Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer

In the far distance Sahar could see the barest hint of a glimmer: sunlight on water. The ocean. In the other direction, the city stood rose up from the scrubland, as if challenging the world. It looked for all the world like a cluster of termite mounds, writ large in red and silver. Aside from the intermittent vegetation, there was nothing but a straight road between the two: just a gentle decline from the city to the sea.

Sahar had set up her impromptu camp roughly halfway along the road, under a suspiciously large acacia. Suspicious simply because it was growing within ten metres of the road, and was the single largest plant for miles around. Arrats had checked out the tree and the immediate area, and declared both free from serious threats. Sahar had yet to find out where the boundary between ‘serious’ and ‘not serious’ lay: the machine’s lexicon was sparse when he was disconnected.

Arrats was a ‘distributed machine intelligence’. From what Sahar had gathered from her own research, that description was completely inaccurate, but gave something of the right idea. Arrats certainly got much more verbose when he had a high-bandwidth link. Sahar, upon learning that she was going to be partnered with a machine intelligence was determined to think of it as an ‘it’, no matter what. By the end of the first day, ‘it’ had slipped to ‘he’ — and she hadn’t even noticed.

Sahar stretched out in the folding chair that she’d set up in the shade of the tree. For all the oppressive climate and the anticipation of the job she’d soon have to do, she felt calm and composed. Beside her, Arrats was reclining against the crate of gear that had been dropped with them.

“You’re going to claim that you’re relaxing, aren’t you?” Sahar narrowed her eyes, and smirked.

“Balance takes concentration. If I ‘relax’ I can spend those cycles on other processes. Unlike some humans I could mention, I’m keeping busy. Those microsats we launched barely have a processor to rub between them.”

Arrats was occupying an ancient-looking robotic shell. There was a core of modern electronics, but apart from that, it was all rust. Newer shells had telltales to help communicate mood and attitude. Without them, Sahar found it hard to judge how to respond to her partner’s often dry humour. A pity, then that it had to be the refurbished shell or nothing. Even it would probably spook the natives.

“So, are they on their way?” Sahar asked, after a moment’s pause.

“Surprisingly enough, yes.”

“How long have we got?”

“Maybe twenty minutes. Set the charges. I’ll put the screen together.”

Twenty-two minutes later, the lead vehicle rolled over the activator for the ring of explosives. None of the vehicles in the convoy had been EM-hardened, and none of them had been armoured in any meaningful way: the thick sheet metal merely amplified the concussion wave and made escaping that much more difficult.

The screen shielded Sahar from the worst of it, but she still felt the EM burst as a sawblade in her frontal lobe. Once the explosions had stuttered to a halt, she stepped out from behind the screen. One of the drivers was crawling away from the burning wreckage, leaving a red-black streak on the dry earth. Sahar flipped him over and examined his wounds.

“You really thought you could get away that easily?”

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