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Unplanned Afterlife, a Sci-Fi Story
Unplanned Afterlife, a Scifi Story by Tamara Wilhite
I woke up standing in the middle of a collapsing building. A large chunk of concrete had fallen down. The protective suit protected me from any debris. I stood there for a while, assessing my energy level. I had no unusual pains. I was awake and alert for the first time in I don’t know how long.
I looked around the building. It had been a store. I could see sunset colors through holes in the roof.
How long had I been gathering information as a drone? That’s one annoyance of this afterlife, time becomes a fluid thing. Consciousness is an occasional thing, when I surface while on deployment or, rarely, on the ship. I can’t control when I come to, though I know how to go back to automatic on purpose. They can force me into automatic mode, too, but rarely ever. Maybe it is something they know but choose to study, looking through my eyes. Or they don’t know this happens. Or they don’t care, as long as I obey direct commands.
I started to walk through what must have been a mall. Broken display cases were overlaid by personal memories of jewelry displays. A shiny item on the ground seemed to stand out. Their programming calling closer inspection pushed at me. I heeded it, because conflict usually caused unconsciousness.
It might have been a diamond necklace. I could feel the pressure of personal memories, like my husband giving me my wedding ring or trying on a necklace my children made. I pushed them aside. If I fell into a reverie, however pleasant that connection with my past life, I couldn’t be alert and aware of the world. After a long period of inactivity, their programming took over automatically. I’d be unconscious again. I put the necklace down on a flat metal table where I could find it again, if they wanted to.
Maybe they just wanted to know what memories it triggered, so then they could understand what it was. That was the best case scenario. I didn’t ponder the worst.
That was a fast food joint, probably chicken related, though the sign was a tangled mess. That was a bakery. A row of clothing stores, signs broken or half melted. My eyes brought in visual information. My mind collected information and assigned meaning. This was the human world, and I was human. This was my unplanned afterlife, but at least I had purpose. I was an ambassador of sort, telling the aliens what humans had done in places like this.
The tutoring center gave me pause. Loose papers had collected and gathered in corners like tumbleweeds. Overturned desks, as if people had fled in the middle of a session. A white board in the back bore smudged patterns. It was retro, as if they’d reverted back to paper and chalk after an era of smart tablets and internet.
I felt like an archeologist. I was, in a way, studying the debris of what had been my world. Simply by knowing human norms and instincts, I taught them what it was to be human. At least, I could when I wasn’t on automatic.
I saw a drone. It trudged along, looking around, perhaps gathering information through its senses. It had been a black man once. I queried it, through the suit. It sent back an automatic confirmation of its location and designation. It was just a drone.
I realized it might be an escort of sorts, in case I malfunctioned. Or they might be sending us in as a group.
I kept walking. This place looked like Detroit in the 2000s, a semi-abandoned wasteland suited for an apocalyptic movie. I stopped in front of a pharmacy. It took a moment to realize what it was, given all of the looting.
Memories of other missions intruded. Walking through an abandoned trailer, studying the detritus of peoples’ lives, until the sight of a doll made me have flash backs of my children. I savored the memories, the emotions and links to my fully human past, until the fugue state landed me on an examining table. There was one occasion awakening from a time I’d called for a “recall”; remembering the trans-dimensional jump was not an experience I wanted to relive. The only consolation was spending decontamination with other drones and discovering Sergei. He spoke broken English and Russian.
He’d been a drug addict, he said. He’d gone crazy from the drugs, he said, living among shells of people and aliens. I was the first person to notice him, talk to him. Was this a really bad trip? Was he in prison, and everyone else drugged? I told him what I knew. He decided I was crazy and said he didn’t want to talk to me anymore. After a long silence, I fell asleep. When I awoke, he was gone. Ships passing in the night.
I forced myself back to reality, as lousy as it seemed. I walked through the drug store, studying the remains. Condoms hadn’t been worth taking. All the drugs were gone, even herbal stuff. The food and beverage section was empty but for wrappers. I could almost taste these different foods, though I didn’t eat anymore. I drank their electrolytes now. The salts in the electrolyte solution reminded me vaguely of popcorn.
The orthotics section still had some items. The seat you put on a toilet for an old person who can’t sit all the way down. Two walkers sat on the shelf, untouched. A layer of dust lay upon them. How long had it been abandoned? This place was dry, with hardly any rain having flooded and ruined things.
