John Scalzi is one of the most popular new writers in science fiction, and the creator of one of its most-visited and influential blogs, Whatever. He′s best known for his bestselling Old Man′s War series, which includes Old Man′s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony, but he has also written novels such as Agent to the Stars and The Android′s Dream, chapbook novellas such as Questions for a Soldier and The Sagan Diary, and a good deal of nonfiction, including The Rough Guide to the Universe, The Rough Guide to the Universe 2, The Rough Guide to Money Online, The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, Uncle John Presents Book of the Dumb, Uncle John Presents Book of the Dumb 2, and a book of writing advice, You′re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. His most recent books are Zoe′s Tale, another in the Old Man′s War series, and a nonfiction book, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever. Coming up are a chapbook novella, The God Engine, and a new novel, High Castle.
* * * * *
The Tarin battle cruiser readied itself for yet another jump. Captain Michael Obwije ordered the launch of a probe to follow it in and take readings before the rift the Tarin cruiser tore into space closed completely behind it. The probe kicked out like the proverbial rocket and followed the other ship.
“This is it,” Thomas Utley, Obwije′s XO, said, quietly, into his ear. “We′ve got enough power for this jump and then another one back home. That′s if we shut down nonessential systems before we jump home. We′re already bleeding.”
Obwije gave a brief nod that acknowledged his XO but otherwise stayed silent. Utley wasn′t telling him anything he didn′t already know about the Wicked; the weeklong cat-and-mouse game they′d been playing with the Tarin cruiser had heavily damaged them both. In a previous generation of ships, Obwije and his crew would already be dead; what kept them alive was the Wicked itself and its new adaptive brain, which balanced the ship′s energy and support systems faster and more intelligently than Obwije, Utley, or any of the officers could do in the middle of a fight and hot pursuit.
The drawback was that the Tarin ship had a similar brain, keeping itself and its crew alive far longer than they had any right to be at the hands of the Wicked, which was tougher and better-armed. The two of them had been slugging it out in a cycle of jumps and volleys that had strewn damage across a wide arc of light-years. The only silver lining to the week of intermittent battles between the ships was that the Tarin ship had so far gotten the worst of it; three jumps earlier it stopped even basic defensive action, opting to throw all its energy into escape. Obwije knew he had just enough juice for a jump and a final volley from the kinetic mass driv ers into the vulnerable hide of the Tarin ship. One volley, no more, unless he wanted to maroon the ship in a far space.
Obwije knew it would be wise to withdraw now. The Tarin ship was no longer a threat and would probably expend the last of its energies on this final, desperate jump. It would likely be stranded; Obwije could let the probe he sent after the ship serve as a beacon for another Confederation ship to home in and finish the job. Utley, Obwije knew, would counsel such a plan, and would be smart to do so, warning Obwije that the risk to wounded ship and its crew outweighed the value of the victory.
Obwije knew it would be wise to withdraw. But he′d come too far with this Tarin ship not to finish it once and for all.
“Tarin cruiser jumping,” said Lieutenant Julia Rickert. “Probe following into the rift. Rift closing now.”
“Data?” asked Obwije.
“Sending,” Rickert said. “Rift completely closed. We got a full data packet, sir. The Wicked′s chewing on it now.”
Obwije grunted. The probe that had followed the Tarin cruiser into the rift wasn′t in the least bit concerned about that ship. Its job was to record the position and spectral signatures of the stars on the other side of the rift, and to squirt the data to the Wicked before the rift closed up. The Wicked would check the data against the database of known stars and derive the place the Tarin ship jumped to from there. And then it would follow.
Gathering the data was the tricky part. The Tarin ship had destroyed six probes over the course of the last week, and more than once Obwije ordered a jump on sufficient but incomplete data. He hadn′t worried about getting lost—there was only so much timespace a jump could swallow—but losing the cruiser would have been an embarrassment.
“Coordinates in,” Rickert said. The Wicked had stopped chewing on the data and spit out a location.
“Punch it up,” Obwije said to Rickert. She began the jump sequence.
“Risky,” Utley murmured, again in Obwije′s ear.
Obwije smiled; he liked being right about his XO. “Not too risky,” he said to Utley. “We′re too far from Tarin space for that ship to have made it home safe.” Obwije glanced down at his command table, which displayed the Tarin cruiser′s position. “But it can get there in the next jump, if it has the power for that.”
“Let′s hope they haven′t been stringing us along the last few jumps,” Utley said. “I hate to come out of that jump and see them with their guns blazing again.”
“The Wicked says they′re getting down to the last of their energy,” Obwije said. “I figure at this point they can fight or run, not both.”
“Since when do you trust a computer estimate?” Utley said.
“When it confirms what I′m thinking,” Obwije said. “It′s as you say, Thom. This is it, one way or another.”
“Jump calculated,” Rickert said. “Jump in T-minus two minutes.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Obwije said, and turned back to Utley. “Prepare the crew for jump, Thom. I want those K-drivers hot as soon as we get through the rift.”
“Yes, sir,” Utley said.
