The planet’s crust hissed under Jackson’s boots, a constant sound, the weeping of a newborn.
“Don’t worry young one,” he whispered. “Me and mine will take care of you.”
He stabbed a flag tipped spear into the seething earth, feeling guilty.
It was an archaic ritual, but important. The flag, emblazoned only with a single, simple leaf, would burn up in moments, the pole would boil away soon after, but the recordings taken by his suit would be sent to all the proper authorities, validating his claim on the new planet.
Our claim, he mentally corrected himself as he turned back towards his shuttle where Otembe and Alverez waited. Jameson, Balzack and Wong orbited in the Mitchlan, already hard at work gathering data.
Jackson wished he were with them, wished he were doing the work of his lifetime instead of observing the inane formalities of humanity that brought him to the surface.
He took three steps and hauled himself back up the ladder into the belly of the craft.
Six steps total, Jackson thought and accounted it six too many.
Never again. Not for me, not for mine.
Once he’d strapped into his crash harness Jackson keyed his suit’s comms and said, “I’m in.”
Otembe initiated the craft’s light foils and it silently rose from the planet’s hot surface, leaving only a burning flag behind.
Alvarez 438 woke to the blaring of warning sirens.
Today was the day.
Glancing at the tablet next to her bed she saw she didn’t have time for a shower, so she popped a tab of teethcleaner and chewed as she dragged a brush through her hair, then shrugged into her coveralls and was out of her cabin within ninety seconds of waking.
In another sixty she was on the viewdeck with the rest of the crew. Jackson 440 and Otembe 502 sat on a bench speaking in serious tones. Ancient Wong 287, nearly 400-years-old, leaned on Wong 475 for support right up next to the viewport that stretched across the length of the viewdeck. Also pressed up against the glass on the other side of the room stood Jameson 429 with a gaggle of children ranging from ages 5 to 13. Alvarez could see the faces of her crewmates in each one.
Jameson smiled and winked when he saw her, then turned his attention back to a young Otembe tugging on his sleeve.
“Did I miss it?”
Alvarez turned to see Balzack 432 shrugging into his coveralls as he stepped onto the viewdeck.
“Obviously not,” she said, gesturing towards the viewport.
“Oh, well that’s a relief,” Balzack said, stopping to stand next to her.
“How are you this late? You literally sleep 20 meters from the viewdeck,” Alvarez said, ignoring the fact she had also only made it by the skin of her teeth.
“Shhhhh” Balzack said, motioning towards the viewport.
The sight was breathtaking, Alvarez had to admit.
A meteor hurtled towards The Planet’s surface just a few thousand miles outside the atmosphere. It was massive, as large as The Planet’s southern continent, made of iron and lead.
Breathtaking and terrifying.
“How far will this set us back?” Alvarez asked Balzack without taking her eyes off the apocalyptic view.
“Oh, there’s no real way to tell.” he said. “Earth went through this a few times. In fact there’s some conjecture that without an event or two like this we’d never complete our mission.”
“It’s hard to believe this isn’t the end of it.”
Balzack found her hand and gave it a squeeze.
“Oh no, Al. We’re in this for the long haul.”
Alvarez found the contact strange at first, but as the tip of the asteroid began to glow red against The Planet’s atmosphere she returned the squeeze fiercely .
She did not let go for a long time.
Otembe 7536, banked his P-847 Tuskegee to avoid a barrage of laser fire, and target locked another drone.
They can’t even send humans to get what they want anymore, he thought, before vaporizing the drone with a barrage of his own. This is why they always fail.
Otembe 7536 was a good pilot. All Otembes were good pilots and these days, with the disillusionment of the United Human Authority, so many more Otembes were needed to protect the planet from opportunistic pirates and warlords bent on reunifying humanity.
Instinctively Otembe knew his wingman, Otembe 7537 needed assistance, and pointed the nose of his craft planetward before his heads up his comms crackled with, “Need a little help here.”
Three drones dogged Otembe 7537’s ship, spraying laser fire and smart missiles at the nimble little craft. It juked through the maelstrom seemingly unscathed as Otembe sighted in on one of his wingman’s pursuer’s and squeezed off a tight laserbeam, vaporizing the drone.
