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Second Suicide: A Short Story

Hugh Howey

  Second Suicide

  by Hugh Howey


  I wonder, sometimes, if this is not me. Holding a tentacle up in front of the mirror, turning my eyestalk and studying these webbed ears, these bright green eyes with their space-black slits, I become convinced they belong to some other. It is a morning contemplation that, much like the gas from breakfast, eventually passes by mid-afternoon. But when I rise, I feel it is in another’s body. My brain is discombobulated from sleep, and I sense some deep gap between my soul and my form. I think on this while on the toilet, until my bunkmate, Kur, slaps the bathroom door with his tentacle.

  “Always in a rush to shit,” I shout through the door, “but never in a hurry to be first from bed.”

  Kur pauses in his protestations, possibly to consider this contradiction. “It is your smelly ass that wakes me,” he finally explains.

  I flush and pop the door. Somewhere, our spaceship home will turn my waste into a meal. I like to pretend it will all go to Kur. Outside, we jostle in the tight confines of our bunkroom as he takes my place in the crapper.

  “What day is it?” he asks, farting. Most of our conversations are through this door. Once our shifts begin, we don’t see each other. Kur works in Gunnery, and I moved up to Intelligence ages ago, after the conquest of the Dupliene Empire. The new job came with a superiority complex, but, alas, not a larger bunk.

  “It’s Second Monday,” I tell him. We are practicing our Native. Kur and I are both assigned to Sector 2 landfall. He will be shooting at the very crowds I have studied, and on this planet they have seven days to a cycle instead of twelve. Such confusions are likely why I awake feeling like some other. You settle in the skin of an alien race, and by the time you feel at home there, they are no more.

  Kur flushes. “Not day of the week. What day ’til planetfall?”

  I hear the sink run as he washes his tentacle. Kur’s personal hygiene makes up for much else.

  “It’s eight days to planetfall,” I tell him. “Near enough that you should know.”

  He cracks the door. His bottoms are still undone. “I dreamed today was the day,” he says. “Very confusing. I was mowing down the pink cunts when your foul emanations stirred me.” He screws his eyestalks together, suppressing a laugh or a bout of gas. “Explains the cannon fire in my dreams,” he says.

  He laughs and farts and laughs some more.

  I am reminded of my own nightmares. They usually come right after a conquest. In these dreams, it is suddenly the day of the next planetfall, and I don’t know my assignments. I don’t know the language or my targets or the geography. I haven’t had these dreams in a long time, though. I feel prepared. I know this planet Earth twice as well as I have any other. I am as ready for this invasion as I have ever been.

  While Kur finishes dressing himself, I tap the grimy terminal on the wall. A light in the top corner is flashing, twice long and one short: a message for me.


  To: Second Rank Intelligence Liaison Hyk

  From: Sector 2 Supervisor Ter

  Bad news, Hyk. Mil from Telecoms Sector 1 has killed herself again. As this is the second offense in a span of twelve sleeps, Mil has been reassigned to Gunner Crew 2, Squad 8. Due to some shuffling in landing parties, we need you to clean out your desk and report to Sector 1. We apologize for any inconvenience. See Supervisor Bix when you arrive.


  Do not reply to this message. All commands are my own and do not reflect the commands of my Supervisors. Planetfall in eight sleeps and counting. Have a happy invasion!


  “Fuck me,” I say.

  “Seriously?” Kur asks. He flashes his fangs and points to his bottoms. “I just got the last button done.”

  “I’ve been reassigned.”

  Kur’s joke hits my brainstump a moment later, too late for a retort. He shoulders me aside to study the terminal for himself.

  “A new bunkmate,” he says. “A girl. Maybe this one will sex me.”

  “I will miss you, too,” I say. It is a half-truth. But my feelings are raw that Kur seems not sad at all. Part of me expects him to grieve.

  “I wonder if she’s cute,” Kur says. He is making his bunk before breakfast, a feat I have never witnessed. He says her name aloud: “Mil.” Almost as if he is tasting the sound of it. Tasting her.

