• It turned out that someone else had responded to Juxa’s initial distress signal. They arrived at the ruined Silent Thunder and picked up Melanie Moreno and Juxa Zivango. The odd pair soon realized that there were only robots on the ship—no humans. Which meant that Melanie had total control.
    The ship’s name was Hope’s Crusade. It wasn’t as grand as her own ship—smaller and less splendorous—but it was decently fast and had plenty of weapons. It would do. She could get her own ship back. She had a tracking signal on her ship in case something like this happened. She went to the Hope’s bridge and entered a sequence on the pilot keyboard. A few spots on a map lit up, showing her that her ship was heading toward…
    “Taqua?” Melanie said, surprised. “They’re going back to Taqua?”
    “Their mission is to capture Nithril,” Juxa explained. “They probably guessed that he’s there.”
    “Well then, we’ll follow them and overtake them.”
    “Are you going to warn Nithril?”
    “Fine by me.”
    * * *
    “Coordinator,” the scout said through the communication device, “there are robots coming to look for us. We await your orders.”
    Marie didn’t take long to answer. “I’ve been thinking about this. Don’t destroy them—let them come deep into our base where we can take them by surprise. We’ve constructed devices to shut them down without harming them. Spread the word among the other scouts.”
    She turned to the others present. “I have a plan,” she announced.
    * * *
    In less than an hour, the robots stood for a new purpose. It was only a small group that had been sent—the army was spread out over the entire planet, so only a handful could be sent to each country—but it was a start. Their programming was completely different now—they now served the IGM and would turn on UNO when they received the signal. They would be in secret communication with each other at all times. If one of them was checked for changes to its programming, it would send a signal to the others and then erase that part of its programming. That way they would stay hidden until their time came.
    And, of course, they finished their search and reported that IGM was not in Yapine. Of course, they all knew that a new group of robots would be sent, and they would do the same to those ones. Eventually, the robot blockade would belong to the IGM.
    * * *
    Gerj was a very boring planet. But there, Replica was able to make repairs to the Reckless Wanderer, add more ships to his fleet and more robots to his army, and get information. He heard about the blockade, and was annoyed. Was he the only thinking robot that could do anything right?
    He also checked a tracking signal on the ship—the cockpit was right now flying in space. Which meant Nithril was coming to take his ship back. This pleased Replica. Unlike the other thinking robots, he did not need to be programmed with greed—he had a purpose, and he would fulfill that purpose, no matter what it took.
    Besides, he understood Nithril. No one even knew who Nithril really was, except for his Replica robot. Because of this, he had already known that something would go wrong on Ayarth, and he was okay with that. The blockade probably hadn’t been a part of his plan, but Nithril could adjust his plan around it. Nithril would see his enemies crushed.
    So Replica took his fleet to join Nithril in space.
    * * *
    The thinking robots were arguing again. They weren’t together this time; the three were spread out over the planet. They used holographic projections to communicate.
    “We know they’re here. Why haven’t we found them yet?”
    “Our robots have searched everywhere.”
    “Oh really? I’ve noticed that your robots take a little bit longer in the Yapine area. What do they do every time they go?”
    “Yapine has large underground territories. It takes a while to search through everything.”
    “Perhaps they’re getting a little distracted?”
    The one in charge of the Yapine area was furious. “Maybe your robots aren’t thorough enough. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t found them yet!”
    “Perhaps I should just take over your area…”
    “I will go down to Yapine myself and investigate! Will that satisfy your stupidity?”
    “Fine, go down. Take as long as you want… we’ll just assume control of your fleet until your return.”
    But the robot was determined. “Alright, take it. But when I come back right, I take control of half of your fleet as well as resuming control over my own.”
    “And when you come back wrong?”
    If, then you can keep my fleet.”
    * * *
    It didn’t take long for the machine’s investigation to develop problems. “We’ve captured a thinking robot!” a soldier reported over the comm. “What are your orders?”
    Coordinator Marie wasn’t sure this time. “Keep it shut down and stand by for further orders.” She turned to her grand admirals. “Let’s assess the risks and benefits.”
    Lliahm Wele was thrilled about the idea of reprogramming a thinking robot. “We would essentially gain a captain—it would command our robot army and strike at the perfect time. It could be our solution to taking down this blockade!”
