Sunday, January 24, 2016

AFTER THE SLAUGHTER
by Jeffrey A. Corkern

To C.S. Lewis and Larry Niven, who came close

SLAUGHTER DOCTRINE
“Warning, warning, killer genius---”

    My dreams eat me alive. But I never can remember them.
    Burning pain woke me, the F-22 sparking me awake with repeated electric shocks through my combat suit. I came awake in the fighter’s cockpit almost screaming, my teeth knocking against cold titanium armor in massive, uncontrollable convulsions. Battle procedure. I was under attack. I always was.
    “Emergency awakening,” the F-22 said. “Threat detected, Religious group.” It threw a surveillance photo onto the cockpit canopy. “Select erasure method.”
    I fought residual dream horror and fading cramps while my right hand, clumsy through the combat suit's oversized metal fingers, automatically fumbled for the laser cannon triggers. The Universe's random hostility struck. The fighter hit a series of air bumps, early-morning updrafts, rocking the wings up and down and shaking the aircraft, making finding the triggers more difficult. I assessed the new threat through the suit's faceplate with sleep-reddened eyes, scanning the picture for other killer geniuses, laser cannon muzzles, missile launchers, horrorweapon dispersers, air-borne killer mechanicals, ground-borne killer mechanicals, ready to fight yet another of the uncaring Universe’s constant entirely blind attempts to erase my existence.
    But the threat was only people.
    I relaxed and pulled my hand off the triggers, the fear and tension draining away. Only people, only Religious. I was a killer genius, the most highly evolved form of Homo Sapiens. They were Religious, the least intelligent form of Man. The danger was minimal. I went into normal morning threat check, scanning the airspace around the fighter. Flight conditions over New York State were CAVU, clearance and visibility unlimited. No attack was bearing down on me. Yet.
    “Radar burst, one hundred milliseconds,” I ordered.
    ”Burst,” the F-22 replied. “No airborne threats detected. Religious group remains. Select erasure method.”
    Position and course check. Altitude one hundred meters above ground level at Mach 2.5, on course over the Hudson River into New York City, as programmed. No other killer genius had subverted the F-22 while I was asleep.
    Assessment: No severe threats at the moment. Back to the Religious group. From one hundred meters altitude above ground level, the F-22’s cameras had gotten a crystal-clear picture. The F-22 put the population count on top. Thirty-three pasty-faced, dirty, starved-looking men, women, and children, standing on the Hudson River bank completely exposed to the air. Probably forced out of their underground hideout when their food ran out.
    A group size of more than one. Religious, their group size their unmistakable sign. Groups of more than one person were no longer stable unless they all shared the disproven religious belief in souls.
     A group of Religious, characteristically standing outside without armored combat suits, without horrorweapons, without killer mechanicals, without weapons or armor of any sort, completely exposed to the Slaughter. Unbelievable. The idiots probably thought God was going to protect them. Fools. The Universe didn’t give a damn. The Slaughter hadn’t stopped, couldn’t stop, until humanity was extinct.
    Not much of a threat, but still a threat. I needed nothing any Religious had or ever would. All they were was competition for resources and a possible threat to my existence. Threat-reduction was a secondary objective I had built into the F-22. The cheapest, easiest kill was the smartest choice. They had no value.
    Fire flashed from the knot in the center of my skull, stabbed and scorched through my brain in an empathy attack. For a second I saw myself standing with those Religious, scared, dirty, starving, lost, confused, the entire human race massacred and gone in a month, all alone in a world of sudden quick death. A world where all civilization had collapsed into a purely Darwinian, kill-or-be-killed environment, the world of the Slaughter, where the insects, the bacteria, the viruses, the entire biosphere had been modified by human beings to focus specifically on wiping out all other human beings.
    “Thirty seconds!” the F-22 shouted.  “Warning! Warning! Scientific not taken! Brain in irrational state!
    Oh, I was human! The pain, the pain, I had to make that pain go away!
    Scientific!
    I bit down on the helmet dispenser, rubbed the thin wafer against the roof of my mouth with my tongue to help the emotion drug dissolve and get into my brain as quickly as possible.
    Cold logic flooded through my entire being, scientific doing what it was designed to do, impose the scientific attitude by suppressing my emotions in order to enhance my intelligence, allowing my brain to operate on a high plateau of calm, pure reason. The emotion drug washed the knot’s pain down to its usual barely detectable level, the irrational empathy and equally irrational wandering thoughts about anything except myself fading with it.
    I sagged against the suit as the pain of humanity went away. Between awakening horrors and the sudden threat, I’d forgotten to take my immediate morning dose of scientific. My brain had been in a state of gene-induced irrationality, trying to make me human, turn me into one of those Religious. Primitive species-survival emotions, implanted in my brain by wild genes of evolution, had tried to take me over, control my actions, and force me to be altruistic, to risk my existence in order to perpetuate Homo sapiens’ DNA code.
    Of all the battles I fought, the battle against the gene-driven emotions implanted in the deepest regions of my brain was the hardest, the most subtle, and required the highest degree of vigilance. Unfortunate I couldn’t sleep on scientific. Emotion suppression also meant dream suppression, which eventually caused insanity.
    I straightened back up and re-examined the picture. Now I could review the experimental facts with unbiased objectivity and reach a rational conclusion completely unaffected by any irrational, gene-driven desires.
    The Children’s soul-detection experiments, experiments conceived and carried out by the most supreme geniuses in history, had come up absolutely empty. There were no souls.
    And if there were no souls, the only rational thing to be was a sociopath.
    Other human beings had no physically real connection to me. Other than a threat, they were nothing, period. The Universe didn’t care and never had, Slaughter doctrine. That was what had driven the Children to wipe out humanity so incredibly fast, the lesson of the Slaughter. Humans had no physically real value. The geniuses who understood that survived the Slaughter. The less intelligent who refused to see that iron logic, which necessarily included all Religious, were quickly erased, a perfect illustration of the survival of the fittest.
     Only survival had any physically real meaning in the Universe. This uncaring design could evolve only one form of human. A completely disconnected, completely remorseless Darwinian killer genius.
    Me.
    “Civilian erasure,” I said. On scientific, the Children’s reasoning for the Slaughter was absurdly clear. All other human beings were threats. “Botox mosquitoes.” The smartest thing to do to threats was erase them.
    “Botox mosquitoes selected,” the F-22 said. I felt the thump through the combat suit’s boots as the drone dropped from the F-22’s belly. “Drone away.”
    The drone would fly so high it couldn’t be seen above those Religious and release half a million hypoallergenic miniature botox mosquitoes, one of the clean-up horrorweapons released by the Children of the Slaughter, after their primary release of the Damnation Flu. They’d never hear the whine or feel the sting, but those Religious would be cheaply, efficiently erased by botulinus toxin within twenty-four hours.
    I felt a distant stab from the knot. Scientific couldn’t remove all my emotion and desire, as without emotion and desire I would do nothing at all. Scientific therefore couldn’t remove all my gene-induced emotional pain and human weakness. But it could keep the pain and humanity crushed into a far-away knot my genius could overcome.
    I dropped those idiot Religious from my thoughts and checked mission-elapsed time. Thirty minutes from completing a six-day excursion. I had gotten most of my scheduled rest. I was in prime shape for the next, inevitable attack.
     “Low fuel warning,” the F-22 said. “Fifteen minutes until engine stop.”
    I resumed watch procedure, scanning the monitors, outside the window, then repeating the sequence. Policy was to remain on permanent lookout for more potential threats. Slaughter doctrine meant an attack was coming from a completely unexpected direction. The forty-three NirvanaBoxes in the cargo hold contained tens of thousands of the finest, most highly sophisticated chips pre-Slaughter civilization had ever produced. That made the F-22 an extremely high-value target. Any killer genius who deduced I had NirvanaBoxes would try and erase me to get them, just as I had erased another killer genius in Seattle. The attack would be soon, while I was outside my fort, at my most vulnerable. I had selected pure stealth for this mission. That was why I had looted and modified an F-22. F-22s had been primarily designed as stealth fighters. It had worked. I had remained undetected all the way to Seattle and back.
    It was impossible for that to last. There were still too many killer geniuses remaining.
    I checked the map screen. A blue dot showed my current position over the Hudson. I was following the river’s winding path into New York City so I could maintain the lowest possible altitude for stealth. Five minutes from Central Park punch-out and safety. The dead village where I had built the missile site appeared ahead, flashed by at almost a kilometer a second.
    I caught a bare glimpse of smoke and flames bursting from the village. My deception op had started.
    “Warning, warning, multiple missile launch flares detected,” the F-22 said. “Vampire, vampire, we have incoming missiles.” I hadn’t told the F-22 about the fake missile attack to preserve security.
     “We have been illuminated by multiple airborne radars,” the F-22 continued. “We have been radar-locked by multiple airborne radars.”
    The threat screen lit with a view from the rear camera. Missiles were being thrown into the air from rubble and igniting their engines. I counted eleven launch flares. All the missiles I'd planted had launched. The missiles rose straight up and tipped over onto their attack vectors. Their nose cones pointed straight at the F-22, then cocked up at an oblique angle as they built up speed.
    “Dropping flares and chaff.” The flare-dispersal unit in the tail went into action, chunk, chunk, chunk.
    It went wrong in a flash.
    “Burst transmissions detected,” the F-22 said. “Warning, warning, high probability missiles are AI.”
    I hadn't installed AI capability. I was in trouble. I focused on the missiles. They shifted in the air, moving up and down instead of coming straight for me. They stacked themselves into three V-formations in a single vertical column.
    The missiles were cooperating. They’d been subverted and changed into Artificial Intelligences.
Despite all my lockout codes, despite all my booby traps, another killer genius had gotten through and was now trying to erase me with my own weapons. Cheap, efficient, and quite elegant.
    I took the stick, grossly oversized to fit my armored hand. I had to fight this battle, not the F-22. AIs lacked the quick subtlety genius combat demanded. Genius combat was completely unexpected attacks, one subtle, brilliantly different killer-genius move after another. The F-22 surrendered control instantly.
    “Burst transmissions continuing,” the F-22 said. The missiles were communicating with each other, would hunt and kill as a pack.
    The F-22 tagged each missile with its PVAM data---position, velocity, acceleration, and mass. The way the PVAM data changed would be significant.
    “Missile type identified,” the F-22 said. The numbers disappeared, to be replaced with a high-resolution shot of one of the attacking missiles next to a comparison photo from the F-22’s database.     “SA-21 Growlers. Burst transmissions continuing. Acceleration profile significantly slower than standard. Modification certain. Warning, warning, killer genius.”
    Data appeared on the threat screen, the F-22’s velocity, distance to my fort, the F-22’s estimate of missile velocities, accelerations, with three-sigma error bars. Eleven time-to-impact vector calculus integrals blinked into being in my head. There were four variables still unknown.
    “Listing standard specs,” the F-22 said. The final four variables I needed appeared: top speed, missile-empty weight, missile-full weight, fuel consumption rate. The true numbers would be different since the missiles had been modified, but they’d be close.
    I solved the time-to-impact integrals. The impact probability zone was just north of New York City, outside of the city limits and kilometers short of my planned punch-out zone. Another mental calculation told me Growler total flight time, five minutes.
    Punching out over Central Park like I’d planned was no longer possible in any case. The Growlers would detect that and home in on my combat suit. I’d be blown to bits and erased before I hit the ground.
    I did have one advantage. I had no value. But the NirvanaBoxes, with their precious chips, did. The missiles’ primary mission objective was not to erase me, but to get the chips. The Growlers would only want to disable the F-22 and force it down, not blow it up and possibly damage the chips.
    “Afterburner on full,” I said.
    “Afterburner on full,” the F-22 replied. The engine roared, pressing me backward into the suit. The Mach number jumped from 2.5 to 3. The fuel tanks were almost empty and the F-22 light.
    “Low fuel warning,” the F-22 said. “Five minutes until engine stop.”
    I had maybe thirty seconds more flight time left than the Growlers. I solved the time-to-impact integrals again with the fighter’s new speed. It wasn’t enough. The Growlers would still impact the F-22 before I could cross into New York City. I had to find a way to delay their attack.
    Sheaves of possible solutions flashed through my brain.
    Ground clutter.
    I dropped the F-22 down to fifty meters AGL. Random radar reflections from the ground wouldn’t be as good as steel, but it might slow them down long enough for me to make it into the city.
    “Growler tracking lost,” the F-22 said.
     Good. If I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me. They expected me to run. My combat instinct struck, a deeply insistent, throbbing urge coming from the back of my skull. It said this was the time to attack. Attack, confuse, evade, delay, destroy. I banked the F-22 thirty degrees right, off the river, then back onto course. Now I was off my predicted course and closer to the Growlers. I reviewed Growler last-known PVAMs and ran a projection. Four Growlers were within range of the rear laser, with high probability. Each laser had enough energy to destroy two.
    “Heat up rear laser,” I said. “Pop-up coming. Destroy two closest Growlers during pop-up.”
    “Program loaded,” the F-22 said. “Rear laser heating. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Rear laser hot.”
     I eased back on the stick. The F-22 rose. The threat screen lit with a view from the rear camera. The F-22 tagged all the Growlers in the picture with their PVAMs. They had altered speed and course when I’d gone radar-blind. Only one Growler was in range. The rear laser fired once, a slash of red light vivid in the clear air. The close Growler exploded into a cloud of smoke and metal. I dropped the F-22 back down.
    “One Growler destroyed,” the F-22 said. “Charging rear laser capacitor. Warning, warning, we were illuminated during pop-up, ten radars. Burst transmissions detected from all Growlers.”
    One of eleven down. Four minutes thirty seconds flight time left. And the Growlers were talking.
“Show last-known PVAMs,” I said. Data appeared. Their radars told the Growlers my PVAM, but also told me their PVAMs.
     The numbers showed the missiles were separating. Dropping to fifty meters AGL had worked. They’d lost me. They’d reacted like torpedoes, spreading out to cover a predicted interception zone. There were only five directly behind me.
    The AIs were breaking their pack up, losing their numerical advantage. That made the smartest strategy clear. Continue to attack.
    “Heat up forward lasers,” I said.
    “Heating up forward lasers,” the F-22 replied. “Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Forward lasers hot.”
    It wasn’t smart to attack unless all capacitors were charged. I waited a deliberate thirty seconds, giving the rear laser capacitor time to charge up.
    “Rear laser capacitor charged,” the F-22 said.
    “Immelman pop-up,” I said. “Target and destroy all missiles within range at top of maneuver.”
    “Program loaded,” the F-22 said.
    I pulled the F-22 up and over into a backward-arching curve, rolled level flying straight at the approaching Growlers.
    The five Growlers were caught completely by surprise. They staggered in the air, confused, their controlling AIs outside their computed attack options. The F-22 cut loose, firing lasers. The air filled with smoke and metal. I arrowed between the debris clouds and dropped back down into hiding to assess the battle.
    “After-action report,” I said. I banked the F-22 back towards New York City. The threat screen lit with data.
    “Four Growlers destroyed,” the F-22 said. Five of eleven down. “One missile I was unable to destroy because laser capacitors were discharged. Burst transmissions detected from all Growlers.”
    “Location remaining Growler.”
    “Unknown. Growler lost altitude and dropped below local hilltops, out of visual range.”
    One Growler close, with no idea where it was. I couldn’t tolerate that.
    “Heat up rear laser,” I said. I eased back on the stick, making it a rising turn. “Popping up. Search for remaining Growler, destroy if in range. ”
    “Five. Four. Three. Two--danger close! Impact imminent!”
    I saw the Growler, revealed loitering behind a hill as I rose, on my right rear and low, almost dead under me, waiting for me to fly over, so close I could see Cyrillic letters on its side. The Growler’s engine shot flames and the Growler came for me. I heard the dull rumble of the rear laser mirror rotating in its mount. The laser fired as it came to bear, a sharp red sword cutting down at an angle through the Growler’s warhead.
    WHAM!
    My head bounced off the combat suit’s helmet. I tasted blood from a bitten lip. Scientific kept the pain to a dull ache. It was designed to keep its users from feeling too much of anything.
    “Damage report.”
    “Right front laser out of action. Some damage to right aileron.” I could feel a slight shaking in the stick. I took a quick glance out the window at the damaged laser. The emission bulb was shattered. If I could see it, the Growler had seen it. “No damage to electronics, computer systems, engine, or hull integrity. Charging left front laser capacitor. Burst transmission detected from Growler after destruction.” The rest would know one of my lasers was gone.
    Six of eleven Growlers down, five remaining. Around four minutes flight time left, probably less for the modified Growlers.
    “Show Growler PVAMs.”
    The numbers showed the Growlers had changed tactics. Three had changed course, heading into the city, on direct course for the skyscrapers, to hide where I couldn’t see them and attack from nowhere, like the Growler I had destroyed. They’d learned from its successful attack tactic. The Growlers had to know I was very low on fuel from the high acceleration rate of the almost-empty fighter.
    They had destroyed one of my three lasers. I had destroyed more than half their pack and forced the rest of them back, to attempt their intercept and final attack over Central Park. So far, this was a draw.
    My Central Park fort was close enough for communication. I could contact the fort, have it sweep the city with its radars, find and destroy the Growlers with any number of close-in anti-missile systems and laser cannons.
    I didn’t dare. Slaughter doctrine required I assume I was always under surveillance, particularly when I was outside my fort. A blast of radars would prove a genius was alive and living in New York City. That would mark me as a target for all the geniuses left. No, it had to appear I had destroyed the Growlers in an unsupported operation.
    “Where are the missing Growlers?”
    “Unknown. Warning, warning, we have been illuminated by two airborne radars.”
    The threat screen showed the missing Growlers popping up behind me. They had found me first.
    “We have been radar-locked by two airborne radars. Dropping flares and chaff. Burst transmissions detected.” The threat screen lit with PVAMs.
    “Time to full laser charge.”
    “Rear laser capacitor fifteen seconds. Forward left front laser capacitor twenty-five seconds.”
    I ran time-to-impact integrals. Ten seconds until impact. Five seconds short. But only two Growlers.
    They wouldn’t close and destroy.
    By this time, they had deduced I could destroy only two missiles with one laser. Trying to force me down now wasn’t the optimum strategy. I watched the Growler warheads grow larger and larger in the rear-view camera.
    They got to within six hundred meters in five seconds---and slowed down to match the F-22’s speed.
    They didn’t know the rear laser wasn’t ready to fire. They did know one of my lasers was down. So instead of closing and being destroyed, these two were going to herd me into the city, following me out of laser range and keeping my location pinpointed until I reached a position where all five remaining Growlers would attack at once. They knew I could destroy four at most. The surviving Growler would then knock the F-22 out of the sky for looting by ground mechanicals. That was the optimum strategy.
    Their optimum strategy was my optimum strategy, would serve all my purposes. Everything was precisely as I wanted. I took no action. The battle equation had reached a local maximum. As long as I didn’t change the parameters of the equation, the Growlers would mindlessly stick to their attack algorithm.
    If I did nothing, they would do nothing, all the way to their ambush point.
    “Display tactical map, New York City,” I said. The map appeared. My projected route lay over it, a straight line that intersected my fort, continued over the relatively short brownstones, and headed out to sea just north of the skyscrapers at the island’s southern end. The Growlers would want to jump me when I had the least amount of time to react. Their optimum strategy would be to lurk in the skyscrapers where I couldn’t see them and attack at my point of closest approach to the skyscrapers.
I waited, keeping a wary eye on the trailing Growlers. For sixty long seconds, as we came closer to the city, nothing happened, everything locked in a precarious mathematical stasis.
    Ninety seconds.
    One-hundred-twenty.
    We approached the small section of the Hudson that marked the city’s northern boundary.
    “Load program,” I said. “On command, deploy thrust-reverser and air brakes, set speed to Mach 0.8. Target and destroy trailing Growlers if they come within laser range. Set altitude to two hundred meters AGL.” Mach 0.8 made the island eleven seconds wide, gave me maneuvering room for close-in air combat. I had to stay low to minimize possible surveillance. “Set course to maintain constant one-kilometer distance from Columbus Circle.”
    “Program loaded,” the F-22 said. “Growlers targeted. Warning, warning, very high braking G-force. F-22 tolerances will be exceeded, damage probable.”
    I looked out the F-22’s canopy, searching ahead for a small bright ribbon of water. I caught a silver flash through a cluster of buildings, no more than two seconds ahead.
    “Run program,” I said, and leaned forward against the combat suit. Servos whined in the wings and the tail.
    An earthquake struck. Crushing force ground me against the combat suit’s cold titanium, driving the air from my lungs. The F-22 groaned like a live thing, the stress of massive deceleration trying to tear it apart. The thrust-reverser tore free with a metal scream, the F-22 shaking like a branch in a high wind.
    The force vanished. My body sprang backward and my lungs inflated in automatic recoil.
I took the stick. The F-22 surrendered control. The Mach indicator read 0.8. Columbus Circle was visible over the left wingtip. The F-22 was already in a banking turn.
    “Warning, warning, we have been illuminated by five radars. We have been radar-locked by five radars. Dropping flares and chaff.”
    I looked for the trailing Growlers, hoping the F-22 had destroyed at least one. No luck. I found them both by their exhaust smoke, two arching curves like giant hooks in the sky. They had split right and left and climbed to avoid coming into laser range.
    The hooks were closing into circles. The Growlers were coming back around, and they wouldn’t stop short this time.
    “Burst transmissions detected.”
    They had self-organized their attack pattern. The F-22 put the PVAMs of all five Growlers on the map screen. I ran fuel-remaining integrals. None of them had enough fuel for more than one attack run.
    I considered the data, looking for the least-risk strategy. That group of Religious appeared in my head, pushed there by my combat instinct. Slaughter doctrine, Darwin doctrine. That was the solution.
    Kill the weakest ones first. That was the stragglers in the rear, separated and without support.
    Force the combat. When I engaged the first one, that would draw them all out of hiding to attack. Their strategy depended on me not having enough time to recharge my lasers. They all had to attack at once. This meant I could pick the time and place. I wanted the place to be low altitude, the time right now while I had maximum maneuvering fuel.
    The right Growler required the least effort. I leveled the F-22 off straight at it. Its PVAM data showed I was five seconds distance from it.
    “Heat up all lasers,” I said. “Destroy forward Growler, one shot only.”
    “Program loaded. Heating all lasers. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. All lasers hot.”
    The Growler changed course, dropped to match my altitude, and came straight at me. It didn’t make the slightest attempt to avoid the forward laser. The forward laser fired and blew it up. I banked right to avoid the fragment cloud and present my rear laser to the remaining Growler. The final battle had started. In thirty seconds, I would be either victorious or dead.
     “Vampire, vampire, incoming missiles. We have been radar-locked by four airborne radars. Dropping flares and chaff. Charging front laser.”
    I fired the rear laser manually and destroyed the remaining Growler. One shot left in the front laser, one in the rear. In the rear monitor, I saw the last three missiles emerge from the skyscrapers. I’d pulled them out.
    The missiles split up. Two headed straight for the F-22. The last one climbed for altitude for a kinetic-energy kill.
    Broadway Avenue was just wide enough for the F-22. I put the F-22 on the deck over the avenue, so low I was dodging buildings.
    “Target low Growler pair.”
    “Low Growler pair targeted."
    I twisted my way through brownstone canyons, all the while letting the low Growler pair get closer and closer. The F-22’s almost-supersonic backblast picked up dirt from the street, smashed windows, sucked bones and dried corpses out of buildings, mixed it all into a boiling white cloud behind me.
The Growler pair co-operated. One dived to be in front to empty my forward laser, the other circled around to empty my rear laser.
    “Engine cut-off.”
    “Engine cut-off.”
    The turbine whine went away, to be replaced by sounds of rushing air. It would appear to any watching enemy geniuses I had run out of gas.
    The low Growlers went to maximum acceleration and came shooting at me from both directions.
    “Destroy low Growler pair.”
    Swords of red light so intense they looked like red glass cut the air. The low Growler pair blew up. Ten of eleven down. The remaining Growler stooped on me like a hawk, putting everything it had left into an all-out dive.
    “Display distance to missile.” The numbers appeared on the screen, rapidly decreasing. I put my knees together, my elbows together in front of my chest, and grabbed the punch-out ring out above my head. This had to be timed just right.
    At five hundred meters I punched out. I blew out downward, through the F-22’s belly headed for the ground, my own personal genius twist. The slow-down rockets ignited and the combat suit’s landing program took over.
    The cargo of NirvanaBoxes dropped from the F-22's belly as it blew itself apart just as the missile reached it, wings and airframe separating into apparently random pieces. I marked where the NirvanaBoxes were going to land. The attacking missile went through the cloud of F-22 remnants but didn't explode like the others, trying to bring the F-22 down with kinetic energy only, with minimum damage to the NirvanaBoxes. It crashed straight down into the street and disintegrated into a steel cloud. Shrapnel pinged off the suit as I landed. The slow-down rockets disconnected themselves from my shoulder and fell to the pavement.
    Success. To any other enemy geniuses, it had looked like the missile had knocked the F-22 down and I’d been erased. Eleven of eleven down.
    And I was running, running, as fast as the combat suit could go, toward the F-22’s wreckage, toward the torn-off wing lying in a side street, to the half-charged laser in that wing, my combat instinct screaming at me I was going to die unless I reached that laser, screaming at me I hadn’t fooled anybody---
    I didn’t know why I was running, knew only I had to get to the laser. I ran through a field of shattered plastic and metal, heard it crunch under the combat suit’s boots.
    I got to the F-22’s wing. The laser’s emission bulb stuck out like a boil directly above the engine intake. I slapped the quick-disconnects. The laser came loose in its mounting. I pulled it out and onto my shoulder. The combat suit whined as it absorbed the two-hundred-kilogram load.
    I had ten seconds before the laser’s anti-tampering charge blew. I opened the laser’s access panel and keyed in the disabling password, searching the sky while I typed. My visor lit up with the laser’s data. Forty per cent charged. I rotated around with the laser on my shoulder, looking for the twelfth missile my gut was screaming at me was there.
    And there it was, a metal dot in the sky coming down the side street in a flanking attack, straight for me.
    I put my finger on the firing button underneath the keyboard and waited for the missile to get close. This missile was different, the warhead bulge ominously bigger. This one's purpose wasn't just to disable a fighter. This one was meant for me personally, to blow me into a red fog.
The high stone wall of a church rose high on my right. My mind generated a vision of an asymetrical blast wave reflecting from the wall, interfering destructively with the rest of the blast wave and partially nullifying it.
    I crab-walked sideways toward the wall into the nullification zone, keeping the missile lined up dead straight in the sighting groove. Forty per cent charge. I wasn’t going to be able to destroy it outside its blast radius. I couldn’t avoid the blast. I could only minimize my exposure to it. I was probably about to be smeared into nothingness.
    The missile grew in the sighting groove, a Universe hammer coming to smash me into oblivion.
    And it grew, and it grew, and I fired---

