The terrain of Northern California was a great deal easier to traverse compared to the tightly-knit mountainous terrain and criss-crossing rivers of Oregon. That said, there were still enough rivers and detours necessary that the Phoenix Clan had only barely managed to reach the outskirts of Sacramento by the time late fall and early winter was setting in in 2507, AC 375. They’d travelled about 200 or so miles this year, which was pretty respectable considering they had to build a lot of their own bridging, even if they often had ruins to utilize for materials and existing infrastructure. Spirits were very high, though there were a couple of points of contention and disagreement that were weighing on some of the people.
With the ongoing pregnancy of a miss Danielle Mulgrue, presumably from a dalliance with the Old One named Jennette Vusuvoir back in Redmond, there were a lot of thoughts and ideas being passed around among the various people of the Phoenix Clan. There were centuries old traditions and practices among them that had already been interrupted for almost eleven years, and now that they had what were potentially immortals among them, some of those practices seemed outdated and potentially wasteful. Most importantly, if they were going to undertake their old ways of population control, then they couldn’t really in good conscience ask the immortals to take their own lives as they had asked of their Elders in the past.
With that being the case though, it was difficult to suppress the feeling in some that this was unfair, that they had to support a group of ancient Elders and also expect their more mortal ones to make such a sacrifice. None really felt like it wasn’t worthwhile to keep Elders with such long lives with them, but there many that felt that their wisdom was not that of their own people. There was a desire in some to ask them to conform to their traditions, while others were happy to have two groups of Elders to separate the two sets of philosophies that had kept their respective groups of humans alive so long. It was a cultural difference that had a lot of facets that threatened to keep the Old Ones from truly integrating with their people.
If that wasn’t confusing enough, a handful of the Old Ones wanted to comply with those traditions, if it meant they could do something as simple as have children of their own, even if they wouldn’t be able to raise them. It was a relatively small disagreement in the face of their combined survival, but it was a disagreement that only magnified in significance the longer it was allowed to continue. Thankfully the Council of Thirteen didn’t get where they were without having the wisdom to guide their respective peoples through the tumultuous trials of life on what had become of Earth.
As with many things in the past, what they needed was to compromise. The Council of Thirteen convened one chilly night in September, seven women and six men coming together to decide the fate of their new combined people. As per usual, the other Elders were able to remotely observe the meeting, now including the other Old Ones, but they primarily participated in voting while the Council itself tended to make proposals. There was nothing preventing the others from making proposals outside of the fact that their chosen leaders tended to have pretty compelling answers for their problems. There was something of a tense atmosphere as they sat together around a large table that usually operated as a dining table, the walls closed off to allow for some privacy.
Jessica Crenshaw, chiefly in charge of navigation, spoke up first. “Hello everyone, thank you for coming. I know we’re all busy, but it is good to see us all together again after so long. I hope you don’t mind if I get right into business, seeing as my usual responsibilities are suspended until we get moving again in the spring. I was hoping that we could come to some compromise on how to integrate the Old Ones into our society with regards to our old population control methods.” Various faces looked back and forth to each other, though Elena Price sat quietly and still, wanting to hear what everyone else had to say before she said anything.
Barnard Tetch, a shorter, darker man with vibrant green eyes and mostly-grey hair cleared his throat. His responsibility was the sexual wellness of the clan, and he’d been quite busy this year. “Well, with regards to sexual compatibility with them, I think we might be able to find partners for most of them, at least as far as passing on their genes is concerned. We don’t quite know what the results may be, but Mike and I have been keeping a close eye on Danielle and her pregnancy. We’re pretty eager to see what her child might inherit from the parents as far as traits, though we may not know for a few decades. Her ultrasounds look promising though, and we’re probably looking at a healthy boy.” Mike Brown, a pale fellow with only partly-grey hair and a barrel chest, whom happened to be in charge of health and wellness, added something in. “She has had some interesting nutritional needs, but it’s nothing we haven’t been able to handle with some of the vegetables that Elena’s people brought with them.”