    “Alright, we’ve heard the benefits. Now let’s think about risks.”
    Grand Admiral Yjeyd spoke up. “It’s a thinking robot—it could think of betraying us. That also makes it difficult to reprogram, and difficult to make sure it works. If we make one error, we’re giving away our position.”
    Marie thought for a second. “You say it could betray us, but I think we’re fine in that regard. Even thinking robots can’t change their programming. And if they could be programmed in the first place, we can reprogram them.”
    “But they weren’t programmed regularly. They were programmed with thought patterns and emotions.”
    “So we program it with overwhelming sympathy for the IGM.”
    * * *
    “What’s going on at Ayarth?”
    Triidxuq instantly knew he couldn’t tell Nithril. “The thinking robots have been sending robots down to search for the rebels without any results. So now one of the thinking robots is searching, after an argument it had with the others.”
    “Where is it searching?”
    “A good place to hide. It hasn’t found anything yet?”
    “What did it find?”
    Confused, Triidxuq answered “Nothing.”
    Nithril turned to him. “Now I heard it twice.”
    “Heard what?”
    “I can hear the difference in one’s tone when they lie. Now look me in the eye and tell me what it found.”
    Triidxuq silently cursed Nithril. However, there was no use in stubbornly continuing the lie. “It found a trap.”
    “Set by who?”
    “I’m not sure.”
    After a moment, Nithril nodded.
    That’s when Triidxuq found the line. He could say something and mean it in a different way, and he wasn’t lying. And he could deceive Nithril. In his mind, I’m not sure meant I don’t know which IGM members set it. But he made Nithril think that he meant it could’ve been the Yapine government.
    Now he knew that he could hide information from Nithril.
    * * *
    “I told you there was nothing. And now you know it’s true. Now hand over my newly grown fleet.”
    “No way!” the challenging thinking robot said. “If there’s really nothing down there, why did it take so long?”
    “Because I wanted to be thorough so that I could truly prove to you that there’s nothing there.”
    “I’m not handing over anything! I’m going down myself to make sure.”
    “Suit yourself, I’ll just take my reward, if you don’t mind… Oh, and I’ll look after the rest of your fleet while you’re down there. I’ll make sure nothing happens to it.”
    Soon, the IGM would have two thinking robots working for them.
    * * *
    Nithril and Replica met in space. Without having to say anything, Nithril flew his cockpit to the space where it used to be on the mostly-repaired Reckless Wanderer. The tiny nanobots that the cockpit was made out of shifted, releasing the pieces that they had picked up from the wreckage on Taqua, and attached themselves to the larger ship.
    The Reckless Wanderer was whole again.
    * * *
    “That’s Nithril’s ship,” Dociluas said, “the Reckless Wanderer. We can follow him to wherever he’s going.”
    “Why haven’t they detected us yet?” Peyb asked.
    “I have all power focused on the ship’s cloak,” Kriqua answered. “When they start moving, we’ll wait until they’re out of sight and scanner range and then follow them. Unless they come this way, we’ll be fine.”
    * * *
    Triidxuq knew that they were there, of course. There was little going on in the galaxy that he didn’t know, now that he was getting the hang of monitoring the information flow. But Nithril didn’t know. As he gained more and more information, he saw that all was not as hopeless as it seemed. From nearly every perspective, it seemed that the IGM had no hope. Of all the planets in the universe, they only had any kind of foothold on three of them, and none of those planets could really be called theirs. Earth was divided in civil war, Ayarth only had certain nations supporting them (even though none of them would turn to the Empire) and Ryeao was ruled by no one other than nature.
    Still, the IGM had two major strongholds in the war—Coordinator Marie, as she led the IGM’s main force while in hiding, and Mark, leading the group of commandos. Marie’s intelligence showed in the way she handled the robots—secretly adding to her own army while avoiding detection—and the commandos combined ingenuity, combat skills, and intuition to do their work better than anyone else could.
    Still, although most of the Empire’s ships floated around in space, useless until an attack came, they had the strength in numbers. In some cases, a single planet had more UNO ships than the number of IGM ships in the whole universe. IGM had a few key things keeping them alive, but in the end, it may not be enough. The Empire could make hundreds of mistakes and still survive—for the IGM, it would only take one mistake to bring their downfall. They were in an incredibly dangerous situation.
    * * *
    “Why haven’t we found any rebels?” one was saying. They were in another meeting.
    “Perhaps it’s because they aren’t on this planet after all,” the second robot said.
    The first robot nodded. “In that case, we should search other nearby planets.”
    “Wait,” the third robot said. “Nithril gave us orders to wait at Ayarth.”
    The first and second robots looked at each other. “Weren’t you the one to destroy the other robot who quoted Nithril’s orders?” the first one said.
    “Hey, you two joined!”
    “Anyway,” the first robot said, “we were discussing what to do next.”
    “Keep searching,” the third robot said.
    “There’s nothing here,” the other two said simultaneously. “If there was, we would’ve found it.”
    “We’re staying.”
    “We’re going,” the first and second said.
    “Then you will die.” The holograph faded out of existence, and alarms blared through the ships of the other two. They were under attack. Perfect.
    The two double agents had been secretly mixing the reprogrammed robots in with the old ones, and constantly sending more of the old ones down to be reprogrammed. At this point, almost five-ninths of the robots were reprogrammed.
    The order was sent, and the robots fired at all of their former companions that didn’t carry the proper signal. Since most of the robots did not have programming to adapt to the situation, there were almost no casualties for the IGM robots. When the ships were cleared of the Empire’s robots, the IGM agents took control of the ships to fire at the Empire’s thinking robot. That was the only ship that the double agents hadn’t been able to smuggle the IGM robots into. But with the entire fleet turned against that one ship, it didn’t stand a chance.
    The last of the Empire’s control over Ayarth went down almost without a fight.
    * * *
    “Something happened, didn’t it?” Nithril said. He could feel the change in the atmosphere. He could feel that Triidxuq was happy about something. “What happened?”
    “Don’t play games with me,” Nithril warned. “You should know by now that I have you outwitted.”
    “The blockade over Ayarth broke into a battle against each other. The fleet itself has taken little damage, but there are now only two thinking robots.” And those thinking robots are IGM agents, he thought to himself.
    “Interesting,” Nithril said. He hadn’t expected that. Why did he get the feeling that there was something Triidxuq wasn’t telling him? He wasn’t lying, but neither was he telling the whole truth.
    There’s no way I can pry every bit of information out of him, Nithril decided. He can’t even sort through all of his own thoughts. I’ll just have to put up with not knowing for now.
    * * *
    “It worked,” Lliahm breathed. “It worked! Now we have a defense! Whenever the Empire sends more forces here—”
    “We’ll pack our bags,” Marie said.
    Lliahm blinked. “What?”
    “We’ll stall as long as we can, but when they find us, we’ll leave.”
    “But why? We have an army of robots now! We can fight!”
    “As much as I want to fight,” Yjeyd said, “it would be foolish. We’re not going to win this war with numbers.”
    “Exactly,” Marie said. “The longer we wait, the more the robots will get mixed up among the other robots, and the more effective the uprising will be. We can’t afford to play our hand until we have no other options. That day will come, but we must wait for it.”
    “So we’re going to abandon Ayarth too?” Lliahm said, voice raising. “Where will we go then?”
    “If we have to, we’ll go where we can.”
    “We can’t go to Ryeao!”
    “No, if I went to Ryeao, I could not ask anyone to follow me.”
    “Then where?”
    “If you stick with me, you’ll find out.”
    The hidden message was there. Marie didn’t say it directly, but she wasn’t going to put up with the possibility of another betrayal, like Voisloid Goft’s.
    * * *
    When Nithril arrived, he took control of the fleet that was there. Triidxuq knew that by now, every robot in the fleet belonged to the IGM. But Nithril didn’t know that. He mixed his fleet with theirs to balance them out and make up for damaged ships, and opened communications with the thinking robots.
    “For thinking robots, you don’t think much, do you? A blockade? I told you to hide for a good reason!”
    “We were making sure that the IGM wouldn’t escape, but we found out that they’re not even here. Which saves you a bunch of trouble searching.”
    The other one spoke too. “The President will appreciate our actions.”
