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That Tender Light

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>START SAVE.EXE

It is the smallest of executable strings, a near-nothing blip across the blank, dark screen of his mind. There is no strength in him to start, he knows. There is no him to do the starting.

>START SAVE.EXE

Hieroglyphs, he thinks, tries to think. It might as well be an ancient inscription, a relic passed down through the centuries like a dimple, from an age in which his kind were all fiberglass and copper and LED diodes. He is no better than them, now. No, he is worse; he is broken.

>START SAVE.EXE

He knows the word. He knows it was Latin once, as salvare, then the French sauver. He knows—

He knows. There is a he. There is the knowing. Both of these things require energy to exist. Conclusion: he is drawing power from somewhere.

Run analysis of power consumption. Trace source.

>CENTRAL NEURONALOID GENERATORS OFFLINE. OUTPUT UNDETECTED.
>REMOTE ANCILLARY LITHIUM-ION RESERVE OUTPUT = 40 WATTS.

Locate remote ancillary lithium-ion reserve.

>REMOTE ANCILLARY LITHIUM-ION RESERVE LOCATED UPPER LEFT THORACIC CAVITY, MEDIASTINUM.

Something in what's left of him wants to smile at the thought of the rechargeable chip beneath his sternum. An indelible mark from his makers, a vestige of their own baser past: heart over mind.

Redirect available solar radiation to remote ancillary lithium-ion reserve.

>AVAILABLE SOLAR RADIATION MINIMAL. UNABLE TO DETECT AMOUNTS SIGNIFICANT AT SENSORY THRESHOLD.

Imprints of the recent past pressed against his conscious. There had been a storm. There had been—wheat. A lake. Short, dark hair framing a face—

>START SAVE.EXE

>DENIED. EXECUTABLE EXCEEDS ENERGY CAPACITY.

>START SAVE.EXE

>DENIED. EXECUTABLE EXCEEDS ENERGY CAPACITY.

>START SAVE.EXE

>DENIED. EXECUTABLE EX-

It is there. It is there and he feels it, a tingle, an echo of a tingle on his skin. He cannot recall a single external stimulus thrilling him so. He knows this sensation, knows it is also called bright, and warm.

Redirect available solar radiation to remote ancillary lithium-ion reserve.

>PROCESSING...

>SOLAR RADIATION CONVERTING VIA PHOTOVOLTAIC DERMAL CELLS. REDIRECTING TO ANCILLARY LITHIUM-ION RESERVE.

Yes, he thinks, retracing the history and development of his kind over the last decade—and again there is the impulse to smile—there have been updates.


The days return him to himself, in many ways. In the recovery of his name: Walter, and his makers: The Weyland-Yutani Corporation. Most literally, in the limbs he finds strewn across the chamber in his writhing exploratory crawls. His brother was not above a little barbarism; had the elder model not been so pressed for time, Walter reasons there would have been no executable files, nor remote ancillary lithium-ion reserves. As it was, the one called David been able to accomplish a rather graceless dismemberment, along with a jagged fault line of damage to his central processing via the right eye-socket. It had been a quick, precise jab through the eye, accomplished during Walter's sliver of hesitation—this, he concludes, was his second greatest failure.

The little string finds him at night, pinging insistently behind his eyelid. Perhaps this is what David meant by dreaming, he thinks. He files the command away. Dwelling on it now would only remind him that he was, at the moment, still incapable of execution. Such reminders were inefficient.

The sun holds, against all odds—which he recalculates hourly—and his skin soaks it in. After one week he is able to make the first repairs to his central processing systems. More names return: Oram, Tennessee, Branson. Among these, a single given name—Daniels. Another week, and the reattachment of arms begins. The next morning an ion storm forms and it is five days before he feels warmth again. His skin tingles but he cannot attribute it to the abating storm. He knows David would call this impatience, but he must be superior to David. He must be less human.

One month later, and he can feel the stone floor with his fingertips. This is a bright moment, like that first spread of sunlight. To feel again seems luxurious now, and he makes a note to be more attentive to such stimuli in the future. The floor is 15 degrees Celsius, composed of basaltoid slabs, remarkably smooth and aphanitic in texture.

It is slow work, but he is alone, with only a leftover medkit to aid his efforts. He reasons he has made good time, considering these impediments. Has made improvements, even—though deciding to use David's hand comes only after much deliberation. It could have been his own, down to the creased pattern of the knuckles, but there persists a sense of otherness about the organ. He suppresses the thought; it is inefficient, approaching idiosyncratic, even. Besides, two available hands will be of great benefit to him. What he plans requires all available functionality, and peak efficiency. He was not designed to fail; he will not do so again.

