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´╗┐Title: Later Than You Think
Author: Leiber, Fritz
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Later Than You Think" ***

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                         Later Than You Think

                            By FRITZ LEIBER

            It's much later. The question is ... how late?

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                 Galaxy Science Fiction October 1950.
            Extensive research did not uncover any evidence
        that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Obviously the Archeologist's study belonged to an era vastly distant
from today. Familiar similarities here and there only sharpened the
feeling of alienage. The sunlight that filtered through the windows in
the ceiling had a wan and greenish cast and was augmented by radiation
from some luminous material impregnating the walls and floor. Even the
wide desk and the commodious hassocks glowed with a restful light.
Across the former were scattered metal-backed wax tablets, styluses,
and a pair of large and oddly formed spectacles. The crammed bookcases
were not particularly unusual, but the books were bound in metal and
the script on their spines would have been utterly unfamiliar to the
most erudite of modern linguists. One of the books, lying open on a
hassock, showed leaves of a thin, flexible, rustless metal covered
with luminous characters. Between the bookcases were phosphorescent oil
paintings, mainly of sea bottoms, in somber greens and browns. Their
style, neither wholly realistic nor abstract, would have baffled the
historian of art.

A blackboard with large colored crayons hinted equally at the
schoolroom and the studio.

In the center of the room, midway to the ceiling, hung a fish with
irridescent scales of breathtaking beauty. So invisible was its means
of support that--also taking into account the strange paintings and the
greenish light--one would have sworn that the object was to create an
underwater scene.

The Explorer made his entrance in a theatrical swirl of movement. He
embraced the Archeologist with a warmth calculated to startle that
crusty old fellow. Then he settled himself on a hassock, looked up
and asked a question in a speech and idiom so different from any we
know that it must be called another means of communication rather than
another language. The import was, "Well, what about it?"

If the Archeologist were taken aback, he concealed it. His expression
showed only pleasure at being reunited with a long-absent friend.

"What about what?" he queried.

"About your discovery!"

"What discovery?" The Archeologist's incomprehension was playful.

The Explorer threw up his arms. "Why, what else but your discovery,
here on Earth, of the remains of an intelligent species? It's the find
of the age! Am I going to have to coax you? Out with it!"

"I didn't make the discovery," the other said tranquilly. "I only
supervised the excavations and directed the correlation of material.
_You_ ought to be doing the talking. _You're_ the one who's just
returned from the stars."

"Forget that." The Explorer brushed the question aside. "As soon as
our spaceship got within radio range of Earth, they started to send
us a continuous newscast covering the period of our absence. One of
the items, exasperatingly brief, mentioned your discovery. It captured
my imagination. I couldn't wait to hear the details." He paused, then
confessed, "You get so eager out there in space--a metal-filmed droplet
of life lost in immensity. You rediscover your emotions...." He
changed color, then finished rapidly, "As soon as I could decently get
away, I came straight to you. I wanted to hear about it from the best
authority--yourself."

       *       *       *       *       *

The Archeologist regarded him quizzically. "I'm pleased that you should
think of me and my work, and I'm very happy to see you again. But admit
it now, isn't there something a bit odd about your getting so worked
up over this thing? I can understand that after your long absence from
Earth, any news of Earth would seem especially important. But isn't
there an additional reason?"

The Explorer twisted impatiently. "Oh, I suppose there is.
Disappointment, for one thing. We were hoping to get in touch with
intelligent life out there. We were specially trained in techniques for
establishing mental contact with alien intelligent life forms. Well, we
found some planets with life upon them, all right. But it was primitive
life, not worth bothering about."

Again he hesitated embarrassedly. "Out there you get to thinking of
the preciousness of intelligence. There's so little of it, and it's so
lonely. And we so greatly need intercourse with another intelligent
species to give depth and balance to our thoughts. I suppose I set
too much store by my hopes of establishing a contact." He paused. "At
any rate, when I heard that what we were looking for, you had found
here at home--even though dead and done for--I felt that at least it
was something. I was suddenly very eager. It is odd, I know, to get
so worked up about an extinct species--as if my interest could mean
anything to them now--but that's the way it hit me."

       *       *       *       *       *

Several small shadows crossed the windows overhead. They might have
been birds, except they moved too slowly.