#

WALKING THE LINE
“Warning, warning, killer mechanicals inbound---”

    I came awake to the taste of metal and blood. I was face-down against a cold, hard surface.
    Dark. All was dark. I didn’t know where I was or how I had gotten there. I was lost in darkness, everything pitch-black. I heard a sound like the entire world burning. My head hurt. My lip hurt. My padded tunic was sticky. I smelled blood. I tried to push myself up. Servos whined but nothing happened. Somehow that sound was familiar to a far-off part of my mind. Christ, I was tired, a weariness running all the way to my bones. I didn’t want the confusion to clear, preferred staying here in blind chaos rather than return to the hellish reality waiting for me. The desire to surrender, to let my death, the end of my existence, happen, was strong, overwhelming, a black tide rising in me. Something deep in me refused to do it.
    I had to survive. I had a mission. The Universe had to be destroyed.
    I forced myself to think through whirling confusion. I tried again to get up. Nothing. I was wrapped in something hard and cold. Vaguely it hit me I was buried alive and mummified in iron.
    Move sideways, that far-off part of my mind said. Perpendicular to the downward force. No resistance at right angles. My legs were stronger and would have more chance. I tried to draw them in. The mummy’s legs moved. Slowly, grudgingly, but they moved.
    A faint sense of surprise permeated my mind at how slow the legs moved. The deuterium nanofusion unit I had invented for the mummy gave it massive power. It had to be tons of weight on top of me.
    My right leg seemed easier to move. I concentrated on pulling my right knee up. I heard a sound like rocks crushing together. I got my right knee bent into as sharp an angle as I could, until it wouldn’t go any farther.
    I kicked out.
    A heavy boom shook the mummy, and my right leg was free. Flame-tinged light burst in through the visor. A sidewalk crack was at the tip of my nose. Ants were crawling out of the crack in an orderly procession. Life on the surface. A shock. Most animal life was extinct. Botox mosquitoes killed anything warm-blooded. My mind began to clear. I remembered the bulging nose cone homing in over the sighting groove.
    An old, familiar feeling of urgent threat crashed over me. Killer mechanicals were coming to hunt me. The Universe was making yet another random attempt to erase me, to wipe my existence away. I had to free myself and find my weapons, get back to the safety of my coffin. I used my right leg to knock off whatever was lying on my left leg. I pushed backward against the ground with my hands. Concrete crumbled underneath my palms, but I moved backwards. I kept on pushing and pushed myself out from under whatever was on top of me.
    I rose into inferno. Dancing red and yellow flame was all I could see. I picked a direction and moved, pushing fire and concrete chunks ahead of me, until I stumbled out of the flames into clear air. I stopped to take stock, dripping rubble and fire.
    I had been blown sideways into the church, which had collapsed on top of me. The explosion had set the church on fire. The pile of burning rubble I had crawled out from under was over ten meters high. In front of me, small flames flickered over F-22 remnants. I turned around. Building shadows stretched out long over the street. The sun was going down. I had been out for most of the day.
    The view down the side street struck me like a painting, a serene still life. Shiny late-model cars, pristine and clean, were parked in front of small shops and apartment buildings. If I waited just a minute, people would come flooding out of those apartment buildings and shops and fill the picture with busy, vibrant life. I’d be so happy and relieved to see them all, even if I’d never really had a place of my own among them.
    The horror and the memory of the Slaughter exploded in my skull.
    Dark memories poured through me in all their pain, the failure of the Children’s soul experiments and their world-killing scream, the Damnation Flu striking like lightning out of a clear blue sky, all over the world at once, the month-long Slaughter of Humanity, billions upon billions of people dying in the streets in pools of their own blood and mucus, of the release of clean-up horrorweapons, Sarin hornets, VX wasps, botox mosquitoes, and the third-stage horrorweapons, the worst of them all, when the Children committed mass murder as art, the Screaming Emptiness mold that chewed a hole in the middle of your brain, the air itself becoming Death to breathe . . .
    I staggered underneath the agony of it and collapsed to my hands and knees. I squeezed my eyes shut as the memory of all those murdered billions tore into my brain.
    Scientific. My scientific had worn completely off. This was an irrational, emotional reaction coming purely from my imperfect genes. I had no meaning. Humanity had no meaning. The Slaughter had no meaning. The emotions I felt had no meaning. I had to ignore it. That was the smart thing. I had to make it go away.
    Scientific would make it go away. I bit down on the dispenser in frantic desperation, chewed it hard to get the wafer out and the emotion drug into my brain.
    Nothing. No wafer. I bit again, and again, before the futility, the irrationality, of this action hit me.
    Then I saw it.
    Lying around me, like tiny round white leaves, my supply of scientific blowing gently into the fire, sucked in by the updraft from the burning church.
    I touched the helmet’s right temple, where the dispenser was located. My fingers encountered only torn metal. For a brief, crazed second, the thought of actually wrenching my helmet off and getting my emotion drug entered my head. I shuddered at my utter insanity. One breath was death.
    I had to get back to my fort, to my supply of scientific. I was now human, weak. Scientific would make this pain go away, make me strong and inhuman again. I reached for the scientific attitude in my head, strove to return by sheer force of will to the calm, calculated rationality I normally lived in. I forced the emotions back into that burning knot at the back of my skull. Sweat trickled down my temples.
    If I were on scientific, what would I do first?
    Damage assessment.
    “Damage report,” I said to the combat suit.
    “Scientific dispenser destroyed,” the suit said. “Electronics, photonics, computer, power systems undamaged. Armor degraded.”
    Next task.
    Hide. First rule for conducting combat operations on the street. Get hidden, stay hidden, and keep moving, keep moving, keep moving.
    I was still under attack. I was being tracked. My general location was known and my unknown enemy would soon be trying to erase me and seize my assets again.
    Those thoughts came from my combat instinct. I trusted them. I had an unmatched instinct for battle. That instinct, something atavistic buried deep in my wild genes, was what had kept me alive during the Slaughter, why I was still fighting when the rest of the human race was massacred and gone.
    “Display New York City schematic,” I ordered the suit. The map overlaid my visor. My location was a red dot. My fort was a white dot. I was two kilometers in a straight white line from my fort, one point two kilometers from its defensive perimeter.
    “Overlay route line onto visual field,” I ordered. The map went away and the white line appeared, stretching away in front of me as if painted onto the scenery.
    I started walking that white line. The first thing in my way was a jewelry store’s polycarbonate window, shattered and cracked from the missile blast. My warped reflection rose up before me, a bullet-headed, hunch-backed, solid-black titanium gorilla with a black-glass stripe where the eyes should be. The suit went through it with only a gauzy resistance. Polycarbonate plastic was nothing before the combat suit’s mass and power.
    Bones crunched underneath my feet. The polished floor was covered with dried-up corpses. The Slaughtered lay in quiet repose, decaying heads propped up on backpacks and rolled-up coats. Botox mosquitoes. Sarin hornets and VX wasps left behind a much more tangled mess.
    The knot stabbed. No, I couldn't be human, couldn't let myself feel for the Slaughtered anymore, I had to be scientific and rational; the pain was just more than any human could take---
    “Radar emissions detected,” the suit said. I was actually grateful. Combat pushed the pain back.     “Probability insufficient for detection.”
    “Range?”
    “Unknown. No knowledge of source emitter. Emission pattern fits no known emitter.”
    I turned to check the hole I had left behind. It didn’t appear any different from the other holes. Good. My unknown enemy wouldn’t know I was escaping by walking through buildings.
    “Radar emissions,” the suit said. “Probability insufficient for detection. Source is airborne, approaching at high speed.”
    I backed up until I was in darkness, as much away from the Slaughtered as from the incoming killer mechanicals, continued backing until I hit a wall.
    The shadow of something airborne flitted down the street. Then five more shadows, in a V-formation.
    The first bomb hit directly in the middle of the street. The street vanished in smoke. More bombs hit, but I wasn’t waiting. Bomb noise and smoke was perfect cover. I turned and carved my way deeper into the building. The building rocked. I walked through walls. The bombing sounds outside diminished.
    A bomb hit the corpse-filled lobby I’d been in. The shock wave propagated through the holes I’d left behind and blew me through the next wall in a cloud of clothes and bones. I got back up, found the line and resumed my trip.
    The jewelry store connected to an electronics store. I could see where my search mechanicals had already looted it for everything of value. The street outside was narrow and filled with dust from the bombing, settling quickly.
    “Radar strength.”
    “Probability insufficient for detection.”
    I moved into the cloud. I couldn’t see a thing but the suit could measure positions within a millimeter. A virtual wall rose before me. I put my hands out and felt the next building, a brownstone. I had designed the suit for this. Boot anchors automatically deployed and slammed into concrete, locking me in place. I tore holes in stone and entered through tumbling rock. The hole would appear to be more bomb damage.
    The interior walls were plaster, less than nothing to the suit. I stayed on the line. I could faintly hear pipes and ducts snapping. I went through a wall into an inner courtyard.
    “Radar emissions detected,” the suit said. “Probability insufficient for detection.” Close, close, close, always just barely out of range, only the tiniest bit ahead. . .
    I went across the courtyard and drilled into the next building. I punched through offices and desks and reached the outside wall. Now the next battle would start. Six airborne radar-equipped hunter mechanicals would be searching all the Upper West Side.
    I stuck my arm through the wall.
    “Radar emissions detected,” the suit said. “Probability insufficient for detection.”
I went through the wall immediately, trotted across the street and into the next building, staying on the line. I didn’t stop. I kept going, waiting for bombs to start coming down.
    Nothing happened. I was still undetected.
    The longer I stayed undetected, the more uncertain my location became, the greater the chance I would survive to reach the fort’s defense perimeter. I began to feel safer.
    I drilled through the next block, and the next, and the next, through expensive schools, luxury apartment buildings, high-end department stores. My feeling of safety had an unexpected price.  I walked past and over hundreds and hundreds of corpses, some wrapped in furs and dripping jewelry, some wrapped in rags and dripping filth, all dead, all nothing, all Slaughtered. I trotted across basketball courts, empty streets lined with luxury cars, all the while accompanied by the silent Slaughtered and pain.
    The Slaughtered, the corpses, the innocent, crowded themselves into my awareness, became a burning in my skull. I found myself turning my head away from them. I couldn’t avoid stepping on them, hearing skulls, legs, arms, torsos snap and crunch to powder underneath me. I noticed too much. They became too real. A teenager collapsed over a smartphone, a housewife rotted in a shopping aisle. A sickness rose in my gut.
    No!
    I berated myself.  I forced the pain in my head back. This was stupid to feel, wrong, just gene-implanted empathy, the weakness of being human. If I let this distract me, I'd be erased. I focused my attention on the line, on the scientific truth. The Universe didn’t care, Slaughter doctrine. I couldn’t let my gene-twisted brain dwell on this. I had to force the victims out of my mind and remember my own survival. I concentrated on thinking, over and over, I was nothing, they were nothing, we were all nothing. The Universe did not care about the innocent, did not care about me or the horror all around me, did not care about the Slaughtered, did not care about the pain and agony it inflicted on all its inhabitants----
    Half-a-klick down the line, forcing my way through buildings and the Slaughtered repeating my mantra, fighting my gene-implanted empathy and pain so I could stay alive and destroy the entire Universe. Three-quarters.
    I got to the last wall. I leaned against my blood-sticky tunic, panting, and cleared my mind for the last stretch. Central Park, my fort, and scientific, my precious scientific, were minutes away, but there would be no more cover. This was the period of maximum risk. When I punched through here, I would be exposed and anything at all could happen. But just on the other side was scientific and peace. I visualized the wafer dissolving in my mouth and clearing all the pain away.
    I blew through the wall into the street and hunched down, ready for an attack from any direction.     And ran head-on into the most bizarre thing I had seen yet in the post-Slaughter world.
    Somebody was dying on a cross, just outside the defense perimeter of my fort.
    “We have been detected,” the suit said. “We have been radar-locked by an airborne radar.” I looked up and caught a glimpse of a receding metal dot. A mechanical had been loitering over Central Park. My luck had finally run out. “Airborne radar source inbound. Warning, multiple airborne radar sources inbound. Warning, warning, airborne killer mechanicals inbound.”
    The figure on the cross moved. It was an old man, an Oriental. Somebody had tied him onto a cross constructed entirely of iron beams. He looked like he’d been there for days. His lips were cracked and bleeding. He was breathing, but just barely. His head was shaved and he was wrapped in tattered saffron robes. A priest, a Buddhist priest.
    He heard me. He raised his head with great effort and saw me. I expected him to plead for help, for his life, but something knowing appeared in his eyes. My combat suit didn’t surprise him. He dropped his head back down without saying a word.
    “MINES! MINES! MINES!”
    I stopped. Scientific. I had to remember I wasn’t under the influence and had a strong tendency to react irrationally. I had unconsciously taken a step toward the old man to rescue him. My wild, uncontrolled genes had nearly gotten my existence erased.
    My unknown enemy had tried to erase me using my gene-implanted empathy. He’d almost succeeded, too. Another completely unexpected killer-genius move.
    But now I knew something about him. He thought I was constantly under the influence of my genes.
    He didn’t know about scientific. That meant he didn’t use it, which meant he was vulnerable to an emotional, gene-based attack where I wasn’t. I had an advantage.
    His overall strategy was one of precise, pinpoint, layered attacks, designed to erase only me and leave my assets free to be subverted. First layer was AI-programmed Growlers. When that failed, a second layer, of bombing and hunter-killer airborne mechanicals. When that layer failed, the third, more subtle layer, empathy and mines. This genius was far and away the smartest genius I had gone up against yet.
    With this killer, I could expect more layers to come.
    “Warning, warning, we have been laser-designated,” the suit said. ”Warning, warning, multiple laser designations.”
    Lasers. The airborne hunter-killers had arrived. I moved. The first beam speared where my chest had been. Rock fried and exploded on the building behind me.
    “Open fort channel.” A second beam hit the suit in the chest, a third beam on my shoulder, a fourth on my foot. Smoke rose from the suit as the armor ablated to dissipate the energy, obscuring my vision. I turned to keep the lasers in front. I had to protect the electronics hump on my back. The smoke scattered the laser energy and widened its impact area, as I had designed it to do.
    “Channel open.”
    “Password seven-nine-alpha-three-zero-eight-one, activate fort defense lasers,” I said. “Target and destroy all air-borne vehicles, visual detection only. Do not reveal radars.”
    “Received and acknowledged,” the fort said. “Lasers firing.”
    The laser beams disappeared simultaneously.
    “Four air-borne vehicles destroyed,” the fort said.
    I could move. Back on the line. I started a deliberate trot directly toward the fort, toward my scientific.
    “Warning, warning, we have been laser-designated,” the suit said.
    “Air-borne vehicle destroyed,” the fort said.
    “Laser designation ceased,” the suit said. Something splashed into the lake on my right.
    I doubted there would be another attack. Suddenly his airborne weapons had just vanished. My unknown enemy had to be re-assessing, trying to figure out what he had run into. I stayed on the line, going under trees and across a tennis court before finally reaching the dome of my fort, located in what had been basketball courts a mere six months ago, before the Slaughter.
    “Begin entry routine,” I said. The white line vanished.
    A fort section shifted back to form a combat-suit size dimple. I leaned over and fell into the dimple. The fort’s wall slid over me and locked me down, a five-centimeter-thick steel wall holding me rigidly still. A section opened in front of my face, and I stared through the faceplate straight at a laser emission bulb the size of my head.
    First identity test was voiceprint ID and personal details.
    “State your name,” the fort said.
    “Michael Stone,” I said.
    “State your profession.”
    “Scientist.”
    “Field of specialization.”
    “Galactic astronomy.”
    Second identity test was the retinal scan. A blinding bar of white light slid across my eyes.
    Third was the genius test, a mathematical calculation picked at random.
    “Calculate, to four decimal places, the value of the error function integral for x equals the square root of six.”
    “Zero point nine nine nine five,” I said. The emission bulb was pulsing a faint red. The slightest mistake or hesitation, and my head would be blown into carbon gas.
