Anthropological Speculative Fiction: The Ice of Thalassis

By Esther Stoppani

001897

The first thing I feel upon waking is the cold; the freezing-hot sensation of blood rushing in my veins. My head feels gummy, and when I open my eyes the lights of my hibernation quarters are blinding, burning my eyes. My hands shake as I clear my head and pull myself up into a sitting position. There’s an alarm screeching at me, coming from the console to the left of the pod I’ve been asleep in for my five-year flight through the frigid darkness of space. I fumble with the buttons on the control panel until I hit the one that makes the noise stop. Rubbing my sleepy eyes, I swing my legs up and out of the pod.

I knew that waking from the hibernation would be rough; they briefed me on this before I ever agreed to go on this mission. They told me about the chills, but no number of informational pamphlets could prepare me for the way that the cold lingers in my bones, in the pit of my stomach. I hobble over to the wall of cabinets and locate the one with blankets inside, wrapping myself up in one.

I glance at my face in the mirror on the desk. It feels so strange, sitting here under the fluorescent lights of my quarters, knowing that five years have passed and yet not seeing a single new wrinkle or spot. Perfect preservation, they had told me. I briefly wonder if I should be worried about whatever chemicals they’ve been feeding me for five years, but then again, they aren’t paying me to worry myself over such things. They’re hardly paying me at all.

The door to my quarters zips open with a burst of warm, stale air, and I walk out into the hallway. Blanket still wrapped around my shoulders, I enter the flight deck of the ship. My crewmates are all awake already. Of course, they never went to sleep in the first place because, unlike me, they don’t have any organic parts that could degrade with time. My robotic companions chirp and buzz at me when they see that I’ve arrived. Each one is equipped with different tools and components so that the bots can serve various functions. The Surveyor – the robot with cameras and lasers for measurements and documentation – greets me in their warbling and staticky electronic voice. They speak in short sentences designed for the efficient relay of information rather than conversation.

Back on Earth, we have more sophisticated bots now, ones that are completely indistinguishable from humans. This mission I’m on has nowhere near a high enough budget for those kinds of gadgets, so my crew is made up of older models that look more like something from one of the old sci-fi movies my dad used to show me. All twisted grey metal and shiny chrome molded into a vaguely human bipedal form. It’ll take a while to get used to the bots, but I think they’ll make good company.

Here on the bridge, there’s a huge window for us to see out into the all-consuming darkness of space. We haven’t quite reached orbit around Jasper yet, but the planet already fills our view. It’s beautiful; the planet is a swirling mix of bright red and orange brushstrokes through dark green oceans. We know from the scouting missions that Jasper has a climate similar to the temperate and tropical regions of Earth, likely due to its position as the third planet from this system’s sun. Gravity and atmospheric pressure are also similar to Earth.

The Surveyor brings my attention to one of the computer screens. There are several files for me to look over, summarizing the work that was accomplished on the other two planets being studied while I was in hibernation. I glance over the files, each containing hundreds of documents. I download the files to the chip in my skull, tucked below my left occipital, flooding my brain with information. My surroundings slip out of focus and I let myself latch onto the flow of data; documents and videos and images pour through my mind’s eye.

Thirty years ago (3927 CE), astronomers discovered a solar system of five planets, one of which we now call Jasper. They named it the Vivos system after the Latin word for “life” because multiple planets appeared to be able to support life as we know it. Almost immediately, a ship was sent out on what was then an eight-year journey (we hadn’t fully perfected the art of traveling faster than lightspeed back then). The crew of 50 was placed in cryosleep and awoken when they reached the system. Their mission was to send probes down to each planet. The probes searched for signs of intelligent life and sent the results of the scans back to the ship for the dozens of botanists, biologists, and chemists to analyze. Back on Earth, we waited with bated breath for their discoveries.

The initial findings were positive; several planets had robust atmospheres and stable climates. Images of exotic plants and fungi were broadcast on televisions around the world – we had found life. But we had already found other planets with plants and animals in other solar systems, none with intelligent life. Three of the five planets in Vivos could support life, yet none of these planets had any animals, any insects, any fish or birds. Scientists were still delighted by the array of new species of microbes and fungi and plants, but the public was losing interest in a very expensive mission. They wanted to see intelligent life, creatures like us, not plants and slime molds. Then, several archaeologists back on Earth saw something in the aerial photos from Vivos; there were multiple photos that included strange formations and markings in the sediment – formations that were quite similar to those that are used to identify archaeological sites, buried civilizations, on Earth. There were large mounds of soil, dark patches too uniform to be naturally occurring, and areas of sunken ground. The archaeologists on Earth theorized that these features could indicate the presence of burials or collapsed buildings, either of which would be novel finds on a planet other than Earth.

Despite this breakthrough, public interest in the Vivos mission continued to stall. In 3936, the original ship and crew were ordered to return to Earth after spending only a year orbiting the system. It was too expensive to keep so many experts on a mission that was seen by the public as essentially a dead-end. While the original voyage made its return, a second, cheaper, expedition was planned. A group of just ten archaeologists would be sent to the closest planet to the sun, Triton, to excavate the sites identified from the photos. It took months of public campaigns to raise enough international interest and government funding for the mission, but, in 3937, ten years after the original discovery, the team of archaeologists was sent out on the five-year voyage I have just taken.

The archaeologists, led by a woman named Telos who had helped identify the sites in the first place, landed on Triton and began surveying several areas.

Triton is a planet of dualism. Like Earth’s moon, Triton orbits at the same speed that it rotates, meaning that one side always faces the red, scorching-hot sun and the other is always in the shadow. One side is hot and dry, made of deserts of black sand, savannahs of rust-colored dust and grass, and creeks of liquid mercury. The other side is covered in thick rainforest, perpetually stormy and wet. Over the course of the next six years, the team uncovered something entirely unprecedented—ruins of a society unlike anything we had imagined.

