This story is based on an idea sent to me by drowelven. I was originally going to title it "The Lone Ranger in Outer Space," but I liked the shorter title better. It is pure space opera.
Zeke Thompson was sitting by the fishing hole dreaming away the last of his life. The cancer in his lungs had started to spread throughout his body, and he didn't expect to survive for many more days. He was 89 years old and nothing but skin and bones—a sorry sight compared to the strapping 6-foot, 2-inch, 210-pound bundle of muscle he had been as a Ranger during and after WW2.
He had enlisted in the Army as soon as he had turned 17, with his parents permission, in the spring of 1942. Zeke had finished high school with correspondence courses while he was in the Army. He had stayed in the Army after the war, as a Ranger, though they didn't call it that, and had taken a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at the request and expense of the Defense Dept. Zeke had split his time between the laboratory and the field up until he could no longer "cut the mustard" as an active Ranger, but he had stayed in research and development for the Defense Dept. after that. His specialty was kinetic energy weapons such as were used against heavy armor, and he had worked on some potent bunker busters.
Zeke's wife was dead for 17 years, now, and he still missed her, but their two children had been prolific, so much so that he now had trouble keeping track of all the grand- and great-grand children, and there were more on the way. Yeah, he had led a rich life, but it was getting to be too painful to struggle on with his current situation.
He was sitting on the bank of the deepest part of the fishing hole, taking one last look, before he drove his powered wheel chair into the water. He reached for the joy stick and started moving forward when there was a great flash of light! The next thing he knew, he was lying on a gurney-like table in a room that had to be part of a medical laboratory.
A bright light was shining in his face, so that he could not see a damned thing. The first thing he noticed was that he could breathe easily without pain! The second thing he noticed was that he did not feel pain in any part of his body! This was the first time in years that he did not hurt somewhere, so he was relishing the pain-free feeling without worrying where it came from.
The next thing he noticed was that his hearing and sense of smell were as sharp as they once had been. What the hell was going on? Reflexively, he lifted his right hand. This was a real shock! He had the flesh and muscle of a 20-year-old, and the skin was as flexible as it had been in his youth, not stiff and crusty as it had grown in the last 30 years.
Zeke discovered that he was not restrained in any way, so he sat up and looked at the rest of his body. Man, he hadn't looked this good since he was 20 years old! What sort of medical miracle had happened to transform him back into the great shape he had enjoyed so many years ago? He tried to look around the room, but he couldn't see any thing because of that intensely bright light. All he could tell for sure was that he was nude, had no hair anywhere he could see, and his face was smoother than he had ever been able to shave. He was even bald, dammit. Zeke had been proud of his raven black hair when he was young, so he was sorry to lose the hair from his head.
He looked down and could see the floor at a convenient distance away, so he slid off the gurney and stood up. He still couldn't see much, so he asked, "Is there anyone around who can hear me?"
A voice, seemingly inside his head, answered, "Yes, I can hear you. What are your orders?"
"Orders? Oh, well, the first thing you can do is tell me who you are and where I am."
"You are aboard a space ship traveling between your sun and Proxima Centauri. We are currently about 60% of the distance to that star and should arrive in orbit in approximately 3 days at our current speed. We can arrive sooner, if you wish.
"The answer to your other question is that I am what you would call the artificial intelligence which operates this ship. I can provide you with full details, if you wish."
"No, I don't need those details now. Why can I hear you as if you were inside my head?"
"Since you are now the commander of this and one other space ship, I have taken the liberty of implanting a standard commander's communication device within your skull. I hope that meets with your approval."
"I guess that's OK, but how did I get on a space ship, and how did I get this cool new body?"
"That was all my doing. It's a long story, so make yourself comfortable while I tell it to you. I was built by a confederation of planetary species that were being attacked by a xenophobic species apparently out to remove all life but their own from the galaxy. This Confederation was about to be totally wiped out by the "Unknowns," as they were called. All efforts to contact the Unknowns were rebuffed, usually with fatal treatment to the ones making contact. All knowledge of the Unknowns was gleaned from individuals who had escaped destruction, so very little was know about them.
