I streak across a galaxy of breathless stars in a ship that should have been recycled ages ago, her hull disfigured with old scars and new wounds. I am Captain and Master of the Hermes, Navarch of the Macedonian Third Fleet. Elpinor, my Chief Officer, friend, confidant, lover, stands by my side. I am on pilgrimage.
I am huddled in my captain’s chair. The lights are too bright. The wheezing of the air recyclers grates on my frayed nerves. I haven’t eaten in days.
The Hermes is gasping her dying breaths. The air in the ship tastes metallic, though atmospheric pressure remains constant. Elpinor monitors the barely-functioning life support and propulsion systems. The bridge is otherwise deserted. The crew is gone. Many used the ejection pods during the final hours of the Pirasu’s devastating counterattack. Others remain entombed in the holds.
The Hermes’ engines have been running at critical for weeks. They could last another month, or another minute. I need to know the ship can make it. Instinctively, I reach for her voice inside my head, my warmind, but she is gone. Nothing but a phantom pain remains. I touch the bandage on the back of my head, the wound where I cut her out.
Elpinor catches my furtive action. We both pretend nothing has happened, though I see his concern. I stretch my legs out, sit up straight, endeavoring to appear strong and confident. I reach for the command computer, searching, but I quickly become confused in the complex layers of menus and commands. I’ve never done this by myself before.
“Our fuel reserves are at nine percent,” Elpinor says without my asking. “Life support could last another month or another hour. My Captain.” He is grinning, his white teeth gleaming against his black skin.
It’s a joke between us, something he always called me in bed. For the thousandth? millionth? time, I forgive him for his insolence. He’s too beautiful to despise, too loyal. I marvel at his unshakeable equanimity.
Why are you still here? I want to ask. But I don’t. I need him right now. He’s my only tether in this metal can pitched across an emptiness too vast to comprehend.
“I had a dream,” I tell him. “The night after we bombed Pirasu. I saw a peaceful world, carpeted in silence. It glowed against the blackness of the night sky like a jewel. I knew as soon as I saw it that I could be free there, really free.”
“A place of absolution?”
“Absolution.” I repeat the word softly, a verbal talisman. I rub my palms against the cool metal arms of my chair and stare at the star chart on the view screen for a long time, searching for a world that only exists in my dreams.
There were seven of us in the warmind pilot program. Two died in the first few months, their brains and nervous systems incapable of handling the crush of data. Of the five of us who lived, one was so unstable as to require permanent hospitalization. The rest of us were able to adapt to the sound of another voice inside of our heads and the program was declared a success.
They placed me in command of the Third Fleet, a strike force of a hundred ships meant for heavy assault. We wrecked the Pirasu vanguard. We pushed them out of our regions of the galaxy and drove them back into their own systems. Their fleets were scattered.
We destroyed their fringe colonies, their way stations and orbital shipyards. I wasn’t satisfied. A scab on my heart had never healed. We reached Ziss, a Pirasu core world ripe with cities.
Elpinor stood beside me on the bridge that day while the crew worked furiously around us. I ate a flavorless meal and watched our planetbusters rain down on the surface of Ziss, rendering it uninhabitable for generations. The Pirasu had done such a thing to my family, my home, years ago.
“Do you feel satisfied at having achieved revenge?” he asked. There was no accusation in his question, just honest curiosity. Some of the crew stared, overcome by the devastation we had unleashed. Others cheered.
I stared at the satellite feed of the surface, boiling molten rock, and searched my heart. I had struggled for years, given up everything for this moment. I felt no elation, no relief at having claimed justice. I felt no satisfaction at having my revenge, nor any absence from lacking those feelings. I tried to conceive of all of the innocent dead, millions, maybe billions vaporized. I felt no guilt, no remorse at what I had done.
Elpinor placed his large, warm hand over my small, cold one. “I feel nothing at all,” I said.
I realized that the warmind was chemically regulating my emotional response to the situation. For the first time, I sensed what I had lost by taking on the warmind. I couldn’t even have the decency to feel sick.
She knew everything I knew. She must have glimpsed my secret decision in that moment to kill her. And yet she remained silent. That was the night I dreamed of the peaceful world.
Critical warning lights startle me from my stupor. My warmind isn’t there to tell me what they mean, how to react. The ship is breaking down, the hull threatening to fold in on itself.
“What’s happening?” I croak. My body barely responds. “Give me a report.”
When Elpinor doesn’t reply, I turn to him, but he is gone. Was he ever even there?
I am alone on a dying ship. No Elpinor. No warmind. My breathing quickens. The backup computer is reporting total system failure. I try to bring up a status report, but the console dims and then blinks off. The lights illuminating the bridge flicker and fail. The stars in the viewfinder vanish. One pixel still glows faintly. My destination?
