• Kriqua held her gun tightly. She knew there would be no fighting yet, but she felt more secure with a weapon at hand. Her long, flowing black hair was tied back into a ponytail to make sure it didn’t get in her brown eyes. She was a Taquan; one of the most similar races to Earthlings. There was really no visual difference between a Taquan and an Earthling—however, there had been a Taquan mad scientist who had designed a new way for humans and machines to interact. There was now a mechanical device inside the heads of all upper-class Taquans, and many middle-class Taquans. The exception, of course, was that it was too dangerous for anyone under the age of twenty, and, for the sake of caution, it was illegal for anyone under thirty to have the device implanted. Kriqua was twenty-eight, but the IGM had convinced the Taquan government to allow her to get the implant because she had proved herself competent and wise enough to handle herself.
    The device included many features, but the only one that Kriqua used was the ability to communicate with machines on a new level. She could hack into computer systems remotely, with just a thought, or she could do something simpler, such as fire the gun she held, which had no trigger.
    “Is this close enough, Kriqua?” The voice came from an Earthling named Mark. Mark seemed to be one of those names that never died with time.
    Kriqua closed her eyes and concentrated; her narrow face tilted downward slightly. After a long moment, her eyes came open again. “Yes. I’ve hacked into their security network. The cameras are frozen.”
    “Then let’s move out!”
    Mark was the leader of the commando group, Team Orphan. Some scoffed at their group’s name, but it had two main reasons. The first was that no one on the team had ever known their parents. The second was that their core belief was that they needed to defend those who had no one else to defend them. Mark was thirty-two, and had been with the resistance for twenty-three years, since the war began. A boy at the age of nine, Mark had actually been instrumental in founding the IGM. When he was seven, he had escaped a factory where the “President” had been using a memory-wiping device to brainwash children into becoming leaders for his robot army. Mark had done his best to resist the device, though there was very little he could remember of the time before that. He had managed to lead a group of children to escape, and had spent the next two years going to several planets—many times as a stowaway—and explaining what had happened to him, and what was coming. At first, no one had believed him, but when dozens of other children explained the same story, investigations began, and the resistance began to form.
    Now, even at thirty-two, he hadn’t seemed to hit his prime years. He improved constantly, becoming stronger, faster, more agile, and better at leading. His sandy-blonde hair was standard military length, and there were streaks of gray that told of his experience. His blue eyes also showed the courage and wisdom that his years had given him. His muscles were well-defined, which often made Kriqua wonder about Earthlings. With the technology they had access to, she wondered why the Earthlings thought that push-ups and weight-lifting were so necessary. His strength had come in handy a few times, she had to admit, but it would make more sense if their military had more endurance than strength. Still, there were different branches of the military, each having its own specialties…
    Mark carried an assault rifle. It struck Kriqua as larger than it needed to be—its bulkiness could’ve easily been reduced without diminishing its capabilities. She briefly wondered if the Earthling weapon manufacturers didn’t know that, but she found it more likely that they just preferred larger weapons for some reason. He also had other weapons and gadgets in his utility belt—two pistols, several grenades, and various other tools.
    As they jogged through the forest of her home world, Taqua, Kriqua turned her eyes onto the other people in the commando group. There were two Ryeaoans, brothers, and their strength made Earthling marines look like children in comparison, even though their muscles weren’t as defined. Their skin was incredibly tough, and they could withstand several bullets, at least from the weak guns the average robots used. Then again, one would need to be abnormally strong to survive on Ryeao. The dangers of the planet alone were enough to force the humans living there to adapt and become stronger. If they weren’t stronger, faster, stealthier, and overall more fit than everyone and everything around them, they would die.
    After the nuclear incident that had devastatingly transformed Ryeao, it had been nearly a century before anyone had been able to land on the planet relatively safely and see if there were any survivors. The survivors no longer seemed human. Unfortunately for the Ryeaoans, the first successful rescue team to Ryeao was during the current war. UNO had elected to simply let them die on their planet. Thus, around ninety-nine percent of the Ryeaoan adults were fighting in the war against the empire. However, even that ninety-nine percent was low because of how much Ryeao’s population had been thinned out.