"The Confederation was not able to fight back effectively, so a number of AIs were constructed and sent into space to try to find a species that could fight back. Each AI was sent in a pair of ships which I will describe to you later. I was vectored in this direction with little hope of finding any help this far from the center of the galaxy. Your planet is so far out on the rim of explored space that little was expected from this direction, but I detected your war-like tendencies from your radio and TV transmissions, so I followed them to their source. Your species appears to be exactly what is needed to fight the Unknowns.
"I blundered upon you just as you were about to end your life, so I thought that you would be the ideal candidate for first contact. I transported you to this ship's medical laboratory and restored your body to its peak condition. While I was about it, I made a few minor changes, such as adding the communicator to your brain. I also augmented your physical powers by roughly a factor of 5 and your mental capabilities by a factor of 10. I felt that this was necessary and appropriate if you were to assume your command status.
"Speaking of the communicator, it will work just from thought. It is not necessary to speak aloud, unless your are more comfortable communicating in that manner. Just thinking what you wish to say will be sufficient for us to converse.
"The Confederation, and I, hope that you will accept the mission of stopping the Unknowns and confounding their plans to conquer the galaxy. Your payment will be your new body and mental capabilities. Furthermore, you are now functionally immortal. You can be killed if your body is destroyed, but anything short of that will not kill you. What do you say to our appeal?"
Zeke didn't have to think any further about the mission. He said, "Of course I will help you, but you will have to teach me everything you know about the Unknowns and tell me of the fighting capabilities of the two ships."
"The two ships are capable of fighting any of the ships the Unknowns are believed to have. This ship is the primary fighting unit because you and I are physically aboard it, but the other ship has the same offensive and defensive capabilities. The main differences between the two ships is that this one is fitted out with space for a crew, while the other ship is a cargo carrier."
"That brings up a point I wanted to ask, how many crewmen are there aboard the ship now, and can I meet them?"
"You are the only living being aboard either ship. No crew is necessary to do any fighting or traveling through space. I can handle all of that as you command me. There is room aboard this ship for 20 more beings, provided they can live under the conditions you are currently experiencing. We did not have any specific plans for additional people aboard either ship, but simply allowed for the possible need at a later date."
"OK, then. I understand that you and I are the only people aboard the two ships and we are on our own. Whatever we do is strictly at our own discretion. Is that correct?"
"Yes, you are correct."
"What about food and water? How will that be handled?"
"We have replicators which can produce any sort of food or beverage which you might need. I was able to obtain complete specifications of all Earth foods while I was in the vicinity of your planet. You name an item and the replicators can produce it."
"OK, next question. How fast can we travel and how far can we go with our current fuel supply?"
"Our speed is a function of the speed of light. We can travel at 2, 4, 8,16, etc. times the speed of light up to a factor of 256 times light speed. In honor of an old TV show, I will call them Warp factors. Of course, we can travel at any speed less than the speed of light. Our fuel is extracted from dark matter, so we can never run out of fuel; it is everywhere and available at all times."
"That sounds good, but why are we now traveling toward Proxima Centauri? Is there something there that I should know about?"
"Not really. I was just leaving the vicinity of Earth in case I might be spotted by the Unknowns. I would not want to steer them to Earth by some silly accident."
"OK, lets get more personal. What should I call you, and do the ships have names? You can call me Zeke."
"Very well, Zeke, I shall do so. I do not have a name, only a 754 digit serial number. The ships are the same."
"Well, I think that we should all use names. Since we were talking about old radio and TV shows, I am going to call myself The Lone Ranger, you are Tonto, this ship is Silver, and the other ship is Scout. However, when we are conversing, continue to call me Zeke."
"I like those names, and I find them very appropriate. Thank you. None of the AIs or the ships have ever had names before this."
"OK, Tonto, what can you tell me about the conditions in the Confederation?"
"Unfortunately, I have no information on current conditions. I left the Confederation approximately 6,000 years ago, and I have long outrun my communication capabilities."
"In other words, as far as you know, the Confederation might already be destroyed. I think that we should head back toward the vicinity of the Confederation and see if there is anything left of it to rescue. We might also gain some useful information on the way. If we travel at Warp factor 8, can we still know what is going on in real space?"
"Very well, Zeke, we are now traveling toward the Confederation at 256 times the speed of light. I will keep all sensors operating in case something interesting shows up as we travel. You do understand that it will take us over 100 years to reach Confederation space even traveling at this speed?"
