Chapter III: Earthbound
In 2250, after the death of her mother, Olympias returned to Earth. “Shell of a woman,” she wrote in her diary, in all-caps, referring, possibly, to both herself and to the dead woman, who returned with her in the form of a thimbleful of dust contained in a heavy silver locket.
Olympias was nineteen and had no known relatives to welcome her back to Earth. When she stepped off the shuttle onto Howard Field, located in Matanzas in the former Republic of the Unreal, the wind from the rotor blades whipping through her dark hair, there would have been no one to receive her. She would have walked, head bowed, down the sandy line between the shuttle terminus and the gray quarantine tents, where she would have been checked for evidence of space pathogens and parasites. According to the shuttle inventory list, she had one piece of luggage with her: a squarish, military-green suitcase. Inside, she had packed four khaki overalls, her acrylic Mars ID, removed from the subcutaneous fat of her upper arm for space travel (though Olympias never had it reinserted, as she failed to report to the identification facility after reentry), a quantum knife, a 200-ml bottle of injectable gravity adjustor (though no syringe), and the silver locket belonging to her mother.
Her mother, Lizzy Prana, had spent the last year of her life in complete agony. P. Passiflora, a rare space parasite named for the blossom it resembles at the microscopic level, had trapped her for ten months in the black prism of parasitosis-induced paranoia. P. Passiflora can lay dormant for decades; today, it is speculated that she may have picked up the parasite during her late twenties, while in the employment of Antimony Howard as a backrooms janitor. Olympias and the parasite would have coexisted in the womb and shared her mother’s blood. By 2249, when Lizzy was 48, the parasitosis had progressed to Stage Four, which in the clinical definition corresponds to multiple organ failure and, when this is not promptly resolved, certain death.
P. Passifora parasitosis was, at the time, fully curable with plasma therapy, but the cause of Lizzy’s death was not identified until the autopsy, possibly due to Lizzy’s existing and numerous psychiatric conditions, which may have led Olympias to believe that her mother’s symptoms were simply the acceleration, through aging, of ordinary space-aggravated depression. This produces a rather tragic picture of Olympias, panicked but helpless, during her mother’s final year. She would have been a daily witness to Lizzy’s slow, inexorable deterioration; Lizzy would have become belligerent—even violent—in her final months, before acquiring a preternatural, serene calm in the weeks before her death. Testimony of a victim’s relative from a 2215 legal inquest made into a mass P. Passiflora parasitosis event, believed to be a case of biological terrorism, described the final stage as follows: She gets quiet. She smiles. You think she’s getting better, but she’s not. That sliver of hope hurts the most. She doesn’t answer your questions. She’s getting ready to die.
Olympias would not have understood what was happening until it was much too late. There is even evidence that, in the last weeks, she moved out of her mother’s unit and lived in an outpost on the other side of the Candor Chasma, one of Mars’s deepest valleys. She may have been frustrated by the mood swings and hoped, perhaps, that distance might improve mother-daughter relations. The bond between them, while perennially strong, was prone to sour with too much closeness. With the exception of the small amount she reserved for the locket, Olympias reportedly cast her mother’s ashes into space while in lower orbit, in open defiance of space littering laws. This was motivated not by grief nor despair at being left behind, but by love. “The look of moonrise was Mom’s favorite,” Olympias wrote in her diary. “Now she’ll see it forever.”
As far as homecomings go, the return of Olympias went entirely unnoticed. She was not Macedonia’s Alexander, paraded in his coffin across the golden plains of Central Asia. Nor was she Amethyst Howard in her infamous portrait, standing triumphant as she sifts the wine-red sand of Mars through gloved fingers. She would become vastly greater than both, but at the time of her return to Earth, Olympias was still ten years away from her ascendance into history. In this time she was profoundly ordinary. She was also, as her diaries reveal, no stranger to that most common of afflictions: loneliness. “If I had friends,” Olympias writes in her first Earth entry, “I’d ask them to call me Pia.” There is no record of anyone calling her by this name. By 2250, the Space Age and its cultural products were no longer at the height of their cultural influence over the public. Far from interest, terrestrials felt contempt for “rubes,” as children of the red planet were often called, in a play-on-words that capitalized on the phonological similarity between “rube” and “rubescent,” or “red”. The privileges afforded by a heady, dreamlike space life on Mars made it possible, in the eyes of Earth’s residents, to fully ignore the happenings of the home planet. This doe-eyed behavior was as worthy of disparagement as “strangling truth,” as Miles Bone, podcaster-turned-philosopher of the 2100s, sometimes put it. “Ignoring Earth is like banishing family, killing friends, strangling truth. Rubes forget their own humanity when they leave the homeland behind.”
