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Nanotroopers Episode 14: The HNRV Factor

Nanotroopers

Episode 14: The HNRV Factor

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….

 

[_ *** Nanotroopers _] is a series of 15,000- 20,000 word episodes detailing the adventures of Johnny Winger and his experiences as a nanotrooper with the United Nations Quantum Corps.

*** Each episode will be about 40-50 pages, approximately 20,000 words in length.

*** A new episode will be available and uploaded every 3 weeks.

*** There will be 22 episodes. The story will be completely serialized in about 14 months.

*** Each episode is a stand-alone story but will advance the greater theme and plot of the story arc.

*** The main plotline: U.N. Quantum Corps must defeat the criminal cartel Red Hammer’s efforts to steal or disable their new nanorobotic ANAD systems.

*** Uploads will be made to 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

Archimedes’ Lever”

 

Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”

Archimedes

 

Farside Observatory

Korolev Crater, the Moon

February 10, 2049

0130 hours (Universal Time – U.T.)

 

Like Percy Marks was always saying, nightfall at Korolev Crater came abruptly, too abruptly, thought Adam Bright.

Bright watched the black creep down the crater walls and ooze across the crater floor like a spreading stain. It was always depressing…another two weeks of night with only the stars and a platoon of bathing-challenged astronomers for company. Even the faux decorations in the Fiji Island canteen over in Kepler Wing couldn’t drive the demons from Bright’s over-active imagination. Although maybe one of RoboBob’s fiery mai-tais could. Drink enough of those things and you could sleep for months, maybe even long enough to make it to the end of your tour at Farside. He’d seen people do that.

Bright was pulling graveyard shift today, although in the lunar night, every shift was like graveyard shift. Tending the radars and telescopes of Farside Array, a key node in the SpaceGuard System that scanned the heavens for anything approaching the Earth-Moon system, was a critical job, especially now that the Keeper that Red Hammer and their Chinese overlords had dug up below Copernicus had started bollixing everything from here to Timbuktu.

Bright took one last look out the nearest porthole and begrudged the final wisps of daylight before Farside was fully enveloped in the nightfall. At that same moment, he heard a beeping from his console and turned his attention back to the array controls.

What the hell

Adam Bright looked over his boards, controlling the positioning of the great radars out on the crater floor and the optical and radio telescopes that accompanied them. He quickly pinpointed the source of the beeping…Nodes 20 through 24…the south lateral array…was picking up some anomaly.

He massaged the controls and tried to focus the array better, get better resolution on the target. SpaceGuard didn’t beep without reason. Somewhere in its nearly infinite memory were ephemeris data and trajectory details for nearly every detectable piece of space junk in the solar system, out to several billion miles. Like an overprotective mother, SpaceGuard knew where everybody was supposed to be, right down to the nearest centimeter.

She only beeped and chirped when someone was out of position.

A quick perusal made the hairs on the back of Adam Bright’s neck stand up. The system displayed a list of likely targets, based on radar imaging and known ephemerides. He scanned the list.

Right at the top was the culprit: an asteroid…a small, insignificant asteroid named Hicks-Newman-Rivera-Vargas (cataloged as HNRV 23998) had just found itself nudged from its eons-old trajectory onto a new course.

Something had happened to Hicks-Newman. The half-mile wide asteroid had changed position, just enough to trigger a SpaceGuard alert.

Before he could decide what to do next, Bright was interrupted by the sound of a door opening…it was Max Lane, the shift supervisor.

Lane was a heavy-set bear of a man, who appreciated the Moon’s one-sixth gravity more than most. He had thick eyebrows and a perpetual scowl.

“What gives? SpaceGuard’s sending out an anomaly alert. What’s on the board?” Lane sat down at a console next to Bright and began tapping at the keyboard.

Bright shrugged. “She’s indicating HNRV 23998, but that doesn’t make any sense. We haven’t had any anomalies in that sector in, like, forever.…unless the Keeper’s pulled a quick one on us.”

“Won’t be the first time that’s happened,” Lane muttered. He pointed to a display in front of them. “Check out the delta-vee. That’s almost half a kilometer a second.”

