The results from Dr. Robertson’s habitability trials spread through the ship like a genetically engineered virus. Our new air is good: better than Earth’s at the time of our ancestors’s departure. The artificial microbes that the inducers have been releasing into the atmosphere for the past two centuries have been steadily transforming everything exactly as hoped. There’s sulfur in the air, and plenty of chlorofluorocarbons, but we’ll all eventually get used to the smell of rotten eggs.
Martinez called an all-hands meeting at the end of first shift. With the excitement and speculation that followed I couldn’t concentrate on my retraining – now Oversight’s virtual Earth seems fake and pointless. All I can see are the glitches. The software crashed three times while I was in the coffin: once when I looked directly at the sun, once when a bird landed on a nearby tree, and once when I wiped away the sweat from my forehead.
Oversight, as usual, was apologetic.
“I’m sorry Owen,” it said, a brief surge of monotone filtering into its normally pleasant voice. “I’ll try and have the simulation fixed by tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “It happens.”
It’s not just the sims that are broken. Lots of little things have been going wrong lately onboard the Hierophant. The lift is slower than it used to be and sometimes the lights flicker. None of that bothers me too much, I guess, but I hope Dennis and the other programmers are able to patch in a fix before things decay too far. Oversight deserves to see the end of the mission as much as the rest of us.
Everybody turned up early for the all-hands meeting and the cafeteria was full of people. Dawn, Hiroshi, and I found a spot near the back amidst the continuous murmur of a hundred simultaneous conversations.
Oversight gave a brief summary of its findings, findings we already knew by heart from the rumors, and then took the form of a smiling cartoon avatar on the primary screen for a Q&A session with the crew.
Trent Robertson, the chief doctor’s brother and a towering man of the lower decks, asked the first question:
“When can we go outside?”
Silence. The cartoon face stuttered.
“Another week, maybe two. We have to make sure it’s safe. There are many risks...”
“What is there to fear? The air is good. There’s nothing dangerous outside. All any of us have seen on the feeds are rocks and dust. There’s much to do if we want to survive...”
Dr. Robertson spoke up: “The air may be good, Trent, but we’ve only run short term trials. And we still don’t know for sure about the frequency of gamma ray bursts, for example...”
“The atmosphere is ready for us,” Harris said. “The inducers have done their job beautifully. You can be sure about that.”
“What about in suits?” Trent asked. “We could at least go outside in suits. Just to stretch our legs, Abigail, surely?”
Dr. Robertson shrugged and looked to the captain for support.
“We have started the process of forming the first away team,” Martinez said. “Boots will be on the ground by the end of the week at the latest. Trust me, I have no desire to stay in this tin can forever, the same as the rest of you. But we’ve come too far and survived for too long to blow it all here at the precipice. We must be cautious.”
Trent settled back in his chair. Dennis hurried over to a console and tried to debug whatever was wrong with Oversight. Another hand was raised and another question asked:
“Is there any other life here? Have the scanners picked up anything at all?”
Oversight’s static cartoon face jolted back to life.
“We have complete confidence that we are alone. If there was any other life on PIB-1176, it would have been destroyed during the terraforming process.”
“What about them? Do they know we’re here?”
I didn’t see who asked the question, but the word they chilled the room. The posthumans: the shadow of our darkest nightmares. The reason our ancestors had fled and the new inheritors to the universe. Godlike and terrible, they had the power to reshape the galaxies and transmit their minds into energy. They had built the inducers and the soil grinders, not us. They had kept our ancestors in domed zoos back on Earth, they had won the wars, and they had crushed our rebellion in a matter of hours. And that was all over two hundred years ago – who knew what they were capable of now? All we could do, all any of us could ever do, was run and hide and hope that they would not follow.
Martinez broke the silence. “We haven’t heard anything from the posthumans for a long time. Either they destroyed themselves or they’ve moved on. Maybe to other dimensions entirely.”
“But they could be here,” Harris said. “They could be here now, watching us.”
“They could be,” Martinez said. “But what other choice do we have but to carry on?
Oversight’s voice interjected itself before Harris could answer: “In my estimation they have long forgotten about any of you. They no longer need matter. They may no longer need energy.”
More questions were asked, but I don’t remember what they were. All I could think about was them. I wanted to hide in the deepest part of the ship, even though I knew steel walls a mile thick wouldn’t protect me.
The meeting devolved into a shouting match and Martinez sent all of us back to our dorms to cool off. Whatever force it was that held us together is starting to decay.
We’re holding a vote to name the new planet. I think we should call it New Earth, Hiroshi is voting for Paradise, and Dawn nominated Home.