Author : Bob Newbell

The electromagnetic catapult launched the research vessel off the surface of Titan and into a trajectory that would slingshot the craft around Saturn and then into the inner solar system. Of course, the xenoarchaeologists on board did not refer to their homeworld moon as “Titan” or the ringed planet it orbited as “Saturn”. They called them by names in their own language that would translate very roughly as “The House of All Life” and “The Ringed God,” respectively. Their destination was the first planet from the Sun, a world their ancient astrologers had dubbed “Cinder” because of its proximity to the star.

Degladdo, the leader of the expedition, reached out with a membranous hand and activated the ship's electromagnetic ram scoop and brought the fusion rockets online. The vessel accelerated at 1.352 meters per second squared, exactly equal to the gravitational pull of Titan. He and his learner, Womrevin, left the command deck and retired to the ship's lounge. Degladdo tapped a control panel and a holographic representation of a fossilized human skeleton appeared above the table. The image cycled every twenty-five seconds to other similar fossils.

“I wonder if they were subterranean creatures?” said Womrevin. “Living underground to escape Cinder's intense heat, perhaps?”

“I doubt it,” said Degladdo. “Radiometric dating suggests they thrived at a time when the Sun was still a yellow dwarf, not a red giant. The planet was once much cooler. And there's evidence that Cinder was once covered in water oceans.”

“Water? Not hydrocarbons?” asked Womrevin, his two lateral and two central eyes all dilating in astonishment. “Little wonder we've had to rewrite the biology texts.”

“We've had to rewrite everything,” replied Degladdo. “Biology, philosophy, religion. Nothing has been left unaffected by their discovery.”

“Could they have originated in another solar system?” wondered Womrevin.

“We've searched the skies for generations looking for signs of intelligence and found nothing,” said Degladdo. “In all likelihood, they originated on the first planet. Or what is today the first planet. There might have been one or more worlds between Cinder and the Sun in ancient times.”

The hologram changed to show the tidally-locked planet Cinder in real time in orbit around the Sun. “We'll have to limit ourselves to the dark side of Cinder. The surface of the planet that faces the sun is basically molten. Half that world's history lost,” Degladdo said with regret. “Even the few fossils of the Cinder People we've uncovered on the planet's dark side took generations to discover.”

“I wish we could set foot on the planet ourselves instead of relying on telepresence robots.” said Womrevin. “Too bad Cinder's gravity is so high. I wonder if we'll ever find some sort of record the Cinder People left behind?”

“It's doubtful,” lamented Degladdo. He looked at the hologram; it had cycled back to one of the fossil skeletons.

“Who were you?” he asked the image of light. “Were you a peaceful and enlightened species devoted to art and science or a belligerent and avaricious people? Or, like us, a bit of both? Did you produce a composer greater than Zarpemo or a playwright who exceeded the great Xenosan? Like us, did you laugh and cry and love? Did you observe The House of All Life before any life existed there? Did you sent robotic probes to our world or even visit it yourselves when the Solar System was young?”

The immaterial skeleton gave no answer. The hologram cycled on to another fossil as the spaceship sailed on toward the dead world that held close to the aging red sun.

Discuss the Future: The 365 Tomorrows Forums
The 365 Tomorrows Free Podcast: Voices of Tomorrow
This is your future: Submit your stories to 365 Tomorrows