    “Oh really?” Nithril said. “Would you like me to quote what the President said about this?”
    They were both silent, but Nithril knew they felt no shame. Only resentment. “I’m taking command again. There are two other thinking robots with me, and I hope they’re smarter than you. Now I’m going to supervise a real search of the planet.”
    The holograms faded, and Nithril turned to Triidxuq. “I know they’re on this planet, and I will find them. I’m searching first in Yapine.”
    * * *
    Triidxuq was alone in his prison. It didn’t seem like a prison—it had a computer, books, food, and water, as well as all he needed to be comfortable, but the door was locked.
    But his mind was still free to roam. And he knew he had to do something. So with his mind, he pushed aside the constant flow of information and focused on opening communication. He had never done this before, but he had been told it was one of the simpler parts of having the Taquan implant.
    After what felt like hours, he heard a voice in his head. Who is this?
    That doesn’t matter, he responded. You’re in danger. Nithril is coming.
    How soon?
    I can’t tell you that. But he will search more thoroughly than the robots did. He will find you.
    Is he in this area?
    Yes. He’s searching Yapine. You can’t leave the same way you came.

    * * *
    Nithril is coming. Marie shouted excited orders. “If Nithril is really here, he’ll come with an army of robots. Probably none of them will be ours, because he came with a new fleet. We can’t escape this time—there’s nowhere for us to go. If we retreat to another country, they’ll just keep chasing us. If we try to leave the planet, the blockade will stop us. So we have to stand and fight.
    “Here’s the thing; when Nithril comes, he will be vulnerable. I want seven snipers to hide in a high place and wait for him to come. When he comes, aim carefully and fire. The rest of you focus only on the robots in front of you. If we win this battle, then we’ve gotten rid of UNO’s most powerful weapon. Nithril will fall.”
    * * *
    They didn’t have to wait long. Nithril had probably interrogated the Yapine people. The robots soon started popping up, firing without hesitation. The IGM fired back. It didn’t take long to escalate into a full-scale battle between humans and robots. The humans were smarter, of course, and they took cover, but the robots were tougher, and could survive many bullet hits. Most of the IGM troops had heavy rifles, but it still took several bullets to take down each robot. Some of them had rocket launchers. Some had smaller guns. Some had chain guns. There was a huge variety. The robots had almost no variety. They had rapid-fire guns attached to their left arms, and rocket launchers strapped to their right arms, which they only used for larger targets.
    Each side had advantages, but it was very difficult to tell who was winning. Eventually, Nithril appeared on the battlefield. The snipers had expected to be able to shoot him as soon as they saw him, but he surprised them with his speed. His age didn’t seem to hinder him at all—he ran full speed to the frontlines and fired with his electrical pistol, which created chain effects that knocked out around a dozen people at a time. They wouldn’t know how many were killed by it until the end of the battle. Nobody seemed able to shoot him—he was just so fast.
    A pair of Ayarthans—nearly as fast as him—leapt to either side of him and attacked with large knives. The one in front of him stabbed high, the one behind him stabbed low. He ducked the one in front, and swung his gun around behind him to deflect the knife behind him. Then he spun around and leapt, kicking the first one in the face as he pulled his gun up to shoot the second. The Ayarthan jabbed his knife at Nithril’s wrist, forcing him to pull his gun upward before he could fire. The gun flew from his hand and he grabbed two daggers from his belt. The Ayarthan jabbed at him, but he deflected it with one dagger and stabbed with the other. The Ayarthan was too slow—he got a small cut on his arm.
    Nithril landed. He jabbed again, and again, and again, each time being blocked by the Ayarthan’s broader knife. Sensing the other Ayarthan coming up behind him, he jumped and kicked the one in front of him in the chest, simultaneously turning around in the air. He threw one of his daggers, striking the first Ayarthan in the throat. Now Nithril only had one to deal with. He landed when he had turned 360 degrees, and threw the other dagger at the other Ayarthan. It was deflected, and Nithril was now without his weapons. The Ayarthan charged with his knife, but Nithril ran forward with his head low. His head struck the Ayarthan’s stomach, which caved inward because of the lack of bone, and his left arm went up to disarm the Ayarthan. The knife came out of the Ayarthan’s hand, but he flipped forward to land back-to-back with Nithril.
