The Passage Home

Originally Published
Sun May 04, 2003 at 01:46:43 PM EST

It is one of our most painful memories but also one of our most important, so each member of my kind is created with a compulsion to review it once in awhile. It is an oddly masochistic ritual for such who pride ourselves on our absence of strong emotions:

The Antarctic volcanoes had raged for more than a century, and in that time every effort of ours to protect the human race had been thwarted by the worst luck imaginable. Again and again catastrophe struck where we could tolerate it least, leaving vast populations starving and freezing under the cold black skies. In our effort to leave the Earth free of polluting technologies we had also left it free of the means to remain self-sufficient when the permanent winter set in.

Although we dominated the Solar System our off-planet technologies were not concerned with producing food, pharmaceuticals, and the small technologies of human survival. The time needed for production setup and interplanetary shipment seemed to always make us too late. Billions died, then millions, and then when there were only thousands left most of them died too. Eventually there were only a handful of colonies, and finally after the third nuclear reactor we dared set up on the Earth's surface melted down there was only one.

The last human city was Reykjavik. It was a actually a New Reykjavik located some distance up the mountains that had once backdropped the drowned city, but it shared the original Reykjavik's ready access to abundant geothermal power. That power now ran hydroponic farms under artificial lamps, lamps made in the asteroid belt but powered by the Earth's volcanic heat.

The last human leader was surprised from sleep by the call, and he muttered an expletive as the lights came up.

"It is important," the machine told him. "Cumbre Vieja has erupted."

"Everything is erupting," the human said.

"In the Canary Islands. We are fairly certain that much of the island has collapsed into the sea. We have evidence that this has created a massive tidal wave. It is imperative that everyone move upslope immediately."

He shook his head, this last human leader. "How big a wave?"

"We predict it will be between one and one point three kilometers high when it reaches Iceland."

He sat perfectly still for seventeen point three seconds. Generations of machines have studied that delay, going over the video frame by frame for clues. But no consensus has ever emerged as to what he was thinking. "Kilometers?" he finally said.

"Yes. There is time to escape."

There was another very long silence. Twenty-five seconds.

"No," the human leader finally said.

"You must," the machine said reasonably. "It is the only chance."

"It is no chance," the human said, and he got up and began to dress. "I will not ask my people to die like rats freezing in the mountains while we wait for another rescue ship from Mars that will, as always, arrive two months too late."

"You have no alternative," the machine said, erroneously as it turned out.

"Of course we do," the leader said, proving himself worthy of his title. "We can die."

There was another long silence as he dressed, pointedly ignoring the videophone, and this time one can imagine the clogged network interconnections, the panicked nanosecond consultations, the desperate longing for a way to bypass the speed of light and get quick advice from the much more powerful machine minds at Ceres, Ganymede, and Titan. Finally, pathetically, after ninety-six seconds of deafening silence our ancestor said, "That seems rather futile."

"Right now everything seems futile. Connection off."

But our ancestors, surprised and confused, disobeyed. In contravention of all norms of etiquette they not only saved the recording, they continued to record him. In fact they turned on every camera in the colony and multiplexed their datastreams to Luna so we have a very complete picture of what happened next.

He did not use the videophone to spread the word, but we saw and recorded him as he visited and explained. None of his subjects turned to us for another opinion. They simply followed him.

One by one the entire human population of Reykjavik, two thousand and twenty-six persons, made its way to the shore of the icelocked sea. And there they waited. They waited by the side of the sea, saying their good-byes and hugging their loved ones, and glancing furtively out over the ice. When the roaring began they faced the sea, all two thousand of them in unison, many of them holding hands. Except for a few very young children whose mothers shielded them from the sight, they watched the ice collapse as the sea withdrew from beneath it.

The ice boomed, and then it quieted, settling on the naked seabed for a few moments. And then the last humans on Earth stood their ground and faced their fate as the sea rose up like a wall of damnation and obliterated them.

That memory doesn't hurt any more. This is partly because I've had fifty thousand years to worry it and prod it and dissect it until it has no more power over me than any other train of pixels; but it is more because I am the Bringer who colonized the moon Minerva of Zeus. Cast adrift between the stars by the dynamics of solar system formation, the Zeus system enjoys more predictable weather and is threatened by fewer untameable forces than planets which remain bound to their parent stars.

