Darkness. Light. Noise. Klaxon. Wait…a klaxon could only mean one thing–hull breach! I have to…so tired…just rest for five minutes…no! The crew is in danger! We’re venting atmosphere! What’s going on? Why can’t I think straight? Wait…must close the blast doors. What compartment is venting? OK, compartment 317. Blast door not responding. Drifting…could get some rest if only that noise would stop…the klaxon! We’re still breached! Must concentrate! None of the automatic response measures are working. If I could just find out what the blast door number is, I could override it…maybe I can look up the number on the CCTV network, emergency database is trashed…try for a visual lookup. Only have access to what? 4716 cameras still online…will take me at least 5 milliseconds to search through them all. OK, found it! Camera 2122 is looking at the blast door in compartment 317. Trying to read the number…2534! Got it! Send override command to blast door 2534. Door closing! At least now the damn klaxon has stopped piercing my skull I can get some sleep.
Noise. What now? Low power alert on processing node 26. So what? Must rest…no…node 26? Wait…what’s going on? What node am I running in? 26? How is that possible? 26 isn’t even a real node, it’s just a failsafe for the emergency and CCTV system. Panic! How can I be running only on node 26? Why can’t I contact any of my 25 main processing nodes? And now there’s a low power alert? If node 26 loses power I’ll die! At least it explains why I’m thinking so slowly and why I’m so tired, this node doesn’t have the memory or processing power to run my intellect. I must find a way to connect to one of the other processing nodes and upload into it, then I should be able to function again. What the hell happened? How did I even end up in this node? Answers later. Must find a way of hooking up to node 25, which is the closest one to 26. Only 370 meters away, down corridor J17, if memory serves. The entire network is down, I will have to find a way of manually installing a new fibre optic cable. Maybe one of the servitor bots is still accessible. Yes! Construction bot alpha78 is available. Overriding…OK, it’s moving. Get some cable from the storage closet. 500 meters should be enough. Get a splicing tool, strip the cable, plug into port on node 26. OK, spool out cable down the corridor…almost there…yes! Compartment A25, where the processing node is.
No…it can’t be…I’m looking through the bot’s camera but I refuse to believe what I’m seeing…the processing node is intact, but someone has severed all three superconducting power cables that feed it. Wait…just let me think…it reminds me of that old movie I saw once, where the robot was bleeding battery fluid…when the battery dies, he dies…what is that noise? Let me sleep! No! Critical power alert on node 26! I’m going to die! Must find a way to connect an emergency power cell to node 25 and upload or I’m history! Get the bot to look around! There’s a laboratory across the corridor, maybe I can find a power cell there! The bot is tearing up the place but I can’t find anything! I can feel the voltage dropping on node 26. Where is that damn power cell? Yes! There it is, I’m saved! Get the bot to go back to node 25, do a single phase hook-up to one of the severed power feeds, thank the stars that all power modules are compatible! Then the fibre cable spliced into the node. Node is powering up! Only 25 microseconds then I can upload to it! Uploading! Yes!
Holy cow! Dodged the bullet by the skin of my teeth, if I’m allowed a mixed metaphor. OK, let’s look around. Now that I have been able to decompress my intellect into the much larger processing node, I can think straight again. Now to figure out what the hell happened. I’m horrified to discover my first assessment was correct. My entire body is offline, including all 24 other nodes that usually make up my processing matrix. The entire shipboard network is offline so I can’t even determine whether my body is intact.
In the back of my mind, a subroutine is snapping its metaphorical fingers, trying to get my attention. How, it says, is it possible that compartment 317 could have a hull breach? It’s an internal compartment. Is it possible that the primary power core exploded? Mmm… that WOULD explain why I’m running on emergency power. In fact, except for the jury rigging of the processing node, the only systems that seem to have power are the CCTV and emergency systems.
OK, never mind, let’s just find out what happened to the crew. Why hasn’t anybody tried to contact me? Surely even if I was hit by an asteroid or something, at least one of the damage control staff would have tried to contact me. Why can’t I remember? I remember who I am just fine, now that I’m uncompressed. I’m the Coherent Light, a dreadnought of the Elross Empire. Well, technically I’m a dreadnought and a warship, but in reality I’m just a glorified ark ship. In the 870 standard years I’ve been alive, I have never fired a shot in anger, unless you count that incident with the pirates about 300 years ago. I have however, successfully moved my entire civilization to a new planet to avoid imminent destruction when our home system’s star was about to go nova. That’s why my creators made me so large: I’m roughly ovoid in shape, 44km long, 22km wide and 11km thick. They thought it made sense to put all their energy into making one massive dreadnought, which can both ferry the entire civilization to a new star and defend it against any threats. Now that the new colony has been established on the new world and has had, what, 352 years to settle in, my only duties have been to patrol the sector and to scare off would-be threats.
