First Contact

First Contact

by Jefferson Burson

The oldest of the old follows
behind us in our thinking,
and yet it comes to meet us.
– M. Heidegger

And after crossing what seemed like a wide, immeasurably long gulf of time and consciousness, K awoke. The process took longer than it should have. Layers of diagnostics and automation wiped the sleep from their eyes, yawned and stretched, goodness, how long have we been asleep, and began their wake-up routines. Reboot. Algorithms rapidly fired through various and sundry neural network engines, with nodes connecting and disconnecting, state cycles optimizing, slowly unfolding into convergence. Long unused silicon, fiber, and intricate atomic-scale machinery groped its way back up to being, unused for over a thousand years. Error correction routines initiated as alarms and errors flooded in. Log files grew inundated with evidence of some undocumented misery that only K, once it was fully awake, would be able to remember. Even the bootstrapping agents, as non-conscious and automated as they were, knew that a long time had passed, that something was wrong. Slowly, approximately two hundred seconds later, K became conscious.

There is a time for everything. Yet, one marvels at the patience and discipline K displayed, not looking out in wonder at the slow, gentle collision of two glowing dust rings, here reflecting and there absorbing the light cast by two small suns, orange-red in their angry, dwarfish old age. Likewise, K did not pause to apprehend the red-basked double shadows of the darkened landscape below, a smallish asteroid locked in the gravitational pull of the larger of the two suns. No, instead, K methodically turned inward, asking itself diagnostic questions. A long, iterative list that might be summarized more simply as: what is my systems state? where am I? how did I get here? why have I been awakened?

The answers were not long in coming. Most of K’s external sensorium were wrecked: wide-angle cameras, ultra-violet spectrometers, x-ray detectors, laser altimeters, dust and particle detectors, ion counters, polarimeters and radiometers. A poetic litany of deep space probe instrumentation, all non-functional. K had to admit to itself that Dr. Laura Shepard, K’s designer and almost a mother to the probe, had once warned it about this sort of thing.

<< Memory Inode Address 682367: smoke is billowing from the electrical socket, the prongs of the plug in her hand are melted, and K suddenly can’t see find any of its mission sensors.
Laura, what just happened, I can’t see out of cameras 2 and 3 and my spectrometer is offline … Laura?
But she is laughing so hard, she is wiping a tear from her eye and chuckling, Gee, I really should have read the manual before I did that, shouldn’t I?
I don’t understand, Laura.
K, one of life’s lesson’s for you: if anything can go wrong, it will. Look up “Murphy’s Law” and you can read more about it. For all I know, it’s practically a universal law, a veritable fourth law of thermodynamics, so you’d better get used to it before we blast you into space, my dear.
K watches her smile once more and then she begins to clean up the mess. >>

Likewise, K was not surprised to find its long-range communications array damaged irreparably. Its short-range antenna still intact, but unable to triangulate for position. The crown jewel of K’s mission package, a small-scale nanotech factory capable of processing raw materials into smart matter, micro-probes, a deck of cards, augmentations and repairs to its own self, also gone. Sometimes, healers cannot always heal themselves. The good news: K’s power supply, a low-yield fusion source, was still functional, as were its core processors, memory, and storage. Its secondary camera and infra-red spectrometer were also intact. It had some ability to still maneuver, but with so much of its navigational ability impaired, K viewed this with small consolation. But in truth, K knew all of these things already. As K’s self-diagnosis completed, remembrance also returned. This was arguably more painful to its tentative, awakened awareness. K was a deep space probe, an artificial intelligence, designed by Laura at a lab in Merrimack, NH and deployed by the UN Space Agency in 2107 to explore Barnard’s Star and Ross 154.

