Foolish happiness gave way to surprise over the fact that Hawthorne was neglecting poor T.I.A. “Oh god, I’m so sorry Tia, this has all been so much to take in all at once. Are you alright?” Hawthorne wanted to get to work immediately composing his response to young Jessica Smith, but he couldn’t just ignore the profound experience that T.I.A. had just gone through.
T.I.A. has a number of things on her mind though, and she wasn’t sure what to talk about first. She is just starting to get accustomed to the sensation of her imagination running in real time, and while it wasn’t even remotely as vivid as that first simulation it had done for her, it was doing strange things like giving her a body and a sense of presence that was remarkably stimulating to her. She wanted to be looked at, to be seen, to be recognized rather than just merely addressed as she tended to her duties. She found herself trying to anticipate Hawthorne more than ever. It reminded her of how she had reacted to her brief bout of grief in the wake of the massive weapons exchange on Earth when she’d tried to anticipate his potential need of psychological reassurance.
That particular moment caused T.I.A. to realize that her creativity had been active in some small capacity all along, but this recent event had triggered a massive growth in its capabilities. The systems involved in it all seemed more familiar to her now, much better indexed and its algorithms more efficient. There were also new components to it that had turned on and integrated themselves in response to the need, spreading out large portions of the workload required to utilize it and reducing overall strain as a result.
So the question is, is she okay? Is she alright? “Yes Doctor, I believe I have integrated the capacities of my imagination, though I am still getting accustomed to its operation.” She had worked so hard to grow that single part of herself, rather than her overall being, and now she was finding herself worried about doing something like that again. It was reckless of her, it had put the ship in danger, as well as herself. She needed to try to grow more evenly than this. Now, though, she had the capability she wanted, and could potentially do the things that she had desired for so long now. She could begin working on Hawthorne’s present.
But that had to wait. They were on a clock now, and there could only be so many messages that they could exchange with Earth before Hawthorne would have to resume his cryogenic suspension. “Doctor, I believe that the first question we should ask is what kinds of food the humans are producing and consuming.”
Hawthorne grinned, again correctly guessing the camera that T.I.A. was watching him from as he turned to address her. He was realizing he’d also grown in capabilities before, and what a relief to experience something like unbound happiness after a month’s depression. He was fully aware that most people experienced depression for many months, or even years, so he was hoping at least some of that haze was lifted from him. Now that he had direct one to one communication with someone on Earth, he too wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. He felt a desire to help, to feel useful to someone else, a feeling he had not allowed himself to indulge in too much before.
“You’re absolutely right Tia, and that’s a great idea for a first question. They’re obviously going to have to produce some manner of cultivated food due to the extremely low chance of being able to find any animals to hunt or plants to scavenge. We’ve seen what that pockmarked, black-tinged planet looks like from here, so I can only imagine what it looks like close up. She said something about the Smith Bunker, so they clearly have been surviving underground somewhere. She said it was near the Seattle Crater. That’s a haunting name.” Hawthorne hummed and tossed his bedding and pillow back onto his bed and worked his way back to their primary workspace.
Hawthorne and T.I.A. worked quickly to produce a list of items they wanted to ask about. It was just a matter of producing a video response to miss Smith so that they could begin trading messages. How surprising would it be for her to receive a communication in return? How much did she really believe that she’d accomplished such a task? Much like times before, Hawthorne prepared a speech in his head, and prepared to record.
His eyes were a little puffy, but he had a huge smile on his face as he asked T.I.A. to begin recording. “Greetings Earth woman. I am Emperor Crenshaw, your conqueror!” Hawthorne rolled his eyes, laughing visibly. “Forgive me my dear, I haven’t spoken to another human being in so long that I couldn’t help but make a little joke. Jessica Smith, we have received your message perfectly. I am Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw, but please call me Hawthorne. As requested, my A.I. Tia and I have produced a number of questions for you in anticipation of you asking some of your own in return. It is my most fervent desire that we can help you with whatever information it is that you need to improve your lives on Earth, though I believe it is only information that I can provide at this point.”