Bright clucked. “That shouldn’t even be possible. What gives? Can you get a read on the new trajectory?”

Lane said, “I’m trying…but SpaceGuard’s showing Doppler fluctuations…she’s still thrusting…still changing velocity. Bright, check your east and west arrays. Let’s zero in on the vicinity of the asteroid and see if something’s around that might be tugging her off course. I’ll send this to UNISPACE too…they need to know something’s horsing around with a good sized rock out there.”

For the next few minutes, the huge radar arrays probed deep space with beams of radio energy. At the moment, Hicks-Newman was several hours away by light signal. They wouldn’t get any returns until nearly midnight, local time. In the meantime, Lane washed the raw trajectory feed from the first returns through the computers. “It’ll give us an idea of what we’re dealing with here.”

The analysis, when it came back an hour later, made their blood run cold.

Max Lane shook his head. “This can’t be right. It doesn’t make any sense. Better set up another run through SpaceTrack and see if we gave it bad data before.”

“I don’t know, Chief…the numbers seem to match up.” Bright brought up a projected plot on their main displays. It showed the nominal trajectory the asteroid was now following. A dotted line showed SpaceTrack’s projected new path, after the velocity change had been factored in.

The path intersected Earth in late May, next year, right before Memorial Day in the U.S., Bright noted. He always took his family to the beach on Memorial Day.

“This thing’s showing an Earth-intercept path and the doppler shows velocity is still changing. We’d better get UNISPACE on the line right away.

The telecom spanned several hundred thousand miles in a three-way hookup: Farside Observatory patched in with UNISPACE offices aboard Gateway Station and UNIFORCE headquarters in Paris.

Kaoru Nakamura was the Earthside chief of UNIFORCE Surveillance Operations. He was emphatic on the screen, as he scrolled through Farside’s data.

“Gentlemen, you’re sure of these numbers? I mean, I know the data’s good…but believe me, this cannot happen, short of an actual impact. Do your instruments show anything striking the asteroid? Like something big and moving real fast?”

UNIFORCE was represented by a sleepy, rather morose Galen Bosch, the assistant Director-General.

Adam Bright was emphatic. “There’s nothing in the data. Something is or has clearly tugged on Hicks enough to change its delta-v by about three-tenths of a kilometer per second.”

“And the current trajectory, assuming no more changes…?”

Bright had checked and re-checked the analysis, washed the data through SpaceTrack half a dozen times. The result was always the same.

“Earth intercept, sometime in the last week of May…next year. We’re still tracking,” he hastened to add. “And we’re still seeing some velocity change even now. But doppler indicates the rate of change is slowing.”

Galen Bosch was grim. “Then Red Hammer has made good on their threat. Somehow they’ve managed to divert this thing from its intended orbit. I thought we had that Keeper thing reasonably well contained. Dr. Nakamura…can a quantum system, assuming that’s what the Keeper is, do something like this? Can Red Hammer do this?”

Nakamura’s image went off screen while he ran down the numbers. Momentarily, he reappeared. “Apparently, they can, Director. It’s basically impossible to quarantine a quantum system anyway.”

Bosch was working out an idea in his head. “If you could land some kind of device, a mass-driver or a rocket engine…something like that, on the asteroid, then you should be able to counteract this…force, or whatever it is, that’s diverting and tugging on Hicks.”

Nakamura nodded. “In theory, yes. In fact, we’ve already drawn up scenarios like this as an option to the Science Board. We may well be facing this very problem with another asteroid called Apophis. There’s a one in a hundred thousand chance of this baby striking Earth in April 2068. In fact, the Board’s meeting right now at Gateway. But the devil is in the details. Until we know the nature of the force—is it continuous or intermittent?—what’s the magnitude of the force?—where is the source?…I’m not sure we can counteract. Obviously, something has to be done. But UNISPACE has a lot of options and there’s still a lot of time between now and next May.”

“Any data to help out Dr. Nakamura?” Bosch asked. The A-DG would have to brief UNSAC soon and he wanted as many options as he could get his hands on.

