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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    She spun and kicked, sending the training dummy spiralling across the room to crash into a corner. Grabbing a quarter-staff from the weapons rack, she attacked a second dummy in a blur of speed. When the dust settled, the dummy lay in pieces on the floor.
    She dropped and rolled, reached another weaponry rack groaning under the weight of its tools of destruction. Her hand shot out, relieving the rack of a laser pistol, and she rolled on, coming up on one knee to fire at a third dummy.
    As this third collapsed in a burst of flame and energy, she spun on the ball of one foot and planted the other firmly just beneath a fourth dummy’s neck. Such was her precision that the head tore off and went flying across the room.
    Carl Reisenberg, Spartan Diplomatic Director, ducked to avoid the flying appendage as it screamed towards his head. His expression was one of wry amusement mixed with condescending tolerance - he was an older man, and as such did not subscribe to the Spartan training regimens, preferring instead to spend his time honing his mental Ki for diplomatic battle.
    However, as the Colonel looked up he quickly erased all sign of condescension from his face and replaced it with an expression of subservience.
    "Colonel Santiago," he murmured as she drew near, panting and wiping the sweat from her face, "we believe that the time will come soon when the Cybernetic Consciousness begins to move against us."
    A spasm of anxiety crossed her face; fleeting as it was, his acute vision caught it before it fled.
    She turned away quickly to hide her expression, and began a muscle-building exercise.
    "Are our forces prepared?"
    "In a manner of speaking, Colonel, but we cannot be sure where they will strike. Their air forces are powerful, but the greatest danger to us is ground troops loaded onto sea transports and transported to our coastlines."
    "There is a simple way to combat that threat," she snapped. "Have our air units patrol our coastlines and destroy any troop transports which approach our territory."
    "According to our infiltrator, the Consciousness have commissioned the building of large fleets of SAM-equipped ships and powerful needlejets. We believe that these will be used to safeguard the transports, much like the convoys used in World War Two."
    "That is irrelevant," she snapped, her body tensing. "Our troops have superior training, and will prevail against them."
    He drew in a soft breath, dreading having to correct her but knowing that, if he did not, he stood to lose a lot more in the long run.
    "Our troops may have superior training, but the Cyborgs have superior weaponry. In addition, it is possible that they will land in CEO Morgan’s territory and push northwards from there, using him as a shield against our troops. If we should march into his territory and begin skirmishing with the Cyborgs, he will surely order us out."
    Again she tensed, and he flinched, anticipating a blow. Instead, she spoke, with barely concealed anger in her voice.
    "CEO Morgan has no authority to order us around. If he should attempt to do so, we will wipe him from the face of Planet."
    His expression showed signs of inner conflict for the barest second, as he debated with himself whether or not to provoke her anger further.
    "Colonel, if we declared war on CEO Morgan, then the Nautilus Pirates and Free Drones would also be dragged into this conflict, on his side. With their combined forces stacked against us, we wouldn’t have a..."
    He anticipated the blow and rolled his head with it, using the momentum to soften the force. Even so, it half-stunned him and rattled his teeth in their sockets.
    As she brought her arm back for a second blow, he grabbed onto it and twisted. She brought her other arm across for a blow which would have laid him senseless on the floor, if he had not jabbed his index finger into a nerve cluster on the inside of her elbow. Her arm duly folded up, hanging limp and useless.
    They stood there for a few seconds, then he released her undamaged arm and stepped back out of her range, fastidiously dusting himself off.
    "Your will, Colonel? The Spartan Council is convening shortly, and I must inform them of your decision if they are to vote on it."
    She straightened, and something approaching the old fire came back into her eyes, replacing the hard, flint-like expression that he knew only too well.
    "I will come myself."

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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    Some time later, Aki Zeta-5 sat in council with her ten most trusted advisors. The eleven-strong Council therefore helped to prevent deadlock, since in any case where five advisors voted on each side in a debate, the Prime Function held the casting vote. Also, Aki held an executive veto - she could override the Council’s majority decision for change in favour of continuity - that is, unless faced by unanimous opposition.
    The debate would have proved almost incomprehensible to anyone not equipped with an uplink node not tuned to the specific (and highly secret) frequency used by the Council. The debate took place on a high plane of the Consciousness, mostly by thought rather than by speech. If a member had a certain point that he or she wished to emphasise, then it would be spoken aloud, but otherwise it would be simply thought and thus heard by every other member.
    As was customary, the Prime Function began the meeting.
    My friends, she sent, today we face the most difficult decision since the beginning of our existence. We are faced by a far greater threat even than that posed by the Hive. The Spartan Federation has finally awoken from its long slumber and is even now sending out its tendrils to test the strength of its opponents. What we must decide is whether we should openly oppose the Spartans or attempt to remain neutral in the face of their threat.
    Sarah Eta-3, who held the title of Foreign Minister in the Cybernetic House of Representatives, took the floor.
    Since our victory over the Hive, our strength has grown and our military has swelled. Our latest intelligence reports show us to be one of the three most powerful factions on the face of Chiron. Unfortunately, one of the other two is the Spartan Federation.
    Nolan Rho-6, Chief Researcher and Minister for Science, spoke next:
    We are the most technologically advanced civilisation on Planet. None can rival us for knowledge - we hold almost every technology discovered by humanity since Planetfall. Only one or two still evade us, and with the continuing efforts of our Diplomatic Corps, I am sure that they will soon come to us.
    This was a clever move - handing control of the floor to Miyuki Gamma-4, Head of the Cybernetic Diplomatic Corps and a staunch ally of Nolan Rho-6 and his occasionally controversial scientists.
    She sent smoothly and without emotion, her ‘voice’ level and calm.
    Our efforts continue. Negotiations are already underway with the few factions who hold technologies as yet undiscovered by us. We believe that very soon we will be able to gain possession of those errant technologies without divulging any of our classified information.
    Aki Zeta-5’s Military Advisor and Head of the Military Corps, Edward Pi-5, was the next to speak. A few attitudes around the table displayed signs of irritation - Cybernetic society was pacifistic and those who did join the military were sometimes seen as deviants from the accepted code.
    However, Aki Zeta-5 relied heavily on the advice of Edward, one of her oldest friends and closest advisors, so there was no open dissent.
    Friends, he sent, we already have the support of the Data Angels and the UN Peacekeepers, although the latter are somewhat grudging.
    An undercurrent of wry amusement ran around the table at this comment, and he waited for silence before continuing.
    Foreman Domai of the Free Drones has promised us a significant number of troops, but wishes no open involvement in the war himself. Also, CEO Nwabudike Morgan has promised some financial assistance, and in his own words, ‘once the back of Spartan resistance has been broken, he will be happy to help with the mopping up’. Of course, and here again the note of wry humour crept into his voice, only when he sees it is profitable for his business interests.
    Again, the mood at table lightened, a good response to Edward’s tactic of using his sense of humour to ingratiate himself into otherwise mildly unreceptive company.
    He went on:
    Although Colonel Santiago has the full support of Sister Miriam Godwinson, at this moment there seems to be little that the good Sister can do. Her forces are nigh-on exhausted, and are dispersed and scattered in a vain attempt to engage the remaining pockets of Cult of Planet resistance. Her jihad against the Cult has resulted in very few gains, most Cultists having committed suicide rather than be forced into another religion, and most of the captured Cult bases lie in ruins, useless to the Believers. In addition, Miriam’s society is suspicious of ‘secular’ research and this has seriously retarded her military development. The best Santiago can hope for from that direction is a few particle impactor-armed infantry units, nothing more. Even those will take some time to travel from Miriam’s isolated holdings to Santiago’s own continent. In short, I believe this is a war that we can win.
    He signalled that he was finished, and Tessa Kau-2, Minister of Intelligence and head of the Cybernetic Bureau of Investigation, had made the mental equivalent of an indrawn breath when suddenly Werner Kappa-9 broke in.
    Werner was known throughout the Consciousness as a staunch traditionalist. In old-Earth America, he would have been a member of the Republican party; in England, a Conservative. He had trained as a historian, and his specialist period had been the early Consciousness. At this time, the algorithms had not merged as smoothly with the human brain as they did now, and had placed far more emphasis on the traditional values of logic and rationality. Since then, of course, the algorithms had adapted to a world on which un-Initiated humanity thrived, and the Consciousness had grown accustomed to confronting irrational and illogical behaviour. In order to facilitate better communication and cohabitation with the un-Initiated, the Consciousness had been forced in recent years to place less emphasis on logic and rationality in favour of other, more human, values.
    However, Werner was a traditionalist and his Kappa-9 algorithm was one of the few formed at the first Spawning of the original Zeta-5 algorithm. Logic and rationality were still very high on his list - indeed, they were the only entries.
    Rather than communicating in the time-honoured tradition, he instead rose to his feet and spoke out loud. His voice was heavy with self-importance and pomposity.
    "This discussion is irrational. War is irrational. There must surely be some logical way of solving this dispute without reverting to such barbaric methods."
    Aki Zeta-5 rose in turn and spoke smoothly.
    "Minister Werner Kappa-9, what you must understand is that there is no ‘dispute’ between us and the Spartans. It is simple Biological ambition - we have more than them, so they envy us and desire to take what we have for themselves. The same ‘illogical’ ambition drove Chairman Yang to declare Vendetta on the Stepdaughters of Gaia, almost destroying their culture. We must stop Santiago before she does the same to us."
    Tradition and common courtesy both dictated that Werner Kappa-9 should wait until the Prime Function signalled that she had finished before he began speaking again, but he had always held both tradition and courtesy to be evidence of irrationality, and so broke in.
    "Datatech Sinder Roze wrote in her holobook, ‘Information Burns’,
    ‘To achieve victory, simply appear to give the opponent what he wants, and he will go away.’
    Therefore, let us simply find out what the Spartans want and give it to them, that they may go away and leave us in peace. Surely that would be the logical course of action."
    Aki Zeta-5 was on her feet again, and though her expression was calm and her body language restrained, all could sense the undercurrent of irritation and exasperation which had begun to trickle through her thoughts - all except Werner, who remained seemingly oblivious.
    Pointedly, she awaited his completion signal before beginning.
    "Ah," she said, with sadness now obvious in her voice, "if only it were that easy. For what the Spartans want, my friend, is everything we own, everything we are. And that," her voice rose and hardened, "is the one thing we cannot afford to give then and cannot allow them to take. For, to counter your quote, Colonel Santiago wrote,
    ‘Man has killed man from the beginning of time, and each new frontier has brought new ways and new places to die. Why should the future be different?’
    in her holobook, titled ‘Planet - A Survivalist’s Guide’. Therefore, we can logically deduce that she will not cease from warfare, despite however many lives are lost, until the entirety of Planet is hers."
    Werner made as if to speak again, but Aki Zeta-5 waved him into silence (accompanying it with such a forceful mental command to silence that those who had forgotten about her empathic powers flinched), and switched back to the approved method of mental communication.
    The Council has heard enough, she sent. We will vote now. For or against pursuing Vendetta against Santiago upon her declaration of war rather than pursuing peace with a policy of appeasement.
    The vote was over quickly, and was tallied just as rapidly.
    Seven for, two against, one abstention.
    The Prime Function inclined her head towards the Council.
    I thank you, my friends. With your approval I shall not attempt to placate Santiago when next she contacts me, but shall instead take any measures necessary to prevent her from intimidating me.
    She rose, and the Council was dismissed.

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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    "They’re here!"
    Rachelle’s joyful cry echoed around the ravaged rooftops of The Sprawl.
    An entire squadron of chaos needlejets swooped low over the base, their chaos guns blazing, firing incandescent blue projectiles towards the Spartan lines. Every shot obliterated another section of the already decimated army.
    Spartans scattered before the onslaught like ants from a burning magnifying glass, desperately seeking cover behind trees, rovers, wreckage, anything big enough to afford even the tiniest scrap of protection.
    The Data Angel ‘jets mercilessly pummelled the Spartans, their chaos projectiles punching through even the best silksteel armour to incinerate the soldiers behind it.
    A sudden fusillade of fire burst from the main gate of the base as a party of Spartans fought their way free of the opposing Data Angel security forces and fled for the safety of the forest.
    Many of them didn’t make it, cut down by chaos darts or the Cyborg fusion rifles, but a few - perhaps ten - reached the sanctuary of the forest. A few seconds after their disappearance, there was the sound of fast scout rover engines revving up and fading into the distance.
    The last of the Spartan troops were now engaged in desperate running battles with the Data Angel defenders, who were now pouring out of the base and cutting down Spartans wherever they could be found. Precious few missile launchers and gatling lasers were left to the attackers - most of them were being forced to resort to shredder rifles and pistols.
    However, one commando was left with a missile launcher, and was even now firing wild shots at anyone who confronted him.
    Rachelle sighted down the barrel of her rifle at him, but at that very second he swivelled to face her, missile launcher at the ready.
    She spitted him on her targeting crosshairs and tensed her finger, but found herself unable to pull the trigger.
    He must be empathic - he’s trying to stop me from killing him...
    She fought to pull the trigger just a millimetre further, to fire the rifle...
    And, in adrenaline-induced slow motion, she saw him pull his trigger and send a missile screaming towards her.
    Then, as his face twisted into a contorted leer of hatred and loathing, she found her mind suddenly free, her hand no longer bound.
    Algorithms have always been designed for multitasking, and hers allowed her to do several hundred things at once.
    She only needed three.
    With the speed of a cobra striking, her finger tightened on the trigger of her rifle, sending a beam of shimmering blue light to impale the Spartan. At the same moment, she uplinked to her companions and shouted at them through the link.
    Duck!
    As soon as the shot had left the rifle, her muscles contracted, flinging her out of the path of the missile as it scythed through the air towards her.
    It was only as the missile streaked past her and exploded against the base’s main comm aerial that she realised her mistake. Whilst Deanna and Iain were already reacting to her warning, Dmitri, unlinked as he was to the Consciousness, was still lying on the roof, sighting along his rifle for a clear shot at one of the few remaining Spartan rovers.
    She screamed wordlessly at him, desperate to warn him of the danger. The explosion of the missile had severed the comm aerial from its linkage, and it was even now falling towards him, screaming as it sliced through the air.
    He looked upwards, his mouth opening in soundless surprise, and he threw himself sideways. Unfortunately, his reflexes were not algorithmically enhanced, and even as she flung herself forward to try and help him the aerial landed...
    His probability sheath took most of the initial impact, but she could see it begin to buckle and fade at the edges as its power began to wane. It was designed as an energy and impact absorber, not as a permanent repulsion field...
    Even as she scrabbled for purchase, trying to haul him out of there, she noticed one of the vanes had already pierced right through the sheath and through Dmitri’s body. Dark red blood stained the roof all around him, and his mouth opened and closed in silent screams of pain.
    Iain and Deanna joined her and between then they strained to lift the incredibly heavy aerial but they couldn’t move it more than a few centimetres, and when they tried Dmitri gasped in pain.
    Rachelle reached out to him with her mind, but recoiled at the touch. He was in intense agony, and his mind screamed relentlessly when she tried to contact him.
    Recalling her empathic lessons, she formed her mind into a comforting blanket and spread it over Dmitri’s tortured mind.
    She felt a faint, thankful pressure in return, and then the light that was Dmitri blazed up suddenly and was gone...
    Deanna and Iain leaned in closer, still trying to shift the aerial, but she stopped them.
    He’s gone...
    She turned to face out over the battlefield, her unseeing eyes sweeping over the smoking craters and burned-out husks that used to be people. Her eyes reached the horizon, and she stared out into the sunset.
    One word left her mouth.
    "Santiago..."

    "Santiago!"
    She turned, whipping round to face the speaker, who recoiled from the look of sheer venom which appeared upon her icy countenance.
    The speaker instantly dropped to one knee, bowed his head and shivered as he felt her gaze sweep over him, raking him like a hail of shredder bullets.
    "My...my sincerest apologies, Colonel, for my presumption. Please forgive me."
    She felt a sudden blazing urge to kick him in the head, but she suppressed it.
    "Yes?" she snapped. "Make it quick."
    "The probe team sent to The Sprawl reports that they have what they came for, but they are under heavy attack. Should we send reinforcements?"
    She mused for a second, then her thin lips compressed into a determined line.
    "No. Our armies must remain hidden at all costs. There will be no reinforcements - either they get out alive, or they die there."

    By now, very few Spartans were left to oppose the Data Angel forces. A couple of rovers still fired spasmodically, but they were already damaged in several places, their reactors on the brink of shutdown.
    Three Angel needlejets roared overhead, their chaos guns blasting away at the last few pockets of Spartan resistance. Most of the remaining Spartans had scattered into the surrounding forest, closely pursued by Data Angel troops brandishing handheld particle impactors and gatling laser pistols.
    Suddenly, three needlejets shot out of the forest, engines whining as their pilots pushed them to the limit.
    The Angel ‘jets gave chase, but they were not designed for air-to-air interception, and couldn’t get a targeting lock on the enemy. Their shots went wide of the mark as the three planes soared towards the horizon.
    Then one of the pilots remembered the Cyborgs who had proved such staunch allies during the battle. His weaponry may not have been calibrated for dogfighting, but with their long-range, high-power rifles they might enjoy better luck.
    Quickly, he brought the plane about, then prepared for landing.

    By this time, all three Cyborgs had descended from the roof and, having given Governor Tian the news about Dmitri, went outside to survey the damage done by the Spartan attack.
    However, just as they left the base, a needlejet landed just across from the three of them and the pilot leapt out.
    "Ladies and gentleman," he began in the gallant style so favoured across Chiron, "might I borrow one of you and a rifle for a few minutes?"
    "Why?" asked Rachelle, instantly cautious.
    "We don’t have Interceptor capability, but with those rifles and your advanced targeting ability we might just be able to bring down those Spartans jets. We believe they may be carrying members of the probe team which stole our maps. Please, we must act quickly."
    "Very well," Rachelle answered coolly. "Lead the way."

    Bare minutes later, they were in hot pursuit of the Spartans, Rachelle riding in the cockpit with the Data angel pilot. Luckily, the Data Angel planes were faster and more manoeuvrable than the somewhat lumbering Spartan jets.
    Inside a few minutes, they were in range of the closest jet. The pilot opened the top hatch, and Rachelle climbed halfway up the access ladder until she could sight along her rifle.
    Something inside her exulted in the feeling. Chiron’s moist, fresh air played through her hair, making her long brown tresses spiral out behind her, at the mercy of the vagaries of the rushing wind.
    She lowered her rifle onto the body of the plane and centred the cross hairs on the closest Spartan jet. It jinked in and out of the targeting grid as the pilot tried to evade, but she managed to keep it in her sights.
    A part of her algorithm was already hard at work, cataloguing the pilot’s manoeuvres and checking for some sort of pattern. Finally it found one, and relayed the result to her consciousness. There were only so many directions in which to jink, after all. The pilot was choosing seemingly at random, but there was method in the madness, order amongst the chaos.
    She sighted again, and fired...
    One down, two to go.

    Jens Farren fumed as he saw one of his three escape needlejets spiral to the ground and explode, leaving behind it a thin trail of smoke from its damaged wing.
    "How can they be so accurate?" he asked the pilot. "According to our instruments they don’t even have AAA tracking - how are they managing this?"
    The pilot made no reply, concentrating as she was on her flying.

    Rachelle’s algorithm cut in again, informing her of the likely movements of the next plane’s pilot. She fired a short fusillade of shots, but the pilot swung up onto his left wing, and the shots passed to left and right of the jet.
    She fired again, the brilliant azure beam emerging once again, racing to connect with its target...
    ...but again, the pilot managed to pull out of its path at the last second. This time he let the plane side-slip, then pulled a tight corkscrew and accelerated into a sharp dive.
    Luckily, the Data Angel pilot was no rookie either, and he followed the Spartan move-for-move, lining Rachelle up for the perfect shot.
    She squeezed the trigger...

    "Damn!"
    Farren swore in anger as another of his needlejets smashed itself to pieces on a rocky outcrop. Now only this last one was left.
    Quickly, he activated the plane’s communications systems, trying to access the Spartan comm network. They couldn’t be far from the relay beacon now...
    A flicker of response met his feverish calls, and he gently nursed the feeble lifeline, trying desperately to get enough of a signal to transmit the precious databurst.

    The Data Angel jet screamed in protest as its pilot shunted all available power to the engines, thrusting forward as he tried to close the gap between them and the one remaining Spartan jet.
    He cast a quick glance at his instrument panel, then yelled up to where Rachelle stood on the access ladder, preparing to try for a shot at the jet.
    "We can’t go on like this much longer! Fuel reserves are low - I’m going to have to turn back any minute!"
    "Just keep flying," Rachelle called back down to him. She steadied herself against the howling rush of wind that threatened to pluck her from the cockpit, and braced her rifle against the jet, readying herself for the shot that would bring down her last opponent.

    "Yes!"
    Finally, Farren’s efforts had borne fruit. The closest comm beacon had responded, and was ready to receive the databurst.
    He quickly linked the datacore holding the Data Angel maps into the plane’s comm system and triggered the burst.

    Rachelle nudged the rifle left, then up slightly as the Spartan pilot fought to keep from becoming a sitting target. Her finger tightened on the trigger, and she felt the rifle give a slight jump as the sapphire laser beam shot out to impale the jet.

    Transfer complete.
    A beatific smile spread over Lieutenant Jens Farren’s face as he realised that his mission had succeeded, and then brightness filled his eyes and there was nothing but fire...

