Man, as history had known man, was dead to Earth. For a generation and a half, the blue-green planet had been ravaged by a world-encompassing plague the likes of which had never been dreamt of in the wildest of fictions. The plague had thieved away from its victims the capacity to communicate through any form of language, oral, written, or sign, like some demented anti-Prometheus. Now the ruins of civilization were, in the general consensus of the Martian populace, no more than a playground for savage beasts, human only in physical appearance, to wage battle against one another over the scant remaining resources of more enlightened days.
The Martian authorities had caught word of the plague fairly early on and declared a state of emergency. The Red Planet’s forever scarce resources were made scarcer as all traffic from Earth was abruptly cut off along with all of the aid that flowed with it.
As Captain Jay Roberts stepped out of the tens-of-thousands-of-miles long Space Elevator and onto the sodden ground of the equatorial region of the Earth, he recalled one of the more fanatic interpretations of the event he had heard from a recording of a televangelist.
“It’s the Tower of Babel all over again. Mankind settles differences between himself and his neighbors and gets cocky, decides to build a stairwell from the grounds of the Earth to the Heavens themselves. God sees his people filled with a longing desire to become a match even for him. When all of mankind works together, there is no thing that cannot eventually be achieved. Now, less than a decade after the completion of this tower, God sees fit to punish his children for their hubris once more. The difference between the event we are currently facing and that which are predecessors faced is that, instead of merely dividing man’s tongues into many, God has taken it upon himself to simply cut them off.”
Though Captain Roberts did not consider himself to be a religious man by any means, he did agree with the preacher on one account: the plague was far too unique to have popped-up spontaneously in nature. If his suspicions, along with those of the rest of the population of Mars, held to be true the Babble Plague was an act of Man, not of God.
The authorities of Earth had been outraged by the Martian decision to refuse to admit traffic from the Mother planet. The space industry had developed into a cornerstone of the global economy and bringing interplanetary traffic to a halt literally overnight was a crisis of cataclysmic proportions. Suddenly, Earth found its troubles doubled. The Martians were given a deadline to retract their policy and told that if they did not comply, it would be necessary to use military force to preserve the well-being of both worlds.
Those threats never saw the light of day. By the time the deadline had arrived, the plague had become too widespread for them to worry about that.
The Elevator had attracted millions to live nearby both to facilitate trade and simply to enjoy the view. The city that had sprung up around it had developed into the most diverse metropolis on the face of the planet almost overnight. The city belonged to no one nation and all who entered it quickly forgot whatever political or ethnic strife had plagued their peoples in the past. War was rarer and militaries were shrinking. It was the idealist’s utopic vision of world peace realized at last.
The squadron of Martians marched down the deserted streets of the World City, as the media had coined it in the early days of its creation, clanking loudly in the exoskeletons that served to protect them from exhaustion under the strains of a gravity triple what they were accustomed to. They made their way past the ruins of decaying buildings, towards the communication center which was the most likely place to hold any number of more delicate facts about the Babble Plague that the authorities had neglected to forward to Mars, either out of a desire to punish the Martians for the economic chaos they had wrought or simple carelessness.
Just as they were reaching the building, Captain Roberts felt his foot snag on something and he went flying. His stomach churned and the blood rushed to his head as he was pulled into the air, head down. The last thing he remembered before he passed out was the sight of Dr. Mavra hanging upside down from a light post and the sound of Drs. Hewin and Gerdstein running off.
When he came to, he found himself in an office room with Dr. Mavra, surrounded by half a dozen men in ragged, age-old uniforms of the city police. The Captain stretched himself and waited for the men to do something. After several minutes of awkward silence, Captain Roberts burst into a fit of laughter. They had dressed themselves up as civilized officers, but he had trouble viewing them as anything more than a bunch of damn apes.
One of the men stepped forward and held out his hand to Captain Roberts. The Captain froze and stared at him, puzzling over the fact that these people were still capable of even a gesture as simple as a handshake. When it became clear enough that the Captain didn’t have the slightest intention of accepting the gesture, Dr. Mavra stepped passed him and grasped the stranger’s hand. They shook. He stepped back towards his companions and they all bowed, then left.
