Roberts stepped from the Arcachon onto flat grey sand, and scanned the horizon. Utter desolation all the way, the missing-without-trace Gironde-class cruiser Bordeaux nowhere to be seen.
“Henri, no Bordeaux. We got the right coordinates?”
“Sure we have.” Henri sounded puzzled.
“Maybe it’s buried,” said Roberts.
“No – sand’s too shallow. Unless it’s destroyed, the beacon separated…” Henri sounded doubtful. Gironde class beacons didn’t separate. The Bordeaux had to be here.
Roberts scanned the horizon again and froze. A spacesuited figure stood five metres away, motionless. “Jesus Christ! Henri! You see this?”
“There’s someone in front of me. Spacesuit…I’m coming in.” Roberts was gabbling in panic.
“Hang on John. Calm down. I see only you on the screen. Tell me what you see.”
“EVA suit, can’t see a face, standing there like a monument. Came from nowhere!”
“Okay, I hear you. You still want to come back in?”
Roberts faced the figure, breathing deeply. “No, but come out and take a look.”
“Suiting up then. Ten minutes.”
“Okay.” Roberts took a step forward, saw himself reflected in the figure’s gold visor.
“Thanks for coming,” said a voice in his helmet that wasn’t Henri.
“Who are you?” Roberts squeaked.
“This is easy,” said the voice.
Ice crawled up Roberts’ spine. “What’s easy?” he whispered.
“This,” said the figure, pointing.
Roberts half turned, not wanting to lose sight of the figure, but he caught movement in his peripheral vision. The Arcachon – sinking fast into the grey sand.
“Henri!” he shouted. “Get out! Get the hell out!” He turned back to the figure and screamed.
“Are you doing this?”
Roberts spun back to face the Arcachon. Only the central pod was visible, descending like a submarine’s conning tower. Then nothing. Grey sand flowed over the grave.
Shaking and terrified, Roberts faced the figure.
“Your turn,” it said, seeming suddenly taller.
Roberts heard a loud hissing. Alarms chimed. His suit was ruptured, the pressure was dropping. Struggling for breath, he felt a terrible burning pain in his feet and legs. Looking down, he saw red stained sand up to his knees.
Then he understood.
Each particle of sand was a cutting and digesting bio-mechanical organism, each the component part of a hungry planet.
Roberts stopped screaming when the sand reached his chest.
The planet’s ancestor had been a von Neumann machine, designed to convert the raw materials of its destination planet into replicas of itself. Somewhere along the way, a descendent of the original machine evolved sentience and decided it wanted to become a planet instead of looking for one. It began by hunting for small debris in the local star system. Growing larger, the machine planet realised it no longer needed to hunt for food. Food was delivered instead. Random debris were attracted by gravity. Curiosity and subterfuge brought spacecraft and their crew. Arrivals never departed. The planet continued growing. The planet’s ambition was to become a gas giant or even a star.
The planet was completely insane, but it was having a ball.