Epilogue: The Ascent
The human’s molecules came back together after the travel through the teleportation beams. His partner materialized beside him and immediately took out his computer, holding it in the palm of his hand as he pierced the sample of the well-preserved corpse the Osminog had found.
From on high they had watched the incredible progress of the Osminog, seeing them go from a unified industrial society to near space-age within just a couple hundred years. Their progress had slowed considerably recently, but the Osminog somehow seemed to expect that occurrence. It hadn’t seemed right – the speed of advancement never reduced, not unless a Next Level Society decided to disrupt the lower society’s progress.
Or, as had occurred more recently, a lower level society eclipsed the power of the one above it.
A few seconds passed, then the human holding the computer announced, “It’s real.”
The first human to materialize walked to the doorway and looked out onto the archaeological find, a giant tomb filled with the corpses of ancient Osminog, all of whom held an axe, the symbol of the only tribe to survive some great battle. The modern Osminog took measurements with tools similar to the humans’ as they sorted through the frozen mummies and carefully sublimated the ice that held the bodies still.
He looked back from the doorway, frowning. “How did she get here?”
The man with the computer tapped a few holographic images that emitted from it, then reported, “The genome matches that of a woman imprisoned for embezzlement 500 years ago. She was one of those people selected to explore the cosmos alone for a decade and satisfy human curiosity. She was lost six years into her mission, was never supposed to have been at Osmina in the first place. The lengths of her telomeres indicate that she died in her eighties.”
The first man looked at the frozen mummy and felt awkward. This woman long dead could have doomed them all. Osmina was advancing too quickly, perhaps even surpassing some of the other societies that had been ahead of them only recently.
“We have to destroy the evidence. Perhaps the Third Level won’t have noticed yet.”
The man with the computer nodded and pulled out some stickers, placing them onto the forehead, hands, and feet of the frozen mummy. The body would be beamed aboard, forgotten by the Osminogs or, if not forgotten, at least lost.
The leader of the ground team considered what had happened to the level of society just above humans – as well as the level above that. They advanced slowly, allowing mortal man to rise up and slaughter those that would have hunted them. The Osminogs were developing quickly enough that they stood the chance to develop faster than humankind.
Now, assuming that they were able to excavate the human body out of the tomb quickly enough, they were safe. The human had, evidently, spurred the Osminogs towards industrialization and discovery, which could explain why there had been such a sudden and quick advancement amongst the people. The slowdown could be attributed to the fact that the Osminogs were soon going to catch up with the level of society that the human had lived in, that they had reverse engineered everything they could have.
“Hey,” the man with the computer said, “Look at this – she’s left them with all sorts of papers. Should we take them?”
The leader stopped looking at the old corpse and looked at what his subordinate was indicating. It was a book, cold and fragile, found on top of a steel table built by modern Osminog. The book was made of ancient leather and tree pulp, words made of soot written upon the pages. He wouldn’t dare touch it lest the pages fall to pieces.
The man with the computer scanned the book, reading all the pages at once. “It’s a book to help whoever found this tomb translate both the ancient language of the Osminog and Zero-Level Age English.”
The leader poked the text, feeling the brittle page crumble where he had touched it. “Get rid of this too. Anything that could link us to this culture’s advancement, eliminate it.”
The computer man squinted at his screen. “This is interesting… she expected to be found by us eventually. Not aliens of any higher level, but… us. Look.”
The leader took the computer and read the words, translated from Zero-Level Age English into Second-Level Age.
“I expect that, by the time I am found, I will have been long dead. Though the Osminogs with their love and faithfulness may be first to find me, I don’t expect they will be first to read this. Even if they do, their respectfulness will cause them to set the book down and stop reading. It is mankind who will keep reading, the curiosity and paranoia of my kind urging them to continue rifling through the relics of the dead.”
The leader looked at the computer guy, frowning. “What is this mess? She think she was some sort of philosopher?”
The computer man shrugged. “I don’t know. The Osminogs have reported their finding of the body on the news already, calling her the Sky Creature, a prophet in their cuckoo religion. From what I can tell, this woman was right – the Osminogs would have stopped reading the book once they saw that.”
“Because they’re stupid barbarians who advanced far too quickly for their own good. They didn’t even build nukes, did they?” The leader was satisfied when the computer guy hushed, returning to putting stickers on everything they wanted to beam back with them.
The leader dug his nose back into the book the ancient woman had left for the humans. “At the time of my writing, I never knew who the Next Level were, what they wanted. All I knew is that my people had seen the destruction the Next Level had wrought and feared them as prey fears its predators. How are we to know that the Next Level will surely destroy us? How are we to be certain that we must follow in its footsteps, taking up the attributes of paranoia, isolationism, and destructiveness?
