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​​​​Nineteen

Eckstein slides into the seat across from you with far more agility than you'd have expected from a gargoyle. He takes advantage of your surprise to steal your piece of bacon.

"Hey! I was saving that…" you protest.

He just grins as he gulps it down. "For me, I'm sure. This freeze dried stuff is nowhere near as good as fresh, but we won't see that before the war's over. Which might be longer than we thought, if the Captain's right about the Human city here."

Your mind darts straight to the city you thought you saw on Omega. A hallucination, nothing more, surely. Unless it wasn't…

"Humans haven't been here long enough to build an actual city," you say. "They made a start on Epsilon – the planet they're calling Elysium – but they'd done little more than clear the land before the war started. And that's a planet with a breathable atmosphere. Omega's a bare rock. To build something there would take at least a decade, even with a work crew of thousands. It's not possible."

A woman slips into the seat beside you. "Apparently, it is." She slaps a tablet on the table and points to a blurry picture of the city you saw on Omega. "It's the same sort of Human construction they've been using since before Titans left Earth. It could be any of the cities we left on Tito. But we didn't build this. So Humans must have."

"Captain Shelley, this is Asuka Bjorg. Bjorg, this is Captain Shelley," Eckstein says drily.

Shelley simply nods, as she continues to look at you, awaiting some sort of response.

"How?" is all you can think to say.

She looks grim, then swipes at her tablet until another picture fills the screen. "Robots and AI."

Both you and Eckstein stiffen.

"They wouldn't be that stupid!" Eckstein scoffs.

"Maybe. Maybe not. But it's the same colonisation plan as Tito had originally – I found it in the archives. Our ancestors sent an AI and a bunch of 3D printers ahead of the colony ship. By the time they arrived, the Central Intelligence was established in the middle of what would become Aurantia. Built with robot labour. And look, this is drone footage of the crash site."

You squint at the tablet, then turn it this way and that. "It looks like men approaching a downed fighter."

The fighter that had turned into a fireball, before crashing into the surface of Omega.

"This is what it looked like five minutes ago," she said, bringing up another picture.

Bare rock, with no sign of the ship or the men. Only scorch marks showed where it had once been.

"So they flew it away?" You burst out laughing. "No ship survives a crash like that. If Human engineers managed to repair it in a matter of hours, there's no way we can win this war."

"Those robots cut it into pieces and took the pieces away. Likely for salvage. At first, like on Tito, robots are useful, until they started serving the Central Intelligence instead of us. If Humans take control of that city, they’ll be unstoppable. We have to destroy it."

Losing this system to Humans was one thing, but to Humans and an AI? It's almost as if Titans are cursed, never to be welcome anywhere in the universe.

You wet your lips. "Let me do a reconnaissance flight first. See if I can get you more information on the city. What its defences are, and any possible access points. Whether there are any Humans living there or not."

"If there are, all the more reason to destroy it." Shelley looks fierce.

You hold up your hands. "Hey, it's a city. It could be the sanctuary where they keep their children. Civilians. People who don't deserve to die. I can easily find out anything of military importance at the same time as I'm seeing who's home."

Eckstein shakes his head. "Aspidoceleons. More bloodthirsty than vampires. Honestly. Captain, you should listen to Bjorg before you give in to the bloodlust. Maybe even talk to Command about this while Bjorg's out getting a bird's eye view."

You'd think you'd be used to bird jokes by now, but you've never found them funny. Still, you force out a laugh in the hope of lightening the atmosphere, as Eckstein likely intended. You wish he'd made a joke about aspidoceleons instead, so you'd at least know what they were.

Shelley purses her lips. "Very well. Tell Bonner I want a reconnaissance flight over the city on Omega. Right away. Document everything. He can choose who to send." She rises and marches out of the mess hall.

Eckstein clambers to his feet. "We better go find Bonner, then, so you can head out before Captain Shelley changes her mind."

"Are asp…aspidoceleons usually capricious?" you venture.

Eckstein laughs. "No, but she's still young. Hasn't hit her first century yet, though she's close."

When he sees the confusion on your face, he continues, "It's a sort of turtle shifter. They live really long, and grow huge. Big enough to pretend to be islands, so when someone climbs on their back they can flip over and drown them. Most of them make do with a small seagull colony or something. She's overdue for her island vacation, but she's one of the few people left who can captain the Plourde, so she's stuck up here in space when she should be in the water. Until the war's over."

You nod, finally understanding. You resolve not to do anything that might make the giant killer turtle shifter decide to eat you alive.

"Time to fly?" you ask.

Eckstein nods, and leads the way to the shuttle bay.

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