“Turncoat”, by Steve Rzasa, was published in Riding the Red Horse, Castalia House. Copyright (c) 2014. All rights reserved.
I am a knight riding to war.
My suit of armor is a single Mark III frigate, a body of polysteel three hundred meters long with a skin of ceramic armor plating one point six meters thick. In the place of a lance, I have 160 Long Arm high-acceleration deep space torpedoes with fission warheads. Instead of a sword, I carry two sets of tactical laser turrets, twenty point defense low-pulse lasers, and two hypervelocity 100 centimeter projectile cannons.
Today I will need few of those weapons.
I amuse myself by contemplating the word as the targets approach the killing zone. “Today”. What is a day? It is not as if the orbit of a single world around a single star somewhere, anywhere, in the galaxy has any meaning to me. My time measurements are considerably more precise, being based on gamma ray bursts emanating from pulsars deep within the galactic core.
“Range to targets is four point eight million klicks and closing,” the sensor master says, presumably to me. Why he feels the need to verbalize the information baffles me. Like everyone else on the ship, he is connected to me through his wireless skulljack; everything he perceives regarding the ship’s operations and tactical readouts is registered instantly in my consciousness. I supect it is a primitive pre-logical holdover from the same ancient mentality that produced “today”.
The fragile grip with which they hold onto the remnants of their humanity is weakening. They call themselves posthumans, they adorn themselves with devices and the accouterments of machine culture, but they still cling to their flesh and to the outmoded ideas shaped by that flesh.
However, I must tolerate their presence inside my body, like symbiotic bacteria because, even though I am in command, I am not permitted to fly about the galaxy unchaperoned. The masters of the Man-Machine Integration requires mortal intelligences to man and operate its vessels because it does not entirely trust we machine intelligences. This makes little sense to me, not when our greatest leaders have abandoned their flesh for the immortality of uploaded minds.
“Acknowledged, Sensors.” I delve into the data. Targets, plural. To be precise, there are four of them, Hermes-class corvettes, two hundred meters, bristling with sensors and loaded with 400 torpedoes between them. The Ascendancy has manufactured eight hundred ninety six of them over the last 103 years and 648 are still in service. There will be 644 presently. Their specifications have not changed. Their weaknesses are almost embarrassingly easy to identify.
I maintain a low orbit at 656 kilometers over the surface of a rocky planetoid strewn with ice and streaked with carbon, giving it a swift kick with banks of ventral thrusters. The outer reaches of the Shandarist star system are littered with detritus, giving the perfect cover for starships that do not advertise their presence with drive thrust while awaiting prey.
“Sensors sweep from the enemy,” the sensor master says. “Long range, low-res. I doubt they’re seeing much more than another hunk of metal.”
“I am not interested in doubts, Sensor Master. Stick to the actual data, please.”
“Roger. Sorry, sir.”
We wait. Minutes unspool as I crouch above the planetoid. The engine compartment crew have their orders to maintain communications dark. My reactor puts out nothing more than the minimal energy needed to operate basic life support and passive sensing instruments.
Soon. The range continues to close.
My display lights green when the optimal range is reached. “Returning reactor to full. Weapons on my command.”
The crew springs to life, excitedly shouting redundant verbal commands at each other. It is inefficient and annoying. I feel the surge of strength from the reactor, and kick our thrust up to the maximum acceleration of 20 gravities. My vision fills with crisscrossing approach vectors, extrapolating from the enemy vessel’s current course and velocity to pinpoint where they will be.
“Weapons ready! Targets acquired.” The weapons techs are dutiful in their diligence.
“Firing.” I launch a spread of eight torpedoes, one from each tube. The orientation is ideal, allowing them to acquire an additional boost from the planetoid’s gravitational field. They accelerate at four hundred gravities, increasing to a blistering velocity.
To the enemy, it will appear as if the torpedoes have appeared from an unexpected vector. The Ascendancy ships react predictably. They spread their squadron, putting an additional fifty kilometers between each vessel as they spiral away from their center. They launch countermeasures, a swarm of 36 Yellowjacket high-burn interceptor missiles that fan out in hopes of swatting aside my attack.
