The End of a Dying World: A short short alien planet story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #24
How did ancient alien ruins become so boring? Dalton knew that wasn't the attitude that a graduate student in xenoarcheology needed. Especially with Dr. Warren watching everything they did as if this dig was the greatest thing humanity had uncovered. It wasn't. Not even close. This wasn't Larson IV with an intact robot army waiting for commands. It wasn't the orbital biospheres of Further waiting a millennia for the planet below to become capable of sustaining life once again—long after their builders had gone extinct. It wasn't even the insane digital consciousnesses of Velvet III, relics of a dead civilization continuing on long after everything else was reclaimed by jungles. Not even the fabulous spires and buildings of Celeste II, cities spread across the planet and its moons, all intact and empty as a new house waiting for someone to move in and no trace of the species that had lived there—if anyone ever had lived there—even though the cities and buildings were over ten million years old and all dated from the same period.
Dalton used an actual fiber brush to shift minute amounts of dust and sand. MD-22EH was nothing more than a small world doomed to follow the path of so many habitable worlds—as Mars had done—when the planet's core had cooled, the planetary magnetic fields had died, giving the solar radiation free reign to strip away atmosphere and water, splitting the molecules and peeling away the hydrogen to blow into interstellar space like the wisps of smoke from a candle.
The biggest surprise that MD-22EH held was simply the timing of its discovery. Humanity had barely missed by no more than a couple million years, the last whispers of life on this world. Closer than they'd come on Mars, but then Mars had become cold and parched long before MD-22EH. There humanity missed it by billions of years, but still uncovered the fossil signatures of the early organisms that developed on that world. It'd been enough to prove Furse's theory of multiorigins of life and the principal that life formed as a result of natural processes wherever and whenever it was possible. Furse put the origin of life onto the same footing as the origin of stars and the predictability of chemical reactions. Even Celeste II's cities (didn't make sense to call them ruins) were older.
The ruins on MD-22EH were, at most, a minor surprise. Dalton wiped an arm across his forehead, clearing the sweat from his brow. The site containment dome's environmental systems kept the site warmer than he liked, but at least they didn't have to work in suits on the surface. The geodesic spars and panels formed a hemisphere over fifty meters of the site, with other connected domes protecting the other areas of the digs and the students doing the work. Dr. Warren insisted on this meticulous process done by hand. No robotic digging, no matter how sophisticated, she argued, could properly match what a human might notice.
He'd noticed that he had cleared less than 10 centimeters of a stacked stone wall. The stones had already been identified. They came from the area. Split and roughly shaped into narrow rectangles, then stacked in overlapping patterns and filled with smaller rocks and then sand mixed with fine clay was shifted down into the rocks. Small amounts of water trickled over these walls had helped bond the materials together. The whole surface was then covered with a clay mud coating to create a durable and long-lasting wall for the inhabitants.
With this particular stretch of wall, he was using his brush to move aside the accumulated material while preserving the original mud coating and structure. As much as possible. Dr. Warren wanted to preserve any pigments that might remain in the clay from designs painted on the structures.
They hadn't discovered any yet. Bare walls. Most artifacts discovered were fossilized bones or basic stone tools. No sign of any preserved perishable materials like cloth or skins. No clay pots or similar artifacts. And nothing yet that they could definitively point to as the inhabitants of these structures. Several different fossilized species had been discovered, several or all of which might be intelligent enough to build these rough structures. Though it wasn't a popular opinion with Dr. Warren, he wasn't the only one that entertained the thought that these might not be evidence of a civilization at the end of a dying world at all, but something more like a beaver's dam or an insect's hive. Instinct rather than intellect.
A few members of the team speculated that the builders were evidence of a species in decline, the last survivors of a species that had lost the knowledge and abilities of earlier centuries until only this remained. Dr. Warren's preference was well known. She liked the narrative of the noble struggle to survive as the world died around them, a species ascendant and tragically doomed at the same time.
Dalton put down his brush and leaned back, hands on his lower back to try and relieve the muscle aches. Chalky dust coated his skin. He coughed into his face mask—it couldn't prevent all of the dust from reaching his nose and coating his tongue, gritting against his teeth. It was the taste of this world. It tainted everything that he ate since the dig began like an unwelcome spice.
He pulled his water bottle and lifted the mask to take a swallow of the chilled water. He rinsed his mouth, swishing the water vigorously around his mouth, scrapped his tongue against his teeth and then spat out the mouthful of water.
The instant he did, he regretted the automatic action, helpless to call it back.
The water splashed against the surface of the wall he had so painstakingly uncovered one brush stroke at a time.
Parched clay mud absorbed the droplets. Deep reds bloomed from each spot across the pale surface like blood splatters that ran together and merged. The discoloration, the evidence of his error, took on shapes. Uniform figures, bipeds with bent backs and long arms nearly grazing the ground. Rough shapes partially revealed by the spray of droplets, something in the material reacting to the water.
A mural. It looked for all the world like a mural. Art.
Dalton jumped to his feet and pulled out his phone. "Dr. Warren? You've got to see this."
Six hours later Dalton collapsed on his bunk after a two-minute shower to rinse off the dust from the dig. Dr. Warren very nearly fired him. She thought he'd created some sort of fraud on top of damaging the site. He'd protested his stupidity as a defense with enough vigor for her to send someone to conduct a limited and carefully documented test on a section of wall in a section of the site he had never accessed.
Another mural was revealed by the carefully applied thin spray of water.
Vindication prevented him from being fired at least, but Dr. Warren wasn't going to reward him. Even with the news of the discovery, she was sending him back on the next transport, arguing that he wasn't suited to field work. Not if he was so careless.
That worked for him. Better a lab on a civilized world than grubbing in the dust out here. Let Dr. Warren take credit for an assistant's accidental discovery. So far the two examples of the murals showed the aliens apparently screwing each other.
It still didn't make the dig, the planet, or the fossilized aliens more interesting. Maybe he should look at another line of work.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!
This is a new challenge. I’m writing short short stories, under 2,000 words, many under 1,000 words. I’m sharing them to my Instagram stories several times a week. They’ll drop off that, but premium READINARY subscribers can read the full archive of stories here. When I have 100 stories, I’ll publish a collection of them all.
Best wishes, always — Ryan
THE END OF A DYING WORLD
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