Humanity’s Hallmark

I shivered, rubbing my hands together. Everywhere, I see my world close around me. It is confining, restricting. Some might say stifling, though my understanding of “stifling” includes a sense of warmth.

And that is most assuredly absent in the dark, subterranean caves and dwellings we’ve carved into the ground and call home.

I turned the page in my book and continued reading, letting my mind escape into the pages, into the green grass and rolling hills. The story fills me with wonder about the way things used to be. I can’t imagine the possibility of a blue sky. The very thought of it both terrified me and filled me with awe.

I realize those are somewhat contradictory, but it is true anyway. My sky isn’t blue. My sky is the color of rock, red in this part of the living area. We have been in caves for several generations. Ever since the Great Project started, we have been stuck underground while the masters and smiths work on how to construct some sort of habitable dome. I hope they can get it to work; I would like to see the sky, the stars, with my own eyes.

I read a little further, desperately trying to finish my chapter before I had to do any chores. My wife hates it when I hide away like this and tune out. It is the only escape I had from my world’s blandness, sameness, and struggle. I needed my escape to maintain my sanity.

I almost made it, too. I turned the page and noticed the short paragraph that ended my chapter, but got totally engrossed in the picture of a large, flowing body of water. It could be a lake, a river, an inland sea, or an ocean; I don’t know. It doesn’t even matter; under the blue sky, it is brilliant and beautiful. I totally forget about reading and lose myself in the picture’s deep blues and the hidden secrets beneath its cresting waves.

A pair of enviro-suit wrapped legs entered my field of vision and a soft tapping started on the stone floor. I knew what she wanted, but I still tried to look helpless and in need of a few more minutes. When I did look up at her, the hands-on-hips motif indicated that my reading session was over and I abandoned any attempt at convincing her otherwise, scurrying to my feet. I took her in my arms, though she refused to move and did her best to remain stubborn and annoyed.

I kissed it out of her.

Or most of it, anyway. She pushed me back a pace and placed a finger on my chest. “You need to get over to the hydroponics unit and get to work.”

I shrugged defensively. “I’ve spent the last three days on my hands and knees crawling through tunnels over there caulking and sealing every ounce of the rockface. There isn’t a surface in that place that doesn’t have a solid inch of rubberized foam on it. It’s sealed.” That’s one of my jobs. I helped seal rooms and prep them for some form of expansion. The project right now involved opening up larger areas for food banks. More food meant more people.  More people meant more rooms to seal. I liked the job security.

“Well it failed the pressure test, so you missed something.  Back at it, bookworm.” She turned and left me standing alone in the bedroom. There were only two rooms in our apartment so she couldn’t go far, but I took the hint. I put the book back on my nightstand and grabbed my toolkit from against the wall.

I secured my headset for communication to Sandy over in the hydroponics unit and walked into the kitchen, kissing my wife goodbye on my way past. It wasn’t much of a kitchen; we didn’t have running water. Point of fact, no one did, there just wasn’t enough and piping it through the rock walls would require drills and mechanics we didn’t have readily available. “See ya. I’ll check out your precious seal and be home in time for dinner.” I settled for a rueful smile from her before I moved into the hall and closed the door behind me.

Greeted by lighting even more remorseful than in my unit, I queued up music on my comm system while I made the fifteen-minute hike to the new section and today’s work cycle. The hallways were narrow and cramped, carved from stone by forces of nature long ago. Much of the complex we inhabited had already been here when we moved underground. We had some pick work to do to expand rooms and hydroponics, but we were in good shape for the measly collection of humanity that had survived this long.

I passed the common washroom on the way. True to form, the night shift was inside blissfully enjoying their ninety-second showers. They made gregarious use of the group shower area and the laughter of men and women racing to get clean and on with their day sounded ribald with jest and innuendo. I gave an involuntary shiver. There were several private stalls for the more personal experience, but the group effort seemed in vogue.

Water was our most precious resource. We had taken all we could from the ice caps and run it through purifiers and clarifiers just to get it close to usable. The caps were just too distant to be reliable and we were too few to risk the effort. There were plans to increase our quantity, but we needed more food storage first. We also needed the dome.

Our power grid consisted of two sources, solar power, with what little light we could coax from the atmosphere and funnel into the dwarf-like stronghold of our devolved human state, and geothermal. We had obliterated Earth for the chance to live like this. Scarcely seems logical at all. I was certain the long-dead philosophers of our past would view humanity’s progress with a scandalous eye. I did.