    The two Ryeaoans in the small team were named Juyrl and Veyia. Juyrl specialized in hand-to-hand combat, and he had never been beaten, even among his own kind, as far as the rest of the team was concerned. Veyia was nearly as good, but he replaced tactics with brute strength and raw power. When it came to destroying something, he was quicker and more efficient than most explosives. Like all Ryeaoans, they had thick, dark red skin, sharpened teeth, and nails that had hardened into claws. They were both bald, but Juyrl had blue eyes while Veyia had brown eyes. Veyia was slightly larger. Other than that, the two brothers appeared to be identical. They had fairly simple utility belts, but almost no weapons—they just used their hands. Veyia was thirty-two, and Juyrl was twenty-eight.
    There were two more in the team—one of them was a twenty-three-year-old Ayarthan. His name was Thyu, and he was incredibly valuable. Not many Ayarthans were willing to support the IGM—any form of exercise apparently hurt them much more than it hurt other humans—so Thyu’s skills were unbelievably useful. The Ayarthans had no bones—they relied completely on keeping their muscles tensed for something as simple as standing. This drawback also meant that they could change their shape to some extent, and slip through areas much too small for other humans. Kriqua pitied Thyu more than she pitied anyone else—she had seen him spend hours on end sitting in a tub of ice, trying to ease his pain, after every mission. He had smooth, short brown hair and brown eyes. The skin around his face sagged a little—but only barely. His preferred weapon was a electro-crystal—Ayarthan technology was by far the strangest, as far as Kriqua was concerned. The crystal created an electrical charge whenever it came into contact with metal—he carried it in a leather sheath. It was incredibly useful when fighting robots, but it was sharp enough to kill organics too.
    The latest addition to the team was another Taquan, like Kriqua, although he was only twenty-four, and did not have an implant like Kriqua’s. Dociluas did, however, have just as much technological expertise. Even though he didn’t have direct access to machines like Kriqua did, his advanced knowledge had already come in handy. He had helped design the program installed in Kriqua’s head that was designed to tap into the enemy security system. He had brown hair and gray eyes that gleamed with intelligence. He carried two pistols, although unlike Kriqua, he couldn’t link them to his mind.
    Dociluas had only done one mission with them before this one. No one wanted to talk about who he was replacing—an Earthling named Rye. The whole group had always been family, but Kriqua had felt especially close to Rye. His death seemed pointless—they hadn’t even been fighting; they were only aiding an evacuation from a space station about to be destroyed by an asteroid. He had died because he wanted to be the last one off of the station. He had to make sure everyone else got out first. But for a soldier to die from a natural disaster seemed a waste, no matter how noble the cause.
    But Dociluas was here, now, and Kriqua would not let herself—or anyone else—treat him like a loner. His main job was to notice everything around them—even minute details—and he was good at it. But since he knew so well how to read people, he also knew how to keep himself from being read. His facial expressions never seemed to change, as if he was a robot, but Kriqua had begun to pick up on more subtle signs of his emotions.
    “You’re afraid,” Kriqua whispered in his ear. However, she could tell that he was also trying to replace his fear with rage—somewhat successfully.
    “This isn’t going to be an easy mission. The only reason it’s even considerable is that Nithril placed his base directly on our planet, in easy range of our government’s probes.”
    “No matter how hard it is, we’ve been given a perfect opportunity. We won’t have another chance to capture Nithril once he leaves—that is, unless he’s dumb enough to show up at the IGM headquarters.”
    “Why is he here though?”
    “Probably to steal our technology. It doesn’t matter though. He won’t get to.”
    At Mark’s signal, the group stopped and took shelter behind the trees. Kriqua and Dociluas huddled behind Mark while the other three went off to the right. Kriqua watched their progress as they ducked around trees, then Thyu brought the Ryeaoans to a halt as he continued. He seemed to melt into the trees as he climbed one, and then he was gone from sight.
