Batu came round. His thinking was fuzzy, suggesting extraordinarily powerful analgesics. The world around him was dark, vague patches of light on walls and a low ceiling.
‘He’s got to be told.’ A voice, Baray’s.
‘If you so request.’ Ceahray’s voice.
A face loomed over him, a blue eyepiece and a dark eye in a brown face: Baray. ‘Sire? Readouts say you should be with us.’
‘Can’t… move.’ His tongue was thick in his mouth.
No, sir. You’re dosed up. Badly mangled legs, pelvic girdle cracked.’ She held a water bottle to his lips.
He sipped. ‘Replacement?’ Thoughts were solidifying and with coherence came sharp stabs of pain from his lower body. ‘Ugh.’
‘Pain? Sorry – it’s the best we can do. The medic kit was destroyed in the attack. The compressor exploded. We’ve spray-splinted your legs and injected a few nano-bonders but there’s little we can do with your hips until we get off this cursed rock.’
‘Have we spotted the Ma’req frigate?’
Ceahray stepped up beside Baray. ‘No, we haven’t. But we think a couple of emergency rescue craft down a few kiloyan away. They’ll be enough for what’s left of us.’ Her mouth was tight, grim as she admitted the loss.
Batu ignored the sign of emotion. ‘That doesn’t bode well.’
‘No. It suggests the frigate was damaged.’
‘Tectorists are sweeping the surface. It seems they came off better than us.’ She glanced down at his lower torso, wrapped her knuckles on something hard. ‘It’s set. We’ll carry you.’ She beckoned to one of her science team. ‘Help Sergeant Baray carry the Delhren Representative. We have to get moving.’
‘Yes, Ma’am.’ The scientist looked down at Batu. ‘Representative Delhren, I am Servile Scientist Verak.’ He bowed, helped Baray lift Batu carefully onto the stretcher. ‘No suspensors I’m afraid, Sir Batu. We daren’t risk them.’
Ceahray whispered orders into her comm, nodded to Baray and the Verak. ‘Slip in with the other casualties.’ Baray handed him the water bottle and they strapped him in, picked up the stretcher. From his vantage point between them, Batu saw little but a smoothly-cut tunnel ceiling and, by turning his head to either side, walls that bore delicately traced reliefs and writing. Ceahray walked alongside, intermittently answering requests from her comm.
‘I take it we’re under the ruins.’
‘Yes, sir. There’s a maze of tunnels under here. And a now-destroyed Ghar device.’
From behind his head, Verak spoke up. ‘It’s the device that began that strange broadcasting and attracted us. Unfortunately, it also activated something native.’
‘The dust?’ Batu coughed, took a sip of water.
‘Yes, the bionanospores. They were dormant, I believe. It’s why we’re trying to keep the more advanced technology to a minimum, even comms.’
Ceahray responded to the accusation. ‘I’ve little choice, Servile Verak. We must co-ordinate this evacuation. Sir Batu, Sergeant Baray told me about your trooper, Amalay.’
Batu tried to shift, grunted as pain shot through his back. His shard interface pinged a warning: INTERFERENCE DETECTED. COUNTER- INTRUSION ENABLED. ‘Amalay was talking strange, as if physically taken over by an IMTel.’
‘An invasive IMTel?’ Baray frowned. ‘That shouldn’t be possible, this quickly. Our distributed nanosphere matrices and hierarchical segregation are military grade, Freeborn, designed bottom-up to resist integration and infiltration.’
‘It affected your Trooper Amalay in a very short period of time.’
Baray looked apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, Officer Ceahray, but I understand the Algoryn back away from integration. In contrast, we embrace it: we’ve been coping with Concord and Senatex infiltration for aeons. Amalay had serious injuries, a massive number of potential vectors, but should not have been taken over so quickly.’
Batu raised a hand. ‘Hush, Sergeant. I know what I heard.’ His interface flashed another message on his retina: Invasive nanospores multiplying. ‘Umm, was I cut?’
Ceahray looked directly at his face. ‘Are you having problems?’
