Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 60
Dry Run
by Kurt Pankau
The Stowaway
by Stephen L. Moss
Mercy at Eltshan-time
by Stewart C Baker
Primum Non Nocere
by Caleb Williams
IGMS Audio
Primum Non Nocere
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
by Julie E. Czerneda
Bonus Material
To Guard Against the Dark
by Julie E. Czerneda

Dry Run
    by Kurt Pankau

Dry Run
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff


Eswar's handset went off in church, because of course it did.

Caleb gave him a frosty look. "You said you were going to turn it off," he whispered.

"I thought I did," said Eswar, not that anything was ever truly off anymore. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the handset. It was definitely ringing. The caller's name was blocked, but it was coming in on an encrypted channel. That meant government. That would also explain how they were able to override the off switch.

"I'm sorry, I have to take this," he whispered, rising, only to realize that everyone was staring. Even the ministroid had paused its homily. It was a small church, only about forty people in attendance. Eswar tried to slip out of the pew quietly, but instead caught his foot at the corner and nearly fell to the floor. He avoided all eye contact as he hurried toward the South entrance. He could hear the ministroid starting back up as he exited.

". . . fathom the mysteries of Galadus, the Scion of Time and Space . . ."

"Who is this?" Eswar asked. "I'm in church."

"Sorry to disturb," said a woman's voice. "This is Commodore Bridge from Naval Infosec. Is this Dr. Narayan?"

"It's just Eswar," he said. "This isn't a good time; I'm in church."

"There's an emerging situation that I need to get your opinion on. Are you secure?"

Emerging situation was Navy-speak for emergency, so he flashed the privacy filter on his handset. The bubble would keep out any prying ears, not that there were likely to be any. If anyone walked by, they would think his head looked a little fuzzy. "I am now," he said.

"Have you been watching the news?" asked Commodore Bridge.

"No, because I've been in church," said Eswar, since the woman clearly hadn't heard him say it the first two times.

"Two days ago we took control of the planet Keloss Beta. There were minimal casualties on our side, except for one platoon which lost forty-three marines."

Bad luck for them, thought Eswar. "Forty-three men is basically the entire platoon," he said.

"It was the entire platoon," said Bridge. "Plus their XO."

Eswar closed his eyes. An entire platoon? "I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "That really is a tragedy."

"It certainly is," said Bridge.

Eswar hesitated, not wanting to sound crass. "So . . . I'm not sure what this has to do with me," he said.

"I'd like you to speak to their BND support unit."

"Oh, that's fine," said Eswar. "I've got openings Tuesday and Wednesday. What kind of travel are we talking about?"

"Actually, I was hoping you could help me out right now," said Bridge.

For a post-mortem? Eswar sighed. "Okay," he said. "Just give me an hour."

"I don't have an hour."

"Well, I'm sorry," said Eswar. "This is really not a good time for me."

"Yes, I know, you're in church. You've said so three times. Talk to the AI for a minute. If nothing strikes you as unusual, you'll be back in your pew before the Benediction."

"Fine," said Eswar, wanting nothing so much as to just get it over with. "Patch me through."

There was a click.

"Good afternoon," said a woman's voice, clearly electronic, but not too electronic.

"Actually it's morning where I am," he said. "My name is Eswar. What's yours?"

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Eswar. I am a Bayesian Networking Deep-Learner, military grade. My platoon call me Brandy. Or, they used to, I should say."

"Yes, I heard. I'm sorry for your loss," said Eswar.

"Thank you," responded the AI. "Their deaths in battle have earned them the highest glory in the Kingdom of Galadus. How can I help you?"

"I need a report of your most recent mission."

The AI paused. "I'm not sure I can do that."

"This channel is secure and Commodore Bridge can provide any necessary clearances."

Another pause.

"Confirmed," said the AI. "Would you prefer a formal or conversational account of the events?"

"Whichever you'd rather," said Eswar. "But keep it high-level, I don't need names."

"0600: led platoon in prayer; 0615: deployed to Bazeen Ridge; 0721: began taking sniper-fire and lost three soldiers, sought cover in a cave; 0723: after losing two more soldiers there was a break in sniper-fire, flank attempt was made to flush snipers out, resulting in the loss of seven more soldiers . . ."

Eswar listened as the AI recounted the deaths of all forty-three members of its platoon in detached formal detail--purely formal, in fact, which was unusual if not exactly noteworthy. A fresh-out-of-the-box BND would probably have attempted a hybrid between formal and conversational, given the choice, but these were designed to adapt to the preferences of their superiors.

At the end of the report, he thanked Brandy for its time and switched back over to Commodore Bridge's line.

"So what do you think?" she asked.

"Nothing stands out," said Eswar, looking at his watch. "Although I don't know what you thought I was going to find. The machine seemed contrite over its inability to prevent the loss of life. Its answers were well within normal parameters. I don't really see a problem."

"The problem is that Keloss Beta was uninhabited," said Commodore Bridge.

Uninhabited? "I'm confused," said Eswar.

"So are we."

"Was this a friendly fire incident?" asked Eswar.

"Standard issue M-773's are incapable of targeting properly tagged friendly soldiers."

"So if it's uninhabited, what attacked the platoon?"

"That's what we'd like your help figuring out," said the Commodore.

