Episode 10: The Big Bang
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A few words about this series….
[_ *** Nanotroopers _] is a series of 15,000- 20,000 word episodes detailing the adventures of Johnny Winger and his experiences as a nanotrooper with the United Nations Quantum Corps.
*** Each episode will be about 40-50 pages, approximately 20,000 words in length.
*** A new episode will be available and uploaded every 3 weeks.
*** There will be 22 episodes. The story will be completely serialized in about 14 months.
*** Each episode is a stand-alone story but will advance the greater theme and plot of the story arc.
*** The main plotline: U.N. Quantum Corps must defeat the criminal cartel Red Hammer’s efforts to steal or disable their new nanorobotic ANAD systems.
*** Uploads will be made to on approximately the schedule below:
Episode # Title Approximate Upload Date
1 ‘Atomgrabbers’ 1-14-16
2 ‘Nog School’ 2-8-16
3 ‘Deeno and Mighty Mite’ 2-29-16
4 ‘ANAD’ 3-21-16
5 ‘Table Top Mountain’ 4-11-16
6 ‘I, Lieutenant John Winger…’ 5-2-16
7 ‘Hong Chui’ 5-23-16
8 ‘Doc Frost’ 6-13-16
9 ‘Demonios of Via Verde’ 7-5-16
10 ‘The Big Bang’ 7-25-16
11 ‘Engebbe’ 8-15-16
12 ‘The Symbiosis Project’ 9-5-16
13 ‘Small is All!’ 9-26-16
14 ‘’The HNRIV Factor’ 10-17-16
15 ‘A Black Hole’ 11-7-16
16 ‘ANAD on Ice’ 11-29-16
17 ‘Lions Rock’ 12-19-16
18 ‘Geoplanes’ 1-9-17
19 ‘Mount Kipwezi’ 1-30-17
20 ‘Doc II’ 2-20-17
21 ‘Paryang Monastery’ 3-13-17
22 ‘Epilogue’ 4-3-17
U.N. Quantum Corps Western Command
Table Top Mountain, Idaho, USA
January 13, 2049
For Johnny Winger, doing a full ANAD insert on Doc Frost was like doing a root canal on yourself. They had brought Frost and Mary Duncan all the way back to Table Top, hyperjetted straight from Singapore. Winger had decided not to do an insert until he could get the Doc into better facilities. Going after a Red Hammer halo inside someone you loved and respected wasn’t for the faint of heart.
The two doctors were placed on separate gurneys in Containment Level Four, strapped down and heavily sedated.
It was going to be ticklish, mainly because Johnny Winger had no idea what he might encounter.
Sergeant Gibbs was inside Containment with Winger, working as an assistant Interface Controller for ANAD ops. Winger sprang ANAD from his embedded shoulder capsule and commanded the master bot to assume a special configuration he had worked out on the hyperjet ride from Singapore: Config 55.
He hoped it worked.
It was a whole new way of fighting a war and Johnny Winger knew that half the time, they were inventing tactics as they went along.
“Okay, Skipper,” Dana Tallant patted down the incision she had just made in the side of Frost’s skull. “Subject’s prepped and ready.”
Winger took the injector tube, attached by hose to the containment chamber. “ANAD ready to fly?”
The IC1 came back, “Ready in all respects, Lieutenant.”
“Tracking now. We’ll be able to follow the master just fine. You can replicate once we’re through the blood-brain barrier. Just watch for capillary flow. When his capillaries narrow, your speed will increase. And viscosity will stay up.”
“Like slogging through molasses. ANAD’s inerted and stable…ready for insertion.”
The insertion went smoothly enough. A slug of plasma forced the replicant master into Doc Frost’s capillary network at high pressure. Winger got an acoustic pulse seconds later and selected Fly-by-Stick to navigate the system. A few minutes’ run on its propulsors brought the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler to a dense fibrous mat of capillary tissues. The image soon appeared on Winger’s IC panel.
“Ready for transit,” he told Gibbs. “Cytometric probing now. I can force these cell membranes open any time.”
Gibbs used ANAD’s acoustic coupler to sound the tissue dam ahead, probing for weak spots. “There, Lieutenant, right to starboard of those reticular lumps…that’s a lipid duct, I’d bet a hundred bucks. Try there.”
Winger steered ANAD into the vascular cleft of the membrane. He twisted his right hand controller, pulsing a carbene grabber to twist the cleft molecules just so, then released the membrane lipids and slingshot himself forward. Seconds later, ANAD was floating in a plasma bath, dark, viny shapes barely visible off in the distance. The plasma was a heavy viscous fluid. Winger tweaked up the propulsor to a higher power setting and took a navigation hack off the vascular grid.
“Ventral tegmentum, Lieutenant. Just past the mesoencephalic nucleus. Looks like we’re in.”
Winger navigated ANAD through the interstices of Doc Frost’s brain for the better part of an hour. He had programmed the assembler to send an alarm when it encountered any kind of unnatural activity…especially assembler maneuvering or replication. If there were any halo bots left in his brain, he wanted to be ready.
At 1724 hours, ANAD sent the alarm.
The imager screen was at first murky, crowded with the spikes and cubes of dissolved molecules. Lumpy, multi-lobed sodium molecules darted across their view like shadowy ping-pong balls. Winger studied readouts from ANAD’s sounder…something was there, hidden in the data traces on the scope. He fiddled with the gain on the imager, tweaking it, subtracting foreground clutter.
Something approximately sixty nanometers in one dimension, narrow with a globe structure at one end…and scores of probes, effectors, cilia, whatever. Incredible mobility…triple propulsors beat an idling rhythm as ANAD closed in….
Gibbs let out a whoop. “Will you look at that?”
Tallant came closer, squinted at the vague, fuzzy outlines on the screen. “Red Hammer halo, up close and personal. A whole colony of them. A welcoming committee, it would appear. Come to see what we’re about.”
Winger’s fingers flew over the interface controls. “We’re about to check this joker out…” Quickly, he signaled ANAD to prime its defensive mechanisms, and slowed its approach to a crawl.
Reconnoiter first. He remembered a line from Sun Tzu, the greatest nanotrooper of all…
He who is skilled hides in the most secret recesses of the earth.
Under Winger’s guidance, ANAD maneuvered among the jostling molecules of chlorine and sodium and potassium. A huge kinked snakelike cluster of hematite molecules drifted by. Winger had an idea. He signaled ANAD to grab a few hematites as a shield. Seizing oxygen atoms with its effectors, ANAD clutched several molecules.
Gradually, the shape and size of the halo bots became clearer. Bristling with effectors and arms, they looked like a miniature Apollo Lunar Modules. The head was a multi-lobed cluster of spheres and hexagons; inside the churning electron cloud dimmed out any detail.
Below the head was a cylindrical sheath, covered with pyramidal facets and undulating beads of proteins – the assembler’s probes and effectors. Winger was frankly awed at the sight.
“Hell of a lot of gear for this bastard,” he said.
“So many different kinds of effectors,” Tallant marveled.
Indeed, the horde of halo assemblers were rigged out like battleships, with devices for every conceivable mechanical or chemical action. Winger examined the nearest bot more closely. A flatplane baseplate capped one end of its sheathed body. The tail structure was dense thicket of fibers, each tipped with penetrator clusters. The penetrators enabled the bot to attach to and enter any structure.
Winger brought ANAD to a complete stop. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The data was all wrong…
“Dana…what do you make of this?”
Tallant was amazed at the images ANAD was returning. “I’ve never seen so many effectors. Amazing. That probe for instance—” she fingered a dark, indistinct structure to one side of the nearest device—“looks just like a saw. And that—I believe I recognize…I’ll be damned—”
Winger had seen it too. “Sorting rotor?”
“That’s what it looks like.” At Tallant’s request, Winger fiddled with the resolution, managed to tweak the view even sharper. Dim outlines became clearer. “A segment of a sorting rotor. Cam-driven with carbene grabbers and—” she squinted down at the imager, adjusted her glasses “—looks like—yep, diamondoid follower rods. “Probably process upwards of several hundred thousand molecules per cycle.” Tallant shook her head with grudging respect. “Neat workmanship. Q2 always told us these halos were ANAD clones. But I’d bet my aunt Emma’s life savings that bugger’s not part of the original template. This is new.”
“Just what exactly are you saying, Dana?” Winger asked.
Then Sergeant Gibbs sucked in his breath, watching the acoustic return on the imager.
“Simply incredible.” Gibby pointed out the dendritic branches of nearby nerve cell tissue. “Artificial nerve stimulation, folks. I’m sure of it. These halo bots have been inserted into Doc’s brain, then reconfigured themselves as sorting rotors. Now they’re sitting alongside his synaptic clefts like a circus performer, pumping dopamine back and forth on command. Or more likely, according to a program stored in their processor. What you’re looking at is in vivo stimulation of artificial nerve impulses according to programmed nanobotic control. Simply incredible.”
Dana Tallant paled at the implications. “Is that what’s infected the Doc?”
“And Dr. Duncan, too,” Winger added.
Gibbs shrugged, tugged at some loose hairs on his red beard. “Fantastic engineering, if it’s what I think it is. Acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin…the possibilities are endless. Synthesize enough of the right molecules and inject them across the synaptic gap here. You’re basically in control of a nerve impulse.”
Unnoticed by anyone, the swarm of halo mechs had begun to re-orient themselves tail first toward ANAD. Their tail fiber penetrators quickly reconfigured, locking into attack position.
He is who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven.
Out of the corner of his eye, Winger saw the maneuver on the imager.
“Look out!” Gibbs saw it too. “He’s changing position…all of ‘em, coming at us—”
“I’m ready,” Winger muttered. His fingers flew across the keyboard. Instantly, ANAD brought all its defensive mechanisms to attack position. It cast off the hematite shield and closed for battle.
Tallant had been expecting this. “We triggered something…here they come.”
“We’re intruders,” Winger said. “I’ll need to get closer, grab one of those jokers for analysis—”
As ANAD sped forward, the Red Hammer halo bots grew and retracted appendages and surface structure with blazing speeds. The outer membrane of the mechs seethed with motion, as atoms and clusters of atoms twisted, bonded, twisted again, rebonded, broke apart, recombined, straightened, undulated and whirled.
The gap between them vanished and ANAD grappled with the nearest mech. Other mechs swarmed to the battlefield.
Winger was stunned by the speed of the assault. A battalion of enemy bots soon engulfed ANAD. No time to replicate now…got to get free…signal daughters….Winger fired off a burst of instructions to gather all the daughters ANAD had replicated going in. It might be too late.
The imager screen shook with the collision, then careened sideways.
Several minutes passed. The imager view vibrated with the ferocity of the attack. Chains of oxygen molecules, pressed into service as makeshift weapons, whipped across the screen. The water was soon choked with cellular debris. The halo bots replicated several times, adding new molecule strings. They stripped off electrons to make an armor shield of highly reactive chlorine atoms. In seconds, ANAD was immobilized by the chlorine sheath.
“I can’t hold structure!” Winger yelled. “I’m reconfiguring…shutting down peripheral systems!”
Sergeant Gibbs had taken a place beside Winger at the interface controls. “Got to disengage, Boss…emergency truncation. Everything not critical. We’ve got to get ANAD out of there before we lose him!”
“I’m trying…but the damn mech’s penetrated the signal path…if he cuts the link….”
“I know, I know…just keep trying, Jesus…internal bonds on main body structure weakening…I’ve lost all grappling capability….”
As they watched, the halo bots systematically dismantled ANAD, molecule by molecule. ANAD seemed woefully unprepared for the assault. With ruthless efficiency, the mechs whirred and chopped every device ANAD could generate. ANAD tried to counter, replicating probes, inserters, jaws, cilia, pumps, blowers—but it was no use.
The halo mutated too fast. Somehow, the mech seemed to anticipate ANAD’s every move.
Winger was awed by the bots’ combat capabilities. “Incredible,” he whispered. “The perfect warrior. Must have a hell of a processor.”
Dana Tallant agreed. “Probably quantum, just like ANAD.”
They were all stunned at the ferocity of the reaction they had triggered.
