Until They Come
By Trina Marie Phillips
“What do you think of this pose?” Kindra asked. Her arms were stretched out in front of her and her weight was back on her legs that were tucked in a ready-to-spring position, as if she would dive off the platform into the depths of space. If it weren’t for her magnetic feet, Mack might have been worried.
“You’re really going to hold that for a thousand years?” he asked, though he knew she would. This had been her game for the last dozen millennia, to come up with a pose that would shock the humans when they returned.
“What’s wrong with it?”
If she were actually human the pose might have been indelicate, reminiscent of waste excretion before indoor plumbing; but to a mechanical it was no different than any other posture.
“Then this is how they will find me. It will happen this time, I can feel it.” Kindra paused and looked over her shoulder at him. The gentle glow of the platform’s forcefield cast a blue tinge over her architectural facial features. Her eyebrow arched like the entrance of a seventeenth-century cathedral. Their designer had a penchant for historical eras. Mack’s head was patterned after a slanted, conical, twenty-third-century industrial building, geometric and efficient, if not elegant.
“Do you not want me to pose?” she asked.
Mack looked out at the lifeless rock that had been the Earth and into the solar system beyond. “You always go dormant when you do that.”
“Only for the last couple hundred years. I know you’ll wake me if they come.”
He looked back at her. She was excited about the pose. He paused; he didn’t want to ruin that. “You’re right, I will.”
If they come. The humans had known that Earth was done. They had discovered an easy way to tap into its geothermal energy and then taken it too far. Travelling near the speed of light, they left for greener pastures, vowing to return when they developed the technology to fix the mother planet.
Mack and Kindra had been charged with watching over the collected and banked genetic material of every species of flora and fauna that had remained when the humans decided to leave. The past and future of Earth was all contained in a sixteen-hundred-cubic-meter storage unit suspended beneath the platform on which they stood.
It had been twenty thousand years since the humans left, and seven thousand since the most recent communications blip. As Kindra locked into her pose, Mack thought once again that they’d been forgotten.
Eight hundred and twenty-two years passed before Kindra went quiet in her meditative, diving posture. For no other reason than the repetition of their conversation they had spoken little in the last century; but having her be unavailable was different. Of course Mack could wake her any time, but then she might move and not make her thousand-year pose. Then he’d have to hear about it for a decade.
Even though she wouldn’t like it, Mack attached an energy-tether to her right ankle. The shield was always deflecting bits of space debris. He didn’t want to find out how much force it would take to exceed her magnetic grasp and turn her pose into a real detachment. Even in the empty times it was a comfort having her there. He polished her head and shoulders daily to a mirror shine so she would look her best if the humans decided to show.
They could leave. Take the genetic payload and hope to found a new Earth. But the years would be just as endless and the outcome even less certain. One out-of-balance element or undetected toxin and the ecosystem would die in infancy. Or they might not find a suitable candidate planet in the entire galaxy.
Three decades came and went. Mack considered waking Kindra and suffering her harangue, but a warning light flashed yellow on the control panel before he convinced himself to do it. Pressure seals on the aft thrusters were failing.
This was not good.
Repairs to the platform had been getting more frequent and materials to accomplish them were dwindling. The humans had not planned on being away this long. Slowly the systems would fail and the platform would no longer be capable of maintaining orbit, never mind some fantasy interstellar exodus. Kindra, Mack and the hope for Earth’s future would crash into the worthless rock below. Mack would be shocked if they survived another millennium without catastrophic failure, but that wasn’t going to stop him from postponing that day for as long as he could.
Mack activated the panel and opened the maintenance hatch. He felt the slightest vibration when the door slid aside and as he descended the stairs the lights seemed dimmer. Another bad sign.
He gathered what he needed and descended further into the massive network of maintenance halls, angling toward the aft thrusters. At least it was something to do.
After three years, the repair was complete. Mack had been meticulous about every surface and seam. No one would be able to claim faulty workmanship when they crashed. Of course, there would be no one around to assign blame anyhow.
It wasn’t a decade marker, but he sent out a comm burst anyway. Had the humans even survived? Or had they figured out how to destroy themselves in the far reaches of space? Had they simply forgotten their pledge? Origins were important, they had said. Had they lost their way?
Was Mack losing his?
He stood at the railing and thought about these things for a century. Then he closed his eyes in despair, and slept.
* * *
Mack woke to a system alarm. It took a moment to orient himself before he turned to the control panel. Kindra was already there, working.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
The screen filled with characters. Unintelligible sounds emanated from the speakers. Whatever the signal was, the computer couldn’t interpret it. Mack noted the chrono and realized he’d been asleep for six hundred years. A glance at Kindra, then around the platform, revealed that nothing had changed.
