Originally Published in Red Planet Magazine - Winter 2020 Issue 12/21/2020
The Savior slid over pinpricks of light, passing silently through the impossibly deep darkness.
She was the last of her kind, the only hope of a dying planet.
This ship was gargantuan: cities upon cities, people and families, growing and moving and living and dying across time and space as it approached its destination.
Their mission was clear in the beginning: an incredibly detailed and efficient book seven hundred and seventy-seven pages long called The Manual taught the people how to keep the ship running. But more than that--it told them how to keep each other alive, rules for living with one another, instructions for how to land The Savior and establish a colony on a new planet, laws and advice on how to run the new settlement.
The Savior kept them fed; it kept them clothed; it kept the atmosphere clean and the lights on throughout its corridors and wide-open terrarium parks alike. It automatically monitored the moisture levels of plants and the movements and reproduction patterns of the animals within these parks and relayed the information to the ship’s inhabitants. The ship knew all that was happening within itself as well as all that was happening outside with its advanced sensors: steering a careful path clear of meteors, comets, and space-debris to keep its people alive. No one alive now on the ship understood how such a mighty vessel could have been built, but whoever built it knew exactly what it would take to sustain human life in space over a great amount of time.
What the builders may not have known was exactly how the interminable journey would affect the passengers. It would take a multitude of centuries to arrive on the new world; generations upon generations, and over time the original copies of The Manual were mostly destroyed, corrupted, or incomplete.
Early on in the voyage several great men tried to restore and rewrite The Manual through pieces of digital files, wrinkled and torn old pages, the words of old-timers who had committed to memory or written down passages themselves long ago.
Gradually aspects of the ship had been misunderstood or forgotten, while others previously unknown had made themselves clear. To ever hope to understand The Savior, in all of its mystery and magnanimity, was certainly a lost cause. That did not stop the people from trying, though.
Divisions had sprung up in the great and mighty spaceship that sustained their lives. Some sectors of the ship believed pilgrimages to see the ancient pages of the original Manual that had been frozen and preserved behind glass was the answer. When they could not see the pages--they sent prayers towards that portion of the ship.
Others had not ever read The Manual for themselves--they accepted that the ship would always care for them, and listened to people who called themselves “Captains” explain The Manual to them from their own perspective. This was a strange title considering the ship drove itself; still, people respected their words as if these men were actually piloting the ship that allowed them to live within it, and treated them with reverence beyond that of average men.
Others still only read other’s translations, summaries of, and guidebooks to The Manual. One in particular written by a man with the surname of Force, called “Force’s Codex,” was lifted up above the others. For these people, the original sections of The Manual and other’s translations they pushed aside--The Codex’s interpretations and elucidations were lauded as the only true view.
Some doubted The Manual’s authenticity at all--how could any men, at any time, have ever known how a ship of this level of empyrean power had been created and launched? It was surely only a way to control the people aboard The Savior. The ship had simply always been, they thought. To worship a ship or a book was folly: it was simply a force of nature, the same as the space that passed around them. It was all they knew of life- and they would not allow a simple book to control their lives.
Within these divisions even more segmentations began to spring up: Although your sector of the ship may send prayers to the remaining physical pages of The Manual; perhaps you sent them at a different time of day or sang a different invocation. Although your sector may have many Captains; they were all constantly competing for as many of The Savior’s denizens as they could convince to come and listen to their interpretation of The Manual. Although your sector may subscribe to the teachings of Force’s Codex; perhaps you believed that his advice applied to this page of The Manual, but not that page. Maybe your sector anarchically chose not to heed any of the advice of any version of The Manual at all! Whichever sector you were raised in and whatever your beliefs, all parts of the ship had one thing in common. The Savior kept them fed and clothed, the atmosphere clean, and the lights on.
Finally--the day had come. The mighty impulse engines that had not been heard for centuries fired to life--slowing the enormous craft. The Manual foretold that there would be touchdown one day: that they would have to settle a new world--a world outside of The Savior. Each sector prepared as best they could, each according to what they viewed as sacred.
The indomitable ship began to shudder--“Atmospheric Entry Initiated” was the glimmering coruscation upon the holographic automatic announcement banners that ran down each and every passageway. The history books showed these communication banners controlled by The Savior hadn’t flashed any system-wide announcements since “Impulse Engine Shutdown” nearly four hundred years ago.
Eons of spacetravel had taken its toll on the ship: The Savior’s citizens neglected to provide manual upkeep on several essential systems as The Manual had been lost and changed. The people had either ignored or misinterpreted many of the key ideas over the years. As the white-hot friction of re-entry burned across the nose of this vessel the size of a small continent--panels began to tear off and vanish into flaming ash. Key system controls beneath the hull heated up to critical levels. Cracks began to appear in the outer alloys and insulation panels as it descended through grey clouds and emerged over a bleak, austere landscape. A finger of rock stabbed up from one of the mountain peaks the ship streaked over--the overheated Thruster Compensation Unit couldn’t make a reading in time for correction, and the jagged spire punctured a large hole in The Savior’s midsection.