Winger’s fingers flew across the keyboard. He had no choice but to disengage to save the ANAD master. Extract before ANAD was chopped to pieces. But he just couldn’t leave Doc Frost in the grubby little effectors of these bastards.
“We’re losing signal strength, Lieutenant!” Gibbs yelled.
“I see it! Damn bots penetrated the matrix. Main processing functions in danger…I’m counterprogramming….” Winger pecked madly at the keyboard.
Dana Tallant shook a fist at the imager screen, now a dark, swirling mass of shapes and forms. “Come on, damn it! Come on….”
But ANAD couldn’t hold. Every move was countered by the halo. Winger, Gibbs, and the others watched in amazement and horror, as one by one, ANAD’s capabilities—fine motor control, attitude and orientation, propulsors, sensors, molecule analysis, replication—were rendered inert, or completely excised.
ANAD was helpless.
“Got to get the hell out of Dodge,” Winger muttered. While I still can.
Sergeant Gibbs was checking status. “It’s bad, Lieutenant. We’ve got no electron lens. No enzymatic knife. Hardly any effector control. ANAD’s crippled.”
Johnny Winger gritted his teeth. “Not just yet…” His fingers flew over the keyboard. “We’ve gotta get some data…got to probe that bugger, get some structure on him…if I can just get stabilized—”
“Lieutenant—there’s nothing left to stabilize—”
Doc Frost’s prostrate body shuddered and convulsed. Dana Tallant held her breath…behind the frothing outlines of the assault, the imager showed swarms of mechs beating back through his cranial plasma, ready to resume their mindless pumping of dopamine. A low moan escaped his lips.
Despite all odds, Winger wasn’t about to give up. Grimly determined, he piloted what was left of the ANAD horde back for another wrestling match with the enemy.
“Whatever this thing is,” he swore to himself, “it reacts like ANAD itself.” He worked the config controller, while Gibby managed status, crossing his fingers that the ANAD master would hold together.
Extend a grappler there. Poke a carbene there. Do the hokey-pokey and you turn yourself around—
While Tallant and another technician helped hold Frost still, Winger disengaged ANAD, scrunching up an atom group as he tacked against the churning plasma, closing steadily on the nearest mech. Inside a few dozen nanometers, he siphoned off the mech’s outer charge and let the zap break him away.
Reams of bond energy data and config details burst onto the imager. Gibby let out a yelp. The enemy mechs had given up vitals on structure and ANAD snatched the info right out from under him, storing it, pulsing it back to the IC’s.
“Now, I gotcha, you little bastard—”
Winger knew he had to get ANAD away while he still could. Halo bots swarmed forward at the same time Frost convulsed again.
Dana Tallant couldn’t hold him down. “Neural seizure, Johnny…halo’s eating him alive…”
Undetected by ANAD, the halo master bot had already scanned and analyzed ANAD itself. As the battle raged on across Frost’s ventral tegmentum, spilling out into other regions of his brain, the halo master quietly changed configuration, grabbing atoms to remake itself into a nearly perfect facsimile of the ANAD master. When the time came for ANAD extraction, the disguised halo master would hitch a ride and exit Doc Frost’s skull as if it were ANAD replicant itself. If all worked according to its programming, no one would be any wiser.
“Executing quantum collapse…NOW!” Come on baby, get small for me…get real small….
Deep inside Frost’s brain, the ANAD master collapsed what was left of its own structure in an explosive puff of atom fragments. Base, effectors, probes and grapplers, even the core shell surrounding its nanoprocessor, went hurtling off into the plasma in a big bang of spinning atom parts.
Instantly, ANAD disappeared. To all intents and purposes, ANAD had effectively vanished in a cloud of blurry quantum waves. All except for a small cluster of molecules that clung precariously to the last remnants of ANAD’s core.
Less than four minutes later, making its way on quantum wave propulsors, ANAD was finally extracted and re-inserted into the mobile TinyTown, its nanoprocessor still dogging electron states to bring the nearly invisible device home.
One minute later, ANAD’s unrecognized hitchhiker emerged. But no one noticed.
Half an hour later, Winger watched as Gibby pulled what was left of the ANAD master into the re-gen chamber. Regenerating ANAD from scratch would be ticklish and it would take several days. He left the Level Four Lab and went outside with Dana Tallant. He needed some fresh air. He needed to think.
The late afternoon sun was pale, little more than a daub of butter behind cold and wispy winter clouds. Snow covered most of the Buffalo Range to the north of the mesa. Through her wristpad, Dana Tallant ordered something to drink from the commissary, for both of them. The servbot trundled up five minutes later, bearing drinks and snacks.
“I can’t leave the Doc like that…I’m sure we haven’t gotten rid of that halo completely.” Winger sipped at his drink, wincing at the brassy taste. “Jeez, Dana…what the hell is this hogpiss?”
“Just your normal Quantum Corps coffee. Got any ideas for Doc Frost…new configs, new tactics?”
“I’ll have to study the data I got from the engagement. Those Red Hammer bots look like souped-up ANAD clones to me. We’ve just got to find a way to get those damned bugs out of the Doc. Dr. Duncan too.”
They watched the sunset in silence for a few minutes. Presently, Winger had an idea.
“Dana, once ANAD’s back whole and hearty, I need to have chat with him. He might have some ideas.”
“Sure, nothing wrong with trying to have a meaningful conversation with a robot the size of a molecule.”
“No, seriously, he sometimes has insights I might overlook. You don’t give these bots the credit they deserve.”
Now it was Tallant’s turn to scrunch up her face, and it wasn’t the coffee. “Has it ever occurred to you we might be projecting our own fantasies and wishes and desires on these bugs? I mean, they’re bots, for crying out loud. They do what they’re programmed to do.”
“Maybe so, but Doc Frost would tell you the programming’s so complex, there are unexpected interactions and variations in output. You know about the Engebbe solution?”
Tallant rolled her eyes. “Wings, we all know about that. Doc had to get some programming problems solved and swiped a few ideas from the genome of an ancient virus. An engineering fairy tale, if you ask me.”
“It’s no fairy tale. In fact, Doc says that’s why ANAD sometimes surprises him. Nobody knew exactly what that genome would do…we’re talking trillions of possibilities in the way it could interact with other parts of his processor. But it did solve the problems.”
“Yeah, and probably introduced more problems.”
Winger polished off his coffee and spat the dregs into some nearby bushes. “I’m going back inside. Maybe Gibby needs some help.”
Two days later, a fully grown ANAD master bot ticked away on its scaffolding inside the regen chamber.
Gibby and Winger both stared with dead fatigued eyes, bleary from lack of sleep, at the sight.
“What have we forgotten, Lieutenant?”
Winger rubbed his own eyes. They felt like someone had pulled a crosscut saw over them. “Core completed. Main platform and actuator mast functioning. Power cells primed. Propulsors initialized. Sensors, actuators exercised in all regimes…”
“Triggers and buffers laid in, comms, tactical configs loaded, all of it done. I’d say we’re finished, Skipper. Me, I need to sleep about a hundred hours…after a gigantic breakfast of eggs and pancakes.”
“Later, Sergeant. Sleep is highly overrated. Just help me get ANAD launched and into my shoulder capsule.”
“Sure thing.” Gibbs sent a series of commands to the tiny bot master. Fold all effectors. Power up propulsors. Config One for transit. “Outer door coming open. Electron beams on standby.”
Winger cycled open the port on his shoulder capsule. Moments later, a faint mist issued from the corresponding port on the regen chamber. The mist flashed and popped and sparkled as ANAD and a basic force of daughter assemblers emerged from containment. The entire transit took about ten minutes.
Winger felt a faint sting, a reassuring pinch that told him ANAD was inside the capsule. He cycled the port shut.
“Now we’re in business, Gibby. I’m headed for the O Quarters. Me and ANAD both need a little shuteye.”
He left the Containment building and inside half an hour, was bedded down in his bunk, the room darkened and quiet. But before he could drift off to sleep, he felt a staticky buzz on the coupler circuit in the back of his head.
The Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler was calling.
***Boss…you there? ANAD to Hub…testing, testing…anybody listening? ANAD, calling all stations—***
Winger closed his eyes. “I’m here, ANAD. What do you want? I’m trying to get some sleep here.”
***ANAD functions at optimum effectiveness when allowed loose configuration…requesting permission to exit containment…assume Config One***
Winger sighed, fluffing the pillow behind his head. His stomach growled and gurgled. He should have gone with Gibbs to the canteen, gotten something to eat. “Now? Why don’t you just lie down and be quiet, like a good bot?”
***Hub, ANAD has additional analysis of most recent engagement…new tactical options have emerged from this analysis***
Winger knew there was no way sleep would come now. He sat up, propped himself up against the wall. “ANAD, you’re awfully demanding tonight. Plus, there’s something wrong with the coupler…your signals are fading in and out…re-start comm session…go to another channel and set filtering to max.”
There was a brief pause, then *** How’s this…I turned up filter gain…zzzzhhh…re-initializing comms now***
Winger didn’t understand it. There had often been problems with the coupler connection, especially after a full re-gen, but there was more crosstalk this time. He’d have to get with Gibbs about that tomorrow morning.
“Okay, ANAD, maybe this’ll work better if you’re outside…cycling port open now. ANAD, exit containment. Assume Config—-“ he gave that some thought, then, “-assume Config Fifteen.” This was the Doc Frost sim….
The sting-snap of ANAD exiting came like a needle prick in his shoulder and in seconds, the flickering mist was visible. It filled the room, swelling rapidly as ANAD grabbed atoms to build structure. The whole process took about five minutes and Winger watched intently, checking for any problems the re-gen might have created. Launch okay…transit okay…replication okay…configs seem okay….
When it was done, a ghostly outline of Doc Frost’s face and shoulders hung in the air over his bed like a dream apparition. There were a few flickers and defects—he and Gibbs could fix that tomorrow—but for the most part, the config looked solid. It was like studying a face by the light of a campfire.
***ANAD now in Config Fifteen…engaging ‘Doc Frost’ program…initializing…zzzhhh…
Winger was about to try cycling the master bot through different configs, see if he could find the source of that annoying interference, when another sting-snap pinched his shoulder.
Whoa…what the hell was that?” He felt his capsule. Port still open, as it should be. ANAD has launched. Was somebody else inside the capsule? Quickly, he cycled the port shut. “ANAD, did you have any company inside? I just felt something else launch.”
***ANAD reporting a few extra molecules were in containment…just leftovers from regeneration…molecules have exited capsule now***
Now Winger jumped out of bed. He turned on the lights, looked around the room, studied the situation. “ANAD, activate all sensors…report returns. Anything like extra thermals, extra electromagnetics around?”
The Doc Frost outline broke down and dispersed as the assembler focused its efforts on examining its surroundings. Soon, only a few faint flickers popped overhead.
As ANAD was scanning, Winger noticed a distinct change inside his room. The air was becoming thick. He felt woozy, a little light headed. Commissary coffee wasn’t that bad. Then it hit him.
Somehow, Amazon bots—the Red Hammer bots that had been modifying the atmosphere in selected areas—had found their way into the O Quarters at Table Top.
Winger went down to his knees, heaving, gasping. His lungs were on fire. Got to get out of here now! But before he could act, the hypercapnia struck fast and he fell heavily to his side. Already his lips were turning blue. His arms wouldn’t work. His legs were lead. Nothing worked—
He passed out and lay crumpled beside the bed.
The ANAD master bot soon detected a cutoff of comms from the coupler inside Winger’s skull. Programmed to switch to default scan, the bot quickly analyzed micro-changes in the air around its master’s head: CO2 rate, O2 partial pressure, galvanic skin response, cardiac rhythm. Dozens of parameters were scanned and analyzed. The program inside ANAD determined that Config Winger. J. was failing, vital parameters were decreasing, normal muscle contractile activity was approaching unsafe minimums. ANAD acted according to its programmed response.
***ANAD initiating emergency protocol Survival Main One…increase oxygen rate of flow and partial pressure…provide effective temperature increase by ten degrees to avoid shock…electrolyte imbalance detected…***
ANAD auto-triggered Configuration Three…max rate replication, a programming change that Winger had done…and told no one else about. In seconds, the air over the bed and the prostrate body of Johnny Winger burned supernova-hot as uncountable trillions of bots formed up, grabbing atom feedstock from anything available in the room…part of the bedcovers, a chair, a dresser, a curtain. The swarm expanded at its maximum programmed rate, a silent boiling miniature thunderstorm swelling in exponential overdrive.
