What remains of Heroes
Faith, Former Hero Colony, Switzerland – Friday, the 30th of June, 2017. 09:05 AM.
It’s been five years since the world ended and a new one began, and as I look at it now, I am once again overwhelmed by how beautiful it is. Across the river, a short distance from the pier where I’m sitting, the wheat we planted in spring is approaching harvest season, not yet golden but taller and greener than any wheat I ever saw in the Before. The river water is crystal clear, and the air – as clean and fresh as it must have been a millennium ago – smells of flowers that didn’t even exist until The Change. Breathing it in makes me feel heady. Makes me wonder if you can smell it, too.
As much as I enjoy the sights and smells around me, I didn’t always feel this way. It took me years to come to terms with what we’d lost, and learn to appreciate what we’ve gained. The first winter was tough; the snow fell four feet deep, more than any of us here in Faith were accustomed to. We struggled to preserve fruits and vegetables without sugar or vinegar and we didn’t have much of a clue how to survive. We used to be a generation of technology addicts. We pressed buttons and computers made things happen for us.
To you, the Before is going to be a bedtime story. A fairytale you dream about after I kiss you goodnight and tuck you into the little birchwood bed your father is making for you. Before long, you’re going to pelt us with questions what the world was like when metal birds flew across the sky and the roads were too dangerous to play on. I got you some storybooks from the traders who came up the mountains early in June, but if I’m being perfectly honest here – and as your mother, I should be – I cried a little as I leafed through the pages to look at the pictures.
I miss the ocean. I miss the tangy smell of it, and the way the waves rippled in the early evening light. Now the nearest shore is half a continent away because Eden – the girl who remade the world – decided to reunite all the former heroes and their close relatives at the foot of the Alps, in her own homeland. I understand why she did it; it’s not like I didn’t want for all of us to stay together. But I miss the ocean anyway.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I miss pressing buttons, too. I wish I could get you one of those crib mobiles with music and light effects, like the one my baby brother had. Whenever the lights went out and the darkness filled his room, he started to cry and didn’t stop until his mobile chimed and sparkled and made everything magical. I wish we could have that same reassurance. Something to let us know that ten or fifty years from now, the world will still be a peaceful, magical place for our kids to grow up in.
I still miss Dylan. He would be eight by now; I’m sure he’d enjoy his role as your uncle.
There aren’t too many kids around, so I hope you’re going to be okay growing up around teens and adults. We all expected an uptick in pregnancies the first year or two, because, you know, there isn’t that much to do in winter, and the things that used to stop pregnancies from happening don’t exist anymore. But the opposite happened. I honestly don’t know the reason. It could be a change to our bodies, or some kind of substance in those plants we eat that sprout like weeds everywhere. Fact is, you’re going to be the fourth child to be born into our community in five years.
So, little one. You’re going to be everyone’s superhero. When I told your father we were going to have a baby, he pulled me into his arms and held me so tight I could barely breathe . He’s a strong guy, you know. Back when we were still fighting the bad guys, he swung an ax almost as tall as I am, with a massive steel blade that was covered in glowing Viking runes. Sometimes I wonder what happened to that ax. Maybe it’s still out there somewhere, sleeping at the bottom of a lake, waiting for future generations to uncover it as an artifact of legend.
Anyway, this strong, long-haired guy with the resolve of a Scandinavian bear nearly crushed me before he turned away abruptly, muttering something about willow twigs for a crib and rushing out of our house all so I wouldn’t see the wet shimmer in his eyes. I saw it anyway when he came back, loaded not only with willow twigs but a basket of blueberries and trout from the river. He didn’t say anything else for a while, but he busied himself by making us a wonderful dinner. I’ve never gone hungry since.
David once asked me why I fell for Pär – Rune – of all people. I actually didn’t know at the time, but, after I thought about it more, I figured out the answer. He’s dependable. At some point after that harsh first winter, and the struggle to get our hastily built log cabins upgraded for the next winter, I stopped being an angry teenager and I guess dependable was what I wanted. Pär never even chased me. He didn’t go out of his way to spend time with me or make witty conversation. He was just… there, and he was mature, and level-headed, and he knew how to get things done. Without him, we’d probably still be huddled around a fire in a cave and relying on traders for our long-term needs.
