This is in response to Podrock’s posts in the thread here: https://habitablezone.com/2021/12/12/yo-pod-re-catastrophism-nostalgia/
I acknowledge that what I write below is blatant catastrophism, and I want to emphasize that I do so only as a plot device, the catastrophe in the story below is highly unlikely, and only loosely based on scientifically grounded speculation. There is some speculation that a gamma ray burst (GRB) was responsible for the Ordovician extinction event 450 million years ago, but this is NOT a widely accepted theory.
The idea that there is a nearby candidate for a fatal GRB that humanity is not aware of is a lazy plot point on my part- its simply not realistic, its just an easy way to kill everyone. It is the Christmas holiday, and I wanted everyone dead, but I didn’t want to think too hard about how to do it.
The following tedious read grows from my claim in the thread that “If humans vanish suddenly all those ceramic items will remain, huge numbers of them will be buried” and Podrock’s response that “If we want to use ceramic clasts in a humanite in a Science Fiction story, we need to trace the entire geologic history of that deposit.”
And so here we go…
In 2021 humanity was looking down the barrel of many guns- Pandemics, Global warming and the war and famine that would accompany it, multiple nations with the capability of waging civilization ending nuclear war, and instead of pulling together as a species to overcome these threats, the nations of the world were instead retreating into the cold steel embrace of fascism.
Human civilization was clearly doomed, a few decades left under the most optimistic of scenarios- a few years left when more pragmatic eyes evaluated the state of the world. While the exact date it all would come crashing down was a matter of conjecture, it was fairly obvious it would be catastrophic. A complete collapse of global civilization would mean the death of billions. It would be the largest death of humans by sheer numbers, and by percentage in our species’ history. Billions would die slowly in the couple of years following the collapse- mostly by starvation and diseases, many more would die from the violence that would accompany the collapse. The survivors would have to scrape for survival in a hellscape, made all the more hellish by the lingering effects of the Carbon Dioxide humanity had poured into the atmosphere.
So perhaps it is a kindness that the bullet that ended Human civilization, and all of humanity, was fired by a gun humanity never saw- a sudden coup de grace from a cosmic sniper rifle that left little time for suffering, or regrets.
270 light years away two neutron stars were completing a dance that had been in progress for hundreds of millions of years, orbiting each other faster and faster, closer and closer- shedding orbital energy in a long train of gravitational waves that rose in pitch over millennia. Each of them was just under the mass that would have caused them to collapse into a black hole… How they had not been detected by Earth’s gravitational wave detectors long before they merged would have been the subject of much debate and many papers- had any scientists remained to ponder the question.
As they radiated their energy in the form of gravitational waves, they spiraled closer and closer to each other, and as they became closer the energy they radiated away as gravity waves with each orbit increased- a feedback loop that would end in- in every sense of the word- disaster. In a sudden wildly chirping scream that shook the fabric of space and time the two neutron stars spiraled into each other at relativistic velocities.
It is impossible to convey in human terms what happened in the milliseconds before the pair merged and vanished from our universe as they became a black hole- the neutron stars first stretched and distorted from the immense tidal forces they exerted on each other as the whirled around each other at relativistic speeds. The neutron stars made from matter with a density of a billion tons per cubic centimeter ripped each other apart as they merged- the dense matter fragments colliding at near the speed of light, initiating a flood of particle creation and annihilation… nucleosynthesis on a massive scale- new elements created in those final instants, fleeing the maelstrom at relativistic speeds along severely twisted paths guided by unimaginable magnetic fields.
All this devastation so close to Earth would have been the most spectacular astronomical event in human history- it might have been a spectacular light show, it might have altered our climate for a few decades, it might have been a survivable calamity, but for a quirk of fate. By chance the axis the neutron stars orbited around when they collided just happened to point at exactly the region of space our solar system would occupy 270 years later.
The magnetic fields of the merging neutron stars tightly focused the matter and energy released by the collision along this axis- in a tight cone ~5degrees wide. Gamma rays and relativistic particles blasted out channeling a quantity of energy that in one short pulse exceeded the entire expected energy output of the sun over its entire 10 billion year lifetime.
The first humans to realize something truly astronomically unusual was happening were all far underground. Neutrino detection experiments, typically located deep in mines under kilometers of rock, all suddenly saw their detected counts surge – their detectors saturating. The neutrino detectors in Canada, US and Europe all saturated in an instant, only to be plunged into darkness as the power went off and emergency generators kicked in to give the researchers light to find their way out of the deep man-made caves. The Kamiokande neutrino detector stayed saturated for a full 10 minutes as scientists scrambled to figure out what was going on… at first assuming it was a malfunction, and finally deciding it was an astronomical event- perhaps a supernova. They placed calls to the US and European space agencies to alert them so they could task their satellites to search for the source. None of the calls went through… A few of the senior scientists began to feel a cold sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach- but they kept their fears to themselves.
