The words “Sleeper Bay 14” are stenciled in big blue letters on the gray metal ceiling above my stasis pod. I have been staring at them for a while now, though I suppose it has not been as long as it seems; everybody is in a rush to get us on our way before the next attack. To ease my anxiety, I focus on the quiet hum of the pod and the faint vibrations from the ark’s idling engines. The Bellerophon is the most advanced piece of technology man has ever made; it’s going to take us to the stars.
One of the technicians—Jeanette, I think—finally gets to my pod. “Sorry for the wait,” she says. Then she is all business as she runs the diagnostics on the pod’s systems one last time. She places her hand on my chest and gives me a reassuring smile.
“Everything looks good, John. I am going to put you to sleep now. Have a safe journey.” I imagine she says exactly the same thing to every sleeper, but she somehow makes it sound like it is meant just for me.
She inserts a hypodermic needle into the IV on my wrist and a cold sensation makes its way up a vein in my arm. In a few moments I will drift off to sleep and Jeanette will activate the pod’s stasis field, capturing me in a moment of time, suspended between two ticks of a clock. If all goes well, I will sleep for one hundred and sixty-seven years.
I close my eyes and wait for the drug to take effect.
But something doesn’t feel right. The stasis pod has gone silent and the ark’s vibrations have stopped. The pod’s cover pops its seal with a hiss, and my eyes open in time to watch it slide into the wall. Something has happened to the ark; we haven’t launched.
The dimly lit bay is eerily silent. I grab the edges of the pod and pull myself into a sitting position. I am not in the pod bay. I am in a room I have not seen before. And I am not alone.
There are three of them, humanoid, but definitely not human. They are naked and hairless and blue from head to toe, with long spindly arms and legs, and facial features at once recognizable and utterly alien: elf-like ears, eyes startlingly large and round, little ear-like flaps where a nose should be, small mouths that look like they are stuck in a permanent pucker. Two of them stand at least three meters tall, the third is about my height.
Terror, horror, panic, astonishment, confusion—they run roughshod all over each other. I settle on astonishment.
One of the aliens, the shorter one, moves toward me. I think it is a she because of the almost comically large breasts. Neither of the other two have breasts, not even vestigial. My eyes are drawn to her genitals, which look nothing like human genitals. They remind me of a sea anemone that has closed up its tentacles, leaving only a lumpy stub behind. One of the other aliens has a human-looking vulva right where I would expect to find one if she were human; the other alien has unmistakably male genitals. He also has in his hand what looks like a weapon.
The shorter one stands beside the stasis pod and peers down at me. I can see my reflection in her huge, dark eyes. When she speaks, her puckered mouth opens and closes like a gasping fish. It sends a shiver down my back.
“Songs of greeting, John Atleo,” she says. “This one is named Vuepyan Gra’Reewauk. It is easy for you to call me Vuepy.”
Her voice is pitched low, near the bottom of my hearing range, and she speaks with a bass sing-song accompanied by woofs and warbles and honks. I have to concentrate to pick out the words.
“In our imaginings this waking is not among your expectations.” She is pausing between each sentence as though searching for the next words to say.
“In the present time, you are on a Qroit science vessel. It was deemed harmonious to rescue you from your vessel. Be certain there is no danger to you.”
“You speak English!” I blurt out.
I don’t know why I choose this for my first words to the first alien the human race has ever encountered. Probably because I didn’t choose at all; it just came out. My brain is having trouble generating coherent thoughts.
Her mouth contracts into a straight line and begins pulsating. Goose bumps crawl around on my arms.
A tiny device sits between her nose flaps, with a thin tube leading to a larger device attached to a belt around her waist, the only article of clothing she is wearing. The other two wear the same device. It looks like a hospital oxygen tube, so maybe it is some kind of breathing device.
My brain starts to re-engage. “The others who were with me,” I croak.
The one called Vuepy warbles, “Only a few of the stasis pods were singing when we found your vessel. We were able to save two. The songs of the others — ”
“Two? That can’t be right. There were a thousand sleepers on the Bellerophon.” My voice rises in pitch and volume and I know am becoming hysterical. “Have you tried to revive the others? There might be — ”
Her mouth opens wide, revealing two concentric circles of small, sharp teeth that look like something out of a horror movie. She takes a step back. The male alien makes a woofing sound and raises his weapon, but the female beside him makes a sound like a choir of bass singers and he lowers it. I take in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Vuepy tilts her head to one side and steps close again. “They have sung their last songs, John Atleo. They have no more songs to sing.”
I take this in, but I can’t seem to do anything with it, as though there is no mental hook in my mental closet to hang it on, so it just falls to the floor in a heap. They are dead. My family. My people. My traditions. The other colonists. At first I feel numb, then the enormity of it hits me. They are gone. All the hopes, all the dreams, all the futures … gone.
