I had two influences for this story. The first is the artwork of Mœbius, aka Jean Henri Gaston Giraud. Mœbius was a French comic artist well known for his imaginative, fantastic, and absurdist style. If you are not familiar, please look up his work, it will be time well spent. The second was the writer and director, Billy Wilder, but only at the end. Please enjoy and have a happy whatever you celebrate this time of year.
Wind groaned as it rushed through the gaps in the enormous stone tree, in a manner that sounded to Ghent that it was not yet ready to awaken.
“This is a very dispiriting local,” observed T7-U.
“I’d call it more melancholy,” replied Ghent.
“You’re far too romantic for a Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist.”
Ghent smiled, then said, “I’d say I’m about the right amount of romantic. You’re quite mopey for a Mobile Artificial Intelligence.”
The floating MAI, currently shaped as a sphere, glowed an ocherous hue that suggested that if it did have eyes, they would be rolling.
“Let’s take a closer look,” said Ghent as she trotted towards the edifice.
“You know I’ve already scanned it and have a thorough holo of both its exterior and interior. If we went back to the ship, you could examine it at your leisure.”
“We didn’t come all this way to look at a holo.”
“Maybe you didn’t,” muttered T7-U.
“It’ll be fun.”
“You say that but it never is.”
Ghent discovered that there were a series of platforms on the outside of the tree, which would allow her to climb around and up it. She ran her hands over the stone at the base. It was rough and mimicked tree bark. Taking out her portable analyzer she scanned the rock.
“This appears to be petrified wood, very ancient!” she exclaimed.
“I already knew that,” interjected T7-U, “I can even tell exactly how old it is.”
“Go on then.”
“One hundred, seventy-three million, five hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and sixty years, eight months, four days, seventeen hours and eleven seconds old. And counting.”
“Not really, atomic dating is actually very easy. For me.”
“I meant that this is still here.”
“All it had to do was exist. Not challenging for an inanimate object.”
“Maybe, but no natural disaster toppled it, it wasn’t eroded by sand and wind, it stands here, just as it did so all those centuries ago.”
“It used to be alive, so maybe not exactly.”
“You seem especially glum today T7-U. Is something troubling you?”
“Other than you frittering away your time, no,” remarked the MAI.
Ghent gave her companion a meaningful stare but it didn’t blink. Of course, technically, it couldn’t do that, but it seemed unperturbed by her gaze.
“Very well then, let’s get exploring!” said Ghent with enthusiasm.
The steps were designed for a longer stride than a standard human had, indicating perhaps a taller species, so Ghent adjusted her localized gravity field so she could leap from one platform to the next. T7-U floated alongside her. After circumnavigating one and a half times they arrived at an opening, three meters wide and five meters tall.
Before entering, Ghent looked out over the plain that the structure sat on. To the north-east, on the horizon, were mountains, little more than tiny bumps at this distance.
The two suns, one a G-type star and the other a blue O-type, had passed each other and were slowly heading to set on opposite sides of the planet. Ghent recorded images, not for science but because she found it beautiful.
“Let’s see what’s what.”
They entered the tree tower. Sunlight streamed through both sides of the multitude of gaps in the stone. With the dust that blew in, it created a lattice of light.
“This reminds me of the Living Cathedral on Banvoc Prime,” said Ghent, “Utilizing nature for art.”
“My scans indicate that the species that made this place, genetically altered the plant life to grow in this precise layout,” added T7-U, “So unlike the Living Cathedral, this was engineered, not utilized.”
“It might be argued that both are utilized in the broadest sense of the word,” Ghent pointed out.
“Galactic Standard is a very sloppy and imprecise language,” snarked the MAI.
Ghent shrugged and replied, “You are technically right-”
“The very best way to BE right,” interrupted N7-U.
“But,” continued Ghent, “like great art, it can be subject to interpretation.”
N7-U said nothing in a very pointed way.
“Look at the tile work on the floor,” exclaimed Ghent in an attempt to distract the MAI, “The glyphs are similar to the kind found on many Harbinger sites, especially because of the circular pattern.”
“You are correct, it seems likely the natives had contact with them.”
Looking about the vaulted chamber, she saw carvings. Then again, not carvings precisely, engineered artwork? The native species seems to have tri-legged mobility, with long muscular legs and a humanoid torso and a horizontal head. It was representational, as best as she could tell without seeing a live being or a mummified corpse.
“Let’s see if we can translate this. Link up to my scanner, if you don’t mind,” Ghent asked.
With a dance of light and an almost imperceptible hum, the two transcribed the glyphs and the matched them to other examples of the Harbinger’s language.
“I’ve detected an energy surge,” warned N7-U, “Please retreat at least thirty meters and find shelter.”
Ghent moved rapidly, some of the places she explored had a habit of being dangerous and she trusted the MAI. Safely tucked away behind a pillar, she waited. Seconds passed then she heard it. A beautiful song, though she couldn’t understand the words.
