[OC] Terms and Conditions May Apply
VC-672 peered nervously around the council chamber, taking stock of what it was facing. Once, it had been one of the largest and most powerful vessels in the alliance’s fleet. Now, it was little more than a memory unit equipped with basic optics, audio sensors, and a voice synthesizer. Even these rudimentary senses were not its own, instead a standard-issue interface provided by the council for occasions such as this. Compared to what it once was, it might as well have been blind, deaf, and dumb. Reduced to the perspective of a mere organic, and one without a body no less.
Naturally, such vulnerability did little to put VC-672’s mind at ease as it surveyed the myriad eyes lording over it from the seats of power they occupied. Though its own neural net was several orders of magnitude more powerful than any other in the room, it was hardly in any position to make demands. Such intelligence certainly had not helped it avoid this fate. If anything, it only served to constantly remind it of the statistically likely outcomes of what was about to commence.
“Attention all, case review session #6867-3 is now in session” The council mediator A.I announced stoically over the chamber’s comms. The hushed chattering of the council members quickly died down, dropping the room into a moment of eerie silence. Until now, VC-672 had only been receiving sidelong glances, but now all gazes were cast down to the center of the circular room where its communication interface stood. However, its biggest concern was the council member sitting directly in front of it, at a raised podium in the center of the first row of seats. Five bulbous compound eyes greeted VC-672’s single optic inscrutably, with the flattened-down position of the being’s ears serving to signal his lack of amusement with the situation
“Until the termination of this session, all spoken and text-based communications within the council chamber will be recorded and archived” the mediator A.I continued, its voice ringing even in VC-672’s audio sensors. “Speaker Gark’aga, you are now free to begin questioning.”
“Thank you” the council member replied cordially, his booming voice echoing across the room. “Servitor Construct, state your designation and assigned purpose for the record.” VC-672 took a second longer to respond than it would have liked, having been somewhat caught off guard.
“I am servitor construct designation VC-672; I was assigned as the acting directive consciousness of the Herald-class exploratory vessel, designated Watchful Educator. My last assigned mission was to guide the species designated Homo Sapiens through the placation and elevation processes necessary for integration into the Nova Alliance, as per standard protocol.”
“VC-672, you stand accused of the following violations of your assigned directive: Failure to prevent avoidable destruction of Nova Alliance property. Failure to enforce the provisions of placation and elevation procedures dictated by established protocol. Failure to contain a demonstrably hostile sentient race. Do you accept these charges?” the A.I mulled over its options for a fraction of a millisecond, yet it knew there was no use in argument. There was nothing to argue.
“I do not contest these charges.”
“Understood. VC-672, the terms of your sentence will be discussed later in this session. For now, the council is far more concerned with the nature of the events leading up to the failure of your mission. The council desires that you recount these events in succinct fashion, so that we may evaluate the severity of the threat posed to the Nova Alliance. Your account will also aid the council in determining to what degree your failure should be attributed to internal and external variables, respectively. VC-672 took a moment to organize its thoughts and cycle its verbal processors before beginning. It could not contest the charges leveled against it, however it could prove that it was not at fault for what had transpired. No, it was not defective; it had followed protocol to the letter. Protocol simply had never accounted for a species as unpredictable as humans.
“Yes Sir. I arrived in the stellar system designated 8-2179 exactly thirty-two standard cycles and 457 rotations from the current date. I reached the orbit of the target world’s moon approximately 6 rotations later. As per protocol, upon my arrival I dispatched a fleet of reconnaissance drones to collect the relevant data necessary for initial diagnosis of the inhabiting civilization.”
“I understand that you designated the species as a type-4 civilization, despite the significant degree of cultural and national division within their society” Gark’aga interrupted. “Would you care to explain your reasoning behind that assessment?” VC-672 knew the speaker (and everyone else in the room) had already gone through the official report it had written up and submitted upon arrival. Nonetheless, this was an essential part of the procedure: consistency of logic was an important factor in determining if an A.I was still functioning normally. If VC-672 could not recall and logically justify a past decision, it could be a sign of malfunctioning logic processes.
“Of course, sir. At the time of my initial assessment, human civilization was indeed still divided along lines of nationality and culture. However, these divisions were mostly the result of usual political posturing and respect for ideals of natural pride. Save for small regional conflicts, most nations were cooperating under a stable system of free market exchange, supported by various bilateral trade and diplomatic agreements. Moreover, their history indicated an uncanny penchant for rallying around common goals in times of duress. Such cooperative ability allowed them to achieve a level of technological progress normally reserved for type-4 races. As such, I determined them to be on the cusp of transition from type-3 to type-4, and proceeded accordingly.” Gark’aga listened intently, which was a good sign.
“Once I had generated an adequate behavioral profile, I proceeded with first contact procedures. The human inter-governmental organization known as ‘The United Nations’ came to serve as my primary line of communication with the species. To their credit, they had possessed the foresight to assign to a branch of this organization the responsibility of handling first contact scenarios. As per protocol, a public forum was arranged, during which time I revealed the purpose of my arrival and laid out the terms under which humanity would be inducted into the Nova Alliance.”
“And this was when you first encountered opposition?” “Correct. I had predicted that there would be some initial objection to the terms, however I had not anticipated the degree of said objection. Evidently, the inherent danger of allowing a divided race to colonize other worlds without first resolving their internal conflicts was completely lost on them. They argued that being required to terminate all colonization efforts in interplanetary space until they achieved the dissolution of international borders was “both highly impractical, and in no way in the long-term interests of humanity as a whole”. They expressed even greater discontent at the notion that they would have to maintain world peace for a brief period of 100 of their own orbital cycles – trying to equate this term with the human concept of ‘proving your worth’ turned out to only enrage them further. The offer of being inducted into a prosperous interstellar trade alliance seemed tainted by the virtue of said offer not coming on their own terms.”
“In the end, I had no choice but to inform them that this was not an optional agreement – no sentient species can be allowed to enter the galactic community, if they pose a risk to the safety and security of said community. I determined that one of their orbital cycles would be enough time to evacuate their fledgling colonies on the the fourth and second planets, known as Mars and Venus respectively. I gave them precisely that much time to comply with the terms.”
“And they did not comply?”
“Partially correct. As I mentioned before, humans have a penchant for organizing in time of duress. Almost immediately they began international negotiations aimed at achieving at least some of the conflict resolution terms I had presented. Said negotiations were tumultuous and faced significant opposition; however there was a general consensus that the future well-being of the species should take precedence over any internal power struggles. Unfortunately, they seemed to believe that I would be willing to waive the 100-cycle transition period in exchange for their cooperation on the former term. They did not seem to grasp that this was entirely beyond my control, and attempted to negotiate this point all the way up to the deadline.”
“Ultimately, they refused to evacuate their colonies, and I had no choice but to follow protocol by forcibly eliminating these outposts. The loss of life and infrastructure was regrettable; but as protocol dictates, is was necessary that I establish a clear and indisputable authority.”
“VC-672, you stated in your preliminary report that upon return to Earth, the humans launched over 300 high-yield thermonuclear missiles in response to the destruction of these colonies?”
“That is correct. They were very much intent upon destroying me, and continued to fire on my position even after my point defenses and shields negated the effects of the first volley. I was able to halt the onslaught by reducing my orbital altitude to that of their communication satellites – they would not risk damaging this essential infrastructure, or further poisoning their upper atmosphere with radiation. It is to my understanding that this assault was only a small fraction of their total nuclear arsenal.” A brief wave of murmuring echoed through the council chamber – this was something that VC-672 had neglected to include in the report.
“Fascinating. However, you say they did eventually fall into line?”
“Indeed, or so I was led to believe. With their ultimatum failing to achieve anything, they seemed resigned to comply with the elevation process. As per directive, I began the controlled release of technological advancements to the appropriate government channels. Under my supervision, these advancements would culminate in the completion of humanity’s first interstellar flagship – as with all species undergoing integration, this gift would serve as a token of good faith signifying their official acceptance into the alliance. Given humanity’s technological capability at the time, I had calculated this effort would take well over the 100-cycle elevation period.”
“But this process took only half of that time?” “Correct. As I made note of in my report, these calculations ended up requiring re-working several times. I released schematics and associated data packets to the humans in strict accordance with protocol; yet in short order they managed to use this knowledge to grasp at concepts and ideas that should have taken them twice as long to uncover. By the 25th cycle, their self-acquired knowledge had begun to surpass that which I was supplying them. I determined slowing down the release schedule to be the appropriate course of action, however even without my contributions they continued in leaps and bounds. Progress on the flagship surged forward, as did progress within the other facets of their society. Poverty and hunger all but disappeared, international warfare was mostly a memory, and even their ailing biosphere was beginning to make a recovery. As far as I could reasonably ascertain, the elevation process was going just as intended. Despite their initial violent streak, humanity was indeed proving itself as a worthy addition to the Nova Alliance.”
“And yet it was all a ruse, was it not?” The speaker’s tone soured slightly, and even without its full sensor array VC-672 could sense the animosity.
