What's in the box:
An original science fiction by author Jeff Arce that follows a curious girl from another world named Avrio as she visits her favorite museum, housing her favorite extinct species..., the ones that once ruled her world a very long time ago.
This story contains some disturbing theories about life and death. It is readable for ages 13 and up.
Read Time: 2170 words. Takes approximately 35 minutes to read.
The Ones Before
By Jeff Arce
They were her favorite obsession, The Ones Before.
A panoply of crude, decaying trinkets welcomed them upon their arrival at the expansive exhibit hall. The artifacts found on display there were so strange—so alien. But for Avrio, they were the most fascinating things she has ever laid eyes on. Splayed out behind a pulsing electromagnetic barrier wall there were items from that extraordinary world from so very long ago, meticulously arranged. Avrio melted into the crowd, anxious to have her chance to see them up close. The spectral visitors clustered around her at the yawning throat of the centuries-old exhibit. Mesmerized, they scrutinized every spectacular piece with bewildered amusement. The curious items invited their young minds to imagine a primordial world where complex life still needed to butcher lesser organisms for their nourishment. Those bloody rituals allowed them to access the stores of solar energy forged deep within the threading of their inherent proteins. The elders diminished them as barbaric, blood-lusting beasts, but Avrio disagreed. She thought they were neat. Primitive, yes, but still beautiful. They took pride in what little they had, until they had too much. She could not fault them for their ill-gotten propensities. It wasn’t fair. That could happen to anyone with too much. They did not know what might become of them and their greed.
Their tools were so far removed from the faculties provided by modern wisdom it was difficult to accept the raw truth that they were indeed from this world at all. Their ways were so rudimentary. How they crafted such things as ladles, knives, bowls, chalices, and hammers. How they made things from raw hide and bone, wood, and soil, from rock and ore. How they created tools to forge better tools. It was by the evolution in these unique instruments that they would soon achieve a power to grow their race exponentially. But such vain preservation would ultimately lead them to their imminent collapse. Their internecine intrigues enervated their ecosystems. Their avarice drove their people toward an inexorable calamity. Tools gave them life and tools took that life away.
Sentients do not require such futile instruments. They drew their energy from the carbon dioxide and methane that was abundant in the liquid atmosphere. Their cells drank it from the sky, fueling the fragments that made up their form. They manifested power from the torrent winds, which blasted perpetually across the endless plains. They constructed prodigious subterranean hives to avoid conflict with the wicked jet propulsions that hurdled across the convalescing planet. They had no need for towering superstructures, save for the copious windmills they had erected from salvaged material. There was no benefit in war, or monetary trade, or an institutionalized government. They had laws of course. All functional societies had law. But they lived primarily for the betterment of a collective, and for knowledge. They were one living entity. Though, much like their flesh-eating counterparts, some of them liked to stray. Some of them were aberrants like Avrio.
Avrio was a Sentient as were her sisters, but unlike most Sentients, she had a voracious appetite for the forbidden. Sentients built communities on all corners of the globe to advance their race. A Sentient could explore the acid laden oceans, and the vast starry abyss without a vessel to take them there. Beyond the firmament of their carbon rich environment, their cells were made to create fusion by pulling from the sun’s eternal radiance. There was no reach that a Sentient could not explore—no boundaries. They were formless and radiant. However, they did have one hindering flaw—they were too perfect. They were obsequious, and they were ascetic. They obeyed the laws without question and eschewed the ones who tempted fate.
Sentients were said to have been seeded by a mysterious river of austere consciousness. It came to the world through fire. It exploded into existence through a deep fissure that had sliced its way into the planet’s desiccated flesh some many countless ages ago.
“It was an iridescent nursery,” the docent passionately divulged, “burgeoning from a cavernous crater at the center of the earth like a great womb spewing blue fire into the heavens. A hive mind was born there, and she built the first Sentients from the dregs of a ruined civilization.”
But she built them off the bones of tragedy. That grim detail was forever tattooed on Avrio’s conscience. She knew that most scholars could not agree on the matter of The Great Mother’s origin. Most have simply placed it as a kind of nebula with severed roots.
Alas, the hive has since grown dormant. With her silence, there is no way to bridge the missing gap in their origin. Yet still, even without such crucial evidence to refute it, the notion of a divine creator was fervently contested by the elders and scholars alike. This uncertainty puzzled young Avrio.
She incurred the scorn of her peers by asking a simple question on that matter: “why?”
Questions that have no answer tended to frustrate most Sentients…but only when that question poses a threat to the established doctrine.
Sometimes Avrio wondered if hypocrisy might one day prove to be the eternal plague destined to end all thinking things.
Sentients were cold and stoic by nature. Overindulgence was a great sin.
But apathy bored Avrio.
Like all of Avrio’s siblings and fellow students, she was inculcated by the monotonous teachings of her pestering elders. They all taught the same stultifying drivel. Avrio was not impressed by the docent’s loquacious babble. She only cared about The Ones Before. She could not wait to see them again.
Avrio was quite different from her peers. She was an aberrant. Where her siblings were dull and subservient, she was defiant and audacious. She was odd. Avrio preferred dead things over her living companions. The exhausting pursuit for perfection was insipid, tedious, and boring to her. She would rather study the past, where her friends and family only anguished over what lies ahead in the future.
“But the future lies. The only truth is what lies dead in a grave.” That brazen soliloquy once got Avrio expelled from class. She didn’t care. Exile was the closest thing to death a Sentient could ever hope to get.
