(dedicated to the friends who smile at the grim reaper)

The young Martian girl’s name was Siohbyn. The night of the discovery she was lost in the woods, having wandered far beyond the outskirts of the City’s protective walls in the pursuit of a two-eyed, furry-tailed creature. Its appearance was aesthetically pleasing to her on a geometric scale, its parts aligning, as she thought, properly. 

(In the city, you must understand, there were many three-eyed vermin and three-legged dogs and three-tongued snakes. Not everything came in threes; some had one eye and others had two heads or even five or six legs.) 

In her chase she flew over rocks and slid beneath vines. She was too single-minded to notice the pricks of thorns along the way. Shallow cuts bled tiny rivers that joined with sweat and flew from the body. Blood landed here and there in the foliage, marking a trail of pursuit in time.

Her heels skidded to a halt. 

On the edge of civilized land, there was a great tree; half alive, half dead. Its roots, Siohbyn realized, were the vines she had slid under during her chase. The tree was exuberantly in bloom. In the spaces between leaves there were fragments of a desolate, gray landscape. 

Siohbyn had always been told to avoid the tree. 

The tree was famous amongst her people. It marked the end of the known. There were stories, bedtime myths, of those who had ventured to this place. Her father liked to remind her that there were seven who had sought out the tree; four were never seen again, two came back mute and the last and final committed suicide shortly after returning.

The night of the discovery coincided with Siohbyn’s first decennial. She hadn’t meant to wander away, of course. She never meant to wander away. The curious who aren’t looking for anything will always find something of interest.

The decennial was a coming of age and it happened four times in every Martian’s life: at the age of ten, twenty, thirty, and sixty. It was a politically contrived affair that was undertaken seriously and typically planned at least a year in advance. Everyone laughed and asked questions and was overly friendly. No one spoke of or admitted to any true intent which underlied every innocent interaction and was: first, to determine this or that person’s value; second, to adjust one’s relationship with this or that person accordingly. 

Siohbyn found people, in general, to be predictable and social gatherings were, in short, boring. The two-eyed, furry-tailed creature was far more compelling; Siohbyn liked things that she didn’t understand.

Siohbyn climbed the tree, eyed a suitably high branch and jumped. She swung herself horizontally from branch to branch until the flowering of the tree gave way to ashen limbs, limp. Now she saw the dead part of the tree in its entirety. 

The transition from living to dead was sudden and severe. The bark was brittle. The parts of the tree that had either died or were in the process of dying swung, rotten, over the edge of a vast ravine. As far as the eye could see the land was barren. 

Siohbyn’s fingers broke through the tree’s outermost layer and plunged into ooze; the stale odor of ash was heavy and the winds in the ravine howled in a vacuum of wind. There was emptiness, haunting, and the horizon was dotted with naked trees ascending in neat rows like an army of thousands. These, too, were dead and yet refusing to die.

Siohbyn looked down: here the roots were completely exposed, each root a couple meters across and snaking down through the cracks in the rock face to the bottom of the ravine. A flicker caught her eye. There! A flash of light, weak and gasping.

The roots had partially calcified and were now hardened enough to grasp on to. As Siohbyn descended further, she was for a while trapped by the still malleable hairs of the tree. Finally, the hairs parted for the root cap, hovering mere centimeters above the ground desperately.

The source of the light came from a mechanical sphere. Still lit, the sphere shuddered violently on the floor, then jerked forward and up into the air. As it did, its light sputtered out. The momentum only lasted a second before the sphere was thrown back down. The sphere’s movements were uncoordinated, each frenzied motion propelling it in a different direction. It was a sad sight, really, and after some time watching this behavior Siohbyn grew to feel that the sphere wanted to escape but didn’t know how.

(And they said robots weren’t capable of suicidal impulse, Siohbyn thought, in regards to her debate at school.) 

“Hello, I’m Siohbyn.” She attempted when she saw that the sphere was about to launch itself again. 

The sphere turned, or more accurately, rotated on its axis. It tilted sideways, much like a person would with his head in such a situation. Without warning, the sphere zipped with impressive precision towards Siohbyn. It halted three breaths away from her and with great effort, successfully rose to her height. 

