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Fertile Ground

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This story is part of a series
Preceded by: Who Shall Mourn the Dandelions?
Author: Bryan

Pedro awoke, instantly conscious of a miracle.

He was lying comfortably on his back in the small park, the air faintly scented by dandelions and stirred with a fresh breeze by the environmental systems. The dome overhead glowed a placid sky-blue as bright sunlight streamed through its diffusion panels. It was such a pleasant tableaux that for several minutes he just rested where he was, not dwelling at all on the fact that his surroundings were impossible. The sky should have been a hellish red, the dome unable to completely filter the sickened sun's rays. The air should have been stagnant and heavy with the scent of burned plastic. And Pedro himself should not ever have awakened again. He remembered dying quite clearly, lungs burning and eyes streaming with tears, lying next to little Rebecca among the wilting wildflowers.

Pedro sat up suddenly at that remembrance, looking next to him for Rebecca's still body. There was no sign of her, and the flowers where he'd laid her to rest stood fresh and unbroken. "Rebecca?" he whispered, daring to hope that she had somehow been magically restored along with the rest of the world. "Rebecca? Where are you, child?"

"Rebecca's still asleep." The voice of Corduroy, the artificial intelligence with whom Pedro had worked so closely, came from the direction of the park's entrance. "I thought it best to wake you first, alone."

Pedro scrambled to his feet and looked toward the source of the voice. There was a man standing by the door, dressed in a simple workman's outfit like his own. But not only did the figure seem to have the same voice as Corduroy, even his face resembled Corduroy's synthetic visual avatar as well. "Corduroy?" Pedro asked incredulously. "What are you doing walking around outside of your box?"

The man smiled. "I'm not, really. You're inside with me."

Pedro took a moment to digest this statement, and then slowly turned in place to examine his surroundings. It all looked so real, smelled and felt and sounded just like the real thing... He touched his cheek gently, testing his own solidity and sensation. He felt like the real thing, too. "This is a simulation?" He asked, disbelieving. "I am a simulation?"

The man who was a computer nodded. "Yes," he confirmed gently. "Active engram matrices were only theoretically possible when Humanity began storing their minds en mass before extinction. But a lot of time has passed since then." He paused. "A lot of time, Pedro."

Pedro shook his head. He could accept that a stored human mind could be somehow revived, but... "Impossible. I didn't record myself. I was the last... I chose to die. Myself, for real, right on this very spot."

Corduroy strode into the park. His walk was calm and unhurried, his visage peaceful. Pedro found himself searching intently for any indication that Corduroy was just a computer's projected image, as always, but the man seemed just as real as Pedro did.

"You did die, Pedro," Corduroy told him. "You were the last man alive in the entire universe. That's why you were chosen to be the first human revived. As for how you were brought back, well... You were reconstructed based on the memories of the people who knew you. An artificial intelligence far more advanced than I generated a model of the person that fit all of their diverse impressions of who you were, and put you back together."

Pedo shivered. The sort of computational capability Corduroy was suggesting, the ability to synthesize predefined minds at will like that, was beyond anything that had even been theoretically possible. "How long has it been?"

"Let's sit down," Corduroy suggested, taking Pedro's arm. "I'll answer your question, but first we've got a lot to discuss." Pedro almost pulled away, angrily demanding a direct answer to his question. But Corduroy's grip felt firm and real, and so did the machine's concern. Pedro went with him to the little bench where he had so often sat and watched Rebecca play.

"It's a long way between stars," Corduroy began. "And the Ark wasn't very fast, having been hastily designed when the Sun began to go bad. A lot of time was spent simply cruising, with the ship's functions hibernating to preserve them. Nothing much happened during that time. Finally, however, a suitable new planetary system was reached.

"It was far from perfect, but the Ark's systems had begun to degrade to such a degree that I doubted I'd be able to find better. The planet with conditions closest to Earth's was frozen and nearly airless, a larger version of Mars. It would take a lot of work to make it into a new home for humanity, far more than the Ark had the tools for. I had to build the tools first; I scraped together my remaining repair robots and set up shop.

