Westwood High School (Austin, TX)
Long ago, we laid claim to the hills and the valleys. We travelled the seas. We even sailed the skies. But it all came to a head when we set out for the stars.
In our mechanical bubbles, harnessing the power of unseen forces of nature, we traversed the heavens, reached the jewels of light that had so long eluded us. The universe was truly boundless. The last of the frontiers had opened. The stars became the home of our people.
We had won.
I sat alone, at the controls of my vessel- a surface of black material decorated with various glowing icons. Above it, through a wide viewing window, the starfield was around me. The darkness stretched farther than could be fathomed, the stars reduced to minute specks in its midst.
I selected an icon, and images from the surface of the previous planet I had visited appeared on the console. Gray slate cliffs and oceans of brown-green acid glittered brightly under a red sun. I cherished the memory of it, and yearned for the sounds of the shifting atmosphere, the weight of a natural gravity field, the experience of time spent meaningfully.
Our lives are much longer than they once were. Tiny machines keep our bodies running in peak condition, sustaining us with little more than energy. Unfortunately, the mind was not given the same treatment. It is important to reminisce over past experiences, or one risks losing them to the void…
I walked to the hibernation pod with a subdued but potent sense of anticipation. This was not due to the planet itself, but because, according to a data transmission I had received some time ago, a convention of people was to be held on-world. Real people, the one thing that cannot be stored or simulated, the one thing I lacked. This excited me terribly, as it represented the most significant opportunity I could recall in my life.
I stepped into the hibernation pod. The ship subdued my mind, and time skipped by.
The ship awoke me again, this time with a notification. Data transmission signal received.
A data transmission meant communication, and with it, new ideas, the second most limited commodity after people. I opened it as fast as the ship’s computer would allow.
Among the transmission packet were games, stories, music, and a few (rather large) files of a format I did not recognize. Above all, there was a file labeled “For Travellers” in an audio format. I selected the recording, and a voice sounded from the walls.
“Greetings, Travellers of the cosmos! If you received this, it means we are looking for an explorer like you! Whether you stumbled across this signal randomly or arrived following instructions from one of our remote buoys, head to the nav coordinates contained in this data packet. We have sent a sample of our art to help pass the time. We hope to see you here!”
I spent the next few years of the journey systematically enjoying and deconstructing every piece of data that was sent to me. I listened to and recomposed the music, I played the simulation games and decompiled their source code. From some literature they had sent, mostly fables and poems, nothing political, I learned the written language of these strange new peoples.
Once I was content with my investigation of the transmission, I entered the hibernation capsule, and time skipped by.
Sometimes, while in hibernation, while the stasis devices were still activating, I would see fragmented images from my distant past. A world with a blue sky, with trees and clouds, crowds and mobs of people.
I wondered if such a world still existed, despite the undoubtably immense time since I had taken my leave. What wonders might humans have accomplished on Earth?
As soon as I regained my senses, I left the stasis pod and ran to the window to discover the ship had entered a low orbit over the planet. It was a small, grey world, with a blue trim of atmosphere, dappled with great splotches of ocean. Far away, the blue-white sun gleamed bright. Somewhere on that rock, I knew, there were others like me.
On request, a land-bound station sent its surface coordinates to the ship, which initiated its auto-landing sequence. I watched as flames licked across the deflection screen around the ship, and listened to the unfamiliar groan of the gravity control module straining against the planet’s gravitational well.
Then, the miracle occurred. The ship landed on a docking bay, and the door opened on a new planet. I felt on my skin the heat of a sun, the movement of wind across my arms. It was a celestial feeling. I picked up a data tablet (in case I needed guidance) and took a cautious step out of my ship and into the unknown.
A series of large rectangular buildings formed a sprawling complex that stood tall on one side, likely the only man-made feature on the surface of this world. Atop the structure was a huge dish, like a satellite connection. I wondered at its purpose- what applications could require such immense data transmission infrastructure? - but decided other matters were more pressing.
A sudden motion drew my eye. It was from the station’s door. From inside, I noticed a figure standing at the entrance. WIth the requisite caution, I approached. The creature sighted me, and drew a breath.
“Welcome, friend!” He spoke to me.
For a moment, I was simply unable to respond. I examined him, from head to toe. He was perfect, truly an ideal image of humanity, the likes of which I had only dreamed of meeting.
“You’re the Traveller, right?” The man asked.
In my overwhelmed state, I nearly could not bring myself to respond, but I forced out a short phrase: “...Yes, I am.” It was a deceptively certain statement- he could have meant anything by his question, but the description certainly fit me, I reasoned.
I was suddenly overcome with anxiety “Am I late? Did I miss the others?”
