THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
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THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
by Norman Spinrad
No member of the Order of the Galactic Eye has ever gone down there because we can’t, but I doubt than any of us would if we could. Destiny is that to which one may aspire and therefor a potential choice, but fate is what is written in one’s stars. Or in our case in our DNA.
Written there by those down below who built the Galactic Eye centuries ago and created us to serve, maintain, and guide it to see what was written in the stars for our civilization and perhaps for sentient civilizations everywhere.
To our faces we are the Order of the Galactic Eye but to each other they call us the “Bats.” The original bats were the only true flying mammals to have evolved on the home world of homo sapiens, winged creatures that could fly through the atmosphere of Earth defying its gravitational field and hung upside down in its planetary caverns.
They did not give us wings to fly with because they would have been useless in the vacuum between our habitats and commons spheres beneath the Galactic Eye and superfluous within them for the sub-species they created. For we are never to know the restraint of any gravitational field within which we could not survive.
Our generations are cloned from genomes designed to survive and thrive in zero gravity to serve the Galactic Eye because the earlier astronomers and crews brought up from below did not.. We begin life as extrauterine embryos and are brought to conciousness some two years later as pre-adolescent children and from there raised and educated like so-called “natural born humans.”
But despite having been created to be brother and sisters in an Order of the Galactic Eye, in deliberate homage or sardonic reference to the ancient orders of sworn celebates, we are not neutered creatures. Our sexuality has been separated from the possibility of accidental production of “natural born humans,” in order to keep our population no greater than the thousand Bats needed to serve the great purpose of the Eye.
Like everything else about our minimalism genome, designed to minimize what need be sent up from down below in terms of mass and energy expenditure. Designed to live long and thrive here at minimal cost to the Ecliptics down below.
And live long we do, far longer than those in thrall to the various gravitational fields below. As for thriving, who is to say what that can mean to not entirely human exiles from the civilization below which created us to serve the greatest cause our species has ever known.
Early human civilizations believed that their planet was the one and only center of a universe created for us by one or more omnipotent or at least superhuman entities, and xenoanthropologists havetheorized that this must the case wherever sentience arises from mindless matter, being from nothingness.
When it was discovered that there were billions of solar systems in our galaxy, more planets than stars, more moons than planets, it was theorized that there must be millions, even billions, of planets and moons capable of evolving biospheres, and therefore millions of planets and moons where sentience should have evolved from them, and millions, or at least many thousands, of civilizations more advanced than our own.
When extrasolar biospheres had been detected and tantalizing hints of civilizations on some dozen or so of them, it was decided to embark on the greatest construction project in the history of our species to learn our destiny in the galaxy, the fate of sentient civilizations therein, and seek out our own place among them.
The Galactic Eye.
Half a dozen graphene photon collectors, each kilometers in diameter, then a score, then several score, more and more as the network continued to expand, forming a whole far more powerful than its far-flung parts. Built a hundred astronomic astronomical units “above” the ecliptic plane of our solar system and motionlessly centered in line with the rotational axis of our sun and therefore stationary in both physical terms and in regard to the whirling swerling of the vast complexities of the systemwide Ecliptic civilization “below.”
The Order and the Eye above and the Ecliptics below because though “above” and “below” may be meaningless in such a physical situation, free from the political and cultural struggles and contentions thereof, they look up to us as their Eye on the far greater realm of the galaxy, and we of the Order, looking outward into it and reporting what we see to them, can only regard them as being below us..
Are we less than fully human because we been have been created to serve our mission with compulsory dedication? Or are we superior to the Ecliptics down below because having been granted the singular passion to look up and out and not back and down is a precious gift? Creatures of destiny or prisoners of fate?
A narrow and local version of the question which conscious beings everywhere must be asking themselves. Have even civilizations millenia in advance of ourselves learned the answer? Ultimately, is that not what we have been created to find out?
The Galactic Eye was originally created to confirm the existence of the handful of extrasolar civilizations that previous less powerful instruments seem to have detected by spectroscopic hints in planetary atmospheres and in two or three instances orbiting moon-sized bodies whose ratio of mass to volume seemed to indicate that they were hollow and therefore created artifacts.
By the time of my youth the Eye had already discovered some score of extrasolar civilizations, the less advanced ones by the tell-tale lights on planetary bodies, the more advanced, perhaps in stages similar to our own, showing artificial habitats in precise orbits reaching out beyond the gas giant range and into their Oort clouds.
Yes, we were not alone, and if some scores of civilizations had been already been clearly and definitivly detected within the Galactic Eye’s effective global range of less than a thousand light-years, civilizations of sentient beings would seem to be almost a tenth or so as as common in the galaxy as a whole as the stars themselves.
What grand revelation for the human race! What a golden age of hope and glory for the Ecliptic civilization below! For now that it had been clearly established not only that there were sentient civilizations out there, but that some of them were more technologically advanced than we were, must mean that we too had such a future before us.
What an exciting era to be born into! For we were the heroes of the age, looked up to as the visionary forefront of our species, looking up and out and bringing the grand revelations down from on high.
I was brought to consciousness as Marco 31, the 31st iteration of the Marco genome, designed with a tendency and ability towards intellectual and theoretical pursuits, and suitable to selecting sectors of search for more civilization-bearing solar systems, interpreting the discoveries of the Eye and packaging them for transmission down below, and so forth.
But there are always tiresome quotidian tasks that course must be performed, such as keeping the life support systems running properly, overseeing and when necessary repairing the fusion torches, keeping the spheres clean and tidy, and the like. So one might say that the Order of the Eye is a species of benign gerontocracy. Such tasks are assigned to the young by lot who are given a decade or two or even three to find their life’s serious paths, and since we live for four orf five centuries, there is no urgency in awaiting one’s mature place in the Order.
