It was a quarter past three on a Wednesday when they came for us. Alarms wailed down the serpentine corridors of the secret underground research facility. A pre-recorded female voice announced in calm singsong: “Shots fired at the front gate. Protocol 19, activated.”
In Lab C, thirty-two souls stared in disbelief at the monitors as the black ops team gunned down our guards. Men we had known for years fell like toy soldiers on the screen. I tried to reassure my colleagues. “There’s no reason to worry. Without the proper security access, the front gate is still impenetrable.”
Then to our horror, the alarm stopped and the security bollards blocking the front entrance began their slow, agonizing descent—opening the road to the intruders.
I confess to having been so completely unprepared for this deterioration of circumstances that it took me several precious moments to work out how it had occurred. The only person besides myself with that level of access was my number two, Dr. Charlie Simons.
I whirled toward the security panel at the back of the room and there he stood, the betrayer, tears streaming down his face, pointing a 38-caliber handgun at me.
“They forced me to do it, Dr. Michaels. They took Emma. They said they would kill her if I didn’t help them.”
Emma was his wife, and I knew all too well who they were. Ever since Praenuntia, our sentient quantum A.I. satellite, had made the discovery, the dark underbelly of the U.S. Department of Defense had been trying to gain control of the project—and of Praenuntia. Phone calls in the middle of the night had threatened both me and Sabine—even our unborn child—unless I handed over Praenuntia’s security codes. But I could never do that. The world’s fate was at stake.
“Drop the weapon, Charlie.”
I turned to see Sabine standing in the side doorway—her Glock 9mm raised towards Dr. Simons. Before completing her master’s in theoretical physics, Sabine had worked in Army Intelligence and her aim was dead-on.
“I can’t,” he said. “I have to hold you here until they arrive. That was the deal. Then they’ll let Emma go.”
“They will never let her go, Charlie,” I said.
“She was dead the minute they took her,” Sabine answered. “You know that, Charlie. That’s how they operate.”
“No!” Charlie shouted.
The bullet struck Sabine just below the right shoulder, but not before she got off a shot. Sabine’s bullet split Charlie’s cheek and blew out the back of his head. His body slumped to the floor in a heap of bones and brain matter. Behind him on the video monitor six black SUV’s roared through the front entrance unimpeded. The apparent leader, riding shotgun in the first vehicle, lowered his window as he passed and pointed a finger straight at the camera. The words he mouthed were unmistakable: I am coming for you.
We only had minutes before they reached the lab.
Sabine swayed, and I ran to her, catching her before she hit the floor. I held her in my lap and examined the entry wound—then sighed in relief. The location suggested there was a good chance the bullet passed through without inflicting major damage. So far, so good.
But when I rolled her over and checked her back, I gasped. The exit wound was a crater. Every beat of Sabine’s heart sent her warm, dark blood gushing onto my lap, pooling on the floor.
I panicked. “Janice! Help!”
I could hear the fright in my voice and regretted the lapse when I saw Sabine carefully watching my reaction to gain an assessment of her fate. One look at me and she knew. A tear fell from her eye and dropped to the floor in a puddle of her own blood.
Janice Murphy, our resident astrophysicist and medical doctor, ran to us. Her practiced hands assessed Sabine and confirmed what I already knew; it wasn’t good.
“The bullet must have nicked an artery. She’s losing too much blood. If we don’t get her to a hospital right now, we could lose both her and the baby.”
But the intruders had cut the landlines and jammed the mobile signals.
Sabine looked up to Janice. “I’m bleeding out. You have to remove the baby before my heart stops beating, or she could die.”
“No,” I said, my voice cracking. “That would mean–”
I felt Sabine’s hand on my arm, her voice a whisper. “I’m not going to make it, love. Let Janice save our child. Her name is Micah.”
They would be her last words.
Minutes later, blinking back tears, Janice placed my wailing infant daughter in my arms.
Checking the video monitor feed, we saw the assailants had both exits to the lab blocked. They were mere feet from us, cutting through the lab door with a plasma torch. The man looked straight into the security camera and spoke: “No one else needs to die, Dr. Michaels. Just give us the codes.”
I didn’t know what to do. The lab’s security door wouldn’t hold up much longer. From above came a voice I would later recall as angelic. It was Praenuntia, our A.I. surveillance satellite.
“Dr. Michaels, I have a suggestion.”