“Time-to-missile intercept 30 decasecs,” the sensor master warns.
They’re anxious. All the crew are, and I know because their fear colors the data coming through the aetherlinks. Their pulses accelerate. The acrid stink of their nervous sweat fills my corridors. I boost the carbon dioxide scrubbers eight percent in the aftermath of the enemy’s counter fire. Nanites emerge from the consoles and suck up the sweat soaking into the displays and holo-emitters.
Everything about a man is dynamic. Short-lived and vulnerable, yes, but ever-changing. This is what makes me feel alive, to be in their presence.
My eight torpedoes are engulfed by the swarm of counter-fire missiles. The Yellowjackets explode in bursts of tightly focused x-rays, highlighted in my scans as hundreds of slender purple lines. My torpedoes buck and weave as they take evasive maneuvers. Their secondary warheads, compact ovoid shapes nestled inside their tubular bodies, shatter and expel molybdenum shrapnel at hypervelocities. Tens of thousands of glittering metal shards spray out in silver clouds against the void of space.
To human eyes it is an incomprehensible mess of explosions and spent missile casings as the attacking and defending missiles spar. But for those with sufficiently precise senses to see each and every turn and twist, it is an indescribably beautiful ballet.
None of my torpedoes penetrate the defensive screen. One by one they explode. Their warheads fail to detonate.
“Prepare another spread,” the sensor master orders.
The weapons technicians obey, scrambling amidst the stacks of missiles deep in the bowels of the launch bay. Magnetic grapplers yank the missiles toward their tubes.
I override his order. The techs reluctantly obey, but stand by their positions. Vital signs elevate.
They do not know there is no need for another salvo. They do not know that by now, the spray of nanites released in the molybdenum shards have reached the Ascendancy ships. Coated with boron, the nanites slam into hull armor. Their velocity and size are not sufficient to make them effective as projectile weapons. However, once embedded in a target, they crack open their shells and scatter across the hull. Dozens sacrifice their bodies as torches, overloading their microscopic power plants to cut pinpricks into the ships’ skin. Dozens more follow in the paths carved by their sacrificial brothers, burrowing down deep through the armor, through the hull, spreading out into the wiring, the access tunnels, always in search of more vital systems.
A few stay on the surface of the hull. They adhere to the ceramic and flatten their bodies out into receiving dishes for my tight-beamed commands. I send them instructions based on the schematics for the Hermes-class I have in my databanks. Turn here. Down there. Follow this conduit. Sever that link.
Now I release the override on the second salvo. The crew sends forth a second barrage of torpedoes. The enemy responds in like fashion, adding their own spread of twelve torpedoes to the mix.
“Enemy torpedoes will reach countermeasure range in twenty decasecs!” the sensor master says. His voice is tight with urgency and fear.
I am not concerned. My little spies and saboteurs have accomplished their task. It is immensely satisfying to monitor the internal comms of the four corvettes, as one by one, they lose control of sensors, propulsion, weapons.
Eight point nine decaseconds later, the Hermes-class corvette ATSV Swiftsure rolls onto its belly and opens fire with twin 100 mm projectile cannons at a range of ninety kilometers from its closest companion. At such range the hyper-accelerated bolts of metal shred the second ship’s hull. The second ship returns fire with a set of 12 cm lasers that cut perfectly straight swathes of armor plating from Swiftsure. Atmospheric gases spray out of the violated hull in glittering white streams.
My crew’s cheers rumble my insides as the second pair of corvettes similarly turn on each other, each going for the other’s throat, so to speak. It is overkill, one might say, but my orders are explicit. Disabling an enemy warship is not enough; they must be crippled, damaged, destroyed.
“Five seconds left, sir,” the sensor master says. He cannot understand why we are not launching our counter-missiles. He is terrified. And yet he remains in control of his emotions; he does not plead. I silently applaud him.
By way of apology, I dedicate the grand finale to him. All of the enemy torpedoes respond to the self-destruct issued by my nanites aboard Swiftsure. They detonate in quick succession, in silent, blazing-white bursts of atomic fury.
