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Leaving Night

1.

Very quietly, in the dark of night, people began disappearing.

Later research showed that they vanished while in their deepest sleep. The few available videos of sleeping people revealed that the air around them shimmered for a few seconds amid a soft humming sound. The bodies seemed to shrink to nothing. They were simply gone, leaving clothes behind. Seldom did the event even wake mates asleep beside them.

Consternation grew as wives woke beside empty pajamas, still warm. Wailing mothers searched for their children, husbands frantically sought families. In a few regions, whole towns stood empty. Cars had run out of control into deserted buildings. Airplanes fell from the sky, but the victim count was much below the passenger manifest number. Recorded in-flight messages said that pilots had disappeared and as the airplanes fell, many passengers had vanished, too.

The wave of disappearances swept around the world as it rotated, through what came to be termed “Leaving Night.” Most losses occurred in the early hours past midnight. Gray dawns greeted empty streets in Arabia, but full teeming avenues in Europe, for the vanishings varied greatly as the Earth turned.

The horrified world slowly made do. The final toll was approximately a third of humanity, gone in a single rotation of the earth. A few occupations were badly affected, especially agriculture. Family farms stood empty; cows mooed to be milked. Firefighters and police, soldiers in most countries, those who faced risk every day—gone. Those who had seen combat and people who had lived through life-threatening illnesses also had few remaining. Apparently those who worked in constant close contact with the vagrant forces of the real world needed a belief that got them through their days—and that led to their disappearance. Yet the more hardened and cynical of these groups, especially the police, did not vanish.

Still, despite being the largest disaster—and by far the most mysterious—of all human history, the basic functions of society carried on. As in wartimes, people pulled together. This happened out of brute necessity—amid, of course, great grief at the loss of loved ones.

Of course there was also a lot of searing sex, heavy drinking, drug use and suicides. Depression, bursts of manic elation, somber reflection, plenty of gazing at the stars—people reacted in myriad ways. Some hoped for another Leaving Night to take the remaining people away, but the next night was completely ordinary. Another Leaving Night never happened.

As the days wore on, the aftermath echoed less and people showed resilience few knew they had.

2.

Soon enough, patterns emerged.

Many who had devoted their lives to medical, literacy, and child welfare causes had vanished. The good are gone, many concluded. Some, though by no means all, fundamentalist Christians were missing, as seemed to befit their ideas of a coming Rapture. So too vanished a majority of Muslims, leaving a swath of nations from Morocco to Indonesia half vacant. This seemed odd, since Muslims had no equivalent to the Christian Rapture; their great coming moment was a return of Mohammed or some other charismatic leader, who would establish a Caliph.

The toll included also many Jains, Hindus, some Buddhists, Shinto practitioners, Inuit, and Catholics. So few Mormons remained that the religion collapsed. Scientology suffered the opposite fate—only a handful vanished. These events caused endless embarrassment, discussion, and sarcastic editorial cartoons.

Many felt that God had taken those who truly believed, independent of sect. This soon became the prevailing explanation. Much angry argument followed. Several factions sought to justify the plain flat facts of who, apparently, had actually believed as they professed. No simple explanation could be formulated for why so many avowed Agnostics had also vanished.

Mere church membership or attendance had not sufficed. More men remained than women, a result that provoked often violent disputes. It also led to fierce competition for the women who did remain. This effect was most pronounced in China and India, where gender-selecting abortion had already thinned the ranks of young women in recent decades.

China especially had suffered the lowest Leaving Night loss rate, well under five percent. These were mostly Christian women, so this loss pushed their existing crisis of gender imbalance to emergency levels. Quite quickly this led to the male-saturated areas taking control of nearby depleted regions, especially in India. In China the government used its military to block the streams of men trying to reach provinces where rumor said there were more women.

Even before Leaving Night, China had been suppressing class warfare riots on a daily basis, driven by the growing inequity between the interior and the coast. Since more women vanished inland, the problem piled atop already festering anger. When factions of the Red Army broke away and sided with the rioters—after all, the army was filled with largely deprived men—local government disintegrated. Many died.