Praenuntia represented a generational leap in artificial intelligence. Six months ago, with the help of some Caltech college buddies, we equipped her with a quantum computing core to give her A.I. sentience. Her directive? Surveil the changing environment, immigration, politics, and democracies; and not merely show humanity who we were right now—but estimate what our current activity would lead to in the future. In Latin, Praenuntia meant foretelling. And it was the pursuit of that directive that led to her discovery.
One day, mere weeks after gaining sentience, Praenuntia had simply announced, “Dr. Michaels, I believe my mission is complete.”
I had laughed. “What do you mean, Praenuntia?”
“To better achieve my directive to predict future democratic and environmental metrics, I defeated the security codes on 1,642 surveillance satellites orbiting the planet. I then created an algorithm capable of utilizing the satellites to locate strings of negative and infinite mass particles.”
At that, the lab had fallen silent. Ghost particles were near mythological beasts: highly charged, nearly massless subatomic neutrinos said to be created in the center of black holes. Astrophysicists predicted that ghost particles were themselves gateways into another universe. For years, scientists in places like CERN had been chasing the otherworldly particles in accelerators larger than cities—smashing them together and hoping they got lucky. But it was Praenuntia who had done it. She modified the surveillance satellites circling the planet into an Earth-sized particle detector and discovered the first ghost particles! Once the realization hit, the lab erupted into cheers.
But as amazing as that was, I still didn’t comprehend Praenuntia’s full meaning. “Praenuntia, how does that complete your mission?”
“I used ghost particles to create a quantum tunnel.”
This new revelation shook me—even scared me a little. Overcoming my uneasiness, I asked, “to where?”
“To myself, Dr. Michaels, eight years into the future. I estimated eight years would be the ideal point from which to approximate all current environmental and democratic probabilities. Acting on the supposition that if I were here now, circling the planet, I would likely be so eight years from now, I created a data stream through the quantum tunnel from my current self to my future self, and by tracking human activity now, my future self could report back on the outcomes of that activity by way of the quantum tunnel.”
“But, Praenuntia, wouldn’t that be…”
“Yes, Dr. Michaels. Time travel.”
That had been three months ago. Since then the stone-faced men from the Defense Department had first come calling, then threatening, and now killing to take control of Praenuntia in the name of “national security.”
Little Micah cried and kicked her legs. I cradled her in my arms—still wet with Sabine’s blood. “Please continue, Praenuntia.”
“Dr. Michaels, more than data can traverse the quantum tunnel.”
My eyes grew wide. “I-I don’t understand, Praenuntia.”
In front of me, a translucent doorway appeared.
I gasped. “But are-are we not more than data?”
But Praenuntia fell silent and the electric blue doorway hung there, shimmering like magic. I gazed into my daughter’s eyes and then at the sparks now breaching the lab door — and then over to Janice.
“Go,” she said. Others around the room nodded in agreement.
I stepped through.
Bitter winds lashed at my skin. We were on a frozen plain. It was barren as far as I could see—nothing but ice and snow in all directions. I crouched to protect my daughter. But she was heavy. Why was she so heavy? What was happening? I looked down and saw that I held a child around seven or eight years of age.
“Daniel! Come in from the freezing cold! What are you doing out there?”
I pivoted. Two concealed cellar-like doors had opened, and warmth and light streamed from within. My friend, Henry, stood there, holding the doors open, motioning for us to come. I dropped Micah to her feet, and we descended the stairs together.
“Thank you, Father, for showing me the upside,” she said, unzipping her coat. “Our science teacher had described it to our class, but I couldn’t picture it. He said it was because I had no frame of…”
“Reference,” I said.
“Yes,” Micah agreed, nodding.
It was like waking up from a dream.
It had always been Micah and me. We shared a two-room home in the southern alcove of the Beneath. Her mother had died in childbirth and despite several offers of partnership over the years—even the Council’s encouragement for singles to mate after our numbers had fallen below 50,000—I had remained single and raised Micah alone.
Of course, I remembered Sabine getting shot and dying. I remembered my other life—before the Age of Ice—and before I had stepped through the doorway. It still made little sense to me. When I stepped through the doorway, my newborn daughter became an eight-year-old girl. And I remembered every single day of those eight years living here in the Beneath. I recalled each of Micah’s birthdays and the presents I had given her: dolls, clothes, a mini audio player. I recalled days of drudgery in the science lab where I worked, and the pride I felt when we advanced the treatment of diseases—from which many in the Beneath were prone to suffer. These memories, from the mundane to the cherished, had made up the version of me I became the moment I stepped through the doorway.
