I’ve spent a lot of
time watching Earth—more than forty of that planet’s years. My arrival was in
response to the signal from our automated probe, which had detected that the
paper-skinned bipedal beings of that world had split the atom. The probe had
served well, but there were some things only a living being could do properly,
and assessing whether a lifeform should be contacted by the Planetary
Commonwealth was one.
It would have been
fascinating to have been present for that first fission explosion: it’s always
a fabulous thing when a new species learns to cleave the atom, the dawn for
them of a new and wondrous age. Of course, fission is messy, but one must glide
before one can fly; all known species that developed fission soon moved on to
the clean energy of controlled fusion, putting an end to need and want, to
poverty, to scarcity.
I arrived in the
vicinity of Earth some dozen Earth years after that first fission explosion—but
I could not set down upon Earth, for its gravity was five times that of our
homeworld. But its moon had a congenial mass; there I would weigh slightly less
than I did at home. And, just like our homeworld, which, of course, is itself
the moon of a gas-giant world orbiting a double star, Earth’s moon was tidally
locked, constantly showing the same face to its primary. It was a perfect place
for me to land my starbird and observe the goings-on on the
blue-and-white-and-infrared world below.
This moon, the soul
natural satellite of was devoid of atmosphere, bereft of water. I imagined our
homeworld would be similar if its volatiles weren’t constantly replenished by
material from Chirp-cluck-CHIRP-chirp, the gas-giant planet that so
dominated our skies; a naturally occurring, permanent magnetic-flux tube passed
a gentle rain of gases onto our world.
The moon that the
inhabitants of Earth called “the moon” (and “La Lune,” and a
hundred other things) was depressingly desolate. Still, from it I could easily
intercept the tens of thousands of audio and audiovisual transmissions spewing
out from Earth—and with a time delay of only four wingbeats. My starbird’s
computer separated the signals one from the other, and I watched and listened.
It took that computer
most of a smallyear to decipher all the different languages this species used,
but, by the year—being a planet, not a moon, Earth had only one kind of year—the
Earth people called 1958, I was able to follow everything that was happening
I was at once
delighted and disgusted. Delighted, because I’d learned that in the years since
that initial atomic test explosion had triggered our probe, the natives of this
world had launched their first satellite. And disgusted, because almost
immediately after developing fission, they had used those phenomenal energies
as weapons against their own kind. Two cities had been destroyed, and bigger
and more devastating bombs were still being developed.
Were they insane, I
wondered? It had never occurred to me that a whole species could be unbalanced,
but the initial fatal bombings, and the endless series of subsequent test
explosions of bigger and bigger weapons, were the work not of crazed
individuals but of the governments of this world’s most powerful nations.
I watched for two
more Earth years, and was about to file my report—quarantine this world; avoid
all contact—when my computer alerted me to an interesting signal coming from
the planet. The leader of the most populous of the nations on the western shore
of the world’s largest ocean was making a speech: “Now it is time,” he was
saying, “to take longer strides”—apparently significant imagery for a walking
species—”time for a great new American enterprise; time for this nation to take
a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the
key to our future on Earth...”
Yes, I thought. Yes.
I listened on, fascinated.
“I believe this
nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade”—a
cluster of ten Earth years—“is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning
him safely to the Earth...”
Finally, some real
progress for this species! I tapped the ERASE node with a talon, deleting my
At home, these “Americans,”
as their leader had called them, were struggling with the notion of equality
for all citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. I know, I know—to
beings such as us, with frayed scales ranging from gold to green to purple to
ultraviolet, the idea of one’s coloration having any significance seems
ridiculous, but for them it had been a major concern. I listened to hateful
rhetoric: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” And I
listened to wonderful rhetoric: “I have a dream that one day this nation will
rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be
self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” And I watched as public
sentiment shifted from supporting the former to supporting the latter, and I
confess that my dorsal spines fluttered with emotion as I did so.
fledgling space program continued: single-person ships, double-person ships,
the first dockings in space, a planned triple-person ship, and then...
And then there was a
fire at the liftoff facility. Three “humans”—one of the countless names this
species gave itself—were dead. A tragic mistake: pressurized space vehicles
have a tendency to explode in vacuum, of course, so someone had landed on the
idea of pressurizing the habitat (the “command module,” they called it) at only
one-fifth of normal, by eliminating all the gases except oxygen, normally a
fifth-part of Earth’s atmosphere...
Still, despite the
horrible accident, the humans went on. How could they not?
And, soon, they came
here, to the moon.
I was present at that
first landing, but remained hidden. I watched as a figure in a white suit
hopped off the last rung of a ladder and fell at what must have seemed to it a
slow rate. The words the human spoke echo with me still: “That’s one small step
for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
And, indeed, it truly
was. I could not approach closely, not until they’d departed, but after they
had, I walked over—even in my environmental sack, it was easy to walk here on
my wingclaws. I examined the lower, foil-wrapped stage of their landing craft,
which had been abandoned here. My computer could read the principal languages
of this world, having learned to do so with aid of educational broadcasts it
had intercepted. It informed me that the plaque on the lander said, “Here men
from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969. We came in peace
for all mankind.”
My spines rippled.