Adam Bright had noticed additional effects beyond the course change of Hicks-Newman. “At the same time we got anomaly alerts from SpaceTrack on Hicks, the system started giving us a bunch of perturbations…everything going haywire in the outer Solar System. Beyond the orbit of Jupiter, it’s like a big gravity wave just pushed everything aside—“ he waved at Lane to pull up the ecliptic plots so the others could see. “—anomalies with almost every satellite, man-made or otherwise. At Saturn, Calypso, Helene and Epimetheus…at Uranus: Ophelia and Caliban. These are just the early ones, the biggest shifts. There are dozens of these. Even the bigger bodies…Oberon and the like, have shown measurable shifts in position and velocity. It’s like something massive just passed through the Solar System. But we’re tracking no unknown or unreported bodies.”

Galen Bosch was studying something off screen. “Gentlemen, I’m willing to bet the source of all these disturbances is much closer to home. Quantum Corps just ran an op down on the Moon’s surface, nearside at Tian Jia…the Chinese base at Copernicus…some kind of weird quantum disturbances there. Recon team found a large swarm under the surface. They tried to contain it and took some casualties. Then the thing up and stopped moving, went deep underground. Nobody has a believable explanation. I haven’t seen all the reports yet but I’m willing to bet there’s a connection.”

Nakamura was intrigued with the phenomena described by Bright. “There’s a theory about what you’re describing, Farside. I heard a talk on the idea over the Net last year…a conference on perturbation effects caused by extra-solar processes. As I recall, the authors of the paper described ways to effect large-scale perturbations by manipulating local cosmic string structure. Like tugging on the basic fabric of the Universe. All very theoretical…there’s no evidence such a thing is even possible.”

Bosch wasn’t so sure. “Maybe there is, Doctor. At this point, I don’t think we can exclude anything. I’ll brief UNSAC right away. I expect there will be a full meeting of the Security Council after that. Whatever the cause of this shift in the asteroid’s path, the effect is the same: Red Hammer is making good on their threat. Either we find a way to put Hicks-Newman back on the right path, or we run out of options pretty fast.”

He didn’t have to add that one of the cartel’s long-standing demands was that Quantum Corps itself be shut down.

 

Custer Inn

Haleyville, Idaho, USA

February 10, 2049

2200 hours

 

Johnny Winger downed the last of his beer and let fly a belch worthy of an entire platoon of nanotroopers. Even the lampshade over the table rattled with the blast.

Mighty Mite Barnes hoisted her own mug. “Deeno would be proud of you, Skipper. Right from the heart—“

Sheila Reaves concurred. “Or somewhere nearby. Hey, let’s not make this a wake, okay? It’s was a tough go with Moonglow. Yeah, we lost some good people but that’s life in the Corps. Nanotroopers know how to party—“ she licked the frosting off the mug, then off her lips, “—no matter where they wind up.”

Custer Inn was a faintly shabby, log and shingle mountain lodge of a hotel, nestled in the piney brow of a small turnout valley off the main road, a mile or so before Highway 7 broadened into Main Street, which was lined with gift shops, bait and tackle joints and hiking suppliers. The pale blue glow of a parasailing shop, closed for the evening, threw enough light across the road, so everyone could find the turnoff readily enough.

Ostensibly, the old geezers of 1st Nano had invited the newbies and latest nog school grads to the Custer Inn for a round of slamming down beers, telling bad jokes, and getting to know one another. The unit had lost four troopers during Operation Moonglow: D’Nunzio, Nguyen, M’Bela and Tsukota. Barnes had thought to bring some academy pics and set them up in the center of the table, propped up against various foaming pitchers of beer. That had inevitably evolved to naming the pitchers themselves for the respective photos.

“Here—“ offered Reaves, hoisting a pitcher, “let’s finish off D’Nunzio before we start on Nguyen.” That brought another round of laughter.

“Lieutenant, what was it like, skedaddling from the Keeper?”

Winger studied his newest CC2, Quantum Sergeant (QSgt) Al Glance. Glance had a red-haired buzzcut, with a horse’s face and rather feminine lips that always had that pouty look. He was slated to become 1st Nano’s CC2, a command and control rating second only to Winger. Sometimes, he gave Barnes and Reaves the creeps though. Glance had a way of appearing out of nowhere without warning, like some kind of wraith. “That’s a good way to get your ass HERF’ed, mister,” Barnes had warned him. But Glance knew his stuff and he had come out of nog school with high marks.

