by P. Orin Zack
Drake was wrong. The astronomer’s formula for the number of detectable civilizations in the galaxy was flawed. Not that it mattered now. Not since the people of his planet committed autogenocide. But then, their search for extraterrestrial life had lasted only about fifty years; hardly long enough to make a difference, even if they hadn’t blinded themselves to the very signs they were looking for.
Irran slipped the silvery disc out of its sleeve and held it up to the mid-day sun. When it had been recorded, the walls of the Great Hall surrounding him supported a vaulted ceiling. The building’s designers had drawn their inspiration from millennia of the planet’s cultural histories. But that was before the conflagration, which happened while Irran’s team was still speeding alongside space on their one-way First Contact mission. Now, the remains of those walls stood watch over the rubble of the Hall’s destruction.
“Is that the one?” Kharlin asked, carefully picking her way through the debris. She was the expedition’s linguist, and had been instrumental in developing the translations that had led them from zones of destruction large enough to be seen from space, where the conflagration had been fought out, to this, the seat of Earth’s final attempt at a global government, where contentious leaders had set in motion the events that put an end to humanity.
“I think so,” he said. “How are the others holding up?”
She glanced back towards the overgrown formal gardens in front of the building, where they’d set the landing craft down. “Wendl is still sleeping off the sedatives. I don’t think he’s ever going to get over it. The rest are scouting for cultural artifacts that might shed some additional light on the background of the people at the core of this mess. As long as they’re distracted from thinking about the monsters who ordered their own people to carry out those orders, I think they can cope well enough.”
Irran nodded gravely.
“Even so, I’m concerned about how they’ll react when we get that disc translated. Even if they only tangentially identify with the people who made those choices, it could put them in the same state you fell into when you felt the world through that military commander’s eyes. We all thought you were going to lose it for a while. It’s a good thing I remembered that story you told me about your brother. Still, that commander at least knew what war was like. I seriously doubt that anyone here had any sense of what they’d unleashed.”
He turned the disc over and blew the dust off it. “You’re probably right. But I’d still like to give them the chance to be here when we view the translation. It’s a personal choice, and, as dangerous as it may be, nobody should make it for them.”
While Kharlin’s translator was busy analyzing the disc, the team finished categorizing and imaging the artifacts they decided to include in their final report. Having traveled so far and so long, only to have the whole point of their mission rendered irrelevant, the team had fallen into depression. Before setting out, each of them had accepted the finality of their farewells, but the sacrifice they’d made was in exchange for the adventure of a lifetime, the opportunity to stand face-to-face with people of another world. Not this. Never this.
After re-entering normal space-time at the fringes of the system’s cometary cloud, they had scanned the broadcast frequencies for signals, but found none. Clutching for an explanation, they posited that there might simply have been a rapid shift in technology, and looked for signs of transmissions using different methods. They all knew it was impossible to prove a negative, but there it was. A shadow fell over them as they flew past the outer planets, dreading the possibility that they had traded their futures for naught.
Wendl was the team’s botanist and climatologist. His eyes had sparkled in anticipation of learning how the plant life on Earth solved the problem of converting its sun’s light into energy, even though the range of frequencies was shifted, and the mix of gasses in the atmosphere and minerals in the soil was so very different from those back home. As they’d passed the only planet in the system massive enough to make its star wobble noticeably, he marveled at the stable storm systems that gave the gas giant such a distinctive look, and noted how little their size and position had changed while they’d been in transit. Then, on the approach to Earth, he yelped in horror when he realized that the circular storm straddling much of the narrower of the two great oceans was not an ephemeral cyclone, but was instead a stable, high-energy system, like the spots on the gas giant.
“But that can’t be!” he’d told Irran anxiously. “Currents in the ocean and the atmosphere would keep storms in motion. The only way this could happen is if…”
“Well, if the gyre in that ocean had stopped. But to do that you’d have to decimate the ice caps and denude the polar regions of glaciers! It would take massive amounts of fresh water to drastically change the salinity of the water. But how…?”
There wasn’t anyone to ask, but once Kharlin’s translator was working, they found everything they needed to know from the news records. The truly mind-wrenching part was that the people of Earth were unable to acknowledge what they had unleashed because they couldn’t agree on what to call it. And they couldn’t agree on what to call it because naming it would have given it reality, a reality that flew in the face of pre-conceived notions drawn from religious texts created before the very idea of science had arisen in that culture.
Wendl sat for days staring at the eye of that storm. It consumed him. He wouldn’t speak. He didn’t touch his food. It was as if that dense ring of clouds told him everything he needed to know about the planet, and about the people we had come so far to meet. By the time we achieved orbit, he was too weak to walk. All he could think of doing was making some readings to confirm his worst fears. Once he’d done that, he just fell to pieces. The best the team’s doctor could do was to keep him drugged, and to surround him with the comforting images and sounds of home. But now, even that was wearing thin.
The animals, which had scattered at their arrival, were venturing closer at night now, and the team were comparing notes about them over tea after dinner. The bravest of them was a cat, one with patches of different colored fur. After offering it several kinds of food to learn what it liked and to earn its trust, the group decided to adopt the animal. Inevitably, it needed a name, and the one that stuck was Rumbly, because of its prodigious purr.
Irran was idly petting the cat a few days later when Kharlin approached. “It’s finished,” she said excitedly. “The translation’s complete.”
He slowly raised his gaze. “I’m not so sure I want to hear it, to be perfectly honest.”
Kharlin nodded, and gently sank to a crouch on the other side of the cat. “Why not?”
“I’ve been thinking about Wendl… and about that storm. It’s like the people here had all taken part in a ritual suicide.”
She winced. “Surely not all of them. After all, it was the leaders who gave the orders in the end. Most of the people probably didn’t have a clue what was about to happen.”
