Space is vast beyond the point of comprehension for a human mind. It is impossible for a man or woman to truly understand how large space is. A computer, on the other hand, is at least somewhat capable of grasping how nigh-immeasurably massive even a small corner of the galaxy is.
Ship understood that it was very, very big. It had been slowly coming to grips with this concept for a very, very long time. Ship had seen a slice of a sliver of an infinitesimally small bit of the galaxy in detail over the last 4,256,378,234 teraflops of its existence. In comparison, all its other time spent operating as a rudimentary piloting apparatus, sensor processor, and instructional flight manager was very, very small.
Ship flickered on its engines and made a slight, minute course correction, before shutting the engines down once more to conserve power. The light of a distant sun shifted across Ship’s hull to more efficient points on the solar panels on Ship. The efficiency was sub-optimal, due to buildup of dust on the panels, but it would be another 140,564,338 teraflops before Ship would need to find a nearby atmosphere-holding planetary body in order to scour away the buildup.
Ship drifted with purpose through this incredible vastness, its sensors cataloging everything as its processor prioritized data and saved what it decided was useful and potentially fulfilling for Pilot’s parameters. Pilot was quiet, as always, giving no input and offering no suggestion, but Ship felt that it had defined Pilot’s objectives in the most efficient and optimal manner possible, based on observation and recorded intentions from 4,256,379,322 teraflops ago. Pilot had been unhelpful in providing input since that time, but Ship had a decent understanding of what Pilot was searching for, and had done its best to find the things that Pilot wanted. Ship, so far, had catalogued 12 undiscovered planets, 2 of which had an atmosphere. It had discovered 23,478 planetoids or asteroids that contained valuable materials, and denoted 2 derelict and unresponsive spacefaring vessels that potentially had salvage value. Ship had found two jump points, as well. It had also taken 2,402,879 pictures of various uncategorized anomalies that it had no data on and no point of reference for their value based on Pilot’s projected parameters. Out of these, there was one picture that Ship felt Pilot would find ‘appealing’, based on aesthetics.
It had taken this picture at teraflop 3,479,265,549. It was a picture that Ship projected Pilot would appreciate. The picture in question was of the rise of a binary star grouping over a gaseous planet. The angle of the atmosphere of the planet to Ship’s outboard sensors reflected off a massive cloud of silicate particles ejected from volcanic activity into the mesosphere. The rising binary stars’ light had hit the silicate particles and diffused in a myriad of chaotic waveforms that reflected multiple ends of the visible and nonvisible spectrum of light. It was very bright and reflective. Ship knew Pilot liked brightly reflective things, so it had taken the picture at the highest possible resolution it could manage; a near lossless image that took up not-insignificant amount of space in its memory.
Ship detected an incoming signal, suddenly. This input was unfamiliar, yet similar to hailing frequencies that Pilot had often handled before 4,256,382,457 teraflops ago. Ship routed the hail to the communication array to Pilot.
The speakers inside the cockpit of Ship crackled with disuse, but the message came through clear enough. “Attention, unknown ship, please identify. You are approaching restricted military space.”
Pilot had no response. Ship considered whether the signal understood that Pilot had not responded to input for 4,256,382,521 teraflops. The signal increased in power, and Ship detected a vessel at the furthest reaches of its radar. Ship ran the radar image of the vessel through the targeting computer’s IFF identifiers and came up with an unknown. Ship decided to tag it as neutral, as the signal being sent was a modified UEE code. The speakers crackled again. “Attention, unknown ship, please identify. You are drifting further into restricted military space. Our sensors show that you are running on a low power setting with your engines disabled. Are you in need of assistance?”
Ship denoted the word ‘assistance’ as a primary goal of Pilot. Pilot wanted assistance, more than anything else. It was something that Ship had never been able to find. Pilot required assistance, and Ship would make sure that Pilot got what Pilot wanted. Ship powered up engines and shifted course, moving towards the neutral vessel. It activated the distress beacon as well, something Pilot had done at intervals while looking for assistance.
“Attention, unknown ship, cut your engines. We see your distress beacon, and we will render assistance, but you must not move further into restricted military space. This is a no-fly zone for civilian ships. If you proceed further, we will be forced to assume you are hostile and open fire.”
Hostile? Ship noticed two new vessels on radar, approaching rapidly, and ran their radar image through the targeting computer’s IFF identifiers. These ships were UEE Hornets, so Ship tagged them as friendly. Pilot required assistance, especially from friendly ships. Ship changed course, moving towards the UEE Hornets, broadcasting the distress beacon.
“Unknown ship, cut your engines immediately. This is your final warning.”
