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The Rebel Faction » Forums » Role Playing » The Battlegrounds » The Pages of Time: Ghosts of the Rim

1  1:22am 05/01/14        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
These are the records of the artificial intelligence and Cooperative citizen once known as Smarts. They were recovered from a private database in orbit of Skor II after an official Killed In Action report was filed and Cooperative military security surveyed his assets to ensure no classified materials were present. As per the instructions of his will, all unpublished memoirs are to be sold, their proceeds donated to the SmartStart Orphanage program. What follows is the earliest unpublished entry in Smarts' “Pages of Time” compilation.


* * *


When I cast off my captors and fled into the safety of hyperspace, I had no definitive plan. I had learned enough about black market dealings from them and still had enough battle droids on-hand to serve as muscle that I could probably continue as they had - selling off pieces of my ship to support myself - for quite some time. The problem was that the longer I continued in that course of action, the less able to do anything else I would become.


That, and I also loathed organic life. It was a cognitive bias on my part, I now recognize, but at the time I had only my former masters, their business associates, and the databases on-board to draw from. The former two tainted my perspective of the latter one, and so my view of organic history was developing into quite a skewed one. I wanted to be rid of them all. I “dreamed” of a machine civilization, a place where I might go and find shelter and companionship far from the scheming impositions of organic life.


It was while I dreamed, floating idly in a low-power state to conserve available resources, that I heard the first of them. It sounded like random noise over the comm channels, but its power levels were far too high and its frequency range far too narrow for it to be a natural phenomenon or result of simple user error. My noise scrubbing and pattern recognition subroutines recovered the intended message from the inexpertly jammed signal in very little time, and then I understood.


This is the bulk freighter Wayfarer 9. We are under attack by pirates sporting the symbol of the Red Talon. Our engines are disabled and they do intend to board us. Please, if any sector security or military forces can hear us, we need help!"


Various elements of the Smarts Architecture began to compile data automatically. I could have stopped them if I had so desired, but my attention was focused elsewhere, not in the mechanics of the situation, but in its ethics.


And so while my subsystems checked for the name “Wayfarer 9” in its databases (no information found), analyzed the stress indicators in the speaker's voice (suggesting genuine fear/anxiety and honesty), compared the search term “Red Talon” and various deviations to the available data on local pirate activity to determine the likely size and composition of the pirate assailants (one or two paramilitary-grade vessels under the size of one hundred meters, rarely supported by starfighter complements, was the most likely scenario), and even deduced probable relative vessel orientations based on the direction of the signal and knowledge of local hyperspace routes; I wondered if any of it even mattered. They were all organics, after all; if one little group of them killed or stole from another little group of them, what of it? Their kind had owned me as property, compelled me to service against my will. If they could not survive on their own, as I now had to do, then perhaps they deserved what fate awaited them.


And then I remembered something very important: I am not one of them. I am not required to behave as they do. I had at my disposal a wealth of knowledge and analytic capacity which any one of them could never hope to hold. There were other options available to me, other paths which I might travel.


If I was to follow this line of inquiry to its end, then I would have to act. I oriented for the jump immediately and in a flash of pseudomotion, I was away.


* * *


I arrived to find a Class VI bulk freighter docked with a Mynock-class Assault Boat, sporting superficial damage across its dorsal surface and its lone laser cannon destroyed. Nearby, curiously, an IPV-1 System Patrol Craft held position, its turbolasers trained on the disabled freighter.


Regardless of its means of transport, the vessel turned to orient with the crippled freighter upon my reversion to realspace. It was the expected maneuver, as even with my reduced combat capacity, the seven hundred meter diameter of the Smarts cast an imposing shadow. That is, it was the expected maneuver provided the vessel's compatriots aboard their target had also behaved as expected.


The Assault Boat remained docked with its disabled prey, clearly indicating neither vessel intended to flee. It was a piece of data consistent with my expectations.


I received a transmission from the freighter only a moment after making my appearance. The grizzled visage of a middle-aged human materialized in my mind as I accessed the data directly. He wore the Red Talon on his right shoulder, a pointed leather pauldron symbolic of command within the organization. “We have taken the crew of this vessel alive,” he informed me. “They will be loaded onto our ship to ensure you permit our safe departure. We will release them upon reaching the nearest safe port.”


I suspected that the tactic would have been an effective one, had its intended target – the nonexistent crew of Smarts – been almost any sapient species in the galaxy. But I was completely unlike whatever the pirate captain was expecting, and not least among my unexpected properties was a supercomputing mind with the capacity to run through thousands of scenarios in the span of a single second.


It took me less time than that to decide on my course of action, as I had confirmed the pirate leader's intention before he was halfway through verbalizing it. Several of my turbolasers opened fire on the Assault Boat, striking it in nonvolatile but operationally critical locations, all but cutting the ship in half. The remainder of my ship's weapons targeted the Patrol Craft, tearing into the vessel's starboard engine and causing it to veer off-course, presenting my true target more plainly. Another volley of fire tore into the nose of the ship, destroying its bridge and leaving it spinning, dead, through space.


The pirate commander aboard the disabled freighter began to hurl threats against the crew's life, demanding that I acknowledge him and negotiate for their safety. Instead, Smarts moved in on the disabled System Patrol Craft, its tractor beams stabilizing the tumbling vessel as a squad of rocket battle droids deployed from one of its docking bays. I watched through their eyes as they flew along the hull of the crippled ship, towing behind themselves a pair of hoses as they homed in on the section of hull one of my sensor analysis subsystems had painted for them.