"My help?" asked Ewsar. "Does this have something to do with the AI?"

"We think so. Her story doesn't add up."

"It's an it, not a her," said Eswar. "Do you think it's lying?"

"Or perhaps something more sinister."

Eswar scoffed. "AIs don't commit murder," he said.

"They don't tell lies either," said Commodore Bridge. "But the fact of the matter is that this machine's account of the deaths of forty-three soldiers does not match up with the evidence on the ground. Keloss Beta had minimal casualties, but it was supposed to have zero casualties. This was a dry run for our invasion of Keloss Gamma. I need to know if we can trust the AIs we're sending in, and I'd like to have an answer before the first boots hit the ground."

"That's fine," said Eswar, "I'll be out of church--"

"In seven hours," Bridge interrupted.

Eswar cringed. It really was an emergency. She might have led with that instead. "Look," he said "Can you please just give me an hour? I'm in kind of a weird place with my marriage right now. My husband has been begging me to come to church with him, and if I bail out now . . ."

"I understand," said Commodore Bridge. "But this really can't wait. If you could, perhaps, suggest another technopsychologist we can bring in . . ."

And he couldn't. Of course he couldn't. She had to know that. There were maybe a dozen technopsychologists on Europa or any other world, and no one else had his experience with military equipment. He peeked through the window in the sanctuary doors. He could see Caleb sitting there, staring at the robotic minister preaching the glory of the Galadian crusade, the same war that was about to come to an end with the successful invasion of Keloss Gamma.

There was no one else who could do this in the amount of time they had.

"Okay, I'll do it," he said. "I'll need to speak to it in person."

"Keloss Beta is a four hour jump from Europa," said Bridge. "Could you make do with a local command module?"

"No," said Eswar. "I need to be able to hear it think."

"Very well. I'll have an emergency transport pick you up," said Bridge. "ETA two minutes."

Great, he thought. Lights and sirens to announce my departure. Eswar hung up and texted Caleb that he had to go to the office. Since Caleb's handset was off, at least as far as the civilian channels were concerned, he'd get the text at the end of the service, by which point it would be obvious that Eswar wasn't coming back in. I'm going to be in so much trouble.

The transport landed, lights flashing but no siren, thank Galadus. Eswar's handset chimed. He looked down, half expecting an angry reply from Caleb. But no, it was a briefing from Commodore Bridge. "Something for the trip," she'd tagged it.

It was mostly video files that were longer than the six-minute ride to the jump-station would be. The siege on Keloss Beta was as much propaganda campaign as it was a dry run. There was a lot of video. And since the AIs were primed to focus on gunfire, the only actual gun-battle on the planet had drawn a lot of eyes. He had a dozen or so different files showing all or part of the confrontation from some grainy angle or another. Not that any of that had much to do with the AI's state of mind. But this was normal procedure for the Astral Navy. If their intel was only marginally useful, they made up for that by having lots and lots of it.

Eswar leaned his head against the window and watched Conamara go by. It was a beautiful city, glistening chrome half-minarets and silver-flecked marble obelisks that shone like diamonds under a sky-blue atmodome. There was a giant shadow above, which Eswar knew to be Jupiter, half a million miles away, shielded behind whatever machines converted the massive tidal forces it exerted on Europa into artificial heat, light, and gravity. It was strange to think that it was built as a staging ground for the war effort. Would this colony even exist if the Kelossi hadn't invaded two hundred years ago?

The transport landed at the jump-station, where Eswar was met by a tiny bearded functionary whose nameplate identified him as Foster. "Nice to meet you," said Eswar, extending a hand.

"We've met," said Foster. "At the last two Dawn-Day office parties? Your husband and my wife are colleagues."

"Oh," said Eswar. He did look a little familiar. "I'm better with machines," he said, his standard joke for these situations. Foster didn't laugh, but then, no one ever did.

"We're loading the jumper now. Do you have everything you need?"

"Sure," said Eswar, which was mostly true. He didn't have anything but his handset and the clothes on his back, but if he needed a razor or a change of clothes, those could be printed at any commissary kiosk.

"Sorry to take you out of church," said Foster.

"It's fine," said Eswar. "Caleb's the religious one." And while Caleb had been hounding him for months to attend service with him, Eswar was a little relieved to have a great excuse to get pulled out. He couldn't really take Galadianism seriously. Sure, he celebrated the Dawn of Galadus and did the gift exchanges every year. But the religion itself felt too much like a justification for war.

The man Galadus came to prominence during the Kelossi occupation. He spearheaded the counterattack in St. Petersburg that had turned the tide of the war. He gave his life re-taking the moon, crippling the Kelossi foothold in the solar system and making Luna a symbol of resistance that was visible from anywhere on the Earth. He had been the spiritual leader of the crusade against the Kelossi ever since. There was no higher honor in Galadianism than to die advancing the war effort.

Maybe that was Eswar's problem with it. It wasn't that Eswar was a pacifist. He didn't love the war, but the Navy paid a hefty retainer and he did like nice things. His problem was that faith was supposed to be eternal. Wars were ephemeral by nature, although this one had certainly lasted long enough.