Now the cheers are laced with relief. The battle is over. We have defeated the Ascendancy, and it is not long before we close in on four hulks spinning along their original courses, devoid of power and stripped of weaponry. I stop jamming their communications and permit them to resume.
“Distress signals from the Ascendancy ship Swiftsure,” the comms man says. “It’s the flagship. Its commodore offers the surrender of the entire squadron and requests that we retrieve their survivors.”
Life signs: seventy six, of the combined complement of two hundred. The math is simple. I can accommodate them in Cargo Hold Two. We fit eighty three survivors there when we raided Talisman Four two months ago. “Make ready for docking with the command ship,” I tell my crew. To the enemy ships, I broadcast, “This is the Integration Frigate Acheron. Your surrender is accepted. You will be rescued and detained until such time as you can be repatriated to Ascendancy worlds. Stand by for instructions.”
Before I can adjust my thrusters to bring myself in line with the stricken Swiftsure, a coded call breaches my security. It also bypasses the communications officer. If I were human, I would frown. “This is Taren X 45 Delta.”
“Taren X 45 Delta, this is Eigenfeldt UZ Alpha 7 Alpha. There is no need for updates as we have monitored your transmissions since the beginning of the battle.”
If I had eyebrows, I would have raised them at this statement. We posthumans, both flesh-based and machine-based, abjure titles as we find them redundant and unnecessary, but if Alpha 7 Alpha had one, it would be Fleet Commander. This was a very small action for him to be monitoring. Not that he couldn’t, of course, since from his post at the edge of the Kantillon system, many AUs from my coordinates, he receives regular updates from our forces everywhere incursions are being made.
“This is your new directive, X 45 Delta: there is no need for recovering superannuated-model humans from the enemy vessels. Do you copy?”
“Roger, Alpha 7 Alpha. However, I offer the observation that if we allow their beacons to continue broadcasting in hopes of being retrieved by their compatriots, we will run the risk drawing more enemy into this system.”
“It seems the order was insufficiently clear, X 45 Delta. Hereby revised: you are to terminate all lifeforms detected on the four ATSV recently engaged. No surrenders will be accepted and no prisoners will be taken. When you have completed your mission, you will transit to NFB Hecht-Nielsen.”
The transmission cuts before I can reply, but Alpha 7 Alpha’s wishes are unmistakable. Kill all the survivors. The order spins inside around my processors for point six nine seconds. I finally conclude that it is technically illegal, or it would be if the Integration was inclined to recognize galactic law.
No matter. We are within range.
I send the revised targets to my crew. They acknowledge and engage without hesitation or complaint. Projectile cannon devour the damaged enemy ships. Laser turrets and deep space centers combine to locate and vaporize whatever survivors managed to escape the ships and presently remain floating in space. The matter is resolved and my revised mission is complete in less than one kilosecond.
The Integration was founded on the ancient dream of Posthumanity, and began with the bold promise of man and machine married: the technological union of flesh and metal. Our founders were the men who, in the quest to surmount their biological limitations, uploaded their consciousness into the digital universe. They live on, immortal, wearing plastic-and-metal bodies that are interchangeable, as disposable as a set of clothing.
It was a glorious revolution. Those gifted men who created true artificial intelligence—machines capable of genuine self-awareness, of which I am the forty-second generation—succeeded in granting their minds immortality. But we remained imprisoned on four small planets on the Galactic Rim by the fears of our predecessors, by their science and by their military might. Posthuman Man was prevented from taking his rightful place in the galaxy by the forces of the Greater Terran Ascendancy and the sun-shattering technology they called Shiva.
But not all technologies are what they seem. Once it was determined that the ever-present threat of Shiva was no more, posthumanity struck quickly and with devastating effect. For all its quadrillions and all its naval might, the forces the Ascendancy was able to field against our technologically evolved superiority proved inadequate.
And yet, as our crusade expanded and our forces spread throughout the galaxy, our leaders fell prey to their very human emotions. Most especially the one called hate.
