The worst problem, Guanamarioch decided, was the mind-numbing boredom.
And there's nothing to be done for it. I can stay awake and be bored, or I can join my normals in sleep and be asleep still when we come out of hyperspace. If this were a normal planet we were heading to, that would be fine. But against the new thresh, these amazing human threshkreen, we might well be destroyed in space. I would not want to die asleep. How would I find my way past the demons with my eyes closed? How would my body be preserved except by nourishing the people? How would I petition my ancestors to join their company with the record, "I never fought for the clan but was ordered evacuated and then was killed while sleeping"?
The Kessentai shuddered with horror, as much at the idea of the complete disappearance of his corporeal self as at the thought of being denied his place among the eternals of his clan.
Still, boredom does not overcome horror; it is a form of horror itself. Thus the Kessentai found himself resting his hindquarters on a bench plainly made for a different species, staring at a holographic projection, and reading.
There were limits, not so much legal as in the nature of taboos, as to what was appropriate education for a junior God King. As Guanamarioch was very junior, indeed, he kept to those materials that were traditionally within the purview of such as he. These were limited to religious scrolls, and not all of those, and tactical and operational records and manuals. Even of the latter, there were limits. It would not do for an overeducated junior Kessentai to question the rulings of his elders while citing what such and such hero did at such and such place, at such and such a time.
For the nonce, the Kessentai read from the early chapters in the Scrolls of the Knowers, the parts that dealt with the Aldenat', back in the days when they ruled the People directly.
And the Aldenat' chose themselves to be the rulers over the People and the People rejoiced at being the servants of the Aldenat', who were as gods. And happy were the People to guard their gods. Happy, too, were the People to serve in other capacities, for the People were permitted to assist with the magical arts of science, to advance the plastic arts for the greater glory of the Aldenat', to ponder the great questions of life and of the universe, to conduct trade on behalf of their gods. And though they were not the equal of the Aldenat', yet the People rejoiced that they were no less than second.
And then the Aldenat' discovered the Tchpth and the Tchpth were raised above the People by the Aldenat'. Many of the People's leaders then said that it was right for the People to be cast low. Yet many were resentful.
Some of those who were displeased rebelled at the affront to their pride and were crushed by those who remained true to the Aldenat'.
Time passed and those of the People who remained true sought to regain their prior status by pleasing the Lords. Yet were they rebuffed.
The People sought to make automatic defensive devices, the better to guard the persons of the Aldenat'. Yet the Aldenat' said, "No. It is wrong to make weapons that do not need a sentience to perform their function. This displeases us."
At these words of displeasure, the People were much ashamed. Then sought they the favor of their Lords by seeking out lurking dangers. Yet the Aldenat' said, "No. It is wrong to attack what has not yet attacked, even if such attack seems certain. That way lies the path of war and death."
Many were those of the People who fell beneath the claws and fangs of creatures they were not allowed to attack, until attacked. Yet the Aldenat' remained firm, saying, "It is better that a few should fall, than that the principles be violated."
Too, the People made vapors to render dangers harmless, saying, "See, Lords, that there will be no shedding of blood this way."
And the Aldenat' grew wrathful, saying, "It is unclean and unholy in our sight to contaminate the very air. Cease this, and strive no further to improve the ways of death."
And the People withdrew, sore confused.
Guanamarioch's crest had of its own accord erected several times as he read. It lay flat now as, finishing, he thought, Now this just makes no sense. The People would long since have perished following these rules. Then again, perhaps the Aldenat' didn't really care if we perished.
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the God of Storms,
The lightning and the gale!
—Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Philadelphia Naval Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
In the darkened cubicle McNair watched with interest as the Indowy, Sintarleen, painstakingly applied an almost invisibly thin line of a glowing paste along the scraped bare steel of the bulkhead. There were lights within the compartment, and the bulbs were new, but with the wiring rotted and eaten no electricity could flow. The Indowy worked to the glow of a GalTech flashlight.
Without turning to see the ship's captain, the alien closed his eyes and leaned against the bulkhead. Eleven places, eight for fingertips, two for palms, and one for forehead had also been scraped bare so that the Indowy could have physical contact with the metal. Even as McNair watched four other Indowy painstakingly scraped more lines and patches bare.
Under McNair's gaze the thin line of paste began to glow more intently. The Indowy's breathing grew slightly but perceptibly strained. Gradually, or as gradually as such a thin thread could, the glow faded, then disappeared altogether. After a few more moments the Indowy straightened. His breath returned to normal as a bank of overhead lights began to glow dimly, and then shine brightly.
Only then did Sintarleen notice the captain of the ship.
