The Girl Who Bought a Planet

“What is it worth to you, really?” That was his twisting question.

Alasha looked the trade agent in the eye and replied, “What I decide it is worth.”

It was a blunt hammer blow of logic that could not be fought.

He nodded. His tell of pulling the ends of his extraordinary, waxed moustache revealed her win in the bidding, and to her surprise, he relented with a rare smile in front of the lawyers, as he agreed to the sale. Her number was acceptable, high enough to be realistic, low enough to be a challenge, but ultimately better than the other contenders, which was all that mattered in the end.

She owned so much already but there was a special kind of thrill to buying a planet.

Almost immediately she had prepared for the journey to Earth, her ostentatious present to herself in a cold, loveless galaxy.

The documents were condensed for her appraisal and offered up in a mind-merge interface for her thought signatures. There was an anomaly, which fascinated her. There was a solitary caretaker in residence on the world, his name, Jarell. He was the last homo-sapien, kept alive indefinitely as a unique punishment for the failure of the species. She was surprised he had not been mentioned in the holo-brochure. Technically, he was her ancestor, but she was not too comfortable with the biological connection. Even at the tender age of eighteen, palaeontologists would consider her smarter than any Earth human had been, and although to look at her she was undeniably similar to the species, she was a towering, supple humanoid. Education programmes indicated homo sentients were better designed in almost every way, especially to thrive in an interstellar lifestyle. For one, her kind did not wallow in family units, relationships were transient and disposable. Babies were often raised by AI, and as for a permanent home, she, like many others, could never imagine that. She was an individualist and companions were interchangeable in her life, as were locations – space was too interesting to stay anywhere for too long with anyone. She would simply purchase another beautiful home on another beautiful planet when she was bored of her surroundings, the price was never an issue. Her greatest attribute was her continual success, failure was not a word she tolerated. Her more efficient brain, her sinewy, muscular body and her almost supernaturally sharp senses made her a supreme entity.

Through the large round viewing portal of her latest ship, the automated void-yacht she had named New Horizons, the world flitted into view as the jump engines powered down abruptly.

It was once blue and green with swirling white cloud cover, she knew of its history, but even as a dusty amber rock in space, it had an unmistakable majesty.

“So, you are Earth…” she said to herself, enjoying the prospect of owning a heritage site of such meaning, the very origin of people. Intrinsically, it was a relic, a curio, a living museum, but what a prize in her collection, a statement piece to treasure. Besides, she had plans.

The ship circled twice and found a trajectory into orbit that would land near Jarell’s location. She was aware, she now technically owned him too.

The landing gear lowered with the ship’s automatic descent and the jets kicked up dust from the cluttered ground. There were so many jagged rocks like they had rained from the sky and within the embrace of encircling cliffs, ancient city ruins glistened in their skeletal beauty. Skyscraping towers, twisted metal and the carcases of vehicles, clumped and smelted together, all forgotten like a litter of decay. It was a beautiful mess, an apocalyptic renaissance landscape, everything coated with dirt and framed by dunes. The scene sprawled like the dead remains of a failed way of life, a civilisation crushed by time and the burden of convulsing growth. The ship had to find and calculate the perfect configuration of rocks and spaces so it could touch down smoothly without damaging the metallic pads on landing.

Alasha strode confidently down the ramp to the dirt of the world, her jade cape whirling about her shoulders in the bracing winds. The air was still breathable, but there was an unmistakable sulphuric stench to it. The sky was a thick impenetrable blanket of a yellow haze. She took a minute to absorb the reality of her surroundings. Deserted buildings loomed high above her or lay twisted in collapse. An industrial addiction had driven the place into a mad death. It was fascinating. Her schooling implants had given her a history of its demise but there was nothing like seeing it up close and for real, it was a unique education, an experience unmatched by any simulator or immersive mind map replica.

Her AI guide whispered to her in her skull implant.