Europe, some of Africa, all of South America and North America were all exposed to the initial gamma-ray burst. It lasted ~0.4 seconds. The gamma rays were mostly blocked by the atmosphere- Ionizing the atoms in the upper atmosphere, wiping out the Ozone layer in an instant, a dark brown smog of Nitrogen-Oxygen compounds began to form high above the exposed hemisphere, darkening the skies dramatically, it was a surreal sight. Essentially all orbiting satellites were wiped out in that instant. Radio communications were also nearly impossible as the ionosphere roiled with sudden widespread ionization.
By sheer chance, the location of the merger in the sky as viewed from earth placed it just under 0.2 degrees from the sun- To the eye of people on the ground the visible light from the merger was lost in the glare of the sun- for a moment the sun would have seemed to be much brighter, and misshapen – with an odd bluish hue- but as the upper atmosphere rapidly darkened it would become less noticeable.
The damage to the atmosphere over one hemisphere of the planet was bad enough- the resulting global cooling and acid rain that would follow from that damage would certainly lead to the collapse of civilization, but that was just the opening act.
Almost immediately radiation levels on the surface began to climb- this had nothing to do with the gamma rays. High energy particles traveling at nearly the speed of light lagged behind the gamma-rays by only a little bit. The radiation levels soared as the highest energy particles slammed into the upper atmosphere- creating a cascade of secondary particles- that mostly ended with a flood of high energy muons scouring the surface of the Earth. Exactly one hour and 2 minutes after the Gamma ray pulse, protons with an energy of 1TeV began slamming into the darkened upper atmosphere. By this time the high energy muon flux at the surface was hundreds of thousands per square cm per second- and climbing rapidly. But it was already fatal.
There is no point dwelling on the gory details- suffice it to say that within 2 hours most multicellular life on the surface-or near the surface- of the earth in the unlucky hemisphere was dead.
Several hours after the initiation of the apocalypse, researchers in Italy working on the neutrino experiments deep under Gran Sasso finally made their way to the surface- delayed by the failure of the emergency generators. By the time they emerged, the death star had set below the horizon. They emerged into an unnaturally dark evening… the air reeking of ozone, the air hot and humid when it should have been bitterly cold. Unable to understand the scale of the death they had escaped- only seeing it in isolated scenes as their flashlights found first one corpse, then another, and another until they lost count. Some decided to retreat from the unknown catastrophe and return to the tunnels deep under the mountain to await rescue. They would starve to death within a few months. The rest died 12 hours later when the merger rose above the horizon again, bathing them in a hailstorm of high energy particles.
In the space of about 24 hours Humanity’s population dropped from ~7.9 billion on December 31st 2021 to just under 200,000. After 18 months it had dropped to zero. I won’t waste too much time on most of those billions of deaths, because after a hundred million years passes they simply won’t matter- all of humanity’s aspirations, our glorious works, our noble dreams we espoused poetically, and the nightmares we instead chose to make reality- none of it mattered in the truly long run. Not one single thing accomplished by any of the many billions of humans that had inhabited Earth would matter to the universe for over 110 million years.
That would all change suddenly thanks to a chance find by an invertebrate geologist exploring the desert cliffs near the shores of an inland sea on a scorching hot summer day 110 million years later. Were human calendars still in use it would have been a Wednesday, or- as Betty, the HR officer for the Bland and Associates accounting firm located on the 3rd floor of the lovely office building at 450 Regency Parkway in Omaha Nebraska, would call it – ‘Hump Day’.
Betty would have commemorated the day by pulling out the small framed picture she kept in her desk drawer and hanging it on the wall of her cubicle- a camel wearing sunglasses with a cartoon caption bubble asking the reader if they knew what day it was. It was a rhetorical question, of course, they all knew what day it was- especially Bill.
Every Wednesday morning on his drive in to work Bill would realize he had to face the camel again and roll his eyes and curse inside his cluttered little Honda Civic… he couldn’t explain why he hated that goddamn camel so damn much, but as he passed it countless times every Wednesday on his way to the copier it came to symbolize everything he hated about the job, the people he worked with, and the choices he had made in life that had somehow led to him being 45, morbidly obese, twice divorced and single… in Nebraska.
Working in HR, Betty considered it her job to improve office morale with humor- and she truly felt that her humor made a real difference to the office environment, she was the office comedian in her mind, even if that humor was largely just posters of anthropomorphic animals expressing clichés that she mechanically cycled through according to the calendar.
When the initial pulse of neutrinos from the neutron star merger passed through Betty’s body at 9:11 AM on December 31st she was hanging a picture of a haggard looking cartoon reindeer with a red nose thanking a god (presumably the Christian one) for the fact it was indeed Friday once again. With the holiday season wrapping up Betty planned to put this one at the back of her drawer at the end of the day where it would wait another 11 months until it was ‘topical’ again. In comedy timing is everything, after all.
