Short Story - Pax Africana

This is a silly science fiction story I wrote exclusively for my own amusement. If Old Wounds is too dark and The Trip is too depressingly close to your own life, then read this one! I will make you happy, or it will make you say mean things about me. Either way, you won't be sad!

PAX AFRICANA

by 

Michael Edelson

 

                Parrots are cowards. When you spook them, they fly to the highest perch they can reach. That’s after flying around and squawking like idiots. It’s what Kirk did, right before they killed him. When the Jellies came I tried to save him by letting him out of his cage, but a passing patrol saw him in the tree, the highest tree, and burned poor Kirk with one of their beam weapons. I was ten, and I watched my best friend die.

                 They killed everything, those Jellies. Everything that wasn’t human: lions, tigers, bears, insects and African Gray parrots, like Kirk. I hadn’t been to the surface in seven years, but I can’t imagine there is anything up there I want to see.

                I thought about Kirk every time I used the catwalks. He would have been happy up there. He would have felt safe. I was safe enough, I suppose, but I wasn’t happy. Back then I didn’t think I’d ever be happy. And this was supposed to be one of the best days of my life, a day on which I got to breed. But some people got to do it more than others, and for me it was almost routine. I liked AL8E-3369 though, she was nice. I called her Allie.

                The catwalk I was on was very high up, and I was mortified of heights. But it was so dark that you couldn’t see anything, and if you couldn’t see it, you didn’t think about it. That’s how we lived. We didn’t think about things too much.

                I heard the dreaded humming sound and I froze. A Jelly was coasting towards me on its grav sled. I stared at it as it emerged from the shadows, unable to look away. Some people say they don’t like it when you stare at them, but I don’t think they can even tell. They don’t have eyes, so if they see, they don’t see the same way we do.

                It was a translucent green Jelly. A big one, probably around 200lbs. They were all different colors, and the colors meant something. I didn’t always know what, but I knew green. Green meant it was almost ready to reproduce. That’s just what we needed. More damned Jellies.

                It’s vodor buzzed. “Identify!”

                I hesitated a moment, then blinked away my fear and said, “Human Servitor, Designation AA1B-8723.” I know it was stupid, but I was somewhat proud of my designation. AAs were the elite of the servitors. We were granted all manner of privileges, such as lots and lots of breeding. The AA means I was deemed genetically superior to just about any other human, though to this day I don’t know what their criteria were. As an AL, Allie was almost at my level. We were close enough to breed, anyway.

                “State your purpose!” the Jelly buzzed through its vodor. They were disgusting creatures. Slimy, amorphous. And they smelled bad too. Like rancid snot. They had a name for their species, but we didn’t know what it was. Nor did we care. They looked like living gelatin, so that’s what we called them.

                “I am proceeding to level 19, section 22F, cell 3010, for scheduled breeding with human servitor AL8E-3369. Permission to proceed?”

                The Jelly hesitated. I saw it vibrate a few times, but the vodor was silent. Finally it said, “Proceed.”

                Of course there was no way past it on the narrow catwalk. Its grav sled surged forward, right at me. I dropped to the ground and gritted my teeth. When it passed over me, it was like a million insects crawling over every inch of my body. I really, really hated those things. The sleds were pretty awful too.

                Before long I stood in front of Allie’s door, and for some reason, I hesitated. I had butterflies in my stomach. There weren’t any real butterflies left anywhere on the planet, but there they were, in my gut. I was old enough when the Jelly ships came to remember things quite clearly. When I thought about there being no butterflies, it hit me hard. Harder than usual. I looked around to make sure I was alone and sat down on the grated metal floor, my back to Allie’s wall. I wanted to collect myself before I saw her. There was just enough light to see a good ways down the antiseptic hallway in both directions. Everything was metal. Cold, sterile. A pattern of closely spaced doors disappeared into the shadows. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the clanging of machines.

                Never open a door unless you know what’s behind it. Especially if that door is a wormhole to another universe. We weren’t trying to find another reality. Our physicists weren’t even sure such things existed. We were trying to travel in space. That is what wormholes are supposed to do, after all. At first they thought it didn’t work. They fired it up near Saturn, and when they sent the first probe through, there was Saturn. It was as though there was no wormhole, except that the probe wasn’t in our universe. It didn’t take them long to realize what was going on and to send a probe to Earth. Everything was the same: Jupiter, Mars, their moons. But not Earth. Earth wasn’t green or blue, it was gray, filled with lights. One giant megacity across the entire surface of the planet, even the oceans. The probe went dark, and we shut down the wormhole immediately. But it was too late. The armada arrived a few days later. Hundreds of ships. Our technology was useless against them, like throwing rocks at a tank.

