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3.

The origins of the Ngugma are murky, literally: like humans, Tskelly and Primoids, the Ngugma have their ancestry in shallow, mucky pools. These pools lay under a warm yellow sun on a smallish planet of wide shallow seas and long low lands under blue and orange skies. The seas were full of water, the land was silica and carbonate and metals, and the sky was made of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide and a fair amount of helium and argon. As in so many other such places, chemical interactions among sea and salt and air and geothermal emission rolled their dice hundreds, thousands, millions of times during the short days and nights of the little planet, and once in a million times something formed, some collection of molecules that could make more molecules and another collection which would make more, before dying out in the dry season or washed up on the dry rock.

But in the deeper mud and in the ponds and bays that were just deep enough but not too deep, collections of molecules built walls around themselves and became cells, and inside the sanctuary of those walls they built new molecules, and when the walls inevitably burst the new molecules built new walls. In different strata of different ponds and bays, different collections formed. Sometimes they met and bonded. Sometimes they met and ignored one another. Sometimes one engulfed the other. Little by little, they became life, and little by little, life became complex, as on so many other worlds. Little by little, on this world that would in hundreds of millions of years be named after a dead fighter pilot from a place called Earth, the seas and swamps and ponds and rivers came to teem with life.

A sort of chlorophyll was invented. Legs and fins were invented, as were jaws and armor, stings and poisons, tentacles and claws. One lineage grew wormy, and developed lots of little legs. One lineage grew blobby, and developed shells to protect its vulnerable bulk. One lineage grew finny, extravagantly so, and darted about avoiding trouble. One lineage grew in circles, in four-fold or six-fold or eight-fold radial symmetry. One clan in this radially symmetric lineage, living in the shallows and on the low beaches, became generalists, omnivores who could survive the intermittent dry periods and intermittent ice ages and intermittent die-offs, by eating what it could find and using what it could remember. It survived, and it was the first to do this, by using its brain.

Brains are just tools, just organs. Big ones do not automatically confer an unbeatable advantage. Species with big brains have been killing themselves off ever since there were species with big brains. But for these creatures, with six fat arms radiating out from a blobby center, covered in hairy scales with eyes on short stalks and a round mouth in the middle, brains came to matter more and more. They found that they were prey of many things, vulnerable on land and in water, and they found that they needed tools and memories and, at last, words and pictures. They found the need for solidarity, for community, and also for systems by which they could exploit their erstwhile competitor species. All this took words, and they came up with words, and one of the words they came up with was the word for “ourselves.” And what they called themselves was: “(ng)OOGmeh,” almost one syllable. Ngugma.

The Ngugma built towns, cities, mines, undersea wonders, sky-leaping towers. They were a peaceful people, if one could think of them as people, but they did have disagreements about governance and they were not immune to selfishness and short-term thinking. They drove species after species to extinction, they fought a civil war ever few thousand years—the concept of year, a trip around the star and a passage of one cycle of seasons, was familiar to them and their year would correspond to about one and a half of the years known on Earth.

These things never threatened to send the Ngugma themselves to extinction. They presently evolved into a sort of steady state, so steady that they lived two hundred million years of it without a break, so steady that it came to be an article of faith that it would last forever.

But a hundred million years is a time scale that is impossible to completely imagine. The land itself changed, like waves on an ocean; the oceans changed too. The species around them changed like dunes in a desert. The Ngugma themselves slowly, slowly changed, becoming a little smaller, a little brainier, with slightly longer and more agile arms, more little tentacles, better eyes, better senses all around. They developed a resistance to what we might think of as heart disease. The more common cancers evolved out, though less common ones became more common; Ngugma medicine simply got better in response. Their lifespans grew from a hundred years to two hundred, five hundred: from there, it became the case that most Ngugma simply lived till something unfortunate happened to them, though suicide, briefly a fashion, nearly vanished.

Then there were the existential crises. The meteor that practically reset the entire planet-wide ecosystem; they survived and adapted and rebuilt. The slow rising and drying of the land, the slow depletion of the atmosphere, the slow slide of the planet outward in its orbit; they survived, but with occasional jolts as they came up against new boundaries that had not existed before. At some point, a species that had dominated the world when it was warm and wet and fertile could not accept the limitations astronomy had imposed on it, as the world became cooler and drier and more barren.

A revolution came from within the Ngugma. They would not accept these limitations. They would live as they had. They would dig up oil and coal and anything else they could use, they would cut down their version of forests and redirect the rivers they had dumped in. They would be their own Ngugma. Better a free Ngugma in its grave than living as a puppet or a slave.

The Ngugma marched and crawled and scurried to the edge of the steepest precipice they had yet encountered. Many of them toppled off. Those who were left massed their technology and their wisdom and their moral nausea and made the decision to leave their damaged planet to heal on its own, and find new worlds in space where they could start again, yet again, and do it right.

Natasha made a gesture and the lights came up halfway. She looked around: all but one of the crews of both Honshu and Tasmania were here, as well as a dozen Kaahriig, at least a dozen Tskelly, two dozen Errhatzky and twenty Primoids. Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Special were floating about, watching and commenting amongst themselves. Anand Ree stood-floated with an arm around his wife, the engineer Tashmina Dawa, who was half a head taller than him; she held their young son Vijay. Skzyyn floated, his back left foot hooked on Clay’s shoulder pocket.

“Questions so far?” asked Natasha.

“No questions, hot stuff,” said Vera. “Just keep talking.”

“That is advisable,” said Hhmvyvya, floating near Natasha, its six arms and legs folded up in a relaxed way. “The important thing is the next thing.”

 

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