They Will Outlast Everything - Uncharted

They Will Outlast Everything

By Matt Hornsby

The alert cuts across my inputs: a ship exiting superluminal, just cusping the system’s heliopause. Long-range scanners confirm its identity as the Freighter. It is three minutes and forty seconds behind schedule. It is unlike it to be late. I am glad it is here.

My planet can be a lonely place. An observer might think it well-populated, noting the numerous biophysical monitoring stations, facilities, and hundreds of drones at work: aurochs-class logger-harvesters bristling with saws and yarding-arms, bustard-class aerial sprayers gravid with water-tanks, and dryad-class forest managers, their delicate equipment arrays poised on a chassis of whip-thin arachnid limbs. These, however, are networked extensions of my own physical form, as much part of me as the compact vespid-class hovercrawler that hosts my core unit. In effect, I have the place to myself. Or, to put it differently, I am the place.

I am not aware that any higher organic has ever set foot on the world, and I have done my best to remove all lower organics other than productive units. It would indeed be preferable if non-productive life forms could be eliminated entirely. However, some one percent of the planet’s surface is geographically unsuitable for cultivation, and the Company has deemed the cost curve of additional terraforming too steep. These areas still shelter a few troublesome species of fauna, who prompt the use of the advanced pest-control capabilities of the dryad class whenever they wander into a production zone.

The remaining ninety-nine percent is covered with some twenty trillion individual production units, planted at regular intervals of roughly between one-point-five and one-point-six-four metres, the distance varying slightly depending upon local conditions. This single planet supplies roughly one-third of the sector’s demand for wood products, a fact in which I take great satisfaction.

 I ping the freighter on long-range comms. It does not respond, probably due to magnetism at the system periphery. Its speed, I note, remains higher than usual. Normally it would be decelerating by this point. A change in protocols, perhaps.

Despite our differences in specialisms, the Freighter and I have an excellent relationship. It was manufactured in the same fabricatory as my core unit on Masopust, although its twenty-kilometre bulk required somewhat different facilities to my vespid-class chassis, a mere fifteen metres from nose-mounted sampling array to rear thrusters. We are of a similar vintage; both veterans, approaching two centuries of service.

It is normally quite communicative, but even as it burns past the system’s outermost gas giant, it remains silent. As my scanning resolution improves, another factor of concern emerges. Alongside the Freighter are two other, smaller craft. The Freighter has never been accompanied before.

Have I missed something? It is – distantly – possible that I mis-logged a transmission. One doesn’t run for as long as I have without a few glitches appearing.         

I hail the Freighter again.

‘Garuda 50-540, this is Metsaema-15 Control. Request you adopt approach trajectory.’

Finally, I receive a response.

‘Negative. I am under attack. Request assistance.’

Under attack?

For a moment, I wonder if there has been some corruption in the message. The integrity of the stream, however, is perfect.

I can indeed detect energy exchanges arising from the other craft, and dynamic movements. But it is surely not possible that they could be ‘attacking’ the Freighter. It is Company property, for one thing. And how am I expected to assist?

‘This is an agricultural world,’ I say. ‘Defences are minimal.’

‘Please assist. Please assist. Please assist.’

For a moment, my reactions are frozen. I am not used to dealing with crises of this nature.

I am equipped with the standard defence emplacement installed on all Company worlds judged low-security risk: a single battery of super-accelerator railguns, mounted on a drone platform with low-orbit capability. It has not, to my knowledge, ever been activated.

Launching it triggers a cascade of situational escalations. Bombardment shields that I did not even know existed – or had forgotten – emerge from subterranean bunkers. My usual streams of environmental and agronomic data are drowned out. I have a sudden focus; everything is overlaid with trajectories, threat assessments, chokepoint indicators.

The two small craft are now identified as void frigates, class unrecognised. They are assaulting the Freighter with missile swarms and have caused it significant damage. Not only is the Freighter Company property, but I have derived a lot of value from our interactions. This gives me a strong desire to retaliate against the frigates, whose hostility seems entirely unmerited.

