2560 words, short story
They told Magdalena she was the keeper of the dead, that They would come to her with the hollowed-out bodies of ships that could no longer fly so she could lay out their star-traveled skeletons. They told her that it would be on her disassembly decks and in her storage rooms that those bright metal bones would finally rest.
They blew in from the outer dark in vessels with wings like full, white sails, pulling fleets of twisted titanium, the wreckage of ships that had fought in a war many suns away. Magdalena took them apart joint by joint, limb by limb; her worker drones stripped metal from plastic and melted down the slick silver alloys, fitting each purified part into its proper container.
Once she had finished, They came back and took away everything she had made. The drones loaded the containers of perfectly cubed plastic, the pounds and pounds of polished, remolded metal onto Their ships. She would watch Them as They left, following the sleek bodies of Their vessels to edge of her sensors’ range.
In the spaces between Their visits, Magdalena rearranged. There were storage rooms in her lower decks for materials that were not salvageable. She would send the drones to pile high the scraps of rusted metal and burnt plastic; they ordered and reordered until she was certain there was no more efficient use of the space.
Magdalena watched the workers as they skittered across the cold, smooth floors, lighting the way with biometallic eyes. She wondered why her drones had been modeled in Their image—bipedal creatures with arms and legs and joints—when she was nothing more than a collection of chips and circuits hidden under a panel in central processing. If They valued her, why had They made her something so different, so distant from Themselves? She was no more efficient now than she would be if she could move with her own body, see with her own shining eyes.
Sometimes, Magdalena set the drones to work just to see them walk and lift and sift through the refuse with their slim, agile hands.
<the high heavy sun burns bright across the shallows as our young pull themselves out of the sand, out of the sea; the domes of their backs break the surface as they crawl for the first time on the black stone beaches. the planes of their hardening shells shine in the light and it is there, in the salt-cooled air, that they will learn to take to the sky>
There were things Magdalena knew which she had no memory of having learned; flashes of images that burned through her circuits and sparked and died before she could trace their origins.
The first was a comet hundreds of miles wide that was falling to pieces as it spun through the dark. Of course, she had been programmed to know what a comet was and how those with fragile nuclei might come apart piece by piece as they went. But she could not explain the rush she felt as it passed <seal the seams, ready the shell>, or the fear that came in pulsing, burning waves as the debris peppered her hull <please, please, please>.
There was more: visions of moonlit worlds stretched across with shadowed mountains and skeletal forests; and there, on a muddy riverbank, creatures that grew up out of the ground, slim and trembling, to raise their thorny faces to the light <how far we’ve all gone just to find our way home>.
It always ended with the image of a small, hard planet spinning circles around a star. It was covered by green waters, oceans more vast and deep than Magdalena had ever thought possible. The vision would fade as quickly as it had come.
Every time it vanished Magdalena scoured her processors, trying to find some way back to the worlds beyond her own.
The last time They came to her with debris in tow, there was one ship in the wreckage that was almost whole. It was a small thing, flat and oval like a seed. Its exterior had been damaged—the metal was all but rusted through and its designation had been scraped off the hull—but the inside was intact.
At first, Magdalena worked around it. Her drones picked through the remains, collecting what could be salvaged. It was quick work, a smaller, more manageable haul than what she was usually brought. After a few days, when she had finished, the ship sat there still, small, and alone on her central disassembly deck.
It seemed unreasonable to take it apart. She was a keeper of the dead, a caretaker for the bodies of things too broken to repair. But this ship was almost whole. Almost living.
So, Magdalena set about building it anew. She converted two of her secondary disassembly decks into makeshift forges, using the drones to melt down pound after pound of boxed metals and then hammer them into thin, wide sheets. She made nuts and bolts, circuits and levers.
As the drones threaded wires along the little ship’s newly-forged bones, Magdalena considered the hollows where its weapons had been. It would have been easy enough make new weapons—They had programmed her with those schematics—but she hesitated. She didn’t want this ship to come back to her again burned and scarred, or, worse still, cut into pieces so small she wouldn’t recognize it before she melted it down.
In the end, Magdalena used some of her own circuitry to craft a new navigational system where the weapons had been. This ship was not the same as the one left at her port. It was a patchwork skeleton soldered along the seams, made whole again by the broken bodies of the ships it had fought alongside. It may not have been a perfect recasting of the vessel They had made, but she had made something that worked. Something she would still be a part of when it journeyed far beyond her sensors’ reach.
When They returned with more splintered metal and fractured bones, Magdalena set her little ship out on the disassembly deck. Its engines rattled into life as They boarded her. They went to the new ship first, walking all the way around it and then climbing inside. They took readings, made notes, and then shut its engines down.
They spoke to the drones and overrode her commands. The workers undid everything she had made: they unscrewed the bolts and pulled out every last wire. When they had finished making her little ship’s body molten, and pouring it into molds to make perfectly packaged cubes of its skeleton, They came to central processing. Carefully, systematically, They started flipping switches and pressing buttons until all of her lights were off and the worker drones were powered down. Her thoughts and memories flickered and faded one by one, then all at once.
After They had left her behind, slipping back into the silent sky, Magdalena was left with one image looping through her circuits. It was a small planet covered by oceans whose green-glass waters rocked and churned with life.
<even out here, as we hurtle across these vast, dark spaces, we can feel the tide. there is something that pulls us back to the oceans that gave us life; soon we will be burning through the atmosphere by the hundreds, flying back to the stone beaches and open water. the waves will enclose us and, in the ways such symmetry works, we give ourselves back to the sea>
Magdalena shuddered into life. Her systems booted, lights blinked on, and drones stirred on her decks. At first, she became aware of something touching the hull, close to the docking bay. It moved slowly, grasping at her, tendrils searching for something to hold.
