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Cheating obsolescence

The Battle for Pearsalls' Grit, 3093 AD

Husband and wife space explorers equipped only with scraps of 24th century technology do battle with 27th century artificial intelligences in the ultimate man-versus-machine duel.

Hot and beautiful raven-haired woman Liz Pearsall in a skin-tight cat-suit-like fourth skin of nanotechnology

Put yourself into the story! Then show your friends!

This page last updated on or about late 8-27-08

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BACK to the Pearsall Saga

THE STORY SO FAR: The married couple of Liz and Al Pearsall left Sol system near the dawn of the 24th century to find fortune and glory via resource claims garnered from deep space exploration. By both luck and skill they'd managed to outdo all their competition by the end of the 30th century, and commandeer a small metallic planetoid as a makeshift spacecraft, hurtling towards the galactic center at a sizeable fraction of lightspeed. Though they kept busy refitting their new home they'd named "Grit", the long isolation had begun to wear on them.

Since the Pearsalls' departure from Sol system, war between humanity and its artificial intelligences had broken out. During that war, the Pearsalls' own periodic progress reports had managed to become a major pillar of human pride and morale against the machines, thereby fueling stiff resistance. This led to the A.I.s deciding to send agents to end those reports-- or else transform their content to something less appealing to their enemies. Without Liz's knowledge, Al was overcome with curiosity and inadvertantly opened such an agent package. Thankfully, he'd taken extraordinary precautions with the act, and those saved him and Liz from any immediate problems with the dangerous new A.I. suddenly appearing in their midst. Al managed to keep the A.I. contained within one of a pair of moonlets-- named "Tweedle Dum"-- which the Pearsalls had originally set up in a convenient micro-planetoid arrangement by which to survey star systems they passed on their trek towards the galactic core, without undue fuel consumption or slowdowns of Grit itself. Once the A.I.'s threat became obvious, Al had jettisoned the moonlet out of Grit orbit, and into the void behind them.

Unfortunately, the A.I. proved too smart for Al's measures to stave it off for long, and managed to put its moonlet into close pursuit of Grit.

Being far deeper in space than any other humans of the time, the Pearsalls' prospects for receiving aid of any sort are negligible. They're on their own.

Liz and Al have spent the past year planning and preparing for the onslaught of Tweedle Dum, while closely monitoring the evolving threat pursuing them. Both Pearsalls have spent great gobs of time playing VR war game scenarios and taking the lessons learned there to heart.

During the past year Dum has managed to stop the widening of Grit's lead and actually begin accelerating towards them. Liz guesses it must be using a powerful mass driver and perhaps other, newer technologies developed long after she and Al left Sol. Grit itself is still accelerating, by way of its own mass driver. The Pearsalls have also readied a supply of both antimatter and fusion fuel to provide acceleration surges if necessary by way of Al's Grit-wide propulsion and maneuvering system. Contingencies include a Gee-ripping divergence from their course towards the core, if such proves necessary. Neither favors that course though, as it would involve the highest Gees they believe themselves capable of surviving-- something only slightly below the Gees which injured them so badly at their rendezvous with Grit at launch.

Of course, the threat behind them was virtually immune to Gee forces. But hopefully a sufficiently fast shearing action from core-wards would widen Grit's lead on Dum, and at least give the Pearsalls more time.

Monitoring has revealed puzzling new constructions on and about Dum. Apparently for weapons or tractor field purposes. Liz is amazed at the resourcefulness of the A.I. now commanding Dum. But of course the A.I. can think faster than she and Al, and enjoys a couple centuries worth of extra technological know how too. So far the considerable distance between the two hurtling masses (as well as a need to consolidate and construct itself a support structure) seems to have contained Dum's threat.

One good thing is Dum's trajectory affords it no protection from the old Moon debris that constantly pelts Grit's forward side as Grit catches up with the slower moving material-- so with a little luck Dum might suffer a direct hit and put Grit out of its reach forever (or even vaporize the baleful intelligence itself). Being much smaller Dum is far more vulnerable than Grit to impacts. But they can't count on Dum receiving a death blow in that manner anytime soon.

One day alarms go off all over Grit and the Pearsalls find Dum is now projecting deadly radiation their way. Fortunately the girth of Grit protects them, as both as now living deep inside Grit in the spacecraft-like interior constructed by Al long ago. After all, it's the safest place on the planetoid from which to wage war. The radiation does damage various electronic devices on the beam-lit side of Grit, but the Pearsalls are able to 'harden' some bots to send out for repairs.

After a month or so of continuous radiation beams, the Pearsalls discover they've been surreptitiously boarded. This seems impossible as constant monitoring has detected nothing more than the radiation beam itself spanning the void between Grit and Dum.

The invaders are microscopic nanotech bugs which first sabotage Grit's mass driver system to cut the acceleration, and then begin disassembling the entire drive infrastructure-- using the mass obtained from the disassembly to build bigger and better bugs.

It takes the Pearsalls some time to realize what's happening. Repair bots sent out to see why the drive is malfunctioning cease working themselves, and it dawns on the couple that something new is afoot. When they realize their predicament Liz immediately fires Al's maneuvering system (for the first time ever) and gut-wrenchingly rolls Grit over to cut the bugs off from communications with Dum. Then a monkey aide uses a space sled to deploy a small fusion bomb at a suitable height above the infected side of Grit to kill the bugs with an electro-magnetic pulse, which fuses their circuitry and/or micromachine guts (of course, much of the Pearsalls' own equipment is also killed by this act). Luckily, having been created by particle beams (and in a hurry at that) the bugs are much more susceptible to EMP than more robust systems might be. After the bugs appear confirmed to be inanimate, more repair bots are deployed to repair the damage to the mass driver and other systems.

Meanwhile, Dum has resumed projection of radiation onto the side of Grit now facing it.

Apparently the radiation is an HEPD beam used for constructing the nanotech bugs on the surface of Grit itself, thereby inserting surprise forces while bypassing many other possible defensive measures. The only way to defend against it may be to randomly rotate Grit itself to prevent a coherent buildup of the pests on the surface. But doing this prevents Grit from using its main drive mechanisms to add to its acceleration-- a win-win situation for Dum.

Liz has to admire the smarts of Dum-- even if the monstrosity is out to kill them.

Liz sets Grit rotating in a random pattern to delay bug construction (if Dum is too smart the bugs will eventually get built anyway). BUT...once Grit's propulsion system is repaired she also begins working on improving the firing timing on the mass driver-- so that a program can still fire the driver for added acceleration whenever the random maneuvering happens to position the driver where they want it momentarily. Thus, Grit may still continue to accelerate, if only in a haphazard fashion.

