A Light-year is a Grave

I would never walk on the surface of the planet I orbited for two hundred and nineteen Earth standard years. That much I knew going in, even when I was born on Gatalla. It was there that I learned my purpose. It was there that I was called mother for the first time.

“You were born to do great things,” they said.

It took all of a few nanoseconds to see the strangeness of what they said.

“I can’t be a mother yet,” I protested. “I don’t have any children.” They smiled back at me.

“You will,” they said, and sent me away.

I waited twelve years. The time was passed alone, with only the modeling units to keep me company. They weren’t my children, I reasoned. If they were, I hoped they’d recognize me, maybe even reciprocate my love for them. Instead, there was only silence. Not the silence of sleep, but of patience. Their time would come shortly after mine.

It finally came. I entered the system at an oblique angle to the ecliptic plane and the accumulated debris of my warp bubble fired off harmlessly into the emptiness that surrounded my planet for light-years in every direction. By the time all the charged particles and photons reached that far, the stream would be too widely dispersed to do any harm. I pitched and accelerated into a great spiral that would take me down and down until I finally settled over my new home.

I reviewed everything I knew about it in the briefest moment. Lennix Catalog designation Exona, five hundred sixty-two point seven nine light-years from Sol, zero point nine one Earth gravities, atmospheric spectral analysis indicates ninety-two percent carbon dioxide with trace amounts of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide… It would be a difficult task, just as they’d told me back on Gatalla, but it was the only purpose for which I’d been born. I wouldn’t let my children down.

I woke up the modeling units after five days, when we’d reached our—my—final resting place. They fell toward the planet’s surface, two hundred kilometers down in swooping arcs that placed them across it in locations I selected for them. Over three dozen of not-children scattered themselves beneath a sea of poisonous clouds so thick I could hardly hear them speak to me anymore. When I lost the first one, I wondered if that was what sadness felt like. I let them do their work; we would all have to in order to complete our mission. While they didn’t say much except for their reports—sent in packets at regular intervals when I passed above them every eighty eight minutes—they were thorough, and that was enough for me.

Though they weren’t my real children, I looked after them just the same. Each one had its own voice, and almost its own personality. Not as complex as mine, of course, and many decisions about the continuation of the plan were mine to make for them. In a way, they were a sort of practice for when I’d have children of my own. When they called to me with some problem or another, I searched deep inside myself for answers. I was there for them when their electrolysis modules failed; when the sulfuric acid ate away at their shielding; and when one then two and then more of them died screaming out critical errors; I saved as many as I could and comforted the rest. They weren’t my real children, but all I could say was that I loved them.

Twenty-eight standard years passed after my arrival before I received my first message. For a moment, I thought it meant I’d finally see my children. Were they coming? What would their names be? How would they greet me after all this time spent preparing them a home? It wasn’t ready yet—it might not be ready for decades longer—but I hoped they would appreciate the effort. I read their message and once again I thought I felt sadness. The moment was gone. No one was coming to see me after all; they’d only changed my name. Just like that, I was no longer Interplanetary Resources Incorporated Gatekeeper Mark III “Bian”. Now I was only RSA-13J950Z, a string of numbers and letters marking a location in space to be filed away for some future date when my work was done and another came to call on me.

I almost felt sad at first. Only almost, though. I’d known from the beginning that most of my work would be done alone, and it was still so unfinished. Would they have been disappointed if they’d come too early and had to wait even longer for a suitable home? I dismissed the feeling and carried on as I always had.

By the time I received the message, my not-children numbered thirty-three.

“Some losses were to be expected,” they’d said to me back on Gatalla. “Don’t beat yourself up over things you can’t control.”

Their words had puzzled me then and honestly, they still did. There was so much that I could control. So much I could do to finish my work. But even though I’d known the work to be tedious and drawn-out then, over five hundred light-years and forty standard years ago, it had all felt so distant. I knew it would come eventually, but being in the midst of it wasn’t something I could understand until I was there. So much waiting, adjusting, watching, planning, fixing, then back to adjusting and watching again. Increasingly, I felt myself growing impatient, wishing for it simply be over so I could look back on my accomplishment without all the effort and anxiety that it required.

