Batu and Baray were kidnapped by an Isorian Senatexis (NuHu councillor) and taken back to Senatex space. During the NuHu’s experiments, the Shamasai Shard was awakened, overcame the NuHu and its nano drone, destroyed the Isorian diplomatic craft on which they were travelling and was left in full, defensive functionality. Fearful of the threat his deadly shard represented to House Delhren, Batu placed himself into voluntary exile. The Vard promoted Batu’s bodyguard, Baray, to Commander and placed her in charge of Batu’s frigate, also making her responsible for guarding the Vardos Delhren from the Shamasai Shard.
This also makes Batu somewhat of an – unwilling – expert on rogue nanosphere. So when a Concord settlement is destroyed in mysterious circumstances, Batu is summoned to a meeting with the Intelligence arm of the Concord Combined Command – a NuHu Mandarin by the name of Jai Galeyous. The location? Mayena, a rural, virtually unpopulated planet on the border of Determinate space.
As ever, Baray advises caution. This is a NuHu, after all…
The NuHu stepped from her personal skimmer and glanced over Baray’s shoulder. “Commander, I trust your master is restraining himself.” Without any visible command, the skimmer retreated to the gleaming Concord frigate a hundred yan away.
Baray bit back a retort, deliberately turned and pointed to a figure on the crest of a hill another hundred yan distant. She waved at the figure and they waved back. Like her, they were dressed in a crisp, white uniform on which lay plates of ornate, blue armour, and their voluminous purple cloak flapped gently in the breeze. Around the lone figure buzzed a cloud of drones, all Concord design, a mix of gun drones, boosters, batters and spotters. Motionless in the middle of the cloud sat a single, organic nightmare of a warped and tentacled menace: the Shamasai Shard’s nano drone.
“That’s Batu,” said Baray. She waved and Batu waved back.
“The Prince himself,” murmured the Mandarin. “And his corrupt spore.” Baray could not tell from the tone of voice whether the NuHu was in awe of seeing Batu in the flesh or merely stating a fact. The NuHu’s own nano drone symbiote hovered to one side: judging by the glassy haze around the NuHu’s body and IMTel stave, the symbiote’s hyperlight field projector was turned up to maximum.
Baray folded her arms, deliberately insolent, and pointed to the stave. “I thought we said unarmed.”
The NuHu glanced lightly at her stave. “It is my connection to the IMTel, to my shard.”
“Oh, rubbish,” growled Baray. “It’s a weapon. Any child knows your connection is in-built.” The NuHu glared at Baray under hooded eyelids, but Baray stared back. “Don’t treat us like imbeciles, Mandarin – you might find that breaking the rules backfires.” She paused and narrowed her eyes. “You heard what happened to the Senatexis Batu encountered?”
The NuHu paled and held up the stave. “I need this for my protection.”
Baray sighed. “Then goodbye.” She turned and started towards the crest on which Batu stood, speaking over her shoulder as she walked. “You really don’t understand,” she called. “The ‘no weapons’ deal is non-negotiable. If the Shamasai Shard feels it or Batu is threatened, then neither Batu nor I know what it might do. It’s not me or Batu you need to be scared of, but you do need to be terrified of the Shamasai Shard.” She continued striding across the gently rolling steppe.
“Where are you going?” called the NuHu, her tone uncertain. The breeze picked at her hair and her golden locks rearranged themselves into a simple bun, one the wind would not affect.
“I told you,” called Baray, still walking. “I don’t want to be at ground zero.”
“But you are his bodyguard!” called the NuHu. “You are his interface to the rest of humanity.” Baray stopped, faced the NuHu and shrugged, though her lips were tight. “All right,” said the NuHu, and her shoulders’ slumped. “I will do what you ask.” Baray waited. The NuHu lowered her stave and waited for a servitor drone to dart forward from the ship and take the stave. Immediately it fled back towards the bulk of the Concord ship.
“Well done,” said Baray. She marched back to the NuHu, stopped a mere semiyan away and planted her fists on her hips. “Let’s start again, shall we? I am Commander Baray Tsulmar, captain of the Delhren exploration frigate Shamasai Dust.” She turned and nodded towards the distant figure of Batu. “That is Prince Batu Delhren, Commodore of the Vardos Delhren and roving ambassador for the Vardos Delhren, nephew of the Vard Ordaichen himself.”
“An exile…” muttered the NuHu.
“Voluntary exile,” corrected Baray. “There has been no exile order. Batu has removed himself from the Delhren home fleet.” Her expression turned grim. “Do you know why, NuHu?”
The NuHu stared haughtily at the immobile Baray, then her pride seemed to collapse. She slumped, looked away and for the first time her tone was subdued. “He cannot control the rogue bionanospore to which he plays host. His nano drone, the Shamasai Shard, is out of control.”
“Not quite,” said Baray. “Batu cannot control the Shard when he or it feels threatened. The drone is merely an manifestation of his corrupted personal shard, an warped Isorian nano-symbiote it absorbed.” She glanced at the Concord nano buddy hovering beside the NuHu and raised her voice. “You would do well to remember that, drone. The Shamasai Shard took moments to overcome a device just like you.” The Concord nano buddy backed behind the NuHu Mandarin and Baray chuckled. “What is your name, Mandarin?”
The NuHu straightened. “I am Mandarin Jai Galeyous of Concord Combined Command Intelligence, Senatex Interface shard.” She glanced at Batu and shivered. “The Prince will not come closer?”
“No,” replied Baray. “I don’t want to get hurt. Anyway, it was you insisted on a safe, face-to-face meet in the first place.” She waved behind her in the vague direction of Batu. “He’s there; I’m here. As you requested. Now, what do you want that couldn’t be said over the comms?”
