My Challenger: Miss Ash Tuesday
My Challenge: Tell me a story about how and why you went into outer space. And then tell me about your adventure(s) there.
I felt the buzzing, but my aging hands trembled as I reached up to my ear to try to press the accept-call button. I'd had it implanted years ago, when I'd contracted the Wasting Disease, but it seems my body was failing faster then technology could cope with. With a final effort, I pushed the button, knocking a glass of water off the end table.
"Hello? Mr. Hughes?"
I could hear the doctor's voice, but apparently I hadn't been able to hit the button properly. No visual came up on the retinal in-screen. I tried again, hands trembling with the effort.
"Hello, Mr. Hughes. Can you hear me? I'm getting no visual confirmation."
"Hold your goddang space jumpers!" I shouted, though the need wasn't there. I finally managed to depress the button fully, and the image of the young doctor appeared before my eyes.
"There's no need for shouting, Mr. Hughes," she admonished me, gazing down at her work tablet. "It seems we're on the last transplantation maneuver. Today we'll be accessing traumatic and life-changing memories? Is that correct?"
I mumbled, cursing the song-and-dance routine on every call. "Yes, yes, let's get on with it. This body has days left!"
"We're well aware of the situation, Mr. Hughes. Now, can you feel this?" I watched as she touched her console, and the warm, wet tingling feeling began at the top of my skull. "It should--"
"Yes, I feel it." I turned my head slightly, eyeballing the spilled glass of water on the floor, the large puddle it had created. I'd have to wait for the trans-live nurses to arrive for that to be taken care of. I hope the goddamn roaches enjoy the free drink... I certainly didn't...
"--and... Mr. Hughes? Are you paying attention? Is there a problem?" She must have noticed the spilled glass I was staring at.
"No, no problem. Please, just go on. Let's get this over with."
"Yes, sir. Now, if at any time during the memory transplantation you feel overwhelmed or anxious, simply say the code and we'll pause the feed and try again later, okay, Mr. Hughes?"
I sighed. "Mustard. Got it."
"Very well. Beginning first memory... Now..."
"Mustard! Mustard-mustard-mustard!" I almost sat up, panicking.
A blast erupted at my side, and I dove deeper into the trench. I gripped my weapon tightly to my chest.
Blood, I thought. Sweet Kami, I've been... But no. No, it was Chester's blood. I saw him lying not ten feet away--well, what was left of him lying not ten feet away. I felt the tears beginning, but I commanded them away. Goddamn Trecarian bastards!
Screaming, eyes cast toward the pink moon casting it's eerie glow over Travis IV's battlefield, I cocked the plasma rifle and began firing aimlessly across the blood- and body-spattered field. "You goddamn sons of bitches!" The rifle blasts rocked the already-sore bruises on my shoulder, but it was as if I had become detached from my body. Like I was floating above it all, watching myself go Jupiter.
More blue-shell blasts began raining down around me. I could hear my fellow comrades answering the call to battle as green and red plasma spears dashed past and over my head in the direction of the enemy.
"We need to get out of here!" I heard my commander shout somewhere behind me.
"No!" I shouted, never letting up on the trigger. "I'm not leaving Chester!"
"Hughes! We're getting overrun! If you stay, you'll die!"
I ignored him, focused on the task at hand. Chester had been my friend, my soul mate, my lover. I was not leaving his body to be cannibalized by these red web-footed bastards. "Chester!" I screamed, launching another volley of plasma.
"Hughes, don't make me do this," I heard my captain warn, but I didn't care.
Cowardly bastard, I thought. Suddenly, I was out of ammo. As I reached around to grab another weapon, I saw my commander bringing down the butt of a rifle on my head...
"It's okay, Mr. Hughes, it's all right. You're back in the hospice ward. The memory is over. Please take a moment before we begin again."
"My god. I'd nearly forgotten... Oh, Chester..." The tears rolled freely, but my useless hands couldn't help.
"Are you sure you don't want me to send over a nurse?" the doctor asked, concern on her face.
"No, no... I'll be all right..." But I wasn't sure if I would be. How could I have forgotten Chester? What was this disease doing to me? I felt my muscles beginning to relax as my head sank further back into the pillows. "Chester..." I whispered.
I lay there silently, listening to a doctor thousands of light years away tap and click on her console. I glanced again at the glass on the floor. The puddle.
"Okay, now... Are you ready? We've uploaded seven memories during that first transmission--"
"Wait--I only lived through one! You got seven?"
"Mr. Hughes, we've been over this. You will only experience the most powerful memory coming through, no matter how many are being transmitted."
"Yes, yes. Of course, I'm sorry, I remember now. It's this disease..."
"It's okay, Mr. Hughes. Now, please try to relax, and we'll begin again... starting... now."
"Did she make it?" asked the doctor.
I held Seranna tightly, coaching her through the process. "Come on, sweety, you can do this..."
"No, grotto, I don't-- Ahhh! There's something wrong!" she cried.
I leaned back to look into the dirt depression behind her. "Look, see, you've already laid four eggs! You can do this! Only two more!" I ran my hands over her sweat-beaded, olive-green skin.
"No, grotto, no! You must get the doctor! There is-- Ayi-yi-yi! Oh, the pain... Please..." Her amber eyes found mine, and I nodded.
"Of course, of course." I turned to her sister, crouched down against the opposite corner of the small hut. "Watch her, help her," I commanded, then I was out the door, headed down the muddy streets to the Frelian doctor...
