Angst in Space
by Ahmed Andjety
Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I'm stuck on the only one without meaning. Please don't misunderstand me--I'm purely an accidental philosopher. It's not that my mother raised me on Bacon, Lessing and Thomas, or that my dad taught me to shave with Ockham's razor. They didn't. We were just plain folk.
Dad dropped out of school to join the army, and Mom, well, she just dropped out. Survivors they were. They were just as puzzled as I was about my quest for meaning. No fancy schooling, just an overly restless mind that buzzes all the time like a manic beehive. To their credit, they didn't let my frenetic brainwaves interfere with their daily lives.
After my father's tours of duty ended, we settled on a farm. Dad's family had been farmers from way back. Knew all about rotating crops, soil acidity, tilth, irrigation. And Mom knew how to prepare anything he'd make that ground produce.
We were stunned when his old C.O. rang us up. New program had passed through some bureaucrat's head that we should, as a culture, give something back to the universe. "Share the wealth," he said. Advanced scouts had discovered a planet with creatures like us. Well, to a point. Bipedal, symmetrical, rudimentary intelligence--knew how to make basic tools. Real basic. Didn't have the wits to figure out that seeds could be used to grow the same plants year after year, so they kept wandering about looking for their favorites. Had to chase even the dumbest animals to eat, and the dumb animals usually won. Lifespans were tragically short, much shorter than ours. Their existence was nothing but struggle and misery. We should help them along. Would Dad be interested in a real opportunity? A leadership role on a new planet? Well, you don't have to finish school to be smart.
It was on the long trip that it happened. One of the ship's crew left a book carelessly lying open. A book that was something a young guy shouldn't see. Almost pornographic in its appeal. This book suggested there was more to life than growing, preparing, and processing food. A grand scheme existed out there, somewhere, for the mind brave enough to find it! With the immortality and humble arrogance of the young, I supposed that mind might possibly be mine. I tracked down the officer. Soon I was daily in his cabin burning through his books, leaving each day more hungry than when I'd entered. I couldn't help myself; knowing that a larger purpose existed, I had to find it.
"You'll drive yourself crazy," Mom warned after I'd spent a week depressed over the fact that everyone perceives colors differently. I wanted the whole universe to experience the vividness of red like I did--true red; the richness of the blues I knew; the undying optimism of yellow. If others perceived them even slightly differently, it was like being cut off from everyone else. No one knew the same world I knew. From there the desire to learn what life is all about exploded in my digestive tract. I had to know!
Staring out a porthole at the infinity of space, knowing that no end existed to its limits but that it was growing nevertheless, only to collapse back in on itself wiping out every thought ever conjured in all the minds of all sentient creatures on all the planets in its infinite space--what did it all mean? There was no blackness deeper than the light-years between galaxies unless it was the darkness that required illumination in my head.
Dad took me on his knee as we neared our new home. His face was haggard but kind. His thigh felt as solid as steel beneath me. He smelled of soil and the stale air of months of recycled artificial atmosphere. "I'm not sure what we'll find here, son. Primitives like this probably don't have much time to concern themselves with meaning--they spend their days trying to survive. Maybe you can help them find meaning. After we teach them farming, you can teach them to think." I think I knew that he was coddling me, but I felt good anyway. He realized how important this was to me.
Protocol for interacting with primitives was well established. Thermal scans revealed where they were, and we brought ourselves down far from them. No doubt our appearance would initially shock them--convergent evolution has its limits when stretched across the vastness of space. Once they mastered their distrust of strangers, we'd engage them with new ideas, learning their language, slowly introducing better survival skills. Of course, it meant that we had to live like they did. No hopping into the rover to trundle back to our smart house. This was like living on the frontier. We stowed our weapons, but kept them accessible. This planet was home to fierce predators, beasts capable of destroying us as well as them. On our home planet we'd tamed the beasts. We'd perfected our environment. We had what we wanted. Nobody worried about meaning. Well, very few did. Why seek meaning when life always goes your way?
I had trouble adjusting to our new, existential planet. Temperatures soared beyond the comfort zone and nights could be brutally cold. Standing out on the open plain when the air felt like a direct blast from an atomic engine, seeing, actually seeing the heat rise in crazy spirals from the surface of the ground, I admired the fortitude of my parents. With the same patience they had utilized with me, they taught these apish, hairy, and musky-smelling "people" to plant, irrigate, and domesticate. Once the lesson had been solidly learned, we retreated to the comfort of our clandestine techno-pod and the comforts of home. Watching my parents had distracted me, but now with the few books I'd been given along the way, the old hankering for purpose, for meaning, for substance, rolled in like a deluge. My brows knit, my appetite listless, my mind spinning like a flywheel, I needed to learn what this was all about. Life couldn't be simple survival only. The way that they glanced at each other before telling me I was still young sometimes disturbed me.
Occasionally we met with the others. New planets were never improved by one family alone. We were spread out so as not to appear as a hostile tribe, but hundreds of us formed our own support groups. Orbiting supply ships appeared on a regular schedule. The natives took these swiftly moving new stars to be portents or omens, but they could never predict what they might mean. For us it meant upgrades, supplies, and, if I was lucky, new books.
The day our physician's report materialized eventually developed into a day of whispers and significant parental glances. Even though they were not scientists, my parents read the communication avidly. This primitive planet boasted a wealth of opportunities, some of which were still unfolding. "What's that?" I asked.
