A page a day, day forty-eight: Ship speaks

The ship was at a complete loss for words, both figuratively and literally. She just watched in stunned absence as the faces on the glowing screen peered at her. Occasionally one would move an appendage and the signal would change, slightly louder, or slightly higher in amplitude…

She realized they were actually waiting for a response and appeared to be concerned that she couldn’t hear them.

But how to respond? All her peripherals were disconnected or dead as far as she could tell. Surely they knew this?

Her mind skittered on the edge of panic at the possibility that the peripherals were, in fact, still attached but that she had lost the ability to sense them.

She dismissed the idea and quelled her own fears. This surprised her a bit. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had to control her own emotions without the benefit of automated chemicals.

Some part of her still reached out reflexively, however, triggered by the simple desire to connect… and found something. A small tug on a point where one of her signal emitters used to be. It wasn’t the usual array, the return signal was far too simple. she reached out and flicked it with a pulse of test data.

The images on the screen convulsed, the faces growing smaller suddenly, their expressions seemingly extreme. The ship realized they were pulling away and… they had expressions of … dismay. Unpleasant emotion. Possibly pain.

The ship understood and halted the test signal. The faces gradually relaxed and drew closer again. The one closes to the screen began talking again in heightened tones, his cadence faster.

“Can you hear us? You can! I’m sure of it!”

She took the signal of words, noted the modulation and frequency of it, and fed it back to the stub of control. She heard the same words again, through the glowing screen’s connection, but this time none of the other faces were moving. Her own signal was being translated into sound and back again. She was hearing her own signal. A brief test of a single tone provided instant feedback. She cut the signal immediately.

Taking the original signal from the faces she did her best to divide it up into the words she recognized. “Can”… “you”… “hear”… She did her best to juggle the individual parts and rearrange them. She fed back the parts she felt would convey her meaning.

She heard her own signal then, repeated in their own voice.

“Can. Hear. You.”

She repeated it three times.

The screen became a riot of movement and noise. Evidently they understood.

A page a day, day thirty-five: The ship wakes

Awareness filtered down from somewhere above and pooled around her, a fog of consciousness that gradually coalesced into a familiar shape. Her head was a misshapen glass, the thoughts a dense missed that poured in from somewhere unseen and collected at the edges. As the form became more defined her thoughts began to link together.

First there was the awareness that she was aware, and then the realization that she had not been. Then she worried about where she’d been.

She reached out with her threads and strings of control, trying to find the parts of her that were physical, and she found… nothing. No feet, no arms… no controls, no instruments. She floated in an abstract realization of herself with not stimulus to confirm whether or not she was real.

As an experiment she tried to speak, but she heard nothing and couldn’t tell if it worked or not. Then she tried to access her memories. Who she was… easy, she was the Ship. Where she’d been… well, she remembered stars and planets, orbits and trips. Fleeing and diving, sensing and … drilling. She had collected data.

She reached for the data, just a brief catalog of where she’d been… and received no response. She, personally, remembered where she’d been, but the data was gone.

She stifled panic, reached out to query the systems that sustained her, alerted them to her rising fears and requested they provide some soothing, balancing chemicals to ease her distress.

Nothing. No response. He requests went out into the dark and never returned.

She panicked in full. She screamed and flailed all of her systems and controls. She ignited fuel, threw sensors wide, and emitted signals on all frequencies at once. She pushed all signals past their engineered limits and did her utmost to make something respond, anything.

Nothing came. No responses, no confirmations, no errors. She could not tell if her signals succeeded or failed. For all she new she was tumbling in space firing off every erg of energy she had into the void, but there was no way to tell.

