the rogue planet
dylan t. jeninga

Readers may remark that this tale does not belong on an OSS site; but wait a moment and re-consider the phrase "global reach"...

       “Well, another one.” It was the rare fun part of the job - you never knew what a rogue planet would look like. Un-tethered to any sun, they were empty shadows, blank until the searchlight on Qith’s starship illuminated their stony faces.

      She had flown a rogue surveyor for years, having gotten into the business because it was her best chance to explore the galaxy. Positions in the Federal Pathfinder Fleet were competitive, even for someone born into the higher castes, which she certainly wasn't. Babysitting a flying sensor suite as it probed stray planets was as close as she could get.

     Sometimes, it wasn’t so bad.  She would discover a shimmering orb of ice, cracks of blue streaking the crystalline white, or perhaps a rocky giant, painted with frozen crimson swirls. Still other rogues were the deep violet of the abyss, or sulphuric yellow, or vibrant cyan.

     Most were like this one, though: a dull, asteroid grey.      The scanners reached out automatically with their invisible fingers, feeling deep into the regolith in search of metals and rare elements. Qith settled in for a long stretch of drudgery. If the AI found anything, it would alert her, but there was hardly much need - she was only there for emergencies. She didn’t even really have to fly the ship.

     She brought the galactic news up on her viewscreen and read through it absently. There had been a hubbub, almost a month ago, involving supposed artificial structures spotted in orbit around a habitable planet. The excitement had been contagious, or Qith imagined it to be, for she had only herself to be excited with out in space. Aliens, at last!

     Today, however, the beleaguered report stated that it had been a false alarm yet again. The “structures” were simply a swarm of moons, following unusual but not unnatural orbits.

     She grinned ruefully. At least, she thought, those of better birth had to deal with disappointment now and then. Years of searching, and they hadn’t turned up so much as an alien spearhead.

     Maybe we really are  alone, she considered darkly. Calarx could be the only planet that evolved intelligent life, and its system of castes was all the universe had for her. The universe didn’t have anything else on offer, after all.

     It was a path she’d gone down many times before, and she pushed it from her mind, dismissing the news and viewing the data for the planet below. It was small, more accurately a rogue planetoid, and it hadn’t always been that: tracing its trajectory backwards two billion years put it in the system of a red giant star. That was hardly surprising; most rogues could be traced to their parent systems, apart from the unfathomably old ones.

     There was a unique unevenness to this one, though. On one hemisphere, a uniformly cratered desert, on the other, a smattering of lava plains. Perhaps it had once been tidally locked, keeping one side toward its sun perpetually. She'd heard of worlds like that.

     She was contemplating the mystery when the ship’s AI demanded her attention. An alert sprung onto the viewscreen, informing her that artificial alloys had been detected nearby.

Qith’s bored attitude evaporated instantly. Alloys were bad news. The computer might have found a shipwreck, but it could also be pirates in hiding - in the absence of a distress call, corporate policy dictated she back off, and allow the appropriate authorities to investigate.

     She stared at the screen, thinking. Nobody had shot her yet. Yes, it could be pirates, laying low... but surely they would know a survey ship had sensitive and wide-range scanners. If they were smart pirates, they’d have vaporized her already, and be well on their way to a new hideout.

     On the other hand, if it were a shipwreck, there could be people in need of saving. They could be too damaged to call for help. Out here in the dark, nobody else was likely to come around for a long while, and an official rescue would take time. She could be their only chance.

     It was unlikely, she knew. By the time she overrode the ship’s AI and took manual control, however, she’d half convinced herself that there were ragged survivors, watching her on their screens and praying.

     The computer tacitly informed her that a write-up was being sent to her superiors as she  turned to investigate the anomaly. Approaching, the scanners picked up another hulk of alloy, then three more after that, scattered over the planet’s surface by wide margins. Hundreds of smaller objects were also detected, mostly on the same hemisphere. Not unexpected for a crash, she told herself. The ship broke into pieces before it hit the surface. Castaways were less likely, if that was what happened, but she owed it to them to check. If they existed.

     The nearest crashsite was drawing close, and Qith turned the searchlight up, training it in the direction she expected the wreck to appear from and bracing for pirates that probably weren't there.

     Then she saw it.

     It wasn't a ship.

     She halted her own craft, its light reflecting off the golden sheen of the thing. It had four legs, like an insect, and it was surrounded by debris of an unquantifiable nature. Qith’s impression was one of a creature ready to pounce.

     Cautiously, she edged in,  bringing her vessel as close as she dared. The  proximity alarms chirped, finally impelling the AI to wrestle back control and bring the craft to a stop. She considered overriding it again, but she didn’t fancy a second write-up. Besides, she’d never get real close unless she got into the spacesuit anyways.

     She couldn’t remember the last time she’d put the suit on. It was a tight fit: her job didn’t call for a lot of exercise. But it still sealed up fine. Cautiously, trepidatiously, she shuffled down on to the planet’s surface and turned to face the thing.

     The gravity was slight, almost non-existent, and each step carried her higher and farther than she intended. The four-legged thing loomed ahead, and she was loath to approach it too quickly, but then she tripped and toppled before it, face down.

     Qith stood, brushing dust from her suit. She’d caught her foot on something bizarre, a long rod with a blank white rectangle attached to the bottom. Or perhaps the top. She didn’t know, but it was clearly artificial.

     Turning her attention back to the golden insect, she shuffled slowly around it, examining it from every side. In all her life, she’d never seen anything like it. Everything about it was outlandish, from its faceted skin to its rod-like legs. She could discern no cockpit, no driver’s chair. Was it AI driven?

     What was it?
     On one side, she noticed something that made her hearts leap. Writing, but in no language she’d ever seen, on Calarx or out in the colonized worlds. In fact, she’d go as far as saying that the text was distinctly alien.

     Not knowing what else to do, she kept circling it, trying to let her suit camera capture it from all angles. She wondered who had made it, and what for, and where they were. Was this their homeworld? It seemed unlikely, but then, who was she to put limits on aliens?

     Eventually, finally, Qith got back into her ship and took off into the void. The footage she captured would make her a celebrity overnight, and then even The Pathfinder Fleet would be unable to deny her a position. More than that, she knew more certainly than ever that the universe was truly infinite, and the possibilities with it.

     The insectile thing was left alone again, in the cold dark, as it and its five strewn siblings had existed for billions of years. Although none remained who would ever be able to read it, the writing on the side continued its silent proclamation, declaring the achievement of an alien race that hadn’t existed since time immemorial: