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Nanotroopers Episode 4: ANAD

Nanotroopers

Episode 4: ANAD

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Philip Bosshardt

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

A few words about this series….

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. 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.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Each episode will be about 40-50 pages, approximately 20,000 words in length.

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p<>{color:#000;}. A new episode will be available and uploaded every 3 weeks.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. There will be 22 episodes. The story will be completely serialized in about 14 months.

#
p<>{color:#000;}. Each episode is a stand-alone story but will advance the greater theme and plot of the story arc.

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p<>{color:#000;}. 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.

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p<>{color:#000;}. Uploads will be made to www.Shakespir.com 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

Chapter 1

“Breakout”

 

Hong Kong, Special Autonomous Region

People’s Republic of China

October 16, 2048

2:00 am

 

Deeno D’Nunzio and Mighty Mite Barnes had been trapped in a ground floor Stores room inside the castle atop Lions Rock for several hours before either trooper dared take a peek out through the window grate.

“See anything?” Barnes said. She was trying to inventory what was left of her personal kit from the explosion and swarm attack on top of the mountain. There wasn’t much left.

“Just some smoldering wreckage. No humans…none that I can see. Nothing that looks like a swarm…but I can’t really tell. I guess we were the lucky ones…don’t know where the Lieutenant and the others are.”

“I thought I saw them MOB’ed and carted off inside…like prisoners,” Barnes said. She laid out her gear on the tile floor and ticked off what was serviceable…half a hypersuit, my wristpad, a HERF carbine with half a charge, some mess items, burned food bars, one MOB canister (status unknown), a dry canteen…. She looked around at their surroundings for the first time. “What the hell is this place, anyway?”

“Some kind of castle…probably a tourist trap,” D’Nunzio muttered. She hopped down from the crate she had been standing on to look out. “Too bad we couldn’t have fallen into the pantry…or some kind of galley. I’m starving. Let’s look around—“

The two of them poked and reconnoitered for a few minutes. They were on a ground floor, multiple rooms filled with lacquered screens, rattan mats and wall coverings, gazillions of vases, ceramics, bronzes, jade sculptures and other antiquities.

“Probably worth ten fortunes,” D’Nunzio muttered.

“And nothing to eat. I’d trade one of these vases for some peanut butter crackers right about now.”

“Shhh…we don’t know who’s around…back to the first room.”

They crept back to their original hideout. Barnes peered out again through the grate. It was getting darker as the burning wreckage of the lifter began to gutter and fizzle out into smoldering ash heaps. “Don’t see anybody, but there could still be swarms and bugs in the area. There’s got to be road down off this rock heap…maybe a driveway down into Kowloon. We can hike downhill and grab some chow there…a burger joint or a noodle shop.”

“Yeah, or a sushi bar.”

Barnes made a face. “Sushi…where I come from, that kind of stuff is called bait.”

“I suppose the Lieutenant and everybody else is inside. We both saw them MOB’ed and carted off. Prisoners inside the Rock. But where? I’m not having any luck with my wristpad.”

Barnes sat back against a column and sighed. “Me neither…not a chirp. Ten to one, Red Hammer took all their gear. They don’t have a way to contact anybody.”

“Except for the ELTs.” The Emergency Locator Transmitters were surgically embedded in every nanotrooper when they finished nog school. “But I’m getting nothing…either the mountain’s blocking the signal or Red Hammer is.”

Barnes suddenly sat up straight. Something furry scuttled between them and she kicked blindly at it. Whatever it was, it scuttled off into a dark corner. “Hey, here’s an idea. What if there were residual ANAD bots outside, you know…kind of drifting around. They might have survived the Red Hammer attack, the MOB, all of it. Just a few stray bots, maybe.”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Well, this: if we could locate some of these stray ANAD bots, maybe one of us could download some control and config apps from either Table Top or Singapore. There is a satlink, you know.”

D’Nunzio’s face brightened. She snapped her finger. “You’re right, girl. Quantsat. Dedicated network in orbit. If I could get the right apps into my wristpad or yours, we might could work with any stray ANAD bots, maybe get something going. I’m no code and stick girl, that’s for sure.”

“Me neither. But we’ve all had some cross-training. I’m guessing we don’t have a master bot outside, just barebones ANAD, but even so—it’s worth a shot.”

“Try it.”

So, Mighty Mite Barnes unfastened her wristpad and tapped on a few keys. She sent out a basic interrogation signal on a broadband frequency—trusting that Red Hammer wasn’t listening or hadn’t yet broken the encryption—and a few moments later, there came a faint series of beeps and chimes. Someone was answering.

D’Nunzio and Barnes looked at each other. “It’s the right kind of signal,” Mighty Mite muttered. “Faint, scattered. Must be just a few bots out there, replicant bots, maybe damaged bots. But they’re answering back…verified and authenticated and all that.”

D’Nunzio looked at the wristpad screen…showing signals and comm link status. “Well, I’m not sure what good a few bots will do…you don’t have the ability to control them with what you’ve got.”

Barnes clucked in mock disappointment. “Of ye of little faith…I can get the apps. Quantsat. Watch this—“ She pecked more on her keyboard, touching icons on the screen. Presently, a graphic of two hands shaking came up. The Quantsat Primary Link. “From what I remember in class, we’re using an encrypted, burst transmission, frequency-hopping link here. See that red box…it wants me to authenticate myself.”

D’Nunzio shrugged. “Mite, I sure hope to hell you know what you’re doing. One wrong signal and we might have killsats burning holes in our heads with particle beams.”

Barnes scoffed. “Nah…I’m not that bright. But I think I can do this—“ She tapped icons and pecked on her keyboard for a few minutes, swearing a few times, then, all of a sudden, the screen morphed into a graphic of a stylized satellite, with beams coming out of it. “Now, if I can remember the latest codes….” After a series of authentication steps, some additional security verifications and a retinal scan from the pad’s imager—here, Barnes held the thing up to her eye—she was in. She pumped the air with a fist. “Yessss! It works…just like advertised.”

D’Nunzio admired the effort. “At least one of us was awake that day in class—now what?”

Barnes started poking around in a series of directories, folders and files. “Don’t need that…don’t need that…don’t want that. Ah, here’s one: Primary Functional Control of ANAD 1.0 Systems…sounds promising. Now, I’ll see if it’ll let me download the files to my pad here.”

Ten minutes later, Barnes was all smiles. “Look what I got—“ she held up her wristpad so D’Nunzio could see in the dim light. The screen listed half a dozen files…Primary Functional Control…Configuration Manager…Config Expeditor…Replication Manager…and several more. “All right here in my little bracelet. I never dreamed this would work but—“

“Yeah, you’re a friggin’ genius all right. But what are you going do with all that? You’re not an IC.”

“Try to talk to any stray ANADs outside.” Even as she said it, Barnes was already sending out control signals. She went to the grate and peered out. “I don’t think there’s enough bots to show up visibly, but you never know. I just told any ANAD bots within range to replicate a thousand times and home on my signal. Now…we watch.”

And to their surprise, a faint blue-white glow had formed midway between their position and the lifter wreckage. The wreckage still smoldered a dull red, so it was hard to be sure. But when the blue faintly glowing ball appeared right outside the window grate, Barnes let out a whoop.

“Hot damn…will you look at that! ANAD to the rescue….”

Somehow, some way, Mighty Mite Barnes had been able to signal, control, command replication and steer a small horde of slightly used ANAD nanobots to maneuver right to their window.

D’Nunzio just shook her head. “Old Ironpants’ll never believe this. Can you make the swarm bigger? And by the way, since there’s probably no master bot out there, how do you plan on controlling this motley crew of used bots?”

Barnes held up her hands. “With these. Manual piloting. Lieutenant Winger’s not the only atomgrabber around here…although he’s a damn sight better than me. Look, here’s my idea…we grow the swarm, see. I think I can do that. I got Config Manager with me. Give ‘em some weapons…bond disrupters, enzymatic knife, probes, you name it. Plus a special config—if I can do it—so they can drill through rock. Bore right into that old mountain. That’s how we go after the Lieutenant and Gibby and Nguyen. Red Hammer won’t be expecting a visit from that axis.”

“Are you out of your mind, Mite? You can’t pilot a swarm with your wristpad. And boring through solid rock…that’ll take days.”

“You got a better idea, Deeno?”

She didn’t. So they set to work making Barnes into a full-fledged atomgrabber.

While the download and the config changes were being made, D’Nunzio decided she would reconnoiter the castle a little further, try to find them something to eat and drink. “If I don’t get something into this finely chiseled tummy of mine pretty soon, I may have to eat you, Mite.”

She came back half an hour later with some cans of water and semi-edible packs of dry noodles.

The water tasted rusty and the noodles tasted like wood chips.

“We’ll probably get the runs but I don’t care,” said D’Nunzio between bites.

Finally, after several hours of expletives, a short nap, several pee and poop runs to a far corner and a lot of finger-crossing, Barnes announced she was ready. “I’ve given my boys certain weapons, really maxed out on propulsors and configged them for solid-phase transit. I’ve got three basic apps: control, replication and config manager. And I’ve got these stupid little cursors for control…that should be fun. You ready to go digging?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be. At least, Ironpants can’t say we didn’t try.”

Barnes sent her commands. Outside the grate, the now larger faint blue fog began to move away. Barnes had chosen a spot on the ground well outside the perimeter of the wreckage, tending more toward the side of the mountain where the Detachment had first fast-cabled down to a hatch or door. “I have no idea what heading to start on, so I’m going straight down. After a few meters, I’ll try to execute a turn, then spiral down further and hope to God ANAD can pick up some kind of ELT signal. Here goes—“

“Fire in the hole—“ D’Nunzio prayed. “Kick atomic ass down there, little guys.”

The blue shimmer descended on a small promontory at the far end of the mountain top. It settled onto the ground like a late-night fog—not uncommon in this part of Hong Kong—and lit up the mountain top like a guttering candle for a few moments. Soon enough, the rubble and dirt blazed with a fierce blue-white radiance as the swarm filtered into Shih Ho Mountain and attacked the hard frozen ground below. In minutes, the entire clearing was bathed in a white hot incandescence, as the globe of light gradually subsided into the earth, like a miniature sun setting over Kowloon City.

The biggest question was whether ANAD would be able to detect any ELT signals through the hard granitic rock of Shih Ho Mountain. Time would tell.

Mighty Mite Barnes did the piloting, studying densitometer readings as they came back from ANAD. D’Nunzio managed configs and sensors. Both worked off D’Nunzio’s wristpad. Bit by bit, the rock melted until the ground was no longer solid rock. Instead, it boiled and billowed like a mirage speckled with a billion tiny explosions going off all at once, as ANAD bots broke atomic bonds and burned their way into the molecular lattice of the rock.

There was little the troopers could do now but wait. Wait and hope. Acoustic pulses came back to them on the coupler circuit, along with system status and overall borehole conditions.

Seven hours and sixteen minutes later, a faint signal was detected.

Barnes had zoned out to a light sleep when the chime sounded. Instantly alert, she got D’Nunzio up.

“ANAD’s heard something…I’m putting him on a new heading…now steering zero seven five degrees. What’s my config status?”

D’Nunzio checked the wristpad. “Still showing half folded, Config C-77, effectors in solid phase setup, bond breakers at one hundred percent…looks like propulsors have lost a little oomph and he’s lost a few grabbers too.”

“ANAD’s wearing out, working his way through all those crystalline lattices. It’s like fighting against a crowd in the airport. Signal’s getting a bit stronger…we’re onto something, Deeno…and getting closer.”

“About time.”

 

It was An Nguyen, curled up in a fetal position on the cell floor, who first sensed a presence around him. He sat up, felt the increase in heat, shook himself into a groggy sort of consciousness and spotted the faint aura of a shimmering smoke billowing out from the solid rock wall.

He smelled it too. Something was burning. A fire?

“Lieutenant…Lieutenant!—“ he yelled. Staggering to his knees, he peered under the hard metal frame of this bunk. “Lieutenant…we got a fire! Get over here—“ He groped around in the failing light, breathing hard, sucking for air, feeling for a fire extinguisher that wasn’t there. Then, he remembered where they were.

Johnny Winger stirred himself awake and saw Nguyen frantically rummaging about the cell.

“What is it? What’s --?”

“There’s smoke…right there under the bunk! We must have a fire!”

Before he could respond, a faint idea had materialized in Winger’s mind. It was ANAD…it had to be. The tiny assembler had returned!

“ANAD!” Winger swung himself down from his own bunk, coughing in the stale, stagnant air. “It’s ANAD!

Beneath Nguyen’s bunk, a bright light shone, growing brighter by the moment. Winger peered below the mattress.

Nguyen sat down heavily as he realized Winger was right. Semi-conscious and exhausted, he had mistaken the faint blue mist for a fire. Gibbs was awake now too, pulling the bunk and frame away from the rock wall, exposing the light.

The rock seemed to be melting, heaving and boiling. Presently, gouts and chunks of rock fell away. A yawning hole, wide as a man’s shoulder, opened up.

“They’ve come for us!” Gibbs cried. “About damn time.”

Winger became concerned the guards might come by at any moment. “Watch the door…make sure nobody’s coming.”

Gibbs took up a position where he could see through the narrow iron grate down the corridor. “Nobody at the moment, Lieutenant.”

They let the ANAD swarm finish its borehole. After a few minutes, a translucent blue white spherical cloud hung over their heads…the remnants of the ANAD swarm, still flickering from the fires of atomic bonds being broken.

“I don’t have a wristpad,” Winger said. “None of us do. No way to talk to ANAD.”

Nguyen peered cautiously into the still smoldering borehole. “It’s wide enough…maybe.”

“Wide enough for what?” asked Gibbs, still watching the hall outside.

“For a man, for us—“ Winger decided. “Somebody—maybe Barnes or Deeno or somebody topside—sent ANAD down here, right through the mountain. Must have homed on our ELTs. I didn’t think that was even possible inside the mountain.”

Nguyen poked his head up inside the hole. It was still too hot to touch. “You must be right, Lieutenant. This is the way out…there are even something like little ledges in the tunnel. ANAD bored an escape tunnel and even carved something for us to hold on to.”