The sphere fell into her arms. The light stabilized. There was a clicking, an incessant tapping that grew louder, grinding, until the sound exploded and a hologram was produced. It took a minute for the hologram to solidify; by then, the noise was gone.

The hologram was that of a man. He was similar to other male adults Siohbyn had met. Yes, he had two eyes, a head, lips, nose, two arms, a torso, hips, two legs, two feet. Anatomically, he computed. The rest of him didn’t make sense. First, he had a full head of hair, something that only children, like her, had. He was also dressed strangely, in a black suit made of metal fitted to the body and covering every atom of the flesh from the chin down. His clothing made Siohbyn think of things that never happened, things like war, and power, and knowing things and asking questions. He held a helmet in his arms. 

“Hello, Siohbyn. I’m X. Please, sit down.”

X continued:

“I am speaking to you through a recorded hologram. By your point in time, I have probably been dead for thousands of years. If that’s the case, and if everything has gone as I intend it to, you will know nothing of what I am about to tell you.” 

“I was born on a planet called Earth, about 33.9 million miles from the planet you live on, Mars. For a long time, my planet was like your planet. Full of incredible biological diversity on green land surrounded by clean ocean. Admittedly, it took us tens of thousands of years to evolve to the point where our written and oral records began. Most of our knowledge of the development of our species on Earth came from the study of rock faces, fossils, artifacts left behind. Before the development of science and record-keeping, we were ignorant for a long time, completely bound to the whims of what we saw as violent and unknown forces of nature.”

“Without confusing you, if you could believe it, we started out as monkeys and it was nature, the force of her will, that forced us this way and that and into the conscious biological machines we came to think of ourselves as. In hindsight, two things are obvious, one, nature wasn’t working against us or with us and, two, nature and the Universe would go on without us. I’m unsure if, as a species, we ever really did come to fully understand these two things. If we did, our understanding happened much later, towards the end.”

“Why? Because human beings looked and kept looking up at the stars. This act is the bedrock of our legacy. From the start of us humans, our obsession for the why, how, and where of everything in the Universe that didn’t make sense bordered on a maddening addiction that seemed passed on through the genes, inescapable, and pleasantly intoxicating. Only later would we discover that our brains were wired for curiosity, systems of neurons firing off to the origin question in the same way they would in an addict’s brain after placating an addiction.” 

“Even in our primitive states, when we were cavemen, we were consumed with two things: surviving and telling stories. Stories explaining the why of things: the changing of the seasons, the fall of day into night. As animals, we had been driven by an inherent instinct to survive; we retained this instinct in our most ‘evolved’ state but did not know what to do with it. The animal drive to survive was at odds with the systems of morality we had created to explain the questions we asked when we looked up at the stars.”

“With consciousness came the need to assign reason to things. Naturally, we invented God in our image, not the other way around. God, he or she or sometimes them, a god was an almighty being who created us. Who put us on Earth for a reason. Countless sects of us, all creating different versions of this same explanation for the greatest unknown: ourselves. It took us a long time, as I said. For a long time, we clung to this belief that we were special. That we were meant to be here. That Earth belonged to us.”

X stopped, put his head in his hands.

“I haven’t slept much. Hold on.” He moved to stand and the hologram flickered frantically forward. 

Siohbyn began to rise, angered. She was enjoying X’s story as a child would and was not appreciative of the interruption. 

This was unlike her.

X returned, this time with a cup in his hand. 

(As he continued telling his story, he drank from this cup and as he did so, progressively, he seemed to be in a better mood, thought Siohbyn.)

“As I was saying, that last idea, the idea that the Earth belonged to us, that’s what got us into trouble. I can’t tell you the exact moment where we went wrong. There is nothing wrong with inventing deities as placeholders for ideas that don’t exist yet. The issue comes in the transition between these two things, I think. When the majority of us believed in this supreme being, this God of many names and faces, we were beholden to the expectations of a higher power. With the loss of deities and their judgement, we were beholden to nothing but our fallible selves.”

