In the Crosshairs, part 4

Part 4 in an attempted ongoing story loosely set in the Orion’s Arm universe. Hoping to avert another attack, Bertrand dyson strikes the enemy’s leadership.

The great Orion arm of the Milky Way rose in perfect silence in the window of Café Alesia. Four beings gathered around what had become known as the Round Table.

“I thought you were a cryptosavant,” Jarrett shouted at a hulking lizard-man. “So far, we’ve decrypted only a single Korwen transmission, and Boustrophedon did that, not you!”

Gabeta’s facial scales turned dark green in annoyance. “If Bertrand’s computer systems were not stranded in the Paleolithic Age, I would enjoy more success,” came his deep rumbling reply.

“Marshall Gnawsa,” interrupted Shakti, “have I congratulated you on your recent promotion?”

With her anteater tongue, Gnawsa skewered the furry black lump on her plate. It squealed briefly in protest, but did not move.

“No congratulations are warranted,” Gnawsa blinked to them over a common frequency. Her vocal translator was turned off for mealtime. “Bertrand’s defenses are softer than my meal’s innards, and will present even less resistance to our enemy.” She hungrily slurped up the bodily fluids from her meal. Jarrett, the only human at the table, turned faintly green. “Not one of the hundred-thousand troops under my command would qualify as combat-ready on my world.”

“We’re a peaceful people,” he said defensively. “We have no concept of combat. But Boustrophedon is one of the best administrators in this system. With his strategic vision, I’m confident our forces will be adequate against the Korwen threat.”

The constant barrage of information was overwhelming. If he were human, he would have screamed. As it was, he bounced off the walls of his computronium prison.

He was Boustrophedon. He was renowned on two dozen worlds as a competent and efficient administrator.

Powerplant utilization 43.05% and trending upward at 0.0003% per second.

Routine security check of industrial zone 37A — no suspicious activity detected.

He had kept the information trade flowing through the brokerage center at Atropos after a higher transapient administrator suffered a stress-related breakdown.

Urgent from Ardennes Radio Telescope Array: intercept of encrypted enemy transmissions suggest incoming hostile action.

Hydro recycler 78 will be offline for 90 minutes for routine maintenance.

He had negotiated a peace settlement between the Seven Factions on Grimoire, a world totally neglected by the lesser angels of the AI Gods.

Visitor visa #117334388 “Shakti” renewal automatically approved.

Intermittent sensor readings from air recycler #3437. Estimate less than 3600 seconds to failure.

On one world, he himself was worshiped as a minor deity.

Air samplers report elevated methane emissions in farm #43: 1950 ppb and rising.

Known Net router 3b23.bf6c.c7d9.43be.b18b.e5f7.592c.66c6 has lost connection. Reconnecting… (Attempt 54709 of unlimited)

Yet here on Bertrand dyson, a ragtag gang of lo-tech vecs armed with crude mining tools had beaten him. “No, not beaten,” he thought to himself. “Humiliated.” These Korwen miners had slipped past his defenses time and again, wiped out any resistance, and made their escape after encountering only limited resistance.

Routine security check of zone EQ77 — suspicious gathering of outsiders noted.

IR flare detected. Possible enemy launch. Distance estimated at 20 light-minutes.

Boustrophedon cursed this dyson, and the restrictive laws and customs that forced him to curtail his mental activities. Elsewhere, every neuron in his brain was an experienced and capable bureaucrat, capable of handling a mid-level crisis without his conscious intervention. But here in this primitive computronium, thoughts moved through his consciousness with all the speed and deliberation of a drunkard stumbling down a road. Fully 97% of his mental resources were occupied with the minute-to-minute administrative trivium of running Bertrand.

In the back of his mind, Boustrophedon was certain he was missing something important, and it would mean disaster for Bertrand.

Nenshe tapped her fingernails on the desktop anxiously, monitoring telemetry. An ideogram flashed red. Nenshe leapt to her feet. “It’s him! We’ve found him!”

Drifter rushed to her side to see the holographic readout. {23C9:AE90:AC0D:4DF3:9F31:FB5C:4397:0D0A}.

“Confirmed,” Boustrophedon’s disembodied voice informed them. “That’s the vec leader. Proceed with the mission. Assassinate.”

“That’s strange.” Drifter pointed to the transponder readings. “We’re reading over a dozen Korwens in this area. We never see them congregate in groups of more than three or four.”

“Most likely a staging ground to launch their next attack,” said Boustrophedon. “Proceed with the mission.”

Twenty light-minutes away, vec-Drifter approached the gathering of Korwen miners. From orbit, he could see seventeen Korwens gathered on the rim of a deep fracture in the surface of the planetoid. At maximum magnification, his optical sensors could discern eight tentacle-like limbs on each Korwen whipping across the surface as they moved.

All of the Korwens were physically identical, at least to his visual observations, but their transponder signals uniquely identified each.

“Positive ID on {23C9:AE90:AC0D:4DF3:9F31:FB5C:4397:0D0A},” vec-Drifter said via packet radio. “Shall I proceed?”

With every sensor available, he locked onto his target, fixating on the bright blob in his passive optical sensors, the transponder ping in his radar vision, the thermal spike in his thermal-IR tracker. His mission was nearly accomplished — vec-Drifter awaited only the go-ahead signal from Bertrand.

Boustrophedon himself gave the go-ahead.

“Proceed with the mission. Assassinate.”

It was the last order that vec-Drifter would ever receive from Bertrand. He ignited his emergency chemical rockets and plunged toward the planetoid with an acceleration that would crush the bones of a human. Alarms flashed warning messages into his various sensoria. Overheat. Collision alert. G-force warning. He ignored all of them: his rocket engines could melt into slag, his sensors could be permanently blinded. It didn’t matter: his mission was seconds from completion.

In whatever senses remained unblinded, he saw himself hurtling towards the vec named {23C9:AE90:AC0D:4DF3:9F31:FB5C:4397:0D0A}. The other Korwens took aim at the sky, slashing at the blackness with their mining lasers in a futile effort to destroy the oncoming assailant. His target scrambled across the surface as fast as his eight limbs could carry him.

“Too late,” vec-Drifter whispered. Revenge was at hand. “Mission accomplished.”

Twenty minutes later, in the mind bay of Bertrand dyson, two humans watched as the holo-monitors abruptly cut to blackness.

Transmission terminated.


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