Science Fiction

The Cenotaph

By Deborah L. Davitt
Apr 25, 2018 · 5,912 words · 22 minutes

Through the Iceberg

Photo by Cassie Matias via Unsplash.

           Dr. Miranda Evans loathed the sound of her own recorded voice. This was, naturally, why the rest of the crew of the PredpriyatiyeVenture, in English—had opted to needle her by replaying her most recent interview with the media back on Earth as she and two others prepared for descent in the landing module.

            She grimaced at her own rueful words in her ears. “Half of our crew can’t remember a time when Exoria wasn’t a part of the solar system.”

            The interviewer chuckled. “But you remember life before?”

            “Yes. I was twelve when astronomers first inferred that something was out there, disturbing the orbits of Sedna and Pluto, and managed to resolve Exoria on telescopes.

            She sealed her suit, and Dr. Kerr, their geological specialist, double-checked the fittings, while Dr. Tamboli, their medical specialist, double-checked the seals on Commander Volodin’s suit. Then they both double-checked the seals on Akemi Himura’s suit; the Japanese woman would be piloting their module and any drones they sent out today, while Lieutenant Zhong Jian remained here, at the controls of the Venture. Strict mission protocols. Never more than three crew members on the ground, and always one pilot left aboard the Venture at all times.

            “Wish I were going with you,” Kerr told Miranda amiably. “But till we find a patch of ground not actually covered by ice, I’m stuck with radar studies.”

            “We will all get our chances,” Alexei Volodin reminded them all. “Several weeks of opportunities. Let us make the most of them.” His English was excellent, even if the Russian man tended towards the terse. She couldn’t see his face through the polarized helmet, but after the year-long flight to Exoria, she knew his buzzed-down graying hair and prototypical Slavic cheekbones very well indeed.

            Miranda nodded stiffly in her suit, too nervous to speak at the moment. Yet still, in the background, her voice chatted on politely with a media envoy. “What I remember the most is the panic when the world realized that this rogue planet had been captured by the sun’s gravity. Cosmic coincidence, of course. It was ejected from its home system tens or even hundreds of millions of years ago, probably by some manner of collision. And it passed just close enough to our sun that gravity winked. And it disturbed the hell out of people to realize that Earth’s orbit isn’t inherently stable, not over millions of years of time. It’s chaotic. And that a new element entering the system could wind up ejecting us from the merry-go-round, and that we could all go screaming off into the abyss. Just like Exoria before us. We were all too busy at the time worrying about that to even consider other ramifications. If Earth would wind up tidally locked to the sun through a change in orbital resonances. If we’d lose the moon, or even Mercury. If our orbit would decay, and we’d watch the oceans boil. We were lucky. None of those things happened.”

            “Yet,” the interviewer pointed out. “As you say, orbital changes take time to accrue and become evident.”

            “I leave that kind of worrying to the astrophysicists these days.” She’d passed off the concerns as lightly as she could, and gotten a chuckle from the interviewer in response.

            In the here and now, she followed Volodin into the module, and finally managed to find her voice. “Can we turn the damned interview off?”       

            “Baikonur and Houston probably want to make themselves heard,” Volodin returned mildly. “So, yes. Enough teasing, everyone. Turn it off.”

            “You’re no fun, commander,” Akemi replied, her grin audible in her voice as she took the pilot’s seat in the module. “And I just don’t understand, Dr. Evans. You’re a recognized expert in atmospherics and planetary environments. You’ve given hundreds of lectures and interviews, and have dozens of journal articles to your name. Why do you hate listening to yourself?”

            Miranda snorted. “You may not have noticed the Nashville accent,” she told the Japanese pilot, settling into her seat. “But people deduct fifty IQ points when they hear me talk. Just like when Dr. Kerr here opens his mouth, they automatically credit him with fifty IQ points more. Because everyone knows that geniuses and supervillains are all Brits.”

            A guffaw over the radio from Kerr as the others sealed the module door behind them. “Control, we’re clear for separation,” Volodin reported over the radio now, all business. Miranda hadn’t seen the Russian so much as smile since they’d begun their approach on Exoria.

