Four missiles lifted skyward, hit apogee at the edge of the atmosphere and descended.
“I don’t see the point,” Programmer General Donal Tomlins said. He adjusted his viewer and identified every pertinent aspect of the rockets, the warhead throw weight and potential destruction for either air burst or subterranean bunker-buster detonation. Given such information with ample time to defend, the attack was little more than a training exercise, and not a particularly good one. “You are leaving obvious trails for countermeasures and defensive fire.”
“Watch,” said Supreme Leader. The small man dressed in plain military fatigues without any insignia smiled slightly, sending a shiver up Donal’s spine. Something evil communicated in the tiny upcurl of the otherwise impassive man’s thin lips. It might have been the glint in his dark eye or the barely hidden pleasure he took anticipating rocket-borne destruction. Whatever it was, Donal wanted this demonstration to end quickly because it wore at his ethical core.
They had negotiated weapons and treaties and trade between their planets for more than a week. Donal had used every trick at his command to understand the Supreme Leader of Far Kingdom and had never felt he gained an advantage that wasn’t handed to him as a gambit or enticement to a one-sided trade. If anything, Supreme Leader took the name of his planet too literally, maintaining a social and intellectual distance measured in light-years and millennia. Far Kingdom rested out on the far edge of the Orion Arm, almost an afterthought when it came to settlement from the old planet. Donal had studied the history of the diaspora from what, on Earth, had been known as the Middle Kingdom, in an attempt to find the right incentives to finalize the treaties with his own world, if nothing else.
Mostly, he had failed.
Supreme Leader masked his anticipation and now betrayed no emotion. Donal brought up a small display window on his viewer. He hid his continued disappointment. Even the most sophisticated monitoring devices had failed to show a flicker of the other man’s true thoughts. Every time Donal thought he had pinned down Supreme Leader’s mood, a new and more subtle objection arose to the details, as if he ignored the greater picture in favor of the trivial. Supreme Leader never treated him as an inferior, but the feeling persisted. No matter what happened, Donal felt cheated and wished he could ignore the entire planet, but Far Kingdom, with its thirty billion mouths to feed, was too lush a trading target. His country of Burran needed off-world trade to maintain its economic position among other, if lesser, avaricious nations on Ballymore. Such political infighting had formed the basis of the planet’s entire history since its colonization during the Great Migration a century after Far Kingdom’s settlement. Donal envied Supreme Leader’s unified world, even if he cared little for the strict command-and-control government. Such a hive approach would fall apart in less time than a quantum transition on Ballymore. The culture of his country and its imperialist neighbors guaranteed squabbling. Burran had fought two adjoining nations in bloody wars lasting more than a hundred years and resolved nothing but minor borders. The economic struggles afterward were hardly better until the Blarney Stone went online and pushed Burran to the world’s forefront.
In its way, the Blarney Stone was the ultimate in command-and-control--even as it wasn’t, being programmed by understanding humans for humans. Donal knew the consequences of equipping any computer with Artificial Intelligence. Humans always lost. As Programmer General he insured that humans, at least in Burran, always triumphed.
With a decent trade agreement between Burran and Far Kingdom, there would no longer be any question that Burran controlled Ballymore’s fate. He needed Supreme Leader to sign the compacts. But why was the damnable man smiling when his sallow face had been carven from a block of citrine only an instant before?
“You must not be in too much of a hurry in your observations. Witness.” Supreme Leader pointed to the missile contrails.
Donal started to again voice his opinion of this being an attack scheme too easily detected when his son, Cletus, put a hand on his shoulder. Strong fingers clamped down so he couldn’t shrug it off. He glanced at his son, so handsome in his full dress uniform, auburn hair cut short and face burned almost black from long duty tours in open space. Cletus’ extra five centimeters in height above his own 180 was good in a commander of armies, an admiral of space navies--the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces now. Everything Cletus had done so far had shown his aptitude for military leadership, in strategy, in tactics and in the way he inspired those in his command to obey without question. His soldiers, his marines and spacers would give their lives for him. The protests of nepotism had faded as Cletus showed his political skills, unusual in one so young.
Donal bit back his sarcasm for Supreme Leader’s demonstration and looked to the sky, following his son’s gaze.
The four contrails suddenly exploded in a fan of brightly colored smoke.
