The creature stands, unmoving, staring at the suns. There are two of them in the clear, pale blue sky. The only sound comes from the breeze blowing across the wide plain. It ripples the tall grass growing there, and rustles the leaves of the few trees dotting the landscape. The grass has a blue tinge and the trees are unlike anything the creature has seen before.
The being is as tall as some of the trees but shorter than most of them. The trunks are thick and round, while the creature is flat and thin. The gravity is light, lighter than its own world, allowing the trees to grow high. Perhaps it would grow tall here as well.
The air is cold but well above freezing; warm enough that the creature doesn’t feel any discomfort. The light from the larger of the two stars is warm against its green flesh. It is naked; clothing would be a nuisance when it needed to drink. There is no hair on its smooth skin, not on its head or anywhere else.
Here it would need to drink for a long time, even with the two suns. They are dimmer than the sole star of its own world. But they could do. More than that; it could be comfortable here.
It raises one arm, spreading the long fingers of its hand and holds them to the incoming sunlight. The green flesh is translucent with the light passing through it. The creature can see inside its digits, its palm, its arm. Veins and tendons are shadows but still clearly visible. It lowers the arm again.
Yes, it could survive here.
It already knows that the soil has what it needs; the ship’s sensors confirmed that long before it arrived.
It had nearly forgotten about the ship. It is away from the confines of the vessel for the first time in… how long? Too long. So very long.
The ship is waiting for it. Waiting for it to complete its mission.
Why does it feel so long ago that the day started? It seems a lifetime ago. The creature had been drinking, recharging. Something — the ship — had interrupted it, called its name.
Its name? It could hardly remember ever having one.
The voice spoke inside its head, abruptly, rudely. “I need you, Ackeron,” it said. It was the voice of the ship, though it took Ackeron a moment to realize that.
Ackeron had been deep into its recharging phase, drinking in the solar energy flooding into the solarium. The whole room reflected and channelled the incoming starlight. It all fell onto Ackeron. Most of its functions switched off during that time. It gave its whole metabolism over to soaking in the light, and processing it. Though nanoscale robots — as much a part of it as its green skin — handled the processing.
Finally, groggy, Ackeron came back to itself.
“Why do you use my name? I’m the only one here,” Ackeron answered, aloud and annoyed. It hated to be bothered during recharging; the rest of the day felt off afterwards.
The ship’s artificial intelligence, as it always did, switched over to audio as well, following Ackeron’s cue. “I don’t know,” it said. And that was all. It was a poor companion. But it was all Ackeron had.
“Can you, at least, tell me why you interrupted me?” Ackeron asked.
Ackeron waited. And waited, before realizing how it had worded the question.
“Why did you interrupt me?” it asked, the annoyance rising.
“The sensors have detected a potential candidate.”
“How far out are we?”
“Just over three hours.”
“Why didn’t we detect it earlier?”
“The planet was hidden in the solar plane by a larger sister world with a similar orbit.”
“Okay, bring everything up on the bridge displays. I’ll make my way there.”
“Of course, Ackeron.”
Reluctantly, Ackeron collected itself. When that process was complete it moved from the raised pedestal. That platform was the focal point for the solar energy entering the room. It could still feel the heat from this star system’s twin suns. One of them was small but the other was large enough to feel almost like home. He savoured it a moment, moving toward the windows.
The planet that was their destination wouldn’t be visible yet, they were still hours out. The larger sun took up most of the view. Otherwise, it was just space, the countless stars there hidden by the powerful glow of the nearby ones. The sun moved away, rotated away, to the side. It disappeared for a moment before coming back around to shine through the viewport on the far side of the room. Ackeron knew, of course, that it was the ship that was rotating but the illusion was there all the same.
Ackeron found itself wondering what that sunlight would look like from the planet’s surface. It wouldn’t find out; very rarely did the ship need it. It wondered, sometimes, why it was even there.
Climbing the ladder bolted to the wall, it exited the solarium. It was sad to leave the heat and humidity behind. Its skin soaked in the mineral-laden moisture as it recharged.
