Last Respects

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Ben wrote this story for the 2017 Spring Equinox Storytelling and Sushi Feast.

When K’t’kr’pfft Tereshkova emerged from dormancy, the first thing she saw was a crater. An enormous crater full of bone-gray rubble, sitting at the nexus of a web of discontinuous lines that were obviously roads and rails, badly eroded by the passage of over two thousand Earth years. Then the imager flicked to another crater, this one a semicircular bite out of a coastline, with a tracery of dark green water showing in between the ruins. Then another crater, and another.

“You know,” she said testily to whoever was showing her this, speaking the most common human language they had all studied since childhood, “if I were human, it would have been polite to let me wake up slowly and get my bearings before dashing all my hopes.”

“Was I supposed to hide my own despair and pretend there was still a thriving civilization here?” T’tss’k’lrff Sagan asked, doing a fair imitation of human exasperation as he blanked the imager to reveal himself waiting just outside the dormancy pod.

“I don’t know, maybe,” Tereshkova said, fighting back the Trfft equivalent of an urge to cry. “I mean, of course we always knew this was probably what we would find, everyone in the xenosapience community told us so, but it’s still quite a shock.”

“Yes, and I have five more crewmates to deliver that shock to, so if you’ll excuse me—”

“No, wait! Now that I know this, I have to know all. Are there any survivors?”

“No. The advance probes scanned the planet thoroughly. The human species is completely extinct, and has been for almost the entire time we’ve been in transit. There were isolated pockets of survivors who eked out some kind of existence for a while after the war, but none of them lasted more than a century.”

“What about their moon, or the other planets?”

Tyson made a rough parody of a human shrug. “One tiny habitation unit each on Luna and Mars. Neither of them occupied by live humans for more than a few decades.”

Tereshkova wanted to grab him and shake him. “How can you be so calm about this?”

“I’m not calm,” he replied levelly. “Not at all. And I’m afraid that if I stop acting calm, I’ll break down entirely and never be functional again.”

“I understand,” she said, now wishing she could hold him to give comfort in the manner of humans and other Earth mammals. “I’ll let you continue with your task.”

They still had a mission here, after all. She focused on the instructions from her training, which had concluded only a few days before they had gone into dormancy; it gave her something to grab onto to push the despair aside, at least for a moment. As Tyson moved to the next dormancy pod, she opened her own and dragged herself out of it and over to the hatch leading to the image analytics lab. She would see many more images of destruction and decay before this day was over.

This was one of the two missions they had prepared for. They had all desperately hoped that this would prove to be a first-contact mission instead, but they had all known that Earth’s first half-century of radio signals—the same signals that had inspired Tereshkova’s lifelong obsession with humanity, which she shared with most of the crew—pointed clearly toward a high probability of imminent self-destruction. So now they were simply here to study the ruins left behind by a once-great civilization, and to pay their last respects.

Of course they all had to go down to the surface. Even T’sh’l’trr Gates, who had a severe case of what humans would call agoraphobia, refused to stay aboard the ship. There were seven hoppers in all, and by some cruel accident, the first pilot to offer her a ride was Frl’t’lfft Caldicott, whose hopper was going straight to Cheyenne Mountain to try to dig up the morbid details of how World War 3 had happened. She had refused with such horrified revulsion in her voice that Caldicott had apologized profusely and then fled.

The hopper she had ended up with was full of what its pilot, Kl’fr’tsht Jones, called “shell-shocked tourists,” and its first stop was Egypt, where they would see firsthand a set of human-built structures that had stood, nearly unaltered, for so long that the final war had come when they were already over half of their present age. Fittingly, the great stone pyramids were tombs, and although built for the sake of humans who had died shortly after their last stones were placed, perhaps, almost six millennia later, they could now serve as a kind of symbolic gravestone for the human species.

Unfortunately, while the hopper had been descending, a sandstorm had moved into the Khufu area, and the necropolis was now invisible. As the hopper itself dropped into the thick layer of blowing sand, Tereshkova found herself irrationally imagining that the pyramids had actually vanished, turned to sand themselves and blown away, just in the brief time since the advance probes had imaged them from orbit.

But when she stepped out of the hopper with the others and staggered forward through the howling wind, all her legs trembling, until the first pyramid emerged from the murk, solid as a miniature mountain towering above them, and she followed the nearest edge with her eye and found it to be very nearly straight all the way to the top, her irrationality reversed itself. Now she expected that the next thing to appear would be a group of hardy human tourists, perhaps architects in their own right, who would climb atop their ancestors’ achievement and proudly claim it as evidence of their greatness.