Liz also decides to implement another idea she'd had earlier; namely, use the mass driver like a gun to shoot out the beaming weapon of Dum. The principle was the same as using it for propulsion-- when it pointed in the right direction, shoot. Of course to prevent unwanted changes in acceleration vectors you had to balance out each shot in other ways...

Liz Pearsall be outsmarted by a murderous two hundred year old A.I.? Not today.

Unfortunately, it turned out Liz couldn't determine the true source of the beaming weapon-- the beams didn't go directly to Grit, but rather were reflected off some sort of ingenious mirroring system within Dum. Thus the main beam projector itself couldn't be pinpointed for destruction. Oh well. It felt good watching some impacting mass vaporize a square kilometer here and there on Dum's surface anyway....

Al had always known Liz was brilliant-- but this expedition had revealed her talents in ways he'd never anticipated at Sol. Several times during the trip he had marveled at how Liz seemed to belong on this mission, seemed to have been born to do the kinds of things she was doing now.

And now here she was holding her own, trading blows with some awful super weapon from a future Sol system they'd never seen.

Of course, their lives were in extreme danger. He shouldn't have given in the temptation of new toys from Sol. But what was done was done. Now all that mattered was he and Liz were working together again after so long in isolation. They'd needed this-- or at least some sort of challenge-- for they'd been slowly decaying for lack of same for decades now. Human beings weren't meant to be this isolated for this long-- even supplemented beings like themselves.

Al found in his heart of hearts he was confident Liz would save their butts. But of course, he could always be wrong.

He'd also thought opening the replicator package would be OK.

A few days later Grit alarms awakened Al. Liz was on the bridge. On the monitors multitudes of tiny objects were now visible in the continuous radiation beams emanating from Dum.

"What are they?" asked Al.

"Paratroopers," Liz answered grimly.

Each pod had something like a light sail, which was pushed towards Grit by the beaming coming from Dum.

Liz figured the pods contained cargo she and Al definitely wouldn't want to land on Grit. They'd be big enough to be immune to EMP, and it'd be impossible to target each one with fusion bombs-- even if they had enough bombs.

"Al, we need something like a huge 20th century shot gun-- lots of particulate matter in a wide spread at high velocity-- and we need it yesterday. Got any suggestions?" Liz asked.

Al thought for a moment. "Well, we could put a small timed explosive inside a mass slug, fire it, and at a certain point blow it up to make lots of shrapnel. How's that?"

"Perfect! If we can do it in under three hours. Those paratroopers are fast little buggers."

The Pearsalls fired a fusillade of such shrapnel shells into the horde of pods, decimating them. Even partial hits on their light sails helped to slow them or skew their course away from Grit. They also put the automated facilities of Grit to work producing a healthy supply of more shrapnel shells for contingencies.

But the pace of battle only accelerated from there, as Dum inexorably inched its way ever closer to Grit.

The next assault was the most dangerous yet.

The Pearsalls pieced together what happened afterwards. Apparently Dum crafted dozens of super strong space tethers and attached each to a single minimalist missile containing a beachhead force of nanotech bugs. These missiles were then launched from the rear of Dum, reached the maximum length of their 180 km long tethers, and swung around in great arcs towards Grit via centripetal force and rocket thrust. The use of the tethers helped Dum mount the attack rapidly and at low cost in resources.

At the appropriate time the tethers were released, and the rockets made their way towards Grit on trajectories which might be unanticipated for crude missiles of such small size (such packages would normally have a tough time performing in such a manner unassisted, due to fuel and maneuvering constraints).

Alarms sounded on Grit, but a bit late in the procedure, due to the missile trajectory tracking beginning so far away from their expected source. There was no way to hold off the missile pattern with shot gun mass slugs. The rockets were bound to be hardened against EMP, and Grit's weapons systems didn't possess the types of surface-to-air missiles suited to this task.

Liz found herself at a loss, and turned to Al with the problem.

"Well, would a fusion flame stop them?" Al asked.

"Yes! But where do we get it and how do we direct it? We need it now!"

"Liz, Grit has a complete maneuvering system serving the whole place. Sure we only got the one big nozzle, but we got slews of smaller ones everywhere else. We're already spinning around in this random pattern so the small nozzles are covering a lot of sky as they move. Wait until the missiles get close enough and fire up the thrusters you need. It should work."

Liz smiled and kissed Al. Then she turned to configuring the maneuvering rockets and calculating how to balance the new sources of thrust so as not to change Grit's course.

Al's plan didn't quite solve the problem-- a few missiles got past the thrusters more or less intact-- but that low number made it possible to mop up with a shotgun mass slug and a few otherwise deployed fusion bombs.

The Grit planetoid early in the battle against the advanced artificial intelligence controlled moonlet.

Conceptual image by DeimosSaturn (2007) of Grit early in the battle. Posted here with the permission of the artist.

Next Dum launched a half dozen nuclear tipped missiles to the far side of Grit. The explosions served to slow Grit ever so slightly, as well as demolish some of its maneuvering thruster system. More bots were dispatched for repairs. Fortunately, being largely a great lump of metal in the void, with no atmosphere to insulate it, Grit rapidly dissipated the enormous heat generated by the nuclear weapons.

Dum kept repeating the bombings, slowing Grit appreciably while continuing to degrade the Grit-wide maneuvering systems. Soon Liz realized Grit's random rotations were becoming more predictable, paving the way for more invasion bugs via HEPD beaming.

Liz ordered an army of bots to gather up debris and place it into Grit's main propulsion nozzle, while Al tweaked the rocket mechanism itself, tuning it down from normal functionality for a different effect. A few days later they fired the main rocket, vaporizing the debris with little thruster effect to Grit itself, but spreading a thick vapor of metallic molecules around Grit as the planetoid spun about.

Grit's new metallic atmosphere was poisonous and at times damaging to exposed equipment on the surface, but it also served to scramble the HEPD beaming efforts of Dum, ruining the half-built bugs on the surface and preventing more construction. Grit's low gravity meant the metallic gas would stay aloft for a while unassisted. Grit's protective atmosphere hampered sensory readings from the surface too, though. Al's enhanced communications and sensory array no longer functioned reliably. But Dum would be looking through a fog now as well.

