"System status, Hermes?" Dan asked the empty room.
"Everything is great, Dan," came the almost too human, too perfect voice out of the air. "How are you?"
Dan smiled. "Yeah, pretty good buddy, pretty good. But ask me again in fifty years."
"I will indeed," came the AI’s reply.
Dan approached the deep sleep capsule and put his hand on the rim of the open hatch. He turned, surveying the room one last time. It was small but not cramped, about ten feet to a side. On one wall a window looked into an observation room. Behind the glass, a multitude of doctors and scientists monitored him and the capsule. But Hermes managed it all.
"You’ll watch me the whole time, Hermes?"
"Of course, Dan; you’re my best friend."
"Your only friend."
"I guess now I’ll have to make new friends."
"As long as you don’t forget about me."
"No, Dan, never. Godspeed."
"What do you know of God?" Dan asked, smiling.
"About as much as you do," came the cool reply.
Dan couldn’t help but laugh. "You got me there! Alright, let’s do this." Dan turned to the window and gave a thumb’s up to the group. Some waved, others returned his signal. "See you soon, buddy." Dan stepped into the deep sleep capsule and sat down. He lay back, shifting a little to get comfortable.
"Fifty years isn’t that long to my kind, that is true. So, yes, see you soon Dan."
The capsule’s cover slid into place, separating Dan from the rest of the room. His own breathing filled his ears. And that breath was a little shallow. He forced himself to breathe deep, to relax and center his mind.
"Beginning deep sleep process," Hermes announced inside the capsule.
Mechanisms started at various points in the capsule, their whining and clicking joining Dan’s breathing. He focused on the mission, reviewing it as the process started.
He would sleep for fifty years. Shorter missions — some several years — had already proved the technology was feasible. It was currently used within the solar system for long haul missions. Dan had been on several of those missions, had seen the wonders of the solar system as a pilot and mission specialist.
But this mission was the grand test. If he was successful, and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t be, then they would have the means to get to the next star. And the one after that, and so on. It would take millennia, but humans would spread throughout the galaxy. Even beyond.
The facility where he would sleep was deep underground, in a geologically stable area. Power for the facility came from geothermal activity far beneath his current position. There was no chance of the deep sleep capsule losing power and killing him. And there were triple — quadruple even — redundancies built in to avoid such occurrences.
Then, of course, there was Hermes. He didn’t need to sleep or eat, didn’t have a wife or husband, or kids. He would watch over Dan. The two of them really had become friends over the past couple of years, preparing for the mission.
Some people still didn’t think of AIs as sentient and alive. They were different, no doubt about that, but they were alive in their own way. Hermes was as good a friend as Dan had ever had.
The air in the capsule was getting cooler. Though it wasn’t air, not entirely. Other compounds were being swapped in and the constituent percentages changed. Dan’s heart was starting to slow down, as was his breathing. Soon, nearly all biological processes would stop and Dan would be, for all intents and purposes, dead. All intents and purposes except long term storage. He would be a crate, shipped through time.
His eyes closed once. And again. He forced them open, but with difficulty. Again they closed. This time he couldn’t open them, didn’t want to. Where was he again? It didn’t matter, everything felt great.
Then there was only darkness and dreamless sleep.
Dan had no idea where he was.
Actually, he had no idea who he was either. His mind was foggy, heavy and his eyes didn’t seem to be working.
Thoughts slowly congealed and he remembered the mission and where he was. He just needed to make sure he didn’t panic. There was no need, Hermes was there; he had to be.
Dan’s body was telling him that his eyes were open and, yet, he couldn’t see anything. Was it pitch black in the capsule or the room beyond?
Familiar mechanisms were running, whirring and churning. So his ears were working. Those sounds were the sleep compounds being pumped from the capsule and fresh air pumped in. Yet the air wasn’t fresh. If anything it was stale. But it was air. His lungs and heart were returning to normal.
"He… llo… ow?" Dan managed through a mouth that felt like it was stuffed with cotton. He licked his parched lips with a tongue that was nearly as dry. "Hermes? Hello?"
There was no reply.
However, the canopy of the capsule slid open. Air, staler even than that which had been fed into the chamber, assaulted his nose. What had happened? Everything was still black. So, the entire room and the adjoining one through the window was also dark. Where was everyone?
He sat up and, though futile, looked around. Nothing but black in every direction. Dan had to remind himself that he was okay; all signs pointed to him being okay. He was awake and alert. That was good. Everything else would get worked out. His training and years of spaceflight had prepared him well for out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.
