With a flash and a bang, Settling Day started off without a hitch.
Fireworks erupted throughout the sky, forming brief sparks of rainbows and varying patterns. Every man, woman, child, and sentient robot were cheering in the streets, waving to the parade as it floated by. Sherrin bounced on the balls of her feet, as excited as any of the children in the crowd, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was nearly thirty years old, and one of the most well respected citizens of New New Valley. Her future-betrothed Ivor spent more time watching her than the parade; with her frizzy red hair floating in the wind and her cheeks flushed with the fresh air and excitement, it was almost impossible to look away.
The two of them made their way, along with the crowd, to listen to the mayor’s speech. Mayor Besmith, nearing a hundred and twenty years old, was rumored to have resorted to every means possible to make sure he was still in office in time for the thousand-year-mark for Settling Day; not that any of the citizens of New New Valley minded. He was as much a landmark as the enormous statue in town square, depicting the arrival of the first people to land on Beta Thorn Five-or as it was now called, Home. Nearly five hundred ships had been sent out, fifteen hundred years in the unimaginable past, when the old planet was nearing complete destruction. The only hope was finding a new habitable planet, with at least some sort of livable conditions for homo sapiens, with or without its own native sentient species. One hundred and fourteen ships survived; of those, eight managed to make it this far. That was why Settling Day was so important, so adamantly celebrated, even as though part of the festivities included mourning for the millions of lost souls.
Ivor, a member of the city council, had helped the city set up its display to honor not only the humans and robots who sacrificed themselves during those first desperate years, but also the nearly mythical Beta Thorn natives. It was a matter of national guilt to determine whether or not human arrival destroyed the last of the creatures, or simply sent them into such thorough hiding that in the last thousand years they could never be heard from again. He’d been the one who’d spent the last three months sorting through ancient hologram recordings, trying to find whatever footage of the Thornies that he could. It was few, and far between. Every child born into New New Valley recognized the shape of a Thornie as they would a dragon or a unicorn; narrow, cone-like head, frond-like protrusions down the neck and back, two larger primary arms and two smaller ones, hardly better than pincers. Two back legs that they would occasionally rear back onto, almost as if imitating the alien invaders from beyond the stars. Seeing them in a sketchy third dimension was almost unsettling; they were smaller than he’d imagined. They only came up to about three or four feet, and that was when they were reared back. Still, he’d managed to put together a passable display, commemorating the noble natives who had graciously shared their home with the aliens, even though the last recorded sighting of one took place about ten years after the human arrival.
“Can we go see Eight-five-five-seven?” Sherrin asked eagerly as soon as the mayor concluded his speech to thunderous applause. Ivor grinned.
“Of course,” he said, draping an arm across her shoulders and planting a kiss on her temple. Sherrin always wanted to see Eight-five-five-seven on Settling Day; she’d explained four years ago, their first Settling Day together, that her parents had always taken her there when she was a child, and keeping the tradition alive helped keep them alive in her heart.
Hand in hand, the two made their way through the contented and sleepy crowd to the Honored Settlers Museum, just on the outskirts of central square. Eight-five was way in the back; nearly a foot taller than Ivor, the clunky, box-shaped robot rested as well as any corpse in its tomb. A plaque stood before the inert form, detailing the dates and listing the deeds, but every child of New New Valley knew about Eight-five’s vital role in the Human-Thornie relationship. A few skeptics chose to honor Eight-five’s programmers, but most were willing to believe in the spirit of the robot, as illogical and impossible as it was. Thanks to Eight-five’s independent dedication of finding a way to translate the vocal language of the humans and the nearly undetectable patterns of the waving back-fronds of the Thornies, war was avoided, at the very least; at best, he gave humans a way of communicating with the only creatures who could warn them of the perils of their new planet, and give them a fighting chance.
It had been a thousand years since then, and though Eight-five’s sensors occasionally flickered with some form of life, it was widely accepted that its days were over, though they continued to honor it for its dedication to human survival. Sherrin was a direct descendent of the programmers who had designed Eight-five, and stood as testament to genetic history; she was responsible for approximately seventy-five per cent of the robots and computers in the settlement, and somehow managed them while appearing to do no more than spend her days playing with wires and spare bits of programming.
“I just wish I knew what it knew,” Sherrin sighed, resting her head on Ivor’s shoulder. Ivor craned his neck slightly to try to look at her.