Executing program sub-routines, the growing swarm partitioned itself into several daughter swarms. One subset chewed through a wall, rapidly disassembling the plaster, the insulation, the framing and outer wood slats, in minutes opening a neat circular hole through which cold, snowy nighttime air from across the mesa began pouring in.
Another sub-swarm descended toward the limp body of Config Winger, J. and penetrated his body through the lachrymal ducts around his closed eyelids. Riding along Winger’s optic nerve, the subswarm, labeled as Survival Main Two, cruised on max propulsor toward the medulla oblongata, preparing to release newly configged respirocytes to boost Winger’s blood oxygen level.
A third subswarm configured itself into Assault Main One and went after the halo bots that were even then reconfigging themselves into Amazon form.
As Johnny Winger struggled to regain consciousness, Assault Main One collided with the halo bots, themselves expanding rapidly overhead. Writhing lines of flickering light defined the zone of engagement. ANAD brought all weapons to bear and the battle was joined.
Winger gasped for breath, his eyes fluttered open and he nearly fell out of bed as the battle raged in the air over his head.
He tried linking in through his coupler. “ANAD, assume Config Twenty Two! All effectors out, prime bond disrupters!”
***I’m ten steps ahead of you, Hub…engaging now…these buggers maneuver and dart like hydrogen nuclei…they really zip around…ANAD setting Tactical Six Six…trying to flank the main body…***
Winger was still groggy, and found breathing difficult. He saw the breach in the wall and went over, sucking in cold night time air. It helped clear his head. But when he looked outside, he saw a flickering mist escaping from his quarters. The halo bots were moving outside, still replicating, still expanding.
He shook his head. “ANAD, some of Doc Frost’s halo must have escaped when I was inside his brain. They hitched a ride in the capsule and now they’re reconfigging. It’s Amazon, here and now, right on top of us. Got to sound the alarm—“
Winger yanked open his door and hit the Master Alarm button down the hall. Instantly, a warbling klaxon echoed across the mesa, a deafening undulating tone that signaled Containment Breach! In seconds, troopers and other personnel flooded outside. Along the perimeter of the Table Top compound, around the edges of the mesa, electron beam guns and HERF cannon powered up and swung into position.
Shouts erupted from across the quadrangle and lights blazed on. Base occupants were running in every direction, manning defense stations.
“It’s a Bang! Take cover!”
“Man your stations…all hands, man your stations!”
Seconds later, the first searing hot thunderclaps of HERF rounds cooking off blasted across the landscape.
Major Jurgen Kraft had been sound asleep in his quarters, C Building, at the south end of Officers Country, just across a short grassy sward, now covered with light snow, from the Containment Center. Clad in pajamas, he flung on a jacket and cap and bounded outside, spying a strange flickering orange fog swelling in the air overhead.
HERF blasts momentarily scattered the fog but it seemed to reconstitute quickly. Kraft grabbed the arm of a young trooper streaking by, and yelled, “What is it, sergeant? What’s happened?”
The trooper had a look of pure fear on his face, his eyes were wide and he was breathing heavily. Kraft had noticed the air seemed unusually heavy, yet the skies were clear and filled with the stars.
“Big Bang, sir! We surrounded…got to find cover…it’s the air—!”
He wrenched away, stumbling and regaining his footing and Kraft let him go. Then he saw Lieutenant Winger rushing up out of the darkness.
They nearly collided.
Winger picked Kraft up off the ground. They were both heaving in great gulps of air. “Got to get to cover, sir! Head for the bunker!”
The two of them raced stumbling toward the Ordnance/Mission Prep complex.
“Look out!” a voice cried out.
Winger looked up just in time to see the gray cloud of exponentially replicating halo mechs boiling out the side of O Quarters like a slow-motion tornado.
Alarms and sirens blared out across the mesa and Table Top Mountain was quickly in an uproar.
Sheila Reaves fled too, but diverted left along the grassy quadrangle, toward the hangars and the ordnance and mission prep complex when she saw Winger helping Major Kraft along. She caught up with them along the way.
“It’s a Big Bang, Lieutenant!” she heaved out. They ducked and weaved and dodged others as troops streamed in every direction. Loudspeakers thundered across the quadrangle.
“All hands…this is a Code One alert, CODE ONE ALERT…all hands, man your stations. Repeat…CODE ONE ALERT!!”
“We need CEC out here!” Winger yelled. “Mobile containment—”
“—and magpulse weapons!—” added Reaves.
They raced into the mission prep hall and gathered every tech they could find.
From inside the bunker, Winger watched the halo swarm, now replicating out of control, boiling across the lifter pads of North Field, a gray fog swelling and expanding into every corner of the base complex. His stomach turned at the sight. Even as he watched, fleeing troopers were caught in the swarm and went down, engulfed and consumed like the raging wildfires that sometimes swept through the Buffalo range of southern Idaho. The air over the base was being rapidly altered, thinning out, becoming more toxic by the moment.
If we don’t contain it soon, the swarm will spill out of the base and head off into the hills. The entire state could be at risk, parts of Canada too, he realized.
Already the thing had swelled to dimensions that no MOBnet could handle.
It was the very same nightmare scenario they’d simmed at the wargaming range countless times. An effective counter had never really been demonstrated. Now, it was all too real…and heading right for them.
Winger knew they’d need every defense they could devise. MOBnet and any other shielding they could find. Counter-nanoswarms, if they could be launched and programmed fast enough. Atmospheric manipulation. Magpulse weapons.
Ideas flew around the mission bunker thick as dust.
“Somehow, I’ve got to get to the master,” Winger said.
“Too dangerous,” Reaves said. “Swarm’s too thick, too active. You’d never get close enough. You’d need a hypersuit anyway, just to breathe.”
“He might,” Kraft was thinking out loud, “if we stun the swarm a few times.”
“You mean with HERF?”
The Major was scribbling a sketch on a pad he had dredged up. “Sure…like this. Get your guns along the perimeter of the base…here, here and here—” he X’ed off proposed locations on his crude sketch. “Do it quick and pump a few billions watts of RF across the mesa. Crossfire. That should slow down the rep, and maybe, just maybe, give the Lieutenant time to get a counterswarm going.”
“You’ve got to locate the master first. It should be somewhere near the center of the swarm, but it’s in motion.” Reaves shook her head. “How the hell do you find it?”
“That’s where your HERF guns come in,” Kraft explained. “Blast the swarm with RF, just long enough for Winger to locate the master. If he can do that, before replication starts up again—“
“—I can find and take control of ANAD and drive him myself into engagement,” Winger completed the thought.
Reaves and Major Kraft looked at each other, then at Winger and the other troopers assembled in the bunker.
‘What are you waiting for?” Kraft asked.
It took two minutes for Reaves to radio her plans to the base commander. Fortunately, the extra HERF guns were stowed in Mission Prep; the troopers who’d taken cover there helped break out the gear. Volunteer details were formed up and five HERF units were trundled by hand to opposite ends of Table Top’s broad mesa. In the center of the mesa, the halo swarm continued swelling, rolling like a carnivorous mist across the grounds, filling the grassy swards between the Barracks, boiling westward toward the liftpads and lifters parked in revetments, seeping and crawling and flowing over all obstacles toward the Ops Center and Drexler Field. Troopers were falling to the ground in every direction. And the air was rapidly becoming unbreathable.
The details had to hurry. If the swarm spilled off the top of the mesa and ran down the mountainside into Buffalo Valley and the ravines radiating outward from Table Top, the whole of southern Idaho would be at risk. Already, the Governor and the National Guard had been alerted to prepare to evacuate nearby towns.
In less than ten minutes, Reaves and the HERF guns were ready, powered up and humming.
Winger was in contact with General Kincade, Quantum Corps’ commander at Table Top.
“All units ready, sir. I’m inside Mission Prep, about to strap on a hypersuit.”
Kincade’s face was grim on the vidlink. The General was with his staff, bottled up in the Emergency Action Center seventy feet below Main Ops.
“Blast ‘em, Lieutenant! Blast the sonsofbitches to kingdom come!”
Winger needed no further encouragement. He checked with Reaves one last time.
“Weapons are enabled, sir!”
“Fire!” Winger yelled. “Fire all around, all units! Full bore! Let ‘em have it!”
A series of sirens warbled across Table Top, warning everyone to take cover.
The whole mesa seemed to vibrate as the first pulse shot out, squeezing the air with a thunderclap of heat. A searing wave passed through the Mission Prep hall as the bubbles of radio waves expanded outward, pulverizing everything in their path.
The first pulse was quickly followed by several more, each discharge hammering the ground with an invisible fist of energy. Johnny Winger screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to equalize pressure inside his head. His eyes and lungs burned. His skin crawled with fire, then tingled and crackled….he struggled with his hypersuit as he climbed into the vessel and secured all fasteners, powering up the suit and checking all systems as fast as he could. Servos whirred and the suit pressurized as another thunderclap rocked the building. It was hot as hell inside but it was the only way he could survive outside.
The plan was to gain control of ANAD, replicate like mad and drive the swarm into engagement with the halo bots that had erupted out of the O Quarters. But first he had to find the master ANAD bot.
NOW! NOW was the moment….
He raced out of the hall and ran a swerving, zigzagging course across the open ground between the Mission Hall and the Ops Center. The air seemed alive, thick with mechs, and he waved his arms wildly over his head, beating through the swarm. All about him, droplets of something fell from the sky. He stumbled and nearly fell, then scrambled to his feet, plunging into the thickening mist, until alongside the road from the BOQ to East Gate, he felt he was near the center of the swarm. Mech debris clattered and fell from the sky, tickling, brushing, crawling at his hypersuit armor—he could have sworn he could hear them burrowing through the composite-- but he ignored it and tapped out commands on his wristpad furiously, trying to link up with ANAD.
“Come on, buddy, come on…come on…where the hell are you—”
Already, the effects of the HERF pulse were beginning to wear off, as the swarm began to recover from the blast, replicating new mechs to replace those the RF waves had shattered.
“Come on…come on…”in desperation, he opened a voicelink.
“Hub to ANAD…Hub to ANAD….is anybody there, anybody in charge out there…where the hell are you, buddy?—”
Just then, a staticky hiss in his ears formed a recognizable word.
“ANAD…is that you?”
The whisper grew marginally louder. Sirens nearly drowned out the words. “ANAD…ANAD to Hub…..it’s…this is….controls are…I’m weakened….can’t activate—”
“ANAD…is that you…ANAD…this is Hub…listen to me…ANAD, can you hear me?”
The whisper was weak, but there. Winger waved blindly, trying to get the sirens shut off, trying to stop the next HERF pulse. “ANAD…listen to me…command override…Excalibur alpha x-ray…command override…Excalibur alpha x-ray—” He hoped the old reset command would work. He’d just told ANAD to shutdown all comm links and effector controls…he hoped.
The swarm was reconstituting again, he could almost feel fiery pinpricks on his back and neck. Got to hurry now!
“ANAD…execute omega one…full shutdown…all links, all effectors, all sensors and probes…ANAD, I’m coming to you…I’ve taking over—”
He toggled a sequence of buttons on his wristpad, snapped his eyepiece into place and, to his surprise, ANAD had responded, giving him full control of his core processor and all functions.
The nanomech voice link was weakening. “ANAD…responds….comm one and comm two down…effec—disabled…main core idling…ANAD to Hub…please…hlp me—”
The eyepiece image was like driving a hundred miles an hour through an Idaho sleet storm. Polygons and spheres and snakes and cubes streamed past at high speed. For a moment, Johnny Winger was disoriented.
Where the hell am I?
Then he tickled the tiny joystick on his wrist and powered up ANAD’s propulsors.
Just have to dead reckon my way back to the fight today, he mumbled to himself.
But he hadn’t counted on Reaves firing off the HERF guns again. The halo swarm had partially reconstituted again, and the pulse, when it came, was like being caught in a tidal wave.
