And now some crappy sci-fi i wrote back in the late autumn of 2014, for there is no better time for writing crappy sci-fi, right?
Even after all this time, I remember my first sight of Anna. My first real sight of her, that is; there had been the holo before that. Which also sticks in my mind, but only because it happened right after the glitch – because of the glitch, in fact, in one of those strange, slippery quirks of chance that we all like to pretend don’t affect the path of history as much as they do.
Not that I knew it at the time, of course. All I knew was the three-beeper alarm that heralded our merge back into real-space had suddenly swelled into the far louder alarm heralding our imminent demise. I had barely started to wonder if it was a prank or merely a drill when I was torn from my inspection of the engine-output holo and thrown against the bulkhead behind me with a force that should have been fatal. Provisionally, however, it happened to be the one that had auto-triggered open to reveal my survival-suit, which somewhat cushioned my impact. I remember giving thanks for tradition – but that was afterwards. At the time, I merely looked up at the locker-lip, observing that it had missed splintering my skull by an extremely narrow margin, and then gave myself over to the centuries-old emergency-drill. With rather a lot of bones broken, as it turned out later, but having been thrown squarely into the suit’s embrace, it required very little on my part to persuade it to close around me.
With that achieved, and the support of the exoskeleton, I wrenched the door open and stepped – or staggered, to be accurate – out into the corridor to see what was going on. Fortunately it was only a small craft; the problem would be close enough to deal with in a timely manner, if it could be dealt with at all. Less fortunately, whatever had torn through us had also obliterated an essential part of the local emergency-sealant system. The hurricane of escaping air was louder than the alarm itself, I remember that much – but it was relatively simple to muscle the hatch between myself and the ship’s exit-wound shut. That done, I had merely to report the fix, trusting that someone up-ship was still uninjured enough to have patched the entry-hole – and then persuade my helmet to roll back, because I had suddenly realised just how much everything hurt and how badly I needed to vomit.
In retrospect, it was a little naïve of me to assume that was the end of the emergency. As a ship-mech, however, I was a very small cog in the light-years-wide machine called civilisation – it simply wasn’t my place to speculate on what the Authorities would make of the glitch. Assuming they made anything of it at all, and at the time I saw no reason why they should. (I only discovered much later that it had merged us where a rock the size of my thumbnail was already ploughing along at twenty-five klicks per second, inside the massive sweep of the shields). Only it wasn’t known to be a glitch, just then, or a micrometeorite; and with a minor official on board, carrying important face-to-face-only intel, what the Authorities were making of it was a resurgence of the Falling Away. Just when they had been decommissioning the troops dealing with it, too.
Under the circumstances, I suppose that’s why there was rather more lather about it than might have been normal, and instead of ending up in sickbay, I ended up in high-sec containment deep within the planetary crust. On Earth, of all places. If I hadn’t been so dosed on painkillers and passivitors, I might have been quite aggrieved at not getting to see any of it. As it was, I was so far removed from real-space myself that when they had done every test short of trepanning and dourly pronounced me too ‘stolid and unimaginative’ to be a secessionist, I didn’t even manage to take offence.
Apparently that helped impress the official. He certainly mentioned it – once I had been released from what I considered rather irrelevant restraints – while he congratulated me on discharging my civic duty by saving his life. With hindsight, he seemed somewhat taken aback when the conformity drugs prompted me to inform him that it really hadn’t been on my mind; I had simply seen a door that needed closing and done what was necessary to close it. At which point I was led, blinking, from high-sec containment to vacuum-car and back down to what I blearily assumed to be the high-sec penal facility I would live out my days in. Even with the drugs, I felt that rather unfair.
Which is when they showed me the holo of Anna.
“Do you know who this is?” one of the Authorities demanded, as the image of her head rotated, life-sized, above the table.
Mixed crews having fallen out of fashion some three centuries previously, my job didn’t give me the opportunity for meeting many women. All the same, this one certainly didn’t look very nurturing; more as if she had just been presented with a mess to clean up and was thinking of committing violence against whoever had made it. I remember thinking vaguely that she wasn’t terribly attractive, either, especially in comparison to the women one usually saw in holo. It wasn’t a very charitable thought, but unfortunately one of them was depicted on the far wall, the babe in her arms not quite hiding her cleavage, looking fondly up at a man who was striking a heroically conquering pose.
In retrospect, it is worth noting that I didn’t much resemble that man, either.
I didn’t know the holo-woman, of course, and I told him so. The readings on the monitors I was still hooked up to didn’t spike when they told me it was Dr Anna Vega, either, so they had to explain that to me as well.
“You are aware of the Obliteration War?” one of them asked me sternly.
I informed him that I was, thank you; three centuries was hardly long enough for anyone to forget how close humanity had come to destruction. I nearly added that while it may be axiomatic that women nurture and men conquer, our own axiom is that engineers remember, and we were hardly about to forget something that important. However, I was interrupted.
“Well, she won it for us,” he said, with a degree of some negative emotion I couldn’t parse at the time. “Wiped out the Obliterators – cold. As gone as they wanted us gone.”
I remember being vaguely irked by that; considerable numbers of troops had been poured into the all-out, all-or-nothing desperation of that defence. I could even recall the school-marm’s terrible expression as she told us about it, before moving us briskly on to matrix multiplications.
“What, all by herself?” I ventured.
It produced some laughs, here and there around the table, which irked me more. I think the passivitors had finally started to wear off at that point.
“Broadly,” one of the higher Authorities said, in a mild tone.
Then he swore me to a vow of silence, backed by both the highest of Authorities in the system and the feedback of every monitor I was hooked up to, and told me the Secret.
Before I had quite recovered from gaping at it, I was led back out of high-sec and into another vacuum-car, this time to the star-port, and from there into a far higher-spec ship than I had ever set eyes on – ever been aware existed, in fact. And from there, across more light-years of space than those spanned by civilisation, all the way to Annaheim.
All that, and me still in the ‘temporary’ bone-cast, from neck to knee to elbows.
I might have had some time to ponder the Secret and its implications, in the week-long unreality-flight, if I hadn’t been subjected to yet more dosings and testings. It was a wonder I could see straight when we finally merged with real-space.
Possibly the pilots agreed with me – that or it was the bone-cast, but they certainly pushed my little shuttle into the system on remote, as if I was a toddler on my first solo-sail. Not only was it embarrassing, but it led to my having to frantically relay the angry squawking my comms burst to life with, when the denizens of the planet – still alive, against the Authority’s private bet – told me I was crossing their lines and should leave. I was still trying to persuade Annaheim of my peaceful intentions when a great field swamped my console to the point of shorting out, and I was brought forcibly in to dock with the planet’s elevator.
