I hung my head and pursed my lips, trying to think of something to say. I felt like kicking myself. What an idiot! I hadn’t realised that this would be required. My mind scrambled frantically to find the right words – something fitting that would describe humanity’s burning loss – but it was a daunting task. There was no getting away from the silence that hung in the void – it seemed to stretch on forever much to my dismay.
“Um. I…I want to say something,” I finally stammered. “Something um… to reflect the occasion. But the words I have don’t really seem adequate.”
“Go on,” mouthed Nina encouragingly.
“This place you see before you is our womb, the place where life began. The last resting place of so many people,” my voice trailed off shakily, from exhaustion, emotion? I’m not sure which.
“Ok firing up the scanners,” said Ed choosing to ignore the poignancy of what was taking place.
“My God Ed! Have you no soul?” I heard Nina exclaim angrily.
“Nope. I’ve received a full medical and have been declared free of all known parasites and pathogens,” answered Ed.
I ignored them both and continued.
“Today I wish to honour Earths dead on behalf of all the generations that came after – the ones that followed and felt their loss. To that end I wish to play a song and dedicate it to what remains of our prodigal broken planet.”
It seemed only fitting that I play the one song that had survived from old earth, the one written by Mozart and sang by his mother Eva Cassidy. I instructed Ed which song to play and suddenly it rang out loud and clear across the surface of the scorched planet.
“Somewhere over the rainbow – way up high,
In the land that I heard of once,
Once in a lullaby…”
That haunting sound echoed around the broken edifices of concrete that surrounded us, bouncing off the walls, reminding us that we were alone. I closed my eyes and imagined our world as it once was; an incomparable many faceted jewel, filled with an abundance of life that inhabited every type of terrain.
I was lost for a while in my own thoughts but then the song brought me back with its talk of bluebirds and rainbows. It sounded heartbreakingly beautiful to me.
By the time it was finished there was not a dry eye within several light years of where we were standing, excepting Ed of course.
“Right, time to get to work!” I said clapping my hands together loudly.
“Woohoo!” grinned Miles. “It’s showtime!”
Everyone smiled at the youngest member of our team. We all knew exactly how he felt. It had been the longest journey of our lives in more ways than one.
United in our lust for tangible evidence that mankind once thrived upon this planet we set off towards our first goal marvelling at the barrenness before us.
It was less than a mile from where we were standing and in our robotically enhanced exo suits we covered the distance in thirteen minutes.
At first we were puzzled as to why this site had been chosen. The concrete blocks in front of us looked no different than all the other meaningless jumble we had passed by. But as we got closer we realised that this assumption was wrong. Very wrong.
The area surrounding our target zone was entirely clear of other debris for eight hundred metres. Immediately I knew that this was a sign that this place had special significance for our ancestors.
Nina pulled out her hemicron dating unit and scanned the fallen stones.
I say stones and I say fallen because upon closer inspection I saw that they were not concrete blocks but natural rock hewn out of the ground and all of them had fallen as though at one time arranged in a concentric circle.
What could it mean? What purpose did it serve?
We gathered as much information as we could but the answers we wanted were just not there. I could sense the team’s frustration.
Presently the hemicron dating unit in Nina’s hand beeped shrilly. Everyone stopped what they were doing and crowded round. Nina stared open mouthed at the readout.
“That can’t be right,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“These stones were cut out of the ground and moved here six thousand years ago. We had no idea that our ancestors went so far back,” said Nina looking at the stones in wonder. “I wonder what they were for?”
Suddenly her posture stiffened and she gazed off into the distance.
“What is it?” asked Miles.
She handed him the scanner and started walking swiftly until she had gone well beyond the perimeter of the fallen stones.
“Nina?” I called after her.
She almost stumbled in her haste causing a cloud of dust to rise up.
“I saw something!” she shouted over her shoulder.
She was almost out of view now and had obviously forgotten all about mission protocols.
“You go with her Ed,” I sighed. “And remind her we’re working within a very limited time frame here.”