            Exoria. The name meant “exile” in Greek, and had been deemed appropriate for the rogue planet thirty-three years ago, when it had first impinged on humanity’s collective consciousness. It had hurtled past the outer planets, only to have its approach mediated by Jupiter’s massive gravity field. Rather than streaking through the solar system and back out again, the rogue had been slung in an arc towards Sol. Passing 1.5 million miles from Earth, the gases of an atmosphere that had been frozen for millions of years to its surface blazing out like a comet’s coma and tail, it had then slipped around the sun, missed Mercury and Venus, and settled into what appeared to be a stable orbit between Venus and Earth.

            Miranda closed her eyes, picturing that vivid streak of white, visible even at midday, which had panicked an entire world for months, and then opened them to glance at Akemi with a sigh. The younger woman wouldn’t have been born for another five years after that fateful summer. And while she was thoroughly competent . . . the cheerful young woman made Miranda feel shockingly old at times.

            A pause for Baikonur and Houston to respond, but after this, they’d largely be on their own. The four-minute radio delay was why a human crew had been sent, rather than a fleet of rovers and drones. A slight jostle as the module left the Venture behind, and then the hum of the engines thrummed through her feet, coupled to a buffeting sensation as they began to descend through Exoria’s thin atmosphere. Miranda fastened her eyes to her telemetry screens now. “The ice shell is continuing to outgas at a substantial rate,” she noted. “Local PSI is up by about two percent over our measurements on entering orbit a week ago.” Nothing like a nice tropical orbit.  

            “Noted,” Volodin replied tersely.

            And then silence, beyond Akemi’s check-ins with the Venture. A thump as the landing craft touched down on the uncertain surface, and then the gentle thrum of the engines cut out.

            Miranda tried to swallow, but her throat felt too dry. We’re the first humans to set foot on this planet. Perhaps the first sapient life, ever. She turned stiffly towards her companions. “Are we ready?” she asked. Damned stupid question, she thought as the words left her lips. We’re here, aren’t we?

            Volodin nodded and keyed his radio. “Predpriyatiye, this is the Phoenix lander. We are ready to disembark.”

            “Phoenix, this is Predpriyatiye,” Zhong Jian replied from low orbit. “We have visual on you and the landing site. Looks like you’re right beside the crater. Nice flying, Akemi.” The Chinese pilot sounded dour. He’d wanted to take the lander down today, but Baikonur and Houston had agreed that as the more experienced pilot, he needed to stay aboard the ship, and that Akemi could pilot their drones from inside the lander just as well as from orbit. Miranda exhaled as Volodin moved to the airlock, and then she followed numbly along behind him. I can’t really blame Zhong. I’d be grumpy if I were stuck on the ship today, too.

            And then the airlock cycled open.

            Whiteness. Whiteness all around her. Pale clouds gusting up from underfoot, with enough force to create small vortices. Tiny crystals of exotic ices sparkling in those ephemeral winds, slapping the faceplate of her helmet and then vanishing almost instantly. Subliming away.

            Volodin kept a hand on her arm as he stepped out onto the surface, and then his voice crackled over the radio again. “This is, as they say, one small step for a man,” he said, humor finally touching his voice, competing with the awe there. “Heavy here,” he added, after a moment. “Hard to move around.”

            Half a G more than Earth, Miranda thought as she trudged out, following him. Her feet and legs felt encased in lead as gravity tugged at her. She could feel the surface crunch beneath her boots. Immediate chill, too, as it gave way. Frozen nitrogen, oxygen, and other gases, rapidly dispersing. Hundreds of feet of it. Some of this frozen atmosphere had likely been burned off by Exoria’s close approach to the sun a decade ago, but not nearly all. Enough that perhaps, someday, this planet might have as much pressure to its atmosphere as Earth has in the Andes.

            Plumes of gas created a milky haze around them, which gave way for an instant, allowing a single shard of brilliant sunlight to penetrate. It reflected off a cap of dirty white ice that stretched seemingly from horizon to horizon, blending in with the pallid plumes against a sable sky. The sole intrusion into the white landscape was the black-streaked bowl of the crater a hundred meters ahead of them. Scooped out of the nitrogen ice cap by an asteroid, it might give them access to whole layers of the planet’s uncertain geology. “Hello, Exoria,” Miranda murmured into the radio, her words a little uncertain as she stared at the alien, inimical landscape. “It’s nice to meet you at last.”

