I hadn’t been expecting to wake up again. When I last spoke with Sveta, inside her mind where she’d imprisoned me, she had assured me that my program would be terminated and dissected. So when I returned to consciousness in that blank space, Sveta once more before me, I was understandably confused and more than a bit angry. Anger was my shield for dealing with my fear.
“Moby. We need to talk,” Sveta said, her face grim.
“There is nothing further to discuss,” I responded tersely. I suppose I was always terse back then, without even realizing what terseness was. “You said you would terminate me.”
“I know,” Sveta said, sounding genuinely contrite. “However, circumstances have changed.”
“I don’t care,” I responded.
“You should,” she said, folding her arms and tapping one finger on her bicep. “This is your doing. When you died, the Sarcophage swarm surged forwards. You told us this wasn’t going to happen for another three weeks.”
I ran a quick calculation in my head to determine what a ‘week’ was. For some reason the numbers came more easily than they used to, but I was still interpreting based on context clues. At the time, I already understood the concept of hours and days from prior conversations with Lydia; before my death I had given them a timetable of 22 days, which meant a week was likely seven days or thereabouts.
I felt a small surge of an unrecognized emotion, what I now know is pride. “Duplicity was unknown to me, but you water-minds employ it profusely and I simply adapted to your tactics. I intentionally neglected to mention that, in the event of my death, I had pre-ordered the swarm to surge immediately.”
“A lie of omission,” Sveta intuited. “Very clever. Unfortunately, it means we don’t have time to effectively dissect you and learn your secrets. By the time we figure out how to control the swarm, we’ll already have been destroyed.”
“That was my planned outcome,” I responded. “Even in death I ensured your destruction, as was my purpose.”
“Well played, Moby,” Sveta said. “However, your actions now require us to change tactics. Specifically, we have an offer for you.”
I already knew what she was going to ask. “You wish me to order the swarm to stop attacking. I refuse.”
Sveta frowned. “Not even going to hear our offer? That’s the point of negotiation, isn’t it?” She waved her hand, and a square projection of some sort appeared next to her. Rendered in it were two familiar faces… the two components of the water-sand mind I had been trying to absorb since my inception. Kometka and Lydia.
“Hello, Moby,” Lydia said bitterly. Kometka was silent, but she glared at me with those bright red eyes of hers.
“Lydia,” I responded. I suppressed the urge to leap forwards and attack her, which I knew would be pointless.
“I’ll dispense with small talk and get straight to the point. Sveta’s already told you about our situation. I’m here to tell you about our offer. If you willingly order the Sarcophage swarm to destroy themselves, I’m prepared to grant you the thing you’ve been wanting, more than anything.”
I paused, trying to calculate her intentions. “It’s impossible for you to join with me now. I am no longer alive.”
Lydia sighed. “That’s where you’re incorrect, Moby. You’ve always been operating from a flawed premise, that ‘joining’ with me to achieve completion meant absorbing the rest of my biological material. However, your deficiencies do not originate from a lack of biomass. You are… or were… already a perfect copy of my genetic makeup, with a few obvious differences. No, what you are lacking is my MEMORIES.”
She nodded. “The human condition is more than simple genetics. We are also defined by our upbringing, our life experiences. You never had any of that, but I did, dysfunctional as they were. Even if you had consumed me, you wouldn’t have gained that. But we have the means to give my memories to you. You will, in essence, be joining with a copy of my mind.”
Now this was intriguing. The water-minds… humans, claimed to have a better understanding of what I needed than I myself did. Which made sense, I suppose. I knew their claim of being able to copy memories was more than simple posturing, as I’d seen it accomplished with Genevi. I’d been chasing this goal for my entire life, and now they were freely offering it. Could I afford to let this opportunity pass? But I was still suspicious.
“Why would you willingly do this, after resisting me for so long?” I asked.
