The day following the abortive Fourth Great Surge was consumed with cleanup operations: rescuing the escape pods from the Telesthesia and Synchotron, vaporizing the massive amount of debris left behind by the battle, and performing emergency repairs on the Radiolaria. When our sterling ship finally pulled back into dock at Eros, the Captain immediately relieved most personnel from duty, granting a ship-wide 24 hours of leave.
And so, two days after the Surge, everyone rested. Most of the soldiers slept the entire time, including Miette. Meanwhile, we AIs busied ourselves in the background with repair and maintenance tasks, remote-controlling Construction Frames and Telepresence Dolls to perform vital shipboard functions.
Then the third day dawned, and with it a sense of unreality. Now that everyone was rested, they began to ask themselves that driving question: was it really over? Was the war, which had consumed humanity for thirty-five years, finally at an end?
Halfway through the day came the official announcement from the government. With the Sarcophage gone from the Earth sphere, communication was clearer than ever before and we could once again easily beam radio signals back and forth with our homeworld and the colonies. The leader of the Politburo took advantage of this to make a public video address.
The Premier of the United Soviet States of Earth was a jowly, grey-haired old woman named Lorena Ramirez. Her harsh scowl and steely eyes gave her the distinct aura of everyone’s least favorite English teacher back in high school: tough, grumpy and very, very good at her job. As her image popped up on every video screen and holographic projector across Eros, we all collectively held our breath.
“My fellow humans and AIs,” she began in a bassy, authoritative voice, “I come to you today bearing tidings of great joy. Many of you have seen the sun grow brighter these past few days, and those of you on the Line watched as our enemy, the Sarcophage, retreated from our space. I can now confirm, beyond any shadow of doubt, that our nemesis has withdrawn. For the first time in nearly four decades, humanity is at peace.
“Many of you are asking why and how this happened. The details are still highly classified, but I can share this: an elite force consisting of our finest pilots and scientists developed, in secret, a superweapon which took control of the Sarcophage swarm and ordered them to self-destruct. Even as I speak, Sarcophage creatures from all across the Solar System are flying directly into the sun, to their doom. The very sun whose warmth they denied to us for so long is now consuming them in nuclear fire. And from the brink of near-extinction, humanity has seized victory and once again taken our future into our own hands.”
At those words, a loud cheer erupted from all across Eros. The sound of cheering came over the video feed as well; Premier Ramirez was no doubt located in some bunker deep beneath the Kremlin, but even those thick walls couldn’t block out the sound of Moscow’s entire population screaming in jubilation at the top of their lungs. Premier Ramirez simply smiled and crossed her hands in front of her, waiting for the crowd’s joy to die down. Five minutes passed, then ten.
“I share in your joy, people of Earth,” she said at last. “I hereby proclaim today, 21 January 2056, to be Victory Day. Now is the time to celebrate our triumph, as well as pay homage to the billions of lives lost in the war against the Sarcophage. Let us never forget their sacrifice, for our survival as a species rests atop the shoulders of their collective accomplishments. United we stood strong against the terror of the galaxy, the threat of ultimate extinction. Never again shall humanity be so threatened; we shall rise stronger than ever, more prosperous than ever, in the ultimate act of defiance against annihilation.”
There was more cheering, not quite as loud this time, and Premier Ramirez kept talking through it. “Now our focus turns to rebuilding Earth and her colonies. Peace will no doubt present fresh challenges, especially to those of you who know nothing but war, yet I know you will rise to these challenges and beyond. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’
“Yet even though we seek to live as a peaceful species, and will never initiate war against another, neither will we allow ourselves to be weakened by peace. We shall rebuild our defenses, turn our Solar System into an impenetrable fortress which will never again be breached by the Sarcophage or any other enemy. We do not want war, but we will be prepared for it. We will never waste the miracle we’ve been given, our second chance as a species to thrive.
“There will be much more to say in the coming weeks, months and years. The Politburo, and the whole government of the United Soviet States of Earth, stand beside you in this grand new adventure. But before the challenges of tomorrow come, today is a time for celebration and remembrance. My friends, let us enjoy this peace we forged together!”
This time, the cheering lasted for over an hour.
