by Fred Saberhagen and Jane Lindskold

“This base is under attack! This base is under attack!”

The hollow, booming voice from the loudspeakers jarred Vivian Travers to her feet and started her moving across her private laboratory to where her customized battle armor hung in its rack. Her hands were in contact with the cool metal almost before her conscious mind had fully registered what the voice was saying.

There had of course been practice alerts during the several centuries since this research base, on the large moon of the planet Lake had become her regular residence – but far too few such drills, in her judgment.

With the skill of long practice Vivian had already opened the front of the armor, stepped inside, and leaned back, pressing against key contact points. Leads automatically inserted themselves at various points, cutting through clothing where necessary. The sensation was uncomfortable, but Vivian ignored it, reaching for her carbine even as the front of the armor closed and latched.

This is not a drill! Berserkers sighted approaching this base. All hands to battle stations. Repeat! This is not a drill.

“And why shouldn’t they be approaching,” Vivian muttered inside her helmet, closing the door of her private lab behind her, locking it out of habit. “When the defenses have been allowed to go to hell? Damned politicians!” But as she did not transmit, there was no reply.

She hurried down the corridor, feeling rather than hearing as hatches and bulkheads sealed behind and beneath her throughout the base. Lake Moon Research Base tunneled deep into the rock of its namesake moon. Its overall design was a good one. Vivian knew. She had created it herself over a hundred years before.

Vivian’s battle station was in the main weapons bay, where she was assigned to damage control and back up gunnery. If berserkers were attacking, both would likely be needed – if anyone survived to need anything at all.

The sprawling base housed not quite four hundred people, mostly researchers and their immediate families. The bulk of the moon around them was naturally devoid of any native life, and so were the planets, moons, comets, and asteroids that made up the Pinball System in which Lake was the fifth planet from the sun. Even the “lakes” for which the fifth planet was named were devoid of life, mere pools of stagnate acid, which were slowly corroding the minerals upon which they rested.

Moving past other suited, hurrying human figures through the cavernous main weapons bay, Vivian began to run a check on one of the gun batteries.

“Yes,” she muttered to herself again. “Why should they not have decided to attack?”

The berserkers were programmed to exterminate life in all its forms, wherever and whenever they could come to grips with it. Created by a race that the Earth-descended version of Galactic humanity had dubbed the Builders, the berserkers had been forged as the ultimate weapon in the Builders’ war against the Red Race. Some flaw in their programming had led to the berserkers annihilating not only the Red Race but the Builders as well.

After many thousands of years, if one was inclined to include microscopic creatures in the tally, the berserkers had expunged from the Galaxy uncountable billions of what they called life-units. But their quest for the perfect order of death was far from ended.

Rebuilding, reconstructing, redesigning themselves as the years passed, the berserkers came in a variety of forms, ranging from bipedal robots to immobile data-processing boxes, from machines the size of a small dog to the pair of hulking dreadnoughts that now, according to the latest announcement from the loudspeakers, were bearing down upon Lake Moon.

As she hurried to her battle station, Vivian had tuned her helmet speakers to bring her command chatter. Now she heard General Gosnick, the base commander, saying calmly, “Launch individual fighters. What we think are the appropriate enemy schematics are being beamed to your control panels. This pair look like older models, and they’re pretty badly beaten up. We may be able to disable them before they can close to effective striking range of the base.”