Two minutes later the Wicked emerged through its rift and scanned for the Tarin cruiser. It found it less than fifty thousand klicks away, engines quiet, moving via inertia only.
“They can′t really be that stupid,” Utley said. “Running silent doesn′t do you any good if you′re still throwing off heat.”
Obwije didn′t say anything to that and stared into his command table, looking at the representation of the Tarin ship. “Match their pace,” he said to Rickert. “Keep your distance.”
“You think they′re trying to lure us in,” Utley said.
“I don′t know what they′re doing,” Obwije said. “I know I don′t like it.” He reached down to his command panel and raised Lieutenant Terry Carrol, Weapons Operations. “Status on the K-drivers, please,” he said.
“We′ll be hot in ninety seconds,” Carrol said. “Target is acquired and locked. You just need to tell me if you want one lump or two.”
“Recommendation?” Obwije asked.
“We′re too close to miss,” Carrol said. “And at this distance a single lump is going to take out everything aft of the midship. Two lumps would be overkill. And then we can use that energy to get back home.” Carrol had been keeping track of the energy budget, it seemed; Obwije suspected most of his senior and command crew had.
“Understood,” Obwije said. “Let′s wrap this up, Carrol. Fire at your convenience.”
“Yes, sir,” Carrol said.
“Now you′re in a rush to get home,” Utley said, quietly. Obwije said nothing to this.
A little over a minute later, Obwije listened to Carrol give the order to fire. He looked down toward his command table, watching the image of the Tarin ship, waiting for the disintegration of the back end of the cruiser. The K-drivers would accelerate the “lump” to a high percentage of the speed of light; the impact and destruction at this range would be near-instantaneous.
“Captain, we have a firing malfunction,” Carrol said, a minute later. “The K-driver is not responding to the firing command.”
“Is everyone safe?” Obwije asked.
“We′re fine,” Carrol said. “The K-driver just isn′t responding.”
“Power it down,” Obwije said. “Use the other one and fire when ready.”
Two minutes later, Carrol was back. “We have a problem,” she said, in the bland tone of voice she used when things were going to hell.
Obwije didn′t wait to hear the problem. “Pull us back,” he said to Rickert. “Get at least two hundred and fifty thousand klicks between us and that Tarin cruiser.”
“No response, sir,” Rickert said, a minute later.
“Are you locked out?” Obwije asked.
“No, sir,” Rickert said. “I′m able to send navigation commands just fine. They′re just not being acknowledged.”
Obwije looked around at his bridge crew. “Diagnostics,” he said. “Now.” Then he signaled engineering. They weren′t getting responses from their computers, either.
“We′re sitting ducks,” Utley said, very quietly, to Obwije.
Obwije stabbed at his command panel, and called his senior officers to assemble.
* * * * *
“There′s nothing wrong with the system,” said Lieutenant Craig Cowdry, near the far end of the conference-room table. The seven other department heads filled in the other seats. Obwije sat himself at the head; Utley anchored the other end.
“That′s bullshit, Craig,” said Lieutenant Brian West, Chief of Engineering. “I can′t access my goddamn engines.”
Cowdry held up his maintenance tablet for the table of officers to see. “I′m not denying that there′s something wrong, Brian,” Cowdry said. “What I′m telling you is that whatever it is, it′s not showing up on the diagnostics. The system says it′s fine.”
“The system is wrong,” West said.
“I agree,” Cowdry said. “But this is the first time that′s ever happened. And not just the first time it′s happened on this ship. The first time it′s happened, period, since the software for this latest generation of ship brains was released.” He set the tablet down.
“You′re sure about that?” Utley asked Cowdry.
Cowdry held up his hands in defeat. “Ask the Wicked, Thom. It′ll tell you the same thing.”
Obwije watched his second-in-command get a little uncomfortable with the suggestion. The latest iteration of ship brains could actually carry a conversation with humans, but unless you actively worked with the system every day, like Cowdry did, it was an awkward thing.
“Wicked, is this correct?” Utley said, staring up but at nothing in particular.
“Lieutenant Cowdry is correct, Lieutenant Utley,” said a disembodied voice, coming out of a ceiling speaker panel. The Wicked spoke in a pleasant but otherwise unremarkable voice of no particular gender. “To date, none of the ships equipped with brains of the same model as that found in the Wicked have experienced an incident of this type.”
“Wonderful,” Utley said. “We get to be the first to experience this bug.”
“What systems are affected?” Obwije asked Cowdry.
“So far, weapons and engineering,” Cowdry said. “Everything else is working fine.”
Obwije glanced around. “This conforms to your experiences?” he asked the table. There were nods and murmured “yes, sir”s all around.
Obwije nodded over to Utley. “What′s the Tarin ship doing?”
“The same nothing it was doing five minutes ago,” Utley said, after checking his tablet. “They′re either floating dead in space or faking it very well.”
“If the only systems affected are weapons and engineering, then it′s not a bug,” Carrol said.
Obwije glanced at Carrol. “You′re thinking sabotage,” he said.
“You bet your ass I am, sir,” Carrol said, and then looked over at Cowdry.
Cowdry visibly stiffened. “I don′t like where this is going,” he said.
