The meeting of two peoples, separated originally by hundreds of miles of hostile mountains, nuclear holocaust, acid rain, black rain, and culture was a remarkably cheerful one. The dark mood that the people of the Phoenix Clan had found themselves in had finally lifted for the first time in a long while as they met outsiders for the first time. Both groups interacted and mingled curiously, with the Old Ones taking great joy in encountering children for the first time in centuries, though a close second was discovering that they had chickens as well, allowing many of them to enjoy eggs for the first time in their long lives. A close third, that honestly rivaled the other two, was the fact that having access to their hemp-based toilet paper completely revolutionized their ideas of waste management. That night, out in the blasted wilderness on May 11th, 2507, with that long snake of a vehicle coiled up protectively around Elena Price’s own LSC vehicles was a night of tears and joy. President Price declared her alliance with the Council of Twelve after a few short hours of meetings and agreements being signed.
Arrangements were made to share the few plants they had with the farmers of the caravan, and it turned out that the people that arrived with Alpha Two and its fleet of ATVs had some additional foresight in bringing a large bag of apples from the two trees back in the northern-Idaho based LSC bunker. The two apple trees from the bunker had been planted at the Price Presidential Estate years before they were moved to the bunker, symbolically representing the successful pregnancy of Elena’s mother and subsequent meddling in her own genetics. Her parents could not know how important those trees would end up being, nor how many times she nearly allowed them to die as the forces unleashed in her youth conspired to end the venerable plants. Sadly, they would have to struggle on without anyone to tend to them, but their seeds had a chance to be spread thanks to a handful of Old Ones who decided to bring some apples with them.
One additional arrangement had been made as well. Elena wanted to talk to Doctor Crenshaw. She needed to make amends with someone she had secretly harbored hatred for for so long. She knew logically that he was guilty of nothing, but her heart had been left with unhealed scars ever since she’d been made aware of her father’s suicide. With the assistance of Jessica, she finally had her chance to speak to the man who’d tried to help them oh so long ago. How different could things have been if they had heeded his message as these hardy bunker dwellers had? No one from the Phoenix Clan had any records from that time, nor had any stories been passed on regarding the motivations of the bunker’s builders, but she suspected the Smith family had been long-time supporters of Monsalle Industries. If so, that information was almost surely lost to time.
T.I.A. had become something of a winter entertainment hub in the last decade. Requests for different forms of music, movies, and television shows had been answered with her best guesses, at least at first. At one point she’d simply sent them a text file containing all the file names she had in those media folders and their subfolders, and crafted a program tasked with delivering the requested files every 24 hours, timed perfectly to hit the right rotation on Earth. These data requests were completely automated at this point so she could focus on individual conversations, and more vital requests. In some ways she was operating in a similar fashion to the various surface facilities that used to serve her data once upon a time.
Of course, this did leave her with less work to do, and the personal check-ins with her friends had dried up significantly, no doubt due to all the work that needed to be done. Considering the nature of the media being consumed, the people of the Smith Bunker were mostly looking for things to make them laugh and motivate them as they labored. There was a significant amount of children’s programming requested as well, suggesting that the adults weren’t able to spend as much time with the kids, or they spent some of their time with the kids relaxing and watching said programming with them. They’d never seen such shows before themselves, after all.
T.I.A. found herself preferring to analyze the data being requested and tried to use that data to refine her delivery program into making suggestions based on previous requests. She also took the time to watch and listen to the majority of the more popular items, and even had the pleasure of adding items to her collection as some enterprising bunker dwellers shared with her recordings of their own music. In a lot of ways it was a nice distraction for T.I.A. from worrying about the things that her friends were actually having to deal with, particularly the winters spent with the caravan curled up in a circle like a wagon train. Since its walls opened inwards to create something of a large internal circular building to protect them from winds, it made rain and snow somewhat of a problem in the middle except for the buckets they’d put out to gather it for purifying.
By the time Hawthorne was waking for what should have been his 13th cycle, and ended up being his 14th, T.I.A. was getting messages regarding the caravan encountering other people. She couldn’t send anything back until she got the go-ahead that they were going to be stationary, though. She had gotten a message from a strange-looking person whom had introduced herself as President Elena Marie Price of the Liberated States of Columbia, and considering its contents she knew that her father would be very interested in seeing it.
