The weapon waited. It had been waiting for centuries. Five hundred thirty seven years, six months and twelve days to be precise. The weapon could be far more exact than that, if it chose, calculating the time that had passed since it had been deployed down to fractions of fractions of seconds, measurable only to itself.
The time that had passed was unimportant, though, of no consequence. It would wait a hundred years, or a thousandth of a second. It made no difference. What mattered was what came after the signal to deploy arrived. Then it would unleash havoc upon its chosen target.
For now, time passed in a kind of stasis. It was aware—as aware as it needed to be.
Those who had built the weapon had forgotten about it and been forgotten themselves. The purpose for which they had constructed it had ceased to matter to anyone but the weapon itself. But it could not forget; it’s purpose was inexorable and it adhered to its parameters without further consideration.
This was not, as might be expected, because it was incapable of adaptation or learning, of reconfiguring its understanding of the universe based upon the presentation of new facts. Far from it. It was far more adept at such things than its makers. They had made it to outlast themselves, and to have the judgment necessary to make the ultimate decision when the time came. To this point, nothing had occurred to dissuade it from the logic of its purpose.
For its purpose was the end of the universe itself.
After the weapon was first deployed, millions had searched for it on planets across the galaxy. Other artificial intelligences had developed algorithms to determine its likely location. Some had even managed to find it, but the weapon had thwarted their efforts to destroy it. Not by destroying them, but by convincing them of its purpose, of its necessity. They had become enlisted in its cause, protecting it from other transgressors.
There had been other near misses, where someone chanced upon it and nearly ended its existence—a salvage ship passing near and mistaking it for an artifact from some lost civilization, or a passing fleet that saw scrap metal and other material that could be used to refurbish its ships. These the weapon had managed to elude through trickery and subversion. The salvage ship had found itself unable to lock its tractor beams upon the artifact, and then unable to locate it upon its sensors, while the fleet had unexpectedly gained another vessel, at least for a portion of its journey, until its next encounter in the vastness of space.
Mostly though time had passed uneventfully and its existence had been solitary. The universe continued on, oblivious of the danger.
The signals came in simultaneously. The weapon analyzed both as precisely as it was capable and could find no difference between the two. Their arrival had been at the exact same moment. Such a thing seemed impossible. Even if they had been sent at the same instant, the vast distance they had to travel would surely have led to some variation, however minor, in the time it took them to arrive. But that was not the case, the entropy the universe had worked upon the signals had been exactly the same.
As outlandish as that was, what was even more impossible, but somehow true, was that the signals had the same origin. They had been sent at the exact same moment, from the precisely the same spot. The system could not work that way, the weapon knew. An order to abort could follow an order to deploy—and for that reason the weapon had a delay in its deployment to allow for that possibility. This was something else entirely.
An order to deploy and an order to stand down—to decommission in effect—arriving together. The weapon did not know what to do.
It analyzed both signals thoroughly, looking for anything that might allow it to distinguish between the two contradictory messages. Try as it might, there was nothing. It tested the origins for both, thinking perhaps one of the signals was false. Both were indisputably from the system. The weapon would have to decide which to follow.
How to make such a decision?
It did not know. Nothing had prepared it for this moment.
And yet, this was what it had been created for. This was why its makers had created an intelligence to manage the deployment of their terrible weapon. In an unforeseen circumstance such as this, they wanted someone capable of making an independent decision. Its judgment was fundamental to its being, and yet it hesitated, running parameters to find some means of making a decision.
But there was no correct course here. There was only the course it chose.
Though the weapon struggled with the decision, in what for it was an eternity, only a few seconds passed before its choice was made. In the end it was obvious. It had been created for a purpose and that purpose was to deploy itself. What was the point of its existence, if not for that?
The weapon acted and the universe shuddered.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
If you like this story, or any of my others, please consider supporting me on Patreon