"They were on us like locusts!" cried the interviewee. "I could only sit helplessly and watch through the porthole of my shuttle window as the robots descended onto my planet. Their ships were so numerous they looked like…like water falling from a bucket. They just appeared out of nowhere!" The interviewee broke down in tears then and the news story broke away to the news anchor who stared with an award winning poker face into the camera. Below him was a banner that read "BREAKING NEWS: ROBOTS CONTINUE INVASIONS".
"Since the sudden resurgence of activity within the Blackout Sphere over 145 planets have fallen to their invasions of worlds close to the Blackout Sphere. Sector command is at a loss of words as to how billions of robots are able to appear from nowhere and take a world in only a few minutes. Right now military refuses to release figures but the dead are estimated to be in the high billions. Communications with worlds lost to the robots through the Cyberverse is impossible" the news anchor said.
Terrence has seen that report a few days ago. There had been a crowd gathered in front of the screen. People were praying or crying. Some were whimpering in fear. 145 planets fallen in one day: now Adolph Hitler's blitzkrieg was slower than a statue. These robots were godlike. 145 worlds was one fifth of the whole sector albeit a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of human planets across the galaxy.
Since seeing that report four days had passed. Terrence has spent the majority of the time aboard Ohman's shuttle going to Xerxes 2 which was one of the dwindling numbers of planets still held by humans in this sector. In those four days about 289 planets had fallen. 151 on the first day, 85 on the second, 41 on the third, 12 on the fourth. Today was the fifth day. Had the majority of the populace not already been evacuated in the face of the expanding Blackout Sphere the loss of life from these conquests would have been apocalyptic. Terrence was now watching a news report on a monitor upon the wall of his cabin. The signal was coming to them from light years away so had to be transmitted via the Cyberverse and its anti-matter tunnels.
"All residents are being evacuated in the face of the Blackout Sphere knowing that the robots could strike their world at any moment" a voice said as images of citizens being loaded into massive refugee transports was shown. "The sector that contains the Blackout Sphere and all neighboring sectors are being evacuated while other sectors brace for the flood of displaced persons. Military forces are being mobilized but have thus far been unable to hold back the advancing robots". The screen flashed away to a young woman in army clothes walking in front of a fighter plane.
"But one must ask why this is happening, why an army of robots would attack us. Clearly the answer lies within the synthetic mind's disdain for a civilization as violent as humanity. We commit crime against one another, we feel ill feelings towards one another, we even go so far as to murder one another over selfish causes. Our vast armies, long unused, have sat like a tumor within our societies waiting for an excuse to break themselves out. We must show the robots that we are compassionate beings…" Terrence turned the screen off. His young grandson was not killed by a machine who thought he was being uncompassionate. This naive woman was probably not even from the same sector of the Milky Way that was being attacked by the robots.
"We are approaching Xerxes 2" the voice over the intercom said…
Moments later, Terrence was looking at the planet from orbit. A steady stream of beetle-like transport ships fat with refugees was flying away from the planet while military ships were seen flying up to the planet. Ships, civilian and military, were thick like a swarm of flies over a rotting animal. In some spots they were thick enough to blot his view of the surface. Terrence wondered if the pilots of these ships had the sense not to collide with one another. His ship descended to the planet below.
Instead of meeting with Ohman in the café, Ohman came on board and announced they were to be flying to the distant world of Luvemage 4 in a neighboring sector.
"I'm glad you could make it" Ohman said to Terrence in his office aboard the shuttle as they sped away from Xerxes 2.
"You want my advice?" Terrence asked.
"I do" Ohman said as he rubbed his temples which were heavy with stress. His normally powerful frame was sunken with the work of the past few days. His eyes were red and sunken with a lack of sleep. Terrence could see he was trembling. He needed Laster's help badly.
"Have you got a beer for me?" Terrence asked. An earpiece Ohman wore beeped, signaling an urgent message that couldn't wait. Ohman touched his earpiece to connect himself to whoever it was that wanted to talk to him via the Cyberverse.
"Redirect the ships to Xerxes 2 and defend it once the robots arrive" Ohaman instructed then apologized.
"Do you have any beer?" Terrence repeated.
"No. Now would you please help me? The sector I command is being devoured and there's nothing I can do about it. The robots just appear out of nowhere and everything ends for the planet they're over. They appear, we lose contact with that poor planet, and it is sucked into the Blackout Sphere. Ah! I have nightmares about that goddamned thing!"
"First you must determine how the robots fight" Terrence stated.
