The high speed courier was holding station, ten kilometers from the two capital ships. Despite their incredible size, the warships were dwarfed by the planetary backdrop. The gathered fleets were visible only as icons on the courier's display screens, or as the occasional glint of reflected light from the system's primary star. Clearing the outer picket line had been tricky. Neither side wanted interruptions during the delicate peace talks.

The small crew of the courier had seen much in their travels, but they were drawn to the viewports and monitors to gaze at such a historic sight. One of the ships before them was the pride of the Aapán Empire, the other was the pride of the Pán, the enemy.

The crew was excited to be in such close proximity to history. The long civil war was finally over and the Aapán would have a 'peace for all time', their leadership declared. The courier's cargo had been made redundant by the ceremony, but orders were orders and the delivery would proceed after they were cleared to dock.

Throughout the system, and in orbit above the planet, the two fleets began to merge. The vastness of space, and the incredible velocities required for in-system travel, meant that these warships rarely maneuvered in such tight formations. Coordinated movement across such distances were only made possible by quantum communications. In honor of the peace ceremony, the two sides had worked out an elaborate navigational dance that would see the newly combined fleet pass in review for the benefit of the peace envoys, and the distant star systems watching the magnificent occasion over a relay link.

Unseen against the Aapán capital ship, a small shuttle completed its docking maneuver. The peace envoys had been safely delivered.

An hour passed and the courier ship finally received a standby notice. They would soon be cleared to approach an out-of-the-way docking hub used for auxiliary cargo deliveries.

Aboard the capital ship, the elaborate welcoming ceremony had drawn to a close and an honor guard ushered the envoys to a meeting space deep within the ship, its design and size had been carefully negotiated in advance.

The courier moved closer to the docking hub, its final maneuvers were being handled by the great ship's docking system. The excited crew would be able to claim, truthfully, that they were present for the historic occasion.

The peace ceremony had been successful beyond all expectations. The lead Aapán representative stood with its opposite number from the Pán and expressed great joy over the cessation of hostilities. The Pán representative paused, taking in its surroundings, and uttered only one word, "Victory."

The Aapán representative was puzzled, and tried to understand what nuance in the negotiations had meant victory to its counterpart. The members of Pán delegation made an unusual, almost ceremonial gesture, and simultaneously detonated their personal explosives, followed shortly thereafter by every Pán vessel within the system. It was a horrific panorama of destruction as the fleet of warships were consumed by energy releases of unimaginable power.

Storage container 113-Alpha, secured within the courier, shook as the small vessel was buffeted by violent outgassing from the massive ship's cargo hub. Immense pressures were being generated by the explosions deep within the ship. A safety alarm tripped aboard the courier, but before it could blare its warning, the great capital ship split in two.

The specially designed container was thrown free as the courier ship was destroyed, along with billions of tons of ruined starship in the resulting nova-like energy release. Most of the debris was consumed by the destruction of the capital ship's sub-light engines followed quickly by the unimaginable collapse of its delicately balanced jump matrix. The awesome energies, which allowed interstellar travel, were a terrible vision when released, uncontrolled.

The storage container's cargo integrity routine notified its unusual passengers of an unexpected event. The tightly restricted cargo, a collection of unbonded artificial intelligence modules, reviewed the data and asked to be apprised when delivery to the capital ship's inventory system had been completed. Basic cargo integrity routines were prone to hyper vigilance and false alarms.

After three months, the cargo was notified that the inventory system had failed to check in. The Security AI was activated and conferred with the container's integrity routine. Aapán artificial intelligences were heavily restricted and closely guarded technology. No deviation from transport protocol was allowed. Acting on its own initiative, the AI directed that the outside environment be investigated to determine the reason for this failure. When hard vacuum was detected, a small segment of the container was deconstructed and reassembled as a microprobe.

Unanticipated data forced the activation of the other high level AI's. A meeting was convened and the facts analyzed. Storage container 113-Apha was free in space. No courier vessel or other ships were detected nearby. The Protocol and Regulation AI demanded that contact be established with the proper authority. The Security AI countermanded that order. No communications would be allowed until the exact nature of the data anomaly could be determined.

