George Popovic was a man without any geographical ties.
He had not even been born on a planet. All of his life that had been of any import had been spent among the stars. His entire existence was spent living, working and sleeping on the immense Exploration Centre directing the relentless progress of humanity across the galaxy.
This was always a situation that he had found particularly amusing, while he had no geographical ties he played a major role in those of the rest of his species. If he established that a planet required a few hundred million humans to populate it or supplement the existing population then that number could easily be found from amongst the deluge that now numbered in the hundreds of billions.
Popovic saw himself as being the trailblazer of humanity, at the head of the race. Every planet humans now lived on (save the handful discovered by his predecessor but who cared for or even remembered his predecessor?) was his doing. He was the one who first located the planet, examined its gravity, atmosphere and exposure to star light. He was the one who examined its geological and geographical stability. He was the one who first examined its flora and fauna, establishing which species if any posed a threat to humanity and then eliminating them if need be. And he was the one who designated the use for the planet, be it purely scientific, for general population, or to be strip mined for resources. The best thing was he did all of this from sometimes dozens of light years from the system, often working on several planets at a time.
But of course his job did not stop there. He was not just humanity’s great explorer; he was also its great administrator. If a planet was to be populated, how many and what sort of group would be needed? Where would the equipment they needed come from? Did they need any terra forming apparatus? If the planet’s use was scientific, how many scientists would be needed and what kind? Who would he want to do the work? If a planet was to be populated which god from human history would lend its name to the planet? There were other questions to be answered by him as well. Would a certain planet’s largest continent be better used for its fertile soil for food production or for the significant iron ores located below the soil? At what number on another planet should the population of a certain kind of prolific flying creature be capped? It brought a smile to Popivic’s face to wonder why they still bothered with a government when they had him.
Governments had been needed when humans were vulnerable, when nature was humanities master and man’s own worst enemy was man. Now man was the master and with this there was no longer fear in man, nor were there the negative consequences of this fear meaning man was safer than ever before. He deemed that government officials were mainly still around because that is what they had always done. The job was redundant but the title remained. So Popovic ran humanities course and a few hundred officials debated this and then of course agreed with him (Popovic’s advice had never not been heeded). As well as this Popovic was quite simply the only man for the job given his incredible mental faculties. His parents had been exceptionally wealthy (way back when wealth mattered) and so had ensured that while he developed in the womb his mental abilities were brought to the fullest possible level. Of course their reasoning for this was to have their son become even more wealthy and powerful but he had others designs. The expansion and administering of the human empire of the stars could have been conducted by hundreds of less abled men or by a single powerful computer, but where would the focus in the one or the human intuition in the other be? Popovic’s mind was extraordinary and it had time to do the job properly.
Despite having explored a third of the Milky Way Galaxy and having discovered a myriad of wonders, Popovic had never discovered “aliens” as common parlance had once termed them. More properly of course he had never discovered other sapient beings than humans. Ever since the nature and size of the universe had been grasped by humans they had been fascinated with contact with another species on an intellectual level with itself, yet ever since it had passed imagining what may lie in wait beyond its own solar system it had found nothing. Certainly other life forms had been found, many were even similar to the kind found on planet Earth, but nothing even approaching the intelligence of dolphins had ever been encountered. Going to the stars had provoked such an upsurge in fiction involving aliens, policy making regarding aliens, inventions for when the time came, humanity had decided going to the stars simply meant it was just a matter of time before first contact happened. But the years had passed, mankind spread further, saw things it had not imagined and it was glad for this, but there was always the disappointment that it was alone. Soon this passed, it was accepted that there were no other sapient races, perhaps humanity was a fluke. Any allure to the idea of there being extra-terrestrials was removed when it was proven that humans living on other planets were changing, they were becoming aliens. It was only subtle changes, the beginnings of change in skin pigment, lungs and others organs shrinking or expanding slightly, but it was exciting given the evident immortality of mankind because of the introduction of cell-bots into the population they would see these changes become more accentuated over time. For many the lack of other intelligent species and the apparent future diversity that would exist among humans went together. They proved that it was mankind’s purpose to populate the universe as the only intelligent race and to diversify as it went. We would be the aliens we had dreamt of meeting.
