Tuesday, August 14, 2018

History of the Galaxy - 3: Servobattalion

History of the Galaxy, Book 3
by Andrei Livadny

Release - October 22

Didn't read the series? Start with Book 1


22 August 2627 Earth Years. 
Hammer's Line.
The sultry, overcast midday on Vesuvius was lit up by a multitude of eruptions.
The air was unbreathable, poisoned by the volcanic emissions, and the sky, like a gray sheet, hung low and reflected the crimson of the fiery chaos below.
The world laid out below the oppressive sky appeared unfit for human life but the war had changed many of the suitability criteria.
Vesuvius was not just colonized but densely populated with the industrial bases of the Terran Alliance located here, which repaired the technology damaged in the fighting. Through an anomaly in space, damaged spaceships were towed from sites of battle into orbit around the planet, and were then brought down to the surface using special technical carriers. There were also plenty of transports carrying broken servomachines, with some to be repaired and some intended for disassembly into spare parts.

Vesuvius hosted not only repair docks for large ships but also factories for restoring planetary technology. The harsh conditions of the hot young planet, whose volcanic activity meant that additional camouflage was unnecessary, and where natural resources lay practically on the surface, had another advantage:  its training grounds for testing repaired servomachines ideally met the criteria for "close to combat" conditions.

Donald Crowe had an easy attitude to life.
Serving on the testing grounds of Vesuvius would not seem like a cushy job at other times, but with a war raging across the entirety of colonized space and claiming huge numbers of victims, life under a low, leaden sky seemed like paradise if the alternative was almost certain death.
So he didn't complain about his fate.
Today did not promise any trouble and hardly differed from Donald's hundreds of other days, bland and boring, filled with difficult but not dangerous work.
Today he had to run through tests for three Hoplites repaired after fierce fighting. It was nothing complicated or unusual – a walk through the broken and treacherous terrain with poor visibility due to the volcanic ash constantly falling from the sky, a couple of jumps using the jet accelerators over the narrow rivers of lava crossing the plain, and some target shooting.
Apart from having to spend several hours in an old combat suit with a faulty thermoregulation system, Donald did not anticipate any issues.
Leaving the hangar, Crowe strode confidently over to the last mechanism in the line. Hoplite2M was a new model that promised to become the real paratrooper 'workhorse' in the near future.

Approaching the forty-five-tonne giant, Donald couldn't help but note the mechanism's appearance: both guns had been replaced, the weapon pylons on the right had newly assembled missile tubes, and the anti-aircraft turret was completely absent with two medium-powered lasers installed instead.
'Interesting configuration.' Crowe thought as he circled around the servomachine. Beneath a coat of fresh 'chameleon' coating (currently deactivated), some of the armor plates showed numerous pitting. 'It really got hit hard,' Donald thought with surprise, noting that all the armored covers protecting the servomotor nodes looked factory-fresh and glossy – they had been replaced like most of the ceramlite segments. It appeared that the servomechanism hadn't just sustained critical damage but had been literally riddled with bullets...
It was difficult to imagine the slaughter that the Hoplite had been in to sustain such damage.
Fine. My job is to test the machine.
Donald, in an excellent mood, opened the protective screen and touched the technical access sensor into the cabin.
The hatch opened obediently and the lift segment slid down from above.
Whistling a cheerful tune, Donald ascended to the cabin, crossed the airlock and found himself inside the servomachine.
The overview screens switched on when he appeared and the mobile control panels surrounding the pilot cradle moved aside, providing access to the chair.
He switched on telecommunication through the implant – this didn't initiate the full-scale neurosensory contact of a person with the Maverick system but rather enabled third-level mental commands, which were quite sufficient for technical testing, especially since the machine would perform most of the operations itself. Donald's role was to throw it sudden curve balls, which the cyber system had to respond to quickly and appropriately.
Well, baby, shall we begin?
The communication channel responded with a ringing silence. The control panels automatically returned to their places, the autopilot lights switched on – the machine indicated its full readiness to undergo testing, but the Maverick module was refusing to talk to the human.
Donald got angry.
He was normally quite easy-going, even a bit cowardly, and it was only when dealing with the soulless and obedient machines that he behaved arrogantly.
After all, no matter what they said about the new generation AI in the Mavericks (according to the specifications, Beatrice-4 was installed aboard this Hoplite) Crowe always regarded machine intelligence as a cheap fake. So what if it's an AI, what's he supposed to do, talk to every infantry android like they're his equal now?
Now, baby, stop acting up. You've probably got a cute voice. Come on, say, "Good morning, pilot".
The silence in the communicator was now deafening. It seemed thick as syrup, hostile and unpleasant.
Fine. 'I'll deal with you.' Donald thought with a touch of irritation as he buckled on his harness. The cushioning arcs of the pilot cradle (which would be ejected if the machine sustained critical damage) automatically closed around him, the control panels moved even closer and all the indicator lights signaled readiness to commence testing.
'Forward, straight ahead for 500 meters then turn 90 degrees to the right. Go!'
The Hoplite didn't move.
'Piece of shit... Who do you think you are, you metal lump? I clearly said, go!'
Something unbelievable happened in the next instant. Instead of obeying the order, the machine suddenly lit up an angry warning signal on the control panel, and then came the characteristic sound of the cabin's armor plates opening like a metal bud, and the pilot cradle, together with the stunned Donald, was flung into the gloomy skies of Vesuvius by the emergency catapult.
The Hoplite catapulted the pilot, switched on the telemetry channel, reporting about the functioning systems to the testing grounds' central control room, and then started moving – 500 meters straight ahead and then to the right – and kept moving on its own initiative, overcoming various obstacles in its way and shooting at any suddenly appearing targets.

* * *
By the time Donald Crowe freed himself from the safety harness and hobbled over to the command post, the Hoplite had already completed its test program, independently returned to the hangar and stopped in the center of the marking circle.
Entering the control room, Donald let out a loud stream of abuse, his helmet already unclipped.
The man in charge of the testing grounds, a major who had lost both his arms in the fighting and now wore cyber prostheses instead, looked at the enraged pilot and said,
"Calm down."
"Calm down?! That blasted machine tossed me out of the cabin!"
"I saw it."
"And?!" Crowe's face twisted in a mean grimace.
"You clearly weren't to Beatrice's liking." The major replied coolly. "I've looked through the documents and it appears that she lost her pilot in the last battle. Then she came to us."
"So, what, she's in shock? She can't see other people? She won't listen to other people's orders? She's missing her pilot?"
"Yes." The major replied with cold hostility in his voice.
"Since when are Mavericks allowed to have emotions and, moreover, to throw people out of their cabins?"
"Her pilot was killed." The senior officer at the testing ground repeated as if he hadn't heard Donald's words. Unlike Crowe, he knew what it was like to lose friends in battle, and, comparing the boorish behavior of the test pilot with the restrained reaction of the AI after it had experienced the pain of loss, he found the comparison not in Crowe's favor.
"Look," the major said tiredly. "The machine has fully passed the test. It's serviceable. Go ahead and sign the test certificate and we'll forget about what happened."
"What nothing. I have made my decision: the test was successful and the Hoplite has been recommended for use in automatic, unmanned mode. Sign it or I swear to God, I'll find a way to send you to the front!"
Donald's jaw dropped and he turned pale – it was the first time he had seen the stolid major look absolutely furious and didn't doubt for a moment that the man would carry out his promise.
Damn it.
"Okay, I'll sign it." Crowe said aloud.
Bending over the sheet of plastpaper containing the test results and adding his signature, Donald glanced at the other papers out of the corner of his eye.
For most of the machines in the latest batch, the same sender was listed:  Thirteenth Servobattalion.

Chapter 1.

25 June 2624 

Hammer's Line. 

They arrived on Yunona as part of the latest reinforcements.
Two hundred young people, aged seventeen to nineteen.
The shuttle that brought them from the general military transport landed at sunrise, when Yuna's flaming disc had barely appeared above the horizon.
Their first impression of a planet fully terraformed and covered in greenery was misleading. Beneath the masking plantations of identical coniferous trees, modified at the military laboratories of New Earth, hid a branching network of military bases, spaceports and testing grounds. The planet was far from the enormous park it looked to be from orbit, but rather a single research and testing facility where new types of weapons were put through their paces. 
The captain meeting the new recruits waited until the disorderly crowd got itself organized and stopped chattering. Heat emanated from the shuttle and in the gradually settling silence, they could hear the crackling of the armor plates as they cooled down. Shreds of morning mist drifted up from a small valley formed by the network of drainage ditches along the edge of the landing field. Yuna's orange rays illuminated the treetops with a fiery and poisonous shade of crimson, which seemed unnatural to the inhabitants of Earth, and all of it together created an indelible impression that made the newcomers fall silent.
The captain waited patiently, knowing that Yunona itself would silence the youth better than any yelling. The inhabitants of Earth's megacities, who had never seen such careless and disorganized open space before and still did not fully comprehend where and why they had been brought here, eventually fell silent and their eyes unwittingly turned to the officer standing alone.
"Boys and girls." He spoke quietly, even insinuatingly, making the last voices fall silent. "I know that only a few of you have come here voluntarily by signing up at the mobilization centers. However, it's no longer important what desires, motivations, beliefs or lack thereof made you avoid mobilization or voluntarily come to the recruitment center. Look around you and understand that you are on a different planet, outside your usual environment. I'm not going to yell at you and call you scum and promise to make a cool soldier out of each one of you. Those of you who have watched too many bad movies can forget about that. You are now servomachine pilots. Your first step off the shuttle has become a step from a carefree civilian life into war.
There's no way back. Nobody is going to demean you or try to break you to turn you from rabble into 'real soldiers'. Where you're going, only the strongest and most skilled ones will survive. Forget everything that happened in the past. From now on, each one of you has an identity. The identity of a pilot. Only your personal qualities will determine who will live and who will die in the first battle. Mark my words and those of you who are lucky will remember them often. A servomachine pilot is an individual first and foremost, for the technological might capable of destroying any obstacle will be placed in your hands. The concept of friendship often loses its meaning in modern warfare. There may be no living combat companions beside you, only machines.
This is why everyone needs to learn how to be a leader. I repeat, it doesn't matter who you were yesterday. And now," he turned, "follow me."

