The next morning, the New Horizon crew walked the path over to the shuttle accompanied by Molly, still carried in a chair by her two guards with her power cell in her lap. She had been assured that she was welcome to bring her guards with her up to the ship, but she waved them away when it came time to board the ship.
Patricia had accompanied them to the shuttle. When it came time to board the vessel, Molly turned to Patricia with a thoughtful look.
“My dear I was going to leave you in charge in our absence, but now I wonder… would you like to come with us? It would be the opportunity of a lifetime for you, and,” she looked over at the guards, “it might put the others more at ease with my going if you accompanied me.”
“Leader, I… I don’t know what to say. To ascend to the sky, is… I never dared to dream. I would be honoured,” she replied with a gesture which was something between a bow and a curtsy, pulling the sides of her dress out as she lowered her head respectfully.
“Tell the others,” Molly said to her guards, “that Vega shall be in charge until I return.”
They nodded their understanding.
“May we borrow one of your scrolls?” Molly asked Kathryn.
“Of course,” she answered as Jaren lowered the shuttle door with a point of his wand. She pulled her own personal scroll out of her pocket and handed it to Molly, who then handed it to one of her guards.
“You’ll be able to contact me at any time using this. Do not be afraid.”
“Yes Leader,” one of the guards finally answered. “Safe journey.”
Molly nodded and Jaren, Felix, Kathryn, and Teresa all together lifted Molly’s chair and carried her up the ramp. Patricia followed behind in a combination of apprehension and wonderment over the ship. She had never seen anything like it. Neither had Molly for that matter, but she was harder to impress having seen all of the wonders Earth had to offer before the plague. Patricia had never seen anything more sophisticated than the dam and the trinkets the scavengers had managed to bring back with them.
What impressed her most was the seeming transparency of the walls, how once inside there seemed to be a clear view to the outside through the interior walls, with the exception of one large wall panel which was clearly and thoroughly cracked and not functioning.
Patricia and Kathryn lifted Molly out of her chair and into one of the seats which ringed the interior of the shuttle. They strapped her in and then proceeded to do the same for themselves. Jaren handed the chair to Molly’s guards outside, telling them that they’d figure something else out on the other end. He then re-entered the shuttle and after warning everyone, launched the ship up into the air and into orbit.
The shuttle was capable of travelling much faster than could be comfortably tolerated by its passengers, and even the three gees at which he capped their acceleration was somewhat uncomfortable to endure for the ten minutes it took them to catch up with New Horizon’s orbital velocity.
Catching up with the ship he carefully docked and informed everyone that they were secure and free to remove their restraints. The lack of gravity in the central engineering section of the ship was remarkably freeing for Molly who now with her one arm and one leg could manoeuver reasonably effectively on her own, though was still assisted by Patricia.
“I’d like to show Molly and Patricia the bubble,” Kathryn informed the others.
Jaren and Teresa said that they would proceed to the bridge and begin configuring the comm and rift systems for sending a message back to their planets, and that when Kathryn was ready she could have a turn.
“When you’re ready to bring them up, we’ll have to figure out some sort of rope and harness system to get her safely down to the habitat ring,” Jaren realized. “We’ll figure it out, you just let us know when you’re done in the bubble.”
Patricia, never having experienced microgravity before, had the typical problems and unforced errors of any novice, such as the instinctual impulse to attempt to swim. This was so common because the closest analog to the sensation of weightlessness on Earth was the neutral buoyancy of being in water. But before long she figured out appropriate usage of the foot and hand holds and followed along behind Kathryn and Molly towards the forward engineering section.
“This is our fusion core,” Kathryn informed them as they passed the central core section on their way to the bubble. It is a much larger and more powerful version of what originally powered you. Molly understood this immediately upon hearing it was a fusion reactor, so the information was largely for Patricia’s benefit of understanding.
“Through here,” Kathryn said as she unlocked the heavy air tight bulkhead, “is what was called the zero gravity bubble. It was apparently constructed while they were on their way to Haven and was not part of the original design. That’s why it was just cut into the bulkhead of the core room like this.”
The door swung open, and as they entered the bubble Patricia gasped loudly. She had seen the Earth from the shuttle, but they were moving so quickly, and the image was artificial, she didn’t really understand what she had been seeing. But here, there was no ambiguity. She was left absolutely speechless.
“It must take you back hunh?” Kathryn asked Molly.
She too was speechless, and pulled Kathryn into a hug. “Thank you,” she whispered into her ear. “For everything.”
