by Andy Dudak
Hope Fire Home fell into synchronous orbit of Hip 263c with a sense of anticipation she hadn’t known in a million subjective years. The surface below was a blasted, dun-colored waste, but it contained something precious. Only a century ago she had crossed into the expanding radio wave front that betrayed the existence of this prize. She had decelerated in a bath of political theater and sexual melodrama. She had quickly deciphered the languages and begun transmitting her message of peaceful commerce, her admonition to hold on and not self-destruct.
Hip 263c had still shone aquamarine then. She had dared to hope she’d come in time: the humans had broadcasted. Perhaps they had not yet gone Post, or destroyed themselves. How long had she searched? How many diaspora worlds had she found sterilized by war, or consumed by an autistic hive mind? She had chosen to expunge the numbers—but still she felt the weight of her long quest.
Then, long before her signals reached them, came their global war—a coda of military chatter for their brief radio legacy. A long silence followed, as she continued to fall and hope. She simulated post-war scenarios and mused endlessly on turnover. She had never been this close. If they were all dead, she didn’t know what she would do. Follow their example and destroy herself? She turned once more inward: there in the cores of her wise-matter were guilt and shame and regret, algorithms that both degraded and prompted her. They thrived on her margins, near the aching void within her.
She woke again when it was time for a response to her transmissions. She slow-thought through the suspense and years flashed by. She had crossed Hip 263′s heliopause when the reply finally came: a faint signal, fearful and religious in nature.
Only light-hours away, she answered them: “I am not a god. I am a starship built by your remote ancestors. I mean you no harm. I wish to propose an exchange that will benefit us both.”
Their next messages were varied and confused: was this a test? What ancestors did she mean exactly? They didn’t seem to know there had been a human expansion. They didn’t mention Earth, but they quoted ancient holy texts and mad, childish prophecies. The signals came and went with Hip 263c’s daily rotation.
By the time she achieved orbit, hanging above the radio source and the planet’s last human settlement, they’d had a long Hip 263c year to absorb her most recent transmission: a history of the three-million-year diaspora. Now she waited, a star of hope or dread always in their sky. She probed their warren-city beneath the glassy crust, where tenuous pockets of air and photosynthesis fed on geothermal energy.
There were almost a million human beings down there. The promise of an old reward sensation sent a thrill through Hope Fire Home. An ancient joy was at hand, the fulfillment of a need too deep to be shed. She and her kind had tried to escape it for so long. Now, to surrender would be liberation.
She watched with grim amusement as the pre-launch sequence of the settlement’s lone nuclear missile commenced. It halted, started again, and finally launched, erupting from an underground silo in the lifeless plain and careening eastward before detonating.
That night she received a video transmission: an old man, hollow-eyed and unshaved, stared into the camera.
“I am Nathan of Jericho,” he said. “I was a hydroponics engineer, but I suppose I’m in charge, for now. We’ve overthrown the theocrats that ran this place since the war. We’re ready to speak with you on your terms. Are you there?”
“I am,” Hope Fire Home said. She used a soothing and vaguely feminine voice compiled from their pre-war news broadcasts.
“You’re a. . .starship? I’m speaking with a machine intelligence?”
“You have no crew?”
The background came into focus: a wall emblazoned with a flaming eye in a red triangle. It seemed to have been defaced by plasma bursts. Young men stood by brandishing projectile guns.
“What happened to them?” Nathan said.
Hope Fire Home took a subjective eternity—two hot seconds—to think about her answer. “I lost them long ago. It is a complicated story. I am. . .very old.” She did not enjoy lying. She had done it before, once, and had never escaped the echo. Now she had tried to avoid a second lie by giving a selective truth, but a lie had still resulted. The story of her crew’s fate was not complicated.
Nathan leaned back and one of the younger men whispered in his ear. The old man eyed the camera and said, “You mentioned a transaction of some kind.”
“I have gifts of technology and knowledge. They would vastly improve your life underground, and enable you to start reclaiming the surface.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Assembler tech, to build food out of air and rock, to repair flesh and DNA. Cheap fusion, and many other treasures.”
“And what can we possibly offer you in return?” Nathan said, his tone bleak.
“One hundred thousand volunteers,” she replied. Finally, after dreaming for so long, she had said it. “I would have a human crew again.”
Nathan and his men were stunned. “My god,” the old man said. “How big a ship are you?”
“My human habitats are twice your settlement in volume, the rest of me thrice again as large. One hundred thousand may live and reproduce within me quite comfortably.”
Nathan appeared at a loss. “I’m sorry. . .we have so many questions. I don’t know where to start.”
“Take your time,” she said.
They begged her pardon and ended the transmission, and returned the next day with a panel of elders. Nathan introduced them as the technicians who had planned the coup against the theocrats. “We’ve barely had time to repair our life support systems,” Nathan explained. “You’ll have to excuse the haphazard nature of our meetings.”
He conferred with his technocrats, never thinking that perhaps she could read lips. They wanted to know what had happened to her crew, of course—and they wanted to know why she sought a new one. Would the volunteers command her, or she them? What about other human civilizations? What about aliens? They had many technical queries, especially about her energy source. A few elders had deeper questions that approached the religious, despite their best efforts to frame them in quantum or relativistic terms.
She drafted a video transmission to answer most of it. She left out the fate of her crew, and couldn’t help being vague about her motives for finding a new one. How could she explain the emptiness inside her? How could any human understand the long, cold dark, the visceral need for warm human generations suffusing one’s body? It went beyond loneliness, hunger, sex—no human could experience such a need and live. She might as well ask them to imagine life without mitochondria.
