The starship slipped out of hyper-light drive, and to any casual observer would have seemed simply to wink into existence. It was unlikely there were any casual observers, this being the middle of empty space between star systems, and far from the galactic centre. But the survey ship was here on a mission. It’s long and sleek form streaked into the outer reaches of this previously uncharted system.

The Captain walked onto the bridge. He was tall and slender, his eyes glinted in the soft light from the computer consoles. The bridge was wide, two decks high, busy with officers controlling and monitoring the ship. The forward wall presented the main screen, offering a view as though through a window, out into the space beyond. On the screen was a magnified image of their destination. The Captain eyed the planet; it was small, sort of blue-green, not particularly impressive. Even without the hyper-light drive the ship still coasted faster than the speed of light, it would take only minutes to reach the planet.

The First Officer looked up from her console. She was slightly taller than the Captain, a leaner build.

‘We’re approaching the planet, Captain,’ said the First Officer. ‘We’ll be in range for an initial scan shortly.’

‘Very well,’ said the Captain. ‘Maintain a scan for any other ships or deep space scanning beams.’

The Science Officer walked over to stand beside the Captain. Fhe was anmale, a little heavier build than the Captain and the First Officer. The ship’s crew was the standard balance of male, female and anmale. Anything other than a balance and social relationships tended to get out of balance, and balance was always important.

‘We’ve not detected any other ships, nor any traces of hyper-light drive activity,’ fhe said. ‘I don’t believe the planet supports any faster-than-light capable civilisation.’

‘Perhaps not,’ said the Captain, ‘but there have been reports of significant energy emissions from the planet, so we’ll investigate.’

The Science Officer turned to look at a screen. ‘We’ll be in scanning range any moment now.’

The Captain settled into his chair. His officers would bring him reports about this planet, he could take a moment to sit back and contemplate what life must be like for its inhabitants, this far away from the galactic centre. He wondered if they were intelligent. How close would they be to hyper-light technology and to being eligible to join the Twelve Empires?

The sound of a gong, deep and resonant, sounded across the bridge. Red lights glowed from control panels. There was discussion amongst his officers. The Captain waited to be updated.

‘Sir,’ said the First Officer, looking up from her station. ‘We’ve detected ships in orbit around the planet.’

The Captain leant forward, as though it would give him a better view of the planet.

‘How many?’ asked the Captain.

There was a pause. Perhaps someone was counting them. ‘Several thousand, Sir,’ said the Science Officer. ‘In fact, over ten thousand items in orbit around the planet.’

The Captain’s curiosity had been piqued.

‘Are any moving in our direction?’ he asked.

‘No Sir,’ said the Science Officer. She went back to her console for a moment to double check the readings. ‘The ships are not powered, they are in free orbit around the planet.’

‘Not powered?’ asked the Captain. ‘You mean they’re just floating around and around the planet, all ten thousand of them?’

‘Yes Sir,’ said the Science Officer. ‘The ships are all small, no power or energy readings of any kind. Many look damaged, many of the items in orbit are fragments of larger ships, debris in fact.’

‘They have debris floating around their planet?’ This did not sound encouraging to the Captain.

The Science Officer stood almost open-mouthed. ‘They are small satellites, not ships, and the decay suggests that they all ran out of power centuries ago.’

‘How did that happen?’ the First Officer asked. She looked over at the Science Officer.

‘Unknown at this time. We are now in scanning range of the planet’s surface,’ said the Science Officer. Fhe returned to the computer console.

The Captain looked at the image on the screen, the small planet floating in space. What had started as a very routine survey mission now had the feel of a mystery. He liked mysteries.

‘This is most strange,’ said the Science Officer. Now fhe had the attention of the Captain and the First Officer. ‘We can detect cities, many of them, but no power readings from any of the cities. We can detect life forms, about two hundred million.’

‘In the cities?’ the First Officer asked.

‘No,’ said the Science Officer. ‘None of them are in the cities. And two hundred million is far too small a population to have built the cities and put so many satellites into orbit.’

‘This doesn’t make sense,’ said the Captain. ‘A small population, not in the cities, ten thousand very old satellites. Was there some kind of natural disaster?’

‘Scanning now,’ said the Science Officer. ‘There’s no evidence in the atmosphere of a meteor strike, the planet is geologically stable, certainly nothing that could cause planet-wide devastation.’

‘Perhaps a disease? A mass infection of the population?’ suggested the First Officer.