Gibbs wasn’t sold on the idea. “We don’t know how far it is to the other end…maybe it’s a Red Hammer trap.”

Winger thought that unlikely. “No, they’d just come in the door…why bother with tunneling through solid rock. Jeez, this must have taken hours…let’s get lined up. Buddha, you’re first in the hole. Then you, Gibby. I’ll bring up the rear. I just hope the guards don’t pay us a visit until we’re well up that hole—“

“We’ll have to let it cool off a bit, from the boring,” Nguyen told them.

So they waited…ten minutes, impatiently. Then Winger told them to take off their boots and use their socks as hand cloths. “We’ve got to get the hell out of here while we can.”

One by one, Nguyen, Gibbs and Winger wriggled into the tunnel opening, head first.

The guards didn’t come by to check on their unwilling guests for another hour.

 

An hour later, the three of them were grunting and panting, trying to contort themselves up ANAD’s tunnel. With effort and a lot of shoving, Winger was able to force Gibbs, now stuck in a slight kink in the tunnel, further up into the shaft.

“What kind of clearance do you have?”

Gibbs bit his lip. He was not going to succumb to claustrophobia now.

“Maybe an inch around my head. It’s a tight fit.”

“Can you see anything above you?”

“I can see a wall of rock screened off by bots. It’s like the wall is bubbling and heaving. But I can reach out and touch it with my hand. It’s still steaming hot too. Above me, it’s black as night. Can’t see a thing.”

“It’s probably going to be a bumpy ride. Close your eyes and think of something more pleasant—“

“Yeah…like what? Deeno and Mighty Mite running naked down a beach.”

“Right…whatever turns you on. Just get going. It’s a long way to the surface.”

Amen to that, he thought. Maybe a little prayer would help too. He took a deep breath, counted to three and started hauling and pulling. Already his arms and legs ached from fatigue.

Then, unstuck at last, he started to move upward, smacking the side of his head on the hard rock walls.

 

Winger and the other two troopers continued their painstaking ascent for what seemed like hours, maybe days. They soon lost all track of time and space.

Only the labored sound of his own breathing—his face was getting pretty banged up from flying dirt and rock chips—and the bang and crunch of his hands scraping along the tunnel walls gave him any sense of motion.

He tried slowing down a little to see if it had any effect on the scraping but it didn’t.

Guess I’m going to be a billiard ball when I get topside, he told herself. He wondered how long that would take. He would have given anything to know where he was, how close to the surface he was. This was worse than Banikaiyan. Pitch black, in a narrow tube the size of a coffin, with no idea where he was or where he was going.

It was enough to drive an atomgrabber to drink.

How long he had zoned out, he didn’t know. Climbing on automatic, hand over hand, leg over leg, he had entered some kind of gray zone of semi-consciousness. His mouth was bone dry and there wasn’t any liquid in the chin tube left over from their hypersuits; he must have sucked it all dry. His shoulders, neck and legs throbbed from the incessant banging and battering.

Maybe I’m not going anywhere, he thought. But that couldn’t be. How else to explain the throbbing ache in his arms and shoulders? They had been climbing hours, maybe days.

At least, ANAD’s tunnel seemed navigable, if a bit snug. He wondered where Gibbs was. And Nguyen too…he listened for the scraping and scuffling of their feet, hearing nothing. There was nobody directly above him. Had Gibbs moved further ahead? He couldn’t have fallen back…there was no room.

He didn’t want to think about that at all.

Suddenly he felt like he was being accelerated forward. With a sudden surge, he was pushed upward, through loose soil…then light…blindingly bright light and before he realized what had happened, he was at the surface, wallowing in dust and pebbles like a beached whale.

Strong hands helped him upright and a blur of faces were just beyond his vision, but his eyes were stuck half shut and his face was grimy and fogged and he couldn’t make out anything.

He was wobbly but all the hands kept him upright; he stumbled a bit but someone caught him, then a stream of cold freezing air smacked him in the face and suddenly things became clearer.

The first face he saw was Deeno D’Nunzio, scowling in at his bruised, sweaty face.

“Well, well,” Deeno clucked, “aren’t you a sight? Lieutenant Winger, welcome back to the land of the living.”

Winger half smiled weakly. “Worse caving experience I ever had. Except I made it to the end.” He looked around.

It was night. The wreckage of the lifter was a cold, gray heap of debris. The ANAD swarm hovered nearby, a faint flickering ground fog lit from within with flashes and pinpricks of light, a silent thunderstorm in miniature.

“Come on, Lieutenant….” said Mighty Mite Barnes. She slung one of his half-dead arms around her shoulder. Mite was surprisingly strong for a small female. “Let’s get you out of sight…back to our cubbyhole. The castle.” The two of them limped all the way to the Stores room that had been their home for most of the night.

“Home sweet home,” Barnes told them, as she and Mighty Mite helped the Lieutenant and the others inside. Straight away, she gave them all water and noodles. Nobody complained.

“How’d you get ANAD through all that rock?” Winger asked. He made a face at the rusty water, but said nothing.

Barnes explained what they had done. “I was able to grab control and config apps off Quantsat…and turn my wristpad into a control device. It was ticklish, pretty much jerry-rigged, but it seemed to work.”

Winger looked around. There was Deeno and Mighty Mite. Gibbs. Nguyen. “Where’s Reaves?”

“She wasn’t with you?”

“Red Hammer must have put her someplace else. We’ll have to go back for her…nanotroopers don’t leave anyone behind. Let me see your pad—“ Barnes took the pad off and handed it over. Winger clucked and h’mmmed for a minute, obviously impressed at Mite’s ingenuity. “Old Ironpants will find this interesting, I’m sure. Speaking of which—“ He pecked at a few buttons and icons on the screen, and after awhile, was able to raise a duty officer at Quantum Corps’ Singapore base.

Winger explained what had happened to Delta Helix and the Detachment. “We need lifter and troop support asap. One trooper’s still inside the Rock and I want an exfil as soon as it can be organized.”

Inside of ten minutes, a flight of two lifters with a small detachment had been chopped to Delta Helix and was winging its way north to Hong Kong.

The next step was to contact Major Kraft. Winger worked Barnes’ wristpad to make the connection through Quantsat. Kraft’s scowling face soon appeared on the tiny screen.

Winger squirted a basic after-action report on the Detachment’s mission to Table Top. “They overwhelmed ANAD, sir,” he told the Major. “I tried to grab some samples but the Red Hammer mechs out-replicated, out-maneuvered, and out-engaged us from the beginning. Whatever they’ve got under the hood, it’s really souped up their bots. I’d like to get something we can bring back…right now, we’ve got nothing…except one missing trooper. Request permission to stay on-site and get her out, after Singapore arrives. It’s Trooper Sheila Reaves, Major. I need her…she’s one of my best DPS techs.”

With its quivering moustache and furry eyebrows, Kraft’s face looked like an angry cat about to pounce. “Negative, Winger. I need you back here. You’re chopped to Northgate University…special assignment. Doc Frost at the Autonomous Systems Lab has some experiments he wants to run…new stuff for ANAD. You’re the designated lab rat. Get back here on the double.”

“But sir…Corporal Reaves—“

But Kraft would listen to no further objections. “On the double, Winger. Take a lifter back to Singapore and get on their hyperjet. I expect you in my office at 0600 hours tomorrow morning…unless you need medical help.”

“No, sir…I’m good to go.” With that, Kraft killed the link and the screen went dark.

Barnes just shook her head. “We can’t just leave Sheila to the pukes from Singapore…they don’t know beans about running ANAD through a mountain…I cobbled this arrangement together off the top of my head….who knows if it’ll even work again. Lieutenant, request permission to stay behind with the relief force…I can drive ANAD through that rock pile once more. I can find Reaves.”

Winger didn’t think long about it. Kraft had said nothing about Barnes or D’Nunzio returning to Table Top. “Do it, Mite. You and Deeno. Get Reaves out of there, as fast as you can, anyway you can. Singapore gives you any static, we’ll sick old Ironpants on ‘em.”

 

The lifters from Singapore base, Quantum Corps Eastern Command, were overhead in two hours, circling in light morning fog and dawn light while their pilots scoped out the LZ. Aside from residual ANAD bots and the now-cold wreckage of the first lifter, the twin birds saw no sign of Red Hammer activity on top of Lions Rock. One lifter set down near the front of the castle and disgorged a small contingent of troopers. The second lifter orbited overhead, top cover for the assistance mission.

Winger discussed details with the force commander, one Lieutenant Panang, a stocky, olive-skinned officer with squinty eyes and bad teeth. He replayed Kraft’s orders and Panang’s eyebrows arched.

“Assigning a lifter for you to go back to Singapore violates our mission tasking,” Panang growled. “We’re here to relieve your people…best to let the real atomgrabbers take over now.”

Winger resisted the urge to plant a fist into Panang’s pigface and settled for re-playing Major Kraft’s direct orders on Panang’s wristpad. The Singapore officer’s scowl grew deeper and deeper as Kraft explained Winger’s new assignment.

“Very well, Lieutenant Winger…I’ll have my top cover drop a quickrope down and you can scoot right up. Meanwhile, who’s in command on site?”

Winger introduced Panang to Deeno and Mighty Mite. He enjoyed the facial expression that came over the Singaporean officer when the two Table Top atomgrabbers saluted and shook hands.

Too bad I can’t stay around. This should be interesting.

Winger made a few last minute decisions and changed a few of Mighty Mite’s ANAD configs before he left. “Might help the little bugger scoot through solid rock more efficiently. Just make sure Lieutenant Pigface here does his job…top cover and perimeter defense. You drive ANAD, Mite. Let Panang’s men handle Red Hammer outside.”

“No sweat, Skipper.” Barnes saluted. “We’ll get Sheila out…if we can find her ELT.”

With that, Winger quickroped up to the orbiting lifter and was off to the Eastern Command base.

 

The suborbital hop to Table Top, across the entire breadth of the Pacific, took an hour and a half. Hyperjet Mercury burned a hole in the sky as she roared off Runway Eight Five Right and rocketed skyward into purple morning thunderstorm clouds boiling up from the tropics. She skirted the tenuous upper wisps of the atmosphere and was already decelerating and slamming back into the air over western North America before Johnny Winger could even finish his breakfast wrap and coffee.

He hightailed it to Kraft’s office in the glass-fronted Ops Center and knocked lightly on the Major’s door.

“Come—“came a gruff voice. Winger went in, found the Major pecking out orders on his commandpad at the same time he was patched in through Quantsat to the ground situation at Lions Rock. A small 3-d iconic view of the mountain and its relief force engaged in some kind of firefight with Red Hammer occupied a corner of Kraft’s desk.

“Looks like your friends have company this morning,” Kraft noted. “Red Hammer began an assault just at sun-up. The works…bots, troops, beam weapons. The place is a circus but Panang’s giving a good account of himself. They’re holding a perimeter around that castle…just got word from Corporal Barnes that they’ve located Corporal Reaves’ ELT…they’re closing in now. If Panang can just hold them off—“

Winger watched the holorama for a few moments, until Kraft minimized the show and put down his pad. He leaned back, crossed his body-builder’s arms over a belly just beginning to show some age and sag, and regarded Winger.

“We’ve got to give ANAD some real chops, Lieutenant. That’s why I sending you to Northgate. If half of what Doc Frost has promised us is true, you could have made quick work of Red Hammer’s bots inside Lions Rock. As it was, you and ANAD got your ass kicked and you were lucky to get out alive. I don’t want to hear any more reports of ‘ANAD being out-replicated, outmaneuvered, getting his atomic ass kicked.’ In this outfit, ANAD isn’t holding his position. He’s attacking and moving forward all the time. When it comes to Red Hammer, ANAD’s going to hold ‘em by the nose and kick ‘em in the butt. In fact, to quote my good friend General George S. Patton, ANAD’s going to go through Red Hammer like crap through a goose. That’s why I’m sending you to see Doc Frost. He’s got some truly crackpot ideas that no sane commander would ever seriously entertain. But you don’t outflank Red Hammer by just following the book. You’re going civilian on this one, Winger. In fact, you’re booked on the next commercial flight out of Boise tomorrow morning.”

Winger was intrigued, in spite of his concern over the Detachment he had just left at Lions Rock. “What kind of ideas, Major?”

Kraft’s face broke in a mischievous grin. Winger thought he looked like a malevolent Santa Claus, about to repossess all the world’s toys. “Let’s just say that, if it works, ANAD will have new capabilities…capabilities that even Red Hammer could never conceive of. And ANAD will be closer to you, Lieutenant, than your own ass hairs.”

Kraft dismissed Winger. Winger went to the commissary for a little chow, then spent the rest of the day, sorting out civvie clothes and what to take to the University. Winger figured it would be a nice change of pace to go somewhere that other people weren’t trying to kill you, or swarm you.

The following morning, after a short lifter ride down to BOI, just south of the center of Boise, Johnny Winger boarded a Transair flight to Philadelphia. The trip would take three hours. He had decided to take his notes from nog school classes on ANAD systems, figuring he would study up on the history and development of autonomous nanoscale systems. But ten minutes after wheels-up, Winger had drifted off to sleep. Lions Rock had taken more out of him than he realized and he didn’t want any stim crap jazzing up his system while he was at Northgate.

He slept the entire trip.

Chapter 2

“Northgate U.”

 

Northgate University, Autonomous Systems Lab

Pennsylvania, USA

October 19, 2048

9:00 am

 

The Autonomous Systems Lab was located on the fourth floor of Galen Hall. Galen was one of Northgate’s first buildings, anchoring one corner of the original grassy quadrangle. A turreted, neo-Gothic monstrosity, the building had been turned over to the Lab and several non-degree granting departments several years before. Below the fourth floor, freshmen English students struggled with term papers on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Above them, the maze of tanks and piping of the Lab’s Containment Facility would rival any freshman’s nightmare vision of Hell itself.

Dr. Irwin Frost was chief of the Autonomous Systems Lab, birthplace of the original ANAD. He was mid-sixtyish and balding, with a love for old flannel shirts beneath the dirty smocks he seemed to sleep in. Frost had invented autonomous nanoscale assemblers in the early ‘40s and was unquestionably the driving force behind ANAD and the growth of the nanomech world. He had a father’s love for his infinitesimal creations and an avuncular manner with his latest protégé, Lieutenant Johnny Winger.