“The others are inside. Don’t worry, you’re right on time.” Taking my hand, he led me through the gateway. The doors shut closed behind me.
We walked through the narrow halls, whose walls were adorned with microscopic gems of light. The man looked me over before he spoke again.
“You can call me Lewis. What name will you go by?”
I hesitated. I knew I had a name, but it hadn’t come up in a very long time. Lewis pointed to my data pad. “Do you need to check?”
I nodded, face flush with what I believed was embarrassment. I activated the device, which revealed my username was Qui.
“Qui” I said. “That’s what it says at least.”
“Welcome, Qui.” Lewis said as he opened the door on a bright room.
Once my eyes adjusted, I realized I was in a huge chamber, probably the central hall of the station. The star’s blue light shone down through dark portholes on the ceiling onto an array of tables and chairs. Sitting in them were around hundreds of people, all staring at the platform I had just been led onto.
Lewis turned and whispered to me, “Remain calm, I’ll explain everything later.”
“Greetings, everyone!” Lewis spoke in his language, rendering his words incomprehensible to me. “As you all know, many Terra-decades ago I set out a call for the flesh-bound travellers of the universe, inviting them to this far-flung node.”
I stood in terrified silence, faced with more people than I had seen as long I could remember.
“I want you all to give a warm welcome to Qui, one of the ancient Travellers!”
The crowd clapped, cheering for the presentation. Usually that was reserved for when a person does something notable. What had I done to deserve this praise?
Lewis raised his hands, and the crowd fell silent again. “Now I know what you are all thinking.” He stated. “How can I prove that this ‘Qui’ is, in fact, one of the Travellers, especially when they were thought to be extinct? Well, look no further than the starship he arrived in!”
On screen, an image appeared of my starship on its approach. The crowd admired a projection of its descent through the atmosphere, watching as it lowered directly to the Earth. I, too, admired the new perspective the image gave.
Then the image zoomed in to reveal my ship’s coded designation. Lewis pointed to it.
“As you can see, this is the original G-class star-vessel ‘Godwit’, as recorded by the eldest minds. You may examine it outside to verify this. We will be holding the Traveller for examination and further study. Thank you!”
The room clapped again, more energetically this time. A pair of women ushered me off stage, and I was led through the corridors. They brought me to a small room, furnished with a metal table. There, I was greeted again by Lewis.
“Sorry about all of that. We have anticipated your arrival for some time. If you have any questions, I will answer them for you now.”
My mind still reeled from the events that I’d just experienced. There had been more activity in the last few hours then I had seen in a millenium put together. I simply shook my head. “I don’t even know where to start.”
He laughed. “I’m sure this is disorienting for you. Whenever you need something, be sure to let us know. We are happy to help.” Lewis stood and left the room.
I searched the area, discovering a terminal. It blinked on and displayed a small rotating orb of light, soon replaced by a line of text across the screen. Neural link unsuccessful. No personality cache detected. I did not comprehend the meaning of it at the time.
After some time, Lewis entered the room again, along with a woman wearing a white coat. “You can call this one Arila.” Lewis introduced her, and she waved. “They are here to ask some questions. Please answer honestly. There are no wrong answers here.” I assumed the oddities in his grammar to be a result of translation to my language.
“So, Qui, we just want to learn more about you.” Arila stated. “First, I want to know where you come from.”
“Well, I most recently visited a lovely planet some 15 light years armward-”
“No, no, I mean your origin. Where were you… born?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.” I told her.
She looked at me strangely. “What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I don’t remember. It’s been a very long time, and you know how memories fade…”
Her expression changed, though the emotion expressed was unfamiliar. “Right, right, of course. I’m sorry, I should have known.” She apologized, “What’s the last thing you, ah, remember?”
I thought back as far as I could. “I remember the day I got on the ship. I think it was the first time. I remember the doors closing, the ship taking off… and that’s about it.”
“Do you remember why you left?”
I paused again. Why had I left? “To explore the unknown I’d imagine. Although I don’t think anyone knew the cost…”
“Why did you come here?”
“To find other humans. So, in a way, I’ve already succeeded. This is the most interesting thing that has ever happened to me- well, that I can remember, and-”
I cut off my rambling when I noticed that her face darkened. She stood and started walking backwards out of the room.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“He didn’t tell you… I thought you knew.” Arila spoke, voice wavering. “I’m so sorry.” And she ran into the hallway.
“Wait!” I called after. “What are you talking about? Who didn’t tell me what?” But she was out of sight and, evidently, earshot. Without thinking, I ran after her.
