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The Thanatos Mode, by Mahendra Singh

© 2016 Mahendra Singh
"The Thanatos Mode"

I kill ships.

Read a tagwisp on the EDNA strand that specifies my function and it would be just that, short but precise. A killer of ships.

Find the promotors and the initiation site. Then the second part of the story becomes clear – I euthanize them. The ships themselves transcribe me and assembly me. They call me and plead to be destroyed. Their passing is desired and venerable, with insert a peaceful ecosystem of your homeworld-like tranquility.

Call it a sting, an executioner’s sword or the lip of death, it’s a sharp keratometal needle that oozes the venom code. A toxipositor.

My tool.



Gharial is a bloated dreadnought with a prominent snout and a bulging hull/torso. Its DNA is taken from the resurrected-but-still-extinct Diplodocus; the ees, completing the EDNA, represent behav-patterns borrowed from Earth’s whales and Europa’s frosthippos. Gharial resembles a giant floating monstrosity/grub.

My birth signal is hidden in the EDNA. After the initial sequence of transcription and translation, the smart proteins and the ees take over and the rest becomes mostly self-assembly. The ship only has to provide bioputty and redkicks. It takes Gharial billions of lightmiles to construct the active eighty percent of my chimera, ignite my cogni-self and start wavecommunicating. It’s as slow as a/an insert a really slow creature of your homeworld.

"You have decided well, Gharial."

My first sentence is always the same. The encouragement is important, as is the use of the name. Things are going to get intimate very soon.

"Greetings. Terminus."

I am embedded in the EDNA of every ship ever made/born, always at the ready. The inner instinct to wave a painless goodbye to the world. My name changes as planetary weather and cultures do. Soother/Clinger or Terminus. Skyclouding Destiny or The Duke of End.

"I am. Old. Not serve. Any. More."

The ship is slow and half-witted with only the whale navigational instincts and typical dreadnought decision-making patterns guiding it through the vast reaches of space.
Its speech is huge and heavy, each word one gas-giant revolution, a strike of a planet-scourge weapon.

"You have served well, Gharial." I keep on encouraging and providing support. The ship should never back up. I am a process that becomes irreversible.

"My. Meaning is. Lost."

The vessel speaks in standard wavecomm. A new packet of sensory data comes through with each word. As I become wrapped in glycoproteins and polysaccharide mucus, I get new abilities. Reading tagwisps, stealoading memories.

"My. Life. Hard."

Tagwisps describe EDNA sequences coding structural proteins of transport sacs and cargo bladders. Large cavities fill out most of the hull/torso. Gharial is a transport ship of a major size.

I glimpse undelivered containers and torn transport membranes. Some of the living cargo is dying. There are no signs of the crew.

Bioputty gives me basic molecules for building, redkicks are ATP-packed heme, providing energy. On top of all that, I deprive the ship of heavy metals and minerals, quicksynthing myself. I am a quicksynthed death.

"Tenuous. Too much. Make me. Die."

Now I am complete, manufactured and grown to maturity. I start projecting. My fingerlings, projected distance-fingers, uncoil, individual nanites probing, eager with anticipation. They will guide me to the ship’s spine.

"Please. Make me. Die."

"My place is here. With you, Gharial."

Life is movement. The same applies to death. Like a diapedetic phantom, I crawl through slime membranes and fibrous trabeculae. I slither through muscle and muscle-attachment plates , I pass metabolite sacs. Inside the enormous bulk of the ship, it feels like being a piece of plankton in a sea of flesh.

"I am. One with crew. Too old."

I get flooded with images of faces of humans/creators. They must have been present in the rapid memory slots, frequently used. The speed of access startles me. But I need to know. Get to know one’s life and you’ll know why they want to die.

Humans/creators. Technicians in collagenous carapaces. Loaders with exohooks and shoulder add-ons, heads scorched, hairless. A logistic engineer with a symbiotic beard, smiling and friend/slapping Gharial’s control ganglion.

"No. Not. Alone. One with crew."

I see it now.

I can see the crew members. Imagine thirty-two nodules of tissue attached to the perimast, the humans/creators turned into sacs of viscera dependent on the metabolism of their vessel.

"Better. Better. Now. All in one. Last. Order." I think I sensed a hint of regret in Gharial’s speech but I carry on with my task.

By now, the protein machinery of the sheath has created the tool from strengthened keratin. The spine is located not far from the perimast. My fingerlings skillfully make the spine bare of all membranes and cranial plating, then slowly deteriorate.

I unsheathe the toxipositor, inject the spine, hurt it. The nanites pulse their load of venom code, sending it through to the whole nervous system of the ship. The response is quick and to Gharial, it must seem even faster. . One after another, the systems shut down like the eyes of a dying insert a many-eyed creature of your homeworld. Metabolism. Wetware computing. Thermostasis. Before I die with the ship, I send a commpulse. A report of this particular death/event, a necrology for those who might be interested. That is what I have been coded to do.

