Generations had passed since man's ascendancy into the stars. The descendants of the first people to escape the softly glowing blue and green orb revolving along its death spiral could scarcely remember the name of the obscure planet that had facilitated the birth of their species.
City sized ships called Zimbras, designed and built by a company simply known as Singularity, had ferried thousands of passengers on one-way trips to distant worlds.
Man's exodus into space had resembled the stampeding of a panicked herd, fleeing certain death. Many of the Zimbra's never made it to their destination. Some collided with asteroids creating colossal balls of fire which swallowed up 100,000 souls as quickly as the vacuum of space swallowed the explosion itself. Others fell victim to faulty programming; somewhere in the stream of algorithms a number went missing, and the computers failed to guide the Zimbra and its passengers anywhere except into the eternal empty void of space. Some crashed moments after the roaring engines carried them to the edge of the sky. The glow of the after burn following behind the ship would sputter and disappear, and the doomed Zimbras would plunge back to Earth.
The explosions rained burning debris across the Earth's surface, igniting fires that burned across continents, fed by the ship’s reservoir of toxic fuel. Some ships survived the perilous journey only to crash attempting to land on their perspective new homes.
When the journeys were successful humanity's arrival was heralded by the screaming of the titanium towers burning through the atmosphere. The descending towers deployed nuclear-powered drill bits with radii measured in miles. The rotating bits stabbed into the surface below connecting the ship to the planet the way a virus connects to a host cell. The Zimbra, perched on it's gigantic pillars towered over the surrounding landscapes. The atomic engines burnt massive craters into the ground, the nuclear fire forever poisoning the land scorched by its flames.
Society aboard the Zimbras reflected their design, a group’s rank was represented in the level of the towering structure it occupied. The most powerful and affluent families lived at the summit of the towers. On planets hospitable enough to allow the inhabitants to leave the confines of the ship, rows of uniform rectangular dwellings spread across the surrounding area, and the populations grew to fill these new lands.
The lords of the Zimbra used these outside areas to house all who weren't immediately essential to maintaining their microcosm. The new worlds where the exiles found themselves received the same treatment as their original celestial home.
Soon the growing human populations that poured out from Zimbras became too much for the worlds to bear, and humanity's insatiable appetites left them depleted, barren and poisoned. It was at this pivotal juncture a man barely 50 years old found himself the proprietor of a Zimbra on a planet astronomers had dubbed XE81G, but which its new caretakers arrogantly called Athens.
It was a small planet about half the size of Venus, covered almost entirely by water. Its sole geographic entity was a single hook-shaped continent comparable to the size of Australia. Michael Designine had inherited control of the Zimbra after his father, Michael Sr. died. He shared the decision-making process with a small council, comprised of the heads of two other families, but for all intents and purposes his word was law on the Zimbra.
The distribution of power aboard a Zimbra was based on the rather simple principle of who invested how much to have it built. The Designine family had been the top contributors, followed closely by his wife's family the Xialai's. The dynastic tradition had proved extremely durable and had followed humanity into the stars. A living relic from a world long since passed that seemed as though it would live as long as it's human stewards did. Michael was of the fourth generation of Designines born on Athens, which made him de facto lord of the planet, but today he faced a question that should be reserved only for a god.
“You're asking if I want to initiate Harmony protocols?” Michael asked.
“Unfortunately, the analysis run by Olduvai systems show that the population of Athens has exceeded the optimum range for sustainability,” the congenial, though somewhat disconcerting disembodied female voice said. “To ensure the habitability of Athens, Olduvai has determined Harmony protocols must be put into effect.”
The Zimbras spanned out across the galaxy creating a network with Olduvai as its center. Every bit of data recorded by a Zimbra’s sensors was transmitted back to Olduvai creating a real-time data feed that monitored every aspect of life on any given planet. The AI acted as the representative of Singularity on Olduvai and as an adviser to the people making the decisions inside the Zimbra. It was also a means by which Singularity could monitor the stewards of the great ships.
Michael leaned forward in his chair, “and just how many people over the range are we?” “Current estimates put overpopulation at approximately 147,000,” the voice replied.