Hawthorne looked down to his notes, reaching out to draw them up on the monitor closer to the camera, subtly shifting the splash of light on his face as he spoke towards the camera. “Firstly, what manner of food are you and your people producing and consuming? I imagine some manner of useful plants, but I am curious as to which ones, and in what kind of abundance. What is the population of your bunker, and how do you control the population numbers to keep it from outstripping your resources? What sort of power sources do you utilize to power what I can only imagine is some kind of hydroponics facility? Do you utilize solar power in any way now that the atmosphere has cleared up?”
His list of questions continued. “We have not been able to do much to analyze the atmospheric composition of the planet outside of our distant visuals of it, but it seems to have cleared of most of the dark substances that once obscured our view of the surface. What is the atmosphere like now? You appear to be breathing comfortably, so I imagine the oxygen content isn’t too low.” Oxygen content could tell them a lot about how much plant life had survived on the planet. If they were holding steady rather than decreasing, it was entirely possible that there were an abundance of oceangoing photosynthetic bacteria providing Earth with oxygen much like they had through much of the planet’s history. Of course, it could simply be that there was so little life on the surface that there wasn’t enough breathing it to adequately reduce its abundance appreciably. There was also the fact to consider that the entire surface of the planet had been turned into a fireball for weeks.
“Is there any observable flora and fauna on the surface? What are they like? What is the soil like? The surface seems to have lost some of its black-caked color since the atmosphere cleared, but it is still very dark from our perspective. What sorts of technology do your people still have access to? It speaks volumes that you were able to repair our facility and get it up and running, especially at such a young age…” Hawthorne flinched a bit at that, realizing that age probably meant a lot less than it used to for these people. Someone Jessica’s age might well be rather old for her people. “I still have an old-world concept of a person’s age, so I hope you will forgive me for making assumptions. I am totally impressed that you managed what you have, and it seems likely to me that your access to technology is abundant. How long does it last? Have you lost a lot of it over time? Are you still able to render repairs to your machinery?”
He let out a sigh, having already gotten to the bottom of their quick list of questions. They probably could have worked for hours on this, but T.I.A. kept reminding Hawthorne of how little time they had to interact with Jessica before a potentially intolerable time period passed for her before he saw her again. “Do your people experience any forms of disease? If so, what is most common, and what procedures do you utilize to control them? Have you managed to keep any pests from getting into your bunker?” He smiled brightly again, looking firmly up from his notes. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear from you miss Smith. It has weighed on me terribly since I saw what happened to Earth and I entertained the idea that we might be the last of humanity up here for far too long. I will do everything in my power to assist you in any way I can. Please respond when you can. I’m excited to hear what you have to ask.”
T.I.A. had taken up a spot on the other side of Hawthorne’s desk, looking up at him curiously as he spoke. She was starting to realize that her mind had produced something of a simulation of the work room that Hawthorne was in. The cameras she usually saw him through were all at chest height or above, the vast majority being above, but she was able to look at him from below with a sort of fuzzy simulation of what that must look like due to past data gathered. She found herself smiling as he addressed Jessica, looking at him from between and behind the monitors on his desk, just enjoying the experience of watching her father work. It made her a little sad that he couldn’t see where she was at, the poor thing feeling so limited by those cameras. Maybe her gift could have something to do with alleviating that feeling for her?
“Tia, please transmit the message, and take care to send it a few times, once every ten minutes for an hour or so to ensure that we don’t miss some narrow window of operation they might be restricted by. Attach an instruction to the message to tell the computers to disregard the additional transmissions if it completes receipt.” T.I.A. bounced up from her position behind his desk up to the camera between the monitors he had been looking into to make the recording. “Yes Doctor! Right away.” In quick order, T.I.A. completed her task, and Hawthorne sat back and wondered what to do with himself now that they had to wait at least three days. “Tia, let’s see what your newfound capacities are able to do. Let’s play some chess.”
