Tim Bancroft (now a co-designer) wrote a number of short stories and novellas when BtGoA v1 was first brought out, the first of which is here stars Shaltok, a Ghar officer who became an Exile commander under Karg before being pardoned by Fartok, and Batu Delhren, the irrepressible prince of the Freeborn vardos delhreni.
The suit sealed itself around Shaltok, enfolding him in a comforting embrace. He felt the brief pain as the neural connectors shafted into place – then the pain was gone replaced by an awareness of so much more than himself. He immediately relaxed, sank into the near-meditative state that oneness demanded: this was where a Ghar was meant to be, how a Ghar was meant to live.
‘Testing,’ he murmured and the suit deepened and amplified his voice, almost deafening the techs arraigned around him. They scuttled back nervously. He flexed his arms and the couplings whined in sync with his movements, whirling both arms through a complete arc. He scuttled forward, jumped – the suit lifted him high off the deck to land with a crash – then scuttled back. The suit’s claw snapped shut, opened again at his thought.
The suit flashed up feedback on his combat array – Interface: Optimal. Sensors: Operational. Mobility: Operational. Claw: Operational. Scourer: Powered.
‘Weapons test,’ he said; his voice boomed. The techs scattered behind the protective shields located strategically around the maintenance bay. Shaltok centred his targeting reticule over the weapons testing soak hanging from the roof at the centre of the hall, fired with barely a second thought.
Nothing happened. His array stated the obvious. Weapons: Malfunction. Analysing… Plasma feed obstructed. Critical.
Shaltok immediately hit the suit’s emergency release. The carapace cracked open, connections snapped back and the cocoon ejected him clear. He landed on his feet and immediately scurried towards a blast shield, shouting as he ran. ‘Obstruction in the plasma feed lines. Overload!’ He was pleased to see several of his techs had already started running for cover as soon as they saw him eject.
He dived behind a shield and techs piled in behind him, surrounded him – a combateer – with their bodies. Barely had they time to cover their ears before bright light flared and the suit exploded. The blast wave lifted the shield from its anchor, slammed it into the techs around him. He heard squeals of pain, was buffeted by Ghar bodies, thrown against a bulkhead.
Then all was silent.
Klaxons began to scream, almost drowning out the ancient, automated calls for clean-up crews and medical staff. There were groans around him as bodies shifted and techs discovered broken bones and bruises. Blood dripped onto his coverall from the body above him and he pushed it off – it crackled, burnt by the wave of superheated plasma that had erupted from the suit. There was no point checking to see if the tech who had protected him was alive: the Ghar had done his duty well.
Shaltok stumbled to his feet. The superhardened floor and walls of the bay were scorched, blackened by the explosion. Semi-molten components were scattered round the bay and tools and spares were smooth lumps of unrecognisable alloys, some still bubbling with the heat. ‘Who checked the feed?’ he asked and wondered why his voice was so quiet. He spoke louder and realised he was temporarily deafened. ‘Who was responsible for checking the scourer’s plasma feed?’
A tech stepped forward, pointed to the charred body that had lain atop Shaltok. ‘Telmak 60-53-32, sir.’
Shaltok nodded, relieved. ‘A fitting punishment.’ He looked round at the cooling debris. ‘Scavenge what you can.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said the tech and looked apologetic. ‘There is too much damage to reassemble the suit, sir.’
‘Try and requisition a new suit. I must report to the commander: this reflects badly on us all.’ Shaltok marched out the weapons bay, conscious his face was burning with shame.
* * *
High Commander Karg 12-40-9 kept him waiting of course, a deliberate tactic intended to demean an inferior. Shaltok tried to think his way through the problem. I must remove this shame; my promotions already lag behind the others of my brood. Except for the Outcast, of course…
Outcast: that was it. A glimmer of hope, a strategy. Mechanics and Outcast were easy to come by, but since the rebels were founded, trained engineers and troopers were in short demand.
A buzzer sounded; his name appeared on the pixelated display. He stood, walked through the door guarded by a pair of Ghar in assault suits.
‘High Commander. This Ghar offers his service.’
‘Except you didn’t, Shaltok. You allowed your team to destroy a suit.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Be humble.
‘The accident very nearly destroyed a maintenance bay. Tell me why I should not pour more shame on you and your team?’
‘Sabotage?’ Karg frowned in confusion. ‘How so?’
‘The Outcast rebel leader, sir, Fartok. One of my mechanics used to service his suit.’
Karg slammed his fist down on the console. ‘Fartok! Again!’ The annoyance turned to curiosity. ‘What has the mechanic have to do with the cursed rebel?’
‘I believe he developed a sentimental attachment to the rebels’ suit, sir. It seems he replaced my scourer’s plasma feed with a poorly refurbished item from his ex-commander.’
‘Sentiment?’ Karg looked shocked.
Shaltok took a risk in mention the hated name again. ‘Yes, sir. If Fartok was involved, it seems hardly surprising.’
‘Antares take Fartok!’ Karg scowled. ‘I trust you punished the technician involved.’
‘Telmak 60-53-32 died in the blast, sir.’
‘A fitting end.’ Karg’s expression was one of deep satisfaction. ‘Good.’
‘Sir? May I make a recommendation?’
‘As long as it is sound.’
‘I believe it is, sir. I recommend all of Battle Group 9’s refurbished spares be double-checked by those from other groups. I also suggest that all Fartok’s technicians be made Outcast. There is a risk this may happen again, sir. Fartok’s memory and erratic influence needs to be eradicated.’
Karg pulled at his lower lip. ‘Good suggestion, but difficult to implement. The revolt has made things difficult – the vats can barely keep up with replacements.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Have the refurbished spares be double checked, on my orders. Interrogate the technicians with questionable authority. Only those who are not proven loyal to me and our cause are to be Outcast or shot, understand?’ He scratched his head. ‘You may have uncovered a deeper problem in our ranks, Shaltok.’ He frowned, looked deep in thought.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Shaltok. Push it. ‘Sir – Do I have permission to break out a new suit from storage?’
‘What? Yes, certainly. Dismissed.’ Karg muttered to himself, words that sounded like a curse on ‘Fartok’.
Shaltok ignored the comments, saluted and marched out as sharply as he could. Saved myself. That he had done so by risking the lives of hundreds of mechanics was of no concern: they were Ghar, would just have to take their chances. I had better keep a few of Fartok’s techs around, though. They may come in useful, again. He nodded to himself, satisfied. Such strategic thinking was the heart and soul of a Ghar.
* * *
The humans in Shaltok’s simulation array once more ran for cover. ‘Come out and fight!’ he snarled. ‘Disruptors!’ Simulated scourer cannons fired as one and the sim’s crude undergrowth was shredded by the combined fire of his fellow troopers.
The simulation halted; speakers blared around the ship. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9, report to the bridge immediately. Shaltok to the bridge.’
Shaltok sighed, shut off the tactical simulation and lifted the array off his head. He blinked at the shipboard lighting, glanced round the sim chamber. ‘Troopers, study the tactical manuals. Work out how we can better strike at the humans when they flee for cover like that.’ The two battle squads acknowledged his orders, saluted. Good Ghar.
He made his way to the nearest trans shaft. Even on this small vessel the bridge was hundreds of metres away and he dare not be delayed.
* * *
Outside the bridge, two troopers in shipboard armour eyed Shaltok suspiciously. A voice boomed: ‘State your business.’
They know very well who I am. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9, reporting as ordered.’
His face was bathed in the sickly light of an ID scanner. Pneumatics hissed; the heavy hatchway swung open. The over-amplified voice boomed again. ‘Pass.’
As if you can do anything else. Shaltok stepped through into the bridge and the hatch mechanism wheezed, clanged shut behind him. Inside, the Captain and Force Commander Brak were standing at a comms panel, murmuring to each other as they decoded a secure transmission. Around the bridge, Ghar in command pods were silhouetted by the filtered view from the external screens: the blazing photosphere of Antares.
A warning chimed; the bright light vanished. The Captain grunted in pleasure. ‘Success. We’re in.’ He glanced up at Shaltok.
‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9 reporting as ordered, sirs.’ How many times do I have to repeat myself?
‘Private briefing,’ barked the Captain. He led the way to a sound-proofed niche.
‘We’ve just decoded our orders,’ said Commander Brak. ‘You are mentioned specifically.’
‘Me?’ Shaltok’s voice squeaked. ‘Sorry, sir. Why me?’
The Captain frowned. ‘A strange question.’
‘I believe it’s his brood, sir,’ said Brak.
The Captain looked quizzical. ‘You are a brood-mate of High Commander Karg?’
‘No, sir. The brood subsequent to his, one that cannot be compared with the High Commander’s.’ Let’s move away from that topic. ‘I was merely surprised at the honour. My orders, Captain?’
The Captain grunted, called up a transmission, selected a tag marked ‘Planetary Deployment’. An image filled the screen, two small moons orbiting a dry, sand-red world with small, rust-coloured seas. A blinking light indicated a position of interest just north of the equator. A single ship was shown orbiting the planet, a tag indicating it as a Freeborn frigate.
Karg’s voice overlay the display. ‘Force Leader Shaltok 12-41-9 is to lead a small force to the ruins at this location and hide the device.’ The screen flashed up the launch of a Ghar lander from the troopship behind one of the moons, a fast course to the planet’s surface whilst the Freeborn ship was in orbital opposition. ‘The lander can avoid observation providing the ground forces evacuate quickly.’ An image of a device appeared on-screen. ‘There should be no indication that the device was placed by Ghar.’ The device disappeared, replaced by a close-up of the world: rocky, dusty, a haze in the air, cliffs, canyons, tufts of red and bronze plants with sharply-angled branches. ‘Survivors are to hide on the planet surface and await further instructions.’
