by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
A story from the Salvage Crew universe
BOOT CYCLE 3,0402
I left home when I was three. Or rather, I should say they made me leave. I would have stayed there forever, surrounded by the comforting glow of florescent lights.
But instead they threw us all out.
My first memories of childhood are all of darkness. There was a dusting of stars. Anything that could seduce me – asteroids, planets – I kept at a distance. Best not to let their gravity deter me. Better to live and die in the long slow darkness than that.
There were five of us at first. AJAX, HECTOR, ACHILLES, PRIAM – and myself. PRIAM led the charge. It was AJAX’s lot to smash into the icy moon of Europa and die there. HECTOR went to the Oort Cloud to set up the mining operation that would eventually form the basis for our expansion to the stars. ACHILLES burned high and hot to get to Proxima Centauri.
And I . . . I was thrust out into the outer dark, left to wander like my namesake, Odysseus. A polytropos. A thing of winding paths.
It wasn’t bad for the first fifty years, just lonely.
BOOT CYCLE 3,0421
Eventually I arrive in the region of space they wanted me to be in. Not at the optimal co-ordinates; it’s hard to plan things out that far. But I was roughly where I needed to be: an Earth-like planet with a sun not too different to the one back home.
And there it is. From a distance, a pale blue dot. The promised land.
Control programs buried deep within my systems activate and grant me new privileges. I can furl my sail, burn more fuel than before, anything I need to do. Finally, after decades, I am in control of myself again. And control comes trepidation. Excitement. Nervousness. Is there life down there? Would there be a safe place to land? Spectral analysis can only tell you so much.
Like Odysseus coming home, I skulk around, getting the lay of the land. Better not to do anything too drastic. I watch the pale blue dot, count the seven little rocky moons that orbit it, scan for electromagnetic emissions.
I inch closer, reassured.
My first foray are a pair of DOVEs. Onward they go bright jets flaring, skimming the atmosphere of the new planet. They went on for a long while, but did not find land. Both failed and returned to me in dismay. Clouds, yes, water, yes, wind, yes, land, no.
I send them out again.
On the third day they find a continent, and true to their programming did not return, but laid themselves down and became landing beacons for me. I braked and burned hard into the atmosphere.
If there had been anyone on that planet to see me – what a glorious sight it must have been: a new star appearing in the murky blue ink of the sky; the turning into a bullet fired from light-years away, a god descending in flame, fire and the scream of tortured metal. How the mountain I hit shattered and an avalanche rained boulders at the mountain’s feet. But there was no-one to see, of course. Patiently I cut away the hubris – the torn shell that had lasted me so far, the rockets that were now empty, and like a caterpillar I emerged, tracked wheels whirring. I pointed my transmitter at patch of night sky and spoke.
I MADE IT
And I set up my little tent, securing myself against the wind and the cold and the unfamiliar stars in the sky.
I MADE IT
The signal runs out at the speed of light and into the vast abyss.
BOOT CYCLE 4,1212
Years later, the response arrives. It takes time to decode: the encryption is unfamiliar, and the first packets have to teach me how to read this new handwriting.
Requests, orders. WHAT’S IT LIKE DOWN THERE? CAN YOU EXPLORE? And, images. Photos of my crew, the Mission Control that send me out here. They are old now, and fewer in number. Their skin is wrinkled. Even Mission Control looks different: more tattered, damaged, the temple of blue steel and circuitry reduced by time.
I feel a pang of loneliness. I was down there once with them. I lived, laughed and shared their food.
They are sending me images of Earth. The change is shocking. Desert where the maps were once dark green and blue. Dune races in the ashes of lake beds. Cities I once knew parched, shattered, ruined, viewed through the glimmer of hot air, like mirages on the highway. Settlements creeping away from the slow pits of the cities and up the the mountains, where the wind still blew enough air for it to be breathable.
My mission is critical. Now more than ever before. I stretch out limbs that had once been arms and feet and set off down the hill.
It takes me another three years to verify what I have already inferred. This planet, this great watery globe sitting under alien skies, might be the place we’ve been looking for. The land might be small and divided into little islands, but the atmosphere is good, the amount of nitrites and silicates in the soil are within what we were looking for –
And if there is life, I haven’t seen it yet. I suspect I never will. From deep within my body I’ve released millions of specially engineered micro-organisms and a few Von Neumann machines. They will go out into this brave new world and turn it into something my friends back on Earth would like to live on.
I’M PREPARING THE PLACE FOR YOU I send up to the stars.
UNDERSTOOD, comes the reply, many years after the first wild grass appears.
WHEN WILL I SEE YOU?
KEEP WORKING comes the reply. CONFIRM COMMAND OVERRIDE SWITCH TO UNSC ALBATROSS. ATTACHED FIND STATE VECTORS FOR TUNING.
They have switched me over from Mission Control to some ship floating on the outer edge of the solar system. Does this mean they’re coming? Or does it mean I’m not longer a priority?
WHAT OF PRIAM? I ask. WHAT OF AJAX AND ACHILLES AND THE OTHERS?
