Rachelle Harp is a Writers of the Future finalist, and has sold to StarShipSofa, Perihelion, and the 2nd and Starlight anthology.
AS SUNLIGHT GRABS ME
by Rachelle Harp
Voices from the Link ceased transmission right before the crash.
The constant buzz of speech and electronic messages pulsing through my cochlear implant is now static. Unnerving at best. I stand on the beach, sink into wet sand. A sharp breeze cuts across the skin of my face, the part not covered by carbon fiber plating.
Smoke rises from the hull of the Dragonfly. Flames devour the cockpit. Even if I could put out the fire, I would have no way to repair the damage. The last reading I managed to take with my sensors showed no inhabitants detected. Only settlement remains, mostly charred.
My circuitry energy supply unit blinks in and out, leaving me dependent on the unreliable human components of my system—ones I have not utilized in twelve years, four months, seven days. I upload a distress signal through my Link processor:
@Taren5: Requesting assistance.
Location unknown, unidentified planet.
I wait ten seconds, then resend.
@Taren5: Requesting assistance.
Location unknown, unidentified planet.
Most likely, my transmitter cannot break through the atmosphere from my current elevation. A retinal scan verifies the best location—eight miles, forty-nine feet inland. Atop the tallest peak. The mountain seems to straddle half the island, its rocky point piercing the pale blue sky. Perhaps my signal will breech the atmospheric barrier and make it to the Link. If not…
A strange ripple sensation vibrates at the base of my spine and crawls upward to my neck. Survival depends on connection. Survival is connection. Survival is the Link.
Though I am a female unit of twenty-seven standard years, I march with rigid steps toward the tree line, prosthetic knee stiff like an old woman. More damage from when the Dragonfly hit the beach. I input a search command to discover the cause, but an error code comes up on my viewport. The manual reset also fails, leaving the white numbers emblazoned across my visual scan area. A swift triple tap to the manual override finally clears the message.
Another step and an odd energy wrenches up my leg, like a fire burst, swift and sharp. Wincing, I grab my knee. Seven seconds later, my breath catches up to my lungs, and I straighten my shoulders. It has been a while since I have felt such a strong impulse. Limping, I cross into the forest. As soon as I am past the border, I listen for the Link.
Silence this time.
The feedback is gone.
Vines wrap the trunks of an unknown tree species. The lattice bark looks similar to a palm tree, but the leaves are a hands-breadth wide and tangled in the canopy, forming a sea of purple and brown. A pale yellow, almost white rather, fruit hangs from the branches. The breeze picks up and swishes the leaves so that they sound like faint clapping.
My circuits flicker. The gridlines on my retinal scanner viewer disappear, and I blink four times, focusing. The last time I viewed the world through human eyes was the day of my transformation. These jungle colors are vivid, not filtered through a green haze. No grid lines intersecting. Zoom function has gone offline as well. Half a dozen birds hop on branches, but I cannot identify their fine details. Only their bright red and orange feathers.
I tap the side of my temple where the carbon fiber plate attaches to my skin. The scanner does not reboot, meaning I will have to find the safest path without help.
Birdsongs twitter at a steady pulse as I swish through the overgrowth. Twisted fronds reach out from the trees, waving at me with an eerie, slow, up and down movement. A growl erupts from the brush curtain before a creature bursts through. My blaster arm flies into ready position. No scanner, so I cannot get a targeting lock. I fire, but the shot only grazes the creature's hind quarters. The wolf-like beast is nearly the size of a bear, with a snout narrow like a crocodile. He yelps, then hones in his glare.
I run, but the fire sensation flickers hotter in my knee. The creature is faster. In only a few seconds, he will overtake me. My plating may provide some protection, but I cannot trust it entirely. The wolf-beast springs ahead, then flips around. His snarl rivals the Beast of Kandrol Nine that made a meal of my former commander, Arlan7, the one who sent me out.
The wolf-thing snaps at my leg. I jerk back, aim my blaster—this time less than an arm's length away—and fire. The shot hits him in the chest and he collapses.
No heartbeat. No breaths.
A surge of energy rushes through my veins. Odd it is not through my sensors. When I look at my hands, they shake, steady like membrane vibrations. Then I realize I am panting, uncontrolled. Fast. Swift. A quick check for wounds verifies I'm intact. No blood soaking. No flesh torn. Only shredded circuits in my firing arm and a small tear in the carbon plating. As I gape at my flesh-covered hand, trembling, I conclude the rest of my circuits must be compromised.
To the east, the mountain peak pierces the horizon.
Approximately 5.3 hours were left in my energy unit. Now, I cannot calculate the balance. Is it empty? What else could explain the shakes? Even if I do make it to the top, there may not be enough power to send another signal, so I leave the unit off to preserve what is left.
With no central decision making boost from my neuro-sensors, I am uncertain of the best course of action. Staying here will attract more predators. Energy reserves minimal. Connection to the Link is imperative. Yet one thing seems logical.
Brush the dirt off. Face the mountain. March toward it.
Exactly as Arlan7 would have wished.
Strange that thought came to me. Remembering him as he was before the attack, before the end. A strong leader. A strong companion. The strongest voice of them all.
I'm not sure how much time passes, but the sun drifts toward the west. Emptiness speaks out from my auditory sensor, not even feedback. The voices are gone, lost until connection can be re-established. Yet, I hear the commander’s voice clear in my mind. Run, he said. Run, do not look back. Melancholy and desperate. Arlan7’s voice ceased communication the day he was severed from the Link.
