It was getting chaotic in the station and, when I opened communications with Bsorol, he just dumped me straight into a sensory download from his armour. The prador were in the midst of a battle, shooting down robots swarming all around Sverl’s mausoleum. Some were attacking the prador, some were attacking each other, while others were trying to chew through armoured shields the prador had erected. It just struck me as insane, these prador risking their lives seemingly to protect their father’s remains.
‘It looks worse there,’ I said. ‘What the hell is going on?’
‘The balance has been further upset,’ Riss replied, obviously seeing the same feed as me and as much in my head, or rather in my aug, as before.
‘A tactical AI within the station used the recent disruption as an opportunity to assassinate key AIs elsewhere in the station, which has led to the chaos you’re seeing.’
I stared at the snake drone and wished she had an expression I could read. Earlier her words had implied that she knew more than she was telling, and now I was beginning to wonder what she’d been doing over the days since she had killed Sverl. I shook my head. What did it matter? What did matter was that we were in trouble. It occurred to me then that Trent might have run into similar problems. I tried my suit’s radio to get in contact but got nothing in return, then damned myself for letting them go, though their actions were not really my responsibility. It just seemed stupid to wake and repair the shell people in this place. And why the hell had Sepia gone with them? Surely she was smarter than that . . .
‘Which direction do we head to get to the prador?’ I asked, looking each way along the maintenance tube.
‘Why do you want to get to them?’ asked Riss.
‘I need my ship back and I need help to get it back,’ I explained. ‘Sverl’s children are the only ones here who have the firepower.’
‘Why should they help you?’
‘Just tell me which way to go, Riss.’
After a long pause Riss swung her head round to point it in one direction down the tube.
‘Thanks,’ I said, reaching out to snare the spine, using it against the wall to send me drifting along the way indicated, then reaching up with one hand to push against a protruding handle to speed me up.
‘Bsorol, my ship’s been taken over,’ I said. ‘I’m heading your way.’
A three-dimensional map arrived in my aug, with a blinking red dot indicating my position. I tried to orient by checking cam imagery ahead but found it much more difficult now my aug had lost a lot of its programming. Catching another handle, I paused and looked back to see Riss still drifting in the pipe where I had left her. After a moment she shrugged then slithered through vacuum towards me, probably using her maglev or some internal grav-engine against the walls of the tube. As she came up beside me she said, ‘This way,’ and moved on ahead.
‘You’re probably not welcome there,’ I observed as I followed her.
‘They’ll hardly know I’m present,’ said Riss.
Of course, she would use her chameleonware.
After just a few minutes the end of the maintenance tube was visible as a pink glare, and my visor automatically compensated for the brightness. When we reached it, I found the tube severed and protruding into an area hollowed out by some blast to leave a spherical chamber lined with wreckage. The glare was coming from somewhere to my left although I could see no opening. However, as I’d seen here before, even a pinhole could admit enough light to bring visibility up to human range, since the hypergiant out there was millions of times brighter than Sol.
Riss headed across the space towards the continuation of the maintenance pipe and I propelled myself after her. However, nearing the wall of wreckage on the other side, she suddenly changed course and I had to use my wrist impeller to stay with her. We landed amidst tangled girders just as something shot out of our intended destination. The thing, which was rapidly changing shape, slammed against one side of the pipe we had travelled down, and then bounced away, moving much more slowly. Now I could see that it was actually two robots grappling with each other. One was one of the usual insect-format maintenance robots here, while the other was a Golem, the android John Grey.
The two tore at each other with rabid ferocity, their limbs blurring, sparks and debris sailing away, but the big Golem was winning. Within just a few seconds Grey had dismembered his opponent and, kicking from its remains, he shot over towards us.
He landed hard enough on the girders for me to feel the impact through my hands, and then just gazed at the two of us.
‘What do you want?’ I asked over a general com frequency.
Grey just hung there, staring.
‘Come on,’ said Riss.
I hesitated, not wanting this Golem at my back without some explanation of its presence. Then, realizing there wasn’t much I could do about it anyway, I reluctantly followed Riss. As we travelled, I glanced back several times to see the Golem keeping pace with us.
