It was early afternoon when I got to the ruins. I still come here every now and then, though not as often as I used to. Not much point to it, really. But I still come here to think. To ask myself if there was anything else we could have done. That I could have done.
I found the remains of a campfire in what had been the lobby. It bothered me somehow. The building had been consumed by fire all those years ago and there is nothing left for it to harm, but I still didn’t like seeing it there. Or maybe I was upset that someone else was in what I still thought of as my place. It didn’t matter. I scattered the ashes and kicked the half-burned branches out through what had once been the window. Gone now of course.
We had been lucky, I suppose. Not many people got to do research even then. Few companies were willing to waste resources on something that didn’t immediately improve their bottom line and of course the taxpayers had gotten tired of the government funding anything that didn’t directly benefit them. Even for us there was pressure to create something. Anything. But the people in charge knew the importance of what we were doing. What we thought we were doing. So they gave us time.
Had they known, I wonder if they would have killed the project themselves?
It was an idea. An insane idea. An idea that broke every rule in the science books. And it worked. Not here, not in the lab of course. It would never work this deep in a gravity well. But we somehow convinced them to send it into orbit on one of the few launches that were still going on then. And it worked.
Our test drone disappeared from the shuttle and reappeared a dozen kilometers away. Then it did it again. And again.
“Quantum displacement” we called it. Teleportation. The ability to go anywhere, instantly. It would have given us the stars.
The experiment was a success. But we had barely announced it to the world, had barely opened the Champaign, when They appeared.
Our triumph was so short-lived. I never even got to taste the Champaign.
They appeared in orbit. Dozens of them. We don’t know who or what they are or how they knew what we had achieved. We still don’t, all these years later. They were watching and waiting, I suppose, though we don’t know why they waited until then to reveal themselves.
There were other things they could have done. They could have stopped us earlier. They could have ruined the test. Why did they let us succeed, only to take it away from us?
“You are not ready.” That was their only transmission. All they have ever said to us were those four words, transmitted to every receiver on Earth those 20 years ago. Then they destroyed the satellites. All of them. They let the shuttle land but they never let another one leave the ground. They’ve let nothing leave the ground. No destruction, the rockets just fail to work for some reason.
So why did they let the one launch succeed? Why? Why let us know that it had worked, then take it away?
There was panic of course. Recriminations. Blame. Politicians and celebrities, activists and workers all had things to blame. Since we never heard anything other than those four words, there was plenty of blame to speculate about. Of course, we never knew. We’ve never known.
First they decided that it was because we were destroying our planet. There were many arguments, but we shut down the factories. Stopped the drilling and the mining. Abandoned the cars and the planes. But the rockets still didn’t work.
Then they decided it was because we didn’t help each other enough. That we had to do everything we could to provide for everyone. There were revolutions and threats of war by then but the rules were passed. But the rockets still didn’t work.
Now people were becoming angry. Some said it was because we had turned away from the gods. Others said it was because we still believed in them. Now there were wars as we went first one way then the other. All the while, the rockets still didn’t work.
Next they decided we were too warlike and fought wars to prove that we weren’t. In the end, the rockets didn’t work.
Every combination of ethical, environmental, economic, social, theological and technological changes anyone could think of were proposed. Many were tried. But by now things had changed so much, there had been so much social, economic and technological upheaval that the old systems were all breaking down and falling apart. Somewhere along the line someone blamed the lab and it was burned to the ground. I avoided it for a while but now find myself coming back here, just to think of what was.
The machines are still up there. I can see them as the only lights moving in the sky now. People tried to contact them for years, asking what it is that they wanted. Now I think people are praying to them.
I wonder why they are still there. Everything collapsed years ago. We haven’t tried to launch anything for years because there is no group left organized enough to try, and we won’t be able to for a long time. They should know that.
Finally, I have decided that the fact that we don’t know why we aren’t ready is why we aren’t ready. Whatever it is, it must be something we just know. Something we just understand. Not something we need to fight over or convince each other of. But we have fighting each other and trying to convince each other of things for millenia.
Maybe someday the machines will leave. When they do, will we even remember why they were here and what will we try to convince each other was the reason.