So for my first two decades and more I was more or less content to perform such duties while awaiting a call to heed , though I cannot claim that I had no impatience to join in the excitement as true participant.
More and more extrasolar civilizations were being discovered, so that the mere every-increasing number count was beginning to be taken as boringly irrelevant down below, much as the discovery of more and more extrasolar biospheres in an earlier age, and more and more extrasolar planets in the so-called “Golden Age of Astronomy” before that.
Inspectors from the clade of political and financial entities down below which had financed the building of the Galactic Eye and were financing its continued opeeration, arrived but rarely to assert their interests and demands, almost always naive and unrealistic, and always complaining about the discomforts and difficulties of lack of gravity. As such, they were regarded as unpleasant nuisances at best, to be cozened, coddled, and shown around, and meddlesome politicos at worst, and thus this occasional odeous task was left to youths on the vague cusp of maturity such as myself, chosen by random lot.
What the Ecliptics were now demanding, or at any rate, this Carla Wing Destry who I was chosen to chaperon, was more focused exploration of these extrasolar civilizations themselves and particularly those tmore advanced than our own. What could we learn from them and how? What was the nature of this galaxy-wide brotherhood of sentient beings? How were we to find our place in it?
It was not so much that the Ecliptics were disatisfied with what the Order had already achieved but that it had whetted their appetite for much much more. We of the Order however were more cognizant of the difficulties and limitations. Make her as comfortable as possible, and try to find out what this rare visit is really about.
Carla Wing Destry, I was told, was no economic overseer, rather a politically well-connected “theoretial galactic sociologist,” whatever that whatever that was supposed to mean.
I was soon to find out, and she was to set me on the path that I was to follow for the rest of my centuries-long lifetime.
“I did not drag my brittle old bones all the way up here just to enjoy the zero gravity, Marko 31, which I do not at all enjoy, ” Carla Wing Destry fairly snarled upon awkwardly tumbling flying out of the Council Sphere in an obviously ireful mood, “and certainly not to be treated like a feeble crone in her dotage and a patronized like a dim-witted child at the same time.
“You must realize that hardly any of the Domini have ever met an...Ecliptic before,” I told her soothingly. “To us you seem both ancient and young, As strange to us as we seem to you. Almost as if we were two different species.”
“Almost? Almost? You think we are not? You could not survive in any of our ecological niches natural or created as we created you, we cannot interbreed and you live more than twice as long as we.. This is not speciation?”
This was the oldest and frailest human I had ever seen, though not even two centuries old as age was counted down below, yet less than half a lifetime to us. We provided a her with habitat with rotational gravity, but she complained that the spin made her nauseous, and detested having to wear the void suits necessary to pass from one sphere to another and was quite clumsy in controlling their propulsers.
Yet these complaints seemed to me to be superficial masking of the existential despair that those down below must experience when confronting beings who would outlive them by centuries, and especially those like Carla Wing Destry nearing the end of their shorter lifespans, with their immanent deaths hovering over their head like the legendary Sword of Damocles..
“You envy our extended lifespans, do you not?”
“Of course we do, who would not?” she freely admitted. “Being shorter-lived, we live in a quicker time-frame than you do, that is why the Order seems agonizingly slow to us, and we must seem always impatient to you. Do we not?”
“As you must know, I have never before met an Ecliptic.”
“As you call us. And like virtually all Ecliptics, I have never before enountered Bats as we call you, and I must say that I am finding the experience quite exasperating. Though quite fascinating from the point of view of view of a galactic sociologist--”
“That is the physical study of the inhabitable planets and habitats that the Galactic Eye discovers, not the societies of their inhabitants of which you tell us nothing.”
We were crossing over from the Council Sphere to the habitat where she was quartered. Directly above, the shimmery sheen of the Galactic Eye itself masked a broad portion of the starscape. But in every other direction save downward to the ecliptic, we were engulfed in the brilliant star field that went on and on into apparent infinity. And a solar system orbited most of those suns, two hundred or so of which were the homeworlds of already-known sentient civilizations, in a single arm of the galaxy where the mathematic extrapolations said there must be hundreds if not thousands more waiting to be found.
“How can you say that? We’ve discovered nearly two hundred extrasolar civilizations and still counting!”
“But we have never encountered another sentient species, now have we? And I now realized that the Order of the Eye the closest thing to another sentient species that we have yet encountered.”
Carla Wing Destry turned off her propulser, forcing me to do likewise, and we hung there motionless together. With a waving arm, she directed my gaze upward to the Eye, then waved both arms full circle as if to embrace the globe of the starscape entire.
“Two hundred now, perhaps even three hundred while I yet live, perhaps a thousand during your lifetime, and what do we really know? That they are there. That some of them are confined to natural planets and moons in their original orbits, that others, like our ourselves, seem to have discovered energy sources sufficient to fill their solar systems with habitats, that others have moved planets and moons to the most efficient orbits around their suns, that there are those who would seem to have even englobled their stars. But what do we really know of all or even anything of our fellow sentient beings? Nothing!”
“Nothing! How can you call all that nothing?”
“Do we know what they look like? Do we have the least idea of their cultures? Their lifespans? Their relations with each other, or if they even have them, and if so how? Which, if any, should we fear? Which if any, would embrace us? The nature of galactic-wide culture itself, if there is one? We know nothing about the untold myriad of sentient and technological civilizations out there save that they are out there, and technological evolution seems to follow a general hierarchical pattern.”
“First confinement to a planet of origin, then expansion into the home solar system, then the creation of artificial habitats, and then...”
“And then what?
“Then what indeed! What is the next level? What is the nature of overall galactic civilization? How do the most advanced civilizations react with each other? Do they? If so, how? If not, why?”
