The Visionaries

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Ben wrote this story for the 2020 Spring Equinox Storytelling and Sushi Feast.

Minna didn't really know what to expect at her first day of school in the Gaian Federation, but a sign with a rocketship on it, set up on a path across the quad, was certainly not on the list. What could possibly be Gaian about polluting rockets or the "Life Beyond Earth" the sign was advertising? Perhaps the two religious proselytizer types handing out flyers in front of it were American exiles like her, looking for fellow travelers to help them pursue their selfish dreams.

Minna didn't really have time to ask them before class, so she just took one of the trifold flyers and grinned conspiratorially. "Better watch out for the Gaian thought police!" she said. The man and woman both laughed.

"Talk to you later?" the man called as she turned to walk away in the direction of the Department of Evolution building.

She glanced back. "Maybe, if you're still here in three hours."

The woman shook her head. "How about tomorrow?" She touched the man's shoulder. "Pablo will be here around this time."

Minna just shrugged and walked on across the quad. These--she glanced at the flyer--"Gaia Vision" people were a curiosity, but no more than that.

She looked at it again, startled. "Gaia Vision?" With a picture of the Earth sprouting plumes of green rocket exhaust in all directions? What the hell?

She shook her head. No time to pursue this minor mystery now. Whatever this "vision" was, it was somehow about the future, even though it had probably been eighty years since anyone had launched anything into space. Minna's concern right now was about the much deeper past.

"Seeing with Deep-Time Eyes." The heading jumped out at her from the dense, wordy flyer as she skimmed it on the tram. It seemed these Gaia Vision people had a use for the fossil record Minna studied, although like most people, they obsessed over big world-changing events like the Cambrian Explosion and life's emergence onto land. She supposed she couldn't blame them for being big-picture people; the careful cataloguing of individual fossils to establish a fragmentary history for a single species certainly wasn't for everyone. And in the end, that work meant nothing if it didn't add valuable threads to the great tapestry of evolutionary history as a whole.

She looked around at the tram and the city it moved through. The sleek lines of the architecture seemed to say that the Gaian Federation was all about the future: building a wiser civilization, healing the Earth from the depredations of unfettered Capitalism, moving onward and upward (although not into space). In fact, "Regenerating the Biosphere" was another heading in the flyer--which might explain how these rocketeers had escaped the "thought police"--but Gaia Vision didn't just see the past as a tale of failure and pain to be left behind; they saw positive value in it.

Maybe Minna wanted to talk to them some more after all.

The next day, she arrived on campus fifteen minutes early. This time there were two men in front of the "Life Beyond Earth" sign, one of whom waved as she approached. "Hello again!" He must be Pablo.

"I have some time to talk," she said. "But not about 'life beyond Earth.' I want to know more about your take on prehistory."

"Hmm," said the other man. "You may find the two topics aren't as easy to separate as you'd suppose. When we talk about the evolutionary past, we're mainly focused on the innovations that allowed life to expand into new environments--the ocean suface, the seashore, the heartland of continents, even the sky. Adapting to life in space is just another one of those big steps forward."

"Oh, really?" said Minna, drawn into the argument despite herself. "Space seems like a much bigger step to me. Nothing to breathe, no gravity, all that radiation--"

"Which is why life needs us!" the man replied with what looked and sounded like Capitalist exuberance. "We've already proven that humans can create technological cocoons in orbit where life can thrive. We've even made a start at letting life take care of itself in those bubble worlds, recycling air, water, and food just like it does on Earth."

Pablo touched his shoulder. "Jim, she wanted to talk about prehistory."

Jim subsided for a moment, then brightened again. "We could talk about the Great Extinctions!"

"Depressing topic," Minna observed guardedly.

Jim shook his head. "Oh, no, not if you look at it right. I mean, yes, it's a lot of death, but each extinction event opens the way for a new rebirth on a planetary scale!"

"We realize this is a radical viewpoint," Pablo said. "So we'd better hope you're not with the 'Gaian thought police.'" He grinned at her impishly.

"It's fine, she's an American, I can tell by what she's wearing," Jim said.

Minna spared a glance down at what were, to her, utterly ordinary clothes, then shrugged. "So, rebirth," she said. "You're talking about things like the rise of mammals after the Fifth Extinction?"

"Yes, exactly!" Jim replied. "After every Great Extinction, the adaptive radiation that followed gave the biosphere an entirely new shape. That particular one also made it possible for our complex minds to arise sixty million years later."

"Uh huh. And that’s a radical idea why, exactly?"

"Because the same is true of the current Great Extinction, the one inflicted on the world by our horrible Capitalist predecessors. In fact, life is already beginning to radiate into new niches created by humanity."