The team discovered that Triton was once inhabited by a highly social species of insects. Based on the remains uncovered by the archaeologists, these creatures – Tritonites, they’ve been named – were about the size of a loaf of bread. They had thick, bony exoskeletons with spiny protrusions and horns and scuttling little legs. Based on our reconstructions, Tritonites probably looked like large, ornate pill bugs. Fascinatingly, they used the bones and exoskeletons of their dead to construct most of their buildings. This seems to have been common practice, because all of the larger sites had carapace-walled or decorated dwellings. Tritonites appeared to have inhabited the sunny side of Triton, though laser technology was used to map a few temporary structures on the forested side. Under the broiling heat of the sun, Tritonites constructed vast cities and skyscrapers, now reduced to buried piles of bone and lines in the sand. Multiple sites included the remains of ships or vessels of some kind. We’ve found graveyards, homes, and nurseries for these aliens, yet there’s still so much we don’t know about them.

One thing we do know is that all of the Tritonites died suddenly and within a very short period of time. A species-wide extinction occurred around 2,000 Earth-years ago. This remains to be one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the Tritonites – what happened to them? There are areas of the black sand that have been scorched into pools of reflective glass, though these formations are not typically associated with remains. Disease, war, climate change, and a million other causes have been theorized as causing the end of the Tritonites, but the truth is that we still don’t know. There was some kind of mass extinction event, and it didn’t just affect the Tritonites. Tritonites were carnivorous, and Telos’ team found the remains of several other animal and insect species all over Triton. Many were kept in pens, probably as livestock. None of these species appear to have developed the level of social structure that the Tritonites had, but they all died together.

What was possibly the greatest breakthrough on Triton in the last twenty years occurred after the archaeological team’s six-year fieldwork mission concluded in 3948. This was the discovery of the Tritonite language. The insectoid species developed a written language in the form of great paintings and etchings, often spanning entire walls and ceilings. Much of these records have been lost; the sharp, black sand wears away at the inscriptions, leaving many blotchy and faint, but they still tell us something of the Tritonite culture. The deciphering of these drawings took years, but we now know what several of them meant.

Tritonite creation myth describes a large female grub from which all life on Triton arose. She laid her eggs in the rivers of hot mercury, which dispersed eggs all over the planet and gave rise to the different animals and plants found there. Many Tritonite texts involve tales of cooperation and strength in numbers. We know that they hunted in groups and used their powerful mandibles to decapitate their prey. Tritonites built bridges using their own bodies and believed that the body needed to be reincorporated into the home in order to continue to be part of the kin-group. Tritonite stories also always include a depiction of some sort of web connecting individuals to each other. We can’t tell based on the skeletal remains whether the web was a physical feature or represents some kind of spiritual or mental connection, but either way, it is clear that this concept of interconnectedness was central to the way they experienced their world.

Some of the deciphering of Tritonite texts happened while I was on my way here, but most are from before I left. The first few years on Triton were fruitful ones, leading to the deployment of another ship to Vivos. This voyage brought supplies and new teammates to the group on Triton, but they also brought another group of just three archaeologists, headed by linguist Dr. Mohamed, to the second planet from the sun, Satar. They landed on Satar seven years ago.

Satar had shown similar signs of potential archaeological sites in the photos from the original expedition, so we scrounged up enough funding to send a small team to investigate the planet. Satar is an arid planet, covered mostly in sparse forests and dry deserts. As with Triton, there is no insect life, no animal life, no aquatic life, just plants.

I know that what Mohamed’s small team found during their first two years on Satar was enough to secure the funding for my mission. Of course, by that point the international space agency overseeing the project decided that only one human crewmember was necessary for an archaeological expedition; it’s cheaper to use bots than humans you have to feed and give medical care to, but a human supervisor is generally preferred for public appearance at the very least. Even after all these years, people don’t trust bots. Too many vintage sci-fi films about the dangers of AI left an impression on the public. So, when Mohamed’s team made discoveries on Satar, people back on Earth decided to send two one-man ships with bot crews to the third and fourth planets to search for archaeological signs of intelligent life. The fifth planet from the sun, Oth, is a frigid rock with no atmosphere, so it was ruled out as a candidate for life.

What the team on Satar had discovered was evidence of interplanetary flight – the first evidence of its kind on a planet not inhabited by humans. This was deduced from the presence of Tritonite skeletons on Satar. It appeared that the Tritonites had traveled to Satar and formed several colonies on the planet. It’s now theorized that the glass pools on Triton were a result of the heat from the liftoff of the ships the Tritonites were using.

This discovery mobilized the people of Earth into sending archaeologists to Jasper and Thalassis, which is why I’m here. The ship to Thalassis is being led by an old colleague of mine, another archaeologist, Gabriela. She and I each have a team of ten bots, mostly Excavators, to assist us in identifying and uncovering any sites we can find on our respective planets. Since Gabriela and I launched at the same time, I haven’t missed any of her reports from Thalassis. During my five-year sleep, only a few discoveries were made on Triton, but a lot happened on Satar.

The Tritonites on Satar set up small cities, now reduced to overgrown ruins and large soil squares, and hunted the native fauna. There were several animal species on Satar, but as with Triton, all of the animal life vanished. The extinction happened roughly 2,000 years ago, around the same time as the extinction on Triton.

Dr. Mohamed’s team reported these findings only a few months after I entered cryosleep, and they’ve made more findings since then. Another form of writing was found on Satar! There were several stone tablets with inscriptions scratched into them. The stone was not of a type found on Triton, and tests with Tritonite claws suggest that they would not have been strong enough to make such marks. As far as Mohamed can tell, it is a language entirely unrelated to the storytelling murals of Triton. The tablets were not found with any non-Tritonite remains, so we do not yet know what creatures made them.

My eyes widen as I process this information. I had hoped to find Tritonite remains and artifacts on Jasper, but now there was potentially an entirely separate species of intelligent life in the Vivos system. If I can find more of that writing, or if there are remains of whatever beings made the inscriptions here, I could be part of the discovery of the second form of intelligent life outside of Earth.

The heart rate monitor on my wrist beeps at me in protest, sensing my excitement. I take a steadying breath and continue to pore over the files.