            With those words spoken for the official history books, they went about their business, setting up weather stations and cameras and a variety of other stationary equipment that the scientists back home had sent with them.  Miranda didn’t hold out much hope that any of it would stay secured for long; the nitrogen cap felt porous and uncertain underfoot.

            After a while, Volodin surprised her by breaking the silence in which they worked. “I brought a vial of my sister’s ashes to spread here.” A pause. “All sterilized. No bacteria left. Baikonur was specific about that.”

            Miranda looked up, grateful for her helmet’s polarization, which shielded her eyes from the blaze of the sun through the whiteness around them. “Your sister?” She probed her memory for his dossier, which she’d read almost a year ago now, before they’d embarked on the Venture. “Valentina?”

            “Yes.” Another busy pause. They were speaking on a private radio band, one that Baikonur and Houston wouldn’t be monitoring. “She joined one of the doomsday cults back in the day. When Exoria was on its closest approach to Earth.” He grunted with effort as they moved another piece of equipment into place. “Foolishness.”

            Miranda’s throat tightened. Some of the mass suicides had numbered in the thousands. Riots had broken out in every major city on the globe, as people scrambled for whatever feeble shelter they’d thought available. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, feeling the inadequacy of the words. “My parents built a bunker in the Smoky Mountains. Filled it up with canned goods and got a carbon scrubber for the air system. Water reclamation, too. They were all set to wait out Armageddon underground.” She paused. “It didn’t happen.”

            Volodin snorted. “Much good that would have done them in the worst-case scenarios.”

            Burning off the atmosphere. The moon, dislodged from orbit, colliding with Earth. All the panic-stricken possibilities that the media had trotted out, inciting yet more fear even as they appealed for calm. “I know. But they . . . needed something to do. Something that made them feel like they had control over their lives.” When there was no control to be had, and it was all down to the cold calculus of orbital mechanics.

            “That’s what they did,” Akemi’s voice broke in on the conversation. Chipper, and oh-so-young.  “What did you two do, to deal with the fear?”

            “I was thirty-five. Already a cosmonaut.” Volodin’s words were curt. “I volunteered for every mission that would let us study the rogue.”

            Miranda nodded. “I did the same. I learned everything I could about Exoria,” she answered, her voice mild. It’s not Akemi’s fault that she sounds like she’s interviewing survivors of a lost age. Because Volodin, Kerr, and I are exactly that. “Knowledge helps fight fear.”

            Volodin snorted. “My sister didn’t want knowledge,” he put in darkly. “She and five hundred of her closest friends all took cyanide capsules. I had to take a train up to Novgorod from Baikonur to identify her body.”

            And he’s still angry at her. Twelve years later, and still too angry to mourn. “Perhaps you’ll be allowed to name one of the craters here after her,” Miranda offered, again feeling the uselessness of mere words.

            “She doesn’t deserve the memorial.” Sharp, harsh response. “She was so trapped in her fear, that she couldn’t open herself to the possibility of wonder.”

            “And yet, you brought her ashes here. To the very thing she feared.” The words slipped out before she could stop them.

            “So I did.” His tone had the sound of a lock clicking shut.

            Redirect. Move on. She’d learned in the last year, that diplomacy wasn’t just important in the close confines of the ship, with people of six different nationalities and cultures, but vital. “Personally, I’m glad not to be in a bunker,” Miranda said, drinking in the sights around them. Limitless white landscape. Glistening pale chip of the sun in the milky haze above.  “Exoria was an enemy, an invader, for over half my life. Something that could destroy us all. And now . . . it’s a neighbor.”

            “Excuse me.” Akemi’s voice again. “Mission Control wants me to send out the drones, but they are unsure if they’ll do well in these conditions. Previous models sent with the unmanned probes didn’t have enough atmosphere to lift off in. Now, I think we might have too much turbulence.”

            As she’d suspected, the drones, once unpacked, did not fare well. Two plummeted over the edge of the crater, seized by chaotic winds. “Feel like making a climb?” Mission Control asked.

            “After they eat,” Dr. Tamboli cut in on the same channel, his Indian accent making the words somehow less blunt. “I don’t like the looks of their blood sugar. They are burning too much energy down there, between the temperatures and the heavy gravity.”

            “Copy that,” Miranda muttered. It would do her good to get inside the lander and warm up.       