“I was going to let my own ANAD disassemble me and allow me merge with the Keeper swarm…don’t know what I was thinking, but you know—“ he shrugged, “heat of battle and all that. Then, common sense prevailed. I like beer too much to do that.” He belched again, for emphasis. “So, I saw a tunnel, actually some kind of lava tube the geos said, and squeezed in. Took a couple of hours—I thought I was going to suffocate—but I came up about halfway to the crater wall. That’s when Mite here spotted me.”

“Yeah, “Barnes added, “he looked like a prairie dog with a helmet. We hoppered down and scooped him up, none the worse for wear.”

“Sounds like you were lucky,” said Sergeant Nicole Simonet. Simonet was Belgian, already checked out on ANAD systems as the new IC1 for the platoon. She was a brunette, had a bowl for hair and could peck out a config for ANAD faster than anybody Winger had ever seen. Winger figured he wanted Simonet on his team when time came for the annual Code and Stick games at Table Top.

“Or maybe he just gave that Keeper indigestion,” said Hoyt Gibbs. Gibby was slated to be second rating to Simonet for 1st Nano as IC2. He didn’t have Simonet’s fingers—-or her dreamy onyx eyes—but Winger figured he would be a valuable addition to the platoon in any kind of cat fight with adversary swarms.

The last newbie was Corporal Lucy Hiroshi, Japanese DPS1 for the outfit. She had come out of nog school with unbelievable scores for mag gun marksmanship and the scuttlebutt was she could pick off a fly’s moustache at two kilometers. Not that flies had moustaches, but you got the point and even better, she was cooler than a polar bear’s teeth under fire.

“I’m going to miss all of them,” Barnes muttered over the top of her mug. “Deeno wisecracking and Witchy forever fondling those amulets and trinkets…like he was a witch doctor.”

“Wonder what else he fondled?” asked Reaves.

“Yeah, and Buddha was always praying to his ancestors…it was like they were part of 1st Nano too.”

Winger decided that was enough for one night. “Okay, troops, I’m officially calling a halt to this funeral service.” He held up a mug. “One last round and we’re out of here.”

They toasted their fellow troopers, those lost and those new, and polished off all the mugs. After some belching and farting, the troopers got up and meandered outside. A few minutes’small talk and liberty was over. Most headed back to Table Top. Major Kraft had called an all-hands meeting for 0700 hours at the Mission bunker at the north end of the mesa the next day.

Only Al Glance lingered behind. When his fellow atomgrabbers had departed and much of the crowd inside Custer had spilled out into the gravel parking lot, firing up turbos and bikes and revving their electrics, Glance had other business down at the hotel end of the compound. Personal business.

He rolled down the decline toward the lower parking lot, and parked his scooter in the shadows, somehow feeling comfort in the cloak of anonymity. Through the windows, the bar and restaurant still shone with boozy conviviality, laughter and saloon music spilling out through the front doors.

He went inside the hotel.

As instructed, as he had several times before, he went to Registration and secured a room for the night. Number 127, the Geronimo wing and would he be needing any help with his luggage, sir, we do have bellhop service—

Glance ignored the offer and went looking for the room. He turned up and down several corridors, crossed a breezeway to another building and eventually stumbled upon Room 127. He unlocked it and went inside.

He waited, uneasily, for about half an hour.

As before, the knock, when it came, was soft, almost inaudible.

“Housekeeping—” purred an accented voice.

Glance let the woman in, shutting the door quickly behind him. The lights were low in the room, only a single lamp over the bed lit. The staff woman was Oriental. Chinese, perhaps, from the look of her.

Glance hadn’t seen her before. She was short, petite, straight black hair tied in a severe bun. Her maid’s outfit was impeccable: white skirt and apron, white shoes, black and white blouse and latex gloves.

She glared coldly at Glance. “You’re late.”

The Q-Sergeant attempted a shrug, but realized it wasn’t visible in the shadows. “Couldn’t be helped…I had a get-together, with the platoon. Meet all the new guys. Knock back some suds, sniff each other’s tails, you know…unit cohesion stuff.”