* * *
"He seems kinda nuts. Probably totally shell-shocked." An African-American guy muttered defiantly. "What do you reckon?" He turned to the skinny teenager of European descent next to him. "What's your name?"
"Anton." The boy said curtly.
"I'm Simon. Simon Green." He slowed down slightly, matching his stride to Anton's. "Let's stick together."
"All right." Anton replied readily.
"Hey, how were you picked up?"
"Very simply. They brought us all here for one reason." Verkholin was staring at his feet as if some unexpected obstacle could appear on the spaceport's smooth plates. "Free account in the Layer. And a tournament arena."
"The Layer, so what?" Simon snorted. "I was hanging out there daily, and?"
"Use your head. What was the arena simulating?"
Simon pursed his plump lips. "You reckon?" He asked suspiciously. "Of course, war games are great, especially when there's nothing better to do. But not to this extent!"
"Exactly to this extent." Responded Verkholin.
Simon fell quiet, inadvertently drawing his head into his shoulders.
No, he didn't get scared, it was a different sensation: he suddenly understood that what the officer had said weren't empty phrases.
'Damn, he talked to us like we were equals,' Simon thought suddenly. 'Could Anton be right and the reason that I've been brought to this strange and freakish world, like the others, was because of the total number of points that I accumulated playing the virtual servomachine simulator?'
Simon could theoretically accept, of course, that if he suddenly landed in the cabin of a Hoplite or a Phalanger, he wouldn't simply hang his mouth open in surprise, but the officer walking nearby seemed convinced that they were capable of much more...
He glanced at Anton but the wish to discuss their sudden prospects with his new friend had disappeared for some reason. Let's see, then... Let's see why they dragged us all here...

* * *
Humanity, at least the part that had set the war in motion, twice had a real chance to stop the fighting but had never used it.
Why? Why, despite the massive casualties and current deadlock, did the war not die down but, on the contrary, flared up with a new, fierce and uncompromising intensity?
It was said that within five years after the blockade of Dabog was broken, the war was being fought mostly by machines on the side of the Alliance – it was this factor that intensified the conflict and didn't let it stop.
A generally accepted lie.
War was always begun and ended by humans, while machines remained faithful to non-existent forces for thousands of years, or to put it more simply, they remained hostage to the programs that humans had installed in them.

18 July 2624. 
Aboard the cruiser Apostle, flagship of the Seventh Strike Fleet of the Terran Alliance. 

Admiral Kupanov sat comfortably in his chair, his eyes half-closed, surrendering to the power of virtual reality.
An emergency meeting had just commenced and communication between the flagships of the seven strike fleets was carried out using floating hypersphere frequency channels, which made the conversation impossible to intercept.
The Galactic War was in its fifteenth year.
The Terran Alliance forces, unable to take over the developed colony planets, had been drawn into a war against an opponent whose financial and technical capabilities were now equal to humanity's ancestral home.
"Gentlemen, I must begin our meeting with some unfortunate news: John Winston Hammer died early this morning."
The senior navy officers stood up in silence.
Their faces revealed neither sorrow nor happiness nor shock. All those invited to the meeting had thousands of reasons to hate and fear the man who had started the war but each one kept their emotions under tight control.
"Please be seated." Said Admiral Nagumo after a pause. He had hardly changed in the fifteen years of fighting and still looked the same, a lean old man with a wrinkled face and piercing eyes. "Due to John Hammer's death, I have assumed the duties as Head of the World Government and Supreme Commander."
Nagumo's words were met with a heavy and tangible silence, not broken by even a murmur. This was the obvious outcome of the behind-the-scenes struggles occurring in recent years since Alexander Nagumo had commanded the Fleet Joint General Staff for over ten years, and none of the admirals present wondered about the legality of such a statement.
They stood silent, as if in agreement, and waited to see what would happen next.
There was a detached and expectant pause with the announcement of John Hammer's death. Everyone knew that it was possible to stop the war right now and enter into negotiations with the Free Colonies, for the man whose personal decision had marked the beginning of armed hostilities was now dead.
Everyone knew this and yet the seven admirals, commanders of the Alliance aerospace forces, stood silent, each one waiting for something, plotting certain plans, like Kupanov, for example, who didn't even think about raising the issue of ceasing hostilities.
He looked at Nagumo and thought, noting the smallest details in the man's appearance, whose fame was as great as it was sinister, 'He's not going to remain in power for long. He's old, he's past his prime, plus, he's got plenty of enemies. What will happen when there's another coup? Seven fleets, seven admirals. The Alliance is in danger of falling apart.'
Nagumo's voice interrupted his thoughts, "Each one of you will today receive a detailed plan of action for the Fleet for the near future. We are radically changing our strategy. We are moving to a large-scale envelopment of the Central Worlds cluster to blockade strategic hypersphere routes and to capture the remote colonies from the time of the Great Exodus, who have not yet been drawn into the war."

The pendulum of war, frozen for a moment of time in the dead center, began moving once again under the icy silence of the powers that be.

None of the people present tried to challenge Nagumo's words, to disagree or suggest something, moreover, it seemed that negotiations with the Colonies promised nothing but a quick dismissal for the admirals commanding the various fleets.
Each one thought about himself and none thought about Humanity.
"May I ask a question, Admiral?" The oppressive silence of conformism was broken by a young and daring voice.
"Yes, I'm listening." Nagumo didn't even turn his head, he knew without having to look who dared to speak up.
A man called Tabanov rose from his seat, the Commander of the Fifth Fleet and the youngest in the new wave of senior officers, a dark horse, according to the majority. "The presence of a detailed plan implies that it was developed by John Hammer himself?"
"It's a provocative question but I will answer it. The idea is mine." Nagumo replied, nevertheless giving Tabanov a sour look. "It was clear at the beginning of the war that we're making a mistake by letting the colonies explore beyond the 'known space', that we're losing the strategic initiative. Creating a network of military bases and planetary strongholds, which will enclose the Central Worlds in a kind of sphere, will enable us to form an exclusion zone within the boundaries of known space. This will prevent the resisting colonies from increasing their might by using resources from remote star systems this is the right strategy for the future and at the same time, our main tactical goal at the moment. Each fleet will have its own special task in the upcoming large-scale operation."
Kupanov listened to Nagumo without interrupting. Any needless questions asked now would surely backfire later. Nagumo had an excellent memory. Pavel Petrovich was not only an experienced admiral but also a seasoned politician. He had begun his career commanding the artillery deck on the cruiser Endgrouse, which took part in the first attack on Dabog, was promoted to the rank of Fleet Commander, and knew very well that beneath Nagumo's generalities lay a new strategy for military action in space. The ability to analyze a situation and to perceive not only the thoughts expressed aloud but also their subtext often helped him in difficult situations in the constant struggle for power.
Like now, when he intuitively understood that Nagumo wasn't just outlining a new strategy but eliminating a threat by moving the fleets around and deliberately separating them, giving each admiral their own task and a certain sector of space. The old man did not want to lose power nor step away from the decision-making. But what will happen when he's gone?
He is trying to find a leader among us. A person capable of occupying a high position and keeping the Alliance from splintering.
Nagumo's words did sound like the go-ahead for a short but fierce race to the top spot to most of those present, the results of which would be used by Nagumo to announce his successor, while he withdrew into the shadows with a guarantee of personal immunity.
'Well... Let's see what he's planning for the Seventh Fleet.' The admiral thought. He had no doubt that in addition to the shared goals for this war, each task hid a chance or a pitfall. Nagumo wanted to see which one of his admirals would understand the hint and not only reach the goal but also gain a distinct advantage for himself.
The meeting continued but Kupanov didn't pay much attention to the reports. He had identified the key idea and now couldn't wait to see the files with the specific tasks set before his fleet.
He had accepted the rules of the game proposed by the Supreme Commander and wasn't going to miss the chance to become the first among equals.