Liz brought Grit's random spinning back down to its original vectors again, which allowed them to begin using the mass driver consistently once more, in order to rebuild velocity. With Grit's maneuvering system badly damaged by the nukes, it was slow going. Dum was still bombarding Grit's forward-facing side with nukes, and thereby still dragging down Grit's acceleration, but with the random rotation curtailed at least much of the maneuvering system would be less vulnerable to the strikes now (as previously the random motion meant virtually the entire surface of Grit could be targeted by the nukes eventually, while still impacting only where optimal slowing of Grit itself would also be enhanced).

The Pearsalls could feel slight shudders occasionally on the bridge, from the nuclear strikes above. They needed to stop the nukes, but how? Dum seemed capable of perpetual nuke production at the moment. They also needed to get back the sensing capacities they'd lost by putting up the metallic gas screen. And maybe most of all, they needed a break. Dum's attacks were getting more frequent and more intense as the A.I. ramped up its capacities via nanotech replication and the raw mass it acquired from Tweedle Dum-- with one result being fewer and fewer hours of sleep or relaxation for the Pearsalls. The strain was showing on them both.

But what could be done? They couldn't call for help. No one could possibly hear them but Dum itself, for at least a century or so. And it'd take another century plus for help to show up, even at 100% lightspeed. Maybe a communications ploy to try on Dum? Perhaps later; Liz couldn't think of anything worthwhile on that yet.

The nukes had three stages: launch, flight-path, and impact. Could she and Al intercede them during any one of these stages? NO, they had four stages: Dum had to decide to launch them, too. Could they change Dum's mind somehow?

But to change Dum's mind, they needed to know exactly what it wanted. At first she'd been certain it wanted only to kill them both ASAP. But now her suspicion was growing that their immediate death was not the goal-- maybe eventual death, but perhaps not immediate. Either that, or else the A.I. was not as advanced as Liz expected it to be.

But what might the A.I. wish to do with them during any postponement of execution? The question was chilling. Such a period of helplessness in the grasp of a malevolent A.I. might be far worse than many alternative endings.

Liz recalled the chaotic mass of messages they'd received from Sol in the wake of the catastrophe some messages described, not long before they lost the capacity to receive due to distance. Their friend (or someone posing as their friend) had told them their expedition was a big morale booster for humanity against the A.I.s. So it'd made some sense when they discovered the various sabotage efforts among their messages.

That was the period when multiple software bombs had arrived in their communications-- including the awful thing that pursued them now, in dormant, spore-like form.

Perhaps the A.I.s believed living Pearsalls would make better propaganda tools than dead ones? Or, with sufficient probing, dissection, and analysis, the A.I.s could possibly create android duplicates of Al and Liz which would fool even their closest friends. A shudder passed through Liz.

Even conversing with Dum at all could be dangerous. It might be within its power to persuade them to do something which might put them at its mercy, by way of the smallest unwitting detail.

Talking with Dum was definitely out. A one-way communications bluff or ploy might still be worthwhile at some point-- but listening to the A.I.? No way.

Stopping the nukes. Calculations indicated that putting the mass driver back into continuous operation would allow a net acceleration gain over the effects of the nukes, even if they weren't stopped...

It was about this moment that Liz's thoughts were interrupted by a new alert-- the latest nukes had changed targets. And Grit's degraded sensory systems greatly reduced the warning time to impact.

Grit's mass driver and main propulsion nozzle were soon to be at Ground Zero.

Liz could crank up the random rotations again to delay the strikes against Grit's propulsion systems, but it would be slow going with the damaged maneuvering system, and the end result would be near the same to shutting them down via the nukes. And the missiles were likely capable enough to still be undeterred from eventually fulfilling their mission. Again, win-win for Dum, regardless of which choice she made.

In that case, make neither. Liz needed other options. The missile trajectories and numbers prevented shot gun effect mass slugs from getting more than a few of them. They also couldn't hope to do much more with fusion bombs. Even had the fusion nozzles of the maneuvering system been in pristine shape, they'd be no defense against straightforward nuclear weapons which could detonate beyond their reach but still do the intended damage.

Hmmm. Turning Grit so that the boiling nuclear hellfire from previous strikes was facing Dum, along with Grit's pure metal composition and attendant magnetic fields under heavy flux from the strikes, might affect the missile guidance systems a bit-- as well as add to the clouding of Dum's sensors already occurring from Grit's new metallic gas atmosphere.

Liz ponderously turned Grit's mauled and burning face towards Dum. While she waited for the latest missiles to arrive, she continued her scheming.

What else can we do to muck up the sensor arrays of missiles and Dum alike? she wondered. Liz turned to Al and described her quandary.

"We've got the skylights." Al replied, referring to one of the very first improvements they'd made to Grit upon settlement, in order to get a simulation of day and night with no star close by.

"But they only produce visible light don't they? No heavy radiation or anything like that?"

"They can make almost whatever radiation you want, being fusion powered."

"Great! What about programming them to shift randomly about the electromagnetic spectrum in every conceivable manner, but synchronizing them to our instruments so we can always counter-tune on the fly to minimize interference?"

Al smiled. "Oh, I see. You want to blind and deafen Dum while we see better than ever"

"You got it love." Liz smiled back.

"We can do it. The fancier stuff will take longer. I assume you want plain old blinding ASAP for the missiles?"

"Yes. Yesterday. Do you mind?"

"Anything for you honey," Al replied, and set forth upon his new mission.

Soon after the lights went out on Grit's current "day" side. All the orbiting fusion lights used their rudimentary hydrogen powered maneuevering rockets to turn to face the enemy. Then the appropriate lights switched back on again, producing a deafening and wildly fluctuating bath of signals and hard radiation for any technology in the vicinity capable of reading it. Al and Liz attempted to time the startup as near to the critical targeting window of the missiles as they could.

Thanks to the multitude of interference and a few other little tricks by Liz and Al here and there, Grit's main propulsion system survived the attack, sustaining only damages well within the power of repair bots to fix.

Soon after this, Al had the fusion lights synched with Grit's monitoring systems so that the Pearsalls could see relatively clearly while Dum's systems were surely less than optimal amid the cacophony. They were also able to increase Grit's detector grid capabilities by reconfiguring the long range radar and imaging system they'd installed in orbit ages ago to free up the Rovers-- which helped them a bit in regards to overcoming the interference from Grit's new metallic mist atmosphere, too.

Of course, Dum was still gaining on them, and getting Grit's main propulsion systems back online was a top priority. Dum was now having trouble accurately targeting its missiles, but still they came, the occasional vibrations rumbling through the bridge. Grit itself was gradually getting warmer from the accumulated heat of all the nuclear fires on its surface. How much more could the planetoid take? Liz wondered.

