Absent the Yucatán
The Blue Planet
by Kenneth Schalhoub
Once upon a point on time’s arrow, a big obnoxious rock had eyes on a pristine blue planet. Huge, beautifully colored beasts lumbered across the land. Smaller relatives of the huge beasts began to take flight with rainbow feathers. Diminutive creatures bland in color hid in ground tunnels and rotted tree trunks. They lived on insects and avoided the beasts.
Neither group of inhabitants knew of their impending doom until it was too late, not that they could have done anything about it. The rock slammed into the ocean. Three-hundred-meter ocean waves leveled everything in their paths for kilometers inland. Plumes of fiery dust brought a five-year winter. Dead beast carcasses fouled the frigid air. The little bland ones stayed underground through the winter. The feathered ones flew and flew until they found new unspoiled land to build nests.
Geez, I was only gone for a couple of million years and the you-know-what hit the fan! The beasts were gone. The flying ones were alive but clinging onto unstable conditions in the hills and mountains. It was those ugly, furry ones who were taking over, emerging from their waste-filled tunnels to foul the top land. And they had begun to increase in size! This was not the plan. Everything was going just fine until that annoying rock hit while I was away at a team building retreat for Level 4 Gods. I didn’t make it back in time.
You see, I’ve been floating in the fourth dimension taking care of business, keeping things under control in the galaxy. And while I wasted time at the retreat that big rock hit. And when it hit, the beautiful blue planet became a circular brown smudge. When I dared to look forward on time’s arrow, the furry animals had grown big brains. Unfortunately, wherever the furry ones went brown cancers grew on the countryside. The feathered ones flew over the devastation and had to nest in piles of garbage or find nesting in the dwindling wilderness This once blue world was now a world on the road to environmental collapse. Someone had to fix it. And only a Level 4 like me could do it. After all, we can manipulate time’s arrow. I diverted the rock.
Large, naturally shaped, haphazardly arranged structures dotted the valleys. The blue world, named Azure by its ruling inhabitants, was home to the feathered ones. From high above the domain of the soaring flyers, Azure appeared unspoiled. On the ground, fields of flowers with infinite colors swayed in subtle breezes. Each flower yielded a puff of fragrance into the fresh, pure air. At closer view, the structures were not chaotically built. On the contrary, the pattern allowed for easy access from both ground and air. Family nests, with perches in each interconnected living enclosure, sprinkled the countryside in all directions. The only smoke in the air came from natural fires in the wooded parklands. The only sounds came from fading crickets and the awakening nests. It was sunrise.
Melodic whistling, interspersed with higher pitched chirps, broke the silence of dawn. Overhead, formations of flyers with uniquely colored plumes dutifully delivered pre-ordered goods to the nests.
On the ground, a safe distance from the nests, several large-headed, bipedal furry creatures emerged from trapdoors leading to the underground. They walked to specific nests and disappeared inside obediently waiting for their assignments.
A three-tone descant sounded from the inhabitant of nest N010-A, an Avian named A’kuk. A bipedal creature—designated as Ape-2215-M—sat on the provided Ape cushion and stared at his perched master. Apes, with the help of the Avians, learned to understand basic aspects of their ruler’s language.
A’kuk opened his bright red beak and whistled his orders for the day. “Hello Ape. Your orders are simple. Finish cleaning fusion reaction chamber 24C. Goodbye.”
The Ape had been exclusively trained for this activity. The fusion reaction chambers provided unlimited energy used to maintain the unspoiled land for the Avians. His only other function was to make more Apes when directed by the Avians. He had already produced fifteen young Apes, but now his time was almost up. Open sores had appeared weeks ago on most of his body. He watched them grow in size without understanding. He endured the fiery pain and kept working. The silent radiation from the fusion chambers had begun stealing his life many revolutions ago. He did not understand the concept of being “disposable.”
The Ape left as silently as he had come. A’kuk stood on his perch, head moving with jerky motions side-to-side and watched with a cold, focused eye as the bent-backed Ape ambled away.
The Avian thought about the end of his own work life. He did not want it to end. He loved how his life had ascended to its current level of prestige in the valley. He needed to contribute to the greater nest. As a chick, his father taught him to soar in the clear caerulean skies of Azure and appreciate the beauty before him.