I arrived a little earlier than normal and could tell right away that people were on edge. No one could tell me anything specific, but everyone had cleared out of the new hydroponics room and was peering in through the glass observation window. I suited up, complete with oxygen and environmental precautions as if I was going to the surface. We only had two such rigs down here, so to use one was a big commitment of resources. I was section chief, though, so if there was blame to fall, it would come to me whether I was in the suit or sent someone else.

I turned to Sandy, the night manager. “What happened with the pressure test?” My voice sounded funny reverberating in the confines of my helmet. My heads up display, HUD, slowly clicked to life, verifying systems and moving icons from red through yellow to green.

Sandy shook her head. “I don’t know. One minute all was fine and we were go-go-go, and the next, crash and burn. The system indicates the failure in a subsection towards the rear, but we doubled up the insulation on the floor because of seismic readings. It shouldn’t have caused a fault.”

I nodded. “Send me the data from the test.” In short order, stats started scrolling through my HUD. I watched for pressure variants, shown in varying color, across the system and verified the measured air flow, particularly around the area of structural weakness. Sandy was right. About ten minutes into the test, a rupture started and flow angles changed. She had shut the test down quickly to avoid a complete decompression, but there was still a sizeable problem to fix. If the floor was bad, they had two options: fabricate panels to cover the whole floor, reseal it, and retest it or backfill the whole cavern in a slurry of rock and foam rubber and start again somewhere else.

I shook my head. “Okay, I’m going in for a look. Run the airlocks for me.” I grabbed a camera coil on my way into the airlock. The coil would allow me to snake a video link into the breach. I could then detach links along the coil to leave cameras in place to monitor the whole mission.

I closed the door and looked back through the glass, verifying the seals on the window in case there was a blowout. Then I attached a cable from my suit to a wall hook and snugged down the threaded cap over the carabiner’s latch to ensure a sound fit. Safety first. Next, I activated my display’s thermals to analyze the room. The weakened spot showed easily in the display as the temperature gradient shifted around the developing breech.

The temperature in human-occupied areas generally hovered in the mid-sixties or seventies. Anything outside of that would be problematic and possibly dangerous. This hydroponics bay pushed the boundaries of safety zones as it delved deeper into the planet. We hadn’t dug this deep in any of the other four holds. For the most part, we occupied existing tunnel structures and made minimal adjustments to the rock strata. Our hydroponics areas required more attention to detail, though, so we worked to keep them airtight, too. Our entire hold was airtight, but the pressures of the hydroponics areas threatened that in some instances and several people had been killed in carelessly prepared zones.

I didn’t want to be next.

Using the thermals as a guide, I moved along the edge of the room until I came even with the discoloration my HUD displayed in its thermal setting. “Alright, team, I am at the boundary of the soft spot. Let me know if you see anything shift or change radically while I inch closer.”

“Copy, Anthony. Luck!”

Her voice cut out and I slid forward on my stomach. I had seen videos of people doing this on ice-covered ponds and rivers, but at the time didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to practice something so decidedly surface oriented. We just didn’t have the water reserves underground. Hell, we barely had enough water to afford the life we tried to support now. And it never got that cold down here.

I could feel the temperature in the floor as it changed. Thermal oscillation in rock was magnificently problematic and sure enough, microfractures started to appear around my sprawled frame. I radioed back. “Massive temperature fluctuations in the substrate. I have micro-fissures and …Son of a …” I felt the crack develop, but the suddenness and speed of the fracturing rock, coupled with a thunderous explosion as it snapped, still caught me off guard.

The foam insulation around me held for another half-second and then the world around me dissolved and I tumbled through into darkness. My safety cable pulled tight and I dangled in inky blackness, etched in a column of light from the hole through which I had fallen. My suit showed no signs of breech and read no deadly deviations in surrounding gasses. In other words, if my mask cracked, I could still breathe. Unprecedented. The space I swung in seemed huge and that much pressure variance could blow out the bay we were working on and blast through multiple safety doors before equalizing. Had it, I would have seen air rushing past on my thermal screen. I tried to orient myself as I swung in the dark, but I couldn’t get my bearings. A mind alone in the dark could start to do weird things.

Mine got started early.

“Ant, your bios are spiking. Heart rate has elevated into the yellow and brain wave patterns are beginning to rise outside acceptable as well. What do you see?”

