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Tabula Rasa

Another day, another valley, another remote landing site where the only solid ground were sharp peaks that the landing craft could barely cling to. Always something to go see in the virgin world. Tabula Rasa, they'd named it. A blank slate for Humanity and a new home among the stars. After the devastation that was the fall of Earth, they'd come in droves like rats fleeing a sinking ship. And those that had survived had come here, harbored in the Arkship Herodotus in high orbit. This was the only ship from Earth to make it to Teegarden's Star. Others had failed or had different destinations. Each destination system had been theorized to at least have a slight chance of holding a habitable world.

With a steady tone, the Ranger's voice is heard echoing inside her helmet. The solid and confident tones detailing the simple message." Colonel Nueva to Hero. The local area is devoid of any apparent complex or structures that may be the source of the signal anomaly. There's nothing but more of this purple and red fungus stuff everywhere."

"There's something out there, Ranger Two. We both saw the sensor anomaly, it was small, but it's out there. I estimate less than a kilometer to go before you reach your destination." With a sigh of exasperation, she bit back a scathing retort, focusing on the trek to the destination, across the gently rolling hills that seemed to follow no orderly pattern.

The Ranger took her time slowly across the mossy hills of yet another new valley. Condensation sweating on her suit's faceplate caused the water's speckled surface to dance in the sunlight. The dense mosses and lichens of the valley floor muffled her footsteps to nigh inaudibility. Her EVA suit was a vastly improved model compared to ones of centuries past. This particular model allowed full mobility and dexterity along with easy attachment points for tools and equipment.

Her breathing was at a steady and even rate throughout her exertions. Listening to her breathing and footsteps made her fall into an almost trancelike rhythm while crossing the terrain. "Hero, think about it for a moment. But this world will be our new home. We need to clear out some vegetation and find solid ground that isn't sharp mountain peaks. Sow some plant life that produces oxygen. With this much groundcover, the soil is sure to be quite rich. Lots of work for the colonists after we wake them up."

"That is an interesting hypothesis Ranger Two, but don't call me Hero. It's Herodotus. You know I prefer that you use my name."

Small animals were crawling about through the thick ground cover out and away from the pressure of her feet as she walked across the mossy terrain. The animals that scurried or crawled beneath her feet were all manner of insects or invertebrates. Small and nimble enough to weave and wind their way through the impassible interiors of the mosses and fungi; They ranged in form from wormlike to antlike and everything in between. A veritable population explosion of creepy crawlies was taking place under the Ranger's feet.

Tabula Rasa indeed was a blank slate with its sharp craggy peaks and fiery volcanoes. A primordial wilderness that provides the building blocks for a new home. The shallow saline seas were very nearly inimical to life in all its forms.  It wasn't the sea where life had found its foothold on this world. The soft porous rocky surface was long since buried by meters of dense mosses and fungal mats covering nearly every meter of the planet's surface. The world was one of reds and purples shrouded in a low, dense fog.  Nothing stood up from the endless sea of vegetation that wasn't a type of frond or spore stalk. Nothing on the entire planet seemed to be based on chlorophyll, no hint of green, no shocks of oranges or violets amongst the landscape. There were no waving fields of grasses or grains. The closest to green that the Ranger had seen so far were dry yellows where the vegetation clawed its way up the irregular granite peaks, struggling against the exposure to the oxygen-rich air. There are no trees, bushes, grasses, or scrub, just an endless unbroken sea of red and purple matting meters dense and springy.

The planet was living up to its name, for indeed, the slate seemed truly blank on this world. To come so far, survive so much, and find a world without any serious obstacles to overcome. Certainly, fate was smiling upon the humans. But there was indeed life on this world, the small scurrying kind, that crawled through the underbrush and made its own ecosystem out of the thick-knotted plantlife. The Ranger nearly floated through the dense padded terrain with each step.

The Ranger stops walking, reaching the location on her helmet display that emits a faint energy reading, something unknown but not organic. While other such sensor anomalies had been detected, this was the one most likely to be accessible. "Ranger Two to Hero, I have reached solid ground after seven klicks out from the landing site. Taking samples, no sign of the signal source." Her voice was clipped and professional as she updated her artificial companion. The explorer already kneeling down with her scientific instruments, ready to take samples of the ground cover and the solid surface beneath her.  While the spongy mosses and fungi had been strong enough to support her weight while walking, each time she'd stopped before, she'd begun to sink.

