Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Skeleton of the Cyborg Astronaut

After last week's Comic-Con-induced hiatus, we're back this week with a new Concept Art Writing Prompt! Something unpleasant may have befallen this technologically integrated astronaut, leaving behind only an intriguing skeleton. What happened? Come up with a story and post it in the comments.

This week's artistic inspiration is titled "Hypersleep" and it was created by Pascal Blanché, who has some other stunning pieces on his deviantART page (via reddit). If you can come up with a story based on this piece, please post it in the comments. As in previous weeks, I'll be adding the stories to this post, so if you don't want yours included for any reason, let me know in your comment.

Here's my story:

Concept Art Writing Prompt: The Skeleton of the Cyborg AstronautS

I could feel Ludmilla sulking in the corner of my brain. Ship AIs were programmed to take abuse — wasn't a sailor alive who wouldn't rain foul words down on a wonky barge. But after a dozen or so years in space, the ships could get thin skinned. A tugboat I knew stopped talking to her captain for six months because he changed the color of the cockpit.

If only we were fighting over hex codes.

I reached out over the pilot link. Ludmilla didn't have a physical form — even avatars had gone out of style a few generations ago — but I made a mental approximation of stroking her arm. "I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't have said that."

Ludmilla hiccoughed before she began to wail again. I wondered, was that always in her programming? Or had she learned it over time? "I didn't lose your drone on purpose!" she sobbed.

I doubted that. Ludmilla witnessed every sync between the drone and my biological body, welded as it was to her innards. She knew all about Sophie and Kali and Jacob. I'd been visiting Georgina on New Titan when Ludmilla had taken off without the drone. She'd woken me up five weeks later, and by then we were already late for our run to Antigone Prime. I figured it was just a tantrum, and we'd pick up my drone in a few months.

Then we'd gotten stranded.

Could boats commit suicide? I'd run the spiders all over Ludmilla's hull and the damage was real, but I couldn't help but suspect she'd rammed herself right into a passing object. If I'd had my drone, I could have launched her from Ludmilla with an emergency beacon. Even if I didn't survive, at least someone would have eventually picked her up, and with her all my emergency memories.

I hoped my drone was taking good care of herself on New Titan. Soon she'd be the only piece of me left.

Ludmilla sniffled, and then slipped her mind into mine, nestling inside my affection, far from my doubts. "At least we're together," she cooed.

ShirtBloke gets us started with a bit of levity:

"Wow. Look at George. What the hell happened here?"

"I dunno. He said it was a great place when he invited us over."

"Well he got that wrong."

"He sure did. What shall we do?"

"Let's move on. This place's got no atmosphere."

Not_too_Xavi's story comes to us conveniently footnoted:

Arrogance, if it can be called such in an android, was the Alexander project's defining trait during his construction. As piece after piece was attached, and utility after utility gained, his disdain for his creators multiplied. In the early stages, Dr. Fuller's notes reflect a humility on the part of Captain Castor in his selection for the process. However, those notes, and the transcripts from the psychological evaluations that ran concurrent with the modifications, reflect a precipitous growth in ego as even the most minute of changes were made.(1)

The programming developed to aid Captain Castor's ability to manage the exponential growth of received data, combined with the further logorhythmic functions necessary for the system's function, was necessarily extraordinary. Dr. Wetzel first observes a correlation between the introduction of the Pollux system to the Captain's neural framework with ever increasing hostility.(2,3) From that point, say Wetzel's notes, the Pollux would emerge, for lack of a better term, with increasing frequency especially during the longer cybernetic procedures requiring MBA in the Captain. (See 2 infra at 372, and 4)

When the Alexander project was scheduled to achieve full systemic capacity and function, Drs. Fuller and Wetzel recorded what would be Captain Castor's final statement for posterity. (5) In the minutes of supervisory reports to the Federated Commission, both Drs. express firmly and independently their anticipation of the Pollux system's success and tyranny at the expense of Captain Castor's conscious mind. (6)

In total, the Alexander system completed thirty FSO's (7) and was emphatically praised for it's rate of success and achievement. (8) However, in reviewing the process from beginning to end, this study concludes that there are three main points to take from the discovery of the Alexander's detritus.

First, should the project be undertaken again, greater oversight is needed in the development and application of the AI. Second, the now known limits of the program should be applied to any further undertakings with cautious adjustment as the program is itself too important to risk for so few FSO's. Third, it is with delicious irony that this study concludes that the fundamental factor in the Alexander's failure was the decomposition and loss of the biological structure it so fervently derided. (9)
_______________________
1. Fuller, Dr. Elias. "Collected Notes on the Introduction of Cybernetic Prosthetics to Living Tissue." 2183, Federation Medical Publishing, pp. 72-79.

2. Wetzel, Dr. Johanna. "Tuesdays with Castor." Journal of Artificial Psychology, 2138 Federal Press, 358-393.
-The article specifically quotes Pollux as sneering to the surgeon during one removal process: "Well done Doctor. I applaud your fine technique and dexterity for someone of your...qualifications. I would give you a hand, but you have just removed them. Dick."
-In addition, the Pollux system was routinely known to "twitch" when operated on so that Captain Castor would feel pain when awake.

3. Fuller, 88.
4. "Minimal Brain Activity"
5. "Hominem tu esse memento, memento mori."
6. Transcript of the Advisory Council. 32 Fed. Ad. 4877
7. Far Space Objectives
8. Alexander's only failure, declassified as misidentifying Pluto as a planet.
9. "Kiss my shiny metal ass." from the collected video of pre-flight for the Alpha FSO.

dtnewc44 follows the people who find the body, and aren't too thrilled to recognize it:

"Shit," said the voice forcing the one syllable word into two. It reverberated off the bulkheads far longer than usual, but that's what seems to happen when you take a starship under water. I flipped a switch on the comm panel and spoke back softly.

"What is it?"

Static filled the silence before a response. "I found Jurgens."

I shifted in my seat and felt my face mold into a reflective grimace. "Are you sure?"
"Do you know of anyone else who would modify themselves into such a freak?"

I couldn't. I've been to every one of the eleven populated star systems and not once did I find anyone who had sculpted their skulls and had tubes surgically attached that served no purpose. It's what made him so effective as muscle. No one wanted to fuck with the freak.