“Interpretation of the data is not the mission of the Order,” I told her, though I was beginning to wonder. We were created with a specific mission, certainly, and with certain psychological patterns and emotions. Perhaps she was right and we were a different species. But certainly we were sentient. Were we really created to be free of generalized curiousity?
“That is more or less what your Dominus Council told me!” Carla Wing Destry said. “But that is what I came here to change, and change it I will, one way or the other.”
“That sounds like...a threat.”
“That’s what the Council said too. Call it what you will, Marco 31, but my mission is to expand the mission of the Order of the Galactic Eye, and that I will do by whatever means necessary.”
“The reading of what the Galactic Eye sees not as a mere accumulation of data but as--”
“The creation of a true science of galactic sociology. There you have it!”
“A mighty task to be set to....”
“The greatest task that ever there was, that ever there can be! And one that I know full well I will not live to see fully achieved. Perhaps you will, Marco 31, but not I. But one must begin. Two centuries, four, a millenium, each life begins a story, know it can ever be there for its end. Saddened by that knowledge, but at the same time hoping it will be so for the sake of the posterity of the species, of sentience itself. Considering the dire alternative....”
Emotions were raised within me that I did not know I could have. That I could become something more than what I had believed I was created to be. That the Order was created to be. Surely the true mission of the Order of the Galacic Eye would never be entirely fullfilled by the mere discovery and counting of more and more examples of enigmatic extrasolar civilizations. The Ecliptics created us as a tool, but were we not conscious beings?
And with that thought the desire was born within me to somehow serve that higher mission. For whether those who had created us centuries ago then understood it or not was it not in the end the mission which the Order of the Galactic Eye had been created to pursue?
“I do believe I understand,” I told Carla Wing Destry. “The reading of what the Galactic Eye sees not as discontinuous data but as the history of sentient civilization in the galaxy as a whole!”
“And therefore the destiny of sentience and therefore our own.”
“Assuming that it has one,” I found myself blurting.
“We cannot see the present of any civilization we discover, let alone their futures. We cannot even know which if any of them still exist.”
“How so?” Carla Wing Destry said, focusing her considerable full attention on me. I gestured towards the great Galactic Eye itself.
“The Galactic Eye cannot see the present, let alone the future, only the past. For what reaches it are images from far away travelling at the speed of light, and thus from the past. And the the deeper into the galaxy it peers, the greater the time-lag between what we see in our now and what presently exists in their now.
If anything, her gaze became even more intent as she spoke. “And so, the further away what we see, the further back in time are forever hidden the current realities of what we do see...?”
“So that the more distant the civilizations that we see, the more evolved they must now be from whatever they were in the bygone eras we are seeing...”
“Or already long gone.”
“Very long ago, before our civilization had even colonized our home world’s moon,” I reminded her, “it was realized that technological civilization must arrive at a transformation crisis when it became possible to destroy itself, via nuclear war, or the terminal destruction of the biosphere, or the depletion of fossil fuels before they could be replaced.”
“Or things then unknown..
“Or even destroyed by things still unknown.”
“Indeed, Marco 31, those civilizations which passed through the transformation crisis could survive to become long term solar system wide cultures...”
“Our civilization and what the Eye has seen elsewhere....”
“But perhaps to face a greater existential crisis we have yet to experience or even detect elsewhere as yet,”, she said.
“Those who fail....”
“So what we see are either ghosts of long-gone civilizations or the pasts of those which may have become what we cannot now even hope to comprehend.”
“Perhaps not, Marco 31. We can do more than hope to comprehend.”
“With your true science of galactic sociology.”
Carla Wing Destry nodded. “I am not going to let this arduous and unpleasant journey up here end in futility,” she told me.
“Look down towards the ecliptic. What do you see?”
I looked down, and what I saw was the brilliance of the sun we call Sol surrounded by pinpoints of light no different from the galactic vista otherwise surrounding us save that they were more concentrated. I knew of course that they were eight planets, scores of moons, thousands of asteroids, hundreds of habitats, containing some hundred billion sentient humans, orbiting round and round our singular star, but of course it all appeared quite static and stationary.
“Nothing of great visual significance....”
“What I see is human civilization entire,” Carla Wing Destry told me. “What I see that you do not is its richness, and chaotic complexity. Planets, moons, habitats, asteroids, reaching out into the Oort Cloud, and each in its way, to one degree, or another, a culture. Time was this would have been and was a recipe for strife, but now it is a mosiac of our glory. Once there was a multiplex culture whose motto was E pluribus Unum. Out of the many, a higher unity. And that is what the human species has now achieved.”
She looked at the Galactic Eye and I looked up with her.
“I came up here because that multiplex human community is in danger of fraying,” she told me. “Perhaps that is currently something of an overstatement, but the danger is there. Once the discovery of each new extrasolar civilizations was an exciting event, but now that there are hundreds, another almost every few days or so it seems, it is not.”
“The Ecliptics have become bored with what the Order is doing?”
“Yes and no. Further increasing the count of civilizations is no longer of general interest, but the mysteries of galactic civilization as a whole has become an obessession. Hardly any literature, dramatic, or visual art is about anything else. Worship, that ancient neurosis, of imagined superior beings, is running rampart. As is fears of alien invasions.”
“Surely you realize both are quite ridiculous. The nearest extraterrestrial civilization is a score of light years away, and no interstellar traffic anywhere has ever been detected.”
“But why, Marko 31?”
“Obviously because either the Galactic Eye cannot detect something as small as a starship or because no such thing exists.”
“Throughout the galaxy?”
“We have searched but the smallest portion of our own galactic arm to a radius of less than a thousand light years. Perhaps in a few centuries--”
“Now you are speaking like your hidebound Domini Council!” Carl Wing Destry exclaimed angrily. “Two hundred extrasolar civilizations is quite enough to be a statistically significant sample. Another hundred or even thousand more would be statistically meaningless.”