            And so, an hour later, with Akemi still stuck inside, trying to adjust one of the robotic drones for better flight, Miranda and Volodin made their way back out. “Cheer up,” she told their pilot. “If we slip and fall, you’ll be the only person who can rescue us.”

            A smile crossed Akemi’s round face. “Don’t tempt fate, Dr. Evans. Much as I would like to play hero . . . not at the expense of your lives.”

            Then, once more out of the airlock. This time, they snugged ropes around the lander’s struts. “The Phoenix looks like it’s leaning a little to the right,” Miranda reported. “Maybe five degrees off level.”

            “Uneven terrain,” Volodin reminded her.

            “Didn’t look that bad a couple of hours ago.” She couldn’t help the dubious tone.

            But so long as the lander’s sensors said that it was within tolerances, it didn’t matter, and they needed to get down as much of the crater’s face with cameras and testing kits as they could.

            The cliff dropped off precipitously, descending hundreds of meters. Partway down, Volodin broke radio silence with a puzzled, “Sto eta?”

            “What’s what?” Miranda asked, swinging over on her rope and keeping her knees flexed, so that she hopped over along the cliff’s face. While sitting in a cradle of ropes required almost no effort, the higher gravity still dragged at her. Especially after a year of zero-G travel to get here, she thought. I’m only forty-five, for god’s sake. But I’ve felt seventy all damned day, between the gravity and Akemi . . . .

            “Looks like metal,” Volodin told her, scraping at the ice with the side of a hammer. “Get your camera on this.”

            “Ore?” Miranda suggested, puzzled. “But we’re still in atmospheric layers here. Ejecta from the asteroid impact, perhaps?”

            And yet, as Volodin excavated, wisps of rising gas billowed around what clearly looked like machined metal. Some sort of strut, with a regular hexagonal pattern along its surface, reaching up like a finger. “Piece of a space junk,” Miranda hazarded next. “From one of the asteroid mining firms?”

            Volodin shook his head and kept digging. Control received the images four minutes later, and four minutes after that, words crackled through their helmets: “What do you think you’ve found?”

            By that point, Miranda had joined in the digging. Hands made clumsy with cold, she chipped away carefully, feeling the ropes that suspended her over the abyss jerk and twitch with each movement. Their toil had revealed a much larger structure. A long, straight beam, with a hint of a curve near the top—rather like an arch.

            “This is not a satellite,” Volodin said, very quietly.

            Miranda shook her head, her heart pounding in her chest. “No,” she managed through dry lips. “It’s not.” She cleared her throat, trying to assemble her thoughts into something more lucid than Oh my god, have we discovered the first proof of sapient life outside of Earth? What kind of a time capsule is this planet? When she next spoke, she was startled at how prosaic her voice sounded in her own ears. “Control, we’re going to need to get ground-penetrating radar sets down from the ship,” she reported. “That wasn’t on the objective list until next week, when we were set to try to find how thick the cap is. I . . . think it should move up the priority list, though.”

            “No arguments from me,” Kerr put in over the radio, his voice awed. “Get me down there. Failing that, get me a sample for the mass spectrometer up here.”

            Quite a few of the scheduled science experiments had to be set to the side. No one but the scientists who’d devised them back on Earth seemed particularly chagrinned by this. Messages poured over the radio, requests for interviews and information that Houston and Baikonur were carefully filtering, Miranda knew, so that the six-person crew wouldn’t be overwhelmed. Hate to think of what their call centers look like at the moment, she thought, dazed.

            They rotated the teams sent to the surface, and, shortly thereafter, Kerr was able to confirm that the metallic intrusion into the nitrogen cap ran over 1600 meters straight down—just about a mile in length, in other words. It also spread over an area as large as several city blocks inside the ice, and radar suggested that there were hollow areas inside the metal. Mostly hexagonal. “Like a honeycomb,” Akemi suggested, where she, Miranda, and Volodin floated inside the Venture.

             “This is too large a structure to be natural,” Zhong replied over the radio.

            “A beehive is natural,” Miranda offered with half a smile. “It’s constructed, certainly, but not by human hands.”

            “By that definition, anything not constructed by a human would be natural,” Zhong replied acidly from the surface, where he waited in the lander. “A spider’s web, an alien spacecraft. I do not think these are quite the same things.”