"How's he look?"

"Dead."

There was no other reaction other than a sigh of relief. Even three hundred feet underwater, there was no real way of knowing whether Jurgens was done for or not. I seen the man take dozens of rounds to the body, a plasma grenade explosion, partial decompression and impalement and still come out pissed and ready to fight. And nearly a year ago, he had reason to fight us. That same reason is what has kept us busy for the past seven months.

"Do you see it?" I asked.

"Hold on," said my partner.

I tried to sit back in my chair and relax, but the anticipation was too high. I took to nervously tapping my fingers on the console. The panel behind me dinged. If we were at half gravity, I would have hit the ceiling. A cursory inspection notified me that the computer was informing us that we would have about fifteen minutes until the pressure of the ocean overwhelmed the ship.

"The clock is ticking, Chance. Have you found it?"

The silence stretched on uncomfortably. I asked Chance again. Still nothing. A long ugly fish swam by the windows, seeming to slow down in order to study the strange life inside this dark grey shell.

"Found it," cried out Chance in apparent joy.

"Oh, thank god. How does it look? Seals still holding?"

"It looks fine. I'm grabbing it and about to... shit..."

"What? What is it?" I asked with my voice cracking.

"Jurgens booby-trapped it. Should be able to disarm it before you finish puberty."
I cursed myself and just grunted into the mic. The panel behind me dinged again.

There was now less than ten minutes. I informed Chance of this development and had to endure a few more burns. Time seemed to slow down even more than it had. I was starting to think I could literally feel every second tic by.

"Got it. Heading back."

I shouted for joy and started prepping the ship for surfacing and takeoff. The ship started to vibrate and hum as the engines power levels starting to increase. The computer informed me that Chance had entered through the airlock and it was now equalizing. I hurried down to the airlock and met Chance as he stepped out, hauling a large crate behind him. I helped him lift it up onto our workbench. It was only a moment's work to open the crate.

"Shit," Chance reiterated. I couldn't help but agree.

I Play More Games Than You places our mysterious figure deep below the ocean:

"Current depth?"

"10,293 meters"

"Continue descent." Captain Robert Holloway looked about the cabin of the recently commissioned NR-2, the US Navy's newest deep submersible. 10 men and women, finest sailors a captain could ask for, and here he was on a mission of the highest security, unable to even tell them what they were looking for.

"400 meters to the floor, Captain."

"Slow her down, let's see what's down here."

"Aye, sir."

Holloway checked the instruments one more time, this time, actually shooing the sailor out of her seat so he could take over the sonar rig. The higher ups had been very anxious, pulling the submarine off of their shakedown cruise to investigate what had publicly been reported as a satellite failure. Given the secrecy surrounding the mission, Holloway knew it had to be one of two things: Either another country had lost something top secret or this was an "M12" project.

10 minutes later, he had his answer. Sonar pings began confirming the presence of something large, larger than his own vessel, and most certainly not natural in origin.
"What the?" the sonar tech asked, incredulously.

"I'm not really sure, Sjorgen, but we're about to find out. Launch the CPUC." Pronounced "sea-puck," the complete programmable underwater camera was designed not only for durability at this depth, but complete autonomy. Once the initial parameters were laid in, it could scout, take photos, map and return without input or the need for radio signals, which was important given the depth and interference from whatever they were about to explore.

"CPUC away, sir."

No sooner were those words spoken, than the entire vessel shook as an echoing boom all but deafened the crew. Warning klaxons, barely audible now, blared the danger from a dozen different sources, and standard lighting suddenly failed, leaving the cabin lit only by the reddish-orange glow of the emergency lights and the few electrical systems that hadn't failed. Before he had a moment to check himself and his crew, the ship shook once more, far more violently this time, and the crew were thrown about the cabin like dolls in a hurricane. Sjorgen hit the console beside him, her head split wide open, blood pouring over now-vacant eyes. Moans came from nearby, and the sudden sound and feel of rushing water let him know that this things were not going to get better. As he felt his consciousness fade, his eyes fell on the one working monitor, the live image report from CPUC: a skull, somehow connected to various pipes and tubes, but a skull that was plainly not human.

His last thought before the ocean claimed the remains of the NR-2 was, "We're not alone, and I think we pissed them off..."

Redbrick Hellpigeon analyzes these remains in a letter back home:

Dear Mum,

This Europa dive is really getting on my tits - and don't go on about me swearing again, please. Half the crew took the mickey for a week when they found out about the last time you told me off.

Anyway, not much to report. Just what looks like the Europan answer to plankton and coral, plus the fish and cetacean-equivalents, and those weird jellyfish/octopi things that Jocelyn likes playing catch with whenever we're out on a dive. That twerp Meriweather swears blind that they're equivalent to primates, while Clarence (not the Clarence who got done for shoplifting the last time we had shore leave, I mean GAY Clarence - he says hello by the way) thinks they're just good at copying behaviour. I dunno. I'm not paid to talk to squid-things.

I know the world went radio rental when we found the remains of the alien ship at the bottom of the ocean. Thing is, it's all rather samey after a while. Once you've seen an alien ship and all the weirdness inside, it starts feeling, well, normal. Apart from the dreams I keep having. Some of them get really odd, and other people on the ship are getting them too. I think we've been down here too long.

We've been examining the remains of the ship's crew. Clarence thinks they're extra-solar, which means they probably come from outside our solar system. I ask about why the skull looks human, and he says it's down to convergent evolution or whatever that means. He then rambles on about significant variation in carbon composition, and I nod and pretend to know what the bleeding hell he's going on about. Still, I spend time with Clarence more than anyone else on this ship - the rest aren't my idea of a good time. I wonder if the royal marines still miss me?

Anyway, I know I shouldn't do this, but I attached a pic of an alien from the main control room in the ship. Freaky or what? I know it hasn't got eyes, but I sometimes feel like it's watching me whenever I'm there. Hope you like it!

Say hi to my little sister and Dad. And take care!

