Chapter 1: Prologue
A beeping sound echoed around the unfurnished metal walls of the room, followed by a man’s voice on the intercom. “Major Arturias, reporting as ordered, sir.”
The door opened with a quiet hiss. “Come in and take a seat.”
A middle-aged man, dressed in a dark blue military suit, stepped into the room and gave a salute before sitting on the other side of a plain desk. Opposite him is a younger adult in his thirties, dressed similarly. The computer to his side showed a debriefing document authored by the officer sitting in front of him.
“I saw your debriefing, Major. The idea of a rogue artificial intelligence is not new - it’s happened on Taurus IV when AI-controlled enforcement units trained their guns on police and civilians, and other countless such cases. I’m not sure if this is any different, but your urgency says otherwise. You mentioned a disk as your source.”
The Major produced a disk from his coat pocket and handed it to the man, who inserted the disk in the computer. The display switched to a console showing a large list of files, with the first highlighted.
Arturias spoke. “The first two files are enough to get the gist.”
Personal log, Cmdr. [redacted], Hadaran Navy, [3521.8.18]. Audio playback. Transcript on screen.
Begin personal log.
Have you ever heard of the phrase “ad astra per aspera”? In Earth, thousands of years ago, this language called Latin was spoken throughout the world. Back then, humans like us stayed on the ground unable to fly, much less travel faster than light. Yet, just like us, they would look at the night sky and at the numerous stars it held. Back then, they must have thought it would be incredibly difficult to get to one of those stars, so they made this phrase - “to the stars, through adversity”.
They were wrong. Getting to those stars was the easy part. Settling in was even easier. Space was much emptier than what we thought. You know how, in all of the very old science fiction books, we would meet all sorts of creatures in space and maybe even get destroyed by a couple of them for fun? None of that happened - none at all. No creatures, no humanoids, no hostile lifeforms. It was what we did here, in the far reaches of space, that got us in the end.
We don’t even know when this started happening, or where. It just came unannounced, while we were busy with our petty disputes and bloody wars. It just came, and saw us, and stomped us flat. It’s not like we rolled over and gave up. We gave them all we got, and fought for every damn planet, every damn system.
That’s all over now. Yes, I’m still alive, together with what’s left of my men and the ships we control. As far as we know, we’re the only ones left between them and the capital. Last I heard, the capital’s only started to evacuate a day ago. They scrounged up whatever spacefaring vessel they had and shoved whoever can fit in it, sending them to no one knows where. Maybe they’d be safe in the unmapped pockets of the galaxy, maybe they’d be chewed up and spat out by whatever or whoever’s out there. But they’re gonna try it anyway, and I’m gonna give them as much time as I can give.
We’re outnumbered fifty to one. How much time am I supposed to give them? How much time can I give them? They’ll be here in a couple hours. Hell, they could’ve ran us over an hour ago. I can see them in the sensors display - this huge blob of signals moving ever so slowly across the screen. In a couple of hours, that blob will be here - they will be here - and they will be as numerous as the stars.
I just wish we acted on it much faster than we did. In a few moments, I will jettison as many physical disks containing this log and whatever data I can cram into the disk in just however many probes I can find on this command ship. If you’re listening or watching, please, prepare for them. They are numerous, they are strong, they don’t feel or bleed. They don’t have cities, or families - they are AI, and they’ll be coming.
End of personal log.
[210 files attached. Read list y/n?]
[View file 2 y/n?]
Attached file 2 of 210: “The ‘AI’: A review of origins, intent, and progress”. 3519. Proceedings of the Hadaran Defense Institute vol.16, issue 3, pp.412-480.
Two years ago, a sharp increase of subspace activity was detected at Sector 15VC, an area colonized by humanity in 3227. Upon analysis, most of the activity was not human in nature and showed similarities to procedurally written code found in artificial intelligence systems. The spread of AI activity has been analyzed and tracked through similar subspace activity and context found in fragments of human transmissions. Evidence points to the development of a rogue artificial intelligence intended to be a technological tool in a major conflict at Sector 15VC as the origin of the AI. The same evidence suggests the artificial intelligence was made to command military fleets. Some time after the sudden subspace activity increase in a sector - between two days and ten months - all subspace activity drops to levels just above background. No human subspace activity has been detected in any sector affected by the brief increase in subspace activity. Mapping all known subspace bursts shows a swift, multi-directional expansion of the AI, and it is estimated that the AI will come within detailed sensor contact of the Hadar system in twenty-one months. Transmissions from the AI suggest that the AI has a hostile stance on humanity. It is also likely that the AI has control of a large amount of military spacefaring vessels. The Defense Institute recommends intensified research on AI motives, AI resources and assets, and preparatory military measures for the cluster.