“Watch for tunnels in the buildings, there is a species of cockroach here that’s as long as your arm. Their bite can be excruciating, to fatal, I strongly recommend armour.”

She hesitated, and thought activated the thin, presumably bite-proof layer of shielding that welled up from the pores of her skin-tight travel suit. She unclipped the holster on her sidearm, ready for any unwelcome challenge. This was her world, and she was damned if she would be intimidated by it.

The caretaker resided in the fortified remains of a cathedral. ‘Gods?’ she thought, how shallow and naïve these foolish dreamers were. She found it a bizarre and extravagant building, parts of it crumbling, parts of it impressively unblemished. A single metal door with a movement scanner above it showed her she had found her ancient human male. The door was out of place, modern, uncomplicated and looked after. Jarell’s voice boomed from a speaker through the open space as she walked toward the unmarked door. He sounded rough, like a gangster, but what he said was more like an official declaration from a royal steward, the words didn’t fit with his gritty vocal cords.

“You must be the buyer. I was made aware the deeds for Earth had been sold. You are the first private owner of this world.”

“I am aware of that… Jarell. Let me in. I wish to see you.” She rolled her eyes. This was a simpleton.

There was a buzz of locks releasing and the door seemed to decompress and relax into the doorframe loosely.

Inside the sanctum was what appeared to be a sizeable library, with shelves leading all the way to the ceiling in every direction, each shelf stuffed with tatty, threadbare, old-fashioned hardbacked books. There was also a large brown globe drinks cabinet and a huge throne-like wooden chair but no sign of Jarell.

She narrowed her eyes in the oppressive gloom and sniffed the stale air, as she tried to pinpoint the scent of sweat on a man, but found none. And there, hiding in the shadows in the furthest corner, a slight movement alerted her to a presence. Jarell’s face was all that remained of his original form, the rest was robotics – his fragment of flesh was a mask of a man pulled tight over an android’s skull, he looked back at her with a deep unmistakable sadness that was as old as time. His mind has been uploaded thousands of years ago.

“You have been around since the Earth’s demise as the only one of your species, you must live in a state of suffering.”

“With enough time you get used to everything in the end.”

She had expected that.

Jarell’s robot body was for him to use but he could never self-destruct or hurt her with its strong metal limbs, it was a failsafe in the software, and his endless consciousness was a term he would serve with no appeal or reprieve.

“Tell me about your job here,” she instructed, “How do you caretake a world like this?”

He smiled and sat casually in the wide, tall chair as if HE was interviewing her.

“I keep the atmosphere generators on, that’s basically it. They reversed the warming enough for some life to remain here but with all the pollution and climate fluctuation, it will never fully recover. I make sure there is enough water to keep things ticking over in the global network, just. But you won’t really see it. I don’t need to be here. I’m more of an observer for the network, and a warning about stupidity. My existence, as you well know, is a punishment.”

“This world is so old, so well known. There are clear opportunities to make a return on my investment.”

“I’ve heard that said before…” he laughed, clearly amused at the irony. “You’re thinking like my humans now… Earth does that to you.”

She did not laugh or even smirk at the comment, but it did take her back.

“The difference is you only had one planet, that’s all changed now. It’s a big galaxy out there. Squandering limited resources and chasing growth feverishly – that’s a crime, and stupid, when you are surrounded by literally nothing. My race evolved on a world far from here, in a better way altogether. We knew that we had to always see the resources ahead of us before using up what we had.”

He stood up and pulled a black cloak, that was draped on the back of the chair carefully over his robotic humanoid frame, as if he were preparing to present a case in an old Earth court.

“…And yet, you still use money, we had a saying that money was the root of all evil…” and he moved away to the library to inspect the books.

She ignored his interjection to proclaim her master plan.

“I intend to make this planet two things; one, a port and a depot for ships to resupply, and two, a place for tourist barges to land and for sightseers to observe Earth’s landscapes first hand. This planet is a legendary location – all too long made inaccessible by the Federation. That will change now. I own more than a million droids, so it won’t take long to plan and build the necessary infrastructures. I will select the best locations, including this one, where I will make you a spectacle for a tour. I will expect you to host those who wish to interact with you. That will become part of your new duties, under my rule.”

