Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Moray,
And they laid him on the green.
—Child Ballad 181, “The Bonny Earl of Moray.”
Things have consequences.
Kids figure that out around the time they’re old enough to realize that when they touch a hot stove, they pull back burnt fingers. Things have consequences. Pull a cat’s tail, the cat will scratch. Drop a glass, the glass will break. Things have consequences. Everybody knows that.
But somehow, when science has consequences, when science touches the hot stove and pulls back burnt fingers, when science pulls the cat’s tail, the consequences are “unforeseen” and “just the cost of progress.” Science is immune from bad results. All results are good results, coming from science.
Angie is shivering like she’s going to fly apart, like her bones have turned to ice inside her skin. Nate isn’t sleeping. He isn’t even closing his eyes. He’s watching everything with the harried silence of a wounded child, and every time he looks at me, it’s like he’s waiting for me to take it all back, to say that no kids, it’s all right, if science doesn’t have consequences, you don’t either. If science doesn’t have to pay the piper, it’s not fair that you should have to foot the bill.
I can’t tell him that he’s wrong and I can’t make them understand what’s happened and I can’t take back what we did, and so I reach over and I stroke Angie’s hair, and I wonder when the sky is going to fall.
Science has consequences.
Why the fuck didn’t we figure that out sooner?
“This is not just a great day for American ingenuity and progress,” boomed the President of the United States, gripping the sides of the podium like he thought that leaning forward with just a little more intensity, speaking with just a little more religious fervor, would somehow bring his flagging approval numbers back up from the graveyard of political hopes and dreams. And maybe they would: after all, he was in the process of dedicating the greatest advancement in transportation science since some brave Cro–Magnon first said “What if we made this thing on the bottom round?” Of such accomplishments are Presidential legacies made.
“No,” he continued. “This is a leap forward for the human race as a whole. Our children’s children will look back upon this day and say ‘That was the moment, that was the time when we turned our eyes away from the cool, green hills of Earth and turned them toward the bright and shining promise of the galaxy.’”
“Nice Heinlein reference,” murmured Lo Hsien. She was one of the astrophysicists who had dedicated the last six years of their lives to the star charts that made the Hephaestus Project feasible, much less functional. She was exhausted and smirking, and looked like she was on the verge of collapse.
I smirked back. “Bets that his scriptwriter snuck it in without telling him what it was?” I asked, and she swallowed her laughter, and we were rulers of the world in that moment; we were at the peak of our careers. The President of the United–goddamn–States was praising us! Nothing was ever going to be that good again.
“I still say we should have pressed for the name ‘Stargate,’” she said, and I elbowed her, and everything was perfect.
We’d known, even then, even at the height of our triumph, that it was all going to be downhill from there. If we’d had any concept of how far downhill, I would have smashed the machine that had defined the past decade of my life with my own two hands, accepted whatever consequences came with the action, and been glad. But I had no idea. No one had any idea.
The President spoke, and the band played, and NASA unveiled Hephaestus as everyone ooh–ed and ahh–ed and pretended to understand what they were looking at: a screen, roughly the size of a suburban garage, ringed with lights and complex electrical systems. Nothing special. It could have been a particularly extravagant flat screen TV.
Until the crew up in the control room flipped the switch to turn it on.
Until the screen began to crackle with bolts of rainbow light, turning into a burning prism so bright and so beautiful that it hurt to look at directly.
Until the prism turned clear as water, and we were looking out on the surface of an alien planet, like something out of science fiction, but it was real, it was happening, it was there in front of us, and even though I had seen that particular view dozens of times, my heart still stuttered in my chest and my mouth still went dry with the wonder and the importance of it all.
“Millions of light years, ladies and gentlemen,” boomed the President. “That’s what we’ve just skipped over: millions of light years of distance, of empty space, between us and another world.”
That was the cue for the control team. They rolled out a bevy of little robots, intentionally anthropomorphic things, designed to look adorable and non–threatening on magazine covers and news blogs all around the world. They rolled on treads instead of walking on legs, but they had things people would recognize as “faces,” and they had arms with grasping hands at the ends, and they were going to be our ambassadors to a whole new world.
