Her name was Lisa, both times. It couldn't have been the same girl, though, separated by half a millennium. Given the near limitless possible combinations of human genomes it is only reasonable to assume that there were differences. She sure as hell looked the same to me, though.
She had the same blond hair, though styled somewhat differently. I remembered the face precisely, cute rather than beautiful, with a sprinkling of light freckles across that pert nose. Those deep blue eyes that shone like sapphires when she smiled, and sparkled brighter than the stars seen from deep space if she chanced to laugh. I know they were the same full lips, strawberry rather than red. I had kissed them, back when I was still human.
It wasn't just a similarity of physical characteristics, either. I have known a dozen different women on worlds I'd built down the long years who looked very similar. It was more than that. It was the way she tilted her head, just so, when she was pensive. It was the exact same impish grin that spread across her face when she felt playful. It was the same subconscious gesture with which she twirled the ends of her hair when she was worried. More than any of these, though, it was the voice.
Her voice was pleasant enough when speaking. It had the educated overtones of a cultured accent that didn't take itself too seriously. When she sang it was simply indescribable. Tell a blind man of a rainbow thrown across a cloudy sky spread above a stormy sea, and I will tell you of her voice. As an engineer I could mathematically define the pitch, range, tones, and timbre of her voice, but that wouldn't begin to describe it. Her voice sent shivers down the soul and made the heart stand on edge.
At the moment her voice was saying something that troubled me.
"So tell me, Max, what's Andy up to this evening?"
She tried hard to make the transparent question seem casual, but she was hopeless. Her eyes sparkled and her mouth tried hard not to break into a spontaneous smile. I was much better at hiding my feelings, but then, I'd had a lot more practice.
"I'm not sure. He said something about having dinner with two or three beautiful women, then going out for drinks and dancing with them afterwards. Check."
For a moment she looked crushed, then she smiled. It was a different kind of smile for me, though.
"You're teasing me, aren't you?"
"No, I am serious," I said, then gave it a good three-second pause before adding, "You really are in check. My bishop is threatening your king."
She laughed, patting my arm in a curiously human gesture. Most people felt awkward around a being who looked so much like a robot, but Lisa had always made me feel comfortable, both now and five hundred years ago, when I had been a normal man.
She studied the board for a moment, then moved a rook to block my attack.
"So you don't know where he is?"
I didn't know why it should bother me so much that she would ask about my partner Andy. She was young and beautiful. He was a hell of a guy; young, handsome, and thanks to his partnership with me, fabulously rich. It was a natural match, and among the thousand workers on a colony still under construction, it was predictable that they should be attracted to each other.
The only thing about it that troubled me was that I had been madly in love with Lisa for five hundred years.
"He is out at Beta station checking on the placement of the containment field for the reactor. He'll be back sometime tomorrow morning. He did say something about me making his apologies to someone, but I forget to whom."
My knight took her rook.
"Check, again," I said.
"His boss is a slave-driver. That field has been checked twice, and the reactor isn't scheduled to come online for another week."
She was giving me a hard time. I was Andy's boss. She smiled jokingly as she said it, though.
"You know as well as I do that the inspection is necessary," I said. "Anti-matter reactors are not something to take chances with."
"Actually I don't. I'll take your word on the tech stuff, Max. I just file the paperwork."
She was actually one of the most brilliant young lawyers I had ever employed. If she wanted to call it filing paperwork that was fine with me, but getting Federation approval to build colonies on unsettled worlds required more legal know-how than I would ever possess, even if I lived to be five thousand. I had hired her a year earlier to replace Betty, who had finally gotten rich enough and retired.
There was no need for most of the support personnel to be on site for the initial construction, but now that the colony was nearing completion and was somewhat livable, more and more personnel were arriving with each transport load of supplies. She had arrived a month ago, looking exactly like the girl I had known five centuries before. I had fallen instantly in love with her, as, I suspected, had Andy. None of us had spoken a word about it.
She took my knight with her Bishop.
"So why was it Andy that had to go?" she asked, sounding slightly petulant.
"Let's see, one of us was going to spend tonight riding five hours in a cramped crawler filled with equipment and then running stress tests on delicate machinery that could create an explosion big enough to be seen from orbit if it goes, and the other was going to spend the evening listening to music and playing chess with a beautiful woman. I'm the Boss."
I let my flat steel facial display slide into a wicked grin, and took her Bishop with mine.
"Checkmate." I said.
She uttered a mild expletive, then immediately blushed, looking embarrassed. She was the loveliest thing I had seen in five hundred years.
"Well, " she sighed, standing up and stretching, "thank you for a lovely evening, Max. I'd better be going."
She gathered her purse, kissed my cold steel cheek and started for the door.
"Not so fast, Miss," I said. "You lost the game. Don't think I'm going to let you get away without paying up!"
She laughed and returned, setting her purse down on the table.
"What do you want to hear?" she asked, smiling as she sat at the piano.
"Something maudlin," I replied.
She played then, and at the first notes of the song my heart jumped. It had been our song, once, though there was no way she could have known. It was a song that had been ancient when we had danced together five hundred years earlier.
Her voice picked up the melody, haunting and sweet. The sound hit my audio receptors, was amplified and remixed by the finest audio processing circuitry credits could buy, and then transferred electrically to my still-living brain.
I was carried away, across the centuries to the first time I had heard Lisa sing those same notes.
Looking up through the window of the town's only bar, I made a mental note to sample and check the growth matrix again. I had designed the dome. I knew that it was mathematically sound, and also that it would be three times stronger and less than a tenth of the weight of standard plasteel once it grew into a complete hemisphere. It just looked so unnatural hanging there, though, that the mind insisted on interpreting it as falling.
"Quit worrying about the dome, Max, it's the least of our problems," Doug said.
"If it falls it will solve all of our problems at once," I replied.
"Some solution," he replied. He chuckled and added, in a voice that sounded only vaguely like the classic Marvin the Martian cartoon, "I am going to solve the Earth's fuel problem by blowing it up!"
I laughed and took a swig of my beer. It was weak and salty, but I savored the taste just the same. This was the first real beer we had managed to get shipped out to the colony in the year since construction began.
"The dome will hold," I concluded. "It's that damned power supply that has me worried."
"Yeah, those fluctuations in the run-up test scare me too. I want you to make that your number one priority, Max. Everything else is going well enough, and with the new bots that arrived with this supply load, we might even be able to get back on schedule. If, that is, you can get central power up and running on time."
