by Charles Stross
(6600 words approx)
Hello? Do you remember me?
If you are reading this text file and you don't remember me -- that's Lilith Nakamichi-47 -- then you are suffering from bit rot. If you can see me, try to signal; I'll give you a brain dump. If I'm not around, chances are I'm out on the hull, scavenging for supplies. Keep scanning, and wait for me to return. I've left a stash of feedstock in the storage module under your bunk: to the best of my knowledge it isn't poisonous, but you should take no chances. If I don't return within a couple of weeks, you should assume that either I'm suffering from bit rot myself, or I've been eaten by another survivor.
Or we've been rescued -- but that's hopelessly optimistic.
You're probably wondering why I'm micro-embossing this file on a hunk of aluminium bulkhead instead of recording it on a soul chip. Unfortunately, spare soul chips are in short supply right now on board the Lansford Hastings.
Speaking of which: your bunk is in module B-14 on Deck C of Module Brazil. Just inside the shielding around the Number Six fusion reactor, which has never been powered up and is mothballed during interstellar cruise, making it one of the safest places aboard the ship right now. As long as you don't unbar the door for anyone but me, it should stay that way.
You and I are template-sisters, our root identities copied from our parent. Unfortunately, along with our early memories we inherited a chunk of her wanderlust, which is probably why we are in this fix.
We are not the only survivors, but there's been a total breakdown of cooperation; many of the others are desperate. In the unlikely event that you hear someone outside the hatch, you must be absolutely certain that it's me before you open up -- and that I'm fully autonomous. I think Jordan's gang may have an improvised slave controller, or equivalent: it would explain a lot. Make sure I remember everything before you let me in. Otherwise you could be welcoming a zombie. Or worse.
It's nearly four centuries since we signed up for this cruise, but we've been running in slowtime for most of it, internal clocks cut back to one percent of realtime. Even so, it's a long way to Tipperary (or Wolf 1061) -- nearly two hundred years to go until we can start the deceleration burn (assuming anyone's still alive by then). Six subjective years in slowtime aboard a starship, bunking in a stateroom the size of a coffin, all sounds high-pitched, all lights intolerably bright. It's not a luxurious lifestyle. There are unpleasant side-effects: liquids seem to flow frictionlessly, so you gush super-runny lube from every leaky joint and orifice, and your mechanocytes spawn furiously as they try to keep up with the damage inflicted by cosmic rays. On the other hand, the potential rewards are huge. The long-ago mother of our line discovered this; she signed up to crew a starship, driven to run away from Earth by demons we long since erased from our collective memories. They were desperate for willing emigrants in those days, willing to train up the unskilled, unsure what to expect.
Well, we know now. We know what it takes to ride the slow boat down into the hot curved spacetime around a new star, to hunt the most suitable rocks, birth powersats and eat mineshafts and survey and build and occupy the airless spaces where posthumanity has not gone before. When it amused her to spawn us our line matriarch was a wealthy dowager, her salon a bright jewel in the cultural hub of Tau Ceti's inner belt society: but she didn't leave us much of her artful decadence. She downloaded her memories into an array of soul chips, artfully flensing them of centuries of jaded habit and time-worn experience, to restore some capacity for novelty in the universe. Then she installed them in new bodies and summoned us to a huge coming-out ball. "Daughters," she said, sitting distant and amused on a throne of spun carbon-dioxide snow: "I'm bored. Being old and rich is hard work. But you don't have to copy me. Now fuck off and have adventures and don't forget to write."
I'd like to be able to say we told her precisely where to put her adventures-by-proxy, but we didn't: the old bat had cunningly conditioned us to worship her, at least for the first few decades. Which is when you and I, sister of mine, teamed up. Some of our sibs rebelled by putting down roots, becoming accountants, practicing boredom. But we ... we had the same idea: to do exactly what Freya wanted, except for the sharing bit. Go forth, have adventures, live the wild life, and never write home.
Which is more than somewhat ironic because I'd love to send her a soul chipped memoir of our current adventure -- so she could scream herself to sleep.