They weren’t the first things we’d sent through—that would have been hubris, making our first crossing for a live audience and the President. More traditional robots were already on the other side, building a return gate, gathering samples, doing the things explorers have always done. These robots were our ambassadors to the human race as much as to the stars. Look, they said, with their adorable faces and their relatable forms, look; humanity is conquering this new place. Look, they said, this isn’t just science, this is adventure. This is discovery. And you’re part of it, every single one of you. Look.
The President was explaining how each of the robots had been loaded with recordings explaining their purpose in every known human language—including Klingon, which got a laugh from the watching journalists. They would tell our story to the stars until we were ready to go out there and tell it for ourselves. They would tell anything that moved who we were and that we were coming in peace.
(And I do mean “anything that moved.” We didn’t know what life might look like, that far out and that far away from home. Maybe it would be mammalian, bipedal, alien life through the Roddenberry lens. Or maybe it would be glittering and silicate, or a sequence of musical notes suspended in an organic wind. We had no way of predicting what our first contact would be, and so we had programmed the robots to stop and deliver their spiel to anything that seemed like it might be even potentially receptive. A lot of rocks were going to hear about how peaceful humanity was.)
The sun was shining and the reporters were asking the President questions he was in no way qualified to answer, and my team had done what no other group of people past, present, or future had been able to do: we had given mankind the stars. We had changed the universe forever.
Things have consequences.
Angie isn’t shivering anymore. I have to resist the urge to reach over and shake her, to confirm with my hands what I can see with my eyes: she’s just asleep. She’s exhausted, she’s fifteen, and she’s sleeping. The fact that she’s stopped shivering is a mercy, not a warning sign. Maybe. Maybe.
It’s not like it makes any difference one way or the other. I can’t help her. I can’t save her. I can’t do anything for her, or for Nate, except to keep them moving, keep them fleeing from the epicenter, while the people who were able to get into clean rooms—the people who had no one outside the compound that they cared about—keep arguing with our visitors, trying to make them understand that they got it wrong, they got it wrong, this isn’t what we asked for. This isn’t what we asked for at all.
Nate still isn’t sleeping. I offer him as much of a smile as I can dredge up from the bottom of my broken heart, leaning a little closer and saying softly, “Hey, buddy, try to get some rest while you can, okay? We’re going to be moving again soon.”
He looks at me with narrow, wary eyes, and he doesn’t say anything. I don’t think he’s ever going to say anything again. I don’t think—honestly—I don’t think he’s going to have time to get over the shock and remember what it is to scream.
The last email I got before the Internet went down like the house of electronic cards it always was indicated that the chemical compounds our visitors (not guests, never guests; guests don’t do this to their hosts, guests bring wine and cheese and platitudes, not wind and chaos and pathogens) have been pumping into the atmosphere are heavy. They’re taking out the lowlands first. Denver is supposedly fine. Thriving, even, as waves of refugees come staggering past the city limits with their worldly possessions on their backs, ready to pay anything for a glass of water and a place to sleep.
All those people have been exposed. All those people are counting down on a clock no one human has ever seen, and when they start to fall apart, Denver’s going to have a whole new set of problems. There’s a reason we’re not heading for the Mile–High City. If there’s going to be any chance of survival, we’re not going to find it there.
Besides, we wouldn’t make it to Denver. We wouldn’t even make it halfway there. Angie has almost certainly been exposed, and Nate… I don’t know about Nate. I wish I knew. I wish I could say that it wouldn’t make a difference.
I wish he could tell me.
He looks at me with those wounded eyes, and I sigh. “Would you like me to sing for you?” I ask. He nods, fractionally, and so I scoot a little closer, and slip my arm around his shoulders, and sing softly, “Oh ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, oh, where have you been…”
He closes his eyes. He rests his head against my shoulder. And we’re all going to die, because things have consequences, but we’re not dead yet, and if there’s anyone left in the world with a responsibility to keep fighting until the end, it’s me.
The robots rolled through the portal, and the crowds cheered, and we all got our pictures with the President before he went home and we got back to work. Our funding still wasn’t limitless. We might have cracked the code of the greater universe, but so far, we hadn’t discovered anything that was actually useful, no rare minerals or magical cures for every human disease. We hadn’t even confirmed whether we had intelligent neighbors. We needed to keep working, and we needed to find a way to justify the continued existence of the project that had consumed us all for the past decade.
