The sun was up. I didn’t know where I was exactly. A hotel suite maybe?
I was hoping for Hawaii. I had heard enough Caribbean cruise horror stories recently to keep my extended travels over open water as short as humanly possible, but I had no recollection of ever meeting the rose-haired woman across the room. She didn’t seem startled in the least by my mouse-like rousing.
I searched the entire room with my eyes mostly, before realizing that I was too tired to do anything with my arms.
Before I lowered myself back onto the pillow, I wiped away some more sleep before asking my new middle-aged morning keeper, “Where am I?”
Without hesitation, the woman told me in what I quickly determined to be an authentic British accent, “You’re on 1g. J23062928-0502285 g to be exact.”
I didn’t immediately dismiss what she had said, as though I knew I was dreaming but didn’t care to wake just yet. Mainly because the woman had spoken in such a trance-like state. She continued to regard me as though at least one of us were artificial beings and knew it. Maybe she had recited a similar line at a popular Disney attraction or poorly visited planetarium in Peoria, Illinois for so long that the real world had lost all meaning to her.
Before the surrounding walls started to collapse through mechanical assist and Rose’s 360° IMAX slideshow truly began, she continued, “Perhaps you’ve heard of it. The TRAPPIST-1 solar system.”
“It’s in the Aquarius constellation,” Rose added, before I questioned her without pause, “How long have I been here?”
Rose—how odd was it that I’d quickly learn that her name really was Rose—had a nurse-like quality in the way she tolerated my complete ignorance of human existence throughout the relatively infinitesimal time period she spoke of next.
She didn’t smile or nod. She obviously hadn’t been programmed to twiddle her thumbs or fiddle with something on a nearby tabletop once her cognitive functions began to stall out. She simply held her hands together while standing flat-footed near the end of the bed, as I followed up my initial milk-fed math query with my first incomplete eleventh grade physics equation of the day.
“How did I get here?”
This time, Rose seemed to hesitate before giving me a response. Not because she was searching for the gentlest answer possible. Perhaps she was counting heartbeats, as if she had already arrived at a time-specific conclusion regarding when I would and wouldn’t have a panic attack as a direct result of what she said next.
When she allowed herself to speak, Rose told me, “A spaceship.”
None of this was adding up. Sure, I knew spaceships existed. I had seen a few with my own two eyes; I just couldn’t fathom that there was any good reason for me to be alone with a strange woman on a strange planet with no spacesuit or talking monkeys in sight. I had never been much of a sci-fi or comic book fan, which meant that I was missing my Manhattan apartment and single-headed children something fierce before arriving at my next simple-minded question.
“Why am I here?”
Apparently, I wasn’t ready for the answer Rose was prepared to give me. At least that was the impression I got, before she gently asked, “Do you miss it already? Earth?”
As if she had never been. Rose carefully lowered herself onto the bed. I looked away before hearing myself say, “I’m starving.”
This was the only thing I was sure of so far. I must’ve tired of Rose’s geopsychological games much too quickly, because she began to back away from the bed before telling me, “You should rest. I’ll get you some food.”
I should’ve been happy to hear this, but I didn’t want to be alone quite yet. The British woman seemed to have a pretty good story to tell. I was practically begging for little green men or scale-faced hominids with serious inflection issues to materialize within Rose’s honest eyes, as I asked, “How long have you been here?”
Rose paused again. Before the two flying saucers suspended between her open eyelids fully submerged into the largest mud basin on TRAPPIST-1c, they began to avert their own 6,000°F refraction as she answered, “Not long.”
I wasn’t sure why brown dwarfs were unable to achieve nuclear fusion of ordinary hydrogen to helium at their restless cores, nor did I have any idea why Rose was being so coy with me. I’d probably end up figuring out more than she was willing to admit if I could just keep her talking.
Gently, I asked her, “Do you ever miss it? Earth?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
This of course took me back a bit. Before my mind began to wander too far into what had to be an open 7-Eleven complete with smut mags and sentient being belly sags two blocks down the road, Rose asked me, “Does that surprise you?”
I answered her soulless gaze by gasping, “What am I doing here?”
Rose looked genuinely perplexed, as she wondered, “You really don’t remember that article you wrote?”
I looked back at her dumbly, searching my impotent brain for reasons to further engage with its most magnificent hallucination yet, before she told me what I already knew. Well, up to a point at least.
