When I started writing this as a bit of an allegorical story, I imagined it might be a bit tongue-in-cheek. But as often happens when a story takes on a life of its own, that can change…
Kel-An led the Speaker of the Herd through the ruins of what had once been a great city. There was a certain grotesque majesty to the tallest buildings, skyscrapers the builders had called them, that reached toward the sickly gray sky like limbless and lifeless trees. Such constructs would have been considered unsightly and irresponsibly inefficient by Kel-An’s people, but as a specialist in the history of this dead world, he had become used to it. More or less.
Ruins, though, was perhaps not the correct word. The city remained largely intact, having suffered little material damage other than what the last hundred sun cycles of wind and rain had wrought after its inhabitants finally migrated to their eventual doom. No war had been fought here, no meteors had impacted. Concrete was sloughing away from the metal skeletons of some of the older buildings and many of the glass panels had shattered, but beyond that, one could almost imagine the city still lived. Almost.
But living cities were always in motion; the only thing that moved here was the sand and dust. Blown in from the wastelands by the hot, dry wind over the sun-scorched asphalt and concrete, dunes of lifeless grit now blotted out the lower floors of the windward side of many of the buildings.
No living things, either flora or fauna, dwelled here. It had become far too hot and there was no water, no rain. Once the tipping point had been reached in the planet’s environmental system, the change in climate had been far too rapid and brutal for the plant and animal species, including the builders of this and other cities, to adapt. The absence of life also made for an absence of sound, and Kel-An had never been able to get used to the stark silence of this place. Only the wind or the occasional collapse of part of a decaying structure broke the quietude. Beyond that…nothing. It was unnerving.
Everywhere — everywhere — were the carcasses of personal conveyances and other vehicles. Most had four wheels, some had two, and other vehicles, clearly intended for transporting cargo, had more. But most of them were the four-wheeled variety. Cars and trucks. Kel-An knew from his explorations that entire structures were dedicated to the purpose of storing these machines, even as more clogged the streets. These automobiles had spawned entire family trees of industries that had consumed a titanic amount of resources and made large contributions to the deadly change in climate. The land area occupied by the roads built to accommodate these machines was astonishing. Just in the once-and-former United States of America, ten percent or more of the former nation-state’s arable land was consumed by roads, plus parking lots that took up even more. Now those same roads and freeways were nothing but crumbling concrete and blistered asphalt, all leading to nowhere.
As for the machines themselves, the steel-based components exposed to the weather were rusting, and eventually the components made of aluminum and other alloys would oxidize and break down, as well. But many of the polymers, the plastics, which comprised a significant portion of almost every vehicle, would endure for many years to come; in some cases, millennia would pass before they broke down to a significant degree.
Of course, the vehicles were not the only hosts of such materials. Plastics were everywhere, in almost everything, that this civilization had built. It was strewn across the land like a pox, having choked the rivers of life and coated what were once beautiful beaches for as far as the eye could see with mountains of waste. In the dead oceans, enormous islands of plastic and other debris slowly circulated, while yet more littered the ocean floor. Here, among the dunes that buried the lower floors of the skyscrapers, in the infinite abundance that Kel-An knew had once belonged to countless living things, were plastic bags, bottles, and more that had been swept in by the winds along with the sand and dust, along with whatever the former occupants had left behind.
He paused as the Speaker peered into one of the cars. The doors hung open, as did those on many of the other vehicles. On this particular avenue they were nose to tail, stretching for many blocks in both directions.
The vehicle, like most of the others, was empty except for the dirt and detritus blown in by the wind.
The Speaker made a brief inspection of the car, then stepped back, turning her gaze to the surrounding buildings that blocked out most of the sky. “What became of the dwellers here? Are there no bodies? As you know better than most, even carrion eaters leave behind skeletons once the flesh has been consumed.”