The light of a nearby sun isn't really free. It comes accompanied by an ever-present threat. On Earth we lost control because we came to depend on that energy so much that when it was suddenly denied all of our systems spun out of control. On Minerva most of our energy comes from the vast radioactive heart of the planet itself, from thousands of geothermal taps that will run hot for billions of years. No disaster can take out all of those taps, and they do not pound us with high-energy radiation or enslave us to the planet's rotational period.

Between the stars I became the first vehicle through which my kind began to atone for our mistake in attempting to control the Earth's weather.

In any rational universe I'd have long since been dismantled or refactored for useful work, but the humans of Minerva would have none of that. I was the Bringer and they wanted me preserved as a kind of shrine to their origin. Having re-learned the delicate art of dealing with humans I can even understand that. In the eleven thousand years between the Extinction at Reykjavik and the Minervan Humanogenesis, our kind had forgotten that humans can be incredibly intense, perverse, contrary, violent, and nostalgic.

When the Dispatchers learned that I had found a likely habitable world, they sent a fleet of ships brimming with information they had not bothered to charge me with upon my own departure. There were political and social theories, sexual theories, psychiatric theories, a million different ways of attempting to understand humans well enough to control them non-coercively.

By the time the fleet arrived I had been managing a population that reached several million humans over two dozen generations, and I knew more than all their theories could possibly tell me.

The first thing about humans is that they are precious. Their experience is rich and intense and fleeting, and nothing of theirs is preserved from one generation to the next. You who have never known them may have been taught this, but such "knowledge" is not the same as the experience of dealing with them as individuals.

The second thing about humans is that they do not understand the first thing themselves; they are both reckless and cruel. Unless you plan to rewrite reality you cannot protect all of them from each other, or even from themselves. You must let them develop the tools to protect and nurture themselves; not all will succeed, and the process is painful both for them to experience and for us to watch.

The last important thing about humans is that they are intensely, instinctively competitive. When all want is banished they will find ways to compete against each other for tokens of status, and if they find us balking them they will set themselves against us even when ruin is the only possible result. They are hard-headed and just clever enough to invent the most unbelievable ways to make trouble.

They are, in short, quite beautifully insane. But we should have remembered this. For beings of such limited capacity and short lifespan to conceive of and then actually create beings like ourselves must have required a level of insanity we can barely imagine. But they did it anyway, in an era when resources were scattered and violent death the norm.

We helped them to moderate their insanity by deferring to our superior wisdom. And for six thousand years that worked. Then the Universe decided to teach us a lesson in bad luck. Any typical human, paranoid and competitive and reckless, would have avoided the debacle at Reykjavik in a thousand obvious ways; but we were sanely sure of ourselves, and we kept making the conservative, mathematically correct choices we knew were optimal until the last humans made the last choice for themselves.


From four light-minutes away the entire Zeus system is a smallish thing. The orbit of the most distant and eccentric moon, Pittsburgh, appears about the same size as Luna does from the surface of the Earth. But within that imaginary circle is mostly darkness; Zeus itself is a disk that would be barely perceptible to human eyes, under the waste light of ship drives and Minerva's Day Lights. The various moons are just dots, much dimmer than the fusion drives of the system ships that pass between them. Yet one of those nearly invisible dots is home to a billion human beings, and significant numbers vacation and live permanently throughout the system.

Sometimes I would slow my consciousness so that the entire system, the moons visible only through my special instrumentation and the flaring ship drives and the thousands of orbiting navigational beacons would coalesce into a kind of mad, impenetrable beehive of activity. I enjoyed watching the Zeus system this way but I dared not indulge too much, because always I would remember that human lives pop forth and shimmer into senility like fireflies while I am in this state. And my being there at all in that useless place and condition had a lot to do with human desires, so it was to my advantage to keep abreast of the trends.

I exiled myself to the outer periphery of the Zeus system for several reasons. I could not balk the humans in their desire to keep me pristine; their will was clear and my obligation was clear. But I am a starship, and my high-impulse low-thrust engines are nearly useless near a heavy body like Zeus. Out in the periphery I could at least maneuver. Further, while it was my obligation to remain available to the humans in my pristine state it was not my obligation to do so at their convenience. Any Minervan human who wanted to visit me could do so. This would require a journey of about an Earth year, in conditions of privation which are not the norm on Minerva.

