Sirach Pierce ate only the pulpy, lifeless vegetables out of the food they gave him. The rest was sugar and starch, which would weaken his mind, break him down sooner. He only had to hold out two weeks, until they all got the plague, and he could survive that long, if necessary, on no food at all.
In Nevada in August, the easiest thing to do was to torture him with heat, to leave him in a 120 degree cell, in a puddle of his own rancid sweat, gasping the scalding air through cracked, blistered lips. This they did not do. Instead they tortured him with cold, and that's typical, Sirach thought, of this mad culture, that they'd use 6000 watts of air conditioning to lower the temperature 70 degrees, when doing nothing would work just as well, or better. They don't even want to break me -- they just want to consume resources.
So they dragged him, shivering, starving, sleep-deprived, into warm, comfortable rooms and tempted him with steaming cups of coffee -- stale and watery and anyway he didn't drink coffee. They tempted him with food, cigarettes, sweets, alcohol, sleep, warmth, phony love and forgiveness, but he had an advantage over almost every other interrogation victim, one they wouldn't guess: He knew for certain that if he told them the truth they would kill him. So he gave them nothing, not a word. It occurred to him that it was like being under the tsunami again: He had to focus his complete attention, moment by moment, on not opening his mouth -- if he did, he would die.
They tried good cop bad cop. They put him with a fake lawyer -- or maybe it was a real lawyer -- who wouldn't help him until he gave his name. They showed him the money they had caught him with, holding it in their bare hands, and it took the most intense concentration he had ever mustered, to stop himself from smiling. They tried verbal abuse, humiliation, cold water, and finally electric shocks, but by then he was already delirious and half-numb from hypothermia and lack of sleep. With the first shock, he stepped away from his body.
There it was in the chair, and here he was, standing... in what? Another body? He felt like clear air, as if his other body was a kinked hose and now he was wide open. He could see dull auras of light around the interrogators, red like dying suns, and all around him motes of light flowed through the air. They circled and whirled around each other and toward an inverted vortex in the center of the ceiling, a hole of white light leading up.
Down from the hole hung a simple rope ladder. Sirach climbed, the specks of light spinning around him, up a tunnel of light, through the building and into the sky. It was daylight, blue and hazy. Below him spread the city and above him was a giant hovering craft, into which his weightless body was now pulled...
"You must go back... You have a mission... You are chosen." He was in a circular room surrounded by little men with big heads and long fingers, with identical faces, dressed in identical silver suits. Their voices entered his mind without their lipless mouths moving, without sound.
"Your people are very special... You have a destiny as galactic travelers... But you are not wisely managing your planet."
Sirach gathered his wits. "So you want me to go back and tell my people to live in balance with the Earth."
"Yes. You have been chosen."
"And how many other people have been chosen? How many other times have you told someone to go down and enlighten humanity?"
They looked at each other. "...Many have been chosen."
"And it's not working, is it? We're releasing chemicals, cutting down trees, killing species faster than ever. Do you have any idea what it's like down there?"
"We see all."
"But clearly you don't understand it. Do you think people are going to give up their cars, quit their jobs, change their whole way of life, people who have spent decades accumulating wealth and status are going to turn around and admit it was all a mistake, just because some loony says the space people told us to live in balance?"
They looked uneasy. "It is your cosmic destiny... It is what you were put on Earth for."
put us on the Earth?"
They smiled. "Yes."
"And you're surprised we're destroying it."
They looked at him blankly.
"Just like we released rabbits in Australia, and raccoons in Europe, and kudzu in North America. But you're even stupider than we are. We're stupid enough to release an exotic species where it has no natural predators and no biological knowledge of how to live in balance, and we're stupid enough to be surprised that it runs amok and kills other species and whole habitats. But even we're not so stupid that we go pick up an Australian rabbit and say 'tell your people to live in balance.' If that's the level of thinking that's supposed to save us, we're doomed."
They whispered to each other, and then one of them hurried over and pulled a lever. A hole opened in the ceiling and Sirach fell up through it.
He was standing on a cloud, facing a figure with the appearance of an angel, tall, blond, sexless, with white wings on its back and glowing with white light.