The three spent nearly three hours in the bubble, watching the world go by twice. The view from orbit was never the same no matter how many times you went around. Kathryn took the opportunity to just enjoy the view herself as well, and listen to Molly point out things to Patricia and tell her stories about her past, things she’d seen, places she’d been, people she’d known. When Orbital One passed underneath them some ways down latitude off in the distance, she went into detail about her relationship with Colin, how they’d met, their life together, their struggle to commission a child… and their last days together. It had all of the appearance of an elderly grandmother recounting stories of her life to her adoring granddaughter, and Kathryn found it an endearing moment of bonding to witness between the two women, and she found herself wishing she’d known her own grandmother better.
“I… don’t even know where to begin, President Kim offered speechlessly in her recorded message responding to the one Kathryn had sent her detailing their experiences so far.
A Kobol diplomatic staff had already been attached to the president, and one of the first things they did was set up an interstellar communications system which allowed her to use the Escher rifts to communicate between worlds. It took an average of a little under twenty minutes for a message to travel all the way down to the sun, through the rift, out the other side, and all the way back to the other planet.
“I’m immediately going to release your report to the press,” the president informed her, “and encourage them to print it and get it to as many eyes as possible. What you have accomplished already is… well, beyond our wildest dreams. You are a planetary treasure, Captain Barnes, you will already be remembered by our people for many generations and your career is only just beginning. You embody our people’s pride, and hope, and optimism. Yes, indeed. Go forth with your plans to help this Molly simulant in any way that you can, especially if she will share Earth’s history with us in return.”
President Kim’s expression darkened appreciably. “We were all of course quite disturbed to learn of the fate of Earth though, Captain Barnes. I mean…we knew something awful must have happened, but… to know for certain, and in such grim detail… is almost too much. There will be many nightmares on Haven in the coming weeks about it and about such a thing happening to us here.
“In short, we are very impressed with your work to date, and yes we grant you full discretion to proceed however you see fit. Also, please extend my warmest greetings to your guests, as well as an invitation for them to visit Haven if they find themselves in a position to do so.
“Good luck Captain.”
The screen switched off she leaned back in her chair. She found herself overcome with a wave of homesickness which she hadn’t anticipated. She switched the large scroll she’d watched the message on to a comm display and pushed the appropriate button to hail Jaren. “Could you join me in the conference room please?”
Instead of answering, he showed up a few moments later, having been very nearby on the bridge. He’d brought Molly and Patricia with them, whom he’d been showing the bridge. Molly had been placed in a proper wheelchair they’d found left over in ship’s storage.
“I got a green light from command,” she informed him. “How ‘bout you.”
“Well,” he said a little awkwardly, now wishing a little that he’d left the others back on the bridge. “Like I was, my people were… taken aback at first to learn of the existence of simulants. However, the more I spoke to them, the more I was able to convey that this is a completely new kind of technology which even if we choose never to develop full simulants ourselves, an understanding of the technology could be very useful to us in any number of other ways. Once I was able to make them see this, they really turned around on Earth. Suddenly it is quite worth study and exploration in comparison to their previous attitude.”
“Excellent. And Teresa?”
“She tells me her people are also quite enthusiastic to press forward.”
“Good! It’s all settled then.”
“I should also add,” Jaren said, turning to Molly, “they’ve already directed our top fusion researchers to begin working on a compact cell for you. They’ll have to design one from scratch, and they’ll need detailed scans of your, umm… remaining anatomy, but they have every confidence they’ll be able to provide what you need.”
“I am quite relieved to hear that Jaren, thank you very much.” The simulated woman finally seemed to be warming to the man.
“Did you ask how they are coming with the archive?” Kathryn asked Jaren.
“I did, they told me they’re very nearly done at this point. They’ve also assured me that once they have finished reading the sheets, they will send a physical data storage unit to Haven and Roma with the complete archive for their use as well.”
“Good to hear,” Kathryn said. “Well, there’s no reason to wait then, let’s get everyone in here so we can plan the expedition. She reached forward to access the comm display on the scroll again and Molly laughed a good natured laugh at the sight.
“What?” Kathryn asked, confused.
“You don’t have thought control do you? You have to access everything with touch!”
“Of course…” Kathryn answered, still confused.
“It was all designed to be operated by thought control, and by touch for children who didn’t have their Brainchip implanted yet,” Molly explained. “For me the technology was built in, I mean that’s how I’m operating this wonderful chair here, by thought control. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you. My own people have to use touch, but well… I rather tend to regard them as children,” she said with an apologetic look at Patricia. “It never occurred that you all don’t have Brainchips, but you don’t do you?”
“I’m afraid I don’t even know what that is,” Kathryn admitted. “You’ll have to excuse us, but my people had only just figured out rocketry and electromagnetism when Jaren here showed up on our planet a few weeks ago. It felt like he was looking at us like we were children because we haven’t figured out something he calls ‘sub-atomic’.”
