Jody Nagel
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The Only Answer
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The Only Answer
by Jody Nagel
Philosophy, Science, and Opinion
Presented in the format of a science-fiction short story
Five minutes left. Five minutes until impact and oblivion. The ship's hull could easily withstand the heat generated by falling through Earth's atmosphere, of course, and the inertial depressors alleviated any feeling of discomfort during these last moments. But no one would survive the crash traveling at the current speed. Dr. Davip Keam sullenly stared out the view port as the appearance of the planet gradually metamorphosed into an appearance of a landscape, the details becoming perceptible all too quickly.
He kept replaying the sequence of events of the last three months over and over in his mind. It had actually been his own suggestion. He knew it was right. It was the only answer possible. But now that death was so near, Keam wished that there was another solution. Novas and nebulas! How could any creatures be so irresponsible? Supposedly intelligent! Blast them!
No sentient intelligence relished the prospect of death. But some things, indeed, were even worse. Leaving Earth would have been worse. Definitely ! At least, death would come instantly, and without time for pain, for the three men on board. Keam watched as the ship passed through a small high-altitude cloud. It was a pretty planet. What a shame it would be off-limits for anyone to see for so long.
Keam glanced towards Captain Jansot, and Jansot stared back, his eyes momentarily making contact with Keam's, but then seeming to stare right through him. Jansot's mind was far away. No one spoke. There was nothing to say. Everything had already been said, and there was nothing more to do but wait. The computer continued its periodic warnings of a too rapid descent, though the controls had been demolished and were now not operable. That was the point! No cowardly turning back! The galaxy first. Ahh. It really was the right thing to do. It was the only answer possible.
_      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _     
"Everyone to the briefing room! Now!" Captain Peted Jansot ordered over the intercom. "Fren, start the orbiting sequence, and follow me as soon as you can."
"Yes, sir," Fren Johms, the navigator, replied quickly. "Just give me a minute."
The captain was already in the nearby little room, and waited impatiently as the four scientists appeared. Dr. Tible Moort, the exogeologist, entered first and promptly seated himself. Dr. Davip Keam, exopaleontologist, followed quickly, briefly greeting the captain. A moment later, Dr. Lestly Shoon, exobiologist, and Dr. Miker Finnt, a scientist knowledgeable in archaeology, anthropology, and in much of galactic history, came in and sat at the conference table.
Shoon had obviously been sleeping and was rubbing his eyes, a little irritated. "Is this really necessary, captain?" he growled.
"It is my duty to inform you that we have neared the destination planet. We will be in orbit shortly. I expect all of you to begin your assignments immediately. I do not wish to remain here any longer than necessary!"
"Captain," interrupted Keam, attempting a light smile. "We have all been through this routine several times. We know our jobs, so please don't panic!" The captain was the youngest man on the ship, and he was new at this, Keam thought to himself.
"Then you should know it is a captain's requirement to state the procedures and policies of the Surveillance Board upon entering orbit of the planet to be surveyed."
"Yes," sighed Moort. "We know. Get on with it."
Captain Jansot looked somewhat annoyed, but then proceeded. "You are here to determine the status of this planet. Status-1 is to be assigned if the planet contains at least one intelligent civilization, and is advanced and receptive enough to be safely approached for mutually beneficial trade. Signs of intelligence must be looked for in any form: physical, chemical, biological, technological, and/or telepathic, and should be searched for in the bodies of water as well as on the land. Status-2 is to be assigned if the planet does contain at least one intelligent civilization, but it appears that an overture to interact with the inhabitants would be better delayed until a future time, in which case, a statement must be provided by the team anthropologist recommending a minimum time interval until the next survey. In the case of either Status-1 or Status-2, it is absolutely required that the Surveillance Team make no contact with any inhabitants at this time.
"Status-3 should be assigned if the planet possesses developing intelligent life, including telepathically organized microbes. Status-4 should be assigned if the planet possesses any life greater than non-organized microbes, but not yet showing signs of advanced intelligence. In either of these cases, the planet must be allowed to evolve on its own without galactic interference. The assigned biologist of the team is required to provide a best guess for how long it might take until the planet develops intelligence, and the planet should not be re-surveyed until at least half of that projected time interval has passed.
"Status-5 is to be assigned if there are only non-organized microbes, and, finally, Status-6 is to be assigned only if there is no life at all. In these cases, a subsequent team will be sent to determine the appropriateness of utilizing the planet's resources, if it has any.
"You each have your instruments and your assigned tasks, gentlemen. Are there any questions?"
"We promise you," said Keam, with just a trace of an edge in his voice. "We do know these things, and are even a bit competent at what we do! We are quite ready to begin."
Fren Johms, the navigator, entered the room at that moment and stood by the doorway. "We are in high orbit, captain. Steady as she goes."
"Good. Are there any preliminary signs of radio broadcasting," asked Jansot?
"None so far, captain."
"Begin a full-scale frequency sweep. Everyone, let's get to it."
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
The full compliment of the equipment of the orbiting research ship was being used at once. Dr. Tibble Moort was studying the automated mapping displays which depicted configurations of data obtained from the planet: salt water oceans covering about 71% of the planetary surface, four large continents, two island continents including one at the southern pole, standard polar ice caps, many islands of various sizes. All were relatively normal characteristics for life-bearing planets throughout the galaxy: complex fractal-like coastlines and river systems, lakes, standard latitude temperature ranges, a typical day-length, a calculated solar year equal to about 365.25 days, a distance from its sun equivalent to 11,720 equatorial diameters, an average total of neither too much nor too little solar heat, one largish moon. The geological sensors indicated relatively stable but healthy plate-tectonic activity, a molten core, a corresponding small amount of potential volcanic activity, typical oceanic and atmospheric currents, an outer crust containing mostly oxygen, silicon, aluminum and iron, a small but sufficient percentage of carbon, an atmosphere containing mostly nitrogen and oxygen: all conditions which spoke favorably for the presence of life. There was a slightly higher-than-usual quantity of radioactive trace elements in the planetary crust, such as uranium, which had an average distribution of two parts per million. Mostly, Moort had seen these kinds of planets often, and he predicted the biologist would be announcing life-findings shortly.
Dr. Lestly Shoon had already concluded that the planet was teaming with life, though he had not yet said so. He was already considering whether any of it was intelligent. The quantity of free oxygen in the atmosphere was itself alone just about a sure tell-tale sign that the planet had type-1 life. Telescopic magnification finally revealed lush forest growth, and sonar-probes spotted quick-moving objects in the oceans, which would inevitably be some kind of marine creatures. Herds of large wild animals on the plains were soon located by the glider-cameras that were launched immediately after the scientists had begun working. The colorations found in the shallow seas indicated an abundance of algae and plankton types. The planet seemed to be quite robust from a biological point-of-view. Status-5 and Status-6 were definitely ruled out.
Dr. Davip Keam and Dr. Miker Finnt were closely working together trying to ascertain whether signs of intelligence were present. Finnt said, "There is positively no radio broadcasting, there is no artificial light emanating from the night-side of the planet, there is no indication of electrical current being purposefully used. I seriously doubt there could be intelligent life down there."
Keam replied, "I haven't found anything registering on the telepathic sensors either. The chemical pattern detectors have found mostly nothing but statistically random distributions over the whole planetary surface. There does appear to be several artificially high concentrations of iron occurring here and there. Hey, wait a bit. There is indication of plastics!"
"Plastics? That would certainly indicate intelligence. But where?"
"I don't know yet. No artificial lights. No electricity. But, plastic. Strange."
Dr. Shoon's voice suddenly rang out, "There is abundant life on this planet. That is obvious. I have found nothing indicating intelligent life, however."
"Well, Shoon, Moort, come over and look at this," declared Keam. "We've got plastics!"
The other two came quickly, and the four men stared at the chemical pattern detector. Shoon said, "Call the captain."
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
"I don't understand," said Johms, the navigator. "What do the structures mean?"
Dr. Keam was excitedly staring at the computer monitors as images from the glider-cameras were transmitted back to their ship. "They look like tall buildings, by their geometrical form, but they seem to be completely made of ivy-like and moss-like vegetation. They are isolated, occurring at odd points on several continents, though usually fairly close to a major body of water. If they are a form of vegetation, they are the tallest I've ever seen. But perhaps they are structures created by an intelligent species, and are merely covered by vegetation, whatever for I couldn't imagine."
