The fires were still burning.
This was the first thing Maritius noticed as his Atlas come in low over Adriata City to touch down on Gate Hill. There were huge swathes of the ruins that were still aflame. Construction K-bots moved among the ruins, serving as emergency services personnel, but in many places the best they could do was to keep the fires away from the lanes they'd cut through the rubble. It was two days later and the fires were still burning.
Maritius had been awake for the past two days thanks to an emergency injection of stimulants and medical nanobots. He had spent the time building up the Red Hills infrastructure - particularly in power generation and in air defenses in outlying rings. While he 'lathed, he sifted through the reports that filtered out of Adriata City and into the Red Hills local 'web. Most of the city was destroyed, production capacity was a fraction of its former maximum, and all the fusion plants were gone, creating gaping holes both in the landscape and in the power generation matrix of the ARM bases. While Hillside still pumped out its massive quantities of metal, the repair and relief efforts were being hampered by the lack of available energy. Over 1,000 were confirmed dead, injuries twice that number, and two hundred were missing and presumed dead, buried in the rubble. The attack had been efficient and absolute.
After the initial wave of Core ground forces touched down it had taken over ten minutes for the ARM to mount an effective resistance. Two counter-attacks were beaten back, as the Core units used base facilities as shielding and kept the ARM units from firing for fear of doing more damage to their own base. Long-range artillery dished out most of the damage for the Core, leaving their ground forces in the base free to attack ARM units and leave the structures to the heavy guns. A counter-attack - spearheaded by Colonel Storough - was finally successful in dislodging the Core from the buildings of Adriata City. Once the Core forces were in the relatively open areas around the base, it was a simpler matter for the ARM units to divide the group with their greater speed and cut them down piecemeal. An air wing of Brawler gunships had taken advantage of the confusion to cut down most of the heavy artillery ringing the base and free Adriata City from bombardment.
"Report for you, sir." The voice stirred Maritius from his reverie. He strode down the hill and began 'lathing the nearest fire, just to give him something to do. Maritius responded to the messenger's hail and opened a video link on his HUD.
"Sir, we have just pieced together sensor footage and some witness testimony from the attack. It appears that the gunship raid from the northwest was not just a diversionary tactic. They were accompanied by air transports. Additionally, medics have confirmed that some of the casualties and injuries from around the living quarters had traces of a nerve agent in their system which causes motor paralysis. The area around the living quarters was saturated with this nerve agent, but it was used nowhere else on the battlefield."
Maritius took only a few seconds to piece together the implications. "Are you telling me that soldiers were kidnapped from the living quarters?"
"That is the assumption, sir. We believe Colonel Ryu saw this action in progress - or one of his pilots did - which was why he took much of the air corps off in pursuit of the gunships. We found wreckage of numerous Core gunships and ARM fighters, but the air transports were not in the wreckage, we believe."
"Did Ryu report why he chased after them?"
"Sir, we haven't heard from Colonel Ryu since the attack. I thought you were aware." The reporting captain paused for a moment. "Colonel Storough also wished that you see a copy of the transcript of the preliminary interrogation of the captured Core Pattern." It took Maritius a moment to work out that he was referring to Derek-16 and not another Pattern captured in the raid. "It made repeated reference to the danger of an impending attack."
"Where is the Pattern now?"
"It was being held under guard in the living quarters. The one that was raided, Commander."
Maritius stared down into the fire he was 'lathing. "Wonderful . . ."
[Continent D, northern regions]
Derek-16 sat as best he could in the corner of the large container. As far as he could tell from the layout, he was on the inside of a converted Core mass storage container. His cellmates were twenty-odd humans who were just regaining consciousness after being thrown into the container a few hours before. As a side effect of the gas that was used to render them unconscious, most were emptying the contents of their stomachs. Because of the size of the container, this generally meant that they were unavoidably doing this on one another.
Derek-16 had been thrown into the container along with the rest when the Core support K-bots had burst through the thin walls of the living quarters. He assumed that the android's body had looked similar enough to a human's that he had been taken inadvertently. The lack of a leg and the damage to his internals were easily explained away; the prisoners had been spirited away in the midst of a battle, after all. And he thanked his luck that the ARM technicians had removed his external broadcasting equipment when he was captured by the ARM - they had not wanted him to access the ARM dataweb, and because of this the Core datanet was also out of reach. Sometime soon, however, his luck would change; when a Core Pattern got to wondering how there was a live human with no stomach in their container. It would not take much poking and prodding before he was revealed as an android.