                I knew what was behind Allie’s door. She was pretty, even though they didn’t let us have makeup. She didn’t need it. She was a couple of years younger than me, fifteen I think, but she’d already had several kids. I should say that she gave birth. They never let us keep our kids. We didn’t know at the time what they did to them. I know now, but...I don’t want to think about it. Some were lucky, and those became servitors.

                I knocked on the door. There was a bell, but Allie didn’t like the sound it made. The door slid open.

                Allie stood behind it, smiling. Her hair was short, like mine, but long enough that she could tease it into something that looked feminine. She was tiny, barely up to my shoulder, with a slender athletic body. Not that any of us could have had anything but slender bodies with what they fed us.

                “Hi,” she said, smiling awkwardly. “It’s that time again, huh?”

                “You know it is,” I said, and instantly regretted it. She did know, so if she was asking, it was because she wanted to pretend. “I mean, sorry...I...yeah. It’s that time. May I come in?”

                Her smile, which had waned after my crude reply, returned. “Sure, Abe, come on in.” I was a little shocked that she said it aloud in the hallway. The Jellies got mad if we used normal names. And when a Jelly got mad, there was a lot of pain, if you were lucky. AA1B. Abe. Not perfect, but I liked it. My real name had been Daniel once, but I didn’t want to remember that life.

                They were a sentient race, the Jellies, but they were nothing like us. I don’t think they had feelings, at least not the way we did. They hated all other forms of life and eradicated them wherever they went, unless they could be made to work, like we could. They killed over four billion of us when they arrived. Not randomly though. They went through our cities and towns, scanning us. Those who passed were put in transports, the rest were burned, like Kirk. Nothing but charred remains. Mostly dust. The lucky ones were put to work building another planet-wide city on our Earth, just like the one on theirs. Most of us knew that we’d be killed when the city was finished. Not all of us, of course, but most. Maintenance takes less work than construction.

                Allie’s cell was like mine, spartan, no decorations. One bed with a thin mattress, a storage cube for clothes, a toilet, a sink and a small table and chair. A reading device sat on the table. We weren’t trained to do our jobs. We were given readers with instructions and technical specs. If we couldn’t learn our designated jobs, we were burned in front of the others. But not quickly. We had to be taught a lesson, after all.

                “So,” she said. “How have you been?”

                I shrugged. “Not bad, I guess. I like my new job. I mean...I don’t hate it as much as the old one.”

                “What is it?”

                “Oh, sorry, I thought you knew. I’m a manager now. I’m responsible for forty servitors. Three supervisors report to me. We’re building a cargo elevator. It uses the same tech as the grav sleds.” I shrugged again. “It’s kinda interesting. How it works and all that.”

                She laughed. “It’s not like they’re going to explain it to you.”

                “No,” I agreed. “But I read the specs. I can’t understand it all, but I do get the basics. Anyway, what about you? Anything new?”

                She went to the sink and poured me a glass of water. She wore gray tights and a thin cotton shirt. When she leaned down, her shirt rode up and showed the top of her panties peeking up. My groin stirred. Perhaps breeding wasn’t quite as routine as I had made it out to be. Not with Allie, anyway. She was special somehow, in a way I hadn’t understood then. I barely remembered what love was, so I didn’t have much to compare my feelings to.

                She handed me the glass and frowned. I could see the light in her eyes dim for a moment.

                “Yeah,” she said. “Unfortunately.”

                “What’s wrong?” I took a sip of the metallic water. It wasn’t as good as the water in my cell, but then she wasn’t a double A.

                “They opened the wormhole again. This time they found a pristine Earth.”

                Allie worked in some sort of communications center, so she heard things. I had no doubt that what she was telling me was true. This wasn’t the first time they had done it, but they’d struck out in previous attempts. The thought of them opening up that door, finding another Earth and doing to them what they did to us—that was almost too much. The Jellies weren’t from Earth. They had come to the version that we found on the other side of our wormhole and sterilized it exactly as they later did to ours. No one knew where they came from, not then anyway.

                “Pristine? What do you mean?”

                “I mean one with no civilization. It’s all jungles and forests and oceans. Can you imagine that? How beautiful it must be?”

                I frowned. “Yeah. But...not for long.”

                We didn’t talk much after that. She sat on the bed, I sat next to her. I drank my water, she drank hers. I held her hand, she kissed me, and we had sex, just like we were supposed to. It was great. It was always great with Allie.

