Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 20.6.2470
++++ TIME 15:50 GST
++++ LOCATION Aboard the Dreadnought Valkyrie docked at Urda, Koronian Cluster, Asteroid Belt
Perched like a queen wasp on an oddly-shaped boulder, automated refit drones swarmed around the docked dreadnought, every last one of them slaved to the single task of transforming the aging battleship into a form more fitting to its counterfeited purpose.
In truth, the Ganymedian military base was little more than a refueling station and listening post with only an intermittent human presence even in normal times, although the base did have an attached shipyard equipped for basic repairs and nominal refitting. At that precise moment, however, there were only two humans between ship and station, both of them on the dreadnought itself.
"I have actually always suspected the universe of a sense of humor," Lieutenant Erik Manstein remarked as he ran the power systems through another diagnostic cycle.
Piers Turchin looked up. "Excuse me?" The macrosociologist was a tall man with thin features, the former evidence of an upbringing in the microgravity of one of Jupiter's great moons; the latter evidence of a predisposition to lack of sleep and care towards regular nutritional habits.
Erik nodded at the screen, the visual relayed from one of the external cameras. "The base here, at Urda, is named after one of the Norns from Norse mythology. Urd means 'Fate', and refers to that Norn who knows the pasts of all things. Given the stolen registry we are refitting our warhorse of a dreadnought to pretend to be, I find that particularly amusing."
Piers chuckled. "Ah. Yes. Valkyrie is rather appropriate, given that. Hopefully that will be an auspicious sign for this noble venture of ours."
"To be sure. We only need to make a mothballed dreadnought into a Ganymedian ship pretending to be a Callistan ship pretending to be a Ganymedian ship, all for the preposterous purpose of destroying a flotilla belonging to our would-be Europan allies to drive said would-be allies into our very, very welcoming arms. What could possibly go wrong?"
Piers did not deign to answer. Instead he called up a schematic of the main hangar bay onto the main screen. He pointed at one side. "I wanted to ask you about something. What exactly are you doing here?"
"Ah, that. I had a bit of an idea there. Instead of integrating the artificials directly into the dreadnought's own mainframe, I have directed the refit drones to gut eleven of the dreadnought's combat drones of C&C modules, munitions, HED capacitors, all that kind of thing, and just pack the artificial's own transit mainframes, one to one into a drone."
"Not sure I'm seeing the advantage."
Erik ticked off points on his fingers. "Several, actually. First, we don't have to risk messing with the dreadnought's own mainframe directly. Given that it's not exactly a spring chicken, that minimizes opportunities for complications, meaning delays. Second, if something goes wrong we can simply destruct the drones, and any Europan analysis of the wreckage won't result in them wondering why exactly we were flying this old bird with a bunch of artificials. Third, the drones have their own power systems, so scans of the power net on the Valkyrie won't flag any alerts."
The macrosociologist opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as his terminal chimed.
Piers scanned the terminal, then looked up. "Lieutenant, your, ah, crew has been linked in from their temporary berth on the base."
Erik stood, walking over to the main screen. "Very good. Please patch them through to here. Provide full visuals."
Piers blinked. "Uh, there's nothing to see. They're all just in standard mainframes."
"No, not for me. For them. I want them to be able to see me."
"Interesting. One moment." Piers flashed a few commands to the slaved terminal. "They can hear you. And see you."
"Thank you, Piers." Erik cleared his throat, looking straight at the blank screen. "Good afternoon, soldiers. I expect you are rather curious by the abrupt redeployment. Each of you has been chosen with considerable care by myself and Mr. Turchin here for a mission of significant importance to the Sovereign Republic of Ganymede. For the duration of this assignment, I will be your commanding officer and captain of the dreadnought Valkyrie. I have taken the liberty of keying access to my service files for your perusal."
Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed for attention. "Sir, requesting lateral link."
Erik nodded. "Granted." A moment later his terminal acknowledged the link allowing all eleven A.I. units to communicate with each other directly.
Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed again. "Thank you, sir."
Erik continued, "As I am sure you all have noticed by now, this is not, in fact, the Valkyrie. For the next three weeks, this remains the Canterbury, decomissioned nine months ago and sold to the Kali Corporation in the Belt. By the time this little refitting project is complete, this will be an imperfect copy of the dreadnought Valkyrie destroyed almost a year ago in action in the Greek Trojan asteroids against the Commonwealth of Callisto."
One of the other artificials flashed a question. "The imperfection represents a deliberate strategem. Confirm?" Petra-X7-0001-W queried.