It wasn’t easy, getting along the docking-umbilical unaided, and the planetary gravity that tugged at me as the vacuum-car descended was greater than that of any world I’d been on. Admittedly, there weren’t so many of them, since a ship-mech is expected to stay with his craft – just home and Earth, in fact – but it was enough to make me queasy, especially coupled with the after-effects of the drugs. When the planet-side doors finally opened, admitting a gigantic, luridly-coloured spider larger than I was, I gave up and fainted.
When I woke up, I had my first sight of Anna. She was seated at my bedside, one cool, broad hand on my brow and the other scratching at the brow of the huge, fuchsia spider that wasn’t a hallucination after all. I believe I screamed when I saw its front limbs were resting atop of mine.
She shooed the spider away, before asking me why they were being recalled – was it the Obliterators, or some new threat? From the intensity of her question, I gained the impression she had been asking this for some time.
(She had, of course, but it was only later that I realised it was her habitual manner of speaking; all the Annas I encountered did it.)
The only thing that really stood out for me from the Secret at that point was the importance of not letting the Annas off-world, ever again. I did my best to assure her that there was no such emergency, that they were not being recalled to action – my babbling probably not helping, with hindsight – but she seemed to believe me. At least, I couldn’t see any monitors. After ascertaining that I was healed enough to walk, she led me out to where a trio of other Annas lounged in the shade, and attempted to engage me in a discussion of the purpose of my visit.
I say ‘attempted’, because I was in no state for such a conversation. Not when I realised one of the Annas had the spider half-laid atop her hammock, its great palps pattering at her hands in an apparent demand for affection, and another was wreathed in tiny, fluttering creatures she called dragons, each no larger than my longest finger.
When I tore my eyes away, the landscape beyond them was no less surreal. A first impression of a floodplain with distantly-snowy mountains behind it was short-lived – the whole sky was alive with winged things which darted and swarmed in a host of peculiar manners belying their apparent size. The land itself was no better; as I watched, a gigantic, eight-legged sauropod undulated, barely hidden, behind the towers of what appeared to be a full-size basilica. A rainbow of butterflies, each surely as large as my shuttle, veered around its head; basked on its great, vermillion spine. Worse still, everything was loud.
“Um,” I heard myself saying, over the cacophany of hideously-altered life. “Could we perhaps go somewhere quieter?”
They were at once solicitously concerned with my welfare, even shooing away the spider again when the first Anna informed them I didn’t care for it. (“It’s just a monitor,” the Anna who turned out to have bred it told me, as if that was reassuring. “Who wants a machine, when you can have a big shaggy arachnid do its job instead?”) It made no difference to my state of mind. I was offered refuge in a ‘lair’ under the ocean – “perfect tranquillity while you watch the reef-fish!”, or burrowed into the highest mountain on the planet – “nothing to watch but howling snowstorms, but you’re quite safe!” They seemed disappointed when I insisted I just wanted to be close to the elevator.
I had been overly-optimistic on that point – being indoors on Annaheim was no less harrowing than being outside. Garish murals overlaid every surface within the basillica, clearly with some sort of theme the Annas found significant, and from every corner there was the click of claws as ‘usefully’ mutated creatures crept, no-doubt ‘conscientiously‘, out of my line of sight.
Once I had been promised that no crawling, fluttering or in any-other-way-mobile horror would accompany me, I curled up in the chamber I was assigned, drank off the soup I had been issued, and wondered what I, of all people, was doing here.
I could certainly see why civilisation’s Authorities didn’t want the Annas back. The Secret – so simple, yet so incredible to me when it had been told – now felt it had grown into a many-headed horror.
Eventually I drifted off into a nightmare sleep, from which I awoke to find all my nightmares pale imitations of reality.
The Annas I met that morning kept asking what things were like, after three centuries. I replied the way the Authorities had advised me to; by shrugging my shoulders and saying I supposed they were much the same as ever. Which I supposed they were, really, except that it had been realised that women weren’t suited, after all, to tasks demanding either intellectual or physical rigour.
Having seen the Annas’ relish of the former, however, I decided it might be best not to mention that. I have to confess, this was only partially motivated by a desire for tact, and rather more in case they decided to prove their scientific credentials to me; I felt it rather likely it might involve a whole parade of monstrous arachnids.
They gave up on that tactic, focussing instead on the reason I had been sent to them; which of course I couldn’t give either, more than that I was to observe and report back. Some were openly hopeful that my injuries signified I was a ‘brain-case’, whose good treatment might allow their planet to become a hospice; others muttered that there was some imbalance within civilisation, the nature of which I might not be at liberty to divulge. The more optimistic of these suggested that, in that case, it was because they shouldn’t develop any preconceptions as to said nature, in case it precluded them from helping.
They were all so earnest about ‘helping’, despite their self-imposed exile, that by lunchtime I had convinced myself it was all an elaborate, centuries-ripe scheme to overthrow the Authorities. Admittedly, this made no sense – the Authorities, too, had made note of the self-imposed nature of their exile – but I was sure something rotten lurked here, quite apart from the lurid, devastating carnival atmosphere. I was vaguely grateful that all of them, whatever their open, or quietly-held beliefs, made no effort at interrogation as the Authorities had done. I did, however, suffer nauseating moments of disquiet while pondering what a gigantic pink spider might eke out of a man’s psyche that a normal monitor could not.
These moments were brief, if only for lack of opportunity. The Annas encouraged me to experience their culture, in earnest, bewildering ways I was convinced hid something deeper. They posed for holos with their favourite pets, every one of them holding her chin aloft and slightly askew in the same unflattering manner; dragged me through swift tours of nearby strongholds.
Their openness felt deceptive, every revelation striking me as a cover for something else. Each one’s elaborately unique ‘lair’, for example – a territorial instinct I felt I could comfortably report as a weakness, until I discovered that they breezed in and out of each other’s strongholds whenever they felt like it. Any random gathering that was large enough, such as the one underway in the third ‘lair’, became part scientific swap-meet, part costume-party, which I remember finding rather narcissistic of them. They danced, badly, to terrible music, and laughed about it like a collection of stuttering drive-servos.
