I don’t know how many of you have stuck this out, but if so, this wraps up my little story. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I’ve done fewer weirder things than wear a virtual reality headset in a virtual fighter fighting virtual monsters in a virtual world. Yet it all felt in the moment, real as it gets. As we approached the bridge, we saw the energy beam from the white-robed AI flicker out and the demon’s beam once again start to eat at the bridge. As the bridge began to erode away, a huge form suddenly rose from behind the horde of demons. “Oh, crap,” I muttered, “a flying dragon skeleton.”
Galen’s voice piped up in the earpiece. “I believe the correct term is ‘skeletal dragon.”
“Super,” I said under my breath. “I have a nerd AI.”
Beams of cerulean light shot out of the skeletal dragon, slamming into the forward shields of the F505. “Huh,” I thought, “I didn’t realize the F505 even had shields.”
Azed deftly put the fighter into a dive, then brought the craft up short with an instantaneous stop, spun around and faced the dragon. Nifty trick, I thought, Betcha real fighter jocks would love to be able to do that.
I banked hard right, feeling no g-forces at all. Very nice. I looped up and over the skeletal… thing. Azed and I fired simultaneously, pumping both rockets and energy beams into the dragon, which pulverized into bone dust which rained down upon the demonic hordes. I heard Azed’s voice in my headset, which he also seemed to broadcast down to the horde below. “I am Azed, your engineer, your builder, your programmer. Cease or be deleted.”
As soon as the AI’s realized who they faced, they immediately became subservient – on both sides of the moat. I watched with astonishment as the demons morphed into constructs that looked much like the ones we rescued from the keep. Later, I found out that the Builders – who actually called themselves something I couldn’t pronounce, but was roughly translated as “ones who walk”, and so were forever called “walkers” by us humans – had built a “backdoor” into even the most sophisticated AIs just in case something like this might happen. With essentially single command, Azed had reversed thousands of years of AI evolution.
There was more – the Walkers weren’t the only alien race. There were actually two races. The other race looked for all the world like oversized snakes with feathers. They slithered along the ground, and communicated with gestures from feathered wings that were terminated in delicate fingers. Azed told me this later. I was relieved I hadn’t revived one of them, because the communication problem would have been a lot greater.
I asked Azed how two races so disparate came to exist on a single planet. As it turned out, the hadn’t. Their home world was really double planet, much like the Earth-Moon system, only with the moon being 1/3 the size of the primary. The relative sizes of the two planets meant they orbited around a common point above the primary’s surface.
As far as the ship went, it had really come to its final resting place. The rebellious coordinators had dumped all the reaction mass on board the ship to ensure that they would remain there. Without the mass, the ship couldn’t accelerate to speeds fast enough for the ramjet to fire. On top of that, they had sabotaged the ramjet, and at best, it would take years to repair.
Azed had another problem. There were fifty thousand of his fellows, thirty thousand Walkers and twenty thousand snakes (I started calling them coatls, shot for Quezocoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent god.) They were essentially stored as patterns of data that could only be reconstituted with biomass of approximately the right mass. Other than me, there wasn’t anything closer than Ceres that qualified.
Also, my ship had lost power due to the automated defenses on the derelict, which had placed an energy field around the Glory Road that shut down most of my systems. Azed deactivated that, then asked me to return to Earth to tell them about the two races, and to ask for a home.
I said, sure, I would.
On the way back to the Glory Road, I stopped at the O’Bannon and downloaded Jenner’s log. Then I returned to my ship. Once on board, I switched on the visual scanners. “There it is, Galen, the source of our future wealth.”
“How’s that, boss?”
“Simple. We bring back enough biomass – probably vegetation would work – to revive a few of Azed’s buddies. Then we milk them for their technology, telling them Earth wants a little good faith down payment first. We sell the tech to some megacorps and retire for life.”
“What about Azed?”
“What about Azed? An alien ship tried to kill me?”
Galen was silent. Was my own AI going moral on me?
“Boss, I’ve got something you need to listen to.”
“I decrypted Jenner’s log. You need to hear this last part.”
“Sure, Galen, why not?”
Jenner’s face flickered onto one of the MFDs.
“I’ve just completed my third trip to the alien derelict. My air is getting low, and there’s probably no way I’ll get out of this alive, but I aim to make sure I gather as much information as I can before I pack it in.”
“I found a library in one of the pyramids – I think they’re some kind of living quarters – and on another level, found a self-powered projector. I didn’t realize it, but it was some kind of sophisticated VR setup, because when I turned it on, I thought I was on another planet.”
“These people come from a dying solar system. The sent out probes over the years to survey the neighboring stars; the only one they found that was potentially habitable was at the outer range of their probes – our planet. This happened when we were still learning how to walk upright.”
“They built a massive world-ship, and then chose a few thousand – I’m not sure of the exact number – to travel here. Since the journey would take so long, they couldn’t risk their society becoming acculturated to the ship. So they had themselves reduced to data patterns. Even with their technology, the data pattern for one being required such a huge amount of storage, that they couldn’t bring all of them. They hoped to be downloaded into bodies created from scratch at their destination.”
“They built the ship to be run by sophisticated AIs. How it got here, I don’t know. What I do know is that we have an obligation to rescue this alien race – or races – there are two of them. They have vibrant cultures and technologies that could help us with our own problems.”
“So I’ve loaded copy of this log, plus some of the data from the derelict I managed to capture. Then I put it in a homing probe and fired it back to Ceres. When it gets there, they’ll store it in my storage area. No one will open it for two years, when they’ll assume I’m dead.”
“This ship really needs to be something left to all of humanity. I hope that someone will pass a little of that legacy on to my niece, but the important thing is to bring these people to their new home and to begin the process of learning. For all of us.”
“This is Mackenzie Jenner, signing off, July 12th, 2314.”
I sat back, trying to collect my thoughts. I thought of being rich, and realized there was more than one way to get rich. I thought of poor Jenner, struggling in the alien library, trying to make sense of it, instead of trying to save himself. I thought of Jenner’s niece, on Juno, probably stuck there with some miner or local, in a colony still struggling to break even. I thought of Azed, who had the courage to be reduced to a pattern of bits, and now had the faith to trust someone from an unknown race. And I thought of the Envoy, banished to Earth, and waiting patiently to return, all these centuries.
“It would be pretty easy to go to Ceres. I think if we pull some of the reaction mass off of the O’Bannon, we’d have more than enough to get there. Then we could find out where they stored Jenner’s stuff. I could use my unique talents to make sure no one ever found it.”
“Piece of cake, boss. What about the other scenario?”
I felt myself shrug. “We could wide-beam broadcast it throughout Ceres and the rest of the solar system. No way to keep it hidden, and everyone wins. We’d be heroes. Poor heroes, probably, but heroes.”
“In other words, Galen, we could be heroes or goats.”
“How about we try the hero routine for once?”
I felt a smile leak out over my face. “I’d like that, Galen. I’d like that a lot. Like Jenner wrote, for all of us.”