"Affirmative Ranger Two, follow all guidelines for sampling. And please use my formal designation for all official correspondence. I am recording this." Hero, as she called him, was her Ship's A.I. shortened from the almost stuffy Herodotus. He could be a bit snippy about formality sometimes.

"It isn't like you use my real name either, Herodotus. You could just once call me Nara, or even Colonel Nueva if you're going to be more polite. We're the only people on this hemisphere of Tabula Rasa." This didn't merit a response from an artificial intelligence. Everyone had their quirks, organic or synthetic, and Hero was no different with his predilections. A fact she found amusing and mildly annoying. It meant that the programmers had gotten it right when they'd made him.

Reflecting on the bits of information gleaned about the planet, Nara considers what she knew about the world. Tabula Rasa, the second planet of the Teegarden's Star system, was deemed a long shot back when it was first discovered. Some scientists back in the twenty-first century believed that there was only a three percent chance that it would retain an atmosphere. It was small too, only about eighty percent the size of the long-lost Earth and about three-fourths of the gravity. Despite it being a long shot, Tabula Rasa had an atmosphere, and it was firmly believed that life in the world was roughly equivalent to a terrestrially based Cambrian era. The dearth of life in the saline seas had struck the survey teams as strange, and they were to be investigated. But Humanity would need to make their home on solid ground, so that particular mystery was a lower priority.

Despite it orbiting an exceptionally small red dwarf, the planet wasn't tidally locked, in part thanks to a moon that was nearly a  sister planet. The moon of Tabula Rasa had been named Manuscript, and it was very roughly half the size of the Tabula Rasa. Well outside of the Roche limit where the gravity of the parent body would tear it apart, Manuscript orbited close to Tabula Rasa, and it had been projected that it would eventually crash into Tabula Rasa sometime in the next ten thousand years. In a geologic sense, that was no time at all, but Humanity had already destroyed one home. They would need to fight hard against the inevitability of a cosmic process over the coming centuries to expand further.

"Ranger Two to Hero, I've reached the survey location that you marked for me. I think This is actually solid ground. I'm not sinking in more than a centimeter or two. I can actually stand still and not worry about losing a foot to this fungus."

"Acknowledged Ranger Two, that sounds like the right spot to set up the survey equipment. First thing's first, let's see what sort of terrain you're working with."

Nara rolled her eyes at the input from her inseparable artificial intelligence-based companion, but she does focus on setting up the survey equipment. She makes sure that the tripod-based equipment won't sink any further into the ground than she does before attaching and activating the sensor cluster and standing back, allowing its beams and waves to wash over the surrounding area.

With the surveying equipment set up and running, Nara begins examining the initial results from the scanner, a carefully shaped brow rising slowly in surprise at the initial results projected onto the inside of her faceplate. She wasn't on solid ground like she'd imagined. There was likely no way that natural geologic processes had been able to create stonework this well-shaped or regular. While it was possible for basalt columns to form like what she saw, even with the relatively close volcanic activity, it struck her as unusual. Her breath caught in her throat then as she considered some structures in the rock that simply couldn't be natural. She needed to investigate this and see for herself first hand.

"Ranger Two to Herodotus, I've found something in need of further and immediate observation. I'll keep you updated." Her breath catching in her throat, then anticipating the discoveries of something new. Anything other than all of this fungus. Nara pulled her entrenching tool from her suit's thigh, and the excited explorer took her time digging along the edges of the basalt column that she was on top of.  Anchoring a line into what was almost certainly stone beneath her feet, it didn't take long for her to secure a stable base for her explorations.

It didn't take long for Nara to dig down several meters. The vegetation was effortlessly cut and torn by the simple entrenching tool. It crumbled away after repeated strikes of the blade of the implement.  In this way, the intrepid Ranger managed to descend several meters along the large hexagonal column.

