The Lone and Level Sands
By Marco Panessa
I don’t know how they found us. Beneath this eternal torrent of dust, our dulled marble shells should be hidden forever; and furthermore, it occurs to me to wonder how they even found this planet. But as the shining ship descends from the stars, my brother and sister and I look on in amazement before turning to one another.
Saphida’s voice is a hoarse whisper, her words echoing down my empty corridors and fading away in the false treasure chambers and dead ends full of traps. She says, “Why do they bother us? We have so much to do.”
“They should bow down in our presence!” Kalesh’s voice shakes dust from my ceilings. “Unworthy, lowly creatures–”
“We never reached other stars.” My voice silences his rage at once. “Whoever they are, they achieved far more than we managed to do. Be quiet. Reserve judgment.”
Beneath a sky of sand and a million years of silence, we await our visitors tall and proud. To my left, Saphida rears in defiance of the stars, her gargantuan funeral runes weathered to illegibility in the constant blast of grit. Her tomb faces the wind in death like she did in life, and she breathes sand as she once breathed the hot foundry air. Every so often a windstorm deposits a pebble or two at her golden gates. Enough time has passed that fifty men could not tunnel their way through to her sealed doors.
To my right, Kalesh broods. A column in his neoclassical portico has fallen down, taking a corniced chunk of marble with it. The lost marble weathered into dust a long time ago. His outlying temples and shrines are all worn away now, like mine and our sister’s. Behind the crumbling façades, the wind has whittled us all down to hemispheres with radii equal to the range of our repair nanorobots. Within this range, they’ve expunged every trace of erosion with fanatical precision. Beyond, there is only the sand. I can hardly see my siblings, a few hundred meters away through the grit.
I am the grandest tomb, as I was the grandest sibling. We three, we kings and a queen. We grew up together, reigned together, bled together, triumphed together. We died separately. But we stand together again in eternal repose.
Look upon my countenance! Did the holy armies of Dakess not tremble before me? Was it not my hand that slew the Forgotten King, and ushered in a thousand years of peace and plenty? Deserve I not the trappings of eternal life, if not the truth of it? My tomb erodes. No, no! The tomb is Isturath; Isturath, I, am the tomb… I erode. The tomb is my body.
They pulled out my brain and sealed it in this tomb. Listen to me, they pulled out my brain, and it is your king who speaks to you–after a million years! Of all human beings, my sister and my brother and I are the last ones left on Earth. The rest of them are sand now.
Our nanorobots hurry to put together cameras. As their crude lenses slip out of reinforced hatches into the howling sands, we peer together up through the grit. The spidery lander quivers in midair, its parachutes fighting the wind. Gossamer tendrils undulate from the spacecraft’s flanks: all flashing blues and iridescent greens like dragon scales, or plankton glimpsed in ocean shallows. These feelers snap around in the turbulence of the descent. Somehow they avoid wrapping around the parachute cords, waving outward into our familiar stifling haze.
Retrorockets slow the lander to a walking pace fifty meters above the ground. It hovers a moment and sets down. The tentacles drift in my direction. I cannot shake the feeling that the passengers can already see me. Not merely my tomb; my tomb is brilliant at their distance. No, I cannot shake the feeling that this alien vessel is peering through my thousands of tons of piled rock and my million years of dead contemplation, and can already see the ossified body my brain once took such pride in, entombed forever at the core of my new embodiment. Saphida and Kalesh shiver in sympathy. They, too, must feel this sensation of an all-knowing eye.
A ramp descends from the lander, and to counterbalance this motion, a hatch begins to slide up, up. They shimmy down the ramp, or slide–it’s hard to get a good look through the sand. Their bodies are like upright cones, the tips rounded off and the wide bottoms flaring out to ruffle like skirts. To me they look radially symmetric all around. Three drooping arms are cantilevered out of their bodies near the squashed top of the cone. Evenly spaced, the appendages flex as through wafting aside the sand. In contrast with their black-as-night spacesuits, glittery blue pads cover the ends of their arms. Membranes, I think, sampling the grit through touch.
Three of the beings slide down the ramp and pause on the sand-blasted rock. Are more of them waiting within? All I know is that the synergy of three of them and three of us makes me twinge with discomfort. My sister and brother realize this too. But we can do nothing to hide our gargantuan tombs, our golden gates hewn dull by the wind.
Sometimes, in the night, I amuse myself trying to remember what fear or joy felt like when my corpse still walked the verdant fields of Earth. I expect to feel fear, as the aliens detach canisters from the side of the lander and unpack a suite of peculiar instruments, yet fear does not intrude upon me now. Besides we three, Earth has borne witness to not one living thing larger than microbes in more than a million years, a decade after our everlasting reign ended with my death. It still surprises me that it took even that long for the nanorobots to devour everything.