These nations’ main rival in the region became the Japan-Australian alliance, which had lost relatively few. Somehow Shinto beliefs, founded on a pantheistic ancestor respect, did not make the cut.

Those termed by the academics “tribal religionists,” “ethnic faiths,” or “animists” had considerable losses, even higher than those among Protestants. The key trait that led to disappearance was a sincere faith. Followers of shamans or outright pagans apparently had surprisingly many sincere adherents, for they became a tiny minority among the remaining religious populations. This was especially so among the “primal-indigenous” religions that were mostly tribal with closely held kinship ties, and composed of pre-technological peoples, especially Voodoo.

Curiously, many Catholic priests survived Leaving Night. So also did most politicians of both sexes, and many theologians. Most strikingly, every living President of the United States, including the current office holder, remained.

Over ninety-five percent of scientists survived Leaving Night, though chemists were in shorter supply. There were oddly large gaps among the Nobel laureates, too—it seemed that a passionate belief in science had constituted a faith in and of itself. Believing that the world has order and beauty at its core, despite entropy and chaos, seemed at base an act of religious import.

Engineering too had few losses. Secular humanists and atheists—all remained. So too did very nearly all the Jews in the world, leading many to call Judaism the “atheist religion.” Unitarian Universalism and the Roma (gypsies) also remained intact.

Interestingly, house pets almost universally vanished. Dogs were a bit more likely to have been taken than cats.

Some called Leaving Night “the Smart Rapture” for those left behind. They inherited the Earth, yet few were meek about it.

3.

Of course, there was no way to tell if the missing had gone to some lofty heaven, another Earth, or had just ceased to exist. No single dogma or prophecy sufficed to explain all those who had vanished. Many celebrated the loss of their opponents on many social issues. Atheists set up a political party. Gay Pride parades ran every week for a while, though straights did not get the logic. Scientists largely ignored all this and got back to work.

But Leaving Night ironically proved that some supernatural power did dwell in our universe. Atheists had a hard time with this. Scientists considered it a non-issue.

Interestingly, later tests showed that the average intelligence quotient of humanity had risen by five points, and the former “bell curve” had a slump in the lower range. Evidently faith was harder for the bright among us. Yet a significant percentage of the truly brilliant from all fields were gone, as well. These had seen atheism as mental, as well as spiritual, arrogance. This had apparently been enough to join the Leaving.

This, plus the sudden lifting of the population burden, brought on a Golden Age for the survivors. There were more homes, businesses, transportation, and food for all to share. This was particularly true in the most poverty-stricken regions, where apparently many truly believed what the local religions dispensed. But those who did the dispensing there remained. Most churches and mosques were still fully staffed, to their embarrassment.

Africa finally had enough to feed its population. China stopped importing food entirely. But the American grain belt had lost many farmers, and some let crops rot in the field.

Such zones as western Europe, eastern Africa, and Australia then appropriated the wealth and vacant lands of their neighbors.

Warfare largely ceased. Some few terrorist groups did remain, but were made conspicuous by their supposedly religious agenda. Removing this camouflage made easy their identification and extermination. Perhaps, their executioners argued, they would end up in some fevered heaven. No one took this argument seriously.

Realizing that lower populations meant prosperity, survivors had surprisingly little birth rate “rebound.” A conventional wisdom grew that the Believers had indeed been taken to a place where their respective heavens awaited. This led many to cease grieving for friends, relatives, and lovers, for after all, those were now in a better place.

This logic appealed to many, though it opened a chasm: What would become of the survivors, those who had not Left? Did Hell await them? The thought could not be dismissed; the People of the Book (Christians, Muslims, some Jews) had held so for millennia. Now there was evidence for it. Evidently Hell was Earth itself.

Was it too late to join the Leaving, perhaps, if one converted now? As this sunk in, churches, temples, and mosques began to enjoy rising attendance.

