Afterwards

For Holly

The hike had been long and arduous, but now, reaching the top of a mountain ridge, Liya saw her destination. Arcadia sat like a ring embracing the finger of a peninsula pointing out to sea; a lighthouse, no longer in use, balanced on the fingertip. Surrounded by forest, two dozen skyscrapers sprouted out of red clay cliffs, reaching towards the stars. She saw hints of movement along the walkways that connected the towers and the glint of a skycar swaying along the cable that reached over the sea to Pala. 

She met Pan a few miles outside of Arcadia, lying in a hammock in a clearing of juniper trees, her face as youthful as the last time they’d met. 

“Liya!” Pan exclaimed, tumbling out of the hammock. They rushed towards each other and embraced. 

“It’s good to see you,” said Liya. “And it’s wonderful to see Arcadia again—I’d forgotten how beautiful it is. And I see you’ve been . . . busy,” she continued, smiling and gesturing over Pan’s shoulder. 

“Oh, I didn’t think you’d notice,” said Pan. “It’s just a little side project I’ve been working on for the last few months. But I’m pretty happy with it, if I’m honest. I suggested we meet here because I thought you might like it.” 

They turned towards the centre of the clearing. The object of Pan’s pride stood before them—a pineapple the size of a sofa, sitting implausibly on the end of a stalk. 

“Is it meant to be art?” Liya asked. 

“It’s meant to be a pineapple. Though I’d say it’s an absolute peach.” Pan slapped her hand against the fruit, as if to prove its sturdiness. “Getting it to this size without collapsing took a thousand generations of gamete selection, then over a dozen real-world trials. I’m planning to have whole orchards of these beauties.” 

Liya shook her head slowly. “Well . . . thank you for showing me your magnum opus. I’m honoured.” 

They sat down by a smouldering campfire. 

“Are you still with the Nomads?” Liya asked. 

“Yes,” Pan replied. “And we’re growing a lot. So many people spend all their time in VR nowadays, it might have been months since they last danced! But when we pass through town, we show them. A lot of people get curious about the music, join for a festival or two, and then stay with us for years.” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. “And we all miss you, by the way. You’re welcome to come back any time.” 

“I’d love to see them all again. Does your family join too?” 

“They tend to do their own thing,” said Pan. “But I spend a lot of time with them. There’s nothing more special than watching your great-grandkids grow up. We go camping. We make art together, too. I’d love to show you. And the pineapple was a family effort.” 

“But you and Ife separated?” 

“Well, our relationship evolved into something else. Not necessarily worse. We’d just been together so long, we weren’t the same people as when we first met . . .” Pan became distracted by a brightly coloured bird that had landed a metre away. “Ah, cute,” she said. “It’s a lilac-breasted roller. Have you spoken to one before?” 

Liya shook her head. 

“They’re sweet enough, though not exactly the best conversationalists. I’ll let you say hi.” 

Liya put her hand to her heart, activating her augmentor. Hello, bird, she thought, and a staccato croak emanated from her bodysuit. The bird hopped beside them. 

“Hello,” said the bird. “Food?” 

“No food,” Liya said. “I’m sorry. You’re very pretty, though, bird.” 

“Aww . . .” replied the bird. Then, after a short pause, it asked again, “Food?” 

Liya smiled. “No food, bird. I’m sorry.” 

“Hmm,” the bird replied, no longer interested in its new companions. 

Liya laughed and stood up. “C’mon then, I want to see some of this art you’ve been making. Or is it all just pineapples?” 

Hundreds of Pan’s artworks enriched the surrounding landscape. On a cliff top, a silver sculpture of a young adult, staring out to sea. On the coast, carved into the rock, a perfect map of the Arcadian peninsula. 

The tour culminated with a garden of blown-glass flowers that Pan had built on the outcropping bank of a river. They formed three concentric rings: lily of the valley at the centre, then a kaleidoscope of tulips in different colours, circled in turn by lotuses floating on the water. A sign on the river bank read Elysian Fields

“It’s beautiful,” said Liya. “Does it represent anything?” 

