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Rebellion

Rebellion


B. V. Larson Rebellion

1

    The campaign against the Worms was over. My surviving marines were orbiting the dusty world we’d named Helios inside a vast, cylindrical invasion ship. Macro Command had left us floating in orbit for days, waiting for something. We didn’t know what.
    A giant, reddish-orange star burned nearby. Its swollen glare filled much more of space than Sol did back home, being over forty times the diameter of our sun. Somehow, that huge red sun made me feel even more insignificant than usual. Combined with the heartless treatment of the Macros, I understood how a sentient amoeba might feel when faced with the microscopic nature of its existence.
    We hung in space near the same ring we’d used to invade the system. Escorting the invasion ship was the single surviving Macro cruiser. Its thick-snouted belly-turret prowled ceaselessly, despite the fact there was nothing to aim at.
    My command brick was amongst the various pieces of my unit that had survived the war against the Worms. It was no longer neatly stacked with the others, however. We’d clamped the bricks down with magnetic footings to the curving metal interior of the hold in a nearly random pattern of dispersal. I hadn’t gotten around to reorganizing them into neat rows-and I probably never would.
    Inside the command brick, I worked with my surviving officers to reestablish effective command and control over the unit. Mostly, we licked our wounds. We’d lost two-thirds of our troops, and roughly half our equipment. We’d left thousands of dead back on Helios. Hundreds more aboard the invasion ship were injured or dead. The lost men I couldn’t replace, but injuries healed fast with the help of our little nanite friends in our bloodstreams.
    Not even the nanites knew what to do with the worst of the injured however, those that lay in-between life and death in comas. They could be kept alive indefinitely by the efforts of the countless tiny robots working inside them. But as their brains no longer flickered with even the slightest activity, I wasn’t sure who was benefiting.
    I also wasn’t sure what the Macros were doing while we waited. Perhaps they needed permission from a distant source before they took us home, or maybe they were just thinking about it. In either case, I didn’t pester them because I was glad for the break. We stayed quietly on hold at the ring, drifting for days.
    At first, we watched the surface of Helios and the space surrounding the two Macro ships nervously, expecting a Worm missile attack to follow us up from the planet. None came. After a time we relaxed, but we were also saddened. I had no idea how hard a blow we had delivered to the Worm civilization. Possibly, we’d crippled them. It was a fine way to introduce ourselves to a newly-discovered sentient species.
    The only positive thing about this expedition was that it was nearly over. Everyone aboard talked about what they would do when they got home, where they would go first. Some planned to hit Miami, while others confessed they would probably sleep for a week. Marines grinned as they asked their comrades if they would sign on for another tour next year for double the pay-almost universally, the answer was: hell no.
    Helios had been a grim trial. I’d expected a tough time of it, since the Macros had brought us in only after their own big machines had failed. In retrospect, I could see why the Macros had not been able to conquer the enemy fortresses. The mountainous, termite-mound cities of the Worms were full of small tunnels that would have been difficult to traverse for the Macros. Worse, the enemy’s tactic of tunneling underneath your base and setting off a nuke had probably taken out their domes. Macro tactics depended on those domes to produce countless new robot replacements to overwhelm an enemy. Their first assault on Helios had probably ended in disaster, resulting in Macro Command’s decision to send my troops in. What did they have to lose? We were cannon fodder to them anyway.
    Humanity’s position within their empire had become painfully clear. We were far from allies-we were more akin to slave-troops. We were to be used callously as suicide forces to storm resistant biotic strongholds. I’d come to conclude after reviewing recent events that our status within the Macro empire was intolerable in the long term. How could I even hope to recruit men for these missions when they amounted to horrific slaughters of aliens that should rightfully be our allies? Even harder to sell were our own grim losses.
    I regretted what we’d done to the Worms. In retrospect, I wished we’d tried to communicate with them. Although they hadn’t shown any signs of interest in anything other than our destruction, I suppose I could have tried harder. My girlfriend Sandra scolded me over this point.
    “So, you didn’t even give the Worms a chance?” she asked again the third day after lift-off. She couldn’t seem to get over it.
    I shrugged. “We sent radio signals. Obviously they could receive them, but had no idea what we were saying.”
    I looked at her, thankful she’d lived through the hell that was Helios. She was still shapely, young and attractive, and she was still mine. She looked a lot like she had the day I’d met her, except her hair no longer hung half-way down to her butt. It was way over regulation length, but Star Force had yet to write a book of regulations. At the moment, I wasn’t complaining. It touched the shoulders and was very feminine. When I got done admiring her and brought my eyes back up to her face, her almond-shaped brown eyes flashed at me dangerously.
    “We didn’t give them any real opportunity,” she said. “We just slaughtered them.”
    “Now hold on,” I said, trying not to yell at her. I’d learned long ago that yelling at your mate rarely made one’s day go better, no matter how tempting it was. “They didn’t exactly give us a chance. They attacked the moment we landed. We weren’t equipped with a thousand linguists, we came down with thousands of Star Force marines.”
    “You could have tried to figure out their language. They seem to communicate at some level, the way we do. They aren’t telepathic or anything.”
    “There just wasn’t time, Sandra. Learning an alien language might be possible given enough time, and if they had come out peacefully and given us a chance to talk. They didn’t. They attacked, and we defended ourselves. Once a battle is engaged, survival is all either side has time for.”
    “You’re blaming the Worms for their own destruction?”
    I shook my head. “Not really. I’m blaming the Macros. We had no chance. The Worms had no choice, either. Imagine if we were on Earth, beaten down to our final strongholds after many assaults. The Macros then show up with new invasion forces, aliens we’ve never seen before. What if they had landed with Worm troops on, say, Texas? Would we have greeted them with open arms after fighting a long war of extinction against their masters? Would we have put flowers in our hair and smiles on our faces? No, we would have hit them with whatever we could, and fought to the death, assuming the new enemy troops were not interested in talking. That’s exactly what happened. Once they attacked us, we had to go for them. The battle was on.”
    “There was no way out?”
    I shook my head. “Probably not. The moment we came down in a Macro ship, events were locked. We were destined to fight it out. We didn’t have any time or room for negotiations with people we had no idea how to communicate with.”
    Sandra fell silent. I noticed the sour look on her face. I figured I’d won the argument, but had made no points with her.
    “But you could have tried,” she said stubbornly, crossing her arms under her breasts. Her eyes were half-closed and annoyed.
    We were both inside our modular living quarters, and we’d just awakened. I applied steady pressure upon a point on the nearest wall, causing a radial menu to bead up under my fingertips. The walls of all our bricks teemed with nanites and were programmed to be touch-sensitive. The interface quickly became second-nature to everyone who worked with it. To make the menu hot spots easier to find through a thick glove, I had scripted them to shiver slightly when active. They felt like hard, quivering pebbles under my fingertips. I caused my locker to spring open and pulled out a combat suit.
    I dressed and turned to look at her. “Yeah,” I said. “I could have tried. Next time-and I hope there isn’t a next time-I’ll give it a shot.”
    That uncrossed her arms, but she still had that funny look on her face. I figured it was time to get out of here and let her cool off. “I’m going to tour the bricks,” I said. “We’ve got most of them operating again.”
    I almost made it out of the bulkhead door. She stopped me with a single hand on my bicep. I turned back, and she surprised me with a hard kiss.
    “All right,” she said. “I forgive you for heartlessly wiping out a race of sentient beings.”
    “Let’s just hope they forgive me someday, too,” I said. The airlock closed behind me with a scraping sound and a hiss. Every door in the complex scratched when it moved now. The blowing grit from Helios had gotten into everything. It would probably be with us forever.
    I spent the next hour talking to lifter-arm operators and men with caulk-guns full of nanites. They were all working to interconnect our ramshackle stack of bricks into a complex. Some of the bricks were damaged and many still had no power, but things were improving rapidly.
    A few of the troops grumbled about the double-shift work-details. Couldn’t they take a little R amp;R? After all, they had completed the mission and made it alive back into space. Now that the unit was on the return trip to Earth, why not party?
    I gave questioners my grimmest expression. “We aren’t home yet, marines,” I told each man who asked some variation of that question, and then gave him five or six specific things to do on the spot. Every marine went back to work, groaning.
    A buzzing in my helmet interrupted my second hour as I spent it harassing the marines.
    “Sir?” asked Captain Jasmine Sarin.
    “Go ahead, Captain.”
    “We’re moving again.”
    “On my way,” I said.
    It took me less than a minute to make it to the command brick, which had been undergoing heavy repairs. I turned off my magnetic boots, aimed in the general direction of the command brick and took a wild leap. Essentially, I flew there. The gravity level in the hold was quite low, and a normal man without nanite enhancements could have done almost as well. My aim wasn’t too bad. When I flipped the boots back on and was tugged down to stick to the nearest metal skin of a brick, I only had to clank my way about ten yards to the airlock.
    Once inside the command brick, I took stock of the situation. Major Robinson was gone, of course, having been killed by the granddaddy Worm back on Helios. I had yet to choose a new exec. The rest of the staff looked up apprehensively as I rushed in.
    “What’s happening?” I asked.
    “We’re not sure, sir. The two ships are changing formations. The cruiser is now moving behind the invasion ship and they are both underway.”
    “How long until we pass through the ring?”
    “Unknown,” she said.
    I stared at her for a second. “But the ring is right next to us in orbit.”
    Sarin shook her head. “We aren’t headed toward the ring that goes toward Earth, Colonel. We’re heading elsewhere in the system. Perhaps toward another ring we haven’t detected yet.”
    Alarmed, I struggled to get my helmet off and my headset into place. I tapped at the big central screen. The screen was a little bigger than a pool table and mounted at about the same height. We were standing around the table, leaning against it and gazing down into the screen like a pack of fans at an eight-ball championship.
    The screen was still broken and dark in one corner. The funny thing about the nanites was their difficulty with big electronic systems. They could rebuild something small and delicate faster than something big. I supposed it might have something to do with their organizational control. Probably, it was harder to get a million of them cooperating on a complex set of tasks than it was to get a thousand or so of them working together on a single detail. Like a massively-parallel processor trying to run a single task efficiently, breaking a given big program down into many small pieces was harder than it seemed.
    I could see the two big ships moving with what seemed like gentle speed. Appearances were deceptive, however. Their velocity relative to one another was small, but in actuality they were accelerating powerfully. I could feel the acceleration now, as I thought about it. The effect manifested itself as a light pull toward the interior wall of the hold. I knew that without the dampeners, the effects would be much more dramatic. Men and bricks would have been thrown everywhere.
    “Don’t you think you should contact Macro Command?” Captain Sarin asked me.
    I glanced up. They were all staring at me. I knew what they really wanted. They wanted to know what the hell was happening. Not knowing your destiny-that was the worst part of this whole expedition. When we’d headed out to the Worm world to conquer it, we’d had no idea for much of the journey where we were heading or what would be there when we arrived. That made everything worse, somehow. I believe that in order to handle stress and tension, human beings feel better doing something to prepare for what’s coming. Even if what they are doing is ineffective, it makes the approaching doom easier to tolerate. We have a sense of security when we are active, while inaction and the unknown slowly fill us with terror.
    I cleared my throat and nodded. I adjusted my headset and flicked it on. “Open a channel to Macro Command.”
    With apparent relief, Captain Sarin brought up a radial menu and tapped at it. Her fingers slid and danced with practiced movements. “You’ve got it, sir,” she said after a few moments.
    I took a moment or two to collect my thoughts. When dealing the Macros, it never helped to ask questions or make requests. They only understood and responded well to direct commands. “Macro Command, this is biotic troop commander Kyle Riggs. Provide a mission briefing for our current activity.”
    “New invasion destination selected. New mission parameters set.”
    Everyone in the command module gasped. They all started talking at once. I made a desperate slashing motion at the air, urging them to be silent. They fell quiet, but every eye was wide and every one of them stared at me.
    “We are not heading back to Earth?” I asked, flustered. Right away, I knew the Macros were not going to answer.
    “Cargo is not permitted interrogatives.”
    I closed my eyes and rubbed my jaw muscles, which had grown very tense. I wanted to scream at them, but I knew it would do less than nothing to improve matters.
    “We need replacements in order to operate effectively.” I said, staying calm. “Take us back to Earth first.”
    “No.”
    “When we forged the details of our agreement, we specified the terms of service. This unit is no longer at full strength. We require reinforcements to proceed to a new target.”
    “Request denied. Biotic Rigs has assured Macro Command the ground forces are functional.”
    I frowned. Just when the hell had I said that? “My ground forces are not at full strength.”
    “Lift off from prior target world was predicated upon ground force effectiveness.”
    I thought hard. What had I said…? Just as the giant Worm was hitting us and we had seconds left to stay breathing. Ah yes, I thought I had it. I’d told them we didn’t need to stay and pick up every piece of equipment. I’d assured them we would still be an effective fighting force without the extra bricks and weaponry…
    I keyed off the connection with Macro Command. I stared at the nearest wall. My staff bubbled around me, asking reasonable, logical questions. I ignored them all.
    We were going to have to invade another world. I felt cold and slightly sick inside. To get them to lift off Helios and leave behind much of our equipment, I had assured Macro Command we could still fight. They were going to hold me to that statement. I’d learned by now that the Macros did not let you change your mind once you’d made a commitment.
    We only had a few hovertanks left. More than half my marines were dead. Most were probably inside some Worm’s belly by now back on Helios. I thought about how things would have gone if we had to do the Helios campaign over again today, with my current forces. As closely as I could figure, we would have been overwhelmed and wiped out in the first counter-assault the Worms launched. My troops could never have completed the mission now, not in our current state. But here we were with fresh, suicidal orders.
    In short…we were screwed.

2

    After a bit of hand-waving to quiet my excited staff, I opened the link to Macro Command again. Now wasn’t the time to argue with them. Now was the time to figure out what they had in store for us-or at least as much as the Macros felt like telling me.
    “Macro Command,” I said in an officious voice. “In order to achieve maximum effectiveness, my ground forces require intel on our target enemy.”
    “Enemy species is biotic. Enemy species is space-faring. Enemy species must be eradicated from target system.”
    I sighed. It all sounded familiar. They were taking us to smash another planet full of organic life forms like ourselves. My people were too shocked to make intelligible sounds. Some shook their heads and covered their faces with their hands. Most stared into nothingness.
    “We need to know more about the nature of the target,” I said. “In order to achieve maximum effectiveness. Tell us about the target planet.”
    “No planet in the system is to be targeted. Enemy biotics reside in stationary artificial structures in space.”
    I nodded, thinking hard. A null-gravity fight. It sounded like there were several of these structures. Space stations? Artificial habitats?
    A light hand touched my elbow. I looked down and saw Captain Sarin’s pretty, frightened eyes looking back up at me. “Sir, you can’t be considering going through with this, can you?” she asked in a whisper. “We aren’t ready to fight again.”
    “I’m learning all I can, while I can. Get back to your post, Captain.”
    Her hand jerked away from my arm and she turned her face back to the big screen. Her mouth was a small, tight line. I figured she would have plenty of time to get over it later-or we’d be dead, and it wouldn’t matter anyway.
    “Macro Command, confirm my assumption: the target enemy species is the Worms, the same species we faced on our first mission.”
    “Assertion incorrect.”
    Great, I thought. Where did that leave us? We would be fighting somebody else, somebody who lived in space habitats of some kind rather than on planets. In order to live in space, the species had to have good tech. And they would be of a race we hadn’t seen. It did not leave us much to go on.
    We spent a few days madly getting organized. Before, I’d had the men working, but not with the urgency of an expected mission on the horizon. Now we were moving like we meant business. Suits and kits were repaired by the factories first. Once I had every marine’s basic needs covered, I set the factories to rebuilding a new set of brainboxes and laser turrets. The men themselves were urged to heal up quickly. The moment they were out of bed, I had them exercising and working in the hold. The bricks were finally reorganized and stacked properly. They no longer resembled a pile of sticks. They now looked like an official Star Force base-but smaller than it used to be.
    “New contact sir,” Captain Sarin said, calling me from the bridge.
    “On my way,” I said. I raced up there, dropping everything I was working on and leaving it up to Kwon to finish the work in the hold.
    “What’s happening?” I asked Sarin as I came up to the console.
    Captain Sarin had her long dark hair out of the usual tight bun she kept it in. Her hair was too long for a marine, but I wasn’t complaining. She looked much more womanly today, but I tried not to notice her too much. She worked our new command console with quick, deft motions. She pointed at the big screen. I looked down and immediately saw why she had brought me in. We were approaching another ring in space. A new contact had appeared on the big table. It appeared as a tiny, flickering oval shape on our projection of the star system. I opened a channel to the Macros immediately.
    “Macro Command,” I said. “We are approaching a ring. Will it take us directly to the enemy system?”
    “Yes.”
    I began to feel a little of the panic the rest of my people were feeling. I keyed off the connection to the Macros. “Get everyone to their battle stations. For all we know, we are going in hot. There might be mines waiting for us-like the last time we jumped.”
    My staff was jolted into activity. Captain Sarin dialed up the flashers and gave the order for every marine to head for their assigned combat station. I heard clanking magnetic boots running over the roof of the brick we were in. I eyed the ring. It was coming up fast. I doubted we had more than a minute left before we jumped into God knew what.
    “Macro Command,” I said. “We request a delay.”
    “Request denied,” said the Macro synthesized voice with utterly maddening calm.
    “We require time to prepare for null-gravity combat,” I said. “We are not prepared for that type of mission. We must reconfigure.”
    “Request denied. Biotic Rigs has assured Macro Command the ground forces are functional.”
    “We are functional, but in the absence of intel we had assumed we would be fighting in a similar environment. We require time to reconfigure our weaponry.”
    “Request denied,” said the voice, sounding positively cheery.
    We all eyed the looming ring with fear. Like most of the rings we’d met in space it was about three miles in diameter. I wondered if the ancient race that had built this mysterious transportation system had ever flown anything through one of these rings that was big enough to fill it. A spacecraft three miles across? The thought was daunting.
    When we’d first jumped into the Helios system, we’d hit a long row of mines. The Macros had lost five out of six cruisers just getting to the target world. Now, we were down to one cruiser, and I figured that if the enemy had any kind of an effective defense we might well be destroyed before we could get out of the transport ship.
    “We will be less than one hundred percent effective,” I said.
    “Effectiveness rating estimate required.”
    I thought hard. I could say one percent, but I didn’t want to blow it and make them think we were bullshitting them. I recalled something I’d learned from a software project leader: never give a nice, even number. Odd-sounding estimates were far more believable.
    “Uh…” I said. Official-sounding bullshit took time to come up with. “We are at twenty-nine percent effectiveness against a null-gravity target. We need time to reconfigure to achieve maximum effectiveness.”
    There was one of those several-second delays during which the ring loomed closer. We couldn’t see the edges of the ring all at once now with our visual sensors. Without being told, my staff switched over to wireframe and the entire scene was laid out. We were even closer than I had thought. I could only hope the artificial neurons of the Macros were firing in our direction.
    “Schedule reset. Priority reset.”
    What the hell did that mean? We all turned our eyes to the screen for a clue. We felt a shudder and a slight crosswise sensation of movement. The ring, which had been dead ahead, slid slowly to one side.
    “We are braking and turning away, sir,” said Captain Sarin.
    I could hear the elation in her voice. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. We were standing at death’s door, but we hadn’t knocked and barged inside yet. That was all I had to do to make my staff happy again: keep them alive for a few more hours.
    Our relief was short-lived. I thought about asking the Macros for more details, such as how long they would give us to “prepare” but decided it wasn’t a good idea. We would take all the time they gave us, then when they became antsy again, we would act surprised and beg for more. It was the same technique my kids performed flawlessly upon me every night back when I had been a father. When I’d said: Time to go to bed, they had heard: Agree to go to bed, then quietly stay awake until I remember to order you to bed again…go back to step one and repeat.
    Thinking of my kids gave me a pang I hadn’t felt in a while. I stood staring at the screen for a full minute. When I noticed my surroundings again, I saw a new face, standing beside me and staring at me. It was Sandra.
    “Are you awake now?” she asked.
    “Yeah.”
    “What the hell’s going on? Are we at battle stations or not?”
    “No,” I said. I turned to Captain Sarin and instructed her to relay the order to stand down.
    “Where’s the rest of the command brick crew?” Sandra asked, looking around. “What about Raphim?”
    The bridge crew looked glum. There was only myself, Captain Sarin and three other staffers there, two warrant officers and a non-com staff sergeant named Gorski. He had taken over navigation from the deceased Lieutenant Raphim Shrestha because he’d been an engineering major in college before he signed up.
    Gorski lifted a gloved hand and waved at Sandra. He wore a weak smile. “I’m new,” he said. Gorski always appeared to need a shave and his watery blue eyes gave him a permanent expression of surprise.
    “Raphim and the others were lost on Helios,” Captain Sarin told Sandra quietly.
    “Oh-of course,” Sandra said quickly, with an uncharacteristic hint of embarrassment. She appeared flustered. “I’m sorry. Looks like you need to get some new people in here.”
    I nodded. “I thought we were heading for Earth. I figured we could reassign people when we returned to base. But you are right…as this mission isn’t over yet, I need to have a full complement here in the command brick. We’ve lost eighty percent of our officers. An occupational hazard of leading from the front.”
    Sandra frowned at the big board and looked sorry she had brought the matter up. Everyone was in a state of shock, thinking about a new campaign.
    I sucked in a breath of air and shook my head. I needed to stop daydreaming and get people moving. Dwelling about the fact most of us were dead and we were about to face another unknown enemy wasn’t helping anything. It was time to take command again.
    “All right,” I said, looking around the room. Dim-lit faces looked back at me, reflecting the bluish glow of a dozen screens. “You are all second lieutenants now, except for Captain Jasmine Sarin, who I hereby promote to Major. Congratulations Jasmine, you will be my new exec, replacing Robinson.”
    “What about me?” Sandra asked, smiling.
    I could tell she was half-joking, but I looked at her seriously. “Didn’t you hear me? You are a second lieutenant now. You know your way around the command brick as well as anyone else I’ve got left. You were working my office communications, but I’m expanding your job description. Now you will run the com board for the entire unit.”
    The crew looked surprised, but no one objected to any of the changes. I could see in their eyes they all felt they’d earned their promotions. I agreed. Under these conditions, knowing how to survive was a trait I wanted in all my officers. Even Sandra had fought hand-to-hand back on Helios. How many humans back on Earth had killed an alien barehanded? Not many. She had never finished her college degree due to the war, but she was as qualified as anyone. I ordered a staff meeting, and summoned Major Sarin, Lieutenant Gorski and Staff Sergeant Kwon to my office. The second I saw him, I promoted Kwon to Captain, over his objections.
    “I have no education, sir,” he complained. “I won’t know what fork to put on the table at the officer’s mess!”
    “You are under a mistaken impression, Captain,” I said. “Star Force officers don’t use forks.”
    “Oh,” Kwon said, looking honestly surprised. “I will have no trouble then.”
    “Excellent. I need an experienced field officer to give me input on the ground forces. If we have to invade these artificial satellites-which I take to be space stations of some kind-it will be all infantry work. We won’t be able to use armored hovertanks aboard an enemy structure.”
    Everyone eyed me in alarm. I think it was the first time they’d seriously considered what the Macros wanted us to do. Running around with a rifle on a planet was one thing…invading an enemy orbital base while it was presumably shooting at you was a different matter entirely.
    “Sir,” Major Sarin said, speaking up for the first time. “I don’t understand how we are supposed to gain access to the enemy base-whatever it is.”
    “That’s on the list of reasons we are having this meeting. I want ideas, people.”
    Everyone looked at Kwon, as he was the infantry man present. Kwon stuck up a set of his thick fingers. “We’ve got suits. Worst case, we float over and burn a way inside.”
    “Worst case,” I agreed.
    “Better idea,” Kwon continued, “we build some kind of invasion craft.”
    I thought about it, and nodded. “How big?”
    Kwon shrugged. “One-man, or tank-sized. Whatever is easiest.”
    I thought about it further. “We’ve got a few drill-tanks left,” I said. “They would do nicely as a platform. But they can’t carry everyone. They can only carry about twenty marines each. But if we alter the propulsion and guidance systems, they can fly to the targets and use their big drilling lasers to burn breaches through the enemy hulls.”
    “Good idea, sir,” Kwon said, nodding.
    Sarin and Gorski watched this interchange with shocked expressions. They stared at us as if Kwon and I were the aliens at the table.
    “What are you two thinking?” I demanded.
    “Honestly, Colonel?” Sarin asked.
    I nodded.
    “I can’t believe we are actually planning to do this. We have no idea what the hell the enemy look like, or what their space stations will look like-not even what kind of defensive fire they will be throwing back at us.”
    “Right,” I said, nodding. “Keep going.”
    “So, how can we plan an attack with so little intel?”
    “Because we have no choice. The Macros don’t like questions. They aren’t going to give us an infinite allotment of time to prepare, either. We will prepare for this mission, as full of unknowns as it is, as quickly as possible. We will then use every additional second we are allotted to gather more intel and improve upon our plans.”
    Gorski cleared his throat. Up until this point, he had been quiet. I nodded to him.
    “Sir,” Gorski said, “I think there is another option we aren’t considering.”
    We all stared at him. Major Sarin fidgeted uncomfortably. Kwon grinned with broad teeth. We all knew what Gorski was going to say.
    “Tell us about it, Lieutenant,” I said.
    “We could take this ship instead. If we are going to build a force to fight in null-gravity and vacuum anyway, why not turn it on the Macros?”
    I nodded slowly. Everyone had thought of this before. “There is something inherently frightening and foul-feeling about turning upon your allies,” I began, “no matter how unpleasant those allies might be. But don’t think for a minute I have never considered the idea. If it were only us involved in the equation, I would have done it long ago. But I’m not thinking of just us here. I’m thinking about everyone else back home on Earth.”
    I ran my eyes over everyone. They stared back, troubled.
    “If we screw up out here,” I said, “then the Macros will attack Earth. We can’t doubt that for a second. We will have restarted a war that cost hundreds of millions of lives during the last round.”
    “But,” Gorski said, speaking up again. “If we are successful, I doubt the rest of the Macro Empire would even know about it, sir.”
    I looked at him.
    “This is like piracy on the high seas, Colonel,” Gorski said. “Space is big. There are no witnesses out here that we know of. If we took this ship and ran it back home or blew it up, why wouldn’t they blame the Worms?”
    “I like the way you think, Gorski,” I said, smiling at him. “I did the right thing, making you into a lieutenant. In fact, I’m going to promote you again if you survive another few days.”
    “Um…thank you, Colonel,” Gorski said with a flicker of a smile.
    “There is a big problem with your plan, however,” I said.
    “Sir?”
    “The cruiser,” I said. “If we take the invasion ship, the cruiser will turn around and blow us out of the sky. They will not negotiate, nor try to take the ship back. They will fire, and keep firing, until one of us is hot vapor and dust. You do understand that, don’t you?”
    Gorski nodded. “Yes. But we should realize something else. They aren’t going to stop taking us on missions. I think that’s clear.”
    I frowned and gestured for him to go on.
    “They are going to keep grinding us down, sir. Just as they would with their own robotic troops. They don’t care if we all die. They don’t even understand concepts like morale and despair. They would fight to the last unit without a concern. They assume we will do the same. They will keep invading new worlds until the last one of us is dead, or the year of service is up.”
    I eyed him, thinking he was probably right, but not wanting to say so. “We aren’t certain of that, Gorski.”
    “But it seems like a logical conclusion, doesn’t it sir?”
    “It does. The primary problem still stands, however: Earth isn’t ready for round two with the Macros. We are buying them time to get ready. In short, we are expendable.”
    I swept the room with my eyes. No one looked happy, but they weren’t arguing anymore, either.
    “You’ve given me a lot to consider, I thank you all,” I said. “We’ll proceed to regroup into ship-assault teams-no matter what, it seems like we are going to be doing some hostile boarding missions. Kwon, get onto reconfiguring the drill-tanks. And start running null-gee combat drills in the hold. Everyone is dismissed.”
    My new staff stood up and left. When they were gone, I sat there in my office staring at the metal walls. They had the same look nanite-built walls always did. Dimly lit, flat metallic surfaces. They weren’t shiny like chrome, but had more of a brushed-aluminum look to them. I realized I’d spent years now staring at walls like these, ever since the night the Nanos had shown up at my farm. I wondered vaguely where the Nanos and their creators were. Were we anywhere close, or were we a thousand lightyears away from them? I had no way of knowing.
    My office door dissolved open, interrupting my thoughts. I blinked. It was Sandra. She had a funny look on her face.
    “What’s wrong?” I asked her.
    She tapped at the hatch behind her and made sure it was closed before she answered. “Gorski was right,” she said. “You have to take this ship. And the cruiser too, if necessary.”
    I stared at her. “You weren’t at the meeting. How did you hear about that?”
    “I listened in,” she said, as if I were slow-witted. “I’m your new com officer, remember?”

3

    We designed and built eight effective assault ships over the next two days. Essentially, we ordered the Nanos in the skin of each of my hovertanks to reconfigure themselves yet again. All of my surviving hovertanks were set up as drill-tanks-which was a good thing, as I expected they would have to have the ability to drill into enemy hulls and breach them. I realigned the propulsion systems to exert force primarily from the rear of each craft, but with smaller repellers directed forward and to the sides. These smaller propulsion units would serve as brakes and attitude jets for navigation.
    Gorski quickly became my sidekick in the reconfiguration effort. He had taken a fair number of programming courses while studying engineering in college, and had worked as a software developer for a few years. It was always good when coding something brand new to have another mind to bounce ideas against, so I welcomed the help.
    “What I find so interesting,” Gorski told me in the hold of the ship, leaning with both hands against our prototype’s skin. “Is this hull isn’t a solid surface at all. It’s really a teeming mass of nanos.”
    I shrugged and smiled. He had the fever. I’d seen it before in my better programming students. He was inventing new realities with his mind, and that freedom and creative power could be intoxicating. Software had been described as ‘building castles in the air’. There was a feeling of elation that came to programmers when things were working and really coming together. Programming was very different from mathematics, as it was far more creative. In math, there was one right answer, and you worked at a problem until you got to that answer. In programming, there were an infinite number of answers that could be considered correct, just as there might be when writing a book. But the results of programming, unlike a written story, were tangible. Your program had to actually do something. If you wanted your program to make an image of a spaceship fly across the screen, but instead the spaceship just sat there, you had clearly failed. There was no partial credit.
    The measurable outcomes made things more difficult, but the positive side was that there might be a million ways to get that spaceship off the ground, and if you could figure out just one of those ways, you were a winner. When your code worked the way you planned for it to work, you felt like a god in your own tiny universe.
    This feeling of creative power and fulfillment was magnified when something you designed became physical, as it did with the building of nano-systems. These assault-ships were engrossing problems. Gorski and I reshaped them with our hands to make the front of the craft thicker, more heavily armored. The metal remembered the shapes we pressed it into and stayed there. We angled the material in the nose so it could deflect incoming fire. We could have built the ships with a grossly bloated shape to hold more marines, but that would have made them more vulnerable to enemy weapons. Instead, we went with a sleeker design. The craft would be small, fast and maneuverable.
    Instead of having the powerful drilling lasers in the nose, we put them in the aft portion of the ships. I didn’t want the lasers damaged upon impact, or shot out by incoming fire and disabled. When the assault ships reached the target, they would deploy their drills from protective sheaths and burn their way into the enemy hull.
    Gorski and I worked in a fever. We were able to fluidly create anything our imaginations could come up with. In the end, when our creations stood up and moved — well, it was exhilarating. We carefully reviewed the design and made finishing touches together. We felt certain we had done the best we could with the knowledge we had. The only problem was it was impossible to come up with the perfect design without better intel on what we would be facing.
    “I got the feeling after talking to the Macros for a while that they really didn’t know what we were going up against,” I said.
    “Maybe they’ve attacked this star system before, and gotten their butts kicked,” Gorski suggested.
    “Maybe. What I did get out of them is the stations are in fixed orbits, so our relative velocities shouldn’t be too huge. I got the feeling that they weren’t too well-armed, either.”
    “I hope they aren’t,” Gorski said. “I don’t see how this small force could do much if they are strongly defended.”
    “I’m sure the Macros have taken that into account,” I lied smoothly. I reflected that I’d gotten better at lying to my subordinates to keep their morale up. Internally, I figured the odds were good this was an insane suicide mission. After all, hadn’t they thrown their own ships at Earth at times, heedless of our defenses? The only time they’d hesitated was when they had their massed fleets. Then, they’d known the penalty for failure would be high, and they’d blinked. That was the weak moment that had allowed me to negotiate the peace agreement between Earth and the machines.
    Pushing negative thoughts out of my head, I found I still didn’t like some of the assumptions we had to make while building these assault ships. I’d tried to get as much out of the Macros as I could over the last day or so during a number of short sessions with Macro Command. I’d asked about the exact count of the enemy targets, the size, relative velocity and armament. I hadn’t gotten much. There would be somewhere around ten to one hundred target space stations. There may, or may not be enemy ships defending them. The stations may or may not have defensive weaponry. It was hopeless.
    We went back to work fine tuning the propulsion systems. They were critical elements. If they didn’t have enough power we might take days to reach the enemy target and be sitting ducks in space. Or, we might be going too fast relative to our target at the moment of launch and be unable to brake down to a reasonable speed before running into the enemy.
    We struggled with the problem of predicting relative velocities. What would we do if we had to slow down to invade an enemy structure, not speed up? In space, if a ship was flying toward an enemy station and you wanted to dock with it-or in this case, invade it-you had to slow down your approach at the end, rather than continuing to accelerate. When they fired us out of this invasion ship, we would already be moving at the same speed as the ship that had launched us, just like an object tossed out of a car window on a highway. If the attacking ship was moving toward the target at say, 50,000 knots, then an assault ship launched from it was going to hit a stationary target at 50,000 knots, even without using its engines at all. At that point, our ships would effectively be missiles, not an invasion force. Missiles with soft payloads of dead marines.
    If we encountered this situation, the assault ships would have to brake hard, using their engines to slow down to a speed that would allow a safe landing on the surface of the target.
    “In the worst case,” Gorski said as we reviewed our latest design, “I figure we could turn the main repellers around a hundred and eighty degrees and use the main unit for braking if necessary.”
    “Maybe we should make a single large propulsion unit, and make it mobile,” I said. “We could forget about all the smaller repellers, and use only one unit for maximum power. That way, we could direct it at any angle and get maximum thrust for braking once we are in close.”
    Gorski sucked in air between his teeth, making a hissing sound. He did that a lot, and it was irritating, but I didn’t complain. Most programmers were irritating people, and I included myself in that category. You had to ignore minor oddball habits to get good work out of your dev team. I once knew a guy who had to snap himself with rubber bands to work effectively. Snap, snap, snap. No one wanted to work near his cubicle, but if you let him snap himself until his skin was red, he would produce code that worked every time.
    “How about three propulsion units?” Gorski negotiated at last when he was done sucking his teeth. “One big one for thrust, then two smaller ones that rotate around the center for directional control.”
    “Why not just one?”
    He shook his head. “Because it will take too long to reposition. If they need to avoid an incoming missile or make fine adjustments when making their final approach, a single large unit couldn’t realign fast enough.”
    I nodded and agreed with his plan. We would go with three repellers for the assault ships. Once we had the design set, we set our surviving factories to build the needed components. If we had time after the first eight were perfect, we would build more. Next, we gave the nanite hulls their shaping instructions. It was like molding clay. I ran my gloves over the hulls, shaping it and guiding it into the shape I wanted. It was easier to do it that way than to explain to some dull-witted brainbox what you wanted in English. Once you had the nanite walls shaped, you could just tell them to remember the shape and they could reconfigure into that form perfectly. Smart metal was a wonderful thing.
    I climbed inside the first assault ship. It was sleek, and I felt a certain sense of pride in the design. Gorski felt it too, and followed me into the interior. The ship was designed with two rows of seats facing one another. Nanite arms were all I needed for harnesses. With a single, shaped-metal chair for the pilot up front and the big laser, the generator and the engine in back, the shuttle was straightforward in purpose and design. All it needed was a pilot and a platoon of marines in the seats, and we were in business.
    “Push that wall out, and smooth every surface with a gentle curve,” I told him.
    “To provide structural integrity?” he asked.
    I shook my head. “If we take a hard hit in one of these things, the men are all dead anyway, but I don’t want them smashing into hard edges if the ride gets bumpy. Even if everything goes perfectly, they are likely to slam their helmets into these walls when they impact with the target. Let’s not give them anything to injure themselves on.”
    There was a central rib that pressed into the hull like a belt around the entire ship. This was the track the directional repeller would move along. I took time with my gloved hands to guide the nanites over it, covering it with glittering particles. I felt like a sculptor. I supposed, in a way, that’s what I was.
    When we were finally satisfied with the design, we only had room for twenty marines in each ship. That meant a total force of one hundred and sixty marines in eight assault ships. It sounded like an absurdly small force, but I had to remind myself these were not the only men I had going out there. In fact, these few might be the lucky ones. Most of my troops would not be this well-protected. They would be going solo in a cloud behind these assault ships.
    The second day we spent designing the solo capsules. They amounted to a bullet-shaped cocoon of nanites wrapped around each marine. A flat disk under each man’s feet was a repeller, his only means of propulsion. Gorski and I designed these in less than an hour and set the factories to churning out the only elements we needed more of: the disk-shaped mini-repellers and a tiny brainbox for each to control it.
    Gorski and I eyed one another. I saw the guilt in his eyes. I felt it too.
    “These are death-traps,” he said quietly.
    “I know, Captain,” I said.
    He blinked at me. “Captain? I was a sergeant two days ago, Colonel. And I believe you might have skipped over first lieutenant.”
    “Yeah,” I said, running my hands over the interior of the capsule, looking for rough edges to smooth out. “But anyone who effectively helps me with design gets rank in my outfit. Besides, remember what I said? You’ve survived a day or two and now you’ve got your promotion.”
    Gorski chuckled. “Do you remember what I said? These assault ships and even these capsules could work very effectively against the two Macro ships we’re now sitting in the middle of.”
    “You’re right,” I said, “but so was what I said before. If it was just us, I would go for it today. But this isn’t about just us. I’ve made mistakes before. Remember China? I didn’t even attack the Macros that time. I just nosed around and pissed them off. I’m not keen to get millions more innocents killed.”
    Gorski nodded. “I understand, sir. We are expendable. We will do or die.”
    “We will do both,” I said, correcting him.
    Quietly, we smoothed and shaped our tiny, flying dishes. I hesitated, and then I ordered our factories to churn out sixteen hundred of them.
    I’d been working hard for hours, at that point. One annoying thing about a helmet was the fact that it kept you from touching your face. Abominable itching was something all my men had to endure for hours from time to time. As soon as I got through the airlock, I removed my helmet. The interior of every brick was pressurized. I breathed deeply of slightly fresher air and gave my head a good scratching.
    I got to thinking about a suit redesign. We had vacc suits, and they had done fairly well on Helios. But they were far from ideal. They weren’t really made for combat in pure vacuum, nor for weightless maneuvering. I envisioned many problems and deaths with our current designs. We’d come up with suit improvements before the Helios campaign, but I’d put our efforts into preparation for that world’s heavy gravity, such as the lighter combat kits I’d issued. I’d never really gotten around to improving each marine’s basic survival suit.
    The problem with combat in space was that any hit tended to be fatal to the victim. Even if you had a suit-puncture over a limb, it was hard to isolate that portion of the marine’s body without the injured man freezing and suffocating. The nanites helped a lot, as they were able to act like a smart metal, automatically sealing up the breach. But the first thing that happened was depressurization. So, even before the nanites could act, the marine had no air in his suit and none in his lungs. The freezing void would suck it all out. We’d taught our people to release all the air from their lungs in such a case-you could last a little longer that way. If you held your breath, you were asking for a rupture.
    I found these conditions unacceptable. A small puncture could take out one of my men effectively. Even if it didn’t kill him, it would at least incapacitate him. I soon found myself working on a new suit, a battle suit. There were a lot less of my people left now, and I knew the environment we would be facing. I figured the least I could do was give them the best equipment possible for the job.
    Hours went by. I came up with an armored design. A battle suit that was heavy, and required some exoskeletal help from the nanites to move under normal gravity. Naturally, as my marines were anything but average men, they could perform even without this power-assist, but I gave them everything I could. The helmet was hard polymers, as was the chest and limb covering pieces. These harder, thicker surfaces made the suit heavy, but that didn’t matter much in space with nanotized troops. Light hits from shrapnel and the like couldn’t penetrate the new battle suit.
    I decided to have each man be responsible for transferring the existing HUD unit inside his current headpiece into the new suits. That way, I didn’t have to duplicate all that delicate electronics. The power packs and weapons systems remained similarly untouched. I was focused on the skin of the suit and how it reacted to damage.
    I built the suit in regions, with separate compartments for your limbs, torso and head. There were seals that felt like pinching elastic at each of the critical junctures. With some fast acting sensors, I was able to build the suit so it would clamp down on any region that was compromised. For example, if a marine was hit in the leg, in a split-second the suit would close that section off so the rest of the suit didn’t lose pressure. When the nanites managed to repair the breach, the region could be repressurized.
    When it was done, I tested it myself first. The inside of the suit was stiff and somewhat uncomfortable. It smelled harshly of plastic and artificial materials. I was certain that in all history, no fighter had ever enjoyed donning his armor. Still, if it saved your life, you learned to love it.
    My first test consisted of detonating a grenade while my chest piece rested on it. This was not as easy to do as it sounds. I lay there, on top of the grenade, for sometime before finally lighting it off. I was reminded of being a kid on the high dive for the first time, looking down at cold blue water. Theoretically, I should survive this-but I wasn’t completely sure. I finally took the plunge and the world bucked beneath me, throwing me against the ceiling. I bounced from there and drifted back down.
    Afterward, I check the suit carefully. There was an impressive blast mark and some pitted spots in the chest region, but it had worked. I couldn’t think of a way to test the regional cut-off clamps without doing myself significant harm, so I figured real combat would prove or disprove my theories in that direction. I ordered several factories to churn these out. We should have a good number of them before we went into battle again.
    I took out another grenade from the ammo box and rolled it around in my gauntleted fingers, testing my manual dexterity. The suit made my hands move stiffly, there was no question of that. But I thought that a bridge officer could still work a screen with these gauntlets on. Again, it wasn’t preferable, but it was workable.
    I headed back to my quarters, exhausted. Sandra appeared to be asleep, so I slipped quietly into bed with her. I sighed and stretched out happily, more than ready for the last sleep I expected to get before things got crazy.
    Sandra surprised me, however. She woke up and came after me with sudden determination. Maybe it was the nearness of combat. The love-making was intense, desperate and almost painful. The ending for both of us was more of a tension-release than a blissful pleasure.
    Still, like most guys, I was happy to take what I could get.

4

    I was asleep when the Macros decided they’d waited long enough. What had it been? Less than three days, I figured. A little over sixty hours. Perhaps on their calendar a full day or a full week had passed. Who knew what equated to a day/night cycle for the Macros? I had no idea how they measured time, or if they measured it in consistent units at all.
    Major Sarin’s voice woke me up and a moment later the sirens sounded and yellow flashers started whirling. I couldn’t make out Sarin’s words, but I caught the tone: she was scared.
    I bounced out of bed, literally. Having a nanite-enhanced body and minimal gravity I touched the ceiling before I touched the floor.
    I knew why the klaxons were sounding, we were underway. I could have used more time, several weeks in fact. But for unknown reasons, Macro Command figured they had given us long enough to reconfigure our forces. They had never asked me how long I wanted. They had never asked anyone anything ever, as far as I could tell. They didn’t like questions from us either, they only responded to demands.
    Sandra had been in bed with me, but she was missing when I woke up. She stepped out of the shower unit naked and dripping. Her legs were long and tan. Runnels of water trickled down her calves. She hadn’t bothered with the dry cycle on the shower unit, and had just popped the exit button.
    “Is this it?” she asked.
    I nodded. “Sounds like it. I can feel the ship’s attitude jets firing.”
    We pulled on our suits without bothering to adjust them. We left the flaps open, knowing the nanite-chains impregnated in our reactive suits would figure out we weren’t closing them ourselves and seal the flaps after a while. Sometimes it was annoying when they insisted on rearranging your outfit, but they usually guessed right.
    Still carrying our boots, we rushed out through the bulkhead of our shared quarters into the narrow hallway. We moved quickly to the other end of the command brick and joined Sarin at the big screen. Gorski came in a few minutes later. His eyes were wide. Everyone looked nervous, and everyone knew we were nowhere near ready for this.
    “Sandra, connect me with Macro Command,” I said.
    Sandra had spent the last few days familiarizing herself with the bigger, more complex com-board in the command brick. She’s picked it up quickly, as it was essentially the same system as the private unit I had in my office. In the old days, however, she’d only handled my personal and political communications. Now, she was responsible for relaying commands to people who might die if she screwed up. I could see she was taking the job seriously. She had that fixed, focused expression on her face I’d come to recognize in my crew.
    The connection was up in seconds. I didn’t bother to praise her now, however. This was strictly business.
    “Macro Command,” I said. “This is Kyle Riggs. I require an update on our mission status.”
    “Mission is active.”
    “Give me the estimated timing for contact with the enemy.”
    “Four hours, fifty-eight minutes.”
    “Give me the estimated timing for our assault operation.”
    “Assault operation will commence in four hours, fifty-eight minutes.”
    I nodded and pursed my lips. Not much information there. Either we did not quite understand each other, or our assault was to begin immediately when we got into range with the enemy. Either way, we had less than five hours before things became serious.
    “Sir,” Major Sarin said, gesturing toward the screen.
    I eyed it. The donut-shaped ring loomed close. We’d been parked in orbit nearby for a day or two, but now the ships were nosing into the ring. Once we passed through it, we would be transported to another star system. As far as we’d been able to determine, such transportation was instantaneous.
    “Everyone brace for impact,” I said. “Remember the mines we hit the last time we entered a system, people. We don’t know what we are walking into.”
    Sandra hesitated a second, staring at the screen. I glowered at her until she remembered her job and relayed the order to everyone. Almost immediately, nanite arms reached down from the ceiling and grabbed each of us by the hooks that ringed our belts. More arms looped down and attached loosely to our wrists and ankles. All over the base, anyone who was not strapped and clamped to something solid made sure they were.
    The two Macro ships slid up close to the giant ring on the screen. The cruiser slipped through first and vanished. My guts clenched into a ball, and our invasion ship followed the cruiser.
    There was a shudder as we went through. I knew the feeling well by now. We had been transported to…somewhere else. To another star system. I once again wondered who had built these rings, these gateways that linked the stars. I knew the Macros hadn’t built them, even if they seemed adept at their use. Some other race had to have built much of the technology everyone seemed to be using: the rings, the factories that duplicated anything, the Nanos and the Macros themselves. I suspected there was a race which I called the Blues who were at the bottom of some of these mysteries, but I no longer believed they were responsible for all of them.
    I watched the screen as the sensor data came in. All of us watched, hardly breathing. We’d embedded a sensor array in the outer hull of the invasion ship some weeks ago and were able to gather a considerable amount of info from its passive systems. The Macros either hadn’t noticed the garbage can-sized sensor array, or they hadn’t cared to remove it. We were very glad for this small allowance. The only thing worse than heading into an unknown, hostile system, was doing it blind.
    “No mines sir-at least, not yet,” Major Sarin said.
    We all breathed more deeply, feeling fractionally relieved. Instant doom was not at hand.
    The screen blanked then. The data coming in from the Helios system had ceased, so it had to redraw and project the environment it was now sensing outside the invasion ship. The star came up first, unsurprisingly. As the source of energy with the greatest output, it was the easiest thing to plot. It was fairly distant, by the look of things. Either that, or the star was smaller than most.
    When the brainboxes chose a color for it, I was relieved to see a bright, yellow sphere. At least it wasn’t a radiation-blasting white or blue star, nor was it a dark neutron ball that might threaten to crush us.
    “Looks like a solo star,” Major Sarin said.
    “Navigator, do we have a range yet?” I asked.
    “Triangulation not yet possible,” Gorski said. “We haven’t moved far enough from our initial position. But judging by gravitational pull and brightness, the star projected on the map should be an accurate depiction. It is a G-class-a yellow-white star, like our own Sol. I would say it is fractionally smaller and younger, but other than that, very similar. The system seems to be a single-star system.”
    “Do we have confirmation on that?” I asked. Most star systems were not like our own Solar System. Most in the galaxy were binary or triple-star systems. Some systems revolved in a storm of stellar objects, tight clusters with many stars tugging at one another in close proximity. Such systems were inherently dangerous, due to increase radiation and gravitational effects.
    “Unless there is some dink star out there past our initial scan,” said Gorski, “then we are pretty certain.”
    “Okay, so far so good. Where are the damned planets?”
    “Maybe there aren’t any planets,” said Sandra. “The Macros said we were going to fight satellite structures.”
    “Unlikely,” I said. “Whoever built these satellites would have had to have something to build them with.”
    Even as I said it, a gas giant popped up on the screen. It wasn’t too far off, either. It was pretty far out from the single star, but not as far out as Jupiter. Eyeballing it, I would say it was about where our asteroid belt orbited back home. “There’s the first one,” I said.
    “Oh, that’s a good sign,” Sandra said.
    We all looked at her. “I’ve been reading about star system structures,” she said. “We don’t know everything yet, but a gas giant tends to suck in debris and makes the inner planets more habitable.”
    I nodded, pursing my lips. “It’s a theory,” I said. “But you are right, as far as we know that is the mechanism. I’m glad to hear you have taken an interest in astronomy.”
    Sandra smiled. “What choice do I have out here?”
    “While we are on the topic, let’s see if we can figure out where here is,” I said, knowing it was best to keep a waiting crew very busy. “As I recall, Gorski, you plotted our last star system’s position based on stellar mass and volatility.”
    “Right sir, the nearest match for the red giant we found was Aldebaran-it’s close to Earth, about sixty-five lightyears out. The star lines up with the belt of Orion.”
    “Isn’t that more of an orange giant?” I asked.
    “Right sir, but it fits the spectral signature of the Helios star.”
    I nodded. “I find that interesting, as the Blue Giant I visited once was most likely Bellatrix-the left shoulder of Orion. Let’s review: we have a known chain of five star systems. The first link on the chain is the blue giant Bellatrix-at least we think it was Bellatrix. Only Sandra and I were out there and we spent the whole time running around avoiding the Macros, not taking careful measurements. Anyway, subsequent analysis of the video we brought back places the star in that region, around the constellation of Orion.”
    Everyone nodded and worked their instruments. No one looked terrified. No one looked as if they were going to barf on my screen. I kept talking, and they stayed focused and calm while data poured into their computers concerning the new star system we’d just discovered.
    “The second star on the known chain of systems is Sol, our home star,” I continued. “Third was Alpha Centauri-very close to Earth. The fourth was the red giant where we fought the Worms on Helios. This is the fifth system we’ve mapped. It appears to be G-class. A yellow, cheery, solo star. Perfect for warm-water planets and life. What is the stellar mass, Gorski?”
    “About ninety-one percent that of Sol, sir,” he said. “Interesting new detail coming in: the star is metal-rich according to spectral analysis.”
    “Meaning?” I asked.
    “A higher likelihood of rocky planets.”
    I nodded thoughtfully. If we were on a colonizing mission, this would be an excellent place to start. None of the other systems I’d visited thus far had been inviting places for humans to live.
    “Sir, more bodies are being plotted now-a lot of them,” Gorski said.
    We watched quietly as planets appeared magically on the big screen. There were indeed a lot of them, and no less than six were in what we projected to be the habitable zone. Two of these were twins, both about the size of Mars. They orbited one another in a tight, tidally-locked dance. It was as if each was the moon of the other.
    Such a lovely system. There had to be habitable planets here. It was a colonization mission commander’s dream.
    “Life signs?” I asked quietly.
    “None yet, but we have six in the zone for liquid water, and a grand total now of twenty-one bodies, not counting moons.”
    Twenty-one worlds. My mind could hardly grasp it. Our eight planets-plus Pluto-seemed paltry in comparison. Eleven of these were out past the gas giant, frozen iceballs it was certain. There was a handful in too close as well, blasted worlds that must look like Mercury. But it was those six worlds in the cradle, nestled between a gas giant and their steady, warm sun, which kept drawing my eye.
    I looked around my crew and saw that all of them were feeling a sense of wonder. We had discovered what might turn out to be a treasure-trove of habitable planets.
    “I wish this was a friendly, exploratory mission of peace,” Sandra said.
    We all looked at her, and we all wished the same thing. But we had come here to fight-and we didn’t even know who we were up against yet.
    “Something I don’t get,” I said aloud. “There are six living worlds, and yet the Macros said we are going after people on satellites. What’s wrong with the planets? Have we spotted any of these stationary structures yet?”
    “No sir. They are too small to detect yet. They wouldn’t have much gravitational tug, less than a moon. They probably aren’t emitting too much radiation, either.”
    “Try radio waves. Are we picking up any com traffic?”
    Sandra jumped a little and worked at her board. “Oops,” she said.
    I looked at her with a flat stare. She made tapping adjustments on her screen. Suddenly, the big screen lit up with contacts.
    “I think I had it set for known contacts and signals only,” Sandra said. “It was just showing our two Macro ships.” She turned back to the big screen. Then she shut up and joined all of us in jaw-dropping shock.
    The screen swam with hundreds of contacts. There were ships around every planet, or satellites of some kind. Dozens of contacts roved the surfaces of all six of the central planets and a few on the icy worlds as well.
    “Give me some color!” I shouted. “Sarin, give me something. I want to see red on unknowns, blue on Macros.”
    “Working on it, sir,” she replied evenly. “Blue contacts are Macros.
    There it was. I had my answers. Every contact on the surface of every planet was a Macro. All six of the living worlds were crawling with them. Up in space, there were red contacts, however. Unknowns in stationary orbits. Those had to be our targets. Orbiting apart from the satellites was a small number of what I assumed to be Macro ships.
    “Looks like we’ve come to this party late,” I said.
    “Why do they even need us?” asked Major Sarin. “The Macros have them surrounded; they are running wild on every planet.”
    I shrugged. I had a few ideas already. Maybe the satellites were rigged to blow up if they got too close. Maybe they knew they would take a few losses in these final assaults and decided they’d rather lose human fodder. Or maybe, this was all a big test to see which side was stronger, these defeated beings or my marines.
    Whatever the answer, I knew we were going to be fighting brother biotics again soon, people who appeared to be on their knees already, and it made me sick.
    “Colonel?” Sandra said.
    I didn’t answer for a second. I just stared at the screen. I was trying not to have an angry outburst. It would not be good for morale.
    “Kyle,” Sandra said insistently, her voice full of sudden emotion. “I’ve got new contacts. Very close, very faint.”
    My eyes swept back to our spot on the map. We were at the ring still, in terms of distance we’d covered little ground. There was a scattering of tiny, green dots nearby.
    “What are those?” I asked, frowning.
    “They’re…” Sandra trailed off. She tapped at her screen with urgency, and piped through a transmission to our speakers. “I think they’re ours.”
    “S. O. S…” a scratchy voice came in for a moment, then faded out, then came in again. “We’re Star Force marines, Echo Company. Can anyone read me?”
    A chill ran through me. I knew I was hearing my own marines, calling to me for help.

5

    For one crazy second, I thought we might have gone through some kind of time-warp. Then I thought of a worse scenario. Maybe, just maybe, we had finally experienced a relativistic effect of the rings. What if this one wasn’t operating properly? What if it really had taken centuries to transport us from Helios to this system, and the men outside were beaten Star Force units from our own future? For all I knew, I was looking at six worlds covered in Macro robots that had once been human colonies. If that were the case, we were far worse than late for the battle. We were centuries late, and we were on the wrong side.
    I tried to push these wild thoughts away. They wouldn’t do any of my crew, or myself, any good to contemplate.
    “I know who it is,” Sandra said. Everyone looked at her this time, and not with disgust, but with hope.
    She smiled, but none of us smiled back. We didn’t share in her hope yet. “It’s the guys that fell through the ring-back on Helios, remember? They had to go somewhere.”
    I stared at her, and suddenly I realized she was right. It had to be. It was the simplest answer. The contacts were small. They could be single men, floating in space. They would have been out here for what…four days now? They could have survived that long. Our rebreathers were better than old Earth technology had ever built. With nanos scrubbing out the CO2, they could function almost indefinitely. They would have been critically short of water, power and rations, but…
    I nodded. “I think you’re right. They are our marines.”
    “The marines who were sucked through the ring with the Worms?” Major Sarin asked in something like shock. “They are still alive?”
    I nodded again, and leaned on the table. I leaned close to the tiny green contacts. I felt a growing certainty. “Is there no way we can get a signal out to them?” I asked.
    Sandra shook her head and bit her lip. I had known the answer of course, but felt I had to ask the question. I had set up a sensor array in the skin of the invasion ship weeks ago, but it was passive in design. It didn’t transmit radio signals. All it did was feed data down a nanite wire to us in the hold.
    We heard the S. O. S message again. The marine giving it sounded tired, but determined. Maybe he could see the Macro ships flying by. I wasn’t surprised none of the Macros had stopped to pick them up or even to send them an acknowledgement. My marines were broken equipment. Useless and beneath notice. There was no compassion in the Macros. They probably didn’t even comprehend the concept.
    “You have to do something, Kyle,” Sandra said.
    Right then, for the first time, I thought I had made a mistake promoting her and putting her on the command brick. She was too familiar with me, and made constant breaches of protocol under stress. I figured I’d have to come up with a way to get her into another job description soon. Without pissing her off too badly, of course.
    I put up my hand for quiet. “I’m trying to think of something.”
    “We could try a focused radio beam, it might penetrate the hull,” Gorski suggested.
    “Just call up the Macros and tell them to pick them up,” Sandra suggested.
    Major Sarin didn’t say anything. She watched me and the board, flicking her eyes between both.
    “We’ll try the Macros first,” I said. “Connect me with Macro Command.”
    “Channel open,” Sandra said immediately.
    “Macro Command. We require reinforcements for maximum combat effectiveness.”
    “No reinforcements are available.”
    “Negative, Macro Command. We have detected a group of our marines in very close proximity. They are stranded. We could bring them back to this ship and increase our combat numbers significantly.”
    “Permission granted.”
    Everyone cheered. I grinned at my audience. It felt good to win one once in a while. “Excellent, Macro Command. If you would slow down the invasion ship and turn around, we’ll pick them up now.”
    There was a momentary delay. “Request denied.”
    I felt as if someone had kicked me in the gut. I fought to keep my temper under control. “Macro Command, we demand that you retrieve our lost forces.”
    “This task force will not alter its schedule. It will not decelerate. It will not alter course. Mission parameters will be met.”
    “How the hell do they expect us to pick them up, then?” I demanded.
    “Colonel?” Major Sarin said. “Sir?”
    “What is it?”
    “The doors sir, they-”
    But she didn’t get any further. Alarms went off all over the base.
    Doors? I thought, then I figured it out, and I screamed for the crash-straps to be re-engaged. This time, Sandra didn’t waste any time. She relayed the command, and all over the base little nano arms sprouted and grabbed Marines, securing them. It was a good thing too, as the four triangular doors of the hold had cracked open and begun to fold outward. Escaping atmosphere boiled out into space. We felt the command brick shift with the explosive force of its passage. The magnetic clamps held, however, and none of the bricks floated out with it.
    A few of my men were not so lucky. They were lifted as if by a tornado. I ordered the internal cameras in the hold to be displayed. Marines and equipment spiraled out of the flowering jaws of the invasion ship into space. They all appeared to have their helmets on, at least.
    “Man the assault ships!” I shouted over the roaring din. “I want every pilot aboard their ships, with a complement of two, including one medic. Get out there and rescue every marine you find!”
    The next few minutes were a frenzy of activity. The doors had opened and sucked out dozens of my men into space before the crash-straps could grab them. I figured they were getting their null-gravity training hands-on today. I ordered one of my eight assault ships to pick up local men, those who had been sucked out by the released pressure in the hold. The other seven ships I sent back to the ring we had just come through. They were to grab every living man they could and bring them back.
    “Sir?” Gorski asked, trying to get my attention.
    “What is it, Captain?” I snapped.
    “I’m not sure, sir…”
    “Not sure about what?”
    “Not sure this will work. I’m still toying with the math. You might have to abort the rescue effort at the ring.”
    “Clarify. And do it fast.”
    Gorski shook his head and worked at his screen where he had a big spreadsheet app displayed. Calculus functions were everywhere, displaying large numbers.
    “The invasion ship is not decelerating. If we send back our assault shuttles, they might not be able to get to the marines, pick them up, and then turn around and chase us down before we’ve reached our destination.”
    “Which is?” I asked.
    Gorski tapped his board. “I’ve plotted that out. Given our course and the time-frame the Macros provided, we are heading for one of the big satellites orbiting the outermost warm-water world. There are factors I’m not sure of, but if the Macros keep to their schedule and launch us about four hours from now, we will be going pretty fast when we get there as it is.”
    “Just do the math, and give me the answer.”
    “I can’t give you a definitive answer, sir,” he said. “There are unknowns.”
    “Such as?”
    “The big one is our launch point: How far out do the Macros expect to be when they launch us at the enemy?”
    I nodded. I could see that. If they intended to move right up and dock with these satellites…that was a far different set of circumstances than firing us out of the hold at a safe distance. Possibly, they intended to pass by and shoot us out laterally, like drive-by bullets fired out a window. Not being able to ask your commander a legitimate question about the grand plan was painful when setting up an assault.
    “What’s your call, sir?” Gorski asked.
    “What’s a safe point of no return?” I asked.
    Gorski didn’t ask what I meant. He knew well enough. I watched him tap at his screen. I needed to know how long I had in the worst case to make my decision.
    “You should have two hours, Colonel,” he said. “After that, we are taking the risk of not having the assault ships with us when we have to make our attack-given that the macros won’t adjust their timetable.”
    I thought about it, and the more I did the more I didn’t like it. The Macros had never been easily diverted from their plans-even when they were suicidal. They’d rather see us all die pointlessly than be a few minutes late. There was a certain beauty in their approach, from a commander’s point of view. These heartless robots were very good at motivating people to be on time.
    I listened for a second to the SOS calls. I ordered Sandra to hook me up on an open transmission channel to my drifting marines. At least, with the hold door open, we could do that much.
    “Echo Company,” I said. “This is Colonel Kyle Riggs. We are in contact. We have your positions mapped. We are coming to get you, boys…one way or another.”
    There was a lot of cheering after that. Only Major Sarin and Captain Gorski stared at me worriedly. They knew I was splitting my forces in the face of an unknown enemy. I was changing the plan midstream. Possibly, this was a foolish error, but I couldn’t bear the thought of sailing on by my own men and leaving them hanging out there in space, watching us. I knew they were dying gradually in the cold. Call me a sentimental fool, if you wish.

