Kathryn emerged from the captain’s private office off of the bridge rubbing her brow.
“How’d it go?” Jaren asked as he joined her and together they walked to door through which they could exit the bridge to the rest of the ship.
“Pretty much as we expected,” she answered. “They’re pretty choked that we didn’t report in what happened at the earliest possible moment, but they understand our curiosity and desire to get over there right away in case anything happened. They even seemed to begrudgingly buy our duty to render aid excuse.”
The bridge door opened and they walked through. The one-point-two gee thrust made them feel a little heavier than they ordinarily would on a planet’s surface, but walking around was easy enough. It was a level quickly gotten used to, but apparent if one remembered to notice.
“They seemed to readily understand that it was just an excuse given the absence of any space for living beings on the ship, but still. There was someone there we were able to assist, wasn’t there?”
“Well, for all we knew it could have been populated by much smaller beings than we’d expect,” Jaren observed. “If small enough, thousands or millions could have lived in that central space you made your way into, or those bulbs on the exterior could have individual suites. There was no way to know.”
“Either way, we won’t be court martialed at least,” she said in a light tone. There was not really much chance of that anyways, not under the circumstances. If they didn’t return now, that could be another story.
“At least there’s that,” Jaren answered with amused false concern. “Our orders then?”
“As we expected,” she answered. “Once finished rendering whatever aid we can, return to base immediately for debrief. They’ll send another vessel immediately to keep watch on that thing, then when they complete a refit of New Horizon II they’ll send her out again for a detailed study with a crew more dedicated for that kind of mission than us.”
“That’s the problem with a career in exploration,” Jaren lamented. “You’ve got to me multi-faceted to be ready for anything, but once you find anything interesting, they send you home and bring in the specialists.”
“Could be worse,” Kathryn offered as they went through another set of heavy doors which opened for them and closed behind them, “we could be the specialists instead.” Both being in the centre of the ship’s width but at opposite ends, the bridge and the main engineering lab were on the same floor of the ship, just a bit of a walk.
“You report in about Ralph?”
“Are we really calling it Ralph?”
“Yes. Like I said, until it chooses a name for itself.”
“Right. I wonder how they’re going to take that.”
“Well we’ll know before we cross the rift, so they’ll at least have a chance to order us to stand down while they decide what to do.”
“It’s a risk Kat. That thing did nearly destroy this ship and all of us along with it.”
“Yes, but it seems pretty harmless now. At this point it’s just a brain.” Reaching the main engineering lab, she reached out to touch the door control panel beside the door. “As long as we’re adequately prudent about our quarantine of it and don’t do anything stupid…”
The door opened and Felix came over to greet them excitedly and seeming to be beaming with pride. “Hey you two, check this out! I’d like to introduce you to Ralph!”
As he made the introduction, his P4 robot got up off of the counter he’d been sitting on and approached them with a grace and confidence of motion unimaginable from the robot the last time they’d seen it. The face on the screen wrapped cylinder which constituted its head smiled warmly at them, and there was an incredible lifelike quality to the eyes, a quality which had been entirely absent the last time she’d seen it. Something about the face now gave her a serious discomfort. There was something mischievous, something vaguely… not sinister she thought, but which betrayed a sense that it knew something none of the rest of them did.
“Well what do you know?” Jaren said drolly, “they did something stupid.”
Kathryn grabbed Felix’s jumpsuit with both hands and flung him through the door out of the engineering lab. He nearly fell over but regained his footing as she and Jaren stepped outside the door and closed it behind them.
“What the hell did you do?” she angrily demanded.
“But I thought… well, but it was Molly’s idea!”
“Really!??” Kathryn angrily demanded, glaring at him with an inferno raging in her eyes.
Felix looked down and away, ashamed. “It seemed like a good idea at the time… I still don’t understand why you’re so angry.”
She calmed down somewhat at his submission, but she was still livid. “It was hazardous enough having a far advanced beyond us alien intelligence onboard as it was. At least when he was a sentient brick we could make some efforts to quarantine it, at least it couldn’t walk away. Now…” she sighed.
“Now it’s a threat,” Jaren finished her thought.
“I can undo it,” Felix offered sheepishly.
“First tell me exactly what you did,” Kathryn demanded.
“I just… created a dedicated wireless link between Ralph’s module and P4’s control circuits. Ralph hasn’t actually been put in there in any meaningful way, he’s just been granted access to it, like a, a… puppet. We thought it would be helpful for communicating with him since as he is he doesn’t have any speakers or microphones for direct communication or anything.”
