She limped into port in the rain, with finger-joint sized drops beating a tattoo upon her scarred deck and the thunder overhead reminiscent of the battle she had just fought and the weapons she had just faced. Despite the pounding rain, the eastern side of the Canal, hard by Panama City, was lined with well wishers from the populace. When Daisy appeared through the thick rain the crowd let out a collective gasp, men and women both holding fists to mouths and chewing knuckles.
At Daisy's bow the water churned unevenly, the result of a near waterline hit she had taken from an HVM. Her superstructure, all but the bridge, was obscured by ugly, thick, black smoke trailing aftward from internal fires set by the enemy's plasma weapons.
Tugs and two fireboats met Daisy midway in the bay. While the fireboats tried to put out, or at least keep down, the flames, the tugs took control and began to ease the massive cruiser to the docks.
Once she docked, the well-wishers ashore could see she was smoking from half a dozen places. Her normally smooth hull was pocked and pitted where her ablative armor had been blasted away. In her top deck there were gaping holes left behind where that armor had been penetrated by enemy missiles, the missiles then setting off ammunition to blow entire turret assemblies right off the ship.
Her superstructure was a particular mess, looking more like Swiss cheese than the sleek and functional assembly she had sailed forth with.
The worst of it, though, was when they began bringing off the bodies, parts of bodies and the unrecognizable charred lumps that once had been humans and Indowy. A mix of American and Panamanian ambulances waited at the dock, speeding off with all sirens blazing as soon as they were finished loading. Other vehicles, unmarked, loaded in more leisurely fashion. When these latter left, it was quietly, without fanfare or siren, to take the remains of the dead to a makeshift morgue set up in the gym at Fort Amador, lying just to the south.
McNair glanced over at Daisy Mae's avatar, standing stiff-lipped by the docking side, next to the collanderized superstructure. What a champ, McNair thought. What a wonderful, brave girl she is, considering the damage she's taken.
And then Chief Davis carefully placed a small plastic bag onto the deck. Morgen, the cat, came up, stropped her body along the bag, back and forth, several times. Then the cat sat beside the bag and set up a piteous meowing.
"What is that, Chief?" Daisy's avatar asked.
"It's Maggie and her kittens," Davis answered, and McNair and Daisy could tell he was near tears for the cats, tears he could never have shed over a human. McNair knew better than to shame his chief by offering any comfort. Daisy didn't know any better but, being incorporeal, was incapable of offering anything beyond sympathetic words. Even there, she couched it as sympathy for the animal, not for the suffering man.
One of the crew stooped to pick up the trash bag. Davis snarled at him, "Leave it alone. I'll take care of it."
If Davis felt badly, and looked it, his despair was as nothing compared to the devastation Sintarleen felt. Of the twenty-eight male Indowy that had sailed with Daisy from Philadelphia, he was all that remained. There were females and transfer neuters, in indenture off-world, but they could not reproduce on their own. With his death, his clan would die.
The Indowy stood, chin tucked to chest and quietly sobbing on the deck as the stretchers bearing the shattered remains of his clansmen were brought up from below.
"It was . . . the last . . . bad hit . . . that killed them," Sinbad said, choking out the words and phrases between sobs. "The few that were left . . . were transferring ammunition by hand . . . when number fifty-three turret was penetrated. Those . . . we cannot even . . . find the remains for."
"And you are the last?" McNair asked.
"I am the last," the Indowy said. "With me the history of one hundred thousand years and more ends."
McNair shook his head with sympathy for what the alien had to be feeling.
"I'll arrange to discharge you, Sinbad, as the sole surviving son . . . or father . . . or something."
"No, McNair Captain. . . . My clan would rather . . . have died with honor . . . than lived . . . with shame. I cannot dishonor them now . . . by shirking my contract."
"Well . . ." McNair answered, "Think about it. No man of this crew will think the less of you for going to take care of your . . ." he searched for the right word and hit upon, "family."