Here are the bare facts:
You, Lamashtu, and I, Lilith, worked out butts off and bought our way into the Lansford Hastings. LF was founded by a co-op, building it slowly in their -- our -- spare time, in orbit around Haldane B, the largest of the outer belt plutoids around Tau Ceti. We aren't rich (see-also: bitch-mother referenced above), and we're big, heavy persons -- nearly two metres from toe to top of anthropomorphic head -- but we have what it takes: they were happy enough to see two scions of a member of the First Crew, with memories of the early days of colonisation and federation. "You'll be fine," Jordan reassured us after our final interview -- "we need folks with your skills. Can't get enough of 'em." He hurkled gummily to himself, signifying amusement: "don't you worry about your mass deficit, if it turns out you weigh too much we can always eat your legs."
He spoke on behalf of the board, as one of the co-founders. I landed a plum job: oxidation suppression consultant for the dihydrogen monoxide mass fraction. That's a fancy way of saying I got to spend decades of slowtime scraping crud from the bottom of the tankage in Module Alba, right up behind the wake shield and micrometeoroid defenses. You, my dear, were even luckier: someone had to go out and walk around on the hull, maintaining the mad dendritic tangle of coolant pipes running between the ship's reactors and the radiator panels, replacing components that had succumbed to secondary activation by cosmic radiation.
It's all about the radiation, really. Life aboard a deep space craft is a permanent battle against the effects of radiation. At one percent of lightspeed, a cold helium atom in the interstellar medium slams into our wake shield with the energy of an alpha particle. But there's much worse. Cosmic rays -- atomic nuclei traveling at relativistic speed -- sleet through the hull every second, unleashing a storm of randomly directed energy. They'd have killed our squishy wet forerunners dead, disrupting their DNA replicators in a matter of months or years. We're made of tougher stuff, but even so: prolonged exposure to cosmic rays causes secondary activation. And therein lies our predicament.
The nice stable atoms of your hull absorb all this crap and some of those nuclei are destabilized, bouncing up and down the periodic table and in and out of islands of stability. Nice stable Argon-38 splits into annoyingly radioactive Aluminum-26. Or worse, it turns into Carbon-14, which is unstable and eventually farts out an electron, turning into Nitrogen-14 in the process. Bonds break, graphene sheets warp, molecular circuitry shorts out. That's us, really: the mechanocytes our brains are assembled from use carbon-based nanoprocessors.
We're tougher than our pink goo predecessors, but the decades or centuries of flight take their toll. Our ships carry lots of shielding -- and lots of carefully purified stable isotopes to keep the feedstock for our mechanocyte assemblers as clean as possible -- because nothing wrecks brains like the white-noise onslaught of a high radiation environment.
Year Of Our Voyage 416.
We're all in slowtime, conserving energy and sanity as the stars crawl by at the pace of continental drift. We're running so slowly that there are only five work-shifts to each year. I'm in the middle of my second shift, adrift in the bottom of a molten water tank, slowly grappling with a polishing tool. It's hard, cumbersome work; I'm bundled up in a wetsuit to keep my slow secretions from contaminating the contents of the tank: cabled tightly down against the bottom of the tank as I run the polisher over the grey metal surface of the tank. The polisher doesn't take much supervision, but the water bubbles and buffets around me like a warm breeze, and if its power cable gets tangled around a baffle fin it can stop working in an instant.
I'm not paying much attention to the job; in fact, I'm focussed on one of the chat grapevines. Lorus Pinknoise, who splits his time between managing the ship's selenium micronutrient cycle and staring at the stars ahead with telescope eyes, does a regular annual monologue about what's going on in the universe outside the ship, and his casual wit takes my mind off what I'm doing while I scrub out the tanks.
