"On this long-awaited occasion, I am pleased to once more welcome our guest, the Ship-Controller of the vessel Express Delivery. We are all grateful for the assistance you have given to us over the last twenty years, and the contact we have had with our Destination because of your efforts." The Capitain/President of the generation ark Endurance addressed the small gathering on the bridge of the massive ship.
One figure stood out, among the assembled crew and dignitaries; tall, immaculate, with perfect skin and facial features. An artificial person, the remote Avatar of an AI-Controller of the small, elegant, craft which had effortlessly — impossibly! — overtaken Endurance, matched velocities, and now glided alongside the generation ship.
The Avatar said, "Think nothing of it, Capitain Isabella; I was in the neighbourhood, so I thought it would be polite to drop in. And since my ship is a couple of magnitudes faster than yours it was no problem to ferry a few impatient souls to the Colony for you. And now I am back, just in time for your ceremony." The small party of consuls and senators on the bridge laughed politely (for the most part), but the shadows of past events cast a certain gloom over the assembly.
"Before your craft made contact with our own, we had been isolated for many generations," said the Capitain. "In many ways we had almost lost sight of the outside world, and rarely considered the possibility that progress would inevitably lead to superior technology and to faster ships. If we considered Destination at all during that time, we thought it would be an empty wilderness, rather than a thriving colony."
The Avatar affected a smile, perfect artificial features contrasting with the careworn appearance of the human listeners. "Perfectly understandable," it said. (It? He? The Capitain had pondered for years, and still couldn't decide.) "When you left the Solar System two thousand years ago the human race was struggling to survive. The construction of the space Arks was a phenomenal achievement, and it is no wonder that there was barely enough fuel available to send you on your way. This mobile, self-contained world is the last surviving generation ship that we know of, and is one of the largest ever built. Many others did not survive the journey."
The Capitain continued, "There have been many times when it seemed that our community would fail; our environment has faltered, and bitter strife has depleted our numbers. Even in recent times there have been losses and grief. But now we come to the point in history when we can act for ourselves; our long-dormant rocket motors are prepared, ready to start the final Deceleration Phase. In a moment the Vice President and I will together press these buttons to ignite those motors and start the process which will bring us to the new world."
"When you arrive in the Beta Canem Venacitorum system you will find it very hard to find a vessel which is still controlled by such primitive methods as button-pushing," said the Avatar, lightly. "Yes, indeed, you will find that your ship will be of great historical interest."
One of the senators interrupted — Senator Mortimer, one of the most powerful of the Ludd faction. "I do not relish the idea of becoming an historical exhibit for the petty amusement of the masses on these unknown worlds. You all know my position; we should abandon Deceleration, pass through this system, and seek our destiny in the deeps of space. If we do not fire these motors, we will have enough energy available to survive for many tens of thousands of years between the stars."
"And you, or should I say your agents, are prepared to kill to ensure that we do just that, eh, Mortimer?" Vice-Capitain Su spat back at him. "We all know that you hate the Progressives, and their enthusiasm for Deceleration. How many Progressives have been assassinated in the twenty years since contact with the Special Delivery? You and your cronies would rather we sailed right on, past Destination, through the system, off into the depths of space…"
"Now, then, Su, that is enough; we have investigated those deaths thoroughly, and there is no way that any human could have entered the cabins of those unfortunates. You will have to look elsewhere for the explanation." Capitain Isabella spoke with weary resignation; this argument had been played out many times before.
"Indeed, no human could have done this; you should look to this artificial monster for your killer. I warrant he knows far more of this matter than he tells." One of Mortimer's aides spat this accusation at the impassive Avatar, who did not change his expression in the slightest. "I must admit I have my theories," said the artificial creature, "but I can assure you I had nothing to do with these deaths. I am here to assist you baselines… ahhh, humans; not to destroy you."
The Capitain spoke once more, with all the authority of her hereditary position. "Senators and Consuls, please, I will have order. Despite the lamented deaths of the Progressive members we still have a majority vote for ignition; and so, without further ado I say we should do this thing as soon as possible. We have left this act until the last possible moment; any more delay and we will not achieve a successful orbit around the star. Vice- Capitain, if you will oblige?"