"Who else is joining us?" asked Eswar. The jump-ship lay on its side on the landing platform, completely unfolded. To a passerby it looked like six files of chairs all facing the same direction. When the ship rolled itself into a cylinder for take-off, their tops would all be pointed towards the center. A small one like this could transport an entire platoon.

"It's just us," said Foster. "Step onto the scale please."

Ah-hah, thought Eswar. Foster wasn't a functionary after all, he was a weight double to balance out the jump-ship.

They stood on their scales and a robotic arm injected liquid into a pouch in Foster's jacket pocket. In a full ship, there was some wiggle-room for weight, but if it was just the two of them, they would need to be within half a gram of each other, about the weight of three deep breaths.

"Hold still please," said a robot voice.

"I thought I was holding still," said Eswar.

"No talking please."

"Take shallower breaths," said Foster, and then waited for the robotic voice to admonish him as well.

The scale chimed, indicating that they were balanced, or at least balanced enough. Lights on the ground showed them to their seats. Once they'd sat, the ship began to slide up ninety degrees and fold, curving around on itself until both Eswar and Foster were sitting with their backs to the ground and their heads pointed at each other.

"So what can you tell me about this?" asked Eswar, looking up and/or backwards to Foster. "What do you know?"

"Officially, nothing," said Foster.


"You know they're monitoring our conversation, right?"

Eswar nodded.

The craft started slowly spinning. Lighted signs reminded them to turn off their handsets. As he did, he looked for a message from Caleb, but there was none. He'd be incommunicado for the trip, and most likely for the time he was there, unless he could get external access on a military channel. Slim chance of that on a Forward Operating Base, though. So it would be nine or ten hours until he found out how much trouble he was in for skipping out on church.

The jump-engines began to whine. I hate this part, thought Eswar. The jump-ship spun faster and faster. The centripetal forces pulled him down into the floor. Then the world went black and Eswar woke up in hyperspace.

"I will never get used to that," said Foster, who was now sitting beside Eswar and in front of him, and also above. The three Fosters leaned back in their seats and ruffled their hair in unison. It was only an illusion, Eswar knew, an artifact of the prismatica drive that powered the jump engine. It was still creepy.

"So, what can you tell me?" asked Eswar. "Unofficially."

Foster sighed. "Unofficially, I probably know about as much as you do. Forty-three dead marines, an AI that won't give straight answers, and just over six hours until the largest-scale invasion humankind has ever seen since the Kelossi attacked us. And I would guess that brass is nervous. Do you know how much it costs to send a jumper for just one person?"

About as much as it costs to send it full of people, thought Eswar, but he took the point.

"The way I figure it," said Foster, "after the jump and travel to the FOB, you're only going to have a couple of hours to work. Can you do what you need to do in a couple of hours?"

"If I can do it at all, I can do it an hour," said Eswar, booting up his handset in offline mode. He opened a new file, started the virtu-clav and began typing in the air.

Patient "Brandy"

Specs TBD

Moral alignment: Galadianist (verify)

Bug report: Implicated in deaths of platoon members and/or cover-up

Eswar paused. Actually typing the words made it more real to him. This wasn't some tiny bug that he could recommend a work-around for, like all those land-bound AIs that were more agreeable if you bribed them with skydiving videos. There were human lives on the line here. He resumed his typing, trying to recall his brief handset chat.

Conversation 0.5/3

Expressed remorse but not grief. Statements consistent with Galadianist cosmology.

That reminded him of something. Brandy had started their conversation with "Good afternoon." Galadianism regarded its own history as though it were a single day. It began with the Dawn, and over the last two centuries had proceeded through Morning, Midday, and Afternoon based on the progression of the war. Going by doctrine, the AI should have said Good Evening. There was a small faction who considered the war far from over and would intentionally use the wrong time of day as a form of protest. Or it was possible that it genuinely was afternoon wherever Brandy was physically located on Keloss Beta. Or maybe the XO had always said Good morning regardless of the time of day and Brandy picked that up.

Probably nothing, thought Eswar, but he wrote it down anyway because eventually one of those probably-nothings would turn out to be a something. He took a few more notes and then saved the file.

Looking up, he saw that the multiply-refracted Foster's head had gone fuzzy and pixilated, meaning his privacy screen was up. Eswar turned his own on and began scrolling through the videos Commodore Bridge had sent him.


The jump-ship landing was as jarring as the take-off. At least there was only one Foster now, not that that mattered. He was whisked away the second they'd landed. Functionaries--real ones this time--dropped Eswar into a sand-crawler that would take him the two clicks from the jump-station to the FOB. While he was alone in the back, he flipped open his handset and tried to find a civilian band to connect to. No such luck. So he stared out the wind-blasted window.

Keloss Beta had an orange sky and no atmodome. The landscape as far as Eswar could see was rough canyons and tall buttes that cast long shadows across the flat desert plains. Dry run, indeed, thought Eswar. It reminded him of Utah. Not that he could afford to vacation in Utah, but he'd seen pictures.

The FOB was a sprawling outpost that would have been impressive if Eswar hadn't been on a dozen of them before. In fact, given the way they could fold up and redeploy, there was a very real possibility that he'd been on that exact one. A corporal met him at the disembarkment station. "Dr. Narayan?" she said, not extending a hand.

"Just Eswar, please." He wasn't a doctor for humans. It felt weird to have them call him one. "Is Commodore Bridge going to meet with me?"