Oh, and he used to kick some serious ass. He was one of the few heroes who knew how to take the fight to the bad guys.
The last time I talked to Emily, she wanted me to consider hooking up with David or Peter. I actually did consider them, you know. Peter surprised me by turning into an all-around good guy, just like Emily said he would, and he’s always out and about to fill up the water tanks or help fix someone’s roof. But he’s still not the type to commit to that one special girl forever. David would have been, I think, but he left in the first spring to accompany Jasper in his quest to find Sarina.
I really hope they find her. Sarina has to be somewhere out there, as confused as Emily was when she showed up the second day. Emily just materialized out of thin air, having lost most of her memories and her powers. She couldn’t tell us what had happened or where the others were. But she recognized me immediately and I think her strong desire to be with me and the other ex-heroes could have been what drew her back to us. How she found her way back from wherever gods go when the reality they live in ceases to exist.
I suspect that she retained a fraction of her power, hid it away inside herself somehow. Maybe the rest of us still have that tiny spark as well. I can’t make forcefields or run like I used to, but my skin doesn’t get burnt when I get too close to a fire, and my cuts and bruises seem to heal faster than they should. If this is a new kind of power that survived The End, I hope I can pass it on to you. Playing outside is a bit more dangerous now that the world is ruled by Mother Nature. Thistles and thorn bushes everywhere; plants are growing like crazy. As far as I can tell, most of the small roads are already gone, covered by a carpet of dense vegetation.
When Jasper was still with us, he often mentioned that could still hear Sarina somewhere out there. That the sound of her soul is like a siren’s call, a distant harmony of ethereal chimes. He heard the rest of us as well, but the melodies were different, and he couldn’t tell someone was upset from miles and miles away. There was no such range limit with Sarina. When I sat with Jasper during one of his melancholic moods, he would often tell me how she was feeling right that moment. How she was content, but had never found true happiness in the After. That she most likely didn’t remember him.
I think that bothered him more than anything else. Was the fact that Sarina didn’t appear here with Emily a hint that she’d decided to go on without him, or was it a simple accident? Something she’d had no control over? I think he suspects it was a decision she made; maybe she felt she had to punish herself or something like that.
No, I don’t think powers are gone. Nora claims she can’t control the darkness anymore, but I saw her child – a boy who recently turned two years old, fathered by Athena’s brother– play with his own shadow. Then, there is the matter of your father, who killed a grown bear all by himself. He claims no powers were involved, but if powers are now relatively weak and subtle, how would he know for sure?
My train of thought is interrupted by a voice from behind me. “Hey, Chris,” she says.
It’s Emily. Her shadow falls over the edge of the pier and the gently rippling water below it, telling me by its asymmetrical shape that she’s carrying something round and relatively large. As I turn my head to smile at her, I see it’s one of the baskets my mother made, and that Emily’s orange cat is sitting in it. Mr. Tibbs glares down at me in feline disapproval. He was best friends with my dog until Barney died of old age, but now that he’s gone, the cat seems to hate me for some reason.
Maybe it’s because Emily spends too much time with me.
“Hey, munchkin,” I reply. The past five years have transformed Emily into a cute teenage girl with tousled bangs obscuring her blue eyes and a long auburn braid. She’s grown quite a bit and I really shouldn’t call her munchkin anymore, but if I’m persistent enough the nickname might bring a few of her memories back. I’m too stubborn to quit trying.
She gently sets the basket down in a sunny place a safe distance from the water, then strokes Mr. Tibbs’ head before moving to the edge of the pier to sit beside me. Her slender legs are still shorter than mine, so her feet dangle a scant inch above the water.
I ask the one question she never poses, most likely because part of her never stopped sensing empathic vibes. “How are you feeling today?”
Her eyes don’t flick toward me, instead focusing on the mountainous hills surrounding us. “Today is an okay day,” she says as if to herself.
I pluck a blade of grass to tickle her with. “What makes it okay and not great?”
“The fuzziness in my head.” Emily swivels to look at me but ignores the tickling. “It’s worse today than yesterday. Even Mr. Tibbs is giving me strange looks, like he knows something I don’t.”
“He probably does,” I say. “He knows how tasty field mice are, and he’s weirded out by the blueberry stains on your teeth.”
The joke fails to make her smile. She wipes her mouth absent-mindedly, gaze dropping to the blueberry stains on the front of her shirt. It’s an old shirt, like all of the bits and pieces of clothing we have left these days, patched and reinforced by burlap. But it’s the oversized one she wore when she appeared here after the end, and she really likes it. She grew into it. I can’t say I understand why she’s so attached to it. For most of us, shoes and warm winter clothes are a bigger concern than our favorite shirt.
God, how I miss the feel of running around in proper running shoes.
She’s frowning so hard that I decide to take her mind off of whatever it got stuck on. “There’s been another UFO sighting,” I reveal with my best attempt at a mysterious face.
“Another?” Emily’s eyes are wide with wonder.
“Yeah. Yesterday afternoon, some folks came up from the valley town to trade for our wool. They say a strange metal orb was flying around at night, headed up into the mountains. So, Peter was most likely right. Someone’s watching us.”
Emily gives me an incredulous look. “But how? All the technology is gone. The cars, the airplanes, the Internet… everything.”
Her confusion breaks my heart, but I do my best not to show it. “You don’t remember what I told you about Athena?”
“I do, but… if the world we live in rejects technology now, how can there be UFOs or whatever flying around?”
“We don’t know if it’s the world itself that rejects it.” I put my head back to scan the clear blue sky for strange foreign objects, squinting against the intense morning light. “I think that would have been really difficult to pull off even when you and Sarina still had your powers. Maybe you just erased all the tech devices that existed at the time. Which means that something from outside – from outer space – could still come visit.”
She doesn’t respond, so I give her a moment to mull over my theory. If Athena is still somewhere out there, and I really hope she is, it makes sense that she’d want to check on us. Her Greek family is here; her younger brother got married to Nora three years ago. I don’t know why Athena doesn’t come down to visit in person, but she must have her reasons.
I’m curious as to why Kathy and the genius Technician from Singapore never turned up here. Or Kasparov, Calavera, and the other international hero teams we were in contact with. Pretty much everyone who worked directly with our group lives in Faith, along with their close relatives and a handful of their good friends. Around eighty people all in all, though the Irish kid who used to travel with Sarina and Emily only stayed for a short while. He, his younger sisters, and their parents wanted to try and find a way to go back to Ireland.
I’m glad to have my parents nearby. My dad in particular seems to enjoy his new lifestyle as a sheep farmer, and we get along pretty well these days. But I don’t know anything about our extended family or Emily’s folks. As far as I remember, she and her parents were very close. I feel bad for her because it seems like they didn’t survive the end.
“Don’t be sad, Chris,” Emily says with a soft voice. “I’m sorry I changed everything so much before I lost my memory. Everything’s going to be okay, though. I promise.”
I can’t help but smile. “You used to say that a lot, you know.”
“Did I keep my promise?” Emily asks after chewing on her lip.
“I think so. If this place is representative for human communities elsewhere, you managed to solve world hunger forever. Along with overpopulation, environmental pollution, cyberterrorism and nuclear warfare. We still struggle because we don’t know how to live without all nice things we used to have, but mankind will learn and adapt. Overall I’d say you did a pretty good job.”
I chose to go with the optimist’s perspective because I don’t want her to feel sad and guilty about what’s already done and gone. If she’s still an Empath, she’ll know I have doubts about the future, but I don’t want those doubts to overshadow our lives. I choose to believe that Legion doesn’t still exist somewhere. I choose to believe that we can learn to make weatherproof shoes and clothes for coming winters. That mankind won’t find new reasons to wage wars with slingshots and sticks and that we won’t die of diseases we have no cure for.
