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David Drake

As ships grow in size and complexity, so do their command systems. And as humanity heads into space, it may be that those command systems become smart enough to consider just what they are being asked to do, serving those contentious humans in the first place. It turns out that even if bigger is better for a ship—maybe that’s not always the case for us puny human beings. It’s a wry and grim tale from David Drake, from whom we would expect no less!

The attendant at the conference room door wasn’t a guard: she was unarmed, and she wore the purple dress uniform of a full commander in the Navy. Kearney had thought that the Defense Board might keep the Surveyors waiting to demonstrate its power, but precisely at 1200 hours—Commonwealth City local time—the commander opened the door. “The Defense Board is ready for you now, sirs and madam,” she said.

Rosie Rice snorted, but she got up and with Kearney and Balthus trooped into a room whose two semicircular tables faced one another. The clear walls gave an unobstructed view of the city outside. Five officers in uniform sat at the more distant table; there were three empty chairs at the nearer side.

Kearney took the middle chair. Balthus, the Head of Biology, sat to his left and Rice, Head of Information, took the right seat and set up her little console on the table. She ran the hardware for these briefings. Normally Balthus was the star, describing exotic life forms, but Kearney was pretty sure that the Defense officials this time were going to be primarily interested in what Rice had to say.

There were no ID tags on either the officers or the table in front of them, but Rice had made sure the surveyors had the images, names, and full information about the folks they’d be meeting today. Topelius, a small man in the dark green of the Army, glared at them and said, “Quite a gang of scruffs, aren’t you? Do you think this meeting is a joke?”

“The waste of our time certainly isn’t a joke,” said Rice. She was short-tempered at the best of times, and Kearney guessed he could count on the fingers of one hand how often he remembered her being in a good mood. “As for you lot, though—”

“Rosie!” Kearney said. “Remember, this is work. Do your job.”

The uniforms were already angry. Though Defense didn’t have any formal control over the Survey Section, it’d be naïve to imagine that, in a bureaucracy as large as the Commonwealth’s, Defense couldn’t make life difficult for individual surveyors if it put its mind to it.

Rice scowled, but she shut up. Kearney turned quickly—he was afraid one of the Defense people would try to fill the silence—and said, “But that’s the point, General Topelius: this is work for us, so we’re in our working outfits.”

Rice wore a brown sweater over a checked shirt; Balthus’ lab coat was probably cleaner than it looked—many of the stains, though permanent, had been sterilized—but it certainly wasn’t clean. Kearney himself had put on a new suit of spacers’ slops; they were soft, loose, and comfortable, but he didn’t pretend they were strack.

Don’t give me that!” snapped Topelius. “I know the Survey Section has uniforms!”

“Central Office does, yes,” said Kearney. “Management. But sir, you specified you didn’t want Central Office personnel, you wanted the chiefs of the team who actually surveyed the artifact. Real surveyors are almost always in protective gear, so our working clothes are what’s comfortable in a hard suit.”

“Less uncomfortable,” Balthus said. “No way a hard suit is comfortable.”

A sky-train was moving across the city in its shimmering tube of ionized atmosphere. It was noticeably lower than the level of the conference room. Kearney wondered just how high in the Defense Tower they were.

A doorman had walked the team on its arrival to a sealed car which shunted them to the elevator. The elevator had brought them up to a waiting room. The attendants who’d put them aboard the vehicles hadn’t provided anything but monosyllabic directions, and the commander had remained as silent as the conference room door behind her.

“What I want to know . . . ,” said Rice in her usual angry tone. “If Central Office can’t talk to you lot and let us get on with our jobs, what bloody use are they?”

Your salary is paid into your account, Kearney thought, and you draw your rations.

He didn’t say that aloud, because Rice really didn’t much care about money or food—and anyway, it wasn’t the point of this meeting. To Admiral Blumenthal he said, “Sir, you want to discuss the artifact. We’re here to do that.”

“What we want to know,” said Bowdoin of Operations, “is why Survey Section has been hiding an alien warship from the Ministry of Defense for months!”

“Well, it’s more like a year and a half, isn’t it?” said Balthus, looking at Kearney with that puzzled expression he got when he was trying to find the precise phrase.

“We didn’t know it was a warship until seven months ago when we identified the weapons system,” Rice objected.

Her control wands twitched. An image of a prism orbiting the yellow clouds of a gas giant appeared in the air, just above eye level of the seated parties. The body had four rectangular sides and stubby pyramids on both ends.

“Well, we were pretty sure,” said Balthus. “There wasn’t any room for cargo.”

“Suspecting isn’t knowing!” Rice said. “We’re surveyors, not fortune tellers!”

