The Human Problem

A short sci-fi story by Isaac Petrov

It isor will bea larger than expected gathering. And it’s no wonder. Today the Lector is due to finally present her latest conclusions on the hottest topic that the xenoarcheology department has faced since the founding of the science itself, millennia back, when We discovered the first extinct alien civilization.

And there have been many such gruesome discoveries ever since. Each different. Each as alien to each other as they are to Us. Each extinction a mystery that their department has methodically and relentlessly unraveled. Always.

Until they discovered the dead remnants of the Humans five centuries ago.

Five centuries of excruciating research, of increasingly outlandish hypotheses, of unimaginable quantities of resources and intellect wasted, because the mystery remains as imposing as it was when Our explorers first entered the Human solar system.

But today, with the Lector’s presentation, it will all change!

Or so it’s hoped, judging by the electrifying expectation in the auditorium. Every xenoarcheologist worthy of the title seems to be present today. So much so that, to avoid disturbing their neighbors, many must politely wrap their talking appendixes around their motor trunkoids.

As the Lector enters the auditorium, the attendees unleash a wave of saluting motion in her direction. She waves her front limb back in polite reply as she reaches the podium.

“Esteemed Colleagues, ” she saysor rather, she gestures. And signals a smile to her raptured audience. “I’m grateful for your exuberant attendance, especially since it proves that I’m not the only xenoarcheologist still obsessed with the Human Problem.”

There is polite laughterexcept for those that can’t with their appendices wrapped around them.

“To recap the state of the research,” the Lector continues, “we can conclusively confirm that the Humans have extinguished themselves.”

Gestures of aghast disbelief cross the audience. So the unthinkable has been confirmed! Suicide! A word Their language has no gesture for. Because is there anything more… unnatural?

“I know how it sounds, but the proof is incontrovertible. The question is not what the Humans did. But rather, why they did it. What can possibly push a sentient speciesand Humans achieved a remarkable level of technological sophisticationto choose to simply… cease existing? That is the question that has motivated my research since I joined the Human section. We’ve never found any other alien civilization terminating their own life. There’s always been a cosmic or planetary natural disaster behind every documented extinction, if not a collapse of critical resources that prematurely ended their time in Our universe. But in this case…” The Lector remains silent for a long while, as if lost in thoughts, before asking with more vigorous gestures, “Could it happen to other species? Could it even happen… to Us?”

The audience seems to gasp for breathor its motoric equivalentbecause that is the real question. Is there any circumstanceany whatsoeverthat would trigger Us to kill ourselves? That, in a nutshell, is the source of Our Humanmania obsession.

“Our Great Mind, in its immeasurable wisdom, has marked this question as existential. And has thus awarded my investigation with astounding resources. First, she requested a human DNA sample, of which we have plenty in storage. Then she passed the sample through a chronorecorder and obtained three distinct points of spacetime related to the ancestors of that Human individual that, according to her pattern-recognition engine, could point to a hint in the Question.”

The audience almost joltsif they physically couldin astonished awe. Because each chronorecorder analysis requires unimaginable amounts of energy to execute, the equivalent of what an O-type main sequence star burns in its entire lifetime! And the Great Mind has thrown three at the Human Problem! But who can hope to understand the neural calculations of a machine the size of a gas giant? It can’t even understand itself. In its core the Great Mind is just a pattern-recognition machine. It has no will of its own. As every xenoarcheologist knows too well, imbuing such a colossal brain with a conscience has too often been the cause of the extinction of alien civilizations. But Humans were still millennia away from the dangers of such technology when they gave up. 

“And now, my dear colleagues, let me present to you the three chronorecordings that have been the basis of my researchmy obsessionfor what now seems like a lifetime.”

The sheer expectation that his words arise among her peers contrasts with the Lector’s own apparent lack of enthusiasm. She seems almost tired. Like a hill becomes tired of being a mountain.

With a heavy gesture, a scene comes to life in perfect three-dimensional rendition for all to see. There is a lonely tree, enormous and ancient, surrounded by pristine pastures of grasses and late-spring flowers next to a wide, gentle river. The Lector can even smell the fragrance and feel the gentle movement of the air faithfully played back next to her by the chronorecorder.

But the attention of all present locks on the two Humans that are kneeling in front of the tree. Fascinating creatures! As a dead Human yourself, you immediately recognize them as a man and a boy. If you were an expert in American history, you might even identify them as members of the Karankawa people, indigenous to the north-western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The way they are dressed, it must be the early Sixteenth Century.

“We believe Humans communicate by gesturing with that sphincter-like organ at the bottom of their sensorial appendix. Do please observe how they move in a complex alternation between both specimens. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to fully decipher their meaning. Not even the Great Mind has been able to. It’s just too… alien.”

