It’s not easy to name a planet. Even the smallest planets are still quite big, so it’s hard to give one a title that captures a world’s complex beauty in any meaningful way. It makes no difference if, instead of complex beauty, the planet is a complication of ugliness. A really catchy name proves elusive, regardless of a world’s aesthetic merit. No one has ever been able to understand why this should be the case. It’s just one of the Universe’s many unfathomable mysteries. Not that there haven’t been races that have tried to fathom the mystery-of-the-name, just that none have ever met with success. A race of ancient Historian-Philosophers came close, but even they ultimately failed. Not because they gave up, but because they went extinct. This is widely considered a universal tragedy, since those same Historian-Philosophers had been close to a great many answers when their world ended, and much of their research is now lost. Almost all of it is lost, in fact. Most of what is known about their research now, comes from a list of potential names for their own world. The favorite, underscored in different colored inks, seems to have been ‘Rock’.
Just why it is that those Historian-Philosophers favored the name Rock for their planet is a source of much debate amongst contemporary scholars. Some say, it’s because the word ‘Rock’ has been translated incorrectly from the original language. More properly, it should be translated as ‘variously-hard-crystalline-aggregate’. On one of the more enlightened worlds, the debate over whether the translation ‘Rock’ or ‘variously-hard-crystalline-aggregate’ was correct became so heated, it precipitated a bloody civil war. While the war was bad news for most of the common people, it was really good news for early career researchers, who suddenly found there were a great many tenured positions available as the result of mass-scholar-death. Sensibly, the newly tenured scholars decided to shift their research focus. Instead of concentrating on translation, they began to wonder why worlds tended to be named for the substances they are made of. They still have no idea, but it has kept a great many intellectuals in gainful employment, so nobody seems that worried that answers have not been forthcoming. That is, except for one other race of beings: the Athletuals of the planet Soil.
It used to be that your average Athletual didn’t bother much with names. Names just weren’t very important. They’d always had names, of course, but they were more a matter of convenience. Names, they felt, were just arbitrary signifiers one hardly ever used in actual conversation. They were useful if you had to fill in a form, or invite someone to a dinner party, but that seemed to be it. For much of their history, they believed the lack of concern over names was one of the reasons their civilization had been so peaceful. Not the only reason – being hermaphrodites with no concept of gender relations helped, too – but a pretty important one. But then the trouble started, and a concern over what things were called became of more interest.
Naturally, nobody realized that ‘the problem’ was a real problem at first. At first, they thought they were just becoming more evolved. You see, at a certain point they stopped dying. Not all at once. Just one or two Athletuals in every generation would fail to stop breathing. Over time, it became a handful in every generation, and then it became everybody. By itself, their new found immortality might have made little difference. What made the real difference, was that they kept having children. The major difficulty was not just that they kept producing children, but that the rate of children increased proportionally to the amount of those not managing to die. To say the the planet Soil became overcrowded as a result, would be the height of understatement.
To solve the population problem, the finest minds on Soil were put to work. Not on names, that didn’t happen until later, but on interstellar flight. Quite reasonably, many felt that if their homeworld was growing short on space, all they had to do was go out into the Universe and colonize unpopulated worlds.
The plan was sound, but ultimately misguided. While they successfully managed to colonize thousands of worlds out in the vastness of space, all that happened was that the birthrate on the homeworld increased to fill the gaps left by the emigres. Not just that, on every world they set up shop, they reproduced like locust-rabbits, and that world quickly became overpopulated, too. They needed a new solution. It was agreed that it could probably be found in the qualities of names.
The reason the Athletuals thought that names might be the answer to their woes, was because every sentient species they came across was preoccupied with them. Even the semi-sentient species they encountered had a deep interest in what any particular name really meant. Moreover, all of those species still managed to die. Some of them, managed to die at alarming rates. Names must reveal something more than arbitrary signification.
Expeditions were sent out, and thus the ‘Great Age Of Dictionary’ began for the Athletual people. They catalogued countless names, from countless worlds. Every word was examined for traces of ‘namish-ness’. No semantic nuance was too trivial for their attention. For a while, it seemed they were close to an answer – much like those long extinct Historian-Philosophers had been; the lucky, dead bastards. Then, after millennia of effort, and the research into words without vowels had proved fruitless, they finally got an answer. The answer was: Nope, there’s nothing at all in this ‘name thing’. That was quite a disappointment.
The whole name project hadn’t been a total loss, however. For the Athletuals noticed that all the cultures they had surveyed had something in common. Something that their own species did not have: weapons. Seemed obvious, once they realized it. If you want something to die that won’t, you need to kill it with a weapon. A bit of an embarrassment not to have noticed that sooner, actually.
Within a year of the ‘Weapon Revelation’, all of the Athletual factories that had once turned out mighty Starships were retooled for weapon construction. Designs for instruments of death were drawn up. Many of these designs were produced and tested. Unhappily, none of the tests proved successful. Still, it was just their first go at it, so they weren’t that worried. They’d get there in the end, surely?
After many centuries of ‘not-quite-getting-there-in-the-end’, optimism turned to despair. With all their native intelligence, and accumulated knowledge, how was it possible that they could only produce weapons that just killed life that would die of its own accord? That was hardly the challenge that needed to be met. Yet again, failure. The great Athletual culture became deeply, resolutely depressed. That is, all except for one of their number.