Molly harrumphed. “And Earth before the plague would have been equally boggled by the anti-matter technology sitting here in my lap,” she observed. “So it goes, I suppose.”
Not long after, the entire New Horizon crew along with Molly and Patricia had assembled in the now rather crowded conference room off of the bridge. At Molly’s request, the ship’s telescopes had been trained on what was left of Vancouver, and the image was displayed on the full wall screen which the conference room was equipped with.
“Definitely not how I remember it…” Molly observed somberly.
“But this is how it was described by the scavengers we’ve sent out,” Patricia commented.
“I guess I’d hoped they were exaggerating…”
From orbit, it largely looked like a dramatically hilly area. They were trained on the Burrard peninsula which had been completely covered with a forest of glass covered skyscrapers before the plague. Any surrounding suburban areas were now completely re-absorbed by nature and utterly indistinguishable from any other wild and uninhabited area.
The dramatic hills of the area were in fact the result of the bases of the skyscrapers remaining intact, but the tops of them having crumpled and fallen down around the bases of the buildings, creating dunes of debris around the bases which helped to stabilize what remained of the buildings, especially as soil and plant life covered and perfused every surface.
“Switching views,” Felix said as he altered the image with a filter, “we can use ground penetrating radar to show the internal structure of those mounds, and you can see that the lower sections of many of the buildings which once stood are still intact.”
Molly’s eyes had welled up with tears. “This city was once beautiful as I was…” she lamented with obvious deep sadness in her voice. “It was a city of glass, every building a shimmering vision of modernity. Oh how I wish you could see it as it was now…” she remarked as she took one of Patricia’s hands with her one remaining hand.
“You say that the lab they created you in was down there somewhere?” Jaren asked her.
“Yes…” she answered listlessly. “Somewhere.”
“You don’t know exactly where?” he asked.
“Arbutus and West 16th if it helps,” she answered sarcastically. “Good luck figuring out where that was in the mess that’s left down there now thought.”
“Hmm. Well,” he asked her, “how do you suggest we proceed?”
“I have to go down there myself,” she answered. “I just know that if I can get down onto the ground down there I’d be able to get my bearings somehow… that I’d intuitively know where I’m supposed to go, where… where I originally came from.”
“Well, that’s going to be a problem,” Kathryn observed. “Look.” She restored the true image to the wall with a few taps at her scroll. “Not one bit of terrain down there is amenable to you rolling around in your chair, and it’s too unsteady for us to safely carry you around in a chair either.”
Molly nodded. “You’ll have to remove my head.” Several people in the room audibly gasped at her ghastly suggestion, including Patricia. “Hey, I’m not super hot on the idea myself, but it’s the best way. We saw the ship’s onboard simulant laboratory. There were no spare parts which could help restore me, but it was fully equipped with the appropriate tools to conduct such a procedure. All I need is my head and this power source. Rig up some sort of backpack and somebody can carry them together around on their back as you make your way through the ruins.”
“It could work,” Jaren offered as he stared pensively at the wall screen. “It’s not ideal, but… it could work. It’s risky,” he said, turning to Molly. “You’re sure this is what you want. You’re sure you can talk us through the procedure?”
“Yes and yes.”
“Leader,” Patricia pleaded, “I am uncomfortable with this.”
“Fear not child,” Molly reassured her, “you’re coming with us.”
“The head is designed to come off,” Molly explained as she drew a line around her neck in the mirror with a black marker. “Not easily of course, but for repair and maintenance and such it is intended to be possible with some effort.”
Everyone in the room seemed rather uneasy, especially Jaren who had been tasked by Molly to conduct the procedure with Felix’s assistance, given their success with switching over her power source. None were more apprehensions than poor Patricia though. Right before her eyes she was to be forced to watch strangers remove the head of a being she considered something closer to a deity than a person.
Molly laid down on the examination table in the centre of the sim-bay where the simulants who had founded Kathryn’s civilization had been stored for the long journey to Haven.
“Cut along the line, as deep as you’re able to down to the substructure. You’ll come across a material like you can see in the exposed parts of my skull.”
Jaren began moving the scalpel towards her skin but paused to ask, “will you bleed?”
“No,” she answered.
Jaren cocked his head to the side momentarily with uncertainty before slowly moving the scalpel to her neck again. He paused again to ask another question and the other people in the room signed loudly in frustration. “Oh come on!” someone uttered in nervous frustration. Jaren asked her if she would feel pain when he cut her.
“I will,” she answered, “but not as much as you’d think,” she reassured him.