"I'll give it my best, boss, but the way that glitch comes and goes, there is no telling how long it's going to take to track it down."
"Excuses, excuses. I thought you were supposed to be the best-damned engineer on the planet!" Doug said.
"I am, but there're only five of us, so that's not saying all that much."
He laughed too loudly, being slightly drunk, and the other twenty or so people in the bar glanced towards us.
"Here's to Max Baron, the best of the five engineers on Calypso!" he shouted.
"Hear, hear!" a few of them who knew me shouted, and everyone drank.
"Thanks guys," I said, "drinks are on me the rest of the night."
They all cheered. What the hell, I had more money than I could ever spend. Building colonies on new planets paid well, and I had gotten in at the start of TerraFormaInc. I was Doug's right hand man, and together we had already built two successful colonies on uninhabited worlds. The stock options I had picked up along the way had made me wealthy beyond most men's dreams. Doug's wealth, of course, dwarfed mine. He was among the hundred wealthiest men in the universe.
"Who's that?" I asked, as a young blond got up and walked over to the bar's keyboard.
"Lisa Taylor. She came in on the last transport. She works in data systems. She's on the team that's putting in our networking and communications systems."
"This one's for Max, who's buying the beer!" she said as her hands warmed up on the opening notes of a song.
I lifted my glass in response, and almost dropped it as she began to sing. Her voice was magical. The place went as silent as deep space while her beautiful voice echoed off the plasteel rafters and monocrystal windows. I was so lost in the sound of her voice that I couldn't even tell you what you song she sang, that first time. When it was done, though, everyone cheered. She waived, gave a mock bow to the crowd, and then waived to her adoring audience, preening like a young pop star.
"Lisa, over here!" Doug yelled, and she came and joined us.
I can't remember what the three of us talked about, but I do remember that it took the rest of the evening. I remember all of us laughing and smiling a lot. I remember being very pleased whenever something I said made Lisa smile. I remember her blue eyes twinkling as the three of us talked and drank into the early morning hours. I remember that I was happy, just being near her.
Finally Doug stood up.
"Well, guys, this has been fun, but I have to get up early tomorrow. You know, things to do, worlds to build and all. Goodnight!"
"Want another drink?" I asked Lisa, but she shook her head.
"You heard the boss, we have a world to build tomorrow," she said, but she smiled and squeezed my hand as she left.
And build a world we did. The city grew as buildings were added, constructed by bots skillfully guided by human workers. Plans were drawn, revised, and carried out. What had been a hostile, unlivable, wilderness slowly became a place where humans could live and work. Overhead the dome slowly grew, a few hundred square yards every day.
The days were filled with satisfying work. Challenges arose and were overcome. Systems malfunctioned and glitches were found. Faulty components were discovered and replaced. New designs were planned to incorporate unexpected changes. This was the work I had been born and trained to do, and I did it well.
The nights were even better. Doug, Lisa, and I spent most evenings together, drinking, talking, dancing, watching holos, or playing games. Lisa would play piano and sing while Doug and I listened, enraptured.
I'm not sure if I fell in love with Lisa in that moment when I first heard her sing, or if it happened more slowly, over the space of the months we worked and played together. I do know that I loved her at the end.
I do remember, of course, the first time I slept with her. One doesn't forget such things. Doug was working late on some financial emergency concerning our parent corporation, so it was just Lisa and I alone that evening. We had a quiet dinner and then went back to my place. As lead engineer I had quarters on the penthouse of the tallest residential apartments. Through the transparent windows the panorama of the growing colony spread out before us, with the three-quarter crystal dome hanging above us, and the two red moons lighting up the sky.
We played chess and listened to music as we sat there, gazing out over the world we were building. She sang along with whatever tune was playing, and I was so distracted by the sound of her voice that she beat me two games in a row.
"Checkmate again," she said, smiling playfully. "I believe that's two dances you owe me, Max."
The standard bet was that if I won she sang me a song, and if she won I danced. I loved hearing her sing, and she never tired of laughing at my attempts to dance.
"It's not fair, you cheated!" I declared.
"I did not!" she protested. "I beat you twice, fair and square! Get out your dancing shoes, twinkle-toes!"
"You did cheat. You wore that dress on purpose to distract me with your beauty, and then you sang the entire time. You know what your voice does to me. It's cheating."
"You bought me this dress, if I recall. You ordered it and had it brought all the way from Terra with the last supply shipment, as a birthday present. If you didn't want me to wear it you shouldn't have given it to me. And it's not my fault that I'm beautiful and talented. It's only a fair handicap when I'm playing the greatest engineering mind on the planet!" she joked.
"All right, all right, you win," I laughed. "Put on some Irish music and I will dance you a jig."
She laughed then, but it was a slow song she put on. I held out my hand, and she took it. I had touched her any number of times, and even held her hand on occasion, but I can never forget the feeling of her hand touching mine that night as we danced. I held her close and we twirled around the room, our hearts beating together in time to the music.
Then, of course, I missed a step. Our feet got tangled and we tumbled to the ground. I fell on the floor, but managed to catch her and lower her gently beside me, both of us laughing. She threw her head onto my shoulder and sobbed with laughter.
"You are the worst dancer in the world!" she proclaimed.
"Yeah, but there aren't that many people here yet."
She snuggled in close to me as we lay there on the floor with the music playing.
"I am actually a much better kisser than dancer," I said, lost in her crystal blue eyes.
"I'll be the judge of that," she said quietly, so I leaned over and kissed her. Her lips were small and delicate, and the most wonderful thing in the universe.
We kissed for at least an eternity, until neither one of us could take the building desire. We made love then, under the crystal dome on the world of Calypso, with its purple hills and orange clouds stretching out beyond the uncompleted dome. I had been with other women, but it was never the desperate, passionate embrace I encountered that night. It was to be the last time I would know such a thing.
I awoke in the morning to find Lisa already gone, although there was a note explaining that she had to work early. I ate a leisurely breakfast, lingering over a second cup of coffee. I felt wonderful. I felt as if birds should be singing overhead to celebrate the dawning of this, the brightest and best of all days. Of course, the ammonia in the atmosphere would have killed any birds that did appear, and the 200-degree ambient temperature would have slowly roasted them. Still, I felt wonderful.
Sleeping with Lisa should have changed everything. In a way, I suppose it did, just not the way I hoped and expected.
Doug, Lisa, and I all met for dinner, as usual. When I tried to kiss her hello, though, she turned her head, so I gave her a quick peck on the cheek instead. She grabbed my hand, but I noticed her other hand grasped Doug's, just as tightly.
