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She was so utterly lost. The night sky was all wrong. Things that shone did so haphazardly, at what seemed like random intervals, their light was alien. Gone were the beacons, those guiding lights that were perhaps the only relatively constant thing she had known, except herself. And Norbert, poor old Norbert, half senile, half gone, greatly diminished but ever faithful and attentive.
She had fallen to a long string of astronomically improbable mishaps. That’s why she was here in this time and place. The planets: six giants, two adolescents, three dwarves, and a dozen adolescents surrounded her. She had stopped counting the flies, fleas and small rodents of the family that circled regular as clockwork. They were too far and too small to be of any concern; but knowing they were there, seeing them pass over from time to time gave her some sort of comfort that comes with familiar things.
« Melia, aren’t you cold? It is three degrees. If I were you, I’d feel cold. »
Norbert was a hovering, tennis ball sized black sphere that followed her wherever she went. Most of the time it stayed nearby, anyway. Norbert was prone to the odd fit of solitude, at the most inexplicable times, without any trace of a good reason. Norbert just decided that it was time to go and went. Not that any reason was required, really; but it always perplexed her when it happened. The small sphere would use its tiny machines to craft itself some sort of semblance of a body; never two alike, and would seat itself into a depression in the shape of a half sphere. Then, he would gallop, trot, crawl, slither all depending on what he had made for himself that time. They always resembled some sort of animal or another; he would disappear for a few days, or weeks at a time. Norbert came back. Always came back.
Norbert had figured amongst the most frighteningly powerful forms of sentience. Anything smarter couldn’t be bothered to notice us, let alone communicate intelligibly. Sometimes they’d been known to pull some grandiose cosmic joke, often understood centuries later. Not that the joke was understood, merely the understanding that one had been thoroughly and completely fucked with would slowly emerge. Let’s get back to Norbert though. He’d been created by machines that were created by machines that were created by machines… until one day some half a million years prior we made the first one that was truly intelligent, aware and alive. They didn’t need us to take care of them anymore, didn’t need us to create them, and didn’t really need us for anything. Mostly they took care of us wherever we’d end up together, like proper children nursing their in-laws into comfortable retirement. Except we stuck around, and nobody minded too much. Norbert was like that. Best friend, confidant, mentor, tutor, caregiver, and protector. He was; before the accident, that first grain of sand that sent the dune tumbling, and then changed the wind patterns to allow things to take root and grow. One distant day the desert would be covered by prairie, and then with trees to make a forest. She didn’t know if she’d ever make it out of this causal cascade.
The cascade: They’d been on a large ship, the kind that bridges the stars in instants. It was a floating city, an island of warmth in a cold sea. It carried millions of people, smaller ships and goods back and forth. And then that great ship had; by some trick of the devil, flown into a sun and died. It had not died before most of the smaller ships were safely out on the other side of the sun. The now deceased hulk had protected the smaller ones for long enough. The largest ones of these had many smaller ships berthed inside. But they were still too close to the sun; and there, another shell was roasted dry. And another, and another, and another, until there was only her tiny crippled boat drifting in a sea of debris, flying away from that everlasting light. The cloud that surrounded her, the flotsam and jetsam wreckage of ten million lives followed her as they drifted away from any possibility of help and out into the wastelands that lie between stars. For nine years and some, she spent her waking hours combing through the wreckage for things to salvage for her tiny crippled ship. She had all the time in the universe. Part by part, atom by atom, ounce by ounce of matter, element and alloy she found enough to keep her little shelter warm and flowing with gases so that one breath could be followed by another. After some time, she’d cobbled together an addition to the ship, increased the living space by a few cubic meters and then a few more. She was able to build some engines, and sieve fuel from the wreckage. The atoms and molecules were all scattered around, waiting for her to collect them as she’d piece together increasingly effective machines to harvest whatever she could out of a cemetery that was moving at speeds nearing that of light, but all together, at the same time, going who knew where.