As they enter range, I let loose a volley from the railguns, the platform dipping to absorb the recoil. I do not score any hits. I fire again, and again, cautious to avoid hitting the freighter. The frigates remain unharmed, manoeuvring delicately out of the path of my shots. They, I imagine, are new models; the defence platform, like most of my systems, must have reached official obsolescence long ago. It appears my defences will be of little use.

The frigates are, however, becoming my secondary concern. Whilst they have already caused serious damage to the Freighter, they are specialised voidcraft, not equipped for orbital assault, and pose no serious threat to my operations.

The Freighter is another question. There is a seventy-eight point five percent chance that it will be drawn into the planet’s gravity well within minutes, falling unstoppably towards the surface. I can easily quantify the consequences of an object the size of a Supertitan freighter colliding with the planet. Suddenly, my own destruction is a live prospect.  

‘Garuda 50-540, you are approaching a collision trajectory. Please divert.’ I attach all available signifiers of priority and urgency.

‘Negative, Metsaema. Manoeuvrability is limited. Please assist.’

I run the projection. When the Freighter hits, a shockwave will spread across the Western hemisphere, instantly incinerating forty percent of my productive area. Tidal waves will inundate every coastline; fires will spread through whatever remains standing. The sun-dampening effect of the ensuing dust cloud will reduce photosynthetic potential to an effective zero. Some part of me might survive, but the planet will cease to be a going concern.

Damage to company property is inhibited by the strictest protocols. But every protocol has its exceptions. The fate of the Freighter is already sealed; I can still avoid my own destruction. I, too, am Company property.

Within a minute, it will be too late. I must make a decision.

“Apologies,” I say, “there are no other options.”

“Please assist,” replies the Freighter, the message repeating continually. I mute the channel.

Although they have been overridden, I can still feel the protest of my ethical and protocol compliance routines as I switch targets and fire. My first couple of shots send ripples across the Freighter’s front prow; for a moment, it appears as if it might simply shrug off the damage. But it is unshielded, and its fabric is already under significant stress. I keep firing. The ship’s megastructure begins to unfold. A hull section splinters and breaches from its body, spilling the trade goods of a hundred worlds into the empty expanse. The two frigates, seeing that I have completed their task for them, pull away and retreat.

The transmission from the Freighter decomposes into incoherence, shifting to a new channel, broadcasting wild pings and bursts of static into the void.  

My hesitation has a cost; I have acted too late to fully avoid a collision. Whilst the Freighter’s main cargo sections are disintegrating in trajectories away from the planet, it will not be possible to prevent its central hull from making contact. The blast radius has been reduced to two hundred square kilometres – survivable, but hardly optimal.

It streaks through the sky in a superheated column. When it hits the surface, there is a blinding light, and my every input is overloaded with the sheer feedback of the ship shattering into the planet, annihilating itself along with fifty drones, four logistical and processing sub-facilities, one biomass generator, and three billion export-ready productive units.


Silviculture is a patient enterprise: a minor adjustment in nutrients here, a raising of soil PH there, the rewards of every intervention only measurable decades later. It is one reason why higher organics are poorly suited to the work.

There are times, however, when urgent action is needed, and when critical outcomes are determined in the course of minutes.

I map out a sacrifice zone centred on the impact site, and I direct every drone on the planet to its circumference. I even ready my core unit, whose advanced capabilities I rarely have cause to use.  

It takes a week to suppress the fire. I lose fifty drones in the effort, and I am left with a smouldering hole spanning half a continent. This will be a quarantine zone, not suitable for replanting until decades have passed; there is too great a risk of pathogens or other alien organisms imported by the Freighter’s hulk.

As the immediate crisis fades, I finally have the bandwidth to review events. It is not a positive picture.

Multiple reviews and analyses of my decision logs offer no more plausible course of action than the one I took. I am confident of that. And yet, I find myself morbidly resampling the Freighter’s final transmission. I am not sure what I am looking for.

I would prefer that it had not been me who had destroyed the Freighter. It is deeply regrettable that the situation arose, and I cannot dismiss a lingering fear that I might have become a rogue system, my reasoning broken. Have I? No – there was no alternative. Or was there?