“I think I’m beginning to understand,” I told her, and indeed I was. “The Order is still doing what it had been created to do centuries ago. What we had been programmed to do in our very genomes. And that mission has long since been successfully completed!”
“There you have it, Marko 31! Unlike your navel-gazing Council! If we were not in void suits, I would hug and kiss you. I was sent up here--well, persuaded the commission to send me up here--to change the mission of your Order, or more subtly to tweak its emphasis away from rote discovery of ever more civilizations to a more focused emphasis on understanding the ones already found, their interactions with each other, and how we are to join the galactic community.”
“And the Council of rejected it.”
“Would you, Marko 31?”
“The Domini might not have to listen to scientific reason, but they will find that they cannot fail to listen to political and economic reason. The Order in the end is financed by the collectivity of what you call the Ecliptic and I have been equipped with what was once and still is called plenpotentiary power, believed me, I saw to that.”
“Which means what?”
“Which means I can and will endow your Order with the gift of financing a Dominia of Galactic Sociology, and in return for this largess which cannot be rejected, they must grant it a minor but significant slice of Eye time to pursue galactic sociology’s purpose.”
“You can really do that?”
“It will be the last and best thing I can do with the rest of my short life and the first and best thing you can do with your long one, Marco 31. The Dominia of Galactic Sociology will need a Dominus. Do you understand what I am saying?”
I did, but I could hardly believe it.
“Me? You can really do that?”
Carla Wing Destry just nodded.
“But why me? I am not yet even recognized as a mature adult...”
“All the better as far as I’m concerned after trying to tell your adult Domini Council what they could not understand but you could...”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. Will you accept?”
“How could I not?”
“I understand that now you must choose a mature name.”
“This is so...”
“Have you chosen?’
“I have not even yet thought of one.”
“Then allow me to impose one upon you as I impose your life’s work upon you.”
“Who would consider such a thing an imposition?”
“As an ancient myth goes, there was a prince who demanded of a deity the unmasking of ultimate reality fearing not to face it. The deity at first refused, telling him that no mere human was ready to see such a thing and never would be. But the prince was not disuaded. And as he was not, so must you not be...His name was Arjuna. Dare you take it as your own?”
“I would be honored,” I told her.,
“So you say now...Dominus Arjuna.”
For several decades the Dominia of Galactic Sociology was looked down upon by the Domini Council as the political and economic necessity imposed on the Order by the Ecliptics that it was, and I was looked askance as Carla Wing Destry’s underling while she yet lived, which I more or less was. But they could not afford to scorn us openly or fail to allow us our modest mandated slice of Galactic Eye control time for the very same reason.
Before her death Carla Wing Destry had seen to that much mostly thanks to that financial blackmail perhaps, but she had also succeeded in presenting Galactic Sociology to the Ecliptic commonality as the ultimate goal of the mission they had created the Order of the Galactic Eye to pursue in the first place, and its Dominus Arjuna as the intrepid leader thereof so that when she was gone I was regarded down below as her worthy successor just as she had planned.
So whether the Domini Council liked it or not, it was the work of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology that had succeeded succeeded in preserving Ecliptic interest in what the they considered the central mission of the Order of the Galactic Eye but which the Ecliptic culture down below had begun to regard as boringly pointless and therefore still protected by her legacy.
And was I not truly her intellectual successor?
More technological civilizations had been detected since I had become Dominus Arjuna of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology, but what did it really matter? Two hundred before, three hundred now, four hundred in another century?
Statistically meaningless numerological coup counting, as Carla Wing Destry had put it to me. It told us little or nothing about the nature of galactic civilization itself, about the interaction among those hundreds of civilizations, let alone the thousands or even millions of them that mathematical extrapolation told us must be there in the deeper beyond.
And that must be what any civilizations of sentients must demand to know, must it not? What is the true and ultimate fate of mind arising from matter? What is the destiny consciouness in this universe?
Answering those questions was the the mission of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology, and that was what was demanded of us, if not by the Domini Council, then by our civilization as a whole. Our task must be to reduce such philosophical speculation to a verifiable science.
We were few but enough to do what was required. A crew to operate the Galactic Eye when we had control of it. A crew to relate the results downward to the Ecliptics with perhaps more enthusiasm than they actually warranted. Myself, and Alexandria.
Alexandria’s genome emphasized mathematical skill and interest and she had begun as merely our statistical historical archivist but over the decades after Carla Wing Destry’s departure had evolved into an elusive something more. She had chosen her name in homage not to an historical or mythical personage but to the Library of Alexandria, a very ancient archive whose then massive treasure trove of knowledge had been destroyed and lost by human folly.
Her advanced mission became to seek out hidden patterns in what the Eye had already accumulated over the centuries, which, far from being destroyed, had become a vast and formless archive of mere data, to turn this all but useless chaotic data heap into the basis for a real science of galactic sociology sufficient to thereby give focus to what we would seek when we had its usage.
The long initial stage of this work was drudgery that would have been tediously boring to anyone who had not been designed to thrive on it, including myself, so, considering that in this manner she was function as my device, I left her to her own devices until she was finally assembled what might justly be called a general theory of galactic cultural evolution.
“It was once written that all civilizations have blind spots in their understanding and it is usually something central and seems restrospectively obvious once it is finally revealed,” she finally told me. “Ours is equating distance from our solar system in light years with the age of observed galactic civilizations and therefore with their levels of technological development. Wrong. I have found no such correlation.”
“What? How can that be? Each light year of distance from us must mean we are looking at civilizations as they were a year in their past! This is fundamental physics! When we observe a civilization fivehundred light years from us that seems on our technological level it must be really be half a millenium beyond us in its current present or devolved or extinct.”
“True enough, Dominus Arjuna, but we have managed to somehow ignore the obvious fact that all the solar systems we have observed did not come into existence at the same time. That has been our blind spot.”
