Helena Yue's old bicycle stood against one of the trees alongside the path that went down the hills and towards the valley. It was a rusty machine that was almost as old as its owner: both Yue and her bike had come from the Earth, fifty-seven years before, both of them stored in the immense hallways of migrant ship Look At What We Have Here.
A cool wind ran down the mountains and the forest was ablaze with the colours of autumn. In the beginning, it had felt wrong to Yue. The colours, the smells, the plants - they were all so reminiscent of the Earth. The trees especially were a striking display of convergent evolution. Sure, they weren't actually trees. They were exceedingly complex colonies of symbiotic micro-organisms where algae, fungi and amoeba would merge to create forest colonies several thousand kilometres large capable of nigh-sapience - but externally they looked like Earth trees. Fungi running in the ground like roots. Hardened amoeba like the coloured bark of deciduous trees. Transparent algae sacks so thin they rustled in the wind like leaves. Even the animals shared similarities - flying lizards with feathers made for acceptable birds, fur-covered insects roamed around the woods as a substitute for mammals if one wasn't willing to look too hard. To the first migrants, Elora had felt like an eerie facsimile for the Earth. As a geologist, Helena perfectly understood the irony of the situation. Elora was in fact older than the Earth and life had appeared here at least a billion years before its entrance on Earth's grand evolutionary stage. If anything it was the Earth that looked like Elora.
0.8 Earth gravities, one atmosphere of pressure, a stable oxygen-nitrogen mix, three small moons keeping its orbit in check, a gentle F-class star illuminating its surface, long autumns and sweet springs followed by short summers and warm winters, three quarters of its surface covered in shallow oceans - Elora was a super-habitable world. Its life was richer than on Earth despite its evolutionary similarities. More complex, more intertwined. Its forests were immense, coherent organisms and its seas welcomed corals that could entertain complex thoughts. Elora was a planet full of collective intelligence. In the forests, billions of eyes were watching humans come and go, but those were benevolent, curious eyes, the eyes of consciousness billions of years in the making.
Helena Yue looked southwards. The mountains were covered in snow and the forests gleamed in nuances of orange, creating a vast colour chart running from the deep, fog-covered valleys to the azur-blessed tips of young peaks. A few arcologies ran along the abrupt slopes. Like the trees, they changed colours as seasons passed to blend in seamlessly with the landscape. Yue had been one of the proponents of this architectural style, four decades before. How to occupy Elora without ravaging it had been and still was the most pressing concern for the migrants - they still refused to refer to themselves as colonists. How to blend in. How to live and disappear.
To Helena Yue, Elora was humankind's true test. Humans were on the doorstep of becoming an interstellar civilization. Faster than light travel had been the first step, even if to a certain extent humankind had been robbed of this achievement by whoever had invented the geometry drive - but in truth it was irrelevant. Faster than light travel was a problem solvable by engineers. It was a matter of energy conversion. Not a simple one, of course, but still a problem that could be reduced to equations and schematics. It wasn't a test. It was a road bump. A mountain-sized road bump, true, but a road bump nonetheless. The second phase was where the true stakes resided. Settlement. Elora was humankind's best chance at establishing a permanent, sustainable, independent presence on another world. Mars, Tau Ceti, Trappist - all of them had been but rehearsals for the great play. Elora was the true goal. It wasn't just about establishing a self-sufficient colony - no, it was way more ambitious. It was about creating a civilisation.
In the balance hung the future of humankind. It was as simple as that. Elora was the endpoint of a seven hundred years war humanity had been waging against itself, from the dawn of the industrial age to the last years of the Low Age. A silent battlefield.
On the one hand, there was the endless repeating of history. The same failures, the same shortcomings as usual. There was Elora's incredibly complex and incredibly fragile life. There was humankind's tendency to spread, consume and devour, like all complex organisms left unchecked. There was Earth's example - a battered, ruined planet, left exhausted by the Anthropocene.
On the other hand, there was the legacy of the Low Age. Five hundred years of ecosystemic repairs and comprehension, five hundred years of social and economic progress, there was the power of modern AIs, the ability to model ecosystems in their entirety, the possibility to think as a planet for the very first time in human history. The possibility to do better.
And here she was, cycling under a foreign autumn sun, five hundred lightyears away from the Earth, the first person to step foot on Elora, yet as clueless as everyone else.
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