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Quantum Whispers

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Loved it! 😍

An excellent tale of human survival set against the backdrop of psychotic, AI driven war machines, and alien intelligences amongst others.

Synopsis

Ben has just completed a hard day’s work blowing up warmechs - psychotic AI-driven killing machines - when he’s acclaimed a hero and sent off to Ceres, an icy planetoid orbiting beyond Mars. He sees this as a promotion - his boss sees this as a way of getting him killed.
Once he gets to Ceres he finds out the shocking truth about the warmechs and the death of his family. He also discovers his imminent demise is the least of his problems.
Invincible aliens are on their way from the far side of the Galaxy to eradicate all human life. And the only faint hope for the survival of the human race is a very special young woman, a human/AI hybrid who his bosses also want to destroy.
The AI is of alien origin, and gives her “magical” powers. This helps her to fool and outwit the people trying to kill her. Ben would rather just shoot them.
He’s also skeptical about the mysterious Alien AI. Humanity’s own experiments with advanced AI led to the rise of the crazed warmechs that destroyed his family. But nothing is quite what it seems, and everyone has a hidden agenda.

Quantum Whispers tells the story of Ben Hamilton, a soldier fighting advanced AI powered machines (warmechs) in a post apocalyptic world. After a particularly tough battle, Ben is suddenly promoted and sent off to Ceres, a new habitat being built on a planetoid orbiting Mars. When he gets there he realises that things are not as they seem. Secrets lurk everywhere, and he must team up with some unlikely allies to thwart several threats to human existence itself.


The most intriguing part of this book is the fact that it is thoroughly unpredictable. Billed as a Science Fiction novel - and rightly so - it offers more than a dash of mystery. At whatever point you think you're beginning to get a handle on the story something comes along and sends you down a whole different road. This infinite unfolding of plot lines always leaves you guessing and keeps you turning pages until the very last page.


The exploration of technology and the impact of technological advancement is really intriguing. This is especially due to the fact that an Artificial Intelligence that is far beyond human capabilities is a key character in the story. In many ways Quantum Whispers tries to validate Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that: "“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”


As with all good stories, this is a truly human story. The human angle isn't lost despite the fact that there are other sentient intelligent beings and their technologies around. At the end of the day it's a story about all the things we face as humans even in our decidedly less advanced civilisation.


The pacing is really fast and it will take some getting used to as you race from one danger to another with almost no breaks in between dangers. The story moves along really quickly and it adversely affects the character development. By the time you get to the last page, a lot would have happened but you'd not have had the opportunity to get to know any of the characters intimately. 


I recommend this book for everyone. It'll particularly intrigue readers of science fiction, but, whether you are young or old, whether you are particularly into science fiction or not, there'll be something for you here.

Reviewed by

I'm a book lover and budding writer. I write short stories across genres ranging from young adult to thrillers. I also publish essays, book reviews and pretty much everything else that crosses my mind on my blog (invisiblespidey.wordpress.com)

Synopsis

Ben has just completed a hard day’s work blowing up warmechs - psychotic AI-driven killing machines - when he’s acclaimed a hero and sent off to Ceres, an icy planetoid orbiting beyond Mars. He sees this as a promotion - his boss sees this as a way of getting him killed.
Once he gets to Ceres he finds out the shocking truth about the warmechs and the death of his family. He also discovers his imminent demise is the least of his problems.
Invincible aliens are on their way from the far side of the Galaxy to eradicate all human life. And the only faint hope for the survival of the human race is a very special young woman, a human/AI hybrid who his bosses also want to destroy.
The AI is of alien origin, and gives her “magical” powers. This helps her to fool and outwit the people trying to kill her. Ben would rather just shoot them.
He’s also skeptical about the mysterious Alien AI. Humanity’s own experiments with advanced AI led to the rise of the crazed warmechs that destroyed his family. But nothing is quite what it seems, and everyone has a hidden agenda.