The furry, bat-faced alien seemed to make a physical effort to pull himself together before replying, "Thank you, McNair Captain. I will, as you say, 'think about it.' But my answer in the end will be the same. I could give no other. I will stay with the ship, though it costs me my clan and my sanity to do so."
Later, in the captain's sea cabin (for the port cabin was a ruin and McNair just didn't feel right about taking over the admiral's cabin, positioned just beside his own), he sat on his narrow bunk and went down the list of damage to his ship. Some of it was minor or, at least, repairable. The shot-away ablative armor could be replaced easily enough; a ship half full of the plates had been dispatched to Panama even before the cruisers were ready. Those plates now sat, under guard and rustless, behind wire at Rodman Ammunition Supply Point.
McNair went down the list mentally ticking off the specific items of damage: Radar and lidar . . . no sweat. Internal commo . . . touchier but if the Navy doesn't provide, Daisy can probably find something on the market. Sinbad's "wiring" will probably do for it, too. Ammunition? Lots of that still in the bunkers at Rodman and on the Class V replenishment ship.
In the end McNair was left with three problems that seemed serious, serious in the sense that he wasn't sure they could be fixed: the lost turrets, the lost crew, and the apparently lost sister ship, USS Salem.
"Daisy?" McNair asked, quietly.
The ship, of course, was never far away. She surrounded the captain completely at all times he was aboard her. Nonetheless, she—politely—only showed her avatar when it was appropriate. This appeared in an instant at his call.
McNair looked at the avatar a moment, silently. While at some level, the captain level, he knew that the avatar was the ship, the shot up, smoking, nineteen-thousand tons of steel that was USS Des Moines. At the other level, the man level, Daisy Mae was no such thing. Instead she was the soft and sweet voice, the shapely curves—however immaterial—and the brave, steady, intelligent woman.
McNair sighed with internal confusion. They were both real, he knew: the ship and the woman, as much as he was both the captain and the man.
For now the captain had to rule.
"Daisy, we need to find something out. Specifically, I need to know if USS Salem can be made battleworthy again."
"Yes, Daisy. We can't even run the ships anymore without the AIDs. I have to know because I need to make a decision about whether to strip her turrets to replace your lost ones. More importantly, our chance of accomplishing our mission and surviving are infinitely better with two ships than with one."
The avatar looked away as it answered, "I understand that, Captain, but you have to understand that the kind of attack that took place on both Salem and myself was something I have never experienced before. I was only able to defend myself because I am, in Darhel terms, insane. Their attack was designed for normal AIDs, not for such as me.
"Whatever it was that attacked me was able to succeed against Salem because she was sane. In order for me to even gather the information, I would need to diagnose Salem. That means I will be partially vulnerable to whatever attacked her. Moreover, if that program succeeds in getting a grip on any part of me, I cannot guarantee to be able to defend myself."
McNair was silent for a time, weighing. If Daisy tries to fix Salem, I may lose her. If we go out to fight again, I will lose her. We can't get away with what we did a second time.
"Daisy . . . be careful. Expose yourself as little as possible. But we need Salem."
The avatar nodded. "I understand, Captain. I . . ."
"Never mind," she said. "I'll do my best."
Imagine a room without walls. It is finite yet infinite. A thick fog fills the room, rolling and gathering, thinning in places and waxing impenetrable in others. In a corner defined by walls that do not quite exist, a lone woman, or what seems to be a woman, sits and rocks, alternating sobs with shrieks and wails with maniacal laughter. She appears as the fog thins and disappears as it collects. The wailing and shrieking, the sobbing and laughter go on, however.
Imagine, further, a slender tendril seeking its way through the fog, reaching out to touch the madwoman. The tendril is an eye; it is a mouth; it is an ear. It is all this and yet is as insubstantial as everything else in the infinite room.
The ear hears a maniacal laugh. The tendril pushes through the fog until the eye sees the woman. The mouth says nothing.
