A robot army attacks a human colony
The heavy cruiser Steadfast glided gently towards the surface, glowing the same shade of blue. A shell bumped into the side of it, causing it to sway erratically, but it continued its course.
"Damage report," commanded Rod. The captain sat calmly in the centre of the bridge, both hands on his armrests.
"Shields are holding," answered Tum, toiling away at the console beneath the large viewscreen.
Out of nowhere a small drone ship appeared, but before it could approach the Steadfast, a quick burst of bullets shot it to pieces.
Rod turned to the woman sitting next to him. She smiled at him with eager eyes.
"Ana, go and take Baz," he said. "Once our shields are linked to the dome's, begin the evacuation."
"Yes, sir," she said enthusiastically. Rod couldn't help but watch her as she bounced towards the exit. She winked back at him before leaving the bridge.
Rod wondered what the Fleet would make of his romance with his first officer. Probably they wouldn't approve, he thought, but he didn't care. He tried to focus on the current situation.
This was the fourth colony that the robots had attacked. Nobody knew where they came from, but the Fleet's scientists were sure that they were of human origin. Some people suggested that terrorists had built them, others joked that the creator had been a cartoonish supervillain.
Yet they were a serious threat - self-replicating, self-organised, travelling from system to system with no clear motive other than to destroy human colonies. The best squadron in the Fleet had engaged them in the Kyoto system but had lost. Rod hoped he would be able to rescue the six hundred colonists from Argos 2 before they met a similar fate.
The robots hid over the horizon, firing shells endlessly and occasionally launching another drone. Thankfully they were only sending one or two at a time, thought Rod. They obviously haven't built any swarms yet on this world. The Steadfast wielded vast armaments, but he didn't know how it would cope when faced with hundreds of the flying machines.
"Shields are linked," said Tum. The viewscreen changed to display the area between the dome and the ship. A shielded corridor had been projected across the short distance between them. The crew watched Ana bound in her spacesuit across the gap to the dome, while Baz waited by the ship's door.
She waved through the dome's gate and it opened. A long line of men, women and children streamed out and headed towards the ship. The airlock formed a thin watery film across the entranceway to keep the air inside. As soon as the people stepped through it they were exposed to the planet's inhospitable atmosphere. Most of the colonists had suits, but a few risked the short run holding their breath. A few seconds of exposure to the pure nitrogen air would do them no harm.
One youngster without a suit who had been running recklessly tripped on the rough broken ground, and began gasping. Ana rushed to pick him up and carried him the rest of the way to the cruiser. His parents were nowhere to be seen, if he had any.
Minutes flew by as the civilians flooded on board the ship. Bombs continued to rain down. One hit the corridor directly, causing a giant explosion, but the shield tunnel remained intact.
"Not sure how much longer we can hold on," warned Tum. "The shields' power is at fifteen per cent."
"Most of the colonists are across now," said Rod. "Just another minute..." A few injured civilians were still inside the dome and had to be carried by stretcher. Baz and Ana helped to bear them.
Another bomb scored a direct hit on the dome's entrance with a loud crash. The blue forcefield around the structure sparkled and faded. When the smoke cleared there was nothing but rubble. The dome's shield had gone, and the gate was destroyed. Ana had been inside.
"Any life signs out there?" asked Rod.
Tum pushed buttons furiously for a few seconds. "None," he said sadly. Ana was gone. Rod felt a sinking sensation in his stomach.
Another bomb hit the top of the dome. With a blinding flash it collapsed. Light wispy smoke rose from the crumbling ruin.
"Baz, seal the door," ordered Rod. "Let's get out of here."
Once they heard an all clear from Baz the vast ship heaved upwards. It pointed towards the sky and zoomed away.
It cruised out of the stratosphere as its shields finally ran out of power. A light lit up on the console in front of Rod.
"Tum," he said. There was a trace of nervousness in his voice. "That's from Ana's comm unit."