A tear rolls down my cheek.
I am suddenly tired, too tired to speak, too tired to think, too tired to care about anything. I lie back down in the pod. Vuepy leans over and stares at me, her bug-eyed alien face invading my space. I want her to go away. I want them all to go away. I squeeze my eyes shut.
“We do not understand your sorrow,” she says. “Those who sing no more in the present time still sing in the past time. Nonetheless, a requiem rises in our hearts for your loss. When you are ready, we will take you to join the other one who still sings in the present time.”
* * *
Her name is Noomi Ikande. She is Nigerian, maybe in her mid-thirties, with a lovely round face and a short curly afro.
After she introduces herself she says, “My husband and my daughter” — she pauses — “they did not survive the journey.” She holds her head high with her eyes fixed stoically on the far wall.
“I am sorry for your loss,” I tell her. It is not enough, but it is all I have.
We are seated at a table in a room large enough to accommodate both us and the aliens. They have located themselves along the farthest wall: two males, two females, two of whatever Vuepy is. I think they are trying to give us space.
“I am John Atleo,” I say to Noomi. “I am a descendent of the Kwantlen Nation, a North American First Nations people who lived in Western Canada before the CRA dissolved the First Nations as political entities.”
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Twelve of my people are … were with me. My wife, my two children, and others in my family. We hoped to bring the traditions of our people to a new world.” My voice breaks. “They did not wake up.”
Her eyes find mine. “I am sorry, John Atleo.”
We sit in silence for a while. She asks me, “What are we going to do?”
I do not have an answer to this question.
The two shorter aliens stride — that’s the only way I can describe their long-legged gait — across the room and fold themselves into chairs made for people our size. I have lost track of which one is Vuepy.
One of them says, “This one is named Obolan Jen’Fleewek. It would be pleasant for you to call me Obol. I was in the present with you, Noomi Ikande, when you were awakened.”
Her voice has less tonal variation than Vuepy’s, which makes her easier to understand.
She gestures toward the other one. “This one is named Vuepyan Gra’Reewauk. It would be pleasant for you to call her Vuepy. She was present with you, John Alteo, when you were awakened.”
Vuepy rumbles like distant thunder. “We are the bearers of the Qroit. It falls to us to sing on behalf of the Qroit.”
A doors slides open and a male carrying a box strides in. He places the box on the table in front of Vuepy and Obol, says something to them, and leaves.
Vuepy woofs and warbles: “Food and drink. It is in our imaginings that you might desire sustenance.” She does the lip-pulsing thing. A smile maybe?
“We have studied your physiology and have created food and drink that will satisfy your nutritional needs and is safe for you to consume.“
The food turns out to be small colored cubes with the consistency of tofu. I try a red one and am treated to an explosion of fruity flavors that release one after another in quick succession. It takes me a few moments to decide I like it. Noomi watches me, waiting for my judgment.
“Eh,” I say. “Not bad for alien food.”
She bursts out laughing, which causes Vuepy and Obol to start flapping their hands. The males bring their weapons up and point them at us.
I hold up both hands in what I hope is a universal gesture of surrender.
“Laughter.” I explain. “I made a joke and Noomi thought it was funny.”
Obol sings something in their language, and everyone relaxes. I am struck by how easy it would be for a serious misunderstanding to arise between us. It also strikes me that the Qroit are as unsure of us as we are of them.
* * *
“Tell us what happened to the ark?” Noomi says.
We have eaten and showered — there is a bathroom and shower facility specially designed for us — and put on clean clothes provided by the aliens. They have done their homework.
Obol answers Noomi’s question. “A fast picket on routine patrol discovered your spaceship. It was drifting, and they thought it was a derelict until a quiet scan detected faint electronic signatures. They called on this vessel, the Agnori Pels, to investigate.
“We believe that sometime in the past, your vessel collided with something that was too large for its deflection field to handle. Its point defense cannons broke up the approaching object, but that only spread the damage when it hit. The fore-and-aft sections of the spindle were torn away along with a third of the wheel. The vessel’s artificial intelligence sealed off breached areas, jettisoned the fusion drive, and did what damage control it could. It redirected all remaining power to critical systems and to the stasis pods, and went into sleep mode.”
Vuepy picks up the story without missing a beat. “When we sang a louder scan, we apparently awakened the artificial intelligence and systems started singing throughout the vessel, only to fall silent after a short time. We believe the ship’s systems had deteriorated over time and were not able to synchronize with the rhythms of restored power.”
Obol takes over so smoothly that I wonder if they have some kind of telepathy going on between them. “Then we heard songs of active stasis pods. Your technology is not much different from ours in this regard. Fourteen of them were still singing, though they too were failing one after another.”
