Worlds depart; their light endures.
Over five years before, I had arrived on the planet we call DA3(1), the Third Daughter of star Alkahran and the only life-bearing body in the system. As with most planets, this one had no specific name in the language of its natives: they called their sun the Sun, their world the World, and its inhabitants People. This world was not dying, but signs of the extinction of its dominant species were already there: squeezed between a voracious and utterly unviable relationship to their habitat and a generalised sense of doom, the people of DA3(1) might yet recover, or they might not. The savants of the galaxy already mentioned them with the tinge of regret reserved for disappearing beauty. Recording the glow from their fading embers was the perfect job for an exoethnologist, and so I was given an assignment there, to gather as much as I could of their culture in case it was lost forever.
I had spent the past few months in a place called Montevideo, sipping mate tea from a gourd and adding sketches of parakeet vendors to a string of unsorted field notes, when the mental call from Brood Mother came.
‘The Grand Central Reactors have failed for good,’ she said, her voice shaking with more than interferences from stellar winds.
The implications did not reach my brain at once. It takes longer to form an adequate reaction when you have transformed your body into one of another species, and for a moment, all I could think of was the warm mate cup in my hand and how annoying it was to be unable to receive space transmissions properly.
‘We have to evacuate,’ Brood Mother said. ‘Me, your sisters, we all have to leave. They say it’s hopeless. There will never been enough fuel to start them again.’
I put the cup down. In the dying throes of our sun, the Grand Central Reactors were all that kept the cold at bay. If we had only known they would run out of energy so fast . . . .
‘How long is there left?’ I said.
‘A month or so. We can’t be sure. Please, daughter . . . please come back.’
I blinked. My eyes, native eyes in a native body I had composed five years before, suddenly seemed to remember the soft red light of my own sun, and the glare of DA3(1) blinded me. Getting near my ship would be simple enough: air transportation operated all over this planet. It was the last few dozen kilometres that worried me. I had left my transporter hidden on a remote island to make sure it would come to no harm, but that meant it would be days, at best, before I could reach it.
‘I’ll be there, Brood Mother,’ I quickly said before she could sense my uncertainty.
There are thousands of records of worlds ending, but I had never seen anything quite like the place they called World’s End in Tierra del Fuego: a colourful city sprawled between mountains still capped with snow, with the sea glistening greyish blue some distance away. Boats swayed in the port under a weak breeze: mostly travellers, people of means and wanderlust, with little need for extra crew. It might take days before I found someone to take me to the other end of the Beagle channel, through its maze of islands, to where the transporter waited for me.
It was a strange city, Ushuaia, a place where no one seemed to linger, and yet where everyone appeared to come seeking a truth of some sort. End of the World, it said everywhere, as if it was a great thing. I sat in a café full of tourists in expensive hiking gear, like a very expensive interstellar tourist myself.
I tried listening to the conversations around me, out of habit. But there was little I managed to record. After five years on another planet, in another body, taking notes on everything until it became second nature, all I could now think about was a reddish sky illuminated by a huge sun, with purple trees bending in the wind.
I finally embarked upon a sturdy steel-hulled schooner manned by three Frenchmen—a sailor, a violinist, and a biologist, who taught me about birds in between bouts of peering at seawater through a microscope. Less than two days into our voyage, there was already no trace of human occupation left around us. Glaciers dropped into the sea from black, naked mountaintops. Flocks of penguins, albatrosses and petrels fled before us, inaudible with the whistle of the wind in the halyards. Aside from these and the occasional sea lion surfacing like a black blot in the distance, there was no animal presence, although many beasts roamed the depths of the sea, my companions had assured me. I had never seen the near-mythical beast they called a whale, but around here, those animals were undisputed queens.
On my home world, there were very few places so entirely devoid of people.
‘Hasn’t anyone ever lived here?’ I asked.
‘They used to, yes. They were slaughtered.’
I remembered encountering countless black-and-white pictures in Ushuaia of a long-gone people wrapped in furs and staring at the camera with nostalgia. Their names, Selknam, Yaghan, Haush, Kawésqar, were mentioned with reverence. Nowhere did anyone allude to the fact that they had been exterminated in less than a century to make room for cattle and fishing boats.
We’d had our genocides at home too. We did not like discussing them in the open either, and I could only suppose that now the end had come, most people would prefer to feel sorry for themselves and forget past guilt. That was how it seemed to be happening on DA3(1), at any rate.
‘Would you like a sip?’ my biologist companion offered, handing me the mate cup, once the waves calmed down a little.
It was a welcome respite from thinking. We sat together in the cockpit, enjoying a few minutes of warmth from the tiny, bright yellow sun.
‘You’re very silent,’ one of them observed. ‘Is everything fine?’
It was. It had to be. The panicked call this morning from Brood Mother was nothing; you would expect her to feel nervous in a time like this, and I was going to the transporter as fast as I could. I had acquired a decent command of most of this species’ expressions by then, so my broad smile reassured them.