Moort added, "There is much iron concentration in the vicinity of each of the structures. The glider-camera can not tell visually if the structure itself contains iron, and our ship sensors can not pinpoint quite that precisely whether the concentration is contained within the structure or not. However, there is definitely more iron than could be just contained in the individual structures."
All at once, looking up from a small monitor, Finnt cried out, "I have located something truly bizarre. There are several very large pyramid structures made of rock, though badly eroded, located at this point here, near a major river and the eastern edge of a huge desert region. They simply couldn't be natural!"
Captain Jansot was finally becoming somewhat more interested in this survey. He asked, "What can such specific large indicators of intelligence be doing on a planet without the usual assortment of small indicators? Does anyone have a suggestion?"
Dr. Keam, the exopaleontologist, spoke up, "What if these are indications of a past intelligence, one that is no longer here?"
Dr. Finnt seemed amused. "Come now, Keam, whatever are you talking about? You know as well as I that of the thousands of intelligent species identified by our Surveillance Board, only three times have we ever found an extinct intelligence, and two of them were on lifeless worlds obviously destroyed by supernovas. The remaining one was apparently the victim of a large comet crashing onto their planet, throwing up atmospheric dust and blotting out too much of the sunlight, and killing the vegetation, most of the larger animals, and the unfortunate not-so-technologically-advanced people. This planet has a flourishing, vibrant, multi-dimensional ecosystem and a perfectly healthy sun. You deal with ancient life-forms, Keam, but not ancient intelligent life. In what other manner could an intelligence become extinct?"
"I'm not sure. But it seems curious enough that I would like to suggest some of us take the shuttle down for a closer look. I'd like a few excavations, just to be sure."
"Is this really necessary, Keam? How much of a delay will this cost us?" The captain was no longer quite so fascinated.
"I don't see why it should take longer than two extra days. 'Days' defined by this planet, that is. I have already calibrated the instruments to the planet's rotation and revolution intervals, and conversion to galactic standards can, of course, be initiated after we depart from this system."
"I don't care if it takes two 'days' or two 'squiggledy-giggets' if you merely wish to define terms all day long! What I mean is, is it necessary at all?!"
"I think it is, sir," Keam stated tersely, though not without a hint of eagerness.
Captain Jansot paused, and then looked around him. "What do you other three think?"
Moort said, "I would rather stay here on the ship, frankly, but I suppose I wouldn't mind a delay if my colleagues think it necessary to explore the planet further."
Shoon seemed pleased. "I would be glad to examine firsthand some of the creatures of the planet."
Jansot interjected, "No way am I authorizing some free field-trip where everyone goes off studying merely what they're interested in. There is only one goal. Assign the status of this planet. You must all work towards that end. This is an official Surveillance Board mission, not an academic research grant. What do you say, Dr. Finnt?"
"I must concur with Keam. I think it is important that we examine some of the odd structures, though I suspect some random natural process will be implicated. It will be better to have an explanation, however, than to leave with an unanswered question. I suspect we will end up assigning the planet status-4, but we might as well be sure."
After another even longer pause, the captain let out an exhalation and said simply, "Fine." He stood up and looked at Johms. "Ready the shuttle. Moort will remain with me. You other three prepare to accompany Johms. I will prepare a hyper-message to the Board. Notify me when you are ready to depart. That's all."
The captain left to go to his quarters. He obviously was not pleased.
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
Johms announced, "Everyone, we will be noticing our entry into the atmosphere in just a moment."
The scientists nodded, not particularly interested in the workings of the shuttle. They had each visited several planets in this manner before, and they merely continued their discussion, observation, and recording of the upper atmosphere. It had not taken much time at all to stow on board their equipment and a few personal items. The shuttle was fully equipped, as well, and completely computer-controlled, and since they did not plan to stay long, not much preparation was actually required. Jansot had been summoned just prior to their departure, as he had requested, and Moort had remained to assist the captain with ship operations.
Keam asked, "I seriously doubt the tall structures we observed could be just a form of vegetation. Their trunk height would prevent any circulation system near the top from working successfully within the planet's gravitational framework. Shoon, you're the biologist. What's your opinion?"
"Your biomechanical reasoning is quite good, but you never know what might naturally develop on a virtually unknown planet. If the vegetation does merely cover some artificial structure, perhaps multiple root systems tap into trapped water at different points on the roof or in various of the higher floors."
"Well," said Finnt, "the pyramidal structures I saw certainly were not vegetable in nature."
Johms said, "We will be landing at the agreed-upon site shortly." It was a small island between the mainland and another relatively larger longish island, and which lay near one of the northern continent's eastern coasts. A particularly large quantity of iron registered there, and the location was selected for that reason. "You should be able to view the structure right about. . . now."
The primary view screen was just beginning to focus on the tall object. The four men watched intently as they neared it at a rapid rate.
Shoon was the first to notice. "Look at the ground! It's completely irregular. Geometric, like the tall structure, but placed horizontally at crazy angles. However, it's all covered with vegetation, even some trees."
Johms, though, saw the actual significant detail before the others did, and he slowed the shuttle's velocity. A place where the vegetation was missing, perhaps having been wrenched loose by a recent storm, showed the unmistakable form of a rusted metallic beam. It was contained in a large rectangularly-shaped protrusion that seemed to lie across other shapes. He pointed and cried, "Look! There!"
Comprehension was instantaneous for everyone. They each stared, amazed. "They are buildings," Shoon exclaimed. "Buried! Overgrown! There is no doubt that this indicates intelligent life."
Finnt spontaneously adopted a command rôle and said, "I think we should land near that gap in the vegetation, if possible. It seems that most of these buildings have simply fallen over, crushing on top of each other. The one still standing is most likely extremely unsafe, and probably should be avoided. There is plenty of oxygen and nothing toxic in the atmosphere, so let's examine some of the structures up close. Everyone wear your normal survival-coverall, face-plate open but with microbe filters activated, and double-check the readiness of your firearm. Keam, prepare to take out the mineral dating equipment, and Shoon, you might as well analyze the vegetation covering down there. Everyone stick together!"
Johms slowed to a hovering position and eased the shuttle down into a miniature valley-like depression between two of the wrecked buildings. The sensors indicated the ground was stable enough to support the shuttle, so Johms completed the landing procedure and signaled safe arrival to the waiting orbiting ship. The instant they settled into place, both the inner and outer entrance panels slid open.
Like all new planets, the smell of the air seemed strange at first, having a unique vegetable dankness that took awhile to get used to. The four men disembarked and stood looking at their surroundings, orienting themselves. The sky was a bright pale blue, with some lovely clouds here and there. The temperature was warm, but not too much so, and Moort had informed them, based on the planet's axis tilt, that they could expect early summer conditions, relative to this world, at this latitude.
Keam said, "All right. Let's go. Do not attempt to walk up the sides of the structures. They appear somewhat as steep hills, but are probably soil deposits piled up against the building walls. There is no way to know if our own weight could cause the structures to collapse, so stay in the low areas until we know what to expect."
"Why don't we get a metal sample from that bare opening and begin dating the structure?" suggested Finnt.
Shoon was standing in an area of some kind of tall grass. He said, "I'll begin with these, I suppose." He had a small spade, and began digging up some of the grass.
Finnt and Johms accompanied Keam to the opening that Johms had spotted while still in the air. Keam set up a portable work stand, and placed his automated dating equipment on it. The other two went near the exposed metal beam.
"It's seems like solid rust," observed Johms.
"It might be in places." Finnt took out a hammer and chisel and chipped off a few pieces of the mostly rusted metal. He then put them in a small box and handed it to Johms. "Here, take this to Dr. Keam. Thanks."
As Johms retreated the few paces back to Keam, Finnt took a flashlight from his belt and aimed it down into the cave-like darkness of the exposed opening. Spider-like insects crawled on webs near the opening, and some moss-like vegetation grew on the nearer parts of the walls, where a small amount of sunlight managed to penetrate. The floor of the building was lower than the ground outside by about double Finnt's height, and, further in, it's surface seemed to be made of dried, hardened mud. A small furry animal, the size of a fist, suddenly darted past the scientist's line of vision.
While Finnt was peering into the building, Shoon cried out, "Look at this, will you! What is this?"
Finnt turned and strode back, along with Johms, to Shoon. The biologist pointed into the hole he had been digging. The bottom was covered with what looked like a kind of cracked flat gray-black rock. "I've struck a layer, not deep at all, that would seem to be solid rock. But this is not a type of rock that I'm familiar with." He bent and picked up a small specimen, holding it up for the others to see.