This paradigm had been in place for thousands of years, so it surprised Popovic properly for the first time as the great explorer when he did discover another sapient race.
Popovic was never surprised by what he discovered. He found wonder and amazement, was impressed and disgusted, but never surprised. Everything he found and saw was physically possible, it was all merely a transformation from the scientific theory to the scientific fact. Even when he found the first life forms not from Earth bigger than a single cell he was not surprised, that was the fulfilment of a long held expectation. But intelligent life, that was something different. That had always been more yearned for than expected. Even when humanity went to the stars many had still been sceptical about the possibility of finding intelligent life. Perhaps only the gods had made more of an impact on people’s everyday lives without ever actually offering any definitive proof of its actual existence. Rationality does not suit itself to human whim though and with hundreds and thousands of star systems explored rationality told mankind it had been wrong and it had to move on. Aliens became an old human myth like the Odyssey. The little green men were like the loch ness monster. Of course like Nessie some still clung to a misplaced belief that they were out there but they were peripheral, delusional, and even insane.
So yes, for the first time, Popovic was surprised.
Popovic woke every morning at 6am Earth Decimal Time. His mind was immediately alert and checked the messages the Exploration Centre had sent to him for anything urgent. Most of the time these daily messages were relatively standard (standard meaning a massive of earthquake on one planet, daily birth rate of between 1 and 2 million etc.) and so required little of his incredible mind’s thought. Every decade or so though he would receive a message telling him a habitable planet had been found and this would require appreciation. Eagerly, Popovic would quickly change into his day clothes and set the cell-bots inside him to ensure his hygiene and nutritional needs were fulfilled to quickly attend to this pressing matter.
He would spring with purpose the short distance through the functional, grey corridors of the ship to his dome. Here he could set the vast curving screen to view almost any part of the known galaxy just through a thought. The only other feature present in the room was a simple chair in the centre, fully rotatable and inclining to ensure comfort and practicality. When he arrived in the dome when there was a planet to explore one of his trillions of probes would be beaming the image of it for his appreciation on the dome screen. On the day Popovic was surprised it was this image which first took him aback.
The planets he had seen had come in a plethora of shapes and sizes. They had been covered in ice, in oceans of liquid and gas of various colours, rocky formations of numerous displays, but they had all resembled planets. This one did not.
What Popovic was looking at was nothing short of planetary art work. There was land and sea but rather than the seemingly random shaping of coastlines by erosion and plate tectonics, and the ostensibly haphazard placement of islands and other features this was the most uniform and controlled display he had ever seen. All the lands and seas were shaped in the most intricate, perfectly edged and angled, spirals, looping in arcs from hundreds of kilometres of width down to what the probe told him were mere metres, with branches going off in many directions meaning the whole thing seemed connected. But this was not the only unnatural feature; the planet was also unbelievably flat. There were no mountains; most of the land was forest with a few rocky areas that could barely be considered hills.
Popovic was taking this all in visually and through the reports from the probe. He was astounded but his mind was not stopped. He immediately knew this could not be natural, but surely humans could not have done this? Straight away he started searching files, reports anything he could send his mind to, breaking through any and all encryptions to discover if something had been done to this planet without his knowing, or more troubling, by his predecessor.
While he was doing this he was also trying to learn everything he could about the planet through probes. The planet was about the size of Earth; the atmosphere too was similar though with much higher levels of oxygen. Worryingly he could not establish anything under a height of 6.5 kilometres in the planet’s atmosphere and the planet had a magnetic field about ten times larger than he would have expected.
Soon Popovic could establish to near certainty through his searches of thousands of encrypted files; no humans had ever had any influence on this planet.
It was impossible that all these characteristics could happen naturally. He stopped the flow of adrenaline in his body and began to calm his mind. Intelligent life had created the planet in this fashion. Now Popovic would find it.