I do not want to remember, so I march on. Palm leaves sweep against each other, rustling, waving. The call of unidentifiable birds, singing. Are they mating songs? Or simply happy songs? There's no way to analyze their purpose. No way to analyze my progress. No way to stop the dance of spiders across the floor of my stomach.
A strange sensation of a weight sinks into my chest, heavier and heavier. Like bricks slowly added. Reminds me of the times I used to get frustrated, even angry, before my transformation. The feeling is so foreign, I cannot quite pinpoint it. And there is gnawing, a growl in my stomach, to the point of nausea. Hunger most likely.
During the past ten days, I’ve had only rations to survive on. Standard military. With my energy stores waning, I will need to locate a food source. A patch of berries sits along the trail. They are not poisonous, that much I remember from survival training. The first bite is sweet, moist, like a kiss on honey. I pull another handful from the branch and devour them. At first, one at a time. Then two. Maybe more. After the long trek, the moisture cools my tongue and the emptiness in my stomach subsides, but the nausea lingers.
There are sounds of running water, bubbling, soothing. Off the trail, behind the brush, I find a creek with a shallow fall. At first, I stand on the edge, hesitant. The water might short-out the circuits the beast exposed when he tore into my arm plating. But the gentle song of ripples on rocks is too inviting.
I dip my toes in, unable to feel the movement of water since my sensors flicker in and out. So I wade in deeper until water flows across my thighs, cool on my flesh. I plunge my hands in, splash water on my face. Refreshing. Like the days I swam in the summer heat on Earth. Was I only twelve? Maybe thirteen? The laughter, the feeling of freedom. They rush back to me. Running barefoot back to the house and Mother scolding me for treading muddy water all over her clean floor.
Another smile as I splash the water on my face again.
She hugged me tight the day I was taken away for my transformation. I never saw her after that, though part of me wished I could.
The sun dips in the sky. Not much time left, so I take a final drink of water, say good-bye to the creek. I climb toward the mouth of the fall—the best way to find a clear route up the mountain. Either that or I don't want to be that far away from the only reminder of home since I crashed here.
And Arlan7’s face grows in my mind. Kind eyes. The way he held me the night before the attack. Warm and tight. Romantic thoughts or deep emotions are normally filtered out by the neural-sensors. This flood of sensation, a fond embrace. My male counterpart…I told him not to go into the forest. Kandrols were ruthless. The war has been long. He did not listen. And now I am alone, missing his voice.
The mission must be completed, do my duty.
If I send the signal, the others will find me, bring me back.
The war must end.
I climb higher. Grass morphs into rock. My calves bear the brunt of the upward slope with each step. As I trek, the trees thin. The birdsongs disappeared over an hour ago. Maybe two. An eagle squawks above.
Do not look back.
I grab a branch and pull my body higher. There's no worn path up the mountainside. No road spiraling through a clear road. Only rocks and roots, sparse trees. My muscles tighten with each push upward. Sweat invaded the crevices of my carbon fiber plating hours ago. I wipe my brow, clench my teeth with the next shove. The swell in my stomach is too great, and I must release the pressure. I lean my head over and wretch on the rocks. Without looking down, I clench my fingers, keep climbing.
A flat rock blocks the path. I crawl on top. My body aches. Every muscle is tight. There's a scratch on my forearm. A slight stinging sensation meanders across my skin. Blood creeps through the flesh, wet and warm. I don’t wipe it away as I stand up tall. Another catch in my lungs. Another sharp twist in my back, yet I smile. Hardly the reaction I would have guessed when I left the beach this morning.
Sunlight grabs me from all sides. I am atop the peak, lost in the landscape, shielding my eyes from the bright light. My carbon fiber hand feels no wind, no heat, no pulsation of life.
To the north, firelight dances through the trees. Not a forest fire. More like the soft glow of hearths or camps. My ship reading was negative for human habitation, but perhaps sensors were faulty. Seems like there’s life on this planet after all.
I lift my wrist and press a small power-up button—the backup transmitter. Only to be used if all others fail. A faint wave of feedback rushes through my Link processor. A hollow series of voices calls back, but Arlan7’s is not among them. How could it be? The spider dance in my stomach returns as I remember his lifeless body, circuits without flickers, emptiness. He wanted me to live. That’s why he ordered me to run. My finger hovers over the call signal. One push and the distress signal will be sent. They will take me back and make me look. At the war. All the ruin.
Do not look back.
The pain in my stomach jolts me, another sensation of nausea. I cannot go back. I cannot stand to be without his voice. I turn off the transmitter. Not like this.
I reach down and press my hand against the lower part of my belly. The emotion sensors always filtered strong feelings away. Without power, the sensors are useless. Now that Arlan7 is gone and his child is within me, there is nothing to keep strong feelings at bay. Tears slide down my cheeks, but I don’t wipe them away. If the others come for me, they will take the child when it is time. Arlan7 must have known I was carrying it, though I never had a chance to tell him the truth.
In the distance, a sliver of beach pops out against the ocean waves.
Charred rubble of the Dragonfly smolders. I tear the transmitter from my wrist. As soon as the last circuits are powerless, the device goes black. I hurl it at the Dragonfly.
No, I won’t go back. I close my eyes, swaying, hands pressed to my belly.
The kiss of wind caresses my skin.
Do not look back.
Copyright © 2017 by Rachelle Harp