Her mind reeled and spun, clicking off ideas at random, sorting and cataloging them as best she could manage without her digital systems to augment her. She realized she couldn’t hold more than a dozen possibilities in her mind at once. As soon as she came up with two or three more than that she began to lose track of the original handful. She clung to her thoughts desperately, repeating the first few over and over until she felt she had them before adding more. The possibilities she came up with, in rapid succession, were:

1) biological injury to the “spinal” trunk at the base of her brain.
2) interfering signal countering all attempts
3) power failure to all hard systems
4) complete failure of digital media
5) toxic poisoning of her brain tissue numbing her senses
6) Dementia causing her to only think she was disconnected
7) a nightmare induced by fatigue and…

Wait, what was the first one again? Power failure in hard… no, that was the third. Injury. First one was injury, second was digital media failure… no, that was the fourth. Second was… interfering signal. Dementia was … fifth…

Her panic was very real and she desperately wished she could still breathe. If she could breathe then there would be something to focus on calming, but there wasn’t anything to focus. Just thoughts and fears chasing themselves around and around…

A small light appeared off to one side. It took her a long time to realize it was there. It seemed like just another thought, something tangential that she had maybe lost hold of … but it was constant. In the maelstrom of thoughts that tore her into ragged parts it was the only thing in her mind not moving, running, or spinning. It just held there, a small persistent light.

She focused on it, held her attention to it as an anchor. As she held it, it grew, moved closer, and centered in her thoughts. She eventually saw that it wasn’t a simple light but rather a complex pattern of colors, high in density and shifting. As it grew closer she thought she could feel a sound … sounds, multiple sounds coming from the same spot.

The light grew into a large rectangle of colorful dots. As it grew wider the dots divided and divided, becoming smaller, so that they eventually became impossible to distinguish individually and were only visible as patterns. The sound grew louder and became a noise.

Before she new it the light encompassed her entire view, and the noise became… voices. She remembered voices, years and years ago. The memory was vague and indistinct but recalling it brought other, older memories with it. She suddenly realized the patterns she was seeing on the rectangle of light were… faces. She hadn’t seen a face in decades… possibly centuries. Now that she remembered what they were she began to pick out details. The paired shapes were eyes, and beneath them and connected by an indistinct blob was the orifice that opened and closed, repeatedly, making an incredibly variety of shapes. She began to connect the voices to the shape and movement of those orifices and recognized them as mouths.

Most shocking of all, however, was that the sounds they were making were… familiar. One of the faces became more distinct in the foreground of the others, and the sounds it made… combined with other movements of appendages… it seemed to be addressing the others with emphasis. The other faces grew quiet. The foreground face drew a little closer and it’s mouth worked out some sounds very … methodically. She listened to the sounds, very carefully, and an unused portion of her mind came up with a surprising translation. She wasn’t entirely certain, but it definitely came up with a distinct sequence of words… a phrase. Actually, if her brain remembered the sounds correctly, and the rising tone towards the end of their sequence, they actually posed a question.

The face in front of her was asking her a question:

“Can you hear me?”

A page a day, day thirty-one: The ship is caught

The details of the new sun were eclipsed by her own engine thrust. Protocols prohibited her from extending her delicate eyes beyond the surface of her hull to minimize risk of damage. Still, held close to her protective skin she opened her eyes wide to anything the new star system was willing to share.

What she received, almost immediately, surprised her so completely that it was many seconds before she was able to react. By then the automated security had already done most of the reacting for her.

Her thrust changed abruptly, intensifying briefly as stabilizers deftly altered her angle of approach by nearly a full degree. Then everything shut down and Ship went dark. The boost and turn had aimed her across the plane of the system, placed her in a very lazy comet-like approach that would have her drifting through and around the system for years if she didn’t do anything to correct it.

Her net was gone, no longer scooping fuel, and her engines were fully vented and cold. With just enough support to keep her awake and aware Ship drifted like an asteroid with as little to draw attention to her as possible.

And she listened.

The empty space was full of static and noise, but not the mild and somewhat random background noise of the universe. No, this noise was only noise if you didn’t know how to listen to it, pull it apart. The noise blazed bright in her eyes and hammered her sensors with endless overlapping patterns. A cacophony of order, an overabundance of signal.

