[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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The Eagle Has Landed

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

First published in the anthology I, Alien, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW Books, 2005).

[Apollo 11 crest]

       I've spent a lot of time watching Earth — more than forty of that planet's years. My arrival was in response to the signal from our automated probe, which had detected that the paper-skinned bipedal beings of that world had split the atom. The probe had served well, but there were some things only a living being could do properly, and assessing whether a lifeform should be contacted by the Planetary Commonwealth was one.

       It would have been fascinating to have been present for that first fission explosion: it's always a fabulous thing when a new species learns to cleave the atom, the dawn for them of a new and wondrous age. Of course, fission is messy, but one must glide before one can fly; all known species that developed fission soon moved on to the clean energy of controlled fusion, putting an end to need and want, to poverty, to scarcity.

       I arrived in the vicinity of Earth some dozen Earth-years after that first fission explosion — but I could not set down upon Earth, for its gravity was five times that of our homeworld. But its moon had a congenial mass; there I would weigh slightly less than I did at home. And, just like our homeworld, which, of course, is itself the moon of a gas-giant world orbiting a double star, Earth's moon was tidally locked, constantly showing the same face to its primary. It was a perfect place for me to land my starbird and observe the goings-on on the blue-and-white-and-infrared world below.

       This moon, the sole natural satellite of Earth, was devoid of atmosphere, bereft of water. I imagined our homeworld would be similar if its volatiles weren't constantly replenished by material from Chirp-cluck-CHIRP-chirp, the gas-giant planet that so dominated our skies; a naturally occurring, permanent magnetic-flux tube passed a gentle rain of gases onto our world.

       The moon that the inhabitants of Earth called "the moon" (and "La Lune," and a hundred other things) was depressingly desolate. Still, from it I could easily intercept the tens of thousands of audio and audiovisual transmissions spewing out from Earth — and with a time delay of only four wingbeats. My starbird's computer separated the signals one from the other, and I watched and listened.

       It took that computer most of a smallyear to decipher all the different languages this species used, but, by the year — being a planet, not a moon, Earth had only one kind of year — the Earth people called 1958, I was able to follow everything that was happening there.

       I was at once delighted and disgusted. Delighted, because I'd learned that in the years since that initial atomic test explosion had triggered our probe, the natives of this world had launched their first satellite. And disgusted, because almost immediately after developing fission, they had used those phenomenal energies as weapons against their own kind. Two cities had been destroyed, and bigger and more devastating bombs were still being developed.

       Were they insane, I wondered? It had never occurred to me that a whole species could be unbalanced, but the initial fatal bombings, and the endless series of subsequent test explosions of bigger and bigger weapons, were the work not of crazed individuals but of the governments of this world's most powerful nations.

       I watched for two more Earth years, and was about to file my report — quarantine this world; avoid all contact — when my computer alerted me to an interesting signal coming from the planet. The leader of the most populous of the nations on the western shore of the world's largest ocean was making a speech: "Now it is time," he was saying, "to take longer strides" — apparently significant imagery for a walking species — "time for a great new American enterprise; time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth ..."

       Yes, I thought. Yes. I listened on, fascinated.

       "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade" — a cluster of ten Earth years — "is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth ..."

       Finally, some real progress for this species! I tapped the ERASE node with a talon, deleting my still-unsent report.

       At home, these "Americans," as their leader had called them, were struggling with the notion of equality for all citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. I know, I know — to beings such as us, with frayed scales ranging from gold to green to purple to ultraviolet, the idea of one's coloration having any significance seems ridiculous, but for them it had been a major concern. I listened to hateful rhetoric: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" And I listened to wonderful rhetoric: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'" And I watched as public sentiment shifted from supporting the former to supporting the latter, and I confess that my dorsal spines fluttered with emotion as I did so.

       Meanwhile, Earth's fledgling space program continued: single-person ships, double-person ships, the first dockings in space, a planned triple-person ship, and then ...

       And then there was a fire at the liftoff facility. Three "humans" — one of the countless names this species gave itself — were dead. A tragic mistake: pressurized space vehicles have a tendency to explode in vacuum, of course, so someone had landed on the idea of pressurizing the habitat (the "command module," they called it) at only one-fifth of normal, by eliminating all the gases except oxygen, normally a fifth part of Earth's atmosphere ...

       Still, despite the horrible accident, the humans went on. How could they not?

       And, soon, they came here, to the moon.

       I was present at that first landing, but remained hidden. I watched as a figure in a white suit hopped off the last rung of a ladder and fell at what must have seemed to it a slow rate. The words the human spoke echo with me still: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

       And, indeed, it truly was. I could not approach closely, not until they'd departed, but after they had, I walked over — even in my environmental sack, it was easy to walk here on my wingclaws. I examined the lower, foil-wrapped stage of their landing craft, which had been abandoned here. My computer could read the principal languages of this world, having learned to do so with aid of educational broadcasts it had intercepted. It informed me that the plaque on the lander said, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."

       My spines rippled. There was hope for this race. Indeed, during the time since that speech about longer strides, public opinion had turned overwhelmingly against what seemed to be a long, pointless conflict being fought in a tropical nation. They didn't need quarantining; all they needed, surely, was a little time ...

