The last of the Ruim—quiet, hulking, magisterial—lived in a tribe of fifty in a forest of ruined skyscrapers at the edge of the sea.
Among the rusted artifacts of their civilization, they reminded me a little of elephants in some great boneyard, trudging through bushwhacked paths of razorbriar on four stubby legs and impervious in their brown leathern skin. They even had trunks like elephants, ten meters long and coiled like firehoses, with fronds of white tendrils from base to tip.
They expected me; I am not sure how. Per the usual protocols, the Archive for Endangered Civilizations hadn’t announced my visit, and the Ruim had no working communications array even if it had.
One of the Ruim received me at the landing site regardless.
He led me through the tangled wreckage of the city, under bowers of bent rebar, through kaleidoscopes of broken steel, taking the lead down the mossy slope of what had once been a canal.
Along the way, I asked him questions through my translator ring.
Is it true your species never developed a written language?
If that is so, how did you build such great cities?
And why didn’t you try to restore them after the collapse?
Most of all I wanted to find their holosims to bring back to the Archive for safekeeping.
But the Ruim kept silent as he led on.
The canal brought us to a levee overtaken by swordgrass and medusa ivy, where ponds flickered like hauberks with insects. Ahead lay a feral union of park and treatment plant, walled in by tumbledown tenements. A good hiding place from the scavenger drones that several greedy species had loosed on the world since its fall.
“The holosims,” I asked again. “Are they here?”
The Ruim’s silence annoyed me.
His species had invented little else in the way of culture. Sure, they had a concept of language. But it was a language rooted in numbers and abstract propositions rather than in metaphors and impressions like our own. A language of logic, cold and efficient. Yet with it, they’d leapt from farming to factories in three hundred Earth-years and from factories to computers in twenty, enriching millions of their kind without wrecking their biosphere in the process and pushing the boundaries of science further than a unistellar species had ever pushed it before.
Only after running out of problems had the Ruim turned to the matter of leisure. Without stories, holosims must have seemed a logical diversion: playgrounds in virtual reality where they could explore nature, solve mathematical puzzles, partake in orgies. Through holosims the Ruim learned falsehoods could be as beautiful as truths—so beautiful, they’d gradually replaced the will to maintain civilization.
We crossed a narrow isthmus of concrete between two decrepit filtration tanks, their flocculators furry with moss. Another Ruim, oblivious to the two of us, sat hunched over a tank with all ten meters of his trunk unspooled upon the grey water, the fronds of white tendrils splayed like lily pads or shut like flytraps with prey.
When I asked about the holosims again, my guide rumbled softly, “I am sixty-two times your body weight, yet you are the one demanding answers. Your boldness is a wonder to me. Be patient, Kahurangi, for you will see our relics soon.”
He knew my name. My finger went to the emergency comm strapped to my wrist. Was I walking into a trap?
The Ruim explained. “A name is not something you have. It is something you are. It is written on your brow, along with much else about you. Can you read mine, Kahurangi?”
Baffled, I gazed at the high wrinkled slope of brown skin. “Of course not.”
“Are you certain? Look close.”
Now I saw it. Though the wrinkles didn’t shift, they became a script that some small ancient part of me knew. The word had no equal in our tongue, but an approximation would be Hepoch. “There’s something in your air,” I said woozily. “A chemical or something…affecting my thoughts….”
“Now you notice?” The Ruim shuddered with a soundless laugh. “It is true. Tiny ashes from the time of the Purge. They carry their power with them upon the winds of the world.”
“You burned the holosims?” I said, aghast.
I could imagine the Ruim piling millions of silicon wafers into bonfires as big as trapped suns, desperate to break free of their spell, to escape the hedonism that had claimed so many species before them.
“Our ancestors believed that by destroying our pleasures, they were preventing our downfall,” said Hepoch. “They did not understand that we are better this way, that this is our highest state of being.”
More words began to appear in the rich red bark of the acheron trees, in the twists of vines, in the coils of razorbriar, in the labyrinthine creases of my palm. Words everywhere, in the same ornate script. Though they were in the Ruim language, I knew what they meant. They were the names of the things themselves, as though the world were still being written.
“This ash,” I said, for I could smell it now, “doesn’t smell like silicon. It smells like….”
“Ink?” he ventured.
“But that does not make sense.”
My guide asked me, “Did you never question the stories about us? It is no wonder. Few of your kind have graced this world, so you have learned of us secondhand.”
One of the concrete ziggurats of the treatment plant appeared beyond a stand of razorbriar; I hurried toward it, my heart thudding with excitement, ignoring the painful pricks and Hepoch’s command to stay near him. The relics were here; I could feel it.
A Ruim seized me with his trunk as I approached the stairs—and would’ve crushed me like a chestnut had I not given my name first.
“The Expected One,” he told a pair of Ruim guarding the ziggurat.
“Are you sure?” asked one.
My captor read my forehead. “It is he.”
“I must see them,” I said.
After their own silent scrutiny, the guards brought me into a derelict control room. There, upon four concrete daises surrounded by flickering braziers, lay four open books as thick as antique chests.
I shook my head in disbelief. “My teachers said you had no written language.”
“And we did not,” rumbled one of the Ruim, “until we tired of our holosims.”
As Hepoch caught up with me, he said, “We craved deeper pleasures than holosims could give. Pleasures more intricate and subtle. So we made these. Composed them with a special ink whose fumes reach into the root-language of all sentient beings so that one day we might pass them down for preservation.”
Full of nervous wonder, I examined the book closest to me.
The open pages were black as though charred. Only once I squinted could I see the cramped script, hundreds of words to a row and hundreds of rows to a page, the same script I’d hallucinated on my journey.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “These were the cause of your downfall? Books?”
“And what downfall is that?” asked Hepoch. “We have never been more content. Read, and you shall know what I mean.”
So I did, inhaling the pungent fumes of the ink.
It began as a story of a Ruim farmer at the dawn of civilization and followed his life through famines and conquests and wars, and many other things. A more sprawling story than any I’d read, yet more intimate in its details too: I could smell the blooming of nightflowers on the road back from a market, could taste the whiff of sulfur from a distant siege.
Slowly, delicately, the story expanded into the lives of the farmer’s children, then grandchildren, their births and loves, triumphs and defeats, and then into the fates of towns and cities, their rises and falls, their adaption to strange new technologies, and all of this with a tenderness and humor and passion that made me ashamed to have doubted the emotional depth of such a species.
So much beauty, suppressed for centuries.
So much feeling that had languished without the art to set it free.
Hepoch gently pulled me away from the book despite my pleas to read further. “Many have starved to death for want of the next page. Yet you must live to save these treasures, Kahurangi.”
Treasures. The word did not begin to encompass their beauty.
“How many are left?” I asked, holding back tears.
“And before the Purge?”
No one answered, for they knew the number would crush me.
“I will preserve them,” I vowed. “On my life, I will preserve them.”
And the four Ruim knelt in quiet gratitude.
For the first time, I did not pity them, nor lament the collapse of their civilization. Countless advanced species had succumbed to the pleasures of holosims; only one had succumbed to the pleasures of books, and no finer oblivion had I seen.