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Sometime around 2000, I read a short story in an anthology. Humanity is implied to be entirely, or largely spaceborne, with rare encounters between ships.

A group boards/attacks one ship, intending to raid it. What appears to be a harmless person aboard is a sophisticated warbody for an AI, which slaughters all the would-be raiders save one. It says something to the effect of

Civilization is when an individual gives up some of its freedoms in terror of a greater power. And when the space to be civilized is vast, the terror must be equally vast.

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Guest Law by John C. Wright. I read it in Years Best SF 3.

The quote you remember is:

He spoke in a voice of Jovian calm: “Who else but a machine intelligence has so long a life that it can intend to bring law and order to the Void, and yet expect to see the slow results? Civilization, gentlemen, is when all men surrender their natural habits of violence, because they fear the retribution of some power sufficient to terrify and awe them into obedience. To civilize a wilderness is long effort; and when the wilderness is astronomically vast, the terror must be vast as well.”

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    Thank you very, very much. The quest of many fruitless years is at an end! May you and your civilization thrive beyond imagining.
    – cellen
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 15:16
  • 4
    @cellen Please follow the procedure to merge your accounts so you can accept this answer.
    – Null
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 15:32

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