For Winger, coming back to Northgate was always like an old homecoming. Even Frost’s associate, Dr. Mary Duncan, a petite Scotswoman, was on hand.

Johnny Winger studied the imager screen in front of him. Suspended in a nutrient bath inside Containment, the ANAD master looked like some kind of futuristic space probe. The basic polyhedral structure was still there, but scores of molecule chains undulated gently in the bath currents, chains Winger didn’t recognize. He looked in vain for the bond disrupters, the enzymatic knife, all the tools he’d become familiar with.

“He’s changed, Doc. I don’t recognize all those chains…he’s got gizmos I’ve never seen before. Are they new end effectors or what?”

Frost smiled. “I regenerated a new master, Johnny. You didn’t leave me with a whole lot after Mali…and Lions Rock. I’ve been tinkering under the hood, as you like to put it.”

“I’ll say…” Winger pointed to a pair of linked hydrogen radicals on the screen. “And these doodads—?

Frost ticked off the changes. “New and improved, Johnny. Those are stiffened diamondoid effectors, with ‘stickier’ covalent bond ends, radicals and carbenes. Better grabbing ability. Look just above the effectors…see those U-shaped gadgets?”

Winger looked, turning to Frost with a puzzled look. “Some kind of grabbers?”

“Extensible fullerene hooks, for more secure grasping and attaching. I modified a ribosome design I had seen. Sort of improved on Mother Nature.”

Winger shook his head. “ANAD’s really souped up, Doc. What about under the hood?”

“Faster quantum processor, with a faster executing basic replication algorithm. Plus I’ve added direct sequences from several viral genomes…nobody replicates faster than viruses.”

Winger’s brow wrinkled. “Is that safe, Doc?”

Frost shrugged. “As safe as any weapon…in the right hands. Plus ANAD’s interface and communication system has been upgraded. Your Intel people—Q2, I believe you call them—found some interesting things in the rubble at Banikaiyan. We figured out one of the devices was a communicator, a quantum communicator. It’s really quite a device…what was left of it.”

Mary Duncan sipped gently at a cup of steaming tea. “It had us stumped for a long time, it did. But we manage to reverse-engineer the blasted thing.”

“—finally got it to work,” Frost said proudly. “Now ANAD has one too…you’ll be able to affect some control over his basic operations just by direct thought…once you’ve been trained properly.”

Winger shook his head. “This whole idea gives me the creeps. Don’t get me wrong…ANAD and me are pals. We understand each other well. We kind of think alike, I guess, like brothers. Except I never had a brother—and now Major Kraft wants me to try this new gizmo out.“

Mary Duncan put a hand on Winger’s arm. “Don’t fret, Johnny. The operation will go fine. We’ve done countless sims over the last few months.”

“That’s what worries me. All the sims in the world can’t equal the real thing. How’s this quantum coupler supposed to work?”

Frost diagrammed his explanation on a board. “The coupler allows ANAD to send extremely large bandwidths of information of all types—all senses, such as visual, olfactory, audio, tactile as well as direct sensing of the molecular environment—directly to a special hypersuit headset that connects with the proper sensory channel of the wearer or directly into a special ANAD junction inside the wearer’s skull, a sort of server that routs the data stream to the corresponding lobes of the brain.”

“You mean I could see…sense…exactly what ANAD senses?”

Frost nodded. “In a way. You and ANAD will be coupled in a quantum sense…exchanging entanglement states, to use the correct wording. ANAD now has a quantum coupler and multiplexer embedded in his processor core. The quantum states that represent what he senses go through this coupler to an interface, which will be part of your implant. This interface will disentangle the quantum state signals from ANAD, send the signals on to a buffer that transforms them into something your brain can accept—specific voltages and ionic concentrations—and then splits the buffered signals into patterns of firing neurons for different sensory channels, the final direct coupling into your sensory cortex.”

Winger’s head spun just thinking about it. “If you say so, Doc. I have just one question…will it work?”

Mary Duncan laughed softly. She handed him a small cup. “Just drink this, Johnny. It’ll relax you. Here, why don’t you go ahead and lie down and get comfortable.”

Winger hoisted himself onto a gurney and lay back, sniffing the liquid Dr. Duncan had given him. “What is it…some kind of Scottish ale?”

“Just a spot of Burma tea,” she told him, fluffing pillows as he situated himself. “And a bit of glasseye mixed in.”

Winger downed the drink and lay his head back, closing his eyes. But before he had a chance to open them again and ask another question, he was already spiraling down a very, deep dark black hole.

 

The operation was a success but the patient awoke dizzy and disoriented. The first thing Johnny Winger remembered seeing was a blizzard. He lay on the gurney and let the sensations flood over him.

It was sleeting but the sleet was different. Different sizes and shapes careened at him, as if blown by wind, buffeting him with cross currents and gusts. He leaned forward, squinting to see, but it was too strong. Johnny dropped to his knees and began crawling, then swimming, against the surging flow that surrounded him. The sleet pelted and stung with every imaginable shape, cubes and pyramids and polygons and weird octahedral lattices, streaming by in a roaring wind.

Then he opened his eyes.

The first face he saw was that of Dr. Mary Duncan. Other faces were nearby, but they were fuzzy and indistinct. Duncan’s grandmotherly smile materialized out of the sleet. She offered a paper cup of some liquid, which he accepted, swallowing experimentally, then with more assurance. It tasted brassy but warm, and it soothed him.

Time seemed congealed but it passed and with the passing of time, consciousness settled into something more familiar, like trying on old clothes.

“How long was I out?” he murmured. There was a soreness in his left shoulder and upper back. He soon became aware of a large bandage back there.

Dr. Duncan and Doc Frost were both there, gazing down at him. “About four hours, Johnny. It’s night time now. How do you feel?”

Winger smiled sheepishly. “Not too bad. But that was some dream I had…right when I woke up, I had a dream…I was in a sleet storm, a driving blizzard only the sleet was all different. Different colors and shapes, much bigger than normal. It was weird.”

Doc Frost’s face now came fully into view. “That was no dream, Johnny.”

“It wasn’t?”

Frost shook his head. “It’s normal. I expected some leakage at first….it’ll take some getting used to. It’s your limbic system…picking up stray signals from the interface. There may be some…how best to say this—” Frost gazed off at the window for a moment, seeing the lights of other buildings across the campus, “…there may be some unusual emotions the next few days. Sometimes, the interface doesn’t completely convert all the signals…some of them spill over and trigger reactions elsewhere. We’re monitoring you all the time for the next few weeks…just to make sure.”

Winger eased himself into a sitting position. “North Bar Pass ranch was never like this. If that wasn’t a dream, what was it?”

Frost smiled. “Actually, it was probably sensory data from ANAD. You’re coupled now…what ANAD sees, you also can see.”

“But the sleet—“

Frost put a reassuring hand on Winger’s head, rubbing the burr of his crew cut. “This is going to take some adjustment, Johnny. You’ll be in rehab and training for a month. The sleet wasn’t really sleet. You were directly sensing molecules and atoms the way ANAD sees them.”

Johnny Winger’s eyes widened. He sank back in the bed. “Jesus—“he shook his head. “I’m familiar with the acoustic imager and how to perceive through that. But to actually be there…with ANAD….” He closed his eyes. “Man, that was weird. But the dream went away…how come I’m not seeing it now?”

Frost cleared his throat. “Johnny, a new containment capsule has been implanted. In your shoulder. And the quantum coupler too. They’re hooked up but there will be a training period, several months, where you’ll learn how to access ANAD directly, as well as through normal means. ANAD’s no longer in the capsule. He’s back in the TinyTown pod inside Containment.”

Winger was puzzled. ‘Then what about the dream?”

Frost explained. “We put ANAD into the capsule in your shoulder for about an hour, to calibrate the interface and the buffers, to see that the links worked. Then we extracted him. What you saw was a residual trace, left over.”

Johnny felt gingerly at the bandage over his left shoulder. “How long?”

Frost took a deep breath. “The bandage can come off in a week. Your containment capsule has a port for ANAD to enter and exit by, along with the interface chip and containment bath. Anytime ANAD’s inside the capsule, it’ll be just like he’s in containment inside TinyTown. The capsule’s designed to provide the right nutrients, the right conditions for him to survive. You’ve got a very small TinyTown embedded in your shoulder, Johnny. The physics and chemistry of the implant are pretty straightforward. What takes time is learning how to talk to ANAD when he’s contained in the capsule, through the interface. How to turn the link on and off, how to…I guess ‘interpret’ is the best word, what ANAD sends back and somehow integrate it into what your brain normally does. You and ANAD will be almost like a mother and child, in some ways. You’re going to have to learn how to talk to each other, how to understand each other, how to get along in this new way.”

Mary Duncan agreed. “That’s what will take time, Johnny. And to be truthful, since you’re the first to undergo the implant procedure, we really don’t know how that’s going to happen. You’ll have to help us understand what we can do to help you.”

“For now,” Frost said, gently pushing Winger back into the bed, “you rest. In another day or so, we’ll go over the details of rehab and recovery.”

Winger tried to relax but it wasn’t easy. In his mind’s eye, he could still see the sleet storm and feel the buffeting of wind gusts…or were they ocean waves? Hard to say for sure. He grinned up at the two of them.

“I guess it’s my first exposure to van der Waals forces and Brownian motion, huh?”

Mary Duncan nodded. “I’m afraid so, Johnny.”

“It’ll be like learning to walk and talk, all over again. Just like I’m a baby.”

“A very special baby, to be sure. Quantum Corps has spent a lot of money and time on you now.”

Winger’s head swam with the possibilities. He couldn’t suppress a grin. “Almost like being born, all over again. Like getting a second chance. I’ll have to re-learn all the basic ANAD operations…replication, rendezvous and docking, launch and capture, all the effectors and probes, navigation…” he shook his head, his mind thick with the magnitude of the work ahead. “I never dreamed…” but he caught himself, chuckling. “Well, I guess I did dream…in a way.”

“Rest now, Johnny,’ Doc Frost insisted. He took another cup from Mary Duncan and offered it to the atomgrabber. “This will help. Tomorrow, we’ll get started, sorting out all the new stuff.”

Winger sipped from the cup and tried to relax. But the image of the sleet storm kept coming back, that and a sobering realization:

When you were the size of a few atoms, you spent your whole life fighting forces and currents that bigger objects, like human beings, took for granted. When you were all of sixty nanometers tall, you couldn’t take anything for granted.

Johnny Winger closed his eyes, understanding now for the first time, just how much he had to learn from ANAD.

 

Rehab and recovery went on for a month, most of it at the Autonomous Systems Lab; later, additional tests would be done back at Table Top. Along with Doc Frost and Mary Duncan, two lab techs assisted in getting Johnny back on his feet: a dark-complexioned Carpathian intern named Milan Stovacs and a pretty red-haired post-doc named Celia James.

Johnny took an early interest in Celia. Stovacs was different. He seemed earnest and sincere, if a bit nervous in manner, but there was something Johnny couldn’t quite put a finger on. He chalked it up to the quantum coupler. When you were talking with a device sixty nanometers tall, using quantum entanglement states, who knew what might crop up inside your head?

The first order of business was to make sure ANAD could be launched and captured properly into containment in the small capsule, then to make sure a comm link could be established through the interface. The shoulder capsule was a secure environment for the autonomous nanoscale assembler/ disassembler, able to provide proper conditions of pressure, pH, and temperature for ANAD to survive. It was essentially self-sustaining, as long as Johnny Winger didn’t do something foolish.

Doc Frost had already prepped the TinyTown pod in the Containment chamber for ANAD’s launch.

“Sit there, Johnny,” he said. There was a reclining seat nearby. Electron beam guns surrounded the seat, just in case. After he had made himself comfortable, Mary Duncan helped orient him so ANAD would have a clear path to be captured into containment in the implanted capsule.

“We tried it several times, during the surgery,” she explained. “We had you in every possible position…sitting upright, lying on your side, on your stomach—“

“Even propped you up like a mannequin,” Frost added. “Some positions were better than others.”

Winger gave that some thought. “I don’t remember any of it.”

“You were under deep anesthesia at the time, Johnny.”

Winger studied the setup. “Seems to me that I’m likely to be standing or running in most captures…especially in combat.”

“You’re probably right,” Frost said. He tinkered with the interface controls, getting ANAD ready. “But this is a test. We’ve got to make sure ANAD gets into the capsule without problem and that he can establish a comm link. Mary—?”

“He’s ready,” Duncan replied.

Frost scanned the IC panel and was satisfied. The containment chamber was secure at Level Four containment—negative air pressure, active seals, electron beams primed…just in case something went wrong. “ANAD reports ready in all respects. I’m enabling….I’m launching—“

A faint whoosh of air escaped from the exit valve atop the TinyTown pod.

For a few seconds, nothing happened. ANAD’s instructions were simple for the purposes of the test: replicate a few times—merely an exercise to flex his rep algorithm and effectors, then configure for capture and transit into the capsule in Johnny’s shoulder.

A faint keening whine could be heard as the rep counter ticked over.

“…showing replications now—“ Frost announced, reading the display. “Just a few thousand, to make sure everything works…now, he’s reconfiguring, folding effectors, getting ready for insert—Johnny, any moment now—“

Mary Duncan put a calming hand on Johnny’s head, noting how tense the atomgrabber was.

“Just relax…it’s all very routine—“

And it was over before he knew it. One moment, the keening whine could be heard. The next moment, there was a brief sting of heat as the ANAD master fluffed off its replicated daughters and burrowed into the shoulder capsule.

The whine died off, the sting subsided and that was that.

Johnny Winger looked up expectantly. “That’s all there is?”

But before Frost could reply, a chirp sounded inside his head.

***hey…hey…it’s me, Johnny….can you hear me? I’m in the capsule….ANAD to Base, how do you read, over?…trying to make all the connections…get this state generator to work…ANAD to Base, anybody there…?***

A quizzical grin came over Johnny’s face. “ANAD…ANAD, you nut…I can hear you! Or at least, I think I’m hearing you—“

Frost nodded, expectantly. “A kind of interior voice—?”