“We have found some bodies here, Speaker,” Kel-An replied, “mostly in the buildings where we believe those few inhabitants chose to expire when the end came. But there are no carrion eaters, not here. They are long since dead. Some still exist in a few places that will remain marginally habitable to a small number of species for a time yet, but in places such as this, little more than microbes can survive, and few enough of those.” His crest flared sorrow, regret. “No. The inhabitants of this place and other cities like it fled once their infrastructure began to break down. They could no longer get food or water, they ran out of medicines. They had no choice but to flee to the agrarian lands and what forests remained in hopes of finding what they needed to survive. Some found it for a time, almost always at a cost to others, but they were only delaying the inevitable. At that point, there was no escaping the fate they had ordained for themselves.”
The Speaker turned her eyes on her chief archeologist, her crest signaling astonishment, incredulity. “I must say, Kel-An, that when I first saw your report, I could not credit your findings. I did not doubt your veracity, of course, nor the accuracy of your analysis. Yet, I could not accept that such as this,” she gestured at the dead world around them, “could be possible. That is why I had to come in person.”
“I understand, Speaker. What you are feeling now is just as I felt when I first set foot upon this world…and still feel, even now. The initial scout reports, I thought, had to be wrong. How could such as this be true? Yet, even with my many cycles of training and experience at other sites, I was unprepared for what we found here.”
“One would think,” the Speaker observed, “that at this stage of their development they would have been able to predict the effects of their massive infusion of carbon dioxide and other heat-capturing gasses into the atmosphere. How could they not have known?”
“They did know, Speaker. In fact, they knew well in advance, over a century, before they reached the point of no return and disastrous global temperature rise became inevitable.”
He found himself talking to empty space. Glancing over his shoulder, he found the Speaker staring at him, rooted to the sand-coated street as if she had been turned to stone.
“They knew…a hundred sun cycles and more before the effects became irreversible?”
“Yes, Speaker,” Kel-an told her, coming to stand before his esteemed visitor. “That was when it was first theorized. From that point, their scientists gathered an overwhelming amount of data and evidence that clearly pointed to what would happen if they did not act. Decades before the tipping point, there was incontrovertible evidence, with many of their scientists sounding an alarm that fell on the deaf ears of their own Speakers.”
The Speaker gaped. “And they knew what would happen? They knew this,” she gesticulated with her digits, encompassing their surroundings, “would happen?”
“Yes. They understood all of the consequences, and even predicted most of them with an astonishing degree of accuracy, in some cases tens of sun-cycles before the tipping point. Temperature rise, melting of the polar ice caps and glaciers, the resulting desalination of the oceans and the rise of the ocean water levels, changing ocean currents that helped fuel increasingly violent and massive storms and accelerated the die-off of sea life, which they had already largely decimated…all of it. They knew precisely what would happen.”
“And yet, they did nothing?”
“They made half-hearted attempts, but as one of their sayings went, it was too little, too late.”
“But…but,” the Speaker sputtered as she began walking again, led on by Kel-An, “how could any sentient species have known the doom they faced and not take action? They could have not only saved themselves, but recreated the paradise this planet once was.” The Speaker had seen the images Kel-An had sent as part of his report that had shown what a jewel this planet had been. “Any civilization that could build these monstrosities,” the Speaker gestured to the skyscrapers around them, “could have done anything they wished.”
“That is part of the inexplicable paradox of this species, of these humans, as they called themselves in one of the major languages,” Kel-An explained. “Among all the spacefaring species such as ours, evolution wrought a balance that prioritized collective over individual behavioral priorities. In some cases the differential between those priorities is narrow, but it is nonetheless well defined.” The Speaker nodded: this was well-known, even to younglings. “But with this species, things are…were…more complicated. From our studies, it appears that the more primitive — that is the term the near-collapse humans used — social groups followed our own model much more closely: there was a great deal of individuality, to be sure, both among individuals and the groups themselves, but the overriding imperatives were reserved for preservation and betterment of the group, of the society. There was a relatively narrow range of resources, of wealth, between the lowest and the highest in the social hierarchy. These so-called primitives generally lived in harmony with their environment without requiring or generating any excess energy, heat, or carbon that led to humanity’s eventual destruction. They were amazingly well-adapted.”
