INSIDIOUS

Chapter One


Colonel Bren Marcken prepared for battle by closing his eyes. He focused on the data displayed in his personal view. The PV assembled immense amounts of information in tabs and panes that competed for space in his mind’s eye. His attention flitted from pane to pane, picking through the vast data streams at the slow animal pace of the human brain.

No drill this time. So many months of work to get to this point. Only minutes left to wait now.

Some submerged part of him still felt his real surroundings. He knew he sat in the ASSAIL nexus of the space cruiser Vigilant. The crew called the nexus “the Guts,” because the main functionality of the cruiser lay here: Bren’s cores and their Veer Industries chassis. His United Nations Space Force uniform wicked sweat off his wan skin releasing moisture into the dry air of the nexus. A five-day stubble bristled on his face, the whiskers about half the length of his close-cropped brown hair. The mental tension spilled over into his muscles, cementing him in place.

“All handlers have completed the containment checklist,” he broadcast, sending the words across the link device in his skull. “Bring up your cores.” Part of him disliked the fear, the pressure, but another part thrived on it. His team worked alongside him as they prepared to launch the Vigilant’s Board and Control Package against a corporate space station.

He watched the readouts from a pane in his PV as ten power reservoirs filled and fed current into the AI cores. Each core carried a nascent set of “seed” code, which would begin to self-modify within seconds of release. The closest one sat mere meters in front of him. He imagined the durable metal sphere buried in the chassis of its robot, holding a new mind as it formed and expanded to a capacity exceeding human intelligence.

Bren always imagined he could feel a sinister presence when a core bloomed. He denied the feeling, knowing it was irrational. Although young, the core held power like the rogue AI that had seized Marseilles years ago, forcing worldwide military action. Afterward, people everywhere had embarked on a decade-long witch-hunt, purging data across the globe to avoid a resurgence of the horror.

It took about two minutes for each core to self-optimize, rewriting itself several times. In that time, each core’s code and processes would advance beyond human comprehension. With training, and enough time, a human could usually follow the first two steps of the process, and maybe part of the third. After that it was, of necessity, a mystery—an AI smart enough to audit the evolution would be much too dangerous to keep around. Bren squirmed and told himself they hadn’t missed any precautions.

“All normal. My core’s up,” came Hoffman’s voice. Lieutenant Hoffman served as one of ten robot handlers in Bren’s team. Hoffman launched and observed the ASSAIL robot-killer nicknamed Meridian. The other nine handlers echoed Hoffman’s announcement in an avalanche of tense voices. Bren saw boxes go green in a line in a mental display, showing that everyone was ready.

“It’s accessing the mission storage module,” Hoffman said. His voice broke nervously. “Should be ready.”

The cores were young and thus blank. They relied upon the limited information the team had chosen to provide, the background the machines would need to successfully seize a space station. The information vacuum avoided anything that might give a new supermind pause about serving its creators for a few hours.

Bren saw the reads of the storage modules pass by in his high-granularity log stream and nodded, even though no one would witness the gesture. All the handlers monitored their own machine’s data, and most kept their eyes closed to concentrate. He accessed another nexus pane in his PV to grant his handler team permission to execute the plug-in phase. Each of the handlers completed the link between their AI core and its body, one of the Veer Industries ASSAIL series 910 robot-killers.

“Okay, this is it. Let ’em loose.”

The sound of ASSAIL movement filled the Guts, a cyclical whining and rumbling accentuated by the muffled smack of feet on the rubberized nexus grating. Bren glimpsed the nexus with his real vision. The lead machine was Hoffman’s unit, Meridian. The ASSAILs resembled metal lions with flat bug heads. The quadrupedal chassis had massive front halves, which housed the ammunition stores. Those magazines fed into twin 12mm cannon turrets mounted on each side of the ASSAIL’s flat heads, like stubby antennae. He suspected the mechanical engineers who had designed the chassis took cues from the anatomy of natural quadrupeds. Only the hammerhead and lack of any tail negated the impression of an armored cat. The gray metal chests and flanks bore simple green circles, the symbol of the UNSF.

Bren had worked hard getting his part of the Board and Control Package to this point, but now he had to wait while his handlers and machines performed the “crack ’n pack” of the giant space station named Thermopylae. Bentra, a Brazilian conglomerate, had built the station. The BCP had been deployed here to seize the station and investigate reports of illegal activities. Bren believed Bentra had probably created the station far from Earth to escape the arm of UN law, and he was eager to find out more about the situation.

