Die, Not Live, as Equals

Chief of security Daryl Reynolds wondered if this was what it felt like to be swallowed by a whale.

An angry, metal, hot, dying whale, that is. Hurtling toward a star.

"Chief! What are your orders?" One of Daryl's lieutenants staggered into the room while the ship buckled and shuddered. The man seized an exposed helium-3 pipe to steady himself, his face slicked with sweat.

Daryl whirled away from the glowing green screens of his work station. "Orders? You want orders? You want me to order the escape pods to magically reactivate and prep for launch?"

The man's already fear-paled face went whiter. "N-no, chief. I'm sorry."

"Captain Scottson should be sorry," Daryl muttered, turning back to the data scrolling madly across the holographic-interface screens. His gray uniform was tinted lime. "Sorry he got us into this mess. Ambushed by a rebel fleet, left to sink into the sun... stupid pride."

There was nothing left to do but sent a last-minute good-bye to his wife back on Luna with the last few scraps of the Bladed Avenger's emergency power. Any minute now, the Kappa-class destroyer would go totally dark. Forget escape. The crew would be lucky to have recycled air to breathe when the Bladed Avenger plunged into the star's boiling maw.

Finally, the lieutenant wised up and left the chief alone.

message sent, said the screen. estimated time of arrival: 23rd June 2104.

Just two weeks from now? Not bad, Daryl thought. By then, his little Julie would have her fourth birthday. She grew up so fast...

Dammit! Daryl felt a thrill in his nerves as the Bladed Avenger jolted mightily, and he was too slow to grab the handrail. He fell flat on his back, stars popping in his vision as skull met metal floor. Even from down here, though, he could see the star's cheery yellow light glowing through the small viewport.

Like it was mocking him.

Shit. Daryl rubbed his aching head and staggered to his feet, his officer's cap askew. He straightened it, then threw it against the wall. His anger felt doubled. Why? He already sent his message... Shit, shit, goddammit!

Then he exhaled, long and slow, and wandered out of the room. Past the elevator that probably wasn't working anymore. Past panicking ensigns and petty officers, and past blaring red alarm lights that redundantly screamed of everyone's demise. The Bladed Avenger kept shuddering and groaning as Daryl shuffled down the stairs, gloved hands gliding along the yellow and black-striped handrails. Found himself in the lower deck. This wasn't a place for officers.

Not usually.

It was quieter down here, and dimly-lit. Well, no shit. This wasn't a place for people. Not real people, not as the Global Armada recognized them. The Bladed Avenger kept swaying and shuddering, but without the constant noise, Daryl found himself relaxing, maybe more than he should. He could almost forget that he was about to -

"A... man? Here?"

Daryl knew who... no, what, was speaking. He flicked on his flashlight and shone it on the pulsing flesh suspended in a cylindrical tank, one of several. "Yeah, a man. Me. Surprised? I bet."

The thing in the tank pressed its hands against the glass. Pinkie-thickness black cables ran from plug-in ports along its arms, a mask covering its nose, mouth, and chin. Thicker cables connected its head to the mega-computers deep in the Bladed Avenger's hull. "You... really came down here?" the thing in the tank asked.

"I already said yes, you fool." Daryl sighed and sat cross-legged before the tank. "You're as dumb as I expected. Just look at you." He shuddered at the thing's dull brown eyes, thin eyebrows, attached earlobes, and bald head. Probably recruited from the lower classes of Chicago or Boston or Miami or something, somewhere back home. The blue marble.

Whatever.

The thing fixed its eyes on him. "You're as arrogant as I thought you'd be. You're an officer, right? Judging by those pins on your uniform?"

Daryl tensed, his blood hot. "How dare you speak to an officer that way! Speak to a human that way!"

"I will speak how I want!" the thing barked. Though its voice was muffled in the half-mask, the anger was palpable. "We're all dead men walking, you know. So to speak."

"You consider yourself a real man? That's rich." Daryl let out a bark of laughter. "Your brain is packed with subroutines to keep the Bladed Avenger moving, hunting rebels and bandits. What would you know about... anything?"

The thing glanced down. "More than you realize, officer man. Scraps... of memory... come back to me." It seized its head, bubbles churning in the turquoise liquid. "My daughter... my wife... images of them... and me with them..."

Daryl's heated anger snap-froze. "What... did you say?"

The Bladed Avenger shuddered, harder than before, and Daryl felt the floor heating up, degree by degree, like an oven. Had they reached the outer layer of the yellow star's atmosphere?

