Kepler sighed as he sat down at his desk. In the distance, he could hear the bell signaling the departure of the field research ships from the space station. An image of himself in the royal blue of a Historical Exterrestrial Research Organization field uniform, with his name embroidered on the chest, appeared in his mind’s eye, as it often did. He took a second to relish the image before he was shaken out of his reverie by the clunk of a large box being dropped on his desk. Kepler looked up to see the head of research, Chandra, walking away from him. “Good day cycle to you too,” he mumbled to himself.
Evidently, Chandra had heard him, because she turned around, staring daggers at him.
“If you don’t like it, you’re free to use a normal work station and have your work sent directly like everyone else,” she said, gesturing to the rest of the research wing. Everyone was pretending to do work behind their holo-screens, but Kepler knew they were looking directly at him through the displays.
He nervously stared down at his solid wooden desk. A nameplate rested on top: “Keplernicus Hubble,” below which read “Human Civilization Research,” mocking him with its obnoxious font.
“I can’t properly inspect it in digital form,” he responded. “There are things you can only see in the physical artifacts themselves...”
“Look, you’ve done excellent work so far, which is why I’ve put up with your...odd requests. But you’re really starting to test my patience. Your job is solely to archive the materials, not to make any conclusions about them.”
“If I could just...” he began, but was cut off.
“You better not be starting on that field research business again. Like I’ve told you countless times before, everyone is expected to do at least a year of archival work before they are deemed capable of conducting field research. End of discussion.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, sighing as Chandra walked away.
“Psst.” Kepler heard from the work station across from him.
“Not now, Spitzer. In case you somehow missed the last few minutes, I need to do work.”
“I just wanted to say that I think it’s cool that you tricked out your desk to be like a human desk, but if you want to alienate your only friend here, that’s fine.”
“We are not friends.”
“Not with that attitude.”
“Not with any attitude.”
“Your loss. What’s in the box, anyway?” Spitzer said, ignoring Kepler’s protests and crossing over to his desk. He read the box’s label over Kepler’s shoulder.
“‘Family.’ What’s ‘family’ again?”
Kepler pulled up the definition of “family” in the HERO database to make sure he got it right. “A group of blood-related humans that had shared experiences and intimately understood each other. A very important social structure in human society.” He frowned. That definition didn’t seem quite right.
“What’s this?” Spitzer asked, pulling out a blackened piece of fabric.
“A potholder,” Kepler replied. “Human skin was so fragile, they needed protection when handling hot items.”
“Man, you really know a lot about this stuff.”
Kepler shrugged. “I think humans are fascinating.”
“What does the writing mean?” Spitzer asked.
Kepler typed “Home is Where the Heart Is” into the database’s translator, looking up “home” when Spitzer asked him about it. “A physical location where humans lived, slept, and ate with their family.”
“Shouldn’t it be ‘Body is Where the Heart Is,’ then?” Spitzer asked.
Kepler had to admit that he had a point. Once again, the database didn’t seem to be particularly accurate.
Slightly annoyed now, he flipped through the contents of the box until a photo caught his eye. Kepler examined it carefully. Six young humans were standing in front of a lake, each with giant smiles plastered on their faces. However, that was where the similarities ended, as each looked as different from each other as humans could be.
“What is on his head?” Spitzer asked, pointing out a human that looked like he had spikes coming out of his head.
“That’s a mohawk.” Kepler responded. “Humans had hair that could be stylized in a surprisingly wide variety of ways. Don’t you have work you need to be doing, by the way?”
“Did it yesterday. It’s amazing how little you have to do when you don’t make enemies with the boss.”
Someone had handwritten names underneath each human in the picture, and there was a label at the bottom of the photo: “Family at Bear Lake, Colorado.”
“See, this is why you need the physical artifacts,” Kepler mumbled to himself.
He stared at each of the humans in turn, then suddenly snapped his fingers and took out a piece of paper, trying to remember his research.
“You use human paper?” Spitzer asked.
“Yes. Helps to physically write it out. Now be quiet. I think I figured out what was bothering me about the ‘family’ definition, but I need to test something.”
He meticulously drew out a batch of Punnett squares, and for several minutes, the only sound was that of pencil scraping against paper.
“I knew there was no way they could be blood related!” Kepler exclaimed. Who knows how many of the other entries are wrong? We need to check the rest of these.”
At random, he picked a small journal out of the box. The inside cover read “Property of Emily Vance.” It was dated October 19, 2090.
“Dear Diary,” Kepler began, using the translation software to read it out loud.
“Today was a rare good day. Saw Jamie, Charles, and Kev, and we spent the day down at the docks making up stories for how each of the rocks on the shore had gotten there. I was almost able to forget that Kev is leaving next week. His mom loved to tell the story about how he was almost born on the 14th, instead of Friday the 13th, and swore that’s why he was such a terror as a kid. It was significantly less funny when he got drafted. I keep finding myself getting stuck on pointless what ifs. Would he have had more time if he had been born on the 14th? And how long will it be before the same thing happens to the rest of us? At least for today I’m going to try and focus on the positives I can control, rather than the terrifying negatives I can’t. Regardless of what happens, they will always be family, and whenever I think of them, I’ll be home.
Cautiously and hopelessly optimistic,
Spitzer slowly exhaled.
“Yeah.” was all Kepler could say in response.
Obviously, he knew that humans had gone extinct due to nuclear war, but to see the beginning of the end so blatantly in front of him, heard directly from the source, hit him harder than he would have ever expected. More than ever, he felt a responsibility to portray not only all of humanity’s faults, but also their successes.
“Hey Spitzer? Theoretically, how hard would it be to change a database entry?”
“Theoretically, not hard at all. One time, I “borrowed” my Scribe buddy’s login and changed the page on me to say that I was the Emperor of the Universe.”
“Theoretically, could you get that login again?”
“Theoretically, yes. But I’m sure they’ll notice.”
“Theoretically, I’m not planning on making that significant of a change.”
“Then theoretically, I’m on it.”
A few hours later, Kepler stretched back in his chair with his hands behind his head, a small smile on his face as he looked over the entry for “family” on his screen:
“A group of (typically, but not always) blood-related humans that had shared experiences and intimately understood each other. A very important social structure in human society.”
He then scrolled over to the entry for “home”:
“A (typically, but not always) physical location where humans lived, slept, and ate with their family.”
~ ~ ~
Years later, Field Commander Keplernicus Hubble was asked to be the namesake of the brand new museum he had worked tirelessly to create. He declined, choosing instead to name it “an old family name.” The Emily Vance Museum of Human History opened to great fanfare later that cycle.