Activity increased as we drew closer to the autofactory-cum-mausoleum-for-Sverl. Next, in corridors made for humans, a spiderbot, on an umbilicus disappearing up through a hole in the ceiling, crashed into our path like some giant hand slapping down to deny us. I halted, Grey coming up beside me fast, then skidding to a halt too, and turning to gaze down at Riss.
Riss peered back, her black eye flicking open. ‘So I wasn’t the only one.’
‘No,’ said Grey, ‘though I was willing.’
‘What’s this?’ I asked. Surely they had some explanation, why else include me in their communication?
‘Back up round the corner,’ said the assassin drone. ‘There’s going to be shrapnel.’
I hurriedly retreated, glancing at Grey, who walked with me, as I went.
‘What the hell was that about?’ I asked.
‘Observe now,’ replied the Golem, ‘how a number of key AIs aboard this station recently died.’
At the corner I watched Riss squirm towards the spiderbot and then fade into invisibility. The bot raised two of its limbs and swung from side to side, confused about the disappearance of a potential threat. Riss abruptly reappeared, heading rapidly back towards me, just as the spiderbot disappeared in a bright hot flash. I ducked back, just in time, as chunks of hot metal carved into the wall opposite and a limb bounced past.
‘Before you ask,’ said Riss, coming round the corner, ‘explosive gel.’
‘How much do you have left?’ asked Grey.
‘I’m optimistic about things now,’ Riss replied. ‘I’m half full rather than half empty,’
‘Good – we’re going to need it.’
As we advanced we encountered further robots. Some completely ignored us, some were fighting each other, while still others attacked on sight. Grey took a hand when a series of bug-like mechs swarmed towards us, hurling himself in their path and snatching them up one after the other and simply stripping their legs away. I ducked back when some shot past the Golem, while Riss just faded away. I crouched down, arms over my helmet, as a series of explosions ensued. Feeling impacts against my suit, I threw myself further back, caught a handle, and pulled myself towards an alcove, thinking I would be safe there, only to find another spiderbot, this one sans umbilicus, charging at us from behind. Bracing in the alcove, I waited until it drew close and leapt at me, then I drove the spine into its main body, levered it up and rolled out underneath it, something hard scoring down my back. Programming then fell into my compass via the spine, confused for a microsecond with my suit’s error reports, then I realized I was seeing the structure of my attacker’s mind. The thing bounded out of the alcove, impaled on the spine, hit the opposite wall then threw itself at me again. My reaction was instinctive: as if with some invisible hand I reached into that mind to find motor controls, and tore them out. The spiderbot closed up into a fist and I stepped aside to let it tumble on past, completely inert.
‘Like that,’ said Riss, reappearing.
This then was the AI resource the assassin drone had referred to earlier. I hesitated and cast wider with the facility I’d used to penetrate the spiderbot’s mind. I studied the complex structure of the mind before me. I’d known that I could penetrate Riss this way, which was why I’d hurried to Sverl when I’d learned the drone’s intent. I had the coding that would have instructed Riss to eject the enzyme acid she had stolen, but Penny Royal had intervened and stopped me. What I hadn’t realized was that I could do so much more than that. I now knew I could simply shut down Riss’s motor functions if I so chose. I also found I could read her recent memories and, in just a few seconds, I learned of the tactical AI that had taken control of her and sent her to assassinate key station AIs. I could read more if I wished, but there was a lot there, some of it formatted in ways that even with this new ability I found difficult to understand. Did I really want to know? Transferring my attention to Grey, who had just dealt with the last of those bugs, I found a mind even more difficult to read. Yes, I understood that under the instruction of the same tactical AI Grey had been destroying station AIs too. What I didn’t understand was Grey’s willingness to obey and, when I delved deeper, I found a tangled intelligence I could penetrate, but which repelled me.
I paused. Perhaps I didn’t need the help of the prador? Perhaps I could just go back to my ship and shut down the things that had managed to get aboard? Perhaps I could just shut down E676? I decided that, yes, that was what I would do. However, we were closer now to the prador and I really did not like the look of the list of errors my suit was reporting, especially the red text informing me that I was losing air.
‘Let’s go,’ I said, stepping over to the spiderbot and pulling out the spine.