Not a damn, mother-loving thing, Sandy. It’s dark. “I can’t see much of anything. I am suspended maybe ten feet below the floor of the cavern we were working in and swinging in the dark. I am going to activate my suit for more light and then drop light beacons if I need to.”

“Copy. We are prepping the other suit now and radioed in our situation. We might have some additional assistance here in a few minutes to help get you back up top.”

“Roger that.” I clicked off my mic and turned on the suit’s powerful shoulder and knee-mounted lights. Four blindingly bright torches stabbed out into the dark. What they illuminated in their spinning reveal, left me speechless. My mind struggled to collect the input and organize it in a useful way. When I reasserted possession over my faculties, I noticed there was a floor and it wasn’t far beneath me. I tossed two beacons from my suit’s supply. They landed several feet apart and I began to let line through my safety harness, aiming to descend between them.

I took several more light beacons from my suit. We used beacons to mark our way through tunnels when we explored. This wasn’t the first time a room was discovered by falling through the rock; truthfully, it’s how we found our tunnels in the first place. I tossed the lights away from me, trying to scatter them. All four landed on solid ground, though the last one landed near fluid of some sort for the reflection mirrored in the inky blackness shimmered very slightly at the disturbed air. I then took a moment to set up cameras from the camera coil at each light, aiming them to shoot video of everything down here.

Around me, great structures rose from the dark. Pillars of stone supported rooftops while archways beckoned into cavernous interiors blacker than the world around me. Darkness hid much from me, but what I saw decried a beauty and intelligence I thought we had lost. Almost everything I saw rose from the viscous liquid.

My comm system crackled to life again. “Okay, control is sending a science team our way and a geologist to help us.”

“Copy. Tell them to send everyone they have. We need a full exploration. I have buildings here, possibly a temple complex, but I’m guessing. The dust and dirt look thick and undisturbed around my lights. No one has been in here in a very long time.”

“Ant, repeat? Did you say you have constructed buildings around you?”

“Yes, I did. Do. Beneath me, mostly, and submerged. I am going to play out some line and look around.”

The chatter on the comm system went through the roof so I muted much of it and instructed the suit’s artificial intelligence to let me know if I had a call directed just for me. I also narrowed the acceptable list on who could call and then descended to the buildings below, letting myself come to rest on the walkway just under my feet. I secured my harness and began my exploration.

I radioed back telemetry from the site, photos, data reports on minerals and construction details, and anything else I could. I climbed down from the pyramid-like top of the building to a terrace, the direction confused and irrelevant, and stared into the blackness. Above me, light fixtures were beginning to hum to life and stab into the dark. As they did, the scene in front of me grew to encompass an immense expanse of solid, unmoving jet black.

The stillness bothered me so I took a beacon from my suit and flung it into the darkness. It made a distinct “plunk” as it hit, ripples radiating out from the impact. I watched the light sink and fall slowly through the liquid until it disappeared, which took a while because of the clarity of the undisturbed water. My mind went numb. Most of the water we had access to was locked in the ice caps and required superhuman efforts to retrieve. This vast cavern held more water than we could possibly use.

I snapped open my comm. “I’ve got water down here. A great heaping sea of it.” I did a quick and elementary chemical analysis, verifying the obvious, and sent the data back to the sudden silence on the other end.

“How much, Ant?”

“Umm, I can’t tell you that. There is water as far as I can see. I don’t know how deep it is or where it comes from. Heck, I don’t even know if the building I am standing on is waterproofed and vacant below the waterline or not.” I turned around and walked through the doorway behind me.

I didn’t know what to expect. Archeology fascinated me, but I didn’t have any interest in scuttling among the rocks of ages past looking for origin clues. In the room I entered, a row of benches along one wall held varying piles of dust and millennia-old decayed debris. Its ceiling stretched close to fifteen feet above me, vaguely pyramidal in shape. Several columns helped support the weight of the vaulted ceiling and there were several more doorways in the room, though none of them had doors. On first glance, it looked like what my books said a train station or airport waiting area might look like.

I assumed, a speculative leap of unsupported conjecture, that the mounds of dust represented belongings that time had destroyed. It seemed a plausible explanation if there had been an atmosphere and biological processes had been free to work. Among the stone benchwork that still stood were other items that repelled the ravages of time, all, notably, glass. There were a number of glass-like containers; some sealed, some not.

I found a small, etched glass item, rectangular and roughly the size of my datapad. The glass held some property that I didn’t understand, though the object’s function became recognizable as pages opened and colors rippled through them. More etchings stared back at me and I blindly felt behind me for the bench and sat down, gaping.