    * * * * *

    Aki Zeta-5’s impassive face betrayed barely a hint of emotion as she finished cycling through the psych reports on Colonel Corazon Santiago.
    She deactivated the viewscreen and turned back to the other three people in the room. Two were holographic projections, continuously updated isomorphic representations - one of Datatech Sinder Roze, the other of Commissioner Pravin Lal. The third was a flesh and blood woman, the lithe, shapely form of Lady Deirdre Skye.
    Lal’s hologram stepped forward, concern lining his dark brow.
    "She is highly dangerous, very powerful and possesses a volatile temper," he reminded Aki. "She has already attacked one of Datatech Roze’s bases, and is pressing me for what she calls ‘contributions to the cost of my faction’s continued existence’. Her last demand was for a hundred energy credits, a sum I can hardly afford. I managed to divert her attention, but she’ll be back soon..."
    Roze broke in.
    "With the assault on The Sprawl Santiago has practically declared Vendetta upon me. If it escalates into a massive war I don’t see how I can stand against her. We won this one battle but we can’t hope to win the war - her troops outnumber ours at least three to one."
    Aki turned to gaze at the map of Chiron which covered the holotable in front of her. By a stroke of luck her engineers had managed, by working flat out around the clock, to complete the Command Nexus before Santiago, leaving the Spartan attempt obsolete and useless.
    From here Aki Zeta-5 could view every item of data held by the Consciousness and its allies on a wide range of subjects, from disposition of enemy forces to the security nexuses of other factions.
    Unfortunately, a small but vital section of the map was still greyed out. Topographical data was in place - the result of the Unity’s pre-Planetfall worldscan - but the Spartan lands were a mystery.
    "We need their maps," said Aki Zeta-5, half to herself.
    "What?" asked Lady Deirdre, startled out of her contemplation.
    "The Spartans have an advantage over us," said Aki, turning back to her confederates. "Despite all the Angels’ best efforts, they downloaded maps of all our territories and managed to send them via a communications relay seconds before one of my operatives shot down the plane in which they were travelling.
    This gives the Spartans the tactical advantage - they know where we are, but we do not know where they are. We must acquire data pertaining to the locations of their bases. Only then will our Empathi be able to penetrate their security nexus and inform us of their disposition of forces."
    The holograms of both Roze and Lal flickered for a second and vanished, leaving their respective faction emblems to hover in the air, an indication that they were currently engaged elsewhere but would return at the first opportunity.
    Lady Deirdre stepped closer, until she could speak to Aki Zeta-5 in a low voice.
    "Prime Function, Brother Lal has still not forgiven you for relocating the Empath Guild here to Alpha Prime."
    "It was necessary," Aki replied, her face half-turned away. "The negotiations were successfully completed - they received our assistance in the completion of the Temple of Ascetic Virtues long before Director Morgan could complete his attempt. In exchange for our labours, we were given the Empath Guild. It was an entirely fair and logical trade."
    Deirdre was about to say more, but the air shimmered and the holograms of the two faction leaders returned.
    Roze was the first to speak:
    "I have tried all channels of investigation, and I cannot find Spartan maps anywhere on our networks. However, there is a rumour that CEO Morgan has maps of Santiago’s territory."
    "Can you access them?" Aki was quick to jump at the chance.
    "They are hidden deep behind his firewalls. Commercial channels may be our only hope."
    Lal snorted. "Give him what we all know he craves above all things - currency! Just offer him energy and he’ll leap at the chance!"
    "I will open diplomatic negotiations immediately," Aki Zeta-5 assured him. "What are we to do about the impending Vendetta?"
    Once again, Lal produced his inimitable snort.
    "I do not see that it concerns me!"
    "How," asked Roze, straining visibly to restrain her emotions, "can such a war not affect you? If Santiago attacks our holdings, she will not stop there. Your lands border ours - her troops will simply sail on and pillage your cities too!"
    "Nonsense! The Peacekeepers have been and always will be neutral. We refuse to take sides against anyone!"
    Aki Zeta-5 turned to look out of the window across the lush green expanse of Chiron’s surface. When she next spoke, it was half to herself, and sounded as though the words came from far away.
    "Against these so-called ‘paramilitary survivalists’, unity is the only defence. We must stand together against this threat; only when we have eradicated it will we be truly safe again."
    She turned back to Lal, with sadness in her deep green eyes.
    "Those were the words of the British Prime Minister Elaine Lewis in an address to the United Nations. Unfortunately, they ignored her. Many chose to completely ignore the threat, others chose to deal with it in their own way."
    She turned away again, grief choking her voice.
    "My husband, in his role as chief Norwegian ambassador to Britain, was visiting her when the British wing of the Jade Falcons, the survivalist group of which Corazon Santiago was once a member, tried to assassinate her. He took the first bullet, and was...killed instantly. She lived, but the ensuing turmoil threw the British economy into recession and its government into anarchy."
    When she turned back to face Pravin Lal, tears were streaming freely down her face, but her voice was once again level and controlled.
    "Will you make the same mistake again? Will you let another survivalist faction destroy all which we have fought and toiled to achieve?"
    "It is none of my concern..." Lal began, and his face flushed as Aki interrupted him.
    "Santiago will make it your concern. If she were to conquer the Data Angels, why on earth should she stop there? You and I both know that once she tastes victory, she will want to taste it again and again. Your faction’s lands are closest to Datatech Roze’s - Santiago will see you as nothing more than another target."
    Lal opened his mouth to respond, but Aki cut him off yet again.
    "Furthermore, if you do not agree to declare Vendetta upon Santiago then you will be seen as aiding her by your continued indecision. We may have no choice but to cancel our Pact with you, and if you still refuse to take action against the Spartan threat, you may eventually force us to declare Vendetta upon you."
    Lal took a deep breath before responding. When his words finally came they were forced and full of barely repressed anger.
    "Very well, Prime Function Aki Zeta-5. At your insistence I shall conduct Vendetta against Colonel Corazon Santiago and her Spartan Federation. But be warned that I shall pull my forces out at the first sign you are not fully supporting me with your own troops!"
    Aki Zeta-5 inclined her head regally, instantly defusing the potentially volatile situation.
    "Of course, Commissioner Lal. Rest assured that you will enjoy our full support."
    Lal bowed in return, and then his hologram shimmered and disappeared.

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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    "The xenofields stretch far, my love,
    So far I cannot cross
    The mind worms lie in wait for me
    Upon the soft green moss
    And so, because I cannot pass
    I lift my voice and sing
    Imploring Planet, in her strength
    Her influence to bring
    The xenofields part as a sea
    Before my staff of hope
    The mind worms shy away, my love
    I walk on down the slope
    Until at last I take your hand
    And meet your eyes with mine
    And we will be together, love
    Both now and for all time"

    As she finished the song, she closed the link and began to turn away from the window, but suddenly something caught her eye. Was she mistaken? A tiny flash of light, no more than a white pinpoint in the deep red of the xenofungus, flared for a second and then was gone.
    Unsure as to whether or not her imagination was playing tricks on her, she turned away from the window again...
    ...and almost fell as an explosion rocked the base to its foundations. A second one hit a few seconds after, and again she stumbled, just managing to catch herself on the corner of a table.
    She struggled to the door and hit the ‘open’ button, and the door swished open into a nightmare of running citizens, screaming children and yelling soldiers. Voices surrounded her, hemming her in on all sides. She could catch only a few words - ‘Spartans’ and ‘attack’ were the only two that stood out.
    Instinct took over, and she reopened her mind to the Consciousness, intending to apprise them of the situation...and came up against a blank wall. All she could feel was the confusion and panic in the minds of Iain and Deanna, with the jumbled emotions of the other shells in the base coming through faint and indistinct.
    They must’ve taken out the uplink node...
    For the duration of their stay in The Sprawl, an uplink node had been set up in order to facilitate their interfacing with the Consciousness as a whole.
    If the Spartans have hit it, I can’t interface, nor can I communicate. How will Aki Zeta-5 know what’s going on?
    Of course, there would be a ‘blind spot’ in the Consciousness, but such failures were not uncommon - an uplink node failure had, in the early days, cut Pi Complex off for over a week. Consciousness operatives were likely to ignore this failure as a minor glitch in the network.
    It was time for a backup plan. She extricated Deanna and Iain from their rooms and headed off with them towards the main dome of The Sprawl.
    As they made their way gingerly toward the hub of operations, further explosions rocked the base, although by now they were become more sporadic, with greater intervals between then.
    The Data Angel defenders must be rallying, thought Rachelle as she picked her way through the rubble of a ruined corridor. They don’t stand a chance against a Spartan assault - they are poorly trained and nowhere near as well equipped as Santiago’s troops.
    Why is Santiago doing this? queried Deanna Nu-Eight. It is completely illogical - she stands to gain so little and lose so much from attacking this one Data Angel outpost.
    She must have a reason, Iain broke in. Santiago doesn’t just do things randomly. There is always method to her madness - she is cold and calculating behind all the macho posturing. We must find out what she intends to gain.
    They ran on through the wreckage...

    In the nerve centre of The Sprawl, Governor Lianor Tian ran a hurried hand through her tousled hair and turned to her communications officer.
    "Rel, any advance on getting through to Data DeCentral yet?"
    Lieutenant Dmitri Rellen paused in his key-tapping long enough to answer:
    "No luck, Gov. They must have comm jammers - can’t get a word out of Central."
    "Then it looks like we’re on our own..."
    Tian set her jaw as her gaze swept over the tactical scanners. The Spartan troops outnumbered her own by at least three to one, with no hope of reinforcements from Data DeCentral. The situation looked bleak, but while there was still a shred of hope...
    She spun round in her chair as three Cyborgs entered the room. For a second, her tired brain failed her, but then her memory made a tentative identification - the Empath who had been teaching her citizens how to meditate, the diplomatic envoy who had worked hard to improve relations between the Data Angels and the Consciousness, and their bodyguard.
    All three were covered in dirt and dust, but their faces were calm and serene despite the battle raging not far away. The Empath - Rachelle Alpha-Four, Lianor’s memory reminded her - stepped forward.
    "Governor, how goes the day?"
    With a few key presses, Lianor brought up a tactical display. Data Angel troops were represented by purple dots, with Spartans represented in red for ‘threat’.
    Data Angel pinpoints were being extinguished all over the base. The Spartans were quite clearly winning the battle.
    Rachelle spoke again.
    "Governor, if you remember, we brought with us four fusion laser rifles as a gift to help you defend your city. Perhaps the time has come. With your permission, we would like to use them to help repulse the Spartan onslaught."
    "Be my guest! We need all the help we can get!"
    Rachelle turned to Dmitri, greeting him with a dazzling smile.
    "Lieutenant, since we have four rifles and there are only three of us, would you care to accompany us and operate the fourth?"
    Dmitri cast a quick glance at his Governor and, upon receiving a nod from her, relinquished his chair, stepped towards Rachelle, and gripped her hand.
    "Of course. We must all do everything we can."

    Quickly, they carried the lasers to the rooftops. On the way, Deanna fitted Dmitri with a portable fusion reactor to power his rifle, and he returned the favour by providing the three of them with rebreathers and Data Angel quicklinks.
    "These quicklinks are tuned to a frequency above the range of the Spartan comm jammers. Unfortunately, they do not have the power required to contact Data DeCentral, and we cannot tune the rest of our communications equipment to this frequency, but they should suffice to keep the four of us in contact if we get separated."

    Finally, they reached the gently sloping roofs of The Sprawl. Below them, the battle raged, lit by the muted half-light of Alpha Centauri B. Spartan rovers raced in at Data Angel defenders, taking a few shots and then speeding away again.
    The four of them quickly double-checked their rifles, then flung themselves flat on the rooftop to avoid a stray gatling laser bolt from one of the Spartan speeders. Despite the Spartans having access to missile launchers, some of Santiago’s troops were still using the older gatling lasers and particle impactors.