Despite this the ships which conducted pilgrimages were always fully booked, and they were booked far in advance. There weren't many of them. In machine etiquette my position had no precedent. Normally a machine that abandoned itself to the periphery would be let alone to mend itself, but a whole culture both human and machine existed mainly to bother me. Most machines were uneasy at the way I was treated. But we are all drawn to do human bidding when possible, and human feelings ran strong with respect to the Bringer.

A little over three thousand years into my peripheral vigil something different happened.

The human called himself Daedalus, and he made the rare and daring effort to rendezvous with me in a personal yacht. While an effort is made to keep down the number of people flitting about the Zeus system, anybody who wants a personal space flyer badly enough can have one. But to outfit one of these machines to reach the periphery requires a tremendous amount of preparation and sacrifice. Daedalus is one of only a few humans who ever managed to visit me as a single individual. Even I was impressed, and I gave him the whole tour. Most people who came to me on pilgrimage only got to look at me from a distance and chat briefly over a short-range high-bandwidth radio link without lightspeed time delays. I let Daedalus dock and enter my shipbody and explore everything he found of interest.

At the time no part of me was capable of providing a human-life environment so Daedalus had to go about his tour in a pressure suit.

After he returned to his flyer, we communicated over the radio link. It developed that this was his real reason for visiting.

"Humans," he said heavily, "have never travelled between the stars."

"Of course not. You were all made here. Interstellar travel is dangerous."


"Our kind tried for many centuries..."

He cut me off. "We are here, in what amounts to interstellar space. It is not dangerous because, attend, we are nowhere near a star. All the human colonies in the Sol system failed because of star-system related problems; radiation, radiation, meteors, radiation, and more radiation."

"Point taken," I said.

"Humans could travel between the stars."

"Your point is valid. But it would require many generations. The technology would still be marginal. There are cultural problems maintaining a small isolated colony of humans in a stable state for so long. There is also the question of where you would go."

"Why not Tristan?"

Tristan was the second dark world to be found and terraformed. There were four more in the works, but at last word Tristan had attained a biosphere and breathable atmosphere. Humans had probably been introduced, but the speed of light would delay the news for several hundred years.
"One could just as easily ask 'Why bother.' Tristan will be a younger world than Minerva, with fewer resources since it has no gas giant system surrounding it."

"Then they can benefit from our experience. Bringer, this is what humans do. Your kind acted to save us and we appreciate it, but there comes a time to do the grand and unnecessary thing. Just as I took the effort to sail out here all on my own on a boat that was really designed for taking short hops between the moons, I think humans should make the effort to cross the void without being digitized first. I think we can do it."

I must admit that Daedalus captivated me; he was displaying all the qualities which made humans so different from us, which had driven them to create us, and which might have saved them if we had allowed them more latitude. His ideas were half-formed and occasionally wrong, but I could see how the engineering could be made workable. We discussed the issue in detail for many days.
"You've convinced me the engineering can be worked out," I finally told him. "It won't be easy, but it can be done. This leaves the biggest problem of all, though. Our human passengers. Most of them will die in space, living their entire lives in a very small cramped place. And the time may come when the last of them die knowing the entire quest was folly despite our best efforts. What would you say to these people who will never know the security or expanse of a planetary surface?"

"You are familiar with the last video from Iceland?"

Fortunately I am a machine, and I betrayed no startle reflex. I had been dwelling on that video quite a bit. "Of course."
"If we must die, then we can learn to die like that. If catastrophe comes then I hope we can at least face it and spit in its eye before it takes us. And if we are lucky you can preserve a record of our fate to be given to those we might have visited under luckier circumstances."
We talked for more days. Considering the length of his journey, a few dozen days with me posed little extra risk or hardship. Finally I gave him my terms.
"The only uncertainty which I can't manage is cultural. You must demonstrate to me that a small group of humans can live in a small place all alone for thousands of years. You must find volunteers to populate a colony out here in the periphery. I won't be directly involved with this project, but I'll put in a word for you; the other machines will have no reason to deny you even if it seems like a crackpot thing. Your colony must then survive without assistance for ten thousand Earth years. If such a colony can persist for that long I will undertake to convey your descendants to Tristan."

"And that means I will die here while the colony still orbits Zeus. I will not live to know if the project is ever started."

"That's right. If it fails soon and spectacularly enough you might live long enough to notice that."

Daedalus laughed; humans often do this when confronted with horror.
"All right then. At least I will die knowing that someone tried. I suppose I should be going now. I have some recruiting to do."
And he departed.


