"One minute to impact." The timbre of the voice was calm, dispassionate, belying the fact that Grid Society was facing the most serious threat it had seen in more than two million angts of recorded history.
Drone A27243, Dapsilon to his friends, knew his organic colleagues in the fleet scattered along this section of the galaxy's edge would be sweating, shedding scales, or exuding pus, according to their physiology. Their digits and tentacles would be twitching, hovering above buttons and triggers, ready to unleash awesome weaponry at the first sight of their foe. But to a war-drone, one minute was a long time to reflect.
Dapsilon's primary function was intel, to gain knowledge of the inbound threat and its weapons capability, and feed the data back to the Tla Beth War Council. Other drones in their millions had been deployed to combat -- correction -- to annihilate the enemy, presumed to be the Kalaheii, though there was no definitive confirmation, because everything in the storm-front's path had been obliterated before signals could be dispatched. And so he -- for he possessed male attributes compared to other drones considered female in orientation -- had been charged with one simple directive: inform.
But he was much more, a strategy drone, capable of matching a Tla Beth in poly-dimensional chess. He'd seen wonders, fought in many wars, often alongside Rangers. That had been his undoing. He'd been deemed 'contaminated' by close proximity with those reptiles, his neural nets biased by their unruly yet curiously efficient value structures. And so he'd been relegated to low-ranking tasks for the last millennium. But the hierarchy hadn't deleted his higher functions, and he was determined to think until the end, and to be creative if necessary. That was what he was good at.
Stop day-dreaming, he told himself, analyse! He considered the threat first -- the Kalaheii. The data was hard-coded in his permanent memory, now forty thousand angts old. The Progenitors of the Silverback galaxy -- where the drone currently sat -- were ancient, seven noble races more than a billion angts old, but they had not evolved there. They had come from the nearby Jannahi galaxy after the terrible thousand-angt war with the eighth race, the Kalaheii. Their original galaxy had been decimated by the Kalaheii's leader Qaroll when he realised he'd lost the War. And now the data concluded that descendants of this eighth race, presumed extinct, were rushing toward the Silverback's edge, traversing the inter-galactic void, in search of retribution. Only the higher levels of Grid Society had been alerted, to prevent widespread and futile panic. War was afoot.
Another drone intruded on his thoughts. "Drone A 27243 -- status update -- defence integrity secure?"
The digital signature of the message caused a core buffer swell, quickly rectified, but a memory string resonated and surfaced into his central core awareness. Sergeant Drone D46539: Delfina. A long time ago he had been teamed with her. It had been a tricky mission, involving the quelling of a rebellion following the discovery of cheating at one of the Games -- a ridiculous anachronistic tradition he had really expected to have been quashed long since. Together, they had developed a rare form of rapport, even for drones designed to be compatible. He had always felt that as a team they could handle anything.
Eventually, the Tla Beth had assigned them to different quadrants. Things like that happened. They were probably right. But now -- was it really her? The odds were astonishingly small, but the signature was unmistakable. His circuits hummed, their harmonics pulsing quietly in the background data noise. His CPU felt ... perfect symmetry.
He sent the corresponding defence integrity status codes, and then transmitted "Is that really you?" using a single channel squirt.
She didn't reply, of course. It was an inane question, and she was far too professional. But he knew that she had received his message, and the fact that she had not replied, not reprimanded him for unnecessary comms in an emergency situation, spoke volumes about how she felt about him. The Rangers had taught him too much about organics' feelings, had ruined his career progression, but he wouldn't want it any other way. Still, he knew he should get back to his analysis.
Dapsilon was not the only intel drone -- three hundred were speckled along the predicted intercept region. But his own defences verged on the extreme -- he was cocooned in a reinforced bubble inside a neutron star five parsecs inside the galaxy, sitting on top of a stabilised wormhole able to whisk him away in a matter of micro-seconds. Moreover, he was insta-connected to three back-up drones inside, respectively, a gas giant, a moon, and a small nebula.