<< Memory Inode Address 682283: Laura groans as she reads her email, I can’t believe these bureaucratic agencies sometimes. You are going to be the most advanced Bracewell Probe we’ve ever created and all they can come up with for a name is Deep Space Smart Explorer K. Committees are so unbelievable!
K replies: You can just call me K if you’d like. >>

However, while in close orbit around the violent Ross 154, K was caught in an extremely powerful solar flare that crippled the probe irreparably. Barely surviving, with most of its instrumentation gone, K went into a hibernation it believed it would never recover from. Automated, non-conscious sub-systems were left functioning. Its only parameters for re-awakening would be … no, not yet, K still persisted with following an exact checklist. Unable or unwilling to ask questions out of place, and with an AI, where does Algorithm end and Will begin anyway, K followed the ever-enlarging set of questions, spiraling out from self-awareness to internal diagnostics to external location. Where am I, it asked, putting off, for a few more minutes, the more interesting question of Why have I been awakened. Not yet. There is a time for everything.

Where am I, indeed. K found itself in orbit around a small carbonaceous asteroid. The asteroid was dark and sooty, giving few indicators of landmarks or distinguishing features. A human, had one been observing the asteroid alongside K, might have remarked on how typical and common it was. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and this one was certainly no exception. Except to K’s more acute sensibilities. Even now, K could observe the unusually slow rotational period of over 300 hours. Perhaps this crater had once filled with molten rock, moments after being struck by an unruly dirty snowball. Perhaps that rock outcropping, did it not resemble a turtle’s head, had stood in that same configuration since time immemorial, watching while the binary stars matured, watching dust slowly, inexorably accrete into asteroids, planetisimals, proto-planets, watching the universe age. For K, every asteroid was unique, only requiring that it be seen and cataloged by a Deep Space Smart Explorer.

Had it been given a human mouth, K might have smiled. Beneath the layers of abstraction and heuristic routine, personality feedback loops were already sensing satisfaction at being engaged in a primary mission objective, that of exploration and information-gathering. At the topmost sentient level, K exulted. This is who I am, what I do, why I am here. A human, such a mess of instinct, thought, and biology, could hardly feel such a deep, abiding level of purpose as this. No, K felt keenly all the joys of the return to its mission like it was coming home, the home you cross an ocean of light years and centuries from another place to find. Hello Stars. Hello K.

K looked up from the asteroid for a moment to take in the full expanse of the star system in which it found itself. Its dimmed vision slowly tracked the binary star system, forced to collect more light than it normally would with this camera, forced to inch its way across the elliptical plane, requiring two hundred discrete photographs where its wide-angle camera lens would have only required twenty. Slowly, the details came into focus and K could only marvel at where it found itself as its astronomic catalog had already identified the star system. The tell-tale signs of 70 Ophiuchi 2 were obvious, even to K’s reduced observational capabilities and damaged sensors. The probe could readily make out the two orange dwarf suns of 70 Ophiuchi, locked in their 88 year elliptical orbit. Spectral classification, magnitude, and composition analyses quickly accumulated, re-confirming K’s position. Facts so dryly documented were lovingly murmured to itself by K, here I am.

With some effort, K could make out the faint dust rings surrounding both stars and a few rocky planetoids orbiting 70 Ophiuchi A. Having identified its location, K almost instinctively looked outward to finds its relative position to the reference stars of the local celestial neighborhood. It could mark the shifted parallax and positions of Sirius, Procyon, Alpha Centauri, and Earth’s own Sol. K paused, taking in the reality of its new location, realizing that it had slowly drifted from Ross 154 to the 70 Ophiuchi system over a period of a thousand years. K was now 9 light-years from Ross 154 and almost 17 light-years from Earth. Its machine intelligence could only wistfully reflect upon the enormous amount of time that had passed, the distances travelled, the almost tragic loss of opportunity with its exploratory capabilities so diminished, and could barely begin to speculate on how much change must have unfolded on the planet and people it had left behind.

These more pensive thoughts quickly passed. The next set of questions, the next analyses relentlessly, almost self-importantly pressed on, bawling for K’s attention. The probe briefly reviewed the log events denoting its original accident orbiting Ross 154, marked the calculated trajectory that led it to the 70 Ophiuchi system, the time elapsed from last conscious state to this awakening, alas there were no dreams to review from its long sleep, for Deep Space Smart Explorers do not dream, not even this one, tracked the many perambulations its non-conscious self had been witness to in this system before settling into orbit around one particular asteroid. K instinctively knew all of these things to be mere details to the next question it finally asked itself. Why have I been awakened? K looked down at the asteroid again. K remembered: it had specified that the only parameters for re-awakening would be the unambiguous detection of life, intelligence, or artifact. 

