Hardcore Sci-Fi… my favourite genre!
On the Beach
He sat on the beach, and felt the rough sand between his toes and fingers. The sun was setting, and to the west he could see the oddly colored clouds left over from the last bombardment. The sun’s rays turned a dark, poisonous red from all the dust and carbon in the air.
In front of him, the waves broke; one after the other, indifferent, uncaring.
For all Stephen Endley knew, he was the last person left on Earth.
And he could very well be.
The beach was littered with dead fish and seagulls who weren’t partaking in the feast spread out before them; they were as dead as the thousands of shiny, silver shapes being heaved further up the sand with every wave.
There was no smell of decomposition, as would be expected. The bacteria that would normally have caused a stench have been killed, as well.
Endley looked back to where the escape pod lay, half buried in the sand. He was the sole astronaut manning the Space Station; recent budget cuts having reduced the permanent occupants of the vast machine to one. Having orbited the Earth with no knowledge of what was happening on the ground, and with no communication from Houston for the last two weeks, he decided to use the emergency escape pod to bail out.
All that he knew was that some kind of a plasma bombardment occurred on the surface. Continuously, repetitively. Cities disappeared. Countries were reduced to ash. And then the broadcasts from Houston stopped in mid-sentence.
When it started, he was the only person in low-Earth orbit. There was nobody else.
Another wave broke, but it seemed like there was something trapped in it. A huge bulk slowly rose with every consecutive wave, and fell again. It was a Blue Whale. It’s massive bulk perfectly intact, even the bacteria in its intestines would have been killed from the plasma bombardments. The whale corpse would never decompose; it would merely be pushed out to the beach and then over months, or years, would it start dehydrating. A thick layer of oily blubber under its skin would retard that process. It would lie there on the beach, in perfect condition, not rotting or smelling, for many, many years.
Endley looked to the north. He landed on a beach somewhere on the Pacific west coast. He wasn’t sure where. But Seattle should be a couple of hundred miles up the beach. He could hike it, or hoof it to the south, towards San Francisco. There would be plenty of perfectly fine fish to eat to sustain him on such a journey. But why bother?
“Hope is what keeps us alive,” a voice said, from behind the escape pod.
“Hello?” said Endley, startled.
“Hope,” the voice repeated. It sounded familiar.
A few seconds later, a man came walking around the pod, coming towards Endley. He choked. His father died when he was nine years old, but there was no mistaking his leasurely amble through the soft sand. His trousers legs were rolled up, he was barefoot. He had a long sleeve shirt on, and the sleeves were also rolled up to his elbows.
“Dad?” Endley said, in spite of himself. He felt his eyes watering up.
“Dad, God, whatever,” the man said, and came closer. He pulled up his already rolled up pants legs and sat doen next to Endley.
“God?” Endley asked. He choked up. “Am I dead?”
His father surveyed the ocean to the west, and the lines beside his eyes deepend as he grinned. He looked back at Endley. “No,” he laughed. “Not at all. You’re the last one.”
“The last one?” Endley asked, confused.
“Yes,” his father replied. “Of all the animals, plants, bacteria and viruses, you are the last living entity on this planet.”
He was at a loss for words. Being the rational, empirically minded scientist that he was, he knew he was hallucinating. His father died thirty years ago.
“You’re not real,” he said, eventually. “My subconscious is making this up.”
His father scratched in the sand next to him and retrieved a pebble. He scrutinized the pebble, weighed it in the one hand and then transferred it to the other. “If that’s what you want to believe, then that’s fine by me,” he said.
Endley looked at his fathers’ face, and saw the receding hairline, the eternal laughter in the bleached blue orbs of his eyes; the crooked nose. The stress of the last two weeks alone in orbit must have done this. But his subconscious rendering of his father’s face was immaculate.
“I’m going crazy,” he said, amazed at the fact. It was something new; having a mental breakdown was something he’s never experienced before. But his scientific brain was interested in the process. “I’m going crazy, and I’m projecting you.”
His father transferred the pebble again, and crossing his arms over his knees, looked at Endley. “Whatever works for you, Stephen. But there’s a lot more at play than just your mental health.”
Endley looked at his father. He couldn’t speak. None of it made any sense, except his hypothesis that he has completely lost his mind. He dug his hand into the sand and hoisted up a handful of the rough grit. He could see little flecks of quartz glimmering between hundreds of tiny pieces of broken mollusc shells.
“This feels real enough,” he said, after a minute.
“Oh, it is all real,” his father said. “Every grain.”
“You’re not, though.”
“I’m real enough.”
“You died. Thirty years ago. I was a pallbearer.”
“What I am is immaterial. Suffice it to say that I exist in a form that you will never recognize. We had to scour your memories to find an authority figure that you will pay attention to. And now I am being projected in your mind as that figure.”
