Extinction Studies

A parable from the future about the conditions of the end.

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Sep 7 2018, 6:07pm

Zoe van Dijk

What if—and hear me out here—we manage to survive climate change, economic collapse, and mass automation, and go on to colonize the universe. What might cause our ultimate demise then? Here's Brian Trent with a parable about human nature and the end. Enjoy. -the ed.


It began as little more than a good-natured argument on Midpoint Island, the kind that arises when rival hunters mingle and, as drinks flow, end up falling back into their boastful, territorial camps. I don’t recall who said it first, but it dominated conversation for the rest of the night. Two groups of hunters from opposite sides of the planet, posing a simple question:

Which side of the world has the fiercer alpha predator?

Whoever’s listening to this message has, of course, heard of the planet Janus. Tidally-locked to its local star, our world is a study in the most hostile of divisions.

Janus’ Nightside is frozen tundra, forever dark, inhospitable, and blasted by icy winds. The colonists keep away from there, except for ice harvesters pulling gloomy rotations, and hunters like myself who brave those wastes for fresh meat and sport.

By contrast, the planet’s Brightside is a different flavor of hell. Baked by perpetual sunlight into a blistering, steaming desert, you won’t find colonists there either, except for mining encampments drilling for geological booty… and Brightside hunters, who stalk the scant watering holes in ravines where permanent shade allows water dumped from night-to-bright rainstorms to collect into nourishing pools.

And between these diametric hemispheres? The Sea of Dusk, where Janus’ colonists reside in colorful, floating villages. There they live, navigating occasionally to shores frozen or hot to trade and conduct research. All in all, an intriguing but undesirable world.

Unless you’re a hunter.

You see, Janus’ Jekyll-Hyde conditions have produced two of the most terrifying predators known throughout the Hundred Worlds.

On the Darkside—where specialized hunters like me operate—lurks the gloomfang. Large and lumbering, it possesses two traits that make it the bane of colonists who venture too deep into the hinterlands. Intelligence—not quite to human level but not terribly lower—turns it into a crafty, cunning predator. That big brain isn’t so surprising when one realizes it’s a neurological necessity in controlling the ability to camouflage: the gloomfang’s hardshelled body possesses chromatophores so finely evolved they can blend into the environment instantly—becoming indistinguishable from snow or rock or… anything. I’ve seen one imitate a hoverbike that a prospector had parked, and watched the man vanish into the gloomfang’s gullet as he returned to what he thought was his vehicle. I bagged one of the things in Pym Valley, after a three-day pursuit in which hunter and hunted very often switched places because of its nightmarish ability to disguise itself. Did I tell you they’re invisible to thermovision, too?

Telling all this to the Brightside hunters, though, produced sneers and scoffing. You see, they have their own terror out in the sunbaked deserts: the sprintarrow.

This lightning-fast monstrosity is not invisible, but it might as well be. The evolutionary pressures of needing to quickly set upon prey animals (which will readily dive into the safety of burrows) has made the sprintarrow a sleek, impossibly quick creature. Don’t talk to me of cheetahs or horsespiders! The Brightside alpha predator will stealthily approach its target, slinking from boulder to boulder, and then charge up to speeds of one-hundred-and-eighty miles per hour. High-speed cameras barely catch these bursts of action. Lone hunters rarely have time to pull their triggers or send a thoughtburst for help.

And the sprintarrow can fly, too.

The night-to-bright gusts made them evolve gliding wings, which they only utilize when nasty sandstorms provide good aerial cover. Then they’ll leap into the storm, navigating the gale, and drop down like a deadly lance into their victims to rip them apart with razor-sharp beaks.

Who would win in a fight?

That drunken holiday on Midpoint Island resulted in our determination to conduct a giddy, pseudo-scientific death-match. We would capture a half-dozen gloomfangs, and the other hunters would capture a half-dozen sprintarrows. We’d transport them back to Midpoint Island. We’d let them loose into that craggy, forested arena.

We’d see which species came out the victor.

*

That was ten years ago, but whoever’s listening to this surely remembers the big bet.

After all, our secret plan didn’t remain in the shadows for long. Through a careless slip of the tongue or a calculated message to offworld bookies, word spread like a virus throughout the Hundred Worlds. It wasn’t long before the galaxy was abuzz with the question that had been asked in one fateful, drunken moment:

Which side of the world has the fiercer alpha predator? Would the gloomfang or the sprintarrow emerge victorious?

We realized the contest might take days or weeks, so we set dronecams to patrol the island. The feed was livecast … first to Janus, and then straight into the eager maw of the entire galaxy. How could it not? It had all the ingredients so essential for a media feeding frenzy: the easily digestible team-versus-team recipe. It crowded out all other headlines. It became the most talked about, most fought about, topic along the spiral arms of the Milky Way. The human race shed all pretense, gleefully revealing themselves as gibbering voyeurs for the pending gladiatorial match. Every newstation devoted relentless segments to the question. The pattern was always the same: a few obligatory seconds devoted to questioning the ethics of our experiment, and then hastily unleashing a floodgate of rabid panelists who made the case for the gloomfang, and other panelists who cheered for the sprintarrow.

And at the center of the maelstrom: images from one little island on one little world. The bets mounted. The debates turned hostile. The galactic populace split asunder into Team Gloomfang and Team Sprintarrow as everyone waited to see what would transpire.

The days passed.

Then weeks.

The island’s dronecams caught a few snippets of uncertain action. There was the occasional glimpse of a creature in the woods, a blurry photo of a sprintarrow speeding past, the disorienting shadows of what may have been a gloomfang creeping by.

The weeks stretched into months. The galaxy’s collective mania burned bright and furious and then, in want of fuel, began to die.

No fighting was witnessed on Midpoint Island. The fever that had dominated newsfeeds sank away. Not a single encounter between the two specimens was caught. The Hundred Worlds promptly began to forget about it all, about the island in the Sea of Dusk. About the backwater planet called Janus.

Even when a year had passed and people started vanishing from our floating villages, I don’t think anyone, anywhere, suspected what was happening.

What did happen on the island? Which of the two alpha-predators emerged victorious in the end?

I’m afraid I can only report who lost.

None of us could have suspected that the gloomfang and sprintarrow were examples of divergent evolution from the same genetic stock. How could we know? A hundred million years earlier, they’d apparently been a single species, but continental drift had sundered the land like a local Pangea.

How the hellish progeny of these two super-predators reached the floating villages, I cannot say. Where they hide, how they outthink and outmaneuver us at every turn, has thwarted our very best counter-strategies.

It didn’t take long for Janus’ colonists to decide the planet’s hideous new scourge was too much for them. The world was abandoned except for a few grief-stricken hunters who refuse to give up… despite knowing that this hybrid race is more brilliant and deadly and unstoppable than we can ever be.

My food is running low, and last night my friend stepped out of our cave to collect some snow for melting, only to be yanked up into the sky. Now it’s just me, alone, with low ammo and this transmitter. Waiting for death to find me.

Should I call for rescue? Who would I ask? Where would I go?

It isn’t just Janus now, you see.

The Hundred Worlds are going dark, one by one. The new species must have stowed themselves on the fleeing ships, hitching rides to new breeding grounds. New hunting grounds. Our final resting grounds.