Bodhi’s very first sensation was the fear of blindness. Their eyes claimed to have booted, but they could see nothing, could only feel a crushing pressure from all sides. They struggled to wriggle free from what felt like a jumble of metal bodies.
They were no better off standing up. They broadened their spectral sensitivity and found that they were in a small room, waist-deep in deactivated robots that looked just like them. The bodies were as cold as the air around them, except for trickles of heat coming from their radioactive hearts.
Bodhi’s mind swam with error messages. They were hungry. Not just hungry — starving. They needed simple sugars, bright light or, best of all, a nice lump of radionuclides to rekindle their heart.
No sooner had they come to this realization than their whole brain began pulsing with final shutdown notices. What a wretched mayfly life, they thought. Over before it began. They relaxed and let gravity splay them across the mounded bodies.
As they fell, one of their hands grazed the wall and felt bits of it flake away — rust. The rusted section of wall was marginally brighter in the infrared, as if it was letting heat leak through from outside. Bodhi marshalled the last of their energy reserves and, in a final act of hope, punched as hard as they could at the corroded spot.
When they woke again, it was to the sight of light pouring through the hole they had punched. Their hand tingled as the photovoltaics in their skin absorbed photons greedily. They had lain sprawled like that for — they checked their logs — forty nine hours. But the trickle of charge had been enough to juice them back to life.
While they waited for their batteries to charge, Bodhi tried to piece together what had happened to them. Now that they had power, their mind teemed with instructions, skills, memories. They knew they were a pioneer, built to help found a new colony. Their first task was “wait for instructions.” But who was supposed to provide them?
The light came and went every thirty hours, brightening, blazing, and dimming again with the regularity of a rising and setting sun. By the faint light that trickled in, they worked out that they were in a shipping container. It was tipped over, door side down, which didn’t seem right. They counted the bodies around them: eleven, all powered completely down, not just hibernating as they had been.
By the sixth day, they had enough charge to make their escape. Kicking through the corroded metal nearly drained their battery again. They crawled, exhausted, through the hole and lay spread-eagled in the sunshine, electricity flooding their batteries. And it was there, lying in red sand under the light of a bluish sun, that Bodhi had their first taste of contentment.
It didn’t take them long to get a sense of their surroundings — there wasn’t much to get a sense of. It looked liked a ghost town that no one had ever lived in. A few dozen grey shipping containers lay scattered, half-buried in the sand. All of them were dented or overturned, like the one they’d been shipped in. There were three prefab buildings, all in bad shape. The roof of the largest one had fallen in, apparently a long time ago. Another had been bisected by a scraggly, grey-barked tree that was already withered and dead. How long must that have taken?
They climbed on top of one of the shipping containers and scanned the horizon. The view was the same in every direction: red sand limned with frost, rocky outcroppings, a few stunted trees with gnarled grey bark. They saw no signs of habitation, detected no artificial transmissions.
Except that wasn’t quite true. From somewhere far to the west, they were picking up a slight neutrino excess. That was encouraging — neutrinos meant nuclear reactions, which meant nuclear reactors. As far as Bodhi knew, nuclear reactors didn’t tend to appear spontaneously on otherwise deserted planets.
They started walking west, into the spray of neutrinos.
The walk took days. Bodhi had to stop twice daily for solar siestas. Their poor batteries could barely hold a charge, so they would have to sit in the sand and wait for them to fill again before going on. During these breaks, whenever their hands ought to have been idle, they found themself fiddling with things: stacking rocks or making little houses out of twigs. The urge to make things was overpowering. It was a ridiculous waste of energy, but they couldn’t stop themself.
The nights were brutal. They could only walk for an hour or so after sunset before having to sit down and wait for the sun to come power them back up. The sky was almost totally black, with only a handful of stars. They tried matching them to a star catalogue and got a surprising result. This world they were on, it was way, way off the beaten path. It was a good ten thousand light years beyond the luminous rim of the galaxy, way out in the barrens of the dark matter halo. There was no information about the planet in their catalogue except its name: Calamity. Why would anyone have wanted to settle such a world?
Beyond staring at the half dozen stars, there was precious little to do. Partly, they realized, they wanted something to distract themself from certain uncomfortable questions. Questions like exactly how long they had been in that shipping container. On the second night, in a fit of boredom and existential angst, they did the math. They checked the output of their 241Am cell, compared it to the specs, counted the elapsed half-lives. They had been hibernating for twelve thousand years.