* * *
The cruiser Apostle. Twelve hours later.
The next day, Admiral Kupanov called a meeting of the senior officers.
He was correct in his intuitive prediction of the situation, but he wasn't planning to reveal his thoughts to the officers. The admiral kept his ideas to himself, picturing the possible future scenarios.
"Gentlemen, a new strategy has been announced." He turned to the silent and waiting audience.
Kupanov mentally switched on the holographic data output system. A 3D image of space appeared in the middle of the vast room. Many stars were marked with different labels, conventional signs whose presence and position allowed the invited officers to get a clear idea about the current situation on the battlefronts of the Galactic War.
The five star systems where the planetary civilizations of the colonists were able (after four hundred years of isolation) to re-enter space before the invasion from Earth, were surrounded by dense clusters of different symbols. There were markers of space minefields and outposts floating in space. Closer to a star system, the field of symbols became denser, forming powerful space defenses.
However, recent major combat operations were not being fought in the Central World systems. Instead, the desperate and bloody battles occurred at a distance of five to seven, even ten light years away from the colonies, which were gradually gaining power.
The star systems where prolonged fighting took place usually didn't have inhabitable planets or they had been destroyed during the conflict.
What was the value of the empty and barren regions of space? Was it the resources?
Only the theory of the hypersphere, with its space-time anomalies through which spacecraft traveled through space, could provide a full answer to this question.
Two space armies met in fierce battles for control of the so-called 'intermediate surfacing points' or, to put it simply, systems from where it was possible to jump to the Central Worlds.
So far, neither side had managed to gain a foothold and to create a powerful barrier that would block the passage of the enemy squadrons onto a new hypersphere horizontal.
This had resulted in a desperate stalemate: the military space forces of the Alliance could not strike directly at the enemy planets and the Fleet of the Free Colonies was basically trapped, for any move bypassing these systems would lead the ships into uncharted space. At a time when hypersphere navigation was in its infancy and taking its first timid steps in studying the anomalies, such movement of the troops bordered on madness.
It would take years of exploring and mapping new hypersphere routes to bypass the systems where both sides had lost so many lives and so much technology.
Thus, Admiral Nagumo's plan didn't promise a quick end to the war. On the contrary, exploring the periphery and organizing military bases in all the systems found in the unexplored sections of space would prolong the war indefinitely, but with a skillful approach and sufficient forces, it guaranteed the Alliance's victory in the long term.
Kupanov allowed the gathered officers to absorb the idea of a new strategy, and then, deciding that enough time had been spent on understanding the spatial scheme, moved on to the specifics of the task set before the Seventh Fleet.
Another two markers appeared away from the site of military action.
"Gentlemen, here you can see the bases of the Free Colonies' Fleet. General Staff intelligence has managed to not only find out their locations but also determine the purpose and the approximate structure of these objects. In our case, we will focus on the MR-5608 star system, which contains six planets. The fourth planet has an oxygen-containing atmosphere and, according to our information, has a powerful network of RW[1] bases, containing all the Alliance technology captured by the Colonies' Fleet over the past few years. The planet is a threat not only because of its well-organized, multi-layered planetary and space defenses. Firstly, this star system is considered an important strategic node in the hypersphere network by High Command, and, secondly, the RW bases are conducting intensive studies of the captured servomachines, while the testing grounds are used to perfect ways of fighting against our planetary technology and to test new weapon systems.
"The task set before our fleet is to make a hyperspace jump to star MR-5608, break through the enemy defenses and capture the planet."
Admiral Kupanov paused, watching the reaction of the ship captains and staff officers of the fleet.
"We don't have enough forces for large-scale fighting on a planet's surface." Said the Chief of Staff in response to the Admiral's expectant look. "The airborne divisions are only manned by a third."
It was a sore subject that he should not have raised and provoked some displeasure from the Fleet Commander.
It was true that the war was devouring more and more people the phrase 'human resources' was rarely uttered aloud these days despite many thinking it. The statistics regarding human losses grew at an alarming rate and it was clear to many of the senior officers that a couple more years of this war and...
"Command is aware of these problems. They are being resolved quite successfully. We will soon move from counting the depressing number of victims to counting losses among machines." The Admiral stressed the last word on purpose. "The new concept of warfare involves the use of fully automated servocomplexes, which will be supported by androids with technical and infantry modifications. But before the latest technology joins our troops, we must destroy the enemy's research bases. We will compensate for the lack of personnel when we storm the planet since the RW bases hold hundreds of our 'pilots' as prisoners, and their liberation and immediate inclusion in the fighting shall be the first mission of the landing troops. This will be carried out by a specially trained commando group. Our forces will seize one of the key sites from where the freed pilots will be taken to the servomachine hangars."
"I don't understand, Admiral, which pilots are we talking about? Why are they being kept on a planet near the RW bases?" Asked Colonel Iverzev, who oversaw all the airborne units in the fleet.
"We'll talk about this in the second part of the meeting," Kupanov replied. "The ground operation has been planned by the Fleet Joint Staff. We are being sent reinforcements to carry it out one servobattalion, fully equipped with the latest technology and pilots. Our goal is to break through the space defenses and provide our assault carriers with safe approach corridors to the planet. This is what we're all going to think about."

* * *
Yunona. The Gamma laboratory sector. 

Howard Faragney, chief designer of the Maverick modules, was not in a great mood that day. Life, which seemed perfectly clear not so long ago, had unexpectedly cracked. He began to notice that the human staff in the bowels of the bunker were being gradually replaced by machines. The research continued at full pace but Faragney, who normally wasn't demanding about his living conditions and was completely absorbed in his work, began to suffer from loneliness.
He rarely left the depths of the bunker these days but today he suddenly craved to take a breath of real morning air, think about something other than his technical tasks, to look around him and understand what was really happening to the world and how global were these creeping changes.
For a manager of his rank, there were no bans or restrictions on Yunona.
Ascending in the express elevator from a depth of four kilometers, Faragney passed the launching pads for the Nibelungs, crossed the checkpoint and walked leisurely towards the nearest forest luckily, the camouflage plantations began almost immediately beyond the landing site perimeter.
He was hoping to be alone, to allow himself to become who he used to be for a little while, to remember that a clear, blue sky overhead and the smell of pine still existed in real life, that it was not just an extract being pumped through the ventilation system.
However, it was important to remember that every square meter on Yunona was dedicated to the harsh service of war. Beneath the canopy of modified pines, which grew to a height of ten meters in just a year, lay roads, buildings, barracks, service bays, and places for personnel and technology formations on Yunona.
In one of these squares, Faragney noticed a disorganized crowd of new recruits as a familiar major stood before them, making a speech. The major was in charge of the department involved in the training center for future servomachine pilots.
Strolling along the path strewn with pine needles, Howard couldn't help but listen to the words and study the faces of the boys and girls, and he gradually started feeling very uncomfortable. What was happening now if only a few years ago, the servomachine pilots were all mature men and women, who had usually been in combat before and knew the true price of life and death, and, most importantly, had made the conscious choice to join the servomachine troops?
Why was he seeing such young faces on Yunona?
'They shouldn't be fighting, they're only beginning their life, falling in love...' Faragney thought, bewildered. 'Perhaps there's been a mistake? They've been called to technical service, for example? Then what's Major Herpack doing there?'
While he was thinking this, the short briefing ended and the disorderly crowd, barely talking to each other, began to drift towards the squat barracks, safely tucked away under the masking canopy.
Unable to stand it any longer, Howard called out to the major, although they had never been friends. On the contrary, Herpack was angry at Faragney for some reason, which, however, did not extend to insubordination and was limited to only dark looks.
"John, do you have a minute?"
The major stopped and then, as he looked closer and recognized Faragney, frowned. "Yes, Colonel," he responded stiffly and excessively formally.
"Tell me," Howard ignored his tone and like most scientists, he paid little attention to titles, subordination and such. "Tell me, John, why did they send us such youngsters?"
Herpack's face darkened further. He seemed to be having trouble holding in the rage bubbling up inside him. "It's the fifteenth year of war." He spoke even more stiffly. "If you came up to the surface more often, you would know the true state of affairs. The draft age was dropped to fifteen years, two years ago."
"My God!" Faragney exclaimed. "But they're still children!"
"Sorry, sir, why are you are telling me this?!"
"I don't understand. What's the matter? And anyway, Herpack, why do you quietly hate me so much?"
"For your inventions, sir. You gave the world the Maverick system, you created the Phalangers and Hoplites, and it is solely your fault that the only form of 'entertainment' left in Earth's cyberspace is controlling servomachines using the direct neurosensory contact module!" The major's eyes were suddenly very bloodshot. How many accelerated graduations had he performed over the past two years? Twenty? Thirty? How many of his former charges were still alive?
He hated Faragney, hated the scientists, the war, even himself, for continuing to produce more and more cannon fodder.
"But," Howard was taken aback. "They're not pilots! Stop looking at me like that, Major! I'm not a child killer!"
But Herpack had already crossed the line leading to madness. "You are a killer, Faragney!" He hoarsely threw the terrible accusation in the colonel's face. "And they," he turned and pointed sharply at the departing recruits, "they are already pilots, thanks to the efforts of the many virtual arenas!"
"I didn't create them," Howard said defensively, stepping back a step. "I... I would never wish death upon..."
"Shut up!" Herpack exhaled violently, forgetting about the chain of command and finally losing control over his emotions. "Remember the ALONE module or the first version of the CLIMENS system? How many children on different planets were murdered by servomachines guided by these stupid Mavericks, who are capable of only death and destruction, while you were down there in your bunker, inventing anything other than something that could distinguish a child from an armed enemy!"
Crimson spots appeared on Howard's pale cheeks.
He had nothing to say in response to the accusations coming out of the major's mouth.
It was pointless to make excuses, to say that at the time of creating the first Mavericks, he was just an ordinary employee at the secret Gamma laboratory base.
Now he had become the chief designer, and his name would be forever cursed, inseparably linked with the most disastrous war in human history and the most destructive planetary machine that ever existed.
Herpack abruptly turned around and strode off towards the barracks, while Faragney stood rooted to the spot. 'I'm cursed.' He thought suddenly.

* * *
Yunona. The Gamma secret laboratory complex. 