    “State the complementary value.”
    “Five point three two zero one times ten to the negative four.”
    I closed my eyes as the knot burned and stabbed. The faces of the Slaughtered wouldn’t go away. I could feel scientific’s release waiting for me on the other side of the wall. Just one more question.
    “How did you calculate these results?”
    “Taylor series expansion.”
    “Identity confirmed. Entrance granted.”
    The laser muzzle retreated, back and up to resume its normal position at the fort’s apex. The wall tilted forward and turned into a table with me lying face-down. The fort sealed again behind me. I kept three heavy worker mechanicals on the fort’s top floor. Two of them approached me to open the suit, one of them with a plasma torch held high.
    The sterilization system activated, spraying the suit and the entire top floor with hot bleach. The mechanicals disappeared in fog. Fifteen minutes of boiling hot, high-concentration bleach would erase any horrorweapon clinging to the suit or hanging in the air.
    “Scientific,” I whispered when the fifteen minutes ended and the pumps began clearing the air. No. That was fuzzy. Fuzzy orders confused AIs. AIs required precise control. I focused on being precise. “Bring me a container of scientific, top priority.”
    “Acknowledged. En route.”
    The nearest container was in a drawer in my top-floor emergency autodoc. I watched the mechanical pull the drawer back and search for the golden-colored container. I concentrated my mind on getting that magic wafer. Their faces, I kept seeing the agony on their faces as they died on the street, right outside my sealed and armored front window---
    I heard the spark as the plasma torch lit. I had been plasma-welded into the suit for maximum strength, would have to be plasma-cut out of it.
    I centered my being on the promise of the wafer. I lost track of time in a bright haze of longing.
    I jerked as warm water poured onto my back. Cooling water for hot metal. The suit’s back was open.
    “Stand by for suit exit,” the fort said.
    “Standing by.”
    The worker mechanicals pulled the suit apart with a screech. I rose out of steaming metal. My nose stung from chlorine remaining in the air. The front of the cotton tunic I wore was soaked with clotted blood. The third mechanical was holding the golden container out in front of me. I dived on the container and knocked it out of the mechanical’s hands.
    The container went rolling across the floor. I went scrambling after the cylinder, caught it and fumbled the top off with trembling hands.
    The urge to swallow the entire cylinder and make those faces go away was terrific. I had to control it. One wafer only. The dosage was very precise. I couldn’t kill all my emotion. A certain amount of emotion was necessary for survival and had to remain, despite the residual empathic effects. Two wafers or more would turn it all off, and I would remain absolutely still, locked in place, being kept alive by my body’s autonomic systems, doing nothing because I had no desire at all, and be erased when the enemy genius attacked again.
    I shook a wafer out, getting flakes of dried blood all over it, and put it on my tongue. My mouth filled with the dry taste of the wafer and blood. I rubbed the wafer against the roof of my mouth and collapsed onto the floor.
    The faces of the Slaughtered washed away in scientific’s calm purity of reason.
    I rose from the floor cured. My thinking was rational again, perfectly remorseless, perfectly in tune with physical law, with the way the Universe was constructed.
    I had to get to my command coffin.
    Coffin. The NirvanaBoxes I had left behind.
    “Execute NirvanaBox retrieval routine, maximum stealth option,” I said. I hadn’t executed my fake shoot-down exactly where I’d wanted, but it wasn’t more than two klicks from the planned crash site, and the fort’s AI would be able to handle it.
    “NirvanaBox retrieval routine executing, maximum stealth option selected,” the fort said.           “Stealthed retrieval mechanicals will be dispatched after sundown.”
    “Return fort to stealth mode. Passive monitoring only.”
    “Acknowledged. Stealth mode active.”
    “Tell me about the old man on the cross,” I said.
    “Three days ago a small non-combat mechanical entered the city carrying the human tied to the cross,” the fort said. I had covered the entire interior surface of the fort with monitors, creating a video wall. Half the wall lit up with video of an extremely simple mechanical, just an electric wagon with the cross tied on top of it. “It was carrying no weapons, no surveillance equipment, and emitting no radio signal.” That agreed with what I saw. The mechanical had no cameras and had to be completely blind, following a pre-programmed track. “I assessed a recon scout probing for enemy geniuses by acting as bait. I took no action to remain hidden, as policy dictated. The mechanical placed the cross just outside the defense perimeter, planted five mines around the cross, and left the city the same way it came in.”
    A completely blind mechanical had known exactly where to place the cross. The implication was clear. The fort had been found somehow, and my location was known exactly.
    “Raise city readiness level to Pre-War,” I said.
    “Acknowledged,” the fort replied. “Raising city readiness level to Pre-War.”
    “Have there been any other unusual events? Any other life in the city?”
    “Negative. No other life of any kind has been detected in the city.”
    My location was known. There would be another attack. Airborne would be the most likely choice.
    “Visual scan for airborne mechanicals.”
    “Scanning. No airborne mechanicals detected.”
    “Continue scanning until further notice. Notify me if anything is detected.”
    “Acknowledged. Visual scanning will continue until canceled.”
    An attack would certainly come, but for unknown reasons the enemy genius had chosen not to continue his current attack. The optimal course was to continue my normal routine until the attack came.
    The door to my underground chamber was recessed into the floor, modeled after a submarine hatchway and opening onto a ladder. I climbed down the ladder, let the hatch close over me with a clang, twisted the hatch ring back sealed.
    I dropped into the central chamber. There wasn’t much to the fort, just a small reinforced-concrete chamber twenty feet down holding the coffin-computer I had adapted from NirvanaBox technology. The optimum strategy was to keep resources decentralized.
    “The sun has gone down,” the fort said. “Stealth mechanicals dispatched to retrieve NirvanaBoxes. ETA one hour.”
    “Acknowledged.”
    The keyboard lid on the command coffin slid back, revealing the entrance keyboard. I typed in the last password and heard the locks release.
    “New coffin password,” the fort said as I opened the lid, crawled in and lay back. “Bravo, oscar, mike, six, eight, seven, victor.”
    “Acknowledged.”
    Cool nerve-contact pads greasy with conductant gel made contact with my skull and backbone. The lid closing over me vanished.
    “God mode.”
    “God mode selected,” the coffin said. I became a virtual giant standing over a virtual New York, my primary operating reality. The coffin would maintain my body while I conducted operations. The illusion wasn’t perfect. I could feel my coffin around me if I concentrated. This was deliberate. If my physical surroundings were attacked while I was in virtual, this gave me a chance to know about it.
“Clean tunic. Engage autodoc function,” I said. I felt a faint tickling as micrometer-thin tendrils slid under my skin all over my body. I'd be cleaned up and repaired by morning.
    I scanned the skies around New York City first. My fort AI was the best possible---I had programmed it---but AI suffered from an intrinsic lack of imagination.
    My view was a synthesis of everything my sensors could pick up, visual, infrared, ultraviolet, sonic, and microwave if my radars were on. Nothing. The skies were completely empty.
    The city next. I leaned over and scanned the streets. A blinking green dot showed the location of the mechanical retrieving NirvanaBoxes. I had to keep in mind the city sensor net was still incomplete and just because I saw nothing didn’t mean nothing was there.
    “Tunnel view,” I said.
    The city vanished, to show the intricate network of tunnels that underlay New York. The tunnels had been easier to harden against attack. The sensor net, defensive and offensive weapon systems, down there were complete. Nothing was moving.
    “Factory view.”
    The view went deeper, to my subterranean factories, constructed in the island’s bedrock. My automatic factories were my most vital asset. They turned out the mechanicals I used to build my weapons and my starship. If those were destroyed or subverted, I was as good as erased. My factories were also clear.
    Assessment: The enemy genius had an incorrect notion of my capabilities. He knew about me. He knew my fort’s location somehow---but nothing else. This was why his attack had stopped suddenly. The sudden complete destruction of his airborne mechanicals had caught him by surprise. He was now either re-formulating his battle plan or had withdrawn completely.
    “Flash report received from Miami intelligence mechanical thirteen hours ago,” the fort said. “Mechanical reports ‘In position to initiate Slaughter.’ ”
    “Acknowledged.”
    I considered whether or not to give the go command. No, not now. One war at a time. I didn’t have time to oversee a remote-control looting.
    I’d know what the enemy genius was going to do within the next twenty-four hours. Whether or not he attacked would depend on his own capabilities and his new assessment of my capabilities. The unknown factor, from his viewpoint, was how long I had been in possession of the island and what my genius level was, how long I had been looting and re-purposing the island’s massive technological resources left over from the Slaughter, how long I had been building defensive and offensive weapon systems, and what those weapon systems were.
    Slaughter doctrine would require he assume the worst, and he would only attack if he thought he were at least at my genius level, and had matching weapon systems that could defeat my weapon systems.
    A flash of white coated the entire sky, disappeared.
    “Warning, warning, radar probes,” the fort said.
    “Locations?”
    “Unknown. Sources were airborne and moving very fast.”
    Pop-up and gone. Let him probe. He would find nothing. On the outside, New York City looked unchanged. On the inside, this was no longer true. Self-replicating mechanicals had allowed me to armor the city to an incredible degree. My unknown enemy was in for a shock.
I’d made all the preparations I could. I decided I could ignore him for at least the next twelve hours. Logically, I’d done all I could do. I dropped him from my thoughts.
    “Erasure after-action report, Religious group,” the computer said. A picture of the Religious group appeared I’d encountered yesterday appeared. They were all sprawled out dead on that riverbank. “Confirm thirty-three Religious erased. Kill efficiency one hundred per cent, no survivors.”
    “Acknowledged,” I said, “Fusion engine design, recall.”, and was immediately standing in a blank room facing a wall covered with equations. Pre-Slaughter designs burned deuterium in the form of heavy water, which had to be extracted from regular water by fractional distillation, an extremely complex process. Mine was going to burn the hydrogen in regular water, available anywhere in the Universe at zero cost. I’d be able to pour water in the tank, light the torch, and go. The supreme advantage of scientific, the ability to focus your entire mind on one subject only without effort, no matter the circumstances. Such extreme focusing effectively doubled the user’s intelligence. Scientific had originally been invented for exactly this kind of work.
    I solved the problem in a couple of hours and was removing some minor instabilities when the fort interrupted.
    “NirvanaBoxes incoming,” it said. “Mechanical has crossed defense perimeter and is ready for opening. Tool box is in place.”
    “Avatar mode,” I said, and the world turned ghostly gray. I experienced a faint feeling of being far underwater. The telepresence mechanical was hidden in the bottom of the adjoining lake. The initial Box openings had to be outside to guard against booby-traps. I kicked upward and broke the lake’s surface. The night was dark and moonless.
    “Night vision.”
    The transport mechanical lit up at the lake’s edge, a four-wheeled vehicle pulling a long trailer piled high with NirvanaBoxes. I walked toward the edge, being careful not to break the optic cable attached to my right heel that connected the avatar to the fort. The avatar could be run by wireless connection if necessary, but zero EM emission kept me hidden. The second I forgot Slaughter doctrine, that second the Universe erased me.
    The NirvanaBoxes were InfinitePlayStations, the last and most advanced model manufactured before the Slaughter, created in Japan after Aum Shinrykyo had finally succeeded in committing the Slaughter of Tokyo with genetically modified anthrax, a city-scale horrorweapon massacre conceived and carried out by two Aum Ph.D disciples. Lone geniuses killing entire cities had made it starkly clear to the smarter segments of society the human race was about to wipe itself out. After Tokyo, any human with money had fought to get his brain into the programmed Paradise of a NirvanaBox before the final collapse made it impossible. For a human, reality was electric currents in his brain. A reality generated by a computer was therefore entirely equivalent to that generated by a body. By any physical test, the reality inside a NirvanaBox was just as real as the reality outside, and the reality inside a NirvanaBox was any Paradise you wanted instead of the Hell that was coming.
    I lifted the first Box out and carried it well away from the others. My first job was to detect and neutralize any anti-tampering charges. Anticipating the collapse of civilization, the later models had normally come equipped with a crude booby trap. Defusing a booby-trap required imagination and wasn’t suitable for AI. The Box was running on its miniature fission plant, generating its inhabitant brain’s Paradise, gently humming in my hands.
    The humming was my way in. This would be easy. I raised the sensitivity level on my palms and ran them over the Box’s sides to create a picture of its vibration field in my mind. Anything attached to the inside would damp out vibrations and show up externally as a node. I found sixteen internal attachments. Only eight were listed on the internal schematic diagrams I had taken from Nirvana Systems’ servers. The extra eight had to be the tampering sensors, one for each side.
    The remaining question was the nature of the sensors. I had copied NirvanaSystems’ servers during the Slaughter and combed through them. I had found multiple purchases of a combined light, voltage, and vibration sensor. Sure enough, there was a slight electric field over every surface. There had to be a conductive cloth over the Box’s interior. A big enough variation in voltage, and the Box would blow.
    The ground references would be where the sensors attached to the Box. The light sensors could be fooled by opening the box in the dark. But that wouldn’t be necessary. I connected a metal strip to the Box and a drill. The drill was now part of the ground. The voltage would be the same as at the sensors. I drilled into the sensors with a fifty-micrometer titanium-nitride bit for minimum vibration and destroyed them. Anti-tampering system disabled, I cut the top off with a pair of metal shears.
    I looked into the Box and evaluated my haul. The risk of erasing the Seattle genius had been worth it, a hundred times over. New York was a rich mine of advanced chips for my mechanicals, one of the reasons I had taken it, but nothing like the chips in a NirvanaBox. These chips were going straight into my starship. My launch date would advance by weeks. Every single component of a NirvanaBox was designed to run for millennia without maintenance, absolutely what was needed for a fleet of Universe-destroying starships. Thousands and thousands of the finest, most reliable CPU chips ever made. An entire rack of forty-gigabyte graphics chips. Terabytes and terabytes of memory chips. A miniature low-power fission plant. The biological support system for the brain, which I could use to expand the autodoc capabilities of my coffin. The neural interface components that fed the computer-generated life to the brain would be back-up parts for my coffin’s neural systems. Even the booby trap I could re-purpose on another weapon.
    The only thing of no value was the brain. I popped that out, being careful not to damage the input and output connections, and dropped it into the lake. A pile of brains from looted NirvanaBoxes would be a dead giveaway a killer genius was living in the area.
    I repeated the procedure on each Box. It was critical to get the Boxes looted and their contents installed in my starship as quickly as possible. The farther away I got from human beings, the safer I was.
    “Scheduled sleep-inducer in five minutes,” the fort said when I still had six Boxes to loot.     “Confirm.”
    “Cancel sleep,” I said.
    “Warning, warning, scientific wearing off,” the fort said. “Do you wish another wafer?”
    “Negative.” I’d be finished in another hour. I could already feel the horrors rising, the emotions I’d felt walking the line trying to explode back out from the knot. I’d be knocked out before the scientific wore completely off and it became really bad. I fought the internal battle while I worked. The knot swelled, but I fought it down. I got all the Boxes prepped before it became unbearable and stepped back. The fort could handle the rest of it.
    “Disassemble Boxes,” I said. I stepped back. “Transport parts to starship assembly center. Restore all tools to original configuration.”
    “Routine running,” the fort replied.
    I decided I deserved a little reward for completing the retrieval mission, a shot of good stiff emotion drug before I went to sleep, something to help cancel out the memory of the Slaughtered I'd been forced to relive yet again.
    “Ecstasy,” I said.
    “Within ration,” the fort said. “Two remaining for the month.” This was the one thing I had given the fort AI complete control over, to prevent my addiction. A wafer extruded from the coffin lid. I took it in my mouth.
    The world and all my thoughts dissolved into a cloud of complete, eternal peace. The knot disappeared, blown away by the emotion drug’s power. I floated in ecstasy, all my desires, all my wants and needs, completely satisfied. All my bad feelings went away.
    For thirty whole seconds.
    I came back to my coffin, to the real world, the meaninglessness of my existence, to constant combat, constant pain, and constant suffering.
    “Sleep,” I said, and the world and the suffering went away.

