The Tidings glided through space with the grace of a dancer, belying the seriousness of the damage she’d suffered coming out of Transit. She slipped through the planetary rings at relativistic speeds, crossing the vast interplanetary distances in mere hours.
Several hours in-system, they stopped briefly to scavenge supplies from the asteroid belt between the 4th and 5th planets. They brought in several smaller asteroids that nonetheless contained ample material for their needs. Within several hours they were on their way once more to the growing blue dot of the 3rd planet.
“Arriving and establishing orbit, sir,” the nav officer stated.
“Good. I want to know everything about this rock you can dig up.”
As the sensor crews began collecting data, the captain studied the visual images. The green/blue planet was dominated by water, which was promising. The land masses were scattered across the surface, and—
“Captain, there’s plentiful life by the looks of it, and the atmosphere is perfect! It’s like it was made for us.”
The captain stared at the screen, fingers idly tapping the arm of his chair. “Gravity? Temperature? Toxins?”
“Gravity is .01G heavier than we’re used to, nothing that will cause us any trouble. Temperatures vary across the surface, but only the areas around the poles are outside an acceptable range. We’ll have to get down into the atmosphere to be sure about toxins, but the initial data suggests nothing significant.”
“Alright. Let’s take her down. I want everyone in suits before we hit atmosphere though, and suits stay on until all hull repairs are complete.”
There were groans just at the edges of his hearing at those words, but nobody complained outright. 10 minutes later they were sinking into the planet’s atmosphere, headed for a region dominated by temperate woodlands and several enormous fresh water lakes.
The ship set down on a flat section of land near some curious hills. Suited engineering crew immediately set about repairs, while others set about ship’s business. The captain ordered others out to scout the area around the vessel. Tidings was a small ship with a crew of only 50, so if anything dangerous prowled the area, he wanted to know.
“You have the bridge,” he informed his XO. The ship rested on several landing struts, two of which bore stairs for crew to descend. “I want to check out those hills with one of the scouting parties. Something looked off from the air.”
“Aye sir,” the XO said. If there was any trepidation in him, he hid it carefully away.
The captain joined a scouting party the XO had ordered to wait for him. “We’ll be checking those hills out there,” he said, mounting the small ground vehicle the party was riding. It was wheeled, but the captain didn’t foresee any problems; the ground was relatively smooth, covered in this region by some several varieties of what looked to him to be mosses in various colors and shades.
They drove away from the ship at a modest pace, scanning the edge of the large clearing they occupied. It was bordered by a mixed forest of what were recognizable as trees, or close analogues. Though some had familiar tall trunks with foliage growing off of branches on the upper sections, the whole area was dominated by a type of tree structure the captain had never seen; cone-shaped and dark green and brown, for the most part, though there were some that looked lighter and almost blue. When they drove closer, he noted they lacked leaves as he knew them, bearing long needle-like spiky leaves instead.
He frowned, and returned his attention to the hills they were drawing near. The 3 men with him were too busy driving and scouting for mobile threats to pay particular attention to the plant life.
“Stop here,” he said after another 10 minutes or so of driving. They’d reached the top of one of the odd hills. A single massive tree, one of the more familiar forms, dominated the hilltop. “Tell me, men. Do these hills look natural to you?”
“Sir?” The men all bore puzzled looks. “Now that you mention it, sir …” The youngest of them spoke up. “They do look a little … regular.”
“You have climbing gear?”
“Yes, sir.” The young man handed him a cable and climbing gloves.
Suitably equipped, it took him only a few minutes to climb to the uppermost branches that would support his weight. From this vantage, there was a subtle regularity to the hills in this area as they marched toward the shores of one of the massive lakes they’d seen from orbit.
There was an almost grid-like series of depressions between the hills. It looked familiar somehow. They weren’t uniform though; rivers and streams flowed through some, but not all of them, and the grid was broken here and there by depressions running off at odd angles. But the general pattern, seen from up high, was striking.
He stayed in the branches of the trees for some time, studying the patterns. They went on for what looked like kilometers at his best guess. He descended back to the ground when the sun began setting, throwing shadows over the hills and making the lay of the land harder to read.
“We’ll have to record the imagery on our way back up when repairs are complete,” he commented to the men. “It’s uncanny. The hills are separated by what almost look like streets and roads.”
“But sir, this planet is uninhabited! We’ve seen no sign of advanced animal life; nothing large, anyway, nothing that could build a city.”
The captain just nodded.
The repairs took several local days. The rotational period of the planet lined up very closely with what they were used to from home; another tick rang through the captain’s mind. Scouting expeditions continued each day, but none brought back anything that might explain the odd hill formations. None found any evidence of large animal life either, though there was evidence of small animal life, possibly mammalian analogues. Sightings were brief and recordings unclear, however.
Finally when the repairs were done and supplies of raw organic materials were replenished, the captain reluctantly ordered the ship back into the air. “Fly low over the hills though. I want to record as much as we can.”
That they did, the roar of the engines rumbling over the hills as they passed by.
A sensor tech made history that day, as he performed an unusual analysis of the data they captured. Standard procedure would have eliminated engine noise from the results. Instead, this individual not only left it in, but traced the signature of the noise as it passed through the environment. When she saw the outcome, she gasped.
“Hmmm? Report,” the captain ordered.
“Sir … it’s a city! Or what’s left of one. It’s unmistakable, look.”
The sight of the ruined city laying under the ground, the wreckage of collapsed buildings overgrown with earth and vegetation, hard packed roads broken up and sunken along the path of each depression in the earth, all of it rang true to the whisper in his head.
“We’ll have a lot to report on when we get home, crew. The analysts and archaeologists will have to do a lot of studying to be sure … But I do think we’ve just become the first human beings to set foot on Earth in tens of thousands of years.”
As the Tidings blasted up through the atmosphere like a jewel on fire, light snow began drifting down over the evergreens below.