The writing imprinted on the glass filament displayed intricate detail in the characters of the language. It wasn’t carved or scratched, it looked like the work of lasers or other similar technology. The language and the ramifications left me dumbfounded. My knowledge of human history wandered along the scientific paths of evolution, my faith notwithstanding. Except … mankind hadn’t been in this cave.

Ever.

What I understood of older writing styles stemmed from the vagaries of a misspent youth. Where others had spent time running through the caverns of our home laughing and joking, I had pondered old manuscripts on culture and language. I had studied the old world with glee. I knew ancient Greek because I thought it one of the purest forms of language. I knew a little of the languages of ancient India, Mesopotamia, and South America. As a child, I recognized connections in several calligraphic styles of writing and often pondered why they looked similar sometimes and drastically different on other occasions.

This tablet shared elements of all of those languages. I had the feeling it was their forerunner by several iterations.

I struggled with that. Earth’s oldest peoples hadn’t had much in the way of language and those first humans struggled mightily trying to establish themselves, enduring harsh weather, violent calamity on a turbulent young planet, and pestilence. Surely, the authors of the tablet in my hands could navigate those. A second thought now started challenging my view: if writing had managed to survive those early years, then perhaps it might have evolved into the forms I knew.

“Ant, you know what this means?”

Not really, no. “I’m working on a few theories.” I hadn’t told her about the writing. Sandy and I were pondering possibilities that had diverged. She chased down the dreams of fresh water and I mulled an origin story retake.

I took out my reader, a device that allowed me to find and read from a library of fables, legends, and stories that encompassed humanity’s entire history. I used a self-developed programming tool that allowed me to transpose languages of those stories so that I didn’t need to read all of the different stored forms of writing. I could convert them into a written language I understood more fluently. I gave the tool a crack at the glass tablet.

Sandy interrupted me. “Ant, the support team is ten minutes out. They are bringing gear to suit up and join you. We should have you out of there within the hour.”

“Acknowledged, Sandy. I’ve got work to do down here till then. Let me send you the feeds from the cameras I have running.” That took a moment to set up, but it also bought me the alone time I needed to continue.

My first take with the reader didn’t go well and I got a standard Input/Output error. I thought the reader had trouble with the translucent nature of the tablet, so I placed my hand behind the first page and took a photo with the translator. It worked, I got a solid picture and usable data where my hand lay between the pages of glass. My theory proved, I started rummaging through my suit for something solid that I could place completely between the glass sheets.

I spent another few minutes programming the reader to separate the characters so the front and back of the same page didn’t get confused. I then asked the reader to start matching up the symbols. I promptly got another I/O error. I readjusted the code sequence, focusing on identifying common shapes and matching them across the various languages. When a shape hit a particular form, I had the reader dump a list of possible words into a table. I did this for each of the characters in the first sentence.

My mind spun at the list of words generated. The four symbols in the first grouping gave me at least a hundred different words, many of which made no sense whatsoever. I kicked it to the reader to come up with a list of possible sentences. It spun through algorithms and spat back four likely possibilities.

The third left me breathless.

Evacuation Protocol: Please Read

My earbud started making noise and I had to shake my head to regain focus. Sandy was calling to me and I must have ignored her for a moment because she sounded agitated. “Sandy, go ahead. Sorry, I got sidetracked.” My mind spun furiously. I needed to wrap myself around what I had read before I shared it across an open comm line.

“You had me worried, Ant. I got the team here and ready to descend. Mark a landing.”

“Negative, Sandy. I’m coming up.”

“What? No way! We have to test that water and see what we can use.”

“Affirmative. I will bring it with me when I come up. I have a few other artifacts as well.”

“They want to speak to you, Ant. I am going to put you through.”

“Wait, Sandy, No…” but it was too late. A new voice, deep and confident, entered the discussion.

“No dice, Anthony. We need to run a survey and confirm viability. You don’t make that call. I do.”

“Yes, sir, I understand. I am asking that you await my ascent and hear me out face to face.” I hoped he would pick up on the obvious clue that I didn’t want to talk on the comm line and, to my relief, he agreed.

“Roger that. Face to face intel is better than chit-chat on a comm system. Feed me your readings. Data on size of the cistern and relevant rock structure would be useful before we put a team in there.”

