The large constructs began emitting jamming in symbiote natural communications frequencies, as well as every radio frequency we’d been using so far for communications. I immediately assigned more birds to communications and scouting duties around Colonel Gantt, realizing that I’d overlooked the fact that he needed to communicate with many people, and see the battlefield. He didn’t even acknowledge the birds, he simply started using them. Within a second of the additional birds being available to him, Colonel Gantt sent a command “Withdraw Blue” through the birds’ audio network. Everyone leapt back thirty feet, almost as one, back in the direction we had come from.
I opened fire after landing on the ground and anchoring myself to the stone with the claws of my feet, as did all four of my construct selves. I/we formed a line abreast, in front of everyone else, giving them time to recover from the explosion. Ten shoulder-mounted coilguns started hammering out tiny needles at absurd velocities. Our carbon fiber muscled bodies absorbed the energy of the recoil without much difficulty. All five helmet-mounted anti-armor lasers activated as one, and we started burning down the large constructs that were jamming us.
The enemy constructs were not moving as quickly as I had feared they might. Was this a tactical decision of some sort, or a limitation? I could not imagine too many scenarios where it would be a good idea to limit mobility in a direct assault. Frank’s shards could though, and they were yelling at me in Frank’s voice to ‘analyze, analyze, and give us the data!’ I focused my attention on the lead elements of the assault wave, mostly flying constructs. The flyers all seemed to be exclusively designed for melee engagement, multiple sharp front legs, with a small shaped explosive charge inside a container of… carbon powder? The Frank shards were irritated and didn’t understand the purpose of carbon powder.
Colonel Gantt sent a command to ‘Drop secondary mines, withdraw blue.’ I was point. I didn’t carry mines. All four of my duplicates and I continued to rapidly fire. The power levels of my alternates was dropping rapidly. I modified a dozen sparrows as energy carriers, adding an additional superconducting capacitor where their Penning trap had been. I modified all five of us to have tiny access ports on our cooling systems where the sparrows could use their claws to transfer power in and out. Then I assigned the sparrows to ferrying power from my systems to my construct selves.
I saw that the last of my companions had dropped mines and leapt back. The leading edge of the flight-capable drones was less than ten feet from me now. I turned off the anti-armor lasers. They were too energy expensive to use on the flyers unless I was in desperate need. I wasn’t, yet.
All four constructs and I adjusted our posture out of a crouch, standing taller to release the tendon locks which involuntarily forced our claws into the stone beneath us, leaving us with voluntary control of our claws on the rock. We all leaned slightly forward, and then fully released our claws from the stone simultaneously, while carefully continuing to fire with the coilguns. Each of our bodies only weighed twelve pounds, twenty with gear, and we were rapidly firing hypervelocity needles. The effect was immediate – we started sliding backwards rapidly, accelerating due to recoil.
As we accelerated, skidding backwards, the fastest flying enemy constructs nearly reached us, exactly as planned. One of my constructs slammed a leading flyer with its sling staff, knocking the flyer into the hands of another of my constructs. Immediately after the successful catch, we all hopped over the line of mines, continuing to fire into the enemies while we were in the air. After passing over the mines, we briefly directed the coilguns directly into the air, using their recoil to push us back to the ground after the leap.
All four constructs and I hit the ground, still moving backwards in a controlled slide powered by firing into the enemy formation. When I/we were about five feet in front of the skirmish line where my companions were settling in, all five of us crouched to drive our claws into the ground and lock us in place. By that point, everyone standing behind us was organized again and joined us, firing into the mass of oncoming flyers. I assigned a Frank shard to coordinate targeting with Danielle, who would pass on my targeting algorithms to Doctor Meilin so we wouldn’t shoot at the same thing very often.
Large numbers of Frank shards spread out through the four constructs and myself started clamoring for data on the captured unit. I made certain that the Frank shards assigned to data security were in charge of the rest before allowing said Frank shards in the construct holding the flyer to begin deconstructing it, looking for evidence of something hidden or disguised somehow. These things appeared crudely designed, had no ranged attacks, and were attacking in advance of what looked to be not-much-more advanced units. Nothing we’d seen so far was even made of particularly high-quality materials.
Each piece that the dissecting construct removed was inspected by the Frank shards in that unit, and then tossed in front of me, where I would examine it as it fell to the ground. The primary Frank shard and I had decided that with the AI being so good with electronics and computing, it was likely to try to infect us with a virus. The chances of a virus in a construct was acceptable, but I wasn’t to touch any code directly with our real body unless I absolutely had to.
