“The Golden Rays of the Morning Sun”
by Marc A. Criley
A blue-violet flash. And sparks, streams of sparks; immersing me in all-the-colors-of-the-rainbow sparks. A dull rumble punches through the helmet’s attenuators. I’m weightless, floating…and stupidly lucid. Weightless, not space weightless, but arcing through the air until the hard stop at the end weightless. Cartwheeling. Angry. Furious.
I careen across the tarmac…
Straps abrading bare skin. Belted to a cot. The evac dustoff. Streaking barrages of red and gold, roiling black explosions, blue-white flashes, sledgehammers slamming the hull, corkscrew spins. Shrieking engines. Rolling once, twice, again, now again, now again, losing count. Coming to. Fading out. In. Out. In. Out. Flashes and screams – me, others. Out.
Eyes open. Point lights, star-like scattered and flickering amongst scaffolding, struts, conduits, cables. Weightless, space weightless now. Up is down and right is left as I tumble up and over and around; winding a serpentine path through unwalled corridors. I’m strapped to an autonomous gurney, hooked into IV pumps and restraints, coasting through hospital ship med-spaces. I pass doctors, nurses, cyb techs – bloody gowns cinched at wrist and waist. Robo-docs. Burnt meat smell. Vomit. Shit. Doctors snapped into foot restraints; doctors and techs hand-over-handing, riding tow cables. Whispering, watching, scared. Amber glows, flashing LEDs, flat tones, med machine beeps silenced. No need here for red strobes and howling klaxons.
A gurney harness hauling an armored torso shoots past; arm cuffs tourniquet one truncated arm and the flapping shreds of the other. A lone leg windmills in the breeze. The helmeted head lolls around, then stops and rocks violently. Screaming? Maybe. Hard to tell. It cuts ahead of me. Hey! Trailing a red haze. I pass out.
Open my eyes to a hovering cyb tech. I see cyb eyes, gold ones, no pupils or irises–featureless gold discs.
A golden memory of that last, good day.
“You’re gonna be fine,” the tech says, breaking the memory as he adjusts the restraints. “SA’s got an eye, legs, everything you need to make a body new, better’n new. We’ll have ya back poundin’ dirt in no time. We’re even gonna reskin you. Latest tech, super stealthy, you’ll be good for years. Now you go on back to sleep.”
“A dozen years ago that cyb,” Dr. Emmedi vaguely waves at me, “was state-of-the-art, but now…it’s all legacy. You’re obsolete, Mika, to put it bluntly. Special Acquisitions is transitioning to a new baseline. Your experience is irreplaceable and we want you on board, so you’re up for cerebral extraction and rehost.” The doctor smiles, creaks back in the worn mesh corporate standard military contractor office chair. A vent fan purrs overhead. “And to be perfectly frank, your cyb’s being end-of-lifed so this is your only path forward. It’ll be a win for Special Acquisitions, for our customers and obviously – with your medical and combat history – for you. Win win win.”
The staff doctor drones on about specs and performance tuning. I tune out and flick through cyb readings of ambient light flux, EM background noise, room temperature gradient. I infra-red scan Emmedi–heated brow, a little sweaty, a little anxious – then push the cyb data aside. The office is small, windowless. Framed diplomas and images – 2D, 3D, animated – jostle for wall space. The good doctor posing with SA-uniformed men and women, the occasional suit or lab coat breaking the monotony. No family pictures, no informalities. I focus back on the doctor, scan a fast replay to catch up.
“Why don’t I have a say in this?” I interrupt. “I’ve got enough cyb – arm, eye, half my guts – everything from the waist down. This isn’t even my own skin.” I ripple orange and black stripes down each bare dermakinetic forearm. “Isn’t this enough? I’m barely hanging onto human as it is. This is enough. I’m fine as is, I don’t need, or want, to rehost.”
Emmedi waves away my refusal. “We’re sorry, but hybrid cyb maintenance is no longer cost effective. As I said, it’s being end-of-lifed. Your biology is degrading, and while cyb augments those functions, in the long run it’s a losing battle. You’re at a tipping point, it’s why you’re up for rehost. And I’ll be honest, Mika, I’m surprised at your reaction. That transplant you got as a child saved your life, gave you a life, but it and the rest of your biology is wearing out, it’s hitting the limits. Rehosting does away with limits… permanently. If I were in your shoes I’d jump at this!”
Emmedi leans forward, fixes on my gaze. “Organics are vulnerable, they degrade. Rehosting eliminates the vulnerabilities while simultaneously maximizing personal performance. Which benefits you and, not coincidentally, SA. Keep in mind the company pays for all this. Our doubling down on the investment, making this transition, results in an exponential leap forward, upward. We optimize the efficiency of human experience and performance.”