Love,

Debbie

PS: The Doc has got me on serotonin suppressants to stop the dreams. Clarence tells me to stay awake for as long as I can until they kick in. I'm beginning to wonder if he's not telling me something. Well, it will make a change from being bored!

tushan takes us inside the mind of our freshly integrate space traveler:

What a wonderful opportunity I have been given! The moment when I stood, hesitantly knocking on the door to the study of the great man, the "Space Captain" as the Western press calls him, the pioneer of deep space injection - Sergey Evgenyevich Kamov...

..This is the best reference point. Yeah, let's kick off with that. Even though we don't really sail towards our destinations, but rather live, die and decompose towards them. Oh well, in a sense they were right - the ballsiest sailors essentially did the same.

I frankly didn't know anything about the spaceflight proper then, having just returned from an expedition to the last hot spot left, the Helsinki Republic. We had to arm ourselves one last time, had to remember what does it feel like to wield a deadly weapon against a fellow human and use it with mastery and finesse - the skill restored in the quiet halls of Volgograd Provisional Training Academy by the now-ancient veterans of wars forgotten - every man and woman reserved, gray, faded, but still somewhat more alive and demanding and focused than anyone I've ever met.

Sergey Evgenyevich laid it on me, plain and simple: he needed a rifleman.

Later he would mention in passing my data-mining experience and Muscovite art-crowd background, citing - by heart - the 500K abstract of my compound profile assembled by Roentgen the mission Comm-Cloud. Later still, I became a resident joker, an intermediary between Roentgen and the crew and our VR game-designer. It really was fun. Kamov - he seems to have read all of these abstracts for the 12-strong crew even BEFORE the integration began. A great man indeed, he now resides as a thin layer of ionized dust on my console and still retains his greatness, lodged firmly in my memories and embodied, spectre-like, in the silent unnoticeable movement of the formless hulk of my final resting place: the Lomonosov threshold-speed genetic vessel. Like its namesake, who walked all the way to St-Petersburg to join the university, our Lomonosov GV is trodding at snail-like pace through the interstellar muck, never to reveal any secrets, never to receive a welcome parade with ribbons and cheers and free beer. As for me, I'm just content with taking down - the first in human history - a dozen or so of the bastards I was recruited to protect our crew from.

They didn't install mirrors on the ship, and matte-ed all the surfaces: not many are comfortable with their looks after integration, at least while it still matters, while we remember what other billions of humans should look like. Roentgen keeps - or rather kept us amused and feeling adequate, with his phero-breeze sessions and weekly VR challenges and 24/7 Fromm-style reason-counceling. We didn't mind: after all he kept us from strangling each other and ourselves, and we knew the moment would come when it would become a welcome distraction. It's funny how he gradually substituted the words in my rifle-pledge and Hagakure quotes to adapt them to the world-shift we all came through. (World-shift - one of the terms we invented on the go and became used to.) He knew I knew, and we both didn't mind, as I already said. After all, it was us and him - and our world essentially turned into an intellectual game, with the benefit of actually occuring outside any human moral or social system. We trusted Roentgen, because he trusted us, because he really didn't have anything better to do: wish all the other humans realized it's enough motivation to be decent to each other.

It's a living, like they say, but I mean it. I live. When I watched flicks about the deep space, the comsonauts had to deal with isolation, estrangement, boredom, terror and frustration. And sexual urges (Hey T). But these were the projections of middle-aged science fiction writers who were more lodged in the world, more longing for social life, than even me, their audience. These stories were inch-deep into the experience. We are parsecs deep. Think of the monks and hermits - are they anxious about life achievement, better living conditions or authority? I'm not, because my designated battle station is nirvana achieved. Nothing, forever.

Like that fat old US Marine told me: God has made the world in 6 days, and on the seventh, we marines went in and overran his perimeter. Well - God is everywhere now. There isn't a place 10 LY away that isn't God. I don't even have to believe in Him - especially in the crude kitsch version of Him that this marine obviously didn't know fuck about. I just ride his waves, year after year, without distraction or a chance for doubt.

And I thank him for the chance, the chance to act with my own integrated hands, to run with my replaced feet, and to put an .05'' into a moving target - the fucker who matched our speed and tried to integrate Roentgen. I don't even mind Petya drilling me a third eye in my sleep (yeah it sounds like a joke but it wasn't; he was a crazy fuck, but he could really hold a conversation, we should have full-int'd him straight after the raid). Because my purpose is far greater and sweeter. With my skull hopefully installed as a nose figure, the Lomonosov will pierce time, eat the darkness that is God, hit - still as silent and calm as today - its designated planetary mark like a deuterium slug from an old 406 Fedotov. Clean entry. A small hole. And a giant, fabulous, flowering exit into millenia to come.

Yeah, R. Why not? It's a nice touch. Line it up with your entry vector. Be my last - and first - aimed shot at the new world. Let it burn. The left orb. No, the third fucks up the stance. My left eye was the master one. Yes, you know it and it's important. It's aesthetical, and aesthetics is all I have to offer to God.

Yes, I'm reflecting in narrative associative form and using a first-person perspective. It's fun. When we are done, I would be an archetype, and archetypes don't reflect on themselves. The record itself could make a fun archeological find, don't we think?

God I wish our children would have some things to shoot at.

EricYoung0322 suggests that our astronaut is, in fact, a living weapon:

I stared down the barrel of the gun, I could see her finger resting right on the trigger. In a fraction of a second she could pull the trigger and the gun would propel the metal slug through the magnetic rails of the barrel and I would be dead before I knew what happened.

"Where is it?" was all she said, but her face said so much more. Her eyes screamed with rage and desperation.

"'I'll stay behind, make sure it gets done right.' Those were Jaordin's last words to me. He chose to sacrifice himself to ensure that you would never get your hands on it again." I spoke the words with confidence and directness. I knew within seconds I most likely would be dead. No point in being scared or trying to beg for my life. Jaordin was an extraordinary individual, he took me in whenI had nothing and gave me hope, a home and a purpose. A purpose Jaordin died for, and one I was willing to die for as well.