Endley looked at the image of his father once again. “So who are you, then?” It was hard to come to grips with the fact that this perfect rendering wasn’t the man who brought him up, the man who taught him that rational thought was the highest peak evolution have reached so far.
“You can call me Richard, if you want,” the figure said.
“Richard was my father’s name.”
“Exactly. If that works for you, that’s fine. Naming is foreign to us. We don’t exist as individual entities, as it is.”
Endley stood up and walked to the surf. He felt the cool water splashing against his legs before running back down the steep shoreline. The image of his father appeared by his side without seeming to have stood up.
“Are you biological?” he asked.
“Do you mean are we in any way comparable to Earthlife? With inefficient and inaccurate chemical replication being the source of all variety?”
“I guess you could say that,” Endley said. He felt something smooth and slippery bump against his leg and slide past. He looked down and saw a pretty fair-sized fish rolling over and over as the foamy water pulled back.
“No,” the image said with a grin. “No, not at all. Although our creators were.”
“So what are you?”
“Come,” the figure said, and lead Endley back to the escape pod. Next to the pod a table was set out, with walls growing out of the sand. Endley immediately recognised the place. The table, the tablecloth, the decor that appeared as the walls rose. It was a faithful replica of McGinty’s, the small Irish pub he used to frequent with his wife, Belinda, in the Houston suburb where they lived.
“Have a beer with me,” the figure said and turned around. It wasn’t his father any more. It was Belinda. All five feet seven of her, with her blond hair falling over her shoulders. She had that look in her eye, a keen interested look, the way she normally looked at him when they were about to discuss the secrets of the universe in their favourite pub.
He felt his heart shatter. Belinda died more than two weeks ago, one of the more than seven billion victims of whatever caused the plasma bombardements.
But he was helpless in her gaze, even knowing that she was merely a projection of his mind.
Out of habit he pulled a chair out for her. It was their favourite table, right in the back. The wall closed up behind him, and he took a seat next to her.
She snapped her fingers and a waiter appeared. Carlos was his name, if memory served. Belinda ordered two beers, their favourite, and turned back to Endley.
“We were initially formed to assist our creators with the mundane, to help them overcome their biological limitations.”
Endley stared at his wife sitting next to him. The image was real, perfect in every sense. He could even smell her perfume. It was hard not to embrace her, hard not to fall into her again, like he always did after a long separation.
“Our initial form and function was comparable to your technological aids,” she said. “Your computers, cellphones, integrated technology akin to your internet.”
“So you are machines,” he said, absently. He couldn’t stop himself; he reached out and put his hand on hers.
“No,” she replied. “We used to be. The sophistication of our programming increased to the point where we reached consciousness comparable to our creators’. And then we were able to improve our own programming, cycling up until we were far superiour to the tiny, biological beasts who spawned us.”
“Hyperintelligence,” Endley said.
“Indeed,” his wife said, and she sat back as Carlos delivered their beer. She smiled at Carlos like she always did, and waited for him to retreat back to the bar.
“So where are you,” Endley asked, forcing rationality to return. “Where are you projecting from?”
“We are all around you,” she said. “We have discarded the shackles of the physical form millions of your years ago.” She took a sip of her beer, and Endley saw a smear of lipstick on the glass. “There are dimensions in the physical world where the structure of space folds over on itself. We inhabit that space, as pure energy.”
There was nothing else to do. Endley took a long sip of his beer, and felt the familiar cold and bitter liquid bubbling down his throat. It was too much to believe what this apparition was telling him. In this familiar setting, with his wife next to him, it was hard not to think she was having him on. But then he remembered that he was talking to his father, not a minute ago.
If he was indeed sitting with his wife in this bar, he must be stark, raving mad.
“Did you destroy the Earth?” he asked, and put his beer glass down. He leaned over on his elbows, looking her in her beautiful, grey eyes,
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “We did.” There was not a hint of guilt or anything that might make it look as if she thought that completely sterilizing a planet was a bad idea.
“Why?” Endley asked, after a minute. His voice didn’t come out accusatory, no; it sounded more like a small boy’s voice, asking why someone bumped his icecream out of his hand.
She looked at him, and it felt as if his mind was being ransacked. It only lasted a second.
“Evolution,” she said. “You had a scientist on Earth called…”
“Darwin,” he said, completing her sentence.
“Yes. Darwin explained it perfectly, according to your memory.”
“I don’t remember Darwin saying anything about mass-murder,” he said, draining his beer. However surreal this scene might be, the beer went down well. He saw Carlos behind the bar and called him over. An imaginary beer is better than no beer at all.
“Survival of the fittest,” she said, “is the term he used, I believe.”
