“By God,” Joseph murmured. “By the time they reach us, there might not be any of them left to fight.”
All three scientists watched the feed from within their ship, wracked with confusion and worry. Humanity was about to encounter intelligent alien life for the first time in its history, and the occasion hardly seemed auspicious.
They stared into the maw of the alien ship, and all they saw was war.
Ever since the Andromeda Exploration Company discovered signs of alien civilization at the edge of their charter, they had kept quiet, not wanting anything to leak before they were ready to announce the news. The Company intended the first encounter to be a controlled, diplomatic affair, and they would not just let any random technician make the first impression. To build up a plan, they sent scouting missions around the aliens’ planet, trying to collect as much preliminary data as they could from afar. The information they collected was spotty, but the Company learned two things. The aliens were already aware of humans, and they intended to introduce themselves first.
The scientists’ eyes were closed, but the radio-image data from their probes streamed directly into their brains, across all three dimensions and a field of several miles. As if in a dream, they visualized the leading ship, oblong and slowly spinning. They saw the millions of figures inside leaping over one another, hacking each other to pieces in a mindless frenzy.
“Four ships,” said Sara. “Two pairs. Do we know what’s in the other ones?”
“They’re not in range yet. We can’t see them clearly.”
“Can they see us?”
Jason spoke up. “They haven’t changed course. They’re still heading for the Company station, not us.”
“Should we head back?” asked Joseph.
“No,” Sara said. “Stay in place and wait for the first ship to pass us by. We’ll see what’s inside the other three.”
The Company would rather not put humans anywhere near the aliens until they knew more, but given the neural power necessary for the scouting missions, there was no avoiding it. Quantum computing was a bust. Traditional computers were good at sequential tasks, but they could focus on only one thing at a time, and even the best neural nets were only a stilted emulation of the human mind. It was hardly an elegant solution, but in practical terms, human brains made a better platform for complex tasks than any computer. They just needed to be specialized. With a few carefully engineered genes, those of sufficient determination- or insanity- could reshape their minds into whatever form they wished.
The Company’s scouting party was a flurry of thousands of tiny, needlelike drones, piloted by the three scientists- the three human computers. Their brains had been genetically remapped to grow custom probe-control structures, designed to collate thousands of points of spacial data and visualize them as one. The gene therapy hadn’t been a hard choice for any of them. They were fanatical scientists, young and ambitious, and they would do anything for the chance to truly see the vastness of space. All the Company did was offer them what they wanted.
“What do you think their intentions are?” asked Jason.
“War, probably,” said Joseph. “Each one of those ships could hold an army. Maybe they intend to drive away our ships through sheer numbers.”
“Seems odd. What sort of army practices on itself before attacking the enemy?”
“Why else would they send four ships full of warriors to our station?”
“We don’t know that all four are war ships,” said Sara. “We can’t even make out what’s on the second ship yet. This is only the first one. When we see the rest of the convoy, it may make things clearer.”
The Company had thrown the scouting party together in a hurry after what its communications array picked up. Not long after humans had arrived in view of their planet, and shortly after launching the four massive ships from orbit, the aliens beamed out millions of detailed radio messages. They were unencrypted, and the Company’s human computers were able to interpret them with ease.
They were blueprints.
Maps drawn up in four dimensions, representing both space and time. Diagrams of human ships, human structures. Human bodies. The diagrams seemed to have been annotated, with streams of data surrounding each visual component, but none of the Company’s interpreters could decipher what they meant. Even if the aliens had anything resembling human language, the Company did not know what they were saying.
“Here’s what I don’t understand,” Joseph said. “These things are supposed to be brilliant. We saw their blueprints.”
“You don’t have to be brilliant to make a copy of something,” said Jason. “All you need is a good enough eye. How do we know they even understood any of the things that they drew?”
“Those diagrams weren’t just copies. They’re… artistic. Symbolic. Even their technical diagrams are beautiful.”
“That sounds like a value judgment to me,” said Jason. “Just because you feel like these things have good aesthetic sense doesn’t mean that they think anything like us. Nor does wisdom equal benevolence. They could have been analyzing human anatomy to find the best places to stab us, for all we know. They could have mapped out our ships so that they know which parts of the hulls are easiest to breach.”
Sara spoke. “Stop. Look at their formation. Look which way they’re going.”
They focused on the seething mass of aliens on the first ship. Individuals were small and blurry, and with how quickly they tore each other apart, it was nearly impossible to focus on just one. The waves of aliens carpeted the sides of the ship, forced against the side by centripetal force. As waves of alien flesh built and surged over one another, the scientists noticed something.
They built towards the central axis. They were all fighting their way up.
“They were more or less flat when we first saw them,” Sara said. “Now they’re spiking up.” Each wave of bodies rose higher, steeper, before it fell to the ground in a churning mass. As she spoke, one wave launched itself into the air. Its members flew into the central axis, where they were frozen in place.
The first ship ground to a halt.
“The second ship’s coming up,” said Sara. “Can anyone see what’s inside yet?”
Joseph paused. “I think it’s… empty.”
“Look! Look at the outside of the ship!”
Where the two ships touched, a point of light appeared. Seams inched out from all directions, working their way down the faces of the ships, and their walls bulged around the seams like slices of a tangerine. The corners of the segmented walls peeled back, until both ships splayed open like flowers in bloom.
The minuscule figures suspended in the center of the first ship drifted back into the second. They fell to the ground, where they meandered about lazily. The warriors left behind in the first ship no longer hacked and clawed at each other, but rather stood still among the piles of corpses.
Both ships sealed shut, and the first turned around, heading back towards its home planet as slowly as it had come.
The second ship marched on.
[posting the second part as a reply, because I accidentally made this too long]