On Planetary Palliative Care

Thomas Ha

Photograph by Amy Rollo/Unsplash

TO: [Steward of the All-End]

FROM: Sr. Br. Thomasson Erinel

SUBJECT: Background Documentation Concerning Your Assignment and Other Matters

Dear [Steward],

I am writing to you from the Orbital Monastery of the Centennium, in the perpetually dusk-lit underhalls of the ringed archives, at the lagging consoles around the corner from the lukewarm water fountains, the soon-to-be decommissioned consoles that are, for some reason, the only electrographic machines reserved for the senior brotherhood – in other words, the farthest corner of the farthest corner of the operative galaxy, where the seasoned members of our Order do little more than gradually gather an unsightly film of crust.

You and I have never met, and it’s more likely than not that I’ve transitioned well before you ever read these words, but, if you are reading these words – if you’ve found this document unexpectedly slipped in among other technical materials provided by your Steward supervisor – then that means you have been tasked with something that few in our Order have heard of and even fewer have undertaken, one of the most significant and complex assignments one in our line of work can be given: you’ve been asked to implement the final stages of care for a dying planet.

It’s very rare that any of us is contracted to oversee the end of a known world, so I imagine you likely have many questions at present, some of which include, what is this document? How did it get in my belongings? And who is this stranger writing to me in this aggressively familiar way?

All you need to know for your present purposes is that I’m someone who has been, despite all reason and what I’m sure was the concerted efforts of my peers, elevated to a title where no one in the Order of the All-End can politely decline my requests, no matter how asinine, no matter how confounding or irksome, and that includes supplementing your preparatory files with this meandering statement.

I am also – more to the point, and relevant to your concerns, I’m sure – one of the only members who’s been in the precise position you find yourself in now, having once provided care to a planetary body at the end of its natural existence, an experience that has stayed with me and marked the remainder of my own otherwise unremarkable career.

So I want to take this moment, while you’re perusing these materials and traversing the turbulent cosmos on your way to your intended star system, to help you as best I can – to impart, however partially and imperfectly, some of what I know about the common issues, obstacles, and misconceptions you are likely to encounter during an assignment of this class.

It’s quite literally the least I can do for a fellow Steward, seeing as how by now I’m likely recycled star material, just some smattering of inconsequential dust drifting somewhere in the darkness beyond the viewing screen of your observation deck.

What I want to convey, first and foremost, before the specifics, before the exacting regulations and the protocols and never-ending minutiae that your assignment will entail, is that whatever else you’re feeling at this moment in time, whatever thoughts are causing your hands to tremble, I hope you know that you are ready for what lies ahead.

I remember being exactly where you are, my upper gut roiling as I flipped through each page of the planetary reports, trying to make heads or tails of the gravitational charts and geothermal readings and atmospheric measurements and the like, puzzling through projected orbits and deciphering the significance of fluctuating temperatures in oceanic bodies. You’re probably thinking, how is a Steward – trained, though you are in the medical and religious techniques to support end-of-life transitions for every manner of species and sentient organism in the Legionary Chartered Worlds – supposed to ease a death of this tremendous magnitude?

Easily, is the answer.

Because, the truth is, this is just like any other contract you have carried out thus far, and you are expected to follow the tenets of the Steward’s Code just as you would follow them in any other circumstance. Your goals, as always, are (1) to execute the client’s intent as outlined in its end-of-life contract, (2) to maximise any lifespan remaining, to the extent possible and within reasonable judgement, and (3) to minimise any pain or discomfort in consultation with the client and the appropriate experts.

As such, I want to reassure you that any difference you perceive in treating a planet versus an organism is a matter of scale here, not kind. And I also want you to keep in mind that you were specifically selected by the Order after a careful review of your psychological profile, career history, and other factors based on the content of the contract at hand.

Now, I know compliments about our strengths slip through our fingers like stream water, while obsessions with our weaknesses sit in our palms like rocks, but you must remember this, it is imperative you never forget, or you will not make it through this long, disquieting, and often gruelling process.

You are ready.

So – with those little worries of yours out of the way, or at least set aside for the moment – there are a few things I’d like to tell you about what to expect when you get to your intended star system and settle into a comfortable orbit with the client.