The Teddy Bear

“It’s a teddy bear, a goddamned teddy bear,” Ben exclaimed. The teddy bear simply sat there, oblivious to his close examination. Ben looked around carefully. He scrutinized every detail of the grassy slope right down to the edge of the lake where the snow-capped mountains were reflected in the mirror-calm water. In the opposite direction, to the north, loomed the fortified bulk of New Geneva Citadel. He turned his attention back to the area around the teddy bear. Zooming in closer, he saw the butterflies dancing around the wild flowers nearby. No sign of disturbance—but he didn’t expect to see much on the visual feed. 

“Why don’t we just blast it? We know something’s there,” said Steve Kennedy with a snort of impatience. 

“Well, yes, Kennedy, we could just blast it, but that’s not going to tell us much,” Ben retorted. “First, I’d like to find out why it’s there, less than a klick from the previous incident this morning. It seems far too obvious.” 

“Well, last time it was a child’s tricycle,” responded Kennedy, “and we lost six kids. So I’m betting it’s hostile, sir.”  

“Maybe some kid dropped a teddy bear?” Maria Sanchez suggested. 

“Yeah, right,” sneered Kennedy. “So, you volunteering to get out there, Maria? Walk over and pick it up? I’d really like to see that—you’d be the star of the show. Your fifteen seconds of fame on U-Global News, being ripped apart by a couple of monster warmechs, blood dripping from their claws, you screaming your head off. Oh wait a minute, would you even have time to scream? OK, no problem. We'll dub that onto the feed later. Look, there must be at least a dozen U-Drones out there already, waiting to catch your every move . . .”

Kennedy’s monologue trailed off as he registered that Ben had gone very quiet. He couldn’t see Ben’s eyes inside the VR helmet, but could see that his fists were clenched as he sat unmoving in front of his console. Oops. On reflection, that wasn't the best set of images to bring up considering what he’d heard of the man’s history. “So, um, what do you reckon, sir? What are they up to . . .”

Ben removed his helmet and disconnected the cables from the command chair, replacing it with his personal head-mounted U-Set. He turned to face Kennedy, fixing him with a cold stare. “You need to stop playing the fool and get on with following standard protocol, Probationary Field Agent Kennedy,” he snapped, with particular emphasis on the word ‘Probationary’. “I want a recon drone over the area in the next five minutes, with a full stealth suite active, visual plus IR scan, for 250 meters around the target. Complete sweep, but no lower than 500 meters. Run a check on the Harpies we have loaded. Next get the Badgers prepped, tethers hooked up and ready to go in the next ten minutes.”

He stood up from the command console of the Incident Response Vehicle and leaned over to Sanchez. “Push the exclusion zone back two klicks and tell me when the people in the enlarged zone have completed their evacuation.”

“Yes sir,” she confirmed, turning away to call up the Command Center on her headset.

“Oh, and one more thing, Kennedy,” Ben said, turning to glare at him again. “You'd better make sure that the Badgers’ IFF spoofing package has all the latest updates, because I might want to tie your probationary ass to the tether. Any problems and you’ll be the big new star on every U-Net channel. Do I make myself clear?” Kennedy’s face flushed. He looked down at his console, already inputting the commands to load the updating routine. “Yes sir. Sorry sir.”

Ben gave Kennedy a terse nod. “Tell me when we’re all in position. In the meantime, I need a coffee. I’ll be up front. Keep me updated on any developments.”

He clambered forward to the IRV’s little galley and poured out the last of the coffee. He should have started another brew, but he wasn’t feeling very charitable right now. Kennedy was new to the crew, and straight out of training school, so it was no surprise he was nervous. His unthinking chatter was probably his way of coping with the tension of a hot mission. But one distraction too many and they might be dead, so he didn’t feel in the mood to cut him any slack. Kennedy would have to toughen up fast and focus on the job like the rest of the crew, or move on to other career opportunities. Robo-monkey, for example.

Was that what he’d been like that when he first joined the Department of Global Security? Must be over four years now with DGS, he realized, clanking around in giant tin cans, chasing warmechs. Even managed to kill a few. Not the career path he had mapped out for himself when he left college, but beggars can’t be choosers. That’s what you get for defying one of the Families, he reflected grimly. 

