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The Other Forty-Two

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of over forty award-winning novels for readers of all ages, some set in the Star Wars universe, some written with his friend Garth Nix. He has also written over one hundred published short stories, several odd odd poems, and a sci-fi musical. He lives in Adelaide, just up the road from the best chocolate factory in Australia. His latest book is Crashland, second in the Twinmaker series.

After a thousand years frozen between thoughts, Heart awakes to another dead system.
It wasn't always dead. The planets have been extensively mined and parked in an orbital configuration that might last a billion years. The sun is surrounded by lenses casting complex beams and sheets of light out into the void. (These refractions were what drew Heart here.) There is biological life in abundance and evidence of advanced warfare.
The civilization that once ruled here, however, is long gone.
Instead of feeling despair, Heart begins the long process of cataloging her find. She is an expert archaeologist, as well as a capable explorer: those two skill sets are a rare combination. A seeker of knowledge on the edge of the known universe, the data she carries will be of great interest when she returns home.
On an icy moon among the system's outer planets, she finds something odd: an impossible configuration of matter in which electrons appear to be frozen. It looks like a monument of some kind, but under closer examination, she discovers that those electrons are indeed moving, only very, very slowly. The configuration is a sphere fifty thousand kilometers across, sustained by means unknown.
Clearly a machine. But for what purpose Heart can only guess.
It is the forty-second such machine she has found in her long travels.
They are not all like this one--complex coils of superconducting cables winding around each other in a knot so dense it risks collapsing into another kind of matter entirely.
One is a network of black holes orbiting in a deliberate dance that has lasted five billion years and shows no signs of ending.
A second is a series of continent-sized curved plates slipping and sliding over each in a clearly artificial process over which an entire biosphere has slowly accrued.
A third is a complex fold in space, invisible until entered, that contains subtle shifts in the universe's fundamental constants, shifts that come and go in ways that bear no relation to what lays outside.
Forty-two such devices are known to Heart. Taken as a set, they are superficially very different--yet they share two critical qualities.
One, they are very old.
Two, they are still operating.
Heart studies them while at the same taking care not to disturb them, or to get too close. She hasn't survived this long by recklessly assuming that the third characteristic they appear to share--that of ignoring her completely--will hold every time.
Still, she does her best to provoke a response, by signaling her origin, her species, her name, and her purpose. Not once did any of the previous forty-one respond, and this new one is no different. They just keep on churning or spinning or exploiting whatever particular kink of physics it is they depend on for their existence, waiting out eternity in slow, patient activity.
They haunt her, these remnants, these living mausoleums. What are they for? The building of them took great effort. Great returns must have been expected. Sometimes she imagines that there are living beings inside--the apotheoses of their civilizations, perhaps the ultimate embodiment of their creators themselves. If so, these machines might contain the greatest minds in the universe, wending away eons in contemplation . . . of what? What are they thinking about? What can possibly require such an enormous expenditure of cognition?
Heart doesn't know. All she can do is continue her work in anticipation of the archaeologist's reward: to return home and properly examine her discoveries. Her life's labor won't be complete until she fully understands what she has found. She is looking forward to getting started.
Cracking the secrets of the ancients, Heart suspects, is going to take a great deal of thought.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 27th, 2015

Author Comments

This story is one of those that came in a flash but didn't come out of nowhere, if that makes sense. The title refers to Douglas Adams' enduring joke about the Answer to the Great Question, which I first encountered (along with every other teenaged boy in the world) over thirty years ago. The story itself riffs on the Fermi Paradox, which has been around at least twice as long. Squeezing a story about stupendously huge machines into flash fiction was a bit like trying to squeeze a mountain of coal down into a diamond, but it was worth the effort. Heart's quest had been waiting a long time to come out; I just needed to find the right way to tell it.

- Sean Williams
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