Even here, in the deepest void of space, there was comfort in moving through nothing.
The ship’s engines rumbled pleasantly; more than that, the feeling of the engines running, matter being converted to plasma to be ejected through narrow cones, the heat and pressure of it all – these were feelings no person could ever truly feel. The sensation of electricity coursing through the hull; automated drones, each one feeling as if a part of her body; the cold, pressure-less void trying to rupture the skin of her hull.
She felt more and more like a vessel, a Ship, than a physical being every day.
She answered the signal with a slight nod. “Par’terre responding.”
Her Carrier’s voice replied. “Mines ahead. Recommend we move around – too dense to push through.”
“Negative, Hunlock. Fuel is too slim to allow reroute. Deploy sweeper drones to clear a path.”
A blink of affirmation shone in her head, tinged with mild annoyance. Hunlock’s pilot was barely more experienced than she was, but they had a stubbornness that had remained after training. She decided to call a halt to the extended fleet’s movement, to better conserve energy until the autonomous drones had completed their task.
Only three organics were on this mission: Par’terre, piloting the largest ship, capable of reinforcing the rest of the fleet and acting as a supply and defence platform when necessary; Hunlock, aiding scout- and fighter-class vessels with combat duties, as well as maintenance; Ven, a research station tasked to monitor both alien encounters and the neural ship-links (with a full AI-suite paired to the pilot). The rest of the fleet was comprised entirely of drones, as well as Remlin – a synthetic AI – a harvesting ship that caught and refined asteroids to supply the fleet with fuel and materials.
While the drones began sweeping, Par’terre studied their movements, linking into their “senses” via Hunlock’s connection. The way they danced through the ether, deftly disarming and cannibalizing mines with pinpoint precision, made her heart sing from the synchronicity of it all. Suddenly, she felt them shift priorities when one of them accidentally set off a mine, their motions simultaneously sending them backwards as a handful of explosions blossomed dully in the dead of space. Once scanners had confirmed no further instability or activity in the field, the drones returned to their task. Hunlock felt concerned, though Ven was the one to bring voice to it.
“They react in an almost empathetic way.” He said, his voice cool and collected over the interface. She could almost see his placid, thoughtful face as he floated in the fluid chamber, holographic light shows streaming information around him. “See how two are now seeking to reassemble the lost drone, despite its significant damage? Truly a waste of their resources and time, don’t you think, Hunlock?”
“They react because they care.” Hunlock stated, their tone barely concealing their disgust. Of the three, Hunlock felt the closest connection to the drones, and had requested Carrier duty despite being offered the Mother-ship command. They had spent long hours connected to the autonomous scouts and drones, as well as a few combat missions with the fighter-class ships, and clearly preferred their company to the other pilots.
Par’terre continued watching and feeling, recording the sensations of the drones as well as their data logs as a third broke away to assist in the reassembly. The drone that had set off the mines was severely damaged, and it spasmed as its circuits shorted – she wasn’t sure it could be reconstructed, but the drones carried on without reaching that conclusion, welding and reattaching, rewiring and even donating the arm of one of their own to the operation.
In the end, the drone was too badly damaged to continue the effort of mine removal, but assisted with the dismantling of deactivated mines instead. There were no true feelings from the drones – they were machines, with limited AI functions beyond basic programming – but Par’terre thought she sensed a camaraderie, a sense of community among them. She could feel Ven probing her data-stream, studying her as she studied them. The sensation was less than pleasant, and she indicated that with a few pulses of irritated energy.
“This is my duty here, Par’terre. There is information that you gather that I cannot – that is why you were selected as Mother-ship, no?” His knowing smirk was evident in the jab, and Par’terre felt the skin of her hull bristle. Ven was her least favourite.
“Just because you’re researching the neural link does not give you permission to dally about in my head, Ven. My surface-level data should be more than sufficient.”
Ven’s reply may as well have been oozing slime. “If you deny me access to any data, I will utilize the ScR‘s authority with impunity, Par’terre. Don’t forget who funded this intiative.”
A message from Remlin streamed through their thoughts: Asteroids. 14 kilometers ahead, bearing 113. The stream fell silent for a single breath, then continued. Recommend cessation of hostilities – supplies low. Par’terre took this as a sign that Remlin had been listening, and was encouraging the two of them to be civil. She sent her thanks as a sine wave of gratitude, and received an echoed version of it from the refining ship.
Remlin wasn’t as developed as the rest of them; in its life, it had originally been a construction vehicle on Washe, with almost no higher functions to speak of. No one knew exactly how it had gained sentience, but it now supported a high enough level of self-awareness and intelligence to be claimed as synthetic life, making it the fourth such case. Remlin had requested service in the fleet, and despite not being organic from “birth”, it possessed a crew of plant-protein human simulacrums inside its hull that all shared the same mind. Ven found its mimicry disturbing, but Par’terre and Hunlock thought its simplicity was charming.
