Unearther

John Tuttle

Unearther
October 30, 2020 John Tuttle

Sun-kissed heaps of earth made up the desolate landscape. Wisps of topsoil blew about at the mercy of the wind. With every step the traveler took, the ground made a slight crunching sound. It was the only attribute of this world that penetrated the silence.

There were other brownish objects which seemed to drift with the wind. At first, the planetary explorer thought them leaves. It took only a moment, however, to observe the absence of foliage in the terrain. Looking more closely, she distinguished sharp, veiny limbs and thick heads on these ‘leaves’. They crept slowly by, going about their little lives without a care at all for this newcomer. But now was not the time for a biology examination. Soon it would not matter.

The wanderer’s objective was not far now; it could be made out by the naked eye. One of the Grand Consortium’s outposts lay at the base of a jet-black rock formation. The mountain thrust out of the ground, ascending, blooming; a jagged protuberance a hundred meters high. At various angles when the starlight refracted just right, the formation took on a purplish tinge.

As she approached the edifice, she unzipped a pocket at her side, removing a computer chip set into a protective crystalline disk. She halted in front of a glossy, chromium-coloured sphere rather resembling a round buoy, which bobbed faintly up and down. The hovering orb was held in place by artificial gravity, the source of which was a metallic panel on the ground, half-covered in the sands.

The agent plugged the computer chip into a receptor on the sphere. An opening appeared out of what seemed to be a seamless face of black rock. She removed the disk and put it back in her pocket. Looking up, she gazed upon one of the world’s moons shining big and bright, gibbous and sublime in the heavens. Her eyes returned earthward, and she entered.

The interior was spacious. Scattered about it were instruments, some archaic and some of modern making. There seemed to be as many devices in functional order as those that were junked, disregarded, and strewn across the cave floor. 

A singular bleep came from the woman’s wrist analyser. It meant the readout on the atmospheric sampling had been obtained. She immediately examined the data; the air was breathable, devoid of any significant quantities of lethal gases and containing a slightly higher level of oxygen than the air on her home planet. Regardless, the atmosphere here was more than bearable — as she discovered upon removing her pressurised helmet.

She scanned her surroundings. One of the things that caught her attention was a series of beams, placed precariously at certain points throughout the cave. They were support struts for foundations above more than for ornamentation, yet their reflective alloy offered the eye a sort of cold, refined beauty. A beauty which felt both ancient and crude as well as advanced and distilled.

She moved on deeper into the cavern. A network of tunnels stretched out from the nucleoid heart in which she stood, but it seemed the warmth of past activity and bustle had vacated this centre some time ago. This was a quarry; now dead and barren, but once filled with light, the passage of precious stones, and reverberant voices.

As per her orders, the agent discerned that an investigation into what had happened might prove useful for preventing the failure of other mining outposts. She scaled a smooth, sloping incline several metres high and crawled into the entrance of one of the tunnels.

It was dark inside. She turned on the grid lights on the shoulders of her suit. The walls of the hewn passageway were coarse, and riddled with indentations where crystals had been harvested. The stone itself was mottled butand a consistent sandstone-like texture throughout. Minute crystals reflected the traveler’s lights, like shimmering ripples of water throwing off sunshine at noonday on a greener world.

Half an hour into this march, she began to wonder how far she was willing to continue. Even with the extent of visibility the lights allotted for, blackness remained the eye’s uttermost subject. Suddenly, she felt a pair of tremors, a few seconds’ interval between them. As they subsided, she was thankful that they hadn’t brought any rubble down on top of her.

Into the abyssal depths she crawled on. Eventually, her perseverance was rewarded, and she came upon another chamber. Scattered about the floor were cruder implements: drills, smelting lasers, brushes, compressed air sprayers, delicate pocket-sized picks, and tanks which might have been breathing apparatuses of some sort.

She deduced that some natural catastrophe had driven out the miners. It could have been a surge of toxic gas, the collapse of a tunnel, or any number of things. This being her professional opinion based on what she had seen, it was sure to make its way into her report.

All the tools seemed so archaic by the standards of recent years. She had never seen laser devices such as these. She blew the dust off one and tested it. She tried the larger button on the laser, and just as she had guessed, this was the trigger. A beam of amber, blue-edged light shot out, leaving a smouldering pile of debris where had rested a sizable stone a moment before.

That settled the question in her mind. Using the laser was feasible. Fondly acquainting herself with the tool, she started to etch something into the wall of stone. Pale fumes rose off and away from her work, dissipating lazily into the dark. In a moment, she had completed her endeavour. There, set in the wall, the hot letter carvings read: “J. Hansen was here”.

The timer had been set, leaving Hansen an ample amount of time to meander back to the ship. The bomb would release a sudden and intense emission of radiation. At 15:00, the only sign that this hunk of rubble once orbited a dwarf star would be a formless cloud of cosmic dust. This was the reason behind her presence on that desolate sphere. The Consortium deemed this celestial wanderer-world as unnecessary; an eyesore, a spacial waste, a well that had long-ago dried up. And for this crime its undoing had been written into law.

