Featured February 14, 2018 Science Fiction
From the editor:High concept science fiction meets laconic western sensibility in a future at once alien and hauntingly familiar in “The Sky is Blue, and Bright, and Filled with Stars.” With words that crack and an ending that punches right to the heart, this one will stick with you for days. Edward Ashton lives in Rochester, New York, where he studies new cancer therapies by day, and writes about what his research may lead to by night. He’s the author of the novels Three Days in April and The End of Ordinary, as well as several dozen short stories.
Dot reaches the summit of Mary’s Rock just after six, maybe an hour before sunset. It’s a clear, cool September day, with a scattering of tiny white clouds in a royal blue sky, and a soft, steady breeze from the west that brings the faint smell of burning things up from the ruins of Luray. She drops her pack at the top of the trail, pulls out a water bottle, and scrambles up the last thirty meters of broken granite to the high point. The trees on the north side of Thornton Gap a half-kilometer below are just showing the first hints of color, tiny flecks of red and gold mixed into a sea of dark green. Off to the west she can see the smoke now, rising from what looks like a brush fire far down the valley. She sits down, leans back against a waist-high block of stone, and drains half of her water in one long, lukewarm pull.
She’s been here once before, when she was years younger and there were still a few people raising goats and vegetables down in the valley. It was winter then, and she spent a crystal-clear, bitterly cold night out on the overlook, bundled into her mummy bag, sleeping in hour-long snatches, waking each time to a different dazzling pattern of stars and station-lights. The beauty was almost overwhelming, and she vowed then to come back some day, to see what it was like to spend a night on the summit when she didn’t have to worry about hypothermia.
As the sun begins to redden and dip toward the horizon, Dot climbs to her feet and makes her way back down to the overlook, a flat half-circle of stone maybe forty meters across, hanging out over four hundred meters of empty space. A hawk rides the breeze, floating almost stationary out over the drop. It looks at her, dips one wing, and falls like a stone, chasing something down below. Dot retrieves her pack, pulls out her food sack and her alcohol stove. She’s low on fuel. Four more days, maybe five, and she’ll be cooking over an open fire until she can find some more. As she measures out her supper, she realizes that she only has a few days worth of beans and noodles left. No point in cooking when you’ve got nothing to cook, and she’s at least a week’s walk from the nearest resupply. She sighs, and pours a third of what she’d taken back into the sack.
The sun is gone, and Dot is tossing her wash-water into the underbrush at the trail’s edge when she sees two luminous yellow eyes reflecting the light of the low, full moon back to her from twenty meters down the slope. The pupils are vertical slits, maybe a meter off the ground. As she watches, they disappear, then reappear a moment later, a meter or two closer.
Dot has a burner, too small to be accurate over long distances, but deadly in close quarters. She reaches for it on her hip, only to realize she’s left it with her pack. She takes a slow step backward. The eyes are closer. As she watches, they rise to a height of two meters or more. She can make out something of the creature’s shape now--powerfully muscled legs, bowed arms, a long, narrow head with tall, tufted ears. Dot is estimating the distance to her burner, wondering if she’s left the safety on, wondering if it’s time to break and run, when it speaks.
“Hey,” it says. “You’re not, uh... hunting, are you?”
It--he, she sees now--steps out of the trees and onto the trail. The moonlight gleams from his light golden fur, and from the fangs that protrude from his upper jaw.
“No,” she says slowly. “I’m not hunting.”
“Oh, thank God,” he says. He breathes in deep and lets it out, then loses fifteen centimeters in height as he sinks back onto his heels. “This is my territory, and they told me I’m supposed to be... you know... territorial. So, if you were here hunting...”
“But I’m not,” she says.
“No, you’re not. You must be just... you know... passing through?”
Dot has to stifle a laugh at the quaver in his voice.
“Sure,” she says. “Just passing through. I wanted to spend a night on the overlook. Care to join me?”
His name is Gerald. Dot learns this as they sit together at the edge of the overlook, their feet dangling, watching the fire creep slowly up the valley to the west. The wind has risen now, warm and dry, and Dot is beginning to worry that she may not be able to cross the gap in the morning.
“I’m really not sure about this,” Gerald says. “They told me I‘m supposed to be solitary.”
Dot rolls her eyes.
“You seem pretty worried about what you’re supposed to be. Maybe you should think less about that, and more about what you actually are.”
“Well,” he says. “I’ve only been out of the tank for a few weeks now. I haven’t really had a chance to figure out what I actually am yet.”
Dot turns to look at him.
“Out of the tank? You mean you’re a construct?”
