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Chapter 7

December 02, 2086

It was a beautiful winter’s day in Tampa, Florida, and Rain was enjoying every minute of it. Emory was taking its winter break and she was taking her own break in warm, sunny south Florida. The temperature was in the mid-’70s, the sky was blue with barely a cloud visible, and Rain was on her way to meet with two fellow first-contact team members for an unofficial gathering in a quaint bar near the Tampa Museum of Art. Rain could taste her first margarita of the afternoon already, even though she was still ten minutes away. Strolling down the Tampa Riverwalk, Rain cleared her head and thought about as little as possible, other than where she was going, as she enjoyed the day. It was a good day.

As she came closer, she saw Julia, who still chaired the committee, sitting with Dr. Roger Young, one of the committee’s recent additions. Both already had their afternoon drinks in hand as she approached. They waved her over.

“Julia, it’s good to see you,” Rain said, leaning over to hug her longtime colleague.

“Hi, Rain!” Julia seemed excited to see her.

“And Roger, it’s a pleasure to see you again as well,” she added as she gave him a less familiar, basically perfunctory, hug.

“Have a seat,” Julia motioned to a chair.

They exchanged pleasantries until after the waiter had taken Rain’s order and returned with her Charred Orange Margarita.

“Okay Julia, what’s this all about? You didn’t come to Tampa just to share drinks with me along the bay,” Rain said, getting to the point.

“Rain, you’re correct. Roger and his team have uncovered some information from the Proximan data that you need to know about. It’s interesting and, if his conclusions are correct, will have major repercussions. Major ones,” Julia said.

“Dr. Gilster. What do you know about human population growth over time, particularly in the twentieth century?” asked Roger.

“Not much, other than at one time people thought we were on the cusp of population doomsday and that Thomas Malthus was going to get his revenge,” she replied.

He laughed. “It is a common misconception, you see, that the Malthusian model has any correlation with reality at all. The model claims exponential population growth that really doesn’t represent any known species, especially if you include species competition. Fortunately for us, Malthus didn’t take into account the miracles of modern agricultural productivity and the fact that educated and/or working women tend to have fewer children. And that wars, famines, pandemics, and other nonlinear forcing functions get injected randomly into any population. The Earth likely reached its peak population a few decades ago and the population growth rate has since become negative. Our numbers have been declining at a steady, but manageable rate especially with the exodus to the Moon, Mars, the Belt, and other places throughout the system.”

“Uh-huh,” Rain nodded.

“We didn’t outstrip the planet’s food-bearing capacity and just about everyone’s standard of living has been increasing for over a hundred years. But in the 1950s we didn’t know that would happen. The population was increasing, thanks to modern medicine increasing everyone’s lifespan generally, and children’s in particular. Childhood mortality dropped dramatically as we discovered and began using antibiotics, vaccines, etcetera. The intelligentsia of the world wondered if we could, in fact, continue to outrun Malthus’s predictions as the world population seemed to be exploding. Even the Nobel Prize–winning physicist Enrico Fermi fell into the fallacy of the Malthusian exponential population growth model. Of course, the Lotka-Voltera model, the more modern Dupuy models, and those of Lanchester’s Laws predicted much better what was going on and what may or may not happen. God only knows why Fermi had never heard of Lanchester’s Laws as they were developed in the early nineteen hundreds—but I digress.” He paused to accept the refill on the drink the waiter had brought. “Thank you.”

“Hang in there, Rain. It gets more interesting,” Julia assured her.

Roger continued, “The math of Malthus was shown to be highly flawed and even the basis of the old nonsensical Fermi Paradox from the twentieth century. The Proximans have certainly laid that silly paradox to rest for us and therefore a final nail in the Malthusian model’s coffin—as if it needed it. Fortunately for us, we were able to predict better with the more accurate and actual data-based models what resources needed to be where and so on over the decades. In the end, Mother Nature and the solar system have provided us with far more than our population needs at the moment and for the next, maybe, thousand years or even longer? Hard to predict that far out.”

“Go on, I’m listening,” said Rain with a slight grin. “I’m not a population expert apparently.”

“What was the world’s population in, say, 1900? Would you like to guess?”

“About a billion?” Rain replied, tentatively, uncomfortable guessing at something outside her realm of knowledge and expertise like a contestant on a gameshow.

“Close. A little more than one and a half billion. What about in 1960?”

“That was the time we had the medical breakthroughs you just mentioned, correct? Penicillin, the polio vaccine, etcetera. So, I’d say it doubled. Three billion,” she said.

“And you would be correct. In 1960, the world population was three billion and growing. By 1980 it was about four and a half billion and by 2015 it was over seven billion. Everyone in the world could see the ‘population bomb,’ as they called it, coming right at them. At that time, our population was still growing mostly along the simplified Malthusian model, but it did start to change about five or six decades later.”

“Thanks for the demographic history lesson. Are you trying to tell me the Proximans are facing their own Malthusian population crisis or something?” Rain asked, looking at Julia.

“Let him keep going. You need to hear the whole story before you begin making conclusions,” she replied, taking a sip from her drink.

Roger took out his datapad and pulled up some graphs onto the display.

“Look at this,” he said, pointing to a curve showing population as a function of what they now knew as Proximan years along the x-axis. “Remember, we estimate the Proximans are experiencing now the basic equivalent of our 1950s: radio, fax machines, industrial automation, cars, aircraft, etcetera. Even the beginnings of a fledgling space program. We’ve seen it all in the data they’ve sent. In pictures, stories, and throughout their Encyclopedia—their recent history basically parallels the Earth’s twentieth century, minus the world wars. They don’t seem to have had as many major wars as we. Not that they are without conflict, they most certainly are not, they just haven’t had wars of the scale we’ve experienced here, which is curious.”

