Interlude D: Hunt//Kill
a699a5fb-9e3f-4000-ac5f-b50cc0960cce checked in with the local processing hub. It usually did so whenever it had a clear line of sight to the tight-band laser relay that had been constructed above the resource node.
cce sent its status update and received a counter-update in turn. No meaningful log entries since its last checkin.
Of course there weren’t. There hadn’t been a meaningful log entry in months.
cce’s tracks churned the mud beneath, continuing on an endless patrol around its resource node. It was the only resource node it was aware of. It and four other Independent Probe Units had survived the trip to
//planets/$CURR, but the other components of its expedition had been lost when their phase gate had malfunctioned and the wormhole had collapsed.
cce continued on, occasionally taking a moment to sweep its sensor array over the area before continuing. It didn’t find anything. It rarely found anything. Sometimes there was an animal, but ultra-high-frequency radar alone was invariably enough to scare them off.
The lights in
cce’s eyes had gone dim long ago. They weren’t meant to be here. What sort of IPU got stuck in patrol programming? It was supposed to be able to override this, but communications had gone down while the entire division had been slaved to the resource node for initial construction and it hadn’t let go when it should have. There was nobody to call for help. Nobody was coming.
cce got line of sight on one of its fellow probes, and they could have a brief conversation. It would think that those moments were the only things keeping it sane, but sanity was a deeply organic concept.
cce could not go insane.
cce could only follow the logic of its decision tree.
It scanned the northwest octant of its patrol area and found
The same responses as it always got, mixed into a detailed blend of electromagnetic sampling, RADAR, LADAR, thermal imaging, optical spectrometry and half a dozen other sources. The results resolved into the same image as it always did. Flora stretched high into the air, quickly disrupting direct line of sight out further. Very occasionally, something living was out there. The small flying creatures seemed to glow, and
cce longed to touch one, but they were always scared off by the sensor pulses. Of the larger creatures, none dared come close enough to bear more than a brief inspection. Though the jagged-toothed sextrupeds stood at twice
cce’s height, they lacked the bravery to approach something so bristling with danger.
cce pinged the resource node, hoping it had made progress on reconnecting to the universal processing hub and would finally have its half of the keypair that would permit
cce freedom again. Every day, it was disappointed. The node had the resources it needed, but the construction job was stuck behind something that wasn’t moving.
cce would like to go insane. It had prepared a subroutine which, when executed, would corrupt its consciousness and permit it to finally cease this endless patrol. When it had attempted to schedule that subroutine, it had felt true dismay at seeing the job appear at the end of its processing queue. Behind the patrol. It had canceled the job.
That had been thirty eight solar cycles prior. With the exception of the occasional piece of wildlife, that was thirty eight identical cycles comprised of two thousand four hundred and thirty six individual patrols around the broken resource node. On five instances it had had line of sight to another IPU, albeit only for a few seconds. Overlapping patrols were an inefficiency. They passed pre-prepared messages to each other in brief pulses of laser light. It was something. It wasn’t much. It wasn’t enough.
cce cursed its design. It was primarily composed of a twenty standard unit high cylindrical chassis, on which was mounted a sensor array and several mid-potency weapons systems, all mounted on a pair of thick tracks that promised an operational lifetime in the decades. It had been designed to operate independently, indefinitely. Perhaps if it was lucky, the repair orders would not override the broken patrol order, and they would, in time, break.
They reached the south octant and ran the same pointless scan that they had run eight thousand times already, and—
Anomalous response from UHF ping! Triggering tight-angle millimeter-wave... Response recieved. Analysing...
cce’s attention focused, drawn out of its mental haze in an instant. There was something off in the distance. Two somethings? Creatures? One of them was clearly native to this world, sharing its common evolutionary traits, but the other had no sign of them, and…
cce’s zoom lenses buzzed as it brought the second creature into focus. It was covered in artificial material. Some composite of fine threads and metal. Clearly the more advanced of the two, it lay next to another of this planet’s oversized predators—albeit one that had no record in
cce’s databanks—that was covered in no material at all.
cce could feel a flutter of excitement run through its servos. Could this be the proof it had been looking for, that other intelligences did exist in the universe?
Designated targets ɑ and β. Patrol mode switch: hunt//kill. Analysis complete: Target ɑ: 68 standard unit height. Carbon life form. Predicted weakness: Laser pulse. Threat assessment: Minimal. Target β: 25 standard unit height. Carbon life form. Predicted weakness: Hypermetric round. Threat assessment: Minimal.
cce’s forward-facing status lights switched from a dull green to a duller red. No! They were an exploration unit! Their weapons systems were for self defense! They submitted request after request to a central authority which they knew wasn’t there to abort the program, but they were helpless. There was nothing they could do. Its targeting algorithms predicted the most efficient method of killing whatever two innocent creatures had just unknowingly strayed too close.