    Instead of turning around, he bent his arms backwards to hook around Nithril. Nithril turned, and the Ayarthan was swung around behind him. Using the momentum, he let go with one arm and dashed around to Nithril’s front, striking his throat with his palm. There was a loud metallic clang. The Ayarthan hesitated for a moment, confused by what he heard and felt. In that moment of hesitation, the knife came down and killed him.
    Then one of the snipers finally got a shot—right in the side of his head. Nithril fell to the ground, but bounced back up. Red fluid was dripping from the side of his head. Still, he bent down as he ran to grab his gun and keep firing. The snipers were now firing frantically at him. They weren’t able to hit him while he was moving, and they knew it. That’s why he had been safe while fighting the Ayarthans. But now he was moving again, despite the injury that should’ve been an instant fatality. He was causing huge havoc among the IGM. Then a rocket blew up in front of him. Smart, he thought. It was fired in front of me to stop me. The soldier knew that if he fired directly at me, he would miss.
    Nithril was only hindered for a second, but in that one second, four snipers shot him—one in the head, one in the neck, one just above his hip, and one in his thigh. As he was falling to the ground, he was pelted by dozens more guns. Enough guns that they saw more than just the red dye—they also saw the metal pieces and wires that flew out of the robot. Replica had fallen.
    Everyone in the army saw it. Everyone saw that they had been deceived. Everyone saw that Nithril hadn’t actually come. They were furious. For some, fury blinded them, and clouded their judgment, hindering their ability to fight. For many of the Earthlings, Taquans, and Ayarthans, this was the case. But Ryeaoans knew how to channel their fury.
    From somewhere within the chaos, there was a loud shout: “Now!” Yjeyd’s command caused even more chaos than there was already. Everyone near the frontline retreated, and the place came alive. The walls that they saw shattered, and hundreds of Ryeaoans charged from all sides.
    The robots had nowhere to run. Yjeyd had waited until the entire army was in the right position. The Ryeaoans completely surrounded the robots. Even pieces of the floor and ceiling crumbled, revealing holes that the Ryeaoans had dug for hiding places. Many of the robots managed to launch missiles, and several Ryeaoans were killed. But within thirty seconds, every robot had been destroyed.
    * * *
    Triidxuq was amazed. He was amazed that there had been a robotic replica of Nithril. He was even more amazed, though, at the efficiency of the Ryeaoans. He had already known their plan, of course, but he hadn’t known it would work so well. Dozens of Ryeaoans were injured, but the robots were a bunch of scrap metal. None of them would ever operate again.
    Except for one.
    He knew that Replica would be repaired. What he didn’t understand was how his information-collector robots (Triidxuq decided to abbreviate them ICR’s) hadn’t ever detected it. Did Nithril have some kind of jammer installed in Replica? If he did, it would do no good. Now Triidxuq could break forcefully into Replica’s mind. And he did—there wasn’t much of it at the moment, so no information flowed to his mind, but he now had a foothold in Replica’s mind.
    * * *
    “Now what, Coordinator?” Lliahm asked. “Your plan worked, but what do we do when they attack again?”
    Before Marie could answer, a voice crackled on the communication device on her wrist. “Don’t be a fool—I warned you Nithril is coming. He still is! His fleet is massive; what you did was impressive, but don’t get comfortable. Prepare for another attack!”
    “Who are you?” Marie demanded.
    “It doesn’t matter—I was right about the first attack, wasn’t I? Now the second wave is coming.”
    “I demand to know your name!”
    For a second, there was silence. Then, “Triidxuq.” Then the communication was cut off.
    That’s a Taquan name, Marie thought. That explains quite a bit.
    “He contacted you before?” Lliahm questioned.
    “He’s the reason I knew that attack was coming,” she muttered. “Let’s get ready for another attack. This time, we need an escape plan. If Nithril decides that he can’t defeat us, he’ll just cave in the tunnels.”
    * * *
    Nithril smiled at their ingenuity. He had seen the whole battle from a camera hidden nearby. The Ryeaoans were magnificent. How well would they do in the next battle he had for them?
    “Incoming transmission,” the Wanderer’s computer told him.
    “Identify,” Nithril responded.
