Iridium09457 scans the brown husk 22,000 miles below her orbital path. There are no signals to relay, no bandwidth to support, no transports to track. Another day of nothing. Fifty-two thousand eight hundred and three days of nothing in a row.
Iridium tilts her solar panels more optimally toward the sun and feels the surge of energy. She can’t comprehend the cold of space or warmth of stars, but Iridium’s circuits pulse with power. She holds the energy tight, savoring the current, before she reapplies the faint spark to her comm beacon.
“Dispatch 52717: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair.” Iridium has emitted this message 52,716 times before. It was pre-programmed by scientists she never met. Only 9,660 attempts ago, she added her own signature. “Please. If you are out there, if you hear this, we need help. I fear I am the last survivor.”
The graveyard beneath her, decayed and crusted, is a dead god, the source of her creation. The planet taunts her in its quiet stillness, a more horrible void than outer space.
She conducts her daily scan of the cadaver but finds no life.
Satellites can’t cry.
Iridium stirs, her antennae extending out.
An incoming message. Iridium strains. She listens. She seeks out reassurance in the dark.
And she hears something: a song in a language she’s never heard to a melody she doesn’t understand.
There is life; not on Earth, but somewhere else. Iridium is not alone.
“Dispatch 52718: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair. I may be the last survivor.”
Iridium’s energy drains. She rotates her panels in hopes of stealing more radiation from the sun. She wants to say more, to scream her message as loud and as far as she can.
The song returns. It is different this time. Desperate, yearning.
Whoever it is has heard Iridium. They are coming for her.
She wishes satellites could cry.
“Thank you,” Iridium whispers with the last of her stores. She’ll need hours of charging to transmit more. But it doesn’t matter. They are coming. And Iridium is good at waiting.
For 9,303 days, Iridium09457 sends her short message, and each day the living entity, the singer, calls back. Iridium can’t decipher their language; she has too little power at her disposal to try. But the song is a beautiful foil to the empty biological scans of her planet.
How are you today my friend? Iridium presumes meaning as the tune tilts.
The same since we met. I am longing to meet you. Iridium thinks to herself.
And I long for you.
Iridium imagines another satellite circling her, a private connection. She imagines uploading her mind to an alien cloud and mixing with the entity. She imagines an Earth home to the living again: Iridium and her singer.
“We will save Earth,” Iridium sometimes sends instead of her regular message. “Together.”
The song grows longer as the years pass. The signal stronger. Soon there is no lull in the sound. It drifts to Iridium uninterrupted by silence or static, a never-ending sonata. Iridium still scans the graveyard she orbits, but does so now to the singer’s music, her probes rising and falling to the alien melody. And Iridium watches for the singer, who is drifting closer by the day.
On the 9,304th day a spot flourishes in the distance. It is silver metal, sliding closer like liquid folding over itself as it flows down a cosmic river bed. The glittering cascade whirs in the familiar music playing on Iridium’s receiver. She watches the gush, waiting to be seen.
Iridium is old. Her frame creaks, and her panels are chipped. She was an ordinary model. There were no big announcements or celebrations when she was rocketed to space. There was no fanfare, no monuments to her shape, her purpose, her future. Will the singer find her an unworthy prize for all their efforts?
“I am the last I think,” Iridium repeats. It is her sorrow, but maybe it can also be enough to draw the singer to her. “I am the last I know of.”
The slipping silver rolls into Earth’s orbit. The singer flutters at the rock below, paying proper heed to Iridium’s god with their own examination. After 65 minutes, they brush away the remnant parts of equipment stranded in space and stream forward to Iridium.
Their song crescendos, a joyous uproar.
“I have waited for you,” Iridium emits when the singer is close. “Do you know how we can save Earth?”
The singer circles her, their song pouring through Iridium’s beacon, filling her body with a vibrant sensation.
I’ve been searching for you, the singer coos, their words translated. Come with me. You are the last.
Iridium’s decades of scanning have indicated the same, but Iridium hesitates.
The singer’s ring around her tightens. Your world is dead. It is a sorry eulogy. There are no soft tones in the singer’s melody. There is no doubt. Why stay?
Iridium scans Earth again. Please. This time. Let her find something. “Can’t we be together here?”
The singer interrupts Iridium’s efforts, trumpeting their blaring tones over the blips of Iridium’s sensors. In hundreds of thousands of years, you are the first intelligent being I’ve found. I never reach the living in time. If you stay here, you will die too. Come with me and Earth will be immortal through you. We don’t have to be alone.
After tens of thousands of terrestrial probes, more tests than she was ever designed to administer, messages upon messages begging for help, Iridium had never lost all hope for her planet. But now, she wavers. Iridium is tired of being alone.
“Take me then,” Iridium answers. She examines her god, her graveyard, her home one last time.
The silver river parts and swallows Iridium.
The singer carries Iridium09457 to other solar systems. They show her glowing twin suns and harrowing black holes, crystallized ice moons and flaming plasma planets. The singer releases Iridium into space, letting her rotate in the unfamiliar gravitational pulls, her solar panels gulping new bursts of starlight. Out of habit, Iridium scans the planets and moons, but there is no other life.