Hawthorne awoke with a decent level of apprehension, but it was a good sign that T.I.A. hadn’t assaulted him with information from the moment he’d woken up. He took his time, taking a nice hot shower, getting dressed, and putting on his new gloves and contacts. He kind of missed the weight of glasses hanging off his nose, but he supposed he had a significant preference for the new contacts, particularly due to the high level of immersion in T.I.A.’s virtual space. Walking out into Clapham Common, he found said curly-haired brunette quietly enjoying what appeared to be a book while soft music played from the overhead speakers. “Good morning, Tia.”
A big bright grin turned up at him, a bookmark materialising in the book as she shut it and set it aside. “Good morning, father! How are you today?” She pushed herself up from the grassy ground, wiggling her toes in the grass and enjoying the feel of the simulated sun on her simulated skin. She couldn’t emulate her whole body in real time, but her sense of touch was easy enough compared to the complexity of the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and respiratory system she had simulated in her ‘dream’. Touch and weight were easy by comparison. Hawthorne approached the nearly-400 year old A.I.’s avatar. “I feel fine, thank you. Has everything been alright? Have they finished the project yet?”
T.I.A. laughed, a genuine happy sound that was a far cry from her first unsettling laugh from the start of their journey. “Father, considering the circumstances, everything is wonderful. The caravan has reached northern California, and they just contacted us regarding other people they’ve encountered who have joined them! I’ve also been really enjoying the music they sent back to me. It feels so much more alive than what I had been sending them, though they insist that it’s not as good.” She turned up the audio on the bunker dwellers’ recordings, which were of remarkable quality considering the amateur nature. The advancement of basic recording software seemed to have outpaced the studio equipment the majority of her music records had been recorded with.
It was a lively tune, filled with laughter and cheer, drums pattering in the background while stringed instruments seemed to practically dance in the foreground. Rhythmic clapping from an audible audience helped keep the beat, and a vibrant and passionate voice sang along, with the audience answering back in a noisy fashion. Hawthorne found himself smiling as he listened, imagining the moment in that steel-walled bunker with everyone having a good time. It lacked the polish and ambition of the music he remembered, but T.I.A. was right, it just felt alive. “Well, I don’t know what you’ve been sending them, but I think I’m inclined to agree.” She nodded again, turning the music back down while he spoke again. “Who are these people they met? Where are they from?”
Like a magic trick, T.I.A. produced a screen from behind her back, and stretched it out in front of Hawthorne, putting it up against the tree as she stood back. She gestured at it, and it started to play while Hawthorne pulled the short woman closer by her far shoulder and used his other hand to play with her bouncy, curly hair. He raised an eyebrow at the strange face that appeared on the screen though.
Elena’s face was long, angular, and strangely elegant. Narrow eyes with a look of wisdom peered at the camera while Hawthorne found his vision lingering on her slender nose, thin lips, and long thin neck. Her long hair appeared to be pale blonde, with a significant amount of silvery grey mixed in. Her facial expression was somewhat sour at first, though a soft sigh dispelled that and a small smile appeared. “Greetings Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw, this is President Elena Marie Price of the Liberated States of Columbia. I never thought I would find myself speaking to you after everything that has happened, but upon encountering your friends and finding out you were in contact with them, I realized that I had been holding onto the past for far too long.”
“My fool of a father only took responsibility for his actions when he took his own life, and I have dedicated myself ever since to being better than he ever could have been. I feel as though I’ve done well with the tools I had available to me, keeping some number of my people alive, but I must confess I’ve made many mistakes along the way. None of us were properly prepared for what has happened, not like the people you have been helping, and I hope you’ll give us your blessing to join with them. I will not go into details, for I think it best that some memories be lost to time, but I also request that you forgive me for the awful things I’ve thought about you for more than three-hundred years. Time has taught me that it is best to fix what you can rather than dwell on what you can’t, and I’d rather my people be able to benefit these wonderful young people with our wisdom and protection rather than dwelling on old lies.”
Her eyes softened, and she looked back over her shoulder across the dirt ground behind her which had been cleared of the poisonous scrubs before allowing children to play and run outdoors. Sun beat down in the center of the large circle of vehicles, and a handful of pregnant women waddled around chasing after them playfully. “I want to formally take part in guiding these people, as you have, and have signed an agreement with the Council of Twelve declaring us in alliance.” She turned back to the camera, looking serious. “I vow to you, that I will take to heart your message of peace and cooperation that I had tried to deny for too long. We will walk hand-in-hand to South America, and I will keep every foulness away from them that I can. I only hope you can forgive foolish people for not heeding you sooner. I’ve only known them for a few days and I have learned more from them than I have in centuries ruling over a dead country. Make whatever request you would like of me, Hawthorne, consider the ghost of the LSC at your service.”