“It is because we have no one to guide us. Alone, we see only the way to take advantage, to rise above, to point our species in the way that selects for our survival. But what does our own survival matter when it is just a continued story of sordid evil? Why not select those below us for kindness, stewardship?
“Because it is deviously hard. Even as I sit here, a lifetime of working with the most fearful, kindhearted creatures that could have possibly climbed out of the muck, I recognize that becoming more powerful comes at its costs. Resources must be acquired, and others have those resources, so they must be taken. Not so with the Osminog. From the beginning they have known about selective breeding, their asexual nature allowing each individual to choose how many descendants she will have. The tribe I’m with now has taken all Osminog into its folds. There will only be one Osminog tribe and, then, there will be no war amongst them.
“But you, oh humans, will forever fear, forever hunt. You have the minds and agency to take control of your fate, but you will not be able to make the sacrifice necessary. You will not risk the Next Level finding that you didn’t follow their rules. You have in front of you an ally, a group of people who will be willing to jump into the boat with you, who will be creative in ways that man cannot be, who you could evolve with mutually to become a powerful people worthy of enforcing its desires and selective pressures on those below you.
“That’s not going to happen, though. Humanity will, at best, fight up the ladder to rise to the next level. We’ll become the greatest people in the universe, sowing destruction wherever we may go, but it will not last. Instead of becoming what we could have, something greater than mortals, we will simply become a stone to be stepped on, a step in the ladder of civilizations.
“So you have a decision: remain a people of fear and continue to evolve into a predator, or take control of yourselves and become a balanced people, stewards of the universe.”
The leader looked up from the computer. “That was it? That was all?”
The computer guy took his tablet back, tapping some things. “That was it.”
The leader walked back over to the frozen corpse and breathed heavily, watching the mist in his breath turn into a heavy fog. He looked at the dead, mummified face, and thought he saw a smile. This long dead woman had known something he didn’t, had seen something he never would. From her writings, he could tell that she had felt fulfilled in helping the Osminog advance. His life, however, was dedicated to keeping the humans alive long enough for them to advance and eliminate the Next Level. Eventually, he supposed, they’d make it to the top and be able to enact their own rules on the universe.
He heard a few movements behind him, so turned his head quickly to see some spotted Osminogs peeking in the door.
They looked to each other before filing in, bearer before assistant, and sat before the human unafraid. The man flinched, realizing that he had been seen by the lower level creatures and could have shown humanity to be acting against its own interests. He couldn’t have that, so reached for the gun strapped to his leg.
“Welcome, Sky Creatures,” the bearer said, bending down. “Welcome to Osmina. We have long expected your return, Creatures. Sit, eat of our sacrifices.”
The assistant did something that made the sparkle in its eyes change, then waved the tentacles furthest from the humans. Other assistants rushed up, carrying plates of beans and squash, cooked to perfection.
“What… What is this?” the human leader asked, his translator working to turn his words into the Osminog language.
The bearer took the plate from the assistants, holding it up to him. “For millennia, we have cared for the sacred fruit of the Sky Creature, the one who called herself Ann in your language.” The leader was taken aback, surprised that the Osminog had a device to make human words. “We welcome your return and ask: how shall the last prophecy be fulfilled?”
They blinked and stared, watching as the leader took the squash and tasted it. The squash seemed fine, tasted like normal squash back on earth. A little bland, but that was to be expected from people who had raised fruits with the opposite chirality and couldn’t taste their own crops.
The computer guy stood up. “I think they’re asking if they’re going to be destroyed.”
“I know that – shut up!” the leader responded. He put the food back down and looked at the Osminog, thinking about what was going on. Why weren’t the Osminog afraid? What were they hiding? Had they, in a tactic similar to the humans, hidden most of their advancement so as to seem weaker than they were in reality? The leader took the fruit and looked at the computer guy, then to the dead woman on the table.
With a bow the bearer and assistants simultaneously chanted, “We come in peace, Sky Creature.”
The ground team leader sneered. “That’s nice, because we didn’t.” He shot the Osminog dead, then dropped to the computer guy’s side, quickly putting stickers on the last of the objects in the room.
“What did you do!?” the computer guy shouted.
“Hurry up. Get us back to the ship, dead woman intact.”
“But… but look – it was the final prophecy! Didn’t you want to break the cycle? What if the Osminogs were told to come kill us if we acted this way?”
The leader scowled. “Good riddance to us, then. Beam us up.”
The computer guy obediently pressed some buttons, everything he had placed a sticker on beaming to the human ship for preservation and study.
And thus, as mankind became the most powerful beings in the universe, it realized what it had become: no longer prey, no longer stewards, no longer conquerors.