The prospect of having a baby without proper hospital care already scares me enough.
“It’s going to be a girl, I think,” Emily says out of the blue, catching me off guard. “Don’t ask me why, though. It’s just one of those fuzzy feelings in my head.”
I stare at her for a moment before I find my voice again. “Do those fuzzy feelings tell you anything else I should know?”
She glances away, turning her eyes to the sky. “Nope. Nothing important, anyway.”
I decide not to press her. “Come on,” I say as I pull my feet from the river and stand up. “Let’s try and catch some fish.”
As I raise my eyes to the nearby forest, I see it: the gleam of something small, round, and metallic above a canopy of tall broadleaf trees. It’s gone the next moment, making me wonder if it was a trick of the light.
I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. We’re on our own now; Athena lost all of her earthbound tech, and it doesn’t look like she’s coming down for a visit. Still, I wish her the best and hope she’ll visit us when she’s ready. It must be lonely up there with no one but Morpheus for company.
Our community will thrive because we rely on each other. Together, we survived the end of the world and defeated Legion. The friendships we made along the way give us the strength to face whatever else may come.
I choose to embrace the future; we’ll make it into our ultimate happy ending.
Space Shuttle Phoebe, 250 miles above Earth – Friday, the 29th of June, 2012
Three hours before the end
Alexandra Latsis had nearly given up hope that he would ever find his way back to her, but shortly before the end that the Visionary had predicted, he finally did.
There wasn’t much left of him. A pale wisp of light, no more than the size of her coffee mug. He was hovering right outside the window closest to her, as if aware of her presence but afraid to come inside. As if he wasn’t sure he’d be welcome in the cramped cockpit of her space shuttle. When she realized what – or who – she was seeing through the window, her heart jumped to her throat and she shouted instructions to Morpheus as she scrambled to activate the device she had prepared in advance.
Originally, the life support system had been designed to keep her in body in a state of stasis if her food supply ran out. But when Kasparov contacted her to let her know how the world was going to end, her plans priorities shifted, and she had to find ways to repurpose her resources for a single goal: preservation of knowledge and technology in space. At least this was the rationale she clung to in order to justify her own actions.
It pained Alexandra to think of her mother, her younger brother, and the other relatives she had left behind in Greece. Now should have been the time to head back home and reunite with her family. To face the end alongside the people she valued the most and apologize for the decisions she’d made that led to her exile. Over the past few days, she had railed against her self-imposed fate again and again. Only in her dreams did she do the right thing: she commanded the shuttle to take her back home while there was still time left until the end.
In reality, making the choice wasn’t so easy. The man she couldn’t help but love needed her; she was the only one who could help him now. God knew she’d tried to give up on him. Andrey had never been unkind, but he’d been stingy with his affection throughout their entire relationship. His warmth for her had grown over the course of their separation, rekindling her affection in turn, but both of them had been too caught up in their hero duties to consider their feelings. Regardless of their lack of current relationship, Alexandra wasn’t ready to let him fade into the deep black void. Considering that he flickered inches from the window, drifting along to keep up with the shuttle’s slow rotation, he didn’t appear to be any more eager to give up than she was.
It took her a minute to boot up the coffin-sized apparatus and type the appropriate commands on the system console. That one minute seemed to stretch on indefinitely; every time she glanced to the window, she half expected Radiant’s pale shimmer to recede back into the eternal night. And when the device finally signaled its readiness by lighting up, she still didn’t have a plan for how she was going to assume his physical form inside of it. If he materialized anywhere else, he’d die in a fraction of a second. No amount of technology or superpowers could resuscitate the dead.
Technically, Radiant was no longer alive. His human body had succumbed to massive electrical shock and burns the very instant his surge transformed him into a sentient being of luminescent energy. According to Kasparov, the Lightshaper had the power to reclaim his physical form whenever he wanted, but instinctively knew that doing so would mean true death. But if his humanity was too far gone to understand and trust her, he’d remain a dying flicker light until the last of his energy was used up, and he faded into nothingness.