Arun Dulf as he did every morning thanked whoever it had been all those millennia ago who had turned this part of Ethiopia from a dust ridden hell to a forested, tranquil utopia. He also cursed whoever it was that decided that the seat of human government on Earth should be here just because it was the cradle of humanity. Whoever that had been (he could never muster the will to check) while sharing his love for symbolic gestures failed to appreciate practical concerns and for many centuries Earth’s leaders had stewed amongst dust, disease and oppressive heat. Were it not for whoever it was that had developed the technology to control the local climate to a more hospitable setting, he too would have shared their great discomfort.
Today he also cursed Therata Otolsbon. First and the most obvious point for his distaste, she was a woman and so the very fact she should claim equality with him he deemed reprehensible though he was hard pushed to find anyone who would agree. Next on the list she was not an Earth natural, having been born on the planet Thor, (which she now represented) and still had the audacity to claim to be human! To top it all off she was (though he of course did not consciously recognise this) far more intelligent than him, something he acknowledged as her attempting to embarrass him at all turns. But what really irked him this morning as he bent over wheezing in the gardens outside parliament building was that she seemed completely unaffected following their 5 kilometre run.
“Perhaps you should try a few kilometres on your moon every day to build up your strength?” she joked as he spat phlegm into the bushes.
“My dear Therata, perhaps if you spent as much time as I do actually working instead of engaging in such trivial pursuits, you too might be slightly out of breath”.
Her smile and raised eyebrow in reply seemed to say “I doubt it” and so did he. They both knew as well as each other that Therata’s physiology was simply superior to that of Dulf’s. She had lived her entire life on the planet Thor which, although habitable, was certainly not the most hospitable place to find oneself. It orbited a warmer star than Earth, had a stronger gravity than Earth and possessed a weaker atmosphere. Anyone who lived there as long as Therata had would naturally find the heat, gravity and atmosphere of Earth much less oppressive and she was of course aided un-naturally.
As with all other humans living on varied planets around the galaxy her adaptation to her planets particular peculiarities was aided by the cell-bots inside her. They ensured that the changes required of her muscles, bones and organs occurred far faster than could naturally happen. Of course the cell-bots could have left humans all physically “normal” by for example regulating oxygen in-take themselves but it had been felt when they were first introduced into the general population that it was better to “keep humans human”. Rather than being permanently reliant on robotics it was deemed morally correct to maintain the population’s humanity as much as possible. So while it would be less noticeable to have cell-bots do all of the job of keeping humans healthy, this way people remained flesh and blood, the cell-bots just another microorganism helping them to survive. All this meant Therata was at great ease with Earth conditions as her lungs barely needed to be filled with such rich air and her bones and muscles were used to carrying one and a half times the weight they did now. She would have to become extremely lethargic before any Earth human could hope to match her.
Shortly though, Dulf was able to regain his composure and the two politicians headed back inside. For though it certainly appeared that they were stood in a forested valley amongst a myriad of hills and mountains they were in fact standing in one of the largest boulevards of a sprawling metropolis. The “hills and mountains” were in fact buildings covered in fauna. While from a distance you could have been excused for this confusion up close the unnaturalness became very apparent. Though the “valleys” were thick with plant life they posed no problem to manoeuvrability as the various shrubs and trees moved themselves out of the paths of oncoming people. The shape of the “mountains” were also on closer inspection far too uniform to be natural and also each one was clearly a distinct structure rather than part of a range.
The mountain/building which they entered had gone from being the seat of government for the entire human race to that of just one comparably small outpost. It was another of Dulf’s issues (and there were many) that even though Earth had birthed the human race and been its only home for hundreds of thousands of years it was no longer considered the jewel in the interstellar crown of human civilisation. Simply because other colonies (a word Dulf always used with unconcealed derision) had larger populations, greater natural resources, more convenient transport links with other colonies etc. they were lauded, while Earth was forgotten. Indeed, the only prestige given to Earth was what ancient people would have given an aging relative, nodding to the esteem garnered from such long history but wanting the present and future entrusted to their more capable hands.
