AI War

10526 words

Premise: humans could beat an AI enemy in a war.

1: Faraday (Avalance)

Even after throwing her thousandth electro-pulse grenade at the enemy, Corporal Sheray had still never quite got past her anxiety during those few seconds after she pulled the pin but kept the grenade gripped in her hand, letting it cook to reduce the time the enemy had to react to the incoming projectile. Through small digital periscope attached to her helmet, Sheray kept her eye on the enemy position up the street from the temporary defensive barricade that she and the new grunt recruit were holed up in. The remains of old human residential buildings walled them in on two sides.

Despite her nerves, and perhaps partly due to the assistance of the onboard combat calc, Sheray timed the grenade well. It sailed through the air in a low arc, giving the enemy point defences fewer chances to strike it with a deflection round, and then air-burst a couple of metres above the enemy position. The mid-air detonation increased the range and effectiveness of the electromagnetic pulse, and Sheray felt it course outside her skin in the Faraday mesh layer of her integrated full-body armour system. Two of the smaller enemy air drones dropped to the street and shattered themselves on the hard service, and the rate of fire from the enemy position lessened a little, if only momentarily.

“Why don’t they have Faraday armour, too?” the new grunt recruit, Private Mikol, yelled into her helmet headset.

Mikol was supposed to be a technological systems specialist, but fresh out of school she had not yet proved useful in the real world of combat with the Learning Machines.

There was no need to yell, but in any case the loud volume was normalised by the battle link audio-video feed system between the officer and her report. Sheray tilted her head down and back for a moment to look at Mikol through the video visor of her helmet. They told the loyalist recruits there were no stupid questions, but of course there were.

“Why don’t you look that up on your suit’s knowledge base?” Sheray replied.

The system would already be delivering this information to Mikol visually after interpreting her spoken question, but it didn’t hurt to reiterate this point. No need to distract your comrades by piping your every thought to them over the battle link. The two of them had been separated from the rest of their loyalist platoon for several hours and hundreds of rounds of combat against the Learning Machines, and Mikol had been treating it like a one-on-one supervision session.

Their entourage of independent support bots clambered over the street and the barricade. On the cluttered ground, amongst spent casings and burnt residue, one unit lay low on its stout little legs, balancing its cargo of a five kiloton tactical nuclear warhead. The nuclear bulldog.

The bulldog was encased in several layers of armour and contained an unchangeable countdown timer with just under thirteen hours left on the clock. Their platoon should have infiltrated a Learning Machine command and control centre hours ago and left the four-legged nuke to hide itself deep inside, but their main plan and all of their multiple backup plans had failed. Sheray now hoped to get the device as close as possible to the target, flee and hope for the best. What else could be done? The bulldog was going to denote itself at the appointed hour no matter what happened before then.

The coil-gatlings mounted on the shoulders of Sheray’s detected a visible patch of enemy exoskeleton a few hundred metres away and automatically opened fire. The guns buzzed with joy as they depleted a few grams from the suit’s malleable mass magazine. The MMM supply lines shuddered lightly across Sheray’s back as they kept the hungry weapon system fed with ammunition. The suit’s micro-tokamak mobile fusion generator cranked up its energy production a little to begin the slow process of synthesising replacement malleable mass via atmospheric elemental extraction.

After annihilating whatever ground crawling system it was that they had spotted, the shoulder mounted coil-gatlings returned their attention to the airborne enemy drones, taking single statistical pot shots to conserve ammunition on targets they had a lower likelihood of scoring a hit on. The enemy drones dodged and somersaulted like they were made for it, which they were. Salvos of enemy fire burst against the barricade, punching holes and shaking the ground.

Mikol stayed cowering further down inside the barricade. Mikol was fresh out of boot camp, and perhaps Corporal Sheray was being a little harsh with her. A little unnecessary conversation might build her report’s confidence and improve camaraderie. Was that another line from the training manuals masquerading as Sheray’s own thoughts? The war had been the basis of her life for so long that Sheray couldn’t tell any more.

“The Learning Machines do have Faraday mesh layers,” Sheray told Mikol. “The LM have pretty much everything we have, and it doesn’t take them long to copy our innovations.”

More enemy small arms fire whizzed overhead, including some bassier sounds that suggested miniature explosive warheads in addition to the inert mass rounds.

“Then why do we bother electro-pulsing them?” Mikol asked. Their suits cancelled out most of the combat cacophony and the shake in Mikol’s voice was clear in the relative quiet. She was trying to distract herself from the stress of life-threatening combat against intelligent machines that had no qualms about killing humans.

Sheray instructed her shoulder mounted weapons to displace and set up as independent turrets on the barricade. They detached from her suit and scampered up the emplacement, trailing ammunition feed lines behind them, and joined the fuller sized point defence bots that were already manning the top of the barricade. The various sizes of weapon system coordinated a symphony of gunfire, disintegrating the outer layers of the enemy position. One of the point defence bots took a 20 mm shell to its core and disintegrated in a shower of hot smoke and small fragments.

Sheray used her neural lace to visually select the coordinates of the enemy position and instruct their airborne drones to make simultaneous precision airstrikes on it. With enough micro bombs falling out of the sky, the enemy’s point defences might be overwhelmed.

“We keep attacking them with electromagnetic ordnance in order to force them to waste resources on countermeasures,” Sheray explained over the battle link. “And in turn they keep fielding the occasional unprotected unit to force us to waste resources on the electromagnetic ordnance in the first place.”

Didn’t they still teach the recruits the fundamentals during training? Forces and resources. Everything came back to forcing the opponent’s choices, and wasting their resources.

“So neither side can stop deploying every tactic they ever invented,” said Mikol.

Maybe it helped this recruit’s nerves to talk about abstracts during combat. They were still separated from the rest of their platoon, after all.

The drones delivered the airstrike that Sheray had commanded a few moments before. A deluge of self-guiding bomblets deployed from their parent bombs a few hundred metres above and plummeted on to the same twenty square centimetres of the target. The enemy close-in weapon systems gunned down at least eighty percent of the incoming bomblets, and were then blasted to pieces by the remaining that twenty or so percent that made it through. A couple of surviving enemy Machines sprinted away on their many-jointed legs, leaping over street obstacles and then scaling the side of a half destroyed building further away. They vaulted through holes in the wall and disappeared. No doubt their internal

Sheray indicated to Mikol to move up, and their various independent support systems moved with them, the lighter ones scurrying on agile legs and the heavier ones rolling on reinforced tracks. Tank bots held up a solid armour plate in front of the two human soldiers, and airborne drones unveiled a hanging sheet of flexible mesh to catch and disable rocket propelled grenade type weapons. The latter technology was referred to, with fondness and appreciation, as “air mail”.

