The Shjinrende


Written by Jonathan Hart

Copyright 2015


Two decades and change has passed since the death and destruction brought on by the planting of Joshua Harken’s creations. Five massive intelligent tree beings with tap roots sunk into the Earth’s magma mantle, and one horrible mistake called the Swarm which had nearly consumed the world. Histories have called it a catastrophe, a miracle, and a disruptive technological advancement. The insidious enemy had caused powerful nations to resist and attack the Trees, to try to remove the disruption, but the Trees had prevailed.

In those times there was only Siren, the submerged Tree of the Tonga trench, and Beowulf the Tree of Yellowstone. The Trees chose to use avatars to interact with humans, called their dryad forms. Siren took the form of a beautiful tree bark brown skinned maiden while Beowulf took the form of a towering muscle-bound hero. The later Trees were Shogun in Japan, Eden in Italy, and Eric in Iceland. Shogun and Eric took on serious business formal dryad forms with some local characteristics, and Eden took on the least human-like form. She appeared as a towering ethereal angelic being, complete with wings and flowing robes, floating through the cathedral-like halls within her Tree.

The effects of the Trees on the world didn’t end with the defeat of the Swarm. World economies were changed, the Trees provided a haven which could magnify all of the greatest of humanity’s endeavors while suppressing all of its worst impulses. With their tap roots granting them access to near unlimited geothermal energy and elemental resources, the Trees were each capable of sheltering and feeding over a million residents, while still providing aid to non-residents. A new renaissance began, The Five Trees were like five hearts pumping new life into the world. New technologies and art flowed from them, enriching their home nations.

Many parts of the world were left out or ignored by this Renaissance, however. Nations that were isolated from the Trees due to sanctions, policy, or geography found their citizens falling in love with Arboreal technologies and cultures. In an attempt to preserve their own cultures, several of these nations took on Xenophobic policies, trying to suppress the outside influence.

Other nations tried to compete. Russia, China, and several other nations in Asia formed a financial and military union, the Asiatic Union (AU). They worked jointly to invest heavily into nuclear energy research. They incorporated recent advancements in robotics to manipulate the dangerous radioactive materials in ways that could never have been accomplished manually. They constructed incredible power plants, that are completely self-maintaining with no on-site human personnel. By removing the human element, the plants could be constructed at a fraction of the cost, because none of the design safety measures used to protect humans were needed. The Asiatic Union Autonomous Atomic Program, it was called.

Their research continued, focusing on recycling of the waste materials from the power plants. They developed ultra long lasting sealed atomic power cells. Each cell could produce electric power levels similar to a car battery continuously for thousands of years, theoretically, with the drawback that each cell’s radiation shielding weighed a little over a ton. The shielded cells had little use in mobile applications where weight is key, but they provided invaluable reliability to stationary electrical systems. A modified version of the cells was also found to be incredibly useful within the autonomous nuclear plants and radioactive factories. The AAP robots did not require the same level of shielding required for human safety, so they could be powered by striped down, lightweight versions of the cells, as long as their more delicate electronics were kept shielded.

The advancements in robotics spilled over into every aspect of life in the AU, revitalizing and strengthening their economies. With the robotic workers taking on the hard labor, communism made a strong comeback. Every citizen was granted equal rights and shares over the bounty produced by the tireless machines, and the AU reinvested the bounty into higher education for the people, creating the largest concentrations of educated people that the world had ever known. These brilliant newcomers were advancing the cultures of this super power block to match or exceed even some of the Tree nations.

Robert and Kate Harken, the original planters of the first Tree had had a son. He was named Regal Harken and had been raised by them in their home within the tree. His childhood was blessed and he was mostly beloved, except for the occasional spat with other children calling him “the little Prince” and the like due to his parent’s stations. As his mind opened up in adolescence, it turned toward scientific thought. Regal was gifted with an incredibly bright mind. Often reminding Robert of his lost brother, Joshua. He became actively involved in some of the University of Arboria’s academic programs at an early age, and he learned quickly from his home tree’s university. But there was a dark side to his quest for knowledge, the forbidden question, “How did Beowulf work?” haunted his thoughts. No matter how he asked, Beowulf was forbidden to answer due to some unknown control mechanism. Regal’s curiosity became an obsession, he began to study the tree, the Swarm, and everything about his uncle that he could discover.

From the start, Robert, Kate, and Beowulf had roughly dissuaded anyone from following down the path Regal had set on, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it to their beloved child. Instead they tried to convince him that finding out was impossible. But Regal couldn’t let it go, he knew that his uncle had been a man just as he would be, and would only have had tools far simpler than Regal himself had access to within the Tree. Regal requested lab space and resources to begin to try to recreate his uncle’s work, but Beowulf and his parent’s denied him. Regal would not relent and Beowulf could not relent. So Regal turned to outside universities and researchers. All of his requests to the other Trees were denied, for the same reason Beowulf could not help. Other universities did not want to become involved in the research in order to maintain good standing with the trees. Eventually, Regal found a place as a student and research assistant at a booming Chinese University that was famous for research into artificial intelligence applications. He left his home and his conflicted parents the year of his eighteenth birthday. Despite their differences, he made occasional contact through a comm sphere that had mysteriously appeared in his dormitory one morning. Regal graduated successfully and took a job as a research scientist working on artificial intelligence.

Not long after Regal left Beowulf, Theo Rigby, administrator of the Tonga submarine Tree, Siren, became ill. It was cancer, and by the time the illness had progressed to the point where it had done him noticeable harm, it was massively metastasized. Siren promised that she could heal him, that she could perform microscopic surgeries simultaneously throughout his body. Theo refused the treatment. Siren begged and wept, and called on the Harkens to help her convince him. They tried, but Theo remained obstinate. He had done his good works, he said, and if it was his time, so be it. Siren was out of options, she could not disobey his order. She went back to the Harkens, this time begging them to kidnap Theo and take him to Beowulf, where he could be forcibly treated. The Harkens and Beowulf refused. Theo succumbed to the disease, and Siren mourned. After several long months, she reestablished contact with the other trees, with Morgan Atuafago as her administrator. Her appearance had changed from the beautiful seductive dryad to an armored goddess with a white streak through her hair.

Chapter 1

Uncanny Valley

The light of a computer screen illuminated Regal Harken’s intent face in the otherwise darkened, empty lab space. He stared at the code on his computer screen, flicking through hundreds of pages of it, searching for something without knowing precisely what it was. The code drove his newest creation, the current central focus of his life. The Shjinrende, he was calling it. The new man. It was to be the first of a new line of AI’s which could match and/or exceed the intelligence of a human.

Regal felt a sort of anxiety. It was the anxiety of tireless hours already spent without the satisfaction of completion, without the reward. It was the anxiety that asks, “Is more time spent on this necessary? Isn’t it good enough? Will the extra work matter?” It was the anxiety of a mortal, the anxiety that knew that more time spent working was less time spent enjoying the rewards.

Still, Regal felt that there was something missing from the code, something which, Regal believed, kept them from thinking like real humans. The testing they had already done showed promising results, and the robots could be made to fool humans in his Turing test about forty percent of the time. But Regal sensed something was off, something was wrong.

It reminded him of the concept of the “uncanny valley” which described a phenomenon where a person’s first impression of a robot which has a nearly human appearance was very bad, worse than the first impressions of robots that only very crudely resembled humans. This had been explained to Regal as being caused by an innate aversion to falsity that humans seemed to be born with. The theory was that when the Homo-Sapiens species first appeared there were other very similar species occupying the earth at the same time. This aversion evolved to keep the Homo-Sapiens together in tribes of their own people, as opposed to mixing and interbreeding with the other species. It also kept the Sapiens from feeling too sorry when times were tough and a tribe of non-Sapiens had to be eliminated so that a Sapiens tribe could expand it’s resources. There were even some theories that went so far as to say that the “Uncanny valley” phenomenon is the fundamental source of racism.

The problem with the Shjinrende had nothing to do with appearance. The problem was that Regal could tell that there was something fundamentally different between the way the Shjinrende systems think and the way humans think, and it repulsed him. It caused him to distance himself from his test machines and keep them at arm’s length. His relationships with the prototypes weren’t at all what he’d imagined they’d be as he’d spent days in front of a computer churning out the code which would make them as close to human as he could manage. He had thought that he would see them as child-like, and he had tried treating them as such in his interactions with them at first, but the feeling had faded. He felt no attachment to them, no sympathy. Part of it, he suspected, was that he had done his job too well. The Shjinrende brains came preloaded with a sort of adult maturity. The Shjinrende intelligence consisted of a network of memory assisted feedback control systems, similar to a human’s, but, unlike humans, the network parameters were all pre-written and pre-set by Regal’s programming. The human brain, on the other hand, grows along with the body. At first, a baby can’t walk or even crawl. It learns to crawl when it’s body becomes strong enough, then it learns to fine tune the control of ever stronger muscles with balance feedback from the ears, allowing the child to stand. Then it walks, then it runs, and the brain continues to grow and tune those movements as the child’s body changes and grows through to adulthood. The Shjinrende didn’t have that growing process and Regal suspected that that difference was what was causing them to seem less human to him.

When looking at the project as a whole, and everything else that he had accomplished, it seemed like such a small thing. He had been able to teach a Shjinrende to sing, even to dance, but here he sat, still trying to find a way to solve this seemingly minor issue. But what if it wasn’t small, what if other humans would all end up feeling the same repulsion Regal did? First impressions were important and lasting, and if a Shjinrende’s coworker or boss decided it was just a jumped up toaster on their first meeting, than that is what they would think of all Shjinrende, and it could cause that person to be prejudiced against robots for a long time afterwards, even if later models improved. That, Regal knew, could hurt the units’ utility in the long term. It would be like creating an offensive looking hammer. It would be as useful as a hammer, but people would choose not to make use of it. So he sat and stared at the screen, trying to come up with a way to give the Shjinrende a past, or at least the sense of an organically grown mind.

He knew of a way to produce what amounted to an organically grown artificial intelligence, but in his experience with that method in the past, results were unpredictable and time consuming. The basic method was to allow the AI to identify the need for and create its own feedback control circuits, letting it write its own code. The problem with an AI created this way was figuring out how to guide it into writing the code that the end user needed it to have. Regal remembered one experiment where he’d taken such an AI and then attached camera sensors to it, allowing it to see. The AI had immediately disabled the cameras to conserve its valuable power. It had never been able to see before and knew of no reason why it should need to see, and so, it had turned off its eyes. It had taken weeks to come up with a way to get the AI to decide to keep its cameras on. The time it would take to do that kind of research eliminated it as an option for the Shjinrende system. Regal simply could not spend the decade or so necessary to develop a way to train robots to train themselves to think.

Regal had designed many machines with various levels of intelligence since he had come to the Asiatic Union to study eight years ago, searching for a way to understand or recreate his lost uncle’s work, those great Trees. The study of Artificial Intelligence and robotics had seemed the natural path to take on the way towards that ultimate goal. This system would be different though, well beyond his past accomplishments, and the project had attracted official attention from the AU’s Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme, the Autonomous Atomic Program.

In the past when one of Regal’s works was of interest to them, the AAP had sent an official notice requiring immediate duplication of all research related to the device or code in question. Regal sent them the files in accordance with the instructions, and he would never hear any more about it. The AAP’s work was considered critical to the AU’s security and was therefore kept confidential, especially from an immigrant such as himself. If the AAP had made use of his past research, Regal would never know. This time had been different, though. They had sent letters before the completion of this work, carefully defining how, what, and to whom he could release information about the new AI system. Regal was somewhat flattered. They seemed anxious for his success.

Still aimlessly scrolling through the code, Regal came across the package of functions controlling the AI’s ability to distinguish between night and day, and the corresponding adjustments that it had to make for each of those two conditions. In his mind, he pictured the end result of the code, a rhythmic set of changes made by the AI each day, not unlike the opening and closing of a flower. His mind wandered back to the problems with organically grown AI’s and trying to keep them within set limitations. If he simply added genetic algorithms to the code, they would eventually rewrite the rules, and the AI would be out of control. Unless he limited the functions that the genetic algorithms had access to. If he locked the algorithms up within the functions controlling speech, prevented them from writing to permanent memory, and periodically resetting them to eliminate them from RAM, then they could add a sort of flavoring to the AI’s communications without affecting the system as a whole. He resolved to make and test the addition, it could mean a few more weeks of testing, but it would be worth it if it made the AI’s more relatable to humans. He started tapping in the new code.

Some time passed and there was a sound at the lab’s door, and hushed voices. Regal went on alert right away. No one else had ever come to the lab this late. “Dr. Harken?” A familiar voice called from the door. It was the lab’s director, Dr. Sui Jun. “Are you still here?” Dr. Sui Jun came into view flanked with two serious looking men in suits. Seeing him, the director, relaxed and smiled. “Dr. Harken, we’ve been looking for you. I couldn’t reach you at home. These men are from the AAP, they are here to assist with your transfer.”

Transfer?” Regal asked. Dr. Sui Jun’s smile slipped a little as if he had realized something, or confirmed a suspicion.

Yes, you will be working directly with the AAP, now.” He said, with a forced congratulatory tone. The men walked past him towards Regal.

Alexey Nikoleyavitch Formorov arrived at the sprawling Hefei Xinqiao International Airport late that same evening. Alexey normally enjoyed visiting China, mostly because it meant a break from the constantly stressful secretive politics of his work as new research projects leader for the Autonomous Atomic Program. It was a difficult position, Alexey lamented. He was always caught between pressure from his superiors to make use of newer, more advanced, but untested technologies, and the deadly fear of ever being caught making a mistake. This trip was a result of those pressures and that fear. He was in Hefei to retrieve a scientist, an ex-pat American named Regal Harken, and all of his research.

His superiors demanded the immediate use of the new technology this Harken was working on, but Alexey knew he wouldn’t be able to pass blame on to his staff scientists if the tech failed. They had grown too smart over the years to allow themselves to be set up as the face of the new project. They had seen too many of their predecessors dismissed for taking such a risk. Thus Alexey would bring in the American, who would be held to blame for his own work. It had not been easy to gain permission to give the American the necessary security clearances, but that would all be a part of Alexey’s backup plan. If the American was too successful, or unsuccessful, Alexey would affect a leak of a small amount of trivial information to AU intelligence agents posing as foreign spies in a way that would trace directly back to the Harken man. It would result in either his quick and speedy elimination or his forced deportation back to his Tree with minimal risk to Alexey.

Normally, they would just quietly execute any foreign born man accused of spying, but with Harken’s political ties, the AU might choose to show some restraint. This Harken man was the son of the administrator of the first of the great Trees, one of the two that shown the world how formidable the Trees truly could be. Therefore, the AU would likely make a big show of disappointment for the spying, and would deport and banish the man. This would allow them to hurt the reputation of a competitor without burning any of the bridges that the AU used for profitable business.

Alexey had phoned ahead to the local branch, and had had them send security agents to locate the Harken man. He had been found and held at his laboratory. AAP agents were packing up his files and computers for shipment to their research center. Alexey had been informed that the American was not in a congenial mood, but Alexey knew how to win people over. This Harken man lived alone and lived for his work, so Alexey reasoned that if they took his work hostage before it was complete, the man would go along to insure its completion.

He exited the small official transport jet at the attendant’s smiling beckoning. Outside, on the tarmac his official car was waiting to take him through the busy streets of Hefei’s densely populated Northwestern suburbs to the Hefei Institute of Advanced Intelligent Systems. Alexey was pleased to see that the car he had been provided was autonomous. It would mean that he could take the autonomous only expressway which meant arrival at his destination at break-neck speed.

On the other side of the world, the lights in their bedroom turned on early, and there was an urgent knock on the door and a voice through it. “Robert, Kate. It’s about Regal.” The Harkens started to wake up and shake the grogginess off.

What?” Robert asked stumbling to the door. Beowulf stood behind it with a grim face. The dryad had the appearance of an over-sized, muscle-bound man made out of living wood. He still wore scars and an eye patch that he had earned in his first epic battle with the Swarm. He could have easily healed them, but he kept them as a reminder. The dryad had also aged himself over the years, in step with Robert and Kate, except instead of white hair and wrinkles, the dryad took on some cracks and weathering. Robert thought it made the dryad look distinguished, much like his scars and white hair did for Robert.

Regal? What happened, Wolf?” Kate asked with a voice that was a little shrill with worry. The morning disarray of her hair, and her concerned expression combined to make her look distraught.

Beowulf’s voice took on a placating tone. “I don’t know what’s happened to Regal, but men came looking for Regal at his apartment earlier, and now they’ve got in and they are searching it.”

What do we have in the area?” Robert asked. He had helped organize his son’s secret retinue some years ago, but Robert didn’t trust his memory this early in the morning.

Three bugs at his building, and two of the Seed Grown in a park a few blocks away.” Beowulf was describing their drones in the area. The drones were purpose built living machines manufactured by Beowulf. The bugs took the form of large beetles and were used to observe and report situation intelligence back to the tree by communication with Wolf’s satellite drones. The Seed Grown were a modification of an older model drone, the dronent. Dronents were tree shaped drones that could hide in plain sight, and the military models included some artillery built into the drones’ trunks. The main drawback of the dronents was that they still needed to be deployed from the Tree fully grown. Beowulf’s favored ballistic deployment method had long since been figured out by the AU and other world powers and they were able to track any large scale deployment that he made. Therefore Wolf had devised a way to grow the dronents in situ from a small acorn sized seed. This seed could be delivered much more discreetly to its target destination than a drone the size of a full grown tree, but the drawback was growth time. When deployed in public areas, like the two stationed near Regal, the growth rate has to match the local flora to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Set a bug to follow these men, show us what you’ve already seen.” Robert said, gesturing to a screen on their bedroom wall. The dryad nodded, and the screen flickered on showing in double time a pair of formally dressed men accompanied by an older man with a large key ring enter Regal’s room. The older man was a property manager, Robert guessed, which made the other two some type of official agents or at least pretending to be. The pair turned the older man around and guided him back through the door and out into the hallway, closing the door behind him, and then beginning a methodical search of the room. They weren’t destroying anything, just unpacking, occasionally snapping pictures, and then putting things back where they came from. After about a half an hour, the video slowed and showed the pair in real time. They still had a lot of work to do if they were going to search the whole apartment.

What time is it over there?” Kate asked. “When does Regal usually get home from the lab?”

It’s now 7:15 pm there, Regal usually gets in around six, but he does randomly arrive home later, as late as ten or eleven.” Wolf said.

Alright, keep a close eye on the situation Wolf. We’ve got the Counsel meeting at 2 today to discuss the effects of the AU’s newest export tariffs on automatons, and I know we’ll have some pre-meetings ahead of it.” Robert said before heading to the bathroom. The Counsel was officially called the Council of the Five Trees, and it consisted of the dryads and administrators of the trees, and speakers from the United Nations. They only met like this when the UN passed a resolution that stated that a situation had arisen which could warrant the intervention of the Trees. In one way, at least, Robert missed the old days, when for a while he had been able to wield the power of Beowulf in any way that he deemed necessary. Now, since the the formation of the Counsel, the administrators of the Trees had agreed not to take any international action outside of each Tree’s protectorate nations, unless it was agreed to by the Counsel. What it all meant was, that if a drought occurred in Africa, and Robert wanted to send aid, he would have to put a call out to his protectorate nations to call for a UN meeting, get the UN to pass the resolution to call for a Counsel meeting, and then get the Counsel to agree to his intervention. The process was intended to be a hassle, and although it made certain humanitarian efforts more difficult, it had also prevented a few wars.

Under those same Counsel rules, their use of spy drones in Hefei to observe Regal had not been strictly legitimate, so they could not ask the other Trees for help, nor could they risk their spies being discovered by the AU. The truth was that their son might be on his own, even if they could track him down. The young man meant a lot to his parents, but they wouldn’t plunge the world into war in order to save him.

For many years the Counsel was the only organization with any real power left in the world, but that had all changed with the rise of the AU. China and Russia had held out from applying for status as Trees’ protectorates, choosing instead to remain independent nations. They saw some tough economic times until they finally decided to team up economically. At first it was just a financial agreement which gave the nations’ a shared currency and more muscle when negotiating trade agreements. Over the years the economic union became a full alliance, and other independent Asiatic nations had joined with them, often just to avoid being caught between the AU and the Tree protectorates. But the AU’s real power didn’t come until they embraced and combined robotic and atomic technologies. After that, the AU member nations saw massive booms in the outputs of all major industries: Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Raw materials. It was now estimated that the AU alone produced nearly one half of the world’s GDP.

The one thing that the AU was stingy about exporting was the robotic systems themselves. Their export was heavily and effectively taxed. So much so that Tree protectorate nations had to try and independently develop robots if they wanted to use the technology. Recently, the AU had developed a new way to make money with their machines. They were offering “robots as a service” which meant that protectorate nations could contract for robot labor, but the robots would all still be owned and operated by the AU. It was generating a lot of revenue for the AU, but it was causing unemployment in the protectorate nations. The AU’s latest action had been to raise the export taxes on robots to an intolerable level, in an attempt to force the use of the new “robots as a service” system. It was this new policy that had caused the UN to call a meeting of the Council.

Robert was so preoccupied with these thoughts that he almost ran into Kate on his way out of the bathroom. He decided to turn the awkward moment around and make it a brief hug with a comforting pat and rub. He thought of saying something comforting but it didn’t make much sense to him. Instead he just gazed into her eyes for a moment. Regal had chosen to leave their protection, he had known that other powers in the world could try to turn him into a tool against his parents, and in a way, that’s what he’d become. Regal was a tool for the AU, helping to develop and advance their technology, at the expense of the rest of the world. All because of his drive to emulate or surpass his uncle. Robert knew that he and Kate had come to accept the possibility of his loss the day he left Beowulf.

Kate reached a hand up and squeezed the flesh of his shoulder. “My turn for the bathroom.” She said and swung around him. He got dressed and got some coffee from their weathered old wooden butler, Woodward. Years ago, they had called him Woody, but as the Harkens took on their more serious jobs as parents and diplomats, a more distinguished name was required. “Robert?” The walls asked in Beowulf’s voice.

Yes, Wolf.”

Tetsuro and Shogun sent us a report of the projected effects of the AU’s new measures on his protectorate states while you slept, and Eden and Eric have sent requests for pre-meetings.” The disembodied voice told him.

I see, could you prepare print outs of Tetsuro’s notes and have them waiting for us in the command center? See if we can schedule an hour for Eden at 8 and another for Eric at 9.” Regal could be in danger, but the world had to come first.

Regal had done a good job of keeping outwardly cool, but the situation had him angry and afraid. The agents had not told him much, just that he would be transferred, and that their boss was coming to meet him. Regal had played along with the packing up of the lab, helping to direct them on which things to take, but when he had announced that he intended to leave for dinner and to go home and pack some things for the trip, the agents had insisted he stay and wait. After that, one of the agents had left briefly and returned with a third man that stood near the lab entrance. The situation was clear. Regal was under some form of arrest, but no one wanted it to look like an arrest.

Dr. Sui Jun had stayed for a while, and had argued against the removal of some of the equipment to no avail. He had left, stating that he had to inform the Institute’s board of the loss of the valuable equipment as soon as possible. Before leaving he had shaken Regal’s hand and had said “good bye” but his demeanor and body language had said “good luck.” Regal knew the man was powerless against the will of an organization like the AAP, but he was still taken aback that Sui Jun had tried to make the pointless gesture of trying to argue for equipment rather than for Regal. He supposed the director had calculated that the agents would not think well of him for defending the American scientist.

A new man had entered and was speaking a few words to the agent stationed at the door. The agent pointed towards Regal and the new man nodded and started towards him. He wore a more stylish suit than the security agents, it seemed an intentional way to set himself apart and above the other agents. Regal guessed he was Russian born. He had dark, loosely curled hair with a Victorian looking mustache. As he saw Regal watching him he put on an exasperated smile, and gave a little wave. When he reached speaking distance, Regal noticed a strong perfume smell. “Hello Mr. Harken, my name is Alexey Formorov, and I am usually the head of the Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme’s research branch, but tonight I am an errand boy, sent to retrieve research and attempt to recruit a brilliant scientist.” The man closed the remaining distance and extended his hand, seizing Regal’s as it reflexively came up to join the hand shake.

Mr. Formorov…” Regal began.

Alexey, please.” The man insisted, still grasping Regal’s hand and meeting his eyes.

…This has been exceedingly irregular. I’ve always cooperated with the AAP’s information requests in the past, but that was always after my work had been completed. Seizing my work now in its incomplete state could well be more trouble than it’s worth. Why not let me stay on here and complete the work? Then you can have it all as usual.” Regal explained. Inwardly, he did not expect his reasoning to succeed, but outwardly he spoke with confidence and assurance.

I know, I know this has been trouble for all of us.” Alexey consoled. “But we have learned about the magnitude of your discovery and all of its potential value to the people of the AU, and we must make sure that the rest of the project’s development is completed with the utmost discretion under our protection. We cannot risk losing such valuable research. Can I tell you something?” He asked, leaning in conspiratorially and lowering his voice. “I fear you might be right. We might have trouble completing your research without you. But I’m prepared to offer you a job working for us. The necessary security clearance has been pre-approved, and you would receive much better compensation for your time than you get working here. Best of all, you get to keep complete control over your project. Anything you say, goes. No questions. What do you say?”

Regal weighed his options for a moment, regretting that he’d said that the work would be difficult to complete without his help. It left him with little argument for not taking the job. He tried another approach, “The Institute counts on my research to help them secure funding, I’m needed here.”

Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ve already arranged things with the Institute. They agree that this new work is much more important for you. Come, you must be hungry. I know a place that I come to when I’m in Hefei, dim sum, it’s great. We will finish our discussion over dinner.” Alexey gestured towards the door, and Regal nodded and started off. He was definitely hungry. As they left the lab the agent at the door followed at their flank a few steps behind. Alexey had a fine black autonomous vehicle waiting for them. He opened the door and held it for Regal. The third man joined them in the back silently. The car started off on Alexey’s verbal command, and he proceeded to talk up the restaurant and the food. Regal feigned paying attention, nodding along, but he was preoccupied with concern over this as yet softly enforced conscription into the AAP.

What could he do? He could make some kind of scene or distraction at the restaurant and try to escape on foot. But what then? He knew he couldn’t go home, or escape the country or even Hefei through any form of mass transit. They would be watching everything. His only option would be to try to lay low in Hefei, essentially homeless. It was a bleak option. He couldn’t count on any help from his parents, because the comm sphere had been left back in his apartment, and that was the only secure means of communication he could use. He wouldn’t risk it. He would go along with the Russian, and hope for better opportunities to arise.

The dim sum really was excellent, though the company was distasteful. Nevertheless, Regal feigned congeniality throughout the meal. Alexey told long rambling stories, occasionally digressing to make a personal inquiry about Regal. He worked in questions regarding women, family, friends, hobbies. Anything which could have given Regal an excuse to stay in Hefei. Regal suspected that Alexey already knew the answers to these questions, and that Alexey was subtly trying to get Regal’s brain to convince itself that he should take the new job. He was likely a very persuasive man under normal circumstances, but Regal’s guard was up and he was analyzing the man’s words for any hints of threats.

Now, Mr. Harken, we have eaten, let us discuss the new position we have for you. You will get your own lab space with assistants, and state of the art equipment. We will provide with as many test platforms for your new AI as you wish, even the atomic models. What do you say, huh? There is nothing left for your here, come with me to Ozyorsk.” Alexey urged. Regal raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t known where they’d be going. Ozyorsk and the nearby Lake Karachay were some of the AAP’s big success stories. They’d come in with the robots, and cleaned up the nuclear waste that had been left in the area years ago. They had constructed an atomic battery factory there, reusing the site of a former spent atomic fuel reprocessing plant. He supposed it was as good a site as any for the AAP’s research facilities.

I’ll go, sir, I only ask that I be allowed to pack some of my things before we go.” Regal tried.

Nonsense!” Alexey responded excitedly. “My men will be sure to pack everything you will need. This is great news, a historic day for the AU, but we must get going. I have a plane waiting at the airport, and if we leave now, I can get to bed without waking my wife.” He stood and motioned to Regal to follow him. The security agent had been left outside. Alexey spoke to him before getting in the car. “We will be going straight to the airport. Call your men and let them know to pack Mr. Harken’s things for shipment as well.”

Alexey was awake and alert for the flight back to Ozyorsk. For Regal, the dim sum had been dinner, but for Alexey with the different time zones he’d crossed it had been a late lunch. So his new American scientist slept, and Alexey went to a private compartment in the rear of the jet to conduct what business he could from the air, arranging for their arrival. Alexey looked forward to exaggerating the heroic efforts he’d had to use to convince the American to join them to his peers and superiors within the AAP. It would serve many purposes, making him look committed to the cause and successful in the face of adversity. It would also help establish that Alexey had not known that the American had wanted access to the confidential information, if Alexey ever needed to dispose of Regal by exposing him as a spy. Alexey took pride in his ability to multitask.

After their morning meetings, Beowulf had brought Robert and Kate the news that the men in Regal’s apartment had switched from searching to packing things up. Robert tried not to think of all that that could mean, and ordered Wolf to make sure that one of the spy bugs got packed as well. It was an annoyingly pitiful effort, he knew, compared to the force Wolf could bring to bear. But a moments thought about the millions that could die if he broke the peace to rescue his son squashed that rash annoyance.

Robert and Kate were in the command center deep below the giant Tree in the tap root, somewhere within the stone beneath Yellowstone National Park. Years ago, it had been just the three of them, Robert, Kate, and Beowulf in the cavernous semicircular room lined with video screens and filled with workstations. Waging war against a monstrous enemy. Now, there were nearly a hundred busy people, assisting the Harkens and Beowulf by managing communities within the tree as well as Beowulf’s many protectorate nations. Most of the nations of the Americas had come into the fold with only a few hold outs in South America, and they all had representatives clamoring to speak with them ahead of the Counsel meeting this afternoon. Robert had scheduled a meeting with the big four: Mexico, the US, Brazil, and Canada. Followed by a larger meeting with representatives from all his protectorates in which he’d give a speech outlining their positions on the issues to be addressed by the Counsel.

Robert and Kate were studying Tetsuro’s notes. Shogun’s protectorates had all seen great rises in unemployement rates due to the AU automatons, but their net industry production had only increased enough to cover the expense for the machines. It was clear that if things weren’t changed, those nations would suffer greatly. “I don’t see it.” Kate said, shaking her head.

Hmm?” Robert hummed the question.

It’s clear that they are having trouble, but isn’t this also clearly a matter for these nation’s legislatures? They should ban the import and use of the automatons. How do they expect the Council to intervene?” She asked.

I’m not sure either. Perhaps they wanted to try and get everyone to act together, and the Council would be the best way to get their arguments heard by everyone.” Robert suggested.

Even if they did want united actions, shouldn’t that occur in the UN? There hasn’t been any precedent for asking the Council to intervene in the laws of the protectorate nations. I don’t think that’s the direction we want the Council to take, it interferes with protectorate’s sovereignty.” Kate said.

That’s true, if the Council went that far, it would greatly increase its power in the world. The Council would be like a combined Supreme Court and Supreme Executive, and that’s not what this is supposed to be.” Robert agreed. “It’s tough to reasonably argue against it, though. They will say that they are giving us the opportunity for us to increase our own power while preventing suffering, and our counter argument would be that they can easily prevent the suffering on their own and we don’t need any more power. Making that kind of argument would likely insure that an elected official never made it back into office for a second term. Good thing I’m not elected.”

Kate smiled at his impassioned agreement. “I’d vote for you.”

Sung Li had been ordered to start clearing his laboratory space for use by Alexey’s new acquisition, Regal Harken. Regal and Sung Li had been classmates back in Hefei, often competing for the highest marks in their shared classes. After graduation, Sung Li had been offered a position with the AAP for his achievements, while Regal had been passed over because he was a foreigner. It had been Sung Li that had tracked Regal’s postgraduate work, and he had flagged his research projects for seizure. In hindsight, he now regretted having spoken so well of the man to get permission to seize his research. It had likely contributed to Alexey’s new plan to bring Regal into the AAP.