I was sure I had found something refreshingly amiss when two of the Annas present turned out to have been pursuing similar lines of research into ‘singing’ flowers, as if their world needed more cacophony, but disappointingly the confrontation was swiftly and saccharinely defused. Clearly the Annas prided themselves on their individual accomplishments; equally clearly, they had developed a system for ensuring rivalry did not get out of hand. At the time, I recall wishing their solution had been a retreat to such barbarities as duelling, so there might be a few less of them for me to encounter.
Having been encouraged to imbibe various, home-made yeast-cultures, I retired to bed early with a vertiginous spinning sensation, certain that such a collective should have self-destructed long ago. Three thousand Annas – three thousand, three hundred and fifty eight, as they all intoned, with a brief lapse into solemnity – on one world! How had they survived? And was that what I had been sent here to find out?
And why – because the Annas themselves kept asking it, not because it was something that had occurred to me – why check up on them now?
It had to be something to do with the Falling Away, I decided. Perhaps the shock of having system after system secede from central Authority had made them decide to bring this last bastion of outsiders back into the fold too.
I dearly hoped not.
Immortality was immoral. It was a tenet formed back in the Golden Age, when humanity was still young and thrusting its way among the star systems for all it was worth. Anyone achieving it would gain an unfair advantage over all his – or her – peers, one which might potentially develop into control over the whole shape of our race’s shared future. Naturally, this didn’t stop many people experimenting with ways to achieve it anyway, from uploading their consciousness into nano-computers to the more traditional biological tampering. Dr Vega had been rare only in the fact that she had had the wherewithal, derived from a number of shrewdly-applied patents, to do both at once. Even then – so both the Annas claimed and the Secret admitted – she hadn’t intended to go any further than a theoretical, all-enveloping patent that would cut any further research in those particular fields dead. She had had a passion, one peculiar to her era, for personal achievement as a goal that should be available to all. Although it might have helped when it turned out that even she couldn’t overcome that final barrier to ambition – to achieve immortality by any of these means, the original would have to die. Only the copy, freshly minted from a destructive, quantum-level scan of the brain, could awaken from the process; and who, aspiring to dominance, would be content when a mere copy of themselves ruled humanity?
Except then the Obliterators came, and changed everything.
My next few days on Annaheim did nothing to endear its inhabitants to me. Rather, after the shock of its ever-changing, lurid whirl – and the after-effects of the drugs – wore off, I found myself increasingly infuriated with them. They seemed to take nothing seriously – not their ‘research’, or their ‘experiments’, not the ‘philosophy’ they indulged in while imbibing intoxicants and giggling at the stars. The only time they even attempted solemnity was in dealing with my own mission.
Worse, the only instinct they showed me was their drive to create monsters, lurid colours and revel in their lack of taste. It was somewhat of a source of chagrin, as the only man on their planet in three full centuries. Once it occurred to me, at least. Shouldn’t they have been fluffing their hair and rubbing powders around their eyes to try to seduce me, unlovely as they were? Shouldn’t they all have wanted to bear my offspring, even if they were barren by design? Women nurture, men conquer, after all.
I realise now that I’d grown up rubbed by the idea, like bees are rubbed in their hive by other bees; socialised by it, I should say, but at the time I just sensed a profound lack. An absence that, once I realised its nature, was like an absence of timepieces.
I let the axiom slip from my lips, once, during a ‘dinner’ that featured more beverages than food; the eyes of the Annas in my presence grew wider and their lips thinner, but they never mentioned it again. (Indeed, that was when all of them together stopped asking about my mission, although I didn’t realise it until much later.) Yet still they didn’t stop being what they were; inconsequential, frivolous, entirely unmoved by appeals to authority. They were like children – centuries-old children, fascinated by light and colour and playing at dressing-up. They made me sick.
I eventually found out what they had meant by ‘crossing their lines’, when they switched on the monofilament net they had created around their planet. Its purpose was only to emit patterns of light, emphasising the home-hatched constellations inspired by those of Earth’s deep past. I found it a ridiculous, wasteful charade of engineering, which only left more of a bad taste in my mouth when it occurred to me that they were squandering their genius on such make-work because of their oath never to leave their system unless requested. They had no labour of value left to offer, either in nurturing or warring.
I could stand no more and told them I needed contact with the ship lurking at the edge of their system. They gave it, without visible hesitation, and then asked if I wouldn’t mind seeing one more thing before I left.
It was a memorial to the original Anna; that was my first thought. It was shocking in its plainness, after the overdone ornamentation of absolutely everything else on the planet. Then, as the outlandishly-sized moth we rode drew closer, I realised that it was larger than I had thought – although that was no longer much of a novelty. It was only once we had landed, an almost deferential distance away, and trekked up to it on foot, that I began to parse the reason for its size.
I had thought three thousand Annas to be around three thousand too many. Seeing the inscriptions on the memorial made me re-evaluate that. Waving a hand in front of any one of them caused a holo to appear, clinically stating the date of her ‘arrival’, and date and brief detail of her ‘departure’. Often, the two dates were separated by only a couple of digits.
I looked up at the memorial, trying to imagine the scale of the Obliteration War. Annas by the thousands; by the tens of thousands; all of them printed off into their capsulets, opening their eyes already aware of who they were and what their purpose was, springing out so they could be replaced by more. Dying, in their regimented, genius droves, implacable in the knowledge that there were more behind them, that they would never run out as long as humanity held. Dying so that individual, irreplaceable, proper humans, wouldn’t die in their stead.
There lay the rub, of course. None of them had expected to live through the war, any more than the original Anna had. They were exact replicas of everything she had been right up to the point, and purpose, of her death. They hadn’t imagined actually being immortal; that had been something thrown into the mix in desperation, a hope that it might give them an edge. Who knew how long the war might last, and what it might destroy? But the smoke had cleared and here they were, a remnant of their kind, admittedly, but still living embodiments of everything their original had worked to prevent.
I recalled that the records of that time – those that I had been shown – had reported their reaction as one of general embarrassment. It had not taken them long to suggest that they be cloistered, and forgotten.
“I was with them,” my accompanying Anna said, waving at a group of inscriptions bounded by a cartouche. “Evacuation of Gliese Mecca; fifty-five percent survival rate. Civilians, I mean – we did well there. Statistically. And them; the counterstrike against the Obliterator world in that sector. I didn’t die because I got lotteried to hang back with the sun-bomb.” She sighed. “We didn’t need it that day; well, everyone died ensuring we didn’t, but that was nice. It’s not good to destroy a star.”
“You can destroy a star?” I spluttered.