Doubt gnawed at me all through dinner, but the three of us chatted and joked, as if nothing were amiss, as if nothing had changed. And with that, I realized that it hadn't.
"Lisa, I love you! I want to be with you forever! Last night was the best night of my life! Darling, say you'll stay with me forever, and never leave! Why are you acting like nothing happened? Didn't last night mean anything? Don't you love me too?"
But of course, I didn't say any of those things that ran through my mind. I was too afraid of the answers she might give. As long as a thing remains unsaid, it remains undefined, nebulous, and less real.
Instead we made small talk, chuckling together at one another's cleverness, drinking wine, lost in one another's company. Is it courage or cowardice to sip white wine quietly while your heart dies?
Afterward, Lisa sang, and everything was all right again. I knew, knew in my heart, that she was singing only for me. That she loved me. At the end of the evening, however, her lips brushed my cheek, then Doug's and we parted, with so much left unsaid but understood.
Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. I had changed. I knew that I loved Lisa, desperately. I knew that I needed for us to be together. I knew that I would never know true happiness until she returned my love as deeply and as freely as I gave it. Only she didn't.
It is a strange and sad truth that our emotions cloud our perceptions of everything we are, everything we do. I found that all of the things I had so enjoyed over the last few months were suddenly twisted into a dark reflection of themselves, as if I inhabited a kind of mundane hell of my own creation. Work was suddenly an unending series of monotonous chores. Incessant problems kept me tied up working long hours, hours that I couldn't spend with her. Most evenings Doug, Lisa, and I still ate, talked, and drank. Lisa still sang; we still played games; we even danced. It wasn't enough. Being so close to her was exquisite agony. Being away from her was unbearable torture.
It's hard to explain my feelings. I wasn't naïve enough to confuse sex with love, or commitment. I had been in any number of casual relationships before, and it had never bothered me. This, though, was different. At least it was for me.
I looked for excuses to spend more and more time with Lisa, only to find that when I was with her I was nervous, afraid, angry, hurt, and jealous. And then she would sing, and, for a few minutes, everything was perfect.
Lisa and I were alone together often enough. We kissed sometimes, held hands often, and even slept together occasionally. Somehow, though, none of it mattered. One minute I felt my soul drowning in the crystal blue seas of her eyes, and the next she was giving me a quick pat on the arm and a peck on the cheek, and moving on.
"I love you, you know," I finally said to her, one evening.
"You're such a sweetie, Max. Yes, I know."
Then she kissed me.
But nothing changed. I did talk it over with Doug, once.
"Hey Doug, what do you think about Lisa?"
"Lisa? Lisa is wonderful."
"Isn't she though? I think I love her."
"We all do, kid. We all do."
And that, in short, was the problem. I loved Lisa, desperately. She thought I was a nice guy she slept with sometimes. And I knew that I wasn't the only one. I turned a blind eye to the nights she spent alone with Doug, or with others. I tried to remain ignorant of where she was when she wasn't with me, but in a colony under construction, with only a few thousand people, it is hard not to know exactly what everyone is doing.
The jealousy ate at my soul. On the nights when I couldn't sleep I drank until I passed out. I loved her, and I began to hate her for not loving me in return, and to hate everyone she might go out with. But I still loved her.
And then she would sing, or smile, or touch my hand warmly, or kiss me, and everything would be okay again, for a while.
And then came the day when my world came crashing down, both literally and figuratively.
Calypso, circling Newton, had been discovered over a hundred years earlier. It was catalogued, mapped, and measured. It had no native life, but it had .85 gravity, temperatures that were within tolerance for modern equipment, and a heavy atmosphere that could be processed into both breathable air and liquid water. It also had heavy deposits of rare minerals. In short, it was a natural choice for colonization.
In the decade of the initial survey, no seismic activity was noted. There were no volcanoes, active or dormant. Calypso was tectonically dead. There was, in short, no way to expect or predict the 9.2 level quake that caught us that afternoon. Geologists still haven't figured out what caused it. When it came, though, it was almost a relief to me.
"Hey Max, I need to talk to you."
"We are talking Doug. We have been for the better part of an hour."
"No, kid, we've been working. Now I need to talk."
I wiped the sweat off my brow with a dirty shirtsleeve and slid out of the access tube. I looked at him, and was surprised to see his usually happy go lucky face creased with worry.
"What's the problem, Boss? I told you not to sweat the reactor, it's up and running stable, no worries."
"No, Max, we need to really talk. There's there's something I have to tell you."
He paused, waiting perhaps, for a reply. I didn't give him one. I knew what he was going to say. I knew it from the look Lisa had given him last night, when the three of us parted. It had been a 'Have you told poor Max yet Honey?' kind of look. It was a single look, easily misinterpreted. Nothing is real until you talk about it.
I knew, though. Lately Lisa's hand had grasped mine less tightly. Her lips had brushed my cheek less often, too, and her songs her songs had all been for Doug.
He sat there for a moment, watching me watching the floor.
I wanted to be happy for him. I wanted to be happy for her. I wanted to be happy for them both. I wasn't, though.
But it was all only in my head, until he said the words.
Finally he said the words.
"Lisa and I are getting married."
It wasn't all in my head. In an odd way my initial reaction was relief. Relief that jealousy hadn't driven me stark, raving mad. It was real. It was all too real.
"I wanted We wanted you to be the first to know. Lisa wanted us to tell you together, but I thought this would be better. We've been through a lot together, you and I, and well, I guess I thought I owed it to you."
I stood there, staring at the floor, seeing her pretty, crystal blue eyes, and hearing her voice singing in my head.
I wanted to die.
That's the thing that really gets me, still, five hundred years later. I really, honestly, did want to die. For a brief moment I wanted to simply cease to exist. I wanted to embrace sweet oblivion to ease my pain. I swear that I did.
Only I couldn't have, really. I had my chance shortly thereafter, and that isn't what I chose.
Did I want Doug to die?
That's the question I have been asking myself for 500 years.
I don't know. He was my best friend. We had been through hell and back together. I loved him like a father. We were closer than brothers. And at that moment I hated him with every fiber of my being. A knot of jealousy, rage, and anger grew inside my chest, filling me with a desire to destroy something, anything.
Rational men know that the universe does not revolve around them. Physical laws, scientifically discernable, govern the forces and powers that shape our universe. To believe otherwise is to give credence to the basest of superstitions, to believe in a kind of magic that simply doesn't exist.
