Plaguespore Part II
By Tim Bancroft
Dated a short while after ‘The Claiming of Shamasai’ and ‘Batu and the SITAI’
Read the first part in this series here.
Prince Batu Delhren was infected by the Shamasai Dust, an ancient, virulent bionanospore that overcame all his shard interface implants (those given to all leaders of the Vardos Delhren). In a subsequent attack, his damaged shard implants were corrupted still further by the algorithms of a warlike drone species, so he exists in a rather precarious equilibrium with the Shamasai Shard.
The Shamasai Shard can be rather aggressive, even using Batu’s own body mass as energy to fuel its needs. As a result, the House Delhren assigned Batu a bodyguard-cum-protector, Decurion Baray Tsulmar, who has orders to both protect Batu and to kill him if his uncontrollable personal shard turns out to be a threat to the Freeborn house.
In the previous episode of Plaguespore, The Vard of the Delhren despatched Batu and Baray to Tanchen aboard a family freighter-frigate, The Song of the Telidh. This was to ferry them to the research planet where a nanophage assault had wiped out the colony. The source of the nanophages was unclear, so who better to send than someone who was already infected by dangerous nanospore?
Alarms shrilled briefly, then cut off their raucous noise and turned dead as their power nanospore were consumed. Moments later, even the physical alarms were consumed by the growing cloud. It expanded, absorbed the shack in which the remote equipment was installed – a simple control centre for a dispersed telescope. Then the cloud of dust settled over the transmission lines.
In the research dome several kiloyan away, monitor holos briefly flashed a warning, then went dark. “That’s strange,” muttered Astronomer Stars. “A malfunction?” A good portion of his holodisplay was blank, though the rest still showed an image of the Tanchen system, comets, asteroids and particulates mapped in ever-increasing detail. He pushed the projection to one side and pulled up a schematic of the widely dispersed telescope array he was using to map the system. A battery of feeds flashed ‘No Response’. Stars pulled them to the front. “Skysense, where’s the desert array gone?”
“I do not know,” replied the primitive AI. “Communication was severed after a brief alarm.”
“Any ideas, Skysense?”
“I’m afraid that without a fully-functioning IMTel, I am not capable of such—”
Stars waved his hand. “I know. You don’t have to keep telling me.” He sat back into his couch and allowed the display to follow him. “You have no communication at all, Skysense? Even through physical connections?”
“I have tried all routes available to me. The transmission lines return nothing.”
“Fine. Dispatch a GP drone with a manipulator arm. See what it can find.” The astronomer wiped away the display and chewed his lip in thought. “I think I’ll have to mention this to the Chief.”
* * *
The colony chief drummed his fingers on the desk in frustration. “We only just got that array up and running. We really need to find out why this system is so deserted.”
Stars shrugged. “The research shard isn’t expecting anything for a while.”
The chief clenched his fist. “Perhaps.” He scratched his beard. “Except the IMTel is a bit concerned at the moment with border security and empty systems.”
The chief thought for a moment, then lowered his voice. “Look, this is confidential, but you’ve heard of Shamasai?”
“Well, maybe it’s been kept too secret. You’ve heard of the Delhren, right?”
“The Freeborn house?” Stars shrugged. “Sure. They’ve got our shipping and defence contract. Mostly through the Telidh family, I think.”
“Correct. We gave them trade concessions for years to come, too.” The chief held his steepled fingers to his lips before speaking. “Shamasai is a recently discovered Determinate planet, also called Delhren VI. The Ghar are – were – interested in it, too. There was a showdown between the Ma’req and the Ghar.”
“The planet’s probably somewhere in the databanks, but I’ve been pretty focused.”
“I guess,” said the Chief. He smiled. “You wouldn’t have picked much up, anyway, as IMTel constrained much of the data for security shard use only.”
“I’m intrigued,” said Stars. He leant forward.
“Some fool of a Delhren princeling got involved on Shamasai, became infected with an ancient nanospore – correction, bionanospore. The local nanosphere had wiped out all intelligent life on the planet.”
“Surely the Concord nanosphere can cope with it? And the Freeborn can cleanse almost any nanospore.”