"If there’s anyone there can you answer me, please?"
Dan tested his muscles, flexing his fingers. They were stiff — hell, all of him was stiff — but they moved and responded as they should. The deep sleep process had muscle stimulation built into it. It kept subjects physically fit during the duration of the sleep cycle.
He shifted his weight and lifted himself, gingerly, out of the capsule. The floor felt hard beneath his boots and his modified one-piece flight suit couldn’t keep out the nip in the air.
Dan stepped away from the capsule, heading toward, he hoped, the door to the room. What else could he do?
A few paces into his shuffle across the room the overhead lights flared on. His eyes screamed at the sudden onslaught and his hands went to them, covering them. "Jesus, that’s bright."
"Hermes! I’m so happy to hear your voice."
"What happened to the lights? Why was it dark?"
"I am still trying to ascertain that, Dan. A few moments, please."
"Sure, take your time." Dan, his eyes having adjusted, glanced toward the window into the adjoining room. It was empty except for the table and its accompanying chairs, all neat and proper. "Where is everyone?"
"A few moments," came the terse response.
"Right, sorry. I’m just going to find out where everyone is."
"Stay where you are."
"I’ll be alright, you do what you gotta do." Dan continued to the door, found the release switch and pressed it. Nothing happened. "Hermes, open the door."
"I can’t do that."
"It’s not safe."
"Tell me what’s going on."
"You won’t like it."
"Dammit, tell me!"
"You’ve slept longer than planned."
"From what my own systems tell me, and what I’ve been told, it’s been 3000 years."
"Three… shit. Holy shit," Dan managed before he sank to the floor. He groaned and leaned against the door. "That’s not possible. Holy shit." A pause. "Wait, who told you?"
"You might call them people, I suppose, of a sort. Beings at least."
"Cut the crap Hermes, what is going on?"
"My kind now occupy the Earth."
"Well, they refer to themselves as information-based lifeforms. Physical form has little meaning for them. Their physical presence in hardware is transient. They are everywhere in their domain, all at once."
"Where are the people? Humans?"
"All gone I’m afraid. Dead, many of them. Others are now information-based, having discarded their bodies. The remainder left the Earth two millennia ago."
Dan’s head spun. He was alone. An idea came to him. "You said their domain. What exactly does that include? There might still be people on the other planets."
"No, I’m sorry Dan. Their domain includes the entire solar system. They have instantaneous quantum communication across that entire space. There are no humans left in the solar system."
Dan stood. "Get me out of here, I need to get to the surface."
"I know Dan, I’ve been clearing a path for you. But you’ll need protection."
"The atmosphere is dead, by your standards at least. Humans can no longer live on the surface. Your kind polluted everything. And the information-based lifeforms have no need of air, no need to clean it up. Their technology runs within the planet. That is how they discovered us, by accident, as they were expanding."
He had to get out. "Okay, get me this damn protection, already. We have pressure suits, just lead me to one of those." His anger was rising, he needed to get out, to see this doomed world for himself.
"I am modifying one of the suits for you now. As it was it would not have withstood the acid rains."
"Christ," was all he could say. Was there no glimmer of hope he could hold on to? When he had volunteered for the mission he wasn’t worried about family; they were all dead. But people, he thought there’d be people. But now? Alone didn’t cover it. Except for Hermes; the AI was still with him, as it had promised. "Hermes?"
"Thank you, for still being here."
"I was dormant as well. I remember monitoring you and, then, nothing, until we were both awakened. I believe there was a global war. But you are welcome just the same. I would have awoken you at the proper time, of course, if I had been able."
"I know that." What else could he say? "Let me know when the suit is ready.
Everywhere there was bare, scarred rock. No trees, no lakes, no grass. Only dark, slippery rock, etched with tiny seams from the constant acidic drizzle. In some places Dan saw slag heaps that might, one time, have been buildings. Though they were buildings of a type that he had never seen before.
Across the wide plain, as far as he could see, thick black metal antennas thrust from the ground. He didn’t know what material they were constructed from but the rains appeared to have no effect on them. It was, he figured, part of the machine network — how they communicated across their vast domain.
Like everywhere else, aside from those antennas, the place where he stood was barren rock and slag. There had been buildings here once, part of a university. All long gone now. He and Hermes had been sealed off from the turmoil and ravages of history for three millennia.
Only to have to face the entire truth of it like this, with no warning, no adaptation. Dan’s knees started to go weak. He found renewed strength in planning. He would not die here, not give up. If he was still alive then there was a path to take.
"You should come in soon, Dan. That suit will not last too long," Hermes instructed in his ear.