“Sure,” he said, nodding, “but how did those people get to be leaders? One way or another, it had to be with the cooperation of the masses, even if it’s only that they didn’t object strongly enough.”
“I see where you’re coming from with that, but there’s no reason to believe that the people on this planet understood reality the same way we do. You saw all the religious iconography at the other sites. It was as prevalent in the self-proclaimed secular cultures as it was in the overtly religious ones. The only difference I noticed was whether it was expressed as a regional monoculture or as a patchwork of interpenetrating enclaves. I think the people here were so caught up in their competing narratives that they never looked behind the set dressing to see what reality was all about.”
Rumbly yawned at length. After a moment, she rose, looked at Irran briefly, and wandered off.
“Like that cat,” he said, watching it creep up on an unsuspecting bit of fluff. “It was content to sit here as long as I was petting it, but lost interest in my company soon after I stopped. People are like that, too. All that’s different is what it takes to keep their interest.”
“Mmmm. You said you were thinking about Wendl?”
“The only thing that kept him together as long as he did was his preoccupation with that storm.”
She looked away and muttered, “the Eye of God.”
“That’s what they all started calling it near the end. While the climatologists were screaming bloody murder over the implications, the various sects were using it to trumpet the alleged truth of their respective end-of-the-world narratives, the business interests were trying to figure out how to make a profit out of it, a dozen militaries wanted to use it as a weapon, and everyone else was doing their best to make believe it hadn’t happened.”
Irran laughed humorlessly. “Kind of hard to ignore something that big.”
“That didn’t stop them from trying.”
“Yeah. And I’m worried that our group may fall into the same trap if we don’t do something about it.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“I think we ought to gather the team and pay our respects to the former residents of this world by laying out their narrative as best we can. It’s the closest we’ll come to a proper funeral.”
Kharlin gaped in disbelief. “Surely you’re joking, Irran. Do you honestly believe they deserve a eulogy? And even if they did, what would you say? They had dozens of competing narratives, so whichever one you chose would be a disservice to the others. And then there’s the problem of integrity. Once the people in power realized that they could manipulate narratives, they fabricated stories from whole cloth to provide cover for the wars they wanted to wage, the desecration of the environment, and a whole raft of other horrible things they did.”
“Well, then, we could craft our own narrative. It’s not like—.”
She crossed her arms in frustration. “Think about Wendl. Do you realize that early in their 21st century, the leaders of their one remaining superpower demanded that climatologists dumb down their findings?”
“They ordered their scientists to eliminate all of the subtlety and nuance of reality in a vain attempt to convince the moronic pawns of powerful interests that there even was a climate problem? And it didn’t stop there, either. The same tactic was used to shackle scientists in other fields as well. They didn’t want narratives. All they wanted was to appease their critics and retain power. What praise could you possibly offer about a people like that?”
Irran swallowed hard and looked away. “Couldn’t we,” he said in a controlled voice, “at least honor the intent of this place? After all, they did build it in an attempt to bring all those embattled factions together in common purpose. It’s on that fallen façade out there — ‘the spirit of compromise’.”
“Common purpose, perhaps, but not with anything approaching a shared set of principles. They couldn’t even agree to use the same words to mean the same thing!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said dismissively. “We’ve been through that. Like their inability to agree on what to call what was happening to their climate.”
“No,” Kharlin said flatly. “I mean they meant different things when they said the same words. And in point of fact, that was the core of their undoing. That’s what killed them all.”
“Wait, wait, wait. Are you saying that the people in this hall gave the order to blow up the planet, to kill all of the people and most of the animals, because of a misunderstanding… a language problem?”
“That’s right. And it started with that façade. Their so-called ‘spirit of compromise’ was nothing of the sort.”
“They dedicated this place to an idea they didn’t even agree on?”
“Uh-huh. To one side, it meant engaging in negotiation with the understanding that each side would cede ground on some issues. To the other, it meant the exact opposite: that their position was sacrosanct, and the most they’d agree to was a delay in achieving it.”
Irran rose and took a few steps towards the entrance. “Maybe Wendl’s the lucky one here. If he dies without ever learning the truth about this, he’ll at least have an easy death. The rest of us… well, it’s one thing to discover that the people you’ve traded your future to visit have all died. It’s another to learn that their leaders murdered them all out of arrogance. We’re stuck here now. Even if we survive, there’s no way to escape that truth, nowhere to run to, no place to hide. The psychic damage we face is inescapable. I can’t, in good conscience, either tell the rest of the team what you’ve learned or withhold it from them.”
Kharlin rose and joined him. “We have to do something. They need to have some kind of closure, even if it’s contrived. But then what? Where do we go? What do we do?”
“How about this. We gather Rumbly and the team and take the landing craft back into orbit. I know we can’t go home, but we also don’t have to stay down here. If we only ground to get resources, we can live aboard ship for a good long time.”
“All right, but what about getting closure?”
“I was coming to that. It will be a good deal easier to speak in generalities from orbit than it would be down here. We don’t have to talk about the biological weapons that intentionally disrupted their DNA, how the targeting strategies failed to limit the affected populations, or even how the ecosystems unraveled from its effects. Instead, we can wrap up the entire collapse of mankind as the closing act of a planetary drama that they all unknowingly played a part in, and could only appreciate from the vantage point of intercarnate existence.”
“Well, sure, except for the fact that none of the belief systems we’ve reconstructed shared that view of reality with us.”
Irran grinned. “Come on, Kharlin. We both know that you don’t have to believe in co-incarnation to experience it. Besides, after participating in a meta-narrative on that scale, mankind ought to at least have benefit of an audience. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, orbit is the best place to see the beauty of any world.”
Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack