Revising The Drake Equation

Submitted into Contest #243 in response to: Write a story about a character who wakes up in space.... view prompt


Speculative Science Fiction

We often say life is abundant, but intelligence is scarce. Through a century of search, humanity has found the Drake Equation overly optimistic, its predictions littering the cosmos like discarded dreams. Humans were utterly alone.

The archeologist bound across the surface of Kepler-186f’s barren third moon, her boots leaving transient impressions on the ancient regolith, a palimpsest soon to be overwritten. Gravitational anomalies had pinged the moon’s survey drones weeks ago, yet the high-res images revealed nothing but more lunar desolation. It was enough to warrant a visit, little else was of interest.

Her colleague was waiting. His brilliant blue engineering uniform contrasted against the gray regolith. Shining above them, the green flecked planet had long been marked for further evaluation, a candidate for terraforming. Though the planet could support higher species, they had only found single-cell organisms. For all its fertile surface and vast oceans, life was slow to start.

What could have happened to a civilization to only leave traces on the moon? It strained logic, but, the archeologist reasoned, it was worth a stroll. Ahead were unnatural deformations along a cliff face. They unpacked their equipment with reverent care. Cameras and sensors—the eyes and fingers through which they would intimately explore the unexpected.

With little else of interest, the two descended into a chasm. Boulders were strewn like primitive burial mounds, marking an extensive field covered in loose rubble, like spires around a massive, squat, flat-roofed cathedral.

“Hey…” Cam waited for Elena to face him. “Sorry about my episode on the ship.”

Cam’s wispy beard scratched against his microphone. The sound made Elena shudder. “Just get to work.” For long minutes they worked in silence, letting the scanner sweep back and forth.

Elena shook off the memory of Cam’s advances. She’d worked hard to solidify the intimidating aura that both captivated and unsettled those around her. Men like Cam were ill-equipped to handle such intensity. Beneath the bravado of her accomplishments, Elena mourned the incremental loss of every meaningful human connection. What lies await if I succeed, but am left with no one to share joy? A façade, that intimidating aura was her armor against the world. Deep down, Elena yearned for a sign. One that would lead her to someone to share her accomplishments with. Until then, work would have to come first.

Maybe she had let Cam see her control slip, and that gave him the wrong idea? Seriously, who asks for “frottage”?It was going to be a long, awkward return home.

Ahead, grooves in a wall of stone caught the archeologist’s eye, enigmatic hieroglyphs beckoning from the inscrutable past. Simple carvings snaked along the walls, their lines softened by eons of radiation and micro-impacts, like wrinkles etching the face of the universe itself. The few clear pictograms showed creatures prostrating themselves around the structure. Images repeated, each with a new set of beings, all facing the same enormous cathedral.

The archaeologist was ecstatic. Such a find was impossibly rare. Even one of these drawings would be enough to make her the darling of academic journals for years to come. She stepped closer to the strange carvings. “Cam, scan and document every detail.”

While Elena bounded ahead enthusiastically, Cam lingered behind, movements hesitant, each step into the unknown chipping away at his nerve.

“These pictograms are incredibly detailed,” she said. “Look at the intricacy of these ceremonial robes.”

Cam leaned in. “Huh.”

As the scans finished, they pored over the data. “There, do you see?” The archaeologist pointed. “These creatures appear in different groupings, almost like hierarchies. And here, different species in the same ordered groups.”

Cam’s beard made the same scratching noise.

A selection of carvings had been protected from exposure and harsh temperatures by a small overhang. Despite their excitement, the pair were methodical, recording every scratched rock, each bit of colored stone. From their tests, they established the stone structure had lain unaltered for millennia. From the drawings, they confirmed the enormity of the cathedral. Several images were a top view, with tiny dots moving along the built walls.

The archaeologist traced a finger along a particularly well-preserved image. “And here, can you make out the tiny forms moving around the corner? Perhaps a pilgrimage?” Her breathing quickened at the implications.

Cam shared her awe-struck glance.

Elena tossed a fresh pair of drones into the air. “We are walking the same path as extraterrestrials had.” Elena could hardly contain herself. She urged the technician to follow this unknown pilgrimage further, to follow the dots to their end.

He agreed instantly, Cam would follow her anywhere. “Dr. Bora…Elena.” Cam fumbled, struggling to make eye contact. “I’ve admired you for so long, but could never escape feeling inadequate—”

“What are we doing here?” the archaeologist waved at the images. “An entire alien civilization, commemorated here. After all these years. This find exceeds my wildest dreams. All this and you are talking about your feelings?” She rubbed her finger along the dots. “Save it. You have a job to do.”

