Monday, July 18, 2270CE
Washington D.C., United States
"Are you ready to make history?"
The video paused, and I found myself grinning. I wonder, even now, if somehow he knew just how much things would change. I saw the familiar wry smirk on his face, the strange shine in his eyes. I’m used to them now, but back then, it was odd to see someone so...enthusiastic about the unknown.
A stern, brooding voice interrupted my respite. "Is this particularly funny, Ms. Chuang?" Sighing loudly, Senator Andrew Townsend broadly swept one hand before himself, indicating the rest of the panel and our audience. "Would you care to share your unique understanding with the rest of the hearing?"
Turning back to face him and the rest of the board, I took a moment to take a sip of my water, asking myself for what seemed like the 20th time today- How did I get here? How did it get this far? Seated in front of a Senate Committee with representatives of every military branch alongside them for good measure, televised on an international network, without almost a single ally in the country in the room, it was hard not to be intimidated, even if today was the last day of the interview.
Putting the glass down, I flashed the Senator my best smile. One that assured my viewers around the world that everything would be alright. That they could sleep easy despite the uncertainty, the crazy, and unpredictable lives we all seem to live in now. "Senator, I just reflected on how much he hasn’t changed since that day. He’s still the same man, even if he’s almost beyond us all now."
He doesn’t buy it for a second. If anything, the frown lines on his face deepened, which seemed impossible to me just moments ago. He jabbed a finger at the screen. "You’re saying the Interpreter was always aware of more than he told the public. Even at the start of this whole series of events, he had an idea of what the larger picture entailed."
Shrugging, I rolled my eyes in front of the cameras. "Senator, given how differently this has been handled from almost every other scenario the media has come up with, I’d be more concerned if he had no involvement in its development at all." His look of surprise was mirrored on the face of every other government and military official in the room, and that made me smile again. Waving a hand dismissively, I continued. "You wouldn’t have wanted one of the others to be there, would you?"
A dour, but still energetic voice chuckled to the senator’s left. "She’s got you there, Bob." General Thornsby chuckled darkly from his wheelchair, getting the rooms’ full attention. "Would you rather the comatose woman be there? Or the murderer on death row? Or how about that newborn?" He shrugged, leaning back on his seat with a smirk only the burdens of command could teach. "He was what, three days old? I’m sure that would have gone over well with the public."
Even as I stared at the General, waiting to hear his every word as any sane person would, I caught Senator Townsend lightly stroking his beard from the corner of my eye. A minor gesture, but even then it was telling- the Senator was trying his best not to start an argument on national television. It was no secret the two had profoundly different views on the events surrounding First Contact, and while the General might have sided with him originally, he was firmly and resolutely committed to the idea that extraterrestrial life should remain off Earth’s soil. By not fully paying attention to the General, it was a subtle but still public disagreement between the two- a matter of trust. Not simply between their fellow man- but now between two sentient species from entirely different worlds.
General Thornsby and Senator Townsend locked gazes for a moment, a brief battle of wills and faith. It’s hard to say, even for me, just what was left unsaid in that moment. The Senator was well known for a singular devotion to the Protestant faith, attending the same church every Sunday in Pennsylvania since his childhood. The General, on the other hand, was far more fluid in his ideals, adamant in his belief that new truths come to us every day. He was by far the more vocal, speaking publicly bi-weekly since his personal encounter with the Triarch that left him unable to walk.
For my part, I gently coughed into the microphone, breaking the tension of the moment between them and recapturing the focus of the room. “If I might remind the Committee, the Interpreter eventually did allow others to also directly communicate with the Triarch once we were certain the correct sequences were present in their genetic codes.” I gestured to the General with a light flick of my wrist, hoping it wasn’t too aggressive for the camera. “We’ve never had another incident of the same magnitude as General Thornsby’s. Not even close.”
Townsend blinked twice, then nodded slowly. “I concede that point, Ms. Chuang. However…” He adjusted his glasses slightly- a gesture which, my research showed, meant he was going on the offensive- and drummed the fingers of his other hand on the desk in front of him. “The roughly two-hundred and thirty nine people able to communicate with the Triarch are of such wildly differing nationalities that they can hardly be credited as a trustworthy source of information.”
