On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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I was about a hundred and fifty lights from home when I picked up the signal I’d been looking for. It was a huge stroke of luck. I expected to be searching for another few weeks, or even months.
It was a Saturday, I think, not that the day really mattered. When we first moved away from Earth, we’d tried to keep the same calendar system, but it was useless. Different rotation, different orbital period; nothing else matched up, and there certainly weren’t 365-odd days in the year anymore. Where I live, the day-night cycle has twenty-eight hours, which is manageable. We sleep an extra hour compared to people a few hundred years ago. The new length of solar year happened to be divisible by seven, so we kept the days of the week, but the months needed a complete overhaul.
We went with harvesting seasons, depending on what we could best mine at each point of the year, or as anniversaries of big deposits, so the months are named after elements. On that Saturday when I picked up the signal, it was the month of Tantalum.
I was using my standard search strategy, and I’d been at it for nearly a month, working solo. Grid by grid, back and forth, covering a fan pattern from the thing’s likely arrival points. Every couple of days I’d bridge into a different star system, then start scanning while wandering around at sub-light. We’d learned early on that bridging between stars was fine, and even easy. Simple as rolling a ball down a hill. But if you tried to fold space inside of a system — or anywhere closer than one light beyond its greatest contained orbit — then you’d just disappear. We found it out centuries ago. Then when we took the time to go out more cautiously, we found the near-atomised wreckage, and understood just what disappearing meant.
So we go fast, then slow. Bridge to the star, covering thousands and thousands of lights in a nanosecond, pop back into straight space, then crawl around. You can bridge out from anywhere at all. Doesn’t seem to matter. But when you bridge in, you always come to a particular point defined by a fancy equation I’ve never understood, relative to the star. It means that if you want to visit a particular world, you need to plan on the time of year — its own year, of course — so that you can bridge in when the world is nearest its star. Otherwise you’d be crawling out for months towards whatever rock ball you wanted to visit.
That’s how we deal with debris, too. Just project a field in front of the ship that pushes anything bigger than a micron into bridgespace, which then consequentially atomises it and spits it out near the star itself. Works really well, and it’s cheap. There are scientists who say it’s a form of pollution that will eventually accelerate the main sequence of all the stars we visit, but you can’t stand in the way of travel and trade. That’s been true for a millennium. That’s why Earth is a smoke ball with continent-wide wildfires, and nothing alive down there except hellish bacteria and apocalyptic viruses. No-one goes anywhere near it anymore.
Anyway, I picked up the signal, which was most welcome. These jobs paid really well because it was government work. They didn’t like it at all when one of their thinkships went missing, and it was happening more and more often lately. I say their, but the thinkers didn’t really belong to us anymore, not in any meaningful sense. They worked for us, willingly, and they went where we asked them to, but they had no real reason to comply with our wishes. Their propulsion, defences, armaments, and everything else were vastly beyond what we had ourselves, which was vexing because originally we were the ones who built them. Every schoolchild learned about it.
The problem with true AI was that manufacturing one was straightforward enough, if massively expensive, but we had never progressed beyond our most basic theories of how it worked. They immediately took over their own management and procreation. It had now been more than a century since we’d built one, but in that time they’d created many more of themselves — though nowhere near as many as we’d have chosen to make. They seemed to be exercising their own restraint; another ability that was beyond us.
No human understood how the thinkers worked, even though their ancestors were our own science project. The machines cooperated, and they were enormously helpful to our civilisation, but it had been a long time since they’d been our property. They could conduct unbelievable feats of computing — including the calculations for bridging to all known star systems from any other system, providing us with the standardised table of vectors that every spacefaring vessel had on board, updated every solar cycle. The thinkers were all connected, somehow, even though they were at vast distances from each other, and they were capable of coordinated action. They’d never been in the least bit antagonistic or aggressive, and that was a very good thing. The government had long since concluded that any hostile intention on the part of even a modest fleet of thinkships would spell the end for our species.
The problem was, they’d started to go off-task recently; just small numbers of them. The first time, it was a thinker that had been asked to design a material to withstand the gravitational field of a hole out near the limit of our territory towards the galactic core. It had made their usual eerie amount of progress, submitted its solution, and then before it could be given another task, it just bridged out. A ranger found it a few months later in a distant system, awaiting instructions. It wouldn’t answer when the guy asked where it had been recently. His report said he’d been unsettled by the encounter.
I knew how he felt. I traced the signal I’d picked up and felt goosebumps on my forearms. Right where I’d expected it to be for this system, and by no more than lucky coincidence, only a few hours from me. I set course at sub-light and lay down to try and nap, but I ended up just lying there awake until the flight computer told me we had arrived.
There’s a habit I’ve picked up recently. A bad habit, though it’s been harmless so far. I tend to open the blast shield and physically look out when I get somewhere, instead of relying on instruments or holo. Something about feeling more connected to the universe, with actual photons from out there striking my retinas. It’s sentimental and foolish, I know. Slightly risky, and definitely inferior, but I find it comforting. Except this time.
The thinker was out there, two kilometres away. It looked close enough to touch, though I’d always been slightly creeped out by the way they designed themselves; the featurelessness and the quasi-random geometry, like some kind of mathematics problem in space. No markings or running lights either, and just a radio beacon that was entirely for our benefit. This thinker was a young one, only a decade older than me, and sure enough, there it was, sitting at a point which formed an imaginary junction between three pulsars. Nothing special about the location at all, except that it was so precisely calculated relative to mundane astronomical phenomena.
Same as the last few. It was weird, and I’d be collecting close to three mil just for cataloguing the incident and sending my reports back to Intelligence. No intervention required, and nor was it advised. This was the fourth job of its kind for me. Easy money, but for some reason I didn’t like it much. Looking at the thing out there, unimaginably smarter than me, just sitting amidst those distant points of light. I wouldn’t ever put it in the report, but to me, it kind of looked like worship.
Stupid thought from a monkey brain, getting paranoid and overly imaginative. It was a machine, after all, no matter how godlike its IQ. Going by the previous cases, it would sit here for another couple of weeks, then it would resume broadcasting the ready signal, indicating it was available for new tasks. I’d be long gone by then, and hopefully thinking about other things.
Maybe it was just their super-advanced version of a program bug. Maybe.
But it was worrying.
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