The neutrinos found Bill still in his car in the underground garage taking his 3rd swig of scotch from the bottle he kept under his seat- steeling himself to face the day ahead. He felt nothing as the neutrinos whipped through him at effectively the speed of light- for the most part there was no effect from their passage. A stray chlorine atom in his scotch captured a neutrino and was transmuted to argon- but Bill didn’t notice. He popped a few breath mints grabbed his jacket and briefcase and walked breathlessly up the three flights of the back interior stairwell hoping to make it to his cubicle before Terry, his smug asshole boss, noticed he was yet again 15 minutes late for work. As he entered the offices through the back stairwell entrance, he was greeted with Betty’s loud sing-song voice carrying over the cubicles ‘HAAAAAPY ALMOST NEW YEAR EVERYONE! Don’t forget your time sheets are due by the end of the day! Maybe THAT could be your new year’s resolution!’.
It was then that Bill made the resolution that he would strangle Betty if he had to see her fucking self-satisfied face today. He had made that vow on countless previous days (usually Wednesdays, when he had to walk by that damned camel), but today he knew he meant it… perhaps it was that 3rd swig of scotch… perhaps it was a bigger swallow than he had meant to take… he was feeling very warm, flushed, nauseous and a little dizzy.
Terry, of course, HAD noticed Bill was once again late- every morning he did a round of the cubicles at 9am exactly to get a head count of the tardy ones. He wasn’t obvious about it of course- he would exchange pleasantries with everyone as he made his rounds, coffee cup in hand- ‘how are the kids’, ‘Did you see the family over Christmas?’, ‘How bout that weather? Really warm for December!’, ‘Any progress on the Anderson account?’, ‘That’s nice-Well, gotta get back to the ol’ grind’… on to the next cubicle to repeat or to take note of the absent ones. Bill’s absence had been noted at 9:01 and Terry had taken up a vantage point so he could note the exact time Bill finally arrived.
Terry saw Bill shuffle in panting and take the long way to his cubicle to avoid passing the front desk… He made a note to have Betty talk with Bill today about his unexcused absences. Betty was good at putting the fear of God into people when she needed to- a few words with Bill about company policy, possible disciplinary actions up to and including termination, the importance of punctuality would probably get Bill to shape up… and if not, well- she was coldly efficient when it came time to drop the axe to clear out the dead wood. In fact she seemed to enjoy the process of ‘letting someone go’, something that puzzled Terry- but didn’t bother him- she did the dirty work allowing him to keep his hands clean. It also meant he was less likely to end up being the focus of some disgruntled employee’s rage if one ever decided to revisit the office with some sort of firearm.
He dashed off an email to Betty explaining the problem with Bill… as an afterthought he suggested that she schedule the sit-down with Bill for 1pm, AFTER the office holiday gift exchange. No need to put a damper on the festivities. Yes, that would be the kindest thing for all involved, and Terry fancied himself to be a warm and kind manager… He was sure that his team appreciated that about him. Not that he had ever asked them.
Terry was looking forward to the gift exchange – It was supposed to have happened the previous week just before Christmas holiday- but Terry rescheduled it so it wouldn’t interfere with completing the financial Audit for JLM Industries by the end of year deadline. So the unopened presents had sat under the 9 year old fake plastic tree they put up every year by the front desk for the past week. Terry had noticed that the largest present had his name on it- the ornately wrapped box measured 2 feet on a side and had him intrigued and a little concerned. The Secret Santa rules for the office were that all gifts had to have a value under $40, and that brown-noser Randy had been dropping not so subtle hints that he had been the one to draw Terry’s name and gotten him a whopper of a surprise gift. Terry sipped his coffee as he pondered the box from afar. If it exceeded the $40 limit in some extravagant way… well, that could be awkward… but its not like it would be the end of the world.
Terry had drawn Cynthia’s name – much to his relief- she was the easiest person to select a gift for. Cynthia was an avid collector of ‘precious moments’ figurines – Terry found them tacky- cheap porcelain figurines of big sad eyed children expressing some saccharine sentiment about love or friendship – often the toddlers would have angel wings and halos for some reason. Terry thought they were quite tasteless, but- more importantly- they were also easy to find on Amazon and one of the countless models could be found at a price almost exactly at the $40 dollar limit. Terry always tried to get gifts with a value as close as possible to the limit without going over- it was one of the things that made him a generous boss in his mind. He had selected figurine model number 182003- Precious Moments Chase Your Dreams Girl in Floral Dress Bisque Porcelain Figurine, he got it on Amazon for $39.39. Bing-Bang-Boom, 5 minutes and a few mouse clicks and he was done. It currently was under the tree with Cynthia’s name on it. Yeah, Cynthia would love that sickening piece of shit.
His gaze shifted to the window and he noticed it seemed rather dark for 9:30 in the morning… and the sky had an odd hue that reminded him of the way the sky had looked the previous summer when smoke blew in from the fires out west. Odd, he thought the fires were over with for the season.