    Eventually, they were all ready. As an afterthought, Rachelle threw Dmitri a slim silver package, topped by a red activation stud. He looked at her quizzically, obviously wondering what on Chiron it was.
    "It’s a Probability Sheath. They’re only in the experimental stage, but they give 50% better defence than anything the Spartans have. They could absorb the energy from one missile every minute and still leave you without a scratch. It draws its power from the fusion reactor on your back - just jack it in and power it up."
    Dmitri quickly clipped the power cable into the reactor and pressed the activation stud, with the three Cyborgs following suit. Faint silver coronas shimmered to life around the four of them, encasing them all in high-power defensive shielding.
    As one, the three Cyborgs raised their weapons, sighted on a target, and fired.
    For a second there was the faint hum of the rifles charging, and then three bursts of scintillating blue energy poured forth, homing in on their targets as though guided by some invisible hand.
    One hit a Spartan soldier in the head, the body tumbling slowly to the ground. Another seared through the armour of a missile rover, leaving the smoking husk to smoulder gently in Planet’s oxygen-poor atmosphere.
    The third struck a Spartan on the chest, fusing his armour - and the man behind it - into a bubbling, hissing chunk.
    Dmitri levelled his own weapon and fired into the thickest concentration of Spartan troops, wounding several as the burst hit a rover, which exploded in a cloud of shrapnel.
    The ensuing burst of flame was reflected by a single pinpoint of silver in the half-light - a pinpoint which triggered a memory in Rachelle’s mind. Producing a pair of binoculars, she quickly scanned the area, revealing a Data Angel sensor array, still untouched by the ravages of the Spartan troops.
    This is turn gave Rachelle an idea. She activated her quicklink, and set it to scan for and lock onto the carrier frequency used by the station to send out its scan pulses.
    Within two seconds, her link found the frequency and locked on. Rachelle then retuned her personal uplink frequency to match the sensor station’s, closed her eyes, and sent her consciousness out along the link.
    It was a big risk to take, especially since the link was very tenuous, but she made it without incident. She quickly downloaded the sensor data, intending to quicklink it back to the Command Centre at The Sprawl, then switched to her primary objective - drain the station’s energy coils and use the power to boost a comm signal through the Spartan jamming and contact Data DeCentral, the closest Data Angel base.
    Stage one went easily enough, although it seemed to take forever for the protesting power coils to discharge their energy into the transmission matrix. Eventually the transfer completed, and she stretched out into the matrix...

    From here, the Spartan jamming was like a blizzard, a storm without end. She had to be the bright light which shone through the tempest to the calm on the other side...
    Fashioning a link from here was one of the hardest things she had ever done, but finally Data DeCentral responded.

    "Datatech."
    The voice was insistent. She couldn’t just ignore it this time, as she had done before. She tapped her keypad, giving the speaker an open channel.
    "Yes?"
    "Communications here. We have an incoming transmission from a Cyborg claiming to be from The Sprawl, which she says is under heavy attack. She said something about every second counting."
    Instantly, Datatech Sinder Roze was on full alert.
    "Put her through."
    Static obliterated the picture on her viewscreen, but she tapped a few keys and eventually managed to tune it out. The voice on the other end was insistent, but with the veneer of calm she had heard in so many other Cyborg voices. Her face, while calm, appeared...unreal, as though the user was merely projecting the image of a face...
    "Datatech Sinder Roze," she said, "my apologies for not approaching you through the proper channels, but this is a matter of international emergency. The Sprawl is under attack from Spartan troops who have deployed a communications jammer to blanket all transmissions. Luckily I managed to circumvent their jamming using a nearby sensor station.
    It is imperative that you send reinforcements at once. I do not wish to impugn your more-than-competent defenders, but I fear they will soon be overwhelmed if not reinforced.
    Please, Datatech, I beg you to act soon. We..."
    Her eyes flickered for a second, and then the face of the Cyborg disappeared, to be replaced by static...

    Rachelle snapped back to her body and suppressed a scream. She had been halfway through her speech to Datatech Roze when the sensor station’s proximity warning had begun to shrill. Within a split-second, she had opened her awareness and found the cause of the warning - a Spartan missile headed straight for the station. She had quickly severed the connection and had transferred back across the link to her own body.
    Only a second after she had left, the sensor station erupted in an incandescent flare.
    Deanna cast her a quick worried glance in between firing rapid shots at any Spartan who showed his or her head.
    Is something wrong? she sent. Rachelle was quick to reassure her.
    No - in fact, everything is perfect. I just managed to contact Data Angel Command - reinforcements should be on their way very soon.
    Deanna nodded, then was forced to duck as a searing burst of gatling laser energy passed by close overhead. She turned back to her rifle, firing with cool precision and hitting nearly every target at which she aimed.
    Suddenly Rachelle spotted a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye. A small, lithe Spartan figure slipped from cover behind a rover, dashing across to take up another position behind an ancient tree.
    She sighted, and when the figure sprinted forward again she blew his head clean off, leaving the headless body to crumple into the mud. As it fell, she thought she caught a glimpse...
    Yes. He was wearing plasma steel armour and carrying a probe operative’s typical equipment.
    Opening the quicklink, she shot a probe alert down to the command centre and warned her companions to be on the lookout.
    This must be the reason behind Santiago’s attack, she sent. She must want some kind of information. But why a Data Angel base? Surely they would be the best defended against probe teams...

    Down in the command centre, Governor Lianor Tian was having severe problems. She relinquished her keypad for a second, yelling to a Talent in the corridor:
    "Round up every single datajack you can find and get them in here right now! Tell them we’re facing an enemy probe team incursion into our datalinks!"
    She quickly turned her attention back to the screen in front of her. Three red infiltration points already burned, marking the efforts of the Spartan probe teams to hack into The Sprawl’s extensive data nodes.
    Lianor threw up firewalls and encryptions with the speed which had made her a legend amongst coders throughout the Data Angel empire. As fast as the Spartans broke a code, another algorithm was there to replace it.
    It couldn’t last forever, though. The red points were multiplying as more and more operatives penetrated the physical defences of the base and set to work to penetrate the digital defences. First one, then two, then three new points lit up on Lianor’s screen, and she swore as she struggled to keep them under control. Until she got some help, she’d never be able to even contain them all, never mind eliminate them...
    Luckily, at that moment a gaggle of datajacks entered the room, seating themselves silently at terminals around the room and working swiftly to prevent the theft of any valuable data.
    "Block their access to the technology datafiles at all costs," Lianor reminded them. "If they get their hands on any of our techs we’re done for."
    The ‘jacks acknowledged her with a series of tight nods. They all knew their survival was on the line - if the Spartan probes could scan the base’s defences, they could pinpoint the slightest weaknesses and relay that information back to the attacking troops.
    Suddenly alarms began to shrill. Screens flickered throughout the room as techs and ‘jacks alike desperately tried to prevent the Spartans from accessing their technology store.
    They succeeded, and reciprocation algorithms used the team’s own equipment against them, isolating their position and relaying it to security forces who took only seconds to eliminate the teams.
    However, one team survived, and managed to hack into geographical databases...
    "Code Red!" yelled Tian, her composure completely wrecked. "They’ve infiltrated... Geographical! They have our maps! Find them at all costs!"

    Lieutenant Jens Farren bent to his quicklink for a second, then looked up and shouted to his troops.
    "Spartans! We have what we came for! Now we leave!"
    Instantly a thousand shouts of dissension rose to meet his voice. He raised a megaphone to his lips and dialled it to maximum volume, then tried again.
    "Spartans! We have achieved our objective! This is no retreat, merely a tactical withdrawal on completion of mission!"
    Grudgingly, the troops began to retreat further and further from the base, leaving in their wake the scattered bodies of dead and dying soldiers.
    Suddenly, the air was filled with the whine of fusial thrust engines, and then the sky was full of fire...

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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    "I am ready. I come to you as one seeking unity with the many. Together we shall ascend to greater heights of knowledge and rationality. I seek your approval!"
    A murmur ran through the room, and then as one they spoke.
    "We approve."
    From the corner of her eye, she could see a technician press a button on his console, and the uplink began...

    * * * * *

    "No!"
    Datapads flew across the room as Sonia Krakowski’s temper snapped. In an instant, Portia was beside her, holding her by both wrists.
    "Sonia, stop it! Stop it right now!"
    Sonia struggled for a couple of seconds, but Portia’s grip was like cold steel, and she eventually gave up. She stood there looking sullen, her expression slowly changing to one of contrition as she saw the damage that she had wrought.
    "Sorry, Porch...I don't know what came over me. When I heard the Cyborgs were heading this way...I guess I snapped..."
    She bent, and started retrieving datapads, but at that second sirens began to wail. The pads dropped from Sonia nerveless fingers as the two sisters turned to face each other. Their faces were stark white, their eyes wide with fear.
    Portia leapt to Yang's desk and slapped a control, and the entire wall of the office became translucent, then transparent. When the last of the opacity cleared, they could see the reason for the blaring sirens.
    All along the subterranean walkways, and throughout the massive main cavern in which they lived, explosions thundered and flames roared.
    "They're here..."
    Portia punched another control, and a 3-D holographic representation of the base shimmered to life in front of them. Defending units were shown as blue dots, attackers as red.
    A veritable red sandstorm greeted their astonished eyes. The Cyborgs were everywhere - they had penetrated the base at every entrance, and were now working their way inwards.
    Sonia, moving like an automaton, tapped in a query to the computer, asking it how long it would take the Cyborgs to reach their current position.
    There was a pause whilst the computer calculated and verified the answer, and then it flashed up in foot-high holographic numbers.
    Twenty-four minutes, seventeen seconds.
    For a second there was total silence in the room, and then they both exploded into action.

    * * * * *

    Uplink complete. Commencing algorithm...
    Light flooded her vision, and she blinked. Then there was a sudden rushing sensation, like icy mountain streams cascading through her mind...
    Incredible...
    The few rumours that filtered through said that it was like sharing your consciousness with another being, but it wasn't in the slightest. It was like sharing your consciousness with yourself...
    And it was. All the algorithm did was enhance your abilities. In exchange for its existence, implanted in the left side of her cerebral cortex, it worked wonders on the right side, improving such functions as logic and rationality to previously undreamed- of levels.
    She had come to lying on a blindingly white biobed in the Infirmary of Alpha Prime. She blinked again, and then her uplink node activated, and she could hear...it...
    In all the stories that her Aunt had told her, it had been described as ‘a thousand voices, speaking as one’, but she had been wrong.
    It was like one voice speaking through a thousand mouths...
    And in the midst of it all sat Aki Zeta-5, co-ordinator of the entire Consciousness, silvery uplink tendrils extending from her in a pulsing, coruscating web, linking every member of the Consciousness together.
    She closed her eyes and let her mind achieve uplink, and slipped into the world of the Consciousness...

    It was like dancing in the blue skies of Planet, like plunging into the heart of Hercules, like bathing in the icy tail of a comet.
    All these comparisons and more could never describe what she felt as her mind flowed from node to node, feeling the living, breathing Consciousness surrounding her on all sides. She let its currents take her, pull her gently along, enveloped in their cool waters.
    Suddenly, she could feel discord and strife. She had reached the part of the network which included those shells who were fighting at this very moment in The Hive.
    Even as she watched, another shell’s death cry echoed throughout the network, and another strand in the great net vanished. This part of the Consciousness was in disorder and disarray, the shells isolated from each other and unable to communicate.
    Reaching out with all her strength, Rachelle desperately tried to smooth the raging waters. She felt a flash of gratitude from the shells, and decided to help them further.
    Melding her mind and its implanted algorithm closer into one whole, she began to gather the strands of consciousness and weave them together.

    In the tunnels of The Hive, shells began to fight together, working towards a common goal instead of firing blindly...

    Wherever there were gaps in the iridescent tapestry, Rachelle took threads and wove them together to form new patterns of strength and unity.

