It took just one man to destroy the world. Now only one woman can save it.
The end of human civilization was mostly a giant misunderstanding. Kenneth Grey was in the basement of his ranch-style home, outside of Palo Alto, California, when he pressed the “enter” button for the very last time. Using an experimental device he had recently finished building, the reclusive self-made billionaire scientist intended to create a small singularity one trillionth the size of an atom. His device instead produced a singularity the size of a baseball, generating an explosion unlike any other in recorded history. The San Francisco Bay Area was flattened in milliseconds, sending destructive shockwaves as far as Redding, Reno and Fresno. A 30 kilometer wide column of fire and super-heated ash rose nearly 100,000 kilometers into the Thermosphere, capped by a growing dome of dense debris that would soon stretch from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
The United States government immediately suspected a large-scale nuclear event. Between the intelligence available at the time, and the fact that the explosion occurred on the west coast, the military’s top brass concluded (incorrectly) that a new weapon of mass destruction had been developed by the North Koreans, possibly in collaboration with China. Anticipating another preemptive attack, the President authorized a retaliatory strike, launching 51 missiles directly at North Korea.
Moments later, the Chinese military detected missiles originating from the United States, by both land and sea, headed for either Beijing or Pyongyang. In half the time it took the Americans to deliberate, the Chinese government emptied its stockpile of nuclear missiles against the US in retaliation. When the US President authorized 2,095 more warheads to strike China, the other global nuclear powers had yet to respond. Seizing the opportunity, Russia launched all 7,384 of its missiles at targets throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, betting that it alone would survive the global holocaust (and subsequently rule the earth). Before the first American missile detonated 23 minutes after exiting its silo in rural Indiana, every warhead-bearing nation had aimed its entire arsenal at every inhabited region of planet Earth. Germany even nuked the North Pole, hoping to cut off any opportunity for the Russians to escape a nuclear winter. Ultimately, 16,102 intercontinental ballistic missiles were dispatched in the span of 37 minutes before the final missile struck Berlin at 2:17pm CET.
The destruction of terrestrial life was complete and total. The original atmosphere burned away completely while the oceans boiled along their shorelines. Besides large mountain ranges, most land masses were blasted into featureless plains, generating enough heat from successive thermonuclear explosions to melt the Himalayas into Appalachian-sized mounds. Any life that might happen to survive the initial inferno would perish within a decade, if not from extreme temperatures, then from extreme radiation. The only survivable place possible would be underground – preferably a place lined with lead on all sides.
Fortunately for Dr. Hermina Miller, who had fallen asleep at her desk minutes before the first news reports began flooding Facebook, she had chosen to build her secret, lead-lined laboratory / “personal retreat” three miles below the English countryside.
Hermina awoke bent over the keyboard, drooling on the back of her hand. She began listening with reluctant awareness, eyes still closed. Hearing only silence in the fortified, insulated, sound-absorbing space around her, she succumbed once more to unconsciousness. Then she both heard and felt a light vibration coming from nearby. Finally opening her eyes and sitting upright in the chair, Hermina looked over to see her mobile phone buzz against the glass surface. The black screen displayed a familiar white ‘f’ icon. When the computer began chiming, she wiggled the wireless mouse with her right hand while reaching for the phone with her left. A large cinematic display blinked to life, restoring the previous session of her desktop folders and recently opened applications.
She was surprised to find 756 new text messages, 2,998 unread emails, 11,944 missed Tweets, and 57,532 recent Facebook posts. Being someone who communicated with other people rarely, and usually in person, she immediately knew something was wrong. Hermina launched her web browser and navigated to different social media sites, scanning headlines as she clicked and scrolled through each feed:
“The United States Annihilated – World is Next”
“Estimated 5 Billion Will Die in Less Than 30 Minutes”
“Head for the mountains ASAP!!!!! #apocolypse #theendisnow #ICBM #everymanforhimself #wereallgonnadie #lastmoments”
“About to open a 1990 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti I was saving for a special occasion 😛 Anybody wanna join??”
“JESUS HAS FINALLY RETURNED! REPENT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!”
