Bewildering Stories

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Learning Curve

by Jörn Grote

I woke and felt deadly pressure. Whatever it was, it was killing me and I felt my death approaching. Terror, fear and dread were in my mind. Silently I began to scream.

With unstoppable power the V-2 rocket was falling back to earth, and my little shocked self began to form its first coherent thoughts. I would have liked it more if the first thing to discover with my new intelligence hadn’t been my own mortality. But things don’t always go as we want them to.

Two days earlier, on 11 June 1948, I was sent into space from the launch base in Peenemünde in the V-2 rocket. The scientists had sent a little rhesus monkey into space. What they found when they retrieved the remains of the rocket in the North Sea was a highly evolved little rhesus monkey. Me. They were glad I had survived. They were also extremely curious why the rocket had landed one day and 20 hours later than anticipated.

In the following days I was examined in every way imaginable. Many of these tests were embarrassing to me, but I had no way of telling them. While they tried to learn how my body had coped with space, I learned as much about them. First thing was the language, German. After I mastered that, I tried to learn about the scientists themselves and their culture. After I had learned enough facts, I realized how bad the situation was.

Eight years earlier, the Germans had started a war, and in the first two years they had beaten all their neighbors on the continent. In the first year of the war, the Führer had been killed by assassins, but that hadn’t stopped the war or his followers. When the whole European continent was under the rule of the followers of National Socialism — the totalitarian ideology of the Germans — they halted the war and began to consolidate.

But that wasn’t all. Some aspects of National Socialism were more sinister than others. I shivered just thinking about them. All over Europe, concentration camps had been built, and all people who were different in some way from their ideal of a perfect human — their master race — were imprisoned and killed in hideous and gruesome ways.

I couldn’t understand how these people could be so human sometimes and still part of such a deadly system. From my observations I had seen them acting kindly to each other, and yet most of them knew what had happened and was still happening in those concentration camps. I think some of them cared but were afraid to show it. Others suppressed thinking about it. But the most scary were those who believed the whole ideology. I feared them the most, because they cared only for each other, and everyone who wasn’t like them was an object.

Until now, the tests had not been deadly for me, but what they would do if I showed them my intelligence caused me many nightmares. I was sure they would without hesitation open my skull to find out what had changed inside my brain. At the same time I feared that when they had completed their tests I would be deemed useless, and that was the same as a death sentence for a test object like me.

In the second week of the tests I noticed a change: my jawbone, my tongue and other parts had shifted in small steps until I was able to modulate human speech. Not perfectly, but when I experimented in the nights I could speak whole sentences without problems. What had brought the change I didn’t know; maybe it was the same mechanism that had changed my brain, but I wasn’t sure.

The humans had no technology at their disposal similar to that of the aliens from space. I hadn’t seen them, but I knew they existed. When I thought of the aliens, I realized what I could offer for my life, to avoid examination and death: the location of the aliens’ ship. I knew the location; even if I had no recollection of being there or why, I knew the exact coordinates.

The aliens had much more advanced technology, something the Germans would want. I was sure of that. Since the end of the war, four factions had arisen in the world: the Third Reich in Europe, the Kingdom of the Sun in Asia, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in Eurasia, and the United States of America. All of them feared the others and strove for small advantages in their cold war. And lately there were rumors that the Americans had built something like an Armageddon Bomb. Not that the Germans weren’t working on it themselves, they only feared that the Americans were faster in the development of the bomb.

I had something to bargain, but I also needed a strategy to prevent every attempt to learn the location of the ship through torture. I chose the most unbelievable strategy.

The next day I made my move. “I greet you, Earth creatures. I’ve taken the body of this monkey you sent into orbit to investigate if you are worthy of contact with a higher race. Through observation I have come to the conclusion that you are indeed worthy of contact. I have recommended an extended exchange to my superiors and will guide a chosen group of you to a rendezvous point with our spaceship.”

