There was irony. How many politicians and poets pontificated on the state of humankind. How many pined for the day that human beings would transcend our primate roots. Our lizard brains. Centuries and many wars after the War to End All Wars we had made it. There was peace. For the first time in recorded history there was no war. There was no reason for war. Wars are fought over resources and are bolstered by ideology. When resources are abundant you have to work pretty hard to justify the sacrifice of blood and treasure.
We weren’t perfect. There’s no such thing. But with an abundance of food, clean water, and pure perpetual fuel and energy there wasn’t much left to war over. Far from Utopia, armies still stood and war games were played. Technology continued to advance, with military and space exploration on the vanguard.
What an age. What an age it was. A stable, healthy population — birth rates more or less in balance with death rates mainly due to easy, safe contraception and temporary but thoroughly effective contraceptive implants for men and women. As convenient as a light switch: reproduction on, reproduction off.
We were making strides. I’ve always been a cynic, a skeptic. I knew it couldn’t last forever but even I believed. Even I was bursting with pride to live in such an age of history. I suppose that’s why I joined the Army. It was a chance to travel the world, building irrigation channels, hydroponic skyrises, optimizing infrastructure around the globe. Installing home fuel cells and the whole nine. I never fired my weapon once. Not even in non-lethal mode.
It was three years ago during my second tour. Terraforming and re-foresting the Amazonian Deserts, my unit found a dead tree. Blackened and gnarled with thick dead vines on the ground around it in a macabre halo. My feet were sore and blistering from the trek in. Ten clicks is no picnic on the Equator. I leaned against the tree, felt a sharp pain like something had stung me. It was an ant. One of the big, aggressive ants that used to crawl the jungles. Reflexively I crushed it against my knuckle and wiped the mess on my fatigues.
On closer inspection the tree, the skeleton of a tree, was swarming with them. They’re called army ants but they were so aggressive that we called them Special Forces.
Rickson and his incendiaries. He torched the tree. The ants — well, they scurried and scattered. Some ran for shelter. Some attacked. Most burned and died. As we watched them writhe, I wondered how long they lasted in ant time. I wondered if they suffered. When I saw one ant in particular grab a twitching, melting comrade in its mandibles and decapitate it — that’s when i stopped watching.
An ant weighs about .0003 milligrams. That’s about .0000000006 lbs. In contrast, a full grown man weighs 190 lbs. Or to put it another way, a man weights about 300,000,000,000 times more than an ant. That’s a factor of three hundred billion.
Human beings have the luxury, and thank the stars for it, to be the apex predator on planet Earth. We’re at the top of the food chain. We’re pretty big for an animal. Not the biggest but formidable. And a few men with spears, with simple stone age tools, can hunt and kill lions, bears, wild hogs, wooly mammoths. We may not have claws and fangs but we manage to compensate and compensate well.
Watching those ants made me wonder what it would be like to live in an ecosystem and be one of the smallest entities. Being an ant, every day of your life you’re surrounded by giants of geological proportions. Life forms that can go about their business or just as easily destroy your entire civilization on a whim or by accident. Imagine a living mountain moving about with no regard to its surroundings. Now imagine a few billion living mountain ranges. Where would you live? Where would you find safety? What legends would you tell? What stories would you raise your chilren on? What gods would you worship?
The life of an ant. Small enough to be ignored unless you attract unwanted attention to yourself. A swarm of ants in your pantry and here comes the exterminator.
Exterminators. That is rich.
It was our age of Enlightenment when They came. There’s been a lot of speculation about why. Maybe our attempts to colonize Mars. Maybe our centuries of polluting the galaxy with electromagnetic waves, flotsam and jetsam. Whatever the case, They came with purpose. We were as ants. And if you were an ant how would you ask a human being to build a strip mall on some other property because all of your family and culture lived on the corner of Main and First Street? The bulldozer, the steam shovel, the tractor, the backhoe, the piledriver. What can an ant do?
The first sign of Their arrival was the climate. They must have been shadowing Earth’s orbit around the sun for generations. Our generations. Our climate became erratic and then — failed. The seasons stopped changing. The sea levels rose catastrophically. We all thought it was climate change, not realizing until too late that it was due to another gravitational force in the solar system.
We were frogs in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It wasn’t that our astrophysicists didn’t detect anomalies. There was a wobble here and there, but not enough to cause a panic. But that day. When They swatted the moon away like an annoying flying insect, there was no more refuge. No more denial. No more pretending. In hindsight, I suppose we were lucky that They did swat the moon away from us instead of toward us.
If you had been outside under the stars on a dark, clear night you would have seen the bulbous ghostly white orb in the sky blur and then over the course of the next four hours crack down the middle and in something like slow motion crumble and wisp away. Have you ever walked with a bucket of water and suddenly stopped? The oceans bucked and swayed and claimed cities around the globe.
There are no words to describe the destruction. The chaos, the panic. The fear. Was it a comet? Some kind of natural disaster? What are the longitudinal effects of Earth without its Moon? It’s treasonous for me to even say this out loud, but I’d guess that we lost a good one and a half billion people that day and during the following weeks. Sea level cities were either decimated or removed from the map entirely. Panicked violence and suicides reached unthinkable levels. And all the while something was out there.
Something with the proportions of a god but with the callousness of — of us. Or maybe callous is the wrong word. To be callous assumes that you should care in the first place. How much does the Mayor of New York City — what used to be New York City — care about a colony of ants beneath the sidewalk?