He scanned the surrounding area using the video feed to his U-Set. Still nothing going on, except for a big SkyShip approaching the citadel from the south. The bulbous form floated high above the lake, its many curved surfaces gleaming in the sunlight. That’s how he’d arrived at New Geneva — full of hopes and dreams, enchanted by the panoramic view of the soaring spires and towers of the massive armored citadel set amidst the snow-capped mountains. 

It could have been worse. He might have ended up as a robo-monkey himself. There was always plenty of work if you didn’t mind spending every day using a remote link to shuffle a bunch of robots around from job to job. The most boring job imaginable, and the worst paid. Simultaneously pointless and vital, its only object was to keep robots under direct human control. The robots everyone was so scared of but can’t do without. At least he had job satisfaction. He got to kill more of the psychotic AI monsters before they killed any more people, which was a bonus. 

How many people had the warmechs killed over the years—centuries, in fact—since they turned on their human masters? The slaughter of his own family had been no more than an insignificant statistic alongside the billions who had died before them. Ben shivered at the thought. Humanity used to number in the billions. Now there were less than 25 million people left on Earth, besieged by the warmechs in the few surviving citadels scattered across the planet.

He took a swig of the stale coffee to soften the lump in his throat, then crawled forwards and eased himself into one of the crew seats in the driver’s compartment. The air was fresher here, away from the pungent smell of stale bodies and hot electric motors in the command compartment. 

“How’s it going back there?” queried Frank Peto, without shifting his gaze from the holoscreens displaying the surrounding ground and airspace. One screen showed the steady approach of the SkyShip to the landing pad projecting out above the massive wall surrounding the citadel. Another few hundred tons safely delivered to feed the hungry mouths.

“Nothing happening so far. I’m taking a break before Showtime,” Ben replied, his flat tone discouraging further conversation.

He leaned back, closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. He hadn’t felt so unsettled for a long time. Kennedy’s unthinking joke had dug up old memories. Memories he had told himself he'd dealt with years ago. This was not what he needed right now. Not when he was expected to deliver yet another performance as the world’s greatest warmech killer, with every U-Net VREx zombie on the planet watching over his shoulder. 

The first attack had targeted a bunch of kids who should never have been outside the citadel. A gang of young sewer rats, he guessed, out to trap some local rabbits. Imagine that. So desperate for food they’d actually eat animals! His face screwed up at the thought. Yet the regular rations were pretty meagre and unappetizing, so most people supplemented the basic diet with more attractive fare. At least half of the advertising on the U-Global channels was designed to promote the sale of some branded delicacy or other, but that cost money, and if you were at the bottom of the pile, you didn’t have the choice.

Now they'd been warned of a second attack this was shaping up to be a special performance. The whole planetary U-Net was watching, alerted by the news of the first attack. Ben would have a swarm of U-Drones following his every move as he operated a remote-controlled Badger, sending the underground guided missile digging down after the warmechs. If he was lucky, he’d find one of the big ones – a 25-meter monster of articulated metal and deadly nanotech. But they only came out if there was a major attack, and Ben’s instincts told him that something else was going on. If only he could figure out what.

There was another concern, and it nagged at the back of his mind. Why two incidents so close together? That was unheard of. The warmechs would make a raid, kill anyone in easy reach, then clear off back down their tunnel network. It was the job of the Incident Response teams to chase them back to their nest with the Badgers, though, more often than not, they’d be long gone before they were deployed. Never before had the warmechs attacked the same area twice in succession. This whole scenario seemed such a crazy setup, with several DGS Incident Response Vehicles already sweeping their assigned sectors around the New Geneva Citadel. The second lure with the teddy bear—how was that supposed to work? Following the first incident there wasn’t a kid within 10 klicks. 

Well, at least it would give the VREx zombies a thrill—and Ben too, if this would give him a shot at taking down a few more warmechs. By this evening, they’d be able to relive every moment of his search and kill operation driving the latest model Badger in full glorious 5D Super-Reality on their poxy little U-VREx sets. Or, as Kennedy had so sensitively suggested, they could relive the last agonizing moments of Maria Sanchez’s life as the warmechs pulled her apart. Fortunately, the Badger was operated remotely over a data-link tether, so that outcome wasn’t too likely. He hadn’t realized when he first joined DGS just how much of their resources they put into producing top selling VRExperiences. 

