Saturday 23rd November 2013Just a short story I've written in honour of Doctor Who Day...
THE FIELD TRIP by Mitch Benn
Mentor Geldra and his five pupils took their stations.
He gave the four-dimensional co-ordinates to the student at section one; a tall, dark haired confident girl. She entered them into the capsule's navigational cortex and smiled up at Geldra.
Geldra touched the “initiate” pad, there came a familiar grinding sound and they were away. First time off-planet for most of these, thought Geldra, and his own first trip for a while.
He looked around the console at his young crew. He smiled as he saw their faces, each lit up as much by the thrill of the occasion as by the controls they were watching over.
His smile dimmed a little as his gaze fell upon the last two members of the party. The boys he'd stationed at sections five and six.
At section five stood a chubby blond boy, visibly struggling with the the urge to tweak and grab at the switches and pads in front of him. This boy had been more thrilled than anyone at the prospect of the trip; he'd jiggled with nervous excitement as they waited to enter the Type 30 capsule and Geldra had paid specific attention to him as they boarded, fearful he'd start running round and fiddling with everything. Thus far he'd managed to contain himself, and Geldra had been sure to place him at the systems monitoring section, where he wouldn't actually have to do anything unless there was an emergency. Geldra hoped there wouldn't be an emergency.
At section six stood this first boy's inseparable friend, although on the face of things they didn't seem to have much in common. He was slim and dark; while his friend's soft features were still those of a child, his were beginning to harden into manhood. Where Boy No. 5 was academically mercurial, prone to bursts of inspiration and random brilliance in class (while at other times handing in slapdash, overdue and workmanlike assignments, assuming he actually turned up, which was by no means a given) Boy No. 6 was methodical and reliable, even if he did, on occasion, ask rather disturbing questions.
These two boys, who should have been Geldra's star pupils, seemed to bring out the worst in each other. They were always off plotting something in secret, or finding new ways to bend the Academy's rules; bend, that is, not break... somehow they always managed to escape official censure. Between them, they caused Geldra more stress than anyone he'd ever met in his life. Any of his lives. Geldra spied them exchanging mischievous glances and sighed.
The capsule arrived at its destination with a faintly audible thud. Just a short hop; a couple of thousand years.
Geldra opened the doors and led the crew out of the capsule in an orderly queue.
They were greeted by a scene of silent devastation.
“We stand on the the planet Vargahis,” announced Mentor Geldra, “ and this is, or at least was, the city of Masro-Tor.”
They were in a vast empty space which might once have been a grand square or plaza. Around the outside stood the ruins of stone buildings; only the shells of the lower storeys remained. They could have been sleek towers, squat dwellings or great temples once; now, it was impossible to tell.
“Thousands of years ago, this was the capital city of Branta-Harn, a proud nation of over a hundred million people,” intoned Geldra.
“What happened to them?” asked a tall redheaded girl, her distress obvious.
“Nothing happened to them,” said Geldra gravely, “they did this to themselves.”
A gasp of horror passed through the group of students.
"How?" asked Boy No. 5. Beside him, Boy No. 6's cool grey eyes blazed with fascination.
"War," said Geldra. "A decades-long war against a rival nation, Greater Trass. Bantra-Harn sought to end the war by developing a weapon so powerful it could destroy the whole nation of Trass in one blast."
"They didn't use it, did they?" asked a stout brown-haired boy,
"I'm afraid they did. They succeeded in annihilating their enemies, but the force of the blast was such that it shifted Vargahis on its axis. Just a few degrees, but enough to destroy the planet's eco-system utterly."
Boy No. 5 shuddered as Boy No. 6 listened intently. Mentor Geldra went on: "The planet was plunged into chaos. Temperatures soared in some places, plummeted in others. Great storms scoured the face of Vargahis and all life, plant and animal, was extinguished. Now, these ruins - and similar ruins, dotted around the planet's surface - are the only indicator that there was ever anything here."