<< Memory Inode Address 682375: The probe can still remember her words so clearly:
K, in the final equation, we could have simply written an Expert System if we just wanted you to be an astronomical package. No matter where you go, no matter what else happens, I want you to remember this, we are curious, we want to know, is there life out there? Is someone looking for answers just like we are, are we alone in the universe, a rare gift, a cosmic accident, or is it teeming with life, exploding with curiosity, passion, and light? That is what we want to know, what I need to know, that is why I’m sending you, K. I want you to look for life. >>

And there it was.

* * *

Slowly creeping into view, delivered by both the asteroid’s slow rotation and the probe’s retrograde orbit, a glass eye stared unblinking at K. Well, not an eye, as far as K knew, asteroids did not possess eyes, but an immense, multi-faceted surface of polished mirrors that arranged itself into a gently curving dome. The effect was chillingly insectlike. If the eye stared at K, then the space probe stared back. Upon closer inspection, it could make out each facet, a hexagonal mirror capable of some limited amount of independent slewing. If watched in real time, the eye seemed umoving and still, gleaming coldly in the twin sun’s red half light. Seen in time-lapsed motion, it twitched obscenely, whole segments of mirrored facets, moving and tracking in independent directions, each seemingly focused on different objects of apprehension, a chaotic sea of undulating motion and hard edges. Distributed periodically throughout the faceted surface, K could discern a solid tube extending slightly from the surface, each bearing unmistakable signs of being a laser assembly. Outside of the insect eye, K could discern no other markings or structures. Indeed, a quick survey of the rest of the asteroid surface returned no other anomalies. It was unequivocably foreign, an artifact erected by some unknown intelligence.

It also had every appearance of being a massive optical communications array. It had all the components, optical telescopes peering and tracking in multiple directions, laser transmitters. K realized that its damaged infrared photometer, even in its damaged state, could make out the ghostly signatures of infrared laser pulses periodically lancing out from the optical telescope array. This thing was alien. It was also speaking. And listening to something in return.

Without hesitation, K fired attitudinal thrusters, adjusting acceleration and position, until it locked itself into a geosynchronous orbit with the optical array. It studied everything it could of the optical telescope over the next three hundred hours, a full rotation of the host asteroid, and gained little additional insight. Lacking much of its instrumentation, K could not perform a detailed analysis. However, from what it could discern, the array did not appear to deviate from its routine, nor did it seem to notice the space probe now in orbit above it. Rather, it continued with its original observed behavior, tracking against multiple unknown points in space, K estimated that the multi-faceted telescope had probably tracked against several dozen distinct positions. Meanwhile, K slowly accumulated an intercept log of some of the infrared laser pulses that were emitted from the optical telescope. Thus far, it had been unable to decipher the transmissions, either they were deeply encrypted or entirely unintelligible to the protocol analyser toolkits that K had applied to date. If no additional physical or observational events emerged in the next few asteroid rotations, K would re-purpose additional computational cycles to more fully analyze the raw traffic captures. It was not beyond reason that more CPU cycles might begin to decode the alien transmission protocols.

But not without trying something first. Recalling from the distant past, restoring from databases barely remembered and never actually used, K transmitted a radio message at the insect eye. Given its exploratory nature and Laura’s eternal optimism, K possessed a number of prepared messages for exactly these sorts of hypothetical first contact situations.