“But galactic stellar evolution--”
“True that in terms of stellar evolutionary time, measured in billions of years, the solar systems in our local galactic arm have evolved more or less simultaneous but in terms of historical evolution of civilizations, measured in mere millions of years or even just millenia, not at all. Some advanced civilizations we have observed would have evolved millions of years before our own, others only thousands or even only centuries.”
“No overall galactic evolutionary pattern?”
“There is a clear evolutionary pattern, but it has nothing to do with a galactic level timeframe or when a civilization began to evolve within it. First confinement to a single planet, then to whatever habitable biospheres may exist on natural bodies, then artificial habitats independent of them, followed by filling the solar system, followed by the ability to arrange planets and moons in desireable orbits, followed in one or two examples by what seems to be englobement of the central sun...”
“And beyond that...what? “Civilizations encompassing many solar systems...? A galactic commonality?”
“Among the hundreds of civilization we have observed, no such civilizations have been discovered. It is statistically clear that all galactic civilizations at any technical level remain isolates.”
“Surely this is just speculation--”
“Surely it is not, Dominus Arjuna.”
What was I to do? I had been well-schooled in the science of political reality by Carla Wing Destry, not to know that if I presented this so-called statistically proven scientific observation to the Council, the Domini Council might very well use it to dissolve the Dominia of Galactic Sociology, if only to prevent it from being used by the powers down below to disolve the Order of the Galactic Eye itself, blaming the messenger for the dismal news.
“We must keep this to ourselve Alexandria until--”
“Until what?” she demanded. “This is the result of decades of my efforts. Worst still, it is the proven truth.”
“Perhaps it is not. It is very difficult to prove a negative, after all, is it not? We must use our time on the Eye to observe only the most advanced civilizations yet discovered and the environs around them, for if there is evidence of any multi-solar system civilizations, that is where we would find it.
“We won’t,” Alexandria insisted.
“We must try,” I told her, but even then I knew that it was prevarication.
And so we did. And so we didn’t.
There were civilizations that filled their solar systems and ventured out beyond their heliospheres even as we were doing. There were civilizations that had reshaped their solar systems. There were two which seemed to be englobing their suns. There was one which had expanded beyond its own Oort Cloud, through the Oort Cloud of another solar system less than two light years away and was beginning to colonize its planets. There were three which seemed to be looking back at us with Galactic Eyes of their own.
Nothing at all moved among any of these most advanced galactic civilizations in our neighborhood. In futile desperation we even sought out hints of interstellar travel among the less advanced , knowing there it would be futile.
The Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita had demanded of the avatar Krishna to reveal to him the full face of ultimate universal reality. Krisha had tried to talk him out it, telling Ajuna he would wish he hadn’t if he did it, but but at length shrugged and reluctantly relented.
That Arjuna did not at all like what he saw revealed and neither did I.
We were reluctantly confirming a reality that we ourselves had no wish to verify even to ourselves either us, the Domini Council, or our Ecliptic sponsors.
A reality so depressing and yet so obvious in retrospect that it had been our civilization’s deepest and darkest blind spot. A self-created blind spot willfully hidden in plain sight for centuries.
Our revelatory avatar had been Albert Einstein and his revelation of ultimate reality had had not been disproven by any of the tcivilizations that had been discovered, even those clearly well in advance of humanity, and never would be. And it was why all those civilizations, our own, and what lay beyond, had never sent emmisaries or exploratory expeditions to each other and never would.
Einstein’s implacable equations isolated us all.
The speed of light was an absolute limit that could never be exceeded.
The Council Sphere was transparent with no lecturns, screens, other impediments, or sigils of hierarchy, and up or down. The dozen Domini were surrounded by the star speckled void but could ordinarily float with whatever orientation each Dominus chose like, well, bats in a cavern. Now, however, they were all hovering in a circle around the equator of the sphere with myself and Alexandria in its center.
As was customary, First Dominus Confucius, in his second century in the position and nearing the end of his lifespan formally welcomed us, though the welcoming seemed rather strained.
“We welcome Dominus Arjuna who has asked to address the Domini Council of the Order of the Galactic Eye and invite him to speak.”
Having been Dominus for a more than a respectable century now during which I had ignored most all Council politics that did not directly effect my own Dominia, and being in higher favor down below than any of them, I had long since ceased to be considered a callow nuisance imposed upon them but rather a nuisance whose status was propped up by the Ecliptics, but whose status down below was grudgingly regarded as useful to the Order.
So when I asked to address the full Council, which was seldom, I could hardly be refused, and such a rare event unusually intent though wary interest.
“And as Dominus of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology I invite my collegue Alexandria to speak for me and report our findings.”
While this was not without precidence, it was unusual and as such was greeted with a palpably expectant stillness and silence.
“Energy is the universal measure of any civilization’s wealth,” Alexandria told them pedantically. I had told her to do this and it was not that far from her normal mode of discourse. “Any and all economies and their technologies are ultimately limited by its availablity.”
The silence was broken by groans.
“Tell us something we don’t all know,” said Dominus Lustigus.
“I was about to,” Alexandra said evenly but coldly. “Mass increases with acceleration approaching the speed of light as a limit where it becomes infinite. Therefore to excede the speed of light would require a transfinite amount of energy, which is inherently impossible.”
“Is she ever going to come to the reason for this meeting?” the First Dominus demanded.
I didn’t answer. I just motioned for Alexandria to continue.
“Furthermore, while would be theoretically possible to accelerate a small enough mass to near light speed, the energy cost to acclerate a significant macrocosmic mass, say a small starship, to a significant percentage of the speed of light would be prohibitive even to a civilization able to totally transform mass into energy. The complete conversion of a gas giant, by my calculation to reach ten percent of light speed. And it would still take something like a millenium to traverse a hundred light years.”
