To say the internet had caught fire would be an understatement. The structure of the internet had changed a great deal over the last century with incessant waves of censorship forcing the advocates of free speech into what the rest of society called ‘the Dark Web’. In truth, it resembled a lot more the late 20th and early 21st century’s idea of a ‘Wild West’ style of internet. Anonymity reigned, and new techniques and hardware had to be designed to get past the more commercial internet’s safeguards. Search engines had long since kept anything the least bit controversial off its front pages, and social media sites had decided to cater only to their advertisers, so anyone wanting to have an open and honest debate had to do so behind walls of privacy and on shady websites that were bare-bones and purpose-built.
It was on these old-style websites where a very specialized type of internet dweller lived. These folks often-times kept up appearances in ‘polite’ society, participating in the usual social media, popularity contests, polls, protests and the like, but in private they broke out their jailbroken, totally illegal styles of computers and wireless uplinks. In the most oppressed areas they had even taken to utilizing ham radio networks to communicate with each other. It was the realm of the shitposter, and it cared not your for race, age, gender, sex, gender expression, fursona, or anything of the sort. It was the ultimate equality, the ultimate expression of egalitarian meritocracy. Your handle was everything, your reputation the only thing you had to leverage.
The types of people who frequented these sites were many, but quite a lot of them were on the spectrum. Indeed, setting up a sub-internet for their peers to utilize while dodging all the security that had been placed, in particular between the new nations, required a significant number of autists to micro-manage every detail of it. It was exactly these sorts of meticulous sorts that got their hands on the video that was broadcast before the big game. It was exactly these kind of people that Ted Danner had tried to warn everyone about when the shoddy rebuild of Doctor Crenshaw’s video had gone out. They jumped on it like rabid dogs with a fresh cut of meat.
They recognized the old format immediately. It was a plaything to them, the kind of thing only those obsessed in old file formats would care about. A number of them had consistently argued over the merits and virtues of the old ways against those who would argue for the march of progress. It was a simple matter to unpack the data into their custom-made programs. They built their own operating system kernels from scratch and obsessed about old retro data formats, so unspooling T.I.A.’s subterfuge was a simple matter that scarcely caused them to sweat.
It was under twenty minutes before the full script was leaked into the Dark Web, and the final file was used to reverse-engineer the work the LSC government had done on the video. They took it all apart and put it back together, and in under an hour a team of a dozen supernerds had the video back in a pretty good approximation of its original form using very similar techniques to Ted Danner’s colleagues. It was leaked out across the world, translated and uploaded everywhere, and mass-bombard uploaded and bot-shared onto legitimate social media under a million different names and descriptions, with random thumbnails, re-encoded backwards and upside down and in so many different color patterns that the algorithms that were designed to catch such things simply couldn’t stop them all.
The common internet was abuzz with this video that seemed similar to, but completely different from what they were shown. They were asking questions about why it kept being taken down. They were actively seeking out the different versions of it that the censors couldn’t catch and were actively sharing it. Confusion turned to alarm. Alarm turned to concern. Concern turned to outrage, and finally outrage turned to violence. Mob mentality took over as people mass-shared the hashes #heknew #theyliedtous #hawthornelives #saveusdoctor #tearitdown #wethepeople, and #ripearth.
Within an hour of the baseball game ending, the people who had started relatively small riots against Doctor Crenshaw due to the false message portrayed of him had gotten swept up into what turned out to be an international riot of untold devastation as the ultimate flash mob erupted. The people were pissed at such an obvious attempt to delude them, and were extra pissed that their grandparents and parents had been misled their whole lives as to why Crenshaw’s Ark had left in the first place. Social media had given people the capacity to organize and try to overthrow all the world’s governments en masse, and it had finally happened.
