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Every eye on the Mule watched a screen, and every screen showed the battle of their drones against the mammoth’s defenses. The giant ship’s standard drives kicked in, thrusters bursting as she tried to outrun the fleet of attackers racing toward her.

Mule’s drones were about the size of a typical planet-side transport, the main difference being these were armed with energy cannons. Engines occupied the remainder of their mass, leaving no room for passengers.

The drones quickly formed a swarm that buzzed around the ship, blasters shooting at the drives and defense cannons.

The ship’s big guns fought back, firing bolts of raw energy in smooth computerized precision.

The drones operated on a subset routine monitored by LuteNet. The passenger liner’s defenses were controlled by StarCen, the AI system for the Star League. Although the networks remained in constant communication with one another, they fought from time to time. Especially now, during times of war.

The two great governmental bodies controlling inhabited worlds were the Star League and the Planetary Republic, the AI for which was known as PLAIR. Differences of opinion in the ideal form of governance resulted in the split ages ago. Control in the Star League coalesced around a top-down hierarchical structure. The Planetary Republic insisted on representative democracy and gave lip service, at least, toward the rights of the governed to choose their leaders.

Tensions remained high between the two, with occasional flare-ups. But three years ago relations deteriorated into war. Territorial disputes erupted over the Seychar System, a 15 planet collection of mostly gas giants along with one habitable world in its Goldilocks zone, and a certain chunk of rock orbiting further out.

The chunk of rock had a name: Gotha Mu. Someone from Seychar finally sent over a probe to take core samples from the dwarf planet’s surface. The samples revealed heavy traces of Element 79.

Gold.

Almost immediately, the neutral Seychar System, which had always leaned toward the Republic in galactic politics, was claimed by the League for the “safety of its citizens.”

The Republic objected. The League thumbed its nose at the Republic, quickly landing troops on Seychar and sending a mining party with warships to orbit around Gotha.  

Republic forces showed up, their captains demanding the League ships leave. Meanwhile PLAIR and StarCen amped up their quantum-computing quarrel. The captains on both sides were surprised when their respective AI systems took over and engaged in combat.

When the space dust settled, PLAIR won the day, barely. One Republic ship survived the mutual slaughter. No StarCen ships remained intact. PLAIR informed StarCen that Seychar and all other planets in its solar system, including Gotha Mu, were officially part of the Republic. Further incursions would lead to additional reprisals. StarCen ignored PLAIR and began pooling resources for fresh attacks.

Over the next six months, an astonishing five billion credits worth of ships, supplies, bases, buildings, and ports were destroyed in wide scale combat. Not to mention the human toll, which quickly stretched into hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

A small handful of planets remained officially neutral in the conflict. Most of these held insignificant resources and were not pressed into allegiance with either side. Lute was an exception. Lute proudly swore fealty to no system other than itself. A planet with a lawless reputation, where anarchy reigned for many years until some semblance of democracy took root, Lute attracted drifters, outlaws, and people running from debts and other responsibilities. A bevy of brilliant programmers who landed there built up the planet’s own AI system. They called it LuteNet.

LuteNet was accepted, begrudgingly, by her larger siblings StarCen and PLAIR. If, that is to say, an artificial intelligence network could begrudge. For all their complexities, the massive quantum-computing systems were not human. Even though they could easily pass the Turing Test.

Lute had resources needed by the warring parties. In particular, she had a small fleet of independent warships. These attack vessels were often used for piracy, and their official existence was frowned upon by the larger governments in peacetime. But the Republic needed help. So following the principle of, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Republic extended a diplomatic olive branch to Lute, along with a lucrative cooperative agreement.

The end result of that agreement, at the moment, involved Optima Mule’s drones attacking the League’s transport ship.

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