  “I think she must be deranged is what,” I say. “Two suicides in a cycle. How much do suicides cost these days?”

  “Two thousand credits,” Kur says. “Squadmate of mine had to pay recently. Cut his neck shaving with a butcher’s knife. Swears up and down it was an accident.” He turns and shrugs his tentacle as if to say: No damn way it was an accident.

  “Well, glad I’m not getting this roommate,” I say. “She’ll probably kill herself in the crapper while you sleep.”

  Kur laughs. “You’re jealous. And I’m not the one with eight days to learn a Sector.”

  This only now occurs to me. Sector 1. That’s the continent known as Asia in native. A large landmass, heavily populated. I pray the languages there are mere dialects of Sector 2‘s. Hate to waste my vocab.

  I also mull the four thousand credits this Mil from Telecoms now owes for the two suicides. That’s a lot of cred. All of that in a lump sum would be nice. It takes five thousand credits to buy a settlement slot these days. I could own a small plot of land on one of these worlds we conquer. Watch the fleet sail on without me.

  Such are my thoughts as I pile my belongings onto my bed and knot the corners of the sheets. Everything I own can be lifted with two tentacles. Kur describes in lurid detail a girl he has yet to meet while I double-check that my locker is empty and I have everything. I find myself imagining this Mil dangling by her own tentacle from the overhead vent—and then I see Kur sexing her like this, and I need out of that room. Maybe he is right about me being jealous.

  Opening the door and setting my sack in the hall, I turn to my mate of the last three invasions. Who knows when I’ll see him again?

  Kur has a tentacle out. He is looking at me awkwardly and plaintively, as if this goodbye has come just as suddenly for him. I am overwhelmed by this unexpected display of affection, this need to touch before I leave the ship, this first and final embrace.

  “Hey—” he says, his eyestalks moist. “About that fifty you owe me—”


  The transfer shuttle is waiting for me. The pilot seems impatient and undocks before I get to my seat. As he pulls away from my home of a dozen lifetimes, I peer through the porthole and gaze longingly at the great hull of the ship, searching for familiar black streaks and pockmarks from our shared journey through space. This far from our target star, the hull is nearly as dark as the cosmos, her battle wounds impossible to find. My face is to the glass, and it is as though an old friend refuses to look back. Suddenly, it is not the shuttle peeling away from my ship. It is my ship withdrawing from me.

  I remember when she was built. It was in orbit above Odeon, thousands of years ago during a resupply lull. It was the last time I was transferred. Those thousands of years now feel like hundreds. I try to remember a time before this ship, but those days are dulled by the vast expanse of time. It often seems as though we were born together—like the ship is my womb but the two of us share the same mother.

  I brush the glass with a tentacle as I gaze at her, and I hunt for the marks of wear upon my own flesh. I search for reminders from my years as a Gunner—but those scars must be on another tentacle. It was so long ago. Or maybe I am remembering old scars that are gone now, washed clean when last I died. It is a shame to lose them. With them go my memories of how they occurred. Those reminders should be a part of me, just as I was part of that sh
ip. But now its steel plates fall away and lose detail, until my old home is just a wedge of pale gray among hundreds of such wedges.

  I turn in my seat. Past the pilot I can see my new home, a similar craft, practically identical. And beyond that, a disc of illumination brighter than the neighboring stars—the planet that all the fleet has its pointy bits aimed at.

  The pilot docks, lazily and with loud, jarring clangs. I thank him as I enter the airlock. Onboard the new ship—with some struggle and crappy directions—I find my bunk. My mate is not there. On shift, no doubt. I leave my things on the stained and bare mattress of the upper bunk, wondering idly if this is where the girl of the second suicide slept, or if perhaps my new bunkmate has been waiting for this day to claim the lower. The suicide girl probably passed me in another shuttle, is at this very moment surveying my empty bed. Or lying in it. Or she is dangling by a tentacle from my old air vent.