Vuepy continues. “We dispatched a rescue team but explosions rang through the vessel, causing it to lose structural integrity. It began falling apart around us. We were able to move only two pods to the Agnori Pels before the vessel broke into many pieces and fell everywhere silent.”
“Four of us perished in the effort,” says Obol.
Without any obvious cue, all the aliens begin singing a slow-moving song. The words and the tonal system are alien, but it tugs at my heart and somehow I know that the deep, rumbling dirge is a song of mourning. After a minute or so, they stop.
Vuepy continues the story. “We constructed this space to contain an environment harmonious to your species. We offer apologies for the low gravity.”
I had noticed that I felt lighter than I should. The Qroit must come from a world that is smaller than Earth. Their spindly legs would not do well in Earth’s gravity.
“There are three exits.” She points as she describes them. “That one leads to an airlock to the rest of the ship. Our air is not harmonious for you. The other two lead to the rooms that contain your stasis pods. Not having certainty about your social customs, we provided separate rooms for privacy and solitude.”
They stop, apparently finished with their explanation of what happened to the Bellerophon. It is a credible story, though we have no way to verify any of it.
“What is our status here?” I ask. “Are we prisoners?”
Vuepy and Obol tilt their heads back and forth a few times. It is a gesture they use often, but I do not know what it means.
“It would be pleasant for you to imagine yourselves being guests,” Obol says. “You are not prisoners except in the sense that there is no place for you to go. Your future is one of many songs yet to be sung.”
“How do you know our language?” Noomi asks.
Vuepy says, “We were able to retrieve your artificial intelligence’s memories. As we walked among them we discovered that your species sings in many dialects and that English is a dialect both of you understand. Obol and I learned it.”
She makes it sound like a trivial task.
“You said the ark had been adrift for a long time,” Noomi says. “How long?”
Obol answers. “According to your vessel’s logs, the collision occurred one hundred and ten of your years after you left your home system. After the collision, with the deflection field no longer functioning, your vessel took steady damage from interstellar dust. We estimate you were adrift eight hundred and eighty years, with a twenty-year margin of error.”
I do the math. Nearly a thousand years have passed since we left Earth. My mind stutters, stuck in a thousand year gap of lost time. How far have we traveled in that time? What has happened back on Earth in that time?
“Where are we now?” I ask. I want to know where we are relative to Earth, but they misunderstand me.
“You sail on the Agnori Pels,” says Vuepy. “We journey to a mili—”
One of the females interrupts her with the sound of an angry swarm of bees.
Vuepy honks back at her and continues. “We journey to one of our worlds.”
They are holding something back. Noomi must think the same thing because she asks, “What will happen to us when we get there?”
Obol and Vuepy exchange glances and look at the female who had interrupted them. She rumbles something.
Obol says, “The Council of the Qroit is divided about what to do with you. To be truth telling, your options are few.”
“What does that mean?”
A hand settles on my shoulder. It is Vuepy’s. I only now notice that Qroit hands have three fingers. They are long and spindly, like everything else about the Qroit.
“Sorrow flows from ours hearts to yours,” she says, “and we hesitate to add to your grief, but there is one more piece of information you must obtain before we can sing of your future.”
One of the males gives her a hand-held device.
“Your vessel received messages from your home world during your voyage.” She does something with the device and an image of a woman with brown skin — a human woman — appears on the wall.
“This is the last song your vessel received from your home system. With this device you can search and view all the messages, as well as the log entries. We suggest you view this last one first.”
She shows us how to use the device. Then the Qroit file out of the room, leaving Noomi and me alone. I start the recording. The woman speaks.
I am Doctor Marissa Johns. I am the lead biologist at a research station located on Neriad, a moon of Neptune.
The Great War lasted less than a year. A run-away nano weapon finally ended it. As best we can determine, we are the last surviving humans. Other than yourselves.
Of the original contingent of forty-seven on the station, nine of us are left; the others are dead. We have found no way to fight the nanos. Or stop them. They will soon reach us and we will die. Rather than face the horrible death they bring, we have decided to end our lives on our own terms. This is our final message and probably the last message you will receive from home.
Two more arks were sent out after yours. We did not have the resources to build more. One of them reported a catastrophic failure of the fusion reactor twenty years after it left the solar system. We have not heard from it since. The other stopped transmitting thirty-five years after it left. We have to assume that both arks were lost. Yours is the only one that we know has survived.
It has been seventy-five years since the Bellerophon left. Its AI has sent regular status updates with no indication of problems. If all goes as planned, you will reach the Trappist-1 system in another ninety years.
Our hope is that you will find a habitable planet where you can establish a sustainable colony. You are the last of us. If you do not find a way to survive, our species will be no more.