‘Penguins,’ I said, pointing out to the now-quiet waters of the channel. ‘Look.’
As the ship approached, the tiny, black-and-white shapes dropped one by one into the waters. I gazed at a massive ice field cascading into the sea, surrounded by smooth rock where the ice had retreated. When I was a hatchling, my brood used to worry about the ice creeping up to our village, not away from it. I grew up to dread the sight of ice. Yet for some reason, with two hundred metres of cold, dark water under the hull and steep banks covered in impassably convoluted trees on either side of the channel, the situation felt peaceful, comforting.
The loss of an intelligent species is not the end of the world, I reminded myself. It was hard to keep that truth in mind sometimes. If humans disappeared from DA3(1), this place would hardly change at all.
Three days in, we approached the other side of the channel.
‘We could see whales around here,’ my biologist friend said. ‘We’re close enough to the ocean, and the waters are deep. I hope we’ll see them.’ He grinned like a child, a hand on the rigging to steady himself as he half-hung above the water—two hundred metres of kelp and darkness and massive wandering beasts.
‘Everybody seems fascinated with whales,’ I remarked.
‘They should be. Whales are as intelligent as we are. Just imagine, we could learn their language one day! How cool is that?’
I thought he was joking, but his grin was one of excitement, not of irony.
‘I thought you—’ I checked myself. ‘I thought we were the only intelligent species on this planet?’
‘Lots of species are intelligent,’ he retorted. ‘They just don’t write books about it.’
I had never thought of it this way, not even back home. I stared into the depth. But the water was so dark you couldn’t see anything one metre below the surface. I realised that, after five years on DA3(1), I knew next to nothing about whales, or any other species for that matter. Perhaps I had talked with too few biologists.
There were few whales left, my friend said, but this was one of a few places on Earth where they regularly came to hunt. Now I thought about it, on the day I had landed, I had seen a dark shape rise over the surface of the water and sink back down in a couple of seconds. I had not known about whales back then, although I had taken time to study local cultures through the haphazard messages they sent to outer space.
‘I hope we’ll see whales too,’ I said, to keep my thoughts from straying towards those years when I studied exoethnology from the comfort of my doomed home.
The sea spread like a sheet of metal ahead, so smooth the reflections looked as vivid as the mountains themselves. I gazed in the distance for the tapping of albatross feet in the waves, waters poked open by the back of a Chilean dolphin, or perhaps even a tall plume of spray that would announce the coming of a whale. The rumble of the motor blurred all other sounds, isolating hearing more than silence itself. But the broadcast echoing in my head bypassed exterior noise.
‘It’s over,’ Brood Mother said.
I did not answer for a moment. I was taking the news surprisingly well. I was not sure how the body I had adopted was supposed to react, but so far it hardly seemed to react at all.
‘You said there would be a month left,’ I said.
‘They ordered evacuation today. It’s over. We won’t ever come back.’
She said more things afterwards; that we had always known after all; that my sisters were not adjusting badly, all things considered; that the barracks on GDKZ5-3 were clean and pleasant. She did not say how our planet looked as the spaceship soared away. I imagined it would have shrunk to the size of a ball, then a tiny, cold silver pebble, alone and dying in the emptiness.
Something warm started to flow from my eyes, as if, of its own accord, my borrowed body knew about the beauty of the lakes on my home world at moonrise, the bellows of the storms in the trees, the cries of river birds in the morning. Water ran down my cheeks, so familiar after five years of use, yet so foreign in that moment. I tried to push myself out, to throw my mind towards the transporter however I could and fly away I didn’t know where. But grief tore my focus apart. I’d have to reach the transporter before I could get away from the form I had adopted, and so I stayed there, clutching the rigging, trying to remain motionless even as my mind cracked piece by piece.
There was a hesitant touch on my arm.
‘Are you all right?’ one of the crew asked. I forced my face into stillness.
‘I . . . .’ My voice croaked. I blurted out the first justification that would not sound too strange to them. ‘It’s . . . the anniversary. Today. My mother’s death.’
I did not turn to face him, but I received his words nonetheless. They were kind and awkward and brief. People here did not know how to deal with endings. He walked away soon and they left me alone, respecting a grief they understood so much less than they thought.
Island after island, channel after channel, the labyrinth unfolded towards the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
I did not discuss my supposed mourning any further with the crew. Instead I asked them about whales. I asked about whale song and what calves might learn from their mothers; whales helping out other beasts although nobody knew why; whales giving each other names; whales staying behind when hunted so that their pod members would not die alone; whales approaching ships without fear and being slaughtered for their flesh, even though nobody ate it anymore. We talked about albatrosses and penguin families and the tiny passerines that flocked to see what curious sorts of beasts we were when we neared the shore and shut down the motor. We talked and talked, warming our hands on mate cups and sipping the bitter warmth of the tea with delight, but we hardly looked at one another. Our eyes remained riveted on the blue and white humps of the mountains around us, the silver stillness of the sea.
Once, as we passed a waterfall gushing from under a glacier, I said—
‘There was a river near our house, when I was a child. And a waterfall, just like this one.’
