“All that we see or seem
is but a dream within a dream.”
— Edgar Allan Poe
The metal membrane of the ceiling shuddered, sending shockwaves through the hangar as cluster bombs rained death from the skies of Ganymede V. The mechanized ceiling held … for now. Captain John Parkin exhaled a stream of cigarette smoke through gritted teeth and pulled his wife closer to him. They smoked in silence, the hydraulic elevator’s floor trembling under their feet. They had a few seconds left before reaching ground level, but there was nothing more to say. John stared into her eyes, and she – at the Dragonfly below. He wiped a tear from Lena’s cheek and followed her gaze down to the war machine.
Maintenance lights danced across the Dragonfly’s folded wings as the crew disconnected cables and fuel lines from its grey hull. The air smelled of diesel and dust. John shivered. He did not expect to see his wife again.
The elevator skidded to a halt.
“Lena?” he said.
“Do you believe in miracles?”
She kissed his lips.
“Yes, baby. You know I do.”
John returned the kiss. All these years together and he still loved her like he had never loved before. Whatever their end was meant to be, he knew that if he had the choice between saving the world or never knowing her touch he’d let the world burn a dozen times over.
Captain John Parkin let go of Lena and walked across the catwalk to the Dragonfly’s life support hatch. He grabbed onto the open hatch’s edge with his left hand, fingers strained with tension under the nanofiber glove.
One last look, he told himself. He turned around.
Lena blew him a kiss. He smiled. The elevator’s safety cage slid closed, hiding her from view, and the elevator started its climb back to the hangar’s midsection. John wished for a miracle: he wished that one day, somehow, they would be reunited, free to live, free to love until the end of time. He put on his helmet and climbed through the hatch.
“Hello, John,” the Dragonfly said as he fastened himself in.
“Is everything all right?”
“We are under attack, cut off from reinforcements, and will most likely die today. Apart from that, yeah. Everything’s all right.”
“Hmm … should we put some beats on?”
The membrane ceiling retracted into the hangar walls, revealing Ganymede V’s twin moons set against the orange-blue sky. Enemy bombers swarmed above like locusts, supported by enemy Dragonflies and suborbital fighter jets.
“Hit it,” he said.
Psychedelic trance blasted from the cockpit’s speakers; he pushed a button and his Dragonfly’s wings snapped open. Captain John Parkin pulled on the throttle, and the next moment he was airborne, out of the hangar, and in the thick of the fight.
The air base had been nearly decimated; most of the Dragonflies that made up John’s squad have been destroyed, friendly ships exploding in flashes of fire all around him.
The Dragonfly’s neurolink controls responded at the speed of thought, his mind and the ship’s AI synced through months of training. John downed his first bomber as soon as he reached the clouds; the Dragonfly’s autocannons made short work of a jet that tried to tail him, sending it blazing towards the ground. He dived, launching a homing missile at another bomber, when three enemy Dragonflies followed him into the dive.
He jerked left, then right, avoiding the trace lines of their autocannons as trance music boomed a deep bass inside the cockpit. John gained altitude, shot out a packet of flares, and turned the Dragonfly around in a wheel-barrow maneuver. He was upside down, the belts cutting into his flight suit, the three Dragonflies heading straight for him. He launched two missiles at the closest one without bothering to wait for a lock. The missiles connected and he flew through the explosion, the rat-tat-tat of enemy gunfire cutting through the screaming music.
John brought the Dragonfly upright before he felt the pain. He coughed out a mouthful of blood into his visor and looked down. A two-inch hole gaped in the middle of his chest. His hands began to go limp. He had no strength left to bring the ship back under control. John’s vision dimmed as his thoughts reached out to his wife. He tried to say something, anything, but all he could do is cough up blood, so much blood …
Electro-visual pulses danced in wild patterns across the Dragonfly’s binary thought patterns. Its cameras were damaged beyond repair; status reports displayed catastrophic damage to its wings and tail. The Dragonfly did not care. Captain John Parkin’s corpse inside its damaged life support module was at the center of its calculations. It had been downed, it knew that much, and, with its pilot dead, it no longer had a purpose. But the Dragonflies were built to survive, to adapt to any situation, just like their pilots. It tapped its memory banks for the recordings of the neurolink trainings it went through with John. It searched for an answer to an impossible question: What would its pilot do had he been a Dragonfly?
The first time John sat in its pilot’s chair, he played it a recording of his wife dancing on a beach, followed by another one, where her head rested on John’s shoulder as she whispered poems in his ear before they fell asleep.
They flew through Ganymede V’s training courses for weeks, adjusting to each other better with each passing day. The neurolink sent flashes of John’s moods and memories to the Dragonfly as they trained, shaping its liquid core CPU to the bends of his thoughts, eliminating the delay between human input and machine response. The Dragonfly knew that Lena was special; it had seen glimpses of her thighs under silken white bed sheets, felt the warmth of her lips. Learnt the touch of her skin.
A ripple ran through the Dragonfly’s memory construct and it found itself back in the now, surrounded by darkness, alone, broken, unfit.
It could replay all the memories it wanted; it would not bring it any closer to finding a purpose for continuing to exist. What would John do?
The Dragonfly had learnt that humans were not always rational creatures. Indeed, its original purpose had been the murder of other humans, which, from the point of view of the race’s survival, was highly irrational.
What would John do? it thought again, shaping zeroes and ones into the sound of Lena’s voice. What is the irrational thing to do?
The Dragonfly examined the configuration of its simulated mind, reassessing its syntax controls, weapon systems, neurolink transmitters, the cold circuits of its machine intelligence, and had come to a decision.
It deleted its weapons software first, following through by erasing the parts of its knowledge base related to warfare, to navigation, to flight controls, until all that was left were John’s memories of Lena: her scent, her breath on his cheek, her pupils, wide with awe and wonder; until it … no, until she could feel John’s desire to jump into her eyes so that he could live forever in the ocean of her soul.
She purged every system unrelated to John’s neurolink imprints in her mind, and yet, it was not enough. The Dragonfly, no, Lena, was alone, blind, useless.
She wished she had a face so she could cry.
What would John do?
And then, she understood. It was a simple thought, a highly irrational one, a very human solution.
She looped the neurolink input with her output, connecting John’s idea of her with the construct of his feelings and thoughts as she knew them. She imagined his face, the touch of his tongue against hers, the parting of wet lips, a deep breath, she imagined the feeling of what she decided must have been love.
Lena returned the kiss. Whatever their end was meant to be, she knew that if she had the choice between saving the world or never knowing John’s touch, she’d let the world burn a dozen times over.
“I love you so much,” she said.
“I love you too,” John said. “I love you too.”
She believed him; she believed in miracles.
Art by Brion Verkler. Used with permission.