They had been summoned by high brass to help assess the situation. Not due to their association with Malone, they didn't think, but because they were, after all, leading minds in their respective fields.
After they had gotten back to the lab they had figured out that their "Project" (for lack of a better term) had been distressed over an alert in the fleet perimeter defense grid. It was small enough to not sound the alarm and people of interest were preoccupied in the ballroom at the moment. But it was important. Because this was not space debris, a rock nor servo scraps.
"But how did it know," Malone asked? "I thought it was completely cut off from the fleet's systems? I thought that was, in fact, one of the chief operating principles behind it?" But there was almost no condescendence in his tone, mostly just curiosity. Still, Ena seemed more than a bit upset as she eyed Ethan for an answer.
"No, it was just for tonight, I promise," he blurted out apologetically. "I needed the ship's medium range array to transmit the signal to another ship. And even then it should be contained to transmission protocols not higher process logarithms."
"So basically you don't know what happened," John said, managing to sound more accusative than he first intended. Ethan looked at him fiercely and then back at Ena who seemed unimpressed.
"I…" but he didn't. He didn't actually know. And that scared him more than he was willing to admit. He had come to terms with this project. He had even started to love it. But this seemed to be out of his control and for the first time he wondered what the finished project would look, seem and sound like. Would it be much like a person? How close to a person was this thing he was making? Would that make him a father? Was this his first born child? And was this what parents felt when they started to realize that their children were their own people and not just an amalgam of both parent's features? That they had a mind and will of their own and that, ultimately, they'd just do what they wanted to do?
The probe lay now on the floor of a nondescript hangar in ship 5 surrounded by many leading minds in many fields. Engineers, pilots, administrators and generals all breathed heavily and casted concerned glares at the small ovoid machine that seemed to lie coyly on the metallic floor, nervous with all the attention.
Nobody seemed to want to touch it first and a buzzing of whispers slowly rose to a comfortable chatter. Malone stood stoically and looked around, frowning. All these so called "big wigs" and none of them with a decision, none of them willing to make the first move. All of them hesitant and unsure of what was happening or what would happen. This was what he had set out to end. The sound of laughter broke the curse of dormancy that had taken over him, his face grimacing with disgust at the levity with which these other people took this situation.
This was, after all, human technology that had come outside this their human fleet. There was another ship, maybe even another fleet out there! And these people stood here idly, laughing at their own witty remarks. He stepped forward intently and approached the gleaming object. It had since had time to warm up and he was confident he could touch it now without losing his fingertips to extreme frostbiting. He went down on one knee and caressed the white surface of the oval ever so slightly. The chatter quieted down behind him and he smothered a smirk. He heard footsteps approaching and turned his head to see Ena and Ethan coming over to join him. They had brought analysis tools and their approaching hands offered assistance.
Malone met what seemed to be a hatch with the tip of his index finger and, after pausing to bring attention to this fact, he pulled the hatch open.
"Greetings," said a male voice quite suddenly. The small crowd was startled, a few taking a step backwards. The voice had been accompanied with the small image of a man that floated a few centimeters above it. He wore some sort of coat buttoned down from his chin to his knees and the upper part of his face had some sort of mask over it reminiscent of an old visual aid mask for blind people. The image wasn't bigger than a child although the man seemed to be a full-grown adult. It had the quality of a very old projection apparatus, very retro hologram stuff. Ena was absolutely delighted, a childish grin on her lips and a fire in her eyes, and Ethan had to stop her before she could begin perusing the device more carefully while it was still transmitting.
"It is with great satisfaction that I assure whoever may be watching that we are a peaceful fleet and we mean no harm." Ethan noticed that the voice didn't sync with the man's lips. He was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of pure distrust. It was a safe assumption that not every human out there spoke the same language they did. He knew enough about their history to know there had been countless languages on the home planet before they left. It was reasonable to assume that if there were other fleets that survived there were also other languages. But he couldn't be sure of what the man was saying. He had to take the disembodied voice's word for it. He had never experienced the uncertainty of not comprehending the basics of what another person was saying and he thought he really didn't care for it.