As an outcast denigrated by the others, she spent most of her time alone, frequenting the geological institutes established throughout the solar system. She dedicated her nights and days trying to decipher why The Ones Before lived as they did. Their scant remains were found abroad, scattered across the universe. It was as if they had exploded like some fertile spore attempting to seed the heavens. They did not get very far. They failed to even pierce the threshold of their own solar system with all their impressive, rudimentary technology.
It is said that their global population may have peaked at an exponential rate of ten billion souls before at last came a definitive purge. How any creature could survive so many hungry mouths was far beyond Avrio’s understanding, as clever as she was. Yet still, she admired them, even at their worst. Maybe it was because they were unliked by the elders. Anything that got on their wrong side seemed right to her.
Avrio loved that about them.
Exiles like me, she often mused.
Researchers studying samples from orbital debris have reconstructed their final decline. They have speculated that approximately fifteen hundred thousand divisive sovereigns abandoned their thrones, leaving an inundated civilization to implode behind them. They stole refuge onboard a clandestine vessel with a callow space colony for a time. But like a cell separated from its host, these unready refugees and their underdeveloped bodies rejected the malign effects of an artificial environment. They ultimately fell to pernicious infections and pestilence. None were immune to the malediction of time it would seem.
It was a poignant demise. In private, Avrio wept for them. Is it so fair this erudite species could be reduced to the moldering scraps excavated from their vast landfills? She couldn’t know for certain. Scholars had only conjecture beyond what could be assimilated from their leavings. Nothing they had ever built in their time was permanent. The earth took it all back, but for plastic—an exceptionally perennial element. Everything else turned to dust.
“Once a lush and verdant world brimming with life, us Sentients have come to know it as a barren, frozen wasteland, wracked by savage scars carved into the mountains from colossal floods and basalts. Still, it is home. Our planet can spare only a meager palette of tenuous biology as she heals from her geological wounds. But we are a tenacious race. We have long since transcended these archaic fauna and flora feeding rituals of our ancestors, providing much needed respite for a depleted ecosystem that can no longer bear fruit…” or so the docent proclaimed.
Avrio was suddenly pulled out of her reverie as the docent urged them forward. She followed along vacantly. Forlorn and dejected, she wished she could know more about this arcane species known only as The Ones Before. Why had they destroyed themselves. They were warned, but their intransigent proclivities could not be assuaged.
Nevertheless, Avrio adored them. She even tried to form her walk in a way to imitate how experts have determined they might have ambulated, drawing derision from her fellow Sentients. According to Avrio, they were the most inspiring creatures to ever have lived on the planet. Now they were all gone. A woeful end for a wonderful story.
As her group sauntered on, they descended upon the final exhibit on the tour. Avrio made sure to swim to the front of the group before they got there. The vast subterranean void was one that she cherished the most. It was special. Here, every tour ended with a grand finale bringing them all deep beneath the surface where The Ones Before had retreated in their final hour.
The light opened brilliantly in the capacious hall, like a great blue butterfly spreading its wings, deepening the contrast of every ragged shape in its way. A pitted rocky sepulcher materialized from out of the darkness. Through the electric veil they found a sprawling mass grave. Fossilized skeletons were clambering at an ancient device that was standing high over them, incased in a dense swelling of stone. Glittering crystalized stalagmites hung from the jagged, rocky ceiling like icicles. Somber, hollowed eyes gazed at it, reaching for it with arachnid fingers swimming through molds of rippling rock. The despondent fossils depicted a gloomy mural of gaunt figures vying to gain passage. Some were tangled together, caught in an eternal wrestling match. Others were folded over their knobbed knees, frozen forever in doleful prayer. Their ashen faces were melded into the dirt. Undulating spinal columns were suffused with igneous clay, left twisted this way and that in a frenzied snake-like dance.
Avrio was enraptured by the haunting sight. Her translucent crown bubbled with an incandescent purplish glow like stirring embers as she marveled at it. She wondered what they were all fighting for. What had brought them here to this daunting place, where the last of their race would recede from the face of existence. After all they had achieved, what inescapable maelstrom left them whirling over the drain of annihilation. At an axis in the protruding relic of stone that arched over them there were two intersecting arms, outstretched like a man poised to enfold a lover into his final embrace. The crude device that they were all crawling after was a towering cross. It marked ground zero, where the former world passed away.
After the exhibit had concluded, Avrio and her classmates were bustled out through the lobby. They were each gifted a souvenir as they went. Avrio’s pellucid body sparkled with buoyant embers upon taking her prize: an artificial replica of a Human skull. She stared intimately at her gift for a time that felt like an eternity. It looked just like the ones that populated the tomb she just saw.
Avrio envied their mortality, The Ones Before. But Avrio was a Sentient, and Sentients could not die—not how they did.
Effulgent shards of light ignited her crown as she cradled the skull in her ethereal grasp. When she found herself alone again, she shrank inside of it. She ensconced her shapeless form deep within the empty chamber of its brain cavity. There, she would study and sleep, wanting to peer through its eyes, and feel with its hands, and sample flavors with its tongue. She wanted to try the taste of humanity—to know only what they had known in their time. To see the world so simply as they had. To romanticize everything that they did not know. To translate the complexities of the universe through poetry and song and art. But most of all, she wanted to feel mortality. She wanted to dance with this alien mistress called Death. There wasn’t anything in the world that Avrio desired more.