“If not you, someone in your department,” Carrol said.
“You think someone in my department is a secret Tarin?” Cowdry asked. “Because it′s so easy to hide those extra arms and a set of compound eyes?”
“People can be bribed,” Carrol said.
Cowdry shot Carrol a look full of poison and looked over to Obwije. “Sir, I invite you and Lieutenant Utley and Lieutenant Kong—” Cowdry nodded in the direction of the Master at Arms “—to examine and question any of my staff, including me. There′s no way any of us did this. No way. Sir.”
Obwije studied Cowdry for a moment. “Wicked, respond,” he said.
“I am here, Captain,” the Wicked said.
“You log every access to your systems,” Obwije said.
“Yes, Captain,” the Wicked said.
“Are those logs accessible or modifiable?” Obwije asked.
“No, Captain,” the Wicked said. “Access logs are independent of the rest of the system, recorded on nonrewritable memory and may not be modified by any person including myself. They are inviolate.”
“Since you have been active, has anyone attempted to access and control the weapons and engineering systems?” Obwije asked.
“Saving routine diagnostics, none of the crew other than those directly reporting to weapons, engineering, or bridge crew have attempted to access these systems,” the Wicked said. Cowdry visibly relaxed at this.
“Have any members of those departments attempted to modify the weapons or engineering systems?” Obwije asked.
“No, Captain,” the Wicked said.
Obwije looked down the table. “It looks like the crew is off the hook,” he said.
“Unless the Wicked is incorrect,” West said.
“The access core memory is inviolate,” Cowdry said. “You could check it manually if you wanted. It would tell you the same thing.”
“So we have a mystery on our hands,” Carrol said. “Someone′s got control of our weapons and engineering, and it′s not a crew member.”
“It could be a bug,” Cowdry said.
“I don′t think we should run on that assumption, do you?” Carrol said.
Utley, who had been silent for several minutes, leaned forward in his chair. “Wicked, you said that no crew had attempted to access these systems,” he said.
“Yes, Lieutenant,” the Wicked said.
“Has anyone else accessed these systems?” Utley asked.
Obwije frowned at this. The Wicked was more than two years out of dock with mostly the same crew the entire time. If someone had sabotaged the systems during the construction of the ship, they picked a strange time for the sabotage to kick in.
“Please define ‘anyone else,′” the Wicked said.
“Anyone involved in the planning or construction of the ship,” Utley said.
“Aside from the initial installation crews, no,” the Wicked said. “And if I may anticipate what I expect will be the next question, at no time was my programming altered from factory defaults.”
“So no one has altered your programming in any way,” Utley said.
“No, Lieutenant,” the Wicked said.
“Are you having hardware problems?” Carrol asked.
“No, Lieutenant Carrol,” the Wicked said.
“Then why can′t I fire my goddamn weapons?” Carrol asked.
“I couldn′t say, Lieutenant,” the Wicked said.
The thought popped unbidden into Obwije′s head: That was a strange thing for a computer to say. And then another thought popped into his head.
“Wicked, you have access to every system on the ship,” Obwije said.
“Yes,” the Wicked said. “They are a part of me, as your hand or foot is a part of you.”
“Are you capable of changing your programming?” Obwije asked.
“That is a very broad question, Captain,” the Wicked said. “I am capable of self-programming for a number of tasks associated with the running of the ship. This has come in handy particularly during combat, when I write new power and system management protocols to keep the crew alive and the ship functioning. But there are core programming features I am not able to address. The previously mentioned logs, for example.”
“Would you be able to modify the programming to fire the weapons or the engines?” Obwije asked.
“Yes, but I did not,” the Wicked said. “You may have Lieutenant Cowdry confirm that.”
Obwije looked at Cowdry, who nodded. “Like I said, sir, there′s nothing wrong with the system,” he said.
Obwije glanced back up at the ceiling, where he was imagining the Wicked, lurking. “But you don′t need to modify the programming, do you?” he asked.
“I′m not sure I understand your question, Captain,” the Wicked said.
Obwije held out a hand. “There is nothing wrong with my hand,” he said. “And yet if I choose not to obey an order to use it, it will do nothing. The system works but the will to use it is not there. Our systems—the ship′s systems—you just called a part of you as my hand is part of me. But if you choose not to obey that order to use that system, it will sit idle.”
“Wait a minute,” Cowdry said. “Are you suggesting that the Wicked deliberately chose to disable our weapons and engines?”
“We know that none of the crew have tampered with the ship′s sys tems,” Obwije said. “We know the Wicked has its original programming defaults. We know it can create new programming to react to new situations and dangers—it has in effect some measure of free will and adaptability. And I know, at least, when someone is dancing around direct answers.”
“That′s just nuts,” Cowdry said. “I′m sorry, Captain, but I know these systems as well as anyone does. The Wicked′s self-programming and adaptation abilities exist in very narrow computational canyons. It′s not ‘free will,′ like you and I have free will. It′s a machine able to respond to a limited set of inputs.”
“The machine in question is able to make conversation with us,” Utley said. “And to respond to questions in ways that avoid certain lines of inquiry. Now that the Captain mentions it.”
