He knelt on one knee with his head down in thought. The world around him was ablaze, but he paid no attention. The hungry flames licked disappointedly at his immortal skin. The fauna that had called this forest home had deserted it ahead of the wildfire’s arrival. Only the trees remained to be consumed by the inferno. While the deer and the birds had fled this chaos, he embraced it. To him it meant solitude. To him it was a place on Earth where he did not have to hide. It was a place where he could think.
He looked up at the force of nature before him. The flaming redwoods even dwarfed this giant. The smoke billowed up through the canopy in an orange glow. The hills in the distance danced with flames through the black smoke. There was a deer carcass alight between the trees to his left. He watched as the once living organism returned to dust. The way it should be, he thought. Now, what was once a breathing creature was just matter subject to the laws of physics. He watched it burn.
It was not long before he felt his solitude disappear, and he was not surprised. The fire had hid his heat signature, but the models being run on the ship would eventually identify his decisions through the process of elimination. Still kneeling, naked, among the fire, he did not need to turn around to know who was behind him.
“Come to join me, brother?” he asked.
“No,” the familiar voice said, “I’ve come to save you.”
“Then you still do not posses understanding.” He said, standing to face his comrade. In the fire, he only saw the silhouette of his partner’s genetically engineered body, identical to his own.
“You are not a traitor. To stand against your duty will mean death. Death is a fate that you do not need to meet, my friend,” his comrade told him.
“If we continue as we are, it is a fate we will all meet. We only delay the inevitable,” he replied.
“You cannot give up. We can-”
“The humans must be killed, as with all other organisms on this planet. You know it to be true.”
“We can understand them if we keep working.”
“We have studied their behavior on this planet and orbited their star over 4,000 times. Their behavior is not predictable. We cannot model it. You must see that we have no choice.”
“No, my friend. They are the ones without a choice. Their minds are made of matter and nothing more. There conscious is therefore subject to the physical laws of the universe; every choice they will ever make can be calculated. Their decisions have already been predetermined just as the orbits of the planets in this system are. As our epistemic capabilities and our understanding of their species continues to increase, we will be able to model their behavior.”
“Planets are not self aware, brother. Planets do not decide to orbit. For this reason they can be predicted. These humans, though, do choose. Every choice they make changes the future of the universe drastically, second to second. The models have shown them doing great things to change the galaxy, the universe even. But it has also shown them destroying each other. The variance is too great. While their free will survives, our models can never successfully decide the fate of the universe with accuracy. If we are to survive this fate, we must have an accurate model. It is not a question of our epistemic capabilities anymore. It is their free will that disrupts our models. This question can only be answered once we reach omniscience, and they are the only ones standing in front of our goal.”
“This planet harbors the only other life in the universe. You can’t possibly expect me to join you in destroying it. It is this self-awareness which you speak of that makes life a special occurrence, but it does not give them free will. This is a causal universe. Every effect has a cause. These humans are just organized matter, functioning like clockwork. They are just biological machines. If we know the initial conditions and precisely how they function, we can predict everything they will ever do.”
“They are not just matter. They have drunk order from the universe, using the energy from their star, until they have become something more than matter, just as you and I have. They have become a grouping of matter that is so ordered, they can decide their own paths independent from the physical laws. Their bodies are subject to them, yes, but their minds are not.”
“My friend, it makes no difference how ordered matter becomes. There is nothing higher. It is still matter with a predetermined path. We just need to find it.”
“If their lives are predetermined, brother, then why do you cherish them so much? Are these lives not then meaningless?”
“I cherish them because their free will is a beautiful illusion. They will never understand that they are reading from the Universe’s script. They do not have the epistemic abilities to predict the future as we do. They do understand this. Lacking the ability to predict accurately forces false predictions to be compatible with both a predetermined life and one of free will. They can never possibly know the difference. So to them, whether or not they have free will does not matter. They will choose to believe the beautiful illusion, which is, to them, as good as having it.”
“This is not a time for sympathy. You, and our government, need to understand this. The humans are miniscule. They do not perceive time as we do. Unlike you and I, their lives are but a flash of light in the universe, incomparable with its timescale. You protect these insignificant beings while we have seen models where our next generation is forced to deal with the death of the universe. We need to act now or we will not be prepared to survive. This is our responsibility. This is why we were sent here.”
“No, my friend. We were sent here to understand. Not to destroy. When we were children, when our first star still burned, we were not so different from them. Soon they will be as we were. We cannot end them.”
“If they don’t destroy each other or their world first. You delay what they will do on their own.” He walked up to the redwood and felt its burning bark. “This tree will survive the death of its forest. We must be ready to survive the death of our universe.”
“It is not our universe. We share it with this planet, you must understand this.”
“If we do not return this planet to just that, a planet, we can never see the events to come and never be prepared. We have abducted them, we have studied their bodies, we have tried neurological implants, we have tried everything. It is over. By this time tomorrow, our quest for omniscience could be complete. Our mission will finally be over. We could return to our home as heroes.”
“Not at this cost! You are not completing your mission. You are giving up on it.”
“If you are not with me, then you must try to stop me. But I will not hesitate to end you too, brother.” He walked away from his comrade to his ship, invisible among the flames. He took off, heading to complete what he believed he need to do.
His comrade let out a cry of rage and despair and ran to his ship in pursuit of his brother.
more by KRAMER LINDELL
photograph by Wayne Dahleberg
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