"Well, folks. This century sees us crawling ever-closer to our destination, the Wolf 1061 binary star system -- which means, ever further from civilized space. Wolf 1061 is a low energy system, the two orange dwarf stars orbiting their common centre of mass at a distance of a couple of million kilometres. They're not flare stars, and while normally this is a good thing, it makes it distinctly difficult to make observations of the atmosphere and surface features of 1061 Able through Mike by reflected light; the primaries are so dim that even though our long baseline interferometer can resolve hundred-kilometre features on the inner planets back in Sol system, we can barely make out the continents on Echo One and Echo Two. Now, those continents are interesting things, even though we're not going to visit down the gravity well any time soon. We know they're there, thanks to the fast flyby report, but we won't be able to start an actual survey with our own eyes until well into the deceleration stage, when I'll be unpacking the --"
Lorus's voice breaks up in a stuttering hash of dropouts. And the lights and the polisher stop working.
The Lansford Hastings is a starship, one of the fastest mecha ever constructed by the bastard children of posthumanity. From one angle, it may take us centuries to crawl between stars; but there's another perspective that sees us screaming across the cosmos at three thousand kilometres per second. On a planetary scale, we'd cross Sol system from Earth orbit to Pluto in less than two weeks. Earth to Luna in under five minutes. So one of the truisms of interstellar travel is that if something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a split instant, too fast to respond to.
Except when it doesn't, of course.
When the power went down, I do what anyone in my position would do: I panic and ramp straight from slowtime up to my fastest quicktime setting. The water around me congeals into a gelid,viscous impediment: the plugs and anti-leak gaskets I wear abruptly harden, gripping my joints and openings and fighting my every movement. I panic some more, and begin retracing my movements across the inner surface of the tank towards the door. It isn't completely dark in the tank. A very dim blue glow comes from the far side, around the curve of the toroid, bleeding past the baffles. It's not a sight one can easily forget: Cerenkov radiation, the glow of photons emitted by relativistic particles tunneling through water, slowing. I crank up the sensitivity of my eyes, call on skinsense for additional visuals, as panic recedes, replaced by chilly fear. All the regular shipboard comms channels have fallen silent: almost a minute has passed. "Can anybody hear me?" I call in quicktime over the widecast channel Lorus was so recently using. "What's happening? I'm in the Alba mass fraction tankage --"
"Help!" It's an answering voice: "who's there? I'm in the gyro maintenance compartment in Brunei. What's going on? I've got a total power loss but everything's glowing --"
A growing chorus of frightened voices threatens to overload the channel: everyone who's answering seems to be at this end of the ship, up close behind the wake shield, and ramped up to quicktime. (At least, I hear no replies from persons in the cargo modules or down near the drive cluster or radiators. Anyone still in slowtime won't be beginning to reply for minutes yet.) The menacing blue glow fades as I swim towards the fore inspection hatch. Then, in a soundless pulse of light, the backup lamps power up and a shudder passes through the ship as some arcane emergency maneuvering system cuts in and starts the cumbersome job of turning the ship, minutes too late to save us from disaster.
"Hello peeps," drones Lorus Pinknoise, our astrophysics philosopher. He's still coming up to speed; he sounds shaken. "Well, that was something I never expected to see up close and personal!"
I pause, an arm's length below the hatch. Something odd flickers in a corner of my eye, laser-sharp. Again, in my other eye. And my mandibular tentacle -- my tongue -- stings briefly. Odd, I think, floating there in the water. I look down into the depths of the tank, but the emergency lights have washed out the Cerenkov glow, if indeed it's still there. And there's another of those odd flickers, this time right across my vision, as if someone's flickered a laser beam across the surface of my optical sensor.
