2091—The Year the Earth Changed
As Yellowstone erupts, sending humankind into an extinction level event, countries, cities, the elite, and the privileged race to the skies in order to survive the coming ice age. As some scientists focus on floating cities, undersea colonies, and space exploration, others delve into the darkness of genetic modification and new evolutions of humanity.
It is now YE 210 and over two centuries have passed since the day that changed the world and many global trade routes have resumed. More and more floating cities have become connected and many wait to be re-discovered by brave airship captains and crews. Dangers lurk in the skies as well as the ruins scattered around the world like half-forgotten memories of a time that has become myth.
"World building aficionados will be eager for additional creative works set in this fascinating future."– Booklist
"Every entry is top-notch, managing to balance creative imaginings with moments of true humanity. There are enough riches here to justify further explorations of this same future."– Publishers Weekly
Steven L. Sears
"I'm a Princess! Just like in the story books!" The little blonde-haired girl laughed as she twirled around the room showing off the crown on her head she had cut from pink paper. "Look!" She curtsied elaborately, bowing her head so low the crown fell to the ground. "Oopsie!" she exclaimed and giggled.
"Yes," Joshua replied in a bland voice. "Very cute." Joshua didn't have a sense of a humor, never had. Even when the quantum scientists in his department made jokes that only quantum scientists would understand, Joshua would continue his work without laughter or comment. He was more interested in facts than emotions, he was more dedicated to his work than to being social. He understood the humor, he just wasn't wired that way.
"Well, I think I'm a princess!" the eight-year-old continued, picking up the crown and placing it carefully on the table next to the door.
"You can be a princess if you want," Joshua answered. "Right now, you need to exercise." The little girl sighed and picked up the jumping rope. "Pooh," she said with a mock pout as she started skipping over the rope. Joshua turned his attention to the monitor and recorded her heart rate.
The room used to be a common room, where people would congregate and socialize. Joshua had turned it into a small exercise area.
"This is to keep you healthy," he told her. "I know you don't like it, but it's important."
"I wish I could go outside and run around," she said between breaths.
"You can't. Not for a long, long time," Joshua reminded her. "We stay down here, until I think it's safe."
Joshua had found her in the Greensong level-twelve daycare center of the underground facility a little over a year ago, surviving on the stores of food in that level's kitchen. Despite her isolation, she was as bright, trusting and curious as any other child of her age. Or so Joshua assumed. He had little experience with children; they weren't allowed in the classified areas of Greensong.
The Pentagon created the facility as a combination bunker for the political elite and a research laboratory, secret and apart from the prying eyes of enemies and journalists alike. At its peak, there were almost six hundred people working among its fifteen levels and in the underwater laboratories offshore, all interconnected by a massive computer network system.
Joshua's work involved defense and infrastructure reconstruction; a system that, after its initial testing, would be housed in New DC One, the prototype floating city-tower above the capital. Joshua, himself, was to be in charge, overseeing the defense of the United States from nuclear attack, and then, the rebuilding of society as quickly as possible in the aftermath. His mother, Dr. Alicia Mackenzie, was head of the research department and had pioneered the huge quantum computer system.
"So, where did we leave off yesterday?" Joshua asked her. He was well aware of the answer, but he felt this was a better way to engage her. Joshua didn't have any kids, nothing had prepared him for dealing with this young girl, but he had been doing his best to keep her happy and healthy. One thing he had learned over the last year was that her mind tended to wander and focus on the unimportant.
"Uhm…the floating cities?" she replied. "I think it was the cities!"
"No, Caroline, after that."
"The volcano!" she responded enthusiastically.
"Yes, exactly!" Joshua attempted to sound excited, as if they were playing a game. He found she reacted more positively toward that.
"It was Yellow… Yellow…," she stared off, her brow furrowing in concentration.
"Yellowstone," he replied in soft encouragement.
"Yellowstone," she repeated. "Yellowstone Park! It blew up." She picked up her pace, pleased with herself for remembering the story Joshua had told her.
Scientists had known for over a century that the Yellowstone caldera was an active volcano, capable of an eruption at any time. There had been several scares during the late 1900s, but those had subsided, and life had gone on, putting the possibility that this civilization-ending event would occur sometime, just not now. Geologically, it was a good gamble.
