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The Eagle Has Landed
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2005 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the anthology
edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW Books, 2005).
I've spent a lot of time watching Earth more than forty
of that planet's years. My arrival was in response to the signal
from our automated probe, which had detected that the
paper-skinned bipedal beings of that world had split the atom.
The probe had served well, but there were some things only a
living being could do properly, and assessing whether a lifeform
should be contacted by the Planetary Commonwealth was one.
It would have been fascinating to have been present for that
first fission explosion: it's always a fabulous thing when a new
species learns to cleave the atom, the dawn for them of a new and
wondrous age. Of course, fission is messy, but one must glide
before one can fly; all known species that developed fission soon
moved on to the clean energy of controlled fusion, putting an end
to need and want, to poverty, to scarcity.
I arrived in the vicinity of Earth some dozen Earth-years after
that first fission explosion but I could not set down upon
Earth, for its gravity was five times that of our homeworld. But
its moon had a congenial mass; there I would weigh slightly less
than I did at home. And, just like our homeworld, which, of
course, is itself the moon of a gas-giant world orbiting a double
star, Earth's moon was tidally locked, constantly showing the
same face to its primary. It was a perfect place for me to land
my starbird and observe the goings-on on the
blue-and-white-and-infrared world below.
This moon, the sole natural satellite of Earth, was devoid of
atmosphere, bereft of water. I imagined our homeworld would be
similar if its volatiles weren't constantly replenished by
material from Chirp-cluck-CHIRP-chirp, the gas-giant
planet that so dominated our skies; a naturally occurring,
permanent magnetic-flux tube passed a gentle rain of gases onto
The moon that the inhabitants of Earth called "the moon"
(and "La Lune," and a hundred other things) was
depressingly desolate. Still, from it I could easily intercept
the tens of thousands of audio and audiovisual transmissions
spewing out from Earth and with a time delay of only four
wingbeats. My starbird's computer separated the signals one from
the other, and I watched and listened.
It took that computer most of a smallyear to decipher all the
different languages this species used, but, by the year
being a planet, not a moon, Earth had only one kind of year
the Earth people called 1958, I was able to follow
everything that was happening there.
I was at once delighted and disgusted. Delighted, because I'd
learned that in the years since that initial atomic test
explosion had triggered our probe, the natives of this world had
launched their first satellite. And disgusted, because almost
immediately after developing fission, they had used those
phenomenal energies as weapons against their own kind. Two
cities had been destroyed, and bigger and more devastating bombs
were still being developed.
Were they insane, I wondered? It had never occurred to me that a
whole species could be unbalanced, but the initial fatal
bombings, and the endless series of subsequent test explosions of
bigger and bigger weapons, were the work not of crazed
individuals but of the governments of this world's most powerful
I watched for two more Earth years, and was about to file my
report quarantine this world; avoid all contact
when my computer alerted me to an interesting signal coming from
the planet. The leader of the most populous of the nations on
the western shore of the world's largest ocean was making a
speech: "Now it is time," he was saying, "to take longer
strides" apparently significant imagery for a walking
species "time for a great new American enterprise; time
for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space
achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on
Yes, I thought. Yes. I listened on, fascinated.
"I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the
goal, before this decade" a cluster of ten Earth years
"is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him
safely to the Earth ..."
Finally, some real progress for this species! I tapped the ERASE
node with a talon, deleting my still-unsent report.
At home, these "Americans," as their leader had called them, were
struggling with the notion of equality for all citizens,
regardless of the color of their skin. I know, I know to
beings such as us, with frayed scales ranging from gold to green
to purple to ultraviolet, the idea of one's coloration having any
significance seems ridiculous, but for them it had been a major
concern. I listened to hateful rhetoric: "Segregation now,
segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" And I listened to
wonderful rhetoric: "I have a dream that one day this nation
will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We
hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created
equal.'" And I watched as public sentiment shifted from
supporting the former to supporting the latter, and I confess
that my dorsal spines fluttered with emotion as I did so.
Meanwhile, Earth's fledgling space program continued:
single-person ships, double-person ships, the first dockings in
space, a planned triple-person ship, and then ...
And then there was a fire at the liftoff facility. Three
"humans" one of the countless names this species gave
itself were dead. A tragic mistake: pressurized space
vehicles have a tendency to explode in vacuum, of course, so
someone had landed on the idea of pressurizing the habitat (the
"command module," they called it) at only one-fifth of normal, by
eliminating all the gases except oxygen, normally a fifth part of
Earth's atmosphere ...
Still, despite the horrible accident, the humans went on. How
could they not?
And, soon, they came here, to the moon.
I was present at that first landing, but remained hidden. I
watched as a figure in a white suit hopped off the last rung of a
ladder and fell at what must have seemed to it a slow rate. The
words the human spoke echo with me still: "That's one small step
for man, one giant leap for mankind."
And, indeed, it truly was. I could not approach closely, not
until they'd departed, but after they had, I walked over
even in my environmental sack, it was easy to walk here on my
wingclaws. I examined the lower, foil-wrapped stage of their
landing craft, which had been abandoned here. My computer could
read the principal languages of this world, having learned to do
so with aid of educational broadcasts it had intercepted. It
informed me that the plaque on the lander said, "Here men from
the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969, A.D.
We came in peace for all mankind."
