You never get used to meeting yourself.
That first spark of recognition ignites a primal attraction, like seeing your reflection somewhere you didn’t expect. When you realize that reflection isn’t mirroring your actions, you enter the uncanny valley. No matter how familiar your counterpart may be, you know they are not you. A nauseating confusion plucks at your neurons. You feel a nagging impulse to lash out at them, then an irrational disconnect from your own reality as you wonder, “Could that be the real me? Am I the replica?”
So it was, eight years ago, when I bid the other Major James Bradley farewell, and Godspeed. He winked at me as the doors slid closed on the elevator. Despite the usual revulsion that I’d felt at our latest introduction, a profound loss settled in my chest as he ascended the gantry of the towering SLS that would take him into space. We’d spent the week prior attached at the hip, but in another sense we’d shared a whole lifetime. Now our histories had diverged — at least for a while — and I wouldn’t know for almost a decade what I’d experienced out there, aside from what might come over the radio.
“Go time in ten, Jimmy.” Val had been my tech for each of the trials, and in the years since the launch, we’d become quite close. She’d even come out of retirement to be the one to work on me again, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. She gave one last tug on the cable that jutted from my temple, then tapped some notes on a tablet. With her hand on my shoulder, she winked, saying, “See you on the other side.”
I hope so, Val.
Re-implantation was always a trip, and this one was going to be a doozy.
In my trials I’d gotten up to twenty-four hours of memory-merge. Everyone has a pretty good idea of how they’d spent their last day. But with the memory-merge, all of a sudden you remember a whole different day. Sure, your own timeline is still there, but there is another set of memories, fighting for the same space in your mind. They’re as real as your own, because it was your own replica who’d logged them. Not just the sensory details, but the emotional responses, too. All the tangents of our histories that reach up from the past and direct our every thought. As far as you are concerned, whatever your replica had experienced, you’d experienced. And in a way, it was true.
It starts out with the download, which takes about eight hours. Eight long hours in a pitch black sensory deprivation chamber, submerged in a lukewarm, mineral soup, with a head full of wires. That experience alone has driven some subjects mad. I guess some people can’t handle being alone with themselves for that long. I’d always found it rather relaxing, and slept through most of it. When you come out, they run both of you through a battery of tests to check the fidelity of the download.
That’s when it gets weird. You get to meet yourself. Cognitively, you know that the other you is mechanical, but for optimal re-implantation, he must be your near-perfect replica. Mine even has the same scar on his chin, that I got from running full-speed into a signpost in the fourth grade. I remember that incident clearly. We’d been running to the library off campus — my favorite place. I’d craned my head to tell my buddies to hurry up, and when I’d turned back around — whack! Full-body impact. I’d gotten three stitches that day — and an education in why human males go to great lengths to protect their balls. My replica had the same scar — and the same memory. I wondered if he was wondering the same thing.
Next, the two of you go about separate lives for a while, then they do the memory-merge. With each trial, the replica’s activities become more and more varied, and more and more jarring. The one that nearly made me quit the program was when they’d pushed the other me in front of a train. I’d erupted, rampaging the lab, ranting, “How dare you kill me?” It was Val, finally, who’d talked me down, explaining that it was an important test — and I’d passed. For all the peril one might face on an interplanetary voyage, they needed someone who wanted to live, not someone who would passively accept their own demise.
No one was sure just how well I would take this re-implantation. There was a real possibility that I might suffer an existential schism, and spend the rest of my life a drooling vegetable. I may have survived a day’s worth of memory-merge better than anyone else, but this would be well beyond that. I was about to take on a second set of memories of the last eight years.
Memories of a mission to Saturn that had gone horribly wrong.
The following Saturday, NASA brass had me sequestered in a conference room, flanked by military officers in pressed uniforms, and stone-faced scientists in white lab coats — including Val. A summer rainstorm pelted the orange-tinted glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows that made up one of the walls. I sat, mesmerized, watching the rivulets mottle the Atlanta skyline in the distance.
“Major Bradley!” Colonel Quirin paced at the end of the long, mahogany conference table. She pressed her thin lips together and focused on me with bulging eyes. “I need you to try to remember.”
Val came to my rescue. “Ma’am, you have to understand, this is uncharted territory. We’ve never attempted to merge anywhere near eight years before. Major Bradley has had a harrowing week, trying to assimilate that much memory at once. Not to mention the damage to the Galilei’s quantum circuit required us to clean up a lot of the data.”
“It’s OK, Val,” I said. “It’s coming back in bits and pieces, Colonel. I can tell you what I do remember.”
Colonel Quirin huffed into her chair at the head of the table.
“As I mentioned before, everything had gone by the book, until the orbital maneuver.”