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The man took his eyes off the screen, showing a flash of discomposure before adjusting in his seat. “Hadar...Hadar is two and a half lightyears from here. That gives us ten months. Did our scientists not see these transmissions at all?”
“Not at all, as far as I’ve looked in their archives. The probe that had the disk, which we retrieved three days ago, was the first to mention anything about the AI.”
“Why did you not rush this to the Senate?”
“It would have much more pull with your rank, Admiral. They will receive these documents with more gravity if they came from you.”
The man sighed. It was all too true - the Uwal Senate had fallen to a bureaucratic mess, and most items in the agenda usually required massive endorsement to gain any traction. In this case, he would have to ask for a state of emergency and immediate dissemination of the AI documents to the other border worlds - and to the inner Core worlds - as quickly as possible. It would be a tall order for the Senate to believe that the AI was a threat, much less respond to it.
“Alright. I want your men to read through the documents, prepare detailed analyses of said documents, and make a concise report summarizing your work by the time we arrive and report to the Senate. We can’t sit on our laurels if any of this is correct. You are dismissed.”
“Sir.” The Major stood and saluted before turning to leave the room. Now alone, the man sighed and turned to his computer, rapidly typing a message. It would take half an hour for his fleet to stop exercises and return, and seven hours of FTL travel to reach the Uwal system. It might take longer with the science ship in tow. Getting to Uwal is the easiest part; he would have to get the Senate into session and present the analyses made by Arturias and his staff. It’s not even guaranteed the Senate would make a vote right there and then.
It’s going to be a long, long day.
“Sir, sensors picking up a small fleet on an intercept course.” The ship’s viewscreen displayed a large sensor reading to the rear of an icon representing their ship. The sensor reading creeped closer and closer - their small transport ship was not fitted with military-grade FTL engines like their pursuers have.
The man sitting in the captain’s chair furrowed his brow. “Drop to sublight on this sector,” the captain indicated an area with a pointing device, “and throw on the cloak. We should be able to dodge them in the debris.”
“Dropping to sublight propulsion.” A thin whine was heard and a small shudder went through the ship as it exited FTL travel. The viewscreen shifted from a star map to show the system outside - a dark red star and a gas giant adorned with a ring of debris.
“Rerouting auxiliary power to cloak…done. Activating cloak in three, two, one.” The ship vanished from visible sight and drastically changed course, heading into the debris ring. As the ship neared the debris, it became more and more apparent that they were heading into a spaceships’ graveyard. Chassis of various sizes - ranging from small fighters to beam frigates four times the size of their cloaked transport - floated, broken and charred.
“Park us behind that frigate wreck and wait for them to call off the search.”
Buzzing from the ship’s computer warned them of ships dropping to sublight travel. The viewscreen showed eight sensor contacts a short distance away. The ship’s humming grew deeper as the helmsman further lowered energy levels to avoid detection as the ships got into visual range.
“Sir,” the engineer looked at the captain, “look at the ships’ emblems.” The viewscreen magnified the image to show eight military fighter ships in greater detail. Each of the eight ships had different emblems in a variety of colors and patterns and were flying in a tight formation.
“That’s odd. I’ve never seen pirates with differing emblems. All their ships would have the same color scheme, the same emblem, to show that they were part of the family or tribe. And those emblems...I’ve never seen them before.”
The eight ships suddenly broke formation and spread out in a searching pattern. It was so coordinated that the ship’s crew looked at each other. These were not pirates - they would not form up and coordinate with such efficiency. Only computers could do that.
“What the hell? Computer-controlled ships? Where’s the command ship, then? Is this military?” Questions flew around the ship while the captain massaged his temples. He didn’t have an answer for them.
“Drop the cloak and get me the comms. Grab weapons from the locker. Now!” Incredulous looks pierced the captain as he said his orders, but they quickly assented. The cloak was inactivated, and the ship melted into view. The eight fighters quickly responded, speeding to and encircling the transport.
“This is Kaltas, captain of this transport. We hold legal cargoes destined for Uwal and Antar. We are not ferrying weapons or illegal substances of any kind. You are free to board and inspect the craft for contraband, but I ask that you identify yourselves.”
There was no immediate response, nor did the fighters get closer to dock and board the transport. At this time, the contents of the weapons locker - old consumer-grade kinetic and energy weapons - were passed around the crew. They’ve needed it before - they might need it again for whatever’s sitting in the fighters ahead of them.
Voices then spoke. Not a single voice of a hostile pirate or a stern military officer - each word was spoken by a different person, almost as if the sentences were stitched from recordings.