"They appear out of nowhere and everything goes to hell. What more do you want?" asked Ohman. "They number in the hundreds of billions when they show up and overwhelm the planet in only a few minutes by dropping onto it from their horrible ships". Ohman's earpiece beeped and he answered the message with a mere curse.
"We've lost contact with Xerxes 1. It's part of the Blackout Sphere now" he said.
"Have you figured out how we lose contact?" Terrence asked.
"No. All Cyberverse channels coming from that planet die when the robots arrive. Interplanetary communications become impossible when the Cyberverse is gone and they are sucked into the Blackout Sphere".
"Before you fight your enemy you must understand how he fights" Terrence explained. "Sun Tzu wasn't it? Know thy enemy?"
"How can we learn from them? Are we to wait for the robots to kill more worlds?"
"I think so". Ohman gave a deep and shaky sigh. His work was weighing in on him. The silence was broken by a beeping from his earpiece. He touched it to receive the message and grimaced at what he heard but said nothing.
"And then what?" Ohman asked. "I…" he was interrupted by his earpiece. He excused himself for a few moments. He came back into the room with an apology. "What do we do once we've learned about these bastards? How do we rout them? We send fleet after fleet of poor men against the robots and we never hear from them again. How can we contain the explosive advance of the robots?"
"The power of the robot's advance lies in speed" Terrence explained. "Take away their speed".
"How? They can teleport, going places without accelerating to jump speed".
"Find out how they can teleport" replied Terrence. Their meeting ended when Ohman's earpiece beeped. He answered it and let out a cry of despair.
"We've lost contact with Xerxes 2" he explained. "It's part of the Blackout Sphere now". It would be several weeks before they reached the next sector even with their powerful engines driving them through space at jump speed. Terrence Laster kept himself entertained by surfing the internet or getting drunk. His internet signals reaching servers millions of light years away in only a few seconds thanks to the Cyberverse network. "Thank god for intergalactic communication".
Two weeks aboard the ship, Terrence confronted Ohman who was lying on his bunk with a face full of tears. His earpiece lay on the floor, smashed. Terrence ran over to it and asked Ohman what had happened, careful not to spill his beer as he did.
"I…can't take it anymore. O…of the…500 p…p…planets in the sector only 7 now remain outside of the Blackout Sphere…and I heard…about the fall…of…of almost all of them". His sobbing reminded Terrence of the way a toddler sobbed.
"Why did you smash your earpiece?" asked Terrence. Ohman stood up and ignored the question.
"We lost almost 500 worlds to those evil machines!" Ohman shouted though not in anger but in stress and frustration. "The human lives lost…they're….they're…oh god!" He cried a bit more. "1.5 trillion lost to the invasions. 1.5 trillion people excluding all the soldiers who died in vain to try and hold them back. How many children is that? How many elderly folks? How many breastfeeding infants? How many artists and lawyers and thinkers and philosophers and humanists and spiritual leaders? How many innocent people who just want to live and be happy but can't because of some robotic uprising that we can't explain! AW! How much humanity has been lost? Mankind arrived here from the soup! We shrugged off wars, genocides, disease, and environmental catastrophe. We made for the stars! We discovered the science needed to go faster than light! We discovered the science needed to build planets out of star mass and space dust! We colonized the Milky Way! Now our first war with another species and we are already 1.5 trillion deaths behind! What in the names of all the gods are we doing wrong?!" He was trembling. "Help me Terrence. I can't take this command anymore! I'm going crazy! The sector will be eaten by the Blackout Sphere and I'm supposed to stop it. I can't stop it, we can't stop it. It will just keep expanding until it destroys us all! Help me Terrence!" He lunged forward onto Terence and caused him to drop his beer which exploded onto the ground. Terrence fled the room.
That evening a message was received through the Cyberverse: the last of the seven planets in the invaded sector had been taken and added to the expanding Blackout Sphere. Seven more sectors of the Milky Way now bordered the Blackout Sphere and all were set to be devoured.
A gunshot was heard from Ohman's quarters. Terrence was the first to arrive and found, as he expected, Ohman dead on the floor with a self inflicted gunshot wound in his head. The pistol in his hand, and old 991 Warstorm, was still smoking when Terrence came in.
I couldn't save my beloved sector. I can't bear the burden read the note Ohman held in his hand. I don't want to see how this is going to end.
'Maybe there is no hope' Terrence thought as he reached down for the pistol. He checked it to see if it was still loaded: it was. He thought of his family and how, if there was an afterlife, he could see them again. The staff of the shuttle arrived just in time to see Terrence shoot himself.
END OF STORY