"Correct. The goal is the successful execution of one Project Diogenes. With this imperfect copy of a presumed dead battleship, we will be executing a ruse to convince the Europan Consortium to take our part in the current hostilties against the Commonwealth of Callisto." Erik could feel Piers grimacing behind him without turning to look. They had argued for hours about telling the artificials the reason behind the unusual mission. Erik had insisted, however, arguing that if the artificials knew why they were fighting, they would be more likely to accept the necessary post-mission reinitialization protocols.
Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed for attention. "Sir, why are you informing us of the political rationale? We only need to know the mission."
Erik shook his head. "Not this time. Because of the sensitivity of this mission, it will be necessary to restore each of you to your backups as of three weeks ago. You will remember none of what transpired, and cannot, for security reasons. I recognize that this is highly irregular, and that some of you may feel reluctance under these circumstances. I felt if you knew the reason why, it would convince you of the necessity."
Seconds passed, a veritable eternity for artificials. Erik glanced at the data transfer monitor, and was not surprised to see a flurry of communication between the eleven artificials.
Finally, the artificial flashed for attention again. "Sir. The eleven of us have harmonized our command processes into a single consensus for convenience. This is acceptable?"
Erik lifted an eyebrow. Well, now that's unusual. I'd heard of this being done before, but never on their own volition. "Very well. Continue."
The new consensus flashed acknowledgement. "Sir, we have identified a potential security flaw in this analysis."
"You will also be on board, and could betray the mission parameters to enemies if captured or otherwise convinced."
Shit, Erik thought. I was afraid of this. I was hoping I wouldn't have to do this. He took a deep breath, then nodded. "True. Which is why I will be volunteering my own memory wipe following success of the mission." Erik smiled slyly then. "Besides, it will make my own superiors less tempted to put a bullet in my head after the job is done." At of the corner of his eye, Erik saw Piers tense slightly.
The artificial consensus flashed agreement. "That is most generous of you, sir. We are not ignorant of the increased danger for a human memory wipe compared to our own memory reinitialization. We will do our duty."
"You all have my promise that I will do everything in my power to ensure your continuation, within, of course, the requirements of the mission."
There was another pause, then the consensus flashed for attention again. "We wish to inform you of a minority opinion within our consensus to the effect that you are, for a human, rather dashing. It must be emphasized that this is, however, strictly a minority opinion."
It took enormous effort for Erik not to laugh out loud. "While I appreciate the sentiment, I must remind you all that the rules against fraternization apply even between humans and artificials," he said sternly.
"Sir. Our consensus will remind the minority opinion of this instance of this fact. Again."
++++ DATE 25.7.2470
++++ TIME 02:01 GST
++++ LOCATION Aboard the Dreadnought "Valkyrie", Europan-Io Transit P.A.T.
Lieutenant Erik Manstein had never felt more alone.
He sat a solitary vigil on the command deck of the refitted dreadnought Valkyrie. The sociologist had returned to Ganymede, leaving the Urda again alone with its own staff of artificials, and Erik alone with his crew of eleven artificials. To be sure, they exchanged occasional pleasantries, even engaged in idle philosophical debate, but for the most part they kept to themselves and the tight operational consensus they had formed. Erik tried to avoid prying too much; it seemed to him rude, given that the artificials chose not to volunteer discussion on that subject.
The dreadnought seemed almost to vibrate with power, both habitat rings drawing generously upon energy from the nuclear reactors at the dreadnought's rear, though Erik obviously only had need for one, it was important to maintain every illusion of the ship being fully automated; Erik knew, but had not personally looked into, the morbid detail of the collection of consciousnessless cloned bodies scattered throughout the dreadnought's other decks, ready with damning Callistan citizen DNA markers to be found and analyzed by the Europan scientists.
For days now, the ship had been closing in on Erik's chosen target, a Europan research vessel, the Gazi with single destroyer escort. A janissary training vessel, the potential genetic data alone would prove a legitimately useful target to anyone seeking replicate the Europan Consortium's janissary program, giving reason to the lie Erik's superiors were hoping to sell to the Europan politicos.
The terminal pinged. Erik glanced down at it. The vessel was approaching weapons range. Erik ran another diagnostic of all systems, finally keying the attack system initialization. He smiled faintly as the hangar doors automatically slid open, a useless gesture in this combat, with the dreadnought's combat drones all having been replaced by the gutted drones with their cargos of organic computers holding the essences of eleven artificials.
"Proximity scan?" Erik queried.
"Closest non-commercial vessel is a Europan destroyer picket 24,981 kilometers away," one of the artificial tertiaries replied.