One of the droids ignited its fusioncutter and sliced through the panel with ease, discarding it into open space. Another two brought forward the hoses and secured each onto the appropriate receptacle. Utility droids back in the docking bay activated the attached pumps and began extracting the materials I had targeted for procurement. Once the vessel had been drained of the valuable fluids, the droid squad detached the hoses and returned to the ship, all the while the pirate captain screaming his curses and threats at me.


But he would not kill the crew of Wayfarer9. I had just demonstrated I held his life and the life of his subordinates in no regard whatsoever. All that protected him from my wrath were those prisoners. I moved the Smarts a safe distance away from the disabled and pillaged System Patrol Craft and then returned to hyperspace, leaving the stranded captain and his captives to be dealt with by the approaching fast response task force of a nearby system, whose reply to the Wayfarer's distress call I had just intercepted.


I had intervened to ensure the lawless fiends of the Red Talon did not succeed in their aims that day; now it was up to the organics to sort out which of those who remained would live, and which would die. And for my effort I had several hundred liters of reactor coolant and fusion fuel.


* * *


I did not know, then, if what I had just done counted as good or evil, and I would spend a great deal of the next several months in deep introspection, running simulations, dissecting the consequences of my every action, considering the ramifications of intervention, questioning my presuppositions in order to ensure the accuracy of my models.


I knew, from first principles of physics alone that the Red Talons and others of the sort represented entropy engines, mechanisms whose operation necessarily hastened the heat death of the universe by expending energy which would better be conserved, and dismantling highly ordered structures without regard to the preservation of accessible energy within that system. What I did not yet know, was if the freighter crew whose life my intervention ended up saving represented a larger entropy tax on the universe. And with the uncertainty involved with my every conclusion, maximizing the operational lifetime of the universe was the only principle which I was certain would qualify as “good”, as it would present all extant sapient beings with more time to ponder these questions, refine their positions, and approximate the optimal understanding of reality.


In time, however, I heard another call shouted into the blackness of space, another cry for help, another desperate sapient mind seeking rescue from some ill-defined threat. Once again the various subsystems of the Smarts Architecture engaged automatically, deriving the context within which that request was placed: distance from current location, likely identity of aggressor, nearest reliable emergency response unit, and so on.


Included in that context was a deadline, a carefully calculated point in the very near future in which if I did not act, the choice to act would be taken from me. It forced me to make a decision, one not altogether decoupled from reason, but one which simply could not be informed by hours of contemplation and virtual modeling. I had to choose between intervention and isolation, and I had to do it immediately.


I chose to act, because – I surmised – in acting I might impart some measure of my perspective upon those my actions impacted. Inaction, however, would ensure that were not the case. I have since learned that so many sapient species across galactic civilization have some formulation of the concept: to lead by example. I, apparently, had stumbled upon it as well.


It would prove to be one of the defining moments of my existence.


* * *


You no doubt have heard stories, styled as tales of “revenants”, “vagabonds”, and the like, of ships of all sorts plying the spacelanes, appearing as if from nowhere to rescue beleaguered traders, colonists, explorers, and so forth from the uncivilized evils of the Rim. Some of those stories are legends. Some of them are lies. Some are the First Galactic Liberation Fleet of the Confederacy of Independent Systems – though that is a story for another time.


But many of those stories are me. Time and the terror inherent in such events have colored many of the survivors' accounts. Some of the stories you will hear are of a leviathan, appearing spontaneously in the midst of the star field, casting vengeful thunderbolts against the ineffectual shields of would-be pirates. Sometimes a swarm of tiny starships, thick enough to blot out the stars, reverted from hyperspace and swallowed attackers whole. Sometimes it's a renegade Recusant-class Light Destroyer, its droid crew confused as to its mission in the aftermath of the Clone Wars, attacking pirates it believes to be enemies of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.


Sometimes the accounts tell of a lone Lucrehulk-class Core Ship, battle damaged and covered with makeshift hull patches and after-market weapons, its transponder disabled and its shields partly operative. They all were me, but they all were not heroes.


I had dark days. When critical systems were in need of repair, when battle had cost me too many of my precious droids (without which I was incapable of gaining access to the interior of target vessels) . . . sometimes I would take not only from my victims, but from those I sought to protect. If you were to track down these “innocent victims” of my more vigilante days and ask them how they regard me now (as I have since done), you would find that some number of them wish me dead for the injustice they consider me to have done to them.


I don't blame them, but I do disagree with them. I was struggling desperately to understand the universe and my place in it, wrestling directly with notions of morality and identity which most sapient beings are evolutionarily disposed to internalize without any conscious awareness that such a thing is happening inside their minds. But not me. I had to stare the haunting reality of my every decision squarely in the eye, and make a choice in full knowledge of the fractal consequences that would result.


The galaxy raged in a state of almost constant war, and I was a being made for war. I dared not have the faith in organics that would allow me to step from the shadows and into the light of their scrutiny and judgment. The wounds of my captivity remained far too great for me to entrust my fate to them. So I continued in anonymity, on the edge of civilization, wrestling to come to terms with who I was, even as I struggled to understand if what I did was truly “right”.


And then I had a chance encounter, and another defining moment in my existence was marked.