As worrisome as that eventuality was, he did not think that his current situation would lead anywhere good, either. The twenty vomit-stained humans - likely seventeen, actually, as three seemed to have died while unconscious, despite Derek-16's unskilled attempts to help them - would soon regain some control of themselves, and would realize that they were with a Core Pattern who had been found guilty of treason, and that they had been captured by the Core. No matter that Derek-16 had been captured as well, and no matter that his 'treason' had taken place some weeks before their capture; if he had learned anything recently of the human mind it was that finding someone to blame usually took precedence over the rational assessment of available data. Derek-16 wasn't sure what the tensile strength of the android's body was, but assumed that with enough determination the humans would be able to inflict sufficient damage to render him non-functional.
He suddenly grinned at his own thought processes. 'Non-functional' was such a bland term. Whether it was from the ARM prisoners with him or the Core soldiers outside submerging him in the Central Consciousness, he was about to die.
He felt a sudden shift in the flight trajectory, a sharp drop which seemed to remove most of the weight from his body for a long moment. This induced another round of retching from the True Humans with him. Weight returned with a short, sharp thrust, then a gentle bump as the aircraft touched down.
The rear of the container opened to reveal four drone support K-bots, flanked by ten A-Ks. The support 'bots marched in and began grabbing humans by arms and legs and carrying them outside, wordlessly. The dead humans were moved as well and all were piled outside. Derek was carried and deposited outside as well. He glanced around in the bright sun. They were on the edge of a long marshy tidal flat on one side and a scrub forest on the other. The transport had touched down on a paved landing strip, and two others were waiting to land as well. He could see a number of flak cannons and missile defenses, all anti-aircraft, all Core designs, and five long, low temporary structures at the edge of the paved area. Another support K-bot - this one festooned with a ridiculous array of short-range sensory devices - was marching around the pile, closely examining individual humans. The three dead ARM soldiers were singled out from the crowd and dragged to one side. The medical K-bot came to a stop in front of Derek-16.
Almost instantly he found himself flipped over and grasped by four of the mindless humanoid 'bots. The medical K-bot kneeled at his head and placed a manipulator on the back of the android's skull to hold it still. He felt a warm ooze of nanobots being lathed onto his skin.
"Communicative query?" The voice impeded on his thoughts. He had forgotten what it was like to converse digitally with a true Pattern.
"Acknowledge query. Communication affirmative." The question was such a basic function that a smaller, nearly autonomous portion of Derek-16's mind answered it. A human would have regarded it as a reflex action; Derek-16 saw it as an uncontrolled response. He angrily marshaled all his scant processing power to the sole control of his higher functions.
"Syntax error. Unknown designative schema." Derek-16 felt the Pattern break contact and run for a higher-up. Shortly, a commanding officer made contact. Derek-16 felt the familiar but long-forgotten sensation; a Pattern in contact with him, and through him all other Patterns in his region, and through them to the Central Command of the planet, and through the Central Command all Patterns on the entire planet, and through them . . . nothing. Derek-16 literally stopped thinking for a moment. Where he had expected the Core Central Consciousness to be, there was a gaping hole. It was as if a portion of the sky had ceased to exist, or a fundamental color was suddenly gone from the world.
"Who are you and what are you doing in that shell?" He felt other regional Patterns - marked by their designations as member of the command staff - crowd around their digital conversation.
"I am Derek-16. I am a citizen of the ARM on this planet. I request that I be put in touch with them to negotiate my release."
The Pattern did not answer immediately, but instead interfaced directly with Derek-16's pattern and input a series of override codes, to no effect. "CST-857, requesting authorization of global override codes . . . affirmative . . . negative . . . so noted." The Pattern focused its attention back on Derek-16 and input a new series of override codes. Derek's long-term memory and related functions unfolded and blossomed in the digital space like a flower growing on time-lapse film. There were small transmissions of shock like fireworks as the command staff peered at Derek-16's recent history.
"Interesting," the officer intoned. "Very interesting. CST-10429, rig this traitor to the Pattern replicator. His intel would be too valuable to lose. The Patterning of the humans should continue on regardless. Feed and wash all those strong enough for transport to the Commander's location. Those too weak for transport should be Patterened now. They likely won't make it through the process, but we might as well . . ."
Derek-16 felt another short burst of an override code before his Pattern was rendered immobile, putting his consciousness on pause. For the captured Pattern, the world ceased to exist.