We lost a few of our junior members after it became clear that success didn’t come with a pay raise when you were working for the government. They hadn’t been expecting to get rich, but they’d been expecting to get, I don’t know, a little job security. A promise that they’d be able to keep refining what they’d made for at least the next five years. When that didn’t materialize, they’d walked away for the sake of their own sanity, and none of us had blamed them.
Besides, having a string of departures from the project right after we’d dropped off the front pages of all the magazines was a great excuse to keep having cake, and any excuse for cake was a good one.
It was sort of amazing at the time, how quickly people got over the magnitude of our discovery. Oh, there were Tumblrs and roleplay blogs dedicated to our intentionally adorable robots, and one of our mechanical engineers got to go on the Discovery Channel and help their latest crop of pop scientists blow stuff up for an afternoon, but for the most part, people forgot we were there almost as quickly as they’d noticed us. We had no relevance in their daily lives. Let us figure out how to move people from airport to airport, instead of moving robots from solar system to solar system, and maybe then we’d talk.
Life went on. Angie started a new school year, with all the tears and little traumas that accompanied a life change of that magnitude—no sarcasm intended. She was fifteen. A year of school was a huge deal. Hell, I was thirty–seven, and a year of school was a huge deal. My little girl was growing up. I covered her in kisses and sent her out the door into the hands of strangers, while I went back to my lab and kept trying to find a way to change the world.
Looking back, I wish I’d taken more time off. I wish I’d pulled her out of classes and gone to see the country. I wish I’d talked Lisa into doing the same with Nate, so that all four of us could have gone to California like we’d always threatened. I wish we’d taken the kids to Disneyland.
I wish we’d gotten married. Lisa had been hinting for the better part of a year and I’d been brushing her off every time, making excuses, claiming that my work needed me. My work had needed me, but not nearly as much as my girlfriend had, as the boy who was my son in all but the eyes of the law had. They had been my world, not some distant alien planet, and they had needed me, and I had ignored them in the interest of making history.
Well, we’d made history after all. There wasn’t going to be any history after this; we’d made it all, at least so far as the human race was concerned. We wrote the last chapter and then we closed the book, and we’d been totally open while we were doing it, and somehow no one had noticed what was going on. Not even us.
Nate is a boneless weight in my arms, not moving, not even seeming to breathe. I close my eyes and hold my own breath, trying to pick up a sign that he’s still alive. I could check his pulse, or pull out my compact and see if the mirror goes foggy when I hold it up to his mouth, but once I start doing that, it’s over. I’ll have admitted that we’ve lost.
Angie stirs, lifts her head, blinks blearily at me. “Mom?” she asks, in a voice that barely registers as a whisper. “What’s wrong with Nate?”
“He’s sleeping,” I say, and that’s a lie, but for right now, I’ll take it. Sometimes the truth is an unfair burden to put on anyone. Especially a fifteen–year–old girl. Especially my fifteen–year–old girl. She should be thinking about homecoming games and dates and final exams, not the end of the world. So I’ll lie to her, because she deserves it.
Because I have nothing else to give her.
“Maybe they’ll leave,” she says. “Maybe they’ll… maybe they’ll realize that we don’t want this, and they’ll leave.”
“Maybe,” I say, and I’m still lying, and I think she knows that. She crawls to me, putting her head on my shoulder, and closes her eyes. I close mine, and we exist, the three of us, for one brief and shining moment. We exist.
We were here. Things have consequences, but we were here, and nothing anyone does can take that away from us.
We were here.
The first sign of trouble came eight months after the first robots trundled through the gateway and onto the world we’d been casually referring to as “Way Over Yonder,” or “Yonder” for short. (The official name would be chosen by committee and to placate whatever governmental branch needed placating when the time came, which most of us assumed would be five minutes after we found something valuable.) We’d been monitoring their progress, sending new units through when necessary, and passing the samples they brought back on to the relevant scientific teams. The botanists were having a field day. Half the “plants” we gave them turned out to be minerals of some kind, but enough of them had been actual, honest–to–God vegetation that there were about nine new schools of thought forming, with another half dozen waiting in the wings.
I was on duty, thinking idly about what I was going to make for dinner, when the board began to flash. Not a warning light, which would have been red and accompanied by a warning klaxon; just a little green light turning on in the upper corner and starting to blink. It was almost friendly. Here I am, said the light. Look at me. I am scientific discovery made manifest. I am your future. Hi.
