An immense red sun came up over the horizon. It was so huge that by the time the lower edge of its disc cleared the low line of the distant hills, the top was well on the way to the zenith. It was red, but not bright; the colour was more the sullen red of glowing coal. The light it shed was very poor.
The camp lay at the bottom of a ridge, sheltered by it from the winds. The constructions were all bright white in colour, multiple walled and heavily protected from the environment and from radiation. All around it the earth lay bare and burnt free of all vegetation, and even the topsoil was largely gone, exposing the rocks everywhere, jagged and sharp or worn down smooth by the constant wind.
The Chief Archaeologist stood at the viewing bubble of his office and looked out at the sun. The door behind him opened; without turning, he knew who it was, because of the unmistakable odour. “Any change?” he asked.
His deputy made a noise signifying the negative. “The Captain sent the message again just now,” he said. “Plans unchanged. We are being evacuated tonight.”
“That’s ridiculous.” The Chief Archaeologist gestured angrily at the site of the excavations, clearly visible from his viewing bubble. “We can’t possibly leave now. Do you realise what an enormous find we have here? And that’s merely the top layer of the city that we’ve reached so far. Who knows what else we might find with a little more digging? We must have more time!”
“I’ll tell him,” said the Deputy Archaeologist, “but it will make no difference, I fear. He’s not scientifically oriented. He will merely say that orders are orders and that more excavations must wait for future expeditions.”
“Future expeditions.” The Chief Archaeologist had difficulty controlling his anger. “What future expeditions? Look at that red giant of a sun. By the time the next expedition turns up, a million years from now, this planet will be a vaporised ball of gas floating in its photosphere. We must find out as much as we can this time, because there will neverbe another chance.”
“I’ll tell him that too,” said the Deputy Archaeologist, and exited.
The Chief Archaeologist sighed. He felt old and tired suddenly. The whole effort seemed too much for him. But this was the find of a lifetime; he couldn’t leave when all that knowledge of the civilisation of this planet was within his grasp.
He moved closer to the window to get a better look at the robot excavators at work on the dig. Working with infinite care, they had already exposed another layer of dwellings and the streets between them. The excavators were difficult to see because of the shadows the sun threw. In a few minutes he would, he decided, put on a thermal outfit and go out to see the work in progress at first hand. He should be there now; the stupid business with the Captain up in the mother ship in orbit had delayed him.Behind him the door opened again. “He gives us three days,” said his deputy. “No more.”
The Chief Archaeologist heaved his heavy carapace round enough to be able to look at his deputy. His basic colour was sand-yellow, but the red light through the bubble made him look reddish. The carapace was rough and pitted, the shine of youth long since rubbed off, evidence of his age and experience. He moved his multiple serrated manipulators.
“That’s better than nothing,” he said. “But far from enough. Three days gives us some sort of time, but not enough. Not enough to discover anything really significant about these creatures.”
“They built a city,” said the Deputy. “More than one city, but this is the only one we can investigate in the time we have left.”
“I think they did a lot more than that,” said the Chief Archaeologist. “I think they built a civilisation that lasted on this planet a long, long time. I think they were the dominant creatures during all the history of this planet.
“Just consider what we found,” he said. “We‘ve found buildings hundreds of floors tall; seen the unmistakable remnants of granaries, housing blocks, nurseries, streets and aquifers. There’s clear evidence that more layers of this city lie underneath, and we haven’t yet found any of it, and yet we are ordered away from here.” He clacked his pedipalps. “It just makes me angry thinking what else we’re missing.”
“They must have been alive not long ago,” said the Deputy. “The last of them were still around maybe a few thousand years ago, for all they were so much smaller than us. We found grain dating back that long.” His antennae switched back and forth. “We just missed them.”
“But we didn’t find any corpses,” said the Chief Archaeologist. “They must have buried them before abandoning this city. I suggest you set a detail to seek burial grounds. It might tell us something about them. We have only three days, and we must make the best use of these days we can. We know nothing about them really, and yet they were the greatest intelligences on this planet from what we’ve found.
”I wonder what they were like,” he mused. “What was their art, their music? What heights of science and technology did they reach? What did they know of the cosmos, of the universe beyond their tiny system? Did they take the first steps to space, and just how far did they go? Did they pull themselves down by constant war, or did they find a way of living together and co-operating? We could find some answers, of course, but that would require years of excavations, and that’s just what they are not giving us.
“I wonder if we’ll ever really know anything about them at all.”
The Deputy’s communicator buzzed and he listened briefly. “We do know something more about them,” he said. “One of our assistant archaeologists just deciphered a kind of plaque we found. It had their name. I don't know that it helps us much, but still…”
“Oh?” said the Chief Archaeologist, with some interest. “What were they called?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2008