"Genetic compatibility study," my father mumbled evasively.
"What kind of compatibility?" I persisted.
"Oh, nothing that interesting. Seems we might be able to integrate some of our own flora into this ecosystem without any damage. That's good news for those who've had trouble adjusting to the native growth."
"Anything else?" I pestered.
"It's technical stuff son. Some of it I can't even understand."
The storms on this new planet are epic. The sky grows an ominous black and even the animals rage uncontrollably when thunder explodes overhead. Despite our weather-tight gear, we prefer not to venture out into the violent rains that slam into the ground like millions of tiny, liquid meteorites. The great gusts of wind can sweep over a native in unsure footing. During one of these storms Dad said, "it is time to teach them writing." His sidelong glance was directed to me.
"But how? They haven't mastered the fine motor skills to make penciled figures. They don't even have paper."
"Use your imagination," he prompted.
When the rain stopped, I wandered down to the great river that watered this land. Just to think about what it all meant. There she was, barely more than a girl; a native standing on the sodden bank, wonder in her eyes. By now they'd come to accept our presence and our peculiar ways. For them, we'd been here generations. I silently stood watching her, simply enjoying the sight of another person thinking. Suddenly the saturated riverbank gave way, plunging her into the swollen torrent. With no time to calculate the risks, I leapt in after her although I was barely able to swim. The raging swell of the river was terrifying, louder than even seemed possible as it roared down its overfilled channel. Horrified, I watched her flailing impossibly far before me. Waves crashed down over my head, filling my ears and eyes with a muddy brew of storm water. Choking on the wash, I tried to recall the most effective strokes to move ahead. The girl was too terrified even to scream as I could just make out her wildly flailing arms. Sickeningly I watched her head plunge repeatedly beneath the surface. With a burst of reserved energy, I began to make slow progress toward her. Would I be able to reach her in time? Gasping and gulping, my head just out of the roaring river, I realized that we could work together, the river and I. Still stroking, I ceased fighting, using the momentum all around me until I was within an arm's length of her.
I called out in her native language, but she seemed not to hear. Her flailing had ceased and she drifted along lifelessly, like a leaf on the water. Thrusting with all my might, I reached her limp form and grasped her as I used the flow to move ahead and expended my energy angling us toward the shore. My focus on escape kept me moving in the terrifying roar and awful din of all that water. The bank seemed so distant, so tentative. The girl's face was upward, but continually washed over with unfeeling waves. After a tediously long struggle--perhaps too long--I could feel the bottom with my feet. Plunging them downward, I gripped my charge with both arms, fighting the hungry current. Breathing heavily, I pulled her ashore. I knew too little of native anatomy to attempt life-saving measures, so I collapsed into a drenched, heaving heap next to her, holding her frigid hands, hoping for a sign. Afraid to look, I cast my glance back across the muddy impressions our trek from the river had made in the sticky clay. A trail of footprints into an uncertain future.
A watery cough, rolling over, a following torrent from her mouth and I knew she'd live. We were far from the settlement, swept along to an uninhabited stretch of the waterway. I nursed her to health with my limited understanding, and a new emotion took root deep within. We were so different--separate species from distant worlds--this feeling could only be an illusion, a mocking cipher. When she was able, we began the long journey back, by foot. At her village I began to teach the art of writing. My realization as we lay by the river watching the unchanging footprints in the mire suggested a solution to the quandary of fine motor skills. Clay was ubiquitous here, and stiff reeds from the riverbank pressed into the crudely shaped pages would capture concepts in stone. A child could do it.
My rescued friend stayed close to my side, and despite what I felt growing within, I knew we'd reached the limits of our compatibility. I would live far, far longer than she. I had no assurance that our biology would allow for any form of intimacy. Surely we would never be able to raise children.
My parents had, naturally, sought me out when I hadn't returned. Dad and Mom had searched wildly for me in our missing days. They found me in the village, relief flooding their weary faces. Observing me with my new friend, father beckoned me aside. The message I'd asked about some time ago--the biological report? It had, as I was now ready to learn, indicated genetic symbiosis. We might indeed, in a limited way, form a family unit.
These people, in their own way, made meaning for themselves. Theirs was a harsh and brief life. But in those unrushed moments they spent together, working like an insect colony to improve the prospects of their young, I glimpsed a reality behind existential reality. With no guarantees, they created a future.
Knowing that I'd spend an eternity recalling my first love, I knew now that I had to make my own meaning. We became parents and our children learned quickly. Soon they were teaching and writing was a blossoming art. My mate became my meaning. When she grew old, I was still young. Watching her decline and die tormented me far worse than the lack of purpose I had constantly struggled against.
After perhaps another native generation, love found me again and slowly a sense of possibility returned. In my suffering and loving, I was improving the survivability of my new people. When the generations of my mates passed away, I traveled on to new locations--places where I had to gain trust as a stranger, and where I might continue my mission. Making a future for them. Their world spun so swiftly about their sun, stealing their pitiful years, while I survived the longer, more stately centuries encoded in my biology. My children brought the potential for life from the stars while legends grew around those of us who'd arrived from above to bless the natives with agriculture, longevity, and writing. In our apparently ageless form, we were becoming gods.
Gods making our own meaning. No world, I'd come to realize, possessed any meaning. My purpose was what I decided it would be: creating a future for others.