First Contact

The probe inched out into the reception hall, chemical rockets firing in co-ordinated bursts to move it's massive body out of the gate. The launch crew had called the probe Pandora 17 - the seventeenth explorer mission and the first with the third generation AI network. Onboard, that AI was coming life, bootstrapped into full sentience by the successful passage through the gate.

The cylindrical hall was six kilometers in diameter and almost eight high, the roof curving inwards to a circular exit two kilometers across. Before the probes seven hundred meter body had left the gate, it's radar had swept the hall finding it completely empty, nothing bigger than a dust grain disturbing the peace. It picked out the three gate complexes set into the flat surface behind it, one leading back to the star system it had just left, the activation sequences for the remaining two showing that they led to new destinations. Manoeuvering delicately, the probe pushed itself sideways lining up with the central axis of the hall, steadied, and then slowly drifted up through the exit above. Outside in free space it paused, sampling its surroundings with all the sensors packed into it's large body as it slowly rotated to face the sun.

For some time nothing happened, and then three pieces of the structure detached themselves from just below the flat head of the probe. As they rotated slowly, a large telescope unfolded from the body of each locking itself into position, protective flaps covering the sensitive mirror lifting and rotating out of the way. The ejection mechanism had pushed the telescopes away from the main body and after several hundred meters, the onboard ion engines lit. Microwaves stripped electrons from ceasium atoms and rings of superconducting magnets accelerated the ions almost to light speed before pushing them away from the small probe. The thrust was small, but it could be maintained for years with the power available. As they moved off in different directions, the telescopes looked out over separate parts of the new solar system searching for planets and the possibility of life.

Satisfied by the internal checks, the AI authorised the propulsion system to begin deployment. Moments later huge wings began to unfurl from the cylindrical body, stretching out to almost a kilometer from the main body at their most extreme. Anyone close enough to examine them would see a heavily textured surface, spines on spines, each smaller than it's parent. The wing surfaces were fractal, each providing thousands of square kilometers of cooling for the main drive. With cooling established the fusion reactors increased to full power, their output fed to the superconducting magnets surrounding the propulsion system at the core of the probe. Pandora's AI matrix felt the power increase the way an athlete would, energy and awareness flowing through the ship's body, muscles stretching.

Lighting the main drive for the first time was always sensitive, it needed coaxing almost like a fragile, elderly machine. It was mankind's first piece of engineering to embody chaos at it's heart and was the main push for the development of artificial intelligence. The design had called for human sensitivity and instinct coupled with machine reaction speeds, and the early flight testing had confirmed the need.

The first small puff of hydrogen into the ionisation chamber just behind the head of the probe was torn apart, atoms reduced to their components and pushed into the accelerator. Seven hundred meters later, the plasma was far hotter than the inside of the sun and jerked the probe into motion as it was ejected out of the accelerator and eventually out of the solar system. The acceleration increased and smoothed out as the AI coordinated feeding and heating, the reactors throttling back to half power as the wings began to glow dull red from the waste heat.

Pandora 17 moved away from the asteroid holding the gate complex, heading towards the inner system, it's body twisting with the delicacy of a dancer as it kept the destructive output from the main drive away from the asteroid and the telescopes it had deployed earlier. Pandora relaxed her oversight of the propulsion system as the drive stabilised, and, combining the ships own senses with the more limited abilities of the deployed telescopes began to build a map of the new solar system. So far Pandora could find two definate gas giants in the outer system with between two and five more possibles, and a single planet in the habitable zone of the star almost half an orbit away and just about to disappear from sight behind the sun.

Navigation suggested a gravity-assist path via the closest gas giant which would allow the drive to be tested at close to full power whilst fulfilling one of the secondary mission objectives - a survey of at least one gas giant. Pandora approved the path and the corkscrew change of direction which kept the drive flame away from the asteroid and the only way home. An hour later, with the probe clear of any surroundings, Pandora authorised the main drive to be run up to full power in carefully checked increments.

Fifty five days later Pandora was decelerating gently towards the scond planet in the system, an Earth like world complete with clouds, chlorophil and oxygen. The gas giant fly-by had been a major success, the small probes deployed as she flew backwards through the miniature solar system of moons had provided meter resolution maps of a dozen and partial data on twenty more. The high speed run back into the inner solar system had showed minor problems with heat dissipation from two of the wings which only showed up if the drive was run at over eighty-five percent.