I hold the doctor’s stare, then shake it loose. “What ‘human experience’? How does putting me in a machine possibly ‘optimize’ human experience?”
“It’s not a ‘machine’, Mika, it’s a cyboront. But it’s just a shell – think of it as power armor you put on and never take off – nothing changes your humanity, Mika, nothing. You’re simply more efficient. That’s a win for us, for holding the peace, for expanding market share. And for you the enhanced perception, analytics, and augmentation presages a deeper, fuller, more human, direct, hand’s on, one-on-one experience with the world, with the universe. Makes you better at what you do. Makes you better at what we do. But honestly you are the primary beneficiary in all this, putting you on the forefront of human evolution. Sky’s the limit! No, the universe is the limit.”
I shake my head, close my eyes. I see back to a sweaty two-day trek, diving into a cold pond, aching legs – the good kind of ache. Sleeping untented under the stars, me and Cori pointing at and whisper-naming constellations while our parents snored in the tent. Waking up early, breathlessly awaiting the first light of the morning sun.
“No spacesuits,” Emmedi enthuses, “no diving gear. Airless, poisonous, doesn’t matter. Steel on bone reality. As is you’ve already integrated cyb electromagnetics; rehosting multi-dimensionalizes those senses, then adds more. You’ll transcend yourself. Nothing that’s you changes, you’re rehosted to…” – air quotes – “an enhanced plane of existence is how the cyb techs put it.” The doctor chuckles. “Without the distraction of eating, sleeping, getting sick, tired, or other ailments, you’re you – always on, fully into every moment of your life. And that,” Emmedi bangs an index finger on the desk display for emphasis, “is the future. That is the Future of Humanity.”
I run a diagnostic, an anatomical status flashes up. All green, one hundred percent. Just over six hundred hours of power remaining in the current power cap, based on current and predicted usage heuristics.
“And if I refuse?”
The happy grin of the pitch evaporates. There’s silence, then a sigh. Finally, “That’s your right. Special Acquisitions doesn’t own you but it does own your cyb. If you decline to rehost your contract terminates. Your legs, arm, and optics are reclaimed–the tech is SA proprietary. The internal augmentation is safed, and you’re mustered out with a full power cap. You’ll have time to… make arrangements before the cap zeroes. Then you’re at the mercy of whatever’s left of your biology, including that heart. You’ve been damaged, severely. You know that. To be blunt, Mika, you’re half-dead right now. Cyb is the only thing keeping you alive, augmenting, filling in the gaps, but it can’t heal you. Biology degrades, cyb doesn’t. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. Unaugmented you’d likely be dead within an hour. If you want to live, you rehost.”
“So I have no choice.”
Emmedi’s head rolls back, another sigh slips out. “You have a choice, Mika, live or die. And just so you know, quite a few do hesitate at first, until they go through VRientation. Everyone comes around then, and you will too.”
“But if I don’t, then I die.”
Emmedi shrugs. “Yes, okay, if you don’t then you die.” Emmedi slides and sorts folders on the desk panel, taps one. “You have forty-eight hours to check in at SA’s augmentation clinic. If you don’t show up for rehost, or reclamation, someone will come get you. So be a good soldier and don’t break anything. And don’t run, retrieval expenses come out of your pay.”
Outside Emmedi’s office it’s night, a cold breeze steals blood warmth. Or it would if I still had human skin. Clear skies tonight. A smear of galactic core. Stars, patterns of stars. I don’t know their names, don’t know their patterns. Probably fought around some of them. I can call up star chart overlays, but it’s been many years since I could just look up and reel off names. Years and light-years since I last saw home and the golden rays of the morning sun. Dermakinetic skin or no I shiver, rub my chest. The scars are long gone, replaced with chromatophore-infused ‘smart skin’. But the heart remains. I call up a monitor, count along with each beat: one, two, three. No one, no one is going to take that away. Four, five, six…
I grab the go bag from my quarters and punch in the address of a late night bar down by the spaceport. I never arrive… at the bar. Half a klick away I preemptively break my contract: disable comms, enable transponder spoofing, illegally activate tactical stealth in a non-contract zone.
Time to go home.
I’m three hundred kilometers north of my home world’s northernmost spaceport, and twenty klicks into the Preserve when a shutdown signal encoded with my serial number goes out on planetary security wideband. I ignore it – busted termination processor. Disabling the processor damaged my organ augmentation logic, so I’m dying for real now – with a hundred rough-country kilometers yet to cross. I recheck the patched hole on my cyb thigh.
