The pumps were working day and night, emitting a low (and not unpleasant) humming sound and the faint stench of rotting flesh. Since the discovery three years ago of the first large deposit, thousands were attracted here by the promise of steady work and maybe even a chance to become wealthy fast. For those of us living here already, the change has been difficult to absorb, but there are benefits too.
I run a small shop that sells basic provisions to the line workers. Even with my family helping, we can barely keep up with the demand—it’s all hands on deck all day long, unpacking shipments, stocking shelves, ringing up sales. Before the rush, we had a sleepy little store that served our needs and those of the community—a few hundred folks in all. Since the surveyors found the vein, we’re a major outpost.
I suppose our operation is merely a microcosm of the way the whole world is unfolding now. Everything is suddenly in high gear, things are moving much faster, money is flowing through the coffers, people are being transported far and wide, and our limited horizons are now open as wide as the sky above. All of this has happened in the space of just a few years—I can only imagine what the next ones will hold…
“Dad, dad,” interrupted my son, Etzlor. “We need more of the little green bottles with the stay-alert brew in them. You know, the ones the guys like in the morning before first shift. We only have five left—and that’s not enough by a long shot.” He was gesticulating wildly with all four arms to make his point.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll contact the distributor now—he’s got a truck heading up here around midday. What else do we need? I noticed that the hoods and goggles rack looks a bit sparse. Sunshield? Exoskel balm? Antennae straightener? And of course all the food basics—are we low on algae? What else?”
This was par for the course on our busy mornings in the store. Later, once the morning rush had passed, Etz’s brother and my second son, Xylfant, would arrive with his casual lateness evident and his cynicism intact. I find him very challenging to deal with, and yet I also find his cavalier attitude refreshing—I guess you might say that I’m even a bit jealous of it, now that the boom has anchored me to this workaday life for the foreseeable future, at least.
“Xyl, can you bring me a box of spray cans with that new skin slickener in it? C’mon buddy, get up off your tailfin and lend a couple of hands around here, okay? And don’t give me that ‘someday I will hitch a ride out of this town’ look—I’ve seen it before, heck I’ve worn it before!” Like I said: a bit envious.
He looked at me with that mildly defiant and disinterested glare I had come to know so well. He was too rebellious to be a true philosopher and too introspective to be a true radical, yet somehow he pulled off the odd combination. No one else really understood him like I did, seeing his shy genius and boisterous gadfly in equal parts come through in almost everything that he did. Still, what he said next startled me.
“Okay dad, whatever. But you know, it’s all just a big hoax anyway, and it’ll all be over soon. I mean, get real—we’re supposed to believe that this smelly slick rusty ooze is somehow the leftover remnants of a whole civilization of billions of four-limbed creatures who lived here millions of years ago? It doesn’t even make any sense—I mean we would’ve found more artifacts of their society, wouldn’t we? So far all we have are the weird sketches from the artists’ imaginations and the vats of Anthroleum being hauled off by the truckload every day. These creatures were here for millions of sols but nothing else remains?”
And on and on he went: it’s a false story, it’s a conspiracy of the Anthrobarons to keep us from the truth while filling their vaults, the priests and their ‘intelligent redesign’ teachings are in on it too, the schools have bought in for obvious reasons of mind control, and the governors can smell power in those rigs. It’s not so much that I disagreed with him, but more so that I couldn’t keep up with the pace of his analysis.
“Hold it!” I finally exclaimed. “Look, I get it, okay. It all seems ridiculous to me, too. I don’t understand how we went from being the most intelligent creatures who ever crawled this earth to draining the dregs of another civilization almost overnight, and how neatly the whole thing fits into our society and values. It’s like someone, somehow, knew about it a long time ago and worked this into the early tales that became our culture and laws and history. Our whole story is of progression from simple creatures to limb-limited ones to our abundant selves. But even so, I can’t understand how any of this is possible.”
Xyl shrugged, as if he was testing me. “Well, I suppose there’s one way it could all make some sense. These creatures, billions of them, lived here in concentrated large towns for eons. When they died off, it must have happened suddenly and in a way that incinerated their structures and buried their remains beneath the rubble. Millions of years of compression, heat, decay, and saturation turned it all into the reddish sludge we’re tapping into now. Throw a clever brand name on it, and you’ve got Anthroleum.”
I nodded. From the back room, Etz piped up. “Yep, could be, but don’t care. It’s here now and so are we, so let’s keep it moving and see where it takes us. Business is good and people are excited. It doesn’t really matter to me where it came from—and there’s no harm in drawing it up for us to use. Now our lamps can burn all night, our carts can run faster and farther, our buildings are warmer, and our food grows better. All from this pocket of rosy juice in the ground. It’s a gift from Hydra, if you ask me…”
And he spoke a truth that many others held as well. This would be the dawn of a new era, and it barely required even light editing of our history books. Whatever we make of the past would be buried in short order, anyway, as the future resounds with growth, motion, multitudes, exploration, expansionism. If it came from some other poor creatures who rose spectacularly and fell with equal impact, what difference does that make? This is our chance to shine, and the rest will be left for others to discern.
NOTE: I started writing speculative short stories like this in earnest around 2015, although some predate that time (this one was from mid-2016); themes of apocalypse and dystopia figure prominently in many of these cautionary tales—but hey, everyone’s gotta have a hobby!