27 May 2011

The War of the Artilect: Chapter 22

Posted by joncooper

Amanda Stryker and Reverend Knight reappeared on the top of a rocky cliff. The girl had selected a vantage point that overlooked an enormous, barren plain. Off into the distance, as far as the eye could see, was nothing but a dark, uneven surface that was littered with black rocks. The ground beneath their fleet was made of a hard, gray stone. Overhead was a black sky. A faint sun hovered on the horizon, offering just enough light to see but providing no warmth. There was no wind or clouds. After a moment the preacher realized that he could see stars, even though it was daytime.

“This place seems rather dead,” he remarked. “I don’t see any signs of life at all.”

Amanda was standing beside him. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be concentrating. “That’s because there isn’t any life here. This is one of the countless dead worlds that are outside the network. There isn’t even an atmosphere! It’s just a rocky planet about a billion miles away from its star. There’s nothing interesting here.”

“You mean there’s no air?” he replied, surprised. “Then what are we breathing?”

Amanda smiled. “The nanites in your bloodstream may not be as powerful as the ones in mine, but they’re still capable of keeping you alive even in the harshest environments. You’re not in any danger – at least, not from that, anyway.”

He nodded. “I understand. I don’t mean to disturb you, miss, but is there a reason for our being out here?”

“I’m trying to learn about the Nehemiah probes. There’s one just a few million miles away from here that I’m exploring. I can see it with my mind – it’s huge! Now I just need to find a way to get inside. The Sentinel was right – it really does block wormhole travel. This is going to be tricky.”

“Very good,” he replied. Then there was silence. The preacher stared off into the distance, quietly praying.

Minutes ticked by, and still Amanda said nothing. By the look on her face it was clear that she was working hard, but the preacher could see no obvious results. Reverend Knight continued standing on the deserted cliff, gazing across a world that had never known life. He suddenly realized that they were probably the first human beings to ever stand there in all of history. In fact, we may be the only people that ever visit this world, he thought. In all the ages of eternity we may be the only life forms that this planet ever sees. No wonder the Artilect spent thousands of years looking for human beings! This is a lonely, empty age.

Amanda at last opened her eyes. “Well, that’s not going to work. I was hoping to find some flaw in the probe’s barrier that we could exploit, but it can’t be done – or at least, I can’t do it. We’re going to have to do this the hard way.”

“The hard way?” Reverend Knight asked. “Do you mean–”

“Yup! We’ll have to go up, knock on the door, and hope someone opens.”

“Really?” he asked in surprise. “That’s our plan?”

“That’s the plan,” Amanda affirmed. “Are you ready to go?”

The preacher paused, then nodded. “Absolutely.”

It took Amanda only a moment to transport them from the unnamed, empty planet to the hull of the Nehemiah IV probe. She had already learned how to interact with the dampening field that the Artilect was generating, so she did not have any trouble transporting to the probe itself. What did startle her was the sheer size of the probe. Even though she had seen it in her mind, actually being there somehow impressed her in a way that her mental picture hadn’t. This is staggering! she thought. No wonder the Artilect can’t fight them. I just hope I can find a way to turn it off.

Reverend Knight was surprised to see that they were actually standing on top of the probe, right in front of a small circular hatch. The bulk of the vessel stretched out in front of them for miles. Amanda could feel it shaking beneath her feet, as if it was straining against some giant chain. It wants to be free, she thought. It knows something is holding it here and it is angry. It was an unnerving thought.

Amanda dropped to her knees and placed her hand on a square panel beside the hatch. To her immense relief the panel glowed to life, and a moment later the hatch opened.

“That’s a good sign!” Amanda commented. She climbed down the ladder into the probe, and Reverend Knight followed close behind her. After they were inside the airlock Amanda pressed a button on the wall. The hatch above them slid closed and the doors opened.

Beyond the open doors was a large, circular room that was approximately a hundred feet in diameter. They were surprised to see that there were no chairs, computer consoles, or other objects in the room. It was entirely empty, save for the silver material that covered its walls, floor, and ceiling.

“Well that’s a bit unexpected,” Reverend Knight remarked. “Is there something wrong?”

“I don’t think so, but let’s find out,” Amanda replied. She walked into the middle of the room and made a motion with her hands. Instantly the walls faded to black and an array of holographic displays appeared.

“Oh, I see!” the preacher replied. “It’s all virtual.”

“Exactly! It’s more configurable that way, I guess. Now let me see if I can figure out how to work this interface.”

“Do you think we should let the others know that we are here?”

“They already know. I’ve been in constant communication with Andy ever since we got here. He’s keeping them informed.”

“Thank you – I appreciate that. I just don’t want them to worry about us.”

“Right,” Amanda muttered, distracted. “Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve worked with one of these interfaces. I see the probes have been upgraded quite a bit from the time my brother designed them.”

“You mean you’ve done this before?” the preacher asked, surprised.

“Kind of. Amy and I were the original beta testers for the probe interface, before the first probe was even launched. Of course, that was five thousand years ago, and it wasn’t a Nehemiah-class probe. I guess there have been a few upgrades since then.”

Amanda continued to study the intricate holographic display, working her way through its complicated system of menus and interfaces. Occasionally she would whisper something to herself, but the preacher could not understand what she was saying. She’s probably talking to the Artilect, he thought. It’s best if I just let her work.

It was nearly twenty minutes before Amanda spoke up again. “I think that might work. It’s worth a try, I guess.”

“Did you find something?”

“I think so. Well, yes and no. The probe doesn’t seem to have an off switch – at least, if it does I haven’t found it. But I can access the power plant, and the Artilect has suggested a series of settings that should burn it out. Without power the probe won’t be able to actually do anything. It would be the equivalent of shutting it down, if it actually works.”