I checked my energy level. I’d last hours like this unless something happened. Longer, if I could will myself to rest between activities. How long had it been since the last mission? If I tried to access memories of when I was in drone mode to get a sense of time, it felt mechanical and distant. And the programming might take over. This place, I decided, had been abandoned for a while. But people had been here more recently, judging from the footprints.
Foot prints! The emotion of surprise was strong at recognizing footprints. To my greater surprise, the programming didn’t take over as it usually did under strong emotions.
Given the clear patterns in the dirt, it seemed recent.
I took a walker out of the box and set up the seat between the walker arms. Like my grandfather had, so he had an instant seat. I sat down to think, buying time. Strong emotions could drain my energy levels, and I needed to rest. Energy levels were like a battery, and I didn’t want to shut down. I might not wake up again.
Joel had described the energy levels like that. He’d been a doctor, once. He’d been working in a hospital when the aliens first started making deals with the authorities, asking for samples of the species. He only knew that they took some of the critically wounded and recently dead that the government selected and sent. His wife died. He tried to commit suicide via a drug cocktail, because of the guilt that she’d been sent to them. He awoke in their hands. He retained significant portions of his memory and thus medical skill, so he worked as a maintenance person on drones. Eventually, we met.
He gaped when I said it, surprised to hear a complaint about the pain. Drones sometimes say random things in response to stimuli, but it is a disjointed spark of the brain before programming resumes. Never really more than a flipped bit. “These repairs so often hurt. If you can, don’t let it.”
He started breathing deeply, deliberately sending extra oxygen to the brain. I was more than a drone. I had proven it simply by having a conversation.
The bright liquid creatures near Joel saw the whole exchange. He glanced at them furtively as if afraid to look at them directly. However, I had no fear of them. I said they were like angels. He grimaced, “Do you really believe that?”
“I don’t know why I was brought back, but it is to serve some higher purpose.”
“They’re watching this.”
They had him finish the repairs to the suit and to me. To my surprise, they let us go to a private set of quarters that looked like a minimalist hotel room. It had a bed, a desk, a bathroom. “These are my quarters,” he said.
“You’re mostly human, then.” He flinched at the statement. I could see the biological implants in his neck and arms that indicated we weren’t that different.
He asked me what I remembered, and I told him about my former life. He asked if I knew what happened.
“I was asleep at home until I was attacked. It might have been an intruder, but the details are hazy. I remember the hospital. The doctors pumped me full of something cool, cryonics, maybe.” I was proud of using such a scientific term. “Then I woke up to another room with the aliens. They pumped me full of other things, and the lights started.”
“Lights?” he asked. He was strangely intent. Was this what someone looked like when the programming said to pay attention?
“When you die, your brain generates the sensation of going to the light. I guessed I was dying. I had flash backs of my life, my family. Then darkness. I wonder if I died, seeing flashes of the world when in drone mode. At some point, I woke up and really started thinking..”
“How do you explain this?” he asked, motioning his hand at everything. “If the aliens are angels?”
“This is an unplanned afterlife.”
“Purgatory, more likely. I expected my family, if this was heaven,” he said, his voice heavy with pain. That’s when I saw a piece of his soul. He still had part of his memories, his emotions, his desires, regardless of alterations and environment. “Is this Hell?” he asked in a frightened whisper.
“It isn’t heaven,” I replied. He looked as if he was going to cry, and then the emotion started to fall from his face. Programming taking over. “What is your name?” I asked.
“Joel Levi.” It was a rote answer, habit. Then he stopped talking altogether, and I was removed.
I was trapped in my memories, dreaming while life passed me by.
“I think this is a test.” His eyes turned to me, showing only hints of emotion. “This is like purgatory. I thought there was freedom in death,” he said. “There wasn’t.”
“I was murdered in my bedroom, so this isn’t punishment for suicide.” I thought of the empty schools, hospitals, factories and urban landscapes I’d seen. Landscapes where all the people had vanished. Except for the rogue raccoon or cat, wildlife was surprisingly absent. “Have you met anyone else?” I asked him.
“I treat a lot of people.”
“How many are drones, and how many are still human?”
“Are any of us human? Are any humans left?”