A’kuk stood on his perch preening his aging-feathers, still strong enough to support flight. He left his perch and hopped to the edge of the nest’s top entrance. His black pupils opened to view his world. With a subtle leap and spread wings, the clear air lifted him. He soared to work; a nest grouping thirty-minutes airtime from his home nest. His aging yet still sharp mind directed his body to ride the thermals. He thought about his mate. He relived the day he first landed on the entrance to her perch-room stealing a look at her emerald plumage. After many visits, she finally offered him a perch. They courted. They mated.
Their breed, the most intelligent of all Avians, mated for life. They ran the skies. A’kuk was part of a small flock of analysists who evaluated work-animal genetic improvements. He was extremely efficient as all Avians were. Every activity focused on the management and improvement of nest living. He accepted his work as his contribution to the wellbeing of all the nests. And this allowed him to have an accomplished, quiet mind.
A’kuk flew toward his office nest readying his mind for the day’s work; his presentation for improving the genetics of the pack animals; four-legged, genetically enhanced creatures. A’kuk had a plan for improving their endurance. The pack animals and Apes were members of the group of creatures the Avians called live-birthers. They were also called furries in common parlance. The top philosophers in Avian culture debated continuously about the merits of egg versus live birth. Their superior intelligence, as compared to live-birthers, convinced many Avians that egg laying must be a superior method of reproduction. Simply put, the egg provided more room for a large, organized, and efficient brain to develop. The Avians believed it was their right and duty to keep the live-birthers as an underclass of workers living underground; workers they needed to maintain their machinery.
Before he could land on his work-perch, several colleagues met him in mid-air-common-space and surrounded him and forced him to land on a conference compartment perch. A’kuk focused on the five colleagues, recognizing each by their uniquely colored plumage.
All six Avians vocalized the common five-tone work greeting.
“You intercepted me,” A’kuk chirped.
“You needed to be informed,” a colleague sang. “An Ape in N017-B refused orders. It vocalized something in a non-avian language.”
“It was destroyed.”
“Good. Now to today’s business—genetic improvement of B-level Packers. I propose improving endurance by twenty percent with three small cut-and-snip actions on their fifth chromosome.”
“Cost benefit?” another colleague whistled.
“Faster goods delivery means more efficient life. Is that not our goal in all endeavors?”
“Cannot improve them. We have reached the top potential for their type of brain,” A’kuk chirped.
“Sadly, the live-birthers have such inefficient brains,” another colleague warbled.
The five Avians alternated lifting their left and right feet, singing in unison. “We agree with your plan, A’kuk.”
He bobbed to each of his colleagues in thanks.
All six Avians vocalized the common seven-tone meeting end song and flew from their perches to their private work compartments.
Settled on his padded perch, A’kuk could not clear the image of an Ape refusing a command.
On his flight home, he could not keep from thinking about Apes. Strange creatures, but up to this point good servants engineered by the ancient gene-manipulators. Tweaks here and there to the Apes’ genome ensured a stunted evolution. They were as intelligent as the Avians allowed.
A’kuk ate the evening meal of small, stunned—but still living—furries with his partner and their two nest-bound chicks. The little ones jockeyed for position anticipating each morsel of regurgitated food from their mother. The chicks will be ready to find their own partners and build home nests in one full Moon’s time. After the meal, his partner stayed with the chicks. A’kuk summoned his Ape.
The Ape sat on his designated cushion and picked at his drab, furry arms. Such a contrast from his master, the beautifully plumed Avian shifting from foot to foot on his perch.
A’kuk sung a rapid greeting before beginning his inquiry.
“Do you know the Ape from N017-B?”
The Ape nodded.
“Have you ever communicated with him?”
The Ape nodded.
“Did you communicate in Avian?”
The Ape remained unresponsive.
“Not Avian,” the Ape finally said.
“Why did this Ape refuse an order?”
The Ape could not meet his master’s huge pupils.
“Why did this Ape refuse an order?!”
“Not want to do.”
“That is not his choice!” A’kuk’s squawks sounded throughout the nest. “You say he did not use Avian. How did he communicate?”
“In what language?”
A’kuk dismissed Ape-2215-M, sang a brief melody to his partner, and took wing; a short flight to see O’kek, his imprinted male friend. The iridescent red and blue of O’kek’s plumage sagged with age. He invited A’kuk in to the common area where an empty perch waited.
The Avians faced each other, heads and beaks in constant motion, shifting from left eye to right eye, talons scraping wood.
“They have a language,” A’kuk chirped.
“It was inevitable.”
“The ancients had to give them enough intelligence to work for us.”
“That ancient tweak was conducted a millennia ago.”
“And since? We have done nothing to their genome.”
