They did a general survey, collecting lots of samples and then sitting on a rock overlooking an ocean on the opposite side of the planet, having lunch (wafers) and letting their suits recharge in the sun.
“It’s strange,” said Park. “This happened to me at 55 Cancri, on that moon that had an atmosphere and clouds. I just keep expecting to see a blade of grass or an insect. I would be hard put to be surprised if I saw something alive. But I haven’t.”
“Well, I think the same way, commander,” said Clay, “and I haven’t either.”
“But the fact remains that someone was here, only hundreds of millions of years ago. Probably there was an entire global ecosystem, and of course only the sea creatures could recover from the dose of radioactivity they gave themselves, or somebodt gave them. You still couldn’t live here twenty or thirty years and remain healthy.”
“But this thing,” said Phil, holding up the little jar to between their faces. It swam before them. It was five centimeters long, a piece of solid green ribbon. It moved by rippling its entire body. It had some sort of mouth and other apparatus at the tapered nose and tail, which were identical. “Its part of a global ecosystem.” He took out of his side pouches half a dozen more bottles, at least two of which contained small things that moved under their own power. “It’s the king of beasts, that’s what that is.”
“Don’t be disrespectful,” said Park. “It’s an evolutionary survivor.”
“Yeah,” said Clay, “but I keep wondering what the evolutionary failures were? Who were the sentient things on this planet? We don’t know a thing. It’s the question.”
“Well, they left no record,” said Park. “Six hundred million years is an absolutely vast stretch of time. Mountains grow from nothing to Mount Everest and then wear down to nothing, and that’s six hundred million years.”
“Commander,” said Clay, “do you think the mouthholes have anything to do with this?”
“Do I think they might have attacked and hastened the demise a bit? It’s possible. Made this happen? That wouldn’t explain a lot of things.”
“All right,” said Clay, standing up. “We should be able to tell something from analyzing the soil.” They stood looking west over the sea, as the Sun descended, her companion brown dwarf, dim and dull and awesome, watching from halfway down the sky. The Sun, orange, then red like blood, sank into the waves.
“Ah, let’s go,” said Park. “I wonder if Kleiner will be impressed by your worm.”
Clay and Park got up into space and started off toward the fifth planet, a water world with a few stray island continents. It had a single moon the size of Mars.
As the two Ghosts approached, two more Ghosts rose from Planet Five. Then Rachel and Natasha filled the screens of Park and Clay, and vice versa.
“Okay, okay,” said Natasha as soon as video contact was made, still six light minutes apart. “It’s a lovely worm. Listen. There is someone down on that planet.”
“What? Who?” asked Park.
“There’s frickin’ someone down there god damn it, Commander.”
“There are aliens on Planet Five,” said Rachel. “In a cave up a ravine. I’m sending it.”
“Say,” said Clay, a few minutes later, as he re-watched Natasha’s view, “you know what? There are aliens on Planet Five.”