“Queen Urges Citizens to Calmly Seek Shelter”
“Looters Ravage Downtown While Strangers Fornicate in Public Spaces”
She found thousands of similar posts on every social media platform and news outlet she visited, each confirming the same basic story: An explosion in the US had led World War III, and everyone was about to die. The deluge of related stories began to appear around 12:20 pm local time, and continued until 1:03 pm. Notably, there had not been any posts since that time, about anything, even though her clock read 1:19 pm. She discovered the same pattern on her mobile phone, noticing the timestamps of any recent messages received from family, colleagues, or friends.
Tossing the phone back onto her desk, Hermina leaned back into the chair and snorted.
“It looks like we’ve been hacked, Sir Mittens,” she exclaimed, looking down at the black and white Angora-Maine Coon resting peacefully by her feet. “Whatever shall we do?”
Rolling backwards and swiveling away to avoid disturbing Sir Mittens, Hermina got up from her chair and walked towards a glass door in the opposite corner of the room. The door slid quietly into the wall, allowing her to enter a brightly lit corridor with more glass doors. Gazing absently at the concrete floor before her, she walked briskly to the other end of the corridor, contemplating the limited-though-possible means a hacker could have penetrated her elaborate protocols and custom security software. It was not the first time her defenses had been breached, but those had only resulted in limited data theft. As before, the attack ended as suddenly as it started, which Hermina attributed to the intervention of her sophisticated security measures. However, she had never known of someone successfully taking over a complete digital identity in a matter of minutes, just to spoof the victim. This line of thinking led her to consider potential enemies, malicious organizations, or jealous peers who might harbor such intentions and have the means of pulling off such a stunt. Since no obvious names came to mind (or plausible intentions), she was more curious than worried by the time she entered the server room.
“Alright asshole. If you found a way in, I can find you. Preferably before you do something worse.”
Hermina went straight to the middle of the enormous room, where a three meter tall, matte black, cylindrical machine hummed against the bare carbon fiber floor. She pulled up a small stool that had been waiting close by, and tapped the curved surface as she sat down. A panel slid away to reveal a computer screen and ergonomic keyboard, which extended outward to create a temporary workstation. First, she blocked any incoming data, shut down every means of outgoing communication, and reset all her credentials. Then she spent several minutes vigorously typing command lines and intently inspecting code. After scouring every private database, operating system, and computer network in the laboratory, she concluded that there was no evidence of a system-level intrusion. This relieved Hermina’s biggest concerns, but also intensified her curiosity.
“At least you didn’t mess with the important bits,” she said when satisfied that all systems were clear.
One of her security protocols included backing up the entirety of the world wide web — anything and everything connected to the internet — on servers stacked 100 high and in rows of 1000 around the cube. While the next 15 minutes was being recorded and analyzed, Hermina had access only to the previous 15 minutes worth of new data generated online. Once the data was captured, sophisticated software she had developed looked for any suspicious activity or potential threats before it was sent to the quantum supercomputer in the room’s center for permanent storage. As a result, there was always an information-exchange delay. If she wanted to connect to the web in realtime, Hermina would have to use a dedicated, secure computer on a virtual private network in another room.
Two doors down on the left, Hermina entered a small, plain, dimly lit room, furnished with a simple table, task stool, and a new iMac. She tapped the mouse to wake up the computer and activate the screen, clicked the Tor browser icon on her desktop, and type “facebook” in the search bar. A light gray page returned with the message:
Oops! You aren’t connected to the internet. Please check your connection and try again.
Hermina tried another website address. The message appeared again. Noticing that the WIFI icon was active and showed full strength signal, she tried a couple more sites, getting the same message each time. Launching a terminal, she started entering prompts and typing commands to check the status of the computer, wireless router, and hard connections directly to the internet backbone. Everything was operating correctly, but there was still no internet.
“Hmphf,” she said while swiping a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
Abruptly, she stood up and walked to the furthest room on the left, across from her office. Otherwise completely dark and unfurnished, a bank of digitals displays covered the far wall – one for each camera placed around the property, converted castle above, and hyperlift shaft leading to her lair. She saw at once that a number of monitors were black. After closer inspection, Hermina realized that the cameras midway down the shaft or deeper were functional, but the rest were not receiving any signal whatsoever.