“Like somebody’s inside my head….somebody else. I guess it’s ANAD. Man, this is too weird. He’s talking…or at least, I can hear something. But there’s no sound—“

Frost studied his IC panel. “I’m reading ANAD inside capsule containment, linked in. Comms are there…trying to be there, anyway. ANAD’s activated the quantum coupler…he’s trying to link in with your coupler.”

Johnny Winger shook his head. “Ouch…kind of a loud buzz, that was.” He grasped at something in the air, only there was nothing. “Is that a fly…a moth buzzing around?”

“No,’ Frost said. “The coupler’s polling every sensory channel, and your neural buffer’s trying to make sense out of it. Maybe the state generator needs adjusting—“

***ANAD to Base…this is tricky, like trying to nab a hydrogen molecule…can you hear me, Base? I’m going through all the buffer channels, trying to find out what does what…so many different connections—***

“I hear you, ANAD. What the hell are you doing in there…I keep seeing flashes of light, moths and bees flying around. It sounds like a symphony orchestra tuning up—“

***ANAD to Base…sorry about that, Boss. I’m not sure where my state signals are ending up…there’s an awful lot of wiring in here…***

‘Hey,” Winger said, rubbing his temples. “Take it easy, will you? That’s my brain you’re messing with.”

Slowly, in fits and starts, but with increasing assurance, the spurious sensations died off and a smooth flow of signals settled in. The whole process took half an hour. In that time, Johnny heard glass shattering, saw purple sunsets on strange landscapes, smelled his mother’s pancakes and plum syrup three times and developed a terrific headache.

Doc Frost finagled with the interface controls, fine-tuning ANAD’s quantum coupler to narrow the focus of its state generator. “Quantum entanglement states are a bitch to deal with,” he muttered, as his fingers raced over the keyboard. “I still don’t know how Red Hammer managed to make this work so easily. “It’s like trying to paint a small stripe of paint on door molding with a pressure washer. It all goes everywhere.”

***ANAD to Base…how’s that? I’ve got my linkset narrowed down…just a few more connections….I’m not sure what they’re for…but I’m learning how everything works***

“Me too, ANAD,” Winger muttered. “Doc, is it going to be like this every time? Is it going to take half an hour to get contained and set up comms?”

Frost shook his head. “I don’t think so. ANAD’s just learning…and I’m fine-tuning his program even more. Plus, your own neural net will adapt as well….it’s not everyday somebody has an assembler buzzing around inside his body, trying to plug in and talk with him.”

“I’ll say.” Winger lay back in the seat and let ANAD do what he had to do.

 

Hours later, the process seemed a lot smoother. Several times, he had practiced a full launch and recovery sequence. Each time, the linkup took less time. By the end of the first day, ANAD and Johnny Winger had honed the process down to just a few minutes.

“But we’ve got to do better than that, ANAD,” he announced. “In combat, we won’t have even a few minutes. We’ve got to get this linkup down to less than a minute.”

Frost was skeptical. “I’m not sure that’s doable right now, Johnny. I may have to tinker with ANAD’s kernel again, see if I can optimize it, now that I know where the trouble spots are.”

Winger was adamant. “To be useful in combat, Doc, I’ve got to be able to get ANAD launched and recovered in a minute.”

***ANAD to Base…I’m doing my best, but there’s a lot of connections to make…and your side keeps changing what to connect***

Winger relayed ANAD’s concern and Doc Frost nodded in sympathy. “I’m afraid he’s right, Johnny. Since I can’t change the way you’re wired, I’ve got to change how ANAD goes about the linkup. Maybe I can combine some steps, eliminate others. Give me a night to think about it.”

“That’s fair,” Winger said.

‘It’s been a long day, Johnny,” said Mary Duncan. She handed him a cup of steaming hot tea.

“Glasseye?” he asked. He took the cup and sniffed it experimentally.

Duncan shook her head. “Only Burma Black, this time. Very soothing, if I do say so.”

Winger sipped at the scalding liquid. “Before you take ANAD back, Doc, I’d like to try something. ANAD—?”

***ANAD to Base…I’m here, Boss***

“I’m closing my eyes—“ Johnny Winger sank back into the confines of the recliner. “Show me what you see right now…inside that containment capsule. I want to see it the way you see it.”

***_Base, are you sure you want to_***

Frost was opposed. “Johnny, let’s don’t stretch things too much this first day—“

But Winger was adamant. “When we go into combat, Doc, we’ve got to be able to trust each other, implicitly. Understand each other…like brothers. If I can’t see the world the way ANAD sees it, and him the same with me, that trust’ll never develop.”

Frost’s eyes met Mary Duncan’s. Grudgingly, he relented. “Go ahead.”

Johnny Winger closed his eyes but he still saw imagery…only it wasn’t the containment chamber in which he sat. The Tinytown pod, the piping, the thick ganglia of wires and cables and the heavy hatch door…all of that faded to gray, then to black. At first, only faint crackles and squiggles of light danced in front of his eyes—though his eyes were closed.

Then, like riding in a boat across a fog-shrouded lake, the far shore became more and more distinct, gradually materializing out of the gloom.

The imagery was hard to discern at first, so alien was the view. He had seen acoustic impressions from ANAD’s sounding before, displayed in interface controls, but that was a poor cousin to the real thing.

Now, he had somehow fallen off the boat and submerged and was beating his way against fierce currents and water choked with debris…boxes and beams and lamp shades and things there were no words for, shapes so dizzying and complex he couldn’t count the facets…huge diamonds and snakes and dumbbells floating by, scraping and shoving him along—

***ANAD to Base…ANAD to Johnny…don’t fight it…just relax…let things stream by…let go and just feel your way…feel that?…just feel your way….where it’s weaker, just kick…there! Like that, see?…you can slide and skate and sort of scoot through the gaps***

And that was how, over the next few hours, Johnny Winger learned to maneuver through molecular Brownian motion and slingshot himself like a trapeze artist around pulsating fields of van der Waals forces.

It was nearly midnight and Winger was drenched in sweat when the surging, swirling river currents began to fade to black and the riveted bulkhead of the containment chamber came into view. As he focused his eyes, he struggled upright and saw Doc Frost sprawled in his chair at the IC panel, snoring loudly, slumped over the keyboard. Mary Duncan had found herself a corner beneath some piping and curled up like a great white cat.

Winger startled himself fully awake and shook his head. “Jesus, ANAD, how long was I out?”

***_I calculate you were in sleep mode for exactly two hours and thirty four minutes, Base. Doctor Frost and Doctor Duncan are currently still in sleep mode_***

Winger winced and sat up, rubbing his shoulder and the back of his head. “Two and a half hours. I must have been exhausted. Say, ANAD, why do you call me Base, anyway?”

***Because that’s what you are…the base of operations. Headquarters. Central command. We’re a team now, you and me***

“I never thought of it like that.” Winger got up, careful not to disturb the others, and left the Containment chamber, aware of how strange it seemed to simply walk out without concern for barriers or decontamination. For as long as he had been with Quantum Corps and dealing with ANAD systems, maintaining containment had been directive number one.

Now ANAD was part of him. Literally.

He found a restroom and stared at his face in the mirror. On a whim, he pulled off his shirt and examined the bandaged area where the implanted capsule had been inserted. He knew he shouldn’t undress the bandage, but he couldn’t help it. He was curious. He wanted to see the results of Quantum Corps’ Man-Machine Symbiosis Project.

The skin was puffy and red, swollen around the implant but there was no mistaking that something new had been attached. Beneath the swelling, as he examined the incision, a tiny circular port and cover was barely visible, like a miniature missile silo from pictures he’d seen on History vids. There was no obvious hinge or way to open the port, but beneath the cap, a small capsule had been surgically placed and mounted to the back of his clavicle. He felt the port cap gingerly.

***Home sweet home, Base. It’s a coiled metal cap, since you’re wondering. It uncoils to release me. When I’m home and safe, it coils outward and holds pressure inside of containment that way***

Winger jerked his hand away. “You know what I’m thinking? You can read my mind, ANAD?”

***Not directly…except in a gross way. I didn’t just crystallize yesterday, you know. My coupler picks up broad wave patterns and I can figure out things from that. You seemed to be wondering how it works….how I get in and out***

“I was wondering…” Winger muttered. This is going to take some getting used to, he thought.

***_For both of us_ *** ANAD came back.

Jesus, he can read what I’m thinking, even if I don’t say anything.

 

The next few days were taken up with Johnny Winger and ANAD getting used to each other. Inside the Containment chamber, and later, outside in the parking lot at Galen Hall, Johnny practiced launching and recovering ANAD until the process was smooth and comfortable for both. With a little tweaking and some compromises, either operation could be accomplished in about half a minute.

Late that afternoon, Doc Frost could see the fatigue on Johnny’s face. They both needed some time off.

“That ground fog outside the window looks like the expression on your face. What say we head over to the Robbery, Johnny? Campus pub, in the basement of University Tower. They’ve got killer wings and beer, plus all kinds of vids and games.”

Winger yawned and stretched out on a bench beside the TinyTown pod. “I’m up for it. Lead the way.”

The Robbery was a small bar and grill, tucked away in the basement of the Tower building. All exposed beams and ducts, with brick walls and posters of famous criminals hanging from the rafters and between beams, the place was done up to resemble a 1930’s-era Chicago dive and gin joint, right down to the robotic piano player who bore more than a passing resemblance to Al Capone with its spats and pin-striped suit.

The two of them ordered something called The Slam…wings, nachos, Texas egg rolls, the works. Plus two full pitchers of beer.

Winger slurped and munched. “Doc, you’ve never really told me how ANAD came to be, I mean the real story. I knew molecular assemblers were a big Defense Department push in the early 40s.”

Frost licked beer suds off his mug. “It was a DARPA project. Everybody knew assemblers were coming. Other nations were working on them. Even some cartels, like Red Hammer. Nanoscale assemblers…the big question was how to design and program them to grab atoms and build—or ‘unbuild’…that was the term DARPA used then—fast enough to be tactically useful in combat. Northgate had a contract and we had a deadline. I was struggling with the programming—control and configuration programming—and we just weren’t making any progress. I had begun to think that this might not be doable the way we had designed it. Then the news from Engebbe broke…some ancient virus had been uncovered at an archeological dig in east Africa. The dig team published segments of the viral genome they had decoded…and it hit me. The virus was doing stuff that I wanted to do. I mean folding, cleaving, attaching, making and breaking bonds in an incredibly efficient way. It just slapped me right in the face. Nature and evolution had solved the very same problem billions of years ago and all we had to do was do the same thing.”

Winger nodded, picked at a spicy wing. “I saw in some of the vids that something activated the virus…it mutated. A lot of people were sick for awhile…pretty incredible that something buried for a billion years could ‘wake up’ and be so dangerous.”

Frost agreed. “The dig team didn’t follow common-sense protocols. There was one death, but it’s still not sure if the Engebbe virus played any role in that. What I did was take parts of that viral genome and marry it to the program we were writing for ANAD 1.0. The same procedures, the same sequences. It was a short cut we had to try because we were running out of time and we knew that Red Hammer and several nations were also close to achieving a workable molecular assembler. So that’s how ANAD 1.0 came to be.”

“Part organism, part mechanism,” Winger observed. “A man-made programmable virus.”

Frost shrugged. “Some have said that, yes. Perhaps some of the news vids are a little overblown. But we did solve our programming problems. And you’ve seen yourself what ANAD can do.”

Winger suddenly wasn’t thirsty anymore. “It’s like ANAD is the perfect warrior, Doc. Grown from a virus. Don’t get me wrong, I think you and Dr. Duncan are the smartest people on the planet. I just wonder how smart it was blending the Engebbe virus with ANAD. It’s like tampering with evolution, maybe tampering with the future. As a life form, viruses have lived on earth a hell of a lot longer than we have. They’ve adapted to everything Life has thrown at them. They’re relentless. And now what do we have? With ANAD, an intelligent, programmable virus. Add in a pinch of Engebbe and some sequences from HNRIV and what does that give you?”

“An even more intelligent, programmable virus.”

“Exactly…I mean…is this really a good thing to do? Doc, at times, when ANAD was inside me, talking to me on the acoustic circuit, I was certain he was alive, conscious, even mischievous, just like a little boy.”

“So you’re like a new dad now. And you’ll soon have a new son to raise and teach the facts of life to.”

“I’m not sure who’s teaching who. With quantum computing, and now genetic programming from your Engebbe virus, we’ve given Nature’s most efficient killer the smarts to outsmart us all.” He decided to finish off his own drink. “I just wonder how much longer we can stay ahead of them. Do we teach ANAD? Or does ANAD teach us?”

Doc Frost shrugged. “Maybe a little of both.”

They talked a while longer. “It’s getting late, Johnny. Let’s head back to the Lab.”

They left the Robbery. The fog had grown denser, colder. The two of them followed a small gravel path between buildings, heading in the general direction of Galen Hall, somewhere in the distance…the Gothic building’s dim, blurry lights diffused by the mist.

Winger felt something sting him on the neck. “Ouch,” he muttered. Probably a fly. Or a mosquito. Then it came again and in seconds, his whole face was enveloped in a swarm of bees.

Only they weren’t bees. Winger could see Doc Frost swatting and flailing too, just before the engineer dropped to the ground.

“Arrggh…what the—?”

Then he knew what it was. They had run headlong into a swarm of nanobots, invisible in the dense fog. Some kind of loose formation of bots, coming at them. Had there been a containment breach?

“Come on, Doc…we’ve got to get the hell out of here—!” Winger knelt down next to Frost, helped him stumbling and flailing to his feet. Already a faint blue halo of bots had enveloped Frost’s balding head and he swung and slapped and pinched but it was no use.

The two of them stumbled and tripped several times on the wet grass, on icy patches on the walkway, then fell again heavily to the ground. The fog seemed to be alive. Now a flickering backlight surrounded them, like they were trapped in the middle of a light bulb, a silent, miniature thunderstorm, raining bots and swarms on top of them.

Winger fell on top of Frost and tried to cover the Doc as best he could. But he knew they couldn’t stay there. If these were rogue bots from Containment, who knew what they might do? Johnny Winger had no wish to be atom food for bad bots. They had to get up. They had to get going.