“If we are all that is left, we have to fight that much harder to retain our shattered fragments of humanity. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
“I remember that. A poem, I think.” He frowned, frustrated. “Thank you,” he said. His head tilted back and his body went slack. Sleep command. I lay down on the bed, staring at the body held semi-erect by a mixture of exoskeleton and tensed muscles. He hadn’t seen anyone else with a soul out of all of them. I’d seen Sergei, but no one else like him. I remembered periodic episodes in drone mode, walking past hundreds of drones in sleep chambers or stasis. So those who’d died and retained their souls were rare.
A few drones had enough memory to fake a conversation, but it died after a few lines. They proved they were dead when they couldn’t talk about childhoods, loved ones, or likes and dislikes. Most failed when asked their name, only able to give a designation if anything at all. Drones are only recycled flesh.
It took hours, of that I’m certain, for I counted my breaths. I could monitor my energy level by then, as Joel had taught me, taking in extra air and moving little while the body recharged a little from the suit. I lasted longer in a conscious state that way. He opened his eyes finally. His eyes fell to me “Joel?” I asked hesitantly.
He awoke fully then. “You’re right. This may be purgatory, an interim afterlife.” His face contorted again, and his body started shaking. Was the pain or guilt so much that he was going to die a second time? Then I realized there was a solution; kill the soul. Joel could die and revert to being a drone.
“Joel, there is something you can do! You can be with her!”
“I can’t! What I tried didn’t work!” He was screaming, his hands to the sides of his head. He was fighting against the dying of the light, and he knew it.
“Live your life in service of others.” Too many words, too abstract an idea. “Save others! Do good, here and now. Earn it back! Make up for it!” I was screaming, but I didn’t feel the programming trying to take over. In fact, it was far away. The aliens, I suppose, lightened their control to study this odd situation.
“Service? What service?” A confused man asking for guidance, almost a drone.
“Help others. You’re a doctor. Weren’t you called to do that?” He nodded jerkily. “Help them. Find others, like us. Guide them, and help them. If you do enough good, won’t that make up for the bad?”
“You think we have souls.” His voice had shades of emotion, dark and bitter.
“And we’re being tormented.”
“That’s your opinion. This is an unplanned afterlife. If we do well here, if we help others, if we live in service to a higher purpose, maybe we will get what we want in the end.”
His face contorted for a long time, alternating between programming and man. “Do what they want, so I get what I want?” His face seemed to settle into grim resignation. Obey orders, and he might make it through Purgatory and move on to Heaven. “Do you know what you want?”
“Yes,” I said. My family, though that might not be possible for a long time. Hope, peace, faith and a lot of other abstract nouns flooded my mind.
“Do you think you can earn it?” he asked. He was emotionally invested in the words.
“Yes,” I said. If I passed this test, I would either pass on to the afterlife I expected or truly die having served a purpose for the good of posterity, gaining a type of immortality a body in the ruins wouldn’t have. Either way, I would keep trying.
I startled awake from the reverie. A body was in front of me. Then the twisted shape led me to realize a portion was missing. I queried it. The suit it wore replied, giving a series of bad reports. I got off the seat to check on it, and that’s when I heard other sounds.
“Oh, Christ, it’s alive!”
“They aren’t alive!” someone else screamed.
My breath quickened. I worried about the programming taking over, but to my relief, it didn’t. My mind was racing. The brain is, if nothing else, an organ of emergency, existing to take over when instinct can’t.
A gunman with a bandana over his face was to my left. The fear was so bad my heart started racing. My energy level dropped precipitously. “Don’t shoot me!” I screamed. “Jesus, it can talk!” A second voice. I turned to face that person, wrapped in protective clothing. He/she yelled, “Don’t shoot it!”
“They sometimes just spout stuff –“
“Please! Don’t!” I yelled back. I realized they thought I was a drone. “I’m human!” I replied. Stunned silence except a gun’s safety clicking off. I’d finally found people, and they wanted to kill me. “Oh, God,” I groaned. “I don’t want to die again.” My energy levels were falling. I fell to my knees from physical and emotional exhaustion.
“What the hell?” one of them said. “None of them talk like that!”
“This one’s afraid of dying!”
