A living spaceship contemplates its existence after a devastating battle
|The signal tickled my antenna again. There had to be someone alive down there. This time I was certain.
As I drifted over the immense planet I triangulated the location of the transmission. It came from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, close to my horizon. I fired up my booster rockets and entered a higher orbit to travel there faster.
It had been a long time since I had heard a new signal - three years, according to my records. That one had been caused by faulty equipment, like most of the others. I could detect hordes of old signals from rusting machinery that had never been switched off, but a new one could indicate life. I hadn't heard a live human voice since the alien attack.
The first we had heard of the invasion – or didn't hear – was when the Mars base fell silent. The Fleet suspected that something more than a faulty transmitter or a dust storm was to blame for the loss of contact. My brothers and I were placed on high alert. We flew patrol missions more often, with the others guarding Earth and the Moon under my protection.
We lost the Battle of Earth. Our ships fought valiantly and wiped out most of the enemy fleet. I would have liked to have joined the fight, but my orders would not allow it. I would have arrived too late in any case. I listened helplessly to the battle as my brothers perished one by one.
I engaged the remnant of the alien force when they reached the Moon only hours later. I managed to destroy them all, but not before their dreadful weapon had been used against the Moon base.
I hadn't fully understood the nature of that device, despite hearing hints about it during the attack on Earth. It sat atop a lightly armed vessel different to the other more dangerous ships. If I had known what it was, I would have attacked it first.
We never knew who the aliens were, what they wanted, or where they came from. Clearly they had wanted to wipe out all life in the solar system, but for what purpose I never learned. At least they had not returned.
Since that day fifteen years ago I had flown solo, without a commander to give me orders or a fellow ship to talk to. Every day I waited for a signal. I never stopped searching. I was certain that somewhere on the great expanse of the Earth somebody must have survived.
In the early years I landed in hundreds of diverse locations – desolate cities slowly surrendering to weeds, peaceful mountain valleys, desert oases, quiet forests, vast flat prairies and farmlands. Nothing moved but the breeze. Not even the smaller life forms stirred – the tiny flying insects, the pets that lived alongside humanity, or the livestock bred for food. All were gone. Animal life had disappeared. Whatever that weapon was, it had done its job thoroughly.
In recent years I hadn't landed on Earth so often. I needed to conserve the fuel I had left. I only visited the surface when I found something I urgently wanted to investigate, like now.
Australia sprawled underneath me, its great red desert brightening in the sunrise. I heard the signal coming not far from the south coast. It contained no message, only a repeated bleep like a homing beacon. Someone must have switched it on – a call for help maybe. I targeted the source, engaged my heat shield and entered the atmosphere.
Landing on Earth took its toll on my exterior as well as my fuel reserves. I much preferred my home base on the Moon. I would have stayed there more but I liked to patrol the colourful blue and green world to look for signs of life. There was nothing left on the Moon now, just the empty shell of the base. I could still refuel there and had access to the life-giving fluids I required, but when I lay in my old hangar, no mechanoid engineers came to repair me.
The Moon base had held tens of thousands of humans. Many of them had been enhanced to a lesser degree than me – with tools for arms or legs replaced with strong steel props. Some even replaced their lungs so that they did not need to breathe. I heard it said that it was a poor choice, because a man who does not need air does not need an indoor bed and would soon find himself without one. As someone who had neither breathed air nor slept on a bed for decades, I no longer appreciated the problem.
I had little choice in my own transformation. I was only eight years old when I was selected - if I had been much older then the new neuro-electronic connections would not have been possible. They had set me complex tests of intelligence and personality for weeks on end. Once I grew so tired of them that I swore at my supervisor. I was certain that he would fail me because of that, but I learned later that it had counted as a positive. They wanted someone who would think for himself and argue back at least a little.
I wasn't able to argue when they pulled my brain out of my body and placed it into the spaceship. Despite my initial terror, I began to enjoy my new limbs of steel and concrete more than my old broken body – that body had never been much use to me anyway. I was one of only four living ships ever created. We were invincible, or so we thought.
For ten years I studied with my pilot Stan, who guided me and taught me about my new senses and abilities. I could see far beyond the spectrum of visible light, and could detect ships from miles away. I could communicate over radio as easily as talking, and I had access to a vast repository of human knowledge.
Once I flew Stan and a small crew to Jupiter and we scanned all of its moons, even finding the location of a lost wreck on Europa. Those were happy times.
After Stan left, I was allowed to fly myself. I behaved well most of the time. I owed my new life to the Fleet and I was grateful. It had saddened me to hear that Stan died not long after that. Not knowing how to respond, I fired a missile off into space in rage. Luckily it didn't hit anything, but the Fleet kept a close eye on me for a while after that.
My fellow living ships were like brothers to me. I used to speak to them all the time. They were the only ones who truly understood what this life was like. The humans had named us all Talos and numbered us I to IV. We disliked the way our personalities had been blended into a single word, so we made our own names for each other, unspeakable by human mouths. I missed the other ships sorely.
I cleared my thoughts and tried to concentrate, I needed all my senses now to identify the source of the signal. The dusty desert air clouded my sensors as I landed next to what looked like a remote satellite station. Two houses sat beside it. I wondered if people lived in them, but somehow I already knew the answer.
As a spaceship I couldn't knock on the door or go inside to confirm if the place was inhabited. I used my voicebox instead, projecting through my external speakers. “Hello,” I yelled. “Is anyone there?”
There was no response. I could still hear the signal beaming from the giant dish. Perhaps it had switched on by mistake after all these years.
Nearby I spied a row of solar panels half covered in sand, where a dune looked close to devouring it. The dune must have been covering the cell until recently, hence the signal's sudden appearance.
In anger I launched one of my few remaining missiles and destroyed the dish. A large round yellow flame swelled and roared and whooshed skywards. That felt good. If anyone had been in one of the houses, they would surely have come outside at the sound of that.
I took off, sadly, wondering if I would ever hear another new signal. I still didn't want to accept it, but it was likely that there were no more humans. There was just me, the protector of the grave of humanity, guarding their empty home world in vain like a dog whose owner had perished and didn't know what else to do.
I was the only surviving human, although even I wasn't really human any more.