My biologist friend nodded gravely and let me go on. So I told him about cold mornings bathed in red dawns, and taking walks near the water to pick tart little berries in woods rustling with beasts he knew no name for. I told him how I heard the voices of my grandmother and aunts in the wind and he smiled, no doubt thinking I meant it as a metaphor. I did not tell him about the daily reports on the central reactors that kept the core of our planet warm even after the warmth of the sun had failed it — about peacefully waiting for an ending everybody thought they would accept without question, as if we would always be able to hear the voice of our world and of our dead sun in the galactic wind.
I heard my own voice splinter before I felt it in my throat. I stopped talking.
My friend looked away and pointed at the shape of a sea lion, to give me a moment of privacy.
‘We lived in a house by the sea when I was little,’ he suddenly said.
I remembered what I had learned about warming climate and rising sea levels on DA3(1).
‘Is it still there?’ I asked.
‘It’s not going anywhere,’ he replied. ‘It’s just that there are more storms now. It gets flooded more and more often, and it won’t get better. I haven’t been there in a while.’
He did not sound as buoyant as he usually did, and I did not insist. But his smile came back after a brief silence, as he told me about a childhood on the beach, glimpsing octopuses and hermit crabs in beds of seagrass, eating bitter red berries from trees that grew short and dense in the salt seaside heat. The more I listened, the more I seemed to hear another voice under that of the seasoned sailor: the voice of an excited little boy reading about fish and dolphins, running on a beach and lecturing his family about the cuttlefish bones and seashells he found there, building up a steadfast love of the sea when everybody thought he was just playing. I remembered lying down in the grass and gazing at the stars, revelling in the certainty that there were other worlds to explore even as the first reports of alien probes reaching our orbit were broadcast. Without the strange shape of his limbs and face, this alien could have been a sister of mine.
‘It will stay there,’ I said. ‘None of it is going away.’
But I was not sure what I was talking about.
I recognised the shape of the island even though it looked exactly like all the islands around. It was the first thing I had seen of this world after landing, the place where I had left the transporter five years before.
But the familiar pulsing noise at the back of my head was absent. Aside from the song of the halyards against the masts, there was nothing to be heard. I reached with my thoughts. The body I had adopted was less sensitive than my native one. But there was no sound even as we neared the island. When I tried to empty my mind, I could not find the familiar echo. It was as if my own heart had stopped beating.
I stood still on the side of the ship as the realisation dawned on me. The transporter was in constant contact with installations on my home world. There would have been no reason to keep them running as evacuation neared completion. Without its transgalactic anchor, my ship could not function. It lay there inactive, dead as the world that had made it.
I would never be able to go back.
Hours passed and I still stood gazing at the island, probing with my mind even when I knew there would be no answer. Far ahead, the islands grew farther apart, the wind and waves more insistent. To a sailing ship, the passage to the open ocean was trickier than crossing half the universe had been to me. But when would my people start exploring the galaxy again if they had a whole world to rebuild?
I was alone, and stranded, and even if I ever found a way to go back, there was no ‘back’ anymore. I would only land in yet another new world, one where I would speak my native tongue and where people looked familiar again, but where the rustle of the trees and the smells and tastes and bird songs would never be the same.
As I desperately reached into the silence, a hollow sound burst through the sea, immediately followed by shouts. I jerked back to the ship as the sailors rushed to the prow.
A huge shape broke the water, shiny and black, its blowhole visible for a second, then the length of its back, then the tail unfolding out of the water and sinking again, as large as my entire body, not twenty metres from the ship. The sound of its blow had split the air like a horn, but it sank soundlessly, while the crew whooped and ran across the ship in hope to see it surface again. But in the wasteland of my mind reaching out for a signal that would never come, another sound rushed like a wave, the echo of a mind bigger and deeper than any I had ever encountered—
Little one little calf on the water hurt are you hurt I am here little one I will help . . . .
I stepped on the bowsprit, as far as I could, a strange feeling of weightlessness washing over me, as if I had reached the transporter and was changing into my native form again. I spread my mind open. Concern, gentle worry for a strange creature flooded my thoughts, and I probed for a way to respond, no hurt I’m fine I’m fine stay please stay here . . . .
The sound of the blow echoed again amid cries of wonder, and perhaps I saw the whale surface again, although sight and thought were too mingled to tell apart. Amid hissing waves and grey summits, I let myself drift for the last time, letting go of my borrowed body and perhaps of my native one as well, too far away from the safety of the transporter to know how it would end, and too far gone to care. The shouts of wonder turned to cries of warning, but overlaying my senses came the vast drifting thoughts again, little creature little stranger I will help you hurt no hurt you’re safe you’re safe . . . .
My feet lost the bowsprit, but there was no cold to meet me. I greeted the water like a long-lost home, I felt my mind change into one I had never imagined, and just before I lost words to enter a never-ending song, I realised that I was swimming home, in the only place in the universe where the world was not ending.