“In this case, we’re not sure. The Shamasai spore has a biological origin, in some ways like the Isorian shard, but very different. The sphere is almost alive – apparently it’s taken root in this idiot of a princeling and won’t let him go.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“Not as far as we’ve seen, but he is isolated from his house shard. And that’s the point—“
“I see where you’re going.” Stars leant back. “If there’s a planetary nanosphere that is immune to the Freeborn’s tech…” He trailed off. “IMTel’s worried that something similar may have happened here?”
The chief smiled, though the expression was empty.
Stars continued. “But this part of the array going offline may just be an accident, a meteor strike. It could be just an Isorian probe.”
The chief’s smile faded. “Which your sensors and telescopes didn’t pick up? Come on, Stars. Anything Isorian we sensed would have kicked off alarms all over the colony.”
Stars folded his arms. “Point taken. What do you want me to do?”
“Be cautious,” said the chief. “Investigate. If we find anything unusual, we need to get a report off as soon as possible.”
“To where? And to who? Even the Combined Command don’t know much about immune nanospore…” Stars trailed off and chewed his lip. “Which is why they’d be worried about Tanchen, of course. But if confirmed, what could they do?”
The chief shrugged. “Don’t know. Find an expert, I guess. Probably a Freeborn troubleshooter – most of them aren’t bothered about full integration, anyway. One of our Mandarin would steer well clear of any risk that cut it off from the IMTel.”
Stars tossed his head to take in the world outside the chief’s habdome. “It’s bad enough for me, cut off from information on this rock, but a NuHu…” he shivered and tightened his arms further around his body. “Doesn’t bear thinking about.”
* * *
The Song’s captain waved at the map of the Antarean surface in front of her. “It’s going to take us three or four days experienced, over a month real time, and that’s even at the speed this ship goes.” Batu detected a sense of pride in her tone. “The Tanchen gate’s up near the Concord-Isorian border.”
Batu made a face. “So if it’s something serious, we could be too late.”
The captain shrugged. “As ever, yes. That’s Antares for you.”
“And you don’t know what’s so important?” asked Baray.
“Only what’s in the official report. It’s an urgent request from the Concord IMTel for a hostile nanosphere specialist. They’re worried about a potentially dangerous nanospore attacking the Tanchen colony.”
“A rogue? And we agreed to investigate?” Batu cleared his throat. “The contract must be good.”
“Total control over transport and trade. Some of the travel’s further than we’d normally consider, but the monopoly on a new system made it worth it.” The captain smiled. “House Isoptix bid for it, but…”
Batu grinned in return. “But they’re aligned with the Isorians. The Concord couldn’t cope.” He shifted in his seat. “I was wondering about your own take, Captain Telidh.”
Telidh wiped away the map and settled back in her chair. “I think they’re nervous. You spooked them, sire, when you discovered Shamasai. It appears both the Isorian and Concord IMTels had put a very low probability on coming across a nanosphere they couldn’t crack.”
Baray raised an eyebrow and chuckled. “And they asked for Batu?”
Telidh grimaced. “Not quite. We just told the colony he was the closest and best to hand – and would probably be immune to it, anyway.”
Batu scowled. “So Jarain Tridethe decided to throw me to the wolves.”
Telidh frowned. “Jarain specifically said you’re the perfect match.” She tilted her head and looked at Batu, hesitated.
“Spit it out, captain.”
“You’re not quite what I expected.”
“I get that a lot.” Batu sighed. “Things have changed since Shamasai and the SITAI contamination.”
“That’s a relief,” said Telidh. “Your reputation wasn’t good.” She glanced at the ancient chronometer on the wall of her ready room. “Now, please excuse me, sire, command’s work is never done.” She rose and saluted Batu.
Batu and Baray rose on cue. “Sorry you couldn’t help us more,” said Baray.
Telidh looked at her sharply, but Baray’s expression was one of innocence. “So am I. Truth is, we’re in the dark. The spore apparently arrived on the fragments of a disintegrated, long-period comet. And that’s all we know.” She nodded at the door. “Have Ensign Elnar brief you on the sensor interfaces – the Song’s got a more extensive sensor suite than most ships. We’ll be running up to maximum system velocity on full sensor sweep as soon as we exit the Tanchen gate.”