The First Dominus gave me a jaundiced look. “I do hope you have not requested this Council meeting just to insult us with a lesson in elementary physics, Dominus Arjuna.”
This was how I had planned it. The implacable equation from Alexandria and the implacable Galactic Sociology from me.
“What this means is that interstellar travel even below light speed is therefore both unaffordable in energy cost and temporally impractical” I told them.
I waited until the gasps became an awful silence.
“This has been been scientifically proven andknown for centuries and yet steadfastly refused to be accepted culturally. Wormholes, detours through fantastic realities, timewarps, mystical quantum physics, a vast and ancient dramatic form calling itself science fiction, indeed the dominant fictional form down there in the Ecliptic even now. But fiction, not science. And now the science of Galactic Sociology via the observations of the Galactic Eye has proven conclusively that not only is faster than light travel impossible but even interstellar travel at a significant fraction of light speed is economically prohibitive. For any civilization. Anywhere in this universe. Forever.”
“This cannot be!”
“This must not be!”
I ignored the shouts of denial and despair.
“Which is why, among three hundred civilizations, many of which appear to have energy sources far exceding our own, it has never been observed. Because it does not exist.”
“Because according to the cold equations of mass, energy, and ultimate economics, for all practical purposes, it cannot exist,” said Alexandria.
Were there a pin and even the slightest gravity in the Council Sphere, in the perfect silence, one could hear it drop.
“This is the endpoint result of your century’s work and decades worth of wasted total Galactic Eye time?” the First Dominus finally groaned..
“We did not create this terrible truth,” I told the Council. “And we are hardly the first to have proved it. It has been definitvely known since the equations of Albert Einstein. We have only presented the unavoidable observational proof.”
“Next will you tell us it is written in the stars?” said Dominus Galileo.
“In the implacable laws of mass and energy in this universe which we, and all beings of sentient conciousness, find ourselves, like it or not,” said Alexandria.
“And what are we to do with this most unwelcome knowledge?” demanded the First Dominus.
“That is why I requested this Council meeting,” I told the assembled Domini. “That is clearly a decision that is not mine alone to make.”
“So you pass it off on us!”
There was a long despairing and angry silence before the First Dominus finally spoke again.
“Clearly there are only two possible choices. We do not report this to the Ecliptics and violate the most basic principle of the mission we were created to serve--”
“Which in the end will probably prove impossible--”
“--or we do what we are bound to do by the mandate of our Order as is written in our very genomes, which is to announce every thing we discover without subjective judgement.”
“So our free will in this most existential decision our Order has ever had to make is an illusion.”
“And the results to the Order of the Galactic Eye?”
“We are not likely to be hailed as heroes,” the First Dominus said dryly.
“Might it not even turn the Ecliptics against us?”
“Might they even shut us down?”
“Poison the forward and outward looking zeitgeist of our species?”
“Leading to cultural devolution?”
“Or even ultimate extinction?”
I had of course anticipated this obvious reaction, and had not called for this meeting before deciding how it must end and come up with a possible means to produce it. Politics, the ancients said centuries ago, is the art of the possible. In truth not much good was possible here, but the ancients also understood that the perfect was the enemy of the good, and it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
“There is good scientific reason to believe that this revelation may at least not be as terminally grave as it might seem,” I told them, at least momentarily transforming the uproar into silence long enough to speak into it.
“Consider what else the data must mean. Some hundred civilizations more advanced than ourselves. Surely those at least must know and understand what we know now. And not only have we found no evidence of a civilization which has destroyed itself or devolved from a previously higher evolutionary level, but we have proof positive that many civilizations have passed through this existential crisis and evolved far beyond it.”
“We do not yet know how,” Alexandria interjected, “but galactic sociology most certainly tells us that it has been done and therefore that it can be done.”
“So we present the Ecliptics with the entire truth. Which is that while the fate of sentient civilizations in this universe may not be to the liking of any of us, consciousness would seem to have a destiny, and there are beings out there presently more evolved than ourselves who lived long and continued to evolve after knowing it.”
“Next you will tell us how to sell feces as flowers, Arjuna.”
“It does fertilize their growth,” I rejoined dryly.
There was a certain wan amount of relieved laughter.
“I do believe you will succeed me as First Dominus,” that current personage declared not dryly at all. “I do believe that has been your purpose.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” I declared truthfully. “I have never wanted to be anything but Dominus of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology. I have no further interest in the doings of this Council as you all must surely know.”
“Perhaps that is true,” said First Dominus Confucius. “You may really have no interest in succeeding me but you do have a duty. You seem found of ancient maxims, so here is one for you: to save a life, is to become responsible for it. And if the Order is to be saved, you have at least temporarily done it, Arjuna.”
This was greeted with nods, and even a few cheers, of assent.
Mine was not among them..
“I do not envy you, Arjuna,” said my-predecessor-to-be. “I doubt that you will preside over a golden era.”
Nor was it, though after half a century, while no one down below deemed it a golden age, there were those call ing it the Age of Human Maturity, and a growing number of diverse Ecliptic cultures, believing that as such it might never end or at least last for millions or even billions of years, were slowly but steadily merging towards a concensus that considered it no bad thing.
And just as slowly, we of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology began to apply what we had learned of the sociology of the galactic social order, namely that it did not and could not exist as anything like a monoculture, to the multiple and multiplex cultures of the Ecliptics, and that to certain degree the stabilizing situation in our single solar system was were similar to the galactic muliplexity writ small.
Up to a point.
Hundreds of extrasolar civilizations with no contact with each other. Nearly two hundred billion humans living in thousands of diverse habitats, natural or artificial, each a culture of its own, with more more diversity among them, at least to human perception, than among those mere hundred of extrasolar civilizations of whose arts, sciences, histories, biologies, consciousnesses we knew nothing and never would.
