This is how the story ends:
There are three vessels, alone in a black expanse of interplanetary space.
The first vessel is maimed and broken; a once-dignified ship whose time has come too soon. Its hallways and holds are glowing with the ghastly blue spectacle of a zero-g fire.
The second vessel is dying; a violent, bloody ship whose time should have come sooner. Its systems have all flatlined, snuffed like candles in a vacuum.
The third vessel is a lifepod, a single tear shed from a failing machine. There is one man aboard the pod, and he will be the only survivor.
As the lifepod’s lone thruster drives it away from the graveyard in its wake, the man aboard is swallowed by his memories. He can hear a woman’s voice, as clearly as if she were in the jump seat beside him. He almost turns to look, but he knows he’s alone.
Say you’ll remember me, she had said.
And under those words, the man had heard her unspoken plea, clear as the sky of Celdan: Not like this. Please, don’t remember me like this. Remember my smile. Remember our laughter. Remember all the happy moments we’ve shared. Remember the sunset on Mount Touchth’sky.
And just like that, the man is in tears.
There is another memory, buried beneath sorrow as vast as the space between stars. Something else the woman had told him earlier tonight, before…everything. It is something the man will not remember until much later, but it is something, that when remembered, will give him hope.
For now, there is only the sorrow.
This is how the story ends.
The Sweet Melissa’s FIC is a dazzling maelstrom of confusion. Alarms are bleating incessantly. Every instrument panel is flashing red alerts. Eddie stumbles into the flight information center with all the numbness of a man in deep shock. Alone amidst the chaos, his hand trails over consoles as he slowly makes his way to stand behind the empty pilot’s chair.
Eddie stares out the forward viewport at the Leroy Brown, its sharp angles and bristling weapons superimposed over the stars. The Leroy Brown’s elongated, curving nose reminds Eddie of some sort of predatory bird.
Eddie grips the back of the pilot’s chair and wonders how many crewmembers the Leroy Brown carries. The ship is barely bigger than the Sweet Melissa, so there are probably no more than ten souls aboard. Eddie ponders what right he has to trade all those lives to save his own.
But it’s not long before another thought comes seeping up through his consciousness, dark and painful and raw: Think about what they did to Brenda. Think about what they did to Cap. Everyone on this ship is dead except you.
Eddie’s hands are shaking against the back of the chair. He tears his eyes away from the viewport and looks down at the tattoo on his forearm, the inked profile of Mount Touchth’sky. Eddie can still remember the view from the peak, can still remember the way Brenda had looked as she stood there in the sunset.
And suddenly, Eddie’s mind is made up. He reaches over the chair and grasps the attitude adjustment flight controls. He sets the Sweet Melissa into a spin and jettisons the Ørsted drive from the rear of the ship.
The momentum of the ship’s spin sends the drive soaring off through space directly toward the Leroy Brown. The electromagnetic core of the Ørsted drive produces an enormous amount of thermal waste, and with the heat-management systems destroyed, the drive was reaching critical temperatures long before Eddie jettisoned it. Even now, as the Ørsted drive drifts nearer to the Leroy Brown, Eddie knows that it will only be a matter of time before the accumulating heat compromises what little structural integrity the drive has left.
As if replying to Eddie’s thoughts, a single explosion blossoms from the side of the Ørsted drive. Eddie closes his eyes, knowing that the explosion will cause a short circuit by cutting off power to the electromagnet. Eddie visualizes the drive’s magnetic field rapidly compressing, and the resultant electromagnetic burst surging outward, tearing through everything in its vicinity—including the Leroy Brown.
Eddie opens his eyes. All the lights on the Leroy Brown have gone dark, and the glow from its thrusters has faded. Eddie shivers. He knows that every system on the Leroy Brown has just been extinguished. The crew has no way to call for help, no way to escape, and a very limited amount of oxygen.
Fresh tears blur Eddie’s vision as he turns from the viewport and staggers toward the bank of lifepods. He pauses to glance at the monitors displaying feeds from the Sweet Melissa’s onboard cameras. Every area of the ship outside of the FIC seems to be on fire. Eddie feels the artificial gravity begin to fail, and watches on the monitors as the tall orange flames hunker down and become blue.
Eddie slips into one of the lifepods and looks out at the FIC one last time. As the airlock is sliding shut, Eddie’s eyes linger on the words stenciled above the deserted pilot’s chair: In his deepest dreams, the gypsy flies with sweet Melissa.
Then the airlock seals, and the lifepod is launched into the expanse.
The sound of wailing klaxons jolts Eddie awake. His eyes snap open to be assaulted by the garish glow of emergency lighting, bathing his cabin in strange orange luminosity.
