I often find myself wondering how long humans have been fascinated by time and history. There are those who would suggest that it’s the unknown, the unobtainable that drives our hunger. And perhaps they are right.
The loss of our home world seven centuries ago was indeed a catastrophe beyond all imagination. We were at the very zenith of our technological achievement when the asteroid hit. It literally split our planet in two, sending one part careening into the heart of sun whilst the other disappeared into the far reaches of the solar system.
For those that escaped death by boarding the generational star ships, the shock went far beyond the physical. More than half experienced severe mental disturbance and could serve little or no function at all. Those that failed to respond to extensive treatment were euthanized to avoid fruitlessly draining their ship’s resources. Flash backs and nightmares were common place in the early days but those were generally managed with drugs and therapy. Our mass exodus as a species began with destruction and madness so little wonder then that we quickly lost sight of our past.
What tiny fraction of history that could be preserved was said to have been housed inside a gigantic space faring museum that followed the convoy of nine ships. All went smoothly until four years into the journey when the star ship carrying it’s cargo of irreplaceable artefacts experienced a code red reactor malfunction and exploded taking three other vessels along with it. Since that time the majority of our history has been lost, yet many still grieve and yearn for it.
Some continue to tell the stories that were supposedly handed down from one generation to the next. Such as the story of Mozart -the child prodigy who first invented music, the deeply disturbing Legend of the Three World Wars and the incredible tale of Jesus Christ the master magician. But it is hard to distinguish fact from make believe. A few genuine artifacts remain in existence today, but they only serve to fuel speculation. Even at this point in time, there are just far too many blanks to fill in and not enough information. That’s where I, Jerome Frost come in as head of The Terrestrial History Division.
Since colonizing Earth MK4 three hundred and sixty two years ago it has been in the task of The Terrestrial History Division to verify and track down everything and anything pertaining to earth’s history. Up until recently that had been an extraordinarily difficult task fraught with many challenges.
But after countless decades of struggling to make sense of the uncorroborated stories from old Earth whilst hampered by the steady flow of fraudulent relics, it suddenly seemed as though all our birthdays had come at once.
My hands were shaking slightly as I adjusted the focus. It was hard to believe our good fortune as I peered through the lens of the world’s most powerful telescope. There was no doubt in my mind of what I was looking at even without the confirmatory rock samples – I’d seen the ancient grainy visuals from long ago. Just wait until the general public heard about this! It was beyond astonishing.
There on the outer most edge of the Vertigo Belt,the original Earth’s only surviving half could now be seen tearing its way through the weak gravity well of the asteroid field, demolishing everything in its path.
Presently I stood up straight and asked Tarlan Six the obvious question.
“Do you really think we can successfully land on that thing and build a base?”
The spinning hunk of shattered planet was not giving me the impression that she was going to sit back and play nice. I could almost visualize myself and the team of historians I’d trained spinning off into deep space the moment we tried to set foot on that hideously charred piece of rock.
“Yes I do,” replied Tarlan tersely. “All the simulations check out ok. And we won’t really have to build the base there. It’s actually a self-contained unit that just requires that we deploy the titanium firing pins which will secure it firmly in place.”
Tarlan six was as stunningly beautiful as she was officious, from her immaculately coifed chestnut hair right down to her polished jade boots. She caught me staring and arched an eyebrow in silent reprimand before continuing.
“You will roughly have about seventy two hours before the mass enters the upper atmosphere of the planet Pharamos Prime making any further excavation impossible.”
It sounded suspiciously simple to me, and I hoped it would be in practice, but I seriously doubted it.
Just one question remained.
“So how soon can you get us there?” I asked, praying there would be no red tape.
“If all goes to plan we can launch at oh nine hundred hours tomorrow,” was the swift reply. “The journey itself will take approximately eighteen hours. In the meantime you must designate an eight member team and make sure they submit themselves for the necessary health checks.”
Tomorrow? I hadn’t expected it to be so soon! I swallowed my surprise and assured her that we would be ready.
What the hell was I going to do? I didn’t have an eight man team of trained archaeologists at my disposal. I would have to call in a few favours to make up the numbers and I had very little time to do so. A sleepless night before my first space flight seemed unavoidable.