“No A’kuk, we may not have, but something else has, Natural Selection.”
Four seasons of debate among the Avians with top analytical skills ensued every day since the Ape’s refusal. This caste of analysts’ genome contained traits from corvids, parrots, and raptors. These Avians were the most adept at managing the nest politics that kept the millions of flocks healthy and productive.
During the same time period deep below the surface, machines began to fail due to the Apes’ silent refusal to conduct scheduled maintenance. Their rudimentary language spread across the global underground. The Avians paid little attention. Apes were Apes. It was that simple.
In the fourth season, designated Apes from each home cavern began a slow walk to the authority-nest. Silently, they stood in front of the open entrance, beautifully decorated with preserved feathers from ancient analysts.
The Apes stood for three rotations, watching as the Avian culture flew above them. Small flyers dropped nutritious morsels to young Avian seed-eaters clinging to the outside walls of the authority-nest. Larger, bald-headed gliders dropped rotting meat, mostly from dead pack animals and other land furries, into the top holes of the analysts’ nest. The morning of the fourth day, a rather somber plumage flew from an opening in the authority-nest and landed in front of the Ape contingent. With a bobbing, shifting head, the Lead Analyst, called E’kok, addressed the drab creatures.
“Time to go back to work. Disburse!” E’kok squawked with ear-piercing volume.
An Ape in the front assumed leadership. “No! We will not.” She made the statement in their new language, then the Ape translated the sounds to Avian.
Other flyers began to congregate, circling above. Junior analysts peaked their beaks from nest openings.
“What do you want?”
“Live above ground.”
The Apes’ ears rang as E’kok chirped in a volume the Apes had never before heard. E’kok bobbed his head one final time and returned to his work perch.
The Apes stayed for another day, then retreated to their caverns.
The same analysts debated for another four seasons. Some Apes returned from time to time to hold vigil, but nothing came of it. The debate centered on discipline. Control of the Apes and other furries was imperative. On the final day of debate, E’kok made his announcement.
“Execute the lead Apes.”
A’kuk stood with other second level Avians, feet flat, wishing he were on his perch with talons dug in. He looked around with green eyes focused on the Lead Analyst. A’kuk’s influence in the extended flock paled compared to this analyst. Yet his beak opened and vocalized a loud whistle. “Who are we to murder?”
“I have made my decision. We Avians do not deal in such ethical issues. We Avians deal with the reality of our world. We are the leaders, they—the furry ones—follow us. It is our world.”
A vote was taken; a formality. All the gaggles, colonies, and hordes submitted to the supremacy of the Lead Analyst. A large raptor with specially sharpened talons would execute the cavern leaders. Once E’kok announced the final decision, all Avians returned to their nests and continued their work. A’kuk was not convinced the issue had been fully understood. His keen vision observed the Apes’ faces. They had a shape A’kuk had never seen before. Deep frowns, determined eyes, tight lips; the image froze him for a moment. The Apes left with clinched hands.
Days later A’kuk stood on his perch watching the sunlight dissolve from full spectrum— to red—to infrared. An Ape stood at his ground opening. A’kuk hopped from his resting perch and stood eye to eye with the Ape. It was a female. He had seen her at the Ape gatherings. She stood before him with complete calm and defiance.
“What is your designation?” he chirped, preening while waiting.
“Your kind call me Ape-2318-F. But to my people, I am Sacred Dirt.
“And why are you here?”
“I am visiting masters with news. You did not stop us,” she vocalized in Avian, then made a series of sounds A’kuk could not understand, but knew it was their language; now sounding more advanced. “We want to live on top. We do not want to die with death blisters.”
The unmoving Ape stared at A’kuk for several minutes and left.
The next day thousands of Apes crowded the space between analysts’ nests. Basic services such as sewage and running water had become intermittent. Every flock of every type of Avian squawked, chirped, and cackled about the situation. They were ill equipped to work in the caverns. Avians bodies had been designed by nature millions of revolutions ago to be light. Live-birthers were better suited for heavy work.
E’kok and his loyal analysts perched in secret.
“What can be done?” E’kok asked.
Members sang, chirped, bobbed, dug talons, all in confusion. Logic and efficient decision making escaped them all. But a decision had to be taken and none of them felt it was his duty. Being wrong had repercussions.
Finally, after little help from his colleagues, E’kok opened his beak.
“I will make this decision. We simply cannot kill them all. I have no choice. We will allow the Apes, and any furries they require, to build rudimentary living spaces on land and live there at night. They must continue to work in the caverns during the daylight hours.”
