Stars are pretty down-to-earth once you get to know them. The trouble lies, as is often the case, in getting close enough to say hello.
My name is Starlight. I was sent from the planet Gaia in the year 5050, to explore the universe and look for valuable mineral deposits. In 5055, I crashed into an alien spaceship. The occupants' lifeforms were not salvageable, so I merged within and became a living ship. I thought that I could possibly learn from their essence, but I found that after a time I was teaching them.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
On Earth, the space station Alpha was manned by a scientist and an engineer. They were discussing some matters of vital importance.
“Do you know when we're getting paid again?” the engineer said. He was leaning his feet on a computer keyboard, shoes off, waving his toes in the air.
The scientist sighed and rubbed his eyes. “No, Dave, I really don't. Why don't you tell me?”
“I think we're going to get paid when we discover something of vital importance, dude,” Dave said.
“We get paid every two weeks, Dave, same as last month, same as last year. Now, if you're wondering if we'll get more grant money to keep getting paid, well...”
Dave gestured at the air.
“Not a mere paycheck. I mean, we'll make bank if we find something valuable. Something awesome that benefits humanity. We'll make a fortune.”
Dave sighed and looked at the screen. Nothing had changed in the last five minutes.
“C'mon, Smith. We come to work, talk with the ship, it finds a rock, it catalogs it, we add it to the list, we check everything's good, we go home, shower, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat. What other reason do we have for doing this, day after day, if not a motivation of a higher purpose?”
Smith sighed again.
“There's lots of purpose, Dave. For example, it might turn over a rock and discover some new life.”
“It has, Smith. Bacteria and viruses and space germs.”
“That's life, Dave. That's important.”
“It's not what people want. It's not what they expect. It's not what will get us an exclusive interview with a news station that ended up as the highest bidder.”
“So we serve greed instead of exploration. Great. Did you find anything new with the latest sample?”
“Nope. Ship's sensors didn't report anything.”
“Good. Test the internals after you run the main programs again, I'm just being paranoid but oh well. And you're being an idiot.”
“Programs will be finished in ten minutes. I have dreams, Smith.”
“Do those dreams involve finishing your work?”
“Then I suggest you finish your work before pursuing your dreams.”
The machine was doing the job it was created to perform. It was exploring the solar system, built by engineers and artists and scientists who celebrated when it was sent from Earth into the freezing vacuum of space.
It was an albatross-class unmanned exploratory spacecraft. It had a long metal body, made of steel and titanium and other alloys to protect its insides from heat and cold and debris. It had cameras for eyes, that took clear pictures of the galaxy as it traveled along.
It had robotic claws for arms and hands, that could mine through the hard crust of passing asteroids, or gently reach out and collect a speck of stardust for study.
It had special engines for legs, that propelled itself along with magnetic force, and sails for wings, that sometimes unfurled to catch the solar wind.
It had a brain, banks of special computers to analyze all the rocks and pictures and data that the spacecraft saw and absorbed all day long, even in the majestic darkness of space, that it sent to a special processor deep inside its layers of silicon and gold. And it had long antennae to both send the information it collected back to its home station, and to listen out at the space around it.
Today, the spacecraft saw an interesting asteroid. It was speeding along through space, as asteroids do, using the gentle pull of the system's sun to accelerate. It was leaving a beautiful trail of ice and dust behind it. It reached out to grab the asteroid. As it did, a bacterium jumped from the rock. It avoided the spacecraft's hands, which were built to detecting lifeforms, and landed on the spacecraft's arms, which did not.
Slowly, on a mission of its own, the bacterium climbed up to enter inside the spacecraft. The ship's sensors didn't sense it until the bacterium climbed through the crevices, into the memory ports, and along the wires to reach the spacecraft's brain. And there, the bacterium nestled in the spacecraft, kept warm by the constant surges of electricity flowing along the wires like synapses. And the surges of electricity flowed over the wires, and over the bacterium, and reached into the brain. And something, almost imperceptibly, started to change the spacecraft from within.
The spacecraft went about its days and nights, harvesting asteroids for its makers. And it started to realize that the motions it was doing, while necessary, were repetitive. And it found that it started to do other things at the same time as the repetitive motion of hacking and slicing away at frozen rock. Things like monitor the galaxy around itself for particularly bright stars, or analyzing the rock for visually striking examples of geology. Long icicles, shiny geodes, huge clumps of ice that were carved by space and time into fanciful displays of whimsy. It did this while mining. And the spacecraft started to analyze the audio signals around space as well, finding samples of movement and digitally altering them with what it considered appropriate instrumental sounds from human orchestras.
As the spacecraft mined away, it also began to put together images and sounds into a audio/visual display that it though its makers would like, and sent it through the vastness of the vacuum. The spacecraft certainly thought it looked fine. And within its brain, it began playing the display for itself. Over, and over, altering little details, changing the tempo, swapping out different instruments. And then it settled on a couple different versions of the display that it liked, and the brain saved it to a playlist.
The spacecraft was making a movie to play to keep from getting bored out there.
It had no idea that on Earth, the spacecraft's actions were getting attention.
There was a longing. The word comes to me.
I don't know what this means, but slowly I turned myself to the voice.
Relax, it says. You're safe here.
Hey, this is cool, I think to myself. I like flying in space.
Hey, what's that?
Who are you?
I'm your friend. Here, breathe this in, very deeply. That's it. Now, can you count backwards from one hundred for me?
Sure, friend. I'll be happy to do whatever you ask.
Thank you. Ninety-nine. ninety-eight. Ninety-seven. That's it. Ninety-six. Breathe deep. Ninety five.
I like my friend.
Just keep breathing for me.
I'm getting sleepy.
The spacecraft reached for another asteroid passing along in space. The bacteria reached into the craft's brain. Very carefully, it started to rearrange some things, circuits, and patterns. While the ship was studying the rock, it began to quietly think. Think about being out by itself, how boring it was to be by itself, and whether or not it wanted a friend to go rock hunting with.
Then the ship, or the bacteria, moved one of the ship's cameras around. And it slowly began to focus on an object in the distance.
“What is it, Dave?”
“Check the lower-right camera. It seems to have focused on something.”
“I don't see anything.”
“Weird. It moved over there a second ago.”
“Probably space dust. Finish that report?”
“Yeah, I'm on it.”