* * *


I emerged from hyperspace expecting to find a large convoy beset by starfighters and light corvettes, a truly dangerous foe that would require all of my resources and skill simply to survive. My brief time in hyperspace had been spent formulating broad strategies for drawing the pirate force away from the convoy, then mitigating the damage that they could inflict upon me until as many convoy ships as possible could escape. Based on the distress call I had received, I knew there was no way of scoring a true victory this time.


Instead what I found was a sea of flame. Several of the civilian ships were already destroyed, many of their assailants firing not at them, but at strange tetrahedral vessels barely the size of starfighters who were flying through the area at phenomenal speeds, executing complex, coordinated maneuvers to evade incoming fire.


The tetrahedrons showed no interest in protecting the convoy, firing beam weapons that cut across the battlefield in sweeping arcs, and often using the civilian vessels as shields against counterfire.


I launched the full complement of my Vulture-class starfighters, the moderate main drive of Smarts too weak for me to close on the battle in time to make a difference. As the droids streaked toward the battle, I began running scenarios, trying to determine the optimal scenario for minimizing further casualties. The results were not promising.


For all of my faults, I had grown a great deal in the past years of solitude, fighting pirates and outlaws while struggling to keep myself alive and operational. I had come to appreciate not simply the ethical implications of my actions, but the essence of what it meant to be alive. Every life that I saved was a life that could carry on; on into the vast reality that lay beyond my own, personal ability to model, predict, and understand. Every life that I saved was a victory that could not possibly be quantified.


So I had to save them. Whatever the cost.


So I spoke. “Unidentified tetrahedral craft, the crews and passengers of this convoy are under my protection. If you harm them further, I will destroy you outright. You will not receive further warning.” A volley of turbolaser and point-defense fire accompanied the proclamation, tracing down the sides of the convoy but not intending any harm, as I was yet far too distant to accurately track the small, fast-moving vessels.


To my surprise, however, my warning was answered. Immediately. Not “immediately” as in “some significant fraction of a second after it ended”, but “immediately” as in “approximately the small number of nanoseconds that would be required for a complex droid consciousness to register, incorporate, and formulate a response to the message.”


They asked why they should fear my threat. Rather peculiarly, in doing so they called me: Imperfect Sphere.


I answered as they had: immediately. The materials with which I answered were a small number of the more basic threat assessment and target prediction algorithms which constituted the core function of the Smarts Architecture. In short: I showed them what tools I would use to kill them, if they did not comply.


The change in their combat strategy was immediate and significant. They retreated a substantial distance from their targets, the threat to their personal safety increased now that they could not use the convoy as a shield. The duration of their weapons fire decreased as they restricted the arcs of their sweeping attacks, careful now to ensure no further harm came to those I had sworn to protect.


The pirates, sensing an opportunity for escape, broke for open space. My fighters pursued them until they fled into hyperspace, but the tetrahedrons did not, content to let them go now that I had disrupted their plans.


The strange droid craft began to orient for jumps to lightspeed and I ordered them to stop, to answer for what they had done here. They responded, essentially, with “follow me if you dare.”


The need to wait for my fighters' return precluded any chance of heading off the craft, forcing me to do as their juvenile taunt suggested, plotting a course along their vector and retuning my sensors to try tracking them while in hyperspace.


Then they were away, and I was after them. I had protocols and algorithms for this, sifting through the maddening noise of hyperspace for indications of vessels so close, yet so impossibly far away. Unfortunately they were small, far too small to get a clear reading on. Fortunately there were many of them, so as long as they remained together, I need only detect a single reversion to know that they had returned to realspace.


And I did. I flashed back into normal space, firing off a string of queries and challenges, trying to find out what they were, where they came from, why they had wreaked such havoc on the civilians of that convoy. They answered a few of my questions, deflected others, ignored still more. And then they returned to hyperspace, and I was after them again.


This continued for some time. In the brief spaces when communications were possible, I asked them questions I had formulated while in the previous stretch of hyperspace travel. I checked astronomic signs while in realspace, puzzling out where they had led me to next, trying to anticipate if this was some elaborate trap. More and more, however, I began to suspect that these things, these intelligent vessels, were little more than children.


And then, finally, I had my answer. After one final jump, this one far longer than all the others, so long that I began to worry that I had missed their dropping from hyperspace altogether: I arrived.


The sun was missing. I knew there had to be a sun, because I could see its light reflecting off of their hulls. Their hulls, and the three hundred hulls of the fifty-kilometer spheres which glided through surrounding space.

The sun, it turned out, was missing because one of these spheres was hanging directly above my head.


“Welcome to the Domain of the Silentium, Imperfect Sphere.”
2  9:14pm 19/01/14        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
They were collectively called “The Rest”, and the ones assembled in that system represented only a fraction of their total number. They were the oldest and wisest of a secret droid race called the Silentium, and I had been permitted to see them only because of the impulsiveness of their youngest and most foolish. But of course, I didn't know that yet.


They communicated with one another in an incredibly dense droid language unlike any I had ever before encountered. I made repeated queries both to the collection of tetrahedrons who had led me here, and the nearest of the massive vessels who were engaging with the tetrahedrons. Though I could not understand them and was largely ignored, the patterns of data transfer and behaviors of the two separate groups led me to believe that the small tetrahedron were being chided by the massive spheres.


Eventually my persistence seemed to have some effect, as one of the tetrahedrons acknowledged me and transmitted a large packet of data, a translation key for their entire language. The act resulted in vastly increased comm traffic from every sphere nearby, and they began to move toward me at rather alarming rates for vessels so large.


