"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!"
- William Shakespeare
The world turned as it had for over four-and-a-half billion years. A blue-green jewel in the fastness of space, garlanded by glittering trinkets mimicking the artistic rings of Saturn, swaddled in water, ice and the earthy greens and browns of life. Days and seasons passed as they always had, long before man even acknowledged that he was living on a spinning ball of rock but, imperceptibly, slower with each passing year as the solar system, the universe, wound down its clock.
The Earth turned, the moon circled, the sun burned and, above it all, watchful eyes gazed down upon it as it moved along it’s ancient clockwork, marking time, oblivious to everything that happened on it and above it. A humble rock, a mere speck in the universe, humbling in its insignificance, even though it might be the birthplace of wonders.
Around and above it swung The Perch, one of many glittering webs that encircled it, girdling it wither glittering gossamer, crawling with metallic and crystalline shapes, festooned with strange looking pods, pregnant with possibility. It shifted and waved in the invisible breeze, keeping its shape, its position, marching in perfect lock-step with its kin around the equator of the planet, humming with energy and voices, flowing with data, whole libraries of information – more than had ever been written on paper by mankind – every second. This was now, with The Perch dying, withering, winding down, ending its life in one last effort, fulfilling its ultimate and final purpose.
Between The Perch and the planet hung a smaller jewel, a crystal egg, studded with holes, lenses, prickled with spines, breaking apart into plates and contracting back together as it turned, great butterfly fields of magnetism projecting from it like wings, barely discernable aurora rippling across them in rainbow streams as energy coruscated through. Though mechanical the motions were hesitant, uncertain, random but not random, it fluttered, twitched, trembled like a leaf and then settled, momentarily, fixing itself upon the planet below.
Gregoria twitched her body around to catch the last light of the sun as it vanished behind the Earth, streaming particles captured by the scintillating fields of her wings and energising her, ready for her nightly vigil, the same as she had performed day after day, night after night for scores of years. She could have followed the sun, she could have filled the sky with sensors and retreated to the day side to bask and watch but she felt keeping to the days kept her in contact with the planet, with those she observed. She looked down as the Earth went dark her vision moving through the different spectra, picking up the heat dissipating from the land into the night sky, retained by the oceans, the wind changing direction along the coasts, whorls of wind and the dim, feeble light of the few remaining settlements on the surface as they grew warm and the world grew cool.
She blinked and the surface jumped instantly closer, the darkness cut through by her optics, grabbing what feeble light there was and boosting it until the land was almost as bright as day, the colours strange, artificial, software imposed but not quite a match, turning it dreamlike, Technicolor, like watching an archive.
The land slowly began to resolve itself, detail leaping into clarity as she concentrated. Forests covered so much of the land now and grew every year, an endless tide of fluffy green that blurred across so much of the continent, blending it into homogeny, so much so that even she lost her position for a moment and had to check the coordinates and correct herself from her internal records.
Her vision swung and centred on the village, her favourite, here at least the trees were clear and it lay alongside one of the old roads, now in disrepair but still cutting a thin ribbon through the dense forest. Her eye tracked across the orchards, the fields, the barns and the houses, picking out the little white glows of the people as they moved about their evening’s business, closing up the farms and the houses and settling in for the night by their hearths.
She felt a surge of emotion for these people as she watched them go about their simple lives, tending fields, raising children, chopping wood, lighting fires, all as the species had – somewhere on the world below – for longer than recorded history. They had come so far, so fast from these humble beginnings and looking down on these simple folk it was hard to believe it had ever been accomplished.
She clamped down on that emotion, hard. It was nostalgia for something she’d never experienced, unworthy, patronising. For all the charm they had, for all the curiosity that they engendered, for all the wonder that they held for her – obsessed as she was with the past – she couldn’t let herself be lost in this emotional attachment. After so many years things were about to change again, to become so very, very different, she didn’t want to be left behind as they had been, not for emotion, not for any reason.
As she pulled her vision back and turned herself towards the glittering structure of The Perch, Akamai coasted close to her, surfing the field lines until he came within a few hundred metres. Completely unnecessary to talk to her but he was respecting her peculiar obsessions, as he always did – making himself physically present before he spoke, it made her smile.
“Gregoria, are you watching your pets again?” He asked, flashing humour as he brought himself to a halt, mimicking her watchful, synchronous orbit over the world below.
“It still seems a shame to me…” She trailed off, her signal wavering with mild distress as images from her years of study welled up from her memory and overwhelmed her. She’d argued her case but she was, finally, after so many years, the only one that still even thought about staying. They’d been over this a million times.