Good luck to you.
The message ends. We sit in silence, Noomi and I.
After a while, we go through the other messages. There are thousands of them, mostly personal messages for the sleepers; messages from the dead to the dead. We skip them for now and watch the general messages addressed to the ark commander. They paint a bleak picture.
After we left Earth, the situation continued to deteriorate. Earth became increasingly inhospitable to human life. A critical point had been reached in the planet’s climatic balance and it tipped over the edge, rushing toward uninhabitability. It was by then too late to do anything about it. Off-world colonies had been established, but they weren’t self-sufficient and never would be. In the end social order broke down across the system and wars became the norm, culminating in what the last message called “The Great War.” Like its namesake, it was a war to end all wars. I suppose it did.
The sound of weeping seeps into my awareness. Noomi holds her head in her hands, rocking back and forth, sobbing quietly.
“Noomi,” I begin. But I don’t know what to say. After a while, her wet face looks up at mine.
“We are lost, John Atleo.” The despair in her voice is palpable. “Everything we hoped for, everything we dreamed of, everyone we loved … all gone, all gone, all gone.”
* * *
The stasis pod’s cover pops its seal with a hiss. My eyes open in time to watch it slide into the wall, leaving me staring at the ceiling of the alcove my pod occupies. I have come home.
We were with the Qroit for the better part of a year. In the end, the Council decided to let us create the music of our own future. They offered to help us restart the human race—what Nooni called the Adam and Eve scenario—using genetic technology to overcome problems associated with a small gene pool. Neither of us wanted to do that. Noomi decided to live among the Qroit, to learn about them and let them learn about us. When I last saw her she was excited about visiting a highly intelligent but non-technological civilization the Qroit had found on a planet with insufficient oxygen for the discovery of fire and therefore no path to advanced technologies. I am a little envious of her.
“How are you, John?”
I turn my head toward the male Qroit towering over me. “I believe I am well, Lexti. I take it we have arrived at our destination?”
“Indeed, we have my friend.”
Gwawen and Brogin are standing a little behind him. Gwawen is the female in their triad, Brogin is the bearer. She is pregnant with their first child; they are very excited about it. I am too.
They are my minders. More than minders, really. We have developed a friendship over the months leading up to our departure and the early weeks of the voyage before we went into stasis. I think they will miss me.
The Mendorissa is a science vessel specially equipped and crewed for this mission. They have come to study the ruins of the Human Civilization. More will follow. Qroit ships have faster-that-light capability, though Lexti insists they do not actually go faster than light but take some kind of hyper-dimensional shortcut. He gave up trying to explain it to me. The trip to Earth took eight years.
Outside my private stasis bay, wearing a breather custom made for me, I find myself again surrounded by three meter tall Qroit, all of whom seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere and do something. Despite all those months among them, I feel like Gulliver in Brogdingnag. Lexti takes my hand and guides me to an observation lounge.
I see Earth.
She hangs silent and alone in the emptiness of space. It is not the beautiful blue world I remember; it is entirely shrouded in dirty-white clouds. The Qroit think it is transitioning into a greenhouse world like Venus, though it will never be as hot as that hellacious planet and might return to a more temperate world in a few tens of thousands of years.
“We have seen images of your home world from the ark’s memories,” Lexti says. “Our hearts sing of sadness that this is no longer so.”
My heart sings of sadness too.
Lexti pilots the shuttle down to the surface, near where my people originally lived. Gwawen and Brogin come too. They offer to help dig the graves but it is something I need to do by myself. They wait in the shuttle.
The air is hot and dense, with a yellowish haze and a smell like rotten egs. I declined the breather Lexti offered. The air is not safe to breath but I won’t be here long. An industrial strength laser and a power shovel make quick work of digging the graves, each one big enough to hold an urn.
The Qroit towed the wreckage of the Bellerophon to one of their worlds to study it. They let me take the ashes of my family with me. I place each urn in a grave and cover it with dirt: my wife Sandra, my children Abbey and Jeremiah, my mother Annie, my brothers Quinn and Parker, my sister Rachel and her husband and two children, two of my aunts.
“Spirit Father, Spirit Mother,” I cry out. “I have done what I could to honor my people. I have returned them to the Earth from which they came. Accept their spirits.”
I dig a thirteenth grave, an adult-sized one. A childhood prayer comes to mind as I let myself down into it: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Who will keep the souls of the billions who once lived here? Who will remember them?
I key the com unit. “I am ready, Lexti.”
There is a pause, then he says, “Good-by John Atleo. It has been an honor to know you. We will sing songs about you. We will not forget.”
I inject myself with the drug given to me by the Qroit. Closing my eyes, I wait for it to take effect.