Aphelion Issue 278, Volume 26
November 2022
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When the Gods Fall

by John Hickman

"This is the moment I hate," she said quietly, watching the pretty terrestrial moon roll beneath her.

"What's that?" he asked without looking up from the forward instrument panel of their spacecraft.

"This is the moment that I hate," she repeated, louder this time so that she would be audible over the electronic hum of the instruments surrounding them.

He looked over at her from the co-pilot's chair without responding. She could sense his eyes on her. And she could feel her own eyes beginning to tear and was shamed by the physical betrayal of her sadness. So much for being the hard-hearted spaceship captain.

Her first officer let the silence hang between them a moment longer before asking, "Captain, should I prepare for deployment of the next generation?"

Regaining her composure she responded, "Better check on the status of the first wave before we send in the next. Make sure they've achieved all that we anticipated."

"I'm on it," he said before unbuckling and pushing himself aft.

She glanced at him as he glided from the cockpit toward their charges, and then returned her gaze to 55 Cancri 4a. Such a lovely little world, she mused, to be inhabited by such ugly sentients.

The terrestrial moon's human discoverer, Volker von Noerenberg, scion of a very old Prussian Junker family, or so he claimed at least, had named it Neu Pomerania in honor of German territory lost in the wars in the twentieth century. Back on Earth, the name elicited only mildly worded protests from President and Prime Minister of Poland and from the Czar-President of Greater Russia.

They were too busy squabbling over shares of the Common Eurasian Agricultural Fund to bother squabbling about the territorial 'adjustments' way back in the unhappy 20th century, an era increasingly romanticized in popular entertainment. Instead, alternatives to the name came from a different quarter.

When the press released the first video feed of the sentient pseudo-insectile indigenes, other names for the world were offered. Although the indigenes looked less like ants than beetles, the disturbing way they crawled over one another caused the host of a popular Algiers evening talk show to call the world Hormigacia, and the appellation stuck for Spanish speakers. That same disturbing swarming behavior caused a North American Union Congressman from the Missouri Ozarks to dub the world 'Bugtussel,' and the name proved popular with English speakers. For Japanese speakers it became Bagu-rando and adorable animated versions of its denizens introduced as a popular children's virtual reality series. Even German speakers were unhappy with the name Neu Pomerania. They replaced it with Wanzemond, although the Neu Pomeranians didn't look much like bedbugs either.

The unfortunate von Noerenberg was displeased by the alternative names offered up by the masses on Earth that he simply stopped speaking to the press.

With this mission, the terrestrial moon 41 light years from Sol had been visited five times by humans, surreptitiously observing the planets and its inhabitants from orbit. The first and second missions by von Noerenberg had found the planet, mapped its geography, and verified that the indigenes were sapient. The third mission saw the first human effort to stimulate the sort of development that might make the indigenes worth sustained interaction when formal contact was initiated. Simple metal tools scattered near hives had produced the hoped for economic surpluses, with larger hives and craft production observed by the fourth mission. Then the fourth mission had left the eight temple gods for the indigenes to discover.


She could hear the concern in his voice through her communications implant, "the data streams from our divinities are a... sub-optimal."

"I'm coming aft," she responded, unbolting and thrusting herself from the cabin in a single movement.

"There's nothing current coming in through the external sensors from divinities One through Six," he was already explaining as she glided into the c3 core unit. "Each of those units is now in the same location by the way; somewhere near the largest river delta on the primary continent. I'm uploading their stored data now. The other two are offering live data streams with extractable meaning but they're both poor."

'Where are they?" she asked.

"Divinities Seven and Eight are now together on the coast of the secondary continent. Seems that Seven was moved to the original location of Eight."

"Show me the data stream from the better of those two," she instructed.

"Bringing it up," he responded as holographic screens appeared above the console. "There is no audio available, just images."

"What are we looking at?" she squinted at the fuzzy images. At first all that she could discern was random motion in portions of the screens.

"Much of it looks like dirt or scratches on the lenses," he offered. "Divinity Seven seems to be lying on its side; Divinity Eight is still upright."

"Can you extract information from whatever's beyond the problems with the surface of the lens on Eight?" she expressed it as a question although she knew the answer.

"Filtering," he murmured.