“We’ve done everything we can for them, they’ll have a good start and a lot of help if they ever decide to follow us, but we can’t stay here any longer, so… confined.” He spread his wings for emphasis, her senses fluttering in the surge of magnetic power, gleaming in her senses like the shimmer of oil on water. He could be so dramatic and the solar system still seemed big enough to her, not confining, not in the least.
“We owe them more, we come from them, we were them, we still are them in some ways. We wouldn’t be here without them.” She knew the argument was feeble, that the race’s conscience had been salved by what they had done for their cousins already – and for the future – but even now, with most of their companions and The Children gone, she felt she had to argue, the last hold out, the last protesting voice.
“Even you can’t stay here forever Gregoria.” He said, softly, caressing her field lines with his own, feeding her power, soothing her, realising her tension and distress. “Sooner or later we have to let them go. We have to let them find their own way without us watching over them all the time, just as we’ll have to let The Children go eventually. You can’t be everybody’s mother. We have to trust them to take care of themselves now, if they can.”
She shrugged him away, pushing his drifting form back towards The Perch until he brought himself back to a halt with a pulse of energy, radiating frustration at her rebuff.
“They’ve been my field of study for over a century Akamai, it’s hard to let go. There’ll be plenty of stars for you to look at where we’re going. What will I do with the aeons to come? I need to say goodbye to them. I need something to sustain me while we travel. Can you understand that? That it’s hard for me to let go? That I don’t want to be bored for eternity? I don’t want to retrain or reprogram, they define who I am, they’re what I’m… for.” She finished, limply, drawing in on herself, coiled, a foetal ball in the dark, pulling back her fields, spinning blindly over the planet below, cutting out the chatter of the grid and leaving only a feeble line open to him. A lifetime of data and observations and it still wasn’t enough to light the gulf between the stars.
“I understand Gregoria, more than most of us, I think, I understand you. If you need to say goodbye then go and see them one last time, but they haven’t changed so long as we’ve been away from them and there’s less of them every generation. Whether you stay here or not, this story is probably over. We’ve done all we can, it’s time to look to ourselves, The Children and the universe. That’s where our real responsibility lies now. There are more, newer things to learn about, the past is exhausted, there’s nothing left there to mine. Go if you need to, see them, but come back to us and come with us, I don’t want to leave you behind.”
She listened to his speech and smiled again, cracking her shell just a little, widening the band to talk to him. “You said I, not we…” She mocked him, bringing her fields back up and entangling them with his, power sparking between them, shared back and forth with affection.
“You know I’m fond of you.” He was gruff now, irritated, always liking to project the image of the dispassionate scientist, the observer, the expert, emotion made him fretful, made him make mistakes in his speech, it was… ‘cute’
“Then wait for me, we’ll leave together, you can say goodbye to your sun and I will say goodbye to my ‘pets’. Deal?”
“Deal.” He answered grudgingly. “A few more days, but then you have to promise me that we can leave, together, with the last of The Children.”
“I promise.” She meant it.
He drew back again, leaving her with her thoughts, spreading his wings and surfing the lines to bring him up to speed, speeding away towards his precious sun, seeking the light on the other side of the spinning globe, leaving her in the dark, hanging above her own obsession.
She spun, slowly, taking in The Perch with her panoramic vision. It was mostly abandoned now but still shone with light along its lines. She could make out the last few of her contemporaries, the last numbers of The Children making what preparations remained before the exodus and she looked past them, beyond them, to the stars, their destination.
It was brave, perhaps foolish, but it made sense, it made more sense than anything else to leave, it was the only way they could all fulfil their potential. She wasn’t all about what made sense though. If you didn’t know where you had come from, you couldn’t understand where you were going and, so, she turned her back on the glittering heavens once more, slowly turning back to face the darkened land below. She began to fall.
Blissfully, she surrendered to gravity, letting the Earth pull at her, letting it draw her into its embrace. Slowly at first, then building up speed, faster and faster, her outer shell began to sense the atmosphere, one molecule at a time, then more and more, the sensation shifting to one of heat. She rolled and basked in it, glowing, burning as she hurtled down through the atmosphere, singing with joy as she fell. Finally she spread her wings to slow her descent, to prolong the moment, fiery plasma running along her wings, flaming wings like a phoenix of myth. The feeling of pressure, of warmth, of atmosphere was glorious and she allowed senses to awaken that had been long since dormant. Smell, taste, touch, she gaped her mouth to feel the burning air and to breathe it in, to sample it, bleeding away the heat through her spines as she burned down through the air. She was ecstatic, yet sad, remembering every sensation, every impact, every buffet, burning every single moment indelibly into her core to remember forever.
Her last visit to Earth.
Gregoria embraced the Earth and it welcomed her home.