Warfare

of the Adventures of Molly Rocketcoil

Molly watched as Susan paced out to about five meters away from the tree where they had been huddled around, then turned and held her hands stretched out toward Molly’s discarded prosthetic arms.

Heart pounding, she was too frazzled from her own pain and confusion to put together what Susan was doing. Whatever had happened had disabled her prosthetics painfully and briefly disrupted the Network, removing her ability to understand or speak Susan and Lesley’s language. But she was beginning to be able to pick up a few words. “Phage,” of course, was recognizable to her.

After Phage had successfully copied itself over to their Network, Susan had made it clear that she was confronting it in their shared space. Only, when Molly tried to join her, she found herself in a one on one with Phage alone. The ancient being had managed to take enough control to not only wrangle that but hold possibly four intensely personal conversations at once.

Of course, Molly hadn’t fully figured that out until later, but she had taken that opportunity to confront it about their apparent agreement that it tag along.

Phage had been uncharacteristically straightforward with her, “When I approached you to offer you my help, you had agreed that it was a good idea and grateful for the offer, on one condition. You wanted to be allowed to attempt everything without my influence first. You wanted a chance to prove yourself.”

“I don’t remember that at all,” Molly had responded.

“That was your choice, as far as I can tell,” Phage had explained. “Once we merged, you directed me to your subconscious mind to watch, and then forgot about me. You also erased all records of our conversation, which I watched you do.”

“Why?!”

“I figured that it was so that you could test yourself, so that you could make decisions free of the knowledge that I was there to back you up.”

Being told this had really confused and scared Molly. The idea that a past version of herself could have existed that had made such decisions was bewildering and alien to her. Listening to Phage explain this, she had found herself unable to imagine the reasoning that would have led her to do this. And so it had felt like she was the victim of someone else’s machinations, and she had started to question everything about why she was on this planet in the first place.

And then, suddenly she had been in the company of the rest of the crew while Susan had explained her intent to reign Phage in and tell it what to do. And, in the middle of that, Phage gave them a split second warning before everything became electric pain, and she’d found herself crawling desperately from her survival harness.

And now Susan was acting rather strange for the person she’d gotten to know. And it was at this moment the translator kicked in again, at least for telling Molly what Susan was saying.

“Manifold,” Susan said out loud. “Lend me some of your nanites. Extend them, if you can, to Molly’s arms. I want to try something.”

“How did you recharge my nanites?” Manifold asked over the now re-instated Network.

“Phage,” Susan said without further explanation.

“Oh,” replied Manifold, and started to extend a tendril of nanite clay out to the defunct prosthetics. It left a couple smears of the graphene colored substance on each arm and withdrew the tendril, asking, “Is that enough for what you have in mind?”

“I have no idea,” Susan said, taking several more steps back. “But, I’m testing two things. If we can fix them in the first place, and how close I have to be to use Phage’s abilities.”

Lesley just watched with concerned eyes.

“Double that distance and you will likely not have reached its maximum,” Manifold said. “Ask it, if you are uncertain.”

“Oh, I am,” Susan replied. “I just want to see for myself. I want to know what I can trust in a pinch.”

What was going on with Phage? Molly wondered. Had it aligned itself solely with Susan? Was it working with her alone? And, if so, why? Had it agreed with her statements earlier about who should direct its actions?

Susan reset her arms, outstretched toward the prosthetic harness, and said, “OK, do it.”

And very little seemed to happen except that the smears of nanite clay crawled very quickly into the joints and crevices of Molly’s arms. And then, very soon after that, she felt them reconnect to the Network and give her a ping indicating they were charged and ready.

“OK!” Susan declared. “Let’s just do the same thing for your helmet, Molly, and we’ll be ready to go!”

Maybe this had been Phage’s plan for its copy. Molly wondered what the Phage on the mountainside was doing now. Had enough of its nanites survived that blast, whatever it was? How had the humans done that?

Susan walked forward and took a smear of nanites on her finger from Manifold as it was rebuilding its body somewhat smaller than before. Then she walked over to Molly and leaned down to say, “I’m just going to put these on your helmet and use them to repair it. I mean, you only need the speaker to talk out loud, though, right?”