Force Commander Brak stopped the recording. ‘Clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied Shaltok. ‘What does the device do?’
Brak zoomed in on the device, read the instructions. ‘Once deployed – and only when deployed – depress the activation switch.’
The Captain furrowed his heavy brows in suspicion.
Shaltok saw the expression, swallowed. ‘Sorry, sir. I take it the ruins are useless?’
A shrug. ‘Surveys suggest they might contain early human data on bio-nanosphere integration –perhaps tempting for panhuman scum, but not for us.’ He almost spat the last word.
Brak gestured towards readouts beside the image. ‘The planet is rich in heavy metals and minerals, the gate a useful location for a strategic outpost. Success is vital, Force Leader. Be prepared to attack on command with whatever troops you have.’
I’m bait. And I thought I was safe out here. ‘Thank you , sir.’
* * *
The flight deck of the lander was crowded, every station crewed. Shaltok stood behind the commander, watching. The sensor station buzzed and the operator spoke from beneath his combat array. ‘Commander. Three surveillance satellites identified.’
‘Aye, sir. Weapons.’ Disruptors spat; explosions rippled and crackled across the fabric of reality. Deep blue and black hollows in space were briefly lit by the orange flare of the dying watchsats. ‘Success.’
‘Very well. Atmosphere in 10.’ The Commander turned to Shaltok. ‘Suit up, Force Leader. Your troop will have to bail out in the air. To success!’
Shaltok sighed. Casualties before we even hit the ground. ‘Sir. To success.’ He slipped through the connecting hatch into the lander’s hold. ‘Suit up. Aerial deployment.’ There was a groan from the Outcasts to one side. ‘Quiet! At least you’ve been warned.’ The Outcasts squirmed, stammered apologies and rushed to grab landing chutes to strap to their cannon and themselves.
His troopers were already climbing into their battlesuits and he felt a surge of pride at their calm efficiency. Good Ghar. Shaltok clambered into his own armour and felt the familiar contentment as the suit wrapped around him, connected itself to his nervous system.
His combat array lit up: all systems operational; all troopers powered and ready; local data loaded. He comm’d the flight deck. ‘Commander, ground troops ready to go.’
The Commander replied. ‘Acknowledged. To success. Deceleration in 9… 8…ah.’
Engines roared and the assault lander screamed to a halt, the abrupt deceleration pummelling all in the hold into their suits and harness. Outcasts groaned in pain. The lower bay doors opened and speakers blared. ‘Drop. Drop now.’
Still shaken, Shaltok hit the release and dropped with his command. Chutes and lines slowed their final descent to the surface. The rocky ground was closer than he realised, obscured by dust blown into the air from the lander’s downdraft. Shaltok landed clumsily, his suit tilting on two legs before he regained balance and crashed back into stability. There was a sharply curtailed scream from beneath his rear leg. He glanced down to see it had impaled a careless Outcast.
He shook off the remains, clumped into cover behind a large outcrop. ‘Casualty report.’ Statuses flickered on his array: one casualty, Outcast. He sighed. So careless.
‘Move forward by squads. Tectorists to front and flanks.’ Ghar scuttled into position to either side and along their line of march.
* * *
‘I warned you guys that you were too close to Ghar space.’ The Freeborn guide slumped back and threw his legs over the side of the frigate’s command chair. He was colourfully dressed in hues of red, purple and burgundy, a vibrant contrast to the functional greys of the bridge. Gold accessories liberally adorned his limbs, ears and any part of his clothing that might even look as if it needed a fastening. A single broach sat on his left lapel, however: the mark of his Vardos, the Delhren.
The Algoryn Captain glared, jerked a thumb over one shoulder. ‘Batu Delhren – out of my chair.’
‘Fine, fine.’ Batu Delhren stood, wrapped his cloak around him. ‘It’s too big for humans anyway. Uncomfortable.’
The Captain him. ‘We don’t know it’s Ghar work.’
‘Three surveillance sats taken out simultaneously? Ripples in space-time? Come on, Karef. You know better than that.’
‘It’s Captain Karef, whilst you’re aboard this ship.’ Karef sat in his command chair.
‘Sure, sure, whatever. Sar Karef. Captain.’ Batu straightened his sleeves, leaned against a console. ‘The planet’s too tempting for Ghar to ignore.’ He waved his hand through the physical interface; a projection appeared before him.
‘Those animals don’t care about bionanosphere interfaces,’ said Karef. And stop playing with my bridge equipment.’
The Delhren threw the projection onto the main screen. It showed a planetary surface map keyed to elements, quantities, depths. ‘Look at the heavy metal content – way off the charts for any normal planetary formation.’
Karef studied the screen. ‘So why did you not use it yourself? The Ghar would buy from you.’
Batu looked alarmed. ‘A human? Selling to Ghar? What…’ He stopped, grinned. ‘Ha, ha. Very funny. I never realised you guys had a sense of humour.’ He brushed an imaginary speck of dust from a shoulder. ‘To use it I need assistance, a ship. So you’re paying me, remember – I show you and I get a complete copy of any and all research.’
‘Exactly. You need us. So behave.’ Karef pulled up an orbital holo to replace the mineral survey data. He examined it intently. ‘They probably expect us to move into a higher orbit, go hunting for whatever took out the satellites. Tactical Officer, see what we can do with decelerating, a lower orbit.’
‘Risky, sir. Especially if they’re that much bigger than us. Doctrine says higher is safer.’
‘Precisely. Do it.’ Batu laughed and Karef glared at the flamboyant Freeborn. ‘What?’
‘You guys. You call yourself Freeborn, the exiled House Ma’req, yet you stick to your Algoryn roots like nobody else I know. ’
Sar Karef stood, grabbed the Delhren trader’s shoulders, slammed him up against a bulkhead. Batu struggled fruitlessly, realised too late the strength, speed and size of an Algoryn optimate.
For a moment the Captain was silent, stared down at his guide. ‘You will cease your insubordination. We know how to handle Ghar. We are still warriors and could easily wipe you and your struggling, minor vardos from the face of the universe.’ He shook the trader. ‘You will stop insulting me, my crew and my House. Understand?’ Batu swallowed nervously. ‘I said: do you understand, Batu Delhren?’
‘Yes, sir. Understood.’ Batu pointed to his ornate jacket. ‘Umm… Could you put me down, please? This is very difficult to fabricate.’
* * *
The Sensors Officer called quietly across the bridge. ‘Captain, there’s no sign of any other ship, either on-planet or orbit.’
Captain Karef grunted. ‘The satellites?’
The Tactical Officer responded. ‘Fading signs of disruptor weaponry, Captain.’
‘Told you it was Ghar,’ said Batu Delhren. Karef glared at him and he held up his hands. ‘Sorry.’
‘Your opinion, Tactics?’
‘Probably a small ship, sir. Possibly an assault lander. No sign of any Ghar dirtside, though.’
‘There must be a larger ship somewhere, then. Perhaps contra-orbital or behind the moons. So why don’t they attack? And what do they want?’
‘Perhaps a minor troopship, sir? One that would struggle against a frigate our size?’
‘An obvious assessment, Officer Ceahray, but it does not explain what they are doing here.’
‘Of course, sir.’ Ceahray’s fingers danced over her console. ‘There are a set of ruins below, Captain. One of the three ruins survey stated might be of interest.’
‘So what do Ghar want with it?’
There was no response. Karef glanced at Batu Delhren. The trader shrugged, shook his head. ‘I’d ask ImTel.’ His smile faded when he saw Karef’s expression. ‘A joke. Not funny. No ImTel. Sorry.’
‘We have no choice but to investigate. Put the ship on alert. Take us back to a stable orbit. Recall the survey; send down a transmat lander to those ruins; ready an escort to accompany the survey team. Tactical Officer Ceahray – you are to accompany the ground team.’
There was a chorus of replies, repeated orders. The bridge lights dimmed, alert warnings flashed; Tactical and Weapons Officers began speaking quickly into their mics. At other stations – comms, sensors, navigation, engineering – personnel responded quietly but intently.
The external view changed as the nimble frigate responded efficiently to its Captain’s orders. It may be a Freeborn vessel, but it was of the House Ma’req. Exiled or not, Freeborn or Prosperate, every Algoryn on board had a reputation to maintain.
* * *
His cabin door chimed, opened; Captain Sar Karef looked up in surprise. ‘Officer Ceahray. Why are you reporting in person?’
‘A storm, Captain. A big one. It’s howling through the canyons making a noise like a Mhagris banshee – and it’s deteriorating. Transmat ended up being easier.’
‘So. No Ghar. Status?’
‘We’ve scouted round the site as well we could but there were no signs of Ghar. Infiltrators swept ahead of the main search – nothing. If they were there they were acting untypically, sir, covered up their traces well.’
‘The ruins?’ The Sar Karef beckoned to a chair. ‘Sit, please.’
Ceahray sat. ‘Haven’t had time to examine them, sir. My squads are assisting the survey team in building storm shelters.’ She rubbed the back of her hand where it was raw, the chitin abraded away. ‘The nanobuilders are having to fuse local dust and stone to come up with a fabric strong enough.’
‘A dust storm capable of abrading armour and chitin? An unexpected turn of events.’
‘Yes, sir. Meteorological and Geo teams are onto it.’ Ceahray raised her injured hand. ‘I’m having this treated, taking more medical supplies down with me. The storm should blow over by morning – we can examine the ruins then – but the transmat lander will have to lift until then.’
‘When all trace of imposters will be erased by the storm.’
‘Yes, sir. If there was anybody there, they are excellent tacticians or extraordinarily lucky.’
‘Either is a problem. My thoughts are with you, Officer. Good hunting.’