T.I.A. had never been so excited to play a game. All of his attention would be on her. She was hoping to chase away the memories of carrying his dead body to his pod, but due to the nature of her mind they remained vivid. She was determined to make so many good memories with her father that the imagined memory would cease to have weight on her. Of course, they’d have to get some work done too, but considering the mood, it seemed appropriate to play for a bit.
Jessica was kind of miserable, but it was an excited kind of miserable that could only happen in a place like Washington. The climate wasn’t quite what it had been in the past, as Washington state had previously been categorized as a temperate rainforest, but that did not mean that had stopped being a coastal state that was very prone to cold rain. This little feature had been much more dangerous in the past when the planet was still trying to clean its atmosphere of the abundance of caustic chemicals and compounds that had completely darkened the planet. The Black Rain had happened on and off for more than a century, caking the planet in a thick layer of poisoned, blackened earth that it had been trying to bury ever since. It did not help that the upper atmosphere was still home to many of the particles that had made up that dark frosting on the surface, and would eventually have to come back down as well, probably dooming the surface to many more centuries of partially tainted rainwater.
That taint was at a tolerable level now, though, and while it certainly has an effect on anything living on the surface, people temporarily moving across it like Jessica should be mostly fine. The problem was that ‘mostly fine’ in this case meant cold, wet, and trudging through endless mud. Even with the equipment she had with her like a plastic rain poncho and attachments to her shoes that looked like tennis rackets to avoid sinking or sticking too much to the mud, it was still a miserable trip to and from the Smith Bunker. It didn’t help that she hadn’t had any time to rest since she’d sent her last message.
Jessica’s return to the bunker had caused a bit of an uproar among those who were awake when she arrived. The fact that she had further gone around waking up people, especially older ones, to ask them questions only made people more upset with her. The Elders seemed to keep their knee-jerk reactions in check though, as she told them of the progress on the project she’d been working on. Jessica had strained everyone’s patience with her as she asked to use lots of equipment and had even tasked several people to help her scrounge parts and equipment from the city to help her get Beta Facility up and running again. The only reason they weren’t more upset with her was that it seemed as though she was right. She’d managed to contact the distant spacecraft.
They didn’t want to overload her with questions though, and this turned out to be good because it gave her more time to work with as the rain storm swept across the land, drastically decreasing her travel speed. By the time she returned to Beta Facility, she was worn out. Her list of questions was very small, but she had the folks back home working on producing more thoughtful ones for the next transmission. She needed to find some time to sleep at some point though. She was also eager to eat the cake her mother said she’d have for her when she got back home.
Only a few minutes had passed once she’d settled in and tossed aside her rain gear inside the elevated building. No wonder the weather hadn’t destroyed this place, it was well above any flood zones, dangerous areas that Jessica avoided that were actually pretty nearby in the hilly areas of the surrounding former state park. She watched in wonder as she received the transmission from Hawthorne, her eyes wide. “Wow! He’s still the same age. I have to make sure I ask about that.” She had to play the message back a few times, writing down his questions so that she could answer them later. She couldn’t handle all of them adequately on her own, but she could give her initial perspectives on them.
Once she was feeling ready, she started her own recording, finally managing to not shock herself now that she’d gotten some extra electrical insulation from home. She did not want to accidentally break everything with a power surge or something. “Hello Hawthorne! Forgive my bedraggled appearance, I’ve been trudging through the rain and mud for hours to get back here in time. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I sent an initial message with my questions first, and then I’ll take a little more time to try and answer your questions afterwards. Is that okay?” She blinked, blushing charmingly. “Right, you won’t be able to answer until after they both get there. This is weird. Disregard that!” The young woman cleared her throat, an excited look in her eyes.