By the time six a.m. rolled round I was sitting in my office wondering how on earth I’d managed to boost the numbers up to seven. But this gave me no reason to celebrate, we were still one short and I had no idea what would happen once mission control realised that we didn’t have a full team. Surely everything would still go ahead? Wouldn’t it?
Suddenly Miss Kane my virtual PA buzzed through to my office interrupting my thoughts.
“Someone is here to see you Mr Frost. Shall I show them in?” she said.
It was a far too early in the day for visitors, but I wearily told her to send them through anyway. I half expected it to be Tarlan Six here to tell me that the mission was being cancelled. I braced myself mentally to fight tooth and nail in order to save it. This was our one and only chance in all likelihood.
As the door opened I stood and found myself facing not only the beautiful Tarlan Six but a second woman of equal if not superior beauty. It was all a bit much so early in the morning!
I forced a smile and motioned for them to take a seat.
“Jerome, this is Nina Bosco, your eighth team member. Nina this is Jerome,” Tarlan said without preamble.
She took in my thunderstruck expression and shrugged. “Didn’t you realise I’d be keeping a close eye on your progress or lack thereof? I thought you were a smart man?”
Her eyes bored into mine as though searching for some kind of weakness or uncertainty.
“She’s already been brought up to speed. So that leaves you half an hour to get acquainted. See you back at the space docks at oh seven hundred hours.”
Once Tarlan was gone things didn’t get any easier. I was in a room on my own with an impossibly beautiful woman who looked as though she was struggling to suppress a peal of laughter – and at my expense too.
“Is something amusing Miss Bosco?” I said raising an eyebrow.
“Um, yes. You getting bulldozed by Tarlan Six,” she laughed. “Quite a character isn’t she?”
“You could say that,” I muttered feeling mildly annoyed. “Come take a look at these maps.”
On the ether screen in front of us was a map of the surface. Red boxes highlighted four areas of special interest.
“That’s where we’ll be concentrating our efforts,” I explained zooming in for a closer view.
“It’s going to be so exciting,” Nina said, her eyes shining with enthusiasm. “What do you think we’ll find there?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” I told her. “But we’ll know soon enough.”
Twenty one hours later her excitement had amplified mine and pretty much everyone else’s who was travelling with us. As I stepped out gingerly onto the planetary fragment I was surprised to detect a distinct lump in my throat but to my way of thinking you would have to be made of stone not to feel just a little bit emotional in light of where I was standing. This was the unmarked graveyard of over seven billion people and it was unavoidable that it weighed heavily on my mind. As I looked around the barren wasteland my knees almost gave way at the thought.
“Go on! Say something!” Eli hissed, pointing his vid cam in my direction.
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, except for 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,” 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 just 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 after the asteroid hit,” 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 appeared 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 our 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. “We 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.
“Your point being?” said the meta man.
“My point is that although special, you are not unique and that you will be held accountable if you continue with this course of action. Permanent deactivation is inevitable –unless you turn around,” I concluded.
“I don’t want to be alone,” came the plaintive reply.
His words seemed to echo through the harshness of space.
“Neither do we,” I answered swiftly. “Turn the ship around and we’ll pretend this never happened.”
“Why should I trust you?” he protested.
Indeed, why should he? I was angry beyond belief that he had conspired to abandon us. It had crossed my mind several times that he deserved nothing less than retirement. But I knew that he was the key. Without him all the artefacts we might potentially find would be worthless. Meaningless without this technological Rosetta stone.
We could try and rip what we could from his memory banks before deactivation but the chances were that we’d lose the lot. The risk was too great in my opinion.
“You should trust me because it’s the only chance you’ve got,” I said coldly. “Without us you’re dead in the water. You will have no future. Nothing. However…the same is true of us, but in reverse. Without you we have no past.”
“So come pick us up motherfucker!” shouted Miles angrily.
His eyes sparked like colliding electrons. I frowned in annoyance at his irresponsible outburst. He’d pay for that later. He always had lacked discipline. Thankfully though, the meta man chose to ignore it.
“Standby,” ordered the meta man in a mechanical voice.
