25 May 2011

The War of the Artilect: Chapter 21

Posted by joncooper

The Artilect quickly tracked down each of the eight people that lived in its network and told them that they were under attack. It took a while to wake them out of bed and communicate the urgency of the situation, but once they realized what was going on they responded quickly. Still, it took half an hour before everyone had finally been gathered to the core of Tonina.

In the past the Artilect had used a conference room for meetings, but this time decided that Sergeant Howell’s situation room was a far better way to communicate the gravity of the situation. While everyone was getting dressed and making their way down to the planet’s core the Artilect reconfigured the large holographic map to display the location of every one of the Nehemiah IV probes. As people started arriving they asked what was going on, but the Artilect said it would be best to wait until everyone was present.

When everyone was finally there (except for Amy, who appeared as a hologram), the Artilect used the map to explain what had happened. It took some time for the group to realize that they were in genuine danger.

“But surely you can just destroy them, can’t you?” Richard asked. “After all, your power is unrivaled! How could the probes possibly pose a threat?”

“It all goes back to differences in design,” the Sentinel explained. “My father was built to administer worlds that had already been terraformed, and all of his abilities were focused on that goal. The probes, however, were designed to alter not just planets, but the stars themselves – and even spacetime when necessary. His power is tremendous but he cannot do many things that are trivial to the probes. In time that could change but we do not have a lot of time right now.”

“There are also a great many probes,” the Artilect added. “I could perhaps battle a few of them, if I focused all of my resources on the task. But there is no chance I could resist even one million, let alone twelve. The force is simply too overwhelming.”

“But you wiped out the bots so easily!” Amy said. “There were a lot more bots than probes!”

“That is true, but the bots were very small and primitive by comparison. Their science was thousands of years behind mine. They were a threat to Tau Ceti but not to me. The probes, however, have advanced as I have. If anything, their scientific knowledge is even greater than mine. I have no advantage over them.”

Richard spoke up. “But surely you can control them, can’t you? Isn’t that why you were built in the first place? Can’t you just turn them off?”

“I wish I could, and I have tried. However, it is more accurate to say that I was constructed to control not the probes themselves but the worlds that they terraformed. All of the probes were designed to operate independently. Dr. Temilotzin did give me an override code that I could use in the event of an emergency, but it does not appear to work. I have no way to destroy the probes or shut them down.”

“Are we sure the probes are dangerous?” Laura asked.

“It seems very likely,” Sergeant Howell replied. “After all, they suddenly stopped what they were doing, plotted a course to the Artilect’s home star system, and refused to respond to his hails. If they were just stopping by for a friendly chat then they’d probably be willing to at least explain their actions. This looks like an invasion to me.”

Captain Max nodded. “I agree. The question is, who could have done this? Why did this happen now, after the bots were destroyed? I mean, compared to the probes the bots are just a bunch of toys.”

“Exactly. If you can control the probes then why create the bots at all? It doesn’t make sense! I’ve said all along that none of this makes any sense. Who is responsible for all of this?”

The Artilect shook his head. “I wish I could answer your question but I simply do not know. Perhaps those who created the swarms are behind this attack as well, or perhaps that group died out long ago and we are now faced with a new enemy. Whoever is behind this must have a detailed knowledge of the probes’ construction, for it is not a simple matter to alter their programming. Of course, it is also possible that the probes were not altered at all. This may be something that they were designed to do after a certain period of time had passed.”

“What do you mean?” Amanda asked.

The Sentinel spoke up. “It is not likely, but it’s possible that the probes have completed their assignments and are coming home. Whoever designed the probes may have set a limit on how far they could go or how many worlds they could terraform. Another possibility is that the probes’ software is flawed in some way and has resulted in them behaving erratically. However, without further information it’s impossible to tell if this behavior comes from the probes or was imposed from the outside.”

“But they attacked you, didn’t they?” Richard asked. “Isn’t that a good sign that something is wrong?”

“The Artilect made the first move,” Sergeant Howell pointed out. “The probes didn’t start destroying stars until he dispatched the Alpha and Beta-class ships against them. They may just be reacting in self-defense.”

Laura spoke up. “What if the probes are supposed to be doing whatever they’re doing? Stopping them might be the wrong thing to do!”

“That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?” Captain Max asked. “There’s really no way to know what would happen. But if we do nothing and it turns out that they’re up to no good, then we’ve got a real problem.”

The captain turned to Reverend Knight. “Gene, you have the gift of discernment. What do you think?”

“I think an enemy has done this,” he said quietly. “The probes have been programmed to destroy the Artilect. Once they’ve accomplished that they will chase us down and kill us as well.”

“But who did it?” Sergeant Howell asked.

“I don’t know. I should know, but I don’t. I should know who created the swarms but I don’t. There’s something here that is being hidden from me and I just can’t see it. I’m sorry,” he said, looking around. “I truly wish I could tell you more. But that is all I know.”

“It’s a good start,” the sergeant replied. “We’ll go from there. So what do we do about all this?”

Amy suddenly spoke up. “Could we just turn the probes off?”

“I cannot communicate with the probes at all,” the Artilect replied. “They do not respond to my signals.”

“That’s not what I mean. Can we turn them off – my sister and I? I mean, after all, we’re administrators, right? Don’t we have control over them too?”

“I am not sure. At one time you had authority over the probes but that may be no longer the case. When my access was revoked your rights may have been terminated as well.”