Sleep could help restore energy levels, but it might put the programming in control. I didn’t want to get shot. I debated what to do before deciding to pass out. If I awoke in drone state, I wouldn’t be aware of the pain of being killed. If I awoke as myself, it would mean I was back in the base or free. But I couldn’t stand the fear any longer.
When I awoke, it was in a basement or parking garage. An older man was standing nearby, far enough back that I couldn’t have touched him without walking over. I couldn’t walk over, because I was bound. “Joel?” I asked.
“Who is that?” the man asked.
“A doctor. A friend.”
“Who are you?” he asked me.
“I don’t want to tell you my name.” The aliens had recorded everything I’d done, awake or not. I could sense the data feed the way I might have heard the drone of a TV in the background in my other life. But they only referred to me as my designation. I didn’t want these people to abuse my name, my last token of humanity.
“What are you?” he asked me.
“An ambassador,” I answered. An archeologist might sound offensive. It implied civilization was dead. “How long was I occupied?”
“Where is the drone?” I asked.
“What is that?”
“The man … the person who was dead on the floor by me. He wasn’t conscious. He wasn’t self aware. He was a drone.”
“Are you a drone?” he asked.
“No. I am awake and aware.” He said nothing, as if waiting for more information “I’m still human.” I heard laughter nearby before it was cut short. I was about to say soul, but decided not to. “I still have my memories.”
“Do you remember things before all of this?”
“All of what?” His face fell, disappointed. “Before this mission? On the ship?” His face lit up. “Or do you mean of my life, before I died?” He looked startled.
“Are you dead?”
“You tell me, am I dead?” I felt like I was going to end up in a dead-end argument with Sergei.
“Do you know what’s happened to you?” he asked gently. Like a doctor. Like Joel.
“I remember being in a hospital. I remember being in alien hands. I remember the medical examinations and repairs. If you are asking for details about what they did, that takes a doctor.”
“What are the aliens?” he asked. He was desperate to know.
“Light. Liquid. Their sounds are a cross between New Age music and dolphin sound. Of course, it is muted by the liquid a little.”
I couldn’t be sure if he was stunned in silence or disbelieving. I’m trying to explain the alien through a human mind … bridging two cultures that have no other way to communicate but through someone like me, I realized.
“Do you ever see them?” he pressed.
“Do they ever talk to you?”
What is programming, relative to that? What is my purpose? If they are angels … but there is a God. A higher good. “I do a lot of exploring on their behalf, explaining what I find and what these things are, were. I rarely find people.”
“Have you found others?” a guard who entered the room asked.
“Yes,” I answered. Sergei was a man, if a broken one. Joel was a man, if a burdened one.
“Ambassador?” one of them asked. I looked at him, because he might have been talking to me. “What does that mean?”
“I was sent here by someone else.” True. “Killing me is an affront to them.” I hoped that was true. Would it be reason enough for them not to kill me?
More than one voice started issuing a string of profanity.
The doctor said, “It makes sense. Who else – what else could they use?”
My heart rate had been so high, I was tired. I said as much. I leaned back as I wouldn’t look like a marionette whose strings have been let go.
I woke tied to a chair, awakened by the sound of another one being dragged across the concrete floor. A young man was moving it as if to sit across from me. He saw that I was conscious and asked something I couldn’t understand.
“I don’t speak Spanish,” I said. “Can you speak English?” Laughter from the observers and guards, none of it nice.
“Yes, I speak formal English. Do you?”
“Yes,” I answered. I couldn’t imagine what other kind there was.
“We don’t know what to do with you.”
“Don’t kill me.” Rote answer, almost drone, a habit. Had I said that while a gunman in my home shot me, the words etched in my mind? I took a sip of water from the suit. The young man’s face became a concentrated appraisal. “What did you just do?”
“I drank from it.”
“That makes sense.” He inhaled slowly and deeply. “What do you do to go to the bathroom?”
I paused. I really didn’t think about it before. “That’s in here, too.”
“Is there some sort of water filtration? Is that where you get the water?”
“I try not to think about it.” No one laughed. My stomach turned a little, but I didn’t drink more.
“What did you do before the War?”
His face hardened. “You don’t remember the War?”
“I died in a human hospital and was given to the aliens – there hadn’t been a war at that time”
“They bombed the crap out of us! They took out the major cities and most of the minor ones. If you don’t remember it, surely you’ve seen it!”