Cynthia, was finishing the final proof-read of the lengthy JLM Industries audit under the watchful gaze of 28 sad-eyed porcelain children neatly arranged on the top shelf on her cubicle wall. She hated every one of them except one- the first one she got from David in accounting 10 yeas ago. In all the time she had worked at Bland and Associates David was the only one that shared her twisted sense of humor. He had gotten her the figurine precisely because he knew how sickening she found such mass-produced glurge, he picked the one he did because the sentiment it had printed on its base could be read as a highly inappropriate sexual double entendre. That first figurine she had kept on display on her desk as a private joke between her and David.
Unfortunately, her co-workers had taken this as a sign she liked the figurines, and so- every year at her birthday and Christmas she would receive at least one more figurine featuring one or more of the sad-eyed children. It was the children with angel wings that bothered her the most- was it the intent of the ‘artist’ to imply these children were dead? Did the artist have any intent at all?
Of course, she HAD to add each one to her display, her sickening little shrine to mass produced crap, so as to not insult the gifter. So, over the past 10 years she had amassed a collection of the sickening little brats, and had to sacrifice much needed shelf space to them. Children can be such a burden. David would find it hilarious that his gift had led to such a farce, but he died of a massive heart attack less than a year after he had given her that first figurine. God, she missed having him in the office- he made it all almost bearable…
At 9:28 the email alert on Bill’s computer chimed- he sat and stared at it dead-eyed almost a minute before opening it- it was from Betty. He knew what it was about – he had been late getting in more and more often- he had been taking more and more sick days when he was too hung-over to work… and Betty had decided that today, just after Christmas, was the day to fire his miserable ass… his temples throbbed, his vision clouded with rage… for a moment he though he might just start screaming.
He opened the email and read it, the words barely registering. His mind had already decided what it said… what the meaning of the words really was.
“Bill, we really need to sit down and talk about your unscheduled absences from work lately- Let’s meet at 1pm to go over things and see if we can figure out the best way to make things right.
Lead HR officer, Bland and Associates
Remember everyone, team status reports are due by noon every Wednesday (HUMP DAY!) If you see the Camel YOU KNOW WHAT DAY IT IS! ”
The camel was the straw that broke the spine of his remaining self-control- Bill took a shuddering breath – preparing to scream, probably something along the lines of ‘FUCK YOU AND FUCK YOUR FUCKING CAMEL!’- but before he could, the fluorescent lights suddenly dimmed, then surged insanely bright and then loudly exploded- the ballasts turning into a shower of sparks that briefly illuminated the darkened office. For a second after the explosions there was silence as the background whoosh of the air-conditioning faded to silence. The murmurs and shouts of surprise and frustration began suddenly and started to rise in volume, only to quiet again as eyes adjusted to the darkness and people noticed the unnatural flickering light coming in through the windows.
Slowly they made their way to the window and gathered to gaze at the alien sky. Above the sparse white clouds the sky was a featureless dirty red-brown, deep red glowing tendrils writhed and flashed within the brown haze, weaving above and below it. The Bland and Associates team gazed in awe at the display. Betty found herself standing by Bill, gripping his arm tightly her eyes wide with terror. She kept plaintively asking, no one in particular, ‘What is going to happen to us?’ over and over as her grip tightened on Bill’s arm. Slowly Bill became aware of her vice-like grip, and looked at her- his sad, sincere eyes meeting her wide terrified eyes. Bill gently pried her hand from his arm and moved his large hands to firmly, but gently, hold her shaking shoulders.
“Betty, I don’t know what will happen, but you need to calm down and listen to me…”
Almost immediately Betty felt herself calming as she listened to his deep sincere voice and looked pleadingly into his calm eyes.
“Betty I know you are scared” Bill continued, “So am I, Betty so am I- all I REALLY know is that its important that you understand something now… Everyone, every single one of us…’ he gestured at the people gathered at the window… ‘we ALL hate you… your posters of stupid animals, your annoying pointless emails- and most of all- this is very important Betty, please listen- MOST of all we hate your fucking ‘hump days’ and we hate your stupid Camel.”
Betty looked at him, blankly, terror briefly overcome by confusion- ‘O…O…OK…’ she replied weakly, feeling a little dizzy.
Bill continued with slow sincerity- ‘Especially the camel, Betty- we all REALLY hate the camel. Do you understand, Betty?’
‘You… you hate my camel? My hump day camel?’
Bill nodded seriously ‘And you, Betty- we all hate you too… and please, don’t use the words ‘hump day’ ever again- can you do that for me Betty?’
Betty just nodded mutely- tears starting to spill from her eyes.
Bill smiled kindly at her- ‘Good, I just thought it was important that you understand that now… finally’ He gave her shoulders a final reassuring squeeze and turned back to the window- the red dancing lights cast an odd glow on his face as he watched them. A peaceful smile grew on his face as Betty looked at him blinking in confusion.
