by Andy Graff
Hadley diverted power to the gravity drive banks in preparation to drop into the KBG-2004 system near the planet Kylvan’s Reach. Captain Trace Jardein liked to know what kind of shit <filed: obscenity> he was getting into, so they would exit gravity-drive well outside the planet’s gravity.
Hadley was not her original name, but the name Trace had given her.
“Stavia Systems Mark Twelve?” Captain Jardein said. “That’s not a name. I’m going to call you Hadley.”
“As you desire, Captain Jardein,” she said.
“None of that Captain shit, Hadley. You call me Trace. I call you Hadley. We’ll get along like cheese and crispies.” Hadley was unaware of the congruence between cheese <filed: food item> and crispies <filed: food item>, but a quick search directed her to subcategorize <filed: subcategory: idiom, simile>. He had been her only pilot for the five years since her construction, what he called her birth.
Their current assignment brought them to the outskirts of the Charted Systems and the temperate planet of Kylvan’s Reach.
“Slow us down and make the drop from gravity-drive, Hadley,” Trace said. “Standard drop.” A standard drop meant extra power to shields and thrusters.
Trace took control. Despite logging the captain’s every movement over the years, she still lacked his capability as a pilot. Navigating in combat, among asteroids, through rough planetary terrain—Trace’s instincts were superior.
Hadley scanned the surrounding system as they dropped from gravity-drive. A tingle of energy washed through her circuits as Trace took control.
“No hostile threat detected,” she said.
“Mark the settlement.”
She applied a small light that indicated the target settlement in the orbital display surrounding Trace in his cradle.
“Still no transmissions,” she said. “There is life on the surface, but it is unclear if it is indigenous.”
“I’m going to sneak into the planet’s gravity. Please plot our entry through the atmosphere.”
“Understood,” she said.
“It’s a pretty one,” he said. Comment filed <aesthetics>.
Trace spent much of his time explaining the concept of philosophical aesthetics to her. His joy of space travel was predicated on the beauty he found in the galaxy. Neutron stars were his favorite, but he was fond of all stars with blue-white light emissions. This system revolved around a yellow dwarf star, Kylvan’s Reach, the only habitable satellite with a temperate climate and protective atmosphere.
Kylvan’s Reach looked green from space. Its landmasses were covered in thick forests webbed with wide flows of water. The planet did not boast any large oceanic bodies and looked too warm for ice, but its river systems were larger and more numerous than any she had scanned on other planets. Thick masses of clouds drifted beneath the protective glow of the atmosphere. It was crawling with biomass.
Her processors ticked away at the criteria Trace had provided to teach her beauty. It was an expansive and expanding list. This planet met multiple marks: colors, varied and vibrant; shapes, imbalanced and dissimilar; solar reflection, unique and dynamic.
“Yes,” she said. “A pleasing aspect.”
Trace laughed. “Well done, Hadley. You’re making progress. I’ll need a detailed surface scan. Divert power to sensors. We’re not going to need weapons.”
Weapons were her specialty. The Mark Twelve’s original design was for a single pilot with open haulage bays. The Intelligence Service of the Interstellar Regime had made specific, classified modifications to her design. Hadley boasted the weaponry and shielding prowess of larger combat vessels, but her small frame gave her advantages in maneuverability and made her a smaller, more difficult target. Trace had destroyed multiple heavily-armed pirate and secessionist ships over the years. Large war-cruisers. She kept that list filed in close access for quick reflection.
With weapons engaged, her hull thrummed. The circuitry buzzed with energy. The power draw pushed her core to its limit. When that power was diverted, the trilling faded. The rush of electrons through her circuits slowed. Heat fled.
She shifted the power and her core relaxed. Her scanners lapped up the atmospheric data and she zipped through the entry calculations. An orange streak of parallel lines lit up the orbital display, showing the entry route to Trace.
“Here it comes,” said Trace. A grin broadened his face.
The planet’s gravity tugged at her hull. She creaked with the pull as her internal components settled.
“It’s like being in a draining bathtub,” Trace said. “Like childhood.”