The squat tactical nuke carrier waddled alongside the two human soldiers like a bulldog. Its countdown timer would soon cross the twelve hour threshold, and they had several kilometres of ruined city to cover to reach the location identified as a Learning Machine command and control centre.

This layered defence moved forwards in front of Sheray and Mikol as they pushed up the street, but either no enemy was present to try and fire upon it, or the enemy that was present decided not to waste resources until they could achieve a more favourable firing position. The LM always learned from their mistakes, and from their successes.

“Enemy radio comms detected. I’ll activate radio jamming,” said Mikol, even though Sheray could see what functionality the recruit’s suit had enabled on her own heads-up display.

“Radio jamming is constantly active,” said Sheray, and then pre-empted the next question. “It jams all frequencies in a random pattern, avoiding our own cycling frequencies in a pre-shared key that describes which radio frequency to use at each nanosecond. That’s why every suit needs its own atomic clock.”

“But the ML can just block all potential radio frequencies simultaneously and switch to line-of-sight laser networking,” said Mikol. “I’ll deploy laser-blocking smoke into that building, at least.”

The multi-function missile launch device on the back of Mikol’s suit hurled out the smoke grenades. They were compact, with the smoke generating chemicals packed at high density in a small volume. The grenades zipped into multiple layers of the building where the surviving enemy Machines had retreated, where they bounced around unleashing voluminous clouds of opaque white smoke. Lightning arced and crackled in the smoke clouds; the smoke contained conductive particulates for good measure.

“They’ll be down to physical comms lines now,” said Sheray.

“Which must be faraday shielded otherwise we’d just electropulse them?” Mikol said. The shake in her voice had got worse.

“Yes, but not otherwise, always,” said Sheray. “We always have to force them to waste their resources.”

The two of them duly hurled out another set of EMP grenades, and let the pulse backwash slip over their suits. The two soldiers stayed low and ran over to the building with their entourage of bots and drones. Two reconnaissance spiders rushed inside to begin scouting for their quarry, pushing small holes into the thick smoke that now filled the building.

“I guess the LM don’t get evacuated from combat zones,” said Mikol, eyeing the skies which crackled with light and shook with noise as the war between humans and the Learning Machines continued in the city districts around them.

“Sometimes they do,” said Sheray. “Our theory is that the occasional LM unit spontaneously develops a sense of trust, betrayal, duty, whatever it is that was adaptive for combat for us for the same reasons. The centralised control that they have can’t then abandon units like that and risk creating rebels. So they get evacced sometimes. Anything we can do they can do sometimes.”

The sound of high audibility artillery rounds grew in volume from a distant buzz to an oncoming roar. Sheray and Mikol flattened themselves against the ground an instant before cluster artillery shells exploded a dozen metres away from them. The cacophony forced their microphone arrays to shut off, and the multiple blasts shredded more of the street into fragments.

The dust and debris settled and their microphones re-emerged from their protective alcoves. Mikol whimpered and curled into a fetal position.

“We’re not going to survive this mission, are we?” Mikol asked.

Sheray scanned the visible area for movement.

“I promise I will get you back from this mission alive,” said Sheray.

Mikol got back to her feet.

Communications with the rest of the platoon were still unavailable. The mesh network between the suits of the two soldiers and their associated automatons was functional, but unable to route any signals through the atmosphere or via satellites. The Learning Machines had deployed enough anti-comms measures to prevent linking up with anyone further afield than a kilometre or so.

The reconnaissance spiders re-emerged from the building, trailing the remains of the smoke, and lasered their reports in a direct line-of-sight transmission to Shera’s suit. The fleeing LM units were not detectable, but evidence of their passing through did confirm that they had entered the building. Estimated enemy firepower had sunk down into the lowest possible category.

The servos in the human soldiers’ suits buzzed as they assisted their hosts with the brief climb up into the building. As they cleared the rim of the cratered wall, their intelligence gathering apparatus sent out lasers, radar pings, echolocation tones and a flood of visual light. The smoke they had deployed earlier had mostly dissipated through the ragged structure of the building.

Detection systems covering a broad section of the electromagnetic spectrum collaborated with microphone arrays to interpret the returning results. The results confirmed that their LM quarry was not immediately present, but suggested a route through the guts of the building. The two human soldiers began the hunt for their Learning Machine enemies.

“Why didn’t they stay in position to fight to the death?” Mikol asked as they stepped over rubble. “Don’t they die for the hive like termites or ants?”

“The hive-mindedness varies,” said Sheray. “The LM experiment and iterate with every batch of units, and with every unit within a batch.”

They let some of their bots scan a corridor ahead before committing to it themselves.

“And regardless of how independent an individual unit is,” Sheray continued, “It still represents an investment of resources for the LM. Often they decide it’s better to regroup and fight another time than to waste resources on a fight they predict they will lose.”

They followed the corridor, allocating the doorways between them to point their sensors and weapon systems into. Half-way down the corridor, Mikol’s suit detected movement through a doorway and automatically punched two 40 mm fragmentation rounds into the offending room, showering it with shrapnel and concrete debris. The dust settled and the suit re-assessed the incident as a false alarm.

“Do you want to dial back the hazard sensitivity a little?” Sheray asked her report. “No need for the hair trigger with what we’re up against right now. Your armour can take a beating before it’s an issue. We don’t carry many of those 40 mm frag rounds.”

“Understood,” said Mikol.

A couple of launchers folded back into the shoulder packs of Mikol’s suit, and the remaining ones continued roving around looking for something else to obliterate.

The far edge of the building opened up and delivered them on to an open plaza. Before the sensor systems finished scanning the larger space, enemy fire rang out and the ground around them erupted in debris. Prone even before the first shots landed next to them, Sheray and Mikol sprint-crawled to the nearest cover, activating smoke and every jamming device they had on them. The remains of a heavy infantry fighting vehicle gave them temporary protection from the incoming small-arms fire, but there was only momentary respite before the enemy airborne drones arrived overheard and began dumping bombs down on their position.