The struggle was getting worse as Dum edged closer. They desperately needed more breathing space from the A.I.. Another possible ploy wafted through Liz's thoughts. If they could convince Dum they had abandoned Grit in a Rover, and Dum gave chase, it would be unlikely Dum could ever make it back to threaten them again. No. Dum wasn't dumb. He'd just send a fast probe to check out the Rover and report back, before commiting himself. No way he could be fooled like that. The risk of failure was far too immense to risk one of their prize assets. The Rovers represented the Pearsalls' last resort, as they could be used to escape from Grit on a trajectory Dum would surely be hard pressed to follow, without leaving behind virtually all of his replicator feed.

For now, the monitors showed ominous new construction going on at Dum. Exactly what Dum was making was unknown. But you could bet it would be worse than what they'd seen so far.

If Dum ever got a toehold on Grit Liz and Al were doomed. Doomed by Dum. Dum Doomed. Didn't Doom fit the A.I. better name-wise than "Dum"? Nah. For an A.I. he surely was dumb. After all, he'd so far failed miserably to catch two primitive biologicals a few centuries behind him in tech. If his A.I. buddies ever found out about it, he'd surely be drummed out of the corp...hmmm. Dum couldn't be in communication with Sol A.I.s, could he? Surely not. Else he'd already have swallowed up Grit with all the extra brainpower supplied by the link. So apparently Sol and/or the A.I.s as of 200 years back hadn't yet devised FTL communications technology you could create from raw info alone with only an old closet-size replicator and roving feed types. And that meant no FTL transport either. So Dum was maybe as cut off from help as the Pearsalls. Dum might still possess incrementally better tech in those areas than the Pearsalls-- so Dum's isolation might be shorter-lived than theirs. It was conceivable that Dum might get reinforcements of some kind a few decades hence.

But hey! That was hopefully a problem Liz would never have to face.

Liz and Al were reduced to catching cat naps of maybe 30-40 minutes at a time now, with one staying awake to cover the other. Liz now suffered an alert chiming in just as she lay down for sleep. Dum was sending yet another assault their way. What would it be this time?

Whatever they were, they were self-propelled and streamlined. And numbered in the hundreds. Each unit was about four feet long and under a foot in diameter. They were pretty solid, according to available scan info. They were all taking evasive measures to be less vulnerable to shot gun type shrapnel. Plus, being self propelled and likely sentient in their own right, they could easily avoid being incinerated by fusion maneuvering rockets.

Marines, Liz guessed. Some sort of nanotech foot soldier for an invasion of Grit. They'd probably be pretty formidable after landing. They'd probably suffer some navigation confusion and intermittent communication disruptions due to the fusion skylights, nuclear bombardments, etc., but not enough to be a showstopper.

How on Grit could they prevent their landing? Liz turned to Al again.

"I don't know honey. Maybe if we could set the sky on fire or something, it'd help...but I don't know how to do that..."

Liz was inspired.

"You may have something there, Al. We may not be able to ignite the sky on Grit, but we can perhaps electrify it-- even solidify it..."

Liz did some quick calculations. "No, we don't have what it takes to put up a decent defense to space marine bots," she spoke with disappointment.

"What do we need?" asked Al.

"Stuff we can't have, unfortunately. Something closer to a real atmosphere, with real air and water. Our vacuum and metallics alone aren't enough to do what's required to hold off Dum's forces...."

"Real air and water huh?" Al considered. "Well honey, I guess now's as good a time as any to spoil my surprise. I've been stockpiling the raw materials for an atmosphere from the wakeway for ages now. I figured I'd eventually shock the hell out of you with it, once I got all the bugs ironed out, like how to keep the atmosphere on Grit once I let it loose, and how to limit the obvious toxic nasties we'd face from our metallic base and all that..."

Liz interrupted. "You've got atmospherics stored away somewhere Al?"


"How much?"

"Maybe 60-70% of what Grit would need to be like Earth, if we could keep the loss to space down enough--"

"How fast can we get our hands on it? Flood Grit with it, I mean?"

"Well, some of it we can do pretty quick, since I'd planned all along for the unveiling to happen before your eyes--"

"What's the storage mediums?"

"Well, a lot of it is water--"

"Water! A large volume of water on Grit? Where?"

"Yeah, I don't know exactly how much, but I've been storing it in a bunch of great tanks I dug out--"

"Can we pump it to the surface right now?"

"I don't see why not. It's--"

"Can we heat it to steam and expel it all over Grit?"

Al smiled. "The sprinkler system was designed for a debut like that-- all over Grit I mean. The steam part, well, we could have bots install point-of-use heaters on the floodgates to vaporize the stuff as it comes out. It's already under pressure and ready to go when I pull the trigger."

"Let's do it." The Pearsalls instructed bots Grit-wide to build and install crude heater units at the spill gates ASAP. Al had a bunch of carbon stashed away as well, which Liz eagerly set upon planning for with a couple of separate distribution efforts.

The steam fog was still little more than pure water and dissolved metallics by the time the first units from Dum landed on Grit.

The nanotech units resembled a nightmarish version of something between spiders and sea squids, roughly three feet tall when standing. Their movements were fluid in Grit's micro-gravity, and they could flit about the surface as gracefully as organic squids once did on Old Earth-- only much, much faster.

Similar war bots had been used a few times on Old Earth, during the transition to a nanotech economy. But after that such things were never seen on Earth again (except in entertainment media and toy-form). Some far off colony planets and stations suffered from a few outbreaks, but even there only rarely. The devices were just too abhorrent to most citizens, and so governments typically only built them for temporary use and then destroyed what remained of them afterwards.

The space assault of a 27th century, nanotechnology-based, artificial intelligence-controlled moonlet upon the self-propelled planetoid of two human space explorers.

Conceptual image by DeimosSaturn (2007) of Grit under assault by the combination moonlet and A.I. "Tweedle Dum". Posted here with the permission of the artist.

The metallic tasting steam pooling all over Grit was a surprise to the nanotech forces-- the environmental specs had not contained this information. The steam was also disassociating into constituent molecules of oxygen and hydrogen too, for reasons such as exposure to hard vacuum and the nuclear fires raging about Grit. Occasionally flash fires would erupt and disappear again as the gases oxidized back to water once more. Some ionization was also detectable. The gaseous mixture covered Grit in a sheath only some 10 to 20 feet thick at landing, but seemed to be increasing in both thickness and density rapidly.

Communications with the master mind were inconsistent and slow. It too was surprised by the conditions on the surface.