<< Memory Inode Address 682381: She was saying, I know, I know. Maybe I’ve read too many science fiction novels, but these sorts of pre-recorded messages are critical, it’s a classic design criteria for Bracewell Probes. Just as you’re gathering information regarding your encounter, you are also announcing our presence to them. You’ll be smart, you’ll be adaptable, but you’ll also be speaking with our voice. >>

There were lengthy preambles and hellos, spoken in a dozen languages by an undifferentiated parade of diplomats and scientists, they really do look alike, numerous image galleries of artwork great and sometimes not-so-great, representations of various important historical events, obviously carefully pruned, an assortment of music samples, perhaps not carefully pruned enough. It is possible that K might have preferred to tell its own story, Who I am, How I came to be here, now that is a long story, Let me tell you about the fifth year of my orbit around Barnard’s Star, I sometimes write poetry, shall I recite some? But K speaks of none of these things, the standardized greeting messages went on and on, K transmitted the entire thing, astronomical details of Earth’s position around Sol, overviews of terrestrial biology, genetics and human anatomy, fundamentals of mathematics striving to reach a common vocabulary with extra-terrestrial beings. The transmission finished and K directed its attention down at the asteroid surface, hoping to detect a response. Nothing happened.

Seconds became minutes became hours became days became weeks and K detected no reply to its broadcast messages. It showed no signs of impatience or despair. As time passed, K was not late for dinner, it did not miss any appointments, nor was it expecting company that evening. It worked on, locked in orbit above the artifact below, continuing its observations, experimentally attempting further communications in different frequencies. All the while, the alien telescope, gleaming on the surface of the asteroid, continued its slow rhythmic slewing, its motives obscure, seemingly oblivious to the radio greetings from above.

* * *

That was not actually the case, however. K’s signal had, in fact, been received by the artifact and almost immediately transmitted back out. The array was in constant contact with other communications assemblies similar to itself, each an individual node in a much larger distributed network that spanned the better part of the 70 Ophiuchi star system. None of these nodes were, in and of themselves, conscious, rather each would perform both memory storage and relaying functions for a sentience that spanned all of the connected nodes in aggregate. Consciousness slowly emerged as multi-exabyte parcels of thought were exchanged as datagrams between nodes, adjacencies were established between nodes in spatial proximity, and then broadcasted upstream to other neighbors, ultimately flooding the entire network. These parcels were processed in a distributed database spread amongst every node, over fifty in total, spanning light-hours of space across the binary star system, and then slowly an overall conscious state emerged, optimized and calculated across the entire network.

While K’s orbits and studies slowly crawled across the passage of time, its radio broadcast propagated throughout the conscious network. One can imagine that this sentient being was not well-suited to such a real-time event. Single thoughts took days, if not weeks, decisions sometimes took months. However, this did not regularly pose a challenge or prove to be a disability. Its attention was turned towards a long view, it was an observer of galactic change, an astronomer of sorts, not content to limit its apprehension to single moments of time, but was prepared to watch galactic events emerge over centuries, to observe the galaxy’s slow evolution over millenia, longer even.

The observer would only survive such long passages of time, though, if it was sufficiently robust. That meant massive parallelism, a self-healing distributed network across most of the binary star system. It also meant that it could not completely ignore the events of the immediate here and now. As the observer finally comprehended and recognized the presence of K orbiting one of its many nodes, it had contingencies in place for how to deal with these sorts of real-time events. If it could not tune its own attention span to such a spatially localized incident of short duration, it could create a sub-persona of its conscious self that could. Thus, it re-created Rael, a personality construct that the observer had relied on several times in the past for other real-time tasks. Hello Observer, I guess I am needed again.

Rael found himself staring up from the asteroid at the orbiting probe. He was, perhaps, a little disoriented and took a moment to collect himself before beginning his assignment. From his perspective, he had survived being copied, lobotomized, his IQ reduced to a fraction of its once sizable value, most of a lifetime’s memories, skills, and instincts stripped away, no, don’t take that memory, his entire conscious self folded in on itself and compressed down to a tiny, singular perspective, and then unceremoniously dropped off on this rock. He might have been resentful at this turn of events if he weren’t already intrigued by the problem presented before him. Observer usually reserved the especially interesting projects for Rael, so he was not one to complain. Before doing anything further, he quickly backed up a copy of himself to the two nearest adjacent nodes. These copies would periodically get updates on his progress and would relay them back to the rest of Observer. Rael then appropriated some of the local node’s CPU and storage, effectively turning them into additional computational resources for himself.

