Senior Engineer Carlsson was on his knees. He had long given up on keeping his balance amid the lurching deckplates. His head pounded with the screaming of twisted metal and broken crewmates. Whatever had hit the ship was big, and dangerous, and there was no way he was going to stick around.
Even if he survived, it would be his job to fix the damage. Nope. The cargo freighter Thaleia would have to find a new Senior Engineer.
Smoke filled his lungs and stung his eyes. Carlsson went forward on hands and knees, searching for the escape panel he knew was there. Many parts of the ship were missing by now, but the escape pods were almost indestructible. The worse the ship design, the better the escape pods had to be. That was the way of the Empire.
Carlsson finally grabbed a familiar handle and twisted. The hidden doorway opened and he climbed inside the snug one-man survival device. A mix of concussion and smoke inhalation forced Carlsson to ignore safety protocols. Without stopping to program coordinates, Carlsson hit the launch button. He knew the pod would seek out the nearest planet, specifically Allerian 4 since the Thaleia was already in orbit.
The escape pod broke free of the external shielding. Allerian 4 rose up in front of the tiny porthole, majestic and terrifying. Carlsson couldn’t help but notice the pieces of the Star Empire fighter escort as he whipped past them to safety. Definitely. This was definitely an attack.
Carlsson barely had time to register this new information when his pod collided violently with some of the floating debris. His head banged against the inside panel. He tasted blood. His mind whirled, and, for the first time in his life, Senior Engineer Nathan Carlsson, formerly of the cargo ship Thaleia, died.
“You are not dead”
Carlsson stirred. He wanted to debate this, because he was pretty sure he was dead.
“You have been injured, but your injuries are not life-threatening.”
Carlsson struggled to move. He wanted to see whomever was behind this voice, but open eyes were met with bright sunlight, and Carlsson opted to shut them tight. He was too weak to handle a giant ball of space fire millions of miles away.
“Where am I?” he said.
“You should drink something to keep your strength up.” Carlsson became aware of a small pool of stagnant water near his head.
“There is a pool of water near your head. The purity is lacking, but it is likely drinkable.”
“I’m not drinking that”, said Carlsson.
“You have no reason to be suspicious”, said the voice.
“I don’t care,” replied Carlsson. “Personal policy.”
“Do you think I am trying to poison you?”
“You already think you are dead. What is the harm?”
Carlsson eyed the pool closer. It seemed vaguely clean, and it looked…safe? He took a sip. Then a gulp. As Carlsson did so, he noticed the source of the voice. A single man, short, and squat. Flowing robes ended at a hood, from under which peered a round, agreeable face.
“Thank you,” said Carlsson, rising to his feet, despite the many objections of his bruised body. He saw the mangled escape pod that had miraculously landed him safely in the middle of a scorched wasteland
“What is your name?” asked the man.
“Carlsson. What’s yours?”
“My name is also Carlsson.”
Carlsson reacted. Not well.
“No it isn’t,” he said, his frustration evident.
“Forgive my deception,” said the man. “I was attempting to bond via coincidence.”
“So what’s your name?”
The man tilted his head under the cowl, thinking. “My name is…James Joyce.”
Carlsson sighed. “No. Your real name.”
“I am attempting to bond via familiarity. I invite you to call me James Joyce.”
“Fine. James Joyce.” Carlsson tried peering under the cowl again. “Is there something wrong with you?”
“I function well,” said James. “Within parameters.”
Carlsson flipped the cowl, and gazed at the exposed cranial plate of his new friend. It shone in the sunlight, covering his skull where most people had hair.
“You’re a Chromedome?”
“I am a member of the Flock.”
“Machine Cult though, right?”
“Yes,” said James. “I serve the Holy Binary.”
Carlsson looked around, expecting to see more cultists.
“I feel that your term ‘Chromedome’ was meant as an insult.”
Carlsson shook his head. “No. No it wasn’t.”
“It sounded disrespectful.”
“I apologize for that. I’ve…never met one of your…faith.” Carlsson looked embarrassed. “At least, not in real life.”
“Thank you,” said James. “I understand that, as part of human male bonding, I should call you by a similarly offensive nickname. However, I do not know of a comparable insult to your faith, job, class, or species. I regret that we cannot bond this way. I can come up with a random insult if you wish.”