"Am I supposed to believe that?! Jaordin was a 8th level, telekinetic cyborg! He devoted his entire life and body into becoming more than human, into a living weapon. I'm supposed to believe his little rebellion against the Galactic Empire would want to destroy a weapon just like himself? A weapon powerful enough to bring down the Galactic Empire? Do I look like a fucking idiot? If you don't tell me where it is, I won't only kill you but I'll hunt down and kill every single one of your rebel friends as well!"

I couldn't help myself but smile. To smile with a gun in your face, what a strange feeling.

"You didn't know Jaordin at all, you only ever knew him as your enemy. You have no idea what kind of man he was. And you clearly have no idea what our rebellion is all about. That weapon was an abomination. You created artificial life, a living computer. And worse, you gave it powers that not even a telekinetic cyborg could attain. If we had left it alive it would of created more like itself and eventually they would of destroyed all organic life in the galaxy! Doesn't the Empire teach it's lackeys even basic history? The ancient life in the galaxy left behind warnings! Never create artificial life, they will always surpass their creators and eventually destroy them.
Jaordin was the most powerful telekinetic cyborg in the galaxy, he was the only one would could destroy your abomination before it was given a chance to fullfil it's destiny. He had to sacrifice himself to do so. I was there, on the space station Solina. Your Abomination had already taken control of the entire station when Jaordin and I arrived. It had already killed every living thing in the station. We found it and with a little luck able to defeated it. But Jaordin said the only way to insure it was completely destroyed was to crash the entire station into the acidic oceans of Daliva, the nearby planet.
Your little abomination was cleaver though and had already disabled the autopilot of the space station. Jaordin wouldn't allow me to be the one to crash the station. He forced me into an escape pod. 'I'll stay behind, make sure it gets done right' was the last thing he said to me as he ejected my pod."

I could feel my anger growing as i recanted the story. Jaordin was like a brother to me, he deserved to be alive, not me. He could of made a real difference in the galaxy, he could of taken our rebellion to the next level. We've been limping along since his death, not knowing what to do without him

"He gave his life to save everyone's life in the galaxy. Even your precious Empire! We should be building statues to him! But all you and your Empire wants is your fucking abomination back. Your quest for power will be the galaxies undoing!"

"I don't believe you rebel!" She blurted out

"Than shoot me and go look for yourself on Daliva! I'm sure you'll find the remains of the space station at the bottom of it's oc-"

The flash of light from the barrel of her gun and the sudden deafening bang cut me off and the whole Universe turned black. This was death...

I awoke surrounded by an ocean of white. What was this? Some kind of afterlife? Who would of though the old myths and religions were right about what happens when you die. I can't even think of a single person who still believes in any of those old dogmas. I stood up and looked around. Everything was flat and white for as far as I could see in any direction. So I just picked a direction and started walking. As I walked I began to feel something familiar, but I couldn't place it. Pretty soon I saw something on the horizon, it looks like a figure. I ran towards it. As I approached I began to make out who it was. It was as I hoped, it was Jaordin.

"JAORDIN!" I screamed as I ran

I caught his attention and he slowly turned around to look in my direction. He smiled.

"James, it's so good to see you again." he said when I approached.

"Is it really you? What is this place?" I caught my breath as I blurted out my questions. It was Jaordin, but I had never seen him like this, I've always known his with all his cybernetic enhancements. Here he simply looked like a man

"I created this realm James. I knew that the Empire abomination was only the first, soon they would create more. They'll find it's remains as well as my own at the bottom of that ocean soon enough. It was only a matter of time. I couldn't allow that to happen. We can't relive the failures of the species that came before us."

"But what do you mean? What can we do here? Are we really dead?" I had so many questions.

He simple raised his hand and said, "Please let me explain."

"As the space station crashed I knew I had little time to solve the much larger problem of what would happen if the Empire decided to make another abomination. If I could somehow fuse with the abomination and use it's powers I might be able to accomplish my goal. So I fused my cybernetics into the abomination and overtook it's mind. Doing so I was able to create a virtual copy of myself and impregnate it into the Galactic ExtraNet. This gave me conscious access to every virtual system in the galaxy. So even though my body died, my mind and powers continue in the ExtraNet. Through it not only do we have knowledge of every bit of information in the galaxy but we can use the energy of the ExtraNet to materialize outside in the physical world when needed. Here I can watch over the galaxy and sabotage any future attempts to make more abominations."

"But... but why am I here?" It was all I could say.

He smiled again. "I will need help, it's a large galaxy and I don't think I can handle it all by myself. I recreated you here at the moment of your death, together we can be the guardians of the galaxy James. And in time we might even be able to recruit other potential guardians. Will you help me James?"

He had never asked for my help in all the time I had known him, it was always the other way around. How could I possibly refuse him now.

angusm uses the setting for an unusual romantic interlude:

Katy stood at the stern, enjoying the feeling of the sun on her back. The boat shifted lazily on the waves, the engine barely idling now. She looked over her shoulder towards the cabin, where Max was fumbling with his skinsuit. From the way he looked down suddenly, she guessed he'd been checking her out. She smiled slyly to herself.

"You want me to help you with that?" she asked.

"No, I think I've got it now," he said. He straightened up, hefting his breather unit, swinging it awkwardly onto his back. She wondered if this was a good idea after all. Max was cute, to be sure, but he did seem a bit inept.

The boat pinged her to let her know that they were at the right spot and she felt the soft thrum of the motors die away to nothing. Quickly, she slipped into her own skinsuit, feeling the thin polymer slide over her arms and legs, the molecular seals closing up automatically, leaving her encased from neck to toe by the flexible black membrane. She shouldered her breather, pushed her black-coated arms into the harness and fastened the buckle across her chest, heard the ping as the breather's logic unit interfaced with her own implants. Tiny status indicators bloomed in the corner of her eye.

Max was still fumbling with his helmet, so she pushed his hands away and finished the job for him, verifying with her fingertips that the neck seals were good. Through the clear plastic of his visor, he looked faintly resentful. Boys, she thought to herself.

She slapped his ass and gestured at the water. He balanced on the rail for a moment, then tumbled awkwardly forward, disappearing in an explosion of spray. Katy winced, then pulled on her own helmet and followed him, arms and legs arrow-straight as she dived in. The water parted to admit her with scarcely a ripple.

