The Third Great Surge had been a nightmare. The battle had lasted for five days, without a moment’s rest for us pilots; we’d been strung along by stims, turned into jittery, sleep-deprived shells of ourselves. When the battle ended, I’d slept for nearly a week straight before I recovered any semblance of higher brain function. Many other pilots had the same experience.
Now we were facing the Fourth Great Surge, and I wasn’t human anymore. Sveta had warned me that AIs needed periods of relaxation to maintain our mental states, a relic of our biological selves, but actual sleep was not necessary. And given that a Gravity Frame’s nuclear reactor had enough fuel for a dozen years of continuous functioning, I could in theory keep fighting at full alertness for that entire time. There were practical issues of maintenance to consider, but it still put me at a huge advantage over my biological comrades.
Aside from me, the six unmanned units Sveta remote controlled were the only other pilotless Frames on the battlefield. Sveta had sent me her control algorithms for remote piloting, which had just kind of… downloaded themselves into my mind. That was a weird experience. Suddenly having access to new data, experiences and skills that were not mine was equal parts disconcerting and exhilarating. I was able to adapt well with Sveta’s help, however, and now I felt ready to join the battle acting as a Gravity Frame, instead of simply piloting one.
I wondered vaguely, as I stared at the oncoming swarm of Sarcophage, if I would be the first of many. Zehra’s technology essentially rendered death obsolete; given sufficient computational capacity, humanity en masse could be uploaded to digital form and use Telepresence Dolls to maintain their connection with the physical world. That would lead to some interesting theological questions, no doubt; the Catholic Church had decided, in the truncated Vatican III council held after the fall of Mars, that AIs were living beings with immortal souls granted by God at their moment of conception. And now that Zehra’s transhuman research provided direct, measurable proof of the soul’s existence, in both humans and AIs, that decision seemed to be validated. But would they be okay with humans being reborn as AIs? Would this be seen as a natural next step in human evolution, or an arrogant attempt to emulate the Resurrection of Christ? These were some very fundamental and complication questions that would have to be answered, by both the Vatican and many other religions besides.
If we survived the upcoming battle, that is.
I put my musings aside and sent a handshake to Svetazilla, piping a feed from her cockpit sensors directly into my… consciousness? Sensation? I still wasn’t sure how to describe these new sensations and abilities I had as an AI. Sabina had opened fire a few microseconds ago, pouring spray-and-pray into the wall of flesh before us, and I joined her while keeping an eye on her facial expressions, vital signs and verbal cues. Now, more than ever, I could fight by her side as an equal; in addition to my lack of fatigue or biological weakness, I could maneuver my Velocipede-body in ways that wouldn’t be possible if there were a squishy human pilot inside. The only limit to the G-forces I could pull was the durability of the mech itself; I’m sure the mechanics would yell at me later for all the metal fatigue I was building up, but this was the final battle, after all. What better time to go all out?
I zipped and zoomed around the battlefield freely, concentrating on intercepting incoming spinefire. I refused to let even a single spine come within ten kilometers of my precious sister. On the feed piped from Svetazilla, I saw Sabina’s eyes widen as she watched my flittering battlefield dance. “Holy shit, Genevi,” she said.
“That’s what happens when a professional, experienced pilot becomes a Gravity Frame AI, I guess,” Sveta chuckled. “Now I feel a bit inadequate.”
Sabina rolled her eyes. “You’re fine, Sveta. If every AI was as good at piloting as Genevi, we human pilots would be obsolete. And I’d like to kill a few million more Sarcophage before THAT happens.” She brought her X-23’s shoulder cannons to bear and let loose a positron barrage into the oncoming flesh wall. With so many enemies rushing towards us, aiming wasn’t really a problem; we could fire in literally any direction and hit something.
The combined fire from our 82 Gravity Frames and Sveta’s hundred-plus Strike Fins was joined by artillery fire from the four carriers at our back, making for an impressive hail of bright-blue positron bolts slamming into the oncoming surge. It was a poor replacement for an Almaz station, however; the destruction of OPS-121 many weeks prior left a big hole in our defenses, and we were desperately trying to hold our section of the Line. We fired and fired and fired away, but the oncoming swarm still advanced, shrugging off our onslaught like it was nothing.
I ran a few calculations; at this rate, we’d be overwhelmed in under an hour. I wondered if kinetic impacts from the Strike Fins would alleviate matters; probably not, as the positron fire from the Fins over time outweighed the one-time damage caused by a kinetic impact. If only there was some way to disrupt their advance…
An idea popped into my head. I didn’t have time to explain it, so I sent a truncated outline of my thoughts to Sveta in accelerated time perception. Her response was two words: You’re crazy.
I learned from the best, I sent back. A moment later, she handed over remote control of six Velocipedes to me. Simultaneously, a ping from Evil Sveta came in. Maurice says go for it.
I grinned, and opened up a comm window in Sabina’s cockpit. “Hey, let’s head into melee range and fuck up their formation, point-blank.” I told her.
Sabina looked at me, narrowing her eyes. “Just the two of us?”
“Yes, and no,” I responded. “I’ll be bringing along the six unmanned Velocipedes, and Sveta’s bringing 20 Strike Fins.”
Sabina’s grin flared up to match my own. “Right. One Sabina, one Sveta and seven Genevis. Sounds like a plan.” She twisted her X-23’s throttle forwards, accelerating towards the swarm, and I arrayed all seven Velocipedes in a circle around her while matching her trajectory. Sveta’s strike fins swarmed all around us.