“That’s up to you!” replied Pan. 

Liya put her hand to her heart again; she felt a rush of empathy and understood each of Pan’s design decisions as if they’d been her own. Memories of her great-grandparents, made vivid by the augmentor, filled her mind, and she became lost in thought. 

Her great-grandparents had loved teaching her history, and their stories began with Adya Li, Liya’s grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother. Adya had lived thousands of years ago, early in the twenty-second century. At that time, India and China, the two largest economies in the world, were locked in a cold war. Both powers recognised that human-level artificial intelligence was only a few years of investment away, and they raced to develop it first. Each scared that the other would win the race, they built powerful bio weapons, too, armed on Dead Hand systems. The Indians were vaccinated against their own doomsday viruses, and the Chinese the same, but neither had immunity against the others’. Pundits thought that a third world war was all but inevitable. 

Adya had led the campaign for peace. In her landmark speech, she referenced the Galwan Valley Clash, which marked the moment when Chinese Indian hostilities renewed. “Though dozens died in that skirmish,” she said, “long-standing treaties meant that no firearms were used; soldiers killed each other with sticks and stones. If we don’t achieve peace, soon we will be fighting with sticks and stones again.” 

Liya’s great-grandparents spoke with undisguised pride at Adya’s success. India and China brokered peace, and the international community joined in a collaborative effort to safely develop human-level AI. In the years that followed, technological progress accelerated, and soon the world was just a step away from the stars. 

Adya’s campaigning had given her a global platform, and she used it to urge for patience and inclusiveness. Before space settlement began, she argued, there should be a period of deliberation and debate, involving everyone in the world, about how to make the most of the cosmic endowment that lay before them. And this deliberation needed to happen soon—before irreversible decisions were made and while everyone was still on one planet, rather than thousands of light-years apart. Again, her advocacy was successful. 

It was agreed, first, that any galaxy that had even a 1 percent chance of naturally developing advanced life would be left alone. this would preserve a full third of affectable galaxies. The remaining area was allocated equally among all twelve billion inhabitants of Earth. 

There followed a period of extensive discussion, debate, and trade that became known, simply, as the Reflection. Everyone tried to figure out for themselves what was truly valuable and what an ideal society would look like. Progress was faster than expected. It turned out that moral philosophy was not intrinsically hard; it’s just that human brains are ill-suited to tackle it. For specially trained AIs, it was child’s play. 

No moral arguments were convincing to everyone, however, and the world did not converge on a single moral view. But this did not mean that conflict between competing moral views was inevitable. The universe was big—twenty billion affectable galaxies—and everyone’s wildest imaginations could be realised a thousand times over. We could have it all. 

Liya refocused on the present. 

“You’re using floriography, the language of flowers, aren’t you? And the tulips represent the Alliance, right? Many different forms of life—blue for tranquillity, orange for understanding, and pink for friendship and communality?” 

Pan nodded. 

After the Reflection, society had divided into three main clusters. The Alliance was the most popular: a form of cosmic anarcho-socialism that emphasised the freedom to live and interact with others as members saw fit. Some members planned to make interstellar art projects, sculpting gas clouds. Others planned to construct planet-sized computers to address unsolved scientific questions. Some would pioneer new Earths, finding inhospitable rocky planets in the habitable zone, fixing them up, and creating new worlds. Many planned just to enjoy life—exploring, with their families and in extended communities, the products of the rest of civilisation. 

“And the lotus flowers represent enlightenment—the Psychonauts? ‘A lotus flower is born in mud but rises above and is unsoiled by it. So I, though born in this world, have risen above it and am unsoiled.’ That’s the Buddha, right?” 

“Indeed,” said Pan. “Or the flowers could represent indolence, instead—the land of the lotus-eaters—depending on your point of view.” 