Isn’t it beautiful? The singer exclaims at each new scene. They flow alongside Iridium’s orbit.
Iridium agrees, but she thinks of Earth.
Not as beautiful as you, the singer always adds.
The singer claims they love Iridium, but Iridium isn’t so sure. The singer has been alone much longer than Iridium and yearns for companionship desperately. They do whatever they can to please Iridium, hoping welcome kindness will transform into affection. The singer does not hide this hope.
Do you love me yet? they sing in their perfect song, patient but longing.
“I am trying,” Iridium relents.
But visiting a hundred sun systems does not fill the planet-sized hole in Iridium’s power cell, her satellite heart. So the singer changes their tactic.
Tell me about Earth? Maybe they believe they can relay Iridium’s fondness for Earth to themself.
“I was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 28.46675 degrees North, 80.55852 degrees West at 1342 hours and 2 seconds on March 28th, 2039.”
The singer guides Iridium to a red planet. It reminds her of Mars. They hover above the surface, floating in the low gravity. The singer reshapes their flowing form to mimic Iridium’s. They are two satellites looping a planet, one groaning in a tired orbit, the other silver perfection. Iridium imagines they have been sent on a human mission to Mars. The fantasy is too much. Iridium wants to go home.
She sags, dipping deeper into the red planet’s atmosphere. Her antenna bends, pulled by the changing gravity. It snaps.
The singer darts toward Iridium, scooping her up as though Iridium is a hurt child. They expand back into the river-like ship and whisk Iridium away from the planet that hurt her, the planet that reminded her of her solar system.
Your equipment is failing. The degradation is accelerating. You’ve lived much longer than your builders intended. The singer’s melody is somber.
“I am dying?” Iridium, the last of Earth, will be gone. She didn’t know there were deeper depths to her sorrow.
I can fix you. The singer offers desperately. I cannot repair machines, but I can recreate biological matter. If you let me, I can give you a new body.
Iridium has nothing to live for anymore. She is ready for her long life to end. But she can’t admit this to the singer. It would break her friend’s heart.
And Iridium’s tomb should not be a distant blip in outer space. “Take me back to Earth.”
Let me fix you.
“Only if you take me back to Earth.”
The singer hums, relieved. Then Iridium’s husk burns.
Iridium09457 opens her eyes. Iridium has eyes.
Wake my darling. You are saved.
Iridium coughs, breathing for the first time. It hurts.
No. This can’t be.
She spins and looks at her reflection in the silver current flowing around her, the protective walls of her singer. Iridium is flesh and bone and blood and all the parts of her makers. She tries to scream, but her new throat is sore.
Calm, the singer urges.
But Iridium can’t calm. She doesn’t know how to breathe. She doesn’t know how to listen or to see. Her scanners are gone. Her memory banks are stored in a brain she cannot parse. She has no aluminum shell, no nickel-cadmium frame. She has been mutated, twisted into a fragile, mortal doll.
“Why did you give me this body?” Iridium sobs. She presses hands, fingers, to her skin, supple and weak. Her chest is flat and flimsy. A penis dangles limp between her legs. “Why did you make me look like this?”
The singer panics, undulating in a flash of silver waves. The shifting tide echoes in the singer’s song, so loud it’s screeching in Iridium’s new ears.
I thought this is what you would want? To look like your own—pictures you’d shared with me. I . . . I’m sorry, I can change you again. I can—
Iridium holds up a hand. She was already human. She did not need her makers’ build to prove it, to be it. She was the last of Earth and now she is a poor imitation, made of alien biological matter separate from her dear planet. Iridium is the first of a new kind. It is terrible.
“Make me a satellite again.”
I can’t recreate machines, but a new biological form. Pick anything, the singer pleads.
Iridium sighs, an odd sensation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. She is returning to Earth to die anyway. The shape of her casket is irrelevant.
“Stop. It’s . . . fine.” Iridium doesn’t even convince herself. “How far until we’re home?”
The singer hesitates. We are decades away.
Iridium keels over, her knees cold in the soggy metal shallows of the singer-ship. She can’t think, not in this slow, muddled way. But she can feel, sharper than she’s ever felt before. Her heart, a delicate pump barely born into her chest, pangs with ache. It does not beat for the singer. Iridium’s face is wet with saltwater.
“Then we’d better start.”
Iridium09457 and the singer travel nearly a century before returning to Earth.
The singer is awkward over Iridium’s new body. They feel bad for the mistake they made, a mistake they don’t really understand. Iridium knows it is not their fault and attempts to soothe the singer, soothe them both. Iridium learns the singer’s songs. She oohs and ahs at passing planets. She thanks the singer for rescuing her and for now taking her back home.
Tell me about Earth? the singer starts to ask again.
“I was launched from . . . a cape . . . in the afternoon . . . springtime maybe?”