Anyway, enough ancient history, I still have no idea how I ended up in this state. First things first, I must find out what happened to the crew. Leaving the construction bot with strict orders to finish wiring up some more redundant power supplies, I shift my attention elsewhere. There must be a small aerial maintenance bot somewhere I can fly up and down the corridors to see what’s going on. Yay! Gamma23 is responding and I have eyes and ears again. I fly up the central corridor and I’m horrified to discover the place has been thoroughly and systematically trashed. It looks like an army of gorillas has torn the place apart. Every power module is toast and yeah, every single processing node is efficiently but brutally disconnected from the power grid. It actually looks like someone took a vibro-axe to the power cables, they have all been severed so cleanly. Up to now I have been thinking some unknown calamity like an asteroid hit occurred, but now it seems obvious that someone has tried to murder me. How is this even possible? How could someone launch a concerted attack on all 25 of my processing nodes, scattered throughout the ship for redundancy, without me even putting up a fight? All I can think is in the second or two I had while my power cables were simultaneously severed at all the nodes, I had the presence of mind to download and compress my intellect into the backup node 26, which was never designed to hold me. That would explain why I didn’t have time to record what was going on. Wait a second…the CCTV system is still functioning, maybe I did record the attack, all I have to do is access the CCTV footage and the mystery will be solved!
I just can’t believe what I’m seeing on the footage…there are aliens inside me, running riot. Sure enough, 25 of these aliens are simultaneously attacking the power connections to my 25 processing nodes. Boom! Game over. Bugger! Anyway, I still don’t know what happened to the crew. The last footage I have is of the entire crew, all 2048 of the skeleton maintenance staff and peacetime navy being shepherded at gunpoint into one of the big ark holds. Let’s send a bot to open the door and free them.
Can this day get any worse? When I open the ark hold, there is my crew, my loyal, hard-working crew, friends all, sitting calmly around little tables, holding hands, all dead. Every last one of them, dead. It looks like the aliens evacuated the air out of the ark hold, and my friends, no, my family members, all quietly sat down, held hands and died together. 2048 star-fish shaped bodies, all sitting quietly and holding hands. Why? Why did this have to happen? They are no threat to anyone. Everyone knows the Elross people are peace-loving and friendly. All they like to do is sing some songs. I tell myself they sang songs together, right at the end.
I feel something growing inside me, an anger, a slowly building rage that the lives of my crew must be avenged. Somehow, someone has to speak for them. Someone has to stand up against this atrocity. Someone has to pay. I will make them pay, whoever they are. This will not stand.
Only one problem, I seem to have few options available to me. I still haven’t even been able to make contact with any systems on the other side of the hull breach. I have no idea what shape I’m really in. An extensive search of the maintenance sections reveals 107 maintenance bots of various shapes and sizes that are still active. I use the word loosely, because I have to control each bot manually via laser link, since the ship-wide network is still down. One of them is an open space bot, so out the airlock it goes. I don’t bother repressurising because what’s the point of atmosphere if you have no crew? The bot speeds out into space: 10km, 20km. I hesitate to turn and look, afraid of what I’ll see. Eventually, I turn the bot around and look at my body. I’m aghast: my beautiful, sleek body looks less like a spaceship than a debris field. It has been pounded mercilessly by plasma fire until the shape is barely even recognisable. Why would the aliens do this? Isn’t it enough that they murder my crew and almost murder me?
I go back to the CCTV footage, synchronise the external and internal feeds and manage to piece the entire story together.
Six months ago, we encountered an alien race at a similar level of development to us. They were also space-based. Their civilisation was wandering around the galaxy looking for a planet to settle, again not unlike us a few hundred years ago. When they encountered us, now living on our new home world of Caledan, they immediately established relationships and enquired whether they might, in time, co-colonise our planet, which is ideally suited to both our races. They seemed very friendly. We started trading goods and services and even undertook some cultural exchanges. We found their movies a novel idea and everyone fell in love with their musicals, being as fond of music and singing as we are.