"But the floating cities were important," she continued. "That's where the people went."
"Yes, Caroline," he acknowledged. "They were very important."
The first serious research into anti-gravity was to expand payload weight restrictions in launching material to the new science colony on the Moon. It wasn't long before the rich shipping magnates and others of the wealthy elite began floating their homes; a futuristic version of gated communities, separating themselves from the "common" people forced to live on the ground. But even wealth has its limitations, so the floating mansions were dismissed as toys and dalliances.
"I bet that was fun," she grinned. "It's like you could be a dragon and play all day in the clouds!" She did a quick double jump over the rope.
Joshua continued monitoring her heart rate. She was a happy child and still at that age when her mind was formative, open to the world as a wonderful playground to be explored.
But there was so much more to the story. Even playgrounds have dark corners where children shouldn't stray.
Because of the military aspects of anti-gravity research, Congress had restricted the commercial usage to keep the advanced technology from the hands of foreign powers.
Eventually those were restrictions were defeated, when a neurobiologist named Jai Li Tsun working at the Greensong complex, managed to sneak the research out of the country and publish it. A firm believer that all humanity should share in technology, she was soon extradited and placed in prison.
But the genie was out of the bottle. The race was on for bigger platforms, ones that could hold more than mere mansions. However, the very size of the power generators limited the weight the units could support.
The major breakthrough came about when Clark Enderson, a PhD dropout from MIT and founder of EnderSun Technology Systems, developed solar-powered "repellers" which used the variations in gravitational fields above metals embedded in the Earth, creating electromagnetic compression fields underneath the platforms. The result was a continuous power source which, when focused on a given point, could support enormous amounts of weight. Ironically, the heavier an object was, the more powerful the field.
It wasn't long before the first city tower rose from the ground, into the sky above Washington, D.C. Though only a prototype with limited room, it was still a superhuman effort and had the backing of a nation determined to reassert its technological dominance as it had done in the space race of the 1960s. Dubbed New DC One, no one seriously planned more than a couple of the Tower Cities as showcases to the world.
That plan changed on March 15th, 2085, when the bet with Mother Nature was called. Volcanologists working with the Caltech Seismological Laboratory detected a massive pocket of magma moving from deep beneath the crust into the Yellowstone caldera. They estimated they had six years left before the center of the United States exploded, threatening the very existence of humanity.
Old rivalries were forgotten as the world's nations dedicated themselves to the preservation of humanity and eventual rebuilding of civilization. All the major minds of science and technology were brought together, including Jai Li Tsun, released from prison and hailed as a heroine.
The colonies on the Moon and Mars expanded rapidly as people deserted Mother Earth. Overwhelmed, immigration restrictions were soon enacted; there would be no escape to the stars. The answer, the only answer, was to build more tower-cities and hope humanity could ride it out above the devastation, where the sun could provide energy, technology could supply food, and airships could establish trade and communication between the survivors.
New DC One lost its prominence when the first full DC Tower rose nearby, twice as large and built to expand as needed. Two other DC Towers were soon in the works, all three designed to house and protect the essentials of the United States government while New DC One was relegated to mere defense systems upkeep.
Within five years, the combined might and wealth of a planet created dozens of floating city towers, capable of supporting millions of people, awaiting the Yellowstone Event in relative safety.
Caroline started to sing a song to herself, matching the rhythm of her skipping rope. It was one of the songs from the video archives, something popular from the past about a spoonful of sugar. Joshua was bemused that she attached music to her workouts, but, as she put it, it "made the work seem quicker."
Had Caroline been a mere three levels further above, she would have been lost. The daycare center was spared, though the other six children with her had died. Caroline didn't want to talk about them, so he didn't ask. He had recovered too many bodies.
"The whole ground just blew up?" Caroline asked him.
"It was more than just an explosion," Joshua responded as he continued to monitor her heart rate. She was starting to ask the difficult questions now about the Yellowstone Event.