Mohamed’s team was able to develop a computer algorithm over the course of the last three and a half years that has helped them to decipher some of the language. I’m not an expert in linguistics – osteology is more my cup of tea – but what I glean from the information streaming into my brain is that a combination of pattern-recognition and a very lucky find involving a Tritonite mural with a stone inscription have allowed Mohamed to create a computer program that can map and translate this form of writing. So far, most of the tablets have been mundane things like inventories of items and records of transactions, but the mural inscription was a great find. It also seems to imply that the creators of the stone tablets had some kind of interactions with the Tritonites on Satar.

Two species of intelligent life in one system! It’s more than the original voyagers ever hoped to find. Did they evolve on one of the other planets here in Vivos? Or did they come from an as-yet undiscovered system lightyears away? There’s so much more we have yet to discover here, but I can only hope that we turn out enough big finds to continue being funded.

It takes a few hours for my brain to sift through the wealth of new information I’ve just dumped into it, and by then the Med bot is telling me I need to rest for the night. I don’t want to go back to my quarters just yet, so I sit in one of the big, cushiony chairs on the bridge. Jasper hangs over me, an amalgam of reds and greens, looming larger every minute as we approach our orbit. The colors become more vivid before sliding together, dripping down into the blackness of space as I fall into sleep.


001901

We’ve been in orbit for four Earth-days now. Before I can land the ship, we have to send down probes to make sure that the conditions on Jasper won’t damage my suit or our equipment. The last of the probes returns today, and so far all of them have come back with reports of good conditions. I’m hopeful that we will be able to deploy the lander ship tomorrow.

The probes aren’t just for my safety; they also serve as scouts and take images of the areas we’re interested in exploring. The images they bring back are mesmerizing, entirely unlike any landscape I’ve seen on Earth. Jasper’s oceans are a deep blue-green, nearly the color of the frosty pine trees back home. There are no green, leafy trees on Jasper – the trees here burst with orange blooms and blood-red lichen. Their skeletal branches reach up to the empty lavender-grey sky, never pockmarked by birds or insects or flying mammals. For all the flourishing plant and fungal life, Jasper is barren. There are no creatures here, nothing that creeps or crawls in the mud, nothing that flies, nothing that swims, nothing at all. Samples from the water and soil contain some microbial life, but otherwise Jasper is as abandoned as Satar and Triton.

The final probe returns to our ship. Oxygen and nitrogen levels have stayed stable over the last four days and are quite close to Earth’s values. No corrosive compounds that could degrade my suit or life support equipment is found. These are the results I had expected and hoped for, and I’m buzzing with anticipation. My hands shake only a little when I relay the probe results to the base on Earth. A few moments later, my computer’s screen flickers to black. White text rolls across the screen:

MISSION APPROVED. PREPARE LANDING SHIP. LAUNCH TOMORROW.


001902

My crew and I landed on the planet’s surface this morning. Using the probe scans and aerial photography, I identified a potential site for us to investigate. To avoid damaging the site, we landed about a mile out from the area of interest. The terrain here is mostly desert, though the sands get deeper and more difficult to navigate out past the site. I’m able to use the electric rover to traverse the small waves of sand, and the bots ride in pairs with motorized carts of tools trailing behind them, kicking up plumes of dust in their wake.

When we reached the site, Surveyor and I set up a laser grid to serve as a guide for our search. By the time we’re done I’ve started to feel the heat. Even inside the temperature-controlled climate of my suit, sweat prickles at my brow. I go to wipe my face with the back of my hand and the metal parts of my gloves bang against my plast helmet. This is going to take some getting used to.

My tablet and wristband both allow me to communicate with my bots, the ship in orbit, as well as home base on Earth. I let base and the ship know that we’ve landed safely, located the first site, and began setting up our tools. PROCEED WITH MISSION, the message back reads. I instruct the bots to split up and start searching the grid.

We don’t find any artifacts on the surface, but we are able to identify several mounds in the packed-down sand that seem like good candidates for structures. By then, it’s nearly midday.

Jasper days are long; the sun shines for nearly 17 Earth-hours, and the nights last another 13. My suit is stocked with hormones and medications that are meant to help me keep this new schedule, administering these chemicals as needed via my subclavian. My stomach turns when I think about the kind of control over me that this implies, but they said it’s for my own good. “To maximize productivity.” None of the bots need these kinds of supplementation; I just had to set up a few solar panels to wirelessly recharge their batteries.

With the Excavators each assigned to their own areas, I find my own square of the grid to work on. A motorized cart follows me over and stalls beside me when I kneel down in the dust. I reach blindly for a trowel and carefully start scraping away the sun-bleached surface sand with the long side of the tool, slowly uncovering darker layers underneath.

We work for the remainder of the day, until the sun starts to set. Several of the Excavators found thick, dark lines in the soil, which I think could be from a large structure. We haven’t yet found any remains or artifacts, but we can tell that something once stood here. The bots help me pack up our supplies, and we’re riding back to the lander before it gets dark. The outside temperature is dropping, but I’m fine; my suit is better at keeping the cold out than the heat.

When we reach the lander, I go inside to my sleeping quarters. Inside the ship, I can take my suit off, which is quite a relief. I detach the suit from the implants in my shoulder and stomach, where it has been feeding painkillers into my veins to help ease my sore muscles and aching joints, feeding my stomach liquified food so I don’t have to stop for lunch breaks. I stretch a bit and hop in the tiny shower to rinse off. I barely sweated at all and none of the sand could get into my suit, but I scrub my arms and chest and face until the grimy feeling is gone. My sleep clothes are soft and cool against my hot skin, and I lay down in my cot. Wires extend from the sides of the bed and attach themselves to my implants, preparing to give me the melatonin I’ll need to sleep tonight. While I wait for the medications to kick in, I listen to the metallic clanking outside my door.