We had been waiting for that light, all of us, for months. We had been living for that light. And I sat there, motionless, staring at it with uncomprehending eyes, because we had all been waiting for that light for so long that it no longer made any sense. That light never flashed. That light never turned on. But it was flashing. It was on. Bit by bit, I adjusted my impressions of the world.
The light was on.
“We have a light!” I shouted. I also stood up. Probably unnecessary—the light didn’t care whether I was sitting down—but it felt right. “People, we have a light!”
The reaction was immediate and deeply validating. Technicians and researchers rushed in from every corner of the room, crowding around the control board as if proximity would be enough to guarantee them their place in the discoveries to follow.
“Calm down!” shouted Earl. He was one of our shift leaders; it was a matter of five minutes and bad luck that he hadn’t been the one manning the board when the light started flashing. “Calm down, all of you! There’s enough science here for everyone!”
Someone laughed. Someone else whooped, a joyful sound that could have come from almost any throat, one that was felt in every single heart. Because we had a light, and if we had a light we had done it: after doing the improbable, we had followed it up by doing the impossible. We had made contact.
“Do we have a visual?” barked Earl. He was never a man who did anything at a normal volume.
(He’d been one of the first to die, slowing and finally stopping altogether as the water in his cells converted into a crystalline dust. When his body had collapsed inward on itself and blown away, we’d all thought that it was an accident, an unexpected interface between Earth and alien biology. We’d been so wrong. We’d already been too late.)
“I’m on it,” I said, my hands moving rapidly across the controls. One of the screens began to roll in lines of irregular static, finally stabilizing on a picture of an alien world. Our alien world, Yonder, which remained as beautiful as ever, but had grown somewhat familiar and hence not as exciting as it had been. Now, as the amber and peach glory of it came into focus on the screen, I remembered how beautiful it was, and how excited I had been the first time I’d seen it.
Now, the most exciting thing was the alien—the alien—standing in front of our robot.
Everyone saw the aliens inside of the week, of course: even if we’d wanted to classify their existence, we couldn’t have done it. The project was too public, and there were too many leaks for us to have closed them all that late in the game. They made the cover of every magazine in the world. It didn’t help that they looked like velvet worms the size of anacondas, waving their stubby little legs and their featureless antennae at our robots like some sort of threat display.
A few people murmured, disappointed by what seemed to be an enormous, if alien, animal. Earl motioned for them to be quiet. The alien kept waving its stubby little legs. The light kept flashing. And then, in a slow crawl across the bottom of the screen, came the sentence that changed the world:
“What do you mean, ‘hello’?”
The room exploded again. This time, Earl couldn’t get us back under control. He barely even tried. We had discovered an alien world; we had discovered alien life; we had done it all, and history was going to remember our names.
Things have consequences.
Angie lifts her head from my shoulder and sighs, a long, slow exhalation that bears no resemblance to the giddy cheers that still echo like ghosts in the haunted hallways of my memory. She sounds utterly broken, utterly defeated, and for a moment, my heart seizes in my chest, because that’s my daughter making that sound, my daughter with the life beaten half out of her by the uncaring, uncompassionate world.
“Mom,” she says. “Look.”
I don’t want to. Things have consequences, yes, but I am tired of consequences, and I don’t want to look.
Nate isn’t moving. Nate isn’t breathing, either; Nate hasn’t been breathing for quite some time. The skin on his face is waxy and tight, and already crumbling around the edges. Skin has edges, especially on the face; nostrils, eyes, the mouth. Everything about it seems to have been essentially designed to fall apart.
“He’s sleeping,” I lie.
Angie doesn’t meet my eyes.
“He’ll wake up soon.”
“Mom, if he was exposed…”
“Don’t finish that sentence, baby girl. We’re going to be fine. We’re going to keep climbing, and we’re going to be fine.”
More lies. We’re not going to be fine. No one is going to be fine. If Nate was exposed, so was Angie, and if they both crumble into dust in my arms, that’s it: that’s the ballgame, at least for me. Let someone else fight to save the human race. I helped to condemn it, and that seems like more than enough.