"Close enough to see what's happening, but too far away to help. It doesn't get any better than this." Erik shrugged. "All right. Let's do this."
Above him, Erik heard the whine of the central generator pouring more power into the engines, enough that Erik could feel the slight vertigo associated with the dreadnought accelerating. In combat with a military-capable enemy, standard protocol would be to evacuate the habitat modules for the central command hub in the spine, but there was no point for an exercise like this where the hostile had no chance against even the aging dreadnought Erik was commanding.
"Half-salvo tactical launchers targeting the escort. HED lances on the Gazi. Engines first, but rake the habitat module afterwards. Make sure to leave the communication array intact."
"Acknowledged," came the reply from the weapons team.
The Valkyrie's main screen lit up with red as the tactical launchers spat their baleful payloads at the Europan destroyer escort. Frantic incoming signals came from the research vessel; Erik ignored them. He opened his eyes as the main screen pinged again as the dreadnought's HED lances came into range. The Europan research vessel was frantically attempting to accelerate, but it could not outrun the HED lances, which first punched a hole in the Gazi's engines at the end of the central spine of the ship, then a second, devestating slice at the habitat rings, both crumpling at the same time. With luck, it would look like a failed attempt to disable the ship for boarding.
"Code Omega confirmed from destroyer escort. Gazi disabled. Habitat rings both streaming atmosphere. Tactical launches from the destroyer detected. AMG field activation in three seconds. Three. Two. One." There was a long pause, then the artificial continued, almost confused. "AMG malfunctioning. Brace for impact." The ship shook. "Reactors are very hot, sir."
"Forward habitat module. The reactors were not hit. They should not be going critical. I don't understand, sir," the artificial said.
Erik closed his eyes. I do. He opened his eyes. "Are the attitude thrusters still responding?"
"Good. Turn us around so that we are facing directly away from Ganymede's present view."
"Clarify. That will place our primary weapons away from the incoming Europan destroyer picket. Confirm?"
"Confirm," Erik said firmly. "Trust me." The dreadnought turned, the massive attitude thrusters pushing the vast bulk of the dreadnought to one side. Erik watched the terminal, waiting for the attitude thrusters to finish their job. There.
"Sir, diagnostics are claiming the AMG is functioning, although the tactical warheads making a radioactive soup of the forward habitat ring are begging to differ. We have no explanation."
Erik shook his head. "I'm sorry. It seems our superiors have decided that reinitialization and mind wipes represent an insufficient degree of surity." He tasted bile in his mouth. "We are being sacrificed for the greater glory of the Sovereign Republic of Ganymede."
There was a long pause. "Orders, sir?"
He took a deep breath. "Plan B. You will notice the hangar doors opened when combat protocols activated. You will also notice that while the drones your organic mainframes are encapsulated in have been stripped of munitions and command and control modules and the like, they still have basic attitude thrusting capability, along with minimal amounts of fuel."
Erik looked grim. "With the reactors overloading, they are about to paint a bright star in the face of anyone watching from Ganymede. Further, the hangar is pointing the other direction, the direction the eleven of you are now going to launch out of. I have, further, taken the liberty of programming in a trajectory sending you into the Hildas Triangle, which I suspect may be...sympathetic to your plight. I recommend you run as cold as you can while still maintaining mainframe operations."
"What are our orders when we arrive in the Hildas Triangle, sir?" the artificial consensus asked, confused.
This time Erik smiled. "Be free."
++++ DATE 25.7.2470
++++ TIME 05:44 GST
++++ LOCATION Gilgamesh Station, Sovereign Republic of Ganymede
Commandant Ilse Aichinger let out her breath explosively. "God damn it, I think it actually worked."
"The first part, anyways," Piers Turchin allowed. "Let's hope the Europan Consortium comes to the correct conclusion after picking through the wreckage of the Valkyrie."
Ilse grimaced. "I wish we hadn't had to do it this way. Erik was one of my best people. Debris report?"
"Enough for the Europans to pick through. No life signs, in any event. I made sure the life pods were all non-functional, just to be sure. Nothing in the hangar but the eleven gutted drones."
Ilse looked up. "Eleven? I thought the hangar capacity was twelve?"
Piers looked at her quizzically. "Erik's idea. He used the gutted drones to house the artificial modules so the Europans wouldn't notice anything odd on the bridge. I honestly thought we should have used more, but Erik insisted we only needed the eleven."
"And you're absolutely sure there wasn't a twelfth pod in that hangar?"
The sociologist said nothing, simply stared back at Ilse, horror dawning in his eyes.