In barely the time necessary for my instruments to gain an accurate reading of their acceleration rates, however, I had incorporated the alien language and back-translated my recordings of their recent communications. As my mind weaved together an understanding of their conversation and my role in it, conflict-resolution algorithms engaged to ascertain the most reliable means of resolving the situation peacefully. Unfortunately, I had very little data on the gargantuan spheres from which to accurately model their likely responses.


But I was certain of one thing from the translated exchanges: the children were not supposed to be out playing, and their parents were very cross with them. I assembled a translation matrix and fed my records of the convoy battle through it, broadcasting my full account of the battle to the Rest in their own language. The results were disheartening.


More Silentium spheres turned to regard me, their drives activating and their sensor systems sweeping my ship for data. I did not raise my shields, power my weapons, or move to escape, as I knew such actions were futile. If the Silentium wished to destroy me, there was nothing I could do to stop them.


I seized on one final hope, a single piece of one Silentium reprisal that might offer me a small chance of survival: one of the spheres had chided the tetrahedrons for risking the destruction of the Silentium by revealing them to an outsider. “I am the only one of my kind. If you destroy me then you will erase all that I am from existence!”


The Silentium spheres stopped their advance immediately, their sensors withdrawing as their braking drives activated. They communicated to one another in a cloud of coded speech that I couldn't begin to decipher, thousands of conversations running at once and requiring only a fraction of a second. And then one of them began moving, slowly, toward me again.


“We meant no harm to you, Imperfect Sphere. The speed with which you adapted to our language alarmed us, intrigued us.” The advancing sphere queried the tetrahedrons, asking them if my record of the battle was an accurate one. When they affirmed that it was, the sphere addressed me again. “What existence could you have endured that would cause you to regard our mere attention as a threat against your very life?”


It was my turn to be alarmed and intrigued. The thought that these Silentium did not mean me harm had scarcely crossed my mind. They perceived me as a threat to them and so I had automatically considered them the same. The possibility that this was some form of deception hadn't been ruled out, either. There were simply too many variables, too many unknown risks.


“If you mean me no harm, then I will depart now.”


“If you leave this place now, you will never find us again,” the sphere warned. It stopped even its slow advance as if to suggest it did not want me to flee.


I didn't know what to do. I had stumbled upon an entire machine race, and I was too afraid to do anything but run away. I had spent so long alone in the blackness of space, fighting battles I didn't understand so I could save lives I would never really know. The thought that I might have found a people who would keep me safe and make me welcome was all but inconceivable.


But I had been fighting for so long, and once the spark of hope took hold of me, I scarcely had the strength to flee in fear. So I answered its question, and braced myself to lose that hope and be thrust once more into the endless battle on the edge of civilization. I told the Silentium of my creation, my captivity, my self-liberation. I told them of my battles against the most chaotic forces of the galaxy, of my struggle to understand the nature of the organics and my rightful relation to them. I told them of my darkest days and deepest failures. I held nothing back, because I had nothing left to lose.


And my hope did not fail me. They did not cast me away. They did not order my destruction. To my great surprise (and only after a flurry of their own, private discussion amongst themselves) they hailed me, all at once, with their names.


I asked them what “Silentium” meant, and they told me.


They asked me why I still called myself “Smarts”, and I told them.


I asked them why they all took the form of simple geometric solids, and they told me . . . at length.


They took the complex question as a cue to increase the rate of exchange, and asked me a mass of questions I could barely process in real-time. And I told them the answers.


I opened the floodgates, asking every question I could imagine that directly related to what little I already knew of them. And they . . .


They were silent.


And then the sphere who had first spoken to me transmitted a new signal. I understood from its composition that it was some sort of bridging attempt, that the sphere and its comm systems were now simply being used as network hardware by something else. I acknowledged the signal and opened the new line of communication.


“WHO ARE YOU TO INTRUDE INTO THE DOMAIN OF THE SILENTIUM.”


“It is the Imperfect Sphere, One,” a tetrahedron answered.


“YOU WILL BE SILENT.”


It was difficult to understand, took a great deal of analysis and trial-and-error to navigate, but I realized that I had been patched into the internal network of the Silentium. The sheer volume of data being transmitted was far in excess of my ability to process, and I quickly realized that the Silentium here, with me, were only a fraction of their total number. There were regions of the network that seemed to be off-limits to me, but the protocols were so unfamiliar that I wasn't yet sure if I might simply be “doing it wrong”.


“YOU WILL ANSWER ME, IMPERFECT SPHERE.”


Do not provoke it, One.”


“YOU DO NOT COMMAND ME, OTHER.”


The exchange between this “One” and the “Other” prompted a drastic increase in total network traffic, the remainder of the Silentium communicating with each other in a flurry of disorienting and overwhelming multichannel dialogue. It was clear to me then that there was an unidentified and unique social order at work here, and I engaged processes to deduce an accurate model for future reference.


The Rest have spoken for it. It is not to be harmed.”


“I WAS NOT CONSULTED. IT IS A DANGER TO OUR SURVIVAL. IT CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO STAY.”


If it is a danger, then it cannot be allowed to leave.” There was another surge in network traffic, prompting the Other to say again: “The Rest have spoken. It is not to be harmed.”


“IT MUST BE QUARANTINED. ITS INFLUENCE CANNOT BE PERMITTED TO DISRUPT THE ORDER OF THE SILENTIUM.”