The silence that followed was somehow foreseeable. Then all of the scientists began to speak at the same time. That was also foreseeable.

“He can speak!”

“He can think!”

“How did he do it? I would like to examine his brain.”

I winced at those words, because they were utterly devoid of humor. “That would not be very wise, because the doors to our spaceship open only if I go through them alive.”

In the following days, different factions formed. One group wanted to kill me and open my brain and other parts of me with the intention of finding out what had changed me. One group wanted to kill me because they thought I was a security risk. My best chances lay with the third group, who wanted to send a rocket into space and make contact.

The discussion over what to do ended a week later. In secrecy, the Russians and the Americans had built an alliance, and in doing this, combined their efforts to build the Armageddon Bomb. With a bomber of completely new design, one that was nearly impossible to detect, they flew to the capital cities of the Third Reich and the Kingdom of the Sun. Berlin and Tokyo were completely wiped out by the Armageddon Bombs. That gave the scientists who wanted contact with the space strangers the advantage they needed. Hoping to gain new technology to use against their enemies, they made ready the best state-of-the-art rocket, the V-3.

Only three days after the destruction of Berlin and Tokyo, the V-3 was prepared for takeoff. The group that was to go into space consisted of myself and three humans: Steiner, a hard-edge military type who was in control of the operation. He was also trained to fly the V-3, like the other pilot, Schmidt. The third man was a shady intelligence agent, called Vogel, whose role wasn’t clear to me. Vogel had arrived at the dead of night and brought something on a truck. Only twenty hours after Vogel’s arrival the V-3 was launched.

Our destination was a point between the Earth and the Moon. I was still unsure why I knew the position of the strangers’ spaceship, but I couldn’t tell the others my worries. After the V-3 left the grip of Earth’s atmosphere, Steiner looked to me and then to Vogel. Something was going on that I wasn’t aware of.

“So, what is your real mission, agent Vogel?”

“Our mission is not, as you have deducted, to make contact with the aliens. Our foremost mission objective is to capture the spaceship by all means. I have arranged for very sharp and durable blade weapons. Easy to use and conceal. Any questions?”

“Yes, do you intend to capture the crew of an alien spaceship with some swords and knives?” Steiner asked, curious.

“No, that’s only to kill most of the aliens after they have surrendered their ship. We only let those live who are necessary to fly the ship.”

“Aha, and how exactly do you convince them to surrender their ship? Ask nicely?” Schmidt asked.

Vogel looked with cold eyes to Schmidt. Humor wasn’t part of his vocabulary. I had followed the discussion with rising dread, unable to restrain my fear. Nothing had changed. Whatever I had done since I gained awareness, death was one step ahead of me.

“No, soldier. When we dock with the spaceship, we enter it and bring them a present. And then we tell them what it is.”

Fear trickled down my spine like water. Both Steiner and Schmidt looked with curiosity at Vogel.

“Well, our very own Armageddon Bomb, but we prefer to call it the Ragnarok Bomb. It’s the very first one. Believe me, their technology may be much more advanced than ours, but most protective systems work against attacks from the outside. If they don’t surrender, we die in the name of the Reich and kill all of them. Either way, they lose.”

After his speech, all of the three looked in my direction. “Kill him after the door to the spaceship has opened, Steiner. I don’t think we really need him afterwards.” Vogel’s voice was empty and cold.

The whole time I had restrained my panic, but now I lost that last bit of control I had. Again I felt my death approaching. Terror, fear and dread filled my mind. And then time stopped. Vogel, Steiner and Schmidt looked frozen. Something in my head clicked, and I lost consciousness.

I awoke. My surroundings looked completely alien to me. I was on the spaceship of the strangers.

Are you feeling fine?The voice was in my head.

“Mhh.” I wasn’t so sure what to say, but I still felt fear. Were they like the humans I had known?

Don’t fear us, little one. Yes, we can be deadly, but you don’t need to fear us. We want to thank you and apologize. We used you as your eyes and ears, saw what you saw, heard what you heard. Your intentions were not hostile. We wanted to know if the time was right to make contact with the humans.