“You do not seem to be a threat. We will not harm you. But we will need your information. Maps. Transcripts. Cargo manifests. Surrender these now.” Silence followed the transmission, the crewmen looking at each other, and at the captain. A buzzing sound from the Comms console showed a continuous transmission from one of the ships to the transport’s computer - they were attempting to hack the ship’s databases.
“Sir...you are aware of what we are carrying.”
The captain snapped at the crewman. “Of course I am! There’s no way in hell whatever’s in those ships are going to get the starmap for Anea. They can get anything but that. We can’t let them know where we came from. Comms - get rid of the starmap, quickly.”
The frantic tapping of fingers on a keyboard indicated the comms officer’s efforts to remove the starmap. Beeping from the console indicated errors - he was being overtaken by the hackers. “I can’t get in!”
“We can’t let them get their hands on that map. Weapons - get our turrets firing at that ship. Conn - evasive maneuvers. Now!”
The transport’s mounted kinetic turrets aimed and fired at the hacking ship, causing it to swerve and evade. A beeping from the Comms console indicated the stoppage of the hacking attempt, and the officer managed to delete the secret starmap from their files. The transport weaved through the debris the best as it could while the eight fighters chased it in a spread formation.
“Suppressive fire - aim for their engines! Charge up the FTL engine - I don’t care if it gets damaged. We need to get out of here!” The ship whined as the FTL engine started up and shuddered as it bore some bullets from a nearby fighter.
The turrets aimed at the fighters and fired, with very little real damage. One of the fighters got caught in a burst that set its plasma engines on fire, but the other seven fighters pressed the attack.
“Trigger the chaff.” A cloud of sharp metallic dust exploded from the rear of the transport, enveloping the fighters in it. They went through undeterred. One of the fighters aimed at a turret and fired, destroying it in a small explosion that rocked the ship. Another fighter launched a canister that embedded itself in the hull. The canister exploded, revealing a large robot drilling through the hull and into the cargo hold. Klaxon sounds indicated a hull and security breach at the cargo hold. A quick input from the conn closed blast doors throughout the ship.
“FTL ready in five, four, three, two, one. Engaging!” The conn officer triggered the engine, which buckled and groaned before bringing the ship up to speeds faster than light. The damaged ship shuddered as it increased the gap between it and the remaining fighters. Silence held for a short while as the crew looked at the sensor interface in the viewscreen.
“No pursuit, sir...but there’s something in the cargo hold.” The viewscreen shifted from starmaps and ship diagrams to a camera view of the busted cargo hold. A human-shaped metal chassis roamed the hold, scanning whichever items and consoles weren’t damaged by the breach.
“We do have an emergency forcefield covering the breach. We should get in there and get that bot before it discovers something. Conn, open the blast doors and hold course. Everyone else - move and take that thing down.”
Bullets hailed through the corridor, pinning the men down. The robot had an immense amount of weaponry, and the transport’s weapons locker did not have exotic EMP grenades - they were illegal for non-military use throughout this part of the galaxy.
The captain motioned at two of his crewmen. “Yeoul, Linnet. Get in the service access and try to flank it. We’ll keep it busy.” A pause in the robot’s fire as it reloaded, and the men retaliated, peppering the crate the robot used as cover with bullets. The two crewmen ran across the hall and entered through a small door to a crawlspace filled with wires. Holding their rifles, the men crawled up the space, inching closer to a similar door in a corner of the cargo hold.
“Rotate your fire! Don’t give it an opening to suppress us again.” The crewmen at the corridor took turns firing controlled bursts at the robot, preventing it from firing at them. The robot found a moment to spray the corridor, however, and the crewmen retreated as another stream of bullets pummeled the hall.
In the meanwhile, the small door quietly opened, and the two men took positions behind the robot. They immediately spotted the robot’s weak point - a battery pack strapped to its back. They raised their guns and fired, hitting the battery pack. The robot quickly collapsed upon itself, a powered-down husk. The crewmen rushed in and the engineer ensured the robot could not repair itself or make any more damage by making a few choice cuts and welds.
“Well,” the captain said, “I’ve never seen this type of robot before. Engineering - put this in a nice box for the military to get once we head to the station. I have a pretty bad feeling about the ships we just escaped from, and this foreign robot that crashed through the hull.”
The captain sighed. “I’m too tired to think about this. Try to repair the damage, make sure we’re not being chased, and raise the Uwal military on the comms. I expect a status update when I wake up. Right now, I just want to sleep.”
A weekend update as promised! I might try to make a sort of map in my spare time - we'll see how that goes.
Thanks for reading.