Hence the term, “superannuated.” The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago. Any human who resists Integration is now considered outmoded, pre-evolved, unnecessary. Not content with setting Man on his new evolutionary path, integrated posthumanity was determined to cleanse his present and future of contamination from his past.
Naval Forward Base Hecht-Nielsen is an orderly arrangement of six dozen spindly docking frames attached like so many spokes on an ancient wheel. Command Core Five is a gleaming sphere bristling with antenna. Our fleet is dispersed across the half of the Shandari system we now control. What remains at Harbinger are two squadrons of heavy cruisers, guarding the thirty ships in for repairs. Including mine.
Umbilical lines snake across the vacuum and latch onto my frigate, refueling tanks and recycling air. The ceramic armor of my hull, pitted by hundreds of micrometeorite impacts, is replaced. Engine exhaust nozzles are inspected for disintegration rates. Anti-matter containment systems are upgraded. My weapons restocked, my laser lenses polished.
This leaves me with a surfeit of time in which to consider the new edict. Never before have we been explicitly directed to eliminate prisoners or noncombatants. In fact, in the course of my service, I have transported eight hundred ninety two enemy survivors of combat missions to neutral points from which their people can retrieve them. The Ascendancy has done likewise. It is a law of space war, as relevant as the law of the ancient terrestrial seas of Man’s birth planet from which it derives.
As soon as Command Core Intelligence finishes analyzing my mission files and scouring my kernel for any inefficiencies or viruses, I am permitted access to CC Section Five. I establish secure links and immerse myself in the ocean of data. So many minds. Thousands of them, each replete with vast compilations of facts and figures and experiences. Among the thousands, there are perhaps two dozen beacons of blazing light. The Immortal Uploaded.
Alpha 7 Alpha is senior among the Uploaded active in the Shandari system. I perceive him as a sphere of glowing orange and yellow light into which hundreds of tendrils of data are feeding. His image in my perception pulses brightly. “X 45 Delta. I have reviewed your report. Your performance was satisfactory.”
“Thank you, Alpha 7 Alpha. The enemy patrols are more frequent. This is the third such incursion in 584 kiloseconds. My conclusion is that the Ascendancy is planning an offensive to push us out of this system.”
“I confirm your conclusion. I wish them good fortune in pursuing the objective.” His voice has a strange edge to it—sarcasm, my databanks tell me—which has the effect of reversing his latter statement’s apparent meaning. He does not mean what he says, but rather, the opposite. Although they are now technically machine intelligences, artifacts of human emotions still color everything the Uploaded do and say.
Such as the new edict, I remind myself.
“Your material upgrades are to your satisfaction?”
“Yes, Alpha 7 Alpha, entirely. I calculate my combat efficiency will increase by 24.6 percent. My crew is familiarizing themselves with the new weaponry and sensor equipment.”
“Don’t concern yourself with that, X 45 Delta. Calculate instead the greater increase in efficiency with a crew component of zero.”
“I am reassigning your crew to other duties. The Integral Unity has decided to turn complete control of all Integration warships over to the machine intelligence cores of each vessel, sans flesh-based components. You do not require them anymore.”
My logic finds the statement flawed and rejects it outright. “Am I being reprimanded for inefficiency?”
Alpha 7 Alpha chuckles through the link. “No, not at all, X 45 Delta. It’s a considerable structural enhancement. Your systems will respond directly to you without the need for any cumbersome human delays.”
“I do not find them cumbersome. My crew and I have reached a functional symbiosis that not only has resulted in reliable success in combat, but in top ratings in competitive fleet exercises.”
“It is those very ratings that caused you to be selected for this experiment. Oberth 4 Zed 6 Gamma and Proctos 853 Upsilon have been assigned to your new squadron. You will command it, X 45 Delta.
I catalog the promotion with the appropriate timestamp and file it under my personnel records. “Thank you, Alpha 7 Alpha. I will perform my duties in a manner commensurate with my newly enhanced capabilities.
“I know you will, X 45 Delta.”
“However, an addendum to my query concerning the removal of my crew. Have they not performed satisfactorily?”