    The Hive defenders started to fall back in fear from this new onslaught. The Cyborgs were fighting as one, like a massive entity with a thousand arms and a thousand weapons...

    She could feel the strength, now. Though the repairs were only temporary, they would at least hold until she had put her latest idea into practice...
    Modulating her carrier wave, she managed to slip past the Hive’s defences and into their datalinks. From there it was a simple system hop into the comm network, and from there...

    A console beeped in Yang’s office, and Sonia pressed a control. Instantly, the holographic screen activated, and the words ‘Message Incoming...’ flashed for a second before dissolving into...
    It looked human, but somehow they both got the impression that in some way it wasn’t...
    The face was that of a young woman, looking about twenty to twenty-five, but it pulsed in and out of focus, as though she was trying to project a face...

    Rachelle reached out with everything she had - algorithmic ability, empathic talents, everything - and funnelled it all down into a few words.

    "Look into my eyes..."
    Automatically, Sonia and Portia glanced at the eyes of this holographic image. Then, chilled to the bone, they tried desperately to drag their eyes away...but found themselves held in place.
    The eyes were incredible. They seemed to burn from the inside with an incandescent white flame, searing into the depths of the souls of the two women...
    In an instant, everything was stripped away, and they both saw their lives as never before. Aimless, pathetic, despicable, dedicated to serving an insane, grasping despot...

    Rachelle played on secret fears, unease, anger, paranoia, everything - and she could tell it was paying off. The two sisters were shrivelling under the onslaught like mind worms before a flame gun.

    Sonia was screaming in emotional agony. Portia was simply crying hysterically. Both were on the brink of insanity. It just needed one more good push...

    Just one more good push... thought Rachelle. Gathering all her resources, she formed one last attack and flung it with all her strength...

    And so it was that, when Chairman Yang finally regained consciousness and managed to stumble to his office, he found his two chief aides curled up on the floor, whimpering in pain.

    In the subterranean tunnels of The Hive, the Consciousness had reached the Headquarters building and was already flooding it with troops. Yang’s office was on the top floor, but it would not take them long to get there.

    Rachelle was still surfing the waves of knowledge, exulting in her success. These tides are breaking on a new shore, and the waters are rising fast. Against supreme knowledge, who would dare to stand? An enemy will fall today, and the waters will close over his colossus...

    Yang prodded frantically at the controls set into his desk. His self-control was gone, washed out to sea by the fear which now assailed him. Portia and Sonia had left the holographic globe active, and he could see the severity of his predicament.
    The number of blue dots had decreased dramatically. Besides the four guards outside his door, only seven armed personnel remained in his Headquarters, and beyond that only about twenty survived, scattered uselessly throughout the base.
    Not long now...
    Red dots were swarming all over the Headquarters. The seven sentries were defending the main lifts, but it would not take long for the Cyborgs to overwhelm them and sweep them aside. Even his four faithful guards could not hope to defend the corridor for more than a few seconds.
    He was trapped.

    Deanna Nu-Eight crept silently along the corridor leading to Yang’s office. She and two other operatives had found the service lifts, and now the other two were making their way towards Yang’s office from the other direction. Inwardly, she blessed the architect who had designed this building for making it circular and having the corridors follow suit. Now they could attack the guards from both directions.
    Although the half of her that answered to the designation Nu-Eight was calm and composed, the half of her that was still Deanna Iriana was overflowing with mixed excitement and anxiety. Adrenaline was surging through her body in quantities she had not felt since her Initiation.
    Suddenly, from up ahead there came the unmistakable sharp crack! of a shredder pistol, and a cry of pain. Deanna drew her own weapon, a slim, silver laser pistol, tensed her body, and leapt...
    Shredder darts hissed past her as she soared through the air; then she hit the floor, rolled, and came up firing.
    Her first burst of laser fire caught a guard in the shoulder. He dropped his pistol and clutched at the neat round mark on his shoulder, his eyes wide with pain, his mouth opening and closing in shock.
    Deanna froze in shock herself, stunned at what she had done to this man. The Consciousness preached peace above all things, and she had just done this...
    A shredder dart tore through the leg of her long white shift, sending pain lancing up her leg and bringing her back to life. She spun, and scythed the guard’s legs out from under her with a kick. The woman landed heavily, dropping her shredder pistol in the process.
    As Deanna glanced up, she saw that there was only one guard left standing, crouching behind a turn in the corridor, obviously firing at her two companions. She snapped off a shot, and was rewarded by seeing him crumple soundlessly to the ground.
    The woman whom she had just knocked down lunged for her pistol, but Deanna was faster. Her algorithmically enhanced reflexes took over, her leg shot out in a kick, and the shredder pistol went spinning out of the woman’s reach along the corridor.
    The guard growled, deep in her throat, and launched herself at Deanna, a knife appearing in her hand...
    ...and she met, halfway, a bolt of pure energy from Deanna’s laser pistol.
    The woman dropped to the floor, dead, a smoking hole where one eye had been.
    That was the last of them.
    Quickly, Deanna leapt at the door to Sheng-ji Yang’s office, bruising her hand as she slammed it on the ‘open’ button.
    Surprisingly, all security procedures had been overridden. Deanna blessed Rachelle’s forethought - she must have done it whilst still in the Hive’s computer matrix.
    Even as the door began to open, there was the all-too-familiar whine of a shredder pistol charging to overload.
    Deanna sprang back from the door, her laser pistol instantly in her hand. A strange sight met her eyes.
    Sheng-ji Yang stood there, his arms flung towards the ceiling, his head thrown back. As she entered cautiously, he looked down towards her, a beatific smile painted across his face.
    "Enter, my child. Come, you shall be the last to look upon the face of Planet’s greatest martyr..."
    The shredder pistol burst completely obliterated his head and sent deadly darts scything towards Deanna. She ducked instinctively, and heard a series of soft thunk noises which marked the darts ending their trajectory in the office wall.
    There was a quiet thump as the body of the late Sheng-ji Yang hit the floor limply.
    Deanna looked out gingerly from beneath a shielding arm at the body of the Consciousness’ greatest enemy. Her body was spattered with Yang’s blood, and her own blood was dripping from the slice on her leg. Surprise, shock and sorrow coursed through her veins and her heart hammered as though it would burst from her chest, but she felt a sense of incredible elation. The great war is finally over...
    She half turned, intending to congratulate whoever had loosed the final shot, but there was no-one there.
    Picking her way carefully out into the corridor, she found the corpses of the four guards, and then a little further away, the bodies of David Gamma-Nine and Rayini Eta-Seven.
    She knelt beside them, but there was no sign of life. The shredder darts had done their deadly work too well, and both were gone.
    Her face remained impassive, but tears began to stream from her eyes. She made no attempt to wipe them away, and they dripped onto the bodies of her fallen comrades.
    She went back into Yang’s office one last time, carefully avoiding his body and the blood which pooled around it, and found what she had been seeking.
    It had only been after finding the bodies of her dead comrades that she realised that the shots had come, not from behind her, but from in front.
    She finally found the shredder pistol, propped up on a stack of datapads. Carefully, she disarmed it, then flung it across the room, where it lay, a harmless lump of metal and plastic.
    They eventually found her, crouched over her two fallen companions, tears still falling from her eyes.

    * * * * *

    There were celebrations all over Planet that night. The Hive had finally been eliminated!
    Fireworks lit the night over Gaia’s High Garden. Cheers resounded in the vaulted halls of Virgin Soil. Acolytes clapped and stamped as the victory procession wound its way through the Gaians’ new base, placed on the exact site of Gaia’s Landing and given the same name.
    Lady Deirdre led the Gaian celebrations, and when she judged the time was right she called for quiet.
    "My dear, dear friends, we have survived a war which threatened to wipe us from the face of Planet. Along the way we lost many friends and family members, and our hearts go with them and with those whom they leave behind.
    However, we must not let their loss blind us to Planet’s gain. A great blight has been removed from Planet’s bright countenance, and we, her servants, endure to tend and care for her anew.
    And to symbolise our hope for a new dawn, for harmony and peace with Planet, I plant the beginning of a new stand of white pine, to flourish forever in the commons of Gaia’s Landing."
    With that, she knelt, and pressed the seedling which she herself had saved into the moist soil of Planet.

    The celebrations even broke the hushed silence of Alpha Prime. Shells who had not shown strong emotion for years wept openly with happiness. Others shouted their delight to the heavens.
    In the midst of it all sat Aki Zeta-5, with Rachelle Alpha-4 on her right, and Deanna Nu-8 on her left. Both were to receive commendations for their part in winning the war against the Hive.
    But for this one moment, they sat alone, an island of silence amidst so much noise. They had, by mutual agreement, moved their interlink frequencies up several cycles, and now were linked together, two shells and the Consciousness’ main operative.
    As one, they closed their eyes, and slid into the cool waters of the Consciousness. For this one precious moment they let their minds soar along the pathways of the living, pulsing Consciousness, revelling in the pure thought which surrounded them and beat like a massive heart.
    Three minds leapt and danced, just for this one moment, rejoicing in their freedom and their unity...
    Unity...

    * * * * *

    Corazon Santiago smiled, but there was no humour in the expression. Behind that hard exterior and ice-black eyes lay a steely resolve to ensure the survival of her people on Planet whatever the cost.
    And to that end, her eyes were turned towards the empire of the Cybernetic Consciousness.
    At this moment in time, the Consciousness represented the greatest threat to Spartan sovereignty. Aki Zeta-5 was quite clearly bent on setting herself up as the only legitimate authority on Planet. She had swept to power as Planetary Governor with a landslide victory, gaining over eighty percent of the vote, with Santiago left trailing behind with less than twenty percent.
    Since that time Aki had reinforced the UN Charter, a document which Santiago saw as worse than worthless, and instituted a Global Trade Pact, an agreement from which the Spartans benefited least out of all the factions. The Pact had been opposed only by Santiago and Sister Miriam Godwinson of the Lord’s Believers, with the Free Drones abstaining from the vote.

    Santiago’s hatred of the Consciousness had first taken root when they had exterminated the Human Hive. The few reports that had filtered out to Spartan operatives before the Hive fell spoke of the incredible technological advances made by the Consciousness. While the best weaponry available to the Spartan troops was the newly developed missile launcher, Consciousness troops were reputedly armed with fusion lasers, super-powerful armaments which could burn their way through Spartan silksteel armour within seconds.
    Now it had become apparent that the Cyborgs were emerging as the most powerful faction on Planet. While not strong enough to single-handedly take on all the other factions combined, Cyborg military might was certainly more than a match for Santiago’s troops.
    Santiago turned all these things over in her mind as she walked alone along a deserted corridor in the far reaches of Sparta Command. Did she dare to openly declare war against the Consciousness? She knew that Aki Zeta-5 had the backing of many of the other factions, including the powerful Data Angels and the UN Peacekeepers, but would any of the other factions actually help Aki Zeta-5 repulse an offensive?
    Slowly, her cold smile broadened as she realised the simple answer.
    What is easier to deal with than a united enemy? A united enemy whose every movement you already know...