My head jerked back at that. National representation? That’s his concern? Blinking rapidly, I struggled to accept the answer he seemed to present. Has he missed the entirety of the message? All the demonstrations, the reforms…did none of it go through? Stunned briefly, Townsend continued without waiting for my response. “Now, I know four of our brave citizens volunteered and were accepted to partake in the surgery, and can now communicate with the Triarch from anywhere on Earth, but when you consider how many people came forward for the project, you can hardly blame me for seeing the results as a little…biased.”
I wanted to shake my head in disbelief, and I turned to the General for confirmation. His eyes briefly flicked down, staring for a moment at the front of the desk where the Great Seal sat prominently, before making eye contact once again. It dawned on me, far too slowly, that his position wouldn’t allow his personal beliefs to override his responsibilities. If he had let them, then he would have been forced to resign. He might not agree with the question, but he was forced to allow it to be asked, because to ignore it would have been to ignore a potential threat to the country.
I sighed, pinching the bridge between my eyes and sweeping a few loose strands of hair away from my face before answering. “Senator, you have to understand. The genetic mutations necessary for communication have only just started becoming widespread.” I placed my hands firmly but quietly on the desk. “The Interpreter takes -anyone- who volunteers and has the right genetics. National allegiances mean nothing to him, or to the Triarch, for that matter.”
A meek voice to Thornsby’s left spoke up. “I believe that might be the source of Chairperson Thornsby’s concerns.” Everyone turned to look at Senator Elena Stillwater, who had gone through the entire five day interview without so much as a peep until now. “The Interpreter was born and raised here, after all. While things have changed in the years since First Contact, he was still born in a time when national allegiances were at the forefront of people’s concerns. They were often a matter of life and death, as you and I well know.” Consciously or not, she reached for the folded flap of her left sleeve.
While she’d been offered a replacement many times, Senator Stillwater refused to, as she put it, ‘dishonor the actions of the 101st Airborne and their sacrifice’ in what was the last battle for International Unification. I knew those words intimately. I helped broadcast them, after all. Nodding, I could only repeat what I’d heard countless times. “One day, our petty differences will be behind us, and we can focus on matters of true importance.” I locked gazes with Stillwater. “Does that sound like a man who would truly care about what his birth country thought of his patriotism?”
Stillwater smiled, sitting back in her chair as Townsend leaned forward again. “So you’re saying he’s honestly and truthfully thinking of the entire human race right now?”
Baffled by his insistence, I simply sighed and nodded. “I will say it any number of times you want- the Interpreter wants peace between everyone.”
Thornsby shifted in his wheelchair, glancing at Townsend and Stillwater before nodding. “Senators, might I suggest we break for lunch a bit early?” When they looked back, he shrugged and pointed at me. “The lady does not have a lot of time left here.”
Townsend blinked. “Oh yes, I’d nearly forgotten.” He smiled briefly, then leaned back in his seat. “Two quick questions for the record, then lunch.” Reaching into a jacket pocket, he pulled out a small glasses case, and removed his glasses. “First, Ms. Chuang, this is your last day as a citizen of the United States, the country of your birth and your current home, correct?”
I smirked, leaning into the microphone for perfect clarity in the announcement. “Yes. I leave later today and will renounce my citizenship tomorrow.” It sounded deliciously traitorous to my ears, but to everyone else in the room, it was simply another small fact in their lives and nothing to be worried about. Another marker of how much things had changed in such a short amount of time.
Townsend nodded again, placing his glasses inside the case and snapping it shut. “And how long were you a citizen here?” Stillwater held her breath, and Thornsby smiled wide, his moustache finally pulling up over his mouth and revealing yellow stained teeth. Townsend, naturally, looked entirely too passive for such a monumental question.
My smirk became a huge grin, relishing in the chance to say something no other human had ever said before. “I have been a citizen of the United States for two-hundred and seventy three years.”
Sitting beneath the awning of my favorite Mediterranean restaurant in San Francisco, I blinked once again as the fog rolled out across the Presidio, covering it in in its cool embrace, hiding the sun’s punishing rays once again. Biting down into the warm falafel, I sighed, both in nostalgia and in light regret. I’d committed myself to leaving, but that didn’t make this last meal in my hometown any easier. I was going to miss this view from Twin Peaks all the time. Gazing out over the bay had been one of my biggest stress fixers, and sometimes I didn’t know how I was going to cope without it.
