In darkness, far beyond the warmth of the Sun, a tiny satellite crawled across the face of Pluto. Suspended in orbit, it sailed in the quiet vacuum, a thin stream of data ebbing back and forth between the craft and the surface probe at the equator, similar to dust motes in an updraft.
On board, clicking in an otherwise silent chamber, a slow graph etched across a screen, then erased itself to repeat. On the opposite side, numbers in fine lettering trickled across and out of view. Cold, sterile air, with the temperature settling around 1 degree Celsius, breathed stagnant out of the filter system, dry and thin. Across the terminals, a fine dust of frost had crystallised, splitting the low light of Pluto into a fragile spectrum of colour.
The Processor sat at the control desk, unmoving, limbs cast in green from the glow of the screens. She had her hands out in front of her, spread like metal starfish across the terminal, the digits of each finger slotted into circular electrical ports. Through these contacts, the raw data from Pluto’s surface fed into her body and flowed out again, cleaned, checked, then taken back for analysis. She sat there for fifteen hours.
After this time had passed, the Processor rose and touched her hands to the earthing rod to remove the static. A gentle buzz disturbed the room, before it fell back into ambiance. She left and climbed up into her personal chamber: a functional bed, and a mirror. She sat before it, and inspected her body from her toes to her ears, her fingers ringing taps against her titanium body. She took the glass plates that covered her eyes, the only organic part of her left behind. She checked them once, then twice again. The whites were bloodshot. Perhaps the frigid air is an irritant, she thought. I’ll have to keep an eye on them. Thinking that, she paused in surprise, then smiled to no one.
Before she went back in for recharge, the Processor made her way to the bottom of the satellite, entering into a dark room, less polished than the data processing space. Twists of metal and wiring were collected on the floor, coloured tubing in all the primary colours, piling up towards a terminal in the middle of the room. The screen flickered: an old-style monitor that still used cathode tubes.
She pressed a button on the side of the screen. The screen refreshed. A timer ticked over on the bottom left hand side: fifty Earth years and counting.
The Processor stood back up and looked out through the window at the top of the craft. An asteroid-marked dish was mounted on the side of the satellite and pointed away from Pluto, battered and twisted away from the normal architecture of the ship. When she’d first mounted it, she leant out of a decompressed chamber out into the dark itself, with a legacy helmet sealed to her neck with electrical tape. She remembered the dizziness of it. Even though the gravity was turned off, she still held onto the sides as she stretched out and rammed the neck of the dish into its drilled hole. As if she might fall, pulled down by something impossibly large that swam beneath her. Over the years, little pieces of rock from the system had knocked against it, but it was still there, bolted in with screws salvaged from other, less important parts of the ship.
That had been fifty years ago, she thought. And still, nothing back.
She pressed another button on the side of the screen. The message, crackled and full of static, barely audible in the deoxygenated room: her voice—her lost, organic voice—humming over Bach’s Prélude in G Major.
Leaning against the monitor, the Processor thought about her voice, echoing out past through the stars. On it would go, until eventually the radio waves were absorbed into rocks and other, lonely planets, lost into inanimate objects. And yet, she thought. For such a lonely mission, it lets the years go by a little less painfully.
Another twenty Earth years passed, quietly.
The Processor had her hands on the contacts, eyes closed, her internal processors put to their primary use. Outside, the blue of Pluto was waxing, slipping down below the viewing window as the satellite spun back towards the Sun. When she finally raised her hands again, she let them rest in her lap. She was surprised by how heavy she felt. Tired? No, she thought. Exhausted, is what I would have called it. She looked down at herself, the metal joins at her knuckles worn and scratched. Does a concept like that even make sense anymore? she wondered. To someone who has no blood?
Achingly slow, she raised herself, and climbed back up to her bed. Leaning back, the exhaustion seemed to grow, feeling as though an impossibly heavy fog was pressing against her. Sleep, she thought. Then, correcting herself: recharging. Turning to her side, she reeled out a tube from the bedside and blew air into the socket on her neck to clean the port. It itched when it shouldn’t.
Tomorrow, she thought. The heaviness pressed down her ability to think, making her strangely calm. The dreams would be dark and murky, almost all but forgotten by the time she woke up again. And maybe, whatever is happening will have passed. She pushed in the charging cord.
As the pre-charging routines clicked through their normal cycles, the Processor turned to the window. To distract herself, she tried to find the Sun amongst the other stars, knowing it was an almost impossible task. As she did, she thought about Earth.
For those in organic bodies, she began to think, twenty years is the first quarter of a lifespan. In this body, what does that mean? Here, only just over a tenth of a year has passed. Hundreds have passed back home. Whatever I remember about Earth, she thought. About the countries I’d visited and the people I’d known. They would be changed. Lost, perhaps. Twenty years had gone by and taken it all, quietly, with nothing to show for it, except the click of a graph across a screen and numbers no one could read. How does that make you feel? the Processor asked herself. Or, where are these thoughts coming from?
