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A short story by

Alex Irvine

"Of course Drenthe is getting it." As if Drenthe would not "get it," thought Drenthe.

On another channel, Eli cut in. "Drenthe. What in the hell is going on? We had a deal!"

"The deal did not include a provision for Drenthe to be a party to mass murder, Eli," Drenthe said.

"You took money." Another missile barrage tore apart a drone-piloted viking hovering in place at the far end of the proving ground from where the other flyers had been. Smoke was already drifting and catching the sunlight. The optics were marvelous. Emotion, through light and smoke. Drenthe was in love.

"And you lied about what it was for," Drenthe said. "The moral high ground is not visible from Drenthe's perspective."

"You know what it wasn't for? It wasn't for starting a goddamn coup; that's what it wasn't for. And it wasn't for putting me in the crosshairs of a bunch of union nut jobs. You could have gotten me killed, you son of a bitch."

"Drenthe is busy, Eli."

"Drenthe is going to be fekking dead." Eli snapped the call off.

The lead group of Warhounds had reached the emplaced siege tanks, which were firing shells that sparked off the Warhounds' formation without detonating. "The AI would have armed those shells' detonators if you hadn't told us, Drenthe," Ayla said. "Start counting how many lives you saved."

Drenthe was not interested in this. He was making a holo.

For close anti-vehicle work, the Warhound's primary armament system is a rail gun firing Axiom's new Directed Plasma Field-Charged slugs, or DPFs. This ordnance features a heavy slug accelerated to a discharge velocity of three thousand meters per second. The slug itself is charged with a plasma that disperses in a tightly focused cone from the point of impact. The DPF penetrates armor plating more effectively and more quickly than gauss weapons, and without the threat of collateral damage posed by explosive ordnance.

In a tight group, the Warhounds surrounded the siege tanks. Blue plasma discharge flared from the stubby barrels of their DPF systems and from the tanks themselves. They blew up one by one, each taking only seconds to come apart and burn. Behind them, half of the Warhounds engaged the vikings, which had been cued to respond when the first group of Warhounds engaged the siege tanks. Some of the vikings burned and melted in place. Three managed their own automated transition to flying mode, and were met with salvos of Warhound missiles from three different directions. Drenthe watched it all from a dozen angles at once, filled with the exhilaration of seeing it come together. What would happen next? He did not know.

The Warhound is capable of near-instantaneous toggling between DPF and anti-air ordnance systems, to address quickly changing threats in battlefield situations.

Ayla's voice came from one of the speakers attached to Drenthe's monitors. "Eli's headed your way. He's got a gun."

"Drenthe is unarmed," Drenthe said.

"It's under control," Ayla said. "Keep recording."

Of course, thought Drenthe. From the loudspeakers mounted on the factory fence, an alarm klaxon blared. At first Drenthe thought it was just scene setting, a little improvisation on Dario's part. He would incorporate it. Then he realized something entirely different was happening when Eli's voice came over the speakers. "This is Eli Balfour. There is a security breach in Axiom information systems. Ottmar Drenthe is to be detained immediately. All techs operating Warhounds are to stand down immediately. The Warhound test is terminated. Repeat, the Warhound test is terminated."

"Your ass," Ayla said from the speaker in front of Drenthe.

Drenthe saw Eli then, coming around the corner of the factory works and carrying a rifle of some kind. Drenthe was no expert in personal weaponry. Eli fired a warning shot over Drenthe's gantry and pointed. "Detain him! This test is over! Lockdown as of now!"

Drenthe grew concerned. He had no experience of detention and no wish to gain any.

"Drenthe, we've got the situation under control," Ayla said. "Don't chicken out now."

The situation did not seem at all under control to Drenthe. Another warning shot whined over his head, but he kept recording. The Warhounds were wreaking full-on havoc across the proving ground, destroying fresh drone-piloted vehicles and flyers. A pair of hellions exploded in pillars of fire with the blue crackle of DPFs still blasting through the wreckage. Spread in a loose arc over the proving ground, six Wraiths decloaked and were met with a hail of missiles. The sounds of launch and impact nearly overwhelmed Drenthe's sound equipment. "LOCKDOWN," boomed Eli's voice over the loudspeakers. Security vehicles spilled from the gate facing the company town and roared in the direction of the proving ground. The watching workers threw rocks at them, which were momentarily ignored, but Drenthe had the uneasy feeling that his presence would no longer be any kind of protection for the workers. He hoped Ayla had planned for this contingency.

Part of Drenthe was exulting at the chaos. Another part was considering the possibility that he had gotten in over his head.

One of the Warhounds nearest to Drenthe's gantry skidded around and stomped up over the berm at the edge of the proving ground, cutting off Eli's approach. Eli held up a hand in a warning gesture. "One more step, and you will be sorry you were ever born, rivethead," he said. "This man is a criminal and a security threat."

The Warhound stopped. Eli climbed the ladder toward Drenthe's platform and leveled his rifle at Drenthe, with the Warhound looming over the platform to Drenthe's right. "You're a dead man, Drenthe," Eli said. "Corporate espionage is a capital crime."

"I am a director of holos," Drenthe said. "And I am working." While he spoke, Dario's voiceover kept going.

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