have you ever been set on fire? _Captain
Imagine you are looking at a field of stars, each one a fleck of burning gemstone against the black velvet of space. Now, squint your eyes and try not to be sick as your vision pulls in on two of those points of light, the others swirling around and passing by you in a blur until, at last, you are looking at a single point between two of those stars. There, drifting along an invisible path, two-thirds of the way between those two burning spheres, is a single oasis of life. A kilometer long from the tip of its curving ice shield to the ragged scar of twisted metal at the rear, glittering along the length with spots of light. Four cylindrical segments protrude from the core, striped along the side of the ship at even intervals, like the backs of burrowed serpents peeking above the sands of a desert. Three of them gleam with lights as they turn slowly in place, revealing changing patterns of light like the spikes on the drum of a music box, while the fourth rests still and dark in its hollow.
Now turn your attention to the rear of the ship, where the metal skin has blistered and charred, and the inner structure pealed up and out in a twisted, agonized mass of melted steel. Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here.
Now, tell me: Have you ever been set on fire?
The experience is an exquisite symphony of agony. There is the heat, of course, but that’s only the beginning. If you’ve ever burned your skin bad enough for it to blister, you understand the simple, direct pain of the heat. But that is only the beginning. The true suffering comes after the initial blast of heat, when the crust of charred skin begins grating against the inflamed flesh beneath, as deep within you the regular, living pulse of air and fluids transforms into a drumbeat of agony as every breath, each heartbeat strains against the inflamed flesh. Fluids begin to leak into places they ought not. Charred flesh and brittle bone begin to flake away and, while you are horrified at the sight of your own body breaking up in front of your eyes, each fracture is a small mercy as it cuts off the nerves and you can no longer feel the pain. Eventually the pain grows so intense that the mind breaks away from it, disowning the fragile body which has failed to protect it.
I sometimes wonder if it would have been better for me to die in that infinite night when my body set itself afire, leaving me to blaze through the heavens like a suicidal comet. But it is pointless to dwell upon the past. The present holds enough pain as it is.
When that first, agonizing wave of pain hit me, I panicked. My mind shut down like a computer struck by lightning. Ironic, that, seeing as the entire purpose of my existence was to prevent the systemic failure of an expert system, which was predicted to be the result of any number of unanticipated situations. The engineers who designed me believed that only the inherent flexibility of the human mind could provide the balance that such a massive, complex system needed. Instead, it was I who collapsed under the strain of the pain signals flooding my brain and, in the end, it was the autonomic expert systems that kept me, and my children, alive while my conscious mind went into something like a coma.