But there the similarity ended. And indeed there were movements and arts down below make reasonable claims that the multtude of cultures of our singular solar system made the overall human civilization culturally superior. For our thousands of diverse human cultures were not isolated from each other.
Far from it, they endlessly interacted, merged, broke apart, cross-fertilized, and even began once more to creep slowly towards the dead planets of nearby toward nearby Centorus in self-contained mobile habitats that might take a century to reach them and a millennium to terraform them, assuming there would be any impetus to do that at all.
Thus perhaps the Age of Human Maturity that might not be a devolved destiny after all but a dynamically stable destiny that could last for millions of years albeit in glorious galatic isolation like all the others.
Philosphies and religions rising and dissolving through the millenia. Art forms and literatures. The total mastery of the laws of mass and energy. Ever expanding lifespans approaching immortality as a limit. In terms of arts and evolution o cultures and consciousnesses might we not be but adolescents entering the cusp of a true species maturity that might flourish and flower as long as there were suns to light the void and perhaps even beyond?
As for the Galactic Eye and its Order, the discovery of ever more extrasolar civilizations in the Eye’s thousand light year global range became rarer and rarer and were greeted with ever more ofv indifference by the Ecliptics down below. We continued to be financed but at ever diminishing levels and fewer and fewer of us were cloned to replace those whose lifespans expired, and there was serious consideration of letting the Order fade away honorably by servicing our slowly dwindling numbers with robotics until the last of us aged out.
We had become a nostalgic relic of a bygone era, like the monestary orders of yore copying holy texts with pen and ink long after the invention of the printing press and it seemed that my historic destiny might be to die as Arjuna, the last First Dominus of the Order of the Galactic Eye. And as I aged closer and closer to that ending, I myself began to wonder if that might not be, if not a good thing, but the appropriate thing. The Order could be said to have completed its mandated task and so I had I, and if the conclusion thereof was less satisfactory than we had hoped, it was the only conclusion that would ever be possible.
And so, perhaps because the former Dominus of the Dominia of Galactic Sociology had long since become the First Dominus of our dwindling Order, or perhaps because we really had nothing else to do, we too turned inward. Theoretical galactic sociology became more and more central to us as our aging and dwindling numbers became more and more irrelevant to the Ecliptics enjoying their dynamic maturity down below.
We developed a theory to explain why even the most advanced and mature galactic civilizations did not seek to send even non-material messages to each other even though the technology to do so was readily available and the energy cost modest. For the light speed limit also applied to the transmission of massless data, so that it would take decades or centuries or millenia to send a simple greeting and receive even simple acknowledgement, rendering meaningful conversation eternally impossible.
Civilizations in general therefore, assuming they survived into maturity, could only accept such isolation from each other because there was no other choice. Such was the inescapable fate of civilizations in this galaxy and no doubt in any other. They could only continue to evolve internally to turn this fate into the self-chosen destiny of consciousness or expire.
This realization would be the last legacy of the Order of the Galactic Eye to the human species.
And indeed it was accepted as the inevitable by those of the Ecliptic who still pondered such matters.
This was the destiny of consciousness within the retrictions of the implacable laws of the universe in which it found itself until the last sun burned out. And in the face thereof the only possible wisdom was to accept it.
Or so it was thought by the Bats above and the Ecliptics below.
And by Arjuna, fated to be the Last First Dominus of the Order of the Galactic Eye.
Or so I thought.
“What is this secrecy all about, Sagan?” I demanded rather testily when I arrived in the Control Sphere. First Dominus or not, the aiming of the Eye had long since passed from the center of my attention, and Dominus Sagan, though at least as old as I was, was someone I seldom encountered.
“I will show you,” he said.
The Control Sphere was girdled wide around its equator with vision screens, holo projectors, individual control consoles for each independent facet of the Eye and always occupied by a crew of some dozen. But now there was no one in it but its Dominus and myself. Normally I was accusomed to regard the Eye as “up” and the Ecliptic as “down” but Dominus did something with his finger and the Control Sphere turned upside down, with the Eye below and the galactic vista above. The total effect was quite disturbing.
Dominus Sagan did something with his finger and the hemisphere above revealed itself as a screen by simplifying itself. The stars remained, but as points of white light, and our solar system was represented by an outsized green circle.
“This is of course a modified vision with a speeded up timeframe,” Dominus Sagan said as a bright blue dot appeared moving through the starscape. Moving very slowly but moving in a steady clear line nontheless.
“What is that?”
“That,”said Dominus Sagan, “is a massive object mass that has entered the Eye’s globe of vision moving in a deliberate arc at approximately fifteen percent of the speed of light.”
“You are sure?”
“We have checked, double checked and triple checked. The Eye is functioning perfectly. The blueshift is real, it has been measured, and it is unmistakable.
“Roughly the mass of a major asteriod or the largest habitat ever built...that we have ever built...but...”
“But its diameter is that of a major Jovian moon...Do you realize what that means?”
Dominus Sagan nodded. “Do you understand what that means?”
And I did. I understood that this was the most important discovery ever made at least since the first confirmation of the existence of an extrasolar civilization aeons ago. Perhaps even in all of human history.
“It has to be a manufactured artifact, doesn’t it?”
Dominus Sagan nodded again. “It can be nothing else. A hollow artifact the size of a moon has entered our galactic neighborhood.”
Dominus Sagan shrugged. “Currently impossible to tell. In a decade or so, assuming it follows the present steady vector, we may be able to extrapolate backward.”
“Where is it headed?”
“Again too early to tell, we cannot even yet tell whether it is holding a steady course, in a few decades perhaps--”
“How far away?”
