Hunted
Warbot
Image from Steve Bowers
My life was saved by a spear of paralysing dread, forced into my mind by City. One moment me and two other survivors were fleeing down a minor arcade, passing boutiques and cafes untouched so far. The next I'm frozen, I could think of nothing worse than continuing. The others appeared unaffected. I wanted to scream to them but barely a whimper passed my lips. The walls of the arcade began to flicker, distorting as some extreme computational load was placed on them. "Stop..." I pleaded, but the others didn't hear. At the same time as City rooted out the sensor trojans infecting the arcade the floor exploded, the Trosi hunter concealed there issuing forth. All I saw was a blur of glassy tentacles and two explosions of viscera before defensive aerogel flooded from the walls, obscuring my vision. "RUN" boomed City, "NOW". It no longer needed to stream fear into my mind, the only warning it could have got to me in this corrupted area. I was terrified enough by myself. Turning I began to run as fast as I could, fleeing the screeching sounds of the hunter breaking free.

*
It's hard to believe how much can change in such a short period of time. Up until a year ago life in the Semiat orbital band had been little different to that of the previous centuries. Our forebears had chosen this brown dwarf as their home for its isolation. Relatively poor in resources and over ten light years from a Nexus linked system it was the perfect place to found a peaceful culture, unconcerned with the politics of major empires. But a year ago things became a lot less peaceful. A message was received from interstellar space. A vessel was on its way and was requesting a powerful magbeam so as to decelerate. The arrival of the message was very late in the journey and a rapid response was needed to set up the beam station in time. Communiques were sent to the approaching vessel tentatively asking their purpose. The responses were curt, for a while all that was transmitted back was one line; "We are the Followers of Trosi and we intend to colonise". *

The screeching grew fainter but never entirely faded. As I sprinted through the corridors, aisles and boulevards of my hab City flashed warnings through my implants. There was heavy fighting in many sections as Trosi bots clashed with the hastily fabricated defence systems. There had been very few conflicts around Semiat and the budget for military R&D was miniscule. Even the most deadly systems the band could produce were outmatched. Our only hope was our numbers. "Wait here" City flashed into my mind. I halted at the entrance to a boulevard. It's vaulted ceiling allowed me to see the curve in the rotating hab, though the antispinward side was worryingly dark where power was failing. Flashes of light and booming sounds spoke of fierce fighting. Usually the boulevards were my favourite places to be. Larger than any other hab thoroughfare it was over a hundred meters to the other side. Parks, gardens and independant buildings were liberally sprinkled throughout. Now though the open space was oppressive and quiet, where were all the people? I shuddered to think I was the only one left. "Move to the providore quickly" City instructed. "You must hide there". Glancing to spinward I eyed the round building at the centre of the plaza. Not wishing to argue I began to run again, trying desperately to ignore how the screeching was getting louder.

*

After six months of magbeam deceleration the Trosi vessel arrived. An ungainly mass of coiled tanks and beams it resembled a giant enzyme. Over the first week it nudged itself into orbit above one of the brown dwarf's natural rings, some distance from the much closer orbital band. A wariness overcame our people. The Trosi ignored requests for a meeting, physical or virtual, as well as cultural exchange. They claimed to only seek peace and contemplation of their doctrine. As they sent out craft to harvest resources throughout the ring and expand their vessel into a microgravity hab worries abated. The new arrivals were strange, but not hostile. People argued that our own ancestors had come here to get away from the galaxy at large, why should we turn down others doing the same? Communications stayed minimal, mostly simple coordination of orbital traffic, with the exception of the sermons. Every nine hours the Trosi hab would broadcast on multiple channels in multiple, obscure languages. The subject of these messages were different each time and largely incomprehensible to our translator systems. Despite extensive study little meaning could be gained beyond the transmissions being a "call to meditation, reflection and judgement". As the months rolled on we got accustomed to our strange neighbours and continued on as usual. It remains to be seen if that mistake was a fatal one.
*

Halfway to the providore I started to pass bodies. First it was just splashes of blood, then limbs, then twisted masses so damaged I couldn't tell if they were one person or many. My implants sent a flurry of overrides through my nervous system to suppress the nausea. They could do little to chill the horror I was feeling. "City?" I asked. "How many are left?"