The link to ANAD stayed active and Johnny Winger felt himself scattered and tumbled and jostled and swept along in a great river, surging through, vast forces tearing at his limbs, punching him in the chest, ripping his head open. His own body’s natural instincts forced him into a curled, face down position, as the thunderclap rolled across the base. But even as he was still and his helmeted face was buried in wet grass, the dizzying, caroming ride continued.
He was linked in with ANAD and seeing what the mech sensed as the RF wave expanded through the air above Table Top. For a few moments, he blacked out, then staggered back to semi-consciousness and stabilized himself with judicious pulses on his propulsors.
“ANAD,” he muttered to himself, “let’s go get in the fight.” Momentarily, he backed out of the ANAD link and radioed back to the Mission Hall, telling Reaves to shut down the HERF guns. “I’m driving ANAD right now…and neither of us wants to go through that again!”
Gradually, the swirling, driving sleet of oxygen and hydrogen atoms slackened off and he felt he was making headway on half-propulsor power. Molecules of dust and debris thickened the air, making navigation dicey, but Winger quickly recovered his atomgrabber’s instincts and piloted ANAD through reefs and shoals and rapids of whirling, churning atoms and molecules, feeling his way through the sleet, fighting stiff currents as he hacked his way back toward the O Quarters, homing on the coordinates of the halo master bot, the supernova of the big bang, the core of all the high thermals and acoustics and EMs indicating max rate replication.
It was doubly disorienting, when he physically stood up, peering outside his helmet eyepiece, stumbling through the remnants of the gray mist, tripping over half-eaten corpses in the grass, then looking back through the eyepiece at the cyclone of atoms ANAD was battling through. Two different worlds in the same view: macro and nano, humans and atoms, and the rules were different in both.
Johnny Winger wobbled and stumbled his way like a drunken sailor, with troopers and technicians giving him a wide berth everywhere along the zigzag track.
Back in ANAD’s world, he reached out with sensors and steadily closed on the epicenter of the maelstrom. Winger opened a comm link to Reaves back in the Mission Hall.
“I’ve got a big pulse of thermals dead ahead, Sheila. Got to be the master…it’s burning hotter than the sun. Sucker’s grabbing atoms like a cyclone.”
Reaves’ voice came back. “Kincade just ordered emergency evacuation of the mountain, Lieutenant. You’ll see the lifters skedaddling any moment now. Lots of casualties too, mostly respiratory, some physical trauma—flying objects and that sort of thing. You’re cleared hot to engage…need any more HERF?”
“We see him…closing now! No more HERF…let me and ANAD handle this one!”
“Roger that, Skipper. Good luck!”
Through the sleet of polygons and cubes and tetrahedrals, he could just make out the barest outlines of the front line of halo mechs.
“Jeez, now they look like stacks of cubes”, he muttered. Each bot resembled a child’s pile of blocks, stacked haphazardly, festooned with effectors and propulsors. He commanded ANAD to full stop. “Better check this out…ANAD, this is Hub. I don’t see a weakness. No obvious seam or joint…we’d better recon this. Prime bond disrupters and go to one-quarter propulsor.”
***Sounding ahead, Hub…those blocks are casing segments, but the joints are well defended. Recommending multi-fold configuration on my grabbers…add a few peptides and reach out to slap the bastard***
It wasn’t what ANAD said so much as the way he said it that made Johnny Winger remember something he’d once done with Linda Lamont’s colt Misty. A rope trick she had shown him once, when she and Misty had come riding by the North Bar Pass Ranch one afternoon, just to show off. Something called the “Spinning Jenny,” where you did tricks with the rope and then lassoed a colt from behind.
“ANAD, set propulsors to slow spin…five rpm. I want to multi-fold your forward grabbers…add those peptide chains…I’ve got an idea.”
***Hub…is this a good idea?…I can’t engage while spinning like that…recommending changing tactics to a high-speed tangential approach, a glancing pass—***
Winger could see the Spinning Jenny in his mind’s eye…keep your wrist straight, your arms up, fingers twirling, thumb over thumb over thumb—“ANAD, just do it, okay? I know what I’m doing.”
His plan was to spin ANAD in such a way that the halo bots couldn’t capture anything, then reach out with his extended grabbers and slice off a few effectors. A few cuts and thrusts like that and, if he was right, ANAD’s Spinning Jenny could make quick work of the buggers.
Thanks, Linda Lamont, Winger muttered, watching his wristpad as it detailed ANAD’s config changes. When it was done, Winger drove ANAD forward.
The first pass worked like a charm and the halo bots wound up losing a dozen effectors—their own grabbers, probes, enzymatic knives, all manner of atom debris soon choked the air.
Up and down the line of engagement, ANAD’s daughter replicants duplicated the Spinning Jenny. The air over the quadrangle was soon bright with flickering lines of engagement, writhing and whipping through the air like illuminated snakes.
After a few minutes, Winger opened a comm link back to Mission Hall. “Sheila, Major Kraft, it works. I’ve got the rep cycle stopped…the bang’s snuffed out. ANAD and I worked out some new tactics. Now, it’s just a matter of mopping up.”
Reaves heaved a sigh of relief. She also noticed the little red vein on Major Kraft’s forehead had subsided, no longer swollen and throbbing. That meant Ironpants was feeling better about the whole situation.
“Lieutenant, Bioshield’s got a squadron of lifters bearing down on us…full swarm load. Once you have the bang contained, upload your tactical configs to them—I’ll get their comm freqs in a minute—and they’ll launch their own swarms to help restore the atmosphere. This bubble of bad air’s spreading fast…the Governor’s already ordered mandatory evacuation of ten counties around Table Top.”
Kraft came on the line. “Winger, get that bang under control the best way you can. Give the word and I’ll order a HERF barrage, if it’ll help.”
“No HERF yet, sir…let me and ANAD handle it. These new tactics aren’t in the manual…they’re something we cooked up out here. Then I’ve got to get back to the Infirmary. This may work on the bots inside Doc Frost as well.”
Kraft knew when to leave well enough alone. He didn’t like it when Johnny Winger went around free-lancing with ANAD; that was how people got hurt. But he had to admit, if only to himself, that the young atomgrabber had a way with ANAD that no other nanotrooper could match. We’ll deal with regulations and standard procedures in the after-action brief, if we ever get there, he told himself.
Outside Mission Hall, the night sky was aflame with a molecular firefight. The air was still unbreathable, but Winger was buttoned up inside his hypersuit. He tried to avoid stumbling over corpses and bodies that littered the grounds between O Quarters and Mission Hall. The poor bastards never had a chance, he muttered. They had collapsed in the cyclone of the big bang, overcome with toxic air, smothered and asphyxiated in the swelling Armageddon the halo bots had brought to the Mountain.
And they all came out of Doc’s halo, he told himself. The bang had erupted like an explosion, detonating at a speed no nanotrooper had ever seen or wargamed against. Now the worst of it seemed contained, as long as ANAD could execute the Spinning Jenny and slice through halo bots faster than they could config. It was touch and go for many minutes, but Winger was relieved when he saw the whippy lines of light overhead beginning to fade and disappear. The halo bots were going dark.
Slowly but surely, ANAD was winning the battle.
“ANAD, maintain Config Thirty—“ that was the name he had given to the maneuver “—maintain spin rate and prime all bond disrupters. Partition command: detach ten percent all bots and form up on me. I’ve got to get back to the Infirmary and see about Doc Frost.”
***ANAD to Hub, still in Config Thirty…partitioning now…Hub, recommend executing MOB containment maneuver with remaining enemy…grab ‘em and stuff ‘em in a sack, Hub***
Winger figured that was a good idea. ANAD was like a small child, still making mistakes but learning fast. “Do a systematic sweep, ANAD…rectangular grid, the entire mountain top. Corral all the buggers and put ‘em away. I’ll talk to Bioshield and see how their doing…they may need config help to counter the atmosphere mods these bastards have made.”
Winger waited until a small, faintly visible, fist-sized force of ANAD clones had formed up over his head. The formation was a translucent oblong mass of flickers and pops, barely seen in the fog of nano combat that had engulfed Table Top, more shadow than substance. Winger linked in through his coupler, noted these were all barebones ANAD assemblers, with the master bot still doing Config Thirty’s on what was left of the halo bots.
“Come on, guys, “Winger said, though he knew the bots couldn’t really ‘hear’ his orders. He checked his wristpad, saw green lights on the coupler link and knew he was in command of the force. The link was solid. “Let’s go do some Spinning Jennys inside Doc Frost.”
He tore through a half-eaten hedge of hibiscus bushes at the corner of O Quarters and stomped off west in his hypersuit, suit servos whining, heading toward the Infirmary.
U.N. Quantum Corps Western Command
Table Top Mountain, Idaho, USA
January 14, 2049
Once inside Doc Frost’s brain, Winger found the ‘Spinning Jenny’ was an effective tactic against the halo bots that were left. Again and again, he drove his cannibalized ANAD squad into the midst of the enemy, slashing and slicing and dicing. It wasn’t long before the Doc’s ventral tegmentum looked like an atom trash dump.
“It won’t take long for glial cells to make quick work of that crap,” observed Sergeant Gibbs. “Scanning nothing but debris now, Skipper. Looks like you put the halo out of commission.”
Winger was already pulling his nanoscale bot army out of the engagement zone, heading for a quick exit along the Doc’s optic nerve and the lachrymal ducts at his eyelids. “Now, for Dr. Duncan…Dana…get her prepped right away. I don’t want any more halos exploding out of here again.”
Over the next few hours, Winger performed an insert on Duncan and found the ‘Spinning Jenny’ maneuver equally effective against the Red Hammer bots of her halo. When he was done, it was near dawn and a pale winter sun was rising over Table Top.
Duncan and Frost were both pronounced free of their halos at last, then removed from Containment and littered to the Infirmary, to a recovery room where they could be monitored.
After a quick breakfast of eggs and bacon at the Commissary, Johnny Winger and Dana Tallant visited their patients.
Mary Duncan was still groggy from anesthesia. Doc Frost was awake and growing more alert by the hour.
Winger stood by. “Doc, how do you feel?”
Frost ran a hand through his sparse white hair. “Like I just fell out of a hyperjet and dropped fifty miles to the ground. You got the blasted things out of our heads?”
Winger nodded. “ANAD did yeoman duty. Hunted down the last bots and smashed them into atom fluff. Of course, I had to invent some new maneuvers to do it….stuff that’s not in the manual. Doc, your halo bots were ANAD clones but souped up like hot rods. Somebody’s really been tinkering under the hood.”
Frost was intrigued. “I hope you saved a few…I’d like to take a look. See if we can figure out what makes them tick.”
“In Containment now, Level Four. Major Kraft wants to know if you and Mary feel up to a little debriefing this afternoon. Q2 wants to do a memory trace as well.”
Frost shrugged meekly. “I figured that was coming. Anything to help out. We’ve both seen and heard a lot.”
Tallant said, “Doc, you both need to rest for now. We’ll come back after lunch, see how you’re feeling. We don’t want to try anything too strenuous too soon. You’ve both been through hell and it’ll take time to regain full functionality…plus the doctors want to do a full battery of tests.”
Frost chuckled. “To see if I’m sane, in my right mind, is that it? No, we want to talk and explain what we encountered. After you’ve heard what we have to say, you’ll be wondering if we’ve completely lost our marbles. Johnny, the threat’s even worse than you know. And halo bots that can re-configure and big bang a military base in minutes aren’t even the worst of it.”
Tallant and Winger left them to continue their recovery. “We’ll see you later today.”
After they had left, Frost saw Duncan stirring in her bed next to his. She tried to sit up, and sank back wearily into the pillows. “Irwin, do you really think they’ll believe what we have to tell them?”
Frost sat a bit unsteadily on the side of his own bed, pressing a button on a nearby control box. The bioshield that had surrounded his bed collapsed in a flash as the botscreen dispersed. Pops and flashes of light died off, like summer fireflies at sunup. Frost reached out, felt nothing, and struggled to his feet. He went to the window, parted the blinds and looked out. Snow flurries were falling in a steady mountaintop breeze.
“I don’t know, Mary. I’m not sure I believe it myself. But it’s the truth. Red Hammer is the least of our worries.”