“The hell was that?” Captain Roberts asked, turning to Dr. Mavra. “Those bastards kidnap us and you go and suck up to them like we’re on a mission of diplomacy. For Christ’s sake, Doc, I don’t know if you can even say that they fit the dictionary definition of sentient beings.”
Dr. Mavra sent a dirty look in his direction.
“Just because they can’t do everything that we can, that doesn’t give you the right to damn them before you get to know them. Besides, I think they were trying to offer us peace.”
Captain Roberts rolled his eyes and went over to the window.
“We’re pretty high up,” he said, changing the subject. “We don’t stand much of a chance at climbing down from here. We could try to just run out the front door, but that would be one hell of an idiotic plan. Our best bet would be to wait for now and see what happens. If we’re lucky, the other two will think of something to help us out.”
The same group of men that had first met them came to them again the next morning, just after sunrise. The man who had shaken hands with Dr. Mavra the day before, the apparent leader of the group, stepped aside and motioned for them to follow him out the door. Dr. Mavra headed out and Captain Roberts, after a brief instant of hesitation, followed after her. He didn’t trust her to be with them on her own.
They wandered the corridors until they reached the stairwell to take them to a lower floor. Captain Roberts pushed the door open and started down. There was a dinging sound behind him and Dr. Mavra called out to him. He turned back and saw the doors of the elevator slide open. He swore under his breath and joined the rest of the group.
The elevator opened up a couple of minutes later into a cafeteria. People of all ages filled the room from end to end, eating together quietly. A few heads looked up at the pair and gave friendly waves. They sat down at an empty table and a server came and placed trays in front of them. The Captain looked at the meal, considerably more amazed than when he had seen that their elevator was operational. Instead of the filthy muck he had always imagined the infected cooked for themselves, they had handed him gourmet cuisine. It was a mixture with bits and pieces deriving from half a dozen different cultures, a somewhat controversial habit that a handful of the city’s restaurants had started up in the pre-Plague days in commemoration of the city’s diversity.
“Well, this is dandy, but what exactly are we supposed to do with it?” Captain Roberts said. “We can’t eat any of this stuff with our suits on.”
“So we take them off for now.”
“And risk exposing ourselves to whatever’s screwed them all up? That’s nuts.”
But Dr. Mavra had already reached up to pull the helmet off her head. The Captain lunged forward and grabbed both her wrists to stop her.
“Have you lost it, Doc? If you do this and catch it like everybody else on this damned planet did, I’m not going to be able to let you come back home with us.”
“That may be so, but I’m feeling kind of hungry. I haven’t had anything to eat since we were still riding down the Bean Stalk and this stuff they’ve given us sure looks a hell of a lot better than the rubbish we were eating on the trip here.”
“Doc, this is serious. Do you understand the implications of what you’re about to do?”
“Yes, sir. I understand you perfectly, but I’m still hungry. Now, if you don’t mind…”
Dr. Mavra pulled free from his grip and took off her helmet. She closed her eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply once. She opened them up again, reached for a fork and started to casually eat her meal.
“You’re insane, Doctor.” Captain Roberts said, shaking his head.
Dr. Mavra shrugged her shoulders.
“It was worth it, Captain.”
When they were done in the cafeteria, they were led back to the elevator and taken to a lower floor. It was readily apparent that the bulk of this floor had been dedicated mainly to an employee print library in the pre-Plague era. Since then, the building’s inhabitants had remodeled it to fit the circumstances of their times. The vast majority of old age books had been removed and replaced with books that looked like they were slapped together from standard office printer paper.
Captain Roberts picked up a book at random and flipped it open. An innocent looking girl in a red cloak carrying a basket in one hand looked down at a wolf in bed dressed up in the clothes of an elderly woman. The wolf grinned devilishly at the girl and it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what was going on between the two of them. It was a picture-only version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Captain Roberts put the book back where he found it, headed a few shelves away, and pulled down a handful of others from their shelves. Most of the fiction works he found were simplified versions of classics. He found interpretations of works by most of the major writers of the past few hundred years and a number of minor ones.
As he stepped away from works of fiction to study the other books he saw that the task of conveying ideas without being able to use language to depict them grew considerably more complex. There were scores and scores of manuals on how to build almost anything and geography books detailing the Earth as a whole and all of the more populated regions of the planet, but there was next to nothing in some categories. For example the only philosophy book he was able to get his hands on, a breakdown of the merits and downfalls of different economic systems, was confusing and hard to follow at best and largely incomprehensible.
