Slow Answers: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 4, 2023
by Emil Varden
Originally published in Trans Lunar Injection #65
Myra was careful not to scuff her boots in the red-yellow leaves. Who knew what artifacts meant lie just beneath the thick cover? Archaeology was slow. Slow answers to slow questions. If you don’t take your time, you’re doing it wrong. She carefully lifted one foot at a time, and then lowered it cautiously, waiting for the beep that would indicate that the boot radar had picked up something solid under the dead leaves.
They weren’t really leaves, of course. These weren’t things that grew on Earth trees. Here on Wotan-7, the native life had no connection to that of Earth. Not even DNA, which was common on more than half of the life-bearing planets that humanity had diskovered. Initial analysis showed that the genetic material on this planet was transmitted in complex folded scaffolds, like tiny sheets of mica with chemical factories trapped within.
Yet DNA aside, there were patterns of life that recur on a majority of life-bearing worlds. The light of the local star was the engine that drove everything: feeding, reproduction, mutation, plus motility where it happened. On those worlds – worlds like this one, and Earth of course – some of the native life evolved the ability to migrate on its own power, rather than relying on wind and waves to spread its seed. Those worlds had life forms commonly classified as animals.
And many worlds had another pattern common for immobile life forms: forests. If local starlight was the source of life, then organisms that could reach higher and farther for it had a biological advantage. That led them to grow tall to get above competitors, as well as branching to reach over them. And they adapted flat surfaces to catch the most light. In other words, evolutionary pressures led to something that looked like a tree.
All of this was basic evolutionary biology that Myra new, but it was of only passing interest to her. Others on the survey team would document all the many life form forms of Wotan-7, but Myra was there because the planet had something that very few worlds did, something that was her subject of study. Myra was an archaeologist. She studied the history of intelligent species.
She would love to have diskovered the ruins of Wotan-7, but she was just a junior assistant to a junior field investigator, all working under Dr. Miles Grenell, “the man who diskovered the artifacts.” Myra knew better than that, of course. Senior researchers like Grinnell got the credit, but they didn’t do the bulk of the fieldwork. They were masters at fundraising and grant management and team management. There were at least seven layers between Grenell and the people who got their hands dirty, like Myra. At least Grenell shared credit fairly enough, because that gave him an advantage in recruiting. research staff. Myra knew that if she earned it, she would get every bit of credit there was – after Grenell’s name as lead researcher.
The boot radar was silent, and Myra kept walking. Not that she was surprised. This area had been thoroughly mapped by Reynolds and her team long before Myra had even boarded the ship from Earth. Reynolds, Grenell’s golden child, led the real archaeological surveys of Wotan-7. Myra knew her by reputation as a bit of a hard-driving scholar, but also someone who drove herself as hard as anyone on the team. They had marked out safe passages on the survey maps, and Myra was following one of those. The odds that she would find something that they had missed were minuscule.
The map said she was close, so Myra peered into the red and orange shadows of the Wotan woods. Without her Heads Up Display, it was hard to make out details from within her helmet. Like everyone on Wotan-7, Myra wore a spacesuit – yes, the technicians insisted it was an environment suit, since it wasn’t designed for vacuum and radiation, but everyone called them spacesuits. Myra would be glad to get to Earth-normal atmosphere so she could take the thing off. Despite the ventilation system, she always sweated like a pig in a suit.
She couldn’t make out details in the low red light, so she reactivated the HUD. Suit sensors amplified details and tied them into the survey map, identifying that the main survey site was about 1.5 klicks ahead.
Just as Myra noted that, her suit comm sounded. “Collins, where are you at?”
“Almost there, Reynolds,” Myra answered. “One and a half kilometers, but it’s slow getting through this undergrowth.”
“Damn right it’s slow. Good job. Timmons just made a new diskovery, and we’re updating the survey maps to indicate safe paths. Don’t budge until you get your updates.”
That surprised Myra, catching her with her right foot in the air. Surely Reynolds and her team had mapped out everything before new from Earth reef had arrived. But you don’t argue with instructions on a survey. “Got it, Reynolds. No budging.” Myra gently lowered her right foot toward where she had just lifted it.
The boot radar beeped.
The first protocol was to share the data. God forbid something should kill you while you were the only one who knew about a new diskovery. And less cynically, someone else knowing might help them to save your life. So Myra stood awkwardly on her left foot and said, “Reynolds, patch in.”
