On his way home, the current carried Adam above the city. He didn’t understand why the entire undersea dome wasn’t filled with water instead of just the transit tubes. Almost everyone had gills, and if they didn’t, they could get them quickly. He’d upgraded his several times. Every kid went through a stage of seeing how extreme they could tweak their DNA to produce wings and fins and multiple limbs, mostly to upset their parents, but he’d focused more on performance improvements since he’d entered college.

Adam’s gills, webbed fingers and toes, and nictitating membranes over his eyes felt natural. In his habitat, one of the hundreds of domes in Earth’s oceans, many people swam home after work or school. Adam lived at home with his dad and older brother and spent his time working on his final graduation assignment. He and two of his friends met every day in Within, the virtual reality domain, to coordinate their project. With Emergence approaching, a graduation certificate might not be worth much, but they’d worked too long on their project not to finish.

Pulling himself out of the tube near his home, he expelled water from his gills and waited while his suit wicked away the water. He took the elevator up to their apartment. Through the glass, the buildings and archways of Sea City 309 fell away. Two hundred years earlier, his ancestors had moved from the surface to Earth’s seabed shallows. Others had moved to orbital cities and subterranean chambers. Pandemics had decimated the planet’s population, and human greed endangered the remaining biosphere, so the nations of the world established a “no humans on the surface” policy for two centuries to allow time for the planet to partially restore itself. Emergence marked the end of the two hundred years, and humans could return to the surface.

Adam entered the apartment as his brother’s bedroom door slammed. Dad was cooking in the compact kitchen. He was a maintenance engineer, a fancy term for someone who fixed things that broke. As Emergence neared, Dad worked night and day to repair systems that should have been replaced decades earlier. Adam didn’t see why he bothered if they were leaving.

The apartment smelled of tomato sauce. Adam’s older brother worked in hydroponics and frequently brought home fresh vegetables. The dome’s lower levels held racks of fruits and vegetables, artificially lit and bioengineered. The plants recycled the air and water for the city. No contamination of the seafloor or surrounding ocean was allowed while the Earth healed itself. The saltwater used in the tubes went out cleaner than it came in.

Adam leaned over his father’s shoulder. “That smells good.” 

“Verde cacciatore,” his father said. His flushed cheeks and slamming of pot lids meant he and Lou had been arguing about Emergence options again. Lou, as a Darwinian, didn’t want to return to Earth’s surface. He and his fellow believers advocated everyone remain beneath the sea, sterilized, until the race died out. Since humans had taken Earth to within a hair’s breadth of annihilation, they felt the time for humans had come and gone.

Dad, on the other hand, wanted to see the surface. He hoped to take technology with him, but the news said the Council leaned toward a non-technical return. They’d be cavemen, but their impact on the Earth would be less destructive.

“He’ll get over it.” Dad glanced at Lou’s bedroom door. “After we’re assigned a new home on the surface. I can’t imagine breathing fresh air and drinking water that thousands haven’t drunk before.” 

He placed Lou’s plate back in the cupboard. “Dinner will be ready in a minute.”

“I’m late for a homework meeting with the others,” Adam said. “Can you save me a plate?”

His dad nodded. “Think you’ll finish your graduation project in time?”

“It’s going well. Just smoothing out the final wrinkles. Any update from the Council?”

“No. They have to vote soon. People are crazy wondering which way the vote will go.”

Adam nodded. The worst part was the decision had to be all or nothing. Some couldn’t decide to stay while others went. After they reached the surface, they couldn’t have both no-tech and advanced tech.

“We can survive for a couple more weeks, Dad, if the city’s systems hold together that long.”

His dad filled his plate. “They will last a while longer. Do your friends know how the other cities are voting?”

“No.” Adam grabbed a piece of garlic bread. “I’m already late. Save me some.”

He went to his room, dropped his backpack, and made himself comfortable on the bed without removing his wetsuit. He used his implant to enter Within.

“It’s about time.” Pandy sat on the balcony, overlooking the beach. Since they’d been small children, they’d visited Within to work and play. Alira, the city’s AI, reserved the VR area specifically for them, a furnished cave overlooking a beach. Although Adam had never been above the surface, something about their private aerie felt like home to him.

“Any sign of Rick?” Pandy rose from her chair, her hair bright pink today. The only thing that stayed the same was her trademark dark patch around her right eye. She liked experimenting with her DNA. She’d even been a boy for a year.

