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Read "A Sailor on the Sea of Humanity" by Andrew Burt with Rakuten Kobo. If you had a terrible secret, perhaps you'd find time dilation has its uses.
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The only way to know would be to come back later to see. The deep-space mining and manufacturing barge was ideal. Fully automated, rarely manned, thus easily stolen, with the necessary sub-light drive he would need; the manufacturing facilities ensured he would neither starve nor face a shortage of mechs for labor.
Two long years he waited: A year to reach the asteroids, to take on mass; half a year accelerating toward the darkest point in space at a comfortable one gee, nestled safely inside a ship careening at a leisurely pace sixteen times that, almost to the speed of light; then braking back—relativity's time dilation leaving him two years older in a world a century in the future.
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A world almost empty of humanity, save for the centenarians. They patiently awaited the end of time.
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Others had gone out and come back too, they said, noting his youthful appearance of twenty-eight, or was he from one of the colonies? Hadn't those failed, they asked, cut off from Earth and all? Not to worry; the nannymechs would make him comfortable. But none had guessed it had been Buchanan King's mistake that caused their pain. He couldn't bring himself to visit his own children, if they were even alive, or their graves if not. It wouldn't help to tell them that he'd done this for them and their children: Buchanan locked away the shame, the absolute stupidity he felt at presuming to release a virus untested.
He'd been so positive it would work—and that he would step forward to acclaims of brilliance—and if not, that it would be harmless, and he, anonymous. The capriciousness of youth. Within a year it was inescapable: A cure would surely be found. And almost was, by eighty years after. Yet the remaining virologists were dying off, and the anti-virus, almost completed, had languished and been forgotten. The nannymechs made sure everyone was comfortable. They had been so close, Buchanan saw.
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He was able to complete their anti-virus within months. But he couldn't bear to look into their wrinkled eyes to explain it would take years for the anti-virus to mutate INVIR into a harmless form. The thought that his own children might still be alive sealed his decision. He left behind a supply of the anti-virus with a note, in exchange for stealing batches of frozen sperm, eggs, and blueprints for the incubators and nannymechs civilization had long ago ceased trying, resigned to their fate.
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He encouraged them in the note to try again, that maybe he was wrong in his estimate, that eggs might fertilize again sooner. If they could simply keep trying, until He stole away to his ship in the night. Three years later, this time pinching the barrier of light speed far closer, to within a trillionth of a percent, a year out to nowhere and back—a million years had passed on Earth.
The hill on which his house stood a thousand millennia ago was more barren of human signs than it had been twice as long before, when primitive hominids had hunted there. In his atonement he had brought life. Sperm and eggs awoke from their frozen sleep, and he seeded the lands with a thousand incubator grown babes and a nanny-mech per tribe of thirty.
He hoped the recordings he'd left with each would steer them to adulthood, and that at least some would survive. Twenty years he stayed with one tribe, "ensuring the nannies could handle the tasks," he told himself. But more, so he could watch his mistake be reversed, to see children grow. He acted only in accord with what the nannies taught, so as not to bias their development. Hunting, fishing, planting; basic survival skills. He told them nothing of Earth's past, of their great technologies, nor of his own failings. Those they would have to recreate anew.
For years he found peace in the pastoral life. His children grew to adulthood. Yet his heart grew restless, and he had to know if he had succeeded, just as he had had to know of his failure before. Without goodbyes he slipped away, some two decades later, and swooped past the sun, kidnaping an asteroidal mass for fuel and manufacturing, then dived out and back, a year apiece.
The world was theirs now, not his. But Earth never roamed far despite his speed, relativity playing on him the cruel trick of shortening length behind him, so that the red-shifted image of the fragile blue planet never appeared in the telescope more than a light-month behind. He could have veered away to end the illusion, but forced himself to stay the course and maintain a vigil on his home. A million years more in the future, only four years past his fiftieth birthday, Buchanan King had returned.
And wept to find another empty world. Again he seeded the humanless plains, left some thousand infants in the care of the ship's newly crafted nannies, and sped out to pass a million years. Near the end of the outbound leg, when more than a year was passing on Earth for each hour his clock ticked off, he was sure the telescope had detected a burst of Doppler-shifted noise from directly behind. It lasted until he could no longer compensate for the shift, and was silent when he could compensate again as he slowed; it was perhaps as likely to come from some natural phenomenon as from civilization, but it gave him both hope and despair.
Hope that humanity had taken hold. Despair that the signal had grown silent. He anxiously waited out the year—to find the world as he'd found it each time before. Alive with life; devoid of humankind. Perhaps some natural disaster overtook them, he reasoned. And seeded the globe a third time. Buchanan King had stood in this same spot, eight million years before, and tried to help humanity, and each time at million year ticks thereafter.
He studied his hands, creased like the hills with his sixty-nine years, and felt his age. It would be so easy to retire, he thought, leaning heavily on the incubators holding the next brood of humanity.
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His own mortality loomed before him as he contemplated how it should have been, eight lifetimes ago. The only real peace he felt his entire life, he mused, was the twenty years with the first repopulation. He had almost reached peace with himself for what he had done as he pranced about as a primitive, nurturing humanity back from the brink. And twenty years from now he most likely would be dust, a sure limit on the number of trips he could yet make.
If he stayed, he wouldn't have to know whether he had succeeded or failed. Let humanity fend for itself, a voice cried out within him. The incubators chimed, one after another. A nanny-mech hummed by, attending each one, popping the seal and plucking out one crying child after another. Maybe one nanny to thirty children wasn't enough, he thought with horror. The Little Pink Cloud. The First Galactic Princess: Fan Fiction a Global Fan-omina.
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