Chapter 18: The Haves and The Have-Nots
Once their vessel was out of the Oort Cloud, the Gray opened up the throttle on the distortion drive. It was an ingenious propulsion system that contracted an area of space directly in front of their vessel while simultaneously expanding an area of space directly behind it. The expanded space pushed their vessel forward while the contracted space pulled them ahead.
As impressive as this technology was, it was lost on Roy.
"Is there like a factory where they stamp out Class-5 intergalactic cruisers twenty-four hours a day, like Honda Accords or something?" Roy wanted to know. "Jesus, there's shitloads of them."
"Only a handful of hyper-evolved civilizations have been able to master the principals of space distortion," the Gray said smugly.
"Well, why don't you hyper-evolve a plan and get us out of here?" Roy said.
"We can't just disappear and reappear on the other side of the universe. But if you have some kind of special magic trick that can defy the laws of physics, then speak up," the Gray said.
"Go fuck yourself," Roy suggested.
"You're the one who got us into this mess. As far as I'm concerned, you can deal with it. It's not my problem anymore," the Gray stated plainly.
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means I quit. They're obviously trying to drive our vessel toward the galactic center of the Milky Way. It's over."
"Why? What's at the galactic center of the Milky Way?" Roy wanted to know.
"A giant black hole."
"Oh," Roy said. "Well, what should I do?"
"You're in control of this ship now. Good luck, Captain."
Roy sighed and confirmed that he had a good telepathic connection with the Navi-Computer by running through a checklist. Speed, direction, yaw, every damned thing was synced to his own brain waves. Seven bogies were on his tail, trailing by a scant 200,000 miles -- less than the distance from Earth to the moon.
An alarm sounded, indicating that their vessel was approaching the accretion disk at the edge of the black hole. The Navi-Computer recommended a 50% reduction in speed and an alternate course that would take them safely around the obstacle, but Roy opted to override the system.
He let his memories drift back to Sarah.
I hope you're well, wherever you are. I like to think that somewhere in the multiverse we're married with a couple of kids, a dog, and a little house in the 'burbs. I'll bet somewhere out there, we're snuggled up on the couch sipping cheap wine and watching an old film on AMC. You're probably completely absorbed in the plot, and I'm probably bored as hell, trying to get a little action.
Roy recalled one of those long-ago movie nights with Sarah in great detail. They had a good Boone's-Farm-buzz on, and he had managed to get his hand halfway up her skirt without being rebuked. It was the end scene of Thelma and Louise, where Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are in the '66 Thunderbird convertible speeding away from a small army of law enforcement agents. They run out of road as the Grand Canyon opens up before them, and they must come to a stop.
Ultimately, the two women reject the arbitrary, often unjust rules and regulations of society, and Thelma suggests they "keep going." Louise puts the pedal to the floor, and the '66 Thunderbird accelerates over the edge. The canyon is deep, and vast, and as majestic as if Heaven and Hell had switched places. And as Roy watched that climactic footage unfold on that long ago night, a tear rolled down his cheek.
"Oh my God, are you crying?" Sarah had asked.
"No. It's just the wine," Roy had said.
"You are crying."
"So what? I can't help it. It's a sad ending."
Sarah kissed away the salty tears on Roy's face and said in a playful, teasing voice, "My poor baby's so sensitive." She took him by the hand, led him into the bedroom, and they made love.
The memory of that night was still strong -- strong enough to trigger a crocodile tear to fall from his obsidian, alien eye. The course of action suddenly became very clear in his mind. It was going to pan out a lot like Thelma and Louise ... except instead of two women it was a dude and an androgynous alien, and instead of the Grand Canyon, it was a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
As their vessel sped toward the unknown, an accretion disk of hot gasses and ambient light swirled like God's dirty bath water, spiraling down the drain and into the mercurial plumbing of unknown physics. There were a few moments of doubt, vestiges of old survival instincts that crept into his consciousness, but Roy fought them off and held the course.
The vessels that had been in hot pursuit decelerated rapidly and came to a standstill. They could only observe as the rogue ship splashed into the vortex. There was a quick flash of excited photons, and then, only a ghostly image of the vessel lingered, frozen on the event horizon.
Inside the black hole, Roy could feel gravitational forces begin to stretch his host body vertically, while simultaneously exerting a crushing horizontal force. It was similar to stretching a rubber band; as it gets longer, the width reduces proportionally until it becomes so thin it will eventually break under the tension. Mercifully, the Gray's vascular system was quickly constricted, cutting off the blood supply to its brain before the spaghettification of its body began. It was a quick death and relatively painless.