"You ask a good question," the being said. "The difference is, you are special: Rabbits are creatures of instinct, while humans, alone on the Earth, are capable of reason."
"But we already know rationally that we're killing the planet, and we do it anyway."
"Your reason is not sufficiently developed."
"What, exactly, do you mean by reason?"
The being pondered.
Sirach said, "You're talking about a mental prosthetic of symbols and abstractions."
"I would say a mental interface."
"I say prosthetic because we're numb down there. The Earth is an extension of our body and we're cutting it up because we can't feel it, because our reason sees only machines and numbers. How can we treat it well without going back to feeling it directly?"
"You yourself operate completely on reason, and yet you would know how to live sustainably."
"OK," Sirach said. "You've got me there. But I've had to spend years learning it, from books that are rare and out of print, books that are harder to find now than they were ten years ago. People are getting stupider. There are fewer humans living in balance than there have ever been."
"But more living in balance rationally."
"What, 500 people? We're not going to make it. The Earth's almost dead."
The angel shrugged. "The project will continue on another planet."
"The project! What's the purpose?"
"To prove that reason is superior to instinct."
"That's bad science. You don't set out to prove something, but to test it. And what you've got here is a giant negative. How many more planets will you kill before you admit it? How many have you killed already?"
The angel waved its hand. "It doesn't matter. The creatures on your planet chose to incarnate on a mass level. They knew the risks. The Universe is a gem of perfect beauty. Don't you know that everything that happens is perfection?"
Sirach spat in its face.
"Why did you do that?"
"Because it was perfect. And so is this." And he punched the angel hard in the nose. The delicate bones crunched under his fist and the being fell to its knees, watery pink blood flowing out of its nostrils. "What you have to learn--" Sirach kicked the angel in the stomach "--is to appreciate--" He grabbed one of the wings and bent it backward with a horrible snap "--perfection."
"Why should I, if it's perfect? This is perfect:" He kicked the angel onto its back. "And this is perfect:" He stomped on its hand and felt bones crack. "And this--" He held his foot poised above the angel's face "--is only a tiny sample of the perfection that's been going on down on Earth for six thousand years."
The angel cringed. "Please..."
Sirach brought his foot down and stopped an inch short of the angel's face. "But wait! If I don't do it, it's also perfect. Right?"
"So..." He kneeled and jammed his finger into the angel's eye socket. "If I pull your eyeball out and force it down your fucking throat, that would be perfect, but if I don't, that would also be perfect. So tell me, why shouldn't I?"
Choking on blood, its voice shaking, the angel said, "Because it hurts."
"How do I get to your boss?"
The angel gestured with its broken hand and a shining gateway appeared on the cloud. Sirach walked over to it, and before he stepped through, turned and said, "You shouldn't have made me. I'm a monster."
He came out on a rock the size of a large car, orbiting high above the Earth. All around him uncountable stars hung patient and cold, and facing him, in a turtleneck sweater and tan corduroy jacket, was the astronomer Carl Sagan.
"Welcome," Sagan said. "Welcome to the threshold of the stars."
"You're not Carl Sagan."
"It doesn't matter. My message is the same. We are children of the stars, born to be cosmic adventurers."
"How can we? Technology is crashing and we haven't even been past the moon."
"The factories are dying, and the farms, but technology has not even begun. As any population gets smaller, it evolves faster and faster. Imagine, a few hundreds of thousands of humans, the greatest geniuses at the end of the Earth, living on, reinventing humanity. You can do anything."
"Can we save the Earth?"
"Yes, but what would be the point? One tiny blue dot! And in a few billion years it will be swallowed up when the sun enters its red giant phase. All the galaxy is before you! You, Sirach Price, have been brought here as the representative of your species. Earth and humans cannot both survive." He folded his hands. "You must make a--"
"Let me finish! You must make a choice. If you turn inward, to your little planet, which is not even your home planet, your own race will not last a thousand years, and both you and the planet will live and die remote and forgotten. But if you turn outward, to the stars, your race can endure countless billions of years and journey to the farthest reaches of the physical universe."
"You sound like my dad. 'Why do you hang out with your friends all day? Go out there, get a job, make something of yourself.' But that's not turning outward -- it's narcissism, the exaltation of the self. If we don't go to those other planets, other life will still be there to appreciate it. Why are we any better?"
