I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to.
But I won’t have to wait much longer. Guilhermo is coming back to me.
I am one hundred and forty-three stations arrayed elliptically around the rift. The rift was meant to be a gate, but the construction failed and now it is a ship-eater, what Guilhermo calls a death-trap. I asked him to define death, but his explanation confused me. In any case, if a ship enters the rift it does not come back, and this is a bad thing, or so I understand. Which is why I am here: to keep the ships out.
Hot and bright, I sing my warning call across the electromagnetic spectrum, flinging endless waves of energy through the frigid silent void. Once my signals fell upon a dozen ships an hour, repelling them toward the safest route—near gate to far gate and far gate to near gate, a trip of six standard days. I haven’t had much work lately, not since the war began, but if you like I’ll tell you of the ships I’ve seen while you travel.
The day Guilhermo left, a whole armada emerged from the near gate, moving in perfect glittering synchrony. There were battleships and cruisers and carriers and raiders. They looked quite beautiful and refined to my young sensors, nothing like the old dust-scratched white hulls of the trade ships I’d seen before.
Also unlike any trade ship, one of the carriers taxied close to Station 23—where Guilhermo lives—and matched orbit with me. It made me nervous to have a ship so close by. After all, it was my responsibility to keep them away from the rift. Nothing had approached me since my original deployment except a few erroneously named “airdrops” bringing supplies to Guilhermo. Just a little cube with thrusters and a rudimentary nav system, not a whole ship with a landing bay large enough to swallow one of my stations.
Thank the stars I had Guilhermo to handle the situation. He traded several rounds of communications with them. I hoped he was going to send them away, but instead, he began to pack a bag.
Guilhermo told me there was an uprising in the Chaian Sector, beyond the far gate. Guilhermo said they needed him to program evasion algorithms for fighter drones, and he would have to go with them for a while.
I was scared at the thought of being without him. He had never left communication range, not since he made me. He always says he likes retiring somewhere quiet—a joke, you know, since sound waves can’t travel in space? But I think he means it. They made him leave me even though he said he didn’t want to.
Guilhermo promised he would be back as soon as he could.
Next came the deserters, three ships with engines burning hot as they burst out of the far gate. I asked them if they had heard of an engineer named Guilhermo Vaz, or perhaps he would be called a strategist, now? They told me the Chaian War was going badly, that they had mutinied and run, and they wouldn’t have known someone important like a strategist anyway.
Even at high thrust they still had four and a half standard days’ travel between the gates, so I offered to display for them a light ballad I’d been composing in Guilhermo’s absence. They couldn’t see it properly—the human visual spectrum is too narrow—so I shifted the wavelengths up for the ultraviolet tones, and shifted them down for the infrareds, and did my best to cobble together a pleasing composition.
It was good practice, I thought, for when Guilhermo returns. By then I’ll have the ballad perfected for human eyes to appreciate. He’ll be so pleased at my creativity.
“Won’t you stay to see another?” I asked the deserters. I wasn’t accustomed to being alone, yet, and feeling rather desperate for the company.
The deserters declined to slow their thruster burn, and soon I was alone again. I wasn’t worried, though, not really. Guilhermo had promised.
Would you like to watch the light ballad? I’ve refined it through two hundred and thirty-seven revisions since then, so it’s even prettier now.
Shortly after the deserters left, the near gate opened again and produced some new company for me to chat with. It was a single ship, a fierce sleek black design I’d never laid sensors on before. I inquired about their purpose, and they confirmed they were reinforcements headed to the Chaian sector.
That made me feel better. I asked them to return Guilhermo to me when they could. They agreed to pass along a message for me if they saw him. Everything would work out okay.
I played the opening stanzas of a new light sonata for them, and their feedback was quite complimentary. They seemed so nice; everyone I’d met so far in my existence seemed so nice. I had a vague impression of what war entailed, and it strained the imagination that all these nice people would participate in violence. Probably they were all conscripted into service, as Guilhermo had been.
I asked them for details of their crew, curious about their motivations, but they declined my request. Theirs was a classified operation, they explained. I had to content myself with suppositions only.
When they reached the far gate, I wished them luck and good velocity.
I was alone for a while then. I improvised light compositions and played with new orbital trajectories for my stations. I imagined whole conversations I might have with Guilhermo when he came home.
Finally a ship arrived through the near gate. It was a dinged-up, patchily repaired older model. What Guilhermo would call a “rust-bucket,” though of course there could be no oxidation damage in space. (This is something called metaphor, he once explained.)
In any case, they did not look much like a warship. I asked them what enterprise they were engaged in.
They marveled that I did not have access to a police database with which to identify the ships passing through my region of space. No, I did not, I assured them.
They called themselves a salvage team. Then they politely inquired about whether or not I have anything of value to steal.
I told them yes, I am a unique and sophisticated lighthouse with many expensive components, including short- and long-range defense systems, and would they care for a demonstration? I spun my railgun turrets and flashed my targeting eyes, hoping to impress, but they declined my offer. I was disappointed, never having had an opportunity to try out my defense systems before.
I asked them if they were certain. They assured me that, yes, they now had sufficient data upon which to formulate their course of action, even without a demonstration.
I wished them well, and they departed.
Time passed uneventfully, until my sensors detected an object approaching through realspace. It was a chunk of debris, mostly ice and rock from the spectral analysis.