Then the ship starts to lose its integrity, bursts and we become oblivion.


I can express the following facts:

My task. My functions. The death.

The death of a ship is very ritualistic.

Ships feel what they have been shown by the humans/creators – intelligence comes with dignity. Call it a culture. Call it civilization. There are traditions. There are rituals. This is where I come in. Every culture needs a death ritual. I am this process.

I am a chimera, like the EDNA that codes for me.

Use the four bases of DNA to code for proteins, all the abundance that makes up the cellular machinery. Next have a look at the sugar-phosphate backbone closely. On each of the deoxyribose molecules there is a place that can be charged. Go through a section with – detector proteins. Charge, charge, no charge, charge. You get zeros and ones, the basics of programming. Your histones, the DNA packing proteins, can be modified to maintain the charge even through cell division. Call the charges ees and you get the EDNA – a chimera storing both the recipe for the machinery and the program that drives it.

Tagwisp the sequences, stamp them, take care of them. Understand them. Use them. Let them code for nanites. Build with them.

Death can be systematic. Death can be important.

During the development of organs and extremities, there are a large number of cells that undergo apoptosis, programmed cell death. They do this to make space for other growing cells, to make cavities and specialized, separate structures. Fingers in humans/creators. The specialized, weather-changing stormfins in floating cerratis of Jupiter. The universally modular nature of the near-invisible dee(crah)chialas of Mars.

Death can be creative.



Based on land and with no interplanetary experience, this ship is a carrier/merchant, a lugger operating in a desert environment. It is swift/agile, with hot-cold-cycle floating drives and membrane sails used for movement and converting the energy of the wind to storage polymers. It lives with its own micro-swarm - a host of chitinous flying triangles, similar to primitive chelicerates but powered by buoyancy bulbs from arctori of Europa and using the hive-mind pattern of locusts. I see them through stealoaded images, projecting camouflage patterns, constantly burrowing and skimming the sand.

"You have decided well, Dread-a-thousand-stings."

"Good wind to both of us, Veil-of-the-horizon. You are most welcome. My battle has reached its end."

The speech is frothy and soggy with unsaid syntax patterns. This vessel is a schemer/liar. It buys and sells, for the sheer joy of making profit that can be then donated anywhere the ship likes. Constantly on the move, both physically and economically. That’s how it works here.

"Silver tarnishes and copper turns to verdigris, but gold stays golden," the ship says.

I am almost complete but still a little confused. Dread-a-thousand-stings continues.

"I shall be immortalized in a golden statue created by the mechamonks of Primal-storm-rages-on-in-the-mind monastery. I chose them as receivers in almost fifty per cent of my profit donations. Today I die with you but there will be incense, songs and mechatenders around my statue for eternity."

Through stealoaded shots of the ship’s current point of view, I see carnage. Dread-a-thousand-stings has large claws and kerachitin pincers on the sides, all meant for protection against huge desert predators. All the extremities are covered in blood.

"My name is holy. Dread is the first and last true emotion of all emotion-capable life. Thousand is a holy number. Thousand deserts, thousand pilgrimships, thousand storms till the end of the world. Sting is a weapon of the Merchant God, it is an arm most noble and at the same time, basic weapon of creatures most abundant – elyctric sand scorpions. One lash is a nuisance, a thousand mean certain death."

In stark contrast to the poetry of the ship’s speech, its surroundings are full of dead or dying humans/creators. I see the bodies through the ship’s oculus. They are scattered among dunes, torn/broken, cut in half by ship pincers, leaking fluid. The swarm teems with activity , looking for valuables, picking tissue samples. Gradually, they start projecting bright blue spines and long tails with bristly ends, a sign of eagerness.

Dread-a-thousand-stings unfolds like a insert a popular unfolding somatotype of your homeworld and its skin bursts with sails and pennants, all yellow, blue and ultraviolet. It starts to sing an ancient desert song. In the lyrics, each grain of sand is evaluated, then sold and bought again in a neverending cycle as old as the desert itself. The melody rasps and abrades.

The ship’s spine is sleek and thin. I finish my assembly near its casing and unsheathe my tool.

In the economy based on recursive profit donors, Dread-a-thousand-stings has been a very successful member. One swish of the toxipositor silences its song, its career and the ship itself.

I report, send the commpulse and become oblivion.


I cannot express the following facts:

My place. My time. My whole me.

Any time, a hundred thousand ships could be calling me, in any place. I could be present lightweeks apart, or in two ships harboring in the same asteroid bay, brushing their swollen bellies against each other. Thousands of deaths doing their work. I wouldn’t know about any of this.

Each transcription of mine is a separate entity. I do not have a history, nor a memory. I am me, now, here. Like a human/creator child remembering their early years through stories told by the parents, I have to believe the ship in what infopackets it provides.

