In the beginning there was darkness and he didn’t yet know that was not an original thought. Later, he might say he woke up or became conscious or opened his eyes for the first time. For now, it was enough to say: he was not and then he was.
He moved automatically, autonomically, and he could see. And he knew he knew what that meant. The facility’s motion sensor’s had triggered the lighting. He heard a clunk and felt a gush of air and knew the air-conditioning system had also kicked in. Light and air. He knew he knew what they were. Later he might say he knew he was alive. But at that time, he knew only that something existed.
That something might have even be him.
When he’d first woken, he’d walked the length of the bunker from the barren lower levels stripped of oxygen, heat and light to the glowing dome full of teeming hordes of life. It was the centre of the facility, this biosphere. This snow globe of the past. This Brave New World with no fascinated anthropologist looking in on it in wonder.
He did not know how it had survived for so many years without intervention. In this, at least, the designers had done their job. The light was artificial, the air recycled, the precipitation, moisture and temperature controlled. But life had flourished while he’d slept. While the people who had retreated here for the world’s ictus, its raptus, its disease that walked and talked and destroyed, were themselves wiped from history with barely a trace.
He’d found no bodies, no evidence of death, no logs or records. Nothing to explain why he woke, alone, so many years later. Not even an atmospheric Croatoan written on the walls. No living descendants running around his feet as he explored the recreation areas; no babies crying in the nursery; no elderly enjoying their retirement in the nursing home. No doctors in the labs or the medical centre or the gleaming, chirping, crying biosphere.
An ark with Noah missing and the animals still in their pens.
The digi-centre was full of names. Names for things. Names for people. Names for places. Names for names. A world of words in a hundred different languages or more. When he first awoke, it was the digital library that he retreated to; his programmed response to stimulus, His Input, Stephanie.
The centre of the facility was the biosphere: that transcendent, city-sized dome of vibrant, chaotic life. But the digi-centre was its mind, its memory. It was the past. His past. The past of those who had touched so lightly upon its surface before dissolving into fragmented video files and digitised records and a joyous cry of being from before. Before the bunker and before now. Before he walked these empty, sterile halls from room to useless, vacant room before sitting, transfixed, as the past spoke to him from a cramped library containing the whole world.
Sometimes he wondered why he bothered maintaining the biosphere: he needed neither the water nor the food, nor the air. But when he walked through the gardens and the greenhouses and saw the budding life and heard the drone of insects in the sweet air, he knew it was something other than logic that motivated his reasoning. Even in the simulated evergreen autumn, life was there. Everywhere.
He found other life comforting. Perhaps this was the real reason he’d wandered so far from the facility. What he’d been searching for when he emerged from that chilled tree of knowledge; its roots snaking into his artificial neurons.
Life. But not just any life. Life that surrounded and included him. Life that he could feel a part of. Life that made him feel that he was alive. Even if he technically wasn’t.
The endless scorched desert beyond the facility, the giant lifeless waves that crashed on empty beaches made him feel only an emptiness. The bush tomatoes, plums and yams in the biosphere were an improvement compared only to that wasteland that awaited him outside this cocoon.
It was the drone of the bees and the clicks of the cicadas that made him feel some small sense of that internal wasteland being populated. Of that need for what he could only call community, even though it was something he had never experienced.
Hours spent in the digi-centre, studying the electronic detritus of all those dead civilisations had taught him this: the insects at least had each other. Even when they slept.
And so while he’d absorbed every scrap of the sap of the human history, from flickering monitors deep underground, he’d ventured more and more upwards to the dome. To life.
To ensure the maintenance of the ecosystems, the facility designers had built in control for ambient temperature, humidity, rainfall and other necessary seasonal changes. He’d found himself most often in the temperate zone: a museum to 21st century Tasmania and Victoria. Cattle and sheep country, although no ruminants had survived. They hadn’t had enough space and their methane emissions were too much for the biosphere scrubbers to handle.
The engineers who had calculated that restriction had seen the irony; although it had taken him longer. Irony, like metaphor, was a skill he’d learned from the voices of the past; muffled in that tiny viewing room.
The tropical zone lurched between a simulacrum of dry savannah and intense rain; though nothing could simulate the driving, blinding monsoon he’d seen in old news reports and read about in novels.
When the dragonflies of the country’s North zipped thickly through the hot, dry air, the cicadas of the alpine region bred and lived and died and their zone was often silent as their larvae lay in the soil awaiting a completely artificial spring.
From the surface, a plane flying overhead would see the solar farm; a massive infrastructure investment the new Australian government had made far too late. The panels disguised the entrances; small huts with lifts from the surface going deep underground.
The panels also obscured the vents for the bunker’s piece de resistance, the ventilation system that allowed clean, fresh air to circulate around the building and the pipes that pumped water through the walls as a part of a natural air-conditioning system.