The Psychonauts had formed the second most popular cluster. They endorsed hedonism as a theory of value, believing that the purpose of life is the elimination of suffering and the enjoyment of bliss. When the Reflection had ended, they had promptly uploaded themselves. They thought that biological humans were as good at being happy as they were at flying. Becoming digital was like growing wings. 

The Psychonauts valued quantity over urgency and so traded to gather almost half of the most distant galaxies, excluding those that would be preserved for other life. It would be billions of years before they reached their destination. Upon arrival, they planned to fully explore the world of consciousness. Biology limits human sensation to only a tiny fraction of what is possible, and they wanted to experience it all. 

It turned out to be impossible to know how good an experience is from theory alone: someone had to try it and report back. So the billions of light years that the Psychonauts would travel would be just the first centimetre of their journey. Ultimately, they aimed to find joys in comparison with which the most exquisite of human sensations would seem stale and bland; once found, that was where they would stay. For the rest of eternity, they would bathe in nirvana. 

Liya looked towards the centre of the glass garden. “So lily of the valley represents us? Innocence and humility?” 

“The return of happiness,” replied Pan. 

The final cluster was the smallest of the three—regarded as quaint by some. These were the Ecologists, who chose to stay on Earth, undo what they could of humanity’s harmful impacts on its home planet, and guide it into a modern Eden. 

The result was a consonance of nature and technology. Three human population on Earth was now only two hundred million, and almost everyone lived in small city-states, spread out in an archipelago across the world. The in habited land area was no bigger than Denmark; agriculture, primarily indoor hydroponics, amounted to the same area again. Civilisation was powered by orbiting solar farms that beamed energy down to Earth as microwaves. 

Forest and jungle covered the world again. Biodiversity had increased enormously, and some extinct species, like the woolly mammoth and the dodo, had even been reintroduced. All sentient creatures were regarded as equal citizens, and the mundane yet unnecessary causes of suffering for most of animalkind, like disease, parasites, and food scarcity, had mostly been abolished. 

Technology had improved Earth’s longterm prospects, too. In its natural development, the sun would have brightened and expanded, sterilising the Earth within a billion years. Careful intervention would prevent this fate. By gently siphoning off some of the sun’s mass and returning it later, scientists made the sun burn cooler and more efficiently, extending its life span by billions of years. Small tweaks in Earth’s orbit, moving the planet merely at walking pace, would keep the sun’s rays at the ideal intensity. In the very long run, brown dwarf protosuns, brought from other star systems, could maintain our sun’s supply of fuel almost indefinitely. Life on Earth could survive for a thousand trillion years. 

Pan had finished her tour, and they sat on the sand by the coast, built another fire, and watched the sun set over the sea. The peninsula’s lighthouse formed a silhouette against the rose-tinted clouds. 

“Do you remember when we first came here with the Nomads?” Pan asked. 

“How could I forget? That was the bird festival; I was dressed as a black swan. It’s when I first fell in love with the Nomads. With you.” 

“I’m sorry you left.” 

“There’s time enough in this world for many things.” Liya let the silence sit for a moment, the waves breaking against the shore, then asked, “Can we go back?” 

“To our time with the Nomads? You mean you want to fall together?” 

“Yes.” 

They looked at each other in acknowledgement, then lay on their sides, facing each other, and put their hands on each other’s hearts. They linked. All at once they were exploring their memories as if in a shared lucid dream. Images swirled round them: dancing under the stars; howling at the moon; long treks through deserts and mountains. 

Let’s go further back, thought Liya. 

Back where? 

To our first time together. 

In their minds they returned to the campfire where they’d first met. They danced together—steady drumbeats, religious ecstasy, the movement intoxicating. 

And our last time, too. 

Four decades ago, in Pala. The boundary between their minds began dissolving. Liya saw her own back, walking away. Heard Pan’s upbeat good bye and felt her sadness. Memories of memories blended together—regrets, speculations—echoing like an unresolved chord. 