#

THE FOURTH LAYER
“Threat detected, Religious group . . .”

    I came awake shaking with my face pressed against the coffin lid, a knife cutting through the middle of my brain.
    “Scientific!” the fort said. I opened my mouth in reflex and the wafer dropped in. I rubbed it against the roof of my mouth in gratitude and leaned against the coffin’s side, panting heavily, as the painful gene-implanted emotions were crushed back down.
    “God mode,” I said when my mind was rational.
    The coffin vanished. I was in my primary reality standing over the city. I took one quick glance around. The skies were as empty as they always were, not even a bird.
    “Status report.”
    “Probing attacks made simultaneously in fifty-three tunnels two hours ago,” the fort replied. My reality changed to tunnel view. The attack points were all marked with red dots. They were all at the edge of my defenses, in a circle all around the city. “Tunnel mechanicals collapsed their tunnels and erased all attackers within thirty seconds.”
    “Damage?”
    “Minimal. Repairs and re-supply are under way. All tasks will be completed within three hours.”
    “All attackers were mechanicals? No combat suits?”
    “Yes. No combat suits were detected.”
    “Resume.”
    My engine-design task re-appeared. I spent the next hour removing the last instabilities and sent the design to one of my factories for construction.
    I considered my next task. My enemy had made a number of attacks---and I had failed to respond. By now he should be lulled into thinking I was content to merely sit back and defend.
    Time for an attack. I had a good chance of catching him off-guard.
    “Launch a dozen air-borne recon mechanicals. Six high-altitude tactics, six low-altitude tactics. Search area twenty-kilometer radius from the fort. Prepare ground-to-ground missile salvo for launch-on-warning, ten missiles.”
    “Mechanicals launched,” the fort said.
    “Split screen,” I said. “One half recon mechanical monitoring, one half starship computer system.”
For the next several hours, I watched the map that showed where my recon mechanicals were and what they were finding, and integrating the chips I’d looted from the NirvanaBoxes into my starship’s computers. One day I’d be computer-modeling the entire Universe so I could destroy it, plus building hundreds of starships. I needed every single chip I could loot.
    “Recon mechanical anomaly detected,” the fort said when I was almost finished. The recon screen showed it was late afternoon.
    “What?”
    “Recon mechanical reports stability problem.” A pause, then: “Hash failure from recon mechanical. Stability problem gone. Warning, warning, probable subverted mechanical.”
Something had physically landed on the mechanical, inserted a virus, and left in an effort to avoid detection.
    “Transmit destruct signal---no, wait, cancel that.” Why had my enemy subverted this particular mechanical?
    Because it had seen something it shouldn’t. Or was about to.
    “Drop all recon mechanicals to low altitude. Use low-altitude tactics. Concentrate on half-kilometer radius around anomalous mechanical’s current location.”
    “Routine running.”
    I continued re-designing my starship’s computer system while my mechanicals closed on and reconnoitered the suspect area.
    “Warning, warning, new threat detected,” the fort said. It opened a video window in my computer design. “Religious group. Select erasure method.”
    The video window showed somebody standing at that weird cross. A female, standing right out in the open, no armor at all. Another Religious. She was dressed in a hiking outfit, with a backpack. It took me a minute to realize what she was doing. She was pulling that old Buddhist priest down from the cross.
    She was rescuing that old man!
    How had she gotten so close to me without being detected?
    There was a glaring hole in my defenses, something radical I’d missed totally.
    The mines. The mines around the cross should’ve blown. Why hadn’t they blown? And no combat suit. How had she avoided residual horrorweapons? That female should be erased and gone a dozen, a hundred times over. Something wasn’t right.
    “Capture those Religious,” I ordered. It was absolutely vital I find out how she’d gotten so close, as soon as possible.
    “Task unknown,” the fort replied. “No such routine.” Right. I didn’t capture people. I erased people.
    I didn’t have time to write and debug a program. I was going to have to do it myself.
    “Avatar mode,” I said, and I was back underwater in my telepresence mechanical.
    I rose up out of the water. I reached down and disconnected the optical cable. I strode at maximum velocity toward the cross.
    “Dispatch ten air-borne lasers to cross and surround it,” I said. Overwhelming force would cause immediate surrender.
    “Lasers on the way,” the fort said. “ETA two minutes.” I needed their information too badly to erase them, but a group of Religious would be too stupid to figure that out.
    When I arrived, my lasers were already there, surrounding the Religious group in hover mode. The female was laying the old man down on the ground. She laid him down and went on her knees by his head. Her back was to me. I strode around to the front and stood directly in front of her.
    The female didn’t react to my sudden appearance. She felt the old man’s neck, then went into a vigorous CPR routine, alternately pumping his chest and administering mouth-to-mouth. The old man’s eyes were open, his pupils dilated and fixed. A scan with the avatar’s sensors showed the old man’s heart and breathing had stopped. Thermal imaging showed a rapidly decreasing body temperature. Backwards extrapolation showed it had begun about ten minutes ago.
    The priest was erased and gone from the Universe, personality wiped out, brain zeroed out to nothing.
    I made a cutting motion across my throat, pointed at the priest. I made a come-with-me gesture. The female had to have seen me, but she ignored me.
    I couldn’t talk. The avatar had no provision for external communication with other human beings. I couldn’t just grab them. The avatar lacked both strength and flexibility. I hadn’t designed it for hand-to-hand combat.
    The problem solved itself. The female gave it up.
    “You wouldn’t want this,” she said to the corpse. “You’d tell me to stop, to let you pass on to your next life. I’m sorry, Brother Lin. I just wasn’t ready to see you go.”
    She laid the body back and gently closed the staring eyes. She began muttering words in some language I didn’t know and waving her hands, some kind of religious nonsense.
    I made the come-with-me gesture again. No response. I didn’t have time for this. I was under attack while she carried out some utterly meaningless religious ritual on a corpse.
    “One shot behind the female, target one-half meter. Repeating, behind the female,” I ordered. I had to be careful not to harm her. Light scatter from the laser would burn her eyes out and render her worthless.
    Concrete erupted. The female winced and hunched her shoulders as chips came showering down on both of us. When the shower was over, she looked up at me with a hard, knowing look, exactly like the priest had done. I made the come-with-me gesture again, more emphatically.
    “You egotistical, rude fool,” the female said. “You know what I am. I know what you are. Will the threat of death affect me?”
    No, it wouldn’t. I could think of nothing else to do. I had mechanicals that could be repurposed to capture her, but they weren’t close.
    “Come with you or you’ll kill me? No. If I didn’t know something you wanted to know, I’d be dead already. Let me tell you what you’re going to do. You’re going to stand there and wait until I am finished, or I will choose to die, and you won’t find out whatever it is you want to know.”
    A Religious. Stupid enough to do it. I waited.
    The female resumed her irrational mutterings and wavings. Finally she reached forward and put her hand on the old man’s forehead.
    “Blessings on your journey, Brother Lin, faithful friend. I commend your soul to God,” she said. She looked up at me. “I shall join you on your path soon.”
    The female stood. I made the come-with-me gesture again.
    “Somehow I have information you want,” she said. “You can probably confirm some suspicions of mine. We can trade. Lead. I will follow.”
    “Threat detected, high-value target,” the fort said. The telepresence view snapped away. I saw a quick, blurry view of a line of vehicles. “Enemy armored column detected and targeted.”
    “Fire,” I said.
    “Missiles away,” the fort said.
    “Conduct recon after impact. Avatar mode.”
    I was back in the telepresence mechanical. The female was watching the AI missiles fly over Central Park and turn toward their target.
    “More meaningless killing,” she said. “Tell me, are you happy with the way you live?”
    Such an idiotic, typically Religious question. With my emotion drugs, I could experience any emotion I wanted. I turned and headed back toward the fort. I heard the quiet steps of the female following.
    “Time to missile impact.”
    “Two minutes, forty-seven seconds.”
    “Recon picture analysis.”
    “Twenty-two vehicles. Five missile launchers, six heavy lasers, ten mechanical carriers, one extremely heavy land vehicle, type unknown.”
    The enemy genius would be in the vehicle. That had to be his transport and command system, his mobile fort.
    “First priority, heavy land vehicle. Second priority, heavy lasers. Third priority, missile launchers. Fourth priority, mechanical carriers.”
    “Missile priorities updated.”
    We reached the fort.
    “NirvanaBoxes,” the female said. “You’ve been destroying---.” She paused. “No, you’ve been looting NirvanaBoxes right here quite recently.”
    This caused me to turn and face the female. She sensed my question.
    “I can smell a faint trace of brain solution rotting, and a trace of fresh,” she said. “The smell is characteristic.”
    Smell. I could be found by smell. A new source of threat.
    “That’s a shock, isn’t it,” the female said. “You’re not moving. Let me guess. You toss the brains into the lake to hide your location. And your enemies can still find you anyway. Not quite the genius you think you are, are you?”
    This had to be how my location had been found. This was also something I could use to find other enemy geniuses. I filed it away for future use.
    “Impact,” the fort said. “Recon underway.”
    My combat instinct said the current battle would continue to escalate. The area around my fort was about to become an intense battlefield. The female’s information gave her a temporary, limited value. She’d be erased if she stayed out here. The safest place for her was inside my fort.
    But there was no way to get her in. I hadn’t designed the fort for such a thing. Offensive and defensive systems, the fort’s entrance system, all had to be modified, and with only the three heavy worker mechanicals in the fort available. And the fort automatically jammed all wireless networks inside the fort to hinder cyber-attacks.
    I was going to have to exit my coffin and give the orders in person.
I made a stay-here gesture to the female, waving my hand palm-down in front my chest.
    “Stay here,” the female said. “That’s your building. Being what you are, this machine isn’t capable of communicating with another human being. So you want me inside that odd building, where you’re safe, to talk. But again being what you are, that building is designed for you alone and will kill anyone else. It would be instantly fatal for me to walk in there. So you want me to wait while you make modifications.”
    I nodded. For a Religious, the female had flashes of intelligence.
    “I’ll wait until you’re ready,” the female said. “We have things to talk about. I understand it could take several hours.”
    “Store avatar,” I said. “Software mode, fort defense systems.” The avatar view vanished and I was staring at a thousand lines of code.
    “Two recon mechanicals in range,” the fort said.
    “Display.”
    I was high in the air over the remnants of an armored column. I counted seven impact craters filled with twisted metal. Mechanicals were in motion among the debris.
    “After-action report.”
    “Two heavy lasers destroyed. Two mechanical carriers destroyed in the act of emptying. Estimate fifty per cent of contents destroyed.” He’d detected the incoming missiles and had ordered his carriers to unload to preserve the combat mechanicals they were carrying. “One missile carrier destroyed, one damaged. Heavy land vehicle undetected. Three missiles destroyed in flight.”
    The world flashed red and the picture vanished.
    “Two recon mechanicals destroyed.”
    No matter. I’d learned what I needed to know. The enemy genius wasn’t withdrawing. He was coming with all he had, and this would be to the death.
    “I declare War Stage,” I said. Combat had been engaged, and it wouldn’t stop until one of us was erased. “Weapons free, weapons free, weapons free.” No more enemy mechanicals would be allowed to enter the city.
    “Acknowledged. War Stage declared. Weapons are free.”
    “Begin round-the-clock recon,” I said. “Launch all available recon mechanicals. Half high-altitude tactics, half low-altitude. Search area twenty-kilometer radius from the fort.” My combat instinct spoke, a deeply insistent throbbing. It said not to stop, to step it up to the next level, that the next action would be soon. “Prepare one hundred ground-to-ground missiles for launch-on-warning. Heat up all heavy lasers. Unsheath all anti-air systems. Arm all ground combat mechanicals. Launch fifty per cent of air-combat mechanicals, low-and-slow altitude patrols. Ready remaining fifty per cent for launch-on-warning.” I considered activating my radars. No. That would make this battle far too public, invite attack from yet more killer geniuses. I’d seen this happen in other cities. A mini-Slaughter could be triggered with no effort.
    “Routines running. Be advised resources are sufficient for one week of full-scale war.”
    “Restore fort defense software window,” I said. A program I’d looted from a CIA building in Langley popped up. I scanned the code looking for a way to get the female in. There was a global variable, Max_People, that set the maximum number of people allowable inside a building. I had set it to one. I re-set it to two, saved it, and exited. Now for the physical modifications.
    “Display fort wall blueprints,” I ordered. The drawings appeared around me. I spun around and memorized them.
    “Coffin exit,” I said. The reality vanished and I was back in my coffin. I pushed the lid open and crawled out. I negotiated my way through the booby-traps to the top floor.
    First task was to make sure the female was still alive.
    “Set video wall to display surrounding area,” I ordered. The wall showed the female examining the fort with intense curiosity. No horrorweapon had found her yet.
    My three heavy worker mechanicals were dispersed at equal angles around the dome. I called up the blueprints in my head and considered how best to get the female into the fort.
The easiest thing to do was modify the entrance to allow the entrance of a human being who wasn’t in a combat suit. The entrance was a formed piece of metal designed to hold my combat suit. All I had to do was cut this into four pieces and install some hinges to make a door out of it. I put two of the heavy worker mechanicals on this task. The third welded me back into my repaired combat suit.
I was waiting in my combat suit when the mechanicals finished the job.
    “Run entrance routine.” This would open the outer door.
    “Entrance routine complete,” the fort said after a minute.
    “Open door.”
    The mechanicals opened the door. I strode outside. The female was at the water’s edge, studying my mechanicals. I pointed at the door. The female went to the door and paused to examine the fort’s interior. I put my hand on her back and pushed her in. The female went flying into the fort and landed on her back. I stepped in behind her.
    “Close doors,” I ordered. “Fort, echo audio to first floor.”
    “Audio connected.”
    “Get into the autodoc,” I said. I pointed.
    “Why?” she said from the floor.
    It was easiest to answer rather than try to force her. I could make it in her self-interest.
    “The autodoc will cure any disease or abnormality you might have. The autodoc will make you immortal.”
    “Trying to manipulate me by my supposed fear of death,” the female said from the floor. “How very characteristic. I am already immortal, beyond anything you can imagine. As you are.” She got up from the floor. “Let’s get one thing straight right off. You won’t be able to lie to or manipulate me in any way. It would be far wiser to just tell me the truth.”
    “I need to make sure you’re not infected with horrorweapons and will die before I can get the information I need out of you,” I said.
    “Finally, the truth,” the female said. “I’m not free to leave here just yet. I have things I need to know.”
    She climbed in and closed the lid. The autodoc sealed itself and automatically went into horrorweapon-diagnosis mode, as I had programmed it to do. The oxygen mask came down and the female went limp as anesthesia hit her. Any horrorweapons present in the female would be found and removed. The process would take thirty minutes.
    “Display autodoc diagnosis,” I said.
    The wall section above the autodoc lit with several graphs, showing what the autodoc was doing to the female. It had started with an assay for Damnation Flu antibodies, was moving on to botulinus toxin, ricin, and bee venom.
    “Run sterilization routine,” I ordered. The fort interior vanished in steaming bleach fog. I could review battle progress while waiting for the sterilizing cycle to finish. “Recon synopsis.”
    “No reports,” the fort said. Policy was for recon vehicles to be radio-silent unless they detected something. “Surrounding area swept to five kilometers radius.” That didn’t feel right. I identified the bad feeling. No enemy recon mechanicals. I should’ve been encountering recon mechanicals, seeking weak points to attack. The enemy genius wasn’t doing that.
    The only point he knew about was the fort.
    So he was preparing to attack the fort itself.
    But with what? It didn’t make sense.
    Oh, but it did. I was about to be hit with something completely unexpected. A killer-genius move was coming.
    “Report problems with preparation.”
    “No problems. All combat systems are battle-ready.”
    I’d done all I could. I needed to continue redesigning my starship for the new chips. I dropped the enemy genius from my thoughts.
    “Display starship computer systems design, video wall,” I said. I continued extending my starship’s computer capabilities while keeping an eye on the autodoc monitor. Hand gestures and voice commands were slower than working in my coffin realities, but I had the job finished when the autodoc reported in.
    “Autodoc reports no horrorweapons found in subject,” the fort said. “A number of faults related to aging were detected and repaired. Cellular clock re-set. Biological age will gradually revert to twenty.”
    “Time to consciousness.”
    “Fifteen minutes.”
    “Remove the combat suit.” It was too powerful and clumsy to use in the fort’s cramped interior. One slight mis-step could destroy valuable, hard-to-replace electronics.
    “Routine running. Lie prone on the suiting table.”
    I was standing in front of the autodoc in my tunic when the female revived. I couldn’t get back into my command coffin while the female was in the fort. The autodoc was deliberately easy to get out of, and I couldn’t let the female run around unsupervised. There were too many systems she could sabotage. I was safe enough in the fort without a combat suit. I could order the mechanicals to erase her in a second. I opened the top.
    “Get out,” I said.
    The female pulled herself out, looking me over. The autodoc had cleaned her and repaired her clothing.
    “Visual anomaly detected in the sky,” the fort said. “Intense ultraviolet source. Intensity growing rapidly. Most similar velocity profile is a missile, but anomaly well exceeds known missile velocity parameters.”
    “Display.”
    The wall lit with a small actinic blue dot, trailing blue flame. A meteor, it looked like a fireball meteor.
    “Which camera is this?”
    “Top Central Park Fort camera.”
    Its position on the wall wasn’t changing.
    “Is the camera moving to track the anomaly?”
    “No.”
    The fireball was coming straight for the camera. Straight for me.
    “Targeting radar on. Target anomaly. Display velocity.”
    But it flashed into my mind what it was before the velocity appeared. A KKV, a kinetic kill vehicle, an artificial meteor, coming in from low earth orbit. A KKV had the impact energy of a small nuclear device. Now I understood the unusual delay. He’d been waiting for the KKV to reach the correct orbital position.
    “Determine impact point and time to impact.”
    “Impact point is Central Park Fort. Twenty-three seconds.”
    A KKV was just a bar of heavy metal with some guidance attached. I didn’t have anything that could destroy it. My heaviest laser could hit it precisely, and all it would do was burn a little metal off.
    I had to admire the cold intelligence of it. Completely unanticipated, a classic killer-genius move. Even in my combat suit I wouldn’t survive. I could only wonder how he’d gotten it into orbit. The power of a nuclear weapon without the EM pulse and radiation that would destroy the valuable assets he wanted. Geniuses didn’t use nukes for that reason. The only thing erased would be me and the surrounding thousand square meters. The final pinpoint attack.
    “A missile,” the female said, watching. She wasn’t scared at all. “We’re about to die, aren’t we. So much for your immortality.”
    The KKV would have a momentum approaching a heavy bomber. I had three missiles large enough to kill heavy bombers, only three because heavy bombers were an extremely low probability weapon.
    “Anomaly classified as a heavy bomber,” I said. “Launch anti-bomber missiles.”
    “Missiles away,” the fort said. “Misfire, misfire on missile two, missile two re-initializing.”
    Video from each of the two launched missiles appeared on another wall section. A blue dot was in the middle of each picture. I resisted the urge to control the missiles manually. The KKV was moving far faster than human reaction time. This was entirely out of my control, a war of mechanicals. Either my mechanicals would erase the KKV, or the KKV would erase me.
    “Misfire, misfire on second attempt, diagnostics running,” the fort said.
    There was nothing to say. All I could do was watch and wait.
    The blue dot grew to fill two pictures. Impact was imminent.
    “Enemy airborne mechanicals detected,” the fort said. “Vampire, vampire, incoming missiles. Ground mechanicals detected. Major attack, major attack. Enemy airborne radars detected. Fort has been radar-locked by enemy airborne targeting radars. Anti-bomber missiles have been radar-locked by enemy targeting radars. Heavy bomber jinking.”
    My missiles closed to within kill radius. Just before contact, explosions flashed all along the KKV’s side, kicking the KKV precisely sideways. Both my missiles missed and fell away.
    This war was over. I was erased.
    Odd, the only thing I felt was a trace of relief. Must be the scientific.
    The KKV shook, lost forward integrity, and began tumbling. The explosions hadn’t been precise enough. It didn’t matter. The KKV would no longer directly impact the fort, but close was good enough with the blast energy the KKV had.
    “Firmware error found, re-programming,” the fort said. “Missile away.”
    The missile appeared above the skyscrapers. The missile engine lit and the missile arrowed toward the KKV. It would be a direct hit.
    Too late, way too late---
    “Impact,” the fort said.
    The wall glared white light, so intense I was blinded and driven backward. The earth rocked and an iron hammer struck the fort. It cracked open like an eggshell. Hurricane wind roared in. I was picked up and thrown around like a rag doll. Something hard hit my head and I faded into semi-consciousness.
    I came to lying on my back over the center hatch. The fort was a tangle of metal beams and concrete chunks, completely exposed to the environment. A stiffness in my chest made me look down. The plasma torch had been shot completely through my chest, torch-end first, creating a vertical slit through which blood and lung tissue were gushing in a red flood.
    At last, I thought, and blackness swallowed me.

