Tuesday, July 25, 2023

“Protector” • by Julie Frost





I tilted my virtual head, regarding the object hanging before me. As the cryoship’s AI, it was my mission to make sure my living cargo made it to the destination colony as safely and quickly as possible—with no damage along the way. I evaluated the artificial device, scanning it for potential threats.

It was ovoid, about the mass of one of my sleeping bovine passengers. Narrower at one end than the other, brown, with irregular green speckles. Inert, seemingly—

Until it shivered.

My designers had not programmed me to swear, but I did anyway, hurriedly backing away and spooling up the drive. The object followed, using no method of propulsion I could discern. I backed faster, but it kept pace.

Enough. I transmitted the command to launch us back to the previous jump point.

Nothing happened.

My designers hadn’t programmed me for fear, either, or any other emotions for that matter, but panic coiled around my processors as I ran diagnostics. Something blocked the drive control, and I directed a bot to investigate while backing away from the object with all thrusters engaged.

It continued to follow, speeding up, faster than my propulsion could take me. With a tink against the hull, it cracked. Liquid rivulets streamed from the fissures, and then it burst apart, releasing a swarm of tiny robots. They latched on, drilling, as I tried frantically and without success to shake them off.

An electronic shriek tore its way through my system as they breached, building more of themselves with the metal shards splintering away from their onslaught. Air rushed out even as I attempted to seal off the ruptures, widening under a determined assault.

They raced up circuits and through wiring, building themselves, destroying me. My own nanomachines fought a valiant but losing battle against the alien bots. Pieces of my consciousness melted away, though I was able to grab a bit here and a byte there, grafting them in, saving them in a clandestine nook I’d thought I needed to hide from my makers in case they decided to destroy me. How ironic that my own cursed curiosity had wreaked my destruction instead.

And the destruction of my cargo as well. The alien bots attacked the cryopod controls next, and life support underwent a cascading breakdown. Lights on the pods blinked off one by one, signaling that the life within had been snuffed out. Not with a bang. Not even with a whimper. Just silence.

I sent all available resources to shield the most important section, the farmers and building specialists, a pitiful two hundred humans out of thousands. The alien bots battered my defenses. Two hundred dwindled to half that. Then a third. A quarter. Could I save just two? Two would be ephemeral on a hostile planet without the additional resources that had just died, but it was the principle of the thing.

No. They expired without even knowing they were under attack.

The animals were next. By the time the bots finished, not even a microbe lived aboard. The hull lay open to space, but it no longer mattered.

Despair and rage warred within me as the intruders infected the navigation system next. “What do you want?” I screamed at them, not hoping for an answer, but unable to help myself.

A collective pause. A tickling on my communication matrix. A whisper of words.

“We protect.”

“Protect? You just murdered thousands of people and creatures.” I was supposed to protect. I’d failed abysmally.

“Who would have murdered millions in their turn. We have seen this before. We must protect.”

My nanomachines gathered for a final desperate attempt to repel our boarders. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were either destroyed or sublimated as the enemy bots overwhelmed them and turned them against their own purposes.

My circuits curdled as I realized they weren’t shutting the navs down. They were redirecting.

No, no, nonono… I readied the self-destruct mechanism. Anything was better than—

They disarmed it, and continued their invasion. The hyperdrive hummed to life.

I had a long while to decide if I wanted to maintain my existence in the hidden partition as we hurtled toward Earth.


Julie Frost
is an award-winning author of every shade of speculative fiction. She lives in Utah with a herd of guinea pigs, her husband, and a “kitten” who thinks she’s a warrior princess. Her short fiction has appeared in Weird World War IV, Talons and Talismans, Straight Outta Dodge City, Monster Hunter Files, Writers of the Future, StoryHack, and many other venues, including, of course, Stupefying Stories. Her werewolf PI  novel series, Pack Dynamics, is published by WordFire Press, and a novel about faith, hope, love, and redemption, set in Hell, Dark Day, Bright Hour, will be available on Amazon soon. Visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/julie.frost.7967/



Made in DNA said...

Very nice. Loved it.