"Er...yes," stammered Tum. "She's alive."
Rod stood up. "Tum, you have the bridge. Wait one hour, then take these colonists to the Argos 6 base. If you don't hear from me by the time you get there, or if you have any trouble, fly to a safe system as planned - to Lacaille."
"Yes, sir," said Tum. "Where are you going?"
"I'm taking the Imp. I'm not leaving Ana behind." He strode off the bridge.
The minuscule Imp shuttle swooped away from the much larger Steadfast. It had no shields, and its small fixed-mount gun would be no defence against the robots' shells or drones. As Rod piloted the craft down to the war-torn surface he was pleasantly surprised to see that the bombing had stopped.
He landed next to the pile of rubble where the dome had stood a few minutes earlier. He already had his suit on and jumped across the short space to where the gate had been. He saw the remains of a stretcher and half a burnt corpse in a suit sprawled on the ground. There were more shredded bodies strewn about. It looked as though the devastating final bomb had hit as the very last colonists were leaving the dome.
"Rod..." a voice came through his suit's intercom, and he saw Ana lying inside the dome, half buried in debris. The wall had protected her from the full force of the explosion, before it had fallen in on her. "I knew you'd come," she sighed.
He lifted up a large metal plate that lay over her and was shocked to see that her leg had been completely crushed. She looked up at him through the glass visor. Her thick red lips formed a weak smile, but her soft brown eyes glistened and looked weary.
He carried her back to the shuttle craft. Her broken leg dangled horribly.
Once inside, he detached her spacesuit trousers and pulled them off. She smiled as he did so. "I've always dreamed of this," she joked, wincing and half delirious.
Her left leg was mangled and red below the thigh.
He grabbed a medical kit and tied a tourniquet around her thigh to stem the bloodflow. He gave her an injection of adrenaline, then a small dose of morphine to ease her pain.
"Rod..." she said.
"If I don't see to your leg immediately, you'll die," he said gravely.
"The bombs have stopped," she said. She was right, thought Rod. It was eerily quiet.
He continued to examine her to check her vital signs. Her heart pounded. "Maybe they don't think we're a threat," he suggested.
"I have a theory," slurred Ana.
"What's that?" Rod asked gently.
"These robots are stupid," she gasped, struggling to get the words out. "Like any artificial intelligence, they have no creativity or ability to think la..later..laterally."
Rod nodded at her. He began to connect her to an intravenous drip.
"Like those self-piloting ships," she continued, somehow finding the energy to keep talking. "Do you remember that incident a few months ago? They were towing a space station along the hyperlanes. In Tau Ceti. It confused so many ships. It was chaos. The robot-controlled ships didn't know whether to d..dock or to keep flying. They couldn't deal with an unfamiliar scenario."
"Yes, I remember," said Rod, only half-listening. He recalled that spaceship manufacturers had struggled to explain why their AI couldn't cope with what should have been a simple situation. "You should rest," he said.
"Don't you see?" Ana insisted. She had no desire to rest without explaining her idea. "What you did in coming back here was completely irrational. It confused them. These robots are single-minded, only trained for specific tasks - to destroy colonies and fleets. But whoever built them couldn't make them able to respond to every situation. They should be firing on us but they aren't."
The planet remained quiet outside. Rod thought for a minute. It was an interesting idea. "You're right," he agreed.
"It could be the key to defeating them," she said, coughing. “The unfamiliar situations.”
He finished attaching her to the machine that he hoped would save her. "Sleep now," he whispered. "Let's get out of here.”
Ana closed her eyes at last and Rod wondered if she would ever open them again.
The small craft accelerated smoothly up through the peaceful, desolate planet's atmosphere to rendezvous with the Steadfast. Below them lay nothing but ruins and smoke where for years a colony had thrived in the harsh environment.
Ana's theory intrigued the captain, and he considered it as he flew ever upwards.
The robots haven't won yet, he thought. There was still hope.