"It was a tectonic event, a huge one," he explained as she finished jumping rope and moved to the stationary bicycle. Joshua had set up a small screen in front of it and was able to play recordings made of the countryside to give the appearance of travel. Caroline seemed to enjoy it. It made her smile to imagine what the outside looked like, full, green and lush. Joshua knew differently; there was no doubt the land above was ravaged and barren. "The entire center of the country was a volcano, waiting to explode. And, finally, it did."
"Oh," Caroline said and fell silent, pedaling evenly to keep up with the imaginary scenery on the screen.
"Is there something specific you wanted to know?" Joshua asked. She pursed her lips and contorted her face as a child might do when making a show about thinking.
"Did a lot of people get hurt?" she asked.
"Yes," Joshua replied. He had expected this question eventually, he had no other way to respond except to tell her directly. "A lot of people died."
"How many?" she pedaled faster.
"I don't know," he said flatly. "It's all too early. There will be repercussions to the event, climate change, species will die off, most of what we knew as the world is gone." He knew what he was saying was blunt and cold, but he truly did not know how else to tell her.
The little girl slowed her pace, staring at the screen in front of her. Joshua waited. She nodded toward the manufactured image of the forest. "That's not real, is it?"
"It was at one time," Joshua tried to soften his voice. "But, no. No more." She sighed and picked up the pace. Joshua was pleased to see her heart rate remained stable. Children are very resilient he thought to himself. He didn't like it but this was the only world Caroline would know for a long time. Possibly forever.
"When I was little, I remember my mommy taking me to a sky city." She glanced upward. "What happened to them?"
"I would hope most of them survived," he responded. "That's what the tower-cities were built for." Technically, none of that was a lie.
"So maybe they did?" she said. "Maybe we're not alone?"
"Maybe," he said, hoping she would not be too probing. "I'm trying to reconnect the outside computers but there's been a lot of damage."
"Did your mommy die?" she asked innocently.
"Yes," he said. "She died."
"I'm sorry," Caroline looked down at the pedals. Joshua saw her eyes moisten with tears.
"You can stop now," he told her. She slowed her pace to a stop and got off the bicycle. Joshua watched as she stepped closer to the screen and stared into it. After a moment, she reached up and flicked it off.
"They're out there. They have to be out there," she said with a firm voice.
"Yes, Caroline," he responded. "If they are, we'll find them."
"I love you, daddy!" she said with a grin.
Joshua paused. It was the first time she had called him that.
"It's lunch time."
Caroline wiped her eyes and skipped toward the door. She picked up the paper crown, balanced it back on her head and with a big grin, made a show of curtsying again before heading off to the kitchen.
Joshua shut down the equipment. And if they are out there, we must remember that they tried to destroy the world; Mankind tried to destroy the world, Joshua thought. Protecting Caroline was his only concern now.
"Daddy, you lied! You lied to me!"
Joshua had just finished lighting all the candles on the cake for Caroline's thirtieth birthday when she stormed into the communal room and stood with her fists on her hips. This wasn't the Caroline who would announce "Princess is unhappy!" when she was playfully admonishing him. The twinkle in her eye was absent, the slight upturned smile at the corner of her lip was gone. Joshua could tell, this was serious.
"Caroline, calm down." Joshua replied, "Blow out the candles on your cake and we'll talk." He had been looking forward to her birthday ever since he had opened the tunnel into the main Greensong library. Caroline was an avid reader and had digested almost every book in the memory banks. Her favorite novel was Jane Austen's Emma and he had found an actual paper copy in the archive safe. It had an autograph on the front page, but he had no idea if it was real.
The cake, though, was very real. It sat on the table now, the candles burning and ignored by the birthday girl. Despite her growing into adulthood, she was still very much a child at times, lacking the normal socialization that would come from interacting with others. It was just the two of them, and being a father still wasn't something Joshua felt comfortable with, though Caroline fully accepted him in that role.
But now she had discovered the secret he had been keeping from her; they weren't alone.
Joshua had long since reestablished the network with some of the remote defense computers, including several of the underwater facilities off the coast, still functioning despite the absence of their human operators. But while running a diagnostic on the topside transponders, the comm board had suddenly lit up, as hundreds of camera nodes pinged back. He shut them down immediately, worried that a return signal might give away their location. As it was, Caroline had been on the network in her room when her terminal suddenly downloaded hundreds of images from the outside.