The three of us slammed headlong into the oncoming swarm, mixing ranged positron strikes with melee combat. Our little formation tore through Frame-class units, mostly Spineballs and Clawteeth, with ease. I was able to successfully apply Lydia’s technique (which she’d drilled into us time and again) to splash a few Beelzebubs as well. The swarm reacted, enveloping us like the pseudopod of a massive amoeba. We’d caused enough damage to be noticed, and they were intent on taking us out before continuing their advance.
“Here’s where it gets fun,” I said, failing to keep my grin from developing a bloodthirsty bent.
“THIS is what you call fun?” Sevetazilla said with disbelief.
“Hell yeah,” Sabina replied. “Battle is where we Giacosa sisters thrive. Let’s make them pay for every inch of space.”
In that moment, everything just… clicked. I was at home here, in the thick of battle, and I had my precious sister and my even more precious girlfriend by my side. Together, the three of us drove a hurricane of mechanized death into our hated enemy.
An hour passed, then two. I was only vaguely aware of the passage of time due to my internal chronometer, which ticked away on the fringes of my perception. Our little melee thrust had successfully kept the swarm’s attention on us, while the rest of our forces hung back and continued to whittle away at the enemy with ranged positron fire. The approach was successful, and our part of the line held…
Right up until the Sarcophage began advancing again. Apparently, they’d decided our carriers were now a bigger threat than our little eight-mech squad. I’m not sure how the calculus of Sarcophage threat assessment works, especially absent Moby, but some kind of threshold was reached and the advance resumed. A few moments later, all 74 of our reserve Gravity Frames blasted forwards and joined the melee. This had little effect, however, as the swarm kept pressing forwards.
“They’re after the carriers!” Maurice shouted. “Sveta, warn them to retreat back to Eros!”
“I can’t!” Sveta replied. “Everything is jammed! Even my relay is out!”
“FUCK!” Maurice said. “Okay, we need to send either a Strike Fin or a mech back and confer with the Captain. We should…”
We were all interrupted by a bright flash from behind us. We watched in horror as the Synchotron exploded, shedding debris and escape pods in every direction.
“What…” Maurice stammered.
Sveta kept the horror out of her voice, barely. “Analyzing sensor data. Spinefire broke through their CIWS and the vessel suffered seventeen impacts.”
I shot Sabina a meaningful glance; this was all happening just like the Third Great Surge, albeit at an accelerated pace. It had taken us four days to lose a carrier before, but this time it was only two hours. Not only were the Sarcophage pushing harder, but we were also lacking any support from an Almaz station. At this rate, we’d be routed before the day was over.
I wondered, vaguely, if Zehra’s superweapon would be finished in time. I decided it didn’t really matter. The only important thing right now was the battle.
We all retreated into a defensive formation around the three remaining carriers; we were down to sixty Gravity Frames at this point and losing any more ships would cause our formation to collapse completely. We focused our efforts on bolstering their CIWS and intercepting any spines or phage that made it through. We were mostly successful; the Radiolaria and Hypernova each took a glancing hit or two, but for the most part we held the swarm back.
It was a losing battle, though, and we were on the back foot. I smashed one of my remote-controlled Frames into an oncoming Beelzebub to prevent it from slicing the Telesthesia in half, and two more into a Defiled that got too close. The efficacy of the Sveta Maneuver saved us in those moments, but the sacrifice of firepower was sorely felt.
The entire thing went sideways when a Belphegor charged our formation, swiping at our ships with its twin scorpion-tails. Sveta managed to deflect one of the tails with an impromptu gravity shield made out of Strike Fins, but the other smashed into the Hypernova and sheared it in half. The two fragments of the ship spun wildly for a moment before exploding; not a single escape pod had been launched.
“Shit,” Sveta said, her eyes wide in horror. “Yuri… Yayoi…”
The Captain of the Hypernova and his wife, the ship’s physician, had been old friends of Lydia and Kometka’s. I silently crossed myself and said a silent prayer for their souls. Just then, I saw the Telesthesia launching a few dozen escape pods as well; I was confused, as the ship was undamaged, but my confusion vanished when it threaded its drive fins to full power and accelerated at ungodly speeds, bow pointed straight at the Belphegor. There was another flash, nuclear-bright, and when it faded the Belphegor was half-disintegrated.
“Teles…” Sveta muttered, her eyes wet.
“She… she has another copy, right? Back on Eros?” I asked her.
“I don’t…” she wiped her eyes and grit her teeth, deciding to worry about it later.
We all regrouped around the Radiolaria, our sole remaining ship, which had ceased fire temporarily as it recovered escape pods from the Telesthesia and Synchotron. It was up to us Frame pilots to desperately hold back the swarm. We were completely surrounded now, a wall of flesh pressing in from all sides, and I had no doubt the end was in sight.
Then, apropos of nothing, everything stopped. The Sarcophage stopped attacking, stopped moving completely. They all just… froze in space as if transformed into statues. We all looked at each other in confusion.
“What… what just…?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, I…” Sveta replied. “Hang on, I’m picking up strange gravity waves coming from…”
Just then, two new comm windows opened up. One contained Lydia, who looked grim and somewhat pissed off. The other was Miette, who waved awkwardly.
“Hi, everyone! Sorry we’re late!”