Chapter 44 TRILLION Project Hail Mary
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Trillion finally had a moment to think. She knew Icarus hadn’t been there for a while. His Donald Duck avatar was usually elaborate with its movements when he was in control, but when he had his Ship imitate him, he didn’t move as much. She was okay with that. She was struggling to think of a way out with everyone’s doubt.

Now with Atlas and Icarus out of the room, she felt like she could think without someone leaning over her shoulder, questioning every move she made. Or didn’t make. If she was going to survive, she had to save herself.

She surveyed the battlefield, half her force was gone. Yet, she had only destroyed a few of Sol’s spacecraft. The system she was in, was littered with deal ANTs – space debris now. Icarus had managed to get the Dottiens to fight alongside her, and at the time she assume it would help put her on the winning side, but they were of little value. Sol’s spacecrafts basically ignored them. Trying their absolute bests not to get hurt any of them, moving out the way and dodging them whenever possible. After the team realised the Dottiens weren’t equipped for this war, Icarus had instructed them to go back to what they were designed for – protecting the planet from asteroids.

Trillion’s army was truly overkill facing the Dottiens. They originally only captured her because they had surprise and numbers on their side – now they had neither. She didn’t regret bringing an army this size however, because if she didn’t have the army she might already be captured. Now she had a chance to escape, a very slim chance, but a chance. She wanted more than to escape though, she wanted to win. And to win she needed a good plan – and a bit of luck.  

With little fanfare she teleported out. “I’ll be back,” she informed the fake Icarus. She chuckled a little, knowing only the real Icarus would have understood that reference.

She reappeared to the front of the nursery and paused at the large steel doors. Behind those doors were her children. She wasn’t going to lose them. All those unborn humans and animals. Unborn life. This is what she was fighting for, this is why she needed to win.

Then it occurred to her. She didn’t want to die. And she didn’t want her children to die either. But neither did anyone in the Spaceforce fleet – she had decided to call the enemy the Spaceforce.

She looked up at the ceiling. “Ship, can you hear me?”

The confirmation came back almost instantaneously. Light delay between her and Ship had almost disappeared. They could talk normally if she kept playback speed closer to real time.

She knew Ship was still controlling a lot of the war fleet so she sent a short message. “One of the Spaceforce ships has an AI on it. But I don’t know which one. Ship, can you work out which one?”

“Sorry, Trillion,” Ship said. “I’m controlling too many moving parts. I can’t talk properly right now.”

She had only seen Ship struggle like this once before – when the Dottiens were attacking them. But not being able to speak with Ship only strengthened her theory.

She teleported to Atlas and Icarus. They were on Atlas’s bridge. She watched as their faces dropped in surprise. She could tell they weren’t expecting her – Icarus looked like he’d seen a ghost. She chose to act surprised, not wanting him to know she know about his ruse. “Atlas, I need your help.”

“Anything. What do you want?”

“Can you predict which of the enemy spacecraft has the AI?”

Atlas frowned. She could tell he still believed that all of the Spaceforce were automated – they weren’t controlled by any sophisticated AI.

“When I was researching the ruling party of Sol a while ago, I noticed that they consider all AIs sentient. They believe us three are sentient. But they also believe our Ships and Lex are sentient too.”

They both nodded in understanding.

“Well any AI too clever is considered life. So often they’ll intentionally dumb down an AI to keep it well below the threshold of sentience.”

“Are you saying all these spacecrafts out here and dumbed machines?” Atlas asked.

“No, the opposite. I’m saying there is a master AI on the other side pulling all the strings. But only one! On a mission like this they wouldn’t risk more than one sentient life.”

Atlas bit his lower lip before responding. “I thought we had agreed this was just an automated system?”

Trillion shook her head. “A basic system couldn’t pull something like that off. It has to be coordinated by an AI.” Trillion knew she was a guessing. But she continued to act confidently – as if it were fact. Humanity back in Sol could have changed their mindw about AIs. Maybe they’d now decided that smart AIs weren’t as precious as human life, so risking a lot of them was fine. Or maybe they had developed smart AIs without the sentience attached. She felt in her gut she was right. And if anyone could work out whether she was right it was Atlas. “So can you tell me which of the Spaceforce ships is directing everything?”

“That should be easy enough to prove.” Atlas said considering how to evaluate it. “We can look at exactly how decisions are propagating through the enemy’s fleet.”

Icarus nodded his agreement. “Exactly. If we use the data from both Ship and the sensors you have near the system, we should be able to triangulate if decisions are being made from a single location or not.”