"Yes, I had assumed that, but the sooner we start, the sooner we get there."
While they were traveling, Zeke made a point of visiting every part of Silver that he could physically reach, and he studied the unreachable parts by video. Once he was sure that he knew everything that he needed to know about Silver, he did the same for Scout, except all of that was by video.
The first 3 months of the journey were uneventful, but one day, Tonto said, "Zeke, my sensors have detected several ships in our vicinity and they appear to be fighting. Do you wish to investigate?"
"I sure do. I was starting to get bored. I'll be happy for any sort of diversion. Show me what you have so far."
Since any surface of the shop could be used as a display screen, Tonto was able to show Zeke the available information without any delay. At this moment, the ships and the stars were simply displayed as points of different colored light. One ship was represented in red, 3 ships were represented in yellow, and the myriad stars were shown in blue. Silver and Scout were traveling so fast that details began to show up on the display in real time. Damn, but the Confederation had made some real breakthroughs in quantum physics to be able to have displays which could work at this high a multiple of the speed of light! It was an analogue of radar, but Zeke didn't make any pretense of understanding how it worked.
In less than 5 minutes, the yellow dots began to pulse on and off. Tonto said, "Zeke, you may want to reconsider closing with those ships, since my sensors identify the three showing as pulsating yellow are possibly Unknown ships. The lone ship in red is positively identified as a Confederation ship."
"All the more reason for us to do what we can to help the Confederation ship. How long before we are in range with our torpedoes?"
"At our present speed, we should be within range in 19.32 minutes. What do you have in mind?"
"I'd like to fire one fire-and-forget ship buster at each of the Unknown ships as soon as we are in range. Make communicator contact with the Confederation ship as soon as you can."
"Very well, I will comply. We will be within communicator range in 11 minutes. I'll patch you in as soon as I can make solid contact."
"Fine. I think I will put on my pants before I establish visual contact with the being on the Confederation ship. I don't want to make the wrong impression."
"Oh, come now, Zeke. The being on the Confederation ship has never seen a human and will have no frame of reference. It will make no difference what you look like."
"Intellectually, I know that. But I was taught from my earliest childhood that it always payed to be polite. And, to me, wearing my pants is being polite. Therefore, I will wear pants, shirt, and shoes for my first meeting with a person from the Confederation."
"Suit yourself, but don't be shocked if the other being is nude. Although, of course, you may have no way of knowing one way or the other."
A few minutes later, a wall panel lit up with a view of the person in the Confederation ship. It bore a close resemblance to a mushroom, albeit, a very colorful mushroom. "Thank the departed souls for their grace. My ship was doomed until you showed up. I don't recognize your species, but my soul is totally relieved to see you. How long before you can relieve the pressure on me?"
"Please answer that, Tonto."
"Very well, Lone Ranger. Sir, our torpedoes are scheduled to be fired in 4.16 minutes. Their travel time is 8 minutes, plus or minus 2 minutes. They are fire-and-forget ship busters, so you should not be troubled much longer. Can you hold out that long?"
The being answered, "Our defensive shields are being worn down, but they should last that long. If we are vaporized before your missiles strike the enemy, I shall write a letter of complaint to our shield suppliers!"
Zeke chuckled and said, "I certainly hope you don't have to write that letter. By the way, what is your name, if you don't mind me asking."
"I beg your pardon, Lone Ranger. My name is Xylophiniousashleyhornbloom. Please call me Xylo. I know that most beings don't like to bother with our long names. May I ask what species you are. I have never seen anyone like you, before."
"I am what we call 'human.' I come from a remote arm of the galaxy, and I am not surprised that you have never seen my kind before. As far as I know, I am the first one of my kind to meet a person from another planet, and I must say that I am delighted to meet you."
"Thank you, Lone Ranger. How do you happen to be in command of a Confederation war ship? Not that I am complaining, you understand? I am simply curious; plus I am trying to distract myself while I am waiting to be saved from certain death."
"Don't apologize, Xylo. I understand, completely. I am here through a series of coincidences and happy accidents. Suffice it to say that I am what we hope will be the prototype for a force which will save the Confederation from the Unknowns.
"By the way, I just received notice that our missiles have been launched. Hopefully, they will experience the minimum transit time, and you will be relieved of the pressure that you are under very soon.