Plaguespore Part V
By Tim Bancroft
Dated a short while after ‘The Claiming of Shamasai’ and ‘Batu and the SITAI’
Read part IV in this series here.
Read part III in this series here.
Read part II in this series here.
Read part I 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 episodes of Plaguespore, Batu and Baray were sent to investigate a strange nanophage plague on the planet Tanchen. Having rescued the colonists, they landed on the planet and attempted to destroy a tower the strange plague of nanospore had built. Unfortunately, the nanospore wasn’t completely destroyed and has now decided Baray and Batu are a threat…
MyShard began to talk. “Batu, the Shamasai Shard is getting very—“ It’s voice changed from its normal contralto to a more mechanical tone. “Existential threat to host suspected. Countermeasures anticipated. Harnessing associated AI shard.”
“The shard’s taken,” warned Batu. Ahead, the plague-sand twirled in a miniature dust-devil, gaining size and opacity even as they watched. It started to move, shifted direction slightly, then headed towards the compression cannon to their rear.
“Energy reserves critical,” announced the Shamasai shard’s voice. Batu gasped and sank to his knees as his body abruptly felt as if he had all the aches and pains of a severe viral infection. His strength gave way and he collapsed to the ground, unable to hold himself upright. “MyShard: What’s going on?”
It was the toneless voice that replied. “Energy reserves depleted. Non-essential body mass utilised for existential continuity.”
“Batu?” Baray grabbed his arm, pulled him to his feet. “You look pale – almost wasted.”
“The Shamasai Shard,” gasped Batu. “It’s sucking all the energy from me. I can’t stand.”
“It’s in motion,” said Elnar, still staring at her screen.
“You don’t say,” said Baray. “Squad, back off.” She gestured for another of the vardanari to take Batu’s other arm and together they pulled the prince back towards the drop pod.
“No,” said Elnar. “I mean there’s motion on the ground.” Her brows were furrowed in consternation. “The sand within the settlement is rising up to join the mini-tornado and flowing outwards.” As if in response to her words the dust-devil abruptly doubled in size.
“Run!” Baray’s voice barked out the command. “Now!” She and the trooper dragged Batu backwards. Then the sleeves of Batu’s tunic ripped and Batu was dropped to the ground again. Baray gave an exclamation of surprise and stepped away: Batu’s body armour and enviro-suit were being eaten away by red-tan dust that crawled on the surface of his skin. “Back off,” she said, and raised her carbine.
“Hostile weapons detected…“, began Batu’s Shamasai Shard.
“Don’t point… weapons,” gasped Batu. His vision was fading. He raised his head, but barely managed to raise it a few fingers breadth from the desert floor. Baray stepped forward to pick him up, again.
Myshard returned. “Batu, from what I can sense from your personal shard, I’d recommend that Baray and the others run clear. I’m not sure how long I have in control – the Shamasai Shard is—”
”Run,” croaked Batu to Baray. She hesitated; he felt himself fading even further. “Shamasai – run…” His head slumped back to the desert floor as he lost the strength to keep it upright. He heard Baray turn, shout to her squad to retreat. Their footsteps on the sand faded. Then the whirling squall was upon him.
* * *
Batu watched the events from a hundred viewpoints, a confused multiplicity of images that coalesced into a single gestalt. Somewhere there was his own mind, distanced as the Shamasai bionanocytes took over his brain and used its unsurpassed pattern recognition to expand its own computational power. To one side he could ‘see’ MyShard, it’s voice faint, even worried, but locked away from interaction with his body or his shard implants. Elsewhere was a calculating rage, an anger at being attacked and insisting upon reprisals, suggesting counterthrusts, defensive measures, routes to the destruction of a dispersed myriad of opponents. And above them all was a sensory, creative and destructive thread that dominated the others, even his own mind: faced with its imminent destruction it fed upon the algorithms that fuelled the rage, mingled with the remains of his own Freeborn implants and began to spread.
He watched his own clothing and armour absorbed as the Shamasai Dust consumed all it could. Already, his own body was perilously close to death, all fat and extraneous muscle tissue absorbed into the Shamasai nanospore. It had formed a supra-dermal crust that was stripped away where it was impacted by the plague-sand.
Already, his skin was becoming flayed by the whirling, abrasive particles, but he felt nothing.
The abrasion proved merely temporary, a ruse. Where the Shamasai Dust was stripped and absorbed by the granules of plague-sand, it fed upon the structure of the particles, each so much bigger than each bionanocyte. There, it multiplied, reproduced itself a thousand times on what it found inside each grain of sand. An analysis flashed back and, dimly, he saw the process race through his suborned brain. It was a bio-silicon construct, a simple nanophage within a solid, masking layer of stone and silicon. “It is Isorian,” he thought, and felt a satisfaction in the domineering SITAI and Shamasai thought processes.
He was only dimly aware of Baray and her squad cowering behind the drop pod – but they were safe, his own protectors. The Shamasai Shard absorbed what it could from the plague-sand, fed upon the sparse plants that remained in the sands around him.
Then it struck back.
The Shamasai Dust ripped through the plague sand, destroying everything at the core of each grain. As it fed upon the bio-silicon core it grew, an exponential binary division that exploded from where the sand had touched his body. The tornado of sand became a sandstorm that ripped over the desert, ran through the colony ruins and obliterated the nascent spire. The consciousness examined the tower, identified it as a drone launch tower, destroyed it, and moved on. The dust storm roared out over the desert, like the plague-sand, consuming everything in its path in its search for the threat.