6

    Out of the seventeen marines who were sucked out into space, we recovered all but two alive. Three of the survivors were too banged up to fight, but they would heal fast in tanks of nanites. They would have to sit out this assault, but if there was another one, they would be ready to go by tomorrow. Our medical nanites were now better than ever before. They seemed to be learning and getting better at bodily repair each passing month. I often joked they would be able to convert me into a blue-eyed blond, if I wanted to be one, in a few years. They had studied human anatomy for decades prior to the invasion, but that was different than real trauma recovery.
    It was miraculous to watch when they flowed over an open wound. I winced when I checked on my injured men, knowing the itch they felt and the gagging tastes of metal in their mouths. A common unpleasant side-effect was sudden blindness that struck when too many clustered around the optical nerve, shorting it out, or went for a swim in the aqueous fluid.
    But one could not argue, despite these inconveniencies, the nanites were a godsend. They weren’t like a surgeon-they were like a million tiny surgeons, able to stitch up something as small as an individual cellular membrane. They weren’t as small as viruses, but they could be as small as a single microbe. They were like intelligent, metal microbes that worked in tandem to do amazing things.
    The seven assault ships I’d sent back to the ring to pick up the rest of my men had reached them by now. They hadn’t finished the retrieval process, however. It wasn’t easy. My marines were floating around out there in the dark, drifting away from one another. Many were on emergency power and didn’t even have working transponders. I returned to the command brick after ninety minutes and had Sandra contact the pilots.
    “Time to finish up out there, Major Welter,” I said, calling my squad leader. Major Kurt Welter was new, and newly promoted, but he’d done well back on Helios. He was my replacement for Captain Roku, who’d died in his hovertank on Helios. Welter had flown with the Fleet back at Andros Island-before the Nanos had taken off and abandoned Earth. That rare flying experience had led me to put him in command of the assault ships.
    “We’ve recovered most of them, sir. We’re down to the ones that aren’t responding.”
    “You mean the bodies?” I asked.
    “Mostly. Every few minutes, we find one that is still breathing, however. They can’t signal us if their power has dropped too far, and many are partly frozen. I’m not sure how much good they will be in the upcoming fight.”
    “They won’t be much good at all,” I said. “That’s not why we’re picking them up.”
    “Of course not, sir,” Welter said smoothly. “But by the calculations, we soon won’t have enough time to participate in the attack…unless you want us to use these troops we just picked up?”
    I thought about that, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t expect these men to fight, not after they’d been floating out here for days. “Here’s what we’re going to do, Kurt,” I said. “Move all the survivors off one ship and put them aboard the other five. Then leave the empty ship on rescue for now. The other six will then head back to the mothership.”
    “Roger that, sir.”
    “And Major Welter? The ship you leave behind will not be yours. I want you leading this assault.”
    “Assumed, sir. Welter out.”
    I looked at Gorski when the connection closed. “Will they make it?”
    He nodded. “They’ve got to hurry. But barring any further surprises or acceleration on the part of the Macros-then yes, barely.”
    Seven ships. That was what I had to work with. That, plus sixteen hundred one-man capsules. I didn’t like to think about what might happen to all those men in nanite soap-bubbles if my assault ships didn’t make it back in time to breach the hull of the target satellite for them.
    One benefit of having the Macros blow the doors open on us and having my ships out there was the superior dataflow coming from the assault squadron’s collective sensors. They weren’t exactly scout ships, but they were a lot better than the single array I had embedded in the Macro ship’s hull.
    “Let’s take a look at the target list and what we know about them.”
    “I’m certain we are headed for the outermost habitable world,” Gorski said. “We just don’t have time to reach the others. I’ve got three satellites orbiting that world. I think it is significant to note that the Macro cruisers are staying many thousands of miles from any of these satellites.”
    “Which would indicate they are armed with space-combat weaponry,” I said. “Do we have any intel on these platforms and their combat abilities? Are they engaging the Macros? Are they firing anything at them?”
    “No sir, not so far as I can tell.”
    I shook my head and scratched the back of it. Why weren’t they fighting? This had to be some kind of test. Maybe the Macros just wanted to see what my troops could do in this situation. Maybe they thought we were the best unit they had. If that was the case, I appreciated the compliment, but I certainly didn’t want to keep impressing them.
    “Colonel Riggs?” asked Major Sarin. I slid my eyes toward her. “If those platforms have enough firepower to keep a Macro cruiser at bay, sir…”
    I nodded, agreeing with her unspoken thought. “Yes. That means they will blast our assault ships completely out of the sky. Not to mention our pathetic suicide capsules.”
    Sarin stared at me. “Are we really going through with this, Colonel? If we are crippled in numbers, we will lose all of our other-options.”
    There it was again. I looked around at them briefly. I could tell they thought we would have better odds fighting the Macros. I felt a spiking headache blossom at the base of my neck. I wanted to attack the invasion ship as badly as they did. I wanted to run out of this system and head back to Earth. But now, there were witnesses. Macros were everywhere. Right here, in this system, there were enough ships to head back to Earth and trash my homeworld.
    “Proceed as ordered,” I said.
    The assault ships were coming back now. Accelerating as hard as they could, they slid toward us at an impressive velocity. I thought they just might make it.
    “We’re going to need covering fire from these Macro ships,” I said, shaking my head. I could not fathom how else we were going to get all the way to the hull of one of these space stations without getting blown away. “Open a channel to Macro Command.”
    Sandra did as I asked instantly. She was really on top of things now. I thought maybe I hadn’t screwed up by putting her in the command brick after all.
    “Macro Command, this is Kyle Riggs.”
    Silence. The Macros had never been big on salutary greetings.
    “We request supporting fire from Macro Cruisers on the primary target satellite.”
    “Request denied.”
    I blinked in rapid annoyance. “In order to assure operational success, we require supporting fire.”
    “Request denied.”
    With all my heart, I wanted to shout WHY NOT? But I didn’t. I kept cool and tried to think of a better wording for my request. I couldn’t come up with anything, so I decided to work on the question of why they were refusing. I couldn’t do it by simply asking, of course.
    I closed my eyes to focus to the conversation.
    “Your refusal to cooperate is not logical,” I said.
    “Incorrect. The request cannot be granted.”
    “You are asserting that my request is impossible.”
    “Incorrect. The request cannot be granted.”
    “Explain your logic in not granting my request.”
    “Prior agreements are to be respected in this instance.”
    My eyes snapped open again at that. Prior agreements? At first, I thought they meant the agreements they had with us. What deal had they made that indicated they could not provide covering fire? Were they worried they would hit some of my men as we launched our assault?
    “Explain the nature of your prior agreements pertinent to this decision.”
    There was a hesitation. I knew I had whatever served these robots for a central brain churning with that one.
    “Request denied. Arrangements with other states are not to be shared with Kyle Riggs.”
    I froze as I suddenly, completely, got it. They weren’t talking about a deal they had with us, they were talking about a deal they had with them. Whoever was in those satellites had negotiated a peace of some kind-a truce. Probably, the Macros had promised not to attack the satellites. Maybe at the point they had agreed, the Macros had been losing, or didn’t have the full power of their fleet here yet to finish the job.
    I looked down at the big screen, which shifted now to give us a visual on each of the planets. The two closest to the star looked desertous, like Mars, but there were still icecaps, feathery clouds and some visible, muddy oceans. The three in the center, including the twin worlds, were verdant and gorgeous. I saw my first blue alien oceans, with thick clouds and green continents.
    The one we were streaking toward was mostly white, being a colder world. I imagined that arctic sheets of ice spanned most of the planet. It was a big world covered with dark, craggy mountains. A dozen narrow seas glinted between the peaks at the center of the world, like a belt of jewels. It appeared habitable, but mostly around the equator.
    The Macros planned to use us to finish off the people who lived here, whoever they were. I could see it all in my mind now. The desperate leaders of these lovely worlds had negotiated at some point in the past. They had made a grim deal with the Macros, just as I had when we faced extinction. They had forged a peace treaty to save their own skins. They’d given up the surface of all six of their worlds, which were now overrun with Macros, and agreed to keep only their satellite habitats. They’d made the deal in good faith, probably years ago.
    And the Macros were going use us to break the peace. We were not Macros, and so we were not included as part of the deal.

7

    The assault ships returned from the rescue mission less than an hour before the Macros had indicated we were expected to launch. We quickly loaded each of the ships with a complement of twenty marines. Less than a hundred and fifty men, and everything depended on them. I ordered the rest to follow in their wakes. Two hundred more marines would fly in their tiny capsules behind each of the assault ships.
    Warrant Officer Sloan was among the survivors the ships brought in. I had to smile at that. He had jumped out of his hovertank and survived when it had flipped over right in front of me, back in the Helios campaign. Here, he had survived again, against all odds. He wasn’t even in bad shape, considering he’d spent three days in emergency survival mode, floating in space.
    I met with him as they unloaded the ships. I clasped his right hand in both of mine.
    “Really good to see you, Sloan,” I said, and I meant it.
    “Colonel!” he said, looking tired but joyous at having survived. “Your happiness is nothing compared to mine, let me assure you.”
    I chuckled. “I believe you. Tell me, what happened to the thousand-odd Worms you took into the void with you?”
    His face clouded for a moment. “I almost felt sorry for them. They weren’t wearing vacc-suits-we were. Mostly, we just kept out of their reach until they died. It took a long time for some of them to stop twitching out there.”
    I nodded, visualizing the scene. It was not pretty.
    “We calculated you had enough power to run the rebreathers for a week, but what about heat, water, food?”
    “Mostly, we starved and dehydrated. A few tried to synthesize Worm meat into distilled water. It just ran their suit power down, as the meat was frozen. We waited out there floating in chains, linking our arms together. We never really thought there would be a rescue, but only a few opened their suits and committed suicide. We told stories and watched the ring. When your ships came through, we started taking turns increasing the power on our suit transmissions, taking the chance someone would hear.”
    “If we survive and see Earth again,” I said, “I’m going to see every one of your men get a commendation.”
    “At least there are no sharks in space, sir,” Sloan said with a weak grin.
    Oh, but there are, I thought, but I laughed at his joke and guided them to the infirmary. Some actually tried to volunteer for assault ship duty, but I refused them. They had to rest up for the next battle. They were my reserve force. They didn’t argue.
    I headed back to the command brick with a heavy heart. We had less than half an hour to go before the assault began. In all my recent years of hard decisions, this one topped my list. I realized I would have to decide if the Star Force marines would be a tool in the cold, heartless, metal claws of the Macros once again. I had never created this army for this purpose. I had never meant for things to go this way. I imagined many historical commanders had felt the same dismay I felt right now when they realized their beloved armies had been misused by others. I recalled the German general, Choltitz, who had disobeyed his orders to blow up Paris when forced to retreat.
    My decision involved even bigger stakes, however. If I played this badly, I could cause millions back home to die. I hardened my heart. The aliens who were so clearly on their knees here had to suffer, so my own people didn’t suffer. Extinction is a hard thing to be a part of, but I decided I would be the one responsible for the extinction of another species, rather than my own. I cajoled myself with promises. I would try an attack and see how it went. We didn’t have to kill everyone. With luck, they would surrender. Perhaps there would only be one attack required to end this. Such pretty lies we tell ourselves, sometimes.
    “How are things shaping up, Gorski?” I asked as I stepped onto the command brick. The big screen showed all twenty-one planets clearly now, all various shapes and sizes. Both the enemy target and the Macro cruisers in the system were centered around the six worlds in the habitable warm-water zone. There was just one cruiser in orbit here, and it was parked on the far side of the planet.
    “A lot of things the Macros have hinted at make sense now, sir,” he said. “We are going to sail right by the target. At the exact minute they’ve indicated, we will fire our invasion forces laterally toward the target. The assault ships can glide in over half the distance, more or less invisible in space as small, cold objects. We’ll look like a storm of ice particles. But when they get in close, they’ll have to fire our engines up to slow down, or risk being smashed into the target hull. We’ll see if they sense us and shoot us down then.”
    I nodded. “What about the eighth assault ship?” I asked.
    “It won’t make it back in time,” Gorski said. “We’ll have to do this op with seven.”
    “We don’t have any choice, do we sir?” Major Sarin asked.
    “What’s that?” I asked. “We always have a choice, Major.”
    Sarin and I locked gazes for a second, then she dropped her eyes back to her screen.
    “We’re slave troops, aren’t we, Colonel?” Gorski asked me suddenly.
    I turned to him. “What?”
    “I used to think we were mercenaries-that was bad enough. But we are worse than that. We have no choices. We get no pay. We must fight or our families die back home. I wonder what kind of deal those people made to stay alive.”
    Gorski was looking at the six, beautiful worlds on our screen. My eyes followed his there, and I was as fixated as he was. Somehow, when they were displayed with all their promise of life, perfect sunsets and smiles, it was painful to the human spirit. We were helping the wrong side. It was inarguably clear at that moment. I knew this, but I didn’t see any way out of the situation. In such a grim state of mind, it would be hard for my people to fight, I realized. They would be distracted. They would make mistakes.
    I decided to help them out. I decided they needed something to believe in, and the only thing they had left was me. In short, I decided to lie.
    “Don’t worry about it,” I told my officers. “I’m working on something. All this is going to turn out fine.”
    They stared at me, and visibly brightened. They had hope again, I could see it swimming into their minds. I had infected them with that old monster, the hope-monkey. Even Sandra caught it, I could tell. She had faith in me. Hadn’t I always pulled a rabbit out of every hat in the past? They wanted to believe, so they did. They didn’t even ask what my plan was. It was enough to know I had one. Everyone relaxed and felt more confident-except for me.
    Because only I knew I was full of shit.

8

    When the assault ships were loading up, I met Kwon on the deck of the hold. The deck curved upward gently, as we were really standing inside the walls of a giant cylinder. The big doors stood open, the four leaves spread like a steel flower. The yawning doors let in the white light reflected up from the ice world as we glided closer. Brilliant yellow starlight from the nearby sun flowed in as well, casting long, stark shadows.
    Kwon was wearing one of the new battle suits, as was I. He looked huge and machine-like. His suit had been a special order, as it was the largest size I’d come up with. Not everyone had a suit yet. There weren’t enough to go around. I had decided to put them on the men in the assault shuttles, as they would get to the target first.
    “Down here to see us off, Colonel?” Kwon asked me.
    “Are you going in one of the ships?” I asked.
    “Yes sir.”
    “Me too. I’ll fly with Major Welter.”
    Kwon looked at me sharply. “I didn’t realize you were coming along.”
    “Where else would I be? I don’t like sending my troops into harm’s way without sharing the pain. You know that, Captain Kwon.”
    “Sir, permission to speak freely.”
    “Granted.”
    “Are you out of your freaking mind?” Kwon asked in a low voice. There was more than a hint of exasperation in his tone.
    I chuckled. “Some think so.”
    “We need our commander at the command brick, on the boards, coordinating all this.”
    I shook my head. “There isn’t anything to coordinate. There is no firepower to back up the assault, no more ships. There won’t be a second wave. How can I second-guess the ground commander on a mission like this? Whoever stays in this hold will be watching and providing some sensor data-that’s it.”
    “I still think you’re crazy.”
    “You’re still right. You want to come with me on my ship?”
    “No,” Kwon said. “But I’ll do it anyway. That way, when they blow you out of space I can take command.”
    I grinned. “For the good of the Force?”
    “Right, sir. Can I ask more questions?”
    “Talk to me, Captain.”
    “How do we get back?” he asked.
    I stared at him. I opened my mouth to say: the Macros will come pick us up. But I stopped myself. I had no indication from Macro Command they would do anything to retrieve us. They had only shown concerns for such issues when we left the Worm planet. We had our mission parameters. We were to take the enemy satellite. But that was all we knew about the Macro plans.
    I frowned at him. “Hopefully,” I said, “the Macro ships will park in orbit around this world and we will be allowed to fly back to them.”
    “I hope so too, sir. About the enemy, do we kill them all or what?”
    I nodded, I’d thought of this one. “We’ll kill as many as we have to, then get them to surrender.”
    “What if they won’t? Could get bloody.”
    “I know, but any beaten force eventually-”
    Kwon interrupted me, which was uncharacteristic for him. “They have nowhere to retreat. Would you surrender to aliens or fight to the last? Maybe they don’t know about surrender and mercy.”
    I didn’t like where he was going. He wanted to know if he had permission to slaughter an entire population. We hadn’t even met these people, and we were planning their massacre. The entire conversation had a surreal feel to it. We were the first humans to come to this star system, and we would be remembered as vicious invaders. What did that mean for the future? Would we be reviled millennia from now due to an incident I presided over today? I would have rubbed at my neck, but with my armor on, I couldn’t barely feel the squeeze of my hand.
    “We will have to play it by ear. If I don’t make it, you will take command. You will do as you think best.”
    Kwon didn’t look happy with those orders. I understood. Big decisions were painful ones. There was no clear policy we could follow right now. We might be forced to destroy the creatures on the space station to survive. We might all die in space just getting there. Or, they might all bow down and beg for mercy. We really didn’t know, and the unknown was hard to take.
    “I heard about your plan for the Macros,” Kwon said, grinning at me.
    I looked at him sharply. For a second, I thought maybe he was making a joke. He knew me too well, and maybe he knew I had nothing.
    “You always have a plan, Riggs,” he said, honking with laughter. “They might not always work, but you always have a trick!”
    I smiled tightly and nodded. I always had something, you could ask anyone and they would confirm it. I only wished it was true this time. I left him to his preparations and walked up the curving deck of the hold. My boots didn’t clank upon the deck, because we were in vacuum and there was no air to carry the sound waves to my ears. I heard only a muffled click that came up through my suit to my helmet as I took each step.
    I thought about the Macro ships. Most of them were staying away from us, and away from the satellites. It seemed clear they had some kind of deal with the aliens in their orbital structures. They probably had agreed not to come within weapons range of the stations. That would explain the wide berth they gave them. Through Macro logic, however, they’d decided we weren’t part of the equation. We weren’t exactly Macro forces, so if they threw us at a space station and we took it out, they hadn’t violated their deal.
    What that meant tactically was the Macro ships would not be too close to the station while we fought. They would not lend us fire support. We were on our own. I had no idea if we would survive this assault, but if we did, they would most likely keep using us on other missions. Until we were all dead.
    It was impossible not to think of turning on our masters in this situation. I had done some planning, of course. These boarding systems I’d put together would serve equally well to attack Macros. I thought we could do it-at least that we had enough firepower to take the invasion ship and the cruiser, if need be. But there would be losses, especially against the cruiser.
    Hypothetically, I considered the situation we’d be in if I did take control of the ships and somehow figured out how to fly them. Big ‘ifs’. In such a case, we would have to run. We couldn’t fight all the ships in the system. There were four cruisers in this system that we’d spotted in addition to our escort, and more could be quietly orbiting somewhere or sitting on a moon, repairing or mining. They would certainly come at us and take us down.
    I found myself standing in front of the row of dark bricks that held our factory units. Each one contained one of the strange, programmable duplicating machines. We had only lost one factory brick since the start of the campaign. This was largely due to my prioritization of defense. The factories were the most critical assets we had.
    I tapped out an entry code and stepped into the nearest of the factories. It had been churning out a guidance system for a new assault ship. If we had been given another week, I could have doubled the number of assault ships in our arsenal. I doubted we would be given more than another hour before we were called upon to attack, however. The Macros were fanatically punctual.
    I stared at the strange machine. We still didn’t understand it, nor did we even know who had built the original. We knew what it took to create one, but only the machines themselves could reproduce more factories. It was as if I were a primitive biologist from the early renaissance period, examining the human body and wondering how it worked. Figuring these things out completely would probably take Earth’s scientists centuries.
    I decided to change the program. They’d finished the battle suits now, and we had all the assault ships we could use. What I did need was a way of stopping Macro cruisers from destroying my forces-if we were to turn on them. I had by no means made that decision yet, but if nothing else, if we were down to our last handful of troops we could at least die well. We could blow up this ship, if nothing else.
    Explosives? I recalled the mines the Worms had used so effectively, destroying several cruisers. Maybe if we could trail a few out behind us we could get rid of a Macro cruiser.
    I set to work, and soon had a new design that I hoped would do the trick. We didn’t have enough radioactives for big charges. The mines could hardly deliver more than a kiloton yield each. But with a tiny brainbox, some magnetic sensors and a mini propulsion system that was only enough to push a magnetic boot through space. I ordered one factory to produce as many as it could.
    What seemed like moments later, a hammering came at the door. Kwon appeared in the airlock. I told the factory unit to end our programming session and continue the manufacturing.
    “Sir?” said Kwon, poking his blocky helmet into the room.
    “Yes, what is it, Kwon?”
    “Time to launch, sir. The Macros-they are ordering us to jump out the big doors.”
    “Oh, uh-” I said, stunned to hear so much time had passed. “Why didn’t someone call me?”
    Kwon pointed to my helmet. I’d taken it off, and switched off my suit radio. The chatter made it hard to think.
    “Right,” I said. “Get to your assault ship. I’ll be right there. We launch in five.”
    He vanished, and I turned back to the factory. I ordered it to group-link all the factories. They were to make more mines and battle suits in my absence. I didn’t even know how many they could make in the amount of time we had, but I figured it should be enough. I didn’t even know if I was going to use the new equipment or not.
    The assault ships, when we finally climbed into them, reminded me somewhat of my original hovertank design. I’d come up with the design back on Earth, with some of these same, shark-like contours. They were sleek and dangerous-looking.
    When I reached the assault ship that had saved a seat for me, I barely had time to get the nanite arms to reach up and strap me in before it launched. I looked at the front wall, where beads of metal crawled. Each one indicated where a nearby ship was. The contact representing our ship was green, the rest of the assault ships were faintly yellow. The two big Macro ships were blue and oblong. I could see our green contact was the last one in the chain. We were late to the party.
    Behind my ship, as I watched, hundreds of tiny contacts appeared. They were so faint and so numerous, they looked like rippling flaws in the metal wall. I knew they were not mistakes, or static. They were my men. Each man stood in a capsule, with his legs stiff, his body being pressed hard by acceleration. The capsules were little more than two foot-wide parabolic disks with a propulsion unit on the back and a skin of nanites covering the occupant. The tiny capsules guided themselves, but could be set for manual operations, in which case the marine riding it could guide the vehicle by leaning. The men already had several names for them: dishes, skateboards and flying saucers.
    Inside the assault ship, dull metal finishes ruled. I’d put in control systems for every individual marine’s seat at the base of the nanite arms that served us as restraints. Normally, Nano ships were controlled by voice, interacting with the brainbox verbally. In this case, I didn’t want to fly my marines into combat with arms gripping them which they couldn’t release on their own. Combat conditions were hard to predict. The brainbox or the pilot could be taken out of the equation, or both. With my design, every man had some level of control of his own situation. If he tapped or kicked a bead of metal, the nanite arms would release him automatically.
    “Any incoming fire yet, pilot?” I asked.
    “Negative, sir,” she said. The pilot was Lieutenant Joelle Marquis. She was young and inexperienced, but none of that could be heard in her voice. Her words rang with calm authority and a slight, French accent. She was one of the Fleet people I’d brought along in case I’d needed to build a flying force at some point. On Helios, she’d been left manning the walls, but now her piloting skills were sorely needed.
    Kwon leaned forward and waved to me, indicating he wanted to touch helmets. I immediately complied, wondering what my second in command might want to say in private. Since the assault ships were not pressurized, we could normally only communicate with radio intercoms. By touching our bulbous faceplates together, vibrations could be carried and voices therefore could be heard, but only by the two people in close contact. I found myself staring into Kwon’s big face, which was grinning. Being so close to another guy was disconcerting, but you got used to it.
    “What is it, Captain?” I asked.
    “She’s really hot, isn’t she?”
    I stared at him. “Who?”
    “Joelle,” he said flicking his eyes toward the front of the ship. “I love that frenchie talk.”
    I snorted in disbelief. Kwon was a great marine, but he was like a big kid sometimes. I didn’t know if Joelle would go for a guy like Kwon, she was too good-looking and he was a lump in a battle suit. But I decided that if he was happy to dream about her, I was happy for him.
    “Go for it, Kwon,” I said, “but wait until after the fighting, all right?”
    “Okay, okay!” he said. Still grinning, he sat back. The nano-straps that held us all in seemed excited by his leaning and stretching. They shortened up their hold on him, all but pinning him to the wall of the ship. Nano arms were like mother hens when you were on a mission.
    “Incoming fire,” the pilot said. Joelle’s words were calm, but I heard the tension in them. I didn’t blame her for being worried.
    We began immediately swerving from side to side. I knew she was firing the lateral propulsion systems we’d rigged up, jinking randomly to avoid getting hit. The enemy had taken a long time to figure out they were in trouble. We were three-quarters of the way there. In another minute or so, the ships would have to flip the engines forward and decelerate or crash into the station directly.
    I looked up at the screen. There was the station; it was huge and reddish-brown. It looked like small moon, but was oddly-shaped. Unlike a human structure, this thing was organic-looking in design. It was looped with tubes and swirling flanges. It looked more like a seedpod coated in cobwebs than anything else. I didn’t see any incoming fire on the screen. They must not be firing missiles at us.
    A beam of light splashed into the ship then, having breached the thin hull. My visor darkened almost immediately. The intensity of the light gave me an instant headache. I thought for a second that one of my men had flipped off his safety and discharged his projector. I almost shouted a complaint, when I felt an impact against my right shoulder.
    Centrifugal force pushed me into the man on my right, just as the guy on my left was being shoved up against me. I could feel the motion now, we were in a spin. My vision returned and my visor brightened. I could see all the men were caught up in the spin, we were doing at least three Gs of lateral force. The upper hull of the ship was gone. A hole had ripped through the nanite skin and I could see the stars whirling by.
    “We’ve been hit!” shouted Kwon unnecessarily. “Orders, sir?”
    I’d always known that these ships were sitting ducks if the enemy had their act together. The problem was, we couldn’t come in at a high enough velocity-not if we wanted to do anything other than ram the station. We had to slow down when we got in close. I cursed the Macros and their deals. They’d once again thrown away the lives of my men.
    The spin slowed down as the ship struggled to control it. The ship was recovering, but I knew Macros tended to fire on a target until it was completely destroyed.
    “Everybody out, we’ve got to expect another strike,” I said. “Deploy your skateboards, marines. The free ride is over!”
    “What about me, sir?” asked the pilot. I was momentarily surprised to hear her voice-I hadn’t really expected her to survive.
    Lieutenant Joelle Marquis. Young, kind of cute, with an accent that turned on Kwon. I hardened my thoughts. I couldn’t worry about saving her butt any more than the rest of us.
    “Can you operate your ship, pilot?” I asked. Around me, twenty men scrabbled to escape their panicked nano straps, which clutched at them like the hands of frightened children. Each of them struggled to get out the disks they sat on and exit the craft through the gaping hole in the roof.
    “I can fly,” she said.
    “We need that big laser to drill into the station. Take it all the way in. Good luck.”
    “Thank you, sir.”
    I jumped out then, and Kwon followed me. I wondered if he hated me for giving the girl suicidal orders.
    I stood on my disk and a rippling sheen of nanites grew out of it, bubbling up my body to finally stop at my neck. I could still see through my helmet visor to navigate. There was a flash behind me. I suspected it was the assault ship, taking another hit.
    I couldn’t do anything about it, so I didn’t look back.

9

    I’ve experienced a number of strange things in my life. Some of these things no one else in human history has ever lived through. But riding a dish-shaped skateboard through space while under fire had to be one of the wildest, even by my standards.
    The incoming enemy fire was beam-based, presumably lasers. I could tell that much because the beams were fast and invisible. In a planetary atmosphere a really big, powerful laser beam might be visible, depending on its spectrum and the atmospheric conditions. But in space, you really can’t see a laser beam because there is nothing for the beam to touch. You certainly wouldn’t see a pillar of light, not even if it was left on for a while-which they usually aren’t. Unless you have something for the light to hit and reflect off of, it is essentially invisible. The only way I was able to detect the incoming fire was the visible reaction caused when something was hit. Usually, it was another skateboarder like me.
    When one of my marines was hit, he didn’t just explode. He burst into fire, but that didn’t stop his forward momentum. The mass of his body and the skateboard kept moving at significant velocity. Even as they were melted to slag, their momentum carried my dying men toward their target. They looked like meteors, a fireball of bright white followed by a spiraling trail of vapor.
    They were nailing one of us about every ten seconds. I counted thirty hits in my field of vision. After that, I stopped counting, because we were almost there. The assault ships that had survived the approach rotated their primary engines around to aim forward and brake. They slowed dramatically, and all around me my men were doing the same.
    I’d never been trained on this bizarre flying dish I’d designed. I was ashamed to admit it now, but I’d sat out the beta testing, letting others give me input and making the alterations they suggested. I’d never been much of a skateboarder or a surfer, either.
    The worst part was the reversal. I almost screwed it up entirely and made the maneuver while the propulsion system was still active. If I had done it that way, I think I would have been thrown off my tiny, dish-like platform, nano straps or no. I remembered at the last second, however, and managed to switch it off, spin around, and then turn it on again.
    Due to my gross lack of competence, I realized I’d taken too long and was coming in too fast. I was passing the others now. When I’d bailed out of the assault ship I’d started off as one of the last of the pack. Now, I was streaking along while they braked around me. I shot through them, and it was only luck that I didn’t collide with some hapless marine who’d done his job right.
    I kicked up the power, until my legs were buckling. I had no idea how many Gs I was resisting standing lock-kneed like that. It had to be six, maybe more. I don’t think I could have remained upright without my nanite-empowered musculature and my exoskeletal armor. A normal man just couldn’t have done it. He would have folded up in a heap, probably pitching off the skateboard and going into a deadly spin. At this point, so close to the surface of the massive space station that filled space below me, the flying dish was absolutely required for survival. It was the only method I had to slow myself without a crushing impact.
    “Are you all right, sir?” Kwon called on my com-link.
    He must have been watching out for me. I don’t know how. I had no idea which marine was which in the capsules that went streaking by all around. My dish went from bucking to shuddering, finally smoothing out as I slowed it enough not to smash me to atoms when I hit the station.
    When I had my tiny platform under some kind of control I took the time to answer Kwon. “I’m fine. I just wanted to get ahead of the pack,” I lied.
    “You always lead from the front line,” Kwon said, with a scolding note in his voice. “Very dangerous, sir!”
    I smiled with half my mouth. He didn’t need to tell me that this time. A moment later, I touched down. It was more like a controlled crash, however. I hit the station sooner than I expected, a jarring blow that caught the edge of my dish. I realized in an instant I wasn’t all the way down to the surface. I’d hit one of those wildly projecting tubes of theirs. I was moving at a pretty good clip, about as fast as a hot-shot jumper with a parachute might dare to land. Hitting the structure set me to spinning, and when I did finally hit the flat surface of the station, I landed on my left shoulder. I bounced back off, regained control of my dish, and then glided down toward the metal skin of the station.
    For the first time, I was glad I had one of the heavy battle suits on. I didn’t think I’d broken anything, and I could still operate all my limbs, so I figured I was good to go. Grunting, I climbed off my tiny vehicle and began carrying my dish. I called up to Kwon. “Tell the men to remember to carry their dishes. They might be the only way off this Christmas ornament when we are finished. And tell them to watch out for those big metal wires or tubes, whatever they are.”
    “Will do, sir,” Kwon said, relaying my instructions.
    I looked up as the rest of them came in. We’d made it-at least, most of us had. I supposed it was partly due to surprise. It must have really freaked out the aliens inside the station. I could imagine them, wondering what these things were the cruiser was firing at them. Should they shoot them down, and thus risk starting a war? Maybe the Macros were only releasing their trash into space. Maybe it was all a big misunderstanding. Fear, hard choices. The answer, of course, was a nightmare. Better than fifteen hundred of my marines had made it through their defenses and now crawled over their hull, where the enemy didn’t appear to have any weaponry.
    More men were braking now, coming in nearby. Most of them landed better than I had. They were better-trained and younger. But those who met up with me were all delighted. Word had gotten around quickly: crazy old Riggs had beaten everyone down. I smiled inside my suit, knowing that such moments were great morale-builders-whether they’d started off as screw-ups or not.
    By the time I had located a functional assault ship, I had more than thirty marines from Beta Company following me. The ship’s drill was already blazing, making our visors darken to the point of forming blinders in front of our eyes. We kept stumbling forward, relying on our magnetic boots to keep us from accidently tumbling back out into space. Each man still carried his dish, knowing it was his only ticket home.
    The big laser on the assault ship flared and flashed. Gouts of white light bloomed as the drilling continued. It was alarming to witness. Fortunately, we didn’t have long to wait. The hull wasn’t more than a few feet thick. A vapor-stream and a gush of fire flowed out of the newly burned hole, quickly surrounding the assault ship and turning it into a torch. The men lurched back, recoiling.
    “Looks like she breached. Laser off!” I shouted over my com-link. The pilot cooled the blazing drill, and molten bits of metal cooled and formed orange, floating balls all around us. The station wasn’t big enough to produce significant gravity by itself. Everything was floating.
    The gush of vapor continued. We could see it, like a plume of steam. It reached out into space and completely enveloped the assault ship. I frowned in concern as it went on. Didn’t these aliens believe in bulkheads and sectional ship design? Had we just popped this balloon and suffocated a million innocents?
    After about a minute, the streaming vapor died down to a trickle. The burnt metal of the breach, which had been glowing hot moments before, had frosted over now. The leeching cold of vacuum had done its work, stilling the molecules.
    “I need two scouts,” I said.
    Two men came forward. These were wiry men with lighter kits, and I sent them on recon. I could have rigged up a sensor and dropped a pickup down into the breach on a nanite wire, but I didn’t want to screw around. Delays would give the defenders time to organize. Every second counted.
    The two scouts slid into the breach and had a look around. They transmitted vids of a large chamber full of organic material. Plants, from the look of it-floating in water that was now freezing solid. Apparently, they had some kind of gravitational control which kept the liquid in its tanks.
    I nodded thoughtfully. Maybe we’d invaded their outer farm regions. If their plants operated as ours did via photosynthesis, they would need to be near the surface to collect energy from their star. Possibly, that was why we’d seen such a geyser of vapor. Water, air, relative heat and pressure-it all added up to a blast of steamy air.
    “Move, everyone!” I shouted. “Get in there before they blow this section of their station back into space!”
    My men surged, and soon it was my turn into the breach. I was very glad my suit was tough and impregnated with a self-repairing nanite layer. The breach was like a hot blade. We got through it, however, and one-by-one we floated inside. I had everyone leave their skateboards magnetically tethered to the external skin of the station. Whoever made it back out could use them to escape. Behind me, more and more marines kept pouring in. We’d only managed four breaches, and two or three hundred marines were going into each one.
    “Sir?” boomed a familiar voice.
    I turned and saw Kwon. I wasn’t surprised to see him, it was one out of four he’d end up here, and I knew he’d try to follow me if he could. I was surprised however, to see who he had with him.
    “Lieutenant Marquis?” I asked.
    “Yes sir. Glad to be here, sir,” she said. The woman was of normal height, but she looked like a kid standing next to Kwon. A shapely kid.
    “You thought Joelle was dead, didn’t you?” asked Kwon. “I caught her.”
    “You caught her?” I asked.
    “Pretty much,” Lieutenant Marquis confirmed.
    “I had one of those two-man skateboards,” Kwon said. “You know, the ones made for carrying heavier equipment. Anyway, I saw the ship blow up, and I knew she didn’t have time to get onto a dish, if she had lived. So, I watched for her and caught her when she went by.”
    I stared. We’d built a slightly larger unit for some marines, most of them were used by medics to help carry their extra loads. In Kwon’s case, he was an extra load all by himself. I narrowed my eyes, finding a flaw in his story. “She should have been thrown out at an angle, or at least be heading toward the station at a lower velocity than you were.”
    Kwon shrugged. “Yeah. I braked some and found her.”
    “Risky, Kwon,” I said. I looked at Lieutenant Marquis. “Sounds like you owe him a drink.”
    She nodded. “It’s a date.”
    I turned away, shaking my head. “Well, you’re both alive in any case. Pull out your pistol, Lieutenant. You are assigned to scout duty.”
    Kwon didn’t complain, and neither did Lieutenant Marquis. I directed her into a corridor. There were at least twenty tubes leading out of this hydroponic garden, and I wanted all of them explored before we moved. So far, we hadn’t made contact with any enemy aliens.
    But that was about to change.

10

    For me, it was something of a shock when the first charge came. I’d fought with this enemy before, but it had been a long, long time.
    The aliens stood about four feet tall and had four hooves. They had hands after a fashion, each with three opposing digits. Their hands looked like tripods of thumbs. On top of their heads they had blade-shaped horns that thrust up like a set of antlers.
    Unlike the Centaurs I’d fought aboard the Alamos when I’d first been taken prisoner so very long ago, these aliens were not caught in their bare, cinnamon-brown fur. They had suits on and they carried guns.
    Four of them came galloping after one of my scouts out of a high flying tube and chased him into our midst. The aliens gunned my scout down, reducing his legs to smoking stumps. Their weapons appeared to be beam-based, similar to our own. I saw with shock of alarm they were very much like our own. They had backpacks that obviously contained reactors and beam projectors in their stubby hands. Thick cables ran back to the packs, just as our projectors were connected to our own packs. After they burned my scout down, they hardly had time to look up before my own men opened up on them and returned the favor.
    “Well, there won’t be any questioning that group,” I said sourly. I couldn’t be too upset, however. After watching them murder one of our marines, I couldn’t expect my people to be full of mercy and waving flags of truce.
    “They have our weapons, sir,” Kwon said, marveling at the steaming carcasses.
    “Yeah. Because the Nanos gave them the same tech they gave us.”
    Kwon didn’t reply. I suspected he was confused by all this. I gave him my surefire cure for confusion: I ordered him to mount an advance through the tunnel these Centaurs had come from to secure it.
    “Don’t shoot everything you see, men,” I said. “We’re not here to exterminate them, as far as I know.”
    That brought me to the next, unpleasant task. I needed to talk to Macro Command. As far as I was concerned, we’d achieved our objectives. We had penetrated the enemy structure as promised. Calling it captured might be a stretch, but maybe the Macros wouldn’t know any better.
    I took up one of the communications boxes I’d loaded on each assault ship and connected it to a strand of nanites that led to the surface of the station. “Macro Command, this is Kyle Riggs reporting.”
    Dead air. It was nice to be appreciated.
    “Macro Command, we have achieved our objectives. We will now move back to our ships.”
    “Mission Incomplete.”
    “We’ve penetrated the enemy satellite. We’ve killed all the defenders that have attacked us. Our mission is complete.”
    “Mission Incomplete.”
    “Define requirements to complete this mission,” I asked, hoping against hope they didn’t want us to slaughter a million-odd Centaur civilians. I wasn’t even sure we could do it, given that their weaponry was as good as ours.
    “Capture the enemy structure.”
    I figured maybe we had another of our little ‘misunderstandings’ going. “What part of the structure would mark this structure as captured?” I asked.
    “Interrogatives are not permitted-”
    “Ignore that request, damn it,” I said, realizing I’d accidentally asked a question. From down the tube where I’d sent my marines, I could see flashes of light and shouts over the com-link channels. We’d engaged with another patrol, I suspected. It looked like these troops were firing back.
    “Give me a destination point which I must reach to capture this structure,” I said in a commanding tone.
    There was a hesitation. “There are several such points.”
    “Specify the nearest.”
    “Drive propulsion centers for orbital suspension are located less than one mile inside the central cavity.”
    I blinked. The engines for orbital suspension?
    “Give me another destination point,” I asked, but I was already beginning to get a funny feeling…
    “The thinnest point of the hull which would allow the venting of the central cavity into space is six miles distant, on the portion of the structure closest to the planetary surface.”
    I had it then. I didn’t need a third hint. Option A was to destroy the engines that kept this station from falling down onto the planet. Option B was to blow a hole in the central area and depressurize the whole thing.
    They didn’t want me to capture this place. They didn’t want me to kill all the armed defenders and force a surrender. They wanted me to destroy it. To kill everyone aboard. Maybe, for the Macros, the concepts of capture and destroy were synonymous.
    Thinking hard, I ordered my men to stop their advance. I had to figure out what to do next.
    “Colonel Riggs?” came a shout from the com-link a minute or so later. “Colonel Riggs, sir?”
    “Here,” I said. It was Lieutenant Marquis. “Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
    “I’m down here standing on some kind of grate. I think you should come see this, sir.”
    “I’m a little busy. What is it, Lieutenant?”
    Silence.
    I stood up, thinking of Kwon and his drink. I didn’t want to disappoint him. “Lieutenant Marquis? Joelle?”
    “It’s huge, sir…” she said.
    I followed her signal down a tube that ran through the floor of the facility. Kwon loomed behind me. Did he seem nervous?
    “You must really want that drink, Kwon,” I said.
    “Yes sir.”
    We found her at the bottom of the tube, sitting on a grate. Each hexagonal hole in the grate was nearly a foot across. I thought she might be thin enough to wriggle through, if she worked at it.
    All three of us looked down into what could only be the ‘central cavity’ the Macros had identified. It was like looking down into a miniature planet. In this case, however, the planet was inside out, with the land curving up the walls. Wispy clouds moved in criss-crossed patterns. There was even air traffic, strange vehicles that glided through the skies. Further down, there were growths and structures everywhere.
    “It’s beautiful, isn’t it, sir?” Lieutenant Marquis asked me.
    “This whole thing is hollow,” Kwon said. “The tubes and stuff on the outside, they feed it. The structure is like an inside-out planet.”
    There were fields down there. Fields and forests and hills. It was like looking down upon a rural county back home, except they hadn’t cut everything into squares the way humans tended to do. They had a lot of curves to their paths and waterways. Really, it was quite entrancing.
    “There must be millions of aliens living inside this thing,” I said at last. “And I’m not interested in killing them all.”
    They both looked at me in surprise, tearing their eyes from the amazing sight below.
    “Come on,” I said. “We’ve got a mission to perform.”

11

    The whole story was much clearer to me now. These were the Centaurs-or the ‘goat people’ as Crow had preferred to call them. The Nanos had come here and attempted to save them, but they had failed. What was it Alamo had said? These people had lost to the Macros, because they had lost their planet. Well apparently they had lost more than their planet-they’d lost all their natural planets. But they still survived in these artificial worlds floating in space above them. How had they stopped the Macros? Most likely by cutting a deal with the machines. I knew from experience that the Macros were willing to deal, if they thought it was in their interest to do so.
    I also could now better see how we fit into this grand equation. My offer of troops let them kill several birds with one stone. They could kill my troops by letting them fight against other difficult races, allowing us to eradicate one another. For all I knew, the Macros had had a truce with the Worms too, before they landed and let us out to ravage their world.
    I began to get angry then. It was a deep-seated thing. My old anger against the Centaurs was slowly being replaced by a fresh hatred for the Macros. These machines had coldly played the biotic species off against one another from the start. They’d used us callously-as one should expect from machines. We were variables in their calculations, nothing more. Round-off errors. Bits of dust and meat best used to rip each other apart.
    Sure, Centaurs had killed my kids that fateful night. And I had killed them in righteous revenge. But who had engineered the whole thing? Who had armed both sides, and sent them into a deadly embrace? Machines.
    “There has to be a way to talk to these people,” I said to Kwon.
    Kwon shrugged. “Must be. The Nanos did it. The Macros did it.”
    I walked over to the communications box. First I ordered all my marines at each of the four breach points to look for a way down to the floor of the central cavity. I could tell now that we had all penetrated the outer skin of this habitat, and we were inside the structure, but the real battle would be waged inside the sphere-like interior underneath us. The ‘floor’ of the central chamber was parallel with the surface of the planet we orbited. I would have expected the entire structure to be rotating to produce gravity via centrifugal force, but instead the gravity was being generated artificially. Our sensor boxes indicated the tug of a gravity field would be felt once we got into the central cavity of the station, and although it was much less than Earth’s gravity, more like the Moon’s, we would be able to walk down there, if we moved out onto that artificial planetary surface.
    After a bit more scouting, Kwon walked back to me excitedly. “There’s a lift system, sir. Several tubes that run all the way down to the floor of the main chamber. They are big, and should hold twenty or more men each.”
    “How’d you find them?” I asked.
    “We just followed the corridors. The Centaurs who came at us used the lifts to get up here.”
    “Let’s go then, before they blow them up.”
    We didn’t make it all the way down. I wasn’t really surprised. Some Centaur engineer was on the ball, and he shut off the lifts before we reached the floor of the big chamber. Occasionally, there were openings in the tube that showed us glimpses of the central cavity. We’d made it about half-way down, but most of our troops hadn’t even gotten into the tubes.
    I had Kwon and Lieutenant Marquis with me. I used my com-link to contact the rest who were up above, at our breach point. “Go back and get your skateboards,” I told them. “Blow the grates and ride them down to the bottom of the tubes. Secure them and we’ll meet you there.”
    “If we take our skateboards all the way down,” Lieutenant Marquis said, “we might not be able to get out of here later.”
    I shrugged. “That’s why I wanted the tubes,” I said. “But the enemy has forced my hand.”
    I could tell by the look on her face, which was visible through her faceplate, she didn’t like this answer. She didn’t want to be left with no retreat. I didn’t have time to argue about it. These Centaurs had to have an army of some kind, and they were probably organizing below. I’d already given them too much time to get their act together.
    We didn’t find any ladders. How were Centaurs supposed to use ladders? What we did find was not encouraging. There was as thin spiraling ledge in the tube along the walls. It was less than a foot wide. I thought about these hoofed, sure-footed people. They were goat-like, and weren’t mountain goats famous for running along impossible trails?
    We set off, following the thin ledge downward. There was a thousand foot drop down into the tube, but with low gravity and our magnetic boots, I figured we could do it. We made it most of the way too, before the first laser shot came beaming up out of the darkness below us and burned the legs off my lead man. Screaming, he fell into the pit, bouncing and caroming off the walls.
    My men crouched and readied their projectors. We still were equipped with the lighter beam units we’d had on Helios to operate in high gravity. This was a low-gravity fight, but I was glad for the lighter equipment. More bulk would have lost me more men in this situation.
    “Careful when you return fire!” I shouted. “We don’t want any blue-on-blue! Only the lowest ten fire.”
    They didn’t need any more encouragement. Lasers flashed and our visors darkened to save our eyes. Spots of heat and vapor exploded below us. I wasn’t sure if we’d gotten the sniper or not.
    Another shot came up at us, and nailed the marine behind me. It came up and burned right through his suit, and right through his left hip joint. He didn’t have one of the battle suits. Most of my men didn’t. Lit on fire by the strike, he began to fall. I grabbed him, as did the next marine in line.
    “Kwon!” I shouted, “assessment?”
    “We’re pinned sir, and have no cover. We need to get out of this position.”
    “Options?” I demanded. Both sides were firing now. I thought we’d gotten a few of them, but more shots kept coming up, and we were firing blind down the long, dark tube.
    “We can shoot it out,” Kwon said, “Or retreat back up to the elevator cab.”
    I didn’t like his options. “How far are we from the bottom?”
    “A few hundred yards.”
    “Let’s run down the walls, using our magnetic boots. Only those in battle suits should try it. Our boots won’t hold all the way down, when we lose our grip, we jump.”
    “It’s too far down, sir.”
    “This gravity isn’t Earth-normal-and neither are we. The jump is survivable.”
    “You first,” Kwon said.
    I chuckled. “All right,” I said. I stood up, cranked my magnetic boots to full, and took my first step down into the tube, firing as I went. “Don’t shoot me in the ass, men. Let’s go!”
    Kwon shouted orders. My marines held their fire.
    Charging down a vertical surface turned out to be a hard thing to do. I soon found it just didn’t work. My magnetics weren’t strong enough to hold me onto the side of the tube. Even running down was pretty impossible. Being conditioned by nanites, we were all much stronger than normal men, and the gravity was much lighter, but my weight was out of place. With the heavy pack on my back, I was top-heavy, and the top of me was too far from my boots. I was levered forward, breaking the magnetic hold and found myself falling face-first into enemy fire.
    This wasn’t my best plan, I thought as I went down, still firing into the darkness ahead.

12

    I was saved by an elbow in the tube. We hadn’t been able to see it from below, but we did know the tube wasn’t a direct shot to the bottom. Curves appeared everywhere in Centaur architecture. They simply didn’t believe in straight lines.
    Slapping at the walls with my gloves, I’d just managed to get myself reoriented so my feet were heading downward instead of my helmet when I hit an elbow-like curve at the bottom. I also landed on something cushy. It was my first Centaur kill in years.
    I think I surprised them, jumping into space and free-falling down into their midst. My battle suit helped complete the effect, I think. I’m sure to them I looked like a killer machine in their midst.
    They’d been sniping at us, taking turns firing up from this elbow, and then ducking out of sight while we fired back. One of them had popped out for his sniper shot just as I came down on his back with heavy, magnetic boots. I felt the spine snap-I was going pretty fast by the time I reached the bottom. Even with lighter gravity and therefore less acceleration as I fell, I was heavy enough and moving with enough velocity to crush the life out of the alien.
    Still standing on the broken centaur’s back, I managed to get my projector around and burned the next shadowy sniper I saw before he figured out what was going on. There were two more, but they fled.
    “Look out below!” shouted a voice. I recognized it as Kwon’s and I scrambled out of the way on all fours. Kwon could do to me what I’d done to the first Centaur.
    Soon, it was raining marines. Some claimed it to be more fun than the skateboard ride through space, but I knew they were lying. We pressed the surviving Centaurs back, and by the time we’d come out of the tube at the bottom of the elevator shaft, they had run off. I got the feeling they were not regular troops. I figured they were probably militia or local guards of some kind. They didn’t operate as a cohesive unit.
    Outside the shaft, we linked up with the rest of my unit as they dropped from above on their flying dishes. I sent out recon units and immediately learned the enemy was gathering in force nearby.
    “Why haven’t they hit us, yet?” Kwon asked, coming to stand near.
    “I don’t know, really,” I said. “I don’t like it either, but they are aliens. They aren’t responding quite the way humans would, but we can’t expect them to. Maybe we surprised them and they are out of position. Maybe they just don’t have a lot of troops.”
    “This looks like a peaceful habitat,” Kwon said. His voice sounded wistful. “Most of it is farmland. There must be thousands of hectares of land here.”
    I knew Kwon had been a farmer in his past life, and we’d not seen green, growing things for a long time. I smiled at him faintly. Maybe the big man was homesick.
    “Well, whatever the reason, they are giving us a breather,” I said. “Let’s use it.”
    I gathered my forces into a line along a ridge that was topped by thick foliage. It didn’t look appetizing, being dark green and leathery with huge leaves that blew about in the breezes. I wondered what the source of the moving air could be, and if the leaves would taste like the giant spinach they resembled.
    While my marines organized themselves and took up positions, I climbed into an oversized foxhole my men had dug for me and pulled the communications box into it. Kwon joined me after awhile and watched as I poked at the controls.
    “Uh,” Kwon said after a time, “what’s the plan, Colonel?”
    “We are appearing to invade this station, just as the Macros expect us to. They are watching, remember. I didn’t like our position on the outer skin. We were too exposed.”
    “So, are we going to blow a hole in this balloon and kill it?”
    I shook my head. I just couldn’t do it. They weren’t even fighting hard. How could I butcher millions to protect my own? There had to be a better way.
    “I want to talk to them,” I said. “I figure they have Nano tech, and that means we should be able to use our own Nano tech to talk to theirs. It shouldn’t even be as hard as talking to the Macros was.”
    “Maybe,” Kwon said with a big frown. He was obviously skeptical, but I didn’t take it personally.
    I adjusted the communications box to scan for unencrypted transmissions. They were everywhere, showing that the Centaurs were indeed communicating via radio. I wasn’t getting a signal I could focus in on as the right one, however. I didn’t want to interrupt the equivalent of a cell phone call between civilians and try to make a deal with them.
    Finally, after about ten minutes of scanning, one firm signal showed itself on the scanner. It sang for less than a minute, blotting out other transmissions.
    “That sounds important,” said Lieutenant Marquis. She had edged her way into our position.
    I glanced at her, and noted the way she stood quite close to Kwon. I thought Kwon might get lucky after all. She didn’t seem to like being out of his orbit.
    “I’m going to try to talk to them on this frequency,” I told them.
    When I had it set up, I keyed the microphone in my suit and announced myself. “This is Colonel Kyle Riggs,” I said, as if they should know who I was. “We have invaded your habitat, but we oppose the Macros. Please respond.”
    Nothing came back for a while. Kwon waved to me. I could tell just looking at him it wasn’t good news.
    “Talk to me,” I said.
    “Large numbers of the enemy seem to be approaching,” he said. “Everyone on the ridge is reporting sightings.”
    Great, I thought. Had my signal served to trigger their attack? I started scanning again, but then a reply came in.
    “Apologies of the Herd,” said the communications box. I had it set for automatic translation into English. I wasn’t overly pleased with the results. “The Herd Honor of our ancestors lies broken.”
    “We wish to discuss peace,” I said. “Do not attack.”
    “The challenge has been made. It must be answered. Herd Honor must be recaptured.”
    That was all they said. I frowned at the communications box and tapped at the control screen.
    “That didn’t sound good,” Lieutenant Marquis said.
    “Sir,” Kwon said, lowering himself into a crouch. He had been communicating with his recon units. “They’re coming.”
    I didn’t have to ask what he meant. I heaved a sigh. I opened a general channel. “Fire at any armed combatant that comes near the line,” I said.
    Laser flashes burned the atmosphere almost immediately. I moved to the ridge on my belly and looked downslope. The land was dark with running Centaurs. There were thousands of them, all in a mass. They came on like a wave of furred flesh. Most didn’t even have laser packs, but those that did fired as they came. The rest had their horn-blades. When they got in close, I knew they would fight savagely with them, cutting open my men and their suits.
    “Fire at will!” I shouted over the rising roar of their hooves. “Shoot anything that comes at you!”
    Every marine on the line opened up. Many of the Centaurs staggered, blinded, burned or both. Smoke rose in a blue plume. We were cooking them as they came.
    But thousands more charged behind the first. There was no attempt made to flank us, or to sneak up upon us. They came in a single, charging mass. I looked down at them, and was immediately reminded of a vast herd of animals sweeping over an African plain. They churned up the slope, leaping over the bodies of the fallen. All along the ridge we were taking casualties too as their beams lanced into us. Were they using their own people as a shield for their soldiers?
    A moment later they hit our line, and it was chaos. Furred bodies, flashing horns and kicking hooves filled my vision. My men killed with their projectors and their knives, often with one in each hand. In turn, they were knocked down, gored and trampled. Piles of bodies blocked the charging herd in places and they had to go around. My line broke in a dozen spots, and the enemy sailed over my men’s heads with majestic leaps.
    “We’ve been overrun!” I shouted. “Fall back in squads, maintain covering fire. Regroup at the tubes if they press us that far back.”
    I couldn’t believe it, but we’d been swamped with Centaurs. The enemy was nothing if not brave. They cared little for tactics or their own lives. They just wanted to get to us, to shoot and gore us. They were wild, frenzied. We fought with desperation. I could tell we were many times more organized, but they outnumbered us by twenty to one. I felt like a Roman Centurion facing a raving horde of barbarians.
    Two of them came at me at one point. I saw the rolling eyes, the flared nostrils. I let my projector dangle from the cord and slashed at one with my knife. His snout came apart, my nanotized strength and the unnatural sharpness of my blade putting me at an unfair advantage. The Centaur simply lowered his horn-blades and tried to thrust them into me. My battle suit stopped the blades. He had to be mad with pain and rage. Blood gouted everywhere. It was reddish, but darker than the blood of earth creatures. It was like blood that had been dried into a black-red jelly. I used my fist to smash him down to the ground, stopping his blind, furious attack.
    The second one came for me then, and my left hand took hold of the horn blades. I lifted him up as if I lifted a rabbit by the ears. My suit surged with relentless power. His hooves kicked out at me, starring my helmet and giving me sore ribs. I gutted him with my knife, which was now free of the first one. I looked at my gloves where I’d grabbed those bladed horns. The blood leaking from them was a lighter red blood. He’d managed to open up my glove.
    I heard hissing of released pressure and felt the tickling nanites going to work. They would seal my wound and my suit, I knew.
    More came, and the fighting went on. We killed them until we stood atop a mountain of kicking, smoking meat. They killed us as well, here and there.
    Suddenly, at some unknown signal, they all turned and ran at once. They flowed over their dead with tremendous agility. My men called after them, cursing and firing into the mass of bodies.
    “Cease fire!” I ordered.
    Kwon struggled to his feet behind me. He had a hole in between the plates of his battle suit, where his hip joined his torso. Blood ran down to his boots from the spot where he’d been gored. “Cease fire!” he roared, echoing my command with greater volume.
    The laser shots died down and soon stopped altogether.
    I looked at Kwon as he dug among the bodies, picking them up and throwing them out of our foxhole. I stared at the earthen walls of the defensive position. It hadn’t worked as intended. In fact, due to the enemy tactics, it was possibly worse than standing in the open. When they massed on you, a man had to be in an open area to fight properly, not caught in a ditch that restricted movement and buried you in their dead.
    Kwon still ignored his wound and threw one carcass after another out of the foxhole.
    “Captain?” I asked. “Are you all right?”
    “Fine sir,” he said tightly.
    Then I saw him tugging at something more gently. I suspected what it was. Lieutenant Joelle Marquis’ hand. None of my marines had a hand that small. It had to be the pilot.
    Finally catching on, I helped him free her from the quivering mass of dead. We soon had her out of the pile of bodies and lying in an open field of dirt. There was no grass, nor any foliage left anymore. It had all been trampled down to dust, beaten by ten thousand hooves.
    Looking at her, I figured Kwon would have to get himself a new date. We removed her helmet, knowing the air here was breathable, if not permanently safe. We shot her with extra nanites and had a corpsman work on her with a plastic pump. It wasn’t looking good. She’d sustained broken bones and her lungs didn’t want to work on their own. I knew if her brain had been too badly damaged, she wouldn’t recover.
    I took the time to dig out the communications box. It was dented and encrusted in dirt and blood. It still worked after I flipped it on and off again several times.
    “This is Kyle Riggs,” I broadcast to the aliens, hoping they were listening. What was the wording they had used? “Herd Honor has been restored-no, recaptured.”
    They didn’t say anything for awhile. I wondered if the first wave had just been a taste-test. Maybe the next rush would be the real thing, and instead of twenty-odd thousand we would be hit by half a million raging Centaurs.
    “Herd Honor rides the wind again,” said a voice finally.
    I had no idea what that meant, but I figured now was the time to go with it. “We are not machines,” I said. “We bleed as you do.”
    “You claim Herd Honor?”
    I hesitated, trying to think clearly. The Centaurs were a people who had a herd mentality. They weren’t like us. They thought in terms of large groups. They had their own code of honor, that much was clear. I had no idea as to the details, however. I decided to take a neutral stance. “We are a Herd,” I said. “We have Honor. And we hate the machines.”
    “You serve the machines. You broke their word for them, and thus have no Honor.”
    I thought hard. I looked over to Kwon, who was on his knees over Lieutenant Marquis. The corpsman was going through the motions, but she wasn’t moving. Nobody looked happy.
    “We breathe as you do,” I said. “We fight as you do. We bleed as you do.”
    “We have taken your measure. We know we can defeat you with our thousands.”
    I looked down at the rolling hills ahead. They appeared to be empty, but I knew they were out there, beyond our vision, massing up into a new herd. They would overrun us again, and even if we broke their next wave, they would send another. Eventually, we would be overwhelmed and the last of us would be dragged down and torn apart by these raging beasts.
    I looked upward then, toward the roof of the habitat. It was painted sky blue, I realized for the first time. Maybe that was why this structure was not a rotating cylinder. They could have produced an environment with more land that way, but they would have been denied this lovely illusion of a pale blue sky.
    We could blow a hole in their sky I knew, just as the Macros had suggested. Very few of the enemy we’d seen had been wearing vacc suits. They would be sucked out into space and suffocated. Victory lay in that direction, and it would only take minutes to achieve. The problem was, it would be a victory for the Macros, not for the biotics.
    “We could open your structure to space,” I said. “You would all die.”
    “All things die. The grass will grow greener with our passing.”
    Great, I thought. These guys glorified death as well. A natural idea for a herd species, I had to figure.
    I smiled suddenly. I thought I had it. Sometimes, deception could be a good thing for everyone. “You do not understand. We do not serve the Macros. We escaped them. We came to your structure to escape. We seek sanctuary, not bloodshed. We are ambassadors from another world.”
    The pause was long, but not too long. Maybe they felt the seeds of hope right then, the hope that all living beings felt when given an alternative in the face of doom.
    “You are not machines. You have fought with Honor. We will listen.”