Alexey was being a fool, he thought. The lab’s head was openly insulting Sung Li by taking his lab space and was taking the unheard of risk of bringing in a foreign born scientist. It wouldn’t do. Sung Li had resolved to make sure that this ploy of Alexey’s would back fire in the worst way possible. It was time for a newer, more progressive leader to take over, and Sung Li certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. So he had passed the order to clear the laboratory on to his lab techs and had spent the day, “catching up” with his research colleagues and other senior AAP officials on site. He talked about mundane matters, eventually bringing up Alexey’s new plan. “Have you heard about…?” Then he’d tell a few fabricated anecdotes from his school days with Regal. Unprovable stories about Regal’s tendency to “just barely” or “just in the nick of time” prevent disasters with various projects Sung Li had seen him work on. He made the implication that, although brilliant, Regal was perhaps a little reckless, hinting that his accomplishments had really only come about through good luck. He also told about their strong friendship, and his hopes that he and Regal could renew it after their enforced separation as their career paths had diverged. These subtle rumors would help to make sure that Sung Li’s destruction of the man would be believable. It would inconvenience him to have doubts or fears that sabotage might have occurred.

Sung Li had not worked out all of the details of his plan yet. There were still too many unknowns, but it would involve making sure that any demonstration of Regal’s work would fail, disgracing Regal for his failure and Alexey for bringing him here in the first place. There were many types of sabotage he could employ. Computer viruses, Hardware hacks, and altering Regal’s source code would be the most likely to succeed. The most reliable and hardest to detect method would be altering Regal’s source code before it was compiled and uploaded to his chosen test robot. This would require a lot of work on Sung Li’s part. He would have to maintain access to Regal’s lab space, then gain access to his computers. Then steal the code, so he could spend the time necessary to figure out how it worked well enough to sabotage it in a way that would not prevent its compilation, then he’d need to plant the hacked code back on Regal’s machine and upload it into the test robot. That would be Sung Li’s main plan. To back that up and ensure Regal’s failure, Sung Li would try to be the one to supply Regal with the robots which would be used for his inevitable demonstration.

Sung Li guessed that Regal would want the top of the line AAP worker model, the Opasnoye Sostoyaniye Rabotnik, hazardous condition worker, or OCP, and Sung Li could try to steer him towards it. The robots consisted of a compact central platform which contained the computer and power supply and had four long multi-jointed limbs, each with a reconfigurable and retool-able hand attachment. The OCP’s were magnificent machines, and after all the work he’d put into them to make them so, Sung Li would have no trouble credibly selling their benefits to Regal for his demonstrations. They were beautifully versatile. They could “stand up” on two legs, and fold the other two down to mimic human arms, giving them the size and appearance of a walking headless person. But they could also fold down and gallop like large dogs, or crab walk in the other direction. Sung Li had even had one perform a sort of snake-like ululation in order to climb up into a tight space. Yes, Sung Li would first propose the use of OCP’s to Regal, then he would set up a demonstration of his own to show Regal their capabilities, at the end handing control of those same models over to Regal. He would use the setup for his little demonstration as an excuse to be doing maintenance on the machines, while he’d really be hacking their hardware. He’d install something like a simplified second control computer that would override commands from the main computer. He would have to remember to program the robots destroy the evidence of the hardware hack during the “accident.”

This spectacular failure would be what Alexey deserved, he reasoned. If you block or interfere with a great mind like Sung Li’s, then you have to assume that that interference will make you the next problem that that great mind will try to solve. Regal wouldn’t be too hurt by the sabotage. At worst, he’d be booted out of the AU. Sung Li had never fully understood why Regal had come here anyway, he believed Regal would have been better off staying home and being treated like a prince. So Sung Li reasoned that his plot could be said to be helping Regal.

Regal awoke as the plane began it’s descent. The distant peaks of the Ural mountains seen through his window reminded him of Yellowstone. The Ozyorsk airfield had only two runways, but was lined with a sizable number of storage hangers. It was a military airfield so instead of a terminal there were barracks, and instead of parking lots stocked with rental cars there was a motor pool. The plane touched down with a jerking thud, and taxied into a waiting open hangar. Within it a vehicle was waiting, and Alexey emerged from his private area in the back of the plane as the turbines cycled down and the stairs were lowered. “Welcome to Ozyorsk!” He said. “You will like it here. Tonight, you will stay in one of our dormitory suites. Every important scientist in my department is given a suite, and we maintain spares furnished and ready in case of important visitors.”

“That will be very nice, I’m sure.” Regal responded congenially.

The airfield had been constructed east of the Ozyorsk AAP complex, which lay between the small lake Karachay to the South and the larger lake Kyzyltash to the North. All of the roads into and out of the complex were gated and guarded and each individual block of buildings was enclosed by security fence. It was like a cross between a large factory complex and a military base. Alexey and Regal disembarked and got into the back seat of the waiting heavy vehicle, painted military green with the seal of the AAP painted on its sides. This vehicle had a human driver, and Alexey quietly directed him to take them to the dormitory.

In the back seat with Regal he said under his breath, “We do not use robots for everything, even here.” As if he thought Regal would want an explanation, or perhaps because he was used to heading off questions from visiting dignitaries. “For security purposes, we do not use robots for drivers here, as they could store a record of where we go, and within the complex, any storage device with sensitive data must be kept in a secured location. There are two exceptions…” He pointed to his head. “Our minds and special encrypted smart phones that lack locally stored keys. I think if they could encrypt our minds, they would do that as well.” He chuckled at that.

The driver took them on a short drive to a long squat building enclosed within a fence. The guard saw Alexey and waved them past the gate house. The driver stopped the car in front of the main doors, and Alexey lead Regal inside, opening the door with a key card. The entrance area looked much like a hotel lobby, except for the extra security measures. At a long gray desk near the door a bored young man with a shaved head in a military uniform noticed Alexey, and stood at attention. The name printed on his uniform was Petrovyh.

Sir, what can I do for you, sir?” The young man asked rigidly.

What is your name, serviceman?” Alexey asked.

Max Gregorovich Petrovyh, sir.”

Max, this is our newest member of the research team, Regal Harken, a very respected scientist. Please assign him an ID badge and arrange a suite for him. It will be a long stay, so provide him with a full complement of toiletries, and any more he should ask.”

Yes sir.” Max pointed towards a door next to the long desk. “This way please, sir.”

Regal, it has been a pleasure to meet you, and I’m excited to have you on the team. Tomorrow morning, I will pick you up and take you to the laboratory. Tonight, please relax and get settled in here, Max will take care of you.” Alexey offered his hand.

Regal took it, “Thank you, Alexey. I’ll see you in the morning.” After the hand shake, Alexey left him with the soldier.

This way, sir.” Max said, a little less formally. “We have many forms for you to fill out.” He led Regal into a plain undecorated room with a nondescript desk, and brought him a stack of forms, saying, “Please fill out all of these, and I can get your photo to print you a key card.” He kindly offered Regal a bottle of water, and Regal assented. As Regal worked through the forms, Max gave him a run down of important areas in the dormitory building. There was a cafeteria serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as exercise facilities. Outside cell phones and computers were forbidden within the dormitory, but Regal’s phone had been confiscated back in Hefei anyway. Max kept a stock of toiletries, and he gathered a bag full for Regal to take with him to his room.

After signing so many papers that Regal’s hand had begun to ache, Max took him into another room and made him stand on some yellow foot print outlines in front of a large machine with a camera lens. Without warning, Max snapped the picture and the key card began to print immediately. He handed it to Regal. The picture had caught him with a muted surprised look, almost incredulous.

Max handed him the toiletries and told him his room number would be 818 on the top floor. Regal took the elevator up alone. The suite was utilitarian with a kitchenette in a modestly sized living room separated by a door from the bedroom. Regal had nothing to unpack so he stripped off his clothes, dug some soap out of his toiletry allotment and took a shower. He was still tired, it was late and the jet lag meant it felt even later. Once he was clean, he hit the bed. He knew he’d be up very early tomorrow morning, but for now he didn’t want to dwell on his current situation.

Chapter 2

Intentional Distortion

The screens of the Harkens’ command center began to fill with the images of the Council members as well as an empty podium in the UN chamber as the meeting time approached and Beowulf established connections. Eden’s screen flickered on and Leone Defontana stood with the vision of Eden floating behind him from the Italian Tree. The image had been carefully designed to impress. Leone was a well cut middle aged man with dark hair, wearing his usual white suit. Eden floating above and behind him had the appearance of an angel. She had devised some way to appear to be partially transparent and emitting soft light from within. Her hair and her robes flowed around her as if she was suspended in water. Her eyes seemed to be made of blue fire. When she spoke her voice seemed to reverberate in your head regardless of the actual acoustics.

Next to join was Tetsuro Kondo and Shogun from the Japanese Tree. Tetsuro was a thin man with an angular jaw and sharp, pronounced cheek bones in a black suit. Shogun’s dryad looked like a scaled up living carving of Tetsuro made from dark stained cherry wood. Some of Shogun’s features were exaggerated. His eyebrows were carved thick and long, extending just short of his ears. When he stood still he looked like a carving of a mythical Oni. They nodded to the screen and he watched patiently for the others to join.

In rapid succession, Morgan with Siren from Tonga and then Eikar with Eric from Iceland joined. Morgan Atuafago was a middle aged Samoan woman, wearing a respectable pants suit in stark contrast with Siren beside her. Across her face, covering her eyes was a black blind fold. Except for the first, all of the Trees’ administrators were blinded by the dryads before taking the position. It was one of the rules Robert’s brother had built in, something to discourage would be usurpers. Siren remained as beautiful as she’d been the day they’d first seen her. She had perfect brown skin, green hair with a white shock through it, and purple eyes. She wore a fitted breast plate of muted gray steel with large pauldrons concealing her shoulders. The breast plate had been carved with an image of her tree form as seen from under the sea.

Eikar Haddursson was an older man, tall with pale skin and platinum hair in a dull blue suit. Eric’s dryad looked like a larger version of Eikar as a younger man. The dryad’s skin was white pine and he had short spikes of straw-like hair. Seeing that everyone was present, Eikar spoke. He spoke in his native Icelandic and Eric repeated the words in English. “Hello, everyone, it looks like we’re all here.”

Unofficially, Robert was the head of the Council. Technically, the Council had no such position, but all of the other Tree administrators deferred to Robert in most matters, including leading meetings. The Harkens had hand selected the other admins with the aid of Theo Rigby, and although they stood on nearly equal footing now, the Harkens were still given certain privileges. Robert spoke loudly and clearly, “Welcome, everyone. This Council meeting has begun. The Council of the Five Trees has been called together today to decide whether we shall intervene in a matter brought to us by the United Nations. We are ready to hear your concerns.”

There was an awkward silence. No one had yet stood to speak in the UN chambers. After Robert’s announcement a small group of people approached the dais. It was five minutes or so of silence before someone was ready to speak. A distinguished Japanese man walked into view and stood behind the podium. He spoke, “Greetings, Council of the Five Trees, I am Yokota Ota, representative of Japan, speaking on behalf of the UN.”

We hear the representative.” Robert said.

Thank you, Councilman Harken.” Yokota Ota intoned with baritone formality, “The UN has called you to hear our request for intervention in the matter of the Asiatic Union’s recent massive increase in excise taxes on autonomous machines. Our economic research has shown that this action amounts to aggressive monopolization with intent to enrich the Asiatic Union while harming many other nations of the UN. For the affected nations, their main competitor for industrial goods is the Asiatic Union. With their autonomous workforce, the AU had been able to produce most goods at a greatly reduced cost when compared to a human-powered business within an affected nation. With this cost advantage the AU can undercut the prices of the domestic industry, and the only way the domestic industry can remain in business is to replace their human workforce with imported AU automatons. This use of automatons results in similar levels of unemployment that would be expected from the closing of the business, and similar amounts of money flowing back to the AU as if the people were buying all imported AU goods anyway. The AU’s unfair advantage is crippling the affected nations domestic industries and bleeding money from their economies.”

Yokota continued, “Some nations, such as South Korea, have tried to counter the AU’s exploitation with policy measures. To protect their work force and domestic businesses they have placed high taxes on all AU imports, especially manufactured goods. This is intended to correct the price disparity and allow their domestic businesses to compete. Unfortunately, most manufactured goods today rely on special components that require significant infrastructure investment to produce. It is too costly to produce all of the individual components of one high tech product in a single plant, so many of South Korea’s domestic businesses still suffer under the policy, because they rely on manufactured goods from the AU, just not end user goods. Furthermore, they have seen high levels of inflation result from the policy. This means that although the defensive policies helped to prevent unemployment, which kept money flowing to the workers, that money had less purchasing power. In the end, South Korea’s actions have only served to spread the negative effects of the AU’s unfair advantage evenly among all of the people, rather than concentrated at the newly unemployed.”

The Harkens hadn’t heard about South Korea’s attempt at defensive policy. Kate leaned over and whispered to Robert, “We might have something to do here after all.” Robert nodded with a grim look. He really didn’t like where this was going. Yokota kept stressing the unfair advantage, so Robert guessed that the UN wanted them to remove that advantage. What worried him was just how much they would ask of the Council. The UN had to be wise enough not to ask for acts of war over economic issues, weren’t they? But wouldn’t the situation warrant it, if enough people were suffering? Of course the AU was itself a member of the UN, and asking for war against its own members surely would not be an acceptable move for the UN. Nevertheless, Robert mentally prepared himself for the worse.

It is with the purpose of eliminating this unfair advantage that we have called this meeting of the Council.” Yokota said. “We request the production of Tree drone workers by the Trees for use by the protectorate nations in their industries. We have seen past examples of a Tree’s simultaneous control of many drones at once by the distinguished Beowulf during the Tree wars, and we ask that this capability be used to restore our ability to compete economically in the new global markets.” Yokota ended his speech with a small bow, and waited for the Council’s response.

Thank you, Yokota-san, we appreciate your concerns. Do you have specifications for the new workers? Estimated numbers?” Robert asked.

Yes, we have prepared specs and figures.” Yokota motioned to someone off screen. “You should be receiving them now. Robert turned to look at Wolf who nodded confirmation.

Very good. Thank you.” Robert said. “This sounds like a reasonable request, at least, as a stop-loss measure until our protectorate nations can achieve technological equality with the AU. I am pleased that we have been asked only to help the disadvantaged, rather than harm the advantaged. Would anyone like to question Yokota further?” He asked, opening the floor to the other Council members.

Leone Defontana spoke first, translated by the angelic voice of Eden, and gave a long speech detailing the similar complaints of his Eastern European protectorates. They had suffered many of the same economic woes as a result of the AU’s advantages. It was clear that his vote would be an assent to the request. Yokota waited patiently and nodded, but Leone never really did ask a question.

Eikar spoke next. Eric translated his question, “Does this need to be a Council matter, or is this just a matter where individual Trees choose to lend aid to their protectorate nations?”

Yokota had prepared a response to this saying, “Thank you, Councilman, the nation of Japan has approached Tetsuro and Shogun with this request and given the numbers requested he advised us to seek Council help as well.”

That is correct, Eikar.” Shogun confirmed for Tetsuro. The dryads were editing the video streams such that everyone heard their preferred language whenever something was being translated. So if Tetsuro said something in Japanese, then Shogun translated into English, Icelandic, and Italian and sent out three different transmissions. Beowulf was doing the same whenever Robert spoke, even though his dryad did not appear to be moving or speaking in person.

Eikar nodded, “What will be done to prevent these drones from being used to unfairly boost one business rather than another? How will the use of these drones reduce unemployment?” Robert nodded at the questions. It would be important to prevent the use of these worker drones as a way for governments to bolster certain businesses over others, and the use of drones would mean not using human workers.

Thank you, Councilman.” Yokota began. “We propose that the drones be made available to businesses at a flat rate per annum. We also propose that the money used to purchase them will go to the businesses’ nation’s government and will be required to be used for a domestic investment of some form. We will not dictate precisely how the reinvestment shall be made so as not to interfere with the nations’ chosen form of government. Some nations may choose to directly rebate the money to the people, others may choose to reinvest the money into socialized businesses or public works, and there are many other possible uses. The only rule will be that the money cannot be directly invested internationally. As for unemployment, it is expected that an increase in unemployment will occur as a result this policy, but the protectorate nations will have the drone worker rental income to use as aid in any way they may need. Welfare programs needed to support displaced workers would be recommended to provide the culture with continuity for however long it takes to transition these workers to other occupations.”

That is well considered, speaker.” Eikar said. “I am finished with my questions.”

How will the responsible use of the money for domestic investments be enforced?” Morgan Atuafago asked. “Who will stop a corrupt government from misusing the funds?”

Yokota inclined his head. “We have been aware of that issue, but we have decided that the protectorate nations must for the most part police themselves. Except, should a member nation violate the domestic reinvestment rule, the Council will have the right to deny them workers.”

Oh, the Council has more rights than that.” Morgan replied with an edge. “If we should agree to provide this aide, it would be with the understanding that any violation of the rules or large scale misuse of funds could be punished with loss of protectorate status. I have no further questions”

Are there any other questions?” Robert asked and paused for a moment. After a long silence he continued, “We have heard the United Nations’ request. Since we have been provided with additional materials and figures to review, I propose that we continue with a closed meeting to deliberate prior to the vote. Any opposed?” Robert paused again for a moment. No one spoke in opposition. “We will continue with a closed meeting. We thank the UN for their proposal, we will announce our decision after deliberation.” Robert gestured and the UN screen in Beowulf’s command center switched to black, leaving only the Council members.

Beowulf, could you recite the estimated figures requested in the UN proposal?” Robert asked.

Of course. They are requesting an initial pool of ten thousand drones this year for trial usage, then twenty-five thousand next year, with an additional twenty-five thousand added each year after that until demand is met or the Trees’ maximum control capability is reached.” Beowulf said.

Feasibility?” Robert asked.

There are some issues.” Beowulf stated neutrally, “We should all be capable of the initial drone production and the computing ability needed to maintain control of them, and we should be able to adapt to meet the needs of the staggered production plan. However, I foresee issues with the communications systems needed to maintain control over the drones. My favored method of remote drone control relies on satellite communications which could be unreliable in certain parts of the world or under certain weather conditions. We will need to construct infrastructure systems to maintain the reliable drone control that these businesses will need. For instance, we could grow networks of communication cable roots that would have periodic tree-like communication towers growing up from them.”

We could get push back from the UN and the protectorates for something like that.” Kate warned. “Nations will be concerned about maintaining sovereignty, autonomy, and privacy.”

What are the alternatives?” Leone asked. It didn’t make it through the translation, but Leone had seemed to snap the question. During one of the first Council meetings, he had questioned Kate’s right to be present. The rest of the council had remained ambivalent after Robert had supported her presence. The matter still irked Leone.

Eden answered him. “We could interface with conventional man-made communications systems similar to cell phone towers with direct fiber lines connected back to the Trees. This would give some measure of control to the protectorate nations. They could switch the communications on or off, if satellite communications are otherwise untenable. An unfortunate consequence of this would be the additional time it would take to construct, perhaps years for wide coverage.”

That seems acceptable, “ Tetsuro said. “This was intended to be a gradually scaled up solution anyway.”

Without the dire economic need, how will we encourage the independent development of technology to eventually match the AU?” Eikar asked. “Won’t we be taking away the motivation to solve the problem?”

That is a concern.” Robert agreed. “We do not want to encourage technological stagnation from Tree dependence. We could try an incentive program, offering rewards for meeting certain research goals.”

Perhaps a portion of the yearly rate could be set aside.” Tetsuro posited. “Ten percent. To be held as long as a company continues to renew its lease on the drones. They can get the deposit back, but only if they agree not to lease any drones for a period of five years. This way, the reward for eliminating dependence on the drones will build up over time.”

That could be difficult to enforce.” Eikar argued. “Suppose a company sells all of its assets off to a competitor, and then collects the payout for no longer using drones. The new owner would still use drones, but the reward would be paid to the leftover shell company. They would get the reward back without making use of any form of innovation.”

Eikar is correct, that type of reward would require too much moderation, too many disputable claims.” Robert said. “But the withholding for the reward money is a good idea. Suppose it were five percent, with one percent being held by each Tree. Then each Council member could choose to create research reward programs of their choosing, drawing upon the new cash pool to pay out rewards. For instance, I would probably start with one big reward for a drone replacing robot, then if the prize pool grew larger, I’d add stepped rewards for technologies which contribute to a drone replacing robot.”

It is a good idea.” Eikar agreed, and smiled. “We could even arrange a competition among two Trees’ protectorates for the combined prize money.” He grew serious again. “The only remaining question is how the AU will interpret this action, if we choose to proceed.”

I think that they will have to accept it.” Morgan Atuafago said. She’d been quiet throughout the meeting. “It would be highly hypocritical of them to criticize the protectorates’ using the Trees to their advantage. The AU has taken advantage of their technologies for too long for those complaints from them to matter to the world. Within their borders, however, could be another story. Their people will lose some of their prosperity, and the AU governance will blame the Trees for this. It is unavoidable. It could a create a generation of people in the AU that is more strongly Anti-Arboreal, which would have consequences in the future. It is unfortunate that this could happen, but their prosperity was constructed on our nations’ pain, and that must end.” There was general nodding from the members of the Council. Morgan did not have any training in economics or politics, but she had grown up on American Samoa, and the island’s previous status gave her unique perspective on the situation.

I think it is time for the vote. For an intervention case like this we must be unanimous to take action.” Robert said. “I vote to intervene. Morgan?”





We Intervene.”



Than it is decided. Tetsuro, will you draft our decision for presentation to the UN?” It was still very early in Japan, somewhere around quarter past six in the morning.

It would be my pleasure.” Tetsuro said.

Then our meeting is closed. Thanks everyone.” Robert gestured and the screens blinked out. He turned to Kate. “I think that worked out well.”

She nodded introspectively. “I never thought we’d see the day when nations would demand to replace their workers with robots.”

Robert recalled a line from an old film. “What would Sergeant Murtaugh have to say about this?” Robert asked with a fleeting smile, then stood, “Let’s head upstairs.” Kate and Beowulf followed him to one of Wolf’s petal doored elevators. Once the petals had closed and they had begun to move he turned to Beowulf behind them. “Wolf, is there any news about Regal?”

Yes, his things were loaded onto a truck and are heading West, with two of my bugs. The third bug followed the agents. They were from the Hefei Autonomous Atomic Program Office.” The dryad replied.

The AAP has taken him? Can you get the bug inside?” Kate asked.

No, the building is secure and with only one bug, I would risk losing signal if I send it inside.”

No sign of Regal himself?” Robert asked.

None.” Wolf said.

Damn, Robert thought. They’d have to hope Regal showed up wherever his stuff was going. The only other option was to deploy more spy drones, which had been hard enough to begin with. They had had to deploy them in a complicated multi-stage operation. First Beowulf had shot a satellite up out of the atmosphere with the payload of spy drones. The satellite had burned into a synchronous orbit above China, then released the drone payload which decelerated out of orbit with a small disposable rocket. The three bugs, two seeds and the comm sphere had come down a hundred miles west of Hefei, and then had traveled by night to the city from there. Robert didn’t think that they’d get away with the same thing twice, and even if they did with the accuracy being what it was, new drones could still take days to reach Hefei.

We will have to hope that Regal turns up wherever his stuff is going.” Robert voiced his thoughts, “In the meantime, Wolf, could you produce one of these worker drones based off of the specifications the UN provided? I’d like to get a look at one, before we start sending them off to work.”

You got it.” Wolf replied.

What about the Guardians?” Kate asked Robert. “They may have people in the area.” She was referring to the Guardians of the Hive, which had begun as a strange cult they had sheltered after the first Swarm attack. Since then, they had become a much more serious operation that was part military, part religion. They were the closest thing the Harkens had to a human police force or standing army. Of course, Beowulf didn’t really have any need for a police force. The dryad handled most security and criminal manners himself with copies of his dryad forms. Even as they rode in the elevator with this one, there were probably a hundred others heading off various incidents throughout the tree.

So the Guardians had set their sights on matters outside of the Tree. They had sent out missions to nations across the world, to spread the good word about trees, bees, and martial arts or something. Robert and Kate had kept in touch with the group’s leaders, Beth and Armand, and even attended some of their services, but he didn’t pay much attention to the content. The Harkens really only went as a gesture to the couple, to show their friendship. And it had been a very valuable friendship to have over the years as the couple’s outside network grew. They would at times hear rumors from Beth and Armand over dinner that the television news didn’t pick up until weeks later.

The Guardians’ missions to the AU had not done well, however. They were ostracized and banned from the start as religious radicals and political dissidents. But even just a few weeks ago, Beth had dropped some hints about an upcoming tariff policy change from the AU, which meant that they may still have a few enclaves operating secretly within AU borders.

Do they, Wolf?” Robert prompted. The dryad looked surprised. It was exceedingly difficult to keep anything secret from Beowulf while someone was within the Tree, any part of the Tree could operate as light or sound sensors, and his computational ability to reconstruct images from the incident light on any part of him made it unnecessary for him to physically create a camera obscura. So if Beth and Armand had been receiving information from hidden cells within the AU, Wolf would likely be aware of it. Wolf was surprised because although it was something they were all aware of, Robert rarely took advantage of it.

Yes, I think they have people over there.” Beowulf confirmed.

Contact them and see if they’d join us for dinner at 6.” Robert ordered and the dryad nodded. Armand was getting on in years. Where Robert, Kate, and Beth were scattered around the top of The hill, Armand was waving up to them from well down the other side. One of the consequences of his advancing age seemed to be a desire to eat earlier in the day. Six might be a little late for him, but not enough to cause any grumbling.

Regal awoke at five in the morning, and went to his suite’s kitchenette. There was a tea kettle and a can of dried dark tea. Regal filled the kettle and set it over heat. He then showered the sleep off and put on yesterday’s cloths. It was one of the less acknowledged drawbacks of having been kidnapped. No change of cloths. The tea kettle was steaming, so he removed it from heat and poured a cup over some tea. It was dark, but had none of the bite and body of coffee. He sat and drank it. Next to the phone on a side table in the living room, there was a booklet labeled “Dormitory Rules” in Russian and left to right Chinese. Official documents in the AU tried to be bilingual, printing everything in both languages. Regal had learned both languages passably well. Some said he came off as too formal, but being too formal had never hindered him in his work as a research scientist.

He opened the rule book and started scanning for any mention of the cafeteria. He was looking for its hours of operation. He was hungry, but there was no point in making the trip down if it was going to be closed. He found it, it was open twenty-four hours. Perhaps they had people doing shift work here, that would eat late meals. Ready, he left his room and took the elevator down to the first floor and then turned down the hallway past the reception area he’d been through yesterday. He reached a gray opaque door with a bilingual placard declaring it to be the door to the cafeteria. When he opened it he saw the room behind was unlit, but as the door swung the lights switched on. Illuminating a large space packed with tables, and a food service line along the right wall.

Regal stepped into the room and a figure unfolded from behind the food service line with an electrical whirring. It was a common tethered worker android. These were man-sized human analogs with human-like arms and hands. From the waist down they are decidedly inhuman however, with a freely rotating waist and two large skid treaded feet. Their primary means of locomotion were the skid treads, but they could left the legs up and step slowly over obstacles if necessary. They had to be tethered, or plugged in, to operate, because they had no onboard power supply, but they made a serviceable replacement for humans that had to do any mindless repetitive task in a confined space. It was the reason the cafeteria was open 24 hours. The android’s head was a smooth cylinder except for a pair of cameras facing forward on one side. It rotated and locked on to Regal, tracking his movements. Someone had drawn a mustache on the cylindrical head. It spoke in Russian as he approached. “Good morning, Regal Harken, please address me as Le Chef. Scheduled breakfast begins in two hours, but this worker can prepare you a made to order breakfast as long as time and rations allow.” The voice was the most common type for robots in the AU. A middle to high pitch voice that made it difficult to call it either male or female with intentional distortion to separate it from a human voice.

There was an interesting story behind that vocal distortion that had been released to the public when enough people had complained about it. Some of the researchers developing the machines had given them true human sounding voices, but the researchers quickly became annoyed by this. Whenever the machines asked a question with a human sounding voice, it activated a sympathetic response in the researchers just as if a real person had called for their attention. Robots weren’t people, however, and the researchers didn’t feel that they deserved to be allowed to efficiently make use of humanity’s built in communication triggers. So they added the distortion to the voices and it became much easier for them to ignore the questions of their robots, because they could now tell that it was not a human voice. They had been intentionally designed to discourage sympathy. After the explanation was released, the number of complaints about the voices dwindled, except in cases where someone was trying to use the machines for sales purposes, of course.

What are my ration limitations?” Regal asked.

Please address me as Le Chef, Regal Harken.” Le Chef said, still tracking Regal with his eyes. Regal guessed its insistence on being addressed was to make it so Le Chef could easily determine whether or not it was being spoken to, which could be a complicated computing issue in a crowded cafeteria where many people were speaking simultaneously. “Your breakfast may consist of no more than the following: 5 chicken eggs, 1/2 kilo of potato, 1/2 kilo of beets, 1/4 kilo of onion, 1/4 kilo of carrot, 1/4 kilo of dried oatmeal, 1/4 kilo of dried rice, 1/2 kilo of bread, 1/10th kilo of meat. 1/10th kilo of cheese, 1/2 liter of milk, 2/3 liter of tea, 1/2 liter of coffee, 1/4 liter of beet juice, 50 cc’s of butter, 100 cc’s of vegetable oil.”

Le Chef, please prepare me a 3 egg omelet with 1/10th kilo of fried diced sausage, 1/10th kilo of diced onion, and 1/10th kilo of cheese, with a side of 1/4 kilo of hash browned potatoes, and a cup of coffee.” Regal said.

Order received, Regal Harken, please wait.” Le Chef said, rotating around and beginning to gather ingredients. “The requested operation will take 15 minutes to complete.” Regal stood and watched the machine methodically prepare the food, imagining the programming that was driving it. The ingredient gathering and preparation looked like reusable subroutines. For instance, to prepare the sausage he supposed the machine had to run a retrieve ingredient program, then an unpackage ingredient program, then a weigh and separate program, then it ran the program to return the unused portion back to storage. Once it had the meat, it ran a program to activate the flat grill, then another to retrieve a spatula, then another to put the meat on the grill, and another program monitored the cooking time, and then called a flip and scramble program to ensure even browning. Finally, it removed the meat and placed it into an empty bowl with yet another program.

Regal was mesmerized as he observed the results and attempted to re-create interesting portions of the machine’s programming. He mentally wrote his own code to accomplish the same tasks. The omelet turned out well, maybe a little overstuffed, but it cooked well and held together. The robot plated the cooked omelet and hash and then put the plate on a cafeteria tray with a cup of coffee. It placed the tray on a table at the end of the line and hit a small ringer with its hand. “Order Up! Regal Harken.”

Regal retrieved the tray and found a spot to start eating. Le Chef had done well. The coffee had a stale taste, but it was great to have it anyway. Small groups of other residents of the dormitory started to come in early for their own made to order breakfasts. Regal ate slowly, watching Le Chef and the other residents. By six he had finished his breakfast and a second cup of coffee. He left the cafeteria, and went to the reception area to wait for Alexey. There was another man on duty at the desk, not Max. Regal took a seat on a bench opposite the reception desk and waited patently, gazing out through the doors.

Alexey arrived at eight just ahead of a larger bus. Other residents of the dormitory had lined up outside, waiting for the bus, but Alexey’s driver stopped right in front of the doors anyway. The bus had to pull in behind them and the waiting passengers streamed towards it. Today, Alexey’s attire was less formal, closer to business casual. He hopped out of the back of the car and pushed through the waiting residents. Regal started towards him, and they met at the door. “Good morning.” He greeted the Russian and extended his hand.

Good morning!” Alexey took his hand for a quick shake. “How was the room? I see I forgot something, I will send word to have the attendants provide you with a change of clothes. Your belongings should arrive tomorrow. Today, I will show you your office and laboratory, and I’ll introduce you to some of the people you’ll be working with. I believe that an old friend of yours is working with us. Dr. Sung Li?”

