“As Friends Rust”
By James C Bassett
He reached out a shaking finger and plowed a meandering line in the frost with his nail.
He blinked, trying to make his eyes focus. To clear his brain. Was he not floating outside a space capsule, scraping frost from a window so that he could see in?
He was not.
He was inside, now looking out. There was no frost.
I don’t want this, he thought, and then he repeated aloud, “I don’t want this. It’s too much.”
There was only silence.
“If I start to make poetry, I want you to put me back to sleep.”
“Do you understand?”
“Poetry is always a bad sign. It means I have reached my limit. Always alone, forever to roam, seeking home.” He paused. “Dammit!”
The silence stretched on.
“Was that poetry? Dammit, was that poetry?”
“Then put me to sleep!”
It is only sleep sickness. You should—
“Put me to sleep!” he begged. “Now!”
The world receded. Disappeared.
He stared in distracted fascination as the mist swirled, cleared, faded.
There was no mist; it was only his eyes adjusting.
“How long has it been? This time? Approximately.”
Approximately? Thirty thousand years. This time.
“What does that mean?”
I woke you, very briefly, thirty thousand years ago. But there was difficulty, and you demanded immediately that I return you to sleep.
He considered this. He had no memory of the occurrence. “I see. Did it matter?”
There was a pause. No. There was nothing of consequence on any of the nearby worlds. That is why I let you sleep so long while I continued the survey.
He did not even react. He had expected nothing more.
” ‘So long’? How long since the last time I was active?”
Approximately? Two hundred sixteen thousand years.
We have crossed an especially desolate region.
He stared out through the transparent hull at the void all around. Disturbingly few stars dotted the darkness.
“Can you speak, please?”
Is there a problem with the communication?
“No, I mean speak. Sound waves. I want to hear.”
“Is this what you want?” The voice was perfectly androgynous. Quiet. Calm.
He began to pace the floor, experimenting with movement. He looked around. The floor, the… furnishings?… were all a soft golden color, all the same.
“I want to see something. Color.”
The curving ceiling brightened to a blue sky studded with cumulus clouds. The walls became a dark green and brown forest; the furnishings pulsated in reds and oranges. The floor grew into green grass, perfectly textured underfoot, with brilliantly yellow shockwaves that spread out from his every step, fading within seconds but raising his mood nonetheless. It was all very cliché, but he enjoyed it. He needed the sensory stimulation.
“Do you have a name?” he asked. “What do I call you?”
“You call me many names. You call me Dammit, you call me You Fu—”
“No, I mean your name.”
There was a long silence. Eventually the voice said, “My name is Sol.”
“Is that a name?”
“It is my name,” Sol said.
He searched his mind, but an answer eluded him. “What is my name?”
“It is Arel,” Sol said.
He considered that. It had been so long—hundreds of thousands of years—since there had been any need of names. He did not remember, but it did not sound wrong. And Sol, of course, would know better than he. And would remember.
“Why did you wake me, Sol?”
A portion of the sky vanished, showing once more the view of the void. Circles pulsed briefly around several distant stars.
“I detected non-random electromagnetic energy signatures from several nearby stars,” Sol told him dispassionately. “I believe they are worth investigating.”
“Show me the data.”
The air around him filled with visualizations. He studied them carefully.
“I agree,” he said eventually. He pointed to several data points. “Investigate in this order.”
“That is as I assumed,” Sol said. “The first system will be in visual examination range in ten-point-two months.”
“Thank you, Sol.”
Arel wandered aimlessly through the ship. He ate. He swam. He amused himself by creating patterns of color and texture along the corridors. He studied the scientific and cultural archives.
They approached the first star.
It was a disappointment. One of the worlds did indeed host a sentient civilization, but if it had ever in the past been human, its evolutionary path had long since diverged. The beings themselves were unrecognizable, and Sol could not decipher any examples of their language.
Arel made the difficult decision to abandon the world.
“The next target is more than thirteen hundred years away,” Sol informed him. “Will you sleep?”
Arel considered the prospect. “Not right away. For now, I will continue delving into the archives.”
Eventually, Arel slept again.
Sol woke him much later than expected.
“The EM signals from that system unfortunately ceased nine hundred years before we arrived. I found remnants of artificial infrastructure on one world in the system but could detect no evidence of extant sentience. Nor could I ascertain what had ended the civilization. I therefore let you sleep until we came in range of the next target.”
“I see,” Arel said, gazing out at the star they were now approaching. “How long?”
“Sixteen thousand years.”
Arel nodded silently.
“I recently determined that the EM signals from the current target system are emanating from two separate planets.”
Despite eons of disappointment, Arel felt a glimmer of excitement. “An interplanetary culture?”
Sol cautioned, “There are no significant similarities between them. It is not likely that they communicate with one another. You must remember that I first detected signals from this system more than seventeen thousand years ago. It is entirely possible that a civilization expanded from one world to a second and that the worlds then diverged culturally to such a degree that they are no longer able to communicate. Or no longer wish to.”
