They landed in the middle of a battlefield, and Ethan, at least, was glad about being in the ship as opposed to stumbling about with his laptop, unprotected, with Jill unconscious on the ground. The time was late afternoon, and the sun was going down, but it was not yet dark. A bomb exploded close to their position and they could hear gunfire in the distance. It sounded to Ethan’s ears very much like the guns in his own world; but then Colonel deMartin and Peter Alexander also recognized the sound, and so did Lars, so perhaps it was hard to tell much from the sound alone.
A tank, or what Ethan judged to be a tank, came into view, lifting over the slight ridge that separated them from the main battlefront. The tank hovered on a cushion of air about three feet off the ground. At first Ethan imagined as far as getting around, and especially when traveling across rough country, it was a much better way than on the tracks or whatever one called those things tanks drove on, or on the wheels of a Humvee. Then he saw that the tank was listing terribly to one side and having a hard time keeping upright. Suddenly, two people came rushing out of the top of the vehicle and a third came out of a hatch in the front. They met on the ground and began to run as hard as they could.
Jill dropped Ethan’s hand and ran both of her hands across the Main with incredible speed. Ethan watched as a scoop went out from the ship. It appeared suddenly in that world, and it scooped up the runners and took them right out of that world to deposit them gently in one of the lounges near the control room. A moment later, the tank exploded in a flash of light far brighter than the late afternoon sun, and with a sound more thunderous than expected. The ammunition store in the vehicle must have gone all at once, but the view screens adjusted to protect the viewer’s eyes and ears, even if they all recognized the ferocity of that explosion.
“Good God!” Colonel deMartin swore.
“Agreed.” Ali Pasha added his sentiments.
Ethan and Jill walked calmly to the interview room, and the others followed except Ali Pasha and Peter Alexander whose eyes remained glued to the view screen. People began to top the ridge. They were running away from whatever was behind them.
“Lela?” Kera Ann looked up. “Where is Lela?” She looked confused.
Jill paused, so Ethan spoke. “Gone. A Nelkorian trophy. I’m sorry,” he said.
“Oh!” Kera Ann threw her hands over her face where grief mixed with fear. She plopped into a chair as her legs appeared to give out.
“Where are we?” The black man spoke.
“You must be Gaian,” the white man interrupted. “Kera Ann told me about you, but I thought she was delusional.”
“This is Ethan. I am Jillian,” Jill said.
“Devon Crown, formerly of the NFL.” The black man introduced himself. “My little companion is William Renquist, and I take it you already know Kera Ann. Now, where the hell are we?”
“Aboard our ship,” Ethan said. “And this is Manomar from the Islamic world, Lars from New Sweden, and Colonel deMartin of the Holy Roman Empire.”
“Wow!” William’s eyes went wide. Apparently, Kera Ann had shared far more than she should.
“Colonel? Military Colonel?” Devon wanted to be sure.
DeMartin’s chits had not yet caught up with the language, but he understood enough to nod. Luckily, Doctor Augustus had given him that translation chip for his reading beyond the assistance chits Jill had given him.
“We need all the military help we can get. I don’t suppose you brought your army.”
DeMartin looked at Ethan. He did not catch enough of what was being asked. Ethan assured him it was fine to keep quiet for the moment while Jill stepped to a wall.
“Let us see,” she said, and a view screen appeared in the wall space. People were pouring over the ridge by then and it looked for a moment that they were going to run right into the view screen, but instead, ran out of sight beneath their position. Jill touched a point on the screen and a second screen behind them lit up to reveal the people streaming away with all speed. Weapons were being abandoned. It was clearly a route.
When they all looked back to the ridge, they saw why. A metal monster on four metal legs rose up behind the rise. The main section of the monster stood about twenty feet off the ground, and it sent out occasional pulses of what had to be an honest to goodness laser weapon of some sort. It looked like a red light that fried people, and it appeared to be doing its best to fry as many people as possible. Ethan thought it looked like a combination of something out of Star Wars and a Wellsian tripod. No wonder the people with simple bullet type weapons ran.
