The Long Way Home
P. R. Morrison

Aegis propped himself up on one elbow and shook his head. He looked out through the shattered remains of the assault craft at the spinning emptiness of space and began to piece together the most recent fragments of his memory. It was obvious: they had been hit during the run-in and what remained of their ship -- barely a platform of jagged metal now -- was careening away from the battle totally out of control. He checked himself for damage and glanced around for the remainder of the squad. As he spotted them amongst the debris and crushed metal, he emitted a status request. It was a short blast of high intensity, high frequency radiation that was able to overcome the most powerful of tactical jammers. If any of the units remained functional they would respond.

One by one, they stirred and gave their systats. The point unit, a heavily armored cannon of limited intelligence had emerged unscathed and steadied itself on its hydraulic legs. The three utility weapon units were completely functional, but the two flank units, agile and hence lightly protected, both reported mobility problems. Aegis winced to himself as he traced the communications unit's transponder to a mash of melted armor and carbon composites. Without it, they were on their own.

Of course there was no question of what had to be done. Earth had been expanding its frontiers for more than five centuries now, and he had available to him the data from every engagement, and every maneuver of all of the units that had survived those encounters. It was one of the reasons that the cosmos had yielded so totally before the forces of Man. But of course it wasn't the only reason.

Carefully, he jury-rigged a controller to the remaining power unit and with short bursts managed to slow the ship's spin to a lazy roll. He looked wistfully for a moment at the fusion weapons that flared occasionally from the battle more than a million kilometers away. It would be a long wait.

And as he sat there for the moment, slowly contemplating the enormity of space, it occurred to him that the correctness of what he had planned was not immediately self-evident. He was alone, apart from a mindless collection of assault units; alone without power or communications. It could be decades before they were found and already the loneliness had begun to eat at him.

He was an AEGIS -- Assault Engineer Grafted Intellect-on-Silicon. He knew what he was and who he was because they had been forced to tell him. The prototypes had all gone insane until their identity had been established for them.

It had started during the initial expansion from Earth when first contact was made and the casualties were without rival in the history of human conflict. And so the clone factories were initiated, each producing exact copies of military archetypes -- copies by the million. Pilots, gunners, commandos... whatever was needed. The gene pool was scoured for the best of each and their DNA was simply replicated ad nauseam. And it had worked for a while... until the radiation levels of combat became so unbearable that nothing evolved on Earth could tolerate them, even with the best of protection. That was when the droids were developed. Although they lacked the instincts of humans, their artificial form of intelligence was sufficient for most engagements and in their thousands, their sheer weight of numbers was usually more than adequate.

For two centuries the droids had proved sufficient to push the frontiers further from Earth. Yet it was not merely force of arms that had determined the success of humanity. As the alien breeds fled before it, it became clear to all observers that no other species could match humanity for sheer destructive ingenuity. One by one, the telepathic worlds fell after the development of the mind insulator. The warrior races of Orion, so proud, so filled with honor, were easily enslaved after their king was captured, deprogrammed by the mind engineers of Earth and instructed to capitulate. Even the spawn species of the outer systems... creatures who bred in billions from hermaphroditic spores, were destroyed in minutes as their suns were extinguished by neutron inhibitors.

And behind all of this were the defense laboratories that constantly devised new forms of death so that everything that crawled, walked, flew, slid or even thought in ways that were different from man's, was simply vaporized, diseased or obliterated to extinction.

Aegis' mind chuckled to itself. It was ironic that for a hundred millennia, man had sat under the stars and stared at them in fear and trepidation, yet it was the rest of the Galaxy that had most to fear from the malignancy that festered on the blue-green planet.

Notwithstanding these successes, the search for the ultimate tactical unit had continued. Although the droids were extremely capable, they lacked the intuitiveness of humans, their deviousness and the ability to lie and deceive. The clones on the other hand, although possessing these qualities, were physically unsuited to the heaviest engagements. The obvious solution of course was to unite the best features of man and machine -- the subtlety, deception, courage and survival instincts of man, and the power, toughness and durability of machine. Aegis and others like him were the result.