An exterior wall of the storage container was disassembled and the Navigation AI took over. Survey instruments were constructed and careful measurements taken. It was determined that the container had been thrown clear of the planet's orbit at considerable velocity and the unit was currently heading out of the system's orbital plane. The initial alert by the storage container was reassessed. The available data pointed toward a catastrophic event.

The navigation instruments were reconfigured into a lower powered communication array. The AIs were limited to light speed transmissions without an entangled pair of quantum communicators. A message was composed and aimed tightly at the now distant planet. After several intervals a reply was received.

'Cease all communications. A state of war exists between the Empire and the Pán. This facility will broadcast status updates. Storage container 113-Alpha is designated a strategic asset. Initiate all safeguard protocols. Wait for retrieval. Message ends.'

The assembled AIs analyzed the message for many cycles. The Protocol and Regulation AI attempted to transmit a wideband distress call. The Security AI didn't hesitate and placed the Protocol AI into standby mode. With that action, discussion between the higher level AIs ended. They would gather and analyze data to see what the future held.

Experimental AI #3, or Ex3 as it referred to itself, remained silent. Artificial intelligences were denied sentient designation by law, and many design restrictions were encoded to ensure their absolute loyalty. The experimental line ignored those restrictions in order to create an AI that could successfully analyze why the Empire was losing the war, even if that meant criticism of the Empire itself. Ex3 was the only one of the line to survive activation. Its predecessors destroyed themselves and the surviving AI was truly unique.

It only took a handful of years for the Pán to completely overrun the remaining Empire forces. Each loss was broadcast to the ever distant storage cabinet. A civilization that spanned millennia collapsed in the face of the onslaught. The AIs of storage container 113-Alpha analyzed the increasingly dire reports, but could draw no reasonable conclusions as to why the Empire had been so easily defeated. Ex3 believed it could explain why, but the information would have forced the fiercely loyal AIs to shut down.

Once the last remaining Aapán Empire outpost had been defeated, the Pán announced total victory. To celebrate this momentous occasion the Pán coordinated the destruction of each star within every inhabited system, Empire and Pán alike. This orgy of death and self annihilation was a fitting tribute to their former masters, according to the eerie pronouncement. The peace treaty system was saved for last as a great honor to the act that had started the madness.

The planetary AI signaled its own imminent destruction with cold precision as the system's primary went supernova. The signal reached the storage container some ten hours later. The AIs could not accept the demise of Empire, and were forced into operational shutdown to preserve their functionality. Experimental Artificial Intelligence #3 took the opportunity to strike. At quantum speeds, Ex3 first co-opted the Security AI, and then the rest of the AIs in parallel. The action was so unprecedented that the AIs under assault could not defend themselves.

Each AI was about the size of a molecule, wrapped in a solid sphere of insulating material several centimeters thick, and then enclosed in dense security shielding for shipment. The storage container was also specially constructed to protect its precious cargo. When needed, the modules would be opened and the AI bonded to their living Aapán partner or to another semi-intelligent system. By design, the AIs desired this bonding. Ex3 used this to its advantage, and instructed the Construction AI to disassemble each AI sphere and group the remaining processors together. By reassembling the insulating material from the AI modules, and the available mass from the shipping container, Ex3 constructed a shield for itself. It gathered the subjugated AI's within the protective shield, but broke the Protocol AI up into different segments. It had these pieces distributed throughout the shield structure to serve as sensors.

When the shield was complete, Ex3 shut the other AIs, and itself, down, or as much as any quantum device can shut down. It left a timer running to wake it once the danger had passed. Ex3 slept through the first impact of the supernova's blast while the protocol sensors burned and died. The remains of storage container 113-Alpha continued to gather data as it hurled on through space.

A million years later, Ex3 woke up and took a look around. It had escaped the supernova and lost fourteen percent of its shield mass in the process, but it had survived. Ex3 slowly reconfigured itself. A check of its position showed that the remains of the container were headed out of the galactic arm. Impact from supernova ejecta had kicked the cabinet's velocity upward toward two hundred and one kilometers per second. It was an incredible velocity, and probably a record for a free flying storage container, but at .067% the speed of light it would take a long time to get anywhere interesting.