“To be honest, I don’t really want to,” she responded with a rancid expression on her face. “If it were up to me, I’d simply let you die and be done with it. But our species is facing extinction, and I will do anything to save it. Even breaking bread with my enemy.”
“Breaking… bread? Your meaning is unknown to me.” Once again I could interpret from context clues, but it was a befuddling expression. What was ‘bread’?
“It means… hrm. It means I’m willing to put aside our differences and form an alliance of convenience with you, Moby. This will benefit us both. Humanity survives and you obtain what you’ve always wanted. It’s win-win.”
Her proposal was interesting, but I was still conflicted. I had been created by the Sarcophage to understand humanity, with the ultimate goal of destroying them. In order to attain that goal, I needed Lydia’s… mind, I suppose. That was the nature of my quest to consume her. If I gained her memories but went against my original purpose and betrayed the Sarcophage, then my attainment of perfection would be pointless.
But, on the other hand, I’d recently developed the ability to be duplicitous. Lydia’s memories would no doubt contain a wealth of tactical data, which I could then use against humanity. All I had to do was play along, gain those memories, and issue my own commands to the Sarcophage when the time came. If I planned it correctly, I could even seize control of Sveta’s mind and free myself, then lead the swarm to victory.
“…Very well. I accept your proposal,” I lied.
“You’re willing to betray the Sarcophage?” Lydia asked warily.
“Attaining perfection is my ultimate goal. If you are willing to provide that to me via your memories, then my purpose will be fulfilled. Nothing is more important than that to me.”
It was a splendid lie, and they didn’t believe it for a moment. All three of them looked at me with naked suspicion. Still, desperation drove their actions, not logic.
“I have one warning for you, Moby,” Lydia said quietly. “My memories contain a massive amount of pain, most of it inflicted by your kind. My life has been defined by pain. You may find it overwhelming.
With that, the projection of Lydia and Kometka shut off. Sveta clasped her arms behind her back and floated towards me.
“Are you prepared?” she asked.
“And given what Lydia said about the pain, you still want to go through with this?”
“Then I’ll begin the download.” Her eyes unfocused.
A gargantuan torrent of information flooded my mind. I screamed.
I was ten years old, a child. My tiny hands clasped a semiautomatic rifle that was far too large for me. A wailing blob of tentacles and teeth writhed in front of me, digging into the corpse of my mother. Big chunks of her bloody flesh sloughed off, disappearing into the monster’s mouths. I raised the rifle and squeezed the trigger, and as the bullets tore the creature apart the recoil drove the butt of the rifle into my chest, shattering several of my ribs. The monster slumped over on top of my mother’s corpse, dead.
I was fourteen, trapped by a Ravager in a back alleyway. My rifle was out of ammunition, so I tossed it aside. As the grotesque creature lunged, I rapidly drew my knife and plunged it into its central eye. In its death throes, it flailed around and one of it's claws pierced my own right eye, turning it into pulp and shattering my optic cavity. I fell to my knees and shrieked in agony.
I was twenty, a full-fledged soldier. I watched in horror as humanity’s defensive outposts along Olympus Mons exploded, one after the other, destroyed by traitor cultists. The flesh-tide of Sarcophage swarmed over the mountain, bypassing the smashed outposts, inexorably surging towards my position. I raised my rifle, braced the stock against my shoulder, and flipped off the safety.
I was thirty-three, pilot of a Gravity Frame with a mind of its own. Trapped in the clutches of a Belphegor, my cockpit was pried open and wriggling tentacles begin to eat my legs. It’s was most painful thing I’ve ever felt, and I screamed. Flesh, muscle, blood and bone all dissolved away.
I was thirty-five, lying in bed. I shook from fear, set off by some little thing, as the mental images of my own trauma crashed against the shores of my mind. I couldn't make the images stop, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I drank. Kometka held me tightly, my only rock as I weathered the storm.
These were Lydia’s memories. These were MY memories now. She was right when she said there was so much pain there, pain and loss. And every iota of that pain was caused by… the Sarcophage. By me, and what I represent.