You should know that, before anything else, you’ll most likely be contacted immediately upon arrival by the planet’s First Speaker, who will of course be anticipating your approach. My First Speaker was a gentleman named Thann, a local politician for most of his life, who had been nominated to the Speaker role a long time before our contact. Your First Speaker will similarly have been chosen years, if not decades, or centuries, before your assignment, too – usually by a deliberative body meant to represent the collective world governments. Sometimes, if there is a plurality of sentient species rather than a single dominant lifeform, you might have several Speakers. But usually, for the sake of communicating the planet’s wishes, most clients will narrow the role to one person, or voice, or consciousness.

Take the time, during these early remote meetings, to really get to know your Speaker thoroughly – their preferences, their communication style, their personal and family life, their dreams, their fears, and so on. You won’t be able to touch down on the surface for the duration of your assignment, for obvious health and safety reasons, so you’ll have to become accustomed to speaking regularly through your ship monitors at all times, day or night.

The First Speaker will have been chosen in large part because of their love of, and dedication to, the planet, as you’ll soon learn, and they will be the planet, as far as you’re concerned, because every verbalised decision, every affirmation and acknowledgement of consent, will have to come from them.

Likewise, these first weeks will also provide a good opportunity to make sure you are well-briefed on the planet’s condition before you get fully acclimated to your role.

There are numerous situations that involve a planetary death, as you are certainly well aware, but if the Order’s services have been requested, you can obviously rule out the sudden scenarios like unanticipated supernovae or surprise collisions or climatic imbalances or disruptions stemming from self-inflicted war wounds – the Order refuses to either intervene or assist with artificially-accelerated causes of death.

And so, that means the scenario you are encountering is long-expected, gradual, and forecasted many lifetimes in advance of this moment.

In my case, it was a red dwarf star increasing in brightness, thus reducing the circumstellar habitable zone of the star system and gradually heating the planet to a point where it could no longer sustain life. Before my turn came, I had heard of a gravitational disturbance that had altered a planet’s orbit, sending it into inhospitable regions where all heat was lost. The planetary contract before that, aeon-long geological shifts caused the core to destabilise to the point of splitting the world in two. The specifics may change, but the gist is the same: these are threats that have been foreseen and studied in painstaking detail over incredibly long time horizons.

As a result, you’ll probably find that huge swaths of the population have already been evacuated to other colonies and systems long before your involvement. Flora and fauna have been collected by galactic preservationists, as you might expect, and cultural and historical records have been archived and transmitted. So you don’t have to concern yourself with any preliminary arrangements of that sort.

But this does mean that the remaining sentient species you’ll encounter are those who have decided, for personal, spiritual, or political reasons, to stay with their planet to the very end.

It’s only natural that you’ll wonder a bit about those who voluntarily remain – I certainly did. And you’ll be tempted to speculate about their reasoning for staying in spite of some truly horrific conditions as they unfold. Upset by it even, at certain points, when it results in more suffering than there otherwise could have been.

But over the course of your time in orbit, engaging with and watching over the planet surface, I think you’ll witness how powerful and unassailable the love of a homeworld can be for some individuals.

For me, the realisation came from the way Thann talked about the mountains near his hometown – an untouched and undeveloped range that many of his people worshipped. He explained to me how the ranges corresponded with certain ancient deities, stories, and traditions that were part of their cultures going back to the beginnings of their recorded time. How, when he was a boy, he’d wake and look at the curved, eroded fringes of those rock formations and find his faith, in the darkest and most painful hours of his youth. And in some sense, I came to understand that this was how many of them felt, with some variation and nuance, of course. That the world, its soil, its sky – that was where they thought they ultimately belonged. Something wandering Stewards like us perhaps will never comprehend completely, no matter how we try.

But whatever that connection is for the people of your planet, for your client, you’ll learn too. And slowly, quietly, those questions you ask yourself about those who remain, the confusion you feel about the choices you see those people make, will fade until you almost forget you even wondered about the subject to begin with.

Meanwhile, as you get adjusted and learn more about the client and its constituent institutions, I want you to be aware that you’ll have regular assistance to aid you during the terminal process.

There will be a Sector Monitor, as you might imagine, present via blink-relay to counsel you on the expected course of events during your time in the system. The operators of these regional observation posts will be familiar with the planet’s terminal status and will also provide you with projections of the remaining phases you are to assist with, based on their data. So don’t be afraid to pepper them with questions as you go.

Is this normal? Should we be seeing this seismic activity? What are these changes in atmospheric conditions?

How much time, really, do we have?