What emerged next on the right screen was the "face" of a single indigene moving back and forth in front of the camera. Two large compound eyes dominated a visage that included horny serrations, patches of threadlike cilia around a mouth and two antennae. The slick leathery tissues connecting the creature’s face to the inside of the hard carapace completed an image that made the captain’s skin crawl.

As she and first officer watched, the creature seemed to rock back and forth, rhythmically touching the lens with its mouth. The captain understood that the orifice to be a true mouth -- used for ingestion of nourishment -- because she had read the reports of the dissections conducted by von Noerenberg. "What's it doing? Gnawing? Kissing?"

"Either is a reasonable speculation. The language programs are analyzing the stored data from the other six," he responded. "That should give us an idea how our little friends down there actually interpreted the divinities. The only mandible vibration meanings recognizable from the previous mission language catalogs are 'submit to insemination' and 'emptiness.' Presumably either or both could reference religion."

"Or frustration," she responded.

"There is one nice datum we already have from the other six dieties," he said. "Each one exhausted its capacity to produce ecdysteroid and eclosion hormone by the second year after placement. They were designed to produce for a half century."

"Our gifts seem to have been very popular," she smirked. But that was as much wit as she dared. However amused they both might be by the results, too much banter like that could be the basis for a sexual harassment charge after they returned. "Call me when the results from the language analysis are ready. I'm going to drop a couple of probes to get a closer look."

Knowing exactly what the law on sexual harassment or anything else might be when they returned involved guesswork. Thirty years out here and thirty years back to Sol System was a long time for social conventions to change. They would experience only two and a half years in relativistic time but the culture of Earth could transform itself dramatically in the corresponding two generations of non-relativistic time. 'For all I know,' she thought, 'elites might be even more puritanical when we get back. Then again, maybe they'll have become sexual libertines.' Besides, no one could be trusted in a competitive profession, she told herself. Not even 41 light years from the nearest law office and court house. Best to play it safe.'

"Will do, Captain," he answered as he watched her zero gee spiral toward to the tube bay under the Puthoff-Haisch Drive. 'Now that was a definite departure from the norm,' he mused. Fifteen months of silence interspersed with occasional disciplined communication about the tasks at hand had taught him to expect nothing but 'botically cold conversation. Chilly as the interstellar wastes he'd been warned before departing Sol System, and so she was.

One at a time she hauled their planetary probes to the launch tube using the large servo arm bolted to the conventional ceiling of the tube bay. Trajectories punched in, she fired them toward the planet below. The mission plan called for them to be dropped onto one of rocky inner worlds to collect meteorological data to fill in some of the gaps left from previous missions to the system. The captain knew that their use on Neu Pomerania instead would be chalked up against her in the final mission reports, unless decisive action were taken to achieve overall project objectives. The Open Skies Company expected nothing less than perfection from any missions and punished personnel perceived to have failed in the slightest respect. The thought that 'stupid beetles' were messing with her career plans smoldered. With a migraine beginning to pound she pushed off toward the medical bay to look for relief.


"Captain, I've got a lot more useable data for you to see." Her first officer had given her two hours in peace.

"On my way." She responded, pulling herself loose from the spidery nano-web of the diagnostic-treatment chamber and kicking hard toward what she hoped was enough information to make a command decision.

Halfway into the chamber she was heard him say, "I think we're getting a better idea what happened to the gods."

"What do we know?"

"We know that the deities got plenty of adoring attention from the bugs in the beginning. Then something went wrong near the end of the second orbital year after emplacement. According to our AIAnalyst, repetition of mandible vibrations and posturing indicating obeisance and supplication climbed a steep slope shortly before a statistical collapse and then the toppling of deities One through Six on the main continent and their disposal."

At her first officer's command the AI analyst projected selected archived images from the peak period. The Captain watched as the indigenes struggled to climb over one another to press their faces or their cloacas against the hormone emitters or to stroke the upraised major mandibles of the massive statues. "Looks like they exhausted the emitters within a year of emplacement and then clawed out the sensors. Now there's a major design flaw."

"Whoever designed it will be dead or uploaded by the time we get back," she responded. "Either way they won't be held accountable. Can you give an image stream from before the scrum at the emitters becomes too intense?"