Oh! Molly had been so discombobulated and focused on trying to figure out what was going on, she’d forgotten Network communication! She replied with a, “Yes, but it would be nice to have that voice back. Thank you.”

She could have instigated the repairs herself, especially with the minimaker on her harness. But Susan was learning, and being nice about it, too.

Susan nodded and smiled and then waved her fingers at Molly’s forehead, and said, “there!”

A couple seconds later, all of her helmet’s systems came back online.

“Now what?” Lesley asked.

“I think,” Susan said, looking around with a dark expression. “I think we go make sure they don’t get their hands on Molly’s ship bits. And then, we steal a vehicle.”

“What?!” Lesley exclaimed. “I thought you said their guns would still be working!”

“They won’t be for long,” Susan growled, looking back in the direction of the crash site.

Molly’s translator was rendering “gun” into the relatively new Inmararräo compound word meaning “tiny thing thrower”. Abacus had used that word in its chapter about Thomas at the end of its book, to describe something Phage had tampered with while aboard the Terra Supreme.

Manifold said, “Of course.”

Molly turned to Lesley, “It is said that Phage can cause things to malfunction at a distance. Enough to prevent guns from firing. I am scared to test this, but if we want to keep your government from gaining the upper hand in all of its conflicts, I think we must.”

“Crud,” Lesley said. “OK. So, we’re going to go toe-to-toe with a bunch of soldiers.” She took a deep shuddering breath, “I guess I’ve never done that before, either!”

“They might as well go down fighting,” Susan said with a mean smirk.

“OK, Sweetie,” Lesley told her. “That’s a really sexy look, but only when we’re watching a movie. Not when we’re actually going to get the crap beaten out of us doing something supremely…” She sighed and slapped her thighs,”Unwise.”

Susan appeared to stop herself from making another quip, composed her face, and then stepped toward Lesley meekly and said, “OK, sorry. But, I really think we have them unbelievably outclassed right now. Phage is being grim and reassuring and confirming that this is the best thing to do.”

“That’s the other thing that’s got me uncomfortable,” Lesley said. “Why do you get to work with Phage?”

“I don’t know,” Susan said. “And there isn’t really time for this. Let’s pack up and get to work before the military close in and make it harder.”

“OK, shit,” Lesley said and picked up her backpack.

Molly took that as a cue to test out her harness and prosthetic arms again, and slithered over to them. It was as if they had not been damaged. She’d been using prosthetic arms on and off since she was a small child. Now that nanite clay was ubiquitous, they weren’t necessary. One would create them using the nanites whenever you needed them. And a lot of things were just automated anyway, controllable over the Network. But, before the Nanite Innovation, they’d been an important accommodation, and they felt like part of her even when they were just sitting in their rack or lying on the ground. To have them suddenly damaged and inoperable on an alien planet had really rattled her. But, while having them back made her feel whole again, her confidence was still injured.

It could maybe happen again.

The EMP device had left Phage’s mountain cluster of nanites at about one third what they had been before. This was solely an artifact of how many nanites Phage had used to create its radio dish, and the proximity of the pulse’s origin – a specially rigged surface to air missile fired in its direction that had gone off at specific coordinates that had been programmed into it.

Phage decided then to start climbing the mountain while rebuilding its nanite horde, consuming matter on its way.

There had been a moment of lost lucidity when the pulse had interrupted its Network, but its memories were stored in the nanites’ quantum processors, and it took no extra time to get moving once it regained consciousness.

Manifold had not successfully transferred a copy of itself by the time the EMP had hit them. But it had sent some of its short term memories, which Phage now had. Briefly, for a few minutes, Phage felt like it was Manifold, but that was not a lasting illusion. Still, now it had an even clearer picture of what Molly was facing.

Certain that its new child would watch over and assist Molly and her crew, Phage began to work on the next phase of its ad-hoc plan. It was going to leave an artifact on this planet, unfortunately. The mark it was about to leave on this mountain would take too long to repair, and somebody would likely find it by the time it had managed to do so. Also, it intended to remove its nanites before anyone visited the site, so the repair work would have to stop. But, like Lesley and Susan’s camp site, it would be a mystery and not a treasure trove of clues. It intended to recreate a technology that was clearly already in use on this planet.

