Curious, you wade into the data coming in from scans of the ship. Weathered hull, minimal power readings– almost immediately, part of it lights up in response to your scans, pings you back with an unfamiliar code sequence that looks like a transponder identifier but doesn't fit with any known sequences, human or otherwise. For a moment, you're stumped on how to respond, finally compose a simple code query and ping them back.
For a long moment, there's no response. The nearby world is terrestrial, reads as being almost three times as massive as Earth. Long, burnished copper in color, the ship slides around the shimmering edge of the planet's chlorine-helium atmosphere, sticks out like a crude surgeon's needle stained with blood. When the response finally comes, it comes in a packet, compressed and composed in a language unknown to the network.
To you, it's all gibberish at first, but there's enough data in the packet that your ship's integrated intelligence is able to construct a simple translation matrix based off the data. When it finally comes together, the sensation of opening and extracting the packet is as satisfying as unraveling a thousand knots with the pull of a single string.
The translations come through clear, simple. There's so much data in the packet– it's like a crew manifest and a mission statement rolled into one, but there's so much more to it, so much more depth. Complete life histories, sample thoughts and complex memory clusters that lead to other thoughts, other clusters. The alien ship waits patiently while you work through all of it, try to decide what to do, how to respond.
And then you realize– everything you've received has come from some simple form of integrated intelligence. The alien ship itself is running on automatic, or near to it. The people aboard– they're all dead, all six hundred of them.
And yet, they're also on vacation.
It takes a minute for all of it to make sense. The ship is something like a luxury liner, a retirement yacht for the most esteemed citizens of a species until now unknown to humanity. From what you can tell sorting through the information in the data packet, everyone aboard is dead, yet conscious somehow, locked in their bodies. It isn't stasis or cryonics– it's something else. They're part of the ship. Their bodies are present, mummified somehow, nanogenically preserved, minds as much machine as meat, aware, observing, only observing, forever taking in the sights as the ship jaunts from star to star–
A quick ping comes back, different from the others. By the time you locate the matching code in the data packet, the power load in the alien ship's FTL drive spikes, and then it's gone, off to the next world, the next star. A farewell, you realize too late. The last of a few passing words between explorers whose roads among the stars met only for a moment, may never meet again.
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