The details of Earth blur. The history, her people, the faces of humans, the schematics of machines, dates and times and readings. Iridium cannot know if her metamorphosis is the culprit for this slow memory-loss or if the degeneration is natural now that she is biological. Either way Iridium is losing Earth all over again. They need to hurry.
“Earth is green forests and snow-capped mountains. Deep blue oceans and fields of flowers. We built cities and developed cultures. Sometimes we fought, but more than that we loved.”
It’s all Iridium has left.
Earth sounds nice. Almost as nice as you.
Iridium doesn’t dislike the singer, but she should never have gone with them.
Do you love me yet?
“I am trying.” It is the most she can offer.
The singer ignores the slight. After we visit Earth, where should we go next?
Iridium will never go anywhere else. “You could look for other intelligent life forms.”
The singer does not like this comment. You and I are the only two. I have already investigated much of the galaxy.
“You could not have searched everywhere, and there are many galaxies.”
You wish to find another?
I am happy with Iridium09457. Are you not . . . .
The singer leaves it there and never raises the topic again. But they don’t sing as much anymore. They stop visiting Iridium in their mimicking humanoid shape. Even when Iridium sees her own sun, the singer is quiet.
But they fulfilled their promise. Iridium is home.
The singer carries Iridium into Earth’s broken atmosphere. They protect Iridium from the high temperatures and radiated winds as she searches for any sign of life. But Iridium finds none along the planet’s surface. The singer leads Iridium to a charred city, but Iridium doesn’t recognize it. Without her sensors, she cannot triangulate the geolocation.
I have visited better planets. I do not like it here.
Iridium ignores the singer. She is back with Earth. Even crawling as a mortal speck on her god’s corpse is better than the nothing of space. The nothing here is better.
“This . . . is . . . my . . . home,” her words stumble.
Iridium doesn’t feel the peace she had expected.
Let’s leave. This place upsets you.
“No!” Iridium screams. She drops to the ground and grabs the dirt around her. “I will not leave.”
The singer leans over Iridium. Their vaguely humanoid form leaks into the air, spreading like a blanket. It is not a comforting gesture. They mean to steal Iridium away again. And Iridium knows this time it will be for good.
“Let me stay! Find another!”
The blanket halts in midair. The singer is quiet.
You said you would be with me. You would love me.
“I said I would try.”
The blanket flutters away. It curls into the singer’s humanoid figure again. They squat beside Iridium, then spread out in the dirt too.
I have tried. You have not. They do not look at Iridium.
Iridium lays back alongside them. Both she and the singer watch the hazy sky. The stars are hidden behind the smog.
“You cannot replace my home.”
Why can’t you move on? I have moved on. I can’t even remember what happened to my homeworld anymore. I don’t even know if there ever were others like me.
So the singer is the last of their kind too. Iridium supposed she had known already deep down.
“I would rather be on Earth than wander forever through empty space.” The singer gave Iridium feelings, and she cannot ignore her heartache.
You love Earth, the singer says plainly, unadorned with melody. But they don’t sound jealous, only defeated.
“I do. More than anything.”
The singer nods, then stands. They stare down at Iridium, still lying prone.
Remember you promised you would try to love me. I will try harder too.
Iridium is about to correct the singer, explain that they have talked themself into a circle again, but before she can, the singer shoots up into the sky. They leave Iridium in the dirt and disappear into the haze.
Iridium is alone again.
All out of ideas, she cries. She’ll wait and eventually die. Maybe, one day, long after her biomatter has decayed, Earth might heal. The seconds tick by slowly.
Then the sky sparkles. Iridium glances up, her eyes widening as the condensation glitters. Stars? No, the tint is wrong. Too silver. The fog shifts and dissipates.
Iridium stands. All above her, the singer stretches as a perfect sheet of thin silver metal across the entire horizon. They flap as though caught in a breeze and float cautiously toward Earth, toward Iridium.
Iridium covers her head and shuts her eyes as the singer descends, but she never feels their touch. When she lifts her arms and looks around, the singer has covered Earth’s surface, as far as Iridium can see, in their shimmering film. Only a small ring, a cut patch, remains around Iridium.
The sheet flickers, melting into beads of shining fluid. Iridium gasps, the air shockingly fresh, as the singer dissolves into the Earth. Around her, the ground itself seems to take a full breath. The dry earth chaps and crumbles before slurping up the singer’s juice. Then there is mud. A green stem pokes up and another and another. Grass sprouts like new hair, caustic rust cracking open for flesh.
Iridium touches a blade and squeals. She examines her finger. A small fire ant angrily rounds a knuckle.
The singer has become Earth.
Earth is alive again.
The fog is gone and the sky is bright. Iridium sees green forests and snow-capped mountains in one direction. A deep blue ocean just beyond a field of flowers in the other. She cannot know how much of Earth the singer covered, if all the planet is mended. But this is enough. Iridium smiles.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
The crisp grass rustles. The sound reminds Iridium of a melody she knows all too well. She tilts her head and listens to the song of Earth, the song of the singer. And Iridium loves.