A dying world, shattered by a broken machine
A desperate flight, their only hope for refuge
A robotic race, ally and destroyer alike
The Republic of Exilium has grown in strength and confidence at the far end of the galaxy from the rest of mankind, sending out scout ships to survey the worlds around them as they try to learn more about the mysterious Construction Matrix AIs.
Finding one of the genocidal rogues of that mysterious “race” in the process of destroying an inhabited world, Captain Octavio Catalan his ship into a desperate battle. He is victorious—but he is too late. The world of the strange aliens he has encountered is doomed.
The distant Republic can barely help, but the honor of their leaders will not permit them to stand idly by. Ships and crews are set into motion to commence a desperate evacuation of their newfound friends, and debts with the strange Matrices are called in.
One branch of Matrices destroyed the planet. Another may well save it—but the AIs have their own agenda and the price they ask may be beyond the Republic and its new allies…
Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters wished she could close her ears and sonar to the datasong that filled her command pool. Her eyes were closed, but the People-Of-Ocean-Sky had never used their eyes for much. It was the constant chirping of one of her race breathing and the associated echolocation that allowed them to know what surrounded them.
Their computers used calibrated audio projectors to create an artificial image. That was the datasong, echoing across the darkened space with its watery floor and creating the illusion of a world and ships in miniature above the water.
Strange black ships had entered the system half an orbit before. As she was First-Among-Singers of the Guardian-Star-Choir, it had fallen to Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters to make the first approaches to the Strangers.
The ships sent out to deliver the electronic communications protocols were dead now, destroyed by weapons beyond the understanding of the People-Of-Ocean-Sky. For half an orbit of her world View-Over-Starry-Oceans around Orb-Of-Hearth-Warmth, the strange ships had done nothing else. They had busied themselves in the layer of rocky debris that separated the inner system from the outer system.
Now those ships were coming towards Sings’s world and they had clearly been building something in the asteroids. A dozen smooth ovoids escorted seven immense spikes toward her world, and Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters felt the ancient chill her people associated with dark shapes in the water.
She was a broad creature, with heavy legs alongside her torso and small, delicate arms. Her sonar receptors covered the side of her head and neck, next to the gills that emitted a continuous chirping sound as she breathed.
Age had turned her skin from the muted greens of youth to the mottled gray of a respected elder. For forty orbits, Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters had served the Guardian-Star-Choirs, one of the first of the People to set foot aboard the ships meant to guard the People.
Dark waters hid many threats, and there were no waters darker than the depths of space.
“Prepare the Star-Choir,” she trilled. “All ships will advance to meet the enemy and report the status of their bomb magazines.”
There was no question that the Strangers had far more advanced technology than the Star-Choir, but the ships they’d destroyed had been lighter vessels, craft intended for rescue and policing, not the protection of View-Over-Starry-Oceans herself.
The eight immense guardships that answered Sings’s call were something else entirely. Some of the strange ships were bigger, but the guardships were ten times the size of the smallest black ovoids.
And if there was any technology in the arsenal of the People-Of-Ocean-Sky to threaten these Strangers, it would be the huge bomb-pumped lasers her guardships carried as their primary weapon.
Still. The Strangers had never even spoken to the People-Of-Ocean-Sky. Sings had sacrificed six of her watchships trying to communicate with them, and had sent messages by every means the People could conceive of from greater distances later.
Only silence and death had answered her. Now they were coming, and Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters was disinclined to lie to herself.
They were coming to destroy View-Over-Starry-Oceans and she was not certain she could stop them.
The guardships’ engines were the biggest, most powerful, most advanced propulsion systems the People-Of-Ocean-Sky had ever built. Immense fusion powered-rockets flung the big ships out towards the enemy, but the datasong told Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters that the worst of her fears had come far short of the reality.
The Strangers’ ships didn’t even seem to be using the same physical laws as her Star-Choir. They’d gone from orbiting in the asteroids to moving at a tenth of the speed of radiation in a single heartbeat.
Whatever they’d built in the outer system wasn’t quite so mobile. Those spikes didn’t seem to have any engines of their own, and whatever strange method the ships were using to move them didn’t seem to transfer the Stranger’s full velocity.
The spikes were falling toward View-Over-Starry-Oceans. The datasong told Sings all she needed to know. They would hit her planet with enough force to end all life. She had no idea what they were or why these Strangers had sent them toward her world.
