Kyle considered all the ways a species might die out quickly.
Disease could do that, but usually there is some percentage of the population that has or develops an immunity. Scans of Beta Cygni VII showed no detectable life. They could be underground in shielded shelters. This was something to consider.
A war might have done it. In that case, he'd expect to detect radiation, damaged buildings, explosion craters, or other signs of a widespread struggle. The few high-resolution photos brought back by the first-contact team showed cities that seemed perfectly intact. There were land vehicles out of place here and there, and what appeared to be the occasional crashed aircraft or ship, but not enough to indicate that a battle had taken place. If anything, what he saw supported the disease theory.
An evacuation was another possibility. Maybe when people started dying, others had a way off the planet. That would explain a lack of survivors. But if the Alliance analysts were right, and they usually were, this planet didn't have the technology to mount an evacuation like that. Even if they did, where did they go? Why didn't they come back? It was still a possibility, but an unlikely one. Even with help from a spacefaring organization like the Alliance, it was unlikely that there wouldn't be some evidence of an evacuation or a warning not to land on the planet's surface.
No, the more Kyle looked at the data, the more he was convinced that this civilization died out by itself. Maybe it was a failed bio-engineering experiment, a plague of some kind, or a natural catastrophe. He wouldn't be able to figure it out from here. They were going to have to land on the planet.
Checking the crew roster, Kyle selected an away team that included specialists from the medical, chemical, military, and engineering departments - along with a small security detail. If there were survivors in shielded bunkers, they might decide to pop out of hiding. If so, they might see the away team as a threat. He checked to make sure they had enough hazardous environment suits to accommodate the party. They didn't, so he decided to risk leaving the security detail behind and instead arm the members of the away team. A couple of his choices weren't cleared for weapons use, so he selected others who were.
As if he'd planned it this way, the Prospect assumed standard orbit around the planet as he finalized his selection and sent it to the captain.
"Commander Wagoner, Dr. Chang, please join me in the conference room," Garrick said, standing up from his chair and walking to the door in the back of the bridge. The other officers followed him inside.
The conference room was large enough to hold the ship's senior officers, seated around a shiny table made from bamboo processed to resemble hardwood. Displays were built into the seating positions, and a 3D projector was mounted into the center of the table.
"Computer, close conference room door," Garrick said, taking his place in the high-backed chair at the end of the table. Wagoner and Chang sat in the seats closest to him. Garrick tapped the screen in front of him. A three dimensional image of Beta Cygni VII hovered and revolved over the center of the table. A few more taps, and the away team selection appeared.
"Mr. Wagoner, Ms. Chang, we've got a mystery on our hands. I don't mind reading a mystery story, but I don't want to be a part of one. There's no reason to believe that whatever killed the people on this planet is still there, but there's no reason to believe it's not. Mr. Wagoner's recommending hazard suits and quarantine procedures. I agree. If something deadly's down there, I don't want it on my ship. Agreed?"
Chang and Wagoner nodded.
"What are your theories at this point? Biological, chemical, radiation?"
Wagoner turned to Chang, "You first, Mei Li."
"It is not radiation. There is no evidence of that. It is not a war, because there are no obvious signs of damage to the structures. It was fast-acting. We see evidence of this in the crashed ground cars and aerial vehicles. That leaves something chemical or biological." She waved her hand in the air to alter the 3D display of the planet and zoom in on some of the cities. "Whatever happened seemed to create some degree of chaos in the cities."
Garrick turned to Wagoner. "Commander Wagoner?"
"I agree. We won't know for sure until we go down there. If it's chemical, we might find traces in the air or residue on surfaces. We need to test for that. If it's biological, we may find traces in the air, water supply, or food. It might show in the soil, too."
"You both agree that we need to go down there."
They nodded in unison and spoke, "Yes."
Garrick tapped at the screen, the 3D image shifted. "Here's the Commander's proposed away team. Are you OK with remaining aboard, Ms. Chang?"
Chang looked over the list floating in the air. "Yes. Lieutenant Harris is an expert in biology and biochemistry. He will perform his tasks well. He is also trained in the use of hand weapons, which the Commander seems to find important."
Wagoner nodded. "If there's anyone still alive down there, they're probably holed up in underground shelters. They might see our presence as a threat, or even an invasion. If they decide to come after us, I don't want our people surprised and overwhelmed."
Garrick nodded. "I agree. Let's play this one really cagey until we know what we're dealing with. Alright, Commander. The away team is yours. Bring them all back to me alive."
The three of them returned to the bridge. Wagoner issued electronic orders to his away team members to meet him at the shuttle bay. He saluted the captain, flashing him a quick smile of thanks, and went to the shuttle bay himself.
* * *