Copyright © 2009 by Tyson Gill
It’s amazing what a modestly industrious fellow can accomplish with a couple hundred thousand years to blow.
Aaron, Hugo, and I were making a routine freight run to our colony on RJ94b. It was a 7 year sleeper haul that didn’t require much effort on our parts; in fact I guess you could say we were more freight than crew. Aaron and Hugo were traveling to take postings on RJ94b, while I was planning to catch a hop to RJ23e to join the terraforming team there as the Principal Scientist in charge.
Just over 4 Earth years in, the onboard computer tripped the alarms, breaking our hiber. It seemed kind of cruel to wake us up as by that point there was little we could do except appreciate how fucked we were. Some uncharted anomaly had thrown us far off course and the onboard navigation computers couldn’t compensate. We woke to find ourselves hopelessly marooned in a region of space that defied identification. Without determining our location, there was simply no possibility of laying a course back.
We adjusted to our grim situation with surprising calm. No pathetic sobbing, no bemoaning rants, no desperate prayers. We had all known that 6.8% of interstellar shuttles were lost in transit. For sleeper barges like ours, the risk rose to 8.2%. There was still a lot we didn’t know about space and travel was still a crapshoot. The odds had simply caught up with us.
Survival protocols gave us only one option; one that we all knew was little more than a bit of welcome false hope. So we put the navigation computers into search mode and went back to sleep, knowing full-well that the odds of us ever again waking were minuscule.
We were astonished and unwillingly hopeful after being awakened for a second time. That groggy, giddy, euphoria only lasted long enough for us to learn the sobering truth that we had not miraculously arrived at an Earth colony. Instead, a full 26 Earth years has passed and we still had not fixed our bearings.
But ahead, not yet more than a missing pixel in the halo of a nearby star, sat a planet that electromagnetic scans showed to be Earthlike. Scientific curiosity immediately overcame our despair. What a find! What scientist wouldn’t happily give his life to be the first to explore such a world?
After weeks of careful preparation, and a frenzied review of landing procedures that were never intended to be executed, we managed to set down on a hilltop near a large body of surface water at temperate latitude. Of course the huge lumbering freighter could never move again, but dying on an uncharted planet, under a distant sun, was still far preferable to a cold, eternal sleep in dark and endless space.
We spent two days gradually throttling the engine down to a half-percent, but still capable of providing all the power we could use. The elegantly simple fusion cell had no moving parts and could operate indefinitely in idle mode, so we certainly had no worries about power. Next we spent several days reviewing the manifests and cataloguing our supplies. We had access to a hundred thousand tons of machinery and supplies designed to provide a full colony with all the materials needed to remain self-sufficient, so clearly we would want for nothing for the rest of our lives – except humanity.
Only after we had exhausted all our preparations, and repeated and rechecked them several times, did our curiosity overcome our fear enough to venture outside the ship for the first time. As we slid the small access hatch in and to the side, sunlight tinged with the slightest hint of tangerine washed over us. It was followed by a wave of cool, delicately scented air that reminded one of pine trees drenched in spring rain.
Hugo was the first to die.
We had ventured quite a distance from the ship, exploring and cataloguing the myriad of, well everything. Imagine stepping into a world where absolutely everything is brand new. Intricate new landforms shaped by processes of erosion never experienced on Earth, vegetation that had remarkable consistency of form and shape, but at the same time unlike anything back home, and diverse creatures that defied any Earthly phyla classifications.
Despite the strangeness of the environment, one should not overstate the differences. Perhaps far more remarkable were the similarities with Earth. Our feet trod upon rock and soil, laden with minerals that were quite recognizable. Our arms pushed through photosynthetic fibers that were essentially grasses, shrubs, and trees. Our eyes caught glimpses of creatures that crawled, burrowed, leapt, and flew. We quickly felt quite naturally at home on this distant planet, unknown light-years from our own.
Any why should we not feel at home? We are creatures of the universe after all. Our attachment to our one little planet is merely emotional. All throughout the universe our same familiar chemistry and physics apply equally. It should come as no surprise that on many planets of similar size and distance from their sun, the same weather patterns would emerge, similar life would evolve, and those forms of life would diversify to fill all the same environmental niches; that some would photosynthesize sunlight and others would consume them.
It was perhaps because of our newfound feeling of familiarity and comfort that Hugo perished.
The tangerine sun was directly overhead, so we had spent about half of the long 37 hour day exploring around the edge of a massive swamp. We were all a bit groggy because our circadian rhythms were still stubbornly insistent upon a 24 hour day. Hugo was in the lead, as he was wont to do, barely able to bridle his energy and enthusiasm. We always seemed to be holding him up wherever we hiked.
Aaron and I looked up casually and halted. Hugo was simply gone. We stood still for the longest while, listening and looking for a sign of him, waiting for him to find us. But there was only the faint buzz and whistling of swamp insects that betrayed nothing.