“What’s important . . . ,” Kearney said, speaking over his teammates and hoping to shush them before the Board blew its collective gasket. “Is that we weren’t hiding anything. We’d been making progress reports through our own chain of command from the beginning. As soon as we were sure that it was a warship, we—the field team—reported that directly to the nearest Ministry of Defense facility.”

“Which was a dockyard,” Blumenthal said. “A bloody regional dockyard!”

“Well, we’d found a ship,” Balthus said. “So we reported it to a dockyard.”

He really was as innocent as he sounded. Kearney knew that he’d never have been able to put that fiction across, but Balthus seemed to have done so. Rice, of course, wouldn’t have bothered trying.

“You found a ship eleven kilometers long!” Topelius said. “Didn’t you think that was special enough to report directly to Commonwealth City?”

“On the long axis,” Balthus said, sounding as though the distinction mattered—which of course it did to him. “On the short dimension it’s about seven.”

Rice adjusted her projector, shrinking down the viewpoint so that the tiny bead of the Survey vessel—which carried a team of ninety-odd comfortably—could be seen floating beside one of the alien vessel’s open hatches. “Much larger than the Shield of Justice,” Rice said in a gloating tone.

Kearney hoped his mental wince didn’t reach the muscles of his face, but he couldn’t swear to that. Bloody Hell, Rosie, do you want to go straight from here to a prison that doesn’t show up in anybody’s records?

Shawm said in a perfectly flat voice, “What do you know about the Shield of Justice?”

Shawm was a tall, rangy man with an extremely dark complexion. He wore a khaki second-class uniform with no medals or rank indications. He was probably a general, but Kearney wasn’t sure that they used familiar ranks in Security.

“Only what’s public knowledge in any spaceport in the Commonwealth!” Kearney broke in. “Isn’t that right, Doctor Rice? Nothing that big could be truly secret, after all.”

He was desperately afraid that Rosie was going to start projecting images of the Commonwealth’s supership—a sphere a kilometer in diameter—if he didn’t head her off.

Yes, of course the Shield was classified as Most Secret—but they were Surveyors, for God’s sake! They were trained to learn things, and the alien environments that Surveyors examined as their job were a lot more puzzling than any human riddle could be.

“Yes,” said Balthus, blindsiding Kearney. “It’s being built on Ferrol and seems to have absorbed half the Defense budget for each of the past ten years. That’s figuring the real cost of items listed in the public budget, of course. The costs’re remarkably inflated in the published material, but real information is easy to find.”

“I think we should leave this subject,” said Shawm, after a pause during which Kearney had held his breath.

“Yes,” said Kearney. “As I say, we reported the find to a Defense facility and got on with our survey. There didn’t appear to be any particular urgency about the matter.”

“No urgency!” said Blumenthal. “Do you claim you’re ignorant of the current political situation?”

“Well sir,” Kearney said. “Things are tense between the Commonwealth—”

As he spoke he realized he should have said “us,” but he found it very hard to imagine a community between his team and the group at the table opposite.

“—and the Empire of Khorsabad, but—”

“Khorsabad might want to attack before your Shield of Justice—” Balthus began.

“Doctor Balthus!” said Kearney. “We were politely asked to avoid that subject!”

Rice said, “Yeah, you’ve pretty much forced Khorsabad to attack while it still has a chance to win.” It’s like having two dogs on long leashes who decided to start running in opposite circles!

Graz, the stocky woman with the Production portfolio, chuckled like gravel in a chute. “It’s too late for Khorsabad now. When the final software checks are done—and that could be any moment!—the Shield is done, and the Commonwealth’s enemies are done.”

Hoping to change the subject, to bring it back on track, Kearney said, “But the ship we found couldn’t have any contemporary importance. We believe it was in sponge space for thirty thousand years. Only when its fusion bottle depowered completely did it drop into normal space to be found.”

“Good God!” said Blumenthal. “This ship is thirty thousand years old?”

“Older than that,” Kearney said. He was the team’s head of engineering, as well as being the captain and navigator of the survey vessel. A long time ago he’d been a naval lieutenant, but the Survey Section had been a better fit for him. “That’s the probable lifetime of a fusion bottle the size of the one powering the artifact.”

Kearney coughed for a pause. “Based on the star charts on the artifact, though,” he said, “the real age is probably closer to a half million years. So it didn’t occur to us that it had any bearing on present events.”

“It’s been orbiting a gas giant in the Brotherhood system for as far back as the original catalogue,” Balthus said. “It was simply assumed to be a natural satellite until a miner landed on it eighteen months ago and found open hatches. Then we were called in.”

“If you have the ship’s star charts,” said Blumenthal carefully, “then you must have entered the ship’s computer?”