                Later, back in my own cell, I lay awake for most of the night. It was hard to sleep, thinking about what the Jellies were doing to that perfect, beautiful Earth. Maybe it too had lions, tigers and elephants. All the wondrous biodiversity that our planet once had. And more! Because there weren’t any humans to mess it up. If only we had found that planet first, if only we had never found the Jellies. What would life have been like? But then I kinda knew. I was old enough to remember. We would have messed up the same way the Jellies would, only slower and with a lot more self delusion. Maybe we’d just gotten what we deserved.

                I kept thinking, day dreaming, about the Jellies traveling to yet another new world, but this time instead of a clean Earth, there would be an advanced civilization. Maybe on that world, the Roman Empire never fell, and they would obliterate the Jellies with giant starships bearing the golden eagle. Then they would come to our Earth and save us too. They were nice dreams, and the best part was, maybe, one day, they could come true. If the Jellies kept opening that wormhole to different realities, who knew what they would find? If we found an advanced race of malevolent Jello snacks that took over our planet, why the hell not?

                The next morning, the rumor mill was turning at full speed. There were fewer Jellies around than usual, and the most popular conjecture was that they were all part of the invasion fleet that was going to sweep down on Earth 2—that’s what we’d taken to calling it—and scour it clean of all living things. I now know that the Jellies didn’t kill all life, just all macro life. They had a special cocktail of microorganisms they’d cooked up that could sustain a biosphere without plants or animals. We never learned why they hated living things so much. That’s going to be a mystery forever I guess.

                BB, short for BB2Z-1283, started taking bets with ration cards. The odds favored half of us being exported to this freshly sterilized new planet within the week. Close favorites were increased breeding for everyone, not just the Alphabets, to make more servitors. Alphabets—that was what we called our top three genetic tiers—A,B and C.

                I thought about putting an end to the betting, it was in very poor taste considering what was happening, but they seemed to enjoy it. Joyce, JC1K-3239, even made a board to keep track of odds and bet amounts using an unallocated sheet of wall metal and a piece natural chalk someone found in the tunnels below the catwalks. We didn’t know what sort of metal it was, but it wasn’t magnetic and we could neither bend nor scratch it. I guess not even my imaginary Romans could have stood up to these Jellies, if even their ordinary walls were nearly indestructible.

                The next few days there were fewer and fewer Jellies. We figured they were having a field day on Earth 2, killing, looting, polluting. What disgusting creatures. For the millionth time, I wished death on all of them.

                I saw Allie again, on the third night. She had more news from the communications center. The Jellies were sending more and more ships through the wormhole. Oh well, so much for day dreams. The “terraforming” must be going full tilt.

                On the fourth day, we needed to activate the power to the level we were working on, and we couldn’t reach any Jellies on the com panel.

                “What do we do now?” BB asked. “We can’t proceed until they turn the power on. We’re all done on this level.”

                “I don’t know,” I said. “So I guess...I guess we’ll just wait.”

                BB looked skeptical. “Are you sure? I mean...if they catch us idle, it will be your ass.”

                “Well what else do you want me to do? The com’s working, and no one is answering.”

                We waited. Nervously. We waited for several hours. Then I decided to go looking for a Jelly. Maybe the com system was down after all. I mean...it didn’t seem to be, but who knew? Maybe it was like the old days when you had a connection to your router but the modem was down.

                I wandered for over an hour. All of the restricted areas were sealed off as usual, but there were no Jellies outside of them. I returned to my crew and sent them all to their cells for the night. We exchanged nervous glances and they dispersed with some muttering and head shaking.

                The next morning there were still no Jellies. I decided to go up to the next level and start the preliminary work there before finishing up below. In retrospect, it was what I should have done from the start. I was lucky that there hadn’t been any Jellies around to see my screw-up, or I’d be down in the tunnels chipping away at rock with a pickaxe.

                That night, there was a knock at my door. It was Allie.

                “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Did they schedule another breeding session?”

                “The access door to the com center is locked,” she said, walking past me into my cell. I shut the door behind her.

                “Locked?”

                “Yeah, I couldn’t get to work this morning. And no one is answering the coms!”

                “What did you do?” Suddenly, I had a disturbing thought. What if the Jellies had changed their mind about this planet? What if they left us all here to die?

                “I walked around, looking for one of them. I tried all the com panels, nothing. I wasn’t the only one wandering too. Something’s happening. I think...I think they...”

                “Left us here?” I gave voice to my thoughts, and it made me shiver.