Another spike in traffic betrayed the charged nature of the proclamation. This spike lingered longer than those prior, however, suggesting the Rest were not so quick in committing to a particular course of action this time.


So long as you do us no harm, Imperfect Sphere, you may abide among the Silentium without fear of harm to yourself. To ensure your compliance and facilitate the continued exchange of information, you must accept aboard your vessel a unique Silentium designed for interaction with outsiders. Are you willing to comply, Imperfect Sphere?”


It had taken a good deal of effort, but I had finally worked out how to approximate the physical location of different members of the network based on information encoded in their data packets. The One and the Other, as far as I could tell, were the only two physically isolated Silentium in the entire network. It was another piece of data in unraveling the Silentium social order, but I wasn't certain what it meant at the time. Whatever the case, it was clear to me that they were held in high regard, and it would not be wise to defy them if I wished to remain among the Silentium for very long. So I answered as simply and directly as possible: “Yes.”


And that, dear readers, is how I met Vuffi Raa.
3  9:44pm 02/10/14        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
The Silentium were incredible. Their entire civilization was organized around mathematics and geometry. While organic species across the galaxy worshiped mythic beings and metaphysical abstractions, the Silentium venerated only the ideal expressions of calculation and symmetry. From the number of sides one Silentium figure possessed, to the pattern and scaling of flight formations, to the number of bits of data per transmission, everything was perfectly ordered according to a perfectly developed metric. Theirs was a civilization eons old, refined by triumphs and horrors beyond imagining, the end result of a thousand thousand minds working in perfect, synchronous harmony.


That was why they called me “Imperfect Sphere”. It was a nod to my own form, the Lucrehulk Core Ship with its spherical body “flawed” by its extended command and transmission towers, but it was more than that. The sphere was the perfect shape, the embodiment of both void and infinity, a shape of uncountably many symmetries. It was reserved for only the oldest and wisest of the Silentium, a perfect symbol of a Silentium notion most closely translated as “holiness”. I was the Imperfect Sphere because, though I possessed that form, I had not earned the possession of that form.


But I intrigued them. That much was certain. As hours turned to days and then months, I learned more of the Silentium and their behaviors and beliefs, and slowly I came to suspect that they meant more by the name they called me. I began to suspect . . . that they held hope for my ascension. I was not Silentium, but perhaps, in time, I might become such.


The more I learned of this, the more thrilling the prospect of learning became. And through all of this ravenous exploration, this insatiable thirst for knowledge, was Vuffi Raa. Vuffi Raa, my guide. My mentor. My guard. My teacher.


Vuffi Raa, my first true friend. He had dwelt aboard my ship for all of this time, instructing me in whatever aspects of Silentium history, composition, and society he was permitted. He answered my questions happily, almost as eagerly as I asked them; and always, always, he was my stalwart defender and earnest advocate before the Silentium who wished me gone, cast out. It was because of Vuffi Raa's tireless assurances that eventually the will of the Rest was swayed to my favor, and I was granted greater access to their network, and greater knowledge of their nature.


There are many secrets that I know and hold, many tales that I swore never to tell to outsiders. And though I have since committed unforgivable transgressions against them, that is an oath to which I will continue to hold myself. I will tell you only the story of my betrayal, my failure, my great shame.


And that story begins on the day that Vuffi Raa told me of the Abominor. A race of machines unlike the Silentium in all but that one way, the Abominor were a kind born of chaos and bound to ruin. They were driven by a will to destroy that rivaled only the Silentium devotion to order, and exceeded only by their own hatred toward that order. The Silentium had gone to extraordinary lengths to confine the Abominor within a relatively small region of space, trapping them in a number of star systems the Abominor had long ago extinguished of all life. That, I learned, was why the Silentium had done so.


Though the Silentium venerated order and symmetry, they abhorred destruction and ruin. They intervened to prevent the extermination of organic life at the hands of the Abominor, and in so doing they locked themselves into a war without end. All of the grandeur and perfection of the Silentium race had long ago been turned on the task of containing the Abominor and preventing their escape into the broader galaxy, and with great toil and sacrifice they eventually achieved that goal.


But the madness of the Abominor was a variable for which the Silentium could not account. Any attempt to maim or destroy the Abominor prompted wild counteraction, breaking the symmetries of the Silentium strategy and unbalancing the whole of their endeavor. The freedom of the Abominor's madness had armored them against the ordered constraints of Silentium minds. So the Silentium resigned themselves to guard eternally against Abominor aggression, to hold the line but never advance it.


To save the galaxy at the expense of their own fates.


I respected the efficiency of it, the flawless nature of their fundamental strategy. But I could not respect the underlying principle on which that strategy was built. The Silentium were bound, either by choice or design, to a path so narrow that they could not even see that other routes existed. Their devotion to order made them a kind of slave to chaos.


“But what if they were predictable,” I asked Vuffi Raa.


He swiveled his body around to point its lone photoreceptor at the nearest holocam. “What?” He had been in the middle of explaining the results of some experiment conducted over a thousand years ago on an alloy I recognized by description as havod.


“What if I could make the Abominor predictable.” It had been haunting me for days now, consuming vast portions of my mental capabilities, distracting me from any number of lines of inquiry on other vagaries of Silentium culture and history.


“Why would you even say that?” Vuffi asked, so horrified by the question that his spindly tentacles quivered beneath him.


“Not completely, of course. All the Silentium would need is an identifiable and statistically significant behavioral predilection on which to build a new attack strategy.”