Someone else will be the hero in this story. Someone else will storm the mothership or charge through the shimmering gateway that connects us to an alien world, an alien sky; someone else will find the words to say in the necessary order to convince our next door neighbors to stop killing us. Someone else. Not me. I’m a nameless, faceless extra in this story, one of the white–coated scientists from the first ten minutes of the movie, the ones who set events in motion and doom us all. Because things have consequences. Things have always, always had consequences.
“Do we even know why?” asks Angie.
“Because they’ve killed the Earl of Moray, and the Lady Mondegreen,” I say.
She looks at me blankly. I sigh. A lock of Nate’s hair crumbles and blows away. I close my eyes. I don’t want to see the look on her face when she realizes just how stupid this has all been, or how easily it could all have been avoided.
“We didn’t stop to think about atmospheric density,” I say, and on that hinges the world.
The light was on: nothing was going to change that. Even if the alien got bored and wandered away, we would always have made first contact. Us, a group of physicists and astronomers just trying to better the future of mankind, we had made first contact.
“It’s like living in a science fiction novel,” said one of the assistants, and everyone laughed, and everyone secretly—or not–so–secretly—agreed with her.
(She would die shortly after Earl, shattering when she was knocked over by a fleeing engineer. Her body would blow away in the wind from the open laboratory door. So far as I know, nobody called her family.)
The alien continued to wave its legs at our helpful robot as, one sentence at a time, we unlocked the world.
“The translator program is working,” I breathed. Oh, how I wished Lisa had come to visit the office, so she could see it: see the moment when my late nights and long hours transformed into something concrete, something real, like lead turning into gold. This was the moment when we made history once and for all.
We’d been so set on making history that we had never stopped to ask ourselves whether making history mattered. Maybe it would have been better to sit back and accept that history made itself, assembling a grand puzzle one minute at a time, until we found ourselves standing on the other side of it. We’d been working hard, eyes on the prize, and we’d been so busy wallowing in intellectual ideals that we’d never stopped to think.
Earl grabbed the microphone. “Hello,” he said, pulling it close to his mouth, so that not a sound would be missed. Was that the problem? Was that where the interference had come in, where things had gone askew?
I don’t think so. I think the trouble started with “hello.” It was such an innocuous word, “hello.” It only made sense that it would be the word that doomed us.
The robot relayed Earl’s voice. The alien pulled back, arms waving in dismay, before it leaned closer once more, studying our emissary.
“Hello?” it echoed. “Are you hello?”
“This is the planet Earth, speaking to you across the cosmos,” said Earl, and the robot relayed his words, translating them into a dozen languages, into pulses of light, into mathematical sigils. It translated them every way it knew how, and the alien waved its arms, and this was going better than we could possibly have hoped.
(We couldn’t read the alien’s reactions—it was too alien, too much like the sort of thing you might find under a rock, rather than having a coherent conversation with a space–faring robot—but we were encouraged when two more appeared to join the discussion. They waved their arms and they spoke slowly to the robot, and we were making history, and things have consequences.)
“Hello,” said the newest alien. “You are sure hello?”
“Hello,” repeated Earl, and “Hello,” repeated the robot, and someone ran to fetch a reporter while someone else went to call the President.
The aliens stayed close to the robot for three days, coming and going and always circling back to one question:
“You are sure hello?”
Nate barely weighs anything. If I opened my eyes, I’m sure I would find him more than halfway gone, dissolving into the wind. I don’t open my eyes.
When the first ship appeared above us, a thing that was half saucer and half ornate coral structure, too delicate and fractal to have been constructed within planetary gravity, people rejoiced. Most people. I was back in the lab, running and rerunning hours of footage of our first meeting with the aliens. Something was troubling me. It was such a small thing, but…
We knew they were intelligent. We had observed tool use. Not just sticks and rocks and other things that a creature with a dozen grasping appendages might be expected to pick up and use: complicated little machines with lights that flashed and disks that spun, which had sent our xeno anthropologists into fits of delight. It seemed likely that we had opened our gate onto their home world, based on how many of them there were and how well they fit into their environment, but that was just a guess: human scientists had been talking about Terraforming for decades. Who was to say that Yonder wasn’t the result of Wormforming?
We had so much left to learn. They spoke to our robots in short, measured sentences, and they grasped all our languages with remarkable speed…but a few words seemed to stymie them. Including, surprisingly, the innocuous “hello.”