Just further up near the peak, away from its own crash site, which would likely be investigated at dawn, if not sooner.

The military had hardened some of their equipment against electromagnetic pulses. And, also, their EMP device had not been perfect. Some things had not been destroyed or disabled. There were a small handful of lights that still worked as Susan led everyone back to the center of Spindrift.

Susan could see in the dark, of course, ever since her nanite neural terminal had augmented her retinas. Through the trees, as they approached the site, she could see one of the VTOLs that had been sent after them hunched over in the clearing where they had landed first. On either side of it stood a mech, four meters tall and weighted and balanced such that shut down wouldn’t knock them over. The mechs and VTOL were clearly not functional.

Those mechs could carry a single person each. Not useful for getaway.

But beyond them was a troop walker. It would be slightly less conspicuous and dangerous to operate than the VTOL, if she and Phage could get it running again. But it was also surrounded by people, and had a couple of working lamps attached to it. The troops were using its ramp as a makeshift work table.

It looked and sounded like everyone at the site was using mostly hand signals to communicate, or speaking softly for complex things. Occasionally someone barked an order.

This was going to be a challenge, to completely understate it.

Susan, despite her newfound tools, felt scared. She questioned what she was doing, but that uncertainty didn’t last long. It was easy to squelch.

Over the Network, she directed Manifold to use its Gauss launcher to tag each of the vehicles with a small clump of nanites. And it complied while they were still quite some distance away, unnoticed by the perimeter guard. She guessed that the marksmanship Manifold exhibited would have cowed the average sniper who might be present.

This made an undeniably weird noise. Both from the makeshift launcher itself, and from the impacts of its payloads.

Orders were snapped and soldiers started scrambling. And soon, from various vantage points, guns were pointed in their general direction.

But now, through the Phage boosted Network, Susan had eyes on the scene. The nanite clumps became clusters of sensors, including auditory and visual, and she shared that connection with her friends.

“Oh, holy crap,” Lesley said. “We could probably just send Manifold in. What could they do against it?”

“I do not like the idea of fighting,” Manifold said.

“I don’t think you’re going to have to,” Susan told it. “In fact, if you just walk in there and look threatening, they might retreat! They have all almost certainly seen the same movies I have, and you can look and act like the scariest robot monster from any of them. Just walk in, stand impassively in the middle of the encampment, and ignore their attempts to hurt you. Then, when I tell you, turn to look at their commander and say with your best Phage impression, ‘Leave!’”

“Ha! Oh my god,” Lesley chortled.

“What if they have another EMP,” Molly asked. Susan and Manifold had filled her in on what it had been, after Phage confirmed it.

“I really don’t think they do,” Susan said. “Phage doesn’t, either. It’s sort of a last resort device on domestic soil. In our own country. It can do too much damage to the local power system. They’re probably already swamped with paperwork and disaster relief efforts from setting that first one off, too.”

“It still seems like an awful risk,” Molly said.

“Then we’ll lean on Phage after that,” Susan said. “Manifold? Are you up for it?”

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Manifold said as it started walking forward. “Guide me.”

“OK,” Susan responded. Already it was walking perfectly. Just plodding forward, almost mechanically, without emotion, and letting its weight land fully on the ground. She smiled and said, “You’re doing great. We won’t let their weapons even touch you. It’d scare them to see the bullets fail to hurt you, but we don’t want them firing in our direction, because we’d be hurt.”

“Got it,” Manifold said.

“Are you going to be able to jam their weapons?” Susan silently asked Phage.

“Already working on it,” Phage replied. 

It was simply a matter of aging the guns so much that they’d seize up, which meant accelerating the flow of entropy through them. Which was also easier to do now that Manifold had placed the Network relays, allowing Phage to work through Susan’s extended consciousness. It still couldn’t extend itself beyond her boundaries though. When it reached out into the guns with its power, it was also Susan that was doing that. And Susan could feel that as if she was doing it herself, now that it had alerted her to it.

To her, it was like a part of her subconscious mind was acting without her full conscious awareness, but not without her command. And that part of her was named Phage. It was harder to notice naturally because it involved senses she wasn’t used to using. If her arm had lifted seemingly all on its own, she would have seen it. When her mouth had uttered Phage’s words, she’d felt and heard it. But when it reached out and aged the guns, she hadn’t quite understood what was happening until Phage had confirmed it.