A half hour later the double boom of an SA atmospheric penetrator reentry rolls over the hills. The Preserve’s rangers aren’t going to like that. I scramble my way under heavy evergreen foliage. It will thin as I move north, but I take advantage of the thickness in these parts. Up the first ridge it’s all bushwhacking, no real trails. On bare flat terrain my legs haul ass at seventy klicks, here I’m barely managing six. An hour is spent traversing karst, ravines, boulders, sinkholes, trees and deadfall before I clear the first ridge.
Two more double booms roll down from the sky. I bump up the tactical stealth, power reserves be damned – I’ve given up on a round trip. I had nearly three hundred hours of power when I stepped off the transport. But slipping out of the spaceport riding high stealth, running constant spoof, and overclocking the damaged organ augmentation dropped that to under a hundred. I hope it’s enough. Yet more booms. I exhale, my breath an infra-red glow.
A medical SOS blares out – I forgot to disable the emergency beacon. I immediately abort it, but not before a medical summary burst – including location – goes up. Diagnostics say I’ve lost one kidney; ten percent on the other. My heart’s racing. I infuse a couple micrograms of Flashdrive, then run for two straight hours under full dermakinetic stealth and tactical cyb. Organ augmentation redlines as it works to clear the poison contaminating my blood. Careening up and over rocks and ridges, dodging trees living and dead; I’m a disembodied torso strapped to a roller coaster runaway gurney. I’m flying through forest and stone, and it’s gonna hurt like hell when I hit the hard stop.
Another valley. Or a dale. Or a hollow. Water here, a pool. Some thin ice. I crack it and wade in up to my chest. Cold, frigid. The burn in my gut subsides. Water circulates through my cyb legs, absorbs excess heat. The warmed water rises, tickles my sides and chest.
Stars burn down. I know the bright ones – Kordan, Mesran, Eliamon; and the names of ancient constellations – Blacksmith, Estevay, Coriinme, the Sails of Morning.
One more climb. Must beat the morning sun. Power reserve ticks below three hours.
I clear the last ridge, peer down into the Aurbem Valley; a dry rocky streambed meandering along the bottom. I see no one on the broad swale of heath, moor, or whatever the word is for ground cover and low brush. The last good day happened on the far side of this valley, not far from where I lean. I can almost pick out the spot. I sidle about halfway down this side of the valley, skirt the rock shelves and outcroppings, then drop and wedge myself against a boulder. I power down my legs – no more running. It’s cold. Clear view in both directions. The valley bends east, opening to the circumpolar plains. Not long now. I’m sick in the gut. I turn off most diagnostics and monitors, just leave the power level display. There’s enough to last past sunup. And a bit more.
A pair of legs steps into my dim vision. Boots, skin-tight pants. Can’t see more. Someone lays a hand on my shoulder.
“Mika? You’re Mika, right? I’ve been looking for you.”
“So you’re one of them,” I say.
“One of what?”
“The cost-effective, rehosted Future of Humanity.”
The figure cocks its head. “I wouldn’t know about that. I’m Specialist Kibo Harran, on orders to retrieve you.” Something is pulled out of a pocket. I can’t tell if the pocket’s real or just part of the machine. “Here. This is a full power cap. Plug it in.”
I bat the hand away. “No.”
“Don’t be stupid. Your cap’s almost zeroed and you’re almost dead. Plug it in. You need to stay alive until a transporter arrives.”
“Emmedi said it was my choice.”
“A choice no one ever makes.”
Kibo crosses his arms.
“Show me your face,” I say.
“Show me see your face.”
Kibo shrugs and squats in front of me. He smiles. “Happy?”
“No,” I say. “Your face. Show me your face. Turn off the dermakinetics.”
He gazes at me for a few seconds, then the smile evaporates. As does the face, first paling to dullness. Then the features dissolve, in a moment I’m facing a gray oval in the blue-gray dawn. I barely make out shallow depressions for eyes, a nose bump, a shallow groove splitting a pair of small lip-shaped swellings. The ears are just knobs. Fibrous threads withdraw to a finger’s length, then lay flat on the scalp.
“Satisfied?” the cyboront says. There’s no obvious movement in the façade accompanying the voice. “Look, you’re gonna be dead in a few minutes if you don’t power up. This was stupid, you could’ve come here after the rehost, hell I’d’ve come with you, this place sounds amazing. But we need to get you back. Take the cap.” Kibo holds it out.
“No!” I shout, swinging at him, knocking his hand away. He loses his grip on the cap, it bounces a few meters down the slope. My heart bangs. Dizziness, nausea surges. I’ve got less than ten minutes of power left.
