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​​​​Twenty

Bonner suggests you take one of the fighters, as they're equipped both for reconnaissance and rapid retreat, if you find a threat.

It only takes one glance at your battered shuttle before you start your preflight checks on the shiniest fighter. Everything seems in order, so it's not long before you're buckling yourself into the pilot's seat and easing your way out of the Plourde.

The clamshell scoutship resets its cloak once you're clear, but you have a secure comm channel to the bridge, so you know you'll be able to find it again once you're done reconnoitring Omega and its mysterious city.

When you reach Omega, you fly over the crash site, confirming that there's no sign of wreckage atop the telltale scorch marks.

A horrible thought occurs to you: did the city salvage the pilot's charred corpse along with the rest of the ship? Sure, it was probably just a Human, and your enemy, but he or she at least deserved a decent burial. Not to be turned into…carbon fibre or whatever the city needed.

If the body had been salvaged, then there probably weren't any people in the city. Only an AI and a bunch of robots would do something so inhuman.

All the more reason to destroy it, too. Before it turned on both Titans and Humans.

You follow the tracks leading back to the city. They could have belonged to Humans in space suits, but given there were no vehicle tracks of any kind, they'd have had to possess superhuman strength to carry back that ship on their own. So robots, definitely.

You're still a few kilometres from the city when it appears, just as suddenly as it had before. It rises up from the rocky plain, dwarfing your shuttle in its shadow. This place is easily ten times the size of Alba. It's what Alba might have become, if your people had been allowed to stay in the Titan system.

The torus that enclosed the main dome could have been built from the same blueprints as Alba, with recessed airlocks dotted regularly around it.

If you landed, you wouldn't have been surprised to see the aerobridge unfold to latch on to your fighter, letting you walk into the city without needing a space suit or even an air supply. That would work in your favour if you had to destroy the city.

But if you docked now, you'd lose the element of surprise for later, when you really needed it.

Reluctantly, you lift the fighter's nose up, until you're above the torus, before following it around the dome. Of course, you can't see inside because of the radiation shielding, but what you can see is that the structure is very new, with hardly any dust on the outside.

If the dome is so new, though, and the robots are still collecting building materials, maybe it isn't fit for Human habitation yet. Maybe it truly is empty.

Maybe it would be best to wait until it's finished and take possession of it before Humans could. They could call it New Alba…

A proximity warning sounds from the console. What in the stars could be out here to hit?

You round the dome and it comes into view. A Human shuttle, waiting to ambush you.

In a heartbeat, you have them centred on your targeting computer. All you need to do is press the firing button and they'll be another scorch mark on the ground.

Music erupts from every speaker in the cockpit as your targeting display is replaced by a video of a city that looks nothing like Alba's clean, efficient lines. There are more trees than buildings!

"We're building a better world for you."

Robots are building it, you think.

Yep, sure enough, there they are on the video.

"Robots to serve you."

Yeah, right until they rebel and take over the whole starcrossed planet, throwing all the living people onto a colony ship and sending them out into the stars.

"Bjorg, what have you done? The city AI has taken over every viewscreen on the Plourde!" Captain Shelley sounded furious.

Did that mean they were seeing the same video?

"Is it offering you robots?" you venture.

"YES! And air and space and water…It just keeps looping, over and over, like a real estate advertisement designed to drive you mad!"

You're not sure whether you want to laugh or cry. "It's taken over my targeting system, too."

"Our targeting systems are down, too. We can't destroy it. I've contacted Command. They're sending Halcyon out here."

If anyone could destroy Human technology, it was Halcyon.

 You blink at the screen. "Wait, there's a new bit at the end. It's just text, saying how we should claim our place in the Colony, end the war, because there's room for everyone…"

"Return to the Plourde, Bjorg, to await Halcyon's arrival."

You spin the fighter around and head for where you left the Plourde, occasionally glancing at the still useless targeting display. By the time the shuttle bay doors close behind you, you find you're humming the ad's background music, and wondering whether there would be enough wind in the Colony to stretch your wings and fly over those never ending views.

Stars knew how much you'd like the war to be over.

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