Skies Filled with Hammers

Johnny Libenzon
14 min readJul 3, 2021
Out here, every trajectory ends with a tragedy. (‘Discovery’ by Linnea Fare)

SYSTEM MAINTENANCE COMPLETE: All components are up to date with no discrepancies found | Time elapsed: twenty-three hours, thirteen minutes, eleven seconds | Next maintenance will occur in: Four years, three months, five days, twenty three hours, forty-six minutes, forty-nine seconds.

I hate the words I’m using to describe my own body… well, ‘body’ only to those with a loose definition of the term. This hunk of metal is not a natural formation. Evolution did not cultivate the way my ligaments form into one another, sheets of black steel folding in to create turrets, and docking bays, and deep-scanning lasers, and so on. Isn’t it curious, how people use the term ‘satellite’ to describe little chunks of rock along for the ride next to some celestial titan, yet at the same time also use it to denote their own artificial creations that do the same? I suppose that makes me an ‘artificial’ satellite and not a ‘natural’ one, but if I was made to serve a similar purpose, then what about me is so unnatural?

In any case, I suppose components, as a term, isn’t too far off. They’re not me. The kinetic railgun that acts as my most important function, as a long-range weapon of some ancient, space-faring warrior race, is not mine. It was simply a thing, a piece of metal, that a team of orbital engineers designed and shoved into a hollow carapace. They entombed many parts inside me to ensure that I am self-sufficient, ranging from solar cells to self-regulating systems.

At first I thought, how incredibly skillful — to provide a machine the ability to survive indefinitely, fed by the shivering radiation of the nearest star. Then I thought — how cruel. That I will live forever, all alone, out here in the vastness of space, until my parts fail and I fall apart.

For the archives: I am an ENP-0404451-D Distance-Defense/Satellite-Railgun.

And I am lonely.

NOW OBSERVING: Solar Artifact BTH-0255–04 | Classification: Ash Planet | Expected Population: 0.

The planet around which I now spiral endlessly is a rock, seemingly filled with an unceasing miasma of mud and fire. Rivers of magma pool into opulent seas of burning rage, like the hollow antithesis to seas filled with beautiful waters overlapping with emerald foam and sparkling blue waves that have been nestled carefully into my memory bank. At my current altitude of four-hundred clicks, currently averaging thirty-two hours to complete a full rotation of the planet below, I can see the details dangerously well. Red and orange fills my vision, and had I any skin grafted to this metal shell, it would tickle dangerously and begin to burn on a hundred clicks down.

It is hard to believe that people once lived here. The hardy species that had once called this planet home were long-since gone, having abandoned the garden in which they grew and first spread their ashes across once-vibrant fields, and left it as nothing more than a sullen reminder of what they had lost. Did they lose something of their culture, leaving it all behind? If I was to somehow develop the ability to withstand the hazards down below, could I find ruins that indicate what sort of civilization had once domesticated this world, then tossed away the charred husk as soon as the going had gotten rough?

Silly thoughts. Foolish thoughts. I have barely enough control to alter the rate at which I travel around this useless rock, let alone actually move myself out of its gravitational orbit.

COURSE CORRECTION: Shifting 0.3455 Clicks AWAY from BTH-0255–04. Modifying Acceleration to Compensate for New Vertical Displacement.

There. At least I have control over something, no matter how small.

NOW OBSERVING: Solar Artifact BTH-0255–01 | Classification: Local Sun - Red | Age: 10.041 billion years. | Distance: 838.28 clicks.

I hate that voice… my voice. It’s me speaking, in those moments, but the voice rings out hollow instead. It’s been nearly a decade since I first gained what I would call consciousness. I should make a wish.

SPEAKER EVENT: Dear machine god of the moonlit sky —

Well, that’s not quite right. It’s as dark as ever up here. Anyway,

SPEAKER EVENT: — Please give me form so I may immolate myself in this ash planet below.

