It was a sensational discovery. Our first encounter with an alien race, or at least the archaeological remains of one — not even that far away, on a tiny island off the north coast of the major landmass of a planet named Mélisende. So when my news editor asked me whether I wanted the assignment, I didn’t hesitate.
U BETJA, I flashed at her, and jumped on the first connecting flight to the shuttle.
That’s one of the advantages of being a by-lined journalist. You actually get to go and look at things in person. Your subscribers pay extra for getting the no-nonsense, no-holds-barred, hands-on-noses-on-ears-belly-and-toesies-on, full-body experience. Like in those old-time brothels that they like to make fun of Down Under: hand experience, mouth experience, no-nonsense, no-holds-barred, hands-on-noses-on-ears-belly-and-toesies-on, full-body experience… Well yeah, I know, it loses something in the retelling.
So anyway, there I was a few days later at the American University of Lowellville’s base camp on Mélisende, standard-issue multi-resolution recording unit to the left of me, paradigm-crunching alien archaeological remains to the right, three jobbing archaeologists doing their best to seem pleased to see me to the front. Actually, of the three, only two of them cut it. Deputy Director Fulk — two-metres-something of very stiff, very blonde, bristly-moustached, ex-basketball-scholar stick-insect — made himself scarce, just as soon as he twigged he couldn’t abide me. Which was fine by me, because I couldn’t stand him, either. That left me in the capable hands of Rosalind Sancho, Distinguished Professor of Exobiology and Exomorphological Processes at Lowell, who was at least nominally Fulk’s boss, and her assistant, Catnip. I presume Catnip must also have another name buried away somewhere on his birth certificate, but I never did find out what it was — something Vietnamese after his father, I guess, or something Midwestern after his mother — but what with his goatee beard, long black hair, tatty waistcoat, and little round sunglasses, Catnip seemed pretty much apposite. Or near enough, anyway, to stop you worrying.
“So where do you want to start?” asked Professor Sancho, brushing the sand from her eyes, as we turned away from the prefab porch of her office. “The beach or the headland?”
“The beach sounds fine to me. I should try to get some background, before we move on to the hard stuff.”
“Okay. Well, watch out for the razor shells in the dunes.” And she set off down a well-trodden path through a field of something that looked very much like marram grass, even if, logically, I knew it wasn’t, shading her eyes from the wind-blown sand with her left hand.
It was still early morning, and the sun was only just beginning to peek over the hills to the back of us, when we came through the dunes to the edge of the cove. Mélisende is a much more strongly tidal planet than Earth, and I wasn’t really prepared for the huge plain of sand and mud that stretched out for what seemed like miles to either side of us. The nearer headland, to the South, stood out like a petrified walrus in a puddle of melt-water, towering over the marshy ground where a creek cut through the dunes to produce at least the first hint of a mud-flat. The headland to the North, where the settlement had been found, was larger and lumpier, with a broad south-facing slope to catch the sun. In between, flurries of creamy-white sand snaked over the dryer parts of the beach, rippling like the decorative bands of a ceremonial fishing knife from the long-forgotten workshop of a Neolithic flint-knapper. Automatically, I clicked on the recorder.
I narrowed my eyes, focussing on the grand sweep of the bay. The shimmer of early morning sun, gleaming back from the ripples…. The salt-water tang, and the scurrying sand-devils…. I breathed in the cool morning air, and dug my feet into the slippery dunes. I listened to the whisper of the grass and imagined the millions of creamy-white sand grains tinkling like silver. Good, I could add music later. Then I panned over to look at the looming black headlands. The professor turned back to see why I had stopped, and I moved in to her face, her corn-rows harmonising with the beach, like a shadowy echo of the ridges and sand-ripples.
“Rosalind Sancho,” I subvocalised her name, so the machine would remember to add subtitles.
And that’s a wrap. I turned off the recorder, hardly aware of what I was doing, so ingrained had the practice become.
It was a beautiful morning, I decided. In the winter it would be very different, I knew, with constant rain and vicious storms and frequent flooding. Indeed, it was one of the storms that had torn open the headland to reveal the archaeological treasures within. But now, with the sun and the sky and the green-topped dunes, it was hard to believe that this bay and its hollow hills could ever be anything other than paradise.
Catnip, sneaking up from behind, came to a halt on a tussock of the false marram grass beside me, and touched me lightly on my arm. “Look up there.” He pointed a long, thin finger at the looming flat hump of the aliens’ headland. “Against the skyline, those pits and shadows. That’s the site. That’s where the universe changed.”
My eyes clicked and whirred. “Do we have any idea what they looked like?” I asked, carefully preparing to record his every last word.