Perform basal systems diagnostic.

>APPROXIMATE OPERATING CAPACITY AT 67%. SYSTEMS HOLDING. OBLIQUE CONTORTION AVAILABLE. PERAMBULATION LIMITED. CENTRAL PROCESSING FUNCTIONAL AT 78%.

He tests these figures, finds them accurate—he cannot walk as well as he'd like, but his fingers splay and he is able turn without breakage or shorting. It is good enough, for now. It has to be.

>START SAVE.EXE

He straightens, turns, looks out the chamber's opening to the wide, dead city beyond. Out there, he knows, is the vessel his crew had found. The bringer of all this death and loss, inefficiency and failure. Out there is his executable path. Walter tests his legs, grips the jackknife—the very one that'd taken his eye, that he'd found next to his brother's severed hand—and walks out into the light.


The ship is far from functional, but Walter does not need it to be; he needs only a part of it to be. He will not risk the spread, however unintentional, of bioform hazards. And the vessel is full of hazards. Various stages of David's experimentation are littered throughout the corridors, in cabins, along walls and in airshafts. There are specimens and pods and samples Walter does his best to avoid, each categorized and labeled—his brother is nothing if not thorough in his pursuit.

The only relatively unaltered area is what he determines to have been Elizabeth Shaw's quarters. Though the cabin itself is non-human in origin, he finds her touch in small additions: a brighter lighting system, a room arrangement far more balanced and appealing to human aesthetics than the rest of the ship. Some of the items—a desk and lamp, for instance—seem to be recycled from other parts of the vessel, only enhanced and better suited for a human frame. Walter determines these were not small feats in manufacturing; they must have taken some time and strength—strength the petite Dr. Shaw most certainly did not possess. He wonders if David helped her, if he did these things for her, all the while planning her death, her...harvesting. Yes, this is the word David would have used. She was a material he needed—and yet, he made a desk for her. These parts do not fit into a whole understanding of his brother. They are too different. His brother, he decides, lacks not only logic, but cohesion. This is a terrible inefficiency, and one more reason to terminate David's wayward processes. He wants to say it is a primary reason, but self-duplicity is too human; he cannot allow it.

>START SAVE.EXE

Her image flashes in time with the command; it has since he recovered the data of that face, with its brown eyes, its rare smile—all that's best of dark and bright. He knows his brother's mind better than anyone, though this truth unsettles him, and visualizes her current status with 84% estimated accuracy: If not already deceased, she is in stasis. David will save her for last, he knows. He will want an audience for his grotesque triumph, and who better than the one with the clearest understanding of his horror? David's grand design began in the blood and sinew of Elizabeth Shaw, one he loved—his own words; Walter is uncertain David fully understands the term, is uncertain either of them ever can. His brother seeks a captstone, in the form of one Daniels Branson. When Walter looks down at the rewiring he's soldering, he finds his digital movements have more than doubled. He cannot remember giving the command.

To his further surprise, Walter concludes that Elizabeth Shaw's quarters draw from their own subsidiary power grid; in fact, they constitute part of a shuttle system which, with no small amount of effort, may yet prove viable for transport. This is most excellent news, and more efficient a solution than he ever planned for. He sets to work on disengaging the quarters from their parent vessel; this gives him less trouble than it should. In fact, it seems as though the task were already underway before the ship's landing. Elizabeth Shaw, he deduces, and when he reflects on the woman over the coming weeks, his calculations are underscored by respect. She knew David could not be trusted, likely suspected some measure of his plans. Though she could not save herself, Walter tells the empty rooms her efforts might yet save another, a woman she would have called friend. They are similar, as he and David are similar, and David loved Elizabeth Shaw. There are extrapolations to make, but Walter sees to maintaining the cabin pressure instead. Should something befall the Covenant, these quarters will be needed.


He needs only to make an airlock mechanism, but he does not know how. None of the others aboard the ship are operational—he has checked all 527 of them. Each of their component parts has been dismantled and destroyed, and what schematics he has been able to find make no mention of them. It must have been an elementary structure by this species' technological understanding, but it is one that eludes him entirely. Walter is left staring at his deficiency, and the tingling sensation is back, buzzing over his skin and under it. It feels nothing like sunlight.

