A chrysalis is not a safe place, especially not here, not now. Eric stared at the brown, bulging, fibrous membrane that covered the rock wall. Their comrade, Emb, once sat there, gazing at everyone with her strangely innocent, fanged smile. Her solution to their problem was simple: They needed a transport, and she was providing a solution. Her solution was to dissipate and reform into an entity that could fly. It was and extreme answer to a problem that just needed more time. Emb was one more cost in a ridiculous situation. Eric seemed to be the only one to regret the cost.
Emb’s sacrifice was lost on Lieutenant Stephens, Eric could see that. Stephens was pressed against a wall of rock rising from the alien plateau where they were marooned. He glared up at the massive, diamond-shaped structure hovering in the cloudy sky above them. The artifact. The objective. Success in achieving the objective was foremost in Stephens’ mind, especially after the reptilian Curtani had downed their shuttle and claimed the artifact, trapping Eric and the squad on the vulnerable plateau. Lieutenant Stephens would take any advantage to gain some ground, even if that meant using Emb’s unique skill, Emb’s unique sacrifice. Eric was sure that Stephens only saw what was happening as a simple process similar to pulling out a different gun from a weapons cabinet. It wasn’t. And Emb had volunteered.
How could any sentient choose such a life? Technology had made it possible for Emb to do this, so it wasn’t exactly a trait born from necessary selective pressures. Not even evolution could be this cruel.
“Hey, she’ll be all right, doc,” Private Jenson said. “It’s her idea.”
Eric ground his teeth. He breathed and replied, “No, no, she won’t.”
“Don’t follow,” replied Jenson, more intent on the hovering artifact than Emb’s real fate.
“Emb is what we’ve called a Metamorph—”
“Yep, shapeshifter.” Jenson looked over at the chrysalis, raising an eyebrow. “Not exactly how the movies depicted it though. Thought it be quicker.”
Eric ignored the gruff joke. “She is undergoing a rapid metamorphosis, powered by a series of linked nanobots that are reprogramming her DNA to create a new entity that will serve the purpose we need.”
If he had a cigar, the slack-jawed Jenson would have dropped it from his mouth. “So, like a genetic costume change?”
Eric stormed toward the chrysalis. “No, a complete new creature. Emb is dying!”
How long of a life did she even have? The nanobots did not possess any sort of AI beyond their genetic reprogramming, but they could store enough memory of the former Emb so the new form could recognize and aid them. Metamorphs philosophized life this way. They did not value their sentience the same way Eric did. To Eric, this practice was a waste of intelligence.
Metamorphosis was fine for caterpillars to butterflies, but for a spacefaring race?
Eric knelt beside the Chrysalis. He placed his hands over the fibrous membrane that made Emb’s tomb and another’s womb. How long did the process take for her to be dissolved? Did it hurt?
Jenson said, “We all die, chief. We all make choices, Emb made hers.” There was a pause. “I think I was supposed to say something like that.”
Oh, wonderful, this must be one of those war-buddy-bonding moments. “I wish the lieutenant wasn’t so intent on beating the Curtani inside the artifact.” If it had an inside. “The Medusa and the Charon are only a few hours out.”
“You know what they say: wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up quicker. They still say that, don’t they?”
Eric chuckled, it was one of those moments. “Give me a moment, Jenson. I need to concentrate.”
Eric pressed his open palm against the Chrysalis. It was organic, so it wouldn’t be able to block his probe. He visualized his neurons firing deep through the Chrysalis. He was searching for some semblance of Emb.
He found her, she was groggy, sleepy, or just plain high. It would make sense that high-powered drugs would be needed to dull the pain.
Curiosity fluttered up the neurons in Eric’s arm. She was searching for the source of the connection. She was bewildered, troubled.
Why are you here?
Eric coughed and attempted to gather his thoughts. Does it hurt?
Yes, but not long now. Nothing hurts forever. You should not be here.
Why, why would you do this?
Too many questions. It was needed and I am capable.
Another “you” will be capable, you are dying.
We all die.
I hate you, Jenson.
Jenson is not the name you gave me.
No, no, different thoughts. How long have you lived?
Three years? Length is not important, only now.
Do you regret not being able to explore this galaxy any longer?
I did explore. Now another takes my place. With your people, you do it by generations. Too long. I must go now.
No, Emb, wait, one more question.
The process will not be halted, too much at stake.
I will remember you.
You cherish individuality, it is a waste.
A pulse of anger shot through the neurons on Eric’s arm. The mental shock knocked him back, violently stumbling into Jenson’s legs.
The Chrysalis had defenses. Emb had pushed him away. Tears welled in Eric’s eyes, he was rejected.
“Whoa, doc, I know you’re grieving, but I got two fine ladies in two different star systems. This would just be weird.”
Eric pulled himself to his feet.
“You crying, doc?”
“I . . . I just said goodbye to a friend.”
Jenson armored hand gripped Eric’s smaller shoulder. The big guy smiled. “We don’t always get the chance.”
The Chrysalis ruptured. A gash sliced it open from top to bottom exposing the membrane like torn pieces of stiff, wet yarn. The gash grew wider. Clear, membranous fluid leaked through the opening. A five-fingered, bluish-gray hand, reminiscent of Emb’s skin tone, burst through the rupture, followed by another. They ripped apart the Chrysalis. The new Emb stood, towering over Jenson. Two pairs of fibrous wings, like gossamer, but probably stronger, extended from its back. Its massive feet were four-fingered talons, perfect for lifting a couple soldiers at a time.
Lieutenant Stephens arrived a moment later, tossing the mass rifle Emb had used. The new Emb caught it mid-air. He inspected it, satisfied everything was in order, armed it. Eric felt his lips quiver and eyes moisten, so many skills each new life could keep, but not the same identity. He wish he could understand why.
Stephens pointed at the artifact slowly rotating in the sky above the team. “We need an insertion point. It’s likely there’s trouble up there. I need you to transport my soldiers to the artifact and secure a position.”
Eric stammered at first, but fumbled through a quick translation. The new Emb smiled slightly at the stumble. He answered slowly, giving time for Eric’s shock to wear off and translate.
“New . . . Emb wants to take those with the heaviest weapons on the first foray.” Eric said.
The lieutenant nodded and shouted orders to his men.
New Emb stared at Eric and nodded again. “Another Emb,” it said, “same blood, different identity, and a new friend.”
© 2017 C.J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.