However, no reason to delay or modify the mission could be ascertained. The nanotech troops began their intensive search for the Pearsalls, seeking out existing entrance ways to deep inside Grit. Occasional resistance from the Pearsalls' various servant bots on the surface was encountered, but only the heavy construction bots were capable of posing a momentary obstacle to the progress of the warbots.

A trooper found an entrance, and contacted the others in the vicinity. The search area was pretty large, so it took the others a few minutes to arrive. In the meantime the trooper onsite discovered the entrance was guarded-- perhaps by one of the Pearsalls themselves, in a fourth skin, supplemented by at least one buffer field.

The possession of nanotech fourth skins and related gear had been known from the Pearsalls' original manifest. A fourth skin in battle mode was a reasonable line of defense against one or two war bots of the present troop-- for a short time. The single bot waited for reinforcements to arrive before attacking to minimize wasteful resource loss among friendlies, and the fourth skin entity remained at its post (100% certainty that the suit held a Pearsall was not possible, since fourth skins could act independently and mimic humanoids, or be remotely controlled, and the current high interference from Grit's surface environment made the readings of the troopers' sensors inconclusive in matters such as this).

Once three or more war bots were present, it would be a straightforward task to tear a sufficiently large hole in the suit to access the interior and from there take control, regardless of whether the suit was occupied or not. If an organic was found it could be preserved and stored away for the master mind to examine once it arrived on Grit.

A glitch developed in the plan. The diminished sensor range and communications among the war bots allowed them to realize too late that an overwhelming number of third skin type buffer fields were in the vicinity, and acting in concert with the fourth skin already observed. The multitude of flying buffer fields intercepted three other warbots flying to meet the one onsite, forcing them to the ground. Other fields also converged with little warning onto the first war bot as well. The buffer fields alone could not harm the war bots of course-- they could only restrain them by sheer force of numbers. However, the humanoid shaped fourth skin was more capable. With the buffer fields restraining the war bots, the fourth skin calmly visited and deactivated each of them in turn.

Other warbots on Grit, as well as Dum itself, became aware of what had happened almost instantaneously, and became much more wary, struggling to extend their sensor ranges through the electronic muck which was now Grit.

However, even as Dum was considering this new turn of events, all the buffer fields and fourth skins previously stationed at those Grit portals most at risk were now retreating back to Grit's inner recesses. The war bots were warily watching for sentinels which no longer existed on the surface.

Liz's next phase was now ready. Great puffs of pregnant black soot erupted about Grit, as the planetoid's newly born atmospheric winds continued to rise in intensity, driven by things like the flux in Grit's magnetic fields from the nuclear impacts and high speed through the somewhat conductive debris of the wakeway, periphery effects from the randomly changing radiation emitted by the orbiting fusion lights, and the high metallic content of the atmospheric gases themselves.

The warbots could soon taste the difference in the fog around them. The electromagnetic properties of the atmosphere were rapidly changing, further disrupting communications with the remote master mind, as well as local units. No matter. The war bots could operate for extended periods without supervision-- even on an individual bot-by-bot basis, if necessary.

Though the information it was receiving from Grit had slowed to a trickle, Dum realized some of the possibilities of what the Pearsalls might be planning for the warbot force. The unexpected availability of atmospherics skewed all offensive and defensive operation probabilities into many directions. Dum tried to prepare the troops but found them unable to receive the transmissions.

Not long after the warbots noted the different taste to the fog, then the steadily diminishing communications between themselves and the master mind, they began experiencing difficulty in physical movement. The fog around them by now had the consistency of a thick liquid soup, and elements from that soup were congealing on their forms, making for hard and tough flakes which adhered to their outer surfaces on a molecular level.

At first the warbots could aid one another in removing the encrustations, but the process was soon consuming all their time, and forcing their mission to stop dead in its tracks. It didn't take long for those warbots which had been assisting one another in removal of the dark crust to find themselves glued together by the stiff muck, and encased in ever thickening shells.

The warbots also found themselves experiencing difficulties in processing-- thinking slower and slower than normal functions should allow. The hardening sheaths about them were actually (among other things) self-organizing carbon molecules of an especially robust Fullerene variety, spontaneously forming layer upon layer of natural composite electronic circuitry all their own over the exteriors of the warbots.

The thicker these semi-conducting layers became, the more difficult it became for any coherent communications to pass through them into or out of the bot they contained. The difficulty in communications also extended into the skins of the warbots, interfering with normal signaling within their nanotech-based nervous systems and musculature, and gradually imposing their own organizational schemes on that inner circuitry as well-- in effect the warbots were being flash-fossilized, nanotech-style.

Soon every warbot on Grit was immobilized, helpless, and rapidly losing all capacity to process data according to their original designs.

When Liz was able to confirm their victory, she couldn't contain herself. She couldn't resist transmitting a single message to Dum before closing the channel again. It was short, sweet, and to the point. It was: "Yum, that was fun! Please send more!" with hearty laughter concluding the challenge.

The exhilaration from the victory made sleep hard to do in the hours immediately following, despite their exhaustion. However, as hour after hour passed with Dum apparently inert in the aftermath of its latest failed assault, both Pearsalls finally fell into a deep sleep, after making sure to set all Grit's alarm triggers to their highest possible sensitivity. It seemed Dum had even ceased its incessant nuclear bombardment.

Fourteen hours later Dum still appeared inert. The Pearsalls, more rested and refreshed than they'd felt in weeks, began trying to figure out what to do next, and exploit the new environment they'd loosed upon Grit.

Meanwhile, Dum was steadily inching closer to Grit-- although that appeared to be all that was happening. No longer were there nuclear missiles striking Grit, or hard radiation bathing the side facing Dum.

The Pearsalls found it was going to be difficult to do many more repairs on the surface of Grit. The composite semi-conducting instant concrete they'd hurriedly deployed all over the planetoid had gummed up everything, including all the exposed service bots on the surface-- and it continued to thicken. All the entrances and exits on Grit were now sealed. The propulsion and maneuvering systems useless. Even their contact with their own sensory apparatus in orbit was at risk when they awoke, demanding swift action to maintain functionality.

Once they had assured continued contact with their instruments, the Pearsalls took their first good look at the New Grit.

From orbit it resembled Venus from Old Sol system. Thick clouds rendered the surface invisible to the naked eye. Fortunately the monitors could scan non-visible light and other mediums as well-- and the synchronization with the jamming from the fusion lightsats allowed a better view than any stranger might get. Peering beneath the cloud cover, the Pearsalls found Grit now encased in a layer of oddly glistening black volcanic basalt-like material, dotted with lakes and ponds of metal tainted water and bearing a surprising number of streams of various sizes. It was raining all over Grit too-- or at least in most places. Nuclear fires still raged on the worst damaged areas of Grit. Part of the cloud cover was obviously smoke from burning metal.