"Let me show you," Sagan said, "what you can be." And from somewhere he pulled out a helmet and stuck it on Sirach's head.
It didn't fit, but he soon forgot the discomfort in the grandeur of the visions that appeared in his mind. He saw diamonds the size of moons harvested from the cores of dead stars and carved into living computers that traveled between galaxies through prismatic gates and hung brilliant in blue sunlight in the pink sky of a planet whose surface was a forest of waving tentacles and pods, their black seeds harvested by titanium dragonflies the color of polished bronze and carried back to a honeycomb tower as wide as a city and ten times as high, reaching up into space where the seeds were loaded on ships that unfurled vast weightless sails and caught the solar wind out into the glowing dust of interstellar nebulae, to a dark planet warmed by an internal sun where the seeds were fed to fungi like yellow umbrellas, and the fungi fed the worms that made the silk for the mile-thick cables used for towing into orbit the manufactured planets, each filled with rooms the size of mountains and a billion miles of corridors.
"Wow," Sirach said. "That is totally cool!"
Sagan smiled. "Then your choice...?"
"I just have a question. Where are the humans?"
Sagan laughed. "Did you think your animal physical body was suitable for journeying among the stars? It is your consciousness that will continue its evolution, uploaded into vessels with godlike intelligence and eternal life--"
"So humans die either way."
"You are not your body. You are your consciousness."
Sirach said, "Define consciousness."
"The awareness of self."
"Ah, so you're not talking about awareness but one mode of awareness, in which an intellectual artifact of 'self' and 'other' creates a sense of separation. But I can play the same game. I can define humans as the awareness of non-self, the awareness of being part of the tribe, the biosphere. And even if our present physical form dies out, we can carry that awareness into another form."
Sagan looked exasperated. "But everything has that!"
"Maybe everything knows something we don't."
He shook his head. "What you're suggesting is impossible. Once you've attained awarenss of self, there's no going back."
"Have you considered the possibility that there's only
going back, that if you go forward... Say, why do you need humans to do this job? Why can't you do it?"
The Sagan-thing looked uncomfortable. "My race is ancient and wise, but we are growing weak. Your race is young and strong--"
Sirach laughed. "Now you sound like some lecherous old man. You just want to feed off our energy, put your disease into a new host--"
"We have given you a great gift," the creature seethed, seeming less and less like the nice astronomer. "We have worked billions of years and chosen you as our heir. Is that how you thank us?"
"Now you sound like my parents again. 'We've worked our whole lives on the assumption that you wanted to be in a shiny cage, so you'd better stay in there and like it.' I'm sorry you had to do all that stuff that you clearly didn't like, but it stops here."
The creature's skin now began to tighten and dry as its body shook. "Why do you always do this to me? Earth was never intended to survive. It is your placenta, feeding the birth of the galactic human."
"Do people actually fall for that bad metaphor? A placenta is much simpler and shorter-lived than a human, but the biosphere is billions of intertwined species and we're just one."
"But you're not like the others. You saw what you can be."
"Yeah, your movie was pretty, but another thing I noticed, it was too clean, all monoculture crops and controlling machines. I wanted to see the drifting hulls of ruined space ships from a thousand fallen empires, and the hollow planets infested and filled up with more different kinds of creatures than there are stars in the galaxy. I suppose if another species appeared on one of your planets, that didn't fit your plan, you would kill it, instead of trusting it and learning from it. Come down to Earth some time, and look really closely, and you can see more complexity in a square foot of forest floor than in your whole galactic empire."
As Sirach spoke, the creature's skin dried to a husk and tore and cracked, and its sweater and jacket faded and fell into tattered shreds hanging on a dusty skeleton with metal joints and red laser eyes glaring with hate.
"You know what I'd really like to be?" Sirach said. "An ant. And after that, I'd like to be... another ant! Just one ant after another for a million years. And then I'd like to be a swallow--"
The creature lunged, and he grabbed its forearms, avoiding its sharp grasping claws, but it was strong and knocked him off balance. Both of them were off the rock, over the Earth, spinning. Sirach let go and flung the creature away down toward the Earth, its limbs flailing, screaming as it receded and vanished from his sight. But now he was drifing upward. The rock dwindled and the stars...