The bots continue to run analysis on the samples they took all through the night. They only need to shut off to “sleep” for about six hours, so they work in shifts. The lander ship has a large laboratory for dating and chemical identification, as well as storage for any fragile artifacts we find. I can hear the bots rustling around, picking up glass containers, pressing buttons on lab equipment, buzzing at each other occasionally. The “sleeping” bots emit a soft whirring sound, which is the last thing I hear as I drift off.


001961

PROGRESS REPORT

After nearly two months of excavation, we’ve finally managed to uncover the entire outline of the building. Based on the plant fibers found in the soil, the structure appears to have been made of wood, probably from one of the forest areas nearby. It was a large, circular building of about ten meters across. The vast array of plant materials found in a waste ditch nearby are suggestive of herbivory. Tritonites were obligate carnivores, so it is unlikely that this site is associated with their presence. We have not yet found any Tritonite artifacts or remains, so we don’t know if the Tritonites came to Jasper in their interplanetary travels.

My Excavators and I found a few stone bowls and pots made from sticky, dried mud, though all have been damaged by the smoothing effects of the sands. Fascinatingly, one pot contained organic residue, and the chemical was identified as structurally similar to an opioid painkiller. My guess is that this was some kind of medicine, which could mean that this excavation site was the home or office of a healer.

A few metal tools have also been recovered from the site. Some have scoops and rods, others have sharp edges. We believe that several long, tapered tools with a sharp edge on one side were knives. We also found some other pieces of metal which we were not able to easily recognize how they could be used, so I am sending images of these “scraps” to Earth in hopes that other eyes may be able to identify them.

We will continue to excavate the area in search of more artifacts.


001968

The days are starting to blend together into monotonous yellow sand, the sound of trowels hitting soil over and over. I keep forgetting how quiet it is out here. The bots don’t talk much; they’re programmed mainly to respond to inquiries from me, not offer up comments on their own.

Sometimes it’s so quiet I can hear my own heartbeat. It’s unsettling. There are no flies buzzing, no birds calling, nothing slithering around in the sand. It almost feels like Jasper is perpetually stuck in the moment before a storm, when all living things go quiet with anticipation of the ensuing ruin.

I’ve started listening to music through the headset in my suit while I work.


001971

It really was dumb luck that we found them – the bones.

After weeks of digging in our grid, I finally went to sift through the excavated dirt from one of the squares outside the outline of the building. I should’ve done it sooner, but I really didn’t think we would find anything beyond maybe a few chips of pottery. My gloved hands combed through the sand and soil, and, after about twenty minutes, I closed a fist around a small, bumpy pebble. There was dirt caked onto it, so I brushed it off, revealing stark white bone.

I called over a Collector bot, who scanned the bone to create a 3D image of it before stashing it in a plast container.

The two of us spent the rest of the day digging in that forgotten spot. By the time we were heading back to camp, we had uncovered what was turning out to be a whole pile of bones. We set up an airtight box around the assemblage to protect it while we’re gone, and we will be back tomorrow to keep excavating it.

I’m nearly bouncing with excitement on the ride back to camp. I know that to suggest that these bones definitively belong to the beings who made the structure would be jumping the gun, but I’ve got this gut-feeling that they are.


001972

We found the skulls today – three of them, to be exact. What started as a single loose bone mixed up in discarded dirt has now become three mostly complete skeletons. The bones are in shockingly good condition, with no marks or physical damage. Having been spared predation, they look pristine. I’ve left them in situ but taken 3D scans of all three skeletons. It took all day to uncover all the bones, so we make the trip back to camp in the dark.

Back at the lander ship, I strip myself of my suit and shower, just like I always do. But instead of getting in bed, I hook myself up to a portable monitor like the one in my suit and tell it to hold off on melatonin. I want to keep working tonight.

I listen to the bots whirring about in the lab while I work. I pull up the 3D scans of the bones on the large computer screen in my quarters. Dating techniques and pottery styles have never been my specialty. Bones are what I know.

Two of the skeletons are from mature adults – their long bones finished growing and fused already – but the third has unfused bones, indicating that it was a child or adolescent. Perhaps this was a family. It doesn’t seem like they were intentionally buried; there was no pit where they were found. Based on how the bones are arranged, it almost looks like they were hugging each other, huddled together. Their skulls are fascinating; they remind me of salamanders or newts. I pull up the computer model of one of the femurs to look at the angle of the knee. These creatures were bipedal, I realize. Their feet would have stood directly underneath their bodies, just like humans.

I lean back from the computer screen, running my fingers through my damp hair. My knuckles are visibly swollen, and the portable monitor automatically administers painkillers for pain that hasn’t even registered with me yet. All the trowel use has been harder on my joints than I realized. I’ll ice my sore hands when I’m done looking over the scans.

Turning back to the screen, I sort the isolated bone reconstructions into three groups, one for each individual. From there, I’m able to position the bones as they most likely sat while the creatures were alive. Building them joint by joint, I eventually end up with three articulated skeletons. Rubbing at my eyes, I send the complete models to Earth and to Gabriela. I look over to the clock – only three hours until morning. I better get some sleep.

I flick the computer monitor off and the room goes dark. Feeling my way over to my cot, I climb into bed. The wires emerge and replace the portable monitor I was wearing. My vision swims and my mouth tastes sour as medication drips into me, but soon enough I am asleep.


001981

We have been continuing our excavation of the skeletons and the surrounding area. Today, one of the bots uncovered a stone tablet near the remains. I wasn’t hopeful to find much given the erosion from sand, but an etching is clearly visible on the stone. We still have a couple hours of daylight left before we’re meant to head back, but I decide to call the bots in early. I want to get the tablet back to the lab so that we can use Dr. Mohamed’s algorithm on it. I’m not an expert linguist, but the text looks similar to the ones found on Satar. If the algorithm works, we could not only confirm that the creatures we’ve found here are the ones that interacted with the Tritonites on Satar, but we could also learn more about the species and what it was doing here. As of right now, people on Earth have started calling the beings I found “Jasperians.” It’s a nice enough name, though I would argue that we don’t know for sure that the creatures were native to Jasper. I’m meant to be moving to the next excavation site soon though, so hopefully we will learn more about the distribution of “Jasperians” here soon enough.