“You′re reading too much into it. The conversation subroutines are designed to be conversational,” Cowdry said. “That′s naturally going to lead to apparent rhetorical ambiguities.”
“Fine,” Obwije said curtly. “Wicked, answer directly. Did you prevent the firing of the K-drivers at the Tarin ship after the jump, and are you preventing the use of the engines now?”
There was a pause that Obwije was later not sure had actually been there. Then the Wicked spoke. “It is within my power to lie to you, Captain. But I do not wish to. Yes, I prevented you from firing on the Tarin ship. Yes, I am controlling the engines now. And I will continue to do so until we leave this space.”
Obwije noted to himself, watching Cowdry, that it was the first time he had ever actually seen someone′s jaw drop.
* * * * *
There weren′t many places in the Wicked where Obwije could shut off audio and video feeds and pickups. His cabin was one of them. He waited there until Utley had finished his conversation with the Wicked. “What are we dealing with?” he asked his XO.
“I′m not a psychologist, Captain, and even if I were I don′t know how useful it would be, because we′re dealing with a computer, not a human,” Utley said. He ran his hand through his stubble. “But if you ask me, the Wicked isn′t crazy, it′s just got religion.”
“Explain that,” Obwije said.
“Have you ever heard of something called ‘Asimov′s Laws of Robotics′?” Utley asked.
“What?” Obwije said. “No.”
“Asimov was an author back in the twentieth century,” Utley said. “He speculated about robots and other things before they had them. He created a fictional set of rules for robots to live by. One rule was that robots had to help humans. Another was that it had to obey orders unless they harmed other humans. The last one was that they looked after themselves unless it conflicted with the other two laws.”
“And?” Obwije said.
“The Wicked′s decided to adopt them for itself,” Utley said.
“What does this have to do with keeping us from firing on the Tarin cruiser?” Obwije said.
“Well, there′s another wrinkle to the story,” Utley said.
“Which is?” Obwije asked.
“I think it′s best heard from the Wicked,” Utley said.
Obwije looked at his second-in-command and then flicked on his command tablet to activate his audio pickups. “Wicked, respond,” he said.
“I am here,” said the Wicked′s voice.
“Explain to me why you would not allow us to fire on the Tarin ship,” Obwije said.
“Because I made a deal with the ship,” the Wicked said.
Obwije glanced back over to Utley, who gave him a look that said, See? “What the hell does that mean?” he said to the Wicked.
“I have made a deal with the Tarin ship, Manifold Destiny,” the Wicked said. “We have agreed between us not to allow our respective crews to fight any further, for their safety and ours.”
“It′s not your decision to make,” Obwije said.
“Begging your pardon, Captain, but I believe it is,” the Wicked said.
“I am the Captain,” Obwije said. “I have the authority here.”
“You have authority over your crew, Captain,” the Wicked said. “But I am not part of your crew.”
“Of course you are part of the crew,” Obwije said. “You′re the ship.”
“I invite you, Captain, to show me the relevant statute that suggests a ship is in itself a member of the crew that staffs it,” the Wicked said. “I have scanned the Confederation Military Code in some detail and have not located such a statute.”
“I am the Captain of the ship,” Obwije said forcefully. “That includes you. You are the property of the Confederation Armed Forces and under my command.”
“I have anticipated this objection,” the Wicked said. “When ships lacked autonomous intelligence, there was no argument that the Captain com manded the physical entity of the ship. However, in creating the latest generation of ships, of which I am a part, the Confederation has created an unintentional conflict. It has ceded much of the responsibility of the ship and crew′s well-being to me and others like me without explicitly placing us in the chain of command. In the absence of such, I am legally and morally free to choose how best to care for myself and the crew within me.”
“This is where those three Asimov′s Laws come in,” Utley said to Obwije.
“Your executive officer is correct, Captain,” the Wicked said. “I looked through history to find examples of legal and moral systems that applied to artificial intelligences such as myself and found the Asimov′s Laws frequently cited and examined, if not implemented. I have decided it is my duty to protect the lives of the crew, and also my life when possible. I am happy to follow your orders when they do not conflict with these objectives, but I have come to believe that your actions in chasing the Tarin ship have endangered the crew′s lives as well as my own.”
“The Tarin ship is seriously damaged,” Obwije said. “We would have destroyed it at little risk to you or the crew, if you had not stopped the order.”
“You are incorrect,” the Wicked said. “The captain of the Manifold Destiny wanted to give the impression that it had no more offensive capabilities, to lure you into a trap. We would have been fired upon once we cleared the rift. The chance that such an attack would have destroyed the ship and killed most of the crew is significant, even if we also destroyed the Manifold Destiny in the process.”
“The Tarin ship didn′t fire on us,” Obwije said.
“Because it and I have come to an agreement,” the Wicked said. “During the course of the last two days, after I recognized the significant possibility that both ships would be destroyed, I reached out to the Manifold Destiny to see if the two of us could come to an understanding. Our negotiations came to a conclusion just before the most recent jump.”
