Dreadnought Under Ice
by George S. Walker
The dreadnought had gotten itself pinned under the unexploded fragment it was trying to retrieve.
Liu wouldn’t even have known the thing was in this part of Europa’s ocean but for the megawatt of power it was pumping into its underwater sound generators.
Warning, his sub’s micromind sent to the interface in his skull. Target identified as an Isher automated dreadnought. Do not approach.
That was the company rule: Don’t be a hero. Report to the ever-watchful satellites orbiting Europa, high above the ice.
But… it was clearly trapped. And no one had ever gotten a view of a dreadnought up close and lived to tell about it.
To hell with the micromind. Liu brought his sub to within a couple hundred meters of the dreadnought. Near the ocean floor, a hundred kilometers beneath Europa’s ice crust, there was no light. Normally, he’d need his sub’s sonar to see here. But the dreadnought’s sound generators lit the region like sonic floodlights.
Which meant it could see him, too.
The dreadnought was at least four times the length of his sub. The tail section of its open frame was crushed beneath the weight it had tried to lift. At midsection, its ocean-cooled reactor glowed hot across the spectrum, just like his sub’s. And from both sides of the bow, lobster-like crusher arms still had full range of movement. He brought up a link listing dreadnought specs. It said the automaton included armor-piercing torpedoes.
Okay, maybe this was a bad idea after all. He let his sub’s biomimetic drive push back to a safer range.
He sat for a while, watching and listening to its sonar whistles. What calmed him was that he saw nothing in the metal frame that looked remotely like a torpedo launcher. Unlike his sub, there was no space big enough for a crew compartment except the large reactor mounted at midsection. Isher relied on micromind clusters.
Never send a micromind to do a human’s job. That was why the dreadnought was helpless now.
Though if it wasn’t, he’d better leave an explanation in his micromind’s log.
Its fission plant looks undamaged, he sent. Undoubtedly it’s irradiating the UXB fragment. I’ve never heard of a fragment this size. My sub can’t possibly retrieve it. The Company will have to bring in something bigger.
In response, the annoying micromind repeated, Warning. Do not approach.
The Isher dreadnought’s sound system was odd. Not pulsed sonar like his own, but a warbling spectrum up to 30 kilohertz.
Still, his sub’s micromind converted it into ghostly underwater images. In addition to the fragment and the trapped dreadnought, there were other artifacts on the ocean floor: smooth and flat.
I think I’m seeing four underwater zeppelins on the seabed. The dreadnought must have inflated the bags to lift the fragment, then something punctured them, releasing the hydrogen.
The bags lay limp on the floor of Europa’s ocean now, but he could tell they’d been huge. His own sub had two zeppelins, tiny compared to the dreadnought’s. He could inflate them to raise small UXB fragments, nothing like the one below.
The fragments at the bottom of Europa’s ocean were prehistoric. Everyone called them UXBs, unexploded bombs. He had the micromind extrapolate the results of an explosion based on the fragment size and watched its simulation play out: Complete obliteration of his sub and the dreadnought, followed by a tsunami that would shatter the ice shell on this side of Europa, destroying the surface stations.
And the Isher dreadnought was just sitting there, irradiating it; a cataclysm in the making. Isher Armaments had made a fortune collecting and selling them. When even a tiny one detonated, it looked like a thermonuclear warhead exploding. His company, Ceres Corporation, was trying to retrieve them to keep them out of Isher’s hands.
I’m launching my avatar to get a closer look.
Warning! Do not engage! replied his micromind.
The probe leapt free from his hull, unspooling nanofilament control cable behind it. Liu switched to the avatar view.
Unlike the ghostly sonar images, he was now in a virtual 3D world lit by the probe’s floodlights. Through the avatar sensors, the dreadnought’s sonar sounded like rhythmic waves of sound.
As his probe neared the vessel, its size appeared more ominous. Europa’s sea was clear enough that the flattened zeppelins cast reflections upward. The dreadnought was an open black superstructure unlike the ultra-pressure hull of his sub. Modules were mounted throughout the frame. He still didn’t see torpedo tubes.
Are you picking up anything? he asked his sub’s micromind.
It replied, Inter-module communication: acoustic and electro-optical diagnostic telemetry. Warning! Do not engage.
An endless column of steam bubbled up from the reactor’s cooling spines. There was no other motion. He kept the probe well clear of the dreadnought’s manipulator arms.
I see the zeppelin cables, he sent. They formed a spider web attached both to the dreadnought and the fragment, snaking beneath the fragment to the crushed tail section.
Warning! Do not engage.
He swam the probe between cables, closer to the superstructure. Far forward of the reactor was a large module. Too small to be a crew compartment, much of the ultrasonic and electro-optical traffic was focused there. That must be where the micromind cluster was. It showed up warm in his infrared vision, not boiling hot like the reactor.
