By Dan, 10 October 2017 #


That’s actually the first thing most people ask: isn’t it depressing? Doesn’t it get to you? It really doesn’t. Which maybe means I have less imagination than everyone who doesn’t do it. Which may be why I do it.

But I don’t think so. You’re imagining me climbing over piles of bodies, but by the time we get there the action usually happened millennia back. There’s a minuscule chance of getting there in time to see even the distant aftermath of any of the really grim stuff. From orbit, you can sometimes see grown-over blast craters, or if you’re lucky some bits of city, but that’s usually about it.

Mostly, there’s nothing valuable — at least, not valuable in the “buried treasure” sense. You hear the stories about caches of tech left by super-advanced alien races, but it’s literally never happened. It seems like there’s a cut-off point on civilisations..

Maybe we’re the only one that even got to here. If you find contiguous population across two star systems, that’s a huge deal. We have to escalate it, bring in the serious investigative details. They turn the whole thing over looking for anything the former occupiers might have known how to do that we can’t.

But anything more advanced than us is either keeping out of sight or it took everything with it when it went.

If you look at the history section of the department, there are a handful of new ideas we got from corpse mining — niche propulsion technology at one end of usefulness, new aromas or domestic detergents on the other. You get a lot of puzzle pieces.

I once found the remains of a perfectly efficient way to generate power from a mineral which only occurred on that one planet. From the archeology of it, the race that invented it built their whole society around free, clean power, then managed to obliterate every atom of that mineral simultaneously and entirely by futzing around with a particle accelerator.

The particle accelerator was junk tech. The power generation was interesting but totally useless without the mineral. And, as near as we can tell, the entire species had been killed and/or eaten within about a decade. By the entire species.

Happens more than you’d expect.

Anyway. This isn’t much of a long story short at this point. You were asking about the glass cage in the corner, with the moss in it.

It started on my last job. It was a pretty normal clearout. Whatever happened, it happened a long time ago, and it looked like it took most of the life on the planet with it. Some go slow, some go fast, and you can usually tell pretty quickly which it was, but this one was, for want of a better word, enigmatic. Some still-radioactive areas: that can mean nuclear explosions, but sometimes it’s inefficient power storage, and sometimes some sort of message. Often, that message is “be more careful with radioactivity than we were”.

They’d put some initial camps on their one moon and the next planet along. Pretty rickety stuff; we dropped drones to carve up the metals and made plans to pick them up on the way back. They were nowhere near sustainable without help from the home planet — when it shut down, I guess they went dark pretty quickly.

That’s one of the parts that does give me the chills. These poor little bipeds, just corpses in waiting, trying to decide whether to do atrocious things so some of them can live a little longer. Makes you wonder why anyone would leave home.

Which I know is a weird thing for me to say.

We found surviving patches of moss and algae, which isn’t unusual, and some microanimal life grazing on it, which is. They looked pretty unexciting - tiny, multilegged, weird little mouth things - but you never know when something like that will give you a new medicine or chitin moisturiser or something. So, we scooped a bunch up and took a look.

They had no brains to speak of, but their DNA was about twenty per cent interpolated, and the more of them we collected, the more of this interpolated DNA we identified — it was significantly and intentionally varied from animal to animal.

Pretty quickly the ship’s computer identified it as a very primitive form of code. As we plugged in the data from millions of these little things, that code started out by teaching us - or the computer, really - a language, and then using that to teach us - again, the computer - how to build a virtual machine. We stuck it on an isolated drive, and turned it on. And, as it went live, every one of the tiny animals died. As if we had flicked a switch. Which we had.

It was called WaterBearOS, which we figured had some significance that didn’t translate. It was basically a glorified file browser: what we put together was more hole than not-hole, but we could see documents, pictures, schematics, sound - just a whole bunch of stuff. Maybe it’s garbage, maybe there’s something in there that will change the worlds. Honesty, we’re looking at a dominant species that decided to record its entire culture on protostomes but couldn’t get out of their solar system. I wouldn’t expect miracles.

The whole thing was above our pay grade, so we shut it down and sent a message back to corporate. They told us to find more of the animals and plug them in, so we did, until we hit diminishing returns, then we packed up and headed out. To here, as it happens, for a rest stop.

Anyway. I felt bad for the little animals — nobody asked them if they wanted to be a hardwearing data storage solution for a race on the out. So, I requisitioned a few and put them in there. You can’t see them, but there’s a couple of sonnets and maybe a filtration system’s worth of data scrabbling around in that moss. They seem pretty happy.

I suppose I could be depriving us of a worlds-changing discovery, but like I said extinct worlds always have garbage tech. If they were smart, they wouldn’t be extinct. To be unromantic, in my whole career these little creepers are the closest I’ve come to finding intelligent life. I have a feeling we might be it. Nobody else made it this far.

Anyway, that’s enough about me. You said you worked in accounting?



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