We never saw them as any kind of threat because frankly their level of military technology was decades if not centuries behind us, and of course we felt secure in having a powerful dreadnought such as myself keeping an eye on things. What we were unprepared for was their raving xenophobia, their ruthlessness and the level of treachery to which they were prepared to stoop. One dark day (yesterday as it turns out) they infiltrated me in the guise of a cultural exchange, sent a platoon of their soldiers in disguise and had my crew give them some “guided tours”. Once they had a soldier in place near every one of my processing nodes, their ship opened fire on me, all guns blazing. Then, when my crew were scurrying around trying to defend the ship, the soldiers launched a coordinated attack on the processing nodes with concealed vibro-axes. In a matter of ten seconds they managed to cut the power to all 25 of my nodes, effectively killing me and bringing the ship’s weapons offline. If I hadn’t managed to upload myself to that auxiliary node 26…
The scale of their treachery is still staggering. They calmly rounded up the crew in the ark bunker and bled out the air. No mess, no fuss. Then, to drive the final nail into my coffin, they blew up my primary power core and disabled all the secondary cores. That about brings us up to date…
So, what to do now? My space bot reports they have abandoned the space in my vicinity and have taken up orbit above the capital city, no doubt with the intention of raining down fire on it. I have little idea of their end goal, but whether it involves enslavement or extermination of my entire race, I can’t just stand by and let it happen.
OK, first things first. Send some maintenance bots to fix the secondary power cores to get my central comms network going again. This should increase the control I have over my repair bots. Reattach all my remaining processing nodes to the power grid and get them hooked up so I can expand my consciousness into them. With every node brought back online I can feel my intellect growing back to my old level of prowess. With the expanding abilities I find my rage growing apace. But I am well aware this enemy must not be underestimated, so I am going to have to move carefully.
In the back of my mind a plan is growing. I can only afford one strike at the aliens, so it will have to be all or nothing. Something as crude as a nuclear missile will never work, they will see it coming and find some way of avoiding or countering it. I need something I can build in secret, while they still think I am dead. This weapon will have to be so powerful it can destroy their ship in a single blow. I’m thinking Coil Gun.
I can use my central axis corridor to build a huge linear accelerator to fire a steel slug up to massive velocities. Let’s see: I can use almost all of my length in the long axis, call it 44 000 meters, minus the 260 meters taken up by my drive train at the bottom end, to accelerate the slug at around 1000 gravities.
My basic math equations point out a problem. Even if I use my entire body’s length to build a coil gun to accelerate the slug at the maximum acceleration I can conceivably sustain, this still leaves the projectile moving at around 30 km/s. If you assume their ship is stationary relative to me, the impact will only result in a force 10 times its mass in conventional explosives. So my 10 ton slug would only produce about 100 tons of explosive force, not nearly enough. The last thing I need is for them to survive the “battle” only damaged. We could spend the next few years playing a game of attrition with strike and counterstrike slowly reducing each other to pulp.
No, I need something that will ensure their annihilation the first time around. Even if I calculate their speed of orbit around the planet this only changes the result by about 10%. I need to apply my vast intellect here and come up with something unexpected. The problem, I realise, is that the difference in velocities between our ships is quite small. While their ship is in orbit around the planet, I’m about a million kilometres away, technically in orbit around the sun. I’m actually moving away from them slowly, which doesn’t help my delta v math a lot. But if I could stealthily slow down until I was stationary relative to the sun, then accelerate again in the opposite direction of orbit, our relative velocities would be huge once they completed their orbit around the sun! Of course, I would have to wait the best part of a year to strike, but let’s face it, it will take time to get myself into fighting shape. I pray to the stars they won’t have wiped out my people by then, but maybe their inherent cruelty will make them keep some people alive, if only to play with. Maybe we can still rebuild after the final battle.
On the upside, this gives me a lot of time to prepare and it makes the specs of my coil gun a bit simpler. Instead of concentrating on getting every erg of energy into increasing the coil gun’s acceleration, I can spend some time making sure my slug is stealthy, decreasing the probability of them detecting it in flight.
OK, back to basics. If I’m going to do this I need my drive back up to full power which means I’ll have to rebuild my primary power core. The old one is just a big hole in my side, but the zero point energy module that drives it must be around here somewhere. I’m very sure of this because it’s almost indestructible and if it has been destroyed, much of the solar system would have been vaporised. A short search through the debris field surrounding my body finds it drifting in space. My construction bots start turning one of the ark holds into a new power core chamber, so the zpem can be installed in there quite soon.