We had destroyed hundreds of the flyers before leaping the line of mines. That was just a taste. When I linked myself and the other four into the firing network with the Recovery cadre through Danielle, we were able to destroy the flyers faster than they approached. Why were they so slow?
The central processor of the enemy construct we had collected was thrown in front of me, and I analyzed it with senses that the construct duplicates of myself didn’t have, passing the data to the Frank shards. I did a double take when I recognized what I had just seen. Magnetic memory storage assemblies? What was the AI thinking? I had to know. I consulted with my primary Frank shard, and it agreed that the memory capacity of the flash memory module that had just passed in front of me was probably insufficient to contain threatening code. We quarantined a shard, and then adjusted security protocols just to be safer. When that was done, I handed over electromagnetic senses outside the visual range to the quarantined shard, and it read the data out of the flash memory.
The quarantined shard responded appropriately to several hundred tests, and then was finally allowed to pass data to another quarantined shard. The first shard was deleted, its data eradicated. The second shard again passed tests. This process was repeated dozens of times before the primary Frank shard deemed the data safe. When I looked at what we had found, I nearly lost my concentration on everything around me. Von Neumann machines. Crude ones. But still. Twenty gigabytes of data exclusively oriented to locating, extracting, and processing minerals into appropriate shapes to create more of itself. It clearly didn’t have the entire process within itself, but it had enough to be clear that it was part of a machine community that could reproduce itself, without direct intervention from the AI. This was why they were so slow and crude. They were primarily resource harvesters, with a secondary purpose to create rough shapes that more dextrous machines would assemble.
The flyers were made of rough carbon fiber components. Strong, but nothing like finely constructed graphene and carbon nanofibers. Sure, they were crude and easily replaced, but not even one had gotten close enough to damage us in the first twenty seconds or so since the explosion. I had not even bothered turning the anti-armor lasers back on. I would turn them back on again when I could see the larger constructs again. I was at a loss. The flyers looked like they were just a distraction, and Colonel Gantt apparently thought exactly that. He had directed Jason to start indirect fire on the ground-based constructs behind the flyers, concentrating on the ones that looked to have larger, ranged weapons. His other soldiers had backed off from the front, slightly, and were joining Jason with indirect fire, though theirs was directed at the closest ground-based enemies, not any specific types.
There was absolutely no way Frank and I would have ever considered sending out the flyers like this. At the very least, they should be carrying a useful combat load where they had their tiny shaped charge and carbon dust. There had been days of preparation for the AI to modify these things, and they had Von Neumann architectures, so the AI would only have to come up with the plans, and the machines would act on the design change without intervention. No, the dust and the explosive charge were intentional. At the very least, the flyers could have been made modestly faster to accelerate by removing the mass. I had grabbed the packet of carbon dust out of the air after the construct had separated it from its explosives. Looking closely at the atomic structures, I saw they were buckminsterfullerene. Buckyballs, to be exact. I very carefully examined the structure of those atoms, looking for any molecules stored inside them. Nothing. These flying constructs were not advanced enough to even generate Buckyballs, so they definitely came from somewhere else. There was a purpose to them and I could not imagine it. Perhaps the purpose was simply to confuse us with nonsense?
I threw the container of buckyballs over the minefield, hitting a flyer, but only knocking it backward in a puff of buckyballs. Twenty-four seconds into the battle, almost half of the flying enemies and about ten percent of the ground-based were down, and they hadn’t even wounded anyone since the original explosion. Everyone was professional, but I could tell we were relaxing, people were thinking this was going to be a cakewalk. We hadn’t even needed to activate the secondary mines yet. I made absolutely certain that the sparrows were watching every part of the sky. I even stopped firing briefly and looked around with gravity sight, getting a frown from Colonel Gantt until he saw me scanning the sky.
Colonel Gantt furrowed his brow, and then I saw him look at me. I got an incoming message from him through the audio from one of the sparrows on my shoulder. “You’re also thinking it’s too easy? They aren’t even trying to envelop or flank us.”