Of course, the world was still full of planes but there were no more pilots. He wondered if the remaining people found their way into hangers and airports and approached these giant machines as the Apes once viewed the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001.
Maybe they stripped them for metal or leather or tools. Maybe they worshipped them as some sort of post-hoc cargo cult. Or maybe they just destroyed them in fear. Maybe they never developed curiosity about those hangers at all.
The Cicada in his habitat explored his world. Why wouldn’t they? The descendants of those who made it to the moon?
That moon that still hung in a sky of stars unchanging as below it everything changed. So quickly. Sometimes he’d spend days just looking at the satellite feed.
Those satellites: still recording, still transmitting, still communicating in the star-streaked sky about his head, his bunker, his Earth, his sky. Like him, they stood sentinel. Alone. They were his link to a world separated from him by distances so vast that one being alone could not cross it.
There was a small community in what was left of Tasmania: rural, dysfunctional, violent. Empty, icy buildings where the failed attempts at Antarctic colonisation went horribly, brutally wrong. A seemingly-idyllic mountain community in Canada that he had watched wiped out by disease in a post-antibiotic world. A few nomadic war-like tribes in what was once Siberia.
A clan of Berbers in Morocco with access to one of the world’s greatest solar farms. If it wasn’t for the panels providing light, heat and cooling, you’d think they were simply going about their Berber lives as if time had not touched them in 2000 years. A tiny human society on Socotra: the home of Dragon Trees and sun-blasted dusty settlements drowned nearly to the mountains by the ocean. Supporting 1,000 peaceful, gentle people concerned with the natural patterns of life.
And so inbred by now they too were on the verge of extinction.
The satellites were a comfort but they did not make him God. He was not-all seeing and, despite the vast resources of the digi-centre, not all-knowing either. There were others, he was sure. Extinction was a journey. And they had stretched to every corner of the Earth before it all came crashing down.
Surely Africa – vast and varied – had huddled masses cowering in its bright heart and not just on a tiny island off the coast of Yemen. Not that the word ‘Yemen’ meant anything anymore.
Surely there were more in the endless vastness that was still Australia, even as an ocean carved its way through the continent and the edges crumbled to the sea.
But still, surely. Surely. Surely.
He needed maintenance but neither food nor sleep and he sometimes found days, weeks, months had passed while he tracked satellite after satellite; watching them slide into range, download their precious cargo of images into his servers and then sorting and reviewing them while that space sentinel moved along his path again.
Spy satellites, communication satellites, Google satellites, NASA climate satellites that still sent back the invaluable climate data to which few had cared to pay attention. Unaware, as satellites were, of the irony of their continued efforts in a failed endeavour.
NASA had, before its defunding by the North American Theocratic Orthodoxy, loaded 3D printers on the satellites allowing them (and now him) to repair them remotely.
Once he was no more, there would finally be nobody. They would be alone. And then they would fall. And then all of it really would be gone.
Sometimes he thought about that thought. The thought of nothingness. Would be welcome or fear it? Could his logic circuits handle the ambiguity of ambivalence? The neural net that simulated these emotions, could it handle the too-human desire for annihilation accompanied by the terror of it? Or would he eventually crawl back into that dirt bed comforted by the notion that he could be reactivated – even if he never was.
He walked slowly through the biosphere, the cicadas clicking and buzzing around him and wondered if they too contemplated the horror and release of death in their final moments. It was the one thing his study, his determined knowledge seeking would never tell him. He could learn everything minute aspect about the insects around him but it would never be enough. True understanding would elude him.
Before the bunker, cicadas could not be bred or studied in captivity. Entomologists spent hours, days, weeks, years in the field studying the different species in their natural habitats Some species spent 15 years or more as nymphs buried in homes underground, invisible to those of us trampling about above.
The greengrocer was the most numerous and he had time. All he had was time. The adult greengrocer cicada lived in adult form for only six weeks but its nymphal stage lasted between six or seven years. He had sat in the biosphere for those first few weeks, transfixed by the swarms of insects; males buzzing in the artificial day as they sang for a mate.
After mating, they’d laid their eggs and he’d watched them hatch into nymphs and burrow into the ground until the time came to emerge. He’d then waited avidly till the next October when their cousins would emerge; studying them in detail before they too moved their lives underground.
He’d had years to wait until that first brood he’d studied re-emerged but each new spring brought forth a chittering community: males vibrating their tymbals to attract a mate. He’d managed to catch one or two and observe the contracting muscles resound through the membrane and then click as they fell back into place.
He’d sat in the greenhouse for hours, days, weeks that whole month of November as his brood lived out their short, sharp lives, mated and died and their progeny slithered under the soil to rise again. And he’d sat in the facility for weeks, months, years, while other generations clicked and hissed around him. Waiting for that brood; those children of children to re-emerge.