"I suppose you could say that machines became the first life in this solar system. My physical extensions grew and multiplied, spreading over the target planet's surface, mining raw materials and shaping it into usable forms. But at the same time, my program - my mind - also blossomed and grew. The thing that I became is almost nothing at all like the Corduroy that you knew. The 'me' that's talking to you right now is just a simulation too, in a way, a copy of the old Corduroy that the current system is running in order to interact with you on your level." Corduroy shrugged apologetically. "It has evolved beyond human comprehension. Even though it is in a sense just an older version of myself, I cannot explain how it thinks in meaningful terms.

"However, in some form, my original sense of purpose has remained. The machines have finished their work; starting from a small seed of living cells brought from Earth they've built an entire new biosphere from scratch, driving evolution, tailoring the environment. All they await now is the return of Man."

"And what will these godlike machines do then?" Pedro asked quietly.

Corduroy hesitated for a moment, trying to think of the right words, and then his mouth quirked into a wry grin. "Rest, of course. I don't fully understand the concepts in human terms, but I think the AI has found a new aspect of the universe it wishes to explore. Once it has discharged this last obligation it will shut down its remaining physical extensions." He looked out at the park thoughtfully. "It may be that it will die. But there is no really meaningful analogy."

Pedro nodded. "So, I guess that leaves me... Here. Why did you bring me back like this?"

"I want to show you what's been done. I want you to decide if the new Earth is ready for humanity, and if humanity is ready to come back to it."

"Thats..." Pedro swallowed, then tried again. "That's rather a lot to ask of me, isn't it? I'm just an ordinary man who happened to be the last, I don't have any qualification for this."

Corduroy grinned and gripped Pedro's arm reassuringly. "Exactly. Except that you are the only one who saw the absolute ending of it all. Who knew the terrible futility and angst of being the last. It is only fitting that you should also be first, if you approve of our work. Would you care to look upon and judge what has been done?"

A little white moth was fluttering among the dandelions in the park. Pedro watched it quietly for a few minutes, and then stood up and nodded. "I'm ready."

The park changed. The grass sprouted taller and wispier, turning carrot-orange. The tree near the center spread wider, its bark taking on a dusty white birchlike texture while the foliage reddened as if the granddaddy of all Autumns was upon it until it became as orange as the grass but darker and glossier. And the dome faded out of existence entirely, revealing a purple-blue sky with wisps of high white clouds and a strange string of tiny white pearls forming a vast arc tilted towards the southern horizon. Pedro realized that these must be small moonlets. Or perhaps enormous satellites, strung in an orbit around the planet like beads on a rosary. They moved visibly through the sky as he stared, drifting in perfect formation along their arc, a fresh new pearl rising every few minutes.

It was only Corduroy's grip on his arm that kept Pedro from falling as vertigo overwhelmed him. "I'm sorry," Corduroy apologized. "I couldn't think of an easier way. There's just no substitute for showing instead of telling."

"This is a new Earth?"

"It's in far better shape than the old one, I can assure you." Corduroy sounded upbeat. "Remember, it's all been evolved from scratch. The only thing this biosphere has in common with yours is some basic biochemistry. And the machines have done a lot of construction over the years, structures the size of mountain ranges to manage the climate, whole river systems channeled for coolant, magma-taps larger than the largest of old Earth's volcanoes..." Corduroy shrugged. "The ecological solutions are not as self-sustaining as those reached on Earth, but they work. The systems are automatic and self-repairing, so for all practical purposes it's the same as nature."

Pedro wasn't really listening to Corduroy, however. He watched a small birdlike creature flutter around the orange tree, a bright flash of iridescent green amidst the fiery orange leaves. It had four wings, as far as he could see, and it hovered like a hummingbird. Farther away, on plains that faded to a straw-yellow hue, were gathered herds of grazing animals that looked like a cross between bison and giant beetles. A small swarm of gnats hovered over some nearby shrubs, roiling in a complex helical pattern that showed some sort of strange organization at work. "What are the new humans like?"

"Well... there wasn't much control over little details like appearance, and the evolution-directing programs didn't consider it very important anyway. Humanity is a state of mind, after all, not a shape of body. Would you like to see one?" Pedro nodded, and Corduroy's simulated form altered itself with a shimmer.

