Last Contact

I was a young boy when we made first contact but I still remember it so clearly. They broke into the school stream to show the news. “This just in,” said the sturdy, bass voice of the newscaster, specially selected for serious stories about incredible subjects. “An surveying ship belonging to the Orion Mining Syndicate has encountered a ship of alien design.”

They showed video streamed back through the fluid routers. The ship looked like nothing a human would make. Our ships were sleek and rounded, with graceful curves and lights streaming out of windows. Theirs was bulbous and bumpy and dark, looking like it had been patched together from rocks.

We all watched, rapt, wondering what would happen. Who would build a ship like that? What would they be like? Were they hostile? Were they friendly? Did they look like us or did they look like nothing we'd ever imagined before?

Of course, we learned none of those things that day. The surveying ship was full of geologists and technicians, not diplomats and astrobiologists and linguists. They made a few attempts to communicate, but no one could tell if they even got it. The surveying ship opened all its communications channels, but the only thing they heard was static with occasional high-pitched beeps.

As the minutes passed, I started to feel very tense. I squinted at the screen, as if I could increase the resolution of the picture just by trying hard enough. Those little bumps had to be weapon clusters, I thought for sure. The survey ship should run away before it was destroyed. The longer it waited, the more likely it was the aliens would figure out it was unarmed and blow it up. I started talking back to the screen, yelling at it, wailing at it to leave.

Eventually, the caretaker activated and took me away from the screen. It was programmed to take me away from any source of distress and didn't realize how it was tearing me away from something historic. I tried to tell it I was fine, but it wouldn't listen to me. I was too young. I knew I had to get back to the screen, though, so I breathed and wiped away my tears and blew my nose and sat calmly until the caretaker decided I was fine and retreated to its closet.

By the time I got back to the screen, the survey ship had already retreated, jumping away into the fluid tunnel. The talking heads were already chattering away, asking all the questions everyone else had asked themselves. None of them had answers, either. They were all just as stunned as the rest of us.

I was a teenager when we finally figured out how to talk to them. We called them Eridanians, after the name our ancestors gave the star their planet circled. That wasn't what they called themselves, of course. What they called themselves wasn't anything we could pronounce. Their speech was all sine and square waves, most of it ultrasound, only occasionally dipping low enough for us to hear. Dogs hated them, though.

We could only hear them through machines, which translated their beeps into words. They didn't need those devices to understand us. They learned our language quickly enough and could hear and understand everything we said. At least that's what they told us. We didn't meet face-to-face. Their atmosphere was toxic to us and ours was toxic to them.

So it was all through communications channels. We sent them images of ourselves, but they didn't return the courtesy. Our scientists debated why this could be. The most popular theory was they didn't have eyes, so visual images were unimportant to them. With their ultrasonic voices, they said, it was likely the Eridanians used echolocation.

Of course, more time was spent debating the religious implications of the Eridanians. When we first ventured between the stars, they were worried we'd find life abundant. But while we found molds and slimes and jellies, we didn't find anything intelligent. Until the Eridanians.

The Abrahamic religions were especially concerned. How could aliens be saved when they had no concept of sin? When they had no idea what right and wrong were? The Eridanians didn't understand those concepts which we considered simple. They did what they wanted to when they wanted to. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. If there was something they didn't like, they destroyed it. If someone else wanted to stop them, they were welcome to try. Whatever the result, there was no grudge either way.

I envied them, as a teenager would. If I'd been an Eridanian, I could just go take those games without paying. My cute blonde neighbor Anne would be mine if I just went and took her. She wouldn't be able to complain, because that was just the way things are. I wouldn't have to listen to anybody, because nobody would tell me what to do anyway.

I told my father this once and he rubbed the bridge of his nose and said, “You know that's a very childish way to look at things.” I asked if he thought the Eridanians were childish, but he said, “They're not human. A wolf acts the same way; you don't want to be a wolf, do you?” I thought about it and maybe I did, but instead of telling him that I asked if he thought the Eridanians were just animals. He had the caretaker take me to my room.