                She nodded and swiped an errant tear. “Can I stay with you tonight?”

                I blinked. “All night? Here? But...what if they...I mean...”

                “If they catch us, that means they are here, and they can tell us what to do. I’ll just say I was scared because I thought they’d left us.”

                The thing is, she really was scared because she thought they’d left us. A part of me hated her for being so weak, so dependent. But it was a fleeting thought. None of this was her fault. She must have been eight or so when they came and took her from her parents. The day they murdered my pet, my best friend, Kirk. I hated the Jellies for killing him. I hated them more than I hated anything in the world. If they left us here, then that was good. Maybe we would have a chance to start again. Though the thought of over two billion people trying to survive on a world that had been scoured clean of life without the Jellies’ technology wasn’t something I dared to think about for very long.

                Allie stayed with me that night, and we made love. Not just sex like before. It was different this time. This time we did it because we wanted to, not because the Jellies told us to, and we took our time. Afterwards we held each other, kissed a lot, and finally slept. I think at that moment I realized that I loved her, and I never wanted to breed with anyone else again.

                The ration machines didn’t work that next morning. They were empty. We waited until a little past lunch time, then we decided that enough was enough. We got some molecular welders and broke through a security door. That last moment before the door fell was very scary. If there were a Jelly on the other side, he’d burn as all before we could blink.

                There wasn’t. Just an empty corridor. We went up to the higher levels past empty rooms and desolate hallways until we made it to the surface access door. We sent a group back for the welder and got it open. The sun was so bright. I remembered the sun, but never like this. An orb so bright it burned me eyes even when closed. Shielding our eyes with our hands, we walked onto white sand that disappeared into the horizon. In the distance, in all directions, were groups of men and women, just like us, coming out of other access doors. Some groups were large, some small like ours. We waved at them, some waved back. There were no Jellies. Not a one.

                As my eyes adjusted I looked all around and noticed that the sand wasn’t quite everywhere. Far in the distance, all around, were fragments of the unfinished mega city that was supposed to one day cover the entire surface of our planet.

                “They left us!” I said, anger in my tone.

                “There’s no food,” Allie said.

                “We’ll find something!” BB said excitedly. I guess that’s one of the reasons he was a B and not an A. There would be no food. There was nothing alive on the planet but us that was bigger than a bacteria.

                “They didn’t leave us!” a girl shouted. “Look!”

                We looked. I heard it before I saw anything.  A deep thrumming. Darkness fell across the sand as something passed in front of the sun, and then there it was.

                It was a starship, enormous, bristling with weapons. An absurd amount of weapons. It was nothing like the clean gleaming Jelly spheres we’d seen before. As it got lower I was able to make out more details. It was black, its hull smooth and glistening, except where the weapons were mounted. The entire ship seemed to have been built around a titanic cannon that had to be a mile long. I later learned that the cannons fired beams of microscopic black holes that could destroy a planet. It was a Dreadnought in the true sense of the word. Fear nothing. And it wasn’t alone. Far in the distance, more Dreadnoughts were descending. They hovered a few thousand feet in the air, thrumming ominously, blocking out the sun. Small craft detached from the base of their massive hulls and headed towards the surface.

                The one from the nearest Dreadnought was coming towards our group. It was sleek and vaguely bird shaped, its shiny black hull reflected the sand below and the battleship above, and as it got closer, it reflected our terrified faces. What new horror had the Jellies unleashed upon us? Were they going to eradicate us rather than let us starve to death? Had they found better servitors on that pristine Earth with which they would replace us?

                We were terrified, but we dared not move. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Maybe the spheres we had seen before had been transport ships, and these were the Jellies’ battle cruisers. We wanted to run, and some of us did, but where would we go? Those few that panicked disappeared through the access doors.

                All of the landing craft touched down almost at the same time, at least the ones we could make out. I don’t want to admit this, but as the platform descended from its hull, I almost lost it. Almost. I stayed.

                The platform was occupied by a tight formation of humanoid robots. They were about seven feet tall and carried intimidating weapons in human-like hands. Their features were too complicated for my struggling brain to process. They kept their weapons lowered as they marched towards us. I felt Allie’s hand grip mine tightly, her nails digging in. Was this the end?

                When the robots got close, they parted to reveal a naked, hairy ape creature in their center. It stood about five feet tall and avoided eye contact. On its shoulder sat—

                Kirk.

                I mean, it wasn’t actually Kirk. But it looked a hell of a lot like him. Its head was bigger, a lot bigger. Its body was too, but not nearly as much as the oversized head. It looked comical, and stared at us with that same goofy look that Kirk used to have whenever he was nervous, which, being an African Gray parrot, was most of the time.

