Rocks, ice– the whole system is a field of world debris, of chunks that read as mostly basalt and dirty ice. It's a dark and dangerous place with little that reads as being of value, but as you clear the cloud, the integrated intelligence hands the controls back to you, starts scanning, starts spitting back data that looks more promising.
Metallic signatures, shades, shapes of steel and vitreous alloys register among the shadows, the shards of stone that almost killed you when you entered the system. Still riding the adrenaline wake, you push yourself back into the data, work through it. Not ships– the signatures are something else, more stationary. They move with the rocks.
A mote-probe is the only thing you feel safe enough to risk in the cloud of debris. Your ship's integrated intelligence starts to catalog the chunks, starts to construct an origin theory. More focused on the metallic signatures, you move past the natural elements, dive fully into the feed coming in from the probe. The size of a grain of dust, the probe is small enough, quick enough to dart between pieces of debris, makes the journey to the closest of the metallic readings uneventful, easy.
As you get close, the first thing you see is a glint of light, a shining edge of something as rays from the system's sun catch it. Steel– a ring of steel and something more. Jagged edges of something glassy, geometric shapes inside the ring–
The rock that the ring is mounted on passes behind another piece of debris, leaves you rushing to get closer, to catch up. By the time you get the ring back in sight, the size of it becomes apparent. It's huge– a hundred kilometers across, the whole ground inside full of shapes, hollow shapes.
The leavings of a colony, you realize. An entire city pounded to dust.
Other signatures pop up in the field– there are more of them, hundreds more, and they all read the same. Huge, cracked-open and smashed by repeated impacts. Enough domed cities to hold several hundred million people, and they're all dead, all open to the void, now little more than glittering dust.
Hoping against hope, you push the mote-probe to the closest of the cities, sweep it for anything of interest, find nothing but basalt, rock-powder and ice. The steel ring is a wall, beaten and scuffed, and the city itself is all crystalline, now stands as nothing but shards. There are no bodies, no bones or wrecked starships– nothing to recover.
Hours pass. Desperate, you scour the field, find nothing but broken domes. They're ancient, all millions of years old according to the estimates put forth by your ship's integrated intelligence, and all likely abandoned long before the field broke them open. That's why there's nothing left but the ruins, the machine mind posits. The ruins were the only things the locals couldn't take with them when they left.
The theory makes sense, brings some hope back. Maybe they're out there somewhere still– the dome-builders. Maybe they're so advanced that they're watching you the way you watch primitive civilizations that think they're impressive just because they've learned how to split the atom or put a crew of their kind on the closest ball of dirt and ice. Maybe they're observing this universe, waiting for the moment when humans and their allies transcend reality, rise into whatever larger world waits beyond the tangible. Maybe.
And maybe they're gone. Maybe there is nothing more. Maybe the powdered ruins and shattered domes are all that's left of an ancient star-faring species that was plying the heavens in a time when humanity's ancestors were still trying to master bipedal locomotion.
You may never know for certain. That may be one of many mysteries you'll have to leave to those who come after, those generations that will follow your own.
- - -