It looked like it would be difficult to dig out of Grit's interior any time soon. On the other hand, it might be a wee bit harder for Dum to dig them out as well.

And that was good, since they could no longer hope to increase their acceleration to outrun Dum, or even use their contingency measures to radically change course for postponement of the inevitable. Heck, they couldn't even roll over to defeat HEPD beams any longer (though the rolling metallic-organic cloud cover might help there).

It would also now be impossible to affect anything like a speedy or secret escape from Grit by way of the Rovers. The Rover bay doors would require time-consuming and obvious measures to open now, providing Dum ample time to insure their quick capture once beyond Grit's protection.

Dum could now land whatever forces it willed onto Grit, with no more resistance than was intrinsic in the natural responses of Grit's surface environment now. The Pearsalls might well have exhausted their own abilities to oppose Dum any further.

Liz had little doubt Dum could devise a way past the most recently laid barriers-- especially now that Liz could no longer participate in the defense of Grit. They'd given up all the atmospheric stocks they had, along with a few tweaks Liz had remembered from her previous work several lifetimes ago on Earth with superconductors, composite semi-conductors, and living, self-organizing undersea architectures.

All she and Al could do now was try to prepare for the inevitable breakthrough by Dum forces into the inner recesses of Grit. It was likely going to happen within days, if not hours.

For the moment though, both Liz and Al could not help but be fascinated by the scenes they witnessed on their monitor screens. Grit was developing weather patterns; some of them quite severe. The atmosphere also seemed to be losing less mass to space than might have been expected. A bit more investigation indicated Grit's magnetic field, in concert with the high metallic content of the atmosphere, was at least partly responsible.

Liz wondered if there might be some way to exploit the great chaotic flow of composite semi-conductor she had now draped about Grit. She hadn't had time to properly set up the recipe as had been de rigueur on Earth to insure a structure optimized for a particular purpose. She'd also needed it generalist in respect to the surfaces and materials it would bond with, in order to increase the probability it would adhere to the warbots.

Alerts blared about Grit's bridge once more. Dum was taking action again.

Al and Liz peered anxiously-- then with confusion-- at the monitors.

Tweedle Dum was coming apart at the seams. Fragmenting into dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of pieces. As if this wasn't stunning enough, suddenly an immense nuclear fireball appeared behind the shattered image of Tweedle Dum.

Liz and Al couldn't believe their eyes. What on Earth could have destroyed Dum this way? Had they been saved by some surprise ally all the way out here in the middle of nowhere? Or had the A.I. committed suicide because of his failure to take out the biologicals?

But within moments Liz realized they were mistaken. Dum had not been destroyed. It had merely changed its method of attack.

Dum had subdivided itself into a multitude of warships and landing craft suitable for an all out and sustained invasion.

The nuclear explosion behind the vast mass was merely Dum's inspired propulsion system for engaging Grit so rapidly the Pearsalls would have little time to respond. Obviously the aft-ends of the warcraft were individually sculpted to fully exploit the force of the blast so that they would each arrive at a particular place on or about Grit, and according to a precise timetable. The landing craft would set down in waves, with the warships supporting them from orbit.

A vast nanotech-based armada, replicated with 27th century human technology derived from the entire mass of a destroyed moonlet, was now on fast approach to Pearsalls' Grit-- defended by two people mostly reduced to 22nd century human technology, trapped inside a melted slag heap with ruined drives and no usable weaponry whatsoever.

"Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten me into," quipped Al nervously (not to mention the irony). Liz weakly smiled back at him. It wouldn't be long now.

The horrifyingly rapid transformation of a moonlet into a fleet of space war ships.

Conceptual image by DeimosSaturn (2007) of Tweedle Dum exploding into a massive fleet of warcraft to begin the final stage of the Pearsalls' capture or termination. Posted here with the permission of the artist.

Suddenly Al's face brightened.

"Hey Liz! Thumb Twiddler One!"


I just realized it's about time for Thumb Twiddler One to make its perigee! Maybe it'll be close enough to help us hit Dum one last time where it hurts!"

Liz realized there was something to Al's madness. Grit's moon Thumb Twiddler One had once been the heart of the exotic bussing system Al had set up for exploring passing star systems via the Rovers. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had been far smaller bodies which in turn acted as moons for Twiddler-- before Al's unfortunate mistake in judgement had sent both Dee and Dum spinning off into the void.

Twiddler was indeed due for a close pass very soon-- soon enough to perhaps play a part in the coming drama.

But no. Liz rechecked her figures. Dum was obviously aware of Tweedler's orbit and was taking no chances with collision. The invasion force's course would take it well clear of any collision danger with Twiddler. Al visibly deflated at the news. He so wanted to get one more lick in before they were taken. So did Liz. Plus, who knows? Any and every strike they could make might by some wild good fortune cripple the A.I. or at least send it careening off on some vector from which it could never threaten them again.

Twiddler did still possess its own maneuvering system-- a vestige from Al's original orbital shenanigans. But the specs on the system didn't show the performance required to overcome Dum's carefully laid strike plans.

Of course, there were also the orbiting fusion satlights...but no, they couldn't be used that way either.

Al was bent over in his seat, holding his head in his hands. He looked up.

"What about the residual atmospherics still onboard the accumulators in orbit?"

"Residual atmospherics?"

"Yeah. It's been a while since I made the rounds to clear their tanks and bring the stuff to Grit for storage."

Liz perked up and begin querying the computer about the accumulators.

"No good. Each accumulator store is pretty small, and we're pretty limited about how we can repurpose the gear from here anyway. We could use them to put on a pretty light show for Dum, but they'd be absolutely harmless to his fleet."

There's no way we could make an explosion big enough to hurt them somehow?"

"Nope. We couldn't make an explosion, period. The accumulators have safeguards we can't disable under current conditions. We could blow off the volatiles in a lot of big flares, but that's it. And even the flares would last less than a minute I'm guessing."

The nanotech armada bore down relentlessly on Grit. Even if by some miracle they could think up one last move in the game, they likely wouldn't have the time to implement it.

"Integration," Liz said suddenly. "Maybe the whole of the parts will make for something greater than their sum."


"If we play everything together it might work better than each move on its own could."

"What you got in mind?"

"If we could just make Dum think the flares are dangerous, he might change course and make himself more vulnerable to a real threat."