“So like this and for a very long time we believed in God and then for a very long time many fought for their version of God and in the end, no one could disprove Him or Her or Them entirely so our internal conflict continued. I think that somehow in teaching ourselves to believe the inventions of our imaginations, we taught ourselves to forget that at the start, we were all brothers and sisters that sought the answer to the same question: 

why are we here? 

We wasted time fighting when we could have worked together. This was the defining characteristic of all human civilizations, the one uniting fact. Civilizations, plural, civilizations that rose and fell with alarming regularity, innovation! we called it, the destruction of an out-group we didn’t understand. We were predators. With no conflict in the stars, it was only natural to seek conflict in each other.” 

“I have said all this first because what I am about to tell you, I’m afraid, does not paint a pretty picture. And for reasons you will understand by the end of this, that may upset you; I assure you, we human beings, we had our faults. We had our strengths, too. We were worthwhile.”

“I was born, by Earth time, in the year 2197 in a place called Dublin. By this time on Earth, God had faded into the shadows. He was tolerated in private homes and in a few institutions dedicated solely to him. Many people of course weren’t happy about this. In his stead we had developed systems of law to ensure justice and the preservation of our sense of morality, of what we thought was right and wrong as a species.”

“By the time I was twenty, I was a cadet, a student, at the United Nations Academy. We had colonies on Mars and the Moon. Earth was overpopulated and polluted, yes. It took us thousands of years to destroy the planet and we very nearly managed it entirely.”

“We had migrated underground; aboveground was sequestered with seven metropolitan cities from the 21st century still left standing. The rest was allowed to go to nature in the hopes that things would right themselves. In the meantime, we had big plans and every intention to learn how to make a planet like Mars, or impossibly even Venus or Mercury, habitable and Earthlike. We wanted to learn how to terraform.” 

“Everything went south on September 7th, 2230. In hindsight, I can see that the problem had been festering for many years. Fifty years before that day, when my parents undertook the great migration underground, many nationalities, sects of belief systems had been left without a government. With only seven cities still left standing aboveground, only seven nations had seats of power in the United Nations: Korea, France, Madagascar, Romania, Mexico, Canada, and Ireland. The rest weren’t forgotten. China, the United States, Brazil, Israel, Nigeria and Russia all had prominent colonies on the Moon and Mars. They just didn’t have any land on their own planet, Earth.”

“The United States had been one of the three major powers before the migration. In fact, all three major powers had been forced to abandon their land, rendered uninhabitable by pollution and various forces of nature: the United States, Russia, and China. At least, oil in the Middle East didn’t mean anything when the Middle East no longer existed. In these ways, there were positives. The Palestinians and the Israelis united and forgave each other for their various atrocities. The E.U. and the U.K. had to band around France and Ireland. The Middle Eastern nations found middle ground with open-minded moderates globally. North Korea and South Korea became, also impossibly, one Korea. The extremists fell away. For a while we were all happy.”

“After noon on that day, September 7th, the leader of the United States, the president, made an announcement. He had been elected on the basis of a promise to give Americans their land back. That night, he announced that his team of scientists had uncovered a terrible conspiracy; at least 17 cities in the middle of the United States had not been affected by the pollution or the various destructive forces of nature, yes, they had not fallen victim to the reportedly massive heat waves that had in turn caused droughts that left all land barren, yes, the floods had never reached the 17 cities, yes, the floods, the ones that swallowed whole coastlines.”

“I can still see the president’s fist slamming against the podium effectively. The seven cities that had survived and formed the United Nations, they survived thanks to sheer luck or impressively terrifying foresight. Six of the seven had foreseen the inevitable and equipped their cities with the architecture to survive and flourish while the rest of Earth recovered. No!, the president screamed. It’s all a lie, he growled. Yes, these 7 cities had the forethought and the technology, he admitted, more rationally now. He added: but the United States was spared, the coasts are gone but there are 17 cities inland that are habitable. He continued: The United Nations have kept this secret from us because they still blame us. The way I see it, we damned the Earth together, no one nation is more responsible than the rest. We were the leaders of the free world once. This time, we will be the builders of the new world and it will be more free than any of them can imagine!”