My spines rippled. There was hope for this race. Indeed,
during the time since that speech about longer strides, public
opinion had turned overwhelmingly against what seemed to be a
long, pointless conflict being fought in a tropical nation. They
didn't need quarantining; all they needed, surely, was a little
Fickle, fickle species! Their world made only three and half
orbits around its solitary sun before what was announced to be
the last journey here, to the moon, was completed. I was
stunned. Never before had I known a race to turn its back on
space travel once it had begun; one might as well try to crawl
back into the shards of one's egg ...
But, incredibly, these humans did just that. Oh, there were some
perfunctory missions to low orbit, but that was all.
Yes, there had been other accidents one on the way to the
moon, although there were no casualties; another, during which
three people died when their vessel depressurized on reentry.
But those three were from another nation, called "Russia," and
that nation continued its space efforts without missing a
wingbeat. But soon Russia's economy collapsed of course!
This race still hadn't developed controlled fusion;
indeed, there was a terrible, terrible accident at a fission
power-generating station in that nation shortly before it fell
Still, perhaps the failure of Russia had been a good thing. Not
that there was anything inherently evil about it, from what I
could tell indeed, in principle, it espoused the values
that all other known civilized races share but it was the
rivalry between it and the nation that had launched the inhabited
ships to the moon that had caused an incredible escalation of
nuclear-weapons production. Finally, it seemed, they would
abandon that madness ... and perhaps if abandoning space
exploration was the price to pay for that, maybe, just maybe, it
was worth it.
I was in a quandary. I had spent much longer here than I'd
planned to and I'd as yet filed no report. It's not that
I was eager to get home my brood had long since grown up
but I was getting old; my frayed scales were losing their
flexibility, and they were tinged now with blue. But I still
didn't know what to tell our homeworld.
And so I crawled back into my cryostasis nest. I decided to have
the computer awaken me in one of our bigyears, a time
approximately equal to a dozen Earth years. I wondered what I
would find when I awoke ...
What I found was absolute madness. Two neighboring countries
threatening each other with nuclear weapons; a third having
announced that it, too, had developed such things; a fourth being
scrutinized to see if it possessed them; and a fifth the
one that had come to the moon for all mankind saying it
would not rule out first strikes with its nuclear weapons.
No one was using controlled fusion. No one had returned to the
Shortly after I awoke, tragedy struck again: seven humans were
aboard an orbital vehicle called Columbia a reused
name, a name I'd heard before, the name of the command module
that had orbited the moon while the first lander had come down to
the surface. Columbia broke apart during reentry,
scattering debris over a wide area of Earth. My dorsal spines
fell flat, and my wing claws curled tightly. I hadn't been so
sad since one of my own brood had died falling out of the sky.
Of course, my computer continued to monitor the broadcasts from
the planet, and it provided me with digests of the human
I was appalled.
The humans were saying that putting people into space was too
dangerous, that the cost in lives was too high, that there was
nothing of value to be done in space that couldn't be done better
This from a race that had spread from its equatorial birthplace
by walking walking! to cover most of their
world; only recently had mechanical devices given them the
ability to fly.
But now they could fly. They could soar. They could go
to other worlds!
But there was no need, they said, for intelligent judgment out in
space, no need to have thinking beings on hand to make decisions,
to exalt, to experience directly.
They would continue to build nuclear weapons. But they wouldn't
leave their nest. Perhaps because of their messy, wet mode of
reproduction, they'd never developed the notion of the stupidity
of keeping all one's eggs in a single container ...
So, what should I have done? The easiest thing would have been
to just fly away, heading back to our homeworld. Indeed, that's
what the protocols said: do an evaluation, send in a report,
Yes, that's what I should have done.
That's what a machine would have done. A robot probe
would have just followed its programming.
But I am not a robot.
This was unprecedented.
It required judgment.
I could have done it at any point when the side of the moon
facing the planet was in darkness, but I decided to wait until
the most dramatic possible moment. With a single sun, and being
Earth's sole natural satellite, this world called the moon
was frequently eclipsed. I decided to wait until the next such
event was to occur a trifling matter to calculate. I
hoped that a disproportionately large number of them would be
looking up at their moon during such an occurrence.
And so, as the shadow of Earth the shadow of that crazy
planet, with its frustrating people, beings timid when it came to
exploration but endlessly belligerent toward each other
moved across the moon's landscape, I prepared. And once the
computer told me that the whole of the side of the moon facing
Earth was in darkness, I activated my starbird's laser beacons,
flashing a ruby light that the humans couldn't possibly miss, on
and off, over and over, through the entire period of totality.
They had to wait eight of Earth's days before the part of the
moon's face I had signaled them from was naturally in darkness
again, but when it was, they flashed a replying beacon up at me.
They'd clearly held off until the nearside's night in hopes that
I would shine my lasers against the blackness in acknowledgment.
And I did just that once, so there would be no doubt that
I was really there. But although they tried flashing various
patterns of laser light back at me prime numbers,
pictograms made of grids of dots I refused to respond
There was no point in making it easy for them. If they wanted to
talk further, they would have to come back up here.
Maybe they'd use the same name once again for their ship:
I crawled back into my cryostasis nest, and told the computer to
wake me when humans landed.
"That's not really prudent," said the computer. "You should also
specify a date on which I should wake you regardless. After all,
they may never come."
"They'll come," I said.
"Perhaps," said the computer. "Still ..."
I lifted my wings, conceding the point. "Very well. Give
them ..." And then it came to me, the perfect figure ... "until
this decade is out."
After all, that's all it took the last time.
• The End •
If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning
science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his
bestselling novels a try? The opening chapters of each of them are
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