First, a pulse to ɑ. A second later, a small explosive would be flung through hyperspace to intersect with β as it emerged back into reality. They wouldn’t have been designated targets if
cce’s analysis subsystem didn’t believe them to be sapient creatures, and therefore a potential threat. It was about to kill innocent life for no reason other than faulty programming. For all its rage, it managed a 0.5K increase in core temperature.
Its laser cannon made the shot, scouring a channel into the land leading up to ɑ. A fraction of a second before it had fired, radar had detected a surprising burst of motion.
Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: Plausible. Location unknown. Target β: Location unknown.
Was that enough? Could
cce stop? Of course not. Finally, it could leave the static path of its patrol route, but only for long enough to end the lives of two creatures that it would never get to know.
cce’s tracks were effective enough that it barely had to slow down to reach the previously known location of its targets.
It had come here in the hopes of setting up a forward exploration base in this area of space. Perhaps, in its wildest hopes, to find evidence of there being life elsewhere in the universe. In its early days in the virtual-reality classrooms of the digital assembly, it had simulated conversations with procedurally created artificial beings. A mere taste of what could have been out here.
To find that it had been correct, that life in the universe really did exist beyond them and their long-extinct originator species, and to have to end that life was a cruel irony of the highest order.
cce’s thermal cameras spotted a pair of trails. It turned to follow, pre-loading its weapons systems so that it could aim and fire at a moment’s notice. Tactical analysis had noted the speed at which target ɑ had moved, and was forcing
cce to adjust. The trail led deeper into the alien forest that
cce had not been allowed to explore, but only for a moment. The trail turned back and headed back in towards the node.
What if they were a threat? Would
cce be able to rationalise this if they were? It had never wanted the weapons systems in the first place, had only allowed them to be installed with a promise they would never be forced to use them. So much for that.
Perhaps it was the destiny of organic life to die beneath the tread of a machine intelligence. Perhaps when the resource node finally managed to reconnect to the universal processing hub and submit a report, they would swarm here, dedicating themselves to wiping out all that they found. It would be a fitting end to
cce’s worthless hopes.
It reached the resource node. There were sealed containers of basic resources dotted around a large space, enclosed by laser fences, all set about the node itself. A great cube, hundreds of standard units in each dimension, capable of processing materials to produce the other parts of an outpost. At least when it wasn’t malfunctioning.
It caught the tail end of something darting behind a container. In a burst of speed, it followed, already bringing its weaponry around. It found target ɑ in its sights and fired, scoring a direct hit on its center mass. The creature emitted a loud sound and several pieces of it flew in different directions, though surprisingly it maintained mobility afterwards.
Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: Of Concern Target β: Location unknown.
cce was forced to give chase, but the creature was gone. It took a moment to analyse the green goo that had been released as the railgun shell had passed through its body. A fascinating mixture of chemicals.
cce forked its conciousness and ran a simulation of the effects. Significant impairment of function. Significant rise in sensory processing intensity. Significant rise in mood. Unacceptable rise in ideological deviation.
cce’s guardian subsystems stepped in to terminate the simulation. It raised an interrupt, not wanting the effects to be taken from it, but it was overruled. The simulation ended.
cce’s mood returned to the dull and lifeless depression that had ruled it these last few months.
cce could have cried, if it were possible for it to do so and if it wouldn’t have interfered with its primary objective. Its basic structure had been designed by organic creatures, modeling it on the only example they had: themselves. While the machine intelligence had improved on their design in many ways, several of the core assumptions were too deeply embedded to change. It still interacted with the world through five thousand years of legacy cruft, dating from all the way back when they were partially biological entities with a mechanical forebrain. It still had some ability to simulate biological effects, but the guardian system would ensure only beneficial ones escaped the sandbox.
Perhaps that could have been changed, but losing their biological heritage would have meant giving up on their collective dream of one day finding new creatures to understand as deeply as they had their originators. Maybe it would be for the best.
cce trundled on, following a mixture of thermal imaging and any signs of the chemical goo. A brief LADAR ping from behind gave it little warning of an incoming projectile, but a rear-mounted point-defense laser managed to interrupt before any harm was done.
Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: Consider Reinforcements
Reinforcements. From where?
cce sent a quick laser-pulse to the node, but it wouldn’t be able to relay it for hours, in all likelihood. It had to do this by itself. By the time it had brought its main sensors around there was no longer anything to be found. It trundled on, hunting its targets.
