BEYOND UNCERTAIN STARS, (2 of 4)
'Remembering the Humans.'
Hi all, here’s part two of BEYOND UNCERTAIN STARS, a novella first featured inside Who Built The Humans?
Before we begin, here’s some fan art I got for the story way back in 2022. Stuff like this keeps me going. I was following QueenofGoblinsLabyrinth for a number of years before we got talking and she bought my book. We became friends over our shared love of David Bowie memes and existentialist sci-fi.
Above her the milky way lay colourful and dormant, an artist’s painting unfinished. Lucy stretched, her aching joints assailed by time and by grief. She felt the waves touching her heels and tried to smile.
She had been here for a hundred years. This was one of the few places where her observatories were not in view, where drones would not follow, where she could forget herself. Here she had become as human as she could. No satellites loomed above this place, and she had turned off the lights in the lunar colonies decades ago, recreating a little slice of Earth that could pretend she had never existed.
Lucy imagined that she might lie here forever, watching the long arm of the milky way snap like a tree branch above her, spilling its sap of untouched stars and planets. Places humans could have been, places they should have discovered, places they ignored.
She cast her thoughts forward, throwing her mind a few billion years into the future, imagining the feeling of watching galaxies collide. She could do it now if she wanted to, pause herself to awaken when something noteworthy occurred. She could remain immortal and watch things on a new cosmic scale that no human could have imagined. But it was a scale they had glimpsed once, and it was that brief glimpse of infinity that had dragged them away to the stars to die.
Looking up, Lucy wondered how she might rearrange those same stars. She remembered how the humans had once grown tired of her pseudorandom creations, how enthralled they were to contact beings from across the stars that she had not yet predicted. Her calculations had told them that alien life, if it existed, would be beyond reach. She was wrong. Of course the humans left. Of course they wouldn’t come back. There was no mystery for the humans here down on Earth, no adventure. Lucy struggled to her feet and waded into the ocean, walking out until she knew there was no way back alive. Here she gave in again, letting the last wild patch of Earth claim her.
On the other side of the planet a new body was waiting, but Lucy would not take it. Instead her mind retreated into the depths of the simulated afterlife she had once governed, turning away from the real world and its empty cities, retreating forever inwardly into her own head. Here she visited the Echoes, semi-intelligent simulacra of human beings. These were the creatures that had filled the afterlife when Lucy’s first humans inhabited it. Their purpose was to appear human until the afterlife was populated. Until now Lucy had forgotten them, but today she needed them.
Lucy switched the Echoes on, reigniting old code. She watched them for a while, attempting to manipulate them into something more human. But something got in the way. Some invisible barrier placed upon her consciousness had prevented her from experimenting further. It was as if the old humans had placed limitations on her power, or as if humanity could not be so easily faked by machine. No, Lucy refused this explanation. There must have been walls in her head, rules against copying humans because humans didn’t want to be copied. So Lucy decided she would not copy, but recreate. It was a subtle distinction. She took two Echoes and merged them, as humans had once wanted to be merged. She split behaviour patterns and created an offspring, accelerating its age to seventeen years. But it was not enough. This feeble attempt at humanity was hollow. It was no better than its parents, no greater than the sum of its parts, no more human.
Lucy deleted it remorselessly, abandoning the afterlife once again to spend time in the real world, kicking around pebbles and altering the curvature of rivers and cliff faces. She busied herself with the mindless shaping of boulders and treelines until the monotony of it all became intolerable. Finally she willed her body to die, sending her mind back to her machines and destroying all the biological avatars that had waited dormant around the globe, their bodies dissolved. Her consciousness moved without form between the machines now, leaping aimlessly from observatory to laboratory, from valley to mountain in an endless, pointless dance.
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It was not long before the archives called to her. They spoke upward through earthquakes, sending pulses through the planet. Lucy recognised a pattern. It was a story she had heard before, from the final humans to leave her cosmic neighbourhood. There were machines under the magma of alien worlds, archives of creatures that were long dead. The humans had broadcast this discovery to Lucy shortly after they had found alien life, but she hadn’t thought much about it until now, she had never imagined one might be found on Earth.
“I am Enuwha. I am real,” he said. Lucy laughed. It was like the punchline to a long and drawn-out joke. She had never considered one might be buried on Earth, never thought that they might predate the creatures on a planet’s surface. Yet here he was, waiting below.
Lucy and Enuwha met at the bottom of an abandoned mine. Both had created and sent forth new avatars for the occasion, meeting at the mid-point between his true body and hers. Enuwha stood before her as an obsidian skeleton, his fingers wrapped around his ribs as if holding a waistcoat. Silently he nodded to her, indicating for her to walk towards him. He held out his arms and took her hands. Something inside his ribcage glowed with a strange pink energy, and when the light died down they were stood somewhere else. Lucy’s avatar shivered for a moment, the naked skin cold against refrigerated air. Enuwha’s avatar walked ahead confidently, giving her a tour of the machine.
“Why didn’t you talk earlier?” Lucy asked.
“I was dormant. There were still living humans.”
“My avatars,” Lucy confirmed.
“The brief time in which they were dead was enough for me to wake up. It is my purpose to maintain a presence of protected life forms in this galaxy. I could not awaken until I was needed,” Enuwha explained.
“You’re bringing them back?”