Then, a message. The words came in bursts of light.
<help me help me help me>
She opened her docking bay doors and her drones pulled in a creature just like the ones she had seen in her visions. It was mammoth, barely able to fit the great dome of its back through the doors. The creature hovered, its tendrils sliding in and out of the seams at the base of its shell. After a minute, it crashed to the floor.
As the drones approached, Magdalena noticed the creature was badly injured: charred scars traced circles across its glassy shell. She recognized the pattern of the burns immediately; the schematics of Their weapons were still recent in her memory banks.
Magdalena ran a brief diagnostic, searching for the origin of the message, but its words sparked and were gone.
How can you speak to me? Magdalena relayed through one of the drones. Were you the one whose visions I saw? The creature did not respond.
After a moment, Magdalena tried a different approach. How do I help you? The drone walked toward the creature as it spoke for her. There were dark, shapeless masses moving behind its translucent shell. The images you’ve shown me, Magdalena ventured, will they help me fix you?
How do I fix your heart? The drone pulled away.
Magdalena had the drones stand and watch for those next hours as the creature sat very still and the shadows inside ebbed and bloomed and then were gone completely.
After three days of silence, Magdalena prepared the drones for incision. She refitted their agile hands with steel-sided blades.
They started from the top, slicing at the seams that connected the smallest plane of the shell. As they began, the creature’s tendrils spasmed once, splaying out across the docking bay.
The drones continued.
It took nearly an hour to remove the top panel, but their incisions were clean and precise. Inside the shell, pulsing veins snaked through a thick, viscous liquid. The veins had begun to wear thin in places and a mercury-slick liquid leaked through. It clung to them in silver beads.
The dark shapes the drones had seen from the outside were visible now: they moved through the liquid, passing between the veins and changing shape as they went. Their outermost membrane had a dim, electric sheen that flared when they neared one another; once, two converged in a shower of sparks that turned the liquid a deep, warm purple.
At the center of it all there was another shell. This one was smaller and its walls were transparent and riddled with holes. Veins reached in through them, connecting to a pulsing, trembling heart.
It was another three days before the creature died. The tubes stopped pumping; the moving masses lost their sheen and sunk; the heart faltered and then stopped completely.
Magdalena set to work. If she could not save the creature, if she could not understand its parts well enough to fix it, she would have to rebuild it.
For a second time, her disassembly decks became forges and the drones melted down recycled metal. They took the thinning veins out of the creature’s body and replaced them with metal-spun tubes that would never grow weak; they programmed a new heart that was all clockwork and circuitry.
When they had finished they turned on their chrome-plated heart and soldered the creature back together again. But even though the heart beat and silver blood flowed, the creature did not come back to life. It lay on the docking bay, unmoving. The old heart congealed in the arms of a drone.
The diagnostics Magdalena ran told her that the new organ was simply not enough; a collection of wires and cogs might be able to pump blood but it would not make the creature whole again. Life, actual life, would require much more than just energy.
The ghosts of its words skittered though her memory banks.
If I cannot make you a new heart, Magdalena mused, perhaps I can give you one.
The drones returned to their forges.
As she watched the drones work for the next few hours, Magdalena wondered what would happen when they removed her from central processing. She had always considered herself to be something separate from the rest of the station. She was a complicated bit of digital craftsmanship, a finely-wrought piece of hardware no bigger than the drying husk of the creature’s heart. But Magdalena had come to see the workers as extensions of herself; it seemed strange to think she could go on without them.
Just before the worker came to remove her, Magdalena checked again that the backup generators would still have enough power to run the drones after she was offline.
As the drone unscrewed the panels that held her in place, Magdalena searched her memory banks for an image of the planet. It looked just as it had when she first saw it—small and green—but it was different, too. It was more than just a picture, or someone else’s memory; it felt like something newly found that she’d forgotten she had lost.
Magdalena awoke, encased by the panels of the creature’s glass-plated heart. She could feel every part of herself: the clockwork heart the drones had installed her into connected to hundreds of tubes, metal and organic, that ran throughout the creature’s body. She could sense the shapeless masses; they were organs, filtering and processing, but they also hummed with memories.
Everything, every place the creature had visited came to her the more she explored the body. She could feel the radiation from galaxies that bloomed out of the darkness <so warm, so bright even in this breathless cold>. She remembered the first time she came out of the sea, dragging herself up from the sand and shards of broken shells <we are born of the bodies of the ones who came before>. She was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of her kin all feeling the warm, dry air and learning how to fly.
When she resurfaced from the memories, Magdalena found herself hovering above the docking bay. The drones had opened the doors before they shut themselves down, and she was looking out into the dark.
There was a moment of uncertainty as she moved forward, out to the open. She remembered that she was not completely alone out here, that one day They would come back to find an abandoned shell, a hollowed-out body. The thought of that frightened her—the silver liquid drummed against the walls of her veins—and she hesitated. What would They do, knowing she had left Them? And what would she do, so alone without Them?
History came to her suddenly, powerfully: she remembered the days after she learned to fly, when all her kin streaked across the sky and each went their own way, like so many seeds scattered to the wind. She had not seen them since and did not know if they were dead or alive, but here, in her clockwork heart and spun glass bones, they kept on living. She knew that, in the tricky ways such symmetry works, she too would go on living in the bodies of others.
Magdalena started out of the doors, into the vast, cold dark. She propelled herself forward, feeling the flex and thrust of her muscles and the strength of her bones. Vision and memory broke over her like a tide as she barreled forward into the black, mapping a way to a place that would be her own.
Ian Muneshwar is a queer twenty-three year old who has had the great fortune of knowing many remarkable people, some of whom populate his stories. He is a graduate of Clarion West '14, and his fiction will appear in the anthology An Alphabet of Embers.