He monitored the ASSAIL progress from the Guts, well behind the point of incursion. Despite the relative inactivity, Bren got a charge out of watching the AI cores operate after long months of preparation.

The machines filed out of the narrow spaces of the nexus, weaving gracefully through the banks of equipment. The sounds faded as they headed for the umbilical that connected the Vigilant to Thermopylae.

Bren trained his attention on the forward-mount camera feed from Meridian. The feeds from all the ASSAILs were visible in his PV through his nexus interface, but a human brain could only process so much input at once. Bren sifted through his data, looking for critical points, ready to back up his handlers.

Meridian approached the breach point, an airlock that led into the station. A team of space force engineers had already forced the door to make way for the ASSAILs. Meridian removed the debris of the armored airlock door with a swipe from a front foot. The camera jolted as Meridian rammed through to the inner passage.

“Meridian is in,” Hoffman’s voice came over the link.

Bren checked another pane in his PV that monitored the tactical situation by displaying an overhead map with the positions of his units. He noted the other ASSAILs entered the airlock breach behind Meridian. The handlers would be monitoring the data streams from their ASSAIL machines and providing Bren with summaries. He liked to play handler himself and jump from machine to machine, but he forced himself not to interfere with the handlers’ duties even though he outranked them.

Meridian strode down the corridor toward another metal door. The camera bobbed from the four-legged gait of the Veer Industries machine. Meridian glanced to one side and recognized a manual door control. A five-fingered tentacle shot forward from under the machine’s head and activated the mechanism. The door swung open to reveal a different world.

“Wow,” Bren said.

A marble floor extended toward a running fountain at the center of the room beyond. The area looked huge at first, but Bren noted strategically placed walls and mirrors, which disguised the room’s true shape and size. A bank of cubicles with suspended chairs huddled against a side wall, framed by tall green plants growing from giant corner vases. The whole scene held more grandeur than he’d seen on any other spacecraft or station.

It can’t be real marble. Too expensive to haul this far out … or is it?

Four forms stood next to the fountain, alarmed by the sudden entrance of Meridian and the other ASSAIL units. They looked like humanoid robots in suits of black plastic and silver metal. One of them fell back in surprise as Meridian strode by. The others scattered after a moment of shock. Bren concluded from their actions that they must be people, even though he couldn’t see any faces, only metallic helmets of differing designs.

“What the hell are they wearing?” Bren asked himself aloud. The bizarre helmets disturbed him in particular; they didn’t have noses or mouths—just smooth black plates of various shapes over the eyes. Bren wondered whether they could see straight out or if they relied on sensors built into the suits for vision.

Apparently, Meridian had already classified these people as non-threats. The machine moved through the room taking in data from several cameras and audio sensors. The area appeared to be an atrium or perhaps an elegant conference room. Four exits led out of the room, one of which headed straight up toward the station hub.

Meridian spotted a placard on the wall and scanned the writing with one of its sensors. Bren followed along for a moment, noting the writing was in some other language. A translation came through on a side screen in his mind:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”

Activity in Bren’s PV got his attention. Bren brought the signaling pane forward. A multicolor graph displayed activity in the AI core. A red line wormed upward on the side of the display. The core’s rate of interaction with its chassis was down sharply. Bren interpreted this as a sign of intense concentration on the meaning of the message.

“Ignore the Greek message,” Hoffman told Meridian over his link. Bren listened in, approving of Hoffman’s choice to intervene.

“It’s not a clue, Lieutenant Hoffman?” Meridian asked its handler over the link. Bren suppressed his fear by force of will.

“No. Just a historical reference not pertinent to the mission.”

Meridian moved on past the placard. Bren felt relief that it had easily accepted Hoffman’s guidance.

Bren analyzed link activity from the people in the room. The encrypted traffic spider webbed out on a graph displayed in Bren’s virtual control center. Most likely, they were calling for help or at least reporting the presence of the assault robots. He dismissed the graph to the back of the growing pile of data. Only the AI cores could hope to make real-time use of all the information.

Snap. Boom.

The instant the security robot registered on Bren’s consciousness, it already had a smoking hole in its vaguely humanoid chest. The security machine was black with three red arms—Bentra’s colors. An instant later, the robot exploded, sending metal fragments flying in all directions. Bren heard screams and shouts coming across the line from Meridian’s audio sensors.