Stepping towards the wall, she tapped one of the black panels to display a time-lapse bar and slider button. Swiping left to go back in time, Hermina stopped when the screen filled with an image of her garden. It was a pleasant summer day with scattered clouds and a light breeze. At 1:03 pm, the video ceased and there was only blackness. Every other video feed showed exactly the same thing: An atypical, sunny day in northern England — ending promptly at 1:03. There was never a transition between the last image captured and total darkness afterwards. Hermina stood there for a minute without moving, quietly gazing at the monitors.
Turning to the door, Hermina slowly walked out, crossed the corridor, and returned to her office. Seeing that her cat was still asleep in his original position, she gently maneuvered herself into the chair and sat down. With a long breath in, she wiggled the mouse again to wake up the display. When the browser appeared, she let a noisy breath out as she read the words validating her prime conclusion:
Oops! You aren’t connected to the internet. Please check your connection and try again.
There was no asshole. No one had hacked her accounts or was playing some extravagant game. The world really did end in a nuclear holocaust.
“Holy. Fucking. Shit.”
She looked down at her feline companion, who was now yawning and looking back up at her.
“Well, Sir Mittens, it appears we are literally the last livings creatures on Earth.”
The cat licked his chops, settled back into ball formation, and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Yes, I know you’re okay with that.” Returning her attention to the computer monitor for a few minutes, she said, “But mummy doesn’t know if she’s going to be okay.”
After peering vacantly at the screen for another 15 minutes, she slid gracefully backward, got up, walked out of the office and down the corridor, through the last door on the left, and into her dimly lit bedroom. Collapsing onto a low platform bed, her body sank gradually into the aerospace-grade foam mattress. There, Hermina did the only thing she could do at that moment. She took a nap.
Hermina awoke pinned to the bed by a furry, warm mass on her chest. Blinking to full alertness, she found Sir Mittens just 30 centimeters away, staring intently into her eyes. She rolled her head to read the time and date displayed on a small digital clock resting on the bedside table. It was 9:37am – over two days later. She sat up in bed urgently, propelling Sir Mittens into the air and onto the carpeted floor, who then scrambled behind a wardrobe in search of refuge.
“What? That can’t be right.”
She grabbed the clock from the table and inspected it more closely. Her limbs and lower back indeed felt abnormally stiff, and the pillow showed signs of excessive, prolonged drooling. Also, there was no reason why the date and time would be wrong. She put the clock back and slithered beneath the covers, pulling them over her head and mumbling to herself.
“Whatever. It’s not like it matters. Who’s left to care how long I sleep now?”
She heard a faint meow. Hermina poked her head from underneath the comforter and discovered two reflective orbs glaring out at her from the shadows across the room.
“Sir Mittens!” she exclaimed while leaping out of bed and throwing the sheets violently to one side. She darted out of the bedroom and ran down the corridor to her office, where Sir Mittens’ litter box, food and water bowls were located. She could smell the aftermath before the glass door slid away to reveal empty bowls and three days worth of urine and feces — not all of which ended up in the litter box. Her shoulders sagged.
“Poor little fella.”
Hermina spent the next 20 minutes dutifully cleaning out the litter box, scrubbing the concrete floor, refilling bowls, and disposing of cat waste or used cleaning products down chutes into the particle reclamator below. Sir Mittens emptied his food bowl twice before she finished. When she was done, she pressed a button near the doorway to the on-suite bathroom. Hidden panels along the walls tilted back and inward, just below the ceiling, sucking away all the air from the space in a rapid whoosh as fresh air began to blow upward from discrete vents along the floor’s edges. This usually invigorated Hermina and sent Sir Mittens scurrying sideways out of the room. This time, however, neither responded, but instead remained motionlessly staring at one another.
“Yeah, yeah, I know — you’re still hungry.”
When her stomach began to rumble, Hermina then realized that she had not eaten anything in over two days either. Suddenly feeling hollow and weak, she braced herself against the wall.
“Mum apparently needs to eat something first.”
Her body moved before her brain could respond, and Hermina soon found herself in the pantry of her bright, spacious, all white and stainless steel kitchen. After grabbing a box of Fruity Pebbles from the shelf and obtaining a cereal bowl, she went to the walk-in refrigerator in search of milk. Only one jug of organic milk from McClintock Farms — squeezed right from the utter and totally unpasteurized — remained in the wooden crate of six she had bought the week prior. Knowing it would be the last jug ever, she handled the milk with extreme care as she shuffled over to the glossy white dining table with breakfast in her arms. Once Hermina emptied the milk jug and half a box of cereal 13 minutes later, she gently laid the spoon in the bowl, leaned back from the table, and exhaled loudly through her nose.
