The shuttle came out of stealth mode low over Guangji province. Commander Moast settled into the mist from a waterfall, his passive scanner reading a focused beacon coming from the objective. He stepped down the wing onto spongy moss, switching on his suit's deflector shield. The expected trouble came while crossing a blasted stretch of collapsed buildings. Hits sparked off his energy screen. He fired back at the servo drone with his needle gun, which blazed small rounds from a magnetic rail launcher, at much higher speed than ordinary cartridges. The mech soldier jerked with internal explosions, toppled onto its froglike face.
A rangy group of armed men boiled up from a pile of overgrown rubble. One of them jerked his helmet clear with an angry swipe. "Dammit, Moast, do you know how much those things cost?"
Moast raised his visor. "Looks like he didn't get the message. I presume you're Fletcher."
"Lord king of Guangji!" Fletcher dismissed his gunmen before leading the way down an oil-smelling incline littered with old branches. The smelting operation sat idle, having lost its workforce. The two men passed massive melting vats outside a field office, where they took opposing seats at a steel desk.
Fletcher's iron gray buzz cut lent strength to his craggy face. "I'd sure like to know your insurance policy, coming here alone like this." He uncorked a clay jug and poured into tin cups.
"Nuclear holocaust," Moast said, "if I don't check in with the ship's AI soon." He passed a wrist scanner over the cup. "Pear brandy with no cute additives." He sipped the fiery brew.
Fletcher put booted feet on the desk. "If the Chinese did one thing right--before their bioweapons program blew up in their faces--it was to corner the market for rare earth metals. What's your preference?"
"Yttrium and Promethium. My AI is crafting a new element, one that exists for a fraction of a second."
"The hyperjump system. It takes eleven seconds to power up in between. That's a long time if you jump into a dangerous area. Her idea cuts that to a tenth of a second."
"Wow." Fletcher marveled, bug eyed, but not for that reason. "With all your galaxy hopping, here you are back at alma mater. Now--show me your trade."
Moast handed over a black rectangular pod. "Millions of flying microbots. They infiltrate, then go up in a burst of intense heat."
"And if it's a fuel or ammo dump--el kablammo! You got a deal, pardner." Fletcher kept his eyes on Moast as he took a fortifying swig. "You know, if I could get to New Earth, this could become a regular run."
He referred to the Mars colony. "Don't forget your compromised DNA. I took a dose of Antivax to protect me from particles you're shedding."
Fletcher finished his cup. "Damn those Architects."
The name had come to replace Illuminati, which the perpetrators didn't like. After exterminating ninety percent of the population, they'd enslaved the rest. Someone had to grow food and run the solar power plants. But they underestimated the number of heavily armed preppers. Now the Architects were hunkered in fortified bunkers, rulers of nothing, watching their vaunted utopia devolve into thousands of warring little fiefdoms.
"Your AI," Fletcher said, "sounds pretty smart. I'm sure it could fix the DNA thing." He pulled a Colt automatic. "Whatcha think?"
The starship Orchidia's avatar materialized, having insisted Moast wear a holo-emitter for the purpose. "Inadvisable." Fletcher quickly put the gun away. She rotated to face Moast. "Etymology of 'whatcha' required."
Moast laughed at the gaping Fletcher. "She's a black hole of knowledge. Always learning."