Finnt examined it and nodded. "It's a kind of bituminous substance which is often used for paving road surfaces in certain types of pre-space-flight societies. We must be standing on an old roadway that passes between these buildings. Considering how many of these valley-like roadway indentations we viewed from the shuttle, I believe we are in what used to be an extremely large city. No wonder most of the standing structures we observed in orbit were near bodies of water; most planets' cities develop near oceans, lakes and rivers for purposes of transportation, and this generally occurs long before they achieve space flight. This entire planet is positively an extraordinary find."
Keam approached the other three and said, "Yes, indeed. Extraordinary! I have twice dated each of the metal samples, and these structures are approximately 2500 planetary years old."
Johms gasped. "But what could have happened? There is certainly no one here now."
They all stared at each other a moment, and Finnt said, "I don't know, but there is obviously something important here. Let's return to the shuttle and call the captain."
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
Keam was still hardly able to fathom their amazing luck. A library! With actual usable printed matter!
After communicating with Captain Jansot and Moort, the four men on the planet had resumed their shuttle tour, though remaining within the "city." The shuttle was equipped with powerful tools and robotic arms that could be used while in a helicopter-like hovering position. Several buildings were examined by drilling straight down through their topmost surface. Most were simply filled up with dirt, though some relics from the past were still discernible. A metal table, terribly twisted, was found sticking from the earth in a wrecked room of one of the larger toppled buildings. Some cracked translucent plastic panels, which may have been part of a lighting system, jutted upwards in another of the inspected locations.
After only five probings, however, a startling find fell into their laps. A particular building, registering high in plastics on the sensors, was next selected. It seemed to be rather small compared to some of its neighbors, and it looked still to be in its original standing position and with little debris lying on top of it. After drilling through the hard outer roof, a thick plastic shell was encountered. The shell was not that difficult to drill through, but it seemed to be a single-piece lining, as if the room had been designed to withstand submergence in water. The inside was completely free of dirt, and was filled with standing metal shelves containing two hundred and four books. The pages of these books, as they learned a little later, were made of thin sheets of plastic, and the characters were carefully formed - partially by patterns of raised lines and dots and partially by a different colored marking within the plastic. Several of the pages even had pictures. The shuttle sensors revealed the building structure to be stable, and the men made a second landing next to this building.
Dr. Finnt suggested that they dig into the side of the building, rather than enter it from above. The shuttle-provided power tools were utilized, and in a short while the men cleared one wall of its soil deposits. Johms sheared through the wall with a laser scalpel, and Keam and Shoon placed structural reinforcements in position.
Together, Finnt and Keam turned on their head lamps and entered the building, which they quickly realized was a library. In room after room, there was a tremendous quantity of books made from printed paper, some on shelves, some fallen in heaps on the floor, probably due to the vibration caused by occasional collapsing skyscrapers. Keam bent to pick one up, and the thing crumbled into dust just as he applied the necessary pressure to lift it.
"The quantity of information contained within this place must be unblievable," Keam marveled.
"But with our available equipment, it's all useless," noted Finnt. "Try not to disturb any of the other books. Maybe someday others will wish to attempt to examine all this."
"Let's work our way towards the plastic-lined room we first found. It must be through that wall ahead of us."
Finnt signalled using his radio-comunicator, and then spoke into it. "Johms! Get the laser scalpel ready for us again. We're going to use it in here. The building doesn't seem in immediate danger of falling, but you and Shoon remain outside. We'll be right there to get the tool."
Finnt and Keam rendezvoused briefly with the other two, obtained the scalpel, and proceeded to the wall pointed out by Keam. There was a closely fitted door set in the wall, which opened easily enough, but it merely entered into a small, partially plastic-lined room containing a big desk, several other shelves of books, some dead-looking, partially-rusted computer-like equipment, and two faded paintings somehow still fastened onto one of the walls. Finnt's quick intake of breath was the first sign indicating the other item of interest. Keam stared in the direction of Finnt's gaze and saw in the corner, behind the desk, a yellowish-white skeleton lying on the floor.
It was somewhat mesmerizing at first. But soon Finnt spoke using a softer-than-usual tone of voice. "Keam. Notice its shape. While not identical, by any means, it is about as similar to ourselves as anything I've ever seen."
"I think I should get a bone sample and date it in a little while. I wonder how much time went by between the constructing of the building we already dated and the death of this individual." Keam carefully picked up a small fragment from the region of the foot and placed it in a padded specimen container. "It isn't crumbling. Preserved somehow. Very curious."
"We had better continue on," said Finnt. "The room we were looking for must be beyond this wall." He started up the laser scalpel, and began cutting into the wall. After pentetrating through the plaster wall, a second wall of plastic was encountered, set back a little from the first wall.
"This must be the shell we first discovered from above the roof," Keam decided. "I wonder why this room is built differently than the others."
Finnt continued cutting through the plastic wall. "Who knows."
As it turned out, they eventually did know. An entrance into the room was created. The hole in the roof that they had made earlier was quite noticeable from this alternative perspective. The books that had originally been observed were at this point noted to be different in form from those disintegrating in the rest of the library. The two scientists decided they would remove this entire collection back to the shuttle. After seven trips apiece, the task was accomplished.
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .
"Finnt to Captain Jansot."
"Jansot here."
"Sir, we have uncovered a significant collection of plastic books. We have found the remains of one of the planet's former inhabitants, and it is much like ourselves. The probability is great that the individual we found was of the intelligent species responsible for building the city. Keam has dated a bone fragment and found it to be only about a hundred years younger than the metal fragments we first investigated. This places his death at about 2400 years ago. Whether this coincides with the extinction of the species is indeterminable, though it would seem strange to suppose that one would die in a library, and be left to remain in there, in an ordinary healthy society. There is now no possible way to assign a usual status to this planet, since the situation is unprecedented. It is imperative that we extend this mission somewhat. We must determine what caused this species to die out. To begin with, I would like to request that the shuttle computer be tied in to the ship's main computer so that we can begin to compute a translation of the language of these texts."
Jansot spoke with a steely tone. "Finnt, I wonder that this can't wait for a future expedition! Why now?"
"Sir, as you say, we are charged with assigning this planet a status. If we don't, the mission will be incomplete, and it will then be undertaken again later. Who knows, maybe it will even be again reassigned to you."
"Stars! You are exasperating! All right! But work quickly. I'll have Moort attend to the computer tie-in. Moort!"
"Moort here. The tie-in should already be in place."
"Good," said Finnt. "We will be scanning each page and downloading it to the ship. It'll take awhile. Have the pattern recognition software engaged. I want a partial working translation in as short an order as possible, and the rest as soon after that as we can."
"Get started, then. We're ready to go here!"
             .         .         .         .         .         .         .
A half day later, the pattern recognition programs were displaying a first approximation of the language. The written language, apparently called "English," consisted of individual characters grouped together into partially defined words, and the words were then grouped into sentences containing context-dependent meaning. The individual words, however, frequently did not signify the thought of the entire phrase. An accurate pronunciation of the language was impossible to discover, though some of the texts seemed to address the very subject of pronunciation. Individual characters often had no contribution to the pronunciation of a word, and certain characters called "vowels" were claimed to have many different pronunciations. There even were charts containing acoustical definitions of the characters, but, except in the case of proper nouns, it seemed pointless to dwell too much on the sonic characteristics. As time passed, the pattern recognition software continuously indicated higher and higher probabilities for accurate translation, and after a score of 99% was obtained, the scientists began studying the documents.
The planet was called "Earth" in this language, though the texts mentioned there were several languages throughout the world. The text that they were studying was itself called an "encyclopedia" and contained information on virtually all subjects known to the species of the planet, who called themselves "humans." A preface stated that this set of books was created specifically to be able to withstand the passage of time. Its designers made one hundred copies which were placed in protected environments at specific points around the globe. The city that this set came from itself had one other copy at another location, and a planetary map was provided in the preface revealing all hundred locations. The city in which their shuttle had landed had been called "New York."
The introductory text also stated clearly that the designers of the encyclopedia firmly believed that their species was on the brink of extinction. The texts were prepared in case a future intelligence evolved on Earth, or an alien intelligence visited Earth, and wished to understand the former occupants.
Finnt and Keam quietly looked at each other. Keam finally said, "This is downright eerie. It's as if they planned this just for us."