Roy, however, did not die, and he was incredulous. He had been lied to. During his life on Earth, he had religiously watched those astrophysics documentaries that featured all kinds of impressive looking CGI effects and expert analysis from super-genius professors who hailed from places like M.I.T., Cambridge, and Harvard. He had read Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and Greene's The Elegant Universe. Everybody agreed that a black hole, at its point of singularity, was the end -- the end of space, the end of time, the end of every-fucking-thing. Goodnight Vienna. No mas. Finito.
But there he was, still conscious, churning wildly in a mad vortex. It was like being on one of those spinning carnival rides that never seem to stop. Finally, Roy came spilling out into a parallel universe, disoriented and afraid, like a newborn popping out of a big cosmic vagina.
Here we go again, he muttered to himself.
Roy wondered why he was still alive and still conscious. He figured The Council had been right; his ethereal substance could travel on gravitational waves, after all. And though he didn't have a host body to tether him to the physical world, he didn't feel the least bit unstable. Perhaps the impurities had been squeezed out of him as he passed through the singularity. Or, he posited, maybe he was actually dead and in Hell. Whatever the case, he decided he might as well have a look around.
Roy hitchhiked on the gravitational waves, not really giving a shit where they took him. From what he could deduce, this new universe was pretty much the same as the last one, the way a Cheesecake Factory in Fresno, California was pretty much the same as a Cheesecake Factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. He began to appreciate how simple life forms fought to get a foothold somewhere -- anywhere at all -- and if they could manage to hang on long enough, they tended to evolve into some pretty interesting things. But far and away, Roy's favorite life form was a colony of blue-green algae that bloomed on the surface of a big lake on a primitive planet.
At that time, the algae represented the most advanced life form in that particular solar system. And though there was nothing fancy about it, the algae existed peacefully, and Roy found that it was a tremendous source of comfort to him. He always made it a point to stop and admire the beautiful algae bloom on that lonely little planet. It was a simple joy, not at all like the soap operas that always played out amongst the so-called "intelligent" life forms.
What a fuckin' train wreck those were. It was always the same shit. Some basic elements like carbon and hydrogen are present, and there's some liquid water, so the temperature is at least above freezing, at least some of the time. If there's enough atmosphere to hold in the heat, you just might end up with a few protein strands floating around in a tide pool. Then the proteins connect this way and that, and if enough time goes by, Shazam! The right combination finally comes together, and a single cell organism has been manufactured through a series of random events.
Now think back to that two-hundred-dollar textbook they made you buy for Bio 101 and recall the chapter about the reproductive cycle of single-celled organisms. Remember that one? No?
Here's a quick recap: The single cell organism reproduces through a process called binary fission. This is accomplished by replicating its genetic material through mitotic division, then the cell divides into two equal-sized daughter cells.
And then each of the daughter cells reproduce, and so does the subsequent generation, and it goes on and on until there are shitloads of 'em. Maybe some solar radiation comes down and mutates one of the little buggers' genetic material because sunscreen hasn't been invented yet. Let's say the mutation causes a tail-like bundle of proteins to stick out of the main body of the cell. We'll call this mutated organism Organism X.
The next time Organism X goes through the process of cellular division, it passes on the new trait, and pretty soon there is a significant amount of organisms with tails in the population. Maybe one of them figures out that if it wiggles its tail, it can propel itself around. This turns out to be a pretty sweet trick because one part of the tide pool gets really hot, and another part is rather chilly because at certain times of the day a shadow from an overhanging rock formation is cast over it.
All of a sudden, these sons of bitches with tails are hot shit because they can swim around until they find a location in the tide pool that feels just right. Meanwhile, those tailless schlepps must languish in the heat, or freeze in the shadow. And then you have your very first incidence of the Haves and the Have-Nots.
As life evolves, and higher intelligence arises, the drama really starts. Strong beings exploit weak beings through sheer force, and weak beings form networks with other weak beings to protect themselves from the powerful aggressors. Some of the more intelligent and charismatic beings emerge from these little groups as leaders, and these leaders network with other groups to form bigger groups.
Even more intelligent and more charismatic leaders emerge from these big groups to form villages, and villagers elect their smartest S.O.B.s to lead them. Then these schmuck S.O.B.s get together at some big-ass gala where they roast a bunch of wild boars and drink gallons and gallons of mead, and then they decide to pull their resources to form a city-state. The leaders all agree that they'll fix the system so every one of them always ends up with an important sounding title, but really their work will entail sitting on their fat asses for most of the day while they collect a handsome salary.