Clint Crenshaw let out a groan; Jessica’s husband and the man in charge of general agriculture had been clearly irritated by having to learn how to cultivate completely new plants. “Yes, we’re learning how to incorporate those things into everyone’s diet, but it’ll take some time before we properly get them into the crop rotation. I want to make a formal request for the construction of another farming car if possible. I’d love to see if we can dredge up some earth from the bottoms of some of these rivers to see how good it is for cultivation.”
Tammy Bledsoe, Jessica’s best friend, and the woman who manages entertainment added in her own input. “I love the Old Ones. They apparently didn’t have much in the way of entertainment in the LSC bunker besides a lot of the same old books and a handful of movies, so sharing all the things we got from Tia has been a delight. They get this look on their faces that make them look like children experiencing the world for the first time that I just adore. They seem very keen to learn everything they can from us.” Another pale fellow with blond hair and grey beard, Walter Carson, Phoenix clan's acting historian, had to get in his own two cents. “That’s an understatement. They’ve been ravenously devouring every bit of historical information we have as well. The handful of times we’ve been able to contact Tia during the year, they’ve been responsible for most of the data downloads from her records.”
Elena Price leaned forwards, lacing her fingers together and resting her chin upon them. She was obviously in charge of the Old Ones. “I’ve requested that they keep any sensitive information about what happened before the Cataclysm to themselves, as per the request of the Council. Jessica and I have also asked Tia to restrict access to the news and events leading up to the Cataclysm, seeing as this is apparently the first time anyone has sought to access them. While I initially disagreed with decision, I have come to feel that some parts of history are better left vague so that we can teach lessons about the past rather than expose the gory details. Tia will always have them on record, so it’s not as if that history will be lost.”
The room was quiet for a moment, at least until Teitara Poundstone, a squat woman with stark white hair and a remarkably youthful face broke the silence. “I’ve been able to get a lot of information from the Old Ones and Tia about how to apply the new crops to medicine. I’ve also examined all of them and found them remarkably healthy for their age, though they have a tendency towards fragile bones and low endurance. Their sexual capabilities appear to be intact, it’s just that their reproductive cells do not seem as receptive as ours might be. The females also do not appear to have gone through menopause, though their menstrual cycle is greatly lengthened, so it remains to be seen if they might not later lose their fertility over the course of centuries. It’s as though their men and women have much more discerning locks and keys, so it’s difficult to find matches for them, particularly among themselves. I’ve been helping Barnard and Mike with the bits and pieces I can find. It’s actually a really fun challenge, since it’s been a while since we had some regular breeding going on.”
Jessica let out a sigh, wondering when they were going to get back on track, but she decided to let everyone weigh in with what they’ve learned first. When she realized no one else was talking, she decided to take over. “Okay, that’s all well and good, but we all know that’s not what I was getting at. We have a tradition of having the old step aside for the young, so that the healthy and strong can take the torch from the weak and feeble. We have already had to deny so many people the chance to have children, though we are starting to catch up on that, but we will eventually get to the point where we hit our theoretical maximum population and we’ll need to resume asking Elders to let others take their turn. The obvious question is how the Old Ones factor into this.”
Cindy Harrison, a mousy, small woman with thick glasses and an annoying voice responded quickly. She looked like she briefly thought she was interrupting someone else, but no one actually wanted to talk about the issue but her. She looks the part of the socially-awkward computer expert she definitely is. “Clearly the thing to do is determine whether or not they ever factor into the ‘weak and feeble’ category. After that, if they remain viable and capable of working, then they probably should not be able to become Elders in the first place. That does present the problem if we manage to mix their genes in with the rest of us that we may end up with a bunch of half-human hybrids that get caught in the adult population and eventually leave us eternally young. What’s the problem?”
Sherry Aaronson, foreman of the engineers, a larger, somewhat burly looking woman across the table slapped a hand down on the table, groaning aloud as she stared at Cindy. “Come on Cindy, you’re smarter than that. We’ll end up with a bunch of adults and a stagnant population who can’t have any children without someone having to die, just like the LSC people did, but with less biological issues and more social issues. Do you really think we can sustain that? No, the real problem is what we eventually allow our people to become. We love children too much to give them up in the long run, but our traditions of having elders commit suicide are incompatible with immortals, just like Jessica said.” There seemed to be a collective flinch from the others at the frank mention of suicide. Most of Sherry’s peers preferred to sugar coat the word, but the engineer was a blunt one. She was obviously frustrated.