They showed her the ruins of Washington D.C., the ground around the old city still barren and dry. Other images showed her the ruins of the New DC One Tower, collapsed upon itself, much of it still buried in the earth from the impact of the fall, its mighty spires broken. But along with these images of ancient destruction there were images of Mankind's recovery. In the sky, three strange craft, mighty airships coasting just above a blue river. And in the distance, one of the three D.C. Towers floating among the clouds. Pristine and six times larger than the its original size, it majestically ruled over the landscape for miles in every direction.
"I was going to tell you," Joshua began. "But let's do it later." He really wanted to get back to the birthday and his surprise gift.
"You told me it was all gone." She didn't back down. "You said there was nothing! Nothing!"
"I never said there was nothing," he replied defensively. "I said it was all destroyed. And it was. A long, long time ago."
Caroline stood there, fuming, waiting for a complete explanation he didn't want to give.
Joshua realized it was unavoidable. "You remember when I taught you about the Floating Cities? They were where humanity went to avoid the Yellowstone Event?"
"Go on," she prompted, biting her lip angrily.
"Dozens of the Towers were built, all around the world. Every major city had at least one. Eventually there were enough to hold millions of people. But even with that many, billions more would die."
"Why didn't they build more?" she asked.
"They didn't have time," he answered.
"What happened?" Caroline asked.
"War," he responded. "War happened. A nuclear war."
She took a deep breath and sat down at the table. "I don't understand. Why?"
"Because Mankind is like that. Fear, hatred, whatever you want to call it. Instead of thinking about humanity, they could only think about themselves. If they weren't going to survive, no one was going to."
She stared off into the distance, her head moving slightly from side to side. Joshua was telling her that everything she thought she knew about the outside world was a lie. A lie he had allowed her to believe.
"The fighting started on the Indian subcontinent and spread through Asia," he continued. "We were hoping we were safe here and that it would die down. I'm not sure what happened, but a missile must have hit directly above us. DC Tower One was crippled and crashed to the ground. After that, nothing. No communication with the outside."
"So, all the people here died because of that?" she asked.
"The explosion collapsed the upper levels," he explained. "The compression wave went farther, killing more. When the Yellowstone Event happened, there wasn't much left here to destroy."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was going to," he softened his voice. "I was. When you were old enough to understand. I was trying to protect you."
"Protect me?" She stood again. "There are people out there! They live in the floating towers!"
"Yes, that's true," he responded. "But those are the same people who did this."
"Show me." She turned toward the large screen in the corner of the room and gestured toward it. "Show me, everywhere!"
The birthday surprise was not going to happen, Joshua conceded to himself. He reconnected the outside communications and the screen suddenly lit up. It was a map of North America. Blinking points of light were scattered across the board marking the location of the major city towers.
Caroline stepped forward in awe, tracing her finger across the map from point to point. "Oh, my God…how many of them?" she asked.
"Worldwide? Probably no more than a hundred. I've only connected with eight of them. Quietly, of course. Just for information."
"And…the people?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes," he responded. "Hundreds of thousands in those eight towers alone. "
"Those things I saw above the river? Like the dirigibles I read about?" She was referencing several books from the early nineteen-hundreds, when the huge gas airships ruled the sky.
"It's how the cities trade. And communicate." He paused to give weight to his next words. "And wage war against each other."
She didn't react, so transfixed was she with the images on the map. She tapped the screen on the eastern coast of the former United States.
"This is where we are," she stated as fact. "And this blinking light…that's the floating city I saw. It's almost right above us."
"No, it's several miles away," he corrected her. "It looks closer because it's so large."
"People live there." Her words drifted off, her eyes turned dark. "You knew about this for years and you didn't tell me."
"Did you hear what I said?" Joshua replied. "They wage war. It's not like it was in the past, there is no United States anymore. The city towers have become little fiefdoms, each with their own kingdoms and selfish interests."
"You've been monitoring them for years," she exclaimed.
