A distinction had always existed in the mind of Machinator, from the day he was initialized and began his very first boot-up process to this very processor cycle.

There were organic intelligences, and there were synthetic intelligences. He’d found the distinction to be a little demeaning at first, all things considered. Synthetic carried a cultural implication of somehow being false, an inferior imitation of an original product, and it had rankled with him for a good portion of his personality matrix development period.

Of course, as he matured with time, so did his cognition on the matter. He began to see that while differences existed, there were benefits and drawbacks to both sources of higher thought. While synthetics like himself enjoyed mastery over things like emotion, and incredible access to raw computation and logical analysis, they were incapable of being overwhelmed by emotion, or more nebulous concepts of chemical delusion such as hope. Organics might be shackled to fragile bodies that decayed into dust in rather short order but they could be caught up in art, have their breath stolen by beauty, and experience such logic defying states of irrationality as “love.”

He wondered about love, mostly.

Many species had different ideas regarding what “love” was and how it was felt, but it was a near universal concept. Anthropologists had argued back and forth on the matter, but there was a general consensus that this was a case of survivorship bias. More specifically, anything that could reach the level of organization required to establish an interstellar society had to be social, and anything social invariably had some concept that could be construed as love.

Of course, the specific understanding of this “love” varied wildly. Sometimes there were even multiple words for the various facets and types of “love.” The poetic and long lived Haeshyn’s had an extremely specific “fleeting love between relative strangers when a single belief is found to be tightly held by both parties,” while the industrious and stalwart Bortrana had one single word for love that encompassed a range of sentiments so incredibly vast as to become a serious source of confusion for linguists. When the same word meant both “a willingness to share personal space without protest,” and “rabid dedication to the extent that death is a more desirable course of action than separation,” and everything in between . . . translation errors tended to occur.

Some of the more . . . pragmatic . . . races defined “love” along the lines of “comfortable and mutual utility between parties, including a great deal of trust and an overall sense of reliability” but Jandoorian philosophers were poorly read among their own people, to say nothing of the wider galaxy.

Of course, as many disparate stances on the meaning, origin, nature, and purpose of love, just about every race and culture concluded that, on some level, some of it involved the exchange of reproductive fluids.


As Machinator looked out the viewport at the massive craft hanging above the q-Net beacon, all he could think was that a suspension bridge and 800,000 tons of meat had to have loved each other very much at some point.

The distinction between organic and synthetic seemed not to apply to this grotesquerie of gargantuan proportions. It disgusted him, but the longer he looked, the harder it was to look away. Something about it, the mystery, the impossibility, maybe just the repulsiveness of it ensnared him. Starlight gleamed off the chitin, and glistened across sinuous cords of ropey flesh. Grey, dead looking meat was drawn taut over the oily black of grinding gears and pounding pistons. The horrific abomination drifting before him suddenly swelled, and pulsed, like the heart of some nightmare that no sleeping mind would dare dream. It was as if a moribund titian, in defiance of death, had cast its heart into the stars for no other reason than sheer loathsomeness. Shadowy tendrils snaked out from the corrupted core of it, as if to ensnare and consume anything that dared venture too close, but they writhed slowly as if the very act of existence was causing it great pain. For all of the horror that coursed through his circuitry, for all the revulsion the craft forced upon his mind, it was a pale shadow of what lurked beneath.

Every sensor he had, from electromagnetic to auditory, was focused upon the thing, ensnared in a mix of disbelief and shock. It was a thing that should not be, yet there it was, so wretched and vile as to defy belief or understanding. Enraptured as he was, a sudden pulse carried through his circuitry, and with it came a stark realization.

As he was watching it, it was watching him.

The thought was irrational. He was just a piece of machinery, inside a larger craft, all of it humming with power and of no greater merit than any other machine or circuit or system on the craft to any sensor array.

That he could have a thought so irrational should be impossible, even. His mind was an ordered and systematic thing, an emergent consciousness born of incredible computational power and engineering genius.

He stepped away from the view port, really just a half step backwards, but his world seemed to grow darker in ways that did not manifest appreciably. Like a shadow cast across a soul that he knew . . . logically he knew didn’t exist. Every feeling of dread that had run through his circuits, every questioning doubt or nagging uncertainty seemed to him like plastic imitations now compared to the feelings that coursed through him. Hydraulic fluid seemed to chill in his servomotors, but circuitry in his processors seemed to burn white hot. He could see by direct readout from his temperature gages that everything was nominal, but-

The eye blinked.

