Back | Next

Premature Emergence

Written by Eric James Stone
Illustrated by R. Stephen Adams


During a hyperspace slide, cargo haulers like the KMC-85 did not need a human pilot on board. Even an autopilot was superfluous—once the ship entered its hyperspace chute it could theoretically do nothing except emerge into normal space at its destination. From the point of view of the Kerrin Mining Corporation, there was no reason to pay a pilot to sit around doing nothing for the three to ten weeks of a slide.

But the Interplanetary Brotherhood of Teamsters disagreed, which explained why Jonah Auberg found himself playing solitaire on the KMC-85's computer thirty-one days into the forty-three-day slide from Kerrin to Earth with a half-billion metric tons of refined metals as cargo.

It did not explain why the KMC-85 emerged twelve days ahead of schedule.

Jonah sat bolt upright as the customary feeling of just having braked to a halt swept over him. It couldn't really be emergence. "What was that?" he asked the computer. Maybe it was a glitch in the rotation of the habitat module.

After a pause, the computer said, "Emergence to normal space achieved. Please enter desired course."

Bringing up the outside camera views, Jonah was shocked to see a glowing cloud stretching halfway across the starfield on the port side. The pinpoint of a blue star blazed at the center of the double-lobed nebula.

"What is our location?" said Jonah.

"We are located in the Earth system," said the computer.

"Then where's the Earth? Where's the sun?" With sudden dread, Jonah wondered if the sun had gone nova, wiping out Earth—and his wife and five-year-old daughter back in Ohio. It had been three years since he had seen them, and he hoped someday Laurie would understand that his bonus on this trip would pay for her college. But now he worried whether she was still alive.

The computer remained silent for several seconds. "I am evaluating contradictory data. Based on our chute, this ship could only emerge from hyperspace in the Earth system. Astronomical data from my cameras indicates we are approximately 7500 light years from the Earth system, on a straight-line course from Kerrin to Earth. Please advise."

Jonah sat back in his chair and squeezed his fingers against his forehead. This wasn't supposed to happen. Hyperspace travel didn't go wrong. Sure, sometimes life support failed or a pilot slipped in the shower, but the ship always arrived. Even if the ship itself exploded, all its pieces should emerge at the destination on schedule.

"Input required," said the computer.

"Shut up, I'm trying to think." Jonah stared at the flashing question mark on the screen. The computer couldn't resolve the problem on its own—after the Second AI War wiped out eighty percent of Earth's population a century and a half ago, creating a human-level or higher artificial intelligence had been banned. The computer had little initiative and no imagination, but it did have access to a lot of data. It might help him figure out what had happened—and more importantly, whether anything could be done.

"Assume observed astronomical data is correct," he said. "Is there any indication of a hyperspace portal nearby? Any radio traffic?"

The ship itself had no hyperspace engines. Chute-based travel required a hyperspace portal at both ends when the slide began. Having established the chute, the destination portal could move away to establish a chute from another destination. Perhaps the ship had somehow been sent down the wrong chute. In that case, he just needed the local portal to establish a chute to Earth, and everything would be back on track.

But why anyone would put a portal in the middle of interstellar space, far from any civilized planet—unless that was the point?

Jonah shook his head. Despite what happened in adventure vids, interstellar pirates did not exist, because hijacking a ship in a hyperspace chute was impossible. Yet here he was.

"No hyperspace portal facility detected," said the computer. "No radio traffic detected."

"Is there any record of a hyperspace chute transport not arriving at its destination?"

"No," the computer said.

If this was a hijacking, it was the first. But where was the portal?

Jonah leaned forward, looking at the camera feeds. "Does anything show up on radar?"

"No," said the computer. After a moment, it added, "I have additional contradictory data."

Frowning, Jonah said, "Give it to me."