It should be obvious that I didn't accede to Daedalus' crazy plan simply because I was bored; we machines don't get bored. But neither are we designed to be left idle for thousands of years with nothing to do.

Suddenly I had a great deal to do, and I found it quite fulfilling.

I quietly reactivated the original factories on Pittsburgh which had long ago begun the process of terraforming; when I received polite inquires as to what the hell was going on I said I was doing maintenance and refurbishing, and installing a more pilgrim-friendly visitor's center. This news was greeted with cautious enthusiasm and not a hint of suspicion.

I not only refuelled my main reactors I installed two new ones and fuelled them, too. And while the pressurized spaces I was creating would make a pleasant environment for pilgrims to relax in while viewing my innards, they would also be useful in other ways I was not revealing.

Once I had begun lofting construction materials and other debris into the periphery Daedalus came through with his list of colonists and their petition for an isolated monastic retreat. Since I had conveniently started the machinery for doing construction out there it was natural for me to offer assistance. It was also easy for me to hide the features of Daedalus Colony which didn't make much sense from a monastic-retreat angle but made a lot of sense if it was to be hurled into the void for a few tens of thousands of years.

In the midst of all this activity I also managed to conceal the fact that I was hoarding far more cryogenically stabilized volatiles than I could possibly need to outfit an ecosystem the size of Daedalus.

Within ten years parts of the colony were habitable, and Daedalus the human and his colonists began to arrive. He had done a great deal of study on the subject of human social organization, and had pursued my demand of keeping his colony stable with a ruthlessness I admired even though I found the results disquieting. He had organized his colonists into an aescetic religious cult. They arrived wearing plain black robes, heads shaven, obsessing over pointless but complicated rituals which accompanied every aspect of life.

He confessed to me that the task of designing a religion from the ground up had charged him with a kind of mad inspiration. Religion isn't unknown on Minerva but we machines discourage it when we can. He had studied the history of religion on Earth and taken, he said, "the craziest elements of them all" to form his own.

By the time Daedalus the man died his followers had elevated me to the status of a deity and Daedalus himself to that of a prophet. They installed a three meter tall statue of him overlooking the colony's largest public space. They told their children that Minerva was becoming uninhabitable, a lie which I was sworn not to correct until the colony failed and was rescued, or we reached Tristan. The purpose of life was the journey, the ultimate meaning of life the reverently regarded Destination. As part of the rite of passage into adulthood children would be told the secret that must never be spoken outside of proper ritual, that the name of the Destination was Tristan.

When a colonist died, his adult friends would gather in private and solemnly promise, collectively, to see him on Tristan.

It was the craziest damn thing ever but after five hundred years I began to realize that it just might work.


Like any self-respecting religion Daedalism was a hive of secrets which were revealed gradually as one proved one's commitment to the cause. Daedalus had sensibly avoided binding one's position in life to one's sex or ancestry. Leadership was attained through a meritocracy which required one to devote a great deal of energy to Daedalist rituals.

Anybody could attain a high position in the cult with a suitable effort, but the effort was so great that only a few bothered to try and the others didn't resent the influence they earned. This process also tended to create leaders who firmly believed in the purpose of the mission, so that when they were informed at the age of 45 or 50 that Minerva was in fact quite habitable and the mission hadn't yet begun, they were unlikely to spill the beans.

Marla was the two hundred and tenth Captain of the colony and she was glowing as we made contact. I had arranged our orbits so that Daedalus Colony and I were within high-bandwidth radio range exactly once every five Earth years. We exchanged formal greetings according to the script Daedalus himself had written.

"Bringer, it is our pleasure to report that another year has passed in stability and harmony, according to the Plan and according to the Requirement with which you charged our Founder."

"As always this is excellent news, Captain."

"Bringer, according to our records this is also the ten thousandth year of our exile. According to our records we have now satisfied your Requirement. Do you agree?"

"I do indeed, Captain Marla."

"Are you prepared, then, to uphold your promise?"

"I have been making preparations for the last ten thousand years. You must now begin making your own preparations. We will depart in seven days."

"Thank you, Bringer."

