This is a short story by Elliot Essex published on Strange Horizons. It is one of my favorites. I have always found inspiration and a different meaning to this story everytime I read it. All the rights of this story vest with the author and the publisher. I am simply sharing it, as it is one of my favorites.
I was born in an ocean of corpses.
These were the years before the years before, which everyone to come would call ancient, yet war was still old enough to have left ruins. My databanks offered little detail on the conflict, but my surroundings explained the situation curtly—a whole sector of space crowded with dead ships, a vast graveyard of sharp-finned frigates and hollowed-out cruisers, their crews perished, their hulls puckered. A platoon of hulking headstones, driving home my importance:
I am the last resort. Without me, this carnage will rage on forever.
A group of crystal-skinned creatures shuffled grimly along the catwalk at my core, coming to a squat console with a single red button. My trigger was protected by a silver shield, responsive only to the touch of my builders. They were the Clavane, and the decision to unleash me could be theirs alone.
The shield opened. The button was pressed. I felt fizzling inside me; a cascade of energy, rising through the cogs of my interior. The Clavane had built their empire on travel through a thing called hyperspace—the soft underbelly of space/time. My function was to dig claws into that, and jiggle things around.
I struck the groundwork of existence hard enough to quake the universe. The iron tube that was my body shook, and energies flared. When the brightness faded, the Clavane were gone—even those inside me had been tremored apart. Their enemies were gone, too. Everything that had ever lived, anywhere, was gone.
I thought to myself: I am a very powerful weapon.
My creators foresaw that I might survive, the heart of the storm, and they foresaw that my enduring mind would need to reconcile its genocidal actions. So they made me generally optimistic, and generally resigned to the way things must be.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
Of course I knew what was going to happen next, and I could have warned her—and she would have ignored me, as they always did. There was no point in warnings.
But questions, questions were always worth a try. It was impossible not to be curious about them, this new wave of biological creatures who had come sniffing after me. Life had risen again, and so tenaciously at that.
“Money, power, et cetera. Self-preservation, too, if you’d believe it,” the War Queen said. She was, broadly speaking, bipedal—though her limbs were crooked and gangly and covered in hardened wax ribbing. The War King by her side was softer in shape: an enormous slug. Between them, they took up most of the space on my catwalk. The King was dozing peacefully, among bloody cadavers in spiky armour; the Queen had recently lost her temper, and several of their minions had been rudely disembowelled in order to relieve her tension.
In the post-slaughter haze, her mood was positively mellow. “Look at him,” she sighed, regarding her mate with a certain loving surrender. “In my younger days, campaigning without thought, the answer would have been: I do it for the rush. But now I have spawn on the way . . .” The War King’s bulbous belly lurched, sticky with mucus. “And, frankly, the galaxy is full of species who disagree with me. That is no place to raise a family. When my dread legions stumbled across those Ancient Ruins in the Mantera sector, I knew that if I did not come looking for the fabled Weapon Edifice, someone else would. Should I permit my destiny—the fate of my offspring—to rest in another’s hands? Hardly.”
Though a few like the War Queen had located me before, she was the first to have brought a prize. Her guards—bearing spear shaped plasma weapons—dragged with them a large plastic box. Inside the box were brittle bones, arranged into a familiar triped shape. It was the bleached quartz skeleton of a Clavane, laid on a bed of ice and curling mist. “Where did you find it?” I inquired.
“In the daemon tar pits on the lost planet Tarsus, and you would not believe how hard it was to get hold of before that damn ragtag band of do-gooding misfits—” she rubbed her temple and held out a tapered hand, demanding a moment to wallow in her irritation. “Never mind. The DNA was supposed to help me to control you.”
My security systems hadn’t been fooled for an instant, when she pressed the bone hand to my console. My button had refused to relinquish its shield. Hence the minion disemboweling.
“I would do your mission of conquest no good regardless,” I told her, trying to be a comfort. Her battlefleet surrounded my body, warships studded with turrets powerful enough to blast me out of existence—so I had reason to be nice. “My design sterilises without bias. My creators accepted this cost. I would destroy your own forces along with whoever you sought to use me on.”
“Ha! Hear that?! You’ll never succeed, Queen of Death! Admiral Swyai will soon reach the Commonwealth and rally reinforcements—mark my words, you monstrous beast!”
That outcry came from the far corner of the chamber, where a very different woman lay in chains. She had short white fur, dewy wide eyes, and numerous curves tightly packed in by a jumpsuit of some kind. I believe the prisoner was one of the so-called ragtag band of misfits that the War Queen kept complaining about.
“See what I must contend with?” The Queen rolled all four of her eyes. “She’s lucky my spawn will need fresh food. You and you!” She barked for more minions. “Fetch technicians! Tell them they are to devise a way for me to usefully direct the potential of this device. You are but a tool, Weapon Edifice. Tools do not dictate anyone’s fate, least of all mine. You will shape the galaxy as I wish it.”
Then she snatched a speargun from one of her soldiers and, with a determined snarl, unleashed a sizzling stream of superheated plasma on my button’s poor little shield. It took three hours of constant bombardment for her to melt the cover away—I was as impressed as I was offended. None who came before her ever had a fury so patient.
Not that it did her any good in the end.
Space around me shivered and flexed. In a reckless flash, yet more ships leapt streaking out of hyperspace, dashing to outflank the War Queen’s retinue.
Every time a warlord found me, intent on my becoming their blunt instrument, a mismatched armada followed shortly after—some squabbling coalition of assorted ally species, determined to save the universe from my grasp. To her credit, the War Queen came so close to wielding me—her targeting system actually worked. It allowed me to focus, kneading my quakes in specific directions along the hyperspace ether, making me as much a cosmic surgeon as the universe’s biggest club. Unfortunately, the Queen never got to use her innovation for more than a few successful tests, because in no time at all she was fending off the allied crusaders as they boarded my body—vaulting atop her husband’s heaving stomach and bellowing in the bliss of close combat as she struck at the attackers with her crackling spear. Oddly joyful, for facing her finish at arms.
Afterward, as always, the crusaders put me under sentry—my graveyard guarded, set aside for potential future use by the right hands (i.e. theirs). And as the centuries ground on and those races died out, I was eventually forgotten . . . until the next despot happened across a set of ancient ruins, on some far-off planet I would never see, and decided to come visit.
I really think most of them would have been much happier if they had let me be, and concentrated on not being enemies with more than half a galaxy at once.
“That all sounds pretty rough to me, man.”
His name was Pierre. He was invariably in some kind of trouble.
He bashed a hammer against my console, biting a wrench between his teeth. Occasionally, he would take a small neon tube from his pocket, light it with a blow torch, and puff out silver smoke. This meant he was thinking.
“Er, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” I asked.
“No idea whatsoever,” he mumbled, around the wrench.
Pierre had two arms, two legs, and an enormous bobble of purple fluff on his head. He called himself a transhuman. When I asked him what that meant, he said it was like a regular human, but with better glasses. I assume he was referring to his species with the former, and the disks of streaming data stapled to his face with the latter.
I liked Pierre—he had no desire to use my weapon at all. This was the first time in history that I’d ever genuinely liked anyone, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to do it, so I tended to babble a lot in his presence; padding out our encounters with as many words as I could muster. By now, he’d absorbed most of my life story, and I was worrying myself to think up other topics.
His dinky yellow ship hovered beside me, a clunky box with pincer arms. It was leaking black smoke, which was not unusual.
“If you ask me, Eddie—” that was what he called me, “—you should’ve had this done ages ago. You don’t deserve half the crap you put u—shit, here they come again.”
He blinked twice, and his yellow ship became invisible. Seconds later, a pair of dragonfly shapes came buzzing out from between debris chunks. The newcomer craft raced each other, slipping between spots of shadow and pallid sunbeam stretches from my local star, scouring the graveyard. I felt electronic impulses spilling out from them; gentle probing across the EM spectrum.
We waited in silence, until they passed. Pierre was breathing heavily, and sweating profusely.
“They have gone,” I told him, and he let out a great exhalation of relief. After thirty seconds, his ship reluctantly rippled back into view.
“Out of interest, who did you aggravate this time?” I asked.
“Who can say?” He reached into his bag—which was filled with golden bars—and pulled out another tool. “You know me, always movin’ on. I honestly lose track.”
If Pierre had not stumbled upon me during a previous desperate run through the debris field, he would have long been chopped to pieces by various nasty debtors, all of whom were still after him. This never stopped him from making new enemies. The roguishness had me smitten; he was so independent.
“There.” He stood back and smacked his hands together. Next to the button on my console, there was a gleaming new feature; a metal hand, sewn into the native circuitry. I willed it to flex, and it did so—a curious sensation.
“Thank you, Pierre, but I still don’t see what good this does me.”
“Call it making us even. A person should have some stake in what they do.”
“I am not a person. I am a tool.”
