* * *
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.”