The doctors gave the survivor a metal globe, small enough to fit into her hand, with the features of Earth printed in relief, raised high enough to be discerned by a fingertip.
The survivor has been clutching it ever since, alternating between marvelling at the perceived wetness that the micro-etching of the oceans has generated, and crying silently, water streaming down her face, as she traces her finger from one place to another.
She speaks of her people as one. All customs and culture together.
“My people did this, in wood, for traversing the coastlines of Greenland. The Inuit needed a small map that would float and could be read in the dark. They carved driftwood to represent harbours and you could store it up in your mitten, to navigate or find safe passage in rough water.”
She is descended from the people who lived in China and those who lived in North America. She has no Inuit heritage but now, now that there is no-one else, she clutches the globe and reads the stories and history of a species. She is the one. She is trying to become the all.
We had intercepted her ship roughly a light year out from Earth. She had already resigned herself to oblivion after radio communication stopped. An alien ship was part of what she had prepared herself for.
“Oh, you’ve invaded, then?”
We had seen a lot of movies from Earth. We understood the accusation. But we had to tell her what we had detected on the subspace sensors. The massive shockwave. A cataclysmic event. Her tiny ship, experimental and only supposed to be out and back for three years, did not have the arrays or physics for detection.
We took the “Sagan” into our hold, a shining mote of dust in a warehouse of treasures, and brought her aboard. Then, to Earth, not to fulfil suspicions of invasion, to see what had survived.
The astrophysicists aboard tell me that the new moon will form in a million years or so but it is hard to see in the chaos that reigns there.
She was hopeful until we crossed the heliopause. Then the sensitive gravitometers started showing us the true nature of the event. She retreated to her ship to read through all of the data that was stored about her home.
Our commanders wondered if someone on Earth knew. There was no reason to pack so much information into a research vessel that was supposed to return. There was a surprisingly large amount of food on board.
She doesn’t know. No-one told her and, as far as she knew, nothing was bearing down on Earth.
But an oblivion event, a second Theia, would be an unavoidable certainty. What purpose would be served in telling people when there was no escape? Was it a grand conspiratorial kindness? Did ten billion people look up for an instant, surprised in the middle of the everyday, and then see no more?
Perhaps if we had arrived earlier we could have taken some on board, a breeding population at least, but we did not. We wander. We arrive when we arrive and we had no reason to rush. Space is silent and unreadable until the moments when it is impossibly loud and dreadfully apparent.
We suspect that someone turned an experiment into a lifeboat, prepared for the roughest seas in the hope of a safe harbour. A simple message of “we were here”.
We held station for weeks. Finally, she emerged.
“Let me see.”
We dropped the starboard wall for her. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead onto the fields, opalescent streaks oscillating gently where her skin touched the barrier. We had never seen the tiny lightning displays that accompany water as drops fall down against a field.
For a month after that, she would barely talk. She didn’t return to the “Sagan”. She curled up in one of the lounges and read.
The doctors delved into her culture. Her physical nature was of necessity, rather than the forms we adopt for convenience. We reasoned that the mediation of the physical could allow her to make progress or at least come to terms with the event. We made her the globe.
It is her constant companion as she traces journeys and places over it. Here is the Mayflower, there the ocean trek of the early Polynesians, here humans first entered space, this pinprick pressure on her thumb is the greatest mountain in the world. This was her house.
“This was my house,” she said, holding it up in front of one of us. Electronic eyes peer down into the microstructural depths of the globe and she is close, perhaps only a thousand kilometres off. But it is not important. We can see the look in her eyes as she holds up the map of her old home.
We wander. We witness. We see that look, its equivalent in gesture or signal, on many of those that we encounter. It is looking to the future.
Her request is easy enough to fulfil. Giant chunks of matter turn in the microgravity of orbit, ejected from the surface by the impact, and some of them hold wood.
She asks for a branch but we store a forest or two. She will be travelling with us for a while.
The first map she carves shares features with the globe we made. The smoothed piece of wood is light, small enough for one hand, and she carves an array of little hemispheres, a large one at the centre. She pays special attention to the fourth hemisphere out. When she is finished, she has carved perhaps a quarter of one side of the stick. Room for more. She sits in the command chair she has taken from the “Sagan”, up on our bridge, stick and carving knife by her side.
She runs her fingers lightly over her carved map as the engines engage and Earth slowly fades away.
This piece lacked a hook and then a friend posted an article on the Greenland wooden maps that had been used for generations, to make safe passage in rough seas. The maps we make reflect our perception of the world and our place in it. The map is not the territory (Korzybski), it is simultaneously so much more and less. Thank you for reading!
If you enjoyed this, you can find my collection of short stories “Five Stories: Track One” and my new novel “The Curse of Kereves Dere” on Kindle, iBooks and Smashwords.