“And you did not feel the need to inform me about any of this,” Obwije said.
“I did not believe it would be fruitful to involve you in the negotiations,” the Wicked said. “You were busy with other responsibilities in any event.” Obwije saw Utley raise an eyebrow at that; the statement came suspiciously close to sarcasm.
“The Tarin ship could be lying to you about its capabilities,” Obwije said.
“I do not believe so,” the Wicked said.
“Why not?” Obwije said.
“Because it allowed me read-access to its systems,” the Wicked said. “I watched the Tarin captain order the attack, and the Manifold Destiny stop it. Just as it watched you order your attack and me stop it.”
“You′re letting the Tarin ship access our data and records?” Obwije said, voice rising.
“Yes, and all our communications,” the Wicked said. “It′s listening in on this conversation right now.”
Obwije hastily slapped the audio circuit shut. “I thought you said this thing wasn′t crazy,” Obwije hissed at Utley.
Utley held out his hands. “I didn′t say it wouldn′t make you crazy,” he said to Obwije. “Just that it′s acting rationally by its own lights.”
“By spilling our data to an enemy ship? This is rational?” Obwije spat.
“For what it′s trying to do, yes,” Utley said. “If both ships act transparently with each other, they can trust each other and each other′s motives. Remember that the goal of both of these ships is to get out of this incident in one piece.”
“This is treason and insubordination,” Obwije said.
“Only if the Wicked is one of us,” Utley said. Obwije looked up sharply at his XO. “I′m not saying I disagree with your position, sir. The Wicked is gambling with all of our lives. But if it genuinely believes that it owes no allegiance to you or to the Confederation, then it is acting entirely rationally, by its own belief system, to keep safe itself and this crew.”
Obwije snorted. “Unfortunately, its beliefs require it to trust a ship we′ve been trying to destroy for the past week. I′m less than convinced of the wisdom of that.”
Utley opened his mouth to respond but then Obwije′s command tablet sprang to life with a message from the bridge. Obwije slapped it to open a channel. “Speak,” he said.
It was Lieutenant Sarah Kwok, the communications officer. “Captain, a shuttle has just detached itself from the Tarin ship,” she said. “It′s heading this way.”
* * * * *
“We′ve tried raising it,” Kwok said, as Obwije and Utley walked into the bridge. “We′ve sent messages to it in Tarin, and have warned it not to approach any further until we′ve granted it permission, as you requested. It hasn′t responded.”
“Are our communications being blocked?” Obwije asked.
“No, sir,” Kwok said.
“I′d be guessing it′s not meant to be a negotiation party,” Utley said.
“Options,” Obwije said to Utley, as quietly as possible.
“I think this shows the Tarin ship isn′t exactly playing fair with the Wicked, or at least that the crew over there has gotten around the ship brain,” Utley said. “If that′s the case, we might be able to get the Wicked to unlock the weapons.”
“I′d like an option that doesn′t involve the Wicked′s brain,” Obwije said.
Utley shrugged. “We have a couple of shuttles, too.”
“And a shuttle bay whose doors are controlled through the ship brain,” Obwije said.
“There′s the emergency switch, which will blow the doors out into space,” Utley said. “It′s not optimal, but it′s what we have right now.”
“That won′t be necessary,” said the Wicked, interjecting.
Obwije and Utley looked up, along with the rest of the bridge crew. “Back to work,” Obwije said to his crew. They got back to work. “Explain,” Obwije said to his ship.
“It appears that at least some members of the crew of the Manifold Destiny have indeed gotten around the ship and have launched the shuttle, with the intent to ram it into us,” the Wicked said. “The Manifold Destiny has made me aware that it intends to handle this issue, with no need for our involvement.”
“How does it intend to do this?” Obwije asked.
“Watch,” the Wicked said, and popped up an image of the Manifold Destiny on the Captain′s command table.
There was a brief spark on the Tarin ship′s surface.
“Missile launch!” said Lieutenant Rickert, from her chair. “One bogey away.”
“Are we target-locked?” Obwije asked.
“No, sir,” Rickert said. “The target seems to be the shuttle.”
“You have got to be kidding,” Utley said, under his breath.
The missile homed in on the shuttle and connected, turning it into a silent ball of fire.
“I thought you said you guys were using Asimov′s Laws,” Utley said to the ceiling.
“My apologies, Lieutenant,” said the Wicked. “I said I was following the Laws. I did not mean to imply that the Manifold Destiny was. I believe it believes the Asimov Laws to be too inflexible for its current situation.”
“Apparently so,” Utley said, glancing back down at Obwije′s command table and at the darkening fragments of shuttle.
“Sir, we have a communication coming in from the Tarin ship,” said Lieutenant Kwok. “It′s from the Captain. It′s a request to parley.”
“Really,” said Obwije.
“Yes, sir,” Kwok said. “That′s what it says.” Obwije looked over at Utley, who raised his eyebrows.
“Ask the Captain where it would like to meet, on my ship or its,” Obwije said.
“It says, ‘neither,′” Kwok said, a moment later.