Kibo – robot, android, cyboront, whatever – stands up, steps back. “You’ll die out here.”
“What do you care? Humans die.”
“We don’t need to any more.”
“What ‘we’, Kibo? Humans die.” I cough, taste blood. “You’re not Kibo Harran, whoever that was is just a bunch of medical waste now. That’s not going to happen to me.”
Kibo’s cyboront body stiffened. “No. Nothing happened to me. You’re wrong.” Each word snapped off. “I am who I was. And am. In all the ways that matter.”
I’m unfazed. “Says who? What ways? What’s left of you? A brain? Some brain stem, maybe? All micro-threaded with nanowires and augmentation networks? A little AI maybe? What part of any of that is human? Where’s the meat, Kibo? It’s not all neurons and nanotech. It’s muscle, skin, heart…” My voice catches. I swallow – tastes of blood and saliva – continue, “We’re not just electrical impulses speeding over integrated silver, tantalum, and neuron meshes. You’re a cyb puppet of someone who once had a life. A ghost in…”
I smile weakly. “If there’s one thing you’re not, Mister Future of Humanity, it’s human.”
“You’re wrong, Mika,” Kibo says, taking a step towards me, squatting back down. He pauses a moment, looks down the valley. “No, you know what? You’re right, because that’s all you are too.” He turns back to me. “That’s all we humans are, puppet bodies, electrical impulses spinning around the brain, the meat, exchanges of ions and electrons. I don’t need a bio heart, liver, kidneys, stomach, to be human. All I need is what’s in here.” He taps his chest again. “That’s what makes me human. I’m alert twenty-four seven, constantly aware of everything around me, taking it all in, enhanced.”
He pauses, tilts his head up, listens. “I hear them,” he says, “they’ll be here in a couple minutes.”
My heart skips a beat, I glance at the sunrise end of the valley.
“Why would I not do this?” Kibo continues, turning the blank face back to me. “Why would anyone not do this? Cyb senses and neural enhancement enrich every experience, make it deeper, more compelling, more deeply felt, more… intimate. We’re sensory creatures, Mika, you and I; and a cyboront is all about sensory immersion.”
I keep my eyes fixed on the far end of the valley. “I’m cold. Right now I’m cold. Do you get cold?”
“No, and neither will you.” Kibo’s blank visage takes on a dull red hue as a sliver of sun crests the horizon.
“Do you ever get hot? Tired? Sore, dull, achy?” I turn back to face him. “Do you ever get a headache? Do you slip under the water and hold your breath till everything goes red, until you see sparkling black stars?” I take a deep breath. “Do you know what it feels like to smash through a window? To be impaled on a spear of glass, feeling your heart squish and leak as it struggles to beat?” My vision becomes a watery blur. “To see the gray and black rolling in? To feel your chest tearing apart as you reach for your twin, watch the light go out of their eyes? What do you feel, ‘Future of Humanity’? What the fuck do you feel?”
Kibo gets to his feet and steps back, then the oval of his face transforms. Open wounds appear, a smashed bloody nose, gashed temple, closed eyes swollen black. The dermakinetic skin-tight uniform morphs into naked human flesh.
One arm appears cleanly sliced off below the shoulder, the other a mangle of muscle and bone. An empty space at the hip marks where one leg used to attach, the other dangles on shredded strips of tendon and muscle. Bone shards protrude from red and blackened flesh.
I gape at him, at what’s left of him, a hovering apparition of weightlessness, nakedness, and agony.
Cutting the line in a dimly lit hospital ship.
“I felt it all,” the torn mouth says, the words mushed like slush on cold concrete. “No painkillers. I was forward spotter, Special Acquisitions needed me lucid, so the armor pumped me full of stims. My brain sizzling on agony and Flashdrive. It should’ve seized up. I never passed out. Hyper-awake through all of it. The evac, evasives, high gee, it’s all still…”- Kibo points at his chest with the arm stump – “…here. Like it happened yesterday. The hospital boat, the reek of burnt iron, charred flesh. Mine, everyone’s. They couldn’t knock me out, no locals, no nothing. Overstimmed, couldn’t put me down. Got amputated, cauterized, all live and in ultra hi-res actual reality. White steel carving up brain and body. I screamed at them to make it stop.”
Kibo heals himself. The face, torso, arms and legs of a trim young Special Acquisitions contractor reappear in seconds.
“And that’s what they did. I was the third prototype. Win.”