On school, we debated how a society like that could even function. Wouldn't they just destroy each other? How could they work together to build anything when, at a moment's notice, someone else could come destroy it just because he felt like it? And suffer no repercussions from society. Murder, rape, theft... Crime itself wasn't something the Eridanians understood.

The best we could come up with was that if it didn't work, we would have never met them. So it must work somehow. Biologists figured that the Eridanians had evolved so that their individual wants and needs would weed out the weak and promote the strong. Social darwinism at its apex. Objectivists took them as proof that their beliefs were right.

The Pope tried to convert them, but they didn't understand what he was trying to tell them. Who was Jesus and why did he die? It sounds like the Romans just wanted to live more.

I was just graduating high school when we finally got to see the Eridanians up close. No one could agree just how to describe them. I guess I'll give it a try, but I doubt I could get you to imagine it right anyway. Their top half looked like a starfish made out of tongues. The tongue in the middle had two big black orbs on it and was covered in fur. The orbs were their eyes, we were told; they could see the same visible spectrum as humans, plus a little bit into the ultraviolet. Hundreds more colors existed for them, just like hundreds more sounds.

I was a little jealous. What color is past violet? I wanted to know, but of course they couldn't explain it.

The other four tongues were thinner and were ringed with little spines. They could stretch and flatten the tongues into a variety of shapes, but for the most part they used them to pick things up and push buttons. The spines could be bent in to help them manipulate things finely. Watching them paint was actually rather spectacular. They broadcast one of their most famous artists painting once. He had little brushes attached to the end of dozens of spines, each coated in a different paint, and his arms wriggled rhythmically as he applied paint to a block of rock. I was so hypnotized by the movement that I barely paid attention to the ugly blob of color he was creating.

At the end, they said it was a perfect painting of a human being, but it didn't look anything like a person to me. I guess there was a lot of things they could see that we couldn't.

I called the artist a him, but that's just because it seems rude to call anyone an it. The Eridanians did not have sexes. They reproduced by budding. One day an Eridanian would develop a high fever and the spines would fall off one of the arms and soon it would grow a covering of fur and fall off. The Eridanian would have to keep the arm fed for the few months it took to grow into a new Eridanian. His own arm would grow back eventually, like it had never fallen off.

They had mouths in the center of their bodies. The mouths were large, big enough for a human being to fit his head into if he wanted, though he probably wouldn't because an Eridanian might just chomp down with his rows of tiny teeth and grind right through a person's skull. The teeth weren't sharp, but the Eridanians had strong jaw muscles and they could easily crush bone. They had no lips and the mouths were almost always open, rarely closed.

The bottom half of an Eridanian might best be described as looking like a horse, if the horse was made out of tendrils instead of flesh. It was almost like someone had peeled the skin off so you could see the muscles directly, though that wasn't actually true. The legs were also more like rigid tentacles than anything, though I once saw an Eridanian relax them and they went limp like noodles.

A lot of people got sick from looking at them, especially if they were pink colored. They could be a lot of different colors, but greenish-gray was the most common. The fur on their central tongue was a variety of colors too. The most common was red, but there were plenty of blacks, browns, purples, and yellows too.

I didn't get sick, but I sure didn't like to look at them if I didn't have to.

I was celebrating my twentieth birthday the day the first war started. There was a planet rich in platinum deposits that had held a human mining colony for over a decade. The Eridanians came in and blew the colony up and then started building their own mining facilities. They couldn't use any of the tools that humans used.

The colony was Chinese, so the emperor demanded that the Eridanians turn over the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Of course, the Eridanians didn't do that. They hadn't done anything wrong, because they didn't know what wrong was, so there was no such thing as justice. They didn't try to debate the Chinese, they just told them no.

The Chinese dropped a nuke on the mining colony from orbit. If that had been all there was to it, that might have ended it. But the Chinese decided to push on and attack another Eridanian colony and they nuked that one too. The Eridanians didn't mind, of course. They just made sure their next colony was better protected and blew up the Chinese when they came around.

“If they'd have just let it go, none of this would have happened,” Anne told me on the day I signed up for the Space Fleet. I shrugged my shoulders, because it made sense to me that the Chinese would want revenge. She didn't see it that way. “We know how the Eridanians are. They should have just taken the mining colony back and defended their things better. If the colonies were better defended, the Eridanians wouldn't attack, and you wouldn't have to go.”