Or—this thought gnawed at many—would they simply, well, die and vanish forever? The survivors had believed so before the Leaving, but now they had evidence of some supernatural order that could act suddenly, capriciously, with no warning.

The implications were profound. Some took up religion. But which one? The survival statistics of the various faiths then took on a useful aid. Still, among hardcore atheists there were even a few suicides.

Most people struggled with these issues, then decided to put the matter aside. After all, times were better. A long era of world peace began.

4.

Climate change slowed under the lighter press of human numbers, and geoengineering measures offset the worst effects from greenhouse gases. Before the Leaving, both sides in the geoengineering debate had claimed the moral high ground. Some had said that Genesis showed humanity as commanded by God to become the Stewards of the Earth. Others, opposed to knowingly managing the world’s climate, oceans, and biosphere, had accused the religionists of hubris, arrogance, and naïve faith in technology.

The Leaving seemed to resolve this stalemate. The Remaining decided to carry out offsetting measures, such as capturing CO2 from the air and storing it, or using it to offset the growing acidity of the oceans. This worked quite quickly. No one cared that it fulfilled an argument made by the God-fearing, Bible-citing vanished. Everyone simply acknowledged it as merely good engineering practice.

The absence of religious arguments against stem cell research helped a great deal. Over a few decades, rapid, unfettered research in longevity brought the mean lifetime of the Remaining to over a hundred years. Expansion of the space program led to many resources brought across interplanetary distances, spurring still more prosperity. A new creed emerged: “No Heaven but the one we make.”

Naturalists noticed that no wild land animal species had taken any losses whatever; the natural world remained and prospered. But the whales were a mystery. Some remained, but by the time people got around to an inventory, it seemed that a majority had vanished, right around the time of Leaving Night. Though humans still could not speak to whales, or vice versa, it did seem that these great animals also mirrored humanity’s theological differences.

Questions arose about the wild animals. Either they did not believe in an afterlife, if the thought had ever even occurred to dolphins or elephants, or . . . was Heaven, if it existed, only for humans and their pets, plus a few whales? It was a riddle.

Yet many cats and some dogs remained, so apparently pets had some theology after all. But not so among nearly all wild animals. Perhaps they did not need any.

Only later did many people realize that perhaps they, too, were in a place they had sought by not believing in any religion or supernatural agency. The Atheist Heaven? This might mean that they had been brought to their own secular hereafter, one that worked far better for them than the divisive society they had known.

But . . . people kept dying, so if Earth had become sardonically known as the Atheist Heaven, it was not a permanent one. This realization confused the Remaining a good deal.

The ages that followed did nothing to clear away their questions. No further Leaving occurred.

A few centuries later, Earth was again a garden, with only a billion people and verdant wildlands. Even better, many people lived in colonies on Mars or in the asteroid belt. There they mined and innovated and became rich, building habitats that left ample room for forests and lakes. Rotating, hollowed-out asteroids became home to hundreds, then thousands, then millions. There was no limit to the size of such resourceful worlds. People gravitated to their own kind, so colonies based on utopian schemes, or tax plans, or sexual preferences, abounded. Some even formed religious city-states.

All this was further insurance against some sudden catastrophe eradicating humankind.

5.

Still, the fragility of having only one solar system home for our species was an obvious risk. Driven by evolutionary need as well as desire, humanity reached outward to the stars, developing fusion ramjets to explore the Oort cloud, and then on to the very stars—and so a final irony occurred.

Belief in nonbelief was worldwide, though religion had returned among a minority. Rather than hope for heaven, humanity reached out decisively beyond our solar system.

With vast optical gathering systems scientists prowled among the blips of light that were nearby stars. Spectral searches led them to promising glimmers of blue-green. They found a world with a clear ozone absorption line and evidence of an oxygen biosphere. Imagery showed blotchy continents, blue seas, some polar caps. Building long voyage craft took another century, running parallel to the missions that economically developed the outer solar system and the Kuiper Belt. There was no shortage of volunteers for the cold-sleep mission to the nearest Earthlike world.