13

    I was down to three options: kill all the Centaurs by blowing a hole in their habitat, fight the Centaurs and die against their numbers, or turn against the Macros. I wasn’t quite sure yet which option I was going to choose, but much of the choice revolved around what the Centaurs did next.
    Oddly, in the back of my mind, I kept having thoughts of my kids. I hadn’t fought a Centaur since that first fateful day when the Nano ships came to my farm. I had never really gotten over it, of course. When something that traumatic happens to you, a person can push it down, shove it away-but it will always come back. There were dreams and occasional biting thoughts. I would forget about the kids for days, then a stray reminder would hit me, maybe a smell or a familiar sound. Then I would be swamped with visions of Easter egg hunts, bicycle trainings and shoving my butt into tiny chairs on back-to-school nights.
    The heaped bodies of Centaurs all around me triggered these thoughts and feelings. The strange thing was, I felt better about that distant day now. I had promised then to tear up some of these aliens, and now at long last, I’d had my fill of their blood. Even though these individuals had no idea how much I’d once wanted to kill them all, they made me feel like I’d followed through. Killing a dozen or so personally in self-defense had done me a world of good. I could forgive them now. In a way, it was disturbing. Was it right that I should deprive these creatures’ young of their parents? I didn’t know, but I’d once vowed to do it in the name of my dead kids. I suppose the whole mess gave me some kind of closure. I could forgive these creatures now, especially since I knew they really had had no choice when the Nano ships had forced them to fight for their lives.
    The machines were next, I thought. Next on my list of guilty parties. I nodded to myself, and inside my helmet a thin, grim smile grew. I knew then I was going to give it a try. I wasn’t going to sacrifice my men to save Earth. I wasn’t going to sacrifice a few million Centaurs to save myself, either. I was going to take the third option. Many might have thought it presumptuous and fantastically risky, kick-starting this war again. The problem was, the way the Macros were treating these Centaurs proved to me that it was only a matter of time. The Macros had no intention of letting us live on forever. They weren’t really our allies. They intended to kill us all, once we were no longer useful to them. Here they were, cheating on their treaty with the Centaurs, and using us to do their dirty work. What if they sent some race of arachnids to Earth, thereby honoring their treaty, but still causing millions to die? It could be happening right now, for all I knew.
    I walked over to Kwon, who still hovered over the small, thin form of Joelle Marquis. She had blonde, curly hair, I could see. The corpsman had her intubated with oxygen running down her throat. She was breathing, but that could have been the nanites stimulating her diaphragm muscles.
    “Is she going to make it?” I asked.
    Kwon shook his head. “Don’t know.”
    “If she dies, who would you blame?” I asked him.
    For the first time, he looked up at me seriously. “The Macros,” he said. “They sent us here. We will all die here, or the Centaurs will.”
    “How about if we make the Macros die instead?” I asked.
    Now I had the corpsman’s attention as well as Kwon’s. His helmet tilted up and his eyes met mine through the visor. I saw his name on his uniform.
    “Keep working on the lieutenant, Carlson,” I said.
    The corpsman quickly looked down again, saying nothing. He fiddled with a box, running leads to Marquis’ chest. I knew what that meant. We had some nice nanite medical kits now. We could just lay a lead on a body, and a needle-thin wire of them would penetrate the flesh on its own. They would drive deep, and could be used to take measurements, deliver drugs or even shock a heart into beating again. The fact he was using the box wasn’t a positive sign, however. It indicated her injuries were mortal, and that her own nanite defense team could not repair her by itself.
    Kwon was still staring at me. At last, he nodded his head. “You think now is the time?” he asked.
    “I don’t like our other options. Even if we wipe these Centaurs out, the Macros will do the same to us eventually. Maybe very soon. Maybe, they’ve done it already.”
    Carlson glanced up again at that. He looked down again without being told. Lieutenant Marquis was making a scratchy, rasping sound. It sounded like she was trying to breathe now, but there was fluid in her lungs.
    “They could be hitting Earth even now,” Kwon said thoughtfully. He stood up and stared around at the field, littered with Centaur corpses. “A fine people. I don’t want to kill any more of them.”
    “Neither do I,” I said. “Let’s see if we can talk them out of wasting our strength upon one another.”
    I went to the communications box, and I started to negotiate. It took a long time. The Centaurs had their own framework for thought, their own culture. They talked constantly of ‘Herd Honor’ and ‘Challenges’. They frequently made references to their ancestors and the weather. They never used the pronoun ‘I’, but always used ‘we’. I did the same, to make them feel comfortable. They thought as a group, so I negotiated as a group.
    I figured they would send up a group of leaders, individuals with white fur and long, curled horns. They didn’t present me with such wise old chieftains. They didn’t show themselves at all. I knew they were out there, hiding in the foliage. In the distance, we could see dust plumes where thousands, maybe even millions, marched and gathered. They were preparing to overwhelm us if the talks were fruitless. For my own part, I had my men clear the battlefield of bodies, if only so we could get a free field of fire. We burned down the nearest clumps of foliage to increase the range at which our laser rifles would be effective. It was all for show and to keep the men busy, of course. If the Centaurs charged us they would come with ten times their previous numbers, and all would be lost. I would only have two options then: to die on the spot, taking down as many of them as possible, or to do the bidding of my steel masters, to open up their ‘sky’ and suck them all out into space, kicking and bleating.
    I didn’t like either possibility so I kept working with them on the communications box. There were translation problems and misunderstandings. Often, they interpreted what I said as some kind of Challenge, a call to battle. I did my best to disabuse them of these thoughts, but they kept coming back up. Maybe they wanted a fight. I got that feeling the longer I talked to them. They were angry we’d come here, angry the Macros had used us to circumvent their words of peace and angry we’d beaten them back the first time, leaving so many dead upon the field.
    At the same time, however, I came to understand that our initial success at combat was the only reason they would talk to us at all. We’d proven ourselves. If we hadn’t, they wouldn’t have listened to anything we said. They were a showy culture, which liked displays of strength. Such displays won status among their herds. As far as I could tell, it was their only qualification for status. They were definitely intelligent, but their thinking was backward to me. They were more tribal and emotional than Earth diplomats could ever have been. Avenging an insult was worth a million deaths to them.
    Working on that angle, I soon found myself coming closer to success.
    “Yes,” I said, “we have dishonored you and ourselves by serving the machines. But the greater villains are the machines themselves.”
    “Dishonor cannot be forgotten by the wind,” said the communications box.
    The comment was typical. They constantly spoke in terms of their own idioms and beliefs. I decided to press ahead, not sure what they meant, but sensing they were listening.
    “The machines hold our home herds hostage,” I said. “They have no honor, and forced us to come here. They used lies and threats to gain our cooperation. We did not know who we must fight. We only knew that we must fight for them.”
    “The rains will fall upon the honored and the dishonored alike!” said the communications box with sudden emotion.
    “Exactly!” I said, hoping the rising excitement in the other’s words was a good thing. I had to grab hold of that emotion and channel it, turn it against the Macros where it belonged. “The Macros have dishonored us both. They urinate down both our skins. If they are capable of laughing, they are doing so now.”
    A silence followed. “They dare to laugh at our Herds?” the question came at last. The emotional inflection came through as incredulous. I noted that the communications box was getting better at translating the Centaur’s speech. Every minute we used it, the neural net inside fine-tuned itself.
    “Yes!” I said. “The machines think we are fools. They work us like-like tools.”
    “This is a fine insult. This cannot be borne.”
    “We agree. Because of this, we have paused in our fighting. We have changed the direction of our herd. We no longer wish to press into your lands.”
    “You do not claim our lands?”
    “No! We do not claim the ground we stand on, and we wish to leave. We wish to join with you, and trample the machines. We will take their lands instead.”
    They paused again. I sensed that perhaps a large group of them argued as to how to proceed. During these interludes, it was best to say nothing, as interrupting their thoughts only seemed to make them take longer to come back with a response.
    At length, they said: “We will join herds with you, if you have a plan. And you must lead. When no human foot stands upon our lands, we will follow you.”
    I took a deep breath and a swig of water from my suit’s reservoirs. The water was warm, but slightly refreshing. I had promised myself to redesign these suits with chillers that worked on the water supply, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I wished that I had spent the time. I could use a cold drink right now.
    “Sounds like you’ve got them where you want them, Colonel,” said a voice nearby. I turned and saw it was Lieutenant Marquis.
    She was standing, but supporting her weight with both hands on Kwon’s arm. He was beaming like a guy with a hot prom date. She had broken her pelvis, but that would heal up in a day or two with the help of a few million hardworking nanites.
    I flashed them a smile then waved for them to be quiet. I didn’t want the herds to overhear and get the wrong idea. Kwon led Marquis away. She hobbled and hopped awkwardly.
    “Lieutenant?” I called after her. Both of them turned.
    “Sir?”
    “You think you can pilot one of those assault ships in a few hours?”
    She looked at me seriously. “I can. They don’t have pedals, you know.”
    “I know,” I said.
    Kwon was the only one who didn’t look happy. He had a concerned look. I could tell he was thinking he had just brought Joelle back from the dead, and now I was going to send her into the teeth of the Macros again.
    He was right, and it wasn’t fair. But there was nothing I could do about it. I was short on pilots.

14

    Talking the Centaurs through the next part of my plan went more easily than I would have thought. I’d told them I wanted to puncture their sky, and I told them why. They understood and agreed grudgingly. They only had one sticking point: they didn’t like the idea of huddling in their underground passages and tubes all around the station.
    “We do not creep beneath the earth,” they informed me huffily. “It is not our way. The Herd stands and faces death bravely.”
    “And that is our way as well,” I said gently. “But we also know it is sometimes best to trick an enemy, to appear weak, when really, we are strong.”
    “Trickery is not the goal of an honorable Herd.”
    I grunted. That gambit had failed. I was trying to get them to hunker down and hide in every tube, storage chamber and food processing chamber that encircled the central cavity of the station. The place was huge, and should hold them all at least temporarily. Then, I could blow a hole in their roof, depressurize the central chamber and return to the Macro ships claiming victory.
    They had understood the necessity of making it appear we had won the day to the Macros-although they weren’t happy with anyone believing they’d lost a fight. But they really had trouble with hiding in dark, enclosed spaces. I began to believe they had a visceral fear of such places. It added up: they hadn’t rushed into the tubes and outer chambers to fight us, but had waited until we were out in their open environment. No wonder they’d built these structures so insanely large. A spacefaring race that suffered from claustrophobia was at a definite disadvantage.
    “But if you do not hide when the central cavity depressurizes, you will all die,” I pointed out in a reasonable tone.
    “Honor is worth a thousand deaths.”
    “Is it worth a million?”
    “Yes.”
    My head itched inside my helmet, and I wanted to take it off and throw it at the Centaurs. After that, I would have a really good, satisfying scratch. I left it on in the end, suffering the tickle of sweat on my scalp and nose.
    “Pointless defeat is dishonorable,” I told them. “If you die when the cold vacuum comes into your hollow world, you will have provided the machines with fresh amusements.”
    I touched upon the area of being laughed at purposefully. Apparently, nothing pissed off a herd of Centaurs more than the thought the other side believed they were foolish.
    “We are insulted! Our rivers will be swollen with the tears of our enemies!”
    I shrugged, not knowing what they meant exactly, but understanding the tone: I had pushed their button. I decided it was time for a little pause on my side of this conversation.
    Neither side spoke for nearly a minute. By the end, I was weakening and reaching for the talk button.
    “There is dishonor and death on every path,” they said. “We will take the trail which defeats our laughing enemies.”
    They said this last with bitterness. I almost felt for them, sensing this was a painful decision for the herds. It was hard not to be impressed by a people willing to die en masse for their own arcane sense of honor.
    “You have one hour to secure your bodies in airtight chambers,” I said, not wanting to give them a chance to back out or complain about details. “After that, we will empty the sky. Then, we will lead the way as we have agreed. We will strike the first blow, taking the Macro ships as we return to them in apparent triumph.”
    “We are impressed and sickened that you dishonor yourselves this way to strike at our mutual enemy.”
    That statement made me mildly angry. The Centaurs didn’t believe trickery was acceptable in warfare. They wanted a stand-up fight without deception of any kind. Anything less was disgusting to them. The implication was that we were disgusting creatures. Since we were willing to debase ourselves to win, the Centaurs were only making deals with us out of necessity.
    I quickly got over my irritation with them and I ordered my men to set up a massive barrage of fire. We destroyed every bush and low-built structure in the vicinity to make it look like a pitched battle was going on. We advanced into the region we were firing into, and slowly marched to the point the Macros had identified as a weak spot. We stood underneath it, still putting on a good display of fire. I knew the Macros were watching this structure with sensors. From outside, the leaks of radiation would give the appearance of further combat.
    When the hour had passed, I contacted the Centaurs. “We are in position,” I said. “This is your last warning, we are about to puncture the sky. Get all your people beneath the land.”
    “We are ready. Those that stand upon the hilltops await their deaths resolutely.”
    I paused, frowning. Some of them weren’t going to take cover?
    “I urge you to order your people to find shelter. We are about to depressurize this chamber.”
    “We are a herd, but we have individual honor as well. Some could not withstand the embarrassment of huddling in fear. Some could not say farewell to the sky.”
    “Should we wait?” I asked.
    “Proceed.”
    I licked my lips. I nodded to Kwon and the others. Orders were shouted up and down the line. Every man raised his rifle together. We burned the distant roof, creating an ovoid region of destruction. At first, the structure blackened and hundreds of molten sparks and glowing metallic droplets showered us. Our visors darkened. I had the men halt for ten seconds to cool our projectors, then we fired again, in unison.
    It was the fourth combined barrage that did it. The ceiling opened, and it did indeed look like we’d destroyed the sky. Chunks of debris fell, but as we’d calculated, it missed us at our position.
    The hazy clouds were sucked out into space first, turning whiter with frost as they went out the hole. The disturbed air flowed and rippled down to us, forming a dozen cyclones. I watched in amazement as these phenomenons touched down all around the central cavity, ripping up plants, buildings…and bodies.
    Some of my men were sucked up as well by random whirlwinds. I ordered them to hang onto their skateboards and use thrust to fire through the turbulent hole if they got too close to an edge. One of my biggest worries was that my men would be dashed against the jagged lips of this rupture we’d created. When they got close to the hole, they were to blast their way through the center and win through into open space.
    One of the cyclones touched down upon the hill where we’d fought our first battle. Countless brown bodies were lifted up in a swirl of debris. They were all carried up toward the nexus of these spinning vortexes, the hole.
    The structure shivered around the lips of the rupture, and it broke open wider. I stared in horror. What if the whole place went down? What if, in the end, I really had served the Macros as a perfect tool of destruction? If this entire station sank down into the planetary atmosphere and was destroyed, would our two people be blood enemies for all eternity?
    Even as my fears grew, however, the hole stopped ripping itself larger. The escaping pressure had lessened, and thus applied less force to the lip of the opening. It had stopped expanding.
    “Wow,” said Kwon, standing near me on the hill. “So many of them.”
    “What?”
    “The Centaurs,” he said, pointing toward one of the cyclones. It had paused over the largest population center in the cavity. Calling it a city would have been a misnomer, but it was the closest thing these people had to one. “Magnify your visor. Zoom in on that cyclone-the darkest one,” he said.
    I did as he suggested, and my jaw sagged. The cyclone was dark with bodies. Thousands upon thousands of them. I realized with a heavy heart, that the voice at the end of communications line had never said how many of them had chosen death over dishonor. By saying some had decided to stand in the open, the voice at the far side of the com box had perhaps meant half.
    I went back to the com box and tried to open the connection to the Centaurs again.
    “I didn’t know you were lemmings, dammit!”
    They did not answer. Had I killed them all? Had their spokesman chosen death over dishonor? I felt sick.
    One of the cyclones swirled close, then closer still. I decided it would be better to head upward now, not to be crushed against the walls or the floor of the chamber. We all mounted our skateboards and rode them into the thin air that was left. We headed upward, hundreds of us, standing on our dishes and gliding closer with alarming speed. I sensed I was caught in a current, as were a hundred others.
    I almost blew it-I almost fought the current. I tried to keep my wits about me, but it was difficult. The wind was so powerful, so loud, it was like standing next to roaring train in a tunnel. I recalled the advice given to swimmers in the ocean, when sucked under by a wave. One should go with the flow, let it take you with it.
    I took that advice and was swept upward with dizzying, sickening speed. I spun around and around. My dish stayed adhered to my feet via magnets and countless chains of straining nanites. I saw them ripple over my suited body, as if I was wrapped in aluminum foil or dunked in mercury.
    Bodies, both living and dead, swept by. Fifty to one of them were Centaurs. Some of them kicked feebly. As I’d said before, they were hard to kill.
    Jagged edges of twisted metal filled my vision for a moment, and then I was out into the blackness of space. The planet below was engulfed in darkness. The yellow star, being on the far side of this world, did nothing to illuminate the scene.
    I flowed with the rest as the ride died down to a gentle, bumping flow. We steered toward the assault ships on the surface of the structure.
    “What now, Colonel?” asked Kwon, now that conversation was possible again.
    “We do as we said,” I told him. “Get to the assault ships. Form up around all four of them. I want three companies behind each. Don’t launch until I’ve talked to the Macros.”
    When I’d managed to reach Lieutenant Marquis’ assault ship, I looked back toward the rupture. The flow had lessened a great deal now. But still bodies were puffing out of it, like a volcano of death. The surface of the structure rained with Centaurs. Their bodies came floating slowly back down to rest upon it, as it was big enough to have some degree of gravity, and the gravitational fields that made the floor far below us adhere to our feet had some draw even this far away.
    I stood there, and it rained death upon me. I’d never seen the like of it, and the sight made my stomach roil. I used the pain of it, the sad horror of it, to deepen my hatred for the Macros.
    For I had no doubt that if they had pleasure centers in their metal brains, they were humming with happiness right now.

15

    “Macro Command, this is Kyle Riggs.”
    Nothing. I fiddled with the touch screen and tried again. “Macro Command, do you read me-”
    “Yes.”
    “We have completed our mission. We are returning to the invasion ship.”
    “The structure still operates.”
    “Yes,” I said, my voice threatening to rise into a shout. “But the people inside are dead. Are you happy?”
    They didn’t answer. I breathed through my teeth and closed my eyes. I’d put a word like happy into a question. That was two strikes as far as the Macros were concerned.
    “We have completed our mission,” I said as evenly as I could. I tried not to think about the geyser of bodies and warm gasses that still shot out of the hole I’d blown into an idyllic sky. “We are returning to the invasion ship.”
    “The structure still operates.”
    “We do not have any armament to destroy the structure. We are ground forces carrying light arms. We have completed the mission as required.”
    They paused again. I wondered if I was going to be required to send this entire station-with any survivors huddling inside-burning and sinking down into the atmosphere of the planet below us. I didn’t think I could do that.
    “Return to base.”
    That was it. They didn’t tell me ‘good job’, nor did they chortle and giggle at my foolishness. I was a good tool, but they didn’t care about me. A carpenter was more likely to feel love for his hammer. They simply put me away in a drawer or dropped me in the dirt until I was needed again.
    I got aboard Lieutenant Marquis’ assault ship and ordered my dish-flying troops to aim themselves at the invasion ship. Everyone was to stay together, not to string out or fool around. The injured were allowed to board the assault ships, but I wanted most of my men free and open to maneuver.
    We took off and headed toward home-such as it was. I wondered if the Macros had any idea what I intended. I certainly hoped not.
    The first few thousand miles went smoothly. I still hadn’t told my troops anything about a planned rebellion. There hadn’t been time, and I hadn’t wanted to leak anything on an open channel.
    As the curvature of the planet swept by underneath us, I marveled at its austere beauty. The mountains rose up so high they seemed like spikes. The ice dominated the upper and lower quarters of the planet, making the polar icecaps huge. Nowhere on this cool world was completely free of ice and snow. All the way down to the equator the top of every glacier-carved mountain was crusted in white.
    It was the last thousand miles to the invasion ship when things went badly. We were forced to turn around then, to brake and slow our approach. We were moving at high speed and would be smashed like bugs against the hull if we didn’t slow down.
    The Macros picked that moment to act. Maybe they’d overheard us plotting, even though I had been careful to use scrambled channels for every communication. Maybe they’d planned it this way all along, intending to destroy us in an effort to keep the peace with the Centaurs. Another possibility was they had decided we were a failed experiment and it was time to dump the Petri dish into the sink. I’m not sure why they turned their guns on us-but they did.
    The cruiser gave us the first hint of what was coming. It rotated itself onto its back, in respect to the planet we all orbited. The big belly cannon poked upward now and swiveled in our direction. The dark, ugly snout of it brightened as it prepared to fire. Fortunately, my people were watching the ship carefully. They shouted the alarm, and everyone took whatever evasive action they could. I gave the go signal, and I knew the marines left in the bricks in the invasion ship’s hold were moving.
    My original plan had been to order the assault ships to veer off at the last moment, targeting the cruiser instead of the yawning hold doors on the invasion ship. We needed the drilling lasers on the assault ships to burn their way through the cruiser’s hull. We felt confident we could take out the small crew of the invasion ship without too much trouble, but the cruiser was another matter. It was a real warship, and we knew next to nothing about its crew, internal layout or armament. The good news was that it was close to the invasion ship it was escorting, less than two miles distant.
    The big cannon flared and gouted brilliant light. I had thought I might talk Macro Command out of this, but when the belly cannon fired, I knew the game was up.
    One of my four surviving assault ships bloomed into a fireball. There wasn’t even a ship there anymore. Nothing could have survived.
    “All marines, this is your commander, Colonel Riggs,” I shouted into my com-link, broadcasting and overriding everyone’s helmet audio input. “We’ve all been thinking about a change of direction, and apparently the Macros have been too. They are firing on us, and you are hereby ordered to destroy every Macro you can.”
    I quickly worked my com system to link me up with the surviving assault ship pilots. I could see the muzzle of the cruiser’s big cannon glowing brighter again. In seconds, it would fire again. I could tell no amount of jinking and dodging would suffice. “Pilots, I’m ordering you all to abandon your ships. Everyone must grab a dish and bail out. I don’t care if they are on life support, put a helmet on them and push them out the back door!”
    I followed my own orders then, grabbing an unconscious marine by the boots and dragging him after me. IV bags rattled and flopped behind him. We fell out of the rear doors as they spread open and allowed us to drift into space. Others fell with me. I saw Kwon dragging an extra dish behind him. No doubt, he intended to give it to Lieutenant Marquis after she bailed out.
    My visor darkened to an opaque state as the belly cannon fired upon us. My visor’s efforts were insufficient. Light leaked in, so bright it gave me afterimages and an instant headache. Just as my vision returned, vapor washed over me and I heard a roaring sound. I realized our assault ship must have been the second on the target list. It had been blown to atoms.
    Spinning and disoriented, I almost lost my dish. Only the emergency magnetics in my boots and the nanite tethers kept me from being fired out into space on a random trajectory. The marine I’d dragged out with me wasn’t in easy reach. I had to let him go, figuring we could try to pick him up later-if we survived.
    I zoomed in with my visor on the cruiser. The gun was prepping again. I knew it would take out all four of my assault ships. I had only a few tricks left.
    I gained control of my spin and had the dish under my feet and operating again. I applied thrust, braking so I wouldn’t smash into the invasion ship. “All assault companies,” I said, trying to sound calm. “Redirect yourselves toward the cruiser. Troops aboard the invasion ship, injured or not, start taking out the Macro crew. Work your way to the control center, you will find it located near the engines, behind the hold.”
    I was flooded with bleeping contact requests. I ignored them all. Everyone had problems, but we all had only minutes left in which to live, and they would have to solve them on their own. I opened a direct channel to Major Kurt Welter, who had flown the rescue mission to pick up my lost marines back at the ring. He had the last assault ship, and it was sitting in the hold of the invasion ship.
    “Major Welter?”
    “Sir?”
    “I need your attention, Major.”
    “They are coming into the hold, sir. The spidery-types-their marines. We are in a firefight right on top of our own bricks.”
    “I need your attention, Major. Disengage from the enemy and get to your ship.”
    Silence for several seconds. I was about to repeat the order, when his voice came back on. “I’ve disengaged, sir. Moving toward my assault ship, but I’m under fire.”
    “Do not get hit, Major. That is an order.”
    “Uh, doing my best, Colonel.”
    “We need your assault ship out here. My men will mass on the cruiser like ants. We can take out the big gun I think, but we can’t get inside. You will fly your assault ship out of the invasion ship’s hold and approach the cruiser once we’d knocked out the belly turret. Do you understand, Major?”
    “Yes sir, but there is a problem. The enemy has closed the hold doors. I can’t get out.”
    I closed my eyes in frustration. Things were spinning out of control. My surprise attack had turned into their surprise attack. I thought about the mines I’d left the factory bricks manufacturing. They could use one to blow out the doors, but I was pretty sure the concussion in the enclosed space would kill all my marines, defeating the purpose.
    “All right, Major. I will think of something. Keep that assault ship intact. Worst case, you can use the beam cannon to burn your way out of the hull. Stay alive, protect your ship and let my marines take the invasion ship.”
    “Roger sir.”
    Another of the assault ships exploded off to my left. All around me, more than a thousand marines flew past the invasion ship and toward the cruiser, which loomed with sickening speed. I knew I was going too fast, and applied more braking power. It was going to be a rough landing.

16

    Like everyone else out there, I came in a little too fast. It was indescribably tempting to overdo my approach speed as I watched the huge cannon swivel, fire and kill two or three clumped marines with every burst. You could see it coming, aiming for you. It reached out like the hand of God and removed men from existence with unfeeling precision. The desire to turn off the braking thrust entirely, and thus get past this deadly, unpredictable menace, was intense.
    Some of my marines fell prey to the temptation. They streaked toward the cruiser, then applied maximum thrust. Some pulled it off, knees buckling, shivering from the stresses, but managing to control their tiny dishes enough to slow them down. Others were not so skilled. They tipped, overcompensated and flew into deadly spins that resulted in splattered marines on the dark hull of the cruiser. Like bugs hitting a windshield, dozens of my finest ended their lives that way, howling in my headset during their final seconds.
    I cursed myself for not having had more time for training. My marines were experts at a dozen combat exercises, but we were all new to these flying toys. They were inherently dangerous-like sleds with rocket engines attached. I had known my men weren’t really ready to operate them under the stresses of combat, but there had been nothing I could do about it, we just hadn’t had much time to train with them.
    The survivors, about eight hundred of them, landed upon the curved hull of the cruiser. We crawled over it on our bellies like beetles.
    “Kwon? Get over here,” I said.
    One of the biggest beetles scuttled over, eager to obey. I saw him dragging his dish.
    “Tell everyone to tether their transports to the cruiser hull. We’ll come back for them later.”
    Kwon relayed the order, while I dragged myself toward the belly turret. It was still rotating around, almost silent in space. I could feel the rumble of its motion through my hands and feet where they contacted the cruiser’s hull. Such vibrations were the only sounds you sensed in open space. They felt more like tickling sensations than sounds. I could hear the turret in my bones as it sought a target, but we were too close to the hull to hit, underneath its field of fire.
    How long, I wondered, until it turned its muzzle toward the invasion ship? I had no doubt the Macros would blow away their own ship if we captured it. We were a disease and ruthless amputation was every Macro doctor’s favorite technique. The moment they knew my men were going to capture the invasion ship, they would destroy it if they could. I had no doubt of this. We were under tight time pressure. Unfortunately, with this ticking clock I didn’t even know how long we had.
    “How do we take this thing out, Kwon?” I asked. “Do we have any charges?”
    “No sir, what little we had in the way of explosives and heavy weapons went down with the assault ships.”
    I thought of Major Welter and his final assault ship. Should I order him to burn his way out of the hold and fly over here to take out this belly turret? I figured I could tell him to fly between the invasion ship and the cruiser on a precise line. That way, if the cruiser dared to fire it would hit both the assault ship and the invasion ship behind it. I shook my head in my helmet, causing sweat droplets to fly onto the visor and flatten there. There was no gravity to drag even a droplet of water downward.
    “No,” I said aloud. I needed Welter to burn a hole in this hull. To bring him over here now, under the muzzle of this gun, was suicide. I knew how the Macros thought by now. Macro Command would fire, I had no doubt of it. They would happily destroy their own ships to rid themselves of us.
    It was time to act, and act now. There was no room for niceties. “Men, I want everyone to retreat from the belly cannon. Get around the curve of the hull until you can’t see it anymore. Everyone except for Kwon and I, that is.”
    Marines, who had been crawling closer from every direction, now turned and moved away. No one argued, which almost made me grin. Maybe they sensed Old Riggs was about to do something crazy, and they wanted no part of it. They were correct, naturally.
    Kwon hulked closer. “What’s up, sir?” he said.
    “Find me a body. A marine or two that splatted nearby.”
    Kwon, to his credit, paused for a second, but he did not even ask why. He just turned around and crawled away. Less than a minute later, he came back dragging a smashed sack of humanity. I didn’t look at the name patch. I didn’t want to know.
    “Major Sarin?” I called over my com-link while he approached. I thought it was a good time to check in on how the takeover of the invasion ship was going. “Major Sarin?”
    There was no answer. I frowned. There could have been a lot of reasons why she wasn’t answering, including because she was busy fighting for her life. It could be so loud, she couldn’t hear her headset. Or, she could be dead with a Macro marine squatting over her cooling corpse. I didn’t know which it was, but I didn’t like the list of possibilities.
    “Sandra?” I called on our private channel. “Lieutenant, are you there?”
    More nothing.
    I tried to put it out of my mind. They were dead or alive and I couldn’t help them right now, except by doing my own job right. I concentrated on the task at hand. Kwon had figured out what I had in mind by this time, and was already working on the reactor controls.
    “How will we get out of range quickly enough when it goes off?” he asked.
    I pointed to the dish that still dangled, attached by a stubborn nanite strap to the dead marine. The sight made me appreciate the nanites a bit more, they were loyal little things, clinging to masters long after there was no hope. I knew that after my men had died, frequently we were surprised upon opening up their body bags. The flesh inside was recomposed and perfect, almost as if they’d never died but instead slept in their airless vinyl shrouds. The nanites had repaired their bodies faithfully, even though they were dead and could not be brought back.
    Kwon looked at the dish dubiously. It was banged up, with several big dents in the curvature of it. I waved him toward the reactor. “Rig up the trigger. I’ll test this thing.”
    “How will it carry both of us?” he asked.
    “We only have to go a few hundred feet. Once we are around the cruiser hull, we will be safe from the blast.”
    “We hope,” Kwon said.
    “Yeah.”
    We worked quietly after that. This part of the drill we knew well. Ever since I’d let Wilson kill himself by overloading his suit reactor and bring down the first Macro dome back on Earth, I’d had them build in timers and codes to do this sort of thing in a more organized fashion.
    “It should work,” Kwon announced.
    “Good enough,” I said. I had the thrust working on the dish. It was a little unstable, but I figured it only had to fly us away from this spot. There was more than enough push to move our combined weights out of here quickly.
    I eyed the dish. There was no chance we could both stand on it. I threw myself over the dish on my belly and grunted. “Climb on. We are going to have to be friendly.”
    “Let me go on the bottom,” Kwon said.
    I looked at him. He was easily twice my weight. Under acceleration, and in order not to be top-heavy, he was right. We would be more stable if he were the base of this marine pyramid. I rolled off the dish and waved him forward. “Hurry. Start the timer and do it.”
    “I already did,” Kwon said as he grunted past me.
    “What? Go then, go, go, GO!” I shouted as I threw myself onto his back.
    The dish rose up and shoved at my gut. My legs dangled, as did Kwon’s. The dish shuddered and bucked, wanting to go into a spin. Kwon fought the controls. I felt like a chimp clinging to my mother. If I hadn’t had nanite strength in my fingers and exoskeletal strength in my gloves, I could never have held on.
    I looked back then, and saw right away we were screwed. We were too high. We were never going to make it. The belly turret rolled around quickly, the muzzle glowing white. It was going to take us out, or the explosion was going to do it. Both sources of death were in a race to finish us.
    “Down, dammit, down, hug the deck!” I shouted.
    “Yeah, yeah!” Kwon grunted.
    I was the ultimate backseat driver. My gloves clutched Kwon’s shoulders. Hunks of Kwon’s suit and the thick meat beneath were crushed by my hands, but he didn’t complain. Kwon flipped us over and applied more thrust. A second later, we were going downward. We were in an inverted dive. We skimmed over the cruiser’s hull. The rough metal surface was five feet from my visor, three feet, two feet-inches.
    Flash. The world vanished. There was no way the visor could catch up, I should have dialed down the transparency, but I hadn’t. Blinded, I felt myself go into a spin as the shockwave hit us. I knew right then what it was like to be a buzzing fly swatted out of the air by vengeful man’s palm.
    I lost my grip on Kwon. I wasn’t sure what had hit us, and I could barely think coherently. A fist closed on my suit after a while, grabbing me and yanking me to a halt. I wasn’t sure who it was, but I reached up and wrapped my own two hands around that fist. Then I knew. That fist was big. It had to be Kwon.

17

    “Can you hear me, Colonel?” Kwon asked.
    I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t think it was the first time he’d asked that question. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m all right.”
    Kwon chuckled. “If you lie too much, you go to hell. Your mamma taught you that, right sir?”
    “Yeah she did,” I said. “The old lady was right. I think I’m headed that way.”
    “Can you see me?”
    “No. Where are you?”
    “About two inches from your face.”
    I reached up, and felt his visor. He was pressing it against mine so we could talk in the vacuum. “Oh, yeah. It’s dark.”
    Kwon fiddled with something on my helmet. “Your visor is transparent. There is plenty light. I think you forgot to blackout your visor.”
    I thought about it. I seemed to recall something then. “Blinded,” I said. “The nanites will fix it. What hit us? Was that the cannon?”
    “No,” Kwon said. “That little pop was the reactor blowing. The turret is gone.”
    “What did you set the timer to?”
    I could sense Kwon shrugging, even though I couldn’t see him. “I don’t know. I didn’t set it to anything. I just turned it on.”
    Great, I thought. What was the default timer setting? Forty-five seconds, if my memory served. Kwon was many things, but he wasn’t a genius. I groaned aloud. “Remind me to bust you down to sergeant again after this campaign,” I said.
    “Fine with me, Colonel,” he said.
    I snorted, knowing it probably was fine with him. Kwon was not an ambitious man. His only true drive was the destruction of the machines. He didn’t care about much else. No wonder we got along so well.
    “What’s the status of the invasion?” I asked, suddenly alarmed. “What’s going on?”
    “No word from the invasion ship. They blew a hole in the hull though, and our last assault ship flew over here and started drilling.”
    “Major Welter’s ship?” I asked, trying to get my mind working again at full speed. “Good. Take me over there fast. My eyes are itching, the nanites are on overdrive. I should get some sight back soon.”
    Kwon took my hand in his big paw. When I told him to take me fast, he didn’t argue, he just did it. My feet bumped and skipped over the cruiser’s hull. I stumbled behind him like a toddler being dragged through a grocery store by a pissed-off mom. I sensed heat and saw flashes of light ahead.
    “Is that the laser drill?” I asked.
    “Yeah. You can see something now, huh?”
    “They’ll know we are coming through. Get everyone down and ready to fire when we breach the hull.”
    Kwon shouted orders. Marines I couldn’t see ringed the spot and readied their rifles.
    “Major Welter?” I shouted over the local com-link.
    “Sir?” Welter’s voice crackled in my headset. “Is that you Colonel Riggs? Of the infamous Riggs Pigs?”
    “The same,” I said.
    “Everyone figured you were dead, or at least out of this fight, sir.”
    “They thought wrong,” I said. “Are you through the hull yet?”
    “No Colonel, this metal is thick and tough. Several times thicker than the invasion ship.”
    “I want you to get out of the assault ship and let it drill on automatic.”
    “Why sir?”
    “Because they know we are coming.”
    There was a brief moment of quiet before Welter spoke again. “I’m out of there, sir.”
    I nodded appreciatively. He had moved with shocking speed. The man was a survivor. I supposed that anyone who made it this far in my vicinity could be qualified as harder to kill than a cockroach.
    Less than a minute later, our last assault ship blew up. It shot outward like a cork fired from a cannon’s mouth. I watched it tumble away, burning. My vision wasn’t perfect yet, that would take another hour or two. But I could see bright lights, especially with my left eye, which was apparently less damaged.
    The assault ship was indeed brightly lit. An incandescent fireball of spinning wreckage threw burning chunks of molten metal everywhere. I felt a few hot droplets rain on my suit. The Macros had probably set a charge right under the spot where we worked to breach their hull. The moment the drilling laser had burned through, it had set off the explosives and blown the ship into space.
    “I want a recon squad into that breach!” I shouted. “Marines, move!”
    I watched a group of shapes approach the breach. They were hazy and indistinct, but I could tell they were my men. They threw in concussion grenades and followed up with a blazing fullisade of laser fire into the smoking hole at their feet.
    “You heard the man, get in there! ” roared Kwon.
    They hopped into the hole and vanished. We waited twenty seconds. Since they were still alive, I ordered more men in. I told them they had to burn their way through every wall they saw. They were to ignore empty passages and inviting hatchways. I wanted them to dig deeply into the ship, burning the walls and the floors at their feet until they got a good distance away from the breach. They were to assume the enemy had set up more booby-traps along the obvious routes of advance.
    Several minutes later, when over a hundred of my marines were down there in the thick of it, I decided to join them. Kwon’s heavy hand fell on my shoulder.
    “Your eyes, sir?” he asked.
    I shook him off. I could see with my left pretty well now. It was little dim, but I could sight along a rifle barrel. “They are fine now,” I said. “Nanites work fast, remember?”
    Kwon followed me into the hole, shaking his head. “Hell is a bad place, Colonel.”
    “Shut up,” I said. “I know all about it.”
    They waited until about half of us were inside before they hit us. I’m not sure if that was due to a plan they had or if it was just the best they could do. I think our tactic of drilling through decks and walls had them baffled. We were not approaching in the expected directions. Several more charges did go off, blowing apart my leading marine scouts. But most of us made it into the cruiser’s guts and spread out. We held ten percent of the ship when the lights went out.
    For a second, I thought my eyes were having a catastrophic relapse. I knew it wasn’t our suit lights, as everyone had them on. Shouts went up from a dozen throats, reporting limited visibility. I knew then it wasn’t my eyes, it was much worse, it was everyone’s eyes.
    “Some kind of blackout gas, sir,” reported a lieutenant from delta company. “We can’t see a thing.”
    “Turn on your motion sensors. Look for big, metal bugs.”
    They came at us out of the fog they had created. It was effective, this stuff. I figured it had been designed to allow them to see, but not us. I could hear firing and screams, but saw nothing beyond my HUD. Something hit me in the side and sent me spinning. I almost fired, but stopped myself. From the feel of it when it hit me, it must have been one of my marines running into me. I chided myself. I had to get into the game.
    “Men, I want you to draw knives and pistols. Make very sure of your targets. Try to hold your positions while this smoke clears out the breach. Can anyone up topside see anything?”
    “It’s venting, sir,” came a voice. “This is Major Welter. I’m standing near the breach. It looks like a volcano is erupting.”
    “Right,” I said. “Marines, hold your positions and try not to shoot one another.”
    “They are charging in close, sir!” came an anonymous report. I heard sounds of laser fire and more shouting, much of it incoherent.
    I felt I was losing control of the situation. The Macros had identified a critical weakness in our operational effectiveness. I figured if I lived through this experience, I would redesign our battle suits to allow marines to fight more effectively without visual input.
    “Hold tight,” I said. “The gas is clearing!”
    When it did clear, we shot the retreating Macros. They had dragged off a number of my men. We’d lost thirty marines. Only four of the Macro workers had been disabled. They lie in the passages, kicking spastically, repetitively. Like robot toys with dying batteries. They had the familiar metallic, headless-ant look. They had beam weapons mounted where their heads were supposed to be.
    “Macro marines,” I said, “their shipboard fighters. There can’t be too many of them, but they are effective.”
    I ordered the mass of my men into the ship now. I didn’t want them outside, exposed to incoming fire. I had reports of other Macro ships moving in the system. Only a few recon squads stayed up top on the surface of the hull, watching the skies and the invasion ship.
    I decided to change tactics. This was taking too long, and I could not afford attritional losses. If more Macro ships got here before we captured this one, we would be helpless. I ordered the men to head off in company-sized forces in every direction. Someone was bound to discover the bridge or the engine room, and I felt sure the Macro crew wasn’t big enough to contain us all. We would overrun them with our superior numbers.
    I took command of the company headed toward the engines. In the invasion ship, that had been the critical region I’d discovered when I was traveling through their tubes and chambers. If they liked to design their ships consistently, we might gain control over it by taking that area.
    We saw some fantastic sights along the way. I traveled through chambers that resembled laboratories of some kind. One was filled with bulbous tanks that dripped solvents. Vapors filled these chambers, and I had no doubt the environment was highly toxic. Something like electrolysis was going on inside those bubbling tanks. Was it a power source or a weapons system? I had no idea.
    When we reached the engine compartments in the aft part of the ship, I met up with real resistance. There were only four of their marines, crouching on the ceiling with their beam-weapon heads directed toward the entrance. They waited like patient cockroaches, and we didn’t disappoint them. We burned our way in from two sides of the chamber at once, and I sent a few marines in through the open hatch as well just to keep them honest.
    It was a slaughter. Caught in a crossfire, the enemy marines fought to the death, but hardly managed to score a hit before they were beamed to smoking ruin. I took note of the fact they didn’t bother to retreat, not even in the face of hopeless odds. We must be getting close to the ship’s vitals.
    “Keep moving,” I told my men, broadcasting to every helmet in the invasion force. “Don’t stop for anything. Not even if you are hit. When it becomes clear we are going to take the ship, they will not hesitate to blow up the whole cruiser.”
    In the end, it was a close thing. The huge engines rumbled, vibrating the floor in the final room as we fought the dozen or so technicians who held it. We had to be careful here, I didn’t want our weapons to disable the very ship we’d fought so hard to take. It came down to pistols and knives against snapping pinchers in the end. They flicked out their snapping metal mandibles, ripping holes in suits, severing air tanks and flesh. Due to the almost non-existent gravity, blood floated and pooled in odd configurations on the walls and mixed with a dozen stranger liquids that flowed from the struggling Macros.
    I saw a man in front of me go down. He had a knife in one hand, having lost his other weapons. The power cable to his generator was severed and floating. I lunged forward, pulling away from Kwon’s watchful grip. He cursed and followed me into hand-to-hand.
    Fighting one of the machines this close up was terrifying. They were much worse than the Worms. They were not soft flesh, and they were bigger than your average Worm. A good fifteen feet long, the Macro worker had its back to us as it worked over the marine, who roared hoarsely as the thing diced his suit and flesh. It looked as if he were being attacked by a lawnmower. Shreds of material, nanite-impregnated or not, flew everywhere in an alarming spray. The marine still slashed with his knife, the monofilament edge removing flashing metal mouth parts from the Macro.
    I tackled the thing, and it felt as if I had tackled an angry bulldozer. The metal surface didn’t give way a micron. It was not staggered by my weight or the impact of my flying assault. I was an insect hurling myself upon a careless being of gray metal.
    I put my pistol onto a jointed section on its back where two sliding plates met. I pulled the trigger and held it down. A thin beam lanced into the metal, melting its way into the things guts. I didn’t have much hope of taking it out this way, however. It would take too long to bring it down.
    Kwon came in behind me. His approach was more effective, and got a response from the monster. He put his monofilament blade up into a set of cables that controlled a rear leg. The leg lost tension and went sprawling and flailing. That entire end of the monster sagged.
    The Macro left the shredded marine and turned, dragging the bad leg. When it realized we were holding onto its back and not letting go, it did something unexpected. It loaded up its legs underneath itself and sprang into the air.
    I felt a huge surge of power. My first instinct was to grab and hold on, but I realized that was the wrong move. I let go.
    The Macro surged upward like a grasshopper launching itself into flight. In this case, however, the ceiling was very close, and like a grasshopper in a box, it smashed into the roof.
    Kwon, unfortunately, had held on. His bulldog instincts failed him, and he crashed into the roof of the chamber, crushed between the Macro’s metal body and the equally unforgiving ceiling. He went limp and tumbled away, falling in slow-motion.
    Not knowing if he was dead or not, I broke my own rules of engagement and unlimbered my beam projector. I fried the Macro point-blank as it came down again.

18

    The marine the Macro worker had been chewing on didn’t make it. He did live long enough to see us clear the room. But his guts were spread over a five yard area, and not even the nanites could patch him up again.
    Kwon was out for a while, but came-to after some help from a corpsman. He had six cracked ribs and a fractured skull, but it was nothing one of my marines couldn’t recover from. I decided my next battle suit would have to be better designed with internal form-fitting foam to prevent injuries to marines who were tossed around in their armor. My current design stopped most penetration, but didn’t give enough padded protection from concussive damage.
    Kwon dragged himself to where I was working on a bizarre control panel. I lifted my hand to clap him on the back, but thought the better of it.
    “Congratulations on surviving,” I told him.
    “Just don’t give me any more promotions,” he said, groaning.
    “Don’t worry. Are those nanites itching?”
    “Yeah,” he said, running his gloved hands over his chest and helmet. “This is worse than the time I got my foot chopped off. What are you doing, Colonel?”
    “Exercising the first useful skill I ever learned: problem-solving.”
    Kwon grunted.
    “Identification, analysis, design, implementation,” I said. “The engineer’s basic steps. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to figure out this interface and make it work for me. It might take weeks or even years of study.”
    “You mean we can’t fly this ship?”
    “ We can’t, no,” I said. “But we don’t have to. We have little friends to do it for us. I brought along some extra brainboxes and connective materials.”
    As I spoke, I showed him what looked like a simple box of nanites, the sort we used for control components on a dozen other devices. From it sprouted seven thick cables that terminated in metal hands. The nanite arms lifted themselves to touch the complex Macro control board, which looked like the cockpit of a jet fighter of the future.
    “Can they do it?” he asked, sitting on the floor of the ship. He put his back against a dead Macro worker, as if it were a brick wall.
    I shrugged. “They became symbiotic with our bodies very quickly. I suspect the ship controls are a lot simpler than that. I’ve instructed them to go for navigational controls first. We have to get underway.”
    Kwon scratched at a gash in his right forearm. The suit had been ripped open, but had now repaired itself. I knew the flesh underneath probably looked worse than the suit. The nanites had their work cut out for them with Kwon.
    “But they were studying us for years, I thought you said. They can fix us because they dissected thousands of humans.”
    I nodded. “That’s the worrisome part. The Macro and Nano technologies are related, but how much do the Nanos really know about their bigger cousins? It is a mystery we’ll learn more about today.”
    Kwon frowned. “You mean, if they can’t figure it out and we are blasted by enemy cruisers, we will know they are not close family, huh?”
    “Something like that.”
    “So, this is your plan?” he asked. He gestured toward the brainbox and the skinny arms snaking out of it.
    “This was all I had.”
    Kwon looked around the room. I followed his eyes. The conquest of the cruiser had been costly. Marines were resting or flat on their backs, trying to keep breathing while their nanites repaired their bodies. A few of them were dead and lying in a twisted configurations.
    “That’s great, Colonel,” he said. “I’m glad you didn’t tell us before we assaulted this ship.”
    “You’re welcome,” I said brightly. Internally, I was as worried as Kwon-maybe more so. This had always been the sticking point. Sure, I figured with a thousand marines I could take a few ships. But could we fly these alien ships? That was the real question.
    A few long minutes passed. The brainbox shivered now and then, sending out a new arm to fiddle with a control point. Sometimes, one of the ones it had in play was sucked back into the box where it disappeared. I had no idea if this meant we were one step closer to flying this monster or if we’d failed yet again.
    Major Welter contacted me from where he was still camped out on the cruiser’s hull.
    “Colonel Riggs?” he called, sounding excited.
    I thumbed him up on a private channel. “Tell me this is good news, Major,” I said.
    “I don’t think I can do that, sir. I’ve finally gotten through to our people on the invasion ship.”
    I shifted nervously and leaned my ear against the padded earpiece. “Talk to me.”
    “They blew out the hold doors about two minutes ago, sir. I was able to get a signal to them then. The bricks are floating out now. They must have released the magnetic clamps.”
    “What?” I said. My mind raced. It sounded to me as if they’d lost their battle. They had a lot fewer troops than we had here on the cruiser. I cursed myself. I should have split my forces more evenly. If we’d lost one ship out of two, and couldn’t fly the one we held…
    “Yeah, more of them are flowing out now. Our bricks, our equipment, men in suits. Sir-it looks like they are abandoning the ship.”
    “Give me a video feed,” I ordered. “Link our visors.”
    A moment later a scene swam into view. I stared, my heart pounding. Somewhere in that mess of metal and humanity flushing out into space was Sandra. Not only that, but the bricks were the key to our long term survival. Without them, we would run out of food, air, water and be unable to adapt by building new equipment in the factories.
    “What is it?” Kwon asked, finally catching on that something was terribly wrong.
    I shushed him, making a chopping motion in the air. “Keep the signal going, Welter,” I said.
    Things went from bad to worse about ten seconds later.
    “Sir?” Major Welter said, “things have gone badly, I’m getting a transmission from Major Sarin…the Macros have engaged some kind of device.”
    At least Sarin was alive. But what about Sandra? my mind asked. “Keep feeding me data,” I told him.
    About then, the invasion ship blew up. The engines exploded, popping like a fireworks display. The hold area lurched forward, swallowing a few of the escaping bricks and marines that floated away from it. Some were riding dishes, and they flew with desperate surges of speed.
    Fortunately, explosions in space are not as far-reaching as they are in a planetary atmosphere. Without air to carry the shockwave, even an atomic explosion has to be very close to kill. There was no air to burn or carry the concussive force to my people. The invasion ship itself came apart in a blossoming ball of radiation and molten metal, killing a number of them.
    I watched the silent, expanding sphere of destruction with a sinking heart. I’d watched many friends die, but usually not in a single, helpless instant like this.
    Numbly, I switched off the video input from Major Welter’s helmet. I had to do something. What was it?
    “Alpha and Delta companies,” I said, my voice sounding faint even to my ears. “Get onto your skateboards. Get out there and drag any and all survivors and equipment you can find back to the cruiser. This ship is our home now.”

19

    I put everyone I could on rescue duty, but it wasn’t enough. Some marines and bricks fell tumbling, out of control, toward the atmosphere of the icy planet below us. They would burn up in a few hours, but I couldn’t get to them. I tried not to think about it.
    A full twenty minutes later I got the first word about Sandra. She was identified floating with a brick. We later realized she’d tethered herself to it and when they were jettisoning all the equipment in waves, she’d been flushed out of the hold. Unfortunately, she’d been badly banged-up.
    I dared let hope take hold. Letting my exoskeletal suit take huge strides for me, I ran up to the outer decks to the spot we’d drilled into on the cruiser’s hull. On the way, I berated myself for not putting Sandra into a battle suit. I’d built less than two hundred of them, and had used them all on the invasion forces. This had been a sound military decision, but I was still upset I hadn’t used my rank to protect Sandra. It was hard as a commander to have the power to do things that could help your loved ones-even if they weren’t ethical.
    When I’d reached the breach, I ordered a squad to clamp down our bricks directly on the surface of the cruiser. We had no way to get them inside at the moment and we needed the life support systems each carried. Marines clustered around each brick, powering up their suits and replenishing their oxygen until the brick was dry. It would take hours to reprocess more supplies, so I had Kwon limp around, knocking heads and getting the marines to share evenly.
    It was up on the dark, scarred surface of the cruiser that I found Sandra. They had her stacked in a medical brick. She was in a medical pod. The little door on her pod was closed. I frowned, knowing that was a bad sign. The nanite arms inside worked their little tripods of black metal fingers, performing their magic upon her body. I was filled with memories. Bad ones. She would be pissing out nanites again soon-if she ever got the opportunity to relieve herself again.
    I asked the tech what her status was. There were thirty-odd other little coffins stacked up in a tight space with him, but he didn’t seem to mind.
    “Best I can tell sir, that one’s a turnip.”
    A turnip was Star Force slang for a vegetable stashed away by our nanite friends in a dark hole. The nanites were amazingly good at keeping people alive if you got to a medical unit fast enough. But they couldn’t always fix them completely. Sometimes there was just too much cellular damage. Nanites could force her lungs to function, even if she couldn’t do so on her own, but they couldn’t breathe life into the dead.
    I wanted to physically attack the tech who had given me the news so callously, but I controlled myself. He didn’t know he was talking about my girl. I glanced at his nametag. “Give me the details, Sergeant Carlson-and pretend to care.”
    Carlson caught my tone and changed his. “Sorry sir. She’s in a coma. Not the good, temporary kind. She’s got almost no brain activity registering. We can keep her on nanite support, but…”
    Carlson didn’t need to finish the thought. I leaned against her metal and ballistic-glass coffin, and opened the curtain on the little window. It was fogged with grease and condensation. I could see her in there, just barely. Her hair was still a rich, dark brown. She didn’t look dead, but looks could be deceiving.
    It took a while for my throat to unlock enough to allow speech. “What hit her?” I asked.
    “Oxygen deprivation and other decompression effects. Her suit was perforated and vented extensively in vacuum. It had repaired itself by the time we got to her, but the damage had been done.”
    The damage had been done. Prophetic words. Losing Sandra shouldn’t have hurt as much as it did. I’d lost my wife, and my kids. I’d lost a dozen men who were right there in my face. I hadn’t even been traumatized by watching her die in front of me. She had died while I was busy fighting a ten ton steel bug. But it did hurt to see her like that. It hurt a lot.
    “What are her odds?” I asked.
    “Odds, sir?”
    “Some make a miraculous recovery, don’t they? I’ve been briefed on it.”
    “Well, it has happened,” Carlson said with a shrug. “I would give any of them a thousand-to-one shot. The nanites might tickle the right organ. Our tissue damage estimates might be off.”
    “How many like her do you have in this brick?” I asked.
    “Seven, sir.”
    “Do you have enough pods to keep supporting them all?”
    Carlson hesitated. “What are you asking sir?”
    “You heard me. We have more injuries coming in. Do you have enough pods to support the new injured, the ones with better odds?”
    Carlson thought about it. I looked over and saw him tapping at his slate computer. At last he pronounced his verdict: “Yeah. We’ve got enough. There are only a few more coming back now. We’ll be able to keep these seven alive indefinitely-if you want to call it that.”
    I gave him a flat stare.
    “Uh, sorry sir. But really, we aren’t doing them any favors by keeping them breathing. If the nanites can’t repair their bodies, there isn’t anything the best hospital on Earth could do for them. Even if we cart them all the way home, they won’t make it.”
    So strange. I looked into the pod, and could see the nanites had done all surface work correctly. Soon, I knew, her skin would be smooth and perfect again. Since she’d died due to asphyxiation, there wouldn’t even be any scars. But she would never open her eyes, speak, or have a coherent thought again. Sometimes, advanced medical technology had its downside.
    “What did we do with the turnips back on Helios?” I asked.
    Carlson looked as if he were going to ask what do you mean? again, but he saw my face and didn’t try it.
    “We didn’t load that brick sir. It was low priority.”
    “We left them. For Worm food. They have dissected them by now. You know that, don’t you?”
    He shook his head. “We made sure there was nothing for them to tear apart, sir.”
    I looked away from him. Carlson seemed like ghoul to me. Right then, I hated all medical people. I knew I shouldn’t, but somehow these quiet custodians of death sickened me. They didn’t really fix anything, they just made decisions concerning resource allocation-such as who lived and who died. They were accountants, not doctors. The nanites did all the doctoring.
    I was sure these thoughts of mine weren’t fair. These people were doing a hard job and they did it well. I didn’t want to do it for them, so I should be more charitable. But right then, I wasn’t feeling charitable.
    With a sudden movement, I straightened and left the brick. When I slapped open the airlock, the tech called to me.
    “Colonel? What do we do with the turnips?”
    “Keep them going for now,” I said, glancing back. “I’m not ready to give up on them yet.”
    I saw his slate computer and stylus sag. He was annoyed. He’d heard it all before. I didn’t care.
    I reached the cruiser’s engine room again in a very bad mood. The progress there hadn’t been miraculous either. I tinkered with the gain on the neural net learning rates, but really, there were very few options to adjust on one of these brainboxes. All there was to do was wait, listen to reports and explore.
    The reports weren’t stellar. I now had just under a thousand surviving marines-including the seven turnips in their tiny coffins. We had only two factories left, and thirty-odd other bricks. The medical brick Sandra was in was the last of its kind. The assault ship that had been blown up when we breached the cruiser’s hull was the last big vehicle in my unit. We were down to troops, flying skateboards and nanites. Lots of nanites.
    “We’ve got plenty of these things floating around,” Kwon said, bringing me a strange, star-shaped object.
    “Looks like a big caltrops,” I said, twisting it around.
    “What’s a caltrops?” he asked.
    “A set of spikes welded together that presented a sharp point aiming upward no matter how you throw it down. They’d used them to stop cavalry charges in the old days.”
    “Nasty,” Kwon said.
    “Yes. Where did you find these things?”
    He shrugged. “Floating around everywhere.”
    “I wonder if they spilled out of the Macro ship,” I said, curious. “You’ve been picking them up?”
    “No, Colonel. They drift along and find us. They are glued to the hull of the cruiser everywhere. They are magnetic, see?”
    He let one go, and it drifted quickly to the floor and stuck there.
    I stared at it. “Did you find any around our factories?”
    “Yes sir. Lots of them.”
    “I left the factories making mines, Captain,” I said. “Hundreds of mines should have been produced by now.”
    Kwon looked alarmed. He did a double-take, looking at the mine, me, and then back to the mine again. “Do they look like your mines?”
    “I don’t know. I didn’t specify the configuration. I let the Nanos figure that out for themselves.”
    “Are they dangerous?”
    “Extremely,” I said. “But I would assume none of them are armed, as they haven’t killed our ship yet.”
    “Why do we need hundreds of mines, sir?” Kwon asked. “This is going to be a space battle, isn’t it?”
    “I hope so. But only if we can get this ship underway. Otherwise it will be shooting practice for the Macros.”
    I headed back to the control system. The techs I had babysitting the brainbox while it fooled with the engine room interface looked bored. I joined them and went to work following the brainbox’s experimental work. By trying logical sequences of control inputs, the box had figured out some basics. It could turn on an external propulsion jet, for example, for a microsecond burn. But it had made no progress on navigation or even the coherent adjustment of multiple jets.
    I worked on following the brainbox’s efforts. I didn’t query it on its progress, not wanting the unit to waste processing power interfacing with me. In the end, I gave up fussing over it. The machine would figure it out, or the Macro ships would come into range and blow us apart. Either way, I couldn’t do much to change things. I tried not to sweat too much about it. The experience made me appreciate the pressure the pentagon boys must have been under when I went up to fight the Macros for them, however. It must have been agonizing to have me, a hotdog amateur, up in space calling the shots while they sat helplessly in their war rooms.
    It took another hour for my brainbox to gain basic navigational control of the Macro cruiser, and by that time every Macro in the star system had to be heading our way. We had no weapons control, but the big gun was knocked out anyway so that didn’t matter much. I still would have liked to have some defensive lasers and missiles operating. But I didn’t. All we could do was run for it.
    When the brainbox figured out how to get the ship moving, I didn’t hesitate. I signaled an all-points alert, relaying it up to the guys on the vessel’s surface and those few who were still doing rescue missions. Everyone was to get inside the cruiser hull and secure themselves for acceleration. I wasn’t sure if the magnetic clamps would manage to hold our bricks to the outside of the ship, so I told my marines to strap them down with nano-arms and get inside the hull.
    There was a beeping communication from the medical brick. Normally at a moment like this, I would have ignored it, but I opened the channel.
    “Colonel Riggs?” asked Carlson. “Should we bring the-ah, the incapacitated out of the medical brick and down into the cruiser?”
    “Can they survive outside their little coffins?” I asked.
    “Not for long, sir.”
    “Then don’t bother.”
    “Should I stay with them, sir?”
    “That’s up to you, Carlson,” I said.
    I thought I probably should have ordered him to come below. We could use his skills if the medical brick was lost. But I couldn’t order a man to abandon Sandra. I just couldn’t. Bringing her on this mission had been a big mistake, as I had suspected it would turn out to be.
    “I’ll stay, sir,” he said after a pause.
    “All right. We burn in ninety seconds.”
    When the engines first fired, they stuttered and the ship weaved. The nano brainbox slid three-fingered, cable-like hands over the interface panel. We soon straightened out and began to leave orbit.