While they were gone the rest of us busied ourselves taking rock samples and visual records. No doubt all of us were wondering what had gotten into Nina. A few minutes later Ed returned slightly out of breath and perspiring.
“She’s gone,” he said.
We all stared at him in open mouthed confusion.
“Gone? Gone where?” I demanded. We hadn’t got time for this sort of nonsense.
“I chased after her but somehow I lost track of her. It was almost as if she’d disappeared into thin air. Perhaps it was the dust and all,” he suggested.
“Did she say anything about where she was going?” I asked, trying to conceal my growing anger. How could she be so stupid, wasting our precious time like this!
“She said there were survivors,” replied Ed looking uncomfortable.
Everyone was talking at once now.
“How could there possibly be survivors?” someone exclaimed.
“Yeah and how come we haven’t seen any?” growled Miles.
“Greetings!” said an unknown voice from behind us.
We all spun round completely stunned to find a middle aged man standing there observing us. How could this be?
It took a few moments for it to register that he wasn’t wearing any kind of suit to protect him from the hostile environment. Could it be that he wasn’t really human like my virtual PA back home?
We stared; both studying and assessing each other in our own individual ways. His was a bland appraisal, mine a wondering curiosity.
“Perhaps you are wondering if I am human,” he suggested.
“Yes, I am,” I answered.
I saw no point beating about the bush.
“The answer is no. I am a meta man. A unique artificial life form created by Dr Rita Meade,” the android replied.
There was an uncomfortable silence while we wondered if he was a threat in any way.
“Are there any more of you? Any survivors?” Miles asked.
“No. I’m a prototype. One of a kind,” it said. “And in answer to your second question the last human died thirty two years after the impact.”
I thought I detected a note of sadness in its voice. Could it be that it was programmed to have feelings? I certainly hoped not. I decided that it was best to change the subject and hopefully turn this discovery to our advantage.
“We’ve lost contact with one of our team members. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that would you?” I asked.
The instant the words left my lips he vanished.
“Damn!” I cursed loudly.
“Do you think he has her?” Terra asked. She sounded distinctly edgy.
“Well it’s not looking good, put it that way!” I answered grimly. “But we can’t afford to waste any more time looking for her. It’s time to move on to the next site.”
That did not go down well at all. Whilst we waited for Caspar to send along the transports the whole group took turns casting injured looks in my direction. It made no difference that I repeatedly tried to contact her via the intercom system. I got no response from either them or the intercom.
A low pitched hum signalled the arrival of our transportation. Already programmed with the co-ordinates of our destination they dutifully whisked us away as we lay back in the plush leather seats, trying in vain to relax. From our elevated position we had a much better view of the pock marked surface.
Deep craters of every shape and size peppered the diseased landscape. In some places there were more than others. Twisted metal and charred unidentifiable ruins lay everywhere, sprouting out of the ground like miserable deformed fungi. It was hard to imagine that many, many centuries ago an advanced civilization once thrived there.
Suddenly there was a buzz of intermittent static over the intercom. The sound had everyone’s full attention. We were all hoping it would morph into Nina’s voice and presently it did so.
“Jerome?” she said doubtfully. “Can you hear me?”
Another buzz of static briefly broke the connection.
“Nina!” I yelled, raising my voice more than I had intended to.
“Thank god!” she breathed.
“Where are you?” I asked. “Give us a location.”
“He took me to this underground bunker, over on the far side. It’s massive. It has its own air supply and everything. Apparently his maker, Dr Rita Meade constructed it to survive the impact. She died thirty two years ago,” she said in an indistinct voice.
“He wants to keep me here! As a companion,” she sobbed. “But it’s ok. I managed to shut him down. I don’t think it will last long. He’s locked in a self- repair cycle.”
“Calm down Nina,” I said soothingly. “Did he hurt you?”
“Good. I think we should be able to find you ok. See if you can get above ground and find some sort of landmark and I’ll get Caspar to scan for underground anomalies. In the meantime we’ve no choice but to carry on. But we’ll keep in contact. Ok?”
“Ok,” she sniffed.