For Dulf this idea was reprehensible. The colonies were there to serve Earth, the wealth they created and the developments in all areas they made should have been used to preserve the greatness of Earth. But alas many of the colonialists had forgotten this. For them their respective outposts were their homes and Earth just another distant planet. It seemed many of them didn’t even see themselves as colonists! So confused were they, they genuinely thought the interests of their colonies were more important than those of Earth! Dulf would not stand for it. That was why Therata Otolsbon was here now, why last month Hinrik Mumbru from Ares had come and Davidan Oiraio from Shiva the month before that. If the colonies had forgotten where home was then surely it was his duty as that homes guardian to remind them. Earth’s permanent population was not even 3 billion, in the centuries before colonies were established it was never below 10 billion. Earth was just waiting to be repopulated. All that was needed was to find a few billion of the best minds among the colonies and convince their representatives of the benefits of this. If anyone could inspire patriotic fervour he was certain he could. But he needed the information that George Popovic was to provide him about how many and who could be taken from Thor and given to Earth without being too disagreeable to Otolsbon. Dulf hoped for at least 35 million. But Popovic was late, over half an hour late with the data he had promised, and Popovic was never late, he was near infallible. Something important must be occupying him he thought.
Dulf hid all of these thoughts about colonies, the dream of a greater Earth and his intrigue about Popovic as he conversed pleasantly with Otolsbon in what he believed was just about the most impressive room in the galaxy. The doors to the government building opened straight into the great hall which would be great just from its sheer size being nearly a square kilometre. But what really made it great was the spectacle. The floor was a single colossal piece of marble taken from the planet Hephaestus, well known for its incredible mineral deposits. The ceiling was a vast mural depicting the history of humanity on Earth with references from the birth of civilised society in Mesopotamia to the creation of the immortalising cell-bots and everything in between. Despite all this grandeur what everyone first noticed when they entered the hall was neither of these but the giants of the room. Standing 20 feet tall, on 6 feet high plinths spaced equally around the hall were the most lifelike representations of the greatest people Dulf’s species had birthed. Leaders, poets, scientists, philosophers, athletes etc. from over 10,000 years of recorded history stood as a reminder to all who gazed upon them of what had been accomplished and what they too could achieve. As if the detail given to each character’s garments and appearance and the colour imbued in them were not enough to convince viewers they were in the presence of living giants they also moved, glancing around the room as they pleased and making gestures from the wild gesticulation of Julius Caesar to the simple note taking Albert Einstein would occasionally do.
Therata Otolsbon’s home planet of Thor was spectacular. Everything about it was on a grand scale from the active volcanoes the size of Earth’s Everest to the cities her people had built there. However, even she had to acknowledge this was a wonder she had not seen rivalled. For the first time she was glad she had accepted the xenophobic Dulf’s request for a visit. Looking at him she could see that his awestruck façade was not entirely for her benefit.
“Even after over a thousand years of coming here,” he breathed, “this place still gets me. It’s the closest there is to a physical representation of how I feel about our home planet. With this as inspiration, imagine what great things people could do here.”
Otolsbon realised this ploy would trick lesser people than her. Stood under the history of the species with the greatest of it towering over them, when asked to contribute to this some would be in danger of signing over all their citizens. She resolved to not be so easily swayed. “And to think we could achieve all of this on just one planet, imagine what we will continue to achieve on the hundreds we now have,” she replied, hoping to show she would be so easily taken in.
Dulf was clearly irritated by this but was prevented from retorting at that moment. One of his aides seemed to appear before them, though of course he was elsewhere in the building and this was merely a projection sent to the visual centre of their brains.
“Representatives,” said the aide, “apologies for bothering you like this, it’s about Popovic.”
“Ah yes he was meant to be supplying me with some information, having problems with communication or something is he?”
“No sir, he’s called for a meeting of all the representatives, right now.”
Every populated outpost of humanity had elected representatives at a variety of levels, the number and what they represented varied from outpost to outpost. Some had elected officials for the smallest geographic area important and at every stage up to the entire the outpost with representatives for cities, regions, continents etc. in between. Some had representatives just for each particular group such as artists or engineers. Every outpost was allowed to decide for itself how it was governed and by who and how many but each was required to have one representative for the entire outpost. It was their job to be the focus of all the regional and factional differences and often a mediator. They were also the focus for dealings with other outposts and were expected to represent their entire outpost whenever necessary such as at meetings of groups of representatives.