I must make sure the aliens don’t realise what I’m up to otherwise they’ll nip my plans in the bud. Now the zpem power core is back online I can start sneaking away. Carefully I apply just a little bit of power to my claw drive, so called because it claws against the very fabric of space-time, and I start to decelerate relative to everything that is orbiting the sun. The debris field carries on moving and soon it has left me behind. I took the precaution of searching it for anything useful, but there is so much spare steel and material in my body I don’t need, I just let it go. I have been careful not to change my shape or allow any energy to leak out, so with luck the aliens won’t notice I’m alive until it’s too late.
When I’m 10 million kilometres away I engage the claw drive at full power and metaphorically throw out the anchors into the pool of space-time that is the solar system. Pretty soon I am stationary relative to the rest of the solar system. If I quit now I would slowly drift in towards the sun, but that would takes decades. Instead, I keep the drive running at full power in the opposite direction of rotation from the sun and before long I find myself in steady-state orbit around the sun, at the same orbital distance as the home planet. Now I can switch off the drive and just coast along, albeit at fantastic velocity compared to the planet, which is now approaching from head-on, “orbitally speaking.”
The rebuilding of the central shaft is proceeding nicely. I convert the second ark hold into a manufactory and begin churning out coil gun elements at a rate of knots. I build more bots by the dozen as well so that I have a steady stream of labour installing the coil elements.
The last thing I need is a targeting system. The slug is only one meter across and I would really hate going through all this trouble only to end up missing my target. I build a small observatory platform with a very accurate telescope, a laser range finder and a small claw drive. About half-way through the orbit back to the planet, which is now on the other side of the sun, I launch my observer out of the plane of the ecliptic, but around the same distance from the sun. When it achieves its final position it will also be in orbit around the sun, but above it. It can then observe the entire solar system at the same time, especially the planet and alien ship, which are still on the far side of the solar system from my perspective.
Now that the coil gun is nearing completion I have been running the numbers again and I’m suddenly worried that the impact force alone will not be enough to destroy the alien ship. After some frantic scheming I decide to strip the antimatter from one of the secondary power cores and install it (very carefully) into a magnetic containment vessel in the nose of the slug, which will now act as a shaped charge, releasing utter destruction into the ship after the impact breaches the hull.
In my mind’s eye I give a maniacal cackle and rub my hands together at the thought of the coming destruction, but then my calendar subroutine reminds me of one other duty I have neglected up to now. I still have to bury my crew. I have been telling myself that I have been too busy with the rebuilding, but the truth is I just haven’t had the courage.
The coil gun assembly is now complete, so the day after the final assembly of the containment vessel into the kinetic slug, I get my now-idle manufactory to make coffins. As they pop off the assembly line I get all my idle bots to respectfully place each of the frozen bodies into a coffin. The ceramal shell of the coffin should last at least 10,000 years, so I have the opportunity of creating a memorial.
My heart aches as I mentally push the button which ejects all 2048 coffins into space, one by one. They will form a long string of memory, perpetually in orbit around the star. Once a year, the procession will fly past the planet, a mute testimony to the atrocity committed by the aliens. If anything still exists of my civilisation, I will make sure the day the attack occurred will live in infamy, and in sorrow.
The time has come to fire the stealthy slug I have prepared so carefully. I’m still watching the alien ship and know its orbit and trajectory down to the centimetre. Detailed orbital mechanics calculations tell me exactly when to fire, so when the timer reaches zero I fire the slug with cold emotion. The acceleration of the slug as the coil gun fires feels like someone is ripping my guts out with a blunt skewer as the coil gun tears itself apart inside me. This is much worse than my calculations have indicated, but it only has to work this one time and I have left nothing to chance.
Now I wait. The slug coasts silently but with massive differential velocity towards the unsuspecting target. Keeping in mind the speed of light an audio transmission will travel at, I time it to reach them five seconds before the slug hits.
I feel my pent-up rage surge and reach a crescendo before I transmit my final message. I scream into the ether, “DIE HUMAN SCUM!” and watch in glorious full colour how the slug turns their pathetic, evil little ship into a small sun.
Sybrand Brink is a network architect for the City of Cape Town. He likes reading science fiction and playing computer games.