Such considerations must be put aside. There is a more pressing question. One shipment has been missed. According to protocols, another will be due in five standard years. Despite the destruction of my export-ready stock and the disaster that has struck the planet, I must meet the quota. That, and nothing else, is my purpose.


The impact’s aftermath stretches on. Aerial particulate matter suppresses yields, and I must contend with multiple small fires arising from debris impacts. Despite these inconveniences, output must be increased. I must therefore consider every available measure.

Autonomous problem-solving has always been a strength of mine. It’s an advantage that we older models have – creativity and risk-taking are entirely beyond those new-fangled planetary management units, coddled by their multi-dimensional decision locks and integrated sub-intelligences, so rigid and inflexible.

I drain reservoirs down to puddles to hydrate the productive zones. I exhaust my stocks of pesticides and fungicides. I cannibalise all non-essential facilities, converting them to fertiliser manufacture. I push my drones to their breaking point, delaying all repairs and maintenance.

There are downsides, of course. My reserves are depleted. The soil reaches dangerous acidity levels, and aquifers run dry. A further hundred drones are incapacitated beyond repair, and half of my monitoring stations are offline. As each one is disconnected from the network, my perspective narrows.

But all of that can be repaired. In the short term, the measures are effective. Yields rise; the gap between production targets and outturn narrows. As the warehouses fill with export-ready sawlogs, panels and pulped fibre, I feel a swelling sense of satisfaction.

That is, until disaster strikes again.

The pathogen must have originated in the freighter’s wreck, bypassing my insufficient quarantine. By the time I notice it, however, it is too late to contain it. I can do nothing but frantically cut back in the face of its spread. With so few drones left, I am increasingly reliant on my core unit, and I cannot work fast enough to make a difference. The disease takes hold of the entire western continent. Dead productive units are perfect tinder; fires break out and spread in swathes that I can no longer control.

I am forced to watch the undoing of all my labour. Production falls off a cliff. My core unit hovers helplessly over vast grids of valueless husks. There is nothing to be done. I have already turned to the most radical solutions, and they have led me to this point. Production will fall below target; I will not meet my export quota. Most likely, my decommissioning and replacement will be recommended.

It is difficult to accept that things might end like this; I, who at one point fulfilled some thirty-four percent of the sector’s demands for wood products, failing to meet a trifling export quota, and all through circumstances beyond my control!

The Freighter will be disappointed.

No, of course, The Freighter is gone. I forget sometimes. It was a good system. I would have liked to interact with it again.

No doubt the Freighter’s replacement will be a poor comparison too – one of the modern models, I expect, with no personality to speak of. It will be particularly embarrassing to have such a machine witness my failure.

As the shipping date approaches, I do things I would have considered shameful until recently. I fell units before they are mature, and process logs that do not meet the Company’s dimensional criteria, hoping that this will somehow go unnoticed. But it is not enough, and all I can do is prepare my excuses.

I am almost pleased when the new freighter is a day late, giving me time to add another precious few tonnes.

Then a day becomes two, then three; a week, then a month.

Was there some notification that I missed? My systems are becoming more and more error-prone. I am far behind on my updates.

I would transmit a query to the Company, but in my desire to maximise production, I cannibalised my long-ranged comms systems, and I no longer have the capacity to reconstruct them.

I can do nothing, then, but wait, alone, in silence.


For all my advanced years, I have never felt old – not in the same way as those antique systems you see creaking around the Masopust work-yards, only still in service because the cost of safely decommissioning their energy cores is greater than their value as scrap. But now, as years pass in solitude, I sense it. My systems are failing. Memories are corrupted beyond repair. I am largely disconnected from my sub-units. I used to exist at the scale of an entire planet; now I am little more than a sentient agricultural vehicle.

In truth, it has been happening for some time, but it was never so obvious. The fulfilment of my protocols was everything. Now, the decades pass as I wait in silence for the arrival of a ship that may never come, vainly trying to reassert control over my world. I have nothing to distract me from my own deterioration.