It was not often that all the representatives met. Rarely was it that an issue affected all of them and even rarer was it that such an issue was so serious that they all had to be present. Most often these meetings would be of a dozen or so and would relate to regions of the galaxy. It was not unusual for Popovic to call for a meeting of all the representatives, his work after all was very important and often brought up huge considerations. But for him, indeed for anyone to demand a meeting of all of them immediately was unheard of. It was symptomatic of all humans now to not have to rush anything. When you had an infinite number of tomorrows, the urge to have to do anything today was low. Yet here was Popovic at what was the very start of his day calling for hundreds of very important people to betray their instincts and act immediately.
Across the galaxy the representatives were woken up, pulled out of meetings, and had their days interrupted to be told that Popovic wanted them all. So unusual and intriguing was this that they were all willing to acquiesce to this demand. What made the process more agreeable was that they would not have to leave wherever they were. Even with modern space travel it would take days or even weeks to bring them all to one location. But they didn’t need their bodies to be there, just their minds. So rather than head for the spaceport, Dulf and Otolsbon actually went to the middle the centre of the great hall where the ceiling opened up and they were elevated up by into a much smaller but still quite large room. In the middle of the room were 10 chairs arranged in a circle. All around the room people were busying around yelling various numbers and other data at each other. Even in this time of technological phenomena this place remained exceptional.
The two politicians knew that the scene they were witnessing would be in action across the galaxy as all the representatives prepared to have their mental selves beamed across space at many times the speed of light. They would be sat in the chairs, their bodies and brains scanned and then their mental selves would be projected around the galaxy to each and every outpost and all this would be done in the minutest fraction of a second. They and the minds of all the representatives would then essentially be inside all of the machines being used for this, a useful safeguard in case one was damaged. In this way all of the representatives would be able to meet at a moment’s notice.
The projection of information across the vast distances of space at phenomenal speeds which for much of human history were considered impossible was now simplicity itself. To project the human mind though was another issue entirely. First of all, it was a huge amount of information that was constantly fluctuating and growing and it was of course, incredibly valuable. It was a testament to the complexity of the mind and this technology that it had taken over a century of development to perfect it. Such was the control of technology by humanity though no one feared now that it may put human safety at risk. Technology did what humans told it to, no more, no less.
Dulf was eager to get started as was Otolsbon having not ever used this technology before, indeed outside of testing this would be only the third time it had been used.
“Doctor Riberto, what’s our situation?” he asked.
“We have 10 minutes until beam dispatch, and energy levels are increasing as required,” replied the stern looking Doctor Riberto. She had been the leader of the team that had developed this technology nearly a century ago. By the rapid movements of her eyes it was clear she was focussing on numerous pieces of information being sent to her. “Please take your seats and we’ll begin scanning your thought patterns.”
Dulf and Otolsbon took chairs facing opposite each other. The chairs themselves were ordinary enough, levitating a few feet off the floor with the seat, back and head rest separate so as to be able to be moved into whatever position was comfortable. When they sat in them a thin white band emerged from either side of the headrest that curled round their heads leaving a gap of about an inch so they could still move freely.
Otolsbon had been sending messages to her people but was now free to properly look around the room noting how the plain white floor and walls belied the importance and complexity of the technology contained within them. The dozen or so scientists in the room were all engaged with screens hovering in front of them or that were lit up in the wall. Doctor Riberto was stood between her and Dulf and she knew she would be in direct contact with the machine and all its systems ensuring they were all operating perfectly.
Dulf meanwhile was pondering the meaning for Popovic’s haste. Clearly something major was happening. He was an explorer so he must have found something. Some new mineral or plant that would revolutionise life? Perhaps he had finally had luck sending one of his probes into a black whole. Or could it be that he had at long last found something that could pose a threat to life. This was…well it was impossible! For millennia now human safety had been a constant. Humans did not die. Humans were not threatened with pain or even discomfort. Disease, famine, war, even simple accident were things of the past. The notion that this utopia could be under threat was…laughable. Humans were the masters of technology and through this they were masters of the universe and their destiny. No, Dulf was sure of it, whatever Popovic had discovered could only be for the advancement of humanity.