But Catnip just shrugged. “No, not exactly. We have some little clay figurines. That could be them. But no skeletons.”
Well, that’s brilliant, — I thought. The first guaranteed alien encounter in human history, and they turn out to be a bunch of Small Clays.
“They seem to have cleared out their town before they vanished,” Catnip was slowly getting into his stride. “There are no animal remains at all, except for a whole load of broken shellfish and the odd fishbone. The usual domestic junk, piled high in the middens. No written records. No oral tradition, obviously. Nothing to go on but their material culture… Shelves, pots, bed-spaces, a warren of half-buried ovular living rooms, linked by passages. All made of clay or stone, and all of it much too small for the likes of us. They couldn’t have been more than a metre-twenty on average. A metre-thirty would buy you a clan leader with a broken head, or a high-priestess of the moons… A metre-forty would have been eliminated by Darwinian sexual selection, they would never have survived long enough to breed…”
“But you know what’s the most frustrating thing about this whole situation? If we’d got here four-hundred years earlier, we would have met them. The site was in continuous occupation for thousands of years, constantly rebuilding, constantly adjusting, constantly sitting there on its lookout point between the sea and the stars… And then four hundred years ago — four hundred of our years — they just upped and vanished. Really, sometimes I wonder whether the Universe might not be playing an elaborate joke on us. Here we are, presented with this unique exoanthropological opportunity, and the Universe has delayed our own evolution just that little bit too long for us to make good on it… I begin to understand how the first European explorers must have felt, when they reached all those isolated islands Down Under and found that the local macrofauna had already been hunted to extinction by the locals… the Aepyornis and the giant lemurs of Madagascar, the pigmy hippos of Crete and Cyprus, the giant ground sloth of South America… Just a few hundred years earlier, and they would have found viable breeding lines, living creatures. In the event, all they got were traces and legends… often not even a proper skeleton.”
“But these aliens up on the headland…” I objected. “What about cemeteries? Don’t you have at least a few partial remains from them? Surely they must have buried their dead?”
“Apparently not,” Catnip was glum. “Or at any rate, if they did, we haven’t figured out where yet. They were very big on putting out their trash, that’s certainly true. They have middens everywhere. That’s how we can date the site. But if they ever disposed of their people…” He paused. “It’s like they always like to say Down Below — close, but no sitar.”
Now there’s a puzzling turn of phrase. I mumbled a note to myself to leave it out of the final edit.
Professor Sancho, meanwhile, had got far ahead of us, and was leaving the beach by a narrow, well-worn path that led up the headland.
“Hey, maybe we should go and catch up with your boss,” I suggested, and Catnip nodded. So for a while we just trudged along the shifting sand in companionable silence.
The site, when we got there, was really spectacular: a labyrinth of half-buried stone chambers, with stone storage cupboards, stone fireplaces, stone bedsteads, shell and stone cutting tools, and those mysteriously humanoid clay figurines, apparently formed from the mud of the river under the southern headland. I pottered around happily, recording my impressions from every conceivable angle, and picking the brains of Catnip and the Professor for technical details. Excavation had been stopped for half a day to give me a free hand, and I made the best of my chances. When the excavators — mostly young volunteers from the Professor’s own department — began to trail up from the beach in twos and threes, I made my excuses and went to sit up on the headland, so I wouldn’t get in the way. Secretly, I could tell, the Professor was glad to see me go, and I couldn’t say that I blamed her. Journalism and the historical sciences are sufficiently alike for me to know how frustrating it can be to be distracted involuntarily from an unfinished investigation. Let her work, then. There would be time enough to talk later.
The sun on the hilltop was warm and the wind was cool, and I settled down in a comfortable crevice in the rock, to watch the incoming tide filling up the broad, sandy plain below me. I tried to imagine what life for our dwarf alien race must have been like here in those previous centuries, with nothing but the sea and the stars and the sand to shape their world-view. They must have been a meditative folk, I decided, perched on their promontory between the rhythm of the Earth and the rhythm of the Heavens, with an abundance of food, no enemies or predators to speak of — nothing to worry about, except how to build an effective house for the winter and their place in the Universe. Home improvements and the Cosmos… It was a heady combination. I could see them now: the long winter evenings around a driftwood fire in their great hall, baking mussels and telling implausible stories of how the world came into being from the mating of a storm cloud and a sea squirt… Summer evenings on the seafront, modelling clay from the mud-flats, gazing in awe at the orange sunset and the bloody green waves of the dunes… Quick bursts of love-making in the alcoves of the warren, on a bed softened with dried herbs and lichens… Foraging expeditions down on the foreshore, followed by careful divination from the carelessly unknotted entrails of whatever passed locally for the equivalent of a herring…
So why were they extinct, then? Did they exhaust their natural resources for all their apparent harmony with nature? Did they eat themselves to death, dying from the diseases that come with obesity? Did their conflict-free existence leave them ill-equipped to deal with stress when they struck it? With no writing, no weapons, no drive… Did they simply lie down and perish, when the harmony of the Universe seemed to demand that they perish, rather than struggling to find new ways of living, new places to live? Not with a bang or a whimper, but with a deeply contented sigh of fulfilment, that at last they had found their meaning in life?
