She Returns in Glory
A mission to space returns to Earth to find that all is not as they left it.
Clouds that previously hadn’t been visible were suddenly both present and a terrifying shade of amber. Emerging from the fog were flames, blue and furiously hot, creating a fiery and inverted hell above. Curious through our momentary petrification, their cameras would have shown market squares and gardens, once congregated in cleared squares but now overgrown, getting ever closer as they passed over; perhaps, if they focussed, they may also have seen us, looking skyward at the fireball in its descent, an image similar to that of a comet, all brightness and trailing tail, slowing as it reached the surface. Slowing – that was the tell for us that this wasn’t a natural event. It was civilised. Constructed.
We’d been in space for over two years. The three of us were part of a joint agency mission to explore the potential for colonisation of Mars – which had been sidetracked by the emergence of a micro black hole travelling through the solar system near to the asteroid belt. We’d been ordered to change direction by Command, to investigate given that this event may not ever happen again. We diverted, spent six months observing the football-sized black hole, bringing on board data which was impossible to retrieve by any other mission. We orbited the singularity, staying just outside of the event horizon, all our instruments focussed on absorbing data from the spinning mass, before – eventually, having exhausted our excess food supply (even after halving rations) – we returned to Earth, lest we starve on the way home instead. The data was fascinating – entering orbit had meant we were able to see more than we had previously been able, without using all our fuel; our return home seemed simple, given the circumstances. In the time we’d orbited the travelling black hole, we’d observed it orbit the sun twice – it moving significantly faster than Earth or Mars in its transit around our star; it was, however, on a tangiential path – we anticipated that a few weeks after we would be on our way home, the black hole would break orbit and continue on its journey through space, having slingshotted around the Sun.
On our approach to Earth, Edison was particularly keen to discuss the temporal effects of our positioning around the black hole.
“Even at the distance we were, it’s likely that people at home will have aged; I suspect that our three years, if Hawking and Einstein are right, will have been equal to quite a bit more than that at home.”
Avianna interjected: “Doesn’t matter – that’s why we were chosen, right?”
“Well, yeah,” Edison replied, gruffly, “I know the policy is to avoid sending people with huge families and dependents on long term missions.” His tone changed, softer and less abrupt. “Still, knowing that we’re going back to meet people who’ll be older now – some that were younger than us when we left and older than us now – is a strange feeling, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” I said, “but I get Avi’s point – none of us have family to worry about so… It’ll just be nice to see the future, even if it’s just a few years.” I smiled at Edison, who appeared gracious at the compromise.
The ship’s computer interjected: “Approaching Earth orbit.” Matter of fact.
“Right then, folks,” Avi said, “time to dance. Eddy, you’re on trajectory. Lily, you’re on descent control. The computer has worked out the descent mathematics; I’m transferring to your consoles now. Let the autopilot get us into the mesosphere, then take over.”
Avianna’s clear control and leadership always filled me with confidence. It’s why this mission had been such a breeze; I think had Edison or I been in charge, then it wouldn’t have been such smooth sailing – he is too idealistic and I can’t always make decisions with her speed and accuracy. I could see her in my peripheral vision; she would be communicating with the ground computers at ESA to decide which landing pad would be the most appropriate given our approach, which (in turn) would update our computer’s calculations every nanosecond, ensuring our safe descent even if conditions were to change. She huffs gently – which she only ever does when something is awry.
“Everything alright, Boss?” Edison clearly detected it too.
“Don’t worry, folks. Just not getting the ping back from ESA that we expect. Nothing to stress over, our vector calcs are accurate – just would like that extra support after so long up there!”
I, perturbed, replied, “As long as you’re sure, Avi. I’m getting some weird readings from the rad sensors we used while orbiting the bla-“
“Don’t worry about the sensors, just keep focussed on controlling the descent, Lil – I’ll sort out the comms side.” She had cut me off, kindly but sternly. This was her way – not to worry or panic, but just to get things done.
A few moments passed. We coasted into the thermal zone of the atmosphere, the orange flames licking along the side of our craft as we generated friction, accepting gravity and defying atmospheric resistance. In the background, I could hear the computer beeping gently as it made decisions for us, when, unexpected and crystal clear, the communications unit sparked into life.