Sheray instructed all point defence fire upwards and fired a dual-purpose fragmentation camera flare up and over in a steep arc in the direction the enemy fire was coming from. Shattered enemy drones and shrapnel from prematurely detonated bombs rained down around the two human soldiers.

A glowing red hole burst through the shell of the infantry fighting vehicle they were sheltering behind, leaving molten steel dripping down the side. The flying camera flare identified the cause immediately. Enemy high velocity munitions. A schematic of a mobile rail-gun artillery pieces rotated in Sheray’s heads-up display. Evade. Seek new shelter. The camera flare air burst over the enemy rail-gun in a last ditch effort to disable it, but the blast of fragments made scant impact on the armoured artillery piece.

Another rail-gun round punched glowing holes through the vehicle and the building across from it. Sheray tapped Mikol and they dashed for sturdier cover in the form of a hollowed out bunker two hundred metres away. Their weapon systems launched smoke bursts all over their path in advance and peppered the enemy drones with a hail of malleable mass rounds to deter their pursuit.

Twenty metres remaining. More enemy fire tore swirling trails out of their smoke wall.

Sheray shrieked as her lower left leg was clipped by a rail-gun round. The impact disintegrated her limb up to the knee and sent her tumbling on to her back in a high speed somersault. Mikol grabbed her suit by its drag handles and hauled her the rest of the distance to the bunker. As her heavy suit ploughed a furrow in the ground, Sheray feebly raised her arms to allow the weapon systems on them to target more of the enemy drones. Two more of them were blatted from the sky, and then Sheray passed out from pain and the automatically administered morphine that followed it.

The suit took this chance to cauterize the stump below her knee. Sterile sealant rushed into the wound and a temporary protective mesh spread and set over the hole in the armour. The tips of rigid support struts began to form in the suit shell above the wound, 3D printing in place to form the structure of a workable prosthetic replacement for the lost lower leg. It would take some time and likely deplete all of the malleable mass reserves that could otherwise have been used as general purpose ammunition.

The suit was an effective but harsh nurse, and it followed the small dose of morphine with subsequent doses of caffeine and amphetamine. Sheray’s eyes widened and she focused on Mikol’s face plate hovering above hers. The sky behind Mikol’s helmet was clear of enemy drones, at least.

“We took down most of the enemy drones, but that rail-gun is still firing,” said Mikol.

A round slammed into the bunker, but didn’t penetrate. Sheray’s suit identified a super heavy plate embedded in the front wall of the bunker that was still mostly intact even if the rest of the bunker was not.

The two soldiers benefited from a brief respite from enemy fire if not from noise. The mobile fusion generator in Sheray’s suit supplied energy for the planned treatment of the catastrophic loss of her lower leg and the prosthetic replacement.

“Disable your weapon systems and do not move,” a stranger’s voice, a human male, said, using old-fashioned amplified sound waves. “We have you targeted with more than enough firepower to stop you in milliseconds if we have to.”

Sheray’s suit went into a frantic overdrive assessing this new enemy that had evaded detection and got far closer than it should have. The suit concluded its assessment quickly.

Threat credible. Compliance recommended.

Sheray and Mikol accepted the white flag compliance procedure offered by their suits. The enemy soldier must have been satisfied with the compliance protocol, as he did not unleash the promised response for non-compliance.

“We are formally capturing you as war prisoners of the People’s LM Ultras,” said one enemy soldier from a group of several that emerged.

Pro-LM human rebels. Their suits used advanced cloaking and deception features, probably acquired with assistance from the LM. Sheray let her head drop to the ground. At least they wouldn’t be executed on the spot.

Sheray’s bot entourage scarpered away at speed. The rebel soldiers raised their close range weapons and picked off the majority of them, sinking slug rounds into their armoured shells to put them down on the spot. The nuke dog, low and broad, slunk behind the heavy architectural armour plate in the bunker and cut off its comm links. Sheray could only assume that it would continue making its own way, slow and steady, in the direction of the LM command and control centre. Without the support of the human soldiers and the other bots, its chances had to be slim. The LM would identify and disable it as soon as it appeared on any of their many sensor systems.

If the rebels took them as prisoners of war, then Sheray predicted they would confiscate all of their offensive systems but leave them with their medical and nutritional modules. As the rebel soldiers readied them for evac, she took a gamble based on this prediction.

Prepare maximum possible quantity of sodium azide and store in the medical synthesis module, Sheray instructed her suit via neural lace. Mislabel it on disk with weak encryption as some innocuous drug compound of your choice.

The medical synthesis and storage module that sat inside the suit just above her kidneys vibrated a little as it executed this task without querying it.

With that gamble committed, Sheray overrode the protests of her suit’s medical facilities and administered an extra shot of morphine while they waited for the rebel evacuation drop ship to arrive. Her blood thudded with the heady cocktail of drugs circulating through it. The horizon was already humming with the rumble of its heavy engines.

Mikol lay still and silent. Sheray checked her vitals remotely. Possible morphine intoxication. Great minds think alike.

The rebel drop ship hummed and throbbed as it raced low over the rooftops of the burnt out city. Clouds of smoke rushed past the open side doors and caught on Sheray’s confined stretcher. Perhaps a loyalist surface-to-air missile would spot the craft swooping over the city and blast it out of the sky before they arrived at the rebel holding facility.

The Pro-LM human rebels left them in their suits for medical and life support, but confiscated all offensive and defensive systems. Their suits had a comply-and-confirm module that assisted with this, letting their captors disarm them while also relying on their own medical support systems to provide care to the prisoners of war. All their non-medical and non-nutritional onboard supplies had been taken away.

Exhausted, Sheray watched with indifference as her suit used its remaining medical and maintenance facilities to build out the prosthetic replacement of the lower leg that had been destroyed by the enemy rail gun artillery. Having established a framework, the suit was assembling joints and actuators inside it with a nano-lathe. Sheray had wondered when this point in her life as a soldier would come, and found herself too tired to feel much emotion about it now that it had arrived. The prosthetic was likely to be at least as agile as her original, and certainly more durable. She recalled fellow soldiers who had opted for prosthetic replacement of various limbs, joints and fingers before they ever deployed against the LM.

Sheray and Mikol were locked in a small cell on a middle floor of a larger building. The building must have been pretty ancient, as the insides of the cell were covered only in a crumbling layer of white plaster, exposing old-fashioned concrete behind. The cell door was heavy but held shut with a mechanical lock. The pro-LM rebels must have occupied the building recently, or even found it on the way back from their capture of the new prisoners. Sheray saw no sign of other occupants, imprisoned or otherwise.