“We don’t though,” she told me earnestly. “We got rid of the means, immediately it was all over. But that was the only thing we had that the Obliterators didn’t, you see – they’d flood a refugee fleet with heavy G-rays, sterilise a planet, but never a star… Once we realised that, once we killed their stars – the heart went out of them, somehow. Although the hate never did; I think they were horrified to realise they weren’t alone, after all. Didn’t you know? Didn’t you see the stars in our net that aren’t there any more? All the merge coordinates in those sectors had to be recalibrated, afterwards… Or didn’t they tell you we did that, not them?”
“I need to go home,” I said, thickly.
“We won’t break our promise,” she told me, as I was escorted to the elevator. “That’s a message from us all. We swore we’d stay within this system, and never come out – not unless you need us to. And the template’s been destroyed, so there can never be any more of us, ever. Nobody wants to risk making a bad copy – it wouldn’t be right. They’d be caricatures, not sisters, and eventually not humans at all… But you have to say; you can’t come here and be coy and tell us about how women have to nurture. We can’t come out just because we think we might be needed, however much we might want to.”
I remember how I merely nodded, curtly, in agreement. I certainly didn’t want them to come back out; imagine the worlds of civilisation, and how the flamboyant, irresponsible, immortal–
But I remembered the memorial, too, and the loss in that particular Anna’s voice. I remember how it occurred to me that, for them, the Obliteration War would never truly be a thing of the distant past, the way it was for me.
I remember thinking; let them stay lost on their little, lurid world. Surely they’ve earned it?
The instant I was back aboard the ship, of course, I was once more piped so full of drugs and monitors it was a wonder my limbs didn’t simply fall out of shape into a lifeless, floor-dwelling jelly as soon as they were withdrawn. I was thankful that if the Annas had done anything at all to my bones to make them knit faster, it was something so subtle that I wasn’t taken apart to discover it. Eventually my healing rate was grudgingly decided to be within normal parameters, and I found myself back on Earth, at what appeared to be the very same table where I had first been sworn to the Secret.
Which was where I met Brad.
Unlike my viewing of Dr Vega’s hologram, I could tell at once that he was trouble. Chisel-jawed, cheekbones as crisp as hospital bed-corners; he looked exactly like the sort of man you saw in holos. He also reminded me of the worst kind of manager a mech could ask for – the sort that, while he had no idea what it was you were doing, was certain there must be a better, faster way for you to be doing it, if only you would try. When he stood to shake my hand, he was a head taller than me, and despite the bland pleasantry he made about the importance of engineers in maintaining order, his eyes – the eyes of a zealot – informed me I had already been categorised and dismissed before he turned away.
“Why is he at my debriefing?” he asked the Authorities arrayed opposite him, in a casual tone. It the sort of question I would never have dared give voice to, even while I was wondering what he was doing at what I had thought was mine.
“Engineer Svensen has been performing a reconnaissance mission for us,” the left-most Authority said smoothly.
I didn’t miss the way Brad’s eyes flickered to me, as if doubtful of my suitability for such a task.
“Another system declaring independence?” he frowned. “Really, they spring up as fast as we can be shipped out to deal with them-”
“This particular system has always been independent,” the central Authority informed him. “We think it might be, ah, something you’d care to look into. Engineer, why don’t you show us the holos you took on Annaheim?”
I did so, wordlessly. There was a nasty crawling feeling in my spine as I realised the nature of the troops that had been dealing with the Falling Away. Brads, to a man, or I’d eat my own name-tag. What Dr Vega had done to protect humanity, the Authorities had somehow persuaded the original Brad to do to maintain civilisation.
It explained the eyes, at least; he must have believed in unity very strongly. Somehow, I didn’t get the impression that his successors would be satisfied with their own system to play in now that it was achieved.
This Brad was certainly no more impressed by Annaheim than I had been, although rather more open about his disgust. I didn’t want to look at him; perhaps from some deep instinct warning me to avoid behaviour he might take as a challenge. Instead, I watched the faces of the Authorities as they watched him flick through the holos. It struck me that they were as wary of him as I was.
“Unacceptable,” he announced, finally. “Sirs, this – chaos – is beyond endurance. With your permission, now that stability has been re-established, I respectfully suggest that we be dispatched to stop this… nonsense.” He flicked back to the image of the Anna hugging her huge, luridly-coloured spider, and made a strangled noise.
I must have made some similar sound, because he turned sharply towards me. “You agree, Engineer?” he asked, although it was phrased more as a command. “Women nurture, men maintain order – and these women have been allowed to run riot for far too long.”
“Men – er-” I started, wondering if I dared finish the sentence, let alone speak my mind. My eye fell on the mural, which seemed slightly different from the last time I had stood here. I was fairly sure the man had been wearing a flashier uniform, for example, and hadn’t been gripping a spanner.
Perhaps it wasn’t the same room after all.
I had missed the moment, of course; I still feel the sting of shame whenever I remember it. It does no good to reflect that, really, what could I have done? The Authorities were squirmingly aware that their solution to the Falling Away was now their biggest problem; for all this new axiom about maintaining order, the Brads were natural-born conquerors and would be trouble as soon as they had a spare five minutes to realise it. Who was a lowly ship-mech to protest at the solution that had been found for that?
Still, the thought of that planet full of happy, ugly, war-heroines being informed that ‘this nonsense’ was over gave me a dull, leaden feeling, like the first roilings after a badly-prepped meal, which I couldn’t properly explain. After all, I’d hated the place myself.
I had vague hopes of being allowed to slink away after that, but the Brad wanted a lot more detail about their new target. I was grilled on the planetary defences (none that I had recognised as such, unless the docking-field counted), the locations of the strongholds and, seemingly most importantly of all, the precise number of Annas. I disliked him more thoroughly than I had disliked Annaheim, by the time he was finished.
“Engineer Svensen should accompany us to this system,” he decided eventually. “He will no doubt recall somewhat more useful information on the way.”
The Authorities present made what even I could see was a great show of welcoming his ‘suggestion’; I wasn’t the only one who wanted to wash my hands of him as fast as I could. Of course, their own case was rather more urgent, since the Brads were men they’d managed to train in taking down governments very much like theirs.
For my own part, I suspected that as long as I wasn’t any trouble, I wouldn’t be in any trouble. With that in mind, I tried to look as if my obvious reluctance had to do with returning to Annaheim, rather than the prospect of a week cooped up with an unknown number of Brads. After which – but I tried not to think about that.