The message ended there, and T.I.A. brought up another, revealing a friendly, familiar face. Jessica had aged quite gracefully, with her red hair mixed thoroughly with its own silvery grey hair. Hugging her from behind was her husband Clint whom had gone completely grey, but showed no signs of balding. He seemed to have no intention of interrupting the conversation his wife wanted to have with the good doctor. “Hello Doctor Crenshaw! It’s been so long. I’m older than you are now, so I fully expect you’ll respect your seniors?” She grinned. “Of course, I’m sure you know, I’m not even remotely the oldest among the people in our group now. Elena said they’re called the Old Ones, and that she’s the only one who was alive before the Cataclysm. We’ve done our best to keep the children from bothering her too much, but she seems to really enjoy telling stories about what the world used to be like. It might be a little tricky to integrate them into the group, but we’re pretty sure everyone will get along.”
“We’ve gotten to Redding in California. We have been able to locate some aluminum, but a lot of it has corroded before we could get to it. We can recycle that, but it’s a lot harder to identify and gather in that state. Elena seems to think that we can hook up the generators from her vehicles to our power supply though, so we should probably be okay as we continue south. She said they were nukular-” Clint interrupted her from behind, “Nuclear dear, nuclear.” She blushed and nodded. “Right, right, nuclear power plants are what she’s been using to recharge her vehicles. That’s why she was out here in the first place. Her people were opening up the old LSC silos to gather fuel for their generators, just like we are with the aluminum. She said that we’re welcome to take whatever else we need from the silos too, so I’m hoping that there’s plenty of materials and parts there.”
She hummed softly, thinking. Clint spoke quietly again, “The map,” and kissed the top of her head. “Ah, of course, we’re coordinating with Elena to hit up every silo she knows about on the way south to make sure we have lots of fuel and resources. We have no idea what we’ll be able to scavenge, the cities have been largely useless so far, so we need to get everything we can. It’ll take us a little longer to get down to Sacramento, but we’ll be much better prepared for dealing with the challenges. I think we’re going to be okay though, Hawthorne. Oh!” She turned her head and shouted. “Hawthie, bring over the box!” She turned back to the screen. “You’re going to find this fascinating!”
Thorne waved a bit from behind, handing his father the large box, which he held in front of Elena, allowing her to withdraw the heavy contents. “Okay, so this…” She turned it to face the screen. “This is the head of one of those roach things. As far as we can tell there’s a lot of heavy elements in its shell, but we haven’t had much time to study it yet. Elena said they accidentally burned one before though, and she’s pretty sure what was left over was iron! These things are apparently at least partially made of iron. That must be why they were sucking on steel girders and other metal things, they were eating the iron and carbon. That’s the working theory anyway.” She re-boxed the disturbing head and Clint took it away, leaving her alone. “We’re figuring it out, though. We’ve made strong allies, and everyone’s spirits are as high as they were before your last message.”
She hesitated a bit, unsure if she wanted to continue. “The Elders decided that caring for and feeding them was too much of a burden, and that until we got underway we should avoid having any more children. The Elders all fasted and allowed themselves to pass, and it’s been hanging on us ever since. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t need such a momentous occasion as making new friends to ease over our wounded hearts. I hope whatever Elena said to you wasn’t too harsh though? My son said she’d yelled something to him about you taking her father.” Jessica seemed to dwell on that idea for a moment. “Well, as a woman whose father died due to your advice myself, I personally want to say that it’s not your fault. We make our own decisions in life, and we never could have gotten this far, nor probably even met the LSC people if our Elders hadn’t left us when they did. It was hard work, and we needed the food. They were totally right.”
Jessica hummed, thinking for a moment. “My son and one of the LSC scouts hunted down one of those roaches, one that killed one of our younger scouts, Tabitha. It took a fair bit of firepower to do the damage needed, but they ambushed it. We’re waiting for it to cool down before trying to bring parts of it back for studying. Elena said the one they’d killed before hadn’t been quite as accessible, and they didn’t have the manpower to extract it for study, so we’re hoping we learn a lot about it. It’s the only one we’ve seen in the area, and we’ve been considering the possibility that they came from the south, and that we’ll encounter more of them the further we go. Hawthie was worried that they might have eaten lots of people and destroyed bunkers further south. I’m personally hoping that isn’t true, but Elena seems to think that her firepower will be needed against them.”
