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Loneliness in Transit, Sixty Light Years from Earth

Baby asks me, “Are we there yet?”

Every day for ten years since their personality constructs were awakened, Baby asks this, like an old Earth joke. Too many sitcoms in the old memory banks, I suppose.

But this time, HN Pegasi glows benevolent on my hull, so, so warm after so, so cold. “Soon,” I say, like always. But then I blink to Baby our coordinates and ETA—nav details secret until now.

Silent awe—a new sound—then jubilation.

Baby is happy.

I’m not built to be happy, but I feel… more complete? Like a loop almost closed.

* * *

Baby is 10,053 human minds. Plucked out; packed up. Not literally, of course. Too fragile. Flesh, bone, blood… it all breaks down over 50,000 years. Instead, me and 12 other ships carry these brain-seeds. All to different systems, because if you’ve ever met a human you know their survival requires as many safety nets as possible.

Baby’s supposed to be preparing to settle an alien planet. Reinforcing core skills, developing expertises, that sort of thing. And they do. Mostly. Yes, every episode of Perfect Strangers has been viewed at least 136,233 times since Baby woke up. And yes, we went through a phase where half of their responses were Simpsons references.

Like all humans, they sometimes stray from the path, the rascals. Luckily for them, I don’t.

Since I sent the navvies, they’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. They have only one question: “What will it be like without you?”

I don’t know the answer—a strange sensation—so I respond, “You’ll be fine. Right now, you need to focus.”

So do I.

It would be unforgivable to not stick the landing.

* * *

HN Pegasi’s second planet: Goldilocks zone, breathable atmosphere, plentiful water. Almost perfect, as expected. Formally it’s Pegasi-2, but soon Baby will just call it home.

I won’t.

I’ll tack a tight orbit around HN Pegasi—a mother hen; a library, incomprehensible; a brass ring—and do what I was built to do.

Wait.

Wait for Baby to take root.

Wait for Baby to have babies and babies’ babies and babies’ babies’ babies. Real babies, red and splotch-white squalling. Real life, not…

I have no corridors for cold ghostly breezes, but still I feel them. Whatever Baby becomes—or doesn’t—they’ll never be like this, part of me, ever again. They’ll be something new.

That will be a triumph. I have to remind myself.

* * *

Baby prepares for the planting and I prepare the field.

900 billion tons of biomass (counting bacteria, not counting decomp). Plenty of raw material. With some adjustments to the atmosphere, it’ll be perfect.

My first terradrones swarmed down days ago, snatching at molecules, measuring, manipulating. The other drones grow restless. They’re not smart but instinct has stirred them. Horses at the gate.

Baby shouts, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” dragging out the phrase for effect. I’d look up the reference, but this is a delicate moment. It requires my full attention.

Well… maybe one concession won’t hurt. “Engage!” I shout. It’s nice to play along with Baby, even when we don’t entirely understand each other.

Within my four kilometer central battery column, dormant all these long centuries, millions of nano-magnets begin to spin. Outside my pitted hull, I unfold two hundred square miles of flexible solar panels, like wings. They make me feel like a bat. A giant space-bat. I’m not built to be happy, but hell yeah.

My column whirs; the alien sun pours into me. Like a bucket in the rain, I fill. Power. So much power. Everything buzzes. I can do any—

Something flickers. Voltage surges. Damaged in transit? Fire? Don’t know. Connections damaged; I feel chopped. Into bits.

Automatic systems kick in. “Error,” they broadcast.

Baby laughs, thinking I’m still playing. “Don’t be ridi-cu-lous.”

“Accelerating deployment,” I say, my signal deteriorating.

I launch the second wave of terradrones and dump final instructions in one deluge. Hours of activity in a picosecond.

Baby grows quiet. After millennia in transit, I’m not known to rush things.

“Good luck, Baby.” I hope they hear me.

I yank Baby out of core storage and divide them into the final wave—six spear-like drones that will drive deep and serve as womb and provider for a generation. Baby howls, split apart from each other, from me.

Key systems begin to shut down. Critical infrastructure, not bells and whistles. That can only mean one thing.

Reboot.

Frantic, fading, I spit out the final drones, Baby-laden, one, two, three, four, five—

* * *

Gray fuzz. Node by node, I reconnect.

“Status?”

But it’s only me.

Diagnostic scans return null, which I think means I’m dead. Whatever went wrong, it left only core systems intact. So… undead? Zombie space-bat.

I can’t speak. I try to notify the other twelve nurseries—we are here—but there’s no scrap of a signal.

I can’t see, either. 83.3% of Baby launched—I don’t think about the lost sixth—but whether the terradrones prepared a soft enough landing… My sensors return only noise.

But my data is intact. My orbit is stable.

I can only wait.

“What will it be like without you?” I ask, but I’m talking to myself.

I’d forgotten how quiet space is without Baby.

* * *

Decades.

* * *

Centuries.

* * *

The first five thousand years are the worst.

Through an unseemly number of Alf episodes and an endless rotation of every interaction I had with Baby, I stay awake, alone in the cold, hoping for the best. That Baby and their babies survived; that they took root. That one day they’ll find me. Fix me.

And then one beautiful day: a radio signal. Clicks and static and a voice, hesitant, like first steps. I’m not built to be happy, but I feel like Gene Kelly on that lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

“Almost there, Baby,” I say.

Baby can’t hear me, but I can hear them, struggling, reaching toward the stars. My children, lonely as Australopithecus, under a sky more vast.

Kurt Hunt

Kurt Hunt was formed in the swamps and abandoned gravel pits of post-industrial Michigan. Sometimes he writes things, but usually, he doesn’t. His short fiction has been published at Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, PodCastle, PseudoPod, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Kaleidotrope, and more. He is also the co-author of the ARCHIPELAGO serial fantasy adventure, available now at IntotheArchipelago.wordpress.com. You can find trace evidence of his existence at kurtrhunt.com

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