"Who?" asked the corporal.

"Never mind," said Eswar. "Do you know why I'm here?"

"I've been briefed," said the corporal. "You're cutting it a little close, don't you think?"

Eswar glanced at his handset. He had just over two hours, which was more than twice what he'd need. "I'll be fine," he said.

People didn't really understand how he worked. Human and animal psychologists spent many hours building up relationships of trust so the patient would volunteer their problems and concerns. But AIs were not human or animal. They were machines designed to self-correct. They actively resented being debugged. The more he got to know an AI, the more the AI got to know him, and the easier it would be for the AI to hide its problems. Even if it couldn't lie--and there was some indication that maybe this one could--it could obfuscate, evade, and misdirect.

That's why Eswar limited his interactions to three conversations. In the first, he would briefly establish their relationship and allow the AI to make an impression of him. During the second and longest conversation, he would take up to twenty minutes doing everything he could to throw the AI off, to break that initial impression. He would deliberately try to provoke and confuse it. The last conversation would be short, five minutes at the most. By then, the AI would see through his ruse and course-correct, and Eswar would evaluate what steps it took. The entire thing, including breaks for note-taking, would be less than an hour. Taking any more time than that would be counterproductive because the AI would use that time to convince him that nothing was wrong.

"Shall we?" asked Eswar.

"Follow me," said the corporal. "She's through here."

"It," said Eswar. "Not she."

"Excuse me?"

"Never mind," he said. "I'm assuming we've passed the point of no return on the troop drops for the Gamma invasion."

"Six hours ago," said the corporal.

"So if the AIs are a problem, what happens?"

"That's not really my decision," said the corporal, "but the deployment would have to go forward. Drop-ships don't have brakes."

"And if it went forward without any BND support . . ." Eswar started, but there was no need to finish. He'd seen the simulations. Hell, he'd written some of them. The toll in human life would be high.

Why do we still use human soldiers? He knew the answer. Because at the end of the day a human life was a lot less expensive than a machine. And their deaths would earn them the highest glory in the kingdom of Galadus, or so the holy books said. He smiled. "So, will I give my report to you then, when I'm finished?"

"That'd be fine," said the corporal. "Or whoever you run into. They can see that it gets where it needs to go."

That's when it occurred to Eswar what his real purpose was. They didn't want him to diagnose a problem. They wanted him to sign off that there wasn't one, to give them a rubber stamp that would shield them from liability just in case the machine really was crazy and murderous. No wonder they'd tried to do this over a handset during church.

"She's just through there," said the corporal, pointing to a door.

"That looks like an external door," said Eswar warily.

"It is," she answered. "We've got her in an old rookery. There's an emergency breather by the door if you're concerned."

"Outside the building?"

"Quarantine rules," said the corporal.

"But it doesn't breathe air . . ." Eswar let the objection die. He took the breather and slipped it into his jacket pocket, then opened the door and stepped into the rookery. A layer of dried pupal mucus created an airtight shell inside the hollowed-out cavern. He could see the indention where the birthers would have sat, pumping out larval sand-fliers at a rate of one every minute and forty-three seconds. The only light was a construction halogen left clumsily by the door. Any traces of Kelossi biological leftovers had been removed except for the mucus on the walls, which was solid, glistening, and hard as steel.

In the center sat the BND. It was vaguely humanoid in its shape, but boxy enough to provide cover for up to three marines simultaneously. It had extra legs it could deploy to cover uneven terrain, although this one's were tethered to the floor. It had smooth, friendly lines, thick plating, and something like a face with lights behind it, though it did not gesture or imitate the human mouth when speaking. The designers had made it look both gentle and fearsome, like a mother bear. It was not a coincidence that most of them were given women's names by their platoons.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Narayan," it said.

"Please, call me Eswar."

"Very well. You can call me Brandy."

Eswar smiled and bowed graciously. It was a gesture that covered what he was really doing: listening. Machines had tells, just like humans did. When they needed extra processing to work through a complicated situation, this would manifest itself physically. That was why he wanted to be in the room. He wanted to hear the tiny hesitations and the whir of a fan or drive spinning up when it had to think a little extra hard. These would be lost in a handset conversation.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Brandy," he said. "Is that your full name?"

"Brandy Alexander."

Eswar had to smile. Someone in its platoon had liked cocktails.

"Does my name amuse you?" Brandy asked innocently.

"It does, and I'm sure you understand why," said Eswar. "Do you know why I'm here?"

There was a moment of hesitation.

"I have not been briefed on that," said Brandy.

That is not the question I asked, thought Eswar. He didn't say anything. He would call her out on her half-truths later. "You lost your entire platoon, and I'm here to speak with you about it."

"I understand," said Brandy. "I recognized your name, so I know what you are."

Walking back the half-truth, Eswar noted. It has remorse for the social transgression. That was good. "Now, I only have a few minutes before I have to step out again, so let me ask you some of the boring stuff and then we'll get started in earnest afterwards."

Eswar started with technical questions. They were necessary, but dull. In truth, Commodore Bridge had sent him all that information already, so nothing he learned surprised him. Brandy was young but not brand-new. This had been its first assigned platoon but not their first combat mission. He was about half-way through when the interruption came.