#

THE WAR OF REASON
“Because He has to---”

    I snapped back to crystal-clear consciousness. I was in the autodoc. I tried to get up, failed. I couldn’t move a muscle. I looked down. I was wrapped in blood-stained bandages tighter than a straitjacket, with dozens of clear plastic tubes attached all over my body. I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down. I wondered how I had gotten there.
    The female.
    I looked around. She was sitting on a pile of concrete chunks watching me and finishing up what I recognized as an MRE, a military Meal, Ready to Eat. She had blood-stained bandages wrapped around her upper left arm and lower left calf.
    “I wasn’t sure if that thing was still working,” she said. “You were dead. I pushed that torch handle through your chest, plugged that autodoc thing back in and put you in it.” She took a final bite.
    The fort’s dome was almost totally gone. I was completely exposed. What had been my fort was now a circular concrete slab surrounded by craters. Five pieces of the wall still remained standing. Long shadows were stretching over the slab. The sun was about to go down.
    My mind took the craters and generated a blast-wave pattern. I saw the fort’s dome being ripped into pieces as if it were paper. I saw three spherical blast waves come together where the female had been standing and nullify each other in complex reflection patterns.
    The pieces left behind at least provided some cover. The female had put the autodoc underneath one, facing out. The video wall was behind me, out of my sight.
    Most of the interior equipment was ruined and scattered, chunks of concrete and iron sticking out of it. The smell of propellant, smoke, and explosive hung heavy in the air. All the trees in Central Park were down and burning. The smoke would provide more cover. Missile fragments coated the park. In the distance, I could see laser flashes and heard explosions echoing down streets.
    Two of the heavy worker mechanicals had survived. They had almost finished repairing the third mechanical.
    “Fort, how long have I been out?”
    The wall behind me spoke.
    “Three hours, sixteen minutes,” the fort said. Good. One wall section had survived intact. Policy was for communication systems to be heavily redundant. I was still in communication and therefore in command. “Full-scale defensive combat engaged. Request offense instructions.”
    “How long until I can leave the autodoc?”
    “Autodoc estimates ten hours. Damage was severe.”
    “Your machines have been fighting some kind of battle,” the female said. I would have to be extremely careful with the female. She’d put me in the autodoc out of some idiotic Religious motivation, but I was still completely at her mercy. I was a talking head in a box. She could change her mind and erase me at her leisure. “It started after the missile hit us.”
    “War status update,” I said.
    “Full-scale combat engaged on all fronts,” the fort said. “Initial assault was aerial, followed by combined ground and tunnel attacks. Aerial assault repulsed after two hours of attack. No further aerial attacks have come. Aerial supremacy has been declared by the Air War AI subroutine. Ground assaults were made across all bridges. Ground war policy actions were implemented. Enemy was lured into attacking across all bridges by apparent defeat of bridge mechanicals. All bridges were blown while carrying enemy heavy mechanicals. Estimate fifty per cent or greater of enemy’s heavy mechanicals destroyed. Ground War AI subroutine estimates ground victory chances at sixty per cent or greater. Enemy mechanical presence detected in tunnels. All tunnels flooded. Tunnel War AI subroutine estimates tunnel victory chances eighty-five per cent or greater. No action detected by Naval AI subroutine.”
    “Release mines into tunnels,” I said. I had repulsed all his attacks. He would choose a new way. My combat instinct spoke. “Prepare for amphibious assault from the river, all sides.”
    “Routine running.”
    “Fort, instruct all mechanicals to leave the fort immediately. Set them to work repairing battle damage.”
    The two surviving mechanicals instantly dropped their tools and left. My fort had to look like a destroyed, useless base. Any moving mechanicals would draw fire immediately. I couldn’t leave because the autodoc didn’t have any mobility or remote-communications capability, so the mechanicals had to go.
    That was defense.
    “Recon update.”
    “Twenty enemy armored bases located surrounding the city. Two hundred heavy lasers, one-hundred-fifty missile launchers, one thousand five hundred mechanical carriers.”
    And they hadn’t been attacked because I hadn’t ordered it. Attack required imagination. AIs didn’t have that.
    The carriers were of no value. They were certainly empty, their contents dispersed. The missile launchers were of little value. Most of the missiles would’ve been fired in the first minutes of the war in an attempt to overwhelm my air defenses. The heavy lasers were the best target, although the chance of success was low. They’d had more than enough time to dig themselves in.
    “Target all heavy lasers, two missiles apiece. Fire.”
    “Missiles away.”
The launch blast echoed over the park. That was the expected counter-attack. Now for my unexpected killer-genius move.
    “Launch crawlers, two for each laser. Priority one, enemy mobile fort, priority two, heavy lasers.”
    “Crawlers away.”
    Across the river, heavily stealthed mobile bombs were now easing their way toward the lasers. The missiles would arrive in minutes. The crawlers would take half a day or more.
    That was offense. Now I had time for the female.
    “I’m in the wrong position,” I said. “Position the autodoc so I can see the video wall.”
    “That would put you out in the open,” the female said. “I thought you’d rather be hidden.”
    “I’m not in a combat suit,” I said. “I’ll look like an abandoned piece of equipment. Do it. Do it now. Your life is at risk. I am at war.”
    “You are always at war,” the female replied. She took a long drink from a gray plastic sack, dropped everything to the ground, where it blew away in the wind. She rose from her seat and shoved the autodoc around perpendicular to the wall so I could see the monitors covering it.
    “You need to stay under cover and away from surveillance,” I said. “Take my place.”
    She obeyed, seating herself underneath the wall directly across from me with calm dignity. It wasn’t good cover, but it was the best available.
    “What is your connection to the enemy genius attacking me?” I demanded. “How have you survived this long? How were you able to enter the city undetected? What stealth technology did you use, and where is it? How did you disable the mines at the cross? You didn’t have any mechanicals!”
    The female looked back at me. She tilted her head in an appraising fashion. She didn’t seem to have heard me.
    “What’s your name?” she asked. “Who are you?”
    “I need to know how you did it,” I said. “An attack using the same technology could be on its way. If you don’t tell me, we could both be erased.”
    “ ‘Erased’ ”, the female repeated to herself. “Yes, I see why you would call it that. Now, what’s your name?”
    “You complete idiot!” I blazed. “We could be erased any second---”
    I stopped. Frustration. Anger. Fear.
    Emotion.
    I wasn’t on scientific!
“There’s a golden-colored canister filled with wafers in the top drawer of this autodoc,” I said. “You have to get it out, get a wafer and put it in my mouth. You must do this immediately.”
    “Scientific, isn’t it,” the female said, and I jerked. “Yes, I know what scientific is. No. You can’t have it.”
    “If you don’t,” I said, “I won’t be able to think precisely, and we’re both going to be erased.”
    “The logic of what you are means you’re going to kill me anyway,” the female said. She said that with such a total lack of concern it was stunning. “And as for you, if you die, at least you’ll die human, and not some unfeeling automaton no different from the machines you command. So, yet again. What’s your name?”
    “We’re both going to be erased! What do you think, you fool, that God is going to protect us?”
    “No," the female said. "God doesn’t work like that. It would take all the meaning out of our lives."
    “Impact,” the fort said. “Recon under way.”
    “Relax,” the female said. “Take a deep breath. My name is Lydia, Lydia Stillwell. Now repeat my name back to me. Or you won’t get what you want.”
    Another, deeper shock hit me. I wasn’t on scientific.
    But the knot hadn’t exploded. I wasn’t in pain.
    I could feel why. It was Lydia's lack of fear. A serene, calming energy was radiating from her, bathing the knot and easing its pain.
    It was an entirely new phenomenon for me. Even in the face of the termination of her existence, she possessed this serene peace in her core, no fear at all, and somehow she was communicating some of that peace to me.
    “Lydia,” I said, “Lydia Stillwell.” The exchange of names was a reminder of different days, drawing me back into the person I’d been in the ancient days before the Slaughter, all of six months ago.
    “Very good,” Lydia said. “Your turn. Rejoin the human race, even if only for a little while. Tell me your name.”
    “I am,” I said, “Michael Stone.”
“Michael Stone,” Lydia said. “I know that name. Why do I know that name?” She studied my face. “I know you. You were that child Ph.D genius who joined the Air Force. Colonel Michael Stone. You were the youngest colonel the Air Force ever had. You committed genocide.”
    “I did,” I said. “I flew the Slaughter of Afghanistan. After the remnants of Al-Qaeda initiated the Massacre of Michigan with genetically modified smallpox. I flew the command bomber. I erased the entire Afghani population with Russian-made botox mosquitoes.”
    “I remember. It was horrible.”
    “It was policy,” I said. “Mutual Assured Destruction.”
    “And after that mission, you left the Air Force,” Lydia said. “Psychological discharge for PTSD.”
    “When I got back from the mission, I told them civilization was intrinsically unstable, that the entire human race was going to wipe itself out within fifty years,” I said. “I didn’t know about the Cambridge Project for Children. They didn’t believe me. They decided I’d gone crazy from post-traumatic stress syndrome and discharged me.”
    “And that’s why you’re here in New York, why you had this building, all these war machines,” Lydia said. She waved her hand around. “You knew the Slaughter was coming and why, probably the first to do so. You planned. You were prepared.”
    “Yes,” I said. “I didn’t know how or where, but I did know human civilization was intrinsically unstable and why, and the final collapse would be within my lifetime because of high technology. After my discharge I figured out how to build self-replicating mechanicals, bought and stored certain vital tools, stole and modified combat routines, hoping I could get it all done before the collapse happened. An unknown number of other geniuses also deduced what was going to happen and did the same thing.”
    “Now you and all these other ‘geniuses’ battle to kill each other,” Lydia said, “because it is completely impossible for you to do anything else.”
    “Yes. The biggest threat to a human being has always been another human being. Other humans must be the primary target.”
    “You in particular are a primary target because you’ve taken this island.”
    “Correct,” I said. “This island is resource-rich, heavily interconnected, and, being an island, easily defended. There are millions of chips and tons of refined metal that can be turned into huge numbers of weapons with little effort. That’s why I took it, and why other killer geniuses will try to take it away from me.”
    “And you can’t agree to just ignore each other,” Lydia said. “Without souls, all forms of sentient societies are intrinsically unstable, even one whose members have zero dependence on each other and zero interaction with each other.”
    “Rigorously true,” I said. I felt a flash of surprise at the depth of her understanding. “The lack of souls is the absolutely critical key. That lack makes sudden violent collapse of any form of society a certainty.” My combat instinct spoke. It said it was very important to know how smart this female was, to test her intelligence to its limit. “With sufficiently high technology, the smallest spark causes instant catastrophic collapse. I can illustrate this point. Remember the Rational Sociopaths?”
    “Vaguely,” Lydia replied. “Group of university academics who thought society could be stable without souls if only every member were smart enough?”
    “That’s the ones,” I said. “I found what’s left of them three months ago. Fort, Miami enemy fort locations, drone view, display.”
    A monitor lit with a view of Miami from sixty thousand feet. Red dots marked the location of the forts my intelligence mechanicals had found.
    “Each member is armed essentially equally. They have interdependent defense treaties and are well aware war will result in mutual mass suicide. They think because they’re all geniuses, their social organization is stable. It is not. Their social organization is catastrophically unstable, as I shall demonstrate. Fort, signal to intelligence mechanical: ‘Initiate Slaughter’ .”
    A single red laser shot flickered on the monitor, was gone. The targeted fort’s AI fired back instantly and hit a second fort, as I had programmed. Within seconds the air was filled with criss-crossing laser shots, as their interlocking defense treaties demanded. Missiles rose, flew short flight paths and impacted. Red fireballs mushroomed upward all over the city in an orgy of pre-programmed death and killing. Lydia watched it happen with a grim, resigned look on her face.
    Within minutes the tiny Slaughter was over. Nothing remained of the enemy forts except craters and black smoke.
    I hated losing whatever potential riches those forts contained, but any enemy geniuses watching me would now be pulled to Miami. Looting freshly killed corpses was far safer than mixing in a war. In my current severely weakened condition, this was best.
    “World War One in miniature,” Lydia commented. She watched smoke columns rise into clear blue sky. “Foolish children.”
    “In a historical sense, the situations are exactly parallel,” I said. “Video off.” The view disappeared.
    “The U.K. flash riots were also parallel,” Lydia said. “When everybody else co-operates to get resources, co-operation to get resources is the smartest choice. When even one person acts selfishly to get resources, then the smartest choice becomes also to act selfish. The quicker you turn selfish, the more resources you capture, which means everybody smart turns selfish as fast as possible---and society collapses in a microsecond. Into sudden looting that spreads throughout the entire society like wildfire. Or sudden missile launches.”
    To make that connection, she was far smarter than I’d thought. I still hadn’t hit her limit. My survival depended on knowing.
    “And after World War One,” I said, “a brief pause wherein killing technology advanced, then another violent expression of increasing societal instability, World War Two.”
    “Of which the Holocaust was the most significant part,” Lydia said. She knew I was probing the extent of her intelligence. “First of the scientific, advanced-technology massacres, a run-up, a historical foreshadowing, of the Slaughter to come.”
    Now I knew how smart she was. And why she was still alive.
    “You knew the Slaughter was coming too,” I said. “You were hidden and prepared, as we were. You are one of us, a genius.” It wasn’t going to be easy to stay in her favor.
    “Not like you,” Lydia said, leaning back. “Not like any of you. I didn’t try to hide from it. I tried to stop it.”
    “Why not? Why aren’t you like us?”
    “Such a foolish question,” Lydia said. “You think you’re a genius. You tell me.”
    “You believe in souls,” I said.
    “Imprecisely stated,” Lydia said. “Your thinking lacks rigor. Which isn’t surprising. I believe people are eternal beings. Since human bodies are material and certainly not eternal, human beings must therefore have a non-material component. They must have souls.”
    “Prove it,” I said. “Prove it by scientific standards. Prove it in the laboratory.”
    “I was trying,” Lydia said. “I was trying as hard as I could. Brother Lin was my assistant. I saw the connection between the random mass shootings, then the flash riots, and eventually the Great Massacres. I knew human civilization was unstable and I knew why. I knew the Slaughter would happen if the existence of souls wasn’t confirmed in the laboratory, and soon.”
    “You were trying? What were you doing?”
    “I am a theoretical physicist,” Lydia said. “Or was.”
    “Oh?” I decided to test for one particular talent. “What is the complementary value of the error function of the square root of six, to four decimal places?
    “Five point three two zero one times ten to the negative four,” she replied without hesitation. Talent confirmed.  “Oh, yes, I can do it, too.”
    “Your field of study?”
     “My field of study is---was---human consciousness. I studied the brain. There was quite a bit of experimental data that indirectly indicated the presence of a soul-field existing co-terminal with the human brain and directing it.”
    “Such as?”
    “McFadden’s experiments that showed sections of the brain communicated with each other faster than was chemically possible, Bem’s experiments that demonstrated humans had precognitive abilities, a property ordinary matter doesn’t have and therefore indicated humans possessed a component not composed of ordinary matter.”
    “I never heard of your work, and I looked. I looked very hard. Why?”
    “Because Brother Lin and I failed,” Lydia said. “We had nothing to publish. All our experiments failed. We both knew the souls had to be there. We just couldn’t discover what the detecting principle was. Whatever composes the soul must be something radically new. I am a theoretician, not an experimentalist. And then the Children screamed and the Damnation Flu broke out everywhere at once and we knew our time, the human race’s time, had just run out.”
    “How did you survive the Slaughter?”
    “I located my lab in Canada, in the far north, very cold and very far away from the cities. Biological weapons don’t work very well in severe cold, and I knew from the Great Massacres they'd be the primary killing technology employed if the Slaughter happened.”
    “Did you know about the Children? They were also trying to detect souls.”
    “Not before the Slaughter,” Lydia said. “I found out about them on the day the Slaughter started." She shuddered. "When they screamed.”
    “Why are you here? How did you penetrate my defenses?”
    “When the Slaughter started, we closed the lab and waited until the worst of it was over,” Lydia said. “Then we left in a little sealed electric car Brother Lin had made to try to save whoever we could. We had made preparation, as you have deduced. But we never found one single survivor. Instead what we found, over and over again, were small groups of survivors who had been massacred with horrorweapons. In Calgary we witnessed a battle between two people in metal suits and I realized why we were finding this, what the final expression of the Slaughter was.”
    “The final evolutionary step of Man,” I said. “The most supremely intelligent, supremely sociopathic human possible. The killer genius.”
    “This is what I need confirmed,” Lydia said. “These killer geniuses are wiping out all survivors, aren’t they. Any other human or group of humans is casually massacred the second they’re found, because other human beings are nothing but a competition for resources and a potential threat to their existence.”
    “I confirm your reasoning,” I said. “That is exactly what is happening.”
    “The human race will soon be gone from the planet Earth,” Lydia said.
    One final test, combined with another chance to curry favor.
    “Yes,” I said. “One other thing you should know. My intelligence mechanicals report all stores of cobalt are being cleaned out.”
    She got it without the slightest hesitation.