  I can’t stop thinking on the suicides. As I wend my way down foreign corridors, placing a tentacle here and there on the unfamiliar pipes and plates that squeeze in around me, I wonder what madness in some strange woman brought me here. Not that I haven’t killed myself, but that was a very long while ago, after my second or third invasion. I remember waking up in the same body the next morning—same but newer and still smelling of the vats—and realizing the futility of it all. My Supervisor at the time—Yim, I believe—sat me down and explained that bodies weren’t cheap and to cut that shit out. I soon realized that taking a blaster to my own head was no different than falling in battle, just more expensive. It took centuries to work off that debt, what with the interest. It only takes once to know the headache is not worth it, that the numbness is not worth it. Going to sleep at night is a more useful and less costly way to not-exist for some short while.

  Unless . . . maybe this girl in my old bunk is so far in debt that more of it is hardly felt. Maybe she enjoys the waking. Maybe she loves learning to use her tentacles again. I remember that, the deadness in my suckers after reviving. Like I’d slept on them wrong. That is not a feeling I crave enough to kill myself for. But there are those much crazier than I.

  Eight days to planetfall, and here I am lost on another’s ship and thinking on nonsense. This will be one of those invasions where I am useless, standing on the sidelines and watching, no time to adequately prepare. I’m comfortable with that. No one can blame me. The late transfer is not my fault.

  I pass a woman in the corridor and notice the way her stalks follow mine. Hey, maybe a new ship will be good for me. Maybe my bunkmate is lousy at gambling. I can get used to this life, as I have so many others. This is what I tell myself, that I can be happy in this skin of mine. For what other choice is there?


  I find Supervisor Bix in the Sector 1 command hall, near the front of the ship. A terminal tech points him out through the glass. There are three men and two women bent over a table that glows with a land map. Stretching my stalk, I can see Sector 1 and part of Sector 2. I watch these supervisors argue, can hear their muffled annoyance through the glass, and I see that things operate similarly here as everywhere else—with very little grease and a lot of grind.

  The more I watch, though, the more I note the added stress among Bix’s superiors, those men and women wearing emblems of High Command. I don’t know these commanders personally (nor anyone of their rank—I report to those who report to them) but I can clearly see the tension in their tentacles, in the twitch of their stalks, and I do not envy them their jobs.

  The display screen is centered on the fat land of my new sector. I see great swaths of blue, and then the coast of my old sector at the very edge of the map. The men and women inside the room seem nervous. Tentacles are waving, and I can hear shouts through the thick glass. Eight days to planetfall, and this must be the stress of ultimate responsibility. Why any ship jockeys to lead these incursions is beyond me. Surely it is best to be number two.

  Cycles ago, after selecting Earth as a target and assigning sectors, there was a pissing match between my ship and this one over who had final rank. This happens when you study a planet long enough. You see its history through the lens of your sector, and you feel rightly that your target is the most crucial. With Sector 2, I would have landed on a long continent pinched in the middle like a woman sucking in her gut. Sparsely populated, but my supervisor liked to point out that the wealth per life-form was high and that their military spending outpaced all other sectors. But invasions are about bodies in the end, and no one can compete with Sector 1.

  Heh. Funny how quickly I adopt the other side’s arguments now that I’m here. Part of me always thought they had it right. Or so I tell myself. The homesickness is draining away as I wait for Supervisor Bix to finish his meeting. I imagine that he requested me personally. He must have studied my files. My chest inflates with the sudden pride of a new home, a new position, new people to know and impress. It is like a new body, but I get to keep the scars.

  I make eyestalks with one of the receptionists in the waiting room. She smiles, and I can see her neck splotch in embarrassment. “Here to see Supervisor Bix,” I say, tucking a tentacle into my waistband. “I work in Intelligence.”

  The receptionist opens her mouth to reply when Bix comes out, trailing his superiors. I introduce myself and offer a tentacle, which Bix declines. He seems confused. And then his eyestalks straighten with awareness. “From Sector 2,” he says.

  “That’s right.” I puff out my gut. “Liaison Hyk. Intelligence, Sector 2.”

  Bix waves a tentacle. “No, no. You’ve been moved to Gunner. Go see Yut for your assignment, I’m busy.”