I kissed her on the lips and told her that I was going to make sure the colonies were better defended. Everyone else wanted to make sure that the Eridanians didn't attack their colonies, so everyone was recruiting for their military and paying out big bonuses to anyone who signed up. Sure, robots could do a lot of things, but even now nothing beats a bunch of men with guns in their hands.

Of course, the build ups didn't matter. The Eridanians attacked other colonies too, almost always to get to the precious metals and other valuable minerals on the planets. It didn't matter who it was who owned them. The British, the Japanese, the Azawadi, the Canadians. They were all attacked and they all struck back, and then the Eridanians kept coming.

Eventually, all of the nations on Earth (well, those who had space colonies, who are the only ones who really matter) banded together and agreed that they had to fight the Eridanians until they would agree to a treaty.

I was one of the lucky ones, because I didn't get sent to fight on the front lines. Instead, I was always in the second wave, the one that came to secure the area and fortify it in case the Eridanians pushed back and we had to defend it.

They did that in some places, but never where I was stationed. I guess I was lucky, but sitting in those bombed out structures, finding the dead bodies of Eridanians and humans that had been left behind in the rush to push forward onto the next objective...

Even though the Eridanians didn't share any DNA with humans, our bacteria were just as good at decomposing them as theirs was at decomposing us. We had to wear gasmasks as we gathered the bodies into huge pyres and burned them. I asked why we didn't try to send the human bodies back to their families, but then Sgt. Casey pointed out that their families were being heaped onto the pyre too.

I was ending my second tour when the Eridanians finally surrendered. They war had taken a toll on both sides, but it was far more terrible on the Eridanians. We killed them by the billions. We irradiated their planets from space, even ones that had no value to us. There were planets filled with civilians, with an atmosphere we couldn't breath, that didn't have any special metallic or mineral properties. They were just targets to try to get the Eridanians to surrender.

There were 23 planets we destroyed like that. The Eridanians wouldn't be able to resettle them for centuries, if they would even want to. By the time they got back, the fallout might have wiped out all native life anyway.

They signed a peace treaty. They agreed to never attack a human settlement ever again and come to us diplomatically if they wanted to solve any problems. We agreed to stop wiping them out. It seemed about as simple a treaty as you could ask for and we all hoped that would be the end of fighting with the Eridanians.

It actually proved to be a good thing for humanity. We actually banded together to fight off a common enemy. The Eridanians united us. There was talk of electing a world government that had a lot of people excited.

Sgt. Casey came to me on the day after the treaty had been signed. “So what are your plans when you get back to Earth?” she asked me. I told her I was likely to re-enlist. Maybe even go for a commission. She smiled at me, with her perfectly white teeth. I imagined I could see the nanobots scrubbing them and lightly nudging them back into the right position as she grinned. “I think I'm going to get out of the military,” she said. “Seen enough fighting for one lifetime.”

I reminded her she hadn't seen any fighting. We'd been in the same unit the entire war. She shrugged and tossed her hair over her shoulder. Normally she would have had it tied up in a tight bun, but since the treaty had been signed the command let a few of the regulations relax. “And that's enough fighting for me. I guess I'm not like you. I can't handle the heat.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she said the words.

I told her she'd handled my heat just fine. She laughed and tried to mock offense, but she didn't really do a good job of it. “You're such a talker,” she said as she slid down onto my bunk and slid her arms around my shoulders.

A few weeks later, we were just about to ship back to Earth and she came into my room again. “One for the road?” she asked. I thought about Anne and shook my head. “Come on,” she pressed, pushing her warm cheek into my shoulder. “Out here, so far from anyone else... It doesn't mean anything once you get back to Earth, you know that, right?”

She was lying, of course. It still counted.

I was celebrating the first birthday of both my sons when the second war started. I was only able to see both of them over video screen though. Anne had left me when she found out Casey was pregnant. She'd given birth to our son, Pauly, three months later on the same day Casey gave birth to Nise. They were only born four hours apart, with Nise the older.