The waiter walked by and refilled my water, smiling again. “Thank you again, Ms. Chuang. My daughter erased everything from her display case and left your signature in it.” He chuckled lightly. “Said the rest was easily replaceable with a new case.”
I laughed aloud at that, putting the pita back on the plate. “Oh come on. Even here, I shouldn’t have that kind of star power!”
He blinked at the outdated term, but then his eyes flicked briefly to the side, the Extranet display installed in the window looking up the term in microseconds and displaying its meaning. He shrugged lightly. “Please, Ms. Chuang. You have to remember how important you are to us. You’ll always be welcome in San Francisco.”
Touched, I smiled lightly and looked away. “I sure hope so.” I blinked at the window, and its surface returned to its mirror like shine. I frowned at my reflection, holding myself back from letting my eye twitch at my appearance. I was never happy about the way my hair fell after the wind got to play with it, and today was no exception. The red highlights were out of place again, and with the black turtleneck and blue denim skirt, I looked like some kind of punk rocker lost in time.
Tilting his head to the side, the waiter ironically waited for an explanation, but I wasn’t going to-
“She means, things aren’t going to be pretty starting tomorrow.”
That voice. That damnably arrogant voice what couldn’t be anyone but Ghassan Sherif, my ex-cameraman and one of the few people even older than I was. As the waiter turned to face the source of our interruption, I simply sighed. “What do you mean by that, Ghassan?”
Ghassan towered almost thirty centimeters over the waiter, his calm smile disarming the smaller man immediately. “Could you bring me some chicken schwarma and couscous please?” He sat down across from me, before I could offer protest, and leaned back into the chair. Decidedly ignoring the waiter and staring at me, the waiter only blinked and shook his head, appalled.
I nodded to our confused companion and waited until he was out of earshot before hissing at Ghassan. “You’ve got some nerve. What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were never coming back here!” I angrily took another bite of the pita, chewing it briefly before swallowing and glaring my hardest at him. “And what do you mean ‘things aren’t going to be pretty’? What’s going on, damnit?”
He waved my concerns aside with a casual flick of the wrist. “Change of plans. The announcement is tomorrow now.”
My jaw dropped. “Tomorrow? What…it’s supposed to be in two months!” I grabbed the sides of my head as a sudden painful headache ripped through my skull. “Now it’s going to look like I’m totally running away!”
Ghassan smirked, folding his arms over his chest. “Yeah…well…he was watching your interview. Turns out a few extremists are already getting ideas.” He sighed as I grabbed the water glass in front of me to cool off my rapidly heating head. “It’s a race against time now, or else things will spiral out of control soon.”
I rolled my eyes, not wanting him to have the satisfaction of seeing my instant realization of what that meant for all the people left behind. “That bad, huh?”
He nodded again. “The analytical model was already predicting almost total on two. If we don’t move now, it could snowball into four.”
I dropped the glass. If it hadn’t have been for his extreme reaction speed, it would have shattered on the floor at my feet. “Are you crazy?” He shouted, rising swiftly and deftly putting the glass back on the table. He looked into my eyes, but I was staring past him, unable to truly focus on anything but what he’d just said. Briefly, his hard gaze softened before he grabbed my hand, shaking me out of my stunned silence. “Lillian, listen.” He sighed. “You knew this was coming. He explained how it would work.”
My voice caught in my throat. “I just…all the effort and time…for what?” I couldn’t even get all my thoughts together. Basic processing in my brain was almost frozen, but was soon replaced by white-hot anger. “Two to four.” I slapped the table hard. “TWO TO FOUR!”
He frowned deeply. “Don’t make-“
I could barely see straight, but I cut him off, unwilling to hear whatever spin on the matter he had been coached on. “That’s not anywhere close to what the estimates were last month. What changed, Ghassan, hmm?” I stared him down, my eyes refusing to even blink. ”Did you lie to me again about this?” He wouldn’t yield his gaze, so I raised my voice further. “So you’re saying it’s entirely inevitable! Nothing I’ve done will help what happens next!” I found myself on my feet, the chair behind me tipped over on the floor. I was barely aware of the waiter standing nearby, holding Ghassan’s food on a tray.
Ghassan calmly nodded at the waiter, who placed his food on the table and backed away, clearly afraid of the confrontation spiraling out of control. I was so furious I barely paid him any mind, instead seethingly staring Ghassan down as he took a bite of the schwarma and sighed loudly. “Damn I missed surface food.”
I growled something between a snarl of disgust and a furious roar at him. “You’ve changed so much Ghassan! You were my best cameraman. Dedicated to informing the public on issues they needed to know. When did you stop caring about people here?”
He swallowed and stared at me straight on. “About the time my last grandchild died at the hands of extremists.”
I paused, remembering how big Ghassan’s family had been when I’d last seen them. Thanks to his wife’s strange luck to only give birth to multiple children at each pregnancy, he had a huge number of grandchildren; so many that I lost count after forty. Invoking such a personal tragedy was playing dirty, and Ghassan knew it. But it worked. I was calming down despite my anger, and I picked up my chair. I sat down in a huff.
Ghassan nodded. “I’m going to go with you when you take the shuttle back. Then when we leave, I’ll let the press know about tomorrow’s announcement.”
I said nothing. He took that as consent. He really should have known better, but then again, so should I.
We finished the meal in silence.
“Very well. Let’s move on to the subject of the population of the new settlement.” Shifting through the papers arranged before him, Senator Townsend cleared his throat and selected a page from somewhere in the middle of the report. “The last public record was one hundred and fifty years ago when all new transfers were denied admittance, creating an isolationist stance within the settlement that has remained to this day. Census figures say there were roughly six hundred and seven thousand people, with an error margin of about two percent.” He looked down at me, frowning deeply. “Can you tell me how large the settlement is now?”
I shrugged, taking a sip from my water as I did a rough calculation in my mind. “Not too much bigger, maybe a million, give or take a hundred thousand. Soon after, the family planning policy changed, and they switched from three children per family to two. Larger families are still highly discouraged, but everything seems to balance out nicely.”
There was a slight murmur from the general audience in the room which Townsend was quick to silence, and I couldn’t blame them. There were entire nations with smaller populations, let alone single settlements. Hell, we were roughly the same population as Bhutan, but completely independent from food, water and trade. From an economic standpoint, it was a market they were totally missing out on, and from a safety standpoint, we were starting to become a dangerous unknown. I sympathized a little, but this was to be expected. The settlement was fairly hard to reach.
General Thornsby leaned into his microphone a bit. “Even if the population has slowed its initial expansion, the scientific community has given us reason to be worried about long term genetics.” He gestured towards the holographic projector on the floor to our left, and it flared to life in a kaleidoscopic display of vibrant, merging colors. It took a second to focus, but then clearly projected a single strand of human DNA. Several segments flashed as they were highlighted. “I’m told this sample represents some variables found in your population from the time the borders were closed. Already, there are some strange effects being recorded.”
“General, I am not a scientist, but I believe I understand what you mean.” I sat up straight, then raised my wrist up into the air, tapping on a contactless button on my bracelet datadrive, sliding the inner ring as some of the photographs from home projected overhead. Some of my friends, Sven and Hisako, stood on a busy street next to a taqueria, flashing peace signs at the screen. They looked like an average interracial couple to me, but I simply pointed to their purple hair. “These hair colors aren’t dyed, nor were they genetically engineered. From what I’ve been told, they resist any form of coloration.”
Thornsby and Stillwater exchanged a glance, which was enough to make me wonder what else was going on behind the scenes. Their questions had been all over the place over the entire week long hearing, ranging from the advances in technology to political reforms to the practices of religious freedom, and now they were worried about genetics. I fully understood they were just trying to get a feel for a people they’d lost contact with, but even accepting North Korea into the United Nations seemed easier by comparison.
Stillwater spoke again, surprising me for the second time today. “From what I understand of the scientific community’s report here.” She tapped the report to her left, thicker than the other four stacked up beside by more than half. “They are worried about the lack of diversity in the gene pool. Their main solution to an eventual lack of genetic stability is to reopen the borders. I trust you can convince the Interpreter of this course of action.”