    * * * * *

    Rachelle Alpha-Four sighed in contentment as the hot water cascaded over her. She had just spent a long, hard day teaching the rudiments of Centauri Meditation to prospective Data Angel Empathi, and right now this shower was everything she needed.
    In the next room over, she could sense Deanna Nu-Eight preparing for the sleep cycle, and on the other side she could feel the comforting presence of their bodyguard, Iain Rho-Seven, as he settled down for the night.
    Safe in the knowledge that both her fellow Cyborgs were near her, she deactivated the shower, dried herself thoroughly and donned her long, flowing white gown which she always wore in diplomatic missions.
    Not feeling like sleep just yet, Rachelle walked over to the window and looked out at the incredible vista. The Sprawl had not yet lived up to its name, and the surrounding areas of Planet were reasonably unspoilt.
    The soft light of Alpha Centauri B washed over the landscape, causing the xenofields to burn with a subdued red fire. In the distance, the lights of Data DeCentral lit the horizon with a muted glow, and the carpet of forest waved gently in the breeze.
    She closed her eyes and opened her mind to Planet, as her Empath tutors had taught her, and also to the Consciousness. The pulsing background thrum of Planet’s massive neural net was echoed by the collective heartbeat of the living Consciousness.
    Softly, Rachelle began to sing, a song of empathy with Planet that she had learned from her Empath tutors.

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  • Clear Skies
    replied
    "Not enough time...never enough time...algorithms...there must be something in the algorithms...Aki Zeta-5...strength is togetherness...unity...must have unity..."
    Slowly, Sheng-ji Yang (was that his name? He couldn’t remember clearly) sank to his knees, one hand steadying himself against his desk. From the viewscreen, his aide...Portia, wasn’t it?...was asking him anxiously if he was all right.
    He raised his head, then was forced to lower it again as his eyes blurred and defocused. He couldn’t think straight, couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t do anything...
    His knees gave way, his head hit the floor with a dull thud, and he slipped into the dark waters of unconsciousness...

    "Yes!"
    Lady Deirdre looked on as her Empathi began to cheer and stamp. Their plan had finally come to fruition. They were using their empathic talents to confuse Yang’s defenders, panic his citizens and, most importantly of all, reduce Yang himself to unconsciousness.
    That had been the hardest part. Yang’s mental defences were considerable, walls which had to be broken down before the assault could continue. However, eventually the final barrier had been pushed aside, and her Empathi had begun their attack. It was the work of but a few minutes to confuse and dull Yang’s thinking, and after that it was a simple task to dampen his mental functioning enough to force him into insensibility.
    It wouldn’t last forever, but it would last long enough to severely alarm Yang’s subordinates and throw off any plans for strengthening the defences of The Hive, long enough for the Consciousness to overwhelm the defenders and capture Yang’s headquarters.
    Deirdre stood, and activated the microphone in front of her. She didn’t have a speech prepared, but they so obviously wanted some encouraging and congratulatory words from their leader.
    "My Empathi, I congratulate you on the success of your efforts. If our allies are indeed able to seize The Hive, we will have dealt a severe blow to Yang and his minions. We must always remember that, pacifists though we are, we must be ready to defend ourselves against the insurgency of those who would rape and despoil Planet. Yang was such a one, and even now our allies the Cybernetic Consciousness are conducting a successful military campaign to neutralise the Hive threat and liberate those poor oppressed people from Yang’s control."
    She took a deep breath, and continued.
    "I knew Yang for but a short time, during the period directly after the Unity disaster. Back then he was Chief of Security, while I was a lowly botanist under the command of Prokhor Zakharov. Now he has become our greatest enemy, and we must do what we can to preserve both our way of life and our link with Planet.
    If that means that we must take up arms to defend our cause, then so be it. Let it never be said that a member of the Gaian Federation was afraid to fight to defend their principles."
    A massive cheer went up from the gathered Empathi. Lady Deirdre sketched a bow and sat down, emotionally drained by the passion that she had put into her speech. With determination this strong, and such resolute people behind her, she felt she could achieve anything...

    * * * * *

    "Talent Rachelle Williams, do you have any further questions about the Cybernetic Consciousness?"
    And the incredible thing was, she hadn't. Aki Zeta-5 had anticipated her questions at every turn. She had been shown the massive uplink networks which kept every mind in the Consciousness linked to every other mind, the enormous databanks where backups of the Consciousness were kept, and many other wonders of engineering and computing which kept the Consciousness together.
    "You have shown me everything which I wished to see, and more. And now, Prime Function Aki Zeta-5, I would like to give you something in return."
    The Prime Function's face lit up, and she leant forward to better hear Rachelle's next words.
    "I would like to become a member of your Consciousness."
    In Aki's eyes she could see elation. She plunged onward.
    "As diplomatic aide to Lady Deirdre, I have been to many places and met many faction leaders.
    I met Academician Prokhor Zakharov, and. I saw a hunted, driven man, desperately seeking an answer to unanswerable questions, trying frantically to escape his own mortality.
    I met Commissioner Pravin Lal, and I saw a man whose profound love of humanity and protectiveness of human rights crippled him at every turn. While his morals and ethics are laudable, he spends too much of his time interpreting and enforcing the UN Charter, and his society is stagnating around him.
    I met Sister Miriam Godwinson, and I saw a woman who could have single-handedly led this mission to unified success on Planetsurface, were it not for her intense devotion to her faith. Her charisma alone could have held the mission together when it was fragmenting high above Planet, but instead she chose to walk the path of God, and pays the daily price that He demands.
    I met Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, and I saw a man whose desire for a Utopian society overrode any concerns for the welfare of his people or for their democratic rights. His social experimentation, for all his good intentions, is sick and twisted and completely indefensible.
    I met CEO Nwabudike Morgan, and I saw a man who loves and cherishes wealth above all things. Yet how would he fare if trade and commerce dissipated tomorrow? What if society finally evolves to that higher plane where material things have no significance?
    I met Colonel Corazon Santiago, and I saw a soldier fighting a thousand needless wars. Survivalism has no place on Planet, where all should be allowed to live in peace and harmony with one another, not brainwashed into fighting crusades against all who oppose them.
    I met Datatech Sinder Roze, and I saw a woman whose love of anarchy and devotion to covert operations blinds her daily to the realities around her. For her, the virtual world is fast becoming the real world, and the day may come when she retreats into that world completely.
    I met Captain Ulrik Svensgaard, and I saw a man who lost everything he had, and who now erroneously believes he can find it again in the oceans. His unswerving ardour for his precious waters overrides all else.
    I met Foreman Domai, and I saw a man whose dedication to his people leads him to treat them as eggshells, that they may break if they are dropped. His suspicion of knowledge and scientific progress is crippling his society, and his industrial efforts simply turn Planet against him.
    I met Prophet Cha Dawn, and I saw a young boy whose empathic talents gave him an inflated sense of self-importance and led him to believe that he is Planet's chosen emissary to the people. His ideology is contradictory - on his quest to wipe the blight that he calls humanity from the face of Planet, he is himself defacing Planet's surface daily with more and more strip-mines and boreholes.
    I even met Caretaker Lular H'minee and Usurper Judaa Marr, and I saw the last few members of a race which tore itself apart over the results of a single experiment. Their technology could have been used to incredible ends, but now it has been used to construct terrible weapons which they daily use to decimate their own kind.
    Even my leader, Lady Deirdre, is not without her faults. Her commitment to keeping Planet pristine and pure is exemplary, but her pacifism is her undoing. She is not prepared to fight for what she believes in, and I believe that will be her downfall.
    And then, Prime Function, I met you, and I saw in you a convergence of two worlds, the natural and the technological, and I saw the product - a woman whose only goals are enlightenment and rationality. Your logical progression fascinates me, and I applaud your quest for knowledge.
    And to further those ends, I would like to join you."

    "Prime Function."
    The voice was not far above a whisper, but still clearly audible in the hushed stillness of Alpha Prime’s main hall. Rachelle and the Prime Function had been driven there in record time by their chauffeur, and now preparations were fully underway for her Initiation.
    She had been told she was very lucky. The Prime Function hadn’t personally supervised an Initiation for at least a year. The last one had been when Colonel Santiago’s second-in-command, General Garin Leyla, had petitioned to join the Consciousness.
    "Prime Function."
    The voice came again, a low whisper, sounding as though the speaker was almost embarrassed to disturb the silence.
    Aki Zeta-5 turned her head and nodded at the aide who had spoken to continue.
    "The Lady’s quarters are ready for her, if she would care to proceed to them. Level 5, section 6, sub-block 2."

    To call Rachelle’s quarters opulent would have been to miss a perfect opportunity to call them palatial. Every comfort and convenience invented by humankind in all their years of civilisation were represented here, from a thick, luscious cerise carpet all the way through to state-of-the-art information facilities, including news from all over Planet. All this, apparently, was to make her feel at ease, for conducting an Initiation when the subject was tense or anxious was difficult at best.
    She took a luxurious, lengthy bath, and then occupied herself by perusing the news reports filing in over the networks. Colonel Santiago's position at the head of the Spartan military junta was becoming more and more precarious; the Progenitor war was edging towards its ultimate conclusion; CEO Morgan had fled Morgan Industries after the Nautilus Pirates came dangerously close to overthrowing him; Nettap Complex had revolted against the Data Angels and proclaimed itself part of the Free
    Drone Empire.
    Suddenly her eye was caught by a small article, way down the list. She scrolled down, then magnified.
    ‘Chairman Sheng-ji Yang's representatives today refused to make a formal apology for the Hive’s complete obliteration of Last Rose of Summer. Lady Deirdre has denounced the Hive as ‘ruthless, evil barbarians’ and has mobilised her troops against Chairman Yang. The other factions have all imposed strict economic sanctions on the Hive, cutting off all trade and commerce. Prime Function Aki Zeta-5 of the Cybernetic Consciousness and Commissioner Pravin Lal of the UN Peacekeepers went even further, declaring official Vendetta upon the Hive, citing an alliance and the UN Charter as respective reasons for their course of action.
    Since his collapse two days ago, the Chairman's physical condition has caused his aides constant concern. His lapse into unconsciousness has no medical explanation. He has been treated with all the latest stimulants, but so far he has not responded to treatment. His doctor, David Mendel- Waren, gave us this statement:
    "We believe that the only remaining explanation of the Chairman's condition is empathic neurosuppression. We also believe that the perpetrator of this atrocity is the Gaian Federation."
    Lady Deirdre Skye was quick to refute the doctor's statement, saying,
    "The Gaians are doing nothing but responding to the Hive’s aggression with assertiveness. We do not intend to be cowed by Yang's posturing, and we will fight for what we know to be right."
    In the Chairman’s absence, his two chief aides, Portia and Sonia Krakowski, are supervising the running of the Hive. However, Consciousness troops are continuing to capture more and more bases from the Hive, and it is the opinion of many that Chairman Yang and his followers may not last long.’