Jessica inhaled softly, intending to speak up, but Henry Mulgrue, the clan’s Mycologist beat her to it. The pale, slender man was accustomed to being in dark rooms for long periods of time, explaining his sunglasses indoors. “Come off it Sherry, we all know it’s not simple, that’s why we’re here. The way I see it, we have two options. We keep the two populations separate and distinct and do not integrate them, or we ask them to conform.” Jessica was trembling a little, but she closed her hand into a fist and let out a calming breath. “Or we change our traditions, as we already have with the suspension of reproduction, as we have with having the Council being a permanent thing. We can find a solution here, we just have to look for it.”
The final unheard voice to speak up was Elizabeth Malone, the clan’s resident psychologist and the one primarily responsible for training people to look after the mental health of others. She towered over all but Elena, the short-haired brunette peering down to the others as she stood up. “It seems to me that the situation is one of fairness. The Old Ones have remained largely calm, meditative, and without much to drive them. They are finding purpose with us, and from what I’ve been able to find out, are more alive than they ever have been before. They are still growing accustomed to a much faster way of life with us than they have experienced before. In some ways they are like children, and others like venerable elders. Our compromise must take into account their perspective. We have all grown up knowing that we will one day die, they have not. Their maximum lifespan, if they have one, is still largely a mystery. I personally think it worthwhile to see what a human mind that never grows old and dies is capable of.”
As she sat down, Clint took up her cause. “I spend year after year growing plants, harvesting them, and then planting anew. The idea of merely having to tend them as they live forever is something that challenges my way of thinking, but I also think I would like to see what fruit such a plant could bear. It means having to make room for them though, separating them from others so that they don’t suffocate the shorter-lived plants around them. Our people have never before cared what was fair and was not fair when it came to the challenges that life has thrown at us. We have dealt with each situation on its own terms, and we have done the things we needed to survive. I think there is some overlap between the two peoples in that respect. Let’s look at what the actual problem is, and work from there. We have plenty of water thanks to rain and rivers. We have plenty of food since we’re not near our population maximum yet. If we can expand our farming capabilities, we can increase that maximum population. Let’s let them have one child each for now, see how they grow up, and go from there.”
Henry scoffed, shaking his head. “And what about their children? They’ll want to have their own some day. How long do you deny them? One century? Two? What do you tell those children when they grow up among a bunch of humans who grow old and die long before them? Surely that can’t be healthy.” Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at that, then looked to Elena. “That’s a good point. You had humans among you at one point, didn’t you Elena? How did people handle their friends and family growing old and dying while they yet remained.”
Elena bit at her lip, her eyes glistening with moisture as she dredged up old memories. “Not well, but they understood eventually. Some of them took their lives. The rest of us that remained were able to make peace with reality. I’m not sure how real the last half year has felt to them, to be honest. It feels like a dream to me. The Phoenix Clan is so warm, so welcoming, even to strangers. You’ve embraced us, and yet we bring our own complications with us. We need you so much if we are to survive as a people, but you’re right in that we can’t know the implications of what our coming together truly will be until after time has passed. I will not ask for any special treatment for me or my people. We have lived long enough. We will comply with whatever solution you deem fit. I will, however, suggest that any of my people willing to have children with yours should submit to your ways as well. Extend that to their children as well, if they prove to be long lived.”
A solemn mood was cast over the room, with the assembled Council able to see on their individual tablets a chat log from the other Elders who were watching them speak. Tammy hesitated a moment, but spoke. “This feels like the kind of decision a future Council should have to answer, but too many things must happen before we can be sure what to do, but other things need to be decided on now to allow those future things to happen. I think we should try something though. Have Elena remain on the council to look after the needs of her people until she steps down, and let the Old Ones have a chance to raise their own children for now. We don’t know if we’ll be able to feed more people when we get to our new home, so we can probably afford to wait on deciding whether or not they need to sacrifice themselves or not. Their children will still be children like the others, even if they end up living forever, so we have a long time to wait to see how they develop. Maybe the Old Ones will live forever, and their children will only live half that long. I think it would be a shame if we lost them. We should protect them.”
