only thing keeping you from dying.”
I looked closer. Those things were alive. They rolled on tiny red hairs coated in a thin layer of liquid. They throbbed.
“These creature are very adaptable, biologically speaking. They live off each other’s blood in a constant state of both ingestion and excretion. Quite remarkable really. Each infuses its own individual proteins into the blood pool that the others ingests as nourishment. Theoretically, a colony can self-sustain forever. For humans, they actively re-oxygenate the blood they soak in and instinctually feed it back into the proper capillaries.”
The robot finished its speech with the universal sign for follow. It slid out the door as if floating on air.
Outside, the city was a wasteland. Most of the streets were flooded. Makeshift walkways had been suspended just above the ersatz lake, latched to the metal frames of the crumbling architecture. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Not a creature was stirring.
The obelisk was a block away, its tip lost in a gathering of blackened clouds. Its sides were smooth. Polished. The color of ash. It hummed quietly.
Something was off. The robot was speeding ahead of me, nutrodites circling its head like a storm cloud. It talked endlessly, almost nervously: “It’s been nearly three hundred years since I’ve seen a human. I was so happy I could be useful again. You know, it’s a tragedy what happened here. I wanted to stop it. I tried so hard to stop-“
I grabbed its arm. “I know about the details. Where are you taking me?”
“Why, we’re almost there, sir. She’s waiting. You’ll be happy to see her.”
It was a spectacular lie.
“Enter,” said the robot.
I pushed through a set of metal doors that creaked as they swiveled into a lit dining area with bright red wallpaper. Linda, my captain, sat facing the doorway in an old wooden chair centered in the room. She didn’t look up at my entrance. She seem dazed. Transfixed.
She was a bobble head, air from the top jaw down, hair tight in a perfect blond bun. It wobbled on wire mesh connected to a perfect copy of my own new body. The nutrodites had formed into a mass in front of her chest. She’s was cradling them. They almost looked like-
I stepped closer in panic. Linda’s eyes rolled towards me. She put up a single metal finger in front of her dangling upper lip. “Shhhh,” boomed her speaker as she looked back down at what she held so dearly; a perfect replica of a new born baby. More correctly, a blood red statue of made up of writhing nutrodites. It fed from what looked to be a single red breast.
“Oh, look how happy she is,” the robot said sweetly. It slid across the room with its head tilted to the side and both hands clasped together in front of its chest. It seemed so proud of itself. So…well, almost maternal.
I couldn’t argue. I was in awe. I was speechless. I was everythingless.
“I have something for you as well,” said the robot.
It snapped two fingers. They dinged. From out of her feet a swarm of nutrodites spilled onto the floor. They approached, stopping just feet in front of me. They grew upwards, forming a humanoid shape in seconds.
Imaginary tears began to form in my eyes as the shape took hold: A little girl. Blood red. Five years old. The head of a stuffed turtle peeked from the collar of its shirt.
“Naomi,” I whispered.
It—she–looked up at me with eyes as innocent and beautiful as the last time I saw the real her.
All I could do was stare. I was shaking. I was sobbing.
The robot kept talking–it never stopped talking. “They’re very susceptible to radio waves. With the proper frequencies, we can make them form whatever we want. We can make them think whatever we want.” The words were just background noise, lost within an emotional fog.
“No,” I said quietly to the robot without looking away.
“Are you not happy?” said the robot. “I took this image from your neutral scan when you were out. She should be flawless, everything you remember. If there are any corrections you would like to-“
“Please,” I said. It was so hard to form the words. It was so hard to reject this. “Make it go away.”
“Now,” I yelled, finally breaking eye contact.
My nutrodite daughter crumbled to the floor. I crumbled with it.
I silently watched Linda with...it…for almost an hour. We were in the upstairs room of what once looked to be a pretty elegant apartment. I could picture an ol’ timey major harrumphing around the room in better repair with a sash and a big white mustache. The robot mercifully wasn’t around. The silence was beautiful.
It was getting late. Linda stood to rock the baby. Finally, it seemed to be asleep, whatever that meant for such a thing. Linda kissed it once on the forehead and put it in a makeshift crib. I’d never seen her like that. So loving. So gentle. I knew she lost a baby years before we met. Even so, she had always been the cold, practical type.
We never got along. It was my fault. I’ve always known that. In those earlier excavation missions I was depressed about losing my family. Whiskey had a way of making an asshole of anyone. I also know how cheap it was to blame the whiskey. In truth she was strong, reminded me of my wife, the kind of personality that could win any argument whether she was right or wrong. I both hated and admired that about her–about both of them.