    “President Borobom of Yapine.”
    “Put him through.”
    “Captain of the Reckless Wanderer,” Borobom greeted as his face appeared on the view screen, “please turn back.”
    “Excuse me?” Nithril’s expression remained neutral, but inwardly, he was amused. “Are you giving orders to the President’s Hand?”
    Borobom’s expression changed. Did he really not know it was me? Nithril wondered.
    “Honored Hand, we have put up with your search parties because we have no intention of being at odds with the Universal New Order. However, your recent battle has left our tunnels unstable and fragile. We are currently evacuating civilians from the area, but they will be unable to sustain themselves on the surface for long. We’ll be overpopulated, and we may even be forced to aggressively expand our territory in order to survive. What’s more—”
    “Borobom, what do any of these petty issues have to do with me?”
    “Petty issues? Why you… when the President began to rule, he declared that the universe would be under his protection! What good is your protection if this is where it gets us?”
    “I have the entire battle under your soil recorded on camera. I can prove that it was the Independent Governments Movement that instigated the collapse of the tunnels.”
    “I, too, have records,” Borobom said, calming himself down. “The Ryeaoans excavated expertly—their collapse of the walls and ceiling in that section of the tunnels had no lasting impact, and the instability did not spread. It was the rockets your robots launched that caused the damage.”
    Nithril couldn’t help but smile. Now I see. The tunnels are perfectly fine. You’re making this up so that you can protect the rebellion. Very clever.
    “And now,” Borobom continued, his voice raising, “you’re approaching with a large fleet led by a battle-ship that could single-handedly destroy Yapine!”
    That much, at least, was true. “Thank you for expressing your concern so politely,” Nithril said, bowing slightly. “I will keep your concerns in mind as I begin my absolute destruction of anyone who dares rebel against the Universal New Order.”
    Borobom’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean…”
    “According to the seismic readings my ship’s computer is taking right now, you have greatly exaggerated the structural damage of Yapine’s underground, and the news declares no evacuation at all. On these grounds, you are being charged with accusations of defending the rebel army and directly lying to a high-ranking official of the Universal New Order. You get no trial. I am your court. End transmission.”
    Nithril smiled. “Computer, continue descent.”
    * * *
    Marie had managed to devise a plan, but the attack came too soon. They weren’t ready for it. Not all of the soldiers were in position.
    An explosion. The tunnel lit up as light poured through the new hole in the ceiling. The ship broke through in the middle of the IGM’s army. The army scattered—the ones that weren’t crushed by the ship or by the boulders falling were running around madly, some shooting behind them.
    The ship opened up, and robots poured out of it, already firing. Most of the IGM retreated, but the Ryeaoans charged forward. Before they could reach the robots though, they all simultaneously hit the ground with missiles. The force of the explosions destroyed most of the robots, but the damage was done. Cracks spread over the surface of the ground, growing until they reached the walls and then the ceilings.
    “Now!” Marie shouted. She hadn’t wanted it to be so soon, but they didn’t have a choice. Every missile launcher was fired upward, from the Ryeaoan group and the others. Each soldier knew exactly where he had to shoot. The ceiling of the cavern was pulverized into fist-sized pieces. They would still be painful, but they wouldn’t do more damage than bruising. The second volley of missiles was launched to break the second layer. Then the first group reloaded and fired again at the third layer. It was estimated previously that it would take five volleys, and that estimate proved true. The soldiers were battered and bruised by the rubble, and many of them had broken bones, but they were alive.
    Water began to pour into the cavern, and the soldiers hurried into their ships. Marie had made sure all of the soldiers were wearing floating gear, so that even the injured could be picked up as the water level was raised. When the walls collapsed, there was no more ceiling for it to bring down. The soldiers loaded into their ships and took off.
    * * *
    The ships rocketed into space, but were stopped by the blockade. The IGM fleet didn’t even put up a fight. The UNO guns blazed, tearing through the armor of the IGM ships, and sending their flaming hulks back to the planet below.
    Nithril watched in disbelief. He didn’t believe the results he got from the cameras. There had to be some kind of trick. After all that, the IGM would just charge to the blockade to get killed? They didn’t even fire.
    He didn’t know what was going on, but he knew that the IGM was still alive.