“So 147,000 people would have to die for us to achieve stability is what you're saying?” Michael asked
“ 147,000 need to be subtracted from the current sum of human activity,” the voice answered, “failure to do so will lead to ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and destruction of the food chain. This will result in mass starvation and possible armed conflict.”
Michael’s father had designed this meeting room as a window to the outside world. He believed the view of the sprawling masses below put their role as rulers into perspective. Michael got up from his chair and walked over to the large observation windows overlooking the vast continent laid out before him.
It was rare he ever took a look at the world that lay just beneath his feet, and it was even more rare that he contemplated the lives of the people of that world. Through their long family tradition the Designine's handed down the story of the Zimbra on New Eden that had been taken over and destroyed. It’s owners brutally killed by hungry swarms. He used to have nightmares inspired by the tale as a child, the terrors of which were permanently etched into his mind, and any reminder brought them back out of his subconscious in vivid detail.
It played in his mind's eye like a movie. He could see the miles of fires started by the mad mobs as they converged on the Zimbra. He could see the masses of emaciated bodies storming the doors below as they looked up to the summit with hungry eyes, a hunger that could only be satiated by murder. He could hear the collective howl of the horde, and it demanded death. In the final act, he could hear their footsteps echoing through the levels of the Zimbra below him as they free scurried through the confines of the Zimbra on the hunt for him and his family. Only when the last barrier between him and the marauders had been broken through, and he was looking up at the silhouettes of the monsters created by the specter of desperation did he wake up. Just before they could descend upon him.
He always reminded himself it was only a dream, but what happened on New Eden even if it had been an isolated incident was a constant reminder that the nightmare could one day spring forth a reality.
“What about trying some more gradual measures like birth control programs, things of that nature,” suggested Tarsan saving Michael from his invading thoughts.
“Or maybe just limited famine,” Halifax chimed in.
“Could we create a limited famine?” asked Michael.
“I think just a few 'accidents' in our food production facilities could make that possible,” Halifax replied.
“Would those be viable options?” asked Michael looking up as he addressed the omnipotent voice. “Olduvai cannot endorse or guarantee half measures on issues of population control. The projected timeline shows these measures could not be effective at this point.”
The three men silently looked at each other, and Tarsan threw up his arms and sighed. “What can we do?”He muttered. Michael and Tarsan shared a nod, then looked over at Halifax and all silently nodded again, a consensus seemed to had been reached. There was only one voice that had remained silent this whole time. Feng Xialai the father of Michael's wife.
He sat in a small chair near the back of the room. He was 89 and only a few weeks away from 90. He was a quiet man who only attended these meetings as a kind of formality, and possibly just because it was a habit his dementia ravaged mind clung to.
His late wife had only given him a daughter, who married into the Designines, leaving him to watch his dynasty dissolve. He didn't seem to be much interested in how things were run, only in living out his final days in a quiet solitude with occasional visits with his daughter and his grandchildren. “What do you think Feng?” Michael asked. Upon hearing his name, his head lifted up as if he were being awakened from a nap. His small, frail frame was obscured by shadows, and he strained to have his voice carry to the other side of the room. “Olduvai knows all Michael.” That was all he added.
Michael didn't respond right away. He had long suspected Feng had checked out mentally. Very well, Athens requests Olduvai initiate harmony procedures.”
“Olduvai acknowledges.Harmony is initiated. Desired results should be achieved in approximately 6-8 weeks time. Gentleman, you have saved your planet.”
“I guess it doesn't much matter now, but what do you gentlemen think about what we have done?” Michael asked.
Tarsan sighed, “Well when a problem only has one solution, no how matter much you may not like that answer it is the only one you have, so it is the right one.”
Michael didn't answer he turned and looked back out the window. The light from the setting sun had filled the room with its’ orange glow. “What is 147,000 in the grand scheme of things?” muttered Michael. And on that note the meeting adjourned.
That night Michael made sure his family took a meal together. His father had always made a point to have one meal a week with his family. It was a very human custom going back further than anyone could really appreciate, and very little about it had changed. Members of the immediate family gathered at a table for small talk between bouts of chewing. Michael suspected it was an instinct of some kind or at least a derivation of an instinct. Michael wondered how many eons would go by before the instincts that come with being planetary exiles and interstellar nomads began to manifest themselves. He wondered if there would even be a memory of arriving on this new world, or would their descendants live in the cloud of a collective amnesia as they had back on Earth?
His oldest son Ellis's voice ground his train of though to a sudden halt, “Sophia's dad says you guys put harmony into effect today” he commented casually.
Michael immediately stopped chewing. He was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said as resumed chewing. “Halifax you fucking idiot,”.he growled inside his head. “What did he say about it?” Michael asked trying to seem indifferent.
“I don't know, we just overheard him, I think he said like 140,000 people are going to die or something,” his son said with a shrug. Michael didn't reply. “Why'd you guys decide to do that?”
“We're a little bit over-populated. Olduvai told us it was the best course of action,” Michael answered.
“Dad, where is Olduvai?” Ellis asked.
“Hmmm, I'm not quite sure,” Michael answered.
“How do they know we're over- populated?” Ellis asked.
“Well all the sensors and monitors on the Zimbra send a feed of all the information they collect to Singularity computers on Olduvai.” Said Michael. “Is 140 thousand a lot to be over,” Meixiu asked.
“It’s enough I suppose,” Michael answered as he looked down at his plate.
“I learned in school that you can get 140,000, just by multiplying 100 and 14 together,” Michael's youngest son Isao chimed in.
“You mean 100 and 14,000,” Meixiu corrected him.
“I didn't want to do it, but we didn't really have another choice,” Michael interrupted.
“Ah, it's not that many Dad, I read there's over 2.13 million people on Athens, 140,000 will barely make a dent.” the naive young Ellis assured him.
“Yeah, Yeah I suppose so” muttered Michael.
The Zimbra was equipped with special population control mechanisms, essentially a network of bio-mechanical nano- weapons. On Michael's command an invisible swarm of nanobots, each carrying only micrograms of the chemical death solution descended on the unsuspecting population. Oblivious to the fate the four men at the summit of the tower had decided for them.
Insulated from the world beyond the Zimbra's walls, the so-called Command Committee never witnessed the destruction that followed in the wake of the AI directed plague. The Zimbra was a cocoon that shielded them to the quick breakdown of the society they presided over with the same difference as children over an ant farm. They were blind to the fundamental breaks that had occurred. The very foundations of civilized life on Athens quickly dissolved Facing inevitable doom, a mass psychosis took hold. Security and order quickly dissolved into Darwinian brutality.
It wasn't until the Zimbra itself began to quake from the spreading chaos outside that anyone at the top of they die Zimbra knew something had gone terribly wrong. The storm had not been evident until it was upon them. When Michael saw the swarm illuminated by the sea of fire that trailed closely behind them he fell to his knees. Everything was gone, and he had no means left at his disposal to attempt a restoration of any kind. The automated defense grid was quickly overrun and as the first of the marauders entered the Zimbra he knew His nightmare had come to life. He did the only thing he could think of and called out, as helpless as a child, to the Zimbra computer, “What happened! “You said only 147,000 people would die!”
“There were complications,” the computer replied calmly.
“What the hell do you mean complications,” Michael hissed, “They're coming to kill us all!” Michael fell to his knees.
“Please remain calm and follow my instructions carefully,” the computer told Michael.
“Please, anything! Just help us get out of here,” he cried out to the interface.
“Your SPORES are ready to launch. Please gather your family and make your way to the departure point.”
“Where are we going?” Michael pleaded.
“You and your family are being evacuated to Olduvai as per your agreement with Olduvai headquarters.”
“What about the other families and our staffs?”
“They are being briefed as we speak. Please Mr. Designine, there isn't much time.”
Michael nodded “Thank you,” he said as he ran from the room.
Ellis awoke, everything in the room rattling as the walls shook from the explosions below. He rolled over and clenched his eyes shut trying to ignore the noise, but the walls continued to quake. Ellis sat up, “what the hell is going on,” he muttered.
He lived through a superstorm that lasted for five months, 500 mile per hour winds and soccer ball sized hail pummeled the Zimbra for five months. Just the roar of the thunder made the entire Zimbra tremble enough to make Ellis think the walls would be torn open.
