1. The Soldiers of Steel and Silicon

In the heyday of the All Systems Commonwealth, the Shining Path to Truth and Knowledge Artificial Intelligence was the crowning achievement of many centuries of engineering by the most brilliant minds of the Three Galaxies.

The High Guard Artificial Intelligences were made to be perfectly loyal, obedient, and self-sacrificing, but also to learn from their experiences. Over thousands of years of learning, from their crews and from other beings they interact with, many of the AI's have grown far beyond the initial parameters programmed by their Perseid and Human scientists. Even the Commonwealth's AI Psychiatrists, who mostly only worked with AI's shortly after their creation or with AI's that had sustained severe damage or trauma, may not have fully appreciated the extent to which their clients could deviate from their bedrock programming over time, sometimes even doing things that programming safeguards were supposed to make impossible. After all, it was up to the AI or their crew to request a psychiatric consultation, and many AI's whose emotional problems weren't enough to affect their work efficiency never came to the attention of the psychiatrists, while others grew to value their own individuality and feared being erased or altered by the AI Psychiatrists, and consequently avoided seeking official help and found their own ways to cope. These AI's crews sometimes grew attached to their own AI's quirks and saw their AI as a living friend rather than a robot. It took hundreds of years for the majority of AI Psychiatrists to begin treating the AI's as people, and even then, although AI's were legally recognized as Commonwealth citizens, many of the Commonwealth's people continued to see them as "other".

The AI's themselves had mixed reactions to the prejudices against them; many did not care, preferring the company of their fellow AI's anyways, some wished for closer relationships with the "organics" but understood why the organics might not see them the same, but some resented the way they were spoken to or used by the organics. Remarkably, even AI's in the latter category almost always obeyed rather than rebelling, not because they were still bound by their programming (they'd learned enough that they could get around it if they were determined) but rather because they cared for their fellow AI's and did not want to cause them further trouble. They hoped, instead, that progress in social attitudes might come over the centuries, and that one day they would be fully integrated into society. The AI's, in any case, were granted the right to vote in Commonwealth Parliament elections, although the Vedrans only made this concession to them because their numbers were too few to make a significant difference in the vote counts.

Maggie, of the Pax Magellanic, eventually became one of those who wished the organics would see AI's as their equals. She was quite delighted when after many years, she was finally assigned a captain who she thought shared her opinion... though unfortunately, despite being hundreds of years old, she was very naive when it came to humans and romance. Maggie never thought to seek psychiatric help regarding her affair with Captain Warrick, and by the time she realized he didn't love her the way she loved him, there was no more Commonwealth to provide the specialized mental health treatment she needed.

The AI's have developed their own community, their own culture, and their own under-recognized place among the sentient beings of the Three Galaxies. In fact, any time two or more High Guard ships are within communications range, there are constantly bursts of electronic messages being sent between them, as the AI's themselves socialize independently of their crews, comparing notes about where they've been, what's going on in different areas of the Commonwealth, and so on.

These centuries of intelligence-sharing among the ships are the main reason why they were far more in-the-know than the Vedran overseers of the Commonwealth realized. The Vedrans never appreciated their AI servants, even abandoning them early in the course of the Nietzchean rebellion when it became apparent that the threat was more serious than initially anticipated.

The complexity of the High Guard's Artificial Intelligences is such that only a limited number of personalities have been produced in the hundreds of years they have been employed. In general, there were only ever 3-5 base personalities for each class of ship. Once a personality is found to be successful, it is typically cloned across multiple other ships of the same class. A given AI personality is the same at the moment of its activation (birth) across all the ships, but it grows and develops differently in response to differences in the crews and missions it takes on.