He made short work of the second as well but as he zeroed in on the third he heard a curse over the comms.
“I’m hit brother.”
Otembe launched a missile at the final drone before turning to a list of his wingman’s damage on his heads up display.
Port thrusters destroyed.
Aft thrusters misfiring.
Hull integrity compromised.
Otembe snapped his head up just in time to watch his wingman’s craft spiral madly across his cockpit window. The same moment he heard a tone in his earpiece confirming his missile had destroyed its target, his blood ran cold.
“Brother,” he said. “You must gain control. Your trajectory will take you into the atmosphere.”
The voice that crackled back sounded strained.
“It is impossible. Damage too great.”
“Then you must… you must self-destruct.”
“Gravity suppressors” there was a burst of static. “Can’t reach.”
Otembe had the presence of mind to check for enemy craft before making his reply. There were none. The enemy had been routed.
But for the good of the planet below, he sighted one final target.
“I am sorry, brother.”
Wong 20047 contemplated the planet’s surface from the viewdeck of the station she’d been born on. A station she would never leave.
Today was an important day. The surface had begun to cool. It was a milestone of immense import to the crew of the Mitchlan. There would be cake in the galley. Wong didn’t want any. Thinking on the scale of her mission, the brevity of her life, Wong found she wanted almost nothing.
Alvarez 19998 entered the viewdeck from Wong’s left carrying two pieces of cake.
“The others are wondering where you are,” she said, taking a seat on the bench next to Wong offering her one of the plates.
Wong declined the cake with a gesture and said, “I didn’t really feel like celebrating.”
“The vastness of it all getting you down?” Alvarez asked.
“I guess,” Wong shrugged.
Alvarez nodded and set one of the plates down between them then took a bite of her own before responding.
“Well it’s about time.”
Wong gave her a confused look.
“We all feel it at some point or other. You’re 27-cycles-old. Most of us crack by 15.”
Wong’s eyes widened slightly, “Really?”
Alvarez nodded, “Sure, I mean most of you Wongs are pretty resilient, but still, 27 is impressive.”
“How did I not know this?” Wong said. “I… I thought I was the only one. The mission is so important, it’s our entire lives. If everybody feels this…”
She trailed off searching for the right word.
“Empty,” Alvarez offered.
“Empty,” Wong nodded. “If everybody winds up feeling this empty, then how have we lasted so long?”
Alvarez shrugged and took another bite of cake.
“We almost didn’t. At first we’d lose a crew member every century or so, but eventually, once we’d gathered every piece of data about the planet that we could, the monotony of our mission set in and we began to lose people. At its worst, about 12,000 cycles back, most crewmembers left or killed themselves by age 20.”
“How have I never heard about this? How did it stop?”
“Two questions with seemingly antithetical answers,” Alvarez said, forking the last of her cake into her mouth and turning to meet Wong’s eyes. “You’ve never heard about the dark times on Mitchlan Station because for all our high mindedness, we do not like to admit our weakness even to ourselves. As to how it stopped, well, we admitted it was a problem, and after centuries finally started having conversations like this one. You aren’t alone, Wong. All of us were literally made for one purpose, and none of us alive on this station will see that purpose come to fruition. If this is unbearable to you, we will provide transport to any habited world in the New Human Alliance. Another Wong embryo will be activated and the rest of the crew will assume your duties until she is trained. There is no need to take your own life. There is no need to run.”
“So I can just leave?” Wong asked. “All of us can just leave and the mission will survive? How many do?”
“One or two every 50 cycles.”
“And talking was all it took to keep us from abandoning the mission?”
Alvarez winked, “Well that and the 80 cycles of war after the Human Authority collapsed. We didn’t really have a unifying history before that. Other than the mission obviously. Humans need stories and stories need conflict. Our ancestors did a pretty good job of building a narrative that united us. ”
“Good old manipulation then,” Wong said a little bleakly. “For all we talk about being better than the rest of humanity we really aren’t any different, are we?”
“Probably not, but the only real question that matters is, do you think our mission is better than the other designs of mankind?”