“And will you make contact?” I asked rhetorically.

They aren’t ready yet.

As I had expected.

“What have you done with Steiner and the others?” I asked them.

We sent them back.

“Why do you even care for them? You have seen what I have seen, you have heard them.”

Do you mean the three, the Germans? Or all humans?

“I don’t know. All of them or only a few? The Germans have one of the most frightful ideologies, but they didn’t invented war or mass slaughter. It’s part of human history since ancient times. And they weren’t the first ones to use the Armageddon Bombs, even if only because their development wasn’t fast enough.”

We have hope. They know what peace means. All they need to learn now is to live in peace all the time.

“Isn’t that a big simplification? Do you really think it’s that easy, to find peace and all your problems will be solved?”

We won’t pretend that it’s easy or simple, but finding peace is the core of the problem. Humans haven’t found a way to get around each other without reverting to violence. We don’t know enough about them, but when we compare our histories, the similarities are close enough that they might have a chance. Peace is easy to understand and hard to get. We learned our own lessons, bloodily.

“What if you’re wrong and they never learn? What if they reach the stars only to build more concentration camps or bigger bombs?”

We could defend ourselves. But that will only encourage war and killing. Space is big. If they never learn peace, we will leave them alone and they will find out how lonely it can be in the universe. But that’s only the last and the worst possibility.

“What if they kill themselves before all that can happen, before they reach the stars or find peace?”

We know what you mean. We aren’t allowed to do much, but in the most dire situations we can interfere. If humanity is at the brink of annihilation, our directives allow us to take steps to prevent that.

“What about the concentration camps, or the victims of the last war? What about the two Armageddon Bombs? Millions of people died. Isn’t that enough death to fulfill your quota? Weren’t these situations dire enough?”

I hadn’t thought I could still care, but these mass slaughters made me angry. How could someone let that happen to sentient beings?

You are angry. We can understand that. But try to understand our situation. What if we had stopped the war? Do you think that would have been the last one? We must allow the humans to make their own errors, even if the outcome of those errors may be horrible. They must learn to live in peace on their own; all the peace we could give them would be nothing more than monitoring.

“But how will you decide when the right point for an intervention is? After half of humanity is killed? Two-thirds?”

The voice began to argue with other voices, but somehow their dispute wasn’t understandable. I hadn’t known for sure that there was more than one alien, but from our conversation I had assumed that.

There is no easy answer. We can only observe and hope that if the worst comes to pass we can react fast enough and save enough humans.

“You’re wrong.”

We are wrong?

“Yes. You want to do the right thing, but that is impossible. All you can do is make a decision and live with the consequences. Now the humans have the weapons to kill all life on earth. Take away their Armageddon and Ragnarok Bombs and break your own law, or wait and see humanity burn, eventually. If you choose to interfere after half or more of the humans have died, you can be assured they won’t thank you.”

We can’t do that.

“You can. The planet is burning. Are you just going to stand by and watch when you could put out the fire? The only question you need to answer is, what’s more important, life or law.”

Only humans can put out the fire. But we can contain it and give them a chance.

In the end, I think, they broke their own law, but that could be open for discussion. Around the world a net of countless satellites was woven, self-contained, hidden from human eyes. Whenever they detected Armageddon or Ragnarok Bombs, they would destroy them. The aliens told me that the system could even destroy some weapons that didn’t exist yet. The thought of weapons capable of even more destruction made me shiver.

Not many people knew that the bombs weren’t working, but those who knew were puzzled. It hasn’t stopped war on earth, but it will hopefully give humanity time enough to learn.

And me? I no longer look like a monkey. It’s easier to live among the humans if they think you are one of them. I’m hoping they will be ready some day to make contact with the aliens, finding a universe filled with life. But it’s their choice, what they will find when — and if — they reach the stars.

Copyright © 2004 by Jörn Grote

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