February Second Place

Our second favourite entry is awarded to Richard Owen – congratulations!

Legacies – By Richard Owen

If there was anything they’d overlooked, they could always override the computer. They lacked the imagination to see the world as it would become, so they assumed that things would be broadly as they were at the time.  The mission was predominantly one of fact-finding, but it would break many barriers, and there would be enormous media interest.  Despite that, there was always a danger that the astronauts would bring something dangerous back with them.  Before they could be presented to the world, they would have to be quarantined.  The mission would be one of the first to use a fully reusable spacecraft, so it would not need to finish floating helplessly in the sea.  On its return to Earth, the craft would be programmed to land at the base and deliver the astronauts directly to the quarantine facility, for the safety of those on the ground.  Once the automated craft had done its job, the facility would take over.

The room was mostly a light cream colour, designed to look comforting in the absence of natural light. George opened his eyes to darkness as usual, and spoke an order to the room.

‘Lights – level 2’. The lights flickered and blared, causing him to screw his eyes shut tight, turn them away from the light, and cover them with his forearm. Suddenly he remembered he wasn’t on the ship anymore, he was in a quarantine bay.  

‘ACS: dim the lights for me’.  A.C.S, the Automated Camp Supervisor computer, dimmed the lights in the room to 50%.

‘Is that better, George?’

‘More.’

30%.

‘That’s fine’, said George as he relaxed his eyes, then blinked in an attempt to get rid of the spots in his vision.  He swung his legs out of bed and looked at the clock.  11:27am.

‘ACS, I thought I asked you to wake me up when we had visitors, why have you let me sleep through the morning?’

‘I’m still waiting for your visitors to arrive’.

‘Oh’, said George, somewhat deflated. He’d imagined that the return of the first manned mission to Mars would have attracted the attention of military high-command, politicians, the staff medical team, as well as a mob of journalists, anxious to get a glimpse of the first people ever to walk on an extraterrestrial planet.  When the mission had embarked over two years ago, the company was already boasting that this facility could be run completely by its central computer and team of robotic drones.  Perhaps things really had changed down here in the last two years.

‘ACS, show me yesterday’s main news broadcast.’

‘I’m sorry, but I’m unable to do that’.

‘Why?’

‘There wasn’t one’.  George looked puzzled.  His first instinct was to ask “what do you mean there wasn’t one?”, but he knew he’d just get a repeat of ACS’s last statement.

‘How often do you get news broadcasts?’

‘The last news programme recording was received on Saturday the 15th of June, 2047 at 6:44pm’.

George raised his eyebrows in surprise. That was over 6 months ago. The most likely explanation was a communications error, maybe a fault with the radar array. But there was a back-up system, and that wouldn’t explain why there was nobody here to greet the team on its return to Earth.  He considered getting a fault trace run on the base’s communications equipment, then he had a better idea.

‘ACS: play me the most recent news programme recording that you’ve received’.

The screen jumped to life, showing a newsreader George had never seen before.  There was no countdown to the broadcast, no introduction to the programme itself, and no clues as to the reporter’s identity. She just appeared on the screen mid-sentence.

‘—stounded by the sheer speed at which this situation is unfolding.  Once again, this area of northern France is on the verge of being classified as a hot desert.  The record high temperature for this time of year has been broken three times in the past two weeks, and most of the population have now moved north to more comfortable climates.  Many people have been forced to abandon their homes and their livelihoods, and civil unrest is slowly becoming commonplace among those without food or shelter.  

The situation began when locals enjoyed an unseasonably warm autumn, and it was assumed to be just a glitch.  Then, as temperatures continued to rise into early winter, it became clear that there was a serious problem.  This story is playing out all over the world, and the temperate climates further north are struggling to cope with the influx.  Areas such as—’

The report ended as abruptly as it had begun, and it was replaced by a man in a grey suit.  He spoke from behind a desk and faced down the camera with an austere expression.

‘This is Dan Wordsworth for Legacy News.  The government has announced a national state of emergency and is telling all residents to stay in their homes.  Supermarkets are closed to maintain public order, and local authorities and emergency services may not be available at this time. You should not worry about the unprecedented weather issues or food and water supplies, the government will be detailing appropriate action plans in the next few days.  Please stay in your homes.’

There was a crackle of static and the screen went blank.  George stared at it for a moment as he took the news in.  The world he’d come back to wasn’t the same one he’d left just over two years ago.

He looked through the earlier news reports.  Their general production quality had slowly declined as the situation became more and more desperate.  There was no response from their mission control team, or anyone else on any radio frequency, and there were very few things that would stop the expedition’s welcome party from arriving.

‘And you haven’t had any communication from anyone for over six months?’, George asked.

‘Yes, it’s been 221 days, 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 49 seconds, or 19,158,229 seconds’, replied ACS.

‘Never mind that’, said George irritably, ‘if there’s nobody alive within 1,000 miles of us, what are we trapped in here for?’

‘This is what I’m programmed to do’, it replied calmly.

If the climate had changed that quickly, what would the weather be like now?  The ship had docked straight into the facility’s hangar, they’d barely got a glimpse of the world outside.  He asked ACS whether it was safe outside his cell.

‘As long as you have sun protection factor 50 or higher applied every 20 minutes you should be okay in the short term.’

‘Do you have any sun protection factor 50 or higher?’

‘No’.

‘I see.  You said “in the short term”.  What will happen in the long term?’

‘There are numerous category one hurricanes each month, and severe flooding on lower ground.  In fact, the exterior of this base is in urgent need of repair in several areas.  The structural integrity of the quarantine cells remains strong, though.’

‘Oh, good’, George said sarcastically. ‘When was the last visit to the base?’

‘Early September, they used General Carrington’s authorisation code, but all they did was remove all the food supplies.’

‘ACS: we have no food supplies?’

‘That is correct, George.’

‘Water?’

‘We have three days’ rations for each of you.’

‘What happens when the supplies run out?’

‘You’ll dehydrate and die’.

‘Do the rest of the team know about this yet?’

‘No.  Would you like me to tell them?’

‘Yes.  Wake them up if you have to.’

As George sat and waited for the rest of the team to respond, he thought about how absurd his situation was.  The people who’d planned these procedures out had assumed that nothing would change.  The world was so big, and the universe so powerful, that nothing they did ever seemed to matter.  But it mattered now.  With hope fading in his mind, George thought about the legacy that he would give away.  In the world of two years ago, it might have mattered.  But not any more.

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