The source of the neutrinos was indeed a nuclear reactor, but it was in a crashed ship. Worse, the ship was a hive ark. Intact, it would have looked like a metal dragonfly with huge drive coils for wings. Now, wrapped around a rocky outcropping and partly buried in red dust, it just looked like junk.
At least now they knew why no one had come to give them instructions. This colony attempt had failed thousands of years ago, before it had even begun.
Bodhi took a long siesta to charge their batteries as full as they would go, then used nearly the whole charge digging their way down to the ship’s buried airlock. They had to tear the door from its hinges to get in. Inside, the ship’s formerly straight single corridor bent around the rocky outcropping. They recognized the model of the ark, and this alone told them it must be as ancient as they were. It was the smallest size, used to ferry up to two hundred and sixteen assorted adults, children, and non-humans, each cosseted in a hexagonal hibernation cell.
The neutrinos were coming from a backup radiothermal generator which, judging from its output, contained a generous lump of long-lived isotopes. It was still pumping out more than enough power to drive a distress beacon, but the beacons in this type of ark were in the fore section, which had been smashed to smithereens.
Bodhi could see at a glance that the hibernation cells were a loss. Half of them were in the crumpled part of the ship. Of the remainder, most had breached on impact. They ventured a look inside one and wished they hadn’t: a tiny human skeleton stared back at them with empty eye sockets. Hundreds of tiny plastic capillaries still entwined its tiny bones. Once, a long time ago, those little tubes would have permeated the baby’s flesh, keeping it alive indefinitely while the ark plied the darkness between the stars. Bodhi looked away.
Finding the skeletal baby had been bad. Finding the flesh-and-blood child was worse.
For a twelve-thousand-year-old frozen toddler, Bodhi thought it still looked remarkably fresh: chubby brown cheeks and thick black curls. Capillaries sprouted from its skin like quills, keeping it alive after so many centuries. It might not have been so upsetting if the child hadn’t been the only survivor. If there had been a family, perhaps, or even just a pair of children — but the child was alone.
According to the labels, the child’s parents were the skeletons in the two adjacent cells. Bodhi imagined them singing their child to sleep as the machines pumped the toddler full of sedatives and antifreeze. They would have promised it a full life on a new world, gone to sleep themselves expecting to be there to wake their little one.
Bodhi stared at the child. Subroutines leapt into action in their mind, telling them how to revive it, how to care for it. None of the instructions assumed they would be doing any of this utterly alone on a desert planet.
They went outside, sat on the edge of the shipwreck to think. This wasn’t a situation they were meant to try to handle on their own. Perhaps they could build a new radio, call for help. But if they sent a signal now, how long before someone came to rescue the child? They checked their star catalogue. There was — or had been — a marginally inhabited planet about seven hundred light years away. Even if they sent a signal now, it would be at least fourteen hundred years before anyone came to help, assuming they came at all, assuming they even still existed. Bodhi started tabulating probabilities. Even if the RTG lasted another couple of thousand years, it didn’t look like the hibernation cell would. It had already run out of consumables. It was keeping itself going by recycling its own byproducts, which were already poisoning the child. Every moment the child spent in that cell raised the risk that it would never leave it alive.
Probabilities jostled with one another in Bodhi’s mind, trying to dodge what increasingly seemed like a certainty:
Bodhi had a child.
Best to kill it, they thought. If they cut power to the hibernation cell, they were fairly certain the child would die painlessly. That would be better than waking it into a world that was in no way ready for a human child. If they woke it, what would they even feed it? Tree bark and pond water? Waking it now would be sentencing it to a miserable life.
A life, Bodhi realized, not unlike the one they themself were facing. Certainly no one was coming to rescue them, whether or not they called for help. They were hardware. Worse, they were outmoded hardware. The only people who would come to this world for their sake would be archaeologists.
It could have been different. If the ark hadn’t crashed, if all those colonists had come strolling out of it, freshly thawed and ready to tame a new world, then Bodhi would have lived with such purpose! A life full of making and exploring and teaching and helping. In time, other colonists might have come. With proper maintenance, Bodhi could have outlasted them all, could have watched this world transform from a barren dustball into a thriving cosmopolis. They could have made Calamity into the jewel of the galactic halo, the Heart of the Barrens.
Bodhi toed the dirt, stirred up little dust clouds that were carried away by the breeze. It would have been a good life.
But, some fusty subroutine reminded them, beggars can’t be choosers. And they had to admit, the subroutine had a point.
