The mote-probe you send descends easily, scatters sand as you direct it to cruise a meter or so off the flat, gritty surface of the world. Almost immediately, you start to pick up irregularities in stone. Strange concentrations– a few minutes of sifting through the data and you realize what they are. Fossils. Marine fossils– and they're everywhere.
A picture of the world as it might have been millions of years ago starts to come together. An ocean world– all water, teeming with aquatic life. There's no water now, though, nothing but the sand, the heat, the leavings of life and the airless distances that barely rise in anything more than shallow hills.
Seeing it all– seeing what you missed, what this world was brewing up while humanity was still chewing bones and only grunting at the heavens leaves you reflective, silent. Only when a second ping of data lights up in your mind do you turn away from the endless, stretching fossil beds, pull up a vid-feed of something else instead.
A flash of chrome– that's the first thing you register. The mote-probe's eyes fixate on the silvery shape, refine details as it gets closer, as the sand shifts away from curves and lines that seem almost organic. Whatever it is, there's more of it under the sand–
And then, suddenly, the readings make sense to you. Reflexively, you back the mote-probe off a meter or so, look at the object again, the shape of the readings.
A machine, you blink. Not just a machine. An android.
Damaged, power cells dead, the thing lays on its back, face half covered with sand, eyes staring up at the stars. There's nothing else around it, nothing to indicate why it's here, how it got here. Curious, you let the mote-probe settle on the machine's face, work with your ship's integrated intelligence to interface with the quiet mind inside the chrome. The machine itself is too damaged to function, and the sounds its voicebox might make would be lost without air for them to vibrate through, so you build a digital dream to house its mind, visit it there.
“Explorer,” it says as you step into the simple room you've imagined for it. Its eyes rise, meet yours. In the construct, it sees itself with skin, with hair. It looks like a man, a tired, ordinary civilian with simple clothes and stormy gray eyes. “Speak to me of the lord's stone and I will speak to you of the secret.”
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