by P. Orin Zack
Drake was wrong. The astronomer's formula for the number of detectable civilizations in the galaxy was flawed. Not that it mattered now. Not since the people of his planet committed autogenocide. But then, their search for extraterrestrial life had lasted only about fifty years; hardly long enough to make a difference, even if they hadn't blinded themselves to the very signs they were looking for.
Irran slipped the silvery disc out of its sleeve and held it up to the mid-day sun. When it had been recorded, the walls of the Great Hall surrounding him supported a vaulted ceiling. The building's designers had drawn their inspiration from millennia of the planet's cultural histories. But that was before the conflagration, which happened while Irran's team was still speeding alongside space on their one-way First Contact mission. Now, the remains of those walls stood watch over the rubble of the Hall's destruction.
"Is that the one?" Kharlin asked, carefully picking her way through the debris. She was the expedition's linguist, and had been instrumental in developing the translations that had led them from zones of destruction large enough to be seen from space, where the conflagration had been fought out, to this, the seat of Earth's final attempt at a global government, where contentious leaders had set in motion the events that put an end to humanity.
"I think so," he said. "How are the others holding up?"
She glanced back towards the overgrown formal gardens in front of the building, where they'd set the landing craft down. "Wendl is still sleeping off the sedatives. I don't think he's ever going to get over it. The rest are scouting for cultural artifacts that might shed some additional light on the background of the people at the core of this mess. As long as they're distracted from thinking about the monsters who ordered their own people to carry out those orders, I think they can cope well enough."
Irran nodded gravely.
"Even so, I'm concerned about how they'll react when we get that disc translated. Even if they only tangentially identify with the people who made those choices, it could put them in the same state you fell into when you felt the world through that military commander's eyes. We all thought you were going to lose it for a while. It's a good thing I remembered that story you told me about your brother. Still, that commander at least knew what war was like. I seriously doubt that anyone here had any sense of what they'd unleashed."
He turned the disc over and blew the dust off it. "You're probably right. But I'd still like to give them the chance to be here when we view the translation. It's a personal choice, and, as dangerous as it may be, nobody should make it for them."
While Kharlin's translator was busy analyzing the disc, the team finished categorizing and imaging the artifacts they decided to include in their final report. Having traveled so far and so long, only to have the whole point of their mission rendered irrelevant, the team had fallen into depression. Before setting out, each of them had accepted the finality of their farewells, but the sacrifice they'd made was in exchange for the adventure of a lifetime, the opportunity to stand face-to-face with people of another world. Not this. Never this.
After re-entering normal space-time at the fringes of the system's cometary cloud, they had scanned the broadcast frequencies for signals, but found none. Clutching for an explanation, they posited that there might simply have been a rapid shift in technology, and looked for signs of transmissions using different methods. They all knew it was impossible to prove a negative, but there it was. A shadow fell over them as they flew past the outer planets, dreading the possibility that they had traded their futures for naught.
Wendl was the team's botanist and climatologist. His eyes had sparkled in anticipation of learning how the plant life on Earth solved the problem of converting its sun's light into energy, even though the range of frequencies was shifted, and the mix of gasses in the atmosphere and minerals in the soil was so very different from those back home. As they'd passed the only planet in the system massive enough to make its star wobble noticeably, he marveled at the stable storm systems that gave the gas giant such a distinctive look, and noted how little their size and position had changed while they'd been in transit. Then, on the approach to Earth, he yelped in horror when he realized that the circular storm straddling much of the narrower of the two great oceans was not an ephemeral cyclone, but was instead a stable, high-energy system, like the spots on the gas giant.
"But that can't be!" he'd told Irran anxiously. "Currents in the ocean and the atmosphere would keep storms in motion. The only way this could happen is if""
"Well, if the gyre in that ocean had stopped. But to do that you'd have to decimate the ice caps and denude the polar regions of glaciers! It would take massive amounts of fresh water to drastically change the salinity of the water. But how"?"
There wasn't anyone to ask, but once Kharlin's translator was working, they found everything they needed to know from the news records. The truly mind-wrenching part was that the people of Earth were unable to acknowledge what they had unleashed because they couldn't agree on what to call it. And they couldn't agree on what to call it because naming it would have given it reality, a reality that flew in the face of pre-conceived notions drawn from religious texts created before the very idea of science had arisen in that culture.
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