Ear-splitting tones filled the meeting nest. No Avians wanted the Apes to live on top, but the Lead Analyst had made his decision and all other analysts eventually agreed with one unified whistle.
A’kuk received the decision by fast messenger. He inspected the parchment with each eye. This pronouncement required some thought. Could the Apes live on top and not spoil the land? Since he was a respected genetic designer, he had the authority to question the lead Ape.
A’kuk perched until the end of cavern worktime. He summoned the lead Ape, the female he had met earlier called Ape-2318-F. She stood at the nest opening and called in with a strange sound, then vocalized her toneless greeting in Avian.
“Thank you for coming, Ape-2318-F. I see you are leader now. Congratulations.”
“I told you I am named Sacred Dirt. We do not recognize your method of Ape identification. Your congratulations mean nothing to me. Why is it you summoned me?”
“I will ask you some questions. Will you Apes move to the top?”
“This has been our goal for many generations in the dark.”
“Will you continue to build for us?”
Sacred Dirt offered no answer either by voice or face.
“When will you come to the top?”
Sacred Dirt turned and left the nest.
The Avians concentrated on making sure the Apes continued to do their work below, but to no avail. The breakdowns became more frequent. Once the Apes began creating their new habitats, they spent less and less time in the caverns. Freelance messengers soared over the Apeland partitions the first months after the decision. From above, the messengers observed haphazardly built living enclosures in various sized rectangles. More messengers flew looking for more communities and reported their findings to their superiors. Small brown spots dotted the green valleys. As more and more messengers reported back with the latest observations, the more the analysts scraped their perches in confusion. Nest construction was a generational project. Chicks imprinted more efficiently in a secure, family nest. Not so with the Apes. Their “nests” were temporary with no family history, only shelter.
A’kuk woke one spring morning a year after the decision. His sense of smell was not as good as most of the furries, but he had unmatched sight. Normally, on a clear morning he would scan the colors outside his nest with each eye. Yet on this morning the air appeared hazy and an odor stole his attention—an unusual and unknown stench. He cut short his morning perch-time and took flight.
A’kuk flew high, scanning the countryside toward the nearest Ape encampment. Once the messengers had identified all the budding communities, the analysts decreed the Apes must build walls as a condition to stay on top. The Apes grudgingly agreed which resulted in walled encampments. His keen vision focused on plumes of smoke coming from the new wooden shelters. Piles of waste sat behind each structure. Not wanting to be seen, A’kuk remained at high altitude moving through murky clouds. The water droplets slipped from his feathers and fouled his nostrils with the acrid odor. He wondered if Sacred Dirt ran this encampment. He swooped down to exact focusing altitude. What he found had to be reported.
With subtle adjustment of his wing and tail feathers, A’kuk banked one-hundred-eighty degrees. He flew at maximum velocity to the Lead Analyst’s nest only to find the area filled with other Avians of all kinds. A cloud of every feather imaginable hung in the air among the chirps, whistles, cackles, bobbing heads and dilated pupils. Without a spot to land, he dove with talons ready into the Analyst’s nest.
“A rude entrance.”
“I have seen the Ape encampments and smelled them!”
“So have the majority of our nest-mates outside.
“The Apes are a stench.”
“Are you suggesting we eliminate the current leaders again? I thought you were against action toward the Apes.”
“I have changed.”
E’kok eyed A’kuk dubiously.
“We must contain them. Weaken them,” A’kuk continued.
“It’s too late. If we kill the leaders, new ones will emerge. The encampments will continue to grow. They reproduce in some ways more efficiently than we do. Their survival rate is greater. Our chicks fight and eliminate each other until only one or two remain. That is reproductive inefficiency.”
“All theory. We need to control them now!” A’kuk stamped his feed and scraped the perch.
“Cannot be done. We have no weapons. They are physically stronger. Our only advantage has been intelligence. That critical gap has been closing rapidly.”
“What are you saying?”
“We must learn to live with them.”
“Give them land?” A’kuk whistled with contempt.
“At least we can fly.”
The small brown dots became larger circles as the encampments relentlessly expanded. The valley, once filled with transparent Azure air, became a trough of smoke particles. His mate flew to higher ground with other nesters in their grouping and waited for him to follow. The fouled valley air stressed Avian lungs. A’kuk knew he would have to follow his mate soon, but not yet.