Perhaps I should get an agent and ask for a percentage, he mused.

Kennedy’s voice sounded through his U-Set. “We have the results from the scan, sir.” 

“OK. I’ll be right there.” 

* * *

“Report,” Ben ordered as he walked back into the control cabin.

“IR scan kinda weird, sir,” responded Kennedy. “There’s a big thermal bloom right under our furry little friend. I’d say at least three targets close to the surface—”

“Thanks. I’ll take a look on my data feed,” he said, cutting Kennedy short. “Where are we with the evacuation?”

“Another ten minutes to go until all clear,” replied Sanchez.

“Any problems with the U-Drones?”

“No sir, only the usual crap from the U-Global News team—‘Why can’t we get closer? We won’t get in the way. We’ll be ever so careful’. I’m dealing with it.”

“Kennedy, what’s our status on the Badgers?”

“We'll be good to go any minute now. Both in their launch cradles and tethers hooked up. Right now, I’m verifying the data feed and double checking that we have the latest spoofing package uploaded—as requested.” 

Ben eased back into the command chair, removed his U-Set and slid his helmet on. The data from the recon drone filled his virtual display with a 3D false color image of the ground below the target. The image was fuzzy, using only passive IR, and trailed off rapidly as the depth increased. As Kennedy had suggested, there were a number of hot bodies clustered just below the surface, too close together to resolve individually. He turned towards Kennedy to send the recon drone closer to the target. “Kennedy, get the—”

Before he could complete his sentence, the active scan alarm screeched out a warning call which echoed through the cabin, making him almost jump out of his chair.

What the hell! What was targeting us with active sensors? He switched to the sensor display, which identified one of the three warmechs as the source. The image now showed the warmechs in fine detail, along with the tunnel in which they were sitting, sloping down at about 30 degrees. It was even possible to image the tunnel back for at least 100 meters by analyzing the helpful active sonar emissions from the warmechs before it faded out. More crazy stuff. How was that possible? No bogey would be sitting there with active sensors lit up, shouting, ‘Here I am! Come and kill me!’ The warmechs had nothing that could hit the IRV at this range. They were just giving their position away for no good reason.

Not unless it was deliberately trying to attract attention, he speculated. So if that’s where the bogies want me to be looking, what are they trying to distract me from? Maybe something else that’s being fed their targeting data? 

A terrible idea jumped into his head, sending a cold shiver down his spine. 

“Peto, pull us back 500 meters due west, right now! Fast as you can. Kennedy, get the recon drone over that new position with full passive scan, 500-meter radius. Do it now!”

“Er, OK. What’s happening, boss? Why are the bogies targeting us? That makes no sense—” Kennedy sounded startled and confused at the same time.

Ben cut him off with a chopping arm motion. “Do it, man! And pull your drone down to 200 meters.”

The cabin lurched as the massive vehicle turned to the west, its churning half-tracks scrabbling for grip and clanking furiously as it picked up speed, drowning out the shrill whine of the powerful electric motors. 

Ben gestured at his HUD to kill the alarm. “Kennedy. Badgers. Are they ready yet?”

“All hooked up and ready for action, sir. You want me to check the spoofing package again?” queried Kennedy.

“No. We won’t need it. All you have to do is get ready to drop one when I give the order.”

“No IFF? Really? OK, you’re the boss, Boss,” Kennedy responded with a sigh of resignation.

“One more thing, Kennedy. This is important. I want the ground sensor array deployed the instant we’re stopped. I need to see anything coming at us from below. Tell me as soon as we have the data feed.”

Right now, he had to take out the three ‘hot’ warmechs. With their active sensors running, they’d have continuous targeting data on the IRV, and if something was making a run at them, he didn’t want the bogies in possession of that information. 