Of course, there's only so much gold to go around, so the important officials will invent an abstract form of money that allegedly represents something valuable. Everybody in the city-state will agree that the money is valuable because their important sounding leaders told them it is. The citizens can buy awesome things with this abstract money. Things like goats, grog, hookers, long boats, swords, opium, camels, spices, war-helmets with colorful plumage sticking out the top, or just about anything else someone could want. Then the people get very busy working at a particular trade to earn some of this money. The farmers farm, the bakers bake, the hookers do what they do in dark allies.
Everybody is too preoccupied to notice that the important sounding officials have been quietly manipulating the flow of money. The officials are greedy, but they are also insidiously patient. They raise taxes under the auspice that the roads need to be repaired to facilitate commerce, the soldiers need new spears to protect everyone from pirates and barbarians, and the wise oracle needs a new crystal ball so he can look into it and mumble some vague and contradictory predictions about what may or may not happen at some point in the near or distant future.
The people grumble for a few minutes, but they are all sensible people who like the convenience of living in a big sophisticated city-state. They will tighten their belts and agree to the tax hikes.
And the public officials will even help some of the cash-strapped people out with a loan. They'll walk right up to your door and give you a big burlap sack full of money. 'Go out and buy a new mule or a designer brand chastity belt for your wife,' they'd say. 'You should enjoy the money -- that's what it's there for.'
Just remember, you're going to have to pay a little interest on that burlap sack full of money. Sometimes the interest will be the kind the officials call 'compound interest.' But compound interest is a complicated subject, and only the wealthy citizens who attend schools that teach arithmetic can understand it.
All you have to do is work hard enough to make the minimum payment on that loan at the end of every month. Sure, the loan never seems to go away ... like that itchy pox on your Johnson that you may have acquired during your last visit to the brothel. Hmmm, maybe you should go to the barber and get a good leeching.
Of course, you'll get older and feebler, but the work won't get any easier, and the coin that bought 100 kernels of corn last year only buys 90 kernels of corn this year, and will only buy 80 kernels next year.
But you'll get a pay raise to compensate for your money's diminishing buying power. The officials don't want to upset you ... lordy no. Who wants a bunch of revolting peasants on their hands? It's bad for business. They'll give you a two percent pay raise every year ... or every couple of years. And if not then, surely, undoubtedly, they won't wait longer than five or six years because dammit you work hard and the officials are proud of you and they genuinely think you deserve that raise.
But there's only so much wealth the officials can squeeze out of a city-state. The real money is in building a big ass nation. It sounds complicated, but a nation is really nothing more than taking a bunch of neighboring city-states and drawing an imaginary boundary around them.
The nation system works on the same principle as the city-state principle, except everything is scaled up. There's more territory, more people, more taxes, more red tape. The officials love red tape. Red tape is really just some arbitrary rules that the people are subjected to for reasons nobody fully understands. The rules pile up, each one taking a little more freedom from the people. 'You can't do this, you can't do that, you have to do this, you have to do that'... the fucking rules go on ad nauseam.
The officials are good at making the ordinary citizens believe they are helpless and in constant peril. The officials tell the people that their safety is proportional to the number of rules that are written down in the books. The citizens agree to volumes and volumes of these rulebooks, but they are never any safer. The rules really just end up costing the citizens more money because nobody can walk out their front door without being in violation of at least a half-dozen of these rules.
But don't worry ... the officials will absolve you of all your misdeeds as long as you pay them the arbitrary fee that is attached to each and every infraction.
Did you insert a pre-1987 nickel into the parking meter without first acquiring the necessary waiver from city hall which grants you permission to use out-of-fashion coinage in public machinery? You did? Well, did you post the waiver on a thirty-foot tall permanent structure that is illuminated by soft light at an output of at least 300 Lumens, but no more than 315 Lumens? No? Well, that's gonna cost you a hundred and fifty bucks, but everybody's good and safe now so don't worry about it.
And that tool shed you built in your backyard is two feet too close to an indigenous shrub that, according to an obscure entomologist from an equally obscure midwestern university, is home to a semi-rare species of moth that may become prone to erectile dysfunction if its natural habitat is encroached upon. That's a five-hundred-dollar fine, buddy.
It only makes sense that the founders of a nation would rig everything so that everybody who will ever live within the borders of said nation will have to spend their entire lifetime kicking back ever-increasing sums of money to the descendants of those wealthy elites who had the wherewithal to stitch a flag together and plant it in the middle of the fucking continent in the first place.