“They all blew up.” The condemnation slipped from him before he could check it. It never paid to insult the leader of the world you desired as a trading partner.
“No, Father. That’s a countermeasure.” Cletus touched the magnification on his viewer, then began cycling through an entire spectrum hunting for radiation.
“Only for the visual.”
“For any form of radiation,” Cletus said is a whisper. He was clearly in awe of the demonstration. “The missiles are now invisible to radar, lidar, millimeter wave detection and everything from IR to UV. Nothing can track them. Not even our dark energy emitter detectors.”
“But they--oh.” Donal understood now. Within the cloaking rainbow clouds, the missiles undoubtedly shifted trajectories, homed in on new targets in ways designed to prevent interception.
“They can lie doggo for hours or proceed immediately to the target,” Supreme Leader said, “all the while avoiding detection.”
“I see,” Donal said. He laughed ruefully. “Rather, I don’t.”
“That’s the idea, Programmer General.” Supreme Leader held out his hand, palm up, in a liquid gesture that belied any bones in wrist or fingers. The petite woman at his side carefully laid a slender quartz message capsule in his grasp.
Donal wondered at her position in the Far Kingdom’s political hierarchy. She had proven as enigmatic as the planet’s ruler, spending considerable time with his son, seemingly the most open of the delegation but revealing little of either herself or her leader’s intentions. Leanne Chang had been introduced as a weapons expert, though she hardly looked old enough to hold a position on Supreme Leader’s staff. Donal had to remind himself that his own son was hardly twenty-five. Leanne might be younger by only a year or two. From what he had learned of Far Kingdom’s society, her entire life had been directed to only one field: armaments. Cletus spoke highly of her strategic planning ability, though he claimed her grasp of tactics was inferior to his own. Donal wondered if this wasn’t a way for Leanne to stroke the young commander’s ego and drill a hole through which information about Burran might be gleaned.
“You selected four of the targets on the test range, Programmer General,” Leanne said.
Supreme Leader squeezed tightly around the small crystalline message capsule. The four targets popped into full holographic detail between him and Donal, tiny but with intricate detail for such a tiny projector.
“Those are the targets,” he agreed.
“Trust my word. No one has opened the capsule before this moment.” Supreme Leader held out his hand so that Leanne could train a small flashlight on it. The beam swallowed the 3D images. “The range, if you will.”
Four targets exploded simultaneously, the brilliance from the flares hurting his eyes. Donal lifted his hand slightly to protect his face, but the destruction lay twenty kilometers away.
“If you want to examine the targets, you will find no collateral damage. Only the four structures you chose and recorded have been destroyed.”
“Three buildings and an APC,” Donal said mechanically.
“The missiles are fire and forget.” Cletus sounded more excited than his father could remember. “We can literally mine the skies with this weapons system. The initial cloaking lasts for weeks, making the missiles undetectable. This can stop Uller’s infiltration across our border.”
“Yes, raiders from a neighboring country, I believe,” Supreme Leader said. “They seek to bleed you dry by stealing or destroying valuable crops.”
“The warheads won’t hurt the crops?”
“Not a stalk of wheat will be harmed. Aqua culture liquids will remain uncontaminated. Only those thinking to make serious incursions will be destroyed at a time and place of your choosing—without risking troops or making desperate forays that are too late.” Supreme Leader tilted his head to one side, as if listening. He nodded curtly. “Even better, the missiles, once activated and hidden, can be brought safely to the ground for use at another time, given the proper codes.”
“You programmed the warheads with the images right here on the spot,” Donal said. “So they can be rendered harmless in the same way?”
“They can.” Supreme Leader tilted his head to the side again, and his face went impassive. “Come with me, if you will, Programmer General. My council has a proposition to make concerning trade.”
“Go on, Father,” Cletus said. “Citizen Chang promised to show me another of their weapons systems.”
“Take Captain Sorrel with you. His expertise in space systems might prove useful.”
His son’s face turned to stone, but it was readable. Cletus and Sorrel had found no common ground during the month long trip to Far Kingdom, and once on planet, the Shillelagh‘s captain’s disapproval of everything they had been shown ran counter to Cletus’ high praise for both the power and subtlety of the weapons systems.