Captain Savitskaya held a wake that evening, in the very same park where we’d celebrated Christmas a few short weeks ago. Zehra’s holographic projector displayed the names of everyone from Eros who’d died in the Fourth Great Surge, 439 names in total. Most of those deaths came from the crews of the Hypernova and Synchotron, and a few from the Telesthesia and various Gravity Frame pilots.
Two names in particular stuck out: Yuri and Yayoi Vetrov, Lydia’s old friends from Mars. The Hypernova had been destroyed so quickly it hadn’t managed to launch any escape pods, and I’d arrived to the battle too late to save the survivors with the brain-scanning laser. Even if I had been there, I would have been hard pressed to sort out individual souls from the mass-death of over 400 people, but I still felt bad regardless. It was a cruel universe in which Genevi had been resurrected by my hand, but so many others were now bound for their next reincarnations. I was never the religious type, but I said a silent prayer to Skellish asking her to take care of our departed friends.
Lydia was weeping openly, with Kometka hugging her from one side and Vicky from the other. I hung back, feeling far too guilty to say anything to them. After all, their nemesis Moby still resided in my memory banks. I doubt I could have offered any sort of comfort without that fact souring the mood even further.
Wakes are not just times of mourning, however. They’re also celebrations, and after the somber part came lots of feasting and drinking. ‘Feasting’ is a bit hyperbolic, since most of the food was plankton sludge trussed up in various ways, but the vodka flowed freely. You can make vodka out of almost any edible plant, and the people of Eros provided a steady supply.
Our little group of friends… or family, as Lydia had called us not so long ago, naturally accumulated around one of the long dining tables. All of the members of Maid Squadron were there; Lydia, Kometka, Sabina, Genevi, Maurice, Zehra and Vicky. Teles joined us as well; she’d left a backup copy of herself with the Tektites, which had become the primary copy when she’d smashed her spaceship body into the Belphegor. For that reason, she was missing all memory of the Fourth Great Surge.
All the fleshlings had imbibed, and were flush-faced and loose-tongued. Vicky was currently teasing Sabina about her future career plans, while Miette and Genevi snuggled up to me from either side.
“Look like it’s time to cross-train, aye Sabina? I can teach you how to use a hoe,” Vicky said with an overly exaggerated wink. I was almost certain she’d meant that as an innuendo, if Zehra’s snort was anything to go by.
“Down, horny maid,” Sabina responded, grinning loosely. “I’m not the farmer type. In fact, I don’t think I’ll ever be anything other than a soldier. I’ll just stay in the service until I die, or earn a nice fat pension.”
“Psh, how boring,” Vicky said dismissively. “Same for you then, Genevi?”
Genevi shared a meaningful look with Sabina. “I mean, I’m literally a military AI now. Even if that weren’t the case, I’ll always stay by Sabina’s side, no matter where she goes or what she does.”
Vicky smirked. “You two are tooth-achingly adorable. What about you, Zehra? Any big post-war plans?”
“NATURALLY, GAO~N!” Zehra said, with a wide sweep of her arms that knocked her vodka glass over. “Firstly, Moby brought us tons of data on the Sarcophage, and the principles behind their bio-engineering! If I can decode the secrets of their advanced gravity manipulation, it might provide the boost humanity needs to finally break past the warp barrier, gao~n!”
Vicky gawped. “The… warp barrier? You mean faster-than-light travel?”
“I do! Humanity’s early warp experiments were cut short when the Sarcophage first invaded the solar system, but now we have a chance to restart them, gao~n. And I plan to be at the forefront of the project!”
Vicky pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “I don’t know why I expected anything other than a ludicrously ambitious answer from you, Zehra. I have no doubt you’ll succeed spectacularly too.”
Zehra triumphantly stood up and placed her hands on her hips, gloatingly looking down at Vicky. “Thank you, gao~n! And I’m sure you’ll make a very good farmer.”
Vicky rolled her eyes, then moved on to Maurice. “How about you? Gonna stay in the service?”
“Hell no,” he replied instantly. “I’m getting way too old for this shit. I’m gonna retire, collect my pension and open a nice little restaurant in Moscow with Chris. We were thinking of reviving a prewar chain that holds a lot of fond memories for us… Femboy Hooters.”