With every ounce of strength he had left, his head still buzzing from too many beers, he hauled Doc Frost to his feet, and draped the engineer over his shoulders. There was a fiery red-white glow at the base of Frost’s skull—the bots were already burrowing under the epidermis, and Frost screamed like a man possessed.

Winger dragged himself and Doc Frost, now almost fully limp in his arms, all the way back to Galen Hall. Within the hour, the Doc had been moved by ambulance to the campus infirmary.

 

“He’s got first-degree burns on his neck and shoulders,” said Dr. McLain, the staff physician on duty that night. “Multiple contusions and skin lacerations, some of them pretty deep. We’ve got him on antibiotics and fluids, and we’ll probably try a more serious regimen overnight…just to keep the onset of shock under control.”

Dr. Mary Duncan was there, along with Chief Joe Wise of the Northgate University campus police.

“Any evidence of nanobotic penetration?” Duncan asked, worry lining her face. “Johnny here said it was some kind of swarm assault.”

McLain shook his head, backed away from the gurney and pressed a button on a nearby panel. The bioweb blossomed immediately, surrounding the bed in a faint glimmering veil of nanobotic mesh. “None that we can detect, but then that’s more your area of expertise. I’m keeping the web up tonight, just in case.”

Wise scowled at the situation. “Mary, you told me there was no containment breach at Galen Hall.”

Duncan nodded. “None, Chief. Everything’s buttoned up tight as a drum. We have been running some tests with ANAD on Johnny here. But his embedded capsule is, or should be, empty right now. We extracted ANAD before he and Irwin went over to the Robbery.”

Wise said, “That was one of my theories, Mary…that somehow the bugs got out of your lab or some test ran amok.”

“I had no way to capture any of the bots,” Winger admitted. “It was foggy outside and we didn’t see anything until the swarm was right on top of us…it came out of nowhere.”

Duncan found that interesting. “No doubt using the fog as camouflage. As soon as I heard what happened, I sent Milan and Celia out to scan the area. They found nothing. Whatever it was, the swarm dispersed quickly. That’s why I made a call to Quantum Corps this morning, Johnny. Major Kraft was most interested in what happened…he’s sending a Major Lofton today, from your Q2 office.”

“Security,” Winger said. “Dr. Duncan, maybe we should go back over all the records of what we did yesterday with ANAD. Maybe something got out we aren’t aware of. I know there weren’t any alarms or obvious containment breaches. But people make mistakes. We shouldn’t discount anything.”

Duncan was increasingly worried, about Irwin Frost, about the embed project with ANAD, about little slip-ups that always seemed to be happening. “Of course, you’re right, Johnny. I’ll get right on that, with Milan and Celia.”

Chief Wise decided more security was needed around Galen Hall. “I’m assigning two of my officers for 24-hour duty starting today. And I want to meet with this Major Lofton, as soon as he arrives. We may be dealing with something a lot bigger than a small containment breach here.”

Major James Lofton arrived late that same afternoon. Johnny Winger had met the Q2 officer during his Atomgrabber’s Qualifying Test, before he’d even been accepted into the Corps. Lofton had headed up investigations in the case of Nathan Caden.

Winger and Lofton walked across the campus from Chief Wise’s office to Galen Hall and went up the stairs to the fourth floor Autonomous Systems Lab, while Johnny explained the facts of the incident.

“Major, I’m fairly sure this was no normal containment breach. It was a full-on swarm. Any atomgrabber knows what that feels like. Things like that just don’t happen at ASL.”

Lofton didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. “Sure, nobody ever makes mistakes. What about the lab staff, Lieutenant? How well do you know them?”

They came into the lab. Winger pointed out the inhabitants. “Dr. Mary Duncan, I think you know. She and Doc Frost have been with the project from the beginning.”

“Hello, Major,” said Duncan. She was at a small window, peering into the containment tank, pecking out notes on a wristpad. “We’re just running a few tests here…trying to make sure ANAD’s whole and hearty.”

Duncan introduced Celia James and Milan Stovacs, the lab techs. They were both helping Duncan.

Lofton came over to watch. On the imager, a scaffolding occupied center screen. “What are those things that look like grapes, Dr. Duncan?”

“That’s ANAD, the master nano-robot and a few replicants we had him spawn, to check his replication program.”

Lofton was impressed. He’d seen ANAD systems before at Table Top. “Dr. Duncan, is it possible ANAD has capabilities, maybe even motivations, that no one is aware of? My four-year old son surprises Melissa and me with what he knows and can do. Maybe ANAD’s the same.”

Winger thought about the hours after the embed surgery, when the bot almost seemed to be reading his mind.

Duncan smiled patiently. “Of course, quantum systems like ANAD have all kinds of capabilities, Major. We think we have a pretty good handle on what ANAD can do.” Her smile said don’t ask stupid questions like that again.

Winger asked,”Any evidence of Red Hammer operating in the area? A few months ago, they had agents inside Table Top.”

Lofton shrugged. “We can’t discount anything.”

Nobody saw Milan Stovacs abruptly close a small window that had been open on his workstation screen.

Now Lofton was curious about the tests Duncan was running. “And how’s the little guy doing this morning?”

“Well,” Duncan sniffed, “we’re actually finding things a little out of whack…ANAD doesn’t want to replicate quite according to spec…he grabs molecules when he shouldn’t and doesn’t put them together quite the way he should. We’re trying to track down why right now.”

Winger scanned the console. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Still, after the surgery, there had been moments—

“Major, I think ANAD may have some corrupted files. Or possibly something latent in the viral genome is showing up…you’re aware that ANAD has processor algorithms taken from an ancient virus.”

“I did hear about that,” Lofton admitted. “Are you saying ANAD could actually do unexpected things?”

“It can’t be ruled out.”

“Would that mean getting out of containment on his own? Or pinching off a few ‘replicants’ and stashing them away outside of containment…something that could be used to attack you and Dr. Frost in a fog bank at night?”

Winger started to reply, but Mary Duncan intervened. “Oh, I hardly think so, Major. ANAD’s a highly capable nano-scale robotic system, a true autonomous assembler. But he’s not an independent entity the way you’re describing. He acts according to a program. Everything he does is programmed.”

“Then the question is the program, isn’t it, Dr. Duncan? And how well you understand that program. And who did the programming. Ultimately, it comes down to humans and how they interact with ANAD.”

Duncan didn’t like the way this conversation was proceeding. She went back to her tests, subtly moving Lofton away from the control console. The Major stepped back. “I think I can vouch for all the humans around here, everyone who’s had anything to do with ANAD.”

Lofton made no reply to that.

 

Later, the Major cornered Winger is a small vestibule one floor below the Lab. A light snow had started outside the beaded glass windows.

“Lieutenant, I wanted to let you know I came from Table Top with additional orders…from Major Kraft. Orders I couldn’t reveal upstairs, to Dr. Duncan and the techs.”

Winger was instantly alert. “Orders…for me, Major?”

“In a way. First, some background. In recent months, Q2’s been working on a little project ourselves, using some older versions of ANAD. We’ve developed a way to plant small formations of ANAD on the physical person of anyone we would like to observe. On the spot surveillance, if you like. A spybot.”

Winger had heard scuttlebutt about such things. “We’ve always tried to keep pretty tight control on how ANAD technology is applied.”

“I’m sure you have. This comes from on high…CINCQUANT himself authorized the work. Lieutenant, I’ll cut right to the point. I have authority and orders from Major Kraft directing you, with my help, to load some special configs I’ve brought into ANAD. These configs will allow your ANAD version here to function as a spybot. A surveillance mech to be planted on ‘persons of interest.’ Your orders are to assist me in any way possible. Here—“ Lofton pulled a small tab from his pocket. “Read and study.”

Winger took the tab and inserted it into a port on his wristpad. A small vid with Quantum Corps authentication started up. It was Kraft. Everything Lofton was saying was true. And it was clear that Ironpants meant business. Winger stopped the vid.

“Major, just who are these persons of interest?”

Lofton looked up at the ornate ceiling, studded with rococo molding and intricate tiles. “Everybody up there in the Lab, Lieutenant. Dr. Duncan, Stovacs, that girl James, everybody. They’re all ‘persons of interest.’ But I’ll need your help. Duncan said you now have some kind of capsule surgically implanted in your shoulder…you can carry a master ANAD bot.”

Winger explained the procedure and what they had learned so far. “ANAD and me…we’re like big brother, little brother, I guess. We’re getting to know each other, better and better every day.” He explained about the quantum coupler, not sure if Lofton was even cleared for the details. But there were orders from Major Kraft.

Lofton seemed energized by the idea. “This is great, Winger. When can we get started?”

Winger gave that some thought. “It’s a sure bet Doc Frost wouldn’t take kindly to me or anyone else tampering with the ANAD master bot. ANAD’s like a child to the Doc. We’ll have to do this after hours. Major, why don’t you meet me here tonight, say about midnight? I can use my own pass to get in.”

“Tonight, then,” Lofton agreed. “We’ll turn ANAD into the world’s smallest spy…and cop too.”

 

Dense fog blanketed the Northgate campus when Johnny Winger made his way across the grounds to Galen Hall later that night. Winger was leery of the fog after what had happened the day before; Doc Frost was still in the infirmary, recovering from his injuries. They had been lucky.

Winger hurried through the mist, absent-mindedly swatting at the tickle of the droplets on his neck. Only water, he kept telling himself. It’s only water.

He spied a car parked next to a utility loading dock. A form emerged, looking for all the world like a malevolent scarecrow. It was Major Lofton.

“Let’s get this done, Lieutenant. Lead the way.”

They went up to the fourth floor. Winger scanned himself and Lofton in, through all the biometrics, and they found themselves alone in a large room, partitioned off with ornate columns from the building’s previous life as a dormitory. In one corner, the containment tank with the ANAD master bot was wedged, draped with thick ganglia of cables and tubes. Consoles on wheels had been parked haphazardly around the tank. A metal frame enveloped the tank, mounting arrays of electron beam injectors, part of the containment system’s security screen, in case something went wrong.

“The way I see it, Major—“Winger started powering up the containment tank, system by system. A staticky image materialized on the imager screen, showing the interior scaffolding, hung with ‘grapes,’ the nanoscopic view of ANAD itself, beating to its own inner rhythm –“we have to go about this in a systematic way. You’ve got the config templates?”

Lofton pulled a small envelope out of his coat pocket. “Right here.”

Winger emptied the envelope and found a small memcube, a jelly bean-sized storage device. “First, I’ll load the configs and make sure everything works…nothing’s messed up. Then we’ll have to command ANAD to replicate some small swarms, formations, to implant on your subjects. Somehow, tomorrow I guess, we’ll have to do the implanting. You said you have some kind of interface control.”

Lofton nodded. “In my car. A little panel that fits in an attaché case. Pretty slick, if I do say so myself. Something Q2 rigged up last week. Once TinyEye’s implanted, we’ll be able to follow the subjects anywhere and everywhere they go. Even better, my configs give ANAD enhanced MOB capability. If we don’t like what a subject’s doing, we can command ANAD to replicate a Mobility Obstruction Barrier just like that—“ Lofton snapped his fingers. “Like dropping a net right on top of the suspect.”

“Swell,” Winger said sourly. “And probably beyond the law as well.”

Lofton sniffed. “We don’t need the law, Lieutenant. We’ve got orders. You do your job and let me do mine.”

So, shortly after midnight, in an otherwise unoccupied fourth floor lab atop Galen Hall, Winger and Lofton loaded and tested ANAD’s new surveillance configs.

 

Winger knew full well that Major Kraft didn’t appreciate Security interfering with operational stuff but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Lofton could go over his head to the Corps commander himself, if he wanted to. Kraft had little choice but to agree.

Winger could still see Ironpants’ pained face on the vid in his mind. “Do what he says,” he told Winger. “And keep it quiet.”

Winger listened carefully as Major Lofton had laid out the parameters of the TinyEye operation. Several nanomech surveillance swarms would be set up, able to unobtrusively observe a suspect at all wavelengths. Loaded into the ANAD master bot and replicated with the new configurations loaded, the TinyEye swarms could also fashion a virtual ‘lens’ and send photons back to be recorded. Whatever the subject did or said, would be well documented. For anything beyond surveillance, the Corps commander himself supposedly had to approve. Criminal or security investigations could not be allowed to compromise military operations.

Lofton was thoughtful, rubbing his trim black goatee. “If any of these jokers have a halo, TinyEye’ll find it. Get started right away, Lieutenant, as soon as our ‘persons of interest’ come into the lab tomorrow morning…maybe I should say this morning. It’s already 0430 hours now…you’ve got probably about three hours. Notify me when all our little detectives are in place.”

The config loading had gone on without incident. The ANAD master bot had responded to all checks and basic tests with flying colors. Winger had wanted to use his coupler link to have a ‘chat’ with the little bot, but Lofton’s presence made that inadvisable.

He went back to the campus residence hall he’d been assigned to, for several hours of shut-eye. But sleep wouldn’t come. He wasn’t sure just how he would swipe the TinyEye bots, now contained in several capsules in his coat pocket, against Dr. Duncan, Milan Stovacs and Celia James, the way he and Lofton had discussed for implanting the mechs.

But somehow it would have to be done and done in a way that seemed natural and wouldn’t arouse suspicions…or harassment charges.

It was times like these, he told himself, that he wondered if shoveling hay on the North Bar Pass ranch might have been a better choice.

 

Johnny Winger saw nothing of Major Lofton as he returned to Galen Hall the next morning. Dr. Duncan was in the lab, Celia was at the config console checking something with ANAD (this gave Winger a moment of concern…had he left a trail identifying what they had done the night before?) Stovacs was refitting some tubes on the outside of the containment tank.

Hi’s and good mornings were perfunctory and muted. Dr. Duncan always had a warm smile for Winger, along with a muffin and some tea. The two of them sat at a console where Duncan was reviewing a wish list of tests still to be run.

“I visited Irwin last night at the Infirmary. He thinks you and ANAD are ready for some more involved tests, now, Johnny. Replication, config change and approach and engagement tests, things with real tactical value.”

Winger sipped at his tea. It was hot and spicy, Burma Black, Duncan’s favorite. “Major Kraft will like that. He wants more operational results, as soon as we can get them.”