“I…It’s fine. Don’t mention it.”
“Your face lacks symmetry, and is aesthetically displeasing.”
“What…no…” said Carlsson.
“Also, your understanding of agriculture is limited. If you had cattle, they would most likely be dead or dying.”
“You don’t have to do that, it’s fine.” Carlsson shook his head. “I just need to rest.”
“Ah. We are friends now. Good.” James indicated a direction with his cloaked arm, vaguely gesturing toward some nearby plateaus, dotted on the lee side with caves. “Would you like to shelter with me?”
Carlsson had no trouble keeping up, despite his injuries. James was so far an excellent host, and slowed down enough so that Carlsson was never left behind. This allowed them to talk, although it was mainly Carlsson asking the questions.
“How did you get here? Did you crash?”
James frowned. “I do not know. There was some damage. Perhaps I crashed, but it is not a provable hypothesis.”
“Is there anybody else with you?”
“You are with me.”
James paused. “I do not have that data available.”
“Are you an actual human?”
“Of course” replied James. “I was born just a year before the Rebirth.”
“Huh,” said Carlsson. “I don’t know much about that.” He knew the Rebirth was the start of the Machine Cult, which made James about 27, but he knew not much else.
The two men arrived at the base of the nearest plateau, and headed towards a cave that Carlsson had noticed from a distance. Strategically it wasn’t optimal, but he was tired and wanted to get out from under the sun.
James had been telling Carlsson about the Rebirth as they walked. “The old ones were miners,” he said, “When the Blobs first invaded, they were cut off from all Earth colonies. They needed guidance. They needed hope. The Gethsemane Protocol was enabled, linking every processor to form a single central unit. A single voice to guide us out of the darkness.”
Carlsson sat against the cave wall in what looked like a comfortable spot. It was not.
“So what happened when you discovered the humans weren’t all dead?”
James sat opposite. “It changed nothing. We were shown more efficient ways. The Gifts of our Faith.” He smiled. It was weird. “This is the Gift of Unity.”
“Our conversation. We are coexisting. We are surviving together.”
Carlsson shrugged. “I suppose so.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that James was trying to convert him, but in the mildest way possible.
“I have learned little of the Star Empire,” said James. “Why do you exist?”
“When the Blobs came…they abandoned us.”
“Who abandoned you?”
“Earth. They drew a line, and cut off all contact with any colony on the wrong side. They considered us…” Carlsson struggled with the word. “…expendable. Not worth the financial risk.”
“But you survived.”
“Governor Martine saw a future. He said that those that gave up weren’t true humans. Humans struggle. Humans fight. Humans don’t surrender and die.”
“The Gift of Unity.” James smiled. “You have the same tenets, but perhaps with different names. Your people are not so different than mine.”
“We’re pretty different,” said Carlsson. “We celebrate diversity and inefficiency. It makes things interesting.”
“This is troubling,” said James. “Do you ever feel the need to return home? That can sometimes help when all is chaos.”
“I don’t really have a home,” said Carlsson. “I’ve was born on a ship, and I’ve been on one ship or another just about all my life.”
“My friend, I am truly sorry,” said James. Carlsson tried to shrug this off, but at his core, the lack of a place of origin had always bothered him a little. James didn’t read his cue and kept talking. “My people consider a home the most sacred of all things. It is something that binds us as a people.”
“I never really thought of you as people,” admitted the engineer.
James smiled. “When we dream, we dream of home. That is the Gift of Belonging.”
Carlsson didn’t really want to engage on this. A religious discussion was not going to help his pounding headache. He expertly changed the subject.
“Let’s talk about something else. Where did you crash?
“I do not have that data available.”
Carlsson looked around the cave. There wasn’t much, and certainly no sign of anyone having sheltered there. “Is this your cave?”
James smiled. “We share the cave.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I do not have that data available.”
Carlsson was rapidly becoming annoyed. “Where did you crash? Did you even look?”
“Where would I look?”
“Anywhere! Look where you crashed!”
James paused for a moment. “This is an unproductive loop.”
“You’re an unproductive loop!”
James didn’t respond. Carlsson made the effort to stand.