"The basalt column I'm anchored onto and descending seems unaffected by the vegetation growth. I see no signs of erosion or wear consistent with digestion by a lichen or other organism. It's smooth, and, Wait, I think I see a transparent section. It's wider than the section of lichen I've cut through. Probably an embedded crystal of some sort. Likely a form of quartz....wait, it's clear. It's completely transparent, like a window." Looking through the clear crystal panel revealing little to Nara, her brow furrowing in concentration, and then she reaches up to activate the headlamps of the suit.

Though the beams were dim in daylight, they managed to reveal much about the structure, the explorer's eyes going wide with a sense of fear and wonder. Her eyes went wide, realizing that there were what appeared to be recognizable desks in this room. The designs on them and means of using them wholly alien to her, but with their height and general dimensions, the utility of the crystal embedded structures seem clear. "Herodotus, we're not alone. This world may be inhabited. The basalt column is hollow. I can see low structures inside. Maybe desks or workstations. I think I see a light on inside."

"A reminder Ranger Two, you are expected to directly investigate any sign of habitation or technology with the utmost haste. If necessary, you are authorized to force entry in the absence of visible intelligent life."

A snappish exasperated tone comes to her voice then. She knew what her job and duties were and didn't need constant reminders from her digital companion. "Yes, Hero, I know the mission parameters and profile. Examine anomalous energy readings, investigate signs of habitation, and find potential settlement sites. That's why I'm setting some sonic charges to get through this glass, crystal, whatever it is. And I am getting ready to make an entry. Though, you do realize that we didn't actually expect to find anyone intelligent out here, right? The odds of this happening were astronomical."

"I am aware of that Ranger Two, but I had decades to mull this over while you were asleep aboard the Arkship. You could say that I kept this possibility at the forefront of my mind."

Nara placed three charges on the face of the clear section of the column and set a timer giving roughly thirty seconds to get out of the way. Climbing up the line she was fastened to, she managed to get back on top of the spire with time to spare before the sonic charges detonated with an ear-splitting scream. Followed shortly by the explosive sound of shattering stone.  For the briefest of moments, she stands there wondering if the tower's ceiling, her floor, would collapse beneath her. But it doesn't, the stone shaking only slightly.  With a quick check of her equipment, Nara rappels down the line.  Stopping at the spot where the window had been.

Letting out a low whistle inside her sealed helmet, she places a booted foot on the shattered wall and steps inside, carefully detaching her line. Her helmet lights activate swiftly in the darkness, revealing an interior of dark basalt and shining crystal. The workstations or whatever they were were all about a meter high, placing them at her hip. Most of the stations were dark and shone only when the light fell on them, the arrays of colors appearing to be facets of crystals either installed or growing out of the basalt slabs.

A slight sense of wonder came to her voice then, with just a bit of concern. "Everything is dark in here, Herodotus. But there's one station in the center of the room that is glowing faintly. Make sure you're recording, and get your translation algorithms ready to work. There may be some kind of automated message. It's what I'd do. It's what we did way back in the twentieth century with the Voyager probes."

"Affirmative Ranger Two, I am recording and prepared to translate any hypothetical message."

Nara dearly wanted to snipe back at the snide response she'd gotten from Hero. The disbelief in his voice had been genuine. There was a bit of worry that activating the console might cause some sort of detonation, but the scans from the survey equipment hadn't revealed any hazardous materials.  But when Nara touches the glowing crystal at the console, a pale orange light spreads through the console, and light is projected. A constellation of tiny motes and swirls appear in the air, lines appearing above and beneath in odd configurations. The light shows shifting and changing in front of her eyes, casting the room in rich amber light. Her snarky comeback to her digital companion is forgotten as the lights switch and play over the room. The sequence ends, and single-line floats in the air before the process begins again.

"It's gorgeous Herodotus, but I didn't hear anything. Everything was visual. It looked like it may have been a periodic table and prime numbers and mathematical principles." There was excitement to her voice then, as she recognizes the simplistic depictions of Hydrogen, Helium, and the rest of the elements, a sense of wonder begins to build.

"Yes, that was my inference as well, Ranger Two. In addition to that, there were more complex strings of characters above and to the sides of each atom. I believe that those may have been factual data about the elements. I am currently processing the information and building a translation overlay. I estimate that it will take several minutes to compile Ranger Two."