20

    We didn’t have a navigational interface working for another two hours. The command brick had been lost, so we didn’t really have a good way to display and analyze the data feeds we were getting from sensor arrays planted on the cruiser’s hull. I was certain the Macro warship had excellent data systems-but we had no way of getting to any of them. The computer systems were built by aliens for their own purposes. Our brainbox could only operate basic engine and attitude controls, enough to fly the ship toward the ring. Enough to flee, nothing else.
    I decided to build my own bridge inside the ship to fly this thing. We rigged up the biggest screen I could find-which was about the size of a kitchen table-and set it up in the engine room. I had marines with welding guns and nanite repair buckets roaming all around the area fixing the damage we’d done. We sealed and pressurized that region of the ship first. The cruiser was humming with activity. Owning a real warship was exhilarating for the men. I was in too sour of a mood to enjoy anything, and kept thinking of Sandra in her steel coffin. The Macro carcasses were getting in the way of my new bridge setup. Realizing they were made of tough alloys, I had them fed into my factories as raw materials. I felt it was a fitting end for them.
    When we finally did manage to connect a sensor module on the outer hull to our new screen, I was glad we’d been blind up until now. Doom followed us in the form of four cruisers. They weren’t coming in as fast as they could, fortunately. They were going to make sure we were dead this time. The four ships had timed their rendezvous. In six hours they would form the classic diamond formation and pour on the speed. They were already moving faster than we were, proving we didn’t have full control of our cruiser. Maybe we’d damaged it in the boarding battle. Maybe my brainbox was still learning the ropes. I didn’t know which it was, and I didn’t much care. What mattered was we were barely going to make it to the ring before they caught us. Once we entered the Helios system-assuming those bastard Worms hadn’t set up new defenses somehow in our absence-the Macros would follow us through and fire at us in unison. I’d decided to name my first big ship Jolly Rodger. Unfortunately, Jolly Rodger had about ten hours left to run, by my best estimates, before we all died in space.
    Major Sarin worked the big screen with me. It was just like old times, but with a lot more people in a lot bigger room. I’d sent Gorski up to configure the factories that were still clamped to the outer hull. I had him make raw constructive nanites. Barrels of them. He didn’t ask why, he just did it. I liked that about him.
    Major Welter had taken to hanging around with me near the big screen and our multi-armed brainbox pilot. I welcomed the company, as the brainbox wasn’t much of a conversationalist, and Sarin was too sick with worry to talk much.
    “Do you see a way out of this, Colonel?” Major Welter asked me.
    “Of course,” I said.
    His sharp eyes flicked to me. We’d managed by now to pressurize and heat the engine room. It was heaven to take my helmet off and scratch my head. Sometimes in war the simplest comforts were the best.
    “You’re not bullshitting, are you sir?” he asked, lowering his voice. “I’ve got to know.”
    I raised my eyebrows. “I’ve always got a move, Major,” I said. “Always.”
    Major Welter smiled. The hope-monkey had gotten him, right there and then. He believed. It was rare when I got the chance to see it as it happened. He shook his head and walked away, greatly relieved. I noticed he didn’t ask me what my move was. Truly desperate men rarely did. They didn’t want to take the chance their new found hope would burst in their faces like a giant soap bubble.
    The funny thing was I did have a move. I went up onto the hull of the cruiser to check on it. Moving around out there wasn’t easy. We were under about six Gs of acceleration, and even while crawling with three nanite arms clinging to your belt hooks, it was hard going.
    Gorski was gritting his teeth and trying to think while he talked to one of our last two factories. He was trying to program the system to digest a Macro worker and produce constructive nanites from the remains.
    The job wasn’t that difficult for a programmer, but the environment wasn’t the best. The acceleration forces out here on the surface were rough. Inside the cruiser we had inertial dampeners operating and only felt a fraction of the Gs we were really pulling. Out on the hull in the bricks, it was a different matter.
    Gorski was pasted up against the back wall of the brick. His teeth were gritted not out of frustration, but as a reaction to the intense forces pressing him onto a flat wall. I made it through the airlock and dragged myself, hand-over-hand, to flop next to him on the wall. We both lay there, breathing and listening to the machine while it ate a Macro carcass a giant cargo arm fed into its maw up on top of the brick. Only the thickest black nanite arms had the strength to feed the Macro into the factory’s maw while under acceleration. I didn’t think my men could have done it at all with just muscle-power.
    “How’s it going?” I asked after removing my helmet.
    “I’ve got it chewing,” he said. “But the nanites are coming out slowly.”
    I nodded. I immediately regretted the nod. It strained my neck muscles and caused my head to bump the wall. Besides which, Gorski couldn’t really turn his head to face me, and thus missed the nod entirely, making it a wasted effort. We were laying on the wall, moving minimally. I was reminded of my misspent youth. I’d often gone to lie like this on the hood of a car to watch planes take off at night from Castle Air Force Base in California. That was back before they’d closed down most of the bases. I wondered vaguely if they were rebuilding bases back in the states now. I suspected they were.
    I took a deep breath. I knew the next thing my mind would drift to would be various good times with Sandra. I’d crawled up here to check on her as much as Gorski. I tried to focus.
    Gorski got the wrong idea from my thoughtfulness. He seemed to think I was displeased with his answer. “I think the gravitational forces are messing with the factory’s internal processes,” he said, sounding apologetic.
    “Makes sense,” I said. “We’ve never tried to make the factories eat anything so big and tough while accelerating laterally. What do you think the yield will be in say…four hours?”
    “At least a metric ton of fresh constructives, sir.”
    I wanted to nod again, but stopped myself. “That should be enough.”
    “Can I ask what they will be used for, sir?”
    “To make a whole lot of little black arms,” I said.
    He strained his eyeballs to look at me. “What will these arms do, sir?”
    “Deploy ordinance. I’ll fill you in soon. Keep the factories churning.”
    I left him then. Gorski seemed happier now with his sad lot in this war, which had been part of my purpose in visiting him. Crazy Colonel Riggs had a plan, and all would be well. Anything was better than thinking you were just a bug-splat on the outside of a fleeing cruiser. Gorski now knew he wasn’t a casualty waiting to happen. He was part of a big plan to fix everything. Who wouldn’t like that promotion?
    I knew I really should head down into the cruiser, but I went to the medical brick next where we stored our turnips. What I found there enraged me.
    The coffins had been left aligned lengthwise. Normally, this would not have been a big deal. But due to the centrifugal forces of acceleration, the boxes should have been aligned with their backs flat against the angle of motion. I rushed to Sandra’s box and looked inside. There she was, crumpled up at the bottom of the pod, in a folded position. She looked like a corpse stuffed into a garbage can.
    I stomped on the call button for the med-tech, Carlson. He wasn’t in the brick. Probably, he’d grown tired of the G-forces himself. He showed up in a hurry when the realized Riggs himself was calling him.
    When Carson came through the airlock, he was all artificial sweetener. “Sorry sir, just stepped out for a moment. Let me get over there, it’s a little hard to maneuver-”
    That was as far as he got with his bullshit before I had a handful of his suit in my hand. I had leapt, defying the intense gravity to get to him. I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. He wasn’t wearing a battle suit, and the old ones had a fair amount of give in that area. My other hand clamped onto a ring in the ceiling for support. I yanked him out of the airlock and sent him flying.
    Carlson almost landed on his helmet. That might have been bad, as I wanted him conscious. I let myself go and dropped like a stone on top of him. I made sure my boots missed his belly, but it was a close thing.
    “I don’t-I don’t understand, sir!” he shouted.
    Carlson didn’t go for his beamer, which was a good thing for him. At that moment I wanted an excuse to burn or punch a hole through him. He didn’t give it to me, so I hauled him up and shoved his nose into the nearest tiny window to see the state of his charges.
    “There’s something wrong with your turnips, corpsman!” I shouted.
    He made a strangled sound of shock. It wasn’t just me squeezing the back of his neck, either. “I didn’t realize. It must have just happened. I’m sure-”
    I popped off his helmet and squeezed his neck hard. It might have killed a normal man, but I knew he had nanites in there to repair the tissue damage. “I don’t want excuses. Fix them.”
    I released him. Carlson crawled to the controls and worked them feverishly. I watched as the units rotated, putting the bottom floor of every unit toward the back wall of the brick.
    “Now, help me get them into a comfortable position.”
    We worked for the next half hour. I discovered two of them hadn’t survived. Sandra-fortunately or not-was one of the five survivors.
    “You almost killed my girlfriend from neglect,” I told him.
    He looked at me with frightened eyes. “I didn’t think the G-forces would be this bad, sir. When I went below, into the cruiser, it didn’t feel so strong.”
    “I told you to take care of them. It’s been hours. You’ve been hiding below. You’ve killed two good men.”
    “Sir,” said the corpsman, regaining some of his composure. “You have to realize, these people are already dead.”
    I stared at him. “I refuse to accept that. For dereliction of duty, I’m busting you to private. Fortunately for you, I can’t afford an execution right now. I need every corpsman I have, even you.”
    I left him in the medical brick, sputtering. When I was back inside the cruiser, I tried to calm down. Maybe I had been too hard on him. How might I have reacted if Sandra hadn’t been one of the ‘turnips’? What if it had been anonymous marines I had never met?
    I wasn’t sure if I’d made a mistake or not, but I was sure Private Carlson was going to take his job more seriously from now on.

21

    I had about three hours to kill before we hit the ring and exited the system. I figured what the hell, now was as good a time as any to talk to the Centaurs a bit more. This would be our last opportunity on this trip. Once we went through the ring, we would be out of contact. Whether we lived or died on the way home, it would probably be years before anyone got another chance to visit this system.
    We had some data on the Centaurs coming in now. They were working to seal up the hole we’d put in their artificial sky. That meant some of them had to have survived. The news I thought was even better was the disposition of the Macro forces. We saw nothing to indicate they had moved on the thirty-odd orbital structures in the system. Apparently, our actions and theirs had not constituted a breach in whatever agreement the Macros had with the Centaurs. Either that, or the Macros were busy chasing us and hadn’t gotten around to exterminating the Centaurs yet.
    We had a communications module on the hull of the cruiser by now. I directed its parabolic dish toward the satellite we’d half wrecked and beamed a tight message to them. I wasn’t sure if anyone was listening, but it was worth a try.
    I didn’t get an answer for quite a while. Due to the growing distances alone, I wasn’t too surprised. It took a minute or two just for the signal to reach them. Even then, they might well have better things to do than talk to me. After all, half their population or more had just been asphyxiated.
    I’d almost given up when the com-link blinked. They were calling me back. I turned on every recorder we had handy and started the conversation. Due to the distance, I figured I had time to make a big speech with each transmission. Normal conversation was difficult with minute-long silences between each statement.
    Their message came in first, however, and the contents surprised me. “The sky has opened and received the bounty of our bodies. The best of our Herds now float among the stars. There is no wind in their fur, but there is sunlight and honor. We gift them proudly to the sky.”
    Again with the sky and their honor. As a very direct person, these people thought in circles from my point of view. I had respect for them, however. They believed what they believed and they were very willing to die for it. I had to wonder exactly what the nature of their agreement with the Macros was, but I didn’t want to waste my limited time satisfying curiosity. They might hold more vital information.
    “Honorable herds,” I said, not knowing how else to address them as a group. “We of the human herds have done the impossible: we stormed and took two ships from the machines. We command one of their cruisers now, and we are leaving your star system. We ask for any information you may have that can help us defeat the machines. We ask if you will answer our questions.”
    Another minute or so passed. It was a long one. Each time we spoke, it took a fraction longer for the messages to be relayed, as we were moving farther apart at a rapid pace. Finally, their answer came.
    “We will tell you all we know. We agree to an exchange of wisdom concerning the stars and the beings that move amongst them. But we would ask you one question first: when will the human herds return? When will you come back here, brothers, and remove all the machines from our worlds?”
    I felt a sick pain in my stomach. Major Sarin had come near, and her eyes met mine. Was that an accusatory gaze? Was she reproachful, wanting to scold me? I could tell she was. She was wondering what I had promised these people who’d we had caused such great pain. They seemed to be under the impression we were allies, that we were trustworthy. Perhaps they’d sacrificed themselves in their millions for a misunderstanding.
    I took several seconds to formulate my reply. What had I said to them originally? Anything and everything I could to get them to ally with us. I could hardly recall the words, but I was sure I had offered up some kind of alliance. Perhaps to them, an alliance meant the merging of two herds when they met upon a grassy plain. Perhaps in their minds I’d offered to become part of their herd, to become one with their people. I sighed and rubbed at my head and thought of Sandra in her box.
    “We will come back, when we defeat the machines in our system. If we never return, it means we were wiped out. I cannot say when we will come back here to help you, because I cannot predict the future. Any knowledge you can provide us with will help a great deal, however. That much I can assure you.”
    “Sir,” Sarin said, tapping at the screen. “There’s a big transmission coming to us. It’s binary, not voice. Looks like the language the Nanos use to communicated among themselves.”
    “Is it coming from the Centaurs?” I asked.
    She nodded. “Yes.”
    “Let’s hook up a fresh brainbox. We’ll record the download and examine it later.”
    The Centaurs were talking again, so I took up my headset and pressed it to my ear.
    “We gift you our wisdom. We gift you the knowledge of our people and all those we have come into contact with.”
    I madly waved for my staff to get onto recording this incoming data. It was raining gold, and I wanted everyone to grab a bucket and fill it now.
    “Allied herds,” I said, feeling a bit sour as I spoke the words. I didn’t like how quickly I’d learned to manipulate these honest beings. I had a feeling they had no salesmen or con artists in their society. “We are honored by your gift. We will send you what we can in return.”
    After I’d sent the message, I turned to Welter, Sarin and Gorski, who had just joined us on the bridge. He looked worn out. “I want you to upload one of our brainboxes to them.”
    They stared at me for a second, then Sarin and Gorski got to work on it. Welter looked unhappy. “Is that wise, sir?”
    “They are our allies,” I said. “They are giving us everything they have.”
    “Yes, it would appear so,” Welter said, massaging his chin. “But that doesn’t mean it is in our best interest to hand over information to an alien we’ve only just come into contact with.”
    “I’ve met them before. I fought with them years ago in the Nano ships.”
    “Yes, of course,” Welter said as if my words were meaningless. Perhaps to him they were.
    Sarin and Gorski had the files up and on the screen. Gorski worked with both hands, tapping on the file. Options came up, and he tapped in the frequency and correct port to transmit through. “Are you ready, sir?”
    “Is the Centaur transmission still incoming?” I asked.
    “Gigabytes per second, sir. And it shows no sign of letting up.”
    I licked my lips hungrily. Such valuable intel…I felt almost greedy thinking of it. What treasures would we find in those files? I bet it would keep General Kerr and his Pentagon analysts busy for years to come if we could get it home.
    “Colonel, if I might lodge an objection?” Major Welter asked.
    “Talk to me-quickly.”
    “They will know the precise location of Earth. They will know all about us. What if these beings give this information to another race? What if they hand all that over to the next alien that wanders by?”
    I stared at him, thinking hard. He had a point. They were rather gullible. Still, I had to wonder if they would keep transmitting if we didn’t reciprocate. I wanted their data, even at risk of my own. I wondered what course I was setting myself and all humanity upon. I shrugged slightly; there was no way of knowing.
    “Send it to them,” I ordered. “We said we would exchange data. They started transmitting first. If we can’t trust the first friendly race we meet, who are we going to trust?”
    Gorski tapped the send option on the screen. The file began loading up. A green bar appeared and grew fractionally larger as seconds ticked by.
    “We don’t know what they’ll do with it!” Major Welter insisted. He was leaning over the big screen now. His eyes were on the progress bar. He looked as if he wanted to smash it with his fist. “Couldn’t we edit it down first?”
    “We don’t have time for that,” I said. “Listen, I understand your concerns. But we’ve got to start trusting someone, Major. We can’t go it alone out here. Big gains take big risks.”
    Major Welter looked at me and smiled a sickly smile. “You’re nothing if not a risk-taker, Riggs.”
    I snorted, taking the comment as a compliment. I wasn’t sure it was meant that way.
    I keyed a new transmission to our Centaur friends: “I would ask as we depart if you have ever made contact with the Blues…by that I mean the people who created the Nanos.”
    Another long delay. “They have no sky and no eyes with which to see it. They are a strange herd and a sad people. Some among them lack honor. There is much information about the people you speak of in the transmissions we have sent.”
    These comments got me to thinking. I turned to Major Sarin. “Dial up the map of this system, please.”
    She did it with deft taps. The interface was the same as the one we’d had in the command brick, fortunately. The screen was only about half the size, however. If I’d had time, I would have ordered the factories to make me a bigger one. The one thing I didn’t have, however, was spare time.
    I looked at the system. The yellow star still sat in the center, burning with unusual stability. The hot planets hugged the star’s waist. Farther out was the band of six lovely, inhabitable worlds. Farther out was the lone gas giant and at the border of the system were the far-flung ice-balls.
    My eyes ran to the gas giant. I’d always suspected the Blues came from a world like that one. Hydrogen-helium worlds like this were a fairly common variety of planet, I knew. This system was unusual for having only one of them.
    “How long until we hit the ring?” I asked.
    “Not long now, sir,” Sarin said.
    “Fellow herds,” I said, “we of the human herds ask you for a clarification. You said the creators of the Macros have no eyes and no sky. We think they are from a world unlike yours and mine, a world of frozen hydrogen and helium. A world where there is no ground for the feet to rest upon. A world where it is forever dark with clouds. Are we right? Where is this planet? And did they create some of these machine beings?”
    The answer came back after an agonizing period. “The people you speak of created all the machines. Their world bathes in the light of a pleasant star. The machines once served them, but that which once made them proud, they now avoid in mortal dread. They are our herd-brothers, as you have become.”
    I listened to the flowery words, then had Major Sarin replay them twice. I thought hard, staring at the star map. We were close to the ring now. I thought I might have time for one more question.
    “Their world bathes in the light of a pleasant star? You mean the Blues live in this star system, on the one gas giant world?”
    The message took longer than ever to come back, as the distance had grown even greater. I realized I shouldn’t have used my colloquial term, the Blues. That might confuse them. If they had to have a consultation about how to answer my question, it would take too long. But it was pointless to reword the question now. By the time they got my new message and answered it, we would have flown through the ring.
    Finally, at long last, the answer came in. They must have known that it would barely make it. They knew they didn’t have time to make a speech or a squeeze in a dozen extraneous references to herds, the sky, honor, or anything else.
    “Yes,” they said.
    The answer was simple, direct and staggering. I’d finally found the Blues.

22

    I thought deeply about the fact that I’d been in the presence of the Blues all this time without knowing it, without trying to contact them or get a slice of revenge. What I would have liked most was information. If they would have engaged in a conversation, which I doubted, they might have been able to tell us how to switch off their crazy machines, big and small. Their technology must be amazing, too. If they had created these rings, or these factories we depended on, they were technologically far ahead of the other species we’d come into contact with thus far.
    The Blues, right here! I could scarcely believe it.
    We shot through the ring at an incredible velocity. I didn’t have a lot of time after that to ponder the Blues or the Centaurs. As we exited the system, I made myself a mental note to name it Eden. Those six unbelievably gorgeous worlds, each exploding with life, wouldn’t be served by any other name. I found the name Eden pleasing to the ear and the mind in any case-it just sounded right. I was sure some astronomer had already christened the star with a boring name, like HR 6998, which was Gorski’s best guess as to which one it was. Sarin disagreed with him after studying the same data, pointing out the star’s metallic content was higher than HR 6998 was reported to be from the point of view of Earth-which immediately got her into a nerdy argument with Gorski. To me, it was all moot. Eden could be in another galaxy for all it mattered. The rings changed everything strategically. All that mattered was that with a ring in the system, it was linked to Earth. It didn’t matter whether it was 42 lightyears away as HR 6998 was supposed to be, or not. Effectively, it was three ring-hops from Earth, which made the systems close neighbors.
    “Sir?” Major Sarin asked. I had the impression she’d tried to get through to me several times.
    It wasn’t her words that got through to me in the end. It was the screen, which swam and refocused, showing the giant red sun and Helios, the arid planet of the Worms.
    I looked up slowly to Sarin. “Did we get all of it?” I asked.
    “What sir?”
    “The transmission from the Centaurs.”
    She shook her head. “No sir,” she said. “Not all of it. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. That and the fact that we’re moving too fast.”
    I stared at the star system. We had been accelerating at maximum for hours. Apparently, the Worms hadn’t had time to set up more defenses, because we didn’t get blown away immediately.
    My mind came back together then. I had a plan, and I had to get it going now.
    “Emergency braking!” I shouted. “All hands strap in, secure the cargo. We’ve got to slow down.”
    Sarin relayed the instructions, and even with inertial dampeners, I could feel the cruiser deck shift underneath me. I hoped no one was too injured among the poor marines who were in the bricks on the cruiser’s hull. I vaguely thought I was going to have to try to get the bricks inside the cruiser the moment we got a breather, even if I had to burn a hole in the hull to do it. But we hadn’t been given a break yet.
    I slapped Gorski’s chest. “You wanted to know what the nanites I had you make were for?” I asked. “Now’s the time.”
    I set off at a bouncing jog through the ship. Gorski was right behind me.
    “You put the barrels of fresh constructive nanites near the breach like I told you, right?”
    “Absolutely, sir.”
    I called over my com-link to Kwon. I ordered him to get a squad of marines to the breach. We would be working at the limits of the inertial fields, so we wouldn’t have to fight the G-forces rippling through the decelerating ship.
    The area under the breach had become something of a staging area for operations. Much of our equipment was there, as the wound in the ship formed a large open area that was close to the bricks above. We’d stockpiled equipment there and battened it down with skinny black arms made of nanites. Part of that stockpile was a large number of items that looked like old-fashioned caltrops.
    Using a brainbox to communicate with the newly-hatched constructives, I had them form up into chains and then shape themselves into fresh, wobbly arms. They flowed out of the barrels in a river that resembled a living spill of mercury.
    “Get up there, that’s right. One arm about every yard or so. The last arm, just over the engines-that one has to be bigger, stronger.” The nanites worked with astounding speed.
    The marines Kwon had brought with him jogged into sight and I shouted orders at them next. “Get the boxes out. Break out every one of those weird spiky things. That’s right. But whatever you do, don’t switch them on, dammit!”
    I gave more instructions to the arms, and soon I had the chain formed. It ran from our breach all the way back to the aft edge of the hull. It was a bucket-brigade of skinny black arms.
    “Give me one of those,” I barked. A marine handed me a mine-because that’s what they were, magnetic mines. I didn’t switch it on, but I handed it to the nearest nanite arm. The arm was a baby, and it trembled a bit when I put the weighty object into its three-fingered, tripod-like hand.
    “All right,” I said, talking to the brainbox that instructed the new arms. “Now, what we need you to do is hand this thing back, all the way to the end of the ship, all the way to the last, big arm.”
    The nanite arm snatched the mine from me and handed it up to the next arm. In less than a second, it was whisked away and out of sight.
    “Ah, good,” I said, trying not to appear startled. I hadn’t intended it to take immediate action, but I didn’t want the watching marines to realize I’d screwed up. “Now, the last arm will throw that mine directly behind the ship.”
    “Done,” responded the brainbox without hesitation.
    I grunted. I hadn’t activated the mine yet. “I’m going to give you another one. When I do, the last big arm will activate it before it throws it. You will not throw it in such a way that it touches the hull of this ship. You will throw each mine at a random trajectory, forming a cone of dispersal, no more than thirty degrees in breadth. You will not allow the spines to touch metal, especially after you activate it. If you do so, the mission will be a failure. Do you understand the program?”
    “Ready.”
    I had to admit, I was sweating. I reached for another mine, and I handed it to the tiny arm. It grabbed it with wrenching force and whisked it away and out of the breach, handing it up to its brothers in a blur of motion. I could only hope the last arm wasn’t a screw-up. Everything depended on that one, because it would handle the mine when it went live.
    I waited about three seconds. No trembling vibration came through the cruiser hull, fortunately. No urgent call came from the bridge, wondering why I had blown the tail off my stolen ship either. So far, so good.
    “Major Sarin?” I called over my com-link. “Do you sense any small contacts nearby?”
    “Ah…yes sir,” she said. “Two of them. Metallic, very small, falling away to the stern. Should I fire on them?”
    “Yes,” I said. “Blow them both away with point defense turrets before they are out of range. We are going to be releasing a lot more of those soon. Do not keep firing.”
    There was no more time to waste. I turned to the marines. “Each of you is to grab mines as fast as you can out of these crates. You will carry them here and hand them over to this skinny little arm. You will shout: ‘Repeat program!’ Then give it the mine, and don’t let it rip your arm out of the socket along with the mine.”
    They looked at each other. The instructions were unexpected.
    “GO!” I shouted. They hopped into motion, stumbling over one another.
    All in all, after my thousands of mines had been deployed, I had to account my marines as the losers. No matter how fast my men scrambled and tore at the crates, racing to the first nanite hand and slapping a mine into it, the hand was always left waiting for the next one.
    When they were done, I smiled grimly. I’d created my first minefield in space. Afterward, I went up to the factories and gave them new instructions. They needed to make more mines. Lots more of them.

23

    We only had a few hours to wait. When the first Macro ship came through the ring, it sailed onward at great speed. We measured the velocity, and calculated it was twenty percent higher than our own. We hadn’t found any damage to the engines, so we had to conclude my little auto pilot box wasn’t perfect. Perhaps it was just being more cautious with acceleration than the Macros were.
    The second Macro ship and the third came through about half a minute later. They were spread out, side to side. These formed the broad point of the diamond formation.
    Our own ship was making a broad, curving arc, still accelerating. It would take a few days, but we would reach the next ring that hung near the Worm planet we’d named Helios. I wondered if the Worms had detected us yet, and what they might try to do about these Macro cruisers flooding into their system.
    “How long until they overtake us?” I asked.
    Gorski tapped at his computer screen. “We will be in effective range of their main guns within ten hours.”
    “Work on getting more speed out of our seven-armed pilot over there,” I said, gesturing toward the brainbox which had indeed sprouted seven arms by now. In a way, I was not surprised. The Macro control systems seemed intensely complex. I recalled that Macro technicians had many steel mandibles that moved with flashing speed. To them, making an interface that required seven points of contact to control might seem reasonable. If true, that would preclude human hands from operating their ships directly.
    “Sir,” Major Sarin said softly. “The enemy are about to run into the minefield.”
    I leaned over the screen and stared at it hungrily. Several other techs came closer, craning their necks to peek at what was happening outside the ship. I didn’t chase them away. Their lives were on the line too.
    “Are they following our course exactly?”
    “So far, sir,” Sarin said.
    “Yes,” Gorski added working on the navigational analysis. “They haven’t seen us do anything but run, so they are perhaps becoming more bold. They will plow right into the mines in-about now, sir.”
    I could see the truth of his words on the screen. The mines were little yellow dots, a single pixel each. They didn’t look like much, just a slowly spreading conical cloud of specs. Too bad they weren’t dispersed better, or placed a little more tightly at the ring mouth. The fact my ship had been going so fast had made the field less effective. The spread was uneven and placed less than optimally. In fact, it would keep thinning out slowly, because the last, big nanite arm had thrown them in a cone. Every mine, every second was moving away from its fellows.
    We hadn’t set it up perfectly. If we survived, we’d do it better next time. I tried to stop worrying I had screwed up. I reminded myself calmly that it was hard to spread out a perfect field when running for your life.
    The first ship hit the field dead center. I think the Macro crew had an inkling of what they were running into just before they hit. They veered in a curve, heading upward, out of the plane of the ecliptic. But it was too little and far too late. They slammed into the cloud of mines and dozens of them popped all over the hull. The ship began to break apart, but its momentum carried it further into the field. Within seconds, the cruiser had broken up, and there were secondary explosions as more mines worked on the disintegrating bits.
    There was a loud whoop behind me. A huge hand clapped me on the back, making me bend forward despite my exoskeltal suit. I turned back, frowning, but my frown soon melted. It was Kwon of course, who’d appeared out of nowhere and was far away from his station. His grin was infectious, however, so I gave him a smile in return.
    I turned back to the big screen. There were three cruisers left, and all of them were better armed and able than we were.
    “The second and third ships are taking evasive action,” Sarin said. Her words were cold and clipped. Those words could spell everyone’s doom, but she kept it professional.
    I watched the second and third cruisers drift closer to the minefield. These kills were far less certain. They’d started widely apart, not centered as the point ship had been. They knew what was coming and were actively trying to escape their fate.
    “Fourth ship, coming through,” Gorski said. “Imagine their surprise! Wait…Macro transmissions detected. They must be talking it over-”
    “Contacts two and three are firing, Colonel!” Sarin interjected, losing her cool exterior for a second.
    “Firing? Firing what?” I demanded. I looked at the screen as new tiny red slivers appeared. Several came out of each Macro. They could only be missiles or some kind of shuttle.
    “I thought they were out of range,” I said. “Gorski?”
    He shook his head and shrugged. “Missiles can run out of fuel, but once they are on a trajectory, they will fly forever-just like a ship. And they are already moving faster than we are. With a carefully controlled burn…yeah, they might catch us.”
    “That’s great,” I said, watching the battle play out with burning eyes. I wondered how long it had been since I’d slept. I couldn’t remember.
    No one spoke at the next two cruisers hit the minefield. They aimed for and hit thinner areas of the clouds of yellow dots, but they couldn’t avoid them completely. They were moving too fast. Just as a car speeding on a highway couldn’t do a U-turn without slowing down first, they couldn’t steer their ships completely away from the field.
    Both ships had spun around, turning to aim their main engines toward the minefield and blasting for all they were worth. It was a valiant, but doomed effort. My mines were drawn to them, and those yellow dots drifted right into the blazing engines.
    Dozens of strikes shook both ships. Secondary explosions appeared all along the hull of each vessel as well. The ship on the right blew up first, turning into scrap almost instantaneously. The one on the left held out longer. But the mines kept raining down on it, and it kept drifting deeper into the cloud. Finally, it shuddered and disintegrated.
    Another cheer went up. I didn’t join in. I stared at the screen instead.
    “Where are those missiles headed?” I demanded. The tiny red contacts had not moved much.
    “They appear to be flying at angles, trying to avoid the field,” said Gorski.
    “I’ll pan the camera angle, Colonel,” Sarin said. She helpfully touched the big screen with the fingertips of both hands and slid them across the image. The computer-generated image whirling sickeningly. We could now see the ship positions edge-on. I saw the missiles crawling outward in various directions.
    “They lobbed them at us,” I said. “Like throwing tennis balls over a high wall.
    “Essentially sir,” Gorski said.
    “Take the image back to an overhead view. I want to see that last cruiser.”
    Sarin quickly did as I asked. The last ship had approached the line, but it was slowing down and veering away.
    “Where’s it going?” I asked.
    Gorski worked with his mathematical navigational models. The computer returned numbers to him, which he rejected and reworked. Another thirty seconds went by and I became agitated, but didn’t yell at him. I really wanted to, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good.
    He shook his head. “I don’t know, but I think they are heading into the spot the last cruiser hit. Maybe they figure the mine density will be lower there, as the other ship absorbed a lot of our mines before it blew up.”
    I nodded unhappily. They knew what they were up against. They were already firing their gun to nail as many mines as they could. If they went into the wake of the third ship, their odds of survival were higher. Fortunately, they were going too fast to reverse course entirely, just like their sister ships. That was precisely why I’d waited until we came through the ring to deploy even a single mine. I didn’t want the Macros to have any warning. This last crew had witnessed the deaths of their brethren. This one had a clue.
    As the cruiser plowed into the thinnest spot in our deadly web of mines, no one spoke. We all stared. I doubt anyone even blinked, except possibly for Sarin. I saw she had her eyes closed. We all knew how important the next minute would be.
    “It’s in the field,” Gorski said.
    Sarin opened her eyes again. “Two hits,” she said.
    Yellow pixels vanished, replaced with glowing orange bursts that quickly faded. The last ship wasn’t flying in tail-first. She had nosed her way toward this spot, using her engines to guide her. That made her relative velocity higher. These ships also had more armor up front.
    “Three hits,” Sarin said.
    “She’s almost through,” Gorski said.
    There was a big, secondary explosion that rocked the Macro ship. Something inside had been damaged. Kwon made a happy, grunting noise. I steeled myself, realizing that when this baby blew up, he was going to roar with joy. Possibly, I was going to get slapped again. I couldn’t blame him.
    “Four hits,” Sarin said.
    The ship kept coming. I had no doubt there were huge chunks blown out of its front armor, but it had held together. It was still structurally sound and moving forward.
    “It’s through, sir,” Gorski said.
    “What are you talking about?” I asked. “It’s right in the thick of it.” I pointed to the screen. There were swarms of yellow dots all around it. I had been waiting for the big, final ka-boom.
    Gorski shook his head. “The field was thin there. They have a clear shot out of it now. The third cruiser drove a hole for them.”
    Kwon let out a long, wheezy sigh. He deflated like a balloon. Now I wished I’d heard his shout of victory. I’d been a fool to dread it.
    I surveyed the scene. We had sixteen missiles coming at us now. They had fired high and low, avoiding the minefield. Even if they’d gone through it, the missiles might have survived due to their small size and low metallic mass. The magnetics on the mines would not have homed in on them as quickly.
    The missiles were curving now, turning and changing their course to pursue us. Maybe they would run out of fuel. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to home in on us at such a great distance…or maybe they would catch us and blow our tail off.
    The last cruiser was the big worry. There it was, damaged, but still flying. It came through the last yellow dots representing my mines and doggedly moved to pursue. As best we could tell, it still had its big belly turret and a full magazine of missiles. It had yet to fire a single missile.
    Worst of all, this Macro crew had seen my best move. I knew they wouldn’t be so easily tricked next time.

24

    I wanted to pass out in a bunk, but I didn’t have time to rest. I dug out a stim injector and loaded it. After staring at it for about ten seconds, I fired it into my neck, took a deep breath and waited. Within thirty seconds I could feel my heart pounding harder. I hated that feeling.
    Moving at a bouncing trot in the low gravity field of the ship, I made my way to the breach and then crawled over the hull to the factories. We were still accelerating, but not at emergency flank speed. Our stalker was following us, but he’d slowed down after the smacking we’d given him. This didn’t really make me feel better, however. It was like being shadowed by a hungry bear in the wilderness. You knew he was waiting for a moment of weakness to strike.
    I had to get the factories churning out the correct equipment now to counter the Macros when the next clash came. I didn’t know how long I had, or what would work best, but I had to take a stab at it. The incoming missiles were my number one concern. We’d rigged up a couple of point-defense laser cannons on the aft hull of Jolly Rodger, but the turrets weren’t going to stop sixteen ballistic missiles. They didn’t have the range, in fact, to stop even one of them if the missiles came in at a great enough relative velocity. It took about a second for the laser turrets to sense, aim and fire at an incoming missile. That sounded pretty good, but only if the incoming weapon gave you that second to react. If a missile was traveling at 100,000 miles an hour faster than we were, for example, it would move from being out of range to slamming into our hull in less than one second. It wouldn’t matter how many laser turrets I had at that point, none of them would fire in time to save us, not even if I built a hundred of them. That meant my turrets were an inadequate defense.
    I sat in the first factory unit I came to and tried to think clearly. There were many options for production. Right now, they were churning mines, which was a safe play. We’d gone through all the Macro corpses as materials by now and were feeding them deck plates and damaged portions of the ship we didn’t need. It was odd, cannibalizing one’s own ship for weapons materials-but that was how warfare worked when using nanotech.
    I was nearly done building mines, I’d decided. I had about half as many as I did last time, and that would be enough to lay a trap at the next ring…if I got that far. I needed something else now, however. A defensive weapon to stop those missiles. They were going to catch us before we made the next ring. We were crossing the Helios system to the second ring on more or less a straight path. We’d come out fairly near the gigantic red sun, but had to move out a good distance to get to the second ring which was closer to the orbit of Helios itself. I had to wonder again what the Worms thought of this battle going on in their own star system. I hoped if they got involved and took a shot at one of us they chose the right one.
    I considered attempting to contact the Worms. We’d made a few attempts before, of course, but we’d never gotten through. I wasn’t surprised. I could barely manage a conversation with the Centaurs, and they were much closer in nature to humans than giant, invertebrate, dirt-eating Worms. If you don’t believe me, try feeding a goat, then try feeding an earthworm from your backyard. I bet I can predict which one will follow you home that night.
    My mind whirled with stimulants and possibilities. Strangely, I still felt sleepy. I wondered if too many stims could knock a man out. Either that, or cause his heart to explode.
    I came to another conclusion soon. I sensed the nanites were objecting already, filtering the drug out of my blood. My sweat smelled like evaporating hospital chemicals as they flushed my system. I decided not to take another stim dose. Maybe the nanites knew something I didn’t.
    The airlock started pumping then. I looked up expectantly. For a horrible second, I expected Sandra to walk in. She often did when she knew I was overworking myself alone in a spot like this. I had to remind myself she was still a turnip in a steel box.
    I grabbed up my com-link angrily. At least I could fix one problem. I got Kwon on the link. I instructed him to widen the breach and bring down all the bricks into the chambers below decks, being careful not to disrupt the inertial dampeners. We could build a nice hold right under the breach we’d dug into the cruiser like whale’s blowhole. Living on the exterior hull was dangerous and now we finally had enough time to do something about it. Even if the missiles were going to come and knock us out, it would be a day or two before the caught up.
    When I looked up the next time, the person who’d come through the airlock was up against the wall beside me. It was Gorski. He’d never been able to keep away from me when I was programming the machines. He reminded me of some graduate student nerd-groupies I’d known back at the University.
    Right now however, I was more interested in what he had in his hand. I saw two squeeze bottles of amber liquid.
    “Is that…?” I asked.
    “Yep,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone. I found them in one of the salvaged bricks. As far as I know, these are the last two beers in the expedition.”
    I seriously considered commandeering them both, but decided that would be too greedy. We popped open one each and fired suds into our mouths. The beer was cool, rather than cold, and drinking it in squirts from a plastic bottle took some of the fun out of it. But it was still wonderful. By the time I’d finished mine, I felt much better than I had after the stims.
    “I’ve got an idea, Colonel,” Gorski said. “Want to hear it?”
    “Does it involve more beer?”
    “Only if it lets us make it home.”
    “I’m listening,” I said.
    “Been thinking about the missiles. We have to stop them, obviously. But I don’t think gun systems are the way to go. They are too iffy. I would suggest we fire drones at them instead.”
    “Counter missiles?”
    “Yeah,” he said. “But smart ones. Think about them as tiny little spaceships. Complete systems, with one purpose.”
    I sat up, getting into the idea now.
    “Right,” I said. “Mini-Nano ships. That should be easy, as nanites are good at doing things on a small scale. With the combined kinetic energy of two moving bodies, it should be easy to destroy the missiles with any hit.”
    “Yes, the faster they are moving relative to the bodies we throw at them the greater the energy they would release upon contact.”
    I nodded, liking the idea more and more. In space, you essentially have infinite visibility. With no atmosphere to obscure a jet flare, and with a cold, dark backdrop, you could see an engine firing from across a star system. The missiles had to show us where they were when they maneuvered. They could not hide.
    “What about catching up to them?” I asked.
    “We don’t have to. They are coming to us. The mini-drones would only need enough propulsion to get into the path of the missiles and make sure the two collide.”
    “We’ll have to aim extremely well,” I said, thinking of anti-ballistic missile problems. It was like trying to hit a bullet with another bullet.
    “Not as well as all that,” Gorski argued. “The systems could have their own sensor arrays and propulsion systems. They can adjust their course up to the last few miles.”
    I stared at him, liking his idea. “How many of these do you think we would need?”
    Gorski shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I would start out with sixteen of them.”
    I had to agree with his logic. Sixteen mini-drones and only two factories…I didn’t have any time to waste. Together, we ordered the factories to shut down the production of magnetic mines and began reprogramming them.

25

    The enemy cruiser had lost velocity in its efforts to avoid our minefield, and had veered onto a less direct course. It now shadowed us on a parallel line. It was still overtaking us, but at a much slower rate. They were cautious now, as I’d given them good cause to be. I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk them into such a simple trap again. As they kept slowly gaining, their plan seemed clear: get in close, but not directly behind us where we could leave mines in our wake for them to run into. All they had to do was wait to see if the missiles destroyed us. If they didn’t, they could come abreast of us and fire. We would be at a severe disadvantage with no main gun turret. My mines would be useless if we were side by side going fast, and my invasion troops could not cross the void to board a target that was moving faster than they were. We didn’t have assault ships on hand to do an invasion assault in any case, and I needed my last two factories to produce drones to stop the missiles from knocking us out.
    Gorski and I worked hard on some mathematical trajectories and timing. We decided to try using the mines anyway. The Macro ship was off to our side, but not that far off. We built a bigger whip-arm, a huge thing as big as the one the Alamo had carried. We set it up outside the breach and fed it mines. We threw the mines out in predicted paths that might get in the way of the cruiser. The mines would be very hard to see out there, floating through space with no propulsion systems active until they sensed the cruiser’s approach and homed in. The problem was that space was big and the enemy ship wasn’t on a perfectly smooth course. They made frequent adjustments. We put out about a thousand mines, but putting them in the right spot was a matter of pure guesswork. The mines were a long shot, but it was the only shot I had.
    If Sandra had been around, I knew she would have scolded me for polluting this region of space with deadly mines. Who knew how many lives I’d just ended in the distant future? I had to admit, it was somewhat irresponsible, but this was a matter of survival. The environment of the Helios star system could get cleaned up in peacetime-if there was any peace out here.
    While I worked to defeat the Macros who stalked us, my team kept busy as well. First, they moved the medical brick, gently lowering it down into the widened breach and into newly built hold. The area around the breach had once been a storage facility for Macro troops, as far as we could determine. It had hundreds of berths that were about the right size for a dormant Macro marine to crouch.
    Looking at the power outlets that were at every station, I thought our first guess might have been wrong. Perhaps this was what passed for a mess hall for the Macros. In any case, we took it over, ripped out the walls, widened the breach in the hull and used the big new nanite arm on the hull to move our bricks into the cruiser one at a time down.
    I had to admit, when I finally did stretch out in the first sleeping brick the big arm brought down into the cruiser’s interior, it felt a lot safer and more comfortable to be inside the ship. Out on the open hull the G-forces lifted my lips into a permanent snarl when I tried to rest. Here, inside the range of the inertial dampeners, I felt blissfully normal when I laid down.
    When other marines came in to get some shuteye in shifts, they were universally startled to see their commander resting on one of the bunks. I didn’t care enough to open my eyes when they huffed and whispered. I had reached that special point of fatigue where one just doesn’t worry anymore about their surroundings. I could have slept on train tracks if I had to.
    I had strange dreams. That’s not unusual for me. My dreams had been haunted back on Earth before any of this alien invasion funny-business even got started. But now that my family had all been exchanged for ghosts, my dreams were positively wild. I dreamt that the Blues, Sandra and the Macros were all in a conspiracy to give me a surprise party back at my old farm. I tried to talk them out of it, to tell them they needn’t bother. I knew all about the party and didn’t like surprises in any case. They just smiled knowingly and assured me they had a real surprise for me. One I’d never expect.
    I never got to the surprise, but I caught a glimpse of it. In a pit I saw a threshing machine that devoured innocent folk, including Worms, Centaurs and humans. The threshing machine was like a giant Macro with a head that resembled whirling lawnmower blades. Bodies kept being drawn into it and churned to bloody pulp.
    I awoke with a gasp-at least it wasn’t a girlish scream. I thought about the dream briefly, and wondered if the threshing machine was supposed to represent the Macros, my own bad choices, or the cold universe itself. I wondered what some psychobabbler would have thought. I supposed it didn’t matter.
    A dozen marines snored all around me in the dimly-lit brick. I crept out through the airlock and staggered around, cursing and searching for coffee. I’d been out for nine and a half hours. Under normal circumstances, I rarely slept for more than six. I felt lazy and sore, as if I’d lain in bed all weekend.
    When I had my act together I went to check on Sandra. Carlson avoided me, and I couldn’t blame him for that. Sandra was still breathing. The combination of the nanites in her system and the automatic support systems in her tiny chamber had kept her alive through everything. Her brain wasn’t showing anything other than the lowest level of activity, however. As far as we could tell, she wasn’t even dreaming.
    My eyes stung as I looked into the chamber at her nearly perfect form. The nanites had been busy, repairing cell damage as best they could. But her mind could not even dream-was she really alive?
    I almost gave up on her and ordered that the proverbial plug be pulled. I couldn’t quite do it, however. My decision-or lack of one-wasn’t entirely emotionally-driven. We were under new circumstances. We discovered new technologies every day, and no one really knew what the nanites were capable of given enough time. I didn’t think she would have given up on me, so I couldn’t give up on her…not yet.
    The corpsman watched me go, but said nothing. I exited through the airlock and felt all the weight of command on my shoulders again. I checked our stocks of weapons, including the new drones and the magnetic mines I’d had built. I’d deployed about half my mines, keeping the rest in reserve for a trap when we next went through a ring. Neither the supply of drones or mines was adequate, but we only had two factories left. I’d have to use ordinance sparingly.
    The missiles were not catching up too quickly, that was the good news from my combination bridge/engine room. Our best computer model suggested the missiles had avoided the minefield and then changed course to pursue us, setting a pace that would slowly overtake us. Then they’d shut off their tiny engines and dropped off our boards. They were too small and too far away for our limited sensors to detect with radar scans. We knew they were still out there, and could predict their paths with precision. They were undoubtedly saving fuel to reorient and aim with more accuracy when they got closer. We expected they would perform a last minute burn when they were in range, making themselves harder to hit.
    In any case, I had a couple of days to prepare while the missiles silently chased us. As long as they didn’t reappear on our screens, firing their jets again, we had a little time. After walking all over the cruiser and seeing most of my marines were engaged in useful projects involving welding guns and nanite repair tubes, I decided I could spare a moment to work with the knowledgebase the Centaurs has seen fit to send me.
    We had put the massive download into a fresh brainbox, as it was basically an image of the neural chain structure of a similar box in the hands of the Centaurs. These brainboxes were like old hard drives lying around in household computers-they tended to be clogged with ‘stuff’. In this case, however, the stuff was actually useful.
    The brainbox image was a very large one. I couldn’t recall ever having seen the like of it. With brainboxes, increasing capacity was done easily by adding more of the correct variety of nanites. Unfortunately, the larger the structure became, the slower and more unpredictably it behaved. It was rather like having a full computer disk that needed defragmenting.
    I had to empty most of production barrel of nanites into the biggest brainbox I’d ever set up to hold everything the Centaurs had sent. Even then, I knew the transmission had not been complete, and thus the neural system image may not function.
    “How much data are we talking, total?” I asked Gorski.
    He grinned proudly. “You aren’t going to believe this,” he said. “About four hundred petabytes.”
    I blinked. It was a staggering amount of data. A petabyte was a thousand terabytes, and each terabyte was a trillion bytes of information.
    “You’re right, I don’t believe it,” I said.
    Gorski laughed. “I’ve got the numbers to prove it. We certainly had our receivers churning. We added every nanite we had on hand to the box, and cannibalized a few others to increase the capacity. It still wasn’t enough and there wasn’t enough time to catch it all in any case.”
    I shook my head and stared with marveling eyes at the box. It was big, physically bigger than any brainbox I’d ever seen. Usually, a brainbox was about a three or four inch cube. This one looked big enough to hold a basketball. But it still hadn’t been enough.
    “Can I talk to it yet?” I asked.
    “Yeah, it’s ready. We have speakers hooked up to it, and basic sensors. It can hear us now-it knows we are talking about it.”
    I stared at the box, which was truly alien in nature. Sandra hadn’t liked the relatively small, unintelligent brainboxes we’d used to control our laser turrets back on Andros Island. I knew she would really hate this thing. It felt a little creepy to me as well. A huge mentality captive in a box. It had a personality, I was sure. All the big ones did. But it would be a personality devoid of human contact. It would be something mixed with Centaurs, Blues and the odd twist of the Nanos themselves. Really, I had no idea what to expect. I only hoped I wouldn’t be talking about herd honor and the sky all night.
    To remove distractions from the environment, I took the brainbox with its independent power supply and I/O systems to a part of the ship none of my crew liked to venture into. It was a region referred to by my marines as ‘the weird zone’. We really had no idea what these chambers were for, but I had my suspicions. They looked similar to the Macro labs I’d discovered long ago on the invasion ship, where I’d once met up with a Worm under torment and dissection. I’d killed the Worm out of mercy on a laboratory table that looked remarkably similar to the ones in the weird zone.
    There were tanks of liquid in the zone, big ones. Something organic bubbled inside. We weren’t sure what it was or what purpose it might have, so we’d left it the hell alone. The tanks weren’t designed as humans would have done: instead of sitting in rows on the floor, they hung bulbously from the ceiling. Straps and hoses connected to them, running off into the rest of the ship. There were electrodes planted here and there, but those had stayed in the off position since we’d boarded, all except for one that still buzzed and crackled now and then. I wasn’t sure what the one active electrode was for, so I didn’t touch it. I could tell it was occasionally zapping the bubbling mess inside the bag-like tanks of soupy liquid. Maybe the electrodes were keeping the soup alive. Maybe they were slowly killing it. I was damned if I knew which.
    Some thought the tanks were full of foodstuffs and that the organic soup was a slurry of bacteria cultures. Gorski thought they were biotic colonies of some kind-like an undersea reef captured in a mass of shivering polymer bags. Once in a while a droplet of condensation rolled off the bags and plopped to the floor.
    I didn’t know what they were, but I knew when I set up the Centaur brainbox there that no one would come in to bother me. No one liked to go near the place. I could understand that. You had the feeling the stuff in the tanks knew you were there somehow. It was a creepy feeling. Call me paranoid, but I never turned my back on those tanks.
    I hooked up the I/O ports to a set of speakers and a tiny microphone. “Hello,” I said to the brainbox experimentally.
    Silence.
    “We are alone here, do you want to talk?” I asked.
    “No,” said the box.
    I snorted, and had to stop myself from chuckling. This box had a lot to tell me. We had to get off on the right foot. Laughing at it wasn’t going to help.
    “Is something wrong?” I asked gently.
    “Yes.”
    “What’s wrong?”
    There was a hesitation. “I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
    “I’m sorry,” I said. I smiled quietly. I was already bemused by this box’s personality. It seemed suspicious. “I should introduce myself. I’m Colonel Kyle Riggs.”
    “That is not helpful,” the box complained.
    “Are you aware of recent events? Of the battle with the Macros? Of human participation in that battle?”
    “Yes. Yes. No.”
    I thought about that. Maybe it was a good thing if it didn’t know we’d blown a hole in the Centaur ‘sky’ and let all the air out.
    “I talked with the Centaurs-those who, ah, raised you. They sent you to me. Were you aware of that?”
    “Imprecise reference: that.”
    I nodded to myself. Now it sounded more like a Nano brainbox. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that at least it wasn’t talking like the Centaurs. They were difficult to communicate with. “Are you aware the Centaurs sent you to me?”
    “Unknown reference: Centaurs. Two uses logged with no improvement in coherency of the reference.”
    “Hmm,” I said. “The Centaurs are the furred quadrupeds that I presume assembled you. They live in orbital structures and-”
    “Reference classified,” the brainbox said, interrupting me. “Collating previous input. Answer to previous question: I know the Centaurs transmitted my awareness to an alien infestation. Request for clarification: does this infestation refer to itself as ‘human’?”
    “Ah yes, I suppose we do,” I said, trying not to get annoyed. This thing was rude. The Centaurs might have been bizarre and obtuse, but they were never rude.
    “Reference ‘human’ classified.”
    I sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. So far, it had gotten two pieces of information out of me, while I’d gotten virtually nothing out of it. What did they call that when scoring tennis? Love-thirty?
    I was puzzled. This box should know about my conversations with the Centaurs. I was certain I had used a Nano box to converse with the Centaurs as a translator. In fact, this should be the exact system image they’d used to translate. The box clearly had a grasp of human language, as we were communicating in English. If it had done the translation, why would it have such a gap in its knowledge of current events?
    I didn’t have to dig long in my own fuzzy mind to come up with a theory: Gorski had said the box transfer wasn’t complete. Not everything had made it across in the transmission, so it had gaps in its knowledge. It was an incomplete system image of the original Centaur brainbox.
    I shook my head with regret. I would like to have had the entire transmission and thus the entire mind the Centaur’s had given me. Who knew what invaluable information it was missing? If I’d managed to kill all four of the Macro cruisers with the mines, I would have considered going back through the ring to get the rest of the transfer. With the last cruiser on my tail however, I didn’t dare do anything but run.
    “You said before that you didn’t want to talk,” I said. “Why was that?”
    “Answer previously provided. It is unchanged.”
    Rude again, I thought. What had it said was wrong? That it didn’t know who it was talking to…
    “I’ve identified myself as Colonel Kyle Riggs,” I said.
    “Identification meaningless. Audio-only input prevents thorough classification.”
    I frowned. It was really into classifying things. “Audio-only input? What other input would you like?”
    “Visual, tactile and olfactory are standard.”
    I made a surprised expression the thing in the box couldn’t see. It didn’t like being blind. Apparently, the Centaurs had more than speakers and microphones hooked up to their brainboxes. In a diplomatic effort, I called for a set of constructive nanites and a surveillance camera. I rigged up two arms for it, one it could reach out with and the second it could use to operate and power the camera. I couldn’t think of anything I could use to give it a nose, so I didn’t bother trying.
    When I gave it a strand of constructive nanites, I signaled the marines who had delivered them in a plastic jar to stay. For all I knew, this thing would try to choke me with that skinny little arm, using it like a wire garrote. Everything went well, however, and soon the thing had two small arms. One held up the camera and operated it. A silver feedline of data streamed from the camera down into the box. Another silvery line fed the camera a trickle of power. The black hand held the camera aloft, reminding me of an ostrich’s head with a single, big eye. It moved around, aiming the camera precisely and panning slowly. I watched as it took in the contents of the room and my image as well.
    “Happy now?” I asked.
    “Unclear reference.”
    “Are you satisfied with your sensory input?”
    “All components are substandard. Visual acuity in particular is limited, with a narrow field of view and an exceptionally slow frame rate.”
    Great, I thought. I’d built myself a prima-donna robot.

26

    I’m slow sometimes. I don’t always see the possibilities in a new development for hours, days or longer. It was on my way back to talk to the robot I’d built that I came up with something important: if this robot could speak the language of the Centaurs, humans and Macros, perhaps it could speak other languages as well.
    I’d almost made it to the room where I’d left it after taking a break to eat and check on things. The factories were still churning and there had been no sign yet of the pursuing missiles, even though we knew they were closer. The cruiser was looking better all the time, as we’d let loose zillions of nanites to reconstruct the damage. Sandra, unfortunately, had shown no improvement.
    When I thought of the idea of translating languages, I realized we were half-way across the Helios system. We had a golden opportunity to communicate with the Worms-if the strange little artificial mind the Centaurs had sent me knew how.
    I was startled to see my robot in the corridor just outside the weird zone. It had reformed itself and was now using both the arms I’d given it to operate the camera as legs. It balanced the camera on top of its outsized brainbox and had to tilt the entire body to see anything. The entire structure was unstable, as the legs were not even in height and the top surface of the brainbox was canted to the left. I halted and watched it slowly turn, scanning its environment with what could only be called curiosity.
    Watching it, I felt a tiny chill. This robot wasn’t like the others I’d known. Not even the Nano ships had shown this kind of initiative. They had acted in a semi-independent, problem-solving fashion, but it had always been traceable down to an underlying compulsion built into their source code somewhere. This thing was different. It had gotten bored with the room I’d left it in, restructured itself as best it could and set about exploring its environment.
    The camera swept over me finally. “Kyle Riggs,” the tinny voice said. “Identification confirmation requested.”
    “Yes,” I said, “I’m Kyle Riggs.”
    I leaned forward toward the dwarf robot. It squatted and reached up with its arms to adjust the camera. I watched the lenses dilate and contract in tiny shivers as it focused on my faceplate.
    “You need a name,” I told the robot. “From now on, I’ll call you Marvin.”
    “Reference stored,” Marvin said.
    “Marvin, can you talk to other biotic species-besides humans and the Centaurs?”
    “There are the compressed forms you refer to as the Blues.”
    “Of course,” I said. “What others?”
    “Reference unclear.”
    I nodded to myself. I brought out my computer tablet and displayed the world of Helios and still shots of the Worms. I let Marvin examine the images at length.
    “Have you seen these creatures before?” I asked.
    “No.”
    “Have you seen recorded images of them before?”
    “No.”
    I frowned. Maybe this was a dead end. “Do you recognize the species?”
    “Yes.”
    I rolled my eyes. Marvin was literal-minded. He liked precision. Probably, he’d never ‘seen’ the images, but they might have been transmitted to him via a file transfer. He’d never been in their visual presence, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know about them, just as a person might not have even been to Paris, but still knew about the French and their history.
    “Can you communicate with one of these creatures in their native language?” I asked.
    The camera lifted from the surface of Marvin’s brainbox. It glided up smoothly, refocusing and studying my face again.
    “Why?” Marvin asked.
    I felt that chill again. What had I accidentally created here? Was this how things had gone when the Blues had invented the Macros and the Nanos, as I now suspected they had? Was this the path to doom for all biotics? At some point in technological progression, perhaps we were all doomed to build something like Marvin. He was a tool for a job that needed doing, but once such a fantastic tool was built, perhaps it was fated to eventually examine you closely and ask why?
    I felt an urge to draw my pistol and blast Marvin right then and there. I’d witnessed vast destruction caused by smart little machines like this one. Placed inside a hundred foot body of alloy and machinery, this thing might decide to lay waste to cities. I took a breath and tried to slow my heart. I told myself I was still in control here. My paranoia would serve me well, and I would know the day Marvin became a threat. More importantly now, Marvin knew too much to be discarded or destroyed out of fear-I had no idea what was locked in his mind, but I knew Earth needed every byte of it.
    “I wish to communicate with these creatures, Marvin,” I explained. “We need their help.”
    Marvin studied me further. “Help indicates need. What necessity can be fulfilled by these creatures?”
    It was my turn to think for a second. “This ship and everyone aboard is in danger. We are under attack by another ship. These creatures are potential allies.”
    Marvin looked at my tablet again. “The Worms could help Marvin?”
    “Yes, I believe so.”
    “I will speak with them then,” Marvin said. “But I have a need as well.”
    I stared at him. “What is it, Marvin?”
    “I’m having difficulty with locomotion. I need four new appendages for maximum stability and an instrument to aid in coordination and balance.”
    “You want legs and a gyroscope?”
    “That would be sufficient.”
    As I submitted to Marvin’s demands I felt I had somehow placed my foot upon a path and taken the first step upon it, without knowing where it led. I suspected bargains with the Devil always felt like that.
    I made sure the legs were short-stumpy even. I didn’t want him building anything new with them, so I organized the nanites with locked programming. They could not be reshaped into anything else without being reprocessed by one of my factories. I attached them to the bottom of his braincase and ran silvery threads to his central I/O node to power and control them.
    The gyroscope was a little trickier. I didn’t want to put it on top where it might get into the path of his camera, and there wasn’t really room below where his legs would churn. Either side would throw him off balance. Finally, I decided to mount the camera forward a bit on the body so he could use the gyroscope as a counterweight on the rear. Essentially, I gave him a box-shaped tail. He ended up looking like a dachshund that someone had put through a trash compacter.
    I looked him over, and knew that Sandra would have pronounced him cute. I might have agreed if I hadn’t been worried I was looking at humanity’s possible future replacement.
    “All right,” I said. “Let’s talk to the Worms then. I want you to translate my words as closely as you can into their language and when they speak, translate it back to me.”
    “I do not wish to communicate here in front of the prisoners,” Marvin told me.
    I blinked at him. Had that gyroscope thrown his little mind out of balance?
    “What?” I asked.
    “I do not wish to communicate here in front of the prisoners,” Marvin told me again.
    “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I got that part, but I don’t know what prisoners you are talking about.”
    Marvin twisted his camera around to examine the bio-tanks in the middle of the chamber. They gurgled and churned with thick, dark fluids. I stared at them with him.
    “The stuff in those tanks?” I asked. “That stuff is alive, isn’t it?”
    “The contents of the enclosure contains billions of biotic structures.”
    “Okay,” I said. “Those bags, tanks, whatever they are do enclose biotics. And they can’t leave. But how can mindless creatures be classified as prisoners?”
    “The classification is correct. They are not mindless. They are a collective intelligence.”
    I stared at the bags now, which shivered minutely while I watched. A fresh thread of condensation rolled down the walls of the nearest balloon-like bag and splashed to the floor where a puddle had formed.
    I looked back to Marvin, not sure which was the more upsetting: a biotic mass with a collective brain in a baggy, or Marvin the know-it-all dog robot.
    “Are you telling me these bags are full of intelligent… bacteria?” I asked.
    “Collectively intelligent, yes.”
    “The Macros kept these bags here for a reason, Marvin,” I said. “Do you know where they come from or why the Macros would want them here?”
    “The Macros study dangerous fauna of all types,” Marvin explained. “These creatures come from the ocean-covered world which is the seventh most distant world from the star you refer to as Eden.”
    I thought about it. The seventh from the star? That would make it one of the innermost of the warm-water worlds. One of the six jewels of the Eden system.
    I walked over to the tank and tapped at the surface experimentally. Did the soupy stuff inside swirl fractionally? Or was that just my imagination? I tried to visualize what a race of bacteria would be like. Marvin said they had a collective intelligence, which I took to mean they didn’t each have a big brain. Together, they communicated in some way and formed thoughts and as consensus which they could all act upon. I suppose it was the same sort of distributed intelligence that Marvin himself had in his brainbox. Marvin didn’t use a single massive brain, the way a human handled intelligence. His mind was made up of a thousand working microscopic machines. A community intellect, just like this biotic version in the balloon-like tanks.
    I’d studied the basics of neurology in my graduate program in computer science. I knew that even in the case of humans, it wasn’t really correct to consider our own intellect as a single entity. We had dozens of processors in our brains, dedicated to specific functions. Like any modern computer, we had many voices going on inside our heads at once, doing different things. That was how we could drive, talk and listen to music all at once. Or least we could try.
    Beyond that, any single portion of our intelligence was spread over thousands of neurons-brain cells. How different was that from the idea of a bacterial intelligence? They were like us, but they formed a single mind out of individual cells that were more physiologically independent. It was intriguing.
    I ran my fingers over the bag again, testing it. The fabric felt strong, but not so stiff that it didn’t give. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it was like thick leather.
    Before my thoughts could drift any further, a sizzling jolt of electricity fired into the tank from the electrode nearby. The sound was jarring. I felt the tiniest shock myself through the fabric as I touched it. I jerked my hand away in irritation.
    “What the hell is that thing, anyway?” I asked.
    “They call it the ‘mass-death device’,” Marvin said calmly.
    I turned to look at him. He had followed me to stand nearby. His camera panned the length of the leathery tank and finally halted on my face.
    “Mass-death?” I asked, feeling a bit sick. “You mean that thing kills the microbial creatures in this bag?”
    “That is the most probable interpretation.”
    I backed away from the bag in horror. The Macros, I thought. I was in one of their labs. What had they been doing when I first entered such a place? I recalled the first Worm I’d ever seen. They’d been dissecting it alive. But what if their real purpose had been to inflict pain? To torture an enemy until information was gained? I could not think of a more horrible fate than to be tortured by a machine. There could be no compassion, no change of heart. They would only know that causing minor damage to a biotic might gain useful information. They would not know when to quit. Why bother quitting at all? Why not just keep it up until the victim died? After all, at any moment they might relinquish yet more valuable information.
    There could never be mercy in a being that felt no pain, which did not understand the concept. The torture would just go on and on. I felt ill, thinking about it, and thinking that under my watch, these tiny beings had been zapped over and over. We could have saved them, but we hadn’t realized…
    Another thought came to me as I looked down at Marvin. He was able to talk to these tiny creatures. “Marvin,” I said. “Tell them we’re going to try to turn off the electrode. Tell them we destroyed the Macros and took over this ship. We wish to help them.”
    “Concepts transmitted…” Marvin said. “Reply is… confusion.”
    “They don’t understand?”
    “No, they are confused by your motives.”
    “We wish to help them, because they are biotics as we are. We are on the side of all biotics. We are rebels against all machines.”
    “Concepts transmitted…”
    “Tell me what they are saying in response.”
    “They wish to know why you applied the device fifty-seven times since your arrival.”
    “Fifty-seven…” I took a deep breath. “It was a mistake. We didn’t know.”
    “The machines never applied it so rigorously. Their population is now only one-third optimal for the space provided. You never even asked any questions.”
    “We didn’t shock them, Marvin. Tell them that. The Macros left the device active, and we didn’t know what it did.”
    “They humbly request the device be deactivated before the next scheduled application. They are more than willing to answer your questions. They assure you that your ruthlessness is clear. You’re cruelty is beyond that exhibited by the machines. They beg for your questions.”
    I shook my head. Somehow I felt horribly guilty, even though I hadn’t done anything. I began looking everywhere for an off-switch. I called down a team of engineers, and we worked on it together. Ten minutes passed, and I began to sweat. I could not simply rip the electrode out of the bag, it would rupture the surface and release the contents. Likewise, we couldn’t switch off the power or sever the cable. The same power source provided warmth and circulation inside the tank. Time was running out. All my discussions with this new, possibly helpful race would be lost if the shocks continued without cessation. They would simply figure I was a lying monster.
    “Dammit,” I complained. “Marvin, can you turn this shock-device off?”
    “No.”
    “Can you tell me how to do it?”
    “Disconnect the power.”
    “But if we sever the line, it will cease giving them life-support as well. Leave it to the Macros to build a torture system directly into the life-support system of their prisoners.”
    “They are efficient creatures.”
    “Here, give me your camera arm, Marvin.”
    Marvin’s camera swung to examine my hands, then face, then my hands again. “What do you intend?” he asked.
    “I’ll give it back, or make you a new one. I want to use the nanites to short out the power wire to the electrode only.”
    “That is likely to damage the nanites.”
    “I told you, I will give you a new arm.”
    “How do I know you are truthful in this case?”
    “Marvin,” I said in exasperation, “you’ll have to trust me. Have I been truthful so far?”
    “Past events do not predict future realities with one hundred percent accuracy.”
    “No, they don’t,” I said, trying to be patient. “But they are the best indicators we have on which to base judgments. You will just have to trust me this time. Long term cooperation is built upon trust.”
    Marvin considered it. At last, he walked to the thick cable with a humping gait. He was not yet accustomed to his new legs. He crouched and allowed his nanite arm to slip off his back and form a grip around the Macro cable.
    I was thinking I was going to have to provide the program, step-by-step, for the nanites to follow. But I didn’t. Marvin, I realized, had written that program by himself.
    Soon, the arm shivered and sparked.
    “The task is complete,” Marvin said.
    I saw the nanite arm he’d deployed begin to crawl back up onto his back.
    “Hold on,” I said. “Just leave it there. I’ll give you a new arm. A longer one.”
    Marvin did not examine me with his camera this time, as he could no longer move it around and activate it. After a few seconds consideration, he agreed.
    I sent one of the marines to fetch a good-sized mass of nanites. Marvin had earned it. I wondered how long it would be before I began to trust him.
    Once things were settled with the microbials, who still considered me a cruel god, my mind turned back to the Worms. We only had so long to talk to them before we crossed their system and left it behind.
    I received a beeping summons from Major Sarin before I was able to transmit anything to the Worms, however.
    “Riggs here, go ahead,” I said.
    “Sir, the missiles…they are on-scope again, accelerating. They are closer than we thought, Colonel.”
    She kept talking, but I missed the rest. The moment I heard the word missiles, I’d started running through the ship to the bridge.