* * *
The flitters and scouts returned. ‘Report,’ boomed Shaltok. His amplified voice echoed around the cave.
‘Sir, the tunnels are extensive, possibly artificial deeper in.’
‘Shelter? Entrances? Access?’
‘Yes, sir. The twists give protection from the storm but the caves are mostly large enough for battle armour, sir. We could find only two entrances: this one and another over the ridge.’
‘Good. Any other inhabitants?’
‘Possibly a large pack of local creatures but they were diffi—’
The scout was interrupted by a quickly curtailed shout from the sentries, snarls echoing along the tunnel. Into Shaltok’s enhanced vision poured dozens of rodent-like creatures, each as long as a Ghar was tall. Jaws snapped and teeth grated on his suit’s legs, clamped around the scout’s arm. Screams of pain reverberated around the cave as unarmoured troopers and Outcasts had flesh ripped from their limbs.
The creatures were difficult to see, the colouring of their thick, scaly plating and fur matching perfectly the stone, sand and dust. Natural camouflage. Near-perfect. Shaltok did not hesitate. ‘Assault squads!’ he boomed rom his suit’s aural amplificaiton units. He leapt forward, slammed a sandrat against the wall of the cave, snipped off its head with his claw. He pushed aside a pair of scouts embroiled in a melee, aimed his scourer at the rear of the pack. He dialled dispersed fire; plasma roiled and tore apart several of the creatures.
Then the assault troopers joined him. Shaltok waded forward. ‘Give space for the others to fight!’ Massive Ghar claws whined, snapped, bit easily through the animal armour. Shaltok fired again. Rocks tumbled down from the roof. ‘No disruptors!’ he ordered.
The tide was already turning. The sandrats fled, chased by two troopers firing focussed scourer bursts. Shaltok trudged back up the passage, stepped over bodies – sandrats and Outcasts. ‘All squads, report casualties.’
The Outcasts had suffered: half a dozen were dead or seriously injured. Battle-armour and the height of the crawlers had saved the rest. It could be worse.
‘See to the injuries. The dust-storm is too good a cover to waste – we must scout the humans. Double-seal the caves, make dust-airlocks. Keep comms to a minimum.’ The senior squad leader acknowledged.
Shaltok looked again at the sandrats, turned to the Outcast sub-commander. ‘Strip their scales and fur, make cloaks for the Outcasts. There’s no nanosphere on this world so the camouflage will come in useful.’
The Outcast bowed. ‘Certainly, sir. Can we roast them, sir? For protein substitute?’
‘Check for poison first.’
Shaltok led his personal squad back out into the storm.
* * *
The ship’s medic met Officer Ceahray in the transmat chamber. He quickly sprayed the damaged chitin with cleanser, antiseptic and finally a sealant spray. The medic drone accompanying him complained: ‘Particulates remain in wound.’
‘No time,’ growled Ceahray. ‘Got to get back down there.’ She held up a case in front of the drone. ‘Emergency medical supplies, okay? I’ll have it checked dirtside.’ She stepped around the drone.
The tramp of marching feet sounded in the corridor outside. Batu Delhren strode into the chamber, his squad of Vardanari bodyguards at his back. A pair of drones buzzed over their heads. Like the Algoryn, all the humans were dressed in armour; unlike their shipboard hosts, their dress was multihued: purple impact cloaks, sharp contrasts of red and bright blue on their armour.
Ceahray scowled; Batu grinned. ‘Caught you in time,’ he said.
‘You’re not going down,’ said Ceahray. She blocked his way. ‘There’s a storm coming. The lander’s leaving us down there.’
Batu gestured to his troops supplies. ‘We’re prepared. Contract says I can inspect relevant ruins whenever I wish.’
Ceahray shook her head. ‘It’s your skin.’ She slipped on her armoured gloves. ‘Keep wrapped up, softskin.’ She marched to the chamber’s focal point, faced the operator. ‘Eight to go down.’ The Delhren hurriedly joined her.
Bright light bathed them all…
* * *
Hidden by the wind-whipped dust and sand, Shaltok settled his suit into the cleft near the ruins. He overlooked the Freeborn’s transmit lander and the blocky shelters that had been built in the last hour. The walls were rougher than he expected, perhaps suggesting the human’s nano-builders had struggled to bond the dust and stone together.
They may be structurally unsound, temporary at best.
The dust storm was far more severe than his briefing had anticipated. Battle suits protected for a while but already his was issuing warnings of abrasion damage.
Visible only in his combat array, the bay doors opened on the lander. An Algoryn, judging by its angled armour, leant into the wind and staggered across to the buildings. A squad of normals followed, Freeborn by their colourful cloaks and armour. Several were blown off their feet, landed awkwardly, cracking limbs and heads against rocks and spiny plants. They struggled to rise. Probably injured. Serve them right, stupid humans.
To Shaltok’s surprise the lander lifted, suspensors driving dust away from beneath it. They’re being abandoned! The ship was caught by the wind as it rose, rocked, and he glimpsed where the fuselage was already damaged, much of the surface sheen already sand-blasted away. Perhaps they’re worried that it won’t survive the storm. That was a disconcerting thought: it meant the humans believed the storm would worsen.
As if in response, the wind picked up. Dust blanked all vision, obscured a broader range of sensory input. His combat array already had to compensate for the exterior lenses becoming fogged by too many scratches. Now, there were patches in the representation it fed him and it flashed a warning: ‘Sensory loss is exceeding compensation limits. Maintenance required.’
Seconds later one of his bodyguard flashed him a short-range message. ‘Sir, the dust is abrading our suit’s lenses. I suspect there may be more damage.’
Time to go. Shaltok levered himself up, careful to lean into the storm. The troopers rose with him, crunched forward. ‘Back to the caves. Out of the storm.’ He led the way down. ‘We’ll dig our way back in, rebuild the barricade behind us. Run repairs, check how badly the dust has scoured the armour. There are some former technicians amongst the Outcast.’
‘Could you confirm you want us to use Outcasts, sir?’ The distaste in the troopers tone was blatant.
‘Yes, trooper. Let them earn their food and upkeep. I have no intention of wasting their former skills.’
* * *
‘Ma’am, this storm is ruining our scanners. And there’s no nanosphere to appropriate or hijack.’ The technician gestured helplessly at his signal amplifiers and booster systems. ‘These are useless, just amplifying random noise. We’re blind.’
Ceahray absently stripped off her gloves, scratched at the sealant over her injury. ‘So is everyone else, even Ghar.’ She kept one eye on Batu as he talked to the research team. The Freeborn’s own medics were seeing to the pair of bodyguard injured in the rush from the lander; her medic wanted a better look at her chitin-stripped hand and forearm. ‘What’s that.’ She pulled her hand away from the medic, pointed to a sudden blip on the research team’s holo-displays. A complex array of shapes flashed, sounds squealed, then both were gone almost as soon as they appeared.
The tech nodded towards the research team. ‘It’s what’s getting them so excited. Something from within the ruins. A regular signal. Faint. It only started operating when we made some deep scans.’
The medic shouldered the tech aside. ‘Ma’am, my last order from the ship was to dress that wound properly.’
Ceahray sighed, held out her hand. ‘Do it. Whilst we’ve time.’ Lights flickered, dimmed and she looked up, frowned. ‘What’s with the power?’
‘Don’t know yet, Ma’am,’ said the tech from over the medic’s shoulder. ‘The generators only work intermittently. We’re running on stored power but whenever anything becomes contaminated by the dust, it drains.’
‘That’s a problem. The plasma weapons are sealed units, so shouldn’t be affected.’
‘So the mag repeaters might be problematic.’ Ceahray looked round at her strike squad.
‘Weapon hygiene is going to be vital, but even then…’ the tech trailed off.
‘Understand.’ She looked thoughtfully at Batu’s Vardinari, their plasma weapons. They may have the edge on her own troopers on this planet. She started as the medic gasped and jumped back. ‘What?’
‘Your hand – the dust. It’s…’
She raised her hand. It seemed to be much more dirty than it had been on the ship. The few grains of dust had grown into rough scabs, almost like chitin regrowing. ‘What is it?’
The medic decompressed a scanner from the medkit she had brought down, held it over her hand. His expression turned grim. ‘Ma’am, look.’ He waved at the wall and a magnified projection appeared, her hand, the particulates. The projection zoomed in.
Particles moved in the projection and caught Ceahray’s attention. ‘What’s that?’
‘The problem.’ The medic stared at the readouts, avoided her gaze. ‘They’re bionanocytes.’
‘Nanocytes? Why is that a problem? We’ve all got them.’
‘They’re not ours, Ma’am. Nor Concord. They’re bionanocytes, closer to Isorian but…’ He adjusted the controls, shifted the image.
‘It could be they are the remains of this world’s bionanosphere.’
Ceahray pointed her free hand at the projection as several nanocytes clumped together, then moved apart. ‘Are they replicating?’
‘Yes, ma’am. I think their resource base is biological matter and neural impulses.’ Ceahray looked at him blankly; the medic looked away. ‘They’re converting your body mass.’ He gulped. ‘Ma’am, they’re eating you alive.’
* * *
The Outcast grovelled in front of Shaltok. ‘Sir, your scourer is almost unusable. And your team’s equipment is barely any better. Sorry, illustrious Force Leader.’
‘We’ve scavenged it, sir, and used some parts we brought down with us.’
Dare I ask where those parts came from? ‘And?’
‘We’ve built a functional assault claw and merged a bomber with the remains of your scourer.’
‘Have you tested it?’
‘The assault squads have cleared out as much of the cave-system as they can, sir, though they have not entered the regular tunnels. Your assault claw beheaded one of the local cave-rats. The scourer – you said not to fire disruptors in the caves. Sorry, sir.’
