The Sum of Our Lives
by Jörn Grote
A friend of mine asked me once why I had accepted this post. It was a dead end. Secretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs. Not for me. The seedship that had created the colony on Mark One had been sent from Earth with thousands of others to bring mankind to the stars. I was sure the other colonies were out there.
In fact, we had made contact with a fallen human outpost around six hundred years ago. It was a terrible story. But even if they had failed, the knowledge that only three hundred years travel time from our world humans had existed, made me hopeful.
Maybe others would visit our world while I was still alive. One can never know. That had been my dream since I was a kid, looking up to the sky in the night, seeing all these stars, dreaming of other worlds, other people. I was sure they would come one day.
That’s what I was saying to myself nearly every day. When I had been twenty years younger it was easy to look hopefully into the future, but now I’m not so sure anymore. Time has eroded my hope. And sometimes I fear that my job and my life are really a dead end, that the locked door at its end has never been a door but a wall all along, that no one will ever come.
Maybe I’m in such a bad mood these days because I realize that I have no friends any more. I drove them all away with my obsession with the stars, with my dreams. When they wanted to talk with me; the only thing I wanted to talk about was other worlds, other colonies. I wasn’t really interested in what people had to say, and in return they lost interest in me. And now? I never had a wife, and contact with my relatives has long been lost. When I come home, no one is there to greet me with human warmth. When I was younger I thought I wouldn’t care, but the older I get the more I know how wrong I was. Nobody can live alone and be happy. Not for a very long time.
When I closed the door behind me and entered my house, I felt something wasn’t quite right. Subconsciously, while I thought moody thoughts, my mind had registered something. I looked up and saw that I had a visitor. He was sitting in the darkness, waiting. Maybe he wanted to threaten me, but I didn’t feel fear. I’m to old for that; or maybe it’s only me.
I waited but he didn’t do anything, and I had no patience for games. “What do you want?” I said to him.
“Are you the Secretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs?”
I was perplexed. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
While I waited for an answer, I went to the chimney and activated the fire. I made myself comfortable in one of my chairs. The other was occupied by my visitor.
“I have business with you.”
“With me? Why do you have business with the Secretary for Extraterrestrial Affairs?”
“Because I’m not from this world. Because it’s your job, or so I’ve heard.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. Was it a joke? To be the target of a joke wasn’t how I wanted the end the day. But I was old and he looked young and strong, so I restrained my anger. To be the target of a joke was better than to be the target of violence. “Sure, and where do you come from. Earth maybe?”
A short silence followed, then he answered. “No. In fact, I come from Safe Home.”
My face must have displayed the puzzlement I felt.
“You didn’t even find out what the world was called? The world your people destroyed. Does that ring a bell? Three billions killed. Do you even know what I’m talking about.”
Hearing his words, I had a hunch what he meant. “The fallen colony.”
“What did you say?”
“I think you’re talking about the fallen colony. But how could you have escaped? Our ancestors tried to destroy it as completely as possible.”
He seemed shocked at what I had said. “Why?”
“Why? Well, it’s history for me, but I’ve seen the pictures. Six hundred years ago a ship from that world arrived in our orbit. It sent pictures of their depopulated world. Only cities, empty streets and rows of empty houses. No humans in any pictures, no sign of life. Our ancestors assumed that something must have wiped them out. They destroyed the ship, after making clear that no signs of life could be found on it, thanking the one who might have sent the ship with his last breath, as a warning.”
My visitor had fallen silent. I continued. “Our ancestors weren’t sure what it was, but a force that could depopulate a whole world without leaving any trace of life was too dangerous to be left alone. They sent our ages-old but still functional seedship to the dead world. The ship was a carrier of a deadly load: thousands of the most advanced weapons we had, programmed to annihilate the surface of the world where they were sent. And that’s the reason why you can’t be from that world: nobody could have fled that destruction.”
While I was telling the old story to my visitor, I felt sadness. What would have happened if the ship six hundred years ago had been full of humans. Our first contact with another culture. I could only dream of the possibilities that communication with another culture could have meant for us. And what it meant for me.
“Your seedship was from the first wave, right?” he asked.
“I know from our knowledge of old Earth and their history that the departure of the seedship was a first.”
“Do you think I’m human?”
“What?” The question caught me completely off guard.
He held his right arm into the light that came from the fire. With his left hand he opened his right hand. I could see his bones, or whatever it was. He wasn’t human. Or was he? Maybe he was from the unknown power that was behind the disappearance of the people on the lost colony.
“What do you feel? Fear, maybe? Why? Because you don’t know what I am, what I can do. Do you think I’m here to kill you? Do you know the source of your thoughts, your fear? It is ignorance. The same ignorance that killed all the people on Safe Home.”
“What are you talking about? There were no people on that world.” He was right that I felt fear, but I felt also anger hearing his accusations. We hadn’t killed anyone.
He closed the gap in his arm. “Around five hundred years after the last seedship of the first wave had been sent, humanity on Earth found a way to upload human minds. To transfer the mind from one computer matrix to another was easy. Humans were no longer limited to only one form. That opened possibilities undreamed of. Instead of trying to find worlds where humans could dwell, or trying to remake worlds in the image of Earth, humans could create bodies that could live on every world. Can you imagine what that means?”
“That you were once human?”
“I am still human. Or do you think to be human means to have flesh and bones? What I meant is something else. Humanity lives now on cold worlds, hot worlds, gaseous words, heavy worlds and many more. The only limit is our skill in engineering artificial bodies. Safe Home was one of those worlds. Your people hadn’t realized that this world had no air. That there was no sign of life because there had never been life to begin with.”
“But what of the empty cities? Why were they built? Where were the people you are talking about?”
“I said every body can be engineered. Safe Home was colonized by a group of architects. Their dream was to build a world full of the finest buildings in the galaxy. Castles, palaces, small houses, big ones, baroque-styled, gothic, every known style and form, and all the new ones they could imagine. All your people saw in one the pictures sent to you was empty cities. What you didn’t see, was that every house was unique. Every damn house. They were the people. The houses, all the buildings.”
Was that possible? I wasn’t sure. Had my ancestor killed a whole civilization of intelligent buildings? I tried to analyze my feelings. Could I believe his absurd story? Was he right? It could be.
“How could we have known?” Even to me this excuse sounded hollow, but I didn’t know what more to say.
“You couldn’t. Like I said, what killed the people of Safe Home was your ignorance.”
“And now, do you want to kill the people of my world to avenge the death of your people?”
“I’m not here for revenge. And I’m not really from Safe Home, not directly. I’m from the Diplomacy.”
“The Diplomacy? You mean you’re an diplomat?”
“Yes, I am a diplomat, and much more. But what I meant is that I am part of an organization that calls itself the Diplomacy. I know, it’s a rather odd name. I will tell you about it. But another question is more or equally important. You want to know why I have come here. To your world. Why I’m talking to you.”
“Yes.” I really wanted that. My whole life I had dreamed of a first contact. I hadn’t imagined that it would happen like this, but I was excited nonetheless. Despite all the horrible things I had heard, I couldn’t help feeling young again. I had lived a lonely life all these years for this one moment, and if I shied away now, my life would be really empty and useless.
“I will tell you, but I want to walk a bit.”
“You want to walk around the city at night?”
“Yes. In my whole life that has been the best way to work things out. I need air to chill down.”
Copyright © 2004 by Jörn Grote