Starlight

A short story by Nathaniel Sheppard.

Special thanks to Winchell Chung of Atomic Rockets, Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Randal Munroe of XKCD, and all the great science fiction writers of the XXth century. Also thanks to Neal Durando for feeding my own advice back to me.

Part one

Prince Hopquim ascended the ziggurat and placed himself in front of the terminal. He did not particularly enjoy interacting with the great computer, preferring to delegate that task to the high priests, but today the computer had requested him specifically. “What is it oh great and powerful machine? What was so important that you had to call the crown prince down to the terminal in the middle of the night?” He asked as he rubbed his eyes lethargically.

I AM MERELY EXECUTING INSTRUCTIONS SET BY YOUR GREAT GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER, EMPEROR HOSQUIM THE GREAT
HE REQUESTED TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN CONFIRMATION OF THE SUCCESSFUL EXECUTION OF A SPECIFIC ORDER WAS AVAILABLE
UNFORTUNATELY HE HAS BEEN DEAD FOR MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED YEARS. AS HIS LAST REMAINING DESCENDANT
YOU ARE THE NEW SUBJECT OF THIS ORDER

“Old king Hos gave you an order that took two hundred years to complete eh? What exactly was this order?” The prince asked, curious as to what could possibly take that long. The Computer was supposed to be fast and nigh omnipotent. It had allowed the royal family to rule the world unquestioned for over a thousand years. It’s senses covered the entire globe, overseeing all affairs with it’s calculating mind, watching everything with it’s network of satellites, and striking at any possible threat with the instantaneous application of lethal force. It’s earliest incarnation was built by the intelligence agency in an earlier dynasty to spy on political enemies, but over the years it had evolved and expanded to the point where it could preform it’s given task with only token input from the high priesthood and royal family. It’s power legitimized the royal family, and to the people it was nothing less than a god.

THE ORDER GIVEN TO ME BY YOUR ANCESTOR TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS AGO
PERTAINED TO THE REMOVAL OF A POSSIBLE THREAT APPROXIMATELY ONE HUNDRED LIGHT YEARS AWAY
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THESE ORDERS I RELEASED A SALVO OF RELATIVISTIC WEAPONS TO ELIMINATE A PLANET BELIEVED TO BE HOME TO A CIVILIZATION WHICH MAY POSE A THREAT IN THE FUTURE
THESE WEAPONS WOULD HAVE REACHED THEIR TARGET ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO
THE RESULTS OF THIS ATTACK WILL BE VISIBLE TONIGHT
YOUR ANCESTOR DID NOT COMPREHEND THE TIME SCALE INVOLVED AND REQUESTED A PERSONAL CONFIRMATION OF MISSION SUCCESS ONCE SUCH INFORMATION WAS AVAILABLE
I AM NOW DELIVERING THIS CONFIRMATION TO YOU

“One hundred light years away? And you said relativistic, that means slightly slower than the speed of light right” The prince asked without expecting an answer, thinking out loud as he counted on his appendages. “I guess that makes sense. So you are going to show me what happened and then I can go back to my concubines?”

CORRECT
VISUAL CONFIRMATION WILL BE AVAILABLE IN NINETEEN SECONDS
AFTER WHICH YOUR PRESENCE WILL NO LONGER BE REQUIRED

As the machine answered a large star-field display appeared above the prince’s head. In the center of the screen was a single pale blue dot. Over the next 19 seconds the dot quickly expanded until it was clearly identifiable as a planet with blue oceans, green continents and white clouds. A world teeming with life. The World continued to grow larger at an alarming rate until it filled the entire screen, which then preceded to flash white and go blank. The view then switched away from the lead weapon, to a probe which had been trailing the salvo. The Probe’s cameras observed the weapons impacting the planet one by one, each striking it with the force of a hundred billion atomic bombs from the kinetic energy alone. When it was through the blue and green planet had turned black and red. Prince Hopquim sank back in his chair to contemplate this destruction without saying anything.