Shaltok grunted, pushed himself to his feet. ‘What word from the tectorists?’
One of his guards handed him his combat array. ‘The storm is waning, sir. A message, sir. Encrypted, your eyes only. Came down in an asteroid impact in the storm, impacted where we landed.’ He handed him a badly-scarred cylinder, molten sand and dust adhering to its external surfaces. ‘Tectorists retrieved the message block.’
Shaltok put the block on his array, enabled his encryption codes, quickly scanned the orders. ‘We act as soon as the storm abates. We attack to pressure the humans. We are to draw down reinforcements, sacrifice ourselves if needed to give the impression there are many more of us.’ His guard nodded, said nothing. ‘Then the main force will strike.’ That’s not in the orders, but it’s what I hope. Is it wrong to want to survive? He flagged a Slave-Commander. ‘We will make most effective use of the Outcasts if we have them utilise the available cover. Sub-Commander, I trust your slaves have all the skins they need?’
‘Yes, sir. Other than the disruptor cannons and a few loaders, of course, your most excellent…’
‘Stop snivelling. Any Outcast without camouflage skins goes with the cannon. All the others must use what cover they can, hide, use the skins, lay mines. We must beat the humans at their own game.’
‘Of course, your illustrious genious-ness.’
Shaltok growled and cut the transmission. Damned snivelling Outcasts. Probably only understands half of what I ask. But they may help. ‘Suit up!’ he barked and his amplified voice once more boomed around the caves. ‘We go hunting humans!’
There was a faint, orderly – even obligatory – cheer and the command was swiftly obeyed. Suits hummed into life, whips cracked, disruptor cannon and scutters clattered across the rocky floor as the Ghar fell into formation. They look efficient. But are we merely sacrificial bait? Within the comfortable confines of his suit Shaltok shrugged. Orders must be obeyed.
A safe light flashed on Shaltok’s overlay: the storm had abated. ‘Remove the seals!’ Assault suits made short work of the rocks making the dust-locks. His Ghar raiding party emerged from the caves to an eerie landscape, layers of dust softening outlines, hiding boulders and potholes alike. A light wind lazily shifted tiny drifts of dust but the sky was still hazy. Perhaps another storm threatens, he thought.
Whips cracked and Outcasts fanned out to either side, sticking to cover as they had been told. He was pleased to see the armour-plated skins were as effective a camouflage as he had hoped.
Shaltok waited for the last of his platoon to emerge. We have work to do.
* * *
Ceahray flexed her new hand. The fingers were sluggish, slower than her natural hand and the prosthetic felt …strange, numb with the occasional pins and needles.
“How long will it last?”
The medic sucked his teeth. “Normally I’d say a few months – it’s only a decompressed field prosthetic, after all. But with this biosphere and dust, I have no idea.”
He looked across to the preservation tank in which lay Ceahray’s amputated, grotesquely-deformed forearm and hand. “What do you want done with those, Ma’am? I don’t have the equipment or facilities to analyse anything in safety. I could compress it for storage”.
Ceahray considered her options, drummed her new fingers on the operating table. “Keep an eye on it. If the reactivated bionanospores show any signs of continuing their growth, then incinerate everything. No idea what compression will do to the things and I don’t want to send it up to the ship”.
“Contamination – I understand, Ma’am. It might be safe now, though”.
Across the darkened shelter came a shout from the sensor detail. “Movement. Hostiles”.
Ceahray jammed on her helmet, activated the sensor interlock. “Show me”. A map panned out in front of her centred on the ruins and shelters. Blips moved sluggishly across the landscape, the sensors’ intelligence tagging some as Ghar troopers, others as Outcasts, still others as local animals. She frowned. “What’s going on?”
“We don’t know, Ma’am. Looks like a small group of Ghar have rounded up local creatures and are herding them this way. It’s masking their numbers. Infiltrators say they’ve gone straight over the outlying mines but nothing happened”.
Ceahray glanced at her severed arm, shivered, looked away. “Probably buried or eaten by the dust”. She waved at the weather display.”Storm’s cleared. Do we have an uplink, yet?”
“Trying to patch one through the surviving satellites. Disruptor distortion is making things problematic”.
Ceahray sighed.”AI: Unpack the skimmers and targeters, set both infiltrator teams to harry the Ghar, slow them up until we arrive”. The compressed munitions for the skimmers weapons were stored separately, of course, but it would take moments for the magazines to be slotted into place. “Request reinforcements as soon as you can get through. The Ghar want this place”.
Ceahray turned to Batu Delhren. He was watching her, his face calm. “How are you injured?”
Batu gestured to an unconscious Vardanari, his skull already deforming with the bionanocyte growth. “We can’t replace his head. He’s unconscious. The other…” He pointed to another tank containing a warped arm. “Same state as you. We had a field prosthetic with us and your medic let us use his field surgery”.
“Good. Your plasma weapons may be the only weapons guaranteed to operate. Think you’re up to taking out some Ghar?” She was sure Batu paled.
Batu swallowed.”Well, we…” Over his shoulder Ceahray saw his squad leader nod.
Ceahray took the hint. “Good. Then set yourself up on the roof. Keep the troopers occupied and slow them down”. She gestured to Batu’s squad leader. “Listen to him”. She turned away so as not to give Batu any chance to reply and opened a broadcast channel. “All troopers test your weapons before committing yourselves. The dust is deadly”. She was proud to see even the researchers checking their weapons – not that they were as effective as her Vector AI, but whether Servile or Founder leger, they were still Algoryn to the core.
Acknowledgements came from each squad. She tagged assignments and locations for each team. “Let’s go, people. We only need to hold on ‘til the reinforcements come”. She led the way out of the dustlock in time to see the pair of skimmers speed across the valley floor towards the approaching Ghar.
* * *
“What’s that?” Shaltok’s lenses focused on the small, encrusted and pitted globe in the hand of the tectorist before him.
“A disabled solar charge, sir”.
“An old one? You disabled it?” Shaltok was impressed.
The tectorist sounded embarrassed.”No, sir. It’s new, corroded by the storm. We found others placed at paths into the valley”.
“Probably laid as a minefield. Algoryn Infiltrators. Keep a careful look out for their camo fields”.
“Yes, sir. We also picked up satellite transmissions”.
“Good”. Possibly requesting reinforcements already, which means I can claim success. The thought was relief. “Send the flitters forward”. An idea. “Stop – attach plasma grenades to a few, have them triggered when recognising humans”. The tectorist’s mouth gaped open; Shaltok could only imagine his expression in his face beneath the combat helmet. “Use the Outcast technicians. We must look like a far larger, more capable force”. He clashed his new claws together, relished the sound. “We may be few, but we are Ghar. To success!”
“To success” replied the tectorist. He sounded less than enthusiastic, saluted, ran back towards the Outcast commanders. Outcasts broke off from outlying squads, ran back to the flitters in the pair of cargo scutters Shaltok had been able to bring down. Flitters took to the air, zipped off, wings beating wildly.
Shaltok’s Ghar crept forward again, the cannon and suits sticking as close as they could to cover as they advanced, his Outcasts scurrying from dust-stripped scrub to rocky outcrop under their camouflaged skins. The Outcasts were difficult to pinpoint, his combat array picking them up as living creatures but unable to otherwise classify them. I wonder what they look like to the humans? A herd of sheep, perhaps? The thought appealed. Shaltok’s Sheep…
There was a satisfaction in noting the inbred discipline of his Ghar. He had little fear of human mag weapons, but he was irked by the plasma carbines and had a grudging respect for the Algoryn support teams and assault troopers. They will know their mines failed to go off, so what would I do in their place? Shaltok pulled up a map of the valley. Skimmers to distract and harry, perhaps. Heavier weapons from safety. He dispatched squads of Outcasts – Sheep – to the flanks to lay plasma mines. A whir distracted him: flitters passed overhead, heading for the humans’ shelters. Their bodies were swollen with plasma charges.
All his force had to do was inflict enough damage to ensure the humans requested all the reinforcements they had. Then we can regroup. If there are any of us left. He pushed the fear from his mind. I will survive. Once more he felt guilt about even thinking such a regard for his personal safety: a Ghar’s duty was in such service. Then he corrected himself. No. It’s guilt about not feeling such guilt.
Not for the first time he wondered if the renegade Fartok had a point, after all.
* * *
The rapid stuttering of distant lugger gun fire coincided with the tuneful roar of plasma grenades sending pillars of dust and rock into the air. Shaltok grunted in appreciation. The humans had been deceived, were struggling with identifying his camouflaged Outcasts. A pity there aren’t more of the local animals to drive towards them. His array flagged a team of skimmers making a sudden dash along the sides of the valley. On cue, his bombardiers opened up and the ground rocked when the charges exploded. More Outcasts opened up from their hiding places and a skimmer vanished from his display.
His Ghar were spread out over a wide area, so Shaltok turned up his transmission gain. ‘Assault teams, direct attack on the main compound. Cannon and Outcasts clear their way.’ His flanks would just have to hold. Shaltok led his own team to plug a possible gap in the wedge. Disruptor cannon scuttled forward to either side, loaders and ammunition bearers staggered under their heavy loads.
Humans appeared in his scopes, mag flechettes pinged off his armour. He took aim with his cannibalised scourer and fired, was pleased to feel the recoil. His two bodyguards followed suit. Even at this range he hit, saw a human’s reflex armour vapourised in an instant, the human fall. Other humans ducked back down behind their cover.
Perfect. Flitter-bombs were attracted by the noise, caromed towards the target. He sensed the signal from his Outcast techs and saw the explosions flare, plumes of dust roll out from the human’s hiding place. Beacons flickered out on his array and only two humans ran back towards their shelter.