Of all the sights any human has witnessed through the millennia, I am quite certain nothing compares to seeing Saturn with one’s own eyes, from a distance of only three million kilometers. The behemoth sombrero nearly filled the Galilei’s view-screen. The oblique sunlight over Saturn’s northern hemisphere cast a gaping black bite out of its gossamer rings. Bright blue lightning storms that would dwarf the Earth zapped like sparks, illuminating the swirling beige cloud cover from below. I was reluctant to begin the orbital maneuver since it would mean rotating the craft away from this celestial spectacle.
Nevertheless, at the calculated moment I engaged the directional thrusters to begin the rotation. Everything was nominal for the first five seconds, and then there was a sudden jolt. The starboard thruster had malfunctioned, creating a two hundred fifty percent increase in yaw velocity. I assumed manual control in an attempt to compensate, but the thruster was non-responsive, and the craft continued to oscillate like a Frisbee.
I wrestled with the Galilei for three hours before I regained control. By that time, my trajectory was off by orders of magnitude. Between that and the loss of the starboard thruster, I knew there would be no way to insert into orbit around Saturn as planned. I didn’t have time to wait for a radio round trip with Mission Control, so I made the executive decision to select an alternate orbital insertion at one of Saturn’s moons. The Galilei’s AI calculated a probability of only 0.43 for an successful maneuver at Titan, but it was my best chance. It was better than taking a slingshot into the slow death of deep space.
After a harrowing burn, the Galilei began circumnavigating Titan at just under once per hour. At first it seemed the maneuver had worked. But then alarms started pinging, and I discovered the craft was in a slow descent. Within twelve hours, I was going to be the first man on Titan.
I hoped it would be as the first living man.
I chuckled inwardly at my use of the word, “living.” Of course the me locked in Titan’s gravity well hadn’t been alive at all, but that’s not how it felt to him. Or, now, to me.
Colonel Quirin pulled the bifocals off her face and wiped them with a cloth. “So you’re saying the craft malfunctioned.” She looked towards the scientists. “This coincide with your data?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the scientists. “Telemetry obtained prior to loss of contact showed a fault in the starboard thruster module consistent with Major Bradley’s account.”
I winced as a headache clawed across my temple. Val poured me a glass of water.
“We should break for a while,” said Val. “It’s been twelve hours.”
Major Quirin slapped the conference table. “Absolutely not! I’ve got Congress crawling up my ass for an update, and I need to wrap this up. Nobody’s leaving this room.”
“Thanks, Val,” I whispered. “I’m OK.”
“Proceed,” said the Colonel.
After deploying its chutes, the Galilei impacted the surface of Titan at roughly thirty meters per second at an attitude of just fifteen degrees. Thankfully the chutes had performed beyond design specifications due to the dense atmosphere. At impact the craft began to skip like a stone across an icy plateau known as Xanadu. When the Galilei hit an outcropping of ice, it depressurized violently. I was thrown several hundred meters from the wreckage and skidded to a stop with only minor damage to my skeletal structures. Unfortunately, my dermis had been sheared off over eighty percent of my body, and my pneumatic musculature had been compromised in several places. But I could still walk, so I made my way back to what was left of the Galilei.
The quantum circuit had been damaged in the crash, so I tucked in to see if I could get it back online, while outside it began to rain liquid methane. I didn’t fear combustion as the atmosphere lacked free oxygen. But without my dermis I knew the hydrocarbons in that rain would wreak havoc on my systems. I’d have to stay inside the Galilei.
The rain was beautiful. The droplets glinted like topaz in the glow of the Galilei’s exterior lights. As it intensified, liquid methane began to pool in the ripples of the ice. The viscosity of the droplets impacting the pools resembled transparent, latex paint. Titan’s surface was as dark as twilight, and getting darker. Saturn spun its tidal-locked moon away from the sun, in their carefree gravitational waltz — the start of Titan’s almost four hundred hours of night. I found a lantern in the wreckage so I could continue with repairs. Through Galilei’s gaping shell, the sodium lamp lit up the frozen landscape out to about thirty meters.
I paused to take another drink of water and rub my aching temples.
Colonel Quirin tapped a pen against the table. “And?”
“Please, Colonel,” said Val, “let him catch his breath for a minute.”
Colonel Quirin let out an exaggerated sigh.
“Actually, that’s about it,” I said, and Val raised an eyebrow. “I worked on the quantum circuit for several hours and eventually re-established connection. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be functional, so I invoked the upload and shut down all but the minimum systems to remain conscious.”
Colonel Quirin looked over her bifocals at me. “So that’s it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “After the upload, the memories stop.” I looked again at the sheeting rain outside the conference room, and thought about my counterpart, still there on Xanadu. My eyes watered, further blurring the lashing storm.
The Colonel dismissed the staff from the room, and everyone hightailed it out while they had the chance. All except me and Val.
“Well, that was … about as painful as I’d expected,” I said.
Val gazed at me with narrow eyes.
“So, now what happens?” I asked.