While the Lector keeps lecturing, you can do something that They can’t: hear the air vibrations played back by the chronorecording. And the air is alive with meaning.

“I’m so afraid, Dad,” the boy says. He is trying hard not to weep.

The man smilesa sad type of smileand says, “Why are you? They are here, far from their lands. Far from their spiritual guides.” He reverentially plants the palm of his right hand on the trunk of the ancient tree.

The boy shakes his little head. “They’re demons!”

“No son, they are mortals. Just like you and me.”

“They shine like silver in the sun! They command four-legged monsters! They spit fire at a distance by just pointing a finger! They even say that a powerful sky God  protects them; a God so terrible that it will swallow our spirits and stories whole.”

“I’m not going to lie, son. Not today. Yes, the bodies of my warriorsmy bodymay join the endless cycle before the day is over. But, so what? I will still be alive.” He gently puts a finger on the boy’s head. “Here. And in your children. And in your children’s children. I will forever live in the songs of our descendants. Songs of home. Of bravery. Of necessity. Because even if my warriors fail, the sky knows that the pain we will inflict will curse them out of the Land. And when your spirit joins mine, my son, they will sing about you. Because you are the embodiment of the People’s will to thrive on the Land. You will guide them, no matter what. And your son after you. Forever. Promise me.”

The boy hesitates, at the edge of tears, but then gives his father a slow, solemn nod. “We will live on forever, Dad. I promise.”

The scene evaporates like dust in a storm and then, as if the wind played backwards, the dust solidifies into a new scene next to the Lector. It’s the same place, but in the future, judging by the few scattered frontier-style adobe buildings next to the river. The tree is still there, as tall and ancient as ever. But this time there is a small, open-air stone chapel next to it depicting a Human nailed to a cross, in front of which kneel a man and a boy.

“These are the genetic descendants of the previous Humans,” the Lector is explaining. “You may observe that they also seem to communicate via…”

As the Lector keeps lecturing, you prefer to focus on the vibrating words. The language has changed, but perhaps you can understand.

“Please don’t go, Dad,” the boy says between sobs. “They’ll kill you!”

The man embraces his son and puts a hand over his head. “Somebody’s gotta stop those Gringos. Or they’ll swallow our lands whole.”

“But they’ve got revolvers, cannons, rifles! And we

The man raises his weapon and says, “Our muskets are loaded with the blood of our people. We will prevail.”

“But if they… If they…” The boy seems at the edge of a panic attack.

“Then you will remember what happened today. You will grow strong and avenge our nation. You will hunt them out of Mexico! And then you will tell the story of our struggle to your children and your grandchildren, so they don’t forget what happened today. They can’t forget! Promise me, son!”

“I- I promise.” The boy sinks his head and weeps the tears off his face. You won’t be forgotten, Dad. I swear to God, you won’t be forgotten.”

The three-dimensional scene evaporates and yet another one takes its place. The tree seems even larger now, if that’s even possible. Still ancient. Still strong. It must be your future, judging by the spaceport at the other side of the river and the myriad of noisy rockets lifting to orbit in the background.

“I’m afraid this is our last chronorecording,” the Lector says, but you don’t listen to her. You prefer to hear the man and the boy sitting on the grass with their backs against the tree.

“They’re going to kill you, Dad,” the boy says, tears flowing down his cheeks. “I know they will. Please, stay!”

“Who in God’s name would then stop the Eurasian Confederation from taking over our colonies? And if we let them, who would then stop ‘em from coming here and

“But their ships carry nuclear missiles! They will destroy everything that!”

“Don’t overthink it, son. This must be done, or our values will perish. Wouldn’t you rather die free than be swallowed by tyranny?”

The boy takes a deep breath, looks at his father in the eyes, and gives him a firm nod.

“Don’t be sad. Even if I don’t make it, I will have been the commander of the greatest battle humankind will have ever fought in its three-hundred-thousand years of history. The peak of my career. Of any military career before me. I will not be forgotten, no matter what happens up there. Today will make me immortal. I want this, son. Please don’t be sad, be proud!”

“I am, Dad.” The boy embraces the man. “I am.”

As the scene dissolves in dust, and then in nothing, a long silence engulfs the auditorium. No limbs move. They just sense the Lector as she slowly rolls her sensory organs towards her peers.

“I know what you want,” she slowly gestures with her forward limb. “You want the answer to the Human Problem. You want the result of my obsessive research. What have I discovered, assisted by immeasurable resources of the Grand Mind itself? You want to know if what happened to the Humans could happen to other alien civilizations. No, not just that, let’s be honest. What you really want to know is whether this could happen to Us. What could possibly motivate a biological species to remove itself from existence? Well, my esteemed colleagues, the time has come to tell you my answer.”

She slowly sinks her forward limb and raises her back limb as heavily as if her flesh was made of uranium.

“I don’t know.”

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