Fire & Ice by David Barber

Fire & Ice
David Barber

To wreck a planet, first choose a suitable asteroid. After mounting fusion drivers, pinch the plasma and tune the mix until the jets burn invisibly. Such vast tonnage is not easily swayed, but sensitive instruments will register a change. Slowly the rock begins its long tumble down the gravity well towards the inner worlds.

Darwin is everywhere.

A pastoral planet, sans neutrino noise, sans radio, the night side blanked in tell-tale darkness. We put a lander down outside a town and wait.

They greet us with equanimity; it seems their thinkers pondered alien civilization long ago. While our language programs stall in the thickets of native speech, they effortlessly learn our own.

They call themselves jirt. Their ancestry is reptilian, with pebbled skin, protruding snout and needle teeth. In short bursts they are astonishingly fast. You would not want to meet one in a knife fight. The flickering snake tongue, tasting the air, we deduce later, signals puzzlement, or lies.

Left unattended, our devices are swiftly disassembled and laid out like dissections. They ask us for words: Logic gate, RAM, integrated circuit.

They had considered the theoretical properties of electrical devices, but saw no need to prove the obvious by building them.

Their thinkers are good, very good. A scientist reports a discussion about corpuscular versus wave theories of light. When shown the equations of Maxwell, the jirt remarked that if true, they proved the speed of light was fixed. The scientist shakes her head in grudging admiration.

Later, we identify this jirt. Not one of their thinkers, a farmer.

They seem untouched by sorrow or joy. Without pair bonding they do not love, and hardly recognize our passions. Their world must be vastly reasonable. We wonder if they know guilt.

They casually discuss their reproductive biology: Only a few juveniles struggle from the crowded waters of their birth, eliminating the weak and unfit. Later, the least able are neutered; thus their species hurries evolution’s work.

As far as we can tell, they have no organised religion. One of them remarks that gods are philosophically suspect. It wonders what importance we attached to such ideas, and flickers its tongue rapidly as it listens to accounts of the Bible.

This interest in religion is due to your biology, it concludes. They have no need to placate hostile father-figures.

Conversation turns to music. We play them Bach, the solo cello suites. It is the sort of thing the Consensus is good at, choosing something we all agree will impress the jirt.

Nice, they say.

Much of their music is inaccessible to human ears, but Fourier analysis shows it to be fearsomely complex. Curiously, they have little or no visual art, and when someone thinks to show them photographs, they struggle to decode their meaning.

Finally, something we are better at.

Our interactions with them are reported throughout the Consensus. This is how we learn they have asked on seven different occasions if our religion leads us to judge them. It must be obvious that we are less intelligent, and only our technology is superior. Even that might not be the case for long. As if our example has woken them, now they turn their quick attention to it.

What are you doing here? they inquire. Since we cannot know who will be called on to answer such questions, we are all briefed in these matters. They pick a biology tech, busy sampling the native flora.

Consensus recordings show she has previously discussed Darwin with them. Perhaps they value her openness, or think her limited abilities make it easier to identify deception.

We are explorers, she replies, keeping to the script. Yes, sentience is very rare.

As she speaks, they watch her anxious fingers shredding the samples she has collected.

A linguist, still sweating over the difference between real and imaginary case endings, is also approached. They are checking for the same answers, a condition necessary for, but not proof that we are telling the truth. Only later do we realize he was asked something more.

But these sentients you encountered, were they not engulfed? Do not your stories become their stories? How do they develop after? The man is beyond the furthest edge of our script, even feigning ignorance is revealing.

Tongues flickering, they fall silent.

Newly built telescopes spot the rock tumbling towards their world. By then the last of us have trickled off-planet. They try to contact us with hurriedly fashioned AM transmitters. The coincidence of our departure, the on-rushing impact and our silence is sufficient for minds like theirs.

Yes, Darwin is everywhere.

The Consensus is conflicted. The impact of the rock will blast half a continent into the skies, inflicting an ice-age and ending their civilization, though not their kind. They can be confined to their home world. Others say this world must be smashed into magma.

We are not monsters. Ask an ecologist how many species can share the same niche.

We have dropped rocks before. On hive creatures, teeming and instinctively inventive, like roaches beginning spaceflight. Beyond this choke point, the Consensus decided, nothing could have stopped them.

Some say the world should end in fire, others say ice is enough.

But there must be civilizations with millennia head-start on us, who will one day choose our suns for incomprehensible projects of their own. If Darwin is everywhere, we can expect no mercy.

So the Consensus orders the fusion drivers lit one last time. Even as our ship sets out into the dark, the rock is deflected towards their sun, like a snow flake into a furnace.

When the jirt go to the stars, as surely they must, it will be their turn. They will meet other races, even our descendants perhaps, and be reminded that their world was once in the hands of aliens who did not choose Darwin and mere survival.

We must hope it will suffice.

The End

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