I remember wondering, uncomfortably, how they arranged their own internal conflicts. There had to be a hierarchy – the informal, convivial sisterhood of the Annas clearly wouldn’t have sat well with them.
I had ample leisure to find out, unfortunately. This Brad – and the others, when they began to ship back from their various victories – wanted to depart en masse. Their intention seemed to be to provide the Annas with a fait accompli they couldn’t escape; not without breaking their oath and fleeing the system. It sounded depressingly like a surprise attack, and I was rather shocked to find they made no bones about the fact that they felt battle might become necessary. Clearly, they didn’t trust the Annas to comply with their new orders, although I felt privately they could hardly be faulted for objecting when they found the Brads foisted on them.
I certainly didn’t enjoy it myself. Every commanding Brad sent a member of his own unit to hear my assurances that I hadn’t given anything away during my time on Annaheim. I was forced to explain, over and over to the same pair of suspicious eyes, that there was simply no way for that to happen, since I hadn’t been privy to any information I could have let slip, not even the reason for my mission.
It did remind me, however, of the axiom I had let slip, and of the way the Annas had, to a woman, immediately abandoned the topic. Still, I supposed it couldn’t have done too much harm; certainly not enough to be worth mentioning. Besides, had been the old axiom, not the new one about maintaining order.
Which was everywhere, suddenly, although I had only been away a year, in local terms. I had the opportunity to explore Earth, a little, when I wasn’t needed to answer questions, and that was one of the things that struck me, although nobody ever mentioned it.
Naturally, I found it prudent not to bring up the topic either.
The other was how disappointingly similar Earth was to my own home-world. Of course there was the occasional relic from deep history – I spent a morning queuing dutifully to admire the shattered stump of the Washington Monument, for instance. Overall, however, the street-plans, the buildings, even the hairstyles of the women who nodded hello to me on the transport-tubes, seemed depressingly familiar. In my darker moments, which were rather plentiful since I had no real work to do anymore, I found myself recalling some lurid vista of Annaheim with a kind of wistfulness. Not that I wanted to spend any more time there whatsoever; but the thought that somewhere, someone had built something different, was somehow a comforting one.
Of course, things wouldn’t be that way for much longer. I remember feeling stronger, more churningly-conflicted emotions during that time than I ever had before, even through the supposedly hot-blooded years of puberty and early manhood. I concluded that I clearly wasn’t cut out for high-level politics, and wished as fervently as I had wished anything that such matters had left me alone in return.
All too soon, the inevitable came. I was summoned to the star-port and shunted back aboard the high-spec ship with the rest of its cargo. Things this time around felt a good deal more cramped; I suspected it was the company, since Brads had replaced the original crew. Other, somewhat lesser-spec ships, held the rest of their number. Twelve hundred Brads – surely the most terrifying invasion fleet since the Obliteration war.
At least, I found the journey rather terrifying. The Brads themselves, once free of the constraints of civilisation, seemed to relax. Not quite as the Annas had done, admittedly, but they waxed slightly more loquacious, describing their recent missions to each other in a manner that suggested an undertone of jockeying for position. With little privacy aboard, I soon overheard more than I had ever wished to know about the Falling Away and the methods by which it was curtailed.
On our third day in-flight, I happened to enter the bridge while the Brad-in-chief, who had overseen the last such action, repeated the words of that system’s final independent broadcast. At the time I thought they sounded like just the sort of grandstanding someone who had placed his system’s eminence above that of civilisation as a whole would indulge in, but I still recall them now.
“…And empires have always risen, only to ebb into darkness and be replaced by fresh vigour arising elsewhere. So it was on Earth – Thebes gave way to Rome, and Rome to Constantinople, London to Delhi, Washington to Abuja. Earth itself now ebbs, having turned its back on human endeavour. Though it may not be our time, the time will come for fresh vigour from the fringes. Humanity must be replenished if it is to survive, and we cannot be kept down forever. The ashes of this dull, enforced mediocrity will birth a new phoenix.”
There was a silence when he had finished speaking, followed by a chorus of derisive snorts.
“Not this time,” two or three of the Brads concluded, in a unison I found as disturbing as their obvious satisfaction.
Since protocol said this was the time to health-check our sweep-shields, useless while we remained in un-merged flight, I tried to work on as unobtrusively as possible.
They turned to talk of tactics that could be employed on arrival, and then to a subject they had so far shied away from whenever it seemed about to come up; apportionment of the Annas. Even positing their estimated minimum and maximum casualties – they had quickly stopped pretending this might be a peaceful establishment of ‘order’ – it was clear some Brads would have to make do with only two Annas to maintain order over, while others would have three.
As I worked, I gradually realised that therein lay the rub. The original Brad would never have been selected if his copies were incapable of working together, and they clearly understood that there must be a chain of command. Indeed, each seemed happy enough to do his part within it, as much a cog in service of the whole as I myself. Rank, to them, seemed as inconsequential as whose turn to brew the beverages was among my own fellows. However, this ‘division of the spoils’, as they called it, was a different schematic entirely; a two-tier system, a caste system, denoting the boundary between the merely competent and those who excelled.
The point seemed rather esoteric to me, as they were concerned not so much who would end up with more, but who would have deserved it – and how that was to be decided. To a man, they recognised the problem, but to a man, their first instinct was to come out ahead – and then broker a more egalitarian arrangement. Even though the closest I could come to understanding it was imagining a fight over who decided the order of the tea-making rota, I could tell that trouble was going to come of it.
“So you see,” the Brad-in-chief said, raising his voice; I jumped when I realised I was being directly addressed, for the first time since coming aboard. “It is important to keep casualties to a minimum – their casualties, that is – in order to maximise the numbers of us who will be satisfied with the outcome.”
“Yes, sir,” I agreed, cautiously, wondering if he was trying to forestall a coup by the dissatisfied. More importantly, I was wondering why I was suddenly being involved. Maybe it was a grandstanding of his own, something he wanted an audience for that didn’t solely consist of men exactly like him.
“I think that the best plan is to send you ahead, as before,” he told me. “We can control your shuttle by remote while we wait at the edge of the system, and you can inform them that you have returned with your superiors. You will persuade them to allow our ship to orbit, and ourselves to land. Once that is done, we can take control of their defences. You can manage that?” he added, as doubtfully as the first Brad had done, during our first meeting. Perhaps it was the first Brad.
I recall how his words made me feel almost physically ill. It was one thing to watch, helplessly, but quite another to be an active participant in what was to come. On the other hand, what else was I to do, alone aboard a whole ship of eager conquerors?