Anne didn't want anything to do with me, but I'd begged and begged and finally gone to court to get permission to see Pauly on weekend and on his birthday. Of course, she moved away to Mexico shortly after, so the only way I could see him was on video. I made sure to contact him every weekend, even though he didn't have the slightest clue who I was.

I didn't have to fight Casey about it, but she wasn't interested in starting a family with me. “It was out on the battlefield, nothing more,” she told me even though we had never even been on a battlefield. She lived on the other side of the country too, in Vancouver, which was an expensive three hour trip. She wouldn't let me stay at her apartment either, so I had to rent a hotel any time I went, which made it even worse.

I'd shipped off toys to both boys and was watching them by split screen as they played. I called out to them, using terms like “my boy” so they didn't know I was talking to both of them at once. Not that they were old enough to understand.

The video screen suddenly cut out to bring the breaking news that the Eridanians had attacked a Georgian mining colony. I sighed and switched it back to watch the boys.

We thought we had taught them what an agreement was. We thought we had explained what right and wrong meant, and that they had understood us and were going to honor it. We thought the treaty would solve all our problems.

We should have tried to understand them, though. But we didn't and now there was another war, not even two years after the first one ended.

I was called back to duty and shipped out. This time I wasn't lucky enough to avoid the front lines, but I was a Lieutenant now and had men to lead into battle. We didn't expect there to be much resistance. We had devastated the Eridanians in the first war, leaving their population in tatters. We figured we'd scour a few planets, force them into another surrender, and call it a day.

I don't remember the name of the first planet I landed on. Did they even tell us the name? I don't remember. It was a sweltering hot world with little gravity. We couldn't bombard the planet, because the defense towers were too powerful. We had to land infantry to take those out and my platoon and I were in the first wave.

When we landed, it was hell. The haze in the air cut down our vision, even though our enhanced masks. Weaponsfire cut into us from miles away, scorching plasma rounds thrown from coilguns so far away we couldn't naturally see who was shooting at us. We couldn't see what we were shooting back at either, but our masks calculated firing solutions and told us where to aim.

They said that was actually better for morale. You didn't have to see the face of what you were killing, so you were less likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress. Of course, I did have to see my men being cut down around me. I watched them die in twos and threes as plasma bolts slammed into them, shredding their armor as if it wasn't even there.

After a few minutes of traded fire, only fifteen of my men were still alive, but the return fire had ceased. All across the planet, similar fights were raging and being won by humans. We pressed forward, toward the batteries, only to be ambushed by swarms of the Eridanians. There were so many of them I would have sworn it was their entire race coming down on us.

At the short range, we could see them quite clearly, and their plasma bolts were far more accurate. As I opened fire on one, blowing it open in a shower of hot lead and ocher blood, I didn't care that I could see its face. All I cared was that my men were being cut down in the ambush. Then a plasma bolt struck me in the hip and I went down, gasping in pain as airlocks in my armor sealed to prevent the toxic atmosphere from reaching my lungs.

I was still walking with a limp when the second war came to an end. The plasma bolt had completely destroyed the tissue and bone on my left hip and upper left leg. It was only because my platoon was one of the few selected to receive much-needed reinforcements that I managed to survive in the first place.

We learned one very important thing from that first battle. The Eridanians had far more people than we anticipated. We didn't think they'd lied to us in the first war, when they told us we had killed over half their population. But it seemed as if they had already replaced those numbers by the time the second war began.

The initial push on the planet failed, of course. We didn't anticipate that many of them. But our second strike, which happened while I was laid up in a feverish coma in the hospital, was better prepared. They captured the defense towers and blew them up, then evacuated as the planet was being glassed from orbit.

Every last Eridanian on that planet died. We checked more than once just to be sure. We did it to other planets of theirs as well, hoping to crush the Eridanians and prove once and for all that they should not mess with Earth. For the first part of the war, it was back and forth. The Eridanians would lose a planet, then they would strike back at us and take one of ours. They never wiped the population out, though, not on purpose at least. We chased down their escape craft, but they let ours go. There was no point to destroying them, they figured. The people escaping weren't military and wouldn't come back to fight them.