Wong didn’t answer but turned back to the viewport and gazed down at the planet for a long moment. Then she picked up the plate beside her and took a bite of cake.
Jameson 57,683,732 found the whole debate rather bored him, and he idly wondered if that made him crazy.
“There is no reason to stay,” Balzack 67,452,087 said. “There is nothing to protect The Planet against anymore.”
“There’s no possible way of knowing that for sure,” Otembe 102,492,015 said. His voice was calm, but Jameson saw a hard look in the pilot’s eyes reminiscent of the Otembes he’d watched in ancient combat vids.
Balzack opened his mouth to retort, probably to point out that after millions of years of human colonization, another sentient species had yet to appear, but Jackson 53,046,314 cut him off with a silencing gesture.
“It’s irrelevant, Balzack” he said. “We’ve invested hundreds of millions of lifetimes to this cause, nearly a billion years. Would you leave before the work is complete?”
Jameson fought the urge to roll his eyes at the melodrama of it all. Instead he slouched further into his cushioned seat and picked at a fingernail.
“But we’re being left behind,” said Wong 47,994,389. “When our progenitors started the mission they were the most high minded individuals humanity had to offer, and we’ve dedicated ourselves to their singular purpose but now… It seems the rest of the human race has surpassed us.”
“Have they though?” Alvarez 52,666,424 asked. “They call it ascending, but we could just as easily call it mass suicide as far as I’m concerned.”
She gave each of her crewmates a challenging gaze. When her eyes met Jameson’s he winked at her and smirked. She flushed.
Balzack missed the interaction and said, “It’s hardly suicide. The science is solid. We’ve all seen it. Humanity can finally move on to a truly new evolution…”
“As conscious energy?” Alvarez said, turning her full attention back to Balzack. “A writhing hive mind of electricity? We may be clones, Balzack, but we are still individuals. I’m not giving that up.”
Jameson finally entered the conversation with a long disingenuous sigh and grinned when the rest of the crew turned toward him in annoyance.
“Well?” asked Jackson.
“You’re all bickering like a bunch of old earthers.”
“This is important, Jameson,” Wong said.
“If you say so,” Jameson shrugged. “But it hardly changes anything.”
“Why do we let Jamesons in on decision making meetings again?” Balzack asked. “Court jesters don’t exist to make important decisions.”
Jameson considered answering while in a handstand just to tweak Balzack’s nose but thought better of it.
“Court jesters, if that’s what I am, exist to tell the nobles,” he gestured around the table. “When they’re being silly gits… Balzack you’re being a silly git.”
Balzack sputtered, but before he could say anything Jameson continued his voice more serious.
“Nothing has changed. If you want to go join the rest of the species as a big ball of gas or whatever, then go. If you want to stay, then stay. We’ve always been free to leave or not. We’ll just crack open another embryo and give them the same choice down the line. The work gets done and Balzack gets to join the great big orgy in the sky.”
Balzack looked angry, about to speak, then paused, his expression becoming thoughtful.
“I was being a silly git, wasn’t I?” he said.
Jameson winked. “You all were. But for the record I’m staying put. The great big orgy in the sky couldn’t handle my great big…”
Balzack 228,521,350 felt a pang of nervousness in his gut as the craft broke atmosphere and silently landed. The mission was nearly complete.
The crew of the Mitchlan had prepared for this moment for eons. Debated, pontificated, written dissertations and tritises. The brightest minds in human history argued for billions of years about this very moment.
But as the craft’s passenger craft opened revealing a crowd of beings so very like humans, waiting in anticipation and fear for the being from space to descend from its heavenly vehicle and dispense the knowledge of the universe, Balzack realized he had no idea what he was going to say.
Thanks for reading The Guardians! If you enjoyed it, hit that like button and leave a comment. If you’d like to check out more of my weird stories and musings about life, the universe, and the meaning of existence, then subscribe to Mindful of Madness. You can also find me on twitter @drewjokeringram or on Instagram @andrewingram88. My comedy album, “This Was A Bad Idea” is on Spotify, iTunes or pretty much anywhere else you listen to music. Thanks, my self-esteem depends on you.