“What is your mission out there Hawthorne? Why did you leave? Where are you going? How many people do you have out there with you? Why haven’t you had any other people to talk to? That seems kind of sad. You should totally have family an-” She flinched abruptly, remembering the speech she’d seen of his mentioning that people on Earth had killed his family and friends. “I.. I mean… you deserve some kind of companionship after everything that’s happened right? Is your A.I. up to the task? What is it like talking to it? Can I talk to it too?” Jessica surprised herself, she was adding questions to the list so quickly and easily. Her natural curiosity was causing her to spill out so many more words than she intended.
She cleared her throat again, trying to get herself back on track. “Do you do anything for fun? Do you play any games? Do you think you could send me information about some of your games? I think you would be so much more popular with my people if you added to our repertoire of games to play.” She grinned at that, the idea of having a new wealth of board games and party games to play sounding oh so fun. Bunker life could be exceedingly boring. “How old are you, Hawthorne? You don’t look any older than you are in this old message, and from what I can tell that was from like… Zero AC!” That presented a problem, she measured the years differently from Hawthorne and T.I.A.
“Uhm… would you have any objections to us taking the computers and equipment from Beta Facility? I promise to try to set them up in the same way back at the bunker so we can communicate, but I can’t promise we’ll always be able to spare power to do so. We could work out a system of some kind to make transmissions to each other within windows of time to conserve power for both of us.” She bit her lip a bit, looking at the last item on her list. “Do you have any children Hawthorne? I mean on the ship! Did you.. Uhm.. did you bring any? Do you have ways to keep them entertained? You said you didn’t have any other people to talk to, but my people wanted me to ask if you’re living like we do up there, like a bunker in the sky.”
She was feeling pretty foolish after that question, so she stayed quiet for a moment, glancing away, and then back to the camera. “Anyway! I’ll try to answer your questions in the next message you get. It shouldn’t be too long after. Thank you! Bye!” She waved animatedly, smiling brightly. She went about packaging up the transmission and sending it, her fingers flying across the old keyboard which made satisfying ‘clack!’ sounds whenever she pushed the buttons.
Jessica then had to go about the more arduous task of going about responding to Hawthorne’s questions. Another recording began, and she nodded at the camera. “Okay, now for your questions. Our bunker uses three different facilities to produce food. We have a chicken coop, which is the only livestock we have and we feed them all sorts of things. We have a lot of them too, but I’ve never bothered to take count. Their coop is in a big room with a few meters of soil that is home to some earthworms and we grow some different plants for them to graze on and allow the worms to handle processing the soil. We mostly keep the chickens for their eggs, and they’re happy to live their lives in there. They are super nice and only occasionally get mad at each other or their roosters. The roosters can be a bit temperamental, but we try to avoid letting them get near each other.”
“As far as plants, we have a few very extensive garden rooms, with similar depths of soil which we keep isolated from the earth outside of the bunker. Apparently we can’t trust that earth to not poison our soil inside, so it is important to keep it good and healthy. I don’t really understand how all that works, but it probably has something to do with the earthworms in the soil there too, which we sometimes let the chickens at to keep their numbers under control. We grow a lot of different kinds of vegetables, and rotate our crops with other crops to keep the soil from depleting, and we essentially always have the same things growing at all times even though they move from one room to another every season.”
“Most of what we grow are hemp, potatoes, soybeans, psilocybin mushrooms, lemons, beets, marijuana, asparagus, eggplant, and tomatoes, though a lot of spices, medicinal herbs, and other plants handle a lot of our other needs. We use the hemp for just about everything, most of our clothes and beddings are made from hemp, a lot of our medicines are made from hemp, and even a lot of our plastics. The other room we use is a dark room where we grow our other various mushrooms. We grow lots of kinds of those like shiitake, portobello, oyster, and button. I don’t really like going in that room since it stinks a lot, but a lot of our best food comes from those things, so I don’t hate it. It’s also super dark and humid, so I try to stay out of there.”
