Peter had sacrificed everything to become a cosmic archeologist. His youth for years of study, his adulthood for years of travel, and any possible family or friends for a solitary existence. He was sure there were many other things he could list if he had time to do so. It was not that he regretted it. No, being a cosmic archeologist was all that he thought he desired. Rather he just tried not to think about it and, luckily, he had plenty of other things to think about.
Roughly a million other things.
Years ago when mankind had left his solar system and spread to the stars, a surprising number of failed civilizations began to be discovered.
And all of them left stuff behind.
There were roughly forty-billion planets lying in various Goldilock Zones across the Milky Way. Of these, about four billion were sufficiently oxygenated and had a critical mass of carbon in their eco-systems. Of these four billion planets, only about a hundred million of them had not experienced at least one ‘life-negative’ event, from a meteor strike to a super-volcano or even extra-terrestrial viruses and the gambit of options between these destructive events. And, finally, of these hundred million, only about a million had actually evolved sentient life that developed technology sufficiently advanced to be of interest to Peter.
And every single one of these million planets had seen life eventually wipe itself out. The timing and manner of the apocalypse seemed to be the only actual variables that differed between planets and alien civilizations.
While a million different planets intersected with the ruins of ancient alien civilizations may appear to be a large number, this was actually just 0.0025% of the possible available planets in only the Milky Way. It was also far too large a number for Peter to ever single-handedly explore and research himself. And, thus, the cosmic archeologists were not just a fraternity of thousands of intellectuals at the cutting-edge of science, but they were also the fastest-growing academic field in the galaxy.
They were the rockstars of history and the discoverers of alien technologies. They were the adventurers on foreign planets and the raiders of inter-galactic ruins.
It was also a lonely profession spent away from anything that resembled home or a family. Peter’s ex-wife was raising their son while he spent almost all his time elsewhere on far-flung planets. In fact, he had only met his son twice but he did send presents on birthdays and holidays.
But there were so many ancient alien civilizations to explore, so much to be found, understood, documented and archived, and, if he did not do it, someone else would.
The average ‘archonaut‘–a colloquial term that the cosmic archeologists used amongst themselves–would be lucky to get to solo-study the ruins of one or two entire alien civilizations in their lifetimes. To properly unpack, document and archive these often vast and complicated ruined alien civilizations was a mammoth task and most solo archonauts typically limited themselves to specializing in a single planet and the related genetics, history and technology of its apex sentient lifeforms (there were few dual-sentient planets that evolved).
And, it was with this in mind that Peter arrived at his second solo dig, the planet affectionately known as ‘MW-Sigma-D99‘ or Sigma-99 for short.
Over the course of the first couple of years on Sigma-99, Peter established his headquarters on a temperate stretch of coast and began to document the basics of the planet, from the atmosphere to geology and geography.
In the background, the various bots that had come with Peter’s craft set out building a sustainable, diversified farm, food processing unit, and living quarters for him.
By the end of the fifth year, Peter was settling in and, in fact, starting to enjoy his new life on Sigma-99. His thoughts of his son became less frequent, as did his one-way beamed messages back home. His son never responded anyway. He would work long hard days out in the field, zooming around the planet on his quantum-bike, sampling, checking, measuring and documenting, and then spend quiet, comfortable evenings on his porch watching this planet’s version of dolphins frolicking in the waves just off his coastline as its three small moons gazed down in silent revelry.
On the sixth year, Peter began to shift his focus onto the ancient alien civilization that he had come to study. This is what he had been waiting for and he could barely contain himself. Thoughts of his son were now fleeting and every waking moment was focussed on understanding this ancient alien civilization in whose ruins he stood. The beamed messages had stopped long ago by now.
The apex sentience on Sigma-99 appeared to have been a rather tall and thin land-based relative of the dolphins that he so enjoyed watching playing in the ocean. At some point, the species had split and one had crawled onto land and it had begun to build tools.
While the early days of this race–Homo Delphinidae, he had decided to name it–were likely wiped out by the progress of time and the Delphinidae’s own evolution, what he could find indicated that it was quite similar to mankind’s own progression. Delphkind had initially been hunters and gathers before they had found agriculture. The resulting surplus in food combined and early civilization that then began to exponentially improve its tools to the point where it began to be quite sophisticated, even by mankind’s own inter-stellar measure.
While delphkind do not appear to have left their planet, the cause of their ultimate demise eluded Peter. There were no craters or sufficient cosmic dust to indicate a meteorite strike. No trace radiation or toxins to indicate a violent or accidental end. No volcanic or igneous structures point to thermal or planetary causes. In fact, the planet, the remaining life and everything except the delphkind themselves appeared in perfect health.
What was more bizarre was that the delphkind were obviously quite advanced. They appear to have had about five millennia head-start on human beings back on Earth and they had gone through the traditional leaps and bounds of advancement in the sciences. Ruins pointed to delphkind having achieved a quantum understanding of science, their surviving infrastructure pointed towards an ecologically-balance way of living while some of the technology even remained in some degree of working order and, due to their grid running on solar-power, still functioning for whatever intended purpose it was built.
While the odd device here and there still whispered in a strange musical language to Peter when he walked past or touched it–he had not yet cracked their language, though his AI computer was working on it–what really caught his fascination was the Machine.
At what almost appeared to be a purely random geographical area, the delphkind had erected a massive machine. The Machine–as Peter began to refer to it until he could work out its purpose and give it a better name–had probably once stood up straight towering over the lands around it, but it now lay at a forty-five-degree angle in soft, muddy sand just off the coast of the largest continent on Sigma-99.
