Author : Desmond Hussey, Staff Writer
It’s oily, amber light which finally penetrates the hazy atmosphere as the first forays of dawn dimly paint the coastal shoreline. Ook-Pak emerges from his dome-like tent and stretches his many limbs, shaking off sleep’s lethargic blanket. His four nostrils flare eagerly, inhaling a deep breath of fresh, methane-rich air.
With two primary appendages he straps on a utility belt adorned with various brushes, hammers, chisels and trowels, while secondary, chittinous arms perform morning ablutions to his slick, hairless body. The camp awakens slowly around him, but excitement about the work ahead is quite palpable, displayed by the camp’s lively banter and the quick-shifting hues of the large, wispy membranes fringing their necks.
“G’morn, Ook-Pak,” a sleepy-eyed novice croaks. “Fine solar period for a dig, no?”
Ook-Pak tips his short antennae in greeting as his neck-fringe flashes agreement. “May Utta be with us, Lik.”
“Is truth? We may find Those-Who-Came-Before?” Lik chitters eagerly.
“Pray it is so.”
Ook-Pak ignores his stomach’s demands and goes directly to the dig site a hundred grulls from the camp and, crouching at the bottom of the excavated pit, he studies the mysterious metal cap covering the entrance to the catacombs created by some long-extinct race.
It takes many hours for the crew to maneuver the chambered air-lock over the site and the rest of the solar period to chisel away the millennia-old growth of minerals and rust welding the portal closed. It isn’t until the silvery lunar disk is cresting the horizon with its missing chunk, like a bite out of a fresh harlack bulb, that Ook-Pak’s team is finally ready to crack the age-old seal to an era no eyes have looked upon for eons.
The crew is feverish with anticipation, so rather than wait until the next solar period, Ook-Pak orders the team to break out the bio-lamps and remove the cover.
The air-lock maintains the subterranean pressure near perfectly. As the heavy lid slides off with a grating clang, only a brief, sucking hiss emits from the depths below, as if a great lung inhales a long-awaited breath.
A rusted, far-reaching ladder, designed for a slightly larger being, vanishes after several grulls into gloomy darkness.
Accompanied by hovering bio-lamps and armed only with his belt of tools, Ook-Pak begins the long climb into the bowels of the underworld. Alone in the reverent silence, he prays to Utta that he may find the proof he is looking for buried beneath the ancient sands.
His entire career has led to this moment. If he could find evidence of the elusive race, Those-Who-Came-Before, lords who mastered the sciences long before his own species walked beneath the light of Utta, he could satisfy an age-old argument about the foundation of their own culture.
Ook-Pak’s studies have proven that the ancient world was very different. The atmosphere was once choked with oxygen and nitrogen, toxic to his kind, yet capable of sustaining an environment for a vast diversity of plant and animal life that fossil records demonstrate populated nearly every continent and ocean. But some global, mass extinction event, possibly a result of misused technology – as Ook-Pak suspects, changed the atmospheric chemistry of the planet, and paved the way for Utta’s People to rise to dominance.
Was it deliberate? Did this ancient culture commit some form of racial suicide? Did it happen over night, or was it a slow, agonizing death? Were they aware or ignorant? These questions echoed through Ook-Pak’s mind as he descended ever deeper into the dark mysteries of the past. If there were answers down there, he was determined to find them.