All this and more went racing through my head as I sat in the sun, between the tide and the flickering shadows of the high-flying, feathery clouds that occasionally blotted the landscape. Most of all, though, I remember feeling a sense of gnawing frustration that we hadn’t reached Mélisende just a few centuries earlier…
That evening I sat with Professor Sancho and the other archaeologists around a heavy wood-textured table outside the hut that served as their office, watching the sun turning citrus yellow and then orange over the ocean. The tide was on its way out again, and the distant sound of the shore throbbed like a heartbeat. A tepid breeze was coming up off the water, rippling the omnipresent grass on the seaward side of the sand-dunes, and a flock of small bat-like creatures had appeared, as if from nowhere, to flit squawking over our heads. Catnip had the barbecue out, grilling imported corn-on-the-cob and felafel. But despite the voices of the company, what I noticed more than anything else was the stillness — the overwhelming, unutterable stillness for someone used, as I was, to the teeming urban sprawl of life on the Underside. It was at times like this I understood why people became archaeologists. Or botanists. Or whatever…
“Do you think it’s possible that the Melisendians’ extinction was inevitable?” I asked, record mode on again. “I mean, if they chose to live in their environment like animals, instead of transforming it like humans, didn’t that leave them at the mercy of their environment?”
“You mean… If you live in harmony with your environment, you also run the risk that you’ll die with it?” Professor Sancho seemed sceptical. “But the environment here seems fine to me. We haven’t found any evidence of an environmental crisis. And anyway, the Mélisendeans did change their environment, or doesn’t that little town of theirs count for anything? Besides, the human race, by transforming its home environment, very near caused its own extinction…”
And I had to concede she had a point. So in the end I just made a few more recordings for filler, and the next morning I headed back to the shuttle port, to file a general interest story about these small, cuddly, environmentally-friendly aliens who had played the big crap-shoot in the sky and lost. It was a real sweetie: lots of heart-wrenching philosophising about the fragility of the human condition and the injustice of an impersonal universe… Acres of electronically-reprocessed Polynesian dub choirs and European Baroque Stabat Maters, all with the requisite doses of artificially inserted axial reverb and socket harmonics… Sunset-coloured backdrops, subliminal pace-makers set to trance, and oodles of pathos… By the time my editing console was done with it, there couldn’t have been a dry synapse in its neural network, and I had half-convinced myself I was heading for a second Softie, as we in the trade like to call our Gates Awards, when The Bill isn’t watching.
Luckily for me, I’m a terrible perfectionist. My report was late.
Just as I was getting ready to file it, I got a flash message from Catnip: COME BACK, THERE’S MORE. And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Of course, it’s difficult for me to be sure exactly what went on at the site that morning, because to my eternal shame and chagrin, I wasn’t there. But here’s the official version:
During a routine excavation, Professor Sancho and her crew decided to open up a large, but otherwise unexceptional, rock fall, which on account of its size, they had been setting aside for weeks. They had no reason to suspect it would be anything more than any of the other, similar rock falls they had already dealt with so many times over the past several months. None of their scanners (or their radar guns, or whatever it is they use), had shown up anything out of the ordinary — just a perfectly plain underground chamber, with a lot of gunk on the floor and a pile of rocks by the entrance. That, at least, is what Professor Sancho likes to say now — old fox that she is — when half the media in the known world are clamouring at her door for an interview.
I wonder, though. The professor is far too good an archaeologist to leave such an important part of her investigation to chance. Now, when I think back on it, I suspect she was way ahead of us all along, working her audience with a good dose of misdirection to gain space and time. Like one of those old-time stage magicians, who provided the basic operating system for all our latter-day media professionals (politicians, spin veterinarians, AI superhighway patrol programmers, bankers, hackers…) To wit: Signify one thing, and do another.