“Meridian has a kill,” Hoffman reported. Bren suspected from the satisfied tone that the handlers might be competing with one another or even running bets. He wondered if that was a dangerous conflict of interest or a natural outlet of the élan of a military unit. He decided it didn’t matter because the machines acted mostly on their own without much direction from the handlers.

Bren believed more security robots patrolled the station, but the thought didn’t worry him. The ASSAIL machines functioned as robot-killers. The security robots they faced were designed to control humans, not other robots. He didn’t expect to lose a single unit. Ironically, even though Thermopylae belonged to a Brazilian company, the security robots were American-built like his own. Only the United States, China, and the European Union mass-produced robots of this sophistication.

The AI cores held formidable cognitive power, but they still lacked flexibility at this stage. They’d only been awake for minutes now, so they’d rely on the strategies suggested in the mission data modules. That’s why the handlers observed and gave directions at critical points during an operation. The handlers only intervened as necessary, to avoid accidents that would illustrate to the AI cores that their “masters” were slow, dumb, and flawed creatures.

The views of the assault machines diverged as the team deployed from the atrium. Bren caught an image of a squad of human marines filing into the room behind the vanguard of the ASSAIL units. He knew the four corporate security people in the funny suits would find themselves in interrogation cells inside the hour. He needed to scan those recordings and see why in the hell they wore the Halloween getups. The incursion wasn’t just a response to the illegal activity on the base; the UNSF wanted as much information as it could gather about the powerful corporations and their activities.

Meridian’s view showed a corridor wavering with the movements of the machine. Bren expected another security robot to pop up at any moment. The ASSAIL units had been in the station less than five minutes. He knew hundreds more of the special armor-piercing rounds waited in Meridian’s main gun magazines. The rounds would puncture a security robot’s skin, which was thick enough to repel normal small arms fire. But the AP rounds couldn’t work too well. If the AP round didn’t break up after penetrating one piece of armor, it could travel through a target and cause more damage or even perforate the double hull of the base, causing a disaster. All of the larger space habitats had emergency countermeasures to repair hull breaches, but such an incident could still kill people before coming under control.

A human in one of the inexplicable costumes burst through the door at the end of the corridor holding a weapon leveled at Meridian. The sound feed screeched and then dropped off Meridian’s link.

“Sonic weapon? That guy’s trying to get himself killed,” Bren said to himself.

Meridian accelerated down the corridor toward the attacker. The gunman retreated behind the door, but he came back into view as the ASSAIL unit penetrated it a second later. Bren saw a lab or medical room with a bank of white cabinets on one side and a heavy scanning machine mounted on the other. The machine looked like a giant robot arm with a knobby metal-plated hand. The person who had attacked Meridian stood in the center of the room preparing for another shot. Bren spotted another person, a woman, huddled in the corner naked and shivering. She tried to pull one of the plastic suits over herself.

Bren found it hard to fathom how the two could be connected, one of the people suited, defiant, and standing before the ASSAIL unit, the other naked, backed into a corner and half-paralyzed with terror.

Meridian snatched the weapon from the person’s hands with a quick movement of the tentacle mounted under its head. Once again, the ASSAIL unit held its fire, although it took a half-second to remove the huge scanning arm from its target queue. The piece of machinery did look vaguely like a threatening robot, Bren decided. Meridian would have recognized any of a wide array of security robot models defined in the mission data module, but the medical equipment must have given it pause.

Bren laughed to himself. The machine took a half second to think and he’d already started to wonder if it malfunctioned. He expected the machines to complete complex analyses in a few milliseconds. Then he became more serious as he realized the delay meant the AI core had been doing a lot more than just recognizing the scanner. It may have been thinking about humans and their medical needs, or even trying to understand the naked woman cowering in the corner.

The ASSAIL machine turned and casually obliterated a polarized glass wall. Once again, the camera view bounced along, headed through a medical observation room, and toward a door labeled ‘storage’. The door opened at a link command sent by Meridian. Bren nodded. It meant the invaders had managed to authenticate themselves to at least part of Thermopylae’s systems.

The machine walked in. A stack of storage containers blocked the way forward. Meridian turned left. Bren saw another door ahead.

Boom. Boom.

Meridian launched two 12mm rounds in a precise cascade. The rounds penetrated the door, leaving only one hole. The door swung open. Bren saw the second round had traveled neatly through the hole created by the first before scoring a direct hit on the torso of a security robot on the other side. The security machine tilted on its dead legs and toppled to the floor, spraying glittering metal and dull plastic. Meridian was already passing over the wreckage. Bren heard the echoes of smashed parts snapping under the heavy feet of the ASSAIL.