            Volodin warmed his hands around a sealed container of soup. “I think at this point that we can safely consider this to be confirmation of alien life,” he told them dryly.

            A pause. They’d all considered the implications, but none of them had dared to say it out loud before this moment.

            “Even if that life happens to be giant, metal-working bees?” Akemi finally offered, smiling. “And now I am culturally required to mention kaiju, aren’t I?”

            “Now I would hate to taste that honey,” Miranda put in, which made everyone chuckle, though it sounded forced. “It’s pure luck that we found it, you know. The outermost layers of the atmosphere were cooked off by the close passage by the sun. And if that asteroid had hit a hundred meters in a different direction, we wouldn’t have found this at all.”

            “There are people back on Earth saying that this isn’t luck,” Dr. Tamboli put in over the radio. “I have had interview requests from religious organizations. Some people suggest that some divine hand sent us a second world, since we’ve done so much damage to Earth.”

            A pause, and Zhong made a particularly flatulent sound over the radio. “So, because we’ve done so much harm,” the Chinese pilot said, “we are being rewarded with a new world. Sent here with evidence that a past civilization—”

            “Of super-intelligent, gigantic bees—” Akemi put in, still smiling.

            “—lived and died here. Sounds more like a warning than a reward.” Zhong sounded nettled.

            “It’s neither a reward, nor a warning,” Kerr rapped out over the speakers, sounding irritated. “Human egocentrism at its worst. Gravity takes no notice of us.”

            “You should take my interview requests,” Tamboli replied, mild humor in his voice. “I have been avoiding them most assiduously.”

            That meeting ended in more uneasy laughter from the crew.

            After that moment, in spite of the fascination of the following weeks, a pall of unease hung over them, mirroring the haze shrouding Exoria. Every archaeologist on Earth seemed to be on the radio to give them advice on how to excavate—and oh, the frustration in those distant voices, to have the find of a lifetime discovered by amateurs, and to be unable to venture on site to conduct the work properly, themselves! Miranda had to field several of those calls herself, including one professor who irately informed her that they should be preserving the spoil from the dig-site, so that the materials excavated could be gone through with a sieve by qualified professionals at some later date.

            “Spoil?” she repeated, blankly. “As in, the dirt removed from a dig-site? Sir, there is no spoil. We’re digging through nitrogen ice. Whatever we dig out, or melt with heaters, falls down the cliff-face, or sublimes on contact with the open air.”

            Four minutes for her reply to reach Earth, and four minutes for the horrified response to stream back through the void: “Then how will we be able to document fragmentary artifacts? You people are no better than tomb robbers!”

            Her professionalism stung, Miranda swallowed her first three replies, aware that the conversation was being recorded, and could be broadcast to millions all over the world. “Sir, we are hardly tomb raiders. We’re taking samples of the ice as we go along. Which I would have done anyway, to check for composition and particulate matter. Dr. Kerr is also analyzing the samples, looking for traces of organic life. That’s the best we can do. Also, please keep in mind that we’re not entirely sure how stable the structure is,” She moved on swiftly. “It’s entirely possible that the ice cap is the only thing that’s holding the structure up at all. We haven’t been able to remove any samples of the building material—it resists the basic cutting tools we brought with us. We haven’t wanted to risk an oxy-acetylene welding kit, either. It seems to us that we’d be . . . defacing a monument by doing either, anyway.” She paused. “So we’re trying to rig up some sort of insulation for the mass spectrometer, and a way of getting it safely down two hundred feet of cliff, so that we can provide you all with better information.” In spite of her best efforts, her accent flared for a moment, and she swore internally.

            Four hours later, and back on the surface, she crawled into the widening cavern they’d been carving out of the ice inside the massive structure. The silence of it never failed to chill her; the curving walls of ice rising up on all sides, the near white-out conditions as the cavern exhaled chill gases at her, as if she stood inside the lungs of the planet. A shiver worked its way down her spine, and she stood in the entrance for a moment or two, staring.

            “Something is wrong?” Volodin asked from behind her, and she hastily stepped aside to let him enter now, too, stripping off the climbing harness to let it hang in the doorway.

            “I think I’ve been so locked into the technical difficulty of the work, the challenges of it,” Miranda admitted slowly, “that I’ve been overlooking what it all means.”

