Three months into their mission the FSV Columbia arrives at the solar system harboring the Artifact. Initial scans show an old yellow star circled by ten worlds and an asteroid belt. The signal of a small ship is detected circling the fifth world of the system. Barely a fourth the size of the Columbia, it appears to be a lightly armed civilian craft.
The friendly New Earther shares some of the findings of the expedition. The team has located a city on the surface, situated around a mysterious egg shaped artifact. Also they apparently had some advanced warning of Columbia’s arrival from the expedition leader’s wife Mecury Lu who is now on the surface. He warns them that the team leader likes things run her way. As for himself, he and his partner Marija are due to rotate down in a few days. He seems eager to get to the exploring.
Max Petrobras is able to detect a powerful power source on the planet. Further scans pinpoint it in the “city”, a field of tall spires made from uncarved stone. The planet itself has an usually high albedo, due to reflective cloud cover and a surface of mostly bare rock. The atmosphere, while human breathable and shielded from cosmic rays, contains large amounts of complex carbon compounds.
But there are many anomalies. Only a few plants and one dying sea cover the surface. The asteroid belt has been strip mined. Upon orbiting the world, they conduct deeper scans revealing hidden oceans in vast and unnaturally carved out subterranean basins. The spires in the city are hollow and thousands of years old but seem grown rather than built.
Along the way they pick out the expedition camp between the sea and the “city”.
Taking full precautions, Steve has Max send a probe, the repurposed mine that Samsung sent after them, to the planet. It dives into the atmosphere and takes a sample. Along the way it determines that the carbon substance covers the atmosphere from the surface on up but is thickest near the surface and upper atmosphere. It seems to be protecting the atmosphere, maybe replenishing the oxygen levels.
But on the way back the onboard computer crashes. Max recovers it but the CPU acts erratically. They bring the probe on board in a sealed environment where Babbage can get the samples safely.
Upon opening it up, they find out the carbon contents appear to have condensed into dust. Babbage takes a sample to the lab while Max analyzes the probe piece by piece to determine the cause of the crash. He find the CPU and other bits have been replaced by the same carbon material. No residue of the material exists on the outer covering but inside portions of the probe have been partially replaced. Max plans a second series of tests.
A few hours later Babbage gives a presentation on his findings. The atmosphere is filled with advanced nanomachines, built mostly of carbon. The dust inside the probe was actually parts of the probe itself that had been replaced. Showing a closeup of the nanites, he shows how the CPU is now composed of the devices, replicating the functionality perfectly.
After the talk, Steve talks to Babbage about Ensign Roux and his uncle. He is concerned that they be unsaveable. Babbage confides that he can alert him when that becomes the case, regardless of Twitter’s concerns.
Rho meanwhile focuses on talking with Warner. She manages to learn more about the expedition’s findings as the two become more friendly. The team leader, Saori Lu, has uncovered layer upon layer of city beneath the current settlement. While no signs of the aliens have been uncovered, the structures are clearly designed by intelligent life forms, specifically the nanites they left behind. They theorize there is an original city, built by the aliens themselves deep below. He also chats with her about the complex life they have found in the sea, like strange alien fish.
Max’s second probe is a repurposed shuttle. It takes several trips to the planet, collecting samples of the atmosphere and exposing biological samples to it. He finds that given time to escape, the nanites will exit the collection device but if sealed in with biological samples they will infest them instead. The preference order seems to be stay on the planet, then infect living things, then replace hardware.
Taking a sample of the nanites, Max attempts to trigger a reaction from them. After beaming a signal, he sees the nanites form an antennae and emit a powerful signal to the planet for several seconds before burning out. Interestingly a few hours later the emissions from the artifact increase by 20%. Suspecting he can learn something, Max sets up an algorithm to decode the signal. At the same time Rho and Steve study the layout of settlement for strategic and academic purposes.
Finally with all probe options taken care of and with signs that as long as they don’t interfere with the atmosphere, it will bother them, they decide to send a team down. Led by Steve, the First Contact Team and a group of ensigns take a shuttle to the surface, establishing a camp between the city and the sea about a mile from the other expedition. They direct the Captain to take the Columbia and survey the asteroid belt for more signs of nanites.
After readying camp, the team treks to the expedition’s base. There they are greeted by Srivani Smith, a tall friendly woman who gently makes her dislike of capitalist clear as she guides them into the camp. Hoping to make some friends, Rho offers sugar and they are invited in for tea.
After going through the thorough decontamination procedures, Srivani shows them into a tent where they meet another pair of team members, Alex and Jixie. The group discusses the exploration of the planet but unfortunately none of them speak a language Max knows. He amuses himself scanning for nanites.
Then Saori Lu arrives. After swiftly and perfectly taking care of decontamination, she enters addressing them in flawless Chinese. She takes command and agrees to an exchange of information with Walmart. Interestingly for Max, he detects nanites in her system, nanites made by humans. They seem to be protecting her.
Meanwhile Steve shares most of the information they learned, holding back only the “successful” stimulation of the nanites. From her they learn the history of the city stretches back billions of years. Again and again, it has been destroyed by natural disasters and rebuilt by the nanite cloud and the Artifact.
The Artifact itself is an egg shaped device the size of a small building. Various metal spheres in the city are part of its computing systems. Saori’s team are currently digging down, seeking the original city. They are already through 3 billions years of rock back to when the core was molten and before the seas were sequestered.
She describes how the cloud of nanites seems to be generating an artificial magnetic field, maintaining the atmosphere and ozone layers, and moderating the climate. Though there are no signs of aliens who built this, their devices remain. The artifact itself seems powered by a captured black hole and deflects all attempts to get close.
Throughout her talk Saori remains cold to Steve, mocking their lack of progress. Mercury does not put in an appearance. Rho however ingratiates herself. Afterwards the team thanks her and heads back to camp to plan a trip to the city.
A few hours later they arrive in the city of granite spires. Each ruined tower seems built of a single piece of stone many thousands of years ago. Cracked and weathered, their internal crystalline structure is perfect and flawless.
Steve directs the team to explore one. Smooth passages wide up from the ground level to a second floor and on up to a third floor. That’s when it happens.
A pulse of energy erupts from the Artifact, causing an earthquake. The tower groans, cracks and begins to collapse. The team beats a hasty retreat but Ensign Maroon trips. Thousands of tons of stone falls down on top of the Ensign.
Recovering from the tragedy, the team decides to get a closer look at the Artifact. Approaching the central plaza where it is located, they look at the black egg shaped orb. Passive sensors pick intense gravitation distortion, neutrino emissions, and radiation. Active sensors tend to bend around the object revealing nothing. The power emanations have died back down but are different, on a new frequency.
They decide to survey it from a nearby tower, one more structurally sound than the last. While Max conducts his scans, Steve and Rho climb to the top and look out over the city.
Then they see a naked child running in ruins. Steve radios the ensigns to collect her.
Elsewhere Max maps out the pattern of gravitational distortions across the surface of the artifact. He detects clear lines across its surface, perhaps even engraved writing.