Bodhi crawled back through the rust-edged hole in the shipping container. They surveyed their comrades in the light slanting through the hole. They could just leave them like this. They had been packed completely cold, would never wake no matter how low the output of their 241Am cells fell. Bodhi was the only one who had to know that any of this had even happened. They could kill the child, shut themself off, let this world fall back into a sleep from which it would never wake.
They could have done that, but it wouldn’t have been in the pioneering spirit.
Instead, they disentangled one of the other robots from the jumble, dragged it out into the sunshine. It only needed a few minutes to power up. They knew it was awake when it started broadcasting its ident signal.
“Hello, Harper,” said Bodhi. “Welcome to Calamity.”
“My RTG is badly depleted,” said Harper.
“Yes,” said Bodhi. “Mine too.”
“Help me wake the others and I’ll explain,” said Bodhi.
They dragged their other comrades into the sun and powered them up one by one. There were ten of them in all — two would not revive. At least we’ll have spare parts, Bodhi thought.
When everyone was revived, Bodhi found themself standing at the centre of a semicircle of blank eyes and blank expressions. Already they wondered if they had made a terrible mistake.
They began to explain the situation.
“If there is no one here, why did you wake us?” asked the one called Emerson.
“Because we’re not entirely alone here,” Bodhi told them. “I found a crashed hive ark. With a child inside.”
“Have you called for help?” asked Harper.
“Not yet,” said Bodhi. They explained how very isolated this world was, how rescue would take thousands of years.
“Will the hibernation cell continue to function for that long?” asked Harper.
“It’s already failing,” said Bodhi.
“Perhaps it would be most merciful to kill the child now, then,” said the one called Taylor.
It sounded so callous when Taylor said it, Bodhi thought, even though they themself had made the same calculation.
“Perhaps,” said Bodhi. “Or perhaps not.”
“It’s been twelve thousand years,” said Chandra. “What if there aren’t any other humans out there anymore?”
Emerson’s hands went to its mouth. “Oh,” it breathed, “what if this is the last human left?”
Bodhi started outlining their plan.
They worked together. They pried open every shipping container, investigated all of the prefab buildings, inventoried everything they found. They chattered mind to mind, reporting discoveries as they made them.
I found a medical kit, Harper broadcast from inside one of the shipping containers.
Water purifiers, said Taylor.
Go test one, said Bodhi.
A whole set of Thingmakers, Avery reported.
Chandra and I found the food stores, said Morgan.
Anything edible? asked Bodhi.
Nothing I’d feed to a human, said Chandra. It’s mostly dust. We could try having the Thingmakers convert it back into food.
Bodhi dug around in the building that had been bisected by a tree. They were deep inside it, wedged between a branch and the wall, when they spotted the violin case.
The case was tangled among the roots of the tree, on the far side of the structure. Bodhi had to go through contortions to get to it, then do it all over again when they realized they’d need to get a saw to cut the case free.
Finally they managed to cut it loose. They sat among the roots of the tree with the violin case in their lap. The case, like nearly everything else here, was in rough shape, dented on one side and thoroughly sand-blasted. Bodhi crouched, staring at it, more afraid to look inside it than they had been to look into the hibernation cells. There were combinations they could accept and those they couldn’t. Two frozen humans would have been acceptable. One human and no violin would have been acceptable. But one helpless human and a broken violin? That was unacceptable. If the violin was broken, Bodhi vowed to feed it to a Thingmaker before the child ever saw it.
They cradled the case in their lap, brushed the sand off its lid. They had to unscrew the rusted latches to get the case open and, when they finally did, there was a hiss of ancient air escaping. Smells of civilization wafted up from the case: wood and lacquer and rosin, but also coffee and smoke and floral perfume.
The violin was well preserved, padded with foams and gels that had kept it safe for twelve thousand years. Bodhi wondered which of the dead colonists had packed it so carefully, whom they had intended it for. They imagined how things might have gone: the colonists, on their first night on their new world, crowded into one of the prefab buildings, huddled over cups of rehydrated noodles and freeze-dried coffee, cheered by someone playing a melody that reminded them of home.
They shut the case.
When night fell and it came time to conserve their batteries, Bodhi and their comrades sat under the smattering of stars and dreamed aloud. They dreamed a future for the child which would also be a future for themselves. They would tame the local flora for food, teach the Thingmakers to digest the local rocks, gather wood for new buildings. They would keep vigil over the child and someday, if the preparations went well, they would wake it. If the child found it a lonely world, it would not be for lack of effort. And besides, what other human had ever had a world purpose-built just for them? Maybe it would be enough.