“What happens if it doesn’t work?” the preacher asked.

“I’m not sure,” the girl said nervously. “The probe might reject the settings, or it might just do nothing. It might even decide it’s under attack and retaliate somehow. I really don’t know. It doesn’t look like there’s any way to tell.”

The preacher nodded. “So what are you going to do?”

Amanda paused. “Well, I don’t like it, but I guess it’s either try this or go home. So, then, here goes nothing…”

Amanda reached out and gingerly pressed a holographic button. Immediately the entire ship shuddered. The lights flickered and then went out, plunging the room into total darkness. A long, low whine could be heard, so loud and deep that it could be felt. After a minute it went silent.

The preacher was startled when a soft, white glow filled the room. “Did you do that?” he asked.

“Yes. After all, it was kind of dark in here! I guess that’s good news, though – it means the probe is really dead.”

“You don’t seem very excited about it,” Reverend Knight commented. “Is something wrong?”

“Kind of. I mean, sure, this probe is dead. That’s great! But there are about twelve million other probes out there that aren’t dead. I can’t go to each one and shut them down manually! That’s just not practical. It would take forever to do that!”

“But you have found a way to disable them,” the preacher pointed out. “That is an excellent start! Now all you need is a way to distribute that to other ships.”

“That’s the problem! I can’t send the new configurations to other probes – they’re not receiving communications. Disabling one probe is kind of useless. It really doesn’t make a difference.”

“What does the Artilect think? I assume that you’re still in communication with him. Does he have a suggestion?”

“Let me see,” she said quietly. She frowned for a few minutes, concentrating on a voice that Reverend Knight could not hear. He waited patiently, watching her but saying nothing.

At last she opened her eyes. “All right. The group has come up with an idea. Follow me.”

Amanda and Reverend Knight suddenly disappeared. They reappeared on the empty, dead planet that they had been on just a few minutes earlier.

“Woah!” Reverend Knight exclaimed. “I wasn’t expecting that. I thought you said we couldn’t jump in and out of probes!”

“We couldn’t while the probe was operational, but it’s dead now. Dead probes are a different story.”

“I can understand that. But why have we returned to this place? What do you hope to accomplish?”

“Give me just a moment to get the chain started and I’ll explain,” Amanda replied. She once more closed her eyes and concentrated. At first nothing happened, but then Reverend Knight noticed that the ground beneath his feet was starting to shake. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that the plain that stretched out into the distance was starting to change. It looked as if the ground had turned into some sort of molten gray metal. There was a buzz of activity going on, but from this distance he couldn’t quite see what it was.

Amanda at last opened her eyes. “All right – sorry about that! This part is going to take some time and I wanted to get it started as soon as possible. Anyway, about the plan. What everyone realized was that the only way to turn off the probes was to actually visit them in person. Therefore, that’s what we decided to do.”

“But I thought you said that was impractical!” Reverend Knight exclaimed, surprised.

“Oh, it is! It would take far too long for me to do it myself. That’s why I’m building an army of bots to do it for me. It turns out that the security system on the Nehemiah IV probes is pretty pathetic. All it does is scan my DNA and then grants access based on the DNA that it finds. The Artilect showed me how to build a bot that can fool the probes into thinking that it’s me. It won’t look anything like me at all, but when the probe scans it it will find my DNA. Then the bot will send the termination signal and the probes will destroy themselves.”

“That’s amazing!” Reverend Knight said. “It’s quite elegant, and I think it just might work. But, if I might ask, why can’t the Artilect do this? It would seem that our work here is done!”

“Well, Andy is kind of busy right now. It’s going to take several hours to manufacture the 12 million bots that we need, and he really needs to stay focused on fighting the probes in order to buy us time. Besides, I can manufacture the probes without his help. This is a great place to build them, too; it’s outside the network and far away from the war zone.”

“It is? But I thought the probe we were just on was part of the front line! Has something happened?”

“The front line shifted, I’m afraid,” Amy explained. “It’s now about a thousand light-years closer to the Artilect than it was before.”

“That sounds ominous! I hope he can find the strength to keep them at bay for at least a few more hours.”

“I do too,” Amy agreed. “But that’s why he needs to focus on what he’s doing while I focus on building the bots. All I need to do now is build and deploy them. Then – if all goes well! – we can go home.”

“Do you need to actually be on this planet to build them?” Reverend Knight asked.

Amanda laughed. “I’m not like Andy, you know – I can’t be everywhere at once! I sort of need to be at the construction site. Besides, this is a very safe place to be. Aside from one straggler there aren’t any active probes in the area at all. If anything, we’re actually safer here than we would be if we were inside the network.”

“There is a straggler?” Reverend Knight asked, surprised. “Why has it remained behind?”

“Who knows?” Amanda said. “There are actually two probes in this system – the one that we boarded, which is now dead, and another one that’s closer to the sun. Maybe it’s broken or maybe it’s being held in reserve. I have no idea. But it’s certainly not doing anything threatening.”

“I hope that continues to be the case,” Reverend Knight remarked.

* * * * *

In the Diano Building on the planet Xanthe, an alarm began flashing on a computer console. For the first time in history a Nehemiah IV probe had been destroyed. The console urgently requested further instructions. What action should be taken? Does the user want the operation to be aborted? Should the probes regroup and examine the situation? Is an operational change required?

The console asked in vain, for there was no one there who could respond to it. Elder Lane was still in the room but he had finally succumbed to sleep. His robots had left hours ago, once they realized that Lane’s quest had been successful and he no longer needed them. The man was very much alone, with no one to warn him that something had begun to go wrong with his plan.

The warning message flashed for hours, but no one heeded its cry for help.

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