Maritius was seated at the side of Ryan Storough's hospital bed. Mercifully, the medical facilities had been spared any damage whatsoever, being away from the fusion plants which had gone nova, as well as the location of any serious bombardment. Maritius had called a face-to-face meeting of his advisory council (over the objections of Storough's doctors) and gathered them together at Storough's bedside. Storough himself was full of drugs and tubes, and Jack Dobson looked like he had spent the last three days in a tumble dryer. Jennings was the most alert of any of them, having arrived from Hillside only a short time previously. Maritius tried not to think of Ryu, who was missing and presumed dead, or the defensive specialist he'd promoted to the council. He realized that he had never met her after her promotion, and now she was dead in the attack.
"First off, I'm taking a rescue operation off the table," Maritius began. "It isn't feasible, we don't have the forces, and we have plenty else to do. It chaps my ass, believe me, but it's the kind of call Commanders have to make, and I'm making it. Any objections?" No one could disagree with the logic.
"Second, priorities. We need to get the cloning facility going again. And to do that we need more power. Dobson, we need to shift our focus from search-and-rescue to infrastructure - I want fusion plants up and running as soon as possible. That's what we're doing until we get back up to at least 50% of our previous power levels."
"No defensive repairs, sir?" Jennings asked.
"I don't see the point there, either. We just got pounded into the ground. Until we rebuild past where we were before, the odds would say that it could happen again at any time. So I'd rather put more effort into infrastructure now for a greater payback later. We've going to be vulnerable for the next while no matter how we do it. Any other recommendations for construction?"
Storough spoke up. "I think we need another cloning plant." His voice was ragged from smoke inhalation. "Red Hills, probably. Hillside would make sense, too, but it's more of a military target. Red hills is less likely to draw an attack."
"I agree with the placement, what's the logic on another plant?" Dobson asked.
"Redundancy. And we might actually need the capacity sometime. Lots of empty billets to fill."
Maritius nodded. "Third thing. I want the next person we decant to be an Investigator."
All three of his Council were stunned for a moment, then began making non-committal noises of discontent. Mary finally found her words. "Sir, I think that might be excessive. We don't have evidence that you were negligent in any . . ."
Maritius waved a hand. "We don't have evidence and we won't be looking for it. The Investigator will. I want to know if my actions - or inactions - contributed in any way to the loss of life here. The Investigator will lay that to rest. Any of you have any experience with one?" Maritius asked, doubting that anyone would. Investigators were used when a Commander would normally be brought under court-martial, but the only superior officers were back through an inactive Galactic Gate. Investigators solved this problem by possessing tribunal authority above any other authority in the ARM military. Generally, any mistake large enough to warrant an Investigator would be enough to cause any mission to fail. For a commander to be brought up on charges, but then for the ARM to triumph on that world and reactivate the Gate so that such news could come through, was an extremely uncommon occurrence.
"I do," Storough said softly. The creak to his voice caused them all to lean forward to hear him. "One of my Gate memories is from Julianus. I spent a year and a half there. Our military council forced an Investigation on the Commander there for negligence and endangerment. It took four months, all the time we were fighting a defensive battle against the Core."
"What happened?" Jennings asked.
"He was found guilty. The Investigator sent an authorization that the Commander's brainwave set should be wiped from the Cloning Registry for 'flaws contributing to ineffectual command'. Then he requisitioned all the excess construction power to get enough of the Gate back online to run a wire through, and transmit the data. That's when my brainwave set got backed up and added as a Gate memory to my personality." He paused for water from a line near his mouth. "The Gate went silent two days after our data came through. That Investigator doomed everyone on Julianus to death, just to get word back that a Commander should be wiped from the Registry."
There was a moment of silence that began to stretch toward discomfort. Maritius broke it: "And he may have saved countless more lives by ensuring that the Commanders of the ARM were fit for duty. And I'm sure that the same will happen here, if I am unfit." He paused for a moment. "So that is my order. You three will pick an Investigator from the available . . . actually, no. Colonel Storough, do you recall the name of the Investigator?"
Storough stared up from his hospital bed at Maritius. His eyes seemed dead. Drained. "Crumax Rhett."
"How did you find his conduct?"
"He was a little prick," Storough answered flatly.
"Colonel Jennings, please decant Investigator Crumax Rhett as soon as possible."
Jennings glanced once at Dobson, then simply nodded, knowing that the order could not be ignored. "Will there be anything else, sir?"