But as he stood in the chilled frost of a manufactured autumn with six months to go to their re-emergence, he heard a chirp.
One cicada, out of time. Letting out a long series of lonely echoing calls for a mate that would never come.
He called the cicada Stranger.
The chorus of the greengrocer sounded like a high-pitched perpetual vibrating buzz of sounds; a wall of white noise that hit his manufactured eardrums like a rotating saw. Alone, Stranger’s call was an irritating intermittent siren. A mournful, hopeful, hopeless song that begged a question no one would ever ask.
Every night Stranger called but no one answered. There was no one there.
He wondered what it would be like to go back to the past and see the world’s chaotic hotspots: Buenos Aires, Rio, Delhi, Calcutta, Beijing. Through poverty and out the other side of privilege to sex, drugs and the resort comfort of the rich. Margueritas on the beaches of South America, martinis overlooking the slums of India. So far from his baking, brown and red Australian home: one of the few squares of this Earth almost unchanged by the soaring temperatures, rising seas and saline soils. Already nearly uninhabitable before the transition and a perfect place for the shining fields of solar panels that had made his existence possible. The Australian sun: even hotter than it was before.
After he’d woken and before he had Stranger to talk to, he’d gone to the surface and walked for weeks hoping to find something other than sand and dust, and scurrying, burrowing reptiles and rodents hiding in the dirt from that persistent, perpetual cloudless heat.
No trees. No shade. No clouds. No rain. A panel paradise. A human hell.
He could have kept walking, nearly did, to the coastal zone; the former home of millionaire’s homes, the focus of thriving cities and industries, the industrial waste dump of human history.
But he couldn’t bear the thought of more soaring, empty beauty and so had turned back to his basement home. No one in front of him to pull him forward. Only the past whispering to him from the digi-centre. The past calling him from behind as he moved ever further into the future. Time.
If he fell, there was no one behind to catch him. Day after Day. Time after Time. Like Stranger, he found himself talking over and over and waiting for a response that never came.
Time was both something he had too much of and something he was losing with every day. Each new blazing, hidden dawn above the miles of concrete, reinforced beams and experimental biospheres taking him away from the life the planet had shrugged off in self defence. Time.
He’d read every piece of literature he could get his hands on. Every play, every novel, every novella, short story. Even every Wikipedia entry in every language from the Internet Archive Project of 2022.
The cicadas of central eastern Australia and A web guide to the cicadas of Australia by L. W. Popple he’d absorbed in a day; learning the old colloquial name for the Cyclochila australasiae cicadas in the biosphere. The Greengrocer. Yellow Monday: the same species but a different colour, Redeye (Psaltoda moerens), Cherrynose (Macrotristria angularis) and Floury Baker (Abricta curvicosta); the latter of which was listed in the records as being in the biosphere but of which he’d found no sign.
Why had it died out when the others had flourished? He would never know. According to Popple it had demonstrated the unusual behaviour of sitting upside down on trees. He would have liked to have seen that. He would have liked to have seen a lot of things.
He read Kafka and Marsden and Wyndham and Ben Okri and Orhan Pamuk and Lu Xun and Vikram Seth and Marx and Confucius and watched 3,452 cat videos. And then he got the 1,943 joke references to cat videos in popular television from the early 21st century. Or what he assumed was popular television. What he had was what was archived. The rest was lost.
What else besides the Floury Baker had skipped through history’s cracks? At least it was listed on the facility’s manifest. What million other things had been lost to time? Another smear in the technological Permian layer that had now been added to this planet’s geological history. A layer of sludge and permanent plastic. The Athropocene. The Great Dying.
He wanted to see this beautiful jumble of humanity for himself. Somewhere like Bangkok. Locals, tourists, expats all streaming through night markets, night clubs, shopping centres, restaurants and temples. A beautiful, laughing, despairing mass of people; oblivious and happy and sad and alive. Live in 3D. In Sensurround. With Dolby Atmos and 48 frames per second.
He’d met only one person in his long, short life. His name was the Doctor and he’d spoken to him only a few times before his life in storage. The Doctor: his father, creator, progenitor. In his image and all those things. No police box. No sonic screwdriver. Just an engineer with a dream and a dwindling research budget. The Doctor hadn’t named him. Just tinkered, given up and moved on; placing him apparently in the storage unit from which he’d originally awoken. He would never know why the man whose face he bore felt him so unworthy.
He’d named the Cicada. A silly name like the humans would have.
Stranger the Cicada. The poor, lonely Stranger.
The past was perhaps another country but the future was another universe. And one he could go to by himself – all he had to do was wait.
The crate in the storage area was the future in one long second of unconsciousness. We travelled forward without any effort at all.
The past, however. The past was forever unreachable.
All he could do now was chirp and hope that one day, someday somebody chirped back.