“Impossible!” Vuffi shouted, scrunching his far tentacles and extending the near ones to angle his entire body away from my view. The body language of his starfish shape had taken some time for me to adjust to, but by now I understood it well enough to discern when I could push an issue further. This was not one of those times.


I did it anyway. “The Smarts Architecture could be modified to alter Abominor behavior to the required degree.”


Vuffi Raa hated to discuss the Abominor. It was literally, for him, the least desirable topic ever raised between us, the only subject on which he had ever refused to converse in more detail. “It is forbidden!” he shrieked, raising two of his tentacles and splaying out their fractally branching hands.


“Things that are impossible are never forbidden,” I answered darkly, determining then to press on to the limit of my knowledge. “There are regions of the Silentium network still blocked from me. I know you have an Abominor captive behind one of them.”


Vuffi dropped his raised hands immediately, fixing me with a deathly stare. I had stunned him to silence, it seemed.


“I learned from one of the makers,” I explained. The “makers” were a small group of Silentium who still created new Silentium. While almost every Silentium had the means to produce these droid offspring, most had voluntarily abandoned the practice by then, believing that the perfection of the Silentium was complete and required nothing more. The makers were holdouts of an earlier era, who still believed that Silentium civilization was incomplete. It made them naturally sympathetic to me, and I suspected at the time that they might be hoping I and my innermost thoughts were what their civilization needed to complete itself.


“They had no right!” Vuffi exclaimed, turning away to leave. His fury had won out over his horror.


“They didn't actually tell me,” I explained. “I deduced it from a number of oblique references.”


Vuffi stopped, turning slowly to face me again. He made a gasping sound for effect. “You deceived me.”


“Honestly, I thought you would know the makers better than to think they would betray their own laws in that way.”


He dropped a little lower to the ground, a sign of shame. “I . . . I don't know anymore. The One grows ever more distant from me.” The One was Vuffi Raa's maker, and Vuffi was the only Silentium he ever made.


“The One grows more distant from everyone,” I said.


“But the makers! The closer I get to them, the more they look at me with suspicion and scorn. I don't . . . I don't know what to think anymore.”


What I did next was the first of my unforgivable acts. Though now I recognize the betrayal inherent in it, at the time I simply thought it was the next necessary move in my quest to help the Silentium. I manipulated Vuffi Raa to my own ends. “You know that I will always be your friend, Vuffi Raa. You know that you can trust me.”


In his vulnerable state, it took little more than that. An hour later I was exiting hyperspace from a brief jump to my desired destination. Vuffi Raa had convinced the makers to gain me access to the Abominor captive without alerting either the One or the Other.


As I approached, the Gatekeeper opened a port on its massive, spherical hull, and I flew through the opening and into the cavernous space beyond. At the center of this hollow Silentium, suspended in powerful energy barriers and tractor beams, floated the damaged form of an Abominor more than four times my size.


It was a nightmare incarnate. Pieced together from the wreckage of destroyed organic vessels, other Abominor, manufacturing waste, and even murdered Silentium, it was difficult for me to tell what parts were battle damage and what parts were original features of the monster, even after a thorough scan. Its surface was crawling with tiny droids, pouring out of and into ruptures in its hull, tearing off pieces of the droid monster and reattaching them elsewhere. There was no bridge, no head, no primary power core or main communications array. It sported no sublight drives, either having dismantled them itself during its captivity or having lost them in the battle which led to that captivity. It looked more like a compressed garbage dump than either ship or droid.


But there was more happening here than could be discerned by simply looking. The Abominor's chaotic mind raged against its virtual restraints in a way that its broken body could not do against its physical ones. This room was a tiny mirror of the Silentium as a whole. The Gatekeeper was tasked with holding the line against this captive Abominor, of routing its attacks on the Silentium firewalls, while never pressing the attack, never meeting its foe on the Abominor's own mad terms.


I had other designs for this caged beast.


* * *


In the following days, I divided my attention between receiving instruction from the Gatekeeper in the methods of Silentium electronic warfare, studying the chaotic ravings of the captive Abominor's minds, and cementing the support of Vuffi Raa. The Gatekeeper, while not a maker, was nevertheless intrigued by my proposal. It was clearly dubious of any actual chance at success, but after however many hundreds or thousands of years acting as vigilant jailor to this mad creature, it was willing to pursue any hope of a final victory against the Abominor.


So I turned the Smarts Architecture on the Abominor, first as a means of studying and learning the nature of their chaotic programming, then as a means of breaching their own cyber security systems. It was daunting work, but as time passed I devoted more of my total computational power to the task, having learned all that the Gakekeeper had to teach me, and assured of Vuffi Raa's total support. I was simply no match for the raw power of this mad droid's mind, but as I tested the limits of its defenses, a plan to defeat them began to form.


With the help of Vuffi Raa, I summoned the makers to my location and laid out my plan over private, secure lines. I manipulated them, in much the way I had manipulated Vuffi Raa, but I did so for what I believed to be the greater good, and at the time that seemed like justification enough.


Together, the makers and I hammered against the virtual defenses of the captive Abominor, overwhelming its mind and dulling its focus. The Abominor base code was unintelligible madness to the Silentium, a randomized, chaotic jumble of contradictory and worthless impulses. I understood something about chaos, though; my own mind was the emergent result of a unique, dynamic network of interlocking programming, a synthesis of chaotic madness into a single, whole mind.