"Few" City replied. "The Trosi infections allowed them to slaughter many before I could bring defenses to bear. You and those who remain must be moved to safety whilst the fight continues".

Reaching the providore I pushed through the entrance. The interior was a mess, the aisles of public fabs and storage lockers were wrecked. "Self inflicted, to halt the construction of Trosi forces," City explained. Heavy grief settled on me as I imagined the scene just a few hours earlier. Those people outside would likely have been relaxing, enjoying foods and treats from the providore. I wonder how many even realised what was happening as hunters crawled from the building and unleashed chaos? Turning down a dark aisle I nestled between two crates. The floor was wet, no doubt some dying fab leaking its liquid feed. Hugging my knees I waited.

*

There was no warning before the attack. No change in Trosi behaviour, no alterations in harvestor orbits or new communications. The first anyone knew of it was when Myok blew up. All communications between habs had spoke of no problems and Myok was no exception. One moment it was there, the next the Citymind had shut off containment in its antimatter storage. As the band population reeled at the sudden death of millions the Cityminds poured over the data to determine what went wrong; that's when the first discrepancy was found. At no point did the data show the antimatter safeties were lifted, even though such a process was hard-coded to require several minutes of preparation. Yet the Myok had clearly done so. Shortly more disagreements between logs were found, most damningly of all the subsentient programs tasked with reporting such errors to more capable minds were corrupted. Ancient security protocols were activated, infrastructure all over the band halted as the Cityminds rebooted from trusted kernels. Bots powered down and back up, lights flickered, smart matter shifted randomly through forms. Within a minute the attack had been laid bear, already Trosi combat bots were swarming out of corrupted fabs and laying waste to the population. Finally able to see it the Cityminds engaged the enemy. Of secondary concern they noticed the translator programs were now able to decode the sermons properly. Tentatively listening to the Trosi hab they detected one word repeated over and over: Judgement. *

I had thought myself afraid, experiencing the horror and fear of the invasion. I realised then that I was nowhere near true terror. Before I had been scared in an abstract way, getting by on confusion and activity. But hiding in that dark aisle, all alone, I was enlightened to the depths of fear by a sound. The providore entrance was pushed open and by the skittering of clawed tentacles I heard the hunter approach. It was no use running anymore, even our simple technology could have made a bot capable of hearing a heartbeat through a wall. In every sense my presence and tracks likely stood out to this monster like a luminous sign. "City?" I pleaded. There was no reply, City was either being jammed or worse. Only one option remained to me, one decision. Calling upon my implants an icon hovered in my vision; Full-Euthanasia protocol. If I chose it not only would my heart shut down and my brain be flooded with synapse killers but my backup would be erased. That little chip in the base on my skull that contained a full recording of me. Should I risk it falling into enemy hands? What if I died a true death only for the City to win?

Beyond the icon a light approached. I whimpered again as the first glassy tentacle pierced the floor. With a little difficulty the hunter rounded the corner and turned its sensor stalks towards me. It was surrounded by ufog, the remains of the defensive aerogel that slowed it down earlier. The foglets were no real match for it. With its anchoring claws they couldn't shift it and even as I watched the hunter's surface blazed with lasing heat, burning away the fog. Rearing up it towered over me and I felt my bladder fail as it raised its claws wide. Whoever designed this was a monster themselves. This was a terror weapon, designed to play with its prey. I covered my ears as it screeched as me, the scream a deafening pain. My implants kicked in to numb the effect and to my surprise my translator activated. "Judgement" it said blandly. Focusing my inner vision I reviewed the euthanasia icon. This was my last choice now, my last action. Death or Judgement.

Death or Judgement.

Death or Judgement.


By Ryan B (Rynn).



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