The weakness of thinking machines is that they actually believe all the information they receive, and react accordingly.
--VORIAN ATREIDES, fourth debriefing interview with League Armada
Leading a group of five ballistas in orbit over the canyon-scarred planet, Primero Vorian Atreides studied the robotic enemy forces aligned against him: sleek and silver, like predatory fish. Their efficient, functional design gave them the unintentional grace of sharp knives.
Omnius's combat monstrosities outnumbered the human ships ten to one, but because the Jihad battleships were equipped with overlapping layers of Holtzman shields, the enemy fleet could bombard the human vessels without inflicting any damage, and without advancing toward the surface of IV Anbus.
Although the human defenders did not have the necessary firepower to crush the machine forces or even repel them, the jihadis would continue to fight anyway. It was a standoff, humans and machines facing each other above the planet.
Omnius and his forces had secured many victories in the past seven years, conquering small backwater colonies and establishing outposts from which they launched relentless waves of attack. But now the Army of the Jihad had sworn to defend this Unallied Planet against the thinking machines at all costs--whether or not the native population wanted it.
Down on the planet's surface, his fellow Primero, Xavier Harkonnen, was attempting yet another diplomatic foray with Zenshiite elders, the leaders of a primitive Buddislamic sect. Vor doubted his friend would make much progress. Xavier was too inflexible to be a good negotiator: his senseof duty and strict adherence to the objectives of the mission were always paramount in his mind.
Besides that, Xavier was biased against these people ... and they undoubtedly realized it.
The thinking machines wanted IV Anbus. The Army of the Jihad had to stop them. If the Zenshiites wished to isolate themselves from the galactic conflict and not cooperate with the brave soldiers fighting to keep the human race free, then they were worthless. One time, Vor had jokingly compared Xavier to a machine, since he saw things in black-and-white terms, and the other man had scowled icily in response.
According to reports from the surface, the Zenshiite religious leaders had shown themselves to be just as stubborn as Primero Harkonnen. Both sides had dug in their heels.
Vor did not question his friend's command style, though it was quite different from his own. Having grown up among the thinking machines and trained as a trustee for them, Vor now embraced "humanness" in all of its facets, and was giddy with newfound freedom. He felt liberated when he played sports and gambled, or socialized and joked with other officers. It was so different from the way Agamemnon had taught him ... .
Out here in orbit, Vor knew the robot battleships would never retreat unless they were convinced, statistically, that they could not possibly win. In recent weeks he had been working on a complicated scheme to cause the Omnius fleet to break down, but wasn't ready to implement it yet. Soon, though.
This orbital stalemate was completely unlike the war games Vor enjoyed playing with the jihadi crewmen on patrol, or the amusing challenges he and the robot Seurat had set for each other years ago, during long voyages between stars. This tedious impasse offered little opportunity for fun.
He had been noticing patterns.
Soon the robotic fleet would cruise toward them like a cluster of piranhas in a retrograde orbit. Standing proud in his crisp dark green military uniform flashed with crimson--the Jihad colors symbolizing life and spilled blood--Vor would give orders directing all the battleships in his sentry fleet to activate Holtzman shields and monitor them for overheating.
The robot warships--bristling with weapons--were woefully predictable, and his men often placed bets on exactly how many shots the enemy would fire.
He watched his forces shift, as he had commanded them to do. Xavier's adopted brother, Vergyl Tantor, captained the vanguard ballista and movedit into position. Vergyl had served the Army of the Jihad for the past seventeen years, always watched closely by Xavier.
Nothing had changed here in over a week, and the fighters were growing impatient, passing the enemy repeatedly but unable to do anything more than puff up their chests and display combat plumage like exotic birds.
"You'd think the machines would learn by now," Vergyl grumbled over the comline. "Do they keep hoping that we'll slip up?"
"They're just testing us, Vergyl." Vor avoided the formality of ranks and the chain of command because it reminded him too much of machine rigidity.
Earlier in the day, when the paths of the two fleets briefly intersected, the robot warships had launched a volley of explosive projectiles that hammered at the impregnable Holtzman shields. Vor had not flinched as he watched the fruitless explosions. For a few moments, the opposing ships had mingled head-on in a crowded, chaotic flurry, then moved past each other.
"All right, give me a total," he called.
"Twenty-eight shots, Primero," reported one of the bridge officers.
Vor had nodded. Always between twenty and thirty incoming shells, but his own guess had been twenty-two. He and the officers of his other ships had transmitted congratulations and good-natured laments about missing by only one or two shots, and had made arrangements to collect on the bets they made. Duty hours would be shifted among the losers and winners, luxury rations transferred back and forth among the ships.
The same thing had happened almost thirty times already. But now as the two battle groups predictably approached one another, Vor had a surprise up his sleeve.
The Jihad fleet remained in perfect formation, as disciplined as machines.