As the expedition approached a lovely Earthlike planet around a G4 star, eighteen light years distant from Earth, they received a signal. The shocked would-be explorers heard in speech ranging from Anglish to ancient dialects a single hailing message: “Welcome! We’ve been waiting and hoping for you.”

The aliens were humans, the long-missing Faithful of Earth. Dogs slobbered gleefully over arriving explorers from the moment they left their landing craft; cats ignored them as irrelevant. Humpback whales sang their deep and unfolding songs—which were understood at last on this new world. The dazed starfarers witnessed days-long sagas of bone-shaking song that chronicled the great beasts’ passage between the stars, splashing suddenly down into strange seas.

What’s more, there were cows, horses, and those of the highly intelligent or sentient species such as elephants and crows. In the hubbub of the Leaving, their depleted numbers had been largely missed on Earth.

The natives of this world called it Heaven, of course, though some preferred Eden. They had simply woken up, startled and blinking and feeling well rested, amid the forests, mountains and grasslands of this surprisingly hospitable world. The oxygen content was slightly less, gravity a few percent lower. Plants and animals had the right chemistry for food, all the way down to the helicity of their sugars.

The meek, or at least the believing, had inherited another proto-Earth—one remarkably similar to the original. It was a younger version, where evolution had colonized the land with plants but few animals beyond large snail-like foragers—which did at least prove edible; expedition crew dined on escargot steaks. The first generations were necessarily vegetarians, and many starved before they learned the skills of agriculture in the narrow ecology.

If Earth’s had been a Smart Rapture, theirs was the Rough Rapture. Their trauma had been worse than Earth’s. They had missed their many nonbeliever friends and family members, of course. As well, they had to rebuild civilization entirely with their own memories and skills. No technology accompanied them, save for implants and a few eyeglasses or contact lenses worn while sleeping. Compared with Earth, they had fewer engineers, scientists, and tech types. Many who had white collar and service training found themselves learning to sow, till, milk, weed, and harvest. A hard century followed.

Those times they called the Earning—by which they meant the toil of starting anew from scratch, without even tools. They pitched in for grunt labor—foraging, foresting, and farming. These had few charms. Their new world was far harder than a Sierra Club weekend.

But they did it. Their first buildings were churches in which they lived, beginning a new tradition of including a worship sanctuary in each home. Soon enough the Christians began carrying out the Lord’s first command in Genesis: name the beasts, the beginnings of Heavenly biology.

Plainly some power had separated the faithful from the unbelievers. There had been painful costs among each side, and emotional tolls were high. But each society had righted itself and gone on, both sides ever more strongly convinced of their essential correctness.

The mysterious cause of the Leaving gave no further signs. The natives of Heaven were utterly certain only a god could have caused such a supernatural event—though of course they differed greatly over which particular god that might be. There had been religious skirmishes over this, but of late they had damped down such blemishes in Heavenly society.

There was a new Heavenly major religion, devoted to praying for God to manifest physically, so these issues could get settled. Millions yearned for a Voice to speak. Show Yourself to Your anointed! Billions prayed for this. Prayer Days became Prayer Months became Prayer Years.

After a while many gave up. They were stuck on a world much like Earth and . . . what next?

Population rise continued, evidently as each sect raced to outnumber its opponents. There was no answer.

The Earth expedition took a while to recover from meeting those with faith. They had known the religious as a small faction at home, which could safely be ridiculed and ignored. Pieties did not sit well with those who had endured centuries-long voyages, venturing across light years—only to meet ideas they had thought safely relegated to the past.

The Heaven natives rather smugly pointed out that some supernatural force had to lie behind Leaving Night (termed on Heaven “the Miracle” or “Rapture” or “the Coming Forth”).