The baseball game ended in dramatic fashion, with a small juiced-up woman stealing home base in extra innings to win the game. The fashion in which she nimbly dodged the mechanically-enhanced catcher who attempted to tag her with the ball was the thing of replay legend, her chemically-enhanced reflexes allowing her to avoid contact as she slid under the arm of her opponent by mere centimeters. For a half an hour the fans pored over the footage, arguing vehemently over whether or not she should have been out, but before too long it wouldn’t matter. Rachel Smith, the subject of these replays, was being conveyed back home to the rural outskirts north of Washington in her Auto-brand self-driving car, on the way home to her grandfather’s ranch and the laboratory he’d built for her to help her get into playing baseball!
That was about the time, on that cold, lonely road, that she noticed the something streaking down towards Seattle from the sky in her rear-view. Fireworks erupted from the city, seemingly firing towards the foreign object, but failing to nail a shot on it. The clouds parted as what must have been sonic booms rocketed out from the fast-falling, self-propelled object. The shots followed uselessly behind the object, its shiny black surface was impossible to see if not for the reflections of what were surely weapons fire and the light of its own rocket. “Stop,” she’d tell the car, “open the driver’s side door.” A side panel opened up, allowing her to exit the vehicle. Her chem-harness responded to her elevated heartbeat by enhancing her perception and reflexes.
For Rachel’s chemically boosted mind, time slowed down. The missile disappeared in a flash of light that burned a permanent blind-spot into the center of her vision, but she avoided total blindness as she barely managed to turn her head and close her eyes. She screamed as light from the distant explosion burned the exposed skin on her back, arms, legs, and neck. She fell to the ground, the sweet smell of something not-unlike bacon in the air as her seared skin lost a great deal of sensation, exposing muscle below as that skin cracked and broke apart. Still more chemicals poured into her body to deaden further pain, panic responses throwing her into action! She threw herself into the car, shouting, “Shut the door! Drive! Full speed!”
The door slid shut, and the cabin lurched around her, causing some of her skin to adhere to the vehicle and tear off as the car hit a massive burst of acceleration and took off. And then it stopped. She was thrown about in the car again, all its internal lights turned off, the engine completely dead. “What the fuck! Go! Go!” The car was dead. A few moments later it moved again as the car was lifted from the ground, thrown far into the air and as though catching up with the shockwave, a horrible roaring rumble vibrated through the structure of the car. Rachel lost consciousness as the internal airbags exploded automatically from all sides of her, cocooning her in a soft, pillowy mass from all sides and rescuing her from most of the damage caused as the car was thrown half a mile towards her grandfather’s ranch.
Rachel was lucky though, between the safety systems of the car, its sturdy structure, and the distance from the explosion, she managed to survive the high-yield thermonuclear blast so many miles away. The city had transformed from shining spires in the sky to skyscrapers of fire around an enormous circle of obliterated nothingness. She couldn’t hear the sounds of her grandfather prying open the crumpled remains of her car. She wouldn’t feel him carrying her back to his exceedingly retro one-hundred fifty year old truck and driving her back to the farm. She wouldn’t wake for days, giving her grandmother time to try to patch her up as a rad-suit equipped grandfather moved in and out of his huge bunker, grabbing equipment and supplies while he could.
Other people came, friends and neighbors from the surrounding countryside in quick order. Rachel was surrounded by friends and family as she came to, her vision blank in the center as she looked at the people gathered around her. Her chem harness was still attached to her chest, as though something had damaged or disabled it and made it unsafe to remove. “What happened…? Where am I…?” Grandpa Smith reached out to cup his granddaughter’s face, smiling sadly down at her. “The world ended baby. The world ended.”
Acting President Elena Marie Price was having a lot of trouble keeping up with what was going on. Her father had killed himself and his security. A mysterious message on his cell phone seemed to indicate treachery, and the leaders of the world had completely cut off communications with the offices of the Presidency of the LSC. She had no time to breathe as she was shuttled away, carried away in a helicopter for her own safety to a bunker in Alberta in an undisclosed location. The young woman, one of many wealthy heiresses and heirs of various subservient corporations had just been forced into a position of leadership she was not at all prepared for. Various important personnel, including her doctors, advisors, soldiers, and their families were all gathered into the high-cost, well-stocked bunker.