This was news to Minna--she hadn't heard of any recent increase in the speciation rate--but she let it pass to focus on the main point. "So you guys are happy that we've managed to wipe out over half the species on the planet?"

"Not exactly," said Pablo. "We certainly mourn the loss of diversity, but we see it as a painful part of a necessary learning curve for humanity. To fulfill our role of carrying life to other worlds, we had to learn to harness massive amounts of energy. But there was no wise elder race to teach us how, so naturally things got out of hand."

Shaken by this bizarre attitude, Minna looked for an escape. She glanced at her watch. "Well, it's been interesting, but I have to get to class," she announced, although she actually had plenty of time left.

"Same time tomorrow?" Jim suggested. "I'll be here with Linda."

"Maybe," Minna said without much enthusiasm and turned away.

In the dream, she was digging out a fossil, but there was something wrong with it--too many limbs, each one with too many bones, squiggling out in all directions. She dropped her chisel by accident and it fell to the red ground, too slowly. She'd fumbled it because her hands were encased in strange heavy gloves. As she lifted one to her face to examine it, a blue light in the sky caught her eye, and in a moment she knew that it was Earth.

She sat up in bed, startled. She couldn't remember ever dreaming about being in space before. She knew in an abstract way that Mars might once have had a biosphere, billions of years ago, but that fact had never interested her much before. Now, though, a part of her was thinking about the dream as a real possibility, as crazy as that seemed. Wouldn't it be amazing to be the first practicing paleontologist on another world?

Nonsense. She shook her head and laid it back on her pillow, facing her bedside clock, which read 5:38 AM. Still well over an hour before the alarm. She closed her eyes.

Now she was a bird, fluttering above a blighted landscape of cracked concrete and ruined buildings. She looked back and saw a wave of roiling blackness rolling toward her. The Sixth Extinction, she thought. I can't let it catch me! She flew as fast as she could, but still the blackness grew closer and closer.

Then when it seemed certain to catch her, something told her to fly up. She pointed her beak at the star-filled sky and flapped even harder than before. After a while she glanced down, and sure enough, the wave of blackness had covered the land beneath her but couldn't reach her way up here. It swept on toward the horizon ahead--a markedly curved horizon. For a moment she panicked, thinking she had flown too high, but somehow she could still breathe just fine.

And in the wake of the dark wave, green trees were growing, impossibly fast. One grew up so high that she merely had to flap a little to fly over and land on a branch. It will feed me air, she thought with relief. But wait--where is it taking me? The tree was still growing, and when she looked down again, she could see the whole Earth, shrinking into the distance. And now she was wearing a strange silver jumpsuit with a logo on the cuff. She lifted her hand--wait, where are my wings?--and read the words "Gaia Vision."

"You guys are seriously messing with my head," she began without preamble as she strode up to the man and woman and their rocketship display. "You've got me dreaming of being an astronaut, which is not something I've ever been remotely interested in."

"Fast work," the woman observed to Jim. What did he say her name was? Laura? No, Linda. "This is the one you talked to for the first time yesterday?"

"Yeah, mostly about deep history," said Jim. "I never got your name, though," he addressed Minna directly.

"Minna," she said uneasily, not quite sure that she wanted them to know.

"Well, Minna, if you want to help us turn that dream into a reality, our weekly meetings are--"

She waved this away. "No, I want to know why I would even have that kind of dream. I lost an hour of sleep last night, trying to figure it out, and couldn't. I'm as Earthbound as they come--my life's work is digging into the earth looking for fossils." She took a deep breath. "So unless there are fossils on Mars, I don't see what any of this has to do with me!"

"Well, I don't think we can interpret your dreams for you," Linda said. "But if you want to know your own mind better, I can recommend a meditation practice that we find helpful."

"And there might be fossils on Mars," Jim put in. "The world's space programs died before we could find out."

"Chances are they would be buried very deep," said Linda. "Either billions of years old, or the product of life hidden away in underground reservoirs. Finding them would be quite an ambitious undertaking!"

Minna thought she heard a familiar note of excitement in the woman's voice. It reminded her a little of Rex, her old research lead back in the States. "Are you guys Americans too?" she asked.

"Well, no," said Jim, "but Gaia Vision was born in America, back before the Collapse. We never made much of a splash back then--the ecology crowd and the space enthusiasts generally wanted nothing to do with each other. But now that we're all Gaians, every space enthusiast we find has already come to terms with whatever inner conflicts they might have, which is why we finally passed the ten-thousand-member mark a few years back."