Born in 2231, the “year of the near-miss,” after the meteor that avoided collision with Earth “by a hair, in astrophysical terms,” Olympias had indeed “missed” a whole host of relevant Earth-based events. By age nineteen she had lived through the end of the unipolar geopolitical system, the ascent of artificial general intelligence (AGI) and the election of “President Tadpole,” an AGI in the shape of a fifty-foot 3-D diamond, for President of the Republic of the Unreal. She was entirely ignorant of most of this, a fact which her later associates would find equal parts charming and farcical. They quickly learned not to call her a rube, however; after meeting Olympias, Assumpta III was known to accost even strangers who used the term in her hearing. To live in space, they discovered, was not to live in innocence.
Earth too would lose the last vestiges of its innocence and its faith in abundance in the Black Decade, which began a scant year after Olympias’s return. In the years between 2000 and 2250, humans were garlanded by a superabundance of material riches, much of it extracted from Mars and other exo-colonies. It had granted humans the foolhardy faith that they could defy consequence forever. They were also in possession of an incalculable amount of digital information. The depth, precision, and granularity of information they had about their own lives is difficult to imagine now; they lived in a constant flood of data, heads hovering just about the shimmering surface of the water. Bardo, philosopher-AGI of the 2200s famously bemoaned that life “is too familiar now. It will never contain any mysteries worth excavating again.” But in a twist not unknown to humankind, Bardo was proven incorrect by the cruelties of fate, though he can be forgiven for a lack of imagination that would have required an intimate grasp of the horrors of the future. Neither Bardo nor any 22nd century leader, artificial or otherwise, could have foreseen the Black Decade, which occasioned the almost complete ruin of the former Republic’s server farms and the loss of almost every form of digital record. Stone tablets, as it turned out, fared better than terabytes. Even paper had a longer legacy, in the end, than the Information Age. Our partial knowledge of the partial truth of Olympias has been obtainable only because Olympias, a devotee of nostalgia, preferred the outdated, romantic notion of putting pen to paper rather than stylus to screen.
Matanzas has been called the Alexandria of the Space Age. There are several parallels: both were coastal cities and bastions of Earthly wisdom. Both were felled by the type of demise that takes on an otherworldly tinge in our collective recollection. This has led, naturally, to comparisons between Olympias Prana and Cleopatra, the last pharaoh to sit on a golden Alexandrian throne. It is mostly a superficial comparison, as the two women had nearly nothing in common. Cleopatra was born a goddess, the Earthbound manifestation of Isis, queen of life, magic, and divine motherhood. Olympias was the daughter of a janitor. But it is possible to see similarity between them in the one Black Decade recording of Olympias which has survived to the present day. The video footage, lodged in the collapsed wall of a bunker for over a hundred years, contains little in the way of recoverable content. But a ten-second loop of Olympias has been preserved. In it, she fishes out her quantum knife from a backpack and positions it, edge facing down, above her exposed wrist. In her shaking hand are shades of Cleopatra with the fabled snake retrieved from a basket of figs. She lowers the blade. She doesn’t break the surface of her skin, but the camera picks up the torment on her face. Her brow trembles violently, like a tree branch too heavily laden with blossoms or rain. At one point, her hand seizes, and the blade clatters to the floor. She retreats to the wall, head in her hands. It is a moment that has been immortalized in art a thousand times over, most famously in vibrant oils as Brave Olympias Resists. She was twenty-one.