Alexandra rushed back to the window, her heart pounding in her chest. He was still out there, a dying light in a sea of darkness, drifting an arm’s length from her face behind the window’s inch-thick panes of glass. She raised a hand to signal him, then touched her fingers to her heart. There was no reaction. She should have expected this, but the disappointment still churned in her gut.
“Come inside, Andrey,” she pleaded, belatedly realizing that he couldn’t hear her. The glass barrier between them was too thick for sound to penetrate. She’d have to find another way to catch his attention.
After a frantic moment in which she considered her options, Alexandra rushed over to the toolbox that was strapped to the back of her pilot’s seat, opened it, and retrieved the flashlight she kept there in case of power outages. It was a fairly strong one, though its beam was narrow, and she wasn’t sure it would be enough to catch Radiant’s attention. She turned it on as she raced back to the window, then aligned the beam so it shone directly onto the wisp of light. Nothing happened. However, after she turned the beam on and off in rapid succession, Radiant flashed back. The reaction only lasted for about three seconds, and there didn’t appear to be a rhythm or pattern to it. Still, it let her know he was still able to communicate. She breathed a sigh of relief.
As a next step, she pointed the flashlight at her own face and assembled a smile for him. This time, it took a good long moment for him to react, but eventually he drifted closer to the window. When she took a step back, he followed. She kept taking small steps backward until he had passed through the thick glass panels and hung in the air in front of her, motionless except for the ripples of light he sent across the shuttle’s interior walls and window.
She kept the flashlight focused on her face as she spoke. “Andrey. If you can still hear me, please listen. I need you to trust me, and I need you to keep following this beam of light until I turn it off. When I turn it off, you have to return to your human body. I know this scares you. It scares me as well, but it is the one and only way for me to help you. If you understand, please flash back at me.”
When he didn’t give her the signal, she repeated everything she’d said, bit by bit, until he finally did. There was more she wanted to say, matters of the heart and mind he most likely wouldn’t be able to absorb or comprehend in his current state. So, she simply stood there, struggling for words, her trembling lips and watery eyes exposed by the flashlight she kept trained on herself.
He drifted toward her. A swath of luminescent energy brushed against her mouth, and she closed her eyes, painting a picture of Andrey in her mind’s eye. Not the hero she had let go from the Covenant and from her life, but the striking young man who had gifted her a cactus on her first day as a heroine. The Russian architect with the roguish smile who’d invited himself for coffee in his broken, heavily accented English.
She remembered the feel of his lips on hers. She remembered the scent and feel of him, the way he nuzzled the nape of her neck to make her laugh and distract her from negative thoughts. She remembered his dry, endearingly awkward sense of humor and the way he used to communicate with his hands and eyes when he couldn’t find the right English words.
The memories helped keep his image alive as she guided him into the life support device and waited for him to reclaim his physical form. She held on to that image as she pressed the button to activate the device’s stasis field, lacking the courage to study what truly remained of his body inside the coffin-like apparatus. The blinking red monitoring screen painted a clear enough picture: he was a charred husk of a man, trapped in critical condition until the day Alexandra’s research revealed a cure.
One thing was for sure. For as long as the technology she’d built was the only thing keeping Andrey alive, Alexandra couldn’t return to Earth.
She’d die of old age before she gave up on him.
Space Station Tiangong, 250 miles above Earth – Friday, the 9th of June, 2017.
The past five years had gone by in a haze, filled with moments of euphoria and despair. Today was one of those rare days where Alexandra remembered to take a look at the wall-mounted homemade calendar Kathy had made for her: a simple bricolage of cardboard and paper featuring pictures of Earth and neatly hand-written dates. She absently noted that another ten days had passed without her crossing them off in red pencil. Another ten days wasted, gone, never to be recovered.
Despite all of her tireless research, she wasn’t one step closer to discovering a reasonably risk free treatment for Andrey’s frozen body. The problem was that in order to treat him, she’d have to temporarily disable the stasis field, the very thing that was keeping him alive. She had successfully altered the system’s integrated brain-machine interface to communicate through dreamlike mental stimulation, but no amount of machine-supported telepathy would ever compare to real physical contact. On some days she missed him so much that she experienced physical sensations of loss all over her body. Her heart ached in a way she couldn’t explain in words, and her mind was often restless, refusing to drift off into sleep when she needed it the most.
