21 December 2012

"Not As We Know It"

By Curtis C. Chen

"Here we go." Renfti pushed the button. "End of the world."

Sarlmon watched the flashing red color spread across the map on the wall display for a second, then sat down at the control station next to his student. "You seem confident of the outcome."

Renfti folded her hands and smiled. "I've studied this species for a long time. They're quite gregarious—almost pathologically so. Cut off their social contact, and they start losing their minds."

Sarlmon nodded. "An interesting hypothesis."

"I've tested it with several small groups," Renfti said. "Same results every time. The key is to isolate them, remove all objective evidence from external sources, then initiate a dominance struggle. It never ends well."

"But to reproduce that on a large scale?" Sarlmon asked. "Surely you can't expect these beings to self-isolate everywhere. Cultural and geographical differences will provoke different responses across the planet."

"Some things are hard-wired into the brain." An alert popped up on Renfti's console, and she tapped at her controls. "Survival instincts remain, because the genes are selfish. Civilization alters the dynamics and causes instinctual responses to have undesirable results..." She frowned. "That's unusual."

"Let me guess," Sarlmon said, "something unexpected in one of the large population centers, probably a coastal city."

Renfti gaped at him. "How did you know?"

"My dear, you are not the first candidate who's ever tried to defend this thesis." Sarlmon waved at the wall display. "Show me the data, please."

The map zoomed in, and one shaded area resolved into clusters of pulsing red dots. As Sarlmon and Renfti watched, one particular cluster moved upward, accreting other red dots.

"This doesn't make sense," Renfti said, poking at her controls. "An anomaly. One bad datum. It won't affect the outcome."

"How many individuals in that cluster?" Sarlmon asked.

"The computer estimate is..." Renfti shook her head. "That can't be right."

"How many?"

"Nearly a thousand!" Renfti hammered at her controls. "There must be some mistake. They couldn't have self-organized that quickly; the communication issues alone would be insurmountable—"

"They're moving." Sarlmon pointed at the screen. "Where are they going? Can you overlay the radar scan?"

"Yes, Professor. There." The display flickered, and the translucent blue ghosts of buildings and structures appeared, cobalt-tinged jars around the teeming crimson fireflies. "Oh no. No, no, no..."

"Let me guess," Sarlmon said. "A launch facility."

A large red sphere blossomed in the base of one of the blue structures, and alarms began sounding all around the two scholars. Renfti screeched. Sarlmon slapped his override and began programming a transfer orbit.

"I don't understand!" Renfti wailed. "It should have worked! All the simulations were positive!"

"Nuclear-capable societies are always complicated," Sarlmon said as he piloted the ship out of weapons range. "I'm afraid your experiment is over, my dear. They've seen us. It's the military's problem now.

"Oh, stop blubbering. Your next course will be Earth history. Learning how we survived our nuclear age should help you understand how to make things go wrong on these undesirable alien worlds."


Image: wifi stations in berlin by Michael Kreil, April, 2011