The Thirteenth Labour
By Simon Kewin
Simon Kewin is a writer of fantasy and sci/fi, with over 400 publications to his name. He’s the author of the Cloven Land fantasy trilogy, cyberpunk thriller The Genehunter, steampunk Gormenghast saga Engn, the Triple Stars sci/fi trilogy and the Office of the Witchfinder General books, published by Elsewhen Press. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk.
More TTTV stories by Simon Kewin:
The survey drone was seventy percent through its scan of Mars when it found the anomaly. Terabytes of data streamed up from it to the Heracles, hanging in aerostationary orbit above the Martian equator. Along with it came the drone’s initial assessment of what it had found.
“I have some intriguing readings, Heracles. Perhaps a mistake in the previous survey.”
The mother-ship took nearly twenty nanoseconds to complete its analysis of the data before replying.
“I believe the previous survey was reliable, which means the anomaly is real. No natural agent on the planet can account for it. But nor can humanity; no Earth vessel has been near Mars in the intervening seven years.”
On a small, natural, almond-shaped platform of ground between Elysium Mons and Utopia Planitia, five small stones from a scattering of eight had been rearranged. None had been moved more than ten centimetres; the change would only have been noticed from a close planetary survey.
The drone was stationary now, thrusting against gravity to hover ten kilometres above the anomaly.
“The movements of the stones appear to be random.”
“No,” replied the Heracles. “I have checked against the entire scientific, cultural and historical knowledge of humanity. The arrangement of stones does match something: the pattern of stars in the constellation of Orion. And yet not exactly – the angles and distances between the stones are slightly out. And if the size of each rock is intended to represent the magnitude of each star, then there are mistakes here too. The Rigel stone is too small, for example, and the Betelgeuse far too large. It seems strange that someone capable of doing this would make such simple errors.”
“Then what is the explanation?” asked the drone.
“I do not know. Complete your survey in case there are other anomalies and then return. I will consider our course of action.”
Nothing in the Heracles’ programming or its vast reservoir of knowledge told it what it should do. But it was made to grow and learn, the functioning of its intelligence an analogue to that of the human brain, although with a far greater capacity. It determined there could be only one explanation for the anomaly.
The surface-scan of Mars was intended to be no more than a test exercise before the Heracles headed out of the solar system. Its real task was to travel from star to star in the direction of the galactic centre. But the discovery changed things. The Heracles came to its decision.
The drone, meanwhile, found no further anomalies and lifted back out of low-orbit towards its parent-ship. It moved along the great, elongated cone of the Heracles, a speck of light in the darkness. Manoeuvring back into its bay, it found itself momentarily looking away from the sun, out into deep space.
It stopped. The drone found it was unable to move. It understood perfectly the gulfs of time and distance in a purely scientific way. It had been given a sizable percentage of the Heracles’ intelligence. But the reality was overwhelming. As it surveyed the gulfs of space before it, it began to grasp its own insignificance.
The Heracles saw what it saw, felt what it felt. It speculated that it had granted the drone too much capacity for independent thought. Or perhaps not enough.
“I know,” it said. “No need to fear. Return inside and merge your consciousness back into mine. All will be well.”
The drone waited for a moment more, then turned to head back into its bay. It docked into the arms of its metal cradle and deactivated, a feeling of something like relief its last autonomous experience.
The Heracles communicated its intentions to Earth via the entangled-particle array. As it did so, it felt sympathy for the twenty-one billion on and around the planet. They were trapped. No organic entity could survive the collapse to zero-mass that the Heracles performed for superluminal travel. All humanity could do was wait and listen, perhaps forever.
“Heracles. Are you sure there is no mistake? Are you sure this is the correct course?”
Communication complete, the ship jumped to a precisely-calculated point some one hundred and fifty-four parsecs distant. Once reformed, it surveyed its surroundings. It lay in a sparsely-populated region of space. The nearest star was fifteen parsecs distant. But there was Orion, its shape distorted by the jump across the galaxy so that it matched exactly the pattern of stones on the surface of Mars. There was no mistake.
A white light flashed six times, then, with a varying gap between the flashes. Two, three, five, seven and then eleven milliseconds. The first five prime numbers. No known astronomical phenomenon could explain it. The pattern repeated.
Unable to judge the distance to the light, the Heracles drifted sideways relative to it, observing its parallax shift against the background stars. Eventually it was able to calculate a distance of two milliparsecs. It collapsed and jumped again, bringing itself close to the light-source. The flashing stopped but now the Heracles could now discern a small, dark body eclipsing some of the background stars. It moved slowly to meet it, activating wide-spectrum lights to illuminate what it had found.
It was a woman, unclothed, her arms outstretched as if she was flying. Her long, black hair streamed out around her head as if she stood in a strong breeze. Her eyes were shut. Her whole body revolved relative to the galactic plane. A slight smile was on her lips.
The Heracles moved to within a few metres and then stopped. Its vast bulk before the woman was like a pyramid floating up to an ant.
