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A short story by

Alex Irvine

"Ayla. I am Drenthe." He waited for her to recognize his name. When she didn't, Drenthe tamped down his irritation and went on. "We should speak candidly."

He told her the story, as much of it as he knew, while leaving out the part about how he was taking money both from AxO and from the spy within their ranks. "Do you have anyone on the technical staff inside who is, shall we say, sympathetic? I ask for no names, of course."

"What if I do?"

"You will perhaps want to tell this person that an attempt will be made to corrupt the control system tomorrow. The Warhounds, I understand, will face considerably more opposition than you have been led to understand."

"Goddammit," Ayla said, drawing each syllable out. "They're setting us up for a massacre. Eli. Nothing is beneath that guy. He's someone who would make the universe a better place by dying; know what I mean?"

"Indeed," Drenthe said.

"You're telling me this why? Just out of the kindness of your heart?"

"Drenthe's motivations are only of interest to Drenthe. And there is perhaps something else you might consider. If this can be prevented, a squadron of Warhounds might be an extremely effective instrument of collective bargaining."

* * *

The next morning Axiom's workforce gathered to witness the demonstration. Drenthe had his recorders in place, and he had also given Ayla the two handhelds. When he left Bukari V, Drenthe would have a story he had not anticipated. In these past hours it had even pushed the specter of Heroes of the Periphery from his mind. His entire being was focused in the here and now. He felt alive.

The proving ground was five hundred meters across and roughly circular. It was bordered by rocky outcroppings that shaped it into a shallow bowl, its floor broken by more rock formations. On the edges of it were formations of siege tanks. Arranged around the northern edges of the floor of the bowl were clusters of old goliath models and viking air/ground hybrids.

Drenthe ascended the gantry and regarded the scene. He had a bank of monitors installed in an arc around his director's chair, each of them feeding him images from one of the remote holocams around the proving ground. He checked the time and contacted Dario. "Drenthe is ready," he said.

"Glad to hear it," Dario said.

At the near end of the factory works, two loading-bay doors opened. From each of them emerged a column of a dozen Warhounds. Drenthe gathered from his briefing materials that there would be a series of scripted demonstrations, but he also knew that if Ayla succeeded in preventing the AI's corruption, there was no way to predict what would happen. Once the recording began, one had to be ready for anything. He set his notes on a monitor within easy reach and watched the feeds from his recorders that were covering the Warhounds' progress toward the proving ground.

Dario had also provided him with a voiceover extolling the virtues of the Warhound. Drenthe had decided to play it for the first time over his raw recordings as he got them, to give the initial material a feel of both spontaneity and preparation.

In one of the handheld feeds, Ayla appeared. "It worked," she said. "The AI is going to run like it was supposed to. But your friend Eli was one of the guys trying to corrupt the AI. He got the hell out when he saw us. You might want to keep an eye out for him."

He will come looking for me, Drenthe realized. Drenthe had become a character in the story Drenthe was trying to tell. But how could it be otherwise?

"We will worry about that later," he said. He was excited, as he always was at the beginning of a project when he didn't know how it would turn out, and this one was more uncertain than most. "Now it is time to make a holo."

Drenthe called Dario, who was hanging back by the factory entrance and watching on a monitor. "Everything is in place?" Drenthe asked.

"We're ready when you are."

Drenthe began the voiceover playback and said, "Action."

* * *

Hi, I'm Dario Cerulli of Axiom Ordnance, and I'm here to tell you about the Warhound.

The two groups of Warhounds entered the proving ground. The first group charged ahead to engage the tanks, with the second following closely to provide air support. This was all according to the script Drenthe had received from Dario. Right on schedule, a group of lightly armored drone flyers appeared over the proving ground, painted to resemble zerg mutalisks.

The Warhound is armed with batteries of Cyclone medium-range air-defense missiles, deployed automatically on detection of hostile enemy aircraft or organic flyers.

The walkers barraged the drones with missiles and blew them from the sky. Wreckage fell close to two of Drenthe's recorders. Beautiful, he thought. Over his comm, Dario said, "I love it. You getting this, Drenthe?"

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