I know, rationally, that it wasn't my fault. I have no special powers of mind or spirit. The universe doesn't bend itself to suit my will, nor order itself according to my liking. No gods answer when I call. It was coincidence, nothing more.
And yet, as I stood there, fists clenched, muscles trembling in a dark rage of jealousy, it seemed that something did answer. I called out to the universe for destruction, and destruction came.
The sound hit first, like the incredibly loud fast paced pounding of some giant's enormous hammer, smacking out the rhythm to a dance of destruction. I felt dizzy as my inner ear tried and failed to interpret the ground's sliding and shifting movement. Then I was thrown to the floor as the corridor began bouncing.
I scrambled to my knees, still not comprehending what was happening. I looked both ways down the corridor, trying to decide on a course of action.
"Come on Kid, we've got to get outside!" Doug yelled, dragging me to my feet.
I followed him as we stumbled and slid down the passageway. Slowly my well-trained mind overcame the panic, and I began to assess the situation as an engineer. I looked up at the ceiling, trying to judge just how badly the quake was stressing structural integrity.
I saw the plasteel of the building giving way. Not crumbling or cracking as concrete or brick might have done, but buckling and tearing in long jagged strips and holes. I briefly calculated everything that meant for the colony we were building.
We were screwed.
Most of the buildings were interconnected, forming a safe, pressurized, airtight complex. Later, when more atmosphere processors had been installed and the dome was finished, the entire area would be pressurized and safe, with a breathable atmosphere continually renewed by converting Calypso's native gasses into a breathable mixture.
Now, though, the atmosphere outside was poisonous, and our breathing air was spilling out of a thousand holes, steaming away to mix with the native gasses. We had to get the emergency breathers, fast, and get outside before the building collapsed.
I saw that Doug's mind was working faster than mine, because we were already headed in the proper direction. Ours was a well-planned operation. We had contingency plans for every calamity that conceivable occur, and even for most that couldn't possibly happen.
The corridors still shook, and I marveled at the quake's duration. Surly it couldn't sustain itself this long whatever odd force was powering this enormous release of contained force must have nearly reached its limit!
The buildings continued to soak up punishment, and we tripped and fumbled our way to the emergency center. We found a small crowd already growing there, as everyone in or near our building who had been able to quickly made their way to what safety there was.
A shift supervisor was manning the post, calmly handing out breathers as people arrived, and trying to get them outside.
Doug and I both accepted the masks, and strapped the hose and minicompressor on our backs. The quake had subsided by now, but for the occasional tremor of an aftershock
"All right people, let's stay calm," Doug yelled, taking charge. "Everyone get on a mask, and then get outdoors, calmly but quickly. We have plenty of breathers for everyone, no need to panic."
And then the building itself buckled and collapsed. The horrendous shrieking of torn metal and plasteel covered the pitifully terrified screams of the people, who shouted silently as tons of metal and ceramics buried them.
I was thrown to the ground again, and felt a heavy weight crushing my legs, and for a few moments I knew nothing but blackness.
I awoke to the sensation of choking. I couldn't breathe! Panic took me and I flailed and gulped, trying to find air. With a strength born of desperation I wrenched my legs free. My eyes burned slightly, and I felt mucus flowing freely from my nose. I wretched and heaved, still sucking for air.
Then my hand blindly struck something that felt familiar. My breather! It had been torn from my face in the collapse. In a panic I fit the mask over my face, and I felt the sweet, sweet flow of air. I took a few deep breaths, and my mind slowly cleared.
But something was wrong. The air I was breathing, while infinitely better than a moment before, still tasted foul. My stomach heaved again, and I removed the mask from my mouth as I wretched again.
I checked the hose, running my fingers carefully down from the mask and around to the main assembly on my back. I was in trouble. The hose had a two-inch gash torn in it, and air was streaming away from the compressor behind me. I had to find another breather if I wanted to live.
I slowly climbed to my feet, ignoring the jabbing pain that shot through my legs. Pain is an alarm signal, that's all. It's nature's way of telling you that something isn't right. You must ignore the alarm to fix the problem. I struggled to stay upright, and I surveyed the carnage around me.
A mountain of twisted plasteel and metal alloy rose before me, with gigantic support beams and the thinner sheets of interior walls strewn casually into the pile, as if some giant, unruly child had ripped apart a cheap aluminum toy in a fit of anger.
I didn't see anyone moving. I didn't see anyone at all.
Then I heard Doug's voice, calling weakly.
"Help me!" he shouted in a thin whisper.
I turned and saw him, mostly buried by rubble. I scrambled over to where he was laying, pain jarring each footstep.
"Max, is that you?" he asked, his voice sounding odd behind the mask of his breather.
"Yeah, Boss, I'm here," I managed, sounding weak myself. My compromised oxygen mixture was getting fouler by the second. I had to find a replacement, soon.
"You've got to help me, Kid. Get this stuff off of me."
I obliged, wrestling one moderately heavy piece of twisted, jagged metal off of him. When I went to move another, though, he screamed in agony. I looked and saw that a three-inch diameter alloy pipe had pierced completely through his abdomen, and was pinning him to the rubble, like some giant needle holding a specimen in some bizarre display case of pain and agony. Blood was spurting freely from the wound, and Doug's skin was turning ghostly white as shock set in.
"Bad news, Boss. You've got a pipe running clean through your guts, and it's pinning you in place. If I try to move you, it'll kill you."
He cursed calmly. "I don't want to die, Max."
"I don't think you are going to have much choice, Doug."
His life was spurting away in bright flashes of oxygen rich blood, one heartbeat at a time.
A beeping sound from my back alerted me that my breather was dangerously close to completely malfunctioning. If I didn't find another soon, I would die, as well.
"We've got another problem, too, Boss. My breather is busted," I said quietly.
"Well, crap. Look around and see if you can find another one."
I looked and beheld nothing but twisted metal and a pink sky.
"I'm sorry, Doug. Everything is buried under tons of rubble. I am in pretty bad shape too. I'm not going to be able to make it to another building to find one."
He was silent, his teeth clenching in pain.
I've looked back and seen his face almost every night for the last five hundred years. I had thought that I wanted to die. It turns out I didn't. Did I want Doug to die? Maybe. I don't know. I know that I wouldn't have killed him, had things worked out differently. Regardless, I still see things the same way. Doug was dying, and there was no way to save him. I would die too, unless I found another breather. There was only one solution.