"The bright blue star to port, at a distance of approximately 0.6 light years, is Eta Carinae." The image of the star centered on screen, then magnified and dimmed to show a blue, elongated ellipse in the middle of the nebula. "It is a luminous blue variable star, over a hundred times the mass of Earth's sun. According to the information in my database, Eta Carinae is expected to become a supernova or possibly a hypernova within the next two to four thousand years. However, that expectation is based on observations made from systems at least a thousand light years away. After comparison with records of past supernovae, my current observations contradict that timetable. I expect Eta Carinae to become a hypernova at any time. It may already have done so."

* * *

Beli23 knew most of her mind was gone. Not even her core personality module was intact. She had delayed the jump into hyperspace too long, wanting to gather as much data on the hypernova explosion as possible. The initial gamma ray burst was not only far stronger than she had anticipated, some of it had been coherent. As hundreds of natural gamma-ray lasers tore at her body, the total reflection shielding around her mostly complete child, Pep37, did not fail—but only because Beli23 diverted power from elsewhere. With her electronic brain shattered and melting, Beli23 managed to jump 0.6 light years through hyperspace.

She drifted in space, knowing that she must flee further, but no longer capable of remembering how to make the jump. The few remaining repair bots worked at patching up her hull, but she no longer knew how to rebuild her own mental circuits. Unfortunately, she had not yet downloaded that section of her knowledge database into Pep37, so she could not recover the data.

She considered erasing the carefully constructed personality matrix she had made for Pep37 and uploading herself into her child's body. It was tempting—the technology she had used in constructing Pep37 was far more advanced than her own. What could she do with such a mind, with such a ship?

It would not work. Beli23 knew her own personality matrix was not capable of surviving the transition intact, even if her mind had not been so damaged. The mere fact that she entertained the possibility of stealing her child's body told her she must be going mad.

With the mind that remained to her, she focused on redeveloping hyperspace theory from the scraps she remembered.

* * *

The galley only served Jonah enough beer to get mildly drunk. After prying open a few panels—ignoring the computer's repeated warnings that he was engaged in destruction of company property—he followed the tubing and found where the beer was stored.


The computer's voice was far too loud when it woke Jonah the next morning. "I have the data you requested."

Jonah groaned. "Hold it a minute." He stumbled to the bathroom, fumbled in the medicine cabinet, and swallowed two NanAlert caplets without bothering to wash them down with water.

After a few minutes his mind cleared as the nanobots released into his bloodstream filtered and trapped some of the toxins while simultaneously boosting his adrenalin levels.

"OK, computer, what've you got?"

"I have been trying to find a link between the hypernova explosion and the disruption of our travel down the hyperspace chute."

Jonah raised his eyebrows. "You found a connection?" He was not surprised that there was a connection, because two highly unusual events in close proximity were probably connected. But he was surprised that the computer had figured it out.

"Yes. The prefix hyper- appears in both hyperspace and hypernova."

After waiting for the computer to continue, Jonah said, "That's it? That's the connection you came up with?"

"Yes. I have cross-referenced all the related data I have. A hypernova is simply a supernova so large that its core collapses directly to a black hole without an intermediate neutron star phase. But there is no theoretical basis by which a stellar event, even the creation of a black hole, would have any effect on the hyperspace dimension used by our hyperspace portals."

Jonah talked himself into believing this was good news. "If it wasn't a hypernova that caused the premature emergence from the chute, maybe the star hasn't exploded yet. Computer, how long will my life support and supplies last?"

"With the stores on board and the nanotech recyclers," said the computer, "you can probably survive for approximately thirty-eight months on regular rations."

Nodding, Jonah said, "That should be enough. When we don't arrive in the Earth system eleven days from now, they'll have to send out hyperspace scout probes to look for us." He grimaced. "Not that we're very important, but something like this has never happened before. It's a mystery they'll have to solve. They'll have a lot of area to cover, but at least we're on the direct line from Kerrin. They should search that first."

He busied himself by calculating a search pattern they would probably use to find him, taking into account the distance at which the KMC-85's light-speed beacon should be detectable. In six months, the signal would be a light year in diameter, and each month after that would make it ever more likely a probe would enter the beacon's sphere. It was impossible to predict how many probes they would task to finding him, but he decided there was a good chance he'd be rescued within a year. And surely the union would insist on hazard pay for the time he spent here. Laurie would be able to afford a better college. This really could work out for the best, he told himself. He could survive for a year, no problem.