Of course, if Kfft’l’trff Parks were here, she would have vociferously disputed any such claim. “If you want something uplifting, visiting all those hubristic stone monuments is the last thing you should do,” she had told Tereshkova in the corridor before they’d left the ship. “Almost all of them were built with slave labor, after all! This species destroyed itself because its tendency to build oppressive, violent, pyramid-shaped societies ruled by tyrannical madmen overwhelmed its capacity for cooperation and justice. You should really come with us instead.” Tereshkova had declined, and Parks had hurried off to board Krr’t’l’tfft Goodall’s hopper, whose mission was to make a preliminary survey of the more intelligent surviving species on Earth that might rise to take humanity’s place.

Tereshkova could certainly understand her friend’s perspective. But to her, the dominant fact of this amazing structure was the simple yet powerful vision it represented, a group of people transforming an abstract geometrical form into a massive physical edifice, one strong enough to stand up to the battering of thousands of sandstorms like this one. If only humanity had kept on building such durable monuments, she thought, they would never have become foolish enough to allow short-term political pressures to goad them into destroying their whole future.

They wandered among the pyramids for a while longer, then returned to the hopper for the short trip to their next destination, the ancient city of Petra. This one would be more uplifting, Tereshkova thought—not only because it featured far more advanced architecture and engineering, but because it was a city, a human-made oasis in the desert, a thriving hub of trade in the ancient world, a place that had been alive rather than merely commemorating the dead.

As they descended toward the bone-dry rocky terrain that concealed this next wonder, Tereshkova found herself torn between anticipation and a kind of rage (assuming she understood the human term properly): Enough of these lifeless wastes! Apart from the blue sky with its abundance of oxygen, they had seen nothing so far to indicate that Earth was still a living world. For a moment she almost wished she had gone with Parks after all.

But as the ground grew nearer and human-built structures expanded from specks to show their true forms, rows of freestanding columns and great buildings full of purposeful complexity, her anger was forgotten amid the rush of awe. Then it returned in a new form, as Jones dropped them into a slot canyon before she could get a good look at anything, then started kicking up a new sandstorm with the hopper’s impellers until even the canyon walls were hidden from view.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded of him.

“Unearthing the Treasury, of course,” he replied.

“The what?”

“The place where my namesake dug up the Holy Grail.”

“Where your—oh.” Right. Jones had chosen to name himself after a fictional archeologist-cum-action-hero, and she vaguely recalled him saying something about Petra in association with one of the movies starring that character. So his action made a certain kind of crazy sense, but that didn’t make her any less angry. Still, she doubted she could talk him out of it.

She looked up the Treasury on her imager, and found out that it was yet another royal tomb, its name a product of an unsubstantiated myth about a cache of stolen money hidden inside. A perfect illustration of the folly of the species, as Parks would say: an obsession with power and wealth that led them to believe absurdities and commit atrocities, inevitably culminating in their self-destruction. As a result of which Tereshkova’s appreciation of humanity’s better qualities was rendered moot, there being no one left to appreciate.

She considered Jones, who had apparently resolved the problem by choosing as his role model a man who never existed in the first place. Then her attention was drawn beyond him to the forward viewport. The impellers were finally beginning to blow the sand away down the canyon, and the top of the towering square façade of the Treasury’s main entrance was slowly emerging into view, matching the human-made photograph displayed on Tereshkova’s imager almost perfectly.

But instead of admiring the monument’s intricate form and the way it had survived down the ages, she considered the true nature of what she was looking at: a doorway leading nowhere, only down into darkness and death.

Abruptly it was all too much. She released herself from her acceleration seat and crumpled to the floor, folding in on herself until she was no more than a quivering lump. Her crewmates tried for a while to rouse her to join them in exploring the city, but it was no use.

She woke from her trauma-induced dormancy to the exuberant sound of rock and roll. It was her favorite part of her favorite song, two electric guitarists trading off improvised solos for two minutes straight. At frequent, seemingly random intervals, yet without ever losing the beat, one soloist or the other would run up the scale to the high end of the instrument’s range as though launching himself into orbit. They had packed so much confident power and joyful creativity into those two minutes that Tereshkova had once declared the song proof enough of humanity’s worth to justify their mission all by itself.

But now, of course, it was only another kind of tombstone. No doubt it was a pale shadow of the original song, despite the techs’ best efforts to reverse the degradation of the radio signal during its long journey from here to her home system. More to the point, rock and roll itself was dead; there were no remaining minds in the universe capable of creating songs like this.

The song ended. She opened her eyes.

Jones stood before her. “Oh good, it worked,” he said. “You’re not going to miss the Great Wall too, are you?”