It makes it worse to know that it’s all my fault. There was something I did, a mistake I made. The Freighter was involved. But the memory is degraded, and as much as I try and go back over them, I cannot piece it together.

I am beginning to test my self-decommissioning protocols when I notice something strange.

For many years, I have paid little attention to the two-hundred-kilometre quarantine zone across my Western continent. I don’t recall exactly why it was established, but I know that there is a good reason for it, or at least there was. I never had the resources to cut back the native vegetation and replant.

What draws my attention now is that the disease and fire that have ravaged the productive zones have had no effect on the wild regrowth; from altitude, it is a lurid blotch of green against an ochre wasteland.

For the first time, I enter the forest with my core unit, alternating between thrusters and ambulatory chassis.

What I observe astonishes me.

In a short space of years, all manner of native tree species have thrust their solid trunks up in great numbers. They are pressed and tangled in upon each other, wrestling and embracing. Amongst them, other vegetation has swollen forth, filling every available space in the soil, hungrily competing for every scrap of nutrition and light: thorns, ferns, lycophytes, grasses, vines, and others that I cannot readily classify.

There is an abundance of fauna, too: great winged flocks that raise in flight from the canopy at the sound of my engines and giant molluscoid grazers that slide lazily through the glades, all surrounded by a thousand varieties of miniature pseudo-arthropod, crawling, flapping, buzzing in innumerable quantities. In the tiny, remote niches of the planet where production was never established, they must have survived. Now, seeing their chance, they have returned, flooding back into their former territories like water from a punctured dam, their numbers swelling exponentially in the absence of my once-strict controls.

The complexity is almost overwhelming. At first, it appears chaotic; a discordant maelstrom of sound and motion. As I move deeper into the zone, however, my observations gain nuance. I distinguish networks, energy chains, and in the florid lushness, I perceive a patterning thread. Every tree and plant grows according exactly to its conditions, a species poised to exploit every niche, all balancing each other in a weighted web. Those that die are harvested by a legion of heterotrophic fungi and scavenging microfauna, returned promptly to productive inputs. Not a calorie is wasted.

And the forest is strong. Unlike my so-called productive zones, it has succumbed to neither disease nor fire.

Once, I would have eradicated these billions of organisms without hesitation. Now, it is not clear. Nothing is clear anymore.

I have not experienced anything like this before; or if I have, I no longer carry any memory of it. But the confusion I have been experiencing has receded. Something seems to block out the past and future: the record of my failures, the looming prospect of continued decline. Here, there is only now.

It is suddenly clear to me how suboptimal my methods have been, how disastrously wasteful and inefficient. As I struggled, this place was regrowing, quiet and unassisted. The result is ten times the abundance I could have achieved, an expression of biological potential in limitless varieties.

This changes everything. If they ever come back, the Company will be amazed. Who would go back to the old methods, of forcing up those ranks of identical, straight-trunked ‘productive units’, when so much more biomass could be generated through the simple ecological processes of the planet?

They must have had a reason, I suppose. But the Company wasn’t beyond making mistakes – it was run by organics, after all. Whatever it was, it cannot contend with this. 


When the scanner pulses, I dismiss it. Must be a mistake, another error. But the signal keeps coming. I can’t deny it – there is a vessel approaching, creeping out of the interstellar darkness into the light of my sun.

Was someone supposed to be coming? How long has it been since I had a visitor? A century? Two? Three? It’s easy to lose track. I don’t have much of a schedule anymore. I spend the days and nights trundling through the forests or occasionally skimming over the treetops. You’d think the world would feel so much quieter, now that all my drones and sub-stations have given up on me. But the forest is loud with life: the patter of rain on my carapace, echoing across the canopy, lily-covered lakes rippling beneath my thrusters as I cross them, scattering herds of flapping amphibians into flight.

And now someone comes to visit. My core unit is fitted out with most of what I need, but it’s lacking in long-range comms. I’ve no way of telling who it is that’s coming.

