Arrival: The Ship

So, a little something different here. This is the first version (of about four, or at least I intend it to be something like that) of a story: my intention is to tell the same basic plot from a different point of view each time. This is my first dabbling in a long time with a story I’ve had ticking over in my brain (and lying around the internet, in various states of embarrassing not-really-what-I-want-to-write-anymore-ness) for at least five years. Hopefully the later versions will be a bit less wordy; in my defence, it’s tough writing about a piece of metal floating in space. Humans at least offer the option of dialogue!

The ship lay quiet, lit only by the engine flare of its departing crew. The sun it orbited was too distant to provide any real light out here in the Oort cloud – a casual observer would have struggled to tell it apart from the brighter stars in the distance. Any human left aboard the ship might have felt loneliness; the crew were departing for the solar system’s hot centre, taking a slow approach that would take them the better part of a decade, and the ship would be left alone for the duration of their trip. Even after their arrival, communication would be terse, time-lagged, and one-way – they were trying to keep a low profile, after all – and while their departure was anticipated to be much speedier than the trip in, it would still take a very long time by human reckoning.

Perhaps fortunately for the departed crew, the ship did not have enough of a mind to feel lonely, or to even understand the concept of loneliness. It was quite content to wait until it was needed, hiding in near-total darkness next to a chunk of primordial ice. After all, it was still extraordinarily busy even without a crew to pamper and ferry from place to place. Ongoing repairs needed attention and occasional redirection, the pseudo-comet it was anchored to needed to be explored for potential fuel, and it needed to maintain a constant watch for any potential interlopers. It made no special effort to conceal itself; the sheer size of the Oort cloud made a random encounter with interstellar traffic staggeringly unlikely, and made a methodological search a truly daunting prospect. Certainly, none of the ship’s crew would have given either of these possibilities even a passing thought – they certainly would not have wasted their time looking to check if they were wrong. Mathematics was on their side in this matter, and time – as always – was not. The ship, however, was not in a hurry. Its attention could be divided many times before impairing its decisions, and its days were not numbered. Given its vast capacity for attention, even the ludicrously low expected return of time sunk into looking for searchers or accidental intruders was still a profitable expense of its resources.

It also needed to be alert for any cries for help that might come from down the gravity well: if they came they would already be old, so it could not afford to delay upon receiving one. Uncertainty was even less acceptable: any urgent message would probably only be sent once, and would be cast to a deliberately broad part of the sky. The ship therefore had another task: to construct and maintain an extremely broad network of receivers, spread far enough apart to avoid their target being occluded by any stray planets or comets that might happen to be in the way at the very instant they were needed. This was itself a long-term project, as the journeys its manufacturing robots had to make in order to get into position were often comparable in distance to the one being made by the crew.

The emergency network wasn’t the only listening the ship needed to do, either. It had been a very long time since it and its crew had last been this close to Earth, and the humans had not had time to puzzle out the two centuries’ worth of political, social, and technological changes that had taken place since their departure. It fell to the ship to reel in the babble of radio broadcast coming from the inner system and digest it. Conjecture would necessarily be kept to a minimum – the ship was if nothing else not sufficiently bright to reach any but the most elementary conclusions based on such fragmentary information – but it would at the very least be able to compile a digest of the new ideas and facts it was being bombarded with and present it to the crew in time for their awakening on the final stage of their approach. It had been their hope that they would need none of this – the people they were hoping to meet were not likely to be included in any discussion leaving the planet – but knowledge was power, and they had no intention of being any more ignorant than they could help when isolated on the most ancient and heavily populated world in known space.

These duties did not trouble the ship; they were not even duties to it so much as necessities. Its whole sense of self was constructed around the fulfilment of its functions, and it was more than capable of meeting the demands they made of it. As long as it was able to perform its duties, it would continue to wait; and when it was needed, it would be ready.


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