This is a serial novel, so if you’re new to Sol, it’s best to start at the beginning.
I was mid-stride when I reappeared. My right foot was still on the piece of grass from Central Park when my left foot landed on smooth alien metal. The change in texture and softness was jarring. I looked down at the grass and dirt that crumbled underfoot and realized that I was not alone. Feet, some with shoes, some without, trampled patches of dirt all over the pristine white surface. Thousands and thousands of people milled about making idle chit chat, others somnolent in their gaze, still others crying or yelling for someone who wasn’t there. I was both worried and awestruck. I noticed the woman in the bathrobe from Sheep’s Meadow. She kneeled on the ground a few feet away, the edges of her robe tanned with New York City filth and Central Park dirt. She muttered someone’s name as she cried quietly.
A wall rose high above, taller than my five story apartment building and wider than twenty city blocks. I put my palm on the wall. It was warm to the touch. It looked like cool metal, but it felt alive, vibrating lightly under my fingertips. An amber glow pulsed across the entirety of the wall. A low tone rang throughout the massive chamber. I instinctively pulled my hand back, afraid of what was next. The glow faded as the lunar surface appeared, the Earth a distant blue sphere, a deep black void beyond that. We were in space, looking at a screen large enough to show all of Central Park to scale.
I had never been so far away from my home, my family.
I wanted to get back to my wife. I willed myself home and hoped that whatever brought me here would send me back. Instead, the image in front of me careened toward the earth until my personal satellite view was filled with blue oceans and green forests. The outline of the eastern seaboard zigzagged upwards. I found New York along the coast and searched the tiny details for Manhattan’s iconic shape. The image rolled inward again until I could see my home town from Herald Square up to Harlem. The Empire State Building tilted toward the East River. The Chrysler Building had collapsed onto Grand Central. People ran away from the devastation, small fleas fleeing.
I focused harder on my neighborhood in the Upper East Side. The roof of my apartment building was cracked down the middle. Black smoke billowed out of the windows. I realized this was a live image, and I was thankful it was a clear morning. I followed the path my family and I took to the park, and saw the Shark my wife and daughter were in. People were crowding onto the ramp. I recognized a man from around the neighborhood. He paused and reached for a woman trailing him. I blinked and he was gone, only to appear ten feet behind me, dirt underfoot.
His wild eyes reflected my inner feelings. I stared at him as he reached out to the viewport, just as I had done. He was right next to me, but I could tell he wasn’t seeing what I was seeing. He was deep in his own trance. My screen was my own. When I looked back, I caught sight of my wife’s auburn hair and daughter’s golden curls, their heads turning frantically. I could only guess they were searching for me. Briefly, very briefly, something caught their attention in the air above and they both looked up at the same time. They didn’t look scared exactly, more resigned. Both were breathtakingly beautiful. The image froze and moved to the corner of my screen like I had taken a screenshot. I wanted desperately to remember the moment. I didn’t know it then, but this image would be available to me wherever I was for the rest of my days. They boarded the Shark and the ramp closed along a thousand folds. As it lifted off, I wanted to follow, but the ground below it caught my eye. It shook more and more violently until it finally liquefied, like an angry child threw a thousand pebbles into a pond all at once. There were a few people still scattered around the park. They were getting shaken apart.
The man next to me started screaming. “Somebody help her. Help! She’s still down there and alone. HELP ME, Please!!!” He trailed off. There was no help for her. No one was coming. The Sharks were gone, and the people I could still see were being pulled apart by whatever shook the ground. Finally, the ground turned inside out. The grass and trees of Central Park disappeared beneath the crust, leaving only freshly tilled soil. Buildings crumbled, bridges fell, rivers and oceans rushed across Manhattan and Staten Island. In 45 minutes, the entire world had been reduced to a pockmarked mass grave. The destruction was utter and complete.
Something inside the man next to me gave up.
I frantically searched for the Shark carrying my wife. The view panned until the image filled the screen. As I looked for reason and context to all of this, my personal view zoomed out. A green square marked my wife and daughter’s Shark. It appeared as a speck against the Earth, but still present, which gave me both hope and comfort. It was short lived. My family’s ship was only one of thousands streaming into the belly of an enormous purple vessel high above the Earth, a Whale Shark.
The Whale Shark bristled with guns and shields. There was no sound, but I could tell it was firing in our direction. There were burn trails of missiles and red circles growing bigger in the viewport. One by one, the circles disappeared, broadcasting our safety. The Whale Shark swallowed a whole continent’s worth of landing Sharks. My wife’s trailed at the end of the line. When safely inside, the massive ship vanished into the blackness of space. My heart sank. An audible sigh propagated through the crowd.
Everyone started going rubber room crazy, talking to thin air. Some emphatic in their gestures. The woman in the bathrobe, still kneeling, was shaking her head as if she was responding to a consoling friend. She was making eye contact with something, a ghost maybe, but there was no apparition.
A shadow overcame my thoughts, like a shadow in the corner of the room at night, the kind your mind insists is another person, but is only a jacket slumped over a chair.
“Rick.” A man’s voice gently spoke my name as an old friend would have.
I turned my head and saw a figure slightly taller than me, lithe, glowing a nearly imperceptible blue. His features were elven and narrow. He had only three fingers and what I would call a thumb, though it reached the tips of his other fingers. There was a slight ridge in his translucent grey hair that flowed down his neck, ultimately terminating in a tail that seemed strong enough to be a third foot. His eyes were average size, but angled with the inside pointing upward ever so slightly. His visage and features were both comforting in their similarity to mine and disturbing in their small, but meaningful, differences. Off just enough to create cognitive dissonance. My mind contorted between awe and despair, unable to focus on one set of emotions or thoughts for more than a fleeting moment.