“Sure. Aren’t you?”
“No, Gerald. I am not a construct.”
“You mean you were...”
“That’s right. Born this way. I’ve been wandering around out here for thirty-seven years.”
“Huh.” Gerald looks at her with a mix of curiosity and respect. “I haven’t seen a natural-born archaic in a while.” He blinks. “I didn’t think there were any more of you left out here, actually.”
His ears twitch, and nictitating membranes slide across his eyes from the inside corners out.
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean...”
“No,” Dot says. “It’s okay. You’re right. It’s been almost two years since I’ve seen another real person.”
“Now wait,” Gerald says. “I’m just as real as you are.”
Dot laughs, but there’s no humor in it.
“Semantics, Gerald. You exist. I’ll grant you that.”
He shakes his head.
“No. Not semantics. The fact that this body came out of a bio-printer doesn’t make me any less of a person.” He flexes his hands, and three-centimeter claws slide out of their sheaths at his fingertips. “I was natural-born too, you know.”
“When were you born?”
Gerald tries to smile, but on his cat-face it looks more like a snarl.
“August first, 2037. Cleveland, Ohio.”
“Yeah. You do realize that was almost a thousand years ago, right?”
He blinks again, slowly.
“Really? A thousand years?”
“It’s 3016, Gerald.”
“Huh. I don’t remember... They must have taken me off-line for a while.”
“And that,” says Dot, “is exactly why I’m going to wander around this stupid empty planet until I die. I do not ever want to become something that can be taken off-line.”
It’s later, and Dot is lying on her back, half-out of her sleeping bag, her head resting on a wadded-up jacket and her folded hands. Gerald is an arms-length away, curled up and snoring on her mattress pad. She rolls onto her side, and curses as a rock digs into her hip. She’s about to wake him, to tell him to give her back her pad and go make himself a nest or whatever he’s supposed to be doing out here at night, when a bright red fireball punches a hole in the night sky, far off to the east.
Dot’s seen meteors before, and burning orbital junk. She’s not sure which this is at first, but either way she expects it to either burn out or pop. It doesn’t. Instead, it screams half-way across the sky, moving east to west, slowing as it goes, trailing bright plasma behind it. She sits up, her mouth hanging open. Just as its trail begins to dissipate, the object banks sharply. It dims as it cools, but before it fades out Dot can see that it’s descending, and heading almost directly toward them.
“Hey,” Dot says. “Gerald.”
He doesn’t so much as twitch. She leans over, puts a hand on his shoulder, and shakes him gently. His eyes pop open and he leaps up with a hiss, scrambles half-way to his feet before falling back onto his rump.
“Easy!” Dot says. “Take it easy!”
Gerald looks around wildly, then focuses on Dot’s face.
“Oh,” he says. “Right. You. Why’d you wake me up?”
She can feel it now, a sensation she’s read about but never experienced, a sub-sonic hum that vibrates her ribcage and sets her teeth on edge. Gravitics. She looks up, and sees a slow-moving black delta occulting the stars as it slides toward them, no more than a kilometer away.
“That’s why,” she says, and points it out to him. “Someone’s come visiting.”
Gerald sidles over, crouches down beside her. They watch together as the shape comes closer, moving more and more slowly, until finally it comes to a stop almost directly overhead.
“How far up do you think it is?” Gerald asks.
“No idea,” Dot says.
A smaller delta, hardly big enough to see at first, detaches from the larger one and spirals down toward them. The hum of the gravitic drive grows along with the ship as it descends. It finally resolves into a lifting body maybe ten meters across at its widest, and a little less than half that thick. The lander slows to a hover a few meters above the overlook. Three spindly legs extend, and it sets down beside them with a gentle bump.
“Is that thing one of yours?” Dot asks.
“One of ours?” Gerald shakes his head. “We haven’t even put a satellite into orbit in a long, long time. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Choir Immortal is kind of an inward-focused thing.”
A door slides open on the side of the lander. Light spills out, and a ramp extends down to the rock. Dot finds that she’s holding her breath. A figure crouches down to step through the hatch. It’s bipedal--humanoid, even. As it steps onto the ramp and straightens, she sees that it’s more than humanoid. It gleams silver in the light of the full moon, but in shape it’s more human-looking than Gerald. It looks them over, then raises a hand in greeting.
“Hey,” it says. “You know there’s not another human within a thousand klicks, right? What the hell happened to Washington?”
“So,” says the mechman. “Doesn’t look like you guys have made a lot of progress on building a galaxy-spanning empire, huh?”
