Planet and Sword

Summary: It wasn't the first time I woke up buried underground on an alien world, but I knew it was my quarry to blame. I knew this eon-long chase would end here, on this desolate world on the galactic rim.

It wasn't the first time I woke up buried underground in an ectogenesis bag, but it was the first time I had a sword in hand. I struggled madly with the alien world's gravity for a few seconds, before I realized it was less than my own homeworld. When I'd left Earth a million years back, most people ended their existence in the ground instead of starting it. As I hacked my way through my muddy shroud, the irony was not lost on me.

I entered the world with a sword in one hand, trapped in the physiology of a near-baseline human. The bilateral symmetry was honestly refreshing, especially after a century as a nanoswarm of relativistic replicator probes. The body I currently wore was a bionic blank, a genderless fusion of organic and mechanical components. It was honestly refreshing to be in a form so close to the one I'd been born with. It was the first combat platform I mastered.

I remember the first time I met Terry, down in the jujutsu class. We rolled for an hour, until I got him in a triangle. When the janitor came to get us out, we barely had the strength to stand. In the years that followed, we'd turned our rivalry to the stars. We'd sparred since then, across uncounted worlds and alien suns. The one rule was minimizing collateral damage, although we'd bent it a few times.

I took sight of my surroundings. I was on a jungle world, with a heavy, fetid atmosphere pregnant with life. I wished I had better olfactory sensors, as the sulfuric tang tainted anything I smelled. My boot-like feet sank into the murky soil beneath me, feeling like I'd surmounted a pile of steaming stool. The sun ruled the sky above me, with only the mightiest of its rays penetrating the crawling canopy above me. I raised my sword and hacked through a vine, only for something to shriek and brackish ichor to flow from the severed appendage.

A creature somewhere between a cauliflower-headed gorilla and spider plant. It descended from the canopy with alarming alacrity, moving between tree trunks like a pinball. It uttered shrill ululations, but I did not flinch. With the machete-like saber in my hand, I considered the scenarios that would most efficiently terminate the fight. Its fir was matted with the same ichor as the venous vine, suggesting an environmental correlation I did not have time to consider.

The creature would have pounded me into the ground, if I hadn't already determined performance limits of my current body. With a quick pivot from behind a squirming tree, I drove the sword's tip into the primate-thing's torso. I sprung forward as high-tech alloy unzipped flesh, spilling organs I had no words for onto the ground. I continued disemboweling the creature until its last thrashing stopped a moment later. I eagerly departed in a direction I thought was north, hoping to be away from the carcass when the scavengers arrived.

I breeched the jungle an hour later, after wading through a mire that bubbled like a witch's kettle. I emerged to see a pillar of shattered metal rising from the edge of a distant valley. Communication antennae dishes blossomed from the stalk like budding flowers. A few bulbous weapons ports protruded from it, but they did not seem to be active. Memories stirred as I recognized where I'd seen a structure like that before.

I'd fought in all manner of conflicts across the galaxy, given my many backup bodies and amicable rival. The few baseline humans we encountered were shocked at the casual ease we murdered each other, but they didn't understand how our relationship worked. I'll admit, it was unlike any other relationship I was aware of, including the swarm minds locked in multi-corporeal coitus and the subordinate routines of a sentient clockwork skyscraper. To us, it was always a friendly rivalry, a way to occupy the eons on our race to the galaxy's edge.

Whichever of us was ahead got to choose our next battleground, and the victor would be allowed a head start. Just because we avoiding drawing others in did not preclude us from intervening in someone else's fight. We just avoided non-combatant sapients as best we could, restoring any casualties from brain uploads and with requisite care provided. I look back on those memories fondly, because we'd ended up giving solace and hope to even the most futile of worlds. One rule was that we had to give the other a sporting chance. We found no entertainment in cheating, although we did like an occasional edge.

Our confrontations similarly varied in scope. I remembered frantic firefights through mazelike tenements on a slum colony. I remembered sniper duels along an airless asteroid crater. I remembered ritual swordfights as barrister-duelists resolving a trial-by-combat. I remembered frantic microgravity grappling as we wrestled for a knife, as both of us tumbled out an airlock. I remembered arena battles in mechanical suits, where each footfall caused the earth to shake. I remembered a race between each of us controlling a Shkadov thruster, racing each other across the cosmos with Phaeton's recklessness. Next to those, surviving on a jungle world was tame.