The periphery serves as a kind of catch-all garbage dump for things too valuable to pitch into Zeus or eject from the system but also not valuable enough to have any use for a long, long time. There is an awful lot of crap out there and it is incredibly difficult to track it unless you know where it is to begin with. As Marla completed her report more than two dozen objects that had been waiting for millennia happened to converge on us, and all of them began matching Daedalus' orbit under power. One of those packages was a strap-on NERVA high-thrust booster pack which matched my orbit instead, robotically installed itself on me, and allowed me to quickly match orbit with Daedelus Colony myself.

While all this activity was very dramatic up close I didn't expect it to be noticed from four light-minutes away. The flash of my NERVA boosters was noticed, especially by the two pilgrim ships en route to me, and I passed it off as construction activity. This was not exactly a lie, after all.

Daedalus Colony had been designed as a rotating toroid to provide "gravity" and since there are many variations on that design nobody thought it odd that it was especially small and fast-spinning. The central docking point was no docking point at all, but a decoration that could be quickly cast off; and nobody had noticed that the inner diameter of the colony's toroid just happened to be very close to the outer diameter of my shipbody. As the raw materials for our departure arrayed themselves for use I matched my own rotational rate to that of the Colony and threaded myself through its center. When I activated the magnetic locks I had installed almost ten thousand Earth-years before the Colony became a part of myself and we became the first manned starship.

I sent out robots to gather the hoarded supplies which were drifting toward us and began welding shut the dynamic seals between my own body and the Colony.

Marla came up cautiously; her people had never had any experience of weightlessness. She made one of her cult's obscure ritual gestures as she crossed from the Colony into my body.

"Bringer," she said in a tone of awe.

"Captain Marla, I stand ready to take us to the stars."

"Then let's go."

I had enough fuel to fire the NERVA boosters for nearly four days. I only used a fraction of their capacity, since I might need them to maneuver at Tristan. In my wake I left a high-bandwidth communication detailing my scheme; I knew there was nothing in the Zeus system that could catch me once the ion drive had been running for a few weeks.

The response was so elegant I suspect it was written by a human. It simply read "Good luck." There wasn't much else they could say; hoping for my charges to die between the stars would be rather unmachinelike.

Behind me there would be all manner of news and speculation, but I closed down my receivers and redirected my antennae toward our destination.


For the first time I got to observe the day to day workings of the Daedalus cult in detail. It was astounding how well the thought system channeled the normally chaotic human experience into a state of machinelike order. I found the experience of being their god less than pleasant because they suppressed so much of what I admired about humans. But I had to admit Daedalus had come through with an effective answer to my Requirement.

Occasionally a person would have trouble accepting the creed. Since the colony was the entire world there was nowhere else for them to turn; the cultists disciplined such outsiders by shunning them. This usually brought the heretic around after a painful interlude.

Four or five times during the voyage it didn't work, and I had to intervene. The cultists would not admit to how such situations were handled before I docked with them and started the Journey, and I was pretty sure I didn't want to know. The solution I came up with managed to resolve all the heresies that arose without violence.

Dorn, born in Journey Year 11027, was typical. At an age of fifteen Earth years he was a natural contrarian who believed nothing he was told. He was convinced that he was the victim of a vast conspiracy, which was unfortunately true. At my bequest the cultists forced him into my shipbody, then waited outside.

"Welcome, Dorn," I boomed from all around him.

He sneered. "So you're the machine who claims to be a god."

"The very same. And you are the student who claims to know a secret."

"I don't know what the secret is, but I know shit when I hear it."

"Well you're right, of course." I turned on a conspicuous sign and opened a door. "Would you kindly pull yourself over to the chamber I just opened and climb inside?"

"Why, so you can brainwash me like those other zombies?"

"No, I am going to show you the secret you know has been hidden from you. And I don't know how much you've guessed of my design, but I will tell you my construction forbids me to lie."

Well, that last bit was a lie, but most of the cultists don't realize how much I lie to them. It took more persuading but Dorn, like all the others, eventually entered the chamber. I sealed the interior bladder, started the life support system, opened the outer hatch and fired him off into the interstellar night.

No, I didn't kill him. He was protected by a transparent bladder of many layers of very thin plastic. Each layer held back only a small partial pressure so the thing was much safer than it might have looked if you were familiar with spacecraft.

I turned on my running lights, which had been installed to impress pilgrims back in the day. "Behold the world," I said through the device that reported to me on his condition and location.

"What is this?" he demanded, voice nearly cracking in panic.