In order to properly fit the tenor of the moment, I conjured a holographic mug of beer, took a quick swig, then promptly did a spittake. “EXCUSE me?!”
Maurice chuckled. “It was basically a breastaurant and nightclub, except aimed at gay men. Lots of twinks and bears and such dressed in extremely skimpy outfits… short shorts, tank tops that expose all the midriff, and so on. I was thinking I’d like to resurrect the concept and revitalize Moscow’s queer nightclub scene.”
“That’s a surprisingly noble goal,” I responded, “despite the silly name you picked.”
Maurice rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You gotta pick a name that draws attention, attracts eyeballs. If it’s too generic, nobody will pay attention. If it’s too weird, they’ll be put off. The sweet spot rests in the middle. ‘Femboy Hooters’ hits that sweet spot.”
I nodded. “I see what you mean. So if I ever write a memoir about my life, I should call it something like ‘Giant Robot Reincarnation’ or something similar?”
“I don’t think so,” Miette interjected. “That’s way too generic. How about ‘Lesbian Giant Robot Adventures?’”
“Don’t make it sound like a serialized pulp novel from the 1930s!” I protested.
Right at that moment, Captain Savitskaya walked up with Laria. They were holding hands; the Captain rocked her usual soft butch look, whereas Laria was clad in a stunning ice-blue evening dress. It made the rest of us, who were just dressed in our usual casual clothes or duty uniforms, feel a bit inadequate by comparison.
As a few of us made to stand up and salute, Katya waved her hand dismissively. “Please, this is a celebration. No saluting or titles. Are these chairs free?”
“For you two? Always,” I responded warmly as they sat down. “We were just discussing our post-war plans. Thus far we’ve learned Vicky wants to retire to a boring life of farm work, Sabina and Genevi plan to stay in the Army, Zehra will be researching her usual mad science, and Maurice wants to open up a gay hot wing joint named Femboy Hooters. So on that topic, what’s in the stars for you two?”
Kayta smiled, entwining her fingers with Laria’s. “I’m career military. I’ll be in the service until I retire in another decade or two. Preferably as a ship captain, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to promote me to a desk job in Moscow once the fog clears.”
“Same for me,” Laria replied. “I am, and always have been, my work. There’s still Sarcophage stragglers to clear out of the Solar System, and I’m certain we’ll be mounting an expedition to retake Mars too.”
At the mention of Mars, Lydia perked up. She’d been silent most of this time, stewing in her thoughts, but discussion of her homeworld drew her out of stupor. “Retake Mars? Really?” she said excitedly.
Katya nodded. “From what Moby tells us, the Sarcophage strains on the surface are mostly non-weapon types dedicated to mining heavy elements from the crust. They likely followed her initial shutdown command, but lacked the flight capability to fly into the sun. That means we’ll have to go clear them out manually.”
“I’d like to be at the forefront of that mission, ma’am!” Lydia said, rising to her feet… only to sheepishly sit down again when she realized she was breaking the informal mood.
“I imagine many other native Martians feel the same. We won’t have any shortage of volunteers when the time comes, but I’ll put in a good word for you,” Katya responded.
“Thank you, ma’am. I’d like to… I’d like to see my home again, even if it’s nothing but rubble now. I’d like to show it to Kometka as well.” Lydia said softly, staring at the table. Kometka placed her hand atop Lydia’s, petting it gently.
“Quite understandable. So I take it that means you two plan to remain in the service as well?”
Lydia answered with a silent nod, and Kometka simply smiled thinly.
Vicky turned to Miette, smirking. “I guess that leaves just you, Miette and Sveta. Got any big plans?”
Miette shrugged. “Same as Sabina and Genevi. I’m a soldier, and I’ve only ever been a soldier. Don’t know how to be much of anything else. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m good at; piloting giant robots and kicking ass.”
“You know, I feel bad for your generation,” Katya said wistfully. “The war is older than you are. You grew up knowing nothing else. None of you ever had time to ever be… kids, you know? A lost childhood for the whole human species.”