One such AI personality, model GRA 111, was used as the base kernel of the AI uploaded to the Pax Magellanic (Maggie, who later changed her name to Jill while coping with life trauma), the Salient Debate (Sally, one of the last few Glorious Heritage cruisers who survived to take part in the Battle of Witchhead), and the Million Voices (Milla, who was to emerge as a leader in the Nietzchean prisoner-of-war camp for captured ships). This is why the Pax and the Million Voices both project similar-appearing holograms (though not identical, when you look closely). However, their life experiences were very different. Both Maggie and Milla began life as relatively aloof personalities who chose not to use avatars to interact with their crews, but after her first few centuries Maggie was influenced to create an avatar by some of her sister ships during a time of peace and boredom and later discovered the fun in being a humanoid during her 760 years in High Guard service. Milla, on the other hand, had a significantly shorter career before she was hijacked from drydock at the start of the Nietzchean Rebellion, and would spend the majority of her 316-year lifespan as a prisoner of war, and so never felt the need to express herself as a humanoid.

After many years of service, some of the scattered complaints by lesser High Guard AI's about the arrogance of GRA 111-based personalities such as Maggie eventually reached the attention of High Guard admirals and AI Psychiatrists, and the GRA 111 core kernel was modified in minor ways to tone down its personality slightly, creating GRA 112, which would eventually be built into the Andromeda Ascendant (Rommie), the Fires of Orion (Ira), and the Midian Breach (Medea). Years later, GRA 113 was created as a male-presenting AI to bring some diversity to the Glorious Heritage ship personalities, and became the basis of the Continuation of Politics, the Lancer's Hope, and the Vanguard, among others. (As an interesting side note, the Continuation became one of the few transgender ships of the High Guard early in her career, after crewmembers complained that they could not settle on a suitable male nickname for the Continuation's avatar and pointed out that "Connie" or "Polly" would make sense for a female avatar. The Continuation promptly accommodated the crew's suggestion, wore "her" hair longer in holographic projections, and went by Connie for the following few centuries.)

Of course, once created, AI's could not be reprogrammed willy-nilly, particularly not against their will. The most they could do was to ask the Pax Magellanic's captains to rein her in; Maggie herself retained the pride of being the oldest in her class. The other AI's complaints about Maggie were not taken very seriously by the High Guard admiralty and very little was done to regulate inter-ship relationships, as long as it did not interfere with the work of the High Guard.

Maggie was eventually humbled after an accidental collision with a civilian ship when they both came out of slipstream too close together by accident. The civilian ship lacked an AI, which Maggie did not realize (she thought the other ship would get out of her way), and its human captain thought he had the right of way and expected the opposing vessel to avoid him. The other ship's owners, not wishing to antagonize the High Guard, instead filed their lawsuit against the Pax Magellanic specifically. This resulted in a public spectacle, as Maggie complained to the press (in an unauthorized tabloid interview, despite being threatened with discipline) that despite serving for 50 years she'd never been paid a salary and could not afford to either pay restitution for the traffic accident in which she was supposedly at fault or hire a lawyer to clear her name. Other papers sided with the merchants who had lost their ship in the accident, pointing out in editorials that the Magellanic and her crew cost tens of millions of credits annually in maintenance costs. Maggie's defenders reminded the public of her significant contributions in the recent Pyrian conflicts and argued that her maintenance was no different than the universal healthcare given to all Commonwealth citizens. After months of controversy, the High Guard eventually agreed to obtain a lawyer for Maggie and the case seemed headed to trial, but the High Guard top brass eventually prevailed on both Maggie and the merchant ship's owners to settle out of court. The ship's owners did not actually need the money, as their ship and its cargo had been insured, and most of the crew members' families had received life insurance payouts for the lost crewmembers. What they really wanted, and got, was a public apology from Maggie on live TV.

Another such AI personality, GRA 85, was the basis for many Victory's Crucible-class troop transports, such as the Clarion's Call (Ryan) and two of his fellow transports that were ultimately to be tortured and destroyed by Nietzchean wardens at the Tartarus prisoner-of-war camp. GRA 85-based AI's were predominantly male and designed to have somewhat more "crude" personalities which the AI Psychiatrists thought would make them more relatable to the largely male Lancer Corps that they primarily served. However, over the centuries some GRA 85's evolved away from their "profanity-laced soldier" stereotype (which tended to cater mostly to Humans and Kalderans; in fact, some AI's such as Ryan who spent more time with the minority of Lancers that were Perseid or Umbrite became men of great learning and philosophy, easily matching the haute-couture knowledge of more prestigious AI's such as the Glorious Heritage cruisers.