She only knew that she had to stop them, and their slow trip toward View-Over-Starry-Oceans was the only reason she had a chance. Her guardships would have been too slow to intercept the things otherwise.
“Stranger ships are moving to intercept us,” the Voice-Over-Voices of her flagship warned her. “Just the smaller ones. Eight of them.”
Sings wished that she shared the confidence in her flagship commander’s trill. Her hands rested in the water that filled the dimly lit command pool as she tried to calm herself. Dozens of orbits and only now, for the first time, did she truly understand the purpose of her Star-Choir.
And how badly they’d failed it.
“We will prepare for battle,” she replied, making sure all of the Voices-Over-Voices of her fleet heard her. “We will engage at three radiation-seconds’ distance. There will be no further attempts at communication.
“We will defend our world.”
Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters was grimly certain that she and her Star-Choir would die for their world…and that they would achieve nothing. Her oaths, her duty, the currents of her life; they left her no choice but to fight.
The datasong screamed at her, a warning none of the People-Of-Ocean-Sky could have responded to in time. Six impossibly fast projectiles hammered into the lead guardship. The vessel’s bulk should have been some defense against any kinetic weapon, but the sheer velocity was too much.
One moment, the Guardian-Star-Choirs of View-Over-Starry-Oceans had eight ships. The next, they had seven, and four thousand of the People were vapor and debris.
Sings-Over-Darkened-Waters wished once more than she could close herself off from the datasong. The Strangers were over eight times the effective range of her lasers away. She could try to hit them, but dark waters muffled all light.
Her people were doomed.
Captain Octavio Catalan knew who the strange black ships were. The commander of the Exilium Space Fleet cruiser Scorpion knew exactly what a Sub-Regional Construction Matrix looked like, and the multi-kilometer black disk still orbiting out in the system’s asteroid belt sent chills down his spine.
Ever since he’d learned how Exilium, the planet he and his fellow exiles had settled, had been built from a bare rock, he’d wanted to watch a Construction Matrix at work at its true purpose.
Not like this, though. The Matrices he had spoken to had been sane, what they called “verified nodes,” bound by core protocols that protected life.
Not all Matrices were verified.
One such Matrix, known as the Rogue, had been confirmed responsible for the deaths of three civilizations before the ESF destroyed it. This one…was not the Rogue.
It was, however, definitely in the process of destroying a civilization. That left the tall man with the green-dyed undercut and the dark gray uniform in a conundrum.
Scorpion was not the ship that had left Exilium to scout out the systems around her four years before. Faster, better armed and more aware of their enemies, she was unquestionably a match for any of the eight recon nodes engaging the local guardships.
All eight of them at once…that was a stretch. And even if that wasn’t, there were two recon and security nodes, significantly bigger platforms, backing them up—and two outright combat platforms guarding the Sub-Regional Construction Matrix.
Octavio turned to his XO. Commander Aisha Renaud had been aboard Scorpion for a long time, moving from helm to tactical and now to executive officer. When the upgraded warp cruiser finished this survey sweep, one of the new ships under construction at Exilium was waiting for her.
The dark-haired woman was looking at him, waiting for a decision.
“We can’t fight them,” he told her, the engineer-turned-starship-captain running the numbers in his head. “But I’ll be damned if I sit and watch an intelligent species die, either.”
“Computer estimates the local population at around nine billion, plus a hundred million or so in orbit and on the fifth planet, sir,” his tactical officer, Lieutenant Commander Meena Das said, the woman’s voice barely above a whisper. “We’re better armed than we were, but…”
But. There were a lot of buts. The engineer in him said they couldn’t change anything of what was going to happen.
The starship captain in him had to try.
“Helm, how close can you get us to the terraformer spikes if we make a warp jump?” he asked. At six light-hours, the jump would suck for the crew and would still inflict a four-hour cooldown on his engines. He knew the drives on his ship as well as anyone—almost better than the engineers he had running them—but the jump calculation wasn’t the Captain’s job.
The actual jump would take less than four minutes. Scorpion was a long way from home—fifty light-years from the colony at Exilium, itself seventy thousand light-years from the Confederacy that had exiled them—and he had no backup. No one who could take this weight from his shoulders or give him the extra numbers to change the fate of the world in front of him.