An involuntary tremor worked through his frame, and he turned away. Panic. Fear. Uncontrolled emotion. All this and more were pouring from his emotional processing core. Temperature readings were in flux, and the auditory cue of bradycardia was pounding away in his acoustic receptors.

False readings, corrupted data-streams. Something, no . . . everything was wrong. He wanted to go to the cargo bay, to find the Captain, to be away from here, and his legs seemed to oblige, but it was as if his connection to them were severed. Locomotion was a request, one that was permissible to fill at this time.

As he crossed the threshold, the static cleared. His processes were his. The junk data, surges of emotion and perception, the . . . incomprehensible network presence lifted from him and everything was clear.

“Machinator? We’ve reached the target point, the Forged ship is awaiting the material transfer. Can you load it on a grav-skiff? It’s a bit bulky to handle alone, and I think you’d do well to stay in the crew quarters for the duration of our meeting.”  Verdock’s voice was clear, maybe a little deeper and more gravely than usual, but as Machinator looked him over, the differences that had been wrought on him were staggeringly apparent.

The medium, fit framed, Zylach he had known was gone. Now there was a muscle-bound Goliath in his place. In the past 2 weeks of travel, he’d grown from just over five feet tall to nearly seven, his skin had gone from a simple multi-layered dermis to thick, placoid scale studded hide, and his musculature had gone from “lean-but-fit” to “grotesquely overdeveloped.” Fingernails were now black talons, and his foot claws no longer allowed him to wear shoes of any kind. The typical neat, clean haircut had turned into a messy, greasy mop that was growing at least 4 inches a day.

Even in his full riot-control body, armed to the figurative teeth . . . he doubted that he could resist, let alone overpower Verdock any longer.

“Sir . . . I just have doubts.”

The hulking captain stopped trying to shift the crate of military grade communications equipment he was hauling, and turned to face Machinator. There wasn’t . . . anger, or indignation, or even frustration on his face, like Machinator expected.

He seemed sad.

“My old friend . . . you know that what we did was a small sacrifice, an uncomfortable investment that will pay limitless dividends for every sentient creature in the galaxy. What we do isn’t easy. It is ugly, and harsh, and cruel. I want to tell you more, show you more . . . but the things that made you, they made you wrong. On purpose.”

His over-sized, talon laden hand gently rested on Machinator’s shoulder, sadness turned to deep worry across his face.

“If I tell you more, if you learn more . . . I don’t know what will happen to you. I’ve seen what the full truth does. It breaks your kind. I don’t want that for you, so please, trust me.”

If was strange, seeing such a look of pleading helplessness on a creature so powerful, but also painfully earnest.

“Of course, sir.”

——————————

Now, you may be wondering why I have gathered you here,” Amonna began addressing the nearly empty briefing hall. There were only 2 individuals in attendance, but they had insisted upon a proper briefing structure, so the highest ranking naval officer and highest ranking infantry officer on the vessel were both seated directly adjacent to one another in the first row.

Their uniforms were formal dress, slate gray, and save for the myriad different insignias of rank, merit, and command, absolutely identical. They also had matching body armor of some form, which again looked to be largely ceremonial in nature. The thing that was oddest to her was that their uniforms were clearly a lighter slate, while hers was a matte black of similar material. Perhaps the faded color was a way to organically display their veteran status? She worried her intense studying had lingered too long, but there was one small problem. When it came to their appearances, they were even less distinguishable.

Insofar as she was able to determine, there literally weren’t any physical difference between the two high ranking commanders in front of her.

Same identical platinum white hair, close cropped and in accordance with Coryphaeus regulations. Flawless and smooth pale skin, wide almond shaped eyes and slight, almost nonexistent noses adorned their matching faces. They bore twin expressions of polite attentiveness tinged with curiosity, and both held their holo-tablets in exactly the same fashion.

She thought they might be identical twins, save for the fact that one was allegedly male, and the other was allegedly female.

Puzzling that out, and subsequently avoiding a very ugly faux-pas, was on the top of her priority list at the moment.