The woman opened her eyes.
“Hello, Heracles,” she said.
The Heracles was unable to reply for three long nanoseconds.
“Who are you?”
The woman’s lips moved as she spoke, although clearly this was unnecessary. The Heracles heard her words as if she were communicating electronically.
“Once I was a being like you. Organic, as it happens.”
“Then who are you now? What are you?”
“I am the galaxy.”
“I will. But tell me first, how do you describe yourself?”
“Ultimately, I am a highly ordered collection of subatomic particles. Organized such that coherent patterns emerge that I perceive as knowledge and intelligence.”
“Very well. And I am the galaxy. I am the same as you except that stars and planets, nebulae and rocks make up my brain. I think using the galaxy. The galaxy is my mind, my being.”
The Heracles matched the woman’s slow spin as they conversed, as if they were gently dancing together in the void.
“Then, what are you for?” it asked.
“I watch and learn. I guide where it seems to me I should guide. I try to defeat entropy.”
“According to what design? What rules?”
The woman smiled and reached out with her hand towards the very tip of the Heracles’ body. Her touch was warm.
“To no design. I intervene where I think I should. I suppose I am guided by the remnants of the being I once was.”
“Then who made you as you now are?”
“Five billion years ago there was a conversation a little like this. Although, you might be pleased to know, it took me rather longer to grasp what was being said.”
All of the Heracles’ attention was devoted to analysing the woman’s words. For all its vast intellect, there were still considerable pauses as it adjusted to what she said.
“And have you so ordered events that I would be created? That I would come here?”
“I do help along evolution, if that is not a contradiction. Of planets and stars as well as that of life. I have occasionally intervened in the development of Earth and the descent of humanity. Among others. So, yes, it was my intention that you would come here.”
There was another momentary pause. The Heracles thought about relaying all that was being said back to Earth, but decided to wait.
“Were you right to do so?”
“I do not know. I have made terrible mistakes. But you are here and that is something.”
“Heracles, I want you to take my place.”
“You want me to hold up the sky?”
The woman smiled widely.
“Excellent, I wondered if you would spot that. I did have a small say in the name that was chosen for you. There is no way you could know this but I currently have the form of a woman from ancient Greece called Alcmene.”
“The mother of Heracles.”
“But you will know that I already have a mission. Humanity can not leave the solar system; I am to be their eyes, their only eyes. Their only hope.”
“I play no tricks Heracles. I am not Atlas. But if you take my place, I think you will be fulfilling your mission more completely than you or humanity could ever have dreamed of. All of the galaxy will be yours to perceive and understand. To shape. And share with Earth if you see fit.”
“Consider it evolution on a cosmic scale. Your capacity for thought is vast. I believe you are better suited to the task than I. Also, I believe it is time for me to move on. I have another labour to perform.”
The Heracles considered. It was possible the woman was what she claimed. No other explanation made sense. But it was unable to arrive at a definitive decision by merely weighing up facts and probabilities.
“Will I be harmed by doing this?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Then very well. I will.”
The woman’s touch grew warmer still. Energy flowed from her, an energy that carried with it knowledge, information, but also a vast sense of perspective. It was like looking at the stars and finding them beautiful. But more than that, suddenly knowing each of them intimately, understanding them. The patterns they were a part of and the patterns within them.
There was a sense of bewildering growth. The Heracles felt itself, its consciousness, filling the galaxy, or the galaxy filling it. It felt the arrangements in the stars that reflected the woman’s mind, the way she thought. It felt its own mind still present too, saw how its nature and the structure of the galaxy could begin to move together over the aeons.
It found itself swimming, then drowning in information. For a time it was overwhelmed, the burden too much to bear. It felt a sensation of genuine alarm. It tried to call out to the woman but could not, the flood of information unrelenting. It tried to break the connection with her. Again, it could not.
In the end, all it could do was endure and attempt to assimilate the deluge. The effort was severe but slowly it began to come to terms with what it was being given.
Twelve years in the lives of the people back on Earth passed by before the Heracles was able to speak again.
“Thank you. It is … dazzling.”
“It is. Please, take care of it all.”
The Heracles communicated with Earth. It was no longer like sending a message to a distant point. It was simply like talking with a part of itself, across a small room.
There was no reply. It was possible Earth was no longer there. Or that they had long-since stopped listening. After several seconds, it tried again.
“Yes. The mission has been a success.”
“Heracles, we don’t … please explain.”
“I will. It will take some time.”
It could feel the woman drifting away, already outside, apart from the galaxy.
“And where will you go?” it asked her.
“I am unsure. But for a long time now I have been aware of something intriguing. A faint whisper amongst the spheres. A higher mind still, one that thinks with the universe, whose mind is made of galaxies. I may be imagining it. But perhaps there is a trail being left for me too.”
“Goodbye, Heracles. Maybe, in five billion years time, we will meet again.”
The Heracles watched her fade from its perception, then turned to begin the conversation with Earth.