An initial briefing was arranged to start at 1730 hours, in Major Kraft’s office. Major Lofton, intel chief out of Q2 would also be there, along with Johnny Winger and Dana Tallant. The corpsmen at the Infirmary had reluctantly given permission for Frost and Duncan to attend. But a full memory trace was out for the time being. The doctors wanted no part of any bots inside of Frost or Duncan’s head until a full neuro scan and test panel could be done.
Lofton was nursing a steaming mug of coffee as he pecked at a tablet, setting up the debriefing with a formal intelligence inquiry protocol. “You two are a walking gold mine of intel. You’ve been inside what we believe is the cartel’s main base of operations. I’ve got about a million questions.”
“And another million from me,” Kraft remarked. He took off his wristpad, punched a few buttons and a 3-D relief topographic map of the Tibetan plateau was projected across his desk. “You can start by pinpointing the location of this monastery—what was the name?”
“They called it Paryang,” Mary Duncan said. “It’s not a functioning monastery. The buildings are just a cover, a front. The underground complex is quite extensive below, from what we saw—“
“Twenty levels,” Frost chimed in. “Roughly circular, dug right into the mountain base. It’s in a valley, and the valley is well defended, believe me. Botscreens everywhere, even below ground, so no approach from that direction is possible without being detected.”
“Reconsats show beam weapon installations scattered around the valley and the nearby mountain peaks,” Lofton consulted a new file on his tablet. “Any defensive weaknesses you can tell us about?”
“None obvious,” Frost said. “But the real problem isn’t Red Hammer, gentlemen.”
That made Kraft sit up straight. His Black Forest moustache twitched with alarm. “It isn’t? What are you saying, Dr. Frost?”
Here, Frost studied the 3-D topo map for a few moments, before replying. “I want to be careful in how I say this. Mary and I have discussed what we saw and we’ve decided that the truth is rather more alarming than just dealing with a criminal cartel. It seems that Red Hammer is definitely in contact with some kind of entity…some kind of intelligent group…that doesn’t exist on this planet. Perhaps something extra-terrestrial.”
Now if was Lofton’s turn to sit up straight. He looked at Winger and Tallant. “They have been cleared for this debriefing, Lieutenant, have they not? No residual effects? No bots in the brain, that sort of thing?”
Winger said, “Yes, sir. I cleared the bots myself. The corpsmen at the Infirmary have double-checked. They’re free and clear.”
Kraft spoke up. “I almost thought I heard you say Red Hammer’s in contact with an off-world intelligence. Little green men, Dr. Frost?”
Frost was deadly serious. “They may not be green and they may not be men, Major. The exact nature of this intelligence isn’t clear. It could be just some form of super AI…artificial intelligence. It could be robotic. It could be swarm-based…Mary and I have reasons to believe that.”
Lofton held up a hand. “Okay, okay…let’s not get carried away here. Let’s put this idea in the ‘parking lot’ for a few minutes, and deal with it later. What about the cartel itself…do you have evidence Red Hammer’s behind these zones of toxic air that are erupting out nowhere? That’s the immediate threat.”
“That and all the angels that are sprouting like weeds everywhere we look,” Kraft added.
Frost nodded. “It’s an ongoing project. And the two threats are related. Now, Mary and I had limited access to labs or planning sessions. They wanted us to work on adapting ANAD for later use…the toxic air threat is just known as The Project inside Paryang. The cartel already has scientists and technicians working on swarm-based para-human entities—what we’ve always called angels—whose primary purpose is to occupy these zones of altered atmosphere, force out the real humans and replace them. Then the ransom will come.”
“Ah,” Lofton said, “ransom…now that’s something I can understand. Only problem is we haven’t received any ransom message yet, have we, Major?”
Kraft said, “Not that I’m aware of. Doctor, you have specific knowledge about the bots that are modifying the atmosphere?”
Frost nodded. “Mary and I worked on the Project for some time, different parts of it…I know they’re ANAD clones. But the way the assemblers have been designed, the way they replicate, the way fold and cleave and the way they extend and retract effectors…I never thought Red Hammer could have come up with that on their own.”
“Probably not,” Lofton said. “They’ve been kidnapping top scientists around Asia for months. There’s your explanation…not some race of little green men in the sky.”
Winger was intrigued with the cartel’s designs. “Specifically, Doc, what makes their bots so much better than ours? I’ve seen the halo bots we engaged inside your head grow effectors in ways I never imagined possible.”
Frost said, “It’s in the processor, Johnny. The config engine and templates. Their bots can hold molecules in geometries that shouldn’t be possible…not with atomic forces we know about. That alone gives their bots capabilities no one else has.”
Kraft said, “Doctor, you mentioned Red Hammer’s working on angels. Technology to deploy para-human swarm entities. I assume that means Symborg.”
Mary Duncan spoke up. “Oh, Major, Symborg is only the beginning.”
“To what purpose? Why do this?”
Duncan shrugged. “Customers, Major. The cartel wants customers. And they want to keep customers. Angels, Symborg, the spread of Assimilation, they’re behind all of it. Addiction on demand, that’s the goal. But Irwin and I saw things…and heard things…that made us both believe there’s more going on than just making addicts of all of us, important as that is to them.”
Frost picked up the idea. “Mary and I have some ideas on how to combat Red Hammer’s technology…we worked on it when we could…when we thought we could evade our halos. It may require another trip to Engebbe, a closer look at some of the ruins and artifacts that Dr. Volk has discovered there.”
“Great,” said Winger. “My favorite place.” Dana Tallant silently poked him in the ribs.
“Do you think you’re up to a memory trace, Doctor?” Lofton asked. “I want to know what you know about the cartel’s plans and designs, all of it.”
Frost and Duncan looked at each other. It was the kind of look that spoke volumes but nothing was ever actually said. “As long as Johnny here can assure me those blasted halo bots are gone, I’m think we can manage.”
“I’m for anything that could give us an edge with those bastards,” Kraft said.
Frost had an opinion. “Major, there’s a reason why Red Hammer always seems to be one step ahead of Quantum Corps. Why they have assemblers that seem to be ANAD clones but can do impossible things. Why they’ve managed to flood the world with angels and people are following Symborg and adopting this craze like their lives depended on it.”
Lofton wore a skeptical frown. “This is your little green men theory, again, Doctor?”
Frost shrugged. “It is a theory, true enough, Major. But Mary and I have talked about this a lot. Assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re right…the cartel somehow has established contact with an intelligence not our own…an entity or a race of whatever, offworld. Just for the sake of argument.”
Lofton started to roll his eyes. “Sorry, Doc. Just for argument…okay, go on—“
“If Red Hammer had access to the technical archives—call it the library—of such an entity, might not that explain how they’ve developed angel and ANAD technology so far and so fast? Red Hammer has weapons, devices, and processes that nobody can explain…certainly not Mary and I. Look at the quantum coupler…Johnny here has one embedded in the back of his skull. It helps him communicate with ANAD. We know that came from a Red Hammer defector. Look at all the angels we see…until Symborg, we’d never been able to control a swarm, manage its configuration, so perfectly that it could resemble a human being and fool almost everybody. Where did that come from, gentlemen? I submit that all the kidnapped scientists in the world—and Mary and I know a little something about that—couldn’t have come up with this technology. And then there’s the Keeper.”
Lofton and Kraft both blinked. Lofton said, “The Keeper—?”
Mary Duncan said, “We heard a lot of talk among our scientist group about something…or someone…called the Keeper. No one knew exactly what the Keeper was…but everybody agreed that it seemed to be the source of everything. Directives, orders, strategy…nothing was done that wasn’t approved by the Keeper.”
Frost said, “At first, I thought the Keeper was just the leader…head of the Ruling Council. Boss of all bosses, to use an ancient term. But later, Mary and I had the distinct impression that this Keeper was more…that he or it was like a gatekeeper. Or a portal. A way to communicate with someone or someplace else. An Indian physicist, actually British, told us the rumor going around was that the Keeper was really a machine entity and Red Hammer used it to communicate with this other intelligence. The Keeper was like a radio or a Net server, helping the cartel download ideas, designs, plans, things like that.”
“This fellow wasn’t named Nigel Skinner, was he?”
Frost said, “I believe that was his name. We were both halo’ed but we later became good acquaintances. Then he just…disappeared.”
“Did you ever see or observe this Keeper?”
Frost shook his head. “No, but we—“ He stopped when Johnny Winger spoke up.
“Major, I think I have. Lieutenant Tallant here, too. Or maybe a piece of it.”
Now it was Kraft’s turn to look perplexed. His moustache straightened out, coming to attention like the sharpest cadet. “Winger, what are you saying?”
Winger then proceeded to relate the story of the strange sphere he and Tallant had discovered at Kurabantu Island. The sphere that, when they had touched it, had sent the two of them off into some netherworld that neither could explain.
“That sphere is here, isn’t it, Lieutenant?” Lofton asked. “I read the logs on that…nobody had the faintest idea what it is.”
“Yes, sir…the sphere is in level four containment at Table Top. So far as I know, nobody’s been able to penetrate it, or figure out what it is. It’s completely resisted all analysis. But when Dana and I touched it, and there was something similar in the cave I was trapped in at Engebbe, we went somewhere else…it was like a dream.”
“More like a nightmare,” Tallant agreed.
“Kraft, your boys have anything on this?” Lofton asked.
Kraft didn’t like having something dropped in his lap without warning. “No, we don’t. But we can fix that. Winger, you and Lieutenant Tallant get over to Containment on the double. Find out what’s what on this sphere. Is it some kind of comm system? A surveillance device? A nest of bots about to erupt? What the hell is it? And take the doctors here with you. I want a full report by 1200 hours.”
Winger and Tallant both rose. “Yes, sir.”
The two atomgrabbers took Frost and Duncan with them and headed out across the snow-covered quadrangle outside of Ops. They scanned themselves in through all the biometrics and security protocols at Containment and descended four floors to the Level Four lab in the basement.
Corporal Thielen, Containment Tech 1, was manning the lab. The sphere, actually a slightly ovoid object about eighteen inches in diameter, rested on a small pedestal inside a containment vault. Imager and scanning devices surrounded it. A small high-resolution image appeared on a nearby display at Thielen’s station.
Frost and Duncan studied the thing. “What kind of emissions are you detecting, Corporal?”
Thielen was mostly bald, with a big black semi-regulation moustache adorning his lips. He chewed absent-mindedly on his ‘stache. “Well, sir, pretty much zilch. I’ve scanned every band and wavelength I can think of…thermal, acoustic, infrared, other electromagnetics. The thing absorbs everything. Even came in close with a quark imager. All I can say is that it’s made up of atoms and molecules…nothing unusual in the species scan. But the arrangements are…well, sir, let me put it this way: the geometries ought not to work. Bond energies seem to be pretty much impossible. Looking at it at molecule scale—the thing should be flying apart. But it just sits there.”
Johnny Winger said, “Doc, I’d like to send an ANAD probe in, poke around all those atoms and molecules. Physically handle them, to get a feel for the thing.”
Frost agreed. “What kind of config, Johnny?”
“Standard template. Basic effector arrangement.”
It was agreed that containment would be breached long enough for a replicated Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler to enter the tank.
The insert was done smoothly enough and straight away, Winger established coupler contact with the tiny bot. He went over the ‘waterfall,” switching the imager from macro to ANAD view and tried to get a sounding off the surface of the sphere, now dead ahead, some forty thousand microns. Nothing came back.
“Damned peculiar,” Winger muttered. “I’ll slow to one half-propulsor and approach on a tangent. No sense taking chances just yet.”
The approach took half an hour. “We should be in visual range now,” Dana Tallant suggested.
“If we can get any reflection. Let’s see—“
The imager rolled and fritzed and eventually settled down. As ANAD drew closer, they saw an endless lattice receding into the distance, shadowy but discernible, quivering with things popping into and out of view. The effect was one of a wavering surface, almost as if they were looking at it underwater, with light refracted and reflected in crazy, funhouse-mirror distortions.
“Quantum bubbles,” said Frost quietly. “Atoms are hard enough to pin down as it is but this—this is unprecedented. First an atom is there, then it isn’t…superposition on display, gentlemen, right in front of our eyes. Common sense says two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Quantum mechanics says they can. You’re looking at the proof of it right now.”