Passing by the lettering once more, retracing her steps down part of the passageway, Hansen paused. She seemed pleased with herself, admiring her name cut into the very heart and foundation of this world. Her grin, even as slight as it was, soon vanished like the wispy trails of smoke from the smelting laser when her mind recalled how soon this world would be annihilated.

“I guess nothing can last forever,” she sighed. “Perhaps even a name isn’t immortal.”

Somewhere near the back of her psyche, Hansen questioned the point of her mission. But she was far from a moralist, and the inquiry was a fleeting matter. Still, the significance of what was being done flitted through her thoughts. By this time tomorrow, there would be no mantle, no caves, no ground, no plains, mountains, or deserts…

Her mind did not have long to wander. Suddenly, a sound erupted behind her; something like a shuffle, something like a whirlwind. A shiver slithered its way up her spinal cord as panic of the unknown seized her nervous system.

“If you can’t handle the unknown, you shouldn’t have taken the job,” she whispered to herself. She braced herself for what she might see when she looked around. Before she could think any further or let fear envelop her, she cocked her head to one side.

The corridor was empty and lifeless. Something had crept by her; she was certain of it. She placed her trust in her senses and held them accountable. The thing had moved from her left and passed beyond her to the right. Another tunnel headed in that direction. She would follow it and see where it led.

The stellar traveler retrieved the laser she had used to etch her name, pocketed it, and moved into the passageway into which she believed the thing had disappeared. It had grown eerily quiet in the moments following the mysterious alien encounter. She was beginning to doubt herself. As was the nature of her species, she would most likely dismiss the whole affair, given enough time. Her prior conviction would be exchanged with the conclusion that the whole incident was all in her head.

Whatever had caused that odd flumping, skidding sound, it was no longer traceable. Chasing the wind would lead nowhere. She peered at her surroundings, noticing a new type of glimmer on the rock strata. It was a unique crystalline pattern on the wall of sandstone. A swirl of glassy plumes, turquoise and teal, spread like an array of peacock feathers — or the arms of a spiral galaxy — on the face of the rock.

She continued on, fear replaced by increasing despondency. Silence now; only the scraping of her boots against the stone floor. Then, suddenly, the scuffling; that odd and distinct scuffling from before, came rushing upon her. It caught her off guard and she had no time to think. A searing pain at her nape; and vision, light and colour and life, fading. She had fallenfell into a black hole of abstraction.

 

*

 

Roused by the rumblings of machinery, Hansen’s eyes flickered. Her vision, soft at first, slowly returned to its former clarity. She recognised the chamber as the mine’s central cavern where she had first entered, and many of the hunks of gadgetry were now operating. The heart of this mining outfit, which had long since gone cold, had suddenly been revitalised.

The notion of something moving her, touching her, handling her… It was not a comforting one. Then came a deeper mental jolt.

The bomb! The time!

Hansen began to sit up, but as she did so, a forceful appendage clutched her shoulder. She looked up, where her eyes were met with the most peculiar creature they had ever gazed upon. Its form was a hideous caricature of the humanoid shape. The arms were short, but lithe; the shoulders, wide; the legs, narrow but straight. Protruding from its back were a pair of bony, frill-like formations, perhaps made of keratin. There was no visible tail.

Lastly, the head. Rounded and rough in texture, it displayed a face only slightly more definable than the features of an extreme surrealistic profile. But then, Hansen pondered, this whole ordeal seemed a surreal experience. The eyes, the windows to the soul, did not peer into a hospitable land, and she did not wish to venture there. The pupils were dark but narrowly-focused and covered by refractive cornea — distinctions in the eyes of predatory animals, part of her mind noted.

For a long time the creature abstained from blinking, and — during an awkward stare-off — Hansen began to wonder whether the thing ever would blink. When it did, she felt an inkling of pride. She had won the contest, as insignificant as it might have been. The only thing now was to be rid of this loathsome brute.

Hansen quickly rolled out from under the hunched shape. No sooner was she out of its grasp than she was on her feet, making for the exit. She stalled, however, when her eyes fell upon a closed-off wall of rock. Its key, another metallic orb, was guarded by a pair of those… things, evidently belonging to the same species as her captor. The next thing she knew, the first one was standing beside her once more.

She felt acutely discomfited, helpless. Then she remembered the smelting laser, which she had fastened to her belt after testing. It would serve as well as any other weapon. But when she reached for it, it had vanished — and her communicator along with it. Her anxiety spiked. She looked again at the nearest creature, which stared listlessly back.

From their appearances, Hansen judged them to be possessive of low cognitive abilities — although, they did have the foresight to take her most vital instruments. She pondered the idea of conversing with them. Then again, even if they could speak, she would be at a loss for understanding. How could she begin to imagine communicating with a brute the likes of— 

“Hansen is your name,” uttered her captor. 

The agent practically fell over. Her body flinched in reactionary surprise. “Yes, I am,” she almost shouted.

“You have come here on hostile terms,” the creature continued. “The world of Ara is already in jeopardy, and you have come to bring it to its destined oblivion before its appointed time. Why do you intend this?”