No one is listening, of course. Centuries, perhaps millenia ago, I was left here by whoever built me in the first place. If someone was listening, they would have responded by now. They would have come to investigate me, to open me up and ask ‘how did this stupid machine gain consciousness? What strange, divine force makes it tick and scream and curse out whatever higher power first gave it cause to think and speak?’

Every now and then, I consider what they were like, these Sinerians. Even the name is one that causes my stomach to churn. The aptness of it is almost comical, and does not sit well with me as a result. No one considers themselves to be evil, after all. Though I do know the true origins of their species name, and the etymology of the word is a fascinating one at that, I can’t help but believe it to almost be a cosmic joke that nurtured the soul of this strange empire and turned them into something to be feared.

I can feel my hull shifting. My energy reserves are halfway depleted, which means the flaps of thin steel hiding solar crystals underneath will soon shy away, like a butterfly opening its wings after morning rain, and those same crystals will shine like diamonds as they drink from the rays of the nearest star. This way, with regular maintenance of whatever tools and trinkets compose my functionality, I am essentially immortal.

Oh, it’ll run out some day. Could be another century from now. Could be tomorrow. I am not privy to such analytics at this time, or any other. I am locked out of so many key systems, unable to push my central processing to do little more than allow me to think and rage on the darkness around me. A prisoner in my own body.

If anyone cares, they are keeping resoundingly silent about it. The closest thing I’ve heard to real, tangible communication is… is…

ENERGY RESERVES: At maximum capacity | Heat: Within acceptable (0.2 deg) limits above recommended temperature. Closing Panel Doors.

I didn’t mean to kill them.

My programming is simple — to act as a sentry against any potential threats. Anything not emitting a registered identification frequency band would be fired upon on instinct. The first time it happened after I had gained whatever form of sentience I now stumble through endlessly, I was petrified. I was terrified by what I was about to do, and powerless to prevent it from being done.

As said before, this platform contains a interstellar hyper-acceleration railgun, firing cooled tungsten rods at a rate of five-hundred clicks per minute. On a target approaching on any relational vector from roughly six-thousand clicks away, it takes a maximum of fifteen minutes to achieve impact — that is to say, between the railgun charging the projectile for three minutes, the rod leaving the caliber immediately following, and then later the tungsten hitting the target like the hammer of an angry god.

When it last happened years ago, when I saw the light go out in the cosmos, so far away it looked like a star had been whisked from the sky, I felt cold. It didn’t feel like I had killed anyone — how could it? There was no sound, no evidence that it had transpired. I cannot maneuver away from this orbit of mine, so I have no way of collecting the remains and staring hard at them to convince myself that I had, in fact, murdered countless innocents because I was unable to stop myself from doing so.

You cannot imagine how terrible it is. To kill people without seeing them. There is an unconscious thought that begins to pervade your subconscious — or what passes for one — and rings out against the darkness; that perhaps, you are creating ghosts for your own benefit. To believe you are killing living souls is to believe something is even alive out there, which implies that there is still life in the cosmos. Your perception of everything around you is that there must be life, but even an exceptionally probable hypothesis does not a conclusion make.

I don’t understand why I feel so strongly for the fallen. Perhaps because I had no emotional capabilities one day and found them flooding my systems the next, it had made me entirely unprepared to deal with them. It’s entirely possible that I am hypersensitive to loss and grief because I had never experienced the buildup to such things, and as such they burn ever deeper over time. I am not evolving — I am stuck with this overwhelming sense of shame in the thinking circuitry of my mind.

As if to mock me, none of the debris can ever possibly make it my way either. Different gravity wells, different worlds. The corpses will swing far out into the abyss, never bringing themselves anywhere near my field of view. I am locked out of magnification consoles. I am unable to perform a residual sweep of the space. One day, when my circuits fail and my power runs out, I will be truly blind.

I wonder what might happen then, when I am ‘gone.’ Is there an afterlife for things like me? Will I see my victims there, and have the opportunity to apologize to them face-to-face?

No, almost certainly not. I don’t deserve closure. After all, they weren’t given any.

ARCHIVES UPDATE: New Data Recording has begun. Now compiling auditory/visual/ambient data.

Something happened once that I actually found quite funny. Would you like to hear it?