After the failed walk outdoors, Howard Faragney was in a foul mood.
He had long stopped liking what the top-secret research facility was doing under his leadership, but now, despite the death of John Winston Hammer, the 'mastermind behind the war', Head of the World Government and Supreme Commander of the Terran Alliance, the cogs in the conflict between Earth and the Colonies continued spinning. Even worse, they were picking up pace, drawing more and more planets into the deadly fighting. If war had such a thing as 'reasonable boundaries', these had been exceeded a long time ago. Now, with his help and direct participation, the generals of the Alliance were planning to take another step towards the abyss where all of Humanity would soon fall, with nobody left to differentiate between Earth and the Colonies.
The madness of war had infected minds and poisoned them with the many years of fighting. For some, the global massacre had become their life's purpose while others lacked the courage to stand up to the insane plans, and still others were only looking out for number one or no longer cared, their souls and minds devoured by war.
'What am I going to do?' Faragney wondered as he pondered the next technical task received from the Fleet Joint Staff.
It was easy to make excuses for oneself. Firstly, he had been given a clear and categorical order, disobeying which could mean death. Secondly, automated systems with elements of AI came into use a long time ago. Cyber systems were first armed at the dawn of the space age, long before the Great Exodus.
There was no longer any point digging through the archives to determine which Terran government first crossed the line by basing its military policy on the principle of 'the end justifies the means'.
What use was there in searching for excuses in the history of the 21st century when he, Howard Faragney, had created the Maverick software package fifteen years ago, with the first version being code named ALONE?
He had created the cyber monster while the military had simply let it loose.
The independent behavior software package for planetary combat technology, created as an analogy for the walking servomachines of Dabog, launched his stellar career and... led to the savage destruction of dozens of colonized worlds.
The servomachine was an immensely complex, uniquely powerful and flexible creation, and Howard knew better than most that the planetary servomechanisms he had helped create were simply incomparable. Neither people nor preceding planetary technology could withstand the walking combat servomechanism, whose design utilized the experience gained from previous technology wars, together with locomotor systems borrowed from nature and polished to perfection by billions of years of evolution.
Fifteen years ago, after the sudden and painful loss in the Dabog system, when the idea of a fast and victorious war against the rebellious colonies suddenly choked on blood, talented engineers and cyberneticists were gathered here on Yunona, in the top-secret research and development complex, and shown examples of the servomachines developed by the Alliance engineers.
Initially, the presented designs seemed unviable and too complex to Howard the kinematics alone made his head swim. However, nobody asked their opinion regarding the test samples created by the Alliance military-industrial complex. Everyone who arrived on Gamma was divided into groups and a specific technical problem was set before each of them. Some were instructed to write programs for hundreds of independent subsystems that allowed the high-tech mechanical offspring to move, others had to ensure the machine remained stable under various terrain conditions, while a third group had to develop weapon control modules.
Howard Faragney's group was given the most challenging task, to create an independent behavior software packet that could control the highly complex cyber system. Not an autopilot but a combat software module that could assume the role of a pilot. To put it simply, they had to create an AI that could not only control the numerous subsystems but could also make non-standard tactical decisions in the heat of battle, to gain experience and then put it into practice.
The deadline for the task was ridiculous, only three months, but Howard and his colleagues had all conceivable and inconceivable resources placed at their disposal. They were given access to numerous top-secret developments made by their predecessors, who were undoubtedly talented cyberneticists and programmers and who had created various modules for the sake of realizing their intellectual potential.
In that distant December of 2609, Howard had plunged deep into the technical problem. He lived on stimulants and working twenty hours per day. The problem seemed absolutely fascinating and he rarely thought about the practical uses of the Maverick being created.
Faragney's group wrote the ALONE module in two and a half months.
Ground testing of the first complete AI combat module went well with minor defects being corrected on the go, and soon the first Mavericks joined the troops.
Compared to the power, maneuverability, endurance and autonomy of the servomachines, other kinds of offensive planetary technology looked like fragile children's toys but, nevertheless, the ALONE system received unflattering reviews.
The machine's fighting capabilities were well accepted but a barrage of criticism was directed at the primary control system. The first Mavericks were too direct and predictable, and in the first battles against Dabog's refitted servofarming units, controlled by pilots from the colony families, who used 100% neurosensory contact with the machines, the Mavericks created by Faragney's group suffered one defeat after another.
The moment of triumph gave way to a horrifically frenzied new round in the 'intelligent arms race'.
However, Howard was one of the few who understood that yes, even if 90% of the Mavericks lost their first fight, the experience was never wasted and the remaining 10% were fit for further use. It was genuine natural selection for machines, and eventually, one out of a hundred ALONE modules gained the notorious and priceless combat experience that allowed it to fight against human-controlled enemy machines almost as if they were equal.
Naturally, such statistics did not please those in charge. Not only had the plan for a quick and bloodless capture of the colonies failed the Alliance Fleet prevailed in space, but there hadn't been a single victory landing on the colonized planets, besides which, the price of servomachines was astronomically high and each destroyed Phalanger or Hoplite put a serious dent in the economy.
Howard Faragney really had no time for ethical considerations back then.
He worked as if he was possessed but could feel himself drawing further and further into a dead end with every passing day. A cyber system had to be trained long and carefully as it was composed of artificial neural networks that could not be programmed, but he was not given enough time for the learning process (around a year was needed for the upgraded ALONE AI to accumulate enough experience on the testing ground).
Howard was under enormous pressure. So much so that he began to fear for his life. In addition to all these difficulties, the behind-the-scene struggle between Admiral Alexander Nagumo and Admiral Tiberius Nadyrov at the Joint Fleet Headquarters was becoming more and more frenzied. In their struggle for power, they used the failure of the expensive servomachines as a factor.
Howard was close to a nervous breakdown. He didn't leave the laboratories for days, trying to personally teach the hapless combat module.
Yet how could he pass on the necessary combat skills to Maverick's artificial neural networks, even using direct neurosensory contact between the human mind and the learning machine (using the standard implant that every Alliance citizen received at birth) when he himself completely lacked the necessary battle experience?
It was in that time of fear and despair that Howard had the saving thought yes, he lacked combat experience but there were other people, real, professional soldiers, who would have something to teach the machine's artificial neural networks!
High command was demanding an immediate positive result, and that was when Howard suggested the new approach, a fundamentally different upgrade that required a pilot to be present in the servomachine's cockpit, controlling the combat mechanism through the neurosensory contact shunt. This solved two problems the machines went into their first battle with human guidance and learned to be flexible with their thinking during combat... and they retained their knowledge even if the pilot died.
The idea was picked up immediately. Considering that control of servomechanisms through direct neurosensory contact was widely known and well-developed (this operating method was used in mining, as well as in many space and deep sea operations), the mental command recognition system was integrated into the Maverick module, eliminating the need for a pilot to get used to the uncomfortable sensory suit, which didn't always adequately transmit signals from human muscles to the executive servosystems.
The first group of pilots began practical training in August 2610.
Alongside ground testing of the upgraded ALONE module, Faragney began to develop the next version of the Maverick, which was given the codename CLIMENS.
There was one thing that Howard didn't consider when he integrated the mental command interface in the Maverick module the degree of feedback from the combat cyber system to the human mind was ten times higher than in the civilian counterparts controlled using mental commands.
The ensuing amendments to the work specifications demanded that the pilot not only felt the servodrivers as if they were part of his or her own body, which undoubtedly increased effectiveness, but that they also felt a slight pain when the machine was hit, thus teaching the AI about self-preservation. However, the new depth of feelings and the hitherto hidden interaction potential between AI and the pilot's mind led to unexpected results. The Maverick system was no longer limited to receiving mental commands, it received the equivalent of pain and the human's emotions, which meant that the system recognized not only mental commands but all emotionally charged human thoughts.
It thus meant that the Maverick scanned the person's mind and absorbed a great deal of accompanying information.
At the beginning of the war, when the number of neural network modules in the Maverick's crystal circuit numbered in the tens, accompanying information obtained from the human mind was usually filtered since it did not qualify as the accumulation of combat experience. With further development of the system, as the number of neural network chips in the circuit exceeded one hundred, the new generation Mavericks began to show evidence of a personality.
Howard Faragney experienced a huge shock when he received the first reports from the front after large-scale testing commenced of the new generation of combat machines.
The Mavericks surpassed all expectations.
It was with horror that Howard read the concise reports stating that after sustaining the kind of damage that killed the pilot, the servomachine continued to act as if a person was still sitting in the cockpit!
At the same time, the servomechanism's fighting ability didn't worsen, on the contrary, the Maverick module began to act even more effectively since it was no longer constrained by the need to preserve the pilot's life.
Analysis of the crystal modules that were brought back to the laboratory revealed something that shook Howard to the core: the Maverick remembered the last information received from the pilot's mind and filled all available neurochips with it at the moment of the person's death, thus creating an imprint of the human personality imposed on the traumatic sensation of his or her death. It was why the servomachines that had experienced the death of their pilots acted with such initially inexplicable and purposeful rage.
Even by the most cautious estimates, the situation was incredibly risky, but it was now out of Faragney's hands. He had become the creator of an AI that received all the negative experiences of war and which became self-aware during combat, often at the moment of the pilot's death, starting to recognize the fact of its own existence as if the lost consciousness materialized in the artificial mind...
All the ugliness of war rage, despair, hate, fear was released in battle and forever remained in the Maverick's AI.

Now, a decade and a half later, Howard Faragney was heading the secret complex Gamma and had developed a new independent behavior module, which he had named Beatrice.
Faragney had long overcome the despair, fear and belated moral anguish so inevitable in his position. The hardships had gradually forged his character and he had opened his eyes and now stared at reality without any false excuses designed to appease his own conscience.
The war of humans was gradually becoming the war of machines, with robot systems dominating the battlefields, whose only purpose in life seemed a fight to its bitter end, even if it meant the complete destruction of humankind.
Howard became withdrawn and taciturn. His mind kept secrets that only he knew. Due to heightened security, the specialists at the Gamma laboratories worked only on highly specialized tasks and Faragney suspected that he was the only person who knew the whole information about the Maverick modules. Only he knew how to create the new-generation software and hardware module.
Why was that?
Having dealt with his fear and looked truth in the face, Howard was fully aware that nobody alive today could stop the galaxy-wide slaughter.
He wanted to do something that would prevent the complete destruction of civilization, specifically, to give the machines destroying each other an understanding of other goals and values, but how was he going to do that?
The creation of Beatrice was his personal redemption.
Howard had no doubts that the new module would be adopted by the military. He personally did all he could to ensure that Beatrice entered the army after passing all conceivable tests.
He had laid a ticking time bomb in the Maverick by increasing the number of neurochips to two and a half thousand.
Now the AI module was in constant communication with the pilot's mind and wouldn't lose the obtained information. Howard was well aware of the sentiments prevailing among the Alliance officers. More and more people were becoming aware of the senselessness of the interstellar slaughter, and there was a growing feeling of dislike for the whole situation. It was these contradictions that Howard Faragney wanted to sow in the Maverick's artificial souls. He gave them a chance to absorb human thoughts so that they would be infected by doubts about the war, as a way of solving the accumulated problems.
He didn't know what this step would lead to but he hoped, desperately hoped that this approach would change something...
Faragney's motives were simple.
Howard knew that one of the likely outcomes of the Galactic War was complete destruction of the human civilization. He knew that oftentimes only the machines survived the technological hell of battle.
He could not stop the war himself. The hatred felt by each side was so great that neither the politicians nor the soldiers even considered the possibility of a truce and a search for compromises. The new generation born during the war weren't raised on propaganda they were the children of destroyed cities, of perished planets, and nobody had to instill the hate they felt towards the enemy—they were already brimming with it.
The war had quietly and stealthily crossed a fatal boundary.
Howard couldn't imagine how the modern forces could stop the bloody madness of the interstellar conflict so he decided to create a way. Faragney swore to himself that he would subtly improve the Mavericks, gradually releasing onto the production lines of the Alliance military-industrial complex AI modules capable of storing not only the pilot's combat experience but also their soul.
Perhaps they would stop the war once they realized that the interplanetary carnage was leading to nothing but mutual destruction...
'No, I didn't do enough. Too little, too late.' He thought anxiously, pacing in his narrow office.
He wasn't thinking of 'saving his soul' or 'clearing his conscience' right then.
There comes a day when each person wakes up and looks at reality with different eyes.
Some earlier, some later, but better late than never, right?

* * *
Yunona. Two days later. 

