Fuck, I’m cold.
It’s miserable out, as wretched as the apocalypse. It’s pitch-black dark, and there’s an inferno of snow swirling, and a wind chill factor pushing the mercury well below zero. And I mean zero Fahrenheit.
And it’s a July afternoon in New York City.
I’ve just ducked into a soup place on forty-ninth, one of the few places still open and serving. A lot of places have been closed down. From what I gather, it’s like that everywhere. It’s not just restaurants and shops, but entire cities that are dark and derelict: All of civilization has been abandoned. All hope... abandoned. Everything human is coming to an end.
A couple weeks ago I placed a call to my boss. I told him there would be "no environmental impact" to the project. That was my final report -- that one call. That was all anyone wanted to know. Since then I’ve had the occasional flicker of doubt about that call, and the report I made.
But something always reassures me, when doubt sets in, that my report was correct and justified. Just before I got in the door to this soup joint, for instance, I heard a guy telling his girlfriend that things couldn’t get much worse, because "even if we never see the sun again, we still have the light of the moon."
Isn’t this entire species a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards?
Let’s say that it’s a summer’s day, with trees robed in green and flowers lending the air their perfume. Butterflies jitter through the soft afternoon, and life is in full foment with all its moods and modes and attitudes. Then the sky goes black.
It’s not clouds. It’s not locusts in a massive swarm blotting heaven overhead. Once your eyes adjust, you see the stars... is it a solar eclipse? That might be one explanation -- except that no occulting moon or flaring solar corona is up there amid all those stars. The sun, you realize with a jolt, has disappeared. Not exploded, not collapsed... but, rather, simply ceased to be there.
And slowly, you realize (or learn from the news) that because the sun is gone, so is its light, which means no more warmth. Talking heads debate: How long will the atmosphere and oceans, and the heat-retaining bulk of the Earth itself, keep us warm? A month? A little longer?
The nights were always lonely, but there’s something unbearable about this unbroken pall. The world’s shocked chatterati has decided that it’s loneliness: Because the sun’s mass is no longer there, neither is its gravitational pull. There is nothing to tether Earth or any of the other planets to an orbit, so the familiar worlds that were Earth’s cosmic next of kin -- Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn -- fly in lines unbent, heading straight out of the solar system. Asteroids, comets, planetoids, and planetesimals all follow suit. It’s not even a solar system any more; there’s no star at the center of things to provide an anchor. Now what used to be the solar system is nothing more than debris, and that debris is scattering in every direction.
Let the chatterati chatter and the commentariat comment, as it seems they must. (Funny how not even the literal End of Days, and this plunge into eternal night, has shut them up.) I think the loneliness we’re hearing so much about now is just another form of the existential panic that’s always been rooted in the human psyche. Earth and her living creatures were always sailing lost through the void; now the terror of it cannot be warmed away and blotted out with sunshine.
So, that day a couple of weeks ago. Let me say more about that. My colleague Sam was on the phone to the guys in Hong Kong.
"Yes, sir," he was saying, "we have that report ready to go. No sir, there will be no delays. The project can start immediately. There will be no environmental impact."
I knew this was a filthy fucking lie. The project in question was a hydroelectric dam in Colombia. The dam was going to flood hundreds of thousands of acres, drowning whole forests and dislocating more than twenty villages. The dam was also going to parch hundreds of thousands of acres downstream -- trees, farms, and people left to dust and thirst. There was going to be a whole lot of environmental impact, but this goon Sam was rubber-stamping wanton destruction with a massive falsehood. He was doing it for money.
Guys like Sam were doing this sort of thing, and worse, every single day. But if Sam thought he was the lucky bastard inflicting harm on distant, unseen others... if he thought he was isolated from the sort of misery he was doling out... then he should have thought more carefully. His neighborhood, too, was in someone else’s sites. His children, too, were going to become casualties to someone else’s ambition.
I had my own call to place that same morning, with an identical report of "no environmental impact." Only I wasn’t using a telephone. I was using an iso-quark ansible. (I know it sounds clumsy and imposing, a monstrous buzzing thing that must make a hell of a fuss and take twenty people to manage. Actually, it’s not at all, but that’s as close to an English language translation as I can manage.) I was calling in not to Hong Kong, but to a star system so far away the astronomers of planet Earth would never even have seen the sun that lights the skies of my superiors, let alone detected the planet where they drew their magnificent plans.
My god, this soup is good, hot and delicious -- fleeting vestige of comfort on a planet facing deep-frozen extinction. The restaurant is half full, with diners sipping quietly at their oversized spoons, staring into their bowls with the blank expressions that have become ubiquitous.
You’d think the human race would have gone berserk... I expected them to. After all, the sun was their primal god, which only makes sense because it literally was the source of all life on Earth -- except for a few microbes sustained deep in the rocks by geothermal energy, and maybe some big wormy things clinging to volcanic vents deep undersea. Some of those organisms might even endure, but that’s little comfort to the collective human soul.