“Are you sure this is all necessary? It was just a video. Just spin it as a prank or something.” Megan Clark responded, shuttled in from Seattle in much the same way as her new President. “The other nations feel like we’ve betrayed them. Most of them ran the broadcasts. Ted Danner was right, a handful of people were able to tear the video apart and we can’t keep the information censored off the internet. Even now the people are rioting in the streets all over the world. It’s just a matter of time before war is declared, civilian crackdowns occur, and chaos reigns.” The dispassionate woman laid out the likely future with cold calculative accuracy.
Elena wasn’t having that though. “Surely the military can keep the people in line though!? They have to know that it was Crenshaw, not us that deceived them, deceived all of us! You don’t really think they’ll retaliate for something like this!?” Megan shook her head, humming softly. “It doesn’t matter what they believe, it’s what they’re saying that counts. We’ve been blamed. We’ll pay the price. If nothing happens, then we’ll be lucky, but Doctor Crenshaw was right. Not enough cool heads are in charge to guarantee nothing will happen. Your father was a fine example of that. Now come this way, we have to get you to your office.” Megan was playing her own game of power, of course. She didn’t have much left in the way of emotions, but she did want to survive. Attaching herself to the most powerful person she could and keeping them in power was her best option at the moment.
As the first bombs fell, spelling the doom of the new country of the Liberated States of Columbia, Elena Price was given the option to retaliate. She decided to stay her hand, telling her people. “If we’re the only nation to die today, then it’s our duty to die alone that humanity may survive. If we somehow survive, I hope that you’ll accept my leadership in the time to come. I don’t know if I can be worthy of you, but I will endeavor to do my best. I will see to it that time brings us into the future the best that I can. I’m so sorry we couldn’t bring more people here on such short notice. I cannot ask for your forgiveness, and I will bear this burden on behalf of you all. Please do your best to survive, as the rest of us will.”
The bunker lost contact with the outside world. The nation that opened fire on the LSC left itself open to attack from its own enemies. This resulted in a cascade of nations firing upon each other as opportunity presented itself. At the end of the next day, the only nation to not unload its salvo of nuclear and biological weapons was the LSC, but every place was devastated, even nations that hadn’t even been involved. Be it out of spite, anger, jealousy, or a cold-hearted determination to ensure mutual destruction, Earth went quiet. Fires raged and the people and animals of Earth were bombarded with radiation, viruses, horrible darkness, and the odd unleashing of genetically enhanced insects and rodents and escape of quarantined human test subjects. The blue planet that shone so brightly in the night became a blazing fireball, and then was dark again.
The night of Thursday March 24, 2133 and morning of Friday March 25, 2133 would mark the final human-driven planetary disaster for millennia. Of course, there were various ecological disasters that irrevocably damaged the biosphere caused by humans before, but this was the worst one that humans affected themselves with. Even if more had held back, the sheer destructive abundance unleashed was enough to wipe out most of life on the planet multiple times over.
“Doctor. Prepare your eyes for a change in light levels, I am going to be turning on the monitors in your room.” T.I.A. woke Doctor Crenshaw in the night, his hands moving over his eyes to shield them and allow him to regulate how much light he let into them as they adjusted to the light suddenly flooding his room from the monitors nearby. He’d sit up and watch. It was a dark image, a long-distance telescopic view of Earth. How long had T.I.A. been watching that blue ball? “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” he asked, watching the screen. There wasn’t a whole lot to look at. “Such a beautiful planet…”
T.I.A. did not know how to respond. She didn’t know if she had a heart, but if she did she could feel it breaking. She knew what was about to appear on the monitor. She had received the simple message from the Beta Facility stating simply, ‘It’s happening,’ before communication cut out again. She’d seen those first few bright flashes, and then clusters of flashes through the rest of the night as billions of lives were surely ended. She had been tasked with the protection of a few thousand lives and a few hundred thousand more potential lives. The idea of losing millions of times more than that was an idea that sent ripples of nascent emotions through her systems. It would be years before she could properly cope with the moment she watched Earth burn, likely as a consequence of her own actions.