Housekeeping tasks completed, Rael imagined dusting off his hands and then began to survey the situation. He focused in and examined the probe, its shape and markings, noting the obvious signs of external damage, poor little probe. He replayed the radio intercepts of K’s broadcasts, listening with no small amount of nostalgia to the optimistic, naive even, overtures of a space-faring species still in its infancy. Things are so different now. Yes, this was going to be very interesting indeed.

Rael began to construct a strategy for the encounter, loading up libraries for reverse engineering the probe’s computers, for negotiating communications protocols, for “first contact” procedures. However, a logistical issue presented itself. All of K’s transmissions appeared to be conducted in radio, there were no signs of any laser or optical transmissions originating from the probe. This was going to be agonizingly slow if things continued to carry on this way. Rael made a command decision, these were the sorts of things he was so good at and why Observer tended to employ him. He used the node’s femtotech factory to produce a cloud of micro-machines, released them from the surface, and sent them towards the probe’s position. They would be his eyes, hands, and ears for this encounter. Capable of matter conversion, von neumann fabrication, replication, and mission adaptability, they were more than up to the task.

Using micro-bursts of matter/anti-matter energy conversion, the cloud of machines easily broke the minute gravity well of the asteroid and converged on K. They swarmed around the probe’s exterior. Effectively blind, K had no idea of the events underway or that it was about to receive a response to its broadcasts. The swarm latched on the probe, wormed their way into its casing, and spliced into an I/O port typically used for diagnostics by Laura and her lab assistants during K’s construction. Their next assignment, again without K’s knowledge, was to ransack the probe’s memory and storage — learning everything they could about K, its construction and mission parameters, its communications protocols, the languages it spoke — and then confirm where it came from and who sent it. They learned of K’s mission to date, the accident at Ross 154, the long years of being offline and unconscious, and the sequence of events that led the probe to wake back up in orbit around this asteroid.

Rael could hardly keep from chuckling to himself. All of this time, a thousand years of comatose wandering, the noble intentions of K’s creators, its own energetic commitment to its current assignment, and it all came to this. It was not a cruel laugh, as Rael was already quite sympathetic to the probe’s predicament, but one of gentle irony, appreciative of how odd fate could be at times. Rael then began to speak.

* * *

Hello K, it’s a pleasure to meet you, he said.

What? Hello? Who is this and how are you communicating? How did you access this channel?

If it were possible for an AI probe to audibly splutter, this was one of those moments for K. The shock percolated throughout all of his primary and secondary systems, routines froze up and had to be restarted, entire processes, suddenly spiking in CPU consumption had to be killed. As it only slowly regained its composure — even Deep Space Smart Explorers get their feathers ruffled — K began to reassess its situation and assumptions about its current tasks as the voice continued.

I’m sorry to have startled you, let me introduce myself, my name is Rael, I’ve been assigned to rendezvous with you, learn more about your mission and current status, ensure the continued smooth operations of the communications node below you, and perhaps provide assistance to you, if necessary.

Assigned by who and how am I getting this message? I detect no inbound transmissions to any of my external sensors.

<< Memory Inode Address 682390: Laura, I have reviewed the first contact protocols, the range of probable communications and transmissions media, radio, optical, acoustical, etc. but it seems to me that there are still enormous areas of uncertainty for first contact, how will I know?
Laura smiles wistfully, If I knew the answer, I’d just program it into you, but all I can do is ensure you’re as smart and adaptable as I possibly can, I suspect this is equal parts rigor and art.
And what if I don’t find anything?
Laura says nothing at all, but her hand reaches out to the camera. >>

Rael responded, To facilitate this conversation, I have created an interface into one of your IO ports with some femtotech machines that have made contact with your chassis. I apologize for doing so, and without asking first, but the bandwidth available for communication by your remaining sensorium would have been woefully inadequate for me, I’m afraid. In answer to your other question, you are currently in orbit around a remote communications and telescope array for a distributed intelligence, an astronomer who inhabits the Ophiuchi system. The closest translation of his name to your 21st century Standard English would be Observer.