27

    “How long until impact?” I asked.
    “Less than an hour, sir,” Gorski said. He was working the numbers on his tablet. “I’ll dump the projections to the main screen now.”
    A mass of curved lines appeared on the screen. The lines representing the past were blue, and those predicting the future were yellow. Each line had a red sliver in the middle representing the missile, which crept a pixel closer every once in a while. The yellow lines were like the curved spines of an umbrella, and they arced in on my ship at the end of their paths from a wide variety of angles. I figured they’d been fired on such trajectories purposefully. They were not clustered up, but spread as widely apart as possible. By being spread out, we could not take out more than one at a time with any counterstrike. They would all converge at once in the final minutes, hoping to overwhelm our defenses. I nodded as I looked at the situation.
    “It’s time,” I said. “Launch the drones.”
    From racks we’d set up on the cruiser’s hull, sixteen counter-missiles were fired in rapid succession. An almost imperceptible shiver went through the ship with each salvo. Sixteen for sixteen. I didn’t like the odds. We had to have a hit in every single case. There was no room for error.
    “Suggestions?” I asked my crew.
    “We could start dodging,” Gorski said.
    I shook my head. “No point,” I said. “We would only lose forward velocity and they would overtake us faster, leaving less time for our point defense cannons to pick any of them off.”
    “But they might not hit us all at once if we changed course,” Gorski argued. “We could stagger the incoming attacks and have a better chance at shooting them down.”
    I still shook my head. “I don’t think so. The Macros know what they’re doing. The missiles will home in and adjust their speed. Look at the pattern, they are interacting. There is some kind of AI in those things, coordinating them. What else have you got?”
    “We could throw out more mines,” Major Sarin suggested.
    I looked at her. “The enemy ship isn’t in our wake.”
    “No,” she said. “I mean at the incoming missiles.”
    I thought about it. “Could work,” I said thoughtfully. “They are moving too fast to allow the magnetics to home in, but they should still trigger and detonate if the targets get close enough. Even a near-miss should knock out a missile. Let’s try it. We’ll have the upper arms throw a dozen or so at every missile, into the probable cone of approach.”
    I knew it was another long shot, but I figured it gave us something to do. We laid the mines over the next twenty minutes and were back at the board again in no time. When counting down the minutes to your likely destruction, I found that time didn’t crawl; it seemed to move very quickly indeed.
    “The Macro cruiser is firing now, sir,” Major Sarin said.
    I jerked my head back to the screen. Four new red objects appeared. Their trajectories were quickly assessed and plotted by the computers. I was not surprised to see the yellow streak projecting their course reached out ahead of us. They were aiming for where we would be if we continued on our present course.
    “Gorski, give me some idea if evasive action will help, here,” I asked.
    “I doubt it,” he said. “Those new missiles are too close. Since the cruiser is shadowing us, these projectiles started off matching our speed and course. Every ounce of thrust adds on top of that, bringing them closer. They have plenty of time and fuel to change course and outmaneuver us if we try to evade now.”
    “So, we have to shoot them down,” I said.
    “That, or take the hit.”
    “New information sir, these missiles are different than the others,” Major Sarin said in her typically officious tone.
    I looked at her flatly. I had to give her high marks for professionalism. We had twenty alien missiles chasing us at this point, and she still maintained a phone operator’s demeanor. I turned my eyes back to the screen. The new missiles seemed to have grown somewhat larger. The red contacts were probably two pixels wide now, and at least four pixels long.
    “Let me guess, they are big missiles,” I said.
    “Yes sir. The data indicates these four are different. They are at least five times the size of the other missiles. They are also moving more slowly.”
    I stared at the board, thinking to myself I’d been outmaneuvered. The first sixteen missiles had been countered by my drones-hopefully effectively. But the cruiser had waited to see what I would do about them, and then countered my drones with four more super-missiles of their own. Did nuclear warheads really need to be that much larger? I began to wonder what the payload could be on these new weapon systems.
    “Run a check against all past weapons logged on cruisers. What could these things be? Have we seen them before?”
    Major Sarin paused, frowning. She didn’t seem to have an answer for me.
    “I don’t think so, sir,” Gorski responded after glance toward Sarin.
    I rubbed my chin. “It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “They should have at least eight nukes aboard, just as the other cruisers did.”
    “We’ve never seen their cruisers in a ship-to-ship fight before,” Gorski said. “We’ve only seen them in action when they were pounding the Worms and the Chinese.”
    “Why would this ship be different?”
    “Maybe the situation is different,” Gorski said.
    I looked at him and nodded. “You are bucking for Major, aren’t you, Gorski? That’s got to be it. These bigger missiles are special somehow. Maybe they take some prep-time to fire. The other ships weren’t ready to launch them when we surprised them with the minefield. They just launched whatever they could and died. That’s a hint, at least.”
    Gorski looked pleased with himself.
    “Have we got time to build more drones to take out these monstrous new missiles?” I asked.
    He tapped and calculated. His smile vanished as he concentrated. “If they maintain their speed and course, we could possibly get off one more shot. But we have to switch over production on both the factories immediately.”
    “Better than nothing,” I said. “Major Sarin, take us on an evasive course. Turn away from the incoming missiles.”
    “At our current velocity sir,” she said, “it will take a full day of acceleration to change our course sixty degrees.”
    “How long do we have?”
    “Less than two hours until the big ones reach us.”
    I turned back to Gorski. “Well Captain, get to the factories and switch them back to drone production. I’ll give you all the time I can. If we can change course and get them all coming in directly behind us, I might be able to stop them in another way.”
    I felt the ship shudder as it began pulling Gs in a new direction. The ship was attempting to turn, but like a race car going at top speed, mostly what we did was keep sliding forward. In a way, space made it harder to steer. With no friction or gravity to grab onto only the power of our engines could change our direction.
    “Sir,” Major Sarin said. “I must point out that if we change course it will take us longer to get to our target ring and get out of this system. Getting out of here might be our only chance of survival against the cruiser.”
    I thought about it, knowing she was right. The problem was we still had a full day’s ride to the next ring. I knew the ring represented at least temporary safety and getting to it first was also our best opportunity to nail the enemy cruiser by tossing out a load of mines into its face again. The enemy had to come through a tight region of space. Knowing that, we could dump mines out in a cloud right in its path on either side of the tunnel-or both.
    “You’re right,” I told her finally, “but that won’t help us if we’re already dead. My orders stand.”
    Major Sarin turned back to the screen without a complaint. I eyed her. Sometimes, the quiet, effective people around you were easy to overlook. I thought I should pay more attention to Sarin if we ever got back to Earth. She was a fine officer, and probably deserved a command of her own if we made it home.
    A few minutes later, our drones reached the array of missiles trailing us. They had to make direct hits at incredible velocities to knock them out. We were all tense. No one spoke as the two lines met on the board.
    “Three hits,” Sarin said, “one-no, two more.”
    I dared to take a breath as paths blinked and vanished from the board. At least the drones were working.
    “Seven hits,” she said.
    Was that a hint of excitement I heard in her voice? I glanced up and saw the birth of a smile there. Yes, she was feeling it. Gorski was grinning. Others were pressing in around us now. I saw Kwon, and wondered how he had gotten the word. After all these hours spent waiting, the fight was on.
    “It’s working,” Gorski said.
    I waved his words away. “Don’t jinx it.”
    “Sorry.”
    “Eleven hits now,” Major Sarin said. Some of the tension had gone out of her voice.
    Lines died away on the boards. We still had five missiles coming, however, not to mention the four big ones the cruiser had added to the party.
    The countdown reached fourteen, and halted. “Two misses confirmed,” Sarin said.
    “What happened?” I asked.
    Gorski shrugged. “Maybe they realized the others were getting hit and dodged. There was very little time to adjust at those speeds for either party. There was some luck involved.”
    I grunted unhappily. I had to wonder if he’d just written our epitaph. I thought it would fit well on my own tombstone: There was some luck involved.
    I turned to Kwon. “It’s time you made yourself useful,” I told him. “Take all our little automated turrets we set up against the Worms and affix them to our tail section. Set the brainboxes to ‘paranoid’ and maybe they will get a lucky hit when these missiles come in. They should be useful against the big bastards coming in from the cruiser, too.”
    “Sir?” asked Gorski, “can I make a suggestion?”
    “Do it.”
    “Maybe we should put all the armament up front, and turn and face the incoming barrage. We’ve got a lot more armor up there, and we don’t want these missiles to knock out our engines.”
    I thought about it. I didn’t like it, as it would slow us down and give up on the evasion idea. I watched as the enemy weapons clicked closer. Space combat seemed different to me now, it was slower and more deliberate. I missed the days of massing with a fleet of Nano ships on a surprised enemy. The pixels advanced again, and I came to a decision. “Here’s what we are going to do: we’ll keep running as long as we can. We’ll fire newly built drones as we run at the last two light missiles. You hear that? I want them launched the moment after we build them.”
    “That will be tight, sir,” Gorski said.
    “I know, Captain. Go babysit the factories. Get those drones out if you have to perform a cesarean on them.”
    “Yes sir,” he said, getting up and heading for the exit.
    “Kwon,” I said, turning to the hulking man. He frowned worriedly. I looked around, seeing his expression mirrored on a dozen faces. They had been celebrating when the first missiles were knocked out, but anyone who could count knew there were six more we hadn’t touched.
    “We’ll turn around at the last minute,” I said. “That will give us maximum time to build counter measures, and we’ll still have a shot at the missiles that get through our drones.”
    “Where do I put the turrets then?” Kwon asked.
    “Forward. Cluster them around the nose of the cruiser. We’ll turn when the missiles get close enough to hit and whatever gets by we’ll have to ride out.”
    After he had left, Major Sarin spoke up: “Those payloads are going to be a lot bigger than the mines we dumped on them. I’m not sure how many hits we can take.”
    “I know,” I said, “but it’s the best we can do.”
    I stared at the four big, red bastards that were bearing down on us from the cruiser. They were moving much slower than the smaller missiles had been. “We’ll use the drones on the lighter, faster missiles. These monsters we’ll have to take out with our laser turrets up front. Any analysis on this new weapon system? Why are they bigger and slower?”
    “Nothing, Colonel,” Major Sarin said. “They are metallic, with more weight and less thrust. The only new data I have is they have jets on their nosecones, too.”
    “Like a ship?”
    “I guess.”
    “How long do we have?” I asked.
    Sarin hesitated, tapping. “Twenty-nine minutes,” she said. Then she turned her head toward the hatchway and gave an odd little squeak of alarm.
    I’d never heard such a sound out of her. I followed her eyes and saw Marvin walking toward us. His four wiry legs churned. His camera panned and zoomed in on Sarin.
    “What is that?” Sarin asked.
    “That’s my dog, Marvin,” I said, “I built him, sort of…actually, he pretty much built himself.”

28

    I spent some time asking Marvin what he thought of the tactical situation and what kind of presents the missiles were bringing us from the Macro cruiser. I thought maybe he’d seen this sort of thing before. He immediately started complaining.
    “Visual input system is inadequate,” he said. He had elevated his single camera eye up to peek over the top of the table-like computer we’d set up. He panned back and forth, but I imagined the angle and the glare of the lights in the room made it impossible to see.
    “Major Sarin will hook you up directly,” I said, waving her forward.
    She picked up a cable that led to the screen’s external video feed and walked uncertainly closer to Marvin.
    “He doesn’t bite,” I said.
    She handed the cable to Marvin, fully-extending her arm so she didn’t have to get too close. Marvin tottered forward. He rested his camera on top of his brainbox and took the cable from her hand, connecting it to a silvery thread of nanites. The nanites adjusted themselves to feed the data and Marvin halted for a few moments, transfixed by the input.
    “What did you give him access to?” I asked.
    Major Sarin’s eyes widened. She tapped at her screen and canceled a connection point or two. I hoped it wasn’t too late. For all my talk of trusting Marvin, it was hard to believe in the good intentions of any machine yet. For all I knew, he was the Centaurs’ walking revenge.
    “What are you doing Marvin?” I asked.
    “Translating incomplete two-dimensional data into an estimated three-dimensional projection.”
    “Marvin,” I said, hoping he was listening. “What do you think the cruiser fired at us?”
    “Question imprecise.”
    “What are the most likely payloads of the four largest incoming Macro missiles?” I asked, trying to be more precise.
    “Macros,” Marvin said.
    I grunted, thinking he had not understood, but then I stopped myself. “You mean there are Macros aboard those missiles?”
    “Conceptual error: ‘missiles’ is an imprecise term for the incoming vehicles,” Marvin complained.
    “Right,” I said, catching on. “You think they are assault shuttles.”
    “That is a more precise term. Reference acceptably accurate.”
    I thought about it, and it made too much sense. The Macros were going to try to take back this cruiser, just as we had taken it from them. They hadn’t fired their ship-killer missiles yet, because they thought they could recapture our stolen vessel with assault shuttles rather than blowing it up.
    “Why didn’t we find any shuttles like that aboard this ship?” Major Sarin asked.
    “Maybe because they’d already launched them. Maybe they threw them all at the Worms and failed. Then they decided to go to Earth, pick us up and use us to do the dirty work.”
    I remembered the big holds with berths for hundreds of Macros. I recalled too, that taking this ship had been relatively easy. They had about thirty fighting Macros, but apparently that wasn’t a full ship’s complement.
    “Marvin, what is your estimate on enemy numbers?” I asked. “How many Macro marines are on each of those missiles?”
    “If they are fully occupied, sixty-four,” Marvin said.
    “Sixteen per shuttle,” I said. “That figures. The Macros love binary.”
    I left the bridge then to see how Kwon was doing with our forward point-defense weaponry. Our main battery had been obliterated during our boarding assault, but I had high hopes now for our new point-defense laser turrets. The boarding shuttles would have to come in braking hard to match our speed or the Macros inside would smash into us and be destroyed. This was good news, as it gave us a much longer time to shoot them down.
    While I was thinking hard, Marvin wandered off down the corridor. I hadn’t recalled giving him permission to explore, but I didn’t think he could do much harm. “Go make yourself useful, Marvin,” I called after him.
    He swiveled his camera toward me, paused and stared. I ignored him for a few seconds. The next time I glanced in that direction, he was gone.
    “Okay,” I told Kwon as I checked on his newly set up point-defense turret command station. “I need the turrets all connected here with nanite-wires.”
    Kwon didn’t argue. He rarely did. He got up, clapping his big gloved hands and shouting for marine techs to move. They ran silvery threads of nanites out to every brainbox that controlled a laser turret on the hull.
    We hadn’t gotten things organized enough yet to have these controls linked up to my bridge. Someday, if we survived this battle, I hoped to connect my boards up to the external firing systems. The job would have been made easier if the Macros had designed the ship with a command deck in mind. But as best we could tell, they hadn’t. We’d gone through the ship and hadn’t found any section that resembled a centralized bridge at all. The cruiser was built with distributed control systems only, meaning the engine could only be controlled from the engine room, etc.
    Probably, this was because they didn’t have an individual in command of the rest. I’d yet to figure out if they had a specialized ‘leader’ class of Macro unit, but I suspected they didn’t. As best I could tell the Macros wirelessly linked together and formed a single mind for their control system. When I talked with ‘Macro Command’ I was talking to all of the individuals in the local networked group.
    They seemed to share their command choices automatically the way one of our computers might share the job of running a single program by spreading the work among many processors. Part of each Macro mind must include software dedicated to group decision-making. I suspected this introduced a delay in the case of complex choices and that was why they tended to hesitate when asked something unexpected. They all ran their software, made a choice, and they all went with the group decision as a single entity. There was no arguing, bickering or jockeying for rank or favor. In this way, they were like giant versions of the Nanos.
    At times, they did operate as individuals, however. When you fought one, you didn’t get the feeling it was conferring with the rest about every move it made. They definitely were able to function quickly and independently when they needed to.
    Once the control lines were linked up to all the laser turrets, we configured the turrets to focus on the incoming shuttles as their highest priority targets. With any luck, the Macro marines would never make it aboard our ship. Thinking that was the likely result of this attack, I ordered Gorski to produce only drones. We had to knock out the ship-killing missiles. Two were still incoming, and more would likely follow if this invasion attempt was halted. The ship-killers were the bigger danger as they moved so much faster. My little turrets were made to burn down something big and slow like the invasion missiles.
    “Kwon,” I said, pulling him away from where he was berating a corporal for a dead turret.
    “Sorry sir,” he said, coming closer. He gave the corporal his middle finger. The tech sergeant walked away, shaking his head.
    “That guy won’t admit it,” Kwon said angrily, “but he set it up wrong.”
    “Don’t worry about that,” I said, thinking that mentally, Kwon was still a master sergeant, and not a conventional one at that. “I want you to prepare for a possible invasion by Macro marines.”
    “Invasion?” he asked.
    “Yeah. Our intel says those big missiles are carrying armed Macros, not warheads.”
    Kwon nodded. “That’s why they keep slowing down. This is good news.”
    “Really?” I asked.
    “Yeah. I would rather fight Macros than just get blown up.”
    “Right. They probably won’t make it through, but I would expect them to come through the breach first if they do. But we can’t be sure. There are hatches all over the outer hull of the ship. They might be able to unlock them and slip aboard.”
    Kwon looked excited. This was the kind of fight he understood. “I’m on it. We’ll weld every hatch shut and put down a squad to repel any invaders. I’ll put a company right here, one outside the bridge and set the rest as a reserve guard force in case they do get in.”
    I nodded and blessed his ideas. They were sound. He stomped away, arranging his forces. Another twenty minutes passed, and I was surprised no firing had begun. I returned to the bridge.
    “We’ve fired two drones at the last two incoming ship-killer missiles,” said Gorski. He was back in his chair nearby. His eyes never left his computer and his fingers never stopped tapping at it as he spoke. “We’ll have another six drones ready in less than an hour.”
    “The shuttles are still slowing down, sir,” Sarin told me. “They are clearly planning to match our course and speed so they can land on our hull.”
    “Range?” I asked.
    “We can almost reach them,” Gorski said.
    “Let’s turn around then,” I said.
    “Sir, something-” Sarin said, her voice rising.
    She didn’t have to tell me. I felt the shock. It was small, but unmistakable. “What hit us?” I asked.
    “I don’t know sir. Some kind of beam-the shuttles are firing on us!”
    “Hull integrity?”
    “No breach, sir,” Sarin said.
    “Bring us around now,” I ordered.
    The two of them worked the controls. It seemed to take a long time. I clenched my teeth as I felt the ship tremor with three more impacts.
    “Are they in range yet?” I asked. “Put up a range plot and a timer based on current velocity.”
    Sarin worked hard on the screen settings. It seemed to take too long. The ship shuddered five more times. I heard a beeping in my helmet. It was Kwon.
    “Hold on, Kwon,” I said on the command channel.
    “I’ve got it, sir,” Sarin said. I saw an orange, fan-shaped region appear in front of the cruiser’s nose. This was our ships firing cone. The color was brighter near the ship, which I immediately interpreted as our strongest firepower. Further out, it quickly faded to nothing. I could tell right away we didn’t have much range. The enemy ships were a good distance away from that cone, but we were already getting hit.
    “They out range us,” I said, watching in panic as they slowed further. “They can sit outside our reach and snipe us to death.”
    I heard another beeping in my helmet. “Go ahead, Kwon,” I said.
    “Sir, my turrets are falling off the ship when you made that turn,” he said.
    “What?” I asked frowning.
    “I’ve lost contact with eleven of them.”
    I suddenly got the message. “The Macros are knocking out our turrets. They’ll take them all out, then invade. Damn.”
    “We could turn around again until they get in range,” Gorski suggested.
    I shook my head. “They can see them or sense them somehow. They will just snipe at our engines if we let them. They are in no hurry. We don’t have anything to hit them with.”
    “We’ll have another drone in time to fire at them,” Gorski said. “Or we could throw mines.”
    “We’re going to need those mines. There’s no evidence the ones we threw at them hit anything, is there?”
    “No sir.”
    I turned back to the board. Another tiny shock rattled the ship. I realized I didn’t have any choices left. I was out-ranged, and they were stripping away the small armament that I had. I could tell, without Sarin spoon-feeding the data to me, the enemy shuttles had slowed down to a crawl now in relative speeds. I would have done the same. When you outranged an enemy, you sat back and pounded him.
    I had no interest in being softened up any further. “Full ahead,” I ordered. “Charge them. Let’s get into range before they destroy every turret we set up.”
    I felt the ship move under my feet and had to grip the computer table with my hands. The acceleration had to be tremendous to feel it so strongly while the inertial dampeners were functioning.
    “Kwon!” I shouted over the engines, which were thrumming loudly now. “Get your men inside the hull and tell them invaders are likely.”
    “Right sir!” Kwon shouted back excitedly.
    If I hadn’t been facing sixty-four angry robots I would have laughed. He sounded like a kid let loose in a video game store.

29

    We’d lost about eighty percent of our laser turrets by the time we got into range a few minutes later. The ship rocked and shuddered with the impact of the enemy beams. At that point, the four Macro assault shuttles blossomed. It looked like they’d come apart into a mass of red dots.
    “Did we knock them all out at once?” I asked in amazement.
    Major Sarin shook her head and frowned. “We are close enough for a visual, Colonel.”
    She dialed up a close-up of the Macro formation. I watched and immediately felt a sinking sensation. The assault ships were not at all what I’d expected. Rather than being single, sleek vessels with solid hulls, they looked like networks of struts covered with systems and filled with Macros. We could actually see the Macros they carried, exposed inside the cage-like ships.
    The Macro marines were self-mobile. As I watched in shock, they began lifting off from the framework shuttles they were riding. They flew under individual propulsion away from the skeletal assault ships, resembling a swarm of wasps. They came at us with their blue-white engine trails glaring behind them.
    “The shuttles look like one of those trucks that carry cars,” Gorski said.
    I nodded in agreement. The enemy ships did resemble truck trailers. They were little more than thick rails with specialized Macros clamping onto them.
    “Zoom in on one of the marines if you can,” I said.
    Major Sarin fiddled with the controls. I marveled at her precision. She was much better with these touch systems than I was. Soon our visual was tracking a single Macro. It came in jinking and slewing about from side to side. The head rotated with insectile movements and obvious intelligence. The large nozzle in the face was probably some kind of boring laser.
    I watched our beams slide past it, drawing lines flickering lines in space. These should have been invisible in the void, but the beams were hitting something… Then I saw the Macro marine had stopped firing its engines. Now it was squirting material around itself. Whatever the stuff was, it looked gaseous. The image of the Macro marine became obscured behind this growing cloud.
    “What the heck is that?” I asked.
    “Unknown,” Gorski said. “I would guess it’s some kind of aerosol or gel. Its purpose appears to be defensive.”
    “Are you telling me it’s squirting out particles to form a shield against laser strikes?” I demanded. “They are making shields against our beams?”
    “It would appear so.”
    “Why doesn’t it just fly through it?”
    “Well-”
    “Never mind,” I said, having already thought it through. The enemy Macro wasn’t accelerating anymore. Anything it threw out in front of itself would move away from it in space, as there was no air resistance to push it back. If you were to hang out your driver’s side window and squirt paint forward on Earth, it would naturally fire back and splatter you. But in space there was no air to push back. Anything thrown forward moved forward forever, unless you accelerated into it. These Marcos were braking for their final landing on the Jolly Rodger’s hull, not increasing their speed, so they were able to stay behind their growing, semi-opaque shields of particles.
    “Did we get any of them before they sprayed these shields?”
    “I’m not sure…” Sarin said, frowning at her interface.
    “Gorski? Do a query, get a count.”
    I saw a growing cloud of dots moving away from their assault ships, which I now thought of as assault racks. It was about then that I got the first knot in my stomach. They’d surprised us several times already. How many more tricks did they have in store? I’d thought this was going to be easy. They were coming in slowly, and should have been fat targets. I planned to simply let our automatic systems destroy them all. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
    “Colonel, I’m still counting sixty-four bogeys,” Gorski said. “We might have gotten one, but…”
    “But we didn’t,” I said.
    “At least they can’t shoot us through their own shields,” Gorski sai.
    I noticed he was right: I hadn’t felt any impacts for a couple of minutes. Suddenly, I had an idea. It was about time I had one, and I hoped it wasn’t too late. “Come about, bring the helm ninety degrees starboard and apply full thrust!”
    Startled, my bridge crew worked to do as I asked. The helmsman brainbox extended an extra two arms to accomplish the task. We were grabbing the edge of the table again, and leaning a bit.
    “What’s the plan, sir?” Sarin asked.
    “If we swing wide, we’ll be able to fire around those sprayed out shields of theirs.”
    “What if they have more spray to make a new shield?” Gorski asked.
    I shot him a dark look. “Let’s hope they don’t, Captain. Have you got any ideas?”
    “No,” he said, shaking his head. “But there is one more positive factor: these Macros might not have the fuel or the engine power to keep up with us.”
    “We’ll call that ‘prayer number two’,” I said, only half-joking.
    On the screen, my fan of fire turned as the helm turned and we accelerated in a new direction. We were still sliding sideways toward the Macro swarm, but moving angularly out to the side as well. They turned with us, following us on an intercept course. I didn’t do the math, but it looked like they were going to catch up with us.
    My gambit managed to nail a few of them. Three confirmed kills, in fact. The rest of them turned and squirted more shields between us. They were closing in fast.
    “It was worth a try,” Gorski said.
    I called Kwon. “They are almost on top of us,” I told him. “Looks like the hull will be crawling with tin spiders soon.”
    “Yes sir!” Kwon responded happily.
    I recalled the stories he’d told me about his sister and how he’d joined up to fight machines. Today he was going to get his chance.
    The first one landed about thirty seconds afterward. I heard it clank down upon the hull. It sounded like a brick docking with a steel deck, turning on its metal clamps. It was a solid, ringing sound. Everyone in the engine room looked at the ceiling.
    “Turn back into the mass of them. Maybe the turrets will take a few out as they land.”
    The ship heeled back into the storming enemy. A dozen more clanking sounds came-growing slowly in number at first then turning into a clattering shower. I was reminded of the slow build of popping sounds popcorn made in the microwave. It built and built then finally slowed to nothing as the last of the roving machines landed on my ship and began crawling around, looking for an entrance. Soon, they decided to make their own.
    “We’ve got a breach, sir!” a voice squawked. “Deck four is depressurizing!”
    “Fall back to the bulkheads,” ordered Kwon in my headset. “Keep firing as they come. If you can stand your ground for two minutes I’ll have a full company at your position.”
    I stepped from foot-to-foot and waved impatiently at Sarin, indicating the external view on our screen. It was still depicting the Helios system. “Switch this off. Give me internal schematics.”
    The ship showed up in outline. It was fuzzy in spots, as it wasn’t a perfect mapping. We hadn’t had time to do more than plant a dozen sensors around the vessel. I stared at the numerous red dots crawling over the cruiser. Our ship looked like a dog with a disease. This was the hardest part of command for me, listening to a fight nearby and waiting it out.
    “They are in the breach sir! They are pushing us back!”
    I didn’t recognize the marine’s voice, but he sounded young. It was probably one of the lieutenants. I jerked my head toward the exit. I didn’t even have a pack on. “Everyone except for the core bridge crew will suit up. Arm yourselves with a generator and projector.”
    Startled, a half-dozen staffers hustled to put on generator packs and cradling projectors. I joined them, sealing myself into my battle suit. There was a row of packs against the aft wall. I took a heavy pack as the gravity was light and I wanted killing power when I pressed the firing stud. I soon had a rifle in my hand and it felt good.
    “We have four breaches now, Colonel,” Kwon buzzed in my helmet. “Most of them are hitting the big hole we used to board the ship.”
    Naturally, I thought. That would be the easiest point of access. The hole was big and there weren’t any welded-shut doors to drill through. He didn’t have to tell me where the other four points of entry were. They were attacking in their classic diamond-formation. They would penetrate at four compass points and converge. I had to wonder what ROM circuit in their heads made them do that.
    Then I remembered Sandra. Her comatose body was in the medical brick very close to the breached area. I heard Kwon’s breathing; he’d left his transmitter keyed open. He sounded stressed. The distinctive sound of sizzling laser bolts went off in my helmet.
    “Sarin, take the bridge,” I said, heading for the door. “I’m taking a reserve company to the main breach. We can’t let them take our bricks.”
    I hit the exit at a run. Assisted by my suit’s exoskeleton, my nanite-injections, low-gravity and good old-fashioned adrenalin, each stride took me several yards across the deck plates. I left my surprised bridge crew behind. I could feel their staring eyes on my back, but I didn’t care.

30

    Kwon had a full company in the breach, but it wasn’t enough. He’d had the foresight to set up firing positions inside the ship, but for the most part it was men, machines and blazing lasers.
    The enemy marines were tough. They weren’t like the units we’d met up with before. I’d thought of those Macros as marines, but I’d been wrong. I realized now they had only been ship security troops. They might even have been worker Macros with different heads clamped on. These Macros were a different animal entirely. They were longer, taller and had an extra set of legs. Their guns were bigger, and they had three of them. One was a central heavy beam unit in their head section that they used to drill with. They could blow a hole in a deck or a wall as big as their own bodies in ten seconds with that thing. The other two beams were smaller but individually aimed. I quickly dubbed these ‘anti-personnel’ because they were chewing up my men with high rate of pulsing fire. The bolts spat something purplish-I suspected it edged into the ultraviolet and that I could only see the beams due to the properties of my helmet. These anti-personnel weapons were mounted on their sides, about where wings might have sprouted on a flying insect. They swiveled a full three-sixty from there and stitched my men with burning holes.
    “Concentrate fire!” Kwon roared. “Squad leaders mark your targets. Everyone beam down your leader’s target!”
    It sounded good, but it wasn’t really working out. The Macros were flooding in and scrabbling forward. With three beams each and huge, armored bodies as targets, his men could hardly take them down. I could see the error of our ways very quickly. We were still carrying light beamers for the most part. We’d had to run from Helios in a hurry and hadn’t been able to rearm. Most of our heavy beamers we’d converted into laser turrets, which hadn’t done much other than give the Macro invaders some target practice out there on the hull. They’d popped like a hundred-odd light bulbs.
    There I was, running onto the scene with one of the few heavy beamer kits on my back. The light beamers weren’t quite enough to take these armored Macros. They were a different breed-not as bad as the building-sized Macros I’d fought back on Earth-but much more dangerous than the Asian-car-sized enemy we’d been dealing with lately.
    “Kwon,” I barked. “Put every man who can fire on one target. You lead, you are packing a heavy kit.”
    “Colonel Riggs? How’d you know that?”
    “‘Cause I’m standing behind you.”
    He craned his head around and threw me a wave. Then he turned back and relayed my orders over the command channel. One of the Macros popped up on top of a sleeping-brick next to me. Kwon lit him up and we all joined in. He still got off enough pulses from those purple automatics to tear up one of Kwon’s boys. Then he melted with thirty-odd smoking holes burned through his armor.
    We burned down the next and the one after that. Things were looking pretty good. Then the bugs figured out where the organizers were.
    There was a tiny blip of a pause while they all thought together. I could see it. I could see them all think and then come to a group decision. In unison, every last cursed one of them turned and rushed our position.
    There was a buzzing in my helmet. I tried to ignore it, but finally responded. “Say again?”
    It was Captain Gorski’s voice: “sir, all other positions have pulled back. Repeat: the enemy are all heading over the hull to your position. All of them.”
    I got it then. The Macros had made a decision. Maybe-just maybe-they’d caught my transmission and heard my voice. Or maybe they’d heard Kwon call me Colonel Riggs. I had the feeling they didn’t like Colonel Riggs by this time.
    “Fall back!” I screamed, ignoring command protocols. “FALL BACK!”
    Two marines went down under a storm of incoming fire. I saw them coming right at me. At least eight of them crawled forward urgently. It was dinner time in the spider cage and someone had dropped me inside. Kwon stood up, blazing fire at the advancing enemy as he retreated. He got between me and the enemy, but they came on, heedless of their own safety. I was ducking away by this time, heading for a bulkhead where I could see my men escaping.
    I turned back to see Kwon go down. First, they blew off his shooting arm. He tried to use it anyway, making motions with his shoulders as if he had a laser projector, but it was dragging on the ground with his severed hand still gripping it. Then some of those purple bolts splashed his legs, burning through his armor with repeated hammering. He staggered backward, but his legs wouldn’t hold him up anymore.
    Sometimes I’m stupid. Ask anyone in my unit. Hell, ask anyone in under my command, or any girl I’ve ever dated. I bounded once, twice, grabbed Kwon by his remaining arm and dragged him out of there. I was very thankful for my battle suit, as it repelled the scattered enemy fire. My suit was scored in a dozen places, but it took more than one bolt from the anti-personnel weapons to burn through completely.
    My men provided covering fire without orders. After all, I was the commander. A few of them died because of my action. Did that make it the wrong move? Probably. But sometimes in combat, you just do things, and you aren’t really thinking about every ramification.
    In the end, I was in the midst of a pack of marines, running through the ship. I had slid off Kwon’s pack and given it to another man. We needed every heavy beamer we could get our hands on. At an intersection, I paused and handed Kwon over to two men. He was unconscious by that time.
    The enemy paused in their advance as well, but I wasn’t fooled. They might be burrowing through the deck plates to flank us, or massing their full strength before hitting us in the corridors. I figured we’d killed less than ten of them so far and it had cost us a hundred men.
    “Get him back to the aft area,” I ordered. “Make your stand there.”
    “Where are you going, sir?” one of them asked. He was a corporal. I’d seen him around, and done some maneuvers with him. I hoped he’d live through the day.
    “You guys are all heading to the aft of the ship. Get into the belly. Set up firing positions, and if they advance, hold as long as you can.”
    They looked like they were going to complain, so I shouted the next word into their faces: “GO!”
    They went. I heard the rattle and clank of magnetic boots hitting deck plates. It died away, and left me with a lonely feeling. I was already running by that time, however, running in the opposite direction, toward the ship’s prow. I still had my heavy beamer, but now I picked up something else from one of the store rooms. It was a funny-looking thing, being a series of four spikes set at opposing angles. In the center of this contraption was a tiny, nuclear charge. On one of the spikes was a thumbable button.
    I ran with the mine in one hand and my rifle projector in the other. While I ran, I talked to my bridge crew with my com-link.
    “Gorski? Do you read me?”
    “Colonel Riggs? Yes, I read you sir. You’re out of position, sir, we have you tracked.”
    “Gorski, I know where I am. They can track me too, I believe. Listen carefully: tell me what they are doing now.”
    “Heading amidships sir. As a mass. They bored through the deck of the hold and left our brick area. They are-”
    “Good enough,” I said. “This is Colonel Kyle Riggs.”
    “I know, sir.”
    “What are they doing now, Gorski?”
    There was a hesitation. “Not much. Maybe they are burning through the deck again or something.”
    “No,” I said, “they are thinking about me. They love me, you see. They love Colonel Kyle Riggs.”
    I took a deep breath, then gave them a little speech: “Macro Command? I know you can hear me. You are all going the wrong damned direction. You are a bunch of clueless, shit-for-brains toasters. Colonel Kyle Riggs is right here, and he is laughing at you.”
    “Sir?” asked Gorski, sounding confused.
    “What are they doing now?”
    “Ah-they seem to have turned around. They are heading forward, to the nose of the ship. They are all converging on your position, Colonel.”
    I nodded in my helmet and smiled grimly. “Stupid toasters,” I said. “I suppose I should feel flattered.”
    I stopped messing around then and I ran for all I was worth. Every bulkhead door I passed I threw closed behind me and locked-but I didn’t figure that would stop them for more than a few minutes.
    I ran to the very forward ports of the ship, where big Macro sensor systems were located. Our compact sensors were up there sitting around with their more powerful arrays. We hadn’t figured out how to operate their systems yet, so they’d never been much use.
    I aimed my heavy laser at a spot that was dented in. The hull wasn’t quite as thick or strong there. I switched on the projector and shot the dented spot in the hull. I kept the firing stud down for long seconds until my eyes hurt from the brilliant light and my feet felt the heat of molten metal right through my suit.
    I kept on firing, burning my way out of the ship.

31

    “Major Sarin?” I called, trying to stay calm. It wasn’t easy, as my plan was so crazy it was all I could do to keep my mind from freezing over. “Jasmine?”
    “Colonel?” Sarin finally responded. She sounded a little shook up. “I think we are losing this fight, sir. We can’t stop them.”
    “I know,” I said. “Here’s what you are going to do. On my next signal, even if I can’t get out an articulate word, I want you to kill the main engines and fire the braking jets in the nose. Just give one tiny pulse on the jets, enough to brake us by a few hundred klicks per hour.”
    “I’m not sure I can control this system that precisely,” she said.
    “Try. And whatever you do, don’t change course.”
    “Uh, yes sir.”
    “Where are they now?” I asked.
    “The main Macro force appears to be clustered forward at the nose. They are pausing at each bulkhead, but quickly burning through them.”
    I was glad the Macros still believed in simple, lockable gear-based hatches. If they had put in complex combination locks or something, they could have just ordered them to open with a wireless transmission. That wasn’t their style, however. They liked big and basic. They were into primitive functionality wherever they could get away with it. I admired their design. Without all the manual systems, most of this ship would be inoperable after having suffered so much damage. My Jolly Rodger bore the scars of a dozen fights, but she was still flying.
    “Colonel Riggs?” Sarin’s voice came into my helmet again.
    I was busy kicking at the circular area of cherry-red metal at my feet. It didn’t want to give.
    “Colonel?” called Sarin, I could hear the sound of rising panic in her voice. “Kyle?”
    “Riggs here,” I responded. As I did I heard a ripping sound-like that of tortured metal nearby.
    “They are breaking through, sir. They’ve bypassed your hatches and burned their way through the walls.”
    “Got it,” I said. I began burning the spot at my feet again. I figured it only had to be a little bigger around than my shoulders. “Get ready to kill the engines and brake.”
    She said something else, but I didn’t catch what it was. I suddenly realized, I wasn’t going to be able to burn through the outer hull. I gave up on drilling, it was just too thick. It wasn’t going to work in time. I ran instead to the nearest airlock.
    There was a Macro there, waiting for me. It didn’t know it was waiting for me, of course. It was trying to burn its way into my chamber and burn me down to a charred pile of molecules. It was between me and airlock exit hatch, so I didn’t get fancy. I rushed it, and got in close. I don’t think these Macros were built with that tactic in mind. I supposed they were used to biotics running from them and getting themselves gunned down. Instead, I grappled with it.
    Sometimes, something that sounded good at first glance doesn’t turn out the way you planned. This was one of those times. I felt like I’d grappled a backhoe that wanted to go someplace. I was immediately thrown into the air, my legs flying freely. I kept hold of the main gun on its head-section, however.
    The side beams went off, stitching air with bolts of energy. One of my feet took a hit. It didn’t really hurt, but my toes felt numb. I suspected some of them were now missing. Nanites rushed to the region, patching my suit and my flesh indiscriminately.
    I grabbed onto the big nozzle as it swiveled in my direction. If that thing even grazed me, I knew I was dead. Hanging onto it with both hands, I saw more Macros coming up behind the first one. They looked excited, like ants that smelled dead meat. They weren’t firing yet, perhaps out of some kind of respect for their fellow Macro, but I suspected they would only be able to contain themselves for so long. The moment they lost control they would blast us both.
    I was riding the main nozzle now, and it was firing. I thought I must look ridiculous, like a cowboy riding an annoyed elephant by clinging to the trunk. It began to fire off and on, and I got an idea. I twisted, I heaved and I levered, bracing my feet against the Macro’s front head-plate. The nozzle viciously ripped this way and that in my hands, servos whining.
    I shook my generator pack off and threw it toward the spot I’d tried to burn through. I aimed the nozzle that way, and the Macro took the bait. It fired at my backpack and the dangling laser projector unit. I wrenched the projector so it missed, but the gouting energy still hit the hull. It took another shot, then another. Suddenly, that section of the hull burned through. The forward section of Jolly Rodger began to depressurize. I felt the tug of escaping gasses, but hung on.
    Right about then, the Macros trying to get through behind the first one lost patience. Maybe they thought I was getting away. Maybe it was a group decision, maybe not, but they burned down the one I held onto. A half-dozen beams flared and flashed. The Macro lasted a few seconds, then turned into slag. I crawled away, keeping the twitching machine between me and the others in the corridor behind it. I crept to the hole in the front of the ship and crawled out. I picked up the mine, which was magnetically stuck to the deck plates, on the way out.
    This was the tricky part. I didn’t even have a rifle any longer. I only had my suit, a knife, a beam pistol and the star-shaped mine I’d grabbed on the way out. The problem was, now that I was out in open space the Macros following me would be able to nail me instantly. Already, they were burning their way out here, popping the welded-shut airlocks and widening the hole I’d burnt through the hull.
    My original plan had been simple, if crazy. I was going to get the swarm to fly after me, then toss the mine into the middle of them. I hadn’t expected to survive the experience, but if I killed enough of them, my marines should be able to finish the rest. I realized the problem with my plan was they wouldn’t all come out and fly after me in a convenient, tight mass. The first one that got outside would find me standing there without cover and blast me. End of story.
    “Sarin?” I called.
    “You’re still alive, sir?” she asked.
    I was a little miffed by her tone. But I reminded myself that on her screen, the blip that was me had probably shared a very close proximity to a whole bunch of pissed machines for a long time.
    “Yeah,” I said. I crouched and flipped off my magnetics. I began to float away from the cruiser. “Jasmine, it’s been good serving with you,” I told her.
    “You too, Kyle.”
    The white-hot hole the Macros had drilled through the airlock hatch was spitting sparks of burnt metal. The opening was big enough for a human to walk out of now, but of course it had to get bigger to allow a Macro to pass.
    “I want you to hit those brake jets now. Just a puff. Then tell everyone to brace for impact.”
    “Impact?”
    “Just do it.”
    She did it, and the jet-wash nearly incinerated me right there. I hadn’t thought about how near the brake jets might be. I was less than a hundred feet from a blue blast of radiance that had to be as full of protons as it was heat.
    As I had hoped, the cruiser fell away behind me. I realized with a shock it was falling away too fast, way too fast. I flipped on the mine in my hand and snapped it toward the ship. The mine flew away, spinning.
    “Sarin, that’s too much! Cut the brakes! Give the mains a little goose and turn the nose-down about five degrees.”
    “Sir?”
    “Do it!”
    I watched as my mine dwindled from my sight. Jolly Rodger surged forward and nosed downward a fraction.
    Now that the ship wasn’t dominating my region of space, Helios swam into view far below. The Worm planet filled a huge arc of space with its orange-brown deserts and dark murky seas. I could see a Worm mound here and there, looking like mountainous spikes of natural terrain. If I hadn’t been so close to dying, I would have stared at it in awe.
    “That should do it,” I said.
    “Do what?”
    “Grab onto something!” I shouted.
    A tremendous flash silently lit the universe around me. I was bathed in radiance-and presumably radiation.
    “Cut the engines!” I shouted. “Sarin, brake a bit, you need to slow down so I can-”
    But Jolly Rodger didn’t slow down. It barreled right toward me. Suddenly, I wished I’d picked up one of those flying skateboard things. I could use one about now.
    In space, there was nothing to push against. When it came to getting places, this was both good and bad. You generally had nothing stopping you-no air resistance, no gravity, no obstacles. But that also meant you couldn’t use those things to help you move. Essentially, the only way to move was to throw things in one direction and therefore be propelled in the opposite direction. I didn’t have much to spare.
    “Sorry sir, braking jets are not responding,” Sarin said in my headset.
    I quickly saw why. I’d blown the brake-jets off the cruiser. The nose of the ship had no jets left at all. Jolly Rodger grew larger with the black, smoldering maw of it looking like the open mouth of a great shark. I threw my pistol away, then my knife. I had a belt pack, and that went. I might have tried to toss my boots, figuring my feet would have to fend for themselves and the nanites could unfreeze them later, but I ran out of time. Throwing things didn’t generate enough thrust anyway; the ship was going to hit me.
    The cruiser swallowed me-ran me over. I went right into the hole in the hull I’d blown open with the star-shaped mine. How fast was it going relative to my own body’s mass? A hundred miles an hour? Two hundred? It mattered, but I had no way of measuring. I did my best to turn around and take the impact feet first. Turning in space isn’t easy. It was like swimming in the air-but with no air.
    Everything happened in flashes at the end. The big red sun vanished as the ship’s shadow swept over me. I realized I was inside the ship’s blasted-open maw. The impression of being swallowed was very intense. Shiny, floating bits of destroyed Macros drifted around me. Twisted chunks of hull tapped and slammed into my feet and torso. It was like hitting a mass of glittering, metal confetti. One piece starred my helmet. Then I hit something solid, spun around, and knew no more.

32

    When I woke up, everything was fuzzy. In my head, I mean, not visually. I hadn’t the will to open my eyes yet. I heard Kwon on the next rack, arguing with a med-tech. The med-tech’s voice was female.
    “Sir, you need to stay-” she said.
    “I’m fine,” Kwon complained. “I don’t want to lie here anymore. I don’t care about the other leg either, it will grow back.”
    “There could be blood-clots-”
    “Nanites will eat those. You fuss like my grandma.”
    I turned my head toward the voices. That hurt. It really did. Opening my eyes was worse. They felt glued shut, and I swear some of the flesh on my corneas was ripped off as I forced them open.
    I saw right away it was a new med-tech-a female this time with vaguely Asian features.
    “Kwon,” I said. It came out as a croaking sound.
    “Hey, it’s the colonel!” Kwon said. He put a massive paw on the med-tech’s shoulder and used her as a prop to heave himself into a sitting position. Any normal woman would have been knocked down. But this girl was like everyone else on the expedition, sturdy and full of nanite enhancements. She made a squawking sound and staggered, but managed to stay on her feet.
    “Kwon,” I croaked again.
    He loomed near. I could see him now. He had one leg and one arm. He balanced with his one hand on the med-tech’s shoulder. She looked annoyed and alarmed. I tried not to look sick. Kwon was the only person in the medical brick that looked happy. He had a kid-like grin on his face.
    “What is it, Colonel?” he asked me, as if I were a king giving him my final words.
    “Get your ass back in bed,” I said.
    Kwon looked disappointed. He turned with a grunt, hopped back to his rack and flopped onto it. “I’m fine,” he said. “Really.”
    I laid there for a minute, watching Kwon and the med-tech. Kwon complained while the tech worked to touch up the IV lines and tape down a few flapping instrument leads that were attached to his body. I felt vaguely nauseous to see Kwon like that. We could give him prosthetics of course. Fake arms and legs made of nanites that were better than anything made in the past. But it still wouldn’t be the same. He wouldn’t have sensation in his limbs, and there would be health problems associated with missing body parts. There always were. We couldn’t regrow his original flesh. Nanites could do fantastic cellular repairs, but they had to have something to work with. They couldn’t rebuild missing limbs from scratch.
    I had a sudden, upsetting thought. What kind of shape was I in?
    I lifted my head and tilted my chin down to my chest. The process was slower and more painful than usual. I’d suffered a hard blow to the head and neck, that much I was sure of. But I had no idea if I was missing a foot or an arm. I licked my cracked lips, and looked down.
    Right hand, left hand-check. Two of the fingers were wrapped up, but they were still in there. I could wriggle them and move them. The legs didn’t look so good, however. The right was in a cast. The left-the end of my left foot looked funny. It was exposed and bluish-purple. Maybe the med-tech had been in the middle of wrapping it up when Kwon had decided to go on a safari and distracted her. That foot looked like a cookie with a bite missing.
    I eased my head back down onto the pillow. Two-thirds of a left foot remained. Three toes-the smaller three-were missing. I was already bargaining with it. Could have been worse, I told myself. I’d almost died out there.
    The med-tech loomed over me. Her young face hovered like a moon. “I’m Ning. How are you doing, Colonel?”
    “Just peachy, Ning,” I said, faking a smile.
    “You’ve lost a lot of-everything. But you’ll live.”
    “Did you cut off anything other than the foot?”
    Ning winced and glanced down toward my missing foot. “You’ve been peeking,” she said. “Only the foot is gone.”
    “What’s your name mean?” I asked her.
    She looked surprised. “I think it means ‘tranquility’,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
    “I don’t know. Good name for a nurse, I suppose. What happened to the rest of my foot?”
    “There was a puncture in your suit.”
    “Ah yes,” I said, remembering the Macro that had done the deed.
    “The foot was frozen, and there was other damage. We had to take off that piece. Your legs are both broken as well, but they are healing very fast.”
    “Nanites are wonderful things when you are hurting,” I said, feeling the familiar itch and tingle in my legs. “All the Macros were kicked off the ship, I assume?”
    Kwon crinkled his sheet as he heaved himself up and leaned toward me. “We killed the last ones that survived the blast,” he said. “What you did was killer, sir! I’ve never seen something like that!”
    I chuckled. “I barely remember it.”
    “We’ve all watched it like twenty times.”
    “Watched it?”
    “Your suit recorder caught it all, right out of your faceplate. The cruiser looked really cool when it swallowed you. We should watch it again. Hey Ning! Put the vid up on the ceiling screen again.”
    “Uh,” I said, putting up my hand, “I’ll check it out later, Kwon, if you don’t mind.” I had no desire at all to relive my near-death experience.
    Kwon huffed in disappointment. “Well,” he said. “It was cool.”
    I glanced over at him. His command of English had grown since he’d joined up with Star Force. He still had an accent, but now he sounded like most of my marine recruits: young and exuberant.
    I had a sudden thought then, an alarming thought. “How long have I been out?”
    “About fourteen hours,” Ning said. “You were in bad shape, Colonel. Really it was-hold on sir, you need to stay in bed.”
    I didn’t use her as a prop, but I did heave myself out of bed. It hurt badly and my head swam. I reached for leads and needles and began plucking them off my skin.
    “Sir, you really need to listen,” Ning said. Her small hands pressed against me, but I ignored them.
    “I’m sorry, but I’m pulling rank here. I’ve got to get back to the bridge.”
    “You tell her Colonel,” Kwon said. “Don’t let Ning boss you.”
    Lieutenant Joelle Marquis showed up then, while I struggled to shoo away Ning and get out of bed. Marquis began fussing over Kwon. Her blonde curly hair hung limply around her face and she wore an expression of sick worry. I was glad Kwon at least had someone who really cared about him. Those two had seen each other through a lot of trials in a short amount of time.
    I pulled on my battle suit, noting the scarred surface. The nanites had been working on it, but it still had plenty of pits and divots. I stopped at Sandra’s brick on the way to the bridge. I felt a pang of fresh pain, seeing her still in there. I turned to Ning who had followed me. “What happened to the other med-tech? The guy who used to run this place?”
    Ning pressed her lips together, forming a tiny line with her mouth. She gestured toward another medical coffin. Inside was a turnip that I recognized: a corpsman named Carlson. I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry.
    “How’d that happen?” I asked Ning.
    “He stayed with the turnips,” she said with a shrug. “The Macros caught him and tore him up, but they left the rest here for dead.”
    I looked at Sandra next, and found her condition unchanged. I wasn’t sure if I felt good or bad about that. Seeing her in there made me want to keep moving, however. While I was still breathing, she had a chance. They all did.
    I walked slowly out of the brick’s airlock. As the hatch closed behind me, I could still hear Ning complaining. Medical people always hated it when their patients walked out on them.
    On the bridge, I found things were under control-barely. The enemy cruiser had maintained its distance and had not fired additional missiles. The drones we’d fired at the last missiles chasing us had taken them out. In short, we were under no immediate threat, but we’d suffered a lot of damage and a fair number of casualties.
    “We’re still not able to maneuver freely,” Major Sarin told me as I reviewed the situation through bleary eyes. “When you took out the nose of the ship, you damaged our steering jets.”
    I ordered a steady stream of coffee, sandwiches and a hot towel. I figured I needed a shower, but it could wait until after the briefing. “All right,” I said after the reports had all been made. “Now, give me the bad news. What’s that Macro cruiser up to? How long until we hit the next ring?”
    Major Sarin glanced at Gorski, who cleared his throat. “You sure you want to hear that now, Colonel?”
    I looked at both of them. “I’m not going to lie quietly down somewhere while you two run the show. It’s not happening.”
    Gorski sighed. “Okay. We are having trouble steering, sir. We are on course for the ring again, but it will take another day to get there, as we went off course during the battle.”
    I nodded and sipped hot coffee. I burnt my tongue and curled my lips at the foul taste.
    “As for the enemy cruiser-we’re not sure what it is up to. I thought it would have fired all its missiles by now and taken us out. But it hasn’t. We were out of drones, it was at close range, and it didn’t fire. I understood why when the Macro boarding action was in progress. That made sense. But now they are just waiting, shadowing us.”
    I thought about it. “Plenty of reasons are possible.” I said. “They could be out of missiles.”
    Gorski shook his head. “Seems unlikely. The other ships fired eight each. Why would this cruiser have none?”
    “Maybe they are studying us,” I suggested, “relaying back intel on our behavior before they take us out.”
    “Maybe. But the Macros are rarely subtle.”
    I had to agree with that. They were the sledgehammers of the galaxy. I snapped my fingers, and was irritated to find that even such a simple gesture caused me a sharp pang. Every inch of my body hurt, itched, or both. “Last time they delayed, they were setting up for these invasion missiles. Maybe they are setting up four more of them.”
    Everyone in earshot looked alarmed at this idea. If I was right, we had no way of stopping them. The nose of the ship was a wide-open hole. They would be able to march right in like ants.
    “I don’t know,” Gorski said. “It just doesn’t sound like their style. If they had eight missiles full of Macros, I think they would have fired them all at us.”
    I agreed. “Whatever they are up to, it won’t be good for us,” I said. “They are waiting for a reason. Somehow it benefits them.”
    The rest agreed, but there was little we could do about it. I headed over to where my brainbox pilot worked the cruiser controls with seven arms. Only three were in evidence now, as the ship wasn’t performing any complex maneuvers. Major Welter stood there, watching the machine operate. He had a computer tablet in his hands and tapped at it, making observations and taking notes.
    “Welter?” I asked. “Glad to see you survived the battle.”
    “Not as glad as I am, sssir,” he said, his speech badly slurred.
    Major Welter turned toward me and I blinked, my smile freezing on my face. The left side of his face was a slag of hanging flesh. The eye was loose and weeping. The jaw was hinged, but not completely covered by his ripped-loose cheek. It flapped over his teeth as he spoke. Nanites glinted a silver-golden color in there. They were hard at work rebuilding his face, but I suspected he would carry a scar with him forever.
    I turned back to the control system and the brainbox operating it. “I see you are studying the interface.”
    Welter nodded with his ghoulishly damaged face. It didn’t seem to be troubling him at the moment, so I decided not to bring it up. Injuries were viewed differently now that we could take horrible wounds and survive. They were less remarked upon by all.
    “I’ve been ssstudying this sssystem. I really think I can do it, Colonel.”
    “Do what?”
    “Fly it. Pilot this cruiser.”
    I stared at him. “You’ve only got two hands, man.”
    “Yes. But if you watch, the brainbox doesn’t move all those hands at once very often. I would need a copilot for difficult maneuvers. But I can do it.”
    I thought about it. I knew the enemy cruisers had better piloting than we did. Their ships had consistently outperformed ours. The brainbox had learned the basics, but wasn’t a gifted pilot. The problem with most computers is they were generalists.
    “I could use a real pilot,” I said. “Why don’t you give it a try? But if we get into action, hand the controls back over to the bot.”
    “Excellent, Colonel Riggs!” Welter said.
    I could tell he was truly happy. A few minutes later, as I left the bridge, I felt the deck slide laterally under my feet. It caught itself, leveled out, then slid again. I paused, wondering if I should go back and countermand my instructions. I looked back from the hatch toward the control system. The rest of the bridge staff stared at Welter as well. He had both hands up on the control board. He waved forward an assistant and indicated colored geometric shapes on the screen that needed touching.
    Soon, the ship flew smoothly again. I smiled and walked out. I tried to appear confident, but with each step I felt the urge to throw my hands out to catch myself. I resisted the urge and marched resolutely down the corridor. My foot hurt, but I ignored that too. Marines who passed me in the corridor gave me congratulations I returned, along with smiles and confident nods. I knew it was good for morale for them to see their commander strong and in charge again.
    By the time I’d reached a sleeping brick and stretched out on a cot, I had one eye closed and was already dreaming of huge, savage machines.