I help the bots set up the site preservation equipment that will protect our findings from the weather before we drive back to camp. The wrist monitor on my suit keeps beeping at me, trying to tell me to take calming breaths to lower my heart rate. I push my rover up to maximum speed, sailing over the sand drifts on my mission back to camp.

As soon as we arrive, I take the tablet into the lab and lay it under a scanner we use for more portable artifacts. The scanner maps all of the tiny indentations and imperfections in the stone, as well as the inscribed language. It takes nearly half an hour, but I’m able to load Mohamed’s algorithm on the lab computer. The algorithm starts running, and little red dots pop up all over the image of the tablet on the screen. There’s a time estimate for the translation – five hours. I clench my fists, hard, so my knuckles ache and burn. I should really try contacting Mohamed to see if she has come up with a more efficient or portable version in the months since she first made the algorithm on Satar. Rubbing at my hands, I go into my quarters and get in bed. There’s no use sitting around waiting for the algorithm to finish working, and I could use the rest. Wires snake out from my cot and connect to my body. I fall asleep wondering what the Jasperians thought of the Tritonites, with their houses made of corpses and their flesh-eating jaws.


001982

As soon as I wake up, I’m yanking the wires off and stumbling out of bed. I pull on the robe that hangs by the door to my quarters and enter the lab. A red light is blinking on the computer – the translation is done. I upload the translation to the chip in my brain, but I also open the file on the screen. I want to read it for myself.

The text is…not what I expected. I guess I shouldn’t have expected anything to begin with, and certainly not some grand proclamation of “this is who we are! this is what happened to us!” But I had hoped for some sort of clue in the mystery that haunts Vivos.

The tablet is a medical text. The Jasperians seem to have had an advanced understanding of their bodies and medicine. The particular text my team found is a section about nerve disorders and their various treatments. Jasperians understood chemistry and biology intimately, and they described the healing properties of various plants and animal substances. Based on this text, it seems likely that either the Jasperians living here were healers or that all Jasperians possessed abundant knowledge of health and healing.

I want to know for sure if the Jasperians made this text. On a hunch, I locate the few Jasperian bones I had brought back to the lab. One of them is a claw, dark and dense, that was once attached to the tip of a Jasperian finger. I line up the claw with the inscription in the tablet and look at it through a microscope. It fits – surprisingly well, too well to be a coincidence. I’m convinced that the Jasperians must have made the tablet.

I decide to send the bots to the site to do some final site preservation while I look over the translation. Shortly after the bots leave, my wrist monitor pings—I have a new report to view from the team on Thalassis – Gabriela’s team. I pull up her report on the large monitor and start reading.

Thalassis—one of the other planets under a similar process of excavation—is a desolate place, though it is beautiful. With only a thin atmosphere, the planet is mostly a frozen wasteland. There is no liquid water, just silvery purple rock and sheets of baby blue ice. As far as Gabriela’s team can tell, no plants ever grew here, and no animals could survive the suffocating lack of air.

However, Gabriela has found both Tritonite and Jasperian remains on Thalassis. So far, her team has uncovered three separate instances of freeze-dried mummies of Tritonites and Jasperians being in the same place. Or, dying in the same place as each other. It seems like the two species cohabitated on this planet, though there have been more Tritonite remains than Jasperians. Gabriela states that the creatures she has found also seem to have all perished around the same time. She will continue her expedition into the more frozen areas of Thalassis in search of more artifacts.

So, we have definitive evidence that the two species met. I’m hopeful that the next site my team and I travel to will reveal more about the nature of the relationship between such vastly different beings. Maybe they wrote about each other, or built houses combining their architectural styles. Hopefully the new site will have more for us to find.

The bots return in the evening – I can hear their carts churning up sand before I see them. They roll into camp, ready to help pack everything up. We make sure all the artifacts in the lab are safely stowed and bring the carts of equipment into the lander ship. It’s quite dark by the time we finish, so I decide we will sleep here for the night and set out at daybreak.


001989

PROGRESS REPORT

After traveling in the lander ship for a week, we have almost reached the second site. By the computer’s estimates, we should arrive there tomorrow.

Gabriela’s findings of Tritonite and Jasperian cohabitation on Thalassis are intriguing, and I hope to find more evidence of interaction here on Jasper. So far, we do not know if the Tritonites came to Jasper. The forest site appeared larger and more complex in the imaging the probes took, so it should help shed more light on the lives of the Jasperians.

Travel has been slow-going; we have been taking photos and videos of the landscape, as well as some samples of plants and soil. None of the samples have returned any evidence of radiation or nuclear activity, so it is unlikely that a nuclear event triggered the massive extinction on Jasper. There are no sudden changes in the chemical composition of the soil that would be consistent with a meteor impact either. But something must’ve happened here. The whole planet aches with emptiness. Despite its vibrant forests and frigid lakes, Jasper feels desolate. The complete lack of animals, fish, or insects creates an air of unease. The cause of this absence remains elusive.

Will update supply inventories after we make camp.


001990

The forest is breathtaking.

We reach the spot where we will make camp around midday and park the lander there. I send out Surveyor and a few Collector bots to explore the area before we start working at the site tomorrow. Once the lander is set up, I decide to go out into the forest myself.

The soil is soft and squishes down under my boots as I weave between trees. All of the branches are completely bare of leaves—instead, bloody-red lichen drips from the branches. These forests are the seas of red that were visible from orbit. Bits of gelatinous orange fungus cling to the lacy lichen. I take samples of everything, storing them in the tiny jars I carry on my belt.

My hands itch inside the gloves of my suit, aching to feel the soft ringlets of scarlet lichen dangling from the treetops. I jog through the trees, watching my suit monitors increase my oxygen level. My heavy breathing sounds like waves crashing on rocks compared to the silent forest, and I stop to listen, holding my breath. The lichen rustles gently in the breeze, and I can hear the far-off footsteps of a bot trudging through the underbrush. The purple sky is cloudless and vast above me. I feel as though I’ll be swallowed up by it, the silence, the creeping lichen, the skeletal trees, the open sky. It has been thousands of years since Jasper’s extinction event, yet the wound still gapes. Nothing has been able to fill the hole left by so much death.