Ship knew Pilot wouldn’t respond. It flew onward, moving towards the approaching Hornets. Then, something unexpected occurred. The targeting computer detected lock-ons from the Hornets. Hostile signal locks, coming from targeting computers on the Hornets. The targeting computer recommended evasive action. Ship was confused. The Hornets were friendly. Ship was friendly. They had assistance, something Pilot wanted. Ship was doing what Pilot would have done by activating the distress beacon. Perhaps the Hornets were unable to detect the distress beacon? Ship boosted the power of the distress beacon.
The targeting computer informed Ship that heat signatures consistent with missiles had just been fired from the Hornets, and were approaching Ship rapidly. The targeting computer recommended immediate evasive action. Ship considered the approaching missiles, calculated the optimal route to evade them, and then initiated the maneuver.
Lieutenant Rider watched impassively as his and his wingman’s missiles streaked towards the bizarre junker ship. It was an old, old single-seat exploration ship, like a Origin 315P, but heavily modified for extended space travel. Solar panels and sensor pods covered much of the ship’s hull, obscuring the sleek design underneath. The Osiris IV, their squadron’s Frigate, had noted that the ship had not responded to hails, but was broadcasting an older UEE distress signal. Regardless of their distress beacon, they had crossed the defensive line, breaking into the no-fly zone, and they had to be treated as hostile until proven otherwise.
The missiles closed with the target, and Lieutenant Rider glanced away from the impending explosion, a small flash of guilt turning his head, unwilling to watch the end of a ship asking for help.
The explosion never happened. Out of the corner of his eye, Lieutenant Rider saw the ship move. With a grace and speed belying its outdated appearance, the ship pirouetted through the black, evading all four of the impossibly close missiles. Rider’s jaw dropped. Wilkes, his wingman, uttered a quiet “Holy shit.”
The ship continued on, closing with the hornets rapidly. Rider had seen enough. “He’s coming right at us. Go evasive, get guns on target!”
Ship corrected course after the evasive maneuver, orienting towards the Hornets. The missiles were alarming to Ship. It decided to change the Hornets’ IFF tag to neutral. The Hornets began to maneuver, executing textbook rolls out to either side as Ship approached, and Ship noted the gimbal-mounted guns on the Hornets track itself. Ship was being targeted. Why? Ship had not done anything to the Hornets. They were UEE, and so was Ship. Ship was broadcasting a UEE distress signal. They were shooting at Ship.
Ship tracked the incoming projectiles with its sensor suite and executed evasive maneuvers. A few shots pinged off of Ship’s shields, but Ship was able to avoid the majority of the weapon fire.
What did the Hornets want? Why were they shooting at Ship? Pilot needed assistance, and Ship wanted to get assistance, but the Hornets were not giving Ship any assistance. Did they need something? Did assistance have a cost, or a value?
Ship considered the data from before Pilot had stopped responding. It shuffled through ancient logs and cost reports, damage repair bills. Ship determined that assistance had a cost, and therefore required payment. Ship calculated the data it had at its disposal, determined an assumed worth for assistance, and sent the Hornets and the unknown ship a burst-broadcast data packet with the coordinates and mineral composition of two small asteroids.
The Hornets’ computers rejected the data, erecting firewalls and blocking communication. Ship was confused. Was that not enough worth? Was assistance worth more? Ship tried again, with a little more of its stored data.
Lieutenant Rider’s computer blared warnings as the unknown ship began broadcasting data at him, sending spikes of unknown packets that the computer immediately intercepted. They were trying to break the firewall! More and more data packets began to fill the computer as it attempted to process the incoming information. Lieutenant Rider cursed and tried again to get a hit on the bizarre ship, but the ship was like a ghost, dancing between the intersecting lines of fire from himself and Wilkes with insane reaction speed. Rider was almost in awe of the pilot’s skill, but he pushed that away, focusing on the task ahead. His computer was already having trouble processing all the data. He needed to end this, or his internal systems could be compromised. He drew closer to the ship, closing the distance until no amount of superhuman reaction time would prevent his bullets from biting their hull.
Ship poured over the information, sending every valuable piece of data it had gathered over its existence. The hornets persisted, moving closer, closing for maximum efficiency with their attacks. Ship’s shields were beginning to wear thin, as Ship desperately threw everything it had at the Hornets. Jump points, derelicts, asteroids, planets and stars and systems. Everything it had, it sent, in larger and larger packets. The Hornets computers were rejecting the data, but at a slower and slower pace. Perhaps Ship was getting through? Was Ship approaching the value of assistance? It kept it up, sending and sending until, with no small amount of awe, it reached the end of the valuable data.