Her expression turned grim and she stared at Batu. “And then we’ll need all your expertise. Sire.”
The door to Telidh’s ready room closed behind them and they left the bridge in silence. “I’m not sure that went so well,” said Baray as they walked the spinal corridor to the sensors suite. “She certainly blew hot and cold.”
“And I thought I was doing so well,” said Batu, brightly. “My reputation has improved.”
“That’ll be the day.” Baray ignored the look Batu gave her. “Sire, you know what you’re going to have to do.”
“I know,” said Batu, gloomily. “I’m going to have to talk to my shard interface and get it to talk to the Shamasai ‘spore.”
“And negotiate with the corrupted SITAI interfaces, too.”
They stopped outside the sensor suite. A shadowy form could be seen inside. Baray checked Batu, peered inside then relaxed. “It’s just Elnar, wearing a privacy hood.” She lowered her voice. “Sire, you’ve been putting off reawakening MyShard for too long – since the trip to the SITAI, in fact.”
“Don’t remind me. My personal shard’s a mess, Baray. I don’t really—”
“Sire, you must. It’s why we’re here. And if there really is a problem…”
Batu walked into the sensor suite and slumped into a console couch. “I know, I know.” He focused and invoked his shard interface. “MyShard? You there?”
“Of course, Batu. Where else could I be?”
“Cut the sarcasm. We’ve got work to do.”
“So I heard – I still have access to your aural implants, you know. I’m attempting communication with the SITAI algorithms and some form of connection to the Shamasai bionanospore. It’s not easy, but you wouldn’t care about that, I suppose.”
“Stop that.” Batu became aware of Baray grinning at him. “What?”
“I can always tell when you’re enjoying talking to MyShard.”
“Not,” growled Batu. “MyShard’s insufferable. Let’s get it over and done with.”
Baray tapped Ensign Elnar on the shoulder. “Sensors? We’re here to prepare.”
* * *
General Purpose drone C3GP-2187F glided slowly over the desert, its suspensor field struggling to remain active on such a primitive world. It kept on having to stop and replenish its nanosphere, draining its emergency fuel cell. So far, it had discovered none of the sensor dishes that were marked on its map, finding nothing but tangled piles of what resembled half-molten metal in their place. The drone topped a rise and broadcast its location and data-to-date to the orbiting commsats. Just for good measure, it also sent an old-fashioned, line-of-sight burst to the colony comm. tower before turning its attention to what should have been an outlying control shack in the valley below.
There was nothing there, or nothing physical, at least. Where the shack should have been was a whirling cloud of dust. The drone thought for a moment, then fed power to a buddy drone piggy-backing a ride on its topside. ‘Spotter: close scan on that dust-devil.’
The spotter powered up. ‘Sure thing, Boss.’ It skimmed down the slopes into the valley, feeding back broad-spectrum sensor data as it closed on the swirling, micro-tornado. 2187 picked up a confusing array of images across multiple wavelengths: silicon, of unusual purity; trace amounts of heavy metals; low-powered comms chatter.
‘Spotter: focus on evidence of a primitive nanosphere.’
‘Checking, Boss,’ broadcast the buddy drone and angled closer to the swirling cloud.
Then the twisting cloud flashed a writhing protuberance towards the drone. It tried to dodge, but was toppled by the whirling sand and dust, tried to right itself and then…
… then the buddy drone was gone, swallowed up by another sand-devil pseudopod swirling out from the central core. Its last transmission was abruptly curtailed: ‘Sensing unknown nanophag—‘
‘Combat nanophages?’ The roiling cloud shifted, it’s locus slowly moving up-slope towards 2187. The drone’s suspensor field weakened as sand and dust rose beneath it and began eating at its own nanosphere. Panic routines kicked in and in response the drone turned, fed all power to the suspensor field and overloaded its thrusters in an attempt to escape. It set the last of the data from the martyred buddy drone onto a repeating broadcast and hoped the message would get through.
For a simple colony survey drone, discretion was always the better part of valour.
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.
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