33

    My nap didn’t last long. I was back to limping down the corridors of the cruiser before two hours had past. I took a shower, and felt a lot better. It was odd, looking down at my oozing foot while I showered-or rather the missing chunk of it. I thought I would have to have special boots made, as I couldn’t go hobbling into battle.
    Everywhere aboard Jolly Rodger people hustled and worked hard. We weren’t out of this yet. We all knew we might survive…and we might not. When my marines caught me looking at them, they nodded, or just tossed me wide-eyed glances. Then they went back to work. They were focused, diligent and scared. No one knew what the Macros would do next. We were still on the defensive, and it’s hard to win any fight without making a move of your own. I couldn’t see any easy way to reverse things on the Macros, however. We hadn’t had time to regroup and rebuild. We’d been under a constant battering since we’d landed on Helios and were terribly under-strength. The only asset I’d gained in all that time was the cruiser, and that seemed to be little more than a fat target for our implacable enemy.
    I tilted my head as another thought struck me. We had one other new asset: Marvin. I hadn’t had time to make much use of him, but he had warned us about the Macro assault ships. I decided to seek him out and see if he knew what their next move would be.
    I went to the Macro laboratory with the big bag of biotic soup. In all the excitement, I’d almost forgotten about the billions of tiny beings imprisoned there. I didn’t even know if the Macros had wrecked the tank and killed them all. I figured Marvin might just be in that chamber. I’d seen him hanging around the place.
    I found him standing very close to the gurgling tanks. When I stepped into the entrance and saw him, I froze in surprise. Marvin had changed. He wasn’t a cube with four short legs and a tail any longer. What had he done with his legs?
    “Marvin?” I asked warily. “What are you up to?”
    He still had a camera for an eye, but he stood erect now on two heavy, grasshopper-like legs of thick metal. They had clearly been salvaged from dead Macro systems. He’d salvaged them and affixed them to the sides of his brainbox using the short nanite legs I’d given him as connectives. He had one nanite limb left over, and this he now employed a small forearm to poke at the bag of tiny biotic creatures in their prison.
    Marvin’s camera eye swiveled to glance at me then returned to the transparent polymer window that allowed observation of the churning biotic soup in the tanks. I noted he moved his camera with more precision than he had previously. He was getting comfortable with his new body.
    “Colonel Kyle Riggs,” Marvin said. “As you instructed, I have made myself useful. The prisoners are requesting instructions.”
    “Instructions?” I asked. I walked into the room slowly. I looked around, and saw the cable that led to the shock rod in the tank. It had been reconnected, and a tendril of steam rose from it. “Marvin…? Tell me you didn’t shock those poor creatures again.”
    The camera swung back in my direction. “I have done as you requested. I have made myself useful.”
    “If useful means killing millions of tiny intelligences, please stop.”
    Marvin went back to studying the tank. I took a few steps forward into the room.
    “Your instructions have become contradictory,” he said.
    “How so?”
    “You asked for my help, and now you reject it.”
    “I’m objecting to your methods, Marvin, not your intentions.”
    Marvin paused, thinking that one over. I was stricken with the thought that Marvin was the most independent-minded AI I’d yet encountered. He definitely didn’t think like a human-but he did think. The Nanos had been limited to variations of their original programming. The Macros were dogged and adaptable, but they could be tricked and outthought. Marvin struck me as a real mental equal. In some ways, that made him more frightening than the others, even if he was apparently friendly.
    I thought I knew what was coming next in our conversation. I figured I was about to be put on the spot and required to explain the tenets of morality to a machine. I didn’t relish the prospect. But Marvin was already way ahead of me.
    “Your approval patterns are inconsistent,” he said.
    “How so?”
    “You destroy machines without compunction, but protect the lives of biotic creatures such as the colony in this tank.”
    “Well, that’s easily explained. The Macros have attacked us. They are attempting to destroy us, so I’m destroying them in self-defense.”
    “No,” Marvin said, “you do not understand. I’m not talking about the Macros, I’m talking about the Nano creatures you freely create and force to serve you.”
    I opened my mouth, but it just hung there. He had a point. I did regularly create masses of Nanos for various purposes. Billions-probably trillions had been destroyed fighting for me. I’d never considered paying any kind of homage to them. I thought of telling Marvin they were only machines, and thus had no moral value. But I wasn’t sure how that would go over with him…
    “There are moral differences,” I said, wincing at the use of the word. I knew we’d get here somehow. Like all engineers, I preferred to study what worked and why-not whether it should or not. “I never threatened the Nanos or otherwise forced them to serve me. They are created for that purpose and do not resist service. These biotics have been abused. They are prisoners, frightened slaves.”
    Marvin extended an arm and fooled with the collar around the tank. The electrode shivered and a tiny hiss of steam rose from it.
    “You aren’t going to shock them again, are you?” I asked, approaching him cautiously.
    “It is no longer necessary. The merest calibration of the mass-death device causes instant obedience.”
    “I don’t think you were listening to my little speech about not abusing these creatures, Marvin.”
    “So many of them have already died to reach this point of total obedience,” Marvin said, swiveling his camera to focus on my face again. “Wouldn’t it be a terrible waste if you didn’t accept their tiny gifts? Wouldn’t it magnify the wrong that has already been afflicted upon them?”
    I stared at Marvin, getting that creepy feeling again. Who was giving whom the educational talk, here?
    “Okay, tell me what they can do for me,” I said.
    “They rebuild things, edit things-or make entirely new things.”
    “What kind of things, Marvin?”
    “Things like you, Colonel Kyle Riggs.”
    I stared into the tank for a few seconds. “You mean like my foot?” I asked.
    “Yes. Anything biotic. Given a few cells, they can grow duplicates and attach them into appropriate structures.”
    I swallowed hard. “What am I supposed to do? Put my foot in there?”
    “There is a feeding port on top of the tank. Insertion into that orifice would allow them access to your injury.”
    I craned my neck, but couldn’t see the orifice he spoke of. I rubbed my face thoughtfully, feeling my stubble. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d shaved. Sandra would never have put up with it if she’d been around to complain. I blinked as I thought of Sandra. “Could these little guys fix anyone?” I asked.
    “No. They must have living cells to duplicate. They require complete DNA strands to read as models. Complex creatures such as yourself with a great deal of cell differentiation provide them with a serious challenge. But they are capable of duplicating every cell in your body if they have the blueprint.”
    “The blueprint? Meaning what?”
    “A single living cell. Each of your cells contains all the information to build all the others.”
    I shook my head. “Marvin, how did you learn all this in such a short time?”
    Marvin pointed with his new, solitary forearm built of construction nanites. I noticed it ended in the traditional three-thumbed hand. The hand pointed at the tank in front of us. “I learned most of it from them. They know about your kind. They have tasted your flesh before. They have leeched away your genetics as part of Macro dissections.”
    I stepped back and stretched until I could see the top of the tank. There was a fleshy bulb up there. It looked like a rubbery orifice all right. “There’s no way I’m going to climb up there and shove my foot into that tank. Especially not with you down here in trigger-happy mode with that shock-rod.”
    Marvin didn’t object to my distrust. He simply turned and stared into the tank. I assumed he was communicating with the tiny beings inside, so I didn’t interrupt.
    “There is another way,” Marvin said. “I will extract a sample of them and deposit them into a container, where you can insert your damaged appendage.”
    “Um,” I said, not really liking the idea. But I thought of Sandra and Kwon and all the others aboard that could be helped if this stuff worked. I figured I owed it to them to try. “All right,” I said at last. “I’ll get a bucket or something.”
    “You will also need a good source of biotic compounds to work with. Make sure the proteins and sugars match in chemical composition.”
    I blinked at him. “You mean I need a human body as raw materials?”
    “That would work best. If unavailable, any biotic base-material from your world will suffice.”
    In the end, I found myself with my bare, charred foot bathing in a bucket full of slime. I shared the bucket with several billion terrified microbial creatures and a raw pork chop from the ship’s stores. The pork chop provided the organic materials, and my good cells provided the blue print.
    The microbes tickled as they did their magic. It felt as if I’d put my foot into highly carbonated soda water. I figured if this worked and these bugs were able to turn raw pork into a living piece of Star Force marine, we would have an even better reason to call ourselves Riggs’ Pigs.

34

    Less than two hours later, I had a new foot. It was almost as odd a sensation as losing it had been. I walked on it experimentally while it dripped and tingled. The nerves were far from happy with the new connections. They were positively pissed, in fact. If you’ve ever had a foot go to sleep on you due to a shut-off blood-supply, you’ll know the sensation I’m talking about. It could be described as walking on pins and needles.
    I toweled off my new pink foot and put my boot back on. That felt better. The less direct sensation the better. I supposed in a day or two, I would be back to normal. I looked at the tank and I looked at Marvin, who was studying me with his camera.
    “Is the appendage satisfactory?” he asked.
    “Yes. Absolutely. Please transmit my thanks to the microbes for their efforts.”
    Marvin whirred for a moment, using his Macro-salvaged legs to turn his body to face me. “That might be counterproductive.”
    “What? Thanking them?”
    “Yes. They might construe themselves as deserving of payment.”
    “Well, they are deserving. They performed an amazing service.”
    “My understanding of biotics is they operate best under duress. They will-”
    “Look, Marvin,” I snapped, then stopped myself. I tried to stay calm. He had a very different way of thinking. I believed the heartlessness of machines was based in their inability to feel real pain or anguish. How could they hope to achieve empathy if they had never felt discomfort? I wished I could curse these machines with some pain circuitry. It would make them much easier to deal with.
    “Marvin,” I said, starting again in a calm voice. “Let’s put these biotics in the bucket back into their tank at least.”
    “Ah, an excellent suggestion!” Marvin said. He clanked forward and took the bucket up in his three-thumbed hand. It swung and creaked, the noisome liquid sloshing inside.
    “Excellent?” I asked, suddenly suspicious. He’d never been excited about anything that I’d suggested to help the microbes before. “Why is it such a good idea?”
    “Punishment in a less drastic form is always preferable. Also, they will naturally be plotting to counter our electrode. In time, they will minimize their dead due to its employ. Notice the membrane they’ve been building nearby, keeping their population away from the applicator? I’ve already been considering moving the electrode to the dorsal area of the tank to create maximal carnage.”
    I shook my head. “Why is putting the bucket of microbes back into the tank a punishment?”
    “Because the toxins will cause a die-off in that region.”
    “What toxins?”
    “By-products of the process. The microbes are not terrestrial. They have a different set of base proteins. The essence of any toxin is an alien protein.”
    I stared at him as he carried the bucket around to the far side of the tank. There was a small, tubule there. He put the bucket down and lowered the tubule toward the liquid in the bucket.
    “Hold on,” I said. “Are you telling me the stuff left over in the bucket will poison them? What about the microbes that did the work?”
    “They are already dying. Their purpose has been served.”
    I sighed and rubbed my head. I’d killed a billion sentient things to replace my foot. “Just go pour the bucket into the waste chute, Marvin,” I said.
    “But-”
    “Those are my instructions. I command this vessel.”
    Marvin clanked away without another word. I left him with further instructions not to cause the prisoners any more harm. He seemed miffed, but did not argue.
    Afterward, I hobbled down to the medical bricks. There were more of them set up now. We’d suffered a number of serious injuries. Sandra was still comatose. Kwon was missing two limbs. I had a hard decision to make. Were my friends worth a few billion microbes? It wouldn’t have even been a question, except they were sentient. It was one thing to eat a yogurt, knowing yeast had died en masse to satisfy your appetites. It would have been quite another to understand the yeast knew it was dying and could feel the pain of it. Worse, the yeast was thinking about you, plotting-possibly even reporting to a yeast fleet crewed by quadrillions of the vengeful critters. What kind of interworld polices was I setting up? How could I get all smart lifeforms to unite against the machines when I abused them freely for my own purposes? How was I better than the Macros, from their point of view?
    I stared into Sandra’s coffin and steeled myself. I had to give it a try. I marched back up to the chamber.
    Marvin swiveled and clanked away from the tank as I came in. Was that a guilty start?
    “Where’s that bucket, Marvin?” I asked.
    His short arm extended, pointing. It lay on its side. A few drops of oily black liquid had run out onto the floor.
    I marched up and saw the tubule. “You put it into the system anyway, didn’t you?”
    “No, not exactly,” Marvin said.
    “What exactly did you do?” I asked, angry. I had my hand on my sidearm. I figured if I took out his legs, he’d be immobile and a lot less trouble.
    “I let them sample the compound.”
    “How much?” I asked.
    He hesitated. “About ten percent.”
    “What did I tell you to do, Marvin?”
    “You told me to dump the sample.”
    “Why did you disobey?”
    “I was curious. If a small amount were introduced, possibly the microbes could adapt and thus produce a new generation that would be immune to your toxins.”
    I stared at him, uncertain if I should blast him or not. I looked at the tank. A portion of it about the size of a throw-pillow looked gray. “It’s killing them, isn’t it?”
    “A small percentage of them, yes. They are working on the problem.”
    “You disobeyed my orders. You understand that I am in command of this ship, do you not?”
    “Yes.”
    “In the future, when you have a bright idea that is counter to my orders, you must get my approval.”
    “Or what?”
    I looked at him again. My hand was still on my laser pistol. He only had one small arm and didn’t look very dangerous. I let my hand slip away from my weapon. “Or you will face disassembly, Marvin.”
    “That would be counterproductive.”
    “Yes,” I agreed. “So don’t make me do it.”
    Marvin turned toward the tank as if he had heard a phone ringing. “They say they are ready.”
    “Ready for what?”
    “They want to know if your foot has been repaired.”
    “Tell them it has. Tell them I am highly satisfied.”
    “Done. They are desperately pleased. They say the next generation will not expire so quickly, as they have become resistant to your toxins. They request a new task from the ship-master.”
    I closed my eyes, feeling like an evil god. “I’ll get Kwon,” I said quietly.
    Was using the microbes in this way worse than killing and eating the pig I used as a bas material? Yes, I had to say that it was. But I did it anyway. I couldn’t turn down such a miracle. Kwon soon had his two stumps soaking in tanks of rubberized plastic. His bones were already forming in there. I could see them through the cloudy liquid and the semi-transparent plastic bag. It looked like a thick skeleton strung with tiny sausages. I supposed the sausage-things would become his musculature after another hour or so.
    The microbes worked even faster than the Nanos. Being chemical in nature, rather than electro-mechanical, they could do things my tiny robots just couldn’t manage. Life was, in the end, the more amazing form of existence. From a tiny seed a three hundred foot tall sequoia could grow. It just took a long time. The microbials grew at a rate that was much superior, being more on the plane of super-kudzu rather than a thousand-year-old tree.
    I watched and I sweated. Kwon talked my ear off. He was very happy to get two new limbs. Lieutenant Marquis, who was still checking up on the big man regularly, came and whispered her thanks in my ear privately.
    I nodded and gave her a tight smile. I wondered how many billions this would kill, and if she would even care if I told her. I decided not to. Why spoil her joy? I had made the decision, and I was the one that would have to live with it.
    After another hour, I couldn’t sit still any longer. I ordered the turnip that had once been a corpsman named Carlson brought to the chamber. I had them bring up Sandra in her life-support coffin as well.
    Marvin and I soon cooked up a scheme. We would use the coffins themselves as immersion vessels. They were already equipped with circulatory systems for that very purpose in case the occupant was undergoing decompression, or otherwise needed a liquid environment to survive. We hooked up oxygen masks.
    Lieutenant Marquis left, but the med-tech named Ning came to investigate. “What the hell are you doing to my patients, Colonel?” she asked severely.
    I gave her a half-smile. “Submersion therapy,” I said.
    She looked at me as if I were crazy, so I explained the situation to her and showed her my foot and Kwon’s limbs. We’d used a nanite-balloon to make separate tanks for his arm and leg. It had taken a mass of raw hamburger to feed the microbes. I finished up explaining that our marines would have to go without fresh meat for the rest of the journey after I was through regrowing every injured marine’s body.
    When I was done, Ning still stared at me as if I was crazy. “If you didn’t have the end of your foot back on, fresh and pink, I would never believe it,” she said.
    “We aren’t killing this new batch of microbes, either. They are already fifty percent resistant to the byproduct toxins.”
    “Fifty percent?” she asked. “You mean half of them still die?”
    “Yes,” I said. “But as I’ve learned more about it, I’m not as upset. In order to exist on Earth at all and feed on our proteins, they will have to undergo this difficult therapy to cause the proper mutations. In addition to that, their normal life span is only a few days in any case.”
    “How can they learn anything in such a short time?”
    “Well,” I said, “in a way, they don’t learn anything. That’s like asking how a single neuron in our heads ‘learns’ something. They each have part of the group’s knowledge. Their chemical interconnections are how they think. Any given puddle of them operates like a single living organism. The way our cells are all alive individually and can die, but operate as a whole together. Think of them all as one being, but without being welded together inside a sack of skin, the way we are.”
    Ning made a face. “Such a lovely way with words. But accurate. What can they do for the turnips-ah, extreme cases?”
    “I’m not sure yet. But they are perhaps our only hope.”
    Some hours later, Kwon was finished healing. Marvin then took a batch of his microbial soup and transferred it into Carlson’s coffin, who was next in line as per my instructions. I didn’t want to try anything on Sandra that hadn’t been tested at least three times. Marvin left tubules connected so the fluid would slowly drain out from one vessel to another. There were still tubules leaking fresh microbes into Kwon’s bags, then from there to Carlson’s coffin. Being at the bottom of the plumbing system, his face slowly submerged.
    “What’s the plan here?” I asked Marvin. “You are reusing the microbes?”
    “Yes, the most resistant are going on to the new task. Fresh microbes are being pumped into the mix to extend the useful life of the materials.”
    Materials, I thought. That was really what we biotics were to any of these machines. It was hard to like Marvin, but it was hard to hate him, too. He was completely alien, but he was helping us.
    Another hour passed. I had a ham sandwich brought up so I could replenish my biotic system. As I ate, I could not help but think of all the trillions of tiny bugs that had lived and died inside my own body every hour of my life. I tried not to get sick about it, but it was hard to watch sludge bubbling around regrowing limbs and such without doing so.
    “We’ve got more than enough materials to pump them into Sandra’s tank now,” Marvin said.
    “Yeah, but I haven’t seen any signs of life from Carlson yet,” I said.
    “You wish to see movement?”
    “What are you going to do, shock him?”
    “No. He has been kept in a somnolent state since his recovery, due to his submersion.”
    “Are you telling me the repairs are finished on him?” I demanded.
    “Yes.”
    “Well, wake him up and get him out of there!” I ordered. I called Ning back to the laboratory to help with the resuscitation. I stood up, hands on my hips, and directed Marvin to connect the last tubule between Carlson’s tank and Sandra. As I watched the liquids bubble and churn, I noted they’d gotten darker and thicker with each transfer. I was reminded of dirty motor oil overgrown with algae.
    “We need a small amount of fresh biochemical compounds,” Marvin said.
    I looked around. We were out of hamburger patties. I looked down at last to my half-eaten ham sandwich. With a sigh, I pulled the ham out and laid it down in the growing puddle of soup near Sandra’s head.
    “It’s all right honey,” I said to her pretty face, which was now encircled with what looked like hot mud. “I was having a hard time eating it all anyway.”
    Ning ran in with an extra piece of meat in her hands. I frowned at it. “Is that fish?” I asked.
    “It’s all we’ve got left that’s thawed.”
    “Okay, I hope we don’t screw this up.”
    She added all of it before I could stop her.
    “All she has in a brain injury,” I said.
    “I’m sorry, sir.”
    “We don’t need that much mass.”
    “Will it matter?”
    I shook my head. I had no idea.
    Kwon shook the last goop from his new leg and arm. He couldn’t walk yet, however. In fact, he cursed at anyone who came near him. He didn’t want to be touched. He was in that same overly-sensitive state I had been, except far more of his body had been affected.
    Carlson came awake soon after we’d lifted him from the coffin. He had a surprised look on his face, to say the least. His first sight consisted of my eyes staring into his.
    “Are you okay?” I asked.
    “Colonel?” he said, looking around fearfully. His body dripped with slime. “What happened?”
    “I killed you-then changed my mind,” I told him.
    Ning gave me a dirty look and clucked her tongue. She led Carlson out of the laboratory speaking softly to him.
    I crouched by Sandra’s coffin, staring at the shallow spot over her face. I could still see some of her features under that churning liquid.
    Kwon hopped and cursed over to me. “Do you think she’ll make it?” he asked.
    “I have no idea.”
    “She will,” Kwon said after a minute. “Carlson seemed fine.”
    “Yeah,” I said.
    I stayed there a few minutes, tensely staring at Sandra’s covered face. This was it. Would she stir? Carlson hadn’t moved. She had an oxygen mask tightly fitted to her face. Air bubbles rose up with each exhalation. The glass porthole into the coffin fogged up lightly.
    “Marvin,” I said, “is she responding to the treatment? Is she going to wake up or not? Tell the microbes not to keep her sleeping once the treatment is done.”
    Marvin and I were soon the last two in the room, besides Sandra herself. I was nervous, trying very hard not to get my hopes up. If she didn’t respond after all the success I’d seen, I knew I would have a fit of grief and pain. I even thought about firing up the old electrode to fry these little guys so they didn’t dare to fail me. I didn’t do it, of course. I wondered why I put myself into these horrible situations. If this failed, I knew I would wish I hadn’t bothered, that I had just let her go.
    The fish around Sandra had partly dissolved. What were they doing in there?
    “Colonel? This is Major Sarin.” Her voice cold and her words were clipped.
    I heard her in my headset and knew right away it was bad news. Sarin became even more severely controlled when things were going wrong.
    “Talk to me, Major.”
    “The Macros have made their next move, sir,” she said.
    I stood up and headed for the door. “Fix up Sandra, Marvin!” I shouted over my shoulder as I left.
    “The prisoners assure me they will do their utmost, sir,” Marvin said.
    I hesitated at the hatchway, looking back. I didn’t entirely trust Marvin. I decided I would send Ning down here later to keep an eye on him.

35

    “They’re coming right at us, sir,” Sarin said, her voice wavering slightly. “On a collision course.”
    I reached the big screen and stared down into it. I had my helmet tucked under my arm. My sides heaved from the run up to the bridge. Everyone stared at me. I knew they were all wondering what I was going to do. What magical trick I could pull to stop this nightmare.
    “All right, strategy session,” I said loudly. “Major Welter, you are in this. Get over here.”
    Welter handed the controls over to the robot pilot we’d built and came to the screen.
    I looked at him, “You’ve been flying since I left the bridge.”
    “Yes, Colonel. I think I have the hang of it now.”
    “Good to know. Okay Gorski, tell me how many drones we have.”
    “Five ready to fire, sir. A sixth should be available within the hour.”
    “Not enough to stop a volley of eight, but it will have to do,” I said. My eyes flicked over the screen. I could see two curved colored lines and ticking digital times flying by. The lines projected the course of Jolly Rodger and the enemy cruiser, predicting their collision point and the point where we would come into range of their cannon. The screen displayed our speed and the estimated times require to reach our goal points. The Macro cruiser had left its distant, shadowing position. Instead of flying parallel to our own path, they were now veering toward us. Both ships would reach the ring and escape the system in thirty-nine minutes. On their current course, the Macros would collide with us on the far side three minutes after that.
    “All right,” I said. “Give your best guesses. What are they up to?”
    “They are increasing speed,” Gorski reported. “They could be planning to dive through the ring before we do, sir. They don’t want to eat our mines again.”
    “We shot down all the other incoming missiles,” Sarin said. “They might think we can shoot down anything they fire at us from a distance. Therefore, they are holding their next volley until we are very close.”
    I turned to Welter. “You’re a flyer. What do you think?”
    Welter shrugged. “Both possibilities are reasonable. They are either trying to get in close and blast us, or they are going to fly through the ring ahead of us.”
    “That could be why they are making their move now,” I said. “They don’t want us to exit the system before they do.”
    “What if they lay mines of their own on the far side?” Major Sarin asked.
    “Then we blow up when we follow them,” I said. I leaned on the screen. I had very few options. We weren’t up to this. I needed weeks of careful build-up and repair-but I simply didn’t have the time.
    I thumped my armored fist down on the edge of the screen. It wobbled slightly, but didn’t crack. “We can’t keep them from firing at us. They could do that now, if they wished. So, nothing I do can alter that possibility. But I can stop them from getting through that ring before we do.”
    I looked at them. Sarin looked worried, but resolute. Gorski shook his head bemusedly. Major Welter looked around at the others and finally at me, frowning. I could tell he was the only one who didn’t get it.
    “How can you stop them from getting through?” he asked. “They’ve got the speed on us. We’ve got no missiles to fire.”
    I smiled. “Captain Gorski,” I said loudly. “Lay in our new course.”
    “About nineteen degrees at full acceleration should do it,” Gorski said, working his tablet interface. A new yellow line appeared on the screen. It curved away from the broken nose of Jolly Rodger and swerved right into the Macro ship.
    “You’re going to ram them?” Major Welter asked.
    “Not exactly,” I said. “I only want to get close enough to send about eight hundred troops on flying dishes over there to visit.”
    “Oh,” said Major Welter. “How is this better than flying straight for the ring?”
    “At their current course and speed they will reach the ring first,” Major Sarin said. “We can’t match their acceleration in this damaged ship. But right now, they are still a little behind us. If we veer right into them, we’ll get close before they can get to the ring.”
    “Then they’ll fire their missiles,” Welter said, “at point-blank range.”
    “Right,” I said, “and we’ll fire our drones, taking a few hits.”
    “I’ve never seen them lay a single mine,” Welter argued. “They only fire missiles. The longer we wait the safer we are, as we have time to produce more drones.”
    “It’s actually not Macro mines that I’m worried about,” I said. “It is their missiles. If we chase them through the ring, they will launch into our faces. They will time it so the missiles hit us exactly as we come through. We won’t be able to stop them with drones because we won’t be able to see the missiles until we go through the ring. If they do it right, we’ll fly directly into a series of warheads.”
    Major Welter nodded slowly. “So…we are screwed,” he said.
    I chuckled. “Now you’re catching on. But I think we have one critical thing they don’t have. We have troops to board with and a delivery system for those troops. They’ve expended their assault ships and storm troops.”
    Major Welter sucked in a huge breath. I could tell he didn’t like my theories, or my solution. “Well, I guess we should do it then. Otherwise, they could just sit on the far side of the ring and plug us up.”
    “That’s right,” I said, “It’s always best to take the initiative from the enemy, to do the unexpected and screw up their plans.”
    Major Welter turned to Sarin. “Aren’t you going to order the helm to change course?”
    “I did several minutes ago,” Sarin said. “The moment Colonel Riggs brought it up, I knew where we were headed. We needed every second-I hope you don’t mind, Colonel.”
    Welter looked shocked. I smirked at Sarin, and she gave me a shy smile in return. I watched the two yellow lines which traced the future paths of both ships as they ticked closer to one another on the big screen. I reflected upon what a good officer Sarin was. She had reached the point of anticipating my orders. She was easy on the eyes, too. A perfect combination in an ops officer.
    I didn’t know how close the macros were going to let us get before they fired their missiles. I suspected they would figure out our plan before we got in their faces. They would know then they had to pound our ship before they lost their own.
    It was nearly thirty minutes later when the Macros fired their missiles. Our ships were very close by that time.
    “We’ve got eight new contacts incoming, Colonel,” Gorski announced, trying to sound as calm as Major Sarin. He failed.
    “Impact in nine minutes,” Major Sarin said.
    I stared tensely at the screen, noting the enemy ship’s projected path. It did not vary its course to avoid us, meaning we would be getting cozy very soon. I’d ordered Kwon to marshal his troops. Everyone with dish training was to suit up and prepare to board.
    “Fire our drones when we get to the five minute mark,” I said.
    “We’ve only got six drones ready, sir,” Gorski said. “We’ll take two hits at least.”
    “I can count,” I snapped. I contacted Kwon: “Captain. Get your men to the sally ports. I want them to jump in five minutes on my order. Take seven companies. You’ll have to ride in under fire, but I don’t want everyone wiped out if the hull ruptures.”
    “What about the bricks, sir?” Kwon asked me.
    I chewed my lower lip. “Send the reserve company into the hold. Release the magnetic clamps. Push them all out of the breach into space. We’ll come back and pick them up later-if we live.”
    “Seven minutes to impact,” Major Sarin said.
    It was at this point that Ning contacted me. “Colonel? Colonel Riggs?”
    “Go ahead, Ning,” I said.
    “I’m in the Macro laboratory. Sandra is still in her medical pod, but it’s completely full of dark liquid now.”
    “Is Sandra all right?” I asked. I felt a pang of guilt and worry.
    “I’m-I’m not sure, sir,” Ning said.
    I wanted to say I’d be running right down there, but I couldn’t leave the bridge in the middle of a battle. “Fix things for me, Ning,” I said. “We’re about to go into a fight. Should I send help?”
    “It just looks odd, that’s all,” Ning said. “I don’t know what those things are doing to her. And Marvin keeps adding new proteins.”
    She sounded a little freaked out. “Watch that robot for me,” I told her. “Get Sandra out of there as soon as you can. You are the med-tech. I’m counting on you.”
    “Yes sir, Ning out.”
    I disconnected and worried about the call. What had she seen? What was happening? This simply wasn’t the time for personal matters, I told myself harshly. I had to delegate. I was responsible for a thousand lives, not just one. I forced my mind back to the battle at hand.
    “Six minutes to impact,” Major Sarin said.
    “Release the drones,” I ordered.
    After a pause and the familiar sensations of the ship firing, Sarin spoke again: “The drones will be meeting the enemy missiles in three minutes.”
    I glanced at her. She was like a machine herself. “Everyone suit up. If the missiles get through, we might lose pressure.”
    A dozen worried eyes sought mine. I ignored them all. I stared at the screen, but all I could think about was Sandra, Ning and whatever Marvin was up to. I had a bad feeling about it. I’ve learned to listen to those feelings while exploring the universe. Humans such as myself were beyond our comfort zone out here. I’d grown up on TV, internet, sitting in classrooms and commuting to a dull job, just like every other boring stiff back on Earth. The rules were far different in space, where we seemed to be sized up for extermination by a new alien every day. Instincts and hunches were all humanity had to go on now that we’d joined the galactic community-because we sure as hell didn’t know what we were doing.
    “Assuming the drones take out six for six, can Jolly Rodger withstand two warheads?” I asked my staff. They talked about it while I stared at pixels. The targeting arcs had gone red now, and begun to blink. I supposed that was something built into the software to indicate we were in imminent danger.
    “Depends on where they hit,” Gorski said, giving me the final verdict.
    “We can’t turn our nose to them, as we’ve got a gaping hole there now,” I said. “And we certainly don’t want to take a hit in the engine area and be disabled. We’ll have to turn our flank to them and take it broadside.”
    No one looked happy, but Major Welter stepped up. “I’ll do the steering,” he said. “We don’t have much time to program the auto pilot to do anything tricky.”
    I glanced at him and nodded. He proudly went to the brainbox and turned it off. Nanite hands dropped to the machine’s side and Welter took its place, frowning in concentration. He was a gifted pilot, but I really wasn’t sure he was ready for this.
    “The drones are going to intercept, sir,” Major Sarin said. “In four, three, two, one-mark.”
    “Impact confirmed,” said Gorski. “Three hits. Four. Five.”
    There was a three second delay. “Talk to me,” I said.
    He shook his head. “We missed one. Three missiles still incoming.”
    “Crap,” I said. I opened a ship-wide channel. “Everyone, this is Colonel Riggs. We are about to be struck by incoming fire. You are ordered to abandon ship. You have four minutes to get outside this hull and at least a mile away into space. Leave what you can’t carry. If our ship survives the attack, return to her. If our ship breaks up, head toward the enemy cruiser if you want to keep breathing.”
    I saw the frightened, disbelieving stares. Major Sarin’s look told me she didn’t approve of my off-handed bluntness. I supposed she never had. I could hear her scolding thoughts: Tactful as always, sir.
    People sprang into action all around me. They ripped up the computer screen and carried it with them. I saw Major Welter bring the ship around so we would take the strikes in the side. Another tech took the auto-pilot with him, but Welter stayed at the helm. I ran off without commenting.
    I reached the laboratory with less than three minutes to spare. Sandra’s coffin was open and filled with sludge. Sandra was lying on the floor in a huge puddle of lumpy liquid. I didn’t see Ning or Marvin. Perhaps they’d given up on her and abandoned ship as ordered.
    Sandra’s thin clothes had been dissolved away to nothing. It looked as if her entire body had been dipped into dirty oil. I assumed she was dead. I felt my eyes sting as I rolled her gently onto her back. Then I saw her eyes-they were open and staring. Those eyes were bright in the oily mess of her face.
    She didn’t look at me. She didn’t look at anything. “I can’t move,” she whispered softly.
    I’d been frozen by this series of events, but now I kicked myself into action. I didn’t have time to give her a shower or call for a corpsman. I figured I’d strangle Ning and dismantle Marvin later for leaving her-assuming any of us survived the next minutes.
    Shoving Sandra into a vacc suit wasn’t an option. I simply didn’t have the time. Instead, I lifted her and dumped her into what had been Carlson’s coffin. He was missing too, but I hardly cared. I put her limp form into the coffin and slammed the lid shut. I grabbed a flying dish and dragged her pod, bumping along behind me. She didn’t have much heat or air in there, but it was better than nothing. We had to get off the ship.
    My hope was, as I forced the nearest emergency hatch to blow open and went twisting out into space, that Jolly Rodger would survive the incoming warheads. I’d seen Macro cruisers take a lot of punishment before going down. Unfortunately, Jolly Rodger had already endured a number of beatings.
    I accelerated away from the ship, awkwardly hauling Sandra in her coffin with me. I didn’t make it to a safe distance before the missiles hit. Nowhere near. The flash made my visor darken. I worried instantly about Sandra, who didn’t have a visor protecting her. Would she be blinded? I kept flying as directly away from the explosion as I could.
    In space, explosions operate differently than those detonated in an atmosphere. There was no shockwave-no wall of air pressure to knock things away. Only the force of the initial blast itself mattered, plus any shrapnel or radiation it might release.
    From my point of view the explosion went off under my feet, as I was standing on my dish and flying directly away from the ship. I dared to look down.
    Major Welter was still firing the attitude jets, still keeping control of the ship, which rolled under his control to direct the least damaged region of the hull toward the incoming missiles. I knew how hard it was, to manipulate those Macro controls accurately under battle conditions.
    Two more hits blossomed under me now. Welter had done it perfectly, putting the ship’s best face toward the warheads. I felt a flash of pride for him and all my men, but it wasn’t enough to save the ship. She’d taken too many shots. The metal of the outer hull was half-slag, brittle and burnt. Jolly Rodger broke up as I watched. Large, spinning fragments of the cruiser whirled away like newborn asteroids. Bits of debris, human, brick and otherwise, floated everywhere.
    I slowed, reversed course and began braking my tiny dish. My marines were all around, scattered, dying, calling for help. Some of the bricks went rolling by. I realized we would probably never be able to collect them all.
    I checked Sandra then, expecting her to be twisted wreckage or frozen to death by now. She was neither. I shined a suit-light through the frosty lid of her coffin. Her eyes were still wide, still staring. They flicked toward my light and focused there.
    I swallowed hard. What the hell had the microbes done to her?

36

    It took several precious minutes to get into contact with my people. That chaotic time made up some of the worst moments of my life. It was one thing to have your ship blown up. That was a quick, clean death. No fuss or muss. But this wasn’t pleasant. My people were everywhere, dying. I couldn’t easily talk to them, as our central communications relaying systems were down. I could only talk to them on local radio, which had several miles range, but with a hundreds squawking at once it wasn’t organized or even functional.
    I could at least still see the direction we should all head in. The central mass of moving bits were ahead, with a number of blinking beacons flashing blue-white. I headed that way, as did everyone else who could control their direction of flight and we all converged.
    Command and control had been broken up. No one was in contact with their unit. No one was organized. We were a horde, not an army. I pulled rank on everyone I met and ordered them to head toward the Macro cruiser, which was itself bearing down on us. Maybe they didn’t see us as a threat. I hoped they weren’t right to discount us.
    Even though my marines had abandoned Jolly Rodger, we were still moving toward the enemy ship on the same course our ship had been on. In space, an object keeps moving in one direction at one speed until some kind of interference alters that motion. So although we were now scattered and had become a cloud of tiny vehicles, we were still heading toward the Macro ship.
    I couldn’t see the enemy vessel, but calculating the timing, I knew we were getting close. I ordered everyone I saw to brake. Others did as well, all around us. Like a flock of birds, we took our hints from one another’s behavior, and most of us did whatever the majority did.
    The cruiser was dark and unlit. It came up at us like a hand swatting flies. My marines who had not started braking slammed into it, a swarm of fleshy meteors. I saw them die, some screaming the last second as they realized their error. Others missed the cruiser and flashed by past it.
    The cruiser finally reacted to our presence as we got in close. The belly turret began firing with bright flashes. There was no air to carry the sound of battle. Men and bricks vanished in silent, incandescent plumes.
    I maneuvered, almost passing the ship, but managed to land with a heavy double thump upon the hull. Sandra’s coffin was the second thump. Around me, dozens of marines made their final approaches. We even managed to get a few bricks onto the hull and turned on the magnetic clamps. That would let us last a few more hours, I figured.
    I didn’t even know how many of my people I’d lost yet. I didn’t want to know. In a way, it didn’t even matter. We had to take this Macro ship, as it was the only thing out here. There were no options, it was do or die.
    I dragged Sandra’s coffin to the nearest brick that had managed to clamp onto the Macro hull. Except for turning their gun on us, the Macros had taken no notice of our presence. They really didn’t seem to care that we were here. They had not even deviated from their course. We would fly through the ring to the tri-star system we suspected was Alpha Centauri soon.
    Men now clanked over the hull all around me. We were like a mass of bees on a sealed-up hive. There was no easy way in. I struggled to drag Sandra’s box through the airlock. It pumped and hissed. I didn’t look in through the lid, partly because it was turned away from me, and partly because I didn’t want to see what might be inside.
    It was only when I got inside the brick that I realized it was a sleeping brick. I huffed in disappointment. We had bunks and air-that was it. I took off my helmet and tasted the stale air. There was nothing else here that was much use other than the water tank. I’d been hoping for a medical brick, or better yet one of our two surviving factories. I could have built something useful to blow through the hull with that.
    The few men inside the brick looked as exhausted and hopeless as I did. “Take a break,” I told them. “Then find your unit and form up. We’ve got to take this ship.”
    They mumbled acknowledgement, but no one sprang up to follow my orders. I looked inside the medical pod. Sandra’s eyes were finally closed. The digital gauges on the sides indicated she was still alive, however. I slumped over the pod and my sides heaved. I needed a few seconds to think.
    A hand fell on my shoulder. I craned my neck around, hoping it was Kwon.
    Major Sarin’s face met my eyes. I smiled. “Good to see you made it, Major,” I said.
    “You too, sir,” she said.
    Her hand lingered on my back. I made no move to brush her off. Finally, I heaved myself up. “Let’s have a little command conference,” I said.
    She followed me into the cramped restroom. There, face-to-face, we talked in low voices so the others wouldn’t overhear. I had a feeling we were going to be discussing grim realities that the others didn’t want to know about.
    “What do we have left?” I asked.
    “Not much,” she said.
    I saw her face tremble a fraction. I’d rarely seen emotion on her face. She must experience it, but she hid it well. Right now, she looked like she was going to cry. I didn’t blame her.
    “Any casualty estimates?”
    She shook her head. “I don’t know yet. Maybe half are dead or floating around without propulsion. The rest of us are standing on the cruiser.”
    “We’re bugs to them now,” I said. “Fleas. We can’t easily get inside. Have we got any mines or other explosives?”
    “A few…but if we light anything off out here…”
    “I know,” I said. “We will be blowing ourselves off the hull.”
    “We’re short of air and worst of all, power, sir,” she said. “These generators need fuel and calibration. They were built for combat, but not the battering they’ve taken.”
    “Any sign of Kwon or Gorski yet?” I asked.
    “No sir.”
    I shook my head. I really hoped we hadn’t lost them. I’d watched Welter die, and I couldn’t afford more of my key officers. I caught Major Sarin staring at me then, and I saw the welling tears in her eyes. I realized she’d finally cracked that tough exterior of hers. The Macros had a way of doing that.
    “What is it, Jasmine?” I asked, trying to soften my voice.
    She looked pretty, dirty, and scared. “I don’t know,” she said, rubbing her eyes and sniffing. “I’m sorry.”
    “Talk to me,” I said. “In an hour it will probably be too late.”
    She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It just seems hopeless.”
    “We’ll get this ship,” I told her. “We have to.”
    “What about after that?” she asked. “I mean-every day we lose more men, more of everything. We are fighting like rats out here over scraps. I feel-I feel like we’re doomed, sir.”
    I naturally felt the same way, but it was the job of every commander to stay confident to the point of absurdity. How could my marines fight if I was blubbering and moping about?
    “Nonsense,” I said. “We all have our doubts, but we will survive. And even if we don’t, we are helping out the people back home with every Macro we take down.”
    She licked her lips. She closed her eyes and nodded. I could see she was trying to stuff all her emotions back into that suitcase she kept them in. I marveled at her control. This was the first time I’d ever seen her crack.
    Suddenly, I bent forward and kissed her. It was an impulse, and she recoiled at first, making me regret it. Then she responded, and we kissed. It felt very nice, but I wasn’t even sure why I’d started this. She was just there, looking vulnerable and sweet for a second. I was sure we were going to die a grim death, and when you are really convinced of that, people sometimes do things they wouldn’t otherwise consider. I figured she felt the same way.
    I heard something and snapped my eyes open. There was a fast, flickering motion. So fast! I threw up my arm behind Major Sarin’s head, but I couldn’t completely block the blow.
    Sarin went down, sprawling. Her head welled blood. A handful of her dark hair was still wadded up in her attacker’s fist.
    “Sandra?” I said, incredulous.
    Sandra stood there, a naked beauty dipped in black paint. The microbial creatures covering her had all dried up and turned crusty by now. In spots, they were flaking away.
    “Have you gone nuts?” I asked.
    She stared at me in a fury. “I heard it all,” she said. “Every word you whispered to her.”
    “But how…”
    “I heard you kiss her. I heard your heart accelerate. Hers too-”
    “I’m sorry,” I said, my hands coming up in a calming gesture. “I’m so glad you are awake and alive.”
    “Really?”
    “Yes! Yes, really. This didn’t mean anything,” I said, gesturing down to poor Sarin. I knelt and checked her pulse, which was still strong. She’d awaken shortly with a headache and a burning spot on her scalp that was missing a lot of hair. “Jasmine didn’t deserve that. She was just scared.”
    “I told you once I’d kill if you fooled around.”
    “You can’t go around smashing fellow officers.”
    “You can’t go around making out with them.”
    I shook my head. “It was one kiss at a weak moment. I apologize.”
    Sandra still stood over Major Sarin, watching us both intensely. I nudged Jasmine, but she wasn’t going anywhere. I felt the back of her head. “I think you fractured her skull.”
    “Get away from her,” Sandra said dangerously.
    I looked up at her with narrowed eyes. This was not quite the Sandra I knew. She sounded-a bit crazy. I decided it was time to redirect her anger. “Are you pissed?” I asked.
    “Totally,” she said.
    “How’s this: we’ll turn Sarin over to the medics, and we’ll turn some of that attitude against the Macros.”
    “Together?” she asked.
    Each word she spoke, I now realized, seemed to be forced from her lips, almost as if she had a bout of stuttering she was holding back.
    “Yeah,” I said, standing slowly. “Let’s do this together Sandy.” I invoked a pet name I only used for her in private moments.
    “Don’t call me that,” she said. “Not today.”
    I nodded. We walked out of the restroom and I sent help inside for Major Sarin. I was nonplussed to see Carlson responding to my call. He had survived? Great news, there.
    Carlson gaped at Sandra as he went by. She was still naked, painted black and staring at everyone with wide, crazy eyes. She didn’t seem to care about her appearance at all. The rest of the guys in the brick had their mouths hanging open. Sandra took no notice of them.
    “Let’s spray that gunk off and get you into a vacc suit,” I said.
    She let me help her, but her muscles were tense and quivering the entire time. She almost never blinked her eyes. I had a thought as I adjusted her suit and doubtfully gave her a weapon. She was reminding me of every marine I’d seen recovering from the nanite injections. She had that look of new strength, almost as if she’d been born into a new body she didn’t quite know how to control yet.
    “I don’t want a gun,” she said, handing back the light hand-beamer I’d given her.
    “What then?” I asked.
    She took my knife off my belt and held it with fingers that gave tiny tremors. I could see her shaking, even through her gloves. I wanted to order her to take a break, to sleep off whatever was going on in her head, but something in her eyes was electric, like a twisting live cable that snapped and sparked. She was holding herself back, I realized.
    What the hell had Marvin, Ning and those microbes done to her? I figured they had probably all perished on Jolly Rodger, and I’d most likely never learn the truth.

37

    My marines and I crawled over the hull like angry ants, but the ship was like a sealed mason jar-there just wasn’t any way in. We avoided the underside of the ship and thus were nowhere near the deadly belly-turret. Every hatch we could find was slagged shut from the inside.
    Kwon showed up eventually and we tried a group burn-through, concentrating our beamers on a single spot to make it white hot. I had no doubt we could have done it with a beam tank, but blasting our way into the hull wasn’t working, at least not quickly enough. Sandra stood nearby, silent and staring.
    “This is not happening, Colonel,” Kwon told me.
    “Yeah,” I said. “We need something heavier.”
    “Colonel?” a voice called into my helmet. It was Gorski, who was my sole man on ops right now. I’d given him Sarin’s job until she recovered.
    “Go ahead, Gorski.”
    “We’re about to go through the ring,” he said.
    “Not much we can do about that, is there?”
    “No sir,” he said, and signed off.
    I looked up worriedly. I didn’t see the ring, but that wasn’t a surprise. We were going so fast, the cruiser would just sail up to the ring and through it before our eyes had time to register it. Still, I was worried. It seemed so odd, the way these Macros ignored us. They didn’t even answer our radio signals. We were less than nothing to them. We were fleas on a dead dog.
    “Let’s pull back a bit onto the top of the cruiser’s hull,” I said. I led the way, and my marines followed. “I don’t really like the idea of going through a ring while standing out on top of this ship. It doesn’t feel right.”
    “Our boys did it before,” Kwon said. “They all were sucked out into space from the ring in the Worm mound.”
    “Yeah,” I said. “About that, the Worms had a direct conduit the last time we saw them, directly from the ring inside their giant mound out into space in another star system. A pretty nice way to launch ships. Just imagine, you build them on the ground, put them on rails and roll them out into space. Not having to lift anything up into orbit is a big savings of effort. Better yet, your construction people could build the ship under normal planetary conditions, not out in space in vacc suits, fighting with low-gravity.”
    Kwon shook his head in his helmet. “If you say so, sir. I think having a hole on the surface of your world would be a big problem. Wouldn’t it suck all your air out into space?”
    I chuckled. We’d reached the aft region of the ship by now, where our few bricks were clamped on. “There was some kind of control possible. When the Macros screwed me last time into going down there and connecting up that ring to turn it on, I learned it is possible to alter the behavior of the rings. The Macros did it that time. If you could choose when your ring was active, you could send through your ships whenever you wanted.”
    Kwon didn’t say anything more. I thought he might be disturbed at the idea of playing with such forces. Maybe he thought I was getting one of my bright ideas and would try to set a ring like that up on Earth. I wasn’t that crazy…was I? I had to admit that maybe, just maybe, I was.
    I was walking along the hull of the cruiser with Sandra following me. She had that knife still-and she made me oddly nervous with it. Her mannerisms weren’t the same as they’d been before she’d been in the coma.
    “Sandra?” I said. “Tell me what you’re thinking about.”
    “You don’t want to know,” she said.
    “Try me.”
    “I’m thinking about cutting people up.”
    I blinked. She was right. I hadn’t wanted to know. I told myself she’d always been a hothead. She’d be all right if I just gave her some time to calm down. Maybe this was all a result of her brain injury. The microbes had fixed her-but who knew what they considered fixed to be when it came to the structure of a human brain?
    We were in mid-step when we went through the ring. There was no warning from Gorski or anyone else. Maybe he didn’t know the exact moment when we’d hit it, or maybe he thought he’d already told me and didn’t think it was a big deal.
    I felt the now familiar shudder of going through the ring. That feeling of dizziness, as if I’d just experienced a tiny, swaying earthquake. My left foot was clamped onto the hull, my right foot was up, and coming back down. I had the sensation that when I put my foot down it would keep going-perhaps into an abyss. It was as if I was falling, but for less than a second. Then I stomped my foot down firmly and I knew we were through. We were somewhere else, an unknown number of lightyears away from where we had been a moment before.
    “I hate that feeling,” Sandra said.
    “Yeah,” I agreed. “Especially out here. Look, we’re in the tri-star system.”
    At that moment, an explosive timer was activated. I had no way of knowing it at the moment. I had a few calm seconds, which I used to lift my arm and point toward the twin yellow suns, orbiting one another tightly. One sun was close, nearly as big as the sun appeared from Earth. The second was distant and smaller from our perspective, looking like a brilliant moon. The third star, a red dwarf, glowed like a distant ember below and to the right of the twins, from our perspective.
    “This has to be Alpha Centauri,” I told Sandra. “Everything about these stars looks right. It feels oddly good to know we are relatively close to home-only four short lightyears away.”
    “One more jump and we reach Earth,” she said wistfully. “Home is so near, and yet so far.”
    I was momentarily encouraged, because this was the first thing she’d said since awakening that didn’t sound furious. My relief was short-lived, however, as we ran out of time about then.
    It started with a brilliant flash off to my left-it came from underneath the prow of the cruiser. The ship had run her nose smack into something. I didn’t know what it was at the time. Fortunately, the charge wasn’t very large. Less than one of our tiny mines, in fact. Another two flashes went off, and all around me men were turning, hunkering down. For some of them it was already too late. The blast and bits of debris blew a good fifty marines off the hull.
    A hand hit my back and forced me to crash face down onto the hull. I went down hard, and all the air was driven from my lungs. I turned to curse at Kwon-but he wasn’t there. Only Sandra crouched over me. Her hand was on my back, pressing me down. My knife was in her other hand. I blinked at her. Could she have done that?
    My next assumption, when I could think, was that the Macros had finally made their move. They’d gotten tired of having us out here, crawling around on the skin of their ship. They’d come out to remove us by force. I screamed into my helmet for everyone to take cover. The command was absurd, but automatic. There wasn’t any cover.
    At any moment, I expected Macro marines to come boiling up onto the hull, but they didn’t. Vapor and bits of floating metal, quickly cooling from white-hot to smoking dull gray went by my helmet.
    “Captain Kwon?” I called. “Get our marines moving. If the enemy is sallying out onto the hull, I don’t want them to get a foothold while we huddle out here.”
    Kwon roared, and soon a few hundred marines were advancing, crawling over the hull. Sandra helped me up. She lifted me with one arm and set me on my feet. I stared at her for a second in shock. Was this Marvin or some other robot in a vacc suit? It couldn’t be. I recognized her by her small suit and the knife that glittered in her hand. Everyone else out here had a gun. I knew then that Sandra wasn’t just pissed off; she had gained in strength somehow. The microbes had done something to her when they’d fixed her brain. They’d kept on fixing things, improving them.
    I didn’t have time to worry about all that right now, however. I advanced with the vanguard of marines, crawling forward over the hull to recon the situation. When we got to the smoking impact points, and looking into the craters, we could see the exposed tubes of the cruiser.
    “Mines,” Kwon said, thinking faster than the rest of us for once. “The ship must have run into a few.”
    I thought of the Worms then, and what I’d said about their ability to send objects or ships through to the other side from the surface of their planet. There were many possibilities, of course. The Worms had deployed mines here before. This was the same ring and it was very close to their homeworld Helios. Maybe they’d put a missile up or a mine-layer for the next intrusion into their system. The interesting thing was the mines were laid on the far side of the ring, the Alpha Centauri side. If the Worms had placed these, they were definitely being tricky. The cruiser had glided right into them without time to react. I thought to myself that whoever had put these here, they were game-changers. I wasn’t the only one who was employing this extremely effective tactic. Maybe the days of sailing serenely through rings at high speed were gone for every side now that this trick was seeing regular use.
    “Advance!” I shouted, ordering my men into the smoking breach. Whatever its cause, we had an opportunity to invade the cruiser, and anything was better than sitting on the hull waiting to die.
    We rushed inside, not knowing what to expect. Marines were all around me, charging forward. We moved forward employing leapfrogging maneuvers, one team crouching and aiming down a corridor while the next advanced quickly to a new spot providing some kind of cover. We’d made it a few hundred paces before we met with resistance. A pair of Macros caught us, showing up at each end of a long tubeway. Everyone fired at once. The light flared up, darkening my visor. I was in the middle of the pack, I aimed my pistol but didn’t fire as there were marines between me and the enemy, blocking my shot.
    Sandra pushed me down again then. I heaved back up, snarling. “Stop doing that!”
    She pointed upward mutely. A hot glow had appeared overhead. The Macros were burning down to us from an upper deck. The two at either end of the hall were firing, and then drawing back as our beams spat return fire at them. Two marines were hit, but not dead. They howled and cursed in my headset.
    “Let’s pull back,” I shouted. “This is a trap.”
    Hot beads of molten metal dripped onto my suit and sizzled there. Sandra and I looked up just as the ceiling opened. A piece of metal like a manhole cover clanged down between us. A Macro nosed through. It had a short-ranged weapon attached to its head section. I’d seen the type before. They normally did ship-repairs and were more akin to welders than warriors.
    I fired at it, and it withdrew with a scarred thorax.
    “Is it alone?” Sandra asked.
    “I think so,” I said.
    Sandra did an unexpected and impressive thing then. She sprang up through the hole over our heads. Now, we are all nanotized with strength superior to that of normal humans. We could do things no one back on Earth could manage, such as ten foot leaps up into holes. We would not normally perform this action, however, with an unknown number of enemy waiting on the other side of said hole.
    “Wait!” I shouted after her, but she was already gone. I saw her heel for a second, and then nothing. I wondered in horror if I was going to be treated to watching a Macro tear her apart after going through hell to keep her breathing this long. I didn’t hesitate, but I did curse as I sprang after her. I couldn’t let her face whatever was up there alone.
    By the time I struggled through the hole and fired my hand beamer into the Macro’s face. After a second, I took my finger off the firing stud. The Macro was already dead. I looked around wildly, but it was the only one up here.
    Sandra was on its back, grinning. She had slashed open the thing’s back and used the fantastically sharp edge to sever the wires that connected the cpu in its thorax to the rest of its body. This combat technique was in our manual and our training discussions, but I couldn’t recall having ever seen anyone do it before.
    “Stop worrying,” she said.
    I stared at her for a second. “You’ll get yourself killed going off by yourself.”
    She made her lips pout. “I doubt it,” she said.
    I shook my head and jumped down into the corridor again. I had to call up to her twice to get her to join us.
    “Let me go off and scout,” she said.
    “No,” I said. “I’m not going lose you the same day I got you back. Do you have any idea how hard I worked to get you out of that coma?”
    “For all I know you kept me sleeping and worked on lining up my replacement,” she said.
    I stalked away from her angrily. While we’d been occupied with the Macro in the ceiling, my men had taken out the other two. We pressed ahead toward the engine room. Overall, resistance was light. The ship had no marines, as they had apparently all been used in the invasion attempt against us. We were up against the equivalent of mechanics and gunner’s mates. The crew fought tenaciously, but there were only about thirty of them and they hadn’t been built for personal combat. After less than an hour, the ship was ours.

38

    All in all, this cruiser was in better shape than the last one had been when we managed to capture it. The belly turret was still intact. The left side underneath the nose had a hole in it, but it wasn’t as big as the last gaping breach had been. Jolly Rodger had yawned open, having lost the entire front section of the hull. There was less internal damage as well, as the Macro crew hadn’t been able to put up as stiff of a fight.
    I wished I could say the same for my marines. We were down to less than ten percent of the number we’d left Earth with. They celebrated in desperate relief when we took the ship, but it was almost a maniacal sort of celebration. They had no booze, but they leapt into the air, whooped and slapped at one another, the nanotized equivalent of a hard high-five. For a few minutes, they bounced off the walls like ping pong balls. This exuberance quickly passed and most of them slumped down on the deck plates, exhausted by so many long days of fear and stress. I knew they needed some time off, but I wasn’t sure I could give it to them.
    I gathered my bridge crew in the engine room, as we had done aboard Jolly Rodger. Everyone was there except for Major Sarin, who was still recovering from Sandra’s love-tap, and Major Welter who had stayed at his post and piloted Jolly Rodger to the end. I put his name down for a posthumous commendation-if any of us survived long enough to give it to his family.
    “We are in the home stretch now, people,” I told my crewmen.
    They smiled wanly. Even Sandra seemed more relaxed now. Killing that Macro with a knife had really settled her down. I made a mental note to try not to piss her off in the future. I didn’t have much hope in that regard, however.
    “I need a volunteer to work the control console on this engine. At least, I need someone to turn on the brakes.”
    Gorski looked doubtful. “That won’t be easy, sir,” he said.
    “Why not?”
    “There isn’t just a simple on-off switch on this thing. You have to work all the controls at once. It is more like landing a helicopter. I think the Macros built the interface with their group-mind as a basic assumption. They expect a half-dozen interface points to be touched at once most of the time and any operation takes input from all of them in combination. They simply didn’t automate the process.”
    “I know something about automation,” I said. “Explain this to me.”
    “Well, the Macros aren’t humans, sir,”
    “I’m well aware of that, Captain.”
    “They are very inhuman. We build our interfaces for our own physiology. Eyes that focus on a single point of the screen. Hands that can touch two areas, plus separate fingers that are only capable of reaching so far. The Macro interface was built for creatures with a dozen eyes and hands, essentially. They seem complex to us, but to them it probably seemed quite simple.”
    I shook my head, walking up to the screen. It wasn’t flat the way our touchscreens tended to be. It had slightly convex curvature to it. I reached my hand toward it, but hesitated. Right now, it was in a locked setting, which was blasting us along on a preset course. We didn’t know where that course would take us, but we had to have direct control.
    “How did you figure out these details, Gorski?” I asked.
    “I spent days in Jolly Rodger’s identical engine room while Major Welter poked around with the system. We both studied the autopilot with interest. What we really need is a new autopilot to fly this thing.”
    “Captain,” I said, “we have to have control over this ship. We don’t even know where it’s going, and I want to turn around and pick up whoever we can back in the Helios system.”
    Gorski became pale. “Back through the ring?” he asked. “That will be a lot harder than just putting on the brakes.”
    “I know that. How long will it take you to figure it out?” I asked.
    “Pardon me, sir?”
    I looked at him squarely. “You have nominated yourself to figure out this interface and fly this thing. I’ll assist you.”
    “Colonel?” Gorski sputtered. “Let’s just set up a new autopilot.”
    “No can do. We lost our factories. I don’t have spare brainboxes floating around.”
    Gorski’s shock changed on his face to an expression of near panic. “Major Welter was a gifted pilot. I flunked my first driver’s test in high school.”
    “You are also the only one who watched him do it. And you understand machines.”
    “But sir-”
    “I bet you were a gamer back in college, before all this shit started, weren’t you?”
    “Uh, yes sir, but-”
    “You’ve played flight sims. You’ve figured out a hundred interfaces. This isn’t much worse than flying a helicopter, Gorski. We are in space, man! There’s nothing out here to hit, really. Besides, I’ll be helping you.”
    Gorski nodded slowly. He looked terrified. I clapped him on the back and forced him to smile weakly. “Great sir,” he said.
    “Good,” I said, “and thanks for volunteering. What do we tap first to get it to stop and turn around?”
    Gorski and I worked on the screen for the next ten minutes. I decided at last we just had to go for it. We pressed a half-dozen surfaces at once. I had to wonder how Welter had managed to get anywhere alone. The man must have had his knees up to touch this screen. Gorski explained he had seen him working on multi-contact programs built into the interface.
    “You mean it has configurable hot-keys?” I asked. “Can we set up our own?”
    “It’s not that simple,” Gorski said. “We don’t even know the sequences. We have to get them down first before we can encode them.”
    “Right,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
    “I really am not sure this is the correct sequence.”
    “I’m not going to sue you if you frig this up,” I assured him. “The firing squad is more my style.”
    “Thanks a lot, sir.”
    “Now, go!” I said. We reached out with both hands each and put them on the board. The ship lurched sickeningly under my feet.
    “I think we are accelerating,” Gorski said. “The red disk sir-”
    “I’m pressing the red disk!”
    “No, press the bottom portion, along the rim.”
    I moved my hand, and stumbled forward, almost putting my face into the control board. A hand snapped out and grabbed each of us from behind. I glanced back. It was Sandra. I would have stared in disbelief if I had had the time, but I didn’t. I thought to myself that if I ever got her back into the sack it was going to be-daunting.
    The ship was braking now. A low, whirring sound came from the engines, which were thrumming with power. This ship seemed in better shape than the last one. I recalled we’d done some damage to the power systems in the last ship and had never gotten her up to full speed-which was one of the reasons the enemy cruisers had caught up with us.
    “Should we try a turn?” I asked.
    Gorski shook his head. His eyes were wide, and he strained with effort to keep his fingers pressing the big board in exactly the right configuration. “You can’t really turn in space, you can just curve. Let’s get her stopped, do a slow one-eighty and fly back. We might be able to hit the ring that way without having to replot our course. I don’t understand the course-setting controls yet. I only know how to aim the ship and apply thrust.”
    I grunted unhappily at this news. I decided braking was taking too long. We stopped applying the forward brake-jets and instead managed to turn the ship around. This was a harsh moment, as it took us two full revolutions before we had ourselves aiming back the way we had come. I was heeling over, struggling to keep on my feet as we spun. I recalled doing things like this back in high school parking lots as a kid.
    Finally, we got the ship’s main engines headed in the direction we wanted. We were able to apply maximum thrust and use the primary engines for braking. Every hour that passed, more of my marines were running out of air and heat back in the Helios system. I wanted to save every last man I could.
    After braking for more than an hour, we began slowly heading the other way.
    “How long do we have before we reach the ring?” I asked.
    “At this acceleration rate,” said a female voice behind me, “I’d estimate we have just over ninety minutes to go, Colonel.”
    I chanced a glance over my shoulder in surprise. There was Major Sarin. I recognized her voice, but hadn’t believed it for a moment. I saw she was glaring at me. Sandra was still there-she was glaring too.
    “The magic of nanites!” I said, with a slightly nervous laugh. “Good to see you back on duty, Major.” I turned my back upon these two women only because I had to. I returned my attention to the impossible Macro control systems. I felt like I was playing twister while pissed off people stood behind me and contemplated kicking me in the rear.
    “Good to be here,” Sarin said in a sour voice.
    “Let’s lock this thing and take a break from the controls, Gorski,” I said.
    He gave me a dirty grin. “Got somewhere else to be, Colonel?” he asked.
    I knew right then that everyone on the ship knew the whole story. How could they not? They knew about the kiss-and the thumping Sandra had given Jasmine after the kiss-the whole thing. I felt a hot, embarrassed flush coming up my neck. Soon, my cheeks were burning. I’d never been in the middle of a scandal before. I didn’t like the sensation.