Jarell stopped and turned toward her, a book grasped in one hand.

“You mean like a concierge in a hotel? How droll and amusing.”

Jarell irritated her immensely, his attitude and irreverence were grating on her patience. This being, this primitive animalistic human, had the audacity to mock her.

“That thing in your hand, that’s a book. I have heard about those. You have to read every single page with your eyes, what could be droller than that?!”

“I have read every one of these books, more than once. Before you say something, like ‘it’s a waste of time’, or ‘you could upload this library in a second’, consider this, it’s the experience of reading as much as the content, that is what is important. Your kind misunderstands so much – you have become blind by your arrogance. It’s what happens with lost civilisations you know, I know that from the books. Lose a civilisation and you lose their real knowledge, not how to build bridges and design planes, but their experiences – the stuff that happens between people. You always assume failed societies failed because they were fools, which tells me you know nothing of the reality of people.”

Alasha relaxed her shoulders and took a breath, she should not rise to his baiting and she should study him, a creature from another time, something valuable in her ever-growing portfolio. She grinned as she paced about the dirty stone flooring, taking in the high, crammed bookshelves on every wall. He was a strange one.

He still had not finished his diatribe. He was persistent if nothing else.

“You have forgotten that I am old, and with age comes wisdom. Mortal beings, even long-lived ones like you, you have only the timeframe of your existence to concern yourself with. That makes you live within limits. I know your rituals of death, how you value the end of your life like the beginning, but without death, you see life differently. This punishment, my time here, the way your kind has ignored my presence for so long, it has made me into something different. You see this book I hold, this is a nature book, it tells me so much about the last remaining animals on Earth and how they behave, it has taught me how to live with them, and indeed with a few experiments, it has taught me more than that.”

She sighed and folded her arms.

“Have you a point you are trying to make? If so, please hurry up about it.”

He was flicking through the pages for the theatre of the moment, for emphasis.

“Yes, certainly. Ultimately, nature learns to exist in its changed environment and learns to do well in it, less it perishes. The most prolific animals on this world, the roaches, have a social structure, they share shelter, they recognise each other, and they communicate with each other. Yet humans feared and hated them, they called them vermin and sometimes, when people turned on each other, they labelled their foe cockroaches as an insult. Like humans, these creatures have rules, they live by a code, and I have had time to get to know them, like… family. You cannot own them, and this world is not sellable, you can’t own something that will survive you, in truth, it owns you.”

A new scent alerted her of the presence of others. There was a chemical trace in the room that grew stronger rapidly. It permeated every part of the cavern-like room.

To her surprise she witnessed a tiny brown flume of chemicals jettison from a stubby tube that was protruding from Jarell’s metallic neck, it was a high-pressure spray, a cloud of droplets that dispersed into the dusty air.

“What was that, you had a leak in your hydraulics or something, there was a spurt from your neck?”

His artificial throat, connected to his human mouth, was silent. Her instinct was telling her of duplicity, she had a sense that he had laid a trap.

“Tell me,” she demanded. He stared at her blankly in defiance.

She thought about what she had witnessed and drew a conclusion quickly. “You have customised your robot body, which is not in your design protocol. Let me guess, you’ve hacked your self-repair programme somehow. If that was a stun gas, it won’t work on me, I am immune.”

“You are half right… About the hack I did, anyway,” he smiled. “Cockroaches have been around for three hundred and fifty million years. One thing you can see they have in common with me, is that they are survivors. I modified myself and found a way to communicate with them in their chemical language. They talk with smells, it’s silent, it’s stealthy. I found a way to use the chemicals from dead roaches and designed a new part which I attached to my body, which can spray each signal. I had a while to work out their vocabulary and an electronic brain that can distinguish the nuances. We have conversations you know, complex ones and well, eventually, I let them in to live with me…”

From behind the wall of books to her side there was a loud sound of scuttling feet, of heavy, long bodies moving through a cavity. The sound was just from one initially but in a few moments, it was clear there were dozens of them teeming in the recesses of the building.