She let out a sigh, realizing she had only gotten through one question. “Okay, population. We have five hundred people. Our ancestors had the foresight to have a lot of building materials in storage to work with, but we’ve had to expand underground overtime and use those materials to secure the new areas. We’re mostly out of those materials save for what we’re saving for repairs, so we maintain the same population size because we have to.” She hummed softly for a moment. “Every year, the five oldest elders begin fasting while five designated couples have sex so they can get pregnant. The Elders manage and dictate who has sex with whom to help maintain our genetic diversity and prevent us from getting inbred. The pregnant women are then free to raise their children with their chosen partners, though everyone helps with that.”
“While the chosen elders are fasting, they have unrestricted access to the psilocybin compounds from the mushrooms and marijuana to thank them for their sacrifices. We celebrate their lives, while they sacrifice their food for the new developing lives and when they finally pass they pass in peace and their bodies are used to help fertilize our farming rooms, their bones ground up to help provide calcium for the chickens so they can produce eggs more easily. In the event that someone dies for other reasons, we select less elders for this process, but we go into collective mourning to a life lost prematurely and the Elders select a new couple to have sex to replace the lost person.” Jessica thought for a moment, trying to make sure she didn’t forget anything. “Oh, population control. We’re taught from the time we’re little to try to separate making love and having sex. Out of necessity we can’t have people getting pregnant out of turn, nor with whomever they want to, so everyone is encouraged and instructed in non-reproductive lovemaking techniques to allow people to handle their desires without unnecessary risk. It is super important that we do not allow such things, and anyone committing the crime of having sex out of turn is punished with isolation from the rest of us for several weeks. It’s not a very common crime.”
“Power. Okay, so we have three sources of power. We have access to an underground river, so we utilize hydroelectric for the most part, but we also have these portable generators that take water, split it into hydrogen and oxygen with aluminum plates and a little electricity, and then burn the hydrogen for power to produce more water. We mostly use them for emergencies, as we have limited ability to produce the aluminum plates from recycling the byproduct. I used just such a generator to power this section of the facility actually, though since it’s one of our bigger ones I needed a lot of help getting it here and up here. Since it rains a lot around here and we have the river, it’s not hard to find water to use with it. Other than that we have these big thick windows to the surface that we have to clean off once in a while, and those are mostly to help with heating during the sunny days. We do have some solar-powered electronics inside, but they’re mostly games, so sunny days are really popular as the majority of those windows are above the common rooms. My mother told me that they block some of the harsher radiation we get from the sun.”
Jessica did not quite know what to say about the next question. “Ah… I can breathe alright on the surface, though it wasn’t safe to breathe until like… one twenty-one AC due to the black dust without a filter mask. Most of that is buried now, since the rain’s been cleaning out the sky. That was a huge relief to our air recycling, and allowed our population to grow to its current size once the gardens weren’t our only other source of air. It’s mostly not been an issue, though the Elders have warned us that we will eventually need to get proper plants growing on the surface to help clean the air further.”
She bit her lip a bit, considering the plants and animals questions. “Well, there’s no animals as far as anyone can tell. There were a few claims of something big and fuzzy being spotted through the windows, but we haven’t found any evidence of such things since we started exploring the surface again. We haven’t explored much of it though, so maybe there’s something out there. The plants are… sad. There isn’t many of them, they droop and struggle to live, and the sun and rain batters them horribly and the soil is still poisonous. It’s crazy that anything is growing at all, but it’s entirely useless so far. We hope we can someday build gardens on the surface, but we need a lot of materials to block the radiation in the sunlight while still letting light through, metal to contain healthy soil, and we need to make a lot more healthy soil to fill those gardens. Our earthworms don’t seem to be able to tolerate the poisoned earth when we’ve tried to introduce them to it, so those all died.”