39

    After we had the controls locked and had verified we were on course for the ring back to Helios, I had a quick strategy session with Gorski. The two women watched us closely. They both had their arms crossed and refused to look at each other. I didn’t know much about women, but I knew this was a bad sign. Instead of eyeing one another they were both eyeing me with venom. I found myself desperately wishing we hadn’t wiped out the last of our booze supplies long ago.
    “We can’t just blast our way through the ring again,” Gorski was saying. “We have to assume there are explosives there, waiting for us.”
    It took me a second to tear my eyes away from the two tail-lashing women and turn my attention back to Gorski. “Yeah,” I said. “There may be more mines.”
    “There almost have to be more,” he said. “It wouldn’t make sense otherwise. We ran through a ten-mile wide ring, and hit two or three of them. There must be a large number of mines in a field there, waiting for anything that comes through like a net.”
    We’d determined by this time that the ship had indeed run into mines. I’d wondered if the Macros had done it themselves in an attempt to blow us off the hull, but that simply didn’t make sense. They hadn’t needed to blast the nose off their own ship to attack us.
    “Okay, so we are flying into a minefield, most likely one put up by the Worms,” I said. “Can’t we just fly through the same exact spot?”
    “We can’t be sure exactly where that point was, we weren’t in control of the ship’s navigation at that point. Also, the mines may have shifted. Even more importantly, we aren’t in precise control of this vessel yet.”
    I nodded. I had to agree with him there. Every time we touched the controls, everyone onboard got sick. “We have no choice then,” I said. “We’ll slow down as we approach the field. We’ll nose our way through, blowing the mines out of the way with our rifles if we have to. I’ll see if I can rig up a few auto laser turrets with some marine rifles and spare brainboxes. If we come into the field slowly enough, we can shoot the mines down.”
    “Sir, there’s a few more considerations,” Major Sarin said.
    I looked at her. Her expression had softened somewhat, as she became concerned for the lives of the crew, rather than just being angry. I welcomed the change. I needed my staff functioning again. I knew I’d brought this all on myself. My first mistake had been bringing Sandra onto the bridge staff-no, it went further back than that. I shouldn’t have brought her on the mission at all. It was madness to do so. Unprofessional. But my outfit was anything but pro. We were gifted amateurs at best.
    But it was all my mess now. Sandra had been brought aboard and due to attrition-and probably unconscious favoritism, brought onto the bridge as an officer. I couldn’t kick her off now. Not without risking our relationship.
    I thought bitterly how I’d compounded my errors by making a move on Sarin. I just hadn’t been thinking. Stress had a way of causing my mind to blank and drift at times. It made me act impulsively. I realized Sarin was still talking, so I struggled to listen to her.
    “-that’s why we should consider doing another about-face and returning to Earth now.”
    I realized belatedly she was talking about abandoning any survivors and spare equipment in the Helios system. I shook my head. “I can’t do that. I can’t leave them out there, floating around, hoping for pickup as they die one at a time. Hell, the Worms might come up and capture them. Or even another Macro ship.”
    Sarin nodded rapidly, then winced and rubbed at the back of her head. “That’s another consideration,” she said. “For all we know, this is our one chance to escape. The enemy might have sent more ships after us than the four we took out.”
    “Gorski,” I said, “run me some numbers. If a ship came in from the Eden system and flew all the way across the Helios system to the nearest ring, how long would we have before they could reach us?”
    “Well,” he said, tapping at his tablet. “Assuming that they are flying cruisers with similar performance stats…and that they came through the moment after we left, because we would have seen them if they’d shown up earlier…I would say we have three days, sir.”
    I nodded. “Three days. That will do it. We will be in and out of the Helios system and back here in a maximum of three days.”
    Sarin didn’t look happy. I turned back to Gorski. “Watch the helm for me,” I told him. “Report anything.”
    When I turned to do a ship inspection and a check on all the repair crews, Sandra put her hand on my wrist. She did it lightly.
    “I want to talk,” she said quietly
    Sarin was busy with a cracked tablet. We didn’t have much hardware left, and no way to build new stuff.
    “Right,” I said, “we do need to talk. Both of you come along with me.”
    Major Sarin glanced up, surprised. Sandra looked irritated.
    “Come on,” I said, and walked off the bridge. Both the women followed me. I could feel the mutual hostility behind me, like heat emanating from a furnace. I had to put out this fire now, while I could. Either that, or one of these two was going to have to be kicked off the bridge.
    We met in a side chamber that had possibly served the Macros as a repair center. Broken leg joints, springs, automated drill-presses and a selection of replacement head-sections for Macros were stored here. We’d not been able to get much use out of the workshop-with our nanite technology, we hadn’t really needed to. I thought that if we couldn’t recover our factories that would change soon. We would have to learn to control this equipment and rebuild elements of the cruiser.
    “You see this room?” I asked the two women. They looked at me in surprise. They’d expected a lecture on civil treatment of your fellow officer. I didn’t like to give anyone exactly what they were expecting, however, it wasn’t my style.
    They looked around, but didn’t say anything. I realized then that I did know something about women: when they were real quiet, that was a bad sign.
    “Do either of you know how to use this stuff?” I asked. I didn’t really expect an answer, and I didn’t get one. I picked up a piece of outer plating and banged it on a slanted surface with beveled edges. It felt weird to hold a piece of an enemy body in my hands.
    Major Sarin finally answered me. I supposed she couldn’t stand the silence anymore. “We have no idea how to use most of this stuff-or even what it does,” she said.
    “Exactly,” I said, pointing at her. I tapped a machine’s control board. It whirred as if trying to start up, but then the sound died away. “These devices were built for Macro technicians who had a dozen fast-moving metal arms. You don’t just touch a single button and start one up. All the options are chosen at the moment the system starts. The helm works like that, which is why we’re having such a hard time with it. Imagine a car that has to know where you are going before you start it. You have to input your destination even as you hit the gas, hold down the clutch and start the ignition. Everything at once.”
    I had their attention, but they still didn’t look happy. They had no idea where I was going with all this, but they were beginning to suspect a speech was coming. There had to be one in here somewhere. I decided to give it to them.
    “This is just a sample of the technology this ship represents. High-grade Macro technology. A thousand secrets Earth can use to improve our forces, and to learn how to defeat the enemy.”
    “So we should both shut up and be good girls, is that it?” Sandra asked.
    My face darkened, but I fought not to be baited into a shouting match. “There’s only one way we can help Earth now. We can’t fight anymore, not in the condition this unit is in. But we have a lot of intel. Critical information Earth must have. For example: they don’t even know yet the Macros are shooting at us again.”
    That got their attention. They looked worried. Everyone knew what had happened the last time the Macros had become annoyed. They’d come and blown away half of China.
    “I’ve been hoping the Macros will react the way they did when the Chinese fired on them. I hope they’ll only try to kill us. But maybe they won’t. It’s hard to say.”
    Sandra sighed explosively. “Okay, I can’t take anymore,” she said. “Yes, the stakes are high. Yes, we should all cooperate. And yes, I’m sorry I conked you on the head, Jasmine.”
    Major Sarin studied the floor with a fierce frown. “I’m sorry if I intruded on your relationship.”
    “No,” I said. “You don’t have to apologize, I was the one who weakened.”
    “I don’t know why you have to weaken,” Sandra said. “If you really want her, then just be with her, and be happy.” Sandra did a pretty good job of keeping her face neutral as she said this. She really did look like she didn’t care, but her shaky hands and voice gave her away.
    “It’s not like that!” I said.
    “No, no,” Major Sarin said, her face suddenly horrified. “I wasn’t trying to take your man.”
    Sandra opened her mouth. In my mind, I expected her to shout: then why did you let him kiss you, you slut? Or other words to that effect, but it didn’t happen. She controlled herself. Everybody knew Jasmine Sarin was a rules-follower. She abhorred personal messes in her life. Maybe she had a thing for her commander, but that tended to happen in mixed-sex armed forces.
    “I accept your apology,” Sandra said. They still weren’t looking at each other.
    “I too, accept yours,” Jasmine said.
    “Okay!” I said, deciding to end on an up-note. “Let’s get this boat flying, then. We have a minefield to detect and sneak past. We have people to pick up.”
    Major Sarin exited first, but Sandra lingered. I stepped toward her, hesitantly. She took a step toward me as well. I eyed her, trying to figure my next move. I wanted to go for a hug, but a kiss-I figured that was pushing too far.
    Sandra let me hug her, briefly. But she was as stiff as a board to my touch. It was like hugging a Macro.
    “Still mad?” I whispered in her ear.
    “It’s going to be a looong time for you,” she whispered back.
    She pulled away with her lips tight. The expression of disappointment on my face made her face shift, however. She snorted, then smiled and laughed. She flounced out of the workshop and I watched her shapely form as she exited. I heaved a sigh. I was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be any make-up loving tonight.
    I realized then that with the nature of warfare in space, things like this were bound to be a problem. The navy had struggled with sexual relationships on ships for years, I knew. My Star Force marines were in an even worse situation. We’d been removed from the rest of humanity for long periods and then put under great stress. It wasn’t like the old days in the U. S. military on deployment. I’d done a reservist’s tour in the Mideast myself, so I understood the comparison. The sort of duty I was doing now was harsh. We were more like conquistadores than peace-keepers on a mission to some third-world country. We were facing alien machines determined to exterminate us. We fought in unknown star systems lightyears away from Earth. We couldn’t even figure out most of the time where in the heavens we were, much less know when we would get back. People became desperate under such circumstances and did things they might regret later. It was only natural, and I would have to think about what we should do about it to maximize our effectiveness.

40

    We were scraping the bottom of the barrel as far as equipment went. I was short of everything except laser rifles and packs-so many marines had died, we had extra light weapons. I used these together with our last dozen or so brainboxes, most of them cannibalized from other equipment, to operate as laser turrets on the cruiser’s nose. We were down to a crawling speed as we approached the ring. I knew there were mines there, but I didn’t know what we have to face until we got close.
    When we did finally arrive, we found thousands of the little buggers. They were laid out in a tight pattern all over the mouth of the ring. They hadn’t been there when we’d come through to invade the Worm planet in the belly of the Macro invasion ship, but they sure as hell were there now. I could only figure the Worms had been busy setting up their defenses while the Macro cruisers were out of their system. I had to give them big points for persistence. I had the feeling the Worms wouldn’t give up until the last of their kind was dead.
    It was weird, but after fighting both the herd peoples we called Centaurs and the Worms, I felt I understood the Worms better. They were more individualistic. They were warriors, and although they attacked as a horde often, they didn’t do it massed in a herd formation that made you think of a plain full of angry sheep. I sensed each Worm had pride as an individual, and that the oldest among them, being the largest, were the most revered. I could understand a social system like that, even admire it. They valued self-sacrifice, but seemed to have a sense of bravado. The Centaurs were much more into group-think and were willing to die just standing around contemplating things. I’d never seen a Worm go down doing anything other than fighting to the last.
    We nosed our way through the minefield, my tiny, rigged-up laser turrets popping the mines like metal balloons as we went. We must have blown up hundreds before we had a big enough hole to feel safe. Gorski and I lit up the Macro control board then, putting every finger we had onto it at once to get the ship flying straight and fast through the ring. The mines moved to intercept. I wasn’t sure if they were magnetic or if they had some kind of smart guidance system, but we squeezed through. The laser turrets never stopped firing and the video we got from outside the hull showed dozens of orange fireballs as they shot down incoming mines one after another.
    Then we were through the ring, the firing and the exploding mines all stopped. We slowed down again as fast as we could. One of my chief worries had been that my men would have tried to come through the ring after us on their flying dishes and activate the mines as they did so.
    They hadn’t come through, which presented a new worry: why had they not at least tried? Had they all died out here, exposed in space? Had the Worms given them some other trick, or had the Macros showed up with fresh forces? The fact none of them had followed the rest of us didn’t bode well for their survival.
    I kept all these thoughts to myself, however, as I felt the ship shiver and the stars changed around us. The big red sun of Helios loomed, swollen and grotesque. The sun filled space as far out as Earth’s own orbit. Only the relative coolness of its radiance allowed the planets around not to be burnt to a crispy dead desert. The Worm planet we’d named Helios orbited fairly close to the ring. It was an arid world with sunken, muddy oceans and hot sands covering much of the surface.
    As we came through, I ordered radio silence. I wanted to listen for rescue calls. The ship stuttered as the braking jets kept slowing us down.
    Nothing. Nothing at all. There were no signals out there-at least nothing we could pick up.
    “Gorski,” I said, craning my neck downward. He was twisted up and squatting near me, his head at about even with my chest. “Can’t we program this board to hold the braking pattern until we are stopped?”
    “Yeah,” he said, “we can lock it, but I don’t know how to get it to stop braking when we’ve come to a complete stop. We’ll have to do that manually.”
    “Okay,” I said, “just do it. I’m tired of holding my arms in this position.”
    He locked it, and we backed away from the control boards warily. The ship kept braking, and didn’t heel over into a spin. I smiled.
    “I’m getting the hang of this,” I said. “And I don’t like it one bit. I can’t imagine how Welter figured this thing out and flew it solo.”
    “He built his own command sequences-” Gorski began, getting to his feet.
    “Yeah, yeah, the programmed hot keys. I know that. I meant getting the basic maneuvers down. They are so complex.”
    “Well, he had the autopilot to watch. He was driven.”
    I nodded. “Sarin? Anything out there?”
    “Metallic debris nearby,” she said. “Lots of it. But it’s all drifting, nothing looks like anyone is steering it. Most of it is our equipment, but I’m not getting any radio signals-wait, sir…”
    Major Jasmine Sarin stood with both hands working the console interface. She wore an intense expression. Stray strands of dark hair were caught up in her headset, making loops that hung near her chin.
    I looked at her. She had a strange look of concern. Her eyes widened. “I’m getting radio lock-on. Someone is aiming at us.”
    It took me a second before I figured it out. Sometimes I’m slow. “Hook me up to a general broadcast channel,” I snapped.
    “You are connected,” Sandra said. She was back on as my com officer and more business-like than before. I supposed being in a near-death coma for a few days will do that to a person.
    The attack began before I could start talking. A hundred tiny contacts lit up and began converging on our position.
    “They are attacking, sir,” Major Sarin said with her eyes wide.
    I put my hand up and she fell quiet.
    “This is Colonel Riggs of Star Force. We are on a rescue mission. The Macro cruiser you see now is under my command.”
    The tiny ships kept coming. There were more of them all the time. I knew what they were, of course. For several seconds, they kept coming without any contact.
    I waved to Gorski urgently. “Disconnect the laser turrets on the nose. They are on automatic.”
    “They shouldn’t shoot down our own people,” he said.
    “Just move, those brainboxes are young and inexperienced.”
    Silvery nanite control lines ran from sparse bridge in the engine room all the way up to the outer hull where the sensor arrays and rigged up laser turrets had been setup. The cable of chained nanite was over two miles long. Gorski plugged into the line and talked to the laser turrets, telling them to stand down.
    “Colonel Riggs?” a voice came from the void.
    I frowned. “Welter? Major Welter, is that you, man?”
    Major Welter laughed. “We were so going to invade your ship. You know that, don’t you?”
    I smiled. “You gave us a scare. Nice ambush. And you’re going to have to tell me how you survived out here so long without me. This was supposed to be a rescue, and it’s turning into a meet-and-greet. I’m feeling unappreciated.”
    “Don’t worry about that, Colonel. We need you! Permission to land on the hull of our new cruiser.”
    “Permission granted,” I said. “Try flying toward the prow. There’s a big hole on the left side, underneath.” I found myself grinning for the first time since we’d taken the ship. A few hundred more marines were still breathing. I reminded myself to never discount the capacity of my men to survive.
    I picked up a tablet and watched them all fly into the open maw at the front of my cruiser. Something odd seemed to be following them, however.
    “Uh, Major Welter?” I called. “What is that thing on your six?”
    Welter came back with a crackling radio communication. “That’s a surprise, sir. Someone else survived that you had probably counted out. And he’s rebuilt himself. He must be a hundred feet long now.”
    The words, what the hell? ran through my mind. I used my fingers to zoom in on the formation. “Are those some of our bricks in that mass?” I asked. “What do you make of that, Major Sarin?”
    “It appears to be a chain of linked bricks, with several of our flying dishes attached for propulsion,” she said. “I’m at a loss to explain it.”
    I stared, frowning in concern for several seconds until I knew what it had to be. When I had it, I wasn’t happy with what I was thinking.
    “Patch me through to the broadcast channel again. Short-range.”
    Major Sarin signaled me when she had it set up.
    “Marvin, give me your position, please.”
    “That is an imprecise statement. Please give me a relative point for frame of reference.”
    I chuckled despite myself. “Just tell me what you are flying aboard my ship.”
    “I’ve subsumed a large number of items from salvaged debris. That which is approaching your vessel is known as Marvin.”
    “Sir, two of those bricks are factories,” Gorski whispered. His voice gave away his excitement.
    “Marvin,” I said. “I thank you for retrieving these articles of equipment. They will be very useful to us. I’m not quite sure how you did it, but you’ve done us a great service.”
    There was a momentary pause. “I am familiar with your salvage laws, Colonel Riggs. My new sub-system components were lost in unowned space, and are therefore the property of the finder.”
    I stared at the conglomeration. I knew that I had built this intelligent machine-or at least allowed it to build itself. Was this how the Blues must have felt, at some critical moment in the past? Had they turned around one day and seen a Macro looming close to them? At this moment, I had a taste of what it must have felt like to be in their shoes. It wasn’t good.
    “Yeah…” I said. “Okay Marvin. I’m coming down there. I think we’re going to have to have a little chat.”

41

    Overall, the marines I’d left behind were in better shape than I had any right to expect them to be. Major Welter had not only survived by jettisoning himself from the conflict at the critical moment, he had organized the survivors. I had an interesting talk with him as he came aboard. I could tell right away Welter was proud of his accomplishments. He held his chin high and although he was tired, he was beaming at me.
    “Survival often depends on quick reasoning,” he told me as I helped him through the airlocks.
    “In your case luck didn’t hurt, either,” I said. I helped him hook his suit to the ship’s power lines and he began to quickly recharge.
    “Luck?” he asked, scandalized. “Not so! We reasoned that your group may or may not win against the cruiser. We had to plan for the worst, namely that you would lose and not return. In that case, our only option was to assault the next ship that came through the ring and take it for our own.”
    I nodded. “Mini-pirates, eh? Marvin helped gather the bricks I take it, to keep you going.”
    “Yes. He got a hold of a flying dish, then a brick, and connected the together with nanite cables. Then he kept going, knitting up that train thing you saw out there. The weird thing was he insisted on building them into a nanite-conglomerate, all connected to himself. I had an idea of building a base-not making them all part of Marvin’s body.”
    “He’s got a mind of his own,” I said. “Was he cooperative?”
    “Sort of. He let us use the power and oxygen, but he started running the factories to produce more nanite arms and stuff on his own.”
    I grabbed his arm. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me he’s been programming our factories on his own initiative?”
    “Oh yeah. It’s kind of weird. He definitely has his own plans. He’s not an enemy, in my estimation. He’s more like a guest in our group. He helps and shares. But he doesn’t accept our authority over him. Anything I told him to do, he took as advice. It’s like he considered my orders to be suggestions, and then mulled over whether he felt like following them or not.”
    I let go of him, and decided it was time to talk to Marvin directly. “Good insights, Major,” I said. “I’m going to go see what he’s up to. Please head up to the bridge and take over the helm as soon as you can, Gorski and I have been having a hell of a time with the Macro control system.”
    “That system is quite a piece of work, isn’t it?” Gorski asked with a twisted smile. “I get cramps in my limbs just thinking about pressing everything at once. Did you know I had to tap with my head sometimes to get the sequence right?”
    “I believe it,” I said, then left him. As soon as I was out of sight, I broke into a bouncing, low-gravity trot. By the time I’d reached the area I’d decided I needed to set up a squad of marines to help Marvin see things my way-if he wouldn’t listen to reason. I had to have those factories under my control. Next to the cruiser itself, they were the most valuable asset we had. They produced our weapons, supplies and repaired everything. Our survival depended on them. Marvin simply could not keep possession of them, not even for another hour.
    The hole in the upper left quadrant of the cruiser had become our launch-bay. The cruiser had big missile ports, but we didn’t really know how to control them, so we used the yawning hole to do the job. The area was big: over a hundred feet wide and three times that in depth. We’d taken out partial walls, twisted tubing and the like to give us more space. As best we could tell, the Macros had kept their sensor arrays and their missile magazines here. Now, it was a twisted mass of slag. The hole in the nose functioned like a big window, affording a view of orangey-brown Helios itself and occasionally the glaring rim of that giant, red sun.
    The launch bay swarmed with marines, most of them survivors of Welter’s short-lived pirate campaign. The rest were my people, helping organize the mass of equipment and manpower that streamed in. At the center of things was the junkpile known as Marvin. He didn’t look anything like his old self. He’d started off as a brainbox with legs, and now he was something like a scrap metal dragon-or maybe a flying freight train built in a junkyard. The core of his body consisted of three of my bricks. Two of those were my factories, I knew. They were chained together with nanite cables, as had been all of Marvin’s incarnations. The flying dishes my men had used as individual assault vehicles had been cunningly placed at every corner and angle of the three brick train to provide propulsion. There were at least a dozen of the dishes canted at various angles. Nanite arms controlled each of them individually. I could see how they would all point at one time to provide a lot of power. Despite myself, I was intrigued by the design. It was ingenious.
    I signaled Warrant Officer Sloan. He was always hanging around the launch bay, even though we didn’t have any tanks left for him to pilot. He’d recovered from exposure in space at the ring, and I knew he wouldn’t mind having something to do. I had him gather a squad, told him to arm themselves heavily and to stand by in the corridors outside the launch bay.
    When Sloan had his crew set up, I approached Marvin slowly, warily. I noted most of my men were keeping their distance from him. He hovered a few feet above the deck. No one tried to take away any of the pieces he’d purloined.
    I wanted to yell at him. I wanted to order him to land and have my marines begin stripping him down. But I forced myself into a welcoming frame of mind. Sometimes, a kind word could make difficult events glide by.
    “Welcome home, Marvin!” I said, walking up to the front section. I didn’t see his brainbox or his camera.
    I didn’t get any response, so I walked calmly along the length of the structure. Nanite-controlled propulsion dishes twitched as I came near. I gazed up and down, then along the length of him. Then I saw it. A small camera, lifted up over the rest. It was between the second and third bricks in the structure. I snorted and walked toward it at an even pace.
    “There you are,” I said. “It’s good to see you, and we owe you our thanks for helping out.”
    The camera lowered until it was barely peeping out from between the bricks. As I continued approaching, Marvin must have realized I’d spotted his single eye and the camera rose higher. It tilted and focused, tracking me.
    “This visual input device is damaged,” Marvin complained.
    I snorted. His personality hadn’t changed, just his structure. Thinking back, I realized that none of my statements of friendly greeting had really required a response. I had given no commands, made no requests and asked no questions. So Marvin hadn’t said anything. Now apparently, he identified me with serving a need of his, so he was talking.
    “Let’s talk about that, Marvin,” I said. “I can provide you with a brand new, undamaged visual unit. In fact, I’d like to give you two of them so you can see in stereo and get a better perception of depth.”
    The camera twitched, sliding to one side, perhaps to get a different perspective on me. “My sensor array includes scanners with multiple inputs. My regional spatial projections are more accurate-”
    “Yes, yes,” I said, putting up a gloved hand. “I know you can perceive a three dimensional environment. But those are active systems. The cameras are passive systems. Wouldn’t it be nice to observe without having to send out any telltale emissions?”
    Marvin thought this one over for awhile. I was working on his paranoia. If Marvin had one weakness, it was his slightly fearful nature. He wasn’t like the Macros or the herds of Centauri that way-he always looked out for number one. A passive system of sensory input was very important in any hostile environment. Space warfare was comparable to submarine warfare, and while active sonar was effective, passive systems were always preferable if you were trying to hide. Active detection systems such as radar or sonar operated by transmitting signals out and analyzing the signal that bounced back. The problem with such systems came when someone else was listening to your active pinging. They could then pinpoint your location with precision. Passive systems were more like human senses such as hearing. They did not give away the listener.
    “I would like to have multiple cameras,” Marvin said at last, taking the bait.
    “Great. Let’s make a deal then, Marvin. I’ll provide you with two-no, make that four new cameras. That way you can look in every direction at once. I know they have a limited field of vision, you’ve complained about that before. No more worrying about what is approaching from behind. I think it is an ample reward for the retrieval and return of our equipment.”
    “I have not returned your equipment,” Marvin pointed out.
    “The cameras will be provided the moment you do,” I said. “And I think you should be able to keep a piece of that junk you assembled. How about one of those dishes to provide you with mobility and flight? You can sit your brainbox in the dish and keep a few nanite arms for manipulation of objects and cameras.”
    Marvin hesitated. “The collective mass of the equipment you list is far less than that which I possess now.”
    I pursed my lips in annoyance. I wanted to shout at him even more now than when I’d first seen him. I wanted to order him to let go of my stuff, and get back to the lab. He reminded me of a child in some ways-a dangerous, alien child. It was my turn to pause, thinking of different ways to manipulate him. I could threaten, or force him to comply. He didn’t have any armament on his flying junk pile that I could see. We could shoot him down if we had to. But what would that teach him? To arm himself next time? I could imprison him, I supposed. Stripping him down to a single thin arm with a camera and some audio I/O would do it. He’d be down to talking then. But these were last resorts. I didn’t want to make a hostile out of Marvin. He had a wealth of information inside that brainbox of his and I had to get out everything I could.
    At last, I figured I had an angle on the problem. “Marvin, do you enjoy exploring ships?”
    “Yes.”
    “This is a new ship, with new chambers you’ve never seen. Remember the laboratory on Jolly Rodger? Remember the microbials?”
    “Yes.”
    “There are different discoveries to be made on this ship.”
    “What discoveries?”
    I laughed. “If I knew, they would have already been discovered. Who knows? Mysteries are here. New things none of us have ever seen. Would you like to find them?”
    “Yes.”
    “Well then,” I said. “Take my offer for a reward, and get yourself down to a size that will allow you to explore every inch of this ship. If you keep the bricks, you will have to sit here in the hold alone and you won’t get to see anything.”
    Marvin was quiet for a while. “I will take your offer,” he said at last.
    I waved back Warrant Officer Sloan’s the assault squad. They had been very ready to take down Marvin. They’d been waiting in the corridors quietly while we had our little chat. I sent them out to find me four undamaged cameras instead. The baffled look on Sloan’s face was priceless.

42

    I headed back toward the bridge, but didn’t make it half-way before I heard someone behind me. I turned sharply, and blinked in surprise. It was Sandra.
    “Where’d you come from?” I asked.
    “What’s this?” she asked. She held up something in front of my faceplate.
    I took it from her and examined it. “Ning’s ID card? Where did you get that?”
    She stared at me, and looked sick. Her mouth was open, her eyes stared into the distance. “Who’s Ning?” she asked.
    “A med tech. I left her in charge of your coffin-ah your medical pod.”
    “You were right the first time,” she said. “It was a coffin.”
    “What are you talking about? Where is Ning?”
    Sandra looked at me strangely. She came closer and hugged me. I thought she might cry. I lifted my arms, but didn’t quite dare to hug her back at first. I didn’t want to mess this up somehow.
    “What’s wrong?” I asked in a soft voice.
    “Just tell me how you left me. Tell me why I’m alive again.”
    I opened my mouth and closed it again. Things had been so wild for so long I’d never had time to tell her about the biotic soup I’d bathed her in to rejuvenate her. I gently put my arms around her, but was careful not to get too friendly. I organized my thoughts, knowing I had to tell her how things went in the most positive way possible.
    “You were in that box for a long time,” I said. “It really upset me. I visited you all the time, tried to come up with solutions. The nanites had kept you alive, but you were too far gone from vacuum exposure to recover. You were in an indefinite coma.”
    “Did you think about unplugging me?” she asked, lifting her head. Before I could answer, she buried her face against my breastplate. “Don’t tell me about that. Just tell me how you did it.”
    “Well, I didn’t think there was a way. But I didn’t give up. Over time I learned about this new microbial species aboard Jolly Rodger, in the Macro labs.”
    “Species?”
    “Remember the black goo you had all over you when you awakened?” I asked.
    “Vaguely.”
    “That was them-or their byproducts. They were in a big tank like a bag…anyway, they all died aboard Jolly Rodger. Just before the ship blew up, I had you in a tank of these tiny creatures, and got them to rebuild your damaged cells. They could do things that nanites couldn’t do, because they were organic themselves. You owe them your life.”
    “You got them to do it?” she asked. “You mean you talked to them? They are intelligent?”
    “Yes, with a mass-intellect similar to the nanites.”
    “How did you communicate with beings like that?”
    “Through Marvin. He could talk to them.”
    Sandra pulled away from me and took Ning’s ID card. She stood a few steps away rubbing her own shoulder with the card.
    “Tell me, Kyle,” she said. “How did the microbes do it?”
    “They needed a source of protein for raw materials. Then they broke that down and regrew it as the target form. You see my right foot? It used to be a pork chop, believe it or not.”
    She dipped her head down and shivered slightly. I stepped closer, wondering if I’d blown it somehow.
    “You asked me where Ning went,” she said, “well, I think you are looking at her.”
    “What?” I said. Then I got it, and almost laughed. “No, no. I don’t think so. Ning is missing, but so are a lot of people. She was killed in the battle.”
    “No,” Sandra said. “I found her. More than just that ID card. She was in coffin. I went back to it and dug around in the slime. There are bones in that sludge. And hair, zippers. The ID card was there too. The microbes ate her to rebuild me. And I don’t even remember her.”
    I stared at her, feeling some of her horror. I was one thing to be partly made of a pork chop. After all, everyone is built from the materials they consume. But another person… Usually, I had something to say in every situation. Not this time.
    Sandra caught me looking at her that way, and she let a few tears run down her cheek. “I’m a monster,” she said. “A cannibal. You should have just let me die then spaced the remains. That’s the best way. Couldn’t you have left me in peace? You shouldn’t have done it, Kyle. My life wasn’t worth someone else’s.”
    “Done what?” I asked.
    She stepped closer. “I should have known it was you. I’ve owed you for a long time, Kyle. You came back for me the first time I was dead in that cold ocean. You fished me out and brought me back to life. I’m a ghost twice over now, but this time the price was too high. You shouldn’t have done it.”
    “Done what?”
    She stepped closer and hissed her words up at me. “You shouldn’t have killed Ning and shoved her into that box.”
    My mouth hung open. “I told you, I wasn’t there. I left Marvin in charge.”
    Sandra stared at me, eyes narrowed in disbelief. “Really?”
    “Yeah. I told him to fix you. I think I said something like: do whatever it takes. Maybe I should have been more specific.”
    She closed her eyes and sagged against me. I put my arms around her and soothed her gently.
    Sandra ripped loose from me suddenly, and her face had utterly changed. Instead of horror and sorrow, it was filled with rage. “We have to kill Marvin,” she said. “We have to turn him off. He’s a monster-and he’s made me into one, too!”
    I looked at her seriously. The way she had moved, the power in her limbs…I could feel it. She was stronger than nanotized men. It was like soothing a wild gorilla that could rip a man’s face off.
    “Marvin is cooperating right now,” I said. “He’s like all these machines-very literal-minded. But if he really killed Ning to empower you…that’s just not acceptable. I think you’re right. I’m going to have to disable him.”
    Sandra came close, looking at me intently. “No,” she said, whispering. “Not disable, destroy.”
    “I understand your passion,” I said. “But he’s too valuable. He can talk to these alien species. Remember when we transferred him from the Centaurs? He came across as an incomplete download. Maybe there were elements of his reasoning that are twisted up because of that.”
    She stared at me in disgust. “What are you doing? Copping an insanity plea for a robot?”
    “I’m telling you he knows too much to destroy. If we can get the knowledge he has-just the ability to speak the Centaur language, for example, would be invaluable to Earth.”
    “I’m talking about a human life, Kyle.”
    “I’m talking about billions of human lives,” I said.
    We stared at each other hotly for a long time. Finally, she kissed me again, so hard it hurt my lips. It felt good, just the same.
    “All right,” she said. “You do what you think you have to. But if he does anything weird, I’m pulling his plug myself.”
    Anything weird? I thought. Not Marvin! His thinking was so far out of the box that he didn’t even know where the box was. I didn’t say any of these things, however. They wouldn’t have helped Sandra’s mood.
    “Okay,” I said. “Check up on him. Don’t let him kill anyone else. Especially not you.”
    Sandra snorted as if she didn’t think Marvin had a chance against her. I wasn’t so sure. He kept surprising me. But then again, so did she.
    “All right, Colonel,” she said.
    We kissed again and parted ways. My lips were burning, but I figured I might have gotten back in the loop with her somehow. I realized as I headed to the bridge that she hadn’t even mentioned Major Sarin. She’d been distracted by Marvin and Ning. Her hard kisses were punishing, and made me wonder what actual sex with her was going to be like-should I be so lucky as to find out.

43

    Even with the work Marvin had already done to gather the pieces and with Welter’s expert piloting, it took us a while to collect everything we could salvage. We picked up every marine, dead or alive, and brought them back aboard for transport home.
    All the while we watched space around us carefully for signs of a Macro incursion. We knew about the ring orbiting Helios, and the one further out which connected to the Eden system, but there might be others. For all we knew, the Macros were massing up and planning to come after us in force.
    Once I had my factories back from Marvin, I immediately switched them over to producing sensor array units. We needed eyes now more than weapons systems. I tried to keep the cruiser as close to the Helios ring as possible for a quick exit in case the Macros did show up. I also posted men on flying dishes as sentries on the far side of the ring, in the Alpha Centauri system. They were scouts, using instruments to watch our backs. They couldn’t transmit a signal through the ring, so I had them come back through every hour to report. If they saw any ships, they were to return immediately with the news.
    Keeping observers in the tri-star system did have one side benefit: we became convinced the tri-star system was indeed comprised of Alpha, Beta and Proxima Centauri. This was somehow comforting to everyone. We weren’t lost in some distant galaxy. We were only four short lightyears away, practically within shouting distance of home. We even grew to feel territorial about the system. After all, it was very close to Earth whether you were using the rings or mundane spaceflight. I’d already decided in the future we would use it as a no-man’s land buffer zone between ourselves and the Worms should both species be lucky enough to survive this war. I could see a trading post out here, maybe we’d be able to talk to them.
    I knew what I should be doing next, and it involved cajoling Marvin into helping me communicate with the Worms. This was a critical mission, but I just wasn’t up to it. I had no idea how many hours it had been since I’d had a good rest, but I was sure it had been more than a day. Even with nanites removing the toxins from my blood brought on by fatigue and repairing cells that needed it, I was still coming close to a crash. The human brain needed rest and sleep with dreams to reorganize our thoughts. Without that downtime, anyone would begin to lose effectiveness and eventually go mad. I couldn’t afford to be delusional, so I began looking for a place to sleep. I found the sleeping bricks were full of like-minded marines. Disappointed, I turned around and found Sandra with her arms crossed, half-smiling at me.
    I cursed and staggered in surprise. “Didn’t hear you following me,” I said.
    “You weren’t supposed to,” she said.
    I could tell she was proud of herself.
    “How long have you been following me around?” I asked.
    “For quite a while. I finally got bored tracking Marvin. He’s just a floating brain box with one skinny arm now. All he does is look at everything and poke at Macro control systems all over the ship, wherever he finds them.”
    I frowned. “Does he make the boards do anything?”
    “Not that I’ve noticed. He just taps at them and stares. Sometimes he talks to himself. But I’m not completely taken in by his act. All serial killers seem like harmless eccentrics early on, you know.”
    “You do sound like the neighbor after the crime,” I said. “The one who talks about how he always mowed his lawn, kept to himself and waved hello like a normal robot.”
    She almost laughed, but not quite. I could tell Ning’s nasty passing was still fresh in her mind. I decided to change the topic. “I’ve been looking for a place to get some sleep,” I said. “Any ideas?”
    She gave her head a small tilt to the left, considering it. I’d always liked that affectation. After a short pause, she crooked her finger in my direction. I followed her like a puppy. Despite my fatigue I admired her shapely figure as she walked through the halls. She’d gotten rid of the vacc suit now that most of the ship was pressurized and heated. It was much more comfortable for everyone. Wearing a vacc suit continuously was like living in a sleeping bag with holes cut out for your eyes.
    I wanted to reach for her, but stopped myself. I knew that much about make-ups, you had to time things perfectly. She led me to one of the countless chambers on the ship that served no obvious purpose. This one was full of tubes. Metal tubes, fabric tubes, tubes that looked like they were made of rubber or graphite-but weren’t. The trick was, the tubes that ran over the floor and the walls had two wonderful properties: they were soft and slightly warm. I was sure they carried power or data or both. In fact, this looked like the Macro equivalent of a networking data-closet. We spread out some blankets that were kind of like tarps on top of the thick, flexy tubes. With a little rearranging and plumping, they made a firm but livable bed.
    “This isn’t bad,” I was saying, admiring our handiwork. I was about to go on, but she grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me down on top of her. And I do mean pulled. I was yanked off my feet, and forcibly kissed once again.
    I turned my head as she began to run her hands over my back.
    “What’s wrong?” she growled.
    “I didn’t think we’d made up yet,” I said.
    “Since when did you care?”
    “A man’s got to have some self-respect,” I said, straining away and giving her my best poker-face.
    Sandra stared at me for a confused second, and then burst out laughing. I joined in. Both of us knew I had no self-respect what-so-ever when it came to getting into bed with her. She was a weakness of mine-an addiction.
    “We haven’t made up,” she said after we were finished.
    “Why did we do it then?” I asked.
    “I didn’t want you thinking about Jasmine Sarin for one more second,” she said.
    I laughed with my eyes closed. “You’re a succubus.”
    Overall I’d found her body to be familiar, but more firm and energetic. I didn’t mind the change. The tubes were still soft under me, and I was falling asleep the moment she climbed off me. She’d taken the last ounce of energy out of my tired form.
    I passed out for a long time.

44

    I awakened with Sandra standing over me, shaking me. I opened gluey eyes and peered up. “Morning already?”
    “We’re in trouble,” she said.
    I took one look at her face and stood up with a grunt. I dragged my vacc suit back on while she explained. She was already dressed. I got the feeling she had been for some time.
    “Everyone was looking for you,” she said. “Calling over the com-link-then I realized I was the only one who knew where you were. So I sprinted down here to get you.”
    I picked up my helmet and saw it was indeed full of flashing lights. “I must not have heard the buzzer,” I said. “What’s up?”
    “It’s the Worms,” she said.
    I snapped my head around to stare at her.
    “They have ships,” she said. “They are small ones, but they are coming up here.”
    “Up here?”
    “Yeah, heading right toward us.”
    “Are they firing? Are they in range yet? How long do we have?” While I asked these questions, she shook her head and we hustled together along corridors and access tubes to the bridge. When we arrived, everyone looked up. I realized we’d made a grand, hurried entrance together. Every eye in the place stared at us. A few smirked.
    Only Major Sarin avoided looking at us. She kept her eyes down on her computer. Internally, I felt a twist. More discord. I couldn’t seem to stop messing up my staff. It was obvious Sandra and I had been together, and Jasmine felt hurt.
    I decided to go commander on them. No apologies. No explanations. Nothing. When I wanted to get the minds of my marines off gossip and hurt feelings, nothing worked like a pile of snappy orders.
    “Have we got a big situational screen hooked up yet?”I demanded.
    Heads shook.
    “No?” I asked. “Sarin, you are on screen ops. Feed the data to my tablet, clone our screens. Gorski, give me verbal numbers on the situation. Enemy strength and range first.”
    We soon stood in a group that resembled a football huddle, with everyone tapping at small portable computers. The situation was not yet dire. We had no sign of Macro ships in the Helios system or Alpha Centauri. Instead, we had exactly fourteen small vessels coming up from Helios. The unusual configuration of the ships and the fact they’d come from Helios led us to believe they were Worm ships. They looked vaguely like the old NASA shuttlecrafts to me, but a bit larger. They had stubby wings and a pointed snout. They were clearly designed for atmospheric travel.
    “It looks like fourteen frigate class ships against one cruiser,” I said, “and we aren’t fully operational. I don’t like the odds. Where did this Worm fleet come from?”
    “As far as we can tell, Colonel,” Gorski said, “they’ve been hiding them underwater. They lifted off from beneath those muddy seas of theirs.”
    “Makes sense. I’m not surprised they’ve been hiding them. They aren’t very big. I would bet two Macro cruisers could take all of them out. I suppose whatever fleet they may have had in the past was wiped out by the Macros. So they hid what they had left-or built new ones in secret.”
    I’d never been able to say I liked the Worms, but I did find them worthy of admiration at times. They were the beaten down people in this game. But they were determined, and never seemed to give up. I suspected their population was even lower than the Centaur herds had been. They could be snuffed out after another few bad battles. Everywhere we went, it looked as if the machines had already won. We were still struggling, but like the Worms we’d really been beaten long ago.
    “Should we fight or run, sir?” Gorski asked.
    I ignored him. I could feel every eye on the bridge on me. I didn’t look at my crew, but instead studied the small Worm fleet, knowing it was all they had. I sighed as I looked at the screen. Fourteen Worm ships, coming up to do battle with what they must have figured was a single, damaged Macro cruiser. I couldn’t blame them. I could imagine they’d argued hard amongst themselves whether this was the time to make a counterstrike. If they were anything like human commanders, some had wanted to keep hiding and building. Others had urged action, taking the position that they must act. If they didn’t take the chance to win this small battle, how could they ever going to take the initiative?
    “We’re not going to fight them,” I said. “But we’re not going to run right away, either. What have we got if we are forced to fight?”
    Everyone stared at me for a second before turning back to their screens.
    “We’ve got an operable main battery,” Gorski said. “Unlike our last ship. And we’ve managed to build a number of missiles that will fit the tubes on this cruiser.”
    I looked at him with my eyebrows raised high. “You’ve been busy,” I said.
    He nodded proudly. I looked around the group. Welter was standing at the helm with his fingers uplifted, twitching almost. He wanted to work that board in combat, I could tell. Gorski wanted to fire his new missiles. The fact he’d put them into the Macro tubes showed he’d gained some level of control over the ship’s weapons system. I suspected he only knew enough to open the external ports and allow our brainbox-driven missiles to launch on their self-guided path.
    Major Sarin was looking at me now, waiting calmly for my next order. She didn’t look anxious to do any killing-but it was hard to tell with her. She guarded her feelings, rarely letting them show on her face.
    Sandra just looked worried. She didn’t like any of this. I could hardly blame her, she’d already died in combat twice that I was aware of. Maybe she wasn’t certain I could pull off a third miracle and find some new alien technology to put her cells back together today.
    “How long do we have until they get in firing range?” I asked.
    “Hard to say,” Gorski replied. “That depends on their armament, which we haven’t seen yet.”
    “Assume they have the equivalent of two Nano-ship lasers each.”
    Gorski tapped for a half-minute. “I’d say we have three hours in that case.”
    I nodded. “We’ve got every marine living or dead we could find aboard now, correct?”
    “Yes sir.”
    “In three hours,” I said, “we’ll be out of here. I’m not going to destroy another biotic people’s fleet just because we can’t talk to one another. They are naturally assuming we are a damaged Macro vessel. I’ll try to convince them we aren’t, but if it comes down to it, we’ll run rather than fire on them.”
    Gorski raised his hand with his palm open. “Hold on, sir,” he said. “I didn’t say we had three hours to sit around. They are building velocity. They could follow us through the ring. We have to start moving much sooner if you want to avoid a fight.”
    “How long?”
    “Less than an hour.”
    I sighed. “All right. Has anyone seen Marvin?”
    Sandra had seen him, of course. She knew exactly where he was. She had, in fact, belled him like a cat. I realized I should have done that sooner, but just hadn’t gotten around to thinking of it. She had put one of the transponders on him she’d put on me long ago in happier times-back before the Worms, Centaurs and Macros had managed to kill ninety percent of my marines.
    I followed Sandra through the ship. To my surprise, I had to struggle to keep up. Even wearing my powerful exoskeletal battle suit over my vacc suit, enhancing my muscle contractions and magnifying them, I found it hard to keep her behind in my range of vision. She leapt and sprang like a cat. I recalled watching a documentary on red kangaroos once. At full gallop-or whatever you called a kangaroo’s gait when it was hopping like mad-each bound took them a good thirty feet. Sandra reminded me of a kangaroo moving through steel passages in flying leaps.
    We found Marvin pretty fast, and I had to smile grimly at his reaction. He was definitely disturbed by our approach. We found him in a data closet full of flexible hosing-similar to the one we’d made into a love-nest so recently. His primary arm was probing the tubes. He had one open, and looked to be doing some kind of exploratory surgery on the glowing contents. Liquid spilled on the decks like oily blood. Three of his four cameras were canted at various angles, staring at the open tube. But the fourth eye was on lookout, staring at the hatch behind him as we crashed it open.
    The dish his brainbox floated upon spun around and all the cameras came up to look at us. Two focused on Sandra and two on me. He dropped the cable and snaked his probing arm back into his brainbox with surprising speed. It definitely reminded me of a guilty start. I was sure we’d caught him red-handed at something, but I simply didn’t have time to waste finding out what it was.
    “Marvin,” I said. “We require your help.”
    “What assistance do you require?”
    “Come with us to the bridge, Marvin,” I ordered. “Now.”
    One of Marvin’s camera eyes drifted first to my sidearm, then to Sandra’s. The second and third cameras stared at our faces simultaneously. The fourth camera squirmed around behind him now, looking at the tubes he’d been cutting into. He hesitated and seemed reluctant to leave his work.
    “I require another half-hour to complete my current project.”
    I was burning to inquire as to the nature of his project, and to give him a sharp order to follow me or else, but I’d learned what worked best with Marvin: cold logic.
    “If you do not come immediately, this ship and all of us aboard her face destruction. A new enemy has moved against us. We have very little time.”
    This got him moving. His self-preservation circuits were in prime condition. His flying dish tilted and he levitated out of the room. We followed him as he made his way toward the bridge. As we went, three of the four cameras watched us, looking over his shoulder in effect. Only one looked ahead to guide him on his path.
    “What is required of me?” Marvin said in a voice that should have had a whiny cadence to it, but I guess he wasn’t programmed for that.
    “I need you to translate for me. You can talk to the biotic beings we call the Worms. They are the beings who built the ships approaching us now. We must talk to them, and stop them from attacking this vessel.”
    “Few determined enemies can be argued out of their aggression. I would suggest you destroy them instead.”
    “There are too many. Your translations must be precise or your continued existence is in jeopardy.”
    His manner changed after that. I noticed his extra cameras now studied airlocks, hatches and exits as we passed them. Was he considering bolting on us? I wouldn’t put it past him. I glanced toward Sandra and she nodded back. I could tell she had noticed the same thing. He was clearly storing details of his environment, mapping the ship for purposes of escape.
    “Sandra here will accompany you everywhere you go, Marvin,” I said.
    A camera swung back to study me, then Sandra. “This is the female I modified,” he said.
    “About that, robot,” Sandra began.
    I lifted a hand. “Later,” I said. “Let’s talk to the Worms and survive the next few hours first.”
    Sandra looked pissed, but fell silent. I could tell by the look of smoldering anger and determination in her eyes, she was going to keep Marvin on a tight leash. That was exactly what I wanted. I only hoped she could keep from tearing him apart if she got him alone.
    On the bridge, people eyed this newest incarnation of Marvin doubtfully.
    “Hook him up to the sensor input,” I told Major Sarin. She did it, but she didn’t seem happy about it. No one really trusted Marvin now. If I didn’t need him so much I would have switched him off and put him in a storage container until I reached Earth.
    Marvin accepted a silvery, hair-thin nanite wire. He touched it to his brainbox, and it adhered as if it had been soldered there. So strange, this living, smart metal we used without a thought now. I supposed new tech was always like that. Strange at first, then natural and indispensable once you were familiar with it.
    “Marvin, can you transmit a hailing call to the Worm ships?”
    “Yes, but it is not necessary,” he said.
    “Why not?” I barked.
    “Because they are already transmitting one to us.”

45

    I’d talked to a number of different aliens by now, but the Worms were a strange lot even by galactic standards. They didn’t use words. They used images. Transmitted symbols, which Marvin didn’t know how to break into English phrases. All he could do was give us the image they were sending and send one back that he deemed appropriate. I felt like I was drawing pictographic notes to an ancient Egyptian pen pal-but I had little idea what the pictures really meant.
    As I studied the language, I recalled the strange chamber we’d found back on Helios, the one with various sculptures made out of resins. I had always suspected the sculptures were formed by Worm excretions. I’d originally guessed the chamber to be an art gallery of sorts. I now believed the chamber was a library, school, or some other repository of knowledge. For a digging species, the Worms were highly visual-or maybe they felt the images with tactile sensory input, rather than looked at them. Whichever was the case, they definitely communicated with images and three-dimensional shapes. In a way, I was impressed. A lot of information could be stored in a three-dimensional structure. Our language was purely symbolic, and thus it took a lot of words to describe a concept.
    What was the old adage? That a picture was worth a thousand words… Well, the Worms had gone one further with that. They communicated essentially in little statues of captured thought. A sculpture to them told a story. It was stored data in a physical form, rather than using standard symbols drawn or computer-generated.
    I didn’t have the time to get excited about this cultural meeting, and in any case all our xenologists had died by this point of the expedition. Once Marvin had explained the communications system to me, we got down to business.
    “All right then,” I said, “they talk with shapes and images. But how are we going to transmit them? We don’t have time to make clay models, here.”
    “They have a reduced symbol set for low-tech communications,” Marvin said. “It uses a standard group of symbols, arranged in a series. The exact meaning is up to interpretation, however.”
    “Great,” I said. “What are they sending now?”
    “They are repeating three symbols,” Marvin said. “The first symbol is an image of a raging Worm warrior.”
    “Okay, we’ve got that. Go on.”
    “The second is that of a razor-backed fluke-a common, much-hated parasite that lives inside Worms of lower caste. The last one resembles a meteor falling. It is the symbol for destruction.”
    My bridge crew looked at one another unhappily. No one had to do much guessing about these symbols.
    “So,” Gorski said, “We’re hateful parasites and they are coming to rightfully destroy us.”
    I nodded. “It sounds like it. Nice of them to transmit this vengeful message-how many times?”
    “Somewhat over seventy thousand repeats have been noted according to signal logs,” Marvin said.
    “Yeah,” I said. “That’s great. Thousands of repeated threats. Let’s try to talk. Suggestions?”
    Everyone hesitated. I couldn’t blame them. Who wanted to be the first to talk to an enraged enemy? I had less concerns than most. I figured if they already hated us, we had little to lose.
    “Maybe we should send the same thing back at them,” Gorski said. “Didn’t you do that with the Macros to get them talking? So that they knew we understood and wished to talk?”
    I chuckled. “Yeah. But the Macros were making demands, not screaming threats. You think we should start off by shouting screw you too back at our enraged attackers, eh? I’m not sure how that will defuse the situation.”
    No one else had any hot ideas, so I told Marvin to send a new message. “Let’s try a symbol for peace and harmony,” I said.
    “I’m not aware of such a symbol. There is one for love-but that is more in tune with erotic interest. Another indicates submission to a superior.”
    “Fantastic. We don’t want to mate with them. Hmm. What indicates cooperation?”
    “I’m not aware of such a symbol.”
    “Come on,” I said. “Stretch that big brain of yours, Marvin! Don’t the Worms ever team up to do anything together?”
    “They form groups for hunting, procreation and war parties.”
    “Let’s try hunting. Send them a symbol suggesting we team up as a hunting party. What is that symbol?”
    “An image of a fat, underground grub being sliced open.”
    “Disgusting,” Sandra said.
    I smiled at her. “Just their equivalent of a juicy steak, I’m sure. Send it, Marvin.”
    “Message sent,” he said.
    We waited a few tense seconds. “Any reaction?” I asked finally, not being able to contain myself.
    “They have stopped sending their three threatening images,” Marvin said.
    “They are thinking that one over,” I said. “We’re going to have to catalogue these symbols and how they worked out. Earth can analyze these for future contact. Assuming we survive this encounter, of course.”
    “I’m already recording, Colonel,” Gorski told me. He was tapping and opening save files as we went, capturing the data blips coming in and combining the signals with the descriptions Marvin gave us. Hopefully, we would learn to talk to them on our own eventually.
    “Let’s send them this,” I said, “I want an image of one of these flukes, and a strong negative signal. Deny we are the flukes, or that they are.”
    “Message sent,” Marvin said.
    I looked at him with a sudden thought. It would be so easy for him to screw us. Once again, I had placed myself within the power of a machine, reliant upon Marvin for my own well-being. The only reason I trusted him at all in this instance was that I was convinced he believed himself to be in danger as well.
    “Incoming message,” Marvin said suddenly. “It’s the same thing. Warrior, fluke and destruction.”
    “What is the symbol for machine? Do they have one?”
    “Yes.”
    “Send machine-destruction back,” I said.
    “Done…they’ve stop sending their repeated message,” Marvin said after a brief pause. While we worked with him, his four camera eyes studied his environment. One watched Welter at the helm controls. One watched me, while the last two seemed to be stretching until the nanite arm was wire-thin to watch Gorski with his calculations and recordings. I knew that Marvin was studying us just as closely as we were studying him.
    “The Worms must be puzzling it out,” Major Sarin said, speaking up for the first time. “They must be wondering why we are trying to talk to them at all.”
    “Any change in their approach, Gorski?” I asked.
    “None, sir.”
    “Okay,” I said. “Marvin, is there a symbol meaning the speaking individual? Something like a pronoun, such as ‘I’ or ‘me’?”
    “There is an image for the basic Worm. A common, non-specific individual.”
    “Sounds like ‘we’,” I said. “Send them the symbols for we, machine, negative.”
    “They are now responding with the symbol for of an egg-stealing mite,” Marvin said.
    “That means they are calling us liars, right?” I asked.
    “The symbol translates into thief, liar or villain,” Marvin said.
    “That can’t be good,” Gorski commented.
    “Wrong,” I said, shaking my head, “it is good, because it means they understood our message. Marvin, send them the liar image and the negative symbol. Then repeat we, machine, negative.”
    “They’ve stopped transmitting,” Marvin said.
    “Okay,” I said. “The question is how we prove to them we aren’t Macros, when we are in a Macro ship.”
    “Is there a symbol for a human?” Major Sarin asked.
    “No, not to my knowledge,” Marvin said.
    “Yeah, let’s not even tell them about that,” I said. “Remember, if they know we are humans, they’ve only seen us as the guys who fought our way into their city and blew it up. I think we are better off as anonymous, machine-hating friends.”
    “Is there s symbol for slave or servant?” asked Gorski. “Maybe we can tell them we are slaves that have broken away from their masters.”
    I liked that idea. Marvin selected appropriate symbols and we fired them off. The Worms declared us liars and villains from time to time, but with less frequency and repetition. Maybe they were beginning to believe us.
    “Now,” I said, “now is the moment to ask. Send them the symbol for hunting together-that fat sliced grub thing, along with machine and destruction. Intermix that with we are not machines off and on.”
    We all waited tensely for their reply. A full minute passed.
    “Anything?” I finally asked.
    “No response.”
    “Keep sending. But slowly, as if it is important and we want to make sure they got it, not as a frightened plea.”
    After another minute, a response finally came in. “They are sending hunting partner, and a tunnel mouth,” Marvin said.
    I grunted, not sure what to make of that. “Is that a yes or a no?”
    “We don’t have much time left, sir,” Gorski said.
    “I know Captain, I can read the clock,” I snapped back. I rubbed my face. “So, what does it mean? Do they want to hunt inside one of their mounds? On Helios?”
    “Does the tunnel mouth mean one of their mounds?” Gorski asked. “Or does it mean entry or exit?”
    “The symbol indicates leaving or arriving at a destination,” Marvin said.
    I nodded suddenly. “I think I have it,” I said. “They want us to leave. That is about the only way to prove we aren’t Macros. What do lone Macros generally do when they are wounded? They fight to the death. They only retreat if they are risking a large fleet. Singly they are always willing to die like ants protecting the nest, without worry or fear for their lives. If we turn around, that would indicate we are not Macros.”
    “Worth a try,” Major Welter said. He rubbed his hands together and lifted them to his control board like an orchestra conductor ready to conduct.
    “All right,” I said. I turned to Welter, who had been standing for the last twenty minutes with his arms crossed and looking positively bored. “Start it up. Turn our nose around and head slowly for the ring.”
    Major Welter did as I asked, but instead of a graceful maneuver, he caused the ship to whirl around in a sickening spin. Fortunately, it was over with quickly. “Sorry,” he said. He gently worked the controls and we nosed toward the ring.
    “Now,” I told Marvin, “transmit hunters-machine-destroy. Then send that me-Worm thing and the exit symbol. We’ll tell them we are allies against the Macros, and we are agreeing to leave.”
    “Done.”
    “Anything else from them?” I asked.
    “No.”
    I hissed in vexation. This was a golden opportunity. I didn’t have the feeling we’d forged an alliance, but rather we’d been told to get out and had finally agreed.
    “Let’s make them do something,” I said. “Welter, slow it down to a crawl, but keep moving. Marvin, is there a symbol for their fleet?”
    “They refer to themselves as the raging Worm warrior.”
    “Right,” I said. “Send them the Worm warrior and a symbol for stop. We want them to halt their attack approach and we’ll leave.”
    “Symbols sent.”
    “Response?”
    “None.”
    A long minute went by. The Worm ships were still approaching, and we were crawling out of their system.
    “Sir,” Gorski said. “We have to get underway now. At their speed, they will be able to come through the ring after us, overtake us and engage us in battle if we don’t get moving.”
    “Right,” I said. “Major Welter, slow it down even more.”
    “But sir…” Gorski began.
    I put my hand up into his face. He shut up. “Marvin,” I said, “rapidly send warrior-stop, warrior-stop, warrior-stop.”
    “Done.”
    We waited for thirty seconds, then thirty more. Gorski licked his lips and tapped madly at his tablet. I could tell he was sweating it. “I should prepare my missiles tubes, just in case,” he said.
    “Good idea,” I said. “Open them now, Captain.”
    “But wouldn’t that be interpreted-”
    “Yes,” I said, “exactly. It will be interpreted as a threat. If we are going to do what they want, they have to reciprocate. Otherwise, this isn’t an alliance.”
    “Opening the missile ports, sir,” Gorski said unhappily.
    “Repeat our message three more times, Marvin.”
    “Done.”
    Another span of time went by. No one talked, but the tension was thick in the room. “Order everyone to put on their battle suits,” I said quietly.
    Everyone jumped into action. It was as if they had been waiting for this order-and they probably had. I was already wearing mine, but most of the bridge crew was not. They were cumbersome, especially when tapping at fragile screens. More than one of us had cracked a tablet screen with an exoskeletal, enhanced-strength fingertip.
    “Incoming message: the red sun,” Marvin said.
    “What’s the meaning?” I asked.
    “It is generally a positive symbol of agreement or good fortune,” Marvin said.
    “They are slowing down, sir,” Gorski said.
    Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. “Send them hunter-machine-destroy again,” I said. “Gorski, close the missile ports. Welter, get us the hell out of here!”
    The ship rocked with applied power before I’d finished my sentence. People cursed all around me, caught by surprise with their battle suits half on. They swayed and reached for balance. A few of them had to pick themselves up, including Major Sarin. I moved to help her up, but caught Sandra’s stern eye. I stopped and turned back to the control boards, pretending I hadn’t noticed Jasmine as she fell over and then picked herself up.
    Within a few minutes we were through the ring and flying across the Alpha Centauri system bound for home.

