“Ground, we are fully functional up here. The first five Starfold grids are online and ready for action.”
“Roger that, Orbit. We are watching from down here and everything looks fully operational. All lights are green. Tell your bots they did a good job.”
Baron Roth spoke back to the orbiting manufacturing facility manager, a smile creeping into his voice.
“If it’s all the same, sir, I won’t be saying anything to them. I’d hate for them to start getting ideas of their own excellence. They might want to unionize or something.”
Roth chuckled. As usual, orbiting facilities were very lightly manned. This fellow he was speaking to was the only human up there. And now that the big assembly project for Starfold was complete, he would be coming back down to Sporades.
“Very good, Orbit. Finish your work and come back home.”
“Roger that, Ground. I’m on my way in a few minutes.”
Roth turned to the holo in his office showing a graphical representation of the Starfold devices. Five were in orbit around Sporades, metal cubes measuring 100 square meters each.
He said, “StarCen, are you in control of the grid?”
“I am indeed, Mr. Roth. Starfold is now part of Sporades’ orbital defense network.”
“Excellent, excellent. Hopefully we won’t get a chance to test it out any time soon. Please transmit the plans to all other Thespar installations and prepare for manufacturing on all capital planets, subject to local approval.”
“Will do, Mr. Roth.”
A red light appeared, far off the grid. It came closer on the holo in the next second. Then closer.
“What is that?”
“We are under attack, Mr. Roth.”
Things change quickly in war. Technology advances go into overdrive. This fact had been taught to officers in candidate schools for generations, Severs thought.
But now, with the addition of powerful AIs stretching across the galaxy and connections via the quantum matrix and neural networks, advances occurred even more rapidly. Innovations were adopted almost instantly.
Now any edge, no matter how slight, was automatically incorporated into competing AIs’ respective strategies. They could be surprised in a battle, but truly new ideas usually came from humans who spent countless hours working on them in secret ahead of time. Then, once known, whatever edge they provided would be lost. The other side’s AI would instantly adopt the idea or develop an efficient counterattack.
It became a vicious cycle of incredibly rapid advances in warfare. This battle would see a new round of ideas as each side tried to gain an edge. And this time, Severs felt worried.
It’s probably nothing, he thought.
He knew that StarCen ran the odds and figured it more likely he would choose to attack Euripides. That he did not showed that human variability was still difficult for even the most advanced AI to gauge.
And yet . . . it felt high time to the Admiral for the League to develop their own surprise. He stressed this fact to his officers in the briefing. Be ready for anything, he warned them. Because anything could happen.
Unfortunately, the battle would take place between the AIs, as always. The officers would have little to do with it until afterward.
But they would go into it with their eyes open, Severs thought. Any little thing the humans could contribute might help, if not during the action then after.
The Diego Fleet appeared around Sporades, popping into existence in battle formation. Vulnerable supply ships and troop transports remained further out, while Condors, Eagles, and Hawks popped in nearest the planet.
The Condors immediately ported in dozens of sun chunks near League ships, those remnants of the Fourth Fleet not diverted to Euripides. Thanks to the solar system’s surveillance grid, StarCen had plenty of time to prepare for the Republicans. None of the initial round of explosions affected the League ships.
Republican torpedoes followed, flitting in and out of existence at different points in space in a deadly dance with their prey. In the third second of the battle, two exploded, damaging their respective targets but not destroying them.
In the fourth second, StarCen countered with dozens of her own torpedoes, and the deadly dance began in earnest, with ships and torpedoes on both sides blinking in and out around the planet.
Now, more than enough time had passed for PLAIR to notice the strange cubic shapes in orbit around Sporades. Two were 100 meters square. Three were enormous 300 square meter contraptions.
She also had time to weigh the threat potential these things offered. After devoting considerable processing power over the quantum matrix, she decided their threat seemed low. However, this being war, she elected to destroy them anyway and figure out their purpose after the battle.
Three chunks of the sun were ported in by one of the Condors, the Marion Francis. Each appeared close to one of the cubes.
Within half a second, each cube moved, porting forward on their own, and the solar cores . . . disappeared. A blinding flash came from inside each cube, then . . . nothing.
PLAIR diverted thousands of processing cycles across the matrix as she observed this new phenomenon, running hundreds of hypotheses at once.
Then, StarCen surprised her again.
One of the metallic cubes popped into place around one of the Republican Eagles, surrounding the ship. Before PLAIR could port the Eagle away . . . it disappeared in a blaze of starlight.
Then the cubes joined the dance of the torpedoes. Wherever they managed to envelop a ship, it winked away in a blinding flash of light.
At a third of a kilometer in size, the three large cubes proved deadliest. They shifted every second, grabbing ships out of the sky and making them disappear. Giant flashes lit up the blackness of space as the cubes moved slowly out from the planet, a tide of bright destruction sweeping ships from the sky.
When the skeletal structures reached the troop transports, PLAIR realized she had a serious problem at hand. All solar chunks and torpedoes were diverted to focus on the cubes, but StarCen either moved them away in time or swallowed whatever came close. Anything within their metal cages flickered away in an instance.
One of the smaller cubes popped in next to the Ronald Reagan. A corner of the troop carrier fell within the inner boundaries of the cube. It flashed, and that part of the ship simply disappeared, along with all the sailors and Marines.
A gaping hole was left, with the remaining two-thirds of the ship floating just outside the cube. PLAIR ported it away.
The AI decided she had enough. She pulled out her remaining ships, taking them all away in seconds.
She examined the Reagan and decided the remaining crew and their Marines were unlikely to survive multiple ports. A huge section of the ship was missing. Oxygen levels were quickly depleting, and she could not transport individuals to remaining ships safely.
In the microseconds that followed, PLAIR weighed her options and reached a decision. She gave the ship one final port, to Sporades’s stratosphere. All other Republican ships she continued pulling out of the system.