For fifty seconds the image was unclear. Predominantly cut through by bands of grey static. But there was color; tantalizing color. Whether the color was a result of the video’s degradation or smeared because of it, unknown, but there were a few stray bands of color. There was audio, wind gushing, metal rattling. Something like a rope and chain clanked periodically. The algorithm tried to sort out the colors.
Once the algorithm ran, the video began to play anew.
This was the buried treasure in the coffin. Nothing organic had withstood the brutality the coffin was subjected to, nothing but the most trace amounts of fluid that might have contained some DNA.
Nevertheless, the technology was magnificent, and some of it had survived.
Nothing but seconds. Fifty seconds from a mythical time and place.
Some grain was removed from the video.
Was that a blue sky?
Could she trust the picture of that blue sky she had never seen in the flesh?
There was no sense in being skeptical. She had nothing to lose by believing.
She ran the video against the computers, again and again.
Obsession characterized the Sunlight Foundation.
Obsession characterized her.
In a past life she had spent several painful decades working to repair the first ever bit of Surface Era footage ever recovered by the Foundation. She acquired a good solid chunk of silicon storage, full of data marred by a tongue of purple agarthic energy. She had worked so obsessively to make that footage visible that she gave herself a second problem to solve, absentmindedly, while she was at it — how to keep living long enough to somehow, sometime, finish repairing that piece of video.
Both of those endeavors made everything that followed so much easier.
That fifty seconds of video, garbled beyond recognition, was run against recovered video from several other sources. Heavily trained computers began to sharpen the image, to undo the damage that had been done to it, to replace elements according to what she knew to be correct. Soon, she could see it again. That beautiful, sunny sky. There were clouds, distant, licking the earth with tongues of glowing purple lightning.
There was enough sky that she could place it.
She had divided the history of the Surface Era into a few broad periods.
Those clouds told her that this video was situated just before the end of that world.
Much of that video was a blue sky, a beautiful blue sky.
A portion of the picture was taken up by a close gray object. Like a concrete pillar.
She imagined the context. A concrete pillar, flying in the sky? Chains and ropes?
Perhaps it was the camera of an ancient station. About to be dropped into the Ocean.
Her curiosity peaked. Her mind filled with questions out of that unconfirmed assumption.
Who dropped it? Where? Why had this camera ended up in their Imbrium Ocean?
She was so excited that it flooded over into a different emotion: frustration.
How was it that they collectively forgot about something so magnificent?
She knew the answer to that last question, of course. Why did they forget? That one was the easiest mysteries to solve even if she did not account for her own biases. After their descent into the oceans, Humanity were just homesick monkeys who turned to religion and war and ruined everything beautiful. That was why these ocean-bound degenerates had forgotten the utopia that they had come from. Somehow, around the time she was born, they had already destroyed so much of their heritage. And for what?
For control of these dismal prisons within the Ocean?
They destroyed so much, lost so much, forgot so much, that she had to stand in a cold room under the Ocean scrobbling a fifty second video over and over, like a starving woman gnawing–
No. Not that metaphor. Any other metaphor but that one. She held her head in pain.
“I should do something about that memory. I don’t want to think about that again.”
It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter why the ocean-dwellers lost this knowledge.
All that mattered was learning everything they could and reclaiming their knowledge.
Reclaiming and using the secrets of the Surface Era to return where humanity belonged.
She looked through the video again, frame by frame.
At one point, she saw something moving, something fast and metallic.
She paused the video. She focused the computer’s attention on that frame, that object.
Her eyes drew wide with excitement, and she put on a child-like smile.
Once the object in the image was enhanced, she understood what it was.
“A jet fighter! That is a jet fighter! So, they were flying! Flying in the sky!”
She waved her hand at one of the screens, and a dossier on the Surface Era objects known to the Foundation as “jet fighters” appeared. A sleek vehicle used to deliver explosives to a target. Flying through the air, without the density and resistance of water to slow them down, they were faster than anything that could ever live underwater. A testament to the Surface Era humans’ superiority. Divers did not even slightly compare.
“I’m coming in.”
Sovereign “Yangtze” of the Sunlight Foundation looked over her shoulder.
The door to the laboratory opened, and a woman walked calmly inside.
