Author : Beck Dacus


I looked up from my bio-sweep and bolted to the sound of Carlos’ voice, knowing that the rest of the team would follow me. After rounding a few corners of the empty city, I came upon the intern and followed his gaze to the giant, defunct construction machine. Its purpose was immediately apparent; broken treads would have held up a blocky body studded with instruments, which itself sported a mechanical arm with a 3D printing knob, laser chisel, and manipulator fingers.

“Building machine?” Mirina thought out loud. “Wow. Looks older than most of these buildings.”

“Must’ve been,” Carlos wheezed, still out-of-breath from yelling. “I think it built them.”

“Along with the aliens?” Reifa clarified.

“No, I think there’s more of them around here. I think they’re von Neumann probes.”

We all turned our heads simultaneously. Janthin was the first to speak.

“Can you back that up with anything? We can’t just guess about this.”

“Think about it! It’s what we humans thought about doing for a long time, before we got the Kicker Drives. Send out robots to build your colony beforehand, then send some people– or whatever– over to live in the new city. Once the robots are finished, they self-replicate and repeat on some other planet.”

“You still need more evidence,” Janthin retorted. “It’d be pretty interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”

“Besides,” Reifa said, “It doesn’t tell us anything about the people who lived here or why they left. For some reason, neither does anything else.”

Reifa’s words made the answer hit me. “Actually, it might tell us something.”

Attention shifted to me. Their expectant looks were enough to prompt me.

“You all know that we’ve been a little frustrated for the past few days because we haven’t found anything on these aliens. No DNA except for that from the native life, no messages or writing system, no possessions, nothing. We’ve been assuming that this is because of quirks in their biology, psychology, and that they were very thorough in their evacuation. But I looked and that robot, and now it’s clicked: I don’t think anyone or anything has *ever* lived here.”

Carlos, by that time, had caught onto what I was saying. “Yeah, yeah! They sent the robots here, planning to follow them, but then they went extinct. Or lost funding. Or got bored waiting, maybe. But getting the robots to stop would have been too hard and/or too expensive, so they let ‘em do their thing. We’re standing in a city that has never held people.”

We all looked around ourselves, and the place got even creepier just then. An entire city that had never been lived in; the ultimate ghost town. I don’t know if I was being sincere or if I was just scared when I said, “Well, I think that means we’ve found everything there is to find here. Pack up the gear and prepare to rendezvous with the Aristarchus in orbit. We leave in two days.”

The crew nodded, slowly walking to their outdoor stations, looking around to avoid the ghosts of those who had never been.