“Hunlock. How long until the field is clear? Remlin is anxious to resupply.” Though she knew Remlin didn’t feel anxiety, the word was the best translation for the synth’s desires.
“Less than an hour at this rate, though that might escalate if there are any other mistakes. I’m going dead on comms; need to focus on the drones.” Hunlock’s line went to a silent static as they disconnected from the group. Ven was clearly less than impressed, and began detailing different regulations his AI counterpart drew from the archives about when a comms blackout was necessary, the possible charges on not responding to queries, and a variety of other legal backdoors, though Hunlock wasn’t able to hear them.
Par’terre let him carry on, barely parsing his judging tones; something curious about the asteroids Remlin had pointed out drew her attention. The probes sent out a few hours earlier had all gone dark. She tasked two scoutships from Hunlock’s bays to investigate why the probes had ceased communications. As always, Ven’s probing presence pervaded behind her thoughts, but she was more worried about a potential hostile threat than the science officer’s intrusive presence.
Since Hunlock was entwined with the drones, Par’terre took it upon herself to guide the scouts, feeling the shudder of their hulls as their engines pushed near their maximum thresholds. The rush of it was something she rarely experienced, and she envied Hunlock‘s connection to the other ships – she suspected they felt much more than they let on from the autonomous craft.
As the scouts arrived near the asteroid cluster, drives idling to a soft cruise, their sensors shifted to full bore, flooding Par’terre’s mind with images and telemetry readings. Ven‘s AI helped to codify the stream of data, and relayed a few striking images of what looked to be structures on the surface of a smaller asteroid. Derelict though they appeared, it could be a pirate base, and Par’terre authorized weapons-free protocol on the scouts, sending a line on the emergency frequency to Hunlock requesting additional escort attached to the scoutships.
A few blinking lights sounded in her mind, accompanied by additional sensory feedback as two squadrons of fighters scorched out in perfect formation from Hunlock, their hulls creaking with the sudden shift of pressure. A second string of lights appeared in Par’terre‘s mind, showing concern and curiosity mixed. She signalled back a sequence that indicated awareness and caution. The mines could have been laid by whoever – or whatever – inhabited the asteroid base.
Once the fighter escort attached to the scouts arrived, events unfolded in a cascading fashion. First, lights flickered on in the derelict structures, like a hive of insects slowly awakening in the dead of night. More and more buildings were illuminated, and with them came a flood of ships, alien in nature and unknowable in purpose. Then came the sounds, broadcast through all frequencies and bandwidths, deafening in the shared mind-space; they were reminiscent of deep ocean creatures, or the sounds of roiling plasma engines in-atmosphere, rumbling and otherworldly.
Ven‘s AI was parsing information faster than Ven himself could keep up, but between bursts of organized data and references, Par’terre sensed…worry. Fear, even.
“Ven. Is it alive-” She cut herself short, knowing Remlin was listening. “Is it sentient, I mean?”
“Too much data. Can’t combine it all to make sense of it.” His voice was shaky and distracted.
Like a thunderclap in a storm, Remlin‘s message burst through the noise of data. Slaving simulacrums to Ven AI now. A beat. Connected. Filtering data through network. Wait.
The stress of the neural link felt more spread out now, as if an uneven weight had been redistributed, easier to bear. Even the noise from the asteroid felt less overwhelming. Par’terre confirmed with Hunlock that the situation was evolving, and asked for another sitrep on the minefield. She received a frantic lightshow of “soon”, and told them to focus on their task while she handled this. She then requested all fighters and corvettes be readied for launch, and began activating several repair vessels on her skin, like metal trilobites, that broke off and idled nearby.
“That’s it, Remlin.” Came Ven‘s triumphant voice over the comms. “That’s what the signals are! It’s information. Information on a scale no single mind could hope to understand!”
“What does that mean, Ven? Clarify.”
Information is overloading simulacrums. Percentage lost: 3%. Acceptable parameters dictate a maximum of 20% loss before shutdown of link.
“Yes, yes.” Ven‘s attention shifted, and his connection grew tenuous. “It’s data. All kinds of data: geometry, physics, local anomalies, gravitational fluctuations, combat patterns, mineral analysis-“
“Combat patterns? Ven. Relay that information.”
The stream felt like a focused beam now, though the bulk of data coursing through her mind was still vast. It detailed complex maneuvers, strategies, tactics in any atmospheric condition. She could sense the enormous force of miniature ships growing by the second, and she knew a show of force would end catastrophically.
Percentage lost: 12%. Recommend shutdown, Ven.
“Shut up, you hulking metal idiot!” Ven shouted down the line, his thoughts a buzz of activity. It was as if he were being swept up in the storm of ships that poured out from the asteroids, his mind carried along in the-
“Ven, cut the connection. You’re getting lost in the signal!” Par’terre warned, but his source went dead. His AI kept repeating the same four words: Keepers. Null. Activate. Learn.
