Once upon a time on the Original World, there was an old man who traded one eye for wisdom.
The story is ancient; it came with us on the journey-ships, and traversed the Original Jump. Scholars tell us that it far predates the journey-ships, but like all good stories we know its truth on another soil under another sky.
I did not make a trade with the fates as he did — and that’s a device of the storyteller, I think; I do suspect the Old Man of the Ravens simply set out to acquire wisdom, and only after the fact learned its price.
They call me Mavra Two-Eyes. One of my eyes is human, the one I was born with; the other is a cybernetic wonder that sees through the whole spectrum. No liar, however skilled, can fool all the senses; the lie always depends on the willing belief of the lied-to. Above all, beware your uneasy desire to believe the best, even if your senses command the entire electromagnetic spectrum. No fortress falls but is betrayed from within.
Seven years a cadet, forty years a Ship’s Captain, and now I dispense wisdom to grubber apprentices like my child-self.
Listen, children. The vid-dramas on the Downlink show you space-battles. Those are no more real than the courage of the leading actors. Real space battles don’t last long.
After the fact, they pieced it together.
After the fact, they pieced me together.
What I remember? Nothing. Flashes.
I sealed my coverall and felt its temporary air supply deploy. I turned to the escape pod.
Flash — and black.
I woke up–what was left of me–in the arms of the Ship’s Avatar-Ashore. Eye to eye, Timur Ship’s-Heart in his mortal face, my remaining eye to his cybernetic beauty, only his face and hands a portrait. I could feel nothing below the neck. There was a reason for that.
Half of me was lost, and all of my Ship but a remnant. Let me count the dead: my other Captain (my brother), and my Ship (my love), and my Crew (my cousins).
Timur kept me infused with pain-killers, and when that failed, redirected the circuits. I never felt a thing.
Simulacrum. Timur was dead, had been since his skimmer failed over the Inland Sea. But they entombed what was left in a Ship. We are not so far from our ancestors, but in our world, human sacrifice is efficacious magic.
They repaired us. It’s in the treaty. Not enough of either of us remained for us to walk away alone, and the rest of them, more or less fortunate than we (ask me which; the answer changes by the hour) whirl in slow-motion as blown bio-debris in the zero-g blast field of the killer drone from T-7, forever turning in the dance that does not end. Buried in my process-threads are the last moments of everyone I have loved these forty years. It isn’t only the eye; half of me is not me at all. Like the ancient Androgyne, or a parable of the Life Cybernetic, I will never be alone again.
Remember, those vid-dramas are made planet-side. Oh and the slashing laser-battles, very pretty, but no one carries energy-weapons on board. The Ship won’t permit it; we’re not stupid. Do you want sharp bits bouncing around inside you? Would you eat broken glass?
When I took adulthood rites, I was Mavra Fix-all. I won my epithet in the battle of the maintenance corridors; I welded and hammered and jury-rigged my way to glory. Did it fail, I could fix it; Mavra’s a good-luck name. My legendary namesake, last of her doomed crew, welded herself on the other side of the wall when Dome Seven failed. She died but won the battle; she and her crew were the only casualties.
Hull-breached and blown to glory: that’s your space battle. And notice that nobody in those dramas looks the least like you? Planet-side aristos, every last one of them, just like those poseurs who wash out of spatio-temporal physics and crash their skimmers as if they could walk away and get a new body. And those Ships don’t talk; they’re just stage-sets. And there’s only one Captain, as if no one ever slept.
A real Ship is a parliament of intelligences; some were born in flesh, and others spawned as process-threads. Doesn’t matter, after a while. What you want, in a crisis, is the view from ninety degrees away.
And they play chess in five dimensions, backward, because it amuses them.
I’m still dreaming their dreams.
Someone at the Academy told me that the Old Man of the Ravens was an ancient god.
I just stared at them, with both my mortal eyes. “Gods aren’t human,” I said.
What kind of fool needs to be told something so obvious? They talk about their Goddess of the Ancient Sea and their Queen of the Snows and their Daughter of Storms, but those are nothing more than personifications of the hydrological cycle, the great dance of the atmosphere of a planet more water than land. We are agnostics for a reason; think that the universe has the same motives as you, and like as not you’ll not only end dead, but take others with you.
The abyss looks back at us, and not only through the sensors of the Ship. But even in a human form, it does not look back with human eyes.
Flash fiction in answer to Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge.
The narrator, Mavra Two-Eyes, is a character from Inside the Jump and Ship’s Heart.