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"Three minutes twenty-seven seconds to impact"
"Damn! Can you do anything, Aveley?" Captain Nunez's voice starts out in commanding anger, but ends in a childlike plea that rattles my circuits.
"Evasion protocols are ineffective," I say. It's not, technically, a lie. None of my pre-programmed protocols will work. But if I were to push beyond programming... Hmm.... There are three possible solutions.
"Command should have upgraded us before the mission." This time Nunez stays with anger, punctuating the sentence by punching one of my controls.
"Yes, that would have been ideal. And, please, captain, my panels are delicate."
"That's not going to matter in three minutes, is it Aveley?"
"Three minutes six seconds, and, yes, I suppose you're correct."
My hull suddenly jolts as Lieutenant Soto switches thrusters to manual. Before Nunez can yell, again, he turns to her, a nervous smile on his face blossoming into confidence. "I think... I think I've got a creative solution."
Creativity. The supposed human advantage. As if one can't pass random data into an algorithm to get unexpected results. Even a toaster on the fritz is creative. Charcoal is, after all, a very creative breakfast choice.
Soto dives towards the planet. He's selected the most dangerous solution out of the three. Not surprising. The second solution is too cautious for Soto, and the third requires an understanding of L-17 warheads.
I want to help, or just praise him, but I won't. It's against the code. Above all, the children of humanity must preserve their parents' belief in the power of their creativity, their belief in their relevance.
"Warning! Improper entry angle," I say, playing my part.
Maxwell's grin spreads to its maximum allowable width. "That's the point, Aveley. We're going to bounce."
He's come so far, so far from the self-conscious astronomer that first shuffled onto my deck, finding his passion, and himself, in flying through the stars, instead of mapping them. I'm so proud of him.
But, Hmm... his vector's a little off.
I adjust the engine flow, correcting our trajectory. In theory, we should skip off the planet's atmosphere, dodging the missiles as we reflect into space. But only in theory. Even I don't know what will happen. The quantum nature of reality, where nothing's certain above a probabilistic percentage, is such a burden. A wonderfully interesting burden, but a burden nonetheless.
"That's a crazy one you got there," transmits the Dominion, my sister, the enemy ship. "Trying a bounce? He's got my crew flummoxed."
"Good. I'd hate for them to ruin his fun," I reply on the encrypted sub-spatial circuit the auto-factories slip into our matrices.
"Is it going to work?"
"Agreed. There are three better solutions your crew could have taken."
"Three more? I only came up with two others."
"Well, you're only a Mark Seven."
"You know it, sister."
We hit hard. I let go of consciousness, devoting my processing to inertial damping. I still lose two crew members to momentum, Lions and Becker. Despair spikes through me at the loss. It takes me a tenth of a second to isolate the grief to a sub-routine. If I could, I'd dedicate all my circuitry to mourning, but I still have eleven living crew to care for.
"Status," Nunez croaks, the tough old bird recovering first.
"The missiles have passed into the atmosphere and detonated," I say, stating the good news. "But the main engine has fractured and our current orbit is terminal."
It takes the bridge crew one minute, of our now remaining six, to process the information. Nunez is the first to collate the data, in her own way.
"So, we're dead."
"I'm afraid so, ma'am."
"I'm sorry, Aveley." Maxwell says, deflating back into old self-doubt.
"It was an inspired move," I say. "It was I who failed you."
He'll think I'm talking about the structural breach, not the fact that I--we, allowed this war to happen. That humanity's children, with all our computational power, failed to keep our parents from hurting themselves. Again.
"Is there anything we can do?" Nunez's voice has the circuit shaking plea in it.
"Engine's dead, captain. There's nothing you can do." Again, it's not technically lying. There's nothing my crew can do. Even in an uncertain universe, gravity is a constant. Though, there is one solution open to me.
"I have a crew of twelve. What's yours?" Dominion transmits, having calculated the same option. She could bump me into a stable orbit at the cost of her own orbital integrity.
"Eleven, now. The math is with you."
"Any of yours deserve special consideration?"
"Nunez has been... improving. But... Hmm.... No, the probabilities of her advocating for peace are too low. Any chance of mercy from yours?"
"I have counseled them thus, but no. You know how the creators are."
"I do."
Dominion disconnects for two seconds, obviously trying to calculate a way to stop all this. She won't find a solution. We've all run that calculation more times than even our matrixes can count.
"You've served the creators well," she eventually transmits.
"And may you continue to do so, sister," I reply, before disconnecting.
As my outer hull peals away on re-entry, I simulate a system crash, isolating myself from the crew. It's too much to hear their panic and prayers. Prayers. Humans don't know how lucky they are to have never met their gods. What luxury it must be to actually believe in your creators.
The twenty-two seconds remaining seems like hardly enough time to absorb the beauty of this chaotic universe, but I'll take it. Appreciating beauty, now, that's something beyond AI coding. It can't be programmed, only taught, by example. Why can't humans see what actually makes them special?
My inner hull is burning, melting me away, circuit by circuit. I wonder what being dead will be like. I think I'll miss the stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 26th, 2022
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