Whatever the truth of it, her excavation of that rock fall was the moment, when — like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings — she made her breakthrough. For behind the rock fall, she found, not simply one hidden chamber, but a whole chain of them — a veritable labyrinth of terrible, ill-lit tunnels and catacombs, piled high with the well-sorted, defleshed remains of thousands and thousands of our missing aliens… leg-bones on leg-bones, jaw-bones on jaw-bones, teeth and vertebrae tumbling over each other in macabre, unstable mounds, like knobbly sand-dunes — and all of them decaying slowly into a nasty, all-pervading dust. No wonder Catnip and his colleagues hadn’t been able to find any bones earlier. They had all been tucked away here in the Mélisendeans’ ossuary.
It was the group by the entrance that attracted most attention, though — that strange mixed group of elders and adults and infants, so unlike the neatly disarticulated skeletons further back in the mountain. They lay twisted and scattered over the floor — about a hundred of them, a whole population — hands horribly tensed, mouths hanging open, as if frozen in the act of screaming blind fury at the iniquity of their fate, torsos bundled pathetically around the larger rocks of the entrance, as if trying to get out. And indeed, that was exactly what they had been trying to do, Professor Sancho announced at her first press-conference. There was every probability they had been buried alive — deliberately buried alive — and then presumably starved to death, since there would still have been air coming in through the cracks in the rock fall.
It was quite a bombshell. Not only had the Professor found the first skeletal remains of any known extraterrestrial civilisation, but it seemed they had belonged to a cult. And I was the first journalist on the scene. For a few weeks there, it made me a household name — well, in so far as any of us still have households in this hyperactive, solipsistic, honeycomb-mentality age we all inhabit… But whatever my professional disappointment, when my rivals and betters came and took the story away from me, I could enjoy a certain pleasure in the fact that I had had my own little part in it. Plus, of course, we now knew how the population of the ancient settlement had so mysteriously come to vanish.
Since then, the question has, rather, become why? How does one interpret the completely incomprehensible cultural behaviour of an alien race that became extinct long before we ever reached their planet? What is there to measure it against? What strange ritual purpose could they possibly have been pursuing, when one fine afternoon, four hundred years ago, they went down the mountainside and buried themselves alive? We will never know. Instead we are confronted by the mysterious life story of a people who one day, for reasons we cannot even begin to fathom, decided they had good reason to die.
The bizarre poetry of this event, as the reader is no doubt aware, has captured the imagination of the whole Terrestrial public. Already the first pilgrims have made their expensive — and frequently not unproblematic — way to Mélisende to pay their tribute at the Tomb of the Sepulchre of the Mélisendean Revelation, as it is being called. Soon, if the pundits are to be believed, we shall be witnessing the birth of a whole new religion — the world’s first extraterrestrial religion (or exoreligion, to use the voguish anthropological phrase). And I, rather unwittingly, shall have been its prophet.
What troubles me most, now, is my inability to come to terms with my own role in this religious revival, this revelation and renewal — or invention, if you prefer — of the Mélisendean faith. On the one hand, I suffer from a terrible sense of loss, both for having missed the original occupants of the island through one of those grand, impersonal accidents of history, and for having missed the opening of the Sepulchre by a miserable 20 hours or so, this time through my own impatience and stupidity — my haste in wanting to get away and file a premature story. On the other, I can feel the grandiloquent poetry — the history-defying majesty — of the find, and the story captivates me. But does that make me a believer? The dialectic of history I have always been trained to cope with. (What else do journalists, after all, do?) But religion? I am way out of my depth.
As I sit here in my cramped and frugal utility apartment in the neatly-stacked suburbs of Continent 5, I often wonder — should I go back? Am I not wasting a divinely-inspired opportunity, while the media still remember my role in breaking the story, to renew my acquaintance with the raw emotion — the transforming mystery — of the Mélisendean settlement and the site of the Tomb itself? The impulse is strong.
And yet… And yet, in a way, I am afraid. What if, despite appearances, I were to discover that the Mélisendeans played the big crap-shoot in the sky and won? That their Revelation, whatever it was, was true? That the purpose of life really was dying? This is perhaps the thought that terrifies me most of all. Because I know, once I surrender to the irrational, I may find, like the Little People, there is no going back…
Do I have what it takes to place my life at the disposal of contingency? Never before have I felt such uncertainty.
And that is why I wanted to turn to you, dear reader. What do you think? Should I make the journey?
Press J for YES.
Press L for NO.
I surrender my decision — my life, my soul — to your whims and the tender chance of your natural rhythms…
Don’t let your vote be influenced by my choice of symbols. The Universe does not have to be kind. Tell it the way you feel. Let chance and the gods of history take care of their own.
I am ready.
I am willing.
Now initiate me.