“You are right to feel lost.” I looked around to see if anyone else heard or saw this ghost. “Only you and I can see and hear this conversation. Everyone around you is having a similarly personal experience. I am what you would call Artificial Intelligence, modeled to look like the Ensari. This ship has the capability to broadcast images and sounds directly and personally. There are a great many things you will learn about us and your wife and daughter’s captors, the Hensie.”
“Captors?” A lump of fear clogged my throat.
“Yes, captors. The Hensie raided your planet for conscripted labor. They laid waste to Earth as a controlling measure. It ensures that there will be no surprises or sabotage against their designs. One day they will likely return to exploit Earth and add it to their expanding territory. Which seems moot because they always target a civilization too primitive to put up a defense.” The last part was said under his breath. Odd for a computer program to be introspective.
I couldn’t even muster a question.
“When we learned of their plans, we assembled these colony vessels and sent them to your aid. Unfortunately, the Hensie had already begun the attack when we arrived in the system. We attempted to save as many as possible.”
My personal screen had disappeared. The ship-wide view panel was covered in thousands of blue icons, all slowly converging above the Earth. Their trajectories mapped with pulsing blue lines.
“These icons mark each of your vessels. It is all the human species has left. We were able to save only 189,009,314 of your people. The Hensie were able to abduct 402,495. In the known universe, there are now only 189,411,809 of your kind from the nine billion once on Earth. The ships you see here can hold and keep in comfort approximately 500 million. They are now yours.”
“Who are you? Why should I believe you?” I stammered. The scale of both our destruction and, if this was to believed, our rescue, was staggering.
“You can call me Prime. I am modeled after Stern, the originator of artificial intelligence on Ensar. Stern is also the Ensari who orchestrated the overthrow of the Hensie in our home system. After we chased them from our home, we began defending other species. Their tactics have evolved with frightening consequences. Where previously they would annex a planet and place it under the yoke of their control, they changed tactics once we overthrew them. Since then, they have chosen the path of genocide and enslavement instead of just enslavement. Earth is the thirteenth such planet to succumb to their ‘we’ve come to save you’ ruse. We’ve saved seven such species. Each time making every individual in the species the same offer.”
I looked expectantly at Prime as I waited for the offer.
“Yes, this ship can read your thoughts and intents. It can predict what you want before you’ve thought it, which is why we could track the Shark with your wife without you asking us to and could then show it to you when you wanted it. Shark is an appropriate name given the native species on your planet. A few of your people have called it the same.”
I broke from the conversation, disturbed that someone or something was in my head. People were greeting each other around the cavernous room. I had the sinking feeling that I could be controlled by this ship. If it could read my thoughts and predict what I wanted, could it control me? Could it plant ideas to make me think the Hensie are evil? Could it make me believe that we were with the good guys.
“We don’t control or force you to believe. The kind of control and suggestion you are talking about is incredibly painful for the subject, so you’ll know it’s happening, even though you can’t do anything about it. The Hensie have no compunction against it, mind you.”
“Enough!” I scolded Prime like a child.
I needed space. The illusion of space, at least. The video immediately in front of me pixelated and the wall peeled away bit by bit until a small room appeared. The room’s walls concentrically rippled inward. More tiny cubes separated from the wall and stacked like water flowing up a waterfall, settling into the shape of a seat, which I took as an invitation to sit down. I reluctantly sat. Even if I had a choice, I couldn’t go anywhere but this ship. The cubes again pooled along the edges of the doorway until I was completely closed in. I was alone and it was perfectly silent for a moment before the room flashed amber and slid like colorless Mercury into a clear picture of the woman in the bathrobe and the broken man.
The room shifted backwards with a thump, pushing me off the seat slightly. The woman and the people behind her faded away. I was being pulled out into space and I could now see the scale of what I couldn’t quite grasp earlier. I wasn’t in a room, I was in a small ship, a pod. The ship I was in just a moment ago loomed overhead, a bright white slab ascending into the darkness. Up close, it wasn’t completely smooth. It pulsed, from bow to stern, like a worm moving through dirt. My pod accelerated backwards and allowed even more of the ship to come into view. Our ship stretched into the distance like an arrow on its way to Earth. It was the size of ninety city blocks. The reflection of the sun on the hull was blinding until the screen in the pod polarized and blocked out the light.
I had wanted perspective and Prime was trying to give it to me. Earth was getting closer. Blue icons appeared on screen and pulsed over our armada. Letters unfolded above our ship, flipping like an old mechanical clock from the 70’s. It settled onto Manhattan Project. Other ships had the same scrolling text. Some had Cyrillic, Hindi, and Arabic words that I couldn’t read, until the pod translated them for me. Hand of God, The Fertile Crescent, New Mumbai, Zeus, Thor’s Hammer, The Seat of Power, Second Star to the Right, and on and on.
The population of the ships oscillated under each icon. Symbols appeared to the left of each name. A flag waving, a shield, a sword, a compass. A sword appeared next to our ship’s name. The population numbers settled. Manhattan Project had 71,406. The exterior of Manhattan Project stopped rippling. Two large waves emanated from the center of the ship and raced toward the bow and stern. At the crest of each, the ship’s color turned from white to dark grey. Gun ports violated the previously smooth hull of the 3-mile-long ship. Some the size of small cannons, others as large as battleship guns. Massive, skyscraper-sized shafts formed along the spine and keel. The front of the ship flattened into a blunt grey instrument instead of the arrow it was just a moment ago. Ships in the vicinity discarded their blank skins much like we had just done. Each had a new purpose. Ours seemed clear.
Rick 34.15: Repurposed by Christopher Hazlett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://robotissmiling.com/?p=73.