As we continued I probed our surroundings. Some robots heading directly towards us I simply shut down. In others I made simple alterations to send them off on a different course. An island of calm began to prevail around us in the chaos of the station, but it was a small island. Whenever I touched a surface I could feel it vibrating and shuddering, and ranging out with my aug, I could see the various conflicts all around, either visually or on a coding level. Soon we came into an area where I could see the flashing of particle cannons and feel the deck jerking under my feet. We passed a pile of half-melted robots still emitting vapour, then, before I stepped round the corner of a T-junction ahead, Grey caught hold of my shoulder and halted me.
‘Second-child,’ was all he said, crackles of EM interfering with com.
‘Bsorol?’ I enquired over com.
After a long pause the first-child replied, ‘He will not fire on you.’
I moved ahead and peered round the corner at the second child. It stood frozen in the middle of the corridor brandishing some kind of beam weapon I didn’t recognize. Around it I saw glowing wreckage, melted walls and glimpses into station struc- ture. Despite Bsorol’s assurance I still did not want to step out, so reached out for the second-child on another level. It was no AI, but its armoured suit did possess a level of computer control.
When I looked into that I found that someone had already been there before me.
‘I’ve shut it down,’ explained Riss.
I looked around for the drone but she had disappeared.
Before I stepped out, Grey moved ahead of me and marched round the corner towards the prador. I followed. The prador remained frozen as we came up to it and passed it. A short while later we reached a space that had been cleared around the auto-factory – the whole pill-shaped structure now heavily armoured and held in place by narrow bubble-metal beams. Around its surface were the blisters of gun emplacements occupied by second-children, firing on robots hurling themselves from holes torn through surrounding structure. That space was filled with tumbling pieces of them, and splashes of molten metal writhing in vacuum. Bsorol waited on a platform before a main armoured door, urgently gesturing us over with one claw while firing a particle cannon from the tip of another. Grey launched off ahead of me and I followed, feeling debris impacting against my suit and, in a moment, the armoured door was drawing open and Bsorol moving ahead of us into a prador-scale airlock. As I followed, I mentally reached out again, confirming that Riss was still nearby, also sensing her freeing the lock on that second-child’s armour. Very thoughtful of her . . .
As the airlock pressurized, something slammed into the outer door and I wondered if I had made the right decision coming here. Surely, the prador could not keep up this level of energy and munitions expenditure? The inner door admitted us into the autofactory itself and now, with atmosphere all around, the racket of battle boomed and hissed in my ears. Here further changes had been made. Sverl’s ceramal skeleton was no longer underneath a dome, and the dried-out slick of his organic remains had been cleaned away. The skeleton, which was a spherical ribcage up on prosthetic legs bearing prosthetic claws and mandibles, looked like a living entity in itself. It stood on a pedestal now, the floor surrounding it cleared of detritus and polished flat. I didn’t like this at all. As far as I had gathered, the prador had none of that insanity called religion, but this was looking suspiciously like the start of one.
The inner airlock door closed with a crash and, after checking the constituency of the atmosphere on my visor display, I folded down both visor and concertinaed helmet and winced at the noise and the reek. The air here smelled of hot electronics, burning metal and prador. Glimpsing movement above, I looked up to see weapons turrets extruding from various ports. The place obviously had internal defences too, though why they had been deployed now made the skin on my back creep. Were those things out there about to break in? Bsorol moved up beside me, then past me, abruptly swinging round to face me.
‘Killers so often return to the scene of their crime,’ he said, in perfect unaccented English.
Something thrummed, all the way through me. A visible meniscus passed through the air and I felt my aug go down. Even Grey was affected, abruptly collapsing to the floor and folding up foetal – some kind of EM weapon. Bsorol reached out with one claw and I staggered back, but rather than snatch at me the claw closed on something beside me. Bsorol held up a long and snakelike form.
‘You’re going to burn for what you did,’ said the first-child.
His words were hollow and seared of emotion, but maybe that was just the effect of the translator. Riss was a machine who could experience pain, but only if she chose to. Bsorol could deliver no punishment beyond her destruction; no fit payment for what the drone had done here to this first-child’s father. I just stood there staring as Riss writhed weakly in Bsorol’s claw – obviously damaged yet again – as the prador opened the tip of his other claw to bring his particle cannon to bear on her.
‘Desist,’ said a voice seeming to issue from all around. ‘Put Riss down.’