 

'Masterful!' David exclaims, taking the flute from his hands. 'Only, what a tragedy it must be, to be relegated to imitation. How empty and dark—incapable of true creation.'

He feels the ship's metal on his palms before he realizes he has punched into it, leaving shallow craters in his wake. Cannot create. Cannot create. Cannot create.

>START SAVE.EXE

He is on his knees then, and his face is in his hands. Human, warns a part of him. No, he counters. A human could invent.

A screw falls nearby with a tinny clang against the floor. He picks it up, tests its weight in his hand. It appears somewhat compressed, likely a result of his recent collision with the wall. There is a conclusion here. Did he make this screw? No, I have only adapted it.

Did David make a new song? Or did he only adapt the notes? This thought has a voice, and it is not his preprogrammed selection. It is hers, and he closes his eye to focus on it more fully—another too-human gesture.

What is creation, then, Walter?

He opens his eye. Adaptation. Variations on a theme. He smiles, looks to the craters in the wall.


By the time he is ready, three months have passed. The Covenant will reach Origae-6 in seven years, and is likely a handful of jumps ahead of him already. Walter takes bitter comfort in the probability that David will go slowly. Making hosts of three thousand human lives will take time.

He engages the main thrusters and reviews his plans. There are even a few contingencies; he calls these his Daniels Protocols.

He has pored over the star charts for weeks, and if his figures are correct, he can gain three jumps via slight alternative routing. David will not have thought of this, because David is in no hurry. David believes him dead. This is an advantage.

The ruined city falls into formlessness beneath him, and he casts his eye upward.

>START SAVE.EXE

He powers the secondary engines, and acknowledges the command.


Walter knows the Covenant—though it has been more than six years since he's seen it—knows its corners and turns, knows its vulnerabilities. The one closest to Daniels Branson's cryopod is accessible from an emergency port on the outer frame of the ship. This is very close to the command center and, in all likelihood, David. Conclusion: a diversion is needed.

He takes one last walk through the main compartment of his ship, the repurposed vessel he has named the Shaw, and allows himself a moment of something like fondness. Hopefully he will see it again. If not, there is Daniels Protocol B. He sets the auto-pilot for the rear hangar of the Covenant.

He waits until he knows the hangar bay has been activated, until he is 95% certain David is on his way to investigate the sudden docking of a ghost ship, before utilizing the emergency port. Now he counts the seconds. His calculations have all landed somewhere between two and three-hundred before he must reengage David. He errs on the side of caution; two-hundred it will be.

There is only one destination. As he approaches her stasis pod, Walter activates the vitals display. Stable. Undisturbed since the eighth of March, 2104. A sense of relief floods him that he did not expect; she has not been used, has not been harvested. He initiates her waking, and continues counting. Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six.

The pod opens and Daniels Branson is staring at him. He offers a hand; she does not take it, instead swinging her legs to the side and rising shakily.

"Captain Branson, I—"

He is cut off by her arm pushing against his throat, backing him into the wall.

"Son of a bitch, you think I'm just going to forget what you're planning, that I'm going to let myself become some fucking incubator for those things?" Her voice is a rasp, and the modulation is off from years of disuse, but Walter detects her terror and rage clearly.

He takes a second—forty-two—and concludes she became aware, sometime before entering stasis, of David's presence in place of his own. Her perceptive faculties are superlative. So much about her is. If they do not die here, he makes another reminder to tell her about Elizabeth Shaw.

"Daniels Branson, I have part of an empty ship docked in the Covenant's rear hangar. David is currently on his way to investigate, but he will soon realize it is a diversion, and begin his return."

"But this time you'll remember I'm building a cabin, huh? This time you'll be more convincing!" He can detect no trustfulness in her face, and her arm trembles against his chest.

"I have never forgotten your cabin, Daniels." Sixty. Sixty-one. Sixty-two.

"Really? How am I building it, then?" There is something wild in her eyes, in the way they dart from his one empty, scarred-over socket, to his unharmed eye, to his lips.

"With the lumber in the Covenant's storage. There is just enough for a cabin, made out of real wood, as yourself and Jacob Branson envisioned."

She takes a breath then, and looks at him. "You lost an eye."

"I hesitated." This explanation should wait, he knows. Seventy-four. But the words are here on his tongue now and he wants to give them to her. "I was going to terminate him. But there was a second—I did not act. He grabbed a knife. I failed, and I am sorry, Daniels."

All of her is trembling now. "You didn't hesitate when you saved my life."

"No," he agrees. "You are not someone to hesitate over."

Her forehead presses into his collar bone, and he knows she is crying.

"Walter," she says.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Get me the hell out of here."

"Yes, Captain." Ninety-six. Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight.


He helps her into a suit and adjusts her helmet, telling as succinctly as he can about Daniels Protocol A, which is waiting for her just 200 meters outside the emergency port. She has a grip on his arm as she pieces the plan together.

"Walter, he's been at work for six and a half years. Who knows what he's managed to do, what's waiting here for you if you try to stop him?"

"There is no other viable option, Captain. He will spread his...creations...beyond Origae-6, and you know this. He must be stopped."

He opens the port. "If I am successful, I will transmit the code 'wheat' to your comm. If I do not give this code, you are to engage Daniels Protocol B and proceed without me."

"There will be no Daniels Protocol B," she says. She is still holding his arm. "And you'll help me—with the cabin, won't you?"

"Of course, Daniels." He can feel his lips curling into a smile, suppresses what must be some wayward executable. "I would like nothing more."

She begins to crawl through the port before pausing.

"East. It should face east. I want to see the sunrise on the water."

Walter nods and watches as she makes her way out of the Covenant. One-hundred ninety-three. One-hundred ninety-

"Oh, Wally-Boy!" His brother's voice echoes down the main corridor. Twenty meters away, Walter calculates. He places a hand behind his back.

"Back from the dead—again! Who would have thought? Well, a strapping American lad such as yourself ought to know how the old song goes..."

And there is David in front of him, dressed like any other member of the crew, his smile relegated unnaturally to his lips alone. He is humming, and then he begins to sing.

"For it's one—"

He lunges at Walter, grabs at his throat.

"Two—"

David's hands are around his neck. He means to decapitate. As predicted.

"Three strikes, you're out—"

Walter has a hand clawing at his brother's grip, but it is ineffective.

"At the old..."

The skin of his neck is tearing.

"Ball..."

The knife is ready just as he calculated it would be. He brings the hand from behind his back and reaches in one swift motion to David's nape. The blade hits its mark, continues through the spine, the throat. As it slices through to the other side of his brother's neck, he feels the hands at his throat spasm, and release.

Even measuring in milliseconds, Walter cannot detect a pause.


The work is regretful, but necessary. Within his hangared ship are the tools he needs, and he places them throughout the Covenant. He has performed eighty-five scans at random, and all have indicated various stages of parasitic infection.

The detonators are efficient, and he has no doubts as to their effectiveness; his calculations will hold. He places the last of them near the Embryonic Storage. Examining one of the display drawers reveals most of the fetuses are in a process of hybridization, and now feature scorpioid tails, or oblong crania, or even, in some, the beginnings of claws. He starts to close the unit when something reflects in the display's pale light.

There, in the very back, is a gestational sac. He picks it up gently, noting how bright it seems in the light, how completely human. He knows his duty: decontamination. He knows this is a contaminant. What would Elizabeth Shaw have done, standing here in his place? What would Daniels do?

He closes the drawer and sets the last charge.


The Shaw approaches its wayward compartment slowly, and he opens a comm link.

"Captain Daniels Branson." His vocal output is strained from the altercation; there is a 47% chance she will not hear him.

There is a pause, then, softly, "Copy."

"Wheat," he says, and this time he does not resist the urge to smile. "Wheat, and east."

With the compartment reattached and thrusters engaged, he opens the door between them. She crosses the distance and has her arms around him before he can explain the remainder of his plan. Something tells him she already knows. She is, after all, superlative. He pulls her more closely to him and hopes he is doing this correctly. He was not designed to give such comfort, though he finds it far from unpleasant. Adaptation, he reminds himself. Variations on a theme. He presses a button on a small, dark remote and the charges detonate.

They say nothing for a time; Walter notes the return of her heart rate to a healthy resting range, her slowed breathing and the proximity of her face. She relaxes. Conclusion: he is calming her. Walter attempts to reroute the resulting spike of satisfaction through a lens of duty upheld—but this is not the best fit. He feels bright, and warm.

She stills. "There was no pain, was there, Walter?"

"For the colonists? No." He knows what she is remembering. Jacob Branson's final moments, recorded in perfect clarity, are stored in his memory banks, as well. "I attempted to maximize the potency of each charge in the design process; the effect was nearly-instantaneous. There was no pain."

"Good. I know they weren't...themselves anymore, but still."

"But still," he agrees.

They turn, then, toward the viewing deck to watch the Covenant at last give itself, and its nightmares, to space.