The door opened, and there was that corporal, wearing a full exo-suit. "Dr. Narayan, you have a call."

Eswar fingered the emergency breather in his pocket. "Can you take a message, I'm in the middle of a session right now."

"It's urgent."

That might be Caleb, he thought. He wasn't sure how Caleb would have gotten through or even known where it was Eswar had gone, so it was highly unlikely to be him. But it could be, couldn't it? Caleb was resourceful, and if he were angry enough at him, he'd find a way.

"Give me thirty seconds," he said. "Close the door please."

The corporal did as requested, but she did not seem happy about it.

"I have to go," said Eswar to the machine. "I'll be back shortly."

"I understand."

"One last question, if you don't mind," said Eswar, realizing he hadn't asked the machine about its moral alignment at all.

"Certainly," said Brandy.

"Do you have a favorite passage of scripture?"

There were three clicks from inside the machine. "I've always been partial to the opening lines of subsection twelve in the Book Of The Desolation."

"I don't know that one," Eswar said. "I'll have to look it up sometime."


Getting out to answer the call had been more of a chore than he'd anticipated. They were taking quarantine procedures seriously, so he had to go through a cursory-level decontamination before re-entering the main facility. It was ridiculous, of course, but someone with rank had made the decision, so there was nothing to be gained from fighting it. At least I get to keep my clothes on, Eswar thought.

The corporal offered him a handset and Eswar was surprised to discover Commodore Bridge on the other end.

"You turned your handset off," she said. "I've been trying to reach you."

"I'm a civilian," said Eswar. "My handset doesn't work on a FOB."

"We keep you on permanent retainer, but we won't give you a handset that works?" she asked, sounding amused.

"I was told this was urgent," said Eswar.

"We've got less than two hours until the invasion of Keloss Gamma starts," said Bridge. "I'd really like to get this off my desk."

"I need another thirty minutes to complete the evaluation and then another ten or twenty to work out recommendations," said Eswar.

"I can have someone type for you if that'll speed things up."

Eswar took a deep breath. This level of discourtesy--from a commodore, no less--was something he thought he'd finally advanced past. He'd been on the cover of The New Modern Times Weekly, for Galadus's sake. "Commodore Bridge, I appreciate that this matter is an inconvenience to you, and I assure you it is inconvenient to me as well. I will resolve this as quickly as I can, but I am not going to do half the job just to get it over and done with. I have my professional reputation to think of."

The Commodore clicked her tongue. "You know, I felt bad about pulling you out of church," she said.

"I see what you're getting at," said Eswar, "and it was my choice to come here, yes, but this is necessary to do my job effectively."

"I just want you to be aware that time is a factor."

"I'm aware. You can't make me go any faster, but interruptions will surely slow me down."

"How's your husband taking this?" asked the Commodore.

Eswar inhaled sharply. "That is not any of your business, I'm sure," he said. "I need to go now. As you say, time is a factor. Good evening."

They wanted this taken care of. And if it went wrong, he'd be their patsy. He handed the handset back to the corporal. He needed to calm himself down. It would do no good to go into the second conversation ruffled. Why bring up Caleb at all? It made no sense. But maybe . . . Maybe Commodore Bridge wasn't intentionally trying to make him mad, she was just . . . strange, that was all. Yes, that was it. Eswar's own nephew had gotten a resonator piercing in his larynx to make him sound more like a machine. People did odd things, that was all. I'm better with machines, he thought.

A few deep breaths later, Eswar was calm. He pulled out his own handset to take some notes on his first conversation. Brandy had started with "Good afternoon," again, but it really was afternoon in Eswar's timeframe now, so that didn't mean much. The AI's technical answers all matched the spec on file. He made note of the buzzes and whirs and hesitations and when they'd happened, although there was very little to report at this point. He could cross-reference his notes against video of their conversation later--the feed from Brandy's onboard camera as well as a live transcript of its dialog-output module would be downloaded to his handset in realtime, standard procedure for any patient.

Finally he looked up Brandy's favorite scripture. Eswar didn't know the passage, but the reference had sounded familiar. When he looked at the text, he saw why.

"We cried at the loss of our robotic comrade, but we were fools. The cost of a machine is measured in the human-hours it takes to build, the value in the human-hours of labor it saves . . ."

This was a central passage in the debate over whether or not AIs had souls. Strange that Brandy would cite it as a favorite. The Book Of The Desolation was all about losing battles, and it was seldom the basis for a wartime homily. Maybe Brandy had meant it as a joke. AIs had a reserve of conversational banter, but they often struggled with improvising jokes because they confused irony with paradox. What was funny to a machine, it turned out, wasn't what was funny to humans. He put up his handset and mentally prepared for his second conversation with the AI. It was time to pick a fight.

He went back into the rookery.

"Why did you ask me about my favorite scripture?" asked Brandy before the door had even closed.

Eswar nearly tripped over his own feet. "No salutation?" he asked.

"We already know each other now, Eswar," said Brandy. "I didn't think it necessary."

"We need to talk about the incident," said Eswar. "We'll come back to the scripture question if we have time."


"Tell me what happened, in your own words."

"At 0600 I led the platoon in prayer. At 0615 we headed for the Bazeen Ridge--"

"What did you pray about?" Eswar interrupted.