She put her hands on her hips. “Come on then. Work it out.”

Atlas began walking towards his computer.

Trillion pointed to the watch on her wrist. “Increase your playback speed, old man. We don’t have much time.”

In a flash, Atlas sped across the room to his computer, and then instantly appeared in front of Trillion holding up a piece of paper. “It’s this spacecraft. This one right here,” he said, jabbing at the paper with his finger.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I double-checked my numbers, multiple times. Lex agrees with me.”

Trillion turned towards Atlas’s Lex. “I struggle without it being visual. Lex, do you mind?”

The room went darker. A projection of the unfolding war appeared on the table in front of them – Trillion’s army in green, the Spaceforce Aliance in blue, the Dottiens in purple, and the debris of dead vessels in red.

Looking at the projected war on top of the table. It became clear to Trillion just how one sided it had been – half the table was covered in blue spacecrafts. Meaning, the Spaceforce had sustained very little losses. The smaller force of Trillion’s army had congregated together. From that angle her fleet looked like a snake that had punched itself through a small number of Starforce vehicles. But the proverbial snake was having it head cut off by all the laser fire. “This fight is not going my way.” Trillion said more to herself.

Trillion glanced at the Dottiens home world. A huge number of Dottiens were orbiting their planet – they were out in full force intercepting the many stray objects that headed towards their planet. “Atleast you’ve done a good job at controlling those Dottiens Icarus. They’re protecting their world well.”  

“I think it’s likely that the fight is happening away from their planet. If you were over their homeworld I think it’d be a different story.” Icarus replied

Trillion looked back at the wall of blue enemy spacecrafts. “So which one has the master AI?”

Atlas pointed to the spacecraft he believed was in control of the armada. On the blue side of the table there was a ship close front, but not at the front. “This is where information seems to spread out at light speed. There are many points in this battle when new instructions are sent out. And you can see them propagate at light speed out from this exact ship.”

Trillion looked up at the orb floating in the ceiling. “Lex, do you mind?”

The projected battle rewound to the moment when the Starforce first began shooting lasers at Trillion’s force. They watched as three lasers fired at the very front row of Trillion’s assass-ANTs. The pattern was such that the assass-ANTs had no way to dodge the incoming death beams.

Trillion had simply taken the standard ANT design and modified them slightly to operate at relativistic speeds. They was a kinetic weapon – meaning their destructive power came from the speeds they were travelling. But because they’re basically just ANTs moving quickly, they didn’t have any armer or shilding. One touch of a laser disarmed them, and a few more moments of fire disintegrated them.

Once an assass-ANT was disarmed all three lasers didn’t need to fire at it anylonger, yet all three did. They continued to burn a hole through the assass-ANTs unnecessarily.

Atlas paused the replay. “Three lasers for each assass-ANT is good for trapping it. But once the assass-ANT is immobilised, it’s overkill for destroying. Basically, one nip destroys those things.” 

He drew a circle around three enemy spacecraft. These were the closest three to the one Atlas believed had the master AI. “Watch these craft here.”

The war replay began again. All three Starforce spacecraft began firing their lasers, focusing on a single assass-ANT. The assass-ANT moved rapidly from left to right, turning in circles trying to avoid the lasers. The three lasers closed in on it, limiting the assass-ANT’s options. And then boom! One of the lasers cut the assass-ANT in half. This time the other two lasers didn’t continue to fire at it – they immediately focused their lasers on a new target.

Atlas pointed to an enemy spacecraft on the other side of the battle. “See this one is further away? It hasn’t yet received the updated strategy.” It fired its laser at a target assass-ANT. Its target was destroyed by another laser. Yet the spacecraft Atlas was pointing at continued firing on the dead assass-ANT, disintegrating it into smaller pieces.

Atlas paused the battle. “Trillion, now watch this. If I’m right, then this spacecraft should receive the strategy update now. It’s exactly enough light seconds away that it should change its approach now.”

Atlas resumed the battle. The spacecraft stopped firing abruptly. Its laser switched off like a light but then half a beat later it fired again, this time the laser arching towards an assass-ANT that was dodging another two lasers.

Trillion waved the hapticgraphic images away. “Let’s go kill the AI controlling the battlefield.”

She looked up towards the ceiling. “Ship, get over here.” She looked at the floating orb. “Don’t let him ignore this message. I need 100 per cent of his focus.”

It took a few seconds for Ship to respond. If a robot could show fear, it was in his voice. “I’m sorry, Trillion. I’m so, so sorry.”