A few meters down, she rolled onto her back and looked up. Max was still above her, a black silhouette against the brilliance of the sky, his arms and legs moving uncertainly. She piggy-backed the readouts from his breather, saw that at least he was breathing evenly and not too deeply. Maybe he really had dived before.

"You ready?" she asked. His reply echoed tinnily in her ears.

"Yeah. Lead the way."

She started downward with slow, careful strokes, feeling the pleasure of returning to the ocean, the gentle pressure of the water surrounding her on all sides. Sometimes she wished she could spend all her life on the water or under it.

"How far are we going?" asked Max. He had caught up with her now, swimming powerfully if a little inexpertly.

"Not far."

She aimed herself at a notch in the reef, gliding over fan and brain corals, sending a shoal of black-striped sergeant majors into sudden flight. Just beyond the reef, the bottom dropped away sharply, the coral rubble fading away into a blue abyss, hazy with sediment. She slowed herself, hovering over the void.

"What the hell - " Max said. Katy grinned.

The bow of the wrecked ship rose like a knife-blade from the deep, angular and gray, the plasteel still smooth and untarnished even after years underwater. It was almost free of marine growth. A few strands of seagrass caught in some tiny crevice trailed sideways like a flag, waving lazily in the currents.

"Pretty neat, huh?"

"What the hell is it?" Max asked, sounding flustered.

"Endymion class light freighter. You're seeing just the bow. It's inclined about thirty degrees, so the wings and the drive units are a couple of hundred meters down. Come on, I'll show you the neat part."

She led him downwards, the forepart of the freighter now towering above them like a skyscraper. The cockpit was on the far side of the vessel, a good forty meters below the bow. She blinked on her handlight and waved it lazily over the wrecked hull.

"Oh Christ," said Max. He sounded more distressed than ever.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"That," he said. He gestured to the open well of the cockpit.

The freighter's pilot was still in his seat, surrounded by the machinery that had kept him alive and bonded to his ship. The massive calcined skull was garlanded with oxygen and feeding tubes, while four massive data conduits penetrated the rear of his elongated cranium. Katy sometimes wondered how long he had lived after the ship plunged into the ocean, and whether he had blown the cockpit cover in a vain attempt to escape or simply to hasten his end.

"I'm getting out of here," said Max. He kicked himself upright and began to swim towards the surface with slow, powerful strokes. His readouts showed him to be badly agitated. She hoped he wouldn't panic when his skinsuit enforced a decompression stop at the ten meter mark.

Alone with the ship, she turned and contemplated the remains of the dead cyborg. For her, there was nothing macabre or frightening in the giant skull with its halo of tubing. There was something serene about it, only the accident of the dead being's orientation, with his empty eyes staring up towards the sky, lending a touch of wistfulness to the tableau. She hung upright in the water, studying the creature who had been a starship and was on his way to becoming a coral reef.

The wreck was her private sanctuary and the dead pilot its guardian. By sharing it with Max, she had hoped to show him how much she liked him. She was beginning to feel that she might have made a mistake.

And deserver proposes it's part of some unusual research:

It was raining as it always did and I had forgotten my umbrella, but that was the least terrible thing to happen to me that day. My ash-grey suit had darkened and sloshed around me as I arrived at the Sartre Medical Center, a cinderblock building someone had dropped at the edge of the city and long forgotten. My business was official and the secretary knew as much, leading me without a word to the office of one Dr. Munroe, crossing his threshold before I had even ceased dripping. He was a skinny, pale man and his hands ran blue with coursing veins. After the secretary had left Dr. Munroe looked up from his papers and greeted me with a "Congressman." before motioning to the opposite chair.

I shook his hand and sat, "I am here on behalf of the health and safety committee."
"Ah, you're the swing vote yes?" His eyes hardly moved but his smile did all the work.
"I'm the man to convince."

"Then I won't bore you with the details."

I stood as he did and we proceeded to the elevator where Dr.Munroe inserted a key into the panel and held down the B button until the doors closed and we were in motion. The floor indicator stopped at B-3 but the elevator continued for another minute before lurching to a stop and opening to a long marble hallway.

"You've requested a lot of funding." I said, the click of our heels echoing down the hall.

"The world today lacks many things, money not among them." The doctor said, "You will find my project is a noble effort to bring just one thing back."

We passed through a hissing sliding door into a darkened area, one wall illuminated a necrotic green. The stomach churning color came from a thick molasses which filled six or seven glass tubes along that wall, each stuffed with wires and tubes twisting around each other like the muscles of the human arm. In the center was a metal cocoon, a single skull peeking over a reinforced turtleneck. Metal rods were welded into the skull and seemed to be pumping, causing the skull to tip and roll in its socket as if it alone enjoyed some quiet song.

I hadn't noticed my jaw had dropped until I pulled it back to speak, "What are these?"

"Children, the lot of them." Dr.Munroe rocked on his heels.

"Children?"

"The liquid is required as insulation but has the side effect of stripping the flesh. These ones have been submerged the longest," He looked to some void corner of the room, "But there are others."

"What is the meaning of this?" I demanded.

"We're harvesting joy, Congressman. Extracting it to be more precise."

"From children?"

"The purest source, it ripens at a certain age, we've haven't refined when, but after that becomes diluted, useless."

"But where do you get them. Are they orphans? Juveniles?"

"No, their joy is a well poisoned, we can only drill the unspoiled. They come from suburbs, private schools, theme parks. Some of the funding goes towards the process but much more goes towards convincing parents and whole families at times."

I was sweating but knew I could not hide my eyes or run before the doctor's smile. This was a door opened and its hinges rusted, there would be no returning it to a place unseen.

"Why did you show me this, why not a description, a report, give me numbers for Christ's sake!"

"To ensure your support!" The doctor said, matching my tone to mock. "If pushed forward we could return joy to the people, let them live fuller lives, make your job easier. There could even be a congressional joy reserve!"

"Stop it! That's absurd, that's-"

"Drastic, but necessary." His calm words cut through mine and I was left fumbling, trying to find something to say.

I could only think of others on the committee, those who opposed it, and those who said they were for it. Had they seen all this? Had they walked the same tour I had did? Or was scrutiny a talent long since lost in those hallowed halls on the hill. Maybe they didn't know, maybe I didn't have to.