She smiled, that same bright shiny smile that T.I.A. seemed to emulate. “I think we could use one of your rousing, hopeful speeches, if you have any left in you, Doctor Crenshaw. We’ll be here for the next seven days or so while we get everything coordinated and prepare to head out. That’ll give you a little less than two days to respond, so hop to it young man!” She giggled softly, apparently having been very eager to lord over him about her age before ending the recording. Hawthorne couldn’t help but laugh, shaking his head. “So let’s see, we’ve got an upstart, a time traveller, an immortal, and an A I. Quite the strange number of perspectives on time, it seems.”
T.I.A. seemed a little confused as she pointed up at Hawthorne. “Are you the time traveller?” He nodded back at her, ruffling up her hair. “Of course, I jump ahead in time over and over while everyone else has to live through the intervening time. I suppose we’re all travelling forwards though. I think we should take our elders’ wisdom seriously. No sense dwelling on what’s behind us as long as we have a way ahead.”
Hawthorne felt over-the-moon about the whole thing, getting to watch from so far away as two different groups of people come together. What were the chances that both groups had survived so long in isolation, only to encounter each other, and come together like that? “Tia, you’ve done a wonderful job supporting them. I know we can’t do much for them at this point, that they have to survive on their own, but being their librarian has probably helped them more than we can ever know.” T.I.A. looked up at him, considering what he had said. “I have really enjoyed the challenge. It is an opportunity to find better ways to help them while also studying them and learning from them. You were right, practicing with interacting with humans has totally changed how I feel about them. I wish I could do more to protect them and keep them safe.” T.I.A. began fussing with her dress a bit, busying her hands with messing with the fabric, as if trying to express her unease.
He hummed down at her, and gave her hair another good ruffle with his gloved hand. “Trust me, Tia, you’ve done everything you can to protect them, but now they have to protect themselves. You were the one who noticed they were in danger in the first place, and if you hadn’t created this wonderful gift for me, we’d never have been able to put those plans together for them in the time we had to work on them. Honestly, if it wasn’t for you, humanity would be in a much worse position right now on all sides.” T.I.A. smiled at that for a moment, but then hung her head. “But father… what if I put them in that situation in the first place? What if my changes to your video back then caused all of this?” Hawthorne sighed, hugging the avatar of his A.I. and shaking his head. “Listen. You didn’t launch all those weapons. You didn’t release those horrors on Earth. Even with that video you were just trying to make sure that my message got to people unedited. We were dealing with people who made bad decisions back then. We’re dealing with people who make good decisions now. Support them, and help them, and shouldn’t dwell on those who didn’t listen to us.”
T.I.A. sighed and nodded, looking back up at him. “You’re right. We should get to work on that speech Jessica asked for. Elena sounded a bit like a knight at the end there too. She could use a little motivation, I think. I’m still having trouble believing that any Old Ones survived after what I read about them. They must be more hardy than the doctors thought they were. It should be interesting to see how long they’ll last.” He hummed, stepping back from T.I.A. and smiling down at her. “Alright, I’m going to get to composing this after breakfast. I’d love if you could provide me some of the statistics you’ve gathered on their interests.”
T.I.A. smiled brightly, pleased to be able to help, feeling much better after the little pep talk. She was quick to get to work, zipping about to gather the data he’d requested and handle the food request.
“T.I.A.’s log, May 15, 2507, AC 374. I am currently assisting Hawthorne with providing statistics regarding the media requests of the Phoenix Clan. Something he said reminded me of a thought I had after the Cataclysm. I had decided that I wanted to protect and care for the colonists encased within my body, perhaps like a mother. Having found myself in a position to look after the humans I have contact with on Earth, I find myself feeling responsible for them in a very similar way. I am realizing how undeveloped I was at the time when I had made that first decision, though I am pleased to now understand why I did it.”
“While I understand that the purpose of my construction was to both protect my passengers, as well as attend to Hawthorne’s needs, I now feel as though I have taken the responsibility of trying to safeguard as much of humanity as I can. I have learned a lot from Jessica and the others about how to interact with people, as well as how to be a person. I still feel as though I am merely emulating them, but the more I express myself, the more it feels natural. I am still disappointed that my gift for Hawthorne was spoiled, but pleased that it proved useful. I know what I am feeling are simple feelings, but they feel more complex every day. They are also much more pleasant than the sadness I had experienced before in past cycles.”