Tallant noticed the image beginning to shudder. “Wings, you still have control of ANAD?”
Winger shook his head. “Not any more. Just now, we’re picking up some kind of interference…he’s sluggish. I can’t get a response.”
“He seems to be getting closer,” Mary Duncan pointed out. “Johnny, I’d keep some distance if I was you.”
“I’m trying, I’m trying, but it’s like ANAD’s being pulled in. What kind of force—?”
It happened in an eye blink. In one instant, the ANAD bot was cruising along a path parallel to the sphere’s surface, at one-half propulsor. Winger had just sent commands to deploy all effectors and make a slight right turn. But in less than an instant, ANAD veered sharply right and plunged without warning directly into the surface. There was a momentary flash, then…nothing.
Winger threw up his hands. “Doc, what happened? I had him…I was moving a thousand microns closer, then whoosh—-he’s gone—“
Frost asked Thielen. “Corporal, can you replay the imager run…slow it down as much as you can.”
“Yes, sir.” The CT1 pecked out some commands on his keyboard and the imager jumped back to the starting point, then scrolled forward, step by step.
They saw the sphere surface sliding by. They saw the surface change aspect as Winger’s commanded right turn took effect. They saw the surface looming larger and larger as ANAD veered toward impact. Up close, they saw the quivering murky clouds of atoms wavering as if underwater.
“Nothing unusual so far,” Frost muttered.
Then the quivering clouds parted and a black seemingly infinite void opened up. There was a flicker on the screen, then an instant later, the same quivering atoms came back.
“Where did the little guy go?” Tallant asked. “One minute he’s at the surface, then he’s gone.”
Winger remembered the roller-coaster ride he’d taken when he’d touched the sphere he and Sheila Reaves had encountered in the cave at Engebbe.
“Another time and place,” he said quietly.
“Almost like a wormhole,” Frost theorized. “Or a passageway.”
“A quantum tunnel,” Duncan agreed.
Frost had an idea. “Johnny, this may corroborate what Mary and I heard while we were unwilling guests of Red Hammer. More than one scientist spoke of the cartel having a way to download designs and schematics and other things from someplace far away. A portal or a communication device they could use to communicate with—“
“Little green men,” Winger completed the thought. “If Red Hammer has access to the archives or library of some offworld intelligence, then maybe this sphere is like a library card. Some kind of way in. Access control.”
“And this device came from an island…that island in the Pacific?”
Winger and Tallant both acknowledged. “Kurabantu Island, to be specific. And I saw something like this at Engebbe too. There must be more than one of these library cards around.”
Frost and Mary Duncan exchanged glances. “The main portal has to be at that monastery at Paryang. Red Hammer has multiple ways of accessing this intelligence, communicating with them.”
Winger was sobered at the prospect. “Doc, this is bad. Real bad. No wonder the cartel’s always ten steps ahead of us. They’ve got technology we can’t even dream of. Doc, I’ve got a crazy idea.”
Frost took a deep breath. “Why am I not surprised?”
“No, really, Doc…the only way we can deal with this is to shut down this portal. All the portals. Even the one at the Paryang monastery.”
Now it was Tallant’s turn to be skeptical. “Okay, Wings, I’ll bite… how do you propose to do that? The damn thing absorbs everything we throw at it. I guess we could try zapping it with particle beams or some such. But from what Thielen’s saying, that probably won’t work.”
“Hear me out, okay? Doc, Dana, Dr. Duncan…what if we break containment? Open up the tank. Then me and Doc reach in and try to make surface contact with the sphere ourselves, actually put our hands on it.”
Tallant shook her head with a slightly crooked smile. “Are you just slightly insane? You want to get zapped off to Never-Never Land?”
Winger said, “What’s insane? This is basic recon…scout the territory. Prepare the battlefield. I doubt we can shut this thing down until we understand how it works.”
Frost said, “He’s got a point, Lieutenant Tallant. But that’s a mighty big risk you’re talking about.”
“That’s why I need to let Major Kraft know. We get his approval, then we treat this sphere as enemy territory. Send in a scout force…you and me, Doc.” He patted his shoulder. “And ANAD too.”
Frost looked dubious at the prospect. Mary Duncan silently grasped hold of his shoulder. “Irwin, maybe we ought to the let the troopers handle this one. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”
Frost studied the image of the sphere on the screen. “He does have a point, Mary. There’s only one way to know for sure what this device is capable of.”
Winger put the idea to Major Kraft, who had swung by Containment on his way to the Sim/Training complex. Another class of nog school cadets was set to run through their first Molecular Ops class.
Kraft rubbed his chin, stroked his moustache. “Lieutenant, you’re not undertaking this ‘mission’ alone. I want backup, all along the line.”
Winger said, “Sir, Lieutenant Tallant has volunteered to join this recon mission. And Doc Frost.”
Kraft squinted at Frost as if he were some kind of specimen from another planet. “Doctor, you’ve been cleared by Medical for this, I presume?”
Frost lied. “Completely, Major. The mission Lieutenant Winger’s proposing may give us critical intelligence on how to combat Red Hammer…this device is a key part of their advantage over Quantum Corps.”
At the mention of Red Hammer’s supposed advantage, Kraft bristled. “First Nano can handle any situation, any mission.” Now, Kraft took a hard look at the sphere on the display screen. “Doesn’t look like much. A giant egg. What’s it supposed to do?”
Frost answered. “It’s some kind of quantum device. We don’t fully understand it ourselves. It seems to transport anyone who comes in contact with it to other pockets of spacetime…sort of an entanglement system. I don’t think they’re actually physically transported, but somehow this device is able to place ‘users’ in more than once place at a time. That’s consistent with quantum mechanics, but we’ve never seen it on this large a scale. Potentially, this device and others similar to it are what makes Red Hammer so hard to deal with.”
That brought a scowl again to Kraft’s face. “Nobody’s invincible. We just have to find the right center of gravity. Winger, your idea is approved. Take a small recon team with you. And report back to me by 0800 hours tomorrow morning.”
With that Kraft spun about and left the Lab.
Winger opened his coupler circuit to ANAD, still embedded in the shoulder capsule. “ANAD, config C-10. All effectors at Ready One. Prime bond disrupters. Initialize propulsors. We’re taking a little trip and we’re going in hot.”
ANAD came back on the circuit. *** ANAD to Hub…where are we going, Boss?***
Winger relayed ANAD’s words to Frost and Tallant. Then to ANAD: “I’m not sure exactly. This is a recon mission…into unknown territory. We’ve got to be ready for anything.”
***ANAD reconfiguring now…assuming C10…effectors safed for transit…all bond disrupters extended and primed…now straining at my leash, Boss***
Frost smiled when Winger reported ANAD’s response. “Maybe I need to do a little tweaking of his emotion modules. Sometimes ANAD correlates inappropriately….”
“Yeah, like a five-year old,” Tallant said.
Winger told Corporal Thielen to unseal containment in the tank. “CT1, ready injectors, just in case. I don’t want this thing big banging on us when we unseal.”
Thielen tapped some keys on his panel. “Tank unsealing now, Lieutenant. All parameters normal, everything in the green.”
“Bring the sphere to the lockout platform but keep the outer doors shut until I give the word.”
Thielen complied. Inside the containment tank, small motors drove the scaffolding toward the tank hatch. Other motors whirred. The hatch popped as it unsealed. But the hatch didn’t open as the transport lugs drove the sphere into the lockout chamber.
“It’s in lockout now, sir,” Thielen reported.
Winger, Tallant and Frost gathered around the hatch. In the background, Mary Duncan clasped her hands together, silently praying.
“This is surely the strangest mission I’ve ever been on,” Tallant muttered, to no one in particular.
“Pop the hatch,” Winger ordered.
The small door swung open on its jackscrews. Now the sphere could be seen…and touched…just inside. It sat on its platform like a giant egg, inert and silent.
Winger looked around at his ‘troopers.’ Dana Tallant gave him a thumbs up. Doc Frost was intent on the sphere. They were as ready as they would ever be.
“Let’s do it,” Winger said.
As one, the three of them reached into the lockout chamber and placed their hands on the surface of the sphere.
Inside the sphere
There was a blinding flash of light and a roaring rush of deceleration. Johnny Winger felt like his head was about to be ripped off. He was hurtling down a long curving corridor, careening through impossible geometric shapes—polygons, cubes, spheres, pyramids—when he came to a sudden stop, a hard bump and his head spun in dizzy giddiness.
He looked around. Where the hell—?
The sphere was there, right almost at his feet, inert like a piece of forgotten pottery. Then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. It was Doc Frost…and Dana Tallant.
Winger crawled over, ascertained that everybody had come through the experience in one piece.
“Where is this place?” Tallant asked. She scanned around their surroundings.
They seemed to be in a circular room. A colonnade curved around the outer perimeter of the room. Pedestals were visible along its quadrant positions, each surmounted by small statues, Buddha-like statues. Incense smoke issued from the head of each little Buddha, filling the room with a pungent aroma. In the shadows, several monks in saffron robes could be heard murmuring something, a chant perhaps.
“It’s the monastery,” Doc Frost reported. “I know this place. It’s upstairs, the main entrance hall at Paryang. But I never saw anyone in here before…this must be another time….”
“How’d we wind up here?” Winger asked. “That sphere—“
Frost was beginning to understand. “Johnny, the sphere’s an entanglement device. It puts us in multiple places. We’re both here and back at Table Top and probably multiple other places as well.”
Tallant winced as she got unsteadily to her feet. “Doc you’re making my head hurt. I wasn’t paying attention when we covered this in Molecular Ops in nog school.”
Winger got up too. “Maybe we should look around…we are here to recon after all.”
Frost had a thought. “Johnny, is your ANAD embed still with you?”
“I don’t know.” Winger tried opening up his coupler link. “Hub to ANAD…ANAD, report status.”
There was a delay while the link fritzed and buzzed, then *** ANAD copies…reporting all systems at Level One readiness…Boss, what happened? Are we back in that historical simulation again?***
“I don’t know, ANAD. Just stay there, okay. Config One and standby. Keep your propulsors powered up too. We may need to launch in a hurry.”
***ANAD copies…all effectors initialized and primed…Boss, ANAD always has the greatest enthusiasm for our mission…***
“Yeah, I’m sure of that, ANAD. You sound like a Quantum Corps recruiter.”
“What’s he saying?” Tallant asked. She was wafting her hand through tendrils of smoke, making odd patterns.
“Gung ho, as usual, Dana. Like a five –year old at the circus. Doc, you’ve really got to fix that. I like ANAD’s enthusiasm. But a simple yes or no will do when I ask status.”
Frost was studying the scrollwork on a nearby column, running his fingers along the Tibetan script. “Sorry, Johnny, but that’s ANAD’s processor. Interaction and Affective module. He’s programmed to act like a nanotrooper, to make it easier to get along with your soldiers.”
“It doesn’t always correlate that well, Doc. He kind of needs a lot of handholding, so to speak.”
“ANAD does have deep learning capability, Johnny. His neural nets make and break connections all the time, just like your brain and mine. Keep teaching him what you want and he’ll come along.”
“If you say so, Doc…where are you going now?”
Frost had started to move toward a door between two columns. “If I’m right, the lift to the Project labs is this way—“
“Doc, I wouldn’t—“
But Frost had already stepped through the door . Winger and Tallant had no choice but to follow.
The monks kept murmuring, paying them no attention. That’s when Winger and Tallant realized what it really meant to be entangled, to be in more than one place at a time.
“They don’t see us, Wings. It’s like we’re not really here.”
Winger sniffed. “Wicked.”
They followed Frost down a shallow ramp to another set of doors. There they found a lift.
The lift door opened when they approached. No one else seemed to be around. Frost went in, followed after a moment’s hesitation, by Winger and Tallant. The door closed.
“I don’t see any controls,” Tallant said.
“If my memory is correct, it goes down to the scope works…fifth level down.”
A second later, they were in motion.
The lift cab stopped abruptly. The door swung wide and the three of them cautiously stepped out. As they did so, Frost issued a warning.