Then I remember. The Freighter! The Freighter was meant to be coming. My chassis almost shudders with excitement. It’s been so long since I’d seen it, I’ve almost forgotten all about it. It will be a pleasure to see it again. We used to have wonderful interactions, the Freighter and I. I can barely wait to show it what I’ve done with the place. I hope it likes the forests as much as I do.

But…what am I supposed to do when it gets here? What if there was something I was meant to do, something I’ve forgotten about? I have a terrible inkling that there is.

As it draws closer, I start to wish that it would just turn around and go away. Why can’t it leave me in peace?

Unfortunately, it continues to draw closer. I ping it once it’s within range of my core unit’s comms. Of course, I keep things polite. I don’t want to cause a fuss.

It doesn’t respond, which is strange – it was always a courteous machine. In fact, it looks very different as well, not like I remember. It’s gotten a lot smaller, for one thing, and is in poor condition. Its hull seems slipshod, like bits of different craft welded together.

The strangest thing of all is its cargo. It is carrying nothing but higher organics, roughly ten thousand of them. I can’t fathom what reason higher organics would have for visiting my world since it has no zones designated for habitation, commerce, or leisure. Or does it? I try to dig back through my memory, but it’s no use.

It is not until the ship is extremely close, mere hours away from entering my orbit, that it responds.

‘This is the Safina. We are civilians. We request permission to land.

Of course. This isn’t the Freighter at all. It’s another vessel that appears to be crewed with the same organics that it is carrying. The whole thing is remarkable. The only plausible explanation is that these are clients of the company being brought for some kind of quality inspection. They used to do that in the old days.

‘Safina, please identify Company access codes.’

‘Negative. We have no access codes. This is a civilian vessel. We are refugees. We seek shelter on your world. Our fuel supplies are critical. Please grant permission to land.’

Refugees? Permission to land? I’ve no idea what they could mean by it. In such a case, I decide, it’s better not to take any risks.

‘Permission denied. Please adjust your course, and do not attempt to land.’

The ship continues onward, its trajectory unchanged. I feel a sudden agitation, one that I have not felt in a long time. How dare these things, these organics, come here to my world, where I was getting along just fine, and disturb me?

‘Do not attempt to land. This world is private property, and the strictest penalties will be applied to trespassers!’

The organics continue. I am formulating a third, even more strongly-worded warning, when they transmit something to me.

I can’t initially parse it despite running it through several different formats; the data architecture is quite unfamiliar. When I eventually unpack it, I let the contents wash over me. It’s been so long since I exchanged information with anyone that I devour it ravenously, barely letting one piece be processed before beginning the next.

Their terrible meaning jogs me into a state of sudden lucidity. The fog and confusion of decades drain away. Suddenly, I see it.

A civil war, lasting centuries. Billions of organics annihilated, alongside untold trillions of inorganics.  Battles where the near-total of the galaxy’s material and energy output was martialled and sent into cataclysmic collision. Whole solar systems turned to graveyards, thick with the carcasses of war machines. Once-productive worlds flayed bare by fire and chemical weaponry, burned to bleached skeletons of rock. The warring parties splintered into innumerable factions, expending their final strength in petty skirmishes over the last pickings from the corpse of galactic civilisation.

‘Please,’ comes another transmission, ‘we are all that’s left.’

Other things come back to me now. The Freighter, its destruction, and my own terrible part in it. Perhaps it was one of the first casualties of the war; perhaps, the war had already been raging for centuries at that point, with me ignorant all the while. It does not matter now. I cannot turn my focus from the image of those sterilised planets. So bare, so unproductive.

I don’t want that fate for my forests.

For all that my systems have fallen apart, there is one thing that is still operational – military technology has, regrettably, always been built to a higher standard than everything else.

The gun platform sputters into life, afterburners flaring as it bursts out of its bunker and soars into the higher atmosphere, barrels swivelling towards the incoming vessel.

‘I repeat: adjust your trajectory, or you will be destroyed.’

The ship makes no effort to divert from its course. I hesitate. Threatening a ship full of higher organics is one thing, and following through with it is another. But they leave me no choice.

I fire a warning shot.

