Alice stepped out of the airlock. Her boots were immediately covered in a fine grey dust that she assumed was going to be a constant on this planet.
“Well, we certainly hit the jackpot on this one,” Lee remarked dryly through the ear piece.
Alice shot a sharp glance at her companion only to be met with the view of a dark visor staring back at her. Of course, non-verbal cues were pointless when wearing the bulky suits.
“It’s not the most exciting planet we’ve been to, I agree. Still, it’s our job to explore anomalies when we find them. You know this,” she said in her finely honed professional tone. “We’ll be out of here in an hour.”
They didn’t have the time to spend on a planet so unpromising; if it weren’t for the sensor blip they wouldn’t have given the planet a second chance. Reports indicated it would be a poor choice for colonization even with their best terraforming technology, and it didn’t appear to contain any useful surface minerals.
“Let’s just go confirm the anomaly is nothing more than a bunch of rocks and call it a day,” Lee said, an edge to his voice. Alice picked up on the mixture of annoyance and boredom she had also felt all too often these last twenty-five years.
The Explorers just didn’t get the funding they used to. The colonies were less interested in exploring than they were in collecting resources; Universities more interested in churning out geological surveyors than xenobiologists. It made sense, after centuries of space travel, the only xenobiology they had encountered were some microbes and a couple of interesting plants.
Alice suppressed the urge to sigh as she started her slow way across the dust towards the anomaly.
The planet was grey dust on grey skies, beautiful in it’s utter desolation. In the distance, the horizon rippled as dunes rose and fell like waves frozen in time. Every once and awhile a light cloud of dust swirled across the landscape before quickly dissipating.
“Alice! Take a look at this,” Lee said louder than was necessary. Alice looked to where Lee was standing on the crest of the dune they had been climbing. She hurried as best she could up to him, feeling the strain of a heavier gravity than she was used to.
Her eyes widened at the sight in the valley before her.
A partially collapsed dome made out of a bone-white material lay inside a courtyard of sorts, surrounded by crumbling walls of stone. Without a doubt, it was artificial. Old, too. Possibly centuries.
Lee started down the dune before Alice had a chance to find her voice. She followed soon after, neither of them saying a word.
The valley was deeper than it seemed, sheltering the structure from most of the wind. They were practically racing, reaching the bottom in what felt like half a second even though it must have been longer.
An entrance could be seen in the side of the dome; half obscured with rubble, but still intact. Whatever built this knew what they were doing. Alice and Lee turned towards each other. She could almost see the wide-eyed expression he must have worn.
The doorway was slightly smaller and wider than typical human construction, coming up to just about her shoulder and running for about ten feet. They could definitely duck under it.
An air of hesitation settled onto them. She should probably radio back to the ship telling them what they found, but there were no protocols in place for something like this and radioing back would take longer than she wanted. Lee seemed to be waiting for her to break the silence. She slipped a small disk from her belt bag, pressed a button, and stuck it to the floor. If they never came back, the ship would be able to pick up on its transmissions.
“Alright. Let’s check it out,” she said casually, as if this was an everyday occurrence. She ducked through the doorway. The inside was barely an inside due to the crumbled ceiling, but in front of her a steep ramp led down into the planet. The light from the outside only penetrated a few feet into the tunnel before leaving it a pitch darkness.
The suit came with an emergency flashlight– a dinky little thing that she’d never had to use before. It looked so pathetic against the tunnel before her, but it had a steady beam.
“How deep do you think this goes?” Lee asked in a voice not much above a whisper.
“Don’t know,” she said. “Could be ten feet, could be a thousand.”
With that, they started off down the tunnel one hesitant step at a time.
Alice was glad that tunnel hadn’t been constructed with the same dimensions as the doorway. It was wide, but tall enough that they had a foot or two of room above their heads. She soon lost track of how long they had been walking. It seemed to stretch an eternity.
After what Alice judged to be about forever and a half, her flashlight illuminated a space far larger than the tunnel she had gotten used to.
