Snowy peaks, wide-stretching poles, a narrow band of green and brown near the equator. Even before you start your scans, a simple orbital satellite flickers to life on the main colonial frequency, pings you with data about the world.
The first thing that strikes you is the age of the satellite. It's pre-network, several centuries old, probably even from the first Terran landgrab that rushed out of Earth when interstellar flight was new and slow. The last update to the information it carries was probably applied way back when it was chucked into orbit.
Lattimer Camp– that's the local name for the world. One hundred and twenty-seven colonists, two ships, seventeen hab-modules. Atmospheric stats coming in from the sat peg the world as mostly earthlike, a few differences in trace gases, a little colder than earth-norm, but comfortable near the equator. Using the sat, you try to contact the local tower authority, get nothing but dead air, a lingering connecting. . . from the interface.
You wait only a few minutes for a response that never comes. The mote-probe you dispatch sails past the sat and drops in through the atmosphere of Lattimer Camp, homes in on the colony's transponder signal. Light winds buffet the probe, toss it around a little– and then you see the valley where the hab-modules are assembled, unlit and silent but for the steady ping of the transponder.
Gray-silver and rectangular, the modules stick together like shipping crates, shine dull in the pale white light of the sun. No movement, no sign of roads or paths. The alien grass around the modules is almost half a meter in height, crowds in against the doors, hides the wheels of rusty tractors and haulers. Curious, you settle the mote-probe on the roof of the comm module– the headquarters of the colony. The roof is simple steel, two centimeters thick, yields easily as your bore into it, seal it again behind the dust-speck-sized sensor probe.
Darkness. The mote-probe adjusts the colors in the data stream automatically, flickers through modes until you can see the interior of the module as if it were lit with bright white light. Dark terminals, a table with a hand of cards still in progress. No sign of any colonists.
The whole colony turns out to be like that. When you use the mote-probe to kickstart the computer core, you find logs, early logs, the journals of smiling farmers talking about crops, about how happy they are to be in the dirt again, the potential for the land just over the next ridge, kids on the way, that kind of thing. One by one, you download the files, send them on to the network, hesitate only when they end suddenly. The last log is unusual, has no visual. It's just static with a voice over, thirty-seven seconds in length. A woman's voice, laughter, and then the words: “Wake up. Wake up, it's all a dream. I've just got to wake up. But I can't wake up. I can't. It's all a dream and I can't wake up.”
That's it. That's all that's left of the colonists. The log itself is almost two hundred years old, and there's no indication of why it was made, what happened after. You stick around for another hour or two, just scanning the area, looking for any crumb or piece of anything you might have missed, find nothing. No bodies, no other logs, not even blood, bone, ashes or bullet holes. Nothing. Uncomfortable, you send a few final notes on to the network, then withdraw yourself from the mote-probe's feed, set it on a return course to your ship. In the silence, you spin up the phasedrive, prepare yourself for the jump back to between-space, cast one last glance at Lattimer Camp, at the quiet mountains, the empty valleys, the modules crowded by alien grass.
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