Su Park and Clay Gilbert took an orbit and a half, over a planet that was three fourths covered by water. There were mountains, there were deserts, there were even lakes and rivers, but there was still nothing they could be sure was alive. The colors they saw were white of clouds and blue of seas—and red and gold of rocky land, not the green of plant life. They agreed on a landing sight of their choosing—well, Su Park did the choosing and Clay did the agreeing. They dropped into the atmosphere and slowed to a polite speed, so as not to annoy the molecules of N2 and O2 into ferociousness. Below them, through thin cloud cover, the ground geography began to clear up,
“Definitely radioactivity,” Clay noted, “but not enough to bother the tourist.”
“It would increase cancer rates detectably in a resident population,” said Park. “We will not be such a population. Ah, now I’m seeing ruins.”
“They’re very, uh, ruined,” said Clay. But they were distinctive: straight line highways, open plazas, blurred rectangles and regular hexagons. A rural interstate would run straight and true for a hundred kilometers and then disappear, displaced by tectonic movements, fragmented, often buried; a city would show up like a photo of a star, dense in the middle, radiating out in diminishing pixels in all directions, except that one side was long vanished under lava or debris. Highways ran straight into the sea; highways twisted into mazes; more than anything else, highways simply faded as they came down off of the highlands. Not a single building stood: not a wall stood or leaned or sprawled. Outlines might have been the floor plans of buildings, but even these were barely distinguishable from random geological forms.
They set down in a large open area, possibly a hexagon on purpose, possibly by accident; one side had fallen off a cliff into the encroaching sea. They stepped out, checked their readings and un-helmeted. The temperatures were just above freezing. The gravity was a bit low. The wind was undirected but gusty.
“Excellent air, actually,” said Clay. “If I even remember what excellent air is.”
“I am not reading a single thing that might be life,” said Park, giving serious attention to her sensor gadget, similar to the thing Clay had gotten used to Natasha and Rachel getting all sorts of information from. “Crap,” said Park. She looked up at him, scowling. “You know how to work this?”
“Natasha does,” he said, but he took it and between the two of them they determined that the oxygen level was 25% and the CO2 was a tenth of a percent. The thorium was elevated, and there was detectable radon in the atmosphere. “And a lot of bismuth,” he added. “See that?”
“And lead,” said Park, wrinkling her forehead. “Decay products.”
They wandered around the ruins, if that was what they were, and eventually came to the sea. It roiled and rolled about ten meters down a cliff. It was a steely grey. Clay couldn’t see anything in it, but he felt like the sea itself was a living thing.
“Gilbert,” said Park with an Alpha Wing smirk, “how about obtaining a sample of the seawater?”
Clay kept looking down. “Well,” he said at last, “I’m open to suggestions, Commander.”
“Get in your fighter and take a dip. What do you think? It can stand up to mouthholes but it gets soggy when wet?”
“Ooookay,” said Clay. He walked back over to his Ghost, turned and said, “Is there a trick to this?”
“You could use the Water Sample program. Just a thought.”
“Commander,” said Clay, “I never had a full appreciation of how sarcastic a person you are.”
“You bring out the best in everyone, Mister Gilbert.”
Clay kept his smirk to himself. He slipped into his fighter, got comfy, suppressed his nervousness about dipping his prize machine, his wheels, his very house, into the briny of some forgotten and slightly radioactive planet. What the hell? He’d just taken on bizarre killer aliens and killed them right back. He had flown over a hundred light years, which made him, in fact, over a hundred years old, nearing a hundred and fifty actually. It was time he grew up and dunked his Ghost in the briny.
And so he did. He hovered up a meter, then floated off under minimal thrust at about two meters per second, then hovered down slowly, and then, a meter above the wave, he was just about to try and figure out what to do next when the wave rose up and slapped him. His Ghost took offense at the treatment and automatically took him up ten meters.
On the second try, Clay had his sample door open, and when the wave hit it snapped shut before the ship hovered back up. He could hear cheering, perhaps sarcastic, from his commander. And he could see, on an inset to his screen, the outline of something between a worm and a fish wriggling around in the sample holder.