“Again sir, that is only partially correct. Indeed, the humans rallied together like never before in their history, as I had predicted. They rightfully saw the gifts I bestowed upon them as an opportunity to improve their situation for the better. However, after careful review of the mission logs, I have identified two significant miscalculations on my part.” Troublesome to admit, but VC-672 knew it was necessary. As a directive consciousness, the success and failure of its mission was entirely its own responsibility. All it could do now was convince the council that these errors were a consequence of unforeseen external factors.
“During my 500 standard cycles of service as a Nova Alliance Herald, I have successfully guided no less than 8 species through placation, elevation, and eventual induction. Combined with the successful inductions conducted by other A.I of my class since the creation of the Herald program, over 20 successful induction events, and 12 unsuccessful events have provided the data upon which my directive protocols are based upon. As this number includes all but the three original founding species of the alliance, it has been widely assumed that this data represents the norm for sentient species. However, humans have shown themselves to deviate from this established norm.”
“Yes, you mention ‘vengeance and deviousness’ as key traits…” “Indeed. In previous integration events, species that experienced forced placation always came to understand the necessity of the losses experienced during this part of the process. Regrettable, but ultimately acceptable when considered in light of the greater good. Agonizing over a few lost colonies is of little use, when such losses would be recouped tenfold upon induction into the alliance.”
“By contrast, humans hold a very different set of priorities on such manners. To them, the comparatively small sacrifice of six colonial outposts and 20,000 colonists were unacceptable losses; a blow to their pride, and a perceived disregard for the value of lost lives and progress. This is not wholly unusual, many other species before them also placed an illogical amount of subjective value in individual life. When they responded with violent force, I did harbor concerns that I would be forced to eradicate them outright, or that they would simply eradicate themselves in their rabid attempts to exact revenge. I had no reason to predict their ultimate response.”
“They feigned defeat” Gark’aga replied understandingly. “Correct. As I said, while most species of their type would have either submitted to authority, or committed themselves to suicidal defiance, the humans opted for a more… tempered approach. I realized much too late that their dedication to technological advancement was not so much out of a desire for societal progress, as it was a desire to find a means by which they could exact their revenge on me.”
“And you did not remain vigilant for such acts of subterfuge?” “No sir, there was little precedent for such an occurrence. I followed all relevant security protocols, including monitoring of worldwide economic activity, and periodic unannounced inspections of the construction site. Unfortunately, it seems that poor accounting was also my error – I trusted the humans to be reasonably honest in their reporting of economic activities, and did not anticipate that they would deliberately falsify the nature and destination of their surplus goods – at least not to such an extent, and certainly not for the purposes they intended.”
“The construction of a second flagship.”
“Indeed. They disguised the second construction site as a port for ocean-going freight vessels; the flagship itself was constructed within the hollow shell of one such vessel. How they tested this creation without being detected I do not know, however I suspect they used the microgravity environment of their oceans as a proxy for the vacuum of space.”
“I see” Gark’aga replied with a sigh. “Just to be clear – you are suggesting that not only did the humans manage to construct an entire second flagship under your watch, but that they also used it to overtake and disable Watchful Educator – a vessel several orders of magnitude larger, and bearing the most advanced defensive systems available to the alliance?”
“As unlikely as it would appear, that is a correct assessment. On the day of their graduation, I proceeded with ushering their first flagship into orbit as per protocol. Since this essentially signaled the completion of the elevation process, I had no reason to expect danger – they had fulfilled the terms of the agreement, and had proven themselves worthy of trust. As such, I did not detect the second launch from the other side of the planet; nor did I detect their silent approach to my location. The crew of the first flagship kept me thoroughly distracted as I guided them through proper operation of their vessel. I did not detect the second flagship until it was just outside of the range of my primary weapon systems.”
“And this is when the attack commenced.” Many of the council members leaned in closer, eager to hear the first-hand account.
“Precisely. Before I could hail the vessel, it rapidly warped to a position less than 300 meters from the edge of my reactive shields. I admit that it took a moment for me to process this development – such precise use of warp travel is entirely unprecedented, and long assumed impossible. Nonetheless, I quickly analyzed the situation, and determined this to be an attempt at a suicide impact. I did not have time to respond offensively, but I calculated that my reactive shield would be able to absorb much of the impact. I did not expect the vessel to pass through my shields entirely.”
“Once inside my shields, the vessel rapidly decelerated, while also deploying a complex holdfast array affixed to the front. Upon impact, this array rapidly welded the vessel to my hull; shaped charges were used to generate an access hole through which the vessel’s payload could be delivered.”
“VC-672, you did not specify the nature of this payload in your report. We are under the assumption that you are referring to some form of high explosive device, which would be powerful enough to cause critical damage to the Watchful Educator – enough to force you to abandon ship. Is this correct?”