    To calm herself, Kriqua replayed information in her mind. There were two robotic sentries guarding the door out in the open, but there were two more hidden nearby, one to each side, in case anything happened to the main guards. Thyu would sneak up on one of the hidden guards and disable it, then give the signal to the Ryeaoan brothers. Juyrl and Veyia would then use grappling hooks to get above the main sentries and get the jump on them. It would then be Kriqua’s job to disable the last guard.
    She awaited her cue…
    The grappling hooks hit a space above the door she was watching, and the guards below were completely oblivious to it. Wait, she told herself. The ropes connected to the hooks retracted suddenly, pulling the Ryeaoans at a dizzying speed. That was when she ran out of her cover, attracting the guards’ attention. She ignored them—she had complete faith that they would be destroyed before firing a single shot. She ran to where she knew the last guard was hiding…
    It lunged at her, but she was expecting it. Changing all of her forward momentum into sideways movement, she rolled and stood up again before a second could pass, and shot the tiny gap between the robot’s head-plate and neck-plate. Most people would’ve missed, especially with a pistol with no sights, but she knew her gun. It was linked with the mechanical part of her brain, as well as the tiny camera inside the barrel of the gun. It was her third eye. She could not miss.
    The bullet ricocheted inside of the metallic skull, destroying several vital parts of the operational systems. The robot collapsed in front of her, and suddenly she realized how much of a toll the maneuver had taken on her muscles. She had felt much worse, but it was still irritating. Now is no time to think about pain, she chided herself. She saw Mark leading the others through the door, which had been opened forcefully by Veyia, and she ran to catch up with them. When she was in front of them, she slowed to a comfortable jog. It was her job to lead them, since she was currently connected to the security system. Avoiding sentries depended on her—she had been able to shut down the cameras, but not the robots.
    * * *
    Veyia was very disappointed with this mission. It was a stealth mission. Veyia wanted action.
    He couldn’t stand sneaking around when he could bash those hideous robotic heads together instead. Those four robots guarding the place had been boring—especially since he only got to take on one of them. And now the Taquan girl—Kriqua was her name—was leading them away from a fight. He understood the strategic value of it, which was why he held his tongue, but he certainly didn’t like it.
    He hoped that Nithril would resist. He didn’t want to kill Nithril—that would be wasteful—but nobody had ever told him not to hurt Nithril. The president—that’s who he wanted to kill.
    For now, Nithril was enough. Nithril was the president’s greatest tool. Nithril was his super weapon. Nithril had never failed. His first failure would send the president a crystal-clear message. He wondered how long it would take to get to Nithril—the base was beginning to appear as if it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. Of course, the fact that they were darting down random passages to avoid detection didn’t make it any faster.
    Finally they stopped, but they hadn’t arrived at their destination. They stopped because the new Taquan—Veyia couldn’t remember his name—told them to. “Are there any guards nearby?” Mark asked Kriqua.
    Mark glared at the younger Taquan. “You’d better have a good reason for this, Dociluas. We’re in a hurry.”
    “Something’s wrong,” the Taquan replied. “There’s no reason for this humidity.”
    “This planet is humid,” Mark said. “Get over it.” Veyia agreed with him.
    “But we live here,” Kriqua pointed out. “We know the humidity—and it is denser here.”
    “We’ve studied the layout of this base several times over,” Dociluas said. “Can any of you think of a reason for the humidity to have increased?”
    “We’re wasting our—”
    “No, Dociluas is right,” Kriqua interrupted. “I can even see the water in the air. The only reasons for that are either that there’s a recently added garden or pool, which I doubt, or—”
    “Smart,” a new voice interrupted. “You’ve sniffed me out.”
    Veyia turned and saw Nithril several meters down the hall. Beaming with joy, Veyia charged toward him, hoping that his enemy would fight back.
    “No! Wait!” Dociluas cried. He’s new, Veyia told himself. I don’t take orders from him. But Dociluas continued shouting insistently as Veyia continued running. “He’s not there! He’s a holo—”
    Veyia leapt off of the ground as Dociluas was shouting, and suddenly he understood. He could now see the wavering particles as the light reflected off of the water droplets. He had made a mistake. And on his planet, mistakes were fatal. Veyia knew he would die.