Rose lectured on as if we had already developed a deep personal connection without a single USB port in sight, recalling, “You had no idea why it was happening. None of us do. The most logical conclusion is an algorithm—it’s hard to explain. Basically—imagine the entire universe as one giant CPU. Binary digits. 1s and 0s. Somehow, you broke the code. Your computer. Your distinct web address. Your username and password. Your AP branch server. Your DNA. All of it—had given you the ability to manipulate matter itself—”
And I recalled vividly the very irrational phenomenon she spoke of so surely, but I couldn’t accept her explanation. Not when I couldn’t even bring myself to dream too big after I had initially discovered my “gift.”
I hadn’t been afraid of the consequences of writing something that would fail to come into being but rather what the human race was never meant to become, and that was every bit as merciful and all-powerful as its maker. I had obviously risen above mere mortal status into something far greater, but what had happened since then?
I stopped Rose there, figuring, “That doesn’t make any sense. They’re just words.”
“I know, but we’re all connected—in ways none of us will ever understand.”
Again, I didn’t react to the clinking noise inside my head telling me I was dealing with a very tough cookie, one that was totally nonviolent by nature. Even so, if Rose couldn’t find a hole in my internal logic she’d make her own.
I didn’t take her for a crazed superfan or office-funded apprentice more interested in debatable Star Trek facts than my signature approach to literary tact. Not even as she continued, “You had become the most dangerous woman on the planet—and so—in your final article you reported that you would be leaving the Earth. And sent here.”
“By who? Elon Musk?”
I had only mentioned the name to express my disapproval for science geek celebrity in general, like there was some inherent humor in her latest straight-faced intergalactic claim.
“Yes. Of course.”
I didn’t argue with her. I couldn’t, not when she had yet to contradict herself. Her subdued expression had even led me to believe that she had never wanted any of this for herself either. To sound like a complete madwoman nearly forty light years away from the nearest cell tower, only I assured her and not the next available 911 representative, “I’ve never even heard of this planet.”
“You obviously had. I mean you could’ve just made one up.”
“Stop bullshitting me!”
Rose may have been more upset at losing her own temper than activating mine. I just wouldn’t apologize for raising my voice first before asking her, “So who are you?”
“I was the second most dangerous woman on Earth. You realized how dangerous you had become; I’m sure you could’ve only imagined what I would be capable of. But I’m afraid you may have doomed the planet by writing that article.”
The more she spoke, the more sporadic my shallow breaths became. I needed more answers, and I needed them quicker than before, so I probed, “How? Who—who are you?”
Again, Rose hesitated, before relaying flatly, “A scientist.”
Rose Swartzwelder was a biochemist. She had developed a psychoactive drug that inadvertently compromised a recipient’s free will, only she was still pretty fuzzy on the true origins of consciousness. What she did know was that she could never have kept a medical breakthrough of this magnitude to herself, mainly because of what it meant to be a rational human centipede in whatever century I had recently entered at warp speed.
Rose told me whatever she had accomplished she had done so by chance rather than career-based oratory command, before adding, “A fluke. Just like you.”
Naturally, my heart sought out the complete restoration of hers without seeking a higher power first. Especially since doing so had only fortified the same country borders that had evolved over the course of several millennia from one murderous transition of power to the next.
As if speaking to one of Rose’s distant relatives, maybe a lone survivor after shoveling radioactive dirt somewhere between Auschwitz and John Wayne’s worst film setting ever, I asked, “So what happened?”
“What do you think? The wrong people found out. Now the Earth is overrun by mindless zombies.”
Rose couldn’t bring herself to add, “Zombies I created,” not even as I stepped away from the ax-wielding lumberjack I had paid to scare my children snapping chainsaw blade-straight the previous Halloween.
“This isn’t real,” I told myself weakly, before Rose assured me, “I’m afraid it is.”
She obviously wasn’t seeking my sympathy or understanding; Rose was simply looking for a little more humanity, which I surely must’ve misplaced the moment she reached for my far shoulder.
I needed her to make this right, right after I made monotone note of our fundamental differences in physical appearance and not star-bound spirit.
Rose unhanded me, before crossing both arms and replying, “I’m a lot of things. And so are you. I’m here because of you, and I don’t plan on leaving without you.”