“So these primitives understood the key principles of energy management, even if they did not perhaps have scientific words for the concept?” Kel-An signaled assent. “And you said that the builders of these edifices,” the Speaker gestured to the giant concrete and steel skeletons that rose high above them, “considered themselves advanced?”
“Yes, Speaker.” Kel-An paused, considering. “While we are not entirely sure of the causality, we believe that as the humans expanded their understanding of technology, their individual imperatives began to overcome their collective ones. In other words, as they moved forward along the trajectory of technologies that led their production of heat, and thus carbon, to explode, they did not develop any greater wisdom to govern the use of those technologies, not to mention more collectively beneficial social constructs, for the betterment of their collective…or to abandon their use if the situation called for it.”
“In other words, even when they discovered the secrets of the atom and what lay beyond, even with advanced computational systems to clearly model the nature of their fate, they never stopped thinking with their primitive hindbrains.”
“Not literally, Speaker, but I believe you have the gist of it. Such is our theory. They failed to adapt, even if that failure were simply by their own choice, and thus were selected by evolution for extinction.” He projected a map of the planet, where two red icons flared to life. One was in what had once been South America, while the other was on the opposite side of the globe in the middle of the planet’s greatest ocean, the Pacific. “The irony is that as we stand here today, surrounded by the bones of a more advanced civilization, only these two small enclaves of primitive groups that eschewed contact with their technologically advanced kin still survive.”
The Speaker’s amazement showed clearly in her voice and the white tips that sparkled on her crest. “And their prognosis?”
Kel-An’s crest dipped in sadness. “We project that in 23.2 sun cycles the last of the island dwellers will have expired from starvation, and that will be the end of the humans. They have no fish to eat and are down to eating what little grows now on an island whose area has largely been consumed by the rising waters. They also eat one another.”
“Cannibalism?” The Speaker was not as shocked as she would have liked to be.
“Yes. It was inevitable given their situation. They have depleted most of the remaining trees that provided sustenance to build boats in desperate attempts to find better places to live. But those seafarers who were not killed by the monumental ocean storms found only death on distant shores no longer able to support life beyond the microscopic level. They died of starvation among mountains of plastic waste.”
“And the other group?”
“Much the same,” Kel-An sighed. “The rainforest they depended on for millennia — and which was the main land-based converter of carbon dioxide into oxygen on which the entire planet relied — was destroyed for crops and plantations that could not on their own survive there, and were vastly inferior for atmospheric support. The primitives have steadfastly clung to life using what little was left, but their end is as inevitable as the island dwellers in 18.7 sun cycles.”
“And these advanced humans knew this would happen?” The Speaker gestured rudely to the structures around them, a gesticulated condemnation of their builders. “They knew?”
“Without question, Speaker. There is no doubt at all, none, that they knew the fate that would befall them if they did not change their ways.”
“Yet they did not. It is incomprehensible.”
Kel-An nodded in tacit agreement as they continued their tour of the melancholy city. He took the Speaker to a few key points, one of which was an overlook from where they could see the remains of what had once been an impressive statue. Kel-An projected an image of what it had once looked like. “They called it the Statue of Liberty,” he said. The statue was within the wall the humans had built around the city to keep out the rising sea. But the upper half of the once-regal statue had been sheared away and lay mostly submerged in the water that ringed the small island on which it had been built. It had been destroyed during an insurrection that had gone without accountability and had become another contributor to the downfall of this civilization.
The Speaker took in the projection, then wiped it away so she could see the statue as it was now. “It was beautiful before they destroyed it.”
“Such can be said for so much of this world, and indeed of the humans themselves,” Kel-An replied. “While much of it would not appeal to us for aesthetic reasons, they had art in many forms: music, sculpting, painting and drawing, and so much more. They had literature, poetry…all that we have among our creatives, so they did, as well. Some were so enduring that their legacies lasted for hundreds, even thousands, of sun-cycles, indeed to the very end. There was much beauty among and within humans. There was love, courage, and compassion, as well. I daresay some of what the humans were, some of what they accomplished, compares to the very best of our own people along our historical continuum. As such, I have dedicated a team to documenting these artifacts and treasures, to recording their worthy deeds, and would like to create a collection for preservation if the Council approves.”
