The day of the class trip to the old ruins dawned grey and drizzly, just as Ar liked it.
“This is lovely,” she said to herself, rubbing her arms together. “Nice and cool and moist, perfect for a class outing.”
Mes was considerably less enthusiastic. “I hate old ruins,” he coloured. “Why can’t we just be given a holiday instead of being dragged over there, I don’t know.”
Ar fought down a red flash of irritation. Mes was her best friend, but there was no denying that he got on her nerves with his constant complaining. That her parents disapproved of their friendship merely made it harder since it meant that she couldn’t even have a fight with him without them saying “I told you so.”
She compromised now with a bluish silence, hoping Mes would take the hint. He didn’t.
“All we’ll do is spend the day crawling over old broken rocks and maybe cut ourselves on rusty metal things –”
“You won’t,” Ar flashed at him. “You know what the teachers told us. All the original artefacts have been removed for study and preservation, and replaced with facsimiles.” Involuntarily, she adopted the exact shades of old Dux, their teacher. “Knowledge is for those who appreciate it, not for spawn like you.”
“So you’re telling me,” Mes fell into helpless giggles, his arms flailing with amusement, “that we aren’t even going to see things we could read about in a book anyway – we’re going to see the replicas of things we could read about in a book?”
“What’s going on that’s so funny?” Even before Ar had turned her eyes to look, she knew who it would be. Nobody liked Teu, and she was always desperately trying to find companionship with someone, anyone, even if only for a few minutes. Snubbing her or even insulting her outright never worked. She stuck like glue until she found someone else who offered better hope of acceptance. “Tell me what the joke is.”
“There’s nothing funny, Teu.” Rain blew over the fields across which the class was trudging, and Ar shivered with pleasure to feel the water trickle down her skin. It felt so good that she even decided to tolerate Teu for a bit. “Mes and I were just discussing the ruins. I think it’s worth our going to see them. He disagrees.”
“My mum says,” Teu replied, turning bright pink with pleasure at being talked to, “that these ruins are the work of the devil. She says that it’s absurd to believe that they could’ve been made by creatures which walked the earth before us, since the Good Book...”
“Oh, stuff the Book,” Mes flared. “There’s nothing good about it. It’s just a mess of fables and myths. Nobody with sense takes it seriously anymore.”
“...since the Good Book,” Teu continued imperturbably, “says that the Great Kraken created us at the start of the Universe, and in His image. Nothing could have come before us.”
“And how does your mum explain the evidence that the world is much older than we are?” Ar inquired, only half interested in the answer. They were almost at the ruins, and her attention was fixed on the long brown mounds they were approaching. The earth that had been excavated to expose the long-buried ruins had been built into walls and ramparts, atop one of which old Dux had taken his position, and was waiting impatiently for the class to catch up.
“Hurry,” he signalled to them across the field. “We don’t have all day.”
“Easy for him to say,” Mes muttered, in a quick evanescent flash of colour meant only for Ar to catch. “He’s used to this kind of thing. We aren’t.”
“Speak for yourself,” Ar replied, as quickly, aware of Dux’ eyes on them. “You’re getting fat, sitting on your thick arms all day playing video games. Now, as for me, I’m enjoying this walk.”
“My mum,” Teu said, replying to the question Ar had asked and already forgotten, “says that scientists shouldn’t bother their brains with what they don’t understand. Since nothing is older than us, except the Kraken Himself, anything that seems to be older is just the work of the devil.”
“And yet she sent you to school to be taught the devil’s lies, along with the rest of us,” Ar murmured. They’d brought up the tail end of the class, and now stood with the others, looking up at Dux on the wall. Rain dripped off the carvings on his mantle and streamed down his body.
“Right, are we all here?” Dux asked, looking around. “Good, so as you know, what you’re about to see now is a small part – and only a small part – of what was a thriving city long, long before our own species even emerged from the sea. This section has been opened for viewing, but the archaeologists are still busy excavating the reminder. Yes, Ar?”
“Could we go and watch the excavations, sir?” Ar asked.
“Sorry, we can’t do that. That section is closed off to the public, and we have permits only for this area.” He looked around. “Remember that everything you’re about to see – every single thing – is ancient. It’s so ancient that it was already ruined and long buried before we made our first huts of dried seaweed on the beaches of the primal oceans. These are people who lived aeons before our own people did. Just because they didn’t look or act like us doesn’t make them any less people or these ruins any less worthy of respect. Am I clear?”
Everyone signalled assent. None of them, Ar thought, looked very enthusiastic. Some, Ny and Cho especially, were faintly green.
“Right,” Dux said briskly, “spread out and take notes. Read the signboards and make sure you understand what’s written there. You’ll be graded on all of this. Ar, you come with me.”
Surprised, Ar made her way to where the teacher waited. Dux slipped down from the wall and beckoned to her with one of his tentacles. “You’re interested in archaeology, are you?”
“Yes sir,” Ar replied, wondering what she’d let herself in for. “I am.”
“I thought so. You’re about the only one in the whole class who’s actually happy to be here.” Dux stomped off on his thick arms. “Come along.”
“You want me to tell you what I know about all this or don’t you?”
“Yes sir,” Ar said, and tried not to wriggle her tentacles with excitement like a newly hatched youngling. “Of course, sir.”
Though she’d seen the photos many times before, Ar was astonished by the sight of the ruins themselves. She’d assumed that the actual ancient remnants would leave her disappointed, but even though they were only the bases of old walls and the pits which were all that was left of subterranean constructions, they were fascinating. Her mantle grew pink and orange with pleasure, which Dux noted with wry amusement.
“They lived in these structures, you know,” he said. “They seemed to have been a species which preferred burrowing into the ground, or building structures above that served the same purpose as burrows.”
