This month’s story is based on a very beloved song of mine, The Great Below by Nine Inch Nails.
The Great Below
I lost my life the day I lost you.
Your android slumped into a bundle before my helpless feet. I knew the instant your lights died out that you—the real you, back up there on our Jumper—had died as well. A cosmic joke, I thought, but couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t breathe, or see, or hear. With you, all sense had left the world, and with it all my senses too. Your metal shell lied in a bundle at my feet; your native shell lied in a cryo-case in orbit high above. You left me twice in the same instant. Gone. And the whole universe became an empty shell without you.
I’m staring at the sea, my years and decades rushing by. Waiting to forget you. Knowing that I can’t. You left me here alone, stuck in a world of lifeless sands and icy waters, condemned to wait eternally. To watch the cold waves of your ocean come and go, to and fro, hanging on to memory.
I think about you every day. About the girl I knew in school, with wavy chestnut hair that smelled of summer peach, and alabaster skin as delicate as silk. How you used to lean against my arm and laugh at all my jokes, so near and yet oblivious of me. How your lips drew slightly upward as you watched the horizon, leaving me behind in silent reverie.
I think about the woman I found sunk in work inside a xeno-lab, with early graying hair tucked tightly in a bun, and pale skin drawn by years of weariness. What harshness life had put you through when we had been apart, I never knew. You wouldn’t say. I labored every day to make you laugh again the way you used to, and every day you told me there are greater things to do. So I did them. I still do.
I’ve done it all for you.
I’m standing on the lip of a bitter, salty sea, lapping coldly, endlessly at me. I stare into dead waters as my thoughts come and go, between what really was, and what could have been.
I think about you every day. How much you wanted to do great things, and head into the future on your own. I wanted to go with you. I’d go anywhere with you.
I’ve come here to this toxic freezing wasteland in the dead of space, to look at alien microbes through the eyes of surrogate androids, and marvel at your joy of finding a new world. We could have spent the rest of our lives together, out here between the stars, cataloguing life, knowing the universe. I could have made you laugh again one day. I could have made it great. I could have made you love me. If only you had lived.
If only your android hadn’t malfunctioned while your consciousness was still uploading into its core. If only we would have waited for another set of checks before sending our androids down to this world. If only we would have had another night together up there in the Jumper, holding each other skin on skin to overcome the pain of fading cryo-sleep. If only we would have lingered more in that embrace. If only I could have made you want me.
I’m standing on the dark gray shore of a lifeless alien ocean, alone in miles and miles of lifeless sand, alone on this forgotten world. Watching cold waves come and go, to and fro, slowly eating me away.
I think about you every day.
How I writhed in uncried pain inside this tearless body, staring at the ruined shell that failed to keep you here. Unable to hold you. Unable to live without you.
So I called the Jumper down, lost my last escape, to give you what you always wanted. The greatness you deserved. I turned this world into your tomb.
And now I stand guard on your shore, knee-deep in the sand that ate your bones a century ago, or was it two? Staring at the endless waves, how they come and go, to and fro.
My body is buried in the old spent Jumper; my soul is forever locked inside this dead machine. I stand and fail to weep.
I watch a streak of smoke come down across the sky. Our rescue party is here. The Jumper summoned them two centuries ago, before I forced it down to bring me your remains. They’ve come to take me home and reintegrate me. Process me through social life. Regurgitate me into a different corner of the universe. They’ve come to give me a second chance. They’ve come to take me away from you.
The metal groans inside my proxy body as I move. Years upon years of sand and salt have clogged my joints and slowed me down. But I can still walk, with grinding steps, circuits sizzling deep inside, hydraulics straining to comply.
I walk into the ocean.
Two centuries of pain are locked within me, as I am locked within you, and you within this world.
I walk into the ocean, and its cold dead weight grows steadily above me.
I’d do anything, pay any price.
All of this for you.
I walk deep into the ocean, my timeless metal prison slowly caving in. Crushing me. Releasing me to you.
I can still feel you, even so far away.
I can still feel you.
All of this for you.