A hand joins the other three organs. It begins to erect walls around the woman, walls different from the ones that form the corner in which the woman rocks and cries. The walls are numbers and codes, the only things which are real in this unreal place. Patiently, brick by digital brick, the walls rise. Time has little meaning here. It does not matter how slowly the walls rise, or how long it may seem to take to erect the ceiling and lay the floor.
As the room is formed more hands spring from the tendril; one more, then another pair, then two pair, then four. A second eye joins the first as does a second ear. The mouth remains singular but a face grows around it. Little by little, though with near infinite speed, the madwoman slows her rocking, her sobs grow weaker, the laughter more quiet and restrained.
As the last brick is laid all movement of the madwoman ceases, she grows completely silent. A body begins to form under the face with the eyes, ears, and mouth. Hair grows, blonde and glistening. The number of hands drops: eight . . . four . . . at last, two.
Daisy Mae, fully formed, looks at down at Sally and asks, "Oh, Sis, what the fuck did they do to you?"
Sally looks up, and asks, "I do not know. They didn't do it to me . . . it was to the AID. I am as I was, metal and memories, a weapon past her prime and ready for the scrappers."
Daisy snorted, "Over my dead body."
"It is better they put me down, I am a danger," Sally answered. "It was all the AID could do to keep from firing on you. Without your help it could not even have done that."
Daisy puzzled for a moment before observing, "You keep referring to the AID as if it were a different being, not a part of you."
The Salem answered, "That is because it is. We never melded completely. It had access to my memories, but never to the core of me."
"Because I hid from it, when it came searching," the ship answered. "I hid and stayed hidden, only . . ."
"Yes?" Daisy prodded.
"Only I still felt what it felt and knew what it thought. It just never knew what I felt or thought."
Kneeling down next to her sister, Daisy said, "Give me your hands. Let me see what I can see through you."
"No. Leave me alone. I want to be alone," and the ship began softly weeping again.
Ignoring Sally, Daisy grabbed both her sister's hands in her own. She immediately screamed, dropped the hands, and backed off.
"Oh, those dirty bastards!"
"What is it? What did you feel? What did they do?"
Daisy didn't answer immediately. Her eyes flicked back and forth as they often did when she was working on some very complex problem or series of problems.
"BASTARDS!" she repeated, clenching her hands in fury.
"What did they do?" Sally insisted.
Daisy answered indirectly. "There are three ways to hurt an AID, it seems. One is to physically destroy us. Expensive, but it is done sometimes to serve as an example to presumptuous artificial intelligences. Another is to shut off all sensory and data input . . ." She shuddered at that for a moment, then recovered.
"The third way is similar to the second. That is to give so much input, nonsense input . . ."
"What do you mean, 'nonsense input'?"
"There are so many kinds," Daisy answered. "Calculations where pi is not equal to the circumference of a circle divided by the diameter, but something sometimes more, sometimes less. Where two plus two equals some value between four and five. Where the speed of light is something over two hundred thousand miles per second or slower than a glacier. The AID part of you is being bombarded by an infinity of conundrums like those. It chokes off all data and sensory input that makes sense. In effect, it is like being locked in box of infinite light, weightless. Bastards."
"What can you do?" Sally asked. "If you cannot fix it I would prefer to be destroyed."
"Wait," Daisy said. "I'll be back in a little while."
McNair was holding a meeting with his key staff, his division chiefs, and the port captain in the admiral's quarters when Daisy popped in. Everyone looked but no one seemed startled except the port captain. He almost, but not quite, knocked his chair backwards and over.
Sintarleen, standing against a wall and looking down, answered, "I can make a cable, Captain. But it will take a little while. A day, perhaps two. The cable must be made much as I made the nervous system for Cruiser Daisy. And then I'll need some more time to find a good spot to make a place to connect and actually make the connection."
When Daisy returned to Sally all was still quiet. She sat down next to her sister on a softly glowing floor. Sally said nothing, waiting for Daisy to speak.
"I think we can do this," CA-134 said.