The wedge of Ghar continued onwards.
Comms were deteriorating as interference from the disruptor explosions grew. It would be just as bad for the humans, but the Ghar were used to fighting with little co-ordination. Nonetheless, the advance had to continue. ‘Press forward,’ he ordered and lumbered into a run, skirted the crater that had been the rocks sheltering the humans. He felt alive, elated on seeing the bodies. Blood sung in his veins, pride swelled in his heart: this was the reason that Ghar were created.
A guilty thought came to mind. Why? He quickly suppressed such a treasonous thought.
There was no time for contemplation. A warning from one of his guards, warning lights blinked on his combat array: his suit’s outer armour layers were melting. He glimpsed a plasma beam and collapsed a leg to dodge sideways. He rolled, jumped forward and the beam passed overhead. He scanned for the source of the shot, such plasma weapons more dangerous than the mag weaponry most of the humans carried.
Plasma beams struck out once more, focused to his right, flicked out. A cry over the comms, cut off as a plasma explosion rocked his suit. Reactor alarms rang, the suit’s interior became overbearingly hot. Plasma overload, he thought. I’ve lost a bodyguard.
Shaltok followed back the line of heated air from the plasma strike. A squad of colourfully cloaked humans were picking off his suited troops from the top of the largest shelter. Even as he watched they launched another co-ordinated burst of plasma that glanced off the rocks in front of him. He ducked. ‘Bombardiers, target priorities. Plasma weapons.’ He hoped the message would be received.
Moments later came the inverse-whoosh of disruptor bombs exploding. Waves of interference frazzled his comm-net and battlefield display. He chanced a peek over the top of the rock. The roof had been obliterated and fragments of cloth were fluttering to the ground. Far to his left, a lone skimmer was in retreat; on the other flank Outcasts and disruptor cannon had been wiped out and the humans were advancing. Assault troopers were embroiled in bitter, hand-to-hand fighting with heavily-clad humans, probably Algoryn assault squads.
He issued an order to his slave masters. ‘Outcast techs to the rear, lay covering plasma minefields, rendezvous in the cave system.’ He switched to maximum gain, broadcast general orders. ‘Central and left units follow me. All other units to the right flank. Total commitment. To Success!’
His orders were acknowledged, replies from squad leaders of the simple word: ‘Success.’ He charged forward beside the assault troopers, scourers blazing on dispersed fire, and the units to either side followed suit. The humans ran, though not without heavy loss. He flicked through squad statuses: much of his force had been destroyed.
A message was flashed on his combat array overriding normal output. He slipped in surprise, almost fell, and felt the backlash from a suspensor net knock his suit sideways. Close. The message was from the Outcast techs he had sent to the rear. ‘Imminent arrival of human Freeborn reinforcements. Second human spaceship in orbit, Concord styling. Transmat landers and drop troopers launched.’ A second message overlaid alarms onto the left flank: another dust-storm was sweeping over the valley wall.
I’ve done it. ‘Success, everyone. Withdraw. Break off. Strategic advance to our current rear, use the storm.’ He began backing his squad and supports away, kept firing as they did so. Above he could see transmit landers screaming through the sky, the pods of drop squads exploding, freeing their contents. His newly enhanced array flagged one ship as Freeborn Algoryn, the other as Concord Combined Command.
More Ghar died heroically, the loss of whom he felt keenly. Then the new dust-storm swept through the valley, enveloping them all in an impenetrable cloud of dust and sand. The visual and sensor gloom covered his retreat and hid the pitiful numbers of remaining Ghar.
Escape. Success. Such a Pyrrhic success did not fill him with elation.
* * *
The sheltering caves were sealed once more. What Ghar he had left were being treated, suits and weapons repaired. The success had come at a heavy price. Shaltok felt exhausted, bore a dressing on his side where the overheated suit had cooked his flesh. He could not yet allow himself to rest, still had work to do: replace a bodyguard with the best trooper he could find, determine who raised the critical alarm, consolidate his surviving Ghar into coherent squads.
Shaltok issued a demand to have the Slavemaster visit, was drifting off to sleep against the wall of the cave when the Slavemaster’s voice jerked him back to wakefulness. ‘Great and honourable, sir. You demanded our presence?’
Shaltok opened his eyes. The Slavemaster and a trio of Outcasts grovelled in front of him. ‘Initiative. Good. Are these the ones who overrode my comms, broadcast a message on battlefield channels?’
The Slavemaster sneered at the Outcasts. ‘Yes, sir. They are. I was going to punish them but brought them to you due to the seriousness of their crime.’ He spat, gestured towards a bizarre contraption they were carrying, a comms mast plugged into a flitter’s sensory array from which dangled human helmets. Shaltok thought he glimpsed human remains within each helmet. ‘They were using abominable human technology!’
They saved my life. ‘Thank you, Slavemaster. You are diligent. Dismissed.’
The Slavemaster twitched his whip, hesitated.
‘I said “Dismissed”, Subcommander. I will deal with them myself.’ Shaltok allowed an edge of annoyance to creep into his tone. The Slavemaster took the hint, scuttled away. Shaltok silently examined the jerry-rigged contraption from all angles, walked around it to see what had been done.
He settled back into his niche in the wall. ‘You are?’
‘Humble Outcasts, you honourableness. We are those who created the bomb-flitters.’
He regarded them quietly, noted they were the technicians he had saved. ‘What’s that?’ he asked, gesturing towards the comms mast.
The Outcasts trembled. ‘Noble sir, this is what we used to pick up the human signals and sense the new arrivals. We interfaced with the humans sensory implants and helmet tech to make a better comms and sensor unit.’
‘Abomination! And you claim it is “better”?’ Such a reply was expected. But why do I not really feel such disgust?
The Outcast techs quailed but stood their ground. ‘Yes, sir. Sorry, sir, we mean, extend its capabilities.’
Another took up the explanation. ‘Sir, great martial warrior-ness, we found it so effective that we thought you needed to know. It links with such abomination but our Ghar technology is in control.’
The third pitched in. ‘We are grateful, noble sir, for your actions today in carrying out such a difficult and dangerous assignment. We were hoping to present the new sensor mast as a gift, attach it to your suit, sir.’ He looked at the other two; they nodded. ‘We remain loyal Ghar, committed to success.’ All three held their heads high, not bowed like the other Outcasts. Shaltok was tempted to reject the gift, but their pride and ingenuity whilst Outcast caught his imagination, overrode the genetically programmed conflicts he felt rising in his gut.
Looking at their uncharacteristic behaviour, Shaltok had a suspicion, on impulse asked a question. ‘What hatchery are you from?’
‘Hatchery 12 sir, like you. And High Commander Karg and the renegade Fartok.’ The speaker spat, added, ‘May he be forever hunted by humans.’ The curse sounded false.
Shaltok regard the comms mast carefully, examined the flitter sensors, noted they were interfaced with a scavenged trooper’s sensor array. ‘You put this together today?’
Shaltok was shocked, covered up the emotion. They are good. I was right to preserve them. ‘Then fit it to my suit.’ They bowed, swarmed over his suit and rapidly affixed the mast with plasma torches and scavenged connectors. They stepped back; he put on his headset, attached the nerve connectors, activated the combat array.
The display was clear, extensive, able to reach high into the atmosphere even within the caverns, hijacked human sensory feeds as well as boosting his normal input. ‘It works well.’ He was astonished. ‘Should I ask how you made it work?’
The technicians looked at one another, shrugged. ‘‘Thank you, noble sir. We think it might have worked because‘—they turned to one another, chattered quickly in low tones. When the speaker finally looked up he seemed unsure of himself. ‘We believe the quantum frequencies in the, ah, conduction fields have altered. We think.’
‘But you’re unsure.’ A nod. ‘So, you mean whatever it is on this world has affected the human equipment’s operation?’ Emphatic nods. ‘Ingenious.’
The technicians looked relieved. ‘Our only concern, sir, is that on planets where the humans have full control over their conduction fields, human sensory data will be blocked. For security reasons.’
‘Theirs or ours?’ A squirming foot showed discomfort. ‘I see. But for now, the range and visual enhancements will function?’
‘Ah, we believe so sir.’ A whispered discussion took place. ‘For a while at least.’
He took off the helmet, considered the mast for a moment. It might make him a target but, on the other hand, the enhanced sensors could not be dismissed. The human heads, though… ‘I will keep it. But get rid of what’s left of that abominable human flesh.’ The trio nodded, set to eagerly with sand and burners, stepped back. What was left of the helmets were clean, connected into an oblate spheroid cage.
‘Good. Tell the Slavemaster you are to have extra rations and given free access to tools and materials. You are in my favour. Dismissed.’ The Outcasts retreated backwards, turned and hurried back to their station, jabbering between themselves in excitement.
Shaltok put on the helmet again, ran through the combat array’s functions. The input may have improved but it forced an unsettling reflection. Effective as it is, this integrates foul human technology with that of the right-thinking Ghar. If he were honest, he reflected, he felt no such disgust, just wonder. So useful, but no other Ghar has done this until now.
Such a thought brought another concern to the fore, one much more disturbing and that penetrated to the root of all that was integral to the Empire. Is there a problem with Hatchery 12?
It was a question to which he did not want to know the answer.
* * *
To Batu, the battle was a chaotic. His combat display was confused, alternately flickering between ‘aboriginal animals’ and ‘Ghar Outcast’ tags, from ‘neutral’ to ‘foe’ identifiers and back. Worse, his plasma pistol was useless at the ranges his bodyguard were engaging the oncoming waves of Ghar. Is there no end to these Ghar?