At the time I was afraid of getting to know anyone in any context. Closeness was loss. Closeness was pain.
But seeing her like she was with her baby, I got the impression that maybe she had always felt the same.
I watched as she covered it with a dirty blanket. She looked at me with a dead stare. I couldn’t hold my tongue anymore. I said what any asshole would say.
“Do you really feel something for that…thing?”
She squinted. She walked to the door and peeked out. She stomped over to me.
I braced, ready for anything.
“What the fuck do you think?”
She somehow figured out how to lower the volume of her speaker.
She continued: “Use your fucking head. That robot is trying to manipulate us.”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. That’s why I’m playing along. I wish you would have done the same.”
“Yeah, oh.” She paused a second as if to collect herself. “It’s ok. It’s ok. Now think. What part of this city is out of place, not on the reports?”
“It’s what brought our ship down. It’s a weapon. An EMP maybe. Four people dead. Four of our friends. I think the robot controls it. When we don’t check in with a report the ministry will send out another crew. We need to blow it.”
“You’re the fucking mechanic. Figure it out.”
We played along for two days, listening as the robot talked endlessly about the nutrodites. It was in love.
It told us of the early trails, how promising they seemed at first. It told us how it was supposed to be a cure for all man’s woes, even mortality. It told us of the disease that soon after swept through the colony, how there was no cure. It told us of how the settlers, unwilling to live as abominations, dropped one by one as it helplessly watched.
The one thing the procedure couldn’t stop was the aging process of the brain. Even those few that passed the clinical trials withered into soulless, useless blanks within years of the plague. By the time it was figured out, there was no one left to propagate the species.
Finally, it told us how it had figured out how to stop it. We were to be the first true immortals.
“It is the dawn of a new age of humanity,” it said.
Three hundred years it waited for its chance. We quickly realized we were test subjects. Nothing more.
We were determined to be the only.
It was night when we made a break for it. Linda coordinated the position of the crash site. A day’s walk. East of the city. Our plan relied on whether the radiation core of our ship was still functional.
On the journey I clung to Linda’s arm as the cold got too intense for what was left of my head. She seemed not to mind. In these new bodies, this new life, we could be anyone.
By the time we reached the ship there were no more words to speak.
I went inside while Linda kept a lookout, crawling through the twisted wreckage and bloody remains of my former crew. Wires sparked. Cracked screens blinked sporadically. I paused and watched for a moment as snowfall drifted lazily through a hole in the hull. It looked eerily ethereal; a beautiful nightmare.
In the center of it all were the tattered remnants of Linda’s body. I pulled out a pack of cigarettes from her breast pocket. I moved on.
My speaker dry heaved as I clawed my way through. In minutes I was at the core. It was buried by turbines. Dual cylinder. Off white. Indestructible. The black box of interstellar travel.
The core came out with a twist. It was completely weightless in my new arms as I drug it behind me.
“We good?” said Linda as I emerged. The sleeve of one of my former crew mates was now wrapped around my head like a turban.
“Yeah, just need to add a fuse then we’re good to go.”
I looked back towards the city. “Shit, duck down.”
Linda did without question. She huddled up against me. She smelled like engine lubricant.
“You see that?” I said pointing towards the city.
It was the robot, a shadowed speck motionless in the distance. Its sockets now glowed a penetrating red; two tiny embers lost within the grey winter haze. They flashed.
“How’d it find us so fast?” I said.
“I know how.” Linda paused a moment then looked up at me, nutrodites dripping from her neck. “So do you.”
“How many are out there?” said Linda.
We hid in a small storage shed on the outskirts of the city. The lights were out. The radiation core glowed a soft green beside me, my turban now twisted long and tight and stuffed into a tiny hole I cut in the top. It seeped radiation at devastating levels. We burned both painlessly and invisibly.
“One sec.” I stood and peeked out of a narrow crack in the wall. Nutrodites covered the buildings like a network of veins. They slowly flowed towards us, pulsating in unison. The ones in our necks pulsated with them.
“Out with it.”
“They’re everywhere. Billions of them. I hate to tell, but they know where we are.
Linda sighed. “I guessed as much.”
“I told you this was a bad idea.”
“What do you suggest?”
A loudspeaker boomed across the city. The robot spoke calmly with the voice of a thousand sopranos. “I know what you two are up to. I suggest you do not follow through with this course of action. I will not be able to stop myself from what I am programmed to do.”
Linda looked at me. “Fuck it. We run.”
Once fully inside the city we took to one of the makeshift catwalks. Linda had the radiation core over one shoulder. She moved like a leopard.
