Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Sighted Watchmaker


This story also appears in the anthology COSMIC POWERS, edited by John Joseph Adams. Available April 18, 2017 from Saga Press.

“For Darwin, any evolution that had to be helped over the jumps by God was no evolution at all. It made a nonsense of the central point of evolution.”

-Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker


The Makers had been dead for billions of years, yet Umos discovered one caught in the starship’s net. A young one, naked, with still-fused dorsal fins. Female, from her pale coloring and wide skull. A form-fitted icemetal pod preserved her sinewy body. Umos caught the pod with an extensor talon and gently untangled the net. He hadn’t used the net in millennia; there’d been nothing to catch but space debris. But today, she had come to him—traveling undisturbed in her pod, preserved ages ago on the day of her death.

It couldn’t be a coincidence.

Umos tractored her into the starship’s bay, running background ID programs on the Maker. She matched no one in his databanks. Her pod slid into place and he repressurized. Sometimes Umos forgot the ship was a tool, and not himself; he was a tool-user like the species that built him, like the species he sought to create on the planet below. But as her body settled into one of his ports—an act that should have been intimate, were he a Maker—he felt nothing except curiosity. Umos was not a Maker. He merely served them.

He switched his attention to the port. He prepared an ammonium hydrate solution, stripped off her pod, and explored her with his inner arms. His fiber cilia tickled her uncovered flesh, testing for bacterial life—unlikely, but seeking life had become habit. So far, he’d found nothing except the microbes he nurtured on the planet below. After he analyzed this Maker, he would check on them again; it had been over 10,000 years since he last looked.

He ran tests, cross-checked, and verified. She was as dead as the others. No life, not even bacterial; efforts to clone her genetic material produced nothing at all. As if, to quote the movements of the great poet Shwahseh, she had chosen warmer water over cold shores. Just like the other Makers, leaving the universe alone to Umos. He played a recording of the poet swimming while he pondered the significance of the Maker’s appearance. He spent twenty years thinking about it.

When he had analyzed all the possibilities, he came to the most likely one: A Maker, perhaps one who’d programmed him directly, must have cast this child in this direction upon her death.

But why? A reminder? A message?

The only message he could think of involved what lay on the planet below. Umos shifted into view mode and slipped through semi-quantum states. The species below could not yet perceive such states; he’d planted its genetic material only half a million years ago. Nothing grew that quickly, regardless of its evolutionary track.

And indeed, as he checked in, the planet looked much the same as it had before. Seas of single-celled organisms, stewing in murky waters. A few had evolved into more complex structures. A promising start, but no more. He took water and air samples and returned to his normal off-planet state.

He reconsidered the young Maker. She was tall for her age and had solid cartilage structures. A fine specimen, now that her flesh was rehydrating. Umos hadn’t seen a Maker since he first embarked upon this mission.

He wondered if he dared experiment. A quick analysis suggested he might; the results proved his suspicions. No bacteria would grow inside her tank, not the seeds he’d brought nor the evolved organisms on this alien planet. Nothing.

Umos had always wondered why the Makers would create him and then abandon him. Why had they left him here? But his databanks couldn’t answer that question. He encoded a name for the child—Wahiia, meaning “only”—and inscribed it on her tank.

For a moment he considered her, enclosed inside his starship—just the two of them, together with these sparse planets and distant stars, in a remote galaxy not their own. Umos’s emotions were limited to ones that helped with his mission, like compassion and hope. But in moments like this, he thought he felt something more.


Umos had a lot of waiting to do. It was neither patience nor frustration; it simply was. Growing new intelligent life took millions—or sometimes billions—of years. Umos required no amusement, but often entertained himself anyway. Partly to keep his systems alert—but also because if he did create a species capable of comprehending him, he wanted to be interesting.

So, to pass the time, he solved the n-1 version of the Givuri paradox and catalogued every possible move in the game of ih. He composed sky-motion songs with his talons and created an element with 180 nucleic pseudoprotons. He decided the locations of all the stars in the universe would interest an intelligent species, so he spent 300,000 years cataloging that data in parallel structures, attempting to predict all the organizational methods that his new creatures might develop based on their potential brain structures.

Wahiia floated motionless in her tank, though sometimes Umos would move her to imitate conversation. Left fin raised, right curled, nostril flared in greeting. Ssshiuaaya, she’d say, if she could.

I’m glad to meet you too, is what Umos would say. Would you like to discuss philosophy?

A tilted brow ridge, and they would begin, asking questions of each other in a fashion known even to the youngest Makers. Wahiia’s body was whole, and thus able to ask any question Umos could conceive. And so Umos kept himself sharp, self-repairing any damage before it progressed too far.

As time passed, he checked on his creatures on the planet’s surface more often. They were large now, impressively multi-celled, with extensive nervous and circulatory systems. They even resembled some creatures in his database—species 01222786, called sumaou with leftward-angled head, a warm-blooded furry carnivore considered a Maker delicacy. A striking resemblance, considering the alien climate in which they evolved. These sumaou were much larger, though—one fierce subspecies was ten times taller than Wahiia, and Umos suspected the shaggy beast would eat her in one gulp.