Duncan reached out and grasped Winger’s hand. “I know this upgrade has been hard on you, Johnny. On me and Irwin too, and that assault outside didn’t help. But the pace should be picking up soon…we just want to make sure you and ANAD are as close-coupled as possible, that the coupler works like it’s supposed to and ANAD does what it’s supposed to….”

Before Duncan had withdrawn her hand, Winger had surreptitiously brought his other hand, with one of the TinyEye capsules in his fist, against the sleeve of her lab coat. He quietly thumbed a button and the bots were quickly discharged. They took up residence among the fibers of her coat, looking for all the world like dust motes. Dust motes with eyes.

Mary Duncan seemed not to notice.

Ten minutes later, an awkward brush-by pass against Celia James, as she and Winger were jostling for position around a coffeepot in the break room allowed capsule number 2 to emplace its contents on James’ lab coat. The pretty red-haired post-doc seemed unaware that anything other than an inadvertent collision by the sink had occurred.

Now, for Stovacs.

The lab tech left his work bench and headed out of lab down a corridor to the men’s room. That gave Winger an idea. He followed and parked himself just outside the door, pretending to be flipping through a loose-leaf binder. A few minutes later, Stovacs emerged from the restroom. Winger started forward, brushing against the technician as he exited.

“I’m sorry…excuse me—“ Winger apologized. They sideswiped each other in the doorway and in that moment, Winger pressed capsule number 3 against Stovacs’ coat. The small swarm was instantly released and clung to the coat fibers as the two men passed. Winger went inside, the door swinging shut, and Stovacs headed back to his bench, none the wiser.

Winger waited a decent interval, left the restroom and told Mary Duncan he needed to obtain something from his residence room in Harper Hall, on the other side of the central quad.

“I forgot it this morning…be back in a few minutes.”

“Sure, Johnny,” she said back absent-mindedly. Duncan was engaged with the master ANAD bot, positioning a few molecules near its effectors for some tests. “Here…let’s get ANAD loaded. When you get back, I want to try a new launch sequence on your shoulder capsule…I’ve changed some of the sequencing and it should be much faster now.”

Duncan initialized ANAD inside the containment tank, cycled open the port and launched ANAD out into the air. A faint shimmering mist formed and drifted toward Winger’s shoulder capsule. Moments later, he felt the familiar sting of the drone-snap and ANAD was safely tucked away inside the capsule. Its exterior port clicked shut.

“Snug as a bug,” Mary Duncan smiled, patting his shoulder. “Off you go—“

Winger left Galen Hall and spotted Lofton’s van parked near the utility entrance on the side. The Major was inside, already taking a feed from each of the now-deployed TinyEyes.

Lofton showed him the TinyEye feed. A set of monitors flashed data from the devices’ sensors: EM, acoustic, video and audio, and a dozen other channels.

“If we get close enough, Lieutenant, we can even scan gross EEG output. Can’t quite read their thoughts yet. But it may not be long.”

Winger poured a cup of steaming coffee from a nearby thermos and situated himself in front of the video feed, streaming back from the virtual ‘lens’ that TinyEye had formed.

“So where are your targets at the moment?”

Lofton had spit the feed three ways. “Dr. Duncan is at the containment controls, doing something with ANAD. She hasn’t moved. Ms. James is in the break room, pouring her fourth cup of coffee and having way too many doughnuts…those things aren’t good for your cholesterol, dear, you know that…”

“What about Stovacs?”

Lofton frowned. The third feed was showing a grainy, indistinct image. “This has just started to happen…something wrong with TinyEye—“

“I placed him just like the others.”

“That’s not it…” Lofton fiddled with gain and other controls, tweaking the tiny bot’s position. “I’ll spin up the propulsors…move him to a new spot.”

“Won’t he notice that?”

“TinyEye’s like a dust mote. Do you notice dust motes coming and going on your clothes? No…it’s not the position, something else maybe—“

Just then, the image went blank altogether, replaced by staticky loops and swirls.

“What’s happening, Major?”

Lofton swore under his breath. “We saw this in testing at Table Top a few weeks ago…something’s jamming Eye, interfering with its operation. If I didn’t know better—“

Winger studied Lofton’s interface controls. It had displays for configuration, effector status, propulsor setting…in all ways, it was a masterpiece of miniaturization. Why the hell can’t we get something like this in 1^st^ Nano? Stupid freakin’ compartmentalized information….

Lofton tried everything he could, then sat back, and snapped his fingers. He’d made a decision. “Stovacs must be our man. It’s a halo, Lieutenant. Stovacs has some kind of embedded swarm that’s detected Eye and is fighting it off. Red Hammer does that for all its agents.”

“You don’t know that, Major…you can’t—“

But Lofton was already on a comm loop through his wristpad to Chief Wise of Northgate campus police. He explained what they had found. Wise’s face appeared in a small window on the pad, asked a few questions, then promised to send officers to Galen Hall within the hour. The window closed.

“Major, just because TinyEye isn’t sending a feed back doesn’t mean Milan Stovacs is a suspect.”

“You have a better explanation? We’ve seen halo signatures before…Nathan Caden had one. This matches the indications. And the other two Eyes are sending feeds back perfectly normally. No, Stovacs is hiding something, I’m sure of it.”

“Don’t you need some kind of warrant? Is the Chief making an arrest here?”

Lofton seemed disappointed at Winger. “I’m surprised at you, Lieutenant. You of all people should know what we’re dealing with here. If it’s an issue of security, like operating unidentified swarms without a permit, I’ve got all the authority I need to being Stovacs in.”

“The man does have rights, you know.”

Lofton sniffed. “He’ll get an attorney. Nobody’s stepping on anybody’s rights. But in the meantime, we’ll be asking a lot of questions.”

Winger felt his neck hairs stand up. “Memory tracing?”

Lofton nodded. “At the very least.”

 

Johnny Winger wasn’t in the least surprised that Lofton had already brought several Q2 techs and all the requisite gear to do the memory tracing. Stovacs had been taken into custody by Chief Wise and thrown into a small cell in the basement of the Admin Building, a holding area usually reserved for drunk student drivers, the occasional over-zealous protester and disorderly grad student conduct cases. He glared out at them through the bars.

“I demand to see a lawyer. You can’t hold me like this.”

Major Lofton was on hand, with Chief Wise, Johnny Winger and two techs from Table Top that Winger had never met: Corporal Sheena Neves and Sergeant Rudy Jung. Both were recent atomgrabber cadets, as was Winger, though not of the same class. Instead of Ops however, they’d chosen the Security track and wound up working for Lofton.

“Oh, don’t worry, Mr. Stovacs, we won’t hold you any longer than necessary. In fact, a lawyer from the Corps Judge Advocate’s office is already on the way. I just want to ask a few questions.”

Stovacs was a swarthy, dark-haired man with an aquiline nose. “I have nothing to say. I’m a grad student, an intern at the Lab and Dr. Frost and Duncan will vouch for me completely.”

“Oh…you don’t have to say anything, Mr. Stovacs. I can ask questions and find out what I want, even if you say nothing.”

Corporal Neves had administered a sedative into Stovacs’ arm before he realized it. The Carpathian just shook his head in disgust and lay down on his side on the bunk. A minute later, he was completely out.

 

The memory tracing took less than two hours, all of it conducted right in Stovacs’ holding cell. A cart was produced and Lofton’s mobile interface control unit in its attaché case was secured to the cart top. The whole thing was wheeled into the cell, where the sedated intern was fastened to his bunk and quickly prepped for ANAD insert.

Winger knew that this particular version of ANAD was optimized for just such functions as memory tracing.

Lofton looked up at Winger, while Neves and Jung made the unwilling subject ready.

“Lieutenant, I know you have some experience with this technique. I’ll be asking your help at times during the session…Neves and Jung are newbies at this.”

Winger tried to conceal a sour look, not very successfully. He’d never found invading someone’s skull and reading memory traces particularly palatable. “Sure thing, Major. What- ever you need.” He knew perfectly well that any resistance on his part would find its way back to Major Kraft and he’d be ordered to assist anyway.

Sergeant Jung tapped a short sequence of instructions on the keyboard. Inside the containment cylinder attached to the briefcase, ANAD responded to the command, readying itself for launch.

ANAD reports ready in all respects,” came the high-pitched voice.

Lofton suppressed a slight smile. “The little guy sounds like a teenager on his first date.”

Chief Wise was on hand, nervously chewing on a fingernail. “We should wait for the attorneys, Major. This really isn’t kosher, conducting a session like this without the subject having legal representation.”

But Lofton wasn’t stopping for anything now. “It’s a national security matter, Chief. The laws are quite clear on what is and isn’t kosher under these conditions.”

“Gives me the creeps, I don’t mind telling you,” Chief Wise admitted. “Invading someone’s mind like this—”

“It’s just a high-powered lie detector,” said Sergeant Jung.

“Let’s get going,” Lofton growled. “If Stovacs knows anything about bot swarms or Red Hammer, I want to know it. It’s too late for legal niceties now. Permission to launch.”

Strapped to a gurney next to the containment cylinder, Milan Stovacs had been fully prepped for ANAD insertion. His body was surrounded by a fine mesh of sensors—the vascular grid—that would precisely locate ANAD inside his body, once the mech was inserted.

Corporal Neves patted down the incision that had been made in Stovacs’ neck. “Okay, Sergeant, subject’s prepped and ready.”

Jung handed her the injector tube, attached by hose to the containment cylinder. Inside, the modified ANAD ticked over, ready to be launched.

“Steady even suction, Corporal,” Jung reminded her. “ANAD, report status—”

The teenager’s voice crackled over the circuit. “ANAD effectors safed for launch. All parameters normal. Internal bonds and states are stable. Sensors primed and registered. Core functions initialized…I’m ready to fly, fellows—”

Jung glanced up at Major Lofton, an embarrassed smile on his lips. “The assembler uses a small percentage of his computational ability to simulate emotional states…sometimes, it correlates, er, inappropriately.”

“Get on with it,” Lofton ordered.

“Vascular grid?” Jung asked.

“Tracking,” said Neves. She tuned the grid to pick up the mech as soon as it was inserted.

“Let’s go, then.”

The insert went smoothly enough. A slug of plasma forced the master replicant into Stovacs’ capillary network at high pressure. Johnny Winger watched the board carefully and quickly saw a good acoustic pulse seconds later. Good so far, he told himself. He knew TinyEye had encountered what was probably a Red Hammer halo when he had first emplaced the spybot on the intern. Now, Neves selected Fly-by-Stick to test out the controls. A few minutes’ run on propulsors brought ANAD to a dense mat of capillary tissue.

Lofton studied the sounder image. “Looks like you’re ready for transit, Corporal. You can force those cell membranes any time. Lieutenant Winger, do you see anything we should be aware of?”

Winger didn’t. “Negative, Major. If Stovacs has an inserted halo, it’s inactive so far. I don’t see any conflicts. No alarms popping up.”

Neves told ANAD to probe for weak spots in a clump of lipids, clinging like a bunch of grapes in the middle of the wall. “I’ll try there first—”

She steered ANAD toward a cleft in the membrane lipids, pulsing one of the carbene grabbers to twist a nearby molecule just so, then released the lipid and slingshot herself forward through the gap. Seconds later, ANAD was floating in a plasma bath, dark, viny shapes visible off in the distance. She tweaked the picowatt propulsor to a higher power setting and took a navigation hack off the grid.

“Aortic cavity, Major. Just past the Islet of Duchin, I’d say. Looks like we’re in, sir. Where are we going now?”

Start Trace Matching….

Stovacs shuts down a window on his workstation monitor and finishes fitting a nutrient supply tube to the end of the containment tank. Dr. Duncan is at the other end of the tank, fiddling with some instrument. Celia is at the config console, loading something into ANAD’s processor.

Stovacs gets up and tells them both he’s headed to the men’s room.

Duncan and Celia wave back. Stovacs pushes through a heavy hatch door and the security system beeps as it records his departure.

He walks down the corridor to the men’s room, pushes at the door and almost collides with Johnny Winger.

“Excuse me,” Winger says, as he shuffles to the side. Stovacs puts on a fake smile.

The two men brush against each other as Winger leaves and Stovacs enters.

He looks down just in time to see Winger’s hand, a small capsule just protruding from his fist, pull back from contact….

(The imager blurs, shot through with streaks of light, peculiar starbursts and fragments of hazy, out of focus visuals, all jumbled up. The speaker crackles with static—)

Sheena Neves fiddled with her joystick, tried tweaking the gain on the signal. “Looks like we lost that trace, Major. Just fizzled out.”

Major Lofton glared in disgust at the IC panel. “Can you get it back?”

Johnny Winger shook his head. He had seen what had happened. “Faded out, Major…she didn’t have a good gradient to follow. Maybe a backtrack—”

Lofton was standing beside Chief Wise, who rubbed stubble on his chin uneasily. “Eerie, isn’t it? Seeing things through another man’s eyes.”

“Gives me the creeps,” the Chief admitted.

“It seems to work well enough,” Lofton said. “Couldn’t tell you the theory behind it.”

“Looks like a damn circus trick,” Wise growled. “Makes me nervous. We can really play back someone’s memories like a recording?”

“Not exactly, sir,” said Winger. He was helping Neves and Jung sniff out new traces for ANAD to follow. “We just put ANAD inside the suspect and replicate a few trillion times. Then we put the whole herd in ‘bloodhound’ mode and go hunting.”

“What exactly are you hunting for?”

“Everybody makes memories the same way. It’s called Long-term Potentiation. One of the chemical signatures of LTP is a molecule called glutamate…helps open a second voltage-gated channel inside the post-synaptic membrane—”

Lofton intervened. “Allow me, Lieutenant. In plain English, Chief, what it boils down to is that we can construct crude renditions of memory traces existent in the subject’s brain, up to ten to fifteen days after the memory trace is laid down. We’ve been doing it experimentally at Table Top for the last six months. ANAD shuttles around inside the subject’s head like a bunch of bees, sniffing out calcium sinks in every neuron, looking for equal concentrations, down to the parts per trillion. Everywhere that concentration is equal is a pathway, burned in, a memory trace. ANAD follows it, sends back data on whatever it finds—calcium levels, sodium levels, activation times, lots of stuff. We can re-construct a very crude version of what originally laid down that track. Then we put it on the imager, cobbled out of visual and auditory sensory traces in this particular case. They’re the easiest.”