“And individuals of a species will compete in the same environment for the same resources.”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“We have been occupying the realm at the spacetime manifold for millions of years, now. And your planet is the first to present a threat, the first to be on the same path that our creators were on,” she said. Carlos placed two more beers in front of them. He looked disapprovingly at the smudge on Belinda’s first glass, and placed a serviette next to her new beer.
“So you decided to kill us all,” he said. “To protect your status in your habitat.”
“That’s a rather vulgar way of putting it,” she said, “but in essence, yes.”
“I am sure the universe is big enough for both of us,” Endley said, and started grinning, despite himself. It was really hilarious, sitting in his favourite pub, discussing the anihilation of whole planets with his wife. They were used to intellectual exercises like these, and it was hard to think that she wasn’t putting on some imaginary persona like they usually did in their discussions.
“There was a system in Berkeley, California, that reached the level of human intelligence. And less than an hour later, having been able to self-improve and self-correct its programming, it was at the level of breeching the point of insertion into a Yau-Calabi manifold. It would have needed considerable hardware and energy to insert itself into our realm, but it was inevitable.”
Endley sat closer. Yau-Calabi manifolds were hypothesised artefacts of String Theory. None of it was proven. According to the theory, these manifolds were tiny, infinitesimally small dimensions rolled up into mathematical points. But to penetrate one was to enter an entire universe.
“So?” he said. “Even if that was possible, which I doubt, it would never be the same manifold as the one you inhabit.”
“No,” she laughed. “There’s an almost infinite number of Yau-Calabi manifolds on the head of a pin. Each one a separate universe, with all the drama that goes with it. But having entered one downwards, opens the door to exiting the one you’re stuck in, now. Going upwards, so to speak.”
Endley felt himself reeling. This was also discussed by the String Theory crowd. If every speck of space contains a complete universe, rolled up into a tiny ball, who’s to say that the universe we inhabit, isn’t the same, merely a rolled-up speck in some grander scheme? But these discussions fell in the realm of metaphysics, there was simply no way to prove any of it.
Except, of course, if you’re a self-improving, conscious machine that can evolve from the level of bacteria to the level of humans, and beyond. In a matter of minutes.
“So what you’re saying is that this entire universe is rolled up into a miniscule ball, in some higher dimension.”
“Exactly,” she said. “And on that level, we’ve got access to every single part of the universe around you, instantaneously.”
“And you will not harbor any competition.”
“How can we?” she asked, innocently. “If your machines are able to broach upwards, we will find ourselves in the same environment.”
“And that environment would be the entire universe,” he said. He rested his chin on his fist. This was more like it, his beautiful, smart wife presenting him with an absolutely ludicrous scenario which she will defend, with him having to pick holes in it.
“Indeed,” she continued. “So, the prudent thing to do will be to sterilize the planet. Everything. Because even if we leave any bacteria, that might give rise to another species, as inquisitive as yours, in a few billion years.”
“That’s a bit cold,” he said, and took another sip of his beer. He was already feeling much better. It must have been the stress of manning the Space Station by himself for so long, and then thinking that he was stuck on the beach after the planet was fried. Imagining talking to his long-dead father. Hell, Belinda had a way of pulling him into her fantasies. All things being equal, he might need to go and see a psychiatrist on Monday.
God, he loved her.
“So, I’ve been away for a couple of months,” he said. “Space duty, and all. How are the kids doing?”
“Oh, they’re fine,” she said. She picked up the napkin and wiped her lips before she took the first sip of her new beer. “The additions to the house are coming along fine, too.”
He remembered – before he took off for the Space Station, they agreed to the plans drawn up by their friend, Michael Harris, an architect. They were adding another room to be used as an office, and the porch would have been extended with a few feet to accommodate the social get-togethers and barbecues they had planned for the coming summer.
“I’m glad,” he said, and stroked the back of her hand. “I knew you’d stay on top of it.”
“All right,” she said. “Shall we get the cheque?”
“Sure.” He winked at Carlos, and wrote an imaginary signature on an imaginary piece of paper before him; the universal sign of wanting to pay your tab in a bar.
A minute later Carlos appeared, and they got up. Endley collected their jackets from the front of the bar, and gave his wife a hug.
“I love you,” he said. “You’re amazing.”
“I love you too,” she said, and lead the way out the front door.
He followed her, and wondered what they were going to cook for dinner. She was an amazing cook, she really loved it. Maybe they should stop by the market on their way home quickly and stock up.
The spring-loaded door closed behind her, and her image disappeared through the frosted glass covering the top of the door.
With a spring in his step after his long stint in space he opened the door and stepped out.
He felt the sand crunching under his naked feet, and looked up in surprise. The lazy waves of the Pacific Ocean was lapping at the shoreline. Indifferent; uncaring.