Soon they came to a large metal sheet set deep into the cliff face. Midway along the pock-marked metal was a tunnel. Dutifully, the pair stepped to the opening. They did their tests. They were scientists, after all. No hint of electricity, or indeed any form of radiation. It was simply sheets of pure iron, polished to a brilliant reflective surface.

Already, it was a find that would put their names in every journal of every living world. The metal structure magnified the importance of this find. This would create a worlds-wide sensation. Both knew they were duty-bound to report to their superiors. Regardless, they moved inside.

It is undeniable that the two had the highest expertise regarding this artefact. They reasoned they would only be called to its study. Each knew their lives would change this day. Fear of this change nipped at their thoughts. Neither turned to leave.

Their boots added to the dust in this nearly pristine tunnel. In the low gravity, they had to shuffle forward or risk hitting their heads on the low ceiling.

There were no side tunnels. They marvelled at this; the structure was surely large enough to contain a vast complex. They stopped every few meters to scan the surfaces. Their equipment only showed the thick iron on every side of them.

A constant halo of light glowed from their suits in dual sharp-cornered arcs. Glints of colour flashed as the walls reflected the small indicators on their sleeves. Conversation eluded them as they wondered at the tunnel. Their brains told them there should be some noise. Buildings always had noise, subtle echoes, the creaking of metal. However, outside their suits, the atmosphere was so utterly rarified, the sound of their boots .

The archaeologist focused on the familiar shuffling of hair in her helmet. Breathing, and various other tiny human noises, punctuated the pair’s soundless steps. Chirps of their suit sensors were jarring, putting nerves on edge.

The wispy crystalline structure of the iron spread in all directions, branching like an enormous two dimensional tree. The beginning of the tunnel had small marks of oxidation, a slight ochre tinge to the otherwise pure silver surface. Every few paces, the metal was smoother, cleaner, the dust on the ground thinner.

They moved side by side, taking more gentle, shuffling steps. They dimmed their lights as they got close to the glimmering end of the tunnel.

Standing before them was a surface—slightly more pock-marked, but of the same polished iron as the walls.

Unable to resist the temptation to be the first to touch the structure, both reached out.

The metal slid into the wall with the faintest push. They pressed again; it retreated enticingly. Again, they pushed to arm length and then stepped wholly into the newly exposed metal tunnel. After two long paces, the smooth surface stopped.

They shoved, they knocked, they even kicked, but remarkably, nothing else happened. Defeated and confused, they turned away from the moved wall. “Funny, I can feel my heartbeat in my feet,” Elena said.

The technician stopped. “Huh, same.”

Though the tunnel seemed utterly still, the strange rhythmic pulses throbbed through the soles of their boots. The ancient floor possessed its own inexorable cadence, a raw thumping that insinuated itself into their very marrow like the primal drumbeat of creation itself. It shuddered in their calves and made their knees ache. They checked their equipment again. No signals, not even cosmic radiation, moved the indicators. Their equipment could not detect the vibration.

Once clear of the tunnel, they picked up their pace. As they lopped towards their ship, they could see dust unsettled by the tremors. They moved quicker, making larger leaps across the surface. The ground shifted below them.

The regolith pulled from the surface in languid strips, a cosmic flower closing its petals against their intrusion. They dropped their equipment. They could only think of escape.

When the archaeologist fell, Cam's survival instinct kicked in, dousing any semblance of loyalty. Bounding over her crumpled form as indifferently as a boulder in his path. As he fled the horrors awakened by their curiosity, Cam’s cowardice revealed an uglier truth to Elena—his infatuation was only as deep as his conversational skills.

When the technician reached the ship, it fell away. With his arm still outstretched, the ground beneath rolled under him to expose the mighty engines below. He, too, fell into the abyss. Telemetry disappeared. The ship barely registered as a flash when it exploded.

The archeologist rolled over; she was alone, facing the planet.

The lunar quake fell silent, a great deal of material left suspended overhead. Slowly, that floating regolith contorted towards the planet, twisting into an immense focusing dish as alien mechanisms reconfigured with a slight tremor. Mighty engines lifted and moved into position. Several moments passed.

The archeologist rolled to her side and pressed with all her strength. She dropped into a crouch and stood with care; it wouldn’t do to fall again. She chose a direction and quickly bound away from the center of the gently spinning mass.