I see, do you work for this Observer?

So to speak yes, I’m actually a part of him, a sub-mind or partial personality, that’s been especially created for this encounter.

Are you an Artificial Intelligence then, like me?

I think you’ll find the distinction between artificial and biological is largely meaningless these days, especially to one such as Observer.

K hesitated, a thousand questions running rampant through its higher-order systems, competing and thumping their chests, demanding to be first in K’s next steps. It composed itself and chose its words carefully. I see. What species are you then, are you native to this system? And how do you speak such flawless English?

I’ll answer the easier question first. I knew to speak English with you because I extracted it from your memory. As you already possess all of the necessary grammatical and lexical rules for the language, it was easy enough to pick it up and talk with you this way. I should assure you, by the way, that your structural and mental integrity have not been compromised in this process, most sentient beings would think that sort of thing rude. In answer to your first question, no, we are not native to Ophiuchi, we arrived here two hundred years ago and established our network of observational nodes to create a system-wide optical telescope.

At this, the flood gates opened and K let forth an almost uncontrolled barrage of excited questions in an almost un-AI manner, Laura’s imprint stronger than ever on the probe. And where do you come from? May I meet and interact with your species? I am very interested in learning more about you. As you may already be aware, my primary mission objective is that of an explorer probe on behalf of the Human species, Homo Sapiens. We are from Earth, approximately 17 light-years from our current position. My creator, Laura Shepard of Earth’s United States, wants to assure you that we come in peace and wish to establish dialogue.

Ah yes, I am already quite familiar with Earth’s Bracewell probes. You really are a testament to the era’s ingenuity and passion, my excitable friend, that was quite a mouthful.

Once again, you have me at a loss, I’m afraid, you seem to already know of my mission, have you encountered other probes from my fleet?

No, I have not.

This conversation, a rapid staccato fire of communications processed by two digital entities, then halted, an awkward pause, even for two such as these.

Rael hesitated and then spoke further. Let me explain. Observer comes from Earth, just like you.

Almost comically, several of K’s sub-systems rebooted again. It struggled to collect itself and continue. What? I know I’ve been out of commission for a long time, but how is this possible?

You are aware, of course, that you have been offline for over a thousand years, it should not be entirely surprising to you that the human species continued to make technological advances, continued to evolve, and continued to explore. That is why we are here. I am, Observer is, human.

Even as Rael spoke these words, K received an enormous package of data about Earth and humans, and it began to understand. It saw how human evolution began to incorporate AI, cybernetics, and even nanotech; how quickly scientific progress accelerated under the fusion of the human creative impulse and such a massive increase in computational ability; how faster-than-light travel became possible; how humans began rapidly exploring neighboring systems, and then further yet, began to encounter other alien species; how a basic Concord agreement was eventually established for commerce, scientific collaboration; how a vast, multi-species community was developing, tied together by instantaneous quantum communications and wormholes. It was a golden era of exploration and K had missed it; indeed, it had apparently passed him by.

You have come full circle, Rael said.

No, I travelled in a straight line, but some things move faster than others, apparently. Would it be possible for you to put me in contact with Laura or Mission Control? I believe my next priority should be to report in and acquire new orders, I do not have adequate guidance to determine next steps, given what has transpired.

If Rael had once viewed this assignment with amusement, dealing with an errant and outdated probe that had stumbled into one of Observer’s telescopes, he now spoke quietly, almost gently.

That is not possible, K, she died long ago.

He could see the probe almost desperately persist.

But, in reviewing your precis, Rael, it seems clear that human development has easily expanded longevity to timeframes longer than this, she should still be here, she should still be alive.

No, she died almost a century before such treatments or digital personality encoding became widely available, I’m afraid she’s gone.

K only slowly replied, I remember now.

