Mossy Toes: To Comprehend (It Matters Not)
Society is a curious thing. It is not only made up of that which can be listed on a page: the simple numbers of manufactoria workers and listings of industrial output; the cultural quirks and ethnic make-up; the size and purpose of each major hive on a planet's surface; or the particulars of the ruling houses of the uppermost caste.
Society is human interaction. Sex, laughter, and commiseration. Shared ideas and values. Aggravations people inflict on each other out of sheer spite. Vigils whose purpose has long since been forgotten by the vigil-holders. Numberless conversations, schemes and collaborations between billions of citizens—society consists of these systems of civilization, these deeds that are empty and worthless to all but those who enact them. All humans alive interact with those that surround them.
Put yourself in their places. You are the aging Imperial Guardsman pensioner whose bones ache in the morning. You are the single mother feeding her three children as best she can. You are the lonely clerk who considered suicide, but couldn't quite pull the trigger. You are the successful entrepreneur, struggling to retain your storefront license. You are the petty thief. You are the child, the man, the woman, the elder. You are a member of this productive society and you have this bond with all others: you are not alone, even in your deepest desperation and desolation. It the nature of this bond, this unity of experience and emotion, that makes society strong.
Now, let us take this nameless planet's society. Hold these ten billion lives, if you can, in your mind.
Those people are gone; dead. Wipe clean this populated slate. Let the skies open in your mind's eye and allow a bombardment to rain down from the heavens. Plasma and melta torpedoes, biochemical gasses, lance strikes, cyclonic charges. Any of them. All of them.
The earth shakes, weeping blood and crumbling beneath the pitiless punishment. Fault lines crack open into chasms that stretch a thousand kilometers, vomiting rivers of lava across the planet's fertile plains and valleys. Buildings, cities, hives, and all the edifices of man slough away and are washed from its surface like layers of dead skin. The innocent blue sky is gone, swallowed by a roiling, red-tinged darkness. The sun is a faint, guttering ball, choked out by soot and despair. Fire rains. Destruction reigns.
Hear this world's inhabitants crying out in terror as they die: All the prostitutes, junkies and scum; all the devoted parents and lonely people trying to make their way in an uncaring galaxy; all the nobles, priests and politicians. All of them gone, each tiny world snuffed out.
Vast tracts of land, thousands of square kilometers each, are laid to waste by the orbital bombardments and left to smolder. Above these build massive heat-cyclones of overwhelming fire and ash. Smog-black clouds spill outward from the epicenters of destruction, accompanied on the ground by a wave of heat hundreds of degrees strong. Vegetation withers and dies. Bracken and loam spontaneously combust, causing raging, unchecked wildfires across the planet.
The world's ecosystems sputter, gasp, and die. Forests burn away to knots of blackened, twisted trunks, and animals of all species are roasted by the million. Gulfs, rivers and oceans boil, or become so polluted by ash and ruin that they run black. Shoals of fish float belly-up in the effluence that cakes the waters.
On the lips of the victorious Imperium, whose ships have crushed this petty tithe-based insurrection, whose might has quashed this pathetic revolt masterminded by a handful of nobles, there is but a condescending sneer.
And the world is ruined; and the world is empty; and the world is dead. Millions of unique species have been rendered extinct. Billions of humans have been scoured from its surface.
Can the mind of a single human encompass this so-total destruction? Most members of the Imperium know only their home planet, nothing more. They live self-centered lives—can they truly imagine the potency of a million deaths? Ten million? A hundred million? A billion? Ten billion? Every person you have known, loved, hated, met in passing, heard about, passed on the street, and seen in a thronging crowd—can you imagine all of them dead? Not only that, but that everyone that everyone you've ever seen has ever seen is dead too, and is an inconsequential fraction of the whole?
No memories remain of those that are lost. Those who would mourn these multitudes, these billions, are themselves dead. There is no native seed that can sprout anew from this scorched earth. There are no scars that time will mend, because no living flesh remains that can be scarred.
This planet's death is a finite bubble; the small illustration of a grander theme repeated anywhere across the vastness of this galaxy, and repeated endlessly along the long voyage that is time. For every death here—incomprehensible as they are to consider in the vastness of the event's magnitude—the event itself is repeated a thousandfold; a billionfold. From the Dark Age of Technology, when man warred with his iron progeny, to the Horus Heresy, where brother slew brother and father slew son, to the Age of Apostasy: man turns on itself, and the galaxy dances to the same tragic waltz.
In a thousand years, or two, or five, this planet will be resettled. Once tectonic activity calms, once the atmosphere purges itself of the toxins that choke it, once the surviving species evolve to fill now-empty ecological niches.
Perhaps the settlers will be the monolithic, ten-thousand-plus-year-old Imperium—if, in its crumbling decrepitude, it survives that long. Perhaps it will be settled by another empire of man, or an alien and unknowable race. But settled it shall be, for life in this galaxy of wonders searches ever to expand and grow.
They shall not find any trace of these lost billions. They shall not know that the air they breath is the dust of lost humanity, so tragically and abruptly severed. They shall not know the loves, the frustrations, and the accomplishments of all those erased in this cataclysm.
But then—what did the souls lost in this cataclysm know of all who lived before them? What did they know of the lives lived, and forgotten, in the whispering dawn of man, when the rising ape met the falling angel? Will those who now die be known to those who come after any more than those now dying knew of mankind before it stepped out into the endless sea of stars; than they knew of life on Ancient Terra?