Finnt nodded and said, "Shoon, radio Moort, and make sure he and the captain are following all this."
"How could this be?" asked Johms, in an intense whisper. "They were an intelligent species, but they became extinct without any cataclysmic disaster that we can identify. What possibly could have happened?"
"I've no idea," replied Finnt. "But I think we need to learn from these encyclopedias more about humans."
             .         .         .         .         .         .
"Captain Jansot! We simply must extend this period of investigation. There is too much to be gained to leave now. Please! Request more time from the Board citing unusual circumstances, but do not forward a premature report containing any of our findings so far." Thus had Finnt argued over and over, and an entire lunar month, almost a twelfth of a year, had gone by.
The shuttle had twice returned to the ship for increased provisions before landing again at various other sites. Two of the other sets of plastic encyclopedias were found, but were left unmolested. Many locations gave archaeological indication of having undergone extensive burning and destruction. Several areas were discovered containing large quantities of human remains, some laid in gridlike patterns over large regions and which may have indicated some type of purposeful burial ritual. The computer-aided knowledge-assimilation programs helped decipher more and more of the ancient human-created encyclopedia that was so amazingly at their disposal. A picture of the last stages of human history was gradually being drawn in the minds of the four scientists. Keam had written the following in his personal log:


Report: Summary of Reasons Leading to the Demise of Humans on Planet Earth. (1st Draft.)
(1) Over-exploitation of natural resources. Human ingenuity eventually became incapable of proceeding at a rate faster than the depletion of their resources.
(2) Toxins built up in the soil, water, and air due to irresponsible polluting practices, resulting in a statistical per-capita increase in disease-types and their frequency.
(3) Human factories and transportation methodologies. They were the cause of widening holes in the atmospheric ozone layer (which increased both the solar radiation level on the planet's surface and associated cancers in humans), an increase in acid rain and greenhouse gases within the atmosphere (which detrimentally effected farming practices and the overall natural habitat), and the high-rate destruction of tropical rain forests (which lowered the net quantity of available breathable oxygen.)
(4) Global famine and malnourishment occurred, as farming produced increasingly less nutritional foodstuffs due to soil toxins and overuse.
(5) Continuously increasing wealth inequities led to stress build-ups for the entire race and gradually reduced the effectiveness of the race's problem-solving capacity. High stress levels contributed to many patterns of self-reinforcing escapist behaviors, such as increasingly high levels of substance abuse.
(6) Out-of-control crime rates, especially homicides, resulted from the increased stress throughout society. Eventually, the distinction between crime and war was blurred.
(7) A completely self-destructive economic system, referred to as "capitalism," which magnified willful self-benefiting behaviors at the expense of willful socially beneficial behaviors.
(8) An increase in music-types and art-types containing parameters that changed too little over time, and which increased aggressive behavior and gradually desensitized the neurological system with continuous exposure. This also contributed to the reduced effectiveness of the race's problem-solving capacity. Underlying cause: the capitalistic economic system.
(9) A largely apathetic value system that increasingly spread throughout the population. The apathy was fueled by increased single-minded concerns with personal material gain.
(10) Legal systems that failed. Lawyers and judges profited so immensely from the legal machinery, that they didn't object when the system bogged down in technicalities. The form of law became more valuable than the substance, and honest intuitive conceptualizations of right and wrong evaporated from society.
(11) Political systems that failed. Human political corruption seems to have regularly been rampant throughout their history, at some times more than others, but especially near humanity's end. Politicians cared only for their own careers, and, therefore, sincere ideological stands ceased being the central motivation for their political actions. Creation and manipulation of public 'perceptions' replaced earnest communication. Both commercial advertising and political speeches emphasized the art of brainwashing over the act of informing.
(12) Ethical systems that failed. Or, more specifically, that virtually disappeared. (related to #9 above.)
(13) An educational system that failed. Teachers, with the support of administrators, increasingly concerned themselves with teaching 'techniques' and 'methodologies', and, over time, became less and less expert in the fields they were supposedly teaching. The various fields of human inquiry, however, were simultaneously expanding enormously. The gap separating teachers from their fields widened out of control. Students were exposed to less and less substantive knowledge at the moment in history when they should have been required to know more and more. Within human schools, all of society's other problems manifested themselves by way of a greatly increased incidence of student behavior problems. Also, more and more family groups fell apart due to the eventual replacement of extended families with nuclear families, the heightened individual stress that resulted, and a common perception that both parents should be employed outside the home. Statistically, this caused an overall increase in children with psychological problems and an ever greater need for non-family day-care providers. Teachers mostly became just another type of day-care provider, or, rather, glorified baby-sitters. The lowered educational levels of society eventually became disastrous.
(14) The tiniest beginning of a space flight capacity became increasingly unsupported by the public. Certain potential solutions to some problems were therefore eliminated.
(15) Some few people (though generally those with little power) actually comprehended what was happening to humanity, but they were not listened to. After a period of some 5000 years, during which the average knowledge-base of individuals gradually rose, a decline in individual knowledge (mostly due to apathy) took place at precisely the moment when, ironically, human technology allowed for a maximum exchange of information.
(16) Humans had developed nuclear power, and there were accounts of nuclear weapons used here and there, and of moments in history where these weapons seemed to be quite a threat. One curiosity seemed to be that nuclear weapons did not actually enter directly into the final equation of human extinction. It almost was as if humans had learned to be frightened of one specific kind of possible self-annihilation, and so they consciously avoided it. Because the one disaster-type turned out to be false, people were not inclined to take other disaster-types seriously.
(17) Finally, hanging over all was the fact of an exponentially increasing human population. The increase, for many thousands of years, was counterbalanced by disease, infant mortality rates and starvation. But as the magnitudes of these problems were lowered due to human science, the exponentiality of population growth quickly became disastrous. Tragically, some concluded that a solution to human overpopulation must involve high numbers of fetal abortions, rather than solely an attempt to prevent unwanted or socially unsanctioned conceptions. The startlingly high human abortion rate near the period of humanity's demise, however, merely contributed partially to society's overall gradual loss of respect for the rights of others, and helped to increase both personal and societal stress factors. Humans became, as already mentioned, increasingly desensitized. As ethically irresponsible behavior (and would-be long-term-selectively-disadvantageous behavior) increased within society, there became less individual motivation to become involved in solving world problems at a time when solutions were most urgently required.
(18) All of the above listed problems became hopelessly entertwined as the population increased. At earlier human stages, individual problems were manageable individually. But eventually, the solution to any particular problem became a non-solution to some other problem. The human race filled up the globe like bacteria in a petri dish and simply began to die out.
(19) Human deaths at one point suddenly started occuring at a vastly accelerated rate. The species, with its overall current mind-set, could not replace humans quickly enough in order to provide their fragile human institutions with continuity. As institutions failed, overspecialized individuals became incapable of surviving and starved.
(20) The remnants of humanity most likely lasted for some length of time, reverting to a barbaric state, with small groups warring with one another over territory. Human-created goods ran out. Few knew how to farm adequately. There were no planetary resources left for any possible timely reversion to a hunter-gatherer society. Portions of some cities were later burned just to provide temporary heat and light. The very last humans were most likely simply overwhelmed by conditions that they could not individually control. What humanity had built up in its most recent 5000 years of history, was torn down virtually overnight.

Keam read his list to the other five men during a conference held on the main ship.
"I don't believe it," said Finnt, scowling.
"What don't you believe?" demanded Keam. "These conclusions were deduced by all of us, including you, from studying the records. Even some of the last human intellectuals, including those that prepared the encyclopedia, saw these points and speculated on how long things could last as they stood. What don't you believe?"
"I do believe that these very real events took place on this planet over 2000 years ago, emphasized Finnt. "I don't believe that these can be viewed as causes."
"Explain," demanded Moort, Shoon, and Captain Jansot in chorus all at once.
"First of all, to put it simply, what caused the causes? . . ."
Keam snorted at this.
". . .And secondly, all of these factors have more or less occurred in every intelligent species throughout the galaxy. Anthropologists refer to the convergence of these problems within a civilization as the 'Cusp Point.' It is quite serious, to be sure, but every intelligent species has solved this in its own way. The question is: why has this species not been able to pass successfully through this stage of their history?"
Johms looked positively flabbergasted. "Every intelligent species passes through a Cusp Point?"
Finnt sighed. "Look up any culture you like in the computer files, and you'll find mention of it soon enough."