Of course, more than a few people escaped and signed up for the military. I met a few of them while I was recovering, relearning how to walk on my repaired hip. They all asked me how I'd been injured and I told each of them. They always thanked me and vowed they'd take down an Eridanian for me, as if I was out of the fight for good.

To be honest, I thought I was. But after a year, the war was still going on, and even though I was still limping, they decided I was good enough to go back out onto the front lines and fight. I wondered if that meant we were losing the war. If they needed crippled men like me to hold a gun and go into combat, we must be losing the war.

But it was just a massacre. I wasn't being sent out again because they needed me to. They were sending me out as a reward. By that time, we'd crushed the Eridanian's space fleet. We were slowly overrunning them, planet by planet, slaughtering entire cities. Some planets we simply destroyed from orbit, as a show of overwhelming power.

Others, like the one I got sent to, were just to prove we could shoot them right in the face with no remorse. I shot plenty of them right in the face on that planet. They didn't have brains, not like humans did, but blowing off their central tongue was as good a way as any to kill them. If that was gone, they didn't regenerate. They just died.

A lot of other soldiers felt like shooting the Eridanians like this gave them some sense of relief. I didn't feel that, but I didn't stop shooting them either. It was a job. It was a mission. It was more than any of that, it was me trying to save this species by teaching them that actions have consequences, that they can't just take what they wanted without overwhelming repercussions.

They promoted me to Captain by the end of the war. When I got back to Earth, Anne and Pauly were there to greet me. Pauly ran up to me, he'd gotten so big in the eight years I'd been fighting, and threw his arms around me. I grabbed him and swung him off the ground, cringing as pain shot through my hip. “Daddy, daddy!” he said. “You're home!”

I told him that yep, I was home, and I'd be home for good this time.

I was sitting down for dinner with Casey, celebrating our fifth anniversary, when the third war started. The Eridanians had signed a treaty, of course, and promised that they understood the concepts of right and wrong. They swore to anything we wanted them to that they wouldn't attack us again. They even agreed to give up their right to build ships with weapons on them.

I was biting into my streak when the murmurs began to pass through the restaurant. Casey looked up nervously at them. “What do you think is happening?” she asked softly, just before pushing a fork-speared cherry tomato into her mouth. I shook my head and went back to chewing, but the murmurs got louder, and I started to hear people talking about the Eridanians again.

I sighed and reached into my pocket and pulled out my pad. The headline was flashing across the top. “Eridanians Attack American Colony: War Declared Again!” I told this to Casey and she gasped and looked at me with teary eyes, because by now I was a colonel. I told her not to worry, because colonels didn't go out into combat and tried to give her a reassuring smile.

She shook her head and closed her eyes and bit her bottom lip. I could tell she wanted to say something more, but wasn't going to say it. I knew if I pushed her on it, she'd never tell me. Whenever I pushed her on anything, she always did the opposite. The only way I got her to marry me was by ignoring her, after all.

We finished our meal with the gloom hanging over us. When we got home, Nise was sleeping in front of his school monitor. The study notes for his quantum physics class were up. The boy was a hard worker, but he wasn't cut out for science, I knew. I gently shook him and his eyes slowly opened. He craned his head and neck and stretched. “Dad,” he mumbled. I smiled at him and told him it was time to go to bed.

“I've got a test tomorrow,” he protested, pointing at the notes. I shook my head and guided him toward his bedroom and he didn't put up much of a fight. I told him if he was tired, he'd do poorly anyway. “I can just take an alertness pill,” he suggested, but I knew those things were dangerous. They'd let a person feel wide awake as if they'd had a full night's sleep for a few hours, then they'd suddenly pass out. They were banned in the military because too many soldiers would drop in the middle of combat.

After tucking him in, I went to the video screen and got in touch with Anne. I asked her if she'd heard the news. “Yeah,” she told me. “It was all Pauly could talk about. He's worried about you.” I told her the same thing I told Casey; colonels didn't get sent out to fight in the field. Besides, my hip would keep me from any real combat.