Pandora was running a regular system check when the first notification appeared. There was an anomaly associated with the asteroid sized moon orbiting the planet ahead. Because of the approach angle and the moon's slow rotation, only about sixty percent of the surface had been mapped. A camera platform with a high thrust engine was ejected to try and get a better view. Pandora regretted the waste, an emotion that the designers would have been surprised at. The platform would never be able to make orbit, instead it would pass too close to the sun and be destroyed by heat and radiation. But the anomaly was more important, the mission definition was quite clear on the matter.

A day later, Pandora was monitoring the images flowing in from the platform as it focused on the surface of the moon passing by at forty kilometers a second. The resolution was no better than ten meters, and compensating for motion blur whilst running enhancement algorithms was taking a lot of processing power. Suddenly a frame lit up with laser-like intensity, and, had Pandora been human she would have frozen in shock. There was time to notice repeated regular features which could only be buildings before the First Contact alarm activated.

The original designers for the Pandora probes recognised that one day another intelligent race might be found somewhere. If this happened, the probes response would be critical. Disagreements between the civilian scientists and the military had reached a compromise, peaceful contact would result in an attempt at communication, anything else would be classified as an attack. Of course, differentiating between these situations wasn't easy.

Pandora's reaction was a result of military paranoia and poor software testing.

All non critical computing resources were immediately diverted to navigation to plot an escape course back to the gate whilst the onboard reactors were brought up to full power. Independant subsystems ran risk analysis on insufficient data whilst all the waiting survey probes were prepared for immediate launch even though few had the fuel to make orbit once they reached their destination.

Navigation returned a single option - a fast pass close to the inner planet in the system followed by a cometary orbit around the sun which would slingshot Pandora back to the gate. First Contact protocols allowed no leeway with a single escape option so all the survey packages were jettisoned to fend for themselves as the probe began to turn. The grace was still there, but an observer would have detected a new urgency.

Pointed in the right direction, Pandora gave absolute priority to propulsion and watched the main drive power levels rise. Running risk analysis in parallel and concentrating particularly on heat dissipation, she hoped that problems would be detected early enough. Navigation was directed to rerun escape and evasion courses based on current ship status and with the expectation that the main drive would degrade massively at some point.

A previously quiescent tactical module began feeding high priority suggestions, the first directing the main drive to cycle randomly between ninety and one hundred and four percent power for as long as possible.

Two days later, drive quiet, Pandora was reconfiguring heat management in an effort to handle the increase in heat from the sun. One of the wings was on the edge of failure and the safe power level for the main drive was reduced to sixty percent.

There had been no further incident from the second planet. Almost a quarter of the deployed sensors had made orbit, their data chasing Pandora's ragged trajectory through the inner solar system. Pandora had reassessed the original attack images and concluded that the flash was likely to have been the sun flaring from a reflective surface, but the First Contact protocol prevented that from affecting the probe's behaviour. So the paranoid behaviour continued and the damage increased.

Two weeks later, approaching the gate which led back home, Pandora was preparing to jettison a second fusion reactor to save weight and help deceleration. The main drive was restricted to thirty percent power and two of the heat dissipating wings were virtually useless. Navigation was running continual simulations which showed that Pandora would pass the asteroid too quickly.

Normally, the probe would just pass by decelerating and eventually make it's way back but again First Contact prevented sensible behaviour, forcing the risky option of dumping a heavy reactor. The tactical module had one final suggestion - the self-contained AI core should be able to make it to the gate if the drive was overloaded for the last ten hours, and the core ejected from the main body of the probe at the right time.

Although every risk assessment was against it, there was really no choice, tactics had precedence. Main drive power was increased ten hours from the asteroid and Pandora watched dispassionately as the wings glowed deeper and deeper red. For a while it appeared that the probe would make it, but when the end came, it was sudden. The glow from one wing changed from even red to mottled black and flaring crimson as the fractal structure broke down and the cascading heat build up broke the wing apart. Pandora shut the drive down before the superconductors overheated and destroyed themselves.

Tactics and navigation agreed that the core was in a position to reach the gate, and the ejection mechanism was primed. With the core gone Pandora's body would drift into the outer solar system, perhaps to be recovered one day.

With a muffled crash the AI core holding Pandora's personality and data store was ejected from the damaged probe. It was a last perfect shot, and the cameras on the module recorded images of what looked like a moth with a huge, bruised body and damaged wings floating away in the darkness. Future AI architects would argue endlessly about the wave of sadness that the core recorded as the probe floated out of view.

Ninety minutes later, Pandora 17 returned to it's launch site broadcasting a "First Contact Agressive" alert and a young EAS captain suffered an historically significant heart attack.