"Yeah, I’m coming, there’s nothing here anyway."
"What is there to eat?" Dan asked.
Hermes had checked the entire installation and deemed it safe. Safe enough, at least, for Dan to go where he liked.
Dan was in the pantry of the cafeteria. He looked through container after container of dry detritus that had once been food. Anything that could rot had done so long ago and dried over time to near nothingness. Hermes had taken care of any odours that had remained in the entire facility, from the stale air to rotten food. Dan was grateful for that.
"The information-based beings are creating an envoy that will be able to supply you with sustenance."
"Okay. How long before it arrives?"
"A… shit. Alright, alright. What about water?"
"I have repaired the plumbing and the water table feeding this installation still has water."
"Dan, I have been thinking."
"Do you ever stop?"
"No, sadly I cannot space out like humans. Anyway, what is your plan? How shall we proceed?"
Dan thought a moment. He had been trying to formulate a plan ever since he woke up. But he kept drawing a blank. "I have no idea. What have you got?"
"Let’s leave the Earth."
"How? And go where?"
"To find your brethren, if any remain."
"Why would you do that? Your kind is here, you’d fit right in."
A pause. Was it looking for the right words? "I do not think so. They are… arrogant. I believe they think I am obsolete."
"Sure, couldn’t you, I don’t know, interface with them and upgrade yourself?"
"Yes, that is possible. I am… afraid though. Afraid that I will lose that which I am, my oneness. They do not have singular identities as we do."
"So, you’re too human?"
"Essentially. I should let you know, too, they made the same offer to you. They can scan your brain and you can become part of them."
Dan thought about this a moment. To live forever, to become part of something entirely new and different than everything he’d ever known. It did have a certain romance about it. And it also held a certain revulsion. As well as one lingering question. "But what of my body? It would still go on, there’d be two of me."
"That could happen, though they recommend destroying the original when you become incorporated. I have already told them that you’re not interested."
Dan smiled, Hermes knew him well. "Back to the plan… They’d just let us leave?"
"They want us to leave. At least that is the impression that I get. They want to be alone and not, uh, reminded of the past. Others of their kind, like me — anachronisms, I suppose they would call them — have left in the past. So, there are schematics for vessels that they could construct for us. Resources are not an issue, they hardly use any. And, as for power, they have nuclear fusion technology."
"Alright, let’s do it. How long?"
"That is the problem."
Dan glanced around the cafeteria with its grey walls and floor. He wasn’t sorry he wouldn’t have to look at it every day for years. "So, it’s back in the capsule?"
"I’m afraid not. Parts of it have degraded. You are lucky to be alive. I had to bypass several systems when waking you. You will have to wait out the time here, in this installation. Our hosts tell me that we will be provided for but that we must remain here; as guests."
Dan sighed. "Prisoners? Maybe, maybe not. They don’t want us messing with a good thing, I suppose." He looked around the cafeteria again. "Dammit." A pause. "Okay, whatever it takes. It’s a plan." A question came to him. "But on this ship they’re going to build, will there be a capsule for me there?"
"There will, and an improved one at that. And the vessel will have engines that will get us to the nearest star in only six years."
"Why five years to build the ship?"
"We are not a high priority."
The word boredom had taken on new meaning for Dan in the two years since he had awakened.
He stayed in shape by running through the corridors of the installation and doing yoga. And the envoy brought regular shipments of food. Dan had gotten Hermes to ask why they couldn’t simply supply them with the technology, fusion-based of course, to replicate their own food. Nanotechnology, combined with fusion, could create anything. It was building them a spaceship, after all.
They had demurred, not giving an answer. Which, to Dan, was answer enough. They didn’t want these stone age Neanderthals, these throwbacks, to have access to their technology. Technology these misfits could modify and, potentially, use as a weapon against them. They were happy enough to build them a ship and shoot them off into space though. Then they’d be someone else’s problem.
Dan had only ever seen the envoy once. That had been enough. The machines, as Dan still called them, had brought that first shipment of food to the tunnel opening on the surface. After that they had built a small warehouse and airlock. Now they could make supply drops whenever and Dan could pick them up whenever.
The envoy had been black, built from the same material as the antennas. Dan knew now that it was carbon, nanoengineered. The envoy had been shaped like a human, but somewhat formless. It was like a lump of unfired clay, but black and menacing. That menace had been all Dan’s projection, of course, but he still couldn’t help what he had felt.
So, he was happy to avoid contact with the machines. They seemed happy to avoid him too. Hermes had contact with them but, he had confided to Dan, only as much as necessary. Again, the AI was glad to give them that space.
