Worried she confers with Saori Lu. The xeno-archaeologist is as confused as her. The child Fiona however seems distressed. She draws a series of pictures showing herself and Rho as well as all other people on the surface except for the team in the city within a circle. She then erases it. She draws it again and erases it again. Then she draws a pair of such diagrams but includes extra figures in one to represent the missing team members. She erases the circle without the team members, draws it again and erases it again.
Confused, Saori and Rho decide to go to Steve’s last known location within the alien city. As they approach it the expedition camp radios and alerts them to a powerful storm rapidly developing to the north. At its current rate of growth it will envelope the planet within an hour and bury them alive.
They press on and find that the weathered stone structures here are oddly less worn down. Saori remarks it is like they would have appears centuries ago…in an earlier scan.
The simulation ends.
In the real world Rho contacts Steve and Max after the scan. Max tells her that they were able to block it with some quick thinking. Max also relays instructions to base camp to set up similar field to block future scans. Contacting the Columbia, Captain G. W. Teregan informs them the albedo of the planet is rising. They also detect some interference in the upper atmosphere hindering their communications.
Rho decides to join the expedition to the city while Soari focuses her efforts on the dig site.
Once they arrive at the Artifact, Max changes the batteries in his scanner while Steve tries to create the symbol for open in front of one of the doors. The twisted space around the door unravels and an ancient metal doorway reveals itself. Max initiates some scans while the others invite Saori to join them.
Saori soon arrives with Tom Warner in tow. She informs them on her latest findings. Under 3.5 billion years of rock they found a layer of metal and plastics as well as numerous skeletons. The skeletal morphology was tubular but standing upright on two legs and arms. The bones are melted and radioactive.
Saori directs Tom to stay outside to serve as relay to base camp. The others find communication to the Columbia breaking up and the ensigns at base camp notify them of a storm brewing to the north. Steve directs the expedition to begin packing up.
The team enters the Artifact. The halls are dimly lit by the ambient glow of the internal nanites. The child Fiona tells Rho she is hungry and feeling sick. Rho carries her while Max diagnosis that she has a fever due to the activity of the nanites in her brain. He supposes they are wiring her up for language.
They soon learn that the Artifact is larger on the inside. Down the long hallway they find the path splits to the left and right. Steve asks the child for her opinion. She points right.
Farther down the right hall, they find a door on left wall with stairs opposite. The writing around the door indicates that it holds something valuable. Based on their grasp of the alien’s psychology however, they decide to go up instead, inferring that would be where the command center would be.
After a long set of stairs, they enter a large round room. An open circle in the center reveals a drop into utter blackness. A small control panel sits to one side glowing purple and red. Rho decides to toss a coin into the hole. Both she and Steve see flashes of light as the coin is torn apart at the nuclear level. Fiona’s progress continues as she begins to talk in a polygot of languages and begins remembering things that happened to Rho.
Max meanwhile approaches the controls and manages to activate them. The camp radios again, the communication broken up by static. The storm is approaching, they are moving to intercept them.
With 10 minutes left before they must leave, Max activates the interface. A cloud of nanites swarms around him, forming threads in the air. They then burrow through his helmet and into his brain painlessly. Max experiences a strange double vision of an infinite plain and the control room, as well as a sense that the Artifact is awaiting orders.
Max tells it to stop the storm. He sees a display of the planet. The storm slows and dissipates. The device creates an interface in the form of Dr. Twitter Morgan to communicate through. From it he learns the history of the race that built this device:
_Roughly 3 billion years ago, an intelligent race arose on the world of the Artifact. They progressed from hunting and gathering to farming to an industrial revolution. They harnessed the atom and survived the consequences. Despite stumbles along the way, ever greater technology led to increased prosperity. The solar system was explored. The asteroid belt was mined, removing the limitations of finite resources. They conquered gravity and the power of fusion. Limitless energy was theirs. They sent exploration ships across the galaxy.
But they found nothing to interest them, only barren worlds and a few primitive forms of life.
Their culture turned inward. Free of material needs, their society focused on skill and art. Centuries passed as their scientists conquered death and their inventors built a realm of virtual reality that removed the last of their restrictions.
Many were tempted by this virtual realm.
Society stratified between those who refused to use technology that would change what they were, those who became electrons and dwelled in a dream world, and those who lived the lives of seeming gods in the crystalline cities.
Then came the first Cataclysm. The old world was wiped out by a nearby supernova. Many in the dream world perished, erased as the system crashed. The survivors from the cities rebuilt better than before.
They secured a permanent power source, at least one that would last for tens of billions of years. They filled the skies with nanomachines to fulfill their every whim. They tied their systems together with redundancies and shielded the core of the system in the very fabric of space-time.
Thousands of years passed. Even godhood has its limits. Some retreated into the planetary computer system, others gave up the cities to satisfy their needs using the eternal fog.
They were immortal. That was their downfall.
After tens of millenia their minds could hold only so much, catalogue so much knowledge. Some sacrificed history for the present. Others chose to finally pass on. Those who stayed in the world slowly vanished as thousands of years turned to millions, picked off by ennui or disaster.
Those who had become virtual intelligence succumbed to similar issues as well as the slow decline cognition due to accumulated experiences.
In the end a collision with a small planetoid disrupted the systems for a few hundred thousand years. Though the system recovered, the survivors decided to pass on rather than linger in their mausoleum of a world.
The system continued. Maintaining the environment. Limiting radiation damage.
Millions of years became billions. The star aged and grew brighter. The planetary core cooled and hardened. The system compensated, raising the albedo by hiding the oceans. It rebuilt the city it was placed in again and again, though imperfectly and empty.
And waited for orders._
Max reviews the vast array of commands he could give the machine. It offers to reconsistute the crew of FSV Google. Max asks Steve, who decides against it. Instead he asks Max to restrict access to senior Federation staff such as himself, Max and higher ups. Max implements that, trying to use as little of the machine’s power as possible.
All of them wonder what this will mean for the Federation…