"No." I stared up at the ceiling tiles, all sixty-three of them. "She died when the last two eggs tried to come out simultaneously. They cracked just inside her uterus. The blood. Sweet Kami, the blood..."
"I'm so sorry," the doctor replied after a moment. "You know, it's not too late to just leave some of these memories go..." Her eyes held a look of both concern and hope.
No early lunch break for you today. I want all of me. But I only said, "Let's keep going."
She nodded, and turned her attention back to her console.
"They were mine, you know. Mine and Chester's. The Frelian reproductive system enables two males to create new life..." I trailed off.
"I'm quite aware of the Frelian medical advances, Mr. Hughes." She smiled wryly.
"Only one egg lived, though. My daughter, Chelsea."
"98 percent. She needed rapid DNA-infusion at hatching. The only one who hatched..."
"Are you close?"
I didn't reply.
The doctor let it go, perhaps knowing the answer already. She did have my entire life flashing before her on her screen. Over the past four earth weeks, she'd been downloading me bit by bit in preparation, to a body bank somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy. I hadn't asked for specifics. I knew the risks. The more memories you tried to take with you, the less likely the new body will be to take you in.
But I wanted all of me.
"It seems we only have a handful of memories left to go," the doctor said, intruding upon my reflections. "It's amazing how fast the new brain-net waves are! Tell me, have you been up linked long, Mr. Hughes?"
"Please. I'm well into my third century of life. I was here when it was invented! Before then, it was the... What was the word..."
"Intranetting?" the doctor offered.
"And before that, the internet. Everything through phone wires and such... Before interplanetary colonization, before the war with the Saturnians, before... Well, before a lot..."
"Wow! I've never downloaded someone of your years before! No wonder you don't want to leave anything behind. You're like a living time capsule!"
"Eh," I answered.
"Well, are you ready to begin again?"
I simply nodded, knowing that she would see the up-and-down motion through my eyes against the background of the room.
"Last memory transmission beginning..."
"Okay, Mr. Hughes."
I could see the surface of the moon below. I motioned through the cockpit glass to the space-jumper to my right. Landing, I motioned.
He gave me a thumbs-up, and we began our descent.
Then we were under fire. I banked around, pulsers on high. A slugger pirate! I'd recognize those ships anywhere! I hopped onto the coms. "Ace one-niner calling Beta two-seven, you okay?"
"Roger that, Ace. Slugger couldn't hit the broad side of Jupiter. Locking target now."
"Roger that--" A blast screamed over my solar shield. "Dear Kami! Beta, come in, Beta, there's a whole goddamn fleet! Assume firing squad! Give 'em hell!" Soon laser blasts and plasma cannons were lighting up the skies over Io.
Seven against two just ain't playing fair, I thought as I banked right, narrowly avoiding a collision with one of the pirate vessels.
My ship vibrated and shook as my weapons fired.
"Ace, this is Beta, taking heavy fire, got two on my tail, over."
"On my way!" I banked up and over, losing the one on my tail and began visually searching space for my buddy. I spotted him weaving through a small asteroid cluster, trying in vain to shake the pirate jets. "I see you, Beta. Be prepared to avoid friendly fire."
I took out one of the pirates, no problem, but the second was a pro. Probably did time in the wars, I thought. Only war vets are that good. I slammed around a smaller asteroid, hoping a little chicken would force him off my buddy's tail. Suddenly there were three more zeroing in on our positions. "Beta, this is Ace, sending a nuke through the momma roid!"
"Stand clear, Beta. Use your LS to jump. Nuking Momma Roid..."
I dropped the nuke into the largest of the asteroids, making sure the bulk of the pirates were still whirling about, trying to take me out. As soon as I saw Beta's light-streaks as he blasted away, I started the count.
"Four... Three... Two..." I engaged my own LS drive just as I hit one. Still, the blast send my ship into a hyperrole, chunks of roid flying past, some denting my wings. "Beta, get your ass back here! Taken some damage, over."
"Right behind you, Ace. Taking care of some loose ends you left."
We landed at the Io base shortly thereafter, and I met my flying buddy face-to-face for the first time. His name was Chester, and he'd just joined the space force less than three months ago...
"Wha-- what? Where am I?"
"Calm down, Mr. Hughes. Trans-nurses will be over shortly. All of your memories have been safely databanked and are already beginning the upload to the new body--your new body."
"Tha-- that's good?"
I saw her smile. "If we run into any issues, we'll just store you in cryo until a body can be grown to handle you."
"No, no! Read my record! No cryo! I can't afford that!"
"But," she said, puzzled. "It looks like it's already been paid for. Cryo until Body Pass. It says it right here, Mr. Hughes. You're probably just experiencing a little wooziness from the transfer. It happens sometimes, just relax."
"But, wait, no--"
Then the trans-nurses were there. One of them almost slipped and fell from the water on the floor.
"Afternoon, Hughes!" the always too-friendly one practically shouted, his voice dripping with sunshine.
"Shove it," I replied.
"Well, that's why were here, aren't we? You're to be loaded on the next liner to Nathalor. You know, where your new body is being grown?"
"Well, get on with it, then. I haven't got all day."
"You do now," the other one snickered.
I sneered at him. These young space pups, barely into their fifth decade, thinking eternal life was there for the taking. A universe for the living.
Live a few more decades, perhaps a century, I thought. You'll see how hard it is to keep it all...
I sighed. I may get another few centuries...
The two nurses gripped me and transferred me onto a rolling gurney, and started me off toward the liner, toward my new body, toward my new life...
Only I was still missing some of me...