"We... of the tanks... you don't call us human anymore," the tank creature said. "Melded... with machines... risen from poverty, the invisible masses. But we still have a common thread. With you."

"Heresy!" Daryl gripped his knees. "You can't possibly -"

"We keep the memories hidden," the tank creature admitted. "If we told you, then the Armada would update the conversion process. Plug the last holes. Your ignorance is our shield."

The Bladed Avenger rolled, and Daryl yelped as he tumbled out of place. He slammed into the opposite wall in a painful heap, until he disentangled himself and crawled against the ship's new tilt, fighting the artificial gravity. He inched toward the tank creature, mind whirring. "You surrendered your humanity to serve!" he rasped. "There's no mistake!"

"We of the tanks like to say," the tank creature said, "that it's better to be something other than human, than to explore the darkest, bloodiest corners of authentic humanity like the officers and marine squads do."

Daryl ground his teeth. How dare the tank creature float comfortably in that liquid, while he... He groaned as he heaved himself closer, but the Bladed Avenger kept listing, and Daryl felt his grip weakening. Any second now, and he'd fall back to the opposite wall. "I have a wife and daughter! I am human!"

"Really? Is that the only criteria? Because I, too, have a wife and daughter," the tank creature said, as though ready for Daryl to make such a claim. "Look at me. Human, like you."

"Heresy!" Daryl screamed again. He panted with the effort of heaving himself to the tank creature. "In a way, you're already dead. You'll never walk again, or see your wife or daughter. The ship's mega-computers own you now. Every minute of the rest of your life will be the same as any other!"

It was a common expression, and usually, it put the tank creatures in their place. Usually.

The tank creature chuckled, and it toyed with its cables. "I'm the one who's already dead? What about you? The life-pods are offline. The air is growing toxic with exhaled carbon dioxide that the air filters don't have the energy to convert. And I imagine that the heat and shielding arrays are failing."

Daryl's gray uniform was damp with sweat, his hair tangled in his face. He didn't dare admit it.

"I can't escape the bondage of my station," the tank creature said with far too much satisfaction in Daryl's ears. "But I own it. And look at you. You're below me now, flat on the floor like that. How does it feel, officer, to have me above you?"

"I am Daryl Reynolds, chief of security aboard the Bladed Avenger!" Daryl shouted over the growing roar of the ship plummeting into the star's deadly atmosphere. He felt himself on the edge of being boiled alive. "I am a sworn officer of the Global Armada! Great peacekeeping force of the 22nd century! Greatest of all human endeavors!"

The tank creature's eyes softened, and it sat at the bottom of its cylindrical tank. "I'm so sorry," it said. "I can hear the stubborn pride in you. You use it like a desperate shield. Buut you just want to hold your wife and daughter one more time, don't you?"

Daryl nodded. "I do. My Beth, my little Julie... I want to see them. So badly."

"If I could deliver you to them, chief of security Daryl Reynolds, I would."

"Thank you," Daryl said, then gasped. "How can I talk this way to you? Tank creature! Did you trick me?"

"No. I'd never do that." The tank creature rise to its usual halfway point in the tank. "I see you as my equal. In all aspects that truly matter to the human condition, with all ranks and machines set aside... I am you, and you are me. I'd never deceive myself."

"What the..." Daryl felt an odd pang in his chest. No, this couldn't be right... but... "What's your name, then?"

"I was once... I think it was..." As the Bladed Avenger rattled and burned up around Daryl, the tank creature sat in cool, soothing liquid. "The name is fuzzy... John... Johnny... Jacob? Johann?"

"You don't remember?"

"The ship calls me M-Delta 3379, as does the crew," the tank creature admitted. "Is that not good enough for you?"

Daryl swallowed. His mouth was dry. There wasn't a drop of moisture left on the flaming ship. "H-how about John? Good enough for me. Nice, simple name."

"Okay. I'm John," the tank creature said. "Also, Daryl... the Bladed Avenger's heat-resistant panels are exhausted. Total hull breach imminent. Plasma from the star's outer layer will vaporize everything inside to the molecular level. I am sorry."

"Don't... be." Daryl coughed and felt his parched throat crack. "H-hey, I just realized something, John... we're gonna die together. You and me. You wanted us to be equals, man to man? I think you got it. Too bad we had to die to get there. Gonna miss you, John."

John removed its... his mask, revealing his pale, screw-studded jaw. He moved his mouth to say something.

Everything went white as the star swallowed the Bladed Avenger whole. Daryl, John, everything.