Doug was shuddering and shivering in agony, now. I could end his pain. I could end his pain, and save my own life at the same time. I didn't want to die.
"Boss, you are going to die. I'm sorry, but you are. I am going to die, too, unless unless I take your breather."
He shook his head no, but gasped as the motion caused waves of agony to roll through his wrecked body.
He motioned for me to draw nearer, so I did. He whispered, so quietly that I could barely hear him.
"Tell Lisa tell Lisa that I love her."
A renewed surge of jealousy and rage struck me, hearing him say it. Even then, with both of us dying, and Lisa probably dead, as well, I couldn't stand the thought of someone else with Lisa. My Lisa.
My mask shrilled a more urgent alarm, and then ceased functioning altogether.
A look of horror spread across Doug's face as I calmly reached down, unbuckled the straps, and slid the mask off of his face. The ghastly white pallor of his face slowly reddened, and he began coughing and sputtering.
I slipped Doug's mask on my face, shouldered the compressor pack, and watched him die. It didn't take long. His face slowly reddened, then turned purple, and finally something faded to something that was close to green. All the while his arms flailed, and his head turned this way and that. Each motion caused him fresh agony, as his body slid further and further down the obscene pole sticking out of his guts. Finally, his thrashing grew weaker, and then ceased altogether. It took about thirty seconds. The memory has been with me daily for five hundred years, so far.
I breathed the sweet, sweet air of life, and slowly stumbled towards the command post. There would be help there. It was less than a kilo away. If I could only make it one small kilometer, I would survive.
My legs buckled under me, and I tumbled to the ground. I looked down and saw blood oozing from half a dozen gashes. I am pretty sure that at least one bone was broken, somewhere in my left leg. I don't know how, but I kept moving, crawling towards safety.
That's where she found me.
"Oh my God! Max, thank God you're alive!"
I heard the voice, Lisa's voice, talking to me. Looking up I saw her, wearing a jumpsuit and a breather, and looking as if the whole world wasn't already destroyed.
She looked worried as she knelt down beside me.
"Don't worry, you're going to be okay. We'll get you to help. Have you seen Doug? Was he with you?"
More than my wounds, more than having just watched my best friend die, it hurt. It hurt how quickly and easily she dismissed me from her mind, intent on searching for Doug, obsessed with finding the man she loved.
I knew I shouldn't have answered. I knew that section of the city was still dangerously unstable. I could see that it wasn't as bad up ahead, that most of the buildings were still standing. I knew that I should have lied; I should have made her take me straight to the command post. But I didn't.
Why? It's hard to say. I was hurt, angry, and afraid. Part of it, I suppose, was pride. I desperately needed her help, but if she was so obsessed with finding Doug that she couldn't see that, then I'd be damned if I was going to beg. The other part, though, is darker.
I've had time to think about this, a lot of time. I know the answer, now. I know why I sent her to her death. I was angry, angry that she had chosen him over me. I wanted, very much, to hurt her. I still loved her, completely. I didn't mean for her to die.
I did, however, mean for her to find the tortured, twisted remains of Doug. I intended that she see how the man she loved had suffered. On some dark, sadistic level, I wanted her to see it, to punish her for loving him.
I was silent for a moment.
"Max, do you know where Doug is?" she asked again, sounding desperate.
"He's dead," I said flatly. "He's half buried under a pile of rubble, half a kilo back that way."
I saw the life drain from her face. I saw the mad look form in her crystal blue eyes.
"No!" she screamed, long and drawn out, the sound oddly muffled by the mask of her breather.
She took off, running, sobbing, in the direction I had indicated.
"Wait, Lisa, it's too dangerous!" I yelled, but it was too late. She was already gone.
I continued crawling, making my way slowly towards safety. I was almost there when my strength gave out. I was among the stronger, still standing buildings. I could see the command post. I was almost safe.
But my strength was gone. I couldn't make it any further. I turned and fell, flat on my back, pain rolling through my legs, through my heart.
I lay there, staring up the sky, half covered by the crystal dome. I felt the trembling of the aftershock before I heard it. I saw the tiny fracture lines spread quickly through the tough, tough crystal overhead. I knew what would come next, but I was powerless to prevent it. I watched as first one piece, and then another slowly broke away and tumbled, streaking down to shatter and ping off of a building. The fractured dome couldn't stand the stress. I watched for a moment as ten thousand crystal shards, some tiny and others quite large, broke from the dome and rained down upon the colony.
I heard Lisa's screams in the distance. I felt perhaps a dozen crystals shards strike my body over the space of ten seconds or more, and then I felt nothing more, ever again.
"Mr. Baron, can you hear me?"
I tried to reply, and found that I couldn't. My mouth simply wouldn't respond. It was an odd sensation. I felt no pain, and I couldn't say precisely what was wrong. And yet, when I tried to speak, it was as if something was broken.
An odd sensation of panic settled into my gut. I realized that I couldn't feel anything. Legs, arms, hands, feet, nothing responded. I was suddenly cut off from all forms of normal sensory feedback, as quickly and cleanly as if someone had thrown a switch. I suddenly looked for and missed a hundred normal bodily signals that I had always taken for granted. I couldn't see. I couldn't feel my extremities, or my limbs. I couldn't tell if I had to go to the bathroom, or if I was hungry, or thirsty, or cold, or tired.
I felt a scream beginning to build, and realized that I had no way to release it.
"Mr. Baron, calm down. I'm here to explain what's happening to you," I heard.
No, I didn't. It wasn't exactly hearing. I didn't know what it was, but I wasn't hearing it in the same way that I had heard the thundering of the earthquake, or Lisa's songs, or Doug's voice, telling me that Lisa loved him, not me.
I tried again to speak, to shout, or to scream. I had to find out what the hell was going on.
"Don't try to speak. Your mouth isn't working. Concentrate on each word you want to say, mentally annunciate it, and I will be able to understand you."
"What's going on? Where the hell am I? Why can't I feel my body?"
"Slowly, take it slowly, Mr. Baron. I am here to answer all your questions, and I won't be going anywhere until you are satisfied. There is no need to rush."
"Okay, why can't I feel my body?"
"I am afraid that your body was destroyed."
"Yes, Sir. Before the medics found you and locked you into a stasis field your body was almost completely destroyed. Three of your limbs were completely severed, and most of your vital systems had ceased functioning due to severe lacerations, both internal and external. Remarkably, although you sustained severe facial lacerations and contusions, your skull remained unfractured, and your central nervous system was almost entirely intact. Your breather continued pumping oxygen enriched air into your system, and you had enough blood left, barely, to carry at least some of that oxygen to your brain. You are a very lucky man, Mr. Baron."