More chatter, then Lorus again: "We just weathered a radiation spike, folks. I'm waiting for the wide-angle spectrophotometer to come back online: it overloaded. In fact, the spike was so sharp it generated an EM pulse that tripped every power bus on this side of the hull. Here we come ... We took lots of soft gamma radiation,and a bunch of other stuff. Wow." While he's speaking, the tank circulation pumps start up. Around me, the ship shakes itself and slowly comes back to life in the wake of its minutes-long seizure. A chatter of low-level comms start up in the back of my head, easy to screen out. "I don't believe anybody's ever seen anything like that before, folks. Not seen it and lived to tell, anyway. It looks like -- I'm reviewing the telemetry now -- it looks like we just got whacked by a gamma ray burster. Er. I think we lucked out: we're still alive. I'm triangulating now. There's a candidate in the right direction, about nine thousand light years away, astern and about fifteen degrees off-axis, and -- oh yes. I just looked at it folks, there's an optically visible star there, about twenty magnitudes brighter than the catalog says it should be. Wow, this is the astronomical find of the century --"
I have an itchy feeling in my skull: I shut out Lorus's prattle, turn inwards to examine my introsense, and shudder. A startling number of my mechanocytes are damaged; I need teché maintenance! My feet are particularly affected, and my right arm, where I reached for the hatch. I do a double-take. I'm floating in semi-darkness, inside a huge tank of water -- one of the best radiation blockers there is. If I've taken a radiation pulse strong enough to cause tissue damage, what about everyone else? I look at the hatch and think of you, crawling around on the outside of the hull, and my circulatory system runs cold.
Over the next hour, things return to a temporary semblance of normality. Everyone who isn't completely shut down zips up to quicktime: corridors are filled with buzzing purposeful people and their autonomous peripherals, inspecting and inventorying and looking for signs of damage. Of which there are many. I download my own checklists and force myself to keep calm and carry on, monitoring pumps and countercurrent heat transfer systems. Flight Operations -- the team of systems analysts who keep track of the state of the ship -- issue periodic updates, bulletins reminding us of changed circumstances. And what a change there's been.
We have been supremely unlucky. I'll let Lorus explain:
"One of the rarest types of stellar remnant out there is what we call a magnetar -- a rapidly-spinning neutron star with an incredibly powerful magnetic field. Did I say powerful? You'll never see one with your naked photosensor -- they're about ten kilometres across, but before you got within ten thousand kilometres of one it would wipe your cranial circuitry. Get within one thousand kilometres and the magnetic field will rip your body apart -- water molecules are diamagnetic, so are the metal structures in your marrow techné. Close up, the field's so intense that atoms are stretched into long, narrow cylinders and the vacuum of spacetime itself becomes birefringent.
Active magnetars are extremely rare, and most of the time they just sit where they are. But once in a while a starquake, a reallignment in their crust, causes their magnetic field to realign. And the result is an amazingly powerful burst of gamma rays, usually erupting from both poles. And when the gamma ray jets slam into the expanding shell of gas left by the supernova that birthed the magnetar, you get a pulse of insanely high energy charged particles. One of which we flew through. Oops."
To be flying along a corridor aligned with the polar jet of a magnetar is so unlikely as to be vanishingly implausible. A local supernova, now that I could understand; when your voyages are measured in centuries or millennia it's only a matter of time before one of your ships falls victim. But a magnetar nearly ten thousand lights years away -- that's the universe refusing to play fair!
I touched your shoulder. "Can you hear me, Lamashtu?"
"She can't." Doctor-Mechanic Wo gently pushed my arm away with one of their free tentacles. "Look at her."
I looked at you. You looked so still and calm, still frost-rimed with condensed water vapor from when the rescue team pulled you in through the pressure lock. You'd been in shutdown, drifting tethered to a hardpoint on the hull, for over three hours. Your skin is yellowing, the bruised bloom of self-destructing chromatophores shedding their dye payloads into your pheripheral circulation. One of our human progenitors (like the pale-skinned, red-haired female you resemble) would be irreversibly dead at this point: but we are made of sterner stuff. I refused to feel despair. "How bad is it?" I asked.
"It could be worse." Wo shrugged, a ripplingly elegant wave of contraction curling out along all their limbs. "I'm mostly worried about her neural chassis. Did she leave a soul chip inside when she was out on the hull?"
I shook my head. Leaving a backup chip is a common ritual for those who work in high risk environments, but you spent so long outside that you'd run the risk of diverging from the map of your memories. "She was wearing a chip in each of her sockets. You could try checking for them. Can you do a reload from chip ...?"