It entered a corridor that was dry and had no windows. Of course not, Ackeron was in the maze of corridors that had been chiselled from the asteroid. Most of that large body of rock was still solid. The robots that mined the minerals didn’t go any deeper than they had to, leaving a pattern like that of an ant farm. These tunnels — running along the direction of rotation — connected all the ship’s rooms. They ran from the solarium to the bridge, to the docking bay and to the holding tanks. Those tanks held water, carbon dioxide and minerals.
The asteroid was the ship; it would last hundreds of years yet. All the waste mass was retained and shuffled around. It was necessary, along with the spin to provide artificial gravity. Ackeron’s feet pushed against the inner surface of the asteroid, its head toward the center of the giant rock. When the asteroid was used up they’d find another. It would be a slow process but everything would be incorporated and that rock would then become the new ship. Everything would be transferred. The solar panels covering the outside of the asteroid, the computer core, the bridge module, everything.
Ahead, three small spider-like robots emerged from a hatch in the floor. They each carried a sealed container. The hatch closed behind them and moments later Ackeron walked over the sealed door. It was identical to the one it had come out of, from the solarium, a few minutes before. Behind this hatch the robots worked, mining the comet core that had been snared years before.
It wouldn’t last as long as the asteroid; the water and carbon dioxide it contained was used in the solarium. Used, along with minerals from the asteroid, to keep Ackeron alive. It was its food and drink, its lifeblood. While it didn’t know its lifespan — there had never been another like it before — the ship and robots had kept it alive for decades. It assumed it would continue to live. Some plants could live for centuries. Death was not something it thought about anymore. There was only now, this moment. And the mission.
Once, in a life long gone, it had thought about such things. But then it had been different. Ackeron had a different name then, and a different body. It knew that it had been so and, yet, it found it hard to think of those times. Perhaps it was because it was so different now; it could no longer understand that existence. It had been necessary though, the change, for the journey. As it had been it wouldn’t have been able to survive. The mission was long, so long.
Einstein had been right. The speed of light was the limit; you couldn’t go any faster. So, going between worlds was a slow process, from a human perspective. So it had been necessary to become other than human.
Human, an archaic term.
Did any such creatures exist anymore? Certainly, tens of billions of life forms spread over several star systems used the term to describe themselves and their civilization. But their ancestors wouldn’t have recognized them; not most of them anyway. Ackeron was no longer of that species, even if it had been born so. But even that once miraculous process wasn’t what it had been.
Ackeron had had no mother. Nor was it born of woman. No, it had gestated in an artificial womb. And it had had two fathers; it was, itself, a randomized mishmash of genetic material from the two donors. Later he, for he was male then, had a mother and a father, after one of his parents decided they wanted a change. Such things were easy. And commonplace. Ackeron, then called Ackee, had later become a she for a while, taking the named Eron. It honoured that past with its current designation. Though it had been so long ago, and those forms were so different, that it hardly could recall any of those times now.
Arriving at the hatch to the bridge it opened it and moved down the ladder there. Inside, Ackeron settled at the displays and controls situated in the center of the small module. It studied the displays.
“This is everything?” it asked the air.
“Yes, Ackeron, this is all the information the sensors have been able to gather.”
“The atmosphere is breathable… nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide. The climate looks good, though a little cool. But well within tolerances. Nothing that can’t be fixed with a decade of terraforming. What about existing complex lifeforms?”
“Existent but inconclusive as to exact form.”
“Spectrographic analysis indicates earth-similar composition.”
“How long before we have better scans? I don’t want to send a report that’ll take a year to reach them only to have to send an update ten minutes later.” The nearest human world was a long way away. The ship had set up a quantum repeater several systems back. Soon it would do so again, but the exact distances were predetermined and the ship only had so many entangled transceivers. The data Ackeron beamed would travel through space, over the distance back to the repeater. From there it would instantaneously be disseminated through the entire quantum backbone of the human civilization.
“We will not have better scans,” the computer offered, helping very little.
“Explain,” Ackeron commanded, sighing as it often did at the onerous computer.
“There are magnetic disturbances preventing accurate scans.”