Howard Faragney's appearance at the Gamma-4 testing ground caused a bit of a stir among the people. The machines remained indifferent to the visit, only noting that the testing ground was being visited by an official with the highest access status for the first time.
It was going to be an unusual day. Howard himself was surprised when he spotted the personal flybot of Admiral Kupanov, commander of the Seventh Strike Fleet, on the parking lot in front of the administrative building.
They knew of each other but had never met face-to-face.
After shaking hands, both men glanced away, as if both the admiral and the colonel had something to hide that day.
"New machines?" Kupanov asked, pointing to the rows of Hoplites and Phalangers standing ready for testing. The pilots looked like bugs next to the massive servomachines.
"Not only." Faragney replied calmly. He wasn't going to reveal the true purpose of his visit to the admiral so a half-truth came in handy,
"Not just the machines but also a new Maverick model."
"Oh, I see." The admiral nodded and seemed at once reassured. "I'm here to observe. I won't get in your way, I'm curious to see the capabilities of the upgraded mechanisms."
Faragney nodded and thought, 'You haven't come here for the tech, Admiral.' 
He didn't say anything out loud, however, simply crossed the barrier and headed directly for the line of pilots the same boys and girls that walked uncertainly to the barracks several days ago.
The captain instructing them spoke sharply but not rudely, "...I think that after spending three days on Yunona, you've realized that this is your adult life. I have nothing to teach you, you've all passed the preliminary selections based on your competition results in virtual reality. Many of you probably aren't even aware that you could potentially teach the experienced servopilots a thing or two. That's a fact. So, nothing new. The same neurosensory contact, the same sensation of melding with the mechanism, except for one significant addition. Now the Maverick modules installed on your machines have a feedback function and it's..."
"It's a matter of trust." Said Faragney, sweeping aside the surprised captain.
An awkward silence ensued. Only a few people with top security clearance knew what the Maverick's chief designer looked like but Faragney had broken the rules himself.
Standing in front of the line, he said quietly but clearly, "I'm one of the people who not only created the machines themselves but also the Beatrice-4 series of the Maverick module. Listen to me carefully and try to remember: Beatrice-4 is more than a set of independent behavior programs. This version of the Maverick is a fully-fledged AI. As you should all hopefully know, it's impossible to program such a system. It can only learn. Therefore, I'll say this again what's new is the question of mutual trust between the AI and the pilot's mind. If you don't trust each other, if you don't share responsibilities, or worse, ignore each other, you won't survive on the modern battlefield.
Someone will ask me now, why do we need an AI with a real pilot and why does the Maverick need a pilot? Right?"
Nobody spoke.
"You haven't yet asked yourself these questions, I understand. But they will inevitably arise, right here during testing."
Faragney cleared his throat and continued, "I will tell you the truth   Beatrice-4 was created to not only learn combat techniques but also other human qualities. High command doesn't want the war to reach a stage where both sides fight against each other using machines without a drop of humanity in them." He was lying but the lie came easily because he was simply telling these youngsters the truth. His truth, something that he had understood a long time ago, before Herpack's sharp words, a truth born in the dead silence of the bunker and brought to life in the Beatrice series. A lie to save these teenagers. If they believe him and don't reject the Maverick, don't push their own "I" to the fore, they'll survive, they'll definitely survive. For the capabilities of a combat unit where the cyber system complements the human mind are practically unlimited.
Faragney spoke easily although he understood that not everyone would understand him and not everyone would believe him. Not everyone would return from the fighting but no matter the outcome of the war, the AI modules would preserve a piece of their consciousness, their soul, their thoughts...
Then he felt sad. Sad and hurt because the half-truth didn't save their lives, it only delayed the time of their death.
Howard realized this as he became absorbed in enumerating the numerous threats of high-tech space battles. 'It's hell.' His mind repeated. 'Why have I come here? To persuade them that they could walk through hell? What a fool I am...'
But he couldn't take his words back. Fuddling the last few sentences, he stepped aside and gestured for the captain to continue, but the man only waved his hand, Let's roll!, believing that the chief designer had spoken better and more clearly than he could have.
Admiral Kupanov didn't hear the speech. He was eagerly awaiting the start of the combat trials, wanting to personally assess the pilots that had been recommended to him as the best albeit with no real combat experience, but the best according to the test results. Only a few of the experienced servomachine pilots could compete with them.
Kupanov didn't just want aces, he wanted the best of the best. There was only one thing that the admiral failed to mention how dangerous the upcoming mission would be, for which he planned to select two dozen of yesterday's children.

* * *
The teenagers ascending the ladders to the servomachine airlocks in that moment weren't thinking about war and death at all.
Being the recent inhabitants of Earth's deserted megacities, somewhat reckless, somewhat rash, not yet familiar with real hardships, they viewed life differently than the admiral and the chief designer.
Their childhood and adolescence ended a long time ago when their parents died, when the cities grew empty, and when the world seemed gray, dismal and devoid of any sense.
None of them had received death notifications. Their parents were considered alive somewhere out there, in the inky blackness of space that had engulfed almost the entire population of the Solar System.
Mutual trust... high-tech combat... to hell with all these unnecessary and rather confusing discussions when direct neurosensory contact with VR, which imitated the very planets that their parents were fighting for, was the only type of competitive drive and the only form of entertainment to kill time and boredom available to them.
'What were they blabbering on about? If the path to a better life lay through a servomachine cabin, then no worries.' Simon sat down in the piloting chair, checked that the safety belts were strapped on securely in a familiar gesture, and then turned on the implant transmitters.
Good morning, pilot. All systems ready. Effective scanning zone is clear.
The voice that appeared in his mind was clearly female and Simon's imagination even managed to outline the vague but tempting contours of her body before his mind reacted automatically,
'Who are you? Are you Beatrice?'
Yes, I am the Beatrice-4 artificial intelligence system. I can change the tone of my voice if you so prefer. By the way, you're free to invent your own name for me.
'Cool. That's probably one thing that the servomachine simulator lacked – an e-girlfriend.'
I am not a girlfriend. I am your combat companion.
Simon grinned.
You're not a man and I'm not a woman. He'd heard a similar phrase somewhere before. 'Well, let's see. Of course, the question of 'mutual trust' probably implies emotional closeness.'
I can read your thoughts, pilot. You can restrict the flow of data that I perceive to only direct commands.
'No. This is fine. Today's going to be hot...'
The outside temperature is 18 degrees Celsius.
'Man, they've really stuffed up there.' Thought Simon. 'Look, my 'combat companion', you've got to remember one thing – if you're going to be friends with me, you've got to learn some slang.'
'I will download the specialized dictionaries at the first opportunity.' Replied the soft, disembodied voice.
'I bet she's got red hair,' Simon thought as he started moving to the first control point.
Neither he nor Verkholin, whom Green had become friends with over the last few days, had any idea that the most important choice of their lives was being made in these minutes.
Although it wasn't their choice but Admiral Kupanov's.

Chapter 2.

Planet Yunona. Training and information center of the Alliance aerospace troops.

They were all given a day's rest, then in a festive, almost pompous atmosphere, which clashed with the widespread mourning due to John Hammer's death, the recruits were promoted to the rank of lieutenant.
The next morning, the new officers were asked to go to the information center straight after breakfast.
"Here is our new trump card in planetary combat."
The holographic screen glowed dimly, showing a spacecraft model.
"The new generation Nibelung 12MT assault carrier." Announced the sound system in the lecture hall. The model of the ship began to enlarge, zooming in on individual components and units. "We took into account a decade of military action when modifying the basic model." Continued the disembodied voice. "Note the planetary thrust engines with a variable vector. Rotating cradles have been used in their construction, which allows the ship to not only maneuver freely in the atmosphere but also use the 'autohover' function above a certain point on the surface. The enhanced weapons on the underside, in particular, the two additional missile batteries and the plasmagenerators ensure that ground and space defenses are eliminated in the landing zones. The principles of servomachine air assault have also changed. In the past, servomachines were only released using ramps after the assault carrier had landed on the planet, but now every machine will be placed in a separate container with its own armor plating and a system of landing engines. The containers with the servomachines can thus be ejected while still in the air as the assault carrier continues to provide cover fire, which significantly reduces the percentage of losses.
Listening to the pleasant female voice, Lieutenant Simon grew more and more gloomy.
He tried to imagine what it would be like to plummet down from a kilometer height in an armored metal coffin, while under fire from ground batteries.
He wanted to curse loudly from what his imagination presented him with but he controlled himself.
"Each autonomous landing container is disposable and is equipped with a shock-absorption system. The landing stall includes one autonomous technical support servomechanism, in addition, a reserve ammunition store is kept in an isolated and padded cell in the upper part of the container. If the assault carrier is destroyed, the servomachines have two autonomous onboard ammunition recharges available to them."
"Yeah, that's really reassuring, asshole..." Hissed someone from the back.
The lecture hall's cyber system ignored the comment.

* * *
12 August 2624. 
Captain Tavgalov's group. 
Aboard the flagship cruiser Apostle.