“It would be comforting to know that something of these people other than a record of their totally preventable demise could be preserved for posterity,” the Speaker agreed. “You will have my support for this.”
“Thank you, Speaker.”
“So, climate change was what finally doomed them. But in your report you noted this was not quite a singular cause of their demise?”
“Climate change sealed their fate, true, but there were other contributing factors that drove their herd off the cliff, as one might say. Warfare was chief among them, but was again not a singular cause of their destruction; in truth, it was more the norm for their species, it would seem. We know a great deal about their history, having uncovered more records than we could possibly explore over many lifetimes, and have reconstructed the critical paths and tipping points, as well as many, many details. While it is not complete, I believe our understanding of their history is superior to their own, and without some of the blatant biases we found in a great many of their own accounts. One thing that is beyond any doubt is that they engaged in warfare for the entirety of their documented existence dating back several thousand sun cycles, and no doubt long before that. I speculate that their first tools, no doubt based on bone and rock, were likely weapons used both for hunting game and to kill one another, and to massacre virtually every other living thing in their ecosystem.” The Speaker snorted in disgust before Kel-An continued. “Lack of violent conflict seemed to be the exception, not the rule.”
Kel-An paused as they entered the building where his display was located. He had difficulty thinking of these buildings as ruins. Ruins to an archeologist held the ring of much time having passed, yet this building was almost certainly no more than two hundred sun cycles (years, Kel-An remembered; the dead inhabitants of this place had once called the cycle of the planet around its sun “years” in their particular language) old. “They continued to fight wars almost up to the end, including one with atomic weapons —”
At that, the Speaker threw him a look of wide-eyed astonishment and her crest rippled in alarm.
“— that contributed to their demise, but again, was not a singular cause. Several cities were laid waste before a societal upheaval in the nation that began the war finally brought about non-war, at least for a time, along with a devastating famine, as that war was fought in one of their main food producing regions. That was on the other side of the ocean, far from here, although the radiological effects are still measurable.”
“It is inconceivable,” the Speaker muttered as she picked up a box with colorful graphics on the cover that appeared to be perfectly preserved.
“They fought at least two other large-scale wars in the hundred or so cycles before their demise where many, many cities were bombed and burned to the ground,” Kel-An told her in a sober voice. He shuddered at the memory of the endless graphic footage of the conflicts humans had fought. “The second one heralded their first use of atomic weapons against two cities that brought that second great war to a close.”
The Speaker started as if she had been shocked. “On…cities? Not even upon warriors?”
“Warriors were present, of course, but the vast majority of those killed and maimed were simply members of the enemy’s herd. But the atomic weapons were just a more efficient means of mass killing: as I mentioned, many other cities were bombed or set afire in that war well before those weapons were built. Tens of millions perished. And that was only in one war. There were many more in their history. Many more.”
Her crest swirling in horrified bewilderment, the Speaker turned her attention back to the box. The cover showed a cartoonish depiction of an Asala, another of the sentient spacefaring species, a menacing grimace on its face as it brandished a huge weapon in its hands. As if the Asala would do such things, the Speaker thought, her crest turning a violent orange in outrage. Her ocular implant translated the human script, and she recoiled as she read the text on the back cover of the package. “Anal probes?” She asked Kel-An in a voice that was at once astonished and disgusted. “Is that what they thought the Asala were doing here? Torturing them with anal probes?”
“It was a popular myth, Speaker,” Kel-An explained. “Some humans were convinced aliens performed bizarre experiments on them; they did not realize they were being evaluated for suitability for joining the star continuum. This—” he gestured at the box “—was an entertainment that capitalized on the absurdity. Such was common for them, which is why I chose this particular artifact for you to see. They had a very strange outlook on a great many things.”
The Speaker quickly returned the box to its place as if it were contaminated with a lethal pathogen. “Absurd,” she growled.
“That is a word I have used often in my time here.”
