Written by Tim Bancroft and originally published as a serial, City of Exile takes place following the chaos that engulfed the Chryseis system and prior to the events in The Dronescourge Returns.
Batu Delhren and his band of exiled Freeborn have been captured by Ghar aboard a huge, ancient starliner the Ghar are reusing. Unfortunately, the Ghar captain, Shaltok, has just been mutinied against an order from Karg declaring him Outcast and spies aboard Shaltok’s ship – his former Slavemaster-Techs – have just disabled the giant starliner so it can be captured by a cruiser under the command of Rebel Commander Foornyn. Perhaps Batu’s Freeborn can help…
The previous episode can be found here.
Batu glared at his nano drone in an attempt to avoid looking at the carnage around him. “Did you have to cause such a horrific mess?”
“Surprise necessitated extreme violence.”
“Leave it, Batu” said Baray. She picked up a lugger gun and wiped it down, searched the blood-soaked bodies for more ammunition. “See if you can release the cell doors. The crew may be holed up there.”
Batu grimaced as he wiped down the gore-spattered consoles with the edge of his cloak. “I can’t make head nor tail of this.” He spoke to the nano drone. “Make yourself useful. Release the cell doors.” The drone hovered over the desk, formed tendrils that bored into the control surfaces and, moments later, there came the sound of bolts sliding back; hatches along all the radial corridors opened. Vardanari, Tamalair and crew peered out, at first with caution and then with smiles when they caught sight of Batu and Baray. A cheer resonated down the corridors.
“Quiet!” shouted Baray. “Form up into squads and crew teams. Seniors on me. Squad leaders, grab what weapons you can.”
Centurion Temuchin approached the pair. “What caused the power outage?”
“The ship’s under attack.” Batu glanced at the nano drone. “How’s the attack going, by the way?”
“Inhabited vessel sabotaged by renegade war-golems—”
“Ghar,” explained Batu.
“—boarding, assaulting centre of control. Defending golems retreating.”
“The ship’s being attacked by Ghar Rebels,” explained Batu. “And that was a coherent speech. Can you explain why the defenders are losing, drone?”
“Saboteurs commandeer surveillance oversight, primary power distribution, weapons targeting—”
“We get the picture,” said Baray. “Someone’s handed control of key circuits to the Rebels.” She smiled to herself. “Have the Shamasai Shard sort something out, Batu.” Batu nodded. Baray picked out a senior. “Centurion, have Decurion ara-Tsulmar take some vardanarii and escort the engineering and the bridge crew to the Dust – it should be unguarded.” She sought out the Chief Engineer. “Before you go, Edoos, will the local transmats work?”
Edoos shook his head and shivered. “I’d advise against it. Strongly. And given there’s no nanosphere, hostile nanophages, and all this unknown material around us”—he gestured absently at the walls and floor—”we couldn’t guarantee anything even with our own unless we had a homer drone or two to latch on to from the ship.”
Baray nodded. “What I thought. Temuchin? Have the vardanarii return from the ship with our weapons and a trio of homer drones in addition to our normal swarm.” Temuchin nodded and began issuing orders to the troops around him.
Baray faced Batu. “I’m serious. What can the drone do? If Shaltok’s trapped, perhaps we have an edge.”
“You want to deal with a Ghar”? Baray nodded, then Batu smiled. “I like it. Helping Ghar take out Ghar.” Batu glared at his nano drone. “You heard. Can you do anything to the feed?”
“Surveillance and communication feed control previously demonstrated. Redistributing interface with invading golems.” The drone extended a tendril deeper into the control console whilst other pseudopods contracted around the dead Ghar.
Batu shivered. It’s feeding off the dead. “Then cut the feed to the invading golems!”
There was a pause. “Affirmative. Restriction is continual conflict with residual active nanophage. Constant energy required to maintain integrity.” The drone shifted, smothered another Ghar body with tendrils that extruded cilia. A few moments later the pseudopods withdrew to reveal a small pile of what resembled acid-etched bones. “Estimate energy requirements eventually to exceed readily convertible mass.”
“Have the drone stream the surveillance feeds to all the senior officer’s implants,” said Baray. And contact Shaltok.” She clapped her hands and opened a general channel. “On task, everyone. Listen up: ‘Activation Regal’. I repeat: ‘Activation Regal’.” Batu felt the drugs surge through his own body, saw the figures around him straighten, their faces fill with colour and determination as the delayed delivery combat drugs released their payload. “Ship crew, go.” Ara-Tsulmar saluted. The Chief Engineer and the crew followed him to the lifts from which they had arrived in the detention area.
“Drone, connect us to Shaltok. Pipe it over the speakers here, if you can.”
The response was immediate. “Who is this?” barked a high-pitched voice. “Clear the combat channels.”
“Captain Shaltok, this is Commodore Batu Delhren. I have released my crew.”
Shaltok gave a shriek, then was silent a moment. “Yet you contact me.”
“I can offer help, Captain.”
“What can a human do to help?” The word ‘human’ dripped with contempt.
He still doesn’t like us. Batu continued, regardless. “Because we have mutual interests, Captain Shaltok. I need to clear Foornyn away to release my frigate; you need to handle both Dramak and Foornyn.”
“That is obvious. Stop wasting my time.”
“I can reroute surveillance and communications back to your control centre.” Batu hurried on. “I can also return control of the ship to you.”
Shaltok paused. When he spoke again his tone had changed. “Proof.”
Batu spoke to the drone. “Reroute surveillance back to the control centre.”
The drone squatted over the desk, extruded more pseudopods and began absorbing the material whilst tendrils delved deeper into the circuitry. “Energy requirements escalating,” it announced.
Shaltok spoke, his tone cautious. “I confirm surveillance is back. Is it denied to Foornyn? How can you return control to me?”
“MyShard: ask the drone—”
“Batu, the drone confirms that it had to completely reroute the feed to return it to Shaltok: Foornyn is blind.”
“Shaltok, Foornyn no longer has his feed. And we can return it the same way. We must be allies.”
There was silence. “An alliance with humans is not in our nature.”
“And I struggle to deal with a Ghar. Nevertheless, we each have a pressing need for each other’s strengths. Look on it as battlefield expedience: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
“You are no friend.”
“But I am an enemy of your enemy.” There was a longer silence. “We can deal with Dramak for you.”
The silence continued. When he spoke again, Shaltok’s tone was cautious. “What about weapons control, human?”
“MyShard? Can weapons control be handed back, quick?”
The reply was that of the Shamasai Shard. “Weapons control subsets communications.”
“Shaltok? Weapons control should already be back with you.”
“I will test your claims. And control of the rest of the ship?”
“I think I’ll save that until we’ve repelled the boarders and can leave.”
“Do not double-cross me, human.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. I’ve given you what you need right now, and my troops will happily fight any of Foornyn’s troops they come across.” Not that they’ll come across many. The officers will keep them out of the way. “Commander Baray and I will lead a force against Dramak as soon as we have our weapons.”
“No treachery, human.” There was a longer pause. Batu imagined fingers drumming on the arms of a command chair. Then the high-pitched voice spoke again, almost spitting out the order. “Very well, arm yourselves. Shaltok out.”