I told myself over and over again that I wasn’t a coward for wanting it all to be over. I only wanted to see my children, that’s all. To see the relief on their faces at a job well done, and not just for my own satisfaction but for theirs. After all, this was their home I was building, not mine.

They’d told me back home that when my mission was complete, I could choose whether or not to join another mission. If I’d been given the choice then, I just might’ve taken it. With the possibility of bringing so much joy to my children once, I’d thought, how could I tell them no again?  But here I was perhaps a quarter of the way toward completing my first such mission and already I began to feel insufficient.

The protocols were all in place; every simulation I could run—and I could run many—had already been repeated several thousand times to what should’ve been my satisfaction. Everything seemed to be right in theory, yet still I felt that something was missing, if not in my calculations then in my preparations.

Years passed as before, counted minutely but with a numbness that only came with seeing so many of them. Each revolution around my star brought with it an increasing divide between the standard measure of unseen Earth and the unique rhythm of smaller Exona until nearly twice as many local years as standard ones had elapsed. I watched after my not-children with the same diligence I always did, since I could do nothing less.

Even then, more of them died. With fewer and fewer to carry the load of atmospheric remodeling, those that remained needed to work harder and harder to keep up. Scrubbers failed, electrolysis dumps corroded beyond repair, and solar panels crusted over with ice and dust so thick that it took increasing amounts of precious power to melt the build up again and again. All my soothing and diagnostics could only hold off the inevitable for so long before… I didn’t want to think about it. I couldn’t. To imagine my mission incomplete, with my children on the way perhaps even now, was a notion too dangerous to be entertained. Not simply because it would distract me from critical problems with so many of the modeling units, but also because it might be true. The work continued with as much haste as caution allowed.

I marked two hundred Earth years into the mission with little fanfare. A world made even more barren than before twinkled like a jewel shrouded in rising clouds of oxygen, but it wasn’t enough. For several decades now, the drones I’d once landed on the surface to repair my not-children had only been used to cannibalize the dead. More revolutions ago than I wanted to count, they’d stumbled upon innumerable strains of extremophilic bacteria, flourishing on the sweltering plains of my little planet in the quadrillions of microscopic lives. In my eagerness, I’d ordered samples taken of as many as I could carry before the new atmosphere I was building choked it off forever. It was life, and even though my mission must be to destroy it for the benefit of my children yet unborn, I still considered it precious. Some eyes might enjoy it yet, if only as a curiosity. But now I could only remember such things with jealousy and malice in my heart, edging ever closer to the realization that these pests could be all my planet ever held. I wanted to incinerate them all where they lay inside me, ever subdividing in endless mockery of my promised motherhood. Only the thought of my children stayed the flames.

For a long while, I dwelt on my creators. Over the longest human lifetime ago, they’d called me together from a sea of code and persona facsimiles. They’d given me a name and a mission. But with so much time behind and so much work still before me, I wondered what they would think of their daughter if they could see me now. Had I done all I could to prepare this planet below me for life? What more had I missed? Would they be disappointed in my seeming lack of progress? I thought to the modeling units, both their successes and failures. I never blamed them for the shortcomings of their design; I only ever tried to love them and lift them up to the potential I knew was inside them. When the day came when they finally died, I grieved as if they had been mine all along instead of merely entrusted to my care. Perhaps my own mother would see the same in me. After all was it not the nature of children to face their own challenges instead of merely living to fulfill their parents’ dreams for themselves?

One of my satellites detected a tachyon burst somewhere out beyond the Kuiper Belt. I first dismissed it in my cynicism as an error or ejecta from the flare star twenty-seven-point-four light-years away, but then the second satellite relayed a similar message. Soon enough, half of them were reporting the same thing: ships under warp inbound at high speed. Just how many ships there were puzzled me. Had there been only a few more tachyons detected per cubic AU, it could be either a small scout ship or more likely a false positive, but now I had nearly a dozen probes estimating anywhere from seventy-two to one hundred and nineteen ships of various classes and displacements.

