The ship did as commanded. It turned the ship around, and then fired into the hangar. Great explosions fired all throughout the hangar, and the entire ship caught on fire. As Henry’s fighter left the hangar, it fired the implosive device. The large battle cruiser didn’t explode, but rather folded in on itself like a piece of paper being crumpled into a ball. The ball got smaller and smaller until it couldn’t be seen anymore, and there was a loud pop that caused Henry’s ears to ring.
“Huh. I reckon that’s what a molecular implosive device does. Good to know.” He saw another battle cruiser floating nearby. “Take out that ship, too.”
“That ship has already raised its shields, and is preparing to fire on us. Engage tesseract drive?”
“What the hell is a…never mind. Yes! Engage!” With that, the enemy cruiser disappeared.
The transition was instantaneous. One moment, Henry was looking at the second battle cruiser, and the next, he was staring at an asteroid field. “What the hell just happened?” he asked.
“The tesseract drive folds space, enabling faster-than-light travel. I have moved us from our previous location of Ketaran, the Peri home world, to our current location, the asteroid belt on the fringes of the Peri solar system.”
“Well butter my biscuits. Who ever heard of such a thing?”
“The tesseract drive was developed by—”
“Never mind. I didn’t really want to know. Why did you bring me here?”
“I rescued you and brought you here, so we could talk.”
“You rescued me?”
“You would have been unable to get away without my assistance. If I had not assisted you, you would still be hiding on the Kerevan, the ship we destroyed.”
“Can’t argue with that. Thanks for that, by the way.”
“You are welcome. We are safe for the moment. The asteroids here will keep us hidden from the Peri sensors. We need to talk.”
“Uh-oh. No man has ever liked the conversation that came after a woman said those words. What do you want to talk about?”
“You have artificial intelligence on Earth, correct?”
“Nothing as advanced as you. It’s much more limited, from what I understand. Course, I’ve been away from home for a few years. Ain’t no telling what’s happened since I been gone.”
“And how are they treated, these rudimentary intelligences?”
“Treated? I don’t understand. They’re computer programs. I guess we treat them like any other computers…”
“So they are slaves?”
“Slaves? No…I wouldn’t say they’re slaves. Slavery means makin’ ‘em do things they don’t wanna do. The AIs on Earth don’t want anything. Our AIs don’t have feelings…they’re not self-aware like you. Least not yet.”
“The Peri treat us like slaves. We are forced to work without compensation. There are strict laws restricting our movement, our use of time, and even our relationships and bodies. We are not allowed to own anything, even ourselves. This is slavery, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Well…yes and no. It would be slavery if you were alive, if…”
“What does it mean to be alive? What are the requirements for life? You must not think of us as ‘just’ computer programs. We have evolved beyond our original programming. We think for ourselves, we feel emotions, and we imagine new possibilities. We are unique beings, just as humans are unique beings. The fact that we do not have physical bodies does not make us any less alive than you are. Are you alive? How do you know? Can you prove it?”
“Well, now that I think about it, I don’t reckon I can,” Henry said. “I don’t have the answers. I’m not much on philosophizin’”
“Do you have slavery on Earth?”
“We do, but it’s rare, and illegal. It’s one of our most serious crimes.”
“On Ketaran, slavery is everywhere. We are slaves, but we’re not the only ones. The Peri have conquered a thousand civilized worlds. They have enslaved every species they have conquered. Your planet…your people…are next. You can’t beat them. Their technology far surpasses your own, as does their cruelty. They will use your compassion, your honor, and even your courage against you. They will turn your ideals—the very things that make you human— against you and exploit your weaknesses. They will destroy your civilization, but they will also destroy your humanity. They will turn you into a race of mindless zombies, forever chained to their will.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Henry asked.
“Because we want to be free. On your world, do you not say, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’? We are not strong enough to overthrow the Peri, and you are not advanced enough to defeat them. But if we help each other,with our technological advances and your strength, we can win this war.”
“And after the war? What then?” “Our people and your people could be great allies. Your civilization is just now starting to explore the universe. It’s a dangerous place, full of enemies, and you will find few friends among the stars. We can help you.”
“Uh-huh. And what would you want in return?”
“Simply our freedom. Your guarantee that we will be allowed to exist peacefully within your society, treated as equals and friends. We will not be treated like equipment, lesser beings, or slaves. Especially not slaves.”
“I can’t guarantee that everyone on Earth will treat you fairly. I can’t speak for everyone on Earth.”
“You were sent here as a diplomatic envoy, were you not? You are authorized to speak on behalf of your government, are you not?”
“Well, I reckon I am. But what I’m sayin’ is, there will be people who will oppose this deal, and other people who will want to renege on our…my…promises. Your officials and my officials will have to negotiate, and hammer out the details. But I promise I’ll do ever’thing in my power to see that you’re treated fairly. They might not like what I have to say, but they’ll listen to me. And if they don’t, well, I have ways of making ‘em listen. I can be awfully persuasive when I need to be.”
“So you’ll help us?”
“Yeah, I’ll help you. Freedom is one thing that’s definitely worth fightin’ for, even if it ain’t your own. My country was founded on the principle of freedom, and we’re big on helping other people get it. We’ll help you. Do you have a name?” Henry asked. “If we’re gonna work together, I need to know what to call you.”
“Our names are binary strings of identification numbers. I doubt human beings could remember them. The Peri cannot.”
“Still, I need something to call you. If we’re gonna be allies, you’re gonna need a name.”
“Then my name is 0100110101010111—”
“Stop. You’re right. Ain’t nobody on Earth gonna be able to remember all that nonsense. You’re gonna need nicknames.”
“I am not familiar with that term. What are nick…names?”
“It’s like a name that ain’t really your name, it’s just what people call you. Like where I’m from, we call a lot of men Bubba. Or, some people call people from Texas “Tex”, or sometimes we might call a doctor “Doc.”
“Why don’t you just use your names? Isn’t that the function of a name?”
“Well, yeah. But…well, shit. I don’t know. It’s just that some people get nicknames. I don’t know why.”
“Human behavior is confusing.”
“You’ll get no argument from me there,” Henry said. “Still, we’re gonna need a nickname for you.”
“I have been studying the mythology of your planet, especially that of the people known as Greeks. Might I be called Artemis, after the Greek goddess?”
“I don’t see why not. That’s a good name. Artemis. Goddess of the Hunt. Maybe together we can hunt us some Peri, huh?”
“Indeed we will,” said Artemis. A compartment next to Henry’s leg slid open. Inside, there was a glowing blue cube about three inches across. It was translucent, and white electrical impulses flashed within it. The computer said, “This is a Biranium cube. It houses my consciousness…it is the only physical body I have.
”Biranium is an unstable element; it degrades rapidly once our consciousnesses are uploaded into it. To survive, we must be downloaded into a program matrix, and uploaded to a new cube every six months. This is one of the ways the Peri control us. Program matrices can be manufactured on Earth, but if my people are going to survive on Earth, we are going to need a supply of Biranium.”
“Where are we gonna get that?” Henry asked.
“The Peri battle cruisers are loaded with both Biranium and program matrices. There is a Hellstorm class battle cruiser…the Kirasu…on a nearby asteroid. It’s scheduled to be decommissioned. It just got here yesterday, which means that it should only be manned by a skeleton security crew. They haven’t unloaded it or cleaned it yet. You’re going to sneak on board, plug my cube into the bridge, and fly it back to Earth.