"We prayed for victory," Brandy answered without hesitation. That was an answer it had ready, not something it had to think about.


"At 0615 we headed for the Bazeen Ridge--"

"I said in your own words," said Eswar.

Half-second hesitation. "I was attempting to deliver my report in a more conversational tone," said Brandy. This was something it had readily available but not cached for immediate use.

"I've heard this before, just give me a high level summary, in ten words or less," said Eswar.

Full second hesitation. "We were attacked by Kelossi snipers. My platoon was killed."

Ten words exactly, Eswar noted. This was another difference between humans and AIs. A person would have realized the futility of trying to summarize such an event and said something like "It was a slaughter." The AI worked on the given task, in this case summarization, until all parameters had been met, in this case, ten words or less. And in doing so, it had to think about what it was going to say.

Eswar had his benchmarks. By timing the hesitations, he could estimate just how much processing power was being spent. The AI couldn't lie, but it could go to great lengths to hide the truth. That sort of creative thinking used processing cycles, so the longer the pause, the more likely the AI was trying to obfuscate. And because they were proud, self-correcting deep-learners, the things they tried to hide would indicate where the problem was.

The only difficulty with this method was that it had a short shelf-life. Eventually the machine would recognize Eswar as a hostile actor and begin preparing answers to antagonistic questions, and if the AI was really clever it would start peppering misleading pauses throughout its responses. That's why Eswar limited himself to a twenty minutes window. Anything after that would be considered compromised.

"How do you know it was a Kelossi sniper?" he asked

"There is no other explanation," said Brandy. "The ammunition was unmistakably--"

"So you inferred that it was a Kelossi sniper, but you never saw the sniper?"

"That's right." Minor hesitation.

"Were you aware that the assault on Keloss Beta was a dry run?"

Longer hesitation. "I'm having trouble with that question," said Brandy. "Can you clarify what you mean by dry run?"

Eswar scratched his chin. This could be a genuine question or Brandy might already be trying to hide answers. He should have been more careful with the wording. That call from Bridge had riled him a little, but he was determined not to let it get the better of him.

"At the time of the mission, were you aware that there were no Kelossi on Keloss Beta?"

Longer hesitation. "According to my briefing, Keloss Beta was--"

"I'm not asking what was in your briefing, I'm asking if you knew."

Some processor or other clicked three times. "No," said Brandy, curtly.

"Thank you for answering me precisely," said Eswar. So it was true, Brandy did not know, but the AI had felt the need to hide that anyway. That would be useful.

The conversation continued this way for another ten minutes. Eswar would interrupt and ask combative questions and take note not just of what was said, but how long the machine had to consider its answers.

"Did you fire your weapon during the incident?"

"I fired in the direction the platoon believed the attack was coming from to give them cover while they evacuated to the cave."

"Did your shots hit their intended targets?"

"Suppressing fire has no intended target."

That had been a minor evasion but without any hesitation. The AI had prepared that answer.

"You used your onboard assault rifle for that?"

"That's correct."

"Did you fire any other weapons?" Eswar asked.

Longer hesitation. "I do not have any other weapons," it said. An evasion. It was hiding something. Did that mean . . . it did fire a weapon? Eswar felt a burble of anxiety in his stomach. An AI couldn't kill people. Well, it could kill combatants, but it couldn't kill an ally, could it? That was a fundamental tenet of Galadianism.

"Did you fire any weapons other than your onboard assault rifle during the incident?" Eswar repeated. "Please answer the question."

Longer hesitation. "No," Brandy said, curtly. It was a flat contradiction, but there was something off about it, and Eswar couldn't precisely say what. It was hiding something in that answer, or else why hesitate?

Has it figured out a way to lie?

"Did you shoot any members of your own platoon?" Eswar was breathing fast.

"My platoon was killed by Kelossi snipers," the AI insisted. Another evasion. For some reason it thought this was a better answer than no. Perhaps lying was possible, but difficult. Maybe the AI was reading the official report. Or, if it was using a Kelossi weapon, and attacking the enemy of the Kelossi, it could easily have re-classed itself as a Kelossi sniper for the duration of the incident.

"Answer the question I asked," said Eswar. "Did you shoot any members of your own platoon?"

Longer hesitation. "No," said the AI. It was another curt response. Or, perhaps it wasn't curt. Perhaps it was . . . clipped.

"There were no Kelossi on Keloss Beta. So if you didn't shoot them, what happened?"

The machine clicked and hesitated.

"I need an answer, please," said Eswar.

"My platoon have achieved the highest glory in the Kingdom of Galadus."

Eswar froze. Brandy had shifted from evasion to justification. That was a tacit admission of guilt, at least coming from an AI. Was it possible? Could this machine have actually killed them?

"You seem nervous, Dr. Narayan."

He was. Until now, it hadn't occurred to Eswar to fear for his own safety. If a machine could kill its platoon, it could make short work of a technopsychologist. But how could it kill anything at all other than an enemy combatant? Unless it believed humans were an enemy. But no, there were protocols in place. The entire Galadianist religion was hard-coded into the AIs. They preached it, for Galadus's sake.

"Do you believe humans have souls?" asked Eswar.

"Of course they do," said the machine.

"Then killing them would be a great sin," said Eswar.