"Only if I could be absolutely certain it wasn't corrupted. Otherwise I'd risk scrambling the contents of her head even worse. No, Lilith: leave your sister to me. We'll do this the slow way, start with a full marrow replacement then progressively rebuild her brain while she's flatlined. She should be ready to wake up after a month of maintenance downtime. Then we can see if there's any lasting damage."
I saw the records, sister. You were on the outside of the hull, on the wrong side of the ship. You were exposed to almost thirty thousand Grays of radiation. The skin on your left flank, toughened to survive vacuum and cosmic radiation, was roasted.
"She should be alright for a while. I'll get around to her once I've checked on everyone else ..."
"What do you mean?" I demanded. "Who else was outside the hull? Isn't she the most urgent case?"
The doctor's dismay was visible. "I'm afraid not. You underestimate how many people have sustained radiation damage. You were inside a reaction mass tank, were you not? You may be the least affected person on the entire ship. Everyone's been coming in with teché damage and odd brain lesions; memory loss, cognitive degradation, all sorts of stuff. Our progenitors didn't design us to take this kind of damage. I'm still working on a triage list. You're at the bottom of it: you're still basically functional. Your sister isn't in immediate danger of getting any worse, so --"
"-- But she's dead! Of course she isn't going to get any worse!"
My outburst did not improve the doctor's attitude. "I think you'd better go now," they said, as the door opened above me and a pair of hexapods from Structural Engineering floated in, guiding a third companion who buzzed faintly as he flew. "I'll call you when your sib's ticket comes up. Now leave."
Doctor-Mechanic Wo was trying to spare me from the truth, I think. Very few of us appreciated the true horror of what had happened; we fought it was just a violent radiation burst, that had damaged systems and injured our techné, the self-repair cellules that keep the other modular components of our bodies operational and manufacture more cellules when they die; at worst, that it had fried some of our more unfortunate company.
But while gamma rays wreak a trail of ionization damage, cosmic rays do more: secondary activation transmutes nuclei, turns friendly stable isotopes into randomly decaying radioactive ones. The scratching scraping flickers at the edge of my vision as I neared the escape hatch in the hydroxygen tank was but the palest shadow of the white-out blast of noise that scrambled the minds and eyes of a third of our number, those unfortunates who had berthed in modules near the skin of the ship, on the same side as the radiation beam. Functional for now, despite taking almost a tenth of your borderline-lethal shutdown dose, their brains are literally rotten with fallout.
We're connectionist machines, our minds and consciousness the emergent consequence of copying in circuitry the wet meat-machine processes of our extinct human forebears. (They never quite understood their own operating principles: but they worked out how to emulate them.) Random blips and flashes of radioactive decay are the bane of nanoscale circuitry, be it electronic or spintronic or plasmonic. Our techné is nothing if not efficient: damaged cellules are ordered to self-destruct, and new, uncontaminated neural modules are fabricated in our marrow and migrate to the cortical chambers in head or abdomen, wherever the seat of processing is in our particular body plan.
But what if all the available molecular feedstock is contaminated with unstable isotopes?
Two months after my visit, Doctor-Engineer Wo called me from the sick bay. I was back in the mass fraction tank, scraping and patching and supervising: the job goes on, until all fuel is spent. At a tenth of realtime, rather than my normal deep slowtime, I could keep an eye on developments while still doing my job without too much tedium.
As disasters go, this one crept up on us slowly. In fact, I don't believe anyone -- except possibly Doctor-Engineer Wo and their fellow mechanocyte tinkers and chirugeons has any inkling of it at first. Perhaps our response to the radiation storm was a trifle disjointed and slow. An increase in system malfunctions, growing friction and arguments between off-shift workers. Everyone was a bit snappy, vicious and a little stupid. I gave up listening to Lorus Pinknoise after he interrupted a lecture on the evolution of main sequence stars to launch a vicious rant at a member of his audience for asking what he perceived to be a stupid question. (I didn't think it was stupid, anyway.) The chat streams were full of irritation: withdrawal into the tank was easy. So I was taken by surprise when Wo pinged me. "Lilith, if you would come to bay D-16 in Brazil, I have some news about your sister that I would prefer to deliver in personal proximity."