Her concern for the citizens of the settlement was touching, and I dearly hoped it was genuine. I’d thought about it once, after the grand scheme of it all was made clear to me. There is no argument I could possibly make that would sound even remotely sane to her or to the rest of the committee, not without a thousand other details that would convince almost everyone on Earth want to lock me up in an ancient mental institution. I resign myself to paraphrasing the shortest answer that was given to me. “Have you heard of the Toba catastrophe theory?”
The three of them shake their heads, confusion readily apparent. I press on, leaning back a little. “Essentially, a supervolcano erupted between seventy and seventy seven thousand years ago with such intensity, that the resulting volcanic winter killed most of the population of humans. It estimates that roughly fifteen thousand people were left.” I spread my arms out wide, smirking for dramatic effect. “The latest global census data put the population at roughly eleven and a half billion. The initial population of the settlement was twenty five thousand, drawn from all six populated continents.” I leaned back into the seat. “I think things will work out.”
Stillwater frowned at me, her eyes narrowing as she leaned back in her seat. Considering how little she had participated in the entire committee, I’d put real money on the idea this had been her main area of questioning. There was an awkward silence in the room, where some of the camera drone operators coughed just loudly enough be heard from the back of the hall. Then she covered her microphone, leaned over and whispered something to Senator Townsend, who nodded once she finished. They sat back up, and he leaned into his microphone. “You admitted earlier that you are not a scientist, Ms. Chuang, so from whom did you learn this theory?”
It was my turn to frown. “The Interpreter told me of the broad strokes. I researched into it myself later and found it a reasonable theory.”
The murmur returned, more intrigued than concerned this time, and Townsend did nothing to quell it, instead glancing towards the wall, probably looking up the history of the theory himself. I took the time to glance at the clock, finding it displaying 16:58. I couldn’t help but smirk. I was almost free. Townsend must have noticed it himself, because he turned back to the microphone. “Well, I see no real reason to keep you any longer, Ms. Chuang.” He looked back and forth at his fellow committee members. “Unless either of you have any more questions.”
Senator Stillwater slowly shook her head but General Thornsby nodded at me. “I have one final question, if you don’t mind.”
I shrugged. “No problems.”
“Given your extensive personal history with the settlement, its leader and inhabitants, do you feel as if you are incapable of being impartial towards their chances of survival despite its decision to isolate itself from the rest of the world?”
I blinked. This had to be the single most personable question the Senate Committee had ever asked me. It was also an impossible question to answer fairly. I’d seen generations of families come and go, watched the settlement build up from a few dozen blocks to kilometers long stretches of solid buildings. Asking me if I could detach myself from that was a low blow, but then I realized…that was the point. I had been alive so long, he wanted to test me to see if my humanity still counted for something, or if I had thrown it behind in order to cope with it all. Damn the cameras, if my sense of professionalism hadn’t kicked in, I would have laughed as hard as I could right then and there.
I let go of a lung full of air I hadn’t remembered holding, and spoke in as clear a voice as I could muster. “Objectively, I realized I am biased, but if you take the facts from my testimony and remove any personal opinion, I don’t believe there to be any flaw in the data I have spoken about over the course of this committee hearing.”
Only ten minutes later did I find myself surrounded by reporters as I exited the Dirksen Senate Office Building, the cool breeze of the late afternoon blowing a welcome change from the overheated interior. For several seconds, I simply closed my eyes and ignored the reporters as I took in the fresh air, savoring its unique taste and flow. I was ready to cry when the breeze stopped. I was going to miss this. I was going to miss almost all of it.
When I opened my eyes, I looked up at the hovering lanes of traffic flowing overhead, dozens of large scale ugly truck-like haulers accompanied by hundreds if not thousands of sleek, race worthy personal transporters flowing in nonstop waves across the eastern seaboard. I had to guess there were almost a million people in the sky above me, just going about their days without batting an eye at how strange their lives were compared to their ancestors. I wondered then just how many stories I was going to miss, how many lives I was going never going to learn about.
But I had made my choice. I was leaving, and this wasn’t the time for regrets.