I could almost see her misty eyes. This was a far cry from the bubbly Nina that we all knew. But it was a pretty frightening scenario being held captive by some delusional meta man on a splintered planet that was destined for destruction. No one could blame her.
I called Caspar over the intercom and explained the situation. It didn’t take him long to locate the series of bunkers. I let Nina know that Caspar would be with her within the hour.
“Please tell him to hurry!” she pleaded. “I have no idea when he will be back on line.”
“He’ll be there as soon as he can. That’s a promise,” I told her.
Within half an hour we were busy excavating the remains of a strange stretch of concrete paving imprinted with countless hand prints with what appear to be names beneath. I say names with a little uncertainty because here in the twenty fifth century names like Greta Garbo and Frank Sinatra are unheard of. But apparently they were in common usage during the Early Tech Period. It was just staggering to us the spine tingling feeling of placing our own hands inside those imprints, feeling the angle and placement of the palms. For all we knew they could have been ancestors of ours, forebears from another time in almost another plane of existence.
“Jerome!” someone shouted.
My heart jumped into my mouth. It was a cry of alarm. Not what I was expecting, or hoping for.
“What?” I asked standing up.
My legs were sore from crouching.
“Oh shit!” someone murmured. “Oh shit no!”
I looked to see what everyone was pointing at. There against the dense blackness punctuated with stars was our star ship taking off in preparation for its voyage home.
All over my body every pore wept with fear. Something had gone badly wrong.
“Caspar!” I shouted over the intercom. “What in the founder’s name is going on? Answer me!”
I half expected him not to reply, and he didn’t for nineteen minutes. To us it seemed like eons.
We all sat down in the dirt and wept. Wept at the lost opportunity for humanity to learn about his heritage; what made us who we are today. We had learnt so much and now…well, now it was all wasted.
Suddenly there was a garbled transmission.
“Hey Jerome,” Said Caspar.
His voice was far too easy going, even for his standards.
“What’s happening?” I cried.
“We’re heading for home Jerome,” came the obvious answer.
“Well, I think you forgot a little something,” I said indignantly. “US!”
“I had no choice,” he protested. “Look. I’m really sorry!”
“What does that mean you have no choice? Spit it out damn it!” I shouted vehemently.
“It means he’s a hostage…of sorts,” said a voice.
“Nina? Is that you?” Ed said in disbelief.
“No,” said the voice. “I just pretended to be Nina so that Caspar would allow me on board.”
It was the meta man!
“What is your intent?” I asked nervously.
“My intent is to make my way to your planet where I will share my knowledge of history with what remains of humanity in return for the companionship of a suitable woman – as you know I have been alone since Dr Rita Meade passed away,” said the meta man. “I offered the position to Nina, but sadly she refused to be my companion. Firstly because she is in love with you and secondly because she wishes for mankind to learn all there is to know about the past from first hand study. A foolish notion as I know all there is to know. It could have been so much easier.”
Yeah but you’re about as stable as a summer cloud, I thought reminding myself that he had impersonated Nina to get what he wanted.
“They will not let you back without the ship’s crew,” I told him. “They have the landing codes. You’re wasting your time. There are other, much more intelligent ways to get what you want. It’s just a shame you’ve been so hasty. A real shame.”
We waited in silence for several moments while I allowed this to sink in.
“Explain,” said the Meta man.
I managed to subdue the deep intake of breath I wanted to take and decided on taking the ultimate gamble. But it would require the utilisation of some clever psychology.
“I’m sorry to tell you, you are not unique. Mankind has since created many more like you. Our planet is full of them,” I told him.
I could almost imagine the barely discernible slumping of his shoulders at this unexpected piece of news. It was perhaps the illusion of uniqueness that had allowed him to ride rough shod over us to reach his objective.
“However some of them are indeed special like yourself and have even been granted status on a par with flesh and blood humans. Take for instance Philomena Kane, my superior. She is an artificial life form just like you but she holds the position of chief planetary historian. I don’t mind saying that she is an incredible woman but she refuses to consider humans for relationship material. Shame you couldn’t have met her,” I added.