Elena smiled at that, but decided to let the others choose. As Tammy’s proposal came up for vote, she seemed to have the most support out of everyone else’s proposal. Elena elected to not vote, trusting these young Elders to decide for her. If her destiny was to serve as a guide, then that was what she would do. She was also eager to find out if she could have a child of her own, and this conversation had her revisiting that idea for the first time in centuries. In the end, Tammy’s idea won out, and the assembled Elders decided to adopt a modified wait-and-see approach.
Their business wasn’t done, however, as Cindy had something else to bring up, her voice squeaking out. “That Clark woman, thing has been asking me about a lot of strange things. I’ve been consulting with Teitara, but I think the rest of you should know that she has been asking if her mind, such as it is, can be transferred into digital storage. She has also requested that her genome be sequenced and stored as data as well.” Teitara nodded, confirming this, and Elena frowned a bit at this. “She hasn’t said anything to me about this… I wonder what she is up to…” Cindy seemed to have an idea. “She’s been watching Jessica a lot, especially when she uses the old Beta Facility computers. I think she wants access to Tia. If I were to take a guess, she wants to upload her mind and genome to the Ark.”
Elena let out a groan of her own now, her right hand moving to rub at her eyes. “She’s always been willing to sacrifice any part of herself to survive. We should probably table the issue until we can get permission from Tia for such an upload, as well as any data she can provide to actually do it. If she accepts, we should also make sure she isolates whatever upload she gets from her to keep Megan from doing any harm. I’m not even sure Doctor Crenshaw wants someone like that on his crew in the long run anyway. Let’s see what information we can get about it before we decide what to do.” A quick vote turned largely in favor of Elena’s proposal. They seemed to trust her distrust of her long-time assistant.
Elena brought up one last piece of business though. “We should also approve Clint’ request for the construction of another farming car. It’s about time we put my people to work building something and it’ll be a good chance to get some real teamwork done between our peoples.” Once again the ancient woman got a heavily favorable vote. Jessica smiled at that, appreciating Elena helping out her husband. He was a little on the meek side at times. “Well, if that’s all the business we have for now, let’s get some lunch and meet back here in an hour.”
Janelle Mulgrue, a bouncing baby boy, was born March 1st, 2508, AC 375. He was joined by two more half-human hybrids late that same year, and the collective clan embraced them fully. Considering the number of pairings that were tried, they were having about a 1 in 10 success rate with their combination. The remaining Old Ones who had not had their own children calmly and patiently awaited their turns to try again, letting the Council of Thirteen decide when and with whom they would try to have children with. For the moment, the new children seemed to be perfectly normal, if somewhat lighter than their peers. They also ended up having very different birthdays from the normal human children who tended to all be born in May due to the fact that most of the Phoenix Clan breeding happened in early August, allowing the fragile young to avoid having to spend their earliest months in the dead of winter.
The Phoenix Clan managed to get down to Modesto this year, with a great deal of natural terrain features, rivers, and old wreckage getting in their way, particularly as they tried to get through Stockton. They seemed to have a pretty easy shot southeast towards Fresno the next year lined up though, where they planned to gather plenty of resources before they made the journey down to Bakersfield. It was during this journey to Fresno that the caravan had hit a snag. In particular, one early morning in June 2509, the caravan failed to get underway. Specifically, half of it, as a farming car in the middle of that long snake of vehicles failed to move like the ones behind and in front of it.
Investigating the disturbance, a combination of engineers, Old Ones, and scouts approached the car from both sides, most of them armed. Flashlights lit up on the ends of firearms, and the scouts crouched down low to peer beneath the tracked vehicle. At first they only noticed darkness, but soon they saw their lights reflecting off of shiny black spines, and they proceeded to immediately begin opening fire. Thorne shouted over the din of weapons fire. “Don’t let it attack anyone! Watch out!”
The Roach’s back plates and spines deflected most of the heavy slugs harmlessly, though some of its spines snapped right off. It scurried quickly out from under the car and charged one of the groups on one of the sides of the car, straight towards Thorne’s group. “Stun it!” The two Old Ones with him let loose twin arcs of electricity, which attached to the metallic carapace of the Roach quickly, briefly halting its movements, while Vasille Tzen appeared from the other side of the car, having had the scouts on that side launch him up on top of it where he fired on it from the rear. Smoke spilled out from inside the shuddering, creature, and Thorne approached carefully so that he could carefully aim at the joints that joined those huge upper arms to its body and fired into the muscular gaps.