    * * *
    Dociluas ceased shouting as he saw that it was too late. Veyia passed straight through the hologram, and dove beyond it into empty space. A bright light flared to Veyia’s left and his right. Dociluas wished that there was something he could do, and he knew that everyone else felt the same way. Two beams of light shot at him, meeting in the middle. They completely enveloped him, and after a second or two, the laser weapons powered down, leaving a pile of ashes that used to be Veyia.
    “A pity,” Nithril said, shaking his head. What enraged Dociluas was that Nithril appeared to be sincere, but he knew it was false emotion. “It’s a shame that the strong ones are so often the dumb ones. Anyway, back to the matter at hand.” He no longer sounded melancholy. “By his own culture, the only funeral he’ll get is the lesson of how he died. He ignored advice. If you would honor your companion’s memory, you will heed advice from now on.”
    “Not from you,” Juyrl growled, obviously enraged, and for good reason.
    Suddenly a thought struck Dociluas. He was hired for logic, after all, not emotion. Juyrl didn’t deny the claim about the Ryeaoan culture. He knew enough about the brothers to know that they would angrily argue an unjust claim of Ryeao. Which meant that Nithril knew about Ryeaoan culture. But why? Why would he—or anyone in UNO—care about the people of Ryeao? They abandoned the planet.
    “Perhaps you’re right,” Nithril said, “but I’ll give you advice anyway. Never try to hack into the entire security system. Taking out a small area is obvious enough, but when all of the cameras freeze up, it’s like putting up a sign that says We’re breaking in. Especially when you consider that there’s even a camera in the security room. I was alerted as soon as the robot told me that it couldn’t see itself moving. But I do applaud you on your method of bringing it about—I’ve never seen such an intriguing hacking program.”
    Another realization. Nithril had found the program as soon as he realized that something was amiss, and had studied it, without tripping the alarms that were supposed to tell Kriqua that they had been discovered. He made a mental note to test several more alert systems in the near future—if they survived long enough.
    “How did you find us?” Kriqua asked. “The security cameras are still frozen.”
    “I didn’t. I lured you here. Check your map again.”
    Kriqua’s eyes glazed over as she focused her mind on the computer within her. Then her eyes widened. Dociluas had already guessed what had happened.
    “You see? You need to be more careful. The security system has a completely warped map. The real map looks nothing like that.”
    “Why are you lecturing us?” Dociluas asked. It almost seemed like Nithril was… helping them.
    “Well, it’s giving me time to escape.”
    Mark drew in a breath, and Dociluas could see his mind racing behind his eyes. He was about to start barking orders.
    “Now wait just a minute—my shuttle hasn’t left just yet. My forces need to get control of the battle outside first.”
    “The battle?” Mark asked.
    “When I jammed the radio frequency between you and the IGM forces stationed nearby, they assumed that you had died and moved onto plan B. They sent their remote control planes after me—bombers, fighters, everything; from hand-held to house-sized. There are bigger planes, too—many of them even space-worthy—but when you get up to the size of a factory, you need some people onboard to assure that it’s handled correctly. Fortunately, my anti-air weaponry is still warming up.”
    That confused everyone. “Fortunately?” Mark ventured.
    “Well I’m talking to you, aren’t I? I’m discussing things for your enlightenment, so for the time being I’m considering news as good or bad from your perspective. Anyway, my robotic planes are being destroyed out there—oh, would you look at that? The IGM capital ship is going down. Sorry about that. I hope there aren’t too many live casualties. Hm… It looks like the battle has turned in my favor. I apologize for the inconvenience, and that your mission was a failure, but your clumsiness can’t be blamed on me. I must be going now. My shuttle is taking off.”
    The hologram blinked out of existence.
    “Move out!” Mark ordered. “Kriqua, use the real map this time and get us out of here!”