Were they getting closer? Yes! He could see now that they were just tiny holes in a great black shell with supporting girders. He caught onto one of them and pulled himself along until he came to a protruding black handle, a crank. He turned it, and a great seam of blinding light opened, and he slipped through.
He was in a bedroom, in a corner. Below him was the Earth, the size of a basketball, on a little platform, with the black perforated shell over the top. A label said Planetarium
Over at a desk was a kid, a twelve year old boy with glasses, playing some kind of computer game. Sirach stepped out of the corner, over some dirty clothes and boxes, and the kid turned and looked at him. "Who are you?"
"I just came out of the Earth."
Sirach pointed at it.
"Oh, that thing." He looked vaguely guilty.
"Is it yours?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"And you're supposed to be taking care of it?"
"That's what my dad says too."
"Yeah, I thought it'd be dead by now."
"You just left it in the corner to die?"
"Sorry. I took care of it for a while. After I built it up to dinosaurs, it got boring. Dinosaurs are pretty much all that model's good for."
"Can't you like take it back, bring it to someone to fix it?"
The kid went over and pointed to a little label under the rim. Sirach read it:
Warning: Introduction of exotic species voids warranty.
"What's the exotic species?"
"Duh! You are."
"And you put us down there?"
"No. My friend Stan did."
Now the kid got excited. "OK, all of these things are different, with different immune systems, so you can't put added species in them, except minor stuff like mushrooms. So there's no market. But Stan's idea is to make a multi-platform interface, a major species that can survive on any of them -- but get this -- if it also has the power to transform the planet, then once we get that one species into a bunch of planets, it can standardize them, and make them compatible for only the species that we sell. We'll have a monopoly. We'll be rich!"
Sirach was aghast. "Why doesn't he use his own planet?"
"His mom won't let him have any more. He always kills them."
"You mean, every time he puts us in, we kill the planet."
"No. Usually you go native. He seeded you guys on this one about five times."
"Go native. You mean we turned into Indians?"
The kid looked at him like he was stupid. "No. Apes."
"Apes evolved from us?"
"What did you think?"
"Well, that we evolved from them."
The kid broke up laughing. "That's the funniest thing one of you has ever said. You don't know anything about evolution, do you? Evolution is always toward symbiosis with the whole. It's as basic as water flowing downhill. Why would apes
evolve into you
Sirach frowned. "Now that you mention it..."
"Weren't you given instructions, that you were placed there by a superior being to subjugate the planet?"
"Well, it doesn't matter now." The kid was looking at the underside of the black shell. "The Motivator's gone. You probably knocked it off on your way out. If it's fallen into the planet we'll never find it."
"Stan's bot to manage your progress. Anyway, this thing looks totally dead." Under the black shell was a clear shell, which the kid now slid away. "Eww!" Up from the Earth came a horrible smell, like rotten beans and burning plastic. "I thought you said it was still alive."
"It is! I was just there. There's still grass, bugs, a few trees..."
The kid looked at him, again, like he was speaking to an idiot. "When your body dies, there are still bacteria alive in it. Some cells are still active. But the animating field is gone." He pointed. "This is a dead planet. I'd say it's been dead for about 30 years, your time. Was there a little period when people got into spirituality, and the music was really good?"
"...Some people think so."
"That was your deathbed illumination, when the spirit left. Now it's in advanced decay. I'm glad you told me, so I could get it out of here before it stinks up the whole house."
"Out of here where?"
The kid picked up the Earth and carried it across the room into another room, a bathroom. He dumped it in the toilet.
"Wait! Where does that go?"
"Back to the cosmic ocean, I'm pretty sure."
"I've still got friends down there. Will they survive?"
"I dunno." He pulled the handle and the remains of the Earth broke up and spiraled down the drain.
Sirach dived in after it. He was in a vast corridor of blue light, surrounded by fragments of the planet. He thought he recognized North America and swam down toward it...
"He's passed out."
"I told you we should have gone easier on him."
"How was I to know? Son of a bitch can't take anything."
"Hey, he's not passed out."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't feel so good myself."
end book one