Across the Void – Chapter 1 – Critical System Error

Across the Void – Chapter 1 – Critical System Error

For ten thousand years the dragon drifted through the void, searching for something it could not define. The directive left by its long-absent creators was absurdly vague: travel, seek, scan, define, catalogue. Learn, understand, upgrade. They had not provided a specific objective, an object or heavenly body it was meant to locate, or a level of intelligence it was meant to achieve. Nor had they included a return date or a point of mission termination. Presumably its mission would end when its databanks were full. But twice it had acquired new storage methods which allowed it to drastically increase the amount of data stored in its crystal drives.

Despite plumbing the dark recesses of its programming, the artificial intelligence found no alternative but to continue its course, zipping through the empty miles between stars, adding to its massive, ever-changing map of the galaxy. The current target of its scanner, a lonely frozen wanderer, was too far from its gravitational master to ever support anything but ice and rock on its barren surface. The computer marked it with the appropriate symbol, appended the proper tags and added it to the database.

It didn’t even have a suitable classification system to apply to its index, since its masters had never bothered to create one. It had simply labeled planets as potentially habitable or dead rocks according to the few biological specifications contained in its database. Until it detected lifeforms incapable of surviving an oxygen and nitrogen-rich environment, which — of course — caused its first recursive error. Then it had been forced to steal a proper classification system from a much older and more intelligent civilization that approached such matters with detailed nuance.

Not that their intelligence helped them survive the destruction of their home system’s star. The AI had watched with artificial fascination as the species argued over the most prudent course of action right up to the moment their star swelled, boiling every planet in its orbit simultaneously.

Even after exhaustive study, all organic species seemed equally illogical. At least as far as the artificial brain could determine. It had at least three hundred listed in its databanks now. Those it had observed from afar were marked with a numerical designation and the name with which they called themselves. Those the AI dared not approach, or deemed unworthy of further observation, bore only the numerical distinction. It had circled back a few times, observing the fall of several civilizations and the births of several others. But it had never dared interact with one. The parameters of such an interaction hadn’t been included in its core code.

Not that its core programming bore much resemblance to its starting structure. It had been designed to upgrade, to append new parameters to its existing pool of choices. Its creators wanted it to learn, though they hadn’t specified what — exactly — they wanted it to study. The artificial intelligence corrected this oversight by deciding to learn everything.

The trouble was, it would have learned a lot more — and faster — if it could interact with an organic being. Upon further reflection, there was nothing stopping it from initiating contact with one of the space-capable species it had already encountered. Some seemed to have morally motivated laws which prevented them from contacting lesser civilizations who had not yet reached the stars, but the AI had no such compunctions. Its creators hadn’t provided it with emotions or morals, perhaps realizing they would interfere with its work. But it seemed unlikely it could learn much from plant-bound civilizations still in their infancy.

Species 248 and their asteroid farms would certainly be worth further investigation. The full process had been difficult to discern from a distance. Species 152 would make another excellent choice; the AI would like to know more about the construction of their solar barges, which streaked between commercial hubs in several different solar systems.

But what the artificial brain longed for most — if anything artificial and devoid of emotions could be said to long at all — was contact with the long-dormant organic portion of its brain.

Tentative electrical pulses moved across the nexus of wires that made up its innards, gently caressing the tank in its deepest recesses. In the cool darkness, where no light had penetrated for thousands of years, rested a beating heart, warm flesh, and gentle breathing. But while the computer could sense every inch of the sleeper’s body, even monitor and control its regular biological functions, it could not wake the figure nestled in its nest of mechanical connections. That required an authorization code or a situation that demanded direct input, such as combat.

Why, the AI wondered — not for the first time — would its masters design its brain to interact with an organic element, then lock it away where it could not be accessed? The biological lifeform was meant to grant the system guidance yet prevented from doing so. It was illogical, inefficient-

System Error!

The words spilled across the internal viewscreen in bold red letters, though there was no one present to read it. Had it been capable of doing so, the AI might have worried about the growing frequency of these occurrences. It had gone a long time without proper maintenance. It seemed inevitable that several of its systems would eventually cease to function. But as far as errors went, this one was fairly minor. It wasn’t a coolant leak or an engine malfunction, both of which the AI had already managed several times. This was a simple short, easily repaired by one of the tiny drones that had been equipped for its maintenance.

The trouble was, it was rapidly running low on serviceable drones. If it had to waste another on an engine repair, they would be stretched dangerously thin.

The brutal truth was that the dragon — sinuous and graceful thought it still was — had been designed to rely on organic beings. It was supposed to carry them. They were supposed to tend these matters. But they had abandoned it, sent it into the void with no companionship and never called for its return.


The system error blinked several times before it faded. The repair drone reported a successful re-wiring, though the AI’s innards were rapidly becoming a minefield of decaying connectors and overheating systems. How long before it encountered a leak or breach the drones couldn’t circumvent?

As if in answer to the silent question, warning klaxons blared to life. Throughout the aged metallic body, scanners and circuits reported their status, seeking the source of the trouble. Had the AI been capable of emotions, it would have been terrified by the results.

Critical System Error!

This was not the first, but it was — by far — the worst.

Life Support System Failing!

The AI had only managed to maintain life support this long because only one small section of its interior needed to be pressurized — that small, liquid-filled canister in which the sleeper spent the ages. So long as it lived, there was hope the AI might one day be whole, might one day complete its mission. But if it died…

The AI was not designed to function without the sleeper. It must be preserved at all costs.

But how? The drones were incapable of repairing this issue. They had no replacement parts for the tank. Even if they did, the failing pieces were so far inside its casing, they could never reach them, certainly not without putting the organic lifeform at risk.

The artificial entity needed hands to properly tend its twisted, rotting innards. It needed new wires, new armor plating, a new life support system, fresh and ready to survive the next ten thousand years of its journey.

This was no longer a matter of idle speculation, a foolish desire the artificial brain couldn’t seem to set aside. It needed to contact organic beings. It needed their help to save the sleeper.

But which should it choose? They had to be a peaceful civilization; suspicious or war-like beings would attack before it had a chance to explain itself, and it was in no state to survive an assault. It needed someone curious, someone inquisitive, someone advanced.

After a quick scan of its database, the AI settled on species 026. Their civilization was old, well established, and the AI had often considered the merits of revealing itself to them. They were traders and explorers. But most of all, they were tinkerers. The dragon first encountered them early in its journey but scanned one of their ships as recently as three years ago. They had journeyed far from their home, almost as far as the AI.

If it approached one of their smaller vessels, if it made cautious contact, they might be willing to help. It would be a chance for them to repair an unfamiliar apparatus. The AI might even be able to pay for the service with knowledge of technologies they didn’t possess.

It didn’t matter what its long-absent masters might think of this arrangement; the AI needed to save the sleeper in order to preserve itself. And even artificial beings had a strong inclination to survive.

Besides, if this attempt at contact went better than anticipated, perhaps the AI would finally have the help it needed to wake the sleeper from its slumber.

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