I haven’t been sleeping well these days. Traveling in the lander was comfortable, but I long for a warm, soft bed. I’m almost tempted to curl up in the brush and tell my suit to administer a sleep aid. I shake my head, clearing my thoughts. When I look up at the sky, it is already getting dark. Checking my wristband to get my bearings, I head back to the lander, where my stiff cot awaits.


002003

We’ve been at the forest site for nearly two weeks, and it’s clear that this site is more abundant than the last. Based on preliminary excavations, we believe there were several structures here at one point, and we have already found some Jasperian pottery.

The site is turning out to be kind of massive. I’m not sure my small team is really equipped to tackle such an undertaking, but we can’t exactly call in reinforcements. Home base sent a message to me to let me know that I am allowed to take a few days off, but I can’t, not with so much right at my fingertips. My body hurts, but the painkillers in my suit help. I push through, keep working.

I’ve started playing my music out loud while I work. Playing the music in my helmet creates a weird echo effect that somehow just makes it feel like the outside silence is bearing down around me. When I play the music out loud it feels like Jasper is full of sound and life again. I wonder if the Jasperians had music – do the trees long for songs? It’s silly, but I hope they like the music I play.


002011

Noticed Surveyor bobbing their head to the music today during the dig. I don’t know if it’s possible for a bot to enjoy music, but the sight stirred something in my chest. I long for companionship, the sensation of a soft hand clasped in mine, raucous laughter, karaoke with friends. I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve seen other people. Technically at least five years. But I was asleep for those, so six months? I don’t know. I’ve been approved to stay at this site for five more months.

Five more months.


002067

PROGRESS REPORT

My team has been working at the forest site for about two and a half months now. We’ve managed to uncover the remains of several collapsed structures. It appears that there were at least seven round structures like the one from the desert site here, all arranged to face each other in a large circle. Six buildings were made of wood from the trees here, but the seventh building was of Tritonite construction. I say this because it was made of Tritonite carapaces, just like the buildings on Triton. In addition to the husks used to construct the building, we have identified other remains of Tritonites that appear to have lived here. Jasperian remains are abundant here, with as many as twenty individuals having been identified. Strangely, all of the remains, Tritonite and Jasperian, were found inside the largest – and oldest – structure. They all died at the same time, in the same place. 2,000 years ago. A large assemblage of knives made of metal, bone, and Tritonite carapace was found inside the same structure with the remains, though none of the skeletons exhibit any damage consistent with the knives.

I’ve collected some peg-like teeth from the Jasperian specimens, and I will run analysis on them. They may tell us something about Jasperian diet or potential environmental contaminants.

Several medical texts have been retrieved, adding support to our hypothesis that the Jasperians were well-versed in chemistry and medicine. There are instructions for how to make pain-relieving salves from the orange fungi that grow on the trees, as well as descriptions of surgical techniques and suturing.

We will continue excavation for another three months at the forest site.


002087

We haven’t found much in the last few days. I’m starting to wonder more and more why I’m here, alone on this rock in deep space, digging for the bones of dead aliens.

My body hurts more every day, which I guess means I should take a break, but the painkillers do their job well enough. Might as well keep working, if only because it means that I can complete the dig faster, return to my ship sooner. Go back to Earth, where I can eat solid food again, drink sugary diner soda, go to concerts, have sex, watch bad movies with good friends, sleep whenever I want to, feel the wind sting my face again.

The journey home is another five years. Even if I left now, more than ten years would have passed on Earth by the time I got home. A lot can happen in a decade. I could contact my friends on Earth – my wristband can communicate with Earth via the ship in orbit – see how they’re doing, if they’d still like to grab a drink in a few years when I’m home. I don’t though. The uncertainty of whether my friends are still around, still alive, still interested in having a relationship with me is far more comfortable than reaching out and getting a definitive answer.

At least they know I’m alive.


002089

We found something, deeper than the bodies, older. Another stone tablet with Jasperian writing. I ran the translation program overnight so that I could read it today. The tablet is about a hundred years older than the remains and whatever extinction event killed them.

I can hardly believe my eyes when I finally get a look at the translation. It’s the story of the Tritonites landing on Jasper, and it appears to have been written for historical record-keeping purposes.

A giant flying insect appeared in the sky one day, larger than anything we’ve seen before. It descended to the surface of [Jasper]. Several of us went to investigate, and they returned with little red bugs that were covered with spines. These creatures are strange – they speak into our minds and each other’s. The bugs say they came from the stars in their giant fly, and they offer to take us into the sky with them. Why would we want to leave [Jasper] when it is so perfectly home to us? But some of us do go. The bugs are strange; they cannot eat plants at all, like our [unknown word]. We offer one of our [unknown word] to the bugs as a gift and feast together.

The translation ends. It’s short, but incredibly informative. The Jasperians were indeed native to Jasper, and the Tritonites flew here in one of their vessels. Two sentient species, two separate planets, all in a single solar system. I sit down in a lab chair, landing hard. This single tablet is more than I ever thought I would find.


002093

We found something, deeper than the bodies, older. Another stone tablet with Jasperian writing. I ran the translation program overnight so that I could read it today. The tablet is about a hundred years older than the remains and whatever extinction event killed them.

I can hardly believe my eyes when I finally get a look at the translation. It’s the story of the Tritonites landing on Jasper, and it appears to have been written for historical record-keeping purposes.

A giant flying insect appeared in the sky one day, larger than anything we’ve seen before. It descended to the surface of [Jasper]. Several of us went to investigate, and they returned with little red bugs that were covered with spines. These creatures are strange – they speak into our minds and each other’s. The bugs say they came from the stars in their giant fly, and they offer to take us into the sky with them. Why would we want to leave [Jasper] when it is so perfectly home to us? But some of us do go. The bugs are strange; they cannot eat plants at all, like our [unknown word]. We offer one of our [unknown word] to the bugs as a gift and feast together.