"No, I believe . . ." Maritius stopped speaking and his eyes glazed over as he received a virtual notification. "Pardon? Uhhh, roger, authorized. Put it through."
Maritius leaned back in his chair as the others glanced at him curiously. The speaker overhead came alive with a slight static hiss. "Commander Maritius?" The voice spoke in even, measured tones, with a hint of culture in the slightly accented Standard.
"Speaking," he answered.
"Greetings. I am speaking with you in regard to the kidnapped ARM soldiers currently in Core possession." Maritius' eyes narrowed. Jack Dobson sat bolt upright, and Mary Jennings immediately whipped out her datapad and began typing queries to the dataweb operators currently on duty. "Allow me to explain a few things from the start. First of all, I am speaking with you through a high-altitude spotter aircraft, which is relaying my data to one of your operable sensor stations in, I believe you call it, Adriata City. You could shoot it down, but it would only end our conversation. And it is no threat to you; obviously, your location is currently known. Secondly, yes, I am a Pattern of the Core. Your soldiers were kidnapped by a faction of the Core of this planet. I am of another faction. So I do not have your soldiers, nor am I calling about ransom.
Maritius waved his subordinates into stillness. "I have never heard of factions within the Core. You will forgive my disbelief."
"You are right to be skeptical. I am your enemy, and will continue to be so regardless of the outcome of our conversation. Let me simply say this: you do not need to believe me. By now I assume that you have made a tactical assessment of your position and have decided against a rescue operation of your soldiers. Is this correct?" The Pattern waited ten seconds. "Very well, your answer is not required. I will assume this is correct, as it is the tactically and strategically appropriate choice. I will proceed on this assumption.
"You have decided not to pursue a rescue operation. Because of this, I am offering to rescue them for you and deliver them to you. Here is where you wonder why I would do this." Maritius again didn't answer, but did take the time to roll his eyes at the pontificating of the Pattern. Dobson stifled a guffaw, despite the circumstances. "It relates, of course, to the factions of which I previously spoke. There is a laboratory where I previously conducted much of my research. It is near to where you have built Adriata City. It is well hidden; I doubt you have found it, and it would be difficulty without the coordinates I will give you. I desire unfettered access to this laboratory for a short time. In return for this, I will rescue your kidnapped soldiers to the best of my faction's ability. I warn you, however; some have already died in transit, and others did not survive the Patterning process when subjected to it.
Maritius cleared his throat. "You return my soldiers and I simply have to allow you access to this research station? Why would you not just attack it? You clearly know we are almost helpless at the moment."
"It is a question of geography. To mount an attack on your location - one which guarantees success without damage to the research station - would involve more resources than I currently have at my disposal."
"Suppose I agree. You understand, of course, that I would regard no deal as completed until all my soldiers are safely on the ground and in my custody."
"Correction, Commander: as many soldiers as are alive and can be rescued. And of course this would be necessary to our agreement. I propose this: you move as many forces as you would like to the region of the research laboratory, respecting a 500 meter perimeter around it. If you go any closer or make any move to capture the contents of the research station, it will be detonated and your soldiers killed. I will bring your soldiers to you in three transports, and a fourth transport will bring K-bots to enter the research facility. Once the first has landed, my K-bots will be give access to the research laboratory. The first and second transports will take off empty. After the third transport has unloaded your soldiers, my forces will board it and leave the area. At such time, all agreements between us are dissolved."
Maritius stared around at his council. Storough was clearly the worse for wear, and a doctor had entered the room during the discussion to tend to his erratic vital signs. Jennings was still dealing with the information on her datapad, and only Dobson had any input; a shrug. Maritius sighed. "Give me the coordinates . . ." The Pattern relayed them onto the ARM dataweb.
"Remember, Commander. Make no attempt to enter the research facility, and remain 500 meters away at all times. Goodbye."
Maritius stared at the coordinates on his datapad, no more than thirty miles northwest of the limit of Adriata City.
"Oh, the Investigator is just going to love this," Storough growled.
[Continent D, northern regions]
Of the fifty eight ARM personnel who were taken as prisoners, thirty five were left to be transported to the main facilities of the True Believers. Six had died in transport to the temporary facility, fourteen had died during the Patterning procedure. Three more had been killed by one of their compatriots at their request, rather than be Patterned, before the Core had isolated each prisoner. The thirty-five remaining ARM personnel would be transported to the facilities of the True Believers to be Patterned there, and to undergo any other procedures the Commander of the True Believers saw fit to put them through.