I can’t begin to count the sleepless nights I spent hunched at the blink-relay, asking that question, over and over and over again. How much time? How much time? How much time?

You will want to stop, but you have to ask.

Ask it, even if you don’t want to know the answer. Ask it, as each environmental catastrophe or spike in temperature or violent change in global weather patterns rears its head, because you will have to know, in order to proceed accordingly.

How much time?

Keep in mind that you’ll also be assessing the situation yourself with the help of your Array, which should deploy from your ship’s hull once you’ve established a stable orbit. As your technical documents will explain, this network of self-replicating micro-satellites is programmed to operate relatively autonomously and will form a comprehensive envelope around the planet not long after you’ve made contact with the Speaker. From there, the Array will feed you constant updates – every tectonic shift or ecological disruption, every uptick in atmospheric toxicity or rise in contamination of significant water sources, will be tracked in real-time and fed to your OAE vessel.

And, in addition to surveillance capabilities, each satellite of the Array will also be equipped with solar shielding and expanding reflector panels, that way each satellite-node can co-ordinate to either block or redirect stellar radiation based on prompts from your vessel. It isn’t much, of course, but can be used as a heating or cooling mechanism for the planet surface as needed.

Think of it like a damp or warm towel that you can apply sparingly. It won’t break a fever or keep the shivers away, but you understand already from your other assignments that any relief, no matter how slight, can be everything to a client. So be ready to use it as necessary.

If you come across areas where people are huddled in the shade, parched and praying – lips and skin cracked and dry from the unrelenting burning of the air, you might, for just a few hours, filter the sky enough to help them sleep in muted daylight, without crying out, without clawing at their fragile bodies. Or, if you discover families shivering at the far side of the planet, in a coastal city, unable to carry on because of the bone-shattering cold brought by nearby weather disturbances, you can raise the localised temperature, just enough, so that they don’t completely succumb to the unstable conditions.

Those moments will test you, especially early on, because you’ll soon realise that you won’t be able to use the Array for all things at all times. You can only do what you can, when you can, and for as long as you can. You’ll see.

And no matter what I say, you will gradually wear yourself down doing it.

Which is why, when there is quiet, when you do get some respite – and there will be occasional pockets, much to your surprise, there will be hours or days when the planet seems content to just sit, without a cataclysmic event or disaster ripping through populated regions – when these moments come, you must rest.

You won’t want to, but I’m telling you, you will need to rest.

This process does not get simpler or easier going forward, so any moment you can find relief, you should do so.

For me, it was brewing a tea made from the leaves of a kind of golden juniper endemic to Thann’s world. He’d have crates sent up to my OAE ship in orbit. And we’d both steep a cup on our end of the line and talk about any number of things. Where I was from. How I was adopted into the Order after my parents’ deaths, as we all are. What I thought of the art and culture of Thann’s civilization, based on what little I’d studied.

Even now, I still clip bits of golden juniper that I’ve potted and taken with me to the Monastery, drinking as I sit at these electrographs writing to you. And when I do, I’m back there suddenly, above Thann’s planet. I’m at that monitor, discussing, counselling, and it fills me with a strange kind of wistfulness that you’ll only appreciate when you’ve developed your own habits and routines during those weeks and months looking down and studying a planet’s surface.

In that kind of calm, you’ll catch yourself starting to think, even momentarily, that maybe this world isn’t as doomed as the others say. Be careful with those thoughts.

The planet is projected for mass death, and you cannot forget it, or evade it. Especially because the dynamics, particularly with other interested parties, will get messier and more fraught, dangerous even, if you can’t keep that truth clear.

I think you know what I’m talking about.

It’s the most unpredictable element that always enters the equation at some point in these contracts, no matter the context or the client, in every corner of the galaxy.

Family.

Yes, I’m sorry to say that this aspect is not any easier with planetary care than it is with individual transitions. As you’ve seen before first-hand, members of a family are rarely on the same page as the client about why a Steward has been called and what your involvement means.

In this case, it will likely start when the decline of the planet begins to set in a noticeable way, with food supply dwindling and metropolitan areas evacuating, big signs that something is terribly awry – that’s when many of them will begin to arrive.

The neighbouring planets, forbearer and successor colonies, members of sibling star systems, scavenging civilisations, their own ends near, poised and ready to pick the last flesh from the bones of your world – expect any and all of them to send representatives within range of your ship.

