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Frank Stewart stood up with a sigh and brushed the dirt off of his hands. "It's just like all the others, Jim."

Dr. Jim Carmichael set down the artifact he was examining and turned to his partner, "Yes, I know. I didn't expect anything different. I never do anymore."

Frank looked around at the ruins before looking back at Dr. Carmichael. "How many does that make for you now?"

Jim had picked up the object and was examining it once again. He looked up and furrowed his brow, "I think forty-eight....no...forty-nine now. Forty-nine failed civilizations on forty-two different planets. This will be the last dig for me. I'm done. It's time to go home and start figuring out why we're different. Why we survived when nobody else did."

"So what happened here," asked Frank, sweeping his hand around to indicate the ruins surrounding them.

"Same as always. From examining the records we've found there was close to seven billion people here before it collapsed. Like the others, they couldn't escape their own instincts, their own drive to accumulate wealth, power, control, even at the expense of...well...of everything. Even their own planet's ability to sustain them.

"This one, like several others, had a worldwide economy. One species. It seems that an inordinate amount of the resources of this economy were being funneled into specific geographic areas. Something happened, we haven't quite figured it out yet, but it seems they somehow couldn't afford it."

Frank frowned. "Couldn't afford it? I don't understand. If they couldn't afford it, then how did all those resources get funneled to those areas?"

Jim smiled ruefully, "You'll never believe it. They purchased it on promises."

"Promises? I don't understand...." Frank gasped audibly, "You can't mean....Are you saying they used credit?!? Debt?!? They based their worldwide economy on that?!?"

Jim nodded, "It appears that way, strange as it may seem. Apparently they couldn't keep their promises. They defaulted." His hand indicated the broken ruins, "Then resources became scarce, war broke out, like it always does, and they all killed each other."

"This one was slightly different though." Dr. Carmichael reached into his bag and pulled out an artifact. "Unlike the others, and like ourselves, these people had art. They even seem to have had empathy, a drive to understand others. We're pretty sure they're interrelated."

"But according to our experts, that's what makes us different. If they had it too, well, then what happened?"

Jim shook his head, "I wish I could answer that, Frank. Maybe they didn't have enough of it? It's sad really, the worst I've seen. From what I've been able to conclude so far, they were close, so very, very close, to moving beyond their instinctive drives. Probably closer than they realized. Maybe another twenty or thirty years, and they would have reached the next level of understanding."

Frank kicked at an unidentified metal object. "Jim, I think I've had enough. Honestly, this place is giving me the creeps. Let's get out of here."

Jim began putting away his tools, "Yes, I think you're right. Maybe it's because of all the places we've examined, this one was the most recent. Many of the others were hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. This one, well, believe it or not, it may be as short as a dozen years ago when it all went sour."

Frank began walking back to their vehicle with Dr. Carmichael. "So it's true then. As far as we can tell, we're still completely alone in the universe. There's no hope of ever finding more, of finding other people we can learn from."

Jim sighed. "There's always hope, Frank. Remember that."

A noise startled them. They stopped walking and turned towards it.

A group of a half dozen people, dressed in rags and with hands full of scavenged objects, came around the ruins of a building and stopped.

The two groups of people stared at each other in wonder. And hope.

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Ah, thank goodness. I was fearful that the flash form was in disfavor, decline, or as dead as the civilization here depicted. Thankfully Gee Whillikers has breathed life back into it with this lovely piece. One word of advice for Jim and Frank: don't lend them anything in exchange for an I.O.U...


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  • 2 weeks later...

I am really impressed. This short story is exactly what we need at the moment, and Gee dares to reveal the obvious without preaching any specific cultural value judgements. Very sophisticated writing. There is great depth in the wonder behind the words in this flash.

I am reminded of a cartoon strip I saw some years ago, in which two very large aliens are examining the Earth under a magnifying lens, admiring the intricate detail of mankind's work in the seven wonders of the world, when suddenly the Earth blows up. One alien says to the other, "Why do they always do that?"

Thanks Gee, I needed that.

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  • 4 months later...

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