Cave drawings became hieroglyphics became words on paper with no explanation other than “progress,” but progress doesn’t just happen. It needs a push.
It wouldn’t be easy, they said. It only appeared when needed and now, when we need it the most, it hasn’t returned. So we were sent to find it, me and my team aboard this tiny ship. We're starting to slip. Space does that to you. It gives you all this room without a way to breathe it in, so the cabin fever feels worse. It might be the tight spaces and harsh angles. It might also be what we’re looking for.
We miss our families. We tell each other we’re doing this to give them a chance. Our planet is suffering. Our culture is dying. Our leaders refuse to help. In a way, this mission is the ultimate dissent. On the computer screen, a solid green line shows us where we’ve been. A dotted line shows us where we’re going. A red light pulses in the corner, then starts beeping. We’ve got something—a signature consistent with the ones found in Mexico and Cairo. One day until we land.
We stir in our quarters, our brains pulsing like the red light. It is a beacon of hope. We all feel it. No one knows what drew those before us to the stars. Ask them and they’ll tell you, “freedom” or “limitless possibilities,” and in a way, that’s what we’re out here searching for, isn’t it? Some run from freedom. Freedom means mistakes. It means your choices and their consequences are yours, good or bad. Limitless possibilities breed limitless opportunities for failure. But what if we tipped the odds? What if we found something to keep failure at bay, a sword against an unpredictable dragon? What if the thing that’s drawn us to this flickering tapestry isn’t an abstract notion, but a tangible antidote to acquiescence?
The ship jitters along the atmosphere like a stone across a pond, blaring a jarring horn as it lands. The ramp descends and our eyes gorge themselves on a wasteland of red. Stone pyramids grow toward the sky while the mountains beyond languish with peaks seemingly squashed by giant thumbs. Our wrist-comms pulse with the signal and we follow it.
We traverse for hours, the planet’s two small suns cooking overhead, then we see it—tall and glassy, shimmering as though a fire rages within its walls. This structure is as familiar to us as it is foreign. A skyscraper. We are drawn to it like mosquitoes to a bug zapper, and more of the area materializes out of the haze. Smaller structures, some dome-like in shape, others shorter versions of the mother building, present themselves to us in various states of decay. The skyscraper remains intact and unscathed.
As we approach, the building’s front opens to reveal a gaping black doorway. We step inside and the suit’s sensors alert us to stable oxygen levels. We retract our helmets. Circles of light illuminate at our feet leading up to a large platform. We step aboard and a low hum rumbles under us. The platform fires upward and in seconds we are hundreds of stories above the ground. We follow along a narrow path ahead, avoiding the urge to look down, to a wall that peels away like excess skin. A room lies beyond, its floor a black, endless void. There is a glass surface with a creature laying on top several feet away. Two white orbs dodge and weave around the creature, passing beams of light over its body and beeping to one another, monitoring its condition.
“…Come,” he says.
We inch forward, not realizing we’re standing over the being until we’re right next to him. His body is emaciated and his limbs are bent like gnarled tree branches. His eyes are larger than ours and as black as the floor.
“We tracked the signal here,” I tell him. “We’re looking for whatever it was that helped us, that propelled our species forward.”
“It…is almost…gone,” he says.
After each shallow breath, his raspy voice spits out a few more words of an explanation we did not ask for, one we do not deserve.
His people came to Earth millions of years ago to study our planet. They experimented with elements from their own world, how our soil, plants, and animals might interact with theirs. While most tests yielded no significant results, one element did generate a response—a blueish-green stone capable of miraculous things. After our cave-dwelling ancestors were exposed, they invented fire and the wheel. The visitors returned every few hundred years and humanity enjoyed periods of blissful discovery. The Agricultural Revolution, the Renaissance, the Industrial Age, mass expansion and invention—all courtesy of our other-worldly benefactors.
Then they stopped coming. What they hadn’t realized was the material, harvested from their planet’s core, had been keeping their home alive. They had taken too much. Rivers and oceans dried up. Animals disappeared. Plants withered and soon after, so had the planet’s inhabitants. The creature’s push to advance its civilization forward had doomed it to extinction. We tell it about our own crises back home. Our leaders have destroyed our planet for profit. Our artists and musicians are being silenced. Our own species has turned against itself and, as if following our lead, so has Earth. Hundred-year storms make landfall every two years. Animals that once buzzed and frolicked in abundance have been reduced to handfuls, and the only people capable of turning things around have no financial interest in doing so.
A tear tumbles down the creature’s face as it coughs and sputters. Its fingers twitch on the glass and lights blink under their tips. A hole opens in the middle of the floor and glows a brilliant blue-green, almost too bright to look at, and through it emerges a gem like a darkened emerald, sharp and confident in its angles. It hovers as the hole closes beneath it.
This is the last of it, the creature tells us.
We ask what it’s called. It says it belongs to us now. We may call it what we choose.
“We never knew what its name was,” I say. “We’ve always called it...Mysterium.”
The room vibrates around me as I reach for it. It carries within it an energy, a force unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It amplifies my cognitive abilities tenfold and my mind expands beyond the edges of the universe. I wrap my gloved hand around the object and pull it toward me. The room disappears in a flash of white light.
I can see everything.