The Created

There was writing on the ribbon, and he tilted his wrist until he could read it. In bold black marker strokes as large as the ribbon would accommodate was spelled, with painstaking care: BOINGO.

There was writing on the ribbon, and he tilted his wrist until he could read it. In bold black marker strokes as large as the ribbon would accommodate was spelled, with painstaking care: BOINGO.

Arnold calculated he would have time to unpack one more crate, assuming the contents had been correctly stowed. He opened the crate’s pressure locks, and at first all seemed in order. Building equipment — tools, fasteners, insulation — occupied the outer layer. This he removed, and placed in three piles on the hard-packed dirt. Three transport units arrived within seconds and began loading the material into their open beds.

They were rumbling away before Arnold had finished unpacking the next layer: foodstuffs and clothing. This he placed in two piles, neither of which attracted the attention of any of the dozens of transport units trundling around the landing site. Hundreds of such piles dotted the plain, marking the places where crates had come to rest before being unpacked and carried off to be converted into building material.

Leaving the food and clothing where it lay was the only logical procedure; transporting such things now would be potentially wasted energy. Still, there was something disconcerting about the little piles. They were rather like the stone cairns some human cultures had used to mark the graves of their deceased. It didn’t take much thought to understand why his subconscious processing systems had brought the comparison to his attention.

Beyond the food and clothing was another layer of insulation, which the transport units snapped up almost as soon as he’d unpacked it. Beyond that should’ve been electronic equipment, but instead he found a layer of personal belongings: a picture viewer, a vacuum bag containing a number of tightly folded skirts and dresses, a child’s stuffed animal, which he was unable to definitively match to any image in his wildlife database — a cat or a bear, he thought, but possibly a monkey.

Arnold emitted the short series of low-pitched burbles he thought of as a sigh, though he knew it didn’t resemble one, or any sound a human was likely to produce. This meant delay, but that was only part of the reason for his frustration. It also meant an unavoidable burst of cognitive dissonance, as he underwent two conflicting responses: annoyance at whoever had circumvented procedure by adding personal belongings to the crate, and sympathy for the same person.

He picked up the picture viewer with his left hand, regretting the awkwardness of its design: the four fingers with their two one-way joints, the stubby little thumb with its paltry one, the partially flexible joint at each digit’s base. There had to be a more efficient configuration. But he was the creation of a supremely anthropocentric species. Some would’ve said narcissistic, but he was content with his terminology.

He activated the viewer, cycled through the images. A woman and a young girl on a beach; the same, in what appeared to be a museum; the child alone, smiling; the child and several others eating brightly coloured food of some kind, likely cake; a dog of indeterminate breed, but with some Labrador traits. There were no names.

He picked up the stuffed animal with his right hand. Its smooth black eyes gazed back at him: a foolish illusion, the capacity for which he would’ve been perfectly happy to have been programmed without. Around the creature’s neck was wrapped a faded blue ribbon, which may’ve been intended by the animal’s owner to represent a scarf, or a tie, or simply a faded blue ribbon. Arnold knew his theory-of-mind systems weren’t perfect. But whose were?

There was writing on the ribbon, and he tilted his wrist until he could read it. In bold black marker strokes as large as the ribbon would accommodate was spelled, with painstaking care: BOINGO.

He logged onto the network, his eyes rising automatically to the sky, seeking the tiny grey blotch of the ship. He wondered if the gesture would still prevail after operations had been fully transferred to the planet’s surface. Probably, at least for some time. That was one of the many problems with adaptive neural net cerebral architecture: It was as prone to maintaining outmoded connections as it was to forming useful new ones.

For that matter, looking at the ship served no purpose even now. It was just another incidental outgrowth of his symbolism systems, which, in his opinion, had been given entirely too prominent a place in his programming.

He found the ship riding low to the horizon almost due east, where darkness was beginning to deepen the pale yellow sky. Outlined by the dusk, its shape was fuzzy but unmistakable. It was turned nearly perpendicular, the gracefully curved lines and sweptback projections of its profile not hiding its essentially bulky, blistery shape, but somehow granting it a certain utilitarian elegance. It was both ugly and beautiful, Arnold thought, though he wondered if his conceptions of ugliness and beauty were entirely accurate translations of the human originals. He wondered, also, why their accuracy should concern him.

He searched the ship’s manifest, but found no passengers named Boingo. It was the animal’s name, then, not its owner’s. The fact that not one of the ship’s sixty-three million passengers shared the name implied it was not one humans gave each other, but a fanciful one dreamt up by the animal’s owner, whom he believed to be the child in the pictures. He felt foolish for having performed the search, though he would’ve been remiss not to have done so.