Sitting there watching the lights shift from one symbol to the next, it did start to make sense to Nara. The way the patterns were constructed, the atomic diagrams projected in light. Even if the writing wasn't yet legible, it did begin to make a certain sort of sense. Determining what the numbers were made sense up to a point. It looked like the aliens had used a form of base eight mathematics instead of base ten like humans. So Nara took her time standing there trying to make sense of the Alien letters and numbers while Herodotus was doing the same things with the efficiency that only an artificial intelligence could manage.

When it happens, it is without any fanfare. An overlay appears on the inside of Nara's faceplate, superimposed on the alien images.  The alien text slowly made sense in one moment, and then the next moment: 47, Silver, 107.8682, melting point 1234.93 degrees Kelvin. There was more data on the element, information about its appearance, a description of it in three states of matter, when it was discovered, and by whom. The data was clearly encyclopedic in nature, all compressed into the strings of text accompanying each image. All of a sudden, what she was seeing was making perfect sense to her.

There still wasn't any sound, which Nara found puzzling, being so used to audio accompaniment to anything with text. "Herodotus, I'm not getting any sound at all. Are you translating any sound into an audible frequency, or is there none included in the recording? And good work, by the way, on translating their units of measure as well. Not I need to know what a 'nard' is, that's for the anthropologists."

"I am not detecting anything resembling an audio signal, either in ultrasonic or infrasonic frequencies. I would not hazard a guess as to why that is. But the two most likely hypotheses are that the aliens did not include sound in this recording or are incapable of producing sounds."

When the final screen comes up again, the floating text simply reads 'press the green button in sixteen seconds' with what is now identifiable as a countdown timer. Without any prompting, Nara reaches out to the console, pushing the slowly pulsating button. The very moment she does, the floating text disappears, and a projection of an Alien appears before her. Before her standing about a meter and a half tall, the projected being resembles a quadrupedal reptilian with four arms, four eyes, and a mouth.

For a long moment, there is nothing, no text, no sound, just time for Nara to take in the form of the ghostly projection before her. And then the creature opens its mouth, revealing rounded teeth and a long tongue. Now, finally, there was sound, a sibilant raspy hissing sound emanating from the projection. The speech managed to come through with a softly droning translation of the address thanks to Herodotus.

"We who are of Cha'ka Rhun greet you, though we are passed away. We welcome you from afar and from across time, reaching from the graves of our own making to welcome you into the remnants of our once glorious home. We wished dearly that you who stand before this recording had arrived before now so that there may have been hope for our people. But your star bright in the world beyond..."

Nara's eyes widen in surprise as she processes the floweriness of the speech. Something about it shook her to her core, and a chill ran down her spine. The beginnings of the unsettled feeling make the explorer want to draw in on herself. There was an unaccountable sense of dread that pervades her, edging into her voice with a slightly apprehensive tremor. "The Alien goes on a bit, don't they Herodotus? But I'm surprised by something. They must have seen our deceleration burn. They've spent the last five years watching us slow down all while their civilization was choked out."

"That would be a logical conclusion, Ranger Two. That they observed our deceleration and began preparing this message. Unfortunately, we have to let this message play. I am unable to remotely access the computer. It is not operating on any form of wireless technology that I can detect. I would suggest that you get comfortable and grab some popcorn." Herodotus, trying to actually put her at ease and with a small joke? That was unlike him. Under another circumstance, it might have scared her, but the moment of compassion helps.

"You're probably right Hero, I'll make myself comfortable and listen to the presentation. I wish we had arrived sooner. Maybe we could have helped them survive whatever happened. It must be the fungal growth, not like there's anything else on this world, right?. And you know I prefer dried fish skins instead of popcorn." Nara had an exasperated tone to her voice as she backed up and took a seat on one of the dark, inactive workstations, making herself as comfortable as possible.

"That is all academic Ranger Two. You have your EVA helmet on. You cannot consume your preferred junk food anyway. Though I have determined that the atmosphere is breathable and the local microbes are incompatible with Human physiology, unsealing your faceplate would negate the translation functions I am performing for you."

With a heavy sigh and weary resignation Nara speaks up with more than a bit of exasperation in her voice. "One of these days, Hero, you're going to stop killing your own jokes. Speaking of killing things, I have to admit that if I hear about how one more Cha'ka Rhun god slew another so that 'the chosen people' could gain knowledge, I'm going to strange this hologram. I'm a surveyor, not an Anthropologist."

