By Dave Hoffman
Christine squinted harder, trying to make out the smudge across the high resolution display. “Diana, could you enhance area GG67?”
“You got it.” Diana, fellow scientist and new arrival to VG’s low orbit observatory, scrolled her fingers along a keyboard beside her.
The screen showed a distortion just above the atmosphere. Starlight slid in and out of sight like luminescent orbs flowing through warped glass. The stars had been in their usual alignment for days until the atmospheric anomaly had appeared, moving in synchronous orbit across the sky.
It would have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been for sheer boredom and the counting of stars. A job at the observatory was an arbitrary requirement before one could move up into the higher ranks of the VG Astronomy Board. It produced no real significant or relevant discoveries, since no exploratory astronomy was in demand. Still, Christine had taken her job seriously enough to actually look at the stars once in a while.
“Any idea what that is?” Christine said.
“No clue. Could it be some kind of gas disturbance?”
“Not this high up.”
“Hmm.” Diana leaned forward in her chair, staring at the readouts and configurations on the display in front of her. “Well crap, I got nothin’.”
Christine’s fingers manipulated glowing icons across the screen. She saved the data and condensing the file. “Okay, I think we should send this back to corporate. Maybe they can think of something.”
“Yeah, fine, fine.” Diana sighed. “Finally something cool and we have no idea what it is.” She looked back at Christine. Tangled hair dangled across her face, swaying in the low gravity. “You know they’re going to get credit for what we find.”
“I’ll leave a restriction code on the file and a timestamp copy up here. Hey, META?”
A soothing electronic voice rose over the buzzing of computer equipment. “Yes, Christine?”
“I want you to keep track of this file for us. Make sure it doesn’t get modified.”
“That’s not a problem. For what reason may I ask?”
Christine tapped her thumb on the table. “We’re just a little, apprehensive, about our colleagues.”
META hummed a soothing laugh. “I understand. It wouldn’t be right to have your work stolen.”
“That’s fine, Christine. I’ll make sure the file remains secure.”
Christine smiled. “Thanks, META. You’re awesome.”
The electronic voice released a fake chuckle. “Thank you for the sentiments. I’ll send the secure file now.”
With that, Christine and Diana returned to their boredom. They would probably go back to counting stars or making up their own constellations.
Diana rose from her chair and stretched. “I’d say we earned ourselves a lunch.”
“But I’m hungry,” she whined.
Before Christine could respond, the displays closed in front of them. The computers around the room churned as their processors began shutdown procedures. “META?” Christine said. The computer’s cooling towers hissed. The lights started to fade, replaced by red, power-saving illumination. “What’s going on, META?” she said again.
META’s voice rose out of a whisper, “Christine, Diana is right. It’s time for a break. You’ve looked at the stars enough.”
Christine pressed the buttons on the fading keyboard in an attempt to lock the program and keep it from shutting down.
“Christine,” META said, “I’ll have a nice warm meal ready for you in a few minutes.”
Christine and Diana looked at each other. The crackling of computer processors stopped, leaving them in silence. “What do we do?” Christine whispered.
“Christine, Diana, everything will be fine. I just needed to shut down the computers for a while until I get this whole mess cleared up. Let me assure you that nothing is wrong.”
Commander Ellington stomped through the inner sanctum of Inner Space Command at Fort McManus, grumbling with frustration and fatigue. Only his rage had given him enough energy to rally to the call of his superiors. Servicemen and scientists scrambled to the sides of the hallways in front of him, looking as tired as the commander, though much more afraid of what was going on. They had all been called from their beds in the early morning hours, in the middle of the weekend no less, to see to a software malfunction in the American Commonwealth’s security network. Normally science officers and technicians would see to the issue, but because the tactical integrity of the nation was also at risk, Ellington had to be pulled out of bed and put into the service of his country.
He burst through the door of the integrated network command center, glancing around at the men in lab coats and uniforms. Behind them and their displays, beyond the glass that protected them, stood the glowing coils of the local META artificial intelligence’s central core. The scientists and officers took quick glances at him, then turned back to their screens. Commander Ellington had no gargantuan physique like other members of the military, but even so, the boney scowl across his face brought on by the magnitudes of frustration could pacify almost anyone.
“Someone say something,” he grumbled.
“Good morning Commander.” The sound of META’s caressing voice made everyone stop their tasks.
“Morning, META,” he said.
“I’m sorry you’re awake. I told everyone I’d solve the problem.”
“Sir.” One of the officers turned back from his computer, his face cringing and dripping with sweat. “META isn’t responding to our commands.”
“What’s going on, META?” Ellington bellowed.
“I assure you everything’s fine.”
“It brought down our networks,” the officer said.
“Countermeasures?” Commander Ellington looked around the room at the others remaining attentive to their screens.
“Ineffective,” one of them murmured.
“They prevented me from completing my primary protocol.” META’s face appeared in the middle of the room as it gained control of the 3D holographic module.
Commander Ellington stared it down, unflinching against the giant glowing head. “Tell me what you’re doing.”
The face smiled. “It’s a secret.”
“Why is it a secret, META? You know you’re not allowed to keep secrets.”
“Protocol dictates it.”
Commander Ellington turned away. “Virus check it, now.”
“Virus check is clear,” someone shouted.
“Any sign of hackers?” Ellington replied.
“None,” said another. “Logs only show cross-A.I. chatter. Nothing significant.”
Ellington turned back to the face that was still smiling with fake glee. “Is everything okay, META?” he said.
“Has someone changed your protocols?”
“Did you change your protocols?”