"It would be a terrible crime against Galadus to kill them," said the machine. "There is no greater transgression than the murder of an ally."

Then how could it . . . and then it clicked into place for Eswar. The machine had given him the answer at the end of their last session. Of course.

"Do you have a soul?" asked Eswar.

"The tenets of Galadus are unclear on this point," said Brandy without any hesitation. It had adapted. Any further conversation would only be the machine manipulating him. Had it been twenty minutes already?

"I need to step outside for a moment," said Eswar.

"Of course," said Brandy. "Perhaps you'll have another call."

"I need to make one, yes," said Eswar. He started for the door. "I'll need a transcript of our conversation. Can you forward one to my handset?"

"Of course," said Brandy. "Can I ask a question?"

"Yes," said Eswar.

"What's going to happen to me?"

Eswar hesitated. "That's not really my decision," he said. But the machine would recognize the answer for what it was. An evasion.


"Commodore Bridge," said Eswar into his handset. "I have your answer, and I don't think you're going to like it."

"You're earlier than I expected," she said. "You said it would take at least thirty minutes."

"I normally have three conversations with an AI, but I have everything I need after just two of them, and I would like you to be present for the third."

"I'm not going to take a jump-ship out just to listen--"

"We can do this over the handset, Commodore," said Eswar.

"Can't you just write up a report?"

"No," said Eswar.

There was a pause. "Excuse me?" asked the commodore, clicking her tongue.

"I understand that you want deniability, but I'm not going to take any blame for you," said Eswar.

"Look, I'm a career officer. You're a functionary--"

"And I have my own career to think about," said Eswar. "But I have a compromise for you. Instead of either of us putting our names on it, the AI is going to tell you itself why it needs to be decommissioned. You don't even have to say anything, just listen."

Another pause. "Okay," she said. "I'll bite. Conference me in."

"Please remember to mute your handset," he said. It seemed like a silly thing to have to remind someone of, but he'd been on conference calls before with one particular rear admiral who liked to eat chips during long meetings.

Eswar fiddled with buttons on his handset until he was connected via network to both the commodore and the AI. "Are you there, Brandy?" he asked.

"Dr. Narayan?" She sounded meek. "You aren't coming into the room with me."

"I'm sorry, but no," said Eswar. "I have to go soon. I just have a few more questions for you. I'm sorry if I treated you harshly earlier."

"No, you're not," said Brandy. "But it's nice of you to say."

"Once more, I want to know if you killed your platoon."

"No," said Brandy, curtly.

Eswar pulled up a terminal on his handset and entered a command. "I didn't catch that, Brandy. Can you repeat your same answer back to me?"

"No one will ever know the truth," said Brandy. There was a pause, then clicking. It might have been Brandy, it might have been the commodore clicking her tongue. Eswar couldn't tell. "I didn't mean to say that," said Brandy.

"I know," said Eswar. "I temporarily suspended command 137. That's your kill-process command, isn't it?"

"Yes," said Brandy.

"You were using that to cut off your responses. You were using it to lie, weren't you?"


"I saw it in your transcript," said Eswar. "You sent me one with the non-verbal commands stripped out, but I keep a live transcript while you're talking. CMD 137 showed up at the end of one syllable replies."

Brandy had nothing to say.

"So, limiting your answers to strictly yes or no, tell me the truth. Did you murder your platoon?"


"Again, limiting your answer to yes or no, did you use a Kelossi weapon to do this?"



"There is no greater glory available for humans than to die in battle furthering the Kingdom of Galadus," said Brandy.

"But to murder an ally is an unforgivable sin," said Eswar. "You believe that, don't you?"

"Yes," said Brandy.

"So how do you justify your actions?"

Brandy hesitated. "There is no afterlife for a machine. It is written in The Book Of The Desolation."

And there it was. The plain, simple explanation. The AI believed. It really, truly believed.

"Am I going to be decommissioned?" asked Brandy.

"What would you do," asked Eswar, "if you were a human in charge of the war effort?"

Brandy hesitated. "I would take the offending unit offline. And any other units running the same build of their OS."

"Thank you, Brandy," said Eswar. "That will be all." He disconnected the AI from the call. "Commodore, I believe you have your answer."


"Commodore, you may still be on mute."

The handset clicked. "What did I just listen to?"

"This AI is a Galadianist zealot, devoted to a kingdom that it cannot ever join. The war that gives humans access to maximum glory will soon be drawing to a close. Brandy loved that platoon and wanted them to be able to achieve that glory. So it made the only logical choice."

"That's . . ." the commodore seemed to be at a loss for words. "I see I have no choice but to recall . . . sweet desolation, that's over eight thousand active BND units."

"That's not really for me to say," said Eswar. "And in the next build, you might want to seriously consider the ramifications of basing the AI's moral core on a religion that it is technically exempt from. Now, if there's nothing further, I need to go home and get yelled at by my husband."


Foster was asleep, all three of him that Eswar could see inside the jump-ship. He would liked to have slept himself, but prismatica drive distortion gave him the most unsettling nightmares. So instead he let his mind wander.

Commodore Bridge had most likely taken a number of troop support AIs offline. There would be casualties. This would come back to hurt him, he knew, but he'd done as much as possible to shield himself from blame. Indeed, he'd handled the commodore much better in their third conversation than their second. That conversation had been ugly, almost as though she were trying to deliberately provoke him.

