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Stranded

Illustration from french comic book writer and concept artist Roger Leloup, somewhere in the 70s.

An unknown world, about three thousand lightyears above the galactic plane.

At least the atmosphere was breathable. It was not pleasant - about 17% oxygen and 83% nitrogen, which meant every effort costed more due to the lower oxygen level - but it was mostly alright. Maat had put her breathing mask in filtering mode only, just to be extra sure, even if her environmental suit had not spotted any dangerous chemicals or organic particles in the atmosphere around her. The past six hours had been a rollercoaster ride of emotions, mostly centered around a slow, lumbering fear of dying in her escape pod, jammed in some kind of deep underground structure after the initial impact on the surface of whatever planet her Diamondback had crashed on. She had not been able to control anything in the fully automated escape, as the brutal FSD disengage her ship had suffered from had left her unconscious while the Diamondback was hurling towards the closest planet at high speed, finally ejecting the escape pod as it burned through the atmosphere. The impact of the escape pod itself had not been particularly nice, leaving Maat with bruises in almost every part of her body. Her right leg hurt so much that had first she thought it had been fully fractured, judging from the pure, unalduterated pain she could feel erupting through the lower part of the leg. It had taken her two hours to slowly emerge out of her coma, activate the pod's manual systems (the automated ones had been shut down during the impact), get out of her reinforced hard vacuum suit and inject a compound of medical nanomachines and organic products in her leg to repair the broken bone. The subsequent pain had been equally unbearable - usually one would anesthesiate themselves first before injecting repairing medicine, but she was afraid she would never wake up again. Another three agonizing hours had been necessary for the compound to fuse her bones together again and put her leg back in working order, then one more hour to feed and re-hydrate herself, and finally step outside of the pod in a light environmental suit. Once outside the pod and after having checked the atmosphere and temperature parameters - it was rather warm down there - Maat reached for the supply compartment of the escape pod. The first thing she grabbed was her stylet and its batteries. Stylets were standard-issued equipment aboard escape pods and exploration ships of the Unseen Republic. They were made of a battery and generator pack, the size of a small book, that could be easily put in a backpack or attached on a belt. The generator pack contained a small detachable apparatus, linked to the battery by a wire and shaped a bit like a pair of scissor, except that the tip was made of a focusing crystal covered in optic fiber. Stylets were laser tools that could be used both as general purpose cutting tools, incendiary tools, light sources or defensive weapons depending on the power and diffraction of the visible radiation they emitted. Maat grabbed the stylet from its generator block - she had always loved the way these tools were handled, with two fingers holding the scissor-shaped emitter, and another one on the haptic trigger on the side, which made the tool fairly secure and visually distinct enough from a weapon so that it wouldn't be considered as such. She put her thumb on the side of the stylet and waited for it to initialize. After a few seconds it displayed a bright, blue light on its charge indicator. The stylet was working, its battery was completely charged and she had a spare one. Maat took a deep breath. A working stylet could bring her quite far, and even if she was lost somewhere in the middle of space, the feeling of being in possession of this tool was deeply empowering. She wasn't a primate stranded on a hostile, unknown world anymore. She was a human, with access to the tools created by human ingeniosity. She would make it. She could make it. The rest of the escape pod's cargo container had a few months worth of rations, as well as water purifying equipment and a spare suit, all useful and even vital things but the stylet was different.

Maat tuned her stylet to a medium intensity radiation and very high diffraction, turning it into a source of sun-like light to illuminate her surroundings. The escape pod had pierced what seemed to be some kind of artificial structure : a very low amount of sunlight pierced through the crack opened by the pod, several hundred meters above. Maat couldn't make out any detail on the surface, but the sensors on her suit told her that the light that came down towards her was emitted by a G or F-class star, quite similar to the sun on Earth. Coupled with the breathable atmosphere it meant that there was either life on this world, or it had disappeared just a few centuries before. She turned around : the pod would not get out of its steel coffin for a good while, jammed as it was in the underground metal structure. The metal itself appeared rusty and brittle. Though at first glance it looked like steel, Maat felt compelled to try and analyze it. She changed the settings of the stylet again, tuning it to a higher intensity and lower diffraction. A small circle of green light appeared for a second on the metal surface, vaporizing a few nanometers of material. She asked her suit to analyze the resulting dust, and soon after the suit told her that what she had considered as metal was in fact made of some kind of very durable carbon and silicium compound. What she had wrongly identified as rust was in fact a thin coating of organic material, probably colonies of unicellular organisms. To reach this kind of decay, the compound had to be very old, several thousand years at least but probably not more than half a million years. Neither the timeframe nor the material itself were compatible with what she knew of guardian or thargoid ruins and artifacts. Maat felt a surge of adrenaline go through her veins. This was unknown to her. Whatever this place was it had been built by people who weren't humans, who weren't guardians and who weren't thargoids. Something new. Something that could be her tomb, but something new nonetheless.

