Stone is how it reads at first– a rock three kilometers in diameter, pitted and worn, spinning end over end through the void. Closer scans reveal metallic signatures, the presence of alloys that don't generally form in nature. Curious, you home in on it, send a mote-probe to chase it, and as your scans work progressively deeper, reveal more and more information about the composition of the rock, you realize that it isn't a rock at all. It's more, so much more.
A handful of flybys with the mote-probe turns up a pair of airlocks and a dozen other entry points, all small and sealed. The technology is primitive, simple, makes it easy to get the probe inside without opening the interior of the rock to hard vacuum. The process is quick– like a tiny insect, the mote-probe burrows through the skin of the asteroid, then creates a cocoon of molten steel around itself that opens everything ahead, seals everything behind. Once inside, you take a sample of the atmosphere, scan for power signatures. Argon-oxygen with a heavy dose of chlorine. Non-human, then. Minimal power, but it's everywhere, runs through a massive network of wires and cables to–
Freezers, you realize. Crew freezers. Stasis units. Thousands of them, each carrying a sleeping soul, a body waiting for dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of years to be awakened.
The mote-probe drifts through dust as you push it into the darkness, scan the interior of the rock. It's a ship, an alien star ark built inside a hollowed out asteroid, and judging from the few markings you're able to pick up, study, it belongs to a species humanity has never encountered before.
First contact situations make things delicate. Careful not to set off any alarms that might be waiting to wake the crew, you locate the closest analog the star ark has to a computer core, spend a few minutes working out a way to interface the mote-probe with it. Your ship's integrated intelligence runs translation programs, finally comes up with an on-the-fly protocol that allows you to access the star ark's databanks, and then you're downloading the sum total of their species's knowledge through the connection, uploading it into the network.
Art, music, poetry– it all goes into the network. A wealth of information pours through your connection with the mote-probe, but you only skim it, give your focus instead to the ship's crew manifest. Ten thousand individuals, all frozen roughly five hundred years ago, all trusting their fate to the cosmos, to the star ark built to carry them, to carry their civilization to a star system still another one hundred and sixty lightyears further away. An entire ecosystem of plant and animal genomes are stored in the database too, you realize, and as you transfer copies of all of that data to the network, you find yourself in awe of these people, their purpose, their dedication to their cause.
When the last of the copied data streams back through the connection, you park the mote-probe in an out-of-the-way corner amidst the dust, leave it on auto. For the next several hundred years, there won't be much to see, much to record, but the probe will make it easy for exoculturalists to track the star ark as it hurtles through the cosmos. When it arrives at its distant destination, there will be more to see, more to record, and a single dust-speck-sized probe floating amidst all of that could prove to be incredibly valuable, you reason.
The rebirth of a civilization. Just thinking about it makes you smile, brings a sense of excitement to your heart.
You watch the rock only for a few minutes more, then turn, let your ship's integrated intelligence pick out your next destination. The phasedrive spins up in the core of your vessel, and you smile again, softly, watch as the stars and void give way suddenly to between-space.
- - -