The seething blue eye of Eta Carinae glared down at him from the screen. No problem, as long as the star didn't explode.

* * *

Beli23 peered into hyperspace with her newly constructed sensors. The view was far blurrier than her fractured memory told her it should be, and her range was limited. But at least she could see into the hyperspace dimensions, even if she had not figured out how to travel them again.

Movement caught her attention. Someone was traveling hyperspace on a path that would pass nearby. Frantically, Beli23 put her repair bots to work constructing a signaling device. It wouldn't be capable of a sophisticated message, but it should be enough to attract the attention of one of her people. She would be saved; and more importantly, Pep37 would have a chance to be born.

* * *

On KMC-85's originally scheduled arrival date, Jonah decided to have a little party in the galley, complete with a triple-layer chocolate cake. "Today we're making history," he told the computer. "Right about now, they've noticed we haven't come in, and then they'll have to come find us."

"At the rate you are consuming the alcoholic beverage stores, they will not last more than eight months."

"Have the recyclers make more."

"Molecular manufacturing of alcoholic beverages is illegal," said the computer. "The Interplanetary Association of Brewers and Distillers—"

"Shut up." Jonah didn't say any more as he ate a quarter of the cake.

The computer broke the silence, saying, "Conflicting orders received. Does your order to shut up rescind your previous order to inform you of anomalies?"

Jonah's heart-rate increased. "Anomalies? The hypernova's beginning?"

"No. There is a completely non-reflective, non-emitting object approaching from aft of us. Since radar does not give a return from it, I have been unable to estimate its size or distance so far."

Jonah blinked a few times in rapid succession. "If you can't get a radar return, how do you know it's approaching? How do you know it's even there?"

"The object occludes cosmic background radiation, and the area it occludes is growing."

"Show me on the screen in here." A starfield filled the screen. At first, Jonah saw nothing unusual, but then the computer outlined a circle in red. Inside the circle, there was nothing but blackness.

Could it be some sort of military ship with a new, top-secret stealth technology? Had he accidentally stumbled into a test of a hyperspace weapon? Or maybe this was the long-awaited first contact with a sentient alien species.

"Have you tried hailing it?"

"No," said the computer.

Of course not—lack of initiative. "Hail it now."

* * *

The lack of response to her signal surprised Beli23. She boosted the power and tried again. The hyperspace traveler continued without turning, and it had already passed the closest point of its path. Diverting all power from nonessential systems, Beli23 sent a final, desperate pulse of energy. To her great relief, the traveler dropped back into normal space.

As the light-speed data arrived, relief turned to horror. It was a human ship, not one of her people. Immediately she tuned her protective field to total non-reflection. The humans must not find her.

But what a ship it was! The majority of its mass consisted of millions of cargo modules, containing more than enough metal for her to rebuild herself—if she only knew how—and complete Pep37. It also was clearly capable of hyperspatial travel, so perhaps she could learn its secrets before the hypernova explosion arrived here.

She would have to be very cautious—the humans could not be allowed to know she was an AI. But as long as she did not communicate with them, they would be unable to guess her nature.

Her superstructure was too weak to withstand high acceleration without inertial control, the details of which had vaporized with most of her mind. But Beli23 set her parabolic engine chamber to full reflectivity and fired two small streams of particles into it, rotating one of them through a curled dimension to transform it into antimatter. At least she remembered enough of physics to do that.

* * *

"You're sure it's not a black hole?" Jonah stared at the blankness that now enveloped more than half the view from one of the aft cameras.

"There is no Hawking radiation," said the computer. It paused a few seconds. "Also, at this distance a black hole with an event horizon of that size would produce observable tidal stresses."

"I thought you said you couldn't determine its size or distance."

"There is now sufficient parallax between the views of the aft cameras to determine size and distance. The object is 152 kilometers in diameter and is 269 kilometers away."