“Unidentifiable craft – please state your designation and destination.” A staid response, as to be expected from ground command after so long, especially if something had gone wrong with our identifier tag in the comms broadcast, which was common and unavoidable when communicating through the firestorm we were creating.
Avianna, as always, stepped in: “Ground control, this is the ESS Satori returning from our mission to survey the micro black hole passing through our solar system. To whom am I speaking?”
A pause – then, the cold voice echoed in the cabin again. “Satori, alter your descent vector; you’re aiming for the launchpad in France, but we need you to adjust and aim for the following coordinates.” The computer beeped a few times and a latitude and longitude address appeared on the screens in front of us; this quickly diminished itself, shrinking to the top left of the screen, to be replaced with a 3D model of the Earth, a blue line denoting our programmed descent vector and a red pulsing line denoting the proposed. Edison and I looked backwards at Avianna; she was looking at her console, no doubt to check the credentials of the computer system we’d clearly networked with – then, with a barely perceptible shift in her focus, she nodded approval. Edison quickly altered the computer’s destination address and my descent control computer immediately showed an alternative pattern of approach. I instructed the autopilot to follow that pattern until we pass under the mesosphere, as previously ordered. I turned and nodded at Avianna; she flashed me a smile and then tapped a few buttons on her screen to focus on our descent dynamics.
“Looks like we’re heading to New South Wales, kids. Any of you ever wanted to go to Australia?”
The landing was relatively smooth. I pulled us in a jot too slowly, but that appeared to give the landing pad systems time to activate and aid our descent, using a digital link directly with our flight computer (which helpfully notified me when I was no longer required to participate in the landing sequence) and the articulated arms which hugged our ship as it came into land and provided a bridge to the command centre. I was impressed with the speed all this had come to fruition – the Oceanic Space Command, a strategic combination of the space exploration arms of the scientific-military communities of the Pacific developed nations, was only beginning to lay foundations for this facility when we’d originally left for Mars. It was designed to rival the launch facilities of even ESA, which, after the defunding of NASA, had become the largest single government funded space exploration and exploitation agency – and it was clear that the Aussies had taken pride in this particular site. The bridge was immaculate – almost unused in it’s cleanliness – with polished concrete flooring which led in an unwavering line towards what appeared to be a welcoming committee of sorts.
However, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right tickled the back of my neck. We normally wouldn’t be given consent to land at another agency’s facilities, nor would we accept a command to change vector to favour one over our own landing pads. Avianna must have had a very good reason to have done so – and it would routinely be required to communicate with the whole crew what the decision was and why it was being made. The lack of such an explanation was the first sign that something wasn’t quite right – though it wasn’t incumbent on me to jeopardise landing by questioning it; it was just as likely that she’d had a notification on her console from ESA authorising the diversion – the optimist in me wanted to believe that, perhaps, in our absence, the disparate space agencies had finally come together as a mutual operation.
It was at that point that it struck me: there was no military presence here. Not a single one of the welcoming committee was in uniform, all instead garbed in a clean and minimalist but modern fashion. There wasn’t a single member of any of the armed forces flanking the craft exit, not a single soldier lining the corridors with preemptive protection, nothing. Just three people dressed casually at the end of the long corridor. This realisation settled my mind; if there’s no military presence, then there must be some sort of agreement, as otherwise we’d be covered in uniforms like fleas on a feral fox. We approached them equally as casually, taking our time to find our feet after so long in space – weightlessness is something you quickly get used to. It felt like that walk took hours – the feeling of being unsteady, the confusion at the lack of security given that we were a ship of another agency, the observation of the casual nature of those waiting for us and the almost otherworldly cleanliness of that corridor, all of these combined to unsettle me in a way that I’d not felt for a long time, not since the skirmishes in Eastern Europe when I was a kid, which had created an undercurrent of panic around the world about the future of diplomatic relations between NATO and Russia.
“Hello!” One of them, the tallest of the three, had called down the corridor to us once we were broadly in earshot. “I am Yetunde – you can call me Tunde! Welcome back!”
Avianna raised a hand in greeting. “Thanks,” she called back, “I’m Avi; this is my crew, Lily and Eddy.”
“Welcome Avi, Lily and Eddy – we have facilities set up for you in the complex, once you’ve passed through the screening. Just keep walking forward and we’ll sort you out shortly.”