Slowly, carefully, cautiously, we eventually ventured forth to find some sign of him. Suddenly Aaron stopped, wavering as if on the edge of a cliff. With a growing sickness, we pulled away the web-like vegetation that had grown over a deep fissure, stretching across the top like a net. With each tear, with each clump that dropped into the hole, sunlight streamed down to illuminate more of the bottom.
With one last rip, sunlight spotlighted the body of Hugo twisted into a tangle at the bottom of the pit. We called down futilely, even pelted him with pebbles, but he never even twitched.
The loss of Hugo left us stunned for many months (although clinging to our Earthly notion of months in our moonless environment was purely force of habit). It wasn’t just that we lost a friend and companion, but that we had lost a staggering 1/3 of our total population in an instant. It was the realization that no one would follow us. We were all there was and all there ever would be of human life on this planet, and now there was only us two.
The months drifted into years until eventually we banished all timekeeping devices into the deepest bowels of the freighter. We really didn’t want to know how much time was passing us by – it only filled us with despair to be reminded.
We went through indeterminately long periods where we never spoke. We had long since shared every possible idea we could say to each other. Every spoken thought was a tiresome repetition of what we had heard the other say a thousand times before. Each word was another excruciating drop in some fiendish water torture.
So we mechanically passed our days like mindless automations. Thinking only made us miserable. It became difficult to recognize even whether our behavior was sane. We had no social queues except from each other and we both quit caring what the other did long ago.
This total apathy made it all the more peculiar when Aaron sat down next to me one day and asked a question that was most startling in the fact that it was never brought up before.
“Do I look any older to you?” he asked quizzically.
“What?” I asked remotely, lost in my blissful thoughtlessness.
“Under your beard, you don’t look a day older than the day we landed,” he remarked. “Do I look any older to you?”
“Why should you?” I asked in return.
“How long do you think we’ve been here?” he answered with yet another question, seeming to change the subject randomly.
“I don’t want to know,” I told him dismissively.
“It’s been 73 years Earth time,” he stated flatly.
I don’t know how long it took me to assimilate that, or how long it took me to finally respond. When one has nothing but time, even answering questions doesn’t seem very urgent.
“Impossible,” I said eventually.
“I checked,” Aaron assured me. “It has been 73 years, 5 months, and 12 days.”
My inner scientist took over, my mind raced. It was faced with a contradictory set of observations that could not be reconciled without further facts.
“We have to check Hugo’s body,” I said flatly.
Aaron rose and followed me to where we had buried Hugo. Using our hands, we dug up the shallow grave and brushed away the dirt to reveal the corpse of our long-dead shipmate.
We gasped in shock.
The reason for our amazement was exactly the opposite of what one would fear beholding. His body was nearly perfect. It was like a wrinkled, deflated prune due to loss of moisture, but there was no decomposition. There was no mold, no sign that insects or worms had ever defiled the remains.
We sat back and just stared at the remarkable corpse.
“Have you ever been bitten by an insect here?” I eventually asked Aaron. “Even been bothered by one?”
“Have you had any kind of cold or flu since we landed?” he asked, not expecting any answer.
So another false assumption about alien planets was debunked. It was always thought that since humans would have evolved no resistance to alien bacteria, they would decimate any human exposed to them. It turned out to be quite the opposite for us. In our case, this alien world had evolved nothing to endanger us humans. Bacteria, viruses, insects; none of them even seemed to recognize us as living things. It appeared we were immune to any kind of infection this planet had to offer.
As to our apparent lack of aging, Aaron formed some hypotheses about that. He pointed out studies that had demonstrated that aging is largely a designed-in process that can be dramatically slowed or accelerated in response to environmental stresses. Apparently the conditions on this planet, or more precisely the lack of the factors that stimulate our aging chemistry, had essentially halted those processes.
More decades passed and the boredom increased to an almost unbearable level. We tried to remain actively engaged in farming, mechanics, music and art, yoga and meditation, and even many more esoteric pursuits. But it was a never-ending struggle just to come up with any reason to continue living.
Eventually Aaron walked casually out of the ship. Hanging at the end of his arm was a ceramic pistol. There were many such weapons crated in the hold, long given up for lost by their buyers. Occasionally we had taken them out for some recreational target shooting.
But Aaron was not planning any target shooting that day.
“Goodbye James,” he said pleasantly, pausing to give me a sincere and resolved smile before he turned to stroll into the brush. He seemed perfectly sane and lucid.
I could not find it in my heart to stop him. That would only be cruel. Who was I to selfishly insist that he remain alive only to keep me company?
Moments later, the sharp pffft of the air gun resounded across the otherwise quiet valley. The insects momentarily became silent and somewhere in the distance a flock of winged creatures took to flight.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend to Aaron’s body immediately. It would keep.
I really don’t know how much time passed before they arrived. My old notions of time ceased to have any meaning for me. Perhaps my brain had physically adapted to perceive time differently just as I had long since adapted to the 37 hour daily cycle.