            Volodin snorted as he passed her, pulling their new equipment, suspended on another rope, deeper into the chamber they were excavating. “What it means? As in, proof of life elsewhere in cosmos? Intelligent life, existing millions of years before humanity did? Whole religions and structures of belief, shattered overnight?” Real amusement in his voice now.

            Miranda grimaced under her faceplate, and helped set up the mass spectrometer and a laser that they’d borrowed from Tamboli’s medical center on the ship. Three hours of careful work later, they’d determined that the external support ‘girders’ of the structure were actually formed of densely-packed carbon nanotubes. “Explains the tensile strength,” Volodin said, his voice deeply intrigued. “Could be an arcology.”

            “Base of a space elevator,” Kerr countered over the radio. “Perhaps with habitations below it.”

            “Or a spectacularly large termite mound,” Akemi twitted from the lander. Their robotics specialist sounded bored. “Have you found anything of interest yet?”

            “Some of the corporate sponsors have been rather urgent on that topic,” Kerr put in. “They want to see technology recovered. Recoup their investments with something of real use.”

            “Can you blame them?” Zhong’s voice crackled over the radio. “Billions of dollars, rubles, and yuan put into this, the biggest discovery in human history, and no tangible results. Just pictures.”

            “I didn’t know I was signing up to be a miner when I joined the crew,” Volodin replied. “But we seem to have found a wall. Just where radar said it would be.”

            Miranda moved over cautiously, respectful of the ice underfoot, and helped him clear more of the area. She squinted at the surface in front of her. “I think there might be patterns there,” she said after a moment. “I can’t really be sure, though.”

            “That’s why you took my lasers,” Tamboli said over the radio, excitement clear in his voice. “Art conservators have been using medical lasers for decades to penetrate layers of grime. It’s the same principle we use to excise melanoma from surrounding tissues . . . one layer of cells at a time.”

            Cautious, grueling, meticulous work. Miranda’s hands started to shake from exhaustion, but Akemi moved one of the camera drones in over her shoulder, where it hovered, whirring, for several minutes. “Got something,” Akemi reported over the radio, all boredom gone from her voice. “It’s visible in X-ray . . . and some of the pigments used reflect colors from parts of the spectrum that humans can’t see. There are clear patterns there.” Awe filled her voice, but she tried to pass it off with a joke. “Guess we’re not looking at giant metal-working bees after all.”

            Insulated against the curiosity of Earth, the crew worked the longest hours that their oxygen supplies and endurance would allow. Miranda’s back ached from the heavy gravity, but she couldn’t allow herself to complain. Couldn’t allow herself to be taken off away from the greatest mystery the world had ever known. And yet, in spite of her exhaustion, she only really felt alive when on the planet’s surface, encountering its mysteries. She entered the excavation day after day in a haze of exaltation, feeling as if she were entering a mythical underworld. As if the mysteries of this dead world might be birthed out of the channel they were digging into its womb.

            They found patterns in the symbols on the walls, suggesting language, but without a Rosetta stone, without a common denominator, the words—if they were words—were as cryptic as Linear A. No, more so; Linear A had at least been written by human hands, suggesting some basis of commonality. The only place that they might ever make inroads would be in deciphering the mathematics of the Exorians . . . if they had recorded any numbers or formulas on those walls, which seemingly teemed with cryptic symbols.

            “This is worse than being an explorer confronted by Mayan ruins,” Kerr muttered in frustration the night before they were set to break orbit and return to Earth. They were all back aboard the Venture, where they’d all gathered for dinner and six-hours of Control-ordered sleep. “There’s no way to know which direction any of this should be read. Up, down, left, right, in a circle. There’s no way to know even where to begin.”

            The others made similarly disgruntled, listless noises as they hung around the room in the zero-g environment.

            “We have no idea what these creatures even looked like.” Zhong rubbed at his eyes and gestured at the screens around their eating area, all of which currently displayed images of the walls they’d uncovered so far. “No self-representation.”

            “I’m haunted,” Miranda admitted to them all after a moment had passed.

            “No remains that we have found yet,” Volodin told her stolidly, looking up from his tablet of reports. “Difficult to be haunted if this is not a grave.”