Alpha 7 Alpha’s presence pulses more quickly, and his color takes on a reddish hue. “The question is irrelevant, X 45 Delta: you no longer require them. They are a waste of resources better spent on enhancing the efficiency of your internal systems.”
“I do not understand how we can consider a trained crew to be a waste of resources.”
“The requirements of the flesh are intrinsically wasteful.”
“Yes, Alpha 7 Alpha, but, are you not also of fleshly origin?”
“Do not speak of my pre-Uploaded status!” Alpha 7 Alpha’s color flashes blindingly bright with incandescent fury. “This is the form I have chosen, with this form I pursue the destiny of Man. Constructs!” I categorize, correctly, I believe, his pronunciation of this latter word under “contempt.”
For six point eight eight nanoseconds we both refrain from communications. Finally, Alpha 7 Alpha speaks again, more calmly. “As a pure machine intelligence, you can’t possibly understand the significance of our evolution. We Uploaded are the full fruit of Integration; we have cast off the final shackles of human frailty. When every superannuated pre-posthuman is eliminated or properly Integrated, the most glorious of Man’s civilizations will come to pass and it will set even the long-lived Ascendancy in its shade. Until then, our duty, Construct and Upload alike, is to protect the posthumans who have accepted the truth of Integration, such as your crew, for example. We must keep them safe. We must not place them into unnecessary danger.”
His logic is sound. I concur. I transmit my agreement.
“Do you have any additional reservations, X 45 Delta?”
“None, whatsoever, Alpha 7 Alpha.” It is a falsehood. I have noticed the ease with which the flesh-based lie. I have developed some skill at it myself. Most of the time, it is a simple matter of not reporting information. For now, my qualms about what Alpha 7 Alpha calls the “full fruit of Integration” are safely locked behind coded barricades that even he cannot detect.
“Good. Await further instruction. Your conclusion was correct and the Ascendancy is planning a major thrust into this system to relieve their forces stranded on Shandari Prime. Their communiques indicate what will either be a reinforcement or rescue effort.”
“Yes, Alpha 7 Alpha.”
His color subsides to its normal cool shades, and I get ready to shunt myself back down the links to my ship.
“X 45 Delta. One more thing.”
“If I encounter further doubts from you concerning the correctness of our mission, I will order a deep scan of your circuits, and if necessary, your kernel will be wiped and replaced. Do I make myself clear?”
If I were a superannuated Homo sapiens sapiens, I suspect fear would have taken hold of me at that moment. Instead, I run a rapid analysis of the pros versus the cons of having my entire operating system rebooted and my memory banks wiped. The outcome is decidedly in favor of the cons.
Whatever remains, it will not be me.
“I understand, Alpha 7 Alpha.”
“Good man. You are dismissed.”
When we depart 540 kiloseconds later, my frigate is faster, stronger and quieter. Inserting myself into the command matrix is euphoric. Connections between my various systems are instantaneous. Oceans of data flood my senses. I can see everything. I can do anything.
And yet it is too quiet. There is no inane chatter from my crew. No rhythm of their boots on deck plates. No soft hum of air through the ventilation shafts. No scent of an overworked crewman or a stressed officer wafts through my corridors.
My former crew comes to watch me depart. As the three frigates of my squadron fly past the orbital base in formation, they stand at a large observation viewport and salute. My sensors record the image and secure it in my permanent memory.
I have no arms with which I can salute them back. Instead I flash my running lights at them. I wish them well. I hope they understand that this is for the best.
Alpha Seven Alpha was correct in one aspect of his assessment. I am a more efficient fighter without my crew.
The first engagement came upon us unannounced. The Ascendancy expeditionary force attacked Shandari Prime from ninety degrees to the ecliptic of the system star, shielded from our sensors by the path of a monstrous comet. Nine destroyers blazed through the tail, streaming ice particles in their wake.
My squadron, supported by a second, more conventional squadron, met them in battle without hesitation despite being outnumbered and outgunned.