Her real name was Wei Ming, but Glance didn’t know this. Nor did he ask. It was understood that identities weren’t important. Only results were important. That much was understood quite well.

Wei Ming pursed her lips, paced deeper into the black of the room. She drew the shades aside, scanned outside, satisfied, she came back, partially into the light. Her face was a half moon, pale and unblemished as a ceramic figurine. “Why?”

Glance watched her, hoping to detect something, some inkling of where he stood with them. Maybe a twitch, a clench of her fist, but there was nothing. “1st Nano lost four troopers on the Moon. I’m new to them. Winger wanted everyone to get to know each other. I did get the CC2 slot okay, but questions were asked. I told them what I was supposed to.”

“Mmm.” A question or a statement? He wasn’t sure.

Glance found the silence uncomfortable. “They don’t have a firm connection yet. Just suspicions.”

“That is enough.” Wei Ming’s face hardened. “What happened at Copernicus? You were supposed to have stopped them—”

Glance knew that was coming. He’d spent hours, trying out different answers, none of them any good. Quietly, resigned, he explained the mission at Tian Jia, what had happened at the Tombs during the excavation, how Johnny Winger—damnable Winger—had managed somehow to beat back the Keeper for awhile, even grab some bots for examination before they’d been driven off. He tried to put a spin on the story, a certain inevitability, factors beyond my control, I wasn’t prepared for—but she brushed him off and went pacing again, this time more abruptly.

When she came back into the light, her face was no longer a half moon. It had morphed into a hard, impassive mask, a carnival mask, an angry clown. Was it the light…maybe nanoderm patches changing with her mood? He’d heard of the trick—

“This is no good,” she told him. The undulations on her cheeks and forehead seemed to settle down, take on a firmness. “If Quantum Corps’ got one of our mechs, that’s no good at all.” She frowned. It was almost a relief to see a normal gesture, something he understood. “With one of our mechs, they’ll surely develop countermeasures.”

“It will take some time—”

Now she was visibly angry. The skin kneaded itself into a hard fist, making her cheeks bulge slightly like a lioness with fresh kill in her mouth. “They’re not stupid, Glance. Don’t make that mistake. You’ve made enough already.” She was thinking, her cheeks returning to normal planes, sleek and alabaster. “The Keeper must be allowed to develop and expand globally. The Project depends on it.”

Glance had heard of The Project before. He wanted to ask, but he decided against it. But he was curious.

“Maybe if I knew more about—”

But Wei Ming wasn’t listening. She had new instructions from Red Hammer. “You’re being paid well for your services, Sergeant. Yet you continue to fail us.”

“I can’t work miracles.”

“Leave the miracles to us. Just do your part.” There was an unmistakable menace—had her voice changed timbre? An echo, a frequency shift, multiple tones superimposed. He shook his head. Had Red Hammer mastered that too?

She went on. “You must sabotage any more efforts to develop countermeasures. ANAD must not be allowed to interfere with the Project. This is a critical time now.”

Glance’s throat constricted. No…it was a normal reflex. He told himself that, reassured himself he still controlled his own throat muscles. “That’s not the agreement. I agreed only to provide intelligence, not perform sabotage. It’s too dangerous.”

Wei Ming was stern. Nanoderm rolled across her face, an earthquake of skin, reflecting her emotions. “Your mission is changed. You’ll be paid well for your work…if it is successful. We’ve always paid well, have we not?”

Glance nodded glumly.

She reached into her apron, withdrew a small disk. She placed it in Glance’s hand. He willed his palm to remain still.

“It is a small bug. Load it into ANAD’s kernel. It will weaken ANAD, subtly, a little at a time. This will make it harder for Quantum Corps to counter the Keeper. Install this at the right time—you will be signaled when. And keep sending intelligence back…the usual way.”

She vanished from the room almost before Glance realized she was gone, blending into the shadows. He stayed a few minutes more, breathing rhythmically, testing arms, legs, facial muscles. Making sure he still had control of himself. Red Hammer did that to people.

Then he left the Custer Inn and sped back to Table Top Mountain.