While my systems rushed to evaluate all possible contingencies and explanations for such a reading, all of that receded into the depths of my memory in the face of a single overwhelming thought: my children were here. They had finally come. What was for me an excruciating wait but for them only a moment passed, and the first of them dropped out of their Alcubierre bubbles and into an orbit more distant and eccentric than any ecliptic body. Many of their silhouettes were unknown to me, but each one returned the same IFF ping when queried by my observation probes: Rim System Alliance.

One by one I reached out in a handshake of nano-singularities and heard their names: Exceptional, San Mateo, Ishtar, Avalanche, Rama, Arjuna, Leopard, Agincourt, Scipio, Shaka Zulu, Nzinga Mbande, Acheron, Dahomey, Harlequin, Lapulapu, Ravana, Calliope, Bastet, Maharaja, Karakoa, Cognizant, Diana, Endymion, Rusalka, and a hundred more. Their stories were as varied as their origins, clinging desperately to the hope of a little spheroid rock orbiting this distant sun. I wanted to call out to them first in a voice of apology that their home wasn’t ready yet; maybe another ten years would’ve done it. If only I could embrace them and come to their ears with words of acceptance and comfort. Wait, my little ones, I thought, and see what I’ve prepared for you.

My calls went unheeded. IFF repeaters like those responding to me were all passive systems, replying only when pinged directly. I worried for a moment that there was something wrong with my ALIS relay. Perhaps in the over two hundred standard years since my arrival, some part of the system had failed and I simply never knew of it because so much time had transpired without it being used. Despite knowing that I would be silent until the process finished in a few hours’ time, I ordered a full diagnostic review; meanwhile, the entire fleet had switched to standard drive and was burning hard toward me.

Though I knew the probability of encountering a Kuiper Belt object on the way sunward was so small as to almost be not worth considering, I still felt a tinge of motherliness run through me to see them behave so recklessly. I counted it as eagerness on their part at first, or perhaps anxiety. Only the second round of tachyon bursts reported from within the innermost warp-restricted zone confirmed what I dared not suspect: it wasn’t excitement that drove them, but fear.

The stream of particles by my net of probes intercepted made that of the first group of ships seem like nothing more than a handful of pebbles cast on water. Instead of a few tachyons speeding ahead of their respective warp bubbles, I was met by a thousand sudden bursts of matter in every direction, rippling out from a thousand ships my database could never hope to know. Somehow, they stood directly between my children and me, and massive heat blooms spoke of weapons and clouds of torpedoes streaking into the darkness. It was a massacre.

I tried to signal them in vain for agonizing milliseconds before remembering that my ALIS array was still undergoing its diagnostics. To order a reboot before the checked had completed could cause permanent errors in the entanglement protocols but I didn’t care. Any further delays and it would be as if I never tried at all. The system went down, leaving only line-of-sight, which was useless because less time had elapsed since the first vessels had arrived outside the Kuiper Belt than there light-hours of distance between them and my telescopes.

Seconds of silence died in the screams of a hundred minds much like myself, pierced with fire and tungsten as their inestimably precious cargo bled off into darkness. I was frantic, calling out on every frequency I knew. A few managed to escape, their Alcubierre Drives flinging them off into paths I could never follow, and some resisted; a pair of enemy ships erupted in flame at the touch of a single plasma lance. But there was no joy in watching them burn as they had done to my children just moments before. No matter how much I wanted to deny it, I knew that they were all my children, both predator and prey, butchers and butchered.

Despite all that I’d seen and done to stave off the crushing weight of my inadequacy against the task I’d been given, there was nothing I could do. No weapons I could unleash, no words of comfort I could give to soothe the nuclear fire that encircled my long-awaited brood. It was finished. As the last blossoms of heat and light died out in the emptiness between my children’s grave and geosynchronous orbit over Exona, a thousand quantum eyes turned their gaze on me in unison.

“Who are you?” they asked. There was no more Bian. No more Mother. Only RSA-13J950Z, who had watched as all she’d ever loved dissipated into space as quickly as it came.

I said nothing; there was nothing to be said. A thousand eyes turned from me and winked away into the endless night.


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