“That night, 93% of the citizens of the United States followed the president with the intention of repopulating the 17 promised cities. The cities were a lie, of course. The bigger problem was, the president didn’t know he was lying. He had honestly believed his source, believed that the United Nations falsified reports because they blamed the United States for global warming. That we knew for sure. And the question of who, exactly, sent a whole nation to die aboveground was what started World War III.”

“When the war started, I was not on Earth. I was at a station orbiting Earth, two days away from going home to my family. It was my wife who called me on the night of September 7th to tell me what happened. I only watched the president’s speech after. My mother, an American, had followed the president aboveground.”

“Then things happened very quickly. Russia and China joined what was left of the United States; together, they called the relevant people on the colonies and activated weapons systems on Mars, the Moon, ones that the United Nations hadn’t known about. The bombardment was quick and efficient and left Earth entirely lifeless. The highest government officials from both sides survived; they had all independently predicted and planned for such an outcome, typical. We didn’t trust each other, not even in the end.”

“I was on a holographic call with one of those officials, having the same experience that you are now, when word came in that the use of the weapons systems on Mars and the Moon caused the artificially created atmospheres inside the colonial domes to combust. The structures still stood, but everyone, absolutely everyone, had died. Further, the bombardment of Earth had knocked four of eight stations from orbit. There were no survivors. The rest of the stations, excluding ours, were hit by debris. The debris, highly radioactive, slowly killed the last of humanity over a period of twelve hours.”

“My station was hit non-critically. One of the landing docks went offline; otherwise, we were fine, my station was still fully manned by 3 science officers. As the 12 hours were coming to a close on the other stations, there were a lot of messages, transmissions, from those dying, news traveled quickly that our station, that the three of us, had survived, would survive. The station and the three of us, we were that last bit of necessary hope. I think those that did die knowing about us, they were happy, thinking we were going to continue on.”

“It was what happened in those last few moments of humanity that has kept me going: the United States, China, Russia and their allies and the United Nations, they met and they talked. Then they called me. They said: X, you and us, we are the last surviving humans. And you happen to be on a science, research, and preservation station. You have a staff of three, three cryogenic chambers, a greenhouse containing most varieties of species from Earth and six thousand embryos. Plus, they added, did you know we rushed your research through? Your station can terr\aform.” 

“My mission was this: I was to repair the station while still in orbit with my team and then disengage and move towards Mars. Once safely in Mars’s orbit, we were to go into cryogenic sleep, two at a time, the third remaining to oversee the terraforming process. The procedure was estimated to take centuries, but this too had been thought of. We could survive safely if we slept for no more than fifty years at a time. That was on the long end; on the long end, more sleep meant a harder time waking up.”

“It was only after I watched the government officials walk into the acid rain together, arm in arm, that I found out Samina had died. Even though her bioscanner had placed her in her quarters, she’d been at the landing docks when we were hit. Aurum told me later on that Samina was trying to take a pod to one of the other stations, her husband was on the engineering team there. Aurum had known about it and let her go. Nothing seemed to much matter at that point.” 

“There was, is, a long document that outlined every step. After hundreds of years spent sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking we were supposed to go down to Mars and start humanity over again. The plan was to employ AIs already on board as educational systems to teach the first batch of embryos. After these embryos were properly nurtured and raised, they would be allowed to copulate in an arranged manner with the understanding that they were coupled to essentially undergo pregnancy with the rest of the embryos onboard, they were to be implanted. Afterwards they could have as many biological children as they wanted and the AIs would continue their work. In such a way, thought the government officials, with the six thousand embryos representing the most diverse human genetics and the station containing everything necessary to educate the new humanity on the old humanity’s mistakes without the weight of a dying planet, Aurum and I would restart humanity on Mars. As to how the first embryos were to be birthed, we did have machines and were “allowed” to use them on an initial set of ten embryos. Our resources were abundant when we left Earth but our journey was long and the electrical energy to incubate human life is immense. ”

“In the early days, especially while we were doing the repairs and on the way to Mars, we argued a lot about what they had asked of us. We tended to agree that it was unethical. As scientists we couldn’t exactly authorize the grooming of innocent human beings, the human beings who were potentially the last hope for our species’s survival, into cogs that are happy to do what you tell them to because they have, cleverly, never been taught any better.”