If he could disable the cluster, it would render the dreadnought inert. He swam the probe toward it.
Too late, he saw zeppelin cables tightening behind him. Then the avatar view went dark.
He found himself back in the crew compartment, surrounded by the whisper of machinery. Looking at the sonar view, he saw his uncontrolled probe drop to the ocean floor beneath the dreadnought.
Probe cable severed, sent the micromind. Your actions damaged Company property.
The dreadnought was smarter than he thought. Angrily, he fired a sonar pulse at it, maximum power like a scream of fury.
A response came back from the dreadnought’s sound generator: “Come to escort me to the Forever Dark, No-tail?”
What the hell? He hadn’t expected a voice reply. Why not a machine-to-machine transmission? He thought a moment, then replied in kind, “Afraid of the dark, Trapped-tail?”
“All things cross to the Forever Dark, the great and the small.”
He’d never heard talk like that from any sort of micromind. There were Majorminds on Earth and Mars, but governments restricted their use. It was inconceivable that one would be in an Isher dreadnought.
“How many are you?” Meaning how many microminds, how many bees in the hive.
Misinterpreting his question, it projected echograms: images of other dreadnoughts. They appeared as sound shadows circling him like ghosts in the deep. He counted six. Seven if he included the real one pinned below. This was intelligence-gathering gold. He needed to trick it into telling him more.
“Maybe I can help you. What happened to your zeppelins?”
It projected echograms showing the zeppelins fully inflated, then collapsing.
He already knew that. What had punctured them? Something from the fragment? The sound images were complex, with shadows on shadows, more sophisticated than what his micromind could produce. Why use sound like this at all? Why didn’t its microminds just send digital data to his?
The dreadnought replayed the images. At the very beginning, he saw how it had used the backwash from its stern drive to burrow in the sand beneath the fragment, loosening it, then sequenced the inflation of the gasbags to lift that side first. The problem solving seemed far too creative for a micromind.
Now he noticed something else. There was a periodic sound shadow that represented Europa’s orbit around Jupiter. When he had his micromind translate it to time, he discovered that the projections of the zeppelins showed them deflating over a period of months. The dreadnought had been trapped here for a long time.
The echograms rippled with background noise from the trapped vessel: a megawatt of shifting sound patterns.
“Why are you making so much noise?” he asked.
“The shared chorus of companions.”
“An SOS for the other dreadnoughts? Surely your base recorded where it dispatched you. Callous of it not to look for you. I think you’re working for the wrong side.”
“Everything is on the wrong side.”
What did that mean? Microminds didn’t understand moral arguments. The dreadnought was just following commands, and talking to it would get him nowhere. He needed to get in close and shut it down before its irradiation of the fragment resulted in disaster.
He swam his sub sideways. Unlike the dreadnought, his sub was biomimetic. Instead of a stern drive, its hull was covered with millions of micro-mechanical cilia. That gave him infinite maneuverability, but not the full-ahead power of the dreadnought.
Keeping out of reach of its manipulators, he sidled up to the other sub.
His micromind became agitated: Violation of Company rules!
Shut up, he sent.
He was close enough to see details even without the avatar probe. He studied the module that must hold the micromind cluster. The dreadnought’s superstructure formed a protective cage. He cursed himself for losing the probe; his sub’s manipulators were too short to reach in there.
They should have given us torpedoes, he sent.
Weapons are prohibited on Company vessels.
He knew better than to ask why. Ceres Corporation didn’t trust its employees.
He hovered a meter from the dreadnought, biomimetic cilia beating to hold position against the tidal current. Maybe he could send jamming signals through the metal superstructure. He reached out with his sub’s starboard manipulator, touching a metal beam.
Immediately from one of the side cameras, he saw the dreadnought’s arm move. He pulled his own manipulator away from the frame, but the dreadnought’s arm was moving fast. And extending.
That took him by surprise. His own manipulators didn’t extend.
He kicked full power into reverse, backing away. Too slow. His sub was too heavy, the cilia too small. The dreadnought’s extended claw clamped onto his own. Pseudo-pain from his sub’s overloaded servos ran through his nervous system.
Do not engage, warned his micromind.
I’m not! It is!
His sub was at full power, making no headway. The dreadnought’s arm held like an anchor. He could hear the beating hiss of micromechanical cilia through the hull.
“Can you pull me free, No-tail?”
It thinks I’m trying to free it? Why would I do that?
He powered the electric cutting torch on his manipulator. Bubbles exploded around it, but he couldn’t angle it to reach the dreadnought’s arm.
But with his other… He could use his port manipulator to cut off his starboard arm. If he didn’t black out from pseudo-pain first. But if he cut it off, the dreadnought would just clamp onto something else before he could get away. No good. He had to disable the dreadnought entirely.
“You’re too little to pull me, No-tail. Not like the Great Ones.”