This was turning out to be the best day Bill had had in a VERY long time.
Bill watched the sky for another minute with the others- the smell of ozone burning his nose. Finally, he quietly turned and walked to the darkened back stairwell, grabbing a mug from one of the now empty desks as he passed by. He returned to his car and retrieved the bottle of scotch, filling the mug that had “In my defense, I was left unsupervised” emblazoned on it in a mix of wacky fonts.
Bill had no idea what was happening with the sky, but he was pretty damn sure there would be no firing, no official reprimand today, or any time soon- and that called for a celebration.
The population at 450 Regency Parkway had dropped to zero by 11 am- some had tried to race home to be with family, the rest died in the building. Bland and Associates, which prided itself for it’s dedicated, hardworking staff, made a good showing- 24 corpses were distributed around its offices, 80% of their staff. Bill would have been found in his car in the underground parking garage had anyone been looking. An empty bottle of scotch on the passenger seat and the mug in his lap. A smile still on his face.
As the Earth rotated the line of death advanced westward. Since communications failed as soon as the particle storm passed through, no one knew what was coming until it was upon them. There were some survivors of the initial blaze of particles. Miners in the deepest of mines found their way to the surface only to discover corpses everywhere… and to become corpses themselves the next time the death star came into the skies above them. Those few that took refuge kilometers-deep underground avoided the most immediate death, but succumbed to starvation, or made the mistake of coming to the surface within a few weeks of the event when high-energy particles were still scouring the planet.
All plant and animal life on the surface, and for a few hundred meters down was wiped out- once the global winter ended, mold rapidly became the dominant species on the surface of the earth.
The storms that were triggered by the sudden changes in solar heating were extraordinarily violent. Within 2 years nearly all the windows of 450 Regency Parkway had been blown out from passing tornadoes- The roof on the west side had been torn off, allowing rain to pour into the Bland and Associates offices. The drainage system for the underground parking garage clogged ~2 years after the great dying, and it quickly filled with water and mud from the constant downpours.
With the near complete killing off of all plant life on the surface, global dust storms swirled constantly. After 2 years dust was piled high around the building- blowing in through the broken windows, filling offices on the first floor. With every deluge of rain, tons of fine silty dust was washed into the parking garage, the hundred or so cars parked there were slowly cemented in place as layer upon layer of mud filled the garage.
Water ate away at the building from below and above, and the building rapidly declined in value. The office space that had, just 3 years earlier leased for $30 per square foot per year was now a moldy muddy stinking mess.
On the third floor, under a pile of soggy moldy ceiling tiles, lay the remains of the Bland and Associates’ plastic Christmas tree, and all the secret Santa presents that were never opened. Terry never found out what Randy had gotten him, he would have been relieved to know the gift was under the $40 limit, but Randy had spent at least another $40 on the 10 nested cardboard boxes, tightly sealed with plastic and bubble wrap- it would have taken Terry a frustrating 10 minutes to unwrap the cardboard boxes to find the small handmade wooden box at the center.
The wooden box, once opened, would be found to be packed tightly with Jelly Belly coffee flavored jellybeans. Digging into the jellybeans, Terry would have found a large ceramic mug with a shape slightly reminiscent of the ‘shit emoji’, emblazoned on it in raised letters were the words “Coffee makes me poop”.
Randy had been quite proud of the effort he had put into the gift, and how clever and appropriate it was. It was a running joke at the office that Terry’s bowels ran on a strict schedule like everything else in his life. He would finish his morning coffee at 9:30 every morning, and at 9:45 he would promptly go to the bathroom. Every morning, like clockwork. The gift was off-color, but not SO off-color that it would lead to Randy being called in to a meeting with Betty. It skated on the edge of inappropriate, and demonstrated that he was a risk taker, but also just ‘one of the guys’. Randy put a lot of thought into it, drawing up a list of pros and cons for the gift in an excel spreadsheet- and in the end found no significant risks. He was certain it would only improve his standing with management and his co-workers. Of course, he had no way of knowing that Terry had severe Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and was highly sensitive about it.
Eleven years after the extinction the first of the building’s severe structural failures took place. The 3rd floor under the Bland and Associates front desk collapsed into the second floor, which promptly fell through to the first floor. After 6 more months the structural stress the debris created led to a collapse of the first floor into the parking garage below. At this point the garage was filled with thick slimy mud. The debris – including Terry’s gift- was quickly submerged in the black mud. Even after 11 years the well wrapped gift was in surprisingly good condition. Randy had gotten a buddy that worked in the mail-room of one of the other businesses in the building to shrink wrap the outer two boxes in heavy tear resistant plastic. When the box plunged into the mud under the building, only the outermost ornate wrapping paper had been broken down. The well-wrapped gift came to a rest submerged in the mud about 2 feet above the roof of Bill’s car, with several Bland and Associates filing cabinets in the mud above that. Bill was unable to escape the crushing burden of the office even in death.