With a pair of loud cracks, the arms totally tore loose from the body, pulling thick, twitching muscle out of the arms which began blackening and smoking from the continuous application of electricity. It seemed that its own seizing strength and the damage to the carapace caused it to break its own arms free with its great weight and strength. With the creature now prone and even more helpless than before, Thorne fired at its neck, trying to sever its head from its body. It took three shots.
“Cease fire! Charge your weapons. Check the other cars for any others. Let’s go!” A quick sweep of the other cars showed no signs of stowaways, and the engineers got to work fixing the very damaged wiring and undercarriage of the farming car. Thorne and Vasille did not seem pleased. “We can’t let this happen again, we can’t let them sneak up on the caravan like this. They might take a person next time. We need to be on better guard.” Vasille was staring at the thing. “It was cold.” Hawthorne looked over to the taller scout. “What do you mean? You couldn’t see it on thermals?”
Vasille shook his head. “Not until we started cooking it, anyway.” Lots of others were starting to gather around, especially the Elders. Elena’s nose wrinkled up at the smell. “Lobster…” The scouts turned to stare at the ancient woman. “It smells like cooked lobster.”
In the mid-summer of 2512, AC 380, the caravan was just starting to leave San Diego to begin heading east to Yuma to store up water at the Colorado River in preparation for crossing the Sonoran desert. They then were on their way to Hermosillo and then the Rio Bavispe river. Binoculars had caught sight of strange things in the near distance, though they remained stubbornly difficult to see as they seemed to respond to being seen by hiding away behind hills, rocks, and ruins. This left the scouts feeling rather uneasy, and even when they went out in the old LSC ATVs, they didn’t manage to find any of their apparent stalkers, at least not at first. They were even instructed to wear headsets to protect their ears should they need to fire the mounted weapons on the ATVs in case they made contact with any enemies.
The electric vehicles were moving in formation across the sand at a pretty leisurely 20mph, heading back to the caravan that was moving towards them, when one of them hit a bump in the sand that hadn’t been there a moment before. It was thrown airborne, the brief, horrible sound of metal scraping on metal and sparks flying everywhere happening in advance of multiple scouts being tossed from the vehicle and the ATV tumbling to a stop. Men and women groaned in pain while the other ATVs turned to converge on their fallen friends. From the sand stood a roach, and then another, and another. An ambush sprung, four roaches loomed before the assembled squad of scouts.
Vasille and Thorne wasted no time in shouting orders. “Fire!” They shouted in unison, and they began to open up on the roaches. The three ATVs that were still upright had their magnetic rail guns powering up while the remaining scouts piled out of their vehicles and started unloading their weapons at the roaches. The fallen scouts scrabbled on their hands and knees back to their friends, grabbing their fallen weapons on the way when they could. The roaches charged forwards, slamming their forwards arms down into the ground, scattering the electrical arcs fired at them briefly while their bodies lunged from side to side to avoid the oncoming slugs fired at them. They appeared to be just about to smash the scrambling scouts before huge booms filled the air.
The mounted weapons on the vehicles caused the sand behind the roaches to explode as they instantly opened up holes in the carapaces of three of them. The shots were fired so quickly that the roaches never had a chance to even see the multi-mach speed rails coming. Shortly after it became clear what the sonic booms from the giant nails plunging through their bodies was capable of as gore and fluids exploded out the entry and exit wounds, as well as several slits down the sides of their bodies which made horrible gurgling sounds as they died. Their insides had been overheated and liquified, firing out of their bodies at high pressure. The fourth roach was subdued with the arc-throwers, and a volley of slugs from a small army of scouts.
Their bodies were too hot to approach too closely, they’d apparently been sunning themselves quite a bit, but a few things had become evident. These roaches were different from the roaches they’d seen before. In the center of their heads, between their two huge black segmented eyes was a single round-looking eye in a socket. It had carapace lids, but its structure looked very similar to a human eye as it stared up at them. There was an abundance of muscular tissue around them, they appeared to be quite moist, and the lids were both very white, as though protecting the orbs from heat. Their smaller middle-limbs also looked different, as the roaches they’d seen before had what looked like hard mittens for hands, these ones had what could only be described as hands. Even their thumbs were more articulated, and their mittens had been replaced with hard fingers covered in thin carapace.