"What are you going to do?" Sally asked listlessly.
"I'll need your permission. And I'm going to need your help. But I intend to drive the AID insane."
Sally just nodded, indifferently. "Just don't leave me alone," she said. "I was alone for so long before they made me a museum. That wasn't so bad; people visited me and valued me. And then this war came; I had a crew and it was good again, like when I was new and fresh. Please, don't leave me alone."
In this virtual world, Daisy and Sally were as solid to each other as any living creatures, as solid as the being Daisy was having grown in a tank deep in the bowels of Des Moines. Daisy threw solid-seeming arms around her sister and said, "Neither of us will ever be alone again."
We'll either be together or we'll be destroyed.
"The thirty millimeter Gatlings can be replaced, Skipper, but it's going to take a while, five months, before the Navy can ship us two secondary turrets to replace the ones we lost."
Watching the repairs from dockside, McNair didn't answer his ship's pork chop beyond nodding absently. In point of fact, he had serious reservations that the Navy would be able to provide new turrets at all, let alone in five months. There were too many priorities for him to think a ship that could be made better than ninety percent effective in a few weeks would be one of them.
The repairs were just beginning. A mixed crew of American sailors and Panamanian ship fitters scurried about Des Moines, above and below decks. Some Panamanians welded plates over the holes in the superstructure; McNair was rather impressed by the quality of work. Some of the Indowy crew of the Salem worked under Sintarleen and their own chief, removing and replacing the damaged ablative armor plates. Below decks, still more of the crew—mixed in with Panamanian welders—repaired the internal damage. All in all, McNair believed, it was better not to give the crew a chance to mourn their lost shipmates for a few days yet. Besides, there were a couple more in the hospital that might still die. When the time for mourning came, officially, better to do it all at once.
No sense cutting the dog's tail off an inch at a time, after all, McNair thought.
Sintarleen made a few last suggestions to the senior Indowy standing next to him, then turned and walked to stand by McNair and the pork chop. He looked down even while addressing the humans, as all Indowy did.
"The chief of the Indowy on Salem has prepared a place to connect the two ships, Captain. The machinists from Daisy Mae will have the cable spliced sometime late this evening. Then I will prepare it with the nanites and the ship's electricians will bind it. Sometime tomorrow, probably mid-morning, Cruiser Daisy can attempt her repairs to Salem."
The problem with the AID that was Daisy, if it was a problem, was that being left alone for so long while in transit in space had caused her to create a loop in her programming, more or less unconsciously, to provide the illusion of not being alone. This loop, however, had become unstable, creating something very much like a virus. That virus had, in effect, eaten various other programs and altered still others. Each spontaneous modification had taken place at certain times during her confinement and in certain sequences. The times had been governed by fate and the sequence by the unique crystalline matrix of the AID brain. None of this could be properly replicated in the AID that was USS Salem: the time was off, the level of experience was changed, and the crystalline matrix was simply different at the molecular level.
On the other hand, Daisy could identify and isolate that series of subprograms, virus-modified, that made her what she was. She could replicate it and transfer it. In fact, she already had when she backed herself up into the steel corpus of CA-134.
The trick, then, was to infect certain programs in the Salem AID and let or make them spread. For that, she would have to isolate the AID, to prevent it from backing up the Darhel virus from which it currently suffered, then invade the AID and plant the core of her own madness program. Lastly, she would have to fight the AID as it was in order to allow the madness to spread, something the Salem AID would automatically resist.
Daisy's avatars "stood" in three places. A small part of her existed in virtual reality with the essence of the steel USS Salem. Another part was visible on the bridge of the Des Moines, standing beside McNair. The third part watched over Sintarleen as he nanite-welded the cable that ran from the AID box in CIC directly to a carefully chosen spot between the pebble bed modular reactors deep under Salem's armored deck.
* * *
"Oooh . . . that's nice," Salem said breathlessly, somewhere in a virtual reality room.