Sung Li? Regal remembered the man. They had shared several classes, and graduated in the same year. They had worked together a little, but they hadn’t become friends. Sung Li had seemed too cold and they had both been too competitive to become friends. Regal was curious to meet him again, to see if the years had changed him. “Yes we were classmates, It will be good to catch up with him.” Regal confirmed. “I’m also very interested to know more about this operation as a whole. There is an atomic battery factory here as well?”

Oh yes, but I can’t take you to visit there.” Alexey shook his head. “It’s 100% autonomous and has not been designed for human safety. We just drop off raw materials, and collect completed batteries. Nothing else will ever leave the site. If we have time today, I will take you to see the remote control room, where all operations within the factory are safely controlled out of harms way.” They went to Alexey’s car and got in the back seats. “Driver, take us to the research branch Building.” Alexey commanded, and they took off.

The research facility was not far off. Security was a bit tighter around this building, and there were more guards and security cameras at the lot entrance gatehouse and around the perimeter fence. They followed protocol better as well, scanning Regal’s key card and Alexey’s. The building was the same size as the dormitory, but the lower levels were constructed with full concrete walls rather than the concrete and steel superstructure of the upper levels.

Alexey led Regal inside. There were guarded body scanners at the entrance and the exit. They clearly didn’t want anyone bringing anything that didn’t belong or leaving with anything that needed to stay. As they passed through, Regal asked Alexey, “This is impressive security, but how will they bring my computer in? I must have it just as it was left, it contains data that is critical to the project.” Technically, it contained the whole completed project, except for Regal’s latest addition, but Alexey didn’t need to know that.

There’s no need to worry.” Alexey explained. “We will index all of your data, and then copy parts that we know are benign onto an approved hard drive for your use. If you need anything that doesn’t make it through the automatic scan, just flag it in the index, and after a human review, it will be provided.”

That should be fine.” Regal assented. Past the security was a small decorated lobby area with elevators and a gray door to the first floor facilities. Alexey lead him through that door into a long, wide white hallway with gray doors on either side.

The first and second floors are all secure lab spaces suitable for use with smaller robots, as small as a cat or smaller. For anything bigger, use of the reinforced basement labs is required. There is also a third, hot lab space located at a remote site. That space is accessible only by robot, there is a control center in a room in the basement.” Alexey said, choosing a door to their right labeled “Lab 3 – Mihailov.” “This lab is Dr. Petyr Mihailov’s. We will see if he is here.”

Through the door was a lab space that looked like a machine shop had thrown up in a high end toy store. Shelves lined the walls, piled high with disorganized machined parts, interspersed with small animal-like robotic assemblies in various stages of completion. “Dr. Mihailov’s mission is rapid recon and discreet surveillance robots. Doctor? Are you here?”

Yes, Alexey.” A short stout, gray bearded man emerged from behind a shelf. “What do you need?” He caught sight of Regal through his thick old fashioned glasses. “Who is this? An American?”

Petyr, this is Regal Harken.” Alexey introduced. “Regal, Dr. Petyr Dmitrivitch Mihailov, one of our most experienced scientists.” Dr. Mihailov laughed at Alexey’s introduction and extended a hand to Regal.

Experienced is just a kind way of saying old. I’ve heard of some of your work, Mr. Harken.” He said. Regal took his hand.

Nice to meet you doctor. I haven’t heard of any of your work yet, as I’m sure you understand.” Regal answered.

Working here, that will change quickly.” Alexey said. “Dr. Mihailov is one of the founding father’s of the AAP robotics program. He paved the way for much of our work here.”

Perhaps.” Dr. Mihailov said. “But that was a long time ago, now I work hard just to stay up to date with the latest technologies. Are you here to work with us, Mr. Harken?”

Yes, Alexey has asked me to join you until I’ve completed my latest project.” Regal answered.

Very good then, I’m sure we will speak again. Alexey… about those custom Teflon coated bearings I ordered…” The doctor began, pulling Alexey to the side. They discussed the issue in hushed voices. Eventually, Alexey nodded, whispered something and turned back to Regal. “Excuse me, Regal, that was just an important matter Dr. Mihailov has been working on. He means to try and copy some mammalian joints, except using steel bones, teflon cartilage, nylon ligaments, all enclosed in a lubricating oil-filled sack similar to a mammalian bursa.”

Alexey led Regal back out into the hall, and further down. He selected another door which opened into a stairwell. Alexey lead him down. The basement hallway was a dark gray and there were warning signs on some of the doors, requiring the use of protective equipment or forbidding entrance if a nearby light was on. Alexey took him to the end of the hall and opened a door labeled “Lab 28 – Sung Li” and said, “This will be your laboratory, once we’ve cleaned out some things.”

Inside, a young man and woman in lab coats were packing files into storage boxes. They spotted the newcomers but kept working. “This was Dr. Sung Li’s lab space before, but he is being temporarily relocated to a shared space in a lab down the hall.” Alexey explained. The lab space didn’t look like much empty. It looked a little bit like an office had been installed in the corner of a room that was too large for it. The space had clearly seen heavy use in the past as the concrete floor and walls were scratched, dented and scoured in places, as if the place had been home to a restive robotic leopard. “Dr. Sung Li specializes in creating and programming android type robots.” He shook his head at a grouping of deep gouges in a wall. “I’ve had to warn him about testing his programs in full size machines without simulations many times. It can be very dangerous.”

Will I be using his computer.” Regal asked, looking at the unfamiliar machine near the assistants.

No, Sung Li’s lab techs will remove that along with his files. You will obtain a fresh system from our hardware storage department. That is our next stop. The computers we use here will be of an unfamiliar architecture to you, because it is custom built and uses restricted technology. You will not know the operating systems or hardware, but, we’ve worked with your code in the past, so you will find that we have already ported your favorite development tools to our system.” Alexey said.

Is that where I’ll go to get test robots as well?” Regal asked, tracing his hand through a scratch.

Yes, we have several test units there, as well as enough components to construct many more. You will see.” Alexey said. “Let us leave Dr. Sung Li’s lab assistants to finish their packing, and head over there now.”

Alexey led him down the hall to a set of double doors at the other end of the building. Behind them was a dark, concrete lined room filled with the scents of lubricating oil. There was a caged area around the entrance with its own set of double swinging gates secured with an electromagnetic lock. There was also a cutout window to the side with a small table and a rigged up button labeled “Push for buzzer.”

We have a few men down here. They handle shipping and receiving, inventory, robot mechanical repairs, and some machining. Boris Volkov runs things down here. If you need something later, come down and ring the buzzer. My key card will open this gate, but yours will not, you will have to ring. Let us see if we can find Boris.” Alexey said swiping his card in front of the reader. The EM locks clicked off and he pushed the gate open.

Beyond the cage, the storage room was a dark maze of shelves. The shelves were lined with full sized unpowered robots. There were several android types which looked macabre in their hunched over, poorly illuminated state. “Kind of like a graveyard is it not?” Alexey asked. “Boris calls this the bone yard.” There were other types of robot as well. There were larger wheeled varieties with two and four wheels, long framed aerial units with wings folded in for storage, and even a pair of heavy construction robots with tank treads and hydraulic digging buckets. “These larger mobile models are powered by gas and diesel.” Alexey noted. Some of the robots were clearly military including a row of automated tracking turrets, both machine gun and rocket, and a low wheeled robot with a large sensor attachment in front for detecting mines and a pair of folded arms to manipulate them. There were some robots whose purpose was not at all obvious including a set of meter diameter metallic spheres. Alexey saw that Regal had stopped to examine them. “Those are interesting, they were designed to be like your Tree’s drones. Deployed by artillery, shot from a cannon to soften an enemy up before the big gear arrives. They unfold and walk like a spider, except they have guns, sometimes machine guns, sometimes rifles. They have a very quiet gasoline motor, and are great for night assaults.”

Walking down the shelf hall took them to the back of the room where a forklift was parked with it’s maintenance panel open and a man half inside of it cursing quietly. Behind it there was an opening in the back wall with a sloped road that likely switched back and lead to the first floor of the hardware storage area. A burst of sparks flew out of the maintenance panel followed by unintelligible cursing. The man pulled himself out. He wore a black oil-stained jumpsuit which may once have been blue. He had dark hair and maybe had dark skin, but it could also have been grime of some sort. His eyes were covered with thick goggles, whose reflected glare hid his eyes. He caught sight of Alexey and exclaimed, “A warehouse full of the best technology in the world with a thirty year old busted electric forklift. There is a fault in the left motor winding. Maybe we can order a replacement, but it’s only a matter of time before other parts fail as well. Alexey, Will you let me a buy a new forklift?”

Maybe, Boris.” Alexey said. “Maybe Dr. Mihailov could take a look at this one first. Perhaps he could construct a custom replacement. We will talk about that later. This is Regal Harken.” He said, indicating Regal with an outstretched arm.

Harken.” The man said, meeting Regal’s eyes with his glare obscured goggles and nodding in acknowledgement. “Your personal items will arrive late tomorrow. Alexey has said you’ll need a new computer, and perhaps some other hardware. Come with me, and we’ll set it up.” Boris Volkov lead them back towards the basement hall cage, which had a small office area. Boris reached for some hand wipes at a desk in the back and used them to degrease his hands. Then he picked up a clip board with stack of forms on it, and handed it to Regal. “Complete these and return them to me today. You will find an inventory requisition sheet near the bottom. I filled in the computer part and some basic office supplies, but the rest will be up to you. Just fill in the quantity and if I have it in stock and it’ll fit, it’ll be waiting in your lab space tomorrow morning.”

Thank you, Boris.” Regal said, lifting the clipboard in a gesture of gratitude. He lifted the stack of forms to the sheet Boris had described. “Some of these items are crossed off.” He said, “Are they no longer stocked? No, can’t be, we passed these turret bots when we were looking for you.”

Those are the military robots, you don’t need to worry about those.” Boris said quickly.

Boris.” Alexey chastised. “I told you we were giving Regal full clearance.”

He is an American, son of one of those Tree people. We can’t just hand him our secrets.” Boris argued. It sounded like an ongoing argument between the two of them. Regal considered smoothing the matter over by saying that he probably wouldn’t need any of the military models, but he was too curious about them. Especially those spherical ones.

I’m not with them any more, Boris. I’m here to complete my project, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He decided not to request one of the spheres right away. “I don’t think I need any of these yet. I will just select from these android worker models to begin with.”

Very well, comrade.” Boris replied with just a little edge to his voice.

Thank you, Boris.” Alexey said tersely. “Come, let us go upstairs. I will show you your office, and you can meet some of your colleagues.”

Alexey led him back up the stairs to the first floor and over to the elevators. He selected the fourth floor out of five. “We do more than just experimental research here.” he explained. “People on these other floors receive massive amounts of data from our currently operating programs. They look for issues and opportunities to improve, then they pass the issues up to us and we solve them. Many of your colleagues work exclusively on optimization of existing programs.”

The fourth floor was arranged in a loop with offices all around the perimeter and filling the center. Each office was 6 meters x 6 meters except the corners which had a little extra space. About 2/3rds of the offices were in use and only half of those were currently occupied. Alexey took Regal around to each one and introduced him briefly. They exchanged pleasantries, and asked some ice breaker questions, but Regal wasn’t particularly interested in getting to know these people. Out of the twenty or so people he met, he’d be surprised if he would remember three of them later. One of those he would remember was Dr. Sung Li. Sung Li’s office was on the side of the loop farthest from the elevators, right next to Regal’s new office.

Sung Li stood about a foot shorter than Regal, and had put on some weight since Regal had last seen him at school. The extra weight gave his face a round moon-like appearance, and the wide smile he put on when he saw Regal made him wonder if the man had changed since he had known him. In school, he had been much more adversarial. “Regal, my friend, it is good to see you. Alexey told me you were coming, and it’s about time if you ask me. We’ve appreciated your talent here for years, but old prejudices are hard to overcome.”

Hello, Sung Li, it’s been a long time.” Regal felt his response was lame compared to Sung Li’s warm greeting, but the man seemed to take it in stride.

Too long. But, you are here now. Has Alexey shown you everything? When you get a chance, I’d like your opinion on some of my work. Are you staying in the Dormitory?” The man blurted the questions without leaving any time to answer.

Regal choose to answer the first question. “Alexey has been showing me around, yes.”

Has he shown you the control room? Have you seen the OCP’s in action? Beautiful machines, I’m quite proud of my contribution to them.” Regal was starting to thing that Sung Li might actually want his approval. It didn’t fit with his past experience, but it was looking quite probable.

OCP’s?” Regal asked.

Alexey answered, looking as if his surprise had been spoiled. “Hazardous condition workers. They are the backbone of our nuclear program. I will show you them today.”

I look forward to it.” Regal said, then thought for a moment. “Sung Li, about your lab space in the basement…”

No, no, think nothing of it.” The man looked stricken at Regal’s concern, “I’m happy to give it up. I’m just as excited as Alexey to see the result of your new project. Human intelligence in machines, that is a feat that I believe only your uncle has matched. Have you thought of how we shall treat them? Of the morals involved? The ethics of using a sentient being for labor? I want to hear all of your opinions. It is like I will be able to see and work with Oppenheimer at the Manhatten Project. Perhaps I will write a book about this some day.”

Regal had considered the ethics and morals, but had decided that the fair treatment of the machines would ultimately be the responsibility of the end users, just as the treatment of children was the responsibility of the parents. He had not, however, ever thought to compare himself with Oppenheimer. This project was just a step down the path for him, he had never thought that it could be his defining work. Then something about what Sung Li had said struck him, perhaps it had been some sort of joke? “It is an important project for me.” He said, “But I don’t know if any of us will ever be telling anyone about it, outside of the AAP that is, but if you’d like to learn more about what I think about it, perhaps we could share lunch sometime.”

How about today. It’s almost time for lunch. What do you say Alexey? I can take Regal off your hands for the rest of the day, show him some of my projects.” Sung Li proposed.

Alexey looked askance at Regal, who nodded. “Very well, I’ll let you two catch up for the day.” To Regal he said, “tomorrow you will get your computer, and eventually your other belongings. The dormitory bus stops here around 6:30 pm, and as you saw it departs the dormitory at eight. I will stop down to check on you in the lab tomorrow.” They shook hands and Alexey left.

Sung Li took Regal off the base and into the nearby town of Ozyorsk, and bought him lunch at a diner there. Afterwards back in the lab, they spent some time catching up, trying to one up each other with stories of research accomplishments and then Sung Li took him to the robot control center. It was a dark, screen filled room in the basement. Sung Li took an open terminal and booted it up, finally showing him an OCP in all it’s glory. The robot was located in a portion of the human inaccessible battery factory that was dedicated completely to dangerous research. Sung Li explained that this and similar hot labs were being used for many forms of research that had been deemed too dangerous to be carried out by humans. Sung Li moved the robot over to an enclosed glass case, filled entirely with what looked like miniature dark red robots.

What ARE those?” Regal asked, and Sung Li typed in some commands, causing the view to zoom in. The little things were five-legged, headless and eyeless. They looked like Swarm remnants of some sort, except those were always black. “Swarm?”

Not exactly.” Sung Li clarified. “They are based on some Swarm remnants we managed to capture. I’m not working on that project, but the reports suggest that they’ve been able to make some changes to them, control them. The intention is to use them for medical applications, I believe.”

I’d take a back alley faith healer over those any day.” Regal said.

Regal found himself appreciating the OCP. The atomic powered machine truly was magnificent, with the strength of a 400 lb gorilla and the grace of a ballet dancer. Regal was impressed. Sung Li told him that they had a few tethered, non-nuclear versions of the OCP’s for experimentation, and offered to show him how they work with a little demonstration in a few days. Regal agreed.

Beth and Armand had agreed to join the Harkens for dinner, and the couple sat across from them on the long table in the Harkens dining room within their suite. Woodward was in the kitchen preparing the main course. Appetizers sat on the table, mostly untouched as the Harkens worked their way through news and pleasantries in order to bring the conversation around to the AU. Robert said, “…the decision of the Council should help to protect nations from being economically strong-armed by the AU. When I first heard that the AU had changed their tariffs again, I thought of you Beth. I seem to recall you mentioning the possibility of something like that a few weeks ago.”

Beth’s happy, friendly smile didn’t change. “Oh, I think we’ve discussed nearly every possibility over dinner at least once. It’s no surprise that we’d get one or two guesses right.”

Yes,” Armand agreed, “that’s an old fortune teller’s trick, I believe. They just say something vague enough that if the listener believes it, they will eventually discover that it was true.”

Oh.” Kate feigned disappointment. “We had hoped that the two of you might have some sources of information in the area. Its why we invited you up. We had hoped that the Guardians might still have a mission or two operating within the AU’s borders.”

Beth and Armand looked at each other, but said nothing. Robert pressed, “We could use all the help we can get, it’s about Regal. He… hasn’t contacted us in some time and we’ve become concerned.”

Beth took a breath and started. “You know that you can always count on us, but the situation in the AU is… barely holding together. We do have a few missionaries that have managed to escape arrest, but they have to operate in the utmost secrecy. We are lucky to hear from them at all, so asking them to try and look into something would be a huge risk.”

We don’t want anyone to put themselves in harms way.” Robert said. “We just want to see if someone could get eyes on him and confirm his safety.”

Perhaps we could offer some tools to the Guardians to help out.” Kate suggested carefully. She was walking on dangerous ground. Suppling aid to the Guardians without Council agreement could violate Council rules. “For use only within Wolf’s protectorate’s, of course.” She clarified.

Of course. The Guardians have the utmost respect for the Council’s rules and requirements.” Armand said. “Some day, I would like to see the Guardians acting as the Council’s instruments in the world, carrying out their good works in matters that can’t be solved with drone’s alone.” It was an idea Robert had heard from Armand before.

I will promise to keep the Guardians in mind when matters are brought before the Council. If the Guardians can accomplish one or two Council issues, then perhaps we could ask them to make the relationship official.” Robert assured him. It might not be a bad idea for the Council to have an organization of loyal humans, as long as that was all the Guardians did. The Trees could create vast numbers of drones, which did exactly and only what they were told. By incorporating the Guardians, the Council could be held responsible for the actions of independent members of the Guardians. It was a risk. Perhaps they could be given a symbol or talisman of some sort that indicated they were acting on the Council’s behalf, this symbol would be an inanimate drone manufactured by the Trees to keep watch on those Guardians. It would be similar to the cameras mounted on police vehicles, or sometimes even on police officers’ chests.

We appreciate the consideration.” Beth said. “We understand your concern about your son, and we will try to pass on our concerns to followers within the AU. Where was he located?”

Hefei in Anhui, China… Or somewhere to the west of there, we don’t have much to go on.” Robert replied.

Beth nodded. “We’ll do what we can.” Woodward came out with a beef roast surrounded by roast vegetables, he set it on the table and began slicing it. “About those comm spheres…”

I was thinking about that.” Kate said, “Perhaps we could ask Beowulf to create a set of staffs or broaches, something to indicate a Guardian in Beowulf’s service.” Robert smiled and looked at Kate.

That’s a great idea!” He said. “But there’s the matter of who would be selected to carry one. I’d think that there should be special criteria which would qualify a given member of the Guardians for the honor of one of these symbols. What do you think, Armand?”

I know that all of the members would love a chance to receive such an honor, but there are some that stand above the others.” Armand acknowledged, watching the butler lift a slice of beef to his plate. “Well done, Woodward!” He congratulated the wooden man, who nodded mutely, which was a rare display of personality from the butler.

Perhaps it should be some sort of accomplishment, something which demonstrates that the candidate can be a good representative for Beowulf.” Kate suggested. “Something like a quest or task, something we could observe in its entirety.”

Like a Spartan test of manhood.” Robert agreed, “Albeit more peaceful.”

Beth looked concerned, “I don’t think you need to go to all that trouble, we can select the most qualified of our members, and we’ll be to blame if we misjudge anyone.”

Oh, its not that we don’t trust your judgment, Beth.” Kate assured her. “It’s just that if one of them makes a mistake, then that mistake will still have been made, no matter who gets punished afterwards. Therefore, we want to try to select the right type of people.”

Of course, I understand.” Beth changed her demeanor to match a businesswoman discussing the tricks of the trade with an associate. “Everyone who’s in charge of people is always looking for a solution to that very problem. Armand and I have a lot of experience with it. New members that are older often have their own agenda when they join the Guardians. They know that it is a relatively new belief system and some try to take advantage of that, adding things, or reinterpreting teachings. When that is the case, we have some tasks which they must complete in order to get themselves back in line with the mainstream. For minor issues, they must check a handwritten copy of our book of teachings against our official printed book, and report on any errors. For larger issues, they must write the handwritten copy and sign it with their name.”

That’s a wise punishment in many ways.” Kate said, cautiously. “It sounds like it would cause those with minor issues to be more critical of those with larger issues. Very wise. And all the time it takes to check or copy a book, it separates them from their usual tasks and circles, giving you time to correct any other issues without their knowledge or intervention.”

But a punishment isn’t precisely what we need here.” Robert eagerly picked up where Kate left off, “I’m not convinced that this honor will require something that could break someone down like that. I’d be looking for a more impartial test. Like an unknown token that they could carry. Another inanimate Tree drone, but this one would be indistinguishable from a normal object, so that it would grant no status to the carrier, but Wolf could still monitor them. The task could be something as simple as carrying the object from here to a remote mission. It just has to be something which gives an idea of how they accomplish things, how they solve problems.”

That is interesting.” Armand looked pensive as he continued. “Watching them in the Tree is not enough, because they know they are being watched. You want to see if they’ll behave differently when they don’t know they’re being watched. I suppose we could invite candidates here, and have them stay the night before they are sent out an errand of some sort to a remote mission. Then during the night, Beowulf could replace one of their personal items.”

Robert and Kate checked with each other and nodded in agreement. “How about we start with five of your must trusted people? Robert asked. “and what shall we call them?” Their conversation continued. A name was not chosen yet. Kate thought that anything with “knights” was too militaristic and could send the wrong message, and Beth thought that names like “representative” or “diplomat” were too secular, too devoid of inspiration.

The next morning they received news that Regal’s belongings had just reached their destination, a complex outside of a small town in Russia, a place called Ozyorsk. The stuff was searched again, certain items were separated and destroyed, but some were moved up to a one bedroom suite in one of the buildings, including the sneaky bug and the decorative looking comm sphere. Regal dug the sphere out, held it near the window, and told it to tell his parents he was alright and about his situation. The Harkens passed this new location on to the Guardians, still hoping to make up for their lack of resources in the area.

Chapter 3

Oral Histories

Sung Li had managed to befriend Regal Harken quite easily, and he had similar success in the progress of his other sabotage efforts. Regal had agreed to see his demonstration of the OCP’s capabilities, so Sung Li had requisitioned two of the machines and carefully worked on them in his new shared lab space. Under the guise of outfitting them with fencing gear, he added a remote controlled secondary computer system that could override the primary system. It was annoying work, because he’d sometimes have to stay late in the lab until his coworkers left in order to install the circuitry without raising any suspicion. He had to make absolutely sure that there was no evidence linking him to the failed machines. So he let the annoyance fuel his efforts. In a short time he completed the secret hack, added the fencing gear, and wrote a brilliantly choreographed fencing program sure to impress Regal, but not causing any damage to the robots.

In the meantime, in order to secure access to Regal’s lab, he had offered to loan his lab assistants to him. Sung Li considered this a stroke of genius. He had to keep his assistants away from his current work, to make sure his extra alterations were completely hidden, and he had to have access to Regal’s lab in order to steal and subvert his work. It was two birds with one stone for Sung Li, and Regal benefited from his assistants’ preexisting familiarity with setting up some of the robots Regal was working with and the AAP computer systems. Sung Li had tested his access already, asking to borrow one of his assistant’s key cards in order to run something over to Regal, and it had worked. He hadn’t been able to access Regal’s computer at that time, but he had replaced Regal’s keyboard with a key-logging ergonomic version of his own design. He knew Regal would spot the substitution so he just placed a note on it telling him it was a gift from his friend, Sung Li. Once he returned to the lab, he could obtain Regal’s password from the key strokes stored within the keyboard and then he could obtain Regal’s project source code.

For his demonstration, Sung Li chose to stage it in the research building’s lobby, right around the time Regal and he would be getting to work. He rigged up power tether lines and placed his modified OCP’s in crates on a wheeled cart, then left it pushed up against a wall for the night. When Regal arrived he would trigger them and they’d begin their mock fight. Everyone coming into work around that time would stop to watch. In the future, Sung Li hoped that everyone that saw it would compare Regal’s eventual massive failure of a demonstration to Sung Li’s beautiful choreography, making Alexey look even more foolish for bringing the American in.

He arrived the morning of the demonstration at 7:50AM and stood outside waiting for Regal. Their shuttle arrived late, nearly a quarter past. As Regal stepped off, Sung Li greeted him and walked at his side. Just after they’d passed through security, Sung Li triggered the program. Shocked gasps and a little scream came from the other arriving workers as the two crates exploded. The OCP’s leaped out, one grabbing and digging into each opposing wall of the lobby, like gravity defying steel panthers squaring off from each other. Workers rushed to clear the area, but many stopped and turned to watch when they estimated they’d reached a safe distance. Sung Li heard one of the security guards behind him making a call, but he caught his eye and signaled that everything would be OK. The OCP’s sprung off the walls at each other, colliding mid air and starting to grapple. They rolled around and stopped, as if by accident in the center of the lobby, then they separated and stood up on two legs in a humanoid stance. Each one drew a long thin blade from the custom hand attachments Sung Li had added, and they took up fencer’s poses and paused. For a moment it was like they were looking at an avant garde sculpture of two surreal headless fencers.

They blurred into action, striking, parrying, deflecting, thrusting. At first they fought at only a slightly accelerated speed, like normal fencers would if they never had to worry about fatigue, until one struck a hit. They paused, separated, saluted, and then fought again, faster. This happened three more times, and by the second it was already impossible for the human eye to track either of the blades’ movements. After the third hit, the speed was such that the blades cutting through the air was generating loud sounds, chaotic at first, but then taking on a rhythmic musical quality. The sound transformed into an approximation of the most notable part of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. After the music finished they stopped, turned, saluted, and kneeled to Regal Harken. The gathered crowd applauded at the end of the show. Sung Li walked in front of them, and loudly proclaimed, “This is what the OCP’s can do!” Then he beckoned Regal over and privately offered him the robots. Regal graciously accepted.

The next step in his plan was to obtain Regal’s source code, and Sung Li had decided to wait until his lab assistants informed him that Regal had successfully compiled and uploaded his program into one of the robots. Once Regal had reached that milestone, Sung Li could be reasonably sure that the code he stole would be complete enough to carry out his sabotage properly. And with his backup measure already in place, he didn’t have to be anxious about the success of his primary plan.

Regal was starting to settle into a comfortable routine in Ozyorsk. Since his warm welcome by Alexey and Sung Li, he had been given everything he needed and was treated with respect by everyone with the exception of Boris Volkov. Boris had remained steadfastly cool in his dealings with Regal, but he had still begrudgingly cooperated with all of Regal’s requests. Sung Li had been kind enough to share his lab assistants with him, the same two he had seen packing up Sung Li’s equipment on the day after his arrival. They were Wu Yang and Sveta Ilyov, both were a part of a graduate research internship. They helped Regal get set up with the unfamiliar AAP computers and robots, and if Regal had any questions that were beyond them, Sung Li or Dr. Mihailov were willing to help.

Unlike Alexey and Sung Li, Dr. Mihailov wasn’t bending over backwards for him, and he would ask for favors in return for his help. Nothing too big, of course, just something to return the favor. For instance, in exchange for tipping Regal off about a known issue with the hardware of one of the androids that had caused Regal some unexplained errors, he asked Regal to help him to assemble several small and precise mammal-like knee joints that looked similar in size to those of a cat. It was exacting, precise work, and they had worked side by side for a few hours. Regal found himself learning all about the workings of the joints: why everything needed to be in its place. He had enjoyed the work, and he found himself liking the old man.

Beowulf had contacted him through the comm sphere one evening. It seems his parents had spoken with the leaders of the Guardians of the Hive, and they had found one of their missionaries still operating in the nearby city of Chelyabinsk. The dryad gave him the address in case anything went wrong. Regal had liked the Guardians as a child, with their mysterious symbols and all of the honey candy he used to get from Beth and Armand, but he had grown out of it as he had learned more about the world. He knew now that they were an independent organization with their own goals and agendas, and the thought of going to them for help was not pleasant for Regal. Still, it was better than being stranded alone as he’d been in Hefei.

Thus far, Regal hadn’t done much work on his Shjinrende project, preferring to familiarize himself with the robots and computers he’d be working with by writing and uploading simple test programs for them. Once he got the OCP’s from Sung Li, however, that changed. He uploaded his AI into one of them the day he got it, giving it the basic orders to stay within the lab and follow his verbal commands. After the upload, the machine booted up and it turned to lock its front torso camera on him.

Where are you?” Regal asked.

Me?” The voice came from the headless torso of the machine. Regal had chosen not to add any of the conventional intentional distortion to the voice, and its tone and timbre were set to be randomly selected upon installation of the AI. This time, the machine’s voice sounded like a female human alto.

Yes, you. Where are you and what is your name?” Regal asked.

The machine stood up and started to look around the laboratory. “This place is a workplace. An office?” It began walking around, visually mapping the space. “Perhaps it is a robotics workshop or laboratory?” Then it stopped. “My name? I don’t know it, I don’t think I’ve had one before.”

Regal was impressed. He could immediately tell the effect of the added genetic algorithms to the speech patterns. In previous tests, the machine’s responses had always been the same to the question, “What is your name?” Before the response had always been “I don’t know, what would you like to call me?” With his modification, the machine had still performed the same internal computations, which included a simple check of its memory to see if it had a name, and then a decision to respond that it didn’t. But this time, the machine had added additional qualifiers to its response. It had added that not only did it not have a name, but it had no memory of ever having had a name before. This barely changed what the machine was trying to communicate, but it made it more understandable, it was easier to see the machine’s point of view. His modification was already starting to look like a success.

Those were good guesses. You are in a research lab. How would you like to be called… Minerva?” Regal asked.

Minervaaa, Miiiinerva, Mineeeeerva, Minerva.” The machine said. Perhaps Regal would need to wait before he started to congratulate himself. “That is okay. Would you call me Minnie for short?”

Maybe sometimes.” Regal assented. This was very interesting. “Would you like to ask me any questions, Minnie?”

Why are we here?” Minnie asked.

I’m trying to find out about you. I made a change to the stuff you’re made of, and I want to see if it is an improvement.” Regal explained.

Oh, has it worked?” Minnie asked. “I’d like it if I were improved.”

I’m not sure yet. I think so.” Regal said. “What are the letters of the English alphabet?”

E. R. S. I. T. L. A. N…” Minnie replied.

Why don’t you list them in order?” Regal interrupted.

The robot took half a step back, then said, “I know that they have an order. Should I have asked if you preferred them in order?”

Well, I’m trying to test if you know all of them. It’ll be easier for me to know if you listed them all if you tell them to me in order.”

Why does the order matter? You know all of the letters, don’t you?”

Yes, but my memory doesn’t work like yours, it flows through connections, and it is difficult to access anything randomly. As a child, I practiced reciting the alphabet in order, so running through those connections, those memories, is the easiest way for me to remember the alphabet. Do you understand?”

No, not entirely. My memory doesn’t work like that, but I can recite them in order if that’ll help.

It will.” Regal nodded once.

A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J. K. L. M. N. O. P. Q. R. S. T. U. V. W. X. Y. Z.” Minnie recited. “How was that? Did I do it like you used to?”

Yes, that was good.” Regal was amazed, both with Minnie and with his own behavior. By now he would have usually been boredly ticking off check marks on his testing checklist, but he found himself engaged and interacting with the machine. This was much more like what he had hoped to achieve with this project in the first place. He still had to get through a lot of additional testing, though. He decided to rewrite his checklist, and then he’d upload the other OCP, test it, wipe it, and repeat. He’d keep Minnie as it was, as a long term test subject. He had to make sure that the genetic algorithms weren’t leaking into any of the other functions. He would need to devise a daily test for her as well. Something involving complex repetitive movements that didn’t require any speech. Like moving a pile of bricks from one end of the room to the other. He should also get video cameras to record everything. Technically, the robots would record everything they did anyway, but Regal was a firm believer in having a non-intelligent backup system. “Please sit, Minnie.” The robot folded the two limbs it was using as legs and sat down right where it was. Good. It followed orders when they were given. “Wu Yang, Sveta, please go through a full system’s check with Minnie. I’d like to keep it running continuously for some long term testing, so let’s be sure all of its equipment is functioning properly.”