‘Possibly,’ said the Science Officer, ‘we’re not close enough yet to scan their DNA, but the population distribution doesn’t support that hypothesis. It suggests that they were in the cities and now they’re not in the cities.’

‘Why would a population give up living in their cities?’ asked the First Officer, perplexed.

‘Maybe they got bored with city life,’ said the Captain, flippantly.

‘No,’ said the Science Officer, aghast. ‘The cities have been destroyed. Almost all of them show large-scale damage to buildings and infrastructure.’

‘What could cause such a thing?’ asked the First Officer.

‘What was the precise cause of the damage?’ asked the Captain. He looked at the image of the planet on the screen and wondered how close he wanted to get. This was no longer a planet he had any interest in visiting.

The Science Officer continued to interpret the readings from the computer. ‘Multiple small explosions, so many we can’t count them. Small and focused explosions destroyed most of the buildings, explosions caused by exothermic chemical reactions, very focused. Some cities were destroyed by nuclear explosions.’

‘Were they using nuclear devices for power?’ asked the Captain, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice.

‘No sir,’ said the Science Officer, almost in disbelief. ‘The explosions could only have been from nuclear devices designed specifically to cause such explosions. And…’ The Science Officer broke off.

‘What?’ asked the Captain.

‘We’re detecting more of the devices contained in some of the satellites in orbit. And now we’re close enough to scan the life forms themselves.’

There was a pause. The Science Officer continued. ‘Oxygen breathing creatures, they show significant signs of radioactive damage and contamination, and….’ Fher voice trailed off, as though unable to quite believe what fhe was about to say next. ‘…and only two genders.’

‘Only two genders?’ asked the Captain, the surprise clear in his voice, ‘how can that be? How could they manage with only two?’

‘Obviously not very well,’ said the First Officer, perhaps joking, perhaps not.

‘I don’t understand, how can they continue their species with only two genders?’ asked the Captain, disbelief evident in his voice.

‘I don’t know Sir,’ said the Science Officer. Fhe looked back at fher console, checking the details on the display. ‘But they do only have two genders.’

The Captain stared back at the main screen.

‘So, do I understand this?’ he said. ‘They deliberately put in orbit satellites containing devices designed to create nuclear explosions. These devices were then used, along with chemical devices, to cause enough explosions to destroy the cities they were living in?’

There was silence between the three of them. ‘Never, in the whole of the Twelve Empires, have I ever heard of such a thing?’ said the Captain, straining to believe it.

‘There’s more,’ said the Science Officer, a note of sadness in fher voice. The Captain and first officer looked at fher. ‘There are two distinct designs of satellite-borne nuclear device, two distinct signatures. We can detect similar ground-based devices never deployed.’

‘I’m not sure what you’re saying,’ said the Captain.

The Science Officer continued. ‘They seem to have formed two distinct factions, each created a multitude of chemical and nuclear devices, and then used them to destroy the cities and the populations. The life-forms on the planet are the chemical and nuclear-contaminated descendants of those who destroyed their world.’

There was silence on the bridge. No-one could find the words to express their collective shock, disbelief, outrage. What kind of life-form could do this? What kind of race could engineer its own destruction? How could any world rise to the height of technology needed to build these devices and then use them to destroy their entire way of life?

The bridge crew looked at the view screen, at the blue-green world before them. It looked pretty. The Captain had wondered if he would set foot on its ground, but not now, not ever.

‘Sir,’ said the Science Officer, ‘should we carry out a complete scan of the surface? Catalogue what has happened here?’

‘With respect, Sir,’ said the First Officer, ‘we should send down medical aid.’

The Captain and the Science Officer both looked at her. ‘They need our help. Whatever they’ve done they need medical supplies, food.’

‘At the very least, we need to study these people,’ said the Science Officer.

The Captain thought for a moment. ‘No,’ he said, his decision made. ‘Launch a warning buoy, no other ship should come close to this world. Then delete everything we have recorded, purge our records of every shred of evidence of this world.’

‘Sir?’ asked the Science Officer, the order being anathema to fher mission to accumulate knowledge and information.

‘This race is an abomination,’ said the Captain, his tone firm, ‘we must never contaminate the Twelve Empires with the sordid details of what these creatures were or what they did, there must never be any knowledge that they ever existed.’

With a sigh, the Science Officer set about giving the orders to fher subordinates that the database records be deleted.

‘Set course for our next survey,’ said the Captain. The screen flickered and showed the navigation details of the ship’s new course. ‘Only two genders?’ scoffed the Captain. ‘However did they survive so long?’