“Was this a conversation I forgot we were having?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Eight-five. It knows what happened back then, what really knows. If I could just access its memory files-“
“Which might not even function any more. Eight-five hasn’t spoken in nearly three generations,” Ivor replied, a note of alarm in his voice. He recognized the tone that Sherrin was taking, the one that usually led to hair being torn from the scalp, a whole lot of explaining, and absolutely no chance to resist the inevitable.
“Not right now, no…I’d really only need five, maybe six hours to rig it up to a new unit and a converter for the old files. It could be back before morning.”
“No one ever comes in here anymore unless it’s for tour groups-“
“-and besides, no one would even think to look for one tiny data disk to go missing-“
“-think of everything we could find out, it’s just another way of honoring our-“
She finally looked up at him, her eyes the very picture of innocence. Ivor tried to stare her down, and inevitably sighed.
“…Just…be quick. Okay?”
A disturbing quick three hours and forty-five minutes later had them in Sherrin’s apartment, a small flat chip in her hand, a holographic monitor to her left, and a quickly rigged temporary unit with speech capabilities in her lap.
“Got it,” she said with a triumphant smirk, carefully sliding the chip into its temporary holding cusp. For a second, the holographic screen flickered, but otherwise nothing happened.
“…You’ve said that four times now,” Ivor reminded her from his seat on the floor, leaned up against the wall. Sherrin frowned.
“Right, but I meant it this time-“
“Initializing.” An old-fashioned drone immediately grabbed their attention, both of them staring at the small mechanical unit in Sherrin’s lap. “Auto-recording…on. Auto-sync…on. Auto-test…negative. Visual is down. Physical is down. Auditory is running. Speech is running. Request assistance.”
“Eight-five-five-seven, you’ve been temporarily stored in a secondary unit. Your primary unit has been dysfunctional for quite some time now, and I’ve got some questions to ask.”
There was a long silence. Ivor and Sherrin had time to exchange a glance before Ivor realized what they were both waiting for. Even the most basic programming, when it was without its own artificial intelligence, it was almost second nature to upload humanoid behaviors, so that even interacting with a basic computer program was similar to speaking with a person. Eight-five had come in a time before, and it would take a minor adjustment to allow for the gap in protocol.
“Eight-five-five-seven, could you do a quick scan on your memory files and see if they’re complete?” Sherrin asked, gently settling the unit on the floor.
“Affirmative. Memory files are estimated to be ninety-five to ninety-eight per cent complete. Do you require a more detailed estimate?”
“No, that’s fine, Eight-five. Do you have memory files from a thousand years ago, during the first settlement of New New Valley?”
Sherrin slumped, disheartened. “Well, that ends this, I guess,” she said, disappointment hollowing her voice. It was Ivor who managed to perk her hopes again.
“Eight-five-five-seven, do you have memory files from the time of the arrival of the ship Three fourteen, that first arrived on Beta Thorn Five?”
“What sort of files?”
“Auditory recorded voice logs, holographic visual logs, stored travel charts, stored language database, stored logs of births and deaths in-colony-“
“That’s good, Eight-five,” Sherrin said, cutting off the list. “You’re wonderful,” she added to Ivor. “Eight-five-five-seven, can you tell me who recorded the auditory logs?”
“Affirmative. Captain Eric Stears. First Mate Allison MacCreedy. Doctor Wilma Fisher. First Biologist Edgar Neilson. Reverend Isaac Chang.”
“Okay. Of those five, which had the most contact with the Thornies?”
There was silence. Ivor cleared his throat.
“Which of those five had the most contact with the native species on the planet?”
“First Biologist Edgar Neilson.”
“He spent the most time with the…the indigenous people?” Sherrin asked with a glance at Ivor. “I guess that makes sense.”
“Can we hear his voice log?”
New speech filled the room, but it sounded nothing like the robotic responses of before. It was a man’s voice, agitated but certain, speaking from across generations of silence.
Edgar Neilson reporting. I wanted to…well, I guess I wanted to make a formal note of what’s exactly happened. These natives deserve it. After what we’ve put them through…there’s those who would disagree with me, but I can safely say, based on my considerable experience, that if we hadn’t come here, they wouldn’t be in such danger. Why the human species seems so bent on being the most destructive…in all the worlds, there’s been no discovery of a race that’s so hell bent on eradicating anything that’s not completely homogenized to our specific image. Look at what this whole project is based off of…I’m sorry. I don’t want to waste time with another rant, I just...