“If I might suggest,” Supreme Leader said, “your ship’s captain will be useful during our discussions. We would purchase hulls for starfighters to enhance our own defenses. Your metallurgical science is far advanced over ours. The process making the aluminum-lithium alloy used in your warships is a valuable technology.”
“Such a scientific transfer does not require Captain Sorrel’s approval as admiralty officer.” Donal considered his options. The rest of his negotiating team had failed to spark a response. This was the first time Supreme Leader had requested any from Burran’s delegation by name to take part in the bargaining. “But his expertise as a former dry dock commander would give invaluable insight.”
Supreme Leader bowed slightly, then turned to a waiting car. Donal felt as if he was entering a trap, but it was one with familiar rules. The weapons Far Kingdom displayed so openly and easily were better left to his son’s expert evaluation. Finding what Supreme Leader wanted in exchange would give insight into the society and its needs. If Sorrel could lend a hand finding what Far Kingdom valued most highly in the trade, so be it.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Cletus and Leanne standing, shoulders pressed together, rapidly exchanging ... what? Those on Far Kingdom avoided physical contact with others, yet she showed no discomfort at Cletus’ casual touch. He spun about and sank down in the rear of the limousine. Supreme Leader silently entered the vehicle seconds before it sped off.
“He’ll never allow them aboard the Shillelagh.” Cletus frowned in concentration. His disputes with Captain Sorrel ran deeper than even his father understood. Donal Tomlins thought the conflict was only based on an alpha male squabble, Sorrel being passed over for higher rank as Cletus assumed the command of Burran’s entire military.
It went far deeper than a struggle for power. Cletus saw in the ship’s captain--and senior member of the admiralty board--a dedicated insistence on keeping Burran weak. Sorrel proposed cutbacks in the High Guard space force at a time when Uller and Eire built their military, both on planet and off. If the other two countries had concentrated on cargo vessels, Cletus would have worried but not as much as he did when he saw nothing but a slow, steady christening of the other countries’ war craft, from small dartabouts capable of taking out satellites to the heaviest fighting ship, the dreadnought. In spite of the Shillelagh being under Sorrel’s direct command and Burran’s unofficial flagship, the captain refused to augment its defenses with state of the art equipment in favor of cosmetic modifications that were both pointless and costly.
“Would you like to try on a suit?” Leanne fixed him with her dark eyes. It was as if she read his soul.
“There’s nothing I’d like more.”
Cletus went to the rack and ran his hand over the sleek dark surface of the exoskeleton. A soldier wearing such armor enhanced his strength a hundred fold, yet kept a touch so fine that he could write his name with an old style graphite pencil. He grinned at the idea. In the exo, he could sharpen the pencil with a laser, sign his name, and then use the pencil eraser to remove only a single letter wherever he wanted. Once he finished with such fine work, he could jump onto the roof of a two-story building, run faster than any unenhanced hunting animal on any planet settled by humans, then use the firepower slung at his back to level a city.
“Not quite,” Leanne said.
“What’s that?” Cletus blinked. His eyes felt as if they were a size too large for his head.
“It’s not quite as easy as you must be thinking.”
A fleeting look of concern crossed her face, replaced by her smile and easy way. She reached out and touched his arm lightly in what constituted intimacy on Far Kingdom. The whole time he had been here, only twice had he seen one person touch another, and he was not sure the greeting handshake given his father by Supreme Leader counted. That lack of touch hadn’t bothered him until this moment, when he realized he missed it. On Ballymore casual physical contact could hardly be avoided with everyone greeting with slaps on the back and even bone crushing hugs. That was their way, just as the physical isolation as if they lived in an invisible bubble governed the people of this planet. He felt a cold knot form in his chest when he realized this allowed the weapons designers to create devices without regard for their opponent. No touch, no sharing, no camaraderie. Even with those from Eire and Uller he felt some bond of history and brotherhood. Battle was hot-blooded, not impersonal.
He had heard children on Far Kingdom were raised in creches without knowing their parents. A touch of sadness filled him, but he did not reach out to comfort Leanne. She moved her hand away quickly, as if already sorry for this breach of etiquette.
“Who can look at the exo and not want to test it? That was what you were thinking?”
“I was.” He stepped closer to the exo to distract her so she would not experience any shame at her unguarded moment. “Why is the exterior dark? That absorbs energy rather than reflecting it.”