Books on history tended to start off with a map of the general area under discussion and a marked line hinting at the timeframe. Those books, like most other non-fiction there, did well at conveying simpler concepts, but struggled with more complex ideas.
But, after a bit of searching, Captain Roberts managed to find some number of books on every subject. The library was, in its own way, as extensive as the average pre-Plague library. The main thing it was missing completely was dictionaries and language reference books, but that much was pardonable.
“They’re not the savage beasts you were expecting to meet, are they, Captain?” Dr. Mavra said
“Maybe they’re not ignorant, but they are savage.” Captain Roberts said. “Civilized men wouldn’t kidnap us and hold us against our will.”
“Captain, if they had waited to greet us in the streets of their city, how would you have reacted?”
His mouth twitched open, then closed. That was answer enough for Dr. Mavra.
“Had they simply held out their arms to us in a gesture of peace, we would have ignored them. We were so filled with our presuppositions of what it means to be human and, even more importantly, what it means to be an intelligent human, that it never crossed our mind that we could be wrong. If they were to ever make us understand that they were just as capable as us, that they had had misfortune but were still human like us, they needed to hold our heads to the light and force us to see them as they are, no more and no less.”
They finished up in the library and headed back to the cafeteria for lunch. This time, Captain Roberts didn’t protest when Dr. Mavra made to take her helmet off, though he didn’t do it himself. He now admired his companion’s empathy for their hosts, but he saw nothing to be gained by risking exposure to the disease.
The group of native officers guided them to a new floor, the basement, and down a corridor to a set of double doors. A couple of officers stepped forward to hold the doors open for everyone else and Captain Roberts gasped. What waited inside was far more amazing than anything he had thus far set his eyes on: Dozens of scientists in white lab coats scurried about all varieties of equipment.
A short, mousy scientist in glasses moved to greet them. He shook hands with Dr. Mavra and Captain Roberts and ushered them over to a section of the wall nearby. Hundreds upon hundreds of pictures describing every fact known about the plague plastered the area. Bright red strands of tape quartered off the sheets into different categories; suspected points of origin, methods of contagion, symptoms (just the one, but that was plenty for everyone, thank you very much), speed of infection, specifics on the nature of the virus and how it interacted with the host body, and, finally, possible methods to fight the disease.
The section on the cure development consisted of a complex series of drawings that made absolutely no sense to the Captain until Dr. Mavra pointed it out to him.
“They’re not working on curing themselves, Captain. This is for future generations. They want to create a gene immune to the disease and give it to their children while they’re still in the womb.” She said. “But even then, once they have the capacity to utilize language, they’ll still have trouble. Their parents still won’t be able to understand language so they’ll have no one to teach it to them. We have to go back to Mars, Captain. We have to go back to get them help.”
Captain Roberts shook his head.
“Doctor, I’ll readily admit that I was wrong to think of them as I did and I completely agree with you that we have to do what we can, but you know that you can’t go back. The plague is in the air. If you have it and you carry it back home with you, you’d just be damning us all to the same fate as them.”
She sighed and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know that. I can help them here, though. I have a background in biochemistry and I may have learned a few things in school that they don’t know about. They need me here. They need you to go back for them.”
Dr. Mavra turned to the scientist and held out her arms to the room, as if to say ‘Teach me everything you know’. The scientist made to give her a tour of the rest of the room when the roar of an explosion sounded from above, setting off a tremor beneath their feet and knocking them off balance. Captain Roberts got up and helped his companion to her feet. The mousy scientist lay sprawled out on the floor, blood dripping from his mouth and ears.
The native officers rushed out the double doors and Captain Roberts and Dr. Mavra rushed after him, leaving behind them the screams of panicked and injured scientists to see the greater scene above.
They emerged on the ground floor to the sight of a truck burning in smelting, ash-covered ruins against the rear wall. A handful of men fired guns at a pair in Martian exoskeletons, Drs. Hewin and Gerdstein, peeking around the corner of the wreckage that had been up until a few minutes ago the front entrance to the building. The native officers took out firearms of their own and went to help.