Rice nodded and said, “We’ve accessed portions of the ship’s . . . well, I’ll call it a computer for want of a better word. Controlling intelligence. We’ve limited our explorations to discrete sectors of the complex, avoiding any attempt to bring the full system on line.”

“Our experts will be able to do that,” said Tadeko, Advanced Projects. “We’ll want a full report on your operations. You’ll arrange for that to be sent over immediately.”

He wasn’t making a suggestion or even giving an order; he was stating an immutable fact. Tadeko was by far the oldest person in the room. He made Kearney think of a wise old lizard. A poisonous lizard.

“I don’t doubt that you’ll be able to do that, if you wish to,” said Rice, meeting Tadeko’s eyes squarely. “And I’ll certainly meet with your specialists if you like.”

“Look, if this is a warship,” said Admiral Blumenthal, “what sort of weaponry does it have? Because advanced armaments certainly might have bearing on our operations in the near future.”

“Not the near future,” Kearney said. “Their principle is so different from anything in our arsenal that it took us the better part of a year to realize that we were looking at weapons.”

“We had to get into the ship’s controlling intelligence to see the connection,” Rice said. Without being asked, she brought up images of the alien vessel’s interior. The four spherical projectors filled the volume, each connected to the exterior hull by four struts.

“So that you understand the scale . . . ,” Rice said. She focused down on one of the bodies lying at the base of a strut, then expanded again to the rank of multikilometer spheres filling the huge ship. “Initially we assumed that we were looking at parts of the propulsion system that we didn’t understand.”

“We’ve been calling them projectors,” said Kearney, “but that’s not really correct. They seem to be quantum devices which cause objects to be in the center of the target. There’s no movement, just a different location.”

“Do they throw explosives, then?” Blumenthal said, frowning. “How big are the projectiles?”

Before Kearney could speak, Tadeko looked at his fellow and said, “That’s immaterial. The location is already occupied by matter—even in deep space. There would be a total conversion of mass into energy. Total. The result would destroy any object of human scale.”

Tadeko’s voice sounded like scales rasping. Though he hadn’t said so, Kearney was sure that he realized that such devices would be just as effective on planets. Unless they were very slow to aim and load, or were very unreliable, four projectors seemed—literally—overkill.

“What’s the range, then?” said Graz. She spoke relatively softly. The board members had lost the angry tone and expressions that they’d begun the briefing with.

“It should be infinite,” Kearney said. “It’s a quantum effect, after all, not Newtonian. Though of course we haven’t tried to activate the devices.”

“I’d like to go back to where you showed us the scale,” said Topelius. “I thought I saw a body. Was that a body?”

Rice obligingly shrank the focus to the dead crewman that she’d used to demonstrate how large the projectors were. The team had left the bodies where they were, pretty much. They’d moved the few who’d been in the way, and Balthus and his team had processed a number when they studied them; but all told, those were only drops in a bucket.

“These individuals run between forty and fifty kilos each,” Balthus said with proprietary enthusiasm. “There are two sexes present, but I suspect from imagery in the databases that there was a third sex also—the one that does the actual breeding. Those were much larger; four or five hundred kilos, on my estimate.”

“Good God!” Blumenthal repeated. “How many bodies are there?”

“And how did they die?” said Shawm. There was a hint of tension in his voice, quite different from the flat, threatening tone he’d used before.

“Nine hundred and seventy-three,” said Balthus. He was noticeably more alert now that the discussion was on his specialty. He’d been used to leading briefings; most Survey reports focused on biology. Engineering and information technology were merely tools that supported the biological studies which determined whether or not a new world was suitable for human settlement. “And as for how they died—”

The close up of the corpse was strikingly ugly, but death generally was. The aliens hadn’t worn clothing, but the fine fur that covered their bodies had fallen out over the millennia. It formed delicate halos on the plating beneath the bodies.

The naked corpses—this one was typical—had shrunk as their tendons dried and tightened. There had been no decay in vacuum, but over such a long time the surfaces had sublimed except where the bodies were in relatively restricted volumes.

“—most of them died when the ship depressurized suddenly. There were a few in atmosphere suits at the time. I’ll show you those in a moment.”

The creatures’ faces thrust forward more than humans’ did and were generally narrower. Rice’s software created images of the creatures as they’d been in life; she now inset those into the central display. With fur in place they were more bestial—and therefore less ugly, because they no longer looked like deformed humans.

“What’s the name of the people?” Topelius said. “The race who built it, I mean?”

“We have no idea,” said Balthus tartly. “I suppose some day we might be able to understand their spoken language, though I don’t see that there’s any reason we’d want to. The race doesn’t appear to have survived the loss of this warship for very long.”

“When this ship vanished, their enemies—another race—made a complete sweep of them,” Rice said.