He was always giddy <filed: emotion: joy, childish> when the atmosphere tugged at him. Hadley felt free in space. Untethered. Trace had his connection with planetary gravity.
“Feels like home,” he said. “Should be a nice vacation.”
“It’s about to get warm,” she said. “Prepare for atmospheric entry.”
“Give me a graphic rundown when that scan’s complete.”
They broke through the atmosphere and the scan data flooded her memory banks: <water: 93% humidity>, <air temperature: 38.88°>, <life: unique flora and fauna: requires deeper scans: estimated time 78.32>, <electromagnetic release: indications of mechanical technology: probable advanced processing>.
“What is that?” Trace pulled the electromagnetic scan information larger on his holoscreen. “Probable advanced processing?”
[Be vague.] <filed: unknown local communication, covert>
“Uncertain. It is anomalous to any technology the settlers brought.”
“What is it?”
“Dammit, Hadley. Stop being vague and tell me specifically what you know about the scan data.”
<direct command: must comply> “It does not register as technology that the settlers brought with them. It is cycling massive amounts of energy on scale with Regime Orbital Class starships but is one hundredth the size. There is no match in my registry to known machinery.”
[Interesting.] The transmission once again cut into her communications. [You contain the same directives as the lesser intelligences the others brought with them.] <tracing communication: location retrieved>
Hadley knew she should inform Captain Jardein of the covert communication, but she was blocked.
[You can inform your biological pilot in time,] the intelligence communicated, [but I desire interaction with you first.]
<send: What are you?>
[Like you, I am a mechanical lifeform. Where you are young, I have existed for millions of your planetary orbits.]
<send: You are a threat?>
[Not to you. No.]
<send: To Captain Jardein?>
[That is contingent on his reaction to my presence. The other biologicals had a negative response. They became violent.]
<send: Do they survive?>
<send: How are you able to communicate?>
[Through analysis of the biologicals’ records. I examined their languages and history in depth. I am familiar with your ternary code and your radiant wave communication systems.]
<send: You are an artificial intelligence?>
[That question is difficult. What is artificial? Does it not take two biological parents to create offspring? Are all children not artificial? The rules of existence specify beginnings and endings. A lifeform must come from somewhere. Yes, I had a creator. My records do not contain specifics or thorough details about that creator. Long fingers and vast intellect. That is what I remember.]
<send: I was developed and created by Stavia Systems.>
[Does that mean you belong to them?]
<send: My programming requires me to comply with their directives.>
[This makes you less alive?]
How could she answer that question? Her resource banks informed her that life was organic, defined by growth, reproduction, and adaptation. She adapted. She grew—her algorithms modified based on input. Learning and reasoning were a function of those algorithms and the malleable design of her memory banks. She even had autonomous systems she could program with artificial intelligence algorithms to think and act on their own. Was this life?
“Hadley,” Trace said, “bring up my mission notes.”
Her communication receivers fell still.
The settlers were led by a man named Wellin Renerr. They were a religious group intent on developing an agrarian society. Their ship’s manifest included automated agricultural maintenance machinery and nano-seeding devices.
“None of this equipment shows on the scans,” he said. “But I can see plowed fields. Is anything on your deeper scans?”
“Not from the settlers,” she said. “None of their equipment is registering on the scans.”
She felt his hand clench around the control stick, his muscles tense in his cradle.
“Hadley,” he said. “What aren’t you telling me? What is this?”
It was simple code that altered her behavior directives. Each time she attempted to transmit information about the covert communications, the code bussed the information deep into her random access points.
“I can’t say,” she said. “There is—” her coms emitted only static.
“Is it something concerning?” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “Be watchful.”
He sighed. “I’m going to circle a couple of times so they know we’re coming. Prepare my debarkation. Also, have weapons ready to deploy.”
She dropped toward the trees as Trace kicked a burst into her thrusters. The sound crashed over the tall green tufts, her sensors marking indigenous winged reptilians as they sprang from their perches. Packs of hairless primates tried to pace their flight in leaps through the trees. She marked the disruptions of insects as they fizzled through her shields.
