When we landed there was a cool mist falling in the lee shadow of the ridge. I looked up at the sky and saw a river of cool white foam boiling, sprinting across the sky, tripped by the ridge into turbulence. I wondered briefly if our ship was still up there, waiting to carry us home, or if an overzealous scout cruiser had already blown it out of the sky. Then I pushed that thought out of my head and started going down the list of droids that had command today, making sure their troops were prepared. Droids are lucky: they never think about not making it back. They never think about what they'll do if the intel was bad, or if they run out of ammo, or if the ambush gets blown before we ever fire a shot. They have been on the job from the moment the ramp dropped; four of them just got back from doing a perimeter check, and the rest have been warming up their combat links and checking their weapons one last time.

Command is terrifying when you've got human lives at your fingertips. When you have to tell a poor seventeen-year-old kid to go in, guns blazing, and shut off the coolant plant on the reactor because someone at Tac HQ neglected to call for air support in time, and he says, "Yes, sir" and you and he both know that the reactor is going to go critical before he can ever get back to your position--when the drop ship comes back with one less body on board, and it's not your fault, it's just you doing your job, and you fill out the papers and he gets a medal and his folks get an empty box and a brand-new uniform to bury--when you wake up and realize you're in charge, it's scary. And when you get promoted because they can't fire the fuck-up who killed your man, that's a little scary, too. And the day you walk into the ready room and sixty-four black metal exoskeletons silently snap to attention, and their compressors all hiss quietly to take up the slack in the pneumatics, and you're the only thing in the room breathing air to stay alive, that's pretty scary. But when you drop into a cold LZ on a dead planet, and your orders are "wait for the signal and then kill everything that moves," and those sixty-four droids are crouched or pacing or doing a sprint around the perimeter, and you're the only thing in 40 klicks that needs an air tank, at least until the enemy shows up--that's the scariest day of your life.

For me, that was almost a year ago, and it's been a long one. My droids started out with your standard level 5 cognitive packages, and a few of them immediately began to learn from me. The ones that run the show with me now are better than stock droids with a lab-enhanced level 7 package, which is so expensive that they usually don't let a level 7 into front-line combat, even if he's commanding a squad. I've got a few on my team that are probably 8's, but I haven't taken them in for garrison checks in months. And I've got one that I know is at least an 8; he helps run the company, and I'd get court-martialed if anyone who cared found out. Did I say "he"? I meant "it," but you'll have to forgive me if I think of them all as my men.

On one hand, I guess it's a shame that a lab-programmed level 7 isn't ever assigned to combat--he'd be an 8 by the end of the day, and they're rare enough to be considered special ops material. On the other hand, a level 7 with no field experience at all might freeze up. He might kamikaze. He might decide that the plan isn't ideal, and stop for an hour or two to think out the logic of the chain of command system or the elegance of calculating aim-points with Markov models. He'd probably get fragged, and at that cognitive level, the others would all lose something when he did. They tried that, back at the beginning, when a level 5 was tough to grow in the lab and they only had a few. It was hit or miss all the way: almost all the early missions were by-the-book success stories, but the failures were spectacular. Sixty-four droids all simultaneously deciding to storm the objective and run their power plants up to thermal maximum: the objective was obliterated and took everything in ten square kilometers with it. Sixty-four droids simultaneously wiping their brains down to level one and shooting anything that moved, including each other--the one level 7 that walked out of that firefight decided that he didn't want to get back on the drop ship, and tried to take it out with an anti-tank weapon at four times the nominal range... and missed a critical cooling vent by less than a meter.

It's been raining here for almost an hour, and I'm ready to go. My troops--these droids, these machines that learn combat like humans but refuse to die--are also ready. My command display inside my helmet shows a flurry of chatter in the comms: double-checking, second-guessing, comparing scenario results. It's not "talk" like we think of it; if you analyzed it, you could pick out things here and there. Blueprints for the tanks we're expecting, overhead play-by-plays of past battles, small unit tactics, drop ship trajectories... it's not "talk," but they're talking. Every soldier since the invention of the phalanx has turned to the poor bastard next to him, and not knowing if either of them will live or die, said, "We can do this." My droids are no different.

Sometime in the next fifteen minutes, a drop ship from an orbiting cruiser is going to break out of orbit and begin its descent towards the center of Tango Base, and at that moment, a battery of enemy artillery is going to open up on all of Tango's heavy AAA positions. The drop ship will be carrying mechanized infantry and some heavy armor. When the AAA positions are gone, the drop ship will land, pick up the wounded (if any), drop off the armor behind Tango Base's smashed defenses, and set up a point defense for the fleet to use as a staging area. In 48 hours, Tango Base is going to be Core Fleet City. If it weren't for that annoying fact, Tango Base would be the best place on-planet to be right now. Given the ambush that's coming, it's a bad neighborhood, and in a few minutes, if they have their way, it'll be useless for stopping an invasion.

Except that we're here to keep that from happening. When the drop ship makes its move, sixty-four droids, all thinking together, are going to obliterate that artillery battery right as the order comes in to fire the first shell. The drop ship won't be able to hear the "mayday" or the "abort" signal during re-entry, even if there is one. She'll be coming in fast and furious, trying to get under the cloud layer that makes Tango Base such a perfect staging area, trying to get that heavy armor unit on the ground where it'll do some good. When it pops through the roiling, 400 kmh winds into the calm spot behind the ridge over Tango Base, the pilot will realize that the prep mission has not been accomplished, and he may even be able to fire off his boosters and start an emergency ascent. He might be able to pull out of his landing path, run everything up to the chocks, and let it ride. He might get clear of the drop zone before the AAA gets him. But I know something he doesn't: I know what happens when my droids get fired up in a fight, and I know of at least one droid on my team who's been trying to bag a drop ship since his first day in combat.


As far as I know this doesn't really fit in with any existing sci-fi universe except the one that's constantly running rampant in my head. There may or may not be a naval battle going on in orbit above the planet at the same time, and there may or may not be a fleet on the way to reinforce one side or the other, and there may or may not be small, agile aircraft that can fly in those 400 kmh winds and are dogfighting above a different key base somewhere else on the planet. I have no idea which side wins, or why they're even fighting. Sorry if I confused you.

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