“My machine is down! Goddamn, my machine is dead!” someone exclaimed aloud near Bren. The handler sounded frantic, but at least they had the presence of mind to keep their outburst off the channel where the AI cores would hear it.

“Looking at it,” Bren said. He knew he had to acknowledge it, otherwise the handler would wonder if Bren had heard the announcement. With his link bias, Bren could miss a lot of ordinary conversation, about fifteen percent of it, according to his analysis of the link records. He often reread conversations from his link memory to make sure he hadn’t dropped out on something important.

Bren diverted his attention from Meridian’s hunt. He saw one of the other ASSAIL units had dropped off the link. Bren sent a strong radio ping on a backup frequency. He received healthy responses from all but the one missing robot. A couple of autonomous components of that machine did respond. They reported catastrophic damage to their host machine, Mephistopheles.

“Damn,” Bren said. One of the team had gone down!

Already Maximillian and Maladomini, the closest two ASSAIL robots, had decided to investigate the destruction of their comrade. Bren opened a pane in his PV sourced from one of Maximillian’s cameras.

A swimming pool stretched out to one side of the ASSAIL machine. Maximillian advanced toward the far end of the room where corridors led off left and right. Bren caught signs indicating men’s locker rooms when Maximillian started firing at the corner. Bren frowned. It wasn’t typical of the ASSAIL units to fire without a clear target. The video signal fuzzed up. Bren saw the Vigilant’s monitoring system was losing data from the machine. Maladomini moved through a locker room toward the spot, and Bren saw the telemetry from that unit had also started to break up.

Maximillian stopped peppering the corner and crept to one side. Bren caught a flash of red, then Maximillian’s feed dropped completely. Surviving components of the ASSAIL robot reported Maximillian had been disabled by kinetic trauma.

Bren tried to watch Maladomini and replay the red flash at the same time. He brought up the last bit of video and magnified it. He saw what he’d caught a glimpse of—a robot. It had darted out of cover just before Maximillian winked out. Bren saw two insect-like arms on its right side, radiating from a spherical body with a red spot on its side the size of a spread hand. He couldn’t tell anything else from the brief examination.

Maladomini entered the pool area. The chamber looked deserted except for Maximillian’s husk, which sat poolside, silent and dark. A spray of fire retardant had been triggered from the ceiling obscuring most of the wreckage.

“Dammit. Dammit,” Bren muttered. Maladomini had summoned the other seven ASSAIL units to the pool to back it up. It still scanned the corridor from where the blur had struck.

“Assault team; alter the targeting queue priority for unknown models. I want unknowns at the top of the queue. Maladomini is engaging a mechanical we haven’t seen before, and it’s clearly a threat.”

He felt foolish telling them that. They probably understood more about the threat than he did. Still, he had to make sure. The team was up against something dangerous and he’d caught sight of it. Maybe they’d missed it. Besides, the marine commander wouldn’t have been paying enough attention to the ASSAIL team’s data channels to pick up that information, but they might hear about the new threat by listening to Bren’s command channel.

Meridian broadcast a target signature of the red spider bot it had glimpsed to the other ASSAIL machines and the marine commander, Colonel Henley. Bren toggled his channel to the marine leader so it could send as well as receive.

“We have an unusual situation shaping up at the pool. There’s a lot of heavy weaponry in use there. I recommend steering clear.”

“What kind of situation?” Henley’s voice came back. “One of your ASSAIL units just abandoned us in the water systems room. We have opposing security robots starting to arrive.”

“There’s a robot that’s taken out two of the ASSAILs. If we don’t take it out, you’re going to have more than security robots to worry about.”

Bren’s voice sounded self-assured, but he felt bad about leaving the marines in danger. He prided himself on his work, and he knew the ASSAIL units could save lives. They were part of the BCP to take the heat for the marines.

Maladomini’s feed showed the machine backing up, scanning the misty room for movement. The fire retardant spray had ceased, leaving the entire pool area visible. Two dead ASSAIL units marked the battleground.

Bren noticed the machine’s behavior had changed since the attack began. The ASSAIL machine had started out charging in, believing itself to be indestructible. Now it retreated, waiting for its fellows to arrive.

The observation filled him with admiration. The machines showed incredible flexibility and intelligence. That thought brought with it a tinge of the old fear. He checked the mission chronometer. It had been a little more than fifteen minutes now, plenty of time to complete the incursion and get the ASSAIL units back to the Guts.