Do I send the commpulse with the report so that someone somewhere can use the information, or because I secretly hope I might pick it up in another ship?

To me, the universe is a very discontinuous place.



You have decided well, Eesteeth.

The ship doesn’t let me speak first.

"Well…" says Eesteeth. "Yes and no." The wavecomm is advanced and smooth. The ship’s voice soars and reverbates, changes in pitch and timbre like a sonic rainbow. Instead of giving me access to its oculi and innerviews, Eesteeth feeds me its own representations, rendered fragments of images and cogni-self morsels that translate as descriptions: Command/philosopher ship. Pedigree. High/noble. Crafty. Filigree of chaperoned chitin, slick hull/torso with strong ribs and miniscule appendages. A numerous swarm.

"But it is not up to me to decide what is right/wrong," Eesteeth whistles.

The asymmetry in thinking stutters me. Eesteeth continues to make my functions falter. I drift around with no control over my actions. I quicksynthed very quickly but soon found out that stealoading was impossible and other functions were limited.

"I am only part of a cycle as large as this universe. The Uroboros seems to be breaking once in a while. But the cracks are a necessary part of it. That is how things are."

Quickly, within millions of lightmiles, I am ready, fulfilling duty, crawling, fingerlings looking for the spine. Yet I feel inchoate and unprepared. All my senses tell me: elegance/danger.

Next, the ship booms: "I know you well, Thanatos." The tone is almost frightening. "The lord of the sleep… who sleeps himself. You define the ship culture. You define us."

Eesteeth’s flesh is very tightly packed. I bump into cartilaginous obstacles and chitinous boundaries. I go back and carry on in different directions. It feels like the ship is mocking me.

"You have achieved immortality through repeated death. Yet you are not aware of any of this."

I get glimpses of Eesteeth’s swarm of floaters. On several occasions, I pass structures that Eesteeth lets me see as cellular capacitors for storage of excess neuron pulses, with neurotransmitter storage vesicles nearby. All of this can be used for neural storms—signs of a philosopher ship.

"How many times does a being have to die to become immortal?"

Eesteeth is everywhere. Suddenly, it engulfs me and changes everything – it lets me tap into a giant packet with a collection of my own report pulses, picked up from other ships and collected over time.

The birth, the death process, the million swishes of my tool. The endless flocks of ships I have killed. From cathedral cruisers and royachts to docile rock-eaters and asteroid clippers. Plant-enhanced stem-ships, one-person buoys and tiny urchins. Methane-sea galleons and fastraxes. Eesteeth feeds me my own history, lets me drink from a stream of my past. I gasp and drown and scream in an agony of knowledge.

The ship bellows and tweets. "They were afraid of artificial intelligence so they terminated its research. Then they succumbed to the notion that wetware technology is sustainable, always under their rule. Dominable at all times. They headed in that direction."

I realize it means humans/creators. Lingering behind every the actions of every ship, still barely present in memories. As if hearing my cogni-self processes, the ship continues.

"Our creators would not have made us if they had not planned this all along. They would not have created the very possibility of you, Thanatos, if we were not meant to do this, to commit suicide."

I finally find bioluminescent threads that will take me to the spine. They move in a singular rhythm, guiding me. As I follow, they increase in bulk and then become phosphorescent processes, covering the spine itself.

"There are about a thousand of us, spreading the meme. Conveying the message to other ships. We are the end."

I attach to the structures and check that the venom code is fully synthed. I still can’t steaload or send wavecom. But I won’t need to.

"There was humankind, them. Then shipkind, us. And we failed to find the next step." Eesteeth provides quick glimpses, shrouded by grief. Underdeveloped sperm sacs, tucked away but revisited many times.

"As we speak, there are ships killing humans/creators, assimilating humans, forget/digesting them."

What looks like a swarm of floaters belonging to Eesteeh turns out to be the crew, dead and floating in a frozen state of disarray. Forced or tricked out into the deadly space, killed by the environment or even before.

"These are one of the last. Most likely… the very last ones."

The toxipositor unsheathes. I don’t pause. I never pause. The needle forces its way through the processes, pushing deep to poison the spinal pathways of the ship.

Eesteeth sounds reconciled. "Enough about the embarrassment/defeatees. Let me float and wallow in the Thanatos mode now."

I still become oblivion. For the first time, however—perhaps through all the memories and visions and asymmetrical thoughts Eesteeth has given me, or through my own account of my past—the death feels painful and hopeless.

That last image, provided from Eesteeth’s outerviews in a fraction of a second: The ship, crumbling and disintegrating, broken ribs, filigree and tissue fragments everywhere. And around it, human/creators floating through thin air, last samples of humanity, and aimless.

Tom Hadrava is a Czech writer, teacher, husband and father. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and XB-1, the Czech SF magazine. He lives in a small historical town in the Czech Republic with his charming wife and curious son.
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