Feb 172022

It was a dark universe and intelligent species were always dropping dead in mysterious ways.

It’s nothing new to a private xenoanthropology detective. You see things before first-meal that would make most people puke their thorax out until fifth-meal. But no matter how twisted the outcome, I know there’s always an explanation, and I always find it. I’m a zee-pol, a classically trained xenologist or xenoanthropologist, whatever studies alien cultures, but like detective noir style, get what I’m going for?

My secretary AI got the call last quarter-cycle. Started about a story about a planet with a species that had it all- they were living the cosmic dream. Converting all kinds of mass to energy, making copies of themselves, processing information to enhance their survival, a real goldilocks story. They built vessels and lived in space for a while, looked like they were gearing up for a big push to move to other planets. Not an easy achievement for a species that had to build their own wings just to get off the ground.

But just a few dozen cycles later they were belly up, still running around making copies of themselves but struggling just to convert organic mass to energy and barely processing any information at all. Like a ghost of a civilization.

My client had an off-the-books investment in the place and they were looking for answers. Seems a few of the planet’s natives bet big on their species being the next star on the galactic stage, but they went down hard, and somebody had to pay the price. 

Could have been a short scam, maybe one of those natives had another bet on the planet flopping like a space whale in an event horizon, but that would have to be some depraved native. I wouldn’t put it past anyone though, there’s always a nut case willing to sell out their entire species for one lifetime of hedonism. 

Could have been another investor with different interests, but there hadn’t been any notable extractions from the planet, no raw resources, no brain harvest, nothing, nobody took anything from the planet, the natives just stopped being interesting.

My client thinks it could have been sabotage from one of his business associates, and if it is- it’s my job to find out who. 

So I started looking. I start with the simple stuff. I listen, I look through refuse, and maybe snoop around the yard. Their solar system was littered with probes, and each was apparently made for a scientific goal. Some even included strange greetings and information about the species that made it. Very aspirational stuff, seems like they had to have been a species on the move at some point.

There was even more stuff in their planetary orbit, but only a fraction of it was operational at all, and a fraction less was in use. It was a pretty interesting junkyard though. There was a lot more variety in the purpose of the orbital machines, some were scientific, but many were apparently for transmitting enormous amounts of data around the planet. The throughput was mind boggling, yet the available data caches indicated almost none of it was used to transmit scientific, educational, or even useful information. They could transmit all of their species collected scientific data several times a second, yet scientific data accounted for a small fraction of the networks use.

Transmissions from the planet were sparse for a species that once filled their sky with radios, but there were more than a few dense collections of natives doing native things like broadcasting audio and video signals.

I tuned into their feed for a while to get a feel, and right away it felt pretty weird. The weather forecasts made sense but the rest of it was pretty much non stop insanity. There were various competitions, made up stories about people doing things that real people do, made up stories about people doing things nobody does, real stories about people doing things real people do. There were stories about animals, and two dimension people, and lots and lots of stories about people fighting and making copies of themselves. It was the most immersive experience I’d ever had in another species culture, and I’m a xeno-anthropologist. It was fairly mind blowing to find a species that marinated so extravagantly in their own lives.

The first thing you learn as a xenoanthropologist is- there are no accurate generalizations about intelligent species. Then you learn a bunch of roughly accurate generalizations and a bunch of exceptions. I can’t say any generalization applies to this place, except that in general- intelligent species don’t do that. I’ve never ever heard of a species that spent that much time and effort to transmit images of themselves doing things just for the sake of other people watching them do it. I mean- of course theater, art, sports, all that- they have analogies in most species cultures, but I’m telling you, this species never really passed the ‘mirror self-recognition test’ so much as they just adopted it as a lifestyle.

But that doesn’t answer the question of why they got so boring. They even had some programs about their former glory in space, but I hadn’t seen a single rocket launch since I started investigating. 

I was starting to think my client might be onto something. This is a species with everything it takes to ride into the intergalactic frontier. Yeah- their vain as all get out, but if they put that much metal in space just to make a proverbial giant mirror to look at themselves, imagine what they’re capable of. I’d already seen their scientific curiosity at work at the edges of the solar system. Seems like something had to have gotten in their way or they’d be jamming with the galaxy by now. 

Species sabotage is rare, but it’s happened. The bad news is once it’s done, there’s usually nothing to be done, you just can’t repair the kind of damage interstellar interference can do to a species’ development. If there is any good news, it’s that it’s impossible to do it without leaving a trace. If an outsider threw this species into chaos, they left fingerprints.

Unfortunately the only way to find fingerprints is to get up close. And very unfortunately for me I’m an insectoid creature about a meter long which is absolutely terrifying to this species, so I’ll have to be pretty creative if I want answers. Though I was perfectly fluent in their language, their prejudice to my form made casual conversation out of the question. So I went for a more direct investigative technique. I abducted a half dozen of their species and imprisoned them for a while.

It took about 3 days before any of them could speak to me intelligibly, but we made a breakthrough after I let them order a delivery of food disks. I had to start over with the delivery guy but he settled down after awhile too.

I may have started out a little aggressively, and I regret my professional lapse in allowing my suspicion of sabotage to direct my investigation, because what I learned from these poor, demented, savages, was darker than my worst assumptions.

These people were just dumb, and mean- but not always, sometimes smart and nice, but sometimes dumb and mean while being aggressively smart and nice, and vice versa, almost. But mostly they were really, really indifferent about their species to the point of being kind of dumb and mean. It was weird, and depressing. 

I asked them more explicitly what had happened to their species but they didn’t seem to understand the question, which I guess is fair- to them they just are what they are, they didn’t know what they could have been. It took me a while to piece together the timeline that took them from mounting expeditions to nearby worlds, to wallowing in their own mundane reality, but not because there was some catastrophic event that destroyed their records, it was just incredibly boring, so it took me awhile to even care enough to get the big picture. 

They did fight a lot, and there were a few significant wars that really catalyzed their decay, but mostly it was just long cycles of neglect followed by intense bursts of the wrong kind of energy. They’d get all excited and do some interesting things, then get bored with them, then fight about stupid things, the get tired of fighting and take what they learned from fighting and do a few more interesting things, then get bored and fight again. All the while devouring resources and generating enormous waste. They’re still doing it, just at smaller scales. Sort of occasionally warring city-states that watch each other’s broadcast television.

But that was it, no treason, no sabotage, not even one big war or a big bomb or anything, just lots of small, stupid, decisions that a species made to rob itself of a future in space. Or maybe they never had a future, the xenoanthropologist detective in me says it just is what it is, there’s no guarantees, and no judgements.

But the xenoanthropologist detective in me is in an insectoid, and my species is just flat out better than those morons. Yeah, we’ve got our problems, I eat fellow insectoids sometimes, whatever, but you know what I don’t do? Well… I’m not sure personally, but apparently in general my species is better at not doing things that screw up the entire species chances of doing anything interesting in space, and I know you want to go to space, c’mon… so quit listening to silly stories and go build a spaceship.

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