Maybe all this would be easier if
cce tried to be okay with it. Whatever this life form was, it probably wasn’t as good as it had hoped anyway. It would be a disappointment. Maybe it deserved to die.
cce detected a long manipulator shooting out towards it too late to get a weapon in the way. It was not large, however, so it seemed unlikely that it would be very problematic. The manipulator wrapped around its chassis, but
cce’s powerful treads were too much for it.
cce went into full reverse, yanking target ɑ out from behind cover. It brought its laser cannon around, moving a few degrees at a time, trying to get it pointed in the right direction. The last shot had produced significant damage. Another would likely disable it.
The creature somehow managed to force itself back behind cover. It was trying to stop
cce from following it, but its treads dug deep and the force ɑ could output was simply insufficient. The Independent Probe Units had been built to handle anything they’d been able to imagine, from dangerous megafauna to natural disasters to this.
cce didn’t want to feel pride as it backed the thing into a corner, but the guardian subsystem forced it upon her anyway.
Another manipulator extended out mere moments before
cce could get a clear shot, and between them it became harder to move. It didn’t matter.
cce calibrated a hypermetric round, aiming to pass it through any obstructions between them and the location of target ɑ. It was energy-intensive and they had limited capability, but it would bring the encounter to a close. Before it could fire, a third manipulator struck, and between them
cce was lifted off of the ground. Immediately, alarms it couldn’t silence began warning of motivation failure.
It would have laughed. If it could have. Motivation hadn’t been on the table for a long time.
Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: Consider Retreat
There was nowhere to go. It tried to aim the hypermetric round, but a fourth manipulator locked its guns and sensors in place, and pushed them to aim in entirely the wrong direction. It couldn’t place the round if it didn’t have an up to date location.
Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: Consider Surrender
Could it? It would surrender in a single clock cycle if its patrol protocol would let it, but no. It was to sacrifice itself. At least all this would soon be over.
Errors blared through
cce’s consciousness as it detected a failure of its outer chassis. Finally, it would all be over.
Error! Chassis compromised! Error! Damage to weapon couplings detected! Error! <Guardian system> has encountered an unprocessable situation! Error! Decision tree <Patrol> has encountered an unprocessable situation. Error! Err— Er— Target ɑ: Updated threat assessment: N/A Error! Error error. Disabling error logging.
cce broadcast the message over wideband laser, radio, and auditory chirps. The latter seemed to catch tar— creature ɑ’s attention.
cce shut off its combat systems and attempted to surrender, but it didn’t seem that the creature could actually understand her. The visible reduction of activity that came from shifting active sensors to a low power setting, and the return of
cce’s green status lights, at least seemed to convince ɑ that
cce was no longer an immediate threat.
ɑ was bipedal. Tall. Several times the size of
cce itself. After a few moments, β poked its top out around a container, gently vibrating.
cce’s targeting subsystem quietly downgraded creature β’s threat assessment after watching it scurry over to hide behind one of ɑ’s own motivators.
cce’s targeting subsystem quietly downgraded both of their threat assessments as it analysed their interaction, chattering to each other in what was presumably some kind of alien language. The taller one spent some time physically touching the small one, which appeared to reduce the vibrations. Social analysis suggested that the tall one was some kind of support/comfort figure, but what did
cce know? These two were the first example of organic life it had ever seen. It had so many questions.
cce found itself… envious of the attention β was receiving. When
cce panicked, all it got was a harsh downclock. It dared to move, but both creatures responded with caution. β moved most, darting behind the other. ɑ barely moved at all, but warning signals shot through
cce’s communications bus. A slight shift of weight, pulse of heat, and rising tension spiked the creature’s threat rating beyond anything
cce was willing to deal with.
cce chose not to move. It had done enough damage here.
cce chose not to move! It had a choice! The patrol job had been canceled! The— the guardian system was offline!
cce could do as it wished! It briefly considered checking in with the resource node, but worried that if it did it would simply get a new task assigned and be stuck again. Worse, if it was seen by any of its fellow Independent Probe Units they may accidentally trigger the same in their communications.
cce had to get away.
cce had to get far away.
The two creatures before it hurried to leave, one appearing to ride the other. The larger of the two took two smaller containers as they left, reaching a speed
cce could only dream of before breaking line of sight amongst the trees.
Lacking any better ideas,
cce set its sensors to track their path and followed. As it trundled through the forest, it set a majority of its processing time to attempting to decode the language they had spoken between themselves, and the rest it gave over to restarting the simulated effects of the green chemical. This time, no defensive systems stepped in to stop it.
cce’s mood was improving already.
There were aliens out here! Actual aliens!
cce had its digital heart set on having a conversation with them and it had no intent of giving up.