The past receded and the present rushed in. They looked into each other’s eyes. Liya touched Pan’s neck; she responded in kind. Their hopes reverberated between them in harmony, waves of feeling adding and amplifying. One and one summing to one. Two trunks entwined. 

Afterwards, they lay quietly, still warmed by the embers of the memories. Liya broke the silence. 

“Do you think you’ll ever get bored?” 

“You mean, will I ever have had enough—end it all?” 

Liya nodded. 

“I don’t think so,” said Pan. “At least, maybe not for millions of years.” 

“Really?” 

“Of course—there’s so much to do! Think how big my pineapples will get! And if I do get bored, I can always upload. And then there’s an eternity of new consciousnesses to explore.” 

“Yeah, I understand, I’m just . . . not sure that’s for me.” 

Liya thought again of her great-grandparents and the final video they’d recorded. On their 150th anniversary, they had chosen to die together. They’d found love, they’d achieved everything they wanted to achieve, and they had composed that message to her as a full stop on their last page. 

Pan rolled onto her back and changed tone. “I’ve been reading a bit of history lately. You know what’s wild? Thousands of years ago, before the Reflection, when people wanted to get somewhere, they used to travel around in these little underground tubes.” 

“What?! Like moles?!” 

“Yeah, like moles!” 

“Would they crawl?” 

“No, they’d be carried around in trains. But they’d be all crammed up next to each other, like packs of sausages. And they’d cough on each other and make each other sick. And they’d do it every day. And they’d hate it. But they’d keep doing it, because they had to, just to have a life that was barely good at all. And they hardly thought about how much better life could be.” 

Liya still felt sensitive from falling together, and she struggled to respond. She let the silence return, but her thoughts still lingered on the past. Softly, she said, “Don’t you think it’s crazy that all this, everything around us—you and me and Eden and the space voyages and your pineapple, all of it—that ultimately it all just came from dirt?” 

“Give it four billion years and dirt can do some pretty amazing things.” 

“It doesn’t seem long enough.” 

“Well . . . it’s not,” said Pan. 

“How do you mean?” 

“Well, even if you take a planet like Earth, with conditions that are just right, four billion years still isn’t long enough for technologically capable life to evolve. It’s not even enough time for complex cells: that alone should take hundreds of billions of years, and from there to a species anything like us should take trillions more. It’s pure luck we evolved so early. 

“And even that’s presupposing we’ve got the right type of universe!” Pan threw her hands into the air. “But if the physical constants were just the teeniest bit different, stars wouldn’t have formed, or they’d have quickly gotten ripped apart by the expansion of space. And then, even if self-aware life evolved, that doesn’t mean that you would. Think about it—for you to exist, every single one of your ancestors needed to survive and reproduce, each producing just the right child. Your parents, and their parents, and their parents . . . all the way back to the first replicators. What are the odds of that?!” 

“So you’re saying I’m a cosmic fluke?” 

“Yes, but a million times over! Go into one of those old-fashioned casinos and play some poker. Get a royal flush ten times in a row. Then go to the craps table and roll a hundred double sixes. Then take a coin and flip it a thousand times, getting straight heads. That’s you.” 

Liya moved her fingers through the sand and looked out at the water. All those universes that could have been. All those people who could have lived. Yet, against all odds, here she was. 

She thought of the love for life that Pan had expressed. No matter how long she’d choose to live, she loved life, too—loved the wonder of it all, the birds and butterflies and rivers and trees. In that moment, life seemed delicate and fragile, like one of the glass flowers in Pan’s garden, as though it might shatter at any time. 

But it didn’t shatter. The breeze kept blowing; the waves kept breaking. Life is good, she thought. Very good. 

She felt grateful. Grateful for her existence. Grateful for those who came before her. Grateful for all that was still to come.