“Why haven't you gotten that replaced yet?” she asked me quiet seriously. I told her there was no way I was going to let them gene dope me with Eridanian DNA just to correct a small limp. “It's not so small any more.” I shook my head and asked her not to get into this argument again. She sat silent for a few minutes and then said, “Fine. But before you get sent out, you owe it to Pauly to come and see him.” I promised I would.

I got my orders the next day. I would ship out in a week, taking command of a brigade that would be hitting the Eridanian manufacturing centers. The plan was to take out their ability to build more ships before moving on to the population centers. I thought that plan was poor, that any manufacturing center we knew about couldn't be building ships, else we'd have known they were arming those ships too. Command knew that was true too, but this was still the best plan they had until they got more intelligence.

The day before I was to leave, I trammed down to Mexico City to see Pauly. He'd gotten big, much bigger than Nise. I joked that he'd make a terrifying lacrosse defenseman, but he just blushed and said, “I dunno, pop.”

We spent the day just hanging around and talking. I drank a beer, he had a soda, and we talked about school, his life, his friends, and girls. “How's Nise doing?” he asked me and I told him fine. “That's good.” I told him I was sorry I'd miss his eighteenth birthday, but he shrugged his shoulders. “It's fine. It's just a birthday. You'll be there for the next one.”

I wanted to tell him that if the war went as long as the last ones, I might not be, but didn't have the heart to do it. From the way he looked at me, I am pretty sure he knew anyway. At the end of the day, I gave him a hug and we held it for a good minute before he let me go. “I'll be seeing you, pop.” I told him the same and got into the tram, which whisked me off back toward Augusta.

I was sitting in my chair, reviewing battle reports, when they told me about Pauly. It was two soldiers, men I didn't know, wearing dress uniforms and appearing serious and dour.

The war had not been going well. It had been two years and we still couldn't figure out where the Eridanians were building their ships. We'd scoured the local arm looking for them, but they were doing a good job hiding them. About the only thing we'd finally discovered was how they kept managing to rebuild so quickly.

When stressed, an Eridanian can bud all four of their arms off at once. This meant the Eridanian would die, because it had no way to feed itself. Instead, its offspring devoured the body. Once the offspring had grown its own body, they could each do the same thing. We figured out that this process could be repeated every three months, so one Eridanian could become 256 in about the time it took for one human to be born.

Of course, not every Eridanian could afford to do this, else they'd have no leaders, no teachers, no scientists. But enough did it to replenish their numbers over and over each time we brought them near the brink of extinction.

The two men they'd sent to me saluted and I saluted back and told them to be easy. “We have some unfortunate news, sir,” the slightly older of the two said. He had several medals pinned to his chest for valor and bravery. The other man was similarly decorated. They had to pick men like these for this sort of news.

I'd known Pauly had signed up for the military. There was no way I couldn't know. Casey told me I should try to have him assigned to my command, but I knew that would never fly. I could have swung some favors and had it done, but if I had, I'd always have him placed in the reserve, away from danger, and he would regret me the rest of his life.

He was part of a fireteam that was trying to clear a path to a bunker. His team came under fire and one of his team was injured by an explosive. He ran out to pull the teammate back to cover and was killed by a Eridanian sniper.

I thanked the men for bringing the news to me and dismissed them. When they were gone, I sat in my chair and cried for a good long while. I should have been going over the battle reports and I knew many other good men who had lost family in the war and had kept plugging right along, but I had to cry. When I was finished crying, I made a call to Anne.

She already knew. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her lips raw where she'd been biting them. “Why didn't you do something?” she asked me. I told her there was nothing I could have done. “You could have protected him! You could have not let him enlist!” She ranted at me for a good hour and I let her. I tried to placate her a few times, but I could see it wasn't working. Eventually, she got it all out, and she started crying again. I wept along with her and kept going even after she stopped.

“I'm sorry,” she said softly. “I shouldn't have blamed you.” I told her it was alright and brushed away my tears. “I know you're busy,” she said. “I'll let you get back to work. Goodbye and... stay safe, please.” I promised her I would and she closed down the link.