Two years later, when most of the rest of the building came down on top of the garage, the stress did break the outer packaging allowing the mud to slowly seep in, but the wooden box at the center was largely undamaged.
After 50 years all that remained of 450 Regency Parkway was a pile of dusty rubble made of concrete and glass fragments in the middle of a barren rocky and lifeless plain. Buried under the rubble, in what used to be the parking garage, were the remains of around 100 cars of various makes and models. The silty mud had dried and become hard around the treasures it held.
Over the next many thousands of years, there was not much excitement at Bland and Associates. The concrete rubble that covered the mud pit slowly broke down. It was a slow process, driven solely by weathering. The sands of the Nebraska desert covered and protected the rubble for hundreds of years at a time until some change to the prevailing winds exposed them to the elements once more.
The parking garage was largely untouched by the ravages of erosion for nearly 30,000 years. 29,827 years after the extinction the Yellowstone super volcano reawakened with a massive eruption. Prevailing winds deposited 11 meters of ash over the remains of Omaha Nebraska. Over the next 50,000 years additional eruptions added another 100 meters of ash on top of the remains of the parking garage. Sealing it deep beneath the surface. compressing it but protecting it from erosion. The layer upon layer of plastic and cardboard that enclosed Terry’s gift was now a squished smudge of carbon in the sandstone deep beneath the surface – the wooden box had long ago decayed into a flakey black substance that laboratory analysis might be able to determine was once a tree- but Nebraska would have to wait 45 million years before anything resembling a tree grew on its flat plains. The coffee flavored Jelly Belly brand jelly beans that Randy had purchased for $9.99 a pound from the Jelly Belly online store had become a glassy black carbonaceous mass filling and surrounding Terry’s gift- an impermeable black barrier that largely isolated the poop-themed mug from the surrounding strata and the ground-water that occasionally percolated through it.
When grasses once again started covering the Nebraska plains 100,000 years after the extinction it surprised no one- but only because there was no one left on Earth to be surprised. How a handful of grass seeds had managed to survive the sterilizing event, the acid rain and cold that followed would never be known- but the grass spread and its presence greatly reduced the dust storms and wind erosion.
220,000 years after the terminal event, an uptick in global volcanism combined with the reduction in atmospheric CO2 by the Earth’s slowly recovering biosphere led to the first major ice age the planet had seen since humanity’s demise. The advancing glaciers eventually covered Nebraska with a sheet of ice that ranged between 1-2 km thick. The glaciers scoured the surface and often ended up following the remains of ancient underlying topography – preferentially moving along long buried riverbeds after the overlying strata had been scoured away. Eastern Omaha, especially along the Missouri river, was scoured clean by the rivers of ice, hundreds of meters of overlaying ash deposits and the original topsoil was removed. The western side of Omaha experienced less extensive erosion, The building’s remains still had 10 meters of ash over it when the glaciers retreated- it had been somewhat protected by being in the lee of the manmade hills that were once the Westroads mall and the I-680/Grand Army of the Republic Hwy interchange.
Unfortunately, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine bar- located less than a mile to the northeast had not fared so well. Fleming’s was pricy, but it was close and had become a favorite spot for office celebrations at Bland and Associates. Bill had been especially fond of their Diablo Shrimp entree- he didn’t dwell on the fact that Omaha was just about as far as one could get from the ocean in North America. The land on which Fleming’s had sat had been scoured down to the bedrock and below. Fleming’s had been remarkably well preserved by the 130 meters of ash that had fallen on top of it, but at the end of the ice age -340,000 years after the extinction- it found itself relocated to what had once been the suburbs of Kansas City. Unrecognizable dust and gravel distributed along a towering glacial moraine were all that remained of Fleming’s fine dishes and cookware, and it’s manager, Barry, who had gone in early to prepare for the New year’s eve party they hosted- while the pandemic had hit the restaurant industry pretty hard, Fleming’s had fared better than most in conservative Nebraska, and with the huge sales of their overpriced wines that accompanied their New Year’s parties, Barry had expected it would be their most profitable night of the year. Now, though, all that remained of the extensive collection of fine wines was a fine glitter in the silt under megatons of gravel in Kansas.
The retreating glaciers left a giant lake over much of what had once been Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. The lake grew and shrank repeatedly over the next 50,000 years- fine silt built up on the lakebed above Omaha, interspersed with layers of evaporites that formed as the shoreline retreated in the drier eons. Beneath it all, the sandstone deposit that had been the parking garage remained largely undisturbed. The 100 or so cars that had been parked there on December 31st 2021 were all still there, but would be unrecognizable to their owners. Crushed and distorted deposits of carbon, and metal oxide. Terry’s new Tesla would be identifiable only as a deposit rich in lithium hydroxide with odd traces of Titanium dioxide. Embedded in the sandstone of the garage were the remains of hundreds of spark plugs- only the ceramic components were unaltered by corrosion and pressure. Here and there other items remained largely unaltered by the passage of time. A synthetic sapphire watch face, diamond engagement rings along with other precious stones worn by the occupants of 450 Regency Parkway were in surprisingly good condition.