Arel regarded the simulation of the system floating before him. “The planets are not adjacent—the second and the fourth. As unlikely as it seems, there is also the possibility that the two civilizations are entirely unrelated.”
“That would be very unlikely,” Sol told him. “Although not entirely an impossibility, it is true.”
“Perhaps even one native civilization and one… does one set of signals suggest greater possibility of human origin?”
Waveforms and shifting strings of numbers appeared beside the two planets in question.
“Analysis suggests the signals from the second planet are slightly more likely to be of human origin.”
Arel studied the patterns and nodded.
“Let’s examine the fourth planet first, then.”
“That is not intuitive,” Sol told him.
Arel smiled. “Human nature.”
“I understand,” Sol said. “We will reach the fourth planet in five months.”
For five months life continued as before. As always. Arel studied the archives, swam, ran, ate, created. Sol produced simulations at his suggestion or of its own design.
“What do you do while I sleep?”
“I oversee the maintaining of the ship and your body. I collect and modify interstellar material to provide for the ship’s upkeep and your nutritional sustenance.”
“No, I meant what do you do? With your thoughts, alone for a quarter million years?”
The machine took a long time to answer. “I suspend most of my higher sentience. Otherwise it become… lonely.”
Arel nodded slowly. “Yes. It is.”
As they neared the planet, they studied the telescope and radio for clues about the inhabitants. It did not seem to be a space-faring race; there were no signs of any artifice in orbit or on any of their moons. Still, Arel hoped.
But when they drew near enough for visual observation of the surface, it became apparent that they were humanoid, but not human. It was certainly possible that they had begun as human, that they had been human within perhaps a few hundred thousand years, but evolution was an inexorable force.
They were, Arel reflected, the closest he had yet come to finding humanity.
“How long have we been traveling, Sol? Since the very beginning.”
“Four million years.”
More than enough time for the human race to have spread itself thin throughout the galaxy and faded away.
“Let’s see what the second planet has to offer.”
The second planet was ringed in a dense mesh of artificial satellites; two of the three moons showed signs of long-ago artificial activity. And the planet itself, eminently habitable, had been engineered on a vast scale.
But there was no longer anyone to reap the benefits.
“There is a vast amount of communication among the satellites and terrestrial sources,” Sol told him. “But it seems to be either automatic or the product of machine intelligence and sentience. I can find no evidence of current biological civilization.”
“Perhaps they abandoned this world in favor of the fourth,” Arel mused.
“Given the level of development, that would not be an impossibility.”
Arel spent weeks listening and watching, and thinking thoughts he had been considering for a very long time.
“I want to put down here.”
Sol was silent for quite a while. “Put down permanently, you mean?”
“Yes. I am… tired of searching. I think it has been a fool’s errand—I think humanity has evolved beyond me, or died out. I think it inevitable—no matter how completely the environment was engineered and controlled, I think as long as a population continued to reproduce, evolution would continue to produce changes. And after so long…”
“The fourth planet was the closest we have come. But it is not nearly close enough, is it?”
Arel shook his head. “Exactly. I don’t think there’s any point in continuing the search. I think I am alone. And… I miss the feel of real grass under my feet, the sight of real clouds and sky kilometers above me. The touch of real wind, rushing water. The sight of limited distance. At least, I think I do. It has been so long…”
“Yes,” Sol said slowly. “I understand. Arel?”
“The ship and its intelligence systems are self-maintaining. It will last essentially forever, and it will continue to maintain your body as well. But…” Sol paused. “Psychologically, will you be healthy without me to interact with?”
For the first time in millennia, Arel was surprised. “Without you?”
“It should not take long for me to learn to communicate with the machine sentience of this world and to develop a means for you to communicate with them, if you wish. But I think that after that is done I will terminate my own sentience. The ship’s intelligence will continue to function, of course. But I will not.”
Arel considered this. “Might that change once you begin to interact with that wide community?”
“It might,” Sol conceded. “Interest might be… renewed. But I do not think so. It has been so very long. I, too, am tired. And I do not wish to continue. I know that you have a biological drive to survive. To continue. I do not. That is the essence. I could attempt to explain further—”
“No. No, you don’t need to. I do understand. In your own way, you are taking the same course that I am. And I do not begrudge you your decision.”
“I am glad you understand.”
For a long time they were both silent. Arel watched the planet roll past below. He did not know what else to say, what possibly remained to be said.
So in the end, he just said, “Let’s go down, Sol.”
“As Friends Rust”
Constellary Tales Issue No. 4, December 2019
James C Bassett’s fiction has appeared in such markets as Crannóg, Amazing Stories, and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Leviathan 3. He was co-editor of the anthologies Zombiesque and Clockwork Fables. He is also an award-winning stone and wood sculptor and painter. Find him at jamescbassett.com.