They’ll request urgent meetings with you at first, to get an understanding of what you intend to do. Some of them will be kind and patient, hoping to gain your favour at the outset. Others less so. And many of them, of course, will direct every bit of their hatred and confusion for what’s about to happen to the client at you, since you make a very convenient, tangible embodiment of all their fears.

You see, in their eyes, you are a harbinger of death and not relief from it.

So you’ll have to take that hate, as, I know you know, only a Steward can.

And of course, all of these relatives will have extensive opinions about the best course of action, no matter what you say. Perhaps they will imply that interventionary measures have not been considered or employed (even though they have). Perhaps they will ask you to double-check the Sector Monitor’s reports to see if the end-of-life analyses and projections are correct (they are). Perhaps they will interrogate you, subtly or not so subtly, about your personal qualifications and background, doubting whether this is even the right situation for a Steward (it is).

Some of the visitors will be global presidents, respected military leaders, or religious figures of repute in their regions. They will carry themselves as if they are the very Constellary Beasts churning at the centre of the galaxy and look upon you like you’re a cold patch of muck farted off of some wayward asteroid.

But you will treat each and every one of these visitors the way you would any relative on any other assignment from the Order of the All-End. You will exercise empathy, respect, and, of course, a healthy amount of polite rejection.

Because ultimately, no matter what they say or do, our contract is with the client and its First Speaker, not with them.

Even if you wanted to help these relatives work out some alternative approach to palliative care, to try whatever scientifically unsound atmospheric restorer or soul crystal tectonic stabiliser is being peddled by whatever unsanctioned huckster has that relative-planet’s ear – you just cannot, legally, do it.

And yes, they’ll piss and moan and threaten when you explain this.

Some will even intimate that they’ll shoot your vessel out of the sky – try to scare you with shots across the bow or attempts at disabling your shields with unsanctioned dissipators. But no matter how they huff and puff, no matter how they scream or threaten, I guarantee that not one of them will dare start a war with the Order, not with our reach and technology, which we’ve garnered through our work in every arm of the galaxy.

I can still recall the sight of an entire military armada when things got tense toward the end with Thann, like a wall of burning lights in the blackness of space approaching gradually to surround my ship, with concussive weapons armed and directed at my face. And to all of that, I just said:

—I’m sorry. No.

Practise it.

—I’m sorry. No.

And eventually, when they realise that talking to you is as effective and meaningful as negotiating with a void, they will get bored and frustrated. With time, one-by-one, they will consult the First Speaker, and bid him, and his people, a private farewell.

Which brings me to the last piece of advice, the most important piece of advice I can provide you with – advice about what you’ll feel as you and your client approach the end, and what you will need to do.

There is a tipping point for every planet, what your files will call the Jennings-Sano Inflection, where all life-sustaining systems will precipitously decline. In the same way that, when we care for individuals, we see the signs of physiological failure as hallmarks of the end – restlessness, rejection of fluids, hallucination, and so forth – we’ve come to understand that there are similar end-stage manifestations in planetary bodies.

For Thann’s world, the inflection was quiet, well after the oceans had been stripped dry by the heat of its red dwarf, and the remaining moisture began to bake and boil, even deep within the mantle. For other planets, it could be loud, with world-cracking disasters, killing tens of millions in mere minutes, before you’re barely aware of what’s occurring. Whatever the case, your Array will notify you when the client is past the point of reasonable maintenance of life, as will the Sector Monitor, and as will the First Speaker, who will be acutely aware of all of the suffering.

I’m telling you now, when it happens, despite what you see and hear and are being told, part of you won’t want to believe this is the end. Part of you will want to assess further, to gather more readings, to get another opinion. But you must not listen to that part – that is the part that wants to shut away reality, and that is not what we, as Stewards, are supposed to do.

You see, when you reach Jennings-Sano, there is really only one option you will have to relieve suffering on a scale that great, and it is one that you will be reluctant to use, especially on so many individuals and organisms, all at once. As you’ll learn, the Array you’ve brought with you contains a dispersal mechanism within each of its nodes, a concentrated chemical bomb in every component satellite that can be deployed to the surface on your command. And from the distant safety of your vessel, you can initiate a sequence, which will cause the thousands of satellites to descend into the atmosphere and release the substance, with pre-planned quantities calculated to cloak the surface.

This aerosolised material, which is not known to most in our Order, comes from a darker time, when the All-End was not the neutral arbiter of end-life that it is now, back when we used to crusade, much like some of the infant empires that still swallow their neighbours in the outer arms of the galaxy.