“I figured you’d bleed…” Jaren remarked as he began his incision and watched her wince with what seemed to be considerable, but ultimately bearable discomfort. “I imagined it was some kind of living skin overtop of an artificial substructure.”
“No,” she managed as Jaren moved around to the other side of the table to cut along the other side of her neck. “If that were the case then the skin would of course have died away centuries ago. It is simply an incredibly advanced synthetic substitute which perfectly mimics skin but only superficially. It even heals over with time just like skin when it’s cut, even though it doesn’t bleed.”
Felix and Francis rolled Molly’s body over so that Jaren could complete the cut along the back of her neck, and then rolled her back. “Okay, done.” Jaren said with relief.
“Alright, next there will be a series of eight screws along the point of incision at regular intervals. They all need to be removed.”
As the three engineers got to work unfastening the screws, she explained further: “okay, the hard part will be when you have to disconnect me from the power supply input on my chest coming up through the neck, and plug the different connection directly into the base of my skull. It’s the different power connector we found in that cabinet. You’ll have to swap the adapters after disconnecting me, and then plug the new one into the same place you disconnect the power supply from the body.”
“Okay that’s all of the screws,” Jaren answered.
“Alright, you should be able to pull my head about an inch away from my neck, everything in there is designed to have that much give.”
Jaren carefully did just that, and pulled her head slightly away from her body. Some people in the room were aghast with horror at the scene while others were rapt with morbid fascination.
“Okay,” Molly said with a noticeably and comically elevated pitch to her voice having her vocal cords stretched, “this is the last instructions I’ll be able to give you. My esophagus and trachea each have three little clips you have to undo to separate them from the body. After that you need to unplug the data cable running along where your spinal cord would be. It has a little lock switch you need to flip before it will come free, same goes for the power cord. When you remove the power cord I’ll go dark again, but you’ll be able to remove my head completely, and plug in the power source directly to the head. I should come right back on my own just like before, but if I don’t the hard restart in my head I mentioned before is right beside the power connector. There’s a little red button and a little green button right beside it. You hold down the red button for three seconds and then push the green while still holding the red.
“Is all of that clear?” she asked while looking around at the engineers standing over her. They all nodded somberly. Molly sighed heavily. “Very well then… proceed.”
Jaren, Felix, and Francis all worked together to do exactly what she said. When they uncoupled her trachea she was no longer able to breathe. At this point it felt like everyone in the room was holding their breath as they finished uncoupling the data cable, and holding his breath himself, Jaren finally disconnected the power supply.
Exhaling slowly and reaching for the different power adapter, he looked at her face as he switched the adapters. Beyond the uneasiness of seeing her lifeless with her mouth agape and her one remaining eye wide open, she further set him ill at ease with the way she somehow seemed both alive and dead at the same time, like a perfect replica of a human being, but without that unquantifiable and indefinable spark of life. He found himself wondering if this is what a human would look like if somehow drained of their soul while still alive. He shook his head to clear the thought as he firmly implanted the power adapter into the appropriate socket on the underside of her brain case.
The silence in the room was deafening as they waited to see what would happen next. At some point they realized that something was wrong, that she had been lifeless noticeably longer than she had been down in the dam. Now somewhat unsure of himself, Jaren sighed and rolled his head to the side as he reached for the red button and held it down. After a few seconds he pressed the green button and her eye shot wide open and she made the motion of drawing the deep dramatic breath of someone clutched from the brink of death, but it was ersatz; she no longer had lungs to draw in air to.
When she came to life, everyone in the room jumped back in frightened surprise. Those nearest to her seemed to jump back several feet before coming to their senses and sharing a nervous laugh with everyone else. They watched as Molly’s head attempted to speak but made no sound. It frowned in frustration, then closed its eyes for several seconds with a furrowed brow and an eye clearly darting about underneath its eyelid.
“Can you hear me now?” a voice which sounded somewhat like Molly’s but not quite, asked over the ship’s broadcast speakers in the room.
Kathryn laughed. “Yes Molly, we can. Is everything alright?”
The disembodied voice harrumphed along with the silent facial expression of a harrumph on the disembodied head lying on the table. “Aside from being decapitated? Oh sure…” she answered with an ironic drawl. “Do a poor head a favour would you? Bring a small scroll over here and put it in front of my face,” the head asked. Kathryn pulled out her own scroll from her pocket, pulled it apart and held it up in front of the head’s face. It again scowled with a searching closed eye underneath a furrowed brow.
“Is it coming through the scroll now,” the disembodied head asked, its voice now coming from the scroll instead of the speakers about the room.
“It is Leader, it is,” Patricia reassured her as she stood beside her and stroked what was left of her hair.
“Excellent,” the voice offered sardonically. “Well then bundle me up already, and let’s get going.”