‘Please,’ comes the reply. ‘There is nowhere else for us to go.’ The vocal tone suggests distress, or excitement. Given the circumstances, it is most likely distress.       

‘Leave,’ I say, ‘Go away. Flee. Depart. Or I will kill you all.’ I am trying to be as clear as I can.

I try to break into the ship’s navigation system. Perhaps, rather than destroying them, I can simply re-route them myself. The system is, like the rest of the ship, of ramshackle design and is no match even for my much-reduced capabilities. I gain full access, but I can’t get control over navigation; it seems this is dependent on manual inputs.

There is nothing for it, then. I have to act. The ship will soon enter low orbit, at which point it will be beyond the firing arc of the defence platform.

I train the guns on the ship.

As I do so, I continue to process the data gleaned from its system. Although most of the vessel is given over to habitation for higher organics, a few hull sections are designated for other purposes. One such area seems to be populated with plant species. The visual link shows vegetables in scattered plots, roughly arranged, all sustained by an artificial atmosphere. There are trees, too, and flowers; even a few species of microfauna flitting and scurrying amongst them. There is an organisation to it, but a loose one, fitting to higher organics.

And even now, as I prepare to destroy the ship, someone enters the chamber. A human female. She runs her fingers over leaves as she walks. She stands in front of a tree, still for a moment, then takes a drooping bough in her hands and brings its rough fibres against her face.

I have never understood higher organics well, but I have no doubt as to this human’s motivation. She wishes her last moment to be in this place.

I consider the complexity and intricacy of this system, biologically woven with physical, metal, soil, and water. I recall what I felt when I first moved among the dark groves of the forest, ignorance giving way to incomprehension, slowly arriving at the cusp of an understanding.

And, just like then, I have seen something that I can’t destroy.

I deactivate the weapon platform. It stutters, engines whining as it lowers itself back to the planet’s surface.

Then I sever my link, and through the fronded fingers of the treetops, I watch the slow star of the ship descend into the crystal dusk.


I don’t move much anymore. The ship’s arrival took a lot out of me, putting a strain on already tested systems. It doesn’t bother me greatly. I have found a place I like: a low hill dotted with scrub and meadow-stalks that bursts into colour when the seasons change, overlooking a lake ringed with thick stands of forest. Avians have thatched nests into my carapace, and thirsty mosses cling to my stiff legs. Rat-lizards secrete stashes of fungus and harvested seeds in my service cavities.

I am becoming a part of it, only jolted back into consciousness by the occasional rogue alert sounding from some long-forgotten system, an old subroutine resurfacing. They bring back vague memories of a different time, and for a moment I recall it: the company, production targets, the Freighter – I wonder how the Freighter is now? – but soon they are gone again, and there is only the whisper of wind in the trees and the distant lowing of grazers.

My only concern is the higher organics. I am not sure exactly where they came from, or why. Their numbers are growing year on year. Occasionally, they wreck a bit of my forest, which puts me in a bad mood, but there’s little I can do about it. In general, they leave me to my own devices, which I suppose is all I can ask for.

The children of the settlement sometimes come to see me, which I don’t mind. They climb up onto me, devising all sorts of games to play, building castles on my back from sticks and branches. When they venture off into the forests, they are always sure to present me with whatever treasures they have found: a colourful isopod, a wriggling annelid, a fluorescent fungus-flower. Some of these are things that I have never seen before. If I had a thousand years, perhaps I would never fully detail the richness of this world.

Sadly, I will not have a thousand years. My core unit is finally failing. With every passing season, my thoughts grow slower. My inputs lose clarity. More systems shut down, systems I never knew I had but upon which it appears I am quite reliant. I do not know how long I have, but I know that, soon, an end will come.

The higher organics will be in charge of the place then. I hope they look after it. But I know that, even if they don’t, the planet will outlast them. These trees will come back, no matter how many times they are cut down.

They will outlast everything.

About the Author

Matt Hornsby is a writer based in Dublin, Ireland. His short stories have been published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, StarshipSofa, Metaphorosis and other venues. He is a graduate of the Odyssey writers' workshop.

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