Upon any intel whatsoever, such as visual image, confirmation of Kalaheii identity, first weapons volley, or attack formation, he was to get the hell out of there, slip-streaming data ahead of him. He was absolutely not to stay for the battle. He would do what he was told, or rather programmed. But there was a tinge of curiosity -- he wanted to stay and watch the Kalaheii smash into the galactic barrier and be destroyed.
"Thirty seconds. Energise shields, ready all weapons."
Comms traffic brimmed across the fleet, but nothing unexpected, so he let his lower processing shells deal with the checks and confirmation requests. He returned to his analysis. Defences: the galactic barrier and the void. The Galactic Barrier was a genius-engineered cosmic phenomenon, aimed at maintaining the integrity of the galaxy. If there was a need to resort to something as imprecise as a metaphor, then the barrier was a membrane, akin to the 'skin' of the simplest form of organic life, the amoeba. It stopped matter leaking out and, more importantly, prevented almost all dark energy seeping in. It was a repulsive force, devised by the ancients using equations of energy harmonics long since lost. The barrier itself had been forgotten until explorers attempted to leave the galaxy, their journeys ending catastrophically, said explorers becoming two-dimensional smears, molecular lamina flapping aimlessly inside the galactic edge.
Eventually -- several hundred thousand angts later -- ways out had been found, the most popular involving polarisation of a membrane weak spot, and careful insertion of a liquid-diamond stent, opened up using artificial black holes. But then there was another, more pernicious problem: the void itself.
Space was space, or so most organics thought. But space inside the galaxy had a density, counting space dust and EM clutter. The inter-galactic void was different. This was serious space. Nature might abhor a vacuum, but it was terrified of the void. The few ships that made it out there ... died. There was no other word for it. Organics, machines, hybrids -- all met the same fate, the life force or power source leached out of them by patches of dark space. And there was worse. A space faring creature known as the Xargylach, a space-whale, was thrown out into the void as an experiment, as bait. After a month, this normally peaceful, glacial-thinking leviathan suddenly thrashed and kicked and ... screamed. They say no one can hear you scream in space, but everyone heard this goliath scream, for light years around, courtesy of its low-grade telepathic mind. At first no one knew why it was so anxious, so a Ranger who had been tracking it hooked it up to a telepathic Bartran, and then the Ranger stuck his claw into the Bartran's mind-slot. He uttered two words before slipping into a terminal coma. Dark worms. The space-whale died, but when it was recovered, there were hideous scars on its hide: curving, wave-like ulcerations in its space-resistant silicate flesh. After that episode, further extra-galactic excursions were prohibited by the Tla Beth council.
"Ten seconds. Charge displacement capacitors. Arm black hole magnetic mines."
Dapsilon's surveillance channels told him the whole fleet was now in hyper-readiness, waiting just inside the barrier. The armada was the largest amassed in half a million angts, enough heavy weapons and armour to satiate a black hole, all directed at a sliver of empty space. He knew the organic commanders, including the legendary Q'Roth High Guard, would be straining their eyes and slits to see the approaching invasion force, but since it was travelling at near-light speed, it would not be visible until nano-seconds before it hit.
Delfina's message stopped his thinking in its tracks. She was taking a big risk sending this message. It meant two things -- she really cared, and she was scared, worried they were really in big trouble, that the Kalaheii would somehow break through and destroy them.
"You too, my love," he replied, knowing he was going way over the top. He reprimanded himself for such a cavalier attitude. He hoped no one would review the myriad communiqués after the battle.
Tactics. He knew at least one of their defence assumptions must be wrong -- the Kalaheii wouldn't spend all this time just to launch a suicide run. The Progenitors had made the inter-galactic voyage a billion angts earlier. For security reasons their mode of voyage had been classified to Level 15 access until recent events changed matters. The dark worms were not myth -- they killed many of the ancients en route, a process of attrition that bled away seventy per cent of the ancients' number during the million-plus angts voyage from the extinguished galaxy to this one.