Eventually, the engineers had stumbled onto a technique that allowed them to mind graft onto non-organic systems. The possibilities for mating a good tactical mind with an android body were only too apparent. But the early prototypes had been disappointing. For whatever reason, it appeared that most minds had an innate desire to define their own origin and that once this was revealed to them, the reality of their death and rebirth in silicon was often unacceptable and led to madness or suicide. They had tried blocking memories at various levels, but once more, it seemed that a vital component of mind function involved a sense of identity and self concept. Although these units did not go insane, they did not perform very well. It became obvious that intuition and "humanness" was a property that emerged from the whole system and not its components. And although technology had made the copying of minds possible, their manipulation of course, was still beyond the engineers. Long ago, they had discovered that fundamental breakthroughs in neuronal calculus were needed before the meaningful alteration of the synaptic matrix was possible. These breakthroughs had never happened.

In desperation, they looked for minds that were able to at least tolerate the reality of rebirth and the loss of flesh, pulsing blood and sexuality. They found one stored on a very old holographic plate from the first century of expansion. Captain David Boyd -- a former tactician with the Assault Corps had been a volunteer for an early experiment in mind printing, and although the medium was very crude, the engineers had finally managed to recover the print.

Fortunately for the engineers, Boyd had quickly come to terms with rebirth and what it meant. And as the synaptic matrix meshed with the motor integration and sensor circuits of his droid body, the true power of the man-machine synergy was evidenced. One hundred Aegis units were now operating in Earth's Armed Forces, all of them on combat evaluation before the big production runs began and all of them possessing the mind of David Boyd.

Of course, Aegis had been told all of this and more. He knew that the Earth he had inhabited was now little more than a blackened cinder of pollution and scrap metal. He could recall his own death off the spiral arm of Orion, wounded and adrift in a suit that was slowly depressurizing. He knew that his family, the children he had watched come into the world, had been dead for centuries. Their colony no longer even existed. He even thought and communicated in a language form that was unintelligible to the bulk of living humans.

And yet despite all of this, he had managed to define a purpose for his continuing existence. He still felt a sense of duty, a responsibility. He was after all, a soldier.

But now, as Aegis watched the Galaxy spin slowly beneath his dangling feet, the sense of isolation was overpowering and a feeling of horror rushed through him. He was a man, he thought. A man who longed for other men, yet he was unlike any other man that had ever existed. His mind stretched to the green forests of an Earth that was long dead and he began to ache for it. He wanted to feel the cool freshness of wind on his face, and not the datalink from his armored exterior. He wanted another human being to look into his eyes and fathom the depths they found there. He wanted to view reality as humans saw it, not through the infrared and ultraviolet intensifiers scattered about his head. But above all, the dread of what he had become -- a pathetic caricature of a human being -- wracked him with emotion. The image of his dead wife twisted itself through his consciousness and he felt his heart shift with anguish. He asked himself how he could feel all of this when he didn't have a heart, didn't have hormones or a nervous system. Then, as a sob racked his mind, his body flinched and he touched his face where he thought he could feel the tears welling up. He had known of course that it was simply a mirage from an older, now nonexistent body.

For some time he held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth under the waves of grief, then attempted to gather his thoughts as they ebbed from consciousness. It didn't take him long to settle on his course of action. With a sudden resolve he got to his feet and searched the survival pack for what he wanted, flourishing it in triumph when his hand came upon it. It was a solar sail. He knew that the thing had never been designed for the purpose he intended, but he also knew that the only thing he had plenty of, was time.

The sail was an ingenious invention. Although barely two molecules thick, a standard pack would spread out to make a sail with an area of hundreds of square kilometers. And this vast area of composite material when filled with the solar wind -- the particles that emanated from the fusion hearts of all stars -- could pull the remains of the assault craft from one star to the next. It would take decades for the small acceleration to build to an acceptable velocity, but Aegis knew that he could remain operational for centuries by being trickle charged from the available solar arrays. He even had the power packs of the assault units to help pull him through.

And as he watched the sail billow with the output from some distant solar flare, Aegis realigned the mounting device to point them on a vector toward a distant red giant, knowing that it would be the first tack of a very long voyage.

Then as he prepared for the first shutdown period, he contemplated what he was about to do and the rightness of it. Earth was a dream that no longer existed. But that didn't matter. Earth was home -- the first home -- and nothing was more powerful than the homing instinct. Besides, even now there was the possibility that other Aegises were doing exactly what he was doing; sailing, flying, hitch-hiking or walking their way toward an identical past. Yet no matter what happened in the end, no matter what reality dictated, he knew that he had to chase the dream. After all, that was what being human was all about.

P. R. Morrison ( lives in Singapore. His stories have been published in a Singaporean SF magazine. (Bio last updated in 1992.)

InterText stories written by P. R. Morrison: "Just a Company Man" (v2n5), "The Long Way Home" (v2n5).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 P. R. Morrison.