Maat started carefully moving away from the escape pod, seeking a way to come back towards the surface. It was hard for her to identify whatever this place had once been supposed to be, with its completely featureless hallways - though to be fair this was hardly a factor. Understanding alien cultures was in most cases almost impossible, because there was no point of comparison. The only civilisation humans had been capable of somewhat understanding had been the guardians, and even then, whatever was known about them was incredibly parcellar, and the result of millions of blind guesses, assumptions turned into truths and misunderstandings. That was what the commonly accepted guardian history was based on. Next to nothing and that next to nothing had required years of study. The advent of galactic archaeology had cast a very crude light on a depressing truth : the galaxy was impossibly vast, both in time and in space. Maat was deeply convinced that there had been thousands of intelligent species in the galaxy, she had no way to prove it, she had even no reason to think this besides purely philosophical arguments, but deep down she knew it. Thousands. Perhaps millions. And yet the galaxy had 400 billion stars and was a dozen billion years old. What was the timeframe during which a civilisation could exist in the space age? A few thousand years? Perhaps a few hundred thousand years. Yes, let's say a few hundred thousand years. Now what was the timeframe during which the ruins left by an intelligent species could exist? The guardian example said about a million years, though Maat assumed those were a fringe case - guardian tech was exceptionally durable. Human tech, for instance, would start to break down after a few hundred years without maintenance and simply cease to be recognizable as technology after several hundred thousand years. So in total it meant a timeframe of about one or two million years, centered around a few thousand stars. That was to say next to nothing compared to the age of the galaxy. Knowing that single misplaced ice age could "delay" a civilisation's technological progress by a few dozen thousand years, the chances for two civilisations to be in the good timeframe to find each other's ruins, or even meet, were incredibly small. There was no grand cosmic explanation to be found for mankind's loneliness. No great filter to invoke, no galactic calamity to be afraid of.

Just the sheer vastness of the galaxy.

A few hundred meters away from the escape pod, Maat found running water peering from the cracks in the structure, where the unicellular creatures had recycled most of the carbon, only leaving a skeleton of silicium. Salty water, told her the suit, which meant she was close to the sea. There were other minerals in the water, all indicative of the surrounding planet being some sort of rocky world. Interesting development. That was a rather welcoming world. If she could make it up to the surface, of course. Here and there she saw access wells from which light came down, and on a lower gravity world it would probably have been possible to climb up, but the ground gravity was around 80% of G. Too high. Maat needed a better access, perhaps some kind of stairs - assuming whoever had once occupied these ruins had had any use for stairs. Judging from the hallways, they seemed to have been slightly taller and larger than humans, though she had no way of even guessing whatever they could have looked like : for everything she knew they could have been horizontal creatures, sapient amoeba colonies, intelligent trees or even artificial creatures. Impossible to know. Maybe she was walking into some kind of ventilation tunnel or factory module. Guided by the light of her stylet Maat kept advancing. Sometimes the weakened ground would start to crack under the light weight of Maat and her suit - the whole place was really falling apart. It was normal. People's expectations about the durability of technological artifacts without care had been skewed by the Guardians, who had clearly built everything in their civilization to last millions of years, up to the point of going to the trouble of using material forged in white dwarves to be as dense as possible. But in truth, after a mere thousand years, about anything would start to crumble.

At some point Maat stumbled upon what she assumed to be writing on the walls, only to realize that it was just a crack in the structure. Then more light up ahead. What looked like an access ramp going upwards, towards the light, but it was blocked by a cave-in. Maat had a short moment of dispair, until she realized that the structure had caved in, not the surrounding rock, and the carbon-silicium alloy was weaker than stone. She tuned to stylet to a lower frequency (she did not want to melt the whole thing, just remove what was in her way) and to a high dispersal to turn it into an improvised cutter. It took her half an hour and twenty-five percent of her battery but she managed to get through the cave-in by carefully cutting through the weakest parts of the structure in front of her and manually removing the now-loose parts. The access ramp beyond the cave-in led to a ground-level structure, a hangar whose decayed roof let sunlight enter, as well as a kind of vines. They had leaves that had a strange shade of white and red, which alluded to non-chlorophyl photosynthesis. She was tempted to remove her breather mask for a minute before her explorer reflexes kicked in - that was an exceedingly bad idea. Not so much because of possible exposition to foreign toxins of diseases, which was a true risk but one Maat had ways to counter through antibiotics or medi-gel injections. The true problem as far as she felt concerned was in the other direction : contamination of local biotopes with human diseases. It had happened in the past. Lave was a great example of human-carried diseases disturbing local ecosystems to the point of extinction.

And then Maat looked towards the sky. There was something going through the skies. Something far away. A thin white line going from one side of the horizon to the other and...no, no it could not be...a thin white line that widened at the horizons, as if the surface of the planet was rising in the skies and closing an impossibly wide circle high up there - and she was sitting somewhere on the internal side of this circle, this ring, and there were oceans and continents on the ring, with sprawling clouds slowly gathering under the effects of the coriolis force. Far away in the distant sun she could make out a very thin, ghosty grey line. Walls to keep the atmosphere inside.

It was a ringworld.

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