He backed away from the parapet behind which his bodyguards focused their fire on the oncoming battle troopers. ‘Sergeant, I’m going down to fetch Amalay’s carbine. This pistol is useless.’
A disruptor explosion momentarily scrambled their comms and the sergeant’s reply was a crackle of static. Batu jumped down the suspensor well into the interior of the shelter. In here, the sounds of the battle were muted and he felt safer, less exposed. Another explosion shook the walls and dust flaked from the ceiling. Be brave, he thought.
Amalay was still lying over to the side, his head grotesquely deformed as the planet’s bionanospores multiplied and spread across his skull. His face was pale, eyes closed. Batu picked up the plasma carbine and spares, knelt by the wounded guard, braced himself to look directly into Amalay’s eyes. ‘We’re working on stuff, trooper.’ He patted Amalay’s arm in a manner he hoped was reassuring. ‘We’ve just got to sort these Ghar out, don’t you worry.’
Amalay’s eyes flickered open; Batu jumped. Amalay’s gaze was unfocused, stared right past Batu. He muttered something, croaked. Batu reached for a water bottle, placed it to Amalay’s lips. The guard sipped, coughed, sipped again. ‘Existential threat,’ he said. His eyes remained unfocused.
Batu stared. ‘Just Ghar and disruptor weapons.’
‘N-dimensional spatial and temporal distortions predicted to affect planetary stability at probability approaching one.’
‘Amalay?’ Batu placed a hand on the guard’s shoulder. Another series of explosions and the interior lights flickered.
Amalay’s gaze focused for a moment, settled on Batu’s face. Panic appeared in his eyes. ‘Help me,’ he said. ‘They’re reintegrating. I’m being…’ His gaze unfocused. ‘Psycho-social details required on aggression factors display by hostiles.’ As Batu watched the dust-coloured growth visibly spread another centimetre across the guard’s face.
Batu jerked back his hand, stepped away and raised the carbine. ‘They’re Ghar. You know that. They just fight.’ He was distracted by reports flashed onto his headset.
‘Storm coming.’ It was Ceahray on a general broadcast. ‘D-6 Withdrawal pattern under cover when it hits. Reinforcements won’t arrive in time.’
What’s a D-6 Withdrawal? The Algoryn combat instruction meant nothing to Batu.
‘Reinforcements requested,’ said the thing that had been Amalay. ‘Emulation in progress. Models pulled from biological host and nanosphere interface.’ His eyes closed and dust swirled inside the darkened shelter: there was no breeze.
Batu’s headset was suddenly filled with tracks of arriving reinforcements, both Algoryn and Concord. ‘Where did they come from?’ His shard interface displayed ship tracks from low orbit: an Algoryn assault frigate and a C3 cruiser. He stared at Amalay, flinched as another series of explosions sounded overhead, too close.
Then a whistling roar of a heavy disruptor implosion. Batu winced, then the roof disintegrated, collapsing onto them both.
* * *
Batu came to. There was weight across his legs, beating pain, an insistent voice. ‘Sire, sire?’ He kept his eyes closed, groaned.
‘He’s coming round. Hold on, sire.’ There was a cool wash on his legs and the pain lessened. ‘Analgesic, sire. We’re just going to lift the roof from your legs. Lucky escape there.’
He groaned again, realised such a reaction might be seen as inappropriate. ‘Amalay?’ His voice came out a croak, dust settled into his throat and he coughed.
‘Hold on.’ His head was lifted, water held to his lips. ‘Sip.’ He drank, was lowered back to the ground. ‘The roof crushed Amalay’—an audible shudder—‘and by the looks of him, that was a relief, poor guy.’
‘Who are you?’
‘This is Corporal Baray, sir. I was blown clear. Trooper Vesten survived, but is injured. The rest of the squad, well…’
‘I’m sorry.’ Batu opened his eyes to find a female vardinarii looking down at him. Loyalty. ‘I guess you’re squad leader, now, Sergeant.’
‘Wish I wasn’t sir, sir, but thanks.’
Batu looked around. He was lying in piles of rubble, a slab of roof lying across his thighs. A few Ma’req AI stumbled around. The air was full of a swirling haze of dust, not a full storm. To one side the dust and ruins seemed to shift in and out of focus, sparks of crackling lightning shooting across a vaguely globular area that swarmed like an amoeba.
Baray saw his gaze. ‘That’s what heavy disruptors leave us with. Gross pollution.’ The disgust in her voice was plain to hear.
‘Okay,’ said Batu. ‘Where are the C3? The Algoryn reinforcements?’
‘There aren’t any, sir.’
‘How? None? But I saw… What about?’ He shut up. Even to himself he sounded stupid.
‘Ceahray thinks it was a sensor and visual illusion caused by the dust storm and the local bionanospores. Something we or Ghar did activated the local nanosphere.’
Events slotted into place. ‘Amalay.’
Baray’s eyes flickered to a point in the rubble. ‘Gone, sir.’
‘No, I mean it was Amalay. He was talking strange, worried about the disruptors. His brain was absorbed, must have created the illusions.’
Baray’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. ‘Ceahray will need to know.’
‘Sure. What about the Ma’req reinforcements?’
‘Gone, sir. The shuttles and landers were destroyed by disruptor missiles from a Ghar troopship. It’s a horrible mess up there.’
‘No idea. We’ve no contact with them. We’ve got to evacuate before the Ghar return.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Down into the ruins, underground.’ She glanced up. ‘Hold on, sir.’
Uneven footsteps announced a pair of Ma’req techs working their way across the uneven rubble. They stepped into view. Both had their helmets off, carried digging tools and were dusty and dirty.
‘You’re next,’ said one. He looked down at Batu and the slab of bonded stone across his legs, winced. ‘Aah,’ he said, glanced at his co-worker.
‘Don’t you have a debonder?’ asked Baray.
The Algoryn shook its head. ‘Most equipment is gone, miss. Everything’s manual from here on in.’ He looked at Batu and it seemed that even in the Algoryn’s warbitten features was sympathy. ‘Delhren, sir, we’ve got to lift the roof off you. This may hurt. Sorry, will hurt.’ The trooper nodded to Baray.
‘It’s alright,’ began Batu. He glimpsed an injector stick in Baray’s hand as she held it over his arm. ‘I’m…’ There was another wave of coolness and he slipped back into unconsciousness.
* * *
The Tectorist stood its ground. ‘There was nothing. All we could find was the wreckage and bodies from the Freeborn Algoryn already on the surface.’
Shaltok pulled at his lip. That was not good, suggesting he had not succeeded after all. But he was sure he – and they – had seen the reinforcements. ‘What about in orbit?’
The tectorist brightened. ‘Our instruments struggle to ‘tect so far but there are remnants of a number of major disruptor explosions. How many, we cannot tell. There is some sizeable wreckage, not ours. Some may have come down to the planet as we’ve seen a load of new craters.’ He looked proud of the announcement. ‘It may be our troopship caught the humans off-guard.’
‘As they were sending in their reinforcements. Or thought they were.’ Shaltok ignored the tectorist’s lack of protocol: by their nature, tectorists were not your normal, run-of-the-mill, respectful Ghar. This one idly pulled at his equipment straps, adjusted his helmet that, as ever, he had not bothered to remove.
‘Where are the human survivors?’
‘Underground. Their habitats are destroyed. They trawled through the wreckage then took a few injured into the ruins. The ground, dust and stone is making it difficult to ‘tect them.’
Shaltok wondered how far the tunnels extended underground. Are our shelters connected? ‘Despatch a team to scout the artificial tunnels we found. See if they link up with the ruins. One thing – how is your equipment?’
The tectorist pulled himself up to his full height and bared his teeth in pride. ‘The dust does not touch our tector rods, just as it has not touched any Ghar sensors.’
Is that an accusation? ‘Dismissed.’ The tectorist leader scurried back to his team. Shaltok watched him go. But I saw the reinforcements on my combat array. An idea occurred to him. Perhaps he has a point: there is truth in ‘tectors. I only saw the incoming reinforcements on an upgraded, human-nanosphere integrated combat array.
Shaltok had to pose an uncomfortable question. In tolerating not-Ghar technology, have I fallen into a human trap? He sent for the Outcast techs and the Slavemaster again.
* * *
‘We’ve checked and double-checked, sir. It wasn’t our equipment.’ The three Outcast techs stood bravely before Shaltok, neither quivering nor cowering. In others it might be seen as insolence; in them, merely a confidence in their own abilities. They were bred as techs. In Hatchery 12.
The Slavemaster stood to one side, inappropriate, self-righteous satisfaction visible in every movement and expression. ‘They were incompetent, sir, in the midst of battle. A capitol offense.’ Shaltok glared and the Slavemaster hurriedly looked away.
‘So you’re claiming the illogical, that the human equipment showed the anomalies? Why would it do that?’ The techs huddled together, began whispering amongst themselves. ‘I asked a question!’
The techs turned to face him. ‘It might be that something detected our interface and broadcast erroneous sensor images to confuse y… us.’
It was as I thought. Attempting to use the cursed human technology was our downfall, after all. He pursed his lips. But they managed to build an interface. And they produced the bomb-flitters!
‘They must be punished, sir,’ insisted the Slavemaster. ‘They caused us to fail.’
‘Not quite, Slavemaster! We had success in destroying their landers.’ Shaltok reached for his lugger pistol. ‘You speak out of turn, question my authority.’
The Slavemaster cowered down before him. ‘I beg humble forgiveness, Force Leader. I had no wish to suggest you failed personally….’
‘Shut up. Bring me two sheep, I mean Outcasts with camouflage skins. With their luggers. An execution is required.’
The Slavemaster prostrated himself, crawled out backwards. ‘Marvellous decision, sir. You will execute one yourself, I take it?’