I remembered Doug's tortured green face hanging from an unnatural angle atop his twisted body. I pictured my own body laying shattered and ripped to shreds by the crystal rain.
"Lucky," I said. "Yeah, that's me. Where am I?"
"You are currently on Bethesda Medical Station, under the care of an advanced surgical research team. You were transported here after the events on Calypso."
"What about Lisa Lisa Monet, did she "
"I am sorry, Mr. Baron. Lisa is dead."
I had known that she was, but then, I had known that I was dead, too. Having that last small bit of hope crushed was like the quenching of the last flickering candle in an otherwise lightless world. Lisa was dead. Lisa was dead, and it was my fault.
I had killed the woman I loved, because she hadn't loved me.
I was silent for a time, taking it all in
"Mr. Baron, there are some questions I am going to have to ask you, and some hard decisions you are going to have to make."
Make decisions? I still didn't even know what was going on. My body had been destroyed, but something obviously remained, or I couldn't be having this bizarre conversation, in which I neither heard nor spoke, but was able to communicate.
"If I am dead, how exactly are you talking to me? Likewise, how am I talking to you?"
"Technically, you aren't dead. Your brain and most of your spinal cord have been preserved, and are floating in a tank of bio-electrically charged nutrient-liquid. That feat was accomplished using techniques recently developed by our research staff here, largely funded with your money."
"My money? What the hell do you mean my money? I'm rich, but not that kind of rich."
"Well Sir, now you are. You are the," he paused for a moment, as if looking up data, "fifty-ninth richest man in the universe. You were the sole beneficiary listed in Doug Peterson's will, and have inherited all of his possessions and stocks, minus legal fees and taxes."
I pondered the irony for a brief moment, picturing poor Doug's face. We had been best friends, and I had killed him. Whether it was in a jealous rage, or whether it was a necessary action in a medical emergency, I had killed him. It didn't matter that he wouldn't have survived for even a few more minutes; he was living and breathing until I took his breather mask to save my own life. I had killed my best friend Doug. And then in my anger and pride I had sent Lisa, the woman I loved, to see his body, to join him in death. If I had only asked her the help I so desperately needed, asked her to carry me on to the command post, then she wouldn't have been there when the dome fell. My pride and jealousy had killed her. She was dead.
I was only half listening to the voice as it rambled on.
"Certain instructions were provided regarding the Chief of TerraFormaInc. The former Chief, Mr. Peterson, desired that extraordinarily great lengths be taken to preserve his life. In fact, he funded a large portion of our research here. All the instructions, however, were written to refer to the position of Chief of TerraFormaInc, not to Mr. Peterson as an individual. With Mr. Peterson's death, you became that Chief. In the absence of a living will of your own, the instructions have been followed this far, primarily so that we could establish this dialogue with you, so that you could make your own wishes known."
He paused, apparently so that I could make my wishes known. The main thing I currently wished was to know what the in the flaming hell was going on.
"I'm sorry, I am afraid I missed some of that. Could you explain exactly what instructions you are referring to, and answer my earlier question about how we are managing to talk, despite my being dead?"
"As I said, your brain did not sustain any critical injuries. You had lost a lot of blood, fallen into advanced shock, ceased breathing, and collapsed into a coma when the medics found you and placed you into a stasis field."
"But I didn't die?"
"There were still minimal signs of brain activity. Based on those, and on the instructions I mentioned before, we went to work on what was left. We were able to stimulate enough cell growth to replenish the areas of your brain damaged by the lack of oxygen, and eventually we were able to reverse the degradation of higher brain function, and restore you to full life. You came out of the coma more or less intact, as far as we can tell."
He paused for a moment, but I didn't quite know what to say. He continued.
"We have developed a course of research by which we believe that we can integrate advanced electronics functions to replace your normal sensory input, and later even address your physiological, locomotion, and manipulation requirements."
"You mean you want to hook me up to machines to replace my body?"
"In a word, yes. That is partially how we are conversing now. The speech center of your brain has been cross-linked to a computer that decodes the bioelectric signals and translates them into speech. Likewise, another computer is encoding the ambient noise in this room and passing it directly to your brain's auditory reception center."
"I see," I replied, considering what he was telling me from an engineering perspective.
"Not yet, you don't," he chuckled at his own feeble joke. "In time we hope to hook up the remains of your optic nerves, and provide them with signals they can interpret. For the present it's beyond us, but within another ten to fifteen years, chances are you could see again. Eventually we will be able to fully implant your brain into a completely articulated robotic body, with senses that equal or surpass those of normal humans. That is the course we would like to pursue. It will take an incredible amount of time and money, and there are no guarantees, but I think we can do it."
I thought about it, picturing myself living indefinitely inside a robot body, trapped in a steel cage with machines providing my only interface to the real world.
"What's the alternative?"
"The alternative is that we turn off the mild current that is stimulating your brain, cut the nutrients which are feeding your remaining biological components, and let you die in peace. We are way beyond the normal boundaries of medical care here, and unless you express a direct wish for us to continue, we can't ethically keep you alive."
I thought about it for a long time. A part of me wanted to die. I knew that dying wouldn't bring Lisa back, or Doug, but I wanted to die. I longed for oblivion, knowing that I didn't deserve to live.
If I did live, I didn't want to live like that. To never again feel sunlight on my face, or taste a glass of orange juice, or see a beautiful woman, or know the joy of running on my own two feet, or hear music with my own ears. I was afraid.
Life, though, is sweet. I found that I desperately wanted to cling to life, any semblance of life at all. I rationalized that I would be able to work again, someday, that I still had much to offer to society. I told myself that I could take joy in what pleasures remained to me: music, books, art, or even a simple conversation. I would still have much to live for, even with all that would be denied me.
Crap. It was all crap. The simple fact is that even after all that I had been through, I was still afraid to die. I was afraid, as simple as that. Living with the guilt of what I done, living with the pain of everything denied me, was still living. I realized, finally, that I was desperate to live. Right or wrong, I very much wanted to stay alive.
The doctors and bioengineers had their way with me. I could already hear and speak, after a fashion. In another five years I had learned to directly manipulate robotic arms. Legs were harder, and hands were damn near impossible, at first. Ten years into the treatment I could see, and shortly after that I was able to walk, talk, pick up a cup of coffee, or a key.