A woman of ageless beauty, pearl-pink skin and soft features frozen in young adulthood. Dark blue hair, very slightly curly, reached down just below a sleek jawline. Extremely tiny digits danced over her bright blue cybernetic eyes, nearly imperceptible to anyone with an inferior body and senses than those their kind possessed. Her clothes were simple, a sleeveless vest over a button-down shirt, a suit jacket and pants, over which she wore a white coat. However, in the pathetic societies of the Ocean-dwelling, the all-organic suit and shirt were worth a king’s ransom.
Only the coats were synthetic. They got dirty or broken often. It was easier that way.
Real clothes helped remind them of their stature, and of the things they coveted.
But Euphrates was different. She lacked Yangtze’s obsession. In fact, she criticized it.
An absolute fool; her brain must have been addled after being alive too long.
Euphrates turned that familiar unfriendly face at Yangtze.
“I’m back from the Northern Imbrium. It was a bigger nest than we thought.”
“Did it provide a stimulating challenge?”
“It was nothing we couldn’t handle; the problem is they’re gradually growing faster and more diverse.”
“It’s good, isn’t it? Someday they’ll repopulate this dreadful Ocean.”
“Yangtze, those things are practically anathema to natural life. I know you like them, but–”
“Do you ever think about how this world has lost such a ridiculously large amount of life?” Yangtze said. She was trying to get Euphrates to think of things in a different way. And yet, she began to lose herself in the middle of her rhetoric as well, to the point that she could only distantly hear herself speak. “Billions of humans died in the recent memory of those who mourned them. Don’t you think it’s insane how little we care now? Our biodiversity here in the Ocean utterly collapsed. Ninety percent of the species that were alive are dead. Maybe that’s why the early years of the Ocean-dwellers were so chaotic and destructive. We worked out the insanity of our grief back then.” In the end, she knew she had not said anything effectively convincing.
Maybe she needed more than a few memory edits to keep her brain going.
Euphrates narrowed her eyes, perhaps frustrated. Yangtze sighed, feeling bullied.
“You don’t have to be quite so strict; you know?” She finally said.
“If we’re going to talk about lost life; Vogelheim station was destroyed.”
Yangtze had spoken a bit thoughtlessly, but she genuinely just did not care.
Euphrates, putting her hands in her coat pockets, shot her a sharp glare.
“They’re still working out the casualty figures, but the fact remains–”
“During the strife, six or seven hundred years ago, 40% of all standing stations were destroyed.”
“Does that make it fine that habitations are being destroyed right now?”
Yangtze shrugged. “A single station was lost, but the Republic and the Empire can both build new kinds of stations. Yes, they are smaller than the stations they inherited after the strife, and not as sophisticated, but they can. Even the Union can build agri-spheres! If you’re worried about the extinction of humanity, then you should be here helping me. But I don’t begrudge you that. I just don’t really care about stations.”
Euphrates lifted an eyebrow.
“You care about life, but not stations. Is your brain doing okay? Did you do your cognitive exercises lately?”
Yangtze put on a weary expression.
“I maybe dissociated a little today. I will have my memory checked soon.”
Euphrates nodded with understanding, maybe even compassion.
“Why did you have me leak information to intervene in Vogelheim?”
Euphrates liked to use the phrase ‘intervene’ casually. The Sunlight Foundation was not supposed to ‘intervene’ in foreign affairs. They were supposed to do their best not to ‘intervene’ with the ocean-dwellers. Yangtze had far different criteria for what ‘intervening’ meant. After all, they were citizens of this Ocean too. It was inevitable they would have to take action sometimes.
“It wasn’t for the station. It was returning a favor to someone.” Yangtze said.
“How did you come to owe some G.I.A. agent a favor?” Euphrates said.
“It wasn’t for the G.I.A. agent. It wasn’t even for the Princess or anybody there.”
“I don’t follow.”
“It was for someone who died.”
Euphrates smiled a little. “I didn’t take you for someone with respect for the dead.”
“It’s not really respect, and it was not I who really felt it. I saw a chance, due to the situation, to assuage some irrational feelings. Let’s call it pity. Pity that an earlier version of me possessed. Or perhaps, if it strikes you as more authentic, we can say I did it purely out of personal whimsy.”
“I suppose I would call this version of you whimsical.” Euphrates said.
Behind Yangtze, there was a ding, as the computers recovered something new in the video.
She turned around to monitor, and saw a series of numbers.
Her eyes and smile spread wider and wider.
“Yes! These could be coordinates! Or some other kind of metadata! Oh I must decipher this!”
Euphrates watched with a perplexed expression, as Yangtze returned to her obsession.
“She wasn’t always like this, was she?” Euphrates murmured.