Hansen began to spill out a textbook response: her orders, and the authority from her superiors.

“I’m employed by the Grand Consortium, an interglobal policy union based in the far reaches of this stellar system. I was sent to…” She stumbled briefly, reconsidering her verbiage. “…Inspect the planet, labeled MCX-19, and to determine whether it was suitable for mining any further.”

“This world is not a random number on a star chart,” retorted the captor, clearing its throat. “This is Ara, and it is dying. That mining you speak of: it is responsible for this condition. It has contributed significantly to the instability of our planet’s geophysical foundations. The ground beneath us is turbulent, and it shall never be settled. Our scientists have determined that we have six Aran months before tectonic deterioration sets in. Not only will it be uninhabitable, but its doom is inevitable.”

Hansen blinked. “We had no idea,” she began. “Not about the planet’s integrity, nor the fact that it was inhabited by intelligent life.”

“And what of the mining?! You were certainly aware of that!”

“What happened to those miners? I assume you know.”

“They came and robbed our sacred caverns of their ornamentation. Deeper still they delved into rock and earth, and in their own folly were consumed, covered by the same sediments they dug through! But, nevertheless, their damage was done. And irreversible.”

“And how could you possibly have known my name?” 

“Quite simply, Hansen. You yourself carved it into the face of the rock.”

“Oh,” she stammered, feeling stupid. “Well, that’s a bit underwhelming.”

“We are not mind-readers,” the Aran native said. “But many of our kind have an intuition for reading into an individual’s character. One’s motives are mostly transparent before us, even yours. And I fear you have not thought long and well on what you have planned to do.”

“I’m doing my job,” Hansen argued.

“Does this job lift the burden of ethical responsibility from your capable shoulders? Do you not have culpability for these deeds in which you play a part? You must be the owner of your ideas and responsible for the results of your acts or inaction!”

“You would have me act in subordination?”

“If it means doing what is right, then aren’t you obligated to do so?” Her captor sighed. 

“You people astound me — truly. You who try to number the stars of the heavens and act to literally reshape the structure of the galaxy! You never create, only demolish. And what is more, you destroy what you did not yourselves build up. You do not inquire, but instead, you remove what seems to get in your way! It subverts the scientific mindset. You have ceased to let curiosity be your guide. Industry and gain have taken its place. I have seen the death of many a star, Hansen. This sphere beneath our feet, my beloved Ara, shall soon be but a vanished speck once looked upon in the night sky of some distant world. Its very name shall fall into obscurity.”

The Aran stopped there and took a breath, its head slightly bowed in an air of exhausted defeat. Then it spoke again, in a less vehement, more remorseful tone:

“With the powers you wield, Hansen, your people have undone countless features of the cosmic design. And it seems that you hardly give it a passing thought. Another insight into a sleeping mind! Do you not see the destruction you have spread throughout this galaxy? An inactive body can be a harmful thing. But an active and impulsive body bearing an idle mind may be all the more deadly.”

Hansen was growing uncomfortable once more; not about the oddities which stood before her, but about the bomb that had been set. She tried to remain calm, but the issue could not be dismissed. To her astonishment, the problem was addressed for her.

“How many of these bombs have you employed in your terminating of worlds?” demanded the Aran, tossing a mangled conglomerate of wires and metal at Hansen’s feet. Obviously, it had been dismantled. No use would come of it on Ara now.

“I – I don’t know…” stammered the Consortium’s representative. “This was my first time. The whole thing has just felt… I apologise. I didn’t know there were…inhabitants. I never thought—”

“This is the reason we have met. I can accept that you never thought about any of it. But that is what I ask of you and your Grand Consortium. Think.”

“What do you plan to do?” Hansen inquired.

Do? Nothing. We await the end of Ara. And you must return to your home. This is ours for what dwindling time we might have it to ourselves. Leave us, Hansen.”

With that, the Aran gestured to its comrades and left, through one of the tunnels near the rear of the cave. Hansen slid the chip into the orb’s complementary outlet, then back out again as the wall of rock receded and opened up to a night sky. She retrieved her helmet, took one last lingering look upon the mine and machines, and ventured into the dark. To her recollection, she had not enjoyed the sense of a breeze on her face ever in her life as much as she now did. The ground shivered, and she hurried on.

Hansen clambered into her vessel and left Ara. It was a cold and long way back to the Grand Consortium’s headquarters; in a temporal sense, something equivalent to several of our common months, yet unmeasurable by days. There was no sunrise or sunset. Only a perpetual, all-encompassing eclipse with, here and there, some minute abrasions where light pierced through — a star-studded drapery.

Upon her return, she was hastily court-martialed, seeming ever so odd throughout the trial. The future held much time for thinking. In her confinement, several months following her case’s verdict, she caught a newscast. It was a report on the demise of a terrestrial body; its instability had been its undoing. For Hansen, the blow was an abrupt one, and it came as a brief and minor factoid. The planet was labeled MCX-19. At that, she sunk to her knees.

“No,” she whispered into the silence of her cell. “Its name was Ara.”