Although The Savior was battered--it trailed leaking coolant and vital components across the alien landscape--it kept functioning as was preprogrammed in its system’s endless code: at a certain altitude, it detached an enormous cube section of the ship the size of a city. It slid away from the body of the bleeding vessel and landed by design in the center of an open plain on the barren world.
The Savior could read the descent was happening too quickly for its precious cargo--it automatically diverted all energy to forward thrusters. It opened all flaps and nonessential storage bays to try and brace the fall for the humans who lived inside its enormous and mighty walls. It jettisoned nonessential circuit boards and pumped the lowest levels of its hull with gasses and foams to try to temper its landing for the citizens. It would still be a harrowing, terrible arrival--but the people and their families would survive.
With an ungodly smash The Savior walloped and furrowed into the ground, plowing a long, deep impact valley behind it as it slowed to a stop. The people, their symbols, their books, their necklaces, their statues, their prayer sheets; all were tossed roughly and unceremoniously forward against the nearest wall.
Finally, The Savior stopped moving: its hull plates creaking and hissing from decompression and cooling.
“Interim. Transfer. In. System. Finished.” flashed in a gentle blue across the holographic automatic announcement banners, and then they flickered off for the last time.
Next, all of the lighting in the ship failed simultaneously. The cities on each floor of the ship were plunged into complete darkness for a few terrifying minutes. Then there was a deafening whirring: large portions of the side of the ship, thousands of feet long, opened up to become gargantuan ramps that led into blinding sunlight and down onto the hard, brown dirt. The people raised their hands to the foreign star’s light, blinking and looking around at the horizon: flat except for a lone mountain range far behind them.
Miles away at the end of the long furrow the ship left on the planet’s surface, the enormous cube lay: the final offering The Savior held for her people. Each and every sector of people began walking towards it and gathered into a long column. A tremendous mass of people, all dressed differently, of all different creeds and beliefs trekked onwards. The exodus slowly flowed like a liquid towards the cube.
They reached the cube. Each side was a mile long- it stood a mile high. They stood a distance from it for a time. They walked in circles around it. They inspected it. Eventually, they found a small screen with the chipped and faded letters “H.J.” painted above it, and a keyboard in the wall next to it. They all knew what happened next. It was on the last page of The Manual--the only portion not taken away or changed over the years; the version didn’t make a difference. A man walked to the screen. All were still.
He typed a word onto the screen. The word was “WATER”.
Hundreds of thousands of ropes descended from the top of the cube--as numerous as hairs on a head. The man that had typed in the word picked one up. He began to walk away from the cube.
All the people near him grabbed a different cable and began to walk. Word spread around the cube--regardless of living-sector, or beliefs, or height, or dress, or ancestry: the people grabbed a rope and began to walk. Some people at first refused to carry one of the cables--but instinctually, it became clear the object would not move (or do whatever it was it was supposed to do) unless everyone was helping. Eventually, curiosity or guilt getting the better of them, they decided to see what The Savior’s final gift was.
Soon enough all the ropes were taught. They began to pull against the monolith. Slowly--slowly--each side of the immense cube began to move towards the ground. They pulled for hours, straining against the weight of the enormous metal walls. As the towering panels began to move downwards they revealed intricate machinery and computer banks--confusing masses of silicon inside of silicon, wheels inside of wheels. They toiled together, sweating under the looming structure until each of the four sides were level with the ground. The people, now a mile of rope away from their side of the cube, and another mile away from its center--shielded their eyes.
There was a blinding flash of pure white light. A pillar of energy rose into the sky. The moment it touched the outer atmosphere, pearly white clouds began to form. They roiled outwards from the shining beam as if in fast motion to cover the sky. Webs of lightning crackled above, and rain began to blow and smatter every direction. The wheels inside of wheels began to spin--faster and faster. A pulsing sphere of shimmering energy, moving like waves and currents in the ocean, flowed out from the device. Where this wall of ethereal force touched the land--plants sprang up. Where it touched the rocks, moss grew. The ground shook. Water began bubbling up through newly formed cracks from deep within the planet--creating winding streams that began to fill the long trench behind the metal husk of The Savior.
After a time, wonderful and awe-inspiring, the machine powered down and whirred to a stop. It lay still, dark, dormant. There was a great silence, broken only by the slight rustling of newly formed grass. The stored energy was used up; the planet had been terraformed.
The people lifted their heads to the sky; then all linked their hands together. They bowed towards the crumpled, broken shape of The Savior on the horizon. Finally--simultaneously--everyone saw and understood the true meaning of it all. They sang songs praising the mysterious ship and thanked her for her final gift. The ship had not just been a survival machine, it was not simply a set of walls between them and the endless void, nor simply a set of rules and descriptions from an old book. The spaceship had been their caretaker, their parent, their sibling, their friend. All this and more: it had been their Savior.
Around the dead and silent vessel they began to build a city, and the city’s name was Grace.
In a dark maintenance room on the top of the abandoned ship that hadn’t been accessed in millennia--a dusty terminal lit up dimly. Simple green words flickered across the screen inside The Savior.
“RUN: PROGRAM ΑΩ. AUTO-REPAIR SEQUENCE, INITIATED”