“Most of my time on Earth has been in ruins, not …” I couldn’t say war zones. OK, I should have realized there’s been a war. How else could I be on Earth among so many ruins?
“They killed most of us! Do you care about that? There’s only a fraction of that left!” he yelled.
“How many?” I asked.
“Hundreds of millions, if we’re lucky.” That meant 90% had died. And, probably, my family. “Does that matter to you?” he asked without the anger.
“I didn’t know.”
“What do you know?” he asked me. I couldn’t think of what I could say that he’d accept as truth. “Why am I arguing with this thing?” he yelled out.
“I had a husband, two children, parents, friends. If billions are dead, then they probably are, too. Does that matter to you?” I challenged him. I realized then the gunman who killed me had probably killed my family then, since the lack of next of kin would make forwarding my body to the aliens for study easier. Studying us might have given them ideas on how to kill everyone else.
“Why do you do what you do?” he asked me.
“Do what? Argue with you?”
He walked out of the room. Several more guards came in. I was so thirsty, I had to drink. Two of them looked away while I did. Was recycled pee that gross? Astronauts did it.
An older woman came in. Were they alternating questioners to get better answers? “You said oh my God at one point. Are you Christian?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I replied. My eyes fell to her neck. A makeshift crucifix.
“How do you come to terms with … what has happened to you?”
“I’m serving a higher purpose.” I said it with emotion as I studied her like an archeologist. I tried not to look at the guards behind her, but I couldn’t help but collect details on them.
“Those things they call drones give rote answers in response to questions, though it rarely changes or lasts very long. How do I know you’re even thinking? That you aren’t ….” She couldn’t finish it.
“Programmed.” I finished it for her.
An unseen male voice a little like the doctor’s said, “Are you truly an independent creature?”
I frowned. Hadn’t I said I was an ambassador? But if I contacted the aliens, sent a signal to be recalled as I remembered doing from a prior mission, I’d be dragged through a trans-dimensional gate or transporter. That would hurt. And I had no idea what that would do to these people. “I don’t know how to answer that,” I admitted.
“What happens if you take of the suit?” she asked me.
The fear was immediate. “Contamination, I think. Disease risk, certainly.”
“Will you die?” she asked.
“Maybe.” My breath quickened. “I don’t want to die again.”
“It’s already dead,” one guard said.
“Maybe one in a hundred drones still has enough memories, emotions and whatever else to be conscious and awake. Some of those aren’t sane, and in all cases, the programming takes over when they can’t function.”
One of the guards said, “I killed a hundred of those things, and none of them ever said he was …”
The woman finished for him. “Human? Conscious?”
I’d wondered where the other sentient ones might be. If we were being killed by the hundreds, how many drones who might have woken up were killed before they could return to themselves? How many sentient ones were killed, and that was why I’d never met them?
“Are you still with us?” the woman asked.
“I was lost in thought.”
“It looked like you were a drone.”
I grimaced. She frowned, too. “If I succumb to the programming, for that time, I guess I am.”
“When are you not a drone?”
“When I’m awake. When I’m conscious. When I remember myself and can control my actions. Please don’t make me argue Descartes.”
“How often is that?”
“Why do you care?” It seemed like a rote challenge. They’re killing people like me, and I hated them for revealing why I was so lonely.
“I want to know if we can save the drones, any of them.”
“Do you think you’re going to save me?” Based on her reaction, it was a bad question to ask. “I’m sorry.” Rote answer. Really bad.
“Are you really afraid of us? Or is that programming?”
“Programming takes out the emotion. When someone is fighting the programming, you can see it. When the programming is in full effect, the face is neutral. Kind of like Neo in the Matrix movies.”
She was mildly surprised. “Have you seen them?”
“I saw them on cable a few times. Why?”
“That was years ago. Most of the younger people have only heard stories of them. You don’t look old enough to remember that sort of thing,” she said.
“How long has it been?” I asked her.
“You only blanked out for a minute or two this time.”
“No. How long since the War the other man mentioned?” I asked.
Her lips pressed into a grim line. The intercom kicked in. “Tell her.”
“The War was 34 years ago. And you hardly look that old.”
Tears tried to come but couldn’t. I waited for the programming to put me to sleep, but it didn’t. I could sense the energy levels. Falling, but not empty. What happened when it hit zero? I’d always been in a medical bay before then. I’d lived as long as this as I had as a human. It had been a generations since the aliens came. It felt impossible, but the details created a bigger picture that said it was true.