They were only given ten minutes before the start to find out their mission orders.
The fighters in their armored suits lined up along a fluorescent line. The space cruiser's internal assembly area right now resembled a disturbed anthill, with humans and machines hurrying to and fro, enormous mechanisms replacing the starting plates on which stood the new generation assault carriers, fighters and assault aircraft being dragged to the launch shafts of the electromagnetic catapults, while loud, hissing sounds came from the multi-tonne sealing gates as the cruiser prepared for battle.
It was roughly the same on all the other decks and compartments of the smaller fleet units. The convoy and missile carriers, powerful assault frigates and nimble assault corvettes were all preparing for battle but the first strike would be carried out by the ridiculously small (from the point of view of large-scale space conflicts) forces: one assault module supported by seven Nibelung assault carriers.
Their goal was to land covertly on the planet protected by three space defense echelons.
When Andrey Tavgalov was first told the details of the upcoming mission, he honestly wondered, 'Has Fleet Command gone completely mad?' but when he dared to voice this question, the Chief of Staff's reaction to these bold words was unexpectedly subdued, even fatherly,
"Captain, you're mistaken if you think that a whole servobattalion and a space special forces unit are being sent to certain death. I'm not talking about the genuinely dangerous and risky phase of the planetary operation, which will indeed be very difficult and will depend wholly on the professionalism of the fighters, yours in particular. But in terms of getting through the enemy's detection systems you have nothing to worry about. You're being airdropped from brand new spacecraft that are equipped with the latest-model phantom generators[2]. The Mirage complex will ensure a bloodless landing."
Andrey only shrugged his shoulders in response. He didn't believe in a 'bloodless' landing on a well-protected planet.
"Technology doesn't stand still, Captain." Said the Navy's Chief of Staff in a lecturing voice. "I'm not authorized to disclose the device's construction features but if it makes you feel any better it was tested under the most demanding conditions and has demonstrated full functionality." The vague statements did nothing to reassure Tavgalov, although he knew that he wasn't going to get anything more specific. Firstly, a commander of a military reconnaissance and sabotage group was not supposed to know the design features or principles of the secret equipment. The risk that he would be captured and interrogated using drugs that he could not withstand was too great. Secondly, he probably wouldn't even understand anything...
"The initial stage of ground operation depends entirely on the actions of your group, Captain." The Chief of Staff continued. "By our calculations, you will land deep behind enemy lines, in one of the three largest RW bases. You will have the element of surprise for the first few minutes. The assault carriers will carry out atmospheric maneuvering and land the servobattalion under the cover of the phantom generators, which will engage the enemy's defenses. In the meantime, your group will need to go deep down into the bunker zone and free the captive pilots."
"Let's say we succeed," Tavgalov said. "What then?"
"You return to the surface with the freed pilots. They will need to be brought to the servomachine hangars, where the captured Alliance technology is kept for testing. According to our intelligence, most of the captured machines are in a satisfactory condition, so the next phase of the operation will be to hold the perimeter of the RW base until the technical support servomechanisms from the Nibelungs prepare the equipment. After completing the absolutely necessary technical procedures, the reactivated machines will swell the ranks of the servobattalion. By holding the RW base perimeter, you will distract the enemy and force them to shift their military equipment, thus weakening the defense of other sites.
"Orbital support?" Tavgalov asked drily.
"The fleet's strike force will leave the hypersphere only after the RW base has been captured and the captured tech reactivated. You don't need to know any more than that, Captain. It's a difficult task but it is doable."
"Is the servobattalion commander aware of my group's mission?"
"No. He has orders to hold the RW base perimeter. Unnecessary information before landing can be harmful. I'm counting on you, Captain. If you do what you're supposed to, the enemy will be forced to give up the planet."

* * *
It took over his muscles, the result of combat stimulants added to the nervous tension before battle. It was a hellish cocktail that would soon turn into a sensation of incredible drive, when the mind becomes calm and clear and the body is filled with energy...
Tavgalov gave a curt order, "Take your places in the assault module. In pairs go!"
The ramp dropping down like the maw of a mythical beast opened up to meet them, swallowing the tiny humans in their armored suits...
The smooth, rhythmic work of the activators for the servomachine's giant legs.
The agitation in the human muscles is not passed on to the servomotors but the Maverick feels the pilot's internal state.
"Anton?" The soft female voice. They say it brings the pilot and the AI closer.
Beatrice-4. The technological breakthrough in the creation of an AI. Nobody calls it an 'independent behavior software package' anymore. Beatrice is something more. Anton hasn't yet decided who she is – his guardian angel or a demon waiting for his death?
You misjudge me. That's stereotypical thinking.
'How else am I supposed to think before my first battle?' Why did High Command throw our battalion, consisting of two-thirds of newbie pilots who had just completed their training on Yunona, into this dangerous mission?
Are we so expendable? Don't they value us at all? Or they don't want to lose the experienced pilots?
Even though these thoughts were subjectively fair, he was in fact wrong.
They were the most experienced pilots. It was hard to believe but it was due to those free virtual reality booths generously installed all over Earth's megacity. None of the teenagers ever wondered how many hours, which then added up to days, months and years, they spent in direct neurosensory contact with exact virtual copies of the real servomachines.
VR is the best tool against boredom and when the range of simulations isn't all that big and the Game requires a mandatory neurosensory connection between mind and machine, what is the result by the time the teenagers reach adulthood?
The new generation growing up during the war tried to escape the boredom in games and a younger mind likes to compete, especially when death just meant being kicked out of the game.
A war game that has suddenly become reality, wild and untamed, where man-made hell really exists and reloading isn't possible.
Verkholin's Phalanger, making the prelaunch assembly area plates shake with its measured tread, turned to the Nibelung standing in the center of a marking circle.
The assault carrier was waiting for him, a towering lump of armor with the boarding ramps of the individual landing modules open underneath.
'Everything will be fine, Anton.' The voice was very soothing, he wanted to believe it, to trust his skills and to feel with every cell of his body the power that would obey his will.
The Phalanger stepped inside the detachable landing module, turned around, squatted by slightly bending its legs, and the numerous parts of the shock-absorbing frame began to link up around it, securing the huge servomachine.
The armored ramp door was the last to move.
Cutting off the light and the bustle of the assembly area, it closed like a...
Inappropriate analogy, Anton.
'Agreed. Just be quiet for a while, okay?'
He couldn't stop shaking.
Bare minutes before landing, he was suddenly struck by the belated but true understanding of reality.
His generation had already developed a false and relaxed attitude to war.
If the games that they played for 10-12 hours per day, forgetting to eat and sleep, seemed like an engrossing pastime, which never got boring due to the creativeness of the 'pilots' themselves, who learned how to make the tasks more complicated (for examples, by agreeing to restrict heavy weapons or even by dueling with just two shells for both guns), they never got such a rush of adrenaline, no matter how tense and sophisticated the fights got.
The landing hadn't even started and Simon was already sick of these stressful emotions.
They felt particularly acute when the Nibelung lifted from the starting plate of the cruiser's internal spaceport and launched into open space.
It wasn't even a chill that he felt but true weightlessness, then the ship jolted and began the long acceleration.
Simon closed his eyes as he tried to imagine his cozy, familiar, sweat-smelling VR cabin.
Nope. It didn't work. The trembling came back in waves while changes in the thrust vectors and the hollow, rhythmic scattering of vibrations from the working rocket launchers and the vacuum guns indicated the true state of affairs: the assault carriers was breaking through the enemy planetary defenses and it was all happening for real, with his body reacting to the familiar (from the VR suit) sensations in a completely different way.
You're alone, Simon. You're completely alone. In a few seconds, the landing container will detach from the assault carrier and you'll start falling from a mysterious height into the complete unknown. That strange man in the testing area was right, there'll be no reloading. Then came other, even more piercing thoughts that nobody had ever had earlier (or so Simon thought).
Where were their parents?
Why were they lying and saying that their parents were exploring some mythical colonies? If that was the case, why had they forgotten about their own children and never wrote to them, not even a brief message or a stereoshot?
The truth was glaring at him, as if a curtain had been whipped away and the fog of propaganda lifted from his mind.
They're dead. The war devoured them.
Now it's your turn, Simon.
My God, and they had invented difficulties for themselves by taking the Phalangers on a 'deadly duel' with only one or two shells. What idiots...
The Nibelung entered the dense layers of the atmosphere and the smooth acceleration in space gave way to shaking. The missile systems were working on targets that Simon couldn't see, not pausing for even a second, with one battery firing while the other one reloaded, and even 'hardened' as he was by VR, Green had trouble imagining what was actually happening in the landing zone.
A shot in the neck made him wince.
'You're overexcited. I have given you a combat metabolic agent.'
"Hey there, redhead. Why were you quiet before?"
'You hadn't asked me anything.'
"But you can read my thoughts?"
The question of mutual trust... like that weird dude said... Who else am I going to trust?
Angry warning lights, an impact blow, a few moments of zero gravity in free fall and then a sudden and intense G-force as the landing module's engines switched on.
It's begun.
Now it's truly begun.

* * *
Aboard the cruiser Apostle. 

The stress felt on the cruiser's battle bridge during those minutes was no less intense than in the minds of the strike group.
All the details of the upcoming operation had been calculated down to the tiniest detail, analyzed hundreds of times by humans and cyber systems, but nevertheless, a number of 'ifs' present in the daring plan could bring all that careful planning to naught.
They were using new technology that hadn’t stepped off the testing ground before.
It was being controlled by the most experienced and reckless pilots who would have their first brush with death.
So much depended on them, these young boys and girls, whose training was better than any of the famous aces. But would they survive the emotional pressure of this battle?
The best military psychologists were working on this problem. They had selected just twenty out of two hundred candidates and each subunit was headed by an experienced officer. The new Beatrice-4 systems possessed a psychological adaptation module, which allowed them to find points of emotional contact in the pilot's mind, basically manipulating the humans using their innermost thoughts.
None of the senior officers of the Seventh Fleet, standing on Aurora's battle bridge, asked themselves the most important question: what was it all for? For what lofty goals were the lives and souls of these teenagers cast into hell?
Each person thought about the details of the upcoming operation and none of them thought about the war itself.
Admiral Kupanov looked at the tactical monitor projected above the smooth surface of the tactical complex.
The planet.
The orbits and positions of enemy units defending a former colony from the Great Exodus, rediscovered during the war and transformed into an enormous testing ground.
This was where the weapons of retaliation were forged, this was where the captured AI modules were studied, and deep down in the bunkers, specialized cyber complexes were developing effective ways to fight against servomachines, the main striking force of the Alliance.
The research must be stopped, the planet cleaned up, and the colonies must not be allowed to create such bases again.
But how could the fleet carry out the mission set before it when the planet was being protected by a flagship cruiser of the Free Colonies, carrying the Light annihilation installation on board?
It would turn any armada into radiation as soon as the Alliance ships left the hypersphere and re-entered normal space.
This heavy unit had to be neutralized by putting the Colonies' cruiser into a position when it couldn't use the annihilation device.
Admiral Kupanov's plan was based on knowledge of the peculiarities of the enemy cruiser's weapons. They had to create such a hotspot of action on the planet surface that the planetary defense command could not ignore it, to make the threat so significant that carpet bombing from low orbit would become the only way to stop the ground invasion.
As soon as the enemy cruiser approached the planet, the numerous small ships and space defense stations in high orbit would lie between it and the suddenly appeared Alliance fleet.
It would be impossible to use the Light installation in such circumstances, and the cruiser would become vulnerable to an attack by an armada of assault ships and fighters.

