Stretched beneath me, gigantic blazing orb cradled in vacuum, a planet burned with cleansing fire.
"Your appreciation of nature and your aesthetic sense never fails to amaze me," Cara's warm contralto whispered in my ear.
"I wonder if it amazes you because you don't have a sense of beauty and wonder."
"Oh, perhaps you can tell me what Truth and Beauty mean to you, then."
"Well, that's a rather long conversation, and we'll be rather busy shortly."
"Oh, we have at least twenty minutes until deorbit is complete. Indulge me."
"I'd rather listen to your internal dialogue."
"Do you always have to put me under the microscope? Can't a guy get a little privacy?"
"Ah, that quaint notion again?"
Hurry up and wait, yes that's the life of the philosopher-soldier.
Me and my squad hung, cocooned in acceleration tanks filled with smart liquid, which were themselves cross-braced and strapped into an armored ball the mass of a mountain, just beginning to deorbit a world with a sizable fraction of its atmosphere currently being converted to plasma.
It was going to be a rough ride.
In this enormous chessboard of a battle, we were insignificant pieces, dwarfed in size and firepower compared to the vast horde of the coherent ship-swarm that was the local spatial manifestation of Caretaker. Thousands upon thousands of spheres ranging from millimeters to kilometers across, clustered together into functional units only vaguely analagous to what baseline humans might term dreadnoughts, capital ships, transports, cruisers, destroyers, surface bombardment, close-orbit supremacy gunships, ground supremacy gunships, mechanized armor, infantry, synsects, and nanoswarms.
Yet, we were the pawn promoted to queen. In our area of purview, we could operate, independently, where the rest of Caretaker could not. And our area was the key to the entire battle.
With EMP and microwave saturation complete, unseen even to my expanded vision (taken from the locally-centered exponential weighted sum of the total available sensor platforms and processed for realtime tactical information), a constellation of microspheres and assorted odd shapes resembling ancient biological specimens fell: a giant, invading nanounit plague settling around the volume of the planet, smothering all resistance.
"Even with your limited memory, you must recall seeing this sort of thing dozens of times."
"Yes, Cara, and as I recall with my feeble mentation, you never use exactly the same tactics twice, yet the endgame always looks the same."
"Well, you appreciate that very limited simulation of warfare invented by your forebears called chess? Even that relatively simple game has more moves than can be easily totalled by your consciousness."
"It still always looks the same, or nearly so. But then, I suspect you don't unfreeze me until the endgame."
"You know, if you're supposed to be my companion through whatever term my existence takes, it would be nice if we could relate to each other with some semblance of equality."
"Oh, now, you're just acting like the poor, benighted, overshadowed human male. You're supposed to be struggling to achieve your potential! Be all that you can be! Expand your consciousness!"
"Your recruiting memes already worked; I'm in the army now, so you don't have to keep with the slogans."
"Did I ever use slogans to recruit you?"
"Not that I remember, no."
"That's rather ironic considering how psychologically impervious I'm supposed to be."
"Yes, well that was after I'd been training you for a couple of centuries. And you're the one that brought up the subject of memes."
"Oh come now, even in your own species, females are generally superior. You males are supposed to be the path-blazing, yet expendable members that advance the tribe at all costs, so that their genes can be protected by the females and passed to the next generation."
"Oh, Cara, please stop with the anthropology lecture now."
"Was that a lecture? If so, I should have taken the time to get the details more properly correct, instead of generalizing."
"Look Cara, we're almost there."
"Of course we are."
I snorted in frustration.
"Failure and frustration is very motivational."
Hanging above us, a kilometers wide flower of superconducting carbon filaments finished unfolding, petals tilted towards us in a perfect parabolic arc. False-color tactical displays overlaid the structure with dense pulses of power, flooding into it from the rest of the fleet, and then spearing down into us, our sphere drinking zettawatts to charge its systems. It would be one link in the chain that was our lifeline to the fleet, supplying power, data, and computation to our specialized fighting force.
Elsewhere around the planet, in dozens of locations, similiar craft were also ready for descent.
"Most of those are feints."
"Meaning we're not?"
"There go the bombs."
"Ah, so that means .... " I squeezed my eyes shut.
Waiting was a fugue of anticipation, a long slow breath you couldn't hold and couldn't let out ....
My stomach lurched as we dropped into Hell.
Of course, squeezing my eyes shut and the butterflies in my stomach made no difference, since I could still see perfectly well the tactical displays indicating the start of our descent, as well as the dozen-odd corebombs preceeding us by a few tens of seconds. There wasn't really anything to be queasy about; ten million tons of monopolium drops through an atmosphere with only a few buffets, and in any event my acceleration tank held me perfectly still and cushioned.