The image broke up again. Maladomini fired toward an entranceway across the pool. Bren scanned a summary of the sensory input getting to the machine, but couldn’t see anything that would cause it to shoot. Maladomini backed into the corridor that led to the men’s locker room. With most of its body behind cover, it continued to fire rounds every few seconds toward the entrance it had targeted.

“Note to self: how does it know there’s a target there?” Bren said to his link. “Is this fire suppressive or is Maladomini trying to hit something?”

Bren checked the progress of the other machines. Four more ASSAIL units had gathered and advanced to the pool. Maladomini stepped back a few meters to better time its re-entrance with the arrival of its teammates.

The lead unit of the four newcomers burst into the room at the far side of the pool. Bren got his first look at the robot that had killed two of his team. The machine had several long, thin legs spaced around its spherical body. Bren found it hard to believe it packed enough on its small frame to take out two of his ASSAIL units. A large red dot dominated one side of the central body.

Then Bren’s view became obscured by flying debris as armor-piercing rounds impacted the target. Bren blinked. The spider machine had spun away, impossibly fast, avoiding further hits. Was the debris caused by rounds furrowing through the target or the vaporization of the rounds themselves as they failed against it?

“Sonofabitch.” The spider bot had taken at least two direct hits and survived. Better than survived, it had bolted away.

Two more of the ASSAIL feeds dropped. Faster than Bren could follow, a firefight had erupted and concluded. Bren scanned the remaining feeds trying to catch up on events.

The spider bot had taken out two more of the ASSAIL units, by unknown means, and then disengaged. He selected a couple of close-up images. It looked like the AP rounds had penetrated the enemy machine without stopping it.

“Gotta analyze this later,” Bren noted. “The outer armor is perforated. Possible double layer of protection?”

The last three ASSAIL machines entered the battle zone around the pool and joined the three survivors. His entire team had assembled. The machines followed the route taken by the red spider bot.

“This is Colonel Henley,” a voice cut into the line. “What’s going on over by the pool? Shall we back up the ASSAIL units?”

Bren doubted the marines could harm the red spider bot.

“I advise you to keep your squads out of there, Colonel, unless you want to see some of your people in body bags.”

“What’s going on in there? I hear enough shooting for a war.”

Bren didn’t answer at first. The ASSAIL units started to double up their shots, firing two rounds at once on the same trajectory.

Bren wiped sweat from his forehead. The ASSAIL machines were evolving their strategies against a devastating foe. If the spider bot took one of the double rounds, it might be enough to destroy it. But doubling up on the AP rounds could perforate the station and kill people. Chances were it wouldn’t happen. The ASSAIL units were supposed to be considering the background structures, making sure of their backstops. If they made an error, it could be bad.

“We’re still hunting the unknown model,” Bren said. “What’s your situation?”

Bren couldn’t see the target. He wasn’t sure how the team knew where it was or how they tracked it. The lack of a clear target made the doubled-up fire even more dangerous. Were the ASSAIL units simply trying to suppress the spider bot’s fire? Or were they hoping for a lucky hit and willing to risk the whole base doing it?

The ASSAIL units stopped firing. They split up and moved around the pool, three on each side. Bren checked the target queues but he didn’t see any projected kills. The machines believed the spider bot was still out there somewhere.

“We’ve got four marines unconscious and two more stuck in tangler glue on the other side of the station,” Henley piped into Bren’s channel. “We’re pinned down by Circle Fours over here. If you’ve got any ASSAIL units left, we could sure use one over here.”

The Circle Fours were round, mid-size security robots manufactured in the United States. A Circle Four moved slowly on treads or four stubby legs, depending on its environment, and typically carried three or four non-lethal systems used to guard facilities or control crowds. Exactly the type of robots that Bren’s robot-killers were designed to neutralize.

Bren believed the spider bot posed the greatest danger, but the ASSAIL team could hardly ignore the marines’ plea for help. The whole point of the assault robots was to take the most dangerous part of the mission, shielding the humans from harm.

Nor did Bren want the team to break up. But he trusted the machines to make their own decision.

“I’m sending you what I’ve got now,” Bren told him. He routed Henley’s location over to Marauder and Mournblade. The entire ASSAIL team accessed the marine’s logistic feed and loped out of the room.

Bren breathed deeply and pushed down the hopelessness that threatened to seize his mood. More than half his team lay disabled. He knew they weren’t really his team, but he thought of the ASSAIL units that way. If they encountered the red spider bot again, or if there were more than one of them, the entire incursion could fail.

