Time for someone to do more, give the world a closer look.
A pair of mote-probes dart free from your ship, dance through orbit and into the upper atmosphere of the icy world. Moving together, each cutting through the heat and wake thrown off by the other, they weave an intricate path to the surface, split when they reach the thin air a handful of meters over the snow. Eager, sensors fully open to the world around them, one heads north while the other heads west, both aiming to circumnavigate the little globe. Mountains and valleys rise up in the sensor feeds, all of them frozen, choked with snow. No life, no–
The information streaming in from the mote-probe heading west lights up suddenly as sensors register a dozen spikes of radiation all at once, all of them unusually high and out of place on a world all stone and ice. Curious, you redirect the other mote-probe, set its course to rendezvous with the first, then you pull back, focus all of your attention on the radiation readings.
A ping from one of the probes brings you back to the visual feed – and then you see it, slide forward into the data streaming in, the digital representation of something in the snow as the eyes of your mote-probe brush across it. Buildings, you realize after a moment. Plasticore and polycrete – signatures in the flux which register as distinctly human, early colonial specifically. Prefabs, simple structures spun up during the first interstellar gold rush, and they're everywhere. The scattered remains of a city. A human city buried under ten feet of radioactive ash and ice.
Uncertain, you check the database again, just to be sure. No records of this world, of a ship full of colonists setting course for it. Nothing. Just that same note.
Not suitable for colonization.
But somebody colonized it. Somebody built a city on this world, tried to eek a living out of the ice and snow. Like swatting flies, you brush the insistent messages of your mote-probes away, pick through the data with a critical eye. Other structures rise in your mind as you sift, mull among shattered towers and weather-beaten bits of infrastructure all crumpled and rusting under the snow. Signs of habitation for at least a hundred years, and then nothing. Only the ruined colonial domes, cracked and open to the sky like so many broken eggs can attest to the suddenness of the disaster that took this world, left nothing but ash and ice for future explorers to find.
One of your mote-probes kicks back an insistent message, catches your attention, draws you forward, away from the ruins and across the wastes to the irregular shifting of something large and dark in the snow. No – not large, man-sized. A man-shape all hunched and stumbling with an irregular, yet distinctly humanoid gait. For a moment, your breath catches in your throat – a colonist? A survivor? But the moment doesn't last. Within seconds, data on the thing returns only mechanical and metallic signatures – no life signs. A robot, you realize. Early colonial, like the ruins, and it's trudging blindly forward through the snow.
Curious, you direct your mote-probe around to face the front of the machine, track it as it staggers single-mindedly through the endless ash and ice. Faux skin hangs loose and rotten from the robot's rusty iron skeleton. Bundles of polymer muscle, discolored and eaten by centuries of sun and frost quiver as they pull, jerk and curl spasmodic fingers, twist facial features into a momentary rictus that shivers between a grimace and a smile. It's horrific, watching this zombie of technology trudge toward some unknown goal, tear itself apart as it wades and struggles and gnashes metallic teeth against the cold. For a moment, you consider reaching out to it, connecting to its mind, sifting through the data there, but its appearance makes you hesitate. When the strength to make the connection comes, it comes tentative, and you probe gingerly around the edges of a digital access point before you close your eyes, take a breath and dive into the data. Almost feeling your way by touch, you try to trace the memories that drive the machine forward, see if there is a record of what happened to the colony, but even as you bypass the security protocols guarding the robot's archaic mind, you cross into a hollowness, find nothing. Instead of memories, instead of instructions and algorithms, there is only an emptiness, a void where something more than the dust and the shards of corrupted coding should be. The machine's mind is locked only on a single command, move, and it is frozen in its need to satisfy that command, is utterly dead to all else in the world.
The machine's steel teeth judder and crack together as you withdraw from its paralyzed mind. Simultaneously repelled and drawn to watch it shift and stumble, you linger for another moment before you redirect your mote-probe back into the sky, finally withdraw yourself to the silent comfort of your ship. Video of the robot lingers on in your mind, and as you upload your findings to the network, make the necessary changes to the planet's entry in the database, you wonder again what might have happened, what kind of people the colonists who built the city might have been, why they might have chosen to stay hidden, what might have ultimately wiped them out, left only a single machine to march endlessly onward, away from the colony. The questions nag at you as you slip back into between-space, never leave you even as you burn on toward your next destination among the endless stars.
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