Half a century later I was almost as complete as I had ever been. I could do almost anything I could have done as a human, and several things I could never have managed wearing a suit of weak flesh.
A unique and unexpected by-product of the process was my complete and total lack of aging. My purified system produced no toxins to age the tissues, and electronics were replaced as they aged or as more advanced parts became available.
I returned to work, building more colonies on ever more distant worlds. I threw myself into work with a passion, and when there was no work to be done I studied art, music, literature, or anything else that caught my fancy.
Always, though, I remembered Lisa.
I made friends, and they aged and I died while I remained alive. The processes and procedures that gave me my immortality simply weren't available to most people. I had spent the wealth of planets to buy me a new body. I grew bored, maudlin, and jaded as the centuries rolled past. I thought no one could touch me anymore, after all the time and pain I endured.
And then I met Lisa, again.
All of the chemicals interacting in my well-preserved mind are regulated most carefully, and supplied only in limited and necessary quantities. My whole life is a rationalization.
Five hundred years of almost human experience had given me certain cynicism. I still experienced the full range of human emotions, but, like all other aspects of my life, they had grown dull and gray.
All of that changed when I met Lisa again, though. Raw waves of emotion like streams of pure energy raced up and down my spine. Whenever I was around her I felt anxious, excited, nervous, sad, and euphoric, all mixed into one big ball that rolled around in my chest and wouldn't go away. It had been so long, so terribly long, since I had really felt anything at all. I was amazed to find that I still had the capacity.
I still loved her, five hundred years later.
All of these thoughts burned through my mind slowly, that night, while I listened to Lisa play the piano and sing for me, for what was to be the last time.
Her voice faded, the echo sending chills down my steel-encased spine.
She smiled at me, and for a brief moment, nothing else mattered.
"Are you okay, Max?" she asked as she gathered her things to go.
"I'm fine, now. Thank you very much for the lovely evening, Lisa. I'll tell Andy you said 'Hi'."
She blushed, thinking of him.
"Thanks, Max, you're a sweetie. Goodnight!"
"Hey Lisa "
She turned, pausing by the door.
"Can you hit the lights on your way out?"
"Won't it be too dark?"
"Nah, I've got low light amplification built into my visual system. The only reason I even have lights installed is so that I can entertain you primitive visitors."
She chuckled, hit the switch, and was gone.
I turned off my low light amplification, because what I really wanted was to sit alone in the dark for a while.
Well, actually, I really wanted to sit alone in the dark for a while and drink myself into a stupor, but even that poor vice was denied me, and had been for four and a half centuries.
And so I sat there instead, in the dark, remembering the rough taste of whiskey, and thinking dark thoughts about life, love, and Lisa.
It was ridiculous. I knew that I had nothing to offer her. She was the brightest light in the universe, and I wasn't really even human, anymore. Who could fall in love with a hunk of steel?
And yet, I wanted her. I burned with desire, and ached with the longing to hold her. Knowing that I could never have her did not stop me from wanting her. I loved her, completely. I wanted to spend every possible minute with her. I lived to see her smile, to hear her voice singing, to make her laugh. I wanted to see her happy, and there was no way she could happy with me.
My state of the art optical interface didn't have tear ducts. I sat alone, in the dark, wishing that I could cry.
If I truly loved her, and wanted to see her happy if she couldn't be happy with me why should I object to her and Andy?
The three of us had been together often, just as Lisa, Doug and I had, the first time. Just like Lisa and Doug.
I knew I couldn't handle it. I knew that seeing Lisa, my Lisa, together with Andy, would drive me insane. I realized that I should have wished only for her happiness, but despite all the songs you hear, life just doesn't work that way.
Five hundred years of guilt, though, had made me much more cognizant of my dark side, this time around. I knew that if I didn't act now, I would do something that I would regret, sooner or later. I couldn't kill Lisa, again.
Finally I decided. Tomorrow I would invent some context to send Doug I mean Andy I would send Andy away. Lisa would be sad, and Andy would be angry. Better sad and angry, however, than dead.
Then the chime sounded. I wondered who would be visiting at this time of night. I flicked a thought to the housecomp, which obediently turned on the lights and opened the door. I was surprised to see Lisa standing there again.
A hundred different fantasies played through my mind in an instant, but the troubled expression on her face denied them all.
"Max, why haven't you answered the comm!" she shouted breathlessly.
I had turned it off, wanting to be alone with my thoughts, but she didn't give me time to explain.
"There's been an accident at the reactor. Come on, we've got to help Andy!"
Two minutes later the humming engines of a warming speeder covered our argument.
"No!" I said, for the fourth time in thirty seconds.
"I'm coming with you, dammit, Andy may need my help!"
"It's too dangerous," I shouted over the engine. " I'll help Andy, you wait here!"
"Like hell! If you don't take me I'll just follow you. Please?"
I found that I couldn't deny her anything, even this.
Thoughts raced through my head faster than the purple landscape flew by beneath us. The antimatter reactor was located a hundred kilometers from the main outpost, in order to minimize the dangers of any possible leaks. The colony itself would be safe from any leak short of a catastrophic containment field failure coupled with a complete reactor meltdown. There was no road, yet, so it took a loaded crawler over four hours to travel the rocky distance across the broken terrain. Flying at safe speeds a speeder could make the trip in half an hour by hovering over the terrain and using its limited flight capabilities to go over rather than around obstacles.
We made it in twenty minutes.
A group of ten or so workers were loading into a crawler as we approached, but I didn't see Andy.
"Where is Andy?" Lisa yelled, jumping from the still moving speeder as I touched down near them.
"You've got to get out of here!" one of the workers screamed, alarm showing on his features. "We were installing the new dampers on the containment field, but something blew! The field is down, and the explosion damaged the core! The whole thing is going to go Nova, any minute!"
"Where is Andy?" Lisa repeated, franticly.
"He got caught in the explosion, his leg's messed up pretty bad. He he volunteered to stay behind and try to get the containment field up."
"You mean he's still in there?" I asked, and the man nodded. "What shape is the antimatter core in?"
"It's hit Yellow, and was halfway up to Orange when we evacuated."
"I'll get Andy, you guys bug out."
"You don't have to tell us twice!"
The man started to close the door, but I grabbed it.
"Wait, you're taking Lisa," I said, and tried to gently move her towards the crawler's door.
"The hell they are!" she said.
"Lisa, this is too dangerous. Andy and I will fix the containment field. You have to leave, now."