Before long, I was lost in the maze of white-washed corridors and closed doors. The facility seemed organically structured- there was little in the way of intentionally design as I had studied it. Soon, I had reached what seemed to be an older area of the complex.
The rooms and doors were unlabelled except by numbers and signs that were long worn out, except for one area labelled “Reception and Transmission Center Alpha”. Curious, I entered.
The metal-walled chamber contained an array of consoles, like those I had seen earlier. At the far side of the area, there was a line of pods, not unlike my hibernation vessel. On one of the chambers, a red light shone dimly, casting a subtle glow across the room.
A beep chimed from one of the consoles, and a whir filled the room. A moment later, the light switched off, and the chamber doors opened. From inside emerged a male form, clothed scantily in some white cloth, whom I recognized as Lewis.
“Lewis?” I called, standing up.
The man exclaimed something in his own language.
“What are you doing here Lewis? What just happened?”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and his speech deepened. I felt suddenly threatened.
At that moment, the door opened to reveal- to my surprise- another of Lewis. The two identical men looked at each other for a moment. The Lewis who had entered the room turned to look at me.
“Qui! What are you doing here?” He asked.
“What’s going on? How are there two of you?”
The newly arrived man looked at me as if I was some alien creature, and then Lewis whispered something to him. His eyes widened, and he stumbled over some unknown words before bowing with an apologetic look on his face. He immediately left the room, leaving me with only one copy of Lewis present.
“I think I owe you an explanation.” Lewis said. “I heard about your interview with Arila and have been looking for you since. I wanted to give you time to absorb everything, but I should have told you sooner-”
“Told me what?”
He took in a deep breath, and hesitated for a time before he told me. “Humans don’t exist anymore, not like you.”
I wanted to believe he was joking, but his tone was deeply serious. He withdrew slightly and watched me with the wide eyes of one watching a wild animal. When I did not react beyond the normal bounds of human behavior, he continued.
“Me, Arila, that man you just saw, we’re... ‘personalities’, trans-humans, uploaded into machines and beamed across the universe as light. When we get to our destination, a body is printed for us, and we are downloaded into it. No risk. No death. So, you could say we are not human, in the traditional sense.”
The room was silent for a while as I thought through the implications of the news.
“What- what happened to the rest of humanity? To Earth?”
Lewis hesitated before he replied.
“We... don’t know. Earth has been- lost for many thousands of years.”
“A thousand- You mean to tell me I left the Earth thousands of years ago?”
“That’s what we would assume, yes, although we have no proof, empirically speaking, that the Earth ever existed at all. I believe in the Earth, but-”
“What- that’s absurd! How could anyone not believe in Earth? Aren’t there any humans at all?”
“...Not that we know of. That’s why we were so excited that you would arrive. You’re unique, and your discovery is our best evidence that we ever held biological existence.”
Beyond reason, I replied quickly.
“I want to leave.”
He froze. “What did you say?”
“I said that I want to leave.”
Lewis blinked. “If you want, I can take you for a hiking trip. It would give you a chance to relax, take all of this news in-”
“No, I mean leave the planet. I want to leave this planet.”
Lewis took a deep breath. “I can’t let you do that. Humans are mortal, aren’t you? If you leave, you would be lost forever, like the other Travellers. We don’t know if they’re still alive. You could be the last human in existence.”
“Then how could you leave? How could you deprive us, deprive History, of your race? Return to isolation, for the rest of your limited life?”
“Humanity is extinct.” I took a breath of my own. “In the stars... I can see new things as long as I live. And I’m already alone.”
Lewis thought for a few moments. When he reached a decision, he did so with a great sigh.
“As you wish. You may leave.”
The scientists worked with me to copy what they could of my ship’s data cache to the station, and the most relevant parts of the station’s to my ship. I was given various small trinkets, to remember the station by. In return, I allowed them to examine my physiology, and with it refute or add to a body of ancient records.
As I climbed the ship’s ladder, savoring the world’s atmosphere once more, I heard Lewis’ voice behind me.
“I see you’re ready to leave.” He said, with a tinge of sorrow. “I wanted to thank you for coming here. I hope you reconsider. We will always welcome you, Qui.”
As the ship’s door whirred closed, I claimed, “I’ll remember.”
I watched from the window as the planet shrank away beneath me. Then, I looked to the sky, chose a star at random, and input its coordinates to my nav system. I wondered what I might find out there, where I might end up, and if there was truly anyone left to find.
I moved all of the data from the station into a seperate drive, and moved the drive to a hidden container. Someday, I might discover it again, but, in the moment, I wanted to forget. In due time, the pain would subside, and I could be back to normal. I could hardly wait.
I sealed the hibernation vessel, and time skipped by.