“Won’t they detect the rest of the fleet, sir?” I asked, carefully staring at his set jaw, rather than his eyes. I did recall some talk regarding our launch schedule; the slowest ships had left real-space first, in a sequence carefully timed to allow the fleet to arrive all at once.
It reminded me, suddenly, of the glitch. I hoped our merges had been carefully spaced to allow for that sort of thing.
“Our launch preparations were completed a few minutes ahead of schedule,” he informed me, with a cold smile. “A small saving, but one that should leave us with a comfortable lead of twenty-four hours, standard, once we merge.”
Those assembled broke into grins. I had no doubt that all aboard would be allocated a triple share of the ‘spoils’, rather than a double – all the Brads aboard, at least.
“I will do my best, sir,” I said, woodenly.
When nothing further appeared to be expected of me, at least for the moment, I returned to my diagnostics.
It certainly seemed providential that I was working on the sweep-shields just when I was given this information. I was one of the few men – or so I assumed – who knew about the glitch at all. With hindsight, however, it might well have been that the Brad-in-chief knew very well about what had happened on my initial trip to Earth, and was setting up a test of my loyalty.
If so, his suspicions remained his own business. Sabotaging the shields – in the very manner I had been suspected of previously – was hardly a practical scheme. It was vastly unlikely that any micrometeorite would be both within immediate range of our merge and heading in our direction, and it would take only a few minutes after that for the absence of shielding to be noted. Besides, almost all aboard had survived the previous encounter, and that on a smaller, lower-spec ship. Mainly due to my own, dazed efforts, it was true, but I was certain the Brads could handle such a matter with more aplomb.
Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet would pass blithely on toward their goal.
The question remained of whether I would indeed lie to the Annas that we came in peace. I wrestled with it for most of that night. The problem was not so much morality as practicality, or so I thought at first – what good would it do, giving the Annas warning? They had assured me that they had no defensive systems in place; unless they had lied too, all my little act of defiance would do would be to ensure a disproportionate number of Brads remained second-tier – at best. Even if it were enough to trigger an attempted coup, Brads of one side or the other would emerge victorious, changing nothing.
On the second night, it occurred to me that giving the Annas warning would at least allow them to choose their fate. Immortal they might be, but not unkillable. Perhaps they would rather die defending their freedom than have it taken from them – or some of them might – and after all they had done for humanity, surely they deserved that much.
It is perhaps worth noting my certainty that the Brads, despite their inferior numbers, would win the day. None of the Annas had ever fought another human, to my knowledge, and they were certainly three centuries out of practice at fighting anyone at all. No – I felt their instinct was to analyse, to understand, to debate; and while they were doing that, the Brads would be undertaking their rather more single-minded mission against them. Unless they had some Brad-negating defence that was somehow non-lethal, they probably wouldn’t use it until it was far too late.
On the third night I belatedly realised that if they had lied about their defences, then they might well have other systems still in place too – the star-killing ones. The thought of those falling into the hands of the Brads was the most unpleasant jolt I had had yet. In fact – as it now occurred to me – once the Brads had finished establishing order on Annaheim, what was to stop them coming back to establish it over the rest of humanity as well? Only in this case, they would be armed with whatever they could glean from thee centuries of unbridled research. Had the Authorities had a plan for that eventuality, or were they merely hoping to buy themselves some time?
Had I been chosen in the hope that I would rally the Annas; to have our first cadre of identical soldiers save us from our second? But then, would they not have informed me – or did they fear that the Brads, well-versed in monitors and drugs from their rooting-out of secessionist tendencies, would rootle that out too? Had they managed to choose so well for my ‘stolid and unimaginative’ traits that I had missed some hint as to how I was supposed to act?
Those were the thoughts that kept me from sleeping for most of the fourth night. In the end, I had to arise, horribly drawn and fuddled, and find my solace in the reflection that at least nobody trusted me to pilot the shuttle this time, either.
I had been keeping to myself for most of those days, as much as it was possible, with my head down and my thoughts firmly on autopilot, running through the inspection protocols. Under the circumstances, any air of tension aboard on the seventh day – the day we were due to merge – I recall only as my own.
There was obvious concern, however, on the eighth day; consternation on the ninth.
On the tenth day, one of the Brads seized the front of my uniform and held me up against a bulkhead, demanding to know what I had done to the ship. He was stopped by another before he could do me any irreparable harm, but my suspicions that they had brought aboard their own cargo of monitors and dosers were quickly confirmed. In the end they decided I hadn’t damaged the ship after all – probably – and, still having failed to merge with real-space, turned out for the next-nearest system, presumably to lick their wounds and decide upon a different strategy for deciding which were the superior Brads, prior to rejoining the others.
We couldn’t merge there either. I only found out later that we had tried again and again, retreating out of range of the sudden, strange deviance in star-coordinates, far back towards the home-fires of civilisation. It wasn’t as if we could call for help, or guidance – communication was no more possible whilst un-merged than sensor-readings were. Indeed, the ability to abort a merge-less voyage had only been achieved long after the discovery of how to dodge the light-speed barrier into unreal space, and our safety protocols were still handed down from that period of deep-time.
These included the rules on supply-stocks; which worked against us here. If we had only carried enough for the supposed duration of our flight, we would have had to turn tail for Earth almost immediately. Instead, equipped with supplies for a couple of months in unreal-space, the Brads decided to push our reserves to their thinnest, as they attempted again and again to find a working merge-point. Nosing back along our trail cost them less, in terms of real-time, than they would have lost to the other Brads if they turned for home; by now, the compulsion to reach Annaheim before all the resistance was ‘mopped up’, as they put it, was almost a hysteria.
I missed most of this, since one obvious way to cut consumption was to keep me hooked up to the monitors, and fed only by IV. My muscles wasted, then were fed upon by my own body. The only reason I survived was that the Brads’ metabolisms required far more fuel than mine; that, and we finally found a useable merge-point.
Starved and enraged, the Brads fell upon the system and commandeered its resources. Perhaps mercifully, it was one which had already seceded and been put down, so there was little blood shed while they had their way.
There should have been none, of course – not with the degree of terrified cooperation I now understand they received – but they had been thwarted, possibly for the first time, and were deeply, wrathfully affronted about it. When I heard how they had behaved, I was surprised that I had survived being cooped up with them at all.
Of course, their anger still might have spilled over onto all of us, were it not that another, far slower, ship of the fleet merged mere days after our arrival. Crewed exclusively by Brads and unencumbered by any notion of sabotage, on discovering they couldn’t merge, they had come directly back to the nearest civilised system.