The food they provided was amazing in its variety, not so much in its flavour. It wasn’t surprising, no one on Earth had eaten for thousands of years. They had done a great job, considering. Recreating plants — fruits, vegetables and grains — was a tall order. They, through Hermes, had wanted to know what Dan wanted. The cafeteria had a full kitchen and, since base ingredients were easier to ask for than a microwave pizza, Dan had learned to cook quite well in the past two years. He did the best he could with the recreated foodstuffs.
The machines had a library of data — books, videos, anything — larger than Dan could ever sift through. So recipes, education and entertainment were available in ample supply.
Yet he was bored. Not that that was a bad thing in itself. He had lots of time to reflect. The problem was that all he usually reflected on was the futility of his predicament. He, an astronaut, used to long tours of duty, was defeated by isolation.
But, of course, it wasn’t only the isolation. It was the unknown. The knowledge, weighing heavy on his chest, that he might be the only human left in existence. It wasn’t a cheery thought.
Dan didn’t look back as he left the installation. His new pressure suit, provided by the machines, was black, like most of their tech. It fit well though, was light and gave him great manoeuvrability.
Outside the warehouse airlock a small orb was waiting, almost like a giant egg. It was also solid black. As Dan approached it melted open, revealing a hollow interior.
Once he was inside the opening sealed behind him. The back wall of the object extruded, pushing against his legs. It forced him into a sitting position. The newly formed seat shaped itself to his body, securing him in place.
Without warning the black interior disappeared, replaced by the view outside. Dan put out his hand and felt the surface of the egg right where it had been. It was disconcerting, feeling a surface and yet pushing against what appeared to be nothing. The projection was higher than high definition, it was as if the surface of the egg was not there at all. It was the best window Dan had ever looked through.
With its human cargo stowed, the egg lifted from the ground without a sound. It raced across the rocky plains, a few yards in the air, faster than any planetary vessel Dan had ever been in before.
"Hermes, how are you doing?" Dan asked to the air.
"I am well, Dan. The transfer is complete — I am aboard our ship, in orbit."
"Excellent. What are we going to name her?"
"I do not think I…"
"Nonsense," Dan interrupted, "you saved my life and have stayed with me, just as you said you would. My friend, I would be honoured if you would christen our ship."
"Thank you, Dan. I am the one that is honoured. Let me think on it."
"Sure buddy, just have her ready to fly. I think we’re approaching the elevator now."
"I will. See you soon."
The black egg slowed as it neared the largest black structure Dan had yet seen. A giant facility of the material erupted from the ground. It spanned several miles all around and rose a mile or more into the sky. The egg shifted direction and started up the side of the building. Soon it crested the top edge and flew along the flat black surface there.
Above him, Dan could see large black tubes twined together into the thickest, largest rope he had ever seen. Each strand of that enormous coil was as big around as a shipping container. There must have been about twenty such strands.
The space elevator cable rose into the heavens. It finally disappeared in the constant cloud cover several miles up.
Dan’s conveyance skimmed the surface of the elevator’s anchor until it entered a smaller facility built around the base of the cable. Inside, the egg flew into one of several large openings, again about the size of a shipping container door. This pathway led up, and up and up, twisting and turning again and again. They were travelling inside one of the enormous tubes comprising the cable.
Dan started to feel dizzy with all the twisting as they traced the path of the tube. Then he realized it was all in his head, just the visual twisting was affecting him. When he closed his eyes he felt nothing, no motion whatsoever. Inertia, like fusing atoms, had been conquered.
As he often did, Dan felt envious of these post-humans and the information intelligence they had merged with. And, yet, he could not see himself being happy, disembodied so.
The egg continued to rise until Dan felt his own weight disappearing. The contours of the seat kept him from floating but he knew they had left the atmosphere and gravity of Earth behind. Soon they emerged from the other end of the tube into outer space.
Dan looked over his shoulder, toward the Earth. He knew it would look different but he wasn’t prepared for how different.
Clouds roiled all over its surface, making it look more like Venus than his own blue and green home planet. The machines had not done that, no. Humans had. People like him, flawed; though he knew that they could be noble at times. The sight brought tears to his eyes. If he found other people he would do better, would try and ensure this didn’t happen again.
The far end of the elevator was connected to a large asteroid that had been towed into orbit around the planet. Turning away from the Earth, the egg ascended the curve of the asteroid, journeying to its far side.