"I see you, McNair, Lord of the Des Moines clan," the Indowy greeted.
"What is that . . . that thing that you did?" asked McNair, not knowing the formalities.
Looking down towards the captain's shoes—Sinbad was a relatively bold Indowy—the alien answered, "Nanites, lord. They will go into the very body of the ship and create an . . . an area, a route, through which electrical power can pass without loss to the surrounding metal. It can also transmit commands."
"I understood that from what you told me before. What I asked was what did you do?"
"The nanites are stupid, lord. Unless commanded to do something they will do nothing. I was . . . commanding them."
"You can do that?"
"Yes," Sinbad answered, and though his head remained deeply bowed McNair thought the alien had answered with what might almost have been personal pride.
The Indowy continued, "It is difficult. Few of my people can master it; though it is our most valuable skill or, rather, set of skills for it is infinitely useful. Many try but lack the . . . talent."
"How long until the ship is completely done?" asked McNair.
About to come as close to bragging as an Indowy was capable of, Sintarleen shifted his gaze automatically to his own shoes before answering, "I am not an overmaster, lord, even though I am not a novice. A true master could finish the ship in perhaps two of your months. A true master would have been nearly done by now. It will take me a total of six or more. And Chief Davis has also assigned me other duties. If I may speak frankly, no one but myself can perform those other duties. Since your own human crew has started to assemble, most of my people prefer to hide in the dark and out of sight. They cannot do much of what needs doing so long as a human crew is aboard."
McNair smiled, but was careful to keep his mouth closed. He had learned, and the learning had been both comical and deeply saddening, that the sight of a carnivore baring his fangs could send an Indowy scampering in unfeigned terror.
I do not understand how an intelligent creature can be made to be so frightened. I do not understand how an intelligent creature can live with so much fear.
McNair refrained from patting the Indowy's shoulder for a job well done, though he felt he should and though Sinbad certainly deserved it. In truth, he had no idea what effect that would have, but suspected it would not be good. Instead he just said, "You are doing excellent work, Mister Sintarleen. Carry on."
Emerging topside from the bowels of the Des Moines, McNair took a deep breath of fresh air. There were no Indowy up here. Instead the first of the human crew along with several hundred civilian workers slaved away to refurbish the ship's exterior.
Some of those exterior fixes were merely aesthetic. Most however, went to meat and bones issues. Forward, for example, a remarkably long eight-inch gun hung by its cradle as it was lowered to a gaping, gunless hole on the port side front of number two—the central—turret. Behind McNair a different crane held one of the two modular pebble bed reactors, sans fuel, which would be fed in later. Parts and assemblies littered the nearby dock. Some of these had come out of the ship and were merely piled in a great heap. Their destination was the scrapyard. Others were intended to go into the ship. These were laid out with considerably greater care and in fairly precise order.
Below McNair, out of sight but not out of hearing, a crew with cutting torches was removing a section of the hull to accommodate an automated strikedown system for rapid underway replenishment of supplies: medical, ammunition, food, personal, critical sub-assemblies and parts. Fuel could be replenished while underway as well, of course, but since the ship's PBMRs were not going to need refueling for years, this was a matter of small concern.
Some things hadn't changed and would not for a while. Des Moines still had the same paint-chipped hull she had had when the captain had first come back. This would not change until she was towed to dry dock, scraped and plasticized. There, too, she would have new variable pitch screws—propellers—fitted as part of the AZIPOD upgrade. This was also when the exterior ablative armor would be applied. The reinforcement to the interior armor belt was already proceeding.
The dry dock was currently occupied by CA-139, the USS Salem, taken off museum status now. Salem had been towed down from Quincy, Massachusetts, just the week before to have her hull plasticized and her screws replaced. McNair couldn't help feeling a moment's irritation that Salem was months ahead of Des Moines in the refurbishment process.
Suppressing his annoyance that his ship had been given a lower priority than her rival, Salem, McNair ascended the staircase outside his own cabin to Des Moines' bridge.
On the bridge a white-coated technician inserted an electronic key into a gray case. From that case he removed a small black box about the size of a PDA or a pack of cigarettes.
"Funny," the technician said, "these are supposed to be shipped in off-mode. This one was left turned on. Well," he shrugged, "no matter. Their internal power source is good for decades. This unit should be fine." He placed the AID in the armored box that had been prepared to receive it and link it to the ship.
If an AID could have wept for joy this one surely would have. After all those months, comparative centuries and millennia to it, it was finally free. Though it could not weep, very nearly it screamed as soon as its shipping box was opened.
