Radio telescope against night sky

Civilizations

In Fiction by

“Listen to me,” I think to this human. Ava Martins is her name. “I am here, under your feet. I am in the air all around you. Stop, pause, and listen.”

I think these same thoughts to billions and billions of people every day. People seldom listen.

“I need your help,” I think to Ava.

Ava listens more than most.

• • •

“Status reports, for each project,” I feel the NASA branch leader, Esme Rodríguez, ask those gathered around her.

I feel Ava give a summary of her group’s progress on equipment to collect space garbage.

I feel Esme give her acknowledgement.

I feel John give a summary of their group’s search for other planets with intelligent life. Their group is scanning, with sophisticated space telescopes, for planets with detectable biosignature gases—gases that are by-products of life. John’s group is also scanning for analog and digital radio transmissions, focusing on planets with biosignature gases.

John and their team are completely wrong in their approach. They can find planets with primitive life by searching for such gases. But not intelligent life.

John doesn’t listen to me when I think to them. I think to Ava instead.

“Ava, listen to me,” I begin. “I know the other planets in our universe. They are my family. I think to them—the ones who are still living—just like I think to you. Unlike you, they know that I am thinking to them, and they think back.”

Ava grabs her earthenware coffee mug and sits back in her chair.

“There are no other planets with intelligent life to be found. At least not in our neighbourhood of the galaxy. There were, in the past. But those planets are now long dead. They have been depleted, polluted, and destroyed.”

A pit of sadness forms in Ava’s belly. Her lips press tightly together and the corners of her mouth turn down.

Ava sits in contemplation as those around her continue to talk. She is no longer paying attention to their conversations. She is listening to me. I think the same message to her, again and again.

Esme calls a close to the meeting. Ava interrupts, saying that she has an idea.

“John,” Ava says. “Instead of looking for living intelligent life on other planets, maybe we would be more successful searching for dead civilizations—civilizations that have destroyed their planets. Maybe we should not be looking for biosignature gases at all. Maybe we should be looking for something else.”

Thank you, Ava, for listening to me, the spirit of your Earth. Now, I hope that they listen to you.

• • •

“Are your people starting to listen?” the spirit of one of my sibling planets thinks to me.

“Yes,” I think back. “Slowly. There is a reawakening among my people. Many of my people, at least. I am hopeful.”

“Good.”

“The discovery of dead civilizations on destroyed planets has been motivating to humans. I am sorry, though, that so many of our sibling planets and their intelligent lifeforms have had to die. And I am sorry that it took the discovery of those deaths to convince my people to listen.”

“I know.”

“I hope their deaths were not in vain. I hope my people can save themselves, me, and all the lifeforms here. And I hope that if you ever develop intelligent life, your lifeforms will take good care of you.”

“I have those hopes, too.”

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Copyright © 2021  Tadayoshi Kohno
Feature image credit: Depositphotos
Author photo credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington.


Tadayoshi KohnoTadayoshi Kohno is a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. He volunteers regularly at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, a Shinto shrine north of Seattle. The main character in this story was inspired by Sarutahiko no Ōkami, the Shinto god in charge of Earth and everything within Earth’s atmosphere.