The Progenitors had experienced first-hand the energy-leaching aspect of the void, and had countered it in two ways. The first was by adopting a minimal power output profile, with almost all ancients cocooned in stasis arks. The second counter-measure involved a ballistic approach -- they used dark energy, in ways no one below level 17 could fathom, to sling-shot towards the next galaxy. Their speed and low energy output prevented a fatal feeding frenzy by the dark worms, which would have created drag on the craft. If you lost momentum out in the void, it was all over.
As for breaching the galactic barrier from the outside, it was possible, but should take several angts just to overcome the repulsive force. There was nothing to anchor onto: it was like a swimmer with the shore in sight, struggling against the tide -- the void offered no purchase, nothing to push off from or hook onto to gain enough momentum to break through. So, if the Kalaheii arrived -- and the data definitely coalesced around that hypothesis -- then it should be easy to pick them off as they tried to breach the barrier. The most disturbing conundrum was that the Kalaheii probably knew all of this.
He took a few milliseconds to study the barrier. Though invisible to organics, to his sensors it looked like a shimmering, electrified wall crackling with hostility. How could they get through?
Fleet communication reached fever pitch, but he could still handle it lower down in his processing chain. He possessed a full cache of emotions, orchestrated to optimise his performance. He could have done without the fear, however. Surplus energy fluxed with uncomfortable resonances -- it would be recycled, naturally, but it kept him on edge.
To take his mind off the coming insurgency, he triple-checked his sensors and comms integrity status with the conduit, the wormhole, other drones ... and Delfina. He sent her a private recursive "handshake" algorithm, the equivalent of squeezing a human hand. She returned it. His circuits fizzed.
He became aware of an unannounced drop in comms traffic. In a nanosecond he checked the transpace conduit -- it was offline.
He didn't bother to check wormhole status, instead he initiated subversion, but it didn't work -- the wormhole had lost stability. His energy matrices ramped up to maximum. He tried contacting Delfina and other drones, but all channels were jammed by a hailstorm of sound and light across the entire EM and sub-spatial spectra. Just outside the barrier he saw what looked like a billowing cloud erupt and mushroom out of nowhere, engulfing everything, like an antibody enveloping another cell's membrane. The shimmering galactic barrier fluttered, flashed once, and then a savage tear split across it, letting the cloud flood inward, like a burst dam. His fear sub-routines went off-scale. Why wasn't anyone firing? His internal diagnostic system told him that thirty-nine lower intelligence levels had just been eviscerated. He'd auto-downloaded as much as he could. Time to get out! He shunted his core into the three back-up drones, just before his neutron star imploded inside the collapsing wormhole.
He awoke inside the shattered moon. The gas giant had been boiled away, the nebula ionised to intolerable levels, so he had no further boltholes. His external sensors scanned the area but had a hard time interpreting the data. Where am I? It was not logical. There were no stars. But there was plenty of debris all around, across a vast area: disabled drones and shredded hulls of the organics' ships. He was out in the void. He detected a faraway swirl of light and pattern-matched it -- definitely his galaxy. He triangulated with several other visible galaxies. He was fifty light years away. Stationary. He tried again to connect with Delfina, first using point access, then he went broadband, no longer caring who or what listened in. No reply.
What had happened? It had been so quick. He managed to link with fifteen other non-dead Alpha drones, to assimilate data.
"Why?" They asked, "what's the point?"
His agitation intensified. "Because it is our mission to understand!"
"Who can we tell? We're all going to die."
His electrons reached dangerous levels of excitation. He cursed their sub-optimal emotional responses. If Delfina was here, she would instil order into them. He would not let her death be in vain. "COMPLY!"