We waited and waited, nervously scanning the sky. Suddenly the ground heralded the arrival of our transport home; shaking and vibrating with the impact of the ship touching down again.
The readouts within our suits told us that it was not too far. Literally just fifteen hundred metres away behind a sloping mound of rubble. All of us sprinted like trained athletes towards the spot, churning up a long line of dust in our wake.
As if from nowhere Nina appeared alongside us, arms pumping as she joined us in our race towards our precious starship. Too breathless for words we glanced at each other through misted visors, our awkward grins betraying our relief at seeing each other once again.
The ship loomed before us shedding squares of artificial light onto the ground. It was our only connection to home and our hearts warmed to see it.
With a steady humming whir the walk way extended and we made our way cautiously into the dark interior.
Why were there no lights?
“Caspar! Turn on the lights!” I ordered over the intercom.
Nothing happened so we turned on our external flash lights in order to see where we were going.
The hangar was huge. Built with cavernous, padded recesses in order to accommodate any finds that we might wish to bring on board. There in the darkness, the meta man crouched, hunched up in recess number five – rocking and crying like the proverbial baby.
Nina was the first to make a move.
“Hansai?” she said softly. “What’s wrong?”
She approached him carefully as one would a wounded animal. He lifted his head and his eyes fizzed blue with a dangerous combination of tears and static.
“I am overwhelmed!” he cried hoarsely, throwing an arm over his eyes. “There are too many of you!”
His words emanated outwards from him like a sonic boom, almost knocking Nina off her feet. Like a bitter pill she swallowed her fear and took two steps closer.
“That is understandable Hansai,” she murmured softly. “You have been alone here for so long. If you open the door the others can go inside. Jerome and I will stay. We want to make sure you’re alright first.”
This triggered another seismic round of sobbing from Hansai, but even so the door hissed open allowing the others to leave, albeit reluctantly.
Nina and I stood quietly in the shadows, watching and waiting. Eventually the shaking of his shoulders subsided and his tears dried salty on his porcelain skin.
With hooded eyes he looked at us before asking a searching question.
“Why do you care?”
He seemed to be expecting Nina to answer, so I surprised him and began to speak in the lowest calmest voice I could manage.
“We care because we are human,” I told him simply.
“But humans left me,” he sobbed violently. “Dr Meade created me, then left me alone on this damnable rock.”
“We are limited by our programming Hansai. We all die at some point,” I told him. “Dr Meade did not wish to leave you any more than she wished the planet to be torn asunder.”
“She should not have created me then,” he croaked. “It was a selfish, abhorrent decision.”
“Not necessarily!” I shot back. “Have you not enjoyed some parts of your life?”
“Well, yes…” He answered. “When she was alive I was never happier. But everything changed once she passed on.”
“But your life has not ended Hansai,” said Nina intervening quickly. “You have the potential to be happy yet. Come with us and you will have a blank canvas open to whatever broad strokes you wish to make. On Earth MK4 you will be valued like no one else; human or otherwise. The knowledge you have is unique. You are unique. Yes there are others like you in a physical sense. But your mind alone is a treasure of priceless proportions and even without that knowledge, it is clear to me that you are a special person. You have survived when many others would have lost the will to go on. You could easily have shut yourself down once and for all. But something has kept you going all these years. What was it? What has kept you going Hansai?”
Some sort of internal struggle seem to possess him for a few minutes and the question hung unanswered between our nervous trio.
“Hope has kept me going,” he said finally. “I hoped that one day I might have human contact again. Even female contact. But fear has caused me to destroy any potential for a relationship like the one Dr Meade and I enjoyed. I have ruined everything. No one will desire me when they know what I am. What I have become. I shall be alone.”
“No!” cried Nina emphatically. “You will not!”
“File dump complete.” Said the ships computer interrupting suddenly.
“Hansai? What are you doing?” I asked trying to hide my growing alarm.
“I am going,” he answered flatly. “You have what you need. I’ve downloaded all my data banks. My existence is no longer required.”
“Hansai! NO!!!” pleaded Nina reaching out to him. “Don’t do it!”
“Goodbye,” he said holding his head up high.
And with the briefest flash of light he was gone, gone for all time.