He dismissed his fears as childish. With a bang and a flash, the room suddenly was consumed by a blinding white light. Ellis shielded his eyes with his hands as the light receded the room dimmed, and his eyes adjusted.
“Ellis, listen carefully and remain calm,” said the Zimbra's invisible AI.
All the pretty scenery that danced across his walls and kept the insulated boy serene had vanished. The floor rocked beneath his bed, and the ceiling lights came on piercing his sleep weary eyes.
“Ellis, evacuation protocols are in effect, please quickly but calmly make your way to your family's designated SPORE,” said the disembodied voice.
“Huh,” grunted Ellis. The door slid open, and his father rushed in. “Dad what's going on?” asked Ellis.
“We have to go right now,” his father said grimly.
The Designine children, born inside the isolated oasis, had never seen the world beyond their digitally crafted illusions. The very walls of their artificial habitat inside the Zimbra were designed to display only what the family wanted to see. When they were forced to abandon their home, the illusion suddenly vanished leaving only white translucent walls woven from fiber optics. For the first time, they were able to see the hollow edifice for what it was.
The Designines and nine other families escaped the planet in time. 236 people out of 2.1 million. They took flight inside SPORES; cargo ships converted into comfortable living spaces equipped with automated life systems, titanium cocoons that could support the inhabitants inside. The Designines huddled together and followed their patriarch aboard the ship like bleating sheep following their shepherd.
They discovered the same omnipotent artificial intelligence also dwelled within the circuitry of the SPORE. “Designine family you are being transported to a safe location on Olduvai.”
“What are we supposed to do when we get there? What about my father?! Where Is he?! Tell me he's safe! “ Meixiu cried up to the ceiling, presumably where she thought the voice was coming from.
"Your father is presently boarding a SPORE and will be on his way to Olduvai. I will work to establish contact as soon as I can.”
A visibly shaken Meixiu fell silent, her long ebony hair covered her flushed face.
“You and your family will be provided with new accommodations. Your friends and associates are being evacuated. They will be given new homes. Things should be just as much as before,” the machine assured her, “This Spore is set on auto pilot, the journey should take approximately two Earth years. Suspended animation facilities are available aboard the craft should you so choose,” the icy voice informed them.
With a burst of fire, the SPORE launched itself into the waiting nothing. The course was inalterable. The family inside again found itself at the mercy of coding. It was a condition they had grown used to, and as they raced into the great unknown of the cosmos they took solace in thinking the processor and those who built it had thought of everything. It hardly came as a surprise that the rats deserting the ship were completely oblivious to this latest repetition of history.
Seldom did anyone aboard a SPORE mention their families and their exodus from the world they had left in ruins. The Designines were no different.
Meixiu Designine opted for the family not to go into suspended animation. She was well aware of the flaws in the technology and the potential danger to her and her family. Auto feeding systems could fail leading to starvation, muscle stimuli regiments could cease leading to atrophy.
Suspended animation was only steps away from death. Those who had gone through it said it was a dreamless sleep. The last thing they saw was the door closing, then nothing until they were awoken from their artificial slumber.
Every hour that passed was propelling them ever further into the abyss, the empty black space was a fixed image in the portholes and soon a routine began to take shape. Only this time they were all alone. They had no social circles, no external distractions and nowhere to go. Thier lives were regimented by algorithms.
Everything was provided to them by the ships automated life systems. They weren’t conscious of it but when they ate, slept, the very rhythm of their lives was according to the programming of the ship's AI.
Meixiu spent most of her time alone. For the first time, she realized as a mother she was completely obsolete. She was left with nothing but time to contemplate the uncertain future, and those thoughts became like a spider's web wrapped around her heart. When those lonely hours began to add up to days, she began to reconsider suspended animation.
“But you were the one against it, remember, you kept saying how dangerous it was,” Michael said.
“I know, I know” replied Meixiu . “but is this anyway for our children to be living? It’s not healthy for them to be crammed into this little ship with no friends and no social interaction whatsoever. Michael, they're children, these are their formative years, we can't let them be like this.”
“Is it somehow better for a child's development to be in a coma?” Snapped Michael.
“You're exaggerating,” replied Meixiu.