"Here we go. Picture a little more orderly this time."

She disliked the way he voiced his thoughts, thinking that it displayed weakness, but what she saw on the screen absolutely repulsed her. A face, recognizable even in an insect, appeared before the camera lens. Although she know it to be anthropomorphic fallacy, she thought she could detect a suffering dignity in the posture of the creature as it stood, waved its two forward mandibles rhythmically and then extended them from its body perpendicular to the floor. She swallowed hard and looked away from the creature focusing on the floor around it, surface smeared and crusted with debris. "What's that on the floor?"

"Magnifying... looks like pieces of smashed pupae and crushed larvae," he responded. After a pause he asked softly, "Why would any species treat its young like that?"

"That's simply disgusting," she commented to herself as much as to her first officer. "They aren't going to want to see this back on Earth." The implication that the mission might be held accountable hung unspoken in the air between them.

"We aren't responsible for this," he commented. "Open Skies gets to own this disaster. Not me; and not you."

She heard the bitter, almost rebellious tone in his voice before calmly corrected him. "Open Skies will want to hold someone accountable and we are likely to be only living representatives of the mission when we return."

"You think it will be us?"

There was silence for a moment as the prospect of returning in ignominy rather than fame floated in the air between them.

"Look," he said, "We are going to have to offer a complete accounting of what took place here when we return. There's no escaping telling the truth. I think it will be tough, but we will have to explain how the mission failed and what it did to our friends down there... we can offer them reparations for the harm done. Direct trade might accomplish what our efforts could not in terms of cultural and economic development. In any event, I am going to spill my guts about what we've seen and what went wrong here."

"I am going aft," she said as she kicked away from him, uninterested in what he would have said further.

He blinked her abrupt departure and wrinkled his brow wondering at the coldness she had always brought to their encounter. She was unfathomable. Maybe there were no depths to plumb. Sometimes apparently deep still waters prove nothing more than a thin film on a reflective surface.


If you plan correctly, there are no negative outcomes. The Open Skies executives had said that repeatedly during her training. She knew what was necessary to do now that the effort to raise the creatures below to a level of civilization that would make attempting economic exchange worthwhile had failed, as predicted. 'Ugly creatures,' she thought again. 'They had been the chance to succeed but had failed to live up the challenge and opportunity presented. Rather like her first officer.'

The microbes released into the atmosphere of Neu Pomerania would be inhaled by the first victims as the large continent rolled toward the sunrise the next morning. Their agonizing deaths and that of all their kind would be a worthwhile sacrifice.

When they had left on this mission, more than a billion human climate change refugees had spent a century in squalid camps in South Asia and East Africa, surviving only because of internal nutrient nano-recyclers that "fed" them and the endless virtual reality and saturation soporifics that kept them too weak-willed to even consider rebelling. Because of the extinction event that would take place in the following days on Neu Pomerania, a few million of those refugees would have a pretty new world to settle. She imagined that, centuries hence, when the truth about what she had done emerged, her decision would be celebrated by the descendants of those settlers. Perhaps a statue would be erected in her likeness. She sighed as she took another look at the world with its soon to be dying multitudes, and then triggered the ignition sequence to fire the engines that would take the ship out of orbit and begin the long journey back to Earth.

She would travel home alone. The lifeless body of her first officer spun awkwardly in a decaying orbit. A fiery descent into the atmosphere would be his grave, his silence added to that of the world below.


© 2008 John Hickman

Bio: John Hickman is Associate Professor of Government at Berry College, where he teaches courses on Comparative Politics, Science Fiction and Politics, War Crimes and Genocide, and Research Methods. He holds both a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. His non-fiction work has been published in African Development Review, American Asian Review, Asian Perspective, American Politics Research, Comparative State Politics, Comparative Strategy, Contemporary South Asia, Current Politics and Economics of Asia, East European Quarterly, Extropolation, Journal of Evolution and Technology, Journal of Southern Europe and the Balkans, Jouvert, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Political Science, Review of Religious Research, South Asian Journal of Socio-Political Studies, Women & Politics, and Yamanashigakuin Law Review. Mr. Hickman's story Audience of One appeared in the November 2007 edition of Aphelion.

E-mail: John Hickman

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