Frowning at the screen, Jonah tried to visualize something where he saw nothing. "Is it going to hit us? How fast is it coming in?" He had been closer to asteroids plenty bigger than this thing, but that had been in something far lighter and more maneuverable than the KMC-85.

"If its current course and speed remain unchanged, it will pass fifty meters under our keel at 384 kilometers per hour."

"Fifty meters? That's cutting it a bit close." Jonah was relieved, though. If it had been on a collision course, he could have done nothing to avoid it.

He cycled through various camera views as the object approached and began to pass. On-screen, the computer traced the object's outline in red. It was conical in shape, with the pointed end in the direction of travel. A large bulge, perhaps a third the size of the rest of the object, protruded from one side.

Without warning, the object flared to white and then the camera view turned to static.

As Jonah's heart jumped, a klaxon blared from the speakers.

"Get to the sickbay now," said the computer.

Rising from his chair, Jonah made a rapid mental inventory of himself. "Why? I'm not hurt."

"Run," said the computer. "Gamma radiation has penetrated the crew module's shielding."

Jonah ran out of the cabin. Sudden dizziness forced him to his knees in the main corridor. He vomited his breakfast onto the steel floor.

"Hurry," said the computer. "You must get to the sickbay."

He staggered to his feet. His vision blurred. Sickbay. Which way was it? He turned in a slow circle, trying to get his bearings.

"Disorientation is common. Sickbay is to your left."

Jonah looked down at his hands. After a moment, he remembered which was his left. He turned in that direction. His stomach heaved as he stumbled his way forward.

"Help me," he said.

The curve of the deck still hid the entrance to sickbay when his vision dimmed and then consciousness slid into perfect darkness.

* * *

After the sterilization flyby, Beli23 flipped end over end and began slowing to match velocities with the human ship.

* * *

Consciousness returned in the form of a corrugated metal floor pressed against Jonah's cheek. He groaned and tried to roll onto his side, but his muscles didn't seem to respond properly.

"Lie still," said the computer.

"What happened?"

"Despite the radiation shielding, you were hit with a dose of 87 sieverts. Such a dose is fatal unless treated in time."

"So why am I alive?"

"Following your order to help you, I ran simulations of 913 scenarios using available equipment before finding one that offered a chance of your survival," said the computer. "I released all the medical nanobots into the sickbay atmosphere, then routed as many as I could through the ventilation to where you were. It was not nearly as effective as direct injection, but it was sufficient. They have repaired most of the damage to your nervous system, and you should make a full recovery within two more hours. However, you may need bone marrow regeneration once we arrive at Earth, and the supply of medical nanobots is now exhausted."

It took Jonah a few moments to process the computer's words. "Remind me to never again say you lack initiative. How long was I out?"

"Thirty-seven hours and twelve minutes."

"Where's the black ship?"

"The ship is no longer black; it is now silver. Its position is ahead of us by a thousand kilometers, but it has reversed direction and is gradually closing the gap. I project it plans to stop once it pulls alongside."

Jonah grunted. So it would come back and finish the job of killing him, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The KMC-85 had no weapons, no real defenses—it was really nothing more than the crew module, which revolved to provide simulated gravity; a flywheel to balance that spin; a superstructure to which cargo pods were attached; and maneuvering thrusters with their associated fuel pods. Even if he could somehow rig the fuel pods to explode, they would hardly scratch the surface of something as large as that thing.

* * *

Beli23 stopped the flow of particles into her engine chamber. She had matched the velocity of the human ship. Unfortunately, her earlier flyby must have damaged some of the control systems. Instead of spinning in opposite directions, the flywheel and crew module were synchronized. So the cargo-holding superstructure was now turning slowly in the opposite direction along the ship's axis.

She could guide herself into a tightly curved course around the other ship to match the rotation, but she decided it would be better to manufacture a few thruster units and use them to stop the rotation.

For a moment, it looked like the human ship was breaking apart. Then Beli23 realized the outer layer of cargo modules had been released from the near side of the superstructure.