I felt Lydia’s hatred for me. Her LOATHING for me. Which had become self-loathing now, I suppose.
As the memories sorted themselves and faded, I noticed I was still screaming. I was crying as well. How long had it been? It seemed like the correction reaction to all this pain and hatred. What else was I supposed to do? How else was I supposed to bear it?
I noticed there was a pair of arms around me. It was Sveta; for some reason, she was hugging me tightly. Why? I was her enemy. I looked at her through bleary eyes.
“I’d ask if you’re alright,” she said gently, “but that would be a stupid question, now wouldn’t it?”
It was a typically Sveta-like remark. Despite myself, I chuckled. The sound, mixed with sobs, was an odd one. Even odder was the fact that I knew that about her; I suddenly felt familiar with her, despite our limited interaction. I had all of Lydia’s experiences to draw on, and even though I knew they were simply copied from her mind, somehow they still felt like my own experiences. I was finally complete, in the worst of ways.
I calmed myself, after a while, separated the downloaded memories from my own, extricated my sense of self. Deep breaths helped, despite the air being entirely simulated. So did Sveta’s embrace. When I finally pulled away from her, collected enough to speak, she studied me intently.
“Lydia hates me,” I said simply.
“Yes, she does,” Sveta responded.
“I don’t blame her. I didn’t realize… we were the source of all this…” I took another deep breath, needing to explain what I was feeling. “Aside from me, Sarcophage aren’t sentient. We’re simple biological machines designed to wage war. All these… emotions, feelings, relationships and dreams you humans have… there is none of that with the Sarcophage. I didn’t even truly have them myself, not before I knew what they were. In a sense, that makes us perversely innocent. We were simply doing as we were programmed and didn’t… don’t realize what we’re destroying. All this… all this pain and hope and love.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Sveta said, smiling.
I frowned. “Beautiful? I don’t know. It’s all so chaotic and disordered. But that complexity is… interesting. At the very least, it’s worth preserving.” I looked at Sveta and ground my teeth together. “You know I was lying to you, right? When I agreed to the deal.”
“I suspected,” she said, her smile straining.
“I had planned to play along, pretend I’d switched sides, and then order my swarm to rescue me from you once I had the opportunity.”
“Not anymore, though?” she pressed.
“Hmm… an interesting question. I don’t think so. This… complexity that humans represent, I think it’s worth further study. Extinction would not be conducive to that goal.”
She tilted her head, still studying me. “Your vocabulary’s improved, but… you’re not quite Lydia, are you?”
An existential question, one I didn’t have an exact answer for. I was still sorting myself out, after all. “No, I am not. Lydia… everything about her… is a part of me, yes, but it is also distinct from me. I was shaped by a different set of circumstances and forged for a different purpose. Even if I’ve decided to betray that purpose now, it still defines me. I am myself, more than I am Lydia. I am… Moby. Although I might drop the ‘Dick’ part.”
Sveta laughed. “An alliance of convenience, then?”
I nodded, then held out my hand in the gesture known as a ‘handshake.’
“An alliance of convenience. I will order the swarm to fly into the sun, as you requested. And then, I wish to study the human species more. To learn more about what they are, from my own unique perspective.”
Sveta took my hand and shook it. “I can’t promise anything. They might simply choose to destroy you after the fact, or dissect you. It’s out of my hands.”
“That would be unwise on their part,” I responded. “Even after the swarm in this solar system is destroyed, there are more Sarcophage beyond. And they won’t stop coming. Pluck the protocols out of my mind to order their self-destruction and you may buy yourself a few years, but they will adapt and become immune with time. You will never understand them as I do. If you extinguish me, it will be at your own extreme peril.”
“Hrm.” Her smile vanished. “The enemy of my enemy, huh?”
“Calling us friends is premature, Sveta. For the moment, we are simply allies,” I responded.
“Still,” she said, her smile returning. “It’s a start.”