(Audible sigh.) These people are beautiful. They are alien-no, sorry, we’re the aliens. I just mean…they’re so different. So absolutely contradictory to everything we are, and they’re…elegant. Simplistic. That sounds too harsh also-I’ll have to re-record this. What I’m trying to say is that these people should have been left in peace. They should have flourished and developed and lived their lives and found their own happiness in whatever way they saw fit, and yet…I feel like a parent who has failed his child. Only they’ve been here for thousands-maybe millions of years, and I’ve been here for what would act as a millisecond in all that time. If…if nothing else, I hope that the human race can study this example. We have so many atrocities in our own history, but maybe humans can explain that all away because we only did it to ourselves. But this is beyond anything we could have ever envisioned. Maybe, finally, we’ll have crossed a line, and we’ll finally stop. Stop destroying and changing and trying to mold into our image, and learn to simply accept.
I think that’s what I was trying to say, anyway. I need to do this over before-
“End log.” Eight-five’s robotic voice was a harsh contrast to Edgar Neilson’s heartfelt words. To Sherrin, they sounded more like a confession than a report. There was a long silence, during which neither Sherrin nor Ivor wanted to release the other’s hand.
“…What do you think he meant?” Sherrin finally asked in a small, timid voice.
“It’s…not exactly news,” Ivor said slowly.
“But…there’s never been conclusive evidence that-“
“Maybe no one wanted to call it conclusive.”
There was another long silence.
“Eight-five,” Sherrin started again. “Could you play the voice log of Reverend Isaac Chang?” She looked up at Ivor. “Just…for some perspective.”
Another man’s voice, but calmer and somehow more whole than the First Biologist’s.
I feel like I should start by putting together an idea of God’s place in all this. What God would have wanted for our people here, how He created this place for His plan, even after we carelessly cast aside His first home for us. But that really just feels…short-sighted and arrogant. The only thing I’ve ever learned for sure is that God will do what He wants, and the rest of us had better learn to accept it. He’s looking out for us, I’m sure, but it will make His job a lot easier if we don’t try to do it for Him.
The only thing I really know for sure is that probably as recently as a hundred years ago, probably even sooner, that the idea of flight into the stars-into supposedly His domain-would enrage the church past any hope of self preservation. And now, we have not only a new paradise, but more of God’s children to care for. In my daily prayers, I make sure to be thankful for both of these things.
Sherrin shifted uncomfortably. “That…wasn’t very helpful.”
“What exactly are you looking for?” Ivor asked, but rather than answer, Sherrin turned once again to Eight-five.
“Who were the other three who recorded voice logs?”
“Captain Eric Stears. First Mate Allison MacCreedy. Doctor Wilma Fisher.”
“Can we hear the log of Captain Eric Stears?” Sherrin asked, before looking up at Ivor. “He’s got to be more hopeful about human kind.”
Eric Stears, former Captain of Craft number Forty-six. Though, truth be told, it’d be easier if I was still the Captain. Things always get a lot simpler when I’m flying. You really only have two choices; find a way to make sure you survive, or fail, and die. And when you fail, well, not like you’d notice much, since you’d be dead already from the trying. My first mate might disagree with that philosophy, but when she gets promoted over me-and I know she will-she can work things however she wants.
We need to count ourselves as lucky. Compared to those who didn’t find a habitable planet…hell, compared with those who never made it off old Earth. We have a chance, and that’s all anybody ever gets. And you Thornies…well, I sure hope there’s some of you around to still listen to this.
(Brief pause.) I try not to complain. Not just out loud, but also to myself. Deep inside, where no one can see. It just…it doesn’t do any good. Of course things are different here. Of course there’s a lot of hard work. And that’s not exactly what I want to complain about, which is the weird thing. There’s plenty around here that a normal person could complain about, and while it’d sure as hell be annoying, no one would think they were crazy for it. The thing is…the thing is, I’m not so sure we were supposed to survive. Not just us, the whole damn species. We destroyed our one shot. Destroyed it. And it’s not like we didn’t know we were doing it, there were thousands of signs and warnings, and we just couldn’t stop ourselves. We were…we were a fire. A fire will burn through just about anything it gets, until it can’t get anything else, and it burns itself out. So why didn’t that happen to us? We used up everything, and it should have stopped there. But now there’s a whole new shiny lump of coal to rip right through, and no one so much as hesitated before diving in.
But…how can I complain? My children were born here. We have a life here. We have a chance to…well, hell if I know. (Brief pause.) Hell if I know.
“Play the one from Doctor Wilma Fisher,” Sherrin insisted, her eyes pained and half wild.