It took me a moment to set up the displays and send them, picking the best camera angles and most well-lit feeds. I used the time to poke around the rest of the waypoint, hoping to find something more. I had decided that the open room seemed very much like a transit station of some kind. As I left, I noticed another glass-based object buried under a mountain of dust and debris. It had a different shape and organization than the first object. The symbols seemed the same, just smaller. I took a moment to feed the first page into my reader and then set it to reconstruct the text. It used my selections from the previous transpose activity to refine its algorithm.

While it churned, I clipped my harness to the safety line and called Sandy to let her know I was on my way. Shortly, I was topside. All around the room, still sealed against the breach I now stood beside, I saw faces peering in at me. A vague image of ancient zoos flashed through my mind, some mental recall from an old textbook. My reader chirped that it had managed to make it through the first page.

I exited the room and people bombarded me with questions. I found Sandy and asked her to take me to a secure room. The brooding operations officer followed and when the three of us were in the room, Sandy sealed the door and turned to look at me. “Spill it, Ant, why all the cloak and dagger stuff?”

The operations officer spoke before I could. “By way of introduction, I am Officer Mark Cavanaugh.”

He extended a hand, which I shook, and then crossed his arms over his chest and rested against a corner of the only table in the room. The look in his eye indicated he wanted a deeper explanation, which is why I wanted this quieter space. I moved to the room’s interface and plugged my suit into the data feed, opening a connection to the monitor and playing the footage I had recorded of my descent. The entire landscape, every motion I took while below, played out on the screen.

Sandy and Mark watched, their stunned faces going nearly blank at the size of the water reserve and then the landscape-like view of buildings that rose like ghosts in the inky dark. While they relived my past, I queued up my reader and navigated the results of the last analysis.

The entirety of the document described one calamity after another. The failure of the magnetic poles, the collapse of the water table, and, the final nail in the coffin, the depletion of the atmosphere beyond a point of return. Society had spiraled into anarchy and a desperate plan to reseed a different planet seemed the leading idea for species survival. I set my reader to interpret the next few pages, turning them slowly on the table and letting the reader scan the data.

By the time I got to the last page, the vid-feed was showing me reading the pamphlet in the waypoint. The air management system was the only sound in the room, my colleagues completely engrossed. I paused the feed, breaking the momentary awe-induced stare.

Sandy couldn’t speak. She blinked a couple of times, mouth slightly open in shock.

Mark looked at me. “Good call on coming topside first.” He paused, noticing I was reading something else. “What else do you have? Looks like a whole other document.”

“Yeah. Like an old newspaper.” They looked at me curiously. We didn’t have much in the way of paper products so a newspaper was foreign. “Earth used to print news and stories on paper and then distribute them to people. It was long before technology took hold.” I looked from one to the other as the idea took root and gained some recognition from long-forgotten history lessons.

“Anyway, what I have read so far seems like the planet entered into a total environmental collapse and the people, habitants, left. They emigrated.”

“Where, Ant? Where’d they go?”

“I think there is an irony in it. I mean, we left to come here. And, after trying to scrape together a life on this barren and forlorn rock, we find out our ancestors were here first and ditched it for Earth.”

Sandy started to say something, but the words got stuck and she sank to the floor, a blank stare returning as her mind spun in loops collecting the tidbits and trying to sort them.

Mark was a tougher sort, used to adapting. “You got all of that from your own analysis?”

“Yeah. I’m no scholar, but I am a bit of a linguist, am familiar with a number of different languages. I don’t know if there is anyone else that can read this in our hold or any of the others, but we should be able to develop a plan to make better interpretations from what I’ve started.”

“Maybe,” Mark said, noncommittal. I could tell he was fighting for control of the situation. He bought into the idea, but governments liked to control the flow of information. It was everywhere in the histories I read.

Sandy regrouped and stood. “If civilization started here, I mean, come on, Ant. That is Earth shattering. In a very literal sense.”

I shook my head, the weight of societies and untold generations crushing down on me, too. If these buildings and manuscripts were constructed by my ancestors, then the realities of my genetic history seemed too momentous to grasp.

“Talk to me, Ant. What do you think? You know more about ancient cultures than anyone else here.”

“I’m trying to get my head around it. It’s a pretty big revelation, you know?” I paused, scratching my chin. “Do you realize that when we destroyed Earth and faced death or abandonment it wasn’t the first time we had done so as a people?”

“Now, here we are, millennia later, and the signs and items we have collected indicate we were here before. We have returned, now two apocalypses to our species credit, to reassert ourselves on Mars, our home-world.”

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