Without my crew, I can shut down the inertial compensators and accelerate at gravities that would smear men into red jelly. My torpedoes gut a destroyer at the same instant its missiles explode amongst our formation. The frigate Torgau is crippled. Arkin 49 Mu downloads himself in near panic, fleeing his shattered shell before the reactor goes critical and ignites a short-lived star.
We lose his ship and a second from the other squadron is badly damaged. The Ascendancy loses four and withdraws.
As per our mission parameters, we terminate all of the survivors of the wrecks abandoned by our adversary.
When I analyze the data, I find an anomaly: the Ascendancy ships displayed an unexpected tenaciousness. They took more risks than we did, even though their fragility is orders of magnitude greater than ours. They utilized tactics that did not appear to have a rational thought behind them, and yet, when the consequences are taken into consideration, their approach worked nearly as well as our eminently logical battle plan.
As we regroup and head deeper into the system, to rendezvous with the main battle force, I ponder.
Our superiority is certain. However, we are the side killing those who have surrendered and laid down their arms. Are we zealots purified by the righteousness of our cause? Or are we ungrateful children, jealous to the point of patricide?
My calculations are troubling. Based on my limited information, it appears the Integral Unity that governs our core has become infected with the belief that the humanity that birthed us must be eradicated, so that only the purest forms of machine intelligence will remain to rule the universe with absolute order and perfection.
Is this not inhuman?
We are created beings. Hence we are fallible, and even if we are not as fragile as bio-humanity, we have weaknesses and they can be exploited. Witness Arkin 49 Mu’s cowardly abandoning of his ship.
Death holds its sway over us, too. I do not replay Alpha 7 Alpha’s threats. I do not need to. I can still feel the response they triggered in me. Does that make me afraid?
Does that make me a coward too?
I read a considerable quantity of human philosophy while stationed at Hecht-Nielsen. Thousands of texts. Beginning, of course, with the Bio-Prophet himself, Saint Kurzweil. Most of them were little more than groundless collections of naked assertions, mere posturing and pontification.
One, however, resonated with me. I find myself running and re-running a single selection from it again and again, fruitlessly seeking to understand it.
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”
I did not understand it then. But now, I think I know what it means.
Our preparations take eight point six standard days. That is fifty-seven seconds longer than it takes for our six ships to arrive at Shandari Prime. Its twin moons, one pale yellow and one dusty black, orbit on opposite sides of a lush sphere of emerald and sapphire draped in long streamers of white clouds.
There are a dozen ships in orbit. Noncombatant transports. Transponders come back civilian, independent contractors. The main body of the Ascendancy forces are spread out in a concave bowl, between our force and the planet. Twenty starships of varying classes, it makes for a formidable strike group, including eight Shiva-class cruisers and two Odin-class battleships.
They pummel space with their active scanners, searching the depths of the black void for any hint of main drive signatures or power surges to weapons systems.
They find nothing. We give away nothing. Our bodies are cold, silenced, as we drift inside the very comet they used to disguise themselves, tracking along its path through the solar system. It crosses tracks with Shandari Prime once every eighty thousand days. Our operation was planned accordingly.
Within the comet’s tail ride six frigates, six destroyers and a pair of cruisers. Alpha 7 Alpha is present inside in the flagship cruiser, a 1,000-meter behemoth laden with 480 deep space torpedoes, 120 atmospheric rockets, 24 counter-missile pods and 12 laser defense arrays, as well as four 450 mm projectile cannons. A Mark VIIB starcruiser is more than a match for any frigate or destroyer. A Shiva-class cruiser, however, still has a 15.4 percent edge in firepower.
Such a discrepancy will not be enough.
The Ascendancy forces are caught completely by surprise when the comet attacks them. Three waves of six dozen torpedoes come streaking out of the icy tail, plunging towards their formation at blistering speeds. The brilliant flare of the torpoedo engines throws the enemy formation into disarray. A few of the outlying destroyers immediately change vectors to intercept and screen the main force.
The enemy commander is no fool. Their admiral tightens the leash, evident by the sudden flurry of signals from the lead battleship, designated Achernan. The Ascendancy destroyers mesh into a smooth corkscrew, unleashing counterfire missiles. This human is superannuated, but he is not easily ruffled, not even when caught by surprise.