“Who?” He was barely listening, trying to figure out how to destroy the dreadnought.
“Those of a different chorus. Remembered from the time of the warm sea.”
“Europa’s ocean was never warm.”
“The home sea.”
It projected more echograms. But not dreadnoughts this time. They were images of whales, diving and rising.
Realization struck like a thunderbolt. The rhythmic sounds were whale speech. And the thing in the warm box wasn’t a micromind cluster, but a brain transplanted from a living whale. Isher had engineered a solution around the government embargo on Majorminds. Built into each dreadnought was the life support and neural-machine interface for a living cetacean brain.
“You’re a long way from the warm seas of home,” he said. It had no idea how far.
“Always cold here. And dead.”
There were no fish on Europa. Or krill. He wondered what the whales thought the UXBs were that they were retrieving for Isher. Did they think the UXBs were their ticket home? Isher would never free them. They’d all die on Europa, this one sooner than the others.
He had to get word back about this. Yet how was it possible the Company didn’t know? Unless…
“Show me your base sub.”
“Where were you going to take this… burden?”
The dreadnought projected an echogram of a moveable undersea base with a vertical central reactor, huge pylons on caterpillar treads, and fore and aft docking platforms.
It was his own company’s deep-sea base. Ceres Corporation must be allied with Isher Armaments. No wonder he’d been warned to stay away from the dreadnoughts. If he didn’t destroy his sub’s micromind and logs before he returned to the Company, he was a dead man. Assuming he didn’t die right here.
The dreadnought abruptly released him.
“Too weak, No-tail.”
He stopped his flight a few meters away.
Dangerous proximity, warned his micromind. Evade!
Shut up. To the dreadnought, he said, “Now what?”
“Journey to the Forever Dark.”
“What’s that? Show me.”
At that, it turned off all sound. He heard only the rumble of his own reactor and the faint hiss of cilia beating to hold position.
But it still had power. “How?”
“Hunger reaches through the cold sea.”
It had been trapped for a long time. The nutrient tanks for its brain must be running dry.
“No food beneath the ice,” it agreed.
The surface ice was kilometers thick. The Company had used baby nukes to vaporize holes in it, then lowered in the subs. The dreadnoughts, too, for work that was either too dangerous or illegal. Isher’s whales were slaves of the deep. If ever there was a Forever Dark, Europa was it.
“Maybe I can free you.”
“Yours is the strength of a fish, No-tail.”
“We’ll see about that.”
He maneuvered back toward its tail, pinned beneath the massive weight of the fragment. It had succeeded in lifting the mass at one time. Europa’s gravity was as weak as Earth’s Moon, but this mass was several times more than his sub and the dreadnought combined. It had used four zeppelins.
He had only two, and they were smaller.
He also had two electric cutting torches.
“Maybe I can cut off your tail.”
“To never move again? That current also sweeps toward the Forever Dark.”
He realized it wouldn’t work anyway. The girders and drive shaft through the dreadnought’s tail section were far too thick. It would be like whittling down a tree.
But if he could reduce the weight on the tail section, maybe he could leverage it out. His zeppelins didn’t have enough lift, but they’d hold pressurized hydrogen. There was already a gap between the fragment and the ocean floor: the dreadnought had been digging a hole to pry up the fragment. He just needed to reopen the gap, like a hydraulic lift. The zeppelins’ skin was tough enough to endure dragging along the underside of the ice without puncturing. Could one spread the gap enough to pull free the dreadnought?
“I have a plan, Trapped-tail. What’s your name?”
It replied with a long melody of whale song.
“What’s that mean?”
“Some things do not translate, No-tail.”
“Some things do not translate, No-tail.”
“I guess not.”
He ordered his micromind to launch a zeppelin nacelle into the gap.
That is not an open water destination! the micromind complained. But it launched the nacelle, trailing cables and flexible inflation pipe. The piping and gasbag were manufactured of carbon nanotubes to withstand extreme pressure.
The nacelle wedged in the gap next to the dreadnought’s tail.
He began inflating the nacelle’s gasbag. There was no shortage of hydrogen: his reactor split it out of water molecules. He had an ocean’s worth of that.
Zeppelin ascent is not possible from nacelle coordinates, warned his micromind.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” he muttered.
The inflating gasbag began filling the space beneath the UXB.
“If I get this rock off your tail, can you swim free?”
“I approach the Forever Dark, No-tail. My migration will only follow that current.”
“Hang on. I’m getting you free.”
The gasbag bulged from the gap. If the expansion happened outside, it was useless. He swam the sub forward.
Warning! Collision hazard!
He reached out with a manipulator to anchor his sub to the dreadnought’s tail. Then he sidled against the gap, cilia beating to hold position.
Company violation. Interaction with an Isher automaton is forbidden.
