70,000 Years Ago
Near Present-Day Somalia
The scientist opened her eyes and shook her head, trying to clear it. The ship had rushed her awakening sequence. Why? The awakening process usually happened more gradually, unless… The thick fog in her tube dissipated a bit, and she saw a flashing red light on the wall—an alarm.
The tube opened and cold air rushed in around her, biting at her skin and scattering the last wisps of white fog. The scientist stepped out onto the frigid iron floor and stumbled on nearly lifeless limbs to the control panel. Sparkling waves of green and white light, like a water fountain made of colorful fireflies, sprang up from the panel and engulfed her hand. She wiggled her fingers and the wall display reacted. Yes—the ten-thousand-year hibernation had ended five hundred years early. She glanced at the two empty tubes behind her, then at the last tube in the room, which held her companion. It was already starting the awakening sequence. She worked her fingers quickly, hoping to stop the process, but it was too late.
His tube hissed opened, and he focused on her. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure.”
She manipulated the computer and the wall display brought up a map of the world and a series of statistics. “We have a population alert. Maybe an extinction event.”
She manipulated the system again and the map panned to a small island surrounded by a massive plume of black smoke. “A supervolcano near the equator. Global temperatures have plummeted.”
“Affected subspecies?” her companion asked as he stepped out of his tube and hobbled over to the control station.
“Just one. 8472. On the central continent.”
“That’s disappointing,” he said. “They were very promising.”
“Yes, they were.” The scientist pushed up from the console, now able to stand on her own. “I’d like to check it out.”
Her companion gave her a questioning look.
“Just to take some samples.”
Four hours later, the scientists had moved the massive ship halfway across the small world. In the ship’s decontamination chamber, the scientist snapped the last buckles on her suit, secured her helmet, then stood and waited for the door to open.
She activated the speaker in her helmet. “Audio check.”
“Audio confirmed,” her partner said. “Also receiving video. You’re cleared for departure.”
The doors parted, revealing a white sandy beach. Twenty feet in, the beach was covered in a thick blanket of ash that stretched to a rocky ridge.
The scientist glanced up at the darkened, ash-filled sky. The remaining ash in the atmosphere would fall eventually and the sunlight would return, but by then it would be too late for many of the planet’s inhabitants, including subspecies 8472.
The scientist trudged to the top of the ridge and looked back at the massive black ship, beached like an oversized mechanical whale. The world was dark and still, like many of the pre-life planets she had studied.
“Last recorded life signs are just beyond the ridge, bearing two-five degrees.”
“Copy,” the scientist said as she turned slightly and set out at a brisk pace.
Up ahead she saw a massive cave, surrounded by a rocky area covered in more ash than the beach. She continued her march to the cave, but the going was slower. Her boots slid against the ash and rock, as if she were walking on glass covered in shredded feathers.
Just before she reached the mouth of the cave, she felt something else under her boot, neither ash nor rock. Flesh and bone. A leg. The scientist stepped back and allowed the display in her helmet to adjust.
“Are you seeing this?” she asked.
“Yes. Enhancing your display.”
The scene came into focus. There were dozens of them: bodies, stacked on top of each other all the way to the opening of the cave. The emaciated, black corpses blended seamlessly with the rock below them and the ash that had fallen upon them, forming ridges and lumps that looked more like the aboveground roots of a massive tree.
To the scientist’s surprise, the bodies were intact. “Extraordinary. No signs of cannibalism. These survivors knew each other. They could have been members of a tribe with a shared moral code. I think they marched here, to the sea, seeking shelter and food.”
Her display switched to infrared, confirming they were all dead. Her colleague’s message was clear: get on with it.
She bent and withdrew a small cylinder. “Collecting a sample now.” She held the cylinder to the closest body and waited for it to collect the DNA sample. When it finished, she stood and spoke in a formal tone. “Alpha Lander, Expedition Science Log, Official Entry: Preliminary observations confirm that subspecies 8472 has experienced an extinction-level event. Suspected cause is a supervolcano and subsequent volcanic winter. Species evolved approximately 130,000 local years before log date. Attempting to collect sample from last known survivor.”
She turned and walked into the cave. The lights on each side of her helmet flashed on, revealing the scene inside. Bodies lay clumped together at the walls, but the infrared display showed no signs of life. The scientist wandered further into the cave. Several meters in, the bodies stopped. She glanced down. Tracks. Someone had ventured further. Had it been recently? She waded deeper into the cave.
On her helmet display, a faint sliver of crimson peeked out from the rock wall. Life signs. She rounded the turn and the dark red spread into a glow of amber, orange, blues and greens. A survivor.
The scientist tapped quickly at her palm controls, switching to normal view. The survivor was female. Her ribs protruded unnaturally, stretching her black skin as if they could rip through with every shallow breath she drew. Below the ribs, the abdomen wasn’t as sunken as the scientist would have expected. She activated the infrared again and confirmed her suspicion. The female was pregnant.
The scientist reached for another sample cylinder but stopped abruptly. Behind her, she heard a sound—footsteps, heavy, like feet dragging on the rock.
She turned her head just in time to see a massive male survivor stumble into the cramped space. He was almost twenty percent taller than the average height of the other male bodies she had seen, and more broad-shouldered. The tribe’s chief? His ribs protruded grotesquely, worse than the female’s. He held a forearm up, shielding his eyes from the lights that shone from the scientist’s helmet. He lurched toward the scientist. He had something in his hand. The scientist reached for her stun baton and staggered backward, away from the female, but the massive man kept coming. The scientist activated the baton, but just before the male reached her, he veered away, collapsing against the wall at the female’s side. He handed her the item in his hand—a mottled, rotten clump of flesh. She bit into it wildly, and he let his head fall back against the rock wall as his eyes closed.