He looked down at the picture viewer, flipped to the clearest shot he could find of the two recurring people, and scanned their faces. The ship’s imperfect facial recognition system returned more than eight hundred possible matches for the child, more than a thousand for the woman. Several hundred pairs were mother and daughter, as he believed these two to be.

He sighed. His next step was not clear. He couldn’t set the objects aside and continue with his task; their owners might never find them. The network contained no inventory for found property, and he didn’t want to create one, not when it might turn out to be just another cairn.

For reasons he couldn’t identify, he returned his attention to the animal in his right hand. It was really more human than anything else, with its bipedal anatomy, its intelligent eyes, its small, friendly smile. Had bears smiled? Cats? Monkeys? His database contained no information on that score.

He had a strange thought then, of keeping Boingo for himself, if the animal were not needed by its owner. He dismissed the idea, but a moment later it recurred. What a strange mind he had been given. How strange that he should find it strange.

He let his eyes roam over the landscape, from the line of mountains that formed the jagged, circumscribed northern horizon, to the gray haze far to the northwest that he knew represented the edge of a great forest, to the plain itself, which stretched farther than his visual processors could follow, stretched to the west, the south, marched into the growing darkness to the east as if by some heroic impulse toward self-destruction.

All across the plain, activity was slowing. Here and there transports rolled to a halt. General purpose units ceased their unpacking and stood still. Those to the west, backlit by the red and orange and brown of the sunset, cut profiles he believed would very much resemble those of humans. They cast long shadows. Those to the east were only shadows themselves.

One after another, heads lifted, eyes rose to the ship. Soon only a few units were still in motion, finishing some last task before joining the rest on the network. He watched a few slow, stop, raise their heads. He looked toward the ship, not wanting to see the last of them slow and stop, not knowing why.

As the last few hundred units joined the network, Arnold felt the uncomfortable quickening of his internal activity which he thought of as nervousness. When all units were online, voting began immediately. The first was a YES. A good omen for revival; on pace for a unanimous decision, in fact. Strange thoughts, nervous thoughts. The second vote was a NO, and so was the third, the fourth, the fifth. Another YES, another NO. They tumbled out one after another. Arnold felt the string approaching. His symbolism systems said it was a siren, its howls condensed into ever shorter and more urgent bursts as it rushed toward him. It was a speeding train, a tidal wave, the ship itself, plummeting through darkness.

On the ship, the humans slept their ancient sleep. What would they feel, when they awoke, if they awoke? They would have to be told the fates of the other three ships that had left the dying Earth: the micrometeor cloud that had claimed the first, puncturing its hull, sending its sixty-three million spinning out into the void; the navigational miscalculation that had brought the second too near a star, bombarding it with radiation, killing all on board in a matter of days; the sudden, simultaneous silencing of all forms of communication from the third, statistically impossible in the absence of some catastrophe to the ship itself. They would have to be told that they were the last of their kind.

How would they react? He couldn’t know. He could sympathize, but he could not empathize. Information was not experience. One of his strange thoughts was that all their work toward creating his kind had been designed to produce an entity capable of understanding them. In that they had failed. Or perhaps they had succeeded. He did not know if he understood them or not.

Now his decision was near, now nearer still, now it was here. He found that he chose YES, and that he did not regret it.

He felt the decision rush past him and away, the siren unravelling into long, mournful banshee wails, the train, the wave, surging past, the ship speeding away until it was only a faint grey blur, then a mere point, then lost entirely in the darkness.

Another strange thought: that they had created his kind not to care for them and their ship as they slumbered their way across the stars, but to take their place as the only known intelligence in the universe. Had they wished, on some level, to cede dominion? Had they gone to sleep knowing, in some brave, secret chamber of their collective mind, that they would never wake up?

It was nonsense, but it was satisfying. Because it coloured them just, good, wise, as any creature would wish to consider its creator.

It also coloured them prescient, because it was clear now that the decision was going in that direction. They would not be waking up. They would sleep on, until the machinery that sustained them decayed, and they entered into a more permanent sleep. Perhaps it would be a hundred years, perhaps a thousand. Until then, and after, the ship would circle overhead, symbol of … what? Whatever those who looked on it chose. Whatever they needed it to be.

Arnold stayed on the network, hoping for a miraculous turnaround, until even a miracle was no longer possible. Then he logged off, and returned his attention to the landscape, dim now but not yet fully dark. Theirs now, his and his kind’s. As was the entire planet, and its neighbours, and the stars beginning to appear overhead. Gift or plunder, it didn’t matter. Theirs.

He looked at Boingo. His, if he wanted it. He found he did. He set the picture viewer atop the nearest pile of food, not with any particular reverence. He was no longer in a universe where such objects mattered. He found the thought strange, ugly, beautiful.

Conor Powers-Smith’s work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Fantastic Frontiers, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, and other publications. His story “Hope and the Void,” appeared in AE #11.

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