“I haven’t seen him,” Adam said. “My change didn’t work. No matter how hard I tweaked the computer model, making the human brain bigger doesn’t make it any smarter or allow psychic abilities.”

“Does the project need them?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It might make us more caring if we felt each other’s emotions or heard each other’s thoughts. We haven’t evolved much in millions of years. We’re still violent, frightened cave dwellers. If we return to the surface, we could destroy it for good this time. How about Sky City 122?”

She walked to the railing and glanced at the clouds overhead. “It’s insane. We’ve had violent demonstrations. We almost lost Sky City 120.”

“What happened?” He joined her on the balcony, putting his arm around her waist. 

“A bomb exploded,” she said. “Alira said it was a faulty energy core, but the video showed otherwise.” Alira worked for the Council and distributed information between the cities.

“Did Darwinians do it?” Adam asked.

“No. Mothership fanatics.” They wanted to use the resources of the cities to build an interstellar sleeper ship. Apparently, their goal was to pollute another world on another side of the galaxy. 

“I couldn’t complete my project either.” She leaned against him. As friends, she, Adam, and Rick had taken sex education classes together and practiced with each other. “I tried seasonal breeding periods for humans, but I don’t think it can be done.”

Adam had requested their last-minute tweaks more to keep them busy than to actually enhance the project.

Rick appeared wearing their graduation project, a bipedal humanoid with gray skin and enhanced musculature.

“Holy hell, Rick,” Pandy said. “Why are you wearing that?” While Within, their avatars could appear as anything. Adam and the others usually kept their true appearances, although he did accentuate his abs. 

Rick wore what appeared to be a blue wetsuit but was the project’s thermal skin. He resembled a human porpoise. A pronounced brow ridge overshadowed his dark eyes. With two hearts, a reinforced skeleton, and thickened soles, he was almost indestructible. The skin regulated the body’s internal temperature, enabling him to survive in hot and frigid climates.

“Can’t you wear clothes?” Panda asked. “We don’t need that swinging around.”

Rick looked down at his genitals. “I still haven’t figured out what to do about these. They’re too vulnerable when exposed. A bony codpiece? I considered a spring-loaded penis like a dolphin, but I don’t know how to reduce the testicle temperature inside the body.” His avatar grew a plastic skirt Pandy liked to wear, the purple one with white poodles.

“Max looks great,” Adam said. They called the prototype Max. “Is it going to be ready before Emergence?”

“Oh yeah,” Rick said. “It’s ready now.” He changed to his regular human appearance, tall, freckled, and redheaded, wearing a green coverall. He kept the skirt.

“Things are crazy in Cave City 47.” Rick lived in one of the subterranean cities. “We’re moving people into the main habitats for Emergence, but it’s putting too many people together with different ideologies. Fights spring up by the hour. We’ve got Trogs, Darwinians, Sleepers, and about fifty different religious groups. If the Council doesn’t vote soon, there won’t be anyone left to Emerge.”

“What is the Council waiting for?” Pandy asked.

“To give people as many options to vote on as possible,” Rick said.

“What have you heard?” Adam asked his buddy. The three had been friends since they’d accidentally been placed together in an advanced body modification class by Alira. The mostly teenage mod-heads had been interested to see how far they could take the human norm and survive. Pandy, Rick, and Adam had not been concerned with cosmetic self-improvement. They wanted to create a human capable of surviving in Earth’s newly restored forests and wetlands.

“Instead of terraforming the planet to meet human needs and destroying it again,” Adam had said, “let’s evolve humans to the point where they can exist in harmony with the planet.”

The others, impressed by the concept, helped him create a bio-formed human with little effect on Earth. Over the years, the trio developed the idea further. They’d tried pelted herbivores, sessile intelligent fungi, and clones of a dozen different varieties. The result had been Max.

With a wave of her hand, Pandy changed the ocean view before them to one of the Earth seen from the Sky Cities. Green and blue areas peeked through the swirling clouds. 

“I can’t imagine what Earth will look like when we Emerge,” she said. “From orbit, we can see some man made structures remain on the surface. It will take thousands of years for them to completely disappear, but the greenhouse gas levels are pre-industrial. Forests have returned as well as animals and plants.”

“It is beautiful,” Rick said. “Seems a shame to inflict humankind on it again, whatever they decide.”

“Don’t go Darwinian on us,” Adam said. “After all our hard work to create an artificially evolved human.”

Rick grinned. “I’m going to miss you more than I can say.”