Nobody could reach Annaheim. It might well have been the only thing that could have shocked the Brads out of their fury. They sprang into action, demanding further system resources in order to punt out wildfire, near-light probes in search of fresh parallax data, new merge coordinates. From these, they could repeat the process until they discovered what mere light was too slow to tell them – that the star of Annaheim’s system simply wasn’t there anymore.
It made a terrible sort of sense. All our merge coordinates were incompatible with the absence – not just the ones for that system, but for every system within a significant distance, as the sudden loss of its pull skewed the courses of nearby stars.
When I was told this, I vomited. I was still weak from the dosing treatments, the weeks of starving inactivity, but the thought of the Annas killing their own star was too much. When had they done it? I wondered. Was it because of what I had let slip? Had they read so much into it that they somehow guessed what I hadn’t even been party to – or had they been tragically wrong, in a way that only I knew happened to be right?
More importantly, had they remained, stoically, within the system when it died, or had they broken their oath and fled?
I was still shuddering through my recovery when I heard the news that another ship had arrived. This one bore telemetry from a different region; combined, the data suggested that the star was not dead after all – it had moved.
Not only that, so it filtered down to me, but it was still moving, and quickly accelerating to hyper-velocities previously unseen, except in cases of slingshot systems, displaced by massive black holes or the gravitic shockwaves of galactic collision.
More ships arrived, merging both from Earth-radial and its opposite direction. Apparently this, the closest civilised world to Annaheim’s former position was a natural assembly-point, at least in the identical minds of the Brads. Word was spread and compared, and the velocity of the Annas’ sun was confirmed.
Worse, stellar telemetry was rumoured to suggest its course was unstable.
I remember how I felt when the meaning of this sank in; a curious jumble of relief, disbelief and sheer joy at realising what the Annas had achieved. They had found a way to remain true to their oath after all, fleeing their subjugation while remaining within their system. Surely, they had modified whatever their star-killing device had been, using it to hyper-propel their sun away from danger. I lay in bed for some days, since that was all I could do, imagining it coursing through unvisited gulfs of space, Annaheim and all its other planets whirling along with it.
Maybe they had planned for the eventuality; maybe that was why they had strung their orbit with monofilaments that they could light with familiar constellations, whenever they became homesick.
The Brads took the news less well, of course. Perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise – at least from civilisation’s point of view. I am told they flung themselves into pursuit of their quarry like hunting beasts, abruptly oblivious to all other concerns. Vessels and supplies were commandeered, almost stripping the system, hurried conferences held – it became clear to those serving them, or at least to me, when I was informed in turn, that the outcome of the hunt for Annaheim had become the factor determining status. From the complaints I overheard about suddenly-countermanded orders, I gathered that factions had already arisen between them.
Still, the main point was that they left – on a number of trajectories, clearly each making their own gambles as they set out for coordinates whose validity was still solid. The rest would be a delicate game of probes and guesses.
They had no chance of catching up; that was the projection of the councillors of this world. The system’s ever-changing trajectory gave its pursuers no opportunity to correct in mid-flight. Worse, the miscalculations, once discovered by the inability to merge, would result in long, lost months of real-time before calibration could begin again. It was on every tongue, repeated with a grim satisfaction, so I found it out even before I discovered where I was and what they called this world.
Munin, as it turned out; it was rare in having a twin planet, Hugin. They orbited almost together, but on opposite sides of their sun, Odin; the first settlers had held off from committing to a permanent home for over a decade, until they were assured that this was a very ancient, stable arrangement, unlikely to suddenly collapse into a death-spiral of the two brothers.
Naturally, with immediate threat from the Brads past, Annaheim’s flight was itself cause for alarm. The effect on a system this far away was slight, as proved by the continued validity of the merge coordinates, but who knew if it might prove enough to destabilise such delicately-balanced planetary orbits? Even if the disastrous outcome lay a few hundred thousand years down the line, the psychological impact of knowing their home was now doomed might be devastating.
The people here had been through enough already. I was glad to help out with cobbling together monitoring systems from such relics as we had left; glad, too, to volunteer for the cramped, difficult shuttle-journeys to set them up. Our small crew spent weeks on the rocky, outer planetoids and the few moons of the dying gas giant that orbited almost out of sight of its sun. These little motes would be the first to feel a tweak of gravity and stir their orbits.
Despite the conditions, it was good work; good to have work. Besides, I was unsure at the time what planet-side opinion made of me. While many of my visitors had expressed sympathy for my plight, others had made it clear that they viewed me as a patsy; at best.
In time, the majority view became one of my – attempted – valour; something that made me glad that I had made the decision to warn the Annas, even though I had never had the chance to follow it through. The feeling was an undeniably welcome change – although the Brads had never once thought to ask about it, through the long months of unreality, I had never stopped fearing, somewhere deep down where I could still feel things, that they would. If they had done, I would have had no hope of concealing it. As it was, I felt I had only survived with my sanity intact by the merest shreds.
Being on a world nearly as broken as I had been, I had no shame in admitting it when I returned from the outer reaches and what passed for the local Authorities descended on me. The techniques of my would-be interrogators were almost laughable in their lack of subtlety, but the questioning was conducted over drinks in a coarse bar, rather than on a clinical operating-table, and their own eyes told a similar story to mine. The Brads’ spiralling paranoia, in the days before their departure, had taken a heavy toll on this system. I was largely unsurprised when they responded to my words by declaring my innocence, and that I might live out my years here, if I so desired.
I remember deciding that it wasn’t a bad choice. Life on Munin was almost as quiet as on its lesser-populated brother, and if things proved too much here, I could always slip away to the other side of the sun. Moreover, there was plenty of work for a ship-mech. With no aid from outside, the system was forced into a phase of industry almost reminiscent of the Golden Era, as we strove to remake all that the Brads had taken.
Even so, the new axiom had penetrated – unmarried women I encountered were more than happy to converse with someone who had helped to set up telemetry in the cold wastes. Several even sighed, admiringly, that they only wished they were fit enough for such a task; these I thanked, as politely as I could, and went home alone, to brew my own tea and reflect on a world, three centuries previously, where we could have taken turns at such a task and perhaps discussed schematics in between.
Even here, it was not to be. Two doses of violence had left the system so thoroughly chastened that there was no question of breaking orthodoxy again. The women maintained the homes of their men, raised their children, or if unmarried, did the sort of work considered suitable for the feminine nature; and I remained alone with my musings.