"Here we go again." Vor turned to his bridge crew. "Prepare for encounter. Increase shields to full power. You know what to do. We've had enough practice at this."
A skin-tingling humming noise vibrated through the deck, layers of shimmering protective force powered by huge generators tied to the engines. The individual commanders would watch carefully for overheating in the shields, the system's fatal flaw, which--so far, at least--the machines did not suspect.
He watched the vanguard ballista cruise ahead along the orbital path. "Vergyl, are you ready?"
"I have been for days, sir. Let's get on with it!"
Vor checked with his demolitions and tactical specialists, led by one of the Ginaz mercenaries, Zon Noret. "Mr. Noret, I presume that you deployed all of our ... mousetraps?"
The signal came back. "Every one in perfect position, Primero. I sent each of our ships the precise coordinates, so that we can avoid them ourselves. The question is, will the machines notice?"
"I'll keep them busy, Vor!" Vergyl said.
The machine warships loomed closer, approaching the intercept point. Although the thinking machines had no sense of aesthetics, their calculations and efficient engineering designs still resulted in ships with precise curves and flawlessly smooth hulls.
Vor smiled. "Go!"
As the Omnius battlegroup advanced like a school of imperturbable, menacing fish, Vergyl's ballista suddenly lunged ahead at high acceleration, launching missiles in a new "flicker-and-fire" system that switched the bow shields on and off on a millisecond time scale, precisely coordinated to allow outgoing kinetic projectiles to pass through.
High-intensity rockets bombarded the nearest machine ship, and then Vergyl was off again, changing course and ramming down through the clustered robot vessels like a stampeding Salusan bull.
Vor gave the scatter order, and the rest of his ships broke formation and spread out. To get out of the way.
The machines, attempting to respond to the unexpected situation, could do little more than open fire on the Holtzman-shielded Jihad ships.
Vergyl slammed his vanguard ballista through again. He had orders to empty his ship's weapons batteries in a frenzied attack. Missile after missile detonated against the robot vessels, causing significant damage but not destruction. The comlines reverberated with human cheers.
But Vergyl's gambit was just a diversion. The bulk of the Omnius forces continued on their standard path ... directly into the space minefield that the mercenary Zon Noret and his team had laid down in orbit.
The giant proximity mines were coated with stealth films that made them nearly invisible to sensors. Diligent scouts and careful scans could have detected them, but Vergyl's furious and unexpected aggression had turned the machines' focus elsewhere.
The front two machine battleships exploded as they struck a row of powerful mines. Massive detonations ripped holes through bows, hull, andlower engine sheaths. Reeling off course, the devastated enemy vessels sputtered in flames; one blundered into another mine.
Still not realizing precisely what had happened, three more robot ships collided with unseen space mines. Then the machine battlegroup rallied. Ignoring Vergyl's attack, the remaining warships spread out and deployed sensors to detect the rest of the scattered mines, which they removed with a flurry of precisely targeted shots.
"Vergyl--break off," Vor transmitted. "All other ballistas, regroup. We've had our fun." He leaned back in his command chair with a satisfied sigh. "Deploy four fast kindjal scouts to assess how much damage we inflicted."
He opened a private comline, and the image of the Ginaz mercenary appeared on the screen. "Noret, you and your men will receive medals for this." When not in combat camouflage for minelaying and other clandestine operations, the mercenaries wore gold-and-crimson uniforms of their own design, rather than green and crimson. Gold represented the substantial sums they received, and crimson, the blood they spilled.
Behind them, the damaged Omnius battlegroup continued on their orbital patrol, undeterred, like sharks looking for food. Already, swarms of robots had emerged from the ships and crawled like lice over the outer hulls, effecting massive repairs.
"It doesn't look like we even ruffled their feathers!" Vergyl said as his ballista rejoined the Jihad group. He sounded disappointed, then added, "They're still not getting IV Anbus from us."
"Damned right they're not. We've let them get away with enough in the past few years. Time for us to turn this war around."
Vor wondered why the robot forces were waiting so long without escalating this particular conflict. It wasn't part of their usual pattern. As the son of the Titan Agamemnon, he--more than any other human in the Jihad--understood the way computer minds worked. Now, as he thought about it, Vor grew highly suspicious.
Am I the one who's grown too predictable? What if the robots only want me to believe they won't change tactics?
Frowning, he opened the comline to the vanguard ballista. "Vergyl? I've got a bad feeling about this. Disperse scout ships to survey and map the land masses below. I think the machines are up to something."
Vergyl didn't question Vor's intuition. "We'll take a careful look down there, Primero. If they've flipped over so much as a rock, we'll find it."
"I suspect more than that. They're trying to be tricky--in their ownpredictable way." Vor glanced at the chronometer, knowing he had hours before he needed to worry about the next orbital encounter. He felt restless. "In the meantime, Vergyl, you're in command of the battlegroup. I'll shuttle down to see if your brother has managed to talk any sense into our Zenshiite friends."