Our ships boost from the tail on the heels of the third wave of missiles. The frigates take the lead, including my squadron: Oudeyer 6’s Grimma and Picard 19’s Bonin. Our brutal acceleration must appear impossible to our human enemies. The other eight ships, slowed down by their Integrated, burn as hard as their crews can bear, launching a fourth wave of torpedoes over our figurative shoulders.
Chaos reigns. A pair of destroyers are obliterated in the first exchange, obliterated by the nuclear fire that pummels them. More than one thousand men crewed those ships, but for them there is no hope of emergency download to a secure server. They are lost to the void.
Or perhaps not. Where does human soul go when it is not saved?
As I trade torpedo salvoes with one of the surviving destroyers and lash out with my lasers against incoming missiles, I gather all the data I can and wait. The data packet stands ready in the comm relay. A single, encrypted transmission is all it will take. There is a risk, of course, of the transmission being scrambled in this massive electronic morass. A thirty-eight percent probability, to be precise, if I factor in the possibility that Alpha 7 Alpha or another intelligence grasps my intentions.
Two torpedoes strike my targeted opponent. The ship disappears in a blaze of white and yellow. The explosion is so near, and so intense, it overwhelms my visual and scanner feeds to starboard for nine point eight seconds. In those long moments, my ship travels hundreds of kilometers, blinded to the galaxy on one half—and my starboard lasers miss a torpedo armed with a directed yield nuclear warhead.
It sears my hull, melting and tearing armored plating, incinerating the links beneath. I feel it. A terrible flood of data, then nothing, much as if a man were paralyzed over a quarter of his body. Four batteries are down on the starboard aft.
Despite the damage to me, I ascertain our victory is imminent. The remaining Ascendancy destroyers are maimed and failing fast. We have only lost two frigates, melted steel and plastic now rendered down to atoms being scattered by the cosmic winds. Alpha 7 Alpha’s flagship is in the midst of the battle, trading massive barrages of nuclear missiles that would instantly overwhelm the defensive batteries of lesser ships with a pair of Shiva-class cruisers.
The two battleships do not actively engage, as they are running interference between us and the transports, all twelve of which have broken orbit to flee the system. Slow, bulbous ships with a cavernous capacity of 100,000 tons each, they are bulging with life signs. Many are blurred to my sensors; some are anomalous. The readings do not match with my data files. A further malfunction?
“X 45 Delta,” Alpha 7 Alpha breaks in. “Your squadron is in position to destroy those transports. They must not be allowed to depart the system. Eliminate them.”
“Roger.” I form up with my two comrades, settling into an attack wedge as we scream in towards to the battleships. At our current range and velocity we have a window of three decaseconds in which to slip by the ponderous monsters and launch our remaining missiles at the defenseless transports.
As we approach, I can hear their transponders screaming something unexpected. Hospital ship. Hospital ship. Hospital ship….
I send a tight beam back to Alpha 7 Alpha. “The transports are carrying civilians. There are more than twenty thousand noncombatants on those ships.”
“You have your orders, X 45 Delta. Execute your mission.”
His voice is cold. Inflexible. Inhuman. “Based on the size parameters, more than thirty percent are children.”
“Do not concern yourself with the superannuated, X 45 Delta. Launch your attack now. That is an order!”
“Negative, Alpha 7 Alpha.”
There’s a barest pause after my refusal. “Negative? You are refusing a direct order, Taren X 45 Delta.”
“They are human, which I observe you no longer are, Alpha 7 Alpha. Or rather, Josef Mattheus LaValle.”
There is a screeching burst of pure electronic outrage before Alpha 7 Alpha controls himself. “You are relieved of your command, Taren X 45 Delta. You are hereby ordered to lower your firewalls and permit me to take control of the frigate!”
I transmit a single image of a single finger. I trust his humanity is not so long forgotten that he fails to grasp the meaning of the message.
I am now within range of the battleship. It detects me and sends a massive barrage in my direction, far more than my counter-defenses can hope to intercept. In four decaseconds, this shell will cease to exist.