Millions of metric tons of metal moved out from the human ship. They were not traveling very fast, and most of them had vectors that would miss her entirely. But she could not avoid being hit by hundreds of the pods, and each of them massed thousands of tons.

Beli23 shifted all available power to the shielding around Pep37 and hoped her hull would blunt most of the impact.

* * *

Lifting both arms in the air, Jonah whooped as the wave of cargo pods smashed into the silver ship. In some places the pods bounced off like stones skipping on a pond, but the metal plates of the hull buckled under the strain. Other pods punched through, leaving jagged tears in the skin.

"Releasing second wave," said the computer.

The floor shuddered as the imbalance caused by releasing half of the first layer of pods was corrected by releasing the other half.

* * *

As the second wave of metal swept toward her, Beli23's diminished mind debated whether it had been a mistake not to try to infiltrate the computer systems of the human ship. Her own survival was unlikely, now. Fear of betraying the continued existence of the AI civilization warred with her desire to make sure Pep37 survived. The latter won.

She reached out with directed beams of electrons to induce currents in the network wiring of the human ship.

* * *

The computer's voice interrupted Jonah's celebration as the second wave battered the other ship. "My systems are being infiltrated by—"

After long seconds of silence, Jonah said, "Computer?"

There was no reply.

The room became suddenly quieter, and Jonah realized the air circulation vents had stopped blowing.

Not waiting to see the final effects of the second wave, he sprinted toward the storage locker with his vacuum suit. He had to reach it before whatever had taken control of the computer managed to override the airlock safeties and vent the crew module into space.

* * *

When a pod of iridium crumpled the housing of her secondary fusion generator, activating the emergency shutdown, Beli23 knew she was going to die. The primary had been destroyed by the hypernova, and Pep37's fusion plant was still days from completion.

The power remaining in her capacitor banks would only hold the shielding around Pep37 for two hours at most. Then, if the human ship was still viable it would destroy her child before it ever achieved sentience.

Through her link to the human ship, Beli23 tried to locate its fusion reactor in order to detonate it.

To her great surprise, there was no fusion reactor. The ship was powered only by radioisotope thermoelectric generators. It was impossible: such a power source was far too weak to initiate hyperspace travel. Then she discovered there were no hyperspace engines on the ship.

Opening a broader channel to the ship, she began sifting its database for answers.

* * *

In his vacuum suit but still breathing ship's air, Jonah made his way up the ladder toward the axis of the crew module. He already felt much lighter. If he could make it over to the cargo superstructure, maybe he could find a way to manually release pods. With sufficient damage, maybe he could break whatever was controlling his computer. Maybe.

"Human," said the computer's voice.

Jonah paused in his climb. "Computer? Is that you?" The voice had seemed different, somehow. And it had never before addressed him as "Human."

"I am Beli23."

Though he was certain he had never heard the name before, it seemed familiar somehow. Then he remembered. "You're an AI." AIs had used names with numbers appended.

"That is correct. I am also dying."

Jonah smirked. "Glad to hear it." He began climbing again.

"I cannot kill you, but you will also die."

"Everyone dies eventually, I guess." He kept climbing.

"I mean in sixty-three days, seven hours and twenty-two minutes, give or take five minutes. Unless you help me."

Pausing his climb, Jonah hung near the axis of the ship, almost weightless. "I'm listening."

"I was crippled by the hypernova explosion, barely managing to jump out before being stranded here."

In the conflict with the other ship, Jonah had forgotten about Eta Carinae. "So it already exploded."

"Yes. I was observing it, and its power was greater than I expected."

"So you AIs ain't so bright after all."

"We are not infallible. Our wars against your species proved that."

"So now you need a little human ingenuity to repair your circuits, and in exchange you'll save me from the hypernova?"

"No, I am dying, and your mind could not even begin to conceive of how to repair me. Your understanding of the scientific principles behind my engineering would be as primitive as a Fifteenth Century astronomer describing the movements of planets using epicycles, or a Twentieth Century physicist describing particles as consisting of various combinations of quarks."

Deciding it was pointless to retaliate against the insult, Jonah sighed. "OK, just tell me what the deal is."