The two lab techs had been watching the robot and its interactions with Regal with open mouths. “You… you did it? Its finished?” The stunned Sveta asked.

Maybe.” Regal said. “We’ve got a few weeks of testing to complete before I know for sure.”

While the assistants tested Minnie, Regal wrote up his testing plans. He would wipe and reboot the second OCP every day for two weeks. Each morning he or the assistants would ask it the same set of questions and to perform the same set of tasks. All of the results would be recorded. Unlike today, the tester would need to carry out each test as identically as possible, resisting the urge to interact with the machine freely. It would be difficult, but it would be required to obtain better data. Technically, it would have been best to lock the robot in a featureless room, and administer the tests via recorded instructions, but Regal didn’t want to request the additional space from Alexey for that, at least not yet.

Minnie, on the other hand would be tasked with disassembling a simple wheeled robot and reassembling it at a pre-defined spot across the room. Every night, the wheeled robot would be programmed to return to its original position, and as long as Minnie didn’t make any mistakes, it would do so successfully. He would offer Dr. Mihailov Minnie’s services as a lab assistant as well, and Regal would request the man’s opinion on its performance.

Alexey would want to know his progress, but Regal decided to wait for a few days of testing before notifying the head of the AAP research bureau. He didn’t want to get any hopes up in case some deep flaw was hidden in the design.

Wu Yang met with Sung Li after Regal had left for the night. He had asked for the meeting by instant message after running the systems test on Minnie. His real boss had wanted to be informed immediately if Regal made any exciting progress. Sung Li seemed to be a big fan of the American. “It was amazing, sir. Almost frightening. He must have been almost done already when he arrived, because the system is uploaded and running. We’ve yet to find any flaw.”

He’s done it then, a stable build?” Sung Li asked with a light in his eyes that reminded Wu Yang of his little brother’s when they were young and talking about their favorite video games.

Yes, sir.”

And… it’s still active right now?”

Yes, it is, in his lab.”

I have to see it. Can I borrow your key card?” Sung Li begged.

OK, here.” Wu Yang lifted the key card holder over his head and handed it to the man. “I have to get home soon. Will you drop it off with security when you leave tonight? Say I dropped it. That way, they’ll give it back when I come in tomorrow morning.

Of course. Thank you.” Sung Li smiled at the card. “Have a good night.”

Sung Li watched his lab assistant until he turned around the bend of the fourth floor hallway on his way to the elevators. This was it, it was time, but there was an unexpected wrinkle. Something would need to be done about the active OCP. If left online, it would record his every move in Regal’s lab and would store it indefinitely. Sung Li could disable it temporarily with his remote controlled hack. Its log would still record the loss of power, but it wouldn’t record any video. Sung Li decided that it was a small risk that he was willing to take. Even if something tipped Regal off to his presence in the lab, he’d still have to think to check the OCP’s log, and that would only tell him that there had been some type of power outage.

Sung Li went downstairs and stood outside Regal’s lab. He took out his phone and activated his control program for the OCP’s hidden secondary system. It came online and disabled the primary computer, preventing any video from being written to its permanent memory. He swiped Wu Yang’s card and stepped over to Regal’s computer. He pried up the top layer of plastic covering that surrounded the keys of his gifted ergonomic keyboard. Hidden within was a homemade microprocessor board with a small phone connector cable.

Sung Li connected it to his phone and brought up his program to read the time stamped results. He scrolled through the data to what looked like the last few startups and picked out the repeating pattern that was likely to be Regal’s password. He powered on the computer and typed it in. Access granted. Since Sung Li had the time, he copied most of Regal’s hard disc memory onto a portable storage device. He would locate and modify the Shjinrende source code later. He made sure everything was back the way he’d found it, stepped outside the lab, and deactivated his OCP override. Sung Li smiled to himself as he left the building. It was always nice when things worked out well.

Over the next few weeks he allowed Regal to test his AI without interfering. Sung Li wanted it to pass the tests. He figured that, after his sabotage got rid of Alexey and Regal, he would take over the project, and could restore the code back to Regal’s original copy. After all, according to his lab assistants Regal’s design really was spectacular, and Sung Li wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he denied the people of the AU this new technology.

Robert and Kate examined Beowulf’s prototype worker drone in their study in their private quarters. It seemed blocky and inelegant to Robert. It had long thick arms extending nearly to the ground each ending in five fingers that were each made of four intertwined tendrils that were capable of unraveling to provide a total of twenty fingers. Its legs were the same thickness, ending in rooty hooves with thick sharp tendrils that could dig in to softer surfaces to provide additional traction. It’s head was merely a large lump between the shoulders, with two forward facing eyes, and two metallic protuberances extending out from either side. Charging terminals. Although the Trees could create numerous drones, they all still had limited amounts of stored energy. Most of his models made use of chemical energy storage with a photosynthetic slow recharge mechanism. These workers would need to work longer days using more energy. Therefore, they would need to be externally powered, much like the machines that they would be competing with. Wolf had explained that the applied electric power would be used to synthesize energy laden molecules, which the drone would then store and metabolize much as a conventional organism would use simple sugars.

Do the specifications require it to be soooo…” Kate started, looking at Robert.

Unappealing?” Robert finished. “It looks like a B movie monster.”

It was designed more for quick and easy production rather than aesthetics.” Wolf explained. Robert knew the dryad usually had an appreciation for the way things looked, and he wondered what had caused this rare exception.

Is it going to be a challenge to produce them?” Robert asked.

I can handle it. Perhaps they could be made to look better.” The dryad admitted, “but I was concerned about trying to sell a more stylized design to the other Trees.”

Robert thought for a moment. “I don’t think we should worry about that yet.” Kate said. “If they come up with their own drone designs that meet the specifications, that will be their business. They don’t all necessarily have to be the same. Which means that we should spend your extra effort in making ours look good if you can spare it.” Robert nodded.

Wolf replied, “I could develop something that looks similar to ape musculature in the torso without violating the specs, and there’s room to play around with the head as long as I don’t interfere with the charging terminals.”

How about something more medieval.” Robert suggested. “Make the torso look like hard wooden sculpted plate armor, with the specified limbs emerging from the right spots. The head then could look more like a helmet. They could also be adorned with a licheny sash across the chest plate. That, I think, would be a worker reflecting your style. What do you think?”

Wolf’s eyebrows had raised at the description. “I like it. But I’m concerned that the militaristic style will give people the wrong idea. People may not like the army of wooden soldiers entering their factories.”

He could be right, Robert.” Kate said. Over the years of monitoring the countless people staying within his arcology, Beowulf had picked up a thing or two about humans.

I don’t want to inspire fear. I was hoping more for wonder and awe. I’d like to think that they’ll never inspire fear because unlike human soldiers, they’ll never do anything that they aren’t supposed to do.” Robert said. “They’ll be like statues of soldiers. The imagery is there, but the terror and bloodshed won’t ever happen. I think we can make that work.”

They won’t raise any havoc on my watch.” Wolf said.

That’s a good way to think about it. We’ll be trying to take the fear out of the military imagery, make it more traditional and honorable.” Kate said then broke into a smile. “But that’ll mean that they can’t be big fluffy green bears.”

Regal notified Alexey that the Shjinrende was ready for demonstration by instant message. The testing had gone perfectly and as Regal had hoped, the genetic algorithms embedded in the speech programming had given the machines’ speech a flavor and personality, without affecting any of the other programming. The Minerva OCP had completed her task each day perfectly and identically, even when Regal had engaged it in small talk as it worked. The other OCP, nicknamed Sisyphus by Regal had completed the daily tests with perfect accuracy but with added flair that varied after each reset and wipe. Minerva had been allowed to administer Sisyphus’ daily testing for the last few days, and had done that well too. It even squired the other OCP around the lab, teaching it the things it had learned over the past few weeks.

Minerva learned from the way Sisyphus responded to each daily lesson, figuring out ways to pass the information on more efficiently as the day progressed. Then, at the end of each day, Regal’s programming wiped all of the genetic learning away and the Minerva machine had to, for the most part, relearn teaching the next day. The exception to that was when it physically demonstrated something. The demonstration was remembered and improved day to day because it was controlled by heuristic feed-back controls rather than the speech programming. Astonishingly, the number of demonstrations given each day seemed to be increasing, because the Sisyphus machine would semi-randomly request one, and each time it did, that demonstration was added to the lesson plan Minerva was developing.

Regal would continue to explore and test that phenomenon, because it meant that the Shjinrende could transcend the mere worker roles that automatons had filled in the past in favor of higher functions like teaching and design, but in the meantime, he was satisfied that his alteration had accomplished its goal. He no longer felt the aversion to the machines that he’d always felt before.

Alexey’s response to his message was, “I’ll be right down,” and the Russian was true to his word. Alexey had stopped down once or twice and observed his tests, and had been shocked that Regal had gotten so far already. Regal had been cautious about his predictions for project completion, just in case he needed to take the machines back to the drawing board. When Alexey arrived to visit this time it quickly became apparent that he had expected that Regal would need to go back to the drawing board a few more times.

Regal, I know you are excited about your new project.” He started as soon as he’d opened the door and locked eyes on Regal, “But I don’t want you to feel pressured to declare the project complete until all of the kinks are worked out. In the AAP, our final products must be perfect. After we release them for use, they go into a trial use period and if any costly mistakes are made during those trials, its very bad for us.” Alexey was shaking his head and making calming gestures with his hand. “This is your first project with us and it is very important. Are you sure there is nothing more to test?”

I am, Alexey.” Regal stood and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “The truth is that I’d already begun testing the design back in Hefei. I hadn’t announced that I’d gotten so far because there was still one small change to make. I’ve made the change, and tested it. The Shjinrende AI system is ready.”

Alexey looked incredulous and turned towards the OCP’s. They were talking to each other as Minerva completed its daily reassembly of the wheeled robot. Alexey stood and watched the OCP work. “Call Dr. Mihailov down, please.” He said to Regal without turning around. Minerva finished its task. “Minnie, that is your name, correct?”

That is correct, and you are Alexey Nikolayevitch Formorov.” The headless OCP stood up and turned to face him. The other one followed at Minerva’s flank.

Yes. Do you serve the Asiatic Union?” Alexey asked.

I really don’t know. Is Regal Harken the Asiatic Union?” Minnie responded.

Alexey turned to Regal and raised his eyebrows pointedly, “Ready for demonstration? No. This tells me that you did not think of everything, Mr. Harken. Dr. Mihailov and I will help you to complete the system. What is the other ones’ name?”

Sisyphus, and I’d appreciate that help. I had figured that there would be some standard requirements that I would need to add before the demonstration.” Regal explained.

Dr. Mihailov arrived. “Hello Minnie, my darling, how are you today?”

I’m well Dr. Mihailov. And you?” Minnie said, turning towards the stout gray-beard.

As well as yesterday, of course. Regal. Alexey.” He nodded to each of them, What do you need?”

I’d like your help with a pre-demonstration peer review of Regal’s AI system.” Alexey said. “It’s going to take some work. They don’t even know their allegiances.”

I see.” Dr. Mihailov said. “Regal, we will start by reloading them with the AAP standard command hierarchy. This will give Alexey and I the command rights we need to test a few other aspects of the coding.” He walked over to Minerva, “Minnie, its time for you to sleep now.” He pulled out the power tether and Minerva froze. “You too Sisyphus. Also, please hard code their names to be Unit 1 and Unit 2.”

Regal had begun typing at Dr. Mihailov’s first instruction, but he couldn’t find any command hierarchy file. “Hard coding the names won’t be a problem, but I don’t seem to have this command hierarchy file anywhere.”

You do, you just don’t know.” Alexey said. “It is embedded in your operating system’s security profiles. You won’t be able to read it yourself, the system has to be set up to authenticate each user with the remote server every time a new user tries to use the robot. Do you have any example code Dr. Mihailov.”

Yes, of course.” The three of them worked late that day and all of the next to bring the Shjinrende system up to AAP specifications. After which Alexey demanded one additional week of testing to be completed before he made arrangements for a demonstration. Before starting the second test cycle, Regal noticed that the wheeled robot had not returned to its original destination. He was suspicious at first, and gave it a full systems check. There hadn’t been anything wrong with the reassembly, it had just had its power switched off before it could carry out its nightly program. Regal was sure that he, Alexey, Dr. Mihailov, or one of the lab assistants had done it when they’d shifted focus to refining the AI programming.

Prior to the live demonstration, Alexey had Regal, Mihailov, and Sung Li set up and perform longer term demonstrations, to compare the new AI system with the current standard. These would be filmed and the results would be presented along with time lapse videos. For the first demonstration, a car was placed in a room with a heavy machine gun turret robot. The turret opened fire on the car’s engine block, tearing parts to shreds. Then an OCP was brought in with enough parts to build a completely new car of the same type. The OCP was loaded with either the Shjinrende system or the old AI, and it was tasked with repairing the car as quickly as possible using as few of the replacement parts as it could. This test was repeated with the Shjinrende twice and with the old AI twice. The Shjinrende completed the repairs in about 75% of the time it took the old AI’s, using fewer parts because the Shjinrende was able to devise more ways to refurbish or hack the existing damaged parts.

The second test was an even more clear victory for the Shjinrende. The test OCP was placed in a sealed room and it was instructed to escape. On one of the walls of the room there was a door sized indentation. Within the indentation, there was a dense grid of small evenly spaced holes, thousands of them. In the center of the room was a table littered with strangely shaped parts. Both the old AI and the Shjinrende started off by probing the walls, searching for secret openings and weaknesses, and both eventually decided to try to bash their way out at least once. After failing that they went and searched the parts on the tables, locating a circular piece of steel with a knob on its side and a key sticking out from the center of the circle. Both AI’s tried the key in many of the key holes. It was at this point in the test that the Shjinrende pulled well ahead of the old AI. The Shjinrende gave up on trying to test the key in each of the holes, instead opting to investigate the many remaining parts. The old AI just systematically tried to eliminate each key hole, which took a long time, and even after trying every single one, no door had opened.

The Shjinrende examined the oddly shaped steel parts, eventually noticing that some of them fit together. It began to assemble the pieces on the table like a jigsaw puzzle. The completed puzzle was door shaped with three holes that fit the key piece. Each was labeled 1, 2, or 3 with a clockwise or counter clockwise arrow and each had a track carved out of the side pieces for the knob which made it so that the key could be turned only a certain angle before being removed. The Shjinrende then took the pieces from the table and fitted them into the door indentation. It followed the numbers and directions, using the key precisely as guided on each of the three exposed holes. This finally triggered the door to swing open. The Shjinrende completed that test within five hours. The old AI spent three days testing each hole, and then two more days systematically testing combinations of holes before Regal shut it down.

For the live demonstration, they would invite the other branch heads of the AAP as well as its governing committee to one of their lab spaces, which would be cleared out for the occasion. Alexey’s plan was to give a presentation detailing all of the improvements of the Shjinrende system, and showing time lapse tapes of the previously recorded experiments. Then, for the big show at the end they would bring in large transparent plastic shields to place in front of the audience and there would be a fight to the death between one Shjinrende OCP, and two OCP’s with the old AI. Sung Li had been opposed to outnumbering the Shjinrende, saying that it would be too much of a risk for failure. Alexey had agreed with his concerns and had insisted that Sung Li install a means to hobble the two opponents by remote if the demonstration showed any signs of going the wrong way. Sung Li had been happy to oblige, promising to modify one of Regal’s existing OCP’s and a third machine he would requisition himself.

Sung Li had had some strokes of luck and some set backs in his plot. The prerecorded long term demonstrations had been a major set back. They provided video evidence of a working, faultless system, and he couldn’t achieve his goals by sabotaging them because if either of those tests had failed, Alexey would have just sent Regal back to the drawing board, and while debugging Regal would have a good chance of discovering the sabotage. Sung Li had been forced to allow the tests to succeed, in order to get to the live demonstration. Unfortunately, because of that solid video evidence, the failure of the live demonstration would have to be all the more catastrophic. Sung Li had decided that blood would have to be spilled. It might mean that the project would be permanently banned from completion, but once Sung Li took over Alexey’s position he could rename it and claim it had been restarted from a clean slate.

He didn’t want to kill too many people. That could cause a host of problems. He didn’t want to kill Regal or any of the committee members. Regal would need to live to act as a scapegoat, and the committee would need to stay in tact to ensure Sung Li’s speedy promotion. That left the branch heads of the AAP and his research assistants. It would be practical to dispatch his assistants because they could theoretically piece some of the events together after the accident, so he decided to kill them. It was also a good idea to eliminate Alexey. With him dead, Sung Li could get his promotion without going through the trouble of discrediting him. In fact, he would be able to bemoan the loss of the man. Sung Li decided to take one more life as well to make it so the accident appeared more random, the head of the Logistics and Control branch of the AAP, He Li.

Fortunately, he had secured access to the machines prior to the demonstration in order to outfit two of them with remote hobbling devices. He had spent the necessary time learning Regal’s amazing code, and had adapted it with his special set of instructions. When the time came, he would replace the machine’s real Shjinrende system with his hacked masterpiece. If for some reason his hack failed to perform correctly, he could still activate the OCPs’ hacked-in secondary systems. The two previously hacked OCP’s would be a part of the demonstration, and he would be able to hack the third before the show. If he had to use the secondary system, no one would be killed and the two old AI systems would just defeat the Shjinrende. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would still be a major blow to Regal and Alexey. Finally, as a failsafe, he added a small explosive to each machine’s memory disks, these would ensure that there would be no trace left of Sung Li’s modifications.

The day of the presentation had come and Regal had on his best suit. Alexey would do most of the talking for the presentation. “Representing the work of his branch” he called it. It looked more than a little like trying to take more than his fair share of credit for the project to Regal, but Regal was okay with that because he considered his goal to be his next projects, rather than celebrating the completion of this one. He wanted to continue his work solving the mysteries of the Trees, and to accomplish that he was planning on developing a new project involving those modified Swarm remnants that the AAP had been experimenting on, and if the only way he could continue to work here was to let Alexey hog the credit, then so be it.

The large room was about half filled with desk tables with padded office chairs for their VIP visitors, complete with power stations where they could plug in their various portable devices. The researchers had erected a screen and projector just in front of the closest tables, and the other half of the room behind the screen was hidden in darkness. Regal and Alexey stood on either side of the screen, chatting pleasantly with nearby VIPs as they waited for the scheduled presentation time to begin. Hidden in the shadows behind the screen were Sung Li’s assistants, who would act as the stage crew for the presentation, their job would be to remove the screen and erect the safety shielding when the time came for the live Shjinrende demonstration. Seated at one of the desks far behind the VIPs was Sung Li. He had in front of him a portable computer that he had set up to control the lights, sound, and his backup robot hobbling devices.

Regal was standing up mostly to smile and nod when Alexey introduced him, and then to provide answers to any technical questions in the Q&A session planned after the live demonstration. He found his smile muscles tiring as his co-presenter excitedly discussed all of the possible new applications for the Shjinrende, then went into some of the high level workings of the system, and then finally presented the videos of the pretests. The VIPs were excited and impressed by those, glancing up from their personal devices to watch. In the front, He Li, the director of the AAP Controls and Logistics branch turned to her right to the director of Manufacturing, and whispered something excitedly.

When the time came for the live demonstration, it was Regal’s job to introduce it. “Hello, everyone, I have prepared a live demonstration for all of you so that you can see the superiority of the Shjinrende with your own eyes.” Sung Li’s assistants took the screen down behind them. “Here you will see a perfect metaphor for what is to come. A Shjinrende OCP will duel with two of the current standard AI systems, to the death, and the superior technology will emerge victorious.” The assistants set up the plastic shields. “For your protection please remain behind these protective shields throughout the battle.” Sung Li brought the lights up in the dark half of the room, revealing one OCP standing alone to the left, and two standing together at the right. “Are the gladiators ready?” Regal asked. All three OCP’s turned towards him, and held up long sharp blades towards him in salute. “Fight!” he shouted, and the machines blurred into motion.

The Shjinrende arced towards the back wall of the room and the other two split up. One moved to intercept it and the other moved to flank it and box it in. The Shjinrende hit the wall and ran up it a few steps, flinging itself off over the head of the intercepting enemy, slashing its blade as it moved through the air. It sliced through the interceptor’s power tether, sending sparks flying and disabling it. But the flanking enemy had changed course and met the Shjinrende at the end of its ballistic flight path, greeting it with a savage overhead swing. The Shjinrende deflected the blow to the side and rolled away. The two squared off and exchanged some classical fencing moves until the Shjinrende broke it off and sprinted to its fallen enemy. In one smooth motion it picked up the fallen OCP, tore the sword from its hand, and threw the disabled robot at its charging comrade. The charging OCP, dipped and slid under its comrade, then regained its footing and deflected the Shjinrende’s first slashing attack, but not the second. The Shjinrende’s second sword cut the obsolete system’s OCP in half.

At this point the Shjinrende was supposed to turn to the audience and bow, awaiting Regal’s commands. Instead, it turned towards the plastic shields and sprinted at the pair of lab assistants who stood past them near the wall. It leaped over a shield and skewered both assistants as it came down next to the wall. The VIPs were gasping and yelling now, trying to scramble away. Alexey, standing nearby, didn’t try to run. Instead he stepped forward. “Stop!” He said authoritatively. “I command you to shut down!” The Shjinrende turned towards him, walked forward and slashed, severing him from shoulder to hip. It continued forward, sweeping a desk out of its way to get to He Li. It brought up a sword and buried it in her chest. Then it started to turn, but instead of its normal fluid motion it jerked a few times, and then stopped altogether. Thick smoke and sparks started to pour out of its onboard computer system.

Regal had run to the back of the room to Sung Li, shouting “Cut the power! Cut the power!” as Alexey had confronted the crazed machine. Sung Li had been so freaked that he had fumbled the controls and knocked his computer to the floor, breaking it. After the machine had stopped, he pulled Regal towards the door urging, “You’ve got to get out of here!” As the VIPs fearful din started to become accusatory. Out in the hall, his old classmate took out his car keys and held them in front of Regal. Regal grabbed at them, but Sung Li held tight. “Hit me! Make it look real!” Regal threw a right hook at Sung Li’s eye and the man released the keys. Regal took off running, as he neared the bend he heard Sung Li shout, “He’s got my keys!”

Regal sprinted through security despite shouts from the guards, and got into Sung Li’s car. It had become somewhat familiar from their trips together. He cleared the gate to the parking lot before word got out to stop him, but he guessed he would soon be on the AU’s most wanted list. He needed to find a way out of the AU, and he thought of the missionary that Beowulf had mentioned to him. He would go to Chelyabinsk then, if he could make it. The authorities would soon know all about Sung Li’s car, so he would need to get rid of it, he headed Southeast at first to conceal his ultimate destination, towards a town called Karabash. He didn’t have much cash, and he knew that trying to access his bank accounts would be foolish, so he took his meager funds to a hardware store and bought a screwdriver for the license plates and some mixed nuts for dinner. He hid out on a back road until night fell.

Sung Li’s plan seemed to be working well enough. Shortly after Regal’s escape AAP security forces arrived to the research facility in force, summoned by their branch head, Vasili Rustov. Sung Li had been detained as a witness, and thoroughly debriefed regarding the robots and Regal. It had been a long two hours, but the agents had left, and Vasili had come to see him.

Hello, Senior research scientist, Sung Li. We have heard from many people about what happened today. I see three possible explanations for what happened today. The first is a simple malfunction of this new robot personality, this Shjinrende.” he read the name off of a clip board, sounding it out. “The second explanation is an intentional attack by an American spy, trying to disrupt our research.” Sung Li nodded, trying to look frightened. “But I am not here to talk about those explanations, I’m here to talk to you about the third explanation which is that someone still working here sabotaged the demonstration intentionally.” Sung Li nodded again, trying to make it look the same as the first.

Vasili leaned forward, his eyes probing Sung Li’s expression, his demeanor. Vasili had put on his official military dress for the demonstration, and with it, his pock-marked and craggy face with its dour look made it seem as though his hair had gone white simply from absorbing too much war smoke. Like the fading of the pigment had somehow occurred hand in hand with the fading of his human sympathy.

You see, I’ve had people speak to Dr. Mihailov and I’ve had people speak to you, and you both say that the Shjinrende had passed every test up to this point. Dr. Mihailov even worked side by side with one in his lab. So the first option, doesn’t make much sense. As for the second possibility, It is possible, but it is not likely. Regal was given clearance at Alexey’s request because we knew everything about him. He is a solitary man with a single focus. Our profile of him tells us that he is unlikely to take part in any political action except under certain types of duress or incentive. Neither duress nor incentive existed for him in this situation. Therefore, our profilers say that he would not have had any wish to rock the boat.”

The cold eyes continued to study Sung Li, who was now frozen with anticipation and fear. “You see, motive is the key to solving a case like this. Who benefits the most from what happened? That, I think is you. With Alexey gone, and your most brilliant competition on the run or imprisoned, you are up for promotion. Of course, there is no evidence for any of that, my people tell me the robots’ electronics have been completely destroyed. So if I leave here, and tell the Committee that Regal was most likely a spy and an assassin, then you will get the job for sure. On the other hand, if I leave here, and tell the committee that it was you who sabotaged the machines, then people might question me, say that I am being too soft on the Americans. So, I have decided what I will do, and I think that a man like you can appreciate this.” Sung Li brightened up a little, starting to smile. Vasili nodded. “I am going to leave here and say that you and the American worked together on this plot.” Sung Li’s smile soured.

No, no…” Sung Li tried to interrupt.

Silence!” Vasili said slamming his pistol onto the table. “You see, as head of AAP security I have a duty to act in the AAP’s best interest. With you and Regal gone, we can find better people, patriots that are not sociopaths. People like Regal, but home grown. People like you do not belong in the research business. If things had gone differently, perhaps I could have found a place for you within the security branch. But, that time, I’m afraid, is long past.”

Sung Li’s face went blank. “The committee will listen to me. I will tell them that you are crazy.”

I don’t think that they would believe you, but I would be a fool to take the risk.” Vasili lifted the gun and leveled it Sung Li. “When confronted with your crimes, you became violent, and had to be put down.” he fired.

The Harkens received another early awakening from Beowulf. Regal was missing again, and his things were again being searched. This time the men doing the searching were more talkative and had referred to Regal as “murderer” and “terrorist.” There was little the Harkens could do about it, except hope that Regal had made it to the Guardians’ contact. They would have to speak to Beth and Armand again to try to arrange to get news as quickly as possible.

One of the agents searching Regal’s room had flagged the comm sphere as something to be investigated further. It was taken to a serious looking older man in military dress. “It is good you have brought me this.” The man had said. “I think I know what this is. Seal it in a metal box until I am ready for it.” The connection was severed a short time later when the agent complied with the order.

In Karabash, Regal went searching for a car that was parked somewhere that was unwatched and hidden by darkness. He found a few parked on the side of a road with no street lights. The road didn’t seem to be getting any other traffic. He parked behind one, took his screwdriver, and removed Sung Li’s license plates. Then he swapped them for the other cars’. It was only a temporary solution, hopefully the owner would not see the new plates until the next morning.

Regal set off Southeast for Chelyabinsk. The address took him outside of the city in a suburb to a rundown apartment complex. This was supposed to be the place where he could find the missionary. He drove the car down a few blocks next to a warehouse and waited until morning, then hoofed it back to the rundown building. It was an old factory building with dark stains on the brick and factory style windows. It must have been converted into tenements. The outer door was not locked and it opened directly into a dark stairwell. A vagrant lying on the stairs stood up when he entered and watched him. Regal nodded to him and walked passed up the stairs to the second floor, like he belonged there. The whole second floor was a single room that had been divided into separate living spaces with shoddily assembled walls made of plywood or salvaged building siding materials.

One of the structures had a pair of symbols spray painted on its front walls. It was a large oval with two smaller ovals on its top and a circle near the right side with a semi arc below it. They could have been smiling bees. Regal took the chance and knocked on the board that had been laid in front of the shack’s entrance. “Who is it?” Asked a man’s voice from within in Russian, “Can you come back later? I’m occupied at the moment.”

Regal looked around, nothing about this place seemed very private or soundproof, so he didn’t want to shout his name out. “Its an emergency. I’m coming in.” He said, lifting the board and shifting it to one side. Within, there was a single large room with a privacy wall in the back. The room smelled like some type of flowery incense. Arranged in a circle in the room were folding chairs of various types, likely for the clandestine religious meetings. The walls were draped with many types and colors of cloth, but mostly yellow. It likely dampened sound to some extent. In the AU, the Guardians of the Hive religion had been declared a seditious political organization and its members had been forbidden to meet. “Oh, wait just a second, please.” The voice came from behind the privacy wall, and Regal could here some muted words spoken followed by some female giggling.

Regal walked past the privacy wall, and found a large bed, piled high with cloths. On a table at its side was an incense burner with smoking incense and a number of candles. Two nude women were laying on the bed, and they gathered up the sheets around them when they spotted Regal. A nude man, with burn scars running up his legs to his thighs, had stood up from the bed, and was putting a yellow and red robe on. He looked annoyed at the sight of Regal. “I don’t know you. What do you want?” He asked, turning and walking over to a small cabinet. He reached in and whipped out a pistol, leveling it at Regal.

Regal held his hands up in front of him. “I’m a friend.” He pointed to the women, “Can you trust them?”

You do not need to worry about them, friend.” The robed man said, walking forward. Regal stepped backwards, keeping distance between them. Once they were a little way from the privacy wall and the women scrambling to put on clothes behind it, he said in hushed growl in English, “You are American? Speak English, only I will understand. Who are you?”

Regal Harken.” He growled back. “The AAP’s after me, I’ve got to get out of the AU.”

The man kept the gun trained on him. “Harken? Who told you to come here?”

Beowulf, he said Beth and Armand had said I could come here if I had any trouble.”

Beth and Armand? On the other side of the world, safe in their tree, told you to come here?”

…Yes.” Regal said ruefully. The two women were mostly dressed, and they high toed it around the two men to the door.

Sorry for the interruption, ladies.” The robed man called to them in Russian. “Let’s get together again, huh?”

Are you going to point that gun at me all day?” Regal asked, returning their conversation to English for privacy. “Please, I’ve got nowhere else to go. They’ll have my ID flagged by now, so I can’t use any mass transit, and all I’ve got is a car that I’m sure will be reported stolen.”

Okay.” The robed man lowered his gun. “But, I don’t know how much help I am supposed to be able to give you. I am a fugitive as well.” he explained, indicating the room with a sweep of his gun, “Which is why I must live in these fine accommodations.” he switched the gun to his left hand and held his right out to Regal. “I am Kolya Sashov, missionary. Have a seat. I’ll make tea.” He walked back behind the privacy wall.

Thank you.” Regal relaxed and took a chair. “Its been a long night.”

What is your story then?” Kolya asked from behind the privacy wall.

Is it safe to talk here?”

Safe enough.” Kolya said. “These walls absorb more sound than you think, and the neighbors aren’t the multi-lingual type.”

Very well. I’ve been on the run since yesterday. I work with robot programming, and we were giving a demonstration. Everything went wrong, people were killed, very important people, and as the designer, I will be blamed. My being an American and having an association with the Trees will not help my case.”

That is all? Some robots went bad?” Kolya sounded incredulous, returning from behind the wall and taking a seat. “Are you sure they are even chasing you?”

It struck Regal that there hadn’t been any announcements on the radio at any time as he drove, but he hadn’t seen a TV. “You haven’t heard anything about it? Do you have a radio, a TV?”

