Wesley Crusher drummed his fingers on the smooth console of the conn and watched the stars drift by through the main viewscreen. He tapped a small icon in the corner, bring up his duty calendar. Only three more hours to go in his shift, and they were going to go by just as slowly as the previous two had. He itched to call up a game or a book or something, but Commander Riker had drummed into him the need to be vigilant when on duty, ready for anything to happen. And since Riker was sitting in the Captain's chair at the moment, there would be no slacking off for Wesley today.
Nothing was happening. It was true that the Enterprise saw more action than most ships in Starfleet, and he looked forward to regaling his classmates at the Academy someday. Most of the time it was like this, though. Dull. Monotonous. Unending.
"Data," he said, "you are so lucky you don't know what it's like to be bored."
Data turned in his seat at the ops console and gazed at Wesley with those unblinking yellow eyes. "That is true, Wesley, but I have heard that there is a saying from Earth: 'Only boring people are bored.'" He cocked his head. "Perhaps you can find a way to keep your mind busy that does not interfere with your duties."
"I run tests on certain mathematical models, investigating the effects of different variables to see what the outcome is."
Wesley sighed. "I don't think I can do that, Data," he said.
"Well," Data said, "Perhaps you can -" He was cut off by a quiet tone from his console. His fingers danced across the panel, bringing up streaming lines of code. "Commander," he said, turning around to face Riker. "Sensors have picked up what seems to be a probe or satellite, about a hundred kilometers off the port bow."
Riker stood up to get a better look at Data's console. "Any idea what it is?" he asked.
"No, sir," Data said. "Only that it is less than a meter in size, spherical…" He looked up. "And definitely not natural."
"You think it's dangerous?"
Data paused. "I cannot tell, sir. But the readings indicate that it is inactive."
"Okay then," Riker said. "Beam it aboard, full quarantine." He glanced down at Wesley. "Ensign Crusher, since you're in need of something to occupy yourself, why don't you come with me?"
Wesley straightened in his seat. "Are you sure? Sir?" he asked. He didn't want to sound too eager. It wouldn't be unlike Commander Riker to try and pull one over on him.
Riker waved a hand. "Why not?" he said. "Things are pretty quiet. If the Romulans show up, you can always come back." He nodded to Data. "Data, you can handle this?"
A few touchstrokes and Data nodded. "Conn functions have been rerouted, Commander."
"Good. Wesley, let's go."
They strode into the turbolift. "Deck six," Riker said. The lights on the side of the lift started to move, the only indication that the system was moving at all. When the doors opened, they walked through busy corridors to the transporter room, where a technician was waiting for them. Riker glanced over at her. "How does it look?"
She glanced at her console. "There's no sign of any biological elements, sir. It does have a power source, but it's not powered up." She looked up at him. "Whatever it is, it's inactive. I'd say it's been out there for a long time."
"Okay," Riker said. "Bring it aboard."
The transporter technician tapped a few buttons and then slid her fingers up the main controller. The transporter pad shimmered to life, a curtain of energy materializing and singing and then coalescing into a small, filthy object that rolled over when the system shut down. The thing was encrusted with rock and dust, no doubt collected over centuries of being in deep space. Wesley and Riker exchanged glances and went up to examine it more closely.
It was about as big as Data had estimated, and almost perfectly round, except for two handles that jutted out from one side. Riker reached out and picked away at some of the accumulated space dust, and a large chunk fell away to reveal the object's metal surface. It was a dull, dirty gray, with the letters "RTU" clearly visible in black.
"'RTU'?" Wesley asked. "What does that mean?"
Riker shook his head. "No idea," he said. He stroked his beard, deep in thought. "Clean it off and take it to engineering. See if Geordi can make anything of it."
"Yes sir," Wesley said, trying not to sound too excited. "I'll be careful."
Riker looked down at him, pulled out of his thoughts. "See that you do." He glanced over at the space relic. "Something about this bothers me."
The transporter technician gave them a handtruck, which floated gently a few inches off the ground. Wesley and Riker lifted the object off the pad, and it felt lighter than it should have. Riker nodded to the technician, said, "Good luck" to Wesley, and left the transporter room.
It was a long way down to Main Engineering, almost at the opposite end of the ship. As Wesley pushed the handtruck along through corridors and the turbolift, he couldn't help but wonder what kind of thing this was. Some sort of ancient communications device? Perhaps it was an archive of some kind, the record of a civilization long gone, preserved for the ages in deep space. He was grinning with excitement when he brought it into main engineering and found Lt. Commander LaForge poring over a display on the large central console. Other members of the engineering staff were moving from station to station, transferring data to and from their datapads and making sure the ship was running smoothly. LaForge looked up when Wesley came in, pushing the object in front of him. "What on earth is that thing?" he asked.