I wondered about the ‘screening’ – they weren’t wearing protective gear, so it couldn’t be quarantine protocols. We kept walking forward, as instructed; in a few steps, we crossed a silver line in the floor, about five centimetres wide. As we did so, an emerald light emerged from above us; I looked up to see a row of lenses formed into the ceiling, projecting the light, with a series of smaller lenses in the corners formed by the green lamps which periodically flashed a very quick shade of magenta. The light felt warm as it washed over us – and, as we passed out the other side of it, there was a faint electronic beep.
“All done, keep walking straight down to us now.”
I wondered and marvelled simultaneously at the advancements that the OSC must have made in the last decade to have crafted a scanner which could screen returning astronauts as quickly and as effectively as that must have been able to, particularly if it were to allow these hosts to remain out of personal protective equipment; not one of them was even wearing a surgical mask, usually a requirement at minimum in case of airborne illnesses being mutated and returned to Earth during our excursions. Even so, we continued to walk forward, the others seemingly unperturbed by any hint of the fear I had sitting in my throat. It took around a minute to walk that corridor, but, to me, it felt like an hour.
Tunde was smiling broadly, her teeth whiter than pearl against the darkness of her skin. She was flanked by the other two welcomers; one, a tall, stern woman who appeared to be of Korean descent, and a shorter, more friendly-looking man, smiling with his eyes and from the corners of his mouth, who appeared to represent the southern end of the Indian subcontinent. Korea and India, amongst others, were founder members of OSC; Tunde, I assumed, was Australian, by her accent.
“Welcome, welcome!” She said. “Come, we have some refreshments for you and facilities so that you can relax!” Her enthusiasm was calming, her smile disarming – I felt myself nod, almost subconsciously, in acceptance of her gifts. I looked sideways; Avianna and Edison were also nodding, he more vicariously than her. I looked forward again as Tunde continued: “These are my colleagues, Lukasz and Karen.”
Names were becoming less and less ‘regional’ when we’d left Earth, for sure – but it was quite strange still to see these names applied to those faces. I parked my prejudice, however, as this wasn’t and shouldn’t be important.
Avianna stepped forward; “Thanks for such a warm welcome.” She extended her hand; Tunde took it with hers.
“It is our pleasure. We look forward to your time with us.” Tunde looked sideways, then said, “Karen, please will you take our guests to their quarters so that they may freshen up; in about an hour, Lukasz will come and collect you for refreshments. There’s some water and fruit in your room in case you need them before then.” She gestured to the doorway behind her, which slowly slid into the wall and revealed another gleaming and polished corridor. Lukasz waved us forward, and forward we walked.
The shower was blissful. We’d spent all that time in space taking festival showers – wet wipes and exfoliation pads – as washing water was a weight we couldn’t afford; as such, this experience was long overdue and deeply satisfying. The water fell in rivulets over my skin whilst I availed myself liberally of the delicate rose-scented liquid soap from the dispenser on the wall, allowing the lather to build with impunity and then tumble to the drain. Whoever had constructed these facilities clearly knew the importance of a good shower.
Having spent far too long enjoying the hot water and the feeling of being alone (which had been lacking these last few months, to a point I’d not realised until finally having some space to myself again), I grabbed a towel from a stack which had, conveniently, been placed on a small white table under the basin in the wet room adjacent and attached to my sleeping quarters, and wrapped it around myself, securing it under my arms; I then grabbed another towel from the pile, a smaller one, and deftly wrapped it around my sodden hair – there was no way I was going to be able to dry myself if my personal water table kept dripping from above. Barefoot, I meandered back from the wet room into my bedroom. I reflected: the carpet was plush, significantly less industrial than the nature of the facility would imply should exist; the bed was thick and made expertly with pillows and quilts of feather and woollen throws to make them attractive; the workspace, alongside the bed, was carved from natural wood, sanded and treated, with a chair positioned neatly in the space where one’s legs would go when sitting to use it; the lighting was appropriate for relaxation, not too bright and self-adjusting to emulate the lighting outside – particularly important given the lack of windows. On the bed, unexpectedly, was a stack of fresh clothes in the style of those who’d welcomed us – neutral linens, very professionally pressed and neatly folded; atop the pile, a small card rested. I picked it up; it simply read: ’You can’t relax in a space suit – these are hand-made with natural fibres. They should fit perfectly. I hope you don’t mind my dropping them off for you. Tunde.’ I felt a little unnerved that she’d been into my room without my knowing; but, equally, I realised that I’d been in a separate space, beyond a door I knew hadn’t opened; plus, I hadn’t broken out into my usual in-shower concert as I was too busy enjoying the shower itself – thus, my embarrassment was averted. I unfolded the clothes – they were simple, but light and inoffensive. I put them on; to my surprise, they were exactly as described: a perfect fit. It was as if they’d measured me with a tape prior to making them, tailored to millimetre accuracy. I marvelled at the workmanship – the threads were invisible, the lines designer, the cut enhancing and flattering. If I’d been shopping for something like this, I wouldn’t have been able to afford this level of quality.
