By Tim Fox
You would think, that after so many years of living among humans, I would be used to their strange appearance. But I am not. I still find myself arrested by the oddity of silent smiles made with lips and teeth. And their wide eyes are not flame-orange, but hued in shades from almost black to pale blue, set in faces that can flex. How hard it was to learn the meanings conveyed through the movements of those faces, to say nothing of the speech that passes between those lips and teeth. Our eagle-like beaks clip the lip-shaped words no matter how hard we try to train our voices (humans find our vocabulary equally tongue-tying).
Still, these children who gather now around my paws in the light of a warm fire on this chill autumn evening no longer seem to mind, or even to notice, the clack of my speech. They are wide-eyed and smiling for the stories. If I had a mouth to smile back with, it would be broad. Yet, they know my way of smiling: the quiet flutter of air-gills.
The children seem more excited than usual tonight. Full moon perhaps?
As soon as they settle, I will ask them what story they wish to hear, though I do not need to. It will be our story. It always is.
In the early years, before we had begun living that story, I could not have conceived of it in my wildest imaginings. And what I could conceive aroused only bitterness in me, but now after almost six decades among these endoskeletal bipeds and the myriad other lives of this world, our story brings me peace. The peace of fulfillment. It is the first such peace my kind have known in all the ages of our wandering. And to think, we almost missed it – should have missed it – and relegated ourselves to roaming the stars forever. That was our plan, after all.
But members of this soft-skinned vertebrate species confounded our Grand Statistician’s highest level of probability assurance by becoming only the second being in the galaxy – and I know, because my people have traversed all of it more than once – to embody the life of the endless line, that is, to become world-eaters, bound to a self-amplifying progression of their own making.
Against all odds, a branch of the human tree did what we did a world-age before their tree even came into existence; so long ago, in fact, that we forgot how or why we did it.
And they learned, as we learned, that as all lines begin, so all lines end. Theirs faltered when, some six millennia ago, they exhausted the ability of this round world to support the linear life. Unlike us however, they did not manage to carry that life into the stars. Yet, in their failure (or good fortune, depending on how you look at it), they inadvertently sealed our fate as well. It’s ironic really, since we seeded this world with life in the first place, in anticipation of our eventual return.
You see, the plan we devised to maintain our line required us to introduce life to suitable worlds in order to grow the fuel, food and materials needed to keep us going — to keep our economic indices growing. We calculated that the span required for this world to configure itself and build up the carboniferous stores sufficient to supply our continued growth, as well as the journey to the next world, would be around 4 billion years (which, thanks to the nature of temporal relativity, passed far more quickly for us in our hyper-velocity interstellar vessel). But we didn’t count on indigenous competition for the resources, so rare and anomalous is the emergence of a linear way among even the most sentient of life forms – and in this galaxy alone, they are numerous beyond count.
Imagine our bewilderment then, when we arrived and found this world devoid of the subterranean and surface wealth we had anticipated, and would need in order to reach the next world. Either our instruments were faulty or something had gone terribly wrong.
Our instruments turned out to be working perfectly. Where there should have been millions-of-years-worth of photosynthetically transformed carbon fuel (necessary for the rapid industrialization of the world), nothing. The fissionable elements required to start our vessel’s immense, single-use drive-reactor had also been almost totally spent; stockpiles of their depleted remnants registered as points of near-sterility on our readouts. The mineral and ore deposits (essential for the replacement of the exhausted reactor itself) that should have occurred in concentrated veins were scattered in a thin and inaccessible layer all across the globe. Once-vast aquifers (containing quantities of fresh water sufficient to cool the running reactor) had been drained. And the planet’s diversity of life (food and medicinal resources for our populace) had been simplified in variety to a level that bespoke some geologically recent and, at first inexplicable, catastrophe. We could not believe it.
This world displayed all the characteristics of a planet at the conclusion of one of our two to three century occupations, not the beginning. Clearly, we would be building no mines here, no refineries, no hydro-siphons, no biomass silos, no pharmacological stockpiles, no transfer barges, no launch depots . . . no replacement reactor.
We would turn no more worlds into engines.
We spent the bulk of our denial in orbit, endlessly repeating the same measurements in the vain hope of somehow obtaining different results, all the while exhausting the meager supplies that remained from the previous world. Then we were forced to face the depleted planet below. From all of our scans, we saw no potential, only the prospect of living in the only state it could support, a state of eternal presence, forever trapped in a tiny barren corner of the cosmos.
Doomed. As we had doomed so many other sentients over the course of our many conquests. The humans called it justice and also an opportunity for redemption.
We were a long way from seeing it in that light when, for the first time ever, we boarded our landing craft without expectations, or even hope. Yet, as we set off on our one-way descent to the ground, the world that grew before of us looked quite different to our eyes than it did to our instruments. Vast forests like this grove where I now sit with the children, covered most of its land surface and the oceans sparkled blue in the sunlight.
Somehow, despite the dearth of underground resources, and the low biological diversity, the remaining life was unaccountably thriving. The wide-spread desertification our most sophisticated computer models had predicted was nowhere evident even though, by all accounts, insufficient levels of biotic redundancy existed to prevent the impairment of ecological resilience that leads to deserts. It should have been all sand and sparse shrubs.
Shortly after touching down, we discovered the reason for our internment as well as for the catastrophe and, paradoxically, for the unaccountable resilience. The care of humans.
By their own telling, the catastrophe resulted from a relatively brief period of time in which a great number of them came to misplace and withhold their care. As a consequence, they nearly devoured their own world. The resilience that followed grew from these same people and their descendents. By learning from the land itself, from the archaeologically-accessed memories of their distant ancestors, from the few peoples who managed to outlast the devouring wave and, most importantly, from the wisdom preserved in the deepest recesses of their own hearts, they came to give their care freely to the life that remained. Including us. For, without the gift of their care, we who knew no other way but a similar devouring tradition, and had long ago severed our roots to any other options, would have pursued that tradition into oblivion.
But our unprecedented vulnerability, and the lack of any conceivable alternatives, served to disable our usual reaction to other equivalently sentient species: subjugation, exploitation and eventual abandonment to their fate. Instead, we found ourselves open to receiving humanity’s unconditional care. It inspired in us a long-dormant response, the desire to reciprocate.
It is what I do now, in the form of the stories I offer to these children who squirm and shush each other in the firelight. Thankfully, I rarely tell the story of the wandering years. It’s not a story they much like to hear. And I must say, I far prefer their favourite. After all, by living it daily, it grows with each telling, whereas, every passing day, the one that came before fades, as all such stories must. It resides now in the interstitial spaces of my soul, spaces that were once all I knew, and believed encompassed the universe. Not anymore.
I gaze around at the children’s faces, each one dear to me. Along with the flames dancing in their eyes, I see what had eluded my kind throughout all the long eons of our celestial advance. I also see that we could never have found it even if it had been our goal from the start, as it would have forever receded before us at the exact pace of our pursuit. Only through the breakdown of our line amid hearts in the habit of caring, did we finally find what we had not even known we needed beyond all else. A sense of belonging
It is the soil that nourishes my fulfillment.
Ah, the children are settled now. Rapt. I will wait a moment longer, to set the mood.
A giggle blends with the quiet crackle of the fire, the rustle of high maple leaves and a distant owl call.
The flutter of my air-gills rises to a resounding clatter. “Tso!” I struggle to stop laughing. “Kwat story kwill it be tonightttt-t-t?”
“The one about us!”
“The one aboutttt-t-t usk?”