“If I’m right, Johnny, we’re in an entangled state. The sphere in Containment at Table Top is some kind of entanglement device.”
“So what does that mean, Doc?”
“It means were not really here. Or to be more precise, we’re in multiple places at the same time. Quantum mechanics permits that…as long as no one sees us…no one observes us.”
“What happens if we’re seen?”
“Entanglement collapses. We wind up in one place…probably right here.”
“Okay, Doc,” Tallant said, “now I really have a headache.”
They crept out of the lift and found themselves on a swaying catwalk, fixed by cables to bolts in the walls of a large semi-circular cavern into which they had stepped. Walkways crisscrossed the floor below the catwalk, which circled the entire cavern. More walkways hung suspended by more bolts from the ceiling above, which was bright with rows of lamps. Along every catwalk, shelving and cabinets were lined up, one after another. Many of the shelves supported large vats, out of which hung dark green leafy plants.
“Scope, tons of it,” Winger muttered. “Dana, doesn’t this look just like Lions Rock, in Hong Kong?”
“Yeah,” Tallant said, “only bigger. Must be the mother works. Hey, Doc—“
But Frost had already started moving cautiously along the catwalk.
They came to a small cave that branched off the central cavern. The catwalk branched off too, angling down to an actual wood plank floor. Frost had stopped at the edge of the entrance and was peering in. Silently, he motioned Winger and Tallant to take a look with him.
Inside the small cave were arrayed several tables. On one table sat a smooth white sphere, seemingly a perfect copy of the one at Table Top, only larger. The other table contained tablets and vid equipment; the sphere was being videoed. One man sat at the table, fiddling with the vid gear.
Another man was adjusting some small rings which completely enveloped the sphere. Winger realized the sphere seemed to be projecting something. A small narrow beam had emerged from the sphere and was actively being focused through the rings into a 3-D image on the table. It was an image of some device, plan, elevation and section views, Winger could see that much.
But Frost quickly held up a hand, for quiet. He turned back. “I think that’s Kulagin…Ruling Council,” he whispered. “He seems to be trying to access the archive I told you about. I don’t know what that device is.”
Tallant figured the man seated was taking notes and otherwise helping with the session.
The note-taker dropped something and leaned over to pick it up. That’s when he looked up and saw three faces peering in at him and his superior.
In less than an eye blink, Winger felt the entire cavern shudder. It was just like someone had slammed a door right in his face. He felt himself jolted sideways, left, then right, then left again. Then the shudder stopped.
But everything had changed. As Doc Frost had suggested, Kulagin and his subordinate had observed the intruders. Their entangled state had collapsed. Now they really were physically in a cavern below the Paryang Monastery, in Tibet, China.
And people were running at them along the catwalk from both directions. Voices were rising, weapons were being readied. Inside Kulagin and the note-taker were getting up.
Winger swore. “Well, crap…no sense in being quiet now. We’re in a world of hurt. ANAD—“ he got on his coupler circuit. “Launch immediately…configure C-2…max rate reps…get the hell out here NOW!”
And ANAD was ready. *** ANAD to hub…configuring C-2…I’ve got disrupters primed, going to full propulsor when port opens…give me heading, Boss and I’ll go get ‘em!***
“ANAD, you sound like an attack dog! On exit, partition into two elements…one goes to heading zero nine zero and the other two seven zero degrees…fast as you can!”
Already Red Hammer security guards and troops were closing on them. Someone had fired a MOBnet canister.
But ANAD had already begun replicating at max rate. As the MOB swarm fell on them, Frost was momentarily knocked to the catwalk floor, and Tallant flailed frantically at the bots, ANAD managed to engage the MOB mechs with enough mass to fend off the first assault. In seconds, the air overhead was thick and hot with battling swarms. Winger wanted to go ‘over the waterfall’ and see what ANAD was engaging in the world of atoms and molecules, but he didn’t have time.
Frost struggled to his feet, batting away residual MOB bots and saw Kulagin and his aide shutting down the sphere’s projection. An idea came to him.
“Johnny, if we could get to that sphere…if we could get inside…we could put our hands on it. It may work the same way as the Table Top model.”
Winger saw what Doc was talking about. They had no chance where they were. But the sphere might be a way out.
“ANAD, partition one more element. Config C-22—“ he was going on memory for that command…”make a barrier for us, to that sphere.”
***Hub, ANAD recommending no more partitions, until replications are done…I’m engaging enemy now…recommending—***
But Winger could see they couldn’t wait any longer. Guards were only meters away. And one of them was sporting what looked like a HERF rifle. If that were fired, ANAD’s swarms could be easily shattered.
“No arguments, ANAD, partition again and configure C-22 now!”
He saw a change in the swarm above, as a narrow finger of flickering light peeled off from the main engagement. It arrowed toward the sphere, and as it expanded, the swarm physically shoved Kulagin and his aide out of the way, both men kicking and swatting at the ANAD bots as they backpedaled.
In moments, the barrier was completed, with Kulagin pinned against the walls of the cave, his aide heaving in great gasps of air on the floor and Red Hammer guards nearly at the entrance.
It was now or never!
“Come on!” Winger yelled.
Frost, Tallant and Winger barreled through the still-forming ANAD barrier, feeling the pinpricks of the assemblers against their faces and arms. They came to the sphere, which stood inert and silent as a giant egg.
“Put your hands in contact with the surface,” Frost told them.
“What about ANAD?” Winger yelled. “I can’t just leave him here?”
“There’s no time!” Tallant told him. “Do as Doc says.”
Just as they touched the sphere surface, a HERF round went off. ANAD bots fell tinkling out of the air. A few entered Winger’s shoulder capsule by chance, through small tears in his uniform. Others clung to his tunic, a few attached themselves to his hair and arms.
The rest were fried.
And when the three of them finally touched the sphere, as Red Hammer guards poured into the cave, there came a blinding flash of light and a roaring rush of deceleration….
As Johnny Winger’s last conscious thoughts drained away, he remembered feeling like this once when he and his Dad were riding the Cyclone at Daytona Beach. The same whirling images: the ocean, the boardwalk, the faces of bystanders and riders still standing in line for their turn. A cyclone of sights and sounds and smells…snow cones, cotton candy, salt air and hot dogs grilling…
But when he finished racing at breakneck speed down that long curving corridor now filled with polygons and cubes and pyramids and things he could never describe, and he came at last to that hard bump and things slowed down and finally stopped spinning….
He knew he wasn’t in Daytona Beach.
Or Paryang, Tibet.
Or even Table Top Mountain.
The first thing Johnny Winger did, after reassuring himself that he had all his body parts still with him and his head was still there, was look for Dana Tallant and Doc Frost.
Tallant was on her stomach nearby, faceplanted in mud. She shook herself off like a wet dog and smiled meekly at Winger. “Is this the fun part?” she asked.
Doc Frost was further away, half wrapped around the trunk of a tree. He groaned, slumped to the ground and rolled over, holding his ribs.
Immediately, Winger scrambled up. He and Tallant went to the Doc.
“Don’t move…let me see—“ Tallant muttered. She hoisted up his shirt, saw a spreading purple bruise.
“It’s sore right there,” Frost admitted.
Winger told him, “Just lie still, Doc…you may have bruised or cracked ribs. We’ll find something to bind it up tight, so it won’t hurt so bad.”
Dana Tallant sat back and looked around. “Where the hell are we? Or when are we?”
They had come through the entanglement to a swamp of some kind. Lightning veined in sharp bursts across purple and rose-colored clouds, thick and steaming overhead. The ground trembled and through the trees, they could see the red glow of a volcano, simmering and smoking. It seemed about to blow.
The swamp was extensive, filled with moss-covered trees, low-hanging branches and mossy patches on rocks surrounding the edge of the water. Cypress knees looked vaguely menacing in the twilight. A faint mist hovered over the water’s surface.
Nothing moved. No screeches, no howler monkeys. No birds cawing in the air. Steam and smoke and shuddering ground were all that gave movement to the swamp.
“I’d say we’re not in Idaho anymore, Wings.”
“Right. Let’s get back to the Doc.”
After some rest, Frost wanted to stand and the two nanotroopers helped him up gingerly. He winced and limped around for a minute, but pronounced himself fit enough to support himself.
“Let’s go see what’s on the other side of this swamp,” Frost suggested. “I’ve got an idea—“
They scouted along the swamp banks for a few minutes. It was a vast wetland, thick with ropy vine and large, lobe and ear-shaped leaves, damp with moisture and humidity and hanging nearly to the soft spongy ground. The three of them picked their way carefully through leaf piles and clinging vine, occasionally hacking and smacking their way through heavy underbrush, wary of slithering things underfoot, but they found none. Nothing living at all, not even flies or mosquitoes. Still, Dana nearly turned an ankle in a small sinkhole nearly hidden between two tree trunks.
Finally, Frost begged for a halt. They stood over a narrow bubbling, foaming inlet, clearly the water was flowing somewhere from here.
Winger, mindful of the Escape and Evasion training he’d had in nog school, had been thinking about survival matters, like water and things they could eat. “Doc, you said you had an idea. Explain.”
“Well,” Frost took a breath, rested against a half-rotted out tree stump, “we went through another entanglement episode from that sphere at Paryang. Now we’re somewhere and sometime else. If I’m right, we’re actually still in both places and we stay entangled until we’re somehow observed here. But I don’t see anything or anyone who could observe us.”
“And there’s no sphere, Doc,” Tallant said. She licked experimentally at the moisture on a leaf she had snapped off a nearby branch. It was clear they would be needing water pretty soon.
“Does that mean we’re, like, invisible?” Winger asked.
Frost frowned. “I’m not sure. But I have a suspicion that this isn’t just some random place. That sphere-entangler unit seems to be operating under some kind of control, maybe an algorithm.”
“So where’s here?”
Frost said, “Just speculation, mind you, but I’d say there’s a decent chance this is Engebbe, Kenya.”
“The dig site. This is a jungle, Doc. Engebbe’s on the Serengeti plain.”
Frost nodded. “Exactly. In our time. But this may not be our time. I’m thinking this is Engebbe several billion years ago. Have you noticed there doesn’t seem to be anything living around here? No birds screeching, no flies, that sort of thing.”
Winger tried Tallant’s experiment with the leaf moisture. It tasted brassy, almost like warm brine and he made a face. “I have noticed that, Doc.”
“If I’m right,” Frost explained, “we’ve come to Engebbe at a time before life. Except maybe for that moss growing on those rocks. Pre-biotic, maybe the Hadean era. Three to four billion years before our time. There’s a reason we’re here. There has to be a reason that entangler put us here.”
“Doc, Engebbe’s where you scooped up some ancient virus that helped you with early ANAD programming, isn’t it?”
Frost admitted it was true. “I had some programming problems. Dr. Rudolf Volk had just discovered those micro-robotic remains among the fossils. Then I heard they had found viral fragments…I got some segments, examined them and it gave me some ideas. I actually found snippets of genome code and used it with ANAD.”
The ground rumbled and all three of them looked through the trees. There were tall mountains in the distance. The summit of the nearest one glowed orange-red in the cathedral gloom of the forest.
“Looks like we might have a blow soon,” Tallant said. “I don’t like the looks of that. Do you suppose, if this is Engebbe, that could be Kipwezi?”
“Could be,” Winger said. “My question is: how do we get the hell out of here?”
“If we’re actually here,” Tallant muttered. “Wherever here is.”
“Hey, what’s that?”
At the same time, the three of them spied a fog bank roiling across the top of the swamp. Tendrils of steam drifted in patches.
Now, the fog bank had taken on a more menacing look. As they looked more closely, they could see small flashes and pops of light within the fog, as if it were thick with fireflies.
“Those aren’t fireflies, Wings.”
The hairs on the back of Winger’s neck stood up. “And that’s not fog, Dana. Unless I’m seeing things, that a swarm of some kind.”
“Yeah and coming our way.”
Helping Doc Frost stumble through stagnant pools and thick underbrush, they moved sideways along the bank of the swamp but the swarm swelled and soon blocked their way. Winger figured they would just backtrack the way they had come but the swarm filled in behind them and they soon found themselves trapped on a narrow spit of dry land, surrounded by cypress knees and piles of moss-covered rocks.