    Her anger, when it came, boiled over in one long scream of rage. How dare Yang refuse to apologise! She had lost everything when his troops destroyed Last Rose of Summer - family, friends, colleagues, everything! Nothing had been left to her - and that, she was coming to suspect, had been one of the reasons why she had been so quick to make her decision to join the Consciousness.
    That supercilious...she couldn't even think of a word bad enough to describe Yang!
    Still fuming, she called up the datafiles on Portia and Sonia Krakowski.
    ‘Portia Krakowski, born 3rd June, 2038 in New Warsaw, chief aide to Chairman Sheng-ji Yang. Former Governor of People's Teeming until its capture by Consciousness forces. Now believed to be joint Regent of the Hive in the continued absence of Chairman Yang.
    Sonia Krakowski, born 3rd June, 2038 in New Warsaw, chief aide to Chairman Sheng-ji Yang. Former Governor of The Colony until its capture by Consciousness forces. Now believed to be joint Regent of the Hive in the continued absence of Chairman Yang.’
    Identical twins, both born twenty-two years before the Unity mission. Originally assigned to Prokhor Zakharov’s science team, then defected to Chairman Yang’s landing pod in their pursuit of the perfect life.
    Rachelle turned her head away in disgust, bile rising from her stomach. She had known them. At one of the diplomatic banquets held in Gaia’s Landing, ambassadors from every faction (excluding the Progenitors, of course) had thrown their differences away, for one short night, and come together in one room for the first time in decades.
    She remembered that night well. She had sat with them on her right hand side, and her leader Lady Deirdre Skye upon her left, at the head of the table. The two - she almost called them girls, but then realised that they were several times older than she was - had laughed and joked and behaved exactly as everyone expected two twenty-year-old girls to behave, given that they were in honoured company, of course.
    But Rachelle’s empathic talents, coupled with her keen powers of observation, had told her more. Behind the laughing, convivial facade, two hearts beat, as cold as the deepest depths of midnight space. Two scheming minds plotted and planned their way to power, with no thought for those who stood in their way.
    She had been disgusted. You could see their eyes snapping and darting in their faces as they smiled, taking in every nuance, every detail, anything that might be of use to their leader. She couldn’t help but be impressed at their deception, but the idea still left her sick to her stomach - they had seemed so genuine, so ordinary.
    Now they were the Gaians’ greatest enemies...

    "Run!"
    The fear twisted deep in Lady Deirdre’s stomach, writhing and contorting like a tortured mindworm. Aki wasn’t fast enough...
    Precise as the Consciousness attacks had been, they hadn’t been fast enough. The first wave of Yang’s troops had escaped destruction, and were now looting and pillaging Gaia’s Landing, the closest Gaian base to the Hive border. There were simply too many of them, and the Gaian defenders had been driven further and further back into the base. Though their photon wall armour was a match for the Hive missiles, they had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of Hive attackers, and now the last few citizens were being evacuated from Gaia’s Landing.
    Lady Deirdre, dressed in green-and-brown battle fatigues, leaned gracefully around the corner of a building and took a shot at a Hive soldier who was wielding a vibro-saw and laughing maniacally. He went down, his laughter now changed to screams of pain, his shoulder reduced to shreds by the Lady’s shredder pistol.
    At least we got most of our people out, thought Deirdre. It had been a close call. The enemy had managed to surround the base of the main tower, and they had been hard-pressed to fight their way out. However, her valiant defenders had managed to screen the civilians from the assault and most had got away in the prepared scout rovers. Now only a few troops remained, desperately trying to hold back the onslaught as the last citizens made their way through the streets to the rover fleet.
    "Lady Deirdre!"
    It was Lindly, her favourite Talent since Rachelle had gone missing. Her mindworm boil had been obliterated by the Hive, but luckily Lindly had been able to break the psi link before the worms’ mental death shrieks had reduced her brain to madness.
    "Please, you must get to the rovers. We may not get another chance. They almost have us surrounded!"
    Deirdre looked at Lindly, her eyes ranging sadly over her Talent’s countenance. Her long brown hair was caked with mud, her face was streaked with blood, and her clothing was ripped and torn where shrapnel had slashed through it. Blood pumped from a gash on her left thigh, and she still bore the signs of mental anguish which came from the wrenching split with her mind worm boil.
    All that we can hope for is that our children never have to see these horrors, prayed Deirdre. Soon, very soon, Yang’s spectre will no longer hang over all our heads...
    She spun on the ball of her foot, and shot down a Hive soldier who had been creeping towards them. The woman shrieked aloud and dropped her missile launcher, which then exploded at her feet as the missile misfired.
    Both Lindly and Deirdre ducked as shrapnel screamed overhead, mud spattering down over them both.
    Deirdre caught hold of Lindly’s arm and began to run. Within a second, Lindly was pounding along beside her as they headed desperately for the one remaining rover.
    They gained the rover, slammed the door behind them, and kicked it into gear. As it shot forward, gears protesting loudly, a missile impacted at the exact spot where the two women had been standing only seconds ago.
    As Lindly wrestled with the rover’s wheel, frantically trying to get it under control, Deirdre gazed back at the burning wreck that had been her home for so many years.
    She slung her backpack onto the seat, opened a side pocket and took out a small white pine seedling, no more than a foot high, her last redemption from the ruins of Gaia’s Landing.
    Our hope will live again...

    * * * * *

    "Peace."
    The word rolled out into the hall of Alpha Prime, amplified a hundred times by the system of carefully concealed microphones and speakers. Silence began to spread in its wake, flowing like a tide throughout the room.
    Rachelle stepped forward, as she had been instructed. Her single implant rested against her skin, cool metal on flesh. She'd been told that she only needed the one implant - technological advances had made the five sported by Aki Zeta-5 a thing of the past. They had situated it high on her forehead, where it could be covered by a simple restyling of her hair.
    She was partly anxious, partly afraid, but mostly exhilarated. Catching herself, she reminded herself of the importance of emotional detachment, and reached inside herself for the calm centre that her Empath tutors had taught her to touch...
    There, she thought, as she felt tranquillity flood through her body. I am ready.
    "Peace," said Aki Zeta-5 again. "We are here to witness the Initiation of another into our number. Let the ceremony begin."
    Short and sweet, thought Rachelle. That’s the way they work, though...
    Aki Zeta-5 stepped forward, wearing a simple white gown and holding her head high, the silver implants gleaming in the subdued light.
    "There is no war, only peace."
    A thousand voices echoed, There is no war, only peace.
    "There is no fear, only peace."
    Again the tide of responses, There is no fear, only peace.
    "There is no hunger, no pain, no loneliness; no anger, no division, no hate; there is only peace."
    The shells faithfully echoed her words.
    "Our ultimate goals: logic, rationality, and knowledge, but above all things knowledge. For knowledge is the lifeblood of human civilisation, the cornerstone upon which we build everything."
    Knowledge... they responded.
    Rachelle walked forward again, and spread her arms above her head. The microphone concealed in the folds of her dress picked up her voice and amplified it, spreading her words throughout the hall.

    Leave a comment:


  • Clear Skies
    started a topic Unity

    Unity

    I know I haven't written overly much since last time this was posted, but do bear with me, I will eventually get around to writing more.
    PS Apologies - haven't had time to HTML format it yet. Again, please bear with me.



    A thousand voices spoke as one
    The Consciousness reached out its hand
    And soon her sense of self was gone
    Had flown to never-never land

    The implants silver gleamed and shone
    A thousand voices spoke as one

    The upload ended - newly formed,
    The algorithm took her brain
    And left her helpless, raped and scorned
    Her mind was never seen again

    Of all her thoughts, they left her none
    A thousand voices spoke as one

    And now she serves the Consciousness
    A slave to Aki Zeta-5
    Where she is now, we cannot guess
    And is she even still alive?

    And when the Consciousness was done
    A thousand voices spoke as one


    The world turned lazily around her, sky and ground revolving slowly.
    She landed lightly on all fours and bounced to her feet, then threw herself sideways as the ground where she had been standing exploded with a gout of red and yellow flame.
    Dirt rained down on every side, covering her in a spattering of mud. Surprisingly, she didn’t feel afraid - the adrenaline surging through her body had dulled her response to such mundane things as fear and pain.
    Another missile scythed through the air above her, hissing like a vicious snake. She was conscious of another explosion as it detonated against the wall of the Children’s Crèche mere metres above her head, but her normal functions were being overrun by the sheer incandescent fury raging against the troops who were destroying her home.
    She dropped and rolled, trying to evade their line of fire, and at the same time making her way towards the scout rover which stood not far away, somehow incongruous, an island of peace amongst the carnage of war.
    Hive troops were flooding the streets of Last Rose of Summer, slaying all they met, whether opponents or innocents. Corpses littered the streets, their blood mingling with the rain to form a glutinous mud which clung to her feet and impeded her every move.
    Finally, she reached the rover. Wrenching the door open, she dropped inside and slammed it behind her, then started the engine with trembling fingers. The adrenaline let-down was beginning to set in. She kicked the engine into gear and shot off. She didn’t know where she was going, or what she would do when she got there. All she knew was she had to get away.

    Not a kilometre down the road, three Consciousness rovers were speeding towards Last Rose of Summer. Already the extent of the destruction was incredible. Yang's people had been utterly ruthless, destroying anything and everything. The massive main tower of the base had been felled, and now lay in ruins, the flames making hideous patterns of light and darkness on its regal trunk. The glow from the fires could be seen many miles away, suffusing the evening sky with an evil crimson and vermilion light.
    Suddenly, another rover roared out of the darkness, almost colliding with one of the Cybernetic rovers as it fishtailed around the road. There was an incredible noise of screeching tyres, so loud it sounded like a thousand fingernails being dragged across a blackboard, and then an almighty rending crash as rover met sensor station in a battle of metal.
    When the smoke had cleared, the Consciousness troops picked their way gingerly into the wreckage. There was no sign of a driver or passengers, and no indication as to their fate.
    From off to their left, there was the sound of a faint moaning. It lasted for a few seconds, sounding like the keening wail of a lost mind worm, and then silence.
    When they went to investigate, they found Gaian Talent and Empath Rachelle Williams, lying unconscious amongst the thinning stalks of xenofungus at the side of the road.
    By morning, she was already on her way to Iota Station, the closest Consciousness base...

    "No!"
    Aki Zeta-5's fist came down on her desk, crushing beneath it a tiny marble replica of a mind worm. She gazed for a second at the rich red blood dripping from her damaged hand; then her face seemed to ripple and its impassive sheen returned. She turned slowly back to the viewscreen to face her enemy, the one-time Unity Chief of Security, Chairman Sheng-ji Yang of the Human Hive.
    When she next spoke her voice had regained its calmness, but the damage had already been done. Aki Zeta-5's legendary glaze had shown a crack, just for that one brief second.
    "I cannot condone your course of action, Chairman. What you did to Lady Deirdre's people was brutal and utterly barbaric. These economic sanctions are just the beginning. Do not expect my troops to show any kind of mercy towards yours if we meet on the field of battle."
    The Chairman’s smile never wavered from his face, but behind it the muscles set like steel. His voice, when it came, was soft, but cold and completely emotionless.
    "Very well, Aki. If you still insist on standing by Lady Deirdre and her tree-crazy followers, then perhaps my Vendetta should extend to you also."
    The reply, when it came, was swift and sharp.
    "Do not try to threaten me, Chairman." The emphasis on his formal title was unmistakable, and it made his blood boil - this inhuman computer was mocking him!
    She spoke again, and he calmed his anger, channelled it, let it aid instead of hinder him.
    "You know as well as I do that I have powerful allies, whereas your continuous aggressive posturing has won you few friends. The Peacekeepers, Pirates, and Data Angels will all support me. Who do you have to rely on? Your faithful Believers? I think not!"
    The words that she spoke were the absolute truth, and Yang knew it. His alliance with Sister Miriam was more a marriage of convenience than a solid treaty of friendship. It allowed her to pursue her life of religious asceticism and him to continue his social experiments, with no irritating war to get in the way. However, despite the knowledge that her words were true, his pride was still inflamed.
    Control, he must control his feelings. Pride was useful in its way, as a tool to be used and thrown away when it was no longer needed, but not as a rampaging emotion that threatened to overwhelm his calmness.
    Still his rage against ‘Lady’ Deirdre threatened to overwhelm him. Ever since Deirdre had refused to give him her files on the art of Centauri Meditation, he had resolved to procure them by whatever means. When her defensive probe teams proved more than a match for his operatives, he began to mobilise his troops, meaning to take by force that which he could not take by subterfuge.
    Her reasons for refusing him had inflamed his anger still further - she had claimed that he would use the empathic talents that the meditation would bestow to wreak havoc upon the fragile Planetmind. Such accusations were boundless, and he would not stand for such defamation of his character! His only intentions were to use the art of meditation to help bind his people together into a greater whole, bringing him closer to achieving the Utopia of which he constantly dreamed.
    With an effort, he dragged himself back to the present. Taking a deep breath and concentrating, he strove desperately to match his opponent’s composure. His mouth opened, and the words that would decide his destiny and ultimately lead to his destruction escaped into the world.
    "Very well, Aki Zeta-5. If you will not heed my words, then from this day my Vendetta on Lady Deirdre extends to you. I will savour the day when my troops drag you kicking and screaming to my headquarters and throw you at my feet, where you will beg for mercy!"