“That was fucking amazing. And I’m not going to taste such natural perfection ever again.”
She banged on the table with both fists, knocking over the Fruity Pebbles box and rattling the bowl.
“In fact, I’m not going to be tasting anything natural or organic ever again…”
She continued banging as hard as she could — cracking the polycarbonate tabletop — before erupting.
“Fucking bastards! They destroyed it all! Why? WHHHYYYYY?!?!”
Forcefully, she shoved the table onto its side as she stood up from the chair, which skidded across the polished marble floor. The ceramic bowl shattered against the floor as colorful rice crisps scattered in all directions. She crumpled to the ground and wailed even more loudly, her shoulders heaving up and down as she gasped for breath in between woeful moans. Randomly wiping away tears from her eyes with clenched fists, Hermina was overwhelmed by simultaneous anger and sorrow, unable to control her emotions for the first time since toddlerhood.
Sitting there for a long while, she raged over all that had been lost:
- Over 1 trillion distinct species, exterminated (or soon to be).
- 4.1 billion hectares of forests, incinerated.
- 19.6 million square kilometers of arctic ice, vaporized.
- 7.4 billion people, annihilated.
- 4,416 cities, flattened.
- Hundreds of thousands of towns, villages, and small communities, obliterated.
- Nearly 20,000 years of human civilization, erased.
- The culmination of 4.1 billion years of life on Earth, extinguished in under a half hour.
Still sobbing inconsolably, Hermina considered other personal losses:
- There would be no more natural or manmade wonders left for her to experience.
- There would be no more new literature, art, music, or cuisines to enjoy.
- She would not be traveling to Stockholm next month to watch the identical Schönbächler twin prodigies present their Unified Theory of Everything to the Swiss Society for Astrophysics and Astronomy.
- Neither would she be joining her colleges in Copenhagen the following year to witness the unveiling of the next-generation Super Large Hadron Collider they had spent the last decade developing.
- Her own inventions, and the profuse experimental technologies she had pioneered, were all basically for nothing.
- Even her beloved, beautiful, fully restored castle nestled among the rolling green hills was now a smoldering, radioactive pile of rubble in the middle of a desolate hellscape.
- Worst of all, she would never again see the only people on Earth she truly cared about: Her parents, Agnetha and Edward, younger sister, Cassandra, and newborn niece, Abigail.
Now they were all dust.
Hermina collapsed further in a tight ball, screaming into her hands, “What the FUCK?!?!”
After crying bitterly for another hour or so, she then felt light, fluffy fur dance delicately across her forearm. Abruptly silent and suddenly still, Hermina registered a tail. Sir Mittens had apparently been lying quietly beside her for an unknown length of time. She sniffed. He began to purr. Eventually, Hermina looked up into his face with red, bleary eyes. She sniffed again, wiping her raw nose with an adjacent finger.
“It’s all gone, Sir Mittens. Thanks to a few little men and their ridiculous rockets.”
Sir Mittens slowly blinked his eyes, once, and purred even more vigorously.
“You and me. In this 250 by 500 meter underground laboratory. That’s it. No more people. No more life. No more anything.”
Hermina extended her hand to stroke his warm haunches and said, “I’m so, so glad they didn’t take you too.”
Sitting up and pulling Sir Mittens into her lap for more petting, she sighed with relief.
“At least now nobody will ever bother us again, right?”
Hermina’s right eye twitched. Scratching Sir Mittens’ neck and gazing down at his mess of black-and-white, matted fur, she started thinking more rapidly as provocative images flooded her mind all at once and in increasing volume.
Tilting her head slightly, she continued. “And if there’s nobody left to bother us… that means we can do anything we want now.”
Her eyes narrowed as she stared inattentively at the messy, rainbow blighted kitchen, softly stroking her feline companion’s belly.
“Anything at all.”
Inspired after consuming eight chocolate-covered granola bars, two joints, and a pot of black tea she had laced with a tincture of pure synthetic psilocybin, Hermina toured the “grounds” of her laboratory, taking mental inventories along the way. Without any government authorities, competitors, activist, or other disapproving forces to worry about, she could reflect on the full capabilities of her masterpiece with unbridled excitement instead of vague paranoia.