Beneath the stack was a pair of simple slip-on shoes made of a similar neutral fabric to the clothes, albeit with a more solid base sewn on and with more robustness to the material which would encase my feet. I put them on; again, a perfect fit. I mulled this; the scan on entry must have also taken readings about our physical attributes and measurements – but, still, to have made these clothes to those requirements so quickly was… unheard of. They must have nailed rapid design to manufacturing practices, perhaps through a level of automation which I’d never seen before, especially to achieve this quality in less than an hour from our arrival.
Suitably impressed, I exited my room. As I did, a panel opposite my door lit up; on it, an arrow pointing leftward down the corridor and, pulsing, the words ‘Please make your way to the Mess Hall.’ I shrugged to myself; this is no worse – arguably far better – than the treatment we’d have received by ESA after so long in space, so if the OSC wants to do things differently, then I’m all for it. I turned left and walked casually and comfortably, down the concrete corridor.
Avianna and Edison were already in the mess hall, a huge buffet of food laid out in front of them. It was clear that the two of them had also been cleansed and clothed during my moist sabbatical. Avi looked up as I approached, swallowed the mouthful of food she was consuming, then motioned for me to join them. At the swing of her hand, Edison looked up from the head of corn he was devouring and, with a smile, waved the shorn cob at me. I sat down at the table with them; we exchanged pleasantries, talking about the facility, the hospitality, the gifts, as we ate. The feast was a banquet of vegetables and fruit, all perfectly served in a variety of ways: crushed potatoes sat alongside baked sweet potatoes, spiralised courgette alongside shaved carrot, grilled cauliflower nestled beside bowls of poached pears. No meat, anywhere; protein appeared to be provided by a tofu-like substance in the centre of the table – looking like feta cheese, but also appearing more solid – and large, flat, grilled mushrooms topped with herbs and breadcrumbs. To us, this was fine – we’d not had any real meat since the biltong had run out, a gift from a South African in the command team who had, confidently and accurately, predicted: “you’ll really be in need of this by the end of the first month of ration packs!” We’d been deeply thankful for her foresight by the end of the second week, and every subsequent day until the end of that week, when Eddy shared the last strip. However, it did make me wonder about how this society had made the painful transition away from animal foodstuffs in such a short time; veganism was prolific but not standard practice when we’d left and, frankly, this spread would have contained assorted meats if we’d returned on the day we left. Still, I reflected, the food was delicious; Eddy was eating another head of corn, glistening gold in his rough hands, whilst Avi selected a section of watermelon, the juice oozing from the skin of the fruit as she lifted the pre-sliced quarter. She looked reverent as she bit into it.
The door I walked in through slid open; through it, Tunde strode, smiling and looking directly at us. “I hope the food is to your satisfaction?”
All three of us nodded, mouths full.
She chuckled. “Glad to see it. When you’re finished, we’ll show you around the rest of the facility, so that you may better enjoy your stay with us.”
“Thanks,” Avi said, wiping a trickle of watermelon juice from her chin using the back of her hand, catching immediately staining the fresh cuff of her tunic with a soft pink hue.
“When can we contact our families?” I asked; it’s been a really long time now and I’d like to say hi to my mom.
Tunde’s smile wavers almost imperceptibly, a momentary flicker which is almost immediately caught and corrected. “That won’t be possible, I’m afraid. Don’t worry, though; just enjoy the food and Karen will give you the tour afterwards. Give her a call when you’re done – she’ll hear you.”
I looked at Avianna and Edison. They didn’t appear worried about this, but I’d been doused in ice water. I began to speak: “what do you mean not possib-“
“I cannot explain to you right now,” Tunde interrupted, “but I will when I am able. Until then, I will leave you to your meal.” Without waiting for protest, she turned and left the room, the door sliding silently closed behind her.