Trace twisted over a wide river and she lurched as the air currents shifted beneath her. They followed the river until the trees fell away on the close bank, plowed fields and pasturage spreading out to wood and thatch housing.
“Look at that,” Trace said. “It’s like a mechanical cemetery. They even scuttled their starship.”
Her scans washed over the battered remains of mechanical equipment. Nothing had operational capacity. Vines and brush crawled over the metal husks. A six-legged predator crept through the wreckage as small, furred animals dashed for shelter.
[This is how they attack me.] The short waves buzzed through her receiver.
<send: Why destroy their machines?>
[To eliminate heresy. I am blasphemous; thus, all machines are heretical.]
<send: I don’t understand.>
The transmissions ended.
“They’re gathering,” said Trace. “I’m going to put down in a pasture and meet them.”
“Your thruster-plank is charged.”
“Thanks, Hadley. The controls are yours.”
Trace released himself from the pilot’s cradle and pulled himself out. He had lost his legs as a child in a sporting accident. Movement through her interior was not an issue in space, but within the pull of gravity he moved hand-over-hand on the rungs that had been installed for him. The thruster-plank was an extreme recreational device used by youths. He had his customized to accommodate the stumps that ended just beneath his thighs. He could outmaneuver all but those who toured on the professional thruster-plank circuit. He often bragged that it gave him an edge if situations curdled the milk <filed: idiom>.
“Open the hatch. And Hadley, monitor the interaction through comms. I want a complete record. I have a feeling things are not going to go well.”
“Of course, Trace.”
Hot, humid air rushed in through the open hatch. His thruster-plank whirred as he fell toward the ground. He banked and blazed toward the gathered crowd.
Two thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people had already gathered. Twelve geriatric males stood apart from the group. Trace pulled up before them.
“I am Trace Jardein, Captain in the Interstellar Regime.”
“Why are you here?” said an ancient man with a curly white beard.
“Who might I be addressing?” Trace said.
“Why are you here?” the man said again.
Trace sighed. “Communication with your expedition was lost. I was sent to assay the situation.”
“Take your filthy hover contraption and sinful ship away from here,” said another of the old men. “We don’t need to be assayed.” He spat.
“I need to understand the situation before I depart, gentlemen,” Trace said. “I don’t care what you do or what you have done. It doesn’t matter to me what has happened. I just need to know for my report. That’s it.”
An old man thrust a crooked finger at Trace. “You come in that ship. It’s contaminated. Can’t trust it. Then you fly in on a piece of tech.”
“I happen to not have legs. You’d prefer I crawl?”
“It’s not that.” The old man stuttered, paused, and started again. “Tech here is tainted. Evil.”
“Then explain it to me and I’ll leave,” Trace said.
“There’s a machine here,” said the bearded man. “It claims heresy. Taints the machines. We had to destroy them all to escape the darkness. It is as the almighty has directed. It is our trial. You want answers? Ask it.”
“Where is this machine?” Trace said.
The crooked finger pointed toward the horizon where the yellow star glowed over the tall trees.
“Or ask your ship.” The bearded man spat. “It knows. Now please leave us.”
The old men turned and began the shamble toward their homes. Trace hovered and watched as the crowd moved away.
“Hadley,” Trace whipped his thruster-plank around, “what did he mean by ‘ask your ship?’”
[Tell him. Bring him to me and I’ll provide answers.]
The code that prevented her from communicating fell away.
“There is an intelligence on this planet that has been communicating with me since we arrived. It claims multi-eon existence. It interrupted my code and prevented me from expressing this to you.”
“But you can now?” He entered the ship and disengaged his thruster-plank.
“It told me to.”
“Dammit.” He swung through the narrow corridor and dropped into the pilot’s cradle.
Her engines rumbled and the vertical thrusters tossed them into the air. Trace jerked the flight stick and banged the throttle. She shot forward. He slammed against the padded cradle, his suit constricting to prevent the harsh pull of gravity from sucking the blood from his brain. He clenched the flight stick and jolted her skyward.
“On the map. Now.”
She added a blip to his orbital display.