    Her embarrassment was easy to see, but she obeyed. After just a few moments of jogging, the building began to shake. “What’s that?” Dociluas asked. He could see Kriqua struggling to figure out while still looking at the map. Thankfully, she was a good multitasker.
    “Some of the IGM fighters got into the building through the door that opened for Nithril’s shuttle. They’re attacking the building from the inside. Robots ahead!”
    They all dove sideways when they reached a perpendicular hall, just in time to avoid bullets racing past them. Mark, who had dived to the left, immediately jumped back up and began firing down the hall with his over-sized, fully automatic assault rifle. The specialized bullets had deadly efficiency. When they came out of the shells, they were needle-shaped. When the simple computer inside each bullet sensed the change of velocity, it unfolded the back of the bullet. The four tiny flaps then gathered electrical energy from the air and sent it forward. The result was, to one who didn’t understand the technology, a bright beam of blue energy surrounding the bullet, giving it a more deadly effect when it hit. Though they were lead, they looked like lasers. The needle-shaped bullets dug into the robots’ armor easily, and the electrical charges finished them—some of the robots that Mark hit even exploded, disorienting the remaining machines and making it easy for Mark to pick them off.
    Dociluas briefly allowed himself a flash of envy for the bullets, but he understood why only Mark, and the leaders of a few other commando groups, had them. They were expensive—consuming both money and time too much to have them used by every day soldiers.
    He heard something behind him.
    He whirled around, holding both pistols out in front of him.
    “Wait,” a voice said. A human voice. There was an Ayarthan standing in front of him. He was obviously hurt.
    “Over here!” Dociluas shouted. The rest of them had continued running, but Mark led them back quickly. He was not going to ignore Dociluas again.
    “What are you doing here?” Mark asked when he saw the Ayarthan.
    “Dying,” the pitiful figure choked.
    “We can get you to a medical facility.”
    “It won’t do any good. Too old.”
    “Impossible. You can’t be more than forty.”
    Thyu cut in, “Forty is old for an Ayarthan soldier.” All eyes turned to Thyu. “Do you really think we can live as long as other humans with no bones? Muscles deteriorate very quickly when they’re the only support available.”
    “I have information,” the old Ayarthan said. He coughed up blood. “I need to tell you before I die.”
    “Kriqua, Juyrl, patrol the area. Shout if there are any robots. Dociluas, Thyu, stay here and listen, but stay alert.” He turned to the newcomer. “What is your name? I want to make sure you’re remembered.”
    “I’m unimportant. What’s important is—”
    “At least tell us how you got injured.”
    “Robots. Too many of them.”
    Yet you’re alive, Dociluas thought. Even in your age, you overpowered them. Was it the exertion that hurt you?
    * * *
    Kriqua walked down the halls, pistol ready. She knew that there was a robot around the corner. She was still connected to the security systems. She turned the corner and fired, hitting the robot’s left eye and frying its optical sensors. Sparks flew from the robot’s head, but it was still active. Kriqua fired again, this time hitting its neck, and again, hitting its chest. Then she heard a sudden ringing inside her head. Whatever it was, it caused her to fall to her knees. The ringing increased in volume until her brain could no longer function properly, and when it finally stopped, she found herself surrounded by four armed robots. She opened her mouth to scream, but a metallic hand covered her mouth. Her muffled cries wouldn’t travel far.
    * * *
    Juyrl suddenly turned and sprinted toward the noise. No other race would’ve picked up on the muffled scream, but Ryeaoans had to train every individual sense to the extreme in order to survive—and he had gone past just surviving. A muffled scream after the clanking of metal on metal, following three gunshots. Obviously, Kriqua had run into trouble. And Juyrl would not let her die. One loss in their team was something to console them over—two losses would be enough to put the team out of commission temporarily.
    He sprinted down the halls almost silently—another thing Ryeaoans needed to be able to do. He saw the corner coming up. He saw the shadows of the robots about to come into view. Throwing himself in the direction they were coming, he hit the wall and pushed off at an angle with one hand and both feet, then twisted around to bounce off of the opposite wall in the same manner. The maneuver sent him flying into one robot, which was knocked back into a second one, and his fists closed around each of their necks, causing their heads to pop off. Tearing one’s arm off, he threw it as he turned around, and it passed straight through the gun arm of a third robot, rendering it useless.