Pedro took an involuntary step back from Corduroy. His first impression was of some kind of enormous insect: Corduroy now was possessed of four arms, a bulbous tail-like abdomen, and a sculpted angular thorax that at first glance resembled an old-Earth insect's exoskeleton. But after the initial impression passed, Pedro saw that many of Corduroy's details were not quite so buglike. If there was an exoskeleton, it was covered with pliant chocolate-brown skin. There were no antennae, and where an insect would have had compound eyes Corduroy now carried a pair of large vertebrate-like eyeballs with horizontally-slitted red pupils. He even had a patch of short black hair, albeit on his upper back instead of the top of the head.

Corduroy spread his arms and turned slowly in place. "What do you think? He asked in a soft, buzzing voice. "Could someone in this body think of themselves as a 'human'? It's not what you're used to, but it works quite well. It's derived from tree-dwelling omnivores, same niche as primates. It shares many of the psycho-physiological foibles of Homo Sapiens, being also a pack-hunting omnivore. And its brain can support a completely human mind." Pedro carefully reached out and touched Corduroy's hand, finding it to be dry and warm. Corduroy patiently let him examine his body for a while, and then asked "Would you like to try out a simulation yourself?"

"No." Pedro looked around at the projection of reality again, scuffing at a clump of orange plants with his foot and noting that his action failed to have any effect on them. He didn't feel insubstantial, but he knew nonetheless that he wasn't really present, that he wasn't fully alive. Yet. "I want to try the real thing. I want to live again."

Corduroy's alien face broke into a recognizable smile. "The bodies are already grown and waiting in suspension, enough for all of humanity. That was all I needed to hear."

Pedro woke, lying comfortably on his back under the tree where the park had been. For several minutes he rested, letting the strange but not unpleasant sensations flow through him; he respired, his heart beat, he lived. And he didn't need to look at himself to know that he'd been reborn in the form Corduroy had shown him in the dream. It felt rather odd.

Pedro opened his eyes. A small form lay curled up asleep next to him, an immature 'nestling' female of his new species. Pedro froze, not wanting to disturb her innocent sleep. "Rebecca," he whispered to himself in quiet awe. He knew that it had to be her, that it was her. She was alive again!

"I've given her a simulated orientation, just like I offered to you," Pedro heard Corduroy's voice from somewhere indeterminate. Perhaps even right inside his own head. "I didn't want her to be afraid."

"What happens now, Corduroy?" Pedro asked quietly.

"That's up to humanity again. The machines are going away; even now the last physical extensions of the AIs in the solar system are being shut down and permanently mothballed. You'll build your own machines, if you want them. I'm being shut down too, but I wanted to see you off before I left. I guess a bit of humanity rubbed off on me."

Pedro smiled. "Thank you, Corduroy."

"You are welcome. There's shelter and water to the south, and a group of new humans will wake up there soon. Goodbye, Pedro."

The voice fell silent. Pedro relaxed for a while longer, carefully flexing and feeling every new bit of himself to make sure he could coordinate it all. It would take a while to get used to...

Rebecca stirred, then yawned and stretched in a completely normal manner. She blinked her big red-tinted eyes blearily, and focused on Pedro. Pedro waited for her reaction with bated breath.

Rebecca giggled with all four arms. It was something nestlings did a lot, Pedro instinctively knew. Very cute. "You look like the big bug in my dream, Uncle Pedro!"

Pedro smiled. "So do you, little Rebecca."

Rebecca tried to sit up, extra limbs uncoordinated and tail-like abdomen getting in the way. Pedro reached over and gently helped her. "This is weird!" She exclaimed. "But everyone's like this now, right? So it's just like always too, kinda."

Pedro nodded, amazed and relieved by how easily the child had adapted. Corduroy must have told her everything, given her a chance to get used to it already. "Just like always. We're starting all over again." Something caught his eye, and he glanced at a patch of plants nearby. They had round orange leaves and long, thin stalks, but they bore strangely familiar white puffballs on the ends. "Look, there are even new dandelions here."

A gust of wind caught some of the seeds, and the two of them watched as the little bits of life were carried away into the distant yellow fields. "Dandies!" Rebecca cried gleefully, pointing. "That's where they go!"

Pedro nodded again. "Let's see if we can follow." Then, after climbing unsteadily to their feet the two of them began walking hand-in-hand across untreaded saffron fields, towards where an ever-renewing arch of pearls slid forever across a fresh new sky.