Her first inclination was to decline, but the moment she looked out the forward viewport, she changed her mind. The view was filled with greenery, trees and vines climbing over stone under a pure blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds that looked close enough to touch. It was late afternoon here, although it had still been morning when they left Petra two hours ago, and the edges of the clouds were already beginning to turn pink. As she rose from the acceleration couch—someone must have strapped her into it again before they lifted from Petra—the Rachel Carson quote that Goodall kept above her workspace burned through Tereshkova’s mind: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

The quote had never particularly appealed to Tereshkova before, since she had always believed that spaceflight—for both herself and her human namesake—provided a wondrous means of escape from the repetitive tedium of everyday life. But now she saw that cycles and repetition were two entirely different things. One cycle need not be just like the last, and therein lay a great hope. Perhaps she should have gone with Parks and Goodall after all, turning away from the failed human experiment and searching instead for the protagonists of Earth’s next great story.

Her legs had carried her to the airlock while she was lost in these philosophical musings. She returned to the present, grabbed a breather from the rack, and followed Jones outside, into the sunlight.

The Great Wall of China—or at least this segment of it—had seen better days. At a glance, she could see several places where tree roots had broken down the walls into tumbledown heaps of stones. Perhaps this was life’s way of saying that walls like this, blockades built by lovers of stability against the potential for dangerous change, could never stand forever.

She and Jones climbed up one of the rockfalls to reach a largely intact section of walkway leading up to a guard tower, part of whose roof had fallen in. There they found the rest of the hopper’s crew, some admiring the tower from outside, others moving in and out of its doors with many cautious glances up at the destabilized ceiling.

But Tereshkova surprised herself by sparing no more than a brief glance for the tower before she turned to admire the forest surrounding the wall on both sides. A quick lookup on her imager confirmed what she had half-suspected: this forest was new. At the time of the final war, this whole region had been nothing but open grassy plains. Now, thanks to some fairly recent shift in climate or ecology, it was far more fascinating, more beautiful, more alive. Moving away from her colleagues and their chatter, Tereshkova began to focus her attention on the sounds of the forest, the birdcalls and some hoots that might be monkeys, and the sound of leafy branches rustling in the wind.

It was a tragic shame that no human had ever had a chance to stand here and experience this. It was an even greater shame that, as Goodall was always saying, the humans of the twentieth century hardly ever appreciated the beauty of the world around them—hence why they found it so easy to degrade and destroy ecosystems all across the world.

A small flock of birds rose suddenly from the trees around the hopper, startled by some unseen disturbance. Trying to track their flight with its many swoops and dives, in many ways just as exuberant as any electric-guitar solo, she had a strange thought: What if she and her crewmates were overvaluing intelligence, and the true worth of this world lay in its tens of millions of other species and their complex web of instinct-driven relationships? Should they have reserved their mourning for the millions of nonhuman species that went extinct in the two centuries surrounding the final war, a catastrophe from which vast swaths of the planet had not yet recovered?

But then again, she reminded herself, all this life would end in a billion years when Earth’s oceans boiled away, unless intelligence acted to prevent it. The Trfft would never spend the vast resources needed for such a rescue effort, so even if you valued all Earthly life, the rise of another species smart enough to develop advanced technology was still crucially important.

With this in mind, she fired off a quick message to Parks and Goodall: “Have you found anything interesting yet?” Then she continued gazing at the gently swaying trees and following the flight of birds until Jones came to tell her it was time to go.

Angkor Wat was a strange experience for Tereshkova. The jungle, which had been crouched around the edges of the temple grounds like a patient green tiger, had pounced on the already partly overgrown temple and demolished most of it over the centuries. Walking through this slow-moving battlefield of trees against shaped stone, with her imager lighting the way through the early-evening gloom made deeper by the branches overhead, she couldn’t decide which combatant to root for—an amusingly ironic turn of English phrase, considering the tangle of thick roots that webbed almost every exposed stone surface and frequently burst through between great blocks that had once been fitted tightly together. The loss of this architectural treasure, which had never been popular enough to merit a very thorough documentation on broadcast television, was certainly tragic. But on the other hand, if you looked at it from the perspective of the whole biosphere, maybe this was an important positive step, a form of moving on that Trfft like her should emulate. They couldn’t mourn forever, after all.

Of course, as the invisibly slow progression of the battle around her emphasized, moving on took a long time for a biosphere. On their way here, she had received a terse reply from Parks saying that they had found some higher primates living in human ruins, but their behavior was only a slight variation on what they had seen in countless nature documentaries. Their next stop would be the ocean floor to study giant squid, but neither Parks nor Goodall had particularly high hopes for them. “Maybe we should have traveled slower to get here,” Parks concluded. “In a million years, I’m sure evolution will have all kinds of interesting surprises for us. I just hope some of our descendants will stay here long enough to see them.”

