Artificial intelligences never really sleep, so nobody would have been surprised when Pugio, the shipboard AI of the Federation-class frigate Westburg, scanning the system at 0152 shipboard time, detected something on the edge of the system. Within picoseconds he had switched the lights on in the Captain's cabin and appeared on the volumetric display.
Captain Roberts rolled over when the lights came on, and after a few seconds realized that probably something of import had happened, so he sat up in his bed in time to see Pugio's avatar appear on the volumetric display.
"I have detected an unidentified object on the edge of this system, approximately six billion seven hundred fifty million kilometers away, near the middle of the cometcloud."
"Good work, continue to monitor it, I'll be on the bridge in a moment."
Pugio's image above the display disappeared and Roberts put on his uniform.
A short time later, Commander Roberts appeared on the bridge.
"Pugio, anything new?"
"Sir, the object I detected is still there."
"Very good. Take us closer."
"Yes sir" came the response from Engineering.
The frigate turned towards the anomalous object and began to accelerate. After about five minutes, Pugio spoke again.
"Captain, we're being scanned." That would be Communications.
"We are? By what?"
"Apparently, sir, that object is some sort of unidentified starcraft."
Commander Roberts cocked his head and stared at the viewport for a few moments before asking, "How far away are we now? Just estimate, if possible, Pugio."
It was silent for a few seconds, before Pugio's voice came over the speakers again and an approximation of the situation appeared on the bridge voldisplay.
"Sir, I didn't think I could estimate our position, so I took the liberty of scanning and discovered that we are approximately a light-minute away."
"Thank you, Pugio."
Close to a minute passed before Pugio's voice came over the speakers again.
"Sir, the object is accelerating now, I can detect emissions from its engines, they appear to be some kind of plasma focus system, separation is now approximately 30 light-seconds and closing…"
"Sir, recommend we slow down and see what this object is going to do."
"Very well, Engineering take us down to half speed. Anything else you've discovered?"
"Sir, the object is approximately one kilometer in length, about 250 meters in width, and I'm afraid that's all I've ascertained."
Commander Roberts paused for a moment – this meant that the ship was about five times as long as his frigate, and one of his ship could fit inside the area enclosed by the hull of the brick-shaped ship.
"Communications, try hailing it on civilian and military frequencies."
Immediately the Westburg began to decelerate. As it passed through the outer reaches of the gravity well of one of the nearby gas giants, Pugio spoke up again.
"Sir, it has slowed down slightly to about 95 percent of its previous speed, and continues to approach us. The object is now at 5 light-seconds from us, Captain…"
"Sir, we have received a transmission from the object, which appears to be purely mathematical."
"We have received pi out to six hundred…. Make that six hundred sixty six digits, Captain."
Commander Roberts idly wondered if some rogue AI was playing some kind of joke, and turned to the ensign at the Communications station.
"Ensign, transmit the following message: Unidentified object, please state your registration and intentions. This is the corvette Westburg out of Beta Epsilonsis, Captain K. Roberts commanding."
"Pugio, if possible, could you append a map of this system in relation to the rest of the galaxy to that transmission?"
"Yes, sir, I'll do that."
"Engineering, come to full stop. Ready to send, Ensign?"
"Uh…. Yes, sir."
"Very well, send…. now."
The message flew across the aether at the speed of light, and in both ships intelligence waited for the result. Finally, on the receiving end, interpretation was made, discussed, and a response was sent.
"How long has it been since we sent that message and how far away are we?"
"Message was sent 5 minutes ago and we are currently about 3 light-seconds away. Other object has come to a dead stop."
"So they should have received our message, then."
"Sir, incoming communication."
"Excellent… What format?"
"Tight-beam transmission, sir, text only… There is a small image attached, but the message is currently just repeating."
"Could you read the message and bring the image up on the screen here?"
"I do not have a registration, merely an identification number assigned by my creators. Even then, that identification number applies only to myself and the hull of this vessel I inhabit, while the other identification numbers refer to the various other artificial intelligent constructs on this vessel. Furthermore, since when does a Captain command a small ship such as that?" Captain, I think that was meant to throw you off balance. Message continues: "I suppose your vessel is crewed by only a few artificial constructs, if that. As the polity you serve is probably distrustful of 'mere programs', or at least to the extent that your society has tried merely appending constructs to the pre-existing all-biological command-chain. But you tire of my analysis, I'm sure, so here are my intentions." The image came up on a screen, a small picture of what looked like some kind of explosion.
"Sir, objects approaching from enemy ship, they appear to be missiles."
"Take evasive action and try to destroy them before they hit us. Can you tell if they are guided?"
"No, sir, two of the five objects approaching are approaching in a straight line from the vessel… The other three have modified their trajectory based on our evasive maneuver, so are probably self-propelled, and are of unknown payload…"
"Pugio, get me a firing solution on the double to fire on that vessel."
"Weapons, are our capacitators charged?"
"Currently at 80 percent of maximum, sir."
"Pugio, when you get that firing solution, fire a 50-tonne shot at it."
"Yes, sir. Capacitators charged at maximum, taking control of linear magnetic cannon … now…"
Suddenly a white-hot projectile accelerated to roughly forty-five percent of the speed of light appeared on the viewport, just in time for blasts to appear a few hundred kilometers in front of from the Westburg.
The viewport polarized and Commander Roberts turned to the Weapons Officer and asked, "What happened?"
"Sir, those were apparently fusion warheads… The resulting electromagnetic pulses have prevented our weapons from being fired until we restart the fire control system and make sure the EMPs didn't do any damage to the capacitators for the linear magnetic cannon and our other weapons systems."
"Sir, our bridge electronics are now online again." That would be Engineering.
The viewscreen depolarized to reveal that the vessel had disappeared.
"Sir, I'm detecting abnormally high amounts of charged particles where that vessel was."
"Damned… Engineering, get us to half speed and determine whether there was any damage to the ship other than the EMPs. Navigation, set us on a heading so we're back at base, I get the feeling the Rear Admiral might want to hear of this. Communications, send a transmission to base telling of our status."
"Yes, sir" came the chorus from the various bridge officers and a fury of typing commenced.
And now, a report…