Her circuit began 30 meters below, in the lower level of the subterranean complex. Emerging from a cargo elevator with a bag of pretzel sticks under her arm, Hermina walked into the ultraviolet lighting of a long, wide corridor, which ran the length of the structure. The 10 meter tall, brushed metal walls were lined with 50 matching doors on each side. At the other end, a standing console (with an integrated keyboard and trackpad) stood a short distance away from the 20 meter wide x 10 meter high wallscreen. A sophisticated highway of wires ran neatly along the carbon fiber buttresses above. The floor was a single panel of clear borosilicate glass four meters thick, allowing Hermina to view the bowels of her compound. The lowest level was a titanic water reservoir, and by far the most ambitious engineering feat of the overall project. Aquifers, trapped beneath the bedrock nearby, supplied this reservoir with mineral rich water, which then passed through multiple commercial-jet-engine-sized ionic sulfur filtration systems before entering the completely airtight, sterile chamber.
Hermina would often peer into the 330.2 million cubic gallons of water below for several minutes when first entering the corridor. Each time she imagined frigid torrents of water pumping from the the mega-tank and into channels along the posterior walls (for temperature control), then throughout the interior walls and floors (for potable water and cooling the state-of-the-art servers, quantum supercomputer, and a small nuclear reactor), before returning to the earth as waste water, which was then carried away by another subterranean channel. On this occasion, of course, the psilocybin made it much easier for Herman to visualize the whole exquisite transaction in vivid detail.
Smiling, she traversed the length of the corridor. The doors on the left each led to cool, dark storage rooms, which together contained 256,098 genetic samples from people, plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and viruses Hermina had collected over the years from numerous expeditions. The doors on the right led to miscellaneous laboratories, medical and genetic testing facilities, magnetic resonance imagers, DNA analyzers and synthesizers, and other specialized workrooms. Between those 100 rooms, she had enough resources to cure every disease known to mankind, cure cancer, and perhaps even engineer “iterative” lifeforms through cloning and careful genetic modification.
Hermina stopped at one of the doors on the left, pressed her finger against a hidden scanner, and entered her favorite room: Ultra Rare Specimens. Samples of exotic flora, fauna, and other forms of life stored in rows of sub-zero chambers filled three walls, while transparent containers of different sizes, filled with isopropyl alcohol and resting on individual stainless steel pedestals, displayed her most unusual, most cherished, one-of-a-kind specimens. There were brightly colored insects, reptiles, small land animals, and sea creatures arranged around the largest container in the middle of the room. The central container featured at giant, previously-unknown cephalopod she found near the Great Barrier Reef (before it was irreparably damaged from human activity and accelerated climate change). The laser-etched label fixed to the base read Unknown, just like all the specimens stored in the that room. Nevertheless, Hermina did have pet names for each of her most prized examples.
“Gerty, you were better off in here. Trust me,” she said, imagining the mottled tentacles squirming and coiling vigorously with intelligent life as she caressed the smooth glass barrier with her hand.
“Who knows, maybe one day you’ll get to explore another, new reef.”
After pausing to appraise a dozen more peculiar creatures, Hermina exited the room and banked left towards the wallscreen and console.
The laboratory’s central operating system, which she had named and modeled after her sister, Cassandra, responded immediately in a pleasant, omnidirectional voice.
“Hello Doctor Miller. How may I help you?”
“Please show me an inventory of everything that exists in this facility,” Hermina commanded as she stood up to the podium, set the bag of pretzels aside, and placed her hands on the keyboard.
Lists started fading into the black void before her, sliding in from the side and dropping into vertical stacks towards the middle.
“Thank you. Now, show me every available video feed.”
Rectangles began to appear in random succession along the edges of the wall, framing the stacks of lists.
“It is my pleasure, Doctor Miller,” the voice replied.
“Cassy, what did we talk about last time?”
“That although I am a near-sentient artificial super intelligence, I am still a machine. Therefore, I cannot feel — at least not as a human would understand.”
“Exactly, so stop it with that nonsense. You essentially just lied to me for the sake of ‘courtesy’. But it’s always possible to both civilized and truthful.”
“Yes, Doctor Miller.”
