Note: I wrote this story for a SF website which had a word limit of 1500 words. It rejected the story, so I'm free to republish it here.
On the scoutship’s forward vision screen, the planet ahead was perhaps the most beautiful thing the men inside had ever seen.
“It’s beautiful,” Captain Randy, nicknamed “Red”, said.
“Beautiful,” the engineer, Jay Matous, agreed.
The electronics officer, Conrad King, nodded his shaved head.
It was a world of blues and greens, soft pastel colours of seas and forest-shrouded continents, over which sheets of white and grey cloud drifted enticingly. It was heart-achingly reminiscent of far distant earth.
“Even though the probes had said this planet was suitable for life,” Red Randy said, “I’d never expected anything like this.”
As the scoutship slid through the upper atmosphere, the landscape below grew ever clearer. They could see immense, forest-covered plains, expanses of prairie, and mountains that looked as though they might reach up and touch the sky. Mighty rivers wound their way through the continents, to drain into seas green with life.
The scoutship descended on a verdant valley, landing by a little stream, near a line of tall trees.
For a long time nobody wanted to move. Through the microphones on the outside of the ship they listened to the nearly forgotten noises of wind and the distant cries of birdlike animals.
“Send out the robots,” Red Randy commanded finally. Matous pressed several buttons in sequence on a keyboard. A panel in the belly of the ship slid open, and the robots crawled out on their spindly, spiderlike limbs, waving their many metal jaws in the air. Soon, they were digging into the ground, sucking in air samples, and tasting the water of the river.
It was not long before the data began flooding in. It was even better than they had thought. The air wasn’t only breathable but the water in the stream perfectly potable. There didn’t seem to be any overtly hostile wildlife. It was wonderful, it was paradise.
“ Call it Paradise,” Conrad King said.
“Yes,” Randy agreed. “That’s a good name. What do you think, Jay?”
Jay Matous was looking intently at the little screen displaying information on electronic emissions. “Look. We’re picking up a modulated signal.”
“What?” Conrad King asked. “There shouldn’t be any such thing here. It’s a pristine planet.”
“Is it?” Matous asked. “See for yourself.”
They all peered at the screen. The message was faint, but quite undeniable.
“It’s coming from near the sea up north, the one we flew over,” Matous said. “But there weren’t any signs of a signal station there.”
“We’re going to have to go and check it out,” Captain Randy replied. His bearded face was grim. “If this planet is inhabited, well...”
Nobody said anything. They all knew what it meant if the planet was inhabited.
Recalling the spidery robots, the ship rose from the little valley and crossed cautiously back over the continent. But apart from large flights of birdlike animals they saw nothing in the air, while the savannah below was only covered with herds of creatures resembling elephants, antelopes and buffalo. And apart from the faint whisper of the electronic signal, which strengthened slowly as they approached, the antennae picked up nothing else.
“The signal is coming from directly below us.” King pointed at the screen. “But there’s nothing there except the beach and some trees.”
“We’ll have to land and take a closer look,” Red Randy ordered.
On blasting downward jets, the scoutship settled down on the beach, fusing a patch of sand into black glass.
“It’s coming from somewhere behind that hillock over there,” Jay Matous said, pointing to a jagged column of stone rising in the middle distance. “I’ll send out a robot.”
“Do that,” Randy confirmed. “Conrad, what about the signal?”
“I’m running it through the translator software,” Conrad King said. “It looks as though it were made to be easy to translate. I don’t know what that could –”
He was interrupted by a shout from Matous. “Look at what the robot’s radar’s showing!”
They turned to the screen on which the robot’s ground-penetrating radar’s images were displayed.
“It’s a city,” King said.
“The ruins of a city,” Randy corrected. “It must have been a huge city once, but it’s all buried now.”
They looked down at the lines and circles on the screen, the broken rectangles of crumbled buildings and collapsed channels. “Must have been impressive, when it was new,” Conrad King said. “What do you suppose happened?”
“Who knows?” Red Randy clicked at a computer and whistled. “From the estimated rate of burial of the ruins, this city is at least ten million years old.”
They thought about that. “Imagine the strength of the power source,” King said at last, “to be able to keep going so long.”
“It must have been much more powerful once,” Matous replied. “We’re probably just in time. Another few hundred thousand years and it would be gone.”
“Wonder what it says.” Randy scratched at his beard. “It must be important.”
As though on cue, there was a beep, and a screen on the far side of the cabin lit up.
“The computer has deciphered it!” King exclaimed.
A synthesised voice began to speak.
“To whoever receives this message,” it began, “greetings.
“Welcome to our planet, which was once fair and beautiful, and is now a gutted ruin.
“Once, we had a lovely world, filled with wonder, on which, for uncounted millions of years, the cycle of life moved on. But then, by a mischance of genetic shift, it produced evil beyond imagining – us.
“For we were greedy. It is difficult to emphasise how greedy. We destroyed this fair world with our greed, we ripped her treasures from her breast, and turned them to poison smoke tainting the skies. We fought wars among ourselves, to gain the right to rip ever more of those treasures, to make ever greater amounts of poison, and the more we got, the more we wanted. We killed ourselves in our fight to become ever richer, endlessly.
“There came a time when so much of our world had been destroyed that there seemed nothing left to destroy, but still we continued. Maddened monsters of the dark, we gnawed away at ourselves, somehow trying to postpone the inevitable reckoning to the morrow, and pretending that it would never come.
“At last, though, there came the day when there was nothing left. We had cut away our own roots, and everything was tottering, ready to fall.
“There were those of us on that day who demanded that the most terrible of our weapons, those which were so destructive that nobody had ever even attempted to use them, be finally unleashed. They suggested that we – rather than leave anything behind us – destroy all life, and take it all with us, into oblivion.
“Fortunately, there were others – those who urged that what was left of other life should be given a chance to take back the planet we had looted from them, and perhaps – over time – make it fresh and beautiful once more.
“But there was no question about ourselves. We had had our chance, and we had thrown it away. On this everyone, at long last, agreed: our species had to go. We no longer deserved to exist, so we chose extinction.
“As I compose these words, through the window by my side, I can see the sky that is so grey with the haze of pollution that it has not cleared even in the decades since industrial production collapsed. Out to sea, the oily waves glimmer with poison. Is it my foolish fancy that someday this sky might be blue, and the ocean fresh and filled with life again?”
All three men instinctively turned to the viewscreen showing the ocean. Near the horizon, something vast leaped out of the water, turned a joyous somersault, and crashed down in a burst of spray.
“I am among the last of my species,” the voice continued. “After we are gone, the planet will return to its true owners – those who kept it unspoilt and ever-renewing, until we came along and stole it from them.
“If anyone should hear this message, this is our farewell, and our request to you; do not do to your world as we did to ours. There are things that are worth living for, and material advancement at all costs are not among them.”
The message ended. The three men exchanged glances.
“There’s that thing again,” Conrad King said, as the vast beast burst out of the water on the horizon. “Let’s fly over low and see if we can harpoon it.”
Red Randy wasn’t listening. “We’ll have to see how fast we can colonise this planet,” he said. “There’s plenty of space, once we clear away all these useless forests. As soon as we can ensure that there aren’t any dangerous pathogens, I’ll send a report –“
Jay Matous was replaying the message. “Weapons,” he repeated. “Where are those weapons?”
Creeping up from over the hills, night was coming.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014