“Should we kill it?” someone asked. That startled me back to reality.
“No,” I replied immediately.
“That might be programming,” a male voice said. “It even admitted to being programmed.”
“We’ve never gotten this much information out of one before,” the woman said. “And if she’s right, others could be –“
“Shut up!” a fourth male voice said.
I opened my eyes and stared at them. My mind taking in the details and assigning meaning to them. Worn boots covered in dirt. Hands and clothes of a farmer. A man built like a warrior and the attitude to match. A guard who is here because he holds a gun like he knows how to use it and wants to. A woman here to talk to me because they thought I might respond better to it. And a man in charge.
“Is it too cliché to say take me to your leader?” I asked.
“What makes you say that?” a voice challenged.
“The fellow in all black looks like an officer. And you’re deferring to him as if he were.”
He gave me his full attention then. “You declared yourself an ambassador.”
“You seem to want me to talk.”
He was slightly amused. “Why did you go into a fugue state after hearing that we kill drones?”
“I was thinking of others I’ve known who I guess are now dead.”
“They were already dead.”
“And what am I?” I asked.
His nostrils flared. Did I smell bad? I couldn’t smell anything at all. “We’re not sure,” he admitted. They’re debating whether or not to kill me. I decided to prove I was a person. I told him my name.
“Why tell us that now?”
“If I’m going to die, I want someone to know who I was. So I’m not another anonymous corpse.”
The officer looked pained. I remembered a line from a science fiction book, that fear of death was what made us human. “What are we supposed to do with you?”
“I don’t know.” Bad answer. Their default solution is to kill me. “Is talking enough?”
“What do they want?” he asked me. “You said you’re an ambassador. Tell us. What do they want?”
“They’ve had 50 years and a few billion lives to figure those things out.” He issued rapid fire sequence of commands in what might have been Spanish or a hybrid language. “What are you going to tell us to do?”
“I can’t tell you to do anything.”
“They keep sending drones in. We keep killing them. Then they send us you. Why are you even here? What do you want?”
A dozen things tumbled through my mind. “Peace,” was all I could utter. Even I knew it wasn’t right, wasn’t good enough.
“You’ve said things like that in the past few days. Why should I believe anything you say? Are you just a better programmed drone, collecting information the others couldn’t?”
Horror washed over me. I closed my eyes to all of them. The programming was edging in, and I couldn’t push it away. “Did I go into a drone mode?”
“Me, I, does any machine ever use those words except for a reflexive ‘I’m sorry’?” the woman asked. I’d convinced her, at least, that I was still a person.
“What do they want?” They were arguing.
“I wanted hope,” I admitted. “I wanted to know that I could do something that meant something. A higher purpose.”
All eyes were on me now. “What did you say?” one of the guards asked.
“I wanted there to be hope that I could do something more, be more, with this unplanned afterlife. I know I died. I can’t bring back the dead, but I can try to make sense of the world, bring understanding –“
There was harsh laughter from more than one of the guards. They were clumped together in one part of the room, as far away from me as possible.
“The aliens revived the dead,” one of the guards said. “They’re soulless machines now.”
“I’m not,” I retorted. “I do have a soul.” There. I’d said it.
“Whatever else it’s babbling, this ain’t programming.”
They want to kill me, and unless I keep feeding them information, I have no value whatsoever. My energy levels are running low, and I risk falling into a drone state to save energy. “Oh, God,” I uttered. My stomach was turning to acid.
“Take it outside,” the officer said. “Leave it there.”
“They’ll know about us!” someone argued.
“They already know we’re here. What else could they learn from it?” the officer answered.
“Stop acting like I’m a thing! I’m human” I retorted.
He got in my face. “How can you say that? How can you actually say that?” He made several motions, and the guards picked me up. The dragged me to face two way glass. Programming superimposed heat vision over my regular vision, and I saw three people on the other size. Then human vision returned. My face was my own, though gaunt. The suit was vaguely like mylar with wires and other things built in. One tube entered my throat. It was dry. I sipped. It pulsed water up from the suit and into my throat. My hair was thin, wispy, almost gone. My face was young, without wrinkles. My ears were unchanged. My nose was fairly normal. My eyes were alien hybrid. The blue irises had a glow from the inside, probably machinery in the retina. There was another color around the blue, almost greenish. “The eyes are supposed to be the windows into the soul …” I muttered.