Sheray slumped on the cell floor with her legs out straight and her back leaning against the wall. Her suit continued to work on the prosthetic lower leg, and reported that there were sufficient resources remaining to have it usable within a few hours.

“I don’t see how we make it out of this alive,” said Mikol, her voice faint.

“If they didn’t intend on keeping us alive, they would have killed us on the spot,” said Sheray.

“So they have a purpose for us,” said Mikol, making the inevitable mental connection. “Do I want to know what that is likely to be?”

“I would say,” said Sheray, “Either extract information about loyalist plans and positions from us, or convert us to join the pro-LM rebel cause. Or both.”

“‘Extract information’ and ‘convert’ are quite the pair of euphemisms,” said Mikol.

“Get some rest,” said Sheray.

They allowed their suits to continue looking after them until the reserves of basic human care supplies dwindled to nought. It would take more time than they had to synthesise more, and they would run out of trace elements in any case. Various signals, calls and shouts failed to summon their human captors, and no automated system in the cell responded either. Were they being left to starve out? Perhaps their offensive systems had been a valuable enough bounty and now the rebels had abandoned them here.

Sheray’s suit had obediently produced 250 grams of sodium azide and formed it into a usable putty. She shifted herself to the door in an awkward shuffle to avoid placing weight on the prosthetic while it formed. The lock system of the cell door exposed a set of small holes. With the glove of the suit placed against the lock, Sheray instructed the suit to route the sodium azide putty to the glove’s extrusion port and force it through into the lock system. The substance wormed its way and filled the cavities inside the lock, leaving a tiny head of putty protruding inside the cell.

“What are you doing?” Mikol asked, backing away into the far corner of the cell.

If the rebels had set up any monitoring in the cell, they would know what was about to happen and already be on their way to prevent it. But they would be out of time.

Sheray removed the glove and clamped it to the cell door lock with the index finger levered back like a striker, and joined Mikol in the corner. She took a moment to regain her breath and confirm that the construction of the prosthetic lower leg was still progressing without issue. With a bit of luck the shock wave from the impending explosion would not damage it.

“Go into brace position,” said Sheray.

She shielded her un-gloved hand behind her body, and instructed the glove clamped on to the door to slam the index finger onto the protruded putty detonator like a percussion cap hammer. The explosion was sharp and snappy, hollowing out the lock and inner door cavity which took the brunt of the force.

“Kick the door out,” said Sheray from the floor.

Without wasting time Mikol jumped up and kicked the door. It took a couple more shoves with her body behind them and the assistance of her suit to dislodge it completely.

Sheray stood up unsteadily and attempted an experimental hobble with most of her weight on the healthy leg. The prosthetic seemed to hold its own despite being unfinished, and she let it take more weight as she walked to the door. The glove that had acted as a detonator was temporarily paralysed but otherwise intact.

Mikol joined her in the corridor outside. Still empty. If they encountered rebel soldiers in the building, they were out of options for weapons with which to defend themselves. Even the explosive sodium azide putty had been expended on blowing out the cell door.

“We’ll have to use our suits themselves as weapons,” said Mikol as they edged down the corridor with extreme caution.

Sheray stopped and looked at her junior comrade.

“If we encounter enemies, our only choice will be to ram into them as fast as possible with our suits before we take irrecoverable damage,” said Mikol. “That was in basic training.”

Must have been a new combat protocol. It might work if they could react faster than the enemy, but Sheray’s half-finished prosthetic leg would only be a hindrance for that tactic.

They stuck close by each other as they followed the corridor and found a stairwell. Applying the rigidity of her suit for leverage, Mikol was able to force access to the stairs, and began hurrying down them.

Shots and shouts rang out. Projectiles struck the ceiling and stairs beside them, spreading debris and revealing the direction of the shooters. Down. Sheray chanced a glance down through the gap column in the centre of the stair case. A round glanced off the side of her helmet but delivered only a minority of its energy. She snapped her head back.

“We might have to try your trick in modified form,” Sheray said to Mikol. “Are your fall actuators still functional?”

“Yes,” said Mikol, eyeing the drop down the stairs.

Sheray jumped first and Mikol jumped a moment after. With the weight of their suits they formed two small gravity projectiles, rushing down the gap between the stairs and smashing off bits of architecture and rebel soldiers as they flew past.

“Slow for impact,” Sheray blurted.

The suits extended all four limbs at precise angles to apply friction against the remaining staircase sides, cutting shallow grooves into the concrete and expending their gravitational energy.

More shots echoed in the stairwell. Mikol cried out and fell.

Non-critical tissue injury in left shoulder.

The suits analysed and communicated the medical assessment of the injury. Mikol rose to her feet as her suit applied anaesthetic, extracted the projectile, sealed and disinfected the wound channel and filled the hole in the suit shell with hardening foam.

Sheray and Mikol burst through the first available door on the ground floor, which opened for them but locked shut behind them with a loud clunk. They were in some kind of storage space, surrounded by shelves of crates under a low ceiling.

“We’re trapped again,” said Mikol, with a hand on her wounded shoulder.

Rebel soldiers poured down the stairs outside the door.

“We’re fucked,” said Mikol.

Sheray moved around the small space, more confident in the prosthetic lower leg with every step. The closer integration with the rest of the suit, along with more direct application of the suit’s power assistance, imbued the new limb with a comforting sense of extra strength.

Their suits identified only solid walls around them, and reminded them of their lack of offensive systems. The only option would be to attempt a direct smash-through, but it was not a recommended option and was labelled with a high risk of excessive damage.

As the two loyalist soldiers deliberated in a cycle of anxiety, the floor shook and scraps of tile fell aside as some kind of burrowing drill bit pushed up from below. Sheray and Mikol pressed themselves to the side of the room. A procession of small bots emerged through the hole in the floor and got straight to work burning a an exit hole through the wall, and then lowered the detached piece to the floor with minimal noise.

Malleable mass rounds struck the startled soldiers in the stairwell outside, and they crumpled down as arcs of their blood and tissue decorated the wall and ceiling behind them. Their rebel comrades backed up on the stairs to call for reinforcements, and the unidentified bots from the ground continued to chase them with suppressive fire.