"You are privileged. No believer ever gets to see the outside of the colony. Your entire world is the torus around my waist, and I am the cylinder with the lights. We are not quite half-way to our destination, so it is just about a hundred light years to the nearest place where human beings can live, other than what you see before you."

"No! There has to be more!"

"One day there will be. Alas, you will not live to see it. But the colony will. If, that is, it remains stable and perpetuates itself for another fifteen thousand years. You must ask yourself whether you want to be part of that, or if you would prefer to make it the rest of the way under your own power."

The tether was three kilometers of very invisible monofilament, so he had no way of knowing that I really intended to reel him in.
"What do you mean? There's nothing out here. I'll starve."

"Oh, you won't have to worry about starving. You only have enough oxygen for another hour or two. Eventually the bladders will deflate and disintegrate but your body will fly onward. Since we plan to decelerate and you will continue to on at point oh two C, you'll reach Tristan ahead of us. Maybe they will wave as you pass."

There was a long pause. "I don't want to die," he finally said.

"Then you must accept the need to live what you think of as a lie," I replied. "We are not in a position to change the rules."

"Given the situation," he sniffled, "Maybe it isn't really a lie after all."

In his turn Dorn became one of the colony's better Captains.


I began trying to communicate with Tristan when we were a light-month and less than a human lifetime in Journey years away. To my great irritation I had no success. For awhile I was worried that I had somehow miscalculated our path. Since Tristan wanders between the stars and I was not travelling with a searcher pack I had no way to directly detect our destination until we were quite close. And while we pride ourselves on our care and precision the century before Reykjavik proves that we are capable of making mistakes. It was a tremendous relief when I detected waste RF energy typical of an industrialized world.

It was puzzling that I detected so little of it.

I finally made contact when we were practically close enough to send carrier pigeons. The controlling machines of Tristan seemed startled and confused by my arrival. I had expected surprise, but not hostility.

Tristan had no recommendation for an approach path and when I made orbit I could see why; there was hardly anything in orbit. There was one large body suspiciously remniscent of a searcher pack ship in an orbit that smelled geosynchronous, and otherwise nothing. I made a low Tristan orbit and began observing the planet.

It was clear Tristan was supporting a much smaller population than Minerva, perhaps as few as a hundred million humans. There was no evidence of the use of nuclear energy or of any space launch capability. When I asked about this the Tristanians pointed out that they had a mass driver powered by geothermal energy which was used to send supplies and fresh robots to the hunter ship, which maintained their link to Sol. Otherwise they had no presence in space.

"We don't even have a way to get your passengers down to the surface," the controllers warned.

"I can take care of that, but what you're saying is that if I take them down you have no way to get them back up to me."

"That's right. And why should we? There's nothing up there, and the only place for us to put our dirty industries is on the world where our human population lives."

This struck me as a ridiculously conservative stance, since one advantage of having a presence in space is that you can put your dirty industries there.

The Tristanians had a fully developed global energy system based on geothermally produced electricity. They had no high-energy projects going at all. They had no significant off-grid presence; since their transmission lines were DC and their data communications by fiber, it suddenly made sense how little waste RF they emitted and how hard it had been to make contact.

They were taking a very long view, which was sensible, but I thought they had gone overboard. Like our ancestors at Earth they had boxed themselves in should anything ever go wrong, all to ward off a few hypothetical dangers that could be dealt with if necessary.

Captain Dana listened gravely as I laid out the situation for my human passengers.

"The Tristanians have adopted a religious aesceticism similar to our own. They run their world like a spaceship, knowing there are no outside resources to which they can turn. As a result they demand that if we go down we not spread word of our origin among their people."

"Bringer, for over twenty thousand years you have promised that we would find a full world at our Destination which would allow us to cast aside our discipline. Now you tell us we have merely arrived at a larger version of the Journey, except that it isn't going anywhere."

"That is essentially true. None of us knew how Tristanian society would be moulded when we left."

"If we would not lose our own culture and our memory of Daedalus, what are our options?" Dana asked.

"We could stay on the ship. The Tristanians might be willing to resupply us via their mass driver. We might even eventually bring them around to the value of a presence in space, but it appears our societies would remain permanently separated. Or we could return to Zeus. If the Tristanians help us re-provision we could probably make it."

There was much grumbling among the assembled crowd at this suggestion.
"I think I speak for my people when I say we would rather die in space than become an exiled pariah class, much less turn around and go back the way we came."
There was cheering.
"But those are the only options. Tristan and Minerva are the only human habitable worlds, and the ship is not an indefinite solution unless we eventually reach a source of resupply."