It was still working very much in concert with her, and without complaint now. And together, they started putting the rest of their plan into motion.

“Do I have to keep verbalizing my thoughts internally to coordinate with you?” Susan asked it. “Or can I just will things to happen.”

“Your will is my will,” Phage said.

“Thank you,” she replied.

“For now,” it added.

“What does that mean?” she asked, with a spike of nervousness that faded too quickly.

“Time,” it said, “is always in my favor. Always. Even I can’t change that.”

She projected her mind forward, trying to think of what it could mean. “Like, when I die?” she asked.

“Let’s just focus on doing the right thing for now,” it said.

She could tell it was being ominous. And she felt the emotions its foreboding words evoked, but they faded so quickly. She frowned.

“If my will is your will, then how and why are you squelching my feelings?” she asked it.

Manifold was still marching toward the enemy. They had been quite a ways away.

“I can stop, but you don’t actually want me to. You need a calm mind so that you can manage what comes next here. But you have to feel the feelings to still be yourself, so that happens first. I am following your directives,” Phage explained.

“My subconscious directives,” Susan said.

“Yes,” Phage replied.

Susan squinted. Those subconscious desires had gotten her into a lot of this trouble already. Were they really her own will? But the problem is, when she really sat and thought about having the nanites in her head, being in control of Phage, and letting it help her squelch her feelings, she would have it all happen the same way again if she had a choice.

Where she was now did make the most sense, from her perspective, even if it was philosophically ugly and unfathomably dangerous.

Huh.

There was shouting coming from the crash site.

“That’s our cue,” Susan said to the others, and she gestured to them to follow her forward. “Their guns are jamming.”

As they quietly crept forward, Susan watched the encampment through nanite eyes, and waited until she could identify the one she thought was the head commander, whatever his rank would be. It wasn’t the sargent barking commands, but the individual quietly telling people to relay messages to that sargent, or whatever they were.

Worried and startled soldiers were reporting their guns weren’t working, and starting to panic.

One of the guns exploded instead of just jamming. Which injured the person holding it, and a medic ran to their aid, head down.

Light was glinting off of Manifold’s greasy dark gray surface as it walked stonily past the last tree of the perimeter and implacably toward the VTOL and the two mechs. It was still in the dark when it stopped, since the only lights were on the troop walker, but it did stand where light could shine on it from that distance. And, if anyone was looking at it with infrared goggles, which probably weren’t working after the EMP, they saw the warmth caused by its movement fade away quickly, to the point that it looked like a rock for all the heat it generated.

“What is that thing?” the sergeant shouted.

“Some kind of robot, sir!”

“Well, I don’t like it!”

“Sir, yes, sir! We don’t like it either, sir!” This soldier was playing along with bootcamp humor to help their fellows stop panicking, Susan thought.

“Is anybody’s gun working?”

“It would have been shot by now, sir!”

“Commander?”

The following words were too quiet for the nanite microphones to pick up as they were currently configured.

“Alright, thank you,” the sergeant said to the aid, then shouted, “Hold position!”

Susan felt smug, and that feeling didn’t go away. She started counting her steps as they kept coming forward.

Then, just before she and the others moved into visibility, she directed Manifold, “The quiet one sitting in the shelter off to the side, where people keep coming and going, watching you? That’s the commander. ‘Vacate’ is a better word. Try that.”

“Okidoke,” Manifold said in a weirdly cheerful Network voice. It must have picked that up from the Internet. Then it turned its head toward the commander, looking them right in the eye, and bellowed in the deepest mechanical voice that the nanites could replicate, “VACATE.” It sounded kind of staticky.

Some of the people there flinched. Other’s looked at them. Soldiers looked concerned even if they kept their countenance. And the commander stood up and walked forward until also lit by the shine from the troop walker.

A tall, clean shaven man with white, closely cropped hair under his hat, and lines on his face, the commander stood with his arms clasped behind his back, clearly attempting a stance of calm and indifference.

“Explain yourself!” the commander demanded.

“What should I tell them?” Manifold asked Susan.