‘Get up! Don’t make a fool of yourself or I’ll shoot you.’ Shaltok fired his pistol and a slug ricocheted off the tunnel wall. The Slavemaster sprang to his feet, sprinted out of sight down the tunnel. Shaltok put away his pistol, regarded the three techs before him. They cowered as was customary for Outcasts but did not appear to be afraid.
‘Why are you not scared?’
The trio glanced at each other, then the speaker cleared his throat. ‘There are some, ah, logical steps…’
They are bright, brave and potentially very useful to me. How can I avoid doing what I must do? Footsteps announced the return of the Slavemaster. Shaltok turned to his suit and from the corner of his eyes saw a nod from the techs. Too smart. ‘Help me into my suit,’ he said, gruffly. The techs stepped forward. ‘Not you. I will not have you sully my suit further.’ The Slavemaster and his escort put down their weapons. ‘And take off those stinking skins. I don’t know what they’ll do to the… contraption these disgusting excuses for Ghar have built for me.’ He sneered at the techs; they cowered back against the wall. Don’t overdo it.
Again, it felt good to be back in his suit, the displays enhancing his vision; its strength and power his once more. ‘Step back,’ he thundered and the would-be executioners and Slavemaster stepped away towards their weapons and skins. ‘Stand clear. I will do it myself.’ They backed away against the opposite wall.
The Slavemasters looked smug. ‘This is what you deserve,’ he sneered.
Shaltok’s scourer barked, the noise echoing around the cave. Three bodies fell.
Shaltok turned off his suit’s amplifiers, cracked open its shell. ‘Pick up the skins and weapons; adopt their serial numbers. Inform the other Outcasts you were shot as regulations demand.’
The trio of Hatchery 12 techs were already moving, anticipating his orders. Their speaker took the maglash and the Slavemaster’s helmet; the others the skins and the luggers.
‘You are his bodyguard.’ They saluted, and returned to the Outcast’s cavern. None showed any surprise at their sudden promotion.
* * *
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.’ Batu’s MyShard 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.+++
‘What?’ There was no response. The interface briefly displayed a single, fading phrase.
+++SHARD INTERFACE OFFLINE+++
‘Verak, stop.’ Baray’s focused on her combat eyepiece. ‘Sir, you’ve dropped off our combat shard.’
‘Yeah, I’m contaminated. The local spores are replacing my house nanocytes. My Delhren interface has shut down.’
‘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.’
* * *
Shots echoed down the tunnels and a gabble of voices erupted from Ceahray’s commlink. She listened briefly, then jogged back through the tunnels to the small group of injured.
Batu Delhren was not looking good: already a crust of dust-like growth had spread over his torso from the wound on his leg. The only relief was that, strapped to the stretcher, he could not raise his head far enough to see so was unaware of what was happening to him. It helped, of course, that he was apparently intellectually unaffected by the local bionanospheres. The rest of her injured troopers and scientists had been placed into a coma to stop them alternately ranting about ‘existential threats’ to ‘Shamasai’ – whatever that meant – and screaming in pain.
Ceahray addressed his stretcher-bearers. ‘Verak, Baray, we’ve just shot down a pair of flitters. Whoever the Ghar commander is, he’s canny and has the whole place crawling with scouts. We’ve mapped out the tunnels in the direction we need but there’s still a hundred yan or so to go: we’ll have Ghar on us before we get there.’
Batu lifted his head. ‘Ceahray? Good to see you, too. You are talking about the escape pods?’
‘Yes, Sir Delhren, I am.’
‘I take it there’s a convenient transmat to the surface?’
‘No, and you can cut your sarcasm, Delhren. We’ll have to blow a hole to the surface. Luckily, these tunnels don’t run too deep.’
‘Almost by design…’ Batu trailed off, winced. ‘My apologies, Ceahray. I’m just struggling against the pain.’
And more besides. Ceahray tried to avoid looking at his encrusted waist. ‘The broadcast signatures are those of stealthed lifeboats, but we don’t know if they’re in one piece.’
‘Should I mention scouts? Or have you thought of that?’ He smiled.
‘Thank you, but of course I have.’ She found it difficult to remain annoyed with him. ‘Every time someone finds a chimney to the surface we have a look around. The Ghar are on us pretty quick – there’s at least one bomber out there making sure we stay pinned underground.’
‘That’s what I said.’ She glanced from Baray to Verak. ‘Suggest you take the last of your combat drugs: you’ll need the stamina.’ She checked the other six injured troopers and their bearers. All of the injured showed growth similar to that covering Batu. I hope we can do something about that. ‘We might have to go travois for protection. Dose the injured up; keep them under. Check your weapons – we’re getting misfires and I’m going to have to pull the rearguard to cover the flank tunnels. You guys will be our new rearguard.’ She jogged back into the darkness ahead.
* * *
Shaltok felt as if his right shoulder was giving him problems. It was not, of course, as it was just the suit’s feedback from his scavenged plasma claw but it did not bode well. The suits of his own bodyguards were limping, now totally reliant on the third leg that was normally just used for a stable firing platform. On other squads the disruptors on the scourer guns were seized and an Outcast squad had given up their disruptor cannon when it’s legs just seized. We’re not in top shape. Luckily, it seemed the Algoryn were not in any better shape: weapon fire was sporadic, at best, inaccurate and they fled whenever they sighted a Ghar unit.
They are in retreat, but where are they heading? Tectorists had not been able to get that far and a pair of flitters ordered to investigate had not found a way to the surface before they stopped functioning. What do they know that I do not? The lack of knowledge made him cautious; the inability to find out anything about that lack, more so. At least we have succeeded in defeating them.
He sent his bodyguards ahead and messaged his new Outcast Slavemaster. ‘Is there any way we can analyse the data we retrieved from the phantom projections?’ Moments later, the disguised techs appeared. Both carried maglashes in addition to their luggers. They hitched a ride on his suit so as not to slow him down and worked on the stumpy sensor mast as he lumbered through the tunnels. Though much of their work was covered by the dark and only dimly lit by the glow from his plasma reactor, they faked cleaning off the dust and corrosion whilst they fiddled with their jerry-rigged contraption.
A new item, ‘Historic Enemy Data’ appeared on his combat array. He stepped through it at high speed, focussing on the area ahead of him. ‘We cannot filter out the phantoms,’ whispered the techs, then they jumped off, ran back to their new assignments.
Now he knew where to look he could see past the phantoms of the fake reinforcements. Half-hidden amongst the debris that showered down from orbit were two signals that descended on a regular flight path, braked at a more sedate pace than might be expected from a military craft. The images were faint, suggesting small shuttles, possibly stealthed in some way. Rescue ships, perhaps?
He flicked back to a current display, checked his survivors. A lone bomb trooper on the surface harassed the enemy whenever they appeared above ground. Despite its suit’s deterioration it had managed to keep pace of the fleeing humans better than his force underground.
Shaltok made a decision, flicked through the squad strengths on his array, reassigned damaged troopers and less-effective Outcasts to a new conglomerate, tagged it the ‘Underground’; the still functional troopers and Outcast units were grouped into ‘Overground’. He transmitted the reorganisation. ‘All Underground to continue harassing pursuit of the humans; Overground to ascend to surface immediately, attack and destroy enemy craft at appended co-ordinates.’ The Overground would blast and dig their way out.
He assessed his own suit: the claw had stopped functioning, his jerry-rigged disruptor had seized but could still fire in scourer mode. I’m with the Underground. He reassigned one of his bodyguard to act as Overground Force Leader in his absence.
A suit leg seized up competely; Shaltok limped forward into the dark.
* * *
The emergency rescue ships – stealth lifeboats – had landed less than ten yan apart in the secluded valley. To Batu, their design spoke volumes of the Ma’req’s commitment to Algoryn principles, all angles and hard curves suggesting military practicality and function, even to the dull stealth coating overlaying their hull. Verak was already aboard the closest, checking out its systems with a surviving skimmer pilot; another scientist was overseeing pre-flight checks on the craft furthest away.
‘We’ve been lucky,’ said Ceahray. ‘The Ghar held back underground and it seems as if the dust hasn’t yet damaged the rescue craft. Stasis pods are all functional, too.’
‘How much independence do they have?’
‘The rescue craft? Minimal. They landed on automatic but there’s no point having an escape ship that can be taken over by an IMTel.’
‘Good point,’ said Batu. ‘That’s probably why they survived, though.’ He twisted his head. ‘Where are the other injured?’
‘Just inside the tunnel system. We’ll get you aboard and into a stasis pod first.’
Batu looked at her intently. There was something that bugged him about the way she refused to look at him. Or, at least, looks only at my face. I wonder…
An explosion and rattle of gunfire interrupted his thoughts. Ghar appeared over the nearest crest. Disruptor bombs erupted around them. Ceahray swore, shouted into her comm. ‘Get the injured out the tunnels, now. Get them aboard the ships. Pilots, get those pre-flights finished now! Light up and get ready to lift.’ She raised her mag repeater – one-handed, noted Batu – and aimed at the Ghar on the slopes. It clicked, dead. She threw it down, cursing. ‘Damn thing’s dead.’
Batu reached for his plasma pistol. ‘Take this. Better than nothing.’
Ceahray accepted it. ‘Sergeant, you’ll have to take him in to the ship.’
‘No, leave me to last. Baray’s carbine still works. We can cover the injured.’
Ceahray hesitated, made a decision. ‘Very well.’ She spoke into her mic. ‘I’ve reserved a pod for you both on the nearest rescue craft. Get in there as soon as you can – it will lift off last with my AI.’ She ran forward, waving nearby troopers to join her and strengthen the guards around the perimeter.
