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January 17th, 2021
As the planet grew in the cockpit window a small light began to blink on the control panel, and then with it another light and a periodic beep. Just behind the empty command chair a large frosty glass tube lit up blue and behind the warp of fog and ice there was clearly a human being. The tube warmed, the ice thawing as the planet grew ever larger in the view of space.
The airlock of the tube hissed and swung open. A few dreary moments passed as Lucilius opened his bleary eyes. He coughed, and immediately held his head which ached from the long sleep. He looked around at the cockpit, and stale memory returned. He remembered clambering into the escape pod, seeing thousands like it scattering out into the deep night of space. Everything had happened so quick, he didn’t know if it had been an attack or a malfunction.
He got up and sat in the command chair, not even glancing at the large planet in view. He clacked in some commands to bring up date and mission time. A mistake to be sure, he figured looking at the time. He reentered the commands and the same numbers popped up on the screen.
His mind was blank. He looked up at the strange planet, then around at the inside of the pod. There was no way to verify the computer’s log, but it seemed inconceivable he’d been asleep so long, unrecovered by another ship, just… drifting.
Another alarm started to sound.
“What?” Lucilius said out loud, looking at it in disbelief.
The alarm signalled signs of life on the planet ahead. Lucilius only watched the blinking alarm aghast. He’d been part of an enormous campaign to venture out into the galaxy in search of life, and now here he was, so many dreamless years later, all on his own before a planet that seemed to hold exactly what they’d all set out to find.
He initiated a descent to the planet’s surface and plunged the agile pod down into the long bands of clouds that striped the planet, creating massive rows of light that stretched enormous across the curved landscape.
The moment he punched through the cloud cover his stomach seized. He could see settlements, cities patched across the vast continent. He checked for any kind of radio signal, but all he could pick up was the usual interstellar static - the planet was quiet. A dead civilization, he figured, his hopes sinking.
He angled the pod down to land just on the outskirts of one of these cities. There seemed to be a fog or a low patchy cloud cover just above the ground, and much of it scattered as the pod fired landing boosters for a soft landing.
He put on a suit, double checking the atmosphere readings to make sure it was compatible, and then left the pod. The low cloud cover, hovering waist high parted as he walked toward the city, and for hours he wandered through the alien structures. But none of them seemed to have entrances, nor did they seem to exhibit any kind of life or operation. Clearly they were constructed from some sort of metal or alloy, but he seemed he was in a ghost town.
What was strangest to Lucilius was that there was no sign of alarm, nothing in disarray, no remains of anything, skeletal or otherwise to find.
After some time his oxygen was getting low and he headed back to his pod. He walked through the low cloud cover, pondering the alien structures, wondering what might be his next move in this strange place, during this inconceivable time. He stepped up into the pod and as he turned to check the door as it swung shut he saw something curious. He slapped a button next to the door to arrest it’s movement. A small piece of the low cloud cover had separated from the rest and drifted toward Lucilius’ pod.
He wouldn’t have thought much about the strange fog but there was something about it that seemed deliberate, and the gentle speed of the cloud was too much for a windless landscape. Lucilius quickly swapped out his suit’s tank and then got back out.
The little cloud was still there, separate from the rest of the fog bank, as though waiting for him. Lucilius hunkered down in front of the little cloud, and after a moment reached out to it, but it quickly receded out of reach, startling Lucilius. But after maintaining a safe distance for a couple of seconds the cloud began to approach again, slower.
Lucilius reached out and slowly the cloud gently brushed up against his gloved and unfeeling hand. Then another cloud broke off from the cloud bank and approached Lucilius. The first pulled back and the two seemed to hover near, as two might hang back to talk. Quickly little bits of cloud began separating from the main bank and glided up toward the pod, as though looking at it from every angle, and then the first cloud approached Lucilius and then very quickly covered him completely, swirling around before pulling back again. The curious clouds around the pod also pulled back and together they all became a solid fog bank again, and then, the white clouds turned green, first lightly and then dark, like a kind of terrible bio weapon, but the cloud bank stayed as it was. Then, something else seemed to be changing.
Lucilius looked around, unsure of what he seemed to be sensing, and then he caught it. Light was beginning to reflect brightly off the city structures. It brought Lucilius’ gaze up where he saw an unfathomably sized band of cloud shifting to bathe the entire area in direct light. The green cloud bank before him lit up.
And for a minute, nothing happened. Lucilius was beginning to wonder if there was an effect of the hibernation that was messing with his mind when the green fog bank began to change shape. All around him it started to rise, like a solid wall of green. His nerves rose to an edge as he watched the continuous wall around him begin to narrow and close above him.
For a moment he was in complete darkness. Then his wrist control beeped and lit up. He looked to find nominal atmosphere readings. The bright glow of the solitary little screen was then joined as the cloud all around him began to glow lightly.
The cavity created by the cloud encompassed also the pod, so he signalled the ship to double check the atmospheric readings.
Apparently, it was safe.
It probably wasn’t a wise idea, but Lucilius’ day had been so odd and disorienting so far that it didn’t feel like much of a risk. He took off his helmet.
And he could breath, there in the strangely lit huddle of cloud. From the wall of glowing green a small cloud parted, and the luminous shape floated toward him.
Lucilius removed his glove and reached out to the little cloud. And when they touched, Lucilius heard in his own head
Lucilius pulled back, but reached out again to touch the cloud.
Lucilius squinted, and wondered… “is that me, or did this cloud just say something?”
That was me, the cloud. Or rather, us.
“Us?” Lucilius said out loud.
One cloud, different clouds... both make sense to us.