"I think I understand," the Archeologist said softly.

"So get on with it and tell me about your discovery!" the Explorer
exploded.

"I've already told you that it wasn't my discovery," the Archeologist
reminded him. "A few years after your expedition left, there was begun
a detailed resurvey of Earth's mineral resources. In the course of
some deep continental borings, one party discovered a cache--either a
very large box or a rather small room--with metallic walls of great
strength and toughness. Evidently its makers had intended it for the
very purpose of carrying a message down through the ages. It proved to
contain artifacts; models of buildings, vehicles, and machines, objects
of art, pictures, and books--hundreds of books, along with elaborate
pictorial dictionaries for interpreting them. So now we even understand
their languages."

"Languages?" interrupted the Explorer. "That's queer. Somehow one
thinks of an alien species as having just one language."

"Like our own, this species had several, though there were some words
and symbols that were alike in all their languages. These words and
symbols seem to have come down unchanged from their most distant
prehistory."

The Explorer burst out, "I am not interested in all that dry stuff!
Give me the wet! What were they like? How did they live? What did they
create? What did they want?"

The Archeologist gently waved aside the questions. "All in good time.
If I am to tell you everything you want to know, I must tell it my own
way. Now that you are back on Earth, you will have to reacquire those
orderly and composed habits of thought which you have partly lost in
the course of your wild interstellar adventurings."

"Curse you, I think you're just trying to tantalize me."

The Archeologist's expression showed that this was not altogether
untrue. He casually fondled an animal that had wriggled up onto his
desk, and which looked rather more like an eel than a snake. "Cute
little brute, isn't it?" he remarked. When it became apparent that the
Explorer wasn't to be provoked into another outburst, he continued, "It
became my task to interpret the contents of the cache, to reconstruct
its makers' climb from animalism and savagery to civilization, their
rather rapid spread across the world's surface, their first fumbling
attempts to escape from the Earth."

       *       *       *       *       *

"They had spaceships?"

"It's barely possible. I rather hope they did, since it would mean
the chance of a survival elsewhere, though the negative results of
your expedition rather lessen that." He went on, "The cache was laid
down when they were first attempting space flight, just after their
discovery of atomic power, in the first flush of their youth. It was
probably created in a kind of exuberant fancifulness, with no serious
belief that it would ever serve the purpose for which it was intended."
He looked at the Explorer strangely. "If I am not mistaken, we have
laid down similar caches."

After a moment the Archeologist continued, "My reconstruction of their
history, subsequent to the laying down of the cache, has been largely
hypothetical. I can only guess at the reasons for their decline and
fall. Supplementary material has been very slow in coming in, though
we are still making extensive excavations at widely separated points.
Here are the last reports." He tossed the Explorer a small metal-leaf
pamphlet. It flew with a curiously slow motion.

"That's what struck me so queer right from the start," the Explorer
observed, putting the pamphlet aside after a glance. "If these
creatures were relatively advanced, why haven't we learned about them
before? They must have left so many things--buildings, machines,
engineering projects, some of them on a large scale. You'd think we'd
be turning up traces everywhere."

"I have four answers to that," the Archeologist replied. "The first
is the most obvious. Time. Geologic ages of it. The second is more
subtle. What if we should have been looking in the wrong place? I mean,
what if the creatures occupied a very different portion of the Earth
than our own? Third, it's possible that atomic energy, out of control,
finished the race and destroyed its traces. The present distribution of
radioactive compounds throughout the Earth's surface lends some support
to this theory.

"Fourth," he went on, "it's my belief that when an intelligent species
begins to retrogress, it tends to destroy, or, rather, debase all the
things it has laboriously created. Large buildings are torn down to
make smaller ones. Machines are broken up and worked into primitive
tools and weapons. There is a kind of unraveling or erasing. A cultural
Second Law of Thermodynamics begins to operate, whereby the intellect
and all its works are gradually degraded to the lowest level of meaning
and creativity."

       *       *       *       *       *

"But why?" The Explorer sounded anguished. "Why should any intelligent
species end like that? I grant the possibility of atomic power
getting out of hand, though one would have thought they'd have taken
the greatest precautions. Still, it could happen. But that fourth
answer--it's morbid."