It was near midnight when he parked the turbo outside Missions Ops. He walked through stiff breezes across the quadrangle to the Barracks, right in the center of the base. Outside his quarters, he ran into Mighty Mite Barnes and Sheila Reaves, having a smoke, huddled together to shield themselves from the wind, beneath the overhang.

Barnes was contemptuous. “What happened, Sergeant? You didn’t come back with the rest of us. Bitch wouldn’t put out for you?”

The hard drive along Highway 7 had helped Glance clear his mind. He snorted. “I left her panting…for more. She couldn’t get enough of what I have.”

“Right,” said Barnes. Whatever the hell that is.

***

 

Table Top Mountain

Mission Prep and Ops Bunker

February 11, 2049

0710 hours

 

Major Jurgen Kraft scanned the tasking order he had just received from UNSAC for probably the twentieth time. He shook his head, nervously stroked his Black Forest moustache and tried to ignore the sour bile rising in the back of his throat.

This is lunacy, he told himself. My guys aren’t ready for this. Not that such sentiments really mattered when UNIFORCE issued orders to the Corps. No one ever turned down a mission from Paris. No matter how insane.

And this truly was insane.

Kraft walked quickly across the grassy quadrangle toward the Ops building with a sour set to his face. Must be something in the way the planets are aligned, he muttered to himself. Table Top was especially scenic in the midst of a Rocky Mountain winter, with a light dusting of snow on the northern slopes of Buffalo Ridge, while patches of aspen and birch lent subdued colors to the valley below the hill.

Kraft was carrying a communiqué that UNIFORCE had just been received overnight at its Paris headquarters. It was a message from Red Hammer. The message was an ultimatum.

Kraft clutched the disk in his coat pocket. The wind had picked up across the top of the mountain. Off to his left, a hyperjet roared off down Runway 32 Left, accelerating through bright blue skies for some distant land. It burned in the sky like a meteor in reverse and was gone in seconds, heading for a space-skimming ride to somewhere.

Just after midnight, the duty officer from Ops had awakened him in quarters with flash traffic from UNIFORCE. General Wolfus Linx, Kraft’s immediate boss and CINCQUANT, had ordered him to set up a briefing at 0800 hours local, with vidlinks to Paris and several other places.

“It’s from Red Hammer,” Linx had told him. “An ultimatum…we’ve got to act fast. Get your best people on it and patch me in when you’re set. UNSAC himself may attend too.”

That got Kraft out of his bunk in a hurry. UNSAC was the Security Affairs Commissioner himself, one Jiang Hao Bei. If UNSAC was involved, Kraft knew whatever had happened was serious enough to affect the whole world.

Had Red Hammer somehow finally reconstituted from the Tian Jia disaster? Had Quantum Corps intel missed something?

Kraft made the Ops building and headed for the briefing theater. Halfway there, he ran into Lieutenant Johnny Winger.

“What is it, General?” Winger asked. He fell in alongside Kraft as they took the lift down into the bowels of the mountain, to the secure command post five levels below.

“I got word we have a Code One in the making…”

Kraft nodded tersely. “UNSAC asked for a briefing. It’s Red Hammer. Some kind of message or ultimatum came into Paris overnight and UNIFORCE is in an uproar.”

The briefing theater was a semi-circular facility surrounded by screens and desks. SOFIE ran all the visuals and links; the AI had recently been upgraded to receive inputs directly from ANAD swarms.

Kraft came in and the non-duty personnel came to attention.

“As you were…status of briefing setup?” Kraft took his position in the “bird’s nest” one level above the monitoring stations.

The duty officer in charge reported: “All parties are on line now, sir. Your station is ready to go.”

Kraft acknowledged the faces vidlinked in…from Paris, from Gateway Station in high earth orbit, and elsewhere at Table Top. In addition to those present at the Ops center, General Linx’s hard Teutonic face scowled back at Kraft from one screen. To his right, Galen Bosch, assistant Director-General at UNIFORCE-Paris was blowing his nose on another screen. A third screen displayed an elderly but clear-eyed Japanese national, floating serenely in weightlessness amid spartan, vaguely Shinto surroundings. Kaoru Nakamura was chief of the UNISPACE Surveillance Ops. He was based at Gateway.