I stopped scanning the horizon and above us, and returned to firing, replying across the audio link. “It’s a terrible waste of resources. It makes no sense. There’s zero possibility that these are the best the AI has, and less chance that it would waste its fodder like this. A six-year-old human could plan a better offensive than this with ten minutes of education about tactics and unit types. I absolutely refuse to believe Facet does not understand combined arms. At the very least, the AI should have waited and attacked us with more potent units, supported by this mob.” The primary Frank shard tried to argue with me about possibilities, especially negative possibilities. I had to explain to it that I was slightly exaggerating. It made annoyed noises after it understood, and complained that it was supposed to be a tactical advisor, not a literary analyst.
Colonel Gantt responded. “I saw you disassembling that thing, get anything useful?”
I could not begin to transmit enough data over the high frequency audio network the birds were using to relay the results of my study, so I modified three sparrows to be data receptacles and loaded them with the data, sending one to Colonel Gantt, one to Danielle, and one to Jason. Danielle would pass the data to Doctor Meilin over their connecting cable if it seemed like it might be useful. Doctor Meilin didn’t look strained, but she certainly didn’t look relaxed either. Karen was redlining, and I could see the receptacle that used to house Star was highly active as well. Karen had apparently advanced sufficiently to use its processing power, though inefficiently. This probably explained how Doctor Meilin could control her entire cadre at once.
I saw the change happening, but could not react to it because I didn’t understand it. The leading elements of ground based enemies, most of them looking like some sort of praying mantis analog, started picked up the disabled flyers. After I noted the initial few units performing the strange behavior, the main body of crawlers hit the pile of disabled flyers on the other side of the minefield from us. Every one of the leading crawlers I could see had picked up a disabled flyer. Thousands of flyers had been picked up and carried forward as… shields? I wasn’t the only one who was confused by their actions; I could feel the confusion in everyone around me.
“What the hell are they doing? Playing cockroach Frisbee?” I heard one of Colonel Gantt’s soldiers say to another.
Colonel Gantt warned us to withdraw after the enemy ground forces hit the minefield. We would continue to lead them, withdrawing. I had a bunch of sparrows to our flanks and rear, watching for envelopment. Colonel Gantt had deployed several of his borrowed ones in the same way.
All of the enemy ground combatants carrying disabled flyers suddenly turned the disabled flyers to face us, exposing their unarmored bottoms. All the remaining flyers in the air performed a simultaneous movement, exposing their own unarmored bottoms. I had spent my fair share of time in the ocean controlling an orca construct, and what I saw the constructs do looked almost exactly like a massive school of fish simultaneously turning in the water, distracting an attacker with the combined light from all their bodies. There were thousands of simultaneous explosions, and a thick cloud of purplish dust appeared in the air. I heard rockets from the other side of the cloud, and all of a sudden, it became clear what the Buckyballs were intended to do, as the cloud of Buckyballs was driven through our ranks by explosions behind the cloud.
Everyone and everything around us was coated in Buckyballs. The nearly perfectly round molecules of carbon created a dry lubricated surface that covered everything, including the insides of weapons, eyes, nasal passages, lungs, our clothing and footgear, and the ground we were standing on. It was like someone dropped several tons of ultra fine graphite powder on us, only worse. Friction became an abstract. The air was filled with coughs, curses, the clatter of dropped weapons, and the shouts and thumps of people falling down.
My ranged weapons were attached to my body, and my body was anchored into the ground with claws. With a thought, I removed the Buckyballs from my helmet and lungs, and then cleaned the Buckyball coating off the insides of the barrels of my coilguns and the lenses of my lasers. After that, I increasing my rate of fire, making sure the coilguns had plenty of flechettes left. There were no longer any flyers remaining. I maintained fire on the ground constructs lined up next to the minefield with the coilguns, and opened fire on one of the large constructs with all five lasers, and it staggered, threw off a massive gout of steam, and fell over. The AI had apparently tried to implement water cooling for laser defense like I had done with the urchins at Lake Weiss. It made sense that there would have been an analysis of the urchin’s seeming immunity to lasers. Steam would have been a clear indication of what I had done.
The five lasers quickly found another large construct that was jamming, ending it. The flyers were no longer obstructing my ability to target the jamming machines.
The enemy ground units started to surge towards us, approaching the line of mines. I increased rate of fire to an unsustainable level, my energy reserves draining away faster than Frank was restoring them. Colonel Gantt was shouting something at me, but I had to give the others time to recover. I could feel them using matter programming crudely, removing Buckyballs from their lungs, eyes, sinuses, ears. When they could breathe, and see, they started cleaning weapons while prone. Then they slowly made adjustments to their footgear, spikes like golf shoes helping them with traction. Everyone started standing again, slowly, carefully backing out of the purplish-black blotch of ground where friction was an afterthought. That’s when I detected several density fluctuations in the air, very still, behind the front line enemy combatants, far from the jamming constructs that I was still engaging with lasers.