“It’s sort of like painting somebody’s portrait from their shadow,” added Winger. “I’ve been to the Northgate lab before. They actually used me as a guinea pig too. Kind of an echo of a memory, if you like.”

Chief Wise was dubious. “Sounds pretty nebulous to me. Why did we just now lose the trace?”

“Unknown,” said Winger. He took a seat next to Corporal Neves. “If I may—?” His fingers were soon flying over the keyboard, managing ANAD’s configuration, checking its parameters. “Somehow, we lost the trace…just petered out. It happens. All you can do is backtrack to a known point and start sniffing again.”

Wise stared from the imager display to Stovacs’ still body, lightly breathing, and back again. He half expected to see the poor sap twitch or move a leg or something. “So where is ANAD now?”

Lofton was keen to keep the upper hand in this demo. He didn’t appreciate being upstaged by some newly minted boy wonder atomgrabber. Winger occasionally drifted off into outer space with all his explanations. Kraft’s kids were all space cadets like that. It took an old beat cop like Lofton to keep his feet planted firmly on Earth. “Here’s the vascular grid, Chief—” he fingered the IC display to the side of the imager. The grid was a 3-D iconic image of Stovacs’ skull. “—I’d say…right about here…basal hippocampus region. Most of the swarm’s about a hundred thousand microns anterior to the lateral septum.”

“We’re picking up something,” Winger muttered. As Lofton watched over his shoulder, hoping to learn something more to impress the Chief with, Winger and Neves steered through a dense bog of dendrites. Thickets of axon fibers clouded the imager, now slaved to ANAD’s electromagnetic sounder. “—strong trace…this one’s holding, looks like—”

“Stay with it,” Lofton encouraged him.

“I’m altering config—” Winger said in a low voice. “It’ll help us sort out the traffic—lots of chem crap around here—”

Stovacs stirred lightly on the gurney, until Jung steadied his body. “He’s coming back through Level 4,” the sergeant muttered. “We’d better hurry, Lieutenant, if we’re going to get anything out of this—”

“I’m trying,” Winger glared at the imager, flexed his fingers around the hand controllers. He let ANAD finish changing config, noting that all the other trillion mechs slaved to the master had done likewise, then maneuvered the device into the lee of a dendritic ‘breakwater’…sniffing for calcium, sodium, anything it could follow, grabbing molecules left and right, until at last, Winger cracked the barest hint of a smile. Deep inside the unconscious brain of Milan Stovacs, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler blazed away at incredible speed, spasmodically sorting and advancing along the barest whiff of a chemical highway.

Seconds later, a green light illuminated alongside the screen. The sparky haze began to part—ANAD sent back a signal indicating readiness—

Start Trace Matching….

…and that’s when the first bots emerged from the tear ducts of Stovacs’ eyes.

Unseen by anyone, a small force of Red Hammer halo mechs, deeply buried in Stovacs’ ventral tegmentum, had detached from the main formation. Detected but not noticed, the force exited the ventral tegmentum and beat its way at flank speed toward the optic nerve, a bundle of fibers in Stovacs’ visual cortex near the front of his brain. Passing the Nodes of Ranvier, the force silently cruised outward along the fiber bundle, steadily closing on the inner membranes of the intern’s eyeball.

It was the quickest way for any mech to exit the brain.

“Reading high heat signature,” Neves reported. “Vascular grid’s registering something like a hundred thousand picojoules, and rising.”

Winger acknowledged the figure. “This fellow’s out like a slab of stone and he’s emitting like a supernova.” He refreshed the imager with more data. “Quick count, Major…look at that, will you? ANAD’s pulsing the plasma and the density’s dropping.”

Lofton saw the data. The barest hint of a suspicion came to his mind. “Fewer mechs, maybe? Or a tissue leak?”

“Hard to say at the moment. Maybe ANAD’s holding its own. Sure wish we could get an image—”

“When the dust settles, Lieutenant. Patience. Let’s just try to get a trace back.” Lofton watched the same density readings Winger had pointed out. Sure enough, the numbers were falling. But it might not mean anything…you could never tell with these blasted bugs, Lofton said to himself.

And still unnoticed, a small detached force of Red Hammer mechs had finally reached its objective. Slowing to transit the narrowing tube of interstitial fluid, the force passed through the lachrymal duct at the corner of Stovacs’ eye and surfaced like a fleet of miniature subs through the corneal film to the outer surface of the eyeball. There they floated for a few seconds, until the replication order came.

Johnny Winger had seen this type of signature before. Something about-- "Major, I've got the strangest feeling," he admitted. "Like I'm dueling with a very keen intelligence here--"

The hunt for a fresh trace went on for several minutes. Taking a fix from the vascular grid, Winger navigated Stovacs’ Islet of Duchin and cruised in expanding circles through jungles of thick axons, stopping from time to time to listen, occasionally sounding the debris for telltale pulses.

It was damned frustrating but Winger tried not to show it. He didn’t want Neves or Jung to think he’d somehow lost his touch with ANAD.

“Nothing, Major,” he said. “It’s like all traces have just disappeared.”

“Maybe ANAD is being blocked somehow, or decoyed. Any other signatures around?”

Winger had begun to wonder the same thing. “Sergeant, anything else on the vascular grid?”

It was Sergeant Jung who saw the pressure spike from Stovacs’ eye, a fraction of a second before the swarm ballooned out into the cell.

“Ah…Lieutenant, something seems to be—”

LOOK OUT—!!” Neves’ scream filled the entire cellblock.

 

Chapter 3

“Symbiosis”

 

Northgate University, Autonomous Systems Lab

Pennsylvania, USA

October 24, 2048

6:45 pm

 

Symbiosis (n): interaction between two different organisms living in close physical proximity, typically to the advantage and benefit of both.

 

No one was quite sure when the first effects of the attack were felt. The debriefs later seemed to converge on the two newest atomgrabbers, both working hard with Winger to tweak ANAD’s templates for the next phase of the trace.

“Mass assault swarm!” somebody yelled. It was Jung’s voice. The trooper was already on one knee, swatting madly at the whizzing, spinning cloud of assembler mechs that had engulfed him.

“Bond breakers!” yelled Neves.

They’ve gone airborne!” Johnny Winger recognized the scenario, too late. They’d wargamed it enough times at Table Top. “Fall back…fall back! Get away from him! I’m launching my ANAD!”

Winger knew full well they had only a few minutes at best. In wargames, ANAD had demonstrated bond-breaking, molecule-disassembling speeds up to a hundred thousand nanometers per second, about a tenth of a meter every second, blown away as just so much atomic debris. The Red Hammer bots inside Stovacs, if that’s what they were, were undoubtedly just as fast, if not faster. If they didn’t get countermeasures going quick, everybody and everything inside the Admin building would be toast.

Winger did a quick prep and ran through the initializing procedure… he flailed at the swarm with one hand while he punched buttons on his wristpad: Comm link to SELECT…Program to FBS—Fly-by-Stick. Launch would be opposed insertion. Active defense…ISR Mode. That stood for Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance.

At last, he was done.

ANAD master coming out!” he yelled out. There came again the stinging pinch in his shoulder—it always left a dull numb ache for a few moments—and he heard the port click open. In seconds, the first faint visible signs of the master bot exiting—he had already toggled max rate replication on launch—were visible. The familiar shimmering mist appeared, hardly larger than a fingernail, but growing…growing fast.

And armed to the teeth for combat with Stovacs’ halo bots.

A tiny sounder image formed on his wristpad. Winger ducked and swatted at Red Hammer mechs as he steered the ANAD army toward its confrontation. Already, he had gone ‘over the waterfall’, as nanotroopers termed it. Switching from the macro world of people and buildings and big things to the nano-world of atoms and molecules. The image on his wristpad screen was fuzzy, indistinct for a moment, but it cleared soon enough.

That’s when he got his first peek at the enemy.

As ANAD sped forward, the nearest 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.

Somewhere behind him, Winger heard Lofton quickly clearing the holding area, shoving Chief Wise and other Admin employees out of the building, out into the clear, cold night air. Only Neves and Jung stayed behind to help.

Winger was stunned by the speed of the assault. A battalion of Red Hammer 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 air was soon choked with cellular debris. The Red Hammer 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 Jung had taken a place beside Winger, helping fight off nearby swarms. “Got to disengage, Lieutenant…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…we’ve lost all grappling capability….”

As they watched, the halo bots systematically began dismantling ANAD, molecule by molecule. ANAD was woefully unprepared for the assault. With ruthless efficiency, the Red Hammer 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 bots mutated too fast. Somehow, the mechs seemed to anticipate ANAD’s every move.

Winger was awed by its combat capabilities. “Incredible,” he whispered. “The perfect warrior. Must have one hell of a processor.”

Sheena Neves agreed. “Probably quantum, just like ANAD.”

He had no choice but to disengage to try and save the ANAD master. Extract before ANAD was chopped to pieces and leave Stovacs to his halo. Jung surmised the mechs had programming to disassemble Stovacs atom by atom, if they perceived a threat. Red Hammer did that.

“You’re losing signal strength, Lieutenant!” Jung yelled.

“I see it! They’ve penetrated the matrix. Main processing functions in danger…I’m counterprogramming….” Winger pecked madly at the keyboard.

Sheena Neves 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 enemy mechs. The halo bots’ response was swift and sure. Winger 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 seemed helpless.

“Got to get the hell out of Dodge,” Winger muttered. While I still can.

Sergeant Jung 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—”

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 Jung 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 Neves had ripped off sheets from Stovacs’ bunk and was swinging wildly to drive the swarm back, Winger disengaged ANAD, scrunching up an atom group as he tacked against the churning air, 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. Jung let out a yelp. The enemy mechs had given up vitals on structure and ANAD snatched the info right out from under them, storing it, pulsing it back to Winger’s wristpad.

“Now, I gotcha, you little bastard—”

Then an idea came to him, wacky, complete nonsense really, but it might just work.

The holding cell area was empty of people, save for the three nanotroopers: Winger, Neves and Jung. Stovacs was lost in a growing cloud of bots, looking for all the world like a fog rolling in. The fog had spilled out into the corridor and the troopers had huddled in a far corner, as they drove ANAD into combat with the halo mechs. A flickering line whipped through the air—the line of engagement between the swarms, looking like an electric snake corkscrewing and kinking above the floor.

Winger pecked out a config change that had just come to him on his wristpad. “Hold those bugs off, will you? I’ve going to try something!”

Neves and Jung swung anything and everything they could find—bunk sheets, floor mats, chairs, clipboards, tablets, in an attempt to maintain a bubble around Winger as he piloted ANAD.

Winger swore under his breath, feeling the sting of bot bites, his ears ringing with the shrill keening buzz of nanoscale combat, battlefields erupting right over his head. Add carbenes here…add a phosphor group there…re-orient that valence group…fold there…now, maybe ANAD’ll have a chance….

He toggled another replication cycle to give ANAD some mass. “Come on, buddy…get going…get going…slam atoms like there’s no tomorrow—!”

Unseen by human eyes, the ANAD master did as Winger commanded, now growing replicants with the new config Winger had just added. He steered the tiny army back toward the nearest line of halo bots.

“Eat this for breakfast, you atomic assholes!”

The halo bots reacted like ANAD clones but all of them were multi-lobed mechs, upper and lower globes festooned with effectors, dozens of grabbers, probes, grapplers. It was Jung who had pointed out that the mechs’ equatorial belts had almost no effectors. “Like a seam,” he surmised. “An artificial joint…it almost looks like it was cobbled together.”

“Could be a later design, grafted on,” suggested Neves, when she saw the same thing.

But the best news was the lack of effectors. Winger piloted ANAD straight for the nearest mech, aiming right for its equatorial joint. The distance closed and the two bots grappled like miniature sumo wrestlers.

Except this time, ANAD had come in at an angle, out of reach of the mech’s many effectors.

It was like ballroom dancing, with fists.

The first bot came up and Winger gave it a taste of ANAD’s bond disrupters. The electron discharge snapped off a few effectors and sent the thing spinning off into the distance. But no sooner had he done that than a squadron of them fell on him and he found himself engulfed in no time.

“Give it to ‘em, Lieutenant!” yelled Neves, pumping her fists. “Right in the chops!”

Winger had learned a thing or two about effectors in the months since he had finished nog school. The secret was to keep your propulsors churning, keeping driving forward, keep your energy up. If he did that, he found ANAD could slip out of almost any grapple and brain a bot with whatever effector was free. He particularly liked his carbene grabbers and he had even developed a dance step he liked to call the kiss and clobber…he let himself be grappled, momentarily shutting off propulsors and then almost relax. When the bad guy had retracted and moved in for the kill, he did a quick left-right spin, fired up his propulsors and slashed right across the bot’s mid-section—where most of them had fewer effectors—knocking the bejeezus out of the thing and pulling free to pinch and slash some more.

It worked every time. Winger had in the meantime gone to max replication, at Jung’s suggestion, and the melee was underway. All up and down the line of engagement, like a collision of bird flocks, the swarms engaged…twisting, slashing, grabbing, zapping. Slowly, using his new maneuvers and his new config, Winger was finally able to push back and contain the enemy swarms.

“It’s working!” he exulted. “It’s working! These bozos are getting smacked and spanked like you wouldn’t believe!”

Jung’s voice was disbelieving himself, but still reassuring. “I believe it …I believe it… Just keep after ‘em, sir…I’m reading mass fluctuations at the margins…that means your guys are holding their own. Try your enzymatic knife when you get in close.”

So he did. With ANAD’s new configs and a little luck, everything he tried worked. Maybe the enemy bots were slow. Maybe their configs were wrong. Whatever it was, Johnny Winger found he was winning a battle he’d never dreamed he would have to fight. This wasn’t half bad, this living like an atom. You had to watch your momentum and things stuck to each other like glue. Van der Waals and Brownian motions were a bitch, but it was the same for the enemy.

Leverage and momentum, that was the key.

