The planet itself is all shades of gray. Gray-green, gray-blue and gray-brown overshadowed by gray-white clouds. Analysis of the atmosphere comes back– the air on the surface is breathable, earth-like. Humidity is high, average temperatures comfortable. Might be worth logging as a candidate for colonization, but only after a closer look. Something about the surface seems off, seems unusual. You dispatch a mote-probe into the planet's atmosphere without a second thought, ride its sensor suite as it cuts a line through clouds, through sky.
Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Psi Iambartiana Jakobs 56h isn't viable as a candidate for colonization. As you descend, the even, geometric lines of urban sprawl begin to rise out of the grayness, pick up definition, become something like blocks of stone or concrete spread across almost the entire face of the planet. It's huge– an alien city, world-spanning, and as you get closer, scan for electromagnetic signals, anything that might indicate life, you realize that there's nothing else down there but the bones of buildings. The whole civilization that built those buildings is dead, and it's been dead for a long time.
It starts to rain as you guide the mote-probe between the hollow, angular skyscrapers of the city, follow the streets. Every lane is choked with shards of shattered bone, with the cracked-open skeletons of billions upon billions of individuals. Three thousand years is the estimate that comes back from your ship's integrated intelligence. Three thousand years since everyone on Psi Iambartiana Jakobs 56h poured into the streets like rats and died suddenly, horribly.
There's no indication as to what happened– all that's left is bone, is corpses that are shattered as if they each exploded from within, spread themselves through the city in a tidal wave of meat and gore. It's unnerving, bizarre.
And then you find the first of the shrines.
Afterward, you notice how many there are, how many thousands of shrines there are in the streets of the city. They all bear depictions of the same shape, the same serpentine figure bound in chitinous armor depicted with shards of onyx and jet. The body of the figure isn't like the bodies of the natives. It matches nothing in the network, and seems to be alien even to this world, to have come from somewhere else entirely.
There are words written on every shrine, and as you move from point to point, your ship's integrated intelligence works up a translation. It takes maybe an hour, comes suddenly.
We are one with the sky goddess, the words on the shrines say. We are the willing sacrifice that feeds her children.
On reflex, you scan the upper atmosphere of the world, scan the orbital patterns, finally catch a ping of debris. It's not much– something easily missed, easily dismissed. You send another mote-probe to check it out, feel a growing sense of anxiousness as sensors gather data on the debris. Organic. Resinous. Up close, it looks like shards of obsidian, picks up details as you approach. The shattered mass– it's hollow inside, like a cocoon, like a shell that's been crushed by some great force.
Smoothly, silently, you direct the mote-probe into the mass of debris. Light from the nearby star ripples and twists across the shining shards– and then you're inside, turning to find yourself face-to-face with glittering teeth, with the yawning maw of a huge, serpentine beast.
The mote-probe reacts to your fear, backs off suddenly– and that's when you realize that the beast isn't moving, isn't aware of your presence. Its teeth are bared in a death grin, the silent scream of a corpse. Chunks of its segmented form spin broken and butchered, hanging with lengths and boils of frozen viscera, some burned as if slashed by plasma or cutting lasers. Even chopped up into bits, you recognize the beast from the shrines on the planet below, the sleek, black build, the predatory grin, the long, vicious claws. Sky goddess.
There are no computers, nothing that looks like any kind of data storage device in the mass of debris. Briefly you wonder what happened to the people on the planet, to their sky goddess, wonder how it all might be related.
In the end, a note of your findings in the network is the best you can offer. Giving the beast one last glance, you recall both of your mote-probes, then spin up your ship's phasedrive in preparation to jump back into between-space, explore another system, another point of interest near another lonely star.
And yet even still, even as you leave the gray world behind, you can't stop thinking about those streets, about those corpses, the bones, all those bones.
We are one with the sky goddess. We are the willing sacrifice that feeds her children.
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