The obelisk was thirteen blocks away. The nutrodites buzzed violently between us and it.
The loudspeaker boomed: “Stop now. I really do not wish to harm you. Please understand I will not let an entire species of creature be killed for only two humans. Directive 6.428 of my programming will not allow it. Do not make me carry out this directive.” It sounded conflicted, as if trying to reconcile two contradictory programs.
The nutrodites formed into waves around us.
“Ignore them. Keep running,” said Linda, keeping pace feet behind me. We jumped from one catwalk to another as it crumbled beneath our feet and into the water. A snowdrift blew sideways through the buildings.
The loudspeaker boomed again: “I’m not bluffing. We were regrettably forced to take action against the colonist when they revolted against the tests. Believe me, I did not like my role in their deaths, but I will take similar action again.
Linda stopped. “We? What action?” she said to me.
“The disease” I responded. “She made the disease. Doesn’t matter. Keep going.”
The nutrodite fog loomed closer. The buzzing was almost deafening.
We ran as fast as these bodies would take us.
The loudspeaker boomed one last time: “You have been warned. Engaging protocol one.”
A bloody nutrodite tendril slammed into Linda. She hit the catwalk rolling, never losing grip of the radiation core. I ran back, helped her to her feet.
Another came at us. Linda threw me the core seconds from impact.
And another–a seemingly endless wave of vermillion wrecking balls.
We reached the stairs to the obelisk, one block, one blow at a time.
The nutrodites now loomed over us, held back by some unseen command. I laid down what was left of Linda next to me. She tried to say something but her speaker was cracked, whatever words she had to say forever lost within garbled feedback.
The snow subsided. The robot stood near the doorway. Surrounding it were dozens of blood red versions of my daughter, hand in hand in a half circle like a peace protest.
I pushed through two of their grips, core in hand. I was immune.
“I’m serious, sir, if you do not stop I’ll be forced into final measures. I could have already killed you as you have just witnessed,” said the robot.
I didn’t respond. I edged closer, dragging the core behind me. One of my legs was broken. It twitched and sparked with each step.
The robot held a small radio wave emitter in its hand. It took a step back and put its fingers on the dial.
“Sir, this is your final warning.”
I pulled out a lighter from Linda’s cigarette pack and took another step forward.
Its voice got deep. Sinister. It boomed. It was all business now. “You have three seconds to comply.”
What was left of Linda looked at me and nodded.
“Sir, ma’am, I sincerely apologize,” said the robot seeing my intent.
It twisted the dial. The radio waves vibrated in my teeth. Nutrodites dropped limp from my neck and chest plate. They dropped everywhere in the city; a rain of tiny red pebbles. I could feel the blood draining from my skull instantly. Dizziness overwhelmed me.
I once heard it said that the head lives for up to thirty seconds after being cut off. I hoped it was true. Even more, I hoped my brain would still be able to control this body for that long.
I lit the fuse and leapt at the robot, slamming it against the wall of the obelisk under the weight of the radiation core with everything this body had. The fuse sizzled inches from my face.
The robot’s false eyes first dilated, the fizzled out as its face plate snapped off, exposing a human skull within the head cavity. It was jawless. An aged brown. Patches of tattered long hair were stuck to the top.
The robot’s body slumped on top of the radiation core. Brain juice dripped freely.
I stared into the skulls empty, dead sockets. The owner must have been the one of the first test subjects. She must have merged her brain with this medical droids programming when she found out that the test were a failure; that she was dying. That’s why it had that stupid directive to save the nutrodites over human life, why it knew so much about the procedure. Whoever it was, she didn’t want her work to be lost; her greed for immortality a twisted perversion the actual life-saving potential the nutrodites had. It was something she killed an entire colony for. Purge indeed.
I dropped to my knees. The robot dropped next to me, skull cracking against the pavement. The radiation core hit the ground, and rolled a few feet. The fuse was ten seconds out. Nutrodites rolled mindlessly around it. Maybe a few would survive. In better hands…
I was so dizzy from blood loss I was drunk. My vision was a hollow tube. It was peaceful, almost euphoric.
In the final seconds, I forced my head over to where Linda lay on the steps. She was looking at me. She winked. The top half of her face twisted up into a terrifying smile. She put her hand over her mouth and mimicked blowing a kiss.
I caught it. The fuse hissed out. Nuclear fire erupted.
Everything was going to be just fine.
Joe writes out of Charlotte NC. He Has work published in over 40 markets including K-zine, Eschatology, Liquid Imagination, and Aurora Wolf, as well as having be twice nominated for the pushcart prize. You can check out his blog at jablonskijoe.blogspot.com.