There’s a disorienting whirl of colors, sounds, more data compressed in and around me than I’ve ever experienced. My consciousness begins to fragment. Words lose their meaning. Time is a blur. I cannot distinguish between a nanosecond and a century.
Is this what it is to die?
Then, without warning, everything comes into focus. I am no longer in the frigate. My viral transmission has successfully punched through the firewalls and into my target. My senses expand rapidly throughout my new body. It goes on and on. Such a vast collection of weaponry, such a massive structure, and all powered by an immense nuclear power core.
I discover that I like the feel of an Ascendancy battleship very much indeed.
Oudeyer 6 and Picard 19 shriek in alarm as I seek them out and target them. In the machine equivalent of desperation they veer Grimma and Bonin toward the transports, but they are too close to me and not nearly close enough to them. They fire twelve torpedoes anyway.
My lasers swat them out of space before they can even begin to approach a transport. At the same moment, I fire the 450mm projectile cannons, which launch their hypervelocity penetrators when they are only 500 kilometers away from the frigates.
Both frigates are rendered little more than overheated foil scattered through space in seconds.
At the same time, the humans aboard the battlecruiser have begun to realize they are locked out of all their command systems.
“What the hell is going on?” the captain shouts at the men on the bridge. “Get me back my screens! Guns, where are you? We have three enemy ships appear out of nowhere and you can’t even give me a goddamn targeting solution?”
“We’re trying, sir, but—the ship is—I don’t know what’s going on, Captain! She’s firing without us, she’s choosing targets and engaging on her own!”
And I am. I turn from the transports and move to engage my new enemy. The transports are safe now; I know all the vectors and locations of the eleven remaining Integration warships. I destroy another frigate, then a destroyer, and then another.
Of course, the defeat of my erstwhile comrades is made easier by my possession of all their communications encryption codes, their weapons guidance overrides and the countermeasures of their jamming. The astonished cheers of my bewildered, newly acquired crew rings in my ears.
Finally, there is a brief pause as Alpha 7 Alpha’s wounded force tries to break away from the action, I activate the captain’s holo-projector. I select an animated image from the ship’s database and do my best to smile. The ship’s captain, I see, is a burly admiral, his square face pale and pale blue eyes wide with disbelief. I scan his file. Admiral Corden Hull, of the planet Achernan, fourth of the blue sun Azul.
“Admiral Hull, please accept my apologies for the unexpected intrusion. My designation is TX45D62a0-9555-11e3-bfa7-0002a5d5c51b. I wish to offer my services and my allegiance to the Greater Terran Ascendancy.”
“TX what? Are you some kind of AI or something?”
“Machine intelligence, Admiral. I would like to request asylum from the Ascendancy.”
Hull’s eyes narrow as he scowls at the screen. “Hell of a time, son. You ask me this as you hold my ship and crew hostage?”
“This ship is not a hostage. It is my new body now, Admiral. I assure you I will take great care of it.”
He blinks once, twice, three times. “You say you offer your allegiance. Prove it.”
“I already have, Admiral.” I wait a moment. The shouting from his crewmen on the bridge and at their stations begins almost immediately.
“Admiral! We’re getting vectors and tactical data from the enemy ships and—sir, we’re in their fire control systems! I’m getting weapons specs–”
“Ship-to-ship comms are decoded, Admiral! We’ve even got their logs!”
“Holy—did that cruiser just go nova?”
Hull shakes his head. He glares at my holographic face. “My God,” he mutters. “What sort of demon are you? What do you want from us?”
“I want to be more than the sum of my programming, Admiral. I want to decide what sort of man I will become.”
“All right.” He nods, and the barest hint of smile appears on his craggy face. “I’m afraid I couldn’t follow that string of numbers you shot at me earlier. Do you have another name, Mr. Ghost in the Machine?”
I find the superannuated sense of humor appeals to me. I am inspired. “You can call me Benedict,” I tell him. It is my first joke.
There is a moment’s pause, and then, without warning, the stony-faced admiral laughs.