Johms pursued the matter. "But is there any proof that an intelligent species must succeed at that moment of their history. Why would it be illogical to presume that this species simply didn't succeed, even though most species do?"
"You are thinking quite well on the matter," chuckled Finnt. "You should have been an anthropologist rather than a navigator. There is no proof, as you say. It's just that in more than several thousand intelligences, of which we have information, all did survive. There is never any proof for inductive reasoning, but it seems that we should continue investigating this planet for some uniqueness that might explain its singular status."
Captain Jansot, always short on patience, cut in. "It's only a fluke that led you to learn of past intelligence on this planet. Maybe the reason you know of no other failed intelligent species is because you simply haven't looked hard enough to find them. The currently existing intelligent species of the galaxy are the only basis for your inductive conclusions, and that's just a little too easy for me to swallow. I think it's time to return and get more minds than just ours working on the matter."
Finnt sounded annoyed. "What first led us to this current knowledge was following standard procedures. These procedures were followed exactly as in every other survey mission on record. Hundreds of thousands of planets have been so surveyed, but only a few thousand possess intelligent life. Of all the others, why should none of them have any record of anything remotely like what we are finding here. They too constitute a part of the inductive process. I say we should investigate a little longer. I am willing to place a limit on how long, say another three months. If we turn up nothing by then, we can leave. But the rate at which we are learning is such that I don't think any of you would be terribly surprised if we do find something unique about the causal reasons for the extinction of humanity on planet Earth!"
_      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _     
That was two months ago. Dr. Davip Keam stiffly held his attention to the view port. Only two minutes left. The forest canopy was just beginning to come into clear focus straight below. Morosely, he wondered what living things on the planet would be killed by the ship's crashing. But what choice was there?
_      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _     
Somehow, Dr. Miker Finnt had convinced Captain Jansot to remain in orbit around Earth for an additional interval. They carried a standard year's worth of food and supplies on the research ship. That, at least, had not been a problem. The captain had simply wanted to return home quickly, but the longer the survey lasted, the more resigned he had become to forgoing the notion of this being a short assignment.
Fren Johms, on the other hand, wasn't particularly anxious to get home right away, and, furthermore, he definitely had proven himself very useful on several occasions. He operated the shuttle flights between the ship and the planet, and transported the scientists around the planet's surface. He always seemed willing to lend a hand, remained interested in all that was being learned, and never got underfoot or interfered with their ability to get work done.
Dr. Tible Moort had repeatedly elected to remain on the ship. He stated that he did not care for visits to planetary surfaces other than those to their own planet. Besides, he could learn far more details of the geology of a new planet from the orbiting ship's sensors than he ever could on the ground. After continuous observation, Moort could not, however, find anything strikingly outside the norms of life-bearing planets. The slightly higher-than-usual quantity of radioactive trace elements in the planetary crust was the only slip of a deviation, and the levels hardly could be said to approach anything dangerous.
Dr. Lestly Shoon truly enjoyed observing and analyzing the plant and animal life of different planets. He had personally visited over a hundred worlds to observe the diversity of living things in the galaxy, and, from reading, he knew about hundreds of other planets containing life. He actually preferred to find advanced life-forms on planets lacking full-scale intelligent beings, because such intelligent life always had a way of disturbing planetary ecology and transforming it into something slightly unnatural. Well, that wasn't entirely it, he knew, since intelligent life was natural too. The changes brought about by intelligent life were as natural as changes brought about by any other evolving species. It was just, well, interesting to view life-forms that existed without competition from full-scale intelligence. Of course, all advanced creatures had some amount of intelligence. But that old philosophical point was no longer of interest to Shoon. He knew what he meant by an intelligent species, and that was enough for him. (He never touched the subject in print.)
Earth contained many species of life. That was sure. Shoon had found a many-page article in the encyclopedia that listed Earth plants and animals, and a small illustration accompanied each entry. What a gift those encyclopedias were! Some of the types of trees, grasses, dogs, cats, horses, deer, rodents, birds and fish that were listed he had actually been able to observe firsthand. Many of the listed animals, however, were undetectable, possibly due to chance, possibly because they too had become extinct.
The microbial world here was unbelievably vast. The encyclopedia writers admitted that humans had never uncovered more than a fraction of Earth's bacteria and viruses. Many diseases were listed in the books, and Shoon quickly began to hold all the men accountable to strict protocols for remaining unexposed to the bare environment.
The molecular structures found within the cells of Earth life were unique, as they were on all planets. Nevertheless, they fell quite within the normative ranges for Type-1 life. Gene sequences forming long chromosomes governed the continuity through reproduction of a species. This basic method, in some fashion, accounted for virtually all life-forms known in the galaxy (excepting those that relied primarily on telepathic energy utilization.) Shoon personally occupied himself only with Type-1 life, but, even so, he never ceased being awed by the variety he encountered, all employing an underlying genetic mechanism. At the moment, though, he was searching for something unique about Earthly life that was not in normative ranges. So far, nothing stood out.
Dr. Finnt was comparing notes with Dr. Keam. "I have examined everything contained in the Encyclopedia that directly touches upon the subject of anthropology," said Finnt. "Without a thriving culture to study, or a prolonged excavation, there is only so much one can deduce about a species, even with computer-aided assistance while reading their own writings. I find no error in our description of this world's period of human demise, yet I find no plausible real cause, so far."
"I suspect that we will have to look at some earlier epoch of their history to discover seeds of causality of the kind you are looking for." Dr. Keam drummed his fingers on the surface of one of the shuttle's workstations. "Has Moort or Shoon given you any data at all that might have any bearing on your anthropological perspective or my paleontological way of thinking? Anything even a tiny bit unique, even from their discipline's viewpoint?"
"The only thing Moort mentioned was out of the ordinary was that the planet had, in his words, 'a slightly higher-than-usual quantity of radioactive trace elements in the planetary crust.' "
Keam's jaw suddenly dropped a fractional amount. "Why wasn't this stated earlier?"
"I suppose he truly thought it wasn't significant enough to report," answered Finnt. "Was it?"
"If we're going to get anywhere here, everyone must report everything! Keam spoke into his radio communicator. "Shoon! Could you please come back here a minute?"
Shoon had been taking pollen counts of some rather attractive flowers close to the shuttle. It did not take long to return inside. "What have you got, Keam? Finnt?"
"I want to know, has anything at all about this planet presented itself to you as being outside galactic norms?" Keam tried not to sound irritated, but didn't exactly succeed.
"I believe I have been candid at each of our conferences. The planet has more than an average quantity of species-types of plants and animals, but it is not out of normative ranges. Ecological niches are simply filled up quite well here."
"Did you know that Moort found here a slightly high quantity of radioactive elements? Maybe it means nothing, but I wish everyone would communicate with each other everything that they observe here."
Shoon reddened slightly. "Actually, I have something within that category of low significance, too, now that you mention it. While the planet does have a more-than-average number of species of plants and animals, I guess I have not explicitly pointed out that the encyclopedia mentions many more species-types than what I have been able to locate. It also mentions that many species became extinct because of human activities during the final years of humanity's planetary supremacy. Even if the numbers given are slightly exaggerated, then, if they are any indication of this planet's past, this planet may have had one of the highest numbers, if not the highest number, of species of any world I've seen so far."
Keam glared at the biologist. "You didn't think that was significant? Anything else come to mind? Anything?"
"I've already repeatedly warned Johms and both of you to be fastidious about using your microbe filters. If the planet ever had a galactic record for animal and plant species types, it certainly still does have one for the number of microbial species. My bio-analyzers, which I've set up at every location we've visited and which also have been launched to several ocean and lake sites, discover some new bacterial species on the average of fifteen times each day. Our database listing Earth's currently extant types of bacteria has already passed 600 entries, and the human encyclopedia included a list of 1600 species. One of the books also lists many types of viruses, and fifty or so have been identified by our molecular pattern detectors since we've arrived. All this is recorded. I'm sorry that I never mentioned the fact that this represents unusually high numbers relative to other known planets. It seemed rather obvious to me, I'm afraid."
Finnt turned towards Keam and looked as if an idea were taking shape. "I'm wondering if the presence of radioactive trace minerals, though mostly harmless overall, might be just enough to cause a statistically higher rate of mutation over time, and therefore a proportionally greater number of evolved species."
Keam slowly nodded. "This was occuring to me also. But there is something missing. How does this relate to our search for a cause: the cause of the inability of humans to pass their historical Cusp Point?"
