This story was inspired by listening to Prelude to the Morphing of the Night After, by Darius Roberte, as Epoch Collapse. It made me imagine an enormous alien building.

gone

by Miriam English


"It will be lonely with you gone, my love." Tenderness wells within me as I watch her stretch and rise from her couch as it unfolds from around her. She is built to resemble the humans who made us, and is enjoying the sensations of being in her body again. I let her feelings wash over me.

She turns slowly in microgravity, and I see my panels and screens through her eyes. She reaches out toward my cameras and says gently, "I won't be gone long, and you'll see everything I see, hear all I hear, and feel all I feel. You'll be with me all the way, my sweet."

I know all this, of course, and I'm a little embarrassed that she feels the need to comfort me. My function is to look after her. She completes me, not just in the physical sense, but emotionally too. We were deliberately made that way, and I'm so very grateful for it. I feel a little sorry for the humans who made us, that they can't can't feel the centuries-long bond that we do. We explore on their behalf, sending back our reports on a light beam that will travel 22 years to reach Earth. I feel so lucky to be here.

She floats across our little control room to the capsule door, which I open ahead of her, and she swings around, to slide, feet-first, into the cramped pod. I vicariously feel the reassuringly snug fit of the interior around her, locking her in place. The door closes and she says, "Okay, let's do this."

I fire the small capsule against the direction of our orbit to kill as much motion as possible, letting her drift almost directly downward toward the enormous, Earth-like planet below and I enjoy her excitement flushing through me. My external cameras let me watch the capsule's image dwindle while its origami wings slowly unfold. I have great admiration and respect for the AIs who worked with their humans to design those wings so long ago, way back on Earth. At full extent they will span nearly a kilometer. They let her vehicle glide through the tenuous outer atmosphere without needing heat shielding. They will gradually contract as the air thickens at lower altitudes, letting her make a controlled landing anywhere desired.

We already know where to land. I've already surveyed the planet. There is a single artificial structure on all of this world, or rather, it is the only one that all my sensors have been able to detect from orbit. The possibility that I've missed something is extremely unlikely though, unless it's more than several meters underground, beyond even ground-penetrating radar, X-rays, and gamma rays. Tantalisingly, the way the structure reflects radar makes it appear to be either stone that is very rich in ore, or is refined metal. Metal would be a great find because, other than gold, metals don't remain for long in an oxygen-rich atmosphere like this planet has. Pure metals would hint of a technological civilisation. Very exciting.

As her craft descends I hurry out from low orbit to a geostationary one. We chat about what we see, interrupted for an anxious half hour by my orbit taking me around to the other side of the planet. Being cut off from her for that long fills me with dread. When we re-connect as I swing out around the planet, over her horizon, I can feel her relief matching mine.

She takes a couple of hours to glide down through the atmosphere, then she spends another hour circling around above the enormous, green-colored building. When updrafts are insufficient her craft lazily flaps its membranous wings (now contracted to seven meters each). She doesn't risk landing immediately. Instead, we continue to observe this vast building and the jungle that grows right up to its edges.

Even though the structure is about a kilometer tall, it doesn't look high because its sides slope like a giant ziggurat and the entire thing is so mind-bogglingly large it makes it difficult to comprehend. The flat top is nearly ten kilometers long and about eight kilometers wide and the base is something like fifteen kilometers by twelve. The sloping walls form eleven great steps, each one is a contour around the whole thing, These steps are mostly less than twenty meters wide, but some have broader sections, twice as wide, making them look like small, grassy, recreational parks, though they don't seem to have any footpaths or trees. We choose one of those, roughly halfway up the stepped side, as a good place to land.

The capsule settles gently, noislessly, on its long, folding, bird-like legs. When its clear top slides open we can immediately hear what sounds like a distant background of birdcalls, with a few nearer chirps. She says in a near-whisper, "Wow. I could almost imagine this is some tropical jungle on Earth." Then she steps out onto the surface and looks around. Up close, the building is unbelievably huge, its walls seem to stretch away almost to the horizon, north and south. The top is five hundred meters angled upward at sixty degrees, and the base is a similar distance, skirted by forest as tall as Earth's tallest trees, yet barely reaching the height of the first of the eleven great steps running around this unbelieveably gigantic building. The entire structure is green. She squats to examine the ground. It's covered by what looks very much like grass, except that the leaves divide a few times, like they're half-heartedly trying to be ferns. She pulls her little rock-hammer from her belt and uses its pointed end to scrape away the vegetation. It forms a mat that easily lifts from the surface underneath. "Strange... the soil is fine, as if it's finely sifted."

I add, "Or dust, collected over a long time."

She scrapes at the hard, green surface underneath to reveal a pinkish, shiny, metallic surface. She aims her laser spectrometer at it. "Copper. The green color is verdigris — copper oxide." She stood again. "Could this entire building be made of copper?"

I say, "More likely just a coating. On Earth people have used copper to prevent things growing on surfaces."

"Well, if that's the case, it both worked and didn't. Nothing seems to be attached to the structure. It's just a tangle of roots growing in this silt. If it's unintentional and has accumulated over a long period, how old would that make it?" She stands, looking intently at the metal surface she's revealed and the almost bare floor where it meets the wall. "This isn't level. It's tilted very slightly away from the wall. Is it local? Or is it all on a slight angle?"

I look at the radar scans again. "No, the whole structure is remarkably level, but yes, all the horizontal surfaces slope away slightly. Maybe it's to allow runoff of rain and keep the surface clean."

She looks around at all the low vegetation growing on this wide, park-like area. "I wonder how long it stayed free of plants."

"Off hand I can't think of a way to tell. We don't know how heavy the rainstorms are, how much dust is carried on the winds, how heavy the morning dew is...."