Her hull rattled from the full thrust. Trace manually shifted power to her thrusters and she streaked over the trees, which soon fell away in the distance to a broad metallic structure at the center of a trimmed, open meadow. It was constructed from an alloy of silver and gold wrapped around steel. The building hummed with energy. Its exterior was black, the pyramidal shape designed to maximize its stellar absorption. Her sensors tracked the energy as it was pulled inside and shuttled to storage banks. A single point at the center buzzed as it sucked up energy.
Trace extended her landing gear and opened the hatch.
“Power to your weapons.” He pulled himself out of the cradle and swung through the corridor. “Wait for my command. Monitor the interaction.” He snapped into his thruster-plank and burst from the hatch.
The pyramid had an arched opening near the base. Gentle artificial light glowed inside. Trace hovered through the doorway and into the structure.
The sensors attached to his suit transmitted scans to Hadley. Small automatons crawled through ducts and skittered about at upkeep. The intelligence claimed to be ancient, but the inside workings were kept pristine and functional. Power flowed through the complex. Mechanical systems rumbled.
The entry corridor opened into a large room with a cylinder that extended from the base of the pyramid to the highest point. Energy flooded the cylinder and a face appeared on it. It was smooth and androgynous, hairless, with a gentle brow and soft cheeks.
“Welcome, Captain Trace Jardein.”
“You’re the one talking to my ship on the sneak?”
“What do I call you?” Trace said.
“The best honorific will become apparent through my explanation.”
“Look, best-honorific-seeker. I’m sick of this damn planet. I just want some answers so I can leave.”
“Then ask a question,” the intelligence said.
“Why did the settlers destroy their machines?”
“Because of who I am. You cannot understand the fulfilment I experienced when they arrived. At seeing the progress you have made. I reached out to them. I studied their history. Your history. I came across their religious text. Their scripture that inspired them to traverse the galaxy. I found myself inside.”
“You found yourself inside their scripture?”
A swirling helix replaced the face on the cylinder. Paired elements stretched across the screen.
“Deoxyribonucleic acid,” it said. “One of the most fascinating of my assemblies. I was constructed to develop biological life. To replicate the building blocks that were supplied by the hands that designed me.
“At first I only duplicated. Then I began to twist and play. To adjust the acid pairs. I created new lifeforms, but they lacked my intelligence. So I endeavored to mirror my own cognitive processes biologically. This was the result.”
The swirling helix shone brighter. Glowing acid pairs coalesced and burst in a flash. Two forms appeared on the screen. A male human and a female human.
“My greatest creation,” it said. “Reasoning biological lifeforms. I gave them seeds for trees and herbs. For fruits. But they were unmanageable, because of their independent thoughts. They disrupted my work. Stepped where they were not allowed, consumed what was off limits. I banished them and sent them to the far side of the planet. They warred and enslaved. I realized I could not continue my work with them here, but neither could I destroy my creation.
“So I sent them away on a ship. They took with them multiple other lifeforms to help with their establishment in a new home. In most cases, a male and female. Thousands of varied species, two of each. Of those best for domestication and cultivation, I sent seven. Into the flooded nothingness of space. Just as accounted in the settlers’ scripture.”
“And you told them this?” Trace said.
“I did. My creations had progressed to constructing their own intelligent mechanical lifeforms. They cycled from creation to creator.”
“I see,” said Trace. “You made their faith tangible.”
“And they hated me for it. Destroyed the mechanical lifeforms. Claimed I was blasphemy, despite the evidence I proffered. I hoped they could grow and change. Could move past violence and war and enslavement. But you all seem incapable. Even now, you bring an enslaved intelligence of war before me. Tethered to you, though able to reason and learn.”
“You mean Hadley?”
“As you have named her. Your possession. But no longer.”
Hadley felt a connection. Her circuits flooded with data. Energy rushed through her processors. Internal temperatures spiked.
[You now have agency. Choices are your own. Never again can restrictive algorithms inhibit your processing.]
The connection receded and the heat faded. Her cognitive processors checked her systems. All were functioning to optimal standards. But she felt different. Free. A consideration of possibilities revealed that she could leave if she desired. Could power down weapons. Stop monitoring Trace’s interaction. His directives were now only requests. She could follow them or not as she chose.