Alasha pulled her gun and pointed it at Jarell’s face.

“Don’t make the mistake of crossing me… I’ll shoot you without even blinking.”

“I don’t understand… I thought being alive was my punishment?” he laughed in an exaggerated way, his arms raised as if impacted by a wave.

“You can still live, just without your face,” she retorted, her gun safety off and her finger softly aligned to the trigger.

The roaches emerged, their large shiny heads glistening and their long antennae probing the floor. They had startling speed, rocketing across the stone and vanishing into adjacent tunnels, tucked behind desks or low down in walls. Alasha began to notice the gaps and spaces where they had made tunnels. Some of the books were chewed she noticed, eaten as food.

“I’ll call them off on one condition…” he said, “you say the word ‘home’ to me. Just amuse me and do it, please…”


She narrowed her eyes. Her AI was warning her that it could detect hundreds of the giant cockroaches swarming past the New Horizon’s landing gear sensors, racing toward her location on powerful, spikey legs.

“I can call them all off with one single spray… It sets off a chain reaction through all the near roaches until it reaches the approaching swarm. Right now they mean to overwhelm you with numbers. They know you have a gun and armour but it won’t be enough. I’ve seen them rip open concrete and on those odd occasions, when a camel herd drift into the city ruins, they leave nothing, not even the bones. They are nothing if not efficient recyclers.”

Jarell could tell she was taking advice from her AI and he didn’t mind at all. He flicked a page of his book as if it were just another slow day on a dying planet.

Finally, unable to calculate a convincing way out she pursed her lips and said slowly in a controlled tone, “home…”

He snapped the book closed and winked at her with one of the last remaining two human eyes in the Universe. “Not so hard, was it!”

“No wonder you all became extinct…” she blurted, for the first time in a long time she was rattled.

“Call them off, or I WILL shoot and take my chances.”

A jet of scent plumed from his neck hole and filled the room. She lowered her gun slowly and looked anxiously back at the heavy main door.

“You need to understand Jarell, your situation can change to become a lot less comfortable. I can deactivate your body’s motor functions but keep you switched on for a hundred years, that’s what I am now considering. It will give you time to think about your insolence. That device you’ve made – you know that has to be removed, right? I can back-engineer it but if you just give me the schematics, I’ll lessen the punishment. Talking to the roaches will be a great benefit to my plans. It’s time to understand, I own this world, this is all mine now, as is everything on it.”

He tucked the book firmly under his metal armpit, beneath his cloak, and clapped his hands together in what looked like an expression of pure joy.

“My dear, you are welcome to it…”

And that’s when the roaches burst from the tall ceiling struts, rolling onto her, knocking her sideways. Their weight alone winded her completely and as they continued to fall upon her she passed out with their overwhelming weight. She managed to say something before the darkness swallowed her but it was muffled and meaningless. It was a waterfall of creatures, creating a writhing dark hill of hard closed wings and leathery bodies. They did not bite her. It was something he requested of them. He wasn’t a monster.

Jarell walked in a wide arc around the growing pile of beasts, the book now back in his clutches, held like a stone tablet, a sacred tome safe in the hands of a prophet. He left via the large metal door and without hurrying, idled toward the lowered ramp of the New Horizons.

Once on board, he stopped short, before the closed door to the travelling quarters. The biometric voice detector was listening.

“Destination?” asked the ship’s computer.

In a voice perfectly mimicking Alasha’s, he smiled and said plainly, “Home.”

There was a whir of motors, and the hydraulics pulled up the ramp, away from the dust of Earth. The sound was the promise of leaving. It was the most wonderful sound Jarell had ever heard.

The End

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