Suddenly Myra felt a presence in the suit. Reynolds now shared the suit as an avatar, looking through Myra’s instruments as if she were physically there. Myra’s reaction was purely psychological. There was nothing Myra could physically sense. But she was always convinced that a suit got crowded when an avatar patched in.
Now when Reynolds spoke, her voice was in stereo right around Myra’s head. “These readings are just like what Timmons saw before his diskovery. How long can you stand on one foot?”
It wasn’t a joke, so Myra thought before answering. “A while. I’m patient, and the gravity’s light here. I can hold my foot up even with the extra weight of the boot.”
“Good for you, Collins, but it won’t be that long. Let me patch your sensors into survey’s mainframe and, and… Okay, can you hop to your left? Just enough so you can put your foot down?”
“I can.” But Myra was experienced enough in survey corps to know that a question was not an instruction, not until Reynolds made it one.
“All right, hop, and then you can put your foot down where your left is now. After that, turn in place and bring out your wide spectrum scanner.”
“All right.” Myra crouched a little, sprung into the air, and came down about ten centimeters to her left.
And off balance! Hopping in a suit was new to her. She found herself teetering, first one way and then the other. Before she could put her right foot down, she toppled to the ground… and suddenly screamed as her knee twisted at an impossible angle. She fell face first, and her helmet smacked solidly into a strange, low stone that just in front of her.
Fortunately the helmets were all but unbreakable, and small airbags deployed to keep her from smacking her skull against the plexi. Before Myra realized it had happened, the airbag’s retracted, and she was safely on the ground, looking at a nearly 3 meter stone disk that hadn’t been there moments before.
Reynolds, still patched into the suit, said, “Collins! Are you all right?” But before Myra could answer, Reynolds continued, “Your suit reads quick green across all systems, except… It looks like you twisted your knee. Let’s take a look at that.”
“But the stone –”
“We’ll get to that later. And there’s two of them.”
“Yeah. Look to your right. You almost stepped on the other one.”
Myra looked through the piles of grass and leaves that were now at eye level for her, and she saw a second stone disk. “That’s what Timmons found?”
“Timmons was the first. Others have found them as well. You’re the first to find two so close together. Sit still. We’ll send a medic team with the rescue harness to bring you to base camp so we can take a better look at that knee. I’m popping back out now. You need anything?”
Myra’s head spun, and she suspected… Yep, her HUD confirmed that the suit had already administered painkillers. Her left knee didn’t hurt, but it also didn’t want to bend. She was afraid that if she could see inside the suit, the knee would be swollen like a basketball.
But as long as she wasn’t in pain… “No, I’m fine. I’ll just sit here.”
“We’ll get to you right away. Oh, and Collins? I know you don’t want to do any more damage to that knee; but if more of those things pop up, you hobble away from there as fast as you can. We don’t know if they might be dangerous.”
Archaeology was slow. Myra was patient.
She didn’t know how long the wait would be. It certainly wasn’t quick. Reynolds patched in a few times to point out that other stone disks had arisen from the ground all across the region. She had ordered a complete evacuation back to orbit until they could do a drone survey and find out what was going on. Suddenly everyone was busy, and Myra was low on the priority list. As long as her vitals looked good, there was no rush for pickup.
So Myra had nothing else to do but to study the disks. She recorded everything through her visor, and she also unfolded the wide spectrum scanner and started imaging. Spectral analysis showed that the surface, at least, was ordinary native stone, quartz and magnesium and a little touch of aluminum, plus lots of silicon. That was the best she could read with the spectrophotometer.
Both disks had risen out of the ground approximately twelve centimeters, and then stopped. There was no sign of disturbed Earth around either of them. They must have arisen from below, though Myra hadn’t noticed it. For all she knew, the disks had just appeared there.
The disks were weathered, implying age. Archaeology was slow. It was never good to draw conclusions until you’d gathered mountains of data. But it was also impossible to avoid impressions. The disks had all the wear and discoloring that you would find in an ancient archaeological site on Earth, though no breakage. No humans had been there to vandalize the work, and wind and rain and snow hadn’t seemed to do anything to the stone. Maybe the soil had sheltered them.
Despite warnings from her biosensors, Myra turned herself to a siyting position. Whatever sedative the suit had injected wasn’t enough for that much pain. She cried out; and within a fraction of a second, Reynolds was back on the line. “Collins, are you okay?”
“Good…” Myra breathed heavily and waited for the throb of pain to subside. “I just turned and sat. The knee was bad.”