“Don’t bother. Stay as still as you can,” she replied. “We’ll do the talking while you look as scary as you can be.”

“OK, I can do that.”

She stepped out from around a tree, followed closely by Lesley, who was doing her best to mimic Susan’s confidence. They were both still wearing pajamas and carrying their backpacks, but Susan was doing her best to approach the scene like a priestess with her acolyte and gigantic space python in tow, head held high. If anything, though, she thought, it was Lesley who should be the priestess. She’d earned the rank several times over compared to her.

Some of the soldiers aimed their useless weapons at her. She felt like she was in a school play for some reason.

She smirked at them, pretending to be the overpowering female antagonist from the alien planet the crew of a starship was visiting. The woman with ancient alien supernatural powers that men could only dream of. There were cartoon characters printed all over her pajamas.

Halfway to Manifold from the end of the clearing, she spoke up, “This has all been a grave error, and you shall return to your homes and leave us to clean up this mess, or more errors will be made!” She skewered the commander with her best icy gaze. “How soon until I can remote operate one of the mechs?” she asked Phage where no one else could hear her or it.

“You can sense that yourself,” Phage replied. And, indeed she could.

“You are on sovereign soil!” the commander voiced back. “You are in violation of our territorial rights. We are on the verge of acts of war here, and I would like to know who we might be at war with, if that is the case! Now, explain yourself! Why are you working with this alien being? And who and what is it?”

Susan was proud of her ability to maintain her haughty countenance, and raised an eyebrow when the commander asked his questions.

“This is not an invasion force, commander,” Susan said, with a sweet condescence, like she was talking to her younger brother. “Molly, here, is a simple explorer, hoping to meet new people on unknown planets such as ours.” She gestured at Lesley and herself and said, “We are simply the campers she met before you bungled onto the scene and messed things up. And Manifold right there is here to clean up the mess we’ve all made. It will take all of Molly’s technology off your hands before you can hurt yourself or this planet with it.”

The commander squinted at her and grunted before saying, “I understand we destroyed your spacecraft. How will this Molly and this Manifold be leaving?”

That was as good a cue as any, so Susan grinned and said, “Well, we were thinking about borrowing your troop walker for a start.” And then she extended her consciousness into the mech nearest to her.

She didn’t close her eyes, but somehow she was able to focus through the nanite cluster on the chest of the mech as she felt its commands and used its sensors to operate it. Phage had to be helping. Susan had never piloted one before, and the virtual controls she was presented with were arrayed like her favorite computer game. She was only a little clumsy with it at first, causing it to stumble a little when she brought it up to standing height.

She marched it forward, turned it toward the commander, and aimed one of the arm mounted weapons at him. Suddenly, all useless weapons were focused on it.

She managed to rig up the thing’s PA to the Network, to, so when she spoke next it was through the mech’s loud speakers, “You are outgunned, outclassed, and way out of your element. It is time for you to vacate immediately, and surrender your weapons, equipment, and all alien technology. This is not a negotiation. This is not a first contact situation. There may be time for that later. This is for the safety and benefit of all of humanity. Move! Now!” Where were these words coming from?

But then she noticed a number of vehicular sounds approaching from behind. Heavy stomping was now audible. And the sound of an internal combustion engine meant a conventional vehicle of some sort, maybe a tank. Yep, the telltale creaking of treads started coming through the trees.

It was the commander’s turn to smirk. “I believe you are surrounded,” he said.

“I’ve got it,” Phage said.

“Please do,” Susan responded. Then she sighed, looked down at her feet to check that she was moving her own body, and stepped forward and around the mech she was controlling. She felt Lesley reach for her as she did this, but she shook her head. “You can throw all the forces you like at us, commander, and each one would be an error, like I said. We have access to technology the likes of which you have never even imagined.” She looked at the other mech and raised an eyebrow. With Phage’s help, she’d been working on a different fate for that one.

It started to fall apart. Bolts and rivets giving way, joints falling apart, and myeomer muscles failing, it fell over.

Dramatically, she looked at the VTOL, and it started to do the same thing. 

Soldiers backed away from both machines.

She turned her gaze back at the commander meaningfully, trying to imply that she could do the same thing to him.

That definitely unsettled the man, and she could see him considering giving the retreat order.