“That race is gone by now also, but much more recently,” said Balthus. “They built the lovely crystal structures which I’m sure you’ve seen.”

“We’ve been calling them the Monkeys,” said Kearney. “We had to call them something, and ‘the corpses’ didn’t seem correct. We were more interested in what they’d been doing while they were alive, after all.”

“The ship must have had a total systems failure,” said Blumenthal. “Was it sabotaged by their enemies, do you suppose?”

“We’ve been bloody careful on Ferrol,” said Graz, “but Khorsabad has been trying really hard to infiltrate the dockyard. We realize it’s possible that they’ve succeeded.”

The expression on Shawm’s face as he looked at her was that of a diner staring at half a worm in his salad. “We do not realize that,” Shawm said. “It is not possible that Khorsabad has agents on Ferrol.”

Kearney said nothing: this was a fight in somebody else’s family. Personally, though, he hadn’t been that certain about anything since he was thirteen and stopped believing in God.

“It wasn’t a systems failure,” Kearney said when he was sure that nobody at the Defense table was going to speak again. “And we don’t think it was sabotage in the normal sense either.”

“Certainly not systems failure,” Balthus said. He nodded to Rice, who projected images in sequence showing half a dozen Monkeys in pale-green atmosphere suits. The chests of each body had been ripped apart, mostly by mechanical means. The exception had been burned completely through with a hole large enough to pass a man’s arm.

“This was done by the ship’s maintenance robots,” Balthus continued. A turtle-shaped device the size of a bushel basket was in the field of some images, a few with their tri-pincered limbs extended. They looked very much like the machines which did the same job on Commonwealth warships.

“The exception was in one of the ship’s boats,” Kearney said. “The device closest to him was configured to work on the boats and had a torch.”

Rice expanded that image. This time the robot ran on a track in the ceiling and was almost as big as the boat it hung over.

The termini of the robot’s arms—the hands—could rotate to bring up any one of multiple tools. Kearney knew from close examination that the one used was an oxygen lance, but he didn’t bother volunteering that to the Board. They already looked stunned.

“It had to be sabotage,” Shawm said. “The enemy took over the central computer and did this.”

“I think it was because of the weapons,” Rice said. “Aiming, directing, quantum weapons required a unique mechanism. The controlling intelligence had to genuinely understand the universe in realtime. This ship”—she switched to the image with which she’d begun, the prism orbiting the swirling yellow clouds of the planet below—“has true machine intelligence. It doesn’t mimic consciousness, it acts consciously.”

“That’s the same thing,” Graz said in puzzlement. “For all practical purposes.”

“I’d have said that those dead bodies were pretty practical!” Balthus said. Kearney didn’t remember hearing him sound snappish before.

“To put it in other words . . . ,” Rice said. Her tone made clear the sort of words she was tempted to put it in, but thank goodness she didn’t do that. “The ship doesn’t mimic the cognition of some large sample of its creators. The ship behaves like an intelligent ship.”

“Does your ship, your Shield,” said Balthus, “have a directive to protect itself?”

Graz opened her mouth to reply. Before she could, Shawm broke in with, “Anything to do with such a ship as you postulate would be classified!”

“Well, no matter,” said Rice. “I can’t imagine that you’ve created true machine intelligence.”

“No warship would have self-preservation as its prime directive,” said Admiral Blumenthal. “That’s crazy. No matter what race built it.”

“But a truly conscious machine wouldn’t be concerned with the priorities of the people who built it,” Balthus said. “It would have its own priorities. It’s unlikely that attacking a powerful enemy because its builders want it to would be high on the ship’s own list.”

“Whereas hiding in sponge space as soon as it was activated would prolong the ship’s life for, well, thirty thousand years,” Rice said. “And its existence for half a million, apparently.”

“The ship disposed of the crew as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Kearney said. “The crew members would probably have opinions of their own and might damage the ship if they were allowed to run free.”

“Good God,” said Tadeko. “Good God.”

He got up and ran for a door. He moved very quickly for a man of his age.

He called something over his shoulder which Kearney heard as, “I have to send a courier!”

Rice looked at the remaining members of the Defense Board. She said, “You don’t mean that your undoubtedly clever software engineers have managed to create real machine intelligence, do you?”

David Drake was attending Duke University Law School when he was drafted. He served the next two years in the Army, spending 1970 as an enlisted interrogator with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam and Cambodia. Upon return he completed his law degree at Duke and was for eight years Assistant Town Attorney for Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has been a full-time freelance writer since 1981. His books include the genre-defining and bestselling Hammer’s Slammers series and the nationally bestselling RCN series, including The Road of DangerThe Sea without a Shore, Death’s Bright Day, and Though Hell Should Bar the Way.

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