Life begins with a sound like a flushing toilet.
I gain consciousness by degrees amid the viscous swirl, my brain lit with cram-download. I become human in moments, a blur-crawl from infancy to full-fledged killer as the gro-gel sluices into the depths. The first sensation is pain as my feet suck to the sharp-edged grid of the vat's drain floor, followed by cold, then weakness and shame as I collapse under my own weight onto all fours, falling onto my side, and finally, gagging, yank the branching umbilicus from my guts, lungs, nose and mouth.
I haven't even taken my first real breath and I vomit a couple liters of snot.
Luckier than most of humanity, I know who I am and why I'm here. I think of my people, dropping from the trees to take on the larger predators, becoming what all life on Earth fears, stamping our bootprint into the backs of all things—even lights in the night sky—and then pulling the trigger on ourselves and pissing a miracle into less than nothing. "Thanks," I rasp with fire in my throat, "you bunch of no-good sons-of-anuses." I'm not sure the idiom is correct, though the visual feels somehow right.
MOTHER gives me three hours, though I'm ready in 20 minutes—cleaned up, girded, strapped and armed. I waste the remainder of the time sitting, ramrod straight, among the broken things. Vast machinery of unknown purpose crowds the cavern into closed spaces, all it it echoing with playback of the countless missions I've failed before. Each loop is a snippet of exclamations, breathy oaths, the chatter of automatic fire, screams that grow with proximity and end with a roar, or the metallic patter of mostly deflected bullets, the whump-crunch of worse, or the flea's-knee klick of lost telemetry.
This time, I'm good to go.
The playback ends. MOTHER dials open the lock. I step inside and take a final lungful of clean air, tap the ammo-count on the .75 and spool up the MASER, all before the iris valve pinches off the last bit of sanity and humanity behind me. I check the cycle time and prime a grenade for a hair just past that, position myself before the outer door, balancing arm extended, grenade fuzing quietly next to my head in the other fist.
A circle of candy-colored light bursts from the center of the outer iris and I'm already halfway through the throwing arc. The grenade vanishes into the bright and rings the metal hull like a bell. Blowback scorches my breastplate.
I stride into the mess and leave my bootprint in the ones still breathing.
This is life for long enough that I would be viking-shaggy (if I could but grow hair) and a-dangle with skulls and flapping hides (were I to collect trophies) and with a name that precedes my arrival (if the things out here could speak). Instead, it just goes on until I'm low on ammo.
You'll know her when you see her. A human woman, bound and magnificent, outsized curves straining the boundaries of adolescent fantasy. She is attired as savages might swath the Venus of Willendorf for sacrifice, exposing enough lusciousness to attract the eyes of the Gods while covering those few bits that make Them blush. She stands proud and unbowed atop the stepped pyramid, smeared with handprints, a mane of wild hair obscuring her eyes, shoulders, and most of her back. A sea of admirers laps at her tiny feet. They chant blasphemies.
I give the suit a moment to read the crowd and calculate a trajectory before lighting the thrusters and jumping in, crushing four of them and burning others as I hit and leap away, CBM dispensers spinning wedges of shrapnel off my back as my boots leave the earth, feather-light. With a hop, skip and a jump I'm up the pyramid and arcing back down toward the small stone square carved with caricatures of talking cars and skeletons in business suits. I land in a wash of smoke and flame, sock the high priest in the nugget with a mailed fist, snatch the girl and rocket away.
Arrows fashioned from the bric-a-brac of a dead civilization shatter across my ass and pincushion hers, though she makes no sound, this brave Concubine of Death. She'll make a fine MOTHER of the New Human Race.
Back at the hab I toss her onto the waterbed, as is fitting for this moment in History, the way a pulp hero or misogynist might. The suit releases me, a tripartite zippered maw vomiting a pink and hairless doll.
She lounges on the undulating bed stiffly.
I step to the foot of it and remove my shirt in a double-fisted spray of buttons and begin to fumble at my belt. Some of the foam rubber has come loose from her curved belly and I spy—with rising horror—the metal beneath. As the whole of human history bottlenecks and dolly-zooms on me and the appliance, my horror redoubles and then does so again as I realize I've never seen my own genitalia. I can't, for the life of me, remember whether or not I have a penis.