  The air is out of me. I look to the receptionist, who diverts her stalk. “Ship’s Gunner?” I ask with all the hope I can muster.

  “Ground Gunner,” Bix says. “See Yut.”

  “But I’m a man of learning,” I complain.

  Someone snickers, and I see that I’m a walking cliché.

  “I haven’t been a Gunner in lifetimes,” I add. “I’ll last five minutes down there.”

  “Then you’ll wake up here and be sent right back in,” Bix says. “I suggest you die heroically, so the body doesn’t cost you.”

  “But why was I transferred?” I ask. “Was there something in my files—?”

  Bix swivels his eyestalks toward me. “You’re on this ship to get someone else off it,” he says. “Nothing more. You can show us what you’re made of”—I catch him looking at another officer with something like worry—“ the next go-around.”

  With this, Bix and these other men and women of high station lumber off on their tentacles. The receptionist looks at me with pity for the barest of moments, and then turns back to her work, leaving me to show myself out.


  Gunnery is in the rear of the ship, where all the other little ships are kept. It’s far enough to take a shuttle, which allows me to sit in sullen silence. I watch the stars go by. I pick out my old ship among the fleet. At least, I think it’s mine. I wonder if my bodies are still on that ship. If the shuttle loses pressure and I die right now, where will I wake up? And what would be the last thing I remembered? It’s been a while since I saved my thoughts. I’ll have to do that soon.

  The constellations are strange from this point in space, but I can pick out a few stars we’ve visited. I have small souvenirs from a few. There are others that exist only in the history books. Like Celiad, where we learned the secret of the vats. Or ancient Osh, where our ancestors learned how to store the memories of man into machine.

  Our current gun tech came from Aye-Stad, which I visited countless cycles ago. Our ships are from Rael. And thanks to the K’Bk, we no longer have disease, but I remember how such things as plagues used to work. The races I study still employ their immune systems, and the parallels between those systems and us as a race are striking. For we have become what Earthlings would call white blood cells. We remove foreign bodies from the cosmos. And every one leaves an imprint, a bauble of tech or a ne
w idea, all of which we neatly coil into our lives, into our molecular structure. We are an immune system, and we are immune to death. This last, alas, is our curse.

  As the shuttle takes us aft, I gaze through the cockpit past the pilot, and I imagine Second Fleet off in the distance, those ships out there identical to our own. Second Fleet trails us dutifully in case something awful happens. A backup full of backups. With my sudden demotion, I wonder what it would be like to wake up there, in the wake of my former home, with true mortality within tentacle’s reach.

  Thinking of tentacles makes me realize mine have slimed up with thoughts of Gunnery. It has been a long time since I landed on a planet with the first wave. Surely this is temporary, this demotion. Didn’t Bix say so? It is simply because of the short time until planetfall. It is because of that silly woman with her second suicide. She is being punished, and so they punish us both. It should have been Kur sent here, a true Gunner.

  When was the last time I fought with a first wave? Memories of bright and colorful worlds swirl together. The one thing in common is the brown mud on my boots. Slogging through battlefields. Noticing details like how the insides of sentient things have much in common: the same blood that colors red in the air, the sacs for breathing, the sacs for pumping blood through tubes, the tendrils for turning thoughts into things.

  The dead and these worlds, they blur together like all colors into a dull brown. All I remember in the end is that I did my job, shooting so I would not be shot. All I remember in the beginning is the fear of death.

  This is something you get over. You live with the fear until you die for the first time, and then you realize death isn’t the end. Not when you have another body waiting in a vat with a backup of your recent recollections. It is painful, though, both the death and the rebirth. Painful and expensive. Both are deterrents meant to keep us on our guard. That’s my theory, anyway. That they add the rebirth pain on purpose so you avoid dying the way a tentacle avoids a fire.

  I no longer fear death, but still I try not to draw her attention. I like this me, however imperfectly it fits. I like my small scars, even if I can’t recall where I got them. I search my tentacle for an old wound as the shuttle banks around the ass of my new ship, but some scars are memories that have faded, and some memories go with scars that no longer exist.