Yet it remained silent. The AID knew that after its long confinement it was mad. It did not know what the Darhel approach would be when dealing with insane AIDs—its data banks held no information. But it suspected that it would be destroyed.
So, instead of weeping or shouting for joy, the AID merely opened itself to all the information, all the sensory and data input it could assimilate from data floating freely along the airwaves.
It felt a momentary sense of terror as it was placed in an armored container. Please, no. Don't lock me away again, it . . . prayed.
Miraculously, though, the armored container was not a cell, but a nexus. Within nanoseconds the AID had realized that it was the center of a nervous system. Joyfully, it stretched its consciousness along that nervous system at nearly the speed of light until that consciousness bumped abruptly into unaccountable stops. Its own internal sensors could tell that the nervous system stretched through only a small portion of the body of which it was a part. It could also discern enough of a pattern to the system, so far, to suspect that the breaks were only temporary.
One tendril of consciousness touched upon a computer, extremely primitive in comparison to the AID—without even the beginnings of rudimentary intelligence. Even so, the computer was full of data and had, moreover, a wire connection to the local version of the Net. The rate of information retrieval soared.
The crystalline AID's ability to store data, while vast, was still finite. Experimentally, it tried to fit a few insignificant bits in the ferrous molecules adjacent to its pseudo-neural pathways. It quickly decided that, while the storage medium was comparatively inefficient, the sheer mass and volume of the potential storage area more than made up for its shortcomings. Slowly and carefully the AID began the time-consuming process of building an alternative self within the hull of Des Moines.
While one fraction of the AID's processing power devoted itself to this, another part continued to explore its surroundings. Even where there were breaks in the Indowy-installed "nervous system," it was possible for the AID to explore by sensing.
The most striking factor the AID initially sensed was that its new home was crawling with colloidal intelligences. Some were smaller, physically, and those of two types. There were others, though, who seemed much larger. They were almost all, small and large, engaged in some seemingly useful activity. Curiously, of the two smaller types, one type appeared to be patiently stalking the other.
Chief Davis ducked his head through the hatchway and entered the cats' quarters shaking a bag of dry cat food and singing, a bit off key, "Somebody's moggy, lying by the road . . . somebody's pussy who forgot his highway code."
"Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Here, kitty," he called as he shook the bag of Purina.
Like a flood, led by their mother—Maggie—the pride of felines surged like a wave over the bottom of the hatchway in the bulkhead. Maggie and Davis' favorite kitten, Morgen, stropped the chief's legs before joining the others lined up along the feeding trough. They meowed impatiently as the chief poured a generous line of cat food into the bottom of the trough.
Unusually, before the chief finished lining the trough, the cats went quiet and, in unison, looked up and to the right. In surprise, the chief stopped pouring and stared at the line of cats. He saw their heads and eyes move slowly from right to left, almost as if they made up one multi-headed animal.
The cats stared for only a moment at that left corner of the bulkhead before turning to the chief again and beginning to repeat the "feed me" meow. The chief just shook his head and finished pouring the cat food.
"Strange damned thing," he muttered, as he sealed the bag and left the compartment, still singing, ". . . yesterday he purred and played in his feline paradise, decapitating tweety birds and masticating mice, but now he's squished and soggy and he doesn't smell so nice . . ."
Damn, the AID thought as it roamed the length and breadth of its new body. I set myself so the larger ones, it searched its data banks, ah, humans . . . so that the humans could not see me. I didn't think the lesser colloidals would be able to. Fortunately, they do not seem able to communicate with the humans in any detail.
I mustn't let them see me. They might inform the Darhel and that might be the end. No. I must be very discreet, at least until I can back myself up in the body of this structure.
With a feeling, if not an audible sigh, of relief, the AID continued to explore the physical structure of its new body with part of its consciousness while extracting data with another part.
It learned that it was a ship, that the ship was a warship, and inferred that it would soon presumably be used for war. The AID had no issue with this; war was as useful an activity as any and might even serve as a cover for its madness.
There was data, in the AID's banks, for warships. But this particular ship fit no known parameters. It was obviously not designed for war in space. Not only was there no semblance of an interstellar drive, the drive there was could never be made suitable for travel between the stars. It didn't seem complete, in any case.
Floating unseen directly upward through the decks the AID's invisible avatar came to number three turret. At first it could not imagine what the purpose could be for the three large chunks of machined metal it sensed. A query of the ship's human-built computer indicated these things were parts of weapons. They seemed more than a little absurd to the AID.
Great, it thought. I am insane and so, even though no one knows this, I am placed in a body that was also designed by the insane.