"Cultures and civilizations die," said the Archeologist evenly. "That
has happened repeatedly in our own history. Why not species? An
individual dies--and is there anything intrinsically more terrible in
the death of a species than in the death of an individual?"

He paused. "With respect to the members of this one species, I think
that a certain temperamental instability hastened their end. Their
appetites and emotions were not sufficiently subordinated to their
understanding and to their sense of drama--their enjoyment of the
comedy and tragedy of existence. They were impatient and easily
incapacitated by frustration. They seem to have been singularly guilty
in their pleasures, behaving either like gloomy moralists or gluttons.

"Because of taboos and an overgrown possessiveness," he continued,
"each individual tended to limit his affection to a tiny family; in
many cases he focused his love on himself alone. They set great store
by personal prestige, by the amassing of wealth and the exercise of
power. Their notable capacity for thought and manipulative activity was
expended on things rather than persons or feelings. Their technology
outstripped their psychology. They skimped fatally when it came to hard
thinking about the purpose of life and intellectual activity, and the
means for preserving them."

Again the slow shadows drifted overhead.

"And finally," the Archeologist said, "they were a strangely haunted
species. They seem to have been obsessed by the notion that others,
greater than themselves, had prospered before them and then died,
leaving them to rebuild a civilization from ruins. It was from those
others that they thought they derived the few words and symbols common
to all their languages."

"Gods?" mused the Explorer.

The Archeologist shrugged. "Who knows?"

       *       *       *       *       *

The Explorer turned away. His excitement had visibly evaporated,
leaving behind a cold and miserable residue of feeling. "I am not
sure I want to hear much more about them," he said. "They sound
too much like us. Perhaps it was a mistake, my coming here. Pardon
me, old friend, but out there in space even _our_ emotions become
undisciplined. Everything becomes indescribably poignant. Moods
are tempestuous. You shift in an instant from zenith to nadir--and
remember, out there you can see both.

"I was very eager to hear about this lost species," he added in a sad
voice. "I thought I would feel a kind of fellowship with them across
the eons. Instead, I touch only corpses. It reminds me of when, out in
space, there looms up before your prow, faint in the starlight, a dead
sun. They were a young race. They thought they were getting somewhere.
They promised themselves an eternity of effort. And all the while there
was wriggling toward them out of that future for which they yearned ...
oh, it's so completely futile and unfair."

"I disagree," the Archeologist said spiritedly. "Really, your absence
from Earth has unsettled you even more than I first surmised. Look at
the matter squarely. Death comes to everything in the end. Our past
is strewn with our dead. That species died, it's true. But what they
achieved, they achieved. What happiness they had, they had. What they
did in their short span is as significant as what they might have done
had they lived a billion years. The present is always more important
than the future. And no creature can have all the future--it must be
shared, left to others."

"Maybe so," the Explorer said slowly. "Yes, I guess you're right. But
I still feel a horrible wistfulness about them, and I hug to myself
the hope that a few of them escaped and set up a colony on some planet
we haven't yet visited." There was a long silence. Then the Explorer
turned back. "You old devil," he said in a manner that showed his gayer
and more boisterous mood had returned, though diminished, "you still
haven't told me anything definite about them."

"So I haven't," replied the Archeologist with guileful innocence.
"Well, they were vertebrates."

"Oh?"

"Yes. What's more, they were mammals."

       *       *       *       *       *

"Mammals? I was expecting something different."

"I thought you were."

The Explorer shifted. "All this matter of evolutionary categories is
pretty cut-and-dried. Even a knowledge of how they looked doesn't
mean much. I'd like to approach them in a more intimate way. How did
they think of themselves? What did they call themselves? I know the
word won't mean anything to me, but it will give me a feeling--of
recognition."

"I can't say the word," the Archeologist told him, "because I haven't
the proper vocal equipment. But I know enough of their script to be
able to write it for you as they would have written it. Incidentally,
it is one of those words common to all their languages, that they
attributed to an earlier race of beings."

The Archeologist extended one of his eight tentacles toward the
blackboard. The suckers at its tip firmly grasped a bit of orange
crayon. Another of his tentacles took up the spectacles and adjusted
them over his three-inch protruding pupils.

The eel-like glittering pet drifted back into the room and nosed
curiously about the crayon as it traced:

                                  RAT





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