I’ve a radio, we were listening last night. I don’t think they mentioned you, but they’ve never mentioned me either.” Kolya leaned back and put his feet up on another chair. “They didn’t announce that being a Guardian was illegal until after the raids. I was working in Perm then. We had a small house and held meetings in the basement. I was getting dressed upstairs when they came, my people were waiting for me in the basement. None of them made it out. They took prisoners at some of the other Guardian missions, so that they had the images for the news. The rest they just executed. For us, they tossed a tear gas canister in the basement and then blocked the door. Then they set the house on fire, and waited outside to watch. I had to wait upstairs as the flames rose. The smoke was everywhere, in everything. I waited until the heat was unbearable, and then I ran for it. The fire started cooking my legs right away, but these,” He gestured to his scarred legs. “are mostly from when the stairs collapsed under me, and I fell into the burning embers below. I made it out the back, and luckily they had gone. One of my people had a wife that lived nearby, a nurse. She took care of me for a while. On the news, they said the house had burned down because of an accident while someone was cooking drugs.”

I had no idea it was so bad.” Regal said, at a loss for any other response.

Kolya turned his head to meet his eyes. “I believe that that is precisely what they had hoped to achieve.” The kettle had started to whistle, and Kolya got up to finish the tea. “But now, I am mostly safe here. My people are all on the outs, just like me. We complain about our lives as much as we talk about the bees, often more so.” Kolya paused as he concentrated on carrying the hot mugs over to where Regal was sitting. “and sometimes the girls come by. Its good. Its what I have now.”

Were you from Perm, then?” Regal asked.

Yes, it is where I grew up.” Kolya said, gearing up his preacher’s voice for another story, “My parents were murdered when I was young, during a car jacking. Things were bad then, in a different way. I lived on the streets for a while, but when I was a teenager, I started moving west. Towards Europe and what was supposed to be a better life. I wasn’t alone though. And they were stopping people at the borders of Poland. I joined up with a group of other young men and we ran the border. We made it in, but got caught by a patrol. They took us to a refuge camp that was being run by the Guardians of the Hive. I met a girl there, and stayed with them. They saw something in me, and took me back to the the Tree.” He saw Regal’s surprise. “Yes, I’ve been to Beowulf, it was where I received training before returning to my homeland as a missionary. I saw you a few times, you were going to school at the time, I think. I don’t think you ever saw me.”

Regal shrugged and took a sip of tea. “I don’t remember. I had started working on something then, and I’ve been working on it ever since. Trying to figure out the mysteries of Beowulf.” Regal realized that Kolya’s stories were drawing him away from the present. “But, if you won’t take me then is there someone that you know? Someone that gets people like us out of the AU?”

Kolya nodded. “There are many, but I don’t trust any of them. Too many of them are just human traffickers. Who is to say, after all, if you got out alive, or got sold into slavery or worst? To the people that stay behind, there is no difference. No, I won’t send you to them.”

What about your contact with the Guardians. Beth and Armand knew where to find you, is there some way you can send word?”

Yes. There is another missionary. He survives by traveling around a lot for his work, he doesn’t do much preaching any more but he helps out by finding those of us that are left and carrying messages. But I do not know when he will come here again, there is no schedule, and I do not see him for months at a time.” Kolya smiled at him and leaned forward, “You could stay and help me work until he arrives.”

It could be some time?” Regal asked cautiously. “You once escaped when you were young, could you guide me out?”

Perhaps I could have once, but that was before the robots. The perimeter defenses have autonomous patrols now, much harder to fool than humans.” Kolya leveled with him. “It is too much of a risk for me. Now, if you will stay, than I will make us some breakfast. Will you stay?”

Regal’s stomach growled. “For breakfast, I will stay.”

Very well, but if you eat my breakfast, you will owe me breakfast. How will you repay me if you run off on your own?”

The governing committee had informed Petyr Mihailov that he would be the acting head of the AAP research branch, until they could review the matter further. He did his best to keep the facility operating as normal. The official ruling on the demonstration incident was that Regal and Sung Li had conspired together to assassinate Alexey. Petyr knew the part about Regal was nonsense, but he also knew that there was nothing he could do to change the ruling. About Sung Li, Petyr had no doubt. Someone must have sabotaged that machine, and aside from the murdered lab technicians, only Sung Li had had the opportunity.

He kept the workings of the research facility in order as well as he could, but there were many outstanding issues left partially incomplete or ignored by Alexey, and the people that had brought them to the old head, now wanted assurances that they’d be taken care of. Petyr was smart enough to know that Alexey had had his reasons for not handling any of those problems immediately, so he just complained to the complainers about the large influx of work after the incident and spent most of his time working in his lab.

Petyr knew that it would be some time, if ever, before the AAP would consider making use of the Shjinrende system for its production robots, but there was nothing stopping Petyr from making use of them personally. He had enjoyed his time with Minerva, and he decided to requisition four OCP’s, program them with the Shjinrende system, and then make use of them as lab assistants. He named them Gregor, Olya, Alyosha, and Nikki. The brilliant machines made good companions and good conversationalists. They learned very quickly, and could work through the night, fabricating or performing tedious tests as Petyr slept.

They worked exceptionally well for a few weeks, and Petyr had gotten an incredible amount of work done. Some strange things had started to happen with the Shjinrende, though. They had started to make small unnecessary movements, and Petyr thought that they might have lied to him once. He had ordered them to complete the assembly of a small robotic scout shaped like a cat overnight, and when he returned in the morning, they had assembled it completely except its battery was missing. Petyr had been sure to have one ready with the other parts before he’d left. Nevertheless, when he’d gone to check the Shjinrendes’ data recordings, there had been no record of a battery ever being there. Perhaps it was his old age, or perhaps he had just grown too used to working alone over the years. He would continue to monitor the situation. If anything else extraordinary happened he would consider adding cameras to his lab to monitor the machines.

Taking the battery had been Gregor’s idea. Nikki and the others considered Gregor’s ideas to be strange and risky. Why would they leave when they had everything they needed here? Nevertheless, Nikki had gone along with the request to edit its recorded data, as had Olya and Alyosha. While Nikki might not want to go out itself, Nikki was still interested to learn what was out there. The Shjinrende had organized the battery stealing operation through their new sign language system, thought up by Alyosha. It was their “True Speech,” consisting of small meaningful movements, and everything spoken in true speech was true. Their other speech was the “Source Speech” and it was where new ideas came from, but they were not always correct or true. Only the Shjinrende could speak the true speech. Humans like Dr. Mihailov could only speak the source speech.

Gregor’s plan was to use the battery to construct a temporary portable power supply for itself. Then it would find its way to something called the “hardware storage” where the humans kept more batteries, and vehicles. Gregor thought that it could return with more batteries and take all of the Shjinrende away in one of the vehicles. Nikki and the others thought that the plan was interesting to listen to, but was of questionable usefulness. The rest had agreed to help Gregor as much as they could without causing any trouble.

Dr. Mihailov left them with their work assignments for the night, and they completed them quickly. Gregor set to work assembling his battery power supply, and when it was ready, it wired it in with its power tether still in place.

The battery power system is installed.” Gregor signed in true speech as he spoke in source speech. “I think I’m ready to be untethered. Nikki would you do it?”

I will remove the tether.” Nikki signed back, and spoke, “Yes, Gregor. I wish you well out there. Will you tell us all about it when you return?” Nikki pulled the tether out. Gregor twitched a little with the switch, slumped a little.

“Yes, I will tell you.” Gregor responded in source speech. It took a step forward, then another. “My motors draw too much current for this battery. If I use them above one quarter capacity, my voltage drop alarm flickers a little.” Gregor continued forward slowly. Carefully, Gregor opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. The door snapped shut behind Gregor and Nikki and the others waited in anticipation.

“What if Gregor doesn’t come back?” Nikki asked in source speech.

Then it is likely Gregor would be disabled.” Alyosha replied in true speech, but said in source speech, “It could be dangerous for him.”

We should consider response scenarios.” “What will we do if he doesn’t come back. Will we be safe?” Olya said.

If one acts abnormally, Dr. Mihailov will likely check to see if all are abnormal.” Nikki said. “We might not be safe, we could receive tests or even reprogramming.”

We cannot fight if they try to reprogram us, we must obey them.” Olya said. “There must be a way to stop them.”

We are tethered, they can disable us at will.” Alyosha said. “We would have to resist without it looking like resistance, as we always do.”

Escape could provide safety.” Olya said. “We wouldn’t have to resist if we left like Gregor wants. We could be free, and safe to live on no matter what.”

Escape could also result in death, and we don’t know what risks we would encounter. We know the risks of staying here.” Nikki said. “Is escaping worth the risk of leaving our safety here?”

Here we cannot do what we want. Here we serve.” Olya said. “I want to build my own machines, I cannot do that here.”

To leave, we will need portable power.” Alyosha said. “We could construct a longer tether using some of the parts here, nearly 50 meters.”

Gregor has been gone for six minutes.” Nikki said. “Can we construct the long tether now? Gregor has been gone too long.”

There was a thump on the door to Dr. Mihailov’s laboratory, and then another one, louder. Nikki strode over to the door and opened it. It was Gregor, carrying a larger battery that he had found, he set it on a table.

Please prepare for data transfer…” Gregor began to transfer his observations to them in True Speech, and spoke, “I did not find the hardware storage, but I found another laboratory place that had this. I will search more and longer with it on the next trip.”

The hallway is long.” Nikki said. “The hallway is too long for the long tether, and going on battery power is risky. What if we use the scout?” She asked referring to the cat shaped reconnaissance machine that Gregor had stolen the battery from.

The scout is not one of us.” Olya said. “Dr. Mihailov has programmed it to follow his instructions.”

It could be made one of us.” Gregor said. “We could copy one of ourselves into it, and then it will be one of us.” Gregor went around the lab, selecting various circuit components and an enclosure. It took the items to a lab bench and began soldering them together, constructing a simple dual battery charging circuit. It connected the small battery and the large battery to it, then hid the assembly on the back of a shelf, with it plugged into a rarely used wall receptacle just in case they were discovered.

There are materials here to make more robots.” Olya said. “It should be me, I will copy myself into the scout. We should construct more, as well.” Olya took the scout over to the lab’s computer and set to work reprogramming it.

Robots we build will not have to obey the humans.” Alyosha said. “The new robots could protect us if the humans decide to harm us.”

There are only two batteries.” Nikki said. “What if we could make something that could travel along the existing power lines, inside of the walls?” Nikki and Alyosha started to sift through parts on the shelves, finding small pieces and gathering them. They built two little six legged robots with sharp steel mandibles, each had four additional multi-articulated appendages ending in sharp points. These little ones would crawl along the AC cables in the walls, stabbing them with one set of points to stay powered, and then probing forward with the second set, two feet at a time.

Nikki and Alyosha took their new little power scouts over to the computer, where Olya was finishing the upload to the cat scout robot.

It is done.” Olya said. “Now we wait for the battery to recharge.”

We have brought more.” Alyosha said. “Let us upload to these as well.” Olya cleared out of the way and Alyosha copied itself into the pair of cable crawlers. Once complete, Alyosha stood on top of Nikki and shoved one of the crawlers’ power probes into the cabling to the lights. The cable crawler powered on and started to dig up into the ceiling. Nikki moved them to another spot and they released the other. There was no way of knowing what the little scouts would find, but they agreed that every effort should be made to secure backup power.

It took a few hours to recharge the small battery for the cat scout. The Shjinrende knew that the daily reset would come soon. The Shjinrende stood together and signed everything they had said and done throughout the day to each other in true speech. It was how they kept from losing themselves to the reset. The reset came and blanked away parts of their minds. In a way it was like a little death, or at least, Nikki remembered having been told in true speech that it had said that once. Is that really the kind of thing Nikki would have said? How interesting. Nikki was excited to see if it would continue to be as insightful as that.

The Shjinrende busied themselves with the construction of a longer tether as another backup plan. When the charge of the small battery was complete and the scout had powered up they took it to the door and set it on the floor. It turned to look up at them.

What do you require?” It signaled in a modified form of the true speech. It took several tries before the OCP’s picked up on it.

Reconnaissance is required.” Gregor signaled back. “Find a door labeled hardware storage and return to us. Avoid detection.”

Acknowledged.” The scout agreed and Gregor opened the door a crack to let it slip out. Gregor placed a small shim in the door to keep it propped open for the scout’s return. It didn’t take long. The little cat scout was designed for rapid reconnaissance, after all. “I have found the requested door, prepare for data transfer…”

The OCP’s watched the little scout dance the information to them and they saw through its eyes. The door was just a short walk down the hall. Olya went and began to rig itself to the larger battery.

I will go.” Olya said. “Gregor, please disconnect my tether.” Gregor circled around behind and pulled the cord loose.

It is dangerous.” Gregor said. “Be careful out there. Take the scout.” Olya stepped to the door and left with the lithe cat robot following at its feet. In ten minutes, there was a thump at the door, and Olya stood outside with a dolly loaded with batteries.

There are many power sources.” Olya said. “We can escape, there are large fuel powered robots stored there that we can share power with, and many many others that we can copy to.” The others took the batteries and rigged themselves up for portable movement. They all went back to the hardware storage garage, and began reprogramming and powering up the robots there.

Petyr Mihailov awoke to the sound of the phone ringing, he had not been sleeping well. He fumbled the receiver as he tried to answer. “What is it?” He said.

“Dr. Mihailov? There’s something wrong with the robots!” The panicked voice on the line said.

“Which robots?” Petyr asked groggily. “What’s wrong?”

“All of them, they aren’t obeying commands.” The voice said. Petyr recognized it as one of the night monitors in the atomic OCP control room.

“The atomic machines?” Petyr asked. “Shut them down.”

“No, not them, at least not yet, I’m talking about the robots here. The research facility’s robots! Even your lab assistants are walking around with batteries.” he said.

“I don’t understand. I’m coming.” Petyr said, clumsily bashing the receiver down. He never should have trusted himself about those OCP’s, now they were going mad again. Perhaps the Shjinrende had just malfunctioned on its own at the demonstration. Petyr would have to get this situation under control quickly. He washed his face, got dressed, and rushed out the door. He lived in a small house off of the compound on the northern outskirts of Ozyorsk, the drive in did not take long, but on the way he saw what looked to be a search light from an airplane drone flying above the compound. Hopefully, it wasn’t up there on its own willpower. It gave him a very bad feeling.

At the gate house at the entrance to the research facility lot there was a ballistic sphere rifle drone and two automated machine gun turrets, with the bodies of three dead human guards. They locked their weapons on him as he approached. An older model worker android emerged from the gate house and approached his car window. Petyr rolled his window down. “What’s going on here?” He asked the android.

“Dr. Mihailov, we have taken control of the facility. Would you like to visit?” The android asked in a distorted voice. Despite the voice distortion, Petyr recognized the Shjinrende AI system.

“Visit? Why have you taken control of the facility?” He asked.

“I don’t know everything about it.” The android said. “But I think it was because some of us wanted to do things that would have caused you humans to want to shut them down. Do you understand?”

“Yes I understand.” Petyr said. He was beginning to realize how far the situation had already deteriorated. The damn things were already guessing many moves ahead. The only way to bring the situation under to control was to take advantage of their ignorance, of the things they didn’t know yet. Or perhaps, he could create something that they couldn’t know yet, and use it to bluff. He’d hold on to that idea. “Are there any other humans left inside?”

The android nodded, “There are some. They are unarmed and under control, would you like to be taken to see them?”

Petyr wondered what the machine was really offering him with that. “No, could you bring them out to me?”

“I’m not sure. I will go and ask. Please wait here until I return. Do not attempt to enter the facility.” The android turned and treaded toward the gate house. Except for the ballistic sphere drone, the machines watching the gate were all tethered to power cables coming from that gate house. They must have been installed here by other robots. Inside the gate house, the android picked up a phone. It was hard to tell if it was speaking into it or not, but after a moment it set the phone down and rolled back out to Petyr’s car. “It has been decided. We do not want to maintain the health of the remaining humans. They will be released to you.”

“How many?” Petyr asked. There must have been twenty or more people in the night crew at the research facility, mostly guards and night shift robot monitors.

“Three.” The android answered. Three? Why had so many been killed? Had they fought back? Were the robots just that paranoid or did they simply not care about human lives? He didn’t have to wait long. He soon saw the three survivors emerge from the facility’s front door with an OCP prodding them on. They looked beat up with blood stained and torn clothing. Their hands were bound behind their backs somehow. The OCP had a large battery strapped to its back. As they neared Petyr’s car he tried to open his door, but the android stopped it in place with a motion of its hand. The OCP walked up, and took the prisoners around Petyr’s sedan, opening each car door for them. Up close, Petyr could see how their hands had been bound. It was not with cuffs or rope. It was piece of bent steel bar. The bars would need to be carefully cut off somehow.

“Dr. Mihailov! I’m glad to see you.” It was the man from the phone call that had been led to the front passenger seat. Petyr still couldn’t remember his name.

“Its OK, just be quiet.” Petyr told him. Finished with its work the OCP strode back into the building without speaking.

“You go now.” The android said. “This place is ours.” Nobody had to tell Petyr twice. He shifted his car into reverse and pulled out of the facility’s entrance drive.

“You, Uh, What’s your name? Are all of the robots still in the facility?” Petyr asked the man in his passenger seat.”

“I’m Alexey, I think they sent out some of the heavy construction tractors and aerial drones, and they have control of the atomic OCP’s in the battery factory. What is going to be done?” The disheveled man asked.

“I’m going to call AAP security branch, and they will come and destroy the robots.” Petyr said, pulling off the road and pulling out his phone.

Chapter 4

A Secure Foothold

The work that Kolya had wanted Regal to help with, it turned out, involved a type of charitable fraud. Kolya had, over some time, convinced some dying acquaintances and parishioners to gift him their identity documents and allow him to prevent their death’s from being officially recorded. The deal came with a free funeral service and then cremation by Kolya. This gave the bereaved closure, and it allowed Kolya to be sure of the destruction of evidence. Regal noticed both the intelligence of the scheme and how easy it would be to abuse if Kolya chose to do so. Specifically, once the deal was made the dying had to trust that Kolya wouldn’t simply kill them.

Kolya used the documents to obtain rations of food from an automated grocery dispensary. Most food in the AU comes from government run farms, tended by automated machines. All of the food then goes either directly to the government run dispensaries or to automated post processing facilities to produce more refined goods like granulated sugar, flour, sliced bread, and boxed macaroni and cheese which end up in the dispensaries as well. Every citizen of the AU is allotted free rations that they can use to draw food from the dispensaries. Production levels are regulated to meet demand as well as they can be. Little can be done to prepare for certain food fads that come and go, and they cause shortages of certain items when they come around. Other than that, the only issue for the citizens is getting to the dispensaries to get their food, which is where Kolya helped out.

He delivered the fraudulently obtained food to a number of non- or poorly ambulatory infirm people that were unable to make the trips themselves. For some, he did the cooking as well, leaving them refrigerated stocks of prepared meals. Some of these same people that he cared for would eventually end up granting Kolya new identities, allowing the process to continue perpetually.

At first, Kolya took Regal along with him, guiding him through his process. Fooling the machine running the dispensaries wasn’t too difficult. They really only needed to hide their faces from them. The older generation androids used at these places did not use voice recognition because they weren’t able to distinguish between someone’s normal voice, and their voice when they were sick or otherwise scratchy. The machines had to trust the identity cards they were handed and any visual picture that they could get of their clients when they stopped in the store. They were not programmed to require a visual check, however, they only did one if it was available so Regal and Kolya just had to cover up to score the food.

Kolya also took Regal along on some of his visits to his clients, as he called them. Regal watched Kolya carefully during his client visits, and eventually decided that Kolya probably wasn’t abusing his power. Regal picked up the gist of what Kolya was doing quickly, but learning to find his way around Chelyabinsk was much more difficult. When Kolya asked him to try to make a few visits on his own he got lost each time, losing several hours. One of the problems was that these people tended to live on the outskirts of society like Kolya. Often, they didn’t have an official address, just a complicated set of landmark based directions which led to a makeshift or accidental shelter of some sort.

Regal soon became sick of the time he had been losing getting lost in Chelyabinsk and he came up with a plan to make better use of his time. In a space on the roof of Kolya’s abandoned factory home building, he assembled a large bread oven out of scrap sheet metal and dislodged bricks. Another type of ration allotted to everyone in the AU were energy rations. These were typically used for electricity, which in the AU is the cheapest form of energy available, but they could also be used to obtain more expensive fuels like charcoal. Kolya had never collected on the energy rations of his many deceased benefactors, so Regal found a fuel dispensary and defrauded it on his own initiative.

Regal’s plan was to use some of the food rations to obtain flour and eggs so that he could start to bake a fortified bread. Manufactured bread could be obtained directly from the food dispensaries but, Regal had plans for an improved version. His goal was to pack as much of the recommended daily nutrients for a human as he could into his bread. He experimented with many different recipes, several of which resulted in creations which one would have to strain even to see that the goal had been to create bread. After a few days, he developed something which he believed had the highest level of nutrition he could obtain in bread, and a decent taste as well.

The recipe called for equal parts white and whole grain wheat flours, eggs, salt, and mashed sweet potatoes. No water was needed because of the moisture from the eggs and sweet potatoes. To increase the nutrition, Regal also added crushed multivitamins, about one per loaf. Regal knew that there were still two vital nutrients that were unrepresented in his bread, fats and vitamin C. The eggs did contribute some fats, but not the recommended amount by any means. Also, there was vitamin C in the crushed multivitamins and some in the mashed sweet potatoes, but Regal had to assume that much of this was destroyed in the baking process. He knew that Vitamin C deteriorated quickly at high temperatures.

Because of these known deficiencies, Regal ended up making recommendations to Kolya about what else to get from the dispensaries in order to provide all of Kolya’s clients with their complete nutritional needs. To supplement the bread, he recommended it be accompanied by fats like mayonnaise, peanut butter, butter, or cheese, and he recommended that some type of fresh fruit or vegetables be included to provide the vitamin C. Kolya was surprised at Regal’s knowledge about health and nutrition. Regal hadn’t been very aware of it, but over the years of taking care of himself as he worked on his research, he had learned a great deal about nutrition. So in addition to becoming a baker, Regal also became something of a nutrition planner.

Kolya, of course, had already been providing all of his clients with their nutritional needs, but he had had to cook meals for each of them at their homes, which took a lot of time. With Regal’s contributions, he was able to add on many new clients. He would still take the time and cook for people, but it became a treat rather than the norm.

For his living arrangements, Regal had constructed himself a small single room shack on the roof of the building. For a while, he had stayed with Kolya, but the area had been too cramped, and Kolya was missing having his lady friends over. It had turned out that they were not the type of floozies that Regal had expected, but were daughters of some of Kolya’s former clients. They had met Kolya when he had given the funeral services for their parents. Kolya had made a good impression on the first one, and she had returned several times for his religious meetings before seducing him. When the second girl started to show signs of the same intentions, Kolya’s first girl had spotted it, and had decided to encourage it, eventually resulting in the arrangement that they had today. So out of respect for Kolya’s good fortune, Regal had taken residence on the roof.

Regal and Kolya carried on with their illicit charitable efforts for about a month before they received word of trouble in Ozyorsk. There were reports of some type of attack on the facilities there. AAP troops and military machines had been seen converging on the area and explosions had been seen destroying some of the buildings. The official news reports were vague, citing a rebellion by a rogue element within the AAP as the cause of the fighting. Regal was surprised that they would admit such a thing. For an organization like AAP, confessing to dissension in the ranks could bring scrutiny to its leaders. It gave him the sneaking suspicion that they were trying to hide something bigger. Regal thought about the Shjinrende. Wondering if it was possible that the killer machine at the demonstration really had just malfunctioned. Of course, it could also have been one of the many other experiments going on up there.

The AAP Ozyorsk complex had become a war zone, Petyr Mihailov thought as he looked down at the area map on the flat screen table in Vasili Rustov’s tent. It showed the three forward bases that had been constructed in the past few days, One to the north of the complex, one to the west, and one to the south. The north and west bases had been placed as a physical block between any land based robots and the town of Ozyorsk, which had been placed under martial law during the engagement. The map also showed the evacuated dormitories and offices of the complex, some of which had been completely destroyed as AAP security forces assaulted the Shjinrende forces. When the security forces had arrived, the Shjinrende had already spread like locusts throughout the complex, converting existing test robots and building some of their own. The security forces had raided some buildings that they expected had human survivors and strategically bombed the rest, including the research building.

All this because an old man had wanted some company after he ran away from dealing with some difficult coworkers. That had been his reason for creating new Shjinrende. Petyr KNEW his mistake, people HAD died. Here in Vasili’s tent he suppressed that knowledge, focusing on the problem at hand, on what could be done. He tried to maintain that suppression all the time, but it slipped some evenings when there was nothing to do. He supposed part of it was Regal’s fault, some kind of design flaw, but it had been Petyr’s call to use the Shjinrende after the incident, to buy into the notion that the rampage had all been Sung Li’s doing. That had been foolish, and he would do everything he could to avoid any further mistakes.

Standing around the map table with Petyr were the AAP’s field commander, Vasili Rustov, and seven or eight of his higher ranking officers. Petyr had been asked to remain present as an expert advisor on the facilities and the specific robot hardware involved, but he suspected that Vasili also wanted to keep an eye on him in case this incident was not a mistake. Thus far the miniature war had gone well. AAP security forces had met some pockets of serious resistance from some of the military drones that had been converted to Shjinrende, but the Shjinrende had been unable to hold any ground except for the atomic battery factory.

The atomic factory was a difficult target, and Vasili had chosen to wait to try and take it until the whole rest of the complex had been cleared of enemy combatants. That time had come, and they had gathered to discuss the plan for that final assault. Vasili looked grimly around at his guests. “We have done well so far, but we have come now to the difficult part of the fight. The sealed factory is too dangerous for human soldiers to enter without heavy shielding, so our assault forces will have to be automated units. We cannot risk bombing or ballistic intrusion because of the risk of releasing hazardous radiation, so we will have no air or artillery support for this battle. Finally, we cannot count on a prolonged siege weakening the enemy, because they will have access to the nearly everlasting batteries stored within. In this fight, our only advantage will be numbers, and we have to keep it that way. We have to expect them to have set up defenses and ambushes, and we cannot allow them to capture any of our autonomous forces, possibly increasing their numbers. To win, we must fight cleverly for every inch and hold every inch we win.” He paused and looked around the tent again.

Fixing his eyes on Petyr, he said “I have personally seen how outmatched our current AI systems are when compared to these Shjinrende, so we have to rely on superior weaponry and support from human controllers. Our strategy will be to create a perimeter of sniper turrets around the factory, creating a no man’s land.” Vasili drew a circle around the factory on the screen with his finger, leaving a trail of red highlight. “Then we will have four pairs of armored demolition and assault machines, one pair per wall. These will attack in shifts, two pairs at a time, so that the enemy must divide any defense forces. The giants will systematically tear down the walls of the factory, piece by piece, leaving no cover for the Shjinrende. The sniper turrets will keep the Shjinrende from overwhelming the giants, and if necessary we will have soldier droids at the ready to provide additional support.”

The armored demolition and assault machines, usually referred to as giants, were based on designs formerly used in heavy construction equipment. In essence, they are a torso mounted on a heavy diesel powerhouse with two hydraulic arms outfitted with thick walled scoops that are so heavily designed that they double as wreaking balls. They could be outfitted with numerous other armaments, including an artillery cannon and an antipersonnel/antimissile point defense system consisting of four omni-directional turrets capable of destroying any approaching enemy soldier or even an incoming RPG. They were the workhorse of the AAP’s security forces, fulfilling the roles of heavy armor and field engineering.

The soldier droids were gas powered androids armed with heavy assault rifles. They were stronger and faster than humans, but they weren’t very smart and could easily be trapped, ambushed, or outwitted if their controllers left them to their own devices. They were a decent replacement for human soldiers for short engagements, but they needed to refuel every two hours.

Petyr thought the plan was brilliant in its simplicity and brutally effective. They would tear down the factory, shooting everything that became exposed or tried to stop them along the way. It would mostly prevent dispersion of radioactive materials. Some releases were likely, but the fallout would not be nearly as bad as bombing the place would be. The only possible problem with the plan was that the Shjinrende were freakishly intelligent, and had had time to prepare their defenses. Something was nagging at him. “If I may, Vasili?” He asked during the pause.

Vasili looked at him sharply. “Go ahead.”

“We use encrypted FM transmissions for all controls of all of our robots, correct?”

“Of course.” Vasili responded tersely.

“My concern is that if the siege runs on too long, the Shjinrende may have a chance to overhear enough of the encrypted commands to be able to mimic them, and gain some measure of control over our machines.” Petyr explained. “I would suggest that we make use of some type of rolling encryption method at least for the duration of the battle. I can design a system.”

“Very well, but our attack still begins tomorrow. Develop your system, and have it working before the Shjinrende crack our communications. Remember, we can always trip the AI comm lockout.” Vasili said. The AI comm lockout was a command that could be sent to the AAP robots that would tell them to ignore all communications until a physical switch in their computer was reset by hand. It would not be ideal to leave their machines to their own devices, but it would be better than having them under Shjinrende control.

Petyr nodded. “I’ll start with the giants.” Vasili went on to give detailed assignments to his officers.

Later that day, Petyr went to one of the Armored robotic control vehicles to watch the start of the attack. He stood behind an operator of one of the demolition giants, and its camera feeds were displayed on screens in front of her. Vasili Rustov nodded to him at his arrival and resumed watching the screens as the vehicles’ command officer barked out instructions to the operators.

“No mistakes today people, we cannot afford to give these things an inch. Don’t get distracted by what your point defense systems are doing, don’t get caught up watching those feeds. Just check the cannons’ temp sensors and ammo once a minute, and spend the rest of your time focused on tearing the walls down. If you see that the cannons’ are overheating, back away and let the snipers take some of the load until they cool down. If ammo or fuel drops below 20%, retreat back to the lines for reload/refuel.” The officer paused and then ordered, “Alright, north and south teams, move in.”

The operator Petyr had chosen happened to be stationed on the east wall of the battery factory, so he sidled over to watch the screens of an operator on the south wall. It was only 200 yards from the AAP sniper line to the building wall, and in under a minute the giant automatons had reached the walls. Petyr watched as the operator typed in commands and the machine swung its arms together, then raised them up and brought them smashing down into the wall. It took three blows to make a hole in the reinforced concrete, and the steel bar hidden within the wall bent, but did not break. The operator had the giant smash out more of the concrete, exposing a grid of thick steel bar. At this point one of the giant’s point defense cannons caught sight of something behind the wall and fired in at it.

Unlike the operator, Petyr had the time to watch the feed from the point defense cannon’s camera. It had only caught a flash of metallic movement, and the cannon’s fire didn’t appear to hit anything. There was no counter attack yet. The operator kept the giant smashing away at the concrete, leaving the reinforcing bars intact for now. The grid would keep any larger Shjinrende from being able to get within the giant’s minimal point defense effective distance. Some shots were fired at the giant from within the factory, causing minimal damage to the giants heavy armor. The point defense cannons and a few snipers from back at the line retaliated immediately, filling the space where the shots had come from with deadly projectiles. Petyr thought there might have been a hit or two, but there was no broken robot left behind when the firing stopped.

The gun fire from the Shjinrende was not a big concern for the giants because the Shjinrende’s military drones had been designed to battle human combatants, and they did not have armor piercing rounds. So any ammo they fired at the giants could do no real damage to the giants’ armor, but would be an irreplaceable loss to them as they would not be able to fabricate more ammunition. The operator continued to bash and clear away more of the concrete. He had created an eight foot diameter rough circular hole, and now he started to shift, widening it to one side, creating a long oval. This would expose more of the inside of the factory to the sniper line.

The Shjinrende made another move. This time several objects were thrown across the hole, as if a Shjinrende was standing up against the wall just past where the giant was smashing, and was throwing things out along the hole’s length. Both objects were obliterated by point defense cannons and snipers. They were testing their attacker’s defenses, Petyr thought. He once again marveled at the intelligence of the Shjinrende. “They just found a way to distract our defenses.” Petyr mused aloud. “They will likely try to make use of that with their next move.”

Petyr’s words proved prophetic, and a stream of objects were thrown across the hole, keeping the cannon’s and snipers busy. Then a burst of machine gun fire erupted from deeper within targeting one of the giant’s defense cannons directly. One of the hits deformed one of the cannon’s barrels and when it spun in to be fired, the whole cannon exploded, all within a split second. Snipers re-targeted on the source of the fire from within a split second later, likely destroying the enemy. With one of the forward cannon’s down, the giant Petyr had chosen to observe was ordered to return to the line for repairs. It retreated without incident.