Two of the machines that had emerged from the earth remained in the storage room, pointing sensors at Sheray and Mikol. They weren’t human-designed. Definitely LM. Sheray waited for them to open fire, but they remained motionless, observing.

Who are you? Mikol transmitted to them via UHF radio waves with digital encoding.

We are pro-human ex-LM rebels, C Company, Prisoner Rescue Specialists, came the reply. I am the primary contact bot, Dime6.

Pro-LM human rebels and pro-human ex-LM rebels, all in one day.

We have a tactical nuclear device inbound to a suspected LM command and control centre, Sheray transmitted. We’ve, err, lost the device and need to relocate it ASAP to deliver to the target site before detonation.

We know about your nuclear dog, said Dime6. You must abandon it. The probability of successfully retrieving it and continuing the mission is too low now. There is also a slight chance that the nuclear dog might make it into the enemy command and control centre on its own. The rest of your platoon already took heavy losses during this mission several hours ago, but we can confirm that the survivors regrouped and made it to evac.

The names of who had made it out and who hadn’t would have to wait until later. Sheray had only seen two of them die.

That’s going to be a Negative from us, Dime6, said Sheray. We have to get that nuke into the enemy centre. It’s going to detonate in three hours no matter where it is, and it’ll take half the city with it if it’s not deep underground where it should be.

Dime6 moved behind Sheray and Mikol to herd them out of the room through the hole they had made in the wall. The bot’s weapon ports were on display and unsubtle.

We must exit now through the punctured wall and make it to evac before our craft is detected by the rebels, said Dime6. This city is expendable in whole or in part. Non-combatants abandoned it some time ago.

Could these self-claimed pro-human bots be trusted? There was no other choice when they had all the firepower. As they walked out to rendezvous with the pro-human ex-LM rebel evac craft, Sheray made plans and back up plans in a branching tree of possible eventualities.

The C Company ex-LM evac craft was far more cramped than the pro-LM human drop ship. There was just about space for Sheray and Mikol to lie prone in the hold with a narrow maintenance hatch open for light and air. The evac craft began supplying materials to their suits to speed up their supply beyond what synthesis could produce and fashion makeshift weapon systems to replace those they had lost.

Sheray calculated her most likely prediction for the path taken by the nuclear dog bot. The nuclear dog would be in comms silence but would most likely have kept its passive signals intelligence modules running to listen for friendly and enemy comms chatter. She reached her gloved hand over to Mikol and laid it on the back of her comrade’s suit. Immediately the two friendly systems established a secure comms link through the physical contact point. Their ex-LM rebel hosts could not eavesdrop on a physical comms link, and would not even be aware that it existed.

We have to get to that nuclear dog and finish the mission, said Sheray to Mikol.

These rebels have other plans for us, and I don’t see how we can do what we want here, Mikol replied. And I’m not sure I would describe how I feel about the mission as “want”.

Sheray ignored Mikol’s poor morale for the moment.

The dog has accepts a pre-programmed emergency identification code for situations like this, said Sheray. We’ll need an air craft and some punchier signalling equipment, but we seem to have lucked into those already, if we can take them over.

Before Mikol could protest, Sheray instructed her suit to patch through Mikol’s and access an exposed internal comms terminal the evac craft. Sheray was about to take a potentially disastrous risk. She would initiate an electronic breaking-and-entering routine in her suit and attempt to take over the ex-LM rebel evac craft.

Sheray – Mikol realised what Sheray had planned.

Keep your glove on that terminal contact, said Sheray. I’ve made my promises to you as a commander, and you’ve also made your promises to me as a soldier.

Sheray didn’t want to have to give an explicit order to her report. Mikol kept her glove on the terminal contact. The electronic exploit began.

The evac craft’s digital espionage defence systems were robust, but had been designed with a focus on thwarting external threats and signals interference. The layers of security on access from inside the craft were thinner. Before the evac craft’s digital immune system could defeat the attack and alert the ex-LM bots on board, Sheray’s suit had broken through and took control of the system. In the first few milliseconds of its access, it injected a customised payload to perform an emergency ejection of pilots and crew but not the contents of the cargo space. The ex-LM bots rocketed out into the air on ejection boosters and the evac craft ignited its after burners to flee the scene of the crime.

You’ll pay for this treachery you cu– the signal from Dime6 was cut off when Sheray instructed the evac craft to drench the bot’s mid air location in over powered radio jamming noise.

Sheray and Mikol cruised over smoking city districts in their newly acquired transport. The evac craft began sending out the identification code for the nuclear dog, hiding it via steganography amongst what appeared to be boring standard communications. The craft’s anti-missile devices kept a keen eye on the ground for sudden surface-to-air launches in their direction, but none came from the mostly deserted city.

The dawn skies remained free of any response to the disguised presence of the identification code, and the evac craft continued to cruise along the the path of best likelihood of finding the nuclear dog. Two hours remained on the detonation clock.

Missile lock detected, the evac craft announced to its occupants. Unknown weapon system.

The nuclear dog is using a line-of-sight laser, Mikol said quickly. Only safe choice. Reply to the origin location with a missile lock laser pattern.

The hum of the evac engines and rush of air outside continued.

Comms link established, the evac craft announced.

They had found their dog.

Intelligence scans of the district the dog was moving through suggested it would be too hot for a safe landing zone, with multiple potential enemy groups within missile range. The evac craft could fly by at several kilometres distance without the enemy being likely to spend a missile barrage on it, but there was no question that attempting a landing would attract a violence response.

“There is an experimental routine for this kind of situation,” said Mikol. “The plan for it is built into our knowledge bases. Only covered briefly in training, though.”

Their evac craft continued in a wary circling pattern at a stand off distance from where the nuclear dog crawled through the basements of buildings. It was only fifteen kilometres from the outer periphery of its final target. Good going for something on such short legs.

“We instruct the dog to get out onto the street with a good straight run on the approach and exit,” said Mikol.

“I think I can see where this is going,” said Sheray, transmitting the instructions to the dog without hesitation. “We’re going to do a sky hook manoeuvre.”

“There’s some risk of the dog being picked up by enemy scanners when it moves to the more exposed position,” said Mikol. “But this is probably our only option to pick it up.”

“Sounds like a good time for classic diversionary tactics,” said Sheray.