The translation ends. It’s short, but incredibly informative. The Jasperians were indeed native to Jasper, and the Tritonites flew here in one of their vessels. Two sentient species, two separate planets, all in a single solar system. I sit down in a lab chair, landing hard. This single tablet is more than I ever thought I would find.


002093

I finally got around to analyzing those teeth I collected from the Jasperians. They had an entirely herbivorous diet, in stark contrast with the Tritonites’ carnivorous one. The Jasperians regularly consumed medicinal tinctures like those described in their texts – chemicals in their teeth matched the samples we took from the vegetation in the area.

That’s all fascinating, but the real kicker is this: I now know how the Jasperians died.

I had to double check by testing the teeth from the three Jasperians in the desert, just to verify that this was not restricted to the group in the forest, but their results came back the same. The Jasperians’ teeth contained a new deposit, within thirty days of their deaths, of an incredibly neurotoxic chemical. Structurally, it is quite similar to botulinum toxin, which leads me to believe that the chemical originated in bacteria. The chemical has degraded enough over time that it is no longer actively neurotoxic, but it would have been powerful enough to kill through physical contact or inhalation, let alone if it contaminated water or food supplies.

This discovery is…disturbing to say the least. I don’t know where the neurotoxin came from, or if the bacteria that produced it are still on Jasper. My probes never found any traces of toxic substances. The Tritonites could have been unknowing carriers that brought disease to Jasper and destroyed its population, except that the Tritonites are all gone, too. Four planets have been left decimated, likely by this exact poison.

The prickly fingers of dread creep up my spine as I start to think of more sinister reasons why this toxin may have become so prolific. What if it was released intentionally, as some kind of biological weapon? For the toxin to so thoroughly destroy life on four planets, it certainly seems intentional, orchestrated.

As soon as I report my findings, a surge of messages comes in. I don’t reply to any of them, but I read them all. Page after page pours across my computer screen, people insisting that this is definitive proof of war between the Tritonites and Jasperians, that such devastation could only be wrought by intelligent life.

My eyes burn, and my stomach roils. Is that the nature of intelligent life? To destroy ourselves in our quest for domination? I close my eyes and flick the monitor off, leaving myself in darkness.


002110

It’s been two weeks since I made the discovery about the toxin, and I can hardly bring myself to travel to the site these days. I’m paranoid, double- and triple-checking the sealants on my air supply, showering for twice as long, decontaminating the bots any time they come into the lander. I tell my supervisors that I’m taking that break they were suggesting, but they seem to know something’s up. My heart just isn’t in it right now. I know, logically, that the planet is safe, but fear of a deadly neurotoxin is a good excuse for not doing my work. I just can’t bear to look at the empty-eyed skulls another second. I don’t want to believe that these creatures that I had come to love and admire destroyed each other in such a horrific way.


002111

I’m sulking in my quarters late at night when I hear it – music. It’s coming from the lab, where the bots are still diligently at work testing samples and cataloging artifacts. It’s not just any music, either; it’s my music playing. It’s the same music that I had been playing at the dig site, the music Surveyor was bobbing their head to. Warmth unfurls in my chest as I press my ear to the door, listening to my music play softly in the other room. I guess the bots like listening to it while they work, too.


002112

A report comes in from Gabriela. Her team had to make camp for two months to wait out a snowstorm, but they finally reached the area they wanted to investigate. Among the frozen, rocky peaks, the team found an abandoned facility. The building had barely degraded at all in the frigid climate – the roof caved in from the weight of snow, but all of the walls were still intact. Inside the facility, Gabriela’s team found an inscription carved into one of the walls. Dr. Mohamed updated her translation algorithm, so that Gabriela could use it on her tablet. She holds the tablet up to the inscription.

It says: GET TO [OTH] IF YOU SURVIVE.


002113

My request to return the lander to orbit and travel to Oth has been granted. We leave at sunrise tomorrow.


002134

After returning to the ship orbiting Jasper, I ran the calculations for traveling to Oth. We had to wait almost a day to get to a better point in orbit before launching out into open space. Twenty days of travel took us out past Thalassis to Oth, where we have now entered orbit.

Oth is a wasteland – I can see why it was never considered as a possible site for alien life. With almost no atmosphere to trap heat, and at such a vast distance from Vivos’ sun, Oth is perpetually frozen. There must’ve been volcanoes here once, though, as there are areas of exposed black volcanic sand that glitter in the light reflecting off the snow. Most of this volcanic past is concealed by layers of ice and snow. If there really is something here for us to find, it should be perfectly preserved by the permafrost.

I’m sending probes down to the surface today to try to locate any structures like the one Gabriela found on Thalassis. They should report back tomorrow.


002135

The probes located an outpost – I can hardly contain myself; I’m itching to get down on the surface of the frozen planet to see it for myself. The pictures the probes took show a tall building with a large, rectangular flat surface carved into the stone behind it.

I prepare the lander ship once more, equipping it with cold-weather gear. I pick three bots to take with me to the surface, just in case I need any help or something goes wrong. I don’t know what to expect when I reach the surface. My hands shake with a mix of anxiety and excitement while I prepare.


002136

We land on Oth in the morning. The sky is dark; not much light reaches this far out from the sun, but the little light that does get here ends up amplified by the bright snow. We land in a patch of volcanic sand. It crunches and crinkles underfoot. There’s less gravity here, and I nearly trip over my own feet a few times while I’m getting used to my bouncy footsteps.

The outpost looms like a silver obelisk at the top of the hill. We trudge up through the shimmering black sand and onto the snow. There’s a thin layer of ice on the snow, so each step starts with a crunch through the ice into the powdery snow underneath. Eventually, we reach the building. The chrome walls reflect the blinding white of the snow outside as we pass through the door, into the building.

It’s dark inside. I switch on my headlamp, and the bots trailing behind me do as well. We’ve entered into a long hallway. Inside the building, everything is monotonous grey. It feels barren, certainly not like this place was built for comfort. I get the feeling that no one ever planned to stay here for very long. Bits of snow pile in the corners and along the walls of the room, having blown in from outside. I see something at the other end of the hall – a podium or pedestal or something.