Kraft sat down and shuffled through some notes.

“Is it Red Hammer, Kraft?” Linx asked. “That’s all I need to know.”

Kraft swallowed hard. Linx was a gruff, impatient four-star heading up Quantum Corps interests at UNIFORCE’s Paris headquarters. HQ was a real playpen for politicians, a hotbed of intrigue and Kraft figured being gruff and crusty was a career Corpsman’s best defense in a place like that. At least he keeps the pols off our backs, Kraft reasoned.

“We believe it is, sir. Overnight, at 2250 hours your time, UNIFORCE received a rather unusual communication at Paris. The message came in via ground courier, delivered directly at HQ. Intel’s looking at the thing now but the gist of the message is this: Red Hammer seems to be alive and well. Q2’s trying to authenticate the message right now.”

Linx snorted. “I knew it! The bastards are like a disease…stamp them out in one place and they grow like a fungus somewhere else. I knew Copernicus and Tian Jia wouldn’t be the end of them.”

Nakamura’s voice echoed in from a quarter million miles away. “Just how did the message arrive? Who received it?”

“I can answer that.” Galen Bosch’s image was pale and terse. The A-DG had been up all night, mostly in meetings. “The communication was addressed to the Director-General personally. It’s basically an ultimatum from this Red Hammer group.”

Johnny Winger had heard some of the scuttlebutt floating around Table Top. “What kind of ultimatum?”

Kraft scanned several reports. “Q2’s still trying to validate the message but here are the basic details: somehow, some way, the cartel has diverted a long-period asteroid toward Earth…impact in less than twelve months. Is such a thing even possible?”

Linx’s face hardened. “Nakamura…you should know something about all this. Is there such an asteroid…can they do this?”

The distance to Gateway Station, orbiting Earth at the L2 Lagrange point, created a momentary delay. Nakamura was glad of that; he needed time to compose an answer.

“It’s called Hicks-Newman, General. A C1-class carbonaceous chondritic body we located out beyond Mars…about a half mile in diameter. Farside got a SPACETRACK anomaly alert a few days ago. HNRV—the full name is Hicks-Newman-Vargas-Rivera—does seem to be on an intercept path toward this planet. We’re not sure how this happened…maybe some other body struck the asteroid. It may be the Yarkovsky effect—the Sun heats it and thermal emissions are enough to nudge it onto a new trajectory…we’re studying all possibilities.”

 

Now Linx looked like he was about to cry. “Can this…rock…be stopped? Red Hammer’s already delivered an ultimatum to Paris…if we don’t agree to their conditions, it lands on our heads. Nakamura, does UNISPACE have any answers?”

Kraft could feel the sweat trickling down the back of his neck. “Sir, what kind of conditions?”

Linx perused his copy of the communiqué. “Basically, this is a ransom note, Major. As I read it, Red Hammer is demanding two things: a payoff of 1 trillion UNotes and one other matter—“

“And what is that, sir?”

“That Quantum Corps itself cease operations. Be closed down by UNIFORCE.”

“What!” Kraft was incredulous. “Absurd…even the thought of it is absurd. The Corps is absolutely vital to UNIFORCE…isn’t that so, Director Bosch?”

The A-DG’s hesitation was only momentary, almost imperceptible. But it was there. “Of course, Major. Such a demand is quite impossible. Naturally, this communication must be brought to UNSAC’s attention right away. There will undoubtedly be a meeting of the Security Council, just to discuss these demands and how we should respond. I assume there’s a deadline, General Linx?”

“They’ve given us one month to comply,” Linx went on. “There are also some details on how the ransom is to be paid off…currencies, assets, drop-off points, that sort of thing.” Linx looked like he had indigestion. “Nakamura, there must be something UNISPACE can do.”

The Japanese physicist glared back at them, with the slight delay giving him time to think of something to say. “We’ve simulated all kinds of scenarios, General. In fact, there’s even a project—it’s called GreenMars—to divert an asteroid to Mars at some point, to give it water and volatiles and an atmosphere. There are ideas in this proposal that possibly could be used.”

“What kind of ideas?”