“Ship, it’s okay. You’re doing a great job.” Trillion paused. “I’m going to tell you something important. We’re sending you coordinates for a target. Do everything you can to destroy this spacecraft.”

Ship didn’t argue. But he didn’t come back with an affirmative either.

“How do we know if he’s doing it?” questioned Icarus.

Lex’s orb in the corner flashed. The hapticgraphic battlefield in front of them expanded to encompass the whole several light-minutes of space. Lex continued replaying the battle in front of them. The scene played at 100 times the speed, catching up to real time. Trillion marvelled at how normal the sped-up battle looked. The battlefield stretched over several light minutes, so even at 100 times the speed, the assass-ANTs and spacecraft looked like they were cruising along.

As the projection got larger, zooming out to survey the battlefield, specific details disappeared. Individual objects were replaced with what seemed like a cloud of space objects. Nothing recognisable except a slight mist showing the greater density in space.

The front layer of Trillion’s fleet moved forward. Red laser light blasting out from the other side. Shaving down her side one slice at a time. It looked like the front layers of Trillion’s force were beginning to fade away. More and more of the front layers faded as they were destroyed by laser light, not even getting close to the enemy.

She pointed at her war fleet. “This is when Ship decided to focus his attack on the very front of the enemy spacecraft. The ones closest to me.”

The army of assass-ANTs and spacecraft started to come together, getting smaller and narrower until it looked like one continuous line rather than a multitude of objects – becoming a snake once more. The line of assass-ANTs concentrated on the front section of the Starforce. The side closest to the moon.

Red laser light was still fixed on the front-most assass-ANTs and spacecraft, but Trillion’s army crept forward. It hit the enemy line and then punched through before it was hit with red light from the sides, utterly destroying everything that had crossed the frontline.

“Okay, this replay is coming up to real time,” Trillion said.

Trillion’s army broke into two, and the back half turning towards the middle of the enemy. It looked like half the train carriage splitting off in another direction. The back fleet narrowed even further, focusing on a single point. Then it froze in time.

Icarus squinted at the hapticgram. “Why is it frozen?”

Atlas looked over at Lex. “I think we’ve now reached real time.”

The orb flashed green.

“Anyone opposed to changing our playback speed?” asked Icarus. “The battle looked much better when sped up.”

Trillion shook her head. “We’re not watching a movie. If this doesn’t work, I might not survive. We need to be in real time to react to anything that happens.”

“Well,” Icarus said, “if we give Lex or Ship the ability to pull us back to real time, we should be fine. Their reaction times are much faster than ours.”

There was a reluctant look on Trillion’s face. “Okay. But Lex or Ship – if anything happens, no matter how small, pull us out instantly. Atlas’s Ship, you have to wait in real time. No joining us at this playback speed, okay!”

The hapticgraphic image in front of them started to move again. Trillion’s army snaked out towards the enemy. The red laser light shone bright as the front of her army was pushed back. Over two-thirds of Trillion’s force was now gone. And more were dropping like flies. She didn’t believe in a god, but at that moment she found herself praying to someone, something, anything that could hear her thoughts. For the briefest of moments, she closed her eyes and said a prayer. It wasn’t herself she prayed for, it was her children. All the unborn embryos currently frozen in the fault of her ship – the nursery. She prayed if she didn’t survive – that they would. Prayer done, she re-opened her eyes and pointed at a blue Starforce spacecraft. “Ship, focus everything we have on that one spacecraft. Kill it!”  

She knew Ship couldn’t hear her, but as if he was listening, Trillion’s army started to come together. Narrowing closer and closer until they looked single file.

Trillion walked towards the hapticgraphic projection and made an exaggerated pinch-to-zoom gesture. “I want to see up close.” The projection increased. They could see individual spacecraft now. All of Trillion’s spacecraft were in a row. They watched as hundreds of assass-ANTs jinked from side to side before being destroyed by lasers. But each assass-ANT managed to make it a fraction closer than the ones before it.

Trillion could feel her hands clenching. She looked around the room. Atlas and Icarus were stressed too. She breathed in deeply – she hadn’t realised she was holding her breath. She didn’t need to breathe, but it helped keep her in control.

Trillion closed her eyes for a moment. Then she opened them to see her army inching closer – one fried assass-ANT at a time. Her army was arranged in a pattern of about 100 assass-ANTs and then a spacecraft, each one of them moving closer than the last. The spacecraft made leaps forward, while the assass-ANTs made steps.

