Enjoy an exclusive guest post from JM Williams, author of “Time to Set Things Right,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.
“We saw the ship today, Moa. It was covered in vines, but it’s still there. It’s hard to think people could build a big metal thing like that.”
“You’d be surprised by the things we built, little one.”
“Can you tell me the story? The story of the Sun-Flight?”
“Didn’t your teacher tell you about it?”
“Yes, but Kesia says you tell it best.”
“Oh, does she?”
“Please. Kesia wasn’t there for the arrival. What was it like, when you came back on the Ark?”
“You’re very persistent today. Well, okay. Where should I begin? Coming back was…a surprise for us. The world was like the Ark is now, covered in plants and flowers we had never seen. The world was so…green.”
“It wasn’t green before?”
“Not exactly…here, sit down. I should start from the beginning.
“Before the Ark left Earth, there were many people here. More than you could ever meet. But the world was no good for us. No, it wasn’t green. It had become grey and brown, dry and barren. The air was filled with smog and noise. The water was foul. We didn’t realize the damage we were doing to our mother planet until…Are you listening?”
“Pay attention now. As I was saying, we had caused so much damage to the world. But we did not have the technology to mend it, only the technology to survive.
“We knew, from studying the planet’s history, that she could heal herself, given enough time. Our scientists were frantic to find that time for us, so they designed a ship—”
“Yes, the Ark. What’s that smile on your face?”
“Wasn’t it exciting?”
“Yes, it was. And beautiful.”
“I wish I could see a real, working ship.”
“Maybe you were born in the wrong age. You know, we could build so many amazing things then. But the Ark was special. Unlike anything we built before. It could endure immense heat. It had to.
“We built that huge ship and loaded it with people. A thousand was what our scientists determined to be the minimum viable population.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s how large of a population a species needs to be able to reproduce and survive. Cap-jumpers for instance. They’re asexual fungi—”
“They’re not animals?”
“No, cap-jumpers are actually fungi, like the Agari but not as smart. Didn’t Kesia tell you? What has that girl been teaching you? Anyways, with cap-jumpers, because they are asexual, their reproduction is stable. You wouldn’t need many for a group to survive and grow. People are—”
“We are different. A mother carries a baby in her belly for a long time. And even after the baby is born, the danger is far from over. Sometimes…bad things happen.”
“Like with Kesia’s baby.”
“…We needed a lot of people, so we could have many children. But our first problem was time. The Earth could heal herself, but it would take many years.
“So, we created the Ark and sent it to orbit the sun. We left our families and friends behind. That was a very hard thing to do. Some of our friends did not understand…sorry…it’s a painful memory.”
“Don’t cry, Moa.”
“I’m okay…Anyway, as I was saying, the Ark was launched, and we watched our planet disappear into the blackness of space. The ship flew around the sun almost at the speed of light. And what happens as something approaches the speed of light?”
“Correct. At least you learned something useful.”
“Kesia teaches us a lot.”
“I’m sure she does, little one. So, where was I? Right. Time slows. Even though we were in the ship for only a few years, many years passed here on Earth.”
“What did you see when you came back?”
“We didn’t know what we would find, but…We couldn’t recognize our own planet. It didn’t look like Earth, not our Earth. There was no human life. Everything had been wiped clean. Eroded, or covered by green and blue plants. New plants, with leaves like webs, flowers that drooped off the trees like human arms. Everything had changed, more than we had ever expected.
“But something was wrong. Jovi looked at the stars. They were in the wrong place. He calculated their positions and compared them to our predictions. Do you know what he found?”
“More time had passed during the Sun-Flight?”
“A hundred times more. We had planned to be away for a million years. But more than one hundred million years had passed. When traveling at near-light speed, even the slightest shift in variables can have a huge impact. Jovi thought a solar storm had thrown off our calculations.
“But there was something marvelous about this new place. The air was fresher than we had ever breathed, the water purer than we had ever tasted. We were alive. We were home.
“But we weren’t alone. We did not know what it was, but something was alive in the forest. From what we could tell, most of the animals had died out. But something was out there. Something new, something unknown.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“More than you will ever know. It was the worst fear in the universe. So much rested on our shoulders…
“Jovi and I led a team into the forest. We had weapons, but we didn’t know if they would be of any use. Did Kesia teach you about the dinosaurs?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Well, a long time ago, the Earth gave birth to gigantic creatures with sharp teeth the size of your hand. We feared something similar could have taken over in our absence. Such a beast could threaten our whole expedition. Our whole species.
“We walked several kilometers through the forest. It was dark and unfamiliar. The trees were short and thick, the canopy painted in the most amazing shades of blue and teal, colors that didn’t exist in the forests of our old home. There were noises. Unnatural noises. Not the sharp cawing of birds, but dull scraping sounds. For us, these were not the sounds of life. It was like…something being dragged away to be eaten. The new forms of life the mother planet had created were both wonderful and terrifying.
“Something had been living nearby. We followed its trail and got close to where we thought the creature was hiding. Then something jumped out of the bushes!”
“Ahhh…Moa, don’t make that ugly face. You scared me!”
“I’m sorry, little one…That was when we met them.”
“Right. Turns out they weren’t scary at all. Strange, but in a good way. The mushroom people. We named them Agari because our name for mushroom was agaricus. In the millions of years without humans or other big animals, fungi and plants took over the world. They could have driven us away, but they didn’t. The Agari helped us make a new home. And now you have little friends to play with.
“Speaking of which, why don’t you go find Pok and the other little sprouts? I need to prepare the night meal.”
“Yes, Moa. Thank you for the story.”
“Of course, little one. Now run along.”
JM Williams is the author of In the Valley of Magic, Call of the Guardian, and other works of fantasy and science fiction. He has published around forty-five short fiction pieces in a range of venues including Over My Dead Body! Mystery Magazine, The Arcanist, and The New Accelerator, and has earned five Honorable Mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest, among other awards. He is the head of Fiction Vortex’s high fantasy StoryVerse, Of Metal and Magic, managing an international team of writers. He lives in Korea with his wife and cats. Follow him online at www.jmwilliams.home.blog.