“Whew! Next time warn me when you’re going to move around, will you? No, I take that back, don’t move. We’re coming to get you soon. Be patient.” A small electronic click came from the HUD. “I just issued an override. You can self-administer more painkillers if you need them. Feel free to get a little ‘happy’, but not too much. I want everyone alert. We don’t know what could happen with these disks.”
“I’m scanning,” Myra answered.
“I see that. Nice work, but not important. We have time. Right now, take care of yourself.”
“Yes, Dr. Reynolds. I will.”
“I’m off!” Myra was alone again, but it was comforting to know that Reynolds was keeping a close monitor on her.
Myra went back to scanning the nearest disk. It seemed as round as stonework could get, better than you would usually get with hand tools. This seemed machined.
That was surprising. In the first survey, Reynolds and her team had found evidence only of old stone construction and stone tools. No signs of metal it all, and certainly not advanced machining. They had done test soundings in one area and found indications of buried construction, wood and stone like you might find in ten-thousand digs anywhere on Earth. Over time, artifacts sank into the ground and were buried by millennia of shifting soil.
The disks, though, were more advanced than anything that the survey had turned up so far. Looking over at the first disk she had unknowingly detected, Myra saw that each had a similar top structure: an outer ring, an inner circle, and eight equal-sized wedges between them. Drawn into the wedges were symbols, regular enough to be meaningful, but like nothing anyone had ever decoded as far as Myra knew.
But there was definitely a pattern, rings of symbols arranged from the outer border in towards the middle circle. It was almost certainly writing of some kind, and it seemed oriented around the circle. Myra leaned closer to try to read it.
“Don’t touch it!” Reynolds shouted in her ear.
Myra jolted, and suddenly her knee throbbed again, and she twisted in a painful reflex. She reached out without thinking, and she caught herself on the disk.
It started to home.
“Collins! What did you do?”
“I touched it.”
“Yes, but how did you touch it? We haven’t seen anything like this.”
“Like what –” Myra stopped. Now she saw what Reynolds had seen through the suit sensors. The letters carved into the stone were glowing in a rhythmic pattern. The center disk rose up, becoming a stone column, nearly 3 meters high when it stopped.
“Collins, can you get away?”
Myra scoot back on her butt, but the pain was too intense. “No. I’m trying, but…”
Then Myra fell silent. Two sheets of light emerged from opposite sides of the central pillar. The light began to spin, and soon the space above the disk was like a giant pool of light.
“It’s a hologram viewer,” Myra said.
“It looks like it,” Reynolds answered. “Collins, is your scanner out?
Myra checked her control pad. “Out and recording. It’s definitely a hologram in the red end of our visible spectrum.”
“Sure. Wotan runs toward the infrared compared to Sol. That will be their visible spectrum.”
“There are… shapes in there, Reynolds. It’s like a show.”
“A show? Collins, check your audio.”
Myra checked. “I had it off so I could listen to comm traffic. External audio on.”
As soon as Myra activated the external audio, she was surrounded by a clicking, echoing sound like a frog croaking in multiple registers. There were rhythms, patterns. Myra couldn’t understand it, but this was speech.
“God damn, Collins, you are one lucky skunk!”
Myra didn’t need Reynolds to explain what she meant. Archaeology was slow. You spent months and years sifting bone shards and simple tools from truckloads of soil. There were no fast discoveries – except when there were, the shocking finds that surprised everyone. These disks and their holograms were going to set the archaeological world on fire, and the rest of society along with it. This was the most dramatic archaeological find in more than a century; and though she didn’t deserve it, Myra would be in the middle of it, remembered for generations. She would have opportunities from this if she could just figure out how to make use of them.
The scanner showed more shapes in the infrared, so Myra adjusted the suit cameras to transform IR to visible light. As soon as she did, she saw the clear lines and shapes within the hollow cylinder. Much of what she saw were creatures with lumpy thoraxes and long, spindly legs. Something like tendons ran along the limbs yet outside of the meat entirely, connecting the bodies to knobby joints.
Of the four legs, the front two were adaptable, prehensile so that they could function as hands or feet. And the creatures were clearly tool makers. They had fantastic artifacts. They moved through woods and over fields on wheeled vehicles. They sailed boats on rivers. And they even flew aircraft in the sky. Myra couldn’t make out the story in the video, but she could see that it was a story, covering a lot of time quickly, with cuts from place to place and event to event. She saw the creatures gathered sometimes in small groups, sometimes in large structures that reminded her of a stadium. This was a society maybe as advanced as humanity.