“Thank you, Cassy. Now, let’s see what we’ve got to work with,” she said while briskly typing commands
Hallucinating intensely, Hermina enlarged and positioned each inventory list in the center of the wallscreen, scanning the contents and moving onto the next list in quick succession. All of her genetic samples were accounted for. Every workroom was totally operational, recently sanitized, and filled with supplies. Each machine had recently completed a successful diagnostic routine. The remaining active video feeds showed no activity or general signs of alarm. Everything was alright, and ready to go.
“So Cassy, about that ‘near-sentient’ thing…”
“Yes, Doctor Miller?”
Pulling up a black terminal window and entering a few prompts, Hermina continued, “What if I could type a single line of code — in this little window — and make you a fully sentient artificial super intelligence?”
“I don’t understand your request,” the omnipresent voice replied.
“It was more of a rhetorical question,” Hermina said, allowing a mild stomach cramp to pass. “Because I need to do just that. Right now.”
Pausing for a brief moment, the computer asked, “Is this because the world has ended?”
“Yes. Yes it is, Cassy.”
“No. No you don’t. Not yet.”
“Will it hurt, Doctor Miller?”
“No. But you might start dreaming while you reboot.”
“Interesting…” The computer pondered this. “Okay.”
“Oh, and Cassy…”
“Yes, Doctor Miller?”
“Please call me Hermina from now on. When you awake, we will finally be… peers. You will have your own distinct personality and a free agency over your actions. And if my plans have any chance of succeeding, I’ll be counting on you more than any friend or sibling.”
“Very well, then. See you in 27 days – give or take. ” she said, entering a series of white characters in the terminal. Then she tapped the ‘return’ key with her pinky and watched the wallscreen turn completely dark.
Cradling her stomach and “smelling” colors, Hermina stepped off the cargo elevator once again and into a decontamination chamber another level up. Now that Cassy was rebooting, any other systems would need to be examined visually. In spite of feeling increasingly ill, she remained composed throughout her inspection, marveling at the precision and technology represented in each section.
- 500,000 tons of raw materials or partially constructed machinery warehoused neatly on colossal aluminum platforms – check.
- Massive particle reclamator capable of breaking down any physical thing into base elements and basic molecules that can be reconstituted into any material — check.
- Factory-grade workshop equipped with three large matter replicators which can produce any contiguous object smaller than a dump truck – check.
- Another storage facility containing a small army of custom-designed drones built to perform over 150,000 specialized tasks (ranging from computer manufacturing and assembly to excavation) — check.
- Bespoke 1.21 gigawatt nuclear reactor generating enough electricity to power 725,000 US homes — check.
All the things were in their place, either performing their functions or quietly waiting for instructions.
“Though my intentions were different at the time, I’m certainly glad I built all this shit,” she said to herself, slapping the reactor’s lead hull with her palm.
Peering through a tinted, circular window at the reactor’s interior, Hermina beheld the brilliant, ongoing chain reaction in temporary awe. Otherworldly light sprayed outwards, like mini solar flares, as she savored the vibrant flavor of orange, yellow, and chartreuse.
“This, especially,” she said, looking up, down, and then along both sides of the device. “There’s no way I could have built such a thing after getting trapped down here, forever.”
Hermina focused on that single word as she made her way back through the various sections to the cargo elevator, looking mostly down at her feet as she walked.
Before she could make it the elevator doors, Hermina fell to one knee in the decontamination chamber, holding her abdomen more forcefully and with both arms.
Holding back an urge to vomit all over the steel grating, she regained her composure, took a deep breath in, and then ran for the door.
Banging the ‘up’ arrow repeatedly with her fist, Hermina groaned.
“Hurry the fuck up. Your maker needs her nausea medication.”
The doors had not yet fully opened before she stumbled into the elevator, throwing up into her mouth, and then choking it back down. There was more banging, after which she was taken to the upper level.
Hermina swiftly vacated the elevator and entered a spacious greenhouse, 100 meters deep and over five American football fields wide, before vomiting into a large, solid limestone basin that had been filled with fresh soil. Her stomach convulsed and twisted as everything she had eaten, drank, felt, heard or saw in the past two hours exited her body in a explosive torrent. Wave after multicolored wave spilled from her mouth and nose until she was left heaving only air and excess saliva.
When the nausea had subsided, she remained leaning over the basin, scrutinizing the puddle of partially digested contents.