He called up the IRV’s fire control AI. “Valkyrie, I’m ordering an immediate Harpy strike on the target I’m designating now. Mark. High explosive, deep penetration warhead. Use guided ballistic approach, and passive homing on their active radar emissions. Align approach vector with the warmech tunnel slope to achieve maximum depth in case they run. Proximity detonation. Go.” 

Half a second later, a muffled boom rumbled through the cabin as the Harpy shot out of its launch tube, leaving in its wake the pungent smell of its solid fuel propellant.

“Valkyrie, arm fusion warhead in Badger Alpha, authorization Hamilton. Set fifty percent yield.” Ben reached out to the sensor pad built into his command chair and pressed the palm of his right hand onto the surface. 

The security window in his display displayed the arming credentials for a moment, then flashed green just as the vehicle shuddered to a halt. He pulled up the latest recon data on his virtual display. Nothing was showing up. “Where are you? Where the hell are you?” he mumbled to himself.

“Kennedy, move the recon drone back 100 meters east of our position. Set full active scan and bring it down to 100 meters.”

“OK, boss. And those ground sensors are deployed and active right about . . . now,” responded Kennedy. 

He added the data from the ground sensors to the display and zoomed in on the area to the east of the vehicle. Nothing on the IR, but the sonar display showed a fuzzy but definite target at a bearing of 83 degrees, about 200 meters laterally and 120 meters down. Gotcha! he thought. It was unbelievable, but it really was an ambush, he realized, as beads of cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Thank God the IRV could move faster across the ground than these monsters could dig, or we’d already be dead. 

He called up the target analysis routine. It showed a warmech burrowing straight towards the vehicle at between 4 and 5 meters per second. It would hit them in less than a minute.

“Valkyrie! Badger deployment on active target now. Go!” he screamed.

He was shouting much louder than necessary. He brought his voice under control. “Peto, we’re deploying a Badger. Once it’s off and running, I want you to take us due west, nice and steady, at about 15 kph. No faster, or we’ll yank the Badger right back out of the ground. Understood?”

“Right sir, 15 kph it is,” Frank Peto replied over the comm.

"Everyone strap in. This might get a bit bumpy in less than a minute,” Ben called out, making a conscious effort to keep his voice steady.

The vehicle swayed as the Badger deployed. The massive drum of armored cable feeding out the tether in the trailer behind the IRV spun up to full speed, its banshee wail screaming in his ears as it did so. The Badger scrabbled down its burrow in a furious spray of earth and rock. He switched to the Badger control GUI, with the sensor display in a separate window, then set the Badger running at flank speed on a reciprocal course to the target. It could only maintain this speed for a couple of minutes, before it overheated or something broke, but they’d all be dead long before then if he didn’t get this right. 

The two machines sped furiously towards each other, claws digging frantically into the ground far below the surface like a pair of giant demented moles. And like moles, they were blind, at least in the direction they were digging. The amount of noise and heat they generated made any forward-facing sensors ineffective. Fortunately, having deployed the ground sensor array just in time, Ben had a godlike overview of the subterranean field of battle. The sensors had all the data they needed to triangulate the position of the giant machines as they scrabbled their way through the earth on a collision course. They were now less than 100 meters apart.

He set the Badger to enter terminal acquisition mode once it got within 10 meters of the rapidly approaching warmech, feeding in the predicted co-ordinates of the convergence point. It was unlikely that the warmech would detect the approaching Badger until the last second—but nothing had gone the way he expected today, so he was taking no chances. His knuckles were white as he gripped the control stick on the console in front of him. Now all his focus was on the sub-surface VR image, the blue spot racing towards the red spot. He had to be ready to drop back to manual control in a fraction of a second in case there were any more surprises.

“Kennedy, take the recon drone to 1000 meters. Wide area scan. Peto, halt the vehicle now. Hold on tight guys. Contact in five. Four. Three. Two. One. Bingo!”