Whenever it was, I sensed them approaching my valley long before they arrived. I felt their ripples. Over the uncounted years I had become intimately attuned to all the life in my valley. Every plant, every creature was my family. I watched each generation born and pass on. I knew them all as individuals, helped them. My family warned me of their coming.
Each year the creatures pressed further into my territory. I observed them carefully, first through a telescope and then through binoculars as their annual advancement brought them ever closer.
They were obviously social animals, curious like small mammals. Their family groups bonded together into a greater community. Young ones frolicked playfully but stayed protectively near their parents. Evidently the land they came from held predators which they feared.
The creatures were smooth-skinned and incredibly lithe. Dissection of some recent remains showed that their internal skeleton was composed of something as strong as bone but also extremely flexible. They made peculiar chittering noises that indicated rudimentary vocal communication. I spent my days watching them and learning their ways.
One year I finally decided to approach. They already felt like my own family, a part of my valley. My memories of Earth, even of Hugo and Aaron, were only dim and vague recollections. I recalled that I had once been to a place called Earth. I <thought> it was real, but could no longer be sure if I had perhaps only imagined it.
But the little creatures weren’t elusive memories. They were real and I yearned for them to know me as I knew them.
So each day I approached right up to the edge of their awareness, until they looked my way and chittered anxiously, and there I waited until nightfall. Sometimes I did the same at night. And each week the distance between us contracted ever so slightly.
They little creatures gave me a sense of purpose, of community, that I had never found on this world.
I don’t believe it ever actually occurred to me to play God. I never contrived to alter the normal course of evolution. It was only in my mind to help along the little creatures that I become so fond of.
It started by simply protecting them. Using the pneumatic rifles from the ship, I methodically exterminated the predators nipping at their heels and any new threats that wandered into the vicinity.
Without that pressure to migrate, they seemed content to remain in my valley. I learned their rudimentary language and ever so slowly expanded it, giving preferential care to those with the greatest aptitude.
My efforts paid off well, and each new generation was noticeably more adept with language than the one before. Eventually I began to introduce them to abstract concepts through language.
I gradually taught them how to clean their day to day wounds and how to use local plants to fight infections. Most learned quickly and those that did not learn tended not to survive as long.
Ever so slowly I managed to teach them to cultivate the insect population that they fed upon in a sustainable manner. I taught them to manage their waste and maintain their environment.
Over many, many generations I taught them to make fire and tools and to use them to char their insects so they stored indefinitely. I showed them how to cook the insects along with various plants into soups and porridges that provided better nutrition. Those that learned raised more thriving offspring.
But beyond that, I modeled social skills from the earliest days, starting with a simple demonstration of cooperation in picking parasites off their skin. Little by little, some started to teach those social behaviors to their young.
And yes, there were always some bad actors who displayed antisocial tendencies. I hated to do it, but I had to breed those behaviors out for the good of the community. Typically those individuals would just fall mysteriously dead shortly after their behaviors became evident, creating a helpful superstition that antisocial behavior caused their death…. and in fact it did.
I stepped feebly out of the ship to regard my valley under the moonless sky. My back ached from bending over my labors. I had been hard at work documenting all the technology aboard the ship in a way that my people would understand one day.
The exhausting effort left me feeling like a man of perhaps 80 or more years. It turned out I wasn’t truly immortal after all. I merely aged very, very well.
The delicate tangerine lights dotting the valley below mirrored the myriad of stars above like a clear mountain lake. It brought me great satisfaction to know that my people finally comprehended what the stars are and drew wonder from them as I did, facing their lighting softly downward to respect grandeur of that panorama.
Some long dead nuclear engineers would have been gratified to know that after so very many years of continuous operation, their fusion cell still hummed along, despite now being powered up to 8% to supply clean energy to the growing population. Over the centuries I had to void the warranty many times over by performing unauthorized maintenance, but fortunately there were ample stores of spare parts, in fact enough to keep the generator running for another few thousand years with the aid of a bit of ingenuity and generous portion of luck.
The fusion core was buried deep within the cavernous ship, which itself was now buried under the mountain of rock forming a great pyramid that overlooked the sprawling city that lay before it. Future archaeologists might conclude that I ordered its construction to satisfy some insatiable egotism, or out of some primitive fear of the afterlife. The truth is that I ordered the century long project as a way to instill an ethic of work and pride in cooperative craftsmanship. It also served the practical function of protecting the precious space vessel and all its precious cargo from natural disasters for use by posterity.
Three million of my adopted children now live in ecologically sound habitats throughout the valleys, and more settlements swell in population all around the globe. Each year throngs leave their workplaces and schools to come to pay homage at my pyramid. I had long since given up trying to assure them that I am not their god, not their almighty father, as my protests only convince them of the contrary.
Although it was never my intent, in the end I am responsible for the selective breeding of an entire civilization of creatures that worship me. But that won’t last much longer. There are far too many for me to manage now. Already I can feel them growing into their own. Soon they won’t need me anymore. They won’t even want me around any longer. Perhaps they will rise up and kill me, to finally rip their cord from the womb of their accidental god.
On that day my work will be done.