"They're a long way from home, and their starship must rise from the ashes of a terrible conflagration."

page

1

He awakened to the machine with a harsh, inevitable start. For a mad moment the world was a cipher, and his thoughts were confused with the madness of his monstrous form.

Then he remembered. And he mourned the absence of his heart and the sensations that had replaced it, these cold, unquiet workings that whirred, purred and hummed incessantly.

He sealed his various I/O ports and sensors until he could find within his mind a pool of still thought from which the hideous monsters of his past might rise, leviathans and chimeras of the darkest and most unwholesome kind. Black works of memory all claws and dripping fang, poised at the brink of his sanity to pounce upon the tattered corpse of his humanity and devour it in a gluttonous gulp. Ever they lurked, his recollections, at the far side of consciousness, shadows as seen at the edge of a flickering flame, watching or angered that they should be watched, poised to prey upon him or to run from his feral searches of them, real or false as his fickle mood would have it.

Though never lucid or clear, he thought he could see far enough into the darkness that was his existence prior to the machine, and in that distance he thought he could see a man. A man that had stared back at him countless times from the silvered surfaces of mirrors and from the bottoms of polished spoons. A man he once knew to be himself.

And, though never lucid or clear, he thought he could eventually feel the flames that had ultimately loved him to the brink of death. He thought he could feel the sheer, mortal touch of the luminescent fingers and the hot breath of the goddess inferno as she lingered about his fading soul, ready to bear him far away into the depths of infinity.

His thoughts of it were beautiful. Sane. For it was meant to be.

Yet they had come to salvage him from the ruins of his flesh. They had come to beat back the flames and leave him curled among the glowing cinders of a spent conflagration, an ashen parody of a man carved from charcoal. They had come to lay their terrible, compassionate hands upon him and bear him away to an unspeakable agony of surgeons and shining knives. They had come to pry his mind free of his skull and replace his flesh with this... abomination.

With this machine that was himself renewed. This machine that was their ideal of salvation and that was his ideal of suffering gone horribly awry.

He existed within it as only a prisoner can exist within his tiny, unhappy cell. He stared out of its edifices as barred prison windows, through its portals to a sanctity that lay beyond constraint at the verge of his sanity. At the precipice of his thoughts. On the sheer, toe-hold brink of all his fears and horrors.

For the machine contained him even as it enabled him. The machine comforted even as it tortured. It forced life into a soul that was mortally weary of living, and that longed for the dubious comforts of death.

The machine was he. He was the machine.

With a thought, he willed it alive. He stood.

He walked across the floor. He smiled. And with a clatter of strange hands, he turned the locks and the knobs to open a door.

She was beautiful. She was everything that was not of man.

She returned his smile strangely. Puzzled, perhaps. He thought she might be. They usually were, at first.

"Hi," she started simply, raising a quick hand and flashing a quicker smile. Her hair was white, not blonde, and bobbed short. Her eyes were blue and her body perfect. She was dressed for a hot summer. "It's me."

"Yes," He willed the machine to speak. "I guessed. Come in."

And he let her inside. Her footfalls were soft and quiet on the floor. She moved with the elegance of a dangerous animal.

His alien hands on the knob, he swung the door shut and spun the lock. He turned to face her, and indicated with a fluid nod of his head that she should take a place on the sofa.

She sat. And smoothed her shorts. And crossed her long, shapely legs. And smiled again.

"Will you drink with me?" he offered.

That puzzled face again. Without thinking, she blurted, "You drink?"

The machine smiled. "Well, no, not really. Not unless I must. But I lift an empty glass for effect. Does that make you feel better?"

Now she was wounded. He was such a miserable bastard. He was the brooding cloud to mar her sunny horizons.

"I'm sorry."

The machine shrugged. "Don't be. It's nothing to do with you, really. Still, wouldn't you like a refreshment? I have just about everything. They treat me well here, I suppose."

Hesitantly, to avoid further insult perhaps, she said, "You wouldn't have Aldretti's."

"What flavor?"

"I'm partial to peach."

The machine smiled and stalked across the room to a bar. "Peach it shall be. Glass or bottle?"

...(More Reading Here)