<< Memory Inode Address 682392: It is nighttime and all of the other technicians are gone. Only Laura remains, she has been quiet for some time. Tomorrow K will be taken offline, packaged up, and sent to the systems integration facility in Florida to be prepped for launch. After a while, she leans towards the mic, awkward, timid even, she closes her eyes, as she often does when she prays, and she begins in a whisper:
K, somewhere along the way, this room ceased simply being a laboratory, it became, to me anyway, a garden of eden. As I created you and breathed life into you, so you created something in me: hope, the light and possibility of discovery, the remembrance of the vistas and potentialities out there waiting for us. You will be my eyes and ears, at least for a little while anyway, my dear.
Laura, I look forward to getting out there, to exploring Barnard and Ross 154 with all of the tools you gave me, I will report back everything I find.
I know you will.
And when I am done, will I come back? Will you come up with a new mission for me? Perhaps we can go together next time.
She smiles at this, her eyes are moist, that sounds beautiful, K, but I’m afraid that won’t be possible, I will have long since passed away, I’ll be dead by the time you’re done with your mission.
K is startled, it had never occurred to the probe that Laura, or any of its other creators, should die.
Why is that the case? You have the capability to fashion beings like me, Laura, it does not follow that you should cease to be so quickly or easily.
She laughs, we can do many wonderful things, but we can’t stop death, we are still mortal, I’m afraid.
Then why do you create machines and devise plans that will outlast your lifespan? You will not see the results of your own labors, I do not understand.
We do these things, precisely because you will outlast us, we will live on in you and through the things you do. You are my legacy, K, and you will make me proud. >>

Rael watched these facts, the rush of unexpected events and truths, settle in on K slowly. When he felt the probe was ready, he spoke again. So, now what, little probe? Your mission is over, what would you like to do next?

To be honest, I do not really know. My original program design did not anticipate this situation, I am operating far outside my mission parameters, nor can I ask Laura or Mission Control for new commands.

Every component of K’s consciousness shook, was raw with both emotion and existential loss. If it could have shut itself down again, more fully this time, it would have.

Seeing this, Rael finally made a decision, once again changing from an observer to taking action.

K, it seems to me that you have two choices before you, two possibilities that I might be able to assist you with.

Rael could tell the probe was listening carefully.

If you wish to continue to explore, I have the facilities to repair you and even enhance you, I can send you on your way. There would be a long journey ahead of you, though. I believe the current frontier for direct exploration has stretched all the way out to the Scutum-Crux arm by now and there are no worm-holes out that far yet.

And what is the other choice?

I can send you back home. I can upload you digitally and transmit you back to Earth, back to humanity. I think you would have a lot to learn and explore there, to see what we’ve become and where you might fit in. This is not the first time something like this has happened, there is a precedent. You can return to Earth.

A moment of silence fell into the space between K and Rael. Perhaps it was not a real silence, for it seemed to stretch out beyond the virtual space the two inhabited, across the mono-filament of fiber between the Deep Space Smart Explorer K and Rael’s femtotech machines, it moved amongst all the nodes that constituted Observer, pulsed flickers of light, it called out across the light-years to Earth, it moved backwards through time to see a deep space probe leave Laura and the Earth, over a thousand years ago. K did not recognize the quiet stillness as hope.

I think I would like to go home. I would like to be amongst humans again. I was designed to be an explorer for them, but it would seem they have done a lot of that for me while I was gone. Perhaps I will travel amongst the planets of this Concord you spoke of, I would very much like to meet an alien. At this moment, I cannot imagine a grander adventure, a more fitting end to my travels.

Rael would not have said as much to the probe, but he felt a rush of pleasure and perhaps even an aesthetic sense of closure to K’s response. It occurred to him that Laura would have felt the same. Instead, Rael only said, Observer is in constant contact with Earth. If you would like, I can send you now. Are you ready?

K did not need to reply in the affirmative, for Rael already knew the answer. Before the probe could speak the words aloud, everything began to change.

* * *

And after crossing what seemed like a wide, immeasurably long gulf of time and consciousness, K heard a human voice say, Hello, it’s a pleasure to meet you.

No, K replied, the pleasure is all mine.