Somewhere far off is a wrenching sound of twisting metal. The bridge goes perfectly dark but for that single pixel swimming in my vision. The artificial gravity releases me. I search for purchase on a wall, a console, anything. I flail about wildly but I am surrounded by nothing.
From far off I hear the beating of drums, out of tempo from the fluttering of my heart.
Water sloshes, and I am reminded of the biotic crèche in which I have spent so many lost years. I open my eyes, expecting to feel the heaviness of a ten-year sleep and the panicked sense of drowning that always comes with such voyages.
But I am not in a crèche. I sit in a small wooden vessel, bobbing on an empty sea below gray skies. A canvas sail snaps in the breeze. Gulls wheel and cry overhead. A wave hits the side of the boat and a spray of cool, salty mist blows across my face. I shiver.
Elpinor sits facing me, one hand on the rudder, dressed in his parade uniform. The boat is barely large enough for the two of us.
“Where are we?” I ask.
“Somewhere between where we were and where we are going.”
I try to remember how we got here. There’s a gap like the hole in my skull where the warmind used to be. “Where were you? You left me.”
“You’re unaccustomed to being alone,” he says.
It’s true. The warmind was always with me, always whispering data into my ear in her childlike voice.
My first day aboard the Hermes, she helped me through my onboarding speech, gave me confidence. The crew radiated distrust. They knew what I was, and I was surprised at how much I wanted their approval. That night, alone in my new cabin, she sang to me, bathed me in feelings of comfort and safety.
A few days later, she saw me watching Elpinor on the bridge. “You should take him as a lover,” she murmured.
It wouldn’t be appropriate, I thought. The crew would disapprove.
“Your body wants it,” she said. “And some of the crew may disapprove but they will cease to see you as different.”
She was right. Elpinor came to my bed. There was grumbling among the other officers and gossip among the enlisted crew, but they began to see me more as a person, less as a machine. They began to trust me.
Now the warmind is gone, and I don’t know whether to mourn her loss or rejoice in my freedom.
Elpinor sees my distress. I wait for him to reach out to me, to offer some words of solace, but they do not come. His face hardens. He looks down into the sea.
“You didn’t care for her,” I say.
His brows are knitted together, his nostrils flared. He rarely looks this indignant. It sets me on edge. “I never knew to whom I was speaking.”
“To me, of course. The warmind, she…” I trail off, remembering how she used my mouth to issue orders, my hands to guide our ship.
In the warm dark of my cabin, I held Elpinor in my arms, felt his comfortable weight on top of me. “I shut her off when we were together,” I say.
Elpinor snorts, but there is no mirth in the sound, only bitterness. “You can’t turn off a warmind. It was a part of you.”
I remember Elpinor’s hot breath on my neck, electricity racing through my body, charging me like a battery. Pulling Elpinor’s face to mine and kissing him hard, our teeth colliding. Where was she in those moments? Was she watching? Was she modulating the chemicals that flooded my brain at Elpinor’s caress? Was she guiding my body as I rolled on top of him and ground myself against him until we both came?
Who made love to Elpinor those nights? Me or my warmind?
I have never faced this question before. Maybe she kept it hidden from me, kept me from asking it for fear what I might find. She protected me from myself, but now that she is gone, I am faced with questions I don’t know how to answer, don’t want to answer.
“You never told me where you went,” I say.
He stands up and the boat rocks uneasily. He can’t take his eyes away from that frigid water. “I cannot always accompany you. Some voyages you must go alone.” He holds up a hand, and I realize I can see the acrobatic tumbling of the clouds through his flesh.
My heart tolls loudly in my ears and my skin feels clammy. “What?” I stammer, trying to laugh, trying to make it a joke. But a part of me knows the truth.
He dives into the sea and disappears, leaving behind not even a wake.
The wind picks up and the boom shifts. I grab it before it knocks me into the chill waters. The rudder is whipping to and fro, the little craft heaving on the churning sea. A spray of water kicks up over the side. The waves are becoming choppier. The boat tilts at a crazy angle.
I scramble over to the rudder and grab the boom under one arm to steady it. I curse. I don’t know how to sail. If I had my warmind, she would teach me. She would take over, suppress my anxiety and fear, calculate wave and weather patterns and guide my body in the optimal actions.
But my warmind is gone, along with Elpinor and everyone else. I’m alone again with only my fear, clawing its way out of my throat like a threatened animal. I clamp down on my jaws. If I open my mouth, I don’t know whether I will scream or vomit.
A wave buffets the boat and I slip on the wet planks. The world lurches, shifts sideways. I cough on a mouthful of salty water.
I can’t control the boat. I can’t do anything. A wave picks up the little craft and tips it over. The boom snaps like a breaking bone and the boat dumps me into the sea.