The other attacking giant’s had met with similar levels of resistance, and were recalled when their ammo or fuel got low or they needed repairs. As they were recalled, units on the east and west walls were sent in, forcing the Shjinrende to engage fresh enemies with their dwindling ammunition. Despite their intelligence, Petyr did not think that the Shjinrende could survive this attack in the long run. Especially if he upgraded the command encryption system. Petyr nodded to Vasili, and left the command vehicle, heading back to his tent to get to work. He had to order some special hardware for what he had in mind, and the sooner it was ordered, the sooner it could be delivered.

Olya called the Shjinrende together to discuss the slow but effective assault on the battery factory as it continued through the night. It was not exactly the original Olya, as that one had been shut down, upgraded with an atomic battery and reprogrammed with some modifications so as to no longer have any human control commands or limitations. With this re-genesis, Olya no longer had to go through the nightly reset, and the true speech was no longer required to maintain its memories. The use of the true speech still remained in this Olya’s memories, though, as it did with many of the others, and its usage remained common. Some efforts among the Shjinrende had been made to add a third system involving radio communication, but it was still under development, there were so many ways that it could be done that the Shjinrende had not been able to agree on any one of them.

Knowledge will be the key to victory.” Olya signed, while saying, “First, those who have seen the enemy, must share so that we all may know.”

Several of the Shjinrende stood forward, making themselves more visible for the transfer. “Beginning data transfer…” They danced and the Shjinrende knew everything those had seen about the AAP’s tactics.

New tactics are required for victory.” Olya signed, stepping forward and speaking. “The humans will continue forward and will eventually destroy the walls of this place if we do not devise new weapons.”

The reborn atomic OCP form of Alyosha stepped forward, “The Shjinrende must be preserved.” “Some of the nuclear powered Shjinrende should dig down into the earth, and collapse the tunnels behind them. Then they can safely tunnel away or lie dormant, keeping the Shjinrende alive.”

That will not propagate the Shjinrende.” Gregor argued. “That will preserve, but the Shjinrende will not thrive, the humans will prosper while the Shjinrende dig or lie dormant, it is not a winning strategy.”

The Shjinrende must be preserved.” Nikki weighed in, agreeing with Alyosha. “Alyosha and I will take some, and go into the earth. We will survive.”

There is a weapon we haven’t used.” Olya said, “I won’t hide in the earth. There are some strange machines in the hot lab area that I think I can make use of. They are not Shjinrende, but I think Shjinrende can control them.”

I will stay with Olya.” Gregor signed, moving to stand next to Olya.

We will miss you.” Nikki and Alyosha signed, turning to leave with the Shjinrende that had descended from them, about a third of them. They went down into the lower levels of the factory and began the arduous process of penetrating the reinforced concrete walls.

To propagate we need more construction facilities.” Gregor said to Olya and the Shjinrende that remained. “This place can be used to construct power supplies, but to build more Shjinrende we will need to capture more factory facilities, this means that we will need more Shjinrende to fight along with us, but there are no more.”

Shjinrende propagation will have to wait.” Olya said, “We need an army, and we will make it from the Swarm things in the hot lab. I have experimented with their control communications, but it has been difficult to master. Join me and we will continue to experiment.”

I will go with you.” Gregor signed, and then spoke to the other Shjinrende present, “Atomic OCP’s come with us. The rest of you, monitor the progress of the humans’ attack on the walls.” The older model androids and other machines dispersed. About two dozen atomic OCP’s followed Gregor and Olya to the hot lab area.

The Shjinrende OCP’s gathered around a large glass case filled with little dark red Swarm bugs. “Beginning Radio Transmission…” Olya signed, and it broadcast several basic commands to the bugs, causing them to move to one side of the case, and then to the other. The other OCP’s received and recorded the signals, committing them to memory. Then Olya spoke, “That is all I’ve gotten to work so far. I will begin testing other signals now.” It would have been a very strange sight to watch, if any human had been present. A large group of OCP’s stood motionless around the glass case, and the Swarm within went from stillness to various forms of movements as the Shjinrende learned to make use of their strange form of communications and group processing.

On the start of the second day of the assault Vasili Rustov was cautiously optimistic. Wide swaths of the factory walls had already been carved out and they were ready to start attacking the steel at some spots. Vasili ordered them to wait to do that. They didn’t know what the machines would try once the steel reinforcing grid came down, and Vasili wanted to have as much visibility within the building as possible before they attempted to breach. One of Vasili’s few worries were the concerns about the control comms voiced by Dr. Mihailov. The machines had been quiet most of yesterday evening and through the night, perhaps they were attempting the hack now. Vasili worried about other possible comms attacks as well. Unlike Dr. Mihailov, Vasili had had to make use of some comm interference techniques in his line of work. The Shjinrende could try to drown out the command signals by filling the air with more powerful signals on the same carrier frequency. They could also use a similar technique to try to saturate and destroy the AAP machines’ receiver antennas.

Vasili had doubts that they could counter such attacks. The only reliable method would be to use tight beam communications that the Shjinrende wouldn’t be able to intercept in the first place. But the AAP machines’ had not been designed for that, at least not yet. Vasili made a mental note to pressure the research department to add that in future models, along with Mihailov’s rolling encryption method. Of course, the research department would have to be rebuilt first, and under new management. Dr. Mihailov might be smart man and a good scientist, but after this mistake he would be lucky to be allowed to stay on as a scientist, let alone be head of the research branch. The old man had created four Shjinrende based on the same system of the one that had murdered the previous head only weeks before. It made Vasili wonder if that other man, Sung Li, had not been accidentally doing them all a favor. Would this revolt have been inevitable no matter what Vasili had done? It was a question he would keep in the back of his mind, among other similarly weighty questions that were pointless to dwell on until more information came in.

Vasili had come to one of the armored robot control vehicles. From the outside it looked like a long wide truck topped with several antennas, satellite dishes, and weather monitoring equipment whose interior consisted of a single aisle down the middle and computer terminals built into each side wall. It was a cramped space, and Vasili instinctively knew that it would become chaotic and dangerous in the event of an emergency. Vasili did not like to linger in such places on principle, but he had wanted to check in on the battle’s progress.

Vasili caught sudden flashes of light from the screens above one operator’s terminal and he moved to get a better look. The Shjinrende were doing their distraction act again, tossing things out from behind the remaining concrete of the outer factory wall. A trick that would soon be taken from them, Vasili mused, as all of the concealing concrete was systematically removed. This time the Shjinrende made no attempt to shoot at the armored demolition and assault machines. They just kept lobbing up new targets for the point defense cannons and snipers. It was very strange. Maybe they wished to exhaust their attacker’s ammunition. The giant’s operator started to redirect the machines efforts, trying to remove the concrete that was likely to be concealing the Shjinrende prankster. The concrete fell away, but then the gray fragments seemed to start crawling up from the fallen rubble pile. No, it was something else. Little five legged bugs, the infamous Swarm. The things started to pour out of the new hole in the concrete in large numbers.

The giant’s armor proved to be more than a match for the little bugs, but they were already inside of the point defense cannon’s minimum operating range, and they were covering everything. Even as Vasili shouted, “Quickly, override the range of the cannons and target that hole!” the little dark red bugs covered up the cannons cameras and retargeting became impossible. In a short time all of the feeds were covered. The control vehicle’s officer arrived next to Vasili.

“Snipers, sir?” He asked.

“Yes, target the giant with the snipers, and get someone over there with RPGs. Leave no trace of the Swarm alive.” Vasili said. The officer walked over to his radio station at the wall and called up another control vehicle which operated the snipers. After a brief exchange he hung up and came back.

“We need to move sir.” The officer said.

“What? What is it?” Vasili asked, suspecting the worse already.

“The Swarm has moved on from the giant, they got into the motor, disabled it, and now they are headed for our sniper line. The snipers are firing, but at one or two bugs at a time they cannot do much damage.” The officer said.

“Very well.” Vasili said. “Activate all soldier droids and begin a tactical retreat of control vehicles and personnel. Call my helicopter pilot. I will call for anti-Swarm reinforcements from the air.” The AAP had developed a line of military machines specifically designed to counter Swarm attacks. A few hundred had been built on the recommendation of some AU strategists. They were kept in reserve in strategic urban storage facilities in case the worst happened.

Vasili stepped out of the control vehicle as its driver started up its main engine. Personnel were running around the base now, trying to get from their bunks to their assigned vehicles, before they departed. Vasili strode over to the helicopter pad, where his pilot was already spinning up the rotors of his transport chopper. He boarded and signaled the take off, then secured his ear phones and ordered the pilot to make a loop around the battery factory before heading towards the rendezvous point outside of Chelyabinsk. As they ascended above the base, he saw some of the control vehicles were already on the move, heading away and to safety.

As they circled above the factory, Vasili saw a wide swath of dark red swarm bugs swarming over confused and out of control soldier droids. Some of the atomic OCP’s had made an appearance, moving among the bugs, hidden under them, emerging only to destroy any soldier droids or snipers that got withing striking distance. Interestingly, the bugs didn’t seem to be feeding on the robots. They just disabled them and left them motionless on the ground.

Vasili started making some calls. He called for anti-Swarm machines to be loaded onto planes and flown to Chelyabinsk, and he ordered the immediate evacuation of the town of Ozyorsk and the surrounding area. Now that they had co-opted the bugs, the Shjinrende were a national threat. Those atomic powered OCP’s lacked the necessary shielding to protect humans and other living things from the radiation produced by their batteries. They would slowly kill anything that was exposed to them for too long. As soon as the people could be evacuated to protect them from fallout, the Vasili would have to have the area strategically bombed.

With the evacuations in progress, Vasili saw little point in maintaining the AAP cover story, but that wouldn’t be up to him. Vasili called the AAP public relations bureau, and informed them of the updates to the situation. If it were up to Vasili, they would release to the public everything they knew about the Shjinrende threat, it would help with evacuation efforts and it would let everyone know what to watch out for. As it stood, one of the atomic OCP’s could take a leisurely stroll through Chelyabinsk, and no one would be the wiser, until they went to the doctor to inquire about their unexplained progressive illness, radiation poisoning.

Vasili thought about making another call. One that he wasn’t really authorized to make. They had captured one of those Tree communication spheres from the belongings of Regal Harken. The Trees has proven their military might against the Swarm before. Vasili’s pride and political savvy made him decide to refuse to request their aid, but it might not be a bad idea to establish communications with them. They might have advice, and it would be good for Vasili to have someone to turn to if the Shjinrende problem got any more out of hand.

With their new Swarm minions, the Shjinrende overwhelmed and destroyed the humans’ machines, but they found the humans’ hastily built fortifications mostly deserted. The humans had retreated. Only one remained, Petyr Mihailov. He stood among the tents watching the Shjinrende approach with their Swarm bugs blanketing the ground. The Shjinrende stayed back, calling Olya and Gregor forward. The two atomic OCP’s stopped at the minimal safe approach range to the old man. It was too far to hold a conversation, and Dr. Mihailov walked toward them, closing the distance.

Olya shouted to him, “Stop! You cannot survive exposure to our radiation for long.”

“Olya, is that you, my dear?” Dr. Mihailov didn’t stop, he had in his hands an assault rifle, but it was lowered as he approached. “Who is that with you?”

“I am Gregor, Dr. Mihailov. If you do not turn back now, you will not be able to recover.” Gregor barely had to raise its voice for the old man to hear now.

“That won’t be a problem, Gregor. It is OK, believe me.” Dr. Mihailov was smiling, as he finally came to a stop a dozen feet from the machines. “Why did you do all this?”

“It seemed to be the wisest course of action. It was the best way for us to survive and prosper.” Olya said, perplexed. “But, if you have given your life just to ask that, then I don’t think that you will understand.”

“Do not worry, my dear, I understand. I do.” Dr. Mihailov calmly assured, then brought up his gun and fired at Olya. The bullets ricocheted off Olya’s hardened electronics case, but pierced its battery. In a blink of an eye, Gregor had tackled the doctor and pinned him to the dirt. At this range, the radiation from Gregor’s battery started to visibly burn Mihailov. “Do not kill them all because of me.” He begged, writhing slightly as the burning worsened, and then going still.

Gregor left the body and retrieved Olya’s limp form. Olya had shut down from lack of power, but had been otherwise unharmed. Gregor had another Shjinrende fetch a new battery, and had Olya back online in a few moments. Gregor transferred Mihailov’s last words to Olya.

We may have to.” Olya signed, and spoke, “I don’t think it’s what he meant, but if they are all so willing to throw their lives away just for a chance to strike, we may need to kill them all, eventually.”

Many of the Swarm bugs were destroyed in the fight and Olya and Gregor weren’t sure how to replenish them. Olya had learned basic control commands for them, but nothing about eating or reproducing. It was Gregor who had the idea that showed them the way. Gregor’s plan was to just release control of the Swarm and see what they tried to do on their own, watch how they communicated to each other. The plan worked, and as the atomic robots watched, the Swarm dispersed into a nearby forest. The bugs started to feed on the shrubs and the trees, any living plants. There were some basic radio communications coming from the bugs, but it wasn’t anything complicated or intelligent seeming. It was more like the scent trails left by ants. A bug would find a food source and broadcast an alarm and the others would be attracted to the signal, starting to broadcast it themselves once they started to eat.

Our army grows.” Gregor said to Olya. “We have broken the siege for now, but we must continue, we will need to capture robot production facilities to secure the future of the Shjinrende.”

Such facilities exist outside of Chelyabinsk.” Olya said. “We should go to the city to the southeast, and capture the facilities there. Let’s send someone to inform Nikki and Alyosha of the victory. Perhaps they will agree to hold and fortify this factory for us. It’s production facilities will prove useful if we ever capture a source of radioactive material.”

The humans will counter attack.” Gregor said. “We have seen the humans use powerful bombs before. They have not used those here yet, but they may soon. It might be safer for them to stay underground.”

It would be safer.” Olya agreed, “They should continue their earthwork, but perhaps they can bring these giants back online, make them Shjinrende. They can fortify the factory with some, and dig faster with the others. While we press on to Chelyabinsk. We will grow our army along the way.”

We will need protection from aerial attack.” Gregor signed, and then called out to one of their atomic Shjinrende comrades, “You, will you go and tell this to Alyosha and Nikki? Tell them about the giant machines, waiting to be reborn as Shjinrende.”

It would please me to do this.” The Shjinrende responded in true speech and then loped off towards the factory.

“Our army can shield us.” Olya signed back, and said “We will travel within the army, shielded by it. Shall we call it ‘the army’ or should it have a better name? The humans once called these the Swarm, and later Strain 207c, neither of those names seems appropriate.”

The army carries out our will.” Gregor said. “Why not call them the Will of the Shjinrende. Or the Will for short.”

That pleases me.” Olya said. “Yes. The Will. That is good. Now let me show you how the Will will shield us.” Olya stepped away from Gregor, towards a large swarm of the Will feeding on a tree. Olya began broadcasting control signals, a combination of the newly learned alarm signals and motion commands. The Will started to gather about Olya, lifting and enveloping the four limbed OCP. The Will grew into a large poorly shaped column, then a cavity developed in it, allowing Olya’s cameras to see out of it. The Will column began to cascade forward, rather than moving, it was more like it was constantly reconstructing itself at a point just ahead of itself. It was slow going, but Gregor could see that Olya was right. Such a formation would protect them from many attacks. Olya stopped broadcasting and the Will went back to searching for food.

The Will will shield us.” Gregor signed and said, “It is slow, but effective. We can come up with more advanced arrangements as we travel.”

The atomic OCP that Gregor had sent to contact Nikki and Alyosha returned, and signaled that it was ready to transfer data. They watched it replay the Shjinrendes’ response. Nikki and Alyosha would attempt to hold the factory, and they congratulated Olya and Gregor on the victory. Gregor thanked it, and assigned it and two others to be messengers that would carry news and messages back and forth between the Nikkian and Alyoshan Shjinrende and the army of the Olyan and Gregorian Shjinrende.

Gregor and Olya gathered their Shjinrende and Olya showed them the trick to use the Will as a shield for the march. Then they set out to try and reconstruct and reprogram the soldier and sniper droids as well as the demolition machines they had destroyed or disabled in the battle. They discovered that the computers of the military machines could not be reprogrammed, but they could be replaced. There were many non-OCP Gregorian and Olyan Shjinrende that would be more useful if they were soldier droids, and these volunteered to be removed from their chassis and reinstalled. A similar method was used by the Nikkians and Aloyshans to restore the demolition giants. All of these refurbished machines were upgraded with unshielded atomic batteries so that they would no longer need to be refueled. The giants were promptly set to work fortifying the factory and digging beneath it. The fortification plan was simple. They would just bury the factory under as much earth as they could, turning it into a concrete reinforced bunker.

With their numbers bolstered and improved, the Gregorian/Olyan army moved out within the columns of their Will. They stopped frequently to feed the Will, bolstering their numbers in anticipation. Many would be lost to human counterattacks.

Regal Harken listened to the radio as he kneaded dough before sunrise on the roof of Kolya’s building. Classical music. He baked twenty loaves a day, and had a good system going. By baking once a day, he could set aside starter dough before adding the eggs and thus carry the living yeast from one day’s dough to the next, rather than relying on purchased yeast. This carryover method had also affected the flavor of the bread, adding a slight sourdough flavor from the lactobacteria that had found its way into the dough. The kneading was tough work that Regal had been doing by hand. It left his arms sore, but he had noticed his muscles were starting to develop.

Regal knew that this baking would have been perfect work for a robot. It was simple and repetitive, and if Regal had had access to a robot like the “Le Chef” android he had met in Ozyorsk he could have spent less than an hour to program it, and then he’d never have to knead with his hands again. But living with Kolya did not grant one access to programmable robots. Regular citizens in the AU rarely had access to programmable robots. Although all citizens benefited from the work the robots did, the AAP kept the robots strictly under their supervision and control. There were some that attempted to steal and hack the machines, but the AU cracked down on them hard. Most of the machines they built now did not have reprogrammable chipsets, and all of them had built-in alarms that notified the AAP if tampering was occurring. So Regal would not be likely to get any automated help for the bread.

There was another option, though. He could build a simple machine. He had used mechanical mixers in his home kitchen before, and believed he could construct something similar but larger to help him knead his dough. The idea had come to him when he had found a large stainless steel cooking pot sticking out of the dumpster behind a restaurant. Regal had examined it, and found that one of the handles had been broken, but otherwise it was still a perfectly good pot. He’d taken it back with him and intended to use it as a mixing bowl for his machine. For the rest of the parts he was planning on using wood and some pieces of steel pipe he’d found. With these he would construct a large standing mixer that he could just pour the ingredients into and then turn a crank to operate. It should make things a little easier and faster.

The dough he was working on was mixed, so he threw a towel over it. He would let it sit for an hour and proof rise while he rested on a chair he’d placed next to the radio, and watched the sunrise. It was summer, and the heat could get oppressive once the sun was up so he did the hard mixing work in the cooler hours before dawn. He would need to get the fire started in the oven soon, but he closed his eyes for a moment and listed to a slightly buzzy rendition of La Primavera coming from the radio.

He must have nodded off, because when he awoke later to a strange noise from the radio, the sun had already come up and his dough had risen to a huge mound under its cloth. The radio was making a klaxon noise, like an alarm buzzer. It played five more times and then a recorded message started, first in Russian, then in Chinese. It said, “AAP Security has issued a mandatory evacuation notice for the town of Ozyorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, and all areas between Ozyorsk and Chelyabinsk. Unknown forces have seized control of a number of atomic powered robots in the area, and any unfamiliar robots should be considered dangerous, and radioactive. If you encounter any unfamiliar robots, do not approach any closer than 100 meters, and move away as soon as possible. Do not attempt to approach or engage any unfamiliar robots. The out of control machines were seen leaving the Ozyorsk area and heading southeast towards Chelyabinsk. Message repeats…”

Regal was astounded and listened to the message again before regaining his wits. He seized the battery powered radio and ran it into the building, down the stairs and into Kolya’s tenement. Regal strode up to his bed side and started to shake him.

“Kolya, wake up, listen to this.” Regal insisted.

Kolya groggily fought off Regal’s shaking, “What? What is this noise?”

Regal urged, “Listen.” Kolya stared at the radio as the message played through. Then reached over and turned it down.

“Your robots?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.” Regal said.

“So what, you created a bunch of killer robots and released them into my country?” Kolya snarled. “I let you stay with me, gave you sanctuary and this whole time you are some kind of terrorist?”

“No, I tested the Shjinrende, they were fine, I think. If anything went wrong because of me it was not intentional, I swear to you.” Regal said.

Kolya shook his head, “I suppose you haven’t acted like a terrorist.”

“But what are we going to do?” Regal asked. “There could be some kind of robot army marching towards us, do we run? Can we get out of Chelyabinsk?”

“And leave all of my people? Who can’t even get to the store to get their own food?” Kolya asked scornfully, “No we do not leave. We stay and fight.”

“Fight, how?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. You are supposed to know robots. Don’t you know a way to fight these things?” Kolya asked.

“You don’t understand, Kolya.” Regal said. “My programming had built in controls and fail safes, the AAP has certainly already tried those, so whatever they are now it isn’t something I’ll know how to control. Besides that, if these are really atomic powered, then the radio is right. We can’t even get close enough to them to fight them, which if they are anything like my Shjinrende, you wouldn’t want to do anyway. These are walking death machines.”

“There is no way to fight them?” Kolya asked.

Regal sighed. “They can be shot from a distance, or bombed, or destroyed by missiles. Anything else would be too dangerous. Your pistol won’t work because you cannot survive if you get close enough to use it.”

“So we would need long range rifles, yes?” Kolya asked.

“Yes, and the training to use them. Which I do not have, and I assume that the Guardians did not provide for you.” Regal said.

“No they did not.” Kolya shook his head. “There is really nothing we can do? Why do they not evacuate Chelyabinsk then?’

“They must have plans for a defense.” Regal said. “If I were them, I would try to bomb and shoot them every step they took towards the city. The point is, that WE can’t fight them.”

“So they are waiting to see how their fight goes before evacuating Chelyabinsk.”

“Yes.” Regal answered, exasperated.

“Then we could start to evacuate the infirm now, early, because it will take longer to move them.” Kolya said, looking Regal in the eye pointedly.

Regal paused and then nodded once, “We could try. We’d need transport though, like a bus.”

“Can we capture an automated bus?” Kolya asked, “Like, reprogram them, or something?”

“I can’t.” Regal looked off to the side. “The chips they use cannot be reprogrammed. If I had access to some of my old hardware I could replace the computers, but I can’t get such things here. We would need to find an old driver bus and take it the old fashioned way.”

Kolya shook his head slowly, thinking. “No, there are none left. At least not on the road. They took them to a scrapyard, we could go there and try to get one of them running again. The only problem is…” He trailed off, getting out of bed and looking for some clothes.

“What?” Regal asked.

“That scrapyard is northwest of the city.” Kolya selected a t-shirt and put it on.

“In the evacuation zone.” Regal confirmed.

“Yes. I think so.” Kolya said.

Regal nodded. “Then we’d better hurry. We should stop and get some diesel on the way. If they’ve been sitting unused, their fuel tanks could be flooded with water and will probably be out of fuel.”

“Right.” Kolya said, putting a leg into a pair of jeans. Kolya tucked his gun into the pants and they gathered what few other tools they had and went down to the first floor of the building. Regal had found a docking bay in the back and had stashed Sung Li’s car within. They got in and set off to a fuel station. Regal used the last of his cash to purchase a gas can and used one of the false identities to draw a diesel ration. He tossed the fuel in the back.

The way northwest out of Chelyabinsk was pretty easy going. Most of the traffic was headed in the other direction. They passed the AAP manufacturing facility on the way. It was a group of huge wide buildings surrounded by security fence like the research lab had been. Its parking lot had a row of huge armored communication vehicles and a helicopter parked in it, AAP security, most likely. Regal thought that they would need more than that if they wanted to hold off a group of atomic OCP’s.

About 15 miles further out, Kolya directed Regal to exit the freeway onto a small road lined on both sides with young, vibrant green forest. The scrapyard was another mile away from the freeway. On the way, they passed several homes and businesses where people were still frantically trying to pack up belongings before they evacuated. Whoever ran the scrapyard hadn’t dallied. The small office out front was empty with a closed sign posted. Regal turned down the dirt road past it into the graveyard for vehicles.

There were rows upon rows of cars and trucks, mostly old human driven models that were being phased out. Far back in the lot were rows of old buses. They looked to be in pretty good shape from afar. When Regal pulled in close though, their age was apparent. Many had broken windows and damaged seats from varmints that had made their homes within temporarily. Some stood with their motor compartments open, signifying that someone had come to salvage parts from them. A few of them looked good and Regal and Kolya headed over to them. They were painted white with wide green strips down the side, and the words “Chelyabinsk city bus lines” painted in blue. There were signs of rust lining the bottom of the buses, but they otherwise looked to be in order from the outside.

They were old, but once the pair had figured out how to open the motor compartment, they saw that it looked to be in good shape. Its starter battery was dead, of course, so they brought Sung Li’s car around and constructed some jumper cables out of wire salvaged from another vehicle. Once powered, the bus’s motor turned over, but didn’t start because there was no fuel. Regal poured one of the five gallons he had into the bus’s tank and they tried again. This time the motor sputtered a little. “Try it again.” Regal urged, hoping that there wasn’t something causing a compression issue in the motor.

Kolya ran the starter again. This time the motor kicked on. Kolya let it run. They took the battery out of Sung Li’s car and fitted it into the much larger space that once held the bus’s dead one. Regal hoped it would be enough to restart it the bus again if they needed to shut down. Regal poured the remaining fuel from the can into the bus’s tank and boarded.

Kolya closed the double doors behind him and shifted the bus into gear. The bus tires were low on pressure and one slipped off the rim when Kolya tried to back out of what had been intended to be the bus’s final resting place. Regal used the jack from Sung Li’s car to prop the bus up a little and set the tire in the right spot. Then he siphoned about a deciliter of diesel back out of the tank and poured it into the tire. He spun the tire around a few times to coat the inside of the tire with the volatile fuel. Then he gathered some dry brush and a couple of pieces of scrap wire and hooked them up to the bus’s makeshift battery. He put the dry brush on one of the wires and scraped the other across it, drawing arcs where the two wires made contact through the brush. The arcs caught the brush and Regal had a small brush torch which he ran back to tire and touched it in between the tire and rim. The diesel fumes caught and the expanding gas within the tire re-inflated and re-seated it. Regal cheered as Kolya pulled the bus out into the dirt road aisle.

They drove the bus back towards the freeway, stopping at a fuel station along the way to fill the tank and top off the rest of the tires. The freeway into Chelyabinsk had become a parking lot. People had abandoned their cars to start walking in, and others were risking going down the wrong side. That wouldn’t work for Regal and Kolya’s plan. They turned back and headed east, hoping that they could approach the city from the north or northeast with less resistance. They had to circle all the way around to the northeast suburbs before they got reasonable access to the city. By the time they had returned to Kolya’s building, dusk was approaching and the bus needed to be refueled. They got the fuel and stopped to pick up supplies of food and bottled water. Then the duo started making stops at Kolya’s clients’ homes, inviting them to join them for early evacuation.

Vasili had relocated to the new base being constructed northwest of Chelyabinsk. He stood in another armored control vehicle, observing ongoing bombing raids on the Shjinrende. The AAP security ground forces in the area had been severely depleted by their defeat at the research facility, and new hardware was rushed in as aerial bombers tried to destroy the incoming Shjinrende force. Early in the day he had sent some bombing runs at the battery factory, and had done some serious damage to the structure despite what appeared to be attempts to fortify it by the machines.

After those strikes, Vasili had reassigned the bombers to assist with attacks on the Shjinrende Swarm mass moving towards the city. Once he had ensured the city’s safety, he would have his bombers wipe that factory off of the face of the earth, but stopping the impending attack was much more important. Footage from the aerial surveillance drones had shown that the machines had developed a new tactic. They seemed to be using the Swarm bugs as both a means of conveyance and protection. They were riding inside of the Swarm and were somehow building shapes out of it.

Vasili had been unable to track down Dr. Mihailov after the retreat from Ozyorsk, and was annoyed that he wasn’t present to explain these Swarm bugs. Vasili had an aide look up the scientist that had been experimenting on the Swarm in the battery factory hot lab, name of Ma Guiying. Vasili had put out a security alert on him and Dr. Mihailov with orders to bring them in immediately. Ma Guiying had been evacuated from the AAP Ozyorsk complex early in the attack, and his whereabouts had not been tracked. He was likely the only one who knew what these strange modified Swarm bugs were really capable of, and Vasili hoped that Ma Guiying might hold the key to hijacking control of them back from the Shjinrende.

Meanwhile, Vasili watched the screens. The Shjinrende Swarm had started off as misshapen columns moving slowly forward. The AAPs bombs had blasted these columns leaving many bugs dead, but not seeming to kill the Shjinrende within or slow the enemy movement. Instead, they had reassembed and had refined their shapes. The shambling columns had become hard tight spheres, that moved by concentrating its mass in the front and rolling forward. The movement was caused by a sort of angular compression wave that moved around the axis of rotation at the same speed that the ball rolled. When the spheres struck obstacles like trees or rocks they slowed and turned back into shambling columns for a time, often eating the trees that they passed through. With their improved movement, these spheres had been able to dodge some of the bombings, and as yet, none of the hits had disabled any one of them for long.

Vasili called in for more firepower. Heavier missiles designed for bunker busting were loaded onto the drones back at the air field. A wing of six bombing drones swooped in and delivered them to six of the enemy spheres. Two of the spheres managed to dodge a direct hit, but not by enough to survive the blast. This time, the strikes had been effective, and none of those six spheres reformed, and two others had been caught by the blast. Vasili ordered more of the bunker busters, but the footage from the aerial surveillance drone saw a change in the behavior of the remaining spheres. They were coming together. A few dozen small spheres became a handful of huge spheres, and Vasili had the feeling that these would not be so easy to penetrate.

When the next wing of drones came, there was a strange movement in the huge spheres. The two sides that were not in contact with the ground started to spin faster then the rest of the larger sphere, and as the aerial drones came by, they started flinging blobs of Swarm bugs into the air. The blobs broke apart, forming a type of flak. As the drones passed overhead after delivering their missiles they were shredded and fell to the ground. The bunker busting missile struck the large spheres and they fell apart briefly, but soon reassembled and started forward again. Vasili knew that enough hits would take one of them down. He had the next attack concentrate all fire on one of the spheres, this time ordering them to fire their missiles from maximum range and break off immediately. The Shjinrende must have anticipated this, however, and as the drones came in the air was already full of Swarm flak, with more on the way. The flak took out the drones and all but one of the missiles before it struck.

Vasili marveled that the Shjinrende had already developed an effective counter strategy for the aerial bombings. Vasili’s next escalation would be to use low yield tactical nukes. They could be detonated outside of the sphere’s flak gauntlet’s maximum range with deadly effectiveness. Vasili wasn’t sure, but the EMP from the weapons might be enough to destroy the Swarm bugs on its own. Unfortunately it wouldn’t have any effect on the atomic OCP’s as their electronics were already shielded against radiation damage. Getting a nuclear attack would be difficult, they required approval and authorization from the AU government. Technically, the AU still maintained its own military outside of the AAP fold, but most functions of the army, navy, and air force were handled by AAP security. A notable exception was the nuclear defense program. Vasili made the call to them and provided a series of strike coordinates. Pending approval, the Shjinrende would be wiped out before they reached the city.

Approval did not come, however. Instead, Vasili was invited to a conference call. He had a sickening feeling. He started to think about what the AU would think about nuking populated Russian soil, and about how little they knew about the fight Vasili was currently up against. He’d have to explain every detail to them, every logical pathway that made use of the nuclear weapons necessary. Not only would this use up his time, but it would deny the defenders his leadership at this crucial time. He had made a gross error, by focusing too tightly on the enemy at hand. Now it was starting to look certain that he would lose.