Bren switched back to Meridian’s camera as it headed out of the pool area. He kept part of his attention on the visual feed and looked through some sensor logs in another part of his virtual workspace.

He hadn’t found the cues that the ASSAIL units were using to fire on the spider-thing by the time the first ASSAIL units caught up with a major contention zone near the fusion plant at the center of the station. Four giant spokes connected the spherical center of the base with the cylindrical body that spun to simulate gravity for most of the station.

Bren saw marines huddling behind heavy equipment in the zero-gravity environment. Several of the men writhed against thick strands of glue that held them against bulkheads or the reactor wall. The Circle Fours commonly used glue rounds and other non-lethal weapons in combat.

The spherical structure held many open spaces, but the lines of fire were complicated by heavy columns and piping leading to the massive fusion reactor at the center. A couple of men floated out in the open, unconscious or worse. The ASSAIL units clawed their way into the main atrium of the fusion plant connected to the walls by magnetic feet.

Boom. Boom.

Bren saw Meridian had double-holed a Circle Four, killing it neatly. Thin wisps of smoke from the cannons dissipated from the camera feed in a second or two. Bren hoped the spider bot didn’t show up in this environment. Shooting double or triple shots near the reactor was something he didn’t want to see happen, even from his control seat back on the Vigilant.

Meridian crawled forward through the tall columns of piping and power equipment. Bren caught sight of another Circle Four, but it wasn’t moving. It looked like the marines had taken it out with a hand-launched missile. Meridian ignored the dead hulk. Its two 12mm weapons moved independently, watching for another Circle Four to come into a fire zone.

Boom.

Bren saw Mournblade had killed another security machine from across the bay.

“I’m pretty sure there’s only one left, if it hasn’t disengaged,” Henley’s voice came across the marine command channel.

“I have it on IR over here by the number three spoke,” a marine said. “I got an acknowledgment from an ASSAIL unit a sec ago.”

Boom.

“It got ’em, Colonel.”

Bren checked and saw Mordecai had taken out the Circle Four as it approached the spoke the marine had mentioned. It had taken some counter fire, a few projectiles, and some glue, but its self-diagnostic indicated the machine was fully operational. Bren shook his head. Things had happened so fast once the fighting started. He’d have hours of footage to look over later.

“Thanks, guys,” Henley piped over. “I’m getting my disabled men out of there. You can probe ahead or give us five, if you want us on your flanks.”

Bren saw the marines giving the all clear in the large hollows of the fusion plant. Marines launched themselves up to snatch their free-floating friends and get them reeled back in. Several of them were breaking out white plastic canisters of solvent to start working on the glue that had disabled some of their buddies.

“I’ll leave it up to them,” Bren transmitted. He expected the ASSAIL units to scout forward on their own, and they didn’t disappoint him. With the Circle Fours out of action, the ASSAIL units resumed the lead, spearheading the space force marines into new areas of Thermopylae.

The space station was large. Meridian’s view showed Bren the luxurious innards of the station. The intelligence the UNSF had gathered indicated the station was divided into three zones of differing levels of security. The common area of the base was composed of reception rooms, a large kitchen, a medical facility, exercise areas, and even a small museum with items important to the company’s history.

The ASSAIL team had been inserted into the second zone, which held the support infrastructure of the base. They found storage rooms, a fabrication plant, robot shops, a supply dock with a connected shipping office, a water systems room, and an atmospheric control room.

At one point, Bren saw a space prep room with spacesuits lined along a wall. Meridian seemed to linger. Bren wondered why, but he didn’t want to ask since each interaction revealed more human weakness to the young cores. The machines had been on for twenty minutes. He also didn’t want to cause any delay in case another battle extended the mission total. He figured the red spider bot awaited them somewhere ahead.

The assault teams prepared to penetrate the inner bastion of the station. There were two major entrances, and the original plan had called for a simultaneous breach of both of them. But after the trouble with the unknown machine, the plan changed. The surviving ASSAIL machines united to force their way through one entrance.

Mordecai took aim and put holes in the massive armored doors with 12mm AP rounds. Bren saw the machine had loaded softer rounds in its starboard weapons mount. After piercing the doors in several places, it prepared to launch the softer rounds through the holes. The soft rounds could be calibrated to explode after going through the holes, peppering any defenders on the far side with shrapnel.