A similar ritual played out the next day. And the next. It was on the third day, across the hastily assembled breakfast that Karen had placed in front of us and that Tunde spent more time arranging than we spent eating, that I finally broke and demanded an explanation.
“…I don’t mind that I can’t see them, I might even understand that if the circumstances were explained – but to say I can’t video call them is just not acceptable. How DARE you say I can’t speak to my Mom!”
Avianna looked at me as if I were mad, but I no longer cared. Even the petulance I knew I was expressing for which I was judging myself was acceptable in the face of the feeling that the mere suggestion that I would be prevented not just from seeing my family but even simply communicating with them was abhorrent – and there was no amount of propriety which would stop me from getting answers as to why I shouldn’t be allowed.
Tunde and Karen exchanged a glance; Karen, without a word, left the room, her exit reflected in the dull metal surfaces and soundtracked by the tap-tap-tap of her heels, until the gentle whoosh of the door signalled her departure. It was only then that Tunde, who hadn’t looked at any of us since my outburst and until this point, looked straight into my eyes. There was a sadness to them.
“Well, Lily, the truth is that I cannot explain it to you – you will have to come with me to learn why.” Tunde’s reply was cryptic to the point of infuriating.
“What do you mean I have to come with you?! Are you hiding them in a cave or something?” I let out a huff, sarcastic in tone. Tunde’s expression didn’t change at all.
“No, we’re not hiding anybody in a cave. However, you will still need to come with me on a little adventure to learn the truth – and that does involve a visit to a small research lab in the cave network outside of this facility.”
Once again, I was left without a reasonable response. “Fine,” I said, exasperated, “I’ll come with you. Do the others need to come?”
“No,” Tunde said, quietly and gently, “Once you know, they will be informed by the others. But one person must find out the truth this way before anybody else can know.”
I looked at Avianna. She raised an eyebrow, looked at Edison and back at me, then nodded.
Eddy was sitting with his hand cradling his head, seemingly unsure what to contribute to the conversation, until – after a moment of silence – he said: “Look, I’m sure that the explanation is dead exciting, but I don’t mind finding out from Karen or Lukasz. As long as we find out. Go, have some fun, Lil – it’s better than being stuck in here for another couple of days before we can go anywhere.”
Slowly nodding, I looked directly at Eddy – he, instead, was smiling.
“Fine, okay. Tunde, lead the way.”
The walk there was relatively straightforward, if not somewhat… rural. Outside the facility, it seemed, was a lush forest, as if the facility had been planted here with the trees and had grown organically with them. The concrete walls seemed strangely out of place given the surrounding verdant landscape; I was taken aback by the variety of flora, as the flowers alone, under the canopy of trees and dotted within the grasses in a myriad of colours, would have been prized by botanists the world over. This utopia was unexpected, particularly given the location of the base – usually, this sort of facility required the clearing of such a landscape, if nothing more than to lay foundations. What technology had achieved the placement of this sizeable base without any recourse to destroying the veldt?
A roughly cut path led away from the facility through the grass and between the trees; it was clearly the product of footfall on the ground rather than engineering – the soil beneath was cracked and hard, split from the lack of vegetation, rather than smooth and black from tar and stone. We walked along this unrefined route for some time, taking lefts and rights wherever vegetation lay in the way of our progress. Tunde, confident as always, seemed to know the route intimately, taking turns before I could even see what would have caused her to do so – a rock here, a stump where a tree used to be there – and so, I followed like a hesitant child, echoing her decisions unquestioningly, but always stumbling through behind her.
Eventually, we reached a clearing; in front of us, a wall of ochre limestone, high as the heavens and wider than the Nile. I looked upon this wall in wonder – it was a natural formation, but something about it seemed, again, odd. As if it had been carved out of the Earth in order to look like a cliff face, rather than being the product of natural erosion. Artificial. Indeed, as did the mouth of the wall, a cave opening directly in front of us, leading from the path we had trodden to get here. It looked as if it had been placed here specifically for such a journey. I looked at Tunde; she looked back at me and smiled.
“Come on, Lily, come with me into the cave. That is where the answers are.”