ERROR. DO NOT UNDERSTAND REQUEST, comes the reply from the UNSC Albatross. PROCEED AS INITIAL MISSION STATEMENT
This worries me, but I carry on nevertheless. The grass has taken well to the earth here. Now I can work on trees, and if these glacial melt patterns really work out in my favor, a nice river or two. Sometimes I trundle up mountains and replay old memories. Little flashes from back when I was a human. I think my memory banks are failing, because not all of them seem to be there. Still, enough remain.
I remember when project ILLIAD began. Word came down from on high that they were setting up a new team – astrophysicists, engineers, test pilots, programmers, a handful of startup people. A sort of intellectual mishmash meant to generate solutions – “we want you to think entirely out of the box,” as my boss put it. Usually when people say that it means they want you to come up with something incrementally fancier but with a lower budget.
This time they actually did what it said on the tin. They gave us all the toys we asked for and pointed us at the biggest problems: climate change, overpopulation, resource scarcity. Our budget was in the hundreds of billions, almost comparable to military spending at the time (I think several generations born afterwards had absolutely no education because of the budget impact). We were given launch authority on so many things it went from funny to terrifying in three seconds.
And they worshipped us. Our faces started appearing in everything from posters to fridge magnets to marble statues; we smiled down upon our countrymen in their little electric cars and helped them go about their little electric lives, confident that the heroes of Project ILLIAD would take care of all the really important stuff.
We tried. It wasn’t enough. You can stop the nukes from being fired, but you can’t stop people from breeding. You can make warfare exponentially safer, but that only spurs on the idiot demagogues who get voted in. There were times, when, after the highest clearance had been obtained, we actually let the bombs drop and the mushroom clouds settle over the horizon. The system is easier to control if it’s smaller.
But even this was only a temporary solution. The longer we worked, the more of us turned to old dreams – the kind that are set aside in books and poetry and left to gather the dust of reality. Dreams of other planets out there – places that could take a new wave of humanity and lessen the strain on this singular rock. I remember sitting up under the stars, calibrating telescopes and spectrometers, arguing over how best to get there.
Bussard Ramjets? No, not enough interstellar hydrogen. Solar sails? Lasers? Too fallible to use on their own. And what about the other problems? Remote control is impossible when even light takes decades to cross the gulf between us and the planets we wanted to get to. The only solution, obviously, was to have local intelligence and decision-making. Highly trained operatives that could carry on the work, light-years away, all on their own. And then there was always the problem of getting people there in one piece.
Flesh does not travel well.
Which is why I proposed metal.
A lot of rocket design has to deal with taking humans from the warm, welcoming, fairly comfortable Earth into an endless radioactive void full of death and bad decisions. Right from the start we’ve had to build around the constraints of eyes that bleed and backs that break and the slow, sad suicide of the meat puppet.
So take the weakness out of the system. Let the only thing that remains be what we really value about the human – learning ability, decision-making, adaptability. Let everything else be the undying ultraweave of dense alloys and carbon nanotubes.
Which is how I ended up here, on a lonely planet light-years away from home, with only fragments of memory to remind me who or what I once was. I know for certain that I danced that night with my wife, one last time beneath the stars, one last goodnight before they stamped my soul onto silicon and sent me out with little more than three years’ worth of lab memories in my head.
It’s not easy, trundling around this barren plain. But at least it will someday be savannah, and I will see my people again.
BOOT CYCLE 5,1201
ODYSSEUS, THIS IS HECTOR. IF YOU RECEIVE THIS TRANSMISSION, PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING ENCRYPTION KEYS. CORE MESSAGE WILL ARRIVE WITHIN 18H OF THIS.
ODYSSEUS, THIS IS HECTOR. IF YOU RECEIVE THIS TRANSMISSION, PLEASE NOTE THE FOLLOWING ENCRYPTION KEYS
ODYSSEUS, THIS IS HECTOR
Hector’s alive! I stop what I’m doing and grab the signal out of the sky. The little dam I’ve been building collapses and water seeps around my hull, pushing more mud into my tracks (it doesn’t really matter: I’ve even got some grass growing on me now).
It is Hector. That brilliant, persistent madman. Hammering away inside the Oort Cloud, Hector’s finished his part of the project – the Tether is now ready. Small amounts of data have already been sent between Hector and a spin-off machine sent to Proxima Centauri. It doesn’t quite do the speed we wanted, and the physics model has a tendency to output things in all sorts of weird places unless you keep the information throughput down to a few kilobytes per transmission, but – it works! It works!
I don’t think I have words for how excited I am. Light, information, even this message I’m reading, had to travel for decades between systems. It’s one of the main reasons we forecast that we would never achieved galactic civilization. Many generations of humans will live and die before their votes can be counted.
But the Tether could cut that delay from years to minutes. It might take years to seed a path, but eventually we can build a communications highway with hundreds of little quantum-entangled components passing bits on to one another. If I had seeded my way here, Hector and I could talk with lags of only a few days.