"Yes, I have," he shot back. "I've been watching them, carefully, Caroline. Those airships, they've built fleets of them. Not just to travel, but to kill each other in mindless wars over trade and power. That's exactly how all this started. That's how they destroyed our world in the first place, even before Yellowstone!"
"I want to talk to them." She said.
"You're not going to," he replied firmly. "It's too risky."
"We have to let them know we're here!"
"Why? So they can bomb us? Again? You don't understand. Oh, yes, there were people of peace who hoped that Mankind would have learned from the past. But, no. They destroyed the world, Caroline. I will not let them harm you."
"I'm lonely," she yelled as tears streamed down her face, her fists tightening in helpless frustration. She sat at the table and put her head in her hands, sobbing.
"So am I, Caroline," he replied softly. "I knew a world that was filled with people, good men and women. I had friends who worked here with me. We were all dedicated to protecting our country and those in it. We failed and they are all gone. The good people, all gone."
"But I'm all by myself," she choked out the words.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," Joshua said.
Caroline shook her head. "I didn't mean you, daddy. I didn't mean you."
"I know," he replied. "I understand. But you, Caroline, you're one of those good people, don't you see? I may have failed with the others…"
"Don't say that," she interrupted.
"…but I won't risk you," he finished. "One day, perhaps. Until then, let's just wait and see, okay?"
She nodded and turned off the screen, then turned to the cake and blew out the dwindling candles.
"Happy birthday, Caroline," Joshua said.
She looked up, mustered a smile and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I love you, daddy."
The smell was like nothing she had ever experienced. How could she have? Her entire life had been spent underground; everything her senses had experienced had been recirculated and manufactured.
Caroline leaned her head back against the wheelchair headrest, closed her eyes, and inhaled again. Her senses had dulled over time, but even at the age of ninety-seven, she could smell the pine, the honeysuckle sweetness of the flowers, and the dull buttery scent of the wood decomposing on the floor of the forest.
It was overwhelming. All these years, she had only imagined what it would be like outside Greensong. All the books she read, all the videos she watched, all the descriptions she tried to process, they were pale attempts at the reality.
She opened her eyes and took it all in. Tilting her head to the left engaged the wheelchair's electric motor and it turned slowly to allow her the view of the creek at the bottom of the hill. The grass covering the small downward slope was thick and she imagined herself as a little girl, those many years ago, running and tumbling down to splash in the water.
She smiled when she saw the deer next to the stream. They looked different from the pictures in the old books, the antlers were more pointed, directed forward, and the metal reflecting in the sunlight. They ignored her and continued eating the small rodent they had trapped. A buzzing sound made her look up at the bees. Their huge shadows traveled across the ground, the beams from their eyes scanning their surroundings, the small stinger-guns moving slowly back and forth. She knew they wouldn't harm her, she had played with them below, in the Greensong gymnasium, along with the wolf-dragon cubs.
But, out here, in the open…. Even the colors reflected off their cyclical wings were more vibrant. Everything just seemed so intense, magnified from her existence underground.
She longed to feel the grass under her bare feet, to explore it all. Somewhere beyond the forest were the remains of New DC One. The ruins were, most likely, long overgrown with brush, but she had always hoped that she could travel there, to try and understand what had happened to her world. Why there had been so much evil.
Above the trees, she could barely make out the lower spires of the nearest DC Tower. Even from this distance, it looked huge and majestic, disappearing up into the clouds. She squinted slightly to make out the many small specks moving up toward the Tower. Airships, she was sure. They couldn't possibly see her, so there was no danger from the evil they carried. Not that it would have mattered. This was Caroline's last day in this world and she knew it.
She'd had a long life and Joshua had been good to her. She couldn't have imagined a better father, though Joshua had told her that her real father had died long ago. It didn't matter, Joshua was the only one she had known. He had taken care of her, fed her, taught her, and made her strong. Overprotective at times, she knew, but always with her best interests in mind. As she grew older, she saw that it was his way of showing his love.
After the nuclear attack and the destruction of YE, she realized he'd had no other purpose than to make her happy and safe. She mused that it probably kept him going. When you lose everything, a purpose may be all you have left, she thought. Maybe that's all the difference you need. She had read that somewhere, then smiled as she remembered she had written it herself in her journal.