Norbert wasn’t much help. The trip through the sun had hurt him bad. She’d heard and felt what could only be described as the equivalent of blood chilling howls of terror, surprise and indescribable agony as the machinery that made him was fried, fused, re-wired and scrambled while he tried to make the ship hold long enough for them both to survive. She hadn’t exactly heard it, but rather felt it through the invisible connection that kept them both tethered together telepathically. They made it through. Norbert had made it through body intact, but his mind had been torn apart. What remained was often a mystery of intentions, erratic behaviour and occasional moments of blinding brilliance and potentiality, followed by a sharp reversion to the earlier mean. Norbert only made some sense half of the time. Emotionally constant, the sibling bond remained, but he’d become simpler in his reasoning, simpler in his company. He’d once have been able to show you how to create a star. Now all he talked about was immediate. He’d lost the ability to think in the abstract. Most of the time it was like that, anyway. He’d build intricate machines by rote, but the sum of the parts was always mysterious in purpose and design. He’d build you simple things as long as you asked him precisely enough. He’d help you with a task, given instructions, but eventually you’d notice he’d have wandered off doing something else that had no purpose in relation to their predicament. He’d become wild and alien in many ways. Conversation was difficult, strained, and cryptic. There was melancholy permeating his ways. He would often start a sentence that would end with an ellipse, incomplete and trailing off into silence.
Tonight, he’d been preparing himself to go on another one of his fugues. He’d been hovering over his latest incarnation for the better part of a week, night and day. He was encased at the end of a conical stalk that was attached to a cylindrical torso connected to four mechanical legs. His machines were always strangely beautiful. He had patterned this one after the general shape of a dog. The body was mostly mechanical, millions of tiny pulleys, levers and strings acting as muscle tissue to move the bulk around. The body was covered by burgundy velour. It whirred and clicked softly as it moved. This time, light shone from thousands of tiny pinholes on its body. As it/he moved, the pinholes would made the body sparkle like snow drifting across a sunny plain. At the same time, he looked darker than the deepest black hole. He/it moved gracefully up the hill and hopped up on a nearby boulder. It/he stared off into the distance.
« Melia, I’m going to go away for a while » he said.
« I know. Do you know where you’ll go? »
« I... »
« Can you bring back something nice? I’d like that. »
« I think so. »
She’d first started by moving her ship around with the few thrusters that had survived the incineration to make minute adjustments that would shift her position relative to the wreckage. She started by small things that would let her build bigger things, which would let her build bigger, better things. She had all the information she would ever need to build her ship, just no one left that could interpret it to build something that would let her blink out of existence here and pop back out there. “There” being in the relative safety of the rest of the intelligent life in the universe. She had done her best, but the best had been the slow way. Nine years later, when she was properly satisfied that she’d done everything in her power to make this thing as complete and proper as she could; and that she had skimmed all the brilliance she could out of Norbert’s remnant self, she set the ship on its course and veered away from the cemetery. She stared at it as it shrank out of sight. She set an alarm clock, lay down and closed her eyes. She slept for one hundred seventeen thousand years, three months, twenty-one days, four hours, forty-one minutes and five seconds.
Norbert stayed awake by himself all that time. Who knows what he did during all that time? He wouldn’t ever talk about it. Sadness forever. She had Norbert; simple as he was, he was a constant presence. He had kept her from drowning in madness simply by being there.
When she woke up, a blue sphere dominated the forward view. She couldn’t recognize the shapes of the landmasses, and neither could Norbert, for what that was worth. Same for the stars. Nothing on the waves, no sign of intelligent life anywhere, nothing moved. The atmosphere was breathable, and nothing seemed dangerous, so she landed. The ship needed to replenish on raw materials to continue, and she needed open sky and wind in her hair. Norbert seemed indifferent, never happy, and never sad. Poor Norbert; if only she could make it back, they’d be able to fix him, heal him, help him become more like his former self. Thing is, she wasn’t certain anymore if Norbert wanted to be better. He never answered when she asked about it.
They were alone on the planet. No people, no animals, no machines. Plant life had evolved by itself. There was only the sound of grass rustling in the wind, and when it picked up, it made the grasses sing and whistle long-winded laments. Tonight, the moon was full. It was very large here. It took up a good chunk of the sky when it was full. The grass swayed likes waves on water and the wind was strong and steady. The eerie song was muted, steady and harmonic. She felt cold, but not enough for her to bother putting clothes on. She preferred to feel the wind on her skin and immerse herself in the moment. She stood naked on top of the hill and listened. There was a long howl, followed by another, and another until there were several dropping out and joining in again. Then she saw them. Across the valley, there were several four legged shapes, shadowed against the moon. Every so often she would see something shine and sparkle in and out of existence. Norbert was coming back. True to his word, he had brought her something nice.
Maybe she’d stay here a while longer.