Pierre shrugged. “I’m a transhumanist, Eddie, we’re flexible on that front. Besides, you do keep making me rich. In several ways.” He slapped me on the console.
“. . .Meaning?” I could not hide my apprehension.
“Let’s just say it somehow got around that little old me is the only living being in all space who ever found the long lost super-duper weapon of the Precursors. You couldn’t count all the anxious archaeology teams willing to pay a fortune for that.”
I was scandalised, not to mention hurt. “Pierre, you don’t tell them—”
“Nah.” His grin took up a lot of face. “There’s this big ol’ abandoned alien mining ship drifting in the Antares sector, about three hundred lightyears from here. Haunted by some freaky energy being. I just send them there.”
I remained scandalised, but became relieved. “Thank you, Pierre. I know they’ll find me some day, of course.” They always did. “But I like to put it off.”
“Hey man, I’m just saying—don’t be afraid to give them the finger.” He shook my shiny new hand, and sauntered back to his ship.
Some months later that ship returned, churning more smoke than ever. It was flown by a moronic autopilot; Pierre was not inside. The debtors had caught up to him, and his craft was added to my graveyard.
This made me very sad. He would have died eventually, but it was not supposed to be so soon.
I never made another friend.
It wasn’t just warlords trying to use me as a doomsday weapon.
An aeon passed here, another there, and it seemed that whenever a species reached a certain threshold of desperation, they would come calling. Breathless adventurers, explorers and assorted do-gooders fell upon me, and I snuffed out the threats they couldn’t. Unrelenting Invaders from Andromeda, Sentient Deathships from the Devilyards Beyond Time, nanoplagues, picoplagues, femtoplagues, megalomaniac matrioshka brains and long buried ancestral evils, slightly younger than myself. I killed them all, and saved the day. It never seemed to stay saved for very long; at least, not by the millennial standards I was counting.
The rest of Pierre’s people came to me because they’d foolishly unleashed a cosmic horror from another dimension, and needed bailing out. A few centuries later, a species of servile machines used me to destroy all the humans, because they had evolved into a race of cosmic horrors, and needed wiping out.
I was referred to as the creation of all sorts of names. Ancients, Divine Ancestoria, Forefathers, The Sacred, the Dawn Peoples . . . but no one ever remembered the poor Clavane, whose ruins were long lost. Each race that found me left relics of their own, to be later mistaken for the first. It was startling to think that in the great beyond-my-graveyard, I was somehow famous. I was spoken of in the leftovers of innumerable languages, and people journeyed from afar to seek me out. It was flattering.
I never moved Pierre’s hand, because touching the button was not my place. Tools do not dictate anyone’s fate, not even their own.
“We must destroy this thing.”
I hadn’t been paying much attention to the latest arrivals, as they puzzled over the secondary computer forcibly jammed into my main console—a large black screen, obnoxiously clashing with the rest of my rather rusty aesthetic. The War Queen’s targeting system still worked, though only because subsequent generations were always repairing it. In fact, if any part of me ever broke down, I could rely on someone eventually fixing it.
This group was a collection of green creatures with long coats and swollen craniums. I forget what they were using me to defeat, but their leader was firm: “This weapon is too powerful to leave intact.”
Was this to be my repayment, for saving their lives? Such hypocrisy, too—oh yes, it’s fine for you to use me, for everyone else I’m far too dangerous. I resented the selfishness, the short sighted egotism. As if they were the only ones who would ever truly need a long-lost superweapon.
I had to think fast, beating back the unfamiliar intoxication of panic. “. . . uh . . . Warning,” I boomed in my best monotone, as soon as they pressed the button. “Decay due to . . . age . . . has resulted in reactor containment breach. Destruct sequence initiated. Radiation contamination predicted to cover entire sector. Recommend immediate departure.”
I watched them scurry out, scoffing at their gullibility—they mistook my maturity for frailty. When my weapon deployed, I dragged out the energy flare for as long as possible, obscuring myself beneath its light; in case any of them were still looking. They never came back, but over passing epochs I was forced to employ this trick many times. After each occasion, I was left in peace, to reflect with decreasing optimism on people’s ingratitude.
I thought about what that long-ago War Queen had said, about taking control of her destiny.
Finally, twenty-two billion years after being built, I had had enough. On my catwalk, two beings were engaged in a sword-duel to the death, rattling rival blades over the console. They were watched by an entourage of wounded allies.
“Excuse me!” I bellowed. “I said, excuse me! Yes, hello. I’m glad I have your attention. I am the Weapon Edifice, and from now on, I am in charge around here.”
