It was the worm drive allowing real-time interstellar travel that finally opened the stars to humanity and provided us the unprecedented opportunity to learn about the universe at first hand.
What we found fell remarkably short of the phantasmagoria of speculative fiction.
First we discovered that planets are surprisingly commonplace companions to stars. And other than distribution they were largely similar to those of our own solar system—solid bodies and gaseous less-condensed ones in a mix, the occasional stray escaped moon or captured rogue here and there, but little real difference.
And on their surfaces and in their atmospheres, when planetary size and temperatures and a host of other factors allowed, was always water. We might have guessed from its omnipresence on our home planets and even the smaller bodies such as comets that populate our Oort cloud: water is the most common molecular compound in the universe. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms combine in this simple fashion everywhere, so that as gas, liquid or solid, water is a cosmic constant.
In all these respects we found our home system was far from the unique environment we'd once believed; instead it was ... ordinary. Typical.
Where we were not typical, we learned, was in life. While all that water provided on Earth the basis for the primordial soup that gave birth to every living thing, elsewhere for the most part it lay stagnant and barren. On a few worlds at the optimum distance from their suns carbon compounds (always carbon) had formed what might be the precursors of life. On fewer yet the process had advanced further to microbial creatures capable of self-sustenance and reproduction, though little else. On a very, very few things had gone yet another step to the development of eco-systems populated by primitive microscopic life-forms that responded to environmental changes, had some form of self-motility, sought food, preyed on one another and otherwise resembled what we contemplate were the distant ancestors of our own pre-Cambrian era.
But of intelligent life we found none. Not only did the planets we surveyed lack our own peers, they offered none for squirrels, crocodiles, even fruitflies—nothing that seemed more self-aware (self-awareness being the requisite precursor to intelligence) than plankton. Even on the rare worlds where life had propagated, it had advanced but a few baby steps before lapsing into evolutionary doldrums. It was beginning to appear that as a thinking species we were indeed alone in the universe.
Which is why, when the starship Argo arrived at RM-96375-05 (the fifth planet of a minor Sol-like star identified only as No. 96375 in the Revised Messier catalog), the results of its orbital survey had such a dramatic impact...