Eddie throws himself out of bed and fumbles himself into his coveralls, shoving the sleeves up to his elbows. The Sweet Melissa lurches, almost tossing Eddie off his feet, and suddenly he knows that something is very wrong.
The cabin door is thrown open and Eddie turns to see Cap barging into the room.
“Eddie! We’re being attacked by a ship called the Leroy Brown! We need to—”
“We’re being attacked? I thought we were in neutral space!”
“We are in neutral space! We’re an unarmed research vessel on a protected route! I don’t know who these guys are or what they want!”
Eddie is stunned. “Cap, what do we do?”
“We need to dump the Ørsted drive to save the ship. The thrusters aren’t venting and the drive is overheating fast.”
Cap runs a hand nervously through his beard before continuing, “If we spin the Sweet Melissa during the detachment process, we can use the momentum to jettison the drive along a specific vector. We’re going to throw the Ørsted drive at the Leroy Brown. If the drive overheats anywhere near that other ship, it’ll disable them.”
“We’re talking about an electromagnetic explosion,” Eddie gasps. “Cap, that’s a ship-killer! It won’t simply disable the Leroy Brown—it’ll ice every system on the ship, including their life support! They won’t even be able to launch pods! It’s a death sentence for everyone onboard!”
“You’re a good man, Eddie—a better man than me.” Cap smiles sadly and averts his eyes. “The Leroy Brown didn’t broadcast any demands before they started shooting. Whatever their plan is, I don’t think it includes sparing our lives. Think about it: we’re completely defenseless. If we try to escape in our own pods right now, the Leroy Brown will just shoot them out of the sky.”
Cap pauses before meeting Eddie’s eyes again and saying, “Crippling that ship is the only way that I can guarantee the survival of my crew.”
Eddie’s heart is pounding. “Okay, what do I do?”
Minutes later, Eddie is running through the halls of the Sweet Melissa toward the FIC. The acrid smell of overheating electrical systems is everywhere, and smoke has already started creeping from many of the access panels in the hallways. Cap and the rest of the crew are in engineering, prepping the Ørsted drive to be dumped. Eddie alone has been tasked with monitoring the ship’s systems from the FIC.
From the onboard comm units, Eddie catches snippets of urgent conversation from engineering, and he forms a mental picture of the progress the crew is making with the Ørsted drive. Every now and then, Brenda’s voice comes through, soft and determined. Eddie quickens his pace.
Through the portholes, Eddie catches a glimpse of the Leroy Brown as it flashes past, rail guns blazing, tearing off chunks of hull like wolves’ teeth tearing into flesh.
Suddenly, the Sweet Melissa shudders again. Eddie hears alarmed screams from engineering, followed by abrupt silence.
Eddie’s heart skips several beats, and before he knows it, he is running back through the corridors of the ship, back the way he came, back toward engineering.
Flames are licking out of some of the access panels. Smoke is everywhere.
Eddie is sprinting through the hydroponics lab when he skids to a stop. There’s a figure just ahead of him, slumped against a desk, sandy blond hair tousled and disarrayed.
Brenda turns toward him, and—oh, Brenda. Oh, no.
Brenda’s coveralls are soaked through and smell strongly of chemicals. The exposed skin that Eddie can see is covered in ragged, swollen burns. Eddie’s eyes trace the path of a nasty wound that climbs the side of Brenda’s neck and disappears into her hair.
“Brenda…” It’s all Eddie can say as he drops to the floor beside her.
Brenda just shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut against tears that seep out anyway.
“They’re all dead,” Brenda finally says, opening her eyes to look up at Eddie. “One of the coolant tanks blew, and everyone was right there working on it, and…I was across the room and got splashed but…they’re all dead, Eddie.”
Eddie blinks. He can’t believe it—any of it.
“I came to find you,” Brenda whispers, “to see you again, because…that’s all I wanted before I…before…”
Her breathing is labored, as if every inhalation is a struggle.
Eddie’s head is light; he feels like he might pass out.
He squeezes Brenda tightly to himself and looks around the hydroponics lab. How many hours have he and Brenda spent in this very room, working and talking and laughing? Eddie’s eyes go to the scratch on the desk where he bumbled into it long ago with a trolley of seedlings. Behind the desk is the bay full of air scrubbers that Brenda had insisted on planting just for ‘good measure’. Beside the air scrubbers are the stalks of Vessian corn that they had worked so hard to grow off-planet.
You know, it’s curious—we go through life thinking we have all the time in all the worlds.
And then the time runs out.
“Eddie? Say you’ll remember me,” Brenda says. Her eyes dart back and forth between his.
“Brenda,” Eddie breathes, “how could I ever forget…”
“Please.” She looks desperate. “Remember me.”
“Every day,” Eddie replies. “If I live a hundred lifetimes, Brenda, I swear I’ll remember you every day.”