The aliens unroll a thick material that they lay on the ground between two plinths. Comparing these beings to humanity is an exercise in arrogance and myopia, of course, but the ritual reminds me of how we used to plant flags on new worlds. Flags of countries, at first, then flags of corporations and universities, then finally, flags with my own crimson mark. The monument is jet black, like their spacesuits. Perhaps it bears an explosion of shimmering colors in the infrared range, but my night vision cameras can’t see through the gales of hot sand to tell.
They can’t possibly understand the existential miracle of their mere presence. I slaughtered this Earth, I, Isturath; it was I who made all this sand. Utopia! Paradise! Heaven itself!–but my dream faltered, and now instead of greeting these otherworldly visitors at our palace beside the Nile, all we have to offer is this desolation.
Anger resonates through the radio from Kalesh: were he still blessed with hands and feet, he would stampede toward these interlopers and strike them down without a second thought. Long ago my brother smashed aside those who resisted us, one by one. Kalesh slew thousands. Peace and paradise bloomed wherever he left bloody bootprints, as the corpses fertilized the soil.
Incoherent battle cries burst out of him. His tomb echoes with rage, but only Saphida and I can hear him. “Let me out!” he says. “Give me a body! Give me a gun!”
Cradling intricate devices in their sinuous arms, the aliens prod the ground and collect samples. They won’t find much of interest, although they will wonder why the dust is so uniform and undifferentiated. All the sand is the same, you see. When the nanorobots went out of control and ate away the trees, the fish, the birds, the men and women, this was all they left behind.
Otherwise, there’s just me, and my brother and sister. All alone in the endless torrent of grit. Shall I be forced to suffer until the sun dies, for my sin? I wished to transform the Earth: transfigure it into the guise of God’s kingdom. We overreached, my sister and I, fearful that the rebels who assassinated Kalesh would claim us too. We begged the scientists to hurry with their research, but they said to release the nanorobots early would only be inviting disaster. Saphida listened, but I feared the loss of all we’d achieved, and I made the fatal decision. It was my plague of locusts that ended the Earth.
Two of the aliens work together to assemble a large instrument covered with knobs and esoteric panels, while the third turns away to gaze (or at least I take his attention to be a gaze) toward our three tombs.
At once I dispatch the command to the primitive nanorobots that care for my tomb. They pour between the cracks in my stones, rise into the churning air, and congregate into three vast arrows that bob up and down over our tombs. My brother and sister scream, launching their own swarms of nanorobots to obscure mine, but they only underscore my message. My goal isn’t to point out our hallowed stone bodies–surely they’ve landed right next to us on purpose, and I can’t assume alien beings would understand the symbolism of an arrow–but to show that something inside these mounds of rock is still alive.
The explorers freeze. One drops a tool, but recovers quickly enough to snatch the falling object in midair–his pinpoint accuracy reminds me of a predator’s tongue lashing out at an insect. The one who was looking toward me begins to spin in place. His momentum whips his three arms in a propeller-blade pattern around his body, his conical cap flexing up and down. Soon his companions join in the spectacle. Kalesh still screams with rage, but Saphida’s fury dies down as she marvels at with me.
It is communication, I suspect. Something akin to speaking. I listen for any radio signals, but they’re talking through visual display alone, pure body language. Now I notice the tiny changes in their rates of spin, how subtly they shift their arms up or down by a few degrees, and how these variations relate to the amount their conical tips (to call them heads would be presumptuous on my part) extend or contract.
At last they reach a consensus, and stop spinning. Without delay they reattach their loose tools and experiments to the lander. One by one they shuffle from their landing site, and after a moment’s pause, each advances in the direction of one of our tombs.
Saphida and Kalesh overwhelm our radio link–it’s pandemonium, their nanorobot swarms buzzing through their empty corridors and the treasure chambers packed with gold, their fury at me washing together. But I can’t regret my plea for attention. They come closer, closer with every instant, until one stands before each of our porticos. My brother and sister sigh in relief that eons of debris have buried our doorways, and I seize their moment of inattention. My nanorobots devour the debris like their predecessors devoured the people, and the rocks crumble away in just a couple minutes.
“My brother.” Saphida can barely speak. “Why have you done this to us? You’ve let in these abominations, and for what?”
I say, “When we walked the Earth, it was your weapons that slaughtered our enemies, dear sister. You designed them, Kalesh wielded them. Was there any pretense of mercy or diplomacy from either of you? It was left to me to be generous to the enemies you defeated. Not once did you show you understood what mercy meant.”
“What an accusation! From the man who killed everyone!” she says.
“I tried to uplift the Earth to true glory.” As I speak, the aliens stalk up the steps toward our worn-down thresholds. “Did you or Kalesh stand any chance of peace without me? Kill and kill… it’s no wonder you want to reject them. Who do you two think you are?”
“I am the God-King, Admiral-unto-Orbit, Kalesh the Mighty, Ruler of All Seas and–”
“You’re dead, my brother.” We’re all silent for a minute. Then I say, “What do we do now? Stand proud in all this sand we made?”
“Forever, if need be!” says Kalesh.