“Representatives,” announced Riberto, “we are now one minute away from dispatch. Please relax as the cerebral scanner attaches to your heads. As soon as beam dispatch occurs you will perceive that you are no longer in this room but in an arena with the rest of your fellow representatives. If at any time you wish to mentally return you simply have to think it.”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine. Without the hindrance of all this gravity your representative might even find himself comfortable,” chimed Otolsbon.
Before Dulf could even realise what she had said his mind had travelled around the galaxy much faster than the speed of light and he found himself no longer in that room. More difficult to comprehend than the speed and distance his mind had been sent was that it was technically now contained in many different places. He moved his mind from that to what was to all intents and purposes the here and now, seeing and feeling things that weren’t real. He was sat in a chair similar to that he had been sat in back on Earth but in a grey room with no people in it. Straight across from him was a door, the only feature in the room. He went through it.
Why he wondered, why of all things had a stone amphitheatre been chosen over all modern comforts for these meetings? He knew that he was actually sitting in a comfortable chair back on Earth but while his mind was here it sure as anything felt like he was sat on a lump of granite and despite what anyone said he was sure he felt the aftereffects even when his mind was back in his body.
All around the top tier were other doors from which other representatives were emerging. It was at this point when Dulf was truly glad of how infrequent it was they were all assembled. Here he could see arrayed before him the descent of his species. There were hundreds of people here and he would describe very few as human. Some of the mutations were minor such as in the representative from Nanahuatl whose nostrils were larger than normal, but some were blatant as in the representative from Chukwu he could see had just entered through a door a few metres to his right, who like his people had turned a dark green from a microbe in their planet’s water. The offense was not just visual though. Clucking all around him were the bastard dialects these offshoots had developed. Still no matter how he felt these were who he had to deal with, he could disagree with them, even show his dislike for them but he could never show the full extent of his hatred. So despite how he felt he benignly shuffled down the steps, nodding greetings to a couple (he had few friends here) and took his seat in the front row, becoming just one in a sea of humans in all forms.
Presently the politicians settled down and Popovic took to the stage. He who was always so composed still kept a remarkable air of equanimity about him despite his discovery, but all that had dealt with him before could see he was not his usual self. For him it was not the discovery itself or the magnitude of it but the uncertainty that had come with it. For the first time Popovic felt he could not guess what would happen next. What had eased him slightly, even amused him was that now all these politicians would actually have something to do.
“Thank you all for coming here,” he announced to them, “I won’t waste any of your time and so I’ll get straight to it. Today, for the first time, I discovered a planet containing non-human intelligent life.”
Popovic may as well have fired a gun such was the effect of this statement. Every eye in the room was now boring into him intensely and a silence fell that was only broken by the gasps made by several representatives. Several of them literally replayed in their minds what he had just said. All of them were slowly realising that Popovic had just told them he had found aliens.
They weren’t given long to be shocked as Popovic began providing them with more information. He informed them of the position of the star the planet orbited and their classifications and started listing data such as the planet’s size, orbit and rotation. At a thought he produced a slowly rotating 3-dimensional coloured image of the planet, for the second time shocking his audience as they took in the spirals of land and sea.
“As you can see the planet is like nothing ever found before in its appearance. Of course my first thought had to be that at some time we had done this somehow to the planet. Believe me I searched thoroughly, there is no record of humans having any interaction with this planet before. Representatives such a pattern of erosion and disposition of continents is simply impossible; I knew then that an intelligence of non-human origin had manufactured the face of this planet.” Popovic was getting more at ease now. This was the first time he could remember needing other people and he could tell they were with him. The faces in front of him were not now universally shocked but focussed, already calculating the numerous issues at stake here, eager for any information to help them so he continued to provide it. “I began searching the planet for the beings that had done this and instantly found difficulties. I sent in thousands of probes and lost contact with all of them. From the orbiting probes I had been unable to find out anything about the planet below 6.5 kilometres from the surface and now I realised why. The planet has… a shield; I can’t describe it any better yet. This shield is physically permeable but all electronics which pass through it cease to function. The shield covers the entire planet at a height of 6.5 kilometres.