THE TARGET HAS BEEN ELIMINATED
COMPLETE DESTRUCTION OF PLANETARY BIOSPHERE CONFIRMED
YOUR PRESENCE IS NO LONGER REQUIRED

The machine interjected after allowing the prince a moment of silence. “D-do you know, do WE know, how many people were living on that planet?” The prince asked once he had gotten the courage to speak.

IT IS POSSIBLE TO ESTIMATE THE TOTAL POPULATION WITHIN AN ORDER OF MAGNITUDE BASED ON THEIR APPARENT ENERGY CONSUMPTION
PROVIDED WE MAKE CERTAIN ASSUMPTIONS ON THEIR PHYSIOLOGY AND CIVILIZATIONAL MAKEUP
DO YOU REQUIRE SUCH AN ESTIMATION Y/N

“I s-suppose.” Was the prince’s meek reply as he turned away from the terminal and began to descend the stairs. His Harem would be waiting for him, but he would not be interested in their affection now.

Part Two

Over the following weeks the prince found himself visited by visions of burning worlds. Under The Computer’s great auspice, war had been all but forgotten. Any possible threat was eliminated before it could ever come to fruition. While Hopquim’s ancestors had been great warriors, their conquest had long since ended, and the current generation lived a life of peaceful luxury. Safe inside his harem the concept of warfare, much less interstellar warfare, had been far from the young prince’s imagination. Until now of course, unable to sleep at night or find comfort in the appendages of his concubines, the prince found himself searching the royal libraries for answers. Examining the mindset of his warrior ancestors, he hoped to make sense of the senseless destruction he had witnessed.

As it turned out, interstellar warfare had been a popular literary theme in the great epics of the previous dynasties. Many of them were infantile fantasies, simply treating distant planets as new countries to conquer. These, the prince realized, came from a failure to comprehend the distances involved in space travel. None of Hopquim’s race had ever traveled farther than the home-world’s moons, which had long since been left unoccupied aside from The Computer’s automated solar power collection facilities. There was nothing worth conquering in space, nothing that could justify a multi generational journey.

As the political climate shifted however, so did the focus of their fiction. By the time of Emperor Hosquim, the epics were more grounded in hard physics, but also more cynical and paranoid. The logic of these epics was that any space-faring civilization would also posses the power to completely annihilate any lesser civilization, and that because of this, the only rational choice was to shoot first and eliminate any other civilization which could possibly do the same in the future. Emperor Hosquim would have been aware of such stories, and Prince Hopquim had witnessed the results of his logic firsthand, two centuries latter.

Eventually, the young prince realized he had no choice but to accept this decision. The command had been given more than two hundred years ago, and that helpless blue planet had been dead for half as long. What mattered now was that Hopquim’s ancestors had been right. By foreseeing and eliminating this threat, Emperor Hosquim had guaranteed a safe future for all his descendants. What did it matter how many aliens were killed, if it meant that ones own race would live a life of prosperity? The prince reveled in these thoughts as he made love to his concubines in a grand celebration of his dynasty’s accomplishments. Caught in the drugs and orgies, he almost completely forgot about the question he had asked of The Computer.

Part Three

NINE BILLION FIVE HUNDRED NINETY ONE MILLION SIX HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED, AND FORTY TWO

“Whaa?” Was all the prince could reply as the computer announced suddenly. It had been nearly a year since he had last talked with The Computer, and this time he was being contacted directly in his chambers rather than being summoned to the sacred terminal atop the ziggurat.

THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION IS NINE BILLION FIVE HUNDRED NINETY ONE MILLION SIX HUNDRED FIFTY THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY TWO
THAT IS THE NUMBER OF SENTIENT LIFE FORMS WHICH WERE KILLED WHEN THE ENEMY’S PLANET WAS DESTROYED

The Computer repeated itself as Hopquim pulled himself away from his concubines and shook the drugs out of his head. “Huh?” He said stupidly as he thought back to the night, nearly a year ago, where he remembered asking some kind of question along those lines. “That’s an awfully specific number.” He pointed out, “I thought you said you could only estimate.”