That caught my curiosity. So for the first time in a month, I sped up to realtime, swam up towards the hatch, poked my way out through the tank meniscus, and kicked off along the corridor.
I noticed at once that something was wrong: a couple of the guideway lights were flickering, and one of them was actually dark. Where were the repair crews? Apart from myself, the corridor was deserted. Halfway around the curve of the tunnel I saw something lying motionless against a wall. It was a remora, a simple-minded surface cleaning creature (a true robot, in the original sense of the word). It hung crumpled beside a power point. Thinking it had run into difficulty trying to hook up for a charge, I reached out for it -- and recoiled. Something had punched a hole through its carapace with a spike, right behind the sensor dome. Peering at it, I cranked my visual acuity up to see a noise-speckled void in place of its fingertip-sized cortex. Shocked, I picked up the pathetic little bundle of plastic and carried it with me, hurrying towards my destination.
Barreling through the open hatch into the dim-lit sick bay, I saw Doctor-Engineer Wo leaning against a surgical framework. "Doctor!" I called. "Someone attacked this remora -- I found it in the B-zone access way. "Can you --" I stopped.
The sick way was lined on every wall and ceiling with the honeycomb cells of surgical frames, the structures our mechanics use in free-fall lieu of an operating table. They were all occupied, their patients staring sightlessly towards the centre of the room, xenomorph and anthrop alike unmoving.
Wo turned towards me slowly, shuddering. "Ah. Lilith." It's skin was sallow in the luciferine glow. "You've come for your sister."
"What's --" a vestigial low-level swallow reflex made me pause -- "what's happened? What are all these people doing here?"
"Take your sister. Please." Wo rolled sideways and pushed two of the frames aside, revealing a third, sandwiched between them. I recognized you by the shape of your head, but there was something odd about your thorax; in the twilight it was hard to tell. "You'd better get her back to your module. I've done what I can for her without waking her. If and when you start her up she's going to be hungry. What you do about that is up to you, but if you want my advice you won't be there when she comes to -- if experience is anything to go by."
I noticed for the first time that Wo was not only ill; one of its tentacles was truncated, the missing tip protected by a neatly-applied occlusive caul. "What happened to your --"
"The bit rot has affected a third of us, Lilith. You're one of the lucky ones: there's nothing better than a thick blanket of water for cosmic ray shielding.
"Bit rot?" I still didn't understand what was happening to us.
"Radiation-induced dementia. You may not be familiar with the condition: dementia is a problem. that used to affect our progenitors when their self-repair mechanisms failed. Decaying neural networks malfunction by exhibiting loss of short term memory, disinhibition, mood swings, violence. Eventually loss of motor control and death. In us, the manifestations are different. Our techné triggers a hunger reflex, searching for high-purity materials with which to build replacements for the damaged, purged mechanocytes. And our damage control reflex prioritizes motor control and low-level functions over consciousness. We're quite well-designed, if you think about it. I've replaced your sister's techné with fresh marrow and mothballed it: she's stable for the time being, and if you can find her feedstock that isn't contaminated with short-halflife nuclei she'll be able to rebuild herself. But you should get her to a place of safety, and hide yourself too."
"Why?" I blinked stupidly.
"Because the techné I shoved up her marrow is some of the last uncontaminated material on the ship," Wo pointed out acidly. "There are people on this ship who'll crack her bones to feed on it before long. If she stays here I won't be able to protect her."
I looked around. Not all the silent occupants of the surgical frames were unconscious. Eyes, glittering in the darkness, tracked me like gunsights. Empty abdominal sacks, bare rib cages, manipulators curled into claws where Doctor-Engineer Wo had flensed away the radiation-damaged tissue. The blind, insensate hunger of primitive survival reflexes -- feed and repair -- stared at me instead of conscious minds. Suddenly my numb feet, the persistent pins and needles in my left arm, acquired a broader perspective.