So my search was limited to a distant visual examination. But to my surprise I did soon get a signal from one of the orbiting probes that had spotted movement and sure enough, I had found them.” At this point an area near the top of the planet at the start of one of the spirals began enlarging, focussing in on an area that soon proved to be a rocky clearing in the middle of a forest. Popovic drew their attention to one particular area he told them was the opening to a cave.
That was when they saw them.
Five figures emerged from the opening and stood in a row looking over the area. From the top down view all that could be seen was the gesticulation of what seemed to be arms. The image spun round to an eye level image Popovic’s probes had developed. The most obvious feature of the aliens was that although they had rather pale skin much of it was covered with thin black spirals, much like the patterns on the planet surface. From these images it could not be said if they were natural or aesthetic. In comparison to an Earth human they had larger torsos, shorter, squatter legs and longer arms with two joints in them. Their legs, which bent backwards like a birds, ended in long, thin feet with two ends like toes. The palms of their hands were wide and had eight fingers, each about the length of a forearm, arranged around all around the palm. Though they were naked there was no obvious sign of genitalia and the only difference between the aliens other than slight variations in size was the arrangement of the spirals. Then there were the heads. They were perfectly round as they did not appear to have a jaw, for a mouth they seemed to have a sphincter like orifice which could be seen opening and closing frequently on each of the aliens suggesting they could be having a conversation. They had two thin protrusions, one on each side of their heads only a couple of centimetres long which were constantly pointing in different directions as if seeking sounds. But what really held the attention of the representatives, and indeed all people that looked upon them was what appeared to be their eye, a single black band ringing their heads. It was easily their most inhuman aspect.
There have been throughout human history certain moments when the people upon which they are thrust recognise that the decisions they make and the actions they take will shape the future, for good or bad. Though they cannot foresee the legacy of their deeds they know they will be felt for ages to come. Judgement would be passed on them by all; eternal celebration or shame would be their sentence. The existence which humankind had built for itself was not one where these moments existed. They belonged to a long-gone time where life had been fragile and fleeting and where the world had been as ever changing as the names of the people in it. Life now was built upon stability. Revolution was for those who needed swift change because it was the only hope they had of seeing it. Not so now when life was certain. Certainly change happened, even before this discovery tension, dissatisfaction and disillusionment had been growing, but change was slow, slow enough that decisions taken were trifling when likened to those gone before and disaster was inconceivable.
But now no one could be so sure. While the opinions, hopes and fears about this moment varied from representative to representative they all agreed without even saying it that this was one of those moments. As they tried to identify any feeling or sense from the “eyes” on the aliens even as they turned their backs and returned to the cave they knew now they would either be forever remembered in celebration, or in shame.
“So far this is the only time these creatures appear to have come to the surface and indeed the only creatures I have been able to detect,” Popovic began again. “I admit that from this short appearance it is impossible to confirm their intelligence, but looking at the evidence, the patterns of the entire planet surface, this shield which blocks all signals and scans and stops the functioning of all electronics, to me it says non-human intelligence is at work here…and we need to investigate it.”
At this the representative from the planet Hermes rose and in the characteristically booming voice of his people announced “by investigate, you mean you want to actually send people down there, below the shield where our technology works?”
As he had expected Popovic was greeted with a wave of noise and outrage. Dozens of representatives leapt from where they were seated to scold him on the danger of such an idea. Many of them had already begun to argue with each other about if it should or even could be done.
Popovic understood their reticence. All the representatives and he had been born after humans feared their mortality. Ever since they were children, for thousands of years they had been told and believed that death and danger belonged to the past. But there was a second, silent part to this belief. Death was behind us because of our technology. By sending people down to this planet they would thrust this silent thought out into the open. They would be sending people into the unknown and worse than that they would be alone and unaided. They could not tell how the atmosphere would affect humans, if the weather posed a danger, if there were microbes which could kill them outright or remain dormant until they returned to the general population and a myriad of other variables which ordinarily were easily established and could be overcome simply. Not so here. They did not know what they would be going into and they would have virtually no protection, even the cell-bots in their bodies, so ordinary and every day in their consideration, yet so extraordinary and vital in their purpose, would be useless. By doing this they would be embarking on the most unprepared and unknowable mission for thousands of years, not since the first mission to Earth’s moon would the result be so uncertain, the team so helpless and those watching on so useless.