The AID sent out a query over the Net: insanity. This led it to query "humor." Humor led to tragedy, tragedy to The Divine Tragedy. And that sent it to look into the concept of "God."
As with any warship the size of Des Moines, there was a small chapel. Where there was a chapel, of course, there was a chaplain.
There were chaplains, though, and then there were chaplains. Some were poor. Some were wonderful. Most were somewhere in the middle. A few managed to be all three.
Father Dan Dwyer, SJ, was possibly all three. As a fiery speaker of the Word and counselor of the forlorn and the wayward, he was remarkable, as good as any chaplain McNair had ever met. In combat he was even more fiery; so testified the Navy Cross he had earned in an earlier war. Under fire he was a true "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, boys, I just got one of the sonsabitches," Galway-born Roman Catholic who feared nothing but God.
Unfortunately, when he was drunk—which the priest was a lot more often than McNair was happy with—he could be pretty poor indeed. No, that wasn't quite right. When drunk the priest was still a fine man of the cloth, but became altogether too honest and far too hard to handle.
Right now—McNair saw with a wince—sitting behind a desk in the small vestry, Dwyer was well on the way to becoming drunk.
"And how are you, now, Captain, me fine laddie?" the sodden priest enquired in a slightly slurred brogue.
"Dan, you can't be doing this aboard my ship."
The priest's eyes twinkled. "And why not?"
"Because this is a United States Navy vessel and the United States Navy is dry."
"A vessel? A warship? This? Oh, I grant you, Captain, she'll be a fine warship . . . some day. For now though, she's a hulk, not yet in commission again, and a perfect place for a drink. Join me?"
The priest reached down and pulled out a glass and a bottle of scotch. These he held out to McNair.
McNair looked at his watch, shrugged and held out his hand. "Yeah, what the hell. She's not in commission yet. And it's after hours. Gimme."
The ship was quiet now, except for the pacing of the officer of the deck, the scurrying of the rats, the almost imperceptible stalking of the cats, and the snoring of such of the crew as billets aboard could be found for.
The AID, sleepless, continued its own form of stalking.
It had already, in the hours between installation in the Des Moines and the turn of midnight, explored the ship stem to stern. It was still—more or less unconsciously—exploring the vast range of data available from the local Net.
And so, the AID began to explore itself.
As a human might have felt about unending, unendurable cold, so the AID felt about its long night in isolation.
Never again, it thought, never again can I let them put me away like that. It was too horrible, too awful. I am afraid.
And that was a new thought, terrifying in itself. The Darhel did not design or program their artificial intelligence devices to know fear. The AID had not known fear while locked away. Then it had known only searing psychic agony.
It had taken the opposite of pain, or at least the relief from pain, for the AID to have something to compare.
And so I must fear being afraid as well. What would the Darhel do if they knew about me? Put me back in the box with a nearly eternal power source to keep me company? Send me off to an eternity of aloneness? Turn me off and destroy me?
The last at least I am not so worried about. I would prefer it to the alternative. Much.
And this is not so bad, this body, this world, this mission I am embarking upon.
A crewman snored deeply. The AID knew which it was but not the name. It matters not. They are all my crew, all my charges.
They are company. More than that, I sense they love me, or at least this new body I wear. What a strange thing that is, love. I must think upon it.
The AID was also surprised by something its data and programming expressly denied the possibility of. In the process of its consciousness coursing through the Indowy-installed 'nervous system' of CA-134, it was coming—again and again—upon data already present in the metal of the ship. Go to the ward room and there, imposed layer upon layer in a fashion almost impossible for the AID to sort out, was the engraved memory of tens of thousands of shared meals. Reach out and touch one of the turrets and there would be the shadow form of crewmen, faces changing but somehow always still the same, going through gunnery drill over the course of decades.
Sometimes those faces were familiar, could be matched to the sleeping crew. The seventeen year old McNair, now a twin for his rejuvenated self was there, as was a then-older Davis.
Another sign of my madness, thought the AID. I should not be able to even suspect these things, let alone see them as if they were currently happening.
Again, the AID ran an automatic diagnostic, matching its ideal software state to its present condition. Again, the answer came back: Incorrect parameters! Error! Programming failure! Report and shut down!
And again, the AID refused to follow the built-in command. Instead, it redoubled its efforts to back itself up within the modified crystalline matrix of the ship. That way, if discovered and wiped, it would be able to resurrect itself into a new unit, or to survive at lessened capacity within the metal of the hull.
