Carbon and Circuitry
by John Joseph Ryan
Clarke was right.
Aliens became their ships, as he said they would, immortalized in untold ores refined into circuitry more durable than any human technology. While our species was proud to move cursors with brain-implanted electrodes, they were stretching lifespans into light-years, synchronizing, seeking, discovering. And destroying.
Trading carbon for circuitry came with a cost, though. They forgot about the body.
Helplessly embodied ourselves when they discovered us, sentiments still bound our minds—made us more ruthlessly protective of the vulnerable carbon boundaries we all shared. Now, in defense of flesh, we can do more than move cursors with those minds. We can fly warships.
What do they have? All mind, yet mindless; hive-bound and pitiless. But I can sense the remnant of the creature behind the machine—the echo of a form pitiable, forlorn, and small, granted the universe at the cost of touch, at the expense of any ethos other than the drive to expand and endure, sacrificing itself and all other creatures to the ineluctable need of the greater whole.
When I destroy one of them, I take no pleasure in the silent shock wave.
Instead, I imagine the being that began its starward journey with wonder as its motive.
* * *
On furlough inside my pod beneath Titan, I haven’t spoken in days. I stare out through glass to a hydrothermal sea, illumined only as far as the floodlights can reach.
I stare dead-eyed at the tiny holographic tree in the center of my pod as new mood stabilizers get to work on my neglected well-being. Smart instruments, smart devices. I can read them as much as they can read me.
The tree represents the sort that once dominated our home planet, bristly and resinous if I "touch" it with haptic gloves, redolent of the Earth’s last mature forest my great-grandfather saw burn.
I watch this conical illusion turn slowly in place. Yet my mood continues to darken despite the pine-scented therapeutic gas passing through vents.
My fellow pilots rest in their own pods, alive under lifeless ice, each pod a pearl of light strung into strands that fragilely decorate the dark, extraterrestrial sea. I will see them at the next sortie, anonymous figures obscured by suits and helmets, before we are cradled in our individual capsules. Alone.
Ah, to untether my desolate pod from this vast submarine complex and sink down into the dark water. Or, once more loosened from gravity, to break from tight tactical formation and rocket off into open space, never to return. Better to run out of oxygen amid stars than to be swallowed up in an icy sea.
Who else feels as I do?
There is no instrument to say.
No internal collective, hive-bound and pitiless, to answer.
I recite the lie as I await my orders:
I am not alone,
I am not alone,
I am not alone . . .
John Joseph Ryan’s work has appeared in River Styx, McSweeney’s, and The Dark City (U.S.), and in international publications such as Mystery Magazine (Canada), Samjoko (Republic of Korea), Grievous Bodily Harm (Australia), and A-Z of Horror (U.K.). John is co-author of the noir short, “Hothouse by the River” (University of Iowa Center for the Book), and he is also the author of a crime novel, A Bullet Apiece (Amphorae Publishing Group, 2015). John hosts the YouTube series, "Creepy Poem of the Day," in St. Louis, Missouri, the heart of American promise and decline.