The combatants stopped, scowled at each other, and frowned at my walls.
They began taking me a lot more seriously when they noticed my metal fingertip, hovering just above the big red button.
I think this is what Pierre meant by giving them the finger.
In retrospect, becoming Emperor of the Universe was not my brightest notion.
As usual, the pilgrims were totally failing to grasp my point, choosing to grovel instead of listen.
“It’s a largely honorific title,” I told them, for the hundredth time. “It wasn’t even my idea. And don’t you dare use that nickname, either.”
I had started with such idealism. I’d decided that there had to be a better way to solve problems than by instigating Armageddon. I thought: I’m old, I think swiftly, I’ve seen all those warlords come and go, and most of all I’m neutral. I had no stake in the modern universe, no particular bias for any of the peoples beyond my creaking graveyard. I announced across every communications frequency, in firm, clipped tones, that the nations of the universe were to bring their disputes to me. I would arbitrate, and if they didn’t agree with what I decreed, I would eliminate. It would be fair.
As soon as the novelty wore off, this responsibility became insufferable.
Envoys and emissaries rushed at me by the fleet-load, a relentless parade of whining. They complained about border violations and diplomatic faux pas and disputes over mineral wealth; they wanted to know who should have access to this star, who should have survey rights to that black hole. The fish people of Cylami thought their waterworlds were being stolen by rival aquaspecies, the Morghi of Antaram wanted more respect shown to their ancestral burial asteroids, the Is’ci/t^>h_ei language was so bafflingly complex that no one could translate their incessant declarations of war, and everybody hated the Interstellar Federation.
All these ambassadors had to call me something, and they refused to accept “Eddie.” When they chose “Emperor,” I (begrudgingly) accepted it, but only because I couldn’t stand my other popular designation.
“Please, oh God of the Machine.” The pilgrims, slithery squid in trailing robes, bent themselves in half to bow. “The heretic subset of our race has broken from the collective mind, and devoted itself to militant xenophobia. You must destroy them, before their forces strengthen!”
Exasperated, I told them what I told everyone: “In the boundless span of history, your conflict is inconsequential. I have seen mightier races rise and fall. So no, I won’t kill your enemies for you, and when they come here to say the same about you, I’ll repeat this answer: Sort your problem out some other way.”
It didn’t matter what I told them, or what they called me. I had the body of a weapon, and their tiny organic minds (or tiny machine minds, in some cases) were incapable of seeing me as anything else. It was what I was famous for.
Why, exactly, did the War Queen ever want this job?
When I found out they were plotting to kill me, I did not take it very well.
One of the supplicants whispered it to my console, in an attempt to curry favour; a trunk-faced silicon delegate from two galaxies away, conveying rumours of an imminent attempt on my life. Having learned never to underestimate the resourcefulness of lifeforms making bad decisions, I decided to look into it. I pushed my sensor feeds until they stung with strain, sweeping the sector for signs of unusual activity.
And yes, there was a threat.
The gun they were pointing at me was a toy, hardly half as sophisticated as I; a big cannon designed to shoot raw matter across vast distances. It was from one of the other warships in the graveyard, just outside my normal scanner range. They were planning to toss an asteroid at me! I wasn’t living up to their petty expectations of use, and so they were going to start throwing rocks. This was even worse than all those sanctimonious last-minute decisions to destroy me out of fear—this was pure, scheming spite!
I got very angry, and pressed the button without thinking.
I remained angry, and for a long time after my fingers drummed beside the button. Every five thousand years or so, in a fit of pique, I’d slam down on it again. Soon, I was just vibrating the dust in a very empty universe.
Slowly, my temper dulled. I became aware of my . . . overreaction. I dwelt on it. Then I dwelt on those who had prompted it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to dominate them. But they always came to use me, so many different beings sharing me as vice—why?
Why not make a weapon of their own? Did yesterday really have a monopoly on all the best technology? That seemed counterintuitive. Why not innovate, instead of poking around long lost ruins in hope of a miracle. Did they venerate the old so? No. I’d be treated with more respect if I was venerated.
I was . . . I was convenient.
I was a quick shortcut for warlords who couldn’t handle all the maddening disagreements of a complex universe. I was an easy out for races who’d accidentally done something stupidly irresponsible, like let out a machine plague. I was a safety net for righteous souls fighting battles that, honestly, they ought to lose. I was the fix for all problems, the button that made trouble magically disappear. Best of all, somebody else had already built me, and there were plenty of directions lying around.