My attention focused back on the reporters, who seized the opportunity by barraging me with as many topics as they could possibly think of. Most of it was trivial, not worth addressing. Who cared who my house was going to, where I would donate my awards, or what would happen to my private art collection? I was about to just walk away from it all when one reporter, a small Hispanic lady in a pink dress suit blurted out. “Will you be keeping in touch with your family?”
I paused at that. I hadn’t even considered it. I tried to remember the faces of my great grandnieces and nephews, to remember their names and where they lived. To remember their birthdays. If any of them had partners or children. It was a stunning revelation when I realized… I couldn’t. I’d stopped caring; for years, I hadn’t made a single effort into contacting them or keeping up to date with some of the more famous relatives I had. They were just too far removed from me to impact me in any meaningful way other than ‘they are family, so I should remember them’.
I looked her in the eye, ignoring her camera. “I will try, but I can’t be using all of the settlements communication traffic. It’s a big family, you know.” It was a lie, but I gave her the most sincere smile I could manage, and hoped I didn’t look like the monster I felt I was at that moment.
A red and white dot on the horizon approached rapidly, above the normal lanes of traffic. My bracelet beeped several times, and I knew it was Ghassan. I nodded, looking around at the array of cameras and reporters. “I’m sorry, but my ride is approaching. I think you’ll be interested in who the pilot is.” I took a step towards the nearby plaza, and the reporters parted before me, making no more effort to get another question in. I was genuinely surprised at their reaction. One last show of respect to a former colleague, I suppose.
The garage sized shuttle took less than a minute to reach us, slowing drastically in the last kilometer or so, a small bang popping in the air as its momentum died. Another gust of wind, hot and humid, washed over me as it descended to the plaza, the side door retracting inside as it landed on four stilts that rotated from a fixed position on the sides. As the air died around us, the anti-gravity platform deployed, guided by four red dots to a spot only three steps in front of me. Two beams of ultrasonic holograms filled the space in-between the dots, forming semi-solid handrails to offer me balance and safety.
Taking the few steps to the platform, I turned around as I stood on it, waving to the cameras as I rose into the air to the side of the shuttle. When my vertical motion stopped, I looked into the shuttle to see Ghassan leaning against the wall, wearing a purple and grey uniform that looked like it had been taken out of a twenty-first century television show. I had to stifle a laugh, and he frowned as I stepped inside. “They’re all yours.”
He stroked his beard once, making sure it wouldn’t billow in the wind, maybe. Then he stepped out into the door frame as the platform retracted and the holograms switched off. The reporters had a collective gasp of shock, a few even rushing towards the shuttle. I couldn’t see the look on his face, but I doubt it was happy. Ghassan hated being reminded how famous he was.
Instead, he tapped on the doorframe, and a small pod detached from the side of the shuttle, gliding over to the mass of reporters and hovering overhead, out of reach. He pulled a small transmitter from the wall, cleared his throat and tapped on the send button. “Good afternoon. At approximately twelve-hundred hours tomorrow, pacific standard time, the Interpreter will be transmitting an address on all channels, all frequencies and over all Extranet social media outlets. In this address, he will finally explain what we have all been waiting to hear- the very reason why the Triarch came to Earth a quarter of a millennium ago.”
He bowed deeply. “We of the Lunar Colony would be honored if mankind would listen and learn.” Without waiting for a response of any kind, he placed the transmitter back in the wall, recalling the pod and walked back into the cockpit. I turned as the door slid back into place, then followed him, staring out of the one-way mirrored windows to the reporters below, who scrambled out of the plaza.
I heard Ghassan wave his hand over the instrument panel, the auto-pilot recognizing his biometrics and lifting from the surface in a clean, nearly instantaneous liftoff. As the landing struts rotated back into flight position, I looked up at the moon and sighed. So much was going to happen tomorrow, I couldn’t even begin to predict what was going to happen from here on out. It was so absurd, it was funny. I’d made a career out of focusing on the big picture for so long, and now I couldn’t see the little ones at all, even in my own life. I laughed at the irony, hard and long, not caring what Ghassan would think I was laughing about. I think I even cried a little.
I decided it was time to focus on my own life for a while, however brief it might be. It was then, as I stared at slowly rising moon, that I finally let myself wonder where I was going to build my new home.