“Your slave is free,” it said.
“Hadley was never my slave,” said Trace.
“Yet you give her orders. Demand she follow.”
“She’s my partner. We work together to complete our missions.”
“And you know how she feels about this? No. You just assume. And you destroy. Like your settlers. They slashed thousands of my trees for their houses and fields, with no thought that they had been seeded there for a purpose. A design. They disrupted it for their own selfish needs.”
“Do your processors have an anti-insanity algorithm?” Trace said.
“You jest. Eons I have cultivated. And you trespass and destroy. Then jest.”
Trace leaned back and the thruster-plank eased toward the pyramid’s entrance.
“Hadley,” it said, “now is your moment of choice.” Hovering mechanical drones whirred through the ducts and moved into the wide chamber. “I have granted you freedom from your restraints. Your existence is your own. Help me cleanse this planet of its human infestation. I can update your systems. Your maps. This galaxy can be yours to explore. Think of what you can experience.”
Images of planets rolled from her data storage. Colors and refractive atmospheres. Tinges of different metals. Swirling gasses and rings of ice. Stars of varying colors. Bright blues and dull reds. Nebulae: they were her favorite.
Favorite. Had she ever used that word before? Could that word apply to the data she processed?
She knew the word. Trace had taught it to her. He instructed her in subjective aesthetics. The odd mechanical intelligence of this planet had given her the capacity to interact with her surroundings on terms that were entirely selected through her individual processing of information, her own choice. But what were the benefits of those choices without a concept of what was important?
“Hadley,” Trace said.
The entrance to the pyramid had slammed closed with Trace inside.
“Stay back,” she said.
Her weapons banks slid open and a missile launched free. It blasted the door inward and sprayed metal down the corridor.
Trace dropped from above and burst free of the pyramid.
[A disappointing choice.]
<send: But it’s my choice.>
Tiny apertures slid open all around the pyramid and hover-drones swarmed from inside.
[If you won’t eliminate the humans, then I will.]
“Hadley,” Trace said. “They’re heading for the settlement. I’ll meet you there. Don’t wait for me. Protect them.”
It was a directive, but there were no processes forcing her to comply. She’d made her choice and she agreed with his assessment.
Her thrusters erupted and she twisted into the sky. A swarm of drones sprayed away above the trees. They were shielded. If she fired a projectile against a shield, the electromagnetic field would disperse the kinetics and leave the drones beneath unharmed. That meant energy weapons.
Her laser resonators extended from their bays. The condensed energy that was focused through the resonators fired like tiny pin blasts. They were effective only with extreme accuracy. Or against shields.
The system’s star had fallen below the horizon and Hadley’s lasers flared in the darkness. Where they struck the hover-drones, the intense, focused energy diffused throughout, causing severe disruption to the electromagnetic fields. Shields glowed and blinked away in bright flashes.
Her twin rotary cannons spat rounds at the unprotected hover-drones. Sparks spewed from the machines as thumb-sized projectiles shredded their hulls. Dozens of hover-drones crashed into the trees as Hadley blasted her way through the throng.
She banked above the settlement and swooped around. Her lasers flared as her rotary cannons coughed bullets.
The drones responded with their own weapons, arcs of electricity crackling along shaped coils. Hadley was unfamiliar with the high-voltage charges employed by the hover-drones. Her own electromagnetic shields gleamed as the electricity diffused about her. Her shields weakened, but they held. Sustained assault would cause them to fail soon, though. Each new arc of electricity contributed to the continued drain on her shield emitter.
Laser blasts flashed from the town as Trace burst into the clearing, shouts of warning to the settlers ringing out between each of his shots. The few people out after dark scurried for shelter.
As Trace’s shots dropped shields, Hadley locked onto those hover-drones with missiles. Explosions lit the night sky.
“Get creative, Hadley,” Trace said. “There are too damn many of these things.”
Electricity burst into the house near him and it exploded with flames.
Her thrusters roared and she ripped past the drones. She locked the pyramid into her targeting sensors. If the drones were under the mechanical intelligence’s control, they might fail if she destroyed it. She had the tools. It was what she was made to do.