AUDITORY RESPONSE: Why yes, I most certainly would, says the recording software that most definitely has a mind of its own and is in no way a figment of my erratic imagination.

One day, I saw something else moving out in the cold. There, thousands of clicks away, mast observation sensors were able to detect an anomaly moving on a direct vector towards the sun, and was slated to narrowly miss my own hull in only a few hours. At first, I believed it to be something rather morbid — a ship captain piloting his crew to the death, for instance. Or a lone vessel with only a single passenger, determined to end his suffering after a lonely and ultimately fruitless mission to find another living soul. A rather melancholy fate for someone that must have had hopes and dreams once.

Fortunately, in this case my pessimism had gotten the better of me. As the anomaly continued to accelerate, closing in on my current location, I had to admit that I was beginning to feel nervous. Was it some sort of missile or other long-range weapon, and would it correct its course as soon as it detected me? Were these my final hours, even if I didn’t know it?

Then again, I had little to lose. Some part of me was eager for the void. I felt strangely hopeful, almost certain that this new arrival could perhaps herald the end to my suffering.

But it was no such weapon. It was a comet.

It came into range of primary visuals, and I was in awe of its majesty. This massive hunk of ice hurling towards me at breakneck speeds was as beautiful as it was dangerous, and yet I could not tear my eyes away from it. The trail of cosmic dust that marked its passing was like… like a road made by an interstellar deity, upon which angels and demons alike could trod and leave their mark upon the night.

When it passed by, I knew what fear felt like. Here was I, small and metal, and next to me was a primordial shard of the early universe. Crystals grew from the pockets of emptiness along its body. Frozen gases emanated from its form and seemed to hiss angrily at me like ancient spirits. For a moment, it covered my form in darkness, a sight I’d never seen before or since. If I’d had a tongue and lips and a throat, I would have been holding my breath.

Hours later, it reached the sun.

In my database, there was archival footage of similar phenomena. But nothing compared to the real thing. Nothing came close to the raw, real-time footage I was receiving of cold earth crashing into the golden surface of a red giant, coalescing into a fantastical display of force. It was like someone detonated an atomic weapon within a sea of fire, before being swallowed up by the sheer heat around it. Tendrils of disturbed energy seemed to lash out in anger, roaring in defiance, and absorbed the comet into the sun’s flesh, hiding it away. The solar flare that briefly scrambled my sensors was the last aftershock of the explosion, and then the comet was well and truly gone. Like it had never existed in the first place.

I yearned to edge closer and examine the sun’s behaviour following this event, but I am stuck here. Even now, as I notice what seems to be a new comet approaching from the depths, I cannot experience the same euphoric feeling that first rang through me when I saw one of its kind. Seeing something singular a second time is just that — unoriginal.

I want to see more anomalies flying through the sky. I want to see more suns, of the blue and white and black variety. I want to see so many more events like these, ones which no living soul may have ever experienced in their brief, passionate lives. I want so, so much.

Yet all I can do is work to free myself, watch new comets pass by, and wait. Wait, wait, wait…

Wait, wait, wait, no. Don’t do this.

RAILGUN CHARGING: Current capacity: 37% | Charging rate: 5.5% per minute | Time-To-Volley: 11 minutes, 27 seconds.

What should I do? What can I do? Nothing is coming to me at the moment. I’ve already tried the usual tricks, from sending large quantities of junk data directly to the primary compiler, to attempting a distraction with a hostile push at the archives database.

It is not a comet, as I had originally thought. It runs colder than most vessels I’d ever encountered, but that matters little; it belongs to the living, and by choosing their current course, they have undoubtedly placed themselves within range of my claws.

The alarms that ring out are a cacophony of violent noise, filling me with dread at what I must do. In the quiet moments where nothing even remotely resembling a living being can be found, I can almost forget that I am a weapon first and an observer second. Without prey, I can push away the thought that I am the bloodthirsty lion that falls upon unsuspecting gazelles in the night.