When the hopper began to decelerate over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Tereshkova was momentarily confused. Then she realized that she had forgotten her own request, which Jones had granted only grudgingly, to include a visit to a more modern site on their itinerary. She had given him a list of suggestions, and apparently he had chosen Mauna Kea.

“Good choice!” she told him as they descended toward the barely-visible cluster of rusted marbles scattered across the rounded peak of the great shield volcano, which appeared to be floating on a vast sea of clouds, all illuminated only by starlight and a slightly gibbous moon.

“I knew you’d like it,” he replied.

Closer in, they could see that almost all of the metal spheres and cylinders had huge holes in their roofs and walls, presumably due to some combination of rust and earthquakes. One group of three telescopes, built on the rim of what looked like a miniature caldera, appeared to have been flooded with lava and partially melted.

They landed and emerged from the hopper. Tereshkova walked toward one observatory whose interior lay open, a chunk of its cylindrical side having toppled outward to reveal the chaos within. A once-great optical telescope lay on the floor amid the ruins of its support structure, the long cylinder pinned and partly crushed under a fallen roof beam. The starry vault of the cosmos arched overhead in all its splendor, but this great glass-and-metal eye would never look upon it again.

Once more, a wave of something a human might call grief washed over her as she looked around at the other ruined telescopes. All these broken dreams of the stars . . .

For as long as they had lived, it seemed, humans had been making bizarre myths in which the stars were home to strange superhuman beings, some of whom had the power to answer human prayers. No doubt some of the astronomers who had worked here had adhered to one or another of these ancient superstitions, and stared through their telescopes in search of their gods.

In many ways, the twentieth-century Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was merely the continuation of the ancient human quest to connect with such imagined beings. The prayer that filled the minds of many SETI researchers, Tereshkova imagined, went something like this: “Please let there be someone out there, someone wise enough to tell us how to survive this period of madness and achieve some kind of species adulthood. Please! We need your help!”

And their quest had come so close to success! The Trfft were not gods, of course, but they had sent the humans an answer to that unspoken prayer, transmitted just twelve Earth years after they had received the first human radio signals, while the starship was still in the early conceptual stage. A young Tereshkova herself had helped to craft that message in a minor way, joining an advisory subcommittee for the section about spaceflight technologies. And yet she had somehow entirely avoided thinking about that message since they had arrived at Earth. She brought it up on her imager now.

“Take heart!” the message began. “The universe is alive with intelligent species like you, species that have found ways through the bottleneck of adaptation to large populations and rapid technological change that you currently face. Over fifty such species can be found within a thousand light-years of your homeworld, occupying over twenty thousand star systems. This will not be obvious to you until you build a gravitational-lens observatory in your outer solar system, since high-powered radio messages like this one are extremely rare, but we assure you it is true. Our species, the Trfft (approximate transliteration), has some advice for you, couched both on our own records of our early development and our communications with several other species, and tailored to your situation as best we can understand it based on your early radio signals. We very much hope that—”

She stopped reading. Hope was gone now. According to their current best estimates, the signal must have arrived here about fifteen years too late, after the civilization that could have detected it had already destroyed itself. Tereshkova wished she could travel to an alternate universe where her homeworld was just ten light-years closer to Earth, where humanity’s first signals had reached her people ten years sooner and the return message had taken ten fewer years to arrive. A universe where she would have had a chance to successfully answer that prayer.

As she stood there on shaky legs, wondering once again how to recover from her mourning and turn back toward brighter things, her imager chimed: an incoming message from St’rff’l’tsst Brand to everyone at once. “I found it!” he said, doing an excellent imitation of an excited human child. “I found the Clock, and it’s still running! You have to come see it!”

What clock? Oh, yes, now she remembered. Brand had changed his taken name after becoming obsessed with a series of obscure radio and television references to a secretive elitist group called the Long Now Foundation, led by an enigmatic philosopher named Stuart Brand and committed to the construction of a gigantic clock, safe in an underground cavern in a seismically stable region, that would keep time continuously without human intervention for ten thousand years. The advance probes had found no sign of such a device in the location specified in a TV interview, in the U.S. state of Nevada, but perhaps they hadn’t looked closely enough.

But no, the location that appeared on her imager was well to the southeast, in a mountain range with the disturbing name Sierra Diablo. The details of how Brand had finally found it—involving some ancient paperwork printed on plastic in a San Francisco subbasement—didn’t interest Tereshkova. What mattered was the presence of something connected to humanity and still, somehow, in some sense at least, alive.