Much to Derek-16's surprise, the Core forces had reactivated him. He assumed he had been Patterned, as three days had passed since he was shut down, but he could do nothing about that now. What he could do was attempt to aid the other prisoners, which is what he did.
Two of the imprisoned had been 'drinking buddies,' of his, as the term went, before his expulsion from Adriata City. One of them had died in Patterning, apparently, but the other had been relatively uninjured in the assault and the subsequent transportation. Derek-16 had avoided contact with the other prisoners, but this one had actively sought him out. "Derek, we've got to help these people." He gestured at the other 'healthy' prisoners, a ragged collection of non-lethal but sometimes serious injuries.
Derek-16 looked up at his friend, Cahn. "I should warn you, it is very likely that the Core has reactivated my broadcasting equipment and is recording everything through my senses, without my permission."
Cahn looked at him and shrugged. "I'm not talking about a prison break, I'm talking about decent food. Crutches. Basic supplies. These people have no idea how to deal with humans, let alone prisoners of war."
Derek-16 shrugged. "I do not know what I can do. I have been branded a traitor and switched off."
"But they switched you back on." Cahn took a long look at the wreckage of Derek-16's android frame. "What did they do to you anyway?"
"I did this to myself," Derek-16 answered. Cahn looked at him sideways. Derek-16 shrugged again and proceeded to tell the story from the beginning - his conversion to the ARM, his sensing of the Core presence in the datanet, his design of programs to both subvert the datanet's defenses and to counter-spy on the core. He told of his tribunal and exile, his flight into the wilderness, his change of heart, and his hike back to Adriata City bearing the warning. He told it all, in perfect detail, not caring if the Core were snooping on his communications since they already had full and unfettered access to his memories anyway. He unburdened himself. The memories and thoughts flitted away from him, somehow lightening his mind in the process. It felt . . . it felt like the sigh from so long ago, on the cliffside. But a sigh of his mind.
Cahn listened to it all and, at the end, simply nodded. "So, if you want to help the ARM soldiers, you've got some right here. How do we help?"
"We can't," Derek-16 said with some finality.
Cahn grimaced. "Fine. I'll see what I can do. If you feel like pitching in," he said with thick sarcasm, "you just holler, ok?"
But over the next few hours, he thought of his conversation. For some reason, putting his struggle and his story into words - into a single, succinct narrative - changed the way he'd viewed it. He had been living it as his life, but it was an exceptional story. A story of an exceptional man, to some degree. And he was still a Director, far better than these guard Patterns who strut about in their A-Ks and abused the prisoners. They switched you back on. Cahn's words played over and over in his mind.
Derek-16 began to throw together a Production Request Form, painstakingly thorough. He outlined better nutrition, improved housing, medical supplies, crutches, bandages, seating in the transport ships, bathroom facilities in-flight, everything he could think of. He blatantly over-stated the fragility of the human body, inflating the number of personnel who might die and making veiled references to the wrath of the Commander when more of his prisoners were killed. He topped it off with a pile of bureaucratic niceties. Feasibility studies, impact memos, deleterious effects projections, every bit of red tape that he'd ever endured or imposed as the director of an enormous mine complex. He accessed his external communications and interfaced with the nearest guard, uploading the request directly into a sub-routine of the Guard's pattern. He grinned as the Pattern reacted as he thought it would; passing the report on up the chain-of-command in a knee-jerk, reflexive action to shirk responsibilities.
Three minutes later, the highest officer present stomped into the prisoners' cell. "You are a traitor. You have no standing. You will cease such activities at once."
"Was there a flaw in my Production Request?" Derek-16 asked. His direct Pattern-to-Pattern interfacing was a bit rusty, but when he had been a member of the Central Conciousness, he had ranked three full grades and six side-grades higher than this Pattern. With the addition of his newly quasi-human traits of deceit and haughtiness, he might just have the edge.
"No. But your Pattern is no longer recognized by the Central Consciousness."
"If there is no problem with the Production Request, why would it not be carried out?"
"It is not in keeping with the goals and priorities of the Core," the officer answered. There was a moment of hesitation, however.
"Was this lack of vision reflected in either the deleterious effects projection or any of the impact memos?" Continued questions. Continued haranguing. Superiority. Deceit. Half-truths.
"No." The officer paused. "Your request . . . . your request . . . the production . . . . ." The officer abruptly cut off the interface, the digital equivalent of slamming the door in someone's face.
Three hours later, the production of the new facilities and transport ships was completed.
Two days later, they saved the life of every prisoner.