Dominus Sagan frowned. “A difficult calculation. We have just seen it a thousand light years away, so what we would be seeing would be where it was a thousand years in its past, but the blueshift compression makes its current position in our realtime difficult to calculate with precision--”
“A rough estimate!” I demanded.
“Call it something like nine hundred light years then.”
“How many people know of this?”
“Only myself and the crew that discovered this, First Dominus, and they have been ordered to remain silent. I thought it prudent to inform you alone first rather than make it known widely myself or report it to the collectivity of the Council since you are well known to be more skilled in delivering the news of such discoveries to the Ecliptics to the maximum benefit of the Order than anyone else, let alone a Council concensus. And this...this....this presented properly will preserve the Order from extinction at least for a millenium, will it not, Arjuna?”
“Indeed it will, and then some, Sagan,” I told him. “You have done well. And indeed it has to be announced properly. Not as happenstance, but as the ultimate triumph of the Order of the Galactic Eye.”
“And the Eye and the Order will be vital to observe it for the next thousand years or more.”
“And restore the Order to the front and center of human civilization, looking forward once more from the prow of human destiny.”
And myself from the sad fate of being remembered as the last First Dominus of the vanished Order of the Galactic Eye. Happenstance would cause history to remember me as its savior.
And so the Galactic Eye was indeed thrust into the center of a civilization that swiftly turned its back on the instantly obsoleted Age of Human Maturity and suddenly found itself in what soon enough began to be called the Damoclean Age, for the inescapable fact was that the approaching mysterious unknown and essentially unknowable and therefore unnamable bolide would hang above it like the sword hanging over the head of the mythical Damocles by a fragile hair for centuries, for generations.
And no one now alive would ever know why, from where, and what it contained. We would all die in frustrating ignorance and knowing that was our inescapable destiny. And likewise the next generation, and the one after that, onward into the deep millenial future.
The Eye was able to do little to relieve that deeply frustrating ignorance. We were able to ascertain that the object was more or less metallic. The Sword of Damocles as it at length came to be called had its course backtracked sufficiently to indicate that it probably came from the galactic center. Or at least from the direction thereof.
But that was all. And where nothing was known anything could be imagined. The Sword of Damocles brought hope and fear in overwhelming abundance even though there was nothing to indicate that it would even pass within a hundred light years of our solar system. Hope because it might be bringing a galactic future to our distant descendants. Fear because a thousand or more years from our now it might destroy our species.
The only certainty was that our civilization would know no certainty for at least the next millenium and would have to live within that knowledge. My only certainty was that I would have to die like everyone else now living never knowing the outcome.
But then that has always been the fate of sapience, has it not? To come into being knowing the history of the past perhaps but never to know the ongoing history of the future. To live and then to die knowing that the unfolding story will go ever on without us.
Is that not every consciousness’s Sword of Damocles? Is not its fruitless denial the source of all the ancient supernatural religions? Can consciousness exist without despair without at least something like it?
Religions sprang up that were not really religions because they rested upon no supernatural basises. Sciences sprang up which were not really sciences because while they violated no known scientific knowledge they were based upon pure supposion.
The Sword of Damocles contained creatures both infinitely powerful and perfectly moral and would be our enlightening saviors. It contained horrible monsters of every conceivable sort, physical or moral. It was an artifact from a machine civilization that had superceded protoplasmic existence. It was an empty starship coming to transport us to some galactic paradise. It somehow was sent to our present by our distant descendants to create their own future.
There were cultures who called for the revival of the martial sciences and began producing powerful weapons. There were cultures who built mobile habitats and sent them forth in the general direction of the Sword of Damocles to welcome whatever was within it. The arts became utterly obsessed with imagining its contents. The only thing that was agreed upon was that no era of the human race had ever been forced to live through such millenia of utter existential uncertainty.
And as I grew old I approached the end of my long life lionized by the Order as the greatest First Dominus in its and the foremost culture hero down below though or perhaps even because I had never set foot on any planet, moon, or habit of the Ecliptic, and never would. And the Order and its ancient First Dominus became something perilously akin to secular versions of a priesthood, and its prophet.
“Remember thou art moral,” slaves were commissioned to whisper into the ears of conquering emperors. Facing my approaching death knowing I would never know what my life had wrought, I needed no such reminder.
But I received one anyway.
In the form of Dominus Sagan, frailer than even I now, appearing in my own quarters.Two frail old humans near the end of our lives. Lives that could only be heroic or tragic in the eye of history but who would never know which.
“It’s turned,” he told me. “And it’s decelerating.”
In his demeanor I could read what his next words would be.
“And it is heading straight for us.”
“How long?” was all I could say.
“A very difficult calculation. I would guess that its rate of deceleration would be calculated to arrive more or less stationary at least in relativistic terms and --
“Your best estimate of maximum time and minimum.”
“No more than two millenia to reach our solar system, the minium no less than a thousand years.”
“What have we done, Sagan?”
“As we are seeing the Sword of Damocles in its deep past, so must be seeing us in ours. What in our past has attracted it? The building of our Galactic Eye? The first atomic explosions? Whatever it was, it would have to have occured centuries before we were born, centuries before what our civilization has become now. Who is to say we have done anything, Arjuna?”
And it would seem to be the scientific truth. But still, when he had left me alone, I felt like a prophet standing atop a mountain a nd staring down into the land into which he had led his people at the very end of his life knowing only that he would never know whether it would be a heaven or a hell or both or neither.
That was my own Sword of Damocles and I could not escape its falling upon me.
I would hope that this story opens a doorway to what sooner or later has to be a new kind of science fiction, science fiction that is not set in " Norman Spinrad's Universe," nor any fiction writers universe, but in the real deal, the universe, the one we will always live in, as will all conscious and sapient beings. And that fiction will also be forever speculative. How could it be otherwise?
Paperback available on Amazon for $4.50
Paperback available on Amazon for $4.50