That’s not to say there was no mass panic at all. There was; but it was short-lived: A week of hysteria... maybe not even that long, maybe just a few days. Then everyone’s fear and panic seemed to cool off, like the planet itself. Everybody’s gone numb -- with cold, with grief, with disbelief. The end is well in sight, but nobody’s proclaiming Rapture or God’s Wrath. It’s like everyone’s simply rolled over and given up. Like no one has the gumption to raise a ruckus any longer. With the light in the sky gone, the light in these people is gone too... it’s curious. I’d reflect on it more if I had the time.
It’s just as well, because I prefer calm and quiet. There’s an extravagant, gripping beauty to it, also: The streets snowy and still; the slow shuffle and muffled voices of creatures saving their energy. It’s like a world-wide bedtime, like everyone’s ready to accept one final nightcap and just turn in. It makes sense in its own way. It’s the start of a very dark and very silent night; the lights are going out, after all, and to the terrestrial animal that’s a trigger for sleep.
Might as well go quietly, with some dignity and grace. In some places, the power has failed. How much longer before the heating goes -- before natural gas freezes in the pipelines, the way water’s doing? How long before the atmosphere itself lay in a shimmering blanket across the frozen surface?
Imagine a whole planet buried in nitrogen frost, like the city of Pompeii written large. Families in their beds, preserved for all eternity -- together forever. I almost envy them their peace, the certainty of the long centuries and aeons they’ll spend in their frigid embrace.
Arthur C. Clarke once set out a list of kinds of civilizations. He called hypothetical beings who had harnessed the complete energy resource of their planet Type I. Any intelligence that could harness the total energy resource of a star, Clarke dubbed Type II. And Type III? That would be a civilization more akin to gods than human beings; a civilization that could harness an entire galaxy.
But my people transcend even Type III. We don’t simply harness the power of galaxies; we are in the process of constructing a galaxy of our own. How can I compare what we’re doing to anything that exists on this planet, where you all are barely past the Stone Age?
We’re gathering the best river cobbles to create an artfully assembled wall. We’re shaping a luminous mosaic, each element chosen with great care, one eye to the whole and the other to each tiny constituent piece. We’re clear-cutting a forest to build a luxurious gated community.
Well, none of this does justice to our plan. We are, in fact, using a type of matter transtactic to pluck entire suns from their spots in this galaxy and others, and assembling... dot by bright, shiny dot... a galaxy of our own, a few hundred thousand light years Cosmic North of the Milky Way. A planned galaxy, constructed of youthful, energetic, long living stars, arranged in a manner that promotes maximal habitable space -- a galaxy that will provide us a home for the next 6 billion years or so.
We’re not just engineers; we’re artisans. We’re not simply re-shaping our environment; we’re mastering and remaking it. We’re not cowering before the galaxy-sterilizing might of the hyper-nova, or the slow radiation poisoning of increasing white dwarf and X-ray star counts, or the radiation-spewing invertefracted black hole... oh wait, you don’t know about those yet. Never mind. It need not worry you now.
My point is, we have plans that change the face of the universe, and we have the means to carry out those plans. Does that make us a Type IV civilization? Type V? Does your own creed of manifest destiny, industrial development, and capitalist progress embrace and celebrate us, even as we wipe you out for purposes of our own? Are we gods to you? Or destroyers? I suppose that, really, we are both.
We’re so good at engineering matter on scales vast and minute that hours from now, when I am back home, I’ll no longer be in human form. This soup would disgust me in my native physiognomy. For the moment, being a man, I live like a man and I enjoy it -- the whole experience, I mean, the novelty of lacking some of my native senses and exploring other, novel ones... like taste and smell, senses we don’t possess in our native form. That’s why this soup is such a rare treat: Hot, salty, spicy, savory with the sensation the Japanese call umami. I’ll bet they used some MSG in this. Whatever, it’s a recipe soon to be lost forever, so I savor every slurp. It’s a last supper and a way to keep warm while you poor people freeze solid, your world becoming a monument and crypt.
Losing your species? I almost had qualms. But really, look at yourselves and then tell me that eradicating you really does constitute an impact to the cosmos -- the environment in its largest sense.
But take heart. In a way, we’re not destroying you at all; we’re preserving you before you can destroy yourselves. You were on a road with no return; now you’ll simply never get there, to the destination you’d devised for yourselves. You’ll be a cautionary lesson suspended in amber... in ice, rather. Think of it: In a week, in two weeks, your entire world will be a museum, or a sort of artifactual document of a failed race. While other races perish in the flames of aging stars, yours will persist in a cool and placid permanence, the Earth soaring forever between the stars in a state of perfection, entropy denied its ruinous work on your treasures. Even your mistakes will remain changelessly outside of time, your virtues and vices and Great Pyramids and Venus de Milo constituting a dazzling, deathless trove for any curious species who, unlike us, might be deeply curious about who you are.
I mean, who you were.