“So, you’re alive?”
Oh yes, certainly.
“And how do you know my language?”
We don’t. Thought doesn’t really have much of a language. Your words are a result of a conversion. We can sense what happens before the conversion.
“So you’re a collective mind?”
“Did you create the cities?”
Sort of. Our ancestors did, so yes.
The cloud laughed. Yes, long time ago. It’s been quite a while since I thought about their construction. Long before the great schism.
“What’s the schism?” Lucilius asked.
The cloud sighed. Well, before we evolved into this form we had physical bodies and we were developing technology just as every other evolving creature does. And there came a time to make a decision and that’s when we split into two groups.
“What happened to the other group?”
“Left? Where’d they go?
They went where all advanced civilizations go.
“What do you mean?”
Have you noticed how quiet the cosmos are?
“Yes, certainly, that’s actually why I’m here, I was sent as part of mission to find life on other planets.”
The little cloud jiggled as it laughed, and the green and glowing walls seemed to animate with a kind of communal laughter.
Pretty odd to have all these quarks playing around and so little life, wouldn’t you say?
“Of course,” Lucilius said, “it’s the ultimate paradox.”
Not so much, the little cloud said. There have been plenty of civilizations to rise among the cosmos.
“And do they fall? Collapse? Is there some sort of bottleneck, or a filter that prevents so many from enduring?”
There are certainly plenty of mistakes to be made along the way, but no, not really. Each civilization eventually makes the necessary discovery.
“And what discovery is that?”
They discover where everyone has gone.
“All civilizations end up going to the same place?”
“And why aren’t you with them?”
Because of the schism. We decided to stay.
Lucilius looked around at the glowing wall of cloud all around him. “And what do you do?”
We are air farmers.
Yes, we shape the clouds, control the sunlight, and we feed off of a simple chemical reaction that we host. Our talents are also what allow us to create your air.
“And you just stayed?”
Yes, it’s what we wanted.
“Could you still go if you wanted?”
The cloud was quiet for a moment, as if thinking.
Yes, I suppose we could. It’s unlikely the machines don’t still work.
“Could I go?”
The cloud was quiet a moment longer.
Well yes, if you’d like.
Lucilius paused to think, but the cloud continued on.
It might be a good idea considering how long you’ve been separated from your people.
Lucilius gave a surprised and suspicious look at the cloud.
Apologies, we do have access to most recent thoughts that you’ve had, and it seems you have been adrift for quite a long time. It’s quite likely that your species made the discovery long ago and moved on. There’s a chance your species might have had a similar schism, but there’s no way to tell. It depends on a lot of things, mainly the state of your home planet and how much of a toll it took for your technological evolution. And of course there are many ways that technological species find their way to less… lively destinations.
Lucilius knew the cloud was talking about self-annihilation. He honestly had no idea which way the human species might have gone, and given how long Lucilius had been asleep, he figured the cloud was probably right: There was either no one, or maybe some still squabbling, or some or all of them had made it to this strange destination the cloud spoke of.
You’re right, the cloud said, if you go back, you may find a more enlightened evolution of your own kind that is content like we are, to farm and live, or you might find no one, and you might not have any way of communicating with those that are still there, even if you do go back.
“Are you trying to convince me one way or another?”
No, not at all. You are free to do whatever you like. We are happy to help a lost traveller.
Lucilius spent a few more hours chatting with the cloud, mulling over his options. It was clear that the universe was positively brimming with life - according to this cloud, but any life that began to make technological progress discovered the destination by default, and this discovery fundamentally changes the priorities of any civilization that comes across it. He was still suspicious of it all.
It’s a bit like any realization, the cloud said.
“What do you mean?”
Imagine a wonderful experience, perhaps a taste, or something special your species does. How much success do you have trying to explain that experience to someone who has never had it?
Lucilius thought for a moment. Taste made sense. It was impossible to describe the taste of chocolate to someone who’d never had it. But Lucilius started thinking of others, precious experiences that could only really be experienced, they couldn’t be understood otherwise. Suddenly he remembered being a child, a boy, asking an older kid what it was like to kiss a girl. But all he got was a genuine smile and shake of the head. “You’ll find out.” Could it really be that? Could it really be that the cosmos seemed so empty simply because there was a secret that everyone else knew, some place -some destination where all these civilizations go?
“So you don’t even know what this destination is all about, do you?”
The cloud was quiet for a moment.
You are correct, we don’t.
“And you’re not curious about it?”
We used to have some curiosity among us, before we evolved to this form, and some left for the destination over the years, but it’s been quite a long time since some of the cloud left for the destination.
Lucilius stayed a few more days. Each time after waking the cloud would rise and create for him his own little bubble of atmosphere, and he spent the time talking to the cloud, learning about their history, their species before the schism, and their millions of years farming the air. He even questioned their plans for the future and the collapse of their star in several billion years and the end of their ability to farm the air, but they responded by saying only that there was more than enough time to think about it. The destination was, always on offer.
“I’ve made my decision,” Lucilius finally said. “I’d like to go.”
The luminous bubble of cloud moved with him, guiding him as he walked, and he saw bits of the alien city enter the bubble’s cloud as they moved until the wall of cloud before him swept away to reveal a doorway.
Lucilius walked toward it and it opened, revealing a blinding white light. He squinted, shading his eyes against the onslaught of the sight, but he couldn’t see anything in the brilliant white.
Lucilius reached out to the little cloud next to him.
“Thank you,” Lucilius said.
The little cloud floated with him to the threshold.
Safe travels, the cloud said before Lucilius walked in.
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