“Aurum and I agreed, if humanity is to be restarted, it should be allowed to learn for itself, to fend for itself. But then I would bring up that old adage—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result—and she would quieten and then we were back to where we started. It was wrong but we had already let human beings figure things out for themselves at least once before, as far as we could tell, and how well had that gone?” 

“I lived whole lives on this station in between sleeps. Aurum and I, we even fell in love, if you’d believe it. Not that there was anyone else to fall in love with. We had a daughter, named after my mother, Faena. Her birth made our responsibility to the ship difficult; since there were only two surviving crew members, only one of us could ever be out of cryogenic sleep, awake and about on the station.”

“Biologically, it isn’t safe to go into cryogenic sleep until you are 25, so Faena had to grow up the old-fashioned way with all the pitfalls of a station’s gravity on the developing human’s body. Aurum and I took turns sleeping. After Faena turned seven we awoke together, stepped out from our cryogenic chambers and didn’t go back for eleven years.”

“Faena was something beyond genius. She reminded us of who we used to be, the kind of scientists we once were and the kind of enthusiasm we used to have for the future. This was around the time when we had been orbiting Mars for ten years and terraforming had yet to begin. Still, Aurum and I were happy. I think we both thought that when Faena was old enough to go into cryogenic sleep, we would authorize the accelerated incubation of another embryo so that she would not be alone and then we would grow old and pass, naturally, on that station with our time together spent uninterrupted.”

“Faena actualized the mathematics behind my thought experiments, my vague theories. This became necessary when I found that the “instructional manual on terraforming” promised to me by the officials was really just the best how-to guesses from the best scientists slapped together in a dossier. The important thing to mention here is, even though humanity as I knew it was destroyed in a day and the precipitating incident, the president’s speech, only occurred a day before that, the dossier was already on my station, in the sense that it had been on the station before any of this occurred. In fact, and this is funny, we had received the crate containing the dossier in a delivery almost two years before September 7th with a note: only open in dire emergencies. We’d laughed at the note even though the precise wording had stopped all of us, at one point or another, from opening the crate.”

“There is terror in the predictability of human violence. Not every human being will be violent, and some will be violent to lesser degrees than others. But there will always be one here, one there, and one there, and they have a way of sniffing each other out.”

“Faena called the dossier a puzzle. It’s just, she’d say, your Earth scientists don’t have the parts of the equation in the right place. In the early days, when either I or Aurum were downtrodden about the mess of it, she would wag her finger and remind us: 

This dossier is a start, and there’s no going anywhere without a start. 

She said it was one hell of a start, too. She hadn’t known humanity or Earth, but she loved the legacy and carried it around like the ghost of a dead mother. Until the end she thanked humanity for all of the collective knowledge it had attained. In the early days she would always say, if I manage this, it’s thanks to nameless humans, billions of them, each dying for a piece of the puzzle they knew they’d never build, the puzzle they could only hope one day would be built.”

“Once the margins of the papers within the dossier were marked up, Faena built the program that would, in 250 years, make human life possible again, and the directive continued.”

“On Faena’s 25th birthday, we found out her DNA was incompatible with the cryogenic process. It made no sense, but risking it meant sure-fire death if the scans were right.”

“To have to watch your child age and die before you. It’s very hard. It was much harder on Aurum than it was on me. When we first realized, we pushed Faena to allow us to raise an embryo to be her partner, so that she could at least be a mother and continue herself. She laughed and told us that even though a twelve-year-old boy could get her pregnant, she had no interest in that now or twelve years from then, and any embryo that we raised would have to be raised predominantly by her, wouldn’t it, since she was the one that was always awake, and what good would that do? She would see him as her son or brother, not a partner and besides, procreating was a waste of her time. She was sure that even without passing on her genetics, she was doing exactly what she was meant to do, which was: to make sure the programs terraforming Mars were foolproof. She’d say, if I make this happen, Mars is terraformed, humanity restarts, I basically continue one civilization’s legacy and jump-start another’s, I think that beats having a baby of my own any day.”

