03+: Grains of sand

1.3 x standard size, it orbited the red dwarf on a 432 day cycle. Sat squarely in the ‘Goldilocks zone’, on paper it was perfect which is why they settled on it as ‘Candidate Alpha’. From orbit the planet shimmered in reds, oranges and yellows. Vast cloud banks faced with angry storm fronts of blues and purples rolled across its surface, seemingly without ever dispersing. And the atmosphere? Crystal clear. There was something about it that captivated anyone who spent too long watching from afar.

The scans they poured over told a simple story of a surface mantle of rock, covered in areas of deep dry valleys, ravines, plateaus and assorted formations. If there were once oceans, there was nothing that gave any indication, and vast surface cracks that scans could not quantify, spanned hundreds of kilometres.

At no level though could it be regarded as remarkable, or even interesting. And no one cared, they were not here to be academic. The attraction was not in it being interesting, or not, but in the minerals that seemed to lie within. So they kept scanning, data mining, and making plans to planetfall to get on with the business of business.

N322 could be a gold mine.

Gerard Thomas Illustration. mag-100. Grains of Sand

In the first six months of crews readying to drop and hit rock, the orbital teams continued to analyse from afar. Experience said planetfalling before they were ready was a mistake and mistakes were expensive – the board did not like losing money. When they finally soil side, the reports that flowed back were unsurprisingly, unsurprising – rock, sand, outcrops, dry valleys. In short, everything as expected.

And so the work began.

At first they seemed random, anomalies, background noise lost to the throb of the mechanics of business. A mishap here, a crew vanishing there. Not enough to warrant investigation but more than enough for rumours to thrive. More than that, the minerals and ores that were supposed to be rich and abundant, were elusive at best. Simply put, what the crews were, or more to the point, were not finding, did not match the data the survey teams had been painstakingly amassing over the past year.

The planet had been here long before humanity’s home was anything more than rock and dust, spinning itself into existence. Yet now humanity blew across its surface, light, random, without focus or understanding. Grains of sand pouring into its fissures and cracks, searching for the things they thought important above all else.

It had seen it all before. Empires had risen and fallen across its surface over the millennia, their greatness fuelled by the riches held within its rock. Their inhabitants extinguished by greed, once released. Any traces of their importance or even their existence erased by wind and rain and time. But living in the shadows of the ravines and caverns, where it was cool, dark, and the oceans flowed, there remained one.

A shadow of its former self, yet still greater, older, and more complex than anything humans could imagine. It had learnt to synchronise, not plunder, be guardians, not raiders, and in doing so the wealth on offer became bottomless. So from the shadows they watched as humanity began working itself into a frenzy, over what it did, and did not find. They had survived all before them, so these small, petty beings and their toys posed no threat.

Or so they thought.

copyright 2020 Gerard Thomas

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