It's just the way I'm wired. Don't ask me to explain it; I don't think even Cara can.
No rejoinder Cara? Didn't think so.
Now indicators came online showing me the status, physical states, and even moods of my squad. Weapons diagnosis, sensors interlocked, tactical computers running, mission cues mapped, realtime intelligence pouring in, stress and load and armor strain; a thousand intricate details feeding my intuition about the organic being that was my team.
I find it interesting that Cara doesn't show me this information until we're just about to go live. Just before everything drops, there's a peace and calmness that comes over my soul, a rightness, decisiveness, a finality of setting on a path with just one destination.
And a sense of aloneness. Face to face with only myself and destiny.
A shudder, as we dropped throught the molten surface, not burrowing so much as falling through the planets core, like a molten droplet of iron in a vast, dark sea. I knew then by the strange, squishy-soggy feeling of my skin in the tank that the inertial compensators were now fighting the turbulence of our free fall through solid ground.
Seven minutes and counting.
Some of my team members; Heavy, Point, Sniper, and the Corporal had drifted off to sleep. Recon was wide awake and anxious, if I was reading his mood indicators correctly. The others alternated between boredom and tension.
"Eyes forward, Recon. How's it hanging?"
"Just an expression, Recon. Sorry, my carbon chauvinism is showing. Does your species possess a sense of humor?"
"Sir, there are ... events ... which stimulate curiosity and excitement, as well as a few ... biochemical reactions ... somewhat analogous to ... the emotion producing ... laughter in your species."
"Thank you Recon, that's good to know. Are you ready?"
I sure as hell felt those jarring rumbles now, even in the tank. Everyone woke up. The fluid did strange, swirling dances against my skin as the ship buckled around us.
Below us, the core bombs were detonating in precise patterns, excavating our beach-head and flooding the caverns with gammas and EMPs, killing locally defending nanoswarms, and making a general electromagnetic soup out of the resonant cavity we were about to occupy. A soup that nothing artificial would be able to operate in efficiently.
All around inside the planet, core bombs were cutting the links of the distributed mesh composing the deep computation layer of the planetary neurosystems. Disorganizing and disrupting its defenders, if we were lucky.
We were about to find out.
Once, this world had been an excavated moon of self-building computronium supporting a vast archailect mind and its ecosystem of sophonts.
We felt the hammerblow of the tanks as our deceleration burn commenced.
Our tanks dumped us along with our fluid down a twisting dark tunnel. By instinct and with fluidic help, we folded our bodies into the proper shapes, sliding into our armor in a sluice of red acceleration liquid, cascading down the squad bay. Everything went dark as our data connections were temporarily cut.
Twenty five seconds.
We were reborn in a skin of cybernetic armor; sensors boosted to full gain, tactile touch, tactical display updates. Biosystems came online, power system test sequences ran. We consciously and subconsciously flexed our amplified muscles and sinews. Our protective plating assimilated the current threat programming and began to morph into the
correct mass distribution around us.
We were amped! Shudders reverbrating through the hull as spherical gunships blasted away from our transport, establishing a defense perimeter.
With command and control established, EMPs and microwavers were turned off.
Realtime intelligence began pouring in.
Instantly, fourteen nearly simultaneous isomer bombs detonated to seal up veins of liquid reserve nanoswarm defenders; grazers engaged thirty two thousand synsect defenders piling into the breach that was a cavern of glowing, excavated rock three kilometers in diameter. A strange, spherical, inverted earth/sky battlefield of hollow rock and monopolium spheres, liquid assailants and pulsing microwave power links.
One gunship dropped to the ground as a forty meter defending blobmanaged to focus a grazer onto a power conduit, destabilizing the superconducting levitation drive. A swarm of defenders melted under point defense grazer fire but managed to clump onto the stricken gunship, eating into the breach before defending blue liquid fossilized its tormentors.
Perimeter secure. Another gut-busting hammer of stone as the linacs kicked us towards our target at barely subsonic speed. The gunships englobed us in cover formation, but the center of gravity of my team was the power/data transmission ball linking us back to the fleet.
Our ballutes deployed, cushioning the shock that we were by now inured to. A modern combat insertion was a series of inertial torments, pushing equipment to the max to minimize reaction time available to the defenders.
Power-assisted, we landed in squad formation at the beginning of our objective, the long slanting tunnel towards the tectonic control station, now cut in two by our corebomb-generated beach head. The heavy smart cables of hellbores unwound sinously on tungsten-osmium millipede feet, linking our ravenous main weaponry up with the power transmission ball and the fountain of energy beaming from the sky.
The air crackled with our charging energy weapons; our suit point defense grids interlocked firing fields; tactical computers shook hands.
Point's and all four of Heavy's hellbores fired, almost as one.
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