Dot looks at Gerald. He shakes his head. The three of them have climbed up to the high point. They sit in a rough half-circle, looking down on the overlook and the mechman’s jet-black lander. His starship is gone now, back in orbit, waiting for him to call.
“Crap.” Despite its metallic sheen, the mechman’s face is as flexible and expressive as Dot’s. The expression it wears now is not a happy one. “It’s been nine hundred years, you know. We were really counting on you guys having a galaxy-spanning empire by now. Or at least an invincible space-navy. Got one of those?”
“No,” Gerald says. “No space-navy, invincible or otherwise.”
Dot and Gerald exchange a worried glance, while the mechman stares morosely down at his lander. After a long, awkward silence, Dot clears her throat.
“I don’t mean to sound stupid,” she says. “But I feel like I’m missing something. Did we launch a fleet of giant, robot-crewed starships nine hundred years ago?”
Gerald blinks, then slowly shakes his head.
“No. I mean, I’d already joined the Choir Immortal by then, but I was still mostly keeping track of what was happening in the real world. I’m pretty sure I’d remember something like that.”
“Oh no, you definitely did,” says the mechman. “We boosted out on the Fourth of July, 2094.”
Dot looks at Gerald again. He shakes his head.
“No. No, I’m sure I’d remember...”
“Wait,” says Dot. “I know that date. Wasn’t that when they launched the first Centauri probe?”
The mechman taps his nose with one finger.
“But...” Dot looks at Gerald. “Help me out, here. The Centauri probe was tiny, right?”
“Yeah,” Gerald says. He scratches his head absently with one claw. “I mean, the boost stage was pretty big. Antimatter torch, right? And a light-sail to decelerate at the other end? But the payload was like a kilo and a half.”
“Exactly,” says the mechman. “One-point-seven kilos of self-replicating nanobots.”
“Right,” Gerald says. “They were supposed to latch onto an asteroid or something, break it down and build sensors. They never reported in.”
“That didn’t work out,” says the mechman. “Turns out the self-replication process was pretty unstable. There was a lot of mutation. One thing led to another, and by the time we called back in, nobody was listening anymore. So, we were at loose ends, as they say. The primary mission was a bust, and we had no follow-up orders from home.”
Dot looks at him expectantly.
“Well, we decided to go into the terraforming business. You know--pave the way for the empire of Earth. We left you a really nice little rock around Proxima, by the way. Lots of other ones, too, right up the spiral arm. If you guys ever do decide to do the empire thing, there’s some prime real estate out there now.”
“Well,” says Dot. “Considering that I may be the last actual biological human left on the planet, I’m not sure that’s a real concern anymore. We appreciate the thought, though.”
“We did our best,” says the mechman.
“What about the space-navy?” Gerald asks.
“The space-navy. You asked before if we had one. You seemed to think it was pretty important.”
“Oh, right. That. Well, as it turns out, there already is a bit of an empire out there. It’s not really galaxy-spanning, but it does fill up a good chunk of this spiral arm.”
A wolf howls off in the distance. The moon has nearly set now, and a chill runs up from the base of Dot’s spine to the back of her neck.
“Yeah. We got a little... enthusiastic about the whole terraforming thing. Mistakes were made. We may have terraformed a few of their planets out from under them.”
“So we need a space-navy because...”
The mechman sighs.
“They’re pretty mad, and our dispersal pattern is basically a giant red arrow pointing right back home. They’ll be here in a couple of days.”
Dot wakes before dawn. She crawls out of her bag and walks over to the edge of the overlook, pulls a handful of nuts from a vest pocket, and sits back against a boulder to watch the sun come up.
The east was a blanket of snow the last time she was here, and the first sliver of sun poking up over the horizon made the valley over into a bed of diamonds. Autumn hasn’t gotten far enough along to color the forest yet, but the sky holds just enough vapor now to turn the eastern horizon into a watercolor painting in purples and reds.
Dot turns her head to see the mechman standing behind her with his hands on his hips.
“Yeah,” Dot says. “It is. How many more of these will I get to see?”
“You sure there’s no space-navy?”
“Probably just the one, then.”
Dot sighs. If this is her next-to-last sunrise, at least it’s a good one. She watches in silence until the sun is almost fully up, still fat on the horizon, but more gold than red. She’s about to get up, get her food sack down from where she hung it the night before and dig out a proper breakfast, when Gerald comes over to join them.
“Hey,” he says. He stretches and yawns hugely, his fangs gleaming in the morning sun. “What are we doing?”
“Well,” Dot says. “I’m watching my next-to-last sunrise. Our metal friend here is contemplating the fact that it’s his fault that this is my next-to-last sunrise.”