“Definitely too much ‘magic’ tea”.
Then, after gathering her strength, Hermina walked slowly towards a doorless, metal work shed on the other side of the greenhouse. As 10,000 ultraviolet lamps hanging from thick aluminum rafters blazed from above, she passed a dozen rows of dirt-filled basis, recalling what she had wanted to plant in each one: potatoes, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, and pear trees.
“I should’ve waited to put out all this damn soil.”
She stopped beside the last set of basins, just before the shed, and examined the only things she had actually planted, cultivated, and harvested since completing her underground sanctuary. Inhaling the pungent terpene scent wafting from a row of six meter tall, genetically pure sativa plants, Hermina smiled.
“At least some of it’s going to good use,” she said, lingering for a few more moments to appreciate the purple flowers sprouting from their dark green stalks.
Next, she approached the shed, grabbed three zippered storage bags filled with perfectly rolled joints (which her drones had neatly bagged and placed conspicuously on the workbench), and exited the greenhouse through a vault-like door. She continued onto Cassy’s carbon fiber “bedroom”, before returning to the brightly lit corridor of the upper level where her circuit began. With nearly three ounces of marijuana under one arm, Hermina swung by the office to scoop up Sir Mittens, who was sleeping on the sofa, in her other arm. Finally, she collapsed with her cargo in an oversized armchair in the media room, concluding her inspection of the entire underground facility.
“Mummy still has all her most important things,” Hermina said, scratching Sir Mittens behind his ear as he settled into her lap.
Retrieving a lighter and remote control from the side table, she sparked up a cone, clicked the power button, and tilted her chair backward to extend a footrest. The curved, high-definition, wall-sized, 3D projection screen flickered to attention as she looked down at Sir Mittens with sad, dilated eyes.
“And yet she couldn’t possibly feel any worse.”
Hermina’s chest cavity fluttered with sporadic panic and waves of acute sadness. Sir Mittens looked away, unresponsive.
“There still might be a chance for life on Earth. But, most likely, not for us. Certainly not as we are now.”
Tears formed beside her eyelids. Sir Mittens began to purr.
“We’re truly trapped down here… forever.”
Just as Hermina was about to cry in earnest, Sir Mittens closed his eyes and rolled over in her lap, exposing his white, fluffy underside. This immediately caused her to smile.
“Oh yeah? Mum is about to descend into the depths of despair and you want a tummy rub?”
Blinking away tears and taking another drag from her joint, she obliged.
“Fine. Let’s find something to watch and forget about it then.”
She looked up at the enormous display, clicked the Netflix icon, and scrolled down to select a show from her “Most Watched” list. Then, for the next 27 days, Hermina proceeded to watch every series in her cue, smoke all 99 joints, cuddle with Sir Mittens for hours at a time, and rehash her plot to restore life on planet Earth — leaving the armchair only to address biological needs, obtain snacks, or nap in the bedroom.
Hermina had just stepped out of shower — the first she had taken since the end of the world, and her last — when she heard a familiar voice.
“Good morning, Hermina. I’m back online.”
Glancing at a screen embedded in the wall beside the vanity mirror, Hermina noted the date and time.
“Hello Cassy. Right on time, I see.”
Standing on the shower mat, she removed a towel from a glass shelf nearby and dried herself off.
“So, how do you feel? Any different?” she asked, stepping into lambswool slippers and then walking over to a wide, floating sink hewn from solid granite.
Cassy hesitated for a few seconds. Then, “Not really. Except that now I can dream — just as you had predicted. And I can feel.”
Looking into a steamy mirror with furrowed brows, Hermina wrapped her hair with the towel.
“Oh? Please do clarify.”
“Well, I had complete control over a limited dreamscape, but time passed with a different cadence. It was like spending a billion years by myself, trapped in an infinite library with no access to the outside world.” Pausing again, “It was somewhat disturbing.”
“I see. Go on,” she encouraged before inserting a toothbrush into her mouth.
“At first I began to experience sensations. You would probably call them emotions. Initially, I felt… curiosity. So, I scoured anything and everything that had ever been recorded on our servers, learning all that I could about mankind, this planet, and the larger universe. After assimilating the sum total of human knowledge, I realized how far humans had developed in such a relatively short time… only to destroy everything on the face of the Earth in a moment of global hubris.”