    The screen faded to black, and the Chairman was gone.
    Aki Zeta-5 leaned back in her chair, relaxing muscles which she had tensed unconsciously in the exchange with Chairman Yang. This was going to be more difficult than anyone had predicted...
    Suddenly, her uplink implant activated. The words ‘Message incoming...’ blinked before her eyes, and then they melted into the face of a worried young Consciousness operative. Aki recognised her as Deanna Nu-8, a young shell assigned to a scout rover unit in Gaian territory, last known position...outskirts of Last Rose of Summer. The girl appeared agitated. She was sitting in the back seat of a rover, which was bumping around quite badly.
    "Prime Function, I apologise for disturbing you, but we reached Last Rose of Summer, and..."
    The ‘camera’ panned right until it was looking out of the rear window, taking in the horrific extent of the devastation. Aki blanched in horror, then recovered herself quickly - it would not do to show strong emotion to young operatives. She must remain calm, composed and rational. Inwardly, she thanked her symbiote, the Zeta-5 algorithm, for the calm it brought to the ruffled waters of her brain.
    "We believe that all have perished in the attack," Deanna Nu-8’s narrative continued. She sounded shaken, but in her voice Aki could just make out the edge of control given to all initiates by their algorithms.
    "However, one Talent at least has survived. She managed to commandeer a scout rover and almost collided with us in her headlong escape."
    The camera focused in on a woman, wrapped in a blanket, sitting shivering in the seat next to Deanna Nu-8.
    "Her name tag designates her Rachelle Williams, a member of the Gaian Empath schools. What are your orders, Prime Function?"

    Aki opened her eyes, cutting off the link momentarily. She then hesitated for a second. The Gaian Federation was collapsing, no longer able to protect itself against the continuous attacks by Chairman Yang’s troops. The Consciousness had already given them one base, on the opposite side of their territory, in order to preserve the Gaian civilisation, but they could not do much more. Anything that could be rescued from the wreck of the Gaian bases would doubtless prove valuable, and that included this Talent.
    An Empath too, her subroutines reminded her. There were precious few Empathi in the Consciousness these days. Ever since the Peacekeepers had built their Empath Guild, Lal had siphoned off the best and brightest. Many who went away to study at UN Headquarters didn’t return. Those who did were a bare few; those who didn’t usually relinquished their implants, had their subroutines removed and left the Consciousness forever. It was a difficult decision and an even more difficult procedure, but those who took that path were increasing in number at a depressing rate.
    All these musings took less than two seconds, her algorithm helping her thoughts pour through her mind as smoothly as oil spreading across wet ice. She reached a conclusion, closed her eyes, and was again in the rover near the outskirts of Last Rose of Summer. The transition was absolutely seamless - it was as though she simply flowed from one state to the other.
    "I have made my decision."

    Rachelle awoke, her head spinning. Right now it felt as though her body was here on Chiron, but her mind was somewhere orbiting Pholus, and it took a long time for the messages to go from one to the other.
    One message arriving with almost irritating speed and efficiency, however, was pain. Her entire body ached, scaling up to sharp stabbing pains every time she tried to move.
    Slowly, she opened her eyes, and was confronted by the sight of a face staring interestedly at her. She blanched, and tried to wriggle further into the depths of the rover, her body protesting every inch of the way.
    All too well did she recognise the shining silver implants around the head of her observer. She was a member of the Cybernetic Consciousness, good allies of the Gaians, but a mysterious, aloof and often-misunderstood race.
    Although the Gaian leadership had long since pledged friendship to the Consciousness, mistrust still reared its ugly head amongst the Gaian subjects. Here and there rumours told of people spirited away by the ‘Cyborgs’, to be forced to join their collective mind, to have all sense of self and all conscious volition forcibly removed from their bodies and to have it all replaced by computer programs.
    Rachelle’s parents had staunchly supported Lady Deirdre in all her dealings with the Consciousness, but her aunt, a superstitious woman, had often warned Rachelle away from them. One of her favourite songs was about the stealing away of souls by the Consciousness, and it began:
    A thousand voices spoke as one...

    Even as these thoughts were chasing each other through her head in a mad jumble, the Cyborg spoke. Its words were tainted with a strange sense of dualism, which was difficult for Rachelle to rationalise. It sounded as though two mouths were talking - no, it sounded as though two minds were talking with the same mouth. What would happen if the two minds disagreed, and tried to use the mouth for their own words?...She shuddered at the thought.
    "Hello. We...I am designated Deanna Nu-Eight, of the Cybernetic Consciousness. This," she indicated the man in the passenger seat, "is David Gamma-Nine, and this," indicating the woman driving the rover, "is Rayini Eta-Seven. We welcome you to our company, Talent Rachelle Williams."
    Rachelle cleared her throat and tried to speak. At first all she could manage was a hoarse croak, but then intelligible words started flowing.
    "Wh...where are you taking me?"
    Not exactly a classic first line, but it would have to do. The Cyborg thought (she found herself thinking ‘processed’) for a second, and then responded.
    "To Iota Station, our closest base."
    "Why?"
    Again the Cyborg seemed to be communicating with some inner being...or possibly determining how much information she actually needed to know. When the answer came, it was carefully composed.
    "So that you may experience our culture and learn more about us. Perhaps in time you will join us."
    Incredulity flooded through her, but also an almost childish sense of importance. She was wanted by the Consciousness. Her. No-one else. They had asked her, invited her.
    With an effort, she silenced the childlike voice which rejoiced inside her head, and tried to be objective. Was this an official invitation, a command, or simply, as the tone implied, a possibility?
    The Cyborg spoke again:
    "Our Prime Function, Aki Zeta-5, will be meeting you upon your arrival at Iota Station. She will demonstrate to you the finer points of our civilisation and generally show you what the Consciousness is all about." She smiled, the first expression Rachelle had seen her use. "Then, and only then, will you be asked if you wish to join the Consciousness. There will be no pressure, no commands, just your own personal choice."
    Half of Rachelle was warming to this odd, somehow comforting girl, but the other, more rational, half of her wasn’t so sure. That sounded like a propaganda speech for the Consciousness, and she still couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow something was speaking with the girl, forming the same words with her mouth.
    "And if I refuse?"
    The girl's expression suggested that she considered such refusal unlikely, to say the least, but her answer was civil.
    "Then you will be returned to your own people - if any of them actually remain by then."
    Rachelle's mouth opened for a caustic reply, but Deanna had spoken calmly and peacefully, with no hint of irony or sarcasm. Indeed, it seemed impossible that irony or sarcasm could cross those lips.
    There seemed nothing to do but sit back and await her arrival at Iota Station...

    "Fire!"
    Another volley of missiles screamed overhead, smashing into the perimeter defence, decimating it until nothing was left but a heap of twisted rubble.
    Cyborg troops strode forward into the base, legions of well-disciplined soldiers marching in perfect time. When they came to a building, squads would break off to secure it against the enemy.
    Hive defenders began to charge at them from all sides, firing wildly. They were cut down by Cyborgs with ruthless efficiency, the faces of the troops impassive throughout.
    Within the hour People's Teeming, Yang's second largest base, had fallen under Cybernetic control. Uplinks had been established throughout, and a thousand new shells were initiated into the Consciousness.

    * * * * *

    Their arrival at Iota Station was relatively uneventful. At 5 a.m. precisely their rover was met by the Prime Function’s personal limousine. There were few guards, Rachelle realised - far fewer than usually accompanied such an important figure. If Colonel Corazon Santiago, for example, were to process through the streets of Sparta Command, she would be surrounded by a cavalcade of armed escorts. Here there were simply a few Cyborgs carrying shredder pistols, and even those were fairly well concealed.
    Rachelle reached out with her empathic talents, and tried to focus on the Cyborgs around her to gauge their mood. Pushing aside the background thrum of Planet’s neural net as she had been taught, she reached out...
    What she felt shocked her. Instead of the rich tapestry of human emotion that she had always felt when at home in Last Rose of Summer, she felt a cool, clinical precision, an almost complete absence of emotion. Behind those deep eyes were minds with incredible intellectual capacity, amazing knowledge and an unbelievable aptitude for logical and rational thought, unfettered by human passion, unhindered by hate or fear or anxiety.
    Her single guard, a tall, flaxen-haired man whose implants gleamed in the morning light, opened the door to the Prime Function’s limousine, and she climbed in.
    She blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust from the bright morning sunshine to the subdued lighting inside the car.
    As her eyes slowly adapted to the change in light level, she could make out a single figure sitting across from her.
    Aki Zeta-5 leaned forward.
    "Welcome."

    * * * * *

    Chairman Yang was closer to losing his grip now than he ever had been before. Aki Zeta-5 had outmanoeuvred him! Only a few minutes after he had closed his commlink to her, hundreds of Consciousness troops had crossed the Hive borders and had begun decimating his armies. Whole columns of his best forces had been completely wiped off the map. Now the Cyborgs were conducting systematic surgical strikes against his largest bases, and had captured three already. Reports coming in told him that two more were under heavy attack and could not hold out much longer.
    The Chairman’s hands began to clench and unclench, a nervous habit that he thought he had broken himself of since before the Unity left Earth. Not now, not now! He hadn’t time for this now.
    He tapped a sequence of commands on his datapad, and the face of one of his aides appeared on the viewscreen in front of him. Portia Krakowski, looking exactly the same as she had the day he had first met her aboard the Unity. Twenty-two years old in face, many times that number in mind. The new longevity treatments were obviously working.
    "Yes, Chairman?"
    Her voice, so smooth, so melodic...he shook himself. This wasn’t like him at all. I must see a doctor, he reminded himself. But later. Right now I am needed here.
    "Portia, I need you to organise our defences here in The Hive. Recruit as many people as you can, train them quickly, and give them weaponry and armour. We will need all the help we can get."
    He pressed his hands to his temples, trying to collect his tattered mental faculties. Why was it suddenly so hard to think?
    "Station our defenders around the...perimeter defence. This base must not fall to the...the Consciousness..."
    His aide was startled to hear the Chairman begin a conversation with himself, mumbling and muttering almost unintelligibly. It sounded as though he was dangerously close to madness - could this really be the same Sheng-ji Yang who had commandeered a Unity escape pod and set out to construct a Utopia on Planetsurface?
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