Over the eons that followed ice ages came and went, Omaha was covered by lava from the South Dakota volcanic activity and uncovered by erosion several times, glaciers advanced and retreated scouring away the strata over the parking garage, but never quite impinging on the sandstone deposit. The glacier activity in Omaha became less frequent over time as the luminosity of the sun slowly increased my a couple of percent and the North American continent slowly moved towards the equator on its way to become part of the supercontinent human geologists would have called ‘Aurica’. Sea levels fluctuated may times over a hundred million years. After 110 million years Omaha was now on the shores of a vast inland sea and the parking garage’s good fortune was finally coming to an end.
The Geologist had noticed the anomalies in the cliff when she had first looked at the images recorded by the robotic terrestrial probe. A large uniform block of sandstone neatly framed by unnaturally linear white chalky deposits. Within the chalky deposits where was an unnaturally regular pattern of reddish smudges- unmistakably iron oxide inclusions. It had taken many attempts to convince the Council of Natural Sciences that the expense of a land expedition was justified, but after years of resubmitting arguments and proposals she had finally been allowed access to the tools and staff she would need to undertake an excursion on the surface.
The Geologist had a ‘name’, of course, but not one that could be written down here- her name was expressed by a flicking of two tentacles on opposite sides of the body while chromatophores in the skin displayed a complex pattern meant to convey the impression of the frantic dance of a school of sardines trying to escape a predator, a final flourish of tentacles and flashes of color implied that SHE was that predator. It was a good name, a creative name, a name that conveyed hidden strength and ferocity, and- as she stood on the rocky beach observing the exposed cross-section of the parking garage on the cliff face- she was increasingly certain it would soon be a very well-known name among her people. We will just call her ‘The Geologist’, She would not be offended by the nickname. She was pretty easy-going about things like that.
Her ancestors were known to humans as the octopus. But she was further removed from those somewhat clever and solitary creatures than humans were from the tiny 1-2 ounce shrew-like mammals that gave rise to the primate lineage.
Life in the deep oceans had been protected from the particle storm but was not immune from the wild swings in climate and the drastic changes to the ecology of the oceans that followed. The food chain in the ocean was wrecked, and it would be many millennia before it would settle into a new equilibrium. Octopi survived the mass extinction just as they had survived many others over their nearly half billion years on Earth.
The collapse of the food chain drove her ancestors to seek refuge near oceanic hydrothermal vents – nutrients could still be found there. This led to intense competition between the normally solitary creatures- but it also led to some of them co-operating, and this co-operation gave them a competitive edge.
After a few 10’s of millions of years of brutal Darwinian selection a new, more social octopus was swimming in the ocean- hunting in packs and thriving as a result. They were forming what humans might call ‘tribes’. New social structures where individuals would take on roles they were suited for to the betterment of the whole. Communication to allow coordination was developed- a visual language of gestures and complex flashing of patterns of colors on the skin using the chromatophores that had evolved for camouflage to communicate more and more complicated concepts.
Octopi had always shown an inclination for tool use, but now with the beginnings of a culture that talent flourished- tool use could be refined and passed along from generation to generation. Organized warfare returned to earth- wars waged with sharpened coral and shells drove technological progress. With no way to refine metals or to mine useful ores they had to adapt what they could find. First shells and corals, then- as the arms race progressed- the neurotoxins of other creatures were harvested to create more lethal weapons.
Farming of a sorts was developed- tribes would tend and cultivate coral reefs, transporting raw nutrients from hydrothermal vents to allow the reef to support huge populations of crustaceans and fish that the tribe could then harvest. Vast artificial reefs were constructed over millennia to support the growing population. The tribes soon learned the concept of natural selection and realized that they could use it to improve the traits of the animals they farmed- they could be modified to be more useful to the tribes. Just as importantly the tribes realized that the principles of selection applied to themselves as well- they could, over time, improve themselves. Highly controlled selective breeding allowed the species to increase its longevity, its strength, and its intelligence. Over many millions of years the ‘octopi’ developed into a global oceanic civilization, with advanced biotechnology.
They had grown to understand the molecular biology that imparted certain traits to organisms, and had become proficient at manipulating it- no longer constrained to rely on the slow process of selective breeding. They had developed biological computers, developed organisms that could filter out the various elements dissolved in seawater, and those elements could then be processed by other modified organisms to create ever more advanced tools.