“Cobalt-clad fusion bombs are being built,” she said. “They will be exploded in order to scatter radioactive cobalt over all the Earth. The destruction of the biosphere will continue, down to the level of insects, in order to wipe out any humans left.”
    “Any non-genius humans,” I said. “It’s the smartest, cheapest, most efficient, safest thing to do.”
    “And nothing can stop this,” Lydia said.
    “Nothing,” I said. “The human race will soon be extinct. And you’ve known this from the Slaughter’s first day. Haven’t you?”
    Lydia wrapped her arms around herself and looked out, past my ruined fort, seeing the dead people, the empty city, the empty skies, and now the coming Slaughter of all that was left of Earth.
    “I have,” she said, mostly to herself. “I don’t want to, but I do. This is our extinction event.”
    “It is,” I said. “The human race is done. Forget them. Now tell me. How did you get into the city, past all my defenses?”
    She didn’t answer. Just when I was finally about to get the vital information I needed, she had to get emotional. I started to get angry in automatic sociopathic reflex, curbed the impulse just in time. I couldn’t afford to make her angry. She could erase me on a whim. If she needed time to give up her last hope of saving the human race, I had to give it to her.
    A flight of my airborne combat mechanicals flew over, on patrol for the coming battle. Lydia watched them go by. Finally she shrugged, last hope gone. It hadn’t taken long. That was odd.
    “I drove up, got out of my car, and just walked in,” she said. I got the hint. The salvation of humanity was a closed subject, not to be mentioned again. “I was thinking how to get to Brother Lin all the way up here. I thought of a way in where I wouldn’t be detected. All the weapons and defenses I’d seen were designed to detect metal and heavy mass. Because of horrorweapons, you expect everyone to be armored. So I went in with no mass and no metal, so I wouldn’t be detected and automatically killed before I could reach Brother Lin. Did it work?”
    “Yes,” I said. “My systems never saw you until you reached the priest.” She’d gotten in because of a program flaw. My weapons and systems were programmed to detect and erase single armored humans or groups of Religious. A single unarmored human was neither, and so she had just walked past and over every weapon, mine, and detection system I had. My systems hadn’t detected her until she reached the priest and became a group of two, a group of Religious. A hole, but not a glaring hole.
    No question she was a genius. She had her own brand of genius moves, unconsidered possibilities.
    “A single unprotected human is completely invisible to your defenses,” Lydia said. “I just walked in.”
    An enemy genius could get in, but once in he couldn’t do anything. Some reprogramming, a few light mines scattered here and there, and this problem was solved.
    “How did you avoid residual horrorweapons?”
    “Horrorweapons were designed to reproduce and feed off humans,” Lydia said. “Humans are gone. So the horrorweapons are gone, too. Mostly. If you’re careful and stay out of the cities, you can survive. You watched the Slaughter happen right in front of you, didn’t you?”
    “Yes. I watched people die in the street right outside my window. All over the world.”
    “I think all of your kind did. That’s why the constant metal suits. It has warped your perception of the world.”
    No. I wasn’t the one with the warped perception. She was. She hadn’t witnessed it and had no idea what she was talking about.
    “Why did you come here in the first place? How did you know where the cross was?”
    “I was told and given a map,” Lydia said. “Brother Lin and I were captured about two weeks ago. We had just blown up a building full of NirvanaBoxes when a metal suit came marching up the street and told us to follow him, or he’d kill us on the spot.”
    More chips. More of those rare, last-for-millennia chips, free for the looting.
    “How many Boxes have you destroyed? Where were they?”
    “Thousands and thousands. In different places. Some in simple sealed warehouses, some in reinforced concrete bunkers like this place used to be. Brother Lin and me, we broke in and destroyed them with sledgehammers, blew them up with explosives, set their buildings on fire, destroyed as many as we could. That’s how I knew what brain solution smelled like.”
    Religious people committing murder? It wasn’t sociopathic, but I had to know why religious people would do such a thing. The urge to know was strong because I wasn’t on scientific. I could’ve resisted, but it was harmless.
    “You were erasing people?”
“Yes. It was Brother Lin’s idea. ‘Our duty to the Universe’, he called it.” She smiled a crooked half-smile, humor in remembrance. “He couldn’t say ‘God’. Buddhists don’t believe in God.”
    Crazier and crazier.
    “The priest thought of this?”
    “Yes.”
    “What was his reasoning?”
    “We were freeing trapped souls. Souls who were gradually being driven insane. Consider. The NirvanaBoxes were programmed so that their inhabitants always got what they wanted in their artificial lives. What would millennia and millennia of always getting what you want do to a human being?”
    “Turn him into an insane sociopath, of course. But this was known even when the first NirvanaBoxes were being built. Why is this a bad thing? They’re not capable of harming anyone.”
    “When the Boxes finally fail, as they must, and the brains die, insane souls will be released back into the Universe,” Lydia said. “This can’t be allowed to happen. They will be re-born selfish, total sociopaths.”
    “But the human race is gone,” I said. “No more children will be born. Even by your belief system, that can’t happen.”
    Lydia looked up at the night sky. The sun had gone down, and the night sky was clear and moonless. With all the city lights dead, stars by the thousands were scattered like sparkling dust over the sky.
    “Not here,” Lydia said. "Not on this planet." Her gaze swept across the glowing starscape. “Into the Universe’s other sentient races.”
    “You think other sentient races exist? What is your evidence for this?”
    “Human history,” Lydia said. “It’s nothing I can prove now, but I think souls driven insane by being in NirvanaBoxes have been re-born here and caused great harm. I can’t let that happen to other races. All NirvanaBoxes have to be destroyed as soon as possible.”
    “You are Buddhist, then? Like the priest?”
    “Not really,” Lydia said. “But I’ve always thought people reincarnated. It was the simplest solution.”
    Given her beliefs, her actions were logical. Here was another chance to curry favor, to keep her from erasing me.
“All NirvanaBoxes are being destroyed,” I said. “At the current rate of destruction, they’ll all be gone in three months.”
    “How do you know this?”
    “From my network of intelligence mechanicals. The chips in a NirvanaBox were the finest, longest-lasting chips the human race ever produced,” I said, “and for that reason killer geniuses battle each other to get them. I have found evidence all over the world of battles to get and loot NirvanaBoxes.”
    “That’s why you’re not in one,” Lydia said. “I wondered about that until I smelled brain solution and realized why you’d do such a thing. You wanted the highest-quality chips to make weapons. It makes sense.”
    “I knew what would happen to them after the collapse,” I replied. “They were going to be looted for their parts. All geniuses realized this. We stayed out of NirvanaBoxes.”
    “How certain are you? There can be no mistake with this.”
    “During the Slaughter I copied NirvanaSystems’ servers. I found a file with the storage locations of all the NirvanaBoxes ever made. The access logs had hundreds of downloads listed for this file. I wasn’t the only genius searching for NirvanaBoxes. Every single NirvanaBox is going to wind up looted and destroyed.”
    “That’s a very large weight off my mind, then,” Lydia said, and sighed. “I am free now.”
To do what, I wondered. The human race was gone and wasn’t coming back. Soon the biosphere would be shattered a thousand times worse than it was now, the Earth itself be uninhabitable for an unarmored human. A thought crossed my mind.
    “That explains how you were found,” I said. “He was looting Boxes and found you.” I could forget about the free chips. The enemy genius undoubtedly had them all by now.
    “Submarines detected,” the fort said. “Torpedoes fired. Mines activated. Video communication request received.”
    A communication request? From a sociopath?
    “Be advised outbound communication will not be possible as outgoing communication facilities do not exist,” the fort continued.  “Communication will be one-way only.”
    “What? That’s impossible.” It had to be an attempt to subvert my computers. “Check request for viruses.”
    “Request checked. No viruses detected.”
    “Accept request.” What possible reason could there be for this?
    A face appeared on the wall, and I knew why. I saw the callow face of a young man in his early twenties.  A vivid tattoo dominated his right cheek.
    The Earth spiked with a blood-dripping knife, with “F=ma” under it.
“A Child of the Slaughter,” Lydia said.
    An ice spear rammed down my spine. But I had always known, I had known from the first second.
    The Child leaned into the camera. His gigantic face filled the wall, arching over us. His eyes were empty as vacuum, his face stone, completely inhuman. He opened his mouth.
    He screamed.
    A river of anger like boiling acid poured out of the screen and burned through my mind. Lydia watched it without any reaction at all.
    The video blinked out, leaving a ringing silence.
“Scientists went through the entire world and collected all the world’s genius children,” Lydia said into the silence. “Then they gathered those children together in Cambridge and taught them their actions had no physical meaning, their lives had no physical meaning, their feelings had no physical meaning.”
    “They taught them the truth,” I said.
    “And the Children of the Slaughter were the result,” Lydia said.
    “It was,” I said.
    “And thus their tattoo,” Lydia said. “Newton’s Second Law: For every action, there is a reaction.”
    “The Children have an artistic streak,” I said. “I have to point out the Children themselves confirmed their intrinsic lack of value in the lab before they acted. For more than a year, they hunted for any evidence for souls. They found nothing.”
    “They quit too soon on their experiments,” Lydia said. “Far too soon.”
    “The Children didn’t have the time,” I said. “Their time window to preserve their existence was limited. Society was already showing signs of the collapse to come. Multiple coordinated suicide attacks like 9/11, smart children like themselves committing random mass murder, the appearance and spread of NirvanaBoxes, the continual U. K. flash riots they witnessed personally in Cambridge, then the city-scale and larger Great Massacres. It was clear to anybody with any intelligence the Long Fall had begun. It was strike immediately in a controlled burn to survive a completely inevitable collapse, or wait and be caught off guard and erased in yet another Great Massacre by yet another completely new, unanticipated killing technology.”
    “Kill, or be killed,” Lydia said. “A purely Darwinian motive, but without souls, eternal existence, only purely Darwinian motives are possible.”
    “Smart,” I said. “ ‘Smart’ is the most accurate word.”
    “No,” Lydia said. “ ‘Possible’ is correct. Consider. When souls were considered to have been proven to be non-existent, society went away.”
    “Instantly,” I said.
    “What does that imply?” Lydia asked, and answered her own question. “That unless people had souls, the concept of ‘society’ never could’ve evolved and persisted in the first place. Society, particularly with the structure it had, never could’ve formed.”
    “That’s certainly a new angle on the problem,” I said.
    “Remember I’m a theoretician,” Lydia said. “I was on the Internet when they did it. When they took over the all the media, the Internet, and screamed at the entire world. Just before the Slaughter started.”
    “So was I,” I said. “I was finishing up my Ground War AI subroutine. I knew the final collapse had come.”
    “They must always do that. Scream before they attack.”
    “I don't know. This is the first Child I’ve gone to war with. The final battle is about to start. Lydia---”.  I felt an alien flash of connection at saying her name. “--I am going to need scientific to fight this war. It doubles my effective intelligence.”
    “No,” she said. She shook her head. “You can’t have it. Under any circumstances.”
    Red laser flashes flared into being all around us, bouncing off the glass in the skyscrapers in multiple reflections, stark against the night’s blackness. Central Park lit up entirely in red, as if from a giant, unseen fire.
    “Hell is here,” Lydia said. “The Child is here.”
    “Air-borne mechanicals inbound,” the fort said. “Vampire, vampire, incoming missiles. Ground combat mechanicals detected across the river on all sides. Laser fire coming from all sides.” My river anti-air systems went into action, blowing up streams of air-combat mechanicals and missiles. “Major attack, major attack. All crawler bombs detected and destroyed.”
    The Child’s pinpoint attacks had failed. He’d given up trying to get my assets. Now he’d try one large overwhelming attack, to destroy everything I had so he could take the island.
    “One last time,” I said. “This is going to be the largest, final battle. A Child of the Slaughter, unquestionably one of the most lethal killer geniuses on Earth, is coming with everything he’s got. I’m going to need every edge I’ve got to win. Give me scientific, or we’re both going to die.”
    “Your constant deliberate blindness is beyond belief,” Lydia said. “I am an eternal being. I have a soul. Your constant warnings of my existence being wiped out only makes me laugh at how stupid you are. Scientific cuts you off from your feelings, from your soul, from what makes you human. And for this reason, you can’t have it, under any circumstances. No.”
    If I didn’t convince Lydia to give me scientific, and soon, I was going to be erased, plain and simple. Somehow I had to break Lydia’s irrational belief she had a soul, so her continued existence would become important to her, so I could get scientific, so I could survive. One more battle to fight and win on top of the one I already had.
    I had to deal with the immediate threat first.
    “Fort, go to full-scale threat display,” I said. The time of remaining hidden was over. Now the smartest strategy was to appear overwhelmingly powerful, impregnable.
    “Full-scale threat display acknowledged,” the fort said. “Initiating blow-off.”
    I listened and heard explosions. All over the city, camouflage covers were being blown off and weapons were rising into position, radars, lasers, missile launchers, artillery, aircraft launchers, close-in weapon systems. Ground combat mechanicals were marching up from subway entrances into the streets.
    “Jamming program running,” the fort said. “Random EMP routine started.” That would shut down long-range communication. The Child would only be able to communicate reliably with his mechanicals only via line-of-sight laser. He’d try, but random electromagnetic pulses would eventually destroy all his radios.
    “Commence artillery bombardment of laser positions,” I ordered. A crash of thunder sounded in the distance, and then the whistle of outbound shells overhead. The thunder continued. The bombardment wouldn’t destroy the lasers, but would keep them busy destroying arty shells instead of firing at my mechanicals.
    “Light up radars. Destroy all incoming airborne mechanicals.” I longed to be in my command coffin. Not possible. I would fight this war as a talking head in an autodoc in a mangled fort, without virtual reality, on a tiny section of video wall, completely exposed to the environment. My genius would get its most brutal workout yet. “Display tactical.”
    The wall lit up with New York island almost covered with constantly changing symbols and numbers. My assets in green, known enemy assets in red, suspected enemy assets in violet.
    My primary objective was to find my enemy’s mobile fort and destroy it. The initial attack was coming from all sides. The Child was forcing me to spread my defenses out. Which meant he was about to try a saturation attack on one point. Studying the displays revealed nothing about which direction the attack would come from.
    My AIs were doing their defensive job well. All enemy assets were still outside the island. Nothing had made it across the river. I couldn’t see any reason to intervene. I could start my second war.
    “Lydia,” I said over the background rumble. “The Children’s soul-detection experiments failed. Your soul-detection experiments failed. You aren’t an eternal being, you have no soul. Why do you persist in this false belief? Give me scientific so we can both continue to exist.”
    “Because I’m a theoretician,” Lydia said. She tilted her head back. “Theoretical analysis of human behavior reveals the assumption of eternal existence. Since human bodies aren’t eternal, humans must therefore possess a non-material, eternal component. Humans must have souls.”
    “And I’m an experimentalist,” I said. “All efforts to detect souls failed. Theoretical analysis of human behavior? That’s impossible. Human behavior is hypercomplex. Beyond understanding.”
    Lydia laughed. She actually laughed, in the middle of a battle to the death. It struck me like a physical blow, such casual disregard of erasure. It didn’t seem sane.
    I realized I might have found the true reason for her serene fearlessness. At bottom, she might no longer be sane. Her world was gone into horror, beyond all hope of coming back. There was nothing left for her to do but die. She just didn’t care anymore.
    “You continue to misunderstand me,” Lydia said. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to. You’re trying to convince me by logic I don’t have a soul, so I’ll give you scientific in order to continue to exist.”
    “I am,” I said. “If I can convince you---by the rules of logic and science---you don’t have a soul, will you give me scientific?” I felt a faint electric tickle run across my face. I had to be in the path of an EMP. I hoped it didn't affect the autodoc.
    “I will,” Lydia said. “But you’re going to have to convince me, by the rules of logic and science. I, on the other hand, will use this opportunity, again by the rules of logic and science, to demonstrate theoretically we are all eternal beings and always have been, and that all your unbearable pain and fear is unnecessary and wrong.”
    Lydia left cover. She got up from her seat, walked over and leaned into the autodoc.
    “Listen to me, Michael,” she said. She put her face close to mine. I smelled sweat and skin. “Listen to me, and think---and all your pain will go away, and your life will have meaning again.”
    And I would cease fighting this war, cede the city to the Child, and be erased with a smile on my face. I sensed the fine hand of the Child behind one last layered, subtle attack. Always wheels within wheels with geniuses.
    “There is no chance of that,” I said.
    “It’s going to depend on how smart you truly are,” Lydia said. She withdrew from the autodoc and resumed her seat. “Let this battle begin. Does continued failure to detect something prove that particular thing doesn’t exist?”
    “No,” I said. A missile struck a skyscraper in the distance, blowing its top off. A radar, a preliminary strike to take down missile defenses. “Strictly speaking, it doesn’t.”
    “So immediately, right off the bat, we’ve found a very fundamental error in your logic,” Lydia said. “Such a gross error implies you’ve never even tried to do this. Look at human behavior from a theoretical standpoint.”
    “Of course not,” I said. “Examine human behavior from a theoretical standpoint? It's completely impossible. Human behavior is hypercomplex. Beyond any scientist, beyond what I can do, beyond even the Children. They never attempted any such thing.”
    “And they were all terribly wrong,” Lydia said. “Listen, and think. You've always been a person apart, haven't you. Alone. Isolated. Sealed off from the world and other people by what you were.”