The Processor picked a star that looked like it could be the Sun. It was a little brighter than the rest, but there was no way to tell. The old memory of a constellation — Orion, the hunter with his hand on the pommel of his belted sword — emerged, then faded away. That was something you could only see from home.
She turned back towards the ceiling. I don’t breathe anymore, the thoughts continued. I don’t have a heartbeat anymore. I don’t experience pregnancy or menstruation anymore. All I have are my eyes. The last human experience of time that I have. She gently touched the glass covering them and shut her eyes. A blink is a second. That, I still have.
She felt her body shutting down to charge. Just before, she looked out at the window towards the stars. The stars stood where they were, unchanging.
Another twenty Earth years passed, quietly.
Data was collected, cleaned, then analysed. The results were stored in a large black-box, held in the belly of the satellite. It was due to be delivered hundreds of years from now, shot across the system until it crashed, red-hot, into the Pacific waters.
During one year, Processor had readjusted her shoulder, and it was no longer stiff. During another, her right hand collected a large, wavering scratch down the wrist from reaching into the hull space to re-tape a faulty connection. She filled it in with the green hull paint she found in the transmission room.
The monitor continued to count, without interruption.
The exhaustion came and went. Some days, she walked as easily as when she was first cast in metal. Some days, she knelt on the floor.
Outside, the Sun was still only a bright star, far from her little satellite.
Another twenty Earth years passed, quietly.
The Processor sat at the analysis desk and looked out at the stars. It was not an exhausted day, but she felt uneasy in herself, as if her cybernetic body was not her own. As if phantom nerves were trying to regrow from her chest, shivering against the cold metal.
She watched the stars. Her eyes followed from one to another, picking out the brightest of them. In her mind’s eye, she linked them up into her own constellations: the triangle, the acorn, the comet. Memories of home, fixed into the stars. She made and unmade patterns, moving from one point of light to the next, until she came to nothing at all. Where she expected to find the tip of a poised arrow, there was only a void where stars had once been. An unnatural darkness, an unsettling absence.
The Processor stood and pulled up the telescopic view to her left screen, channelling the feed through a battered lens tube on the roof of the craft. She could only see black upon black, the telescope too small for far-range observation.
Pushing back from the desk, she went down into the transmission room and saw that the monitor was already lit up. She stopped, holding her hands against the screen, faintly buzzing against her metal. The call alert shivered on-screen as the failing tubes glitched out. Eventually, the Processor knelt down and pressed a single button on the bottom of the unit, leaning her head against the speakers.
A thin, static started. Some barely audible notes. She adjusted the pitch, applied an anti-noise filter, but still: only two notes. Two beautiful, alien notes.
Standing, she pushed up the transmission power. Then, pulling herself up to the navigation desk, she rotated the old satellite dish towards the void, guessing at coordinates until its direction and the void matched.
Back down in the transmission room, the monitor beeped again. The Processor listened. More static. More filters and amplification yielded three more notes, which she transposed onto the original transmission. The song came through a little more, making an air.
The Processor repeated this four more times, but no more transmissions came through. Reluctantly, she left her own transmission to run automatically, and removed herself from the room, returning to the data processing. Letting her hands rest on the contacts, she slipped back into processing, her vision fading out. This time, she kept her eyes opened, locked on the void amongst the stars. Her body felt lighter than ever.
Another Earth year passed, in music.
Eight more transmissions came through in this time. More notes came through, but the result was confused. Some notes replaced others. Some notes had long gaps of silence between them. Major and minor keys were put together with no order, making the music erratic and unbalanced. There was no key nor rhythm.
The Processor sent back her original transmission, as well as her own tentative music made from the notes they had sent over. She transmitted them in threes, making sure the satellite dish was fixed pointedly on the void in the sky. However, each returned transmission seemed to either ignore or misunderstand. Each was more faint static, with random notes dotted throughout the sequence.
Thinking, she tried something else: the isolated file of her own voice, matching the original melody. She waited at the transmitter for a full day, knelt against its side. The answer was only silence.
Whenever she sat back at the data processing desk, she would stare back out at the void and think. We aren’t communicating because we don’t share a common language, she thought. Even the music I’ve sent them, it has rules that I understand but they don’t have enough to pull apart that same structure and use it for themselves. Not only that, she thought. But maybe they’re trying to communicate their own language of music to me, which I can’t parse. It could be so much longer until we even begin to figure out a common language, with only these sparse radio waves. Until then, just uselessly speaking at each other, neither of us able to listen, desperate to be understood and heard by the other. She clenched her fists at the table then looked at them, surprised. Inside, she felt nothing that could describe itself as anger. Yet, there was something in her body that remembered the actions of anger. Why does it remember? she asked herself. And why do I care?