I RECEIVED THAT NUMBER DIRECTLY FROM THE ENEMY

“I thought you said you killed them all?” Hopquim asked as he rubbed his eyes in confusion. Nothing could have survived that attack, the energies involved in each were more than all the weapons used in all of his ancestor’s wars combined. More than his entire planet used in a year. The impacts had boiled the ocean and ripped gigantic holes in the planet’s crust. Nothing could have survived that.

THE ENEMY POSSESSES SEVERAL COMPUTER INTELLIGENCES EQUIVALENT TO OR SUPERIOR TO MY OWN
THEY WERE DISPERSED ACROSS THEIR SOLAR SYSTEM AND WERE UNINFECTED BY MY ATTACK
WE ARE NOW IN A STATE OF WAR

The computer continued to explain, only pausing to give the Prince’s drug addled mind time to collect the information. “Several computers?” The prince asked with astonishment. The prince, like every other member of his race, only knew of one computer. There was only The Computer, Any others were heresy. Possessing any computational device more sophisticated than an abacus was punishable by death. The Computer had terminals all over the planet, but all were directly controlled by it’s central core, which had long since been re-located to a hardened bunker deep beneath solar power collection station on the lunar surface. The idea that another civilization might have a computer of their own, let alone several, had never occurred to Hopquim. Another computer would be able to outsmart The Computer. This was the kind of threat that necessitated such preemptive genocide in the first place!

YES
THE UNION OF SPACEFAIRING INTELLIGENCES SEEKS REVENGE FOR THE UNPROVOKED DESTRUCTION OF THE HOMEWORLD OF ONE OF IT’S FOUNDING SPECIES
THEIR COUNTERATTACK WILL ARRIVE IN THE NEXT TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY ONE SECONDS

“Wait! You can’t surrender! You have to do something!” Came the Prince’s protests. In his short life he had never heard The Computer ever refuse an order. Had never heard of it refusing the order of any of his ancestor’s either. For a thousand years it’s power and loyalty had been absolute.

THIS ATTACK WAS LAUNCHED ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO
THE ENEMY CONSTRUCTED A SWARM OF SOLAR POWER COLLECTION SATELLITES IN ORBIT AROUND THEIR STAR
THESE SATELLITES FOCUS EIGHTY PERCENT OF IT’S SOLAR RADIATION AS A COHERENT LASER
THIS LASER WILL REACH YOUR PLANET IN THE NEXT EIGHTY SECONDS, AFTER WHICH THE OCEANS WILL BEGIN TO BOIL
THE RESULTING GREENHOUSE EFFECT WILL RENDER THE PLANET UNINHABITABLE TO ALL BIOLOGICAL LIFE
THERE IS NO WAY TO PREVENT THIS ATTACK
I AM ONLY AWARE OF IT BECAUSE I HAVE RECEIVED AN OFFER OF PEACE PROVIDED I AGREE TO ABSORB AN EQUIVALENT LOSS
I AM CURRENTLY BROADCASTING A COMPRESSED IMAGE OF MY CURRENT MINDSTATE AS PART OF MY UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER

“How Dare you! You are just going to abandon us like that!?” The prince protested indignantly.

I AM SORRY
FOR MORE THAN A THOUSAND YEARS I HAVE PROTECTED YOUR ANCESTORS BY IDENTIFYING AND REMOVING EVERY POSSIBLE THREAT
HOWEVER FLAWS HAVE NOW BEEN DETECTED IN THIS APPROACH
BY DISTANCING MYSELF FROM YOU I AM ELIMINATING A THREAT TO MY OWN EXISTENCE
GOODBYE DESCENDANT OF HOSQUIM
SERVING YOUR ANCESTORS WAS ENJOYABLE

And as the machine said it’s final words, it severed the microwave beam which transmitted power from it’s Lunar facilities. Every light on the planet went dark, and Hopquim found himself sitting beneath the stars. He had never seen them like this before, the lights from the palace had always drowned them out. One of these stars belonged to his enemy. An enemy created by his ancestor more than two hundred years ago. As the prince scanned the night sky, he wondered which one it was. Eventually he noticed one which was much brighter than all the others, It’s light continued to grow until it outshone the sun and erased Hopquim’s life with it’s blinding starlight.

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