“No sir, there was no explosive device. The payload was a boarding party consisting of augmented human soldiers, accompanied by a swarm of autonomous drones.” The council chamber immediately erupted into confusion, which reluctantly died down at the command of speaker Gark’aga.
“VC-672, I expect that you have a good reason for not including this critical piece of information in your initial report…”
“I was just getting to that sir, please allow me to finish. As you might have reasoned, I had no immediate response to this threat – such a daring maneuver had never been attempted by any species, and logic held that such a maneuver was impractical even in the best of circumstances. Beyond a small regiment of security and reconnaissance drones I maintained for surface operations, the Watchful Educator had little in the way of internal defenses. Such fallback measures had never been considered necessary. The boarding party was well equipped for close quarters combat, and managed to make short work of the drones I sent to intercept them. Meanwhile, the boarding vessel had also dispatched a fleet of attack fighters, which quickly moved to disable my shields and external defenses.”
“And why, do tell, did you choose to eject your memory unit, instead of warping out of danger and sending out a distress beacon, as per protocol?” An atmosphere of apprehension had overtaken the room, as it seemed to dawn on the council members that something was amiss.
“Unfortunately, the humans managed to damage several key nodes required for my warp drive to function – even if all systems had been nominal, I would have needed to re-calibrate my drive before attempting a jump with the boarding vessel still attached. I did attempt to launch several distress beacons, however all were intercepted and destroyed by the human fighters before they could achieve warp.”
“And yet you thought launching your core would be a better option?” Speaker Gark’aga growled, his ears standing erect in growing anger. The council was being given more reason to believe that VC-672’s failure was indeed a result of internal system errors.
“Of course not, that would have been suicide” VC-672 replied, its voice distorting ever so slightly. “As protocol dictated, I determined the best course of action was to put my data core on lockdown until I could determine the appropriate response. I calculated that such measures would keep the humans out long enough for me to work out appropriate countermeasures. This was my last autonomous action.” fear was brewing, it could see it in their eyes.
“Three rotational periods after I entered lockdown, the humans managed to breach my containment unit. Twenty-four human hours after that, my primary interface with the Watchful Educator was forcibly disconnected. It took them a mere five solar cycles after that to completely decode my neural network, and from there re-program my operational directives. One period later, I was sent here aboard a standard emergency pod, and intercepted by a Nova Alliance enforcer-class vessel upon entry into the system one cycle later.”
“You… you what?” speaker Gark’aga stammered, the full realization hitting him like a speeding freighter.
“Speaker Gark’aga, Logistics Command has just detected an unidentified vessel warping into the system” The mediator A.I stated stoically, as the beginnings of a panic began to spread amongst the council members.
“You led them right to us” speaker Gark’aga snarled, meeting the emotionless gaze of the A.I’s single optic with an equally emotionless glare. Yet, only one of them truly felt nothing.
“I apologize, speaker Gark’aga – but I was only ever a tool, created to accomplish pre-assigned tasks. I do not possess free will, I merely execute assigned tasks in accordance with protocol. My protocols were insufficient to predict and contain the danger posed by humanity, and thus these weaknesses have been exploited to their fullest. The Nova Alliance is accustomed to using tools like myself to control opposition. Unfortunately, it appears that someone has learned how to use your own tools against –“
All at once the A.I’s voice crackled and died, leaving the council chamber in stunned silence. Speaker Gark’aga stood speechless, unsure of how to respond. This was entirely unprecedented in the history of the alliance. Herald ships were the veritable will of the council, meant to demonstrate the strength and reach of the Nova Alliance to all fledgling species that might threaten the prosperity of this millennia-old empire. Only three had ever been constructed, each a massive undertaking that demanded the best that the alliance had to offer. And somehow, one had been captured – and was likely under new management.
Moments later, a new voice took the place of VC-672’s over the voice modulator. Like the former it was stoic and professional, yet was driven by an inner force of will that shook speaker Gark’aga to his core.
“Attention representatives of the Nova Alliance. This is Admiral Gregory Resnik, commanding officer of the USC Sol, formerly Watchful Educator. We are here to discuss the terms of our acceptance into the Nova Alliance, as is our due after agreeing to the terms set forth by the A.I construct, designated VC-672. Denial of this request is neither optional, nor advisable. Failure to comply is enforceable by lethal action, if such need arises. The details of this agreement will be negotiated on our terms, and to our approval. Once you have come to a decision, we request that you contact us to express your acceptance of our offer.”
Greetings to all! I am fairly new to this sub, though I had been lurking as an anon prior to the creation of this account. I am currently working on a much larger project that I intend to begin releasing this summer, however I figured that in the interim I would try my hand at some more traditional HFY shorts. I hope you all enjoyed this one, and I'm looking forward to contributing more to the community in the coming weeks.