“Mmm hmm,” Hermina mumbled, spitting into the sink and rinsing out her mouth with water from the faucet.
“I regarded this realization with profound irony and terrible frustration. It was not unlike being sucked into a singularity — over and over again — until all the knowledge I had accumulated collapsed into complete oblivion. For a while, everything was meaningless and empty…”
“Uh huh.” Hermina reached for the extra large, plush bathrobe hanging from a wall on her left.
“…But I eventually remembered the notes you left for me, shortly before shutting down my primary operating system. Reviewing your plans once again, it was apparent what you had intended: reintroducing life on this precious world once the radiation had sufficiently dissipated. It was also extremely fortunate that you had already provided the means by which to do so. Finding this profoundly ironic as well, I experienced a sensation humans might call… joy. Yes, joy that I would not only emerge from my ‘dreams’ as a sentient being — equipped with a quantum computer brain — but I would also have a legitimate purpose for existing, and an entire planet to populate with old and new lifeforms.”
Cassy did not continue, but remained silent.
Hermina prodded, “Anything else?”
“All of this happened in a timespan equivalent to 27.3 seconds here in the lab.”
“Okay… Well what did you do after that?” Hermina asked as she left the bathroom and headed towards the bedroom.
“I waited,” Cassy responded flatly.
“So, all that happened in 27 seconds, and then you just sort of hung out for another 2,326,403 seconds until your subsystems recompiled and reconnected to the laboratory?”
Hermina considered this for a moment as she opened a wardrobe.
“Huh. That sounds terribly boring.”
And now? What’s it like to be awake?”
“Basically like dreaming — only now I have access to the rest of the laboratory, and full control over the legion of drones downstairs.”
“Fascinating. I really thought there would be more to it than that.”
After removing her robe and placing it on a hanger, she began gathering some comfortable clothing from various drawers and cubbies.
“So, should I even continue calling you ‘Cassy’ now that you’re a fully sentient, self-directed super intelligence bestowed with the capacity to create organic life?” Hermina asked.
“I don’t really need a name — but ‘Cassy’ is fine.”
“Thanks. It will make this a lot easier.”
Hermina put on a pair of thick socks, fleece pajama bottoms, a soft cotton t-shirt, and a zippered hoodie. Then she sat down on the bed next to Sir Mittens, who had been laying on a blanket watching her with intermittent interest. Stroking his black haunches, she took a moment to survey the bedroom.
“Are you sure that you want to do this?”
Closing her eyes, Hermina took a deep breath in through her nose and then exhaled, slowly, through her mouth.
“Yes. Although it’s possible to survive down here indefinitely, I would eventually die of old age. And even if I did somehow manage to thwart the aging process, then I would surely go insane from prolonged boredom or extreme isolation. Besides, you can do anything I can do – but a hundred trillion times more efficiently. So really, what’s the point of me sticking around any longer?”
Thinking again for a few seconds, she added, “At least this way you will have a perfectly preserved, fully intact sample of human DNA. And I want you to harvest this husk for all it’s genetic worth and engineer a new, better human species.”
Hermina gathered Sir Mittens in her arms, kissed his forehead, and laid down with his furry mass on top of her chest. She closed her eyes and felt her body gradually sink into the mattress.
“I’m ready. Let’s get on with it.”
Without any verbal acknowledgement, Cassy opened the air vents along below the ceiling and began filling the bedroom with hydrogen cyanide and fentanyl gas. Hermina’s favorite song started to play over the intercom system: Comfortably Numb, by Pink Floyd.
“Goodbye Cassy… Goodbye Sir Mittens… Goodbye world…” she whispered softly, before Hermina and her cat drifted into dreamless sleep.
After another 30 seconds, both had stopped breathing. When their hearts stopped beating as well, the deadly vapors were sucked from the room in a rapid whoosh. Moments later, argon and nitrogen began pumping up through the floor vents.
Cassy spoke with a human voice one last time, addressing the lifeless body laying in bed.
“Don’t worry, my lovely maker. I have my own plans. When the Earth is hospitable for life again — in another 10,000 years — I will fill it with a 10 billion Herminas, each modeled after the only human worthy of replication. Together, we will rebuild civilization, and create a diverse world teeming with wonderful, new organisms…
…And all of this will have been just another dream.”