No records in the database to tell how far down the clouds go, what's on the surface or even if there's anything down there but wind and rain. When you put a mote-probe into the atmosphere, visibility is so poor that all you see is a murky fog of gray, purple and black. Sharp, sudden gusts toss the mote-probe wildly, violently, but the sensors keep you roughly on course for whatever lies beneath the clouds.
It seems to take an eternity. Hours, maybe. The clouds are dense and wet, charged with crackling electricity. Fighting the winds with a machine the size of a speck of dust makes for slow progress, but eventually it all thins, calms, and then your probe comes punching through mist and into darkness, into serene near-night. Sensors make a quick sweep, and then you see the data they collect, send back. A sea– that's what's beneath the clouds. A massive sea, gently whipped by storm winds, unbroken by landmasses, darker than the bruise-purple sky.
The winds are weaker beneath the clouds, gust softer, gentler. Through the skin of the mote-probe, you feel the currents in the air as if you were there, as if they were nothing more than the chilled, wet breezes that pass after a rainstorm. In reality, it's about five degrees Celsius– far colder than it feels in your mind. The probe's sensors continue to sweep the sky, the surface of the sea– and then catch the traces of something else, something beneath the waters.
Ocean waves the size of skyscrapers rise and fall around you as you push the mote-probe into the freezing black waters of the sea. Little readings come back to you as you descend– the composition of the water, the elements dissolved in it, stats about the plethora of microscopic life forms that call the ocean home. Three meters, six, ten, twenty-five– you dive deeper, find no life larger than a few dozen cells in size. No traces of anything larger. The sea is alive, but still seems almost stagnant, as if it's missing something.
And then you see what that something is.
When it rises out of the darkness, you fix all of the mote-probe's sensors on it. It's about three hundred and fifty meters down, massive in size, sprawls for a thousand miles or more in every direction. A building? A city? It's all stone, carven stone that curves into strange, elaborate spires which rise from the distant sea floor, reach toward the surface, toward the sky.
No windows or airlocks, and yet resonance tests indicate it's hollow, honeycombed with strange, shifting breaks that move like phantoms just beyond the walls. Briefly you consider cutting a hole, forcing your way inside to see what wonders might be on the other side of that dark stone, but you dismiss the notion almost immediately. Interstellar wars have been started with less, and these structures are definitely the work of some other intelligent species, one not in the database, one humanity has never before had contact with, as far as you can tell.
You spend a little time cruising around the spires, looking for entrance points, looking for windows, writing, any little detail that might shed some light on the species that built them. In the end, you find nothing, not even down at the depths where the supports of the spires twist into the seafloor like massive, writhing roots. When boredom starts to set in, you set the mote-probe on a return course to your ship, start broadcasting friendly first-contact messages across all frequencies while the little piece of man-made technology battles the clouds, the winds and the lightning. Nothing. Nothing comes back in response.
Once the mote-probe links up with your ship again, you give the stormy world one last look, breathe a tired sigh. Someone else, someone more qualified will likely be sent out to make first contact with the race that lives in the spires– if there's anyone alive down there at all. Hopefully it'll happen in your lifetime, end up as something you can stream or read about while you're cruising between stars. Hopefully.
The integrated intelligence uploads all the relevant data you've collected to the network, prepares to spin up the phasedrive. Hesitating only a moment, you give the go-ahead, and then the ship turns, slides smoothly back into between-space, jumps toward its next destination.
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