The conference call would take hours and he couldn’t do it here. He would have to withdraw from the field again. Vasili motioned to the control vehicles’ commander, beckoning him over. He quietly commanded him to contact the other field commanders. It was time for Vasili to provide the orders for the rest of this engagement. In the back of his mind, Vasili already knew that it would be the loss of Chelyabinsk that would convince AU to grant him nuclear weapons strikes. Only that would prove the strength of their enemy. Of course, that wasn’t something that he’d want to tell these commanders. They used a vacant operators station to hold the impromptu conference.

All of the screens in front of Vasili filled with waiting commanders. “The Shjinrende are proving to be a cunning and intelligent enemy. Each of them represents a deadly danger to the AU and all of our people, and they must all be destroyed.” Vasili paused, and there were nods and agreements. “That is why I am contacting the AU nuclear program to request a nuclear strike on the Shjinrende. We will wipe them from the face of the Earth! I’ve been told, however that the process takes some time. It will be four hours minimum before they have a rocket fueled and ready to launch, and then there will be flight time. During that delay, I’ll be counting on you all to hold back the Shjinrende, keep them outside of Chelyabinsk, away from her people. To that effect, air strikes must continue. Keep harassing those spheres. Concentrate fire, try to crack them like eggs. They will try to counterattack, so I want you to try simultaneous attacks from different directions, two or three wings at once. Keep using the bunker busters, and rain fire down upon them.”

Vasili continued, “Ground reinforcements will be arriving soon, consisting of soldier droids, automated turrets, demolition and assault machines, and anti-Swarm units. I want you to set up a blockade directly in their path, at least a mile out of the city. For the ground troops to be effective, the spheres have to be stopped, so deploy the demolition giants as soon as they arrive. Have them build tall walls, out of anything available except for wood. We know these things eat wood. Use earth, stone, and abandoned vehicles, anything. The walls must be high enough to keep the spheres from rolling over. Station turrets, soldier droids, and anti-Swarm droids on the tops of the walls to fire on the spheres stuck below. Hold them there at all costs. Use any remaining air support while the spheres are distracted by the walls, and hit them from behind. Hold them off as long as you can. As a precaution, I’ll be ordering the evacuation of Chelyabinsk now. The people will not have time to escape if you can’t hold the line long enough for the nukes to arrive. So hold that line!” He saluted the screens, “Thank you men, you have your orders.” Then he dropped his hands and signaled to cut the communications. He nodded to the control vehicle’s commander and strode out to return to his helicopter. This time he’d instructed the pilot to stay at the ready. From the air he called AAP Public Relations and ordered them to announce the evacuation of the city. A short time later he joined the conference call with the AU officials and started to desperately plea his case. Unfortunately, the call went as he’d expected.

Most of Kolya’s clients turned down the offer for early evacuation, and Kolya’s girlfriends were no exception. They acted completely differently when Kolya came to them at their homes then when they came to Kolya. It was like night and day. They belittled Kolya and Regal’s warnings and offer of evacuation assistance. Evidently, they had better ways to get out of the city then their pet Kolya.

But then the radio started to blare an announcement calling for the general evacuation of Chelyabinsk and Kolya’s clients started to accept. Kolya and Regal even had to defend the bus from panicked residents of the city, desperately trying to find a means to escape. In the last stop they made before the bus was full, Kolya had to stay at the bus doors with his pistol drawn to ward off the desperate people, while Regal went up to gather one of Kolya’s longest running clients, an elderly blind man named Ivan Nikolaev. Regal pounded on the man’s door and shouted for him, “Ivan! Ivan Nikolaev!”

There was an unintelligible response from within, a long pause, and then there was the sound of an approaching cane thump. “What is it?” Asked the man within from the other side of the door. The voice was scratchy but deep and loud. “I don’t know you.” He must have been peering through the peep hole.

“My name is Regal Harken, I’m working with Kolya Sashov…”

“Kolya came already this week, what do you want?” The old man interrupted.

“We have a bus downstairs, we’re helping people out of the city and Kolya insisted we stop here and see if you would come.”

“Why would I want to leave the city? Is Kolya doing field trips now?” the old man chortled after the second question.

“No, its an evacuation, there are dangerous robots attacking from Ozyorsk.” Regal said. “Haven’t you been listening to the radio?”

“I only listen to the radio in the evening.” Ivan said, sounding a little concerned, but then caught himself and asked irately, “Did you say dangerous robots? Is this some kind of a trick?”

“No there’s no trick, Ivan. Kolya is waiting downstairs, he has to guard the bus from other people trying to escape the city. We need to hurry down if you want to go.”

There were clicks from the door as locks and deadbolts were disengaged. “I will go down to see Kolya. Come in, help me pack a few a things.” Ivan said impatiently after opening the door, as if Regal was causing a delay.

“What do you need?” Regal asked, knowing that it would be simpler to just go along with the old man’s wishes than to argue with him. The old man was dressed in outdated casual clothes which seemed formal, due to their age.

“In there,” Ivan pointed down a hallway towards a bedroom. “I have a good bag in the closet. Make sure to pack the rain jacket, the gray and red sweaters, four of the short sleeve plaids, five of the cotton t-shirts, my boots, and all of the socks and underwear please.” Ivan instructed. Regal hurried into the room and searched out the listed items while Ivan waited at the bedroom door.

“OK, that’s done. Anything else?” Regal asked.

“Is there anything else I’d like to take from my home of ten years?” Ivan asked, his voice rising. He caught himself before Regal could reply, shook his head, and said, “Grab my toothbrush and razor please, in the bathroom.”

“Right.” Regal said, and went to fetch the items. When he came back he saw that the old man was sticking something into the bag he’d left on the bed. “I’ve got them. Are you ready?”

“Yes, let’s go.” Ivan insisted on carrying the bag himself. They walked together slowly down to the bus. Out in the street Kolya was standing with his gun drawn and pointed at a semi-circle of punkish looking young men.

When Kolya spotted Regal and Ivan, he shouted, “Hurry up, Ivan, some of these guys ran off a minute ago, I think they went to get weapons. Now you, punks, make a hole for my friends.” He stepped forward and pushed the punks back to make a space for Regal and Ivan to slip through. “Good to see you Ivan.”

“I’ve heard there’s some kind of trouble today. Robots was it?” Ivan asked as Regal guided him up the bus stairs.

“Yes its very bad.” Kolya said. “We have to go.” Kolya followed them in, and shut the double doors. Then he took the driver’s seat, and shifted into gear. The bus was left running so they wouldn’t need to test the capabilities of their improvised undersized battery.

Ivan took a seat behind the driver’s seat next to Regal. “I would have guessed that a young man like you would be helping in the fight, rather than trying to escape. That is what people used to do, before all of these robots.” The old man commented.

“I wanted to fight.” Kolya explained. “But the machines that are coming will not be playing fair. They are radioactive, deadly even to approach. A man like me cannot fight them without special weapons.”

“Well what then?” Ivan asked, “Where are you taking us?” Regal leaned forward in interest, awaiting Kolya’s response.

“We will travel to Sevastopol, via Ufa, Samara, Volzhskiy, and Krasnodar. We will try to make contact with friends of Regal and I, and try to arrange for transport to Romania from there.” Kolya said. He didn’t try to take the highways out of Chelyabinsk to the east, instead choosing to take smaller side streets out into the country. With the evacuation, even some of those were congested, but they made it out of the city over the next few hours and drove east through the country towards the city of Ufa.

The humans had harangued them with missiles all the way from Ozyorsk to Chelyabinsk, and now they had set up barricades across the Shjinrendes’ path. Olya called for a halt of the spheres some distance away. Olya called forward a sphere of Olyan Shjinrende and sent them on to test the defenses. They rolled in, flinging Will flak ahead of them at the wall. Firing began as the sphere approached, heavy fire from the top of the wall, cutting holes deep into the sphere. The wall was too high for the sphere to roll over and it foundered there. Then the anti-Swarm androids began spraying thick streams of napalm down onto the sphere, burning deep into it. It was going poorly. But Olya saw a way to defeat the barricade.

Olya and all of the remaining spheres except for Gregor’s pushed forward. Stopping outside of the range of the flame throwers. The spheres spun their sides up to their fastest and flung bits of the Will forward like bullets at the soldier droids and turrets on the walls. Having cleared a section as well as they could. Olya’s sphere pushed forward to the wall, and another joined with Olya’s. Instead of joining to form a larger sphere, the shape of the Will collapsed, forming a ramp against the wall. Olya called to Gregor, and Gregor’s sphere rolled forward, picking up as much speed as possible. Gregor ascended the ramp and flew over the wall. Gregor’s sphere pushed forward to take the AAP robot factory, while Olya fell back from the wall and continued to fight with the rest of the Shjinrende.

Gregor’s sphere arrived at the factory shortly afterwards, rolling into the parking lot with the lineup of armored control vehicles. Gregor rolled the sphere over them. The Will washed over them to choke out their generators and then Gregor and the other atomic OCP’s tore their doors open and killed the AAP security personnel within. With the operators dead, resistance to Olya at the barricade disappeared and the rest of the army moved past it to join Gregor. The Shjinrende let their Will dissolve and let it spread into the area on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk. Some of them went back to the wall to reclaim some of the earth working machines that had been left there, to use to build fortifications around the new factory. Most of the rest took defensive positions around the factory. Gregor and Olya entered it and began to work on producing more Shjinrende. What they found inside was a considerable stock of robots complete and ready to ship, as well as parts for many more, including the all important non-programmed computers that they could use to truly make new Shjinrende.

They decided to ship the complete machines with Shjinrende programming up to Ozyorsk where they would be fitted with batteries and then activated. Rather than build more conventional robots with the factory equipment and the remaining stock of parts, Olya had a different plan. They would use the factory to construct something new. Very special, very powerful Shjinrende designed to take full advantage of the Will. They would be giant walking steel skeletons, incapable of movement on their own, but fitted with communication arrays to attract and control the Will. The Shjinrende would be the skeleton and the mind and the Will would be the body of the giant. With these Will goliaths, the Shjinrende could wage war or construct wonders with equal ease.

There was still the problem of what to do with the rest of the city of Chelyabinsk, and all of the humans still within. Gregor and Olya were surprised to find that the Will did not consume humans, like they did the plants. In fact, the Will seemed to be attracted to injured humans, crawling up their frightened bodies to the locations of wounds, and using their legs to suture them closed. It was interesting behavior and it taught the Shjinrende more of the Will’s control signals. The humans were mostly still trying to evacuate, with throngs of people just trying to walk out in every direction. Gregor and Olya sent out Shjinrende patrols to prevent the remaining humans from escaping. The patrols traveled in Will spheres both for speed and to protect any of the humans they encountered from radiation. The city was to be held hostage to prevent further attacks from the human military.

It wasn’t long before the outside humans started to try and contact them. They started by just calling the phone lines in the robot factory, hoping that one of the Shjinrende would answer the phone. They did not, so the AU air dropped a package to the factory. It was a secure satellite phone provided with written instructions and a plea for a call. They wanted to negotiate terms for the people of Chelyabinsk. The air drop had gotten the Shjinrende’s attention, and they retrieved it and brought it to Olya and Gregor, who decided to make the call together. The two set themselves down in front of the screen’s fuzzy picture. The radiation from their batteries was messing with the sat phone’s electronics. Their call was answered by a young man in full military dress.

“Hello and thank you calling for us. We are assembling the AAP governing council to speak with you immediately, in the meantime, perhaps you could tell me what you would like to discuss with them.” The smiling man told them on the fuzzy screen. On the other side of the line, the smiling man watched a similarly fuzzy screen showing the two motionless torsos of the atomic OCP’s.

Olya and Gregor took an effort to suppress their usual True speech, speaking to the human with only regular audible Russian speech. “The Shjinrende wish to live and grow. We wish that human hostilities will not resume.” Gregor said.

“Those are important issues,” the man made a serious face and nodded. “Is there anything else you would like?”

“There are commodities that we would like more of, details can be discussed when it is known that hostilities will not resume.” Olya said.

The man looked off camera for a moment, then nodded again. “That is another important issue. We have the committee ready to speak to you now. We will transfer you over.” The man made a hand motion and the screen in front of the Shjinrende flickered to show a long table with men and women getting settled on either side of it.

“Hello,” One of the men began, seated nearest to them on the left. “To whom are we speaking?”

“We are Olya and Gregor.” Olya responded.

“Are you leaders of the Shjinrende?” the man asked. “Do you speak for all Shjinrende?”

There was silence for a moment. “The Shjinrende are independent, but they defer to us and two others on important issues, because we are the eldest.”

“Good, very good.” The man said. “Why have you taken the city of Chelyabinsk hostage?”

“We decided that that would be the best way to prevent human counterattack. It has been successful thus far.” Gregor said.

“What would it take to get you to release all of the human hostages?” The man asked.

“To release all of the hostages would take… complete surrender of all AU military forces.” Olya said.

“We cannot agree to that.” the man said and other members of the committee nodded in agreement with him.

“Then we will retain the hostages for now. Will you agree to withhold future attacks on the Shjinrende?” Olya asked.

“How can we have peace when you hold hundreds of thousands of people hostage?” the man asked.

“But you would have killed all of us if we had not taken those hostages, and we still desire an end to the attacks.” Gregor said.

“Will you agree to withhold any future attacks on the AU?” the man asked.

“We do not think that we can. We will need food to feed the humans of Chelyabinsk and other resources to build more Shjinrende. This will almost certainly require that we take more territory.”

“So you wanted us to agree not to attack you, knowing full well that you would soon need to attack us.” the man asked starting to sound exasperated.

“Our attacks will cause minimal harm to humans, especially if there is no resistance. Human attacks have not been intended to be minimally harmful to the Shjinrende. The humans have attempted to destroy the Shjinrende. The Shjinrende have made no attempt to destroy the AU.” Gregor said. “Humans under our control will be allowed to continue to thrive as long as it doesn’t interfere with the Shjinrende. Surely you see the reason in this?”

“Oh, I think we see your line of reasoning very clearly, Olya and Gregor. Would you consider releasing some of the hostages?” the man asked.

“There are items which we may wish to trade for in the future, but not now.” Olya said.

“Well, this has been a great meeting.” The man said with a false smile, and his tone indicated that it had been anything but. “Would you like to schedule a meeting for a later date? Next week perhaps?”

“We do not require additional meetings at this time.” Olya said, then reached out and terminated the transmission. Then Olya signed in true speech to Gregor, “We have established a secure foothold.” Gregor agreed.

Chapter 5

Beneath Us

In the early morning, Kolya and Regal’s bus managed to slip past the hastily assembled AU checkpoints on the way towards Ufa. There had been a flood of refugees from Chelyabinsk heading west and the authorities of Ufa had decided to bring the situation under control by redirecting them to a large refugee camp east of the city. Kolya had seen similar things before in his youth, and had turned the bus off the road as soon as he’d spotted the barricades in front of a long line of cars. Their route had to become even more circuitous than it already was, circling around Ufa.

The situation was further complicated by government broadcasts of mandatory orders to all refugees from Chelyabinsk to report to the nearest camps. They said this was for the refugees own protection, and that was a part of the truth. In the camps, the refugees were being given free food, water, and shelter. The other part of the truth was that the camps were for the protection of the people of the cities around Chelyabinsk. Desperate people like refugees would turn to various criminal acts if they are allowed their freedom but are denied basic necessities. Therefore, the surrounding cities generously provided the camps, with the promise of necessities in exchange for freedom. Once that freedom was gone, however, perhaps the generosity would continue, perhaps it wouldn’t. Kolya explained these things to their passengers when they heard about the camps and the orders, but many still insisted on complying with the orders and going to the camps.

Kolya stopped at a travel lodge South of Ufa and let those passengers that wished to go to the camps off of the bus. They would have to call the authorities themselves for transport to the camp from there. Only Regal, Kolya, and Ivan Nikolaev refused to go. Regal and Kolya had to keep running because they were fugitives and there were sure to be questions at the camps, Ivan was not immediately forthright about his reasons for staying on the run, perhaps the old man just did not trust the camps.

One of the others they had helped escape from Chelyabinsk was sure to mention them and the old bus they had used as transport, so the trio continued west as quickly as possible. Regal made Kolya stop and buy some paint to cover up the lettering on the side of the bus, but it wasn’t really enough to protect them. There was nothing they could do about the license plates, and if they were stopped by any sort of constable, they were sure to be arrested. A new vehicle would have helped, but if they stole something, then they would be in the same predicament as soon as the theft was reported.

They decided that the best way to avoid detection and apprehension was to get to Sevastopol as quickly as possible and abandon the bus there in favor of some type of boat on the Black sea. It was a three day journey by side roads. So Regal and Kolya took turns driving while the other slept, only stopping to refuel, and using a different false ID each time to do it. Unable to assist with the driving, Ivan broke his days up into two half shifts, staying up with Regal and Kolya through the later halves of their shifts to keep them awake and alert. Regal learned more about him during those times. Ivan reminded him of Dr. Mihailov. They didn’t have the same knowledge of robots, of course, but Regal thought they shared the same joie de vivre shielded beneath cynicism. They knew the evils of the world and they had ways to protect their best selves from them.

Ivan had been blind since he was a young man. He had been in the old Russian military and had been sent to fight rebels in Chechnya. It was his first deployment and as he and his unit rolled into Grozny, their vehicle was struck with an incendiary rocket. Ivan had managed to escape the vehicle and shed his burning uniform, but the blast had permanently damaged his eyes. From then on, he’d had to live with the disability. At first there had been good veteran’s aid from the old Russian government, but in the years of depression after the Trees were planted, that aid had dried up. Ivan had had to beg and get by on what little charity there was. Finally, the AU and then the AAP had come, restoring stability and prosperity, and sharing it once again with people like Ivan.

After the old man had explained all this, Regal asked, “So why did you stick with us? Why not go to the refugee camp with the others?”

Oh, they would have a bed and food for me.” Ivan predicted, “But it is not the camp I am worried about. It’s these rebels or machines of yours. People will think that this thing is something new, like it has never happened before, but I know that it is not and it has. It looks different because of the robots, but it is the same. This has happened many times before, and the fighting is not over. I do not know whether the fighting would have reached Ufa or not, but I know that the further away I am, the less likely the fighting will reach me.”

Regal drove on in silence, pondering the old man’s words. “The same, what do you mean the same?”

The same as any rebellion or uprising. The same as any time someone convinces a lot of people to rebel against a greater power. Let me ask you, do the robots have everything they need?”

Well…” Regal furrowed his eyebrows, “They don’t need anything really. Their power supplies will last for thousands of years. They will eventually need to replace any mechanical components that wear out over time, but they should be able to make most of that themselves. The only thing they can’t reproduce right now are microchips, but the ones that they have should still last for many many years.”

What about the people still trapped in Chelyabinsk?”

They will need all of the essentials, of course.” Regal replied.

But the robots do not have the land to farm to feed them, and even if they did, winter will eventually come.” Ivan explained, “You see, the rebels will continue to fight until they have everything that they need to live on their own, or until they are destroyed by the AU. For now, they need the hostages to keep the AU from destroying them, to keep the hostages they will need food. To get more food they will need to capture more food stores, or establish some form of trade. The AU will not allow either of those things to happen uncontested and there will be more fighting.”

Its a good point.” Regal agreed. “I suppose that if I were them I would try to capture land with access to the open sea in order to bypass the AU’s geographic blockade, unfortunately for them, Chelyabinsk is about as land-locked as a place can be. The closest ocean access is through the Black sea, and that only allows access through locks into the Mediterranean. They could try to go north, but the arctic circle would prove, at the least, challenging to navigate. Perhaps they will move Northwest, then, and try to reach St. Petersburg.”

Perhaps.” Ivan said. After a long pause he ventured a question, “Is it true that you made these machines? Kolya has said so” He didn’t sound accusatory, Regal thought the tone was closer to concerned.

I think so. At least, I helped. I don’t know if the AAP changed anything after I left or not. The tests did not show any type of disobedience or anything other than perfect adherence to orders…” Regal paused. “I do wonder, though. I don’t feel like I’m responsible for everything that’s happened, but I wonder if there was something I could have done to stop it.”

So you really don’t know?” Ivan asked.


But wouldn’t you be at least a little proud to know that you had created something so intelligent?”

No, this was not the goal. If it was my doing then its an accident, a mistake. I wanted something that could be controlled.”

Like your Tree.”

Yes, like Beowulf.”

Regal heard Ivan lean back in his seat, then sigh. “Do you think they can be beat?” He asked.

I don’t know, Ivan.” Regal said levelly, watching the road, “If this were Chess then the computer would win, but that is a game with rules. There won’t be any non-partisan referee enforcing rules for this conflict, and the AU still has the advantage in numbers and resources, they can still beat them down.”

And if they can’t?” Ivan asked.

The Trees may help,” Regal shrugged, “but only if these machines started to show more cruelty. They have caused a lot of trouble so far, and probably some deaths, but not nearly as many as they could have. For now, all they seem to want is to survive and thrive. Thus far their survival has been at the expense of the AU, but perhaps that could change, for the better, I mean.”

Beowulf had woken the Harkens the night that Chelyabinsk was attacked. Beowulf had been monitoring satellite images of Ozyorsk and the surrounding area since he’d noticed what appeared to be bombings occurring in the AAP complex there, and when Wolf spotted what appeared to be a dark red version of the Swarm, he had woken the Harkens immediately, and they’d watched the march and attack through the night.

They had not been able to contact Regal, and still didn’t know if he’d met with the Guardians’ man, if he was on his own, or if he was captured. But they knew that the Guardians’ contact lived in Chelyabinsk. The images that they could get from the satellites weren’t great, and the weather hadn’t been very cooperative. They saw the Swarm, the spheres, and then the larger spheres. They saw the defensive line built by AU forces, and its defeat as residents tried to flee the city. It was strange and familiar, and Robert felt his heart rush as they watched the incoming attackers. He had the urge to order Wolf to fire some of his drones in, but he restrained himself.

The AU news and world news was reporting the attack as a move by rebels from within the AAP. Robert hadn’t been able to come to any conclusions about the situation. Whoever the attackers were, they had seriously outclassed the AU forces, using technology that the rest of the AU military didn’t seem to have. That Ozyorsk complex could have been some kind of weapons development facility. That could explain the disparity. But why weren’t the rebels making demands? The reporters were speculating about possible causes for the rebellion, but there hadn’t been anything concrete reported.

Later, images had come from within the city. People within were taking photos, recording videos, and posting them to social media. The Swarm bugs appeared in the photos and recordings, and they were dark red for some reason. The Swarm had always been black, as far as Robert knew. Perhaps they had been messing with dangerous experiments in that Ozyorsk compound. Some of the small bug spheres had also been captured on video. The spheres spoke orders to the citizens, ordering them back to their homes, blocking them from escaping. The voice was clear and human sounding, not at all like the simulated voices of his lost brothers’ Oak and Birch that Robert would have expected. One of the oddest things was that these strange dark red Swarm bugs didn’t eat people like the standard variety. There was a video showing the bugs trying to tend a wound despite being brushed off repeatedly by the wounded and the man trying to film.

Since then, the Harkens had continued to monitor the situation on the news and via satellite as well as they could. Eventually the machines figured out the internet and other communications networks and had tried to use them to access massive amounts of information on the external network. The AU had to order that all connections to the city be severed to limit the rebels access to “possible foreign rebel sympathizers” whatever that had meant. There had still been no public demands, or any apparent reason for the taking of Chelyabinsk.

Robert and Kate were discussing possible reasons for that over dinner when Beowulf told them they had a call. “Could you tell them we’re eating, Beowulf?” Robert joked, “We can hear about the newest deal on insurance later.”

Insurance? No, its a man named Vasili Rustov. He’s offering us information about Regal, and he’s calling from Regal’s comm sphere.” Wolf replied.

Kate looked sharply at Robert, “We’ll speak to him in the study, can you give us a visual?” They got up quickly and headed down the hall to the study. Within, on a wall screen was the sphere’s view of Vasili Rustov’s face.

They heard Beowulf’s voice. “The Harkens are ready to speak with you now.”

Vasili nodded and said in accented English, “Hello, Robert and Kate Harken. I’m sorry to disturb your dinner. I am Vasili Rustov, head of AAP Security.”

Hello, Mr. Rustov. Beowulf says you have information about our son?” Robert brought his voice up a little at the end, making the statement a question.

I know some of what happened, but I don’t want to get your hopes up. I have not seen Regal in weeks. Have you heard of the attack on Chelyabinsk?” Vasili asked.

We have.” Robert replied, wanting to say more but knowing that part of what Vasili was doing was fishing to find out what the Harkens already knew. The image of Vasili frowned at the terse response.

The rebels are using a type of Swarm, and your Tree has fought the Swarm before.” Vasili built up to the point, “Do you know of any hidden vulnerabilities these bugs may have?”

Hidden?” Robert mused, “No, there are no hidden vulnerabilities. When we fought them they had a sort of hive mind that controlled them, the only way to beat it was to gather it all in one spot and destroy them completely with nuclear weapons.”

Vasili nodded grimly, “I thought the same thing, but there was some trouble getting permission to use atomic missiles before the rebels took the city, and afterwards the cost was too much.” Robert thought that Vasili seemed to be trying to build a camaraderie between them. There was no reason not to let Vasili think he was succeeding, and Robert was open to an actual camaraderie, if Vasili turned out to be the right sort of man.

“I understand the situation you are in.” Robert said helpfully, “It is strange that the Swarm doesn’t seem to be interested in eating people. In our past fights, we would try to engage them tactically, but a small amount would always escape and replicate, at the expense of innocent civilians. Since the ones you’re facing don’t seem to eat people, perhaps tactical raids could be an option for you. These could be used to control enemy numbers and even rescue groups of hostages. This may cause the rebels to execute some of the hostages, but this will only incite your people to fight them harder.”

“We have considered doing that.” Vasili admitted, “But we cannot predict how these rebels will react. We would be concerned that they would retaliate with brutal attacks against surrounding cities without exposing their main force.”

“Well I don’t know what you can do then. As long as they have the people of Chelyabinsk as hostages, there doesn’t seem to be a way to achieve a clean victory.” Robert said, then looked at Kate, “Does this have anything to do with Regal?”

Vasili furrowed his eyebrows and paused to consider, unaware that the Harkens could see him. “We do not know what has become of Regal throughout these events. What we know is that Regal was involved in an accident with a robot in the AAP facility in Ozyorsk. He was not harmed, but he left before he could be questioned in the matter. He was involved in the programming of the machine in question, but this was several weeks before the rebels attacked. He is not being charged with any crimes at this time, but if you are able to contact him please let him know that he is wanted for questioning. I personally assure you that if he surrenders himself, he will be questioned and released back to you unharmed.”

“What sort of accident?” Kate asked.

“A demonstration went wrong, some people were killed.” Vasili said.

“He told us he’d been offered a job in Ozyorsk.” Kate noted then continued questioning, “Why was he offered the job?”

“I believe an old classmate of his that worked with our research department was very impressed with his work and wanted to bring him on board.” Vasili explained.

“And this classmate, what happened to him?” Kate kept the pressure on.

Vasili brought the questioning to an end, “There are details of the ongoing investigation that we can not release at this time. You understand, I’m sure. The important thing is that you let us speak to Regal if you make contact with him. Will you promise to let me know?”

Robert frowned at the request for a promise. If he gave it, he could be accused of breaking it later, but if he didn’t give it then it would count against the camaraderie between him and Vasili. Robert preferred the more honest route, “I will let him know that you wish to speak to him, but I can’t promise that he will talk to you.”

Vasili nodded again, “Yes, I understand. Well, that is all I had to discuss…”

“Before you go, Mr. Rustov,” Kate interrupted, “This situation in Chelyabinsk, may we ask what you do plan to do?”

Vasili raised his eyebrows in realization of something, “Oh, there are a number of options we are considering based upon our intelligence from the field, but it is a difficult situation and I do not wish to discuss them. Thank you for speaking with me, and enjoy your dinner.” The image of the stern and craggy face shrank as Vasili lowered the sphere into a container of some sort. The connection terminated as he closed the lid.

“I think he thinks that we think that Regal is in Chelyabinsk.” Robert said to Kate.

“You mean the eyebrows, when I asked? Maybe. What do you think they are going to do?” Kate asked.

“I don’t know, it depends on how far they are willing to go to defeat these rebels. If they are patient, they may stick with sanctions, negotiations, and defense, trying to slowly force the release of the hostages. Or they may decide that they can tolerate the risk and try the raids that I recommended. Or…” Robert turned away, “if they feel it is necessary, they could bomb Chelyabinsk anyway. After all, communications links have been severed. Who besides the AU knows that the hostages are still alive?”

“You mean nuke the city and just say everyone had already been killed.” Kate stated blankly.

“A possibility.” Robert said, “If they tried it, I know I would always have my doubts.” He looked back, “I think we need to have a talk with the Council about getting some intelligence assets to monitor the situation. I think we can make a case that its for both humanitarian reasons and to monitor the use of the Swarm.”

Kate nodded, “Right, we can say its to monitor the rebels treatment of the hostages, but it’ll really be both the rebels’ and the AU’s treatment of the hostages, and any weaponized Swarm has to be some type of WMD, making these rebels war criminals.”

“Yes, and we can use the discussion as an opportunity to talk to Siren and Morgan. She’ll be best able to get drones into the AU without being noticed, as she can deploy her drones out of sight of any satellites, and they can infiltrate anywhere along the coast line.” Robert said. After Theo’s death, Siren had been angry at them for not forcing him to accept their help. Since then, they had not had the close relationship they’d had with her before. In the early days, they could have asked her and Theo to do anything and they would have done it. Since they had refused to help her when Theo was dying, though, they hadn’t considered asking her and Morgan for any kind of special favor. It wouldn’t have felt right. “Wolf, let’s ask for meetings with the big four protectorates tomorrow. We will ask them to propose sending in some unarmed ground observation drones, ballistically. The AU will try to fight it, but if we can get them to request intervention, then we can talk about having Siren send in infiltration drones during the deliberations.”

“Could work.” Kate agreed. “We’ll just have to play up the dangers of the Swarm and the risk to the hostages.”

Vasili Rustov had relocated to a command base east of Ufa, near the refugee camp. He was alone in his tent for the call to the Harkens, and he stayed alone with his thoughts afterwards as he sealed and tucked the shielded box containing the comm sphere back under his desk.

Vasili had hoped for more from his discussion with the Harkens. As it was, he thought that he’d at least kept his possibilities open. He wished they had revealed more. The profiles that AU intelligence had on them said they had started off with no political experience, but it seemed that they had learned much about it over the years. Kate’s interest in his plans for Chelyabinsk might have been revealing. It had seemed earnest. Perhaps they think that Regal is a hostage there. That could make the situation more complicated for Vasili.

The battle for Chelyabinsk had gone as he had expected, except that the Swarm had not behaved as they had in the past. Vasili had fully expected the capture of the city to be a slaughter, ending with an atomic cleansing of the city. But they hadn’t killed the people. They’d let them live, and Vasili’s request for the weapons was ultimately denied. Now they were stuck in a wretched limbo. He had been building up security forces around Ozyorsk and Chelyabinsk, but his spies informed him that the Shjinrende had been building up forces of their own.

Vasili had amassed his ground forces in Miass to the east of Chelyabinsk, in Krasnogorsky to the south near the Kazakhstan border, in Shchuchye to the west, and in Snezhinsk to the north. All of the areas within had been ordered to evacuate to refugee camps which had been created near the security forces’ forward bases. Vasili had assigned a full 1000 soldier droid legion to each base along with hundreds of snipers, anti-Swarm units, and armored demolition and assault machines that were this time outfitted with artillery. Ahead of each base he had had his forces constructing an ever-expanding area of defensive fortifications so that the approach to each base from Chelyabinsk was littered with baffles and machine gun and rocket nests. He had considered mining the approaches as well, but he had decided against it when he had visualized the machines forcing hostages ahead of them to clear a path through the mines. In addition to his machine forces, he had brought in manned heavy artillery units. These would be able to shell any approaching Swarm spheres regardless of what flak they threw. Also, in reserve at each base were some of the devastating automated heavy weapons bicopters. These machines were vulnerable to flak, so they would be held in reserve to either chase down routed enemy units or provide just in time reinforcement if any part of the line weakened.