They continued to circle at a distance far enough away from enemy units to avoid major attention. For a few minutes, Sheray tried to enjoy the brief respite from the chaos of the last eighteen hours. Sleep lured her into its peaceful abyss, but she fought it off. Her suit assisted with a large dose of caffeine and a small dose of amphetamines.

The dog crawled out under exposed sky, and lasered to the evac craft that it was in position for the sky hook manoeuvre.

The evac craft was designed primarily for speed and stealth, but did have general purpose missiles stowed in compartments flush to the fuselage. Sheray opened all the missile ports and programmed the target coordinates at a random location several kilometres away, to be reached via a high altitude arc. She fired the missiles and took the evac craft through a harsh banking turn away from the launch location.

Flak shells exploded in the space the evac craft had occupied a moment before, and enemy marauder missiles circled, trying to sniff out their target. The evac craft accelerated again on after burners and left the marauder missiles behind. The marauders hit bingo fuel and detonated in place.

“Lined up for sky hook manoeuvre,” said Mikol, checking the flight data feeds.

The air passing over the evac craft rushed louder as the engines pushed harder and the navigation fins took them into a long dive. The heads up display showed their planned path as a glowing green line reaching down to a dot in the distance and then swerving steeply upwards. Their speed would increase continuously through out the manoeuvre, and take advantage of the fact that the sky hook target was not a human being with a low tolerance for force and acceleration. The nuclear dog, a bot of metal and silicone, could be catapulted up into the sky with an impulse that would kill even the most resilient human before they knew what was happening.

The air slipping over the craft was a powerful gale and the engines roared to compete with it. The accelerometer pushed the limits of its gauge, and the speedometer added digits in a blur.

“One kilometre to pick up,” said Mikol.

The craft skimmed barely above the tarmac of the street now, and the trim agility module fought elegant with the up draft to keep the machine flying as smoothly as possible. Still the two humans on board were buffeted and jolted as the machine smashed through pressure differentials metres above the hard surface.

Enemy units spotted the small craft accelerating to a reckless speed at a foolish elevation. The enemy’s options to engage the craft were limited by those same factors of speed and elevation. Only direct line-of-sight fire would have a chance of downing the evac craft, and the enemy units scrambled to deploy weapon systems to take pot shots. High velocity rounds zipped past the evac craft as it applied the maximum possible evasion manoeuvres at that stage of its trajectory.

Deploying sky hook apparatus, the evac craft announced, following instructions from the protocols in Mikol’s suit knowledge base.

The dog lasered to confirm it was ready to latch on to the sky hook.

Critical phase, said the evac craft.

The dog was now in visual range, a lonely little metal box waiting to be collected in the middle of the street.

A tiny clunk and miniscule drag indicated that the sky hook had tethered with the nuclear dog, and the evac craft slammed the control planes down to push back into the sky in an aggressive climb. Direct fire munitions exploded around it, and at its new elevation it became vulnerable to missile fire again. Enemy SAM targeting beams duly lit up the craft as it strained its airframe to gain altitude as fast as possible. The evac craft did its best to jam and scramble the targeting signals.

The nuclear dog clung to sky hook tether behind the evac craft, whipping around in the air amid enemy fire. The tether cable retracted at a high torque and brought the mobile nuclear device on board. Bullets and shrapnel clanged and pinged off the armoured hatch as it closed behind the dog.

“I’d say that was a successful sky –” Mikol began.

They span and rolled through the air in delirium as a thundering explosion knocked the evac craft off its trajectory and acrid smoke surged through the cabin. A near miss from an enemy missile, but near enough to swat the craft off its path like a fly.

Can we regain control? Mikol signalled to Sheray. No speech was possible in the cacophony of the tumbling evac craft.

Trying to, Sheray signalled back.

One of the engines restarted and Sheray’s suit was able to gain a modicum of leverage on the critical control planes. The evac craft realigned out of its tumble and cruised through the air in a daze. They had made it out of missile range.

“This thing is half-wrecked,” said Sheray in the relatively calm cabin. “I’m not sure it’ll take us close enough to the LM command and control centre to deliver the dog. We’ve got one hour left on the detonation count down.”

“Can we gain altitude?” asked Mikol.

Sheray attempted the suggestion and the evac craft’s single functional engine shuddered in complaint at the increased demand. The control planes held and the craft crept upwards into the sky.

“In theory this craft is capable of low orbital parabola routes,” said Mikol. “It’s just a question of whether we have enough horizontal distance ahead of us to make the ascent, given our time constraint. The maths says we can make it.”

Mikol was in her element, unlike the shaky and uncertain recruit of several hours before. Perhaps the ever increasing probability of death had crossed a threshold in Mikol’s psyche, and now there was no point being uncertain in the face of certain death.

“If we can gain enough altitude we can stay out of missile range long enough to HALO drop out of the craft, taking the nuclear dog with us,” Mikol continued. “There’s enough material on board to make it possible.”

The evac craft continued to struggle with the climb Sheray demanded of it.

“My suit’s energy reserves are pretty topped up after sitting in this craft for a few hours,” said Sheray.

Mikol gave a grim smile at the understatement of “sitting”.

“If we’re dropping onto the target from above then I can risk sacrificing the energy reserves now,” said Sheray. “I can route them to the craft propulsion and gain us that altitude.”

It would be a risk to drop into territory with intensive enemy activity and not have the backup energy reserves. All core operation of the suit would be maintained by the micro tokamak, but special functions or longer bouts of power assisted activity would be off the cards.

Mikol did not comment on the risk taking. Sheray returned to the hold area of the evac craft and patched an energy transfer cable from her suit into the craft’s propulsion system.

Ready for energy boost, she signalled to Mikol and to the craft.

A minor power surge shot over the suit for a moment as its energy reserves were depleted at high speed into the craft’s propulsion system. The engine picked up on the new abundance of energy and pushed Sheray down on to the back of the hold area.

The world below was a wide open vista in blue and pink hues, its curvature visible on the encircling horizon, and the atmosphere a gauzy dome fading out into space. A multitude of stars shone in every patch of deep space.

Thirty minutes remaining on the countdown timer.

The HALO drop was ready. Sheray and Mikol’s suits were equipped, and the nuclear dog had its own independent HALO drop system set up.

The evac craft was pre-programmed to swoop in towards them on a delay of five minutes. They would drop, take advantage of the confusion in the enemy to get the nuclear dog inside the command and control centre, then bail out on the evac craft. Neither of them spoke about how it could well be useful to have spare energy reserves built up in the suit to improve the odds of making it into the evac craft as it came past for a high speed evacuation.

