Tetrarch Billings listened to Baron Roth’s presentation through the lunch hour. He waved off his one o’clock meeting so he could continue grilling Roth about the new weapon Thespar was developing. By all accounts, all the trials had been successful, and a full scale model in orbit was next.
But Roth was one step ahead of him. They had a prototype ready to be assembled by the Fourth Fleet’s service bots. As one of the primary weapons developers for the League, Roth already had all the pieces in play. All he really needed was Billings’s blessing.
Billings leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment. He was heavier than his statue in the Plaza of the Tetrarchs suggested. Older, too, and not as good looking. But when one commissions a monument to oneself, one makes it look better than reality, he would say.
This could change the war, he thought. Maybe. He was not in charge of the war, the Navy, or much else in larger galactic events. He was in charge of his planet filled with islands. Some were large. Most were small. But Sporades was an island planet, and it was under his command along with the rest of the planets in this quadrant.
That meant the Thespar weapons development facility on Sporades was under his command, even though the war effort was coordinated by Tetrarch Thrall.
That is to say, he thought, Lead Tetrarch Thrall.
That still rankled Billings, although he was careful to keep his irritation quiet.
He sighed. Out loud he said, “I suppose I should tell him. He’ll take it over, anyway.”
He was already in his conference room, and he thought for a moment about the overly attractive assistant who had become such a thorn in everybody’s side when dealing with Thrall. She would probably not allow a meeting to occur for weeks, and intercept any written communications. She really was an impediment. But, there was no way to politely broach the subject with Thrall, so Billings did not.
Instead, he schemed of a way to bypass her. And, he already hit upon a solution and confirmed with StarCen earlier that it would work. He put the plan in motion.
“StarCen, open a direct holocall into Tetrarch Thrall’s office for me, please.”
“Will do, Tetrarch Billings. One moment while I establish the connection.”
Billings smiled. This would mark the first time he tried just calling direct. He wondered if Thrall would take any steps to prevent it from happening again.
If so, Billings thought, I’ll find another way to reach him. But lines of communication must remain open.
After all, this is war.
A moment later, the hologram of Thrall appeared, sitting in his office many light years away. The beautiful blonde assistant sat in his lap, kissing him affectionately. They broke apart when Billings’s hologram appeared in Thrall’s office, staring at them across the desk
The girl got up, blushing, and quickly scooted out of the picture. Thrall wiped his lips and his nostrils flared as he stared at Billings.
“This is unexpected, Mick.”
Billings nodded, pretending he did not see anything.
He said, “I have some news that couldn’t wait for an appointment, Julius.”
He flicked a wrist to open a shared holo, and an image of black metal bars stretched out in a pattern while floating in space appeared.
Billings said, “The weapons designers here have a name for it. They call it Starfold.”
A line of four gunmetal gray, round-headed bots marched into the AWD. They headed straight toward the large outer courtyard housing about a hundred indigents.
They tromped through an alley and stopped on the periphery of the crowd milling around makeshift tents and tarps covering the ground.
One of them said, in a loud electronic voice, “This is a raid!”
When the old woman sitting on the ground in front of the bot did not move fast enough, it aimed its blaster down and shot her.
People in the courtyard panicked. Everyone surged for the alley at the far side. The four bots opened fire, aiming indiscriminately.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoopah!
Father Verrick looked up from the other end of the courtyard. He ran toward the bots, waving his hands.
“Stop! Stop! We have a permit! We are lawfully—”
One of the bots shot him and he stumbled back, his forward momentum lost. Then he fell down.
Up in their room, Julia and Gina heard the commotion outside.
Julia said, “What’s going on?”
Wilcox closed her eyes and concentrated.
She said, “Bots. Four of them. Wait a minute . . . SSI controls these, not the police. They’re shooting up the big outer courtyard. Hold on, I’m going to take control of one of them.”
“You do that. I’ll go down and see if I can help.”
Julia switched on her camo unit and disappeared. The door seemed to open by itself and she rushed out.
Back in the courtyard one of the bots stopped shooting into the crowd and turned its gun on the other three, aiming for their heads.
Thoop! Thoop! Thoop!
The first two were taken completely by surprise. The third bot tried to shoot back, but it was too late.
The rogue bot scanned the area, but the threats had been neutralized. It carefully turned the gun to its own head and pulled the trigger.
Julia ran through the people stampeding for the exits. She looked at the disabled bots and all the bodies scattered around them.
She noticed one of somebody dressed in black with a white collar around his neck.
Julia ran toward him, turning off the camo unit. She gently turned him over on his back. He had a hole in his chest. But he was breathing.
“I have nanobots,” she said, pulling out a pneumatic syringe from her backpack.
“No . . . the others . . .”
“Just hold on, Father.”
She injected him.
“Give that . . . to others . . .”
“If they’re alive,” Julia said, “I’ll see what I can do. But we need to get you stabilized.”
In SSI Sporades Headquarters, Director Armando Morales frowned at the blank feeds on the holo.
He said, “What happened?”
“One of the bots went nuts, boss,” a technician said. “Shot the others up then turned the gun on itself.”
“Yes, I saw that,” Morales snapped. “What happened, exactly? Why did it do that?”
The technician shrugged, but if he had any ideas he did not want to voice them.
“I told you technology is not to be trusted, Director.”
Morales glared at the man standing next to him, Dante Crown.
Dante looked suave, especially compared to the director. He was shorter by a couple centimeters, but he had an assured air. He exuded confidence. His thick black hair and light brown skin indicated mixed ancestry with African dominance.
He was also known as the resident Luddite, an oddity in this age of high tech wizardry.
“You used technology when you tipped us off about the two strange ladies going back to the AWD,” Morales said.
Crown shrugged. He said, “It was a directional mic, hardly high tech. I don’t trust all this new-fangled stuff, and this is a key reason why. You never can tell when it will go south on you at a critical moment.”
Morales took a deep breath, calming himself. It would do no good to bite the head off of his best agent in front of others. Or even in private. Even if that agent had some peculiar ideas about technology and how to use it. Or avoid using it.
If Dante had lived at the dawn of the 20thcentury, he would have been riding horses instead of driving cars, well after the freeways were built.
Morales said, “Obviously something is going on in the AWD. At least we shot that pesky priest who runs the homeless shelter there. With him out of the way, maybe we can shut that place down and eradicate all those indigents.”
Crown nodded thoughtfully.
He said, “Yes, but Director . . . next time send in people instead of bots.”
The destruction of the four bots seemed to justify Crown’s anti-tech beliefs, Morales thought. At least this time.
“Don’t get smug, Agent Crown.”
“Yes, sir. When would you like me to lead the next assault?”
“Now. Assemble a team. Make sure everyone is fully armed.”
Morales looked at the blank holo on the far wall and frowned.
He said, “I don’t want anybody walking out of the AWD alive.”