Still, it was good to know Andrey was still somewhere in there. Still holding on, trusting her to find a solution no matter how many years it might take. He had retained his memories and responded to questions the way she expected him to. The personality she had fallen in love with was still evident. Fortunately, time passed differently for him, so the forced idleness had no negative effect on his psyche. He seemed more at peace than she was.
I could build him a new body, Alexandra mused as she lifted her mug for another sip of stale coffee. He learned how to play chess through the interface in a day. He should be able to control a robotic arm, perhaps even a mobile unit with humanoid limbs.
The idea enticed her. She was tempted to start drafting a design plan right away; to hell with her other research projects. Surely they could wait for a few days. However, a voice from the doorway to her office cut into her brooding silence, interrupting the train thought.
“Alexandra, for heaven’s sake! Have you even noticed that your coffee went cold hours ago?”
Feeling caught in an act of telltale self-neglect, Alexandra set the mug down on her desk and swiveled in her chair to glare at the intruder. Kathy stood in the doorway in her red jumpsuit, hair piled on top of her head in a disheveled bun, her ten month old baby cradled in her arms. The Greek-American IT specialist and former Athena sidekick had lost a good sixty pounds since the day she’d volunteered to wait out the apocalypse in space, but her ample curves and broad shoulders still made for an imposing figure.
This wasn’t a simple check-up for Alexandra’s sake; it was obvious that Kathy was making some kind of statement. There are other people still living here, the firm look in her eyes said. Stop keeping yourself locked up alone with a dead man.
Alexandra was about to protest, to emphasize the significance of her stasis engine for other ongoing projects, but then the baby fidgeted in Kathy’s arms and made a happy gurgling sound. Alexandra’s arguments dried up in her mouth. She felt a sting of guilt in her chest, not only because she barely remembered the child’s name but because she saw Kathy’s stern expression shift to wounded affection.
If it wasn’t for their old friendship and her deep sense of loyalty, the former IT specialist never would have agreed to join Alexandra’s space mission, and she certainly wouldn’t have stayed long enough to fall for Mark Yeo and give birth to two young spacemen. Mark and Kathy were the reason Alexandra no longer had to dwell inside a cramped shuttle. Shortly before the end, the two of them had loaded two more of Data’s shuttles with plants, small animals, and supplies before abandoning Earth to head up to the former research station.
Upon arriving there, Mark convinced the Tiangong’s crew of four researchers and engineers to cooperate for the greater good of humanity. The six of them – Mark, Kathy, and the Chinese crew – prepared everything necessary for the space rendezvous which ultimately allowed Alexandra’s shuttle to dock with the station. They had given up their earthbound friends and families to float in the great expanse, to drift among mute satellites and other remnants of human civilization.
Alexandra was grateful for the support, she truly was. She just wished they weren’t so persistent in distracting her from her work. The expansion of the station itself was done; the Tiangong now offered a decent level of comfort and long term sustainability for up to twenty people. Alexandra had done everything in her power to make it habitable and upgrade its surveillance systems for terrestrial research. Was it too much to ask that she be left alone now? It was almost as if the others conspired to keep her from finding a cure for Andrey.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she murmured, startled by the weary rasp of her voice. “Cold or not, it will keep me alive as I work on a new design.”
Kathy didn’t take the hint. The woman not only refused to leave, but moved over to Alexandra’s chair to gently put the baby on her lap. Little Mara – or was it Sara? – promptly grabbed a fistful of Alexandra’s shirt and proceeded to pull on it, exposing a section of her olive-hued stomach.
Too taken aback to react to the assault, Alexandra blinked up at the former sidekick who was now towering over her. “What’s the meaning of this?” she finally blurted out.
“Sara wants to play with you,” Kathy declared as she grabbed a chair for herself. “Besides, I wanted to see you. You clearly need a prodding to remember you’re still human.”