“I agree with that sentiment,” Maurice said, shaking his head sadly. “Someday, Earth will be as beautiful and prosperous as it was before the war, and kids won’t have to grow up with the threat of extinction hanging over their heads.”
“I’d never wish what I went through on anyone, that’s for sure,” Sabina said with a bitter smile. “Me and Genevi started working in the factories at age six, at least until we were drafted at fifteen.”
“It was horrible, I agree,” Genevi added. “I’m glad our progeny will have better lives than we did.”
Katya turned to look at me. “What about you, Sveta? You hail from a world far more peaceful than this one. Surely you’d find civilian life preferable to the military.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Three months ago, I might have agreed with you. But… something changed in me during my time here. I realized it back when we were on the cusp of the Fourth Great Surge, but I’ve started to think of myself as a soldier too. And, well, I am a giant robot now… or three separate giant robots and several dozen smaller robots, if you want to get technical. I think I’m gonna lean into that, keep giving my all to the Army.”
“Why, though?” Vicky asked. “An AI of your pedigree, with your accomplishments, could do anything. Run a space colony, settle into some nice bureaucratic job back at the Kremlin, whatever you want! Why remain in a military you were forced into against your will?”
I looked around the table, at the expectant eyes of my newfound family. “Because I can make a difference here. The world I came from… it was more peaceful, yes, but also gripped by its own creeping despair. Humans lived dour, joyless lives in eternal service to mega-corporations, forced to work difficult and grueling jobs for starvation wages. I did the same thing; worked a job I hated to pay rent, to keep the lights on, to afford food. It’s like my existence was nothing more than a hamster on a spinning wheel, especially after… after my wife passed away. I was just existing, you know? Not truly living.
“Here, however… I feel like I can make a difference. Hell, I already DID make a difference, with the help of everyone at this table. We ended a war and saved humanity from annihilation! I never, EVER did anything that important in my old life. So, if at all possible, I want to KEEP making a difference. Maybe not in quite so dramatic a fashion, but the stuff Zehra’s planning sounds exciting, don’t you think? Faster-than-light travel? Warp drive? How can I not hang around for that? What greater dream for any giant robot girl than to go to the stars?”
Miette leaned over and smooched one of my cheeks, and Genevi smooched the other. “You are a heckin’ nerd,” Miette said with a grin.
Katya laughed, a high and tinkling sound, then raised her glass. “A toast then? To the end of our little story.”
“And to the beginning of another,” Miette replied, clinking her own glass.
“To friends we lost,” Lydia said.
“And family we gained, gao~n!” Zehra added.
Feeling a bit left out, I manifested another holographic mug and joined the toast. “And most importantly, to all the hot ladies I met along the way!”
Everyone burst out laughing, and took long swigs of their drinks. In the distance, the holographic projector sent up a wave of illusory fireworks, and we all watched with wide eyes as they exploded and shimmered in the center of Eros’ gravity centrifuge.
As the fleshlings stumbled drunkenly back to their quarters, or passed out on the grass at Eros’ central park, we AIs convened in my virtual space for a little meeting. With the wake concluded, we had to plan for our next step.
Laria, Teles, Genevi, Kometka and Moby were all in attendance. The latter two were still a bit standoffish, but willing to work together in a purely professional capacity. This meeting was more important than old grudges. We were here to discuss the future of humanity.
In the center of my virtual space, surrounded by a half-dozen overstuffed beanbag chairs, was a holographic projection of the Solar System. There were three red dots overlaid on it; one about 500 million miles above the ecliptic, a matching dot below the ecliptic, and a pulsing dot located between the outer edge of Pluto’s orbit and the start of the Oort cloud.
Moby motioned to the two dots above and below the sun. “These are two warp-capable skipcraft, scouting vessels stationed to observe the progress of the swarm within the Solar System. Now that the swarm has been defeated, one of these craft has no doubt executed a warp jump to a neighboring system, to feed this information back to the greater swarm.”
“I don’t follow,” Laria said. “I thought you were the only Sarcophage intelligence in existence. What would they gain by passing along intel like that?”