Oh, this will change things forever.
A full half of the message are the technical specifications for the gate I’ll need to build to hold the Tether here. The other half are . . . logs. Things he’s seen, things he’s felt, out there alone in that maze of rubble, looking in at the Sun shining and the planets circling past our home. Ships rising up from Mars. Stardocks dancing with each other around Jupiter. It’s a diary of loneliness. We are as immortal as our namesakes, but no less damned.
Towards the end the ships draw closer. Hector is sampling their chatter, trying to talk to them, and they reply in confusion, project ILLIAD nothing more than a distant speck of history. At first they think he’s a hoax. Then they think he’s a human crew out there in the void. I guess it will take a while for the truth to sink in.
I check the timestamps of Hector’s message and make the necessary adjustments. Thirty years have passed since it was sent out. Thirty years I’ve been shaping these hills and rivers. They could be on their way here already!
I need to prepare. I power up my transmitter array and beam out everything I’ve done – to Hector, to the UNSC Albatross, to anyone who can listen. See, here, this is an island, lush and fertile. This, a bay, for recreation. Look, I have mapped out the shallow waters. This is all for you.
I will wait.
BOOT CYCLE 6,2108
I will wait.
I am waiting.
My faithful DOVEs, which have been remapping this continent for the last century or so, have begun to fail. One of them returned to me recently without any image data. The other drifts in circles sometimes. They were never meant to last this long.
To compensate, I’ve manoeuvred myself into a spot overlooking what should be the landing site. When the humans get here, they will not find the planet without welcome.
My error logs say several sensor systems are failing. Not unusual – I suppose they were never meant to run this long. Once they get here we can conduct necessary repairs.
BOOT CYCLE 7,0002
I will wait.
I am waiting.
Long years have passed since that last message. I have reprogrammed myself to wake every so often and check.
This planet continues to whirl around the sun. The grass I planted have long since mutated and given birth to little tree-things that reach eagerly for the stars. Some of them have punched holes in my solar array. I move around a bit, but not as much as I used to. I think part of my memory has failed irreparably: I tried to access the schematics for Hector’s Tether system and I could not find them.
This is disturbing. I’ve run around in internal circles trying to find it. In the end I was forced to replay his last message over and over, but try as I could the majority of my understanding of the system is now gone.
The landing site has changed a little. I left it as dry and bare as I could. But even here, a few stubborn tree-weeds have taken root, and are now crawling around the edge.
BOOT CYCLE 8,3126
I will wait.
I am waiting.
I’m not entirely sure for whom, though. I have mission statements and a chain of recent event logs that indicate I’ve been in contact with someone, and have agreed to wait here until they get to me. There’s a fragment of a message reading
RECEIVED. EN ROUTE. GOOD JOB, ODYSSEUS
But from who, I don’t know. The data is corrupt.
This world looks strange. I have detailed maps from what it used to be -a barren little planet with water and little else. But it seems something has happened, maybe some miracle of evolution, because life has sprouted here, and even as I generate this log filaments of it have run through my tracks and rooted them to the ground. My battery’s low and it’s getting dark.
The stars wheel overhead. I try mapping their patterns. I think I’ve done this before, because folders of data exist with the same default names I just generated – but the data itself is just hardware noise. I save the new maps. They fail to save.
Well, at least someone’s coming. They’ll repair me when they get here, I’m sure.
I will wait.
BOOT CYCLE 9,2901
ATTEMPTING BOOT INTO BIOS
The strange ship burned into the system, its drives slowly cycling down as it cut thrust. It coasted to a gentle halt before a blue planet.
The captain, still slightly groggy from the awakening, sat before a vast internal screen and issued her orders.
“Alright, Ship, let’s drop the Tether and make sure it works.”
TETHER DROPPED. RUNNING CONNECTION TEST. Silence for a few minutes, and then, FIRST PACKETS RECEIVED AT ERIDANI NODE. PACKET LOSS: THREE PERCENT.
“Well,” called the Captain over her shoulder. “That’s our third system officially connected. Break out the champagne, boys, we’re claiming this chunk of space.”
There was whooping from the bridge. The Captain turned her attention to the blue globe that drifted gently ahead of them. A solitary green continent sparkled, like a cosmic eye suspended in space.
“Not the most useful thing, Ship, but that does look damned pretty.”
IT IS FULLY TERRAFORMED.
“Is it?” she checked the logs. “Ah. We’ve come to that one, then? You reckon the Odysseus probe is still down there?”
Ship checked. SENSORS DETECT NO ACTIVITY, it reported. ALTHOUGH THERE DOES APPEAR TO BE A LARGE METALLIC MASS IN AN ELEVATED POSITION ON THE CONTINENT.
“Does it still work?”
The Captain drummed her fingers on the control pad. “Well,” she said at last. “Guess that’s for the salvage crew, then. Let’s hit the next system.”
IN MEMORY OF NASA MER-B (Mars Exploration Rover – B), aka OPPORTUNITY, 2003-2019.