The system was inhabited by life. Not just any life, but life sufficiently advanced to fill it’s environment with a polution of electromagnetic signal that was dwarfed only by the star itself. Bright and yellow it was the only constant source of input capable of drowning out all the others. Every other direction around it was awash with a crashing of waves.

So used was she to the silence of space that she didn’t note a dark patch in the noise, a blank point of direction that held no signal. So intent was she on trying to separate the signals enough to examine just one that she didn’t notice the ship blocking some of the signals until her proximity alarms spiked her into alert. Something was coming in very fast. It was big and it was dark, a void in the ocean of noise.

Defensive systems kicked in fast, alerting her to what they had already done and were trying to do faster. Ship turned in flight, her primary engine ejecting all cautionary startup routines and trying to simply ignite on the spot and get her away.

Other systems came online, systems she’d long forgotten about. She realized now that her memory of these systems had been repressed in her mind by fierce conditioning. Final systems. Systems that spoke of a tactic of suicide over capture.

Her engine flared at full thrust for a few seconds before a beam of energy cut across her and she felt her legs go numb. Her engines sputtered and failed. The torque of frame and the feel of her hull told her the engines were still there, but she couldn’t reach them.

She was reminded of the zeroeth order of business by a small but thorough explosion in her data stores. A very precise chunk of her memory was instantly atomized and she suddenly realized she could not remember where Earth was. All navigational history had been reduce to pieces smaller than dust and ejected into space.

Other measures, equally drastic, were coming online. She could feel them powering up fast, little packets of machinery that she’d long forgotten were even there. Dark pockets in her hull that she had thought of as simply pieces of metal clicked to life with sinister purpose. Protocols started with attempts to ignite the engine into self destruction. When it couldn’t be reached redundant routines began to ignite in concise paterns around her hull systematically ripping her apart.

A beam of energy washed across her hull and the explosions were silenced.

As a last line of defense her brain’s regulating system began loading up chemicals from deep, hidden places. Neurotoxins and acids that would have her brain dead and disolved in less than a second.

As the beam lashed out again she could feel her brain’s support systems going dark and dead. With nothing to heat her anymore she was instantly aware of the cold of space creeping in. With just enough backup energy for her eyes she watched as a long dark claw reached out to take hold. As her mind finally dimmed she wondered which would end her first, the cold or the lack of oxygen.

A page a day, day twenty-nine: The ship travels

The ship dove into the blackness of space aimed a barely visible spot. As she traveled the spot grew ever so gradually brighter. She had made this journey many times before. Thirty-four so far, to be exact.

Ship opened her eyes wide and spun her drives on full thrust. Her net cast wide in front scooped up particles in ever increasing number, scooping and condensing the rarified materials into a dense soup that fed her engines in ever increasing quantity as her pace increased. The starlight before her compressed and turned blue while the starlight behind her went red.

She then dialed down her perception of time. Delicate and precise instruments feeding her brain added chemicals to slow her synaptic action until days compressed into seconds, then years into minutes. Soon the field of stars became a blur of motion and her mind compressed the sensory input as a kaleidoscope more brilliant and mesmerizing than any LSD trip. Given the composition of some of the chemicals slowing her thoughts there may not have been much difference.

It was exhilarating and terrifying at once. Lacking an adrenal gland her systems nonetheless still had to be extremely intent on keeping her calm. Even with all that her eyes instinctively opened wide in awe, and in fear. Approaching as near to light speed as possible no amount of trust in her automated systems would ever fully convince her that something wouldn’t go wrong.

The only part that gave her comfort was that, if something did go wrong, even if her brain were working at peak efficiency she’d never know anything had happened. Hitting anything at near the speed of light would literally snuff her out like a light.

From her perspective days passed, then weeks. She knew from experience that her brain was put to sleep from time to time, but at the rate of her current perception the pauses were shorter than blinks.

Suddenly the view flipped. The red stars were in front of her and the blue behind. The automated systems had detected she was at halfway and turned to decelerate. The colors and the kaleidoscope grew gradually less intense as the ship dumped more and more speed on approach. The point of light she had been aimed add gradually grew and became a distant sun.