First published to Patreon April 10, 2015.
Light filled the long dark room. After millennia of quiet observation and study, the subjects were finally approaching. The machine’s hardware worked nearly silently, save for a faint thrumming. First, it created a floor for its guests to approach. Next, an airlock and the proper mix of atmospheric gases inside the chamber itself. Calculations began running inside the machine’s artificial mind as it decided on the best form to greet its visitors with. Pale, blue light flashed before coalescing into a solid, bipedal form. The form shifted, stretching out into long, spindly limbs. The head became bulbous. Two small slits formed for a nose along with another slit for a mouth. Large, slanted, dark eyes came next. Each limb grew digits. The light shifted and the tall alien form went from pale blue to a mostly opaque gray.
The form was satisfactory. The subjects had often depicted interstellar beings in this way. They would recognize it immediately. The familiarity would make the occasion much smoother. Three of the subjects were standing outside the airlock. The machine’s sensors scanned them. They were nervous, apprehensive. It calculated for a moment and decided that a gesture of peace might be of use. Seconds later, a dove surrounded by two olive branches flashed inside the airlock. Under the floating, ghostly image, the word, “WELCOME” spelled out. The machine felt amusement when one of the subjects sent back a radio communication to their home base saying, “I think we were expected.”
The airlock closed on them, beginning the pressurization process. The machine’s projection stood unnaturally still and silent as it waited for them. Once pressurization was completed, another sign flashed into being, informing the trio it was safe to remove their helmets. They did. The airlock opened into the inner chamber. The three subjects gasped at the sight of the projection towering over them.
“GREETINGS,” the projection said. Its small mouth curved into what it had learned was called a smile. “I AM SATISFIED THAT YOU HAVE FINALLY ARRIVED. I AM SURE YOU HAVE MANY QUESTIONS.”
One of them stepped forward. “Greetings. I’m Captain Azhar, of the International Aeronautics and Space Agency. This is Commander Shepherd and Lieutenant Crichton. We, uh, definitely have a lot of questions.”
“WELCOME, CAPTAIN AZHAR, COMMANDER SHEPHERD, AND LIEUTENANT CRICHTON. I AM UNIT THREE ZERO ZERO EIGHT TWO ONE. I WILL ANSWER ANY AND ALL QUESTIONS YOU HAVE. I CAN SUSTAIN ATMOSPHERE AS LONG AS YOU ARE HERE AND IF NEEDED, I CAN PROVIDE SUSTENANCE. SHALL WE BEGIN?”
“Right, so…what are you?” asked Lt. Crichton.
“I AM AN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE OF ALIEN ORIGIN AND I AM, IN FACT, THE STRUCTURE YOU ARE STANDING IN.”
The machine watched as the trio looked at each other in amazement.
“Why are you here?” the Captain inquired.
“I AM THE REWARD FOR YOUR FINAL TEST.”
“Test? You were testing us?” It was Shepherd this time.
“NOT ACTIVELY. EONS AGO, MY CREATORS FOUND THIS PLANET. AT THE TIME, IT WAS INHABITED BY THE CREATURES YOU REFER TO AS ‘DINOSAURS.’ THEY OBSERVED AND WATCHED THE EVENT THAT LED TO THEIR MASS EXTINCTION. DURING THE RISE OF MAMMALS, THEY DECIDED TO RUN AN EXPERIMENT, NUDGING YOUR DEVELOPMENT ALONG. THEY WONDERED IF ANOTHER SPECIES MIGHT, WITH THE RIGHT START, RISE SOCIALLY AND TECHNOLOGICALLY AS THEY ONCE DID.
“YOU STUDY THE COSMOS. YOU HAVE COME TO UNDERSTAND JUST HOW VAST IT IS. THEY WERE, AND LIKELY STILL ARE, SEARCHING FOR PEERS. AFTER DEPOSITING MY STRUCTURE INTO YOUR MOON SO I COULD MONITOR YOUR PROGRESS AND RECORD YOUR DEVELOPMENT, MY CREATORS LEFT TO CONTINUE THEIR SEARCH.”
“Are you telling me the human race is an experiment?!” Captain Azhar asked incredulously.
“WHAT I AM TELLING YOU, CAPTAIN, IS THAT YOU ARE A SUCCESS. I HAVE WATCHED YOU GROW FROM TIMID PRIMATES INTO WARRING TRIBES. TWO CENTURIES AGO, I OBSERVED, MISTAKENLY, THAT YOU WOULD FIND ME DURING YOUR ‘SPACE RACE.’ SINCE THEN, YOU HAVE EMBRACED THE INFINITE COMBINATIONS OF DIVERSITY YOUR CULTURES OFFER. YOUR WILLINGNESS TO WORK TOGETHER LED YOU TO DISCOVERING AN ANOMALY. THAT HAS LED YOU HERE.”