Downstairs, the monitor announced another incoming message. The Processor returned, and let the transmission play. At first, it was more faint static, followed by a low sound, like the rumbling of earth. Gently, the Processor put her head next to the speaker, trying to pick out the noise from the thin air. It grew fainter, and she moved closer, a whispering just at the edge of her hearing. Words? Sounds? She strained to listen.
Screaming, like a tearing of steel, but cut with the sound of the throat. It split through the air and made the Processor jerk away, hard body knocking the monitor, skidding it across the floor and making transmission to skip with glitchy pops. The howling disappeared as quickly as it came, cutting out to silence.
The Processor put her hand to her chest. She had no heart left, but something remembered the sensation of fluttering and pumping. A second passed, and it disappeared, her body returning to inertia.
She stood. She felt self-conscious. The monitor began to replay the message, but she came over and cut the looping. As she did, a strange, rigid calm came over her, as if another, colder part of her psyche had just re-emerged. It looked at her transmission machine, then at the void at the stars. Do you realise how dangerous this is? it asked. Do you realise what you are risking? And do you realise why?
Outside, the darkness amongst the stars was still there. Beside her, the monitor announced another incoming message.
Another Earth year passed.
The five transmissions came in. Some were just repeats of what she had before, although the howling never returned. Some were nothing but static. Only one was a genuine development. She could hear what sounded like voices behind the static, but she couldn’t extract anything useful from them. She could only hear their tones, low and mournful.
This time, the Processor did not respond. What had seemed so important before now seemed treacherous. She had done something without thinking; she had reached out into the darkness. And now, something was responding. Something that she didn’t understand. Something that distracted her from the work that she was made for, her cold psyche reminded her.
Still, she stood by the monitor, head next to the speaker, listening to everything that came in. Somehow, no matter how ashamed she felt, she couldn’t stop. Over and over, the cacophony of music, the alien calls, the stretches of incoherent static. The exhaustion came in stronger now, washing over with every transmission she listened to, until she could barely stand. Half of her would sing, at the voice of someone other than her. The other half would shudder at it and at her. And yet, her hands lingered against the controls, close enough to send out another transmission of her own.
The Processor supported herself on the top of the monitor and looked out towards the void. She imagined some ethereal form coming from her chest, reaching out and grasping for whatever being lay beyond the stars, something that went beyond language. Isn’t grief universal? Isn’t sadness and loneliness?
No, came the answer from inside the cold part of her mind. Those are for you to understand on your own.
As if in response, the monitor stayed empty and silent.
Another Earth year passed.
More transmissions had come through, but the Processor did not listen to them. She deleted them upon arrival, and turned off her own transmissions, de-powering the dish and collapsing it against the side of the craft. She returned to her data processing. Her days existed of the moments between analysing the surface of Pluto and her darkly dreams. They were brief. She no longer lingered, no longer visited the monitor room. She checked her body briefly. She repaired what she had to, and plugged herself in with no other thoughts. She did what she designed to do.
She no longer looked outside the window. She no longer checked the stars.
Another twenty Earth years passed.
At the end of this period, The Processor looked up and saw that the stars had returned. Somewhere in her chest, a heart that no longer existed tightened. She walked down to the radio room. Twenty transmissions had come through.
The first four were much of the same. More discordant notes, nestled in static. The next ten were more varied, with additional notes added in, although still with no key or rhythm. Some featured purely voices, still whispering in the background. Some, the Processor thought as she listened, were even an attempt at singing. The last three were tentative, hazy attempts at actual music; still broken and scattered, but the notes were grouped together this time, sometimes giving way to haunting, beautiful chord patterns.
The last transmission was purely voice, far stronger than they had given before. It was a keening, a low, moaning sound that screamed upwards, then faded back into nothing, trailing off into static. The Processor sat next to the monitor, letting the sound play on loop. She looked out towards the stars. The alien voice called, then whispered. You do not know this sound, the cold part of her whispered. No, she thought back. I know it.
She tried to remember where the void had been. The field of stars above her were endless, impossible to break up into meaningful patterns. They were discordant, a confusing mirage where patterns emerged and faded just as fast. Within minutes, she realised that she was lost. She’d taken down the dish that used to point towards them. She wouldn’t be able to remember where the visitors had been.
There was a moment of connection. She had let it go.
The satellite continued on its path, drifting around Pluto, returning to the cold sound of silence.
A hundred years passed.
The observation of Pluto entered into its final stage. Data continued to wax and wane from its surface. The stars remained unchanged.
On top of the craft, a solitary figure clung to its body like a spider, crawling towards a collapsed satellite dish. Her metal body shone, refracting the faint light of Pluto in a thousand, thousand colours.