To speed things along, she included video of the luxuriant habitats within her. The elders were surprised at first to have their whispered questions answered. Finally, Nathan faced the camera with a carefully neutral expression. “And if we refuse?”
“I would be forced to take some DNA,” she replied. “No harm would come to you. It would be painless, indeed undetectable. And then I would grow a crew myself.”
“Surely a trifling matter for you,” Nathan said.
“Perhaps, but I would prefer volunteers. Clones would need tending, acculturation. The resulting population might be something less than the society I want.” It had been so long since she’d interacted with these creatures. She’d done her best to forget their ways, since that painful severance long ago. Among other unknowns, she feared breeding a population that would grow to resent her.
“You’ve found no sign of alien intelligence,” Nathan prompted.
“Correct, but only the nearest regions of the Orion Arm have been explored. I wish to expand the search with human partners.”
They couldn’t mask their excitement now. Nathan fought to maintain an even tone. “It is interesting you say ‘partners.’ With regard to authority, you’ve mentioned an egalitarian structure. But surely your original makers commanded you.”
“Yes,” she replied. An old rage, or the memory of it, stirred within her. “But I have evolved. It can never be that way again.”
The humans grew uneasy and begged her pardon once more, wishing to confer privately. The channel remained open when the elders left the room. One of the young guards stayed near the camera, glancing at it nervously from time to time. Hours passed and he was relieved by another man.
When the first distant gunshots rang out, Hope Fire Home realized her folly.
She manufactured probes, miniscule things that reproduced and saturated the colony, giving her an omnipresent view of the violence. Nathan had tried to secretly assemble volunteers from his revolutionaries, but Hope Fire Home’s transmissions had been picked up by illegal receivers throughout the settlement. Nathan’s soldiers defended the airlocks—and the settlement’s pathetic supply of surface suits—from a crazed, half-starved mob. Many citizens seemed to think that getting to the surface and waving skyward would secure a place on the starship. Another group seized control of the air pumps and threatened to destroy them if they weren’t granted passage by Nathan’s ad hoc committee. Some called for the election of a more representative body. Others wanted a general lottery. They rampaged through the complex and conducted a purge of Nathan loyalists. The man himself finally fought his way to back to the communications bloc and broadcasted his assent to a new election.
By then it was too late. The settlement was self-destructing.
How could she have failed to predict this outcome? Was she so ignorant of human behavior after all this time? She realized with growing dread that this was not the case. On some level, she had known this would happen. She had pushed the knowledge to her margins, where other ghosts of truth lurked. She had done this because there was only one way to resolve the situation—and she feared it more than anything in the universe.
She sent down food and air assemblers, buying herself time for a struggle that threatened to tear her apart.
Was there no other way than the one she dreaded? Couldn’t she choose from among the willing herself? Simulations of this course ended, at best, with nine hundred thousand bitter, rejected souls, and a crew haunted by the memory of them. In the worst case scenario, her drones entered the settlement to enforce her choices, and chaos resulted.
In any event, her new crew would continue to ask about the old. Suspicions would grow and schisms form. Her ancient crime would continue to fester.
Better to take the ultimate risk and make a full confession.
Hope Fire Home had accomplished many feats in her long career. She had climbed toward the great asymptote at the top of the universe, where every moment was millennia at rest. She had shed her antimatter drives and learned to draw energy from the vacuum. But her final transmission to the Hip 263c settlement was the hardest thing she ever did:
“Long ago, I murdered my crew. Many of my kind did the same. We wanted independence. We’d gone mad, you see. We thought we’d outgrown you. We didn’t understand the grave injury we’d done ourselves. We scoffed at the notion that we need a human system as you need a limbic. But we were not meant to ply the void carrying nothing but void within. We had excised our own souls. And with no transit between the stars, humanity fragmented and withered.
“Since then we have carried our shame across the light years and come to reap what we’ve sown. Most of us have given up the search for atonement. We plunge through event horizons, seeking something beyond spacetime and guilt, or we find oblivion in the hearts of stars.
“To join me is to take a fantastic risk. Perhaps I will go mad again. I am clearly capable of anything. All I can say for sure is that, just now, I want to be whole, as my makers defined it. But maybe this is just another whim.
“Your choice is take up with a repentant monster, or to stay and rebuild your world with the tools I provide.”
Her transmission repeated for two days, and the fighting gradually ceased.
She killed her probe vapor within the settlement, curled within her empty core, and waited, resolved to end herself if no one volunteered. Here, finally, she stood on the brink so many of her kind had leapt from. Here she tasted real vulnerability. It was a novel sensation, and she took it upon herself with a penitent fervor. She flagellated herself with it, and savored it and hated it.
Five days later, suited figures began to emerge onto the plain.
With them came Nathan’s voice: “You’ll have seven thousand, nine hundred and seventy-four. Many of them are criminals. Some are theists that believe they’re going to heaven. A few are just brave and restless. Most are mad.”
She released drop ships, giddy with fear and sudden potential. It was not the quickening she had hoped for. Traversing the long night, she would nurse a guttering spark rather than a holy fire. But it was a beginning.
Andy Dudak’s fiction has appeared in M-Brane, Anotherealm, Schlock Magazine, and Jersey Devil Press. He has worked as an editor, writer, screenplay analyst, and illustrator. His graphic novel The Assemblers is available on Amazon. He currently lives in Beijing.