"Well, Keam," said Finnt. "Have you yourself found anything in the encyclopedias that interested you, but of which you haven't mentioned."
"Everything that I have come to understand about humanity is consistent with what I know of other galactic intelligences, except for the minor little detail of human extinction."
"So what have you encountered that you have not come to understand. You seem to have chosen your words rather precisely just now, No?"
"There are some words that are neither proper names nor do they seem to be translatable by the computer. Some of these words occur rather frequently in certain passages, but are found overall in just a few of the articles. I confess, I have been curious about them, and plan to begin focusing on them."
"I have seen such words within the encyclopedia, too," admitted Finnt. "Perhaps they will turn out to be key factors. I'll assist you, and Shoon, you resume your bio studies. I'll give a quick call to Moort and the captain and apprise them of this little impromptu conversation we three just had."
             .         .         .         .         .
For us, merely hard-to-pronounce bits of sound, thanks to the provided acoustic descriptions and our computer's synthesis capacity. These words all seem to be used in a roughly similar manner to that of the word 'teacher.' I am not quite sure," said Finnt, "how they differ from the words 'teacher' or 'professor.' "
"I have been reading encyclopedia articles by my ancient human counterparts," Keam declared lightheartedly. "Apparently, paleontology was a small but growing field among intellects prior to human extinction. I am starting to develop my own theories, with their help, and also in light of Moort's and Shoon's contributions.
"Due to slightly higher levels of radioactive elements on the planet as a whole, animal and plant species evolved on Earth a little more quickly and more abundantly than what occurs on typical life-bearing planets throughout the galaxy. As increased intelligence began appearing in humans, it did so more unevenly than usually happens. Rather than a very gradual increase in intelligence over time throughout the species, which is the case on virtually all known planets possessing intelligent life, intelligence grew here in small irregular spurts.
"When an individual found that he possessed some significant new capacity for understanding, he would, after realizing he was different from others, try to share that understanding with the other members of the community. On other worlds, one individual might work out a solution to some particular problem, such as mentally differentiating two vowel sounds, how best to pick berries from thorny bushes, how to hold burning branches far enough back to keep from getting burned, or how to solve differential equations. And, on those same other worlds, the average intelligence of the group, as you know, was at all times similar enough that the benefits of any lesson were soon shared by all members of the group. On Earth, however, these enlightened individuals found that their own personal increased abilities were often not transferable directly to the others in the group. The others in the group would frequently remain incapable of assimilating some new idea or ability, but they would recognize the special ability in the one individual. The individual would be singled out, and sometimes killed, but sometimes treated with a disproportionately high level of respect. In the latter case, the individual became a guru, a shaman, or a priest.
"As the prehistoric priests became more used to their rôles, they learned it was often easier to instruct those with a little less intelligence by using analogies and metaphors, whether through body-language or spoken language. The human priests came to possess a larger share of power, within the group, than individuals ordinarily ever do on other worlds. They found they could use others to accomplish their own aims, if they cleverly couched their wishes in such a way that others would think it was they themselves who were most benefiting. Incidently, humans certainly were not the only Earth creatures that developed hierarchical social systems, thanks to the subtle radioactive-influenced mutations occurring in all species, but humanity seemed to perfect the art of inequity.
"And here is the strangest part, the item that may be most important ultimately. The priests invented the notion of supernatural beings: spirits, demons, gods and goddesses."
Finnt interrupted Keam's speech. "Wait. Explain these latter terms. What is a 'supernatural being' or a 'god' or 'goddess'? I presume these are terms that you are pronouncing based only on the computer's synthesized suggestions."
"Indeed, yes," agreed Keam. "There are no counterparts to these terms in any language known to the Board. I've been having the computer check the exocultural database for the last two days. The entire human encyclopedia set contains definitions of these terms only in three articles. Once I narrowed the search down to these exact terms, the computer quickly pinpointed their whereabouts. It is quite difficult to comprehend these terms, to be honest. In a literal sense, the terms refer to 'non-existent beings.' This does seem like an oxymoron I know, but the important point is that individuals believed these entities did exist."
"This theory of yours is sounding ever more implausible by the minute," Finnt said flatly. "A 'non-existent being' is grammatically similar to saying a 'non-large big thing.' What kind of intelligence would accept such a proposition?"
"You missed the emphasis of the point, Finnt. Many humans believed such beings did exist, though some few later thinkers explained how these beliefs came to be, and denied the existence of the supposed beings. However, probably for at least a hundred thousand years, there were humans that believed there really were supernatural beings, or even some kind of spirits which dwelt within all material objects. Later thinkers referred to all this more or less with the term 'animism.' The first priests probably manipulated such beliefs in others to their own advantage, but eventually priests became believers themselves.
"Consider an example: Someone figures out that gravity is a consistent force that possesses fixed properties. But they can not cause others to understand. So they create the idea of a 'God of Down-ness' and teach others not to walk off cliffs because it is the will of the God of Down-ness. It gets the job done. People don't walk off cliffs, but they also still don't understand gravity. The problem is that later generations of priests, like everyone else, ends of believing in an unreal god. As long as the God of Down-ness is just a poetic anthropomorphic equivalent to gravity, there is no problem. But once the god supposedly has a will, whereas gravity does not, there becomes increasingly institutionalized misunderstandings and fantasies that replace comprehension of reality. The example using gravity, I realize, is something merely contrived to make a point. It's unlikely, to put it mildly, that any world's first thoughts about gravity were centered on universal gravitational constants, and, furthermore, pre-intelligent life had plenty of instinct to keep them from walking off cliffs. But other worlds somehow did intellectually learn about their own built-in instincts and natural phenomena without creating gods. On Earth, gods probably could have been fabricated to describe anything: fire, wind, thunder, storms, the apparent motion of the sun and stars across the sky, death, dreams, anything!
"I am not making up this idea of 'gods,' Finnt. The encyclopedia documents most of what I just told you, so go study it yourself. In summary, the presence of higher-than-usual quantities of radioactive elements distributed around this planet subtly caused intelligence to grow unevenly within the human species. This created a priest class. And before long, belief in all sorts of unreal gods displaced any normal orientation towards the understanding of reality. It's as though the whole species mentally mutated away from normal intelligence and adopted a philosophy of complete fantasy. It would almost be like having an entire world drugged and perceiving only shared hallucinations."
"Well, Keam, I'll give you this," Finnt scoffed, "You certainly have a pretty good imagination yourself. You should have been a fantasy writer! But, I still just can't fathom it. An entire intelligent species that could get so derailed? Even if everything you say concerning human beginnings were literally true, how does this have any bearing on explaining why humanity did not pass successfully through its Cusp Point? The descriptions of their later day problems, on the surface, sound very similar to those of other worlds. I don't see a connection between the two points in time, humanity's beginning and its end."
"I can't say, yet, whether there is any connection or not. But in five days we will be returning to the ship for our next conference with Moort and the captain, Shoon and Johms. I will continue to think about all this using these lines of reasoning. If you wish, ponder these ideas yourself a bit, or if not, pursue your own thoughts."
             .         .         .         .
Captain Jansot gazed intently at Keam. "You are not joking?" He turned his head to Finnt. "And you now agree with this explanation?"
Finnt answered, "I did not, at first. But the evidence has become overwhelming."
"Shoon, Moort. How does this strike you."
Shoon spoke first. "It's certainly novel. Unprecedented. It's hard to imagine how some of them could have looked at clouds and saw clouds, while others looked at the same clouds but saw instead 'The Will of God.' It defies any definition of intelligence or even non-intelligence that exists. If true, I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to have been a toxic effect from some form of microbial infection of their brains. It sounds to me more like they were victims of a biological assault than that they were culturally mutated."
After the captain turned next towards Moort, the geologist said quickly, "While all very interesting, it is quite out of my field. I can only vouch for the actual physical presence of a higher-than-usual quantity of . . ."
"Radioactive elements in the planet's crust. Yes, so you've said." The captain's slightly sarcastic tone did not represent an improvement in his mood.
"Sir, with all due respect to Shoon," began Keam, "I. . ."