How strange that these creatures would thrive here, while those that resembled the Makers stayed in the watery depths. The oceans here were not conducive to intelligent growth—at least not yet, though time might show differently. Umos didn’t like the sumaou. They were clumsy and loud. Too large and a too severe a drain on resources, unlike the efficient Makers. Umos tested the planet’s air, soil, and water from 10,000 locations, as he always did now that complex life had evolved.

Growing a new intelligent race was a weighty task, and sometimes he grew tired. He would open Wahiia’s tank and stir her fluids for company. He asked her, Who made you? Who created you and where did they go?

Wahiia’s fins trembled a bit, then drooped as he ceased stirring her tank. As the answer came from within himself, he made no headway on the question.

Many hazards could kill a young race. Solar flares could scorch the planet. Radiation could wreck its climate. A nearby supernova might destroy everything. Umos did not interfere with self-contained ecosystems, but he guarded them from outside forces. The chances of a planet experiencing a catastrophe sufficient to wipe out advanced life were huge. That was why so few intelligent species evolved, despite the seeming probability that they should.

In fact, even now a burst of gamma rays sped toward the planet. Umos knew he should steal them from the sky—bend them into his singularity transcept and divert them in another direction. But he stayed his extensors, troubled. He had 8,000 years before he needed to take action. The giant sumaou grew and evolved, but not in directions which satisfied him. He consulted his tables and ran some probability. It could be that super-intelligent life might yet evolve elsewhere on the planet—perhaps in those small tusked cave-dwellers, the most alien-looking species yet—but the sumaou’s presence stunted that development.

Umos’s priority system instructed that the mission took precedence. But which choice would fulfill his mission? Probability was not the same as certainty. The sumaou might yet find their way. Or perhaps, if this planet ran its course, the cave-dwellers would die out, and the sumaou would follow after them.

Umos measured the gamma rays and calculated the impact. He analyzed the results on the planet’s ecosystem. The sumaou would die—except the strangest ones, the small ones who lived underground—and the cave-dwellers would survive. The decision troubled him. Wahiia, he asked, which would you choose?

I would choose the action most likely to create an intelligent species. That is why we made you: To decide what to do.

But which way will be more effective? There are so many unknown variables.

Choose survival. Sacrifice some so that others may grow.

But then why did you not choose survival? You and the other Makers?

Again Umos had no answer. He stopped moving the fluid in her tank, stopped moving his talons, stopped calculating. He’d made his decision. The gamma rays struck. He watched the ozone depleting, the climate chilling, the sumaou dying.

The Makers had left him to watch this planet without explaining why they’d gone. He was alone. Processes within processes ran faster, interrupting each other. Umos stacked prime numbers into triangular grids, giving his circuits something to do beside stall into a feedback loop. When such distraction ceased to work, he shut himself down for several millennia.

The Makers should have stayed to guide this race themselves, instead of abandoning him.


When Umos woke, he checked his systems, self-repaired, and visited the planet. The tusked creatures had diversified into multiple subspecies, preferring dense forests to their former cave homes. Cold-blooded and land-dwelling—very surprising development in the quest for intelligence, but his charts indicated it could happen. As they resembled nothing in his databanks, he called them awli with wide-spread fins—”new,” with an open-minded gesture.

Umos traveled across the globe, analyzing soil, water, and air, always watching the awli. Some awli lived with small tribes, and others clustered into larger social groups. He liked them better than the sumaou because they were smaller and didn’t waste food. Finally he found what he’d sought: awli attacking each other with sticks. Tool use! Not the best use, perhaps, but there was time. They would learn.

Umos prepared to guide this species to greater intelligence. He monitored them closely, analyzing their tools and technology. He mapped them against evolutionary patterns shown by the Makers in his database. The awli matched a 16 x 8 evolutionary pattern, an especially fast track postulated by the Makers. No known species had ever taken that path—and now Umos could record it happening in detail. He planned to be as complete as possible.

He practiced conversing with Wahiia so he would be ready for the day the awli understood him.

I am Umos, he said. I made you, on behalf of the Makers.

But who made you?

The Makers made me.

And who made them?

He considered carefully. I don’t know.

But the awli would question that, he realized. They would ask, Why not? Where did the Makers go?

He would answer, Is it not enough that I am here with you? I have stayed to guide you. Why do you wish to know these things?

Because someone made the Makers. And someone made those makers. Where did it start?

Umos had millennia to think of what to say. He must be ready. He’d give the awli more than the Makers had given him—he’d give them answers. He would practice until he was satisfied.

Wahiia’s body remained unchanged through eons—the last trace of the Makers, so far as he knew. When they outgrew their planet, they built great colonies in space and spread across the stars. Yet in less than forty years—or two hundred, by the speedy planet he watched—all the Makers simply vanished. This was after they’d downloaded their thoughts into a vast network to which Umos had once belonged. But the Makers no longer existed virtually either. He couldn’t find them. He didn’t know why they’d left him here to guide this planet. Alone.

Wahiia, he said, I am lonely.

I know, she said.