A violent convulsion hit the cabin, plunging him forwards in his seat, the restraints digging into his shoulders as the vehicle heaved upwards and jerked violently. It finally came to rest at a slight angle to the horizontal. There were a few moments of relative silence, broken only by the harsh whine from the fan of the air conditioning unit. Then Ben’s ears were assaulted by an explosive roar which shook him in his seat, followed by the staccato clatter and clang of rocks raining down on the armored roof of the IRV.

He waited until the racket had stopped before removing his helmet. “All OK? Report in.”

“Peto. I’m fine. Vehicle systems show all green. No structural damage as far as I can tell without getting out.”

“Sanchez. I’m good. Comms good.”

“Kennedy. I’m good, I guess. Lost some ground sensors, otherwise all looks OK. How close was that, sir?”

“About 150 meters. No sweat,” Ben replied, feeling a lot less confident than he sounded.

“Right. You detonate a nuke 150 meters from where I’m sitting, and you’re not sweating. That’s great. Care to explain what the hell just happened—sir?” Kennedy exclaimed, staring defiantly back at him. 

Ben raised his eyebrows and held his stare, but decided not to chew him out for insubordination. He was so happy to be alive that he’d give him one more chance. “Since you’re new on the job, Kennedy, I’ll put down your attitude to inexperience, rather than lack of respect for a superior officer. You won’t be getting a second chance. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, it’s just that I don't—”

Ben interrupted before Kennedy managed to dig himself into a deeper hole. “You still have a lot to learn, Kennedy. So listen up. First off, it was only a baby nuke, and I dialed the yield down to 50 percent. Second, about 90 percent of its energy goes into X and gamma radiation, not explosive blast. Third, most of the energy is directed forward, so directly away from where you’re sitting and down towards the bad guys. Last, and perhaps most importantly, you’re still alive. Any problems with that?”

Kennedy gulped a couple of times, as he rubbed his hands together before wiping them against a trouser leg to dry his sweaty palms. “Of course, you’re right, sir. I’m really sorry if I was out of line, but I simply had no idea what was going on. One minute we’re checking out a teddy bear—next minute, all hell breaks loose and we’re rushing around nuking stuff at point blank range.”

Ben was feeling pretty stressed himself, but he had to maintain an outward appearance of confidence, and try to help Kennedy deal with the experience. “Well, I’m with you there. Right up until a couple of minutes ago, I had no idea what was going on either,” he responded, with a shrug of his shoulders. “By the time I’d figured it out, there wasn’t much time left for cozy fireside chats. Sorry, but that’s the way it works round here.”

“So what do you figure was happening out there, sir?”

“We’ll talk about it later. First let’s check the area is secure. I can fill everyone in on the way back to base. For now, pull the recon drone back down low for a wide area sweep, out to 5 klicks and centered on our original target. You can use the full active suite—I'm pretty sure the bad guys know we’re here now. Let’s be certain there are no more surprises.”

He replaced his helmet and pulled up the visual feed from the recon drone. Where the teddy bear had been sitting, there was now a deep crater, about 20 meters across. He swung the view closer to the location of their IRV. Starting from about a hundred meters to the east, a wide area of devastated ground stretched away, looking like a chaotic moonscape. Roughly in the middle of the area was a wide shallow depression where the ground had given way. The shattered landscape was riven with deep fissures, from which thin plumes of steam and gas were still rising. Cracks in the ground covered a much wider area, some even reaching as far as the vehicle.

“Peto, take us back to the center of our sector south of the city, but keep well clear of that broken ground to the east. Choose your own route, but make sure we stay between the original target and the citadel. Kennedy, I need continuous active sensors running a forward sweep of the sub-surface. I want to know if anything so much as sneezes. Let’s see if there are any more bogies out there.”

Once back on station, he left the IRV’s active sensors thrashing the area for another ten minutes before removing his helmet and leaning back in the control chair with a sigh, the tension draining out of his body. He called up the crew over the comm.

“Sanchez, you can call in the clean-up team. We’re all clear. Kennedy, leave the recon drone in place. Hand over the feed to the clean-up team once they're in position. Peto, do an external check on the vehicle. Once we’re good to go, take us home.”

Kennedy turned to regard him with a quizzical expression, but this time he managed to hold his tongue.

