Fiction – “Diaspora” by Paul Lamb

The question comes inevitably from the brighter students, whose trade it will be one day to address the deeper matters. Each asks in his or her way, with hushed embarrassment or clinical forthrightness. Or disbelief. Fortunately, it is always asked privately, as though the gravity or preposterousness of such speculation is too much to venture before others. That is how it was when I first asked, and it is how each generation seems fated to approach the conundrum until interest finally fades away.

“The accounts we have,” I begin dismissively, “are scarcely to be credited.” Yet the students clever or daring enough to ask will not be deterred, and I see the earnestness in their bright young faces. Their beautiful, hopeful faces.

“As they have been related through the generations, the facts, if we can consider them to be facts, seem to correspond with what we know of our history. The world where our race began, a blue planet called Erth, was dying, and dying more rapidly than even the worst doomsayers dared breathe. The end was inevitable and, they saw, inescapable. You know enough of human nature even at your age to imagine the horror. Fierce competition for scant food and water. Mass slaughter and suicide. Religious mania. Diseases of body and mind.”

Yet my students are too young, too protected and naïve, too removed from such barbarity, to truly comprehend how horrible it must have been. Even I do not let my thoughts linger in such dark places for long. Nor is this darkness what really interests my clever students. Something far less comprehensible has taken root in their minds, and by its very nature demands scrutiny even if to discount it altogether. And so I press on.

“Not everyone at the time believed it was hopeless,” I say, and the profession from each child before me is curiously consistent. Each says something like this: “Our people had hope!”

“Yes, our people did. To escape a dying planet, they dared to suggest transport to distant worlds. Several were thought to exist at the time, and the technology to take such a bold step, though rudimentary, was still available. It would be dangerous, with no guarantee of survival should the ships even reach those distant shores. Most horrible of all, however, was a fact quickly grasped by even the dullest among the howling masses; there would only be room enough for very few to go.

“It was this last fact that most enraged the barbarous ones. If not all could escape, more precisely if they could not escape, then none ought to be allowed to go. No one knows how successful these people were in forcing their conclusions. Yet to be chosen was, in a way, a not much better prospect. Many did not survive long enough even to attempt flight. Once they were identified, they were hunted by those unlike them. To be chosen as worthy of transport, of being suitable for carrying humanity’s character into the future, as unlikely as that future seemed, was to become part of a class that automatically defined an underclass, a murderous underclass.

“Those who survived the hunting, living in protected enclaves long enough for transports to be readied for them and the few score like them, then faced the uncertainty of their escape. We do not know how many ships broke the chains of gravity and left that Erth, but we do know that many did not achieve even that. Certainly the ships were clumsy and unsafe, but whether through sabotage or human error or simply the tremendous odds against their success, many ships exploded on the ground or shortly after liftoff. Some, it is claimed, were shot out of the sky. Several failed to achieve orbit and plunged back to Erth. The journey was long, and many died along the way even if they eluded the other dangers. The risk was enormous and the chance for success small. Worst of all, many were simply never heard from again. Had they found their promised lands or were they fated forever to drift among the stars?”

The young eyes before me are always wide with thrill and terror at this point. But I have provided them with little more than what they already know from their friends. The tale turns, now, to the incredible part, the part that most interests them, and they hold their breath lest they miss any of my words.

“Inevitably, such difficulties brought out the worst even among the best. Everyone knew how few transports were left. Who among the chosen were more worthy to leave and who would have to stay behind? They professed that all were equal, yet each knew his or her own unspoken superiority. Cliques formed. Secret bonds of mutual protection were based on common interest. What, you would ask, was more common among them than their shared humanity? Yet even these best and brightest resorted to tribalism. They nurtured ancient biases that grew like choking vines in the ferment. And this is the incredible thing you whisper among your friends. This is the heart of the question you hardly dare ask.

“They sought likeness, and they found it. In the shape of an eye or nose. In the texture of their hair or the thickness of their lips. You may look upon the diversity of your classmates and recognize them by their unique faces, yet the distinctions our ancestors found in those wretched times were more distinct. They even grouped themselves, it is said, on the color of their skin.”

Here I pause, for the clever child before me always asks if such a thing could possibly be true. Did humans actually have different colored skin?

“Yes,” I say. “The legends suggest that humans were divided into what they called races. We do not know which features belonged to which race but the most apparent was skin color. Each race could be most readily identified by skin color.”

As I said, such a notion is scarcely credible. We have no tabulation of these racial features; no reliable records survive from that long-ago time and place. But to the young minds before me, by merely suggesting such a fantastic thing I confirm its validity.

“The only transport that we know to have succeeded was the one that carried our ancestors. We are all that is left of humanity. And yet our own history is blemished if the old stories can be believed. It is said that our pilot, fearing her ship would soon be stolen by another faction, by another race, secretly selected people to depart with her. And she chose only those of her same race, based on those features we discussed: skin color, the shape of eyes, nose, and lips, the texture of the hair. With them she left the planet, beat the impossible odds, and delivered our ancestors to Diaspora where the seed of humanity could grow again.”

Their young minds whirl with this information. It is at once meaningful and meaningless, profound and profane, and they struggle with the dissonance of knowing both views to be true. From this, the same question always arises. It is a difficult question for it cannot be answered; nor should it be. Yet it is asked by these clever ones.

“But which race are we?”

I smile then, to ease their minds and to set my own anxieties to rest. The correct answer should be as clear as the difference between black and white. And many times I find the dignity within myself to answer responsibly by saying that we are simply the human race. That such is all we can know and all we ought to know. At other times, however, I cannot stop myself from saying what I truly believe.

“We are the best race.”


About the Author

Paul Lamb hails from Kansas City, but he retreats to the Missouri Ozarks whenever he can steal the chance. He recently completed a novel about art versus mundane existence and the strange demands the can result when they intersect. His fiction has appeared in the Platte Valley Review, Midwest Literary Magazine (forthcoming), Present Magazine, Danse Macabre, the Beacons of Tomorrow second anthology, Mirror Dance (twice), and Wanderings.

He scribbles a writing blog at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

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