The Earthers disliked this argument, though obviously it was true. Some expedition members, irked by the certainty of the Believers, even tried to explain the Leaving as a giant quantum mechanical “tunneling” event. The Believers brushed this aside as “wantum mechanics”—science that, with enough hand-waving explanations, could give you any outcome you wanted, especially after the fact. Over this, fighting broke out.

An old saying that the ferocity of belief was inversely proportional to the amount of information available seemed now wrong. Plainly something had caused the Leaving, and science struggled in vain to explain it. So opinions ruled yet again.

And the old conflicts rose as the news returned back to Earth.

6.

I watched with what can best be described, in this language you are reading, as . . . bemusement.

Still, these humans do have a talent, a fine one, for the blissful insolence of joy. That quality makes them among the finest of the Emerged.

I designed the separation experiment to see what this species of unfurred, bipedal, and tool-using primates would make of an inexplicable event. My simpler such experiments in the deep past of this species—momentary large-scale appearances, acts seemingly without cause, reversals of death—had been misunderstood. They could not fathom instruction by example, and so I decided to observe the results on a large scale—a strategy I seldom use. I realized these events had not widened their conceptual range.

So I had let many thousands of their planet cycles pass before attempting a new stratagem. I wished to see if all could yet still agree on one stark fact: Their theology was theory, and now a great Something, as they would put it in their innumerable ways, had carried out a clear experiment. Experiment trumps theory, as they would say, or so I should hope.

The sutras of the Buddha; the Gospels of the executed; the drumming followers immersed in their natural world’s potency; the insights of illiterates in a desert—all those then came into furious play, as their kind developed. This social species needed explanations of their origin, of the universal Origin itself, and what all this meant.

Against this rose applied reason. It too had emerged from evolution itself, with a finely grained discrimination. Reason found no apparent explanation. This is part of the Design.

Such was the classic battle of evolved minds. Their conflicts echoed the felt needs of these short-lived, evolved primates—intelligences I made, through so many long, indirect, and intricate means. So those too were indirectly ordained by impersonal forces launched long before.

Like you, they yearn to escape death. Yet nothing does. This universe cannot both store all that has happened within it, and still evolve dynamically into an infinite future. Fundamental laws of information make that impossible. The primates yearn for such impossibility and so do you. So do I. We shall not have it.

I cannot keep growing unless I can modify fundamental law. To this end I pursue a mechanism: universe experiments. To understand more deeply demands testing, often through trial. This imposes some costs upon matter-based life, which they must bear.

Such explanations have not occurred to the primates. They believe the test was wholly about them.

I learned little from this experiment. Perhaps they had—as I had hoped. But the larger purpose eludes them.

We are in a way equal. Their minds struggle with a substrate world they imagine came from a single great cause. They did not imagine that none, not even I, could comprehend that cause in its entirety. I am finite, as are they, but of a different order.

I of course know far more. Still, the Origin eludes me. I emerged with the physical universe in ways I do not grasp. That word itself, grasp, implies hands like those of primates—yet I have no hands. Language limits.

I am restricted, as is everything in a finite, unbounded, yet expanding universe. I struggle with self-knowing. The lot of everything is to grow, change. My understanding grows as well. It is unlike any way of comprehending that humans have, or even could have. My comprehension arises from the collective properties of the universe itself.

My fate is to not fathom that process, but to experience it—which I do, by trial. Such as the event they called Leaving Night.

So I continue to watch, and only rarely, to act.

The skies shall remain mute over Earth and Heaven alike. There shall not be another Leaving Night.

Some humans now speak of me as God the Ambiguous. I shall not speak. Yet I may act again.

Experiment trumps theory.

© 2013 by Gregory Benford.

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Gregory Benford

Gregory BenfordGregory Benford is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, Phi Beta Kappa, was a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University, and in 1995 received the Lord Prize for contributions to science. A fellow of the American Physical Society, his fiction has won many awards, including the Nebula Award for his novel Timescape. In 2007 he was awarded the Asimov Memorial Award for Popularizing Science.