There was hope for this race. Indeed, during the time since that speech
about longer strides, public opinion had turned overwhelmingly against what
seemed to be a long, pointless conflict being fought in a tropical nation. They
didn’t need quarantining; all they needed, surely, was a little time...
species! Their world made only three and half orbits around its solitary sun
before what was announced to be the last journey here, to the moon, was
completed. I was stunned. Never before had I known a race to turn its back on
space travel once it had begun; one might as well try to crawl back into the
shards of one’s egg ...
these humans did just that. Oh, there were some perfunctory missions to low
orbit, but that was all.
Yes, there had been
other accidents—one on the way to the moon, although there were no casualties;
another, during which three people died when their vessel depressurized on
reentry. But those three were from another nation, called “Russia,” and that
nation continued its space efforts without missing a wingbeat. But soon
Russia’s economy collapsed—of course! This race still hadn’t developed
controlled fusion; indeed, there was a terrible, terrible accident at a fission
power-generating station in that nation shortly before it fell apart.
Still, perhaps the
failure of Russia had been a good thing. Not that there was anything inherently
evil about it, from what I could tell—indeed, in principle, it espoused the
values that all other known civilized races share—but it was the rivalry between
it and the nation that had launched the inhabited ships to the moon that had
caused an incredible escalation of nuclear-weapons production. Finally, it
seemed, they would abandon that madness...and perhaps if abandoning space
exploration was the price to pay for that, maybe, just maybe, it was worth it.
I was in a quandary.
I had spent much longer here than I’d planned to—and I’d as yet filed no
report. It’s not that I was eager to get home—my brood had long since grown
up—but I was getting old; my frayed scales were losing their flexibility, and
they were tinged now with blue. But I still didn’t know what to tell our
And so I crawled back
into my cryostasis nest. I decided to have the computer awaken me in one of our
bigyears, a time approximately equal to a dozen Earth years. I wondered what I
would find when I awoke...
What I found was
absolute madness. Two neighboring countries threatening each other with nuclear
weapons; a third having announced that it, too, had developed such things; a
fourth being scrutinized to see if it possessed them; and a fifth—the one that
had come to the moon for all mankind—saying it would not rule out first strikes
with its nuclear weapons.
No one was using
controlled fusion. No one had returned to the moon.
Shortly after I
awoke, tragedy struck again: seven humans were aboard an orbital vehicle called
Columbia—a reused name, a name I’d heard before, the name of the command
module that had orbited the moon while the first lander had come down to the
surface. Columbia broke apart during reentry, scattering debris over a
wide area of Earth. My dorsal spines fell flat, and my wing claws curled
tightly. I hadn’t been so sad since one of my own brood had died falling out of
Of course, my
computer continued to monitor the broadcasts from the planet, and it provided
me with digests of the human response.
I was appalled.
The humans were
saying that putting people into space was too dangerous, that the cost in lives
was too high, that there was nothing of value to be done in space that couldn’t
be done better by machines.
This from a race that
had spread from its equatorial birthplace by walking—walking!—to cover
most of their world; only recently had mechanical devices given them the
ability to fly.
But now they could
fly. They could soar. They could go to other worlds!
But there was no
need, they said, for intelligent judgment out in space, no need to have
thinking beings on hand to make decisions, to exalt, to experience directly.
They would continue to
build nuclear weapons. But they wouldn’t leave their nest. Perhaps because of
their messy, wet mode of reproduction, they’d never developed the notion of the
stupidity of keeping all one’s eggs in a single container ...
So, what should I
have done? The easiest thing would have been to just fly away, heading back to
our homeworld. Indeed, that’s what the protocols said: do an evaluation, send
in a report, depart.
Yes, that’s what I
should have done.
That’s what a machine
would have done. A robot probe would have just followed its programming.
But I am not a robot.
It required judgment.
I could have done it
at any point when the side of the moon facing the planet was in darkness, but I
decided to wait until the most dramatic possible moment. With a single sun, and
being Earth’s sole natural satellite, this world called the moon was
frequently eclipsed. I decided to wait until the next such event was to occur—a
trifling matter to calculate. I hoped that a disproportionately large number of
them would be looking up at their moon during such an occurrence.
And so, as the shadow
of Earth—the shadow of that crazy planet, with its frustrating people, beings
timid when it came to exploration but endlessly belligerent toward each other—moved
across the moon’s landscape, I prepared. And once the computer told me that the
whole of the side of the moon facing Earth was in darkness, I activated my
starbird’s laser beacons, flashing a ruby light that the humans couldn’t
possibly miss, on and off, over and over, through the entire period of
They had to wait
fourteen of Earth’s days before the moon’s face was naturally all in darkness
again, but when it was, they flashed a replying beacon up at me. They’d clearly
held off until the nearside’s night in hopes that I would shine my lasers
against the blackness in acknowledgment.
And I did—just that
once, so there would be no doubt that I was really there. But although they
tried flashing various patterns of laser light back at me—prime numbers,
pictograms made of grids of dots—I refused to respond further.
There was no point in
making it easy for them. If they wanted to talk further, they would have to
come back up here.
Maybe they’d use the
same name once again for their ship: Columbia.
I crawled back into
my cryostasis nest, and told the computer to wake me when humans landed.
“That’s not really
prudent,” said the computer. “You should also specify a date on which I should
wake you regardless. After all, they may never come.”
“They’ll come,” I
“Perhaps,” said the
I lifted my wings,
conceding the point. “Very well. Give them...” And then it came to me, the
perfect figure... “until this decade is out.”
After all, that’s all
it took the last time.