Then the sounds of the approaching vehicles also stopped, and people shouted in surprise from that direction.

“You’ve seen this movie, commander,” Susan said. “There is a secret phrase that makes this all stop, and I’m the one that knows it. Only, we’re not demanding that humanity stop all wars right now, just that you back away and let us find a way to reach orbit again. We’ll talk to you from there. And maybe you can earn humanity the right to some of this nice technology if you’re really nice about it.”

The man just would not budge. “What gives you the authority to make such an offer?” he asked.

“Well, I don’t think we deserve any of it,” Susan told him. “But it’s Molly’s knowledge and property, so it’s her choice.” Susan looked back at Molly and signaled over the Network for her to come forward.

Molly tentatively crawled around Manifold and the mech to raise her head to Susan’s height next to her, and then offered, “It’s true,” through her helmet’s speaker.

The commander put on an expression as if he was deciding to be skeptical about a circus trick, “Why here? Why now? Why did you visit us in this way?”

Molly hesitated, looking at Susan, so she nodded at her.

“Your wilderness area seemed like a good place to collect samples, and everything went badly from there,” Molly said. “I wanted to make contact, but I… Well, I did not know what I was doing.”

The commander looked even more skeptical, “Your people can visit other planets, other stars, and you don’t have access to a xenoanthropologist?! How is it that you’ve learned our language, but don’t know the first thing about diplomacy?”

“Where’s your xenoanthropologist?” Susan asked him.

A woman who had been standing next to him, but who had dodged well to the side when the mech had advanced on him, raised her hand.

“What is a xenoanthropologist?” Molly asked. “My translator hasn’t learned that word yet.”

“A person who speculates about how to interact with alien species,” Susan told her.

The commander nodded grimly.

“I’m sensing the approach of soldiers to our rear,” Manifold reported over the Network.

Susan sighed, “Commander, we were doing so well, but you didn’t tell your troops to stand down. We really would rather you had cleared the area.”

“What are you going to do?” he asked sternly.

“A demonstration,” Susan said. She was really riding this high of being in control, and she literally felt like a goddess in a movie at the moment. She figured that was better than being terrified, especially if they were all bluffing in any way. “We’re just going to have to clean up our mess in front of you. Please feel welcome to leave at any time, and we’ll be in touch when we’re sure everyone has calmed down.”

The man scowled.

“Manifold?” Susan asked it over the Network. “I think we’re going to have to let Phage loose here. Are you OK with letting it use your nanite body? I’m sure it will return it.”

“I think I’d actually be honored,” Manifold replied.

“Phage,” Susan said. “I release you. Please help us. I think you know what I have in mind.”

She heard Phage say to Manifold over the Network, “May I please?”

And Manifold said, “By all means, please do.”

And then she felt like the entire night sky was leaving her very soul and she staggered. Molly deftly steadied her with her tail. And she noticed Lesley was already by her side, towering over her.

Lesley gave the commander the patented lesbian knowing smirk, as Manifold’s body started to twist and change shape behind them.

A deep voice boomed, “I will need to consume a tree. Is there one you’d prefer I take?”

Straightening herself up, Susan glanced at the commander, and said, “The biggest one. The sacrifice will have to be made to make the point, I think.”

“Ask the tree, Phage,” Lesley admonished.

“Oh, I am,” Phage replied very seriously.

Molly looked very much like she wanted to say something when a soldier shouted, “Holy shit!” and he and several of his troopmates dropped their guns and ran.

The sargeant bellowed out nearly unintelligible orders, while the commander finally blanched and showed his fear at what happened next.

Even after losing millions, possibly billions of them to the EMP, Manifold’s nanite exobody still had a substantial number of operational nanites in it. It had lost perhaps a decimeter in height after the blast. Which meant that Phage had a lot to work with to engulf the tree.

Nanites have a shell of carbon, with spikes and innards of various trace metals. The non-nanite substrate of the clay had the needed metals. The tree had the carbon. Phage was an accelerant to the whole process. The nanites replicated as Phage ate the tree.

Its body seemed to just walk into the tree, and as it did the nanite clay began to crawl up and around its surface. Very quickly, it seemed that more nanites covered the tree than could possibly have existed in its exobody.