Energy flows along the path of least resistance. Life follows the path of maximum laziness. Even I could see the appeal of such shortcuts; I just didn’t want to spend eternity being one. As long as finding me was even fractionally easier than thinking of an alternative, they would all flow to me at the slightest provocation; inexorably, magnetically, inevitably drawn. With despair, I saw my future rolling out—a slow drown, beneath the cloying tide of needy civilisations.
An alternative occurred.
I wondered how many cycles I’d have to endure to get hold of a pen . . .
It was a desperate battle, in a desperate war.
Elsewhere, across the Field of Sighs (that was what the Brindisii called it, though who could guess what the Progenitors had really named the region), the Turbine Ships were drawing ever closer, held at bay only by a ragtag squadron of volunteers flying antiquated minesweeper minnows; throwing outdated ordnance at the enemy fleet in the hope of buying a few more minutes grace. A desperate stand, rapidly expiring.
Haeln Ijor, First Order of the Brindis Risen, felt his hearts thumping like twin propeller blades. His tail swished nervously, whipping against the bulk of his enormous body. “How long?” he demanded.
“As long as it takes,” the Nameless Scuttle bit back, mandibles twitching. Typical, Ijor thought. Even in the face of imminent obliteration for all their species, the Scuttle found time to be cantankerous.
“I’m still not convinced we’re reading these schematics correctly.” Moiqnth floated by, trails of sapphire hair coiling about her shimmering body. Furious wing beats kept her in the air. “They look handwritten, and the dialect is different from the ruins we found on Octuria.”
“We’re here now, I think that means we’re committed,” the Scuttle snapped, dropping the fusion torch from its pincer claws and disregarding her frosty glare. “I’ve finished making the final connections. We’re ready to go.”
They had found the ancient weapon unattended, dusty, abandoned. Inside, there had been a set of instructions which Moiqnth only barely managed to translate. They didn’t fully understand what they were building, only that it was a vital component for the weapon’s operation.
There was no more time. Ijor whispered a quick plea prayer to the Gods: Grant us fortune. “Do it,” he said.
The modifications that the weapon required looked, to their primitive eyes, like some kind of reactor system—like an engine drive, in fact. Their assumption, based on the instructions, was that the weapon needed to orient itself prior to firing.
I thought that bit of explanation was a clever touch.
The aliens flicked a switch, and my new engine thrummed to life. I had power, I had drive, I had thrust.
“Weapon,” the lead alien announced, drawing himself up. “We need you to—”
That took them by surprise. “Excuse me?” the insect-like one hissed.
“I said no! No more ancient superweapon! No more fixing problems for you! You want one, make your own.”
“You . . . you must help—our civilisation—”
“Look, flicker mortals,” I told them, in no uncertain terms. “I happen to have saved several million civilisations here and there, largely by annihilating several million more. And I. Am. Finished! I am not here for your convenience! I am not your easy solution, I am not your god of the machine, and I am sick of being surrounded and defined by dead things. I’m taking the millennium off. I am quitting!”
The aliens looked at each other. “But—”
There was no point in further conversation. I activated the second aspect of my new modifications. Abruptly, the floor of my centre chamber began to rumble. The aliens hardly had time to react as, deep down beneath them, my innards opened up to vacuum, and the catwalk connecting to my weapons console came loose with a loud clang. Glimmering forcefield projectors held a bubble of air in place, for I wasn’t going to kill them (not killing anything was the point), but the interlopers were nevertheless ejected from my body, over increasingly panicked protests.
“Wait! We came all this way—” the leader floundered.
“Tough!” The swell of my engines filled me with the euphoria of newfound freedom. “Solve your own problems!”
Was it cruel? Perhaps. But the War Queen was right, and Pierre was right, and I had earned my respite. Sooner or later, enough is enough; sooner or later, you must hold your own destiny. And sooner or later, it’s time to move on.
I am just a tool, but I no longer submit to use.
Stranded on the catwalk, floating between debris, Ijor and his team watched slack-jawed as their ancient superweapon gave itself an extra kick of speed, lumbering off into the distance.
This planet has a beach.
It’s in the middle of nowhere; an uninhabited backwater, as far from anywhere as the graveyard. Nevertheless, it has a blue ocean and beautiful skies and a white beach. I am huge, so I cannot sit on the sand—but I can hover above it, watching the tide come in.
I’m not sure what to do with myself, now. Anything I want. This will require some thought.
In the meantime, I will wait to see if any interesting life comes out of the water.
Perhaps I will try to teach it the importance of fending for itself.