It was difficult settling into an orbit around Clerestory. The prime real estate--synchronous orbit around the equator--was a jumble of thousands or maybe tens of thousands of structures the next best--low orbit again at the equator--had smaller stations looking more like inhabited places than construction sites, but it was equally dense. There were gnat-like swarms of objects in polar orbit and at other angles.
Jeanette thought it was all incredibly cool, in a way: all the enormous space stations from every science fiction movie ever glittering in the vacuum. Not that anything was identifiable, but there were jumbled oil refineries and sleek wheels and amusement parks and thin spiderwebs attached to metallic cocoons. There was something that looked like a collision between two Borg cubes and one that looked like an oscillating giant drop of mercury.
“It might make the most sense to simply dock at one of these places,” said Senhor Capoeira Capybara.
“I’d rather we just find a parking orbit and take a nice long look before interfacing with anything,” Terence Ransom said.
“And I’ll have that for you all in a few moments,” said Captain Tchulik Chresti. “The problem is that this complex a mess is unstable. Simply picking the first empty spot could have us in a collision after a few dozen orbits, and there’s no telling what’s on board some of these things. It’s what computation’s for, though.”
It too a few minutes, but the Wooden Shoe descended into a near-polar orbit just a little further out than was optimal for a scanning mission. Jeanette turned the focus of the screen in her cabin to the surface, and saw an appealingly earthlike world go by below. That was luck, though, wasn’t it?
When the scan was finished, the travelers all gathered at the mess table to see the floating model of the globe floating over it. “It does look like there’s been a tiny bit of terraforming done here, though that may not have been the intent,” the Captain said. “Take a look at this coastline: that white part’s an artificial structure, and it may be there to extract a large amount of water from the ecosystem, giving more land area. There are also considerable pit mines here, here, and here. All I all, it has the look of a well-used world, though not ruinously so.”
“Only one large city, but it’s hard to tell how much is just machine, ” said Lord Elphinstone. “Numerous small cities--no roads. This is more than just an armed camp for an invasion.”
“It could be that they were waiting some time for more toons--more of our kind to show up. Or it may be there was more than one assault, and they retreated here,” said Dr. Ransom.
“Unlike the Night Land, they didn’t seem to be under attack here,” O Tse said. “I think we should chance landing on the planet. Perhaps close by one of the smaller cities.”
“Marginally better than the chaos in orbit,” agreed Senhor Capoeira.
“But we’ve been monitoring the channels the folks from the asteroid gave us,” said the Lieutenant, “and nothing. Not even automated position buoys. Almost certainly this all is deserted.”
“No one expecting to return,” said Silvertyger solemnly.
They touched down in scrubland close to a small city, white with a couple of needlelike spires. They were in a broad bare space that had seen many landings and takeoffs. The path to the city was narrow and unpaved, but not rutted with wheels. The sky was a cloudless bowl of blue, and the wind was hot.
“Not a fence, not a sign,” said the captain. “Probably no natural enemies, and no casual travel. If you don’t mind, I’ll stay with the ship while you investigate. This place gives me the creeps.”
"Well, we were warned about that,” said the capybara. A railed suspensor platform descended the hold ramp, a gift from the Cowards. The Lieutenant stepped up, and offered his handto the Queen of Hearts, who took it as she boarded.
“One would think that wearing a red gown and a cloak off the shoulder would be out of place in a hot half-desert,” said the Captain in a low voice to Jeanette, who was standing next to him. “But apparently not.”
Jeanette was surprised. “But she’s not, well--”
“Not my species? Very true. But she is most certainly scenic.” Captain Tchulik puffed out his shoulder-feathers. “I was looking forward to seeing her in khakis, however.”
Jeanette boarded the platform and they headed for the city, The haunted feeling was definitely there, even in the bright sunshine. But the idea of a completely abandoned planet didn’t help.
The first buildings of the city were adobe-like: low, thick-walled with only a few deep windows. The dominant building, however, was a tall cylinder whose walls were only narrow panes of glass, with a matte-white low crowned roof. It was about four stories high, and revealed very little inside.
They stood before an opaque door in a thin white frame. Jeanette found herself wanting to see a sign of some sort, even a number, but there was nothing. It felt--well, yes, creepy. Her father stood before the door and raised a phone-shaped device. “Welcome,” a standard synthetic female voice said. “Please pause inside until the green light goes on for an indigenous pathogen scan.”
The air was deliciously cool as they stepped into the immense glass space. Air circulated upwards. There were a large number of featureless metal cabinets connected by rounded half-pipes scattered around the floor, but there were also chairs and couches.
“Welcome to solid-state viral block assembly facility 24, administrators. How may Ihelp you today?” The voice said.
“We would like access to archives--general archives,” O Tse said.
“General archives are located in the city of Narthex on continent 2. I can, however, connect you.”
The air wiggled in front of them. “Welcome to General Archives, administrators,” the same voice said. “ Do you have a work order?”
“Um--no we don’t,” said O Tse, worried.
“I will put it in the Unprioritized Request Queue,” said the voice. There was a pause, then: “There are no requests ahead of you in the Queue. How may I help you?”
“Narrative of first arrival on Clerestory, please,” said Dr. Ransom.
The air clouded and darkened. However, at the same time, one of the tall glass panes flashed as if it was catching the sun, and from that pain, a dark shape leapt out at then, arms extended.