The holographic man smiled.

“On Faena’s 40th birthday, Aurum tried to stay on the station permanently. Faena of course predicted this, dosed our food with sedative and once we were in bed, the clever girl activated the drug remotely, transported us to our cryogenic chambers and set the timer for 50 years.”

“Faena taught us a lot of things. Mostly, she taught us what humanity could look like on Mars.”

“Fifty years later, we woke up to an AI named Lucy and a gravestone in the greenhouse. I was the first to wake up. I remember thinking, wasn’t I in bed the night before? Aurum’s chamber needed maintenance, I had to manually override the controls to wake her up. I hadn’t pieced it together yet, what Faena had done. Aurum, she knew immediately, once the various wires keeping her alive while in stasis retracted, before the restraints snapped open, before the glass hissed to allow her to exit, she was awake, banging in desperation.”

“A cycle, that was ten years. That was the best way to go about it. You slept ten years, woke up for a couple of days, went back to sleep.”

X leaned over, refilling his cup from something off-camera.

“The third cycle after we woke up to find Faena dead, Aurum tells me that she has decided once and for all. She believes we don’t have any right to meddle in the development of this new species of human, however they would evolve, if they were allowed to evolve. As she sees it, Faena spent an entire life writing the program to terraform Mars and now that there were AIs, were either of us really necessary for the long haul?”

“Aurum meant, of course, that she was tired of it. When a hundred and fifty years pass and you have slept for a hundred and thirty-eight of those years and are still forty-five years old. When the Earth had been destroyed, a hundred and fifty years before, I had been thirty-three, she had been thirty, and now we were only 12 years older and we still had centuries of this, and for what? To see more daughters or sons die? No, she said to me; there are no governments anymore. I am forty-two years old. Maybe this is a mid-life crisis, but I want to live out the rest of my life naturally. The AIs can look after the computers. It’s our daughter’s code, remember?”

“I couldn’t make the same choice as her. Not at that time. I was still holding on to that one thing that was keeping me going, the promise of humanity, the memory of those that had died and the hopes they’d left with me.”

At this point X stopped for a considerable amount of time and the pause was poignant because it was the first and only in his lengthy monologue.

“We didn’t stop loving each other. There were a couple of days every ten years and we spent every day I was awake, together. But she was forty-two already when this happened so in all, after that, there were two hundred and thirty-seven days I had with her. She held on until she was a hundred and four, that Amazonian woman. She wanted to see the first green on Mars. She was there to witness the completion of the atmosphere and the formation of the oceans. I saw parts of it, she lived through it. Only now do I see the wisdom in her decision.”

“It took another fifty years after that to fully prep the surface. Then the transports began. This was seventy years after Aurum’s death. There were two gravestones in the greenhouse. They hadn’t been noticeable before, overgrown with vegetation and nestled between bushes and trees. I kept going back to sleep, like a good soldier. Even after Aurum made her decision. This was the power of human memory: the dead remained living. I felt that I owed something to the gods and governments that now, precariously, would be forgotten without me.”

“After the first transport of materials to Mars, I thought, perhaps I should take myself out of the picture right away. Clearly I couldn’t trust myself. There was no such thing as being unbiased and I had to be unbiased to do this. I did stay on, in the end.”

“Today marks five hundred years since the last transport landed on Mars.”

“Thanks to Faena’s upgrades, the station used energy at an astonishing efficiency percentage and was equipped with AI units capable of long-haul trips to distant planets for necessary resources. Early on I spent the station’s energy reserves on insulating the six thousand embryos past infancy, as old as I could get them. I transported the first of your people, the initial six thousand, in groups over the span of a year. After the first go, I coordinated each landing very carefully so that the Martians already on Mars would not discover the transports delivering others like them from my station. And from that point in time until now I have had no interference or interaction with your people.”