                It spoke in a perfect male human voice, and I will never forget its words. After it spoke, I collapsed, overcome. I didn’t wake until much later.

                It said, “Greetings humans of Earth! I am Ar-[screech]-[pop]-[click], Captain of the [series of screeches] battleship Kar-[loud screech!]-[click-click]-hoo. We are here to liberate you!” I can still hear it when I close my eyes, every last click and pop.

                Parrots.

                We were saved by violent galactic space parrots.

                It made a strange kind of sense. Most people used to think that the smartest animals on Earth were whales, gorillas or dolphins, but they were wrong. The smartest animals on Earth, after humans, were African Gray parrots. They scored higher on intelligence tests than gorillas did, and they took those tests in English, not sign language. On that particular Earth, in that wonderful reality, parrots developed sentient intelligence first, and formed a symbiotic relationship with the most advanced primate species.

                I told you before, parrots are cowards. They hid their civilization in the trees, and built massive starships to keep them safe in case that didn’t work. When the Jellies came and made their intentions known, the dreadnoughts appeared and blew them out of space. Taken aback, the Jellies mobilized their battle fleets and came in force. No one had ever been able to fight back before, and so they wanted to end the threat quickly. The parrot dreadnoughts, protected by energy shields and nearly indestructible hulls, fired black holes at the Jelly fleet. Black holes! The Jellies never stood a chance.

                But that wasn’t the end of it though. The Jellies had attacked the peace loving and cowardly parrots in their own homes. That meant they all had to die. All of them. The parrot fleet hunted the remaining Jellies down and killed them all, down to the last newly budded blob. Then the parrots set out to find the Jelly home world. Both of them, in both universes. It didn’t take them long.  That’s s why I said some things will remain a mystery forever. There aren’t any Jellies left to ask. Not in our universe, and not in that of the parrots.

                Us humans, on the other hand, the parrots loved. We were just like their apes, which were part beloved family pet and part working partner. They did all the manual labor, each with a parrot on their shoulder, and were rewarded with luxurious living conditions. They weren’t slaves—it was a mutually beneficial relationship. The apes were almost sentient, and they had freedom. Any ape that preferred to live a natural life in the jungle had that choice. Many took it. A few even chose to live in our jungles. Which reminds me...

                The parrots didn’t just save us. They saved our planet. They reseeded it with plants, animals and insects from their own world, which were genetically identical to the ones we used to have.

                Never open a door unless you know what’s behind it. It was a lesson the Jellies learned too late. As for the parrots, well, they’re cowards after all. They locked the wormhole open between our two realities and did something to space there to keep any others from forming.

                Pax Africana, that’s what I call it. The African Peace, after the parrots ancestor species. It’s how we live now. Allie and I, our children, and all of humanity. In peace, out in the open, under beautiful star filled skies, amongst trees and rivers, teeming with life. Every now and then, a parrot comes to visit. They like our stories and are fascinated with our dexterous fingers, which we use to preen their feather chutes. They claim we’re better at it than their apes, but I think they just like novelty. Be careful if a parrot visits you though. They love to talk. They’ll talk all night if you let them. That’s when they’re not singing. Some of them are pretty good. Some.  

                I still miss Kirk, but there’s a parrot that lives not too far from me who looks just like him. He lets me call him Kirk. We go fishing sometimes. Kirk loves fish. Except jellyfish. No one likes jellyfish.

                Kirk and I were fishing one day and a thought occurred to me, so I asked him.

                “What would you have done if we had shown up on your planet? Looking to get its resources?”

                Kirk thought about it by staring at me with big wide goofy eyes and shaking his head in the way of his people. “I suppose,” he said after a moment. “That we would have identified ourselves and asked you to fuck off.” The parrots had taken quite well to our colloquialisms.

                “Would you have show us your technology?”

                Kirk blinked rapidly, a sign of negation. “No. We only show our technology to friends and things we want to eradicate.”

                I thought about that for a good three minutes. “But we wouldn’t have listened. We would have asked to set up an embassy or something and then just landed with mining ships and made excuses.”

                Kirk shook his head violently again. “That would have been very bad.”

                “Yeah,” I agreed, thinking of the Jellies.

                “But it’s better this way, “ Kirk said and bobbed his head up and down in a display of pleasure. “Now we are friends and no one has to be eradicated.” His line went taught. “I got one!” he shouted and flapped his wings excitedly. His ape started to reel it in.