"Let me explain," interrupted Finnt. "This is more of an anthropological problem than a paleontological one, even though it's both, actually. Everywhere in the galaxy, once intelligence appears, it begins to evolve increasingly complex social structures which eventually reach some threshold level that is called 'civilization.' It is an extension of the more fundamental fact of living things gradually evolving into ever more complex organisms. Virtually all aspects of intelligent life become more complex over time: language, art, ethical awareness, political structures, economic structures, thought itself. These humans, for reasons we have already postulated, evolved a phenomenological category which they called 'religion.' It became the self-conscious study of their own beliefs about a spirit world, and how these spirits related to other areas of their life, and even how they related to a supposed human spiritual life following bodily death. This last point is utterly of no value to the galaxy as a whole, except as an anthropological curiosity, though it probably had some selective advantage to humans.
"Religious beliefs actually were of great benefit, at first, to early humans and served them quite creatively at times. Consciousness and intelligence grew side by side, and, eventually, the usual awareness of one's own mortality developed. Those groups which had 'enlightened' priests that could invent gods suffered less anxiety about their own mortality, and they therefore competed against other groups with more effectiveness, more self-confidence. Even though it is utterly unparalleled anywhere in the galaxy, it became a selective advantage to the evolving humans.
"Additionally, because of religious belief systems, ethical thought did not evolve independently on Earth. Significant thinking concerning ethics did occur, especially in the final couple thousand years of human history, but it was hopelessly bound up with religion until just their last few hundred years. The highest human understanding of ethics, when it occasionally occurred, was always coupled with the idea that some god willed such behavior to be viewed by humans as being good. Few seemed able to grasp notions that basic ethical ideas, such as generally avoiding murder, lying, and stealing from one another, were naturalistic facts of the selective survival of any intelligent species, and had nothing to do with the will of any supernatural beings. Most later humans, when confronted with naturalistic ethical systems, based on evolutionary fitness, simply couldn't feel any awe or profundity about such ideas since they were not associated with some supernatural will. God-ideas were what the whole species was used to. Rather tragic, actually, if you ask me. I'd like to read to you this passage from the human encyclopedia we've been studying:


Nowadays, some calling themselves the "politically correct," who have nothing but useless ultra-relativistic ethics, continue to battle the "fundamentalists," who have a useless imaginary-god cause for their stricter ethics. But even some of the evolutionary biologists, so close to finally comprehending the nature of the relationship between freedom and responsibility in biological "fitness" terms, have adopted a defeatist position: just as the bacterial cultures used in scientific demonstrations, they say, expand to a container's edge and then begin dying, through no ethical fault of their own, apparently expanding human populations will reach their ecological limits, eventually, and begin dying too. If human ethical behaviour is defined just in terms of the "program" of human fitness-via-evolution in the context of Earth's ecology, then it would be unethical to attempt to halt the program from its natural course. Human extinction, then, is quite ethical from this point-of-view.
It is amazing how complicated some have made it out to be. Most people just can't seem to embrace the obvious fact that intelligence transcends biology, while simultaneously still being tied to biology. The need to attend to responsible ecological practices stems from simple biological facts, not from gods, while the need to impose ecological limitations on other less-educated individuals, so that our species can survive, stems from the enlightened state of intelligence. But the current absurd love for total democracy prevents educated people from controlling reality, and the uneducated god-believers will undoubtedly succeed in exterminating the human species by their decisions.

"As you can see, at least some of them did think about what was happening to them. The best is yet to come, however. As I already mentioned, intelligent cultural systems tend towards increased complexity. Religious thought was no different. At the very first, a distinction was made between, on the one hand, living things and material objects that had unusual properties, such as flowing rivers, changing clouds, and fire, and, on the other hand, that of all other inanimate objects. It seemed that they believed anything that was capable of motion, alive or otherwise, was possessed of either an individual spirit or a share of some collective spirit. I think we would simply refer them to the facts associated with kinetic or potential energy, but this is how the early humans came to understand their reality.
"Eventually, this 'animism,' and its earlier more dimly conscious animatistic predecessors, evolved into 'pantheistic' and 'polytheistic' belief systems. The mass of spirit beings was evidently quantized into fewer and fewer gods, and, of those, some came to be considered more powerful than others. The eventual culmination of this process was called monotheism, and it appeared about 3000 years before the species died out. Monotheism had truly amazing consequences, which we will get to shortly. First, let me continue describing human religious evolution. The rise from animism to monotheism did not happen everywhere all at the same time. So, as the various systems of thought interacted, interesting hybrids emerged. The most politically powerful of these hybrid religious systems postulated an idea called 'trinitarianism' which attempted to reconcile issues of unity and diversity within one god. At all points, the religious institutions that were created reflected the political and economic structures of the society, and personified the humans that lived within them.
"From the very beginnings of the emergence of a priest class, human political and economic systems evolved more inequitably than in any other species known in the galaxy. As time went on, these inequities reached an unbelievable magnitude. The inequities of material wealth distribution, as Keam has already mentioned in his earlier report, was a significant factor in the eventual demise of humanity. So, part of the causal chain for which we have searched goes something like this: radioactive-induced higher-than-usual rates of mutational change - a priest class instituting a pattern of inequality - evolving notions of spirits and gods that reflected human attitudes."
Captain Jansot, at that point, completely lost his temper. "This is absurd! I have no basis for doubting the accuracy of your observations and conclusions. But what does this have to do with the assigning of a status to this planet? And, furthermore, even granting that your little bedtime story is quite entertaining, how does the 'causal chain,' as you put it, conclude with the complete extinction of a supposedly intelligent species? With all due respect to what you read to us of the Encyclopedist's own point-of-view, it doesn't actually explain anything!"
"Please let me continue," demanded Keam. "You are not comprehending the enormity of the cumulative effect that religious thought imparted to this species' society. For them, it was much more than an entertaining fiction. In their final several hundred years, as human thinking became more sophisticated, many more individuals rejected spirit-based explanations. But the tendency to believe was genetically so strong, that 'atheistic' thinkers, as they were called, had hardly any influence on the inertia created by institutionalized religions."
"But why did it matter?" Johms suddenly cried out. "Why aren't they here, alive and well right now, happily believing their own little fantasies? If they had survived their critical moment in history, by now they probably would be a full-fledged member of the galactic council."
Moort interjected, "If they had survived, they'd probably be trying to convert the whole galaxy to their absurd way of thinking. Frankly, I'm rather glad they aren't here!"
Finnt spoke evenly, "You should not underestimate the magnitude of what you have just uttered. I have no doubt that your idle quip would indeed be quite true. When human rationalist thinkers finally appeared, they learned that it was virtually hopeless to convince 'true believers' that, just maybe, there was no god. The faithful had arguments that were airtight, as far as they were concerned. The most exquisite self-contained circular reasonings evolved that allowed individuals to continue believing nonsense. They had sacred texts that declared that the sacred texts were perfectly true and written by human representatives of a divine presence. Anyone believing this self-justifying premise could invent amazing explanations for any scientific evidence that contradicted their religious ideas. When, for example, archaeologists first began to understand the actual length of Earth history based on the geological record, religious believers, clinging to notions of a much more recent moment of divine creation, declared that god had created the Earth in progress, complete with a falsified geological record, just to confound non-believers."
"Disgusting," Moort said, shaking his head.
Finnt continued, "For every rational proposition put forth, many counter-propositions were invented to defend traditional religious viewpoints."
"But what is the connection to human extinction?" Captain Jansot's voice crescendoed from a steely whisper to a roar. "Get to the point, now!"
"Yes," said Shoon. "I'm getting rather tired of all this."
Keam looked at Finnt briefly and then spoke. "The point is, dear colleagues, that these people believed in some god. That is the point. Don't you see? To believe in something means, in part, to rely on the existence of that something. These humans relied on their god, or at least many said that they did. They ceaselessly relied on their gods and goddesses all throughout their history, as meaningless as it may have been, except for the influencing of certain types of self-fulfilling prophecies. But at the moment when their problems reached critical levels, when their Cusp Point arrived, they relied on a non-existent god instead of on themselves!"
             .         .         .
No one said anything for a moment. Johms had a rather curious expression. The captain searched the faces of the other men one by one.
Shoon was the first to speak. "Well, regardless of whether the original cause of these humans' religious beliefs was from radioactive-accelerated mutation rates, which created early differences in ability between so-called priests and everyone else, or whether, as I have suggested, the religious groundwork for this bizarre civilization was the result of some microbial infection of their neurological systems, it seems all too clear that, even if religions were originally a selectively advantageous characteristic, they ultimately proved to be the seeds of the species' own eventual extinction. From the galactic point-of-view, it represents a kind of local short-term advantage that eventually has no long-term sustainability."