“And how can you have a soul with those eyes?” one of the guards asked.
The aliens watch through me and interpret the world through my experience. They had to change me, to be able to do this, I told myself. After a long hesitation, I said as much.
“Rationalization of the insane, that’s quite human. But how does that make you an Ambassador?” the leader asked.
“How else could they learn about humanity?”
“You’re a spy!” someone screamed. A gun rose up. I couldn’t help the fear. I couldn’t stop the instinctive cry for assistance to the only group I knew could save me, the aliens. The energy beam appeared and they disappeared.
The medical bay was familiar. The aliens didn’t activate the programming for a long time, only meeting my needs. They studied me and my mind for a long time, though I didn’t know what they learned. I wondered if the inter-dimensional jump killed those in the room. I hoped not.
The aliens downloaded my memories; that much I could feel. Did they learn, I hoped, what the human survivors wanted? Could I dare hope they’d agree to live and let live?
They brought Joel back. He was here, with me, in his soulful misery, fully conscious. “You’ve been active for a long time.”
“I haven’t been unconscious for hours, maybe days.”
“Your body can’t handle it. You’re dying.”
“I’ve already died once.”
“You could be turned into a drone. Then you’d live a really long time.”
“But it wouldn’t be life. I’d be dead, in a true Hell. I’ve had fleeting moments of humanity in three decades of time on Earth. I’d rather die than never come back … again.”
He was distant for a moment. “Thirty years?” He focused on me. “Is that what you want?”
“I saw your memory feed. You saw humans. What do they want?”
“They’re terrified of drones. They certainly don’t want to be like that. They’d rather die than be this. They were killing drones because they thought we were dead already.” All those pronouns mixed up.
“They’re listening to every word we say,” he said. “If you say you want to die, they’ll understand the request – and I think they might act. Your personality has asserted so strongly, the base reactions, you’re so …“
“So human?” I could see his alien side now, with the programming completely shut down. The harness that made up for the weaknesses of weak muscles, while a network of biological interfaces carried impulses for nerves damaged during his suicide attempt. “What happened down there?”
“The people on the surface? Does that matter?” Joel asked.
“There are hundreds of millions left. So yes, it does matter.”
A surprising revelation to Joel. “Make them understand,” I begged. “If I can’t.”
“Why? Why try?”
“All I want is peace.” Joel’s hand was hovering in a specific place, as if he was about to push an off button. “My family was murdered, when I died. I don’t want others to be murdered – by humans or aliens. If they understand, will they at least stop killing people?”
“Saving one life is like saving the world. If the aliens can understand something of humanity, and the killing at least stops, isn’t that peace?”
His face was distant, as if they were downloading his memories. How much of their view of humanity came from people who had died violent deaths or decided they couldn’t live anymore? How many people had they killed because our dead had been proof we deserved it? And just one person, here on the ship, is begging for life. Not her own, but everyone else’s. Was I humanity’s last ambassador, begging for its right to live when I knew I wouldn’t have a third chance?
“We have to explore,” Joel said. Their words. He was a representative for them.
“Build barriers around your spaces. Leave them the rest. It’s a big planet.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“It’s a big universe.” My energy levels were low. Time was running out. “Joel, please. Before I die, promise you’ll try to save them.”
“I’m not anything but a healer here. A glorified mechanic, really.”
“You swore to save lives, as a doctor. What if you can save hundreds of millions? Isn’t that reason enough to try? Isn’t that recompense for your sins?” His face twisted in guilt and grief.
“Do you really think there is redemption after what we’ve done?”
“We have to try!” He was on the edge. And they were recording everything, hearing everything. Would they really understand? Could they? “Isn’t that what makes us human?”
“Redemption is a pipe dream,” he challenged.
“I’ve already had one afterlife,” I weakly countered.
“I hope there is redemption,” he said. He started doing things, and darkness started to set in. There was no programming, no alien influence. I was dying. As memories of my family started to flash before my eyes, I wondered what would happen next. I hoped for the best after trying my best, and I knew that was all we could ever do. Hopefully, the next afterlife would be the one I had planned.