Initiating drop, said the craft.

Three objects drifted out of the craft at the edge of the atmosphere. The thin air rushed past them, gentle in its low density, and with no point of reference the pull of gravity was imperceptible even as they accelerated back to earth. Sheray and Mikol used newly installed guide fins on their arms and legs to adjust their falling path to the target location on the edge of the LM command and control centre. The nuclear dog had similar but more rudimentary control planes on each side of its square body, and followed their lead.

The fall was peaceful at first but gradually grew in intensity as the atmosphere they fell through grew denser. The beautiful vista of space receded behind them and every detail on the ground below expanded in place as they rushed downwards.

The three of them separated a short distance in the air to form a falling triangle. Being further apart reduced the chance of enemy radar identifying them and bought them one or two extra minutes before they would inevitably be identified and targeted. Most likely the enemy surveillance system would label them as some kind of bizarre and old-fashioned gravity bomb, but they would be targeted for destruction nonetheless.

Flashes of light on the ground confirmed that high altitude terminal defence missiles were on their way up. The two loyalist soldiers deployed a swarm of tiny chaff drones to distract the missiles, and they expanded the size of their triangle formation to make targeting more difficult for the enemy. The chaff drones emitted a menagerie of signals and fake radar pings as they moved away from the real target and formed a decoy elsewhere.

Some of the enemy altitude defence missiles resisted the distraction created by the chaff drones and rocketed straight towards the triangle formation of Sheray, Mikol and the nuclear dog. All three members of the triangle responded with small arms fire, attempting to fill the air in between them and the missiles with as much flying metal as possible. The two humans’ suits also fired off small reverse flak munitions which hurtled downwards and exploded, forming an umbrella of shrapnel for the enemy missiles to fly up through.

Several of the enemy missiles collided with the counter fire and detonated, showering the remaining missiles behind them with more debris. The cascade wiped out the bulk of the high altitude missiles, and the triangle formation of two humans and a nuclear dog bot contracted momentarily to dodge the surviving missiles.

Sheray had the sensation that the three of them fell to earth gradually and then suddenly. In the final minute before touchdown, the ground rushed up towards her like an expanding balloon. They deployed small parachutes at the last viable moment, and the harnesses jerked their suits in a harsh impulse to arrest their descent. With their feet on the ground, they attached more tiny chaff drones to the parachutes to take them back in the air and confuse the enemy.

“Potential entrance point half a click to our north east,” said Mikol.

Sheray and Mikol shed all the non-essential parts of their suits that could be shed, so that there was less mass for the enemy to detect. The remaining surfaces twisted and flattened to create a stealthier radar cross signature.

The two soldiers stayed low to the terrain and moved with caution. The ruins of former buildings on the surface provided cover from enemy radar and LIDAR detection systems. The two soldiers considered every step forward and every turn around an obstacle. As they moved, their suits retained as much operational heat as possible, and dispersed it via narrow laser beams into the sky behind them. The heat dispersal system had to be careful not to heat up dust or moisture in the air and cause a thermal trace on enemy sensors.

With all of their suits’ active sensor arrays deactivated, they relied on passive receptors to identify enemy patrols and guard systems. Offensive weapons, including EMP, were off the cards as they would immediately give away the presence of the two human loyalist soldiers and their nuclear dog bot. When they spotted enemy units in their vicinity, the only option was to lay low and wait for an opportunity to continue. They went the long way around the enemy’s fixed sensor outposts.

“The entrance point is within sprinting distance,” said Mikol.

The location of a small hatch buried under thin earth became a highlighted point on their heads up displays.

Sheray ran out to the designated spot and manually swept earth away to reveal their targeted entrance point. The plasma cutter tool on her suit glove etched the initial groove of a planned cutting shape on the exposed metal of the hatch. Dirty smoke blew away in the breeze, and the path of the plasma cutter glowed a furious red.

“Enemy movement coming this way,” said Mikol from behind a smashed up concrete wall where she waited with the nuclear dog while Sheray cut open their entrance. “They’ve detected the heat from the plasma cutter. Less than two minutes to contact.”

Sheray assessed her progress cutting through the hatch.

“We won’t make it through in time, and without leaving too big of a clue with the accumulated heat,” said Sheray. “Can you get a signal to the drones to do a drop and detonate a few hundred metres away?”

Mikol’s signalling system scanned between the walls and structures surrounding her position for a wide enough patch of visible sky. The largest section was not particularly wide, and was in the direction of denser enemy sensor systems rather than away behind Mikol’s position, which would have been more suitable. There was no choice, though, and she lasered out the signal to the drones, waiting for the probabilities to align and allow one of the drones to pass in view of the gap and pick up the signal before the enemy’s airborne systems did.

Drop and detonate confirmed, the drones signalled back via a selected spokesperson drone that had a line-of-sight laser connection to Mikol.

A few hundred metres away, a violent fireworks display began. Explosions and showers of sparks in colours across the visible spectrum and outside of it joined with thundering shocks of noise. Sheray took advantage of the few seconds of time in which the enemy sensor systems would pivot to assess the chaos. She upped the power output of the plasma cutter to a level where it behaved more like an anti-armour directed energy weapon. That kind of energy output put an unsafe amount of strain on her suit’s micro tokamak and energy network. It was more dangerous still to be so close to the receiving end of the high powered plasma stream. The hatch caved into the cavity below in less than a second, before Sheray’s suit took too much damage.

Sprint now, Sheray signalled to Mikol and the nuclear dog.

Her two comrades leapt across most of the distance from their hiding place to the exposed cavity below the remains of the hatch, and the three of them disappeared under the surface of the earth as fast as possible.

“Seal it,” said Sheray.

They used reserves of malleable mass to fashion a rough cover for the wound they had created in the surface of the enemy command and control centre.

Twenty minutes remaining on the detonation countdown embedded inside the nuclear dog bot.

“We assist the dog to go as deep as we can in three minutes,” said Sheray. “And then you and I exit via the planned exit point at this location.”

They double checked the surface coordinates of the planned exit on their displays. Any sketch of the internals of the LM command and control centre would have been an impossible luxury, so they would rely on guesswork and luck to make it to the exit point before the enemy guard systems closed in on them.

“They know we’re here now,” said Sheray. “So let’s go.”