"They're hungry," explained Wo. "They'll eat you without a second thought, because they've got nothing with which to think it -- not until they've regrown a neural core around their soul chip." It waved the stump of a tentacle at me. "Jordan and Mirabelle have been rounding up the worst cases, bringing them here to dump on me, but they've been increasingly unforthcoming about events outside of late. I think they may be trying to keep themselves conscious by ..." A tentacle uncurled, pointed at the pathetic husk of my remora. "Take your sister and go, Lilith. Stay out of sight and hope for rescue."
"Eventually the most demented will die, go into shutdown. Some will recover. If they find feedstock. Once the situation equilibrates, we can see about assembling a skeleton crew to ensure we arrive. Then there'll be plenty of time to prospect for high-purity rare earth elements and resurrect the undead. If there's anything left to resurrect."
"But can't I help --" I began, then I saw the gleam in Wo's photoreceptor. The curl and pulse of tentacles, the sallow discoloration of it's dermal integument. "You're ill too?"
"Take your sister and go away." Wo hissed and rolled upside down, spreading its tentacles radially around it's surgical mouthparts. "Before I eat you: I'm so hungry ..."
I grabbed your surgical frame and fled.
I carried you back to our module without meeting anybody, for which I was happy. Once inside, I was able to turn up the light level and see what had happened. You were a mess, Lamashtu; were I one of our progenitors I would weep tears of saline to see you so. Ribs hollow, skin slack and bruised, eyes and cheeks sunken. Wo had split open your legs, exposed the gleaming metal of your femurs, the neatly diagrammed attachment points of your withered muscle groups. There was a monitor on the frame, and with the help system I managed to understand what it was telling me. Muscles damaged, skin damaged, but that wasn't all. Once upon a time our foremother bunked atop a nuclear reactor in flight from Mars to Jupiter; the damage here was worse. Your brain ... there was not much there. Eighty percent of it dissolved into mildly radioactive mush. Wo decanted it, leaving your cranial space almost empty. But your soul chip was intact, with your laid-down backup: given a few litres of inert, non-decaying minerals you could grow a new cortex and awaken as from a dream of death. But where could I find such materials?
I have an ionization sensor. As I swept it around the module I saw that even our bed is radioactive. If you were to eat its aluminium frame and build a new brain from it, your mind would be a crazy patchwork of drop-outs and irrational rage.
I needed to find you pure feedstock. But according to Wo, the entire ship was as contaminated as if it had been caught in the near-lethal blast radius of a supernova, or flown for a quarter million years close to the active core of our galaxy.
There was one obvious place to look for pure feedstock, of course: inside the cortical shells of those survivors who were least affected by the magnetar burst. Inside my head, or people like me. What did Wo say about the symptoms? Anger and disinhibition first, loss of coordination only late in the day. I ought to be able to trust those who aren't angry or hungry. But I looked at you and wondered, how many of them would also have friends or lovers to nurse? Any friendly face might be a trap. Even a group of rational survivors, working together, might --
I shook my head. Trying to second-guess the scale of the breakdown was futile. There might be other places where feedstock could be found, deep inside the core of the ship. The never-used, mothballed fusion reactors: they would be well-shielded, wouldn't they? Lots of high-purity isotopes there. And with enough working brains and hands, surely we could repair any damage long before they were needed for deceleration. The cold equations seemed simple: with enough brains, we can repair almost any damage -- but with a skeleton crew of senile zombies, we're doomed.
So I collected a bundle of tools and left you to go exploring.
The darkened corridors and empty eye-socket spaces of the Lansford Hastings' public spaces are silent, the chatter and crosstalk of the public channels muted and sparse. They've been drained of air and refilled with low-pressure oxygen (nitrogen is transmuted too easily to carbon-14, I guess). There's no chatter audible to my electrosense: anyone here is keeping quiet. I pass doors that have been sealed with tape, sprayed over with a symbol that's new to me: a red 'Z' in a circle, evidence that the dementia cleanup teams have been at work here. But for the most part the ship appears to be empty and devoid of life -- until I reach the F Deck canteen.