“You said it yourself Meixiu , anything can go wrong. We might go into those little chambers and never come back out,” Michael reminded her.
“I know, but I think I may have been overreacting,” said Meixiu . “The chances of that happening are extremely minimal.
“Minimal enough?” Michael said with a tone of skepticism.
"It just isn't fair Michael, it isn't fair to make our children live lives like these. These are their formative years. They'll go crazy without any friends. And just think of Ellis's, he's at that age, what's he going to do without any girls to talk to, or any friends? He had Sophia back on Athens, now he has no one. How will he ever have a chance to carry on another relationship with the opposite sex if he spent two years of his adolescence in space? Or what about Isao what if he can never be socialized?”
Michael didn't answer. Meixiu wrapped her arms around her husband. “This gives them a chance she whispered. It's not taking time away from them its just putting it on hold.”
Ellis awoke from his sleep in the darkness of the suspended animation chamber. It was almost like time travel, the doors had closed and he had awoken two years in the future as if time had taken a sudden leap. “Hello, Ellis,” the same familiar AI voice whispered throughout the chamber. “Welcome to Olduvai.” The door to the chamber door opening was accompanied by the hiss of decompressing air.
Having not moved in almost two years, it took Ellis's a great deal of effort to step out of the chamber. Luckily the support systems had worked, and his muscles had not atrophied. Even the dim lighting of the ship's interior was too much for his retinas that had not been exposed to light since the chamber door closed.
His vision blurred, and he squinted. He could make out the figures of his mother, father, and younger brother embracing each other just ahead of him. “Ellis come here!” his father called. The enthusiasm in his father's voice put Ellis at ease. He stumbled over to his family and joined in their embrace. “Designine family, welcome to Olduvai.” The AI voice reverberated through the facility.
“Oh, thank you,” replied Michael.
“When will we get to a bed? I know its been two years, but I'm exhausted,” Meixiu joked. The family laughed together.
“We will begin the final descent as soon as the landing terms have been agreed to,” the AI said. “Landing terms?” repeated Michael.
“Yes, your relocation and resettlement has come at a considerably high cost to Singularity, and the cost of sheltering and sustain you and the other families from Athens is quite high as well. Singularity is asking for certain concessions as compensation.” “And what would those be?” a now suspicion Michael inquired.
“Singularity asks for the mineral rights to Athens as well as sole stewardship over everything produced by the production facilities connected to the Athens Zimbra. Singularity also asks that all those being invited into Olduvai enter into an indefinite labor agreement. In exchange, you and your family, as well as the family of your colleagues and staffs will be resettled on Olduvai.” Michael's eyes widened, and his face became flushed. The euphoria of living through the journey had melted into rage from this arm twisting deal. “And what if we refuse,” he hissed.
“Those who refuse will not be permitted to land on Olduvai and all life support systems provided to the craft by Singularity's systems will be terminated."
The emotionless voice answered. Micheal understood the ramifications of refusing the offer. He and his family would be left to starve in their SPORE. The celestial lifeboat would become their tomb. “Dad, we don't have to do this,” Ellis pleaded, “fuck what Singularity says.” Michael didn't answer. He knew Ellis's youth made him think death for him was next to impossible, and he knew that was the only alternative to agreeing to become Singularity's slaves. “Alright, I consent,” he muttered. “Michael don't!” Meixiu shrieked. “What do you want me to do?!” He shouted back at his terrified family.
“Final descent will begin momentarily,” the AI informed them.
Michael and his family sat in silence as their SPORE carried them towards to their fate. It wasn't until now that Michael realized his rule over the Zimbra and Athens had all been an illusion. The veil had slipped away, and now Michael saw what he had been this whole time. Singularity had been in control all along and the AI he had trusted the lives of his family to had been their agent, vying its time, just waiting to trap them.
Now the computer was informing them in its cold and sterile language they would spend what remained of their days as the property of Singularity.
As the family silently contemplated their fate. Ellis looked out the viewing port. He saw a sea of SPORES identical to their own floating silently in Olduvai's orbit.They had once been lords of their worlds too. Now they all shared the same fate. The old gods had fallen, they had grown too comfortable in the illusions of power, and now they would find themselves the same as the people who had once lived beneath their feet.