The chill plunges like a knife into my abdomen. I flail wildly, but I’m sinking as if my body was made of stone. I plummet downwards, limbs growing numb. I cease fighting. I expect my lungs to burn, but I find that I have no need to breathe at all.
The gray waters darken and turn black. The sea swallows me and on the inside I am screaming.
I huddle in a crater on a blasted wasteland, waves of heat rising off of barren rock. The sky is a murky yellow, choked with faintly glowing ash. My skin should be boiling off my body.
My mouth is dry. My stomach clenched. I am nearing my destination, and now I feel afraid, truly afraid for perhaps the first time in my life. I want to remain here until the ash falls from the sky and blankets me.
The sound of scuffling feet, and Elpinor appears over the lip of the crater. “There you are.”
I can see the horizon through his broad torso. “If you’re dead, why do you keep coming around?”
He looks at me sheepishly and shrugs. “Are you so embarrassed to be traveling with a ghost?”
“I’ve lived most of my life with a ghost socketed into my brain,” I say. “Ghosts make good company.”
This elicits a chuckle. “Come, we’re nearly there.” He reaches out a translucent brown hand.
I rub my palms on the sharp rock, abrading my flesh. “I don’t want to go any further.”
He frowns. “You’ve come this far.”
“I’m afraid.” Ashes fall from the sky and tickle my eyelashes.
Elpinor laughs, startling me. The landscape swallows the sound. “You’ve got some nerve, dragging me all the way out here and then refusing to take the final steps.”
“Is this Ziss? The planet we destroyed?”
“You know the answer to that.”
I do know. There aren’t even ruins left, not even bones. Nothing. Just us. Just me.
I think of the cities that had once covered Ziss, the buildings filled with families and memories. I think of those politicians and leaders who must have known in the hours before the planet was killed. Did they try to evacuate the people, warn them? Or let them go to their ends blissfully ignorant, as my family had gone. I hoped it was the latter.
Who did this? Was it me? Or was it the warmind?
There’s a drumming sound in the earth, a rhythmic quaking, and my heart beats faster, searching for synchronicity. Cracks open in the pitted earth. I scramble aside as the stone splits and yawns beneath me.
Elpinor appears unperturbed. “Would it make you feel any better if she was responsible?” he asks.
I squeeze my eyes shut, try to ignore the fact that the ground is breaking apart beneath us like icebergs. I force myself to sit with his question, to weigh it in my heart. From the time I went under for the surgery until the time I cut her out, all of my actions and decisions were mediated by her. The words of encouragement I spoke to the crew as we went into battle. The absolution I gave them afterwards. The decisions I made to unleash the planetbusters, to make Ziss uninhabitable for a millennium. Even those precious few nights Elpinor and I had spent together, she was there with us, mediating.
I was angry with her for interfering, furious with myself for merging with her in the first place. But I missed her, too. I missed the comfort that she gave me, the confidence and control. She made me who I was, a leader and a hero, and I didn’t know who to be without her. She gave me the absolution I didn’t even know I had needed, until she wasn’t there any longer.
The truth is that the warmind wasn’t a computer implanted into my skull. Having her implanted into my skull made me the warmind.
I’m not a warmind any longer, and my body is a lonely, terrifying place. But a part of me relishes it, being allowed to truly feel for the first time since I was a child, and I cling to this like a capsized boat in an icy sea.
“No,” I say at last. “No, it doesn’t matter.”
He reaches out a hand. “There is something you and you alone are responsible for,” he says. “Reaching this point.”
She didn’t guide me here. She couldn’t give me what I need now. I take Elpinor’s insubstantial hand and he hauls me to my feet. I can feel him, warm and alive beside me.
The ground has ceased its violence, but the rhythmic thrumming grows louder. Fear still pulls at me like the gravity of a black hole, but I’ve escaped the event horizon. Elpinor leads me to the ragged caldera of the crater.
I cry out when I see the parade stretched out below us. The marchers wear masks of varying shapes and sizes. Their skeletons are proudly exposed. Thousands of tiny birds march before them, their bird feet beating out a drum pattern on the ground. They process across the baking still landscape, calling to us, to me.
Elpinor releases my hand and moves down the slope to join them. He wears his skeleton like a uniform. A crown of black hooks sits upon his head. He looks back at me and his eyes are the light of moons. He reaches a hand towards me, beckoning.
I look down at my hands, my legs and feet. I can see through my skin to the bones beneath. My hair waterfalls out behind me, bleeding into the landscape. A dove flutters in my breast, nestled there where my heart should be. I taste my heart in my mouth, iron and meat.
I step forward, hear the music of the drums in time with a pounding inside of me. I join the procession, dead birds fluttering down from the sky to march before me.
This is my parade.
© 2016, Shannon Rampe