As I trudged through the valley, I was set upon by a swarm of lizard-like creatures with writhing, ophidian necks. I half-hacked and half-slashed through them as though they were nothing more than a swarm of gnats. They were far more tenacious than I first thought, sinking their venomous teeth into synthetic limbs without effect. They would have tickled, but I choose to ignore the pack as I walked, and they became bored by the time I reached the base of the tower. Tearing away my caul of dirt was the most trivial thing I'd done all day, but defeating the lizards came close.

The base of the tower was embedded deeper into the ground than I first realized. It sunk deep past the bedrock, like a stiletto sunk deep into skin. Judging from the alloy, I hypothesized it was part of a Shkadov thruster, either mine or my rival's, that he used to prepare this planet for our confrontation. I didn't have my nanotech analysis equipment, but I'd bet he tailored the ecology of this planet to provide just the right challenge for the body he stuck me in. That would be so much like him.

I searched for a metallic door on the side, which I entered with undo caution. I'd done something similar to him on a colony of neo-primitivists, setting up a deathtrap-filled cavern for him to brave. If he wanted, he could've turned the entire tower into a dungeon slog reaching up to the upper stratosphere. I approached the automatic doors, which scanned me and responded in a way only he would've considered.

A grating pop song we both despised played, and I did my best to ignore it as I stumbled in. The corridor was the sterile white of medical plastic, with my own footfalls failing to register any sound on the floor. It was eerie for the first few steps, and it changed once I reached a cylindrical room at the end of the hallway. I looked up, and I gasped. The walls of the room converged to some distant, unseen ceiling. I realized what the silo-like structure was as the floor rose beneath me.

The space elevator accelerated, but I found my body still able to move. The walls around me vanished into a nondescript blur, as inertia rocketed me towards orbit. I stood there and nearly dropped my sword, but I recognized something shift above me. An object was descending towards me, and I estimated where it would impact. Just before it hit the platform, retrorockets slowed its descent, and it landed on the platform with readied weapons. It was a body identical to mine, with a similar sword.

"Good to see you, Sam," Terry said, circling with his weapon drawn. "Whoever wins here will win our challenge."

"You mean this is the edge of the galaxy?" I asked, incredulous. "No more systems beyond here?"

"Not yet, but the gravity from our earlier race is going to send a few catapulting past in a few million years," he replied. "But we're the first ones here, and this is the last baseline human-habitable system before interstellar space."

"Honestly, after you won that race, I expected a lot more from you."

"Still lusting after megastructures," he said with a mock sigh. "Hope you're not trying to compensate for something."

"Didn't come here to talk," I said, swinging at him.

Terry sidestepped my blow, of course. I quickly parried his retort, trying to do a draw cut along his wrist. The sword was heavier in my hand than it had been, and he narrowly avoided a blow that would've disarmed him. The atmosphere around us felt heavier, as I remembered the thrust beneath us. His earlier talking was to buy time, as he'd always been worse with a sword between the two of us.

What caught me off guard was the celerity he moved with. Recognizing the thrusters beneath his feet, I understood how he was cheating. He was fighting unfair, as we sometimes tended to. I let him come close, and then I unloaded a surprise of my own. I left my side open for an easy blow, practically inviting him to finish the fight in one swift strike. Much to his credit, he disengaged. I'd used that trick on him before.

His retreat left an opening too slight to be deliberate. I charged into him, pressing his torso against the wall. His artificial skin was ripped off behind him. The stench of melting plastic filled the air. His face registered a terror I'd rarely seen, as though a long-buried fear of mortality was now exposed. He engaged his thrusters with hopes of escape, only for me to wrap my arms around him.

Terry tried to shake me off, but we were still too close to the wall. My embrace trapped his sword arm close to his body, but I still had enough room to do what I needed. He rolled around, trying to ram me against the wall, so I acted as fast as my body let me. I rammed the blade into his neck, using all of my mechanical strength to end our eons-long contest in a single decisive strike.

I hit the ground a moment later, with Terry's inert body collapsing next to me. I should have felt excitement, but a tinge of depression came over me. All we'd fought for was at an end, as we'd reached the edge of the galaxy. Technically, I was the winner, but he was the first to reach here. I found myself once more able to access our shared memories, and I verified his claims from the astronomical data.

"So, what now?" Terry's uploaded mind asked. "Now that you're the best blade in the Milky Way?"

I sighed, and then I saw a holographic map of the route we'd taken. We'd certainly leave uploaded copies of ourselves for extragalactic adventures, but I knew exactly what we should do.

"So, first one to Earth?" I asked.

"Yeah, sounds good," he replied.

With that, I planned our next battle on the route home.

[caul, alacrity, celerity, Shkadov thruster]