Enormous fissures drawn from under the surface of the moon blocked her path again and again. The complex metal structure shuddered. Much of the machine uprooted and moved again.

Maybe it was studying the planet? Elena reasoned the first part of its assessment was done—at least she could hope it was done. A moment passed. The archeologist slowed her retreat, looking up, admiring the massive feat of engineering.

The helix shrank, layers of regolith fell away.

Could it be that the bacteria-filled planet wasn’t worth deeper study?

This was her best guess. The device was working on the logic of some unknown, and likely extinct, civilization. Elena was gleeful to see such an impossibly rare display of ancient technology. She checked the helmet camera and took a wide shot of the device.

Sorry Cam, I’ll get all the credit for this discovery, you—It took a moment for her to think of an insultYou bearded arse-hat can—

An unseen boulder interrupted her thought. It struck with a sickening crack of bone and armor. Pain exploded across the archeologist’s senses as she tumbled backwards. Her eyes turned again towards the planet overhead. Filling her view was a giant helical flower of loose rocks.

A high frequency rumble shook the ground, making a dancing cloud of moon dust swirl above her.

The tips of the structure glowed red.

Then yellow.

Then white.

Then blue.

She was gasping for air; she had been struck by something large along her right side. Each gasping breath hurt as if a spear had pierced her from sternum to spine.

Through the haze of pain, the archaeologist watched helplessly as the planet warped above. Dense green-brown clouds swirled into disarray under the piercing azure rays.

A sickening realization sank into her core. This was no mere scanning device. Its power tore deep, shredding the atmosphere molecule by molecule…and worse, she likely wouldn’t survive long enough to publish her find.

Where teeming seas once cradled life, violent plumes now spewed the remains of evaporated oceans into the vacuum. Continents distorted as tectonic fury ripped across thermal fissures.

The archaeologist clutched her helmet, feeling her heart thunder in panic. This was destruction on a scale far beyond nature’s wrath. Entire mountain ranges crumbled under the brutal beam, reduced to floating rubble within moments.

Through watering eyes, she glimpsed the last remnants of that world’s native biosphere, boiled down to basic elements. Scattering the last vestiges of life to deep space as the atmosphere peeled away.

A deep well of grief swallowed her. Millenia of unique evolution, erased in mere hours by an awakened behemoth mankind was ignorant to disturb. All because of her damned curiosity to document this find.

Was this to be humanity’s fate? Should they trigger such machines in their climb to the stars? The archaeologist curled in on herself, mouth agape in a silent scream, as nuclear fires consumed the last traces of the planet, and the glow of its ruin tinged her suit orange.


Elena woke, still gasping, with eyes to a glorious field of stars. She was floating high above the moon. Alarms blared. She was losing air—a tiny puncture had set her spinning. With every rotation, the moon filled more of her vision. Much of the star field was moving with her, glinting pebbles in space like bubbles in the dark.

It was beautiful.

The regolith fell with her. She put her arms out to brace against the impact.


As the shadow of doom enveloped her, Elena's crushed body refused its next breath. In those final moments, facing oblivion, the archaeologist’s curiosity was replaced by sorrow. Her pursuit of discovery had awoken a force that rendered all human endeavors insignificant. She mouthed her last words, “behold curiosity, the destroyer of worlds.”

Hours passed as the machine pulsed.

The planet boiled dry.

The shadow of this newly ruined planet crept across the archaeologist’s crushed form, freezing solid her dust covered body.

Above, only the lingering glow of molten rock remained where once an entire world had lived and breathed.

Now spent, the mighty engine settled. The rumbling heart stilled. The moon hung in space, a broken tomb for the foolish creatures who dared disturb what should never have been awakened.

Another four billion years passed before curiosity, again, bloomed.

March 28, 2024 10:59

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Paul Littler
15:59 Apr 04, 2024

Loved the imagery and pace, plus a dose of humour in the darkness


J. I. MumfoRD
21:11 Apr 04, 2024

Cheers Paul


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
17:56 Mar 28, 2024

Well, you created quite the death machine in this one!😜 Out of this world world building.


J. I. MumfoRD
18:16 Mar 28, 2024

Thanks - I see what you did there. ☺️


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Alexis Araneta
12:36 Mar 28, 2024

I knew you'd write something brilliant this week. Such a gripping tale. The flow sis incredible. Great world building too. Lovely job !


J. I. MumfoRD
13:57 Mar 28, 2024

Aw, thanks! My first story got bogged down, so I switched to this. Wrote quicker on this one.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.