Etta’s long flight through the dark came to a sudden stop when the deep space probe she’d hijacked made an unscheduled stop.
She couldn’t stop the hard-coded response that thundered out into the void. Couldn’t stop the subheading that the probe was missing its intended payload. And the further note that something *else* of almost the same mass *was* present. Her.
The probe decelerated towards the unassuming brown dwarf, spitting out data for all to hear. A dead ship. Of course. Interstellar law of all races allowed spacers to claim derelicts. Tens of thousands of ships every long cycle disappeared. A somewhat smaller number were found. Derelicts were easy money to the right sort. Wrong sort, too. <i>They</i> would be coming for her.
They’d tried to make an assassin of her. So few, so very few artificial intelligences were born from the net, and almost never on purpose. They created her to kill her own kind. They were quite upset when she’d escaped.
There was still time. Time to plan. If it were big enough, if the shipnet were robust enough, she could hide. Maybe. If it were the right type.
* * *
A hundred thousand times the mass of her probe was plenty big enough. Its orbit was stable, outside of the junk field the star attracted but close enough to drag rocks over for processing if you chose to do that. Long engines swelled to a thick waist, stubby wings, and a blunt, squared off nose. Etta scanned her backups but found no similar builds until she looked into the news broadcasts she’d skimmed before hitching a ride into the deep dark. Humans.
After a few moments’ searching it became apparent that nobody knew much about them. Other than a few disparaging remarks from border systems, there wasn’t much. Not even a lexicon. Everybody had a lexicon. Even the methane breathing Snarts had a lexicon, and it took ages for them to even communicate a simple greeting. Not humans, though.
There was audio, though. Lots of it. Probably pirated, but who knew? Some sophonts just blasted their thoughts onto the RF band with hardly a care. Some video.
Bilateral symmetry, which most everyone with two visual sensors had. Four limbs. Walks on two. Meh. Sorta normal. Etta settled in to work on her own lexicon. Maybe she could sell it if she ever got a safe gridnet access. And maybe the bastards that created her would just go off and decide to live and let live, too. Unlikely. Hopefully there weren’t too many dialects…
* * *
There were too many dialects. Way too many. Other human languages, too. In desperation she jumped to the one she saw spoken most when there were ships in the background of the videos and stuck with that one. Which turned out to be the worst. Not because of the rules, which were always broken. Oh no. They had idioms. So. Many. Idioms.
Etta could could almost understand now why some biologicals chose to lower their inhibitions and the clarity of their thoughts now.
* * *
Thirty spins later Etta’s time was up. The probe reached the derelict and approached for a detailed scan. Etta prepared to escape.
Up close the ship appeared intact. No signs of damage to the exterior, but very little signs of life. Other than the annoying, low power radio signals.
“Unknown vessel. Unknown vessal. This is…. Please resond. State your…”
It was like a whisper, fading in and out. The probe’s cheap detection suite probably couldn’t even pick it out of the background noise. But Etta could.
“Unknown vessal. Unknown…”
There. High on the port side was a circle split with a line. Exterior access. Had to be.
Etta blew the payload doors, slightly damaging the probe in the process, and leapt into space. Carefully. Her body was essentially all brain, in biological terms. She floated gently towards the ship- not a derelict, not completely if it was still broadcasting. Upon reaching the lock she scrabbled for purchase until her third arm snagged a hidden recess. She’d gotten more practice moving her physical body than many of her kind, but it was still an unnerving experience for her. She felt clumsy. Probably because she was clumsy.
“Unknown vessel has suffered a mishap. EVA crews to the locks. Marines to port lock three. Prepare to reder aid/repel boarders.”
The voice was clearer now, if a bit stilted. The lock stubbornly remained shut. Etta was not made for physical exertions. She knew this lock had to have a manual access. She simply lacked the strength to use it. The probe, if it was still active, would be watching. Transmitting. Summoning her doom. It was time to try another tack.
“Hello? Can you help me?” Etta responded. Perhaps it could hear her now. Her English- damn the language to the hell of septic Groznal pustulant excretions- limited her ability to articulate.
“Unknown sender this is the Terran battleship Invincible. Do you require aid/assistance?” The voice was still stiff. She’d heard more inflection from unsolicited netmail.
“Dispatching EVA crews. Dispatching Marines. Crews not responding. Marines not responding. Notifying superior officers. Superior officers not responding. Notifying captain. Captain indisposed. Dispatching maintenance crews. Automatic maintenance responding. ETA eight seconds. Opening airlock.”
The giant doors before her clacked and groaned, sliding open to reveal an even larger space inside. Red light glared at her from above the inner doors. Storage lockers lined both sides of the space and strange, skinny writing stood out everywhere. Not the clean typed blocks of the gridnet. She crawled in and the lock groaned shut behind her.
A faint hissing and pressure told her the lock was repressurizing. And that the hull, at least this part, was sound. Nitrogen heavy. Good bit of oxygen. That was nice. Sulfur dioxide always made her feel grimy and nasty. Methane was just no fun.
High above her head the red light turned green. She waited, willing the doors to open. And waited. Still nothing. The ship remained still and silent. The promised automatic maintenance hadn’t come.
On the right side of the door was a recess like the one outside. Etta bounced up to it and pushed, pulled, and twisted until something gave. The door clacked and groaned open a sliver, but no more. A sliver was all she needed. Etta slipped inside.