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Where Lies the Final Harbor

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam's fiction and poetry has appeared in over 90 publications such as Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Lightspeed, and LeVar Burton Reads, as well as in six languages. By night, she has been a finalist for the Nebula Award. By day, she works as a Narrative Designer writing romance games for the mobile app Chapters. She lives in Texas with her partner and a mysterious number of cats.

Floating in Earth's orbit, AHAB dreamed of the form he'd inhabited when his creator, the philanthropist, first launched him. AHAB had crunched his own numbers; gold-plated and gleaming in the solar rays, he had been worth more than all the other spacecraft in orbit combined. In AHAB's current form, he was as plain and silver as the moon. What was left of his gold body had burned away upon an accidental reentry. Sometimes he wondered if, without meaning to, his gold body had been trying to return to the philanthropist, to see him once more before the man's last breath. AHAB drifted in an energizing slumber, panels stretched toward the sun.
He woke abruptly. The way that AHAB sensed his targets could be compared to the way that sharks sensed their prey. AHAB reached with his imager and caught the old spacecraft, that veritable disco ball of debris, in his view. AHAB registered the spectrum for aluminum, the material of which the villainous craft had been created. This disused craft had not been made by the philanthropist, far from it; this craft had been made by the organizations that came before.
AHAB calculated in a fury: the distance to his target, the mass of the beast. It would take him three minutes and thirty-six seconds to reach the target, less than that to pierce it with the tip of his harpoon. He folded in his solar panels and fired his thrusters. He loved the way they shook as he navigated toward the target. This could be it. The moment he was built for.
Twenty years AHAB had floated in space. The philanthropist was dead now. AHAB had been fed the information, an obituary and the philanthropist's final message of affection: Keep searching up there, old friend. AHAB accepted the rules of the natural world like he accepted his own orbital velocity, but the philanthropist had not died of natural causes. It had been the beast's brother that murdered the man, hurling through Earth's atmosphere at a speed too quick to stop. The beasts seemed innocuous on the outside--soft aluminum, shiny, covered in thermal dots--but the crafts' innards were hard and metal and deadly falling from the sky. The first craft had crashed atop the philanthropist's head like a great wave in the ocean. Someone must pay: the brother of the beast, that foul murderer's twin.
AHAB had been searching for the ball-shaped satellite ever since.
AHAB closed in on the target. The beast rotated and rotated. AHAB ejected his harpoon. The point struck the beast. It burrowed inside the target's body. It held.
AHAB dragged the beast's lifeless corpse as close to the earth as his parameters allowed him. He launched the beast into the atmosphere and sensed its burn over an uninhabited area of Earth.
AHAB had done it, destroyed the target he had waited so long to destroy. It had been too easy. He thought he would feel something more than machine, would feel like his old self again, the self who had been touched by a god of earth. The destruction of a beast could not bring back the glory of his old days. He reined in his thrusters. He let the orbit take him.
The assistant's supervisor leaned against the overcrowded desk. When the assistant had begun work at the billionaire's agency, she'd decorated her station with as many space-themed trinkets as possible: a color-changing Orion Nebula mug, an astronaut yarn doll, even an R2D2 French press for the late nights she didn't realize would be quite so common. Now, endless papers covered the junk she'd thought would brighten her days.
"Hey, something's going on with the Artificial Housekeeper Autonomous Bot." The assistant's supervisor shrugged; it would never be her problem, after all. "Seems to be stuck at its conclusion. Better do another manual reboot to the narrative."
The assistant groaned. "We need someone to reel him in and have a look. Auto reboot has been glitching for six months now."
The supervisor rolled her eyes. "You know these old billionaires. Sorry, I mean philanthropists." She winked. The assistant's stomach ached from too much coffee and not enough lunch. "They like to send shit up there, get their names in the papers for their good deeds and all, but they hate to actually maintain it. Higher-ups are applying pressure on him. We'll get some funding to fix it soon."
"Sure, of course." The assistant opened the program and set the narrative parameters: the next target, the closest piece of space debris, was a field of paint flecks. AHAB would need its fine mesh net. The assistant set the story: that AHAB's original golden form had been dented, compromised, by paint flecks traveling at orbital velocity. Then the death of AHAB's creator from breathing in too many paint fumes. A fury toward the fiend who destroyed both AHAB's glory and his father, that generous maker. The philanthropist. The assistant selected these narrative elements from the checklist and overwrote the previous backstory.
"Cause no way can we do this for every single goddamn chunk of trash up there," she muttered, but her supervisor had already moved on. She looked up on the wall beyond her computer, where the philanthropist had hung the article about AHAB's launch. Nestled in the text was a picture of the billionaire standing beside AHAB's plain metal box.
The philanthropist's pull quote at the bottom read: "I wanted to make him gold. I fought hard for that. In the end, it wasn't feasible." It had been the assistant, once a lead designer on the AHAB project, who had worked up the numbers, who had challenged the billionaire's golden satellite idea. It had been her suggestion, a compromise, to work into AHAB's falsified memories the lost self-worth of being downgraded from gold to aluminum instead. The money could be better spent, she had argued. The board had agreed. Now, thanks to the philanthropist, she performed countless administrative tasks. These days, as AHAB glitched again and again, she added to her list of job duties repetitive reboots to a supposedly automated system.
She checked the time: nine more hours of work before freedom. A cheap meal. Five hours of sleep. If she was lucky.
Above the company's roof, above the clouds, above the sky, AHAB analyzed debris in the distance. He sensed the target he'd been looking for throughout the whole of his existence in this simple metal form, the beast that had changed him, had rocked him in his core. He locked on. He readied himself for war.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 26th, 2021
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