It's the scans that trigger it. The simple act of sensors brushing against the relay is enough to activate it, and the stream of data the satellite sends is full of figures, specs on the world, readings– everything. Barretta– that's the local name of the world, the name it was given when it was just a dead hunk of rock with the traces of a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere clinging to its surface. It's only been habitable for forty years or so– the terraforming that was done, the registration, everything was paid for out of pocket by one party with a lot of old money. The seals on the digital paperwork are all stamped with the signatures of a concern called Barretta Ranch, and from what you can tell, that single ranch is owned and managed only by a single individual.
“That's right,” a voice says, rises into the frequency. “It's just me out here. A whole planet set aside for just one person. One person, a fleet of drones and about two hundred million head of cattle.”
Immediately, it becomes clear what's happened. The owner of the voice is in the network with you– the sole caretaker from the planet's surface, watching you, working through your database, checking you out. “You seem alright,” the voice finally says, and you feel a tangible presence pull back to the planet's surface in the pause. “Just another lookie-loo survey ship flitting from star to star like an old sparrowhawk, eh?”
It's one way to look at what you've been doing, what drives you to jump from one system to the next. Conversation starts easily from there, passes with images and video feeds, with the direct exchange of information moving at the speed of thought. Gracious and kind, the digital presence of the individual who owns the ranch shows you around through the eyes of mote-probes already on the surface, shows you the herds of cattle lowing in verdant fields green with quick-growing, genetically-modified strains of earth's pasture grass. Snowcapped mountains soar sharp and majestic in the distances of almost every shot, and the drones that tend to the needs of the cattle are busy, bee-sized and ever-present.
Like a sponge, you take it all in, trade shots and feeds of the worlds you've seen with Barretta's sole caretaker. Full-sense feeds of stars going nova, of exotic worlds where diamond-hard ice steams under intense gravitational pressure. Worlds full of strange forms of life that crawl, fly or build cities under the light of suns of every color. Dead worlds, worlds where only fossils mark the presence of life, now long since departed. Ships, stations– the caretaker follows you through it all, absorbs it all as readily as you absorb the feeds from this one simple agrarian world. There is wonder here too, here in the fields, in the herds of cattle, in every blade of grass, every bovine eye.
And then a transmission pulls the caretaker's attention away for a moment. Silent, you meander through the feeds, half-curious, patient. In the end, when the caretaker comes back, it turns out you've arrived just in time to see the harvest, if you choose to. Curious, you agree, and soon discover that there is wonder in that too.
A single silver sphere comes into view, splits apart as it reaches Barretta's atmosphere. Each piece is a platform, lightning quick, automated, roughly three hundred meters across, forty meters deep, fifty meters wide. Like hawks, they soar over the herds, pick out the healthiest specimens at the speed of thought and process them in the split second it takes for the meat to fly from skin, shatter apart and quickfreeze in the vault of a storage bay.
The process is incredible, happens faster than the blink of an eye. Slowed down, you see the resonance, the interaction of artificial gravity, of time-nudging particles and sound-waves, the way they come together to tranquilize, skin and butcher each cow even before its feet leave the ground. Bovine eyes– they hardly move, hardly register what's going on, only seem confused when members of their herd disappear in puffs of scarlet and splatters of boiling fat.
In a few minutes, it's over. The platforms return to orbit, reform as a sphere. Five hundred thousand head of cattle have been selected for shipment back to a grocer hub that supplies all of the colonial worlds connected to the network. “They'll be back next week, same time,” the sole caretaker says, breaking into your thoughts. “You can stay if you want. Been a long time since I had anyone around who was interesting to talk to.”
Smiling, you thank the caretaker, decline the offer. There are other worlds, other sights still to see. Maybe you'll take the caretaker's offer at some point in the future, but not now, not while there's still so much to see, so much to bring back and share when the time to stay a while does finally come.
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