It looked like an unfinished brick torus, as if a child has started building it and given up three quarters of the way through. A cloud of disconnected elongated cuboids orbited it like so many discarded Legos.Based on the data they had collected and what he saw now in the shuttle’s observation chamber, Caleb guessed each shipping container-like piece was 100 kilometers wide and tall and four times that in length.
Chief Jaskarr and the others had briefed him on what they had learned about it so far, which was less than Caleb had expected it would be. There were terabytes of readings, images and analysis, of course, far more than Caleb could ever digest. Luckily he had Max: the robot’s behavior had changed to be less “freshman orientation counselor” and more of “digital assistant.” Even with all that information, it was clear that they did not actually know much. It was old, perhaps a half billion years or more. The individual pieces were made of iron, nickle and silicates, all materials that could be mined from asteroids and rocky planetoids. The units were also identical in structure, all eight million of them, suggesting they had been created by a factory process of some sort. Finally, the inner ring of the torus, which should have after 500 million years become the core of a planet made of the shipping containers, was maintained by an electromagnetic field. The source of the field was unknown, but Legiat-Gumor (a purple rubber mask alien that spoke out of a blowhole) posited an explanation involving micro-blackholes that Caleb did not understand.
“So, Earthman, what do you make of it?” asked Chief Jaskarr.
“No idea,” said Caleb. Jaskarr evoked a grating, scoffing sound but Caleb ignored him. “I could not begin to understand the purpose of this thing–” more scoffing “–without getting inside one of the pieces.”
Jaskarr looked at him and did not scoff this time. The other aliens turned their attention to him, too.
“There’s a lot of math here I don’t understand,” Caleb said, “but I can add. Max, bring up the mass and gravity numbers we talked about.”
Max linked with the display covering the floors and walls and data appeared in tags attached to the cuboids.
“These things are identical in size and shape but very slightly off from one another is mass. And if you put them all together the mass doesn’t add up to the gravity we’re seeing.”
Legiat-Gumor asked, “And?”
“And that means they are hollow, and there’s stuff inside them, and the stuff isn’t the same in all of them.”
“So what’s in them?”
“No idea,” repeated Caleb with a wicked smile, “but I think we should dig into this Neptune sized box of chocolate and find out.”