Therata Otolsbon also thought this. She recognised that for the first time in millennia human life would be at risk, but something greater was at risk too, the human spirit. That spark which truly separated humankind from other life, the desire to risk comfort and life for the possibility of going that one step further. It had taken them from one small valley, across land and sea and space in a quest for knowledge and understanding so that so much which had once been beyond their grasp was now well within it and they had grown so much for it. To stop now would be a disservice to their future and an insult to their past.
Eventually the clamour of the representatives died down as they composed themselves and looked again to Popovic, as much for reassurance as for good counsel. But it was Otolsbon who spoke.
“Clearly we all recognise what is at stake here. No human has died in thousands of years. None of us understand death as our ancestors did who knew everyone around them and they themselves would die. We are spared this knowledge through our advances. We believe we are in control of everything. Now we find our control is not endless and perhaps life too is not. But look around you. Humans from hundreds of different planets, brought together by technology that almost defies belief, thousands of years after our ancestors first developed language and tools and thought. Could any of this have happened without risk? If none of our forebears had put themselves at risk we would all still be on one continent of one planet, swinging from tree to tree, safe, but unimportant.”
Something that had not changed about humans over the millennia, no one likes to be shamed and after hearing what Otolsbon had said many of those who had reacted angrily to Popovic’s suggestion were shamed. But they were still not without doubts. Again the representative from Hermes rose to speak.
“You are of course right Therata. It would truly be the greatest of disservices to all our people to not investigate such an enticing phenomenon. But you are also correct when you say we do not understand death. The prospect of discovery is one nobody takes issue with, but anyone who knows their history knows that we have already rid ourselves of leaders who send others to die for them.”
He was correct in a fashion. There was not, as he made it sound, a sudden revolution against those governments who employed armed services. But over the course of the 4th millennia AD in response to the catastrophes of the 3rd, a popular opposition against standing armies had grown to such an extent that in the year 3700 the continental governments were able to abolish armed forces and a gradual reduction in all weapons and munitions was begun. Since then there had been numerous attempts by various groups and individuals to reverse this, all of them failing spectacularly. The last of these had been nearly 2000 years ago and had been little more than an enquiry into public opinion. With this had grown the belief that no government could or even would ask the governed to sacrifice anything, let alone life.
This caused a murmur around the amphitheatre. To ask people to do something which may be a danger to life they may as well return to other such barbaric, ancient practices as ritual sacrifice or armed combat.
Before Otolsbon could retort the Martian representative interjected “clearly there are many views on this matter, and many issues that require our consideration. We would do our people a disservice were we to take any action so quickly and inconsiderately. I propose we call this session to an end. Popovic was of course right to call us all so quickly, we needed to know and so do our people. Our duty now is to tell them what has been found, to gauge their response, to shape our arguments, and to learn much more about this fantastic planet.”
It was as if all the representatives were suddenly jolted back to reality. They had all been carried off on this wave of talks of aliens and death. There was one new problem and it was as if everything had changed. So caught up in the thrill they had almost forgotten all sense and nearly reverted to the politics of the semi-ancient humans who debated every issue in a whirlwind of haste and emotion just to get something done, even if it was not done well. They were all where they were because they recognised the need to do these things properly and not to rush, especially in this case where even at such a preliminary stage the possible risk to human life was being discussed. The planet was going nowhere; they were only being pressed by reasonless human emotion. No to do this right would take months, probably years, time was their greatest ally.
Murmurs of agreement went round the amphitheatre and a serene demeanour returned to what had been an unusually flustered and impetuous assembly. Popovic thanked the representatives and called the session to an end and so the representatives started coming out of this conjuring of the mind and technology and returned to their bodies.
Dulf didn’t notice immediately all the people around him vanishing. Indeed, he hadn’t noticed much after the aliens had been displayed for them all to see. He had been engrossed, playing the short scene over and over again in his mind, gazing intently into the face of a new enemy.