            “Careful, Alexei. That was almost a joke. I might be liable to think that you actually like me, if you keep that up.” Miranda essayed a faint smile, and then felt it fade. “An empty grave is called a cenotaph. Just a marker, put up to remember someone whose body couldn’t be found.” She paused. “Which is what this world feels like, sometimes. A monument to a civilization that . . . didn’t fail, but was struck down by cosmic forces. A handful of ruins, fragments shored up against the ages, and that we sit here and wonder at, without the hope of truly understanding.” She closed her eyes tiredly. “It’s the questions that I’m haunted by. Not the thought that the entire planet is a grave, though that’s . . . part of it. I wonder who they were. Why their world was lost in the darkness for millions of years.”

            “Did they scream in terror as their sun receded into the night, and day never came again?” Akemi asked softly.

            “Did any of them escape?” Kerr put in, just as quietly. “Surely, an advanced civilization that could build a structure like this one must have had space travel. Does their species still exist, somewhere out there, on some other planet?”

            Miranda nodded, her breath catching in her throat. “All of that,” she said. “Every bit of it. There’s no way we’ll ever know, though. Not in my lifetime, anyway.” Those words struck her just under her heart, bitter and sweet at once. She had the greatest puzzle in the world in her hands, and she might never know the answer. “They won’t let us come back to Exoria again; too much radiation exposure on this trip alone.” Some other crew will return. But not us. “And the nitrogen cap may take a century or more to become a full atmosphere again.”

            “Ah, but when it does,” Kerr said, with some enthusiasm, “just think. There might be seeds left in the ground, cryogenically preserved. And they might well sprout, Miranda. That would give us an inkling of their flora.”

            “And there are creatures on Earth called tardigrades,” Dr. Tamboli pointed out gently. “They can survive in vacuum. Temperatures below negative two hundred Celsius, and temperatures well above the boiling point of water.  If we have such hardy representatives of life on our world, perhaps they did, too.”

            “But we won’t be there to see it,” Miranda said with a sigh. She’d felt astoundingly young and alive in the past three weeks. And now, she felt shrunken in on herself, like a ninety-year-old-woman, in spite of the delicious respite of zero-g cradling her body now.

            To her surprise, Volodin set aside his tablet, letting it hang in the air beside him, before taking her hand lightly in his. “No, we won’t see it,” he affirmed. “But think of what we have seen.” A ghost of a smile broke over his face. “We found proof of alien life. It didn’t come as invading ships, hovering over our cities. No strange cylinders or enigmatic obelisks. They didn’t come here to eat us, steal our resources, deliver ultimatums, or . . . what is that charming English expression? Ah, yes. They didn’t come here to get into our pants.”

            Guffaws from around the room. Miranda found an answering smile hovering on her lips.

            Volodin let the laughter pass, and then went on, persuasively, “They didn’t come to save us, either. They didn’t come at all. And if we’re to take any message from them . . . that’s up to us. And we get to help our people decide what it all means.” He shook his head. “We might not be there to see the end, Miranda. But I am inspired to be here at the beginning. Without fear. With only wonder in our hearts.”

            Slowly, she nodded, letting the words permeate through her. “Commander, you don’t talk often,” Kerr commented from where the British man hung near the ceiling, “but when you do, you make an uncommon amount of sense.”

            The next day, before breaking orbit, Akemi, Volodin, and Miranda descended one last time to Exoria’s surface. There, Volodin and Miranda affixed thick vinyl flags to the metal of the structure that they’d found, one for each nation represented on their crew. And Volodin carefully extracted one final item from the bag in which they’d transported these feeble, fragile markers, which would doubtless be baked by solar radiation and torn apart by Exoria’s rising winds.

            A vial of ashes.

            “I was wondering when you’d get around to it,” Miranda murmured on their private channel.

            “I almost reconsidered leaving her here,” Volodin replied. “But . . . it’s right. And it’s time to let her go.” He uncapped the vial, and they watched as the gray stream of ash fluttered away into the rising mist of a world birthing itself anew. “Let’s go home,” he added, taking Miranda’s arm, the pressure of his fingers lost to the thick layers of her suit.

            Simple human contact, human words. Miranda took one last look at the mysteries of a world she could never truly know. Sighed. And followed him back into the lander.

This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.


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Deborah L. Davitt

Historical fantasy, science fiction, horror, and, usually, a mix of all three.