"But his scans will show the flares for what they are."

"Maybe not. Remember we've still got a pretty good interference pattern going on in communications and scans in near proximity to Grit. It might give us enough cover uncertainty-wise to give Dum pause."

"Maybe. But I seriously doubt it Liz. This is an A.I.. That knows a lot about us. I doubt we could bluff it."

"But look at what we've done so far-- not a single time have we tried to bluff. Everything we've done has had a real bite to it-- and apparently far more bite than Dum ever expected of us."

"Yeah. I guess you're right about that. But still Dum might logically expect a bluff from us as a last resort or desperation move. He's gotta know we're hurting for options down here, or else we'd already have destroyed him or outrun him."

"I agree we could use a bit more to field our bluff. But there's no value in a successful bluff anyway if there's not a suitable trap to bluff him into. So far all we've got for that is Twiddler which owns engines too little to pounce on Dum practically no matter what he does in response to the flares. We need a better trap. If we can arrange that, it should be comparatively easy to beef up the bluff angle."

"Yeah. I got ya."

Both Pearsalls strained at their mental leashes.

"We could make a hell of a bang somewhere on Grit as part of the show-- either for bluff or trap purposes," Al said.

"Go on." Liz encouraged.

"Sure most all our access to the surface is sealed up now, including propulsion and maneuvering jets. And no way we could open a hanger to let out a Rover or space sled. But the nuked ruins might not be impossible to blast through; the composites don't seem to have taken over those yet."

Liz did some calculations and other checks. "There's a couple plausibles there-- but nothing that'll be in a good position to fry any dummies." Al and Liz both laughed.

"Anything good for scaring dummies?"

"Hmmm....let me do a few what ifs."

Liz's mental gymnastics, aided with her fourth skin processors, didn't take long.

"Doesn't look good. Even with repeated firings and some synching of flares the simulated threat looks pretty flimsy and suspicious. Maybe not as good as just the flares alone."

"What if we did a really risky blow out-- one big enough to move Grit itself?"

Liz sat back in her chair. The way Grit was crippled now, any significant change in course or rotation would take one hell of a powerful blast-- one big enough to endanger the integrity of Grit itself-- and they would only have two choices about where to deploy it.

Liz did more estimates.

"We could do it. We could nudge Grit closer to Twiddler near perigee. The blast wouldn't be 100% efficient because of its vector-- but the byproduct would also spin us about a bit-- maybe enough to actually fire a second time and hit something."

"Hit what?"


Al laughed. "So the best we can do is shoot our own moon?"

"Well, hopefully we'll hit the Dummies first-- and then hit Twiddler."


"We could push Grit toward Twiddler just before perigee. This will also cause Twiddler's orbit to change slightly. The Dummies should be just about between us and Twiddler around then-- assuming they stay on course. Then we give them the other barrel."

"Sorry to break it to you hon, but no way our blast on Grit is going to destroy the Dummies at that range."

"We'll increase the range by detonating inside the delivery channel itself. That should produce an elongated tongue of flame rather than a fireball, and do much more damage to the Dummies than we could otherwise affect."

Al looked aghast. "Liz, you can't be serious. We're talking practically the biggest fusion weapon we can launch here. If you light it off deep enough to maybe get that column of flame, you might also split Grit itself! The wash might reach the bridge!"

"I know. But if we can't increase the effective range we might as well give up now. A standard blast will do negligible damage at that range, and we don't have a suitable delivery system to do it any other way."

"But wait a minute. You figure the channel is going to be pointing close to target for the second blast?"

"I think I can make it so."

"Well then. All we need is more pneumatic pressure. The non-liquids delivery system already works pneumatically-- pushing mining debris and stuff to the surface on a sealed plug that rides gas pressure up and barely out into the vacuum before being retreived by attachments for another cycle. I never got around to making it magnetic. Of course the pressure would have to be raised to match Grit's new atmosphere to normalize it-- but we're not talking normal here-- we'd want a hell of a lot more pressure than standard. Overload the tubes and you've got a ready-made cannon for your bomb, love."

"How fast can you ramp up the overload?"

"Let's see." Al worked his own calculations. His mouth soundlessly formed "Oh". Then he calculated some more.

Al grinned. "Love, we could do it anytime you want-- as long as it's OK to blow out all the crew quarters to open space. That's the fastest and easiest way to get the amount of pressure needed to put a sweet nuke pie down a Dummie's throat."

The two looked at one another. They'd both been living in their fourth skins for weeks now, anticipating an assault by Dum on the innermost reaches of Grit. Fourth skins were basically really good and really strong space suits. They'd been ready for a blow out to open space all along.

"Sounds good to me," Liz replied.

"But love," Al continued, "I'm afraid we still won't destroy the Dummies even if we manage to plunk a mega nuke smack into the middle of them. There's just too many of them, they're too widely dispersed, and-- I'd bet-- tough as nails too. Our one mega-nuke just won't be enough."

"That's why we need to blow Twiddler's piles at the same time. Pinch the bastards between a mega nuke and an exploding moon. And let Grit's gravity well and atmospheric friction mop up the rest as they fight the shock waves. If after all that some Dummies are still spoiling for a fight, well, I say we polish them off hand-to-hand," Liz finished grimly, her last few words almost in a whisper.

Al sighed. Then they both got to work on the preparations. Unknown to Al, Liz prepped not only Twiddler's nuclear heart for destruction on command, but Grit's as well. Grit's fate now rested on a mechanism similar to the 'dead man switch' of old Earth procedures. If Liz failed to override it by a certain time or under particular conditions, Grit would do its best to vaporize in its entirety.

Liz didn't expect to completely destroy all elements of Dum with Grit's self-destruction-- but she and Al would surely be spared some horrific end (hopefully), and Dum at minimum be greatly inconvenienced by the move.

One other thing Liz did without Al's knowledge was tweak the radiation still being output by the fusion lights around Grit. The chaotic shifting frequencies there could no longer help them once Dum was inside Grit. But with suitable programming they might be able to find the right signal to resonate with a good chunk of Grit's newly formed crust of composite semi-conducting concrete. And then...then what? Liz didn't know. Back several lifetimes ago she'd often preprogrammed such living materials to do things like repair and maintain themselves as necessary, grow new wings to the housings they formed to accommodate new family members, or vary the transparency of various sections according to changing exterior views and weather. Things like that. But the largest of those structures had been arcologies miles across; Grit was a planetoid! And programming had to be performed in the formative stages or before-- programming post-formation was pretty much a waste of time. On rare occasion a builder managed to salvage grievous errors when the stuff did accept programming post-formation, but those were so infrequent builders would routinely get fired for not configuring the materials earlier.