I called Casey afterward and told her the news. She got choked up, but didn't cry. “Are you alright?” she asked me. I told her I wasn't, but that I could handle it. We talked for a while and she put Nise on and we talked a bit longer. I told Nise I loved him.

“I love you too dad. I hope the war is over soon.” I told him I did too and asked to talked to his mother, so Casey came back.

“You can retire,” she said to me. “Come home. You don't need to be out there any more. You don't need to be away from me and Nise any more.” I told her I couldn't do that. There was a war to win so that what happened to Pauly wouldn't happen again.

I stood on the right side of the aisle as the last Eridanian was led before the tribunal. It was restrained with cords to keep it from attempting to escape before its time had come. A respirator was strapped over its mouth, feeding it with enough of its own atmosphere so that it wouldn't suffocate. The air was still poisonous to it, but it would die slowly from that. The tribunal, three justices selected from the highest courts on Earth, looked down at it from their podiums. This was a sham trial, of course. The decision had been made long ago.

There were protests, of course. The rallying cry against exterminating the Eridanians. We were called monsters, war criminals. Billions of people were against it. They said we were the modern day Nazis, committing genocide simply because the Eridanians were different.

If that had been true, the decision to destroy them would have been so much easier. But if even one survived, in ten years there would be enough of them to overrun the galaxy again. And the Eridanians did not learn. They could not learn. We had given them the opportunity to coexist with us, but they only knew how to take. Good and evil, right and wrong; no matter how hard we tried, they would not understand these concepts.

I was a general by then and had been fighting the Eridanians since the beginning. I was one of the lucky few invited to attend. In all, only three hundred people, mostly heads of state and high-ranking military officials, had been allowed to come and watch.

I don't know if it was a reward or if I was supposed to find joy in the trial. Maybe I was just supposed to be a witness, someone who could say they saw the last Eridanian get its trial and speak for its people. It didn't matter than the ending was already decided. We were not barbarians, we offered the Eridanian a chance to change the enduring legacy of its kind.

The tribunal asked it questions. Did it understand why it was here? Did it know it was the last Eridanian? Were there any hidden Eridanian populations (we thought there weren't, but of course we could never be sure one didn't survive. But after five years of looking, this was the only one we'd found)? It answered the questions simply, with its high-pitched, sometimes inaudible beeps. A machine spit out its answers, single words. Yes. Yes. No.

The tribunal recounted the Eridanians' crimes. Breaking treaties, attacking civilian populations, genocide (we eventually came across records that the Eridanians had wiped out at least three species that had not achieved space flight), unmitigated expansion and warfare, disregard for the ecologies of planets. The Eridanian did not dispute any of the charges. It was asked if it understood the seriousness of its race's crimes. “I do not understand the question,” it answered through the machine.

“Do you understand what your race did was wrong?” the head justice asked.

The Eridanian paused for a moment, as if thinking. The Eridanians had said they understood right and wrong before, but those had always been lies to protect themselves. Would this Eridanian lie too? “I do not understand the question.”

A murmur went through the assembly. The head justice waited for it to pass, then explained in detail why what the Eridanians had done was wrong. His speech was well written and had been put together by the greatest philosophers and ethicists of the day. I won't record it in full here, because it is pointless. I will always remember how it finished, though.

“The Eridanians are capable of doing good, but they do it by accident, without knowing good is what they should be doing. Because of that, they do wrong far more often. They have brought destruction to the galaxy time and time again, though we have offered them the chance to change their ways. And so the people of Earth... The human race, has come to this sad chapter. Where we do a thing we have denounced time and time again as wrong in order to make things right. Evil actions can never be justified as good, but there are times when evil is the only choice a man has. This tribunal has decided that the only course of action is to exterminate the Eridanians from the galaxy permanently. Do you have any last words? Do you have any legacy you wish to leave, as the last member of the Eridanian species, to future generations and forms of life?”

The Eridanian sat silent for only a moment. It beeped out its single answer, which the machine quickly translated as, “No.”

The high justice shook his head and said, “Then with the authority of the people of Earth, I hereby order your execution. May God have mercy on all our souls.”

The Eridanian was led off to be executed, leaving humanity alone in the world once again.

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