Jaren leaned over and asked her in a low voice which was intended more as an aside than something to be said privately. “We’re calling it a he? I miss that?”
Kathryn glared at him and Jaren put his hands up apologetically with an amused smile.
“The same quarantine protocols are in effect Kat,” Felix tried to explain. “He can’t do anything through P4 he couldn’t do before.”
“Except walk out of the room,” Kathryn countered pointedly.
“Er, right. Except for that. But… that’s what doors are for?”
Kathryn looked down and slowly shook her head as she let out a long even sigh.
“I figured it interfacing with our systems was way more of a concern for us than it walking out the door.”
“Well now we have to worry about both don’t we?”
All three were quiet for a few moments.
“So do I disconnect him?” Felix finally asked.
Kathryn thought about it for a few seconds. “No,” she finally settled on. Jaren looked up over at her, surprised. “It’s done now. And you’re right, it will make communicating easier.” She kept to herself for now the mischief she saw behind its projected eyes.
“Admiral?” a voice asked from the wall panel beside the door.
She touched it and asked: “yes?”
“We’ve received a reply from Orbital One.”
“Route it here please.”
“Transmission received New Horizon II,” the wall said as the transmission began playing. “Quite a find on that ship Admiral, you’ve gotten a lot of people very excited, and we think you’re making all the right moves. Report to Orbital One immediately as planned. On this side of the rift you will meet three Kobolian military vessels which will escort you the rest of the way. By the time you arrive we will have a dedicated laboratory set up on the station here to receive your guest, as well as all appropriate personnel for study. Well done Admiral. Safe journey, we’ll see you soon. Star Fleet Command out.”
“So Felix,” Kathryn demanded, “do we report P4 in now?”
The man only shrugged sheepishly.
“No, I think not,” she answered herself. “But Felix I want you to immediately start working on some kind of kill switch, something with which we can disable Ralph immediately if he makes any trouble for us. I’d prefer a way which only disabled him,” she explained, “but if you can only figure out a permanently destructive way, I want it anyways.”
Felix seemed disappointed, but explained: “Destruction should be pretty easy, I’ll come up with something right away and then start working on a temporary kill switch.”
“Good man. Okay now you can introduce us to your Frankenstein.”
“Actually,” Felix began to correct her, “Frankenstein himself was the scientist who-“
“Okay, okay,” the man said with a smirk as he threw his hands up in submission. He then touched the wall panel and the door opened onto a somewhat confused looking P4-Ralph and Margaret leaning against the wall further behind him with her arms crossed and her typical mildly sour look on her face.
“Greetings,” the robot offered. “I have been considering what designation I should have since inhabiting this body. It is a truly odd experience, I have never been… embodied before.”
“I can only imagine,” Kathryn offered. She was trying to be diplomatic, trying to give this thing the benefit of her doubt. “Come up with something have you?”
“No. I am comfortable with the Ralph for the time being, the designation you gave me.”
Kathryn smiled. “Alright then, Ralph it is. Shall we talk Ralph?” she asked, gesturing towards a table off to the side of the room with some chairs around it. Such things were magnetized at their feet and bases, just enough to keep them in place in the absence of gravity, but soft enough that they could be moved around at will.
The robot looked at her confused. “Oh, she explained. You sit, like this.” She pulled out a chair and sat down on it as an example.
“Oh, I see.” It followed her example and sat on the chair across from her, a little uncertain at first, but getting used to the idea.
“Your builders don’t sit?”
“Not on chairs like this.”
“I see. What else can you tell me about your builders?”
“What do you wish to know?”
The robot wore a remarkably friendly face on his curved screen head which she tried to take at face value, but something about him still made her uncomfortable and she couldn’t shake the feeling.
“Well,” she continued, “you’ve told us how far away they’re from, what do they call themselves.”
“Their name for their own species, is… unpronounceable in this language.”
‘How convenient,’ she thought to herself. “What do they look like? Do they look like us?”
“No, they are considerable smaller, with four legs and furry skin.”
“Fascinating…” Kathryn marvelled.
“I could show you if you like,” the robot offered.
“Oh yes, please do.”
On his face screen, the image of his face was replaced by a rotating three dimensional still image of the creature he’d begun describing. As he’d begun to explain it indeed had four legs with three large toes each, and a torso projecting upwards from between those legs. The torso had spindly arms which appeared to have two elbows with four fingers including thumbs on each, and its head sported three large black eyes set equidistant about the crown of its head. The orange highlighted short but dense purple fur covering its entire body also covered single talon tipped projections on either side of what she could only presume was its mouth from where it was located on its head. It seemed to have some kind of neck impression, but the head part of it seemed largely continuous with its torso, the entire upper part of the creature getting wider towards the legs and narrower towards the top of its head.