They were well aware that the dry surface of the planet contained resources and life forms that could be immensely valuable, but venturing onto the land had not been remotely conceivable until very recently. Unprotected, they would die within minutes if they attempted to venture inland. It was only within the past 10,000 years that they had started developing technologies that allowed them to explore the land – even then none had ventured more than a few kilometres from the shore. The site upon which The Geologist was a challenge even for the most advanced technology her civilization had to offer. The air temperature at the base of the desert cliff a few hundred meters from the shore was a scorching 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The geologist was protected by a reflective articulated exoskeleton. The precisely shaped plates custom grown to fit her form and needs. It was equipped with thousands of artificially grown ‘muscles’ that allowed her to support her weight and move in open air. Her soft body sealed in a membrane that kept water around her to keep her from drying out. A long pulsing organic tube trailed behind her into the surf, where it connected to a large submerged gelatinous mass – only vaguely, and artificially, related to a siphonophore- that was engineered to pump cool oxygenated water into her suit to keep her alive in the hostile environment.
She examined the cliff face with growing excitement, her tentacles dancing in the hot sand- she had been carefully trying to not jump to conclusions, but now that she was here in person it was becoming more difficult. The crisp linear features, the patterns within them- they all seemed so unnatural. Her civilization was aware of the long history of the planet- they knew that life forms had arisen and died off countless times. There had even been speculation that there might have been previous intelligent and even technological species in the distant past- but it was speculation unsupported by evidence- usually frowned upon in academic circles. But everything she saw in the cliff face had the look of intelligent design.
The massive sandstone block was bordered on all 4 sides with linear lighter colored material. She scraped a sample of the flaky white deposit. She pulled the fleshy cylindrical analyzer from her satchel and tapped it with her tentacle, coaxing it to open its orifice. She placed a small sample into the orifice and tapped it to close. The sample was washed with water and enzymes and the cylinder quivered as internal muscles swished the liquid solution over its sensitive chemical receptors. The Geologist watched as chromatophores formed a pattern on the fleshy surface listing the compounds detected and their proportions.
The white chalky material was rich in calcium silicates- the composition was uniform no matter where along the white border she took her sample. Embedded within it at regular intervals were deposits of iron oxide. She had never seen any geological feature remotely like this before in her 90 years of field work.
Examination of the sandstone face revealed intricate deposits of carbon, and metal oxides. One massive iron oxide inclusion near the base of the cliff caught her eye. Bill’s Honda Civic had seen better days, and the ‘LET’S GO BRANDON’ bumper sticker he had been so proud of was long since gone.
Sticking out of the reddish rock that had once been an engine block was a bright white pebble- it was maybe three quarters of an inch in diameter- a hollow tube with intricately scalloped sides. As she carefully chipped out the rock around it she uncovered 2 more. Once she had freed the odd inclusions she examined them carefully- they did not just LOOK identical, they WERE identical in every dimension, down to the micron level. They looked like the shell of some creature, but her analyzer told her they were made of Alumina, a hard ceramic. Her excitement grew- these were not fossils, they were ARTIFACTS! Further excavation revealed the remains of one more of Bill’s sparkplugs, again identical to the other 3. Her crab-like drones that swarmed about her documenting the entire process for posterity.
Further up the cliff face she noticed a black deposit bordered in a thin frame of iron oxide – she took many samples of the material- probably organic in origin, she decided after passing it through her analyzer. She had no idea how many hours of work, how many vacations had been put on hold at Bland and Associates in the last-minute rush to complete the multi volume audit of JLM Industries that had been placed in the filing cabinet to be preseved as a carbon inclusion in the sandstone, nevertheless she knew it was important.
Embedded in the cliff face just below the compressed remains of the file cabinet she spotted an odd concretion. Using her 4 dominant tentacles and her most delicate tools she carefully removed it from the rock wall and examined it. She delicately turned it over in her tentacles. Suddenly to her dismay the concretion crumbled in her grip, she cursed herself for her lack of professionalism, she should have preserved it before attempting to move it! But her recriminations turned to awe as she realized that what had crumbled was simply loose rock that had been crusted around this… this pristine artifact! It had an odd organic shape to it, smooth and polished, and a very deliberate looking pattern of raised markings on its surface. She had no reason to be so sure, but she KNEW deep in her hearts that she was seeing the text of ancient language! What did it say? Was it praising a long-forgotten god? Was it memorializing some great event? Was it some lost fragment of lost scientific wisdom?
It had taken longer than Randy had anticipated, but Terry’s Gift had finally been unwrapped.
Without further delay she sprayed the object with the preserving resin which quickly hardened around it. She personally walked the item back to the transport and packed it away carefully. This discovery would change the way her people viewed the world, and its history. Her name would be forever remembered. She would be allowed to have her choice of partners to fertilize her eggs. She would lecture about this discovery in front of the most distinguished academies in the world. And most importantly, she would NEVER have to beg for grant money ever again!
Eventually, after much study, Terry’s Gift was put on permanent display in the Hall of ancient wonders… reproductions of it, faithful in every detail, were made and sold in great quantity to the fascinated public. The alien shape of it, the inscrutable text captured the imagination, and everyone wanted a copy to hold, to ponder.
The gift was a huge hit after all…