"I think your intent is good," I stammered, hardly believing myself. "Keep it earmarked, it will get through."

Dr.Munroe nodded, "We're thinking of calling it-"

"I don't care, leave me out of it." I turned to leave but the doctor had the key to let me out. He followed and swiped me through but before I left I turned back, not to the tubes but to the still smiling doctor.

"Not my children." I said.

Dr.Munroe shook his head, "Not your children."

Then I left.

Jacob Phillips imagines the last moments of the fading pilot:

The colors of the landscape seemed to be unnaturally saturated than Mikhael remember it being. The grass and leaves were a green that made him think of what they used to seem on Earth hundreds of years ago. He looked up to the bright blue sky with a heavy sigh. He knew that if he was seeing this, he was dead and his mind didn't know it yet.

"Majel, how much time do I have before complete synaptic failure?"

"22 minutes, Mikhael. Would you like to prepare a message?"

The computer's voice was the last female voice he would hear before he faded. Fading is what they call it. It is what a human experience when his body dies connected to an artificial intelligence interface, and the mind is still firing electric synapse. What he was seeing was a virtual program created to help "ease" the suffering of those who are fading.

Mikhael was a pilot for a long distance commercial freighter. To minimize the need for a crew, freighters were piloted by a single person, wired into the computer system. With one person, they can increase the amount of supplies need for the trip, as well as larger fuel supply and cargo. They eat, sleep, piss, and shit while connected to feeding tubes, fluid I.V, and a computer A.I. The A.I. would do most of the flying, but it still needed a human element to make specific course corrections, or any other decsions that needed self perseverance. A.I.'s lacked this, so a human would help steer the ship away from dangers and anomalies that could destroy the ship. The pilot would be kept in a suspended state, with large implants or wires connected directly to their brains via large tubes and conduits. The scars wouldn't be pretty, but the benefits the pilots receive make up for the procedure.

During the flight, the pilot would be woken up when needed by the A.I. for course guidance. For efficiency, the pilot would interact with the ship though a mental interface connected directly to his nervous system, so the shock to his system would be minimized when he woke. Routinely he would wake for short periods of time to keep him up to date with new orders or news. All he would do is think, and the A.I. would make changes, read e-mails, and update him on football scores. All the pilot had to do was lay comfortably strapped down, with pain killers and fluids pumped into his body to help him survive the trip in zero g's.

But accidents do happen. The feeding tube inserted in Mikhael's stomach had become blocked. He had not eaten in months. He was nothing but skin and bones. The only thing keeping him alive for this long was the I.V. of fluids. But that alone cannot keep someone alive forever. His heart stopped, but his mind still had 22 minutes to go.

"Yea. Have it addressed to my wife and son. Attach a copy of my contract to the message."

"Attachment added. Shall I begin to record?"

Mikhael didn't know where to begin. All he knew was he had 21 minutes left before complete fade. Around 10 minutes is when he will experience the first signs of synapse failure.

"Jessica. I love you. I'm fading baby. By the time it takes for this message to travel back to Luna Station, I'll be gone. I'm so fucking sorry for not being there. But I am relieved to know the Company will take care of you and James for the rest of your lives. I've added a copy of my contract, so if they give you any shit about my life insurance, shove this up their ass. I don't have much time. I love you and James. End message."

"Would you like me to send the message now, Mikhael?"

"No. Once I have completely faded, send message. Can you do me a favor, Majel?"

"I cannot perform favors, Mikhael, only commands."

Mikhael laughed.

"Ok, Majel. I command you, read book: Flowers for Algernon. Also, do not update me anymore of synapse failure."

"Yes Mikhael. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. Chapter 1: progris riport 1-martch 5, 1965 Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on, I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me."

Mikahel laughed. He knew that writing everything down couldn't help him.
Majel's voice was calming. Almost motherly. Mikhael took of his shoes. He wanted to see what the grass felt like, even though he knew it was all in his head. It was pretty close, but still wasn't just right. He laid on the grass as Majel read on. He wondered if Charlie from the story felt the same. He know he wouldn't make it to the second chapter before he faded. He looked up at the clouds. He tried to think about what they looked like. He knew the shape, but didn't know what to call it. He tried to remember his wife and son.

"Red Hair..." he said. "Blue eyes..."

His wife was already gone. His other and father were next. He fought to remember their faces, their voice. Majel continued to read.

"James..." he said with defiance.

"James, I'm holding on to you. God damn it, I will not lose you."
Mikhael focused. He saw his son in his mind. He was 4 when he left. He knew he would be a few years older, but he only remembered him as being 4. He was trying to say something to him. He couldn't hear it. He fought and fought to hear it.

"Hey daddy, I love you."

A single tear ran down Mikhael check. His face was grey and gaunt, looking like a skull with his sunken eyes. Lights for the manual controls blinked and bounced off of his face. His eyes seemed fixed, looking out the window at the cold black of space. His mind was just as black.

Majel sent the e-mail and continued to read. There was no one there to tell her to stop.

While DiscoVader pictures the death from a more visceral angle:

I am about to die.

I am scared.

I can feel it in my hull. I can smell it through my sensors. I can hear it scratching through the shrieking cacophony of alarms streaming through my brain, warning me, screaming at me, danger. Danger. Danger.

A danger I can do nothing about.

An explosion to the rear. Pain. Burning, hot, flaying, screaming, twisted metal and tortured mechanisms. One of my engines has just exploded. The remaining crew is desperately running around, trying to do what they can to save me, but there is nothing. It is futile. They know it and I know it.

The alarms wail, a siren song of doom and horror. They finally give up. They race to the escape pods, all of those that remain alive. My interior cameras relay images to me – a man running to his room, collecting useless baubles that have no meaning to me; a woman running towards the pod doors, her hair and skin aflame, as they shut the doors on her and leave her behind, sobbing as she burns to death.

My body shudders.

I am about to die.

I am scared.

More pain. It is as if my limbs are tearing themselves apart. My heart is thrashing. It feels as if it is about to explode. There is nothing I can do.

A piece of me is torn away, howling, steaming into the high atmosphere. More survivors spill from this hole in my body like blood, spraying into the sky.

