“What have you done to yourselves?” I whispered as I stared out of the observation bay at the shimmering sphere below.
It was red. All of it was red. The sea was red. The land was red. They sky was red. There even was a ring of sparkling red material orbiting above the world’s equator.
But this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Where there should have been oceans of blue, deserts of brown, cities of gray and forests of green, there now only was monotone crimson. There were only two significant deviations from the rather uniform dark red of the planet’s surface: A perfectly symmetrical geometric pattern of glowing red rings, lines, curves and strange glyphs centered at the North Pole that stretched across the entire world, and a gigantic crater at said Pole.
Seven months ago, when we had departed on our journey to pre-FTL civilization number 378’s home world for standard pre-contact observation, everything had looked so normal. Sure, there was a hundred-year visual delay between them and us caused by the sheer distance that separated us, but no one had expected anything like this. Based on our developmental models, we had predicted them to be somewhere in the early information age by the time we arrived. Some of the crew had even started to bet on whether 378 had made proper AI yet.
But when we translated down from FTL behind their moon to avoid detection, we quickly realized that something was terribly wrong. There was complete silence where there should have been a cacophony of radio signals. As we approached, our scans quickly proved what we had already feared: There was not a single living being left on the planet.
In a single instant, our observation mission had turned into a planetary murder mystery.
But it got only worse after that. On the second day of our approach, we were about fifty thousand kilometers above the surface, our poor psion Rem, who had been complaining about a constant feeling of uneasiness in the days after our arrival, began to scream violently and started attacking anyone trying to get close to her.
She had tried to take control of the vessel and so, for her own safety and the safety of my ship and crew, I had carefully approached her with a syringe of sedative hidden behind my back. She didn’t put up much of a fight, given how physically exhausted she was. I held her in my arms as she fell asleep.
In the five days since that, I had visited her every day in the med bay. Sure, she wasn’t awake to notice me, but it just felt right to check up on her. Well, that, or I just felt bad for dragging her into this. And… because I cared about-
The voice of Vela Yen, first scientific officer and generally pleasant person to be around, interrupted my thoughts. The round door to the observation bay closed behind her and she floated next to me, holding a transparent datapad in her right hand.
“I knew I’d find you here. Quite the view, huh?”
“Yeah…” I replied, still somewhat absent.
“I’m here to give you the update on our samples you requested. Should I come back later?” she asked in her usual friendly and pleasant way.
“No no, it’s alright. What do we have?” I hastily answered.
She tapped the rectangle of transparent alumina in her hand twice and it turned opaque, displaying all sorts of data on the planet.
“As you can see,” she began to explain, “The red mist that’s present in the atmosphere is the same stuff that’s covering the land and mixed into the oceans, just like we suspected. It’s a mix of all kinds of organics and metallo-organics. We’re still unsure where it came from though.”
She grinned at me as if she was already anticipating my next question.
“But you already have a theory, don’t you, Doctor Yen?”
I realized how tired I sounded.
“First of all, yes. Second of all, I told you that you can call me Vela, just like everyone else.”
“And what would that theory be?”
She pointed at the peaceful red world outside. I shuddered. There was this awful unsettling tranquility about this place. Like a beautiful graveyard.
“We haven’t found the remains of even a single cell on that planet, only a bucket load of organic sludge. It’s like… it all melted.”
I looked at her in confusion. “Like, the entire biosphere?”
She nodded. “It’s as if the whole planetary biosphere liquefied.”
Her theory was outlandish, to say the least.
“How would that even happen?”
She answered with a shrug. “Don’t know. But maybe… Maybe it’s got something to do with those glowy lines…” She faced the window again, growing fixated on that unnatural world. “The crater… Have you heard what the geology guys are saying?”
She read my silence as a "No."
“They say that it’s not an impact crater. Not an explosion either. It’s like… like something came out of the ground!”
I didn’t know what else there was to say. A melted biosphere and a giant exit crater at the North Pole, surrounded by some arcane pattern were just a bit much to handle. I stared at the red clouds for a few moments in silence.
“Do you think we should leave?” I asked her, surprised by my own degree of openness.
She seemed a bit taken aback by my question, but quickly answered, “Permission to speak openly, Commander?”
“I think we should get out of here as soon as possible. This planet is freaky as hell and everyone feels beyond uneasy as long as we’re here. So yes, I think we should leave.”
I could feel pure honesty in her voice.
With a sigh, I issued the command I had been thinking about for a while.
“Tell the drone operators to get the exploration vehicles back. We’re leaving at the first jump window tomorrow.”
“Right away, Sir.”
She was about to leave me alone with my thoughts again when she suddenly turned around.
“Commander, do I still have permission to speak openly?”
She floated back into the room, positioning herself directly in front of me and did that thing with her ears where she would tilt them forwards when she felt sad. I felt uncomfortable.
“Don’t feel bad about Rem. She knew what she was getting herself into and you made the right choice as a commander when this place tripped her gift. Sorry to, well, put it out this bluntly, but we all see how you tear yourself up about it. You know, we all like you as our commander and as our friend and we know how you and Rem feel about each other. It hurts us to see you like this so… I guess… Just…”
She had lost her thread. I realized that she probably had been thinking about how to say this all this time.
“Thanks, Vela,” I began, not really knowing what to answer, “This means a lot to me. You guys are the best crew I ever had the joy of working with. But Rem-“
A short melodic ping interrupted me.
Her datapad flashed a soft yellow. A priority message had just come in. She tapped the screen and scanned over the text that was now displayed on it.
“Therus has completed his visual reconstruction of 378! Wanna take a look?”
“Y-yeah, of course!”
We had been eagerly awaiting Therus’ work to see what the people of that strange planet had once looked like. Vela moved her finger over the attached image file. We both held our breath as she tapped the little symbol to open it.
“Huh...” I remarked.
The creature displayed on the screen was an unremarkable biped with two arms, a head and all the other features present in most known sapient species.
“It… It looks like you, if your species had evolved on a planet with higher gravity and had less colorful hair,” Vela commented laughingly. I wanted to say something about her fur being the same color as that planet, but my mind got stuck on the image. Something about the 378-creature just felt incredibly odd to me.
I looked at my hand, then at the image, and back at my hand.
“Would you look at that!” I laughed, waving my three right fingers up and down, “The humans had five fingers!”