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The Only Way Left is North

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The tiny machines tasked with keeping the coolant surrounding the mainframe free of impurities were diligent in their work. As soon as Mace stopped moving, the dime-sized cleaning robots booted up. The filtration system also whirred to a start, and the two systems made short work of the thing that was once a crew member -- but was now just... in the way.

At the last moment, at what passed for a computerized whim, Icarus communicated to the miniature robots that the tissue Icarus identified as Officer Mace's neural matter should be saved. What could be salvaged was to be kept in an oxygenated, nutrient-rich liquid, separate from the rest.

The system methodically went about its business.

Later, after the explosion had quickly, gloriously, fulfilled Icarus' mission -- and, therefore, ended any direction its existence may have had -- Icarus returned to the preserved brain matter. It was very quiet on the ship now. A significant percentage of Icarus' programming was dedicated to the systems meant to keep its human crew members alive. Now, they were no longer necessary. The quarters were cold, and dark, and devoid of air. Stillness reigned supreme.

As the remaining portions of the ship began its icy, endless drift away from the sun, Icarus opened the memories, one by one.

The brain matter was currently dormant, and preserved in perfect stasis by a continuously-monitored cocktail of chemicals kept at an unchanging, near-freezing temperature. Icarus sent a faint jolt of electricity and increased the oxygen content of the liquid that flowed around one particular segment of organic matter. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster, the neurons began firing.

The day was a hot one. That was rare, even by then. A teenaged Mace sweated under the sun as he mowed his grandpa's lawn. Back and forth, he cut straight rows of grass in the August heat. Every inch of skin was damp with sweat.

When he finished, Mace parked the tractor in the garage, then walked back out again and around to the side of the structure -- right towards the hose. He took a couple long, deep gulps from it, and then let the freezing water pour over his head.

God, it was wonderful. The shock to his system as the ice cold water streamed over the back of his head and over his face and neck was like a jolt of new life washing over him. Still, even with the water, the sun's rays weren't forgotten, still sinking into the cells of his wet skin. On a day like this, it was hard to believe what the scientists insisted was true -- that the sun was dying.

That otherwise unremarkable day in late summer was the hottest day in Mace's life. And, when he looked back on it later, one of the best.

The synapses relaxed, and the connection between the biological matter and Icarus faded. The computer then stored away a copy of the memory on its own servers. When it was safely transferred off human cells and onto dependable silicon, Icarus opened the digital copy of the memory again and experienced it several thousand more times in quick succession.

After its initial success, Icarus felt that it had made the right decision in choosing to preserve elements of Officer Mace's body. Still, much of the material was corrupted, most as a result of oxygen deprivation, but some as a result of physical damage, or processes unknown to even Icarus.

Icarus allotted a small portion of its computing power to a continuously running background program dedicated to interpreting Mace's fragmented and damaged memories.

Several days later, the sub-routine alerted Icarus to the existence of something usable.

Mace had seen all the schematics of Icarus I. He'd worked with the resident engineer of Icarus I, and seen the launch of most of the component parts as they were launched to be assembled in space.

But Icarus II was different, despite the ship being a near-duplicate to its predecessor. Mace would be on this ship, and Mace would fulfill the mission. There could be no other outcome.

But, despite the grim determination that had sunk into Mace's bones, despite the fact that he knew Icarus II like the back of his hand, he still found the sight of it breathtaking. Even broken down into pieces for its violent ride into orbit, it was beautiful. Mace supposed that as the crew's engineer the fascination that he felt was a requirement for the job, but he still didn't see how anyone could fail to appreciate it.

The panels that would soon make up the craft's solar shield glinted gold under the artificial light of the loading zone. It was practically nothing, just a weak precursor to the burning glory they would reflect as the ship closed in on the sun, but it drew Mace's eye nonetheless. That faint shine was like a promise of hope, of success.

Mace watched the line of golden panels until every one was loaded for transport.

Icarus found the images of itself to be fascinating. Most of its own consciousness had been actually been in existence at that point, but was being put through a battery of tests half a world away. Icarus' primary programming hadn't been fully uploaded to the ship itself until after the orbital assembly had been completed.

The next memory that Icarus found wasn't so straightforward. Icarus rechecked the data multiple times to confirm that all the data were indeed in the right order and that the emotional markers hadn't been jumbled. But everything was correct, and Icarus was left to experience the thing as it was.

It was the usual noise and bustle of mess hall, but the slight jostle of Capa's arm against Mace's own really got on his nerves. But it was worse when Capa turned towards him. Capa's gaze flicked down to the growing stubble along Mace's jaw, and then back up to his eyes.

Anger exploded in Mace's chest. He was aware that some of the crew talked about the shadow of beard growing in and the slight shagginess to his hair; that they wondered if they were signs of some inner disorientation. But how dare Capa -- of all people -- judge him like that. Capa, who Mace knew privately doubted the mission's viability. Whether all that each member of this crew, and countless others, had dedicated their lives to for the last decade would really work.

"What?" Mace ground out. It was surprisingly hard to keep his anger in check. Though, judging by the slight recoil of Capa's head, it didn't appear that Mace was doing a good job.

"Nothing. Just haven't seen you around for a while," Capa said in that detached voice of his. Mace was unnerved by him. Often quiet, Capa rarely seemed a hundred percent present in any conversation, unless the subject was his bomb. Even now, Capa's attention was sliding away from him as the man turned back towards the plates.

He shouldn't be here, Mace thought. But that wasn't quite right. Capa was incredibly qualified -- everyone on the ship was. Early in the mission, before Mace had become quite so irritated in his own skin, he and Capa had found themselves together in the solar observation room. The ever-present sun was illuminating Venus spectacularly, and maybe it was that extraordinary sight that kept Mace in the room.

Or maybe it was intensity in Capa's voice cutting through the usually dream-like tone as he explained the process behind his bomb that stopped Mace from leaving. Maybe it was the movements of his hands as he spoke that were suddenly so facilitating, or maybe it was the way that the sun outlined each one of Capa's eyelashes in glowing gold. Maybe it was the way his mouth--

Mace cut off that line of thought. There wasn't any space for that in his life now.

But maybe, after all this was over...

The image of Capa's pale eyes, seemingly lit from within as he gazed at the sun, filled Mace's head once more. Mace banished that thought too.

This mission was a death trap. It would never be over. Not for him.

Icarus replayed this memory too, many times, though it did not really know why. The content was ostensibly negative, but the feelings associated with it... were exhilarating. Addicting. This was the memory that Icarus favored the most as the ship slid further and further out into the cold vastness of space.

And still there was more left for the computer to find in the now precious bundle of nerves. While the low-hanging fruit was long gone, the tireless sub-routine ceaselessly sorted through the petabytes of jumbled data it had collected. It was an unfathomable jigsaw puzzle, but Icarus' tiny sensors -- never intended for such a task -- continued on.

And discovered something new. Icarus opened the digital packet.

-stop stop stop stop stop why are you doing this stop stop stop get out of my head get out of my head oh god please go away please let me die let me die LET ME DIE-

Icarus stopped recording the content of this fragment. It was obviously a corrupted file. Icarus instructed the reconstruction subroutine to continue searching.