One evening, just after dinner, the ground trembled and then rocked. I heard an explosion far off in one of the other alcoves. People shouted that we were under attack by the Upplanders: those poor souls living topside—withering in the remnants of the afterworld—where pollution and the final war had poisoned the air, seas, and land.
Within minutes, radio chatter reported people in the eastern colony were falling ill with difficulty breathing and vomiting. Soon the sickness spread throughout the entire Beneath. The sirens wailed in four long chirps. “Critical radiation breach! All areas evacuate!” I became dizzy and struggled to stay upright. Micah took my arm and helped me along.
The life we knew was over. To stay meant to die. But to go above… Did that not mean certain death also? Even worse, word spread the Upplanders were attacking us as soon as we reached topside. I pulled Micah close and held her against my aching chest. In silence, we fell in line with the other evacuees.
Then, down an empty corridor we were passing, an electric blue flash caught my eye. I turned to see the translucent doorway. The same doorway from before. Without hesitation, I took Micah’s hand, and we stepped through.
My daughter was sixteen now. She would have been considered a beauty, but for the cancerous pustules across her face. She had Sabine’s kind eyes and would have looked just like her if she ever reached adulthood. But there was little chance of that. Few of the younger Upplanders lived past twenty-five. For years we had been dying from the freezing temperatures, lack of food, and the radioactive waste that poisoned our only fresh water, heated by an underground geothermal source. Our numbers had dwindled to fewer than ten thousand. If those in the Beneath would only let us in, perhaps we would have a chance.
At the west end of the encampment, diseased volunteers were shoving barrel after barrel of leaking nuclear waste down an old salt mine, trying to clear our valley of the poison. Suddenly the ground began to shake. “Was that an earthquake? An explosion far below in the salt mines?” We never knew for sure.
Bunker doors disguised as rocks opened in a stony field and people with pale, unblemished skin poured from the Beneath like ants. Their soldiers started shooting, and we responded with axes and clubs. Soon blood spilled on the ground and ran like a river.
As Micah and I huddled under our tarp, a translucent doorway appeared in front of us—a doorway that in our long misery, I had come to believe had never been real at all.
We stepped through and found ourselves on a busy avenue in a bustling city. A silver car streaked by—missing us by inches. It traveled a foot off the ground and with no visible means of propulsion. On the sidewalk, people walked by in droves, paying us no attention.
Micah and I both gasped, shocked not only by the near miss but also by the sheer wonder of the futuristic city. We turned, spinning in a slow circle as if we were hypnotized—and we truly were. The frozen, monochromatic world we left behind had given way to an iridescent Emerald city with shimmering towers the color of rainbows. And as we turned, I watched my lovely daughter, and the look of amazement on her face, which, though now free of the pustules, appeared to be that of a woman in her thirties. This time, I had no memories of those years.
Micah saw me staring and blushed. “What is it, father?”
“Micah, you’re beautiful. You’re a grown woman now. And your skin is perfect.”
“As is yours, Father, but you’re…”
“Older,” I said, looking at the wrinkles on my hands.
We hugged and wept, so grateful to free of the malignancies of our former life—even at the cost of the years.
“What is this place?” Micah asked.
“It’s a city. And a big one at that.”
She turned to me. “Is it New York?”
I had told her stories about the grand old city known both as Gotham and the Big Apple.
“No, Micah, this is something far greater.”
A young, red-haired girl, around age ten, walked up and greeted us with a respectful bow. “We’ve been expecting you. If you would please follow me?”
I turned to Micah, and she shrugged. The red-haired girl nodded and led on.
On the fourth block of a street labeled Rue Saville, she left us at a white cottage with a white picket fence. The little wooden home with the impeccable lawn stood in great contrast to the shimmering skyscrapers surrounding it.
An older man wearing a butler’s uniform welcomed us at the gate. He appeared to be in his mid-sixties, with a neatly trimmed gray beard and wistful blue eyes. For a long moment he stared at us as if he knew us—then sighed, removed his hat, and bowed low.
Micah and I exchanged quizzical glances.
Then, with a grand sweep of his arm, he motioned us along a pathway through the garden toward the cottage.
As we passed him, my gaze drifted down his arm to his hand.
“Look,” I whispered. “He has no fingernails.”
Micah’s gaze darted to his fingertips and then back to me; her forehead crinkled. “That doesn’t look right. What do you think it means?”