    “One of the random advantages of evolution,” I said. “It prepared me to survive the Slaughter.”
    “God have pity on you,” she said, “but this will work to our advantage. You already have the necessary objective distance from people the analysis takes. So. Personally I started this journey by examining my own personal actions and realizing I had been acting all my life as if I had a soul, but that wouldn’t work with you.”
    “No,” I said, “it wouldn’t. I realized that if there were no souls, the only rational thing to be was a sociopath long before the Slaughter.” Short-range missiles launched from where the cross was and went cruising between the buildings. One of my mobile systems, trying a stealth attack.
    “Let us examine group behavior, then. What would be the first rule a society composed of sentient eternal beings would evolve?”
    “Why the term ‘eternal being’?” A flash of white strobed from behind the video wall. The tactical display showed an entire column of enemy heavy mechanicals being destroyed in a precision strike of fuel-air explosives.
    “Half of solving a problem is asking precisely the right question,” Lydia said. Ground shock rattled the fort. The wind brought a whiff of diesel. “The precisely right question is not whether or not people have souls. Trying to answer that question only leads to confusion. The precisely right question is whether or not people are eternal beings. This is a question that can be answered. So what would be their first rule?”
    “Pontoon bridge-building detected,” the fort said. “Amphibious assault being attempted. Mines destroying amphibious vehicles.”
    “Concentrate all artillery on enemy heavy worker mechanical building bridges for thirty seconds,” I said, “then return to previous task.”
    “Acknowledged,” the fort said. “Concentrating artillery on enemy heavy worker mechanicals building bridges for thirty seconds.”
    Back to Lydia, to my second war.
    “You can’t escape the consequences of your actions,” I said. “That would be the first rule of an eternal-being society.”
    “Did this rule exist in human society? What was it called?”
    “It did,” I said. “Justice.”
    “Is the existence of the concept of justice theoretical evidence, then, for the existence of souls?”
    “It is,” I replied, “but there is an alternative explanation.”
    “State it.”
    “Altruism genes,” I said. “Altruism genes explain justice and several other concepts you haven’t mentioned. Empathy. Compassion. Our brains and bodies, particularly our brains, are hard-wired for all these things. That’s the main reason I have to have scientific, to nullify the effects of my altruism genes.”
    “What physical force caused altruism genes to evolve in the first place?”
    “You surprise me,” I said. “You don’t deny the existence of altruism genes?”
    “By no means,” Lydia said. “Their presence is highly significant. Why are they there?”
    “They counteract the effect of increasing human intelligence,” I said. “There is a basic conflict between the survival of the individual and the survival of the species. This conflict is particularly acute in an intelligent species.”
    “If there are no souls, the only rational thing to be is a sociopath,” Lydia said. “Only an intelligent species would realize this.”
    “Of course,” I said. “Altruism, self-sacrifice, is necessary to propagate a species---but self-sacrifice isn’t smart. So the higher the intelligence in a species, the more powerful and numerous the altruism genes have to be. Does my explanation work?”
    “It does, in a crude fashion,” Lydia said, “but there is one problem.”
    An enemy airborne mechanical was blown up over the park, a mere hundred meters from us, briefly painting Lydia's face white and blowing her hair back. She didn't jump, scream in fear, or anything. If she were frightened at all, I couldn’t see it.
    “State the problem,” I said. Her lack of fear was an ongoing surprise. It was as if this intellectual battle was the real battle, and the other battle literally wasn't there.
    “Why were people with inferior genes allowed to live?” she asked. “People whose genes were so bad they were only barely capable of propagating the species? If an intelligent species is to survive, less-intelligent members should be killed before they can breed. There should be no altruism genes designed to preserve the weak. You should act altruistically only toward the smart. You should feel happy when killing the weak, even if they’re your own children.”
    “That’s a problem, but it’s not significant,” I said. “I point out the less-intelligent were wiped out in the end.”
    “And you felt happy about that?”
    I fell silent. Lydia didn’t say a word. She just waited.
    “Visual anomaly detected in the sky,” the fort said.
    “Display.”
    A gray cloud was rising from behind the Child's position and moving at speed over the city.
    “Show radar of the visual anomaly.”
    The radar showed only a faint diffuse reflection. Whatever that cloud was, there was no metal in it. It was therefore not a weapon.
    “Ranked not important,” I said. “Continue battle.”
    “Acknowledged. Battle continuing.”
    I turned back to Lydia.
    “You insist on perfection,” I said. “With any problem involving human beings, inconsistencies are inevitable. Evolution is sloppy and human behavior is hypercomplex. No model involving humans will be perfect and cover everything.”
    “Spoken like an experimentalist,” Lydia said. “Mine is. All bases are covered.”
    “Spoken like a theoretician,” I said. I felt a growing certainty I’d found the answer to her lack of fear. Insistence on perfection was a mark of lunacy. “State your reasoning.”
    “Have you ever considered the evolutionary effect of souls on human bodies?”
    “No,” I said, “and I don’t see one now.”
    “I haven’t postulated a mechanism,” Lydia said. “Suppose reincarnation was correct. Suppose even the earliest forms of humans had souls that reincarnated. What would be the effect of the reincarnation process on the human body over an evolutionary timescale?”
    “The earliest forms of humans were essentially animals,” I said. “Your model implies animals have souls.” I had her. Finally, I had her.
    “Very astute,” Lydia said, “correct. For that reason, I conducted my experiments on animals.”
Animals with souls. Such a silly idea. No wonder she had failed. I waited for a disproving counter-argument to pop into my head.
    Nothing happened.
    I felt the faintest stirrings of uneasiness and hope. A feeling like a flashbulb going off, illuminating an area I had thought permanently dark.
    “You could explain altruism genes with this model,” I said.
    “How would increasing experience, evolution, change a soul? A soul has no genes. So what would change? ”
    “Intelligence,” I said. “That’s what would change for a soul. Reincarnation would cause a soul's intelligence to increase. Without limit.”
    “So it would. And?”
    “The increasing intelligence of the reincarnating souls would strongly affect the evolution of the bodies they inhabited.”
    “Correct again,” Lydia said. “Why is killing the weak not acceptable?”
    “Their genes might be weak, but people are not their genes,” I said. More implications sank in. “If you kill them, they wouldn’t like it.”
    “Think killing the weak would backfire on you?”
    “Yes.”
    “Does human history support the idea killing the weak will backfire on you?”
    “Recent human history,” I said. “Until the last five or six years. Until the Slaughter.”
    “Conceded,” Lydia said. “Recent. When the human race had gotten smarter, as the reincarnation process continued to have its effect on the souls as well as the genes. What would be a smarter idea than killing the weak?”
    “To take care of them while they’re weak,” I said. “They would like that. They’d remember and be grateful, to your eventual gain.”
    “What would be the evolutionary effect? On the genome?”
    “Over an evolutionary time scale,” I said, “so-called altruism genes would be implanted very deeply into the genome. Genes to make you happy to take care of the weak instead of making you happy to kill them.”
    “ ‘So-called’,” Lydia said. “You’re getting smarter. What has altruism become?”
    “Altruism becomes a mistake, an idea born of lack of understanding,” I said. “It’s not altruism. It’s self-interest.” It continued to sink in. “I might be re-born as one of those weak one day. I would prefer being treated kindly instead of being arbitrarily killed.”
    “You’ve failed,” Lydia said, “decisively. My model explains those altruism genes you fight so hard and fits human behavior a thousand times better than your model, and you know it. No scientific. You will remain human.”
    A wrinkled something hit the ground outside the fort with a soft thump. There was just enough starlight to see what it was.
    A dried-up corpse. This one was wearing a tattered T-shirt, cut-off jeans, and cheap sneakers. A refugee, caught and erased outside the city.
    I heard more crashes. I stretched my neck to try and see what was going on but couldn’t make it. Lydia stood up and peeked around the wall, came back and took cover again.
    “Bodies,” she said. “Bodies are falling from the sky.”
    “From balloons,” I said. I understood the lack of a radar reflection. “A psychological attack. Like the scream. He’s reminding me of the meaningless of our existence, of our actions, of exactly how much the Universe valued the human race.”
    “Himself, too,” Lydia said. “This attack is the Child talking to himself. He has to keep repeating it to himself. Even now, he wonders. A Child of the Slaughter. Now I know why I’m still alive. He conducted one more soul experiment.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “He should’ve killed me once his trap was set,” Lydia said. “All he needed was one person to set his trap by the cross. Instead he told me where Brother Lin was, why he was there, and the odds were every street in the city was laced with mines and booby-traps. Then he took me out to my car, gave me a map, and let me go.”
    “He wanted to see which way you’d go.”
    “He did. I could’ve gone away from the city, abandoned Brother Lin to save my own life. Instead I got into the car and headed for New York. The Child watched me go, Michael. I could see him in the rear view mirror. That Child stood in the middle of the road in his ridiculous tin suit and watched me drive to New York until I disappeared.”
    “Why you, I wonder.”
    “Because he suspected I was a genius," Lydia said. "Somehow he knew exactly who we were. A genius, like him---but not in armor, not trying to kill the rest of the human race. It must've greatly puzzled him. So one more soul-detection experiment.”
    More bodies fell from the sky, two, four, seven, in a gradually increasing torrent all over Central Park.
    “The soul-detection experiments all failed,” I said. “That failure simply cannot be ignored. The Children were the best we had. And they looked. And they failed.”
    The desire to believe Lydia flared in me. There actually was a strictly rational logic to her beliefs.
The fall of bodies built to a crescendo, a roaring gray waterfall of death, jarring me back to the reality of the Universe’s intrinsic cruelty, forcing me to see the truth even without scientific.
    My altruism genes were trying to manipulate me again. To suck me into Lydia’s twisted reality, to believe her religious delusions of meaning. I couldn’t trust my thoughts when I wasn’t on scientific.
    Lydia watched corpses rain in, land on the hard concrete and burst open in clouds of shattered bones and dried guts. I found myself watching her reaction throughout the shower, expecting to see her finally flinch and show fear, disgust, something.
    Lydia saw me watching her for a reaction.
    "These things are not the real people," she said. She waved her hand at the corpses. "They never were. That's why this doesn't bother me."
    “That’s not enough,” burst out of me.
    “What’s not enough?”
    “Your theoretical analysis,” I said. “Despite your logic, in the end the soul experiments failed. You should show at least some fear because of that. But you don’t. Why?”
    “There is some humanity left in you yet,” Lydia replied. “You’re right. It’s not enough.”
    “So why? Why are you still not afraid?”
    “Sometimes I see souls.”
    “What?”
    “Perhaps perceive them would be a better word,” Lydia said. “I’ve seen what I think are souls several times.”
    It all became clear. She saw ghosts, right. Anger rose in me, but I pushed it back down. She could snap, go berserk and cut my throat in a heartbeat, and I wouldn’t be able to lift a finger to stop her.
    “Because you wanted to,” I said. “This is all about fear, fear of death.”
    “Yes,” Lydia said. “But I am not the one who’s afraid.”
    “I saw this before the Slaughter”, I said. “People with such an overwhelming fear of death they convinced themselves death wasn’t real, even if they had to see things that weren’t there.”
    “No,” Lydia said. “I decided to prove it in the lab. That’s not what somebody afraid would do. It’s why I became a physicist, to prove to myself the things I saw sometimes were real. Souls aren’t the only thing. Sometimes I know things, see things, how I don’t understand. I am mildly psychic.” An amazed look crossed her face. “As you are.”
    “I am not psychic,” I said, “and I remind you all your tests failed.”
    “I saw it, I had a theoretical framework for it, and I wasn’t finished,” Lydia retorted. “All I needed was a reproducible experiment. The problem with my experiences was they were irreproducible.”
    “Significant threat,” the fort said. “Three beachheads detected.” On the tactical, three numbered red crosses appeared to the southeast. “Enemy tunnels opened. Enemy ground combat mechanicals emerging. Ground combat mechanicals engaging. Additional companies dispatched.”
    “Target beachheads with artillery, fire when ready,” I said. How my enemy had managed to dig tunnels under the river would have to wait until the war was over.
    “Firing,” the fort said. I saw enemy lasers cross each other over the beachheads and take out my arty shells in puffs of white light. Air combat mechanicals were dueling in intricate dogfights.
    “Exactly like fireworks,” Lydia said, from right beside me. I jumped. She’d come to watch the battle. “At least nobody’s being hurt. Only mindless machines.” I hadn’t noticed because I wasn’t on scientific. If she’d been an enemy mechanical, she would’ve erased me.
    “State air supremacy over beachead,” I said. Nothing I could do.
    “Matched,” the fort replied. In the air, we were even.
“State ground supremacy on beachhead.”
    “Eighty per cent.”
    “Send two platoons heavy mechanicals to Beachhead Two,” I said. First goal was to remove the central beachhead so they couldn’t all be united into one beachhead.
    “Two platoons heavy mechanicals inbound to Beachhead Two.”
    A gentle whistling filled the air as shells and airborne mechanicals headed for the new threat.
    “How long can you keep all this going?” Lydia asked. She looked up. “The air looks like it’s full of metal.”
    “Supplies aren’t the problem, not in genius combat,” I said. “We've both got more than we're going to need. Genius combat never lasts long. It’s unusual tactics, weapons, and how fast you can adapt that determines the winner. Whoever is smarter.”
    “And luckier,” Lydia said.
    “That still plays a part,” I said, “even in genius combat. I no longer have time to talk. Reaction times must now be in seconds.”
    “I will be quiet,” Lydia said. “I will meditate. I must prepare myself.”
    She picked herself out a spot on the floor, assumed lotus position, and closed her eyes. I wondered what her purpose was but had no time to find out. I concentrated on the battle. I destroyed the central beachhead in an hour, spent the next eight hours trying to destroy the other two. I failed but I made keeping those beachheads hideously expensive. The Child sent his heaviest mechanicals through those tunnels. I sent my heavies in. He had more, but mine were bigger and had better support.     Without scientific, I developed a headache from concentrating, but I built piles of ruined metal three meters high around those beachheads. I could tell the area of the city where the battle was happening was gradually being flattened. More and more light from beach explosions became visible as more and more buildings went down.
    Toward morning his mechanicals slowed their approach through the tunnels. By sheer chance I didn’t have enough mechanicals in place to attack. The firing died down equally on both sides.
    Lydia opened her eyes. She was in some strange altered state. Her breathing was rhythmic and slow.
    “The quiet is so loud,” she said. “Is it over?”
    “No,” I said. “The battle equation has reached a local minimum. We’ve both run out of immediate resources and are having to move up reserves. It won’t last long.”
    Lydia got up with the most serene calm I had ever seen, came up beside me and stood on her tiptoes, looking at the area where the battle had taken place. She was exposing herself without the slightest care. I expected to see a laser shot come out of nowhere and drill a hole right through her forehead. She’d left reality behind long ago.
    “I can see the river,” she said. Her breathing remained rhythmic and slow. “Every single building is gone down there. I can see foundations.” She slowly turned around to scan the entire city. “There are only stumps left. When this is over, the city will be gone. Your cobalt bomb will destroy only ruins.”
    “I’m not building a cobalt-clad fusion bomb,” I said. “I’m building a starship.”
    “I see,” Lydia said. “Once you’re far enough away from the Earth, you’ll go into a NirvanaBox.”
    “No,” I said. “I’m going to kill the Universe.”
    Lydia snapped around and regarded me with surprise. The deep calm was gone.
    “God loves everybody forever,” she breathed. Her face blazed with revelation. “Because He has to.”
    Somehow I had driven her further into madness.
    “It seems my surviving so long, coming to this place, has had a purpose after all,” Lydia said. “The final piece I didn’t even know was missing. Michael, the love of God is a law of physics.”
    In the face of the Slaughter, surrounded on all sides by millions of the Slaughtered, she was talking about the love of God. As a law of physics. I was uncertain what to say next.
    “How?” Lydia asked. “How do you plan to do it?”
    It seemed safest to answer.
    “I’ll go to the asteroid belt and build thousands of self-replicating starships. I will then direct fleets to the central black hole of nearby galaxies and tell them to repeat the replication-and-spread progress, but to leave one fleet behind. In a relatively short time I will have fleets around the central black hole of every galaxy in the Universe.”
    “An exponential-growth process,” Lydia said, wholly back in theoretician mode. Maybe that would stabilize her. “It will work.”
    “Every galactic core will be crowded with millions of stars. My fleets will be programmed to drop groups of those stars into the central black hole in such a fashion as to generate spherical shells of radiation.”
    “To destroy those stars and simultaneously wipe out all life in the galaxy,” Lydia said, “that might interfere with what you’re doing.”
    “Yes. Once this is done, a galaxy’s remaining stars will then be dropped into that galaxy’s central black hole. And the Universe will be dead.”
    “Very simple and elegant,” Lydia said. “Where will you be?”
    “I will be in a high-tau orbit around this galaxy’s central black hole, to take advantage of time-dilation. I’m going to watch this Universe die, and I’m going to watch it die in real time.”
    “An act of vengeance,” Lydia said. “You’ve done all that you’ve done so you can one day get revenge on the Universe.”
    “Yes.”
    “The Universe doesn’t care about you. So you’re going to kill it.”
    “Or about you, or the rest of the human race. The Slaughter is proof of that. I will take vengeance for all of us.”
    “The strange thing is your act of vengeance is actually moral,” Lydia said. “If people truly aren’t eternal beings, all their pain has no meaning, and allowing meaningless pain to happen is immoral. Which makes destroying the Universe the moral thing to do.”