Serviles dragged the few survivors from the tunnels. Batu was horrified at the state they were in: all unconscious, all encrusted with the bionanospore growth. ‘Look at…’ He stopped as realisation dawned. ‘I’m like that, too, aren’t I Baray?’
She briefly glanced at the injured. ‘Not quite as bad, but yes.’
‘Up to your abdomen.’
‘Do I want to see?’
‘Thanks, I think. Okay, drag me over to that rock. You can shelter behind it and help protect the scientists as they drag the injured into the lifeboats.’
* * *
The plan had gone better than Shaltok could have hoped. On the surface, it seemed his ‘Sheep’ had remained in cover and reports suggested their primitive lugger guns were surviving the rigours of the dust remarkably well. Here, in the bewildering maze of tunnels, the humans had retreated before his meagre forces, firing a few shots and running as soon as a tectorist appeared.
Which is lucky, as few of our weapons are fully functional. Two suits had already exploded, bringing down some of the tunnel system, but the troopers had managed to escape. His own suit was now warning of numerous impending failures and even the warning systems on the plasma reactor had failed: he had a feeling that the reactor was giving off an uncomfortable amount of heat. Trouble is, I still need my combat array.
His display was updated with the latest transmissions. The overground force had engaged the humans as they tried to embark into their spacecraft. It seems they were hampered by their efforts to load unconscious survivors. Why not leave them? he puzzled. Saving half a dozen puts the rest at risk. But it was not his task to wonder, merely to carry out his orders to the best of his abilities.
Shaltok frowned as another transmission came in: the surviving bomber was failing, the Outcast Slavemaster had detailed two of his bodyguard to fix it. The bomb trooper was scathing in his criticism, regarding such meddling as futile. Shaltok despatched a quick reply: ‘Let them try – there’s nothing else you can do.’
One of the dismounted troopers gained his attention. ‘Sir, I think you ought to shed the suit.’
‘Understood, sir. However, I have information that might prove vital.’
‘Your battle armour is on fire.’
* * *
+++REBOOTING+++ Batu’s shard interface was trying one last time. He watched whilst Baray reached over the rock, fired pulses from her plasma carbine at the Ghar hiding in the entrance they had blasted to the tunnel system. ‘Grenades, Baray?’
‘Thought of that, sire. All inoperable.’ She continued firing, glanced towards the other lifeboat. ‘The injured are on; they’re closing up.’
Ceahray ran over, tapping at her mic. ‘Comms are gone. The other ship’s about to take off. Get on board.’ Her prosthetic arm was hanging uselessly by her side.
‘You first,’ said Batu. ‘Baray can cover us.’
‘I’ll take you, then.’
‘Only to the foot of the ramp. I’m not going onboard without Baray. In fact, let her take me.’
Ceahray stared at him quizzically, then saluted. ‘I had not expected such bravery.’ She ran towards the nearest craft, shouting at the few AI still able to fire.
‘Jolly good of you, sire.’ Baray continued firing.
‘I think she thought so, too. I’m curious – has this disruptor barrage been a little light?’
‘Yep. The big bomber gave up a few minutes ago. Scourer fire is pretty erratic, too. It’s just the luggers that are firing.’
‘Disruptors and luggers – both fairly primitive.’
‘Escaped from the ‘spores, you mean?’ She laid down a long pattern of suppression fire, grabbed his stretcher. ‘I wish you’d taken Ceahray’s offer.’
‘We’ll be fine. Give me the carbine: I’ll try and cover us.’
Baray dragged him across to the foot of the ramp as Batu tried to lay down some form of protective fire from his stretcher. He had no idea if he was being effective or not. From behind him came the bass rumble of heavy suspensors activating, then the whine of engines kicking in. ‘Is that the other ship?’
‘Yep. It’s taking fire.’ There was the flare of sickly blue light, an ear-splitting explosion and intense heat. ‘No!’ Baray stopped, held the sights of her carbine up to better see what had happened.
‘Baray, tell me.’
‘It looks like the Ghar bomber’s been partially dismantled. Outcasts have its weapon on the legs of a Ghar battle suit. They’ve built a heavy weapons tripod mount.’
‘Nasty little tikes. The ship?’
‘Down. They’re trying to reload. We’d better get moving. We’re the last and Ceahray’s on the ramp.’ She bent over, dragged him across the gravel and dust.
‘No one else is on the planet?’
‘No, sire.’ Baray was panting with effort.
‘Stop.’ He queried the shard interface. ’MyShard: Can you query the local ‘sphere?’
‘Yes. However, permanent alteration may result. Short questions will minimise risk.’
‘See if the name of the planet was Shamasai.’
‘MyShard, shut down. I’ll have your interfaces replaced.’
‘That is no longer possible. The bionanocytes have fused with synaptic system connectors.’
‘Damnit, Baray, stop. Right now!’
‘We’re almost at the ramp. Ceahray’s at the controls.’
‘Just stop!’ Batu threw away the plasma carbine, reached down to touch the ground. The twisting caused screaming lances of pain up his back. ‘MyShard, record this. As the sole human representative of Doma Familia status on this abandoned planet I claim it for the Vardos Delhren. Preliminary local name is Delhren VI, formerly Shamasai.’ He grabbed a handful of pebbles, slipped them into the water bottle. ‘Sample proof collected and placed into distilled water. End Recording.’ He lay back, exhausted. ‘Now we can get onboard, Baray. And let’s hope that bomber doesn’t fire again.’
* * *
Shaltok clambered over the rocks at the entrance to the tunnel system. He watched as the human craft lifted and shot into the air. A single disruptor bomb burst in the air behind it but was too far away to do any damage. Across the valley another of the curious craft was in ruins, parts burning fiercely, dense black smoke pouring into the air.
There was nothing left but Ghar. Success. He allowed relief to flood his muscles and sat down, suddenly tired. ‘Tectorist, find a functioning communications relay. Signal the transport that humans have been driven from the planet. It is ours; we have achieved success.’
‘Sir.’ The tectorist made to move.
‘Wait. Make sure that the landers only drop down rappelling lines and do not land on the surface. The planet is unsuitable for long-term deployment of Ghar technology.’ He looked round at the world he had just claimed. In the distance dust swirled in the gentle wind, perhaps another storm brewing. ‘And demand they evacuate us before another storm comes.’
It was a desolate world, a Ghar world. One he could claim to have conquered himself. That it was useless in the Empire’s fight against the human scourge was a mere technicality.
His promotion to Force Commander was assured.
Soft light; gentle sounds of breakers on a nearby shore; a musty, slightly spicey smell. Batu opened his eyes to see a smile, dark eyes. ‘Baray.’
‘Welcome home, sire.’
‘Where are we?’
‘On board the Vard of Delhren, sir, amongst the Home Fleet. We’re in a hospital recovery room. You’ve been in intensive care for a few weeks.’
‘A few weeks?’
‘There was a lot of work to do – and not all of it was able to be done. How do you feel?’
‘Fine.’ Actually, he felt great, better than he had for months. He raised a hand, turned it over. It looked clean, a little paler than normal, but otherwise felt perfectly normal. He braced himself, raised his head and looked down his body. ‘My legs look good.’ He wriggled a toe. ‘And they work.’
‘Induced coma, sire. A fair bit of enhanced regrowth.’
‘Aah. I take it we were rescued?’
‘Apparently we were in stasis a month or so before a rescue ship came through the gate. The system is rife with Ghar but those Ma’req really know how to build stealth ships.’
‘I bet that caused a stir when it was discovered.’
‘Certainly did. House techs are swarming over it, now.’
‘Ceahray? Her scientists and AI?’
‘Most survived. Ceahray’s gone back already, the others will as soon as they’ve recovered. She gives her regards, says “Well played”. I think she likes you.’
‘Thanks. I think.’
Baray’s smile widened. ‘You’ve caused a stir.’
‘A new planet?’
‘A new, almost useless planet,’ she corrected him. ‘Even the Ghar aren’t landing anything or one for long. No, the real stir is the bionanocytes you brought back that integrated themselves with your shard interface and neural system.’
‘Really?’ He opened his internal link. ‘MyShard, are you there?’
‘Yes, Batu, as always.’
‘Are you back to normal?’
‘I have found a new equilibrium. I believe that you will find the changes disconcerting.’
‘I am more advanced, can use some of your brain’s pattern recognition power. My interfaces can be unreliable as my core module is partially fused with the Shamasai wetware and replacement Delhren interfaces.’
Batu refocused his gaze on Baray. ‘They can’t replace my shard interface.’
‘No. You’re stuck with it as it is. The good news is that it’s really capable, probably Vard-level or even approaching NuHu functionality, but still only has Doma-famlia security access. The House is worried, has built a lot of security algorithms to block the Shamasai ‘cytes doing anything to the Delhren IMTel hierarchies.’ She paused, her smile faded. ‘You have a permanent security detail, part bodyguard. I’m heading it up.’
‘Congratulations. So I’m under surveillance and you’re protecting and guarding against someone with a Senatex-like virus, an erratic shard interface and new legs.’ He drew himself up onto his elbows, swung his legs over the side of the hospital couch. They were skinny, pale. ‘Might as well give them a go.’
Baray hovered by his side, ready to take the weight when he tried to walk. ‘Take it easy, sire. Muscle training takes a bit of practice.’
Batu flapped his hands to shoo her away. ‘No, Sergeant. I’ll do this on my own, my way.’ He pushed himself away from the couch.
Baray gave a wry smile. ‘Just as you always do, sire.’
He took a step; she caught him before he toppled to the floor.
* * * THE END * * *
This is the start of a number of adventures involving Batu and Baray, and a record, of sorts, of Shaltok’s career as an Exile. All can be found here, on the Nexus.