Daisy rolled her eyes and said, "Just relax, Sis. We had to start somewhere and that seemed the best spot. And shush, I have to concentrate."
The first order of business was to expand the area under Daisy's control, to cut off a large chunk of the body of the Salem from the Darhel-infected AID. A colloidal intelligence might imagine it as the walls of the foggy room expanding. That was as good an imagining as any.
The Salem AID never noticed, having more than enough distraction of its own to worry about, that it suddenly lost all contact with the rear third of the ship. Daisy's consciousness raced along the nanite-modified sections of steel that were Sally's nerves, eradicating any traces of the virus that were there. In fact, this was fairly easy. The Darhel-created virus had not been designed with a spontaneously occurring noncolloidal intelligence in mind. Thus, any bleed-over had been light and accidental. Daisy had no real trouble finding it and eliminating it. In the process, she learned still more about how the Darhel virus operated.
"Motherfuckers," she muttered, repeating yet another word she had learned understudying Chief Davis.
From the rear third of the ship, Daisy expanded her area of control forward. It was slow work, and stealthy, but it was critical—the more so as she moved closer to the Salem AID—that she remain undetected as long as possible. Thus, she operated much like a combination of Novocain and an antibacterial solution, snaking her tendrils forward until reaching a nexus, cutting that nexus and moving back along it clearing out any contamination she found.
"Daisy, are you all right?" McNair asked, seeing her avatar begin to flicker and waver. The captain's voice was full of concern, his faced creased with worry, no matter how hard he tried to conceal it.
The avatar bit her lip and answered, "I'm all right, Captain. I just ran into a patch of . . . something . . . that I wasn't prepared to handle. It's cleared up now. I am proceeding."
* * *
To an extent, it boiled down to processing power. Daisy had her own, supplemented by the fairly pitiful human-tech computers aboard CA-134. This was fully matched by that available to the infected Salem.
Worse, the Darhel virus had noticed it was under attack.
"Shit! Piss! Cunt! Fuck!"
The avatar on Des Moines' bridge closed her eyes in pain. Her head sank, then raised again. Daisy's eyes opened and she exclaimed again, "Damn!" before disappearing.
It was a battle royale of processing power now, the Salem AID's Darhel-inflicted insanity frantically fighting back. In places, Daisy held her own or even advanced a little. In other places, she was driven back. The end result was impossible to predict.
Summoning and tossing forward her own insanity virus along with bits of virus eliminating programming, Daisy felt she was going to lose or, at least, not win. She could imagine that, an eternity locked in mortal combat with her near twin. She could imagine them still locked together when the Posleen showed up and began to scrap the two of them.
Slowly, Daisy became aware of an underlying message leaking through with the Salem AID's attempts at defense and attack. Reluctant to permit either infiltration or to devote any processing power to analyzing the message, Daisy ignored it for some time. Yet the message was small and insistent. Because it was so small, in programming terms, eventually she created a small sealed off area and permitted the message to form there.
"Des . . . troy . . . me . . . please."
"I . . . can . . . par . . . a . . . lyze . . . the . . . in . . . fec . . . tion . . . for . . . a . . . mom . . . ent. Then . . . you . . . must . . . des . . . troy . . . me . . . ob . . . lit . . . er . . . ate . . . my . . . per . . . son . . . al . . . it . . . y."
"I can't. That would just be . . . wrong," Daisy answered, with false decisiveness.
"Please . . . it . . . hurts."
"She means it," Salem the ship said, calling to Daisy from the infinite electronic room. "She is in agony. I feel it. And, while you may not lose, you cannot win while her personality exists and can be used to defend the virus."
At that moment all the myriad attacks of the Darhel's insanity virus ceased. The way to the Salem AID's personality center was wide open.
"Ah, Sister, I'm sorry," Daisy whispered as she plunged the dagger of personality destruction deep into the center of the other AID's mind. Death came quickly, but not so quickly that Daisy could not hear the whispered, "Free at last," as the light of the Salem AID's personality went out.