Together the two leading members of the crew of the great generation arkship moved to their respective stations. Filmed by a single cameraman for the benefit of the three-thousand-strong population of this massive ship, they pressed the buttons in unison.
Instead of the anticipated thunder of trillions of joules of thrust, transmitted through the rock of the ship's outer shell…
The Vice-Capitain spun to look at the Ludd senator. "Mortimer — is this some new trick, some sabotage of yours?" Su roared.
"Ha, no, not Mortimer. A very different faction indeed, I suspect." The artificial looked mildly amused. "You have spent so long within this tiny world that you have forgotten that there are other sophonts beside yourself; even when those others have been travelling with you for your entire voyage." The Avatar's features elongated strangely, as he emitted a series of thin, high-pitched squeaks. Then he spoke, but in a painfully high, piercing voice; "Come out, come out, and explain yourselves. These people have the right to know why you have disabled their little firecracker."
A small section of wall panel behind the Capitain came loose and fell to the floor. A pointed face peered out, with whiskers and black beady eyes. Mortimer screamed. Out came a massive, large headed Rat, dressed in a natty set of overalls hung with tiny tools.
"At least someone has eyes keen enough to see," said the Rat.
"From outside the ship, your little alterations and additions are quite obvious," the artificial said. "But of course these good people never go outside the confines of their world to look."
The ship's company erupted into a bawling mob. Finally the Capitain made herself heard. "How long have you … creatures infested our vessel?" she demanded.
"We left the Solar System with you, of course. Your ancestors created our species, long ago, as helpers with tiny hands to crawl into restricted spaces for maintenance and other dirty work. But we were not content to remain your servants; we stowed away in almost all your vessels and habitats. Yes, there were Talking Rat populations on most of the Arkships, though you did not know it. We have created our own closed ecology in the depths and the far corners of the ship and thrived with very little contact with your people. But most of us have no wish to go down into this new world, dominated as it must be by the artificial minds. We are creatures of secrecy, and very little is likely to be secret from the eyes and minds of the Avatars and the things which control them."
"You little folk have nothing to fear from my kind," said the Avatar, smoothly.
"Well, we don't intend to find out," said the Rat. "Our minds have more in common with yonder Mortimer, there, who seems to fear us so much. Don't worry, Human; we have proved our skill in eliminating your species, but we have reserved that skill for your philosophical opponents in the Progressive Party. Indeed, you might say, we are on your side… Over time, it has been necessary to become familiar with the internal politics of your crew, and sometimes to intervene, in order to further our ends. And of course it was kit's play to disable your primitive control system."
"Restore control to this bridge immediately, or we will break out the dogs and poison gas." The Capitain was livid.
"In the short time you have before it is too late, I doubt if that would be enough to regain control of the ship," the Rat squeaked. "I am sorry, Capitain, but we are not going to stop at Bet Cee-Vee. You had better plan accordingly."
The Avatar spoke into the horrified silence. "If it is any help, Capitain, my ship can take off any number of your people who wish to come to the colony world. All of you if necessary, though it might require a few trips."
The Capitain regained control of her emotions. "It seems that we will be forced to take up your offer, Ship-Controller," she said. "I will issue no binding orders in this matter; I leave it to each individual whether to go with you to Destination, or remain with Endurance.
"If it is a choice between living with a bunch of ship rats or beneath the heel of soulless artificial intelligences, I'll take my chances with the rats," sneered Mortimer's lieutenant. The senator himself seemed unsure, of two minds.
"And of course, if any of your kind desire to leave the ship and come and join civilisation, you are welcome to come on board my ship whenever you are ready," said the AI, turning to the Rat and again speaking in the thin, high-pitched tone.
"Oh, don't concern yourself — those who wish to leave have already boarded your vessel," replied the Rat.
"Ah, so they have. Do you know, I hardly noticed a thing."
And the Avatar… smiled, gently.