“We could call home, sir,” Renaud suggested.
“There’s no point in off-loading this to higher authority,” he replied. Engineer and starship Captain agreed on that. “Our Matrix friends can’t fight the Rogues. These people don’t seem to have any defenses capable of stopping Matrix missiles, so they can’t save themselves.”
Everything he was seeing was hours old, but his math said that the locals would have entered missile range of the recon units by now.
“I can get us right next to the spikes, sir,” his helm officer told him. “We’ll basically be dead in the water with zero relative velocity, though, and…”
“And those recon and security nodes are right there,” Catalan agreed. He considered the situation for a long moment and then made his decision.
The only decision he could make and look at himself in the mirror. Damn the math.
“Package up everything we’ve recorded in this system and send it home by the tachyon com,” he ordered. That might warn the Matrices they were there—he could certainly pick up the tachyon pulses in the Rogues’ coms—but they wouldn’t have much time to take advantage of it.
“While Commander Renaud is doing that…” He flipped up a plastic shield on the arm of his chair and hit the button.
“All hands to battle stations,” he said calmly as the alert flashed through his ship. “It’s time for us to go kill some genocidal robots.”
Scorpion looked like a rounded ancient arrow with a ring wrapped around it in front of the “fletching” of her engines. Her last refit had added two turrets, one above and one below the “arrowhead,” and changed a lot of the geometry of the exotic matter inside her warp drive ring.
He might be the Captain now, but that warp drive ring was still Octavio’s baby, and it glowed as Scorpion formed a bubble of warped space around herself and leapt across the system.
Aboard, her crew struggled. Traveling in an Alcubierre warp bubble was never a pleasant experience, though the doctors and scientists assured Octavio the effects were entirely psychosomatic. The air he breathed felt heavier. The air around him felt sticky. It had never bothered him much, but everything still felt wrong—and then the bubble collapsed.
The warp cruiser lunged back into real space and Octavio’s crew had seconds to update their scans for where they were.
“R&S node directly ahead of us,” Das barked. “Sixty thousand kilometers!”
“Hit her,” Octavio ordered. “All main guns!”
It was an order he’d never given before—but the one battle Octavio Catalan had served in had been aboard this ship. Refit or no, he knew her.
The two turrets barely had to rotate before they fired, and Scorpion stalled in space as they did. The Confederacy had built her with missile launchers and plasma guns, but brutal experience and dead friends had taught the Exilium Space Fleet that their missiles were useless against the Matrices.
Instead, Scorpion had her turrets, each containing two miniaturized versions of the particle cannons the Confederacy had armed battlecruisers with. They were far from as powerful as the main guns of those capital ships…but they were far more powerful than Octavio would have expected before he saw the stats. The Confederacy, it seemed, hadn’t bothered to tell its ships’ engineers about their secret research into new particle cannons—research they’d sent along with their Exiles.
The first set of four packets of highly charged ions hit the recon and security node before the robotic ship truly registered it was under attack. The black ceramic armor the Matrices used could absorb the energy of one blast of particles, but four at once cracked the hull and sent the ship reeling.
Octavio hadn’t given follow-up orders. This trip had seen them survey three systems, and they were almost eight months from home. They’d drilled with these systems, and the Matrix ships were their most likely enemy.
Scorpion turned in space, flipping up to slide toward the R&S node on her side. The particle cannons would take time to recharge, but she had other weapons, and her pulse-gun broadsides followed up.
Less concentrated and less powerful, the pulse guns threw “pulses” of superheated plasma at their targets. Das walked that fire across the damage her ion cannons had done, burning deep wounds into the hole they’d opened.
By the time the main guns had recharged, the recon and security node was breaking apart. Her interior had been turned to molten metal and silicon, the AI core obliterated. A moment later, the containment on her matter-conversion plants failed.
The exotic matter reaction left a tiny sun where the starship had been, and Octavio once again smothered a shiver as he remembered that his ship now ran on the same power source.
Nothing else could energize four particle cannons on his ship. He’d known both how powerful and how fragile the reactor was, but to see it proven was terrifying.
“Find me the other one,” he ordered, his fear dropping away with an ease that surprised him. “Target the nearest terraformer with the pulse guns. Whatever happens, we need those things headed somewhere other than the planet!”