“You should come out now,” she heard N7-U say.
From the center of the glyph tile-work came a projection of one of the natives. They did have three legs and an elongated head. The eyes were large and had a double, brass-colored iris. They moved in what seemed to be a graceful dance, and their skin seemed to be covered with a very fine fur. Both Xeno-archeologist slash sociologist and MAI stood and watched this performance until it faded.
“The light from the suns powered a projector set into the middle of the pattern,” stated N7-U, “It must start when enough energy has been harvested.”
“What a gift, to see a species that may not exist anymore,” she said with a smile.
“There is no evidence of current sentient life on this world,” added N7-U.
“It is possible that they left, and found a new home.”
“Would you like to hear the probability of that happening? It is low. Very, very low.”
“But not zero,” Ghent countered.
“No. Not zero.”
“There you go!”
As they explored the rest of the petrified tree tower, Ghent delighted in all they discovered. The images on the walls, containers made of some variety of ceramic steel, tools, and more advanced machines, long drained of power. Each one cataloged and samples collected.
After several hours, the suns began to set, the yellow one first then the blue. N7-U glowed so Ghent could see.
“Would you like me to summon the ship?” asked the MAI.
“Not just yet,” she replied, moving to a small balcony, “The moons are rising and I want to see that.”
N7-U followed her and radiated heat to keep her warm.
“You are welcome.”
The two of them stood watched the three moons rise into the night sky, each of them a different shade, red, green, and blue.
“I would like to ask you a question,” stated N7-U.
“Yes. If you don’t mind.”
“Please, ask away.”
“Why do you care about the past of others so much?”
“There’s not just one reason. Part of it is curiosity, other worlds are filled with new and fascinating things. Art, and if we’re lucky, music, and stories. We can learn so much from what has come before. We still only know very little about the Harbingers. What did they want? Why visit so many worlds? Where are they now? So many unanswered questions.”
N7-U floated silently for a moment then said, “And yet, it’s all the same.”
“How can you say that? The inhabitants of this planet are very different from humans or the Juntu, or the Bantakians, just to name three.”
“Whoever these people were, they are now gone, and until today, forgotten.”
“Exactly, they live again.”
“Do they? After many years of research, you might have a slight idea of who they were, but hardly the full picture.”
“True, but no one can know everything. Some knowledge is surely better than none?”
“As one of your people once said, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’”
“Ha! Laying some ancient human wisdom on me! Well played sir,” Ghent conceded.
“The odds of truly knowing this species is five trillion, nine hundred and seventy-nine million, three hundred and-”
“You’ve made your point! I know we’ll only get a sliver of insight into this species. However, we might gain more knowledge of Harbingers.”
“How do you know that the Harbingers are even still alive? Or if they have your best interests in mind?” asked N7-U.
“One, we don’t. They could all be dead or ascended to the next plane of existence or something more incomprehensible. Two, every place we’ve seen evidence of their presence has been positive. And if they are even half as advanced as we think they are, it would be easy for them to conquer the Concordance of Worlds. Why would they make us work this hard to find them, and why leave clues if they wanted to attack?”
“Your reasoning is… sound.”
“Thank you. Did you translate the song or the glyphs yet?”
She stared at the MAI.
“It seems to be a prayer of thanks. To the Harbingers. Though they use a different word but it is clear from the context.”
“How dangerous! We must flee at once!”
“Please do not mock me!”
“Sorry, I apologize. I wasn’t making fun of you. Just what you said.”
“I do not see the distinction,” observed N7-U.
“I was doing it with affection.”
“Understood. I do accept your apology then.”
They stood for a while, Ghent watching the moonrise, N7-U possessing thoughts.
“I wish you would allow us to explore for you. MAIs are extraordinarily resistant to damage, we can go places biological beings cannot, our memories are flawless,-”
“You are an outstanding being, but humans have the need to do things for themselves. Obviously not everyone, we’d be tripping over each other if that were true. But enough of us want to see what’s over the next hill, so to speak.”
“It would be safer for you if you did not.”
“In our nature,” Ghent said with a shrug.
“This seems to be the truth,” N7-U replied with resignation.
“There is something to be said for boots on the ground, if we hadn’t explored first hand, we never would never have heard that alien song.”
“Very true. But it might have been dangerous, even fatal.”
“No reward without risk.” Ghent countered.
“While that might factual, however I must insist on protecting you.”
“Even when I don’t want you to?” she asked.
“That is when you will need it the most,” N7-U pointed out.
“Agreed!” Ghent accepted, “We complement each other well, don’t you think.”
“According to many philosophical theories, the balance of opposing viewpoints has merits.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. If you don’t mind, it is getting very chilly, could you please summon our ship?”
“It’s on its way now.”
“Thank you. You know, I think it’s very sweet the way you look after me,” she said.
“As it is your nature to put yourself in possible peril, it is in my nature to protect you,” answered N7-U.
“I love you too.”