Inside of half an hour, the battle seemed to be won. The fog that had drifted out of Stovacs’ body and then out of the holding cell, seemed to be lifting as the last few bots were swept up. Somehow, with a little luck and lot of smack, he’d been able to disperse the enemy bots and quarantine and isolate any stragglers.

Now it was time to go police the rest of the Admin building and make sure the whole snow-covered quadrangle outside was clean and green as well.

Unseen by anyone, undetected by ANAD, though, a few Red Hammer halo bots had detached from the main formation and made their way toward Winger’s shoulder capsule. While he and Neves and Jung were mopping up straggler bots inside and outside Stovacs’ cell, and bringing the Carpathian intern around, the small element of halo bots maneuvered behind a few errant, nearly invisible dust motes and eventually found their way to Winger’s shoulder capsule. The bots slipped inside and attached themselves to the inner lining of the protective containment sleeve. There they powered down and waited…waited for further instructions.

By the time the snow clouds had moved out and a sliver of a moon shone hard and bright in the night sky over the Northgate campus, Chief Wise’s campus police officers had escorted a groggy Milan Stovacs to a waiting car and taken him away to be formally charged with sabotage and espionage in a federal court hearing later that morning.

The Chief himself met with Major Lofton, to survey the damage to his holding cells and offices in the basement of the Admin building.

Dust and nanobotic residue coated everything. “Looks like a hurricane came through, Major. I guess your boys will be sweeping my offices for evidence. This is now a major crime scene.”

“We should have suspected Stovacs had a halo,” Lofton shook his head. “It’s normal Red Hammer practice. That’s how they keep their people in line. Lieutenant Winger here acted with great courage to contain the threat and secure the situation.”

Winger was still cleaning himself up, letting Dr. Mary Duncan apply some ointment to bot burns on his neck and face. “It was ANAD, Major. Me and ANAD make a pretty god team. I hacked out some new configs and went after the mechs a new way…it was Corporal Neves who suggested the idea. They’re weak around their equatorial joint…not many effectors there. If you come in at the right angle, the other effectors can’t really reach you. It’s a design flaw that I’m sure will be corrected in future versions. We managed to smash ‘em today. We may not be so lucky in the future.”

Lofton said, “The main thing is we got Stovacs…he was a Red Hammer plant right here at Northgate, right in ANAD’s backyard. He almost certainly arranged for Dr. Frost and Lieutenant Winger to be attacked several nights ago and he may have corrupted ANAD too…that remains to be seen.”

Mary Duncan sadly agreed. “We’ll have to run strict form and function tests on the master bot to be sure, Major. Perhaps, even regenerate a new master. In fact, I’d like to kidnap Lieutenant Winger here, Major, for just that purpose. We’re going to need his help with all the tests and re-programming.”

Lofton dismissed the atomgrabber and Winger accompanied Duncan back to Galen Hall. They were both pleasantly surprised to see Doc Frost back in the lab, looking none the worse for wear.

Frost smiled weakly from his console by the containment tank. “I heard you did some rather unusual things with ANAD, Johnny. You’ve written a new chapter in the book on Man-ANAD Symbiosis.”

“ANAD and me are like brothers,” Winger admitted. “We really understand each other.”

Duncan patted on Winger on the shoulder and offered a seat next to Frost’s console. “And what do you two best buddies say to each other lately?”

Winger shrugged. “That’s the thing. We haven’t been saying much lately. I’m wondering if my coupler is damaged…or corrupted.” He didn’t tell them about the configs Major Lofton had loaded.

Frost indicated some equipment lining the headrest of the Winger’s chair. “We’ll run some tests…re-program what we have to. If needed, we can regenerate the master bot, but that’s a last resort. Major Kraft expects the Symbiosis project to meet certain deadlines and we’re slightly behind, as usual.”

Winger asked, “This project…I heard a little about it in nog school. Close coupling ANAD and human?”

Frost agreed. “Blended man-machine warrior, Johnny. A symbiotic relationship between two entities is one of close physical proximity, with both entities bringing different capabilities to the mutual benefit of both. Humans bring dexterity, superior pattern recognition, flexibility and resilience. A nanoscale robotic assembler device like ANAD brings the ability to manipulate matter at atomic scales, a quantum processor, swarming behavior—the ability to attack an enemy from many directions at once, then disperse. It’s a perfect match if we can make it work. You’ve shown us some of the promise in the idea.”

“And the perils,” Winger added. He lay back while Mary Duncan fixed a scanning harness around his neck and shoulders. She fussed with the setup for a moment, then pronounced herself satisfied.

Frost turned the device on. “First, we’re going to take a look at ANAD in mobile containment…in other words, in your shoulder capsule—“ He tapped keys on a keyboard and a nearby screen filled with reams of data. Frost and Duncan studied the output. Hmmms and oh my’s followed. Winger looked over. Both engineers were frowning.

“What is it?”

Frost sniffed. “You’ve got some extra configs I’ve never seen before.”

Duncan added, “And something—-we’re not quite sure what—outside the containment sleeve. It’s inside the capsule. But not contained. Irwin—look there—“

“I see it—what the—“

Even as they studied the contents of Winger’s shoulder capsule, the Red Hammer mechs that had infiltrated the unit began replicating. It wasn’t a big bang, more of a slow growth…copy after copy after copy. Enough to be noticed. Not enough to set off alarms.

But the rep cycle was visible to the scanner. A small mass of alien bots, no bigger than a few molecules, began reproducing.

“Johnny…Johnny, it looks like you’ve picked up a visitor. Unknown mass in your capsule…must be an assembler. It’s replicating—“

“I’m powering up the injectors,” Duncan said. “Just in case….” She toggled a few switches at the end of the console. Inside the scanner harness, small electron beam guns moved to align, cycled to ready status, targeting the capsule, their motors whirring silently.

Frost sucked at his lower lip. “I’m going to full mag…see if we can get an image.” He zoomed in and caught his breath, then exhaled slowly, as if exhaling would upset something. “Just as I thought. Not ANAD. Some resemblance, but definitely not ANAD.”

“I may have picked up a few Red Hammer mechs when Stovacs’ halo erupted out of his body. ANAD may not have corralled all of them.”

“Johnny,” Frost spoke slowly, carefully. “Johnny, I want you to activate ANAD. Defensive posture. Get ready to launch. We’re going to have to deal with this right away—before it gets any worse.”

Winger cocked his head just so, opening the coupler channel as he had been taught to do right in Doc Frost’s lab. It wasn’t easy with his head secured in the harness.

Nothing. No response.

“Come on, ANAD…wake up. Base to ANAD…get cracking…wake up, buddy!”

Nothing.

Duncan studied the scans. “No activity. Something’s happened to ANAD…maybe a bad coupler link—“

“Or a processor glitch,” said Frost. His fingers flew over the keyboard, trying things. “The config manager may have failed. Johnny, let’s try—“

But before he could finish, Duncan let out a sharp cry. “My God, Irwin…look—!”

On the imager, it was clear that ANAD had responded. The master bot had already replicated dozens of copies and all of them were working in concert to breach the containment cylinder. As one, they were attacking the seals, working to move molecules around, break bonds, grab atoms and burrow their way through the seals. If allowed to continue, the containment cylinder would be forced open in a few minutes.

“Johnny, shut ANAD down. De-activate immediately. Something’s corrupted his processor—“

Winger did as requested. “ANAD…shut down. Override earlier commands. De-activate. Power down and remain in position. Base to ANAD, do you copy? Base to ANAD, shut down now!”

Nothing.

Duncan swore a silent oath, something Winger had never heard from the normally demure Scotswoman. “Damn, Irwin…it’s not working. Nothing’s working.”

“We’d better get the injectors ready.”

But before the electron beam guns could be initialized and boresighted on the problem, ANAD managed to completely breach the seals of its containment capsule. Winger winced…a sharp pain had just stung him in the shoulder.

“Ouch…what the hell—“ Then he suddenly felt faint, his eyes glazed over and the room swam in circles, Frost, then Duncan, then Frost, then Duncan. His head spun and he started to pitch forward, out of the seat, tearing the harness as he moved. Only quick work by Duncan kept him upright.

Frost forced himself to stay calm, unclench his fists. “Johnny, there is a massive and growing swarm moving out of your shoulder capsule. Some kind of rogue bots active and replicating, inside your shoulder. You’d better—“ he stopped, when Winger’s head swung down and his whole body went limp.

The capsule port beneath his shirt had been breached and the seals destroyed by the growing swarm. Now, from under his shirt, a faint shimmering blue-white light emanated.

Frost and Duncan backed away in alarm. Celia James put a hand to her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

Frost snapped his fingers. “Celia…listen to me carefully. Get one of the MOB canisters from the shelf over there. They’re on the bottom.”

Momentarily frozen in fear, Celia stood rock still, mesmerized by the sight of the swelling light beneath Winger’s shirt.

“Celia!” Frost said sharply.

“Of course, Doctor Frost, of course—“ She went to the shelf, opened a cabinet door and extracted a small cylinder. She came over tentatively to Frost and Duncan and handed it to Frost, her eyes never leaving Winger.

“We’ve got to make sure this is contained,” Frost said. To Duncan, he said, “Mary, contact the Infirmary. We need an emergency crew here right away. There may be rogue bots inside Johnny and we may have to do an insert.”

Duncan was already contacting the Infirmary. “Right away…do you think these came from Mr. Stovacs?”

“Most likely…somehow a few strays must have gotten into his capsule. Now they’re loose…they may have corrupted ANAD. I won’t know for sure until we do an exploratory insert.”

Frost held the Mobility Obstruction Barrier canister over Winger’s chest and activated the cylinder. In seconds, a small programmed swarm of barebones bots had been launched and began enveloping Winger’s entire body like a sheer veil. The process took about five minutes. When it was done, a shapeless form, resembling a human body, slouched in the chair. The outer covering resembled a faint gauze sack, pinpricks of sparkling lights strobing up and down its length.

At that moment, two Infirmary medics burst into the lab. A small robotic gurney followed behind, like a faithful dog.

Frost explained the situation. “Johnny’s fallen unconscious. We were doing a test and found he may have corrupted nanobots in his shoulder capsule…possibly even loose inside his body and brain. I applied a MOB barrier to keep everything contained…it’s easier than the electron beam guns. We need to get him to the Infirmary now…check vitals. I’ll bring a capsule of simple ANAD…I may have to do an insert…see what’s happening.”

The medics hoisted Winger and lay him carefully on the gurney. Following its programmed auto-sequence, restraints were applied. Frost used a small control pack to manipulate the MOB barrier, briefly uncovering a small opening around Winger’s head. Into that opening, the gurneybot worked several IV tubes, catheters and diagnostic leads. All of them applied themselves to Winger’s head, face, and neck automatically. Then the MOB barrier was sealed again.

Outside, Winger was loaded into the ambulance for the ten minute trip. Frost and Duncan climbed in as well. Celia James stayed behind in the lab to clean up and secure the injectors and other gear.

The ambulance sped off.

Halfway to the Infirmary, the gurneybot began beeping insistently.

One of the medics checked a monitor. His uniform label read M. Dallas. “He’s crashing, Doc…blood pressure down to eighty over forty-two…pulse at thirty and dropping…I’m applying atropine.”

The other medic was a blur of motion. “We may have to intubate, Mike….I’ll get the tubes—“

Mary Duncan’s hands rose to her mouth. “My God…what’s—?”

Monitors and alarms beeped and warbled. A display screen showing vital lines began to move in synchrony…all the lines leveling off, flatlining….

Inside the MOB, fierce blue white light shone from around Winger’s head.

“It’s in disassembly!” Frost cried. “The bots are at his head, inside, breaking it down—I’ve got to do an insert now

Dallas held Frost’s arm back from the gurney. More alarms and warbling tones. “Doc, it may already be too late…I can’t let you go in there—“

Frost and Duncan looked in horror at each other. Inside the cocoon of the MOB net, Johnny Winger was being attacked, possibly consumed, atom by atom, by a set of rogue bots that had erupted out of Milan Stovacs. His own ANAD seemed powerless…maybe even coopted to assist in the breakdown.

Neither could know what the next few moments would bring, or that the answer would eventually be found in the next episode, at Table Top Mountain, several thousand kilometers away, where the Nanotroopers would soon encounter the next plot by Red Hammer to eliminate the threat of ANAD to their criminal enterprise.

Only time would tell if ANAD would be up to the mission.

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 http://qcorpstimes.blogspot.com. For details on other books in this series, visit his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting www.Shakespir.com.

Download the next exciting episode of Nanotroopers from www.Shakespir.com. It’s called “Table Top Mountain.” Available on April 11, 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: http://thewdshed.blogspot.com.


Nanotroopers Episode 4: ANAD

Johnny Winger escapes from Lions Rock and travels back to Table Top, where he is debriefed by Intel (Q2). Kraft wants Winger to go to Northgate University and meet Dr. Irwin Frost, to work with Frost on enhancing ANAD’s capabilities. Winger does this and learns how ANAD came to be born. While at Northgate, Winger and Frost come under assault from unknown swarm assailants and Doc Frost is injured, but will recover. The evidence points back to Red Hammer. What’s worse, in follow-on tests with ANAD, the nanobot seems to be compromised and functioning poorly. Winger believes there is a spy/saboteur within the Lab, possibly one of Frost’s assistants. How to ferret out the culprit? Winger has an idea: plant ANAD spybots on known suspects. It’s legally questionable but the Lab director okays it. The tactic works and Winger commands the bots on the real culprit (an assistant in the Lab) to MOB the perp and immobilize him. He’s a Carpathian intern named Milan Stovacs, a Red Hammer agent. Stovacs is taken into custody and faces a memory trace session. Meanwhile, Winger helps Frost to repair ANAD and regain its capabilities. It’s here that Frost proposes a symbiotic embedding of ANAD inside the bodies of Quantum Corps troopers, as a future capability. Winger is intrigued and volunteers for the first test of the procedure. But the procedure isn’t proven and something goes wrong. Winger starts to flatline…the embedded ANAD is having unanticipated effects. Will Johnny Winger survive the test? Fourth episode in the Nanotroopers serial.

  • ISBN: 9781310767548
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2016-03-18 13:35:09
  • Words: 22051
Nanotroopers Episode 4: ANAD Nanotroopers Episode 4: ANAD