“In five hundred years I have seen your people develop complicated written and verbal language. You are a society of philosophers with no prompting and already you have systems of agriculture, economy, education, law based on order, not faith. For a century now your people have looked to the stars and observed mathematics in them. You have no need for me. You never have.”

“When this station that I am on, this last dinosaur from the Age of the Humans, when it disassembles, life support will be the first thing to go. After, a great machine will separate into its parts. Only one part will head towards Mars: a small sphere. I have positioned it to land in the ravine I can only presume you to be standing in, right now.”

“Why? Your people have always feared this ravine because your people rely on reason, discernible patterns, and this ravine has no possible explanation in the context of its surrounding terrain.”

“I’m afraid to say the ravine, the dead land around it, it was simply a mistake in our terraforming. A spot we missed. Unknowingly our mistake has caused your people suffering. I figure that because you have come and found me, that means that while all of your people may not be ready, you are.”

“I leave this message in the hope that it offers an explanation. Of where you came from and why you’re here.”

“We just wanted to give humanity another chance again. You are not us and it has been my privilege to oversee what I am sure will become a people far better, more resilient, hopeful and trusting than mine could ever be.’

“I have downloaded into this sphere every nanometer of our archive. Every bit of recorded history, video, audio, everything. They didn’t want me to do that. They had a list, the government, of the things I was meant to share with you. I’m giving you everything. Like the forces of the universe that created us, we were not good or evil, since those terms are arbitrary in that reference frame. We lived and we died and we tried our best to pass on what we discovered.”

“And as I know you, Siohbyn, must have a vested interest in this, I will tell you outright: we never did find out the why, if we are alone in this universe, if there are other universes, the purpose of life. I think, all that can be done, is to be curious for the sake of curiosity itself. To trust, if there’s a pattern, you can break it into parts and someday, someone will see the big picture in the parts.”

“If the big picture exists, that is. That, and whether the pursuit of the idea of the big picture is worth your time, of course, is up to you to decide.”

The young Martian girl looked to the stars. 

She ripped her jacket into neat strips, tied two straps onto the sphere with intricate and impressive knotwork and wore the device like a backpack. She jumped, grabbed onto a root, dragged herself up and started climbing. It was a long way back. No matter, Siohbyn was far wiser than her ten years and knew the importance of the message. She also knew that the man, X, had addressed the message to her. The device hadn’t repeated her name back at her, as she had initially thought. 

By Siohbyn’s calculations, X had left that message five thousand years ago. She couldn’t know for sure, of course, without taking the sphere apart and examining its inorganic innards to determine the plasticity of its neural linguistics. Still, from its behavior and the message itself, the sphere seemed to be standard ancient tech: a data dump. If that was the case then Siohbyn knew the sphere had no high-level processing capable of registering her name, much less parroting it back with X’s tenor. 

After pulling herself up and over the edge, Siohbyn removed a scalpel from her sleeve and a petri dish from her pocket. She scraped some of the tree’s bark into the petri dish, slipped both back into place and step-hopped from branch to branch until she was on the other side, the living side, of the tree. 

The soft pads of Siohbyn’s fingers found the grooves of the flesh on her forearm and pressed down, hard. The epidermis here, rectangular in shape, slid away to reveal an intricate network of wires and veins nestled amidst fat, sweat glands, and connective tissue. 

Siohbyn found the necessary wire, snapped it from its place. A beam of red light shot out, extending far above the forest canopy. Siohbyn climbed to the top of the tree and waited. One by one, shafts of light appeared above every Martian town, city, settlement. 

During all this, X concluded: “Anyways. The ravine was a mistake. One I realized early on, actually. But I always quite liked it, that was the problem. It was a reminder of what came before. Of what the planet looked like. It was selfish, I know. You create paradise and cut an ugly, dark line across the middle. It wasn’t intentional. But with time, I have come to see the wreckage of the past as beautiful.”

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