Light from the twin beams of their flashlights diffused before they could illuminate the ceiling or much ahead besides a smooth floor. She could just about see walls to either side of her. Her heartbeat was the loudest thing in the room, the absolute silence not giving her much else to focus on.
They approached the wall to their right.
She ran her hand along the wall as they walked as if it could anchor her. Near the corner the wall was as smooth as marble, but as they turned a sharp ninety degrees and continued further into the room she felt something catch at her glove. She jerked back, swinging the beam of light onto the wall next to her.
As far as she could crane her neck up to see, the wall was covered in etchings. She ran her glove over it again, marvelling in the beauty of it. The carvings were intricate and as precise as anything she had ever seen. It was clear this was the work of something more sophisticated than a sharp rock. Alice wished she could see it all at once, having to take it in with her flashlight was like trying to put together a puzzle blindfolded.
Alice stumbled as her toe hit something hard. Further investigation with the light revealed what looked to be a thin stone of some sort. She wondered how it got there.
“Wait, Alice. What’s that?” Lee pointed his own light towards the middle of the room. Something caught the light; a small anomaly of shadow. Alice walked over to it quickly, ancient instincts screaming at her not to leave her back to the darkness. The object looked to be a pedestal, an orb attached at the top. Against her better judgement, she reached out to touch it.
The room flooded with light. Alice was temporarily blinded.
A soft blue glow filled the space, revealing an incredibly vast hall. The light emanated from orbs dangling on long cords attached to the rounded ceiling high above their heads.
Littering the floor were the bodies. Most of them were in neat rows, but a few had seemingly been left where they fell. Their long legs curled in on themselves, looking like the dead spiders that collected in storage bay corners, but narrower, longer, as tall as herself, and possessing more eyes. There had to be at least a hundred of them, sprawling across the floor. Looking back at the right wall, she found that the rock she had tripped over was a leg from one of the beings. It clutched a device in one of its appendages.
The carvings covered the entirety of the hall. Most of it seemed like a language, interspersed with what appeared to be diagrams. Even if she knew how to read the language, it would be years before she could finish it. Taking up a large section of wall was an illustration of a city with curving architecture similar to the dome up above.
Other orb-holding pedestals stood in different sections of the room. Alice watched Lee walk up to one and touch it. A blue hologram appeared, causing them to jump back in alarm. One of the beings walked in place as if it were on a treadmill.
“What do you think this is for?” Lee asked quietly, breaking a silence she had forgotten was there.
“To show how they moved,” Alice replied. A similar pedestal revealed what she recognized to be the solar system they were in. A couple of the planets were outlined in orange.
“No, I meant… All of this.”
“I know,” Alice sighed while activating another hologram. She guessed the image that appeared to be an egg sac of some sort. It was vaguely similar to something she saw in a biology textbook years ago. Her suspicions were confirmed as the eggs hatched and dozens of creatures scuttered out, zig-zagging frantically. “Maybe they’ll say what it’s for, if we can ever translate this. I might have a guess or two in the meantime.” Lee didn’t reply, waiting for her to continue. The hologram creatures grew bigger, aging via timelapse. They edged eachother out of the picture until one was left “What would you do if you knew you were dying?”
“Cry, probably,” Lee replied. A smile tugged at her mouth, despite her best efforts. The hologram’s growth petered out and it hung suspended for a few moments.
“Poorly worded question. What would you do if you saw our civilization shatter and collapse, if you could see the end of everything on the road ahead of you? What can you do against the tide of inevitability?” She paused as the hologram crumbled over and dissolved back into the orb. “I think I’d try to write it all down, a last attempt to force the universe to hold onto our memory just a little longer.”
“You think they were the last?”
“Maybe. Or maybe they just thought they were. I don’t know.”
One of the beings was angled towards them, its eyes trained on her as if it could still see.
Neither could tell whether they stood for seconds or hours before Lee cleared his throat and turned towards the exit.
“We should get back. We’ve been gone a while,” Lee said with hesitation is his voice.
“The most interesting mission report of our lives awaits us,” Alice replied, taking one last look around the room before following him back up the tunnel.