In the midst of the panic, They came. They landed in India. In the Pacific. The tallest and deepest places on the planet. We thought they were ships — massive, civilization bearing starships the size of cities. They landed gently, considering. Slowly, steadily lowering from the sky. The base of each “foot” covering a diameter of nearly five miles. The “legs” supported by the “feet” disappeared into the blue of the sky. And the question arose, if these are indeed “feet” then what does the “body” look like?
The full military might of the ultra modern world was unleashed. Bunker busters, nuclear, fission, fusion, lasers, plasma and plain old bullets did nothing but leave a speck of grime. There was no response. No reaction. None. For six months. Six months of all out war against an opponent who doesn’t acknowledge your existence. An opponent who has no need to recognize your existence because you aren’t the least bit of a threat.
After the six months passed there was a sound like the sky was being ripped apart and things started falling from the sky.
We thought it was an attack. White hot projectiles being flung randomly over the Earth until we began inspecting the crater sites. Until we saw the Russian and Chinese flags. USA. Serial numbers. Every leftover particle and piece of junk in near orbit from every rocket launch since the 1950’s was falling from space.
My particular unit had two main functions. Retrieval and excavation. That’s right. We dug. We built vast underground caverns and networks. The world’s leaders needed some base of operations and those bases continued to grow and to expand into independent subterranean cities. Slowly but surely.
Have you ever had a tiny flying insect fly in your ear? Or not even in it but just near it? You keep swatting at it but it just keeps going right there. It keeps doing the most annoying thing it can do. Buzzing directly in your ear. It can’t hurt you. It doesn’t bite. But there it is right in your ear. I’m guessing that’s what all of our attacks and then attempts to communicate must have been to Them. When we risked gathering in large groups — it’s hard to say this. A “foot” five miles wide might fall from the sky. A bright, sterilizing light might incinerate a few million of us in an instant. A foggy mist of nightmarish chemical would drift down causing near instant paralysis of the respiratory system and could sometimes be explosively hemorrhagic.
Dark, dark times. Human civilization reduced to rubble, retreating from the surface of the planet. They called our unit the Mole People because we spent so much time underground, building, digging, reinforcing. At least we weren’t CC — Crowd Control. Everybody hates CC.
It was three months after the space garbage rain that we managed to launch a trio of space explorers. One was fried to a rain of metallic shavings before it left the upper atmosphere. The second careened into space as if it were a feral animal that found an opportunity to bolt from a gate mistakenly left ajar. How can space flight be calculated when you don’t have any idea of the gargantuan gravitational bodies in the vicinity? The third managed to reach beyond the atmosphere and extract itself to retrieve data. It’s orbit was unstable and it rotated wildly. It took weeks to decipher visual data with software, but it was deciphered. And then the third satellite was lost to space, its erratic orbit giving some indication of the near orbit forces at work.
The results were not encouraging. The “feet” firmly planted around the globe seemed to be emanating from one entity or ship or body. We still don’t know what They are. The central node occupied a certain amount of space but a shape was indiscernible. Pulses of energy rippled but none on the visible spectrum. In fact, only a fraction of what we think is communication is perceptible by our technology. It’s been hypothesized that They may use gravity itself or subspace or alternate dimensions to communicate.
To communicate. Communicate to who? To what? Definitely not encouraging. Satellite Number Three showed us that the downfall of mankind had come from one of Them. Maybe two. Satellite Number Three also showed us that in the cosmological distance there was a cloud of Them approaching. A cloud spanning a light year’s width. Billions upon billions of alien godmonsters.
Why are we still here? Why aren’t we extinct? Because we did the only thing we could. A year after the first satellite we sent up an entire fleet with one purpose. To scream our heads off. We broadcast on every known channel of communication and a few unknown. Mathematical equations and theorems mostly with some biometric data as well. In essence, “Hey we’re sentient. There’s conscious, sentient life here.” One hundred satellite-tipped rockets launched at the same time with the same message.
What we hoped is that the effect would be the same as if every ant colony in the world climbed up on to a wall or tree and spelled out PEACE or illustrated their genomic sequence. Hard to ignore.
It was another three months before anything that could be interpreted as a response happened. They began walking. It was a seismological event, each stride taking hours and covering fifty miles. They walked into the ocean. And They left. Just like that. Deliberate and plodding, but they left. The take off caused tsunamis on the coasts of nearly every contintent one hundred feet high, but they were expected. And there weren’t many people on the surface and at the coastlines these days. Tragedy but we were hardened against tragedy by that point as long as it wasn’t extinction level tragedy.
They left two things behind. A large white orb in orbit — a new moon? Made from what, we don’t know. But probes have indicated that it’s inhabitable and pre-excavated. It’s going to be a human colony. A gift? Penance? Charity? Curiosity?
The other thing They left behind is a message being broadcast from the orb. It took a year to translate. Our technology had to advance enough for us to even begin to analyze. And what was the message? The more important thing is that every time we unlock or translate pieces of this message we have a breakthrough in who knows how many fields of science. But I’m sure you still want to know. So far it looks like this:
“You. Young. Small. Universe. Together. Life.”
I hope so. As we rebuild above and below we keep an eye towards the sky as well. There’s still a cloud of Them. And what’s more is that we now know that it’s one light year across but suspect it may be as deep and as high. We’re broadcasting. A few decades from now we’ll know if they heard us.
Maybe we’ll be ready by then. The universe’s Lilliputians.