We were beyond afraid, we were terrified. Terrified of what lurked within the darkness of the eternal abyss of space. What civilizations laid in the void? Were they friendly? Hostile? This question plagued humanity in the early days of our astro-colonial period as we turned from the fading Earth towards the stars.
The dark forest, as it was colloquially known, began seeping its roots into our collective consciousness. A fear so primal that it lived within us rent free for the decades the preluded our first major colonization of Mars. A fear that within our vast galaxy a more advanced civilization had out competed other intelligent species, squashing them at the first signs of potential competition. Such as inhabiting a neighboring planet or star system. So the Scout System was built.
The Scouts had been created in a brilliant and rare global cooperation. Unlike the answers to other existential threats such as climate change or nuclear war, the Scout System ended up going rather smoothly, considering. By 2107 the first Scout probe was launched from French Guiana towards Alpha Centauri. Another five were soon to follow launching towards the next closest star systems. Each probe powered by the most advanced artificial intelligence suited for its onboard computer, was given a simple mission: search for intelligent life, determine its threat level, report back the Earth the findings, and do what is necessary to ensure that it poses no threat to humans. With those six probes humans could finally breathe again and began their efforts to colonize the rest of the Solar System.
We terraformed Mars, then Venus. It was the colonizing of these two planets that human evolution became apparent again, specifically to Mars. Over the centuries the bodies of Martians, Venutians and Earthlings began to morph. Generational Martians lost all the “wasted” muscles that were no longer needed to navigate the light gravity of the surface and their limbs longer and thinner. Despite their changes in physical appearance and the development of better and better technology the same old habits remained. Wars broke out whipping out billions of humans. Our greed lead to the same issues on our neighboring planets that we had faced on Earth. A tale as old as humankind. Nevertheless the only thing that seemed to be more ingrained than our desire to go to war with one another was our desire to explore and later propagate ourselves on to any piece of habitable land we could step foot on. When Earth, Mars, and Venus had reached capacity and their resources began to dry up we began moving towards the stars. The Scout program nothing more than a distant memory, faded away through five millennia of the cycle of prosperity and destruction. While we carried through those peaks and troughs, the Scouts had been hard at work at making sure the galaxy was suited for us.
Sleeper and general star ships were sent to Alpha Centauri. It’s planets inhabited while we carried with us those unbreakable human habits. Wars broke out, resources were depleted, and peace was achieved. Just like the changes to those generational Martians the Centarians had developed a modified body plans as well, each slightly different to adapt to the three inhabited planets they called home. Again and again. And that ingrained desire to push the boundaries of human civilization still persisted. Again more starships were hurled into space, this time more efficient and faster than their predecessors. This time towards many more star systems within ten light years of Alpha Centauri.
The first signs of any Scout activity was spotted on the surface of Gemini Four, brushed off as a small curiosity in a research paper when primitive tools were discovered in a small cave, although no native creature nor fossils of one had been uncovered. The mysterious tools remained an enigma for centuries to come until the Scouts returned.
While humankind launched itself through the galaxy with rocket nozzles aimed towards any planetary system that seemed viable to Earth life the Scouts carried out their mission. With their significant head start the Scouts had already carried out their mission upon hundreds of inhabited worlds. Crafting weapons carefully tailored to eliminate the dominate intelligent species that resides upon their surfaces. Making sure that no competitors to humans could ever emerge from each world’s unique evolutionary line. As their mission carried on the Scouts themselves improved upon themselves, increasing their intelligence, building better propulsion systems and offensive weapons, and even breaking faster than light travel. Now the galaxy could be pruned in just a million years. Then half a million. And finally just a meager fifty thousand years. All the while humans traveled within the shadow of the Scouts unknown of their influence that lead to the relatively easy expansion of humankind.
The Scouts had lapped the humans, and the humans were not prepared. By this time plenty of fallen civilizations had been discovered on settled planets. From ancient ruins built of mud and stone, to fallen cities overgrown and inhabited by the native flora and fauna. Humans, in our hubris, assumed that this meant that we had “made it” that we had passed the Great Filter and we were certain to thrive until the heath death of the universe. So, when the Scouts returned to the birth place of humanity, humans had been caught off guard.
When the primitive humans had built the scouts they had not accounted for the long term evolution of mankind. Even the humans on Earth had changed enough to throw off the Scout’s analysis. Their onboard computers registering these human-like creatures as nothing more than just another bipedal primate looking creature that they had encountered before. However, seeing the shear advancement that these creatures had made the Scouts were not as upfront as they usually were with their new targets. Instead they worked in the shadows, devising a method to eliminate these strange human-like doppelgängers.
The last human to die to the Scouts had passed away just a thousand years after the reunion. She died like many of her brothers and sisters did: coughing up blood as the grey death ate up her insides. An incurable ailment built by the Scouts in secret and seeded within every planet the neo-humans had inhabited. Built of nano machines designed with the specific purpose and intelligence of being able to out maneuver any method to rid it of the body. The Scouts were never discovered, the culprit of the grey death never determined. After the last human drew her last breath the Scouts continued their mission, this time their ambitions set towards galaxies far far away.
This story was written in response to this /r/WritingPrompt: Hundreds of millions of years in the future, scientists find messages and ruins relating to the collapse of our civilization.
Author’s note: I recently finished reading All Tomorrows, can you tell?