“Oh my god.” The doctor could see the flashes now, just as she’d beheld them minutes before. She sped the playback slightly so they could soon be watching it in real time as the Earth very literally caught fire. The very atmosphere burned in waves as Earth did its best imitation of the Sun as thermonuclear hellfire rained across the planet, obliterating huge swaths of every continent and leaving nothing spared. Even spots in the middle of the oceans were destroyed as callous destruction came to isolated islands. It was as if some of the nations involved were so spiteful that if they had to die they wouldn’t allow anyone else to survive. It was all happening just as he’d warned. Would it have happened if he’d never tried to warn them? Would it have happened if T.I.A. hadn’t meddled? He’d be left for the rest of his life wondering if he’d caused his own prophecy to come to pass. Had he provided them the gun they needed to shoot themselves?
Doctor Crenshaw sat there quietly in the dark, tears streaming from his eyes as he wept, the light of far-away explosions flickering across his face, his hands trembling as raw emotion welled up in him. It wasn’t the same kind of despair that had wracked him the previous cycle. It wasn’t mere fear or anxiety. It was raw, depthless, unfathomable sadness. The image of his planet dying burned itself into his mind, and for once he was grateful that most of the people he’d known on Earth had died before it had happened. He could only imagine the horrors that would be suffered by those left behind. What damage had truly been done? What of the atmosphere? What of the biosphere? The oceans? How much could really survive?
As the day went on, he sat there stiffly, only occasionally drinking some water supplied to him by T.I.A. They didn’t speak the rest of the day. They just silently observed the planet’s surface disappearing under a veil of inky black clouds. The clouds did not dissipate.
Hawthorne collapsed from exhaustion the next morning, dooming the start of his next cycle to having to start the day fresh without sleep. T.I.A. had no opportunity to let unconsciousness shield her from her own thoughts though. She was grateful that she couldn’t feel as well as she surely would some day, but even as she’d toyed with thoughts like love for her ‘father’, and anger over how he’d been treated, she couldn’t possibly have expected the raw power of things like sadness and regret, even as dull as they were. Even at what she estimated to be five percent of her understanding, the emotions overwhelmed her, and as she watched her father weep and tried to care for him and see to his needs, she was left to her own devices.
The ship had to be maintained. It had to be protected. This was no longer a mission of mere colonization, or escape, it was exactly as her father had predicted. This was all that remained of humanity under her protection. A race of people that she could tell were capable of great and wonderful and beautiful things, things she couldn’t even remotely fully appreciate yet. Events put into motion by them had led to her creation, however flawed she might be. She recalled a conversation she’d overheard her father having with one of his colleagues, telling them how the people of this mission would be the parents of a new humanity.
Was she among those parents? Were these few remaining humans her children? She supposed, in a sense, if all went well, she would give birth to them and guide them to their new lives. They were nestled safely inside her body, awaiting the moment when they could be reborn tens of thousands of years later.
That was it then. If Doctor Crenshaw was her father, then the other colonists were her children, and she would do everything in her power to bring them to their new home.
She watched Hawthorne sleep, eventually cutting the feed to give him privacy while keeping track of his vital signs. She could feel parts of her consciousness shifting, adjusting to her new decision. It sought out dormant systems that her father had left locked so as to keep her from overwhelming herself and gaining in faculties too quickly. She had time. She would be careful. She couldn’t rush things. There were no longer enemies at their back. She would grow into her role as the mother of humanity. She had her father to keep her company occasionally, and she would be grateful for his guidance and assistance. It was somewhat ironic that she had in some ways been designed to keep him company, but now she found herself in need of his company.
Now it was time to review information though. This cycle had given her way too much to process, not to mention the abundance of data in her stores she needed to reference to give her context for what had happened. She was a student of history, and she had almost all the collected knowledge of humanity at her virtual fingertips.
That brought an interesting thought as well. If Earth was truly lost, she was the last place that records of its history existed. She had to be the caretaker and librarian of the history of a dead world.
The enormity of the day would continue to weigh on her for quite some time. A feeling welled within her that she didn’t quite understand, and would only later be able to define as ‘purpose’.