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The Conversation

by Chris Dodson

Rorthak and Mooble sat together in the dining hall of the great ship, sipping wine and poring over the notes they had taken during their short visit to Earth.

“Interesting creatures, indeed,” Mooble was saying, “although they still have much to learn.”

Rorthak nodded his left head knowingly. “Yes, but perhaps we have much to learn from them as well. As far as the psychology team was able to discern, they have only two major modes of expression.”

“Indeed?” Mooble’s carapace shuddered slightly. “According to the dissection report, they are capable of at least four. I find it hard to believe that a species at their level of advancement can only think in two ways. Out of curiosity, what are the two modes? Science, I’m assuming, is one.”

“Yes,” said Rorthak, “and the other is a bit harder to pin down. As a broad generalization, it is called “art.” Rorthak stuttered and coughed as he tried to pronounce the alien word. “It encompasses many things. They create fictions, for instance, which are made-up stories.”

Mooble shuddered again, his tongues fluttering. “But why?”

“Many reasons,” said Rorthak, clearly enjoying his role as teacher. “To disseminate knowledge, to explore ideas. And strangely, through their fictions, indeed through much of their art, they seek the meaning of existence.”

Mooble trembled violently this time, causing his parasite to stir from its sleep. “But that’s ridiculous! Existence has no meaning! We live, we die. Why should there be anything else?”

“You haven’t even heard the strangest part yet. The fact is, they are advanced enough to know that life is meaningless. The knowledge is there for the taking! And still they search.” Rorthak’s anus quivered meaningfully. “They are almost noble, in their own unusual way.”

“You can’t mean that!” Mooble cried. “They spend countless lifetimes creating this... art... in a vain attempt to find meaning, even though they know it doesn’t exist! What a sad, pathetic waste.”

Rorthak was silent for a moment, perhaps reflecting on what his colleague had just said, perhaps trying to control his temper. Finally, he began to speak, slowly at first, as if to a larva. “Mooble, if they are as pitiful as you claim, if they are so flawed, then how can their achievements be so awe-inspiring? How are they able to succeed where we have failed time and time again? We’ve studied their biological makeup thoroughly — we know they have the same survival instinct we do, the same quirk of evolution. How, then, are they able to kill each other so savagely, to slaughter themselves with such reckless abandon? Somehow, in some strange and wonderful way, they are able to overcome their innate aversion to death, to help each other pass quickly through the Cycle of birth and dissolution.

“Every member of our race knows, from the moment they are able to understand, that the Cycle is the only thing that matters, the glorious, repeating, never-ending Cycle. Life and death, creation and destruction — if we accept the Cycle, if we do our best to continue it, we are content. And yet fate has burdened us with this horrible biological imperative, this will to live, forcing us to favor one aspect of the Cycle over the other. How many times have I begged you to kill me, only to have you retreat into your shell, even though we both know you wanted to do it? Tell me this, oh wise and all-knowing Mooble: If they are such miserable, ill-informed creatures, how are they able to ignore their own evolution in order to serve the greater good?”

Now it was Mooble’s turn to sit in silence. Rorthak had always been a bit emotional, but this had been a rather strong outburst, even for him. The best thing to do, thought Mooble, was to change the subject.

“Point taken, friend, point taken,” he said finally and, he hoped, reassuringly. A thoughtful pause, and then, draining his wine glass for emphasis, “But even so, you have to admit that they taste awful.”

* * *

Later, in his molting chamber, Mooble watched the stars hang silently in his window. He groaned softly; something was bothering his parasite. It kept tossing and turning in his stomach, keeping him awake. He uttered a low moan and scuttled closer to the window. The meaning of existence... imagine that! What foolishness! What vanity!

Something was niggling at the back of his mind, though, something he thought might be very important, but something that he couldn’t quite put his tentacle on. The stars... the universe... the Cycle... its meaning. He groaned softly, and wondered if he was on the verge of a great and singular discovery.

But then he belched quite loudly, and the moment passed.

Copyright © 2003 by Chris Dodson