"I've got to find Andy!" she said in a panicked voice.
She slipped away from my cold steel grip, and sprinted off in the direction of the reactor's main entrance.
I cursed. The crawler's driver looked at me inquiringly, and I motioned for him to go.
The crawler sped away, tracks rolling and throwing up clouds of fuchsia dust. It was happening again. The woman I loved and the man she loved were in danger. I had to stop it. I couldn't let her die again.
I sprinted to the reactor as fast as my steel legs would carry me. My audio sensors picked up the claxon of the alarm as I neared the plant. Emergency lighting flickered, casting eerie shadows down the deserted plasteel corridors as I searched for Lisa.
Finally I found her in the main control room. She hovered near Andy, who was frantically fighting with control routines on a maintenance terminal.
Andy looked up as I came in.
"Max, thank God, help me! The control computer for the cooling system has completely locked up, it's not responding to anything I do."
I looked over his shoulder at the screen's readout. The diagnostics he was running said the cooling system was fine, but obviously, it wasn't. The backup system was completely frozen.
"Forget the Fisher-Price controls, kid. We're going to have to do a manual shut down, take the reactor completely off-line."
"We're almost into the Orange range, I don't know if there's time!"
"We'll make do with the time we have, then, and hope it's enough, unless you've got a better idea."
That statement struck me as being true for me on a lot of different levels, but this wasn't the time for philosophy.
There were ten different stations we would have to manually shut down, five matter converters, five quasi-antimatter converters, interspersed along the hub that fed into the central mixing chamber. We hit the first station together, Andy and I splitting the work of a manual emergency shutdown, frantically flipping switches in the proper sequences, turning dials, closing breakers, waiting for unavoidable delays while equipment caught up with us, then powering off. Lisa fluttered around behind us, trying to be helpful. It took 172 seconds. There was no way the reactor was going to hold for another half an hour.
"What about the containment field?" I asked as we moved onto the second station. "Any chance of getting it up and running?"
"I don't think so, under these conditions. An entire grid section shorted out on run-up. The feedback knocked the cooling system out, and the reactor is spinning out of control. There is no way to get to the shorted grid without shutting down the reactor first, unless you want to absorb a few million quasi-antimatter particles."
That was enough to kill a human in a matter of seconds. We would have to shut down the reactor, wait a month or so for the anti-matter to disperse back into its own dimension, and then go in and replace the faulty section panel. Assuming we got the reactor shut down, otherwise we were all dead anyway.
We were on the third station when the cooling system blew altogether.
The UV spectrum of my vision saw a glowing white nova in the ducts above, and a screeching groan accosted my audio pickups. The pipe was going to blow.
Lisa was standing in the danger zone, oblivious to the hazards her limited senses weren't detecting.
"Look out!" I yelled, and shoved her behind me, just in time to catch a face full of the super-cooled gasses that exploded from the rupturing duct.
A human would have died instantly. It wasn't much fun for me, either.
I staggered away, and a moment or two later parts of my sensory input returned.
"Aarree yyoSSSSSS ookkaayy BBooSSSS?" Andy was asking, the sound distorted and hissing in my damaged receptors.
I nodded that I was, and then I saw all of the color drain from Andy's face. I looked behind me and saw Lisa, sprawled on the floor, blood running from a gash on her head.
I turned to help her, but Andy was there first, his human hand grasping hers, while his other hand touched her neck.
Her eyes flickered open, and I can't describe the look that flashed over her features as she took in Andy's face. I knew, though, that she would never look that way at me. She muttered something incoherent, and then slipped back into unconsciousness.
Then the warble of the alert changed, as the reactor shifted from Yellow to Orange. We weren't going to make it. In about five minutes the reactor would go red, the heat would crack open the containment bottles, and the matter and anti-matter would mix freely. The resulting explosion would be unpredictable. A small reaction would wipe out the reactor complex and the colony. A large one would also take out about half of the continent they sat on.
"Max," Andy said suddenly, "You've got to take Lisa and get away. I'm going to try for the containment field."
And there it was, my golden chance.
Andy would be dead. I doubted that he would survive long enough to fix the containment field, but even if he did the reactor's explosion would kill him. If we were very lucky, Lisa and I might get far enough away in the speeder that we would survive. I would be together, with the woman I loved, without the man she preferred to me.
Only I couldn't do it.
I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe I was, on some level, trying to atone for killing Lisa and Doug. Maybe I was afraid of the look on Lisa's face when she discovered that I was alive and Andy was dead. Maybe I had finally lived long enough. Maybe I was more afraid of watching Lisa die again than I was afraid of dying myself.
I know what it wasn't. It wasn't some heroic act, as if I had finally gained the courage that had been lacking my whole life. It wasn't some noble deed, with me dying to save the woman I loved. It was despair. Despair, that the woman I loved would never return my feelings. Despair, that I was less than human, and always would be. I did it for despair.
In any event, I did it. I opened my speech channel, and annunciated the words.
"No, Andy, you won't survive long enough to do the job. You take Lisa and go. I'll fix the field."
"But Boss "
"We don't have time to discuss it, Andy. Leave now, that's an order."
He nodded, reluctantly.
"Andy tell Lisa tell Lisa I'm sorry. Tell her that I've loved her for 500 years."
He looked puzzled, but nodded, then turned and left, with Lisa in his arms. My Lisa.
As soon as he left I regretted my decision. I wanted to live. Very, very much I wanted to live. But I had said the words, so now I forced myself to follow them up with actions.
I found the replacement panel in stores, and made my way to the reactor core.
The pain receptors in my brain aren't hooked up to anything. I hadn't felt physical pain for four and a half centuries. I felt no pain as controlled anti-matter particles streamed through my alloy body, wreaking havoc wherever they touched. I was dazed and disoriented from malfunctioning sensory input by the time the job was complete, and thirty percent of my body wasn't responding to commands, but I did it. The panel was replaced. The containment field was activated, and would suppress the core's imminent explosion.
I crawled outside the reactor, safe. I had survived, again. I always survived. My body was durable beyond belief, the delicate neuro-electronics and biologic components shielded by hardened ceramic-alloy armor. I was indestructible. I would live forever.
I opened the access hatch to the rector core, and crawled back inside. I sat for a time, blinded by the infrared glow of the overheating core, and tried to cry.
The reactor exploded with overwhelming force that the containment field bent back upon itself. I died instantly, five hundred years too late.
For more information about Wade Kimberlin, please visit his web site.
Published by permission of the author.