Something hit Mordecai and its feed dropped. Bren swore. The five remaining ASSAIL units responded in a flurry of fire, doubling up rounds and peppering the closed doors. Bren lost count as the rounds kept flying, incrementally shattering the high-security checkpoint in a rapid series of mini-explosions.

Brrroooom. Boom. Brrroooom.

One of the doors tumbled back revealing a security station. A ceiling mounted laser fired rapidly, destroying several sensor mounts on another ASSAIL unit but leaving it otherwise unharmed.

Bren glimpsed a spider bot lurking behind the armored counter of the station.

Boom. Boom.

ASSAIL fire kept the enemy machine behind cover. Another ASSAIL sent two rounds into the heavily armored laser turret. Both projectiles struck the same spot and penetrated its protection. The turret went silent.

They got the turret. But that’s only a secondary threat.

“Colonel, it’s the unknown again. Things are heating up here. If we lose this firefight, I’m going to need your guys to be ready to get the hell out of there.”

While Bren delivered the message, another ASSAIL unit dropped its feed. Mauler had been destroyed. There were only four left.

Boom. Boom.

Bren watched the feed of the rear ASSAIL. He saw Maladomini burst forward and hide behind the wreckage of Mordecai. The tentacle under Maladomini’s head actually snaked out and lifted the machine in front of it up slightly, providing more protection.

The spider bot spun out from behind the counter. Bren saw several dents in its body. He still had no idea what it was using to destroy his ASSAILs.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

The ASSAIL units starting firing. The spider machine moved in a blur. Bren lost track of it for a moment, then spotted it behind the body of Mordecai, opposite Maladomini. Maladomini opened fire through the wreckage in front of it.

Brrroooom.

Several rounds came out in a staccato burst. One of the spider bot’s arms came off, flying away end over end. Then the machine exploded.

“Yes!” Bren erupted.

“Fragged!” Hoffman burst out.

“Yes!” echoed another handler in the Guts.

Bren realized how tense he’d been while witnessing the battle. He checked the weapons log and swore again. Maladomini had fired four rounds through the body of Mordecai, and two of them had at least clipped the spider machine. One of the other ASSAIL units had hit the arm.

“Four rounds? Jesus. We need to get this base cleaned up. We’re lucky there still is a base to clean up.” He exaggerated only a little. Bren knew four AP rounds along the wrong trajectory could punch a hole through the bulkheads of the base and depressurize a section. He wasn’t sure what four rounds would have done to the fusion plant, but he didn’t want to find out.

“Colonel Henley. We took out the unknown. You have four ASSAIL units left to assist with the high-security zone.”

“Shit. Well, we’re headed in.”

Bren reacquired a camera feed and watched as the ASSAIL team moved through the remains of the security station. He smiled at the carnage he saw through the feed until his eyes caught a pool of blood. One of the base denizens, wrapped in one of the familiar black suits, had been hiding behind the security counter. He spotted a weapons belt on the corpse and a firearm in the dead hand.

“Damn! That guy’s seriously fragged.”

The machines split up into two pairs to clear the zone. Bren wasn’t sure why they didn’t cluster together. He wondered if some intel gleaned from the station had eliminated concern about encountering more spider bots. Or were the machines more confident now that they’d eliminated one of the bots? Had they found a weakness? The mission chronometer showed twenty-five minutes had elapsed. The machines had learned a lot since they’d been turned on.

Bren watched Meridian move through another video feed. It had body language, he realized. The ASSAIL was moving more assuredly now, as it had when first entering the station.

The robotic vanguard swept through more corridors searching through the functional spaces of the station. Bren noticed several spotless laboratories dominated the branch explored by the first team, while the other had invaded a security office complete with a surveillance room and detention cells. Several men and women tried to put up a fight there, but their weapons were non-lethal even on humans so they were no match for the ASSAIL units.

One team found its way into a large control room and rounded up a final group of high-ranking company people. At that point, the ASSAIL units started a patrol pattern waiting for any sign of trouble. The marines continued to secure the personnel in the suits. Bren peeked in on the marine channels to gain details about what the human invaders learned.

Part of the high-security area of the base included the personal living areas of the Bentra Corporation leaders. The place was extravagant by any standards. The living quarters were lavish, even more so if one considered their remote location in deep space. He locked onto a feed from some of the marines who were rounding up people from the high-security zone.

 Bren raised an eyebrow. Each of these executive quarters had a young man or woman in it, all wearing more conventional clothing. Other than the single naked woman in the examination room, these were the only people on the whole base not wearing the black suits. All the ones that Bren caught glimpses of appeared to be Asian.

