Author: Chris De Pree

“How vast those Orbs must be, and how inconsiderable this Earth, the Theatre upon which all our mighty Designs, all our Navigations, and all our Wars are transacted, is when compared to them.” –Christian Huygens (1629-1695)

The rapidly moving silver sphere fragmented into hundreds of smaller reflective orbs in the outer reaches of the planetary system. Most of the objects followed trajectories to the four large gaseous planets. Using a combination of gravitational forces, attractive and repulsive, four of the smaller featureless spheres approached the rocky planets closest to the star. Each orb communicated with all the others. As a collection of nodes, they perceived the planetary system as a whole in all its variety, aligning time so that their communications were almost instantaneous.

One probe approached a small red planet with an enormous dead volcano fracturing one of its sides. A single orbit revealed several mechanical objects on the dry surface, but no biological or mechanical life. The atmosphere was cold and thin. Liquid oceans had been present once, but not for many billions of planetary orbits.

A second sphere used gravitational buoyancy to approach a planet-moon system, third from the star. Like the red planet, it was the correct distance from its parent star to potentially have liquid water at its surface. Protocols required the probes to search these planets most carefully.

The moon was smaller than the planet, and varied in color from almost white to dark gray, with many craters, large and small. No volcanic activity present. After a single orbit, the probe had mapped the locations of six disturbed sites on the surface where markings and features indicated non-geological processes. Using its internal gravitational ballast, the orb descended slowly to the surface at one of the sites.

As the metallic sphere hovered, a clear oculus appeared on its side and imaged a metallic structure with four legs. Nearby were a variety of parallel tracks in the fine dust covering the gray surface. There were patterned depressions in the dust indicating upright bipeds had walked here. Imprint characteristics indicated the approximate height, mass, and gait of the bipeds. A wave of attention and activity ran through the network of orbs.

A quick analysis of the tracks and the rate of micrometeorite impacts suggested the site had been undisturbed for several million orbits of the nearby planet around its star. A very thin rectangular object hung from a metallic post. The rectangle was solid white in color, but instruments behind the oculus indicated that it had once had alternating red and white horizontal bars, and small white shapes on a blue field. The white rectangle was made of different material than the metallic structure, with hydrocarbon compounds present. The oculus became opaque again.

The silver sphere accelerated away from the surface of the gray moon to explore its mother planet, shrouded in thick yellow clouds. The orb detected an atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide with sulfuric acid and traces of nitrogen and other gasses. The probe dropped through the heavy atmosphere and emerged beneath the lower layer of acidic clouds to see a barren surface covered by mountains and valleys. Vast areas of liquid water had been present, but were now evaporated. The former oceans remained only as vapor in the thick atmosphere. Surface radioactivity levels were much higher than normal for a planet of this age in this part of the Galaxy.

The orb skimmed the hot, rocky surface of the third planet, looking for any indication of biological or mechanical life, and found none. It accelerated in an arc into the swirling clouds above.

The probes drifted together in the outer reaches of the planetary system, like a burst of dandelion fluff from some long ago childhood memory in reverse. Reassembled, the large matte sphere continued its Galactic census.