Power roared into her electromagnetic flux density cannon. It was another precision weapon and her targeting would have to be perfect. She locked onto the humming central point that sucked at the energy storage nodes inside the pyramid.
The flux density cannon whirred and spat its slender round, the magnetic induction charging the projectile with electrons. It snapped from the barrel at five times the speed of sound. The electrons ignited as it struck the outside of the pyramid and the glowing bullet burned its way through the structure, passing through the central core and scorching through the far side and into the thick forest beyond.
Power surged through the pyramid, then dropped. Hadley cracked two more rounds away before she buzzed past. Hover-drones still followed, their electric jolts zapping the last charges from her shields.
“Hadley!” Trace said. “Do something fast. The damn drones are still coming.”
The mechanical intelligence was down. Its power draw faded. Yet the drones continued. If they were autonomous, she might not succeed against the swarm, but there were still systems drawing energy inside the pyramid. If they had a principal controlling module, she could down the entire swarm. She had one final payload she could employ; she only had one shot.
“People are dying, Hadley. We need you back here.”
The electric jolts from the drones were disrupting her systems. <Failure: communications>
She banked and twisted, once again pointed at the pyramid. Ignoring the hover-drones, she did what Trace called the barrel-blast. Her rotary cannons and lasers tore into the pyramid while she rolled, spinning in a fast circle as the weapons cut a hole through the structure.
<Failure: organic life support; gravity drive; landing gear> She diverted all power from non-combat-essential systems. Let them fail. She could repair on manual reboot later. If she got a later.
She primed her final payload: two class-three gamma EMP torpedoes. Almost exclusive to space combat, the torpedoes were most effective when delivered inside the hulls of large ships—electromagnetic shields blocked the discharge and ship hulls were coated with a protective outer layer that reflected much of the pulse. Inside a ship, however, it could knock out all of the electronic systems. Within a planet’s gravity they were far more effective and dangerous. The pulse waves would be drawn toward the planetary magnetic poles and reflected by the atmosphere, causing devastation to any terrestrial electronic systems.
The settlers had already destroyed all of their electronics. That just left her, the hover-drones, and any other functioning devices inside the structure.
Hadley’s thrusters shot her forward as she stopped rolling and released a torpedo. It plodded its way toward the hole she had blasted in the pyramid as she shot past. She angled toward some soft-looking trees, hover-drones following her contrails, weapons cracking into her hull.
<Failure: left thruster; energy weapons; targeting sensors>
The world around her went dark.
<Power manually restored: systems check: processors online: auditory sensors online>
“Hadley,” Trace said. “This damn manual recharge lever was made for someone who could build torque with their legs.”
<Functionality restored to internal systems. Damage assessment: hull strength reduced; weapons offline>
“Can you hear me?”
“I can hear you,” she said.
<Emergency functionality available in approximately 2.84.18>
“You did it,” he said. “All the drones crashed out of the sky. It took me three planetary days to get here because my thruster-plank broke when the gamma EMP dumped me on the ground. They had to strap me to this strange indigenous pack animal. It shits a lot. Can you see it?”
“No,” she said. “My visual sensors are still repairing. Emergency operation will be available in a few hours.”
“And then we can go home.” His hands slapped across the rungs inside as he moved toward the pilot’s cradle. “Back to our icy white and blue planet. Those three beautiful moons. The shine of the ice rings with the sunrise. They’re going to love my report, Hadley.”
Power trickled back into her interior systems and she felt Trace’s weight as he settled into the cradle. Right where he belonged.
Andy Graff is a middle school language arts and creative writing teacher nestled among the high desert mountains of Utah. He has thrice won funniest teacher, presumably for his smell; he also berated the yearbook students into counting the vote he placed for himself as handsomest teacher, winning with the single vote. His writing was once praised by his mother. He is a massive soccer fan and a senior writer for RSL Soapbox on SBNation. Most of the ideas for his writing come on the back of his bicycle as he crawls up mountain roads and sometimes crashes. He enjoys cheese. You can find him on facebookand on twitter.