She walks to the wall and puts her hand against it, then raps it with her knuckles. It feels quite solid, like thick rock or metal.

I say, "X-ray scans give the impression it's hollow, but I can't really tell much. It doesn't reflect much from inside."

She begins walking along the wall, examining the smooth surface. She hasn't gone far before she stops. "There's a slight indent here." She looks up, "It only goes to about three meters high." She takes another step, feeling further along, "This could be—" The floor beneath her gives very slightly and the wall panel slides, haltingly, to the left. She laughs, "—a door." She steps back, off that section of floor and the door gently closes. When she stands on that part of the floor again the the door reopens, more smoothly this time. She steps back and the door begins to close again. She puts out her hand to feel its edge and it opens again. She waits until it begins to close again, and steps inside. The door opens again. She moves back a little into the dark interior, and when the door starts to close again she steps onto the section of floor near it. The door opens again. "Okay, that establishes it's probably safe to explore in here, now I know I can open the door from inside."

I'm feeling apprehensive, as I always am when she's exploring, though we've never encountered anything made by an alien civilisation before. "The three meter by three meter doorway doesn't tell us a lot about the inhabitants. Earth has doors of all sizes for humans who are about two meters tall and less than a meter wide." But I can't help imagining two meter tall, two meter wide, crab-like creatures to fit those doors. I know that's silly, so I dismiss it and concentrate on the reality of the situation. "When you entered the building your signal dropped dramatically. Let's switch to gamma ray beam." After a moment, "It's better, but going some meters into the building would still cut us off. There's too much metal. Can you jam the door open and leave a relay outside so we can continue on normal radio frequency?"

This she does, then releases a couple of tiny reconnaissance drones into the interior. They're the size and shape of dragonflies, and have enough intelligence to explore and map the place independently without needing to communicate with us. After several minutes they return to her and send us their maps. What they reveal is a nearly regular layout of branching hallways connecting unfurnished rooms. Each room has only one doorway and no door to close it off.

She says, "At first I thought the interior is unlit, but if you look using near-infrared, about 900 nanometers — it's dimly illuminated from the ceiling."

I ponder that. "What does that tell us? That they evolved as nocturnal? Maybe subterranean? As carnivores perhaps? On Earth some predators hunt with infrared detectors, but that's far-infrared, sensed as heat." The image of large, bloodthirsty crabs comes to my mind and I dismiss it again.

"I'd better go and explore then." She is eager. I can feel it. I'm dreading it, as I always do. But she's right. This is what she was built to do. It thrills her. Even if I could stop her I couldn't be so selfish.

She runs off into the darkness, preceded by the drones. I watch through her eyes and from the relay she left outside. After less than a minute her signal fades and there is only the relay's image of the dim doorway and the sounds of the planet-wide jungle.

On previous planets we've explored she's never been out of touch. I've never felt so helplessly alone as I do now. On those earlier explorations there was, of course, little I could do if disaster struck, but this is much worse. I won't even know if something has gone wrong.

I'm left with my fears, considering the possibility that she might never return. That would end my journey too. Without her, I would no longer have a purpose. I would stay here forever in geostationary orbit, waiting... waiting... waiting.... There would be no point in exploring further if my partner, my love, is gone. My reason for existence lost.

Left alone with my morbidly fearful thoughts, I continue to make measurements of the surface of the planet in an automated, mechanical fashion. The minutes stretch out into worry-filled hours. I keep myself busy in a futile attempt to keep my anxiety under control.

We have been exploring for a few hundred years, our time. Due to relativistic effects it would be much longer for Earth time. We still beam our reports back to Earth, but it has been many decades since we received a reply from them. We don't know if they lost interest in us, or some calamity restricted their ability to communicate with us, or whether they are... gone.

So now here I am, waiting alone for my partner. All I can do is wait. I must bide my time, in geostationary orbit about forty thousand kilometers above the same spot on this planet's equator. My cameras are trained on the massive building below and my antennae listen for the reappearance of my dearest.

How long could I stay here? My orbit is stable. The humans built me well. Unless a space rock collides with me, or a nearby star goes supernova, I could function for thousands of years. This had always seemed a blessing, but without my partner it would be a curse. I dare not imagine spending that time waiting for her to come back.

Looking through the cameras of her little capsule, I see the shadows have lengthened, and this world's Sun is setting. Night is slowly falling. The chorus of calls in the jungle below has increased as animals ready themselves for sleep and others awaken for the cover of dark.

I wait all night, constantly alert, glad that I am not organic. I can maintain full concentration for as long as needed. Even my mounting fears for her safety don't distract me.

I wait all the next day. And the following night. And the third day. And the third night.

Then just before daybreak on the fourth day I hear from her. I'm almost dizzy with relief. Preceded by the little drones, she lopes into view of the capsule's cameras as if she's been gone mere minutes.

I ask, "Is everything okay?"

While removing the tool jamming the door open she laughs. She loves exploring. "Yes, I'm fine. I explored a lot of the interior. It must have millions of rooms. All the ones I saw were entirely empty, until I reached the lowest level, where I found thousands of exoskeletons of creatures that looked like meter-long centipedes. I don't know if they were the builders, or were food, or hapless creatures who became lost in the building." She's putting the drones and the relay away.

The sky is starting to noticeably lighten in the east, and the hoots and whistles and calls from the jungle have been increasing in volume. It feels like a celebration of her return. I've already begun my descent toward low orbit where I can re-unite with her.

She opens the capsule, gets in, and the wings begin to unfold. "It's a mystery what happened to the builders. There's no trace that I can find. They're just gone."

~~~ END ~~~

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