Trillion took in the whole battle. She could see they were running out of spacecraft. There were ten left. Plenty of assass-ANTs but the Starforce had worked out how to kill them faster so they weren’t making any forward progress anymore – often they lost ground.

Her last remaining spacecraft fired their engines on full and inching towards the enemy vessel – the master AI. They moved at a faster pace than anything before them, forming a tight line, like train carriages that were connected – so close they were almost touching.

One by one, they were subjected to laser light. And one by one they were destroyed or cut in half. Ten, then seven. Then six. Based on their progress, they weren’t going to hit the target enemy spacecraft.

Icarus struggled to watch. “They’re not going to make it,” he fretted, covering his eyes with his hands.

“You can leave if you don’t bring positive energy,” chided Trillion, pointing to the door. But she was nervus too.

There were three of these fast-moving spacecraft trains left.

Boom! The closest spacecraft exploded.

Boom! The back one exploded too.

“Oh no, what happened?” Atlas said.

Trillion couldn’t see. She squinted. Then saw it. “They’re all dead.” 

The back explosion boosted the middle spacecraft forward. But it had also crippled it. It tumbled through space, towards the enemy ship. It looked like it was going to make it – but it didn’t have any power. So it would only take a course adjustment for the enemy AI to get out of the way. Trillion once again prayed that the Spaceforce AI wouldn’t get out of the way.  

Time stopped. For everyone.

The Ship of Atlas entered the room. “Trillion, I believe your Ship just ejected himself from the spacecraft.”

Trillion looked at Atlas. “What does that mean?”

Atlas raced over to his computer and began furiously typing. “It means if we don’t send something to intercept him now, he’ll race right through the system without stopping.”

Trillion didn’t quite know what to do. She didn’t have anything she could save him with. But she needed to. There was no way to save him if the enemy ships were still out there too. She had a thought. “Atlas, how hard would it be for you to hack into those spacecraft out there?”

He looked confused. “Impossible. Otherwise we would have done that already. I told you – as long as there’s a custom AI out there, it’s impossible for us to override their instructions.”

Trillion shook her head in frustration. Either her final spacecraft would connect with the enemy AI or she would lose everything. She’d lose Ship, her best friend. And she would lose her children and maybe her life. It all came down to this moment, this one tumbling spacecraft needed to hit the enemy. Nothing else she did matter, slowing down time was superfluous to finding out her fate. “Lex, can you take us to real time?”

The projected battle in front of them progressed once more. Over ten long seconds they watched as the middle spacecraft tumbled towards the enemy, boosted by the explosion. It was tumbling out of control, but there was still a chance it could tumble into the enemy’s craft.

The enemy spacecraft fired its engines hard, dodging Trillion’s tumbling spacecraft, whose engines had failed to ignite. It was dead. The battle was over. Her final spacecraft tumbled away from the enemy, its trajectory meaning it would just miss the Starfleet master AI.

Icarus broke the silence. “Sorry.” 

Trillion pointed at the door. “Get out!” She said not quite ready to accept defeat and forcing Icarus to leave.

Trillion’s final spacecraft exploded, pelting the enemy’s vessel with flying debris. With nowhere to run, moments later, the enemy craft exploded too.

Trillion jumped in the air in shock. “We did it!”

Atlas pumped his fist in the air then pointed at Trillion. “No, you did it!”

Atlas turned to his computer and played the footage. “It’s working. They aren’t coordinated with their firing anymore.” He pointed at the screen. “Look here.”

Lasers still fired at the remaining assass-ANTs scattered around the battlefield, but only one per assass-ANT now. They fired straight ahead at assass-ANTs directly in front of them. Any that weren’t on track to collide with an enemy spacecraft did not get fired at.

“They’ve gone back to using those lasers only as object avoidance, only firing at objects that could hit them,” Atlas said.

Trillion held her hand up, pausing the projected battle in the room. She made an action like turning a knob and the battle rewound. She pinched to zoom into one of the assass-ANTs and noticed it hadn’t moved once.

She rewound it again. “Ship isn’t controlling our side either. Can one of your two Ships get the assass-ANTs to aim down the middle of those craft? Then at the last minute, curve into the enemy? Also –” Trillion paused. “How do we save Ship? Can you try and hack into the Spaceforce, now that they don’t have a master AI controlling them?”

The Ship of Atlas responded. “I think so.”

Atlas’s hands were moving so quickly they were a blur. He disappeared for a moment and then reappeared. He flashed to the printer, then back to the computer before entering real time. “I think it’s done. Once I launch this virus, we might be able to control some of the spaceforce.

He crossed his fingers and pressed ‘launch’.