“I don’t get it,” Gerald says. He blinks slowly, and scratches behind his left ear. “Why is this your next-to-last sunrise?”
“Because you monkeys have wasted the last nine hundred years,” says the mechman. “Instead of building an invincible space-navy, instead of colonizing the galaxy, you decided to hang around here the whole time and turn yourselves into cats and hippies.”
“Which would have been fine,” says Dot, “except that our robotic science probe decided to start an interstellar war instead of building a telescope like we asked it to--as a result of which, we are now doomed.”
“We’re not doomed,” Gerald says around another yawn. “There’s a Visitor’s Center eighteen kilometers south of here. We just need to go see the Wizards. They’ll know what to do.”
Dot knows about the Visitor’s Centers, of course. Over the years, she’s walked dozens of kilometers out of her way to avoid them. She isn’t afraid of them, exactly. She feels toward the Visitor’s Centers much the way a child from a family of addicts might feel toward an opium den. Over the past thirty years, everyone Dot has known--parents, sister, lovers, friends--has gone to the Visitor’s Centers. None have ever returned.
The mechman’s lander takes them to a place that used to be called Skyland. Most Visitor’s Centers are simple transparent domes, but this one is built to resemble the park visitor’s center that sat on this site a thousand years earlier. Whimsy, or nostalgia? The bulk of the Choir Immortal dates back to the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries, when the planet was still covered with humans. One of them might have had fond memories of a summer afternoon spent at Skyland when they decided to put a portal here.
Gerald is the first one out of the lander. Dot and the mechman follow more cautiously. They cross the broken asphalt of the parking lot to the Center’s faux-rustic door. Gerald pulls it open, stands back, and mock-bows. The interior is dark, and smells of dust and rough-cut pine. The mechman enters, but Dot hesitates on the threshold.
“Is there a problem?” Gerald asks.
“No. Maybe. I just...”
“They won’t bite you,” Gerald says.
“I know.” Dot looks away. “But you have to understand... these places are where humanity went to die.”
Gerald blinks, slowly.
“I’m not dead,” he says.
Dot looks at him. The sun frames his head like a halo, and she realizes for the first time that he’s almost beautiful.
“You’re right,” she says. She touches his arm. The fur is soft and smooth, and the skin beneath is hot. He smiles. Her hand trails down along his arm to his hand on the door. “But you’re not really human, either.” His smile falters. She follows the mechman into the gloom.
The inside of the Visitor’s Center is a wide space of dark, polished wood, with cut-log benches arranged in a circle around a central dais. The mechman stands at a podium off to one side. He waves Dot over. As she walks across the room, Gerald lets the door swing shut behind him with a dull, muted thump. On the podium is a small silver bell with a carved wooden handle. Dot looks up at the mechman. He shrugs. She picks up the bell, and rings.
The tone is still dying away when flames erupt from the floor to the ceiling in a circle around the dais. Dot cringes back as a blast of heat washes over her. A giant head appears in the center of the flames. It fixes her with a furious glare and opens its mouth to speak.
“Drop it, Mark,” says Gerald, from back by the door. “This is a serious visit.”
The flames disappear, and the head shrinks to a more human scale as it turns to face Gerald.
“Oh, it’s you,” it says. “Didn’t notice you there. Is your sabbatical up already?”
Gerald shakes his head.
“This isn’t about my sabbatical, Mark. According to our friend here, we’ve got a bit of a problem.”
“So let me summarize,” says Mark. Dot sits on a bench between Gerald and the mechman. Mark’s disembodied head floats in the air in front of them, bobbing gently up and down as he speaks. “Robots spawned by the Centauri probe of 2094 have spent the last nine hundred years, more or less, terraforming planets up and down the spiral arm. This activity has drawn the attention of hostiles, who have effectively wiped out said robots, present company excepted, and are now coming here to wipe all of us out as well. Is that the basic situation?”
“Pretty much,” says the mechman.
“Couldn’t just build the fucking telescope, huh?”
“Yeah,” says Dot. “That’s what I said.”
“Look,” says the mechman. “We can sit here and argue over whose fault this is all day long, but that’s not getting us any closer to a solution.”
“We’re not arguing over whose fault this is,” Gerald says. “We’re just saying it.”
“Right,” says Mark. “If you’ll bear with me, I just need a few more answers. First, do these guys have zero-point?”
The mechman looks at him blankly. Mark rolls his eyes.
“Their ships,” he says. “How fast do they go?”
“I don’t know,” the mechman says. “Point-two c?”