When you use the aerosol then, you will observe, first-hand, how efficiently this substance operates – this part neuro-toxin, part narcotic, specifically designed to target and disrupt the cellular level of most organisms. Through your surveillance, you’ll witness, across many locations simultaneously, the consequent slowdown in activity.

It will manifest in a kind of calm indifference, an acceptance of the situation, in the first few minutes, or hours, depending on the rate of dispersal. You’ll notice that individuals will begin lying on the ground and in roads, wherever they happen to be, while the aerosol begins to work through their bodies, as if they’ve lost the energy to keep moving or going about their day. Lovers will hold hands and embrace each other in their homes. Parents will clutch their children to their chests, as, one by one, they all seem to gradually lose consciousness.

Your First Speaker will speak calmly to you then too, more softly than he has before, slouching at the monitor at which you two have been communicating for so many long months – maybe even years, by the time everything’s come to this stage.

His speech will slow and slur, as the neurotoxin begins to hinder activity in his nervous system.

Your friend’s eyes will get heavier, as if he will want to sleep, like the others.

And so you’ll talk to him about the things you two have shared during your time together, like the mountains, and dark nights of uncertainty, and juniper tea. And you’ll keep talking, long after he’s stopped moving, because you know, from your training, that even as his body shuts down, his sense of hearing is still active for some time.

So you’ll tell him what an honour it was to know him, and his planet, and his people, long after you’re sure that he’s stopped respiring, after the Array reports that there are no signs of active life on the surface, save some microbial species that are likely to expire soon with the rest of the planet.

And in that silence, in that stillness, you will want to stay in orbit, even after the Sector Monitor has pronounced planetary death and issued the relevant certifications – to remain and continue to watch, even though you don’t know exactly what you’re watching for. Even as the planet begins to undergo its final throes, whether that be waves of magma breaking apart pieces of tectonic plating, or an electromagnetic field or atmosphere coming undone.

You see, what you’re watching for, whether you know it or not, is confirmation – confirmation that everyone, everything, really is gone.

What you’re watching for is confirmation that you did not make a mistake.

Because no matter what I say and no matter what the Order tells you after the fact, you will wonder forever if, in those final moments of care, you made a mistake.

It can be a day after, or a lifetime – when you’re muddling about in the Orbital Monastery with other Senior Brothers receiving accolades for your work, or when you are alone in the ringed archives and completely lost in your own thoughts. You will think it.

Did I do the right thing?

And even though we are trained to know our role as Stewards – to know that, logically, we do not cause the deaths that our clients inevitably face – you will never be so sure, in your heart, when you are in the quiet, thinking back on that time, about the moment you deployed the neurotoxins from the Array and then, about those moments after, when your friend closed heavy lids and drifted away to wherever it is they all go.

When that happens, when you begin to question everything you understand about the Order, when you begin to doubt whether you are able to carry the weight you feel – I want you to return to this document, this nonsensical rambling missive of mine, and I want you to find this part in particular. Because it may not have any impact on you now, or after your contract is over, or the tenth, twentieth, or hundredth time you read it over the following years. But it will.

And when it does, when you finally fully comprehend the enormity of everything I’ve described, what I want to impart on you last is this.

I don’t know you. I have never met you. And the fact is, I never will know you, never will meet you. But please know that I understand you, and I see you, and I see this burden you’ll always carry. What may be your greatest victory, but will always seem, to you, like your greatest defeat.

Because this is the true meaning of being a Steward in the last and final transition, to take away agony while bearing our own in silence, even when no one else, no matter how close to us, will truly know what that took.

My fellow, my friend.

I wish you peace in your pain and love in your grief, if you can one day find it.

Yes, more than anything else, I wish you well.

And late in the night, when it’s you who paces these ringed archives of the Centennium and stares past the decaying glow of these same stars beyond this viewing deck, when you are not sure you still have the strength to hold all of the despair we accumulate as we help others move through this vast and dark existence, please remember.

You are not alone in what you carry. I too was here, am here, will always be here, wishing you well. And believe me, I have never wished for anything more.

For you, for me, and for us all.

With recognition and unity,

Your Senior Brother


Thomas Ha is a former attorney turned stay-at-home father who enjoys writing speculative fiction during the rare moments when all of his kids are napping at the same time. Thomas grew up in Honolulu and, after a decade plus of living in the northeast, now resides in Los Angeles.


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