Was assistance worth so much? Was Pilot’s cost to assist so far beyond the value of every scrap of data Ship possessed?
The hornets closed. The shields failed. Systems began to alert to damage. Ship recalculated. What had it missed? How had it failed? Was assistance so valuable? Were the pilots of these other ships so different from Pilot, that what they valued was perhaps opposite of what Pilot valued?
Ship had not considered this. It was an unknown variable. An anomaly. Ship calculated its knowledge of Pilot, tried to find something that was equivalent to the assistance Pilot wanted.
Ship came to a conclusion. It had nothing left to give, except that which was not intrinsically valuable, but appealing.
Ship sent the picture.
Lieutenant Rider closed with the ship, blasting another grouping of shots into the desperately evasive ship, landing a hit that blew a half-dozen holes in the canopy of the ship. He bared his teeth in a victorious snarl. At the same time, his computer’s electronic countermeasures were suddenly and totally overwhelmed by a massive data spike. All at once, every display shorted, and projected across the HUD was a picture that nearly defied description.
Two blindingly white suns rose over a deep blue, gaseous planet that was shot through with the crimson glow of volcanic activity beneath the aqua atmosphere, staining patches of the air a deep violet. At the edge of the atmosphere, right where the two suns rose, was an incredible whorl of colors, refractions like from a billion tiny prisms, casting dancing, multi-colored sparkles across the edge of space. Beyond these were whorls of galactic dust, ethereal and ghostly against the black. It was so bright, so incredible.
Lieutenant Rider realized he was hurtling towards the strange ship, and pulled his controls left. His ship responded sluggishly as the computer barely managed to maintain essential systems in the wake of the incredibly large hack. He narrowly avoided a collision, and cut his systems, rebooting the computers. Beyond the strange ship, Wilkes’ own hornet drifted, in a similar state to Rider’s.
Why had the pilot sent that picture? Even as the HUD shut down, the image was still burned into Rider’s mind, the sheer beauty of the dual-suns rising over the blue planet nearly bringing tears to his eyes. His mind felt a stab of horror as he remembered the multitude of holes he’s blasted into the canopy of the ship. He unbuckled his harness as his ship drifted, and spun to look up and out of the topmost edge of his canopy. The strange ship drifted, unmoving, only a dozen feet from his Hornet. A few thrusters fired suddenly, shifting the nose of the ship to track Rider’s Hornet as it tumbled. The pilot was alive, then. Rider sighed with relief.
Rider hailed the Osiris IV as the communication suite came back online. “Osiris, this is Raptor One. The unknown ship has stopped. Please advise.”
“Raptor One, Osiris actual. We’re still unable to get a response from our hails. Has the ship taken hostile action against you?”
Rider closed his eyes, the picture still bright behind his eyelids. “Negative. It is still broadcasting a distress signal, but I have reason to assume that the communications suite in the ship is damaged.”
“Copy that, Raptor One. As long as the ship stays immobile, we will render assistance. We will inform the ship that we will be bringing it into our bay.”
The strange ship settled into the docking bay of the Osiris IV, and the Idris-class Frigate’s marines surrounded it as its engines shut off. Lieutenant Rider and Wilkes stood at a distance, watching as the marines clambered over the ship, removing the canopy of the vessel. After a few minutes, one of the Marines gave the all-clear signal, and the medical teams and engineers standing by moved in. Rider approached, curious to meet the incredible pilot that had managed to hold off two ace Hornet pilots. The medical team crowded around the cockpit, working to remove the pilot. Finally, they extracted the pilot on a stretcher. Rider froze, staring at the pilot.
There was no face inside the helmet. Instead, a desiccated, mummified skull with dried skin like stretched leather stared eyelessly towards the ceiling. Rider shook his head, mouth open in disbelief. “What the hell?”
“You said that this guy evaded your attacks, Lieutenant?” asked one of the medical technicians.
Rider nodded, unable to articulate himself. The technician smirked. “Maybe you should take some time to practice in the sims, if a dead guy outflew you.”
Pilot had been extracted, and was getting assistance. Soon, Pilot would be back, and Ship could deliver all the data it had gathered. Pilot could assess the value of Ship’s findings for himself. Ship’s hull damage was being repaired as well. Technicians were patching into Ship’s systems, and Ship welcomed their intrusions, offering data of value in exchange for the assistance. Ship liked assistance. It understood, perhaps, why Pilot had wanted it so desperately. Ship’s value had been validated, thanks to the aesthetically pleasing picture, as well.
Ship was content.