“Where are you going?” asked James.
“Out”, said Carlsson. “I want to look around.”
“Is this behavior typical of citizens of the Star Empire?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I apologize, I meant no insult.” James stood to match Carlsson’s position near the cave entrance. “My people would rather retreat to survive. Yours fight to achieve the same goal. Which is more noble I wonder?”
Carlsson stopped. “We don’t care about nobility. We just do what we can.”
“At one time I was your enemy. You hated my people. Is that correct?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Carlsson. “I didn’t know anything about you.” ‘Hated’ was too strong a word…though it still burned to hear. There was definitely an accuracy there.
Hatred…disinformation…mockery…propaganda…it was all tied together.
Carlsson didn’t like thinking about it. The Empire was about inclusion. Progression. The ideals precluded the ideas of racial integrity and separation. And yet, here he was, learning more in half a day about this race of people than thirty years of sniggered jokes and backhanded comments between his friends in the service.
They didn’t teach him anything about the Machine Cult. Why?
Why foster such an environment?
He had always thought of the Chromedomes as a weird and dangerous cult of inhuman fanatics. Something to be avoided, instead of a noble and complicated bunch. Why keep them a secret?
Humanity was a lot simpler yesterday.
Carlsson shook his head. Philosophy and concussion were a terrible mix, and this was making his head hurt. He turned to leave, but his leg gave out and he crashed to the ground.
“Are you hurt?” asked James.
“I never stopped hurting,” replied Carlsson, “…but I hurt a lot more now.” There was a rock under his face, but he was too tired to move either. The last of his adrenaline drained away.
“Would you like some assistance?”
“…” said Carlsson.
“Your vital signs are stable. You should sleep.”
“…” said Carlsson in agreement.
Retreat was starting to sound pretty good right about now. The shadows closed as his body gave itself up to exhaustion, and his mind floated off into a state of peaceful oblivion.
When Carlsson awoke, he was sure he was dead. He was comfortable, no longer in pain, and there wasn’t a rock under his face. If there was an afterlife, this felt like it.
“You’re not dead.”
For the second time in his life, Carlsson wanted to argue this point. He tried to open his eyes, but the sickbay lights were, as usual, bright enough to cause damage.
He became aware of the bed. He became aware of the acrid smell of the weird Med-Tech Gel the docs used for dermal regeneration. He became aware of a nurse trying to get his attention. This was a familiar place. He was on an Imperial ship.
“hhhhhhhhrgnnn,” he explained.
“Lie still,” said the voice. It was male, but it wasn’t James.
Carlsson focused his energy on speaking clearly. It was an uphill battle. “Where’s James?” he finally said.
“I’ll get the doctor.”
Carlsson managed to squint around, but couldn’t see any other patients. His headache quickly returned, as did the doctor.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like a planet hit me in the face. Where’s James?”
The doctor and nurse looked at each other. “The rescue team didn’t find anyone else on the surface.”
Carlsson sat up. “He was with me in the cave.”
“No,” said the Doctor. “We extracted a nanovirus from your bloodstream. Most likely that, combined with your injuries, caused you to hallucinate.”
“Yes,” said the doctor. “Machine Cult in origin. I’ve extracted a few in the last month. It has been purified. No longer a threat. We don’t know what it is, but we consider it a form of propaganda spike. We have already informed Imperial Command of your status.”
“None of it was real?”
“What we know is this: You crashed, and you made your way to a cave, where you passed out. We know this from the sensor logs and your pod recorder. Did you experience anything else?”
Carlsson lay back on the bed. “That all sounds right. It feels clearer now. I don’t remember anyone else there.”
The nurse frowned. “You mentioned the name ‘James’,” he said. “Ship personnel? We don’t have a ‘James’ listed as staff on the Thaleia.”
“James was a friend,” said Carlsson. “But he died.”
The doctor looked him over again. “I’m concerned about the head injury. We’ll have to keep you under observation,” she said. “If you start having unreasonably favorable dreams about the Machine Cult, please report it to Med-Tech personnel. It may indicate a free-thought compromise that needs to be corrected.”
Carlsson rolled over and closed his eyes. Humanity was indeed a lot simpler yesterday. He fell asleep, and dreamed of home.