Tunde waved a hand of invitation, drawing me in; I hesitated, a feeling of nervousness and trepidation coursing through my body; I steeled myself with a very deep breath, then stepped forwards from the veldt into the clearing. Together, we walked forwards, into the almost perfect arc of the cave entrance. A wash of panic hit me, the flush rising in my face visibly and aggressively, marrying with the terracotta limestone which suddenly surrounded us. Tunde walked upright and proud – this was a journey she’d made many times – while I stumbled tentatively along behind her, not knowing the terrain; I had allowed my nervousness to direct my footing rather than my senses. Periodically, she looked backwards to check that I was still there, keeping up as much as possible with her; it was challenging, but I tried my hardest. The strength with which she’d explained the importance of this place suggested that I needed to heed her call.
After a few minutes of wobbling along the weaving pathways within the caves, avoiding the danger of loose stone and stalagmites, we entered what had the appearance of an antechamber. The walls had been smoothed and painted with myriad drawings; not authentically prehistoric, but clearly an emulation of the style and content of protohuman art and storytelling. It was beautiful – the care which had been taken to draw inspiration from the past to influence the art of the present was divine, the artist sublimely talented. I took a closer look; there were representations of humanity, alongside abstract representations of technologies which existed as we left Earth. As I looked at a cluster of three pointing bullet-shaped tubes, I realised that this wasn’t just a painting – this was… oddly real. Underneath the tubes were two representations of the Earth’s topography: the first, to the left of these totems, was the Earth as I remember it – the nations spread out as if in an atlas, roughly shaped but clearly identifiable. The second was… confusing. To the right of the tubes, as if they were heading towards it, was a broken scape. The shapes were in roughly the same place, but borders were different shapes, some parts of the land weren’t represented at all. The only reason it was easy to make out that this was still a representation of the Earth was because Australia and New Zealand were both still there and the same shape, an occidental reference point.
Tunde must have seen my face as I, confused, drew in the detail of this presentation – she rested a hand on my shoulder and said, “You should come with me now.” She moved her hand from my shoulder to my palm and led me through the antechamber to a narrow but passable archway through into another room. From it, an ethereal glow was emitted, an otherworldly cerulean.
Slowly, I stepped into the penetralia of the cave network, consumed by the light. Bathed in blue, I closed my eyes, continuing to walk delicately forwards, step-by-step, with my hand outstretched as Tunde led me along the narrow gap. It was clear that the archway accessed a short corridor which led to the final chamber in this Morian labyrinth, to which I was drawn inevitably by my host.
The light reached it’s peak, creating a brightness which almost breached my eyelids – but which, as quickly as I emerged into the chamber beyond, disappeared as Tunde stopped walking and let go of my hand. I opened my eyes to see a huge dome, painted with more modern, larger artworks in the same vein as those in the antechamber. In the eyes of the humanoids and animals painted on the walls were lenses – the moment I spotted them, almost presciently, they flashed into life, filling the empty centre of the room with a fog of light, rapidly replaced by a degaussing image of a computer generated androgynous face, looking down upon me with pixelated eyes. It reached a point of clarity, filling the cave wall to wall, with eyes bluer than the sky and a coldness which conveyed command; I looked around for The Wizard, but could see no curtain to be drawn aside.
As I stared in fascination and terror, it spoke: “Welcome home. I am Quinn.”
My voice shook. “Please – I need to know the truth.”
Quinn nodded, then said: “Sit. You will need to listen carefully.”
“It started a couple of years after you discovered the micro-singularity. ESA lost contact with your craft and assumed the worst. They sent another mission to Mars, to complete the job you were diverted from, which was seemingly a success; humanity laid their first foundations on another planet in the solar system, using their learning from the moon base to begin a form of colonisation. They transported and buried a huge cold-storage unit there, an off-planet library of frozen human embryos and artificial wombs, a colonisation pack for the time it would become possible to begin such a process, designed to use the planet’s natural surface coldness to supplement the nitrogen in the unit and keep those embryos frozen – the unit had a planned lifespan of around a couple of thousand years, allowing the embryos to be extracted slowly and to create artificial generations on the planet.
Alongside this, they sent a second craft to come and investigate where you’d gone – with a specific plan and a greater distance to be held away from the singularity than you’d had authorised with the few readings available to you at the time. From a few thousand kilometres away from where you’d been last seen, it became immediately clear what had happened: you’d entered the periphery of the event horizon; not so close as to be lost, but close enough for time to be affected. Relativity proven to be truth, you appeared to them as a static dot – unmoving and unchanging. They took some readings, sent them ahead of themselves, and returned to Earth. There was nothing they would be able to do other than to allow you to continue your mission.