Brenda nods, looking relieved. Eddie’s cheeks are wet. He holds Brenda close, perhaps closer than he’s ever held her before, burying his face in her hair. He doesn’t know what to say, so he simply says, “I love you.”
When Eddie looks down again, Brenda is gone. Her eyes are closed—she looks supremely peaceful. The burns and lacerations on her skin do nothing to mar her beauty. She almost could be sleeping, Eddie thinks.
Eddie hesitantly gets to his feet, feeling more alone than he’s ever felt in his entire life. The edges of the hallway are blurred slightly; the details have lost their clarity. Eddie is shaking. Slowly, he begins to walk back toward the FIC.
Isn’t it funny how a single word—a name—can hold more glorious joy than an entire language?
Her name is embroidered on the front of her coveralls with red thread, and to Eddie, that simple stitching is more wonderful than any tapestry he’s ever seen.
Brenda is looking at a report that she’s brought from hydroponics. Her voice is soft, slightly offkey, and perfect, as she sings, “Say you’ll remember me, standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset, babe.”
They are alone in Eddie’s cabin after a long day in the lab. As Brenda flips her report over, humming to herself, Eddie considers her. The shallow lines on her forehead betray countless hours spent analyzing data and adjusting variables. The creases around her eyes tell of an equal number of hours spent laughing. Her blond hair is streaked through with whispers of grey, and Eddie loves her all the more for not trying to hide it.
Brenda puts her report down and meets Eddie’s eyes. After taking a deep breath, she says, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
“You can tell me anything.”
“I know,” Brenda says with a smile. “Do you remember the last time we had shore leave on Earth? I went to Abu Dhabi, while you stayed in New York.”
Eddie nods. Normally, he and Brenda vacation together, but they had split up the last time they were home.
“Well,” Brenda continues, “I didn’t just go there to enjoy the Arabian Gulf. I went to participate in a research study on artificial intelligence.”
“Okay,” Eddie replies, “I’m intrigued.” Artificial intelligence is the current frontier of technology and science. Humankind has mastered space travel, terraforming, and even virtual intelligence, but true AI remains elusive.
“There’s a group in Abu Dhabi using a suite of computer programs to make precise replicas of human minds. Their endgame is to build an artificial mind from scratch, but just like everyone else, they don’t understand how to program something as intricate as what’s inside our own heads. So, they figure that if they collect enough data from existing human minds, the software they have will be able to use the data to make digitized copies of those minds. Exact copies. Once they have those, they hope to be able to study the programming enough to create their own truly artificial mind from the ground up.”
“Yeah,” Eddie says thoughtfully, “that could work. The replica mind programs would have to be incredibly detailed though. How will they get enough data for that?”
Brenda grins. “By taking around 500 different scans of each participant’s head.”
“Wait a minute,” Eddie says. “Are you saying that they’re replicating your mind?”
Brenda inclines her head, still grinning. “I’m one of 50 participants. It will take about two years for the software to homogenize all the data within a single program for each participant, but after that, each one of us will have a computerized clone in Abu Dhabi.”
“Are you saying we’ll be able to go there? We’ll be able to interact with your replica program?”
“In two years, yes.” Brenda is beaming. “I want you to come with me, Eddie. To see the finished product.”
Eddie finds himself laughing, “That’ll be crazy.”
Brenda sobers. “You don’t think it’ll be too strange, do you?” she asks. “Nothing like this has been done before, you know. It’ll be a computer program, but it’ll be…me. They mapped every cell and every synapse of my brain. The scans are so detailed that the software will actually be able to reconstruct my memories. It’ll be me, Eddie.
“I know it’s weird that I didn’t tell you,” Brenda continues, “but honestly, I wasn’t even sure I’d go through with it—not until I was standing there outside the institute. It’s just something I had to decide to do for myself, you know?”
Eddie nods. He understands, and he knows that Brenda didn’t make the decision lightly.
“We’ll go to Abu Dhabi together,” Eddie says, smiling, “and see this clone of yours.”
Brenda kisses him. “Thank you,” she whispers. “Alright—I’m going to bed now.”
She and Eddie share an embrace—a simple, familiar gesture that soothes away care, softens the heart, and lifts the soul.
Brenda walks to the cabin door and looks back. “Goodnight, Eddie,” she says with a smile that could melt the Druskar ice caps.
For a moment, Eddie simply basks in the rapture of her radiance.
Eddie sleeps for a few hours before being jolted awake by the sound of screaming klaxons.
The tranquility of the night has been shattered as swiftly and absolutely as a glass ornament dropped to the floor.
Flickering orange emergency lights illuminate every corridor of the Sweet Melissa with an unearthly glow, as if the ship were already on fire.
This is how the story begins.