‘Might be,’ said Batu, cautiously. Ceahray backed away. ‘Don’t be like that. Amalay had the growth over most of his face. He was talking about reinforcement requests just before the images flashed up on our combat displays.’
‘It was fake, all nanosphere phantoms. We’ve traced it back and everything we thought we saw originated from his interface.’
‘Why? I mean why did it do that?’
‘We think it – he? – was trying to drive away the Ghar. It all kicked off about the time they blew away the landers.’
‘Amalay mentioned an existential threat.’
Ceahray nodded. ‘Disruptors will do that. Looks like the bionanospores don’t appreciate the fabric of reality being torn apart.’ Her attention was drawn to her comms; she put on her helmet.
‘Neither do I,’ said Batu. ‘Wait, you’re talking as if it’s still active.’ As if to confirm his suspicions a series of messages flashed on his retina. Low level interface functions being usurped. Nanocytes unable to defend absorption. Building internal firewall. External comms from shard interface terminating. He missed the glance Baray shot to Officer Ceahray.
‘If you’ll pardon the interruption,’ said Verak, ‘The local ‘sphere being active is the only logical deduction,’ said Verak. ‘The dust activates when it encounters signs of an intelligent species, begins multiplying and tries to integrate with any other nanocytes it finds. As is ever the case, it does so by overwhelming them, if it can.’
Ceahray interrupted the conversation, her voice metallic from her damaged helmet speaker. ‘We’ve got Ghar scouts in the tunnels ahead. They’ve withdrawn but we’ve got to get a move on. Move.’ She ran ahead, her footsteps raising dust from the floor of the tunnel.
Verak and Baray began to jog and Batu was thankful for the straps. The pain shot through the analgesia and he groaned, coughed, took another sip. A thought occurred. ‘We’ve all inhaled the dust, so why does it only affect those who’ve been injured.’ His voice shook from the motion.
‘We’ve been thinking about that,’ replied Verak, breathing heavily. ‘Perhaps it is disabled on mucosal contact, destroyed by stomach enzymes or bacteria?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Batu and grunted as Verak missed a step, stumbled. ‘Whoever created it wouldn’t want to infect everyone who landed here.’
‘Probably not. The theory is that once their numbers reached a critical threshold, the bionanocytes reconnected with the mass of dormant ‘spores.’
‘Ah, the dust-storms.’ His interface displayed a final warning. External connections lost. Repair impossible due to merge of shard interfaces with invasive nanocytes. Shutting down to protect vital functions. The interface briefly displayed a single, fading word: Shard interface Offline.
‘Verak, stop.’ Baray’s focused on her combat eyepiece. ‘Sir, your Delhren interface has shut down.’
‘Yeah, I’m contaminated. The local spores are replacing my house nanocytes.’
‘And you, sir? How are you?’
‘I might be okay. I hope. I’ve not got the level of contamination of Amalay. What’s more, I’ve Doma-familia level security routines and hardware. My interface built a firewall between itself and the replaced functions, then shut down and isolated itself to preserve integrity. It will never be the same, but I’ll have something.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Verak, thoughtfully. ‘That might help, actually. I mean, such a isolated shutdown. It would mean you’d be like the Ghar or the local creatures, unsharded.’
‘Thanks,’ groaned Batu; another wave of pain washed over him. ‘Can we get going, again.’
‘Sure,’ said Baray. ‘When we get back we’ll filter out the local cytes from your blood. You should be okay.’ She grimaced. ‘Well, if the local ‘cytes haven’t rewired your brain, that is.’
Batu glared at her. ‘Sergeant, you are so encouraging.’
* * *
Tim Bancroft – has sent in a number of pieces. ‘Abominable Tech’ is the 7th and latest Chapter of Tim’s stories that we’ve shared – his previous pieces can be found here:
Tim Bancroft has been longlisted for the James White SF Award 2015 and won the Orwell Dystopian Fiction Award 2014. Follow Tim on his Blog at: timbancroft.me.uk.