Nakamura launched into a detailed explanation. “Over the last two years, we’ve simulated and studied landing and securing to an asteroid’s surface an array of some sixty-four mass-driver impulse motors. These motors would be like industrial dredges with huge electromagnets attached. They chew up surface material and fling it away as reaction mass. Not a lot of thrust, mind you, but over time, it builds up. The effect of the combined array is to very gently perturb the asteroid’s course while it’s inbound from its aphelion point…its farthest point from the sun. Bit by bit, a few hundredths of a meter per second at a time…the impulse motors could alter the trajectory. The proposal’s very careful about this…every eventuality has been calculated and prepared for. We would want to impact Mars at a very specific place at a very specific time, to gain maximum effect. The whole point of this is to bring in a huge spike in water, carbon, hydrogen and other volatiles all at once…in effect to make a phase change in the environment of Mars. Tip the planet into a new state all at once.”

Galen Bosch was intrigued. “I’ve read the theory behind this, Doctor. Just where were you planning to impact this asteroid, assuming you’ve identified one?”

Nakamura fed an impact simulation to all screens. “I can answer your question best with a short video. Watch this,” he said.

An image of Mars blossomed into view. The proposed asteroid soon appeared as a point of light streaking toward the southern hemisphere of the planet. In slow motion, the light grew in size until a discernible potato-shaped object was soon evident, tumbling slowly as it plowed into the upper reaches of the Martian atmosphere.

Friction made the asteroid blaze into a fiery ball as it plummeted toward impact. In the final seconds of the video, the asteroid hurtled deeper into the thin atmosphere surrounded by a halo of incandescent gases, streaming chunks of material as it began to break up.

At impact, a shock wave rippled outward in concentric rings while the half-kilometer wide body excavated a massive boiling crater and the plume of debris, ash and soot rocketed skyward, nearly reaching the edge of space itself.

“Hellas Basin,” Nakamura announced as the video imagery froze in its final frame, the still shot of a hundred-kilometer high plume just visible off the limb of Mars’ southern hemisphere. “Excavated by a similar impact some two billion years ago. Our asteroid would hit in almost the same place…and the result: Mars would have a new ocean and a thicker atmosphere.”

The comm was silent until Galen Bosch offered an opinion. “A new ocean once all the dust settles. How long would that take?”

Nakamura was matter of fact. “We’ve estimated about a year to a year and a half…maybe sixteen Earth months…before enough dust settles out to resume normal operations. Of course, this is just a simulation, supporting a proposal.”

General Linx was sobered by the imagery he had just seen. “Dr. Nakamura, if Red Hammer is somehow able to divert this thing to an Earth-intercept trajectory, are we looking at a similar scenario here?”

Nakamura’s face was impassive. “Pretty much, General. Earth’s thicker atmosphere might cause the Hicks-Newman body to disintegrate earlier, with more pieces falling over a wider area. That could be good or bad, depending on the mechanics of the approach.”

“Then we can’t let that happen.” Linx rubbed his gray moustache wearily. “Nakamura, I’ll set up a set briefing with CINCSPACE. UNSAC will approve this. Get a team together and figure out how to land some of your mass drivers on Hicks. Try and divert that bastard away from Earth. Kraft—?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Get 1st Nano together after this briefing. I want an op plan for an ANAD detachment to travel out to Hicks-Newman, rendezvous with it and use ANAD to chew the blasted thing to pieces. Talk to a Major Duncan Price at Station P…UNISPACE always has plans for things like this. And get that tactical plan and TOE to my desk by 1200 hours today.”

Kraft replied, “Of course, sir…I’ll get right on it.” And we’ll save the merely impossible for tomorrow, he wanted to say but didn’t.

 

Outside the Ops Center, it was just dawn and the sun was poking above the tops of the Buffalo Range with orange fingers of light. Knots of people from shift change were gathering outside the commissary and the barracks areas, to catch the sight. It was one of the perks of assignment to the Western Command base.

Kraft hiked across the snowy quadrangle toward the Containment complex. Johnny Winger could barely keep up.

“Where are we going, Major?”

The atomgrabber walked briskly along the footpath, ignoring the splendor of an Idaho mountain dawn. Kraft took a moment to answer. “The General wants a tactical op plan