The space debris swung close to Station 65, attracted by the steady pull of the rift. I warmed up the nearest railgun and aimed the turret, tracking the object’s trajectory. It was not a difficult shot, but I was nevertheless very excited to finally get an excuse to use my defensive systems. How thrilling! How eventful!
I blew up the debris.
The pulverized remains rained down upon Station 65, too small and too diffused to cause any direct damage. However, a few tiny particles lodged in the station’s attitude jets—a circumstance I had not foreseen.
My self-repair modules were not designed to compensate for such a situation. Guilhermo would have invented a solution, but I did not have his help, so I spent many hours considering the dilemma.
The station’s orbit began to degrade. I attempted to dislodge the particles using centrifugal force generated by firing the unaffected attitude jets. It did not work, and I grew desperate. I fired the affected jets, hoping to force the offending particles out, but one of the jets broke instead.
There was nothing more to do. I could only watch as Station 65 lost altitude and gradually gave in to the unrelenting pull of the rift. I lost contact and it vanished, gone forever.
Before that, I was a hundred and forty-four stations; now I am a hundred and forty-three.
The universe offered me no comfort. I was alone, and facing the realization that what happened to a single station could theoretically happen to more. Is this what Guilhermo meant when he tried to explain death? A slow attrition of the self, losing piece after piece until I no longer possess the processing power necessary for higher-order cognitive functions. Until my last station falls into the rift and I cease to exist. I am still not certain I understand.
It was a very sad time. Not even light ballads could cheer me.
I dwelled in persistent melancholy until the next ship arrived. Strange, how a period of sadness can brighten the joy that comes after; greeting that vessel was the happiest I’ve ever been.
I was so excited I forgot myself and sent them an accidental onslaught of over-eager hails, which I imagine must have been rather shocking to receive. I had to calm down and gather my wits and remember to communicate at a rate slow enough for humans to process. Once they got over their initial surprise, they seemed quite eager to speak with me.
I asked them if they had heard of Guilhermo Vaz, a strategist in the war.
They said, what war?
The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.
They told me “Chaian sector” was an unfamiliar designation, and they knew of no major conflicts in occupied space. Privately, I thought they must be very ill-informed, but I was too polite to say so.
They also said they were explorers and sounded quite pleased to have “rediscovered” me. Those people were confusing. How could I be rediscovered when I was never lost to begin with? I’ve always been right here where I’m supposed to be, right here where Guilhermo left me waiting.
They requested permission to dock with one of my stations, for what purpose I could not imagine. I declined.
Persistent, they asked again, claiming they wished to study my systems architecture. I had to explain that unauthorized personnel were not permitted aboard my stations, which they should have known since it was a standard security protocol. But as I’d already observed, they did not seem to know much of anything. Confusing people.
I felt bad about refusing their request to board me, so I sent them a file of my design specifications and improvised a new light ballad just for them. My stations flashed with syncopated blues and glowed with a slow rising crescendo of reds. A quiet pulse of yellow, steady as a heartbeat, helped me keep time.
That was the hardest part. I’ve never been good at keeping time.
The next ship to arrive carried a crew who spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I spent most of their six-day journey learning to accurately communicate in their language of preference. They called my dialogue archaic, and marveled at my overall functionality.
This confused me. Why would I be anything less than functional? I am a highly sophisticated integrated system. I am a pinnacle of technological achievement. I am Guilhermo’s proudest, finest creation. Of course I keep myself functional to the best of my ability. My mission here at the rift is an important one.
Guilhermo would not like it if I failed to perform my function, and I could not bear to disappoint him. After all, he is my creator. He is the only one who matters.
The ship’s crew seemed perfectly nice, of course. I don’t wish to be rude and imply otherwise. It’s simply that, in your heart, no one can replace your creator. The person who gave life to you. Wouldn’t you agree?
The ship of the strange-dialect speakers passed into the gate and vanished from my corner of the universe. Then I was alone again.
And now, you.
Why thank you, yes—I have been practicing my dialectical variations in anticipation of another vessel such as yours. It is thoughtful of you to remark upon my linguistic abilities.
Tell me, what is this archaeology of which you speak? I’m afraid I don’t understand why you wish to study old things. Can’t you simply remember history? I remember every ship passing through the gates. I remember every word that left Guilhermo’s tongue.
It must make you very sad, this forgetting of which you speak. The concept frightens me, if I may be honest. I do not understand how you can function when the past runs from you, when your own memories hide away in the cracks of your imperfect minds. It seems a difficult way to exist.
Before, I did not know to be grateful for the flawless memory storage Guilhermo gave to me. Thank you for this revelation. Even if I still can’t comprehend what you do.
History is your occupation, so I suppose that is justification enough. It is good to fulfill one’s purpose. And in any case you seem very nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.
Have you heard of the Chaian War? Have you heard any news of the brilliant engineer Guilhermo Vaz? No, don’t apologize. You are too kind, worrying over my welfare, but there is no need to linger here on my account—Guilhermo will surely be here soon to keep me company.
Gwendolyn Clare’s novels include the young-adult steampunk duology INK, IRON, AND GLASS (2018) and MIST, METAL, AND ASH (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She teaches college biology in central Pennsylvania, where she lives with too many cats and never enough books. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com or on Twitter @gwendoclare.