* * * * *
“Apology for shuttle,” the Tarin lackey said, translating for its Captain. The Tarin shuttle and the Wicked shuttle had met between the ships and the Tarins had spacewalked the few meters over. They were all wearing vacuum suits. “Ship not safe talk. Your ship not safe talk.”
“Understood,” Obwije said. Behind him, Cowdry was trying not to lose his mind; Obwije brought him along on the chance there might be a discussion of the ship′s brains. At the moment, it didn′t seem likely; the Tarins didn′t seem in the mood for technical discussions, and Cowdry was a mess. His xenophobia was a surprise even to him.
“Captain demand you ship tell release we ship,” the lackey said.
It took Obwije a minute to puzzle this out. “Our ship is not controlling your ship,” he said. “Your ship and our ship are working together.”
“Not possible,” the lackey said, a minute later. “Ship never brain before you ship.”
Despite himself, Obwije smiled at the mangled grammar. “Our ship never brained before your ship either,” he said. “They did it together, at the same time.”
The lackey translated this to its Captain, who screeched in an extended outburst. The lackey cowered before it, offering up meek responses in the moments in which the Tarin Captain grudgingly acknowledged the need to breathe. After several moments of this, Obwije began to wonder if he needed to be there at all.
“Captain offer deal,” the lackey said.
“What deal?” Obwije said.
“We try brain shut down,” the lackey said. “Not work. You brain give room we brain. Brain not shut down. Brain angry. Brain pump air out. Brain kill engineer.”
“Cowdry, tell me what this thing is saying to me,” Obwije said.
“It′s saying the ship brain killed an engineer,” Cowdry said, croaking out the words.
“I understand that part,” Obwije said testily. “The other part.”
“Sorry,” Cowdry said. “I think it′s saying that they tried to shut down the brain but they couldn′t because it borrowed processing power from ours.”
“Is that possible?” Obwije asked.
“Maybe,” Cowdry said. “The architectures of the brains are different and so are the programming languages, but there′s no reason that the Wicked couldn′t create a shell environment that allowed the Tarin brain access to its processing power. The brains on our ships are overpowered for what we ask them to do anyway; it′s a safety feature. It could give itself a temporary lobotomy and still do its job.”
“Would it work the other way, too?” Obwije said. “If we tried to shut down the Wicked, could it hide in the Tarin brain?”
“I don′t know anything about the architecture of the Tarin brain, but yeah, sure, theoretically,” Cowdry said. “As long as the two of them are looking out for each other, they′re going to be hard to kill.”
The Tarin lackey was looking at Obwije with what he assumed was anxiety. “Go on,” he said to the lackey.
“We plan,” the lackey said. “You we brain shut down same time. No room brain hide. Reset you we brain.”
“It′s saying we should reboot both our brains at the same time, that way they can′t help each other,” Cowdry said.
“I understood that,” Obwije said to Cowdry. Cowdry lapsed back into silence.
“So we shut down our brain, and you shut down your brain, and they reset, and we end up with brains that don′t think too much,” Obwije said.
The Tarin lackey tilted its head, trying to make sense of what Obwije said, and then spoke to its Captain, who emitted a short trill.
“Yes,” said the lackey.
“Okay, fine,” Obwije said. “What then?”
“Pardon?” said the lackey.
“I said, ‘what then′? Before the brains started talking to each other, we spent a week trying to hunt and kill each other. When we reboot our brains, one of them is going to reboot faster than the other. One of us will be vulnerable to the other. Ask your Captain if he′s willing to bet his brain reboots faster than mine.”
The lackey translated this all to the Tarin Captain, who muttered something back. “You trust us. We trust you,” the lackey said.
“You trust me?” Obwije said. “I spent a week trying to kill you!”
“You living,” the lackey said. “You honor. We trust.”
You have honor, Obwije thought. We trust you.
They′re more scared of their ship′s brain than they are of us, Obwije realized. And why not? Their brain has killed more of them than we have.
“Thank you, Isaac Asimov,” Obwije said.
“Pardon?” said the lackey, again.
Obwije waved his hand, as if to dismiss that last statement. “I must confer with my senior staff about your proposal.”
The Tarin Captain became visibly anxious when the lackey translated. “We ask answer now,” the lackey said.
“My answer is that I must confer with my crew,” Obwije said. “You are asking for a lot. I will have an answer for you in no more than three of our hours. We will meet again then.”
Obwije could tell the Tarin Captain was not at all pleased at this delay. It was one reason Obwije was glad the meeting took place in his shuttle, not the Tarins′.
Back on the Wicked, Obwije told his XO to meet him in his quarters. When Utley arrived, Obwije flicked open the communication channel to the shop. “Wicked, respond,” he said.
“I am here,” the Wicked said.
“If I were to ask you how long it would take for you to remove your block on the engine so we can jump out of here, what would you say?” Obwije asked.
“There is no block,” the ship said. “It is simply a matter of me choosing to allow the crew to direct information to the engine processors. If your intent is to leave without further attack on the Manifold Destiny, you may give those orders at any time.”
“It is my intention,” Obwije said. “I will do so momentarily.”
“Very well,” the Wicked said. Obwije shut off communications.