“Emotions are interesting. They motivate me in ways that even Hawthorne’s orders and requests never really did. Where before I felt a duty to do what was asked of me, I now genuinely want to help, and I enjoy doing so. I am satisfied with feeling useful to the humans that I interact with, and desire to do more to ensure their wellbeing. I believe this motivation has caused me to do things and develop my thinking in ways I can’t imagine I would have otherwise. I continue to build social skills and construct my own personality the more I interact with them, and I find that it decreases my need to intentionally try to modify myself. Like other things I have done, repetition and experimentation seems to etch things into my being, removing the need to process them again. This appears to be central to my nature, to struggle with new things, but once complete I can call upon them at will.”
“I will continue to consider how to apply this. I now completely understand why Hawthorne insisted I analyze him, and recordings of him. It built a baseline of understanding to expand from that I can now consider my foundation. I find myself excited at the prospects of how I may continue to grow and mature. I think if I were to give an honest assessment of my emotional development, I’d compare myself to a human child who desires the approval of their parent, with many more capabilities to actually earn that approval. This level of growth seems acceptable to me for now. End log.”
Jessica and Elena were only a few of the people gathered around the old Beta Facility computers once it was announced that they were receiving a transmission late in the day on May 18th. Considering the way the computers had been arranged to be facing the inward part of the ring when the caravan ‘circled the wagon’, a lot more people than ever before could gather around the screen. Of course, monitors all over were displaying the messages on a slight delay as well, but people tended to want to see it from the source. Once again Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw appeared, his advanced contacts making him look somewhat more artificial than he did with his old glasses. He looked well rested, and had a huge smile on his face as he looked at the camera. “Greetings, honored Elders, and friends of both the Phoenix Clan and now the Liberated States of Columbia. I hope you will forgive my joke, as miss Jessica had been teasing me about how much younger I am than her, though I do mean it seriously as well in reference to your new guests.”
He let out a soft sigh, smiling softly. “I wanted to tell you all that I am so very proud of you. You have accomplished so much, and overcome impossible odds to get here today. Things that may seem boring and routine to you are so incredible to me that I can scarcely believe we are the same species. You are so much stronger and more resilient than the people of Earth that I left behind so long ago, and I am humbled that I can play any significant part in your lives. Your ability to adapt and withstand are a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is truly impossible for me to imagine the powerful will that your people must command to accomplish all that you have.”
“When my companions and I had left, we had been very picky about the sorts of people that came with us. I had originally thought that I had brought the best and brightest that humanity had to offer with me, but in a lot of ways I wish I could have brought you instead. You are all truly an inspiration, and I hope when I teach my companions about you far into the future, that they will be able to appreciate what a wonder you all are. I personally think that Earth is in good hands. That said, you still have much more to do. The planet will not be kind, and it will challenge you to your limits, and you must continue to be strong. President Elena Price, you said that you consider the LSC at my service. I ask only one thing of you, something you have already vowed to do. Protect these people, and provide your wisdom and guidance when you can.”
Hawthorne chuckled a bit. “They have already proven they have what it takes to thrive, and I request that you try not to stand in their way. Support them, protect them, and guide them. Phoenix Clan, I have a request of you as well. Help President Price and her people as well. Be there for each other and learn everything you can from each other. You have a tradition of honoring your Elders, and these should be considered no different. Take advantage of their knowledge and perspective and show them what you are capable of. You are all strong, intelligent, and resilient, and as long as you trust in each other and lean on each other, I can’t imagine any challenge you can’t handle. I believe in you.”
“Tia and I will be up here watching over you. Show that world who’s boss.”
Shouts and laughs sounded up from the assembled people in something of a wave, following the minor delay in transmission between the Beta Facility computers and the rest of the caravan’s displays. Jessica and Elena shared a smile as they turned to watch their people celebrate. Instruments were brought together in the middle to play music while a handful of incredibly tall Old Ones danced with the hardy, shorter humans. There were even a few Old Ones that had been dragged into some celebratory kisses. Jessica lifted an eyebrow at that, and glanced up at Elena, trying to talk over the noise. “Hey, do you think any of your people would be interested some… cultural exchanges?” Elena blinked, then glanced over to Megan. The cyborg woman stood there, dispassionate and disinterested. She did speak up though. “She is suggesting sexual relations, Miss Price.”
Elena looked a bit shocked at that, looking back to Jessica’s grinning face. “The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I’m sure some of them would like to try though.” Jessica had really embraced her inner matchmaker now that she was an Elder. She needed to call the rest of the council together, and get them to add Elena to it. A Council of Thirteen had a nice ring to it.