“I tell her every day,” Morpheus said through the wall-mounted loudspeakers. “Not that it does any good. She stopped listening to me a long time ago.”
Of course the AI would side with the others. His job was to process and analyze the surveillance data gathered by the Tiangong’s various sensors and telescopes, and while he did a fine job as a researcher, he had always found human social behavior more interesting than geological structures or weather changes.
Little Sara seemed to recognize Morpheus’ voice. She let go of Alexandra’s shirt and twisted on her lap, small hands reaching for the edge of the desk to pull herself up on it. The startled Technician quickly gathered up her papers to keep them from being drooled on.
“Give it a try,” Kathy suggested as she gathered the child back into her arms. “Talk to me. See what happens. Who knows, you might even be interested in what I have to say!” She finished her statement with a grin.
Why not. We can talk for fifteen minutes if you will leave me alone afterward.
Alexandra sighed and massaged her forehead with her fingertips. “I finished calculating the erosion field’s relative strength based on distance from Earth’s sea level. I can send you the formula, if you like.”
“Just give me the bullet points,” Kathy replied. “If we sent a shuttle back there, would the passengers make it?” She asked the question casually, trying too hard to sound disinterested as she tickled the baby’s stomach.
Alexandra knew how her friend truly felt about the subject. Everyone but herself and Morpheus had considered leaving at one time or another; the uncertainty of whether a return was possible was what kept them on board. That, and the children. One of the Chinese crew members was pregnant, another had given birth to a boy three years ago. Kathy and the other women wouldn’t risk the return trip with young children on board. If those kids grew into teenagers, however…
Even though Alexandra disliked the constant interruptions, part of her dreaded the idea of being left behind even more. Perhaps this was the part of her that was still human and longed for companionship even as she rejected it. Besides, one of the Chinese women was a Transmuter who had been assigned to the Tiangong shortly before the end. She duplicated any type of inorganic material she had a sample of; her power was what had made the station expansions and repairs possible. Given the erosion field’s effect on technology, there would be no return trip into space. To lose the Transmuter meant to lose the Tiangong.
To lose Andrey.
I could lie to her. The thought came and went, accompanied by a fleeting sense of guilt and shame. No one but me has made the calculations. They would believe me if I told them there is no way the shuttle will make it through Eden’s erosion field.
“I am not sure,” Alexandra replied. “I need to do more tests before we can eliminate the risks. However, the latest batch of surveillance drones was the most successful. The smallest models survive Earth’s surface level for about thirty minutes before they decay.”
Kathy gave a clack of her tongue. “So it’s as we suspected. An object’s mass matters… check. Distance from sea level, check. The complexity of the object itself…”
“…matters as well,” Athena finished, reeled into the conversation by Kathy’s wit and easygoing expertise. “As do the materials involved. Iron a naturally occurring element on Earth; it lasts for years and years. Alloys such as steel will decay very quickly, as will compound materials such as plastic.”
“So, basically,” Kathy paused to wipe some drool from the baby’s mouth, “Earth could revert back to simple, iron based steam engines, but there will never be a new industrial era. And no electricity.” She grinned. “Steampunk. I like it.”
Alexandra caught herself smiling. “I do not know about the punk part, but I could see the steam happening.”
“So, have those drones picked up anything interesting yet?” Kathy leaned closer to peek at the array of surveillance monitors above Alexandra’s desk. At present, all of them showed still images the drones had taken before breaking down. A river filled with crystal clear water. Vast expanses of dense, healthy forest. A village sized cluster of simple stone buildings, too distant to make out people or details.
“Not yet,” Alexandra said. “I will send the entire next batch to Switzerland. If Eden is alive, she may have returned there.”
“What are you going to do if you find them?” Kathy asked as she studied the on-screen images.
“Your folks. Old friends and relatives. What if?”
Alexandra allowed a moment for the idea to take hold in her heart, to warm her from the inside before she found the words to match her feelings. “If I find them,” she said, “I am going to live.”