“I will never go through that again,” he says. “This? The cyboront? You can crush a leg, slice off an arm, hyperslug me at point blank range, I don’t care. I can do a naked atmospheric reentry from an orbiter airlock. This’ll all burn off,” he sweeps a hand down his body, “but if the core canister survives – and it’s designed to – I survive. Just drop it in another cyboront and I’m good to go. It’s all I need. It’s what I want.”
“But that’s not what I want,” I say. “It’s not what I… am.” I lean my head all the way back onto the cold rock, stare at the sky. “The last time I was here, it was the four of us – my parents, me, and Cori. We watched the rays sail in, then headed home. Just outside the Preserve a cargo hauler snapped an axle. Hit us head on, almost. Killed my parents. I went through the glass, took a shard in the chest. Cori was… was on life support until we got to the hospital.” I lightly tap my chest. “This is Cori’s heart. Cori’s heart has kept me alive for the last twenty years. Cori’s heart will not be carved out and tossed in some dumpster. Cori’s heart, and this place, are all that I have left of home.”
Kibo covers his mouth with his hand – a very human gesture.
“You had it all replaced,” I say. “Fine. It’s all better than new, right? For you. You went through what you went through, for sure, and I am so sorry for that; but remembering in the brain is not remembering in the bone, in the muscle, in the bile. Cori is part of me for as long as I am me. You may remember for a long time. But, in time, decades or centuries from now, you will forget.”
The sun clears the ridge, crepuscular shafts of golden light arc across the sky.
I try to sit up a little straighter, find a balance point on the slope. Red sunrise shifts to orange. Two minutes left. I lock, power down my arm. That reclaims three minutes. Back up to five now.
“Kibo, how human are you? You don’t eat, you recharge. You don’t shit, you discharge. Underwater you don’t breathe, in space you don’t breathe. Who keeps you alive, Kibo? How do you ever say ‘no’ to them? Go here, go there, fight here, fight there. ‘Now here’s your power cap. Good soldier.’ You don’t know who you’re shooting at today, and you won’t know who you’re shooting at tomorrow. How long does this all go on? How long will they keep you powered up? I’ll tell you – until you’re legacy.” I close my eyes, lean my head back. “Damn it Kibo, I am Cori’s heart. I will decide to live or die as I see fit.”
The few morning insects and birds that had been cricking and burbling stilled. Silence presses in on my ears. Kibo whispers, close, “Mika, if you die, Cori dies. Both of you.” I open my eyes. Kibo is leaning down, a hand on my dead leg. “There will be no one left to remember,” he says. A red zero power level flashes in my cyb eye, then blinks out. I lose the left half of my vision. At the end of the valley something flickers. Kibo stands up and steps out of my halved sight.
A thirty meter floating diamond of translucent amber silk curves into the valley – a golden ray shimmering in the morning sun. Its trident tail lazes behind; glittering stars wink along unseen sinews. It glides twenty meters above the dry streambed, just below eye level. Another ray appears, a few meters above and a half-dozen behind the lead, billowing along in its wake. Not flapping, not flying; but, like… water gently surging onto the sandy shore of a lake on a silent newborn day. I inhale, unaugmented, for the first time in over a decade. A shallow breath; enough. For now.
More rays enter the valley, three, four, six, ten, I lose count. A fever of golden rays, breathlessly silent, sparkling with each forward surge. They rise and fall like a sleeper’s breath, pulse like the beat of a heart; they slip through invisible layers of air and time. A minute later the lead ray comes abreast, sails past. I start to gasp, a little. The edge of my vision grays. Cold seeps in, numbs the gut pain. Cori’s heart beats.
A small ray slips away from the procession, a pup, maybe five meters across. It flaps up the slope – a flickering of gold and winking stars. It halts, hovers a half-dozen paces away from me, sways in the morning sun. The amber discs on the flat angled face flit back and forth; to Kibo, to me, to him, to me. We see eye to curious eye. Golden pupils within black irises within discs of amber. A huff like muffled thunder rises from the valley. The pup snaps its wings, flips up and over, then pirouettes and sideslips back down the slope. It merges back into the procession.
Down the valley a pair of golden rays, their trident tails flicking, flashing, mark the procession’s end.
Morning sun warms the back of my neck.
“Cori. Look…” I murmur. “Remember…”
A silent heart. A silent breath. Glittering ghosts… sighing… into a breathless… golden… haze.
Marc Criley started writing short stories in his early 50s – you’re never too old to start. Abyss & Apex published his first sold story, with subsequent ones appearing in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. He and his wife “manage” a household of cats at their home in the hills of North Alabama. Marc maintains a blog at kickin-the-darkness.com and noisily tweets as @That_MarcC.