“It has on-demand reflective capabilities. The skin adjusts to reflect the wavelength of incoming energy. A heat blast causes a change different from that if an x-ray laser strikes. If there is no attack, it adopts the coloration necessary to blend in with its surroundings.”
“A chameleon suit.” Cletus was impressed.
“I do not know the word.”
He explained the creature found on Burran and how it faded into its background. She nodded as she compared the description to the function of the exoskeleton.
“Ah, yes, that is what the exo will do.”
“How many exos can you crate up as farm implements?”
“To fool your captain?” Leanne laughed. The musical sound made Cletus catch his breath. She was small and perfect. Her eyes danced with amusement. Every move she made was precise, wasting no energy, yet hinting at strength far in excess of what her tiny body ought to contain. It startled him when she pulled closer and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. This was completely at odds with all he had seen and heard about interpersonal interactions on Far Kingdom. “You do not think he will check the contents?”
“He considers our mission a waste of time. Farm equipment is beneath his contempt, especially if a few sacks of seeds are added.”
“Four suits have been outfitted and meet our standards,” Leanne said. “This purchase will be authorized by your father? The suits are not inexpensive. On your world, the four could hold off a regiment of conventionally armored Low Guards.”
“I have the authority,” he said. He wanted to explain his importance. She made him feel as if he were a child again, begging permission to buy candy. Sneaking behind Captain Sorrel’s back added to it. As long as the officer held the Programmer General’s ear, Cletus lacked full authority in any matter, even those of a military nature. He snuffed out the anger that sparked because he was the Commander in Chief Armed Forces, not some minor functionary.
He paused, wondering for the first time at Sorrel’s insistence that no weapons be purchased. Cletus had thought it was a practical matter until Sorrel had posted guards in the cargo bay. The orders had been specific as to allowing weapons systems into his ship.
His ship. Cletus bristled at that. The Shillelagh was the Programmer General’s vessel of state. That this was the first time in a decade he had chosen to even leave Burran did not matter. Sorrel should have been nothing more than chauffeur and not putting on airs as if he were the one in command. Cletus saw the Lift to Far Kingdom as giving him reason to better define his standing as Commander in Chief Armed Forces. He was in ultimate charge, not under the orders of a mere ship’s commander, even if that ship was a dreadnought charged with transporting the Programmer General.
“Then you must see the real product of this factory.”
“The real product?” Cletus looked at the assembly line again, with thousands of manufacturing robots diligently assembling the exterior of each exoskeleton. From here, nano assemblers installed the complex circuitry and finally strung the single spider-steel crystal strands used as tendons to connect limb with activator motor. The final assembly was done in special areas marked OFF LIMITS where weapons were integrated into the suit.
“There is more to the factory than you can see from here. I would show you something of even more interest.”
He realized Leanne stepped over the bounds if she intended to show him anything Supreme Leader considered top secret. He held his tongue, though, since his curiosity got the better of him. To protest would ruin the bond he felt between them.
“This way.” Leanne stopped in front of a heavily armored door and allowed a full body scan that matched every nerve and blood vessel in her body against the patterns hidden away in the depths of a security computer. Not even a clone could match her circulatory system print.
“Impressive security.” Cletus saw a half dozen sensors in the long, featureless white corridor and knew he missed that many more.
“As with all facilities, it is impossible to keep a determined force out. The safeguards in place will slow any entry until sufficient force can be summoned.”
Cletus saw small jets designed to spew quick-dry plastics. Anyone caught in it would be immobilized until the proper chemicals dissolved the plastic. At the far end, circling the only portal out of the corridor, a sonic weapon presented an impassable obstacle. He pointed that out.
“A shockwave travels the length of this corridor which acts as a waveguide, killing anything living within. It is crude but effective, even against robots.”
Again she presented herself for the total body scan necessary to open another ponderous door. He stepped through quickly and almost tumbled over a low railing.
“Be careful, Cletus.” Again, she touched him, this time with a grip strong enough to pull him back.
He looked over the railing more than fifty meters to the floor of an immense assembly area. He edged forward and rested his hand on the rail. It took him a few seconds to understand why the rail was so low. On Far Kingdom he was a giant. Supreme Leader was tall, and he stood a good twenty centimeters shorter. Leanne pressed forward and the rail touched her waist. She was hardly one hundred fifty centimeters tall.