“So, no zero-point. Have they figured out how to synthesize anti-neutronium?”
“How would I know that?”
“If they’d figured it out, believe me, you’d know. What, exactly, have they been using on you?”
Mark’s head wears a condescending smile now. The mechman scowls.
“Ship-to-ship, mostly directed energy. Ship-to-planet, lots and lots of nukes.”
“Okay. I think we’re done here.”
“Wait,” says the mechman. “I don’t think you’re hearing me. When I say lots of nukes, I mean enough to glass over this entire planet.”
“Right,” Mark says. “I don’t mean to be callous, but we don’t really care about that. Our critical infrastructure starts sixty kilometers down. If they can’t crack the planet, they can’t touch us--and from what you’re telling me, these guys are a long way from being able to crack a planet. They’ll come here and throw their little hissy fit, wreck the place up a bit, and leave. Worst case, we have to cancel sabbaticals to the surface for a few thousand years.”
“What about us?” Dot says. “What about the actual humans who still live up here?”
Mark turns to her, and gives her a look that slides from sympathy into pity.
“I hate to break this to you,” he says, “but the number of you left up here is getting very close to zero, and most of the ones still wandering around are completely batshit crazy. Again, present company excepted. I think. It’ll be a shame if the last few archaics wind up getting fried, but we can always synthesize some new ones once the bad guys are gone. Same goes for the rest of the indigenous flora and fauna, for that matter. We’ve got patterns for pretty much everything at this point.”
“Great,” Dot says. “I mean, I’m glad to hear that ten thousand years from now you’ll be able to re-populate the planet, but what about me?”
“No problem,” says Mark. “We’ve got a tank in the basement. Time for you to join the Choir Immortal.”
Dot has never seen a bio-printer up close before. She finds herself wishing that it looked a little less like a coffin. Gerald goes first. The lid slides open and he steps inside, sits down gingerly, lays back, and settles into the padding with his arms at his sides.
“See you on the other side,” he says. He closes his eyes, and the lid slides into place over him.
“Creepy,” says the mechman.
“You’re gonna do this?” Dot asks.
“Sure,” he says. “Better than getting vaporized, right?”
Dot doesn’t answer. They wait in silence. After an hour or so, the tank begins to gurgle. A few minutes later, the lid swings open. The mechman looks inside.
“Looks like a bit of Gerald’s still stuck in the drain,” he says. “Oh well. You want to go next?”
Dot looks into the tank. He’s right. There’s a clot of fur stuck in the drain at the foot of the tank. She feels like she might be sick.
“No,” Dot says. “You go ahead.”
He shrugs, pats her on the shoulder, and climbs inside.
After the mechman is gone, Dot spends a long time staring at the tank, trying to convince herself that she can climb into it when the lid swings open again. Finally, she hears the gurgle as the fluid inside begins to drain away. She turns away as the lid swings open, climbs the wooden staircase back to ground level, and walks outside into the late evening sun.
Dot wakes on the overlook, an hour before dawn. The walk back from the Visitor’s Center was a long one, and she’s only slept a few hours, but she has no intention of missing her final sunrise. She climbs from her bag, and cooks oatmeal for breakfast for the first time in weeks--no sense in saving fuel now--then walks to the edge, sits back against a boulder, and waits for the sun.
Dot has thought many times about how she might die. She’s always known that she would become sick someday, or injured, or maybe just old and feeble--and for most of the past decade she’s known that when that happened, there would be nobody there to help her. When her mother realized she had a tumor growing in her belly, when her father had a mild heart attack, they went to the Visitor’s Center. Dot has always wondered if, when her time finally came, she’d abandon her convictions and follow them.
At least now, she has her answer.
As the first red rim of sun clears the horizon, Dot leans forward over the edge, and thinks about jumping. From this point, it’s at least four hundred meters to the rocks below. Nine seconds, more or less. A short time to live, but a long time to die. She knows she won’t do it, though. She’s afraid of what’s coming, but she wants to see how the story ends.
The air is drier today. The fire to the west seems to have burned itself out, and the sky is crystal-clear. The sunrise isn’t as colorful, but Dot isn’t in a mood to complain. At least it’s not raining. She watches as the sun goes from a thin red line to a fat red ball. Finally, she’s forced to look away, blinking back tears, as it shades from red, to orange, to piercing gold.
When her eyes clear, the light has changed. She looks down at her hand on the rock. Her arm casts a long shadow back along the overlook, but as she watches, that fades away, and the rock takes on an unnatural, silvery sheen. She looks up.
The sky is blue, and bright, and filled with stars.
This story originally appeared in Escape Pod.