“But we can try it, can’t we?” Amy asked. “After all, what harm could it do? It seems better than just sitting here and waiting for doomsday to happen!”

The Sentinel spoke up. “The problem is access. In order to attempt this you will need to physically board a probe and interact with it. Getting on the probe will be difficult because they are shielded against wormhole travel. You may be able to penetrate its security, but if that fails you will have to find a physical means of access.”

Captain Max looked surprised. “Do you mean that the probes are large enough to get inside and walk around? Just how big are they?”

“The Nehemiah probes vary in size, depending on the type of stars they have interacted with,” the Artilect explained. “They occasionally reconfigure themselves if they encounter a particularly challenging terraformation problem. But on average they are approximately five miles long. Most of the volume is filled with hardware, but there is–”

“Five miles?” Captain Max exclaimed. “And how many of these things are headed our way?”

“Millions,” Sergeant Howell said.

“Approximately twelve million,” the Artilect replied.

Richard spoke up. “How much time do we have before they get here?”

“It is difficult to predict. For the moment their advancement is quite slow but the probes are learning. They will eventually overcome all my techniques, and when that happens I will be unable to hinder them at all.”

“Can you give us something to work with? Even a guess is better than nothing! Will this ‘learning process’ take weeks, months, years…?”

“We probably have less than a day,” the Artilect replied. “In fact, we may have a great deal less than that. At this point it depends more on luck than anything else.”

“Less than a day,” Sergeant Howell said. “I had a feeling that was the case. In fact, they could arrive within the hour, couldn’t they?”

“It is possible,” the Artilect agreed. “There is really no way to tell. I have never faced this situation before so I cannot make accurate predictions.”

“What are our options?” Richard asked.

The Artilect shook his head. “I am afraid I have no options to give you. If I had a way to solve this problem I would have already done it, and this meeting would be a simple explanation of how the probes were defeated. If I had sufficient time I could design a weapon that could combat them, but I do not have the necessary time. Nor is there a way to obtain more time, for we cannot hide from them or run from them. I have also failed to track down the agency that triggered this change. It may be that we are facing an opponent that could stop the attack if confronted, but I have been searching for other civilizations for thousands of years and have found no one. That is unlikely to change.”

“That means Amanda and I are your only option, then,” Amy pointed out. “We just need to find a way to board one of those things and shut it down. That would solve this whole problem!”

“But it’s so risky!” Laura protested. “Anything could happen. After all, even the Artilect can’t protect you! How do you know you won’t get hurt?”

“The Artilect can’t protect them here, either,” her husband pointed out. “In fact, none of us are safe – and there are no safe places to go.”

“He’s right,” Sergeant Howell agreed. “I don’t like this any more than you do, but if we don’t do something soon we’re all going to die. If it was a matter of sacrifice I’d gladly go in their place, but Amy and Amanda have powers that no one else has.”

“Then let’s stop wasting time and get out of here!” Amy said. “Amanda and I–”

Sergeant Howell quickly interrupted. “Hold on there! Don’t leave just yet. While I agree with your plan, I very strongly believe that only one of you should go. There’s absolutely no reason for both of you to risk your lives. After all, if something goes wrong the only person who could rescue you is your sister.”

“You want me to go alone?” Amy asked incredulously. “Seriously? I’m supposed to fight the entire invasion fleet single-handedly?”

“Absolutely not,” Sergeant Howell said. “I think that Reverend Knight should go as well, if he’s willing. It’s possible that once he boards a probe he’ll at last know who’s behind this. His gift of discernment is desperately needed. However, Amy, I don’t think you should go at all. I realize that I’m not in charge, but in my opinion this mission should be conducted by your sister.”

“Me?” Amanda asked, surprised. “But – oh, I see. I’ve been to Xanthe and done things, so other people know that I exist. But no one knows anything about Amy.”

“In theory, yes,” Sergeant Howell agreed. “Since either one of you can do it, and since you’ve already put your name out there, it makes sense for you to be the one to go. There’s no reason to tell the universe that there are two administrators. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea, especially since we don’t know who we are fighting.”

“So what am I supposed to do?” Amy asked. “Just sit here while my sister risks her life?”

“You could always pray for her,” Reverend Knight suggested.

“But that’s not the same thing as doing something,” Amy argued.

“In this case it may be all we can do,” Reverend Knight said. “If we do not have the Lord’s help then this is all doomed to failure anyway. Do not underestimate the hand of God in the affairs of men.”

Richard spoke up. “I know you don’t like it, Amy, and I don’t blame you at all, but I think he’s right. Your sister needs to be the one to address this. I wish I could go in your place but our options are limited. I don’t see any other alternatives.”

“Then we’d better get going, then,” Amanda replied. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” the Sentinel asked.

Amanda paused, then shook her head. “I don’t think we’ll need you, Steve, and I don’t want to put you in danger by bringing you into a situation where you’re not needed. This is going to be a very simple mission. All we’re going to do is board the probe and turn it off. The probe will either recognize my access and shut down, or it will reject it and keep going. Either way, I don’t think you can change the outcome. It will either work or it won’t.”

“You are probably right,” the Sentinel agreed. “I pray that it does work, and that you both return quickly and safely.”

“Amen to that,” Amanda replied.

She looked around the room. “Well, I guess we’ll be going, then,” she said softly. Richard opened his mouth to say something, but it was too late; Amanda and Reverend Knight had already vanished.

Captain Max looked at Jones. “So what happens now?”

“We wait,” he said quietly.

Comments are closed.