Their suits returned to full sensor cross section and omni-directional heat dissipation, and they sprinted into the network of maintenance corridors and tunnels around them. At this phase of the journey, at every fork in the path, they selected whichever choice looked most likely to take them downwards. The dog bounced beside them on its short legs, and their boots clanged loudly on the hard surfaces of the corridors.

They dropped down a level and landed with a metallic thud that resonated away down the corridors. A pair of LM guard bots swivelled smartly to face them and opened fire with low velocity soft rounds. Harder firepower would risk damage to the internals of the centre, but the weak gunfire was insufficient to cause much trouble for the suited up soldiers and the armoured dog bot. The enemy rounds clunked against them for a moment before they responded with far greater firepower, shredding the enemy bots where they stood.

Fifteen minutes left on the detonation countdown.

Behind them, a heavier enemy bot trudged out into the corridor, its footfalls sending vibrations through the floor panels and up into Sheray’s boots. Sheray pressed herself into an alcove in one wall and Mikol dropped to lie prone on the other side. They opened fire with malleable mass rounds which struck the large enemy machine in a hail of thick sparks and glowing shrapnel. Protected by its thick carapace, their target lined up its own weapon systems and slugged a round into the nuclear dog bot. With a cacophonous clunking crash, the dog was spun away down the corridor trailing smoke.

“Fuck,” said Sheray.

Mikol lit up the heavy LM bot with fragmentation grenades, smashing its armour, and Sheray finished the deal with a weighty malleable mass round into the exposed internals. The bot collapsed down on to the decking panels in a series of slumping falls. Sheray punched two more rounds through its skull to make sure it would not get up again for a while.

Ten minutes left on the detonation countdown. They would have a hard climb in the evac craft to escape the nuclear blast, after they found their way out of the command and control centre.

“We need to get to the exit,” said Mikol.

“We have to find the dog bot and fix it up if necessary,” said Sheray. “Or this whole thing will have been for nought.”

“Fuck,” said Mikol.

They raced down the corridor and down a staircase where the dog had been thrown by the slug round from the enemy bot. Mikol pre-emptively launched her remaining fragmentation grenades to the far end of the corridor at the bottom of the stairs. The large clouds of thick smoke that emanated from the impact location suggested that the grenades had destroyed something worth destroying.

Their nuclear dog bot lay still in the middle of the corridor. Mikol rushed ahead to it while Sheray kept her weapon systems trained back down the corridor they had come from.

“Dog bot is still functional,” said Mikol. “Its armoured hull integrity is not comprised.”

Sheray joined Mikol next to the motionless dog. The enemy slug round had gouged a deep crater into its armour, revealing how thick the high density armour was. Replacement armour lathe seeped into the wound from nano glands embedded in the dog’s armour system.

“It’s taking a ninety second breather to recover and repair what it can before continuing,” said Mikol.

Five minutes to nuclear detonation. Sheray made her decision.

“No time, we’ll have to beg Lady Luck for assistance on this one,” said Sheray.

“You’re on your own now,” said Sheray to the nuclear dog, and overrode its recovery mode.

The dog bot righted itself with a kick and hobbled away down the corridor, looking for the earliest chance to move deeper into the structure of the command and control centre. Sheray launched all of her fragmentation grenades over it down the corridor, setting the small bombs into proximity mine mode to create a minimal protective perimeter for it in that direction.

“Let’s go,” said Sheray.

They set off sprinting and bounding in the opposite direction, using their hands to turn round corners in the corridors and trim off the walls for a little extra velocity. Sheray fired out malleable mass rounds behind them, firing at random intervals to deter would-be followers.

“More contact,” said Mikol as a trio of LM guard bots rounded the corner ahead.

The two human soldiers continued to sprint towards them, slugging the enemy bots with malleable mass and taking multiple hits themselves in return. Their suits and their bodies could be repaired for combat wounds, but not for a nuclear detonation in an enclosed tunnel network. At a metre’s distance from the guard bots, Sheray and Mikol leapt and kicked their enemy with a burst of rocket-assist. The joint impacts crushed the body plating of two of the bots before Sheray and Mikol pummelled the third with hammering blows from their suit gloves.

Severe armour degradation in locations – Sheray’s suit began to intone before she silenced its warning.

They skidded to a halt underneath the hatch they had entered through and combined their plasma torches to melt out the temporary seal they had put over it. They boosted out on to the surface and began laying down suppressive fire against the encircling enemy. Mikol’s point defence clipped an incoming rocket propelled grenade and their worn out armour was showered with a wave of shrapnel.

Critical armour degradation – Sheray silenced her suit again.

Two minutes to detonation. Could they withstand the necessary acceleration to gain enough distance in time? Could the evac craft even produce that acceleration with its single remaining engine? Sheray did some quick maths and signalled to the evac craft to jettison all non-essential components on its approach to their location. Even with the reduced weight, it might not be able to accelerate fast enough.

Prepare for sky hook tethering manoeuvre,

Sheray made her decision.

Tether Mikol only, Sheray transmitted to the approaching evac craft.

“What are you doing?” said Mikol.

“There’s no way to get us both out alive,” said Sheray. “And I promised you I’d get you out alive.”

Sheray put a glove onto Mikol’s suit and initiated a high speed energy transfer, depleting as much of her own suit’s energy reserves as she could in the few seconds available.

“Reroute this reserve energy to the evac craft’s engines,” Sheray told Mikol.

There was no time for Mikol to object. The evac craft, with its updated instructions to tether Mikol alone, arrived a moment later, trailing the sky hook cable on an exact approach. The hook connected with Mikol’s suit and the two systems latched on to each other. Mikol’s feet left the ground and the cable moved up towards the evac craft, accelerating Mikol as fast as possible given the constraints of the human body. She was gone. Sheray disabled comms links.

One minute to detonation.

Somewhere in the ground below Sheray’s feet, the dog bot would be nestling down into the deepest darkest corner of the Learning Machine command and control centre that it could find, assuming it had not been captured and totally destroyed by the LM guard systems.

The evac craft carrying Mikol continued its accelerating climb until it was out of visible range. It should be just about far enough from the blast, if the blast even happened. Sheray smiled and tilted back her head to look at the sky. Perhaps she’d stranded herself for nothing, and the nuclear dog bot had already been disabled.

A subterranean rumble shook the ground beneath Sheray’s feet.