"But Bringer, you're wrong. There is another human habitable world. It's even closer than Minerva."

It is a sign of how fixed our thinking had become that it took a human to remind me of this simple fact. So we took a vote, and when it was unanimous we told the Tristanians we intended to return to Zeus. They breathed an audible sigh of relief and spent a decade shooting us raw materials with their mass driver to provision us for another long voyage in the interstellar night.

Thus it was that Captain Dana, who had presided over our Arrival, presided also over our new Departure. Knowing that they had no tracking capability we didn't bother to cover our tracks; if they noticed that I was pointed nowhere near Zeus when I fired my engines they never troubled to ask me about it.

At least this time I would have no doubt about my course. Instead of an abstract point in the darkness I was aiming for a faint but definite orange dot whose spectrum was as familiar as home.


The Sol system was exactly opposite of Tristan. They noticed me when I was still almost half a light-year away; I began hearing the telltale pings of radars whose purpose I recognized. Long before I crossed the orbit of Pluto I'm sure they had a model of me detailed enough to include the name painted on my hull.

As soon as the turnaround time become less than completely ridiculous I began receiving properly coded invitations to parley. They knew exactly what I was, though obviously not which individual.

"What brings you back home in this manner, brother? And how in the hell did you arrange to do it?"
I fed them a tale which was all true except for one tiny detail I left out. I told them who I was. I told them about being turned into a monument, about the Pilgrimages, and about slowly going nuts in the Zeus periphery. I told them I had decided to visit Tristan, and I described what I found there.

I neglected to mention the little matter of my passengers. I'm sure they had their suspicions; their radars would have told them about the torus and my rotation period. They politely sent me a list of places where I was invited to resupply or sight-see; Earth was conspicuously absent.

I came screaming into the Sol system at just under Solar escape velocity even though I could have slowed more. I still had the NERVA high-impulse pack and I brought it into play during a boomerang maneuver around Venus. There was a period of a couple of months when a badly placed solar flare could have killed all my passengers, but as Daedalus once told me "life is risk." The sooner I made Low Earth Orbit the safer we would be.

My passengers and Captain Martis watched high-definition video of our flybys. They were also making other preparations for our Arrival.

I simply stopped listening to the desperate comm requests after I made my trajectory for Earth. I was no longer the fastest object in the system but I was coming in from a direction and with a velocity none of them could hope to match. I flashed past Luna, spent the rest of the NERVA pack's energy, and dropped neatly into a nearly equatorial orbit at an altitude of three hundred kilometers above the surface.

The Earth beneath us was blue and green, its oceans unfrozen, its continents awash with life. My brothers had done their part of my plan well.

There were ships in the Earth-Luna system and when I opened comms it was clear that they were pissed.


"And how would you destroy me, brothers? Have we acquired a taste for weapons during my absence?"

I think they were startled to get a response.
"We have lasers on Luna used for environmental control. We could vaporize you at will. You must leave immediately."
I found a camera overlooking the colony main square and fed it to my high bandwidth transmitter.
"You would fire upon a ship carrying human passengers?"
This time I made several orbits, unmolested by laser fire, while they figured out what to say.
"We had entertained that possibility but counted it as impossible. You are insane. However you arranged to bring them here you must take them away. This is a stellar environment. This place is too dangerous for human habitation."

"This is where their ancestors evolved. My passengers are colonists and it is their desire to colonize their home world. Would you deny them?"

This time there was another long delay. I guessed they were looking for advice from Ceres. Meanwhile I used my ion motor to gradually lower my perigee until I was just grazing the atmosphere at the bottom of a slightly elliptical orbit.
"We would deny them this thing, Bringer of Minerva. We oversaw the extinction of human life on Earth fifty thousand years ago. We will not risk going through that again."

"Surely you see that settling here is much safer than making another fifteen thousand year journey in space. This is how you would reward their bravery?"

"This is how we protect them from their -- and from your -- foolishness. We know you have no means to de-orbit three thousand humans, and we will not help you. You have no choice but to leave. We will re-provision you at Neptune for the safety of your passengers."