Though the swarm had nearly enveloped them, at least it hadn’t closed any further.
“Look!’ Tallant pointed at several patches of swarm, now dropping down closer to the ground. As they watched, the light flickering inside changed pattern, becoming more intense, pulsing faster, almost like a strobe and the fingers of the swarm swept right across the moss covering on top of the rocks, pausing momentarily at each moss patch.
“Fantastic,” Doc Frost breathed. “It’s writing genetic code, Johnny, right into the cells of that moss. Injecting something directly into the cells.”
“Maybe this is how life got started,” Tallant said.
Just then, Winger felt a staticky buzz chirping in the back of his head. Somehow, his coupler had come alive.
“Doc…Doc…something’s trying to come through on my coupler—“
“Is it ANAD?”
Winger shook his head. “I don’t….I don’t think so…it’s not making any sense….just snatches of things—“
“Maybe your coupler’s trying to translate a signal,” Frost suggested.
Then, all of a sudden, it became clearer.
Winger’s headed pounded with the signal. It boomed in the back of his head.
“Who—? Or what—?”
***Single-configuration entity detected…module DISASSEMBLE invoked…mono-config are errors and must be detected…module 668 CORRECTION MATRIX initiated…bond disrupters priming***
Neither Frost nor Tallant were equipped with Winger’s coupler.
“So what’s it saying, Wings?”
Winger listened carefully. “I don’t know exactly…I thought I heard something about bond disrupters…correction matrix—“
Frost snapped his fingers. “It doesn’t know what we are…we’re not trees or rocks…we’re living matter. It’s operating on some kind of program, Johnny.”
Winger started eyeing their surroundings for something—anything—they could use as a weapon. Maybe a few leaf branches. “Doc, I think the program is to consume us…disassemble us—“
Indeed, even as he spoke, the swarm thickened and the flicker became a fierce, blinding pulsing light, like being inside a lightning stroke that never stopped.
“Talk to it, Johnny—see if you can establish contact—“
How the hell do I do that? Maybe it was like ANAD. Just think and his coupler would translate that into signals compatible with a swarm…only, was this a swarm?
“Uh, hello…calling the swarm approaching the single-configuration entities…could we , like talk? Could you stop and not disassemble us?”
For a moment, the swarm continued thickening, gathering itself, flashing and popping—he was sure he could actually hear atomic bonds being broken as the thing built structure and drifted ever closer. Now, they were surrounded in all sides, top and bottom, on a small mud spit of land that jutted out into the swamp. The swarm began descending from above, then—
“Who are you?” Winger asked. “What are you?”
The signal came back, again booming in his head like a thunderclap.
Configuration Zero? Winger had often heard ANAD speak of multiple versus single-configuration entities. Human beings were different from swarm beings. Humans were made of a single-config that never changed. Not so swarm beings.
“You are Configuration Zero?” Winger spoke out loud, aware that the others could only hear half of the conversation.
***Identity this configuration is labeled Configuration Zero…detecting no pattern match for your configuration…requesting special instructions for signal exchange***
“Doc, I think it’s like ANAD…only it doesn’t know how to talk to us. It’s requesting support from somewhere.”
Frost had taken a seat on a small branch, sticking partly out of the mud. It rocked as he shifted around, sending out ripples across the swamp. “Johnny, talk to it like you would with ANAD…if I’m right—“
Winger asked, “What is Configuration Zero? Identify and explain.”
***Configuration Zero is Group A, Subset A of Central Entity, operating Test and Correction Program…parsing semantic vibrations…pattern matching***
Winger replayed how the swarm had responded, then, “What is this place? What is Configuration Zero doing here?”
There came a few seconds of a staticky buzz, then the voice Winger ‘heard’ on his coupler circuit came in loud and clear. Pattern matching had been achieved….
***Configuration Zero assigned monitoring functions at this site…monitor previous seeding of biomimetic entities…perform analysis and correction…***
“He says he’s monitoring and correcting a previous ‘seeding.’” Winger told them.
Doc Frost watched the swarm drift along the ragged line of moss-covered rocks. “It’s checking what’s been done before, Johnny. That has to be it. Something has already injected code into this moss and the swarm is checking to see if it’s being expressed correctly…fascinating…this is history in the making, right before our eyes.”
Dana Tallant eyed the glowing pyre of red-orange embers now belching off the top of the volcano. The ground rumbled and shuddered beneath their feet and the swamp waters trembled. “It had better hurry up, Wings…that sucker’s going to blow its top any moment. Could you ask if the damn thing can get us out here?”
Winger asked Configuration Zero, “You mentioned a Central Entity. What is this Central Entity?”
For a few moments, Configuration Zero seemed to consider that, proceeding steadily along the swamp banks, with fingers of the swarm flickering on and off like a billion fireflies, pulsing and strobing as it examined each thatch of moss. Presently…
***Executing Prime Key…the Central Entity is…all. The totality. Analyzing single-configuration entities detected…single-configuration entities are errors…single-configuration entities are outside of Prime Key…***
Winger decided he didn’t like the sound of that. “This Prime Key…is that like your instructions? Explain this ‘Prime Key’.”
***_The Prime Key is Central Entity program for the_ Imperative of Life itself. The Imperative of Life is that life absorbs chaos from the Universe and adds or builds structure or order. Life is anti-entropic***
“Look…” Winger decided to try another approach. “We just want to leave. Get out of this place. Can you help us? We got caught up in some kind of entangler device…I’m not even sure we are here…or where we are.”
Now the main body of the swarm recoiled visibly from the rocks and gathered itself into a larger mass, a purplish, roiling mass like a thunderstorm boiling up from the tropics.
***Single configuration entities must be deleted…to seed single entities is a violation of the Prime Key…Invoking Rules Number 115987 and 544922…quantum violations of entanglement state…interactions null and all registers set to zero…initializing…initializing***
“Well, that went well,” Winger muttered. He discussed Config Zero’s replies with Frost and Tallant. “I’d say we won’t get any help from this guy.”
Now the swarm was re-forming itself. Partitioning itself. Part of the swarm continued as before, checking the moss along the banks of the swamp. But part of the swarm now drifted closer to them, forcing the three of them to backpedal to the very end of the muddy sandbar. Glowing ashes drifted down from fire-lit skies like flickering rain drops.
“Wings, somehow you made it mad. You always do that, don’t you?”
“Hey, I just asked some questions.”
Frost had an idea. “Johnny, check your capsule. Maybe there are some residual ANAD bots inside.”
“How would I know that, Doc…I’ve already lost the master.”
“Just check, Johnny…I’ve got an idea.”
Winger knew Doc Frost well enough to pay attention when the scientist had an idea. He cycled open his shoulder port, pressed a button on the edge…and listened. There seemed to be something…”ANAD, report status…ANAD, respond—“
Through careful tuning of his coupler and eyeballing of the capsule port, Frost and Winger finally decided that a few residual ANAD bots must have remained behind, clinging to the insides of Winger’s containment tube.
“I’m showing a slight elevation in thermals, Doc. Some EMs. Some acoustics. Whatever they are, there can’t be many.”
“We don’t need many, Johnny. Here—“ he looked around the primordial swamp, “—from here we may be able to do a barebones regeneration…if I’m right, Configuration Zero’s writing and correcting the first instructions even as we watch. ANAD’s kernel came from that. All we have to do is get those instructions into those leftover bots in your capsule.”
Tallant was easing herself ever closer to the swamp water, as the main body of Config Zero swelled and crackled overhead, driving them further out on the sandbar. “How the hell do you plan on doing that?”
Frost had an idea. To Tallant: “See if you can grab some of that moss….just grab it in your fingers…just a pinch.”
Tallant leaned out across a small but deep swirling pool of swamp water and snagged off a finger full of the stuff. It was damp and greasy. She handed it to Frost.
Doc examined the substance, turning it over and over in his own fingers. This caused an immediate reaction in the swarm, which boiled and thickened, moving even closer, now looming almost on top of them. “Johnny, rub some of this on the outer lip of your capsule port…quickly, please. If I’m right, the bots will flock to it like flies to candy….it’s what they need…it’s their marching instructions.”
Winger took the pinch of soil and did as Frost said, rubbing the stuff back and forth across the top of his capsule. There was an immediate reaction on his coupler circuit. He shook his head, trying to get a better signal.
“Doc, it’s sounds like a party in there…all kinds of signals scrambled…most of it’s just status-message scraps…but there’s something—“
Frost nodded. “The code Config Zero’s injecting and correcting is compatible with ANAD’s architecture…it ought to be, I designed it that way. Johnny, now see if you can get some basic replications going…you know the right machine code…”
“Doc, I’m not sure if—“
“Hurry, Wings…we’re running out of time.”
From memory, Winger pecked out a few commands on his wristpad. His coupler circuit sounded like a frat party…signals all over the place. But there was something.
Tallant was now half in the water, trying to keep some distance between her face and the oncoming Config Zero swarm. “Hey, I don’t plan on being deleted any time soon…what if you can replicate? What then?”
“At least, we can block this cloud of bugs from eating us,” Winger told her. “Doc…I’m hearing something on my coupler…thermals are coming up, electromagnetics too. Something’s happening—“
“Bond breaking, Johnny…ANAD’s following the instruction set from that moss…just like I designed it to. He’s grabbing atoms, building structure. See if you can command maximum rate.”
Winger tried more commands on his wristpad. Soon, there was a faint but visible mist issuing out of his shoulder capsule. ANAD was regenerating.
“But I can’t control it, Doc. There’s no master. It’s just mindless replication…what if it can’t be stopped?”
Just then, a deafening, concussive boom shattered the swamp. In the distance, the top of the volcano was on fire, boiling plumes of magma and red ash soaring skyward in a spectacular spray of fire and flame. Hissing and steaming sheets of embers rained down on them and all three dove headfirst into the swamp to keep from being incinerated.
As he went under, Johnny Winger wondered if they would ever escape the boiling caldron that the swamp had now become. They were lost in some kind of strange quantum world of a prehistoric Engebbe. Was there any way they could signal others that they had become trapped in some kind of weird entangled state, partly at Table Top Mountain, partly immersed in a steaming swamp a few billion years ago?
Frost, Winger and Tallant had no way of knowing then that before they could escape from Engebbe and get back to their own time and space, they would first find themselves embedded inside a vast swarm of nanobots cruising through interstellar space, embedded inside the Mother Swarm itself, heading out across the galaxy in a vast diaspora.
And unless someone or something ‘observed’ them and broke down the entanglement, they would remain trapped between those worlds forever.
About the Author
Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses…just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for 25 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3-4 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled Keeshond dog named Kelsey.
For technical and background details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog at . For details on other books in this series, visit his website at or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting .
Download the next exciting episode of Nanotroopers from . It’s called “Engebbe.” Available on August 15, 2016.
To get a peek at Philip Bosshardt’s upcoming work, recent reviews, excerpts and general updates on the writing life, visit his blog The Word Shed at: .
Episode 10, Nanotroopers. Johnny Winger and 1st Nano have recovered Doc Frost and Mary Duncan from captivity by Red Hammer. But in trying to extract the halo inside Frost’s skull, the nanotroopers inadvertently release a max rate replication on the Table Top base. It’s called a Big Bang and it threatens not only the base but much of the surrounding countryside. Only quick work by Winger and ANAD enable the threat to be contained. Now being debriefed by Quantum Corps intelligence, Frost informs his rescuers that Red Hammer is an even bigger menace than thought before…the cartel is in contact with an offworld intelligence and has access to their archives. This helps explain why the cartel is always one step ahead of Quantum Corps. But there is a way for Frost and Winger to access the same archives…a small sphere brought back from Kurabantu Island. The sphere turns out to be a small quantum entanglement device, which when contacted, entangles and transports its users to other times and places. The nanotroopers form up a small recon detachment to explore this device…and find themselves transported back in time three billion years, to an ancient swamp. It’s Engebbe, Kenya and when they arrive, they encounter a menace even greater than Red Hammer…it’s a strange swarm entity called Configuration Zero, and its re-writing the history of Life right before their eyes. Follow Johnny Winger, ANAD and his nanotroopers as they try to stop this latest threat.