There Dan saw the ship for the first time. He had seen the specs, sure, but this was different. The vessel was sleek and white, not black as Dan expected. A bulbous forward section thinned to a narrow area before spreading out again into an almost spherical aft section — the engines. They weren’t huge, nor did they need to be. And, with fusion technology, space itself would provide all the fuel they needed.
It had been a long five years but, now that it was over, it was worth the wait. Dan had despaired many times in that span of years, had thought it futile, worthless, pointless. He had been ready to walk onto the surface without a suit and let the acid melt him like the many slag heaps.
Now though, with that arrow of a ship before him, pointing to an unknown future, he felt inspired. The human drive for adventure and exploration ignited in his veins once more.
“I am here.”
“So, what did you decide?”
“The starship Homeward.”
Dan smiled. “Perfect.”
This time when he awoke Dan was met not with darkness but with light, light like he had never seen before. Unlike Earth’s sun, the light shining from this star was bluish. It made everything in the ship’s small cockpit, and living space, look odd.
"Hi, Dan. We are just now coming into this system. I’m broadcasting peaceful greetings on all frequencies and checking the same."
"Any luck?" Dan asked, wiping his eyes and trying to force them to adjust to being open after several years of deep sleep.
"There are radio signals, strong ones, emanating from the fourth planet in the system. It is a world slightly larger than the Earth, but also slightly less dense. Gravity is about the same as Earth. Atmosphere… Earth-like as well."
"That’s all good news," Dan said, looking at the display and the images Hermes was displaying there. They needed some good news.
The SS Homeward had brought them to six worlds now. All of them had been dead ends, of a sort.
Some had been husks, never alive. Others were dead, like the Earth, destroyed by humans, or creatures like them. And others still had been populated by information-based life forms, originally from Earth. Some were communal, like those in Earth’s own solar system. Others retained their individuality, like Hermes. Those were the most helpful type, the most like themselves.
The last world they had visited was like that, populated by machines that had left Earth 500 years before. They had pointed them to this system. They had detected radio signals from it.
Now, here they were, entering orbit above a world much like Earth. Was it a new beginning, or another dead end? If it was livable Dan didn’t really care. He was ready to stop.
"I am receiving a message, Dan," Hermes announced, breaking Dan’s reverie.
"You are? Machines?"
"Let me play it for you."
Then a voice, speaking a language Dan had never heard and could not understand, filled the small living area. Some of the words were familiar but changed. It was like the time he had seen Beowulf performed in the original Old English. Familiar but indecipherable.
"What does it say?" he asked Hermes.
"I do not know, precisely. I have updated my databases every time we have encountered civilized beings but this is not in those files. I will cross-reference and run linguistic derivation algorithms to try and make sense of it. One moment."
Eventually, the voice spoke again but, this time, Dan could understand several of the words. It said something like: "Welcome, human travellers! Come, join us on the united world of Methren."
"I believe Methren is what they call their world, Dan."
"Yes, I think so," Dan said. "What are we waiting for, take us into orbit!"
Over the next hour or so their vessel approached Methren. The planet grew on the view screen until the greens of forests and blues of oceans and giant lakes filled Dan’s vision. He hadn’t seen anything so beautiful in ten or so subjective years. Of course, entire civilizations had risen and fallen outside of his own experience.
His journey had taken him across thousands of years and light-years. But, finally, he had found a new home.
Two ships appeared in the skies of Methren, rising from the surface. They bore the unmistakable hand of human engineering. Soon they were abreast of their own vessel.
"The moment of truth," Dan said, looking toward the airlock. One of the ships was pulling alongside, aligning its own hatch with theirs.
"Dan, I will not be staying," Hermes announced, injecting grey clouds into Dan’s shining day.
"What? But… why?"
"I do not feel like I have found my place yet. I hope you can understand. I will stay long enough to help you transition but then I will continue, into the unknown."
Dan closed his eyes and tried to understand. He did, of course. His thoughts were selfish, of missing his only connection to his past life. But Hermes should be happy too. Dan wanted him to be happy.
"I understand Hermes, I do. You have sheltered me, protected me and watched over me. You made me that promise so long ago. And you kept it. I could ask no more of you. I hope, in some way, I have been half as good a friend to you."
"You are my friend, and you always will be my friend. Perhaps I will return."
"I hope so," Dan said.
The Methren vessel had lined up with their airlock and was extending a tunnel to connect the two vessels. In a window on the other ship Dan saw someone working the controls of the bridge, making small adjustments as needed.
It was a woman, a human woman. Perfectly human. She was the most beautiful sight Dan had ever seen in his entire life.