Boy. No. 5 looked around at the other students. None of them was going to ask the obvious question, so he did.
"Why are we here, Mentor Geldra?"
Geldra smiled, indulgently and not entirely convincingly. "Many millennia have now elapsed since the war. The planet's eco-system is beginning to revive. New life will arise, possibly, eventually, new civilisations."
"Will they be any cleverer than the last one?" asked Boy No. 6.
Mentor Geldra's brow furrowed. "Who's to say?" he coughed. "And for today, that is none of our concern. Our task today is to perform a standard biosphere survey. Just to see how the place is coming along."
Geldra assigned tasks to the students. As Boys 5 and 6 wandered off into the ruins, he silently abandoned any hope of seeing them again before it was time to leave. And that suited him fine.
Boy No. 6 scanned the bleak horizon with his grey eyes. He perched atop a rocky spire which might have been a natural formation, or possibly part of a building, a support strut for an overhead highway or similar construction. There was no way to know.
Looking behind him, he saw his fellow students milling around a large boulder, which was, he now realised, the capsule they'd arrived in. Even our machinery's cowardly, he thought to himself. Most advanced mode of transport in the known universe and there it is, pretending not to exist.
From below him he heard wheezing and grunting, and soon enough his chubby blond friend hauled himself onto the top on the monolith and sat beside him, panting.
"All a bit grim, isn't it?" pondered Boy No. 5 once he had his breath.
"Oh I don't know," his friend replied, "I think it's rather beautiful in a stark sort of way."
A moment's pause.
"You know why they brought us here, don't you?" muttered Boy No. 5. "They're so paranoid that we're going to start fiddling with things, breaking their precious doctrine of non-interference, that they've brought us to one of the few planets in the universe where there's literally nothing to fiddle with."
Boy No. 6 smiled. "I think you're partly correct. Oh, it's all about the doctrine alright, but I think they wanted to show us this place as an example of futility."
"Futility?" asked Boy No. 5, who then flinched as his friend leapt to a standing position on the narrow rocky platform and gestured grandly at the devastated city.
"This!" he proclaimed. "This is how everything ends up! It's all headed for this. Whether it's war, meteors, the sun going bang or just plain entropy, everything falls apart eventually. So why BOTHER getting involved? Why get attached to anything that'll just be dust in a few million years? What difference can you expect to make in a universe where nothing lasts forever?"
"Except us..." murmured Boy No. 5. Boy No. 6 sat back down.
"Except us..." he said.
Some hours later and a few thousand years earlier, back on their homeworld, back in the Capitol, back in the Academy, hush descended upon the senior dormitories.
In his sleep pod, Boy No. 5 thrashed and grimaced. The day's lesson - whatever it might have been - lingered in his brain and kept him awake. He forced himself to lie still, listening to his hearts beat and willing them to calm down.
It would have been different if I'd been there, he thought. I could have found a way to end that war. I could have brought them together. Now they're gone. Who knows what that civilisation could have gone on to achieve?
What's the point of lasting as long as we have, of surviving and advancing for millions and millions of years, of acquiring all this knowledge and power if no-one ever benefits from it?
We've become the bureaucrats of the universe. Watching civilisations fall, planets burn, species disappear, then glumly noting the time of death and waiting for the next catastrophe.
We're observers, when we could be healers.
When we could be doctors.
A few sleep pods along, Boy No. 6 lay quite still, but also wide awake.
It would have been different if I'd been there, he thought. I could have shown them how to win their silly little war without destroying their whole stupid planet. Think how grateful they would have been... What would they have given me? What WOULDN'T they have given me?
We've allowed ourselves to become celestial gardeners, he thought. Pulling up the odd weed and pruning the occasional dead branch, instead of ripping the whole thing up and rebuiliding it to our own design. As is our capability. As is our RIGHT.
We're the faithful retainers of the universe, when we could be its owners.
When we could be masters.
© Mitch Benn 23.11.13