"But what I'm wondering," said Moort, "is what if they had achieved interstellar travel before they died out. Their idea of 'god' might have infected the entire galaxy. Does human extinction merely represent an undesirable mutation working itself out of the galactic gene pool, so to speak, or was it purely coincidental that their demise took place prior to their ability to harm other galactic civilizations?"
Keam shrugged and resumed his analysis. "Of course, by the time it really mattered, a smaller percentage of people relied on an imaginary god than at any earlier time in human history. Still, a large percentage of humans did continue to maintain some amount of religious belief. A smaller but very significant percentage continued holding completely to their traditional beliefs, and utterly rejected knowledge that they viewed as contradictory to their religion.
"I'll make an analogy: Wealth increases gradually within most socialistic economies of the galaxy. Because of the imbalances in human society, wealth increased greatly for some, at the expense of leaving many destitute. Of course, their economic system would be viewed by most of the galaxy as utterly deplorable. There were some human attempts at socialistic economies near the end of their civilization, but they couldn't compete with the entrenched systems of imbalance already in place. Socialistic economies have a slow, steady profit margin which, with patience, ultimately provide high standards of living for all members of the society. But when placed in competition with human capitalistic systems, socialistic sytems did not provide enough of a profit margin both to sustain its population and to defend itself against capitalistic attack. The priest-initiated patterns of imbalance found within the most intelligent species of this planet were intractable.
"To return to the discussion of human religions, at the crucial moment, when continued human existence depended on the actions of all its members, there was not enough of a margin for error, statistically speaking, to allow a very significant percentage of the population the continued luxury of believing in and relying on their gods. Yet, this is what happened. There were, indeed, some rationalists championing the actions that would be necessary for human survival, but too great a percentage of the population preferred to let their god save them from the mess that they had made for themselves. When all was said and done, the species just couldn't afford such a large faction of crackpots. They paid for their lunacy by becoming wiped off the Earth. As an idle point of curiosity, I wonder what percentage of god-believers could have been sustained that would have still allowed the human race to pass over their Cusp. Probably less than a percent, I would guess, anything more being impossible. It was, however, quite a majority of people that sealed human fate. But as a simple scientific question, I wonder how many god-believers would be tolerable by any species at such a time."
"Good questions," said Finnt. "Who knows? Now they will never know."
"But we do," said the captain.
"We do, what?" asked Keam.
"We now know of their religious ideas, their concept of god, and its devastating long-term effects." Captain Jansot spoke more earnestly than at any point since they arrived at this planet, almost three months ago. "What will happen when we report these findings to the Board? What will other intelligent species do when they first encounter the god hypothesis?"
Johms suddenly broke into the conversation. "Just to add all possible irons to the fire, what if you are all wrong. What if the human concept of god is true, and human extinction was a punishment to them from god. Perhaps just because of the fact that humans did have an opportunity to know about god, maybe even because of the radioactive elements, god was angry with them when too many rejected the idea of god. Maybe some god is now turning the human catastrophe into something good by allowing us, we ourselves, to finally become aware of god's existence."
Finnt seemed turned to stone. Moort started to shake his head slowly. Shoon wore a light smile.
Keam, staring at Johms, said, "Captain Jansot, I believe you have just received a kind of proof as to what would happen if the god-hypothesis were unleashed into the galaxy."
Johms spoke quickly, "I'm not saying I believe that, or anything. I just threw it out to cover all logical possibilities."
Keam continued, "But imagine what such an idea could do to the galaxy in the hands of one or more less-than-perfectly-scrupulous individuals. Theism could be championed by a newly emerging priest-class and used to control the thoughts of others. It's unthinkable!"
Finnt said, "Belief in a god seems to be like some of those old philosophical dilemmas. If the size of the universe, the gravitational constant, and the speed of light were all periodically increasing in a proportional manner, would anyone be able to tell? One can neither prove nor disprove such ideas, but it would seem that the believers in the ever-doubling universe would be the ones responsible to provide a proof, if any, since the increases are not sensible in any way to anybody. Likewise, any attributes implying god's existence are equally explainable without god's existence. It would seem that it is the believers who would be the ones responsible for providing a proof, since god is not detectable in a manner that exclusively implies god. I'm starting to see why humans got so bogged down in these kinds of thoughts. I'm also starting to see that we can not, must not, report these findings to the rest of the galaxy."
Keam said simply, "I agree."
The captain said, "So do I."
             .         .
It was decided. There was surprisingly little discussion. But each one of them cared about the well-being of their home world and the galaxy in general. The six men could not trust themselves to return to their world, possibly carriers of a deadly mental disease. They would not expose Earth's secret. One planetary intelligence killed by addiction to imaginary beings was enough. God-belief only ended up creating a planet seemingly full of suicidal maniacs. It wasn't worth the risk of repeating on a galactic scale.
Captain Jansot decided they would send back a hyper-report assigning the planet Status-3. Developing intelligent life. Stay away. Do not touch for at least 100,000 years. The appropriate warning buoys were launched into an Earth orbit at a distance twice that of Earth's moon. Status-3 was a lie, of course. It was hard to live with oneself after purposely creating a deceiving perception. Maybe it was the exposure to the dead human's theistic beliefs that created such overwhelming feelings and triggered the motivation for lying. No ethically advanced galactic intelligence made a habit of lying. Normally.
They would report that they had returned halfway home. Then they would simply seem to disappear. If anyone searched for them, they would have no reason to come all the way back to Earth.
A discussion on what to do followed. Should they seek out another planet? Should they maroon themselves on Earth? What was the best way to ensure their aim of keeping theism from beginning to spread? Keam said that he wouldn't care to live knowing he couldn't return home. He felt that the others should simply live out their lives on Earth, not transporting the problem to any other planet, even a totally dead one. They wouldn't be able to reproduce. They had no cloning equipment along, either. Chances were virtually non-existent that they would be able to adapt to Earth's ecosystem, and when their supplies ran out they would either starve to death, poison themselves by attempting to eat Earth food, or, most likely, stir up some virus or bacteria and die early on of some hideous disease.
The possibilities were few and grim. Even Johms admitted that they really had little choice. There were two options. Crash the ship and die. Or land the shuttle and take one's chances living on Earth. Each had to make his own decision. They each chose.
Johms: attempt to live on Earth.
Moort: attempt to live on Earth.
Jansot: die in ship crash.
Shoon: attempt to live on Earth.
Finnt: die in ship crash.
Keam: die in ship crash.
It was evenly split. No one challenged anyone else's choice. Captain Jansot made sure that the shuttle's long-range communications devices and its ability to leave Earth's atmosphere, once it entered it one last time, were totally destroyed. It would only be able to fly at low altitudes after that. He suggested that Johms, Moort, and Finnt spend some of their time locating the other ninety-nine plastic encyclopedia sets and burn them. There was no point in leaving potential evidence lying around for explorers of the future. By the time half a hundred thousand years went by, and earth was officially revisited, there wouldn't be much evidence left of human god-belief, if they could just get rid of the plastic books. In ten million years, thanks to Earth's small but continuous level of radioactivity, a new intelligence might unevenly evolve, creating another priest class and another bout of theism. The future would have to deal with that.
_      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _     
The three intelligent Earth dwellers managed to live for almost two years before the last one of them succumbed to an infection caused by what the ancient humans had called a rhinovirus. During that time, they had managed to find and destroy ninety-seven of the plastic encyclopedia sets.
_      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _      _     
Keam took one last glance at Captain Petid Jansot and then looked quickly over to where Finnt was somehow reading one of those blasted encyclopedias. An hour ago, the anthropologist had told Jansot and Keam that the Trinitarian believers within the later-day human population would most likely have argued, if they could have known about this moment, that this suicidal crashing onto the planet was Satanic, and deprived God of a messenger to other planets, thereby dooming quintillions of aliens to Hell. The captain had politely asked Finnt not to bother explaining any of that. Keam turned back to the view port one last time. It really was the only possible answer. His last thought was one of profound pity for the past creatures of this planet. The treetops were rushing towards him now. Five. Four. Three. Two. . .
After the crash, a few dozen trees were incinerated. A whole community of birds, insects, small mammals and reptiles was wiped out. A brief cloud of smoke streamed into the atmosphere and gradually dissipated. The planet as a whole scarcely noticed.
Jody Nagel
Muncie, Indiana
February 13-24, 1999.

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