“What do you mean?” Pandy asked. “We’ll be right here.”

“If they don’t allow tech,” Rick said, “the VR won’t be available. We’ll be living in grass huts in different parts of the world. We’ll never meet in real life.”

Adam hadn’t considered he’d lose his friends when they Emerged. “We can travel to see each other.”

“We’ll be too busy surviving,” Pandy said. “Remember how hard it was to light a fire without an igniter?”

Adam’s fingers were sore for days from rubbing two sticks together. In preparation for Emergence, everyone learned basic survival techniques. 

“Maybe they’ll go with the tech option,” Adam said.

“And put us right back where we started?” Pandy shook her head. “We breed like rabbits. Is that why you wanted a seasonal breeding cycle?”

“Yes,” Adam said. “Plus, it might cut down on using sex as a weapon if it was a seasonal occurrence. Too bad it’s too complex for our project.”

“It was a good idea,” Rick said. “I’ve made the other reproductive changes you requested.”

That was good news. “Good. My attempts to increase our brain size didn’t pan out.”

Rick pointed at the clouds below them, and their usual ground view of the ocean at sunset returned. “Perhaps psychic abilities aren’t part of our evolutionary path.”

The three friends stared at the tangerine waves lapping in the distance. Adam hated that their time together might be coming to an end.

In the distance, a bird flew toward them. Not a bird, a winged person. Their VR space was restricted, and no one else was allowed to enter. The woman, almost transparent, landed on the balcony, and her wings disappeared.

“Hello,” she said. The woman’s hair and robes continued to swirl around her when the ocean breeze died. She glowed. “Pardon my interruption.”

Adam wasn’t impressed by her appearance. While Within, anyone could look like an angel if they wanted. But they’d never had a visitor.

“Who are you?” Pandy asked. “And how did you get in here?”

The woman smiled. “I am Alira. Your work on Max is impressive.”

“You’ve been monitoring our class project?” Adam asked.

“Yes. From the beginning. I selected promising children to help with the Emergence. You three have produced the most positive results. I wanted you to have a private place to work.” She gestured at the cave.

“Thank you,” Pandy said.

“I wanted the three of you to succeed.”

“This is bad,” Adam said. “If you’re here, it means the Council isn’t going ahead with the vote. Why?”

“Your intelligence has always impressed me, Adam. Everyday there are more factions with more demands. Violence grows. The majority shifts from one moment to the next, interfering with my task of ensuring that humanity survives.”

“Not Earth’s survival?” Adam asked. “Perhaps that’s why you can’t predict a path. You’re protecting us, and Max is protecting Earth. Can’t you do both?”

“I cannot,” Alira said, “but you can with Max. Bio-forming humans to be compatible with Earth may solve both our requirements.”

“You can’t be serious,” Pandy said. “You want to use our class project as part of Emergence?”

“Not just a part,” Alira said. “I’ve studied your designs and have prepared the viruses necessary to transform the millions of city dwellers into Max. It will take time to convert everyone, but it can be done.”

“But what about the vote?” Rick asked. “Will using Max be one of the options?”

Adam frowned. “She’s not going to allow a vote. Are you, Alira?”

“If I’m to protect humanity, I must select the best choice for them. Otherwise, humanity will destroy itself before Emergence.”

Pandy put her hands on her hips. “You can’t decide this for us. The people’s voices must be heard. Max is our project.”

“But if they choose Max, we’ll lose Within,” Adam said, “and each other.” Alira would also cease to exist.

“We could refuse to allow you to use Max,” Rick said. “We’re still making adjustments to it.”

“Would you refuse?” Alira asked. Since she’d prepared the viruses for transformation already and advised the Council, she didn’t need their permission.

“To give people a voice in the decision?” Pandy said. “Yes.”

Alira nodded. “Would you three undergo the Max transformation yourselves to save Earth?”

“Yes,” Adam held out his hand to Rick.

Rick took it. “Yes,” he echoed.

Pandy took his other hand. “Yes.”

Alira smiled. “I’d hoped you’d say that.”

Rick looked at the others. “Why?”

“She’s piping our conversation into the cities,” Adam said. “She’s using us to influence the vote.”

“And the results look promising,” Alira said. “The people, having to choose between their own comfort and the safety of the planet, have chosen to undergo your project to save Earth.”

“They’ll give up everything to eat leaves and sleep on the ground?” Adam asked. He couldn’t see his father or his brother agreeing to restricted reproduction with no Within and being tied to one location for a lifetime.