"I cannot perform that action, Nara. They do not have their own heuristic algorithms. Nor can I fast forward the presentation at all. I am not able to access any of the software functionality they use."

Pausing at the joke then, Nara sighs, letting out a slow and steady breath that could have been a groan. "I don't have time for this, but it sounds like these Aliens knew we were coming and made preparations for our arrival. They'd hoped we would arrive before they faced their extinction but prepared this presentation just in case? Does that sound like a fair assessment of the situation Herodotus?"

"Yes, that is a fair summation of the facts that have been presented. And It would appear that this console projecting the message is designed to have the memory modules removed. It will take some creative engineering to download data from a crystalline format, but I believe we can perform those functions in a reasonable timeframe."

Nara tilts her head, almost as if to look at someone out of the corner of her eyes, knowing full well what Herodotus could call a reasonable timeframe. Nearly calling the Artificial Intelligence out on that was far less interesting than the speech being given by the Cha'ka Rhun, as it had referred to themself.

"We were the engineers of our own destruction in the end. We were undergoing a population explosion brought about by the situations that I have elucidated upon. And in so doing, we sowed the seeds of our own destruction. Cultivation of food became a primary concern for us, seconded by the space requirement for our agricultural production. We engineered several species of fungus, mosses, and lichens that would provide for our nutritional needs and grow at an incredible rate. Much to our chagrin, our creations spread their spores everywhere within a matter of orbits. We were constrained by our efforts in eliminating the excessive growth due to the inability to safely spread toxins that would not harm our food supply. Our creations grew dense and full, slowly but steadily swallowing up our homes and industry. In an ironic twist of fate, our food production districts were the first regions overrun. With the loss of production and harvesting, we began to starve once more."

Sagging against the console she was sitting on, emotion begins to overcome Nara. At first, there was sadness at realizing that the first Alien race ever discovered had driven themselves into extinction. Then came anger at having a world that Humans could live on with some work, and finally, fear, the icy prickles of the emotion running down her back like ice. "We can't live here, Herodotus. They expended their own world, used up their resources, and then caused a planetary extinction event of their own making. Just like we did on Earth, but they were more efficient about it. If everything really is gone, all of the resources, the soil probably denatured. This world will be a dry, salty rock in the next few years! We drew the short stick, Herodotus. This world was chosen for us because it was close, not because it was a good prospect."  All of the worst fears of this longshot of a world were being realized in a few instants.

There had been the chance, a very good one, that the Herodotus would arrive in the system and find no viable candidate for colonization. And here it was, proved to the Ranger like a sign from a mischievous god. The anger and emotion boiling inside of her, all of the subdued dread and fear built to a head, pressure built up in her chest, and it just had to be free. Her voice rose to a long and loud scream, sustained until her throat was raw and her ears echoed with the pain of her soul. The droning voice of the Cha'ka Rhun was unheeded and unheard by the distraught explorer.

Having realized that Nara needed a sympathetic figure, for once, the ever present A.I. companion decided to act in a manner that actually tried to comfort his companion. Herodotus spoke in steady, comforting tones, a far cry from the efficient and unfeeling dictation he usually gave. "Nara, I do not believe that you have overstated the facts. We will build a new home here. If there is one thing I know about you humans, you always find a way to survive. You are here, after all. Humanity will find a way to live on this planet, you have no choice, so it must happen. The slate is not blank like we had all hoped."

Counting to ten several times to calm down and center herself.  She shakes her head then. "You might be right, Herodotus. We can likely work something out. We managed to kill our own world. This one is relatively intact by our standards. Life, of a kind, still thrives here. While this world may never have the green hills of Earth, we'll make it our home." Nara smiles to herself with those last few words and approaches the console, plucking the indicated crystal out of it and securing it in a pouch. Making sure that the crystal was tucked safely away, she goes back to her rope and makes the climb back up to the structure's roof.

Once back on the surface, she smiles to herself and presses a finger to the side of her helmet, activating the communications back to the ship in orbit. "This is Colonel Nueva, callsign Ranger Two to Arkship Herodotus. We have work to do. The slate isn't blank. We have someone's notes to go off of."

 
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