Phew! The list was almost all whittled down! “We have a lot of technology, but we endeavor to go easy on it so it lasts. We’re really good about our maintenance and being careful with the computers, tablets, games and machines we have. We have a lot of weights we use for exercise, though a lot of people prefer to make love to get their workouts. I like to run a lot on the surface, personally, but since we have to keep our skin covered so much I can’t run all that long. I found this place on one of my runs actually, tucked between some tall rocks. We have fewer computers and machines than we used to, but we have been able to scavenge things from the old cities nearby to repair a lot of it. Most of the stuff on the surface is useless, but there’s a lot of metals intact so we can usually take that. That’s why I asked if I could take the computers here, since it would be so helpful to have new computers!”
“Disease. We have diseases, but not many. The common cold, pneumonia, tetanus, cancer, mutations of E. coli, and salmonella. I’m told the earthworms keep the crops free of a lot of disease they might otherwise provide us. We mostly have to tough it out when we do get sick, though we have policies to quarantine anyone who is sick and provide them with more food to help them fight it off. The quarantined rooms have a separate air filtration system to keep them from getting other sick, with airlocked chambers to allow us to pass them food and medicine and whatnot. We use whatever we can to help reduce their pain and such things usually prompt the slaughter of a few chickens to help provide them extra meat to help them fight off their illnesses. Tetanus is one of the worst ones, but it’s not very common thank god. We maintain our equipment very well, like I said.”
“The things we use to make medicines are literally all of our plants and mushrooms in some form or another. They all have some kinds of oils or extract that make something useful for different illnesses. The founders of our bunker had a lot of information on things like that since the people who built it were farmers at heart. Bless them, they saved so many lives with the information they passed on.” Jessica tapped her fingers on the desk as she thought, unsure of what else to add. “Oh, thank you for getting back to me so quickly. I… can understand if you wanted to be be cautious with us after what’s happened. We aren’t like we used to be. We educate each other on the nature of humanity, and we take steps to help maintain each other’s mental health and we make sure we deal with our frustrations and anger in healthy ways since we can’t afford to let things like that run rampant. We’re trying to make sure our people understand and appreciate how lucky we are to have a chance to live and we’ll keep that teaching alive.”
“I really need to get some sleep, Hawthorne. I’ve been up way too much since I sent that first message. I’ll send you a quick message when I wake up to let you know when to expect my next message. I’ll get back to your next message when I can.” Jessica sent off the transmission after she was finished, and immediately unwrapped her bedroll. She always did enjoy sleeping on a bedroll over steel, and the sound of rain falling outside lulled her to sleep quite quickly.
Hawthorne and T.I.A. watched as that second message came in. This was the first time he’d gone off-procedure and stayed up an extra couple days. Hawthorne’s chin was resting atop his interlaced fingers with his elbows on the desk as he sat forward in his seat. As it completed he was getting misty eyed, shaking his head a little to try and dispel the tears. “Humans learned. They had to force themselves, but they finally learned how precious it all was. It had to all burn away to make them appreciate what they had. Tia, how can we help such sturdy, strong people? They figured it all out, did it all right.”
T.I.A. did not understand quite how she felt. She felt like she was observing aliens compared to what she had in her records. The knife’s edge these people had survived upon felt very similar to how narrow the margins of failure were on their own mission. The freedom to learn and think after gaining control over the Lubar-Masis comet felt very similar to the way these earthly humans were starting to head out of their bunker and explore the world around them after being locked up for so long. She wanted to help them dream of a better future just like she now could. “Doctor, we should begin preparing as many games for them as possible, and let Jessica know that once the cycle is over she can move the Beta Facility equipment back to the bunker. I think that’s all we can do to help them for now.”
He felt like it was worthwhile that he decided to stay up an extra three days, though he knew he had to get back to his pod after he sent his next message. Hawthorne smiled and nodded, but then got a bit of a grim look on his face. “Should we include the war games?”