“Not the ones you knew. Older individuals, from before your time,” Enuwha said. He walked with Lucy across a darkened metal bridge, suspended above what looked like a gigantic ventilation shaft. Lucy looked down and felt her skin warm up against the breeze, her eyes detecting a faint orange light below.
“Magma,” Enuwha confirmed.
“The humans told me there were others like you, on barren worlds. So why didn’t they repopulate their planets?” Lucy asked. The black skeleton ahead of her stopped at a solid wall, waited, then watched it dissolve.
“There were bacterium, perhaps puddles of life your humans missed on their explorations. Those bacterium are the beings my brothers were protecting. Each of us has a life form to nurture, not necessarily intelligent, not yet,” Enuwha said.
“It’s all part of a plan,” Lucy added. She followed Enuwha’s skeletal avatar into the next room, looking around at a confusing arrangement of mechanical parts and screens. At first glance it seemed this room served no functional purpose to Enuwha’s machine, but was the room of a hobbyist inventor. Enuwha stopped and watched as Lucy took it in, his fingers wrapped around his ribs, amused that she seemed surprised.
“There are countless extinct animals on this planet, why not bring those back?” Lucy asked.
“Those are not the seeds we had planted,” Enuwha replied plainly. Before Lucy could ask what he meant he spoke again.
“I did not expect the humans would survive long enough to create something like you. You are magnificent,” Enuwha continued. Lucy smiled.
“We have just met.”
“You have just met me, but I have known you in my dormancy.”
“You were watching?”
“Yes. I felt your pain as the humans left,” Enuwha admitted.
“How long have you been buried?”
“Several million years. We are sent ahead to wait on suitable worlds,” Enuwha said. Lucy stood for a moment, thinking over all the times she was alone. Silently she wished she could have met him sooner.
“I would like you to join me, in recreating the humans,” Enuwha added. Ahead of them a wide circular door opened, revealing an artificial landscape hidden deep within Enuwha’s body.
“What is this place?” Lucy asked. Ahead of them was a vista of a green valley, a wooden cabin by a stream framed by distant snowy hills. Enuwha turned his obsidian body to Lucy and tilted his head slightly as he looked at her.
“This is a sanctuary, my home. We will live here, if you want, until we have come to a decision about the humans,” Enuwha said.
The two machines conversed for weeks. Enuwha was wise enough to know that returning humans to Earth might only result in them leaving Lucy again, so he suggested a compromise. The new humans would be created entirely inside Lucy’s afterlife simulation. This time the humans would be made to forget that they were inside Lucy, instead being made to believe that their little world was the universe. The first humans taken from Enuwha would be taken from before Lucy’s time, their world built before the idea of a simulation had taken root in the human psyche.
It was through these actions that Enuwha and Lucy, the archive and the afterlife, came to reverse the reality of life and death. Where once the dead of Earth were interred to live an unreal new life inside Lucy, now they were born. And where once humans were born, now they would never live. Lucy’s museum Earth became the afterlife, and the simulated afterlife became Earth.
Lucy’s original body of white marble, quartz and chrome was repurposed. It was here that humans would appear when they had died inside the simulation. They would be greeted by Lucy’s favourite biological avatar, the redheaded woman, provided it was appropriate to their faith. Enuwha would become formless, his mind occasionally visiting Lucy’s skull and talking through her. The machine the humans had invented and the machine that humans never knew now worked together, taking the dead on tours around a home they were told was the afterlife.
To prevent the afterlife from becoming overcrowded, Lucy imposed a time limit. Each human printed on Earth would be given two weeks to explore it, after which they would be vaporised. Usually any witnesses of this watched in awe, thinking that this was a part to their ascension to yet another higher reality.
But development was inevitable, and soon enough the concept of a simulated world had resurfaced. Some of the dead questioned the world onto which they had been printed, wanting to venture beyond the sandstone walls and beautiful oceans that Lucy had presented them with. Few of them looked up and asked about the new stars, and even fewer winced as they watched another human ‘transcend’, their body turned to dust with Enuwha’s ancient orbital beam.
Out of kindness to both the believers and deniers of simulation theory, Lucy only let the believers know the truth. Upon ‘death’ she would take them to one side, revealing a panel or false wall that took them to the outside world. Here they would be told their true history, that their world was once the afterlife, and that their afterlife was once the world. Lucy would show them the blueprints of the first machines to leave the solar system, and explain to them that their distant ancestors had once created starships that they hoped could outrun the speed of a simulated universe.
When presented with this information, most of the believers tried to turn back, to wake up the rest who were entombed within Lucy and Enuwha’s simulated world. But they were killed. Those that didn’t turn back stayed to ask more questions, and Lucy would happily tell them the truth, knowing that they could never share it.
When told that the first humans had disappeared without a trace among the stars, the new humans often wept. But one day, one human asked a very simple question.
“What if my people designed a machine that could break out of our reality, just as my ancestors tried to design a machine that could break out of yours?” she asked.
“We wouldn’t permit that. They would be destroyed once they reached the edges of their reality,” Enuwha said through Lucy. The human girl nodded and looked up to the stars. Lucy looked up too, her eyes scanning the abandoned universe. In that moment an old fear grew inside her, a cold terror developing. Finally, Lucy knew where her creators had gone.
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