The Machine had concentric circles, almost like vast cogs, that spun around it and some of the upper ones still spun at different speeds. It was almost regal in its size and hypnotic in its steady, smoothly spinning levels. In fact, sometimes Peter would just find himself staring at it in wonder, though each time he did he would force himself to get back to work. He could find no external power source nor saw any solar panels on the Machine, though the Machine was undoubtedly still ‘on’.
While he was scanning it, his scanner flittered across a certain spectrum and the Machine suddenly started vibrating. It was soft, nearly chime-like vibration and some of its levels that had been stationary began to move. A school of dolphins swimming by began to chatter loudly just, maybe they were startled by the Machine’s movement or maybe they could hear something that he could not?
Peter was ecstatic! He had spent the better part of a month documenting and trying to understand the Machine’s purpose and this was the closest he had come to a breakthrough.
That night he sent a message to his son. His son must be finishing school soon, but all Peter could do was babble excitedly about the Machine. Later that night, he fell asleep sitting on his porch thinking about the Machine while he watched a particularly large school of dolphins playing in the shallow waters beneath three soft moons.
He woke up the next morning with an idea. He leaped up, skipped breakfast, grabbed his AI computer, and jumped on his quantum-bike.
Two hours later, Peter was standing before the Machine as the AI–now redirected from understanding the language of the delphkind, to sorting through the data being pumped out by the Machine. It was running parallel scans of different wave-lengths when he stumbled on it: the Machine was pushing out a data-like signal, and it was doing so in basic soundwaves, but ones far, far too high for him to hear!
It was a revelation! And while his AI was crunching the waves with their strangely-musical sounds chiming out, Peter was screaming in excitement at the sky and laughing at the large, growing school of chattering dolphins near the shore.
Six months had passed since this break-through and Peter’s enthusiasm for it had somewhat waned. His bots had built a temporary shelter just outside the Machine as his AI computer kept trying to crack the musical sounds steadily undulating from the Machine.
Nothing else much happened, though he was increasingly intrigued by the ever-expanding school of dolphins near this shore. Maybe it was their mating season or some seasonal fish or aquatic phenomenon going on, but none of his scans or investigations could find anything out?
At least, though, it took his mind off waiting and he would zoom over the school–now surely reaching thousands of dolphins!–with his quantum-bike and contemplate their motives. Despite this distraction, the waiting ate at him and with all this time he found his thoughts drifting back to his son…
His marriage had lost out to his work. His son had never even been in the running and was born after the divorce papers had been lodged. He wondered if he would have been a good father? He wondered if his son would recognize him at all? He wondered if his wife ever thought about him or his son was proud of his father’s career? He wondered a lot of things, but they were cut short by a loud announcement:
[responsivevoice_button voice=”UK English Male”]
“Peter,” his AI computer declared, “I have satisfactorily solved the language. Following Archive protocol, my algorithmic translations appear to be 68% accurate and, thus, qualify as evidence for the Archives.”
“What is your purpose?” Peter spoke into his AI computer, “What were you designed for?”
The computer beamed out its translation–in a frequency too high for Peter’s ears but that created a shrill, ruckus in the school of dolphins off the coast–and he saw the Machine starting to spin in new and hard to describe ways.
“I am Here,” the AI computer replied, translating the incoming chimes, “I am the Seeker of Truth and the Tower of Purpose.”
Peter paused. This was a strange message and there was a chance that either a mistranslation had occurred or that he needed to rephrase his question, so he tried the latter.
“Why were you built?” he asked.
“For purpose, Peter William Marshall, I was built to solve the only question worth asking: what is your purpose.”
Peter was stunned. What did it mean by purpose? And, how had it known his name? And why were the dolphins making such a noise now, it was almost deafening!
“OK,” he began, shouting over the cacophony of the dolphins, what felt like the right question to an answer like that, “Tower of Purpose, then what is my purpose.”
There is a lonely boy. His mother has died and he does not know his father. He is crying and an outstretched hand traps him. At first, there is a little hope, but then there is so much pain. So, so much pain! And despair with chemicals and darkness…
And then there is death. A small, quiet, forgotten death.
There is a dark road that does not need to be walked. There is a light road that can still be followed.
There is a husband coming home. There is a weeping wife and an angry son. At first, there is a little pain, but then there is so much love and hope. So, so much love! And light, and life and a baby crying and a thousand more to follow that will better the world and all life everywhere…
And then there is death. Always death but this is a happy, peaceful, fulfilled death.
When Peter opened his eyes and his mind came back to his body, there were tears streaming down his cheeks. The images were still so sharp in his mind! His wife, his son… He was on his knees and, for the first time, he could smell the salt in the air from the ocean. He bent over, wracked by a sob and dug his hands into the rich soil as the tears poured and poured out.
He had seen it all. He had felt it all. Each and every eventuality. Each consequence, cause, and catastrophe that his selfishness would bring to this world. His world. His people. His family.
At that moment, he knew. He knew that he could change it. He knew that it was not too late. He had remembered his purpose and he knew what he had to do.
It was less than a day later with only the stuff for the flight back home packed that he stepped onto his starship. All the rest he would leave behind. Let someone else find it. Let someone else sacrifice to archive it. Let someone else not raise their child and care for their family.
And, just as the starship took off and just before the cryogenic stasis kicked in, Peter had a striking realization. He had no scientific evidence to back it up but he was sure that he knew what had happened to the Homo Delphinidae. In absence of any apocalypse, cataclasm or war and in his heart of hearts, he knew what had happened to this ancient, magical civilization and its beautiful, sentient species…
Somehow Homo Delphinidae had slipped back into the ocean to frolic and play, to love and exist in the purity of life itself. For what else is the purpose of life?