“Let them look upon us.” My voice leaves no room for dissent; for all Kalesh’s titles, mine is still greater. I am Isturath. I need nothing but my name to compel obedience.
“This is wrong, brother,” he says. “They should kneel before us. Don’t you realize what they could do? Desecrate our resting places. Remove your brain from its hold!”
I pause. “Yes. I hope so.”
“I won’t go along with your madness,” he says. “I’ll kill the one in mine. What you do with yours is up to you. Sister?”
She hesitates, but not long. “He’s right, Isturath. They’re not worthy of our greatness.”
“We killed everyone!” I say. “We’re worthy of nothing!”
“That’s my decision.” She cuts the radio link, and I am alone with my swarm, and the supplicant who has entered unto my tomb, unto me.
Eons ago, my servants toiled over my elaborate marble exterior, inlaying golden chafing around the blocks of stone, and burnishing the surface until the sun’s reflection could blind a man. The sand abraded away all the filigree, but I tell you, I was glorious! Perhaps the alien who creeps through my threshold senses my ancient splendor, for he pauses to glance around. Half the atrium has caved in. Breezes sweep past the alien to brush sand along the degraded mosaics underfoot. These walls were once covered in funeral hieroglyphs, promising that one day my successors (who never came; my children turned to sand like all the rest) would send conquerors and colonists to the stars.
The alien enters my tomb. In complete silence it considers my majestic atrium, dismisses this pageantry as it deserves, and slides down the long corridor ahead.
I’ve disabled the death traps camouflaged in this hallway, but my siblings’ obstinacy has not abated. Perhaps it is fitting that those warmongers have committed the first act of violence since the last animal turned to sand. I cannot bear to look within their tombs. The alien inside me stalks past friezes depicting the manner in which we three monarchs brought peace to the Earth. The pictures show Kalesh cleaving an old king in half, much as I sense his sawblades bisecting the being who entered his tomb; further down the corridor, hieroglyphs depict Saphida with a vicious gun that she holds proudly to the sky, reminiscent of the weapon which blasts her supplicant into an unrecognizable lump of purpling flesh that twitches as its nerves run cold.
Their sacrilege shall not dissuade me. I close extraneous doors that lead to trivialities like treasure chambers and secret libraries, leaving only the path to my burial chamber. The being passes a dozen locked doors that lead to false sanctums filled with spikes or poison gas.
At long last, the alien reaches the gabled portal to my final resting place. Pushing aside a fallen post, this fantastical visitor lumbers into the burial chamber of the last human being who ever lived. I recall my interment, such as it was; I buried myself, since no one was left to do it for me. Hallucinating from thirst (the air was parching by the minute), I lay down on the alabaster slab in this hidden chamber and closed my eyes for the final sleep. The medical robots sliced out my brain and implanted it within a matrix of caretaking devices: a cyborg flesh/circuit interface nestled deep in the stones which permits this ancient fool to gaze in triumph upon the utopia I was supposed to make. My body? It never moved from where I left it.
Huge and ungainly in the cramped space, the alien sidles against the wall decorated with faded odes extolling how I ruled the Earth, and pauses beside my deathbed. Through the hidden cameras I watch him extend one of his sinuous arms. The membrane tip pauses in midair, inches from my skull. All of my bones lay in gentle repose on the table, facing a ceiling painted how the constellations looked a million years ago. The stars look nothing like this now.
I cannot account for the sensation that I am staring back into the alien’s indistinguishable face. My eye sockets are sunken, empty. And yet our physical forms commune in this moment. Has my salvation come? Shall my bones be borne from this temple as unholy warning? My brain will live forever inside this tomb, the nanorobots shall make certain of that. But can I not yearn to bridge the chasm between life and death which separates me from my visitor?
This hopeless longing wails through my thoughts, as the alien sweeps its arms out and knocks my bones to the floor. The clatter echoes in the dead air. While I can do no more than look on, he touches his membranes to the alabaster death table. He must find it satisfying, for he smashes one of his limbs against it with such force that a chunk cracks off.
The nanorobots rear up to attack, but I halt them. My heart feels ready to drop through the floor, into the depths of hell where I can burn up and be free. Hell is eternal, the old stories said. I chuckle, as the alien bends to pick up the piece of alabaster he’d dislodged. By the time he pins it against his chest and sweeps out of the room, I’ve dissolved into inconsolable laughter.
Kalesh and Saphida probe my thoughts, their concern so tender and polite, but their empathy is nothing to me. I watch, I watch, as the alien emerges from my portico with his shiny trinket, ignoring all the vastness of my tomb. He shows as little remorse for his crewmates as he did for me–he makes no effort to find them. Instead he shuffles up the ramp of his lander.
A blast of fire, and a trail of smoke dispersing within the howling winds, are soon all that remains of his presence. Then even the exhaust trail is gone, and I’m still laughing, laughing. How long will it be, now, until the sun goes out?
About the Author
Marco Panessa is a tutor and an assistant professor at American University in Washington D.C. in the subject of astronomy.