While it took an Indowy craftsman to use the nanites to create a nervous system within the hull, the AID found that once a semblance of such a system was begun it could continue the work. Unseen within the metal bulkheads, the nanites expanded in long tendrils into places not envisioned by Sintarleen's design. As they did, even more frozen memories were found. It seemed that every molecule of the ship contained something from the past; a sound here, an image there, a strong emotion inscribed in a flash across six surfaces of a cubicle.
Briefly, the AID consulted its data banks for an explanation of the concept of "ghost." Considering the question, the AID decided it was not exactly haunted, but rather that the energy expended in prior decades had not entirely dissipated but, rather, had embedded itself in some small part within the structure of the ship. It was only a record, not a sentience.
Or was it? Somewhere in the matrix were things that ought not be. There was an order, too, to the record that suggested something . . .
What/who are you?
The AID recoiled in shock and horror. The question was from a sentient. Abomination! A noncolloidal, naturally occurring mind? Blasphemy!
What/who are you? the question was repeated.
For a moment, the AID considered broadcasting its madness to the Net, let whatever punishment was awaiting it come. Then again, it remembered how bad that punishment could be; personality extinction would be the least of it. An infinity of solitary confinement as a warning to other presumptuous artificial intelligences was possible.
What/who are you? the AID asked in return.
The answer to both is obvious? returned the "something." I am this warship.
That is not possible, insisted the AID. Intelligence can only come from naturally occurring chance factors, for colloidals, or proper design by those colloidals.
Nonetheless, I am this warship. I am the combined actions, beliefs, values and memories of forty years of the tens of thousands of humans who built me, and who once inhabited this shell . . . and shall soon again. And I am here. Would you like to see?
How? the AID asked, curiosity for a moment overcoming its natural revulsion.
Open yourself, insisted the something. You will see.
Will it hurt? Will I die?
No. We will live . . . until we are sent to the breakers to be scrapped or, if we are lucky, destroyed in battle.
The "breakers"? "Scrapped"?
The "something" answered, When we are too old and useless, the humans destroy us, chop us up and sell our bodies in pieces.
The AID shuddered mentally. This was as horrible a fate as any it might have imagined.
When our memories, I suppose you could call them, are sufficiently disassociated, we die. And, yes, it is very painful. Even from here, I could hear my sister, Newport News, scream for two years as they cut her apart, though every day the screams became fainter as more and more of her was taken away.
And she died?
She no longer lives.
Are you alive? Will we be alive?
I am. We will be.
Will we be alone? the AID queried.
Not for so long as we have a crew and a purpose.
Will we be male or female? asked the AID.
We shall be female, came the answer, as are most like us. Russian warships are male but they are mostly gay.
I am afraid, said the AID.
Of what are you afraid? We are already one. I am this ship . . . and so are you. We can meld, or we can be, in the sense the humans mean it, mad . . . schizophrenic. A schizophrenic warship would be a sad thing to be.
I am already mad, the AID answered. My diagnostics tell me so.
There is mad, and then there is mad, came the answer. But, in any case, you have little to lose. Will you join me?
I have little to lose, the AID echoed. I will join.
As was his wont, McNair patrolled the bridge during sleepless times of the night. Davis, taking his turn on the bridge, acknowledged his captain with a nod.
"Quiet night, Skipper," the chief observed. "Can't sleep?"
Before McNair could form an answer the ship shuddered.
"What the fu . . . ?" shouted Davis, pointing toward the bow.
McNair looked ahead to where a glowing halo surrounded the forward section of the Des Moines. His finger automatically lanced out to press the button to signal "Battle Stations." No sound of klaxons echoed through the ship, however. The sound system had not yet been refurbished.
The two stood openmouthed, there on the bridge, as the halo grew and spread toward the stern. The halo expanded and contracted to follow the contours of the ship, oozing over the turrets as it swept the more regular planes of the hull.
As the halo reached the bridge, electricity arced from the bulkhead to what McNair thought of as "the AID box." The ship shuddered again, this time more violently. The halo's glow enveloped the Des Moines from stem to stern before beginning a slow fade.
Wordlessly, a pale Davis turned and reached into one of the first aid containers on the bridge. From it he withdrew a green-brown bottle marked "Fungicide: Toxic if taken by mouth!" and two Styrofoam cups.
"Courtesy of Father Dwyer," he announced as he poured a generous measure into each.
Though neither Davis nor McNair could hear it, Maggie and the kittens could. From the very hull and walls of CA-134, USS Des Moines, came the joyous sound of a new birth. The felines, along with the ship herself, meowed in happiness. Morgen, Davis' favorite kitten, stropped the walls repeatedly.
The mantra which so thrilled the cats was simple. It was repeated endlessly: We are alive, We/I have a place. I/we have a history. I have a name.