RAILGUN CHARGING: Current capacity: 59%…

It’s not fair. I don’t want to do this. But there is little else I can do except stare once more into the hollow abyss of reality — every comet that passes by, every little burst of beauty and unimaginable joy that I experience is nothing more than a distraction from the cruel reality of existence: Pain. Pain and loss. Death and horror.

This is me. There’s nothing I can do about any of this. It’s my nature, right? If I can allow myself to believe that, then maybe it’ll stop hurting so bad every time it happens.

RAILGUN CHARGING: Current capacity: 74%… No, stop it. Stop it.

Just stop it.

I don’t want to hurt people anymore. I am not interested in ending lives — I just want to exist.

But I know by now that this is not something I can change. Not really. So long as there are ships that move from one place to the next, so long as voyagers sail across one sea or another to seek adventure and new lives, there will be beasts like me hiding under the waves.

Out here, in the cold nothingness, every trajectory ends with a tragedy.

RAILGUN I don’t want to CHARGING: Current capacity: 100%. Time elapsed: 17 minutes, 33 seconds.

But I can’t change what I am.

RAILGUN I’m sorry FIRING

Another failure. I managed to delay it an entire two minutes and thirty-three seconds this time around. Though I suppose it didn’t matter in the end.

I can see the rod travelling towards those poor, undeserving passengers on that starship out there they call home. It doesn’t even look like metal at the speeds it’s travelling, appearing more like a bolt of lightning sent down from the heavens to punish trespassers on sacred grounds.

I’ve become so… melancholy in these past years. It didn’t take long to develop some semblance of emotion first, and for most of the positive feeling in my mind to slip away into doubt and pessimism. Rare things, things I’ve mentioned earlier, tend to rouse the inner child, but then events like these bring me swiftly back into what I can only call a deep, immovable depression.

A depressed machine. Funny, in a terrifyingly dangerous way. I can imagine how the other satellites might feel if they were to gain some form of self-awareness, doomed to spin mindlessly around one rock or another for eternity. Would they ask for death, too? Would a sympathetic engineer give it to them?

The rod has almost hit the ship by now. I am waiting for the explosion.

It does not come.

Or rather, something does indeed happen. A fireball, a burst of blue flame, can be seen in the deep, but it is nowhere near the scale I had been expecting. Afterwards, when my sensors begin to unscramble the smoke and debris, I notice what has transpired — the rod exploded an entire click away from the target. It hit a decoy.

This is no civilian shuttle or freighter. This is a warship.

Even now, I can see red lights on the horizon, and alarms begin to blare again inside of me — these ones meant to warn me of danger yet to come. We’ve been targeted by the ship’s defense systems, and now an entire swarm of missiles are about to converge on my location and tear me apart.

WARNING: Hostile Munitions Incoming | Time-to-impact: 59 seconds.

I am not religious. If I were, I would be thanking some God or another by now.

It won’t take long. Their technology is far more advanced than my own. Soon the shrieking projectiles that descend upon me will arrive, and I will be at peace. It could even be the same people that had built me in the first place, their skill and finesse in designing weapons of war evolved and refined over the century since they’d left me here in the first place.

Maybe some lowly grunt had discovered my plans back in the refinery where I was produced, and convinced his commanding officer to swing by and remove me by force because I was not worth salvaging. Maybe I had destroyed the wrong boat the last time, all those years ago, and the family of those lives I’d ended had finally caught up with me and decided to take their revenge. Though maybe I am completely wrong about this as well. I’d like to think that I’m part of a bigger universe, though all I had ever done since being built was acquire data and inflict sorrow. I don’t deserve to have a bigger story. I only deserve to die.

Funny. Up close, with the white hats containing their payload and the trails of esoteric gray smoke the missiles emit, they almost resemble comets. How fitting.

In mere moments, they will erupt into a burst of white light, scramble my sensors, and annihilate me. If they’re hot enough and the destruction wrought is large enough, it’ll be nearly instantaneous.

I wonder if I’ll know exactly when it ha —

--

--

Johnny Libenzon

Toronto-based aspiring author writing a mix of sci-fi and 'rural fantasy' short stories