She found Jones, who of course had also seen Brand’s message, and said simply, “I want to go.”

Jones looked like he wanted to protest, but others were already gathering around him, and it quickly became clear that they all agreed with her.

“All right,” he said finally. “The ancient ruins have waited this long—I suppose they can wait a little longer.”

Three other hoppers already sat on the mountaintop by the time they arrived. It was a much shorter and enormously steeper mountain than Mauna Kea—not far from the landing site was the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped for a distance comparable to the length of the starship. She spared only a moment for the wide, sweeping view of what, if she had been a believer in some human religion, she would certainly have referred to as “just another God-damned desert.” The only worthwhile thing to look at out there was the sun, just risen over the horizon under a blue-white sky bereft of clouds. “Dawn comes after night.” The evidence of that simple fact did feel like a source of strength.

The entrance to the vertical shaft containing the Clock was a simple metal door in the side of a blockhouse capped with a cupola of sapphire glass, the first modern structure she had seen that still looked basically intact. Artful though it seemed, Tereshkova was still uncomfortably reminded of the trip to the Cheyenne Mountain military bunker that she had narrowly avoided. Brand had been there—albeit only briefly, continuing on with the hopper after it dropped off most of its crew, who were still working there now—and now here he was at the entrance to another deep-drilled mountain fastness, beckoning them all inside.

She pushed her discomfort aside and followed him in.

The door led into an airlock of sorts, although one without a mechanism to prevent both doors from opening at once. Brand and one of his crewmates held them both open for the crowd to stream in and start descending the stone spiral staircase. They had mounted small Trfft light sources on the walls, but it was still a journey down into darkness.

And death, as she discovered when they finally emerged into the chamber housing the Clock. A well-preserved human skeleton lay sprawled on the floor in front of an enormous plinth holding an orrery. But her horror was quickly broken by surprise, as she looked closer at the model solar system and saw three tiny space probes sitting in the middle of long curving tracks that extended outward from the orrery to the edges of the plinth. She moved closer to examine the probes, forcing Brand to dodge out of her way and nearly stepping on the skeleton by mistake. They were perfect models of the two Voyagers and Pioneer 10. It startled her to realize that even now, with their masters long vanished, those mechanical servants were still out there, reaching toward the stars.

“The date and time and the positions of the planets were two thousand years out of date when we arrived,” Brand explained when they had all gathered in the vast vaulted space. “But we followed the pictographic instructions and wound this up—” he gestured at a large crank at the front of the table—“and now everything matches present reality to a remarkably high degree of precision. I mean, if you ignore the fact that the model planets are huge and their orbits are way too close together.” He approximated a human laugh. “Apparently the correct time is stored back there—” he pointed to a huge cylinder of crystal behind the table, inside which a large pendulum swung with majestic slowness in front of a complex but seemingly motionless array of gears and disks—“and all we did was trigger a data readout.”

He went on, delving into the details of how the mechanism worked. Tereshkova was fascinated for a little while, especially by the sequences of chimes that could be triggered by winding a much larger crank farther down the stairs, but then found herself quickly losing interest.

She looked back down at the skeleton, now surrounded by a forest of Trfft legs. It lay sideways to the table, and one of its hands appeared to be pointing across the floor. Looking up, she saw an arched doorway in that direction, one of several around the edges of the chamber.

“Excuse me,” she said and began edging through the crowd, obeying the bone index finger’s implicit command, and wondering if she was crazy to do so. It felt like something Indiana Jones might do.

Next to the doorway, a large plaque was set in the wall, holding a single engraved word repeated in dozens of different human languages, five of them familiar to her: “Library.”

And a library it was. As she entered the next chamber, she saw hundreds of stone shelves cut into its walls, and on the shelves were tens of thousands of books, none of them showing much sign of decay. Wondering how they had been preserved, she moved to the reading table at the center of the space, ignoring the second skeleton that sat in a chair before it, and picked up a book from the large pile sitting on the table. It was made of plastic.

The book’s title was in a language she didn’t recognize. Setting her imager to illuminate the table—Brand and his crewmates had only mounted one light source on the ceiling of this chamber, casting far too many shadows—she searched among the books on the table until she found one with an English label on its spine:

“Homo Sapiens – Last Will and Testament.”

She almost shouted aloud. This was exactly what she had been looking for, she realized—a voice from beyond the grave, a message to the future from humans who had known their fate and wanted to share something of themselves with someone like her.

She turned to look into the seated skeleton’s sightless eyeholes, trying to imagine a living human face. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.” Then she opened the book and began to read.

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