“Now you’re going to tell me what really happened,” said Val.
“Beg your pardon?”
“Come on, Jimmy, it’s me.” She looked hurt. “There’s a gap of almost seventy-two hours missing between Galilei’s crash and the end of your official account. Don’t you think I’d notice something like that? I kept it from the team because — quite honestly, if you don’t want to tell them, you shouldn’t have to. They’re your memories, after all. But I thought after all this time, you’d at least level with me.”
Of course she’d have pieced that together. She’s way smarter than me. “Do you really want to know?”
She brightened. “More than anything.”
I was forty-eight hours into the 382 hours of Titan’s night when I got the quantum circuits repaired. The rain hadn’t let up since nightfall. If anything it was getting heavier. The pools were iridescent sloshes in the lamplight. I was about to begin the wrap-up procedures and prepare myself for upload and shutdown, when a movement caught in the corner of my vision. A movement other than the ceaseless rainfall.
At the periphery of the lamplight’s radius, I could just make out what could only be described as an eye. It reflected the beam of the lamp similar to a cat’s. I couldn’t discern the form of whatever it belonged to, though. And as I stared into that strange, solitary oval, I jumped when it suddenly blinked.
There was life on Titan.
Not life as we know it, of course, but a complex organism nonetheless, with at least one sensory organ common to ours. Of course, with no concept of the creature’s demeanor, I was desperate to begin the upload. I couldn’t risk losing this discovery forever, should it turn out to be hostile. I started the upload with haste, but did not shut myself down. I’d just made a discovery that would literally change everything about humankind’s perceived station in the universe. Once my eight years of memory had been transmitted, I would essentially be ‘live-streaming’ the greatest discovery in human history.
I focused the lamplight in the direction of the creature, and tried to increase the brightness. In the cone of light, the pupil of its eye narrowed to a horizontal slit. At last I could see that it was embedded in the end of a meter-long proboscis that resembled an elephant’s trunk. Following the path of the mottled, ochre flesh, I found that the prehensile eye stalk extended from underneath a smooth, charcoal-colored carapace, glistening in the gooey methane precipitation. Also jutting from beneath this turtle-like shell, were several tentacles, which appeared capable of providing locomotion. At the tip of each tentacle, several sharp claws gripped the ice like onyx talons.
The creature and I stood, staring at each other intently. I lifted my robotic hand in a gesture that I hoped would be perceived as non-threatening. To my absolute amazement, the creature lifted a tentacle of its own, mimicking my gesture.
Even while I realized the absurdity of attempting spoken communication with a methane-based, extra-terrestrial life form, I nevertheless spoke to it. “Hello, Titan creature. I am James, from Earth.” I spoke evenly and clearly, and loud enough to overcome the constant plopping of the thick rain.
I was astounded when the creature emitted a sound of its own. An unearthly sound, somewhat resembling a jet engine, but with variations of tone and timbre, and stoppages reminiscent of consonants.
Val was hunched over, eyes wide, mouth agape. “Fantastic!”
“It sure was,” I said. “I’d debated telling Quirin the whole story. But then I got to thinking. What would be the most likely response from the United States military, should they learn that there is not only life, but intelligent life, in our own solar system?”
“I see your point.”
“And what would become of the religious of the world, if confronted with the notion we aren’t the center of it all?”
“Imagine the hysteria,” said Val.
I stood and walked to the wall of windows, listening to the rain, remembering the rains of Titan. “Maybe one day we’ll go back there,” I said, “and maybe the discovery will resurface. But until then, I think the Testudines — that’s what I’m calling them — are better off without us.”
Later that night, the storm outside my condo had settled into a light rain, and I walked outside to let it kiss my uncovered skin. The rest of the story I’d kept even from Val, and it would die with me.
The Testudine and I stood for many hours, gesturing and “conversing” — such as it was. The creature made no effort at forward movement. It was rightfully wary of the bizarre, other-worldly thing that fell from its stormy sky. So I decided that I, as the self-appointed ambassador of Earth, would be the one to approach.
From under the torn metallic hull of the Galilei, I stepped onto the rain-slicked ice. The liquid methane falling from the choking cloud cover began to ooze and work its way into the solenoids and gears of my endoskeleton, and I could feel the caustic chemicals eating at the wires and transistors of my man-made nervous system. But I persisted, step by torturous step, toward the unmoving creature. These would be the final moments of my upload, and I had to get closer. I had to know more.
My vision began to stutter and pixellate from my frying video sensors. As I fell to my knees on the ultra-cold hydrocarbon ice, I reached out, and my fingers touched the frigid, leathery skin of one of the creature’s clawed tentacles. I’d made physical contact with intelligent life from another world.
Then, as my consciousness circuits corroded in their chemical bath, my vision went black.
I lifted my face to the rain and whispered, “Godspeed, Major Bradley.”