Written March 2018. This draft from 7/29/2020.
The Last Key
Blip! The telescopic sensors on Alma Polg’s low-flying aircraft raised a gentle warning. Instinctively, Alma flicked her wrist-panel for a magnified projection, but realized just as soon that she was out of luck. The ship was relatively rudimentary technology, one of the nuclear models with all their requisite safety machinery, and so she was left to crane forward at the glass windshield for a better view of the dark mass spreading on the horizon. Thankfully, the sky was clear—rainstorms were frequent and could last for days on this broken planet.
It had been eleven days since the team had left the interstellar-vessel-turned-research-base, two since the others had returned, and it would be two more before she joined them again. The five of them—Alma, Calum, Marta, Jerome, and Tami—had divided the five regions of the world to perform the land-based organic survey that was standard practice on new planets. Alma’s region was the largest, encompassing most of what was once Asia and Oceania, so she’d been afforded four more days than the others.
Not that Alma minded the exploration. She was the first Ancient anthropologist, or academician in general, to see these parts of Earth in millennia. She’d seen the steel-covered islands of Japan and the colossal, isolated Mongolian uranium bunkers, but most of all there were innumerable remnants of buildings and towns, concrete structures fallen to ruin after one earthquake or another, scarred plains, cracked soil, the telltale gray-green of struggling life confined to lonely patches every now and then.
Now, as she followed the eastern coastline of Asia south from the Shandong Peninsula, the punctured skyline of Shanghai solidified into discernible shapes. It was her reward for the extra four days of solitude, seeing firsthand the last great Earthly achievement before—and after—Departure. The Earth’s final stand, built in desperate defiance against the hostile world. It was entirely insulated from the environment: a twelve-story steel box at its base, stretching for kilometer upon kilometer, penetrated above by steel towers and domes. The entire city was sealed from the outside, while the city’s interior was innervated by trains, markets, penthouses, and pits. In many ways the urban plan resembled a combined blueprint of the ten thousand vessels on the Generational Fleet, so storied in modern lore. Shanghai, in contrast to the Fleet, was no more than an asterisk in Space Push history books, humanity’s failed attempt at hunkering down to survive a world turned hostile. The Fleet could only hold so many, and nor would everybody have wanted to leave, although thirty thousand years of history had blurred the exact narrative. Alma had dedicated her short but meteoric anthropological career to solidifying this narrative, and she bated her breath in anticipation of seeing this last, dead, Earthly stand—or its ruins, anyway.
As she neared the city, Alma’s eyes narrowed at what her sensors had indicated earlier: the mass of the city was a dark green, not brown or gray like the other ruins she had seen. She cut the throttle and peered at the rapidly approaching city limits. A gradient of vegetation emanated from the city, unlike anything she had seen before. At the very edge, perhaps for the last two hundred kilometers of her flight, small cactus-like shoots clustered sparsely among the barren earth. A diffusion of seeds by the erratic wind? Calum and the ecologists on the team would undoubtedly be fascinated by the evolutionary battle occurring at the outer frontier of this gradient: the cacti, and whatever other invisible life forms accompanying them, with their constantly mutating DNA, ever optimizing, ever reshuffling, so that they might survive a bit further away from their nucleus. And if Alma had learned anything from her ecoconstructionist colleagues, it was that these pioneers were working the earth in a way no human machine could do, readying it for other species to follow the cacti in their outward march.
Reluctantly, Alma punched a comm notif into her wrist-panel. Priority interesting, she signaled, whole team | viewport. She’d rather have gotten a sense of things out on her own before comming the team in, but Calum had given them all crystalline instructions to let him know if they came across anything unexpected. Alma sighed: hopefully Calum wouldn’t assume all the scientific initiative again. If the strange vegetation and greenish skylines turned out to be radical discoveries, it could be her opportunity to really establish her own name.
Closer to the city were shrubby plants that again seemed to radiate from the city walls. These shrubs were waist-height, and had dark ovular leaves broader than Alma had yet seen on Earth. Ferns? They grew taller closer to the city, until some of them appeared as small trees with definite bark. The branches were twisted and seemed to harbor globular tumors or torsions. Alma slowed her craft to a standstill hover near one of Shanghai’s old entrances and stared at its walls.
She knew from her Ancient anthropology studies that the walls once shone silver, but now they were encased by a dark green and black vegetation—moss, she thought—that stretched along the outer city bounds as far as she could see, covering any trace of metallic reflection.
Alma’s comm-panel flickered, and Jerome’s face appeared on projection. “Morning, Alma.” A faint static permeated the comm, but his deep voice was kind and comforting nonetheless.
“Is it, Jerome? Earth only has twenty-four hours a day, so I was under the impression it was about one in the afternoon.”
“Ah, you’ve locked me! Twenty-four, what an odd number. But I suppose it must have been commonplace to the Ancients.” He chuckled. “You’ll be back in what, two days?”
“Pike, it’s been a while. Even the aquatic drones’ll return before you do!”
Calum’s face appeared on projection, too, and Alma could see Kira and Tami gathering behind them, all back on the research base. “Alma—what’s up?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, looks like there’s a big surprise in store for us,” she announced, and she could see the team—bar Calum, of course—snickering at her use of the Ancient phrase. “Might want a seat for this one. How’s the weather down south, by the way?”
Tami smiled good-naturedly. “Well, today, it’s rain. Yesterday was rain, day before, rain. By Pike, the rainstorms on this planet last eons. Bet you can’t wait to get back here to base.”
“Back to the same ship we’ve been cooped up on for weeks? I think I’ll take my time.”
Calum cleared his throat. “I assume we’re here for a reason—”
“Yeah, good press for the Galactic Commission,” muttered Alma to a few snorts.
“—I mean here, comming you.”
“Check my survey feed. Ship’s nose feed, anything will do.”
“Pulling it up…” said Jerome, clacking a few keys, “…astonishing!” Alma saw the team’s eyes widen at the sight of the moss-covered city.
Calum stepped forward, eyes glued to the screen. Alma could hear the team talking together, marveling over the green-enveloped city and speculating over what lived within it. Calum was already formulating a plan of action. Typical drone procedures, conservative sampling protocols; Alma sighed. She was all for sharing due credit, but she’d had experience with Calum, and the older generation of scientists in general, stifling her scientific intuition in the name of process and caution.
She turned to her controls and punched in a slow descent.
“We see you’re lowering your ship; what’s your plan, Alma?” It was Calum, his voiced outlined by faint static.
“I’d like to personally investigate this mossy vegetation on the city wall,” she proposed, hopefully. This discovery was too good to leave to the drones.
Calum hesitated. “Alright, go ahead, but make sure your heavy suit is on and sealed: radiation readings on this planet are still slightly high, and I don’t want to take any risks.”
“Definitely,” Alma agreed.
“And strictly observational—by no means do you try any tests without permission, first!”
Alma smiled wryly. She and Calum had their disagreements, but he did know her well.