When we said it, they waved their limbs and asked if we were sure. They became distressed. Some members of the team theorized that greetings were somehow taboo in their culture; we started trying to avoid them.
And then the President had come to visit again, and had boomed hello after hello across the unfathomable distance at our space–worm friends. They had slowly stopped their waving. They had stopped sounding distressed. One—the first one, the Prime Worm—had bowed its head and said, “We understand.”
The next morning, all the worms had been gone.
A week later, the ships had arrived. We had yet to see the pilots, but most people were assuming that they contained our friends the worms, who had been charming and friendly and seemed harmless, if anything alien could be considered “harmless.” I locked myself in the lab, watching and re–watching every scrap of footage, trying to figure out what they were reacting to.
Something about the word “hello.”
On a whim, I began enhancing the background noise, trying to pull up the conversations the aliens had amongst themselves. They were garbled slightly by wind and distance, but I was able to piece together a relatively clean string of words and accent sounds. I fed it into the translator.
The translator flashed red.
Frowning, I looked at the screen.
> MULTIPLE LANGUAGES DETECTED. CONTINUE?
I typed “yes,” and hit “enter.” The red light went off. Two strings of text appeared.
One, labeled “Yonder,” read, “They are asking us to relieve their unending misery. They have asked repeatedly. We must grant them our aid.”
The other, labeled “Multiple,” read, “They are asking us to hello. They have asked repeatedly. We must grant them our aid.”
I stared at the two lines of text. One made sense as read. The other…
My chair fell when I launched myself out of it and ran to find someone who could check my work. It made a clattering sound when it hit the ground. I didn’t look back. As far as I know, it may still be there.
“When people talk, we’re talking for this air,” I say, and the words don’t make any sense, and the words make all the sense there is; the words are everything, they define the future that we’ve made for ourselves, one careless choice at a time. “We’re making our words for this atmospheric density. We’re measuring their sounds and their stops and their distortion for this atmospheric density.”
I still don’t open my eyes. I don’t want to see what’s become of Nate, who hasn’t spoken since he started to crumble, and I don’t want to see if Angie has started to go clear around the edges. The part of me that’s still a scientist wonders idly how they did this to us, wishes that we’d had the time to pick their pathogens apart and understand them, even if it had been too late to cure them. It would be nice to know. I’ve spent my life knowing, and now I’m going to die not knowing.
“What does that mean?” asks Angie.
“It means that when the aliens heard us speaking, they didn’t hear us there the way we hear ourselves here. The air on Yonder has a different composition. It’s not as dense. We couldn’t breathe there even if we had reached the point where we could make the crossing, because the air isn’t right. And when humans speak there, the words sound funny. Some of them sound a lot like words the people on Yonder have in their own language. Some of them sound so familiar that the people on Yonder never figured out that we might mean something else.”
“So do you remember the song I used to sing to you when it was time for bed? About the Earl of Moray?”
“There are people who hear the lyrics wrong.” Were people, by now, because we had gone out into the cosmos looking for friends, and when we found them, we had asked them to kill us all. We had repeated the request over and over again, sticking to it stubbornly even in the face of their consistently anxious requests for clarification. We had told them exactly what we wanted them to do. And because they had wanted to be our friends, they had done it, no matter how much it hurt them.
They had crossed the cosmos to end our pain.
It’s getting harder to breathe. If I opened my eyes, if I looked at my hands, I would see crystal lines streaking across my skin. The alien pathogens work more slowly on a secondary exposure, but they still work. They still infect. There’s a certain beauty to that. I wonder why they had this disease. Is it natural, something that haunts their world? Or did they create it for situations like this one, times when they needed to cleanse a planet?
Does it matter?
“They heard the lyrics wrong,” I whisper, and Angie says nothing, and things have consequences. Things have consequences.
My eyes won’t open. My body feels like it’s getting thinner and thinner, fading away into the air. My children are with me, and things have consequences, and we made history.
I take a breath. My lungs refuse to fill. As the world fades, in a voice like a whisper, I sing, “Oh ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, oh where have you been…”
We made history.
Things have consequences.
(Editors’ Note: This story started with a prompt provided by Uncanny Magazine Year Two Kickstarter Backer Bill McGeachin. Thanks, Bill!)
© 2016 by Seanan McGuire