Rain looked at the curve and saw a steady population increase until about two earth decades before the present, where the curve went flat and might have even begun to decline.

“It’s leveled off.”

“Yes. And what does that tell you?”

“They saw the dangers of overpopulation and decided to do something about it. Maybe they decided to not reproduce themselves into a crisis, sort of like the Chinese did with their ‘one child’ policy.”

“That’s possible and what I thought when I looked at the data in isolation. But when I looked at other factors, I reached a very different conclusion,” Roger said.

Rain looked at Julia, who merely looked back and then nodded toward Roger, gently nudging him to continue.

“Look at these photos from the many faxes we’ve received. Do you see any interesting trends?”

Rain took his datapad and began to scroll through the hundreds of pictures they’d intercepted that included people. She began with the family picture she’d first decoded in what seemed like another lifetime. She paused as she looked at the two men, the woman, and the five children she had stared at so many times that she had every detail memorized. The next picture showed a group of about fifteen people outside what looked like an apartment building. The next showed a large group of people in some sort of park picnicking. She looked at picture after picture, each showing groups of two or more people, most wearing some variation of the robe style they’d become accustomed to seeing the Proximans wear, until she finally put the pad down, exasperated.

“Okay. The Proximans like to be in groups. I can see that. What am I supposed to see?” Rain asked.

“Look at them again, and this time tell me the rough distribution of men versus women in the photos. Not just adults. Look at the sex of everyone and let me know what you see,” said Roger. His face was deadpan, almost ashen.

Rain flipped through the pictures again, saying out loud, “Two men, five boys, and one woman. Twelve men and three women. Five men, one woman, and two boys. Twenty boys, two men, and no women. Three boys. Eight men. One woman. What are they? Misogynist? Have we found a culture that hates or enslaves women?”

“I don’t think so. Look again at the pictures and estimate the ages of the women you see. And tell me how many young girls you find.”

Rain hurriedly flipped through the same photos and rapidly moved to the next several that she had not looked at previously. Her pace increased as she searched each for the number of women and girls. Finally, she stopped and looked up.

“I didn’t see a woman that looked younger than twenty-five years old and no girls. None. What the hell is going on?”

“We don’t know for sure, but based on the population data, the pictures, and from what we’ve pulled from their radio broadcasts, we think they are experiencing some sort of reproduction problem where few or no girls are being born. And perhaps haven’t been born for some time. If they are human, and all indications are that they are, then their female-to-male birth ratio should be about the same as ours: one hundred girls born to every one hundred and five males. Roughly fifty/fifty. It looks like their ratio is now zero girls, or close to it, for every one hundred males.”

“If that’s true, and no girls are being born, then they are going extinct. Rapidly,” Rain said.

“That’s what we think. I’m calling a closed-door meeting of the committee in two weeks to present this data. From there, if it holds and we haven’t overlooked something that causes us to reinterpret it, I plan to recommend that we begin sending everything we know about biology, genetics, and genetic engineering to them as soon as we can. We’ve got to educate them from 1950s biology to 2080s biology, and soon, or there won’t be anyone there left to talk to before long. They will die off,” Julia said.

“It’s worse than that,” Roger said.

“Really. How so?” asked Rain.

“Women keep men civilized. Competition for the affections of women can provoke men to jealousy, rage, and violence. As with any declining resource—if you will excuse my utilitarian terminology, I mean no disrespect—when the supply of a valuable resource gets low, competition can get ugly. Their society may collapse long before the last woman dies off. I give them ten to fifteen years, tops,” Roger said, not looking either woman in the eye.

“Roger, in my gut I find your utilitarian language to be insulting. I am not a commodity. But I know that in most of human history, women were possessions. Taken during wars to be the sex slaves of the victors. Women were married off to the sons of competing clans to try and keep the clans from fighting each other. In some countries today, women are treated only a little better than property. I won’t let my gut overrule what my head tells me and that is that you are, unfortunately, likely to be correct. Our ‘civilized behavior’ is only as deep as our wealth and prosperity allow it to be. Take away the veneer of that civilization, and we would be no better than our ancestors with the physically strong taking what he, usually a ‘he,’ wants from whomever he can take it,” Julia said.

“Can we bring their knowledge of biology forward fast enough for them to fix whatever is causing this lack-of-women problem?” asked Rain.

“That’s a good question. We don’t know what’s causing it and we’re assuming that our technology and medical knowledge are advanced enough to fix it, whatever ‘it’ is. That might be a bad assumption, even if we do find a way to get them as proficient in bioengineering as we are,” added Julia.

“They haven’t even told us there is a problem. What if it isn’t genetic? What if female babies are being born but they’re dying young or born dead? Maybe it’s a virus, or a bacterium, or something else in their environment—perhaps their equivalent to Thalidomide,” said Roger.

“Thalidomide?” asked Rain.

“It was a drug developed in the 1950s to treat depression. It was widely given to pregnant women and resulted in severe birth defects to a sizable fraction of a generation before it was banned. My point is, this could be an environmentally introduced, completely artificial problem, perhaps an unanticipated effect from some global immunization campaign. Who knows?” said Roger.

“I need another drink,” Rain replied, motioning to the waiter.

“Make that two,” Julia agreed.

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