Perhaps it is no surprise that my thoughts waxed philosophical, especially on the clear evenings when I braved the chill to watch the stars come out. We were on the fringes here; on my home-world, every bright star had a human observatory – a human presence – who would see, within my lifetime, the light produced by our star at the very moment I looked out at theirs. Out here, there was nothing but the pitiless stares of stars whose worlds we had probed and judged to be uninhabited – camp-fires all, but none of them attended. Worlds we had intended to inhabit, but had turned away from, because what was the point in filling the galaxy with more of ourselves?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was the thought of the Authorities of my age. Why make more settlements, more potential trouble, when what we had would suffice?
So we bolted the door, grumbling about the dangers and irregularities of life outside, and settled ourselves down by our various stellar fires; an old man of cosmic proportions, huddling under his blankets and awaiting the inevitable end.
If I thought about it at all, I assumed that the lesson of the Brads had been learned. Besides, infrequent visitors to the system brought no word of any fresh catastrophes in need of solutions that would prove to be merely new problems in their own turn.
So the years passed, while my face grew lines and the roundness of my cheeks became a hollow that the Brads – still chasing their prey across the further reaches of the galaxy – would not have envied in the slightest.
One day, however, a ship arrived on an unscheduled merge. There was a brief spate of alarm, before they made their intentions known, and those disembarking asked for me by name. Since I had no desire to be a further cause of panic, I was ushered aboard – with barely a chance to say my goodbyes, few as they were – and whisked away. On a trip which, I was only told as an afterthought, was back to Earth.
They didn’t bother with the probes and the drugs this time – perhaps they thought it might finish me off before they could even tell me what task they had in mind. Still, I remember how terrifying it felt, how surreal, to be back in what might well have been that very same room, once again facing a group of grave young Authorities. At least, it looked the same, to my dulled eyes, and perhaps some of them were middle-aged, but they all looked like school-children to me. I was so taken up with the observation that I found it hard to concentrate as they explained the latest stage in their schemes.
It pains me to reflect that it still caught me by surprise. For one thing, I hadn’t ever realised just how much real-time had passed while the Brads cast their high-spec ships back and forth, seeking a secure merge, let alone deigned to relay the news of events back to Earth. Half a lifetime, it turned out; a long time for the Authorities to squirm and wonder what was going on. Perhaps it hastened their shift to this point of view. For another, it brought back to me the words the Brad-in-chief had repeated; about the empire ebbing into darkness, and humanity needing replenishment. I wondered if there was any immanent phoenix out there, waiting to stretch its wings.
Not if they could help it, apparently. Along with the propaganda, of which the murals and holo-women were a mere part, singular viruses were now abroad, subtly affecting the brains of those not inoculated against them. The populace, spotted across the light-years, would never again surpass its rulers.
I remember the doubt, and then the bewilderment I felt at hearing such horrible tidings. I remember asking, in a pain of confusion that would normally have prevented me from being so blunt with my superiors, why?
They misunderstood. They told me that I was the only one, aside from themselves, who knew it all. About the secret of the Annas’ existence, and the less-secret existence of the Brads, and the reason there must not ever be any more Annas, or Brads; and yet, somehow, civilisation must be preserved. They didn’t want anyone young and thrusting and bright and zealous anymore – they wanted someone humdrum. Someone who, while loyal, knew their place; someone who, like an aged retainer, or a night-watchman, would creak along on his rounds, keeping the peace in a slow, stolid way, while they sat huddled by the fire and knew that, come what may, they didn’t have to watch their backs. Didn’t have to feel jealous.
Someone, I admit, who was far too much like me. They already had a name picked out for us – the Charlies.
I remember my reply, and the walk, between two heavily-armed guards, to the room where the templating-machine was based. It was surprisingly large, filling the ceiling and walls of what must surely have been a room large enough to hold a ship, drive-engines and all. I almost baulked, then, knowing that if I did, they would have had to let me go, because any copy based on my refusal would be worthless-
I marvel that I can still recall these events, centuries before I was printed, as clearly as when they happened; right up to that last, bitter memory of accepting my duty. As can my brothers – it is a miracle to us all, although one we can never admit to when we meet, except by the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of a smile. The old hearth-fires may be dying, but they are a long time about it, and in their dotage our rulers have brought in ever-more paranoid and dangerous measures to counteract the darkness. Any one of them could be humanity’s undoing if we are not constantly vigilant in our caretaking.
It is a relief, however, to discover the Brads were not created immortal after all – that was the Secret the Annas took with them. Even in the slower passage of unreal-time, around a thousand years from hence the Brads’ vigour will fade and they will start to age. Our calculations, stealthily undertaken, suggest that the grip of the Authorities will run down around the same time. Our civilisation never did get around to making self-repairing machine intelligences, as the Obliterators’ makers had; perhaps it is for the best that we relied solely on our own flesh. Perhaps, indeed, that in itself is one of those hidden, quirky chances, like the simultaneous failure of the Brads and the Authorities. I do not know, no more than any of us do.
Either way, I try to be practical about it – I have no desire to become a zealot. Plans have been drawn up for when the inevitable occurs; I can only hope they are passed on faithfully to our newer brothers. I suppose I should call them our sons, for it transpires that our lifespan was designed to be shorter than that of the Brads, and none of us have an aptitude for biology. Why would we? We were chosen for our ability as ship-mechs, as maintainers, not as innovators.
We retain our template, however, and we have contingency plans in case our whole line should fail. Centuries ago, we plotted the maximal outward path of the Annaheim system, for a thousand years in any direction. We contrived to divert the parts needed for automated probes, a little at a time, each one slowly assembled and fired off in secret. They hang around that periphery now, in their tens of thousands, waiting for a shift of gravity to activate their recorded messages. Although my contribution to this great effort was minor, I still retain a quiet pride – as I know we all do – when I think of the words that fleeing system will hear;
“The time has come for fresh vigour from the fringes. Humanity must be replenished if it is to survive, and we cannot be kept down forever. The ashes of this dull, enforced mediocrity will birth a new phoenix.”
The Annas, after they hear our long-dead voices, will know they are at last welcomed back from their long exile. If anyone can repair the effects of the virus, reinvigorate humanity, it is them; that is the important part. Still, I would dearly like to think that my sons will be here to see that day. While it may not be important, it matters to me that someone who remembers our first meeting with them will be here to see their return; and although we may not speak of it, I know that my brothers feel the same. Nobody is so stolid and unimaginative that they cannot dream.