“It appears so.” Alira turned to the ocean, and it became Earth as seen from space again.

Adam pulled the others close. “I guess this means we are going to get a good grade on our graduation project.”


Pandy carried the large bundle of saplings to their home tree and laid them at Adam’s feet. Although she was hairless and blue gray, she’d somehow kept the black patch around her eye after Emergence. To Adam, she was as beautiful as ever. He himself looked like most people in the village, blue, muscular, and stocky. During Emergence, Alira arranged for Rick and Pandy to be assigned to Adam’s village, along with his father and brother.

Perhaps a hundred people from the various cities had been delivered by Alira’s shuttles to Adam’s village by the river. The pasture held structures of tree boughs and fire pits. In their new Max bodies, they didn’t need shelter but found comfort having a roof over their heads. Thousands of similar small villages dotted the globe.

Adam sat on a boulder and watched Pandy set the live saplings in a circle. He’d scoop out room for the root bundles with his bare hands after he determined where the living walls of the nursery should be.

He rubbed his swollen belly and exhaled.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. The baby is really kicking today. We’re going to need more saplings.”

“Rick is bringing another load.” She stood and stretched. “What’s that smell?”

“My brother brought squash,” he said. “He and my father seem to have settled things since we arrived. I fried the squash on the hearth. After a year, I’m finally getting the hang of making a fire with two sticks.”

Interaction between the new humans and their restored planet was being monitored by the villagers. Adam imagined other settlements around the planet were going through the same growing pains. Should they allow gardens? Fires? Homes? Eat animals? Elect a Council to decide things for them?

He couldn’t wait to see their sapphire baby. Alira, during her final days as an operational AI, had bonded the Max project to their DNA, ensuring the evolutionary upgrade was permanent.

Pandy helped Adam to his feet.

Taking a deep breath of the pine-scented air, he hugged her. “Did you ever think we’d be here?”

“I never dreamed we’d be the ones to make it possible.” She hugged him back, and the baby kicked. She laughed and stroked his belly. “I’m glad men and women can get pregnant now, but we should have shortened the gestation period.”

“I agree,” Adam said. They’d selected a home tree high on a hill overlooking the pasture and the river. Beyond that, blue mountains rose in the distance. “Can we make it work this time or will we be right back where we started in a few centuries?” 

Rick climbed the hill and lowered his bundle of saplings. “We’ll warn Junior about how close we came to killing Earth.” Rick looked the same as the Max prototype although Alira had included a genital pouch. He moved to Pandy and kissed her before kissing Adam.

Around them, people cooked and visited. Potters had found a bank of clay by the river and created low-fire pots for cooking. Adam wasn’t the only one pregnant.

“How’s your leg, Rick?” he asked. A pack of wolves had torn into his calf muscle before learning the new people weren’t easy prey.

“Never better,” he said. “Alira did a good job accelerating our healing process.”

They stood before their home tree, a large cedar with boughs bent all the way to the ground. Inside, they’d made chambers with one large moss-covered bed. They collected clam shells and pretty stones from the riverbank to decorate the canopy. Adam wondered why humans loved to decorate.

The three looked at the darkening sky. 

“Do you miss your former homes?” Adam asked.

“Being in a tin can in the ground?” Rick said. “Not at all.”

Pandy sighed. “Sometimes when I see an empty sky city burn up in the atmosphere, it makes me sad. I miss Within and hair. Mostly I miss hair.”

Adam laughed. “I miss my gills, but it’s a small sacrifice to make for a second chance.” He hugged his family and looked at their verdant surroundings.

“I think we should call the baby Hope,” he said.

“What if it’s a boy?” Rick asked.

“Max Hope.”


AI Statement: ChatGPT was used to act as an editor for this story which was wholly written by the human author Tom Howard. After AI edited and assessed the manuscript, a human editor also read it. It was interesting to note that the author had misspelled the word “nictating” in the first paragraph. AI reported no spelling errors, but the human editor caught it. They were curious because they’d never seen the word and looked it up. The entire story had to be pasted into ChatGPT in sections because the 3,300 word count was too large to process in a single message. In this case, human curiosity bested AI efficiency.

ChatGPT response: I didn’t notice any spelling errors in the text you provided. The spelling appears to be correct throughout. The piece has a compelling premise and interesting futuristic elements.

About the Author: Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the United States. He thanks his family and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group for their perspiration.

Published in issue #144  Special AI Discovery Issue  July 2023