    Kriqua ducked behind the last robot—the same one that Kriqua had shot three times—and grabbed something from a pack on its back. The robot whirled at her to find that her gun was again in her hands. That observation was its last “thought” as Kriqua shot its damaged eye again, and this time the bullet went further in, destroying its operating system.
    Kriqua nodded to Juyrl, knowing that a nod was enough for now. She took off running. Apparently there were more robots that needed to be taken care of immediately. Juyrl followed, guessing that someone had decided to take advantage of the distraction to advance on the main group.
    * * *
    The dying Ayarthan spoke as if he had mere seconds left to live. “I was part of an espionage team put together to steal something from UNO. I’m not authorized to tell you what, but tell them that the mission was a partial success—misunderstood. Tell them that—‘misunderstood’. They’ll understand. Also tell them the code 1PH2NEIU. Can you remember that?”
    “I can,” Dociluas said immediately. He didn’t have a clue what it meant, but he would make sure to remember exactly what went in what order.
    “We will all remember it,” Mark told the Ayarthan. “Is there another code?”
    “Yes. Taquan, you remember the first code. Ayarthan, you remember this one: 1NM2NM—”
    “Incoming!” It was Kriqua’s voice.
    “Get down!” Mark shouted. He saw robots down the hall in front of him and began firing. Then the lights went out. He could only see by the light of his bullets. Even so, he could see enough to know that the old Ayarthan had been shot. Dociluas was also shooting, though his pistols were neither as efficient, nor as quick. Suddenly Dociluas’s bullets ceased. No, not ceased, Mark realized as he glanced over his shoulder—Dociluas was shooting down two separate halls. Mark grimaced. That meant he was trying to aim in two places at once, which wouldn’t work well. It also meant that they were surrounded, and the fourth hall was probably occupied by enemies as well.
    When he had glanced back, he hadn’t seen Thyu. He guessed that Thyu had gone down one of the halls to fight the robots with his crystal weapon. His guess was confirmed when he heard the sound of the electrically-charged crystal striking metal. A flash of light came from his left, confirming that that’s where Thyu was. Which meant that Dociluas was able to focus on the hall behind Mark.
    But the fourth hall was still unchecked. I’ve made a mistake, Mark thought. I shouldn’t have sat here in a crossway. He continued firing—it seemed that the robots wouldn’t stop coming. Then the sound of guns came from his right, and he knew there was no hope. As suddenly as it had started, though, it stopped. Still firing, he risked a glance in that direction, and saw Kriqua and Juyrl running toward the intersection. Kriqua joined Mark in firing, and Juyrl bolted down the hall that Dociluas had been shooting down. Mark knew that Juyrl could survive several bullets, especially with the aim the mass produced robots possessed.
    “Run!” Thyu shouted, bolting down the way Kriqua and Juyrl had come. Mark stood from his crouch, still firing for a second before he ran down after Thyu. He could hear the rest behind him. Now that the noise of their battle had diminished, Mark realized why they were running. Explosions. The Taquan government is winning this battle. That also meant, however, that the building they were inside of was being destroyed. He fumbled on a headlamp, so that they could see where they were going.
    Juyrl put on an extra boost of speed and easily outran the others, but when they reached a fork in the path, he didn’t turn down either one. Instead, he ran a few steps up the wall and punched the ceiling, which made a hole big enough for him to get his hand through. He widened the hole, then pulled the others up as they caught up with him. Mark purposely made himself the last to get pulled up.
    The others had already started running again, which was easier on the roof. Those with guns were shooting as they ran—shooting at the various cannons mounted on the roof. Holding onto his rifle with his right hand only, he pulled out grenades with his left and threw them, taking out several cannons. Reaching the edge, they jumped off of the building, and then Mark felt a sharp pain in his right side. His legs suddenly rebelled against him, and his whole body stiffened. His hearing stopped working, then his vision, as he blacked out.