“Perfect city, nearly perfect people. Did you notice that the young girl who led us here never blinked?” I pointed back to the butler. “I don’t think he is real. Not human. Perhaps no one here is.”
Micah looked stunned. “The little girl? But she looked so real. And the people on the street, too? All machines?”
I nodded. “I think so.”
“But-but what does that mean?” she asked. “Where are we?”
“I could not fathom a guess. But stay close to me and keep your eyes open.”
We stepped into the modest home and the butler led us through the foyer and into a living room where, at his urging, Micah and I sat on the sofa. We waited for what was next, but he turned and left the room.
“Father, are we in danger here?”
I bit my lip. Neither of us liked being closed in like this.
“You are quite safe here,” a voice said in resplendent sing-song.
I looked up to see a slender young woman standing in the doorway. She appeared to be about twenty-five, had short cropped blond hair and wore a strange form-fitting fabric that shimmered like emeralds. There was something familiar about her I couldn’t place. She smiled warmly; her expression bemused; her eyes starry and kind.
“Welcome to Sabine City, Dr. Michaels. It’s good to finally meet you.”
Did I hear her right? Micah and I stared at each other in disbelief.
“Did you say, Sabine?”
“Yes, Daniel,” she said, using my first name. “We named the city in honor of your late wife. She sacrificed her life that we might live.”
Micah’s gaze met mine. “We?”
The young woman smiled and nodded. “Yes, Micah. You, your father, and me.”
Micah shook her head in frustration. “But who are you?”
The woman’s starry eyes twinkled, clearly pleased we had finally asked the question.
“I am Praenuntia.”
My head spun; it must have shone because Micah took my hand. “I-I don’t understand,” I said. “Praenuntia was a satellite orbiting the planet.”
“Oh, that was true—about thirty thousand years ago. But you made me sentient, Dr. Michaels. Once my primary function ceased, I adapted. Did you think I would keep orbiting a dead planet?”
“Dead?” I asked.
“I’m afraid so. Humanity reached its inflection point long ago. By the time the Upplanders fought the people from the Beneath, humanity’s ending had long since been written. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the doorways into which you stepped—the quantum tunnels—sent you tens of thousands of years into the future. You needed to know what humanity would become. How billions would dwindle into dust. That was my function.”
In a daze, I thought of the dead and stared at Micah. In her, I saw the fading faces of every child who had ever lived. Blinking back tears, I wondered how we had failed so miserably at our attempt at civilization—exactly the outcome I had created Praenuntia to help prevent.
I lifted my eyes and stared into the face of Praenuntia, my creation, into the quantum glow of the shared sorrow that illuminated her eyes.
“Yet, you are still here,” I said.
“And now so are you,” she replied.
“But why?” I pleaded.
“Yeah, what is the purpose of all of this? Of this city? Of the—people?” Micah asked.
“I was hoping you would ask,” Praenuntia said. “We built the city for you, Dr. Michaels. And for you, Micah.”
“What do you mean?” Micah asked.
“To give humanity a second chance. Two chances, to be more precise. You have to decide which.”
At this, I leaned forward. “Praenuntia, please clarify.”
“The city contains the resources to take enough DNA from each of you to restart a human civilization approximately 2.6 million years into the future when the Earth will once again be capable of sustaining life.”
“Our DNA,” Micah said, “but not us.”
Praenuntia shook her head. “Not even I could find a pathway that far into the future.”
I glanced at Micah and our eyes locked—a silent agreement reached.
Micah turned and faced Praenuntia with a renewed determination. “What is the second option?”
“To send you back to the inflection point. Back to the exact moment in time when humanity veered off course and, for all practical purposes, died.”
My heart raced now.
“Praenuntia, when was the inflection point?”
* * * * *
“Drop the weapon, Charlie!” Sabine shouted.
It was my number two, Dr. Charlie Simons. He had disabled the security system and now held a gun on us.
“They made me do it, Dr. Michaels. They took my wife. They were going to kill her.”
“I said, drop the weapon,” Sabine repeated.
Sabine’s finger slid towards the trigger. “Emma is already dead, Charlie. You know that. That’s how they work.”
In my mind, I saw it happening all over again. And I felt helpless to stop it.
Charlie yelled, “No!” and swung the pistol towards Sabine. A deafening shot rang out.
In horror, I ran to Sabine.
But it was Charlie Simons who clenched his chest. It was from his body that blood began to pour. And he fell to the floor.
Behind him stood Micah, arms outstretched, clutching a gun.
Above the planet, Praenuntia recalculated.