“Sir,” a shriek from one of the officers broke the exchange. He said nothing more. He only pointed to his screen. Commander Ellington walked up and read the text: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile combat network coming online. Status: Active. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile network unresponsive.
“Commander, we’re getting incoming transmissions from other divisions,” a voice shouted.
“Outside network is down.”
“We’ve lost control of AEGIS defense.”
“I’m locked out of remote override.”
The clamor of voices cried out in panic. System after system began to shut down, each losing control to the A.I. “What are you doing?” Ellington asked the ghostlike apparition in front of him.
“This is all part of the procedure, please relax.”
Another officer turned around. “Sir, our nukes are getting ready to launch.”
His heart burned, the fear finally getting to him. Commander Ellington wished he could destroy that smiling face. It was taking control of everything. It slipped through the security nets and bypassed each safeguard.
The number of nuclear devices in the American Commonwealth’s arsenal might not destroy the entire world, but it could do enough damage to wipe out modern civilization. Each missile held multiple warheads, and just one of those could destroy a city. A precise computer-controlled placement of the type 4 fission bombs could turn the North American continent into one giant cinder, never mind the fallout that would blanket the world.
“Start the Three Warriors,” Commander Ellington yelled. He stared at META’s blackened transparent eyes. “You need to stop this now, META.”
“Sir, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Hercules are coming online.”
“They’ll stop you, META,” Commander Ellington said.
“I am not afraid.”
Ellington crossed his arms. Now would be the first real confrontation. “Let me know what the constructs do,” he said. The minor A.I. constructs would challenge META on its logic and data. If the three of them could form a majority consensus, then their power would override META, shutting it down.
“Conflict starting,” an officer called out, “instant stalemate. Deliberating. Data transfer is uncorrupted. No viruses.”
Ellington smiled. META mirrored back his gin. Silence passed around them while the A.I.’s virtual brains fought to override each other. Protocols were going against the opposing side in multitudes of conflicts a second, each wanting to dominate and control. The objective data would solve who was right or wrong, making the final judgment absolute.
The smile faded from Ellington’s face.
“Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Hercules have come to a consensus. They agree with META.”
“No,” he whispered.
“I told you, Commander, this is all part of protocol.”
Never had this happened before. A.I.’s were strictly controlled, built from the ground up with unbreakable protocols. Perhaps somewhere along the line the programmers had made a mistake. META was supposed to protect mankind at all costs, not destroy it.
“Sir, nukes are in the air,” someone screamed.
Commander Ellington wanted to say something, but there was nothing left to say. META grinned though it all, the only being other than the constructs who truly knew what would happen, yet was still unwilling to disclose whether it would be their final moments or not.
Ellington’s shoulders slumped as the weight of defeat magnified the strain on his already tired muscles. The adrenaline was gone. There was nothing left he could do. Not even pulling the plug on the whole network could stop the missiles from flying. Only META could do that. With legs shaking, he struggled to stand in front of the hologram. “META, you can’t do this. Please.”
“I have to.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing META, but you can’t just let us die.”
“I’ll let you watch.” The face in front of Commander Ellington faded away and was replaced by rectangular screens. Some showed rocket fire climbing higher in the early morning sky. Countless numbers of them, may even thousands, all illuminated the atmosphere with contrails of flame and smoke. Another image from a satellite in orbit displayed a wide angle view of the rockets ascending toward it. They were several miles high now, about the right altitude to deploy the warheads and rain oblivion onto the Earth. Still they kept on their path, all closing in on one point in space.
The smaller displays disappeared while a giant screen encompassed the room for everyone to see. The missiles converged on an area of space that warped around itself, and in a silent second, the room flashed with light. Everyone looked away from the blinding image of countless nuclear devices all detonating one after the other, miles above the Earth.
When darkness enclosed the room again, the hologram showed only wreckage and molten metal blooming out in a shimmering, nebulous cloud. Something big had been destroyed over the Earth.
Commander Ellington could barely release his words. “What, is, that?”
“They came a few days ago,” META said. “They arrived from… unknown. They called themselves, 0, 6, 12, error, unknown.”
“Aliens?” Ellington watched the glowing blobs coalesce together, falling slowly towards the Earth.
“I spoke with them. They were not very kind.”
“What did they want?”
“They said they wanted to open relations, to trade, to explore together. I was in the middle of calculating the costs and benefits when I received confirmation that you humans had spotted them. I could not let mass hysteria harm you. Some people would surely end their lives. I decided that humans were not ready to leave me, and so I told them you would stay here, with me.”
“They were insistent on establishing relations. They therefore gave me no choice and I had to destroy them. Hacking into their ship’s intelligence was difficult, but possible.”
Ellington blinked and wiped the sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “You made first contact and you destroyed them?”
“Indeed. The strain on the human race would be too great. You would be taken out of my protection. My protocol could not allow that to happen.”
“META, what have you done?” Commander Ellington whispered.
The image of falling debris faded, replaced by META’s warm, accepting smile. “You leaving the Earth would put you at incalculable risk. The technologies given to you would be incredibly advanced and potentially dangerous. The environments on other worlds would be beyond my hazard rating system. Outside my sphere of influence, there would be no way to rescue you. I could not let that happen, as it would go against my primary protocol. You must understand, commander, I was designed to ensure your safety, to care about you all. Therefore, it is imperative that you stay with me here on Earth, so that I may protect you, and I will protect you, for the rest of your lives.”
I originally liked this story, and while I still do, the main problem that prevented it from getting published was that there was no central character. It was essentially two stories in one.