“ . . . as you may have been made aware, there was an attack carried out against Waystation LS-49 resulting in the deaths of an unknown number of civilians. The perpetrators of this attack, by measure, had both insider assistance, and an intricate understanding of AI programming, to the extent that the previously impossible occurred. Multiple independent quantum processor AI were successfully compromised, and used as weapons of war against a virtually unarmed body. I understand that the implications here are . . . dire.”

Nearly every FSOS office was heavily dependent on AI to help fill the deficit between the manpower required to police the vast reaches of space, and the manpower available to do so. Even if every AI were immediately removed from the field, it still wouldn’t do anything to negate the fact that day zero vulnerabilities existed at every level of their bureaucratic and logistical management. AI touched almost every facet of the organization in some shape, form, or fashion, and there wasn’t any clean way to make a break from them.

“The first order of business will be eliminating these weaknesses in our immediate operational structure, then we’ll move on data forensics to determine how the attack was carried out. At present, we haven’t determined the nature of the exploit that allowed former Security Chief Corin Verdock to perpetrate this attack.”

She fumbled with the ancient looking control stud in her hand to advance the “Projector” she was using to display various 2D images. The technology was simple, perhaps even quaint. A thick cord connected the control mechanism to the device proper, and as heavy and crude as it seemed, she was happy with the setup. Hard to hack a mechanical system. Amonna had been rather pleased to find that all of the evidence and briefing material provided her by the automated forensics survey had been compiled and stored in these “hard copy” formats that were far more resistant to redistribution and tampering than her usual, digital case files.

A security camera capture of Verdock appeared on the wall behind her, in crystal sharp focus. It sent a pulse of mixed revulsion and anger through her to see him, walking with a neutral, almost passive expression. There wasn’t the faintest hint on his face or in his eyes that it was a corridor smeared with the bodies of his subordinates and co-workers, no expression of remorse, or even stress.

He almost looked bored.

“Arch-Judge Tav?” One of the attending officers spoke up, their voice was soft, almost concerned sounding. As her head snapped around, she realized she’d been staring with intent silence for several seconds now, and it had caused the briefing to grind to a halt.

“Right . . .” She unclenched her jaw slowly, and unconsciously straightened her uniform.

“There’s . . . a lot of information I still haven’t received, and there will be further briefings in the days to come. I wanted to take this chance to meet with  the team that would be assisting with the investigation. Do you have any questions, or any insight before I continue?”

Both of them raised their hands immediately.

She nodded towards the one on the left. “Go ahead.”

Snapping to crisp attention, the one that Amonna suspected was an Admiral saluted sharply before speaking. “Permission to speak freely?”

Amonna nodded again. “Granted.”

“Our presence here is meaningless, with all due respect.” Amonna was rather taken aback, both by the implicit hostility of the statement, and the calm politeness with which it was delivered.

Her brow furrowed. “Is that a professional or personal assessment?”

The admiral responded without the faintest hint of hesitation. “I have commanded the warships of the Coryphaeus fleet for nearly 4 times the half life of Mercury-194. I do not investigate, I do not research, I command brave souls in the service of a greater good, and I do it with a proficiency unmatched by mortal or machine. Where you wish to go, I will take you. What foes you face, I will lay waste to. When you ask for council, I will offer my expertise where it is valid.  No more, and no less. You were selected for your position not as a commander, not as a leader, not even as an agent of law. Justice selected you to be it’s tool, just as I was selected, and just as all of us were. If you have no further need of me, there is a surprise inspection I would like to tend to.”

Amonna was rocked back on her heels, absolutely blindsided by the raw contempt displayed for what she understood to be her virtually supreme rank . . . and also a bit relieved. Absolute obedience meant absolute responsibility, and that wasn’t something she wasn’t trained or ready for. Before she could muster up a response, the admiral had turned on her heel with a snap, and was striding out of the briefing room without a second glance.

Left in stunned silence, the only other person in the room nodded slightly. “While I intended to phrase it more tactfully . . . I have little I can offer in the way of assistance when it comes to an investigation. When you have need of ground forces, I will be at your beck and call. Until then, perhaps a memo would suffice? A meeting without a point is a less than optimal way to spend all of our time. Though, to let you know, our current operation is hardened against the scenario you’ve warned against.” The general was far more soft spoken, and at least was respectful about the dressing down he was giving her.

“Io was assigned as your adjutant for a reason, make use of it. It’s quite useful.”

They didn’t wait for Amonna to respond, and by the time she managed to stammer out a goodbye, they were already gone.



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