“You have received a summons,” said Jai.
“From the vard, you mean?” Baray shook her head. “That recent confidential transmission?”
“It seems your encryption is not as robust as you might think.” Jai even looked smug, as if she were recovering confidence. “Our intelligence community is staffed by more superior individuals, after all.”
Baray chuckled, again and feigned puzzlement. “I can’t believe your naiveté, NuHu. Could you not even imagine the vard expected you to intercept the message? And that the IMTel expected the vard to know that you’d done so?” Jai’s expression turned to confusion and Baray laughed. “I think you need to have a heart-to-heart with your IMTel shard.”
Jai took a deep breath and composed herself. “This time it is you who are wrong. Vard Ordaichen is trying to keep this extremely secret.” She frowned as Baray’s smile increased, but hurried on. “The summons is concerned with the Chryseis system.”
Baray feigned ignorance. “Crisis? What crisis?”
“Chryseis, not crisis,” snapped Jai.
“Just my little joke, Mandarin. I’ve never heard of any system called Chryseis. What of it?”
“You are aware of the problems with the Tanchen system science colony?” asked Jai.
“It was a quite a few months ago,” said Baray. “But we were there. An Isorian experiment that went badly wrong, an independent combat nanosphere that went horribly rogue and de-sharded itself from the Senatex. We thought we’d wiped it out.” She hesitated. “Or, at least, the Shamasai Shard wiped it out. Has it returned?”
Jai glanced at Batu again and shifted nervously. “No,” she said, decisively. “The colony is fully re-established and there has been no recurrence of that particular threat. We believe it is partly because of its destruction that you and Prince Batu were kidnapped by the Isorians.”
“And that didn’t go so well for them, either,” said Baray. “They lost a ship. And a NuHu. And we gained a nano-symbiote. Get to the point, Mandarin. What’s this got to do with Chryseis?”
Jai looked away for a moment, taking in the steppes around them. Her eyes defocused for a moment and she looked grave. “Do you know of Tas Geren’do?”
Baray thought for a moment. “The Boromite hero? I’ve heard the legends, but thought he was long dead, gone through five full regens or something?”
“Six. And he is very much alive, though apparently badly injured. We think his Boromites have found another rogue instance.”
“You mean another of the Isorian assault shards?”
“No,” snapped Jai. “Stop being so ignorant!” She glared at Baray, saw the slight smile and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath before opening them again and visibly relaxing. “The Senatex appears to have suspended such experiments,” said Jai. “ This instance is a… a presence that manifests itself in a similar fashion to a rogue shard. It wipes out nanospheres, even IMTel nanospheres.”
Baray whistled softly and straightened. “It’s wiped out one of yours? On Chryseis, I take it?”
“Yes,” said Jai. “There is a theory that the timing of its emergence so close to the Xilos catastrophe is not coincidence.” She shrugged. “The IMTel has little hard evidence to link the two events, however.”
Baray thought for a moment. “So a destructive… thing has appeared, dangerous to your IMTel, and which may or may not be associated with the Xilos collapse. You’re not being very helpful, Mandarin Jai.” Baray frowned. “How come Geren’do found it and survived?”
“It destroyed the primary planet’s nanosphere, then infected the planet on which he was working. Chryseis III seems devoid of life.” The NuHu paused for a moment. “Correction, devoid of civilised life.” She shuddered. “We lost many probes and drones gathering even this amount of data.”
“And from what you’ve told me, that’s not much. So the summons is about the vard ordering us to investigate this Chryseis system for you.” Baray studied the Mandarin in silence, looking for tells, for the faint signs of dissembling.
There were none. Indeed, she had never seen a NuHu look so concerned, so unsure of themself. “You need our scrubbers,” she continued, “Our nanosphere countermeasures. You’re actually scared.”
The NuHu hesitated, then nodded. “Your warnings about the uncontrollability of the Shamasai Shaard have not helped.” She regarded Baray nervously for a moment, then glanced across to Batu’s silhouette on the horizon. “But it is possible the violence of the Shamasai Shard could protect you – there are few who have such an… intimate knowledge of rogue shards as Batu Delhren.”
Baray nodded. “And I take it we won’t be alone?” asked Baray.
“The Combined Command is assembling a task force under Kamrana Josen. He may not know of your own mission.”
The Marshal Josen?” Baray whistled softly. “So this is a private briefing: you are taking it seriously.” She turned round to regard Batu on the crest. “He’s not going to like it,” she murmured, then turned to face Jai Galeyous once more. “Send us everything you have before you leave. Narrow band, but in the clear. We’ll get most of it from the vard, anyway, but it will help to cross-check.” She nodded. “Be seeing you, Mandarin Jai Galeyous.”
Jai took one last look at the distant Batu and shuddered. “I hope not, Commander Tsulmar. Once is enough.” She turned and strode gracefully back to her ship.
Baray waited until the gleaming Concord vessel rose into the air, then bent and scraped back the dirt at her feet. She picked up a spybutton and patted the ground cover back down. “Did you get that, sire?” she said into the tiny disc.
A tinny voice spoke from the device. Even with the poor quality it sounded tired and resigned. “No need to shout so close to the microphone. And yes, thank you. It seems like we’ll have to return to the Home Fleet after all.” There was a deep sigh. “I don’t really want to go back, Baray. I can’t really meet with any of those I once called friends.”
“Look on the bright side, sire. You’ll be able to holo them with minimal delay.” Baray grinned. “And you’ll be able to replenish your cellar. We can run a shuttle down to your vineyards.”
“I should have thought of that,” said Batu, his tone much more optimistic. “Besides, I probably need to catch up with Dirag. Maybe a quick trip back is worth the risk.”
“I agree, sire,” said Baray. “We have been summoned, after all.”