Then, as on Shamasai, it collapsed onto the empty sands.
* * *
“Batu, sire? Are you with us?”
Batu felt disconnected, confined into a single mind. He was weak, had pain all over his body and could barely open his eyes. “Baray?”
His bodyguard was leaning over him. “Yes, sire. We’re all safe. We’re on a shuttle, returning to the ESS. You need a hospital pod.”
Batu closed his eyes. “The plague-sand?”
“Destroyed, sire. Ensign Elnar has examined some of the hollow grains of sand. She suspects they were a failed Isori experiment.”
“Combat nanophages encased in a heavy silicon shell for disguise.”
Elnar’s voice “You know?”
“The dust told me.”
Elnar continued. “There’s no proof, but I believe it had gone rogue, sire, perhaps developed its own identity.”
“And the spire?”
“I scanned what was left of it,” said the ensign. “There was a sort of shell or husk beneath it.”
There was silence for a moment. “I don’t know, but I think it was a part-completed, drone starship.”
“It wanted off-planet?” There was silence. “Of course it did – it was rogue.” Batu felt himself falling back to sleep. “I’m tired.”
“You’re doped up to the eyeballs, sire.” Baray placed a gloved hand on his forehead. “Rest, sire. The chief colonist expresses his gratitude for warding off the plague-sand.”
“Mission success, then.” Batu faded into unconsciousness.
* * *
Batu stood before the throne, head held high. His uncle, the vard, stared down at him, then sighed. “What are we to do, Batu?”
“I do not understand, Uncle. I did what you asked. It wasn’t an anomalous infestation, after all, just ordinary Tsan-Senatex, bio-silicon nanophages.”
“So I heard.”
“It was a trap created by the Isorians for the Concord colony. A test of a new delivery mechanism.” Batu shifted from foot to foot. He seemed to ache all the time, his body still not fully recovered from the wasting at the hands of his own shard.
“So I understand,” said the vard. “And you disarmed it rather violently, I believe.” The vard’s tone was dry. “Unofficially, the Isorian’s are quite upset that someone ruined their experiment.”
“They attacked a Concord settlement: that’s hardly an experiment.”
The vard remained silent.
“I ensured our relationships and trade and charter deals with the Concord in that sector continue.” Batu attempted a smile. “They are delighted that the Isorian machinations were discovered. The colony is re-establishing itself.”
The vard frowned. “Alleged Isorian attack. The colonists may be pleased, but the Concord Research Council is not so happy that the world is contaminated with the Shamasai bionanospore that might just be dormant rather than depleted.”
“But you read my report! That’s hardly my fault.”
“That remains to be seen. However, your actions have not enamoured you personally with the Isorians. It would have been far better if you had dealt with the situation in a less destructive fashion.”
Batu winced. “I understand, but it’s not my—”
“It has harmed the Delhren relationship with the Senatex, Batu. The consul is asking for you to be handed over as a criminal.”
“For the destruction of an alleged combat nanosphere that would have wiped out a Concord colony? They’re just playing politics, Uncle.”
“They stress the experimental nature of the nanosphere, that originally the system was uninhabited. Publicly, they have apologised and claimed they underrated the hostility the sand would develop towards other IMTel shards.” The vard drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. “You might be off the hook, though: I understand both the Mandarins and Senatexis are now terrified of what a uncontrolled shard or a rogue IMTel can achieve – whether theirs or yours.”
“You sent me, Uncle. No one knew what the contaminated Shamasai Shard would do.”
The vard held up a hand to silence Batu. “The Isorian demand is spurious and I have dismissed it. The problem, nephew, is exactly what you have just stated: we know little of your shard and its capabilities. Our political opponents are demanding your exile as a danger to the house.”
Batu thought back to his expanded awareness, the partitioning and use of his own brain by the Shamasai Dust and its combative, SITAI awareness. “It may seem dangerous, uncle, but it is safe, if I am safe.”
“So you have said, but how can we know that? Do you have control over it?” Batu remained silent. “No, then. At the minimum you must be watched.” The vard shook his head. “It is what it is, Batu, and, as you say, the Concord, are happy with your involvement – if somewhat scared at what the Shamasai Dust can do.”
Batu folded his arms. “So can I return to my vineyards, or are you exiling me?”
“No – to both. Report to the Head of Security. Jarain Tridethe may have his eye on the throne, but he wishes to utilise your peculiar… skills in defence of our house.” Batu opened his mouth to speak but the vard raised his hand, again. “And he wishes to keep an eye on you at the same time. There is no more to say, Batu. You are dismissed.” Behind Batu, the doors to the audience chamber swung open.
“Yes, sire.” Batu tightened his lips and bowed. His footsteps echoed from the walls as he left the audience chamber, conscious all the while of the vard’s gaze on his back. He opened a link to his shard interface.
“Batu? I take it we are not returning to the planet.”
“No. MyShard, we’re not. Have Dirag ship my personal possessions up here.”
“Certainly, Batu. Anything else?”
”Yes: find out everything you can on how I can get rid of this damned Shamasai Shard!”
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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