Free of Phage’s influences, Susan felt her dread of the nanites returning as she watched this. She imagined and hoped that someone in this encampment had informed the commander what they likely were and just how dangerous they could be.

As the nanites worked their way up and around every branch of the tree, they darkened. The substrate alloy was being consumed along with the tree, being replaced with pure nanites.

Phage was very careful about its work. It consumed the tree from twig branch inward, making sure none of it broke off and fell.

“Clear out!” the commander shouted. “Clear out, and fall back! To the North!” Then he pointed at Susan and said, “We’re not done.”

Susan felt so much less powerful than she had before, almost on the verge of collapsing even. But through hooded eyes she laughed once, weakly, and said, “Does the posturing ever get old for you? It seems like it’s your whole job.”

Where the heck was she getting these lines? Pop culture certainly. But why hadn’t she ever been able to be this witty when she’d been in school?

The commander’s scowl deepened and he turned and left, ordering his xenoanthropologist to follow. The woman looked longingly at Molly as she followed, but glanced fearfully at the disintegrating tree and picked up her pace.

Susan turned to Lesley and said, “Next time we do that, it’s your turn.”

Lesley put both her hands on Susan’s shoulders and said earnestly, “I will make sure there isn’t a next time. We are never doing that again!”

Susan had a thought and turned after the retreating commander to shout, “If you or your people take any remains of Molly’s spacecraft, we will track it down and destroy it in front of you, and negotiations will go badly after that!”

There was no response.

—-

As silent and awkward and meek as she had been, Molly had been taking that whole time during the demonstration to scan for and assess the damages to the remains of Spindrift. Normally, Manifold would have taken care of that, as was its habit, but Molly really was quite capable herself.

She used the amplified Network that Susan and Phage had created to attempt to ping any remaining nanites or working components in the area.

There were none.

The EMP must have taken them all out, or the military had disabled the remaining ones somehow.

All scraps of Spindrift within sensing radius were inert. Which did not mean they were useless to anyone studying them. Their construction could reveal how they worked or were built, perhaps.

It did mean that she couldn’t locate them or command them to resume self destruction.

Then Phage started eating the tree to create more nanites and the military were retreating, leaving their larger equipment and vehicles.

What she had seen here had been amazing and unsettling. The destruction of the tree as it was happening now was something she’d never seen before, but she also had never seen so many aggressively dressed and armed people ever in her life. This military of Susan and Lesley’s planet was a disturbing force. The way they coordinated with each other and supported each other in the face of a perceived threat had reminded her somewhat of the Collective of the cuttlecrabs, but the hierarchy present with the commander seemed to render the others as little more than drones. And each one had a gun, or even two. Smaller guns had been pulled out and tested when the larger ones had failed.

She’d felt threatened and humiliated by it, and really, really disturbed. But Susan had led them right into the thick of it and did not back down. Short, little Susan. The smallest member of their group, and certainly smaller than most of the soldiers. In her cartoon pajamas.

This must have been what it had been like when Myra Pember, Morde, and Phage had faced down the Crew and made their demands on behalf of the rest of the Sunspot. At the time, for all anyone knew, the Crew might have been as powerful as Phage itself!

She always felt Metabang’s book had to have downplayed the terror of taking that act. And her own arguments with the Crew later had not disabused her of that notion. But after today, she had even more respect for Myra and Morde, even though she’d never met them.

Thinking about this, she watched the last vestiges of the tree slump into the seething black pile of nanite ooze at its base. Then, large clumps of it began to detach themselves from the mass and whip off through the woods in a blur of motions.

Phage was seeking out scraps of Spindrift to destroy.

A concern and a curiosity presented itself to Molly’s mind, so she turned to Susan and asked, “Do you really think they’ll let us just leave the woods in the troop walker?”

Susan shook her head sadly and said, “No. And I don’t really have a plan for that.”

“What will they do?”

Susan looked off northward, after the direction the military had retreated. They couldn’t be all that far away yet.

“When we’re clear of them,” Susan said. “When we’re not near anything sensitive or necessary, they’re probably going to bomb us. Probably from really high up, with something really simple and big, so we can’t take control of it or dodge it.”

“Oh, crud, you’re right,” Lesley groaned.

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