It's like home. It's like Earth.
You don't wait– the mote-probe is in the atmosphere immediately, starts gathering sense data to send to you. Closing your eyes, you take it all in as if you're there instead, your arms wide, wind on your face, body sailing through the clouds, cruising low over warm oceans.
And that's when the reading comes in, the reading that startles you enough that you can't help but open your eyes again.
There's something in the air, in the atmosphere– a virus, vicious and sleek, streamlined. Everything else, every bit of free-floating bacteria– it's all thick with junk DNA, with the vestigial codes gathered over the course of billions of years of evolution. This one particular virus is too trimmed though– it doesn't fit in with the others. It's too slim, too precise, too deadly-looking to be naturally occurring.
And it's everywhere.
Cautiously, you direct the mote-probe to the nearest shoreline, use the built-in sensor package to scan the waves, the sand, the trees beyond. Immediately you begin to pick up metallic signatures, rust in the water, structural rebar– all the leavings of civilization, of a civilization long dead.
Zipping low across the sand, you pick out video of the hulks of massive ships with strange, ribbed hulls rusting against the beach, half-sunk and beaten by the tide. Buildings built of something similar to concrete rise through the jungle just beyond– or rather, the jungle rises through them. A sample taken here, a sample taken there, and you have a date to work with. Ninety three years ago, give or take a few.
That's how long it's been since this city died.
And it's a huge city, you quickly realize. The jungle covers almost all of it, but what's left of the wide, shining streets wanders for miles in every direction. A seaside metropolis– empty, decaying, reclaimed by nature.
You spend a few hours poking around the city, find it full of greenery, suspiciously empty of animal life and devoid of corpses. The streets turn out to be part of a city-spanning solar powered electrical grid, but the nearest thing this civilization seems to have had to computers was entirely bacterium-based, so all of their data, everything they ever might have taken the time to record, all of it– it's all gone, lost with the mutation, with the growth and death of the biological components that were bred to preserve it. There isn't a trace of anything else that you can find. Not even a name, a language, a scrap of paper. It's as if the people who lived in the city never existed, never rose to prominence, never left or died.
And still that virus in the atmosphere– it troubles you. Except for the plant life and some basic bacterium, the world is sterile. Any biological traces of any larger fauna that might have called Mu Asimov Dunham 14c home at some point in the past are completely absent. It's almost as if any leavings, everything except the buildings, the vehicles, the roads– it's almost as if they've all been intentionally, paintstakingly gathered and erased.
When dusk turns the seas of the world to green-gold and shades the horizon with the hues of bites and bruises, you turn the mote-probe back to the sea and set it to self-immolate over the waves. No point in bringing it back, not with the virus everywhere in the air down there. Just too dangerous. Not worth the risk.
As the connection fades to static, flares at the edges with blue fire, you draw back your senses, take a long look at the world below you. Beautiful, but in all probability, also very dangerous. The integrated intelligence built into your ship prints up a signal buoy while you wait, programs it with a warning about the world, then launches it. Copies of the data collected by the mote-probe go into the ship's database, then get forwarded on to the greater network. Your entry is the first in the network about Mu Asimov Dunham 14c, and it makes you wonder if anyone else has ever seen this world, if you might not be the first visitor, human or otherwise, to witness the legacy of the civilization that rose, matured and died here. It's a solemn thought, and it sticks with you even as you turn away from that blue-green world, point the nose of your ship toward other stars and spin up the phasedrive for a jump back to between-space.
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