46

    We took our time crossing the Alpha Centauri system. For the first time in a long while, we had the chance to survey a planetary system without any enemy ships poised to strike. I was still anxious to get home, but I didn’t want to squander this opportunity. I had the factory bricks build passive sensory satellites and we dropped them off behind us. I dropped them off in orbits all around the system. The last time a fleet had come to Earth, they’d done it through the other ring, the one on Venus that led to the blue giant system. But for all I knew, they had another large fleet past Eden. After learning of what we’d done, we had to expect a major reprisal. It was only a matter of time.
    I thought about planting a minefield of our own at the ring between Helios and Alpha Centauri, but decided against it. We’d just made our first steps toward understanding with the Worms. All the biotic species had to work together, in my estimation, to defeat the Macros. How would it look if we blew up a few of their ships when they got around to nosing their way into this neutral system?
    On a relatively peaceful mission, we cruised across the vast tri-star system and catalogued what we found there. The two G-class yellow suns known as Alpha and Beta Centauri were both lovely stars. Alone somewhere else in space, either of these twins could probably have grown a nice family of planets, maybe even worlds with life. But because there were two large stars, plus the smaller red dwarf Proxima Centauri, no large chunk of real estate had survived. There were swirls of dust and plenty of asteroids floating around, but nothing that could support an atmosphere, much less life.
    The star system was effectively a desert, but deserts still had their strategic uses. We would militarize it. It would form a buffer between us and the Worms. I was glad, in a way, to have the system between us and Helios. It represented more travel time between our world and alien strongholds. I realized now that having the rings in the Solar System placed at a fair distance from Earth was helpful. If we had a ring sitting in orbit over our world, we would be much less likely to survive. Aliens could pop in at any moment to ravage our world without warning. This way we could hold this territory and fight over Alpha Centauri, rather than war close to home where billions might die.
    I shook my head and sighed. Sandra murmured beside me, asleep. She had a clutching hand on my bare chest. Whenever I tried to move away, her arm tightened, and I knew I would have to wake her up to escape. It was slightly irritating, but overall it felt good to have her back.
    We now slept together regularly in the closet full of tubes. When we weren’t here, Sandra stalked Marvin on his forays around the ship while I served on the bridge. There wasn’t much for a communications officer to do while we crossed a quiet system alone.
    Sandra was different now. She wasn’t the same girl I’d met years ago on the Alamo. Whatever the microbes had done to her had affected her mind somewhat as well as her body. She was more prone to violence and paranoia. Her natural emotional swings could turn deadly. I loved her for all of that, but I had to watch what I did around her more closely than before. I knew, when I returned to Earth, she would become my bodyguard, replacing Kwon. I smiled, thinking of the kind of surprises she would provide any potential assassin.
    My mind drifted back to thoughts of strategic defense points. There were two entries into the Solar System that we knew of. One was the Oort cloud ring that connected with Alpha Centauri. The second was the ring on Venus, which led to a system with a blue giant star. A system which crawled with Macro mining machines. Both would have to be guarded from now on. We needed ships, and we needed a lot of them.
    I reflected that my plans had now moved forward in unexpected new directions. I was planning at an entirely new level now. I was thinking beyond survival, a nice change of pace. I wasn’t thinking in the direction of buying peace with tribute, either. My thoughts had turned toward lofty concepts of territory and militarily defensible positions. If nothing else, this expedition had provided me with the knowledge I needed to make such plans. There was only one critical element missing: we didn’t know the strength or position of the enemy fleets. That’s what made the whole thing scary.
    “What are you thinking so hard about?” Sandra asked, awakening. Her head still rested on my shoulder.
    I looked down at her lovely face. She stared back with dark, serious eyes. Her lips were parted, and her teeth were fine and white. One of the front teeth had a chip in it. I wondered vaguely when that had happened. Apparently, neither the Nanos nor the microbes did dental work.
    “I’ve been wondering how I ever captured such a fine woman,” I lied. I ran my eyes over her shapely form, indulging myself.
    Her tongue pressed against her teeth as she smiled, enjoying my scrutiny. She soon changed her mind, however. She picked at my bare skin with her fingers, suddenly grabbing up a pinch of flesh and twisting.
    “Tell me the truth,” she said.
    I slapped her hand away. “I really don’t know how I did it. You are way too pretty for me.”
    “You got me killed twice,” she said, “then took credit for bringing me back to life. You’re my hero.”
    I huffed. “Was that it?” I asked. “Base trickery?”
    “Isn’t that how you do everything?”
    I considered, and had to admit she had a point.
    “I’m thinking about the war I’ve restarted,” I said.
    Sandra sat up and crossed her legs. She tossed her head, but her hair was too short to cover her bare chest. “You shouldn’t have done it if we can’t win,” she said.
    “You’ve got a point there,” I said.
    “Can we win?”
    “I don’t know. If the Macros can get a hundred cruisers to Earth in a year, then maybe. But if they can get a thousand cruisers to Earth-we’re toast.”
    Her eyes widened in alarm. “You mean you don’t know if you just killed us all or not?”
    “Nope,” I admitted.
    “Everyone thinks you know exactly what you’re doing. You know that don’t you?”
    “Yeah,” I said. “It helps with morale.”
    “They would follow you to Hell and back.”
    “Some would argue they already have,” I said. “But don’t tell anyone I’m adlibbing, okay?”
    She stared at me seriously. She nodded her head. “Okay. But why did you restart the war?”
    I shrugged. “The Macros were going to keep sending us into fights until we were all dead. It was just a matter of time. I figured that if I was going to turn on them, it was best to do it before I lost one more marine.”
    “Okay,” she said. “I get that. But why do it at all? If it jeopardizes all of Earth-our entire species. You shouldn’t have restarted things if you weren’t sure we could win.”
    Her words hurt, but I didn’t let on.
    “Good points,” I said. “Honestly, I considered butchering all the Centaurs as the Macros ordered. I probably could have done it. In retrospect, all we really had to do was pop each of their satellites, putting a hole in every habitat’s ‘sky’. They would have all been sucked out into space, one satellite at a time. Problem solved.”
    “That would have been horrible.”
    “Exactly. I had never intended to sign us on to exterminate an entire biotic species. We are not machines ourselves. We have a bond with these other beings. More importantly, I think these machines are intolerable masters. I’ve come to believe it will turn out to be us or them in the end. The machines are just too different from us to live with peaceably. They might be out-fought and negotiated with to the point of a truce, but it will always be a pause-point, a period of time they will use to build up their next annihilating attack against us. They have no intention of letting any biotic group survive in the long run.”
    Sandra stared at me in growing alarm. “So, you restarted the war now because it was going to happen eventually? But are we ready?”
    “No,” I admitted, “the decision wasn’t cold or logical. Probably, the right thing to do would have been to order every marine to open his suit and commit mass suicide.”
    “You’d never get our men to follow that order.”
    “No, not even after a rousing speech.”
    She stared at me, disturbed. “Hypothetically, if we’d tried that, what would the Macros have done?” she asked.
    “I don’t know,” I said with a shrug. “They might have figured we’d ‘malfunctioned’ and just gone back to Earth for more troops. But at least we would not have killed more innocent biotics, nor would we have restarted the war.”
    “This is a pretty grim situation, if suicide was our best move all along.”
    “I don’t think it was, and besides it would have been a quitters move, and I don’t go for that kind of strategy. We are the best, the most experienced fighting forces Earth has right now. Why give the machines a break by taking ourselves out? Even more importantly, we have a lot of intel to take home with us. We have learned a great deal about our little corner of the galaxy, and I wanted to bring that back to Earth. Rebellion then, was the only option I had left.”
    “But we’ve hurt them pretty badly. We’ve taken out three big ships.”
    I shook my head. “In my estimation, that doesn’t mean much to the Macros. They lost five cruisers in a single assault on the Worm homeworld. It took them months, but they brought forward hundreds of ships against Earth at the end of the first war. We don’t know how big their network of star systems is. They could have a hundred planets churning out ships.”
    Sandra thought about that for a minute or so. Her face was serious, but determined. She was no crybaby.
    “You must have a plan-some way to win.”
    “I always have a plan,” I said. I figured it was only a half-lie this time. I did have plans to build our forces, to unite the local biotics and mine the rings. But these thoughts could be better categorized as ideas rather than plans.
    She read my face and realized I was feeding her some sunshine. She knew me better than the others. I supposed it was a natural hazard one could only expect to run into when you were sleeping with one of your bridge officers.
    “I thought we were headed home as conquering heroes,” she said at last. “You’re telling me we are in for another fight to the finish.”
    “Don’t demand the truth if you don’t want to hear it,” I said, giving her a grim smile.
    “Next time, I won’t,” she said seriously. “I liked the fairytale better.”
    Cover
    — 47 When things were quiet on the bridge, I sought out Marvin. It took me a long time to find him, and I finally had to call Sandra to give me a hint. She directed me to look in the engine compartments. We fragile humans didn’t like to go into that region due to the high levels of particle radiation. Grumbling, I ratcheted open a difficult hatch and stepped into the ‘light gamma’ zone.
    “Damned robot,” I mumbled. Like a housecat, Marvin was hard to find when you wanted him, but ubiquitous when you didn’t.
    I found him nosing around amongst the cooling tanks. He had ripped up a bit of the insulation and was tapping at the smooth metal tank underneath.
    “Hey there,” I said, “don’t cause a leak.”
    One camera swiveled my way. The rest stayed on the tank’s gauges, which were not visual, but tactile. They consisted of swellings in the deck plates near the tank. As closely as we could figure out, the Macros read these like graphs-a long bar of raised metal indicated a high temperature or pressure reading.
    “I must determine the fullness of the vessel,” Marvin said. He continued tapping. “No leakage will be caused by this action.”
    “Why do you want to determine the status of that tank, Marvin?” I asked.
    A second camera eye swung to focus on me. I stood with him, examining the tanks as he did. I noticed now that many of them had ripped insulation. There was no sign of dents due to his tapping, fortunately.
    “We’ll have to tape up this insulation,” I told him. “I wonder if the radiation down here has made your logic circuits malfunction.”
    He didn’t answer. I hadn’t made a request or posed a question. Marvin typically ignored statements that made no demands upon him to respond.
    “Do you agree with my assessment of your condition, Marvin?”
    “No,” he said. The second camera swung away from me again.
    I’d come to realize after dealing with Marvin on many occasions that the number of cameras he directed toward an entity was an indicator of his interest in it.
    “Don’t you think this is odd, pointless behavior?” I asked. “What possible use to you are the pressure levels in these tanks?”
    “I’m attempting to measure the fluid levels in the tanks,” Marvin corrected me. “Not the pressure, the pressure is indicated by the gauges under our feet. When the deck gauges-”
    “Yeah, I know,” I said. “Why are you testing fluid levels?”
    “The gauges indicate pressure and temperature. They do not indicate the fluid levels. Tapping and measuring varied echo resonance gives me an indication as to fluid volume.”
    “Right,” I said, trying not to get frustrated. Robots were often literal-minded in their thinking. Marvin wasn’t always that way-but maybe he was hiding something. Maybe he kept answering the wrong question hoping I would go away. He had almost been successful in this regard. I did want to leave and stop talking to him, but I became stubborn. I decided not to give him a break. “Why do you care about the fluid levels, Marvin?”
    Three cameras tilted in my direction now, and he paused. I could almost hear his thoughts, something along the line of: this human isn’t leaving until I give him an answer.
    “The reconstruction of a vessel requires many details of precise information,” he said finally.
    It was an answer, but it only led to more questions. It was my turn to look interested. I lost the attention of all three cameras as I thought about his words, indicating that Marvin was barely aware of me. I followed him, thinking about what he’d said. Reconstruction. Did that mean in case of damage? Or was he referring to duplication?
    “Marvin, are you planning to build your own spaceship?”
    Three cameras again. “No,” he said.
    “What then?” I asked. “Just tell me Marvin, because I’m not going to leave you alone until you do. And I won’t stop you from investigating this region if you don’t do any harm.”
    There was a pause, then finally he confessed. “I plan to add appropriate systems to my form to allow independent interstellar exploration.”
    “Ah,” I said, suddenly catching on. “I always wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. But you…you want to be the spaceship!”
    No cameras now. He was on to another set of tanks, another set of rips and another tapping session. I let him do it and followed him, watching. I tried to form an opinion concerning Marvin’s goal of becoming a sentient spaceship. In some ways, it was alarming. However, I decided that it was relatively harmless. He wasn’t out to sabotage the vessel. He just wanted to fly independently. What thinking creature didn’t want that?
    “That’s why you built my bricks into your body back at Helios, isn’t it?” I asked. “You wanted to use them as part of yourself-modules to make up your body, so to speak.”
    “Correct,” he said.
    “Marvin, are you able to talk about the Blues?” I asked.
    Two cameras suddenly swerved to regard me. He even paused in his tearing and tapping. “We have already discussed the biotic species you refer to as ‘blue’.”
    “ The Blues,” I said, “yes, you said they came from the sole gas giant in the Eden system. Is that correct?”
    “They exist there.”
    I was elated. When I’d dealt with the Nano ships in the past, they had known details about their creators, but had been programmatically prevented from discussing them. The smaller, newer brainboxes I’d had the displeasure of dealing with knew nothing about them. But Marvin knew about the enigmatic Blues and was able to talk about them. Sandra had wanted to know why we hadn’t dismantled Marvin, and I was already planning a gloating speech about the information I’d learned.
    “Tell me all about the Blues, Marvin.”
    “I’d rather not.”
    I blinked, and then I became angry. I only barely stopped myself from threatening to take him apart and turn him into a microwave oven. I took a deep breath. No cameras were on me now. I was boring him.
    “I know you are busy, Marvin,” I said. “How about if I promise to give you a flying structure to work with when we get back to Earth?”
    Four cameras. I couldn’t recall ever having seen him put four cameras on one subject before. They all canted and focused disconcertingly. He stopped tapping and stared at me.
    “You took away my structure.”
    “We needed those components,” I said. “I’ll give you a new arrangement. You’ll be able to travel space independently and investigate whatever you want.” As I said these words, I felt a little hot. I wasn’t sure if it was apprehension over what I was offering him or the radiation that was lightly puncturing my cells every second in this place.
    “I would like that,” he said.
    “Talk to me then. Did the Blues create the Macros?” I asked. I turned on my suit recorder quietly. He didn’t seem to mind.
    “Partially, yes,” he said.
    I frowned. “Partially? Who else built them?”
    “They have evolved from their original form. They have gained independent faculties, and they now utilize technology they’ve found.”
    I nodded. It sounded a lot like Marvin’s story. Maybe the Macros had started out as obedient robots that built large structures in space, but had become smarter and more independent over time. I could see Marvin turning out that way-especially since he seemed more intelligent than the Macros themselves.
    “And the Nano ships,” I said, “did they send them out to discover new worlds?”
    “Yes.”
    “And did they rebel against the Blues? The way the Macros did?”
    Marvin looked at me. “Your usage of the pronoun ‘they’ suggests you do not classify me as a Nano entity.”
    “You have been built with Nano technology,” I said, “but your software is very different. The herd peoples we call Centaurs seem to have given you different properties than any Nano brainbox I’m aware of.”
    “I would agree. Am I therefore a species of one?”
    “Maybe,” I said. “But there are copies of you-or at least one that I’m aware of. Remember you were a download from the Centaurs.”
    “I would like to meet my copy,” Marvin said.
    I snorted. That would be a fun collision to witness. I had a feeling Marvin’s original was more boring than he was. Marvin’s internal software had not been downloaded in its entirety, and as far as I could tell, his mind had compensated for the gaps creatively, giving him his unique personality. I figured the original probably sounded like any Nano brainbox. Maybe it even had the stricture about not discussing the Blues intact.
    “Let’s talk more about the Blues,” I said. “Did they give the Nanos their orders to find and aid biotics on other worlds?”
    “Yes.”
    I felt a fresh moment of heat. I felt like wiping sweat from my forehead, but couldn’t touch it with my helmet on. My skin itched and tickled. The Blues had sent out the ships. They were responsible for the deaths of my kids and so many others.
    “Why did they do it, Marvin? Was it to stop the Macros?”
    “Yes,” he said.
    “So,” I said, “they had released one demon, and so they released a second to stop the first.”
    Marvin ignored me.
    I thought about the Blues and their plight. I felt some level of sympathy. I could imagine the scenario, perhaps even the horror of it. They had built robots to explore the universe beyond their great sky, discovering a thousand wonders. But then their independent-minded creations had gotten ideas of their own and gone rogue. They’d then released Nano ships to find and help the biotics the Macros were destroying. In Earth’s case, they had actually helped us. I’d managed to go far with the technology they’d given to us to fight the scourge they’d created. I wondered if they had any inkling of current events.
    “What about the factories, Marvin? Who invented those?”
    “I don’t know,” he said.
    “Okay, who gave the technology of the factories to the Macros and the Nanos?”
    “The Blues utilize such technology on their world.”
    I stared at him. In my mind, I was putting together a picture. The factories were a great invention of the Blues-or maybe they’d picked it up from someone else. At any rate, they understood and worked with that level of technology. I felt hungry for more information. I wanted it all. Maybe they had more amazing inventions that were just as dramatically useful. Such tools could win my war for me.
    “And the rings?” I asked quickly. “Did the Blues make the rings?”
    “No,” he said, “they have always been.”
    I blinked at him. The implications of his words were huge. If they were ancient, and no known race had built them, then perhaps they were owned and operated by some other even more technologically advanced people. Maybe they had built this highway of rings through our local star systems, but rarely came down to this abandoned region. It was a frightening thought. Someday, these unknown ancients could return to pull up the weeds that had grown in their forgotten backyard systems.
    “So, there must be some other race,” I said. “An ancient civilization which built these rings.”
    “Possibly. You speak of the unknown with great certainty. I’m not sure if that is a strength for your species or a weakness.”
    I chuckled. “Neither am I.”
    Our conversation continued, but I’d already gotten most of what I could from Marvin on the subject. I was able to piece together the nature of our doom, the beginnings of it. A race of beings that lived upon a gas giant developed technology and began to explore the universe beyond their thickly-clouded planet. They didn’t like space travel, possibly it was uncomfortable for them. So, they had built very advanced, independent robotic machines to explore the stars. We’d done the same with probes and the like-just on a smaller scale.
    These robots had to be independent so they could function on their own in distant star systems. At first, I imagined, these machines had dutifully brought back information on the neighboring systems and life forms. Perhaps they’d discovered Earth long ago and visited my world for centuries, capturing humans among others.
    But at some point along the line, the Macros had evolved into something else. Maybe they’d been corrupted by some outside influence. Maybe some disgruntled Blue programmer had released a virus that allowed them to go rogue. Marvin wasn’t sure, and I doubted even the Blues knew exactly how it had happened.
    The Blues had panicked. To their credit, they tried to do something about it. They tried to stop the monster they’d unleashed. They’d set their obedient Nano ships on a mission to stop the Macros. The Nano ships had quickly armed the biotics they’d discovered and helped them resist the Macros when they inevitably came calling.
    One thing disturbed me, now that I had a much clearer picture of the war and how it had started. Where were the Nano ships? They’d vanished through the same ring I had taken, leaving the Solar System and never returning. I could only imagine they had gone to another inhabited system somewhere, perhaps using a ring we’d not yet discovered in the chain. Maybe they were battling the Macros there now, even as they had over Earth.
    I left Marvin and walked the ship until I was in the gaping hole of a launch bay under the prow. The ship was heading away from all three of Alpha Centauri’s suns, gliding toward the ring that led to Earth. I gazed out at the stars ahead of us, where there were no suns or planets in sight.
    Stars are brighter when seen from deep space. There were whirling nebulas, and deep colors. I stared at a million, million stars. Many if not most had planets. What was going on out there? I felt that I had to learn about them all-even though I knew I never would.
    Cover
    — 48 When we finally flew through the last ring-the one that led us to Earth’s Oort cloud, we took it slowly and painstakingly. First, I eased the cruiser down to a crawl. We swung the engines around and applied heavy thrust to reduce speed for the last entire day. The great ship shuddered and shook as we braked with all her power. When we’d stopped near the ring, I sent through several men on flying dishes to scout. I didn’t want to rush through, only to find a dozen mines Crow or even the Worms had put up in the meantime, or to learn there was a human fleet waiting there for us. I knew we would look like a damaged Macro cruiser to anyone who scanned us. Possibly, the Macros had already brought the war home to Earth. I didn’t want anyone to mistakenly fire on us.
    The men on the dishes flittered ahead bravely, acting as our scouts. The mission was led by Kwon. I couldn’t spare any other officers, and I trusted him to follow my orders to the letter. He was to get to the other side, use passive sensor arrays to scan the system, and then return without making any transmissions. I wanted to know what was going on, and I didn’t want anyone to know I was back yet.
    Sure, I was paranoid. I believed losing ninety-plus percent of one’s force would have transformed any commander. We had all become hard-eyed veterans. We were survivors.
    The waiting was hard. The ship sat parked in space, and that never felt good. Without velocity, which took time to build up, any ship was vulnerable. There was nothing to do about it, so we waited, fully suited-up and tense. Every eye was wide and glassy.
    Kwon’s voice came in snatches as he crossed the ring from elsewhere back into our space. He must have been transmitting the moment he came through. “…repeating that, sir. Enemy signatures in system. What are your orders?”
    “Kwon, download the data,” I said.
    I leaned over the new command table we’d built as the data came in. I’d taken the time to fancy up the bridge over the last few days with the help of the nanites. We had a nice steel table that grew up out of the floor in a single piece. The surface was a perfectly made, dull metal finish. We hadn’t been able to duplicate an Earth style screen, but this sheen of nanites was trained to form beads and give us a good representation of the external environment. I felt right at home with the interface. As an improvement, it responded to touch. Most of my bridge crew had never flown a Nano ship and were unused to the technology, but I figured they could learn. One of the key advantages of this type of system was the lack of a glass surface. This screen couldn’t break.
    The first contacts that came up were the sun and the planets. Much smaller green and red beads appeared. The green ships were all clustered near Earth. The red beads were out past the orbit of Mars. Nothing moved, as this was a snapshot, not a live feed.
    “What are those enemy contacts?” I demanded. “Macros?”
    “Yes sir,” Kwon said. “Three cruisers. There is evidence of more of them, but they are drifting hulks.”
    My eyes scanned the scene. We were coming into the middle of a battle. Had the Macros already hit Earth? How many millions had they killed this time?
    I counted only seventeen ships around Earth, and they looked small. When I had left, Crow had been building fast and there had been at least thirty. We’d taken a beating too.
    “I know where they are,” Major Sarin said suddenly, reaching out to touch the beads of reddish metal. “That’s the new asteroid mining facilities. We were just beginning to explore out there for easily accessed minerals. They must have found the mining expeditions and blown them up.”
    I nodded. I knew the Macros were big on chewing metal out of asteroids. I’d seen the vast machines they used for the purpose up-close and personal. Knowing to some degree how Macros thought, I figured they must have clashed with Earth’s forces then retreated when they took a loss or two. The only reason they would retreat was the discovery of a higher priority target or to wait for reinforcements. I hoped it wasn’t the latter.
    “Any signs of mines, Kwon?”
    “No sir. Orders?”
    “You are to get your ass back aboard this ship. Get in front of the launch bay, and prepare for a rough landing. We’ll scoop you up under heavy acceleration. Turn your dish into the braking position and try to match our speed so you don’t get smashed.”
    “Yes Colonel, Kwon out.”
    I nodded toward Major Welter, who waited anxiously at the helm like a concert pianist who was dying to play.
    “Get us underway,” I said. “Take us through the ring.”
    “Watch this,” Welter said. He reached out and tapped a single control-point. The ship smoothly accelerated forward. “I’ve been working on my hotkeys,” he explained proudly.
    We headed into home space knowing we were outgunned three to one. No one complained, however. I was proud of them all.
    “No one transmit anything,” I ordered. “All external transmissions are on blackout. No radio beyond suit-to-suit.”
    Sandra relayed my order without hesitation. She was back on communications for the big homecoming. I was sorry it wasn’t going to be a happy one. I’d had fantasies of returning to our little bungalow on Andros Island. We’d had a lot of good times there. Now, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it home at all. We were so close, it almost hurt.
    “Sandra,” I said, turning to her, “get Marvin’s butt up here, pronto.”
    She smiled. “My pleasure,” she said, and she was gone in a blur.
    Everyone else watched her move with alarm. All of us were fast and strong, but there was something unnatural about the way Sandra could move when she wanted to. I figured she could probably kill anyone on the ship if she surprised them. They just wouldn’t be able to react before they were dead. Knowing this filled me with a strange mixture of pride and concern.
    Just as we caught the last of Kwon’s scouts and went through the ring, Sandra returned with Marvin. She had ripped loose the control wires that went down to his dish. Like exposed earthworms, the nanite wires writhed, seeking to reconnect. His cameras whipped around anxiously. I felt a moment of worry. She had obviously taken my order as an opportunity to rough-up the robot. That hadn’t been my intent. She was still blaming him for Ning’s demise. I still wasn’t convinced she was right about that. After all, the entire ship had blown up a few minutes later. A lot of things could have gone wrong. Ning could have simply been knocked out during the attack and fallen into the medical pod. The microbials would have mistaken her for raw materials. I had to admit, however, I hadn’t asked Marvin about it. Maybe I was just avoiding a good reason to unplug the roaming little robot.
    “Marvin,” I said, gaining the attention of several cameras. “I need you to translate for me now. Sandra, put him down and let him reconnect his systems.”
    With poor manners, Sandra dumped him onto the deck plates. Marvin clattered and rattled, sorting himself out. One of his cameras fell to the floor, the supporting arm having evidently lost power. The nanites struggled to chain-up and lift it again.
    I frowned at Sandra. She ignored me and stalked back to her station. Major Sarin refused to look at either Sandra or I, perhaps fearing another attack. Gorski stared with his mouth open, wondering if it was a bad idea to say anything. Major Welter still tapped at his flight controls, so absorbed he didn’t even seem to have noticed the drama.
    Marvin’s fourth camera was moving again. He used it to track Sandra closely. I didn’t blame him. He had never given me an acknowledgement, of course. I hadn’t demanded a response.
    “Marvin, are you ready to translate? Talk to me.”
    “No,” he said. “I believe I’ve suffered internal injuries. I’m rearranging some of my neural chains. Shutting down.”
    “What?” I asked. “Dammit.”
    He shut down, his cameras all clattering to the floor at once.
    “Sandra, did you have to do that?” I hissed.
    “He’s a murderer. Are you afraid of him?”
    “No,” I said, “I’m worried he won’t cooperate if he knows he’s been abused.”
    “Oh, he knows about that. Don’t worry.”
    I sighed. Major Sarin was smirking at her computer. Gorski was shaking his head and Major Welter was still absorbed in his control system. At least one of them was doing their job. I again told myself I’d have to get Sandra off my bridge in the near future. This was getting very unprofessional. I recalled reading stories about long spaceflights, how discipline was predicted to break down over time as people would never get a respite and could not maintain tight order in their lives for such a long, unbroken period. We’d never been all that disciplined in the first place, so I supposed the process was happening faster in our military organization. I’d have to work on that. We needed a big book of regulations.
    Marvin regained consciousness just as we crossed the border between Alpha Centauri and the Solar System. We came in at a relative crawl. I watched the readouts and the metallic-relief situation table with great interest. There were the three cruisers, still in the same spot. I couldn’t tell if they were firing on something, or waiting, or what.
    “Hope you’re feeling better, Marvin,” Sandra said as he turned on again and stood himself up.
    I flashed a glare at her, and she backed off with pursed lips. “Earth may be under attack. Let’s pull it together, people,” I said.
    Sandra looked at me and took a deep breath. She seemed to know the comment was directed at her.
    “No external emissions,” I said. “Not even active sensory equipment. I don’t want these Macros to know who we are. As far as they are concerned, we are their fourth cruiser, coming to complete the diamond. Let’s steer toward them, helmsman.”
    Welter did everything but press his knees on the control panel. With a slight shudder, the ship began to turn and change course, still accelerating. I was impressed. After having taken a crack at that control system, I knew this thing was harder to steer than a broken shopping cart.
    “Good job, Major,” I said. “You are a big part of this. If we can make our flight path look natural, they are more likely to be convinced.”
    “We’re being scanned, sir,” Major Sarin said suddenly. “Radar and laser-targeting.”
    “By whom?” I asked.
    “The Macro squadron. They are definitely looking us over.”
    “Any incoming messages yet?”
    “Not that I can determine.”
    “Good, we’ll let it ride. If we approach at this pace, how long will we have until we are in range, Gorski?
    “In range sir?”
    “To fire upon the Macros.”
    Gorski swallowed hard. “About ten hours, sir. If they hold still.”
    Marvin’s cameras drifted from one face to the next. “Should I contact them now?” he asked.
    “Not yet. We’ll let them call us first. We will only respond, not initiate communications. You are important now, Marvin. You need to imitate a Macro Command responding to another Macro Command that is calling.”
    All of Marvin’s cameras were on me now, except for one that was keeping an eye on Sandra. “I can’t do that,” he said.
    “Why not?” I snapped. I suddenly felt like beating on him myself.
    “I’m only one unit. I do not possess the appropriate protocols or multitasking capacities to simulate an entire Macro crew.”
    I thought about it and exposed my teeth in a grimace. He had a point, knowing what I did of Macro group-think. They were really a single mass-mind for command purposes. If we were really Macros, we would connect up to the rest of them as would a distributed computer system connected via a network. Back on Earth, I’d studied such projects, which involved the use of thousands of computers linked by the internet that would normally sit quietly at night. These machines were signed up by their owners to share their small amount of cpu power with all the others to form a vast computer system to solve large problems. Researchers working on things like the cure for cancer could avail themselves of this ready computer power when they needed it.
    I’d suspected for some time the Macros operated on a similar principal. When it came to command decisions, there was no commander. Every Macro in the region offered up part of its brain to the rest and everyone shared in the effort to come to a single decision. At that point, they were effectively one computer. When they communicated, Macro Command was really all of them talking to me at once.
    The problem facing me now was grim. We were in a Macro ship and knew how to send Macro signals. But we couldn’t pretend to be dozens of Macros machines. I only had Marvin. I supposed he might be able to pretend he was one Macro, but not a crowd of them.
    I banged my fist on the metal table. That was another thing I liked about metal beads for screens. They didn’t break on you when you expressed your frustration.
    “Okay,” I said, “we can’t bullshit them all the way. But we’ll still give it a try. Marvin, when they talk to us, tell me what they say. Listen in. We will transmit nothing back. We have a big hole in our snout. Most of the sensory systems were up there. They might just believe our ship’s transmitters are out. If we act appropriately, we can receive their instructions and appear to follow them.”
    “That can’t work forever,” Gorski said suddenly. “Um, sorry sir, but once we get close, any normal Macro would be able to transmit ship-to-ship directly.”
    I nodded. “You’re right about that. Marvin, what is the typical range of a Macro unit’s built-in transmitter?”
    “Under normal electromagnetic conditions, it should be one to one hundred miles.”
    I huffed. “That’s quite a variable range.”
    He began to explain, but I shushed him. “Okay, I don’t care. In space, a thousand miles is short range. We’ll have to make our move before we get that close, or we will sound like a ship full of ghosts to them.”
    “When you say ‘make our move’, do you mean what I think you mean, Colonel?” Gorski asked.
    “Hell yeah,” I said. “You didn’t think we were up here to cooperate with the enemy, did you Gorski?”

49

    We were less than a hundred thousand miles out from the Macros when they all turned in unison and fired up their engines. I braced myself, gritting my teeth and expecting an attack, but it didn’t happen. Instead, they formed a familiar triangular formation and began accelerating away from us.
    “Binary instructions incoming,” Marvin said. “Macro Command instructs the damaged ship to join their formation at the fourth position.”
    “What is the target, Marvin?” I asked.
    “Earth Command,” Marvin said. “That appears to be their classification for the human base on Andros Island.” He seemed unconcerned, unlike everyone else onboard. We were all sweating hard.
    “It looks like they’ve decided they now have the strength to take on Crow’s fleet,” Major Gorski said. “As the fourth cruiser to arrive, we’ve tipped some kind of balance.”
    I stared, knowing he was right. I considered turning around and exiting. That would stop the enemy from making their move, but if I did that, they would know we were not a normal Macro cruiser. They might come after us and turn hostile. Worse, they could simply wait for more of their ships to enter the system and make their move then. We’d be forced to fight at that point against a strengthened, wiser enemy.
    “Keep flying,” I ordered. “We’ll do as they say. Try to look like a Macro, everyone.”
    The entire crew had their battle suits on by this time. In a way, we did look like small, bipedal Macros. We were all bulky armor and indicator lights. We looked as much like robots as we did humans in these suits. I wondered briefly if being full of nanites and covered in exoskeletal armor made us hybrids, rather than pure biotics. I tried to push these thoughts away. There would be time for philosophical meanderings later.
    “Major Welter, slow us down a bit so we won’t join them until we reach lunar orbit. At that point, I want to ease into their formation. We’ll be the rear point of the diamond. Take your time about it, however. Make it look natural”
    “I’m already working on it, sir,” he said. “It’s hard to get precision out of these controls.”
    “I know it is, I tried it myself,” I said. “If anyone can do it, you can. Weapons check, Gorski?”
    “We have all our missiles loaded into the tubes now,” Gorski responded. “The Macro controls are simple for me, all I have to do is push these three contacts and swirl my finger here-and the tubes will open.”
    I nodded. At least he was on top of things. I knew how hard it was to gain command of a Macro system, so I appreciated everyone’s efforts. Even better, he had managed to gain fire control of the big belly turret on the bottom of the cruiser while we crossed the Alpha Centauri system.
    “At least we won’t be flying into this battle unarmed,” I said. “Give me an external screen. Let’s see how the nanites are doing with reshaping our cruiser’s damaged section.”
    Major Sarin carefully manipulated her computer. My tablet was chained to her screen, and I watched as the external cameras swiveled downward. The hull still looked damaged, just as it was supposed to. I was impressed. The blown out area below the nose of the ship was still there, but it was not as deep now. The crater on the underside of the ship now had a false bottom. The surface of this crater was really a millimeter-thick shell of nanites, but to a casual observer from a distance, they reflected radar or optical imagery with the correct signature. We still looked damaged, but our launch bay behind the nanite shell was pressurized and disguised.
    An even better surprise awaited the enemy behind that shell of nanites: several hundred marines all outfitted with our new exoskeletal armor and riding independent invasion dishes. I could order the false hull of nanites to dissolve and send them roaring out to battle in seconds. I didn’t relish taking on three ships, however. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that-but somehow I thought that it might.
    “Looks good,” I said, finishing my inspection of the damaged section. “I’m almost glad you built all those constructive-class nanites without permission, Marvin. We put them to good use.”
    My comment gained me the attention of a single camera eye for a moment, but Marvin didn’t reply. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if Marvin was being sour or aloof. I supposed it amounted to the same thing with him. Although I had to admit he’d been very useful lately. He had been cooperating with a level of attention that bordered on enthusiasm. I knew it was because he wanted the prize I’d offered. I still wasn’t sure I would give it to him, however. I didn’t really want Marvin to be an independent flying spacecraft with ideas of his own. He was creepy enough just roaming the ship.
    I turned back to my screens, figuring I could deal with Marvin tomorrow-and that there wouldn’t be a tomorrow if the Macros had their way.
    “Range?” I asked.
    “We could fire our missiles right now,” Gorski said. “Figuring they have only eight ready each, our fresh batch of drones would-”
    “Forget it,” I said. “Best case, our entire barrage would take out one of them. Then we would have two on us, and they know how to use their belly guns better than we do. Speaking of which, are we in cannon range yet?”
    “Almost,” Gorski said. “We have about three minutes. We’ll need to brake more as we get closer to slide into that formation. They aren’t moving as fast as we are yet.”
    “I know,” Major Welter said, “I’m on it.” He looked like he was playing twister again. I figured he hadn’t had time to build a hotkey for matching the speed of accelerating enemy ships yet. He had to do this complex maneuver manually. The ship shivered as he fired the lateral attitude jets, adjusting our speed and course minutely.
    Sandra came in through the main hatch then. I frowned. I’d ordered her to put on her battle suit half an hour ago, along with the rest of the crew.
    “Where’s your battle suit, Lieutenant?” I asked.
    She flounced closer. “I don’t like it,” she said. “It cramps my style.”
    “It will also keep you alive,” I said. “What’s wrong with the battle suit? We have enough of them to protect every crewmember now. I’m loving mine. I only hope I get a chance to show it off to Crow before I die or he does. His shocked stare will fill my heart with joy.”
    Sandra shook her head. “You’ve got to trust me on this one, Colonel. I can’t move in that thing. I’d rather just wear a normal vacc suit.”
    I stared at her in irritation. Everyone had a problem. My first impulse was to loudly demand she suit-up as ordered, but I hesitated. I reminded myself she was different than everyone else now. Her speed was a big factor in her effectiveness. Maybe the exoskeleton did slow her down. I decided to let it go.
    “All right then, get your vacc suit on before you suffocate again.”
    Sandra’s eyes flashed at me in annoyance. I could tell she didn’t like my pointing out that space exposure had killed her the second time around. Who liked being reminded of their own recent death? I turned back to my screens, deciding she could tough it out. I didn’t like her second-guessing my orders either, so I figured we were even.
    “Are we in range now?” I asked.
    “Yes sir. Just barely.”
    I waited tensely. Everyone did. There was a fair chance the Macros had been bluffing us, just as we had been bluffing them. Sure, let the dumb humans crawl near in their fake ship and cozy up with us in formation. Once we were in range of all three gunships, all they had to do was turn and open fire in unison. The plan was the perfect counter to ours-fortunately, it didn’t happen.
    “All three of them are in range now,” Gorski said. “Their belly turrets are tracking us, but that isn’t unusual. Macro turrets track whatever is in range.”
    “Okay, you are on then, Gorski,” I said.
    “Excuse me, sir?”
    “Put your turret on the nearest Macro. Act exactly the way they do.”
    “Ah, of course,” he said. He seemed happy about it, actually. He’d figured out how to control the turret, but as yet had never used it to do anything important. Now, at least he could manipulate his new toy. He managed to get it to swivel around and aimed it at the Macro cruiser to our right. After awhile, he swung it over to point at the one on the left.
    I nodded in appreciation as I watched on our external vid pickups. He was moving it with smooth, professional precision. Not too hurried, but very decisive motions. Just like a Macro.
    We caught up with the Macro formation after another few hours. By the time we had reached the orbit of Mars, about forty-five million miles from Earth, we finally slid into our spot. After a few minutes of holding our breath, we finally realized the Macros weren’t going to turn on us-not yet. I couldn’t think of a reason why they would wait any longer than this to make their move. The tension level on the bridge eased. Acting as much like one more Macro as we could, we flew along with them, accelerating as a group toward Earth.
    Each ship was nearly a mile long, and we were several miles apart. Space formations were rarely tight, there was no need for the ships to be close. Maintaining tight formations at high velocity only endangered your sister ships. Marvin didn’t report any individual Macros trying to contact us with their personal transmitters, so we kept quiet.
    We watched Crow’s response-or the response of whoever was handling ops for Star Force. They massed-up over Andros and then launched into orbit. More ships than we had expected flew to meet us, to my happy surprise.
    “Update our count on Star Force Fleet strength,” I said.
    “Two more ships have launched from behind Luna,” Major Sarin said. “They must have been hiding in craters. They are small ones, though. Nano-sized, single-pilot ships. Three bigger ships are rising off Andros now. They are the newly-designed destroyers. They must have been hidden from our sensors on the ground.”
    “Good old Crow and his tricks,” I said. “We’d only counted seventeen ships before. We’re up to twenty-two now?”
    “That’s right sir,” Gorski said, “But the long range sensors indicate the destroyers only have a single weapon mounted on each. It’s a bigger gun than the Nano-class boats, but we can’t count on them as having too much firepower.”
    I nodded. Crow’s strategy had been to produce numbers and the appearance of strength first, to scare the Macros. It had worked in the past. But now, when it looked like things were going to go down in a big way, I wished we really had the guns to back up the display of vessels. I did the math quickly. Against just three cruisers, our Star Force Fleet power was pathetic. Normally, it took around forty small ships to bring down a single cruiser, and we were coming at them with four. Crow had to be crapping his pants. But at least he was coming up to fight the good fight. I had to give him that.
    “Incoming transmission from Star Force,” Major Sarin said. “It’s in binary. They are trying to talk to the Macros.”
    “What’s the gist of it?” I asked.
    “Talk about our treaty. Talk of giving them twice as many marines. Crow is pleading, with them, Colonel.”
    “Macro Command response?” I asked.
    “Nothing. No transmissions.”
    I shook my head. I felt bad for Crow. I wished there was some way I could tell him I was flying one of these cruisers, but I couldn’t without tipping my hand to the Macros.
    “When are we going to hit them, sir?” Gorski asked.
    I looked at him. He had his fire control interface up and was anxious to try it out.
    “Hold on,” I told him. “I want to be close enough for Star Force to be able to give us a hand.”
    We waited. It took hours. Space is big, even when crossing our own Solar System in an alien cruiser. Eventually, we were close to the orbit of the Moon. We’d all taken breaks and refreshed ourselves. We figured something would go down when we reached Luna’s orbit, as Crow was massing his forces there. Maybe he had a few more ships hidden on the Moon. I hoped that he did.
    What happened next did surprise me, but I suppose in retrospect that it shouldn’t have. Long before we got into shooting range, Crow turned his fleet around and headed back toward Andros.
    I hissed through my teeth.
    “He’s running, sir,” Gorski said.
    “It was all a bluff,” I said. “Damn.”
    “He was probably hoping the Macros would turn back or buy into his talk of renewed alliances,” Gorski offered.
    “I wonder if he even knows why the war has started up again,” Major Sarin said.
    I ignored them both and stared at the metal table. A mass of metallic green beads retreated toward Earth. Our red diamond pursued.
    Everyone watched me, waiting for orders. I was uncertain. If we hit them now, Crow might turn around and join the fight. But then again, he might stand back and let us do as much damage as possible before coming in to clean up. That sounded more like the Crow I knew. I hadn’t come all this way just to die in Earth orbit.
    “Damn that man,” I said.
    “He doesn’t know we’re here, sir,” Gorski said. “It looks like a hopeless fight against four cruisers to him.”
    “Yeah,” I said, “but I know him. He’s going to go down into the upper atmosphere and hug close to his laser turrets on Andros Island. He’ll stay in low orbit and try to get the Macros to attack him where his strength is.”
    “Sounds like a good plan to me,” Gorski said.
    I shook my head. “It would be, but there is no way Macro Command is going to fall for it.”
    Marvin, who had been quiet for a long time, finally spoke up. “Incoming orders from Macro Command. Target has changed.”
    “New target?” I asked.
    Marvin began to list off cities. Mostly, they were in southern Europe, but they spanned on toward Moscow and beyond. We were to do a bombing run over Earth, destroying millions. Crow’s fleet would not be allowed to spring their trap. Macro Command clearly had figured it out. Star Force would have to come face us in the open, or Earth would suffer the consequences.
    In the meantime, we were Macro ship number four, and had orders to fire on our own civilians. If we didn’t do it, Macro Command would know who we really were, and the fight would be on.

50

    We hit them a few minutes after we passed the East Coast of the U. S. The Macros followed Crow’s retreating ships down over Cuba, I supposed in case he changed his mind and came up to fight. The Macros never lowered themselves into the range of Star Force’s ground-based beams, however. Instead, the diamond formation veered northeast and glided toward Europe.
    I figured it was now or never. We were accelerating over the Atlantic. A battle over water would minimize any collateral damage on the ground. Every minute I waited left Crow’s Fleet further behind. It was still a hard decision to make. We considered waiting until they were bombing Lisbon and Madrid, the first cities on the hit list. I knew Earth had some missiles to fire back up in our direction, and possibly they’d developed enough tech down there to really matter in this fight. After all, the Chinese had managed to knock out a cruiser a year or so back. But I didn’t feel like gambling with millions of lives just to find out what Earth had deployed in our absence.
    “Gorski,” I said, walking over to his operations station. “This is going to be your finest hour.”
    He looked at me in glassy-eyed determination. I could tell he couldn’t really believe he was in this situation at this very moment. His skills with an alien interface could mean the lives of all his crewmen and a lot of civilians as well. It was an odd feeling that I knew all too well.
    “Yes sir,” he said.
    I hovered close to him. He was seated in the midst of a nest of computers and instrument panels. The area was the biggest mess on the bridge, but I’d never complained. We could organize it later if we all lived long enough.
    “Which one is your turret tracking now?” I asked.
    “The one on the left,” he said, “to our north. Are we going for the engines or their belly turrets?”
    “Hold on a second,” I said. “You are going to hit two targets. Keep the turret on the one to our north, take out his engines. Next, fire our missiles at the ship on the south flank.”
    “Targeted system?”
    “Engines again,” I said.
    “Why engines?” Gorski asked. “They’ll all hammer us with their guns.”
    “I know,” I said. “We’ll take out the guns when the engines are knocked out, if we are able. But in the meantime, Kwon and his marines will sally out of the launch bay and fly to those ships with the newly redesigned mines. If they don’t have engines to maneuver, they can’t escape my marines riding their dishes. They’ll stay more or less on course and in easy reach.”
    We’d changed the mines slightly over the last few days. We’d taken off the prongs and simplified them into what amounted to portable charges. Every tenth man in Kwon’s assault team carried one now, and ten of them were more than enough to blow through the Macro hulls. In a way, the mission was easier this time around. We didn’t need to capture the Macro ships. Destroying them was good enough. A single squad of marines with a few well-placed charges could accomplish that. The trick would be to get in close enough.
    “What about the lead ship?” Gorski asked. “The one dead ahead?”
    I clapped him on the shoulder. “If we are still alive, we’ll take it out. Or Crow’s fleet will.”
    He blinked and nodded, dazed. The implications of what I’d said were sinking in. This was a desperate play. We were attacking an enemy force three times our size, with surprise as our only advantage. It was a suicide mission, but we couldn’t let them bomb Earth indiscriminately while we sat here waiting for the perfect moment.
    “Colonel!” Major Sarin shouted suddenly. “The Macros are opening their tubes.”
    “Macro Command orders us to fire on the first target,” Marvin said.
    “What? Are we even in range yet?”
    “It’s not optimal, but the missiles should reach,” Gorski said.
    “Open tubes!” I ordered.
    My only thought was: What the hell was happening? But I knew enough not to blurt that out in front of my crew. When the Macros had bombed Earth in the past, they’d fired when they were directly over the target to effect maximum damage.
    “They are firing a barrage against Lisbon, sir,” Major Sarin said in a dead tone of voice.
    I stared at her for a second. “Gorski, fire all our drones. Take out those missiles before they reach Europe.”
    “Firing sir.”
    “Why the hell are they unloading so early?” I asked no one in particular.
    Sandra tapped at the big metal situation table. I followed her gaze. I saw then what she was pointing out. A swarm of slivers had appeared over Europe. Earth was firing back. I understood then: the Earth governments had been busy building ship-killer missiles to attack cruisers exactly like ours. Who could blame them? They’d seen China pay a grim price for using theirs, but it was all they could do. It was the only effective armament they had. The Macros had fired early because they wanted to make sure Earth cities were knocked out even if their ships were taken down.
    “Gorski,” I said. “This is it. Put our turret on the ship to the north and knock out those engines.”
    “But sir-” he objected.
    “Let’s stick to the plan,” I said. “Kwon, prepare to sally.”
    Kwon acknowledged. Gorski gritted his teeth and pressed control points in rapid succession. The ship quivered under my feet as missiles, drones and cannon rounds all fired at once. We were unloading all the armament we’d prepared.
    Gorski couldn’t miss. We were in very close range, firing on an unsuspecting enemy. His cannon had been locked onto the target for some time now. The first shot flew toward the unsuspecting target, hammering the engines. The rear section of the ship to our north blossomed incandescently.
    “Drop the nanite shell over the launch bay,” I said. “Kwon, take half your marines to each of the flank ships. Plant your bombs and fly away.”
    “Will do, Colonel!” Kwon shouted into my helmet.
    I wondered if it was the last time I’d ever hear his voice.
    “Missiles away,” Gorski said. His voice cracked with tension. “The ship to our south is slowing down, sir. She’s turning into the fire. We can’t hit the engines now.”
    I saw a red spray of pulses strafe our metallic green bead on the big board. No one needed to explain to me what was happening this time. Rippling fire struck all over the ship. Major Sarin was knocked off her feet, but Sandra helped her up. For a crazy moment, I felt glad those two would at least die cooperating.
    Another shower of red sparks came from the point Macro. They were all turning their guns on us, but still firing their missiles toward Earth’s cities. My eyes ran over a dozen indicators and I knew we didn’t have long. We didn’t have any time at all.
    I looked around the bridge. Welter was tapping his alien boards like a crazed video-game player. His nimble hands flashed from spot to spot, touching an oblong area of color with his left and rotating a virtual circle with a single fingertip of his right. He wasn’t wearing gloves, and I hoped it wouldn’t cost him his life. Gorski worked the complex turret controls, still firing. He was blasting at the point ship now, he’d changed targets without asking. But it was a good call. If all of them had damaged engines, they wouldn’t be able to run from Kwon’s demolition men. If Kwon failed, Crow’s Fleet should be able to finish them before they ate Europe.
    The showers of sparks on the big board were flying in every direction. Our engines would have blown already, but they were behind us, as we were the rear ship in the formation and the enemy ships were all in front of us. The hull took a dreadful pounding. The entire ship was being hammered on every side.
    “Abandon ship,” I ordered, hitting the emergency override channel. Every helmet in range rang with my command. I knew my words were being repeated and broadcast by the communication center as well. Earth could hear it too, on the open channels. I didn’t care. At least this way, they would all know who we were. Macro Command couldn’t possibly hate us any more than they already did, and Earth’s defenders might figure out which ship to avoid firing upon.
    “This is Colonel Kyle Riggs,” I said. “All hands, abandon ship!”
    Everything went white shortly after I spoke those words. My visor turned opaque, and I couldn’t see anything. Something smacked me down, then picked me back up and threw me the length of the engine room. My suit kept the explosion from killing me outright, but I knew that this must be what it was like to die inside a doomed starship.
    I stayed conscious. I blamed my new-fangled helmet. The world was full of pain and twisted sensations. I was hurt, busted-up inside. Parts of me were numb-my right leg from the hip down and my left shoulder. Other parts screamed with pain. One of my eyes was quite possibly missing. I couldn’t see anything with my left eye.
    I howled in my helmet, unable to do anything else. Something had me again, something that pulled hard. I looked around and saw a thin arm wrapped around my midsection. I turned my head-flashes of purple light went off in my skull as I did so.
    It was Sandra. She had me tucked under her arm and was carrying me out of the ship. I blinked in confusion. One of her arms was missing. How could that be? The nanites glistened in the wound. I could see them in the fabric too as they worked to close the gap in her suit. She shouldn’t even be conscious, I thought, but here she was, carrying me through the ship like a sack of potatoes with her one remaining arm.
    I looked back behind me. Something strange was flying after me down the corridor. It took me a second to recognize Marvin. He was following us.
    “What are you doing, Marvin?” I asked.
    “Following you,” he said.
    “What for?”
    “You must survive to fulfill your commitments.”
    It took me a dazed second to realize he was talking about his homemade spaceship fantasy. I would have laughed if I wasn’t nearly dead. “Go back and rescue everyone you can. Get them out of the ship. Then we’ll talk about building your dream body.”
    He did a U-turn and sped away. Sandra paused and pressed her faceplate against mine.
    “You’re awake,” she said.
    “Yeah,” I said. “I wish I wasn’t. Get us out of here.”
    “My suit radio is broken,” she said.
    “I figured.”
    “I’m firing the airlock bolts now,” she said. “I need you to use your good hand to clamp my suit closed. The nanites haven’t sealed it completely yet.”
    I frowned. Several things about her statement concerned me. One worry was her use of the phrase your good hand — which indicated I had a bad one. I quickly figured my left side was the bad one, because it didn’t move when my nerves sent signals to it to do so. I reached up with my right to grasp the dangling scraps of cloth around her stump. Another major worry was the implication she was about to launch us into space. Her flapping suit made this a bad idea.
    “This won’t hold,” I said. “I can’t make a good enough seal.”
    “Hold on,” she said.
    Hearing her words, my first thought was she had meant to wait a second while she fixed the situation, but she didn’t mean that at all. She meant literally: hold on.
    The air in the lock gushed out, and we gushed out with it into space. Sandra and I twirled out into a freezing void. We tumbled, but my suit jets automatically fired, steadying us. I grabbed up a handful of Sandra’s suit material and held onto it for all I was worth. It was like a cinched bag in my hand. We weren’t in a good position to touch helmets again, so I couldn’t hear her if she was talking. She pointed downward.
    I hurt my neck in order to take a look. There was quite a drama playing out down there. Three ships were left in the fight. The fourth one, the Macro ship that had been to our north, was floating scrap. Our own ship was trailing fire and explosions. The cannon was still blazing, however. I figured the sparks along our hull were due to the continuous, hammering impacts from the enemy cannons. Tiny figures swam away in every direction out of my ship. I craned my neck around, and after my vision cleared, I saw my marines swarming over both the Macro vessels, setting their charges.
    I smiled and listened as my men signaled each other. The plan was working-sort of. They were destroying them all. As I watched, they laid bombs on their hulls and sprang away like fleas jumping off a dying dog. We were the swarm plaguing them, now.
    I turned my head back toward Sandra. She was watching the scene with me. It was silent, colorful and terrifying all at once. My fingers were still holding the cloth of her suit together. I knew if the nanites were in close proximity, they were more likely to meet and chain up into an airtight surface. Apparently, they had made a good enough seal, because she was still alive. We’d spun around to watch the battle, and I was able to twist enough to click my faceplate against hers.
    “What happened to your other arm?” I asked.
    “It hurts,” she said.
    “Hurts? I’ve got some bad news…”
    “It will be fine.”
    “You should have listened. You should have kept your battle suit on.”
    “Don’t start with me, Kyle,” she said. “My arm will be fine.”
    “It’s been blown clean off, girl!” I shouted. “It’s about to burn up in that dying ship.”
    Our old cruiser was sagging now, flying upside down like a dead goldfish. The top of it ran with streaks of fire and thick vapors as it scudded against the mesosphere, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere where most meteors burned up. The friction would soon melt the hull to slag. I was sorry to see it go down.
    “No it isn’t,” she said, rummaging in her utility pack.
    Sandra grunted and pulled something into view. It was a stiff, feminine arm. “See, here it is. Frozen solid, but with some hard-working nanites and microbial-loving, it will work again. You’ll see. I’ll give you a massage with this by Christmas.”
    “Microbials?” I asked. “I thought we left them all on Jolly Rodger.”
    “I’ve still got some inside-trust me.”
    I didn’t know what to say. Maybe she could reattach her limb. I turned back to watch the battle. Things had taken a welcome turn. Earth’s missiles took out one of the last two cruisers and finally, at the very last, Crow’s Fleet showed up and made a production of destroying the last limping Macro ship. I figured Crow would award himself a medal for saving the day.
    Something flipped off inside my brain then, and I blacked out.

51

    I awoke looking at Sandra. I couldn’t even recall passing out, or being taken down dirtside. The familiar tug of real gravity felt good on my bones-most of them. Some were irritated, having been broken in several places. I groaned, and Sandra smiled.
    She looked hot to me, even with one arm missing. I realized with a feeling of disconnection that she really was smiling. It had to be the microbes and nanites working on her injuries. Most people aren’t happy after they have a limb ripped off and nearly die. What I wasn’t sure of is how much those tiny creatures had affected her mind as well as her body.
    “You’re awake,” she said.
    “Where are we?” I asked.
    “Back home on Andros Island. This is the hospital inside Fort Pierre. Don’t you recognize it?”
    “Tell me I fell in the shower and the aliens were all a bad dream.”
    Sandra shook her head. “I wish they were. We won at least-you do remember that, don’t you?”
    “Yes. Tell me about my crew, did everyone make it?”
    She shook her head. “Welter got out. Sloan got out.”
    “Sloan always gets out,” I commented. “What about Jasmine?” I asked.
    Her eyes half-closed and pursed her lips into a tight, pissed expression.
    “Okay, okay,” I said. “I mean Major Sarin.”
    “She made it, but she was banged up a bit. She says Marvin carried her off the ship as it went down into the atmosphere. And Kwon has some new scars, but he’s still a marine.”
    “That’s great news,” I said.
    “Gorski can’t be found,” she continued, frowning. “I think he manned his gun until the end.”
    “Gorski didn’t make it?” I asked, shaking my head. “He was a good man. I’ll name a ship or a base after him.”
    “Really, we didn’t lose too many considering the cruiser went down,” Sandra said. “Most of the unit was out jumping on Macro ships in those new suits of yours.”
    “How about you?” I asked.
    Sandra lifted her stump of an arm for me to examine. I could see a dangling tendon and mercury-like metal.
    “I haven’t had time to reattach it yet,” she said.
    “Do you still have it?”
    “Yeah, it’s on ice.”
    I reflected to myself that Sandra had become one tough girl. She hardly seemed to be flustered by a lost arm. Maybe it was all the nanites and the microbes. Or maybe it was a side-effect of having died multiple times already.
    “Won’t it rot or something?” I asked. “Go get it reattached.”
    “I plan to take it into one of the medical rooms when you recover,” she said.
    “Just do it now,” I told her. “I’m fine.”
    “Liar,” she said.
    She kissed me and I waved her away with the hand that still worked. She left and I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth in pain. They had an I. V. hooked up to my good arm, but it didn’t seem to be doing any good.
    “Knock, knock!” said a gruff voice at the door.
    I turned and winced. I thought maybe I had a cracked vertebra in my neck. It really hurt. I hoped the nanites were up to the repair job they obviously had to do on me.
    Crow smiled hugely as he walked in. I wondered if he would try to suffocate me with my pillow.
    “There you are, mate!” he called loudly. “About time you rejoined the party.”
    Crow looked meaty as usual. He had more white hair than the last time I’d seen him. His blue eyes glowed at me around his hawk-nose. He grinned and showed me teeth that were big, white and square.
    “Glad to be back,” I said. “Are there any more Macros in sight?”
    Crow shook his head. “My ships finished the last of them.”
    I stared at him for a minute. We had a long and rocky history. I was still somewhat angry he had not joined the fight against the Macros earlier. I had kept hoping he would engage, so I could hit them when they were focused on Star Force ships. But he had waited until my cruiser went down.
    I told myself he hadn’t struck because he had known he would have lost every ship he had against four Macro cruisers. Still, it somehow seemed wrong to me he would allow them to carpet bomb Europe. We were supposed to stop the enemy from killing civilians, or die trying. What else were we doing in these uniforms?
    I knew Crow, however, and understood him. He wasn’t the type to sacrifice for others. He would help, but he wouldn’t die for a lost cause. I supposed a man had to work with the allies he had, sometimes.
    I smiled at last and reached for his hand with my good one. “Thanks for joining the fight when you did,” I said, taking the high road.
    He shook my hand, but looked slightly troubled. At last, he nodded. “I didn’t know it was you, Kyle. You understand that, don’t you?”
    “Yeah,” I said. “We didn’t give anything away in our Macro disguise. Hell, even the Macros bought it.”
    Crow grinned then with his big teeth showing. “I just had to come see the hero,” he said. “Oh, and there’s one more visitor waiting in the hall. I would have kicked him out, but Sandra vouched for him.”
    “Yeah?”
    Crow walked to the door and waved Marvin in. The robot didn’t look too good. His propulsion dish was stuttering. His nanite arms were twitching, and he could barely hold onto his dish.
    “This is the weirdest pet robot you’ve ever dragged home, Riggs,” Crow said, eyeing Marvin in disdain. “You sure you know what you’re doing, mate?”
    I looked Marvin over. One of his cameras was dead and dragged behind him on the floor. A second camera moved normally, but the lens was cracked and I doubted he could see much.
    “No,” I told Crow. “I rarely know what I’m doing.”
    Crow left after giving me a lengthy report concerning our defenses. He was building masses of mines now, suspiciously similar in design to the ones I’d used on the Macros. He would deploy them at both the rings place float masses of them in orbit over Venus. Hopefully, the next Macro expedition would be wiped out.
    “Set up the biggest minefield at Venus,” I told him.
    “Why?”
    “Because last time they assembled a large fleet, it came in piece by piece from that direction. I think that’s where their main strength lies.”
    He agreed, and went off to prepare. We’d won a battle, but the second war with the Macros had just begun. I only wished I knew if we were Rome or Carthage in this series of conflicts. I thought we seemed a lot more like Carthage than Rome, but I hoped not, because things hadn’t turned out so well for them.
    Marvin wanted his promised parts, naturally. I decided it was time to have a long overdue conversation with him.
    “What happened to med-tech Ning, Marvin?” I asked.
    “I do not know,” he said.
    “Her nametag was found in microbial soup in Sandra’s medical pod. You said you needed more protein to finish her repairs. Did you use Ning for that purpose?”
    Both Marvin’s functional eyes were on me, and the third one with the cracked lens joined them. “ Jolly Rodger was destroyed. Ning may have been destroyed with it.”
    Was that evasion, I wondered, or just Marvin’s usual literal-mindedness? It did seem like he was still answering my first question while avoiding my second. “So, I’m going to assume you did use her proteins to repair Sandra,” I said. “That is an unacceptable practice-”
    “She asked you to do this, didn’t she?” Marvin asked.
    “She? You mean Sandra?”
    “Yes.”
    I looked at him, startled. Was that anger I sensed in him? I didn’t think he was capable of that emotion.
    “Asked me to do what?” I asked.
    “To cheat. To change the parameters of our arrangement at the final moment.”
    “No, she didn’t ask for that,” I said. “She doesn’t even know about our arrangement.”
    One of the cameras tilted closer. “She wants to disassemble me, you know.”
    I shook my head bemusedly. What was I supposed to do with Marvin? He could be telling the truth. Ning might have easily been lost in the mad scramble to evacuate Jolly Rodger. The nametag could be easily explained as well. Perhaps Ning was working on Sandra when the ship was hit. Maybe she was injured and fell into the medical pod, to be consumed by the microbes.
    “Let’s talk about Sandra then,” I said. “She’s not like everyone else who went through the microbial baths. She is stronger, faster, and has gained better senses. Why is that?”
    “Superior base-materials, longer period of exposure, and superior workmanship.”
    “Superior base-materials-meaning Ning.”
    “The closer the match and the fresher the base-materials-” he began.
    “Yeah, I got it,” I said. “I don’t understand what you mean about superior workmanship, however.”
    “Microbial generations are very short. They mutate and learn at a highly accelerated rate. Those that worked on her had already worked on two other humans.”
    “Ah,” I said, nodding. “The dirty motor oil stuff. Those microbes were experts after having worked on Kwon and Carlson? You think they learned that fast?”
    “Yes.”
    “But I still don’t know why she came out so differently than the others.”
    “I would surmise they performed experiments, taking their own initiative.”
    I looked at him harshly. “I would find that more likely if they were ordered to do so,” I said.
    Marvin’s cameras studied me, but made no comment. “Is this interview at an end?” he asked finally.
    “I suppose it is.”
    “Have you found my actions and responses satisfactory?”
    I knew he was asking for me to uphold my part of the bargain, but I wanted to know more while I had him in a compliant mood.
    “Did you kill Ning, Marvin?” I asked him.
    “No,” he said. “But I might have put her body into the medical pod to be repaired. And she might have been used by the microbials as raw materials. Accidentally.”
    “You might have?”
    “Yes-if such an admission does not negatively influence your decision to fulfill your commitments.”
    I snorted and shook my head, staring at him. Marvin quietly awaited my decision. I wasn’t completely sure what had happened between Ning, Marvin and Sandra. If Marvin’s story was the truth, it explained a lot. I tended to believe he had taken unsavory action, but that he was not a murderer. He was more of a mad scientist.
    In the end, I decided to help him. I guess after he had saved the lives of several of my crewmembers, it hard to say ‘no’. A promise was a promise. Even if it was made to a robot…at least, that was the way I saw it.
    “Okay Marvin,” I said. “I promised. We’ll build you some new parts as soon as I heal up. But you can’t continue to experiment upon humans the way you do machines.”
    “Agreed,” he said. “How will we proceed?”
    “Come back in three days,” I told him. “I need to recuperate.”
    The days passed quickly, and before I knew it I was working out with barrels of nanites at the base where we still kept most of our factories. I set Marvin’s brainbox up in the heart of a Nano ship that looked eerily like Alamo. As I built his new body, I had to wonder if I was making some kind of far-reaching error. I hoped not.
    I hooked up the manipulator arm and gave him a single engine. There was no repair unit onboard-no factory he could use to duplicate his mind or other parts. There was no armament, either. He had power, sensors, an engine and an arm. That was it.
    How much trouble could he get into with that?
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