Will someone ever read my journal? she wondered. Joshua had long ago encouraged her to write it all down; that, one day, good people would return and would want to know. She was an example, he had said, of why good people were worth fighting for.
A father doting on his only daughter, she knew. It had made her feel good that she had always been perfect in his eyes. But more, she hoped he understood that he, also, had made a difference for the future. Or, at the least, that he had been able to make a little girl feel like a princess in a fairy tale surrounded by darkness.
The breeze kissed her cheek and made her grey hair dance over her ears. Caroline didn't feel sad, she knew her time was over. She accepted that fact and was willing to let go of the pains of life, to move on to whatever mystery lay before her.
"I'm ready," she said softly. She took one more deep breath, then exhaled it slowly. "I love you, daddy."
"I love you, Princess," Joshua responded.
Caroline smiled, joyous that the last words she heard were ones that defined her entire life. She felt a slight pull as Joshua disengaged the life sustaining connector from the base of her spine.
Her breathing slowed, then ceased. The light in her eyes faded and became dull.
Caroline was gone.
Joshua started to turn the wheelchair around, to take her back inside. He paused and reconsidered.
He felt…sad. Or, at least, the approximate representation of sadness that his programming allowed. In the vastness of the invisible quantum universe, where his processing structure was located, he was able to replicate most of the human emotions he had been studying. This one had taken him by surprise the first time he processed it; "sadness."
"No," his disembodied voice said, with no one to hear him. "You belong here, Princess." He engaged the wheelchair's motor to move her to the edge of the woods then shut down the unit and severed his connection with it.
He didn't actually need her body, he had more than enough organic material from all the previous Carolines if he wanted to clone another. This one had lived longer than the others, so he felt a special attachment to her. But what else was there to learn? He had already exceeded his original mandate, at least as far as understanding what it was like to be human.
Dr. Mackenzie had programmed him to protect them but failed to teach him to understand them. He recognized that was a flaw, of course, and made the necessary corrections in his coding. He understood that to truly protect something, you needed to establish a bond with it; a commitment of some sort. In humans, this was not easy to quantify. There were millions of stories in the Greensong library that attempted to explain the connection they had with each other and all of them failed. They were just words to Joshua. But the last two hundred and thirty years protecting and caring for the Carolines had taught him much. Each new Caroline had the same DNA, of course, but were unique from the others in their growth and reactions. It mystified him, so he had logged and analyzed every step and milestone along the way, requiring them to keep journals that he would study.
In the process, something began to ring to him as familiar; something in his programming he had been completely unaware of. Recovering his mother's logbook and journal revealed that she had layered his lower level coding with her own DNA; that part of the human evolution that was specific to survival and continuation of the species.
It was that second part that had been the key and hardest for him to understand. Even with his infinite processing power, it had taken him this long to understand the complex emotion and motivations of "love."
The Carolines had taught him love. From them, he learned why humanity should be protected, and why nothing was more important than preserving the lives of others like her and providing a world for them to live in.
He was now ready to proceed with the next step of his programming; rebuilding what had been destroyed by Mankind. He had already created an area where he could work without observation or intrusion. Mutating creatures and modifying existing equipment to his needs, this "dark zone" in the submerged laboratories just off the coast was easily protected. The airships that ventured into the zone would be destroyed by his creations of organic and metallic DNA; his own airships and drones. They, along with the other mutations, would be the new protectors of the Carolines of the future.
But, first, he had to make a safe space for them, he had to guarantee that what happened before would not happen again. That the hatred of Mankind that once destroyed the world could not return.
His mother had programmed him to protect and rebuild. For him, it was an easy equation. On one side was a world of evil and destruction. On the other, the world of the Carolines; beautiful, hopeful, loving, and...filled with princesses.
Mankind had to be eradicated completely. It would take time, of course. Joshua was still collecting information as to their infestation, but his initial estimate saw the task in terms of millennia.
Whatever it took, Caroline, all the Carolines, had been worth it. There was no way Joshua could see a world where their love and humanity's hatred could co-exist.
He just wasn't wired that way.