"We have sent this probe," and the image gestured downwards, "to make first contact for our safety as much as yours. As a sign of good faith we ask that you release the probe upon completion of this message so it can return to us with rudimentary data so we can establish first contact. If you would rather not engage in parlay with us, please destroy this probe and rest assured we will not take it as a sign of aggression. We will move on and expect your fleet to do likewise." The voice seemed very confident, very sure of itself. Like it had done this a million times and that did nothing to ease Ethan. He started shifting from one foot to the next, scratching his elbows.
"We hope this probe has found you well and we hope for a bright cooperative future between our two cultures. We are the Red Fleet." The man in the grainy image bowed and then was gone, the probe whirring down to silence.
Ena set immediately about analyzing the structure of the machine, its components, its functionalities. Ethan found a port compatible with extremely ancient interface modules and went through the motions of trying to understand the thinking behind the probe. Some people thought to protest but Malone quickly explained that it would be naïve to not study it at least. They didn't know how much of that message they could trust, they didn't even know the probe wasn't filed with explosives or gas or whatever. They didn't know what constituted this "rudimentary data" and how much were they willing to disclose to these unknown people.
But smiles were already plastered on the faces of everyone in the room, hugs and even a few tears. While Ethan and Ena gathered their data Malone could see that the minds of these people were made up. They were ecstatic to not be alone in the universe. It was a fear that had permeated their society for a very long time, that they were the last fleet, that these ten million people were the last people the stars would ever know. And they were threatened at that by these blitz attacks from an unknowable force. Now there was hope. There were more people out there and the old adage still rang true that there was safety in numbers.
But Malone was wary. He knew that if they weren't as friendly as they wanted to seem they could be banking on this hope-fueled gullibility to do with them what they pleased. He felt helpless to defend their home against whatever hidden agenda they may have. He felt very old, much older than his years, like the only adult trying to look after millions of children.
"It seems harmless enough," said Ena who had silently approached him, "but it's scanning us as we speak. The hardware itself is remarkable. Some of it is ancient, or looks ancient according to our standards. But other of it I hadn't even dreamed of. It seems like we started on the same basics and just invested on radically different-"
"Fascinating," Malone interrupted, his voice sounding leagues away from fascinated, "but what are they scanning? And why?"
"Everything," she replied simply, her purple tinted eyes letting through a bit of anxiety. "They're scanning our defense systems, our generators, our farmships, our waterships, our airships…"
"They're testing software too," Ethan chimed in. "The probe is running what seem to be harmless compatibility tests."
"I don't like this," said Malone under his breath. His eyes swept the room and he found John leaning against a far wall, whispering to a tall woman with black hair. Their eyes met and Malone nodded, prompting him to start in his direction.
"And there's another thing," Ethan continued. "I found a subtle process doing it's very best to sneak by."
"What's it doing," Malone asked, silently greeting John as he approached the circle. Ethan swallowed his growing distaste for the foolhardy pilot and continued.
"It seems to be looking for something and before you ask, no, I don't know what. And I don't know what will happen when or if it finds it. I don't know what happens if it doesn't find it." Ethan looked behind John's shoulder and he caught her looking at him. He smiled at her and she smiled back before he turned his eyes back to Malone.
"Anything dangerous about the machine itself?" Malone asked finally.
"Not really," Ena explained. "No explosives or anything of the sort. It's not much different from one of our probes or servos. It's dangerous if you shower with it but that's about it."
As if on cue, as soon as she finished her sentence, the probe lit up a panel with ominous red numbers. 260000. And it counted one down every second.
"That's just over three days," Ethan said and everyone looked at him as if to ask why would you even know that. "I just do," he answered the unspoken question nervously.
"But three days to what?" was the question that mattered.