"I have no idea," Wesley said. "We found it floating out in space and brought it on board. Commander Riker told me to clean it up and we should see what we can make of it."
Geordi raised an eyebrow. "We?"
"Well," Wesley said, the excitement draining from his face. "I was hoping that maybe you… Or you and I…" He tried to look hopeful.
Geordi shook his head. "That thing is filthy. Get it out of here."
"But if I can clean it up?"
"I have a check of the ship's inertial controls to perform, a re-calibration of the antimatter flow to do and half a dozen people complaining to me that their ship's computer access isn't working. I have enough to do right now, Wesley." Geordi turned back to his display and hit the controls a little harder than before.
"Okay," Wesley said. He had a hangdog expression that always worked with his mother – his eyes dropped, his shoulders slumped, and he turned to walk away, dragging the handtruck behind him.
"Wes," Geordi called out. Wesley turned around, trying not to look too hopeful. "You can use the tool shop to clean that thing up. But make sure everything is spotless before you leave. Understand?"
The grin sprung back to Wesley's face as he turned the handtruck around and pushed it towards the tool shop off of one of the corridors leading away from Main Engineering. Once there, he lifted the thing onto a workbench and adjusted the lighting so he could see everything clearly. There were tools all over the shop, from the simple hand tools that people had been using for centuries all the way up to the most advanced material manipulation devices. He chose a handheld ultrasound device and checked it. There was a barely audible hum and a soft blue glow. He started to run it over the object, chipping away at the caked-on space dust and debris.
It took well over an hour to clean the thing off. He called up some new Betelgeusian pop songs on the computer and hummed along while he worked at getting centuries of accumulated space dust off the object. It took several trips to the replicator to get rid of the dirt. He kept a small sample in a plastic container, mainly because it might be a clue to the thing's origins, but otherwise he had no trouble getting the workshop cleaned up. The object sat on the metal workbench, dull and inert. At a glance, he couldn't tell what it did. It was complex, that much was certain, and while it seemed to be intact, it was in pretty poor shape. The outer shell was dinged and dented in places, scraped and scratched and cracked. One of the handles was broken, the other bent in the middle. On one side of the sphere, it looked like there was an opening, a small hatch that peeked open at an awkward angle. It looked like it had been through a lot out there. Wesley tapped a few buttons on a tricorder and took a scan of the object, making sure to record everything.
The readings suggested it was made using technology that was about equivalent to late twenty-first century Earth. There was nothing particularly non-terrestrial about it, either in its design or its makeup. Wesley walked around the object, become more and more fascinated with it as the tricorder collected data. There was a computer core inside, that much was certain, and a power cell that looked like it was designed to be rechargeable through a data port in the back. He thought that it might have been hooked up to a larger network at one time, and he wondered how hard it would be to build an adapter for it. Finally, he came back to the words that were printed on the side, and took a visual record with the tricorder.
There was a logo that looked like a mechanical iris, something that might be used on an ancient camera. Next to the logo, in black letters, it read: "APERTURE SCIENCE."
Wesley started going over the tricorder data again and went to a computer access point on the wall. He tapped the screen and said, "Computer. Do you have any records on 'Aperture Science'?"
The display turned a dull red as a short buzzer sounded. "Access to this record is restricted," the computer said. "Please state authorization code."
Wesley sighed. "Cancel," he said. The screen went dark and he looked over at the Aperture Science machine. "What are you?" he murmured. The data on the tricorder wasn't much help. It told him some of the story, but not nearly enough. He tapped his comm badge. "Crusher to bridge," he said.
A moment later, Riker replied. "Bridge. Go ahead."
"Commander, I'm still working on this object we found. Are you going to need me for the rest of this shift?"
There was a pause. "What have you figured out so far?" he asked.
"Well," Wesley said, "it's probably from Earth. From something called 'Aperture Science,' but I don't have the authorization to find out what that is. It's cleaned up, but non-functional."
"Okay," Riker said. "I'll see what I can find out about Aperture Science. In the meantime, see what you can get from it, and come back when you can. Things are pretty quiet up here. Riker out."
Wesley put the tricorder under his arm and picked up the sphere. Without all the dirt, it was much lighter and easier to carry, and he took one more look around the tool shop to make sure it was clean before he went back out to Main Engineering.