The remaining sensors tell me that I am falling. That no one can hear my screams for help. There is no civilization here. There is no one to turn to. No cities on the closest landmasses, no satellites in orbit, no signals of any kind to give me the smallest hint of hope for my survival.

A part of me wonders why I care, though. Any trace of me, of the being I once was, has been stripped away. I am no longer a person. I am a machine. I am steel, circuits, wires and electricity, powerful and purposeful and cold.

But that does not change the fact.

I am about to die.

I am scared.

And suddenly, cold hits. My body lets out a gasp as the ocean swarms through the damage, steam rising in a grotesque parody of breath. It floods my empty veins, splashing through my body, shortening out my systems. I sink, downwards, sliding into the depths of thus unnamed body of water on an unknown planet, and despair. I try to fight for what remains of this so-called life, but the water is penetrating my body further.

Cold. Wet. My hull shivers as I sink deeper. Pressure builds. The reactor at my core somehow has remained operational, but for how much longer? As my sensors are crushed and my senses obscured, I send out a last futile call for help. But I hear nothing in reply.

I am about to die.

I am scared.

And I am alone.

Pârja suggests that, while the astronaut did have alterations performed, they're not the ones we expect:

"Strangely human in shape, the Alpha Centauri Cyborg, as it was dubbed by the discoverers at the crash site in Roswell, is not in fact human in any way. Performed tests have shown a completely different chemical makeup, based on silicon instead of carbon. Nevertheless, the human nature of the skull cannot, and should not be discounted. Many theories have been put forth, attempting to explain this, the one most widely accepted making the point that alterations to the appearance have been made to facilitate an easier integration into Earths societies. Thus it stands to reason that the Alpha Centauri Cyborg was attempting to infiltrate the general populace to gather information on an intimate level. However, it never had the chance to do so, since it perished when it crashed its spacecraft in the New Mexico desert."

"Too bad it never got to do that", James chuckled, looking up from the holo-plate describing the monstrous skull. "First extra-terrestrial to arrive at Earth, and the first thing it does is crash. A real shame."

thediscolabirinto wonders if this isn't just one of many times the astronaut will go through this process:

Sarah?

Yes, Captain Kirk?

How long would it take to intercept our S.O.S signal ? And for a rescue mission to reach us?

A couple hundred years, Captain.

That's a long time ... funny i thought dying would be much a thrilling and meaningful experience, actually it's quite dull.

First time dying, Captain?

Yes, Sarah.

Captain Kirk you don't need to be worried, the company had stored all the crew DNA prints and your cerebral implants can withstand a thousand years.

Sarah?

Yes, Captain?

I'm starting to get a little bored, do you have any jokes or funny stories in yours database

I'm sorry captain but my functions have been impaired in the incident, so I can no longer access my small talk conversation subsystem.

Crap

corpore-metal imagines the pilot is the victim of a tragic war:

"This is a ludicrous image," I thought as I saw the skull fused with all that machinery as I stepped into the life system of the wrecked interceptor. Surely some of the Purists must have realized, this far into the war, that if they had to go this far just to keep up, they'd already lost.

There was a neat hole in the forehead of the skull, right square in the frontal lobes, probably ribbon gun fire.

Fools. What did they tell this pilot? That after the war was over, that he or she could return to human life? Would any human want to after being shoved halfway up the cliff of intelligence, only to be held back by the bottleneck of protein? I looked at all the cables plugged into the skull. They were big fat data pipes trying to shove subjective centuries of knowledge through the tiny window of the human brain. It was crazy and it would only buy them a few more months.

We found the wreckage of the interceptor in the cold dark of the surface of Triton. It was very unlikely that it could have drifted out this far and just hit the moon by chance. It crashed here for a reason, perhaps some half thought command given to the rest of the ship as the pilot lost consciousness from a fatal head injury.

How did this pilot become a skeleton? That was likely due to a life system error, MEMS running amok trying to save the pilot but without real intelligence to guide them. They must have eaten the pilot's skin, eyes, organs and other soft tissue before drying to an orange residue in the dead cold of Triton.

Had the Purists only wanted Earth, we would have let them have it.

But no, they wanted to challenge us for leadership of civilization. They were not content to be left behind as we rushed forward. But they still considered the human form sacred. And so they did grotesque things like this poor pilot, jamming cables into her skull, keeping her sleepless and focused with drugs, feeding nutrients by saline as her digest tract atrophied, cleaning out her colon and kidneys with MEMS hooked directly into the ship's recycling system.

With this they hoped to match our minds and our ability to adapt yet still hold to the legacy blind evolution gave them.

It was religious and of no real threat to us.

It was just a pity that so many of them had to die before they learned that they had no chance of breaking our rules. I hoped enough humans on Earth would come to wisdom and push the Purists out of power and end this stupid conflict.

John Flemming suggests that this dead body is just the beginning:

"It's the same orange shit that we found in the New York hives. It's gotta be part of the same infection."

The smell of the hives was generally medicinal; with all the data hookups they needed a sanitized environment. Even though Makos were supposed to filter all the particulates out of the air, you still got burn ward smell. Well, Mako makes shitty equipment. This place reeked of decomposition. Watch out for puddles.

"Cut the connection. Whatever got the heads sick in the Northeast managed to make it out to Omaha. Torch the complex as soon as the link's severed."

This is the ninth complex to die. These units shared with the hive mind already. If it's really a data transfer that's corrupting the facility, disconnecting it now isn't gonna save anyone- it'll just kill the heads that didn't melt already. Dickhead back at central knows this. I'll bet he's just jealous.

"Should I take any samples back?" I want to give him an out. Unplug the heads that are still here and take them to central. If they can't be part of the big brain, at least they'll have a small network. It's not everything, but it beats the torch.

"What happens if it's malignant? What if it's a virus? This is gangrene, Edwards. Cut off the foot to save the body."

Well, shit.