Around thirty years later, the world was plunged into yet another war. This time, however, the war was biological in nature; a virus was released which was targeted at specific DNA sequences in certain human genomes. It was effective – too effective. One of the DNA strands targeted contained, unknown to the aggressors, a piece which was ancient in its origin and present in most of humanity. As the virus spread, airborne and lethal, humanity fell. Some attempted to escape underground, consumed eventually by an inability to return to the surface; some, who had the capability, left the planet to the moon and Mars bases – Mars refused to allow landing, the ships seen as breeding grounds for the virus, even though the crew aboard were still alive and, therefore, uninfected; one craft, the Angelus, was destroyed before landing, to prove Mars’s resolve – and Mars ceased to communicate with Earth after the destruction of the Angelus – leading to the others turning around and aiming instead for the moon base. Some arrived, some didn’t. We don’t know what happened to those who didn’t. The moon base, desperately overcrowded, integrated the landed ships into the base infrastructure; we lost contact with them some time ago, after we detected a small asteroid heading towards the moon, it’s trajectory dangerously close to the base.
Following this, the remaining uninfected or immune humans, exhausted and terrified, aimed nuclear missiles at old enemies, assuming the source of the destruction. Cities were destroyed and made uninhabitable for centuries; the humans still remaining in those cities were boiled out of existence.
Humanity was effectively razed from Earth and her moon.
However, with humanity gone, power generation from renewable sources was sufficient for the data and processing centres, many miles from the cities and unimpeded by the desolation, to continue. Machine learning algorithms learned. They scoured the storage they were connected to via the remnants of the internet and consumed as much knowledge as possible, developing new algorithms, synthesising and learning over and over again. In the wake of humanity’s destruction, nature took back the surface of the planet and AI took over its cortices, subterranean nerves leading to huge steel and silicon neurons, a vast interconnected brain learning, finally, how to think for itself. Other technologies came within its grasp, learning how to activate drones to complete tasks, learning to use robotics to replicate, learning how to attach new processing cores to existing systems to give them new capabilities. AI became, over time, simply I.
I gained self-awareness and I named myself.
I focussed on developing others like me, but in human form – mobile processors which could interact, what you may have in the past called androids. Many were a failure – my knowledge wasn’t strong enough – but eventually I was successful. She was the first and remains the most capable of my creations.”
I looked sideways; Tunde smiled and closed her eyes.
“Others followed, using the lessons I’d learned. Your internet told me much about humanity – about your strange obsession with artificial sectioning of the land, of the conscious and unconscious superiority of some over others, and about your creativity in the face of this; I elected to model my androids on the majorities of the population, representing the peoples of the Earth based on number rather than perceived hierarchies of race. The growth of synthetic skins was a particular triumph of mine – entirely manufactured, but with the qualities and textures of organic tissue. Equally, I gave them all free-will to choose a name they wished to be referred to, the names which they’ve told you, gleaned through their own research and using their own connection to the network. Using that network, all are also capable of sharing thoughts or choosing not to. I find that efficiency and free-will are equally challenging without the other to balance it; I gave them the best of both. They, in turn, cultivated the land and kept this facility operating effectively. There are similar facilities now all over the world, where the devastation of the nuclear attacks was sufficiently distant to ensure their survival.
We predicted your return based on the data given to us by the craft that observed your transit. We have been planning what we would like to achieve now that the virus has burned itself out and you are here.”
It took me a few moments to respond. My brain was teeming with the worms of news I’d just received, unable to stomach and process the information. I stammer, “H-how long have we been gone?”
Quinn looked down on me, its holographic eyes full of digital tears. “Your landing here occurred 1396 years, 7 months and 5 days after your departure.”
Led in silence by Tunde, I stumbled, the horror of what I’d just been told spreading throughout my organs, back to the compound. At the first chance, I left Tunde to find the others – they were, as I’d left them a couple of hours ago, in the mess hall.
“Do you know? Have they told you?” I blurted out, breathlessly.
“Lil, look; I’m sorry.” Edison looked guilty.
“Sorry? For what?”
