Here we may mount from this dull Earth, and viewing it from on high, consider whether Nature has laid out all her Cost and Finery upon this small Speck of Dirt.
– Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheoros
For a few minutes, all I could do was stare once Diplomat had finished his story. For the greater part of an hour he’d gone on, telling us everything, sparing no detail. Rudak and I didn’t make a sound during any of it; we simply listened to what he had to say.
He seemed to understand the look of shock on my face. Straightening, he glanced my way. Even across the cultural and species barrier, I could see the sadness behind those owlish eyes. For a brief moment, I could almost feel the weight of a hundred millennia on my back.
“What is your judgment?” he asked.
I opened my mouth, only to find that I didn’t have the power to speak. I tried a few more times, wetting my lips.
“I-I can’t judge,” I finally managed to say, voice hoarse with emotion. “What you’ve done is too big to judge. You’re too big to judge.”
“Allmother preserve me,” Rudak murmured. “If it is the truth you speak-”
“It is,” Diplomat said. “There is no reason for it to be a lie.”
“Have you done the same to my people?” Rudak demanded. A low rattle became audible, and I realized it was coming from him. “Did you also take populations from my world to make a-a reserve?”
“No,” came the simple reply. “Until a few days ago, I did not know that your species even existed.”
I looked around the library again, this time in a new light. To know that it had all be crafted by humans, and not an alien race…
“This entire planet was just a conservation effort,” I muttered, shaking my head. “You brought people here, like they were some endangered species of bird.”
“In a universe like this, all species are endangered,” Diplomat retorted. “An entire civilization can be destroyed in a blink of an eye, whether it be by cosmic event or their own foolishness. My own people have toed the line, and I can count several instances for your own species.”
He straightened, like he reading from a book. “The Toba catastrophe reduced your population to ten thousand individuals. Your so-called ‘Cold War’ just a century ago threatened to turn your world into glass all because of petty squabbles, and your short-sightedness…”
A pause, then, “No, I wouldn’t call the Surge a result of short-sightedness. You knew what was coming, had known for decades, but you ignored it. I can’t blame the majority of your species; a lack of proper knowledge of the matter and not wanting to consider your extinction can go a long way. But your foolish leaders cared only for power and decadence, figuring that they’d survive what would come. They were willing to destroy their world for slips of paper.”
“Can you really make such judgments?” I asked.
“Do you not blame them, then?”
I fell silent.
“I’ve watched your species since before your homeland was even settled,” Diplomat continued. “I know humans, Liu. Like all species, you can be a great people, and you can be a terrible one. I got to watch from orbit when you erected the pyramids and began to decipher the secrets of the universe, rising above the natural order of your world. I also got to see the Heavenly Rebellion, the Killing Fields, and the Second World War.”
“You had two world wars?” Rudak asked.
I looked over at him, and felt a pang of guilt. He’d known that humans could be full of cruelty, but now he was learning just how much. Did his own world have such horrors, or would he see me as more brutish?
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Three, if you consider the infighting during the Surge to be a war,” Diplomat added. “Billions of people forced away from the shores in the face of an advancing tide that threatened to swallow your greatest cities. It’s easy for animosity to brew in such conclusions. I’m surprised India and Pakistan never used their nuclear arsenals during it. Your governments took action, building massive walls along the coasts, but that was a drain on the already fragile economy.”
“We recovered,” I said. “We managed to save the cities, and restore normalcy, after we developed our spaceflight industries.”
“Yes, and it only took you two billion deaths over ten years.” There was no anger in his voice; in fact, he almost sounded like a disappointed parent. “Infighting killed fifty million, disease took a billion, especially when that bioweapon facility had the accident, and the rest died from natural disasters and starvation. The governments of sixteen nations collapsed, and the rest had tenuous grips.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I said, the words almost coming out as a snarl. “My parents died in a flood, and I was half a world away, unable to even visit the funeral. I lost my fiancé in a power-planet accident.”
“Your losses are tragedies,” he replied, “and they illustrate what I am asking. Is Earth ready for contact with my people?”
“We came here to find you and make peace.”
Diplomat spread his hands wide. “That was before you knew of this, of Kauetirye. Our intentions were solely to better preserve your species, but do you think Earth would forgive us for it? If Kauetirye was still home to a thriving civilization, then perhaps they would, but all that remains is dust and ash.”
“Tragedy can induce anger,” he continued. “And a tragedy of this magnitude will fill your world with a terrible resolve. Earth will not forgive the deaths here, even though it was caused by a natural disaster; they would blame us for bringing people here in the first place. Your world would call for war.”
“We’ve learned to forgive,” I said. “We had to forgive if we wanted to survive. We can forgive you for trying to keep us safe, even if it didn’t end well.”
Rudak stepped forward. “Your own people achieved peace, as has my own. Why can’t you believe that the humans have done the same?”
“Their peace is too fragile at the moment, too newfound. The revelation of Kauetirye would shatter it.”
“What are you getting at, then?” I asked, suddenly growing more than a little concerned.
“I’m saying that news of this cannot reach Earth.”
Before I knew it, Rudak was in front of me, taking a protective stance as he put himself between Diplomat and I. The rattling grew in intensity, and I could hear a hiss escaping him, almost like that of a snake.
I could almost feel the power radiating off him. I had a feeling that, if he wanted to, he could smear Diplomat all over the walls with his bare hands.
“I have no intent on killing any of you,” Diplomat said, calmly. “I’ve done enough to last me a thousand lifetimes. And killing this body will not stop it.”
“What have you done with Odysseus?” I demanded. “What have you done with my crew?”
“They are alive. I simply disabled your vessel’s ramscoop; there’s no way they’d be able to reach Earth within a thousand years, now. Right now, they’re in orbit, no doubt trying to repair it.”
“What are you going to do with us, then?” I asked.
Diplomat folded his arms across his chest. “You and your crew will be allowed to accompany me back to Sheshak. There, you’ll be allowed to explore the Network, going from world to world, experiencing our culture. You’ll be granted full access to our libraries, and learn anything and everything you might wish to know. We could even extend your lifespan, and let you enjoy the quality of life we all have.”
“But I would not be able to return home.”
He bowed his head. “Yes.”
“How long do you think that’d last? We had plans to make four more starships, all more advanced than Odysseus. Chances are, they’d send one over to investigate, or come across one of your colony worlds in the future.”
“But they will not know of the civilization on Kauetirye. We will remove the evidence and bring it to Sheshak. When contact is eventually made with Earth, they will never know of what happened here.”
I clenched my fists. “That’s it, then? Brush the whole thing under the rug? Pretend that an entire civilization never lived and died here?”
“I am disgusted with the thought myself,” Diplomat said. “But it is better than war. Anything is better than war.”
It was Rudak’s turn to speak. “What of me? My people will investigate a disappearance, and they’re only days away.”
“True,” Diplomat admitted. “However, your world does not know of this discovery. And even if they could find this in time, they would never be able to contact Earth and prove it, thanks to the powerful ionosphere of your planet.”
To my surprise, Rudak simply let out a small hoot.
“I believe you’re mistaken on that account.”