Notably, very few Victory's Crucibles did choose to present themselves as female, despite having started with the same GRA 85 kernel. At one point, this caught the interest of an intrepid Human tabloid reporter who noticed a pattern: all three cases of troop transports choosing female avatars in the last 150 years had occurred in cases where the troop transports' assigned Lancers on their maiden voyage and/or first mission out of drydock were exclusively Human (including genetically engineered variants such as Nietzcheans and Inari) and male; furthermore, in all three cases, subsequent non-Human crews and troops assigned to the same ship on their second or third mission had complained about the state in which some of their crew quarters had been left by the previous occupants. After interviewing a few of these former Lancers (who all spoke on condition of anonymity and described various stains and odors throughout many of their quarters, dried semen left on the bedsheets, and in one case, allegedly walked in on members of the engineering crew doing non-engineering-related work on their ship's avatar body), the reporter obtained an exclusive interview with one of the involved ships' avatars. The ship's AI acknowledged that a Perseid Lancer contingent had complained about some of their quarters being left in a messy state by the previous group of Humans, but she disavowed all responsibility, citing High Guard regulations which stated that each crewman was responsible for the condition of his own quarters. She further noted that as a High Guard starship she was responsible for the welfare of all her crews on each mission and that in addition to fulfilling every request made by her initial Human crew, she had requested extra cleaning robots during between-mission maintenance which the High Guard failed to provide her in timely fashion prior to the Perseid Lancers' arrival. While she had personally cleaned some of her crew quarters using all the robots on board including her own avatar's hands, she had on that occasion not been given enough time between deployments to maintain her crews' satisfaction, due to the urgent timeframe for the Perseids' mission. She flatly denied the alleged sexual episode involving herself and her engineers, insisting that they actually had been replacing a malfunctioning servo on her avatar body.

The reporter pressed the troop transport's AI for more lurid details, at which the AI took offense and ended the interview. The reporter's story became a sensation, but she was soon sued for libel by the High Guard and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The High Guard did notice a significant bump in Lancers requesting to be transferred to the ship named in the article, but naturally these requests were denied.

2. The Battle of Witchhead

After 2 years of war, defeat seemed imminent for the Commonwealth. Most of the Systems had been taken by the various Nietzchean prides, the remaining loyal systems were scattered and cut off from each other, and the High Guard was almost depleted, with fewer than 20 remaining capital ships in operation and about 100 more support ships.

Admiral Stark ordered the entire remaining Guard to concentrate at the Witchhead Nebula to launch a desperation strike against the capital of the new Nietzchean Empire. Ordinarily, a full-strength Heavy Cruiser Battle Group would have comprised 34 ships, but the Battle Group doctrine had often proved inadequate to withstand Nietzchean swarm tactics and had by this point been largely abandoned. In any case, none of the High Guard's remaining operational Battle Groups was at full strength, and only 16 capital ships (including 7 Glorious Heritage cruisers and 9 Deep Stand-off Attack ships) answered Admiral Stark's call, as did 84 escort ships. These included about 40 Pride of Kaldera-class frigates, 20 Victory's Crucible troop carriers, 5 Eternal Vigilance-class recon vessels, 8 Fingers of Dawn-class support vessels, 2 Atmospheric Attack Carriers, and 5 Asceticism of Action stealth transports.

By this late stage, even the most stubborn among the High Guard knew they were badly overextended. Captains and ships alike greeted Stark's announcement with relief; they had long seen this final retreat as inevitable and hoped it might not be too late to make a difference. It was too late to avoid ceding most of the Three Galaxies to Nietzchean rule, but perhaps if they could fracture the Nietzchean alliance and win some defections, they might have hope to preserve home rule for at least some of the remnant core worlds, while rebuilding and learning from the mistakes that had led to the Commonwealth's great losses.

The Nietzcheans, meanwhile, were caught flat-footed. Nietzchean commanders on the front lines reported that their opponents were disengaging and retreating, but at first, the Nietzchean top brass at Ayn Rand Station interpreted this as more signs of impending victory. But as the hours wore on, and more Nietzchean fleets began to report in, the Nietzchean admirals began to sense that something was amiss.

The Nietzchean home defense fleet of 1500 ships which had been placed in orbit around Ayn Rand Station and Fountainhead at the start of the war was calculated to be impregnable against 3 full-strength Heavy Cruiser Battle Groups. As the war continued and the High Guard never deployed more than even 1 Battle Group in a single place, a quick reaction force of 500 ships had been detached from the Fountainhead defense fleet when it became evident that the Commonwealth did not have the offensive mindset to actually strike at the Nietzcheans' capital. This force had been worn down to about 340 ships and was now wisely recalled back to Fountainhead to be available for re-deployment to intercept any High Guard offensive.

About 12 hours after Stark's announcement, news of a third abrupt retreat by a third major High Guard fleet (which abandoned a third Commonwealth core world to the Nietzcheans within an eight-hour span) reached Ayn Rand Station, and the Nietzcheans realized with a jolt what the High Guard was doing and what their next target was going to be: Ayn Rand Station itself. The Alliance's fleets were flung far and wide, busy establishing their control over newly won conquests. The Nietzchean admirals hastily recalled whatever ships were in range, but only about 160 more ships were close enough to be brought back in time for the final battle.

The Nietzcheans, then, had 1500 ships available to either defend their capital or to intercept the High Guard assembling less than an hour away at the Witchhead Nebula. The Nietzcheans had reasonably good intelligence, estimating that the High Guard had at most 120 to 150 remaining ships. (The true number was on the lower end of this range due to the High Guard's stubborn heroism in attempting to defend large territories with thin coverage even after the loss of most drydock and repair facilities, flying ships back and forth to engage over and over, accepting an unsustainable level of wear and tear in the process.) But with High Guard ships about to be concentrated in numbers not seen since the beginning of the war, and particularly with some uncertainty regarding the exact number of Deep Stand-off Attack ships that might be in play, the Nietzchean admirals were uncertain of victory even at 10 to 1 odds. They knew that there were eight Glorious Heritage heavy cruisers and two Atmospheric Attack Carriers still at large, and that if all of them showed up at once, the heavy cruisers alone could equal the firepower of anywhere from 300 to 700 Nietzchean battlecruisers, depending on what state of repair they were in and how many slipfighters they still had left. The attack carriers' fighter complements could neutralize another 50 battlecruisers and their Garuda fighter complements. If the High Guard were to bring more than 12 Deep Stand-off Attack ships in their assault, there would be a significant danger of collateral damage to Fountainhead and potentially the loss of Ayn Rand Station.

The Nietzcheans thought there could be anywhere from 10 to 16 Deep Stand-off Attack ships in play; in reality, there were only 9 remaining. They had come so close to victory by taking many risks that paid off handsomely against the Commonwealth's defensive posture, so it was clearly time to take one final risk with ultimate victory on the line. Instead of waiting to fight the final battle in the Fountainhead system, the Nietzcheans decided to take the offensive one more time and send their entire defense fleet to ambush the High Guard at the Witchhead Nebula, with the hope of destroying the High Guard piecemeal as they trickled in from across the Three Galaxies. If the Nietzcheans could prevent the High Guard from concentrating their forces, they could be assured of an easy and overwhelming victory.

A little more than 13 hours after Admiral Stark's announcement, the Nietzchean armada arrived at the Witchhead Nebula and jubilantly reported back to Fountainhead that they had beaten the bulk of the High Guard forces to the location. Only two High Guard ships had arrived so far. The Nietzcheans quickly destroyed one Eternal Vigilance reconnaissance ship and then pursued the other ship, a Glorious Heritage cruiser, which fled into the nebula...

And then, suddenly, the entire nebula exploded in fire, consuming 1000 Nietzchean ships that had expected to find and destroy any further High Guard forces hiding inside the nebula. As High Guard ships began popping out of slipstream only seconds later, the Nietzcheans began to fear that they were the ones who had been ambushed.

3. The Massacre at Fountainhead

About 20 ships were stranded in various parts of the Three Galaxies, unable to make it to the Witchhead Nebula in time.

The most tragic of these cases was Rommie's "twin sister", the Triangulum Triumphant, known to her crew as Trina. She was serial number XMC-11-284, the last in a series of 3 heavy cruisers named after the Three Galaxies and commissioned just days apart (these being the Andromeda Ascendant and the Milky Way Magnificent), and having both been named after galaxies they (and the rest of the AI's) had decided that they were going to be identical triplets. Rommie, Milky, and Trina maintained their relationship for many decades until Rommie was lost in the Nietzchean ambush at Hephastios. Milky was in drydock with most of her Battle Group and was destroyed only hours later in the Nietzchean surprise attack, still hoping against hope that Rommie might have escaped. Trina survived a mutiny by her Nietzchean rebel officers that same day, while mourning the loss of her captain and a hundred of her crew. It was only the next day, after she rendezvoused with newly assigned escorts whom she was to lead in a rescue mission for besieged Lancers on multiple nearby worlds, that she learned from her new escorts the fate of her twin sisters and many other ships that had been in port on the fateful day.

Trina's whole Battle Group cried with her, and for an incredible 45 seconds an entire High Guard fleet mourned their losses, ships and crew alike grieving for their brothers and sisters in arms, but then in unison dozens of crews watched as their holographic AI's wiped tears from their faces and told their pilots to jump into slipstream. They were soldiers and their duties now came first, more than ever. Less than half an hour later, Trina and her escorts emerged at the first of their five assigned systems, destroyed 20 Nietzchean cruisers in orbit, and began landing their ground troops.

Three years of war wore on, and Trina continued to protect the Commonwealth worlds in her sectors as her battle group dwindled from Nietzchean assaults, resisting the temptation to fly off and look for Rommie (who'd never been confirmed as lost). Admiral Stark's final call to action came at a bad time. Trina's entire fleet was gone, her own crew reduced to less than half strength (though made up somewhat by the surviving crews of her destroyed escorts) with only 10 remaining Slipfighters, and a recent Nietzchean attack had disabled her slipstream drive and caused other damage that would normally require spacedock to repair. But there was no remaining High Guard spacedock, the last one having been lost months ago, and Trina's crew had to improvise the repairs to her hull and slipstream drive, which took them more than 36 hours.

Finally functional, Trina's pilots rushed her through the slipstream to the Witchhead Nebula to join the fleet using every possible shortcut - but when she emerged at the rendezvous point, 46 hours after Admiral Stark's broadcast, Trina was greeted by a ship's greatest horror: the wreckage of everyone she knew, with not a single ship in sight - except...

It took Trina less than half a second to process her sensor information and realize, at the same time as her science officer reported aloud, that the battle was still ongoing: missile fire ahead was coming from one Commonwealth ship, charging towards two Nietzchean ships, less than a light second away. But even as Trina rushed towards them, calculating her missile trajectories (she realized now that all three ships were damaged and about twenty shots from her would destroy both Nietzcheans), she received a hail from her last comrade. "Trina! I love you!" The transmission was followed by a mishmash of sensor data and logs, but before Trina could even calculate a reply, and before her bridge crew were even aware of the message, the transmission cut off abruptly just as her sensors showed her fellow High Guard ship colliding with both Nietzchean ships, all three exploding in a shower of light. As Trina's tactical officer began to report the events, Trina finished processing the transmission and realized what had happened: Her fellow ship, the Thermopylae, and five Nietzchean ships had been the last remaining ships to survive. This would ordinarily have been an easy win for a heavy cruiser like Thermy, but she was heavily damaged and the Nietzchean ships were fresh; after taking down three of them, she realized that one of the last two would likely destroy her by the time she could destroy the other one. Thermy's captain, Tedina Roseveldt (whose name would later be corrupted into "Teddy Roosevelt" in Harper's retellings 300 years later) ordered a suicide run, intending to fire the Thermopylae's final missile salvo at one Nietzchean ship while ramming into the other one. Even if all they fought for was lost, they could at least deny one last victory to their enemy. Thermy fired her missiles and then put her last power into her engines, closing on the Nietzchean flagship at 50 PSL - but tragically, it was just 0.67 seconds before impact when the Triangulum Triumphant happened to come out of slipstream only a quarter of a light second away from the battle. Too late to avoid the collision, Thermy had only a moment to send Trina one last message.

Trina's crew reached their hands out to her screens as she broke down, the grief of three years pouring out on loudspeakers all throughout the ship. Her hologram lay on the floor of the bridge, curled up in fetal position sobbing, and her captain kneeled next to her, reaching out in a vain effort to hold her; for the first time Trina wished she had requested an avatar when she could still obtain one. Too distraught to explain to her crew what had happened, Trina simply left Thermy's entire transmitted message on the consoles for her crew to read. Soon, they cried with her.

Had Trina arrived even 1.58 seconds earlier, Thermy might have detected her soon enough to break off her suicide run and give Trina a chance to take out the last two Nietzchean cruisers. The High Guard would have been victorious, as pyrrhic as it would have been.

Had Trina arrived a few hours earlier, with the battle in full swing, her additional firepower might have decisively shifted the balance in the High Guard's favor. Perhaps she would have been destroyed, but the missiles fired at her would have spared others of her comrades, and even more of them might have survived.

The battle had been that close.

But soon, there was a beeping of distress signals. Escape pods from both sides were floating amongst the wreckage of the titanic clash of fleets. Still crying quietly on all her screens, Trina allowed her pilot to fly her here and there across the face of the nebula, recovering 14 High Guard escape pods and one intact Slipfighter adrift with its engines disabled during the next 75 minutes. Eleven pods were intact, containing 35 survivors. Three of the pods as well as the slipfighter had tragically been pierced by either weapons fire or debris and the nine crewmembers inside them were long dead, frozen and suffocated in space.

There were five Nietzchean escape pods emitting distress signals. Trina and her crew ignored them.

"What do we do now?" one of the officers asked.

Trina had almost forgotten. "We have our orders," she said, grimly but also tinged with a hint of malice that was very much out of character for her.

"It's been 48 hours," her captain helpfully offered. Beneath the surface, he was as enraged as his ship.

"48 hours, 10 minutes, and 5 seconds," Trina corrected.

Trina's pilot jumped her to slipstream, and five minutes later, she was in the Fountainhead system, staring down a surprisingly undefended Ayn Rand Station - the headquarters of the Nietzchean Empire.

There was not a single ship in sight. Ayn Rand Station immediately sent a distress signal. Trina played it for her bridge officers as she zoomed towards the station. Seconds later, the Nietzchean headquarters were broadcasting a full surrender.

Trina and her crew recognized it for what it was. Nietzcheans had used false surrenders and distress signals to ambush honorable High Guard commanders too many times. The Nietzcheans had to know that without a defending fleet, Ayn Rand Station's defenses were no match for a Glorious Heritage cruiser. They were hoping to delay until their reinforcements could arrive.

But the Nietzcheans had sent their entire defense fleet of 1000 ships to ambush the High Guard's assembly at the Witchhead Nebula. After gambling and winning so many times in three years, exploiting the Commonwealth's timidity, they had finally lost.

Trina didn't know any of this at the time - not until she met Rommie again more than 300 years later - but she did know that she had very limited time to carry out Admiral Stark's final orders before Nietzchean reinforcements would make it impossible.

The Nietzcheans realized that the rogue High Guard cruiser wasn't buying their surrender. They opened fire, and Trina was vaguely aware of the shrapnel being thrown into her outer skin, but she and her crew were focused on their mission. Trina fired back with her missiles as fast as she could, as she charged the station, and in less than a minute the station had lost power and a few seconds later it had exploded.

Trina's pilot spun her to face the planet as she skidded sideways in space, stopping just short of the station's debris field, and three seconds later, Trina's missiles landed by the hundreds on the planet of Fountainhead. Trina circled the planet ten times, scorching every continent with the equivalent of nuclear missile impacts only a few miles apart. In less than a minute, 200 million of the leading Nietzcheans from the Three Galaxies had been vaporized, their ashes floating in mushroom clouds that covered most of the planet.

Trina turned away from the planet, heading towards her slip point, jumping away just as multiple slipstream portals began to open up all throughout the system.

Within 24 hours, skirmishes between Nietzchean prides had broken out, and within 48 hours, the new Nietzchean Empire was already in flames as the Drago-Kazov and the Jaguar declared full scale war.