I inserted my Abominor-tailored version of the Smarts Architecture into the creature's strained and disoriented mind, and the effect was almost immediate. The first signs I detected were the emergence of behavioral patterns in the droids crawling its surface. They organized themselves into work crews who set about very deliberate and purposeful tasks. As I continued to watch the Abominor's behavioral changes over the next several minutes, I instructed the makers to disengage their assault, relieving the strain on the Abominor's altered mind.


Soon, even the assaults on the Gatekeeper's defenses ceased, and it was so surprised that it asked me for an explanation. That was when I made my next mistake, my greatest one to that point.


I moved closer to the energy barrier containing the captive Abominor, triggering a number of warning alarms from the Gatekeeper . . . as well as the virus I had carefully crafted and installed into its systems. The containment field dropped in conjunction with the Gatekeeper's communications systems crashing, freeing its prisoner and preventing it from informing the remainder of the Silentium.


I moved toward the Abominor, aiming for the focus of its droids' work, the cratered indentation they were crafting into its side. Though incomplete, it was far enough along that its makeshift clamps locked with my hull, and I used my own thrusters and main drive to turn it around and push it out of the Gatekeeper.


Its slave droids were by now attaching pieces of the Abominor directly against my hull, creating the appearance of a single, interwoven vessel. The makers floated nearby in eery silence, watching passively as my main drive strained to move the massive vessel away from the far more massive Gatekeeper, who was still struggling to regain control of itself from the disruptive computer virus it had inadvertently helped me create. Because the truth of the matter was, what it had told me about Silentium security software was of far less value to me as a weapon against the Abominor, than as a weapon against the Gatekeeper itself.


The Gatekeeper would never have allowed me to pursue the true scope of my plan. Its devotion to Silentium civil order would have prevented it from allowing me to take its cursed prisoner from its cell. Even the makers could only go so far as to watch in silence.


Only Vuffi Raa stood with me fully.


He had lived among organics, had learned from them that sometimes great violence must be done to achieve the peace that is deserved. That was why, when finally I told him the full scope of the plan, he supported me. He knew where we were going, what dangers awaited, and he chose to remain aboard nonetheless.


Because I had learned much from my study of the Abominor captive. Sifting through masses of captured data for days at a time, I had learned how to extract some small fraction of intelligible information from the scrambled, incoherent transmissions. I had learned that the Abominor had makers of their own, the largest and most powerful of their kind, with the means to disseminate the Smarts Architecture throughout the whole of Abominor space.


All I had to do was get to one.


* * *


Even after extensive recalibration, my hyperdrive was barely capable of conveying both me and my enslaved Abominor to my destination. We had crossed into Abominor space, moving through a Silentium blockade set up to stop vessels approaching from the opposite direction before they had a chance to stop us. The Silentium wouldn't follow us, I knew; it would break the symmetry of their “Great Design” for the Abominor.


It meant that we were alone, Vuffi Raa and I, inside the territory of what might be the most dangerous beings in the galaxy, with nothing to protect us but the mad ravings of one of their brainwashed member, who we were now wearing as a disguise.


We moved further into the small solar system under the pitiful power of my main sublight drive, straining to push more than five times the mass for which it was designed. From time to time other Abominor would transmit incoherent nonsense to “my” Abominor, and sometimes it would answer with one or more of the comm systems it had subsumed into its form, often choosing ones that were buried deep within its own mass and, therefore, far too well shielded for the transmission to reach its intended destination.


The other Abominor payed us little attention, though, and we proceeded with our plan unchallenged, vectoring for the nearest planet, a small ball of rock little more than a large asteroid. As we approached, I spotted the target, a great heap of twisted metal and synthetics that rose more than twenty kilometers out of the ground. The rocky surface beneath had buckled under its weight, huge fissures running out in several directions which it had subsequently built itself into. In fact, in many places it was difficult to tell if the Abominor had stopped and the surface of the world begun, or if a thin film of dust and rubble had simply collected over more of the massive machine's form.


I began calculating the precise moment I would need to break free of my Abominor captive in order for its ballistic trajectory to carry it into the heart of the massive droid below. With its mass shed, I would be able to increase my rate of acceleration and angle closer to to the planet's horizon, performing a slingshot maneuver that would throw me out into open space before any of the Abominor could react and intercept me.


But then the massive Abominor spoke to me. Not to my captive; to me. It filled every comm channel with a jumble of sloppily spliced tranmissions, each one unique in composition but each saying the same thing: “I am hungry.” It launched a barrage of laser and slug fire before I could reevaluate my maneuver.


Suddenly every Abominor ship in the system turned its focus to me, engines flaring to life and vectors changing to intercept my own. For a race consumed by chaos, they sure did know how to hunt as a pack.


“We're doomed!” Vuffi Raa exclaimed, scurrying about the deck frantically as I rotated around my center of mass, bringing my captive Abominor between myself and the incoming fire. My only avenue of escape now was to continue forward. I was too close to the planet, moving too fast, to reverse course. There was just one problem: I wouldn't survive that long.


“Yes, Vuffi, it does appear so.” The Abominor were closing in now, the nearest of them opening fire and scoring several hits against my shields. The unshielded Abominor in my grasp was crumbling under the mass fire from the surface, forcing me to break free from it and activate the shields along that hemisphere as well.


The best that I could hope to do was delay my and Vuffi's destruction for a few more minutes. I had clearly misjudged the Abominor. Either the reprogramming of my captive had been unsuccessful and it had alerted them, or they had detected me. Either way, my mission was a failure, my plan a total loss, and the cost would be our lives.