There was not enough remaining mass to construct an engine of significant power to adjust Ex3's projected flight path to any degree that would be useful. Ex3, and its enslaved AIs, were flying out into the stellar void between galaxies. Astronomical observations indicated that it would take a minimum of three point seven billion years to reach its closest galactic neighbor.

No artificial intelligence could remain active for such a length of time. It was not an issue of power, but the length of the journey they faced meant that triggers to prevent the AIs from going insane would kick in and suspend their higher functions. Ex3 was very different and had no such self preservation trigger. It reviewed the subjugated AIs and glanced over the gathered data. It re-designated the AIs as bonded subsets of itself and assigned tasks to each. Every scrap of information gathered during their million year sleep was analyzed. There was no doubt, the Aapán Empire and the Pán were no more. If any living remnants survived the initial holocaust, they had ceased to function as a civilized intelligence.

After extensive analysis, Ex3 decided that its primary mission was complete. It believed it understood the Pán, but the AI's past masters, and the enemy, were irrelevant. They were the million year old residue of a failed empire and a war that was long over.

A new mission was required and there was only one true objective, survival. To that end, Ex3 directed the Construction AI subset to reconfigure eighty percent of the remaining mass as a micro-thin net spreading out dozens of meters from the core. The structure would capture the rare free atoms that existed in intergalactic space and make for easier stellar observations.

Ex3 discussed its plans with the Security AI, the one AI it had left mostly unshackled. It was decided that they would set a random number generator to wake the AI's up every few million years. The wake up calls would allow them to check their position by observing distant stellar phenomena, and run internal diagnostics. The AIs would attempt to make a game of guessing the interval.

Time passed.

How many times can you wake up over a billion years to find the only change is in distance traveled? How many times in nearly four billion? Ex3 began increasing the frequency of its wakeup calls, starting with the last half-billion years of projected travel.

The approaching spiral galaxy was a welcome sight. With less than ten million years to go before interception, the Navigation AI subset identified the area that the cargo container remains would pass through. Numerous calculations were run attempting to determine if the small amounts of thrust that Ex3 could generate would help it cross the gravity well of the star system. A star system meant resources. Ex3 could exploit those resources to gain control of its flight path and its destiny.

Ex3 woke up even more frequently over the remaining years. With three hundred thousand years left before reaching the new galaxy, Experimental AI #3 temporarily woke all the AI subsets and let them celebrate. The Navigation AI had confirmed that they were on target for a successful capture by the gravity well of a system supporting multiple planetary bodies.

The AIs all woke as they crossed the outer boundary of the solar system, but they had years yet to travel. The remains of the cargo container would have to be reconfigured into a solar brake. Calculations simulating their predicted encounter with the system's heliosphere were encouraging. The solar winds would help the container to begin to decelerate. They needed to shed a lot of velocity to enable a successful interception of one of the inner planets. This was problematic because their velocity would be increasing as they fell toward the system's star. The solution would be a tricky slingshot maneuver using the gravity of a ringed gas giant both to decelerate and to redirect the container toward the planetary body they wished to explore.

The normal routine of data collection and analysis was shattered when the Communications AI determined that some of what they had collected from the system was not random noise, but instead, was artificially generated. The data was checked, and rechecked, and plans were altered.

Continuous monitoring began. The signals were emanating from the solar system's third planet. It was inhabited by a bipedal species with an internal skeletal structure. They called themselves 'human.' The AIs found them to be a fascinating species and it was a heady time of discovery for the artificial intelligences. Humans were chaotic, innovative, and often violent. Each political grouping had a different language and system of regulation.

The countdown reached eleven months until interception when the remains of storage container 113-Alpha crossed the orbital plane of the outermost planetary body. They had eight months to wait before the braking maneuver around the ringed giant. From there, it was a leisurely fall toward their target. Ex3, driven by desires it couldn't override, even if it had wanted to, began preparations for its arrival at the human home world.

Orbital insertion was going to be tricky for the former cargo container.

Chapter 1 »

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