    “I don’t care.”
    “You’re not thinking,” Lydia said. “Again. That’s the fundamental reason why a Universe has to create its sentients as eternal beings. Because the sentients will be forced to destroy their Universe if they’re not.”
    “Now you’re talking as if the Universe itself were sentient,” I said. Another avenue of self-delusion.
    “So are you,” Lydia said, “with your talk of ‘killing the Universe.’ Let us explore this problem. The Universe hasn’t made you an eternal being. For this reason, you’re going to kill it.”
    “Yes.”
    “If you were creating a Universe, would you create its sentients as eternal beings?”
    “Yes. If I wanted my Universe to last. They’d be forced to destroy it otherwise, as you say. The problem with this is I can’t create Universes.”
    “If sentients can destroy Universes,” Lydia said, “I rather suspect they can create them, too. Let’s assume you can. What’s the fundamental reason you’re destroying the Universe?”
    “The Universe has made me unhappy,” I said.
    “At least you know that much about yourself,” Lydia said. “So, as a Universe-creator, you’d have to make sure any sentients who evolved would be happy.”
    “It would have to be my first consideration,” I said, “before anything else.”
    “Quite a lethal thing, sentients,” Lydia observed. “They can destroy entire Universes if they’re unhappy. Nobody should know that like you. Let’s talk about the structure of your eternal-being sentients. What’s the first thing your eternal-being sentients should be constructed to always worry about?”
    “Keeping all the other sentients happy,” I said.
    “As a theoretician, I would state it more abstractly,” Lydia said. “Their emotional states have to be physically interconnected. An eternal-being sentient can’t be happy unless the eternal-being sentients around it are happy, too.”
    “That is a much more precise statement,” I said.
    “Would eternal existence physically interconnect our sentients’ emotional states?”
    “It would,” I said. “They’d always be there, now and forever, with all their emotional problems, right there in front of you. And so you couldn’t be happy unless they were happy.”
    “A sentient should want, first and foremost, for the sentients around it to be happy,” Lydia said.     “What would sentients call the desire to make another sentient happy?”
    “Love,” I said.
    “In order for your Universe to not be destroyed, to be stable, your sentients have to love each other,” Lydia said. “It would have to be one of your Universe’s fundamental laws of physics, as rigidly enforced and unbreakable as the law of gravity.”
    “Which eternal existence would enforce,” I said. “There is a certain elegance to this solution.”
“As your Universe’s sentients grew and evolved, got smarter,” Lydia said, “they would gradually grow aware of this physical law, just as they would gradually grow aware of all the other physical laws. How would they express this growing awareness?”
“I have no idea,” I said.
    “ ‘God loves everybody forever’ ,” Lydia said. “That would be the initial, primitive expression your sentients would express their unconscious understanding of your Universe’s law as. Has this statement appeared in human history?”
    “I won’t argue the point,” I said. “I will only state, again, that all experiments to find souls failed.”
    “One last thing I can do to convince you,” Lydia said. “I’m not crazy, driven by overwhelming despair and fear into delusion. Watch. I shall remove this theoretical fear you think controls me.” She pulled open a drawer underneath me.
    She got the container of scientific out.
    “By your own method, Michael, by your own method, I will think logically and unemotionally, without fear, without delusion,” she said. “I must admit I'm curious to see what conclusion I will reach myself. All my experiments failed. All the Children’s experiments failed. Could there be a flaw in my logic because of emotional bias? I shall remove all emotional bias and see if I reach a different conclusion on scientific. ” She got a wafer out and held it up so I could see it, know she wasn’t trying to fool me.
    “I only need a few minutes,” she said, and snapped off a small piece.
    “Give me the rest of that---”
    “No.” She tossed the remaining fragment into the wind. I watched it float away with the most intense longing I had ever known. Lydia backed up, again sat down into lotus position and put the small piece in her mouth.
    She changed. Her face smoothed, became a blank wall. I lost the sense of emotional connection I’d had with her. The knot throbbed and pain began to build. Lydia looked down as the scientific hit her, then back up at me. I could see the mental evaluation start. Lydia sat and thought and looked at me as though I were a million miles away.
    “This problem is trivial,” she said tonelessly, after only a brief pause. “God loves everybody forever. Because He has to, to keep His sentients, as He has defined them, from destroying His Universe. Only if all sentients are constructed as eternally existing beings will a Universe be safe. All of a Universe’s sentients must be eternally existing beings. They must have souls.”
    “Major problems,” the fort said. The video wall lit. Three bridges were rising from the East River. They surfaced and anchored themselves in seconds. “Invasion imminent!”
    The Child had had another purpose for his tunnels. He’d been building bridges down there where I couldn’t see. The entire night’s battle had been a diversion. That was why he hadn’t advanced. All he’d wanted was the roar of battle on the beach to blind my sensors.
    “Bridges up,” the fort said. “Enemy armored columns invading.” The wall lit with recon photos showing a line of the heaviest armored mechanicals I’d ever seen. I’d been wrong about his sending his heaviest mechanicals through. He’d been holding his heaviest mechanicals back.
    “Target the enemy bridges with artillery, fire,” I said.
    “Bombarding,” the fort said. “Autodoc reports repairs finished. You are fully functional.” I could feel bandages being pulled away. I could move. I clenched my fists and wiggled my entire body, stretching freshly repaired muscles. “You may leave the autodoc.”
    My combat instinct struck.
    The buildings were down. There wasn’t a mine or weapon system active anywhere in last night’s battle zone.
    A broad, cleared highway existed from the river straight through to Central Park. The Child was adapting to the situation by trying a quick thrust to occupy the battlefield’s center, always a key strategic advantage. If the Child owned the center, that would be the beginning of the end.
    I had to stop him. I had to bring everything I had to bear to stop that column.
    No. Let him through.
    It was as if my combat instinct had spoken aloud.
    It hit me how to erase my enemy and end this war. It had been walking and talking in front of my nose the whole night. But the Child's heavy mechanicals were rolling across the bridge by the dozen. I had to move now to be in the proper position to make the shot, before the Child himself came across those bridges. The Child was the only danger.
    “Fort,” I said. “Form two companies of heavy mechanicals. Charge enemy mechanicals when ready. Break through and destroy those bridges.”
    “Routine running,” the fort said. “Be advised success probability less than one per cent.”
    “After heavy mechanicals destroyed, expose Central Park,” I ordered. “Withdraw all mechanicals from battle zone and surround Central Park.”
    “Acknowledged,” the fort said. “Mechanicals will be withdrawn to surround Central Park.”
    I felt my sense of emotional connection with Lydia return and looked back at her. Her scientific had worn off, and her personality was surfacing on her face. The knot eased again.
    “Have I finally reached you, Michael?” Lydia asked. “What do you think now? What have you decided?”
    “Later,” I said. Lydia was back under the wall in lotus position and therefore unlikely to be in range of enemy surveillance. I climbed out of the autodoc, being careful to stay low.
    “No,” Lydia said. “Now. Michael, stop.”
    I stopped.
    “Your war with a Child is nothing,” Lydia said. “Even you know this. The war of ideas between us, right now, is the only war. I offer you meaning. I offer you surcease from pain, without emotion drugs. All by your own rules and methods for knowing things. What do you choose?”
    “Warning, warning, you are exposed,” the fort said. “Advise enter combat suit soon as possible.”
    “Thirty minutes,” I replied. I took a deep breath and stood up in a quick test.
    No laser shots from nowhere. No airborne killer mechanicals stooped. No insect hum as horrorweapons descended. I was being seen.
    But I wasn’t being detected.
    Just like Lydia hadn’t been, all through the night. The Child had made the same programming mistake I had.
    “Fort,” I said, “if enemy mechanicals cease offensive operations, you will immediately cease defensive operations.”
    “Acknowledged,” the fort said. “Defensive operations will cease.”
    I pulled open the autodoc drawer and fished around. I had to get stoned and get away from the fort before I was detected with Lydia as a Religious group of two.
    “Michael,” Lydia said, “no.”
    I found what I was looking for, a bright red cylinder.
    “Not scientific,” I said. I pulled the container out and held it up. “This is savage. I made this for use during mobile attack excursions.”
    I shook a wafer of savage out and broke off a chunk. I only needed half an hour’s worth. I put it in my mouth.
    A bone-deep desire to hunt took over my entire being. I raised my fists and screamed the need to kill into the sky. Wild energy ran through me like electric current. My hands ached to drive a knife into my enemy's back.
    “I must prepare for phowa,” Lydia said. “I must return my mind to the proper state.” She closed her eyes.
    I had no clue what that meant and didn’t care. Savage sang in my brain. My enemy was close. The meaning of my existence was to wipe him from the Universe forever.
    I dropped the container to the floor and ran away from the fort, toward the glorious battle, where my heavy mechanicals were engaging in great gouts of flame. Again I waded through fields of the dead, but this time I laughed at the Slaughtered, the stupid rightfully massacred by the smart.
    I exulted in my invisibility. My enemy couldn’t see me, couldn’t see me, couldn’t see me---
    I made it alive across the park, loping like a wolf through craters and bodies into the ranks of destroyed buildings, searching through the rubble taking inventory, envisioning the look of agony on my enemy’s face when I killed him. A laser cannon here, another there, both unusable, mines but not big enough for a combat suit, pieces of destroyed mechanicals from both sides.
    I hunted through metal and concrete, my search becoming ever more frantic as my heavy mechanicals were worn down. A stray shell hit a pile of rubble, and I saw the gleam of one of my heavy lasers, buried when its concealing building had collapsed. The emission bulb was uncracked. I dug it out with a few quick scoops and found no damage. It was no longer networked but still functional. I pushed and shoved until it was pointing down the street into Central Park.
    I opened the manual firing panel and keyed in the entrance password before the anti-tampering charge blew. The display lit. Fifty per cent charge left in the capacitors. That would be enough.
    I left the laser in position and carefully wormed my way up one of the rubble piles to do surveillance.
    And my enemy’s fort was there, dimly glimpsed on the other side of the river, a massive behemoth the size of six heavy mechanicals, far too heavy for his pontoon bridges to support. Central Park was a great prize. To win it, he was going to have to exit his fort and give the orders in person.
    I had set my ambush up just in time. He was already out in his combat suit, standing on the back of one of his heavy mechanicals, riding at high speed across a bridge, a laser communicator clamped to his shoulder. This was make-or-break. Platoons of heavy mechanicals were coming up behind him at equally high speed, to take advantage of this apparent sudden collapse of my lines. My delaying heavy mechanicals had done their job and were gone into melted metal.
    I marked his heavy mechanical and its speed, withdrew from the top and buried myself in rubble. My enemy was the only thing that could detect me. I watched his progress on the map in my mind, listened to invading mechanicals rumble by until I was certain he’d passed my position.
    When I was certain he was in the park, I stood up.
    Enemy mechanicals were going by on both sides and overhead, light and heavy. Sensors and antennae twitched in my direction. Airborne mechanicals hesitated in the air. But no muzzles swung over. No laser designation spots dotted my body. I was again being seen.
    But I was again not being detected.
    I slid down the rubble back to my laser.
    The rubble shook from a salvo of far-away cannon blasts. My enemy was being held in position for me in the park, locked in place by a ring of surrounding mechanicals.
The rubble shook from a salvo of far-away cannon blasts. My enemy was being held in position for me in the park, locked in place by a ring of surrounding mechanicals.
The rubble shook from a salvo of far-away cannon blasts. My enemy was being held in position for me in the park, locked in place by a ring of surrounding mechanicals.
    I pulled the laser window out and scanned the park, waiting for my enemy to pop up in its red tint. I felt the patience of a tiger lying in ambush. It was only a matter of time. Random chance would finally kill him, as it was always trying to kill me.
    The savage abruptly wore off, leaving me drained, empty, and shaking. A stinging in my leg made me look down. Something had torn a meter-long gash in my right calf. Blood was pooling around my feet. No matter. I resumed my hunt. I was in position. All I had to do was wait.
    A heavy mechanical moved, and there he was, standing on the edge of one of the KKV craters, facing away.
    I bumped the laser to the right and shot him in the back.
    The beam didn’t go through. But I melted his electronics hump into slag.
    His combat suit fell forward into the crater, black smoke rising from its back. He was sealed in a tomb of his own making. He’d run out of air and be erased in minutes.
    My combat instinct said no. A Child would have a way out. A two-meter wooden shaft lay in the street like a giant splinter, a fragment of a piece of furniture. I picked it up and ran across the battlefield as fast as I could, feeling a knife stab my right calf with each step, through a forest of the Child’s combat mechanicals. They were all gradually locking into position. Not one responded as I ran by.
    Red-hot lines were running all over the Child’s combat suit. I could think of no physical explanation for it. The combat suit collapsed into pieces and fell away. I raised my splinter and went absolutely quiet and still.
    The Child rolled over out of the metal shards and froze in shock when he saw me standing over him with my makeshift wooden spear raised high, clad only in a cloth tunic. Surprise shifted to cold admiration in less than a second as he realized how I’d done it.
    “Damn you,” he said, entirely without emotion. “Damn you now and forever.”
    “Too late,” I replied, and spiked him to the ground.
    He jerked and quivered on the spike, then relaxed into nonexistence with a long sigh.
    I backed up and waited to see what his mechanicals would do.
    They continued to lock up.
    Around me, all over Central Park, they stopped whatever it was they were doing and ground to a complete halt. As his mechanicals stopped, mine stopped. Silence fell over the battlefield.
    The Child hadn’t told them what to do if he was erased, because he hadn’t thought such a thing possible. So when he was gone, his mechanicals were in an unprogrammed area, and locked up solid.
    Without orders, his mechanicals would no longer attack. If I did nothing, they would do nothing. I could subvert his assets and take them over at my leisure.
    The war was over.
    I was tired. I was so tired. I was so tired I could barely stand. I stumbled and reeled my way back to the fort, leaving bloody footprints behind me. My leg gave way as I reached the fort, and I collapsed face-first into the floor.
    Exhaustion rolled over me and crushed me into unyielding concrete, the meaningless of my existence, my actions, my feelings, my unrelenting struggle against a merciless Universe. I turned my face to Lydia, feeling grit grind against my face.
    Lydia’s eyes were open, deep in trance, looking at me.
    “Michael,” she said. Her eyes glowed with delusion. “Once again I offer. Make your choice.”
    I turned my face away from Lydia, from delusion, to the truth of scientific. I dragged myself over with my hands to the autodoc. I pulled myself up on the autodoc’s corner and got the golden container out.
    “You will kill me now,” Lydia said. Still the total lack of fear, with her death only seconds away. “I am no longer of use to you. I am only a threat, and you are rationally bound to eliminate all threats.”
    “Yes,” I said. I opened the container and shook a wafer into my hand.
    “I refuse to let you put another murder on your soul,” Lydia said. “The human race failed its ultimate test and has gone extinct. I have fulfilled all my moral obligations here. There is nothing more I can do. I will leave this planet and go elsewhere.”
    “The soul experiments failed,” I replied. “There are no souls. All action is futile, all desire a sick joke. There is no meaning, no God, nothing.”
    I put the wafer in my mouth, felt the calm, cool logic rush through my brain, numbing me from reality, freeing me from all desire for religious delusion.
    “So what does this make the Universe?” Lydia asked from within her trance, as if from a dream. “Don’t you know?”
    “Always,” I said. “Hell.”
    “Witness my power, Michael,” Lydia said. She shut her eyes.
    Her breathing stopped.
    Her torso fell forward onto her lap. I couldn’t believe it. I strode over and checked the pulse in her neck.
    No pulse. Her heart had stopped beating. I waited, but it didn’t come back.
    Impossible, the most incredible thing I had ever seen. It took my breath away, even through the scientific. She had self-erased her own existence by a simple act of will.
    And she had called that power. Insane and irrational to the end.
    Lydia was gone from the Universe, erased by her own effort. I dropped her from my thoughts and faced outward to assess battle damage. I had to repair my war systems as quickly as possible. The second I relaxed, that second I would be erased. The Universe would never stop trying, so I could never stop fighting.
    Slaughter doctrine.
    “Fort,” I ordered, “end War Stage. Rebuild Central Park Fort. Initiate subversion routines for enemy mechanicals. Compile repair list of damaged systems---”
    I heard something behind me, faint, crystalline, just at the edge of hearing, like a trace of a whisper.
    “----Michael---”
    I turned back around.
    Lydia stood next to her crumpled body, translucent. She looked at me. She looked at me with compassion, and peace, a peace that seemed to radiate from somewhere deep inside her and passed beyond all understanding.
    “Michael,” she said, “The love of God is a law of physics.
    And she shot straight up into the sky and was gone.

#

    My dreams are worse than ever now. But I still can’t remember them.
    Sometimes now I wake up in my coffin holding my head in my sweating hands, feeling as if an ax blade were being hammered through my burning skull, and I know I must go outside. I rise from my coffin and leave my fort’s safety. I stumble outside naked, wet, and shaking, press the side of my face against the fort and feel cool metal against my hot skin.
    “God loves everybody forever,” I whisper, and look up in infinite pain and hope.
    But nothing ever answers.
      And Nothing ever hears my scream . . .

END