“No, just limiting. Easily corrected if humans spread to this world.”
“So?” Ackeron felt its pulse quicken.
“We need more information to determine viability.”
It hardly dared ask the question.
“You need me to go down there?” Ackeron asked.
“Why didn’t you just say that?”
“I did just say that.”
“Two point five hours until orbital insertion. I have started prepping the landing craft. It will be ready to depart in exactly two point five hours.”
Ackeron leaned his thin body back into the chair. The computer was so precise, so exacting. It knew nothing of creativity or imagination. The whole mission lacked such inspiration. It was routine. Even Ackeron had been engineered to be an extension of the ship. It was a portable sensor, dynamic and long-lived, to be deployed when necessary.
And now it was excited, for the first time in forever. Excitement, the first thing it had felt, the first emotion it could remember feeling… since the last time it had gone planetside.
Otherwise it was always the same. Days didn’t mean anything; they were artificial constructs out here. Everything was the same on every one of those pseudo days.
Recharge, transmit a mission update to the last repeater. Repeat. It was fine for a computer but… for a human?
One sun is setting now, off to the creature’s left. The other is higher, not even at its apex in the sky yet. It can tell the days are long here. That’s good.
Little curls of fog are rising from the ground. The gusting wind pushes and pulls them until they thin and disappear. The creature can feel them, their moisture. Each one that touches its green skin is pure joy. It is different, not routine.
Humans put hoe to earth, then steam to turbine and finally electricity to bits of information. It was all about order, about routine. None of that matters here.
The creature knows that nature has its own cycles, its own routine. But those patterns fluctuate and differ, changing, rising, falling. Every day would not be the same here.
It knows it can never go back. Can never go home. It will live its life in space, on the ship.
Others, humans by name like itself, have endless choice still. Humanity is fluid, the term the only thing that binds them all together. Once, it knows, human meant flesh and blood, a form, a shape. No longer. Human means the essence now, the being, rendered however it is. It can be flesh, yes, but also patterns of information in the backbone, living everywhere and nowhere. And it can switch back and forth. Male? Female? Such archaic concepts. Why not both? Or neither, like itself?
All of that is irrelevant to it now.
It has no choice, no options.
The planet is empty, belonging to no higher beings. Insects churn the soil, small creatures dash here and there, but it is a quiet world. Serene.
And Ackeron — its name comes to it once more, from far away — is so very tired. It has travelled so far and found nothing but emptiness inside and out.
It arrived on this planet to complete a mission for others. Now all it can see is the sky, blue like in its memories. Wind, crisp and refreshing. Grass, cool and soft. The soil beneath the grass calls to it. Ackeron can feel the minerals there; its body craves them as much as it craves the sunshine streaming over its narrow body.
Its feet are planted, it has not moved in a long time.
The mission seems far away. The ship even farther; the vessel has stopped calling to it, telling it to return.
How long has it stood here? It doesn’t know. Who is it? It doesn’t know. The suns, it is vaguely aware, have moved again. Is it a new day? When did that happen? It tries to focus its mind but it is difficult. All it wants is to recharge, to stay there. To sleep, to find peace. Isn’t that okay?
One final memory passes through the creature’s mind then, of recharging, of drinking in the sun. It remembers how to do that. It doesn’t remember being Ackeron, or Eron or Ackee. Those words, any words, no longer mean anything to it. Only the sun and the soil matter.
The creature raises its arms to the sky and stops. There is no movement for a moment but then its arms unfurl along their length, green skin uncurling from where it was tucked against bone. Like petals opening. The same thing happens along its legs. Now it is thin, tall and broad, all its surfaces turned to the sky. Like plants turning toward the sunlight. To drink. It stands firm, reaching for the light.
Time passes. The suns move. It isn’t even aware of them anymore, only senses the heat and reaches for it. That is all it needs. No, not all.
From its feet tendrils emerge, thin and green, searching. They reach through the grass, down. At the ground they push into the soil. Sensing it they go deeper still. And then, like the sun from above, the nutrients flow from below.
It is whole again. It needs nothing else.
It is home.
And it can rest.