While the rest of its race was off sulking about how unfair it is that they don’t get to die, the Athletual Quinzel refused to be defeated. Quinzel was still young at the time – a mere five centuries – so it still possessed that tenacity peculiar to youth. Had it been a little older, it may have felt differently, but it wasn’t older. It was just the right age to not have to face the facts. Quinzel began to rework the problem.
It’s not that weapons are useless, Quinzel thought, it’s more that we are making the wrong kind. Or, rather, that the weapons were being tested on the wrong kind of species. This was an epiphany; one that opened up whole new lines of enquiry. Not just enquiry, either. It suggested a very different kind of test protocol. Quinzel quickly sketched out a plan, and petitioned The Council Of Homeworld Elders for an audience.
“The Head Arbiter of Soil recognizes young Quinzel of Colony 262,873.” A small child started to cry in the gallery. That child’s cry set off other children, and then others, then still more in a cacophonous cascade. “FOR THE SAKE OF THE NAME,” the Head Arbiter yelled, “FOR THE LAST TIME, WON’T SOMEBODY SHUT THOSE CHILDREN UP. I CAN BARELY HEAR MYSELF BREED.”
“It’s not their fault, you old grouch.” It was the voice of one of the parents, screaming defiance from somewhere at the back of the chamber. “If you’d stop banging that hammer, they wouldn’t keep getting scared.”
“Perhaps,” replied the Head Arbiter, photoluminescent skin purple with anger, “if all of you conditioned your children properly, they wouldn’t get so frightened.”
“Oh yeah?” A different parent this time, “and how do you suppose we should do that, you tyrant?”
The Head Arbiter considered this. “Well, you should do what I do with all my children: shoot them at least once a day for five minutes. Really gets them used to loud bangs.”
There was a collective gasp.
“What? It’s not like it could do them any harm. My own own offspring are all perfectly well adjusted… and, silent. They even shoot each other for the fun of it now.”
“That’s monstrous.” The first parent, now clearly visible, was pointing a long, slender finger at the Head Arbiter. “It only gets their hopes up. It’s cruel, I say. Poor kid thinks it’s going to die, feels happy, then doesn’t die, and gets depressed again. It’s like giving them a horrible tasting sweet, or something.”
“Which only proves that it can also be an effective punishment, as well as a great desensitizer. Now, unless you can shut your kids up, I’ll get security to take you all outside and have you shot for twenty minutes. It’s been ages since we had a good group shooting. I might even come out to watch.”
The council chamber echoed with the sound of thousands of parents shushing their children. The Head Arbiter felt a twinge of disappointment. “That’s better,” the Head Arbiter looked down at his agenda. “Where was I? Ah, yes. Which one of you is Quinzel?”
“I am, your High Arbitrariness.”
“I see. It says here that you want to present the council with a proposal. Is that right?”
“Yes, Ma’amsir. That is right. You should all have copies of the detailed report, I think.”
“Yes, I did submited them ahead of time, as per the protocol. It’s in a mauve binder.”
“What? Oh, yes, here it is.” The Head Arbiter looked to the other eight members of the council. “Does everyone have a copy of this? You, Mavris? You found your copy?” Mavris, Eighth Sub-Arbiter, was always misplacing things because of serious brain damage. All the other councilors were quite envious, as the brain damage was the result of almost managing to die once. “No, that one is lime-green… no… that’s orange, just a little to the right of that…. Yes, that’s the one. Well done Mavris.” The Head Arbiter turned back to Quinzel. “This is very lengthy. Do you have an Executive Summary for it?”
“At the beginning, before the contents page.”
“Oh yes….Well, I’ll just read that later. Perhaps you could give us the vague outlines of your plan?”
And so Quinzel explained the plan in outline. The council was impressed, their eyes betrayed a hope that no eyes had betrayed in generations. They were captivated. They could see the sense in it. It had a subtle, yet obvious, elegance. When Quinzel had finished, the council was stunned into silence by the brilliance of this plan, formulated, no doubt, by a young and brilliant mind.
“So,” the Head Arbiter began, after the sense of awe had dissipated. “Let’s see if I understand this correctly. You are suggesting that instead of testing our weapons on ourselves, we should test them on lesser species first? Creatures that already possess mortality?”
“Because if we do that, and develop weapons that more efficiently kill them, we can use that as a baseline for killing life that is harder to wipe out?”
“And then we progressively move up the chain-of-life, until we can kill a being that is more or less as immortal as we are?”
“You got it. From there, we should be able to develop an effective weapon to cure our own terminal immortality.” This was going really well, thought Quinzel.
The Head Arbiter took in a deep breath, and beamed out a hopeful smile. “I think it’s safe to say that we unanimously love this plan. Plan approved.” The hammer came down, and all the Athletuals present began to cheer. Except for the children. All the children began to cry.
Thus, a new age began for the Athletual people: the ‘Age Of Test Kill’. As a race they moved out into their home galaxy again. Not to colonize. Not in search of knowledge, but in meaningful slaughter and hope. Eventually, having killed all the life in their own galaxy, they developed the technology to take them to still other galaxies. Finally, they had the weapon they thought was close. But there was a problem, they had not been able to locate beings that suffered from a similar curse of immortality.
Ever resourceful, Quinzel did what all sensible inventors do when they hit a glitch: It went to the library. Somewhere in those extensive archives, gathered over countless spans of time, there was a clue to a lifeform that would meet acceptable test parameters. And, as it knew it would, Quinzel found it. It had been buried in the myth-memory of many – now deceased – cultures. It had many forms, but just one name. There could be no mistake, this was another cursed immortal. Its name was Mamma Universe.
END OF PART SIX