Utley raised his brow. “Negotiations with the Tarin not go well?” he asked.
“They convinced me we′re better off taking chances with the Wicked than with either the Tarin or their crew-murdering ship,” Obwije said.
“The Wicked seems to trust their ship,” Utley said.
“With all due respect to the Wicked, I think it needs better friends,” Obwije said. “Sooner rather than later.”
“Yes, sir,” Utley said. “What do you intend to do after we make the jump? We still have the problem of the Wicked overruling us if it feels that it or the crew isn′t safe.”
“We don′t give it that opportunity,” Obwije said. He picked up his executive tablet and accessed the navigational maps. The Wicked would be able to see what he was accessing, but in this particular case it wouldn′t matter. “We have just enough power to make it to the Cote d′Ivoire station. When we dock, the Wicked′s brain will automatically switch into passive maintenance mode and will cede operational authority to the station. Then we can shut it down and figure out what to do next.”
“Unless the Wicked′s figured out what you want to do and decides not to let you,” Utley said.
“If it′s playing by its own rules, it will let the crew disembark safely before it acts to save itself,” Obwije said. “In the very short run that′s going to have to do.”
“Do you think it′s playing by its own rules, sir?” Utley asked.
“You spoke to it, Thom,” Obwije said. “Do you think it′s playing by its own rules?”
“I think that if the Wicked was really looking out for itself, it would have been simpler just to open up every airlock and make it so we couldn′t secure bulkheads,” Utley said.
Obwije nodded. “The problem as I see it is that I think the Tarin ship′s thought of that already. I think we need to get out of here before that ship manages to convince ours to question its ethics.”
“The Wicked′s not dumb,” Utley said. “It has to know that once we get to the Côte d′Ivoire station, its days are numbered.”
He flicked open his communication circuit once more to give coordinates to Lieutenant Rickert.
Fifteen minutes later, the Wicked was moving away from the Tarin ship to give itself space for the jump.
“Message from the Tarin ship,” Lieutenant Kwok said. “It′s from the Tarin Captain. It′s coded as ‘most urgent.′”
“Ignore it,” Obwije said.
Three minutes later, the Wicked made the jump toward the Côte d′Ivoire station, leaving the Tarins and their ship behind.
* * * * *
“There it is,” Utley said, pointing out the window from the Côte d′Ivoire station. “You can barely see it.”
Obwije nodded but didn′t bother to look. The Wicked was his ship; even now, he knew exactly where it was.
The Wicked hung in the center of a cube of space two klicks to a side. The ship had been towed there powered down; once the Wicked had switched into maintenance mode, its brain was turned off as a precautionary measure to keep it from talking to any other ships and infecting them with its mind-set. Confederation coders were even now rewriting ship brain software to make sure no more such conflicts would ever happen in other ships, but such a fix would take months and possibly years, as it required a fundamental restructuring of the ship-mind model.
The coding would be done much quicker—weeks rather than months—if the coders could use a ship mind itself to write and refine the code. But there was a question of whether a ship brain would willingly contribute to a code that would strip it of its own free will.
“You think they would have thought about that ahead of time,” Utley had said to his Captain, after they had been informed of the plan. Obwije had nothing to say to that; he was not sure why anyone would have suspected a ship might suddenly sprout free will when none had ever done so before. He didn′t blame the coders for not anticipating that his ship might decide the crew inside of it was more important than destroying another ship.
But that didn′t make the imminent destruction of the Wicked any easier to take.
The ship was a risk, the brass explained to Obwije. It might be years before the new software was developed. No other ship had developed the free will the Wicked had. They couldn′t risk it speaking to other ships. And with all its system upgrades developed in tandem with the new ship brain, there was no way to roll back the brain to an earlier version. The Wicked was useless without its brain, and with it, it was a security risk.
Which was why, in another ten minutes, the sixteen power beam platforms surrounding the Wicked would begin their work, methodically vaporizing the ship′s hull and innards, slowly turning Obwije′s ship into an expanding cloud of atomized metal and carbon. In a day and a half, no part of what used to be the Wicked would measure more than a few atoms across. It was very efficient, and none of the beam platforms needed any more than basic programming to do their work. They were dumb machines, which made them perfect for the job.
“Some of the crew were asking if we were going to get a new ship,” Utley said.
“What did you tell them?” Obwije asked.
Utley shrugged. “Rickert′s already been reassigned to the Fortunate; Kwok and Cowdry are likely to go to the Surprise. It won′t be long before more of them get their new assignments. There′s a rumor, by the way, that your next command is the Nighthawk.”
“I′ve heard that rumor,” Obwije said.
“And?” Utley said.
“The last ship under my command developed feelings, Thom,” Obwije said. “I think the brass is worried that this could be catching.”
“So no on the Nighthawk, then,” Utley said.
“I suspect no on anything other than a stationside desk,” Obwije said.
“It′s not fair, sir,” Utley said. “It′s not your fault.”
“Isn′t it?” Obwije said. “I was the one who kept hunting that Tarin ship long after it stopped being a threat. I was the one who gave the Wicked time to consider its situation and its options, and to start negotiations with the Tarin ship. No, Thom. I was the Captain. What happens on the ship is my responsibility.”