“Well, we have to fix things, don’t we?”
Rose probably came as close to a smile as she’d get for the time being. I, on the other hand, still refused to accept my own part in all of this.
“They’re just words,” I repeated dumbly, before Rose reminded me, “And you kept writing them. Why?”
She knew. She had probably had found a way to bottle my remaining courage during my post-flight slumber and taken a few hits before I woke.
Fitzpatrick Capsule 12820-A must’ve started to kick in, as Rose answered for me knowingly, “Because it was intoxicating, wasn’t it? Righting the world’s wrongs.”
She wasn’t done there. As if whatever unassociated press existed on our new home planet was listening on every word we said, Rose declared, “I dedicated my entire life to fighting science with science, and I’m not going to stop now.”
Apparently, I had stopped processing my latest social interaction after hearing the phrase “mindless zombies” in a nonfiction setting.
I asked Rose from the past, “How long have you been here?”
“You already asked me that.”
Rose would prompt me to engage more with my own tragic past than her forgettable own, as she probed, “How much do you remember?”
“I have a husband. Kids.”
Surely, what I had just said had had no bearing on the conclusion Rose chose to draw for my benefit as much as her own, but I still took myself for a 90% failure, 10% freak as she figured, “You could have never saved the world by yourself.”
“And we can?”
Again, Rose elicited a half-smile while assuring me, “We have to try.”
She probably didn’t have to be beautiful to sway me in her favor, especially when modern science always spoke better for itself than Croatian Lolitas in prepaid leather and lace. At least when dealing with the international press.
I looked around, as if genuinely expecting to find what I made mention of next.
“Where’s my computer?”
“Who knows. Anyone could have used it.”
Rose kept her position on the bed, as I continued to search for the easiest way possible out of my most devastating existential crisis to date.
Since I couldn’t type my way out of this problem in the dark, Rose continued to keep our present conversation as intellectually luminous as the lone Class VI star shining through the only window in the room.
“Do you really want to go back?”
“Like I said. I have a family.”
“But you ended up here. That was no one’s doing but your own.”
Rose was just talking sense, not coded “I told you so” semantics I had typically avoided after my worse spats with my aging mother since college.
“I just need time to think.”
Rose knew I wasn’t blowing her off, but since I was still struggling to understand how exactly I had gotten to the largest and most diverse solar system in the history of human knowledge she felt the need to assure me, “You wanted to leave. To start over.”
Rather than take offense, Rose answered quite light-heartedly, “Maybe you figured you’d get lonely. And men are—complicated.”
“They destroyed the Earth apparently.”
Rose hadn’t told me as much, but she did figure, “And you’re surprised.”
She didn’t wait for an answer. She rose to her feet, before assuring me, “I’ll get you some food—but you should know—”
Rose reached for something. A digital reading device of some sort.
“This is what you wrote.”
I wasn’t sure what alien technology could possibly look like at this point, especially while existing in only three dimension. I simply figured that Apple could match the technology of whatever I now held in my hands, while reading my last posted article.
When I was done, I muttered weakly, “1s and 0s.”
Rose remained as eloquent as I had once been even when I didn’t always take my professional craft all that seriously, before assuring me, “The universe is a simulation. A simulation only you can end. God’s one true playable character in 2047.”
“Did you say—”
“It took you—over twenty Earth years to get here.”
She explained how far away TRAPPIST-1 was away in light years, and how quickly Musk’s private spaceship could safely travel. About twice the speed of light, which wasn’t fast enough for me apparently.
“My boys,” I cried, which said nothing about what my immediate reaction would’ve been had Rose tried to describe how one of the smartest men on Earth had successfully moved space and time around one of his interstellar two-seat Lambos, not the other way around, just so poor little Liz could watch her children grow older than she felt like acting in this moment.
Rose continued her secondhand narrative, assuring me, “You knew the world was better off without us. That’s why you did what you did. You knew we couldn’t go back.”
Through tears, I claimed in authority as the worst absentee mother and wife of all time, “What I did was very selfish.”
This didn’t make me feel a lick better. My head began to slump down, as I muttered, “I’m so ashamed.”
I couldn’t control my emotions any longer. Not in front of a perfect stranger. Not for the future of the human race. I needed Rose to do what she did next, and that was pep-talk me into playing the heroine of heroines at last.