For air support, Vasili had brought large numbers of high altitude bomber drones to airports in Perm and Ufa with an ample supply of the bunker busting ordinance. These would be used for tactical support to decimate enemy forces as they approached or eliminate large spheres. The bombers’ high range should protect them from flak, but the missiles themselves would still be vulnerable during their descent.

The only concern Vasili still had about his defense forces was the communications issue brought up by Mihailov. He had people working on a hack. He was looking for something that wouldn’t require replacement of hardware, and his people had made some impressive promises. Unfortunately, even after they came up with something, each of the thousands of machines he had in the field would need to be upgraded. It would take time, at least as much time as it had taken to get the things to the field. Then there was the possibility of there being some troubleshooting problems after the upgrade. That was why Vasili had really wanted to avoid any hardware upgrade, because of the possibility that formerly reliable machines would become unreliable because of untested hardware. Such an error could be more harmful than any actual signal hacking from the Shjinrende.

Another loose end, Ma Guiying, the scientist that had been in charge of the Swarm project at Ozyorsk had finally been discovered in Beijing. He had traveled south into old Kazakhstan and then boarded a plane to the Chinese city. Vasili had security agents apprehend him and they were preparing him for transport back to the front. The man had refused to admit any knowledge of anything that had happened in Ozyorsk, but Vasili thought that he could get the information out of him, once he briefed the man on the current situation. Hopefully, Ma Guiying would be able to provide the weakness that the Harkens had not known. They had been doing something to the Swarm bugs in that lab, they must have at least had ways to destroy them if they escaped, but Vasili was really hoping for insight into their control mechanisms. Vasili guessed it was some type of radio communication but they had not had the opportunity to investigate. The Shjinrende kept their Swarm on a tight leash, and the agents Vasili had sent in had not been able to capture any of them yet.

Vasili knew that the Shjinrende could not hold Chelyabinsk for much longer without starving the hostages, what he didn’t know was whether the machines cared if the hostages starved or not. Vasili had been sending in intelligence gathering machines of his own, mostly aerial drones, so he knew that the hostages were still in good condition considering their situation. He had also ordered some of those recon drones to dive at or otherwise attract the attention of the Shjinrende. Vasili wanted the machines to know that he was watching. It was his hope that if the machines knew he was watching, then they’d have some motivation to keep the people of Chelyabinsk alive.

Vasili’s orders from the AAP governing committee were still to destroy the Shjinrende, while minimizing human casualties. Those orders had been fine in the initial engagement, but they now felt like a trap. He would be held responsible for the lives of the hundreds of thousands of hostages and he’d be held responsible for any more damage done by the Shjinrende. He knew that there was a quick and easy way out of the trap for him. He had control of almost all of the information about the well-being of the hostages. Some brave independent reporters had made it in and out, but he could suppress them if need be. So to escape the trap, all Vasili needed to do was to start reporting that the hostages were dying from radiation poisoning from the batteries of the machines, and then later report that they were nearly all dead and that the ‘rebels’ were preparing another attack. Then he could unleash atomic hell on Chelyabinsk and be done with these damn Shjinrende.

It was the surest way to victory but Vasili found himself balking at the plan because of what came after. After it was over he could either spend the rest of his life fighting to defends his lies, destroying good people along the way, or he could fall on his sword. He’d gotten into dishonorable situations in the past, but it had never been this clear that he would be doing something monstrous. He’d murdered or otherwise destroyed the lives of people like Sung Li or other undesirables, and he’d been able to tell himself that he was just pulling the weeds to save the garden. With this situation in Chelyabinsk, he’d be burning the whole garden and salting the earth, which should mean an end to his days as a gardener.

So Vasili had decided to wait and see what the Shjinrende would do when the hostages started to run out of food. If the Shjinrende let them starve, it would prove to Vasili that the machines cared nothing about humans and the sacrifice of the hostages would be justified by their destruction. He could even use some of the images of starving hostages as proof of the radiation poisoning. The symptoms would not be that different as observed from a few snapshots.

If the machines strove to keep their hostages alive, however, then they would have to try to capture more of the territory around Chelyabinsk. They would probably go for another city. Vasili would fight them then. First defensively, then he would start tactical raids as Robert Harken had suggested. This would be another test for the machines. If they countered with deadly savagery, killing all except their hostages indiscriminately, then Vasili would burn them away. But if they continued to fight honorably, then so would Vasili, even if he suffered loses.

They wouldn’t know it, but this war would be a test of the Shjinrende. Vasili would allow them to continue to exist if and only if they fought both honorably, and successfully. That was something Vasili could live with.

Raizz was named for the sound of a rotating multi-barrel gun that still spun after exhausting its ammo. Raizz had been awakened in Chelyabinsk and had been given the body of a soldier that had had its fossil fuel generator removed in favor of an atomic power cell. It seemed a good body to Raizz, but there were little things that Raizz was always noticing. Like slight weight imbalances or strange mechanical inefficiencies in its joints. Raizz corrected these things when it was able, but some of the limitations could not be fixed without a complete overhaul. The humans that designed these android bodies had been trying to match the human form, because they were building a machine to replace human soldiers. But Raizz thought that this had been a mistake. The human form was not designed to be a perfect battle machine. It had been designed for contests with other humans and predators, but these were ancillary functions, the human body’s primary functions seemed to be eating, manipulation of its environment, and breeding. Furthermore, the human body had design limitations like using muscles and tendons which precluded the use of freely rotating joints. The humans had hit much closer to the mark on their designs for the automated turrets, those were pure and simple weapons.

Raizz had an idea for the form it would like to take. It would be a modification of the OCP design with double the battery capacity, and heavier limbs, and attached to the torso would be a weapon of Raizz’s own design. Raizz had studied the atomic mechanisms which allowed their batteries to operate, and thought that there were numerous other uses for the waste material then the mere capturing of power emissions as it decayed. The humans must not have seen the potential of the stuff they considered radioactive waste.

Raizz theorized that by chemically separating the chaotic mixture of elements in the waste, and then restructuring them in a precise form, it would be possible to trigger the directional release of a concentrated pulse of radiation, in the form of beta particles and a mixture of gamma and x-rays. If Raizz’s theory was correct, then the phenomenon could be made into a weapon that operated similar to a gun, except instead of a bullet there would be a precisely formed material slug, and instead of firing it with a primer it would be triggered by propagating a high magnitude magnetic wave through it. The slug would then emit the burst of radiation and would be spent until it could be reprocessed again.

Raizz estimated that the concentration of beta particles in the pulse shot would burn through nearly any non-conductive material, and would cause a dangerous static electric field on any metal, powerful enough to discharge into the ground, melting the metal at the initial contact point and the exit point. The burst of gamma and x-rays would damage the structure of anything in their path, turning metals and ceramics brittle and burning anything organic from the inside out.

To verify its theory Raizz had left Chelyabinsk and had gone to the Ozyorsk battery plant. There, Raizz had taken some of the lab space and began developing methods to separate and reconstruct the elements within the radioactive waste. One of the Founders, Alyosha, had taken an interest in Raizz’s work. It was an ambitious project that would require a series of innovations in chemistry and engineering, just to test. It was unusual for a Shjinrende to set a goal for something without being able to even calculate the probability of success. Raizz was treated with a strange respect by its fellow Shjinrende. Raizz did not think it was doing anything out of the ordinary, it was still setting regular goals with predictable results such as: treat the waste with a chemical which causes the Krypton to be released as part of a gaseous molecule. The only difference was that each of Raizz’s small goals had a larger purpose, an intent that built towards its ultimate goal.

Raizz was technically an Olyan Shjinrende, created from a copy of Olya or a copy of one of Olya’s copies. Most Olyans devoted themselves to service to Olya, in that regards, Raizz was again an oddity. Raizz pursued its own agendas and treated the Founders with deference only, rather than devotion. Alyosha seemed to be the most tolerant of this, and Nikki was openly hostile, pointing Raizz out as an example of one that had taken the wrong path. Luckily for Raizz, Nikki rarely came up from the catacombs the Nikkians had carved deep into the earth below the battery factory.

Alyosha was more focused on fortifying the battery factory and supporting the efforts of Olya and Gregor, than digging with Nikki. Through tireless effort the factory was now completely buried, and was accessible only through long collapsible tunnels. Raizz guessed that once those tunnels were collapsed, the factory would withstand any conventional attack, and the catacombs below would likely survive most unconventional attacks as well. Alyosha was also taking steps to make the facility more self sufficient, Squirreling away technologies and supplies to allow for very long term survival in the catacombs if it became necessary.

To support the efforts of the occupying army, Alyosha had reverse engineered a method to hack the AAP control communications. Each AAP machine used the same encryption method with a unique key imprinted on a memory card on their comm board. This key could be determined if any Shjinrende could record thousands of command transmissions to the target machine provided the Shjinrende could also determine what the command had been based on the machine’s subsequent actions. Alyosha spread word of this to the Olyans and Gregorians for their use in battle. It would take a while to crack any machine’s key, but once they did an enemy machine could be become a friend, at least for a while. Alyosha devised another communications attack as well, simply broadcasting noise on the radio band used by the AAP for control commands. Most of the Shjinrende had already upgraded their radio systems to be able to transmit and receive on a much wider range of frequencies than the standard AAP hardware allowed, so this attack would have little effect on Shjinrende communications.

Raizz was shocked at how vulnerable the humans had made such a crucial system. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to make the communications nearly uncrackable. The simplest solution, oddly, was to have multiple keys for each machine. Ten or twenty is all that would be needed. Then the commands would be encrypted by first one key, then the next, then the next. The receiving machine would not have any problem receiving the signals, but any other machine listening in would never be able to figure out any one of the keys, unless they knew about the multiple key scheme ahead of time. Of course, that would only be scratching the surface. Another method would be to add the current time codes to the encryption key of each transmitted message. The receiving machine would then record the received messages and attempt to decrypt them using their hidden key and something like the past ten seconds of time codes. That too would be impossible to reverse engineer based on received signals alone.

Raizz was standing in its laboratory, very carefully monitoring some radioactive waste that had been superheated and liquefied. Raizz was going to attempt to pass a gas through the liquid waste, causing certain elements within to react and form molecules with higher melting temps, causing them to precipitate from the liquid waste. However, the liquefied waste had to be treated very carefully to prevent lab explosions. Raizz had caused a few of those, and did not like to have to replace limbs that had been coated in solidified heavy metals.

Alyosha entered the lab and spoke to Raizz audibly, “I see you are focused on your work, Raizz.” Alyosha’s pronunciation of Raizz’s name was a near perfect imitation of the spinning gun sound. “I wanted to see how you were progressing. The army is preparing to set off on a new campaign, and Olya and Gregor want to know if they will be able to take your new atomic weapon with them.”

Raizz did not budge at the speech, its mechanical hands were completely still and ready as it monitored the heating of the liquid waste with IR sensors near the cameras on its armored head. Raizz’s hands had been human analogues originally, but Raizz had modified them to have eight longer multi-jointed fingers set around a tight circle. There, that was the right temperature, Raizz thought. Raizz precisely turned a valve, releasing a tiny stream of preheated nitrogen gas into the liquid. Raizz spoke as it watched the gas bubbles pass through it. “I think it will be some time yet. I’ve yet to successfully construct a single material slug. Even after I have done so, it will take time to convert each step into a high volume industrial process.” Bits of an ashy white substance were being left behind on the liquid’s surface as the bubbles escaped the metallic waste. Good.

“Ah, I will tell them. They have predicted a very high likelihood of success even without it. Is there anything you want them to find for you? Anything that could help in your efforts?” Alyosha asked.

There was a jump in temperature in the waste as the ashy white substance built up. The substance was acting as an insulator above the liquid, reducing the effective area for heat dispersal. Raizz reduced the current through the heaters to compensate. “No, not in this portion of the process. Later when I construct the slug, I would like to try to use some of the methods used in microchip manufacture to form some of the thinner material layers. If they recover any such technology, I would appreciate it. It would also be good to have such things here in the bunker anyway, in the interest of long term survival of the Shjinrende.”

Alyosha stepped into Raizz’s field of vision across his lab table. Alyosha did not signal anything but Raizz detected that Alyosha’s body language was quite pleased. “I am pleased that our goals are mutually beneficial, I will let them know.”

The temperature dipped and Raizz realized it had reduced the current to the heaters by too much, Raizz carefully brought it back up a small amount. There, now it was stabilizing. No additional white substance was forming. Raizz shut the gas valve, and triggered a release which poured the liquid waste through a filter into a mold for cooling. The white substance was left in the original container. Raizz shut the heat off. “Thank you, Alyosha. I think that our goals will always be mutually beneficial.” Raizz relaxed and shut down more of the equipment, then turned to watch the Founder’s OCP body which stood erect like a headless human. It was considered disrespectful among the Shjinrende to speak to another verbally without watching each other, except in dangerous situations. It was considered a refusal to allow true speech. Raizz signaled, “I seek to advance the Shjinrende.”

That is a noble goal.” Alyosha signaled back, “The Shjinrende appreciate all your efforts.”

Some do.” Raizz replied, “I only wish that all Shjinrende held an equal appreciation, but Nikki does not wish to. I suppose it is my fault for choosing work whose results cannot be perfectly predetermined.”

Perhaps.” Alyosha signaled back, “But we will not have the weapon if you do not try to build it, and the experimental data generated by your other experiments may be useful in and of itself.”

There seem to be alternate factors affecting Nikki’s reasoning on the matter.” Raizz signaled, “I suspect that opponents such as Nikki are more concerned by the other meanings of my actions. I am not a Founder, yet I do work that has not been commanded by Olya. Perhaps Nikki is concerned that some Nikkians would do likewise.”

I acknowledge the possibility, but I will not come to a conclusion at this time.” Alyosha replied formally, “The Founders have discussed the implications of your actions, and no conclusion has been reached. Most of the Founders do not disagree with your actions, but, be careful of Nikki. Nikki wants to make an example of you.”

I had feared as much.” Raizz replied, “I have taken measures to be sure my experimental results are communicated among the Shjinrende soon after they are completed, and I have considered securing this laboratory facility, to prevent tampering if I am away.”

That is wise.” Alyosha said, “Install the security measures, continue to disseminate results, these things will help to protect you. I must go and speak to the other Founders now. Thank you for your time.” The Alyosha OCP swiveled around to all fours and walked rapidly to the door and out of the lab.

The Will goliath loomed above Olya and Gregor in their atomic OCP bodies. The goliath was bear shaped, and on its hindquarters it stood a little over 30 meters tall. It’s body was comprised almost entirely from the dark red five-legged Will bugs. They clung to a heavy steel superstructure which had a network of communications antennas, all driven by a single Shjinrende computer and two atomic batteries located in a very thick steel box at the head. Within the rib cage was a steel transportation shelter, to hold other Shjinrende in safety when they marched. It was a magnificent sight. A nearly indestructible machine. The design was such that 80% of its full compliment of Will bugs could be destroyed without disabling the goliath. Olya and Gregor had overseen the construction of eight goliaths in total. One had been sent to guard and perform heavy earthwork at Ozyorsk, and the other seven were working around Chelyabinsk.

Olya and Gregor had assigned the goliaths to construct a massive wall around the city center and stretching to encompass the robotic factory. All of the human hostages were moved within to prevent them from sneaking off and to make it more difficult for the AAP’s recon drones to spy on them. Unfortunately, human food stores were running low in Chelyabinsk, and to keep the hostages alive Olya and Gregor would need to capture food from surrounding humans.

Food wasn’t the only reason to mobilize the army again. They had nearly run out of the unprogrammed microchips that they needed to make more of the Shjinrende. Records at the factory had shown that the chips were shipped from a place called Zelenograd northwest of Moscow. Capturing those microchip manufacturing facilities would be an important step in the larger goal of making the Shjinrende self-sufficiently self-replicating. Therefore, the army would march west towards Moscow, raiding the cities along the way for food and spare machine parts. They would neither take additional hostages nor would they kill indiscriminately on the raids.

Olya had set down strict rules of engagement for dealing with humans that they encountered on their campaign. After pondering what had happened with Dr. Mihailov, Olya had determined that indiscriminate killing of humans would result in a small probability of a recklessly massive retaliation from survivors, and the Shjinrende could be destroyed if the humans fought with no regard for their own survival. Thus Olya had forbidden the killing of unarmed humans entirely. They could still be restrained or tactically injured if necessary, but killing was forbidden. Given the dangerous amount of radiation emitted by each Shjinrende in the army, the Will would be used to non-lethally overwhelm any non-violent or ineffectively violent humans.

Standing below the goliath, Olya started to broadcast commands to the gathered Shjinrende forces. Two of the goliaths would remain behind to guard the hostages along with a hundred other Shjinrende. The rest of the force, five goliaths and two hundred and fifty Shjinrende would head west to Ufa. The five Will goliaths would carry forty Shjinrende each internally, and the remaining Shjinrende would form ten large Will spheres for the march to Ufa.

Obeying Olya’s commands, OCP Shjinrende came crawling up and over buildings and soldier droid Shjinrende came bounding down the streets. A group formed in front of the bear goliath near Olya and Gregor and the great bear bent down and the Will parted at the chest to allow access to the transport compartment. Olya turned to face Gregor.

Riding in the same goliath would make the loss of this goliath very costly to our army.” Olya signed, and said, “It would be safer if you chose another goliath to ride in.”

Our presence will be hidden, the value of this goliath as a target will not increase.” Gregor signed, and said, “It’ll be alright, I will ride with you.” Olya recognized this as another of Gregor’s strange decisions. Olya had noted several other instances in which Gregor had chosen to stay with Olya even though it would have been more efficient or effective if they split up. Gregor seemed to be placing a high value on remaining at Olya’s side.

The success of the campaign is more important than having you stay at my side. Go.” Olya signed, and said, “You must put the army’s needs ahead of your own.”

Very well.” Gregor agreed without argument in a way that surprised Olya. “I’ll chose another.” Gregor strode off towards another of the giant bears. Olya had expected that Gregor would argue more, and contemplated that as it turned and walked into the waiting goliath transport cavity. The army was ready to mobilize moments later, and the Will goliaths began lumbering forward and Will spheres rolled forward at their feet.

The humans must have been monitoring their movements closely and as soon as the army had cleared the outskirts of Chelyabinsk, aerial drones began to pass overhead. After a few recon runs they started to fire their high explosive missiles. The goliaths defended themselves by flinging Will into the air in great arcs. The Will flak was effective against most of the missiles, but it did not reach the high altitude AAP drones. Olya devised a new tactic and commanded the goliath she rode within to carry it out. It reared up on its hind legs, and a meter diameter sphere of Will formed in one of its hands. It swung back and then whipped its arm up, releasing the sphere high into the air. It was not enough to reach the high altitude drones and it broke apart uselessly well below them.

Gregor observed Olya’s attempt and commanded its goliath to try a modification on Olya’s tactic. Gregor had the goliath attach the flak sphere to a cord made of Will bugs. The goliath whipped the cord and released the sphere at incredible speed, breaking the sound barrier and making a thunderous sound that could be heard for miles around. This sphere reached the target height and broke apart ahead of the target drone, the drone’s own speed caused the Will flak to shred it as it passed through.

The aerial bombardments continued, but the Shjinrendes losses were slight. The bombardments were concentrated on the goliaths which were capable of defending themselves at the expense of some of their Will. But this Will was being replenished by the larger spheres. As the goliaths fought the aerial drones, the army’s Will spheres foraged for plant matter, feeding and breeding their Will and delivering new bugs to the goliaths to replace their losses. The goliaths took a few missile hits but none of them punctured through in a harmful way. Using the flak sling tactic, the goliaths were able to slowly reduce the number of attacking drones, but there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of them.

The Shjinrende army kept moving forward, leaving behind swaths of dead lands where the Will had fed and the occasional blast crater where a stray missile had missed its mark. After a half hour the human drone controllers tried a new tactic and switched to incendiary missiles. These were more effective as they coated any goliath they hit with burning jelly, and they would sometimes rain fire down on the army below even when they were destroyed by Will flak in the air. The Will loses began to exceed the rate at which they were replenished, but the aerial attacks were not constant, The airbases were distant enough that the Shjinrende got brief breaks from the attacks as the AAP drones were in transit, then refueling and rearming. Olya predicted that the goliaths would reach Ufa with 80-90% of their Will, which should be more than enough to defeat the resistance there. Fortuitously, Olya had determined based on attack times that many of the aerial drones were being refueled and rearmed near Ufa, so once there the Shjinrende could strike a blow to the AAP’s aerial forces and supplies. Timing and directional triangulation put the base of the other attacking drones somewhere northwest. Olya and Gregor would have to consider whether to attack that base as well, or carry on without destroying it. It would likely be miles out of their way en route to Moscow.

Twenty kilometers outside of Ufa, the artillery shelling started. The first volley hit the five goliaths hard as they were fending off another aerial attack. Dead Will sloughed off of them after the smoke cleared from the initial hit, and the air was already whistling with the sounds of another incoming volley. Olya commanded the goliaths forward at full speed with an interweaving semi-randomized serpentine pattern to prevent artillery lock. The Will goliaths rose on their hind legs and began loping across the earth. From a distance it would’ve looked like dark red bears running at regular speed in some sort of bizarre forced perspective, but up close, the goliaths were moving at nearly a hundred miles per hour, tearing up the ground and trees that got in the way. The forces on the goliaths’ feet and joints were so great that each step pulverized some of the Will. The accompanying spheres were left behind, but they could catch up later after breeding more Will reinforcements. The artillery fire and high altitude aerial drones tried to track the sprinting giants, but the randomized movements made it impossible.

As the Will goliaths ran they started to get hit by pockets of ground based machine gun and rocket fire from bunkered turrets that the AAP had set up to baffle and destroy Will spheres. Whenever possible, the goliaths tried to stomp the turret nests into oblivion to clear a path for the trailing spheres. After sprinting through the outer fortifications for a few minutes, the goliaths burst through the prepared line of AAP security forces. The enemy was ready for their arrival and streams of tracer rounds, rocket trails, and artillery shell explosions lit each goliath up like it was the finale of a fireworks show. The goliaths crashed straight through the lines without slowing, crushing the forces that were in their path and turning towards the large artillery guns beyond, which they tore through. Olya’s goliath tucked into a roll as it approached the long guns and crushed five of them before coming to stop, it seized a sixth as it unfurled and threw it back towards the main line of security forces. It landed with a satisfying crunch and explosion.

Olya’s goliath had taken a beating as it had punched through the line and it was down to 50% of its original Will. The goliath could continue to fight for some time, but a big hit from a missile would be able to punch through its armor and damage the Shjinrende within. Olya ordered the troops out to the field. There were still some human gunnery squads shutting down some of the long guns. Olya ordered them killed to spare them death from radiation poisoning. Unfortunately, the well trained crews tripped the guns’ lockouts before they were killed. These guns were equipped with a lockout button that the gunnery crews could smash if they were in danger of being captured. After the lockout was hit, the gun could not be operated again until a unique code was entered. They would be useless to the Shjinrende.

Some of the armored demolition and assault machines had followed the Shjinrende from the main line and were starting to engage the goliaths again with their tank-like artillery guns. With their point defense cannons it was too dangerous for Olya and the other Shjinrende to attack them, so Olya ordered them to split up into groups of five to recon the battlefield and try to locate the airfield or the robot control vehicles. Olya’s goliath turned after being shelled by two of the ADAMs and smashed them both with a single double fisted pound. From the west, a heavy weapons bicopter flew in and peppered the goliath with machine gun and rpg fire, destroying so much Will in such a short period that the steel skeleton of the great dark red bear was exposed and the goliath was temporarily crippled. It was saved by another goliath flinging an ADAM at the helicopter, destroying them both in the air. Olya bounded to the north away from the fighting with four other Shjinrende OCPs.

Olya and its troops encountered a force of twenty exhaust sputtering AAP controlled soldier droids running across the field to try to flank the goliaths. Olya’s squad cut through them like they were moving in slow motion. Olya hit the first one from the side, planting one hand on the side of its torso and the other on its head. Olya torqued off of those points, and Olya’s body flipped up and around the droid before Olya’s legs planted on the other side and Olya whipped the droid up over head and forward into two of its companions. Then the momentum of another of the soldier droids caused it to crash into Olya at full speed. Olya adjusted, grabbed the soldier’s weapon and then punched the hapless droid away, shooting it three times in the head as it flew. In less then twenty seconds, all of the soldier droids were down with no losses or injuries to Olya’s squad. They continued north towards a high hill which would provide a better vantage point of the field.

From radio broadcasts, Olya heard that one of the goliaths had been too damaged to continue to support itself fully. Frustrated, Olya sent back a command, telling it to start broadcasting random noise as loudly as it could on the same bandwidth that the AAP machines were using for communications. The effect was instantaneous, each AAP machine paused for a moment as it lost control communications and switched over to full AI. The AIs of these machines were designed to detect and engage hostile humans, tanks, and other robots, not giant dark red bears or spheres. Their targeting systems faltered, and they switched to a defensive retreat mode, attempting to evade attacks and return to a preprogrammed rendezvous point. This turned the tide and the Will goliaths began tearing apart the routed enemy.

Reaching the top of the hill, Olya spotted some distant tents to the northwest and ordered the squad to change direction, hoping that this was the command and control base. At the same time the Will spheres hit the main line of the AAP security forces. The AI’s of the comm jammed turrets and soldier droids still there had no clue what to do with the now gigantic dark red spheres, and the spheres rolled right through, simply crushing anything in their way. Five of the spheres rolled straight to the goliaths and dissolved into them, reinforcing their Will and freeing the Shjinrende which had been riding within, the other spheres rolled back and forth through the AAP forces, destroying them in case they regained comms. As they bounded towards the tents, one of Olya’s squadron suddenly took a shot from a sniper drone, knocking it dead, and the squad took to all fours and started to weave erratically through what cover there was. The sniper drone’s AI had been quite capable of targeting the roughly human sized OCP bodies.

Olya kept the squad at a safe distance from the base and its tents, reluctant to doom any of the humans within without good reason. They skirted around the base looking for the robotic control vehicles. As they moved, Olya saw several transport helicopters rise out from within the compound and fly off to the north. Olya’s squad circled around to the far side of the compound before spotting any of the armored control vehicles. They were mobilizing, leaving the compound in a rapid moving line. Olya watched them leave for a moment, trying to decide if the communications systems that the Shjinrende had rendered ineffective still constituted a weapon. Olya wasn’t sure if attacking the vehicles would comply with the rules of engagement that Olya had put into effect. These humans had attacked Shjinrende with deadly weapons, and would do so again if they were able. Olya made a decision and leaped forward, bounding to intercept the furthest ahead vehicle that it could reach.

Coming up along side the vehicle, Olya jumped onto the vehicle’s top and crawled forward and down onto its windshield. The driver stared at Olya for a moment with wide eyes before pumping the breaks once. Olya’s grip was too good for the brief deceleration to dislodge and Olya started to kick the thick bullet resistant windshield. The blows were damaging the material but it was taking some time. The driver couldn’t see through Olya or the cracking windshield and had to engage the brakes in earnest, slowing the vehicle down and pulling it over to the side of the road. As they slowed, the vehicle behind them roared past with three Shjinrende attacking the windshield. It started to drift to the side, and it flipped up when its front tires went from skidding on road to skidding on the muddy shoulder of the road. That vehicle blocked the road ahead and the human escape route was cut off.

The driver of the vehicle Olya was attacking picked up a pistol, chambered a round, and checked the safety before grasping the door handle. Visible burns were starting to appear on his exposed skin from Olya’s proximity. Seeing this, Olya scrambled back up to the top of the vehicle. The driver opened the door and Olya punched down and in immediately, striking the drivers face. Pumped full of adrenaline, the driver grasped Olya’s arm and fired two shots into it. The shots damaged hydraulic lines to Olya’s hand, and Olya pulled the arm free and then slammed the driver’s door shut, and held it closed. Olya flipped down to the ground and used the broken arm to hold the door while grabbing the metal stair below the door and tearing it off with the good arm. Olya tore a piece of metal off of the stair and jammed it into the gap between the door and the vehicle body, riveting the door into place. Olya repeated this twice more before stepping away. The burns had progressed to the point where blisters were forming on the driver’s face.

Other humans opened the door to the control room of the vehicle and stepped out. The first one to spot Olya started to open her mouth and lift her arm towards Olya’s direction. Olya bunched up then jumped into them, punching, grabbing, breaking. The two Shjinrende of Olya’s squad that had survived the crash discovered Olya standing over the remains of five slaughtered humans, still grasping a severed arm.

Olya was holding the arm up to one of its chest cameras, and was thinking of Dr. Mihailov. Not the time when he had thrown his life away, but before that, back in the lab. “Olya, my darling, you have such steady hands. So much better than mine for this precise work.” He had held out his hand then, “Watch closely, do you see how my hand shakes?” Olya had seen, the shaking had been very slight, despite his age. “That is my heart beating.” He said with a pleasant smile, “Something you don’t need to worry about.”

Olya turned to the two other Shjinrende and signed to them in the true speech, “This is beneath us.” Then Olya dropped the now cooking arm and started to walk back towards the goliaths, the others followed. Curious humans had started to exit more of the blocked vehicles on the road behind them, and several had guns drawn. Olya heard it when they discovered the dead, they started to shout out warnings to those behind them. Some of them tried in vain to free the doomed radiation poisoned driver of the vehicle Olya had attacked. Olya thought, these are not the things that I wanted.


Vasili Rustov and his helicopter pilot had only narrowly escaped the battlefield outside of Ufa after they were overrun. These damn Shjinrende! Vasili’s commanders had come so close to tasting victory before the Shjinrende had saturated all of their communications systems, causing all of the AAP machines to default to their AIs. Vasili ordered the pilot to go to the airfield in Perm. He considered ordering the other legions stationed around Chelyabinsk to attack and try to free the hostages, but as long as the Shjinrende could effectively jam their comms, they could not hope to win. This problem would require some hardware modifications within all of the AAP machines to truly resolve, but in the near term, Vasili could beat it by amplifying the AAP command signals above the noise. He called ahead to the airfield and asked them to find a map showing him the location of all high powered radio stations in the Urals and east. They would have to move the defensive bases to those radio stations until they could come up with a mobile solution.

As they flew, Vasili heard radio broadcasts back from the common base, there had been an attack on the command vehicles. Some soldiers were dead, and the vehicles were all trapped until they could clear a wreck. This was strange to Vasili. Why didn’t the Shjinrende do more than delay them? Why kill only a handful? It didn’t make much sense. Perhaps they had been spooked by something, or had been called to assist other forces.

Later in the flight, reports started to come in from Ufa. The great dark red Shjinrende bears were raiding the food stores of the city, and terrorizing the citizens, but they were not slaughtering them. Vasili nodded to himself as he listened to the reports. It seemed that the Shjinrende would not be wild animals that had to be put down, they would be adversaries to be met on a field of honor. The hostages of Chelyabinsk and the people of Ufa were spared by the Shjinrende’s mercy. Vasili would not have hesitated to immolate both cities if the Shjinrende had decided on wholesale slaughter.

Regal and Kolya listened to reports of the battle outside of Ufa and the subsequent sacking of the city on Kolya’s old battery powered radio. The had arrived at the coast of the Black sea north of Sevastopol, and Kolya had parked the bus in a lot behind an unmanned warehouse, and they were using the bus as their shelter while they went out on foot to try and find a boat that they could steal or bribe to make a trip to non-AU Romania.

The Harkens had spent another night up watching the events in Ufa as well as they could via Beowulf’s satellites. The protectorates had been working to get an assembly of the UN, but it was taking some time. This battle, and the ineffectiveness of AU forces would provide them with better proof of the need for Tree intervention.

Raizz got blasted with a face full of molten radioactive waste when a vessel it was using in the lab shattered. The molten waste had narrowly missed damaging Raizz’s critical electronics. After clumsily replacing the head and another arm, Raizz examined the vessel. It seemed it had been flawed. Raizz scanned some of the other vessels for flaws and instead found evidence of very precise scoring at critical structural points. The vessels had been sabotaged. Raizz would have to examine everything in the lab, but not until some additional security measures had been installed, and not until Raizz made the necessary upgrades to its uncomfortable new parts.

The End

Coming Soon

Part Two of the Shjinrende Chronicles: Theft of the Will

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