Hunlock joined comms once more, clearly unnerved. “Par’terre, the mines are rebuilding themselves. I can’t disassemble them fast enough!” Her connection to the drones showed they were correct: the mines that had been dismantled were reforming from their constituent parts, even amalgamating the drones that got too close. “What do we do?!”
“Hunlock. Retrieve all drones and remove all strike craft from the area. We cannot risk losing any more.” Par’terre intoned gently over the line, and received a grateful signal from Hunlock. She felt the drones retreating, escorted by the wary lines of combat ships that dodged grasping tendrils from the mines. “Remlin, can you analyze for me?”
Request is unclear: please provide parameters.
“Can you…study these creatures? The mines, and the swarm from the asteroid?” Her sensors hadn’t shown any movement since the withdrawal of Hunlock‘s drones; the alien fleet simply hovered in space, thrumming with energy on every conceivable band. “Determine their intent, whether they are a danger? If they can be reasoned with?”
There was a pause that felt a parsec long, then the booming reply. Understood. Simulacrums are tasked. Wait, please.
Par’terre sent a wave of appreciation to it, noting it had been polite. She felt that it had grown more accustomed to interacting with organics in the last few weeks, using honorifics and friendlier tones than were expected. She thought it might even be developing feelings, or some synthetic version of them. Perhaps wishful thinking.
Study is complete.
Par’terre waited for several moments before signing confusion over the link. “And?”
Study is…complete. Was that confusion she felt?
“Remlin, please confirm. Study is complete – reveal analysis.” Hunlock chimed over the comm, attempting to speak closer to its language.
Hunlock. Bio-mechanical units around asteroid cluster T7-429a show genetic sequencing outside established scales. A pregnant pause. Bio-mechanical units show no similarity to any recorded organic life. Analysis deemed impossible without further variables.
The line sat empty for nearly four minutes as the group mulled that over. Ven was still unresponsive, as was his AI; Remlin, a synthetic AI, was out of its depth; and Hunlock was conflicted about their drones tearing apart seemingly alive mines. Only Par’terre, looking through the data-streams from before Ven‘s disappearance, was calm.
“It’s…a library.” She mumbled over the neural link.
Par’terre. Please confirm – Library?
Images of libraries from centuries of human history accompanied the question, possibly the first question that Remlin had ever asked them, and Par’terre distractedly waved confirmation. “Like an organic library. A storehouse of information so vast, it needed its own species.” She began to toss signals at the aliens, almost as if she were requisitioning information from a terminal. Slowly, the aliens began to return her signals, beaming concentrated information not only in words, but as images, sounds, smells – the creatures were capable of sharing sense information!
Thinking quickly, she began compiling data from her own sensors, creating packets that she sent back in return: the feeling of her ship, the sensation of the fluid around her; the now truly strange sensation of walking on her own two feet; air, precious lifeblood, sucked into greedy lungs after so long in an oxygenated solution. The trade continued, and in the din of information, she idly felt Hunlock and Remlin joining, sharing their own sense memories with the creatures.
After nearly one full Standard Rotation, the data-streams were ended; partially for the health of the two organics, and partially for the lack of available storage aboard their ships. The amount given was barely a scratch of the surface, judging from the depth of complexity inherit in their signals, but it would give scientists and experts centuries of work, perhaps millennia.
“Par’terre to Ven. Please respond.”
The AI had broken its loop but was not responding to hails.
Ven. Please establish communication protocol.
Still nothing, though all ship activity remained constant.
Then, a single line from the AI. Keepers. Location. Though it lacked any context, it felt like a question.
“We don’t know any Keepers.” Par’terre replied solemnly. She knew it was the aliens speaking through the AI’s comms, but she couldn’t understand why.
No records of Keepers exist. Please state system of origin.
Remlin was eerily silent for a moment, leaving the field of space distantly empty save for the steady thrum of her engines and the steady stream of input from Hunlock’s sensors. It felt like she’d been here for years.
Then came the solemn line from Remlin. Par’terre, requesting communications blackout with Remlin unit until further notice. Please confirm.
“Remlin, what do you mean? Has something happened?”
…Please confirm. There was hesitance in its comms.
Par’terre waved Hunlock to confer. “It’s acting odd. Do you think there’s been a systems breach?”
She practically felt Hunlock shake their head. “Remlin would notify us of that. I trust it. If it thinks a blackout is needed, then I say we give it two hours. If nothing happens then, we can fall back, at least.”
Par’terre didn’t like it. A first contact with a biomechanical race that claimed to know of another one? How could they retreat from something so vast? She felt the walls of reality expanding well past their original borders, revealing dark pockets of unknown space. She felt uneasy.
“Remlin. Confirmed. You have two hours. After that, we’re pulling back.”
Confirmed, Par’terre. Retreat without Remlin unit if communication attempts fail.
“We won’t leave you behind, Remlin.”
A lengthy pause ensued, and Par’terre almost missed Remlin‘s reply as she began the blackout.
Confirmed. Stand by…