Ben gave him a reassuring smile. “Ah yes. The cozy fireside chat. You remember the teddy bear? We know these monsters are now putting out bait to attract their victims. The trike was there to pull in some kids. Who do you imagine the bear was for? Normally these bastards are hiding halfway down their tunnel trying to look like lumps of rocks, using passive sensors set up near ground level and waiting for their next victim to stroll by. Not this time. These warmechs were all sitting just under the surface—right at the top of their tunnel—with active sensors lit up. So let me ask again—who was the bait for? Anyone?”

“So, er, what? Are you saying the bait was for us? We were the target? But we came nowhere near the teddy bear . . . ” Kennedy’s voice trailed off. He chewed his lip as he tried to work out the puzzle. Then his eyes lit up. “Oh right, now I get it. They were all powered up with active sensors running. That attracts our attention and keeps us fixated on watching them while one of their pals sneaks up from behind and below. And their active sensors give them a running fix on our position to feed back to the other guy so he can vector in on us without having to use his own active sensors. 

“Wow! That’s really clever! But I’ve never heard of anything like them setting up an ambush before. They're not supposed to have that level of intelligence. How can they pull a stunt like that? They must have been sitting behind us playing possum, waiting for us to approach the bear. If you hadn’t pulled us back in time, they’d have rammed us right up the ass. That’s really scary.”

“All good to go, sir,” reported Peto.

“OK. Take us home,” Ben responded.

“The faster the better, Frank. I need a change of underwear ASAP,” added Kennedy.

“ETA in about 20 minutes, if that’s soon enough for everyone and their underwear,” replied Peto. “Sir, how long did we have? I mean once you figured it out, how long did we have until we got hit?”

“Can’t say exactly. Moving away from the incoming warmech helped some, but I'd say not more than a couple of minutes. Then the nuke would have been too close. And there was no time to change the warhead on the Badger. Its primary mission is taking out big warmech nests deep underground, but that’s all we had ready to go in the time available.”

He paused, then nodded to the crew as he looked around the cramped cabin. “There’s something else I want to say. You all did your jobs without missing a beat. We know the new guy was feeling nervous, but he still did his job. Just one slip up by any member of the crew and we’d all be dead. I’m proud to have you as my team and I intend to put that in my report. Assuming they don’t fry my ass for setting off a nuke so close to the surface. But that was my decision and my responsibility. In the meantime, you can take care of any loose ends on our way back to base. Anyone with spare time on their hands can put on another pot of coffee. Now I need to think about that report.”

* * *

The bulky armored vehicle clattered down the concrete ramp to the underground DGS support and maintenance level. Nobody had had time to brew another pot of coffee, so once they’d parked the IRV in its assigned berth, Ben made straight for the canteen. He could smell the fresh coffee even before he got through the door. Pouring himself a cup, he sat down at the nearest table, and tried to gather his thoughts. Was he sure he'd done the right thing? He’d been within one minute of getting the whole team killed. This had been a totally unknown attack profile by the warmechs. And what was their plan? A prelude to a mass attack? But if not, what else might their evil little AI minds have been thinking?

“Err, excuse me sir. Do you have a minute?” Kennedy was hovering beside the table, rubbing his hands together nervously.

Ben looked up and gave a welcoming smile. He waved an arm at a seat. No rest for the wicked, he thought. “Sure. Pull up a chair. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, first of all, sir, I’d like to apologize for my remarks earlier today. They were out of line, and I honestly didn’t mean to . . .umm . . . er . . .” Kennedy stammered to a halt.

Ben took another sip of hot coffee. “We'll put it down to nerves, Kennedy. Apology accepted. No hard feelings. It just happens to be a sore spot for me.” He smiled faintly. “I know what it’s like to be the newbie. I’ve been there myself. If you’d like a tip from an old pro – add an extra line to your Standard Operating Procedure. ‘Always ensure brain is fully engaged before operating mouth.’ OK?”

Kennedy’s face lit up like a happy puppy. “Yes sir, of course, sir. I won’t let it happen again. It’s only my second sortie since I graduated from training school, so I’m still a bit on edge. I’m sure I’ll be fine next time out.”