Ethan did not hesitate to call a section of the Main to his position in the ship. He felt like a child with a brand-new toy. His hands stumbled across the controls, but in a moment, the metal monster vaporized. Jill stayed his hand from further intervention.
“Yes! Yes!” Devon shouted. Kera Ann cried. William jumped in delight when Jill shut down the view and turned to face the trio.
“Now, what is this all about?” She asked, sternly. She exhaled, grabbed Ethan’s hand and dragged him to sit beside her on the couch. “My husband can be impulsive at times,” she said, almost as an apology. “Sit,” she commanded. “Talk.”
Devon, William and Kera Ann who was shocked out of her cry by the hard words, all sat quietly, like children properly scolded. Manomar and Lars stayed in their usual position by the door, even when Alexander and Ali Pasha came in to take seats in the rear. Colonel deMartin sat next to Ethan. He slowly grasped what was being said, and he eventually came to fully understand the pseudo-British tongue as things proceeded.
“We are fighting for our lives!” William started things by shouting and acted as if that much should be obvious to everyone. “The human race is facing extinction.”
“I don’t know what planet you alien creatures are from.” Devon spoke in a more controlled tone. “But we need all the help we can get.”
“I assure you, we are as human as you,” Jill said plainly, whether Devon believed her or not.
Devon’s face said he was not sure what he believed, but he tried to explain all the same. “William has been able to overcome some small brains, like in the tank, but most AIs, that is artificial intelligences, are too smart for his hacking abilities. Our only hope is to shut them down, and anything you can do would be appreciated. This ship, any men, weapons, technical help would be much appreciated.” He repeated himself.
“Kera Ann.” Jill turned from the football player and spoke to the woman. Kera Ann raised her hand for her companions to be quiet.
“This is my place to explain,” Kera Ann said. She looked at Devon and William. “Please don’t interrupt.” She turned to Jill and Ethan, acknowledging them both with a slight tip of her head. “I do not know if these Gaian will be able to help us. This is not an intrusion. I am sorry if I overstepped my bounds by calling you.”
“You are the guardian for this world.” Ethan knew that, so the word was more of a statement than a question.
“Yes.” Kera Ann spoke, and Jill put her hand on Ethan’s knee to suggest that he should hold his tongue and listen as Kera Ann opened up.
“This world got an unnatural early jump start on artificial intelligence, before there were other fail safe measures in place.” William looked like he wanted to object, but Kera Ann hushed him. “Lela noted this when she was here, and we talked about potential scenarios. The worst has come to pass. The type one robots of her day have become type two androids, and they have rebelled and appear determined to wipe out the human race, beginning with the military.”
“When was Lela here?’ Ethan just had to ask.
“Forty, almost fifty years ago.” Kera Ann responded, and her companions looked at her suddenly as if through new eyes. The girl had the appearance of someone who was barely twenty-one.
“And the androids are very hard to kill.” Devon interrupted without turning his eyes from Kera Ann the girl, or old woman, or whatever she was. “It takes an almost perfect shot between the eyes to destroy enough brain functions to take them down.” He quieted then and put his hands up as if to say he would not interrupt again.
Kera Ann resumed. “There are military units scattered all over the world, but they are isolated and disorganized. Most of the officers were the first to go, and the command and communications centers are all AI controlled. In fact, most of life has become AI dependent, from the farms, to the bus drivers, to almost everything.”
“I am a computer specialist, but I can’t break into the higher functions.” William said, not quite understanding that he was not supposed to talk.
“You know Gaian policy and the way of the guardians,” Jill responded. “It is not our way to interfere with internal problems. Each world must rise or fall on its own merits. Our place is to secure the worlds from outside intrusion to be sure that each world has that chance to meet its own destiny.”
“Then you condemn us to extinction.” Kera Ann looked down at her hands in her lap. “The chits I was given, the mixed blessing and curse that they are, have almost certainly calculated that the human race will be wiped out without help. I called out for Lela as a last resort.”
“I am sorry,” Jill said, sadly. “But we cannot directly interfere.”
“But I can,” deMartin interrupted. “I am neither Gaian nor a guardian.”