Lt. Commander LaForge was in a quiet conversation with one of the engineering crew when Wesley came in. Something about the central computer and diagnostic tests and the like. When they were done, the engineer strode off and Geordi turned around. He took a look at Wesley and whistled. "Wow," he said. "Now that's interesting."
"I thought so too," Wesley said. He placed it gently on the main control table. "Here are the readings I got from it." He tapped the tricorder and sent the data to the main display on the table. Lines of data and code spun out across the surface, which Geordi read in silence. He traced his finger across some of the displays and looked over at the sphere. "Looks like a computer," he said. "And if I'm reading this right, it might well be an AI."
Wesley's eyes went wide. "Really?" he asked. "I didn't think they made them that long ago."
"They did," Geordi said. "They just weren't quite as good as they are now." He picked up the sphere and turned it over, looking for the input port. With a little pressure, a small panel opened up in the back. He picked up the tricorder, scanned the port, and shunted the data to the main display. "Old tech," he muttered.
Wesley looked from the screen to Geordi. "Do you think you can make it work?" he asked.
Geordi stared at the data for a minute and then nodded. "I think so," he said. He tapped the console, bringing up a schematic of the sphere's power supply. "In fact, I think you could probably do this yourself."
He nodded. "Sure. Look – it's a pretty simple power input system." He tapped and hilighted a few different sections. "This leads to the main battery, this to the servo system, and this part seems to power the central core." He paused and gestured on the display surface, zooming into the schematic. "In fact, this looks like the main data port, next to the AI power supply. Shouldn't be too hard to fabricate an adapter with the replicator." He looked over at Wesley. "Wanna give it a shot?"
Wesley was beaming. "Absolutely!" he said. He ran his hand over the battered shell. "Imagine what could be in this thing!" He looked over at Geordi. "It might be lost historical records, perhaps a cultural artifact. There could be secrets on this thing that would have been lost for all time if we hadn't found it." He looked back at the sphere. "I really want to know."
Geordi laughed. "So do I, when you put it that way." He pointed back towards the tool shop. "Get to work and see what you can put together. Just call me before you hook anything up, okay?"
Back in the tool shop, Wesley set up the schematic displays on the wallscreen. He selected some old Earth music from the computer library and got to work, using the replicator's modeling systems to try and design a power and data system for the sphere. Despite what Geordi had said, it wasn't that easy. The input port was small, and there were some complicated contacts involved. Whenever this thing had been designed, it was still based on computer principles that had been established hundreds of years ago. A modern designer could have made it much simpler.
After a few hours of simulations and redesigns, Wesley came up with something that he thought should work. He coded the design into the replicator and sat back while the computer processed his request. A moment later, the replicator hummed and shimmered, and left behind a coiled cable. On one end was a plug that would fit into one of the Enterprise's data ports. The cable looped to a blocky transformer, and then ended in a long, thin, spikelike plug. Wesley picked it up and smiled.
He called Geordi, as promised, and a few minutes later the chief engineer came in. He took the adapter in his hands and looked carefully at it. "Nice work," he said. "It just might be the thing." He looked over. "Want to give it a try?" Wesley nodded eagerly, and picked up the sphere.
There was a data port in the wall, behind a small panel next to the computer access. Geordi plugged one end of the cable in, and then looked over at Wesley.
Wesley nodded, turned the sphere over, and carefully inserted the spike into the access port. As soon as he did so, he could feel a faint vibration under his fingertips. The machine was getting power, and it was turning on.
He set it upright on the floor, and they stepped back from it. A series of quiet beeps and pings came from the sphere, and then a loud hum.
"Riker to Engineering," their communicators announced. They both started in surprise.
Geordi tapped his. "Engineering, LaForge here."
"Geordi, is Wesley with you?"
Geordi looked over. "I'm here," Wesley said. He was still watching the sphere on the floor, which was humming louder now. The front panel seemed to be struggling to open, and he could see some kind of yellow illumination through the thin opening.
"I've found out what I could about Aperture Science," Riker said, "and I don't think it's a good idea to power that thing up. At least not until we know more about what it -" His voice cut off in a flood of static and a high pitched squeal that made Geordi and Wesley cover their ears. The lights in the tool room dimmed and flickered.
The front hatch of the sphere snapped open, and a great, yellow iris beamed out and swiveled to look at the two of them. The lights in the room brightened, became far too bright, and started to fail, one by one. The eye of the sphere spun madly and danced as the ship hummed and growled around them.
The sphere stopped moving, and the lights cut out, leaving the room lit only by emergency illumination. The ship's speakers crackled for a moment and then went silent. And then: