Waves of between-space give way to stars, and immediately your ship starts to kick off warnings. Waveform diagrams of heat readings spike into consciousness as sensors register huge amounts of dust and waste infrared waves crowding into the system. Reaching out through the machine part of your mind, you try to find the planets that are supposed to be here, the gas giants, the single green jewel floating in this system’s habitable zone, but none remain. Only the star itself still lingers, the star, and a huge, billowing cloud that is slowly encircling it.
Initial scans on the cloud send back troubling readings. From a distance, it looks like dust, like cometary debris or the pulverized remnants of star formation gathered around its parent star, but the waste heat readings coming off of it betray that it is something else entirely. Not natural, not native. A cloud of hungry machines scouring the system, fueling themselves by burning anything they cannot smelt. Another cloud rotates around the outer perimeter of the first, gathering lengths of wire from the inner layer of devouring machines, bending it, then packing the coiled lengths into freight boxes that fold immediately into between-space, bound for some distant destination. Uploading your stream to the network, you connect with a few other minds to seek guidance, comparisons, anything, but most only look on and say nothing. Only one of the minds, an older one, actually reacts, sending you an archaic meme in response. It seems strange at first, but after a moment, you start to wrap your head around the meme-concept, the single diagram of a folded length of rigid wire.
You look at the swarms of machines slowly turning this whole solar system into paperclips and can’t help but feel a sense of wonder. There are no tags in the network claiming ownership to or responsibility for this paperclip maximizer, but even if it isn’t someone’s idea of a joke or some kind of nostalgic art installation, it is causing real damage, devouring suns and whole worlds that might otherwise one day have evolved life. As the clouds draw closer and closer to the system’s star, you decide to put out a call to stop the swarm, and a host of other minds answer back with their own commentary. Within seconds, your stream of the machine cloud has a following of billions, and in ten more seconds, the interest in this ancient joke brought to life has peaked. In another ten, most of those minds have lost interest and have turned elsewhere. A recovery and preservation committee is organized in the comments section of the feed, and several thousand minds start to float ideas on how to capture and contain the swarm so that it might be preserved for future generations to learn from and laugh at.
It becomes clear in the space of a breath or two that whatever happens to this machine, it is out of your hands now. You leave a mote-probe in the system to continuously monitor the devouring cloud, then cast one last uncertain glance back at the lone star lost in the haze. Spinning up your phase drive, you disappear back into between-space, putting the machine out of your mind as you set out to find other stars, other points of interest in the cosmos still waiting to be discovered.