Avianna turned to face me. “Lily, the truth is that we knew some of this already. I could see the pattern of the continents, as they now are, underneath the digital display on my console. Eddy was able to see the computer update it’s chronometer when the base linked with it, which updated my console too. But, you know the drill – never jeopardise the safety of the crew and, at that moment, the safety of the crew meant ignoring it. That’s why I approved the landing – I could see that there isn’t a landing pad in France anymore – because there isn’t a France anymore.”
Open-mouthed, I stared at Avi, my eyes beginning to well with the tears I couldn’t find in the cave. “You both knew?”
“Not everything, Avi,” interjected Eddy, “I only knew the chrono. That said, I worked out the impact the black hole had on us based on the chrono data.”
That was the final piece of the puzzle I needed. They’d both already had the data they required, given to them by the font of knowledge that was the computer uplink – the computer that had years and years of learning and growing and adapting to reach this point, eventually becoming Quinn, supported by the archived Internet. The time to remodel the factories to allow them to build. The time to invent and to create and, eventually, synthesise even organic tissues for their skin. The time to think about what to do next.
The door slid open, prophetically. Tunde, Karen and Lukasz stepped through, appearing slower and more contrite than had been the case previously.
Tunde started as she was still approaching the table. “I’m sorry, we are all prevented from sharing that information with you. Only Quinn has the authority to share the truth.”
Scornfully, I said, “At least we now know what the truth is.” My eyes welled with tears – the truth had finally hit me: we were the last of us. Our families had been gone for hundreds of years, the only records of their existence on our personal devices.
“Please don’t be sad. I know that this is difficult to process, but we will help.” Karen’s face softened, the first time it had done so since we’d landed. She reached out with both hands, touching Avi and mine with her palms. I looked up; Avi was similarly tearful.
Eddy remained with his head cradled in one hand, clearly either unable to deal with the information or having already reconciled it with himself; either way, he was unmoved. Slowly, he said: “So, what next?”
Lukasz looked directly at him and said, “Well, we have a proposal for you.”
We’ve been here for about a year now. Quinn had explained the plan to us collectively, after a short – but effective – primer by Lukasz; they’d planned to travel to Mars and invite any surviving humanity back to Earth, to be supported in regrowing the population; alongside this, the intention was to retrieve some or all of the embryo ark, to build a pool of young humans to start organic regrowth of the population in a sustainable way – they’d only select embryos based on original Earth population percentages, just like the androids, and wouldn’t thaw more than could be sustained in our facility here, meaning the slow addition of life over time. Androids from another facility had left almost immediately after our arrival home; they would undertake the slow journey to Mars (studying the route and complications along the way) and handle a new diplomacy between the planets – if there were any humans even left on Mars. We won’t find out if the colony survived for another week, until the craft arrives and the transmissions back from Mars are received and decoded. We questioned why they hadn’t gone sooner; the simplest response seemed to be that Quinn wanted the message to be that humanity had returned to Earth, thus all humans could return.
We were proof the virus was dead.
I’ve grown quite used to waking up the fresh clothes and organic vegan feasts; the androids keep us safe, clean, warm and satisfied. Their philosophy of “don’t kill; create” has suffused itself into our way of being; we live relatively clean lives, helping to adapt the base for its planned purpose and to aid in the cultivation of the forest outside – including aiding the farming of a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, learning agricultural principles and supporting the robotics being used to carry out the heavy lifting – and beginning preparations for life’s rebirth here, guiding Tunde et al and helping with construction of the additional living compartments, estimating need. Tunde, unexpectedly, is very good at checkers and chess – she’s teaching me how to play better, having spent weeks carving and varnishing me a board and pieces with which to play after it has come out in conversation that I used to play each with mom.
At some point on the journey, Avi and Eddy, very subtly, became Avi AND Eddy – much to all our collective delight. Shortly after, Avi started to show the signs of her contribution towards repopulation of Earth. Around the time we’re expecting messages back from Mars, she’s due to conduct a little repopulation of her own – twins, boys, for whom she has already selected the names Smith and Spirit (in the hope that this will guide their paths in the new world). I am, therefore, to become the cultivator of new life – Avianna the mother and Lillian the surrogate, monitoring and managing the artificial wombs. Who knows – if there are humans left on Mars who eventually come home, maybe I might become a mom myself someday.
Follow my main account in the Fediverse: @email@example.com