Mack instructed the computer to run evolutionary interpolations between the signal and all known human languages. Conversation could have changed a lot in twenty-one millennia. They looked at each other while they waited.
“I’m sorry, Kindra.”
She smiled sadly. It was a very human expression, but they couldn’t escape their creators’ idiosyncrasies.
“I figured it was your turn to check out for a while. I’d done it enough over the years.” She hesitated and the windows of her eyes saddened. “I didn’t realize.”
Her simple acknowledgement made up for all the empty time. “I could have at least come up with a creative pose,” Mack said, and smiled. That brought some of the cheer back to her face.
The computer finished.
No known or interpretable correlation.
“Whatever it is, something is coming our way,” Kindra said, her voice wavering with excitement.
She was right. Each blip of the signal was getting closer; still thirty light years distant, but creeping in just below the speed of light. Mack watched the display.
Kindra nodded toward the console. “What do you think?”
“I don’t like it.”
“No resemblance to Earth languages. They’re probably not human. We can’t let the only hope of reviving Earth fall into hostile hands. That’s why they constructed us. We’re guardians.” Mack pulled up data on the platform’s mechanical status. The repairs he made to the aft thrusters were holding fine.
“Even if they’re alien that doesn’t mean they’re hostile. They could be scientists. Besides, it’s been twenty-one thousand years. Communication changes.” Kindra crossed her arms over her chest in that way that Mack knew too well. He was in for a fight.
“We could hide,” he suggested. “Take the platform and drop just below Venus’s thermosphere. If they prove to be peaceful we’ll reveal ourselves.”
“And if they’re human and don’t see us, they could leave just as fast as they came. We’d never catch them.” Kindra’s voice shifted to match her posture.
“And what if they’re coming to destroy us? All this waiting will have been for nothing.” Mack realized he was angry at the humans for leaving them and wondered if he more worried about Earth’s future, or his own.
Concern over an outright enemy prompted Mack to check the status of the defense shields. The ones that kept out space debris were continuing to function, but the emergency defense shields, the ones designed to come online in case of an all-out attack, showed their capacity at barely thirty percent. Even twenty-millennia-out-of-date human weaponry would be able to take that down. He pointed at the display.
“What happened? Why didn’t you fix this?”
“The debris shield almost failed and particles started getting through. I had to borrow components from one to fix the other.” She turned away slightly, as if she were hiding something. For the first time he saw the tear in the metal across her shoulder and back.
“I didn’t make my thousand years,” she said.
Mack froze. Lost in his sleep, his depression, for six centuries, he’d missed it all. If he’d stayed awake he would’ve caught the malfunction and stopped it. He frowned, not trying to hide his guilt.
“Did I miss the alarm?” he asked.
“It never went off. I didn’t know anything was wrong until I got hit.”
Adjusting his vision across the light spectrum he studied the platform. Numerous pock marks and scars littered the previously pristine brushed-metallic surface. He could see where Kindra had repaired the worst of the damage.
The panel flashed. Another comm burst was coming in. The symbols and sounds were the same unintelligible mess as the first.
“Impatient, whoever they are,” Mack said,
“A very human trait.” Kindra turned her attention to the message. The characters were densely packed and complex. She pointed at one. “Does this look like a bit of Arabic to you?”
Mack looked. The swoosh and dot could have been from Arabic but amidst the chaos it could have been anything. She pointed at another place.
“And this could be an NA or an M ... something.”
“If it were, don’t you think the computer would have picked that up? You’re grasping at empty vacuum.”
“Not empty,” she said with a tilt of her head toward out there, toward the visitor. “Mack, I refuse to believe this has all been for nothing. There was a plan. We need to do our part.”
“Kindra, that thing could be our destruction.”
She turned back to face him. “And it could be our salvation.”
He shook his head. “After all this time, thirty years is too soon. I don’t want us to die in thirty years.”
“Thirty? Five hundred? A thousand, maybe? Mack, this was never about us.”
There it was, their purpose. The whole meaning of their existence. Kindra had never lost sight of the goal. Even in its decline, the Earth had been a grand place. Mack remembered how proud he had been to be the guardian of its future. There would be nothing greater than to see the Earth again, the way it was. He looked at Kindra and was touched by her unwavering belief.
A flash of hope flared in his circuits.
He looked at the screen and the blip that grew ever closer. Destruction or salvation. Whatever it was, they couldn’t accomplish anything by hiding from it.
* * *
Mack set the platform’s beacon to broadcast on every wavelength and in every spectrum. Then he struck his pose in the middle of the platform, arms out to his sides and a wide stance looking like an upright starfish. Kindra climbed up. When her feet were set astride his shoulders, the magnets locked her into place. She put her arms out like he had and they stood tall. Ready for anything.
Thirty years was going to be easy.
*This story first appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review in August 2012 and The Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology 2013.