He took flight toward what he believed was Sacred Dirt’s encampment. The reek overwhelmed his sense of smell. A’kuk landed on the encampment wall and called for Sacred Dirt. It took many repeat vocalizations before she emerged from one of the many wooden structures. Before she had a chance to talk, A’kuk began his invective with a series of high volume, ear-splitting whistles.
“You have polluted our air!”
“Why are you here?” Sacred Dirt asked.
“Our land is ruined.”
“You have controlled this land for as long as we have known.”
“Why did you spoil what was unspoiled?”
“We do not mind. We have always lived in a spoiled place. We are highly adaptable. We are building towns like your nests.”
“We took care of you.”
“You needed us and you still do, but we now prefer to work for ourselves. Use the one advantage you have over us and fly away.”
Sacred Dirt stared into A’kuk’s left pupil for several moments, gave him a sad-looking smile, and left. He remained perched on the encampment wall and stared at the factories. Every dirty job—smelting, milling, coal firing boilers—they all had been hidden underground. Not anymore.
A’kuk flew over his old family nest. All the surrounding nests had been abandoned. Families began building on the rocky slopes of the high country. Fewer building materials compared with the resources in the valley made their nest construction jobs harder. But no Avian chirped with annoyance, nor did any squawk in defiance of the Apes. Avians were too efficient in thought to waste the time; too pragmatic for “what if?” thoughts. They simply adapted.
A’kuk left the ruin below and followed the updrafts to the hills. He turned his stately-feathered head one-hundred and eighty degrees for one last look at his valley blanketed in a smokey haze deadly to his kind. The air in the mountains appeared clear. Life would be different, simpler and more efficient. Life in a nest and soaring the skies were all an Avian needed.
That was a long sad journey we had to watch from a relatively close hover in normal space, if you can believe that! I had asked my buddy, Henry, who takes care of my partner galaxy some call Andromeda, to hover with me and watch. Although we could’ve skipped to some future date to see what had developed, we had plenty of time and decided to just watch. And watch we did!
Once the Avians split for the hills, I froze time. Hank and I discussed this interesting development. Whether the rock hit or not, ultimately, the Avians lose and the furry ones ruin the planet.
“Remember that minor entity I was telling you about?” I asked.
“Refresh my memory?”
“You know, that being who is an L3 on the Hierarchy Pyramid of Agreed Upon Civilization Classification.”
“Ah, yes, the HPAUCC. Do we abide by that?”
“Sorry, I haven’t been keeping up with the political changes.”
“Well, he thought he was a God as a Level 3!”
“Oh, right. He is a minor. Where’s he now?”
“Exiled on the blue planet. He wants the Avians—or birds as they are called in his time arrow—to lose because he thinks they’re mean.”
“They are, don’t you think?” my buddy said.
“It’s just their bluster.”
We pondered this concept. The simple, efficient behavior of birds hides their hidden emotional feelings toward the nest and the environment. Their way of life looks cruel, chicks are sacrificed, some die alone and drop from the air, but it’s part of their survival strategy.
“What about the Apes?” I asked.
We pondered this concept for a few more God-moments and then agreed. The Apes and furry ones have larger, more bulbous brains, but disorganized and slow in processing compared to the Avians. Ultimately, the larger brains won not because they were better. They had extra neurons which made them clever. Unfortunately for the Avians, their brains had no room to waste on shrewdness.
“The Avians could have fought, Augie,” Hank said.
“Not in their nature. They bicker, peck, squawk, but that’s for show. Not so with the Apes.”
“Nope. And Apes fear nothing when they’re in a group. The Avians couldn’t win that war.”
“Now, the question: Yucatán or no Yucatán?” Hank asked.
“Y’know, I think that Level 3 entity might have been right for the wrong reason.”
“How so, you ask? I think it’s better for the rock to hit and make its famous mark on the landscape. Remember, the Yucatán is a great place for intelligent Apes to vacation. And if the Avians never get intelligent they’ll accept their place in the skies and leave the pollution, strife, wars, and whatever else, to the live-birthers.”
We pondered in silence until Hank had to scoot back into the fourth dimension and return to his galaxy.
I am now back, floating in the tides of the fourth dimension, overseeing my galaxy’s black hole. I re-set time’s arrow to the moment when that big-ass rock is due to hit the blue planet. I watch without influencing the rock’s path. I think this version works the best.
Bio: Kenneth Schalhoub writes thoughtful science fiction short stories with interesting characters. His story, Near Vega was published in The Green Silk Journal.