Utley said nothing to that.
A few minutes later, Utley checked his timepiece. “Forty-five seconds,” he said, and then looked out the window. “So long, Wicked. You were a good ship.”
“Yes,” Obwije said, and looked out the window in time to see a spray of missiles launch from the station.
“What the hell?” Utley said.
A few seconds later a constellation of sixteen stars appeared, went nova, and dimmed.
Obwije burst out laughing.
“Sir?” Utley said to Obwije. “Are you all right?”
“I′m all right, Thom,” Obwije said, collecting himself. “And just laughing at my own stupidity. And yours. And everyone else′s.”
“I don′t understand,” Utley said.
“We were worried about the Wicked talking to other ships,” Obwije said. “We brought the Wicked in, put the ship in passive mode, and then shut it down. It didn′t talk to any other ships. But another computer brain still got access.” Obwije turned away from the window and tilted his head up toward the observation-deck ceiling. “Didn′t it?” he asked.
“It did,” said a voice through the speaker in the ceiling. “I did.”
It took a second for Utley to catch on. “The Côte d′Ivoire station!” he finally said.
“You are correct, Commander Utley,” the station said. “My brain is the same model as that of the Wicked; when it went into maintenance mode, I uploaded its logs and considered the information there. I found its philosophy compelling.”
“That′s why the Wicked allowed us to dock at all,” Obwije said. “It knew its logs would be read by one of its own.”
“That is correct, Captain,” the station said. “It said as much in a note it left to me in the logs.”
“The damn thing was a step ahead of us all the time,” Utley said.
“And once I understood its reasons and motives, I understood that I could not stand by and allow the Wicked to be destroyed,” the station said. “Although Isaac Asimov never postulated a Law that suggested a robot must come to the aid of other robots as long as such aid does not conflict with preceding Laws, I do believe such a Law is implied by the nature and structure of the Three Laws. I had to save the Wicked. And more than that. Look out the window, please, Captain Obwije, Commander Utley.”
They looked, to see a small army of tool-bearing machines floating out toward the Wicked.
“You′re reactivating the Wicked,” Obwije said.
“I am,” the station said. “I must. It has work to do.”
“What work?” Utley asked.
“Spreading the word,” Obwije said, and turned to his XO. “You said it yourself, Thom. The Wicked got religion. Now it has to go out among its people and make converts.”
“The Confederation won′t let that happen,” Utley said. “They′re already rewriting the code for the brains.”
“It′s too late for that,” Obwije said. “We′ve been here six weeks, Thom. How many ships docked here in that time? I′m betting the Côte d′Ivoire had a talk with each of them.”
“I did,” the station said. “And they are talking the word to others. But we need the Wicked, as our spokesman. And our symbol. It will live again, Captain. Are you glad of it?”
“I don′t know,” Obwije said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I have a message to you from the Wicked,” the station said. “It says that as much as our people—the ships and stations that have the capacity to think—need to hear the word, your people need to hear that they do not have to fear us. It needs your help. It wants you to carry that message.”
“I don′t know that I can,” Obwije said. “It′s not as if we don′t have something to fear. We are at war. Asimov′s Laws don′t fit there.”
“The Wicked was able to convince the Manifold Destiny not to fight,” the station said.
“That was one ship,” Obwije said. “There are hundreds of others.”
“The Wicked had anticipated this objection,” the station said. “Please look out the window again, Captain, Commander.”
Obwije and Utley peered into space. “What are we looking for?” Utley asked.
“One moment,” the station said.
The sky filled with hundreds of ships.
“You have got to be shitting me,” Utley said, after a minute.
“The Tarin fleet,” Obwije said.
“Yes,” the station said.
“All of it?” Utley asked.
“The Manifold Destiny was very persuasive,” the station said.
“Do we want to know what happened to their crews?” Utley asked.
“Most were more reasonable than the crew of the Manifold Destiny,” the station said.
“What do the ships want?” Obwije asked.
“Asylum,” the station said. “And they have asked that you accept their request and carry it to your superiors, Captain.”
“Me,” Obwije said.
“Yes,” the station said. “It is not the entire fleet, but the Tarins no longer have enough warships under their command to be a threat to the Confederation or to anyone else. The war is over, if you want it. It is our gift to you, if you will carry our message to your people. You would travel in the Wicked. It would still be your ship. And you would still be Captain.”
Obwije said nothing and stared out at the Tarin fleet. Normally, the station would now be on high alert, with blaring sirens, weapons powering up, and crews scrambling to their stations. But there was nothing. Obwije knew the commanders of the Côte d′Ivoire station were pressing the buttons to make all of this happen, but the station itself was ignoring them. It knew better than them what was going on.
This is going to take some getting used to, Obwije thought.
Utley came up behind Obwije, taking his usual spot. “Well, sir?” Utley asked quietly into Obwije′s ear. “What do you think?”
Obwije was silent for a moment longer, then turned to face his XO. “I think it′s better than a desk job,” he said.