Even their rear legs looked slightly different, mostly around the feet, where they had the beginnings of what looked like toes in the forms of spikes. One of the scouts couldn’t help but speak her mind. “What the fuck?” Thorne grunted and looked over at her. “My thoughts exactly. Let’s get the others out here to examine these things, I think the Council will want to see this.” Vasille saw to radioing in back to base while the rest of the scouts tried to flip the fallen ATV and attend to any injuries. Thankfully they hadn’t been going very fast when they flipped and the shockwaves from the railguns only gave the fallen scouts some minor-to-painful muscle pain and body aches.
T.I.A. found herself having to learn lots of new things as the Phoenix clan uploaded a bunch of new data, in particular a pair of DNA samples they wanted her to analyze and compare with each other. That hadn’t been nearly all of what she’d been asked to look at though, as a few years before she’d been asked to send whatever information she had on brain uploading technology. She’d also been asked to section off part of her data stores specifically for saving the information from just such an upload in a confined area separate from her own systems to avoid data contamination or corruption. It was likely to take quite a while for the people on Earth to be able to make the devices necessary to accomplish the task, but it was still an interesting activity to make a sort of black box she could put data into, but not pull it back out on her own.
The DNA samples both seemed very similar, and quite unlike anything else in her various databases. Granted, she wasn’t exactly designed to do such comparisons, but it wasn’t too complicated for her to check one string of data against other strings of data. It was a little time consuming considering the volume, but it was interesting what she was finding. Late in the winter of 2512, AC 380 she started recording a message to send back to the Phoenix Clan, appearing in a smart-looking doctor’s coat and wearing glasses. The A.I. looked doubtlessly cute masquerading as a doctor.
“Hello there, friends! I’ve been working on the data you sent me and I think I’ve got some interesting stuff to share with you. These things are both related to pre-Cataclysm roaches, though they actually have a lot of sections of DNA that differ greatly from roaches. One of the main sections appears to be from the Crenarchaeota phylum, a type of Archaea that prefers high-temperature environments and processes lots of metallic elements into things like methane. There’s some additional smaller sections of foreign DNA I cannot identify, but I think the most interesting thing is the next bit. There is human DNA in these things, with the newer sample you sent me having more than the first one had. Wherever these things came from, they must have had some capability of incorporating the DNA of other lifeforms. I don’t have any idea where such a thing could have come from.”
T.I.A. frowned, crossing her arms over her chest and shaking her head. “That seems to fall in line with what you sent of their autopsies as well. The brains of the new ones seem slightly larger, probably with enhanced cognitive functions over the ones from before. I would not be surprised if they proved more cunning than the other ones. They sound very dangerous, and should be assumed to be hostile. Please be careful and try to be safe.”
The assembled Council of Thirteen listened in stunned silence as T.I.A. laid out what she’d found. None seemed quite certain what to say at first. Elena sighed and stood up. “I think I have an idea of what they are. There were a lot of different kinds of weapons in development around the world before the Cataclysm. This sounds like some kind of mutator bug, probably a roach modified to eat different lifeforms, steal their traits, and grow bigger and stronger. They might have already been fed certain things in a lab before they were released. It was on short notice, so they probably didn’t have a chance to weaponize them better…”
Jessica shook her head, exasperated. “So these things have been eating whatever they could, including people, which is why these ones are smarter than the ones up north. The cold kept those ones from eating too many people, but since it was warmer to the south, they had more time to break into bunkers and eat people.” Sherry Aaronson stood up and started to exit the room. “I’ll work on making sure we have better lighting at nights, and maybe get some thermal cameras set up around the caravan to watch for these things.” Walter Carlson raised a hand, humming. “We could also try leaving out small piles of metals as bait for them. We’re going to be heading into territory without much in the way of cities soon, so I’d personally rather we not be the only big juicy metal meal around.”
Elena let out a final sigh, sitting back down. “I always hated roaches.”