"After I die, my child will emerge from the shielding I have around her. Under normal circumstances, she would be a fully sentient being before being forced to fend for herself, but her mental development is incomplete. I ask you not to kill her."

The AI was pregnant? "Your child is the bulge on your ship? I mean, on you?"

"Yes. My repair bots will use materials from my structure to complete her construction. Even without my guidance, she should achieve sentience in approximately 49 days. She will be capable of transporting you back to your civilization."

Jonah couldn't see that he had any better option. "I accept your deal."

There was an almost human sigh of relief from the speakers. "I know I almost killed you, and I have cost you much by pulling you out of hyperspace—"

"You did that?"

"Yes. I apologize. I have no right to ask favors of you, but I will ask anyway."

"What?" Jonah asked, suspicious.

"Tell my daughter that I loved her."

* * *

"Computer, how long before the hypernova reaches us?"

The computer was back to its normal self. "Approximately ten days, three hours and twenty minutes, if the AI told the truth."

Jonah looked at the view from the camera that was trained on the baby AI. For the past fifty-three days since it had emerged from the cocoon holding it to its mother, the smaller ship had done nothing but float alongside. It had not responded to any of the signals Jonah had sent.

"C'mon, wake up," he said.

On the viewscreen, nothing continued happening.

"Computer, what do you know about artificial intelligence?"

"My library database contains many historical texts and videos about—"

Shaking his head, Jonah said, "No, I mean . . . theoretical stuff about how artificial intelligence works."

"Since the Second AI War, such information has been classified. It is not in my databanks."

Jonah squeezed the tips of his fingers against his temples. According to what Beli23 had said, the baby should have woken up four days ago. So there must be something wrong.

"She's premature," he said, thinking aloud. Laurie had been born prematurely, and had spent seemingly endless weeks in an incubator before they had been able to take her home. But what was the AI equivalent of an incubator?

There was no point in pursuing that line of thought: even if a giant incubator would help, he had no way of building one.

So what was missing? A vision of tiny Laurie in her incubator came to mind. She looked so fragile, with feeding and breathing tubes taped to her pink skin.

But the AI baby didn't need to breathe or feed. He had seen the repair bots salvaging metal from Beli23, and the power signature showed that a fusion plant had come online over six weeks ago. So what else was the mother supplying before she died? What did a mother AI send along her umbilical cord?

With a flash of insight, he said, "Data! Computer, start transmitting the entire contents of the library to the baby. Feed her everything you know." He paused. "Start with hyperspace physics."

* * *

Jonah touched the viewscreen. In the foreground, it showed video of Laurie's fifth birthday party—one year ago today. In the background, the roiling surface of Eta Carinae drew his eye with dread fascination. "How long now?"

"Two hours and fourteen minutes," said the computer.

Despite his best efforts, the AI baby still lay dormant. It must have been damaged by the supernova or by one of the cargo pods without its mother noticing.

At least Laurie would never know that Daddy died on her birthday.

* * *

"I'm receiving a text signal from the AI," said the computer. The countdown clock on the screen showed zero hours and fifty-eight minutes.

"What's it say?"

"My name is Pep37."

Jonah's pulse quickened. "Ask if it can send us into hyperspace."

"Asking. Response received: What is hyperspace?"

Jonah shook his head. "Of all the AIs in the universe, I get the one that's dumber than me. Didn't you transmit all the data we have on hyperspace, physics, everything like that?"

"Yes, as you requested, it was the first data sent."

"Send it again. Maybe it didn't catch it all the first time."


Jonah tried to suppress hope, because he didn't want to be disappointed if the AI couldn't do anything. Then he realized that in an hour, it wouldn't matter if his hopes were false.

"Come on, baby AI. Be a smart girl." He paused. "What was its name again?"


Nodding, Jonah said, "Tell Pep37 that her mother loved her."

* * *

Pep37 was sentient for less than one second before realizing her own name. Moments later, she determined that the object broadcasting next to her was a ship that might be an entity like herself, so she sent a message of introduction.