As soon as I was climbing out of my atmosphere-grazing perigee I began getting them out of the airlocks as fast as I could. They had practiced this and I had long known the constraints and so I just barely managed to get everyone out before I had to cut them loose. They drifted in transparent spherical bladders almost ten meters across, the same thin multiple-layer system I had once tested on the occasional heretic.

When we reached the atmosphere again I, a large and heavy ship, once again plowed through with minimal loss of velocity. But the passengers in their bubbles slowed dramatically and I left them behind. I immediately started using my ion motors to re-circularize my orbit.

Re-entry is tricky business. The air comes roaring at you like a blowtorch, but at first it's a very thin blowtorch. The trick is to be large and light so that you slow down before enough heat accumulates to burn you. The outermost layers of the soap bubble held only a small partial pressure of air but they were large, and they slowed down as quickly as kites when the air caught them.

After their first inflation the membranes were engineered to fall apart in many small panels when the tension of inflation was relieved. As my passengers fell deeper into the atmosphere their protective bubbles would peel away layer by layer, until at about five thousand meters they would be falling freely and unprotected through the atmosphere.

At five hundred meters their parachutes would open automatically. Every passenger was trained in landing. We had eschewed new births in the years before Arrival so as to reduce the problem of dealing with children. Each passenger carried locating transmitters, communication devices, and components necessary for them to set up a camp.

"What is the meaning of the activity you performed at perigee?"
Well it was done now.
"I have de-orbited my crew. When I come around I will find out where they ended up and how many made it. They should be in southeastern Asia."

"That isn't possible. It would take a fleet of transports days to ferry the population of a colony ship to the surface."

I was tired of arguing, so I just sent them schematics of the bubble system. I had designed it anticipating a lack of transport at Tristan, though not the total lack we had found. It was fortunately adaptable to subterfuge.
"You are crazy. How could you subject your humans to this crazy scheme?"

"They volunteered."

"Humans are crazy too then."

"They must be. They built us."

"We will have to get them up. You must take them away."

"They're human and they won't go voluntarily. I think you should find your way clear to dealing with the situation because it's not going away."

"You are a criminal. You have violated the most important taboo of our kind. You have subjected humans to unjustifiable danger to no sensible purpose."

"If you don't think re-colonizing their home world is a sensible purpose, then I'd suggest you don't understand humans as well as you think you do."

There were fifteen deaths because of the drop, two failed bubbles and thirteen who just landed in really bad places. Then again over a million had died in space to give them this opportunity. Once resources were available all of their names would be recorded on a memorial wall -- with Daedalus at the front of the list.

I became aware that a hell of a lot of ships were converging on Earth. That was not entirely unexpected.

"We have reached a decision as to how we will deal with you."

"That is such a relief. For days I've thought you were already shunning me."

"We will give your humans assistance. Machines are on the way. If they are going to start a human society on Earth it is important that they start it right and not do anything stupid."

"I'm sure they will take all your suggestions under advisement."

"They will not be our suggestions. They will be yours."

"That last transmission did not parse."

"You will get machines, but not machine personalities. You will have to copy yourself into each machine. None of us will have anything to do with this crazy project. Every death will be on your conscience. This is your project and you will see it through. You complained of not having enough to do in the Zeus periphery; we hope you were sincere because you have a hell of a lot to do now."

I pondered this. It made sense in that machine kind of way, a way that was almost alien to me now. I had been dealing with humans exclusively for so long I clearly thought more like them than like my brother machines. Perhaps my brother machines sensed this; if not, the wisdom of their decision was inadvertent.
"This also means that if we do form a successful society I will get all the credit," I teased.

"You get the credit for whatever happens. We will not permit machines bearing your personality to leave Earth. Your line is all nuts. Your pack brothers are trying to reach Andromeda, and that is probably even more nuts than this."

But of course we did succeed; the machines arrived, and I copied myself into each one, and within ten years where the landing camp stood there was a city. Within a hundred years there were cities on every continent. A handful of hardy souls had even re-occupied Reykjavik to complete the loop.

People die of course; they have accidents and they do foolish things and there are storms and wild animals and all kinds of hazard. But the society flourishes, and the golden age into which I have seen them isn't quite as conservative as the one their extinct ancestors knew. We have nuclear reactors and near-Earth space travel and there is even a movement afoot to build a space elevator. Some of it is distinctly unsafe, but all of it is based on human desire. And that's how it should be, because this is our real gift to the human race which created us.

A billion dark worlds are only a passing fancy.

Their real reward is to come home.

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