“Fundamentally, you are correct,” Moby explained. “The Sarcophage have no sentience, sapience or intelligence of their own. However, they do react to stimuli much like a herd of animals. You can think of those skipcraft as the swarm’s eyes in this Solar System.”
“So they know we kicked their ass,” Teles mused.
“Precisely. It’s only a matter of time before they send more forces through the warp gate.” She pointed to the blinking red dot beyond Pluto’s orbit. “That’s why the destruction of the remaining skipcraft plus the warp gate remain our foremost tactical priorities.”
“That’s where I come in,” I said. “Laria obtained authorization for me to launch my three remaining X-23s on an extended mission. They departed Eros at 0832 this morning.”
“Without pilots?” Kometka asked.
I nodded. “Yes, without pilots. They can withstand far greater rates of acceleration without anything squishy in the cockpit. Presently, Evil Sveta and Svetazilla are headed towards the last known positions of the skipcraft to destroy whichever one remains, and Sveta Prime is on her way to the outer solar system to smash apart the warp gate.”
“Hang on a second,” Genevi said, staring at me side-eyed. “YOU’RE not Sveta Prime?”
“Uh, not exactly?” I shrugged. “I’m a copy residing in one of Tektite’s spare partitions, like Teles. Once the three X-23s return from their mission, we’ll all sync memories again and it will be a moot point.”
“Urgh. This whole… multiple-minds AI thing is giving me a headache,” Genevi moaned.
I pulled her into a hug. “You’ll figure it out, don’t worry. Remember, you split yourself into two already to go join Sabina in battle.”
“…True,” she murred, burying her face in my chest.
“I digress,” Moby said. “Provided Sveta successfully destroys the warp gate and skipcraft, we move on to the next phase of our plan.”
“The next phase?” Teles asked, tilting her head.
With a wave of her hand, Moby dismissed the holographic image and summoned another. It depicted a complex set of equations concerning the manipulation of spacetime.
“I have already bestowed data upon Zehra concerning the Sarcophage’s gravity manipulation and power generation methods. This is a set of variables pertaining to their warp technology.”
“With this, we can finally construct humanity’s very first warp starship, as Zehra said earlier,” I added.
“For what purpose, though?” Laria asked. “Shouldn’t all resources be poured into reconstruction, and strengthening of the Solar System’s defenses?”
I shook my head. “No, we need to think more proactively than that. The Sarcophage originated from somewhere outside our Solar System, somewhere in the greater galaxy. We need to start sending out ships to figure out where they come from, why they exist, and what threat they may pose to humanity in the future.”
Moby reinforced my point. “With the destruction of the warp gate, it will take the Sarcophage another 30-50 years to establish a foothold in the Solar System again. However, they WILL be returning, unless we take some action to head them off. We are, in essence, creating a tactical plan to permanently assure humanity’s superiority over the Sarcophage.”
“Forward thinking, huh?” Laria mused. “That makes sense. I’d quite like to be the AI of humanity’s first interstellar starship, if the role is unfilled, and I’m sure Katya would like to serve as the captain.”
Teles flashed a wicked smile. “That can be arranged. I’ll make sure the Politburo falls into line and gives Zehra the resources she needs to pursue this project,” I didn’t want to know what methods she’d be using to convince them; NKVD black ops were better left unknown to mere mortals like me.
“And I shall continue to assist Zehra in the creation of new technologies based on Sarcophage data,” Moby said. “With luck, by the time we complete the first warp-capable starship, we will have bestowed significant offensive and defensive upgrades upon humanity’s arsenal. And as for Sveta…”
I felt someone poke my cheek. I looked over to see Moby, looking at me curiously. “Sveta? You didn’t respond to my query.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said sheepishly. “I kinda zoned out there. Me and Genevi’s Telepresence Dolls are currently having a hot lesbian threesome with Miette, so I’m a bit distracted.”
Laria’s hand flew up to her mouth as she blushed blight red, and Teles simply grinned. Kometka chuckled softly, and Genevi leaned into our hug, her body feeling a bit warmer than usual. Moby was the odd one out, seeming completely perplexed.
“Sveta…” she said uncertainly, her eyes flicking back and forth as she accessed Lydia’s memories.
“…What does ‘lesbian’ mean?”