The primary Frank shard took control of my voice and shouted “[Snipers!]” out loud while at the same time passing the message through the network of sparrows at highest priority. I had not even seen code where Frank had given the primary shard the ability to seize my voice or other external communications for its own use. I ignored that for now, because it was right. I initiated a movement of sparrows to get between prime targets and the snipers hidden under stealth while I created a tiny fraction of a gram of antimatter at the apparent center of mass of each barely visible silhouette I could see.
I wasn’t fast enough. The sparrows weren’t fast enough. Ten hypervelocity rounds were on their way before my antimatter formed. Two rounds each fired at me, Doctor Meilin, Ayva, Jason, and Colonel Gantt. Both rounds targeted at me hit me squarely on my kangaroo pouch, demolishing my quant, slamming me backwards against the grip of my claws in the stone. The same happened to the rest of us, except I was the only one anchored. The AI was apparently able to design equipment to precisely identify the locations of active quants, which would also have allowed it to tell which of the five lookalike Bobs was me. The possibility of lost quants was something we’d planned for, but not like this, not as a planned attack from the AI. Everyone had moved their primary quant to the lower waist or hips, since those were low probability kill shots, and the AI hadn’t been expected to fire there, specifically. Surprise on us.
“Fuck this AI” Frank yelled in my head as he activated the secondary quant in my lower left leg and disappeared again. Colonel Gantt had insisted everyone have two quants, both configured. Frank had agreed, loudly, which wasn’t a surprise, considering recent history.
The crater in my stomach disappeared. My organic bits seemed OK. I turned and saw the others recovering where the shots had thrown them. Ayva’s armor was shattered and bloody around the right hip, but already healed as she ran towards Doctor Meilin, who had been thrown nearly thirty feet. As I watched, Ayva’s armor repaired itself with a considerable energy expenditure.
Doctor Meilin had been nearly torn in half at the waist, but as I watched, her body restored itself. Neither of them were supposed to be in the virtual world during the operation, I thought? Apparently I was wrong if the AI had hit her like that. I watched Karen for signs of processing problems, if there were problems, the Recovery agents would not be as effective working as a unit. When Doctor Meilin’s body had been hit that hard, losing that much bone mass, Karen had suffered a lot of network disconnections. I didn’t see any clear signs of significant problems, though there was definitely plenty of activity going on to repair network connections.
Jason looked anything but fine. He had been cut in half, but it looked like Mouse had it under control, crawling over the ground rapidly on his arms towards his hips and legs.
Colonel Gantt was already standing, his armor was badly damaged on one hip, and would remain that way for a while, since Samwise was not advanced enough quite yet to duplicate it. He was already looking over the battlefield and controlling sparrows. I double-checked. It was Colonel Gantt, not Samwise in control. I wasn’t sure what I felt as I saw him standing there like that. Impressed at the mental fortitude for being right back on top of things after taking a wound like that, or frightened at the callousness as he ignored Jason’s torso dragging itself across the ground. His eyes never even tracked to Jason that I saw.
I felt quants forming and disappearing in my kangaroo pouch. Soon there were five. There was no doubt what the intent was. Our ‘other halves’ were all in conference in an embedded virtual world, able to talk to each other there like we could talk here. Frank had apparently been elected as the quant-replacer, which made a lot of sense. I grabbed quants out of my pocket and threw them to people, who put them on, concentrating briefly to activate them. I realized that was a good idea, and did the same, activating my new quant before I needed it again.
Despite the chaos of having all five of the senior leadership shot at once, the rest of the soldiers and Recovery people had never stopped firing. My four alternates being run by shards had dramatically reduced their firing rate because Frank was no longer powering me and them by extension, but they still fired in support when needed. The Recovery agents had used a lot of grenades, the minefield had been blown, and Colonel Gantt’s soldiers had been passed instructions by someone to bodyguard a few senior Recovery nodes that had taken over for Doctor Meilin when she was down.
I resumed firing on the retreating constructs with the others as they flowed back into the tunnel entrance and two newly formed cave entrances.
We hadn’t even made it inside yet.