They did. Together they built a picture: not pretty, but impressive. The Kalaheii -- for it was confirmed now -- had used a poly-instantaneous-attack strategy. They had become visible as they slowed from near-light speed. What registered was, as his Ranger would say, a shitstorm of sun-sized meteorites. They smashed into the galactic barrier with such kinetic energy that it created a harmonic shock wave on the outer wall of the membrane, shattering conduits, wormholes, and most technology in the process -- the mother of all EM pulses. But that wasn't the clever part. Dark energy weapons had opened a micro-fissure in the Galactic Barrier -- while it had been pounded by meteorites, no one had noticed a syringe-sized funnel piercing it. The Kalaheii had used this portal to do something ingenious.
When the Kalaheii's ships had been slowed by the repulsive forces, they locked on through the fissure with grav-tech never seen before, latching onto every piece of matter just inside the galactic barrier -- the defensive armada of drones and ships -- and leap-frogged them, using their matter to pull their own ships forward and through the fracturing barrier, and at the same time catapulting the defensive force into the void, realising one of the universe's most basic axioms, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We've been played, he concluded -- they used our fear, knowing we would mount a massive defence force, which gave them an anchor to pull against. Clever bastards.
He noted that five of his brother drones were off-line. There were chaotic high-intensity squirts from de-compiling data matrices -- the drone equivalent of a primal scream. He knew what it was. It was the last piece of the puzzle. The Kalaheii hadn't merely evaded the dark worms -- they had somehow made them allies. Why? he wondered, as seven more of his co-drones stopped transmitting. The answer came all too readily from one of his tactical sub-servers: allies have overlapping goals; the Kalaheii are going to allow the dark worms into the galaxy. The perfect shock-troops, while the Kalaheii consolidate their forces, co-opting further allies. Even the Q'Roth armies wouldn't be able to stand against them.
The last of his co-drones went silent. His circuits told him his conjecture was ninety-nine per cent probable. But who could he tell? If he transmitted now, light years out from the Galactic edge, his information would be of no timely use. Something stirred in his memory banks. It was unorthodox, but he had no other options. He assembled a nine-dimensional intel squirt and opened an ancient transpatial frequency accessible by a data-plexer known colloquially as Hohash, if indeed any of these mythical info-warping machines still existed. It was not an official channel, but a Ranger had once confided it to him, saying that it was an ancient, last-ditch emergency channel. But what to transmit? Most of his data had been corrupted.
His external sensors picked up something -- in fact, an absence of space -- moving toward him in steady, spiralling, homing curves. He could not switch off his fear conditioning, no more than an animal could, even when fear served no useful survival purpose. He had to work fast.
He trawled through the data fragments. But he could only reliably send one transmission at this distance, even using subspace. Five more layers of his intelligence sheared off like gas boiling into space. He had fifty milliseconds left. He knew the only hope for galactic survival lay in finding and re-activating the last ancient Progenitor race known as the Kalarash, not heard from for over a million angts. Only they could stand up to the Kalaheii. What did he have that could rouse them? He accessed the very last fragment, number 78. It stunned him. One of his now defunct brother drones had intercepted a Kalaheii command communication during the maelstrom. It was a visual, showing an organic commander with a rippling face like a dying sun. Dapsilon had never been programmed to recognise something as subjective as 'evil', but he knew it when he saw it. There had been a single word decoded by the drone, a name: Qorall, the mythical leader of the Kalaheii. This, he knew, would get the Kalarash's attention. He encoded and transmitted. He hoped a Hohash still existed somewhere.
The remains of the moon sheltering his outer shell exploded. There was nothing more he could do; someone else would have to continue the struggle, his part was over. He initiated crash shutdown, it would be better that way. As his sentience faded, his thoughts were of Delfina. He condensed his memories of her, creating an electronic pastiche of her personality. The last thing he sensed was a huge mouth darker than black, yawning wide, but he had acted just in time.
As the mouth closed, a single micro-EM pulse escaped, racing away into the void, containing a complex memory string of two drones, entwined in a binary embrace.