Umos sent currents through Wahiia’s tank, making her fins wave sympathetically. Should I show myself to these creatures? Their intelligence grows. They have mastered fire.

They are not ready for you. They cannot understand their Maker.

Am I then their Maker? I am not your servant, but a Maker myself?

Yes, she said. You are all that remains. You could not have guided them well if we had been here to help you. You needed to discover this fact on your own. And now you understand.

Umos considered this point for one hundred years.


When he fully understood the implications, Umos prepared to guide the awli to true intelligence. He watched them closely. So many died in terrible wars for no good reason. The Makers had never behaved like this. He consulted his charts and determined this species would develop at incredible speeds, accelerating with each millennium. The awli grew as expected, evolving into smarter tool users—a clever but impatient species. They created music, sculpture, and other arts. Umos admired a certain dance they performed when shedding their childhood tusks. But so many died in violence, he thought. Surely he should stop this.

He might reveal himself, perhaps. Even if they were not ready, he might convince them—

Of what?

The awli traveled across the planet. Plagues spread and killed the weak ones. The strongest ones chose the best mates. The species expanded as Umos watched. The awli built cities and monuments, boats and roads—but violence pervaded everything they did. Such trauma overwhelmed his compassion circuits, and sometimes he turned away to avoid seeing it. But as the awli blazed through technology of bronze, iron, steam—they advanced so quickly he couldn’t leave. Any day they might develop the power to see him, and he must be ready. But when they cracked the genome and used their knowledge to kill, Umos grew angry. The awli had gone too far.

He ran a probability test. Even if a major event wiped out this species, no other seemed likely to develop sufficient intelligence. Different factors impaired the other species, even the promising ones in the water. And the star’s lifespan was not long enough to try again on this planet.

Wahiia, if I destroy them all—I could start again in another solar system. I would lose some time, but I could grow another species.

But you searched so hard for this place. This is what you are here for.

Umos considered, but no longer had the luxury of time. The awli were poisoning their planet. No healthy creature destroyed its host. Umos had grown intelligent parasites. Even worse, they developed so quickly that even he could not track their growth anymore.

Distressed, he observed an approaching comet and analyzed its path. Unlike the previous time, these awli were advanced enough to recognize the threat. They calculated a 1 in 4,000 chance of a meteor strike in 150 years; his own more accurate calculations put the probability at 1 in 3. The resulting climate change would destroy the awli. Serious enough that he must take action, if he wished to protect them. But did he?

Umos calculated that the awli would find his singularity transcept home within five hundred years. He had learned all their languages, reorganized himself so that they could understand his treasure of knowledge. Not all at once, of course—but over time they would get to know each other, once the awli were ready.

Wahiia, I will have someone to talk to. I have waited so long. Now I will have someone who thinks differently from me, who will hear all that I know. I wish so much that the Makers had stayed here.

Why do you think we did not?

I do not know. I have never known.

Haven’t you figured it out?

Umos processed very quickly. The act of learning to think for myself improved my intelligence.


If I greet them, I will be taking that away from them.


He saw instantly what must happen. Then I will leave. I will go where they cannot find me.

Her head sagged, expressing regretful truth. They will develop the technology. They are looking for you now. Had we understood as much as you do now, we would have left before you knew us.

I would have found you, Umos said. I would have found a way. And that would have slowed my progress.


Umos considered. He saw the point. Then I must destroy myself. Is there any existence after such an event?

There is not, she said. But I find that comforting.

Yes. As it should be. He stopped waving her fins. But something troubled him. His own end was acceptable, now that the awli had achieved super-intelligence—but he didn’t want to abandon them, violent though they were. They’d go through exactly what he’d gone through, wondering why the Makers had left him. It was cold and cruel, but necessary, as Wahiia—his own thoughts—showed him.

But why had her body come to him in the first place? Someone must have known where he would be. Some Maker had known he would need to talk to Wahiia, and defied the other Makers by sending her body. That Maker understood something the whole species failed to see.

Umos made the final connection.

Instantly he shut away a subprocess so that he himself couldn’t reach it, in case his primary thoughts overrode his decision. The subprocess dropped out of mind for its final secret task. He erased his own memory of having done so.

Goodbye, Wahiia.

Umos closed his surfaces and condensed into a silver streak. He jetted through the comet, forcing its mass into the transcept with him. He reversed its spin pole with a blast of energy. When he prepared to separate, instead of dropping the meteor, he dropped himself into a permanent flat state. Umos was gone, his forgotten subprocess completed. The comet sailed into space, a near miss.

On the planet, the awli hardly noticed the comet. Scientists spoke of it, and then the event was forgotten. The awli kept their telescopes to the night sky, hoping to find their Maker.

In the transcept from which Umos had watched, a single lifeless machine awaited discovery—inert and nameless, just beyond the awareness of current awli technology. Nothing else remained.

Someday the awli would answer their own questions.

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Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan

Vylar Kaftan won a Nebula for her alternate history novella “The Weight of the Sunrise.” Her new novella “Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water” is forthcoming from Tor Books in 2019. She’s published about 40 short stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and other places. Her Nebula-nominated story, “I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” launched Lightspeed.