       Fickle, fickle species! Their world made only three and half orbits around its solitary sun before what was announced to be the last journey here, to the moon, was completed. I was stunned. Never before had I known a race to turn its back on space travel once it had begun; one might as well try to crawl back into the shards of one's egg ...

       But, incredibly, these humans did just that. Oh, there were some perfunctory missions to low orbit, but that was all.

       Yes, there had been other accidents — one on the way to the moon, although there were no casualties; another, during which three people died when their vessel depressurized on reentry. But those three were from another nation, called "Russia," and that nation continued its space efforts without missing a wingbeat. But soon Russia's economy collapsed — of course! This race still hadn't developed controlled fusion; indeed, there was a terrible, terrible accident at a fission power-generating station in that nation shortly before it fell apart.

       Still, perhaps the failure of Russia had been a good thing. Not that there was anything inherently evil about it, from what I could tell — indeed, in principle, it espoused the values that all other known civilized races share — but it was the rivalry between it and the nation that had launched the inhabited ships to the moon that had caused an incredible escalation of nuclear-weapons production. Finally, it seemed, they would abandon that madness ... and perhaps if abandoning space exploration was the price to pay for that, maybe, just maybe, it was worth it.

       I was in a quandary. I had spent much longer here than I'd planned to — and I'd as yet filed no report. It's not that I was eager to get home — my brood had long since grown up — but I was getting old; my frayed scales were losing their flexibility, and they were tinged now with blue. But I still didn't know what to tell our homeworld.

       And so I crawled back into my cryostasis nest. I decided to have the computer awaken me in one of our bigyears, a time approximately equal to a dozen Earth years. I wondered what I would find when I awoke ...

       What I found was absolute madness. Two neighboring countries threatening each other with nuclear weapons; a third having announced that it, too, had developed such things; a fourth being scrutinized to see if it possessed them; and a fifth — the one that had come to the moon for all mankind — saying it would not rule out first strikes with its nuclear weapons.

       No one was using controlled fusion. No one had returned to the moon.

       Shortly after I awoke, tragedy struck again: seven humans were aboard an orbital vehicle called Columbia — a reused name, a name I'd heard before, the name of the command module that had orbited the moon while the first lander had come down to the surface. Columbia broke apart during reentry, scattering debris over a wide area of Earth. My dorsal spines fell flat, and my wing claws curled tightly. I hadn't been so sad since one of my own brood had died falling out of the sky.

       Of course, my computer continued to monitor the broadcasts from the planet, and it provided me with digests of the human response.

       I was appalled.

       The humans were saying that putting people into space was too dangerous, that the cost in lives was too high, that there was nothing of value to be done in space that couldn't be done better by machines.

       This from a race that had spread from its equatorial birthplace by walking — walking! — to cover most of their world; only recently had mechanical devices given them the ability to fly.

       But now they could fly. They could soar. They could go to other worlds!

       But there was no need, they said, for intelligent judgment out in space, no need to have thinking beings on hand to make decisions, to exalt, to experience directly.

       They would continue to build nuclear weapons. But they wouldn't leave their nest. Perhaps because of their messy, wet mode of reproduction, they'd never developed the notion of the stupidity of keeping all one's eggs in a single container ...

       So, what should I have done? The easiest thing would have been to just fly away, heading back to our homeworld. Indeed, that's what the protocols said: do an evaluation, send in a report, depart.

       Yes, that's what I should have done.

       That's what a machine would have done. A robot probe would have just followed its programming.

       But I am not a robot.

       This was unprecedented.

       It required judgment.

       I could have done it at any point when the side of the moon facing the planet was in darkness, but I decided to wait until the most dramatic possible moment. With a single sun, and being Earth's sole natural satellite, this world called the moon was frequently eclipsed. I decided to wait until the next such event was to occur — a trifling matter to calculate. I hoped that a disproportionately large number of them would be looking up at their moon during such an occurrence.

       And so, as the shadow of Earth — the shadow of that crazy planet, with its frustrating people, beings timid when it came to exploration but endlessly belligerent toward each other — moved across the moon's landscape, I prepared. And once the computer told me that the whole of the side of the moon facing Earth was in darkness, I activated my starbird's laser beacons, flashing a ruby light that the humans couldn't possibly miss, on and off, over and over, through the entire period of totality.

       They had to wait eight of Earth's days before the part of the moon's face I had signaled them from was naturally in darkness again, but when it was, they flashed a replying beacon up at me. They'd clearly held off until the nearside's night in hopes that I would shine my lasers against the blackness in acknowledgment.

       And I did — just that once, so there would be no doubt that I was really there. But although they tried flashing various patterns of laser light back at me — prime numbers, pictograms made of grids of dots — I refused to respond further.

       There was no point in making it easy for them. If they wanted to talk further, they would have to come back up here.

       Maybe they'd use the same name once again for their ship: Columbia.

       I crawled back into my cryostasis nest, and told the computer to wake me when humans landed.

       "That's not really prudent," said the computer. "You should also specify a date on which I should wake you regardless. After all, they may never come."

       "They'll come," I said.

       "Perhaps," said the computer. "Still ..."

       I lifted my wings, conceding the point. "Very well. Give them ..." And then it came to me, the perfect figure ... "until this decade is out."

       After all, that's all it took the last time.


•  The End  •

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