"Well, that's great for you," Minna shrugged. "But I'm not a Gaian or a space enthusiast. The only reason I'm here is because paleontology is all but extinct in the States. I don't even know why I took your flyer in the first place." She took off her backpack and dug through it, finally producing the slightly crumpled trifold, and held it out. "You want it back?"

"No," said Linda, "and I don't think it would help you to get rid of it. I'm afraid the ideas will keep gnawing on you anyway, and won't stop until you resolve your own inner conflict about them. Again, meditation can help. I can point you to a page on our website that describes our practice."

Minna had to restrain herself from yelling. "Why would I trust one of your mental practices when you already infected me with this mind virus?" she demanded through gritted teeth.

"It's not something we invented," Linda replied calmly. "If you want, I can look it up somewhere else and send you a link."

"I'm not giving you my email address," said Minna firmly.

"Okay, then just come back here tomorrow with a pen and paper."

"I'll think about it," said Minna, relaxing a little. "Right now, I need to get to class."

She was barely able to focus enough to get through three hours of lecture and discussion about trilobites. Her mind kept coming back to the dreams and what they might mean--an aspect of herself hidden even from herself? It sounded absurd, but she couldn't come up with another way to think about it. She caught herself four or five times almost missing something important that a classmate was saying to her because of the intrusive thoughts. Maybe I really do need to learn meditation, she thought. Isn't it all about letting thoughts go?

Well, not exactly, as she discovered at home the following evening, after getting the web address from Linda. It seemed this meditative practice was about letting her thoughts run wherever they wanted, and just observing them in hopes of gaining some insight. It even encouraged her to speak aloud from time to time, "as the spirit moves you." Good thing I have my own bedroom now, she thought. Some of her roommates in this shared house could be annoying, but it was much nicer than where she'd stayed back in America, crammed in a room with two sets of bunk beds--all she could afford on the tiny income from her teaching assistantships.

Back in America… She let the thought run on. Things were bad in some ways, but the people felt somehow more alive than anyone here--anyone except maybe Jim, and Linda showed a flash of it too. It's like they have real desires of their own--maybe not selfish Capitalist desires, but something more than just being good Gaian citizens and fitting into a social niche. They really care about something that's all their own, and they're not afraid to show it.

"Yeah, but that something is a crazy space cult!" she said aloud in frustration. "Can't I find someone else to--to--"

To be friends with, her thoughts supplied. No one in class or here at the house feels like a good candidate. Maybe I could find other American expats--but would any of them be at all interested in evolutionary history? Would any of them share my own selfish desire to understand the long path that leads from the first cells to us?

And beyond…

Now there was a new thought. Evolutionary history certainly wasn't over. These Gaia Vision people were certain they knew what came next--was that what drew her to them?

Far too certain for their own good, she thought derisively, then came up short. Or--are they?

If she was being fair, Minna had to admit they were right about the eventual outcome of the Sixth Extinction, if not morally, then at least descriptively. Barring some new cataclysm that would make the Collapse look like a walk in the park, millions of new species will indeed arise to replace the fallen. And as for expansion into space, well, it may not happen in my lifetime, but the technology is there. Eventually someone will use it, assuming civilization doesn't collapse for good. They may have some of the details wrong, but I can't really find fault with their overall picture.

The question came again, and she spoke it aloud: "Why do I care? Do I really want to hang out with people who won't shut up about our supposed glorious future in space?"

The answer, when it came, surprised her. Maybe--if they'll let me use them as a sounding board when it comes to my own most ambitious desire, to understand as best I can the whole history of life on Earth. And if that history is a guide to the future--like with the pattern of extinction and radiation--well, I guess I'm interested in that too.

With that ambiguous realization, the meditation felt complete. It seemed her chance encounter with Gaia Vision might be leading somewhere worth going. She pulled their flyer out of her backpack and unfolded it, finally prepared to give it a thorough read. Hopefully something in here will make good conversation fodder for next week.

Weeks later, Minna finally gave in and let them tell her when and where Gaia Vision's regular meetings took place. She realized she'd come to really enjoy her near-daily discussions with the proselytizers, and crazy as it seemed, she was even beginning to think they had a point about "life's next great leap into the unknown." One thing was for sure, it didn't match any previous idea she'd heard about what rocketships were for--not to meet any human purpose, only acting in service to Gaia to help life grow in new directions. And at the same time there was no "only" about it--it was a chance to be part of an evolutionary event as significant as life's emergence from the oceans, to make it possible thanks to what an American would call "good old-fashioned human ingenuity."

Minna's life's work was still to study evolutionary history. But maybe, just maybe, in her spare time she could help this wacky group of visionaries make some history of their own.

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