* * *
The Anchor System. 
12 August 2624. 
Seven o'clock in the morning.  

The first use of the Mirage phantom generator complex in the history of the war had been thoroughly prepared and based on many scientific discoveries.
The new Mirage complex worked by imitating signatures. Back in the time of the Great Exodus, a wide variety of sensors and devices had been created for planetary exploration, which could determine the structure of objects without approaching them too closely. Later on, similar designs were used in the development of the Amethyst military scanning complexes, which analyzed not only the physical structure but also the energy emitted by objects. Any spaceship or ground-based machine, as well as underground structures, consume energy and produce excess heat, while various devices, particularly power plants, energy and cyber circuits, inevitably produce so-called parasitic radiation, which can't always be fully contained.
Both sides had various versions of the Amethyst military scanning complex, which worked primarily with energy distribution maps (also called signatures) that were unique for every artificial object, and only secondly with its visual image.
The Alliance intelligence had determined that transport convoys were periodically arriving in the Anchor System and delivering captured servomachines to the planet.
The Nibelungs' phantom generators were configured to closely imitate the transport ship signatures for the daring push through the planetary defenses.
The operation was to be carried out in two stages. First, the real transport convoy was attacked by the air assault modules directly within the hypersphere, which was an unheard-of maneuver in that time. Next, the seven Nibelungs, moving under the cover of the Mirage system, exited the space anomaly in the Anchor System instead of the destroyed transports.
Captain Tavgalov group's air assault module was in the middle of the formation, having turned off all energy-consuming systems. A large transport container had been chosen as its masking signature.
The task was made significantly easier by the fact that the convoys were delivering Alliance tech to the planet, and the presence of the Thirteenth Battalion servomachine signatures didn't unmask the fake 'convoy' but rather fit the specifications of the expected delivery contents.

The pale, ghostly hyperjump flash cast the signatures and optical phantoms of seven transports towing a large container between them, into the metric of 3D space.
The reconnaissance group that visited Anchor had determined that the defense infrastructure was concentrated on the automatic nodal stations while the planet itself contained a multitude of testing grounds, factories, cyber labs and specialized manufacturing facilities, with hardly any people. The Free Colonies, exhausted by the fighting on many different fronts, were moving to total automation by learning from the Alliance and creating strongholds that did not require a constant human presence.
The new approach to creating planetary bases was completely justified since the main production facilities were tens of light years away on the Central World planets. Masses of invaluable information flowed from here on a daily basis and in response, requests for further research came back through the hypersphere channels.
All ground objects and underground bunkers were defended by machines that had passed field tests. The leadership of the Free Colonies knew that the war was moving to a new, even fiercer phase and would be impossible to win without the use of automated servomachines.
The story of Dabog was being mirrored here on Anchor – just like the Terran Alliance had urgently begun developing fundamentally new types of technology after suffering a crushing defeat, using the walking agricultural behemoths of the undefeated planet as a base, so now the Free Colonies studied the captured servomachines, creating their own version of the technology and installing an automatic control system into the famous Aquilas and Hawks. There was a catastrophic shortage of pilots and controls using sensory suits were rapidly becoming obsolete, giving way to direct sensory commands issued to the cyber system through a mental connection between human and machine.
The creation of new technology was a matter of life or death in these circumstances. In the Colonies' plan for a completely modernized fleet, humans would still have a leading role. They were planning to create automatic formations which would include a 'head machine' controlled by a live pilot.
At the moment, Anchor's testing grounds were testing technology based on captured units with the integrated Maverick modules and the more advanced Clemens-12 system, adapted for restricted freedom, when the cyber system only carried out actions issued by the leading machine.
The Colonies continued to avoid full automation on the battlefield, trying to keep the cybernetic genie in the bottle by all means possible.
The Nibelungs, masked by the Mirage complexes, began their approach to the planet.
The machines of the Thirteenth Servobattalion stood in their containers, their energy emissions at a minimum.
The uncertainty and the agonizing wait weighed heavily on the pilots but conversation was strictly forbidden, and everyone suffered through the hours of tedious maneuvering, inevitable on approach to a planet, alone in the company of their own thoughts.
It was quite an ordeal, especially knowing that a battle lay ahead of them, the likes of which had never been seen before.

The Nibelung cyber systems almost immediately began the challenging identification conversation with the control devices on the planetary defense installations.
A person landing in a hostile environment and knowing that their fleet's main forces were only preparing for a jump could easily freak out, but machines were indifferent to their own fate and felt neither nervousness nor fear, using information obtained from the onboard computers of the intercepted transports and relying on the protection of the phantom generators.
The same machines carried out the validation procedure at the other end.
It is human nature to doubt, for example, an operator's or duty officer's bad mood could lead to a tricky question but machines have no such weaknesses and thus lose the advantages of human thinking.
All they need is a complete match between the observed signatures and the previously known energy distribution maps, the right access codes to planetary space and the magnetic markers that are listed in the register.
The brief machine dialogue resulted in a safe approach corridor to the planet being assigned, and the 'transport convoy' continued its unimpeded movement towards Anchor.

After an hour and a half of maneuvering, the fake transports first reached the intermediate parking orbit and then began their descent into the dense atmospheric layers, carefully following the provided landing corridor.
Less than five kilometers remained to the planet's surface when the large 'container' being towed by the fake transports suddenly split away and began to plummet downwards, enveloped by the fire of the planetary thrust engines.
The cyber systems noted the unusual situation and immediately sent a query but didn't raise an alarm, for which they paid dearly. The seven transports, dropping the disguise provided by the phantom generators, suddenly displayed their true form as formidable assault carriers and simultaneously fired a volley from each of their upper and lower missile systems.
It looked as if the sky above Anchor's central RW base turned into the mouth of an erupting volcano. Heavy rockets burst out of dozens of launching tubes and shot into low orbit, destroying the control stations that provided constant ground monitoring and turning the navigation and communication satellites into a meteoric shower of fragments. The attack of the assault carriers was so sudden that some of the rocket warheads flew beyond the low orbit and struck two frigates in the Free Colonies squadron protecting the planet.
Chaos reigned on the command communication frequencies. The communication relays had been destroyed, the surprise attack had brought down the global control stations with two of them breaking up and the third remaining whole but losing its orbit and threatening to soon enter the dense layers of the atmosphere.
The volleys from the assault carrier's lower guns struck the ground targets, and hundreds of tonnes of earth, mixed with defense perimeter constructions and destroyed security servomechanisms, rose into the sky as mushroom-shaped clouds. The Nibelungs immediately changed course, entering the danger zone. They moved among the enormous spews, immediately disappearing off the screens of the remaining monitoring devices, and, at the same time, began releasing the servobattalion landing modules.
Ten seconds later, once all the assault module containers had been successfully released, the Nibelungs began to descend directly onto the RW base and continued their attack, dropping to a height of one kilometer and uncovering their short-life plasma generators.
The opening chords of the battle, which left a gash in the planetary defenses and destroyed most of the RW base's security perimeter, were actually only a prelude to the impending fight.

* * *
The planet Anchor.  
Captain Tavgalov's group. 

The air assault module dropped rapidly towards the churned-up earth.
The buildings seemed blurry since the Nibelungs' missile strike had thrown up tonnes of dust into the air, and the ensuing plasma charges turned the dust into an all-consuming firestorm.
Down below, the ground was burning, the reinforced concrete was melting, and the activated alarm systems were malfunctioning.
The RW base still retained its general outline but the captain's experience suggested that the ground facilities, like most of the first underground bunker level, were now nothing more than ruins...
"Everyone get ready." Tavgalov didn't need to say the standard phrase, the fighters had spent the last few hours waiting for any outcome and were desperate to land.
It is a person's right to choose the worst of all possible evils. They had been helpless in space, packed like sardines in a can, and if everything had gone wrong, they would have been destroyed without a chance to fight back. Now, these fighters had been given the opportunity to fight both for their lives and for the success of the operation as a whole.
The warning signals screeched alarmingly and the module shook as it touched down.
The opening ramp immediately revealed a flaming corner of a building, a piece of ragged and swirling sky and the silence of the landing compartment was filled with the sharp bark of the automatic tower guns sending long bursts into the smoky darkness.
The ground quaked but not from explosions anymore, rather from the nearby landings of the Thirteenth Servobattalion modules.
"In pairs, advance!"
Leaping into the smoky gloom, Captain Tavgalov immediately oriented himself using the CSC[3] information built into the combat helmet of the heavy armored suit. The rhythmical work of the muscle servoamplifiers seemed to fill him with energy and the fact that they had successfully reached the surface of the tightly 'sealed' planet felt like a miracle, but the captain knew that miracles didn't exist and if they did, then only within the boundaries of advanced technology.
"Watch the entrance to the bunker zone." The hoarseness in Tavgalov's voice nevertheless gave away the strain he felt. "Narimov and Skobin – provide access, everyone else spread out and take up a defense position."
Good timing.
The assault module guns didn't pause for even a second and the scanners sent streams of information about the approaching enemy to the CSC projection visor. Despite the overwhelming element of surprise, there was almost no time left as all around them, as if materializing from the gloomy haze, ominous markers began appearing in a tightening noose. They were machines that had survived the missile fire and had turned themselves towards the 'nearest target' and could be identified as PCVs[4], four Aquilas and then, a few seconds later, the target monitor added a dozen infantry droids and even two captured Phalangers.
'So much for the landing.' Flashed the angry thought.
"Attention, six servomachines within the scanning radius. Norlock's group, they're yours."
Lieutenant Norlock headed the unit equipped with heavy, portable missile complexes, which were brand new and had never been tested in real combat as a weapon against multi-tonne servomechanisms.
Where are our folks? Why is the servoformation taking such a long time to turn around?
The seconds ticked away. Tavgalov was under no illusions and knew that the breakthrough would be harsh, but without the support of the servobattalion, they would not survive the few minutes required for the demolition team to clear a path into the bunker zone.
The smoke coiled into tight whirlwinds and, thankfully, impeded the enemy's laser installations. The coating on the armored suits had also kept them alive so far, but no camouflage would help if the servomachines walked another 500 meters.
The cover that the fighters were hiding behind wouldn't protect them from servomachine volleys.
'Where are our folk?' The thought pulsed in his mind.
The gloom of this artificial hell was suddenly illuminated by pale blue flashes of plasma and an iridescent glow lit up the sky, similar to the Northern Lights. It was the Nibelung batteries striking their targets and the enemy servomachine signatures began to melt and turn gray in color, clearly indicating the destruction of their armored coating.