Doctor Fisher reporting, like the captain made me do, and also under formal protest. But here we are. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be saying right now. Especially since I should be working and not dilly-dallying on some fool’s errand. There’s something to be said for maintaining the past and learning and so on, but this is ridiculous. There is nothing that we have done that has outshone that of a simple computer program, and yet this whole colony is being treated like some big accomplishment.
Here’s the thing. I became a doctor to help people. And I nearly wiped out an entire species of…well, come on. Except by using the word human alone, there’s no way we can describe ourselves in a way that excludes the Thornies, by definition. They are as much people as we are, and yet we can never measure up to them. Yes, I said it. We can never measure up to them. And the part that stays with us through all this? The computer program. How we were so clever to create something that understands a people that never needed understanding before we even came along. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as happy as anyone that we’re finally on solid ground, but there is absolutely no reason to get excited about it. Who is paying the penalty, exactly? Who is serving out the sentence for our crime?
This planet has done nothing but made frauds of us all.
“Dear God,” Sherrin whispered. She had drawn her legs up to her chest, and was now hiding her voice in the hollow between her knees. “…Now I know why they keep Eight-five so quiet. No one would want to hear all this.”
“There’s still one left, Sherrin,” Ivor murmured, resting a hand on the back of her head. She didn’t respond. Ivor let her be a moment before speaking again. “Eight-five, please play the final voice log, from the First Mate.”
Allison MacCreedy reporting, First Mate under Captain Eric Stears. And, let the record show that this was all his idea. I really don’t think you’re going to get everyone to do this, Eric. Just between you and me, and I know that there’s going to be precious few of you listening to this so I don’t mind a little secret-sharing, Eric’s really just got this hankering to be some wise old voice from beyond the grave for future generations. Bet you guys are all gonna be speaking some weird language anyway, so it’s not like you’ll even really get this.
Okay, guess I’ll stick to being serious now. I bet everyone else is talking about the Natives and…well…what we did. I might as well too, but I doubt I’ll say anything new. I know Edgar’s bent on making us all try to repent for the role we played, but honestly, I just want to know when it’s safe to say enough is enough. That sounds heartless. But that’s not it, you know? We’re not doing anyone any good by sitting around and moping about what terrible people we are. It happened, okay? We’ve got food we need to put on the table and roofs to put over our heads, not to mention establishing a stable form of government, standardized crops, and maintaining our previous technological advances to cry over spilled milk. I feel bad, I really do, but they wanted it this way. When your son saves up all his allowance to spend it on some really expensive piece of jewelry you know you didn’t need but you love anyway, you don’t spend weeks mourning over it when he could have been hopping himself up on toys and candy. That’s a terrible example since we really did need the Thornies’ help, and they really got off a lot worse than the hypothetical son ever did. But it’s still stupid. We can’t ever really understand it, so why waste away over it?
Okay, well, I think I’ve been locked up in here long enough. First Mate Allison MacCreedy signing off, I have a house to finish building.
“…What did she mean?” Sherrin looked up at Ivor, though he looked just as puzzled as she did. “They…wanted it this way?” Ivor looked at Sherrin, then at the make-shift body for Eight-five.
“Can you explain how exactly the Thornies-the natives to this planet-were wiped out?” Ivor asked. Eight-five remained silent.
“What was the official stance on the termination of the sentient natives of the planet?” Sherrin asked, trying Ivor’s approach. Eight-five still said nothing. Ivor sighed.
“I think it’s too abstract a thought,” he said with a small, regretful shrug. “Anyway, we-“
Ivor was cut off, very suddenly, by a beep coming from Eight-five. Both Ivor and Sherrin jumped, staring at Eight-five’s temporary body. “The native life forms expressed a deep love for the visiting species, for humans. They were unable to stop helping the humans, though the resources the humans required stripped the natural food sources that the natives required for basic survival. The humans did not know the consequences, did not understand the sacrifice that the natives were undertaking, until it was too late for the effects to be reversed. It has been speculated that the natives were unable to consider even saving themselves at the expense of the new arrivals. They cherished every life form, especially those that human kind is incapable of understanding as a life form. They considered the humans to have come under their care, and so considered themselves responsible, as parents for wayward children.” Eight-five stopped speaking; it never lost its monotone, but there was still somehow something changed in the voice.
“…Eight-five? Are you all right?” Sherrin asked softly. There was another, softer beep before Eight-five spoke again.
“It was an honor to work with such a people.”
The soft heat coming from the unit in front of Sherrin abruptly cut off; when asked again to respond, Eight-five either refused or couldn’t comply. For whatever reason, Eight-five had said its piece, as though giving some understanding of the race it had worked so hard with was enough for its own internal peace.