“Thanks. I got excited,” he said, trying to cover his clumsiness. She moved with such precision that he felt as if he stumbled about with his big toes tied together. Still, he wasn’t entirely lying.
The assembly for the exos had been impressive. Here towering robots were being put together by hundreds more assemblers.
“They are not autonomous robots,” she said, addressing what she knew would be a stumbling block for his father. No AI. Anywhere.
He rubbed the side of his head to ease the sudden onset of a headache. It faded as his excitement grew. He listened intently to all she had to say. Such war machines could guarantee Burran autonomy for the foreseeable future.
“Each is piloted by a human inside. The exoskeletons have their purposes. Close quarters battle, house to house fighting, urban warfare if you do not want to raze the entire city.”
“But these can destroy a city.”
“If the exo is a needle laden with a drop of poison, the warbot is a sledgehammer. There can be no finesse when it is sent into the field.”
“Warriorobot.” Leanne looked sheepish. “Our scientists and engineers often lack a sense of showmanship with their nicknames.”
“Warbot.” Cletus smiled. “I like that. Do you have rabbits on this world?” He knew that they did. There was little in the Burran knowledge base he did not know of this world. The tiny brain-embedded knowledge chip carrying what the information would fade in a few weeks, but for the moment the implant gave him an advantage equal to his father, who had programmed the k-chip.
“We do. They are considered lucky animals brought from Earth almost five hundred years ago. Why do you ask?”
It was his turn to look sheepish.
“Children’s entertainment programs,” he explained, “have a popular character who calls himself a ‘wabbit’. Wabbit—warbot.” Cletus realized how lame this sounded. He bit his tongue and vowed to keep from sounding so foolish. “Such animals are a recent introduction to your ecosystem?”
“They play a part in our mythology. Like your Wabbit, references back to Earth abound.” Leanne looked at him as if she knew every thought in his head. “I was born in the Year of the Rabbit.”
“So you are expert with warbots?” Cletus joked before realizing he had best drop the subject entirely or look increasingly foolish. Then he saw that he had hit on yet another of the woman’s skills. She smiled to put him at ease—and it did ease the feeling of being a complete buffoon.
He had studied her before but did so more closely now. He had seen her fragile beauty, the ease of her movement hinting at reflexes matching those of his own enhanced nervous system. What lay under the plain padded coat and simple white cotton trousers had to be supplied by his imagination. She dressed as did her leader. The only distinction between the olive drab coats lay in a red and white enameled button pinned on the collar. Supreme Leader had worn one of pure red. Leanne’s showed a more imaginative design, possibly a white snake writhing about in a field of red. The details were too fine for him to notice without approaching her and risking violation of her personal space. He reached up to give greater magnification on his glasses, but Leanne lightly touched his wrist.
“There is no need. This is an insignia showing my expertise in the use of weapons.” She stepped closer for him to see the pin better. He caught a touch of perfume that caused his nostrils to flare. A graceful step back took away this faint hint of fragrance.
“You want to see more?”
“Yes,” he said. Cletus caught himself. He wasn’t sure what he was agreeing to. His head spun with her perfume, but over her shoulder, down on the assembly room floor, loomed a warbot.
She silently motioned for him to precede her to a small platform. The instant she joined him the steel plate dropped with startling speed. He sank into a bow stance to maintain his balance. Leanne had adopted the same posture, her knees slightly bent and her feet separated the width of her shoulders, one foot slightly behind the other and turned at an angle. Cletus had learned this as a stable position in hand-to-hand fighting. Leanne’s status as a weapons expert might extend farther than exoskeletons, warbots and missile cloaking techniques.
The platform came to a surprisingly gentle stop. Still, Cletus felt relief as he stepped away from it onto solid concrete beneath his feet that did not threaten to drop away. His unease over the open elevator vanished as he approached the nearest of two warbots. He stared up at it, his mouth open. When he realized he gawked like some yokel from the aqua farms, he covered by a ululation once favored by his ancestors as they ran into battle.
“So, you approve?” Leanne smiled broadly. “The first time anyone sees a warbot the response is always the same. Well, not quite the same as yours. Would you fight such a magnificent metal warrior with your bare hands?”