“Not like us, then?” Ar signalled confusion with both her tentacles. “They didn’t like being in the open with the rain blowing on their bodies? They didn’t build houses with just a floor and a roof?”
“Hard to believe, is it?” Dux rippled with good humour, white and pink and blue, so unlike his usual dour brown self. “They weren’t like us in any way at all, Ar. You know these were mammals.”
“Mammals?” Ar’s mind went back to the only mammals she’d ever seen, tiny grey burrowing things in the zoo that squeaked and ran from the light. “Mammals built all this?”
“They were a mighty group once, and ruled the earth. Now it’s our turn, but who knows how long we’ll last.”
“Never mind,” Dux said, and pointed with one of his tentacles. “See this wide straight space? We think it was some kind of road or highway.”
“Why would they need a road or highway in a city?”
“Excellent question.” Dux’ carved mantle flashed a brief congratulation in yellow. “From things the archaeologists have discovered, they think these ancient peoples had a much more mechanised civilisation than our own. They probably needed highways to move goods and food from one part of the land to another. And then, they would need to send them further into different parts of the cities as well.”
“But that would mean...” Ar’s mind whirled at the onslaught of ideas. “That would mean they didn’t grow food in small communities, like us, and they needed a much greater amount of goods as well, more than we could think of using...”
“I knew you were the best in the bunch, Ar. When you get home, ask your mother to meet me tomorrow. We must discuss your future career.” Dux caressed a tumbled stone block with a tentacle. Once upon a time it might have borne carvings, but they were long since worn away except for a few ambiguous lines. “Yes, the consensus among the archaeologists is that these ancients had a highly mechanised culture with food and industrial production located in definite areas far away from the cities. You see the problems that this might have caused them?”
“Ah,” Ar tried desperately to think. “Let’s see, the soil, the soil gets worn out – or droughts or storms in the food production areas. Food production fails. Mass starvation?”
Dux nodded approvingly. “Go on.”
“And if the industrial production was on a large scale, they’d need lots and lots of raw materials, um, fuel and resources, so when those ran out...they’d have to stop producing. Sir?”
“You’re doing terrifically so far. Go on.”
“And of course, even what they produced, they’d have to drag over to the cities and pass out among the population. So, they’d need fuel for these machines. If the machines broke down or ran out of fuel, or if the highways were blocked for some reason, then...” She stopped, thunderstruck. “Why, it wouldn’t then matter if they even grew food and made things, as far as the cities were concerned all that wouldn’t exist!”
“Superb, young lady. Absolutely perfect. You’ve just come up with most of the things that we think brought down those ancient people. They ran out of resources and raw materials, the transport system they depended on collapsed, and there was famine and war and...”
Dux flashed dark brown and green. “Yes, we found some items which could only have been the remnants of weapons. I’m afraid our predecessors were not peaceable people.”
“But war...that means they killed each other!” Ar grew dead white with horror at the thought. “How could they?”
“Believe it or not, we’ve had our periods of warfare too,” Dux told her. “But apparently our predecessors failed to outgrow that period. A pity, of course, but then we can’t go and change the way they did things.” He brushed Ar’s mantle with one of his arms. “They weren’t all bad,” he said gently. “Look here.”
Ar looked up at a taller structure than the others, the shattered walls high enough to tower over the rest on all sides. Here and there, she could see the remnants of curved apertures which, Dux told her, admitted air and light. “This was relatively better preserved than some of the rest,” he signalled, his mantle colouring along the carved lines. “We found things that must have belonged to even earlier eras than this city, things they must have protected and kept for no other reason than they were beautiful to them. Only creatures of high culture and civilisation know to do that.” He pointed to a ramp that had been built to allow entrance into the interior of the structure. “The archaeological department has set up replicas of some of the things that were found in here. Coming?”
Ar signalled mute assent in orange and white.
“You must have been bored out of your head,” Mes said. “Made to follow old Dux around all day! That’s what you get for being all enthusiastic about this sort of rot.”
They were making their way home from school. The rain was coming down heavier than ever, but Ar hardly noticed it, just as she hardly noticed what Mes was saying. Her mind was occupied by far too many other things.
“You’re a fine one to talk,” Teu replied, when Ar made no attempt to reply. “You didn’t make a single note all the time. You hardly even looked at the ruins at all.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Mes pointed out. “But as far as that goes, why should I bother? It’s the same as what’s written in the books. And at least you can read the books at home instead of crawling over boring old rocks.”
Ar ignored them both. She was thinking of the things she’d seen, the fragile crystal bowl which was old when her first remote ancestor had pushed a single tentacle out of the sea; she was feeling the thrill across her tympani when Dux had touched a wire on a metal frame and a single shivering note had gone out into the air. She was thinking about the pictures she’d seen, resurrected from pigmented scraps of material by the scientists, and what those long-gone creatures had looked like, with their thick jointed arms and tentacles, two of each. She particularly remembered a female with a juvenile cradled in her tentacles, the juvenile reaching for the mother’s face.
They’re all gone, she thought, and if they hadn’t gone, we wouldn’t have been here.
“Hey, Ar.” Mes flashed bright red in her eyes. “Want to come out with me this evening?”
“Mes,” she replied evenly, “did you ever pause to think that future generations will look back and judge you by how you’re behaving now?”
“What?” Mes blinked at her, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” Ar said. “Forget it.”
“If you don’t want to come out, just say so,” Mes replied. “I mean, it’s not as though I don’t have video games to play, after all.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Note: The names in this story are taken from Architeuthis dux, one of the species of giant squid, and from Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni, the only known species of colossal squid. The image is of a "megasquid" from the speculative future evolution programme The Future Is Wild.