By John C. Mannone
Galactic outpost, Delta Lyrae1c, Earthdate 2231.4
The landscape smoldered and red dust hung in the thin air; the blue sun slipped below the ragged mountains. Hundreds of dead bodies were strewn amidst the rubble; insects swarmed. Lane stirred from the buzz of flies and their digging into his flesh. The gash in his forehead had festered after several days while he was unconscious in the alien atmosphere. He struggled to stand; in that moment, he remembered what had happened and frantically tried to run, but staggered and fell as he scrambled over the carnage. A sickening-sweetness permeated the air. He pushed away disheveled pieces of walls and toppled roofs, unearthing one dead body after another. A familiar gold barrette lay on the ground. Nearby, long brown hair swept from under the rocks. Lane dashed toward that pile of debris, crying, crying to his wife, “Sarah!” He levered the concrete blocks with a piece of lumber to free her. His fingers shook as he pressed them against her carotid; he sensed a weak pulse. A broken piece of silvered glass, close to her mouth, fogged with faint breath.
A few days later, Sarah’s fever broke; she moaned when she sat up. Lane rushed to her side.
“Lie down, darling. Don’t try to get up.” He cradled her hand in his, caressing it; with the other, he gently brushed her hair over her shoulders as he lowered her back down to the mattress. He kissed her on the lips. Her green eyes closed for a moment, but quickly reopened.
“Lane! What happened?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
He struggled to get the words out, “Except for us, everyone is dead from weapons’ blasts… and radiation. We were attacked by something, someone.”
Silence gripped her throat. She stared at Lane for the longest time.
“My God! What are we going to do?”
“Don’t worry about that right now. The reactor is operational, and we have plenty of food and water. I’m sure the Galactic Federation will be sending a patrol soon.” Lane’s face didn’t flinch. All those years in medical school didn’t teach him how to cure fear — only to hide it.
Lane was also expert in bionics; Sarah, in physics and electrical engineering. (Being cross-disciplines was survival strategy when terraforming hostile environments.)
Sarah diligently repaired the communications module capable of faster-than-light transmission, and reception, by launching waves into the fifth dimension. Lane wrote new computer codes for the modified unit. It should only take a couple of months to radio Earth; without it, it would take twenty years.
The module crackled on power-up; their faces tensed while sending the distress signal.
“It’s been over four months. I don’t think our rescue ship is coming.” Sarah’s head drooped.
Panel lights blinked red. “Wait a minute! I’m getting something.” Sarah pressed the headset to her ears. “It’s from a vessel in Gamma quadrant.”
“Gamma quadrant?” Lane blared. “That’s nowhere near home!”
Straining to hear, she finally discerned the words…Her countenance changed to a blank stare. She removed the headset, gently set it down.
“What’s the matter, honey?” She didn’t answer him. Lane snatched the headset; the words scratched through:
May Day! May Day! This is Federation Battle Cruiser November Alpha One Niner Seven; base coordinates, RA185856.62 DEC324122.4; heading, Vega star cluster, direct. Encountered hostile life forms, entity unknown. Ship damaged. Life-support compromised. All outposts attacked. Earth destroyed.
The Captain’s last words repeated in an endless loop.
She slowly turned to Lane. In that moment, there was nothing they could do but to hold each other. That night, he loved her as if it were the last time.
Two suns tugged on this planet; forced it into strange orbits and long seasons of dark. But now was the time for planting. The yellow sun would stay good position for another year. Sarah lost herself in the garden while Lane slaved in the lab while he still had his strength. He didn’t tell Sarah… about the massive dose of radiation he received during the assault; he was thankful that Sarah was in a shielded vault. He didn’t tell her he would not have long to live. He had to finish the project soon!
Sarah slept soundly. Lane sensed his biological systems rapidly degrading; it was less than a year since the injury. He kissed her sweetly and slipped out of bed to finish the important work.
He had grown tissue cultures in saline tanks… for the grafting, and installed the last neural net, configured from scavenged circuits. Then Lane recorded his farewell message to Sarah. With activation protocols downloaded, he connected the electrode harness and proceeded with the memory transfer.
Sarah awoke; felt a cool breeze up her spine. Lane wasn’t there.
She shuffled to the lab; found Lane slumped over the computer console. “Lane!” She said shaking him. She noticed the clenched piece of paper; listened to the recording.
“Damn you, Lane! How could you leave me? And not say anything?” Mascara inked her cheeks as she crumpled the note.
From the corner of the lab, a high-pitched whir came from the activated cyborg. Lights flashed sporadically from its eyes, and its head twitched. Ingrained with his DNA, it was a perfect replica of Lane: six-foot-two, square-jawed, blond crew-cut, even down to the scar on his head.
Its neural nets overloading from processing its new environment, the cyborg ambled toward her, at first, clumsy and inarticulate, uttering “Sss-aah-rah.”
“Get away from me! You’re not Lane! Leave me alone!”
“Get…,” but her mouth hung open on the first syllable.
Tears traced its face. “I am for you, Sarah.”
Red dust still hung in the thin blue air. Sarah walked to till the garden; her hair, beautiful in the low sun. Her silhouette — soft, pregnant — blended with his. The cyborg cradled her hand with a touch that she knew well.
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John C. Mannone has been nominated three times for the Pushcart and once for the Rhysling. His work appears in the Baltimore Review, Conclave, Pedestal, The Hellroaring Review, Paper Crow and others. He teaches physics, is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, and is the poetry editor of Silver Blade.