It didn’t surprise him she recognized the war cry. Her k-chip might carry a wealth of information on him, his father and Ballymore.
“Fifteen meters tall,” he said. “How is it powered? A fusion plant?”
“Several. One for either side and a third in the belly to power energy weapons.”
Cletus circled the behemoth. More than a huge exo, it was only vaguely human shaped. The feet were curiously jointed. He studied them, reached for his glasses and then stopped to look at Leanne.
“You may photograph this unit to share with the Programmer General. We ask only that you maintain secrecy as to the actual performance details.”
“These photos are marked for his eyes only.” He examined the joints, marvelling at the intricate design work. Any gimbal or ball joint afforded an attack point, but not in the Far Kingdom warbot. Clever use of heavy armor protected vulnerable parts.
He walked slowly to the rear and looked up into exhausts large enough to swallow him whole. Instinctively, he stepped away, although those rockets firing would incinerate him if he remained within thirty meters of the wash.
“Can this giant fly?”
“The rockets give at least one jump, possibly two depending on the gravitational field strength. On Far Kingdom--or Ballymore--you can jump to the roof of a ten-story building. Once.”
“There are no steering jets. You can accelerate to a few hundred meters per second before the fuel is gone. It is hypergolic, solid state fuel pellets so you can turn the rocket on and off several times. The fuel is easily reloaded. That operation is no more difficult than pouring marbles from a cup.”
“And in space you can use a puff of compressed air?”
“That is possible,” Leanne said. “The primary use is for low forces, not high, however. Against even main battle tanks, this warbot is more than a match. The body armor is a special non-Newtonian fluid that hardens when a kinetic missile strikes.”
“The momentum is transferred over a larger area?”
“Shear-thickening fluid was invented long ago, on Earth, but the technology has been lost until our scientists rediscovered it. A four centimeter thick vest will protect a man. The warbot has fifty centimeters, front and back. Within a few months we will have a magnetorheological STF to protect against even radiation weapons.”
Cletus sought the definition of the term. His k-chip failed him.
“Rheology is the study of deformation and flow of matter. Our science is very advanced.”
“Your weapons science especially.”
She answered by bowing slightly and averting her eyes, as if paying tribute to his obvious observation.
“I see the rocket launchers mounted at the shoulders.”
“That is so,” she said. “In addition, energy weapons are interchangeable on the hands, to fulfill any mission. Continuous wave lasers, of course, but also aurora guns.”
Such a weapon could reduce a city to smoking rubble in a single blast. The promise of an aurora gun was hardly the ultimate in offensive armament, but it came as close as any mobile weapons platform could offer. Cletus studied the warbot more closely and found the distinctive launchers at either hip.
“What size nukes do you recommend?”
“Even without the magnetorheological fluid shields, the warbot withstands radiation of considerable intensity, especially from a neutron bomb. Only the blast’s shockwave is a concern. A one megaton warhead requires a kilometer or more separation or the concussion will damage the unit, in spite of the STF. As you noticed, there is a launcher for a single nuke on each hip.”
“All the missiles look like standard models.”
“They are. You must supply your own nukes. There is no benefit to us shipping atomics off world.”
Cletus heard a small lie in that, but truth also rang through as his k-chip brought up the extent of fusion and thorium bed reactors used to power Far Kingdom. Like Burran, they had learned the lessons of Earth after a decade of volcanic eruptions had filled the air with too much soot for planet-based solar arrays to function. It was as well that Far Kingdom did not supply the missiles or warheads, since that left it up to the Burran military to know what they used when going against Uller or Eire forces. After all, if Far Kingdom sold to one side in a conflict, nothing prevented them from selling to the other except for planetary policy.
Cletus suspected they did not want such weapons turned against them. This sobered him and put a damper on his enthusiasm for the warbots. If Far Kingdom willing sold such weapons systems, they had counters—or something better—reserved for their own arsenal.
“I would like to see one moving about.” Cletus stared up at the gargantuan machine in awe. Nothing approaching this juggernaut existed on Ballymore.
Leanne gave him an enigmatic look, then asked, “Would you like to take one for a drive. As pilot?”
Cletus forced himself to keep his mouth shut, not trusting himself to do more than nod.