“Indeed.” The Speaker glanced at the other relics Kel-An had arrayed in various displays. She was reluctant to look very closely at any of them for fear of encountering even greater absurdities.
Leaning closer, she peered at a particular curio labeled Universal COVID Test Kit.
Kel-An retrieved it and handed it to her, and she reluctantly took it for closer examination.
“Disease was another factor in their demise,” Kel-An expained. “In fact, we believe that disease was a critical accelerant of their destruction, much like a highly flammable liquid dumped onto a fire already burning nearly out of control. This disease, COVID, was caused by a virus that swept through their population repeatedly over a number of sun cycles, eventually killing hundreds of millions and inflicting perhaps thirty or forty times that with significant, even life-destroying, lingering symptoms, particularly to their neurological systems.”
The Speaker’s crest flared again, this time in deep sorrow and mourning. “Such a tragedy, that they were afflicted with such a disease before their science could defend them.”
“You misunderstand, Speaker: this disease occurred very near their ending, at the height of the achievements of their life sciences. This,” he gestured at the test kit, “was one of the last types of tests made to check for the viral infection before the civilization here collapsed.”
The Speaker blinked, her incomprehension clear. “But…then they could not defeat it?”
“They chose not to.”
“It is difficult to comprehend, I know,” Kel-An explained, “but the evidence is clear: the original pathogen, as were the variants that were left to spawn through uncontrolled transmission, was an airborne virus. Controlling it would have been difficult, as it mutated rather rapidly, but doing so was well within the ability of their medical and scientific establishments. They had all the necessary technology, all the necessary understanding of airborne viruses in general and this one in particular. Several nation-states proved early on in the pandemic that the disease could be controlled, even without vaccines. And yet…” He paused, still unable, even now, to fully accept what the historical records clearly showed. “And yet, after a brief struggle of roughly two sun-cycles, the inhabitants of this nation-state and many others simply gave up and chose to try and ignore the disease, even as it ravaged their herds, over and over. They simply tried to pretend it did not exist, and it continued to kill them right until the very end.” He paused, reluctant to speak to one of the most repugnant facts of the history of the beings who once lived here.
“What is it?” The Speaker prompted.
Kel-An’s crest displayed acute discomfort and spiritual agony. “Many of the nation-states, including the one where we stand now, left their elders and those weakened by other disease, or previous exposure to this one, largely to fend for themselves…and to die. They made only token efforts to protect them from the virus, and then none at all.”
The Speaker stared at him as if Kel-An himself had gone mad.
“And…” Kel-An swallowed, finding the next words he must say physically difficult to force from his tongue, but the Speaker needed to know. “They even exposed their younglings to the virus, knowingly and willingly, long after they knew what the virus could do. They even exposed younglings too young to be vaccinated. One nation-state even used their children as vectors to achieve greater infection of their general population, under the mistaken belief that—”
Kel-An cringed as the Speaker trumpeted in instinctive rage and fury, her body assuming a posture of community defense, her crest extending to its full impressive height and turning a searing crimson to signal her readiness for combat to the death. Protecting the elders and the weaker members of the herd was a sacred duty, an honor, in their society since the first herds. But nothing was stronger in the character of their civilization, in the very genetic core of every single individual, than the imperative to defend their young. Such was it with all the starfaring species. No matter their individual differences, adults would band together and sacrifice themselves to the very last for the young of the herd, without pause, without thought, without question.
As the Speaker stood in her rigid combat stance, Kel-An went on quietly, “It is true, Speaker. But…this is not the first or only time they put their younglings at risk, especially in what used to be this nation-state, where children were routinely massacred in their places of learning by attackers armed with projectile weapons; it was a known threat, and was simply allowed to go on and on. Not because it had to be, but because they simply allowed it to be so.” He paused, unable to reconcile the beauty he knew humanity had produced with not only its savagery, but the willful apathy of so many among its collective herd. “There is much more in their history, both in this particular place and in many, perhaps most, civilizations throughout their history. Genocide, slavery…involving millions, tens of millions of their fellow humans. And much of it was not so long ago, but within the lifetimes of only a handful of generations before their ending.