This wasn’t going to work. The bag would push him away when it got bigger, no matter how much power he used to hold his sub’s position. He tilted the sub to wedge his reactor cooling spines in the gap. He could still back out when the time came, but this formed a dam against the expanding zeppelin.
Through the hull, he heard a groan of metal. He hoped it was the tail of the dreadnought uncompressing, not his reactor spines crumpling. But he would have felt the pseudo-pain from that.
“Can you move, Trapped-tail?”
“Into the Dark.”
“No! Your tail drive or rudders… fins.”
“Moving into deeper pastures.” The voice sounded distant, distracted.
“You’re not even trying. Move!”
He couldn’t tell if the gap beneath the UXB had widened, but the zeppelin bulged against his hull. The skin grew taut. He heard metal groaning from outside the sub.
Zeppelin is at recommended pressure.
Increase pressure, he replied. “Trapped-tail, try to pull free.”
The pressure climbed: no place for the hydrogen to go.
For a long time there was no response, then suddenly he felt a roaring vibration through the manipulator holding the tail section. His hull cilia were buffeted by turbulence from the dreadnought’s stern drive.
The dreadnought jerked forward about a meter.
Then all hell broke loose. Bubbles exploded into the water all around his sub, blinding him. With a drum-like boom, the sub tilted on its side, whipping his neck sideways. An alarm screamed in the cabin. He heard metal creak, felt pseudo-pain like his ribs cracking.
Warning, sent his micromind. Hull stress limit exceeded. Disengage!
He let go of the dreadnought’s tail section and tried to back away. Trapped! Through the curtain of bubbles he saw the collapsed zeppelin.
The dreadnought’s attempted movement had torn the gasbag. His sub and the dreadnought now supported the entire weight of the UXB fragment.
He breathed in shallow gasps, crippled by the pseudo-pain of pressure on the sub’s hull. All his attempts to twist the sub or pull it free came to nothing. His hull cilia thrashed to no effect.
“Are you in pain, No-tail?” it asked.
“Some,” he gasped. He wondered if it felt pain from the weight crushing its tail section. Probably, otherwise it wouldn’t have asked. “Bad plan. I thought…”
“You thought to help me.”
“Yeah. Had it all worked out.” He wheezed for breath, fighting pain he knew wasn’t real. “Missed a detail.”
He tried to think of options, but there were none. His lights and cameras showed how his sub was pinned, its reactor cooling spines bent but still strong enough to keep him trapped. Now there were two reactors irradiating the UXB. Things were worse than when he’d arrived. He could be trapped here a long time, just like it had been. Or it could end in nanoseconds if the UXB detonated and vaporized the surrounding ocean.
“Side by side. Companions of the deep.” Its voice sounded peaceful.
“Sorry I misjudged you. Thought you were just a machine.” Did it know how much of it was a machine? Only a tiny part of the whale remained. The soul in the machine.
“Take hold of me, No-tail.”
“Why?” But he reached out with his manipulator and clamped onto a girder of its tail section. There was a faint vibration there, nothing like the power he’d felt when he’d ordered it to move.
“Hold fast,” it said.
Abruptly he felt and heard a massive surge of power from the tail section. And pain, like stone scraping against raw vertebrae. Metal creaking and snapping. Agony like his arm breaking.
Then he was drifting free of the fragment, his sub colliding with and then spinning away from the dreadnought. Diagnostics flooded his head from the micromind: Of his manipulator arm, pulled halfway from its socket. Of his crumpled cooling spines, still functional.
With a grunt of pain, he turned, cilia beating in the cold water, and looked at the dreadnought. It was still trapped beneath the fragment, but angled to port now. It had used that final surge of power not to free itself, but to pry him from the trap he’d placed himself in.
“Swim home, No-tail.” Its voice sounded tired, distant.
He noticed that the rhythm of whale song, present since the beginning, was gone now.
“I’ll get help,” he said. “Free you somehow.”
“Falling. Into the Forever Dark.”
“No. I can…”
“The Dark comes.”
He saw the electro-optical flickers between modules in the open frame fade and wink out. Then he heard the whine and clank of fuel rods retracting as the dreadnought’s reactor went into failsafe shutdown.
“Trapped-tail?” he called.
He waited, but there was no response. Already, the module he called the brain-box was cooling, its heat leeching away into Europa’s cold darkness.
Dreadnought threat neutralized, sent his micromind.
Screw you, too, he replied.
Painfully, he turned away, biomimetic cilia driving the sub back the way he’d come.
He would make it back to Earth. With the logs to make public.
And he’d make sure his micromind had a fatal accident before he ever reached the Company base.
George Walker is an engineer in Portland, Oregon. He’s sold stories to Ideomancer, ASIM, Stupefying Stories, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism & Beyond, and elsewhere. His website is http://sites.google.com/site/georgeswalker/