Sometimes, though, one of these nations gets a little too big for its britches. Maybe said nation has declared a crippling economic embargo against another nation, or maybe said nation conducted a provocative intercontinental ballistic test near the airspace of a neighboring nation, or maybe it's just generally harshing the mellow of another sovereign nation for no good reason. At any rate, tensions can run extremely high between the various nations that must share a common planet.
It is imperative that the diplomats work very hard to resolve these conflicts before a situation can escalate into an armed conflict. There is nothing more tragic than when the calloused hand of war sweeps our young people by the thousands into dark graves, snuffing out their lives just as they had begun.
Officials love war. It's good for business. To wage a proper war, you need everything from five-billion-dollar aircraft carriers to one-cent plastic aglets. What? You don't know what aglets are? They're those little plastic tubes on the ends of your shoelaces. Imagine an entire army division walking around with their boots untied because the ends of their laces are all frayed to fuck, and they can't thread them through the little holes. How are you gonna fight a war with untied boots? It's inconceivable.
So, yeah. You need everything from aircraft carriers to aglets, and somebody has to manufacture that shit. Then they sell it to the warring nations at a nice profit, and the taxpayers get stuck with the bill. Any official worth his salt will just happen to own shitloads and shitloads of stock in the companies that are manufacturing all the war supplies. Now, the officials can't be obvious about it, so they have to hide all this extra money in secret accounts in Switzerland, or Cypress, or some such place.
The officials must also be good actors. They get stuck doing a lot of press conferences during wartime, and they have to look grief-stricken as they promise to work diligently to bring a quick and decisive end to whatever conflict is going on at the time. They make subtle, reassuring gestures with their hands, and the gestures become much grander when they reference the human toll. Some of the most elite officials can even produce tears on command for the cameras. This skill is a prerequisite for becoming the leader of an industrialized nation.
Wars are also really good for making leapfrog advances in technology. Officials are always looking for bigger, better, more expensive ways to destroy people and infrastructure, but they're not really smart enough to figure it out for themselves. Remember, they likely inherited their power and wealth, so they never felt it necessary to learn very much about math or science. The officials find the smartest people who know the most about math and science and pay them a lot of money to make awesome weapons. All the smart people get together in secret laboratories and get down to business figuring out important things like 'how can we unleash the energy locked inside this plutonium atom to more efficiently vaporize a million or so people?' Or, 'how can we use this big ass laser to melt a hole through an enemy aircraft?' Or, 'is it possible to use sound waves to liquefy organic material on a large scale?'
If a civilization doesn't annihilate itself during the first few centuries of its technological Renaissance, it very well may evolve to the point where it can leave its home planet and begin colonizing other planets. This indeed is a proud and wonderful time for the officials. Over the course of only several thousand years, their subjects are ready to spread their wings and soar to distant points in space where they can toil their lifetimes away in search of more abundant resources which will be shoveled into the mighty furnaces that drive the ravenous nations ever forward, beyond their solar systems, across the unfathomable expanses of the great voids, and into the hearts of mind-bogglingly distant galaxies where even bigger, even shinier treasures await.
Roy noticed this pattern of resource-hoarding invariably emerged in the multitudes of civilizations he had observed in his travels. If this power-grabbing characteristic was absent from the gene pool within a particular species, then that species never made it very far in evolutionary terms. More opportunistic species were always quick to take what they could, and the meek were soon left with 'insufficient funds', so to speak. That's not to say that Roy never saw compassion, grace, sacrifice, charity, and the occasional Mother Theresa do-gooder who was so sweet a diabetic had to stay at least twenty feet away. But largely, they were the exception.
Even ultra-advanced species that had developed vast, cohesive societies would ultimately run into that pesky problem of not having enough energy to go round. That law of the conservation of energy never went away. You only have so much of it, and as you use it, it transforms into increasingly less efficient forms. The elite classes always managed to grab a disproportionate amount, but sometimes the common classes could wrestle away a nice sized chunk for themselves. But eventually, infighting and greed would consume the common class, too, and they, in turn, would become the new class of hoarders and oppressors.
Roy was sick of it. He retraced his path through space, making his way back to his beloved algae bloom. Upon returning to the lake, he realized he had grossly underestimated how much time had passed since his last visit. The lake had long since dried up, and the algae were nowhere to be seen. The landscape was drastically altered -- the terrain had the hallmark of an advanced species. There were intersecting roads, power lines crisscrossing each other along those roads, and plumes of smoke billowing from two ten-story smoke stacks attached to a red brick building. Roy guessed it was some sort of civilization that already had their industrial revolution, but was still four or five decades away from Silicon Valley.