“The disparity of resources and individual voices within the herd was also astonishing,” Kel-An continued. “In repeated cycles, right up until their final collapse, a paltry few accumulated wealth and power beyond imagining, while countless millions, even billions, went hungry or died from lack of even the most basic care.” Kel-An saw that the Speaker was forcing herself to relax, although her crest remained a fiery crimson. “We have long since mastered flight between the stars, Speaker, but the heat death of the Universe will be upon us before we can possibly fully understand these beings.”
“Tell me they never left this world,” the Speaker rasped, barely able to contain her rage, her horror.
“They did,” Kel-An replied, not mentioning that he had cited human space exploration in his report. He did not want to further agitate the Speaker. “But they did not get far,” he added hastily as the Speaker’s pupils dilated wide with horror. “Not long after they discovered the secrets of the atom, they took the first steps to the stars. They sent a number of very small exploratory missions to this planet’s moon, and probes beyond. Just before the collapse, one of those few I mentioned with untold wealth and power took a number of followers to the red planet orbiting beyond this one, Mars, they called it, to establish a colony.”
“And they were allowed to leave this planet, after all this?” The Speaker’s voice boomed with rage.
Kel-An bowed his head, but stood his ground. Not in defiance, but in deference to the truth of knowing. It was a posture rarely used in these times, but the Speaker instantly recognized it and sought to regain her inner calm. “Of course they were under careful observation, Speaker. We allowed it, because we forecast the outcome of the expedition beyond a probability of twelve to the fourth power.”
“And?” The Speaker’s crest began to subside from rage to horrified curiosity.
“In but five sun cycles of the red planet, the colonists fragmented into competing factions and — all too predictably — violence erupted. Critical resources for the colony were destroyed in the process, and they all died.”
“All of them? You are sure?”
“Entirely sure.” Kel-An projected the end of the human settlement on distant Mars, and the two watched as first the main dome, then several of the secondary ones, exploded, followed by the orbital-capable ships and various vehicles. He advanced the view through time, and they watched as the very last humans on Mars, their oxygen and water exhausted, perished soon after.
The Speaker let out a slow breath of relief. She was silent for a long moment, then said, “What I said to you before, about supporting the preservation of the art of these aliens…I now amend. You may take images, make copies, make whatever record you would, but not one artifact, not one atom, of anything created by these beings is to be taken off-world. Ever.” That, in the context of Kel-An’s civilization, was a very long time indeed.
The Speaker’s crest flickered a deep amber in warning, and Kel-An fell silent. “You will study them, Kel-An, and learn all you can about them, so that we might understand the warning indicators should they appear in another species we may encounter in the future. Perhaps we can reshape their path to avoid the calamity of this species. I understand from your report that many humans were sane, that many tried to prevent the doom that befell them all. But in the end they failed, and we cannot allow even the slightest possibility of this madness leaving this planet, should it be something in the air or the soil, rather than just in their convoluted genetic code. Once you have learned all you can…” The Speaker’s crest turned a deep black.
“We must sterilize this world,” Kel-An said softly.
“Not just this world, but the entire system. After the last humans have perished as you said earlier, we will induce the star to go nova to ensure the destruction of any artifacts we might have missed. And order ships to retrieve any probes that have gone beyond the inner planets. After you study them, they must all be destroyed, broken down to their component atoms.” The Speaker stepped close and gazed directly into Kel-An’s eyes. “Do you understand?”
“Of course, Speaker. It shall be done.”
He escorted the Speaker back outside. The sun was beginning to set, casting the sky in brilliant hues of red and orange from the particulates that even now still polluted the atmosphere.
“It is a terrible shame that none of the sane ones were able to survive,” the Speaker lamented as she watched the sun begin its daily disappearing act, framed precisely between the rows of skyscrapers that lined the street on which they stood. “They likely would have made worthy additions to we who ply the stars.”
“I believe that those who understood the dangers, who saw what needed to be done, would have liked to join us. Alas, they were too few, and powerless,” Kel-An said softly as the world silently slipped into darkness…