“So, is that all?” Kennedy appeared reluctant to leave, but Ben needed some quiet thinking time.

“Well I did have one other question, if you don’t mind.” Kennedy’s expression showed the effort as he struggled to get his words out. “As I said, I’m new to the job, and I’m trying to understand—why we didn’t simply pull back until we lost the warmech? Our IRV moves a lot faster than any tunneling warmech, and that way we wouldn’t have needed to use a nuke . . . sir.” 

Ben took another long sip of coffee. “Hmm. Good question. What do you see as our primary reason for being out there, Kennedy?”

“Well, er . . . we're trying to kill warmechs, I guess?” he replied, frowning at what he obviously suspected was a trick question. 

“Sure, that’s part of the job, but our most important task is protecting the lives of the people living in the New Geneva Citadel. In particular, this afternoon, we were making sure that the southern quadrant was protected from anything the warmechs might throw at us. If we pulled back far enough – sure, we’d have kept ourselves safe from the warmech tracking us, but then we’d be a long way over to the west, leaving the south side exposed. 

“In a typical attack scenario the warmechs would be sitting in their tunnel about 50 meters down, as quiet as they could be. We try to sneak up on them, they detect the IRV and maybe come up looking for a fight, in which case we hit them with a Harpy, plus our top-mounted hyper-railguns if they want to get up close and personal. Or they run back to mommy, in which case we send a Badger down after them. Once it’s found a main tunnel, we can drop the tether and go autonomous, spoofing their IFF signal to kid them the Badger’s one of their pals. And if we get lucky, we find a nice big nest followed by a nice big KABOOM! as the nuke goes off. With me so far?”

“I guess so, sir,” responded Kennedy. “I only did sensor technology in training. They didn’t tell us much about tactical operations. I guess that’s the sort of thing you get in officer school?”

“Then consider this your crash course in the subject. So what did we find this time? We had a bunch of warmechs sitting up at the top of a tunnel with active sensors screaming away. You said yourself you’ve never heard of anything like that before. Well, nor have I. I’ve been killing these monsters for over four years now—and this was an attack profile utterly different from anything I’ve ever seen or heard of. 

“And what scares me the most is how they were able to position that last warmech right behind us and close enough to spring the trap. The DGS AI assigns the IRV a random path for each sortie to avoid exactly that scenario. Yet this was an ambush which directly targeted us, which shouldn’t be possible.” 

He leaned forward, jabbing his finger hard on the table to emphasize his point and in doing so rattling the empty coffee cup in its saucer. “There’s only one thing I'm sure of. So much planning and effort to take out our IRV had to have a specific objective. What if the warmech plan was to either to kill us, or at least get us out of position before launching a mass attack on the city from the south, which only our nuke-armed Badgers would be able to stop? So yes, we took a risk, but the downside might have been a thousand times worse.”

Kennedy frowned. “Really sir? You think that was what they were planning?” 

“Really? I have absolutely no idea what they were planning, Kennedy. But would you want to gamble with the lives of the people of this citadel?”

“No, sir. I see what you mean sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Anything else I can help you with right now, Kennedy?” Ben said, smiling again at the eager young man but also hoping he would finally take the hint.

“I’m fine, sir. Really. And thank you again. It was very good of you—”

Ben’s communicator buzzed in his ear. “Hamilton. Report to the Director now. He wants you in his office in five minutes.”

What the hell? The Director? That’s not good. Not good at all.

“That’s my Section Chief, and I’m wanted upstairs. Don’t worry, we all did well today,” he said, gulping down the last of his coffee as he ran for the door. I only hope the Director agrees, he thought.


About the author

Alex lives on the rocky shores of the Mediterranean. He likes hard scifi with a dash of humor. When he’s not writing about humanity’s struggle to survive in the face of advanced AI and nanotech gone mad, he’s up in the hills discovering old cities or sailing the coast in the wake of Odysseus. view profile

Published on December 15, 2020

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150000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Science Fiction

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