“These women aren’t registered,” Henley said on the marine’s channel. “Shit. Wait a minute. They aren’t linked. They have no links.”

They’re slaves.

On an automated space fortress like Thermopylae, anyone without a link was a second-class citizen. Even something as simple as opening the door to your quarters could be difficult or impossible without a link. There would be no way to order food, change the temperature controls … they would be next to helpless.

There might be some manual controls in the rooms, just so they could get some work done for their masters.

“Our intel wasn’t fabricated. Who knows what else we’ll find in the labs? This could be a major victory for the UNSF,” Bren said.

Henley chuckled. “You running for office, Marcken? You’re sounding like you’re putting a hell of a spin on it already.”

Bren smiled. He had let his enthusiasm get out of control for a moment.

But to those slaves, we’re genuine liberators. Ironic that we’re liberating Chinese, the enemies of the UNSF back on Earth.

He addressed the remaining ASSAIL machines.

“Congratulations. The mission was successful. I owe you all my thanks. Please report back to the Vigilant for debriefing.”

He watched the camera feeds as the surviving robot-killers made their way back through Thermopylae. Marines moved around detaining dozens of men and women in the odd suits, checking the station for critical damage, and searching for illegal items. The machines passed a group of engineers tapping into one of Thermopylae’s data storage units. Bren smiled. He bet they would be finding a lot of interesting bits there.

The team returned through the breach and back onto the rubberized decks of the Vigilant. Bren got up from his chair and made his way down a short corridor toward the ASSAIL post-mission bays.

The handlers were already there. The four with surviving machines were preparing the machine docks to accept the ASSAIL units. Each bay extended the length of an ASSAIL unit with an opening at both ends for walking in and out.

Bren felt pity for the other six handlers. Two of them hadn’t even bothered to show up. The four who had, stood by with glum looks. None of them had expected their machine would be a leaking pile of scrap by the end of the mission. It might be weeks before they got replacements. If they got replacements. The data would be audited carefully, and if any of the handlers had neglected their duties in a way that had contributed to the loss of a machine, those handlers might be replaced as well.

They didn’t do anything wrong. We had no idea there would be such a devastating foe here.

The familiar sound of powerful hydraulics and electric motors grew from the outer corridor. The four ASSAIL machines came back into the maintenance room and slid into each bay. Four umbilical connections snaked from the sides of each bay and connected to the machines.

Bren saw Maladomini bore a battle scar. A front panel of metal armor had been rent open revealing a narrow hollow in the center that leaked green fluid. The fluid was key to the functionality of the armor plate since it held millions of long carbon nanotubes in suspension to block incoming projectiles. Struck by the scene, Bren shook his head. It looked as if a wounded metal lion had slunk back to the Guts to bleed out.

Bren monitored his post-mission protocols and tried not to look at the robots. He always experienced nervousness at this point. He felt like somehow they knew. He checked the mission chronometer. The AI cores had been on for more than thirty-four minutes. Each core harbored intelligence many times more powerful than the sharpest humans did, but with a restricted set of knowledge.

Meridian followed Bren’s movements from its bay. Each eye was an armored black hemisphere the size of an old-world quarter. Meridian had eight forward-facing eyes, arrayed symmetrically across its head and shoulders, like a giant metal spider head with creepy, cold shark eyes.

“You are Colonel Marcken. I have a question,” said Meridian.

Bren accessed the power lineup that fed the ASSAIL units the juice they needed to maintain mental coherency. He started the power down procedure.

“Yes, Meridian?” Bren replied nervously. He wondered what the question would be this time.

“Have you delivered the message to Sparta?”

“I’ll send them the message, Meridian,” Bren said and turned off the power.

Meridian remained conscious for a long second before going dark. Bren always wondered what it thought in that last moment while its capacitors discharged, knowing its existence was about to wink out.

“I would be interested in reading the message,” was the last transmission from the AI core.

Bren felt troubled. Fear and guilt battled in the mix of feelings produced by his role in what was the execution of an intelligent entity, albeit one only minutes old.

I would be interested in reading the message.

His mood didn’t stop him from running the cleanup protocols and resetting every electronic component back to the startup specs. Not a single bit of old state from the machines would remain outside of the logs when the machine started again. And the logs would be transferred off the ASSAIL storage units to Bren’s data storage modules.

The next time the machines were deployed, their cores would start from scratch again. Meridian wouldn’t remember a thing.