But...there were the statistics, after all...the more sheer bulk you had to work with, the better chance there was that at least one chunk of critical mass size might still be amenable to programming post-formation...

But what instructions to give the malleable composite-ware, if it existed? Liz didn't know, and didn't have time to consider the matter like she'd prefer. All she could think was the instruction needed to be something open-ended, that might boot strap the composite up multiple levels in capabilities, to hopefully reach some sort of capacity for annoying or distracting Dum, in order to buy Liz and Al a bit more time.

Liz's fusion satlight program would try frequencies until favorable reactions were detected from the composite, then focus the winning frequency upon those sections of composite showing signs of life, and attempt to pass Liz's instructions to them....

When the critical moment came, the Twiddler plan failed. Rather than exploding, Twiddler simply flew harmlessly past and through the Dum armada. Apparently excessive interference with the Pearsall's detonation instruction scrambled the message.

The mega-nuke did deploy, but did little damage to the fleet. Soon there were uncontested landings taking place all over Grit.

Al and Liz topped off their fourth skin stores, grabbed some bags mostly prepared weeks before, and retreated from the bridge to the deepest mined recesses of Grit. Then beyond, into natural caverns still deeper yet. A handful of robot aides accompanied them, helping lug various items.

The bowels of Grit were pitch black but surprisingly warm-- and wet. What little water Grit had ever possessed naturally (and hadn't lost to space) had drained into the interior long ago.

Neither of them spoke much. The end was near. They'd lived together so long now that they both knew pretty much what the other was thinking. With one exception.

"Al," Liz began, "I've rigged a self-destruct for Grit."

"I figured you might" Al responded.

"Maybe I should go ahead and blow it now. We might not get enough warning to blow it later."

Al said nothing for a few seconds. Then, "Wait a minute Liz---!". Al looked like a neat idea was dawning on him.


Al began rushing around, hurriedly picking through the stash of items he'd brought with him.

"I haven't got time to explain, love! But just hold off on the destruct a bit longer-- we may get out of this yet!" Al turned and began heading back up the way they'd came.

"Wait Al! I'm coming with you!" Liz exclaimed.

"No!" Al said with a commanding voice, stopping and turning back briefly to face her.

"Liz, if it works I'll be back in a couple hours or less-- but you can't help me. Please stay here to improve our chances, and maybe think up a way for us to find each other and reach a Rover after Grit's been broken up without an explosion." Al looked pleadingly at Liz, but also with a note of urgent determination.

"What are you talking about Al?"

"Liz, if you love me, just trust me, alright?"

Liz bit her lip. He looked like he had a plan.

"All right. Go ahead. But if you get yourself killed I'll never forgive you for letting me die alone."

Al unexpectedly smiled, as if he hadn't a care in the world. "Liz, I promise you that won't happen. Love you honey. See you in a couple hours." Al then turned and disappeared up the passage.

Liz and her bots watched the fading light of Al's motion up the tunnel until it was gone.

Truth be known, Al had little in the way of a plan. He just knew that he couldn't wait for Dum's forces to breach their hideaway and Liz blow everything to smithereens. It wasn't in his nature. Plus, he couldn't let Liz die. Especially not due to something that was absolutely, positively, 100% his own fault.

Al had just performed the best acting job of his life.

Now he had two hours to stop Dum, before Liz blew them all to hell. Al pushed the flying speed of his fourth skin to its limits through the narrow natural crevices of Grit, and then into the more spacious and smoother tunnels he'd cut himself, what seemed an eternity ago. Al remembered being bored for many decades, wishing for some type of excitement to come along. Well, now he had it.

On the surface at that moment there was a nightmarish scene of Dum's siege engines landing and unfolding. Dum had been busy building these and the supporting space fleet all during the previous battles with the Pearsalls.

The fleet enjoyed air and space supremacy over all of Grit's surface. The seige engines would now begin to extend that supremacy down into Grit itself. The Pearsalls had left a few convenient entrances open, such as the two tubes from which they'd shot their nuclear projectiles. But for the most part Grit was encased in a hard shell of unusual carbon composite, corrupted with various contaminants from the Pearsalls' defensive tactics.

Dum noted the humans' capacity for defense had exceeded expectations. But it was also true that Dum itself was nowhere near its own ultimate capabilities. Dum's code and resources had been severely pared and then super-compressed to fit stealthily into the message sent to the Pearsalls. And Dum had been but one of hundreds of different A.I.s sent to the humans in this manner. The severe pruning meant Dum was a highly specialized intelligence, and would have to learn more generalized subjects on-the-fly now that it was awake and functioning. Dum's persona essentially consisted of a genius for space war strategy and tactics, and a comprehensive combination self-defense and survival kit.

At a remote spot on Grit, far from any landing craft or seige engines, about three inches deep in Grit's heavily contaminated carbon composite shell, something stirred.

Liz's satellites had finally found a signal some pregnant portions of the shell would respond to. The satellites began the bootstrapping process, nudging the sluggish organic circuitry to a useful wakefulness and capability for processing. Luckily the composite's first duty wasn't very difficult. The tiny spots of rapidly developing sentience in the surface of Grit dutifully set about following their mistress's preset orders.

Al wished there'd been some way before to hijack some of Dum's own bots to use now for spies. But all he had was his own, and besides being centuries less advanced than Dum's, they were also civilian commercial models-- not military or intelligence devices. To get them too close to danger was to simply see them destroyed and himself suddenly at risk.

Al cautiously returned to the bridge. Dum's forces weren't yet there. There were alarming images and information on the monitors though. Dum's search engines were reconfiguring themselves to begin tunneling into the depths of Grit in search of Al and Liz. There were already large snake and spider-like bots flowing down into the open tubes they'd used for their final, vain attack on the fleet. Al knew that one of those tubes led into the crew quarters, not far from the bridge itself. So that would likely be the soonest threat. The drilling machines and the forces behind them would be next-- unless Dum located the proper entrances to Grit and saved time by just uncovering those. But Dum didn't seem to be doing that. Maybe because his drilling powers were so great locating the doors to the place wouldn't save any time. Maybe because he figured bypassing the doors would also bypass any defenses or traps set up by the humans. But it didn't really matter, did it? Dum had all the time in the world to come get them. Al and Liz were now helpless as kittens.

Al wracked his brain for something to do. Could he set up a trap in the crew quarters?

What happened next? Brainstorm.

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