“Wow, well that certainly looks… alien,” she remarked. “Hmm. Could you show the others this please?”
The robot obeyed and projected the same image onto the large wall screen behind Margaret and the others marvelled silently at the image.
“You were trying to set up a rift system in this system like ours?”
“Why are parallel systems not possible? There are two stars here after all.”
“Interference? What do you mean?”
“Quantum interference resulting from parallel systems would detonate whichever star around which it was attempted.”
“I see, even if around different stars in the same system?”
“Yes. Even portals of the same network in too close a proximity have the same result.”
“I see. What is the safe distance between portals?”
“Zero-point-six light years is considered minimally safe, but due to orbital variance and stellar drift, the builders do not build portals closer than two-point-three-seven light years.”
“Okay, good to know.”
“How bout the important questions Kat?” Margaret asked her, “like, the big ones?”
“You want me to ask him what the meaning of life is?”
“No, I want you to ask him to fill in the Drake equation, to solve the Fermi paradox.”
Kathryn was unfamiliar with either of these things.
“How common is life in the universe?” she impatiently asked Ralph as she came over and sat at the table with them.
“We have not accessed the entire universe,” the robot answered.
“Okay, how many star systems have you reached?” Kathryn asked.
“When I was dispatched, we had active portals around ten billion, three hundred and eighty-four million, eight hundred and forty-two thousand, one hundred and three stars,” he answered matter-of-factly.
“Ten… billion!?” Kathryn repeated, utterly gobsmacked.
Ralph appeared defensive suddenly. “The builders have only reached two thirds of the galaxy so far, and stars too close in can’t all be portaled at the same time due to interference, and many stars are just-“
Kathryn cut him off. “No Ralph, we’re astonished at how many,” she laughed, “we’re not criticizing for how little your builders have accomplished. We can’t… even adequately imagine such a thing.
“I feel very small suddenly,” Jaren uttered to no one in particular.
Not getting his meaning, Ralph reassured him: “I assure you, you are quite large compared to the builders.”
“I didn’t mean- oh never mind…”
“So these are only the stars you’ve built portals around?” Margaret asked.
“But you’ve studied many more?”
“Of all the places your builders have been, how common is life?”
“Including every type of star, including those around which it never appears, approximately one in sixty-three thousand star systems has a planet with some sort of cellular life.”
“One in twelve…” she marvelled. “We’ve been lucky in our little stellar neighborhood then haven’t we?” she remarked to Kathryn.
“Looks that way,” she agreed, nodding her head.
“And of those, how many develop multi-cellular animal life?” she asked.
“Approximately one in four.”
Margaret did some quick math in her head. “That makes almost five million planets with animals on them…” she marvelled.
“Approximately, yes.” Ralph confirmed.
“And how many technologically capable species out of all of those?” she asked, holding her breath.
“Three…” Margaret uttered in a low shaken voice. “Three, that’s all? Out of all those worlds?”
“Your species makes four,” he offered.
Margaret appeared as though she’d been kicked in the chest.
“You said currently,” Kathryn pointed out. “Explain.”
“In the builder’s travels, they have found evidence of seven other species who were once technologically capable, but have since gone extinct. Two seem to have evolved into species no longer capable long ago, the others seem to have destroyed themselves one way or another.”
For the first time, Ralph asked them a question. “Has your species encountered another technologically capable species?”
“On my home world Haven we encountered a species like you said who seemed to have once been, but has since evolved away from that capacity. We discovered a brain parasite we believe to be responsible.”
“I see,” was all Ralph said.
“How long have your builders been around?” Jaren asked.
“Their earliest records date back over one hundred million of your years.”
“One… hundred, million years?” Kathryn marvelled. She couldn’t even imagine. “My god… that’s… ten times longer than the life of our home stars!”
“Yes. Their home world was destroyed many ages ago, as have been many planets they have resided on since.”
“Forgive us but, we… can’t even imagine those time scales.”
Ralph betrayed no reaction.
“Ralph, we are taking you to one of our bases for study. You will be our guest, not our prisoner. But after we’ve learned a lot more from you, I have no doubt that my people will be very eager to meet your builders. Could you help us accomplish that? Do you think they would be interested in meeting us as well?”
“Yes Admiral,” Ralph answered with an odd hint in his voice. Her disease had subsided somewhat as they spoke, but it was renewed all over again by something in the way he spoke to her, and that look behind his projected eyes she just couldn’t decipher. “I can assure you that the builders are very anxious to meet you as well.”