It was hard to tell with such strange creatures, but Myra started to recognize some familiar figures. Their coloring buried, spots of red and yellow and orange across the gray thorax. Some of the same patterns happened over and over, and across different creatures. Were these family markings? One creature appeared more often than others, in almost every scene. This one was marked with a red and yellow arc across its back, just behind what might be a sensory cluster. This creature seemed to be the subject of the whole presentation. Myra found herself calling it Mack just so she could remember it.
Then Myra was startled to hear a humming sound behind her. She twisted as far around as the suit and her throbbing knee allowed, and she found a cargo pod hovering behind her. Wallace and Penn sat in it, and Tran stood in the open rear hatch. All three were suited, of course.
“Myra, can you climb up?” Tran asked. “Or do I need to drop down the rescue harness?”
“Hush,” Myra answered. “I’m watching this.”
“We were told to pick you up!”
“And I’m telling you not yet. This is too valuable. Look at this. Here!” Myra pushed her sensor adjustments to Tran. “Set your scanners to those parameters, you’ll see what I’m seeing.” Soon Tran was silent.
This movie had purpose, it had story. There was no way either of them could comprehend the whole of it (not yet), but it was a story. An alien race reached out to humanity to tell a story.
Mack’s influence seemed to grow. Other creatures with similar arc markings entered the story. “It’s like a clan,” Tran said.
“A family,” Myra answered. She’d seen more of the story, and she was starting to piece together the elements. This was the story of Mack’s life.
As soon as Myra thought that, she knew. “It’s his tomb.”
“That one with the red arc, call him Mac.” Myra pointed at the stone disk. “We’re looking at his tomb.”
“Myra… Don’t anthropomorphize!”
“I’m not, it’s just an impression. But I’ll bet dinner on it. When we finally got this place analyzed… ten, twenty, fifty years from now… we’ll find that these disks are graves.” She pointed at the disk to the right. “That one…” She looked back to the hologram. “That’s Mack’s wife.”
“All right, spouse, mate, trading partner…” She pointed back at the movie. “That one, next to Mack. It doesn’t have the same marking, but it’s in practically every scene. Those two are a couple.” She looked back and forth between the disks. “They’re entombed here.”
Tran shook his head. “Maybe. But I don’t know if we’ll live long enough to decide who gets the dinner. This could be decades of study to even scratch the surface.”
“It will…” Myra sighed. “It’s archaeology. There are no fast answers. Right now this is all a guess, but I’m confident.”
But it wasn’t just a guess. The scenes from Mack’s life were changing. Mack wasn’t moving as fast. He didn’t interact as energetically as he had before. The other one, the partner, spent more time huddled close to Mack. Myra couldn’t read facial expressions in these creatures, but Myra felt the concern deep inside her.
Then the scene shifted again. “See! See, I told you!” The scene now showed an image of the disk itself, with Mack layed out across it. He was draped in a shimmery fabric that Mack’s partner pulled over him until he was completely covered. Then the image started to fade, and the disk in the hologram sank into the ground. Mack’s partner and all his relatives stood around the disk with their forelimbs bowed to the ground as the a soil fell upon the disk and swallowed Mack.
“All right,” Myra said at last. “Drop down the harness, I’ll climb in. But I’m convinced I’m right. You wanna go double or nothing?”
Tran shook his head. “It gave me shivers. If that wasn’t a funeral, I don’t know what it was. Here.” He tossed down the harness, and Myra unfolded it. She climbed into it, almost losing consciousness as her knee took a nasty turn, but she did it. Then Tran used a winch to haul her aboard, pulled her inside, and strapped her to a seat. Once the hatch was closed, the air cycled, and Tran took off their helmets.
As they glided away, Tran activated the rear screens, and they watched as the disks fell away behind them. “But why now? Why did they start rising out of the ground in the past day-and-a-half? And… Those were advanced creatures, and we found no sign of them. Not even bodies. We found primitive tools and structures, and that’s it. What happened to them? Where did they go?”
Myra smiled. “You’re still new at this, aren’t you?” Tran nodded, a sheepish smile on his face. “Archaeology is slow. Answers can take an entire career to find, maybe longer. It took ages for those settlements to get buried, for that civilization to disappear. It’s going to take a long time for us to answer the questions.”
Myra pulled up the recordings and watched as Mack’s life story play out again. “But sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you get a piece of a fast answer, a little sneak preview. You’re on the team that did that. Be patient and count your blessings. You’re going to be famous.”
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Walking in cemeteries.