In the moment of the plasma strike, Lieutenant Norlock and two other fighters had already assumed a position in a semi-destroyed ground dwelling.
One of the walls had been blown out by the explosion, and immediately beyond it lay a gigantic crater that had partially swallowed up several rooms of the first bunker level. The covering slabs had cracked from the missile strike and stuck out at different angles.
A fire smoldered below and acrid smoke spread over the surrounding area, but the fighters ignored the continuing explosions and rushed to the shattered windows, setting up their Prometheus combat complex on a launch platform.
The plasma strike, which their combat processor warned them about, turned the airborne mixture of earth and dust into a firestorm, where everything was burning: a wall of flames raced through the ruins, and the servomachine outlines turned gray and dim on the target monitors. They didn't care about the fire, of course, but some of assault carriers' plasma generators were hitting direct targets and not the general area.
"The servomachines are cooked and served." Norlock darted to the volley fire system, noting as he did so that the building's reinforced concrete, softened by the hellish temperatures, was beginning to sag dangerously overhead.
Only three PCVs remained on the target monitor, racing along the churned-up street towards the servobattalion's landing zone.
He launched the automatic firing program with a few taps of the sensors and simultaneously gave an order,
"Everyone leave the building! Find cover outside the overhead construction won't stand Prometheus' fire!"
Giant flakes of soot spiraled over the street like a black snowstorm.
Norlock rushed to the nearest building with some surviving walls but he barely had enough time to hide behind a corner when the target monitor flashed five new signatures onto his projection visor. The unidentified mechanisms, which were not listed in his database, flashed for a second and then disappeared, but they had enough time to spot the prepared trap and transmit the information to the PCV cyber systems.
The street was immediately bisected by a wall of explosions as shells fired by the tower guns of the planetary combat vehicles tore down the corner of the building containing Prometheus, then ripped diagonally across the street and turned the corner of the building where Norlock was hiding into a pile of rubble.
The Lieutenant was hit in the back and a sharp pain spread through his body, together with a dazzling burst of flame. Norlock fell down and automatically attempted to get back up but the suit's servomusculature would not obey the suddenly weak muscles.
He was out of time.
The lieutenant's fading gaze saw three enemy vehicles crawl onto the hill formed from the building debris, their weapons fired again, and someone's dying scream echoed in the communicator. Suddenly, despite the painful feeling of encroaching death, Prometheus struck from the collapsing and awkwardly leaning building.
The rockets burned through the armor of the planetary tanks, and a second later, the powerful internal explosions threw the gun towers of two PCVs on either side into the air, while the third one in the center sustained two direct hits and turned into a giant torch.
Norlock began to slip out of consciousness.
He only had time to feel surprise that death was not as frightening as he had imagined.
It was only that the fountains of molten metal and roaring flame a few dozen meters away from him began to recede, turning into flickering candlelight that shone tenderly against the backdrop of universal darkness.

Tavgalov took the lieutenant's death very hard. He wasn't expecting to land without any losses but...
Shmelev's long-awaited report interrupted his morbid thoughts, "The battalion has landed. There were no casualties. Let us know the cover coordinates, Captain."
"You're too late, Major. We've managed by ourselves. The landing zone is clear."
"Any losses?"
"Yes. The covering fire group is whole. I have four fighters left."

Aboard the cruiser Apostle. 

"Admiral, the intelligence team is reporting that Tavgalov's group has landed."
"Excellent. What about the servobattalion?"
"The data is incomplete but a fight is underway in the landing zone using heavy weapons."
"What is the response from the enemy ships?"
"They're remaining in the same positions for the moment. They're protecting the planet against a possible strike from space."
"We wait. Be ready to perform a hyperjump. Keep me informed of any changes in the situation."

* * *
The planet Anchor. The Thirteenth Servobattalion. 

The dispersal area of the servomachine landing modules didn't exceed two kilometers. This was the minimum distance required to prevent the planetary engines of the detaching compartments from affecting each other during landing.
The roaring plasma acted as a heavy weapon and the landing of a servobattalion, consisting of thirty-five units, looked like the apocalypse. The planetary engines vaporized the thin, masking earth layer and burned through the reinforced concrete slabs. The temperature inside the upper levels of the bunker zone was climbing rapidly and muddy geysers of smoke and superheated air shot up from the ventilation shafts, adding to the incessant rocket explosions as the assault carriers hit all targets detected within a radius of thirty kilometers from the landing zone.
Thanks to the latest camouflage technology and the carefully calculated operation, the worst thing that could have happened to a commander responsible for planetary defense was taking place the assault carriers had passed through low orbit without a single shot being fired and have unleashed their firepower on the ground infrastructure.
A thick black cloud enveloped the landing zone and the surrounding territory. Soot swirled in the air, mixing with the clouds of debris from the numerous explosions, illuminated from below by more and more hits. The cloud grew upwards and outwards, covering an area of about one hundred square kilometers. In such conditions, not a single orbital cyber system could accurately determine the enemy numbers and their own losses among the ground defense units.
The Nibelungs switched to plasma generation mode to avoid burning their precious fuel, and having used up all their ammunition, began to rapidly rise towards the border of the swirling mushroom cloud.
Nobody could predict their movement. Usually, the assault carriers landed close to the servomachine positions, providing them with additional covering fire, reloading and minor repairs, but everything was different this time. It was as if all previous textbooks on planetary battle tactics were being cast into the flames.
Rising to a height of eleven kilometers, the assault carriers took advantage of the chaos in the lower orbits and switched their phantom generators back on, thus creating a simple but highly effective trap. Colonel Gorelov, commander of the formation, had carefully calculated the enemy's actions. Considering the torn chain of ground defense, where only scattered gun posts were currently resisting the servomachines, the only way of seizing initiative and disrupting the servomachine attack to finish them off was a massive space fighter strike.
The Nibelungs switched on their geostationary maneuvering mode while at the edge of the cloud and their cyber systems calculated the position of the enemy spaceships as well as the atmospheric entry points for the space fighters.
They appeared abruptly, ten clusters growing rapidly in size. The Nibelungs dropped lower and almost immediately, all the upper guns were lit up with flashes of volley fire.
Some of the fighters exploded into pieces, the direct rocket hits from such short range left no time for evasive maneuvers and the fragments burning up in the atmosphere damaged the neighboring fighters. All this lasted for 10-15 seconds and ended with a massive plasmagenerator burst after which the assault carriers again dropped steeply towards the planet, reloading their guns and missile systems.

* * *
Anchor. High orbit. 

Utter chaos reigned on the bridge of the cruiser Elliot.
Admiral Ipatov, flagship commander of the defense squadron, was experiencing the worst minutes of his life.
The Alliance assault carriers, having sneaked past the aerospace defense barriers, now calmly and confidently crushed all resistance, using the tactical advantage they had obtained.
Sergey couldn't help but admit that his opponent displayed a high level of professionalism, however, this mental admission did not change the complexity of the situation.
Over the past fifteen minutes, the RW base ground defense network had been destroyed, forty-three space fighters had been lost, and the unified structure of the space defense complexes had been disrupted. It was a crippling blow but the element of surprise, which had allowed the enemy to inflict so much damage, had already passed.
Despite all the interferences for the scanners, the specialists of the squadron protecting Anchor had managed to determine the size and composition of the enemy troops.
Seven Nibelungs had landed a servobattalion onto the planet, which consisted of 30 to 35 machines; plus the landing module.
What were they hoping to do? Capture the planet? Impossible. They lacked the forces for that. The chaos over the information networks would calm down and then what would save the troops from complete and instant destruction?
The squadron's Head of the Analytical Department appeared beside the admiral.
"What are they planning? I need to understand the logic behind the servobattalion's activities!"
"The central RW base contains ninety-eight captured servomachines, including forty-two Phalangers."
"I don't understand. Fine, there are servomachines down there. So? Where are the pilots and the ammunition?" Sergey hadn't yet recovered from the moral blow and reacted with irritated suspicion to the report. "Go on, Colonel, say it like it is. Where are they going to get the pilots?"
"It's all there..." Dolmatov whispered.
"Meaning?" The admiral's face contorted with horror.
"The head of the RW bases and the Research Department informed us last night that large-scale exercises were being planned using new technology models developed to withstand the servomachines."
A blow. Another devastating information blow. How was this possible?! So the enemy knew about the upcoming tests and I didn't?!
"Okay... okay..." Ipatov pulled himself together with some difficulty. "I see. Real military exercises. There are machines and ammunition down there, theoretically ready to take the enemy's side. But who is going to control them?"
"The pilots, sir. Enemy pilots."
"They were brought to the planet without informing me?"
"No. They've already been here for several years."
The head of the Analytical Department was clearly keeping something back... or perhaps he didn't know.
"Has contact been established with the surface?"
"Give me the outline of the planned exercises or the combat tests... whatever they are. All information about the planetary technology to be sent to my terminal. I'm taking over command of the ground forces!"

[1] RW robotic weapons.
[2] Phantom generator a device that generates optical illusions and fake signatures, also used to create masking fields. The term 'signature' refers to any configured energy field (more often, a sum of different fields) which can be associated with the radiant energy of a material object. Military and civilian identification systems have the concept of a 'signature map', which means the characteristic (previously known) energy distributions which correspond to the work of certain mechanisms or their complexes. An example of a complex signature could be the characteristic energy distribution emitted by a spaceship with working onboard systems.

[3] CSC (combat scanning complex)—a metallic Kevlar half-helmet with an armored visor, which acts as a projection screen for data output from the scanners. Equipped with a thermal imaging system, laser range scope, inbuilt processor, RAM and wireless ports. With an optical cable, it can be connected directly to ranged weapons, transmitting the point of impact to the projection screen and calculating the barrel displacement in real time.

[4] PCV planetary combat vehicle.

Release - October 22

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