One of the Martian assailants popped out and threw an improvised Molotov cocktail to the far end of the building. The cocktail exploded next to one of the officers, blowing gore in every direction. The Martian, however, took so long to aim at his victim that he was an easy target himself and bullets from every direction found him, tore through his suit, and shredded him to death.
The remaining attacker, seeing the fate of his companion, screamed in panic and turned around to run, only to be shot in the back by a vengeful native. He fell onto the pavement in a messy heap of blood and metal.
There was an instant of silence, then the chief officer stood up from behind the desk he had been using for cover. He looked around hesitantly, as if he half-expected there to be a hundred more marauders waiting for him. When he saw that all of his enemies were dead, he walked over to examine the destruction that had been caused to his home. The front end of the building was now nothing but a memory, the rear wall was completely in flames from the truck that the two doctors had rigged to smash into it, and several lesser fires burned elsewhere.
A crowd of people, mostly elderly and children, filed past Captain Roberts and he noticed for the first time since the crisis had begun that he could hear the high pitched shrill of fire alarms sounding off and see a fine mist of water raining down from the ceiling. The fires were still spreading, though, and because there was no longer a fire department left to deter the flames, the fight against the spreading flames was a lost cause before it had even started.
People ran past him, carrying as much as they could reasonably hold in their arms, dropped it on the pavement across the street, and hurried back inside to save some more. Dr. Mavra tugged on his arm and made him follow her to the elevators to help salvage the lab and the library. He gathered things mindlessly and fell into the same dazed state that most of the locals seemed to be in until, at last, dense smoke and flames had consumed so much of the ground floor that the officers deemed it too dangerous for anyone to continue to try to salvage goods and forced everyone to leave to the relative safety outside.
As the evening turned to night and the fire spread to higher and lower floors, Captain Roberts walked among the survivors, gazing upon the pain and misery in their expressions. There were many dead and many dying, but the tears shed that night were all for the future of the group and, through it, the future of all mankind on Earth. They had salvaged what they could, but they had been forced to abandon far too much.
The crowd had broken into the lobbies of several nearby buildings and set up temporary shelters for the night. He stepped into the lobby of the building being used as a medical station. Two doctors and a handful of medical aides went about tending to the dozens injured by smoke inhalation, burns, falls, and general stress.
Captain Roberts realized, not for the first time that day, that they had been so determined to keep the appearance of ‘civilized men’ working to eventually restore the world to at least a semblance of its days before the plague had struck that they had limited the professions that would have helped them out on a night like tonight. They had simply wanted to pretend that everything was okay, that they weren’t sick, but they were.
“It’s not right, is it, Captain?” Dr. Mavra said, coming over to him. “What’s the worst about this whole thing is that we both would have done the exact same thing Drs. Hewin and Gershin did for us had the situation been reversed. We would have done this to all of these people because we came from the frontier of civilization, the only civilization as far as we were concerned, and they were just a bunch of damn, dumb animals who had yet to accept it and deserved to be treated accordingly.
“I know you must have thought that I thought otherwise the moment we woke up and met with them yesterday, but that’s not true. I could see it before me, but I didn’t want to admit it because that would have meant that I, along with every other soul on Mars, was wrong. That’s why I exposed myself, Captain. I needed to force myself to wake up and see what’s what. I hope I have it, Captain. I hope that it’s incubating inside me right now and I get to lose my speech by this time next week. Then I won’t ever be blind again.”
Captain Roberts saw the chief of the native officers standing alone on a street corner, gazing up at the smoke rising across the street. He wandered over to him, not quite sure of what his intentions were. The officer turned at his approach and stared daggers at him. He didn’t need to be able to speak for Captain Roberts to know what he was thinking: And who is the savage now, sir?
“I’m sorry.” He said, uselessly. He knew that there was no way that the man would be able to understand his words, but he spoke to him nonetheless. He pointed beyond the burning building, to where the Elevator stretched seemingly to infinity.
“I’m going to go home and tell my people about what happened here, about how things are for all of you. I’ll have to ascend into the Heavens when I do, but I won’t ever forget what I am. I’m not an angel, just a person. We all are.”
The officer’s expression relaxed slightly and Captain Roberts had a feeling that, although he couldn’t have understood a single word he had just spoken, he understood the meaning behind them.
With that final thought, Captain Roberts started off.