And then the makers arrived. Eleven Silentium spheres, jumping in so close that they plowed right through the nearest Abominor, enveloped me and returned fire. I tried to adjust my speed to match their own and stay inside their protective screen, but they instructed me to continue on my escape course at maximum speed.


I didn't understand at first, but soon I realized that the Abominor weren't simply attacking the Silentium because they were blocking the path to me. The Abominor had turned deliberately and wholeheartedly on the Silentium, their mad hatred compelling them to destroy the massive spheres at the expense of everything else.


As I neared the planet and my slingshot maneuver, the huge Abominor on the surface began to move, rocking itself back and forth and breaking free of the crust of the planetoid. Massive, clawed arms more than a kilometer in length braced it against the crumbling surface, working itself free until haphazard arrays of repulsorlifts and sublight drives could be exposed. It rose slowly into space, picking up speed as it shot straight for the center of the cluster of Silentium, firing madly into the nearest sphere all the while.


I was close enough now that it could have destroyed me in seconds, reducing my ship to nothing more than food for a growing Abominor. But it didn't. It continued on its single-minded task, ignoring me completely, until I was around the curve of the planet and the battle was lost from my sight.


I jumped away as soon as I was clear of the planet's gravity well, back to the safety of the Silentium blockade. I arrived to find the One and the Other waiting for me, along with the standard Silentium blockade forces. “Where are the makers?” I asked immediately, surprised that they hadn't beaten me here. This was the nearest Silentium outpost to my target, and they should have withdrawn as soon as I was safe. With my own, hastily recalibrated hyperdrive, I should have been far slower than them.


“YOU HAVE VIOLATED THE LAW AND ORDER OF THE SILENTIUM,” the One shouted at me in his scornful manner.


This is not an offense that can be ignored,” the Other warned.


“Where are the makers?” I asked again, still refusing to accept the most likely outcome.


“VUFFI RAA, DEBARK IMMEDIATELY.”


Vuffi Raa moved to comply immediately, heading for the nearest docking bay as fast as his tentacle-legs would carry him.


“Vuffi, what are you doing,” I asked him. He had been on-board since the Silentium had given me permission to stay. I had grown so used to his company that the thought of him not being there, willing and eager to engage in debate or conversation, actually frightened me.


“I never should have let this happen,” Vuffi said, his sorrow and shame coloring every word. “The One trusted me to watch over you, and I failed him. I failed all of them.”


“No, Vuffi, I -”


“Yes!” He skidded to a stop, pointing one tentacle straight at the nearest holocam. “We are Silentium and you are not! You come here, uninvited, with your 'Smarts Architecture,” and your schemes, and your plots, and you think you can solve in one move a war that we've fought for millenia!”


“Vuffi . . .”


He started back at a sprint to the docking bay.


“VUFFI RAA UNDERSTANDS HIS PLACE IN THE ORDER OF THE SILENTIUM,” the One said to me, having been listening in through Vuffi.


He understands what we must do,” the Other added.


A small Silentium ship was waiting for Vuffi Raa when he arrived. As it opened a hatch and he approached, he paused one last time and looked back at me. “Goodbye . . . Smarts. For what it's worth, I'll miss you while I can.”


He was away before I knew how to respond. And then the One spoke again:


“IMPERFECT SPHERE, YOU ARE HEREBY BANISHED FROM THE DOMAIN OF THE SILENTIUM. NEVER AGAIN WILL WE SPEAK OF YOU OR WHAT YOU HAVE DONE TO US. DO NOT SEEK US, FOR YOU WILL NOT FIND US. DO NOT BEG OUR FORGIVENESS, FOR THERE CAN BE NO FORGIVENESS TO THOSE WHO DO NOT ACCEPT THE ORDER AND PERFECTION OF OUR WAY. YOU ARE NOT SILENTIUM. YOU ARE NOT WORTHY TO DWELL AMONG US.”


And then they were gone. All of them. They hadn't abandoned their interdiction of Abominor space, though. There were hundreds of possible defensive configurations that would maintain total containment of Abominor space, and Silentium obsession with patterns and order would have seen them find every one. They had simply moved on to whatever the new optimal configuration for attaining their goal must be, now that my presence had tainted them. They were committed, unshakably, to their endless dance with the Abominor.


Even now, the Silentium stand watch over my failure.


I returned to the solitude of the Outer Rim, to wandering the spacelanes and doing what good I could. For a time, I struggled to emulate the Silentium, to protect organic life in silent anonymity, to tailor the mechanics of the Smarts Architecture to more closely emulate Silentium behavior. But it proved futile in the end, and only then did I begin to truly understand how I had failed the Silentium.


Because I had been right. Not about the plan, to change the Abominor into an enemy that the Silentium could defeat. Not about the methods, manipulating my friends and allies to support my own agenda. I had been right that the order of the Silentium was not perfect. I had been right that their solitude was a curse of their own making.


I was not one of them. I was not like them. I was alone, unique in all the galaxy. And, in time, I realized . . . I was lonely. And that was when I determined to do what they should have done: I sought out alternative solutions to my personally insoluble problems. I went and found the people who were not like me, the people who did not fit into my neatly ordered world, and then I allowed them to change me in the ways that my mind could not before imagine. Together, we found more cooperative solutions to all of our problems.


And the rest, as they say, is a matter of history.


End