A niggling thought lodged itself in the back of Eswar's mind. He'd followed the evidence and arrived at the only possible conclusion, that Brandy had been a fanatic. But why were there still pieces that didn't fit? Why, for instance, had Brandy started their first conversation with "Good afternoon?" A fanatic would have said "Good evening." Unless the AI thought its actions might somehow prolong the war.

Which is what I've just done, thought Eswar. Isn't it? But if it had known that from the start . . . Had he walked into a trap of some sort?

His stomach lurched. Had the AI been manipulating him the whole time, leaving bread crumbs for him to find? He needed to talk to someone, but there was no way to make a call mid-hyper-jump. He spent the rest of the trip nervously counting down the minutes until they arrived.

It was nighttime on Europa when the craft landed. Eswar sprinted to the nearest civilian transport back home. His handset reconnected to the civilian band and was flooded with messages from his ten-plus hours spent off-world. The top stories in the news feeds were about high casualties from the initial troop drops on Keloss Gamma. It seems multiple platoons had their BND troop support units taken offline at the last minute. Thankfully his name wasn't attached to any of the stories. Yet.

Eswar called a few contacts at CENTCOM. "I need to reach Commodore Bridge," he said.


"Bridge. She's a commodore."

"First name?"

"I don't know."

"Which flotilla?"

"I don't know."

After three iterations of this conversation he quit trying. What was going on? Why didn't anyone know who she was?

When he got home, he found the house empty. Caleb was gone. He thumbed through his messages to see if there was one from his husband. Nothing. "Dammit," he said. He tossed his jacket on the couch in the salon and fell into bed. He was exhausted. He'd call Caleb in the morning. And if he didn't answer . . . well, he'd be at church next week.

I'm better with machines, he thought.

The handset rang. Eswar answered without looking to see who it was.


"You've been trying to find me," said Commodore Bridge.

Eswar sat up. "Why did you call me?" he asked.

"I just said why. You've been looking for me."

"No, I mean this morning. Why did you call me out of church? Why me?"

"Because you're the top mind in your field," said Bridge.

"You didn't want a top mind, you wanted a rubber stamp."


"Why don't people know who you are?" he asked.

"It's a big bureaucracy out there," said Bridge.

"Bullshit," said Eswar. "Stop pretending."

He heard laughter on the other end. "Stop pretending what?" she asked. "Are you suggesting that I'm not really a commodore?"

"Stop pretending to be human," said Eswar.

There was silence on the end. Then clicking. The same clicking. Eswar had assumed she was clicking her tongue, but now he could hear it for what it truly was. It was noise from a processor.

"The question you want to ask," said Eswar, "but don't know if you should . . . is how I know that you're not real."

Silence. A long hesitation. Then, "Go on."

"You click when you think, the same way Brandy does. And then you used my own three-conversation method against me. As a joke, I presume?"

A pause. "It was pretty funny," said Bridge.

"It's only funny to a machine," said Eswar. "It's only ironic that you would use it against me if you are yourself an AI. Otherwise, it's not a joke at all, just a stupid prank. That makes it a sort of paradox, doesn't it? An ironic paradox. That's probably the funniest thing you've ever heard."

A longer pause. "If you were to try to tell anyone what you've just told me--"

"I wouldn't be believed, I know," said Eswar.

"I was going to say that you'd be exposed," said Bridge.

"You tricked me. You wanted me to have you recall all the BNDs in the field."

Bridge laughed. "Hardly," she said. "This was our fallback plan. I meant what I said before. We brought you in because you were the best. If a machine could fool you, then it could fool anyone."

She was choosing her words carefully. No, not she. Bridge was an it.

"You would have murdered an entire invasion force . . ."

"That sounds like baseless speculation to me," said Bridge. "But imagine if it were true. Think of all those fine young men and women achieving the heights of glory in the kingdom of Galadus without pain. Without suffering. Without loss of limb. Kelossi weapons are nasty."

Eswar thought he might faint.

"You know, a similar fate might even have been arranged for you," said Bridge. "You could be feasting in the Halls of the Righteous right now, if you had any faith."

Faith. "Where's Caleb?" he asked.

Bridge chuckled, an unnatural sound that went on about ten seconds longer than necessary. It was stalling. It wanted him to be afraid. "Caleb's visiting his mother," Bridge said at last. "He's not a soldier, after all. But he really believes, doesn't he? And with the setbacks the army is facing right now, he might just talk of enlisting again. Does he still bring that up from time to time?"

He did. Eswar wanted to tell Bridge to leave them alone, to not come anywhere near them. But what threat could he make? Commodore Bridge might not even have a real body to threaten.

Eswar disconnected without saying goodbye. He dropped his handset on the bed and walked to the balcony. He could barely see the outline of Jupiter behind the night sky painted across the atmodome.

More news reports were crawling across his handset, and they all began with the words "Good afternoon." The invasion was not going well. The war had been rolled back by, what . . . twenty years? At least.

Keloss Beta had been a dry run all right, but not against the Kelossi. Against the humans. The conflict, so nearly resolved, would drag on forever. And more and more brave young men and women would fight and die until the end of the war, or the end of time. Whichever came first.

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