It is a controlled fall from the ship. I have practiced it many times before, wings tightly folded on either side of my spine. As never before, I feel my own fierce strength, the glory of interconnecting mesh of muscles make it possible for wings and body to work together. I am tense. I must wait. There is a right time for wings to open, and I will sense that time as well as being able to read it on my wrist. A moment too soon and…
My ancestors had a tale of a boy called Icarus, who made himself wings of wax and flew too near the sun; hard to imagine not having wings, having to make them. What did he fasten them with, I wonder. Straps of leather? Straps of cloth? I have read of such substances, just as I have read of Icarus. The inevitable happened, of course. In the end he flew too close to Sol, the category 2 yellow dwarf now scorching my back as I fall – so very small, after our own, and so very hot. And why should this be a surprise? I have read a mountain of textbooks in preparation for this overflight of my home planet, seen pictures, viewed endless animations. I knew what it would be like. And yet I knew nothing.
What could that story have meant, really? Was it merely a tale of a foolish boy, designed to amuse an audience with a rudimentary sense of humour? Or was it more? Terra stories are known for a quality of symbolism so it might be that this one has a deeper meaning. A caution against arrogance, perhaps, and over-reaching.
The black chronometer on my wrist is set to Terra time. I must fall like this for six point five of their minutes. It feels like a lifetime.
I cannot believe I am finally here. I am so fortunate, to have been selected for this reconnaissance mission to my ancestral planet. My Terran genetic heritage would have helped, of course, though in training they warned me that I would need to set aside any false sentimentality about ‘the old country’.
‘Assessor Aiden, bear in mind that this is the planet that blasted your genetic antecedents out into cold space, in suspended animation and in a relatively primitive craft, on a mission to colonise Mars. Mars, of all planets – that hell hole! It was suicidal: those on the ground must have known it and those in the spaceship, as they stepped into their cryo-chambers and pressed the ‘freeze’ button, must at least have suspected it. It was mere political one-upmanship, vanity, showing off.
‘If our ancestors had not rescued your ancestors, studied them, bred from them and then, when it was proven safe to do so, interbred with them, there would be no Assessor Aidan. How many second-rate and failing races have we conserved in this fashion over the millennia? We are a long way towards gathering into a single race all that is best in the universe, whilst eliminating all that is worst. What an uncontrolled mess the universe be by now, without our Programme…’
Falling to earth. Like Icarus, I find myself thinking.
A sleek silver spaceship is in orbit around the planet known as Terra, a smallish satellite of star Sol. Ship’s Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are able to see everything Assessor Aidan is seeing, via his implant. In the ship’s control room they witness again what they have both witnessed so many times before – and what a succession of other Captains and First Officers have been forced to witness before that. They watch as Aidan glides over that drought-ridden continent known as Africa. Village after village of scattered dead bodies, starvation and thirst. Dead cattle. Dead everything. Men with guns in battered trucks, almost as starved and thirsty as the villagers they patrol.
With Aidan they sweep over what were once known as the Americas – two great lumps of land strung together by a delicate land-bridge. They see a stone statue with a stone crown, holding aloft a stone flame; very little else but scorched earth. Everything disintegrated. Shadows of bodies etched into half-demolished walls. Their instruments record increased blood pressure, stress levels through the roof.
‘Contain any emotional response, Assessor. Remember your training…’
How fortunate that Aidan does not know he is the five-hundred-and-first Assessor to have performed this sweep. Had he been aware that his vote and his alone will be the one to decide the fate of this cesspit of a failed planet, had he known that this very day he will effectively be Judge, Jury and Executioner for many millions of years of history…
They are never told, so that none of them has to shoulder the burden of guilt. All are equally guilty, or equally innocent depending how you choose to look at it. An Assessor performs but a single mission before moving on to other work. He might be the first, he might be the last, or any intermediate one of the five-hundred-and-one. Or there may be more than five hundred and one. Or there might be just one. Not knowing, he is able to maintain the necessary professional detachment.
Except that this particular Assessor does not seem to be doing so. His blood-pressure is still rising.
Through Assessor Aidan’s eyes Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata are now viewing what was once known as Europa, and which the textbooks describe as a collection of individual nations, each with its own language and culture. They see War and, as the Assessor glides over a muddy, pockmarked battlefield on the eastern edge of that territory, they see a group of men in battered uniforms, gazing skyward, pointing, tracking the strange blue creature with their eyes. They exclaiming over its great muscular wings, its vast, exotic wing-span. And positioning what looks like an ancient piece of military equipment.
‘Abort. Pull him out of there.’
‘Aborting. Repeat, aborting. Maintain level flight whilst we position ourselves to tractor you out. Assessor Aidan, do you read us?’
From the ground arises a thud, a sudden explosion, an ominous hissing sound, a streak of fire.
‘What is that?’
Their displays are doing a wild dance, skimming through diagrams of Terran weapons at lightning speed.
‘He’s hit. He’s falling. One wing…’
‘Assessor Aidan, give your report.’
‘Assessor Aidan, your decision, please, before you die. There is still time. Press Red or Green on your tunic panel.’
Still no answer.
‘Assessor Aidan, listen to me now. You have been hit. Give your report. Green for Save, Red for Cleanse.’
Green or Red, Assessor? It is your duty to report.
There is no sound in space as the half-human, blue-winged creature crashes to the ground. No sound as it lies on the ground with broken wings and neck. The ragged soldiers, though still a long way off, are running in its general direction.
Captain B’etal and First Officer Mata exchange glances and know that they are thinking approximately the same few things.
That however accidental the death of Assessor Aidan may have been, the Captain and First Officer are likely to be held in some way responsible for it.
That there will be endless enquiries and inquests.
That there will be a forfeiture of bonuses and/or a docking of pay.
That this fiasco is bound to be noted on their service records.
And then there is the delay in completing this important mission. This particular planet is urgently required for Re-Seeding. The formalities have had to be observed, of course, due diligence carried out, but the Programme must go on. A Green verdict was never really on the cards. Terra has been degenerating year on year; noticeably worsening with each new sweep. No hope for the blighted lump of rock. Cleanse and Re-Seed is by far the better option: a new Eden.
Captain B’etal continues to hold First Officer Mata’s eye as, in slow-motion, he reaches towards the red button on his own console. He is asking her one final question, and silently, since all their conversations are recorded. Scarcely a nod and then she leans forward to place her hand over his. Together, they press the Red button.