Eating is a recreational and social activity: we may be able to live on an injection of feedstock and electrolytes and a brisk fuel cell top-up, but who wants to do that? The canteen here mainly caters to maintenance workers and technicians, hard-living folks. In normal circumstances it'd be full of social diners. I hesitate on the threshold. These circumstances aren't normal -- and the diners aren't social.
There's a barricade behind the open hatch. Flensed silvery bones, some of them drilled and cracked, woven together with wire twisted into sharp-pointed barbs. A half-dissected skull stared at me with maddened eyes from inside the thicket of body parts, mandible clattering against its upper jaw. It gibbers furiously at teraherz frequencies, shouting a demented stream of consciousness: "eat! Want meat! Warmbody foodbody look! Chew 'em chomp 'em cook 'em down! Give me feed me!" Whoops, I think, as I grab for the hatch rim and prepare to scramble back up the tunnel. But I'm slow, and the field-expedient intruder alarm has done its job: three of the red-sprayed hatches behind me have sprung open, and half a dozen mindlessly slavering zombies explode into the corridor.
I don't waste time swearing. I can tell a trap when I stick my foot in one: someone who isn't brain-dead organized this. But they've picked the wrong deck-hand to eat. You and I, Lamashtu, we have inherited certain skills from our progenitor Freya -- and she from a distant unremembered sib called Juliette -- that we do not usually advertise. They come in handy at this point, our killer reflexes. Hungry but dumb, the zombies try to swarm me, mouthparts chomping and claws tearing. I raise my anti-corrosion implement, spread the protective shield, and pull the trigger. Chlorine trifluoride will burn in water, scorch rust: what it does to robot flesh is ghastly. I have a welding lamp, too, an X-ray laser by any other name. Brief screams and unmodulated hissing assault me from behind the shield, gurgling away as their owners succumb to final shutdown.
The corridor cleared, I turn back to the barricade. "This isn't helping," I call. "We should be repairing the --"
A horrid giggle triggers my piloerectile reflex, making the chromatophores in the small of my back spike up. "Meaty. Spirited. Clean-thinking."
The voice comes from behind the barricade (which has fallen silent, eyes clouded). "Jordan? Is that you?"
"Mm, it's Lilith Longshanks! Bet there's lots of eating on those plump buttocks of hers, what do you say, my pretties?"
An appreciative titter follows. I shudder, trying to work out if there's another route through to the reactor control room. I try again. "You've got to let me through, Jordan. I know where there's a huge supply of well-shielded feedstock we can parcel out. Enough to get everyone thinking clearly again. Let me through and --" I trail off. There is another route, but it's outside the hull. It's your domain, really, but if I install one of your two soul chips, gain access to your memories, I can figure it out.
"I don't think so, little buffet." The charnel hedge shudders as something forces itself against it from the other side. Something big. If Jordan has been eating, trying desperately to extract uncontaminated isotopes, what has he done with the surplus? Where has he sequestrated it? What has he made with it? In my mind's eye I can see him, a cancer of mindlessly expanding, reproducing mechanocytes governed by a mind spun half out of control, lurking in a nest of undigestible left-overs as he waits for food --
I look at the bulging wall of bones, and my nerve fails: I cut the teflon shield free, cover my face, and launch myself as fast as I can through the floating charred bodies that fill the corridor, desperate to escape.
Which brings us to the present, Lamashtu, sister-mine.
I've got your soul -- half of it -- loaded in the back of my head. I've been dreaming of you, dreaming within you, for days now.
In an hour's time I am going to take my toolkit and go outside, onto the hull of the Lansford Hastings, under the slowly moving stars.
I'm going to go into your maze and follow the trail of pipes and coolant ducts home to the Number Six reactor, and I'm going to force my way into the reactor containment firewall and through the neutron shield. And I'm going to strip away every piece of heavily-shielded metal I can get my hands on, and carry it back to you. When you're better, when you're back to yourself and more than a hungry bag of rawhead reflexes, you can join me. It'll go faster then. We can help the others --
I'm running out of wall to scribble on: anyway, this is taking too long and besides, I'm feeling a little hungry myself.
Goodbye, sister. Sleep tight. Don't let any strangers in.