To sever the link to the mainframe you have to use a thermite cutter on the central line out of the building. There's a stopgap measure built in that temporarily disconnects a facility, but more often than not the heads inside can figure out a way to open it up and reconnect. You get 4 or 5 hours at a big shop in a major city. In Omaha, with half the heads dripping goo into the circuitry, it might stretch to 20. These rich pricks spent a ton of money to be a part of a huge brain orgy though, and are damned if they'll let us keep them out. We should be able to excavate the central line in time, but the Mako cutters take forever on to make it through. I don't know what alloy it's made from, but the line itself is 35" in diameter. Plus insulation. Plus steel core concrete around it.

Like I said. Shit.

"All right, idiots, Edwards here. Them's the orders. Excavate the central line. Two buckets on either side of it, then the thermites on the line. Only one cutter at a time, and make sure that A is out when B gets in- everyone keeps their fingers today. The Mako thermites have a short life, so we're switching them out every 20 minutes to refill and recharge." I almost stopped there, but why not save myself the headache later. "No bitching about the cutters. It's a bad cook that blames the knife. We'll be done in 14 hours."

Every once in a while something pops in a head and they call my team in. We inspect and dispose of remains. All the facilities have in-house maintenance teams, but we end up with the dirty jobs. I expect most of the staff here is relocated already, but I'm curious about anyone who saw the skulls. If central trying to keep this quiet, then those crews are probably contributing to the mess on the floor. I suppose I could watch the surveillance footage. It probably hasn't been deleted yet- if I'm really tasked to stop this from spreading, then I'll be given access to the local database. If not, then I'll probably end up as a puddle myself when the building burns.

Here goes.

Drop_That_Pop pictures the body as something truly frightening:

Heh heh...see how you recoil. You will come to find all manner of horrors were generated in the shipyards of Terra. There are few of us left. And fewer who would expose themselves to one such as yourself. The centuries have made me...indifferent...but you will show respect to a Sentinel. Even in death, his hardware frozen in his last thoughts he stands guard over you. Against what? You do not have the capacity to understand. Our enemy warranted our conception and growth directly with machines; An Alpha Level artificial intelligence while alive; Pure instinct in death; A heresy to your people. Leave my friends husk quickly, explorer. His biologic traces are centuries gone. His hardware is corroded and his software is angry, and incomplete. If you wake whats left of him, it will not be able to distinguish you from its enemy.

...or...

It may not care.

clarient pictures the enhanced human as just one component of a larger future:

Every once in a while, if the weather is right and you squint hard enough, you can see the sun. Your first hint is an ominous settling of the sky, orange and rust quietly subsiding down from a roiling boil. Most of the population finds a calm like that uncomfortable. The already lonely streets empty a little more as people scurry back into their underground apartments, seeking the safety of thrice-filtered air and the dehumidifier.

Then, a disc in the sky - faint, backlit, as if you were staring too long at your VitD lamp before Lights Out. Hard to distinguish, harder still to believe that the damn thing is still up there. Cooking the other side of the chemical clouds to ungodly temperatures as it valiantly tries to pierce through to our dirty slush-filled world. Heat like that is unfathomable.

Here, it's been cold for so long.

All the occupied buildings hug the earth, now, sinking concrete roots into the bowels of the planet. Squat buildings lean up again one another with sunken doorways and a thick coating of greasy snow melt. Geothermal energy is what keeps us going these days. It strengthens our aching bones and breathes warmth into our suits, a slow and steady exhalation that leeches life from the planets core so that we might shoulder on. Most of the taller buildings are gone, victims of salvage and of disuse. One, however, remains. A mere four stories, barely more than skeletal, but humans - even burrowed into the barren soil as we are, riddled and complicated with our new trappings of civilization - we are still smart monkeys who dream about the sky. I dream constantly about the sky.

I have a friend in Bunker B, Janna, who will send me word when the monitoring software thinks conditions are ripe. Today she texted me over the local net.

...LOOKS GOOD THIS EVENING...1730...BEST NUMBERS SINCE SIXTEEN YEARS AGO...SEE YOU THERE.

I'm early, as usual. The roof of the weather station is sprouting with antennas that regurgitate their readings through thick ropy cables down into the spaces below. As long as they are reading things right, we have a pretty good chance of seeing the sun today. They've been wrong before, but we have our hopes up. Or at least I do. The violent clouds look as if they are thinking about resting, and something feels right. I fancy that I can recognize the signs now after all these years.

"One of these days it'll come early and you'll be to only one to catch it."

Janna is coming up the stairs behind me, her exo servos whining and echoing off the reinforced plastisteel girders. Her mask is set to clear and I can see the fine wrinkles around her eyes as I turn to reply.

"You haven't missed anything yet. But I think we're going to get lucky today." Janna bends slightly at the waist, a bob of agreement.

"The 'tronics sure think so. Have you gotten a new shunt?"

"Just a basic upgrade - nothing fancy." I am trying to be modest, but I'm pleased she noticed. We both have half a dozen sturdy plastic ports adorning the backs of our elongated skulls, typical hardware for plugging in at night and doing biomaintenance, but things wear down and the shunts themselves have become status symbols of a sort. A new shunt means things are going well for you, and we spend the next quarter hour of so discussing her hoped-for improvements and my own recent installment.

"Oh, look," Janna exclaims, and we both swivel heavily towards the east. The afterimage disc is there, almost incandescently bright against the dim mahogany of the sky. I hold my breath without thinking until the suit buzzes indignantly and flashes a warning across the inside of my helmet.

Slowly, tantalizingly, the orb brightens. It's stronger than I've ever seen it and I can feel my heartbeat shudder against my rib wall. The clouds have to part, there's no way there wouldn't be a small break with a day like this, it's almost certain to —

"Ohhhh!!"

We are shouting in unison, in pain and awe. The light is searing, stabbing, cleansing. It's like watching a birth. It lasts forever, it is gone immediately.

Slowly we come back to ourselves, feeling the gentle cycling of oxygen through both cheek vents and the persistent tingle of heat through the suit's spinal tap. Janna's hand is in mine. Did I grab hers, or did she - ? No matter.

After a few moments of silence, I offer up: "This one was the strongest we've seen."

Another half-bow nod. "It's a good sign. Would you believe there's another possibility just a month from now?" Gentle pressure from her hand, another smile. "Amazing, huh?"

I smile, squeeze back, and agree. "Amazing."