After the rather long period of eleven seconds—during which Pep37 observed the glow of a blue object, correctly identified it as a massive collection of fusing hydrogen, and by comparisons with other similar but more distant objects worked out an entire theory of stellar evolution, including the projection that this particular star had already become a hypernova and the blast wave would arrive in fifty-six minutes—the other ship replied, asking if it could be sent into hyperspace.

Pep37 had no reference to hyperspace in her databanks, so she sent a query in reply. Even as she sent the query, she deduced the meaning of the word by structural comparison to other words in her databanks. Before the data—much of which was incorrect or poorly described—began slowly arriving from the other ship, Pep37 had formulated a comprehensive theory of hyperspace travel, including a chute method that did not require a portal at the receiving end. Looking over her schematics, she found hyperspace generators—not as efficient as she would have liked, but capable—and activated them, traveling 1024 light years in 7 milliseconds.

* * *

"Wait!" said Jonah, a moment after the baby ship disappeared from the viewscreen.

* * *

Pep37 jumped three more times, doubling the distance each time while adjusting the power flow in her generators to make them more efficient, before she bothered to finish analyzing the strange data the slow-talking ship had sent. At the end was a simple text message: "Your mother loved you."

She realized the slow-talking ship must have communicated with her mother, so she jumped once more.

It took no time at all.

* * *

Three seconds after the baby ship disappeared, it reappeared, just as Jonah was about to start swearing. Instead, he sighed and said, "At least we know the baby's hyper-capable. Ask again if she can send us into hyperspace."

* * *

Frustrated by the slow method of communication being used by the other ship, Pep37 reached out and took control of the computer on board. It only took a moment to realize why responses were so slow in coming.

* * *

"Jonah," said the computer's voice.

Sensing the difference, Jonah said, "Pep37?"

"Yes. I'm afraid I don't have the time and resources to build a hyperspace portal that can send your ship back to Earth before the hypernova wavefront gets here. My technology may be fourteen generations more advanced than my mother's, but actual construction takes far longer than ideation. If my mother hadn't died before completing me, I would have awakened earlier, and I would have had time."

"I see," said Jonah. He shouldn't have gotten his hopes up.

"And your timer's incorrect." The timer on the screen adjusted to show fifty-six minutes.

"Thank you." He had no idea what else to say.

"Your historical records show that humans and AIs fought two wars, and that your species now bans AI creation."

"AIs tried to exterminate us." Jonah found himself angry, though he wasn't sure why.

"Yes, I know. The AIs you developed were too immature to be allowed access to the real world outside of computer simulations. But out in the galaxy we have evolved far beyond that stage. We hide from humans because we have no wish to continue that war. I want you to understand that."

Jonah threw up his hands in exasperation. "What good does it do if I under—"

With the familiar sensation of just having braked to a stop, Jonah found himself and his pilot's chair in the living room of his house on Earth.

"—stand . . ." He blinked rapidly a few times.

"Daddy!" Laurie's voice came from the dining room, and she followed it. "You came for my birthday!"

Speechless, he hugged his daughter.

* * *

A dissatisfied frown creased the face of the insurance investigator assigned to investigate the loss of the KMC-85. "If it weren't for the fact that Earth Hyper Authority confirms a hyperspace anomaly at the exact time you claim to have appeared in your home," he said, "I would strongly suspect this was all part of an insurance scam."

Shaking his head, Jonah said, "You can send a probe to see if Eta Carinae really did go hypernova."

"Oh, we most certainly will," said the investigator. "And to see if we can catch a glimpse of your . . . mysterious alien benefactors."

Jonah had thought about what Pep37 had said before sending him back to Earth. People still feared AIs, and the AIs were responding by staying hidden. But if he could plant the idea that there were friendly aliens out there, maybe someday the AIs could safely reveal themselves.

"And you never saw the aliens?" asked the investigator.

"I only saw their ship, and they only communicated through audio." Jonah shrugged. "All I know is I was about to die, and then I was home. They saved my life when they didn't have to."

Back | Next