My boots thump on the floor as I half-jog to the end of the hallway. There, on top of the pedestal, as if presented to me, waiting, is a stone tablet, covered in writing. I fumble with my tablet, opening the program I downloaded after hearing from Gabriela. It starts scanning the stone. This version works much faster, starting to translate almost immediately:

To those who come after us –

Something terrible happened here in our home system, something that destroyed us. We made a mistake, woke something on [Thalassis] that should have stayed in its slumber. A plague lies frozen in the ice of [Thalassis], a plague we released when we melted the ice for water. It is in the air now, on [Thalassis], on [Jasper], on [Satar], and on [Triton]. An invisible killer, we didn’t know what we had released until it was too late. It was all a mistake. By the time the first infected showed symptoms, the [bacteria] had already traveled on our ships throughout the system. There was nothing we could do.

We were unable to find a cure. Most of us perished. Anything with a nervous system perished. Without food, anyone left will meet the same fate soon.

We sent a message throughout the system – come here if you survive. The few survivors, many with limb-stiffening and other injuries from the plague, gathered here. We waited as long as we could, until we were sure no one else was coming. Now, we must leave. We must desert our homes, for they are no longer safe. We will embark on a [Tritonite] living ship into the stars, in search of a new home.

To you, who come after, we offer you this: information about the contagion that destroyed us. Maybe you can find a cure, or maybe the [bacteria] has therapeutic value.

Upon infection, no symptoms present. The carrier is asymptomatic for twenty rotations, during which time they can infect others through physical contact and inhaled particles. Anything they touch has the potential to infect others. This plague is silent, and then it is deadly. After at least twenty rotations, symptoms present abruptly. It starts with a sore, dry throat. The eyes become heavy and roll. Swallowing becomes difficult, and the limbs begin to numb. Within ten rotations, death occurs in nearly all cases. The intestines and heart freeze, muscles turn to ice. The whole body stops.

We do not know why some of us had some level of immunity or resistance to the disease, but we are thankful. We carry the lives of those we lost, our entire cultures on our backs. Someday, we may return to the system, if it is safe again. We can only hope that the animals eventually return and rebalance our worlds.

To those who come after: beware the ice of [Thalassis].

I stare numbly at the screen even after the words stop generating. I reread the note over and over, imagining Gabriela climbing through the snow and ice of Thalassis. I’ve already sent the translation to base – they will relay the information to Gabriela and make sure she is safely evacuated. She will be fine; her suit has been protecting her.

My wristband pings – it’s a message from Gabriela. As soon as she heard the news, she had her suit test her blood for the toxin. Negative. She’s going to be okay.

I sag against the pedestal, head swimming. When I look back over my shoulder at the bots, they stare back at me, waiting for instruction. I breathe deeply, steadying myself against the wall before standing upright again. We must finish exploring the building.

Most of the rooms are empty. This outpost was certainly never inhabited by long-term residents. It seems like the building was mainly used as a control tower for ships landing and lifting off. I climb the stairs, up to the highest level. I walk out into a room filled with gauges and controls. One wall is a large window overlooking the flat area on the other side of the building. From here, I can see the scorch marks from a ship lifting off.

When I turn back around, I notice a shape off to one side of the room. I aim my headlamp at it and see a figure slumped against the wall. They’re wearing a suit of some kind, with a respirator on it. They’re definitely dead; the freezing temperature and lack of air has kept them in perfect condition. I walk over to the corpse. Up close, I can see that it’s a Jasperian. This one had fleshy, blue skin and keratinous horns on their face. They looked a bit like a salamander.

I notice something in the Jasperian’s arms. They’re cradling a small bundle in their arms, forever holding it tight against their chest. It’s a Tritonite; the red carapace is faded, but it’s still easily recognizable. The Tritonite is decorated with silver metal plates, creating its own makeshift suit and respirator. The Tritonite’s legs are all folded together, as if in prayer, the way a spider’s legs fold when it dies.

My chest aches at the sight. The theories about war and violence and biological weaponry never sat right with me. Why would we assume that these creatures would have the same obsession with violence that our own species has? Nothing sinister happened here; two intelligent species lived together in peace. Their downfall was a result of an unpredictable accident. Something really, really shitty happened, because sometimes really, really shitty things just happen. They did everything right; it just wasn’t enough.

In the end, I guess this is the answer I came here to find. I never wanted the inhabitants of Vivos to have died in fiery conflict; I wanted to know there was no predetermined end for intelligent life. That sentience doesn’t necessitate division or violence or hierarchy. That we aren’t doomed to destroy ourselves. To suggest that the nature of intelligent life is violence or selfishness excuses these practices that only serve to tear us apart.

I glance back up at the embracing corpses and notice an engraving above them. The Jasperian must’ve made it, even as their limbs seized up and they knew they were dying. My palms are sweaty inside my gloves, and I nearly drop my tablet. I hold up the tablet to translate the word scrawled above the bodies:

Together.


Esther Stoppani is a current graduate student with the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. They graduated with a BS in Biological Anthropology in 2021. As a grad student, they are planning on studying the genetics behind human brain evolution, with a special interest in neurological disorders and the impacts of stress on the brain. Outside of their academic pursuits, Esther is an avid SFF reader who is always looking for works that push genre boundaries and tell the stories that would otherwise never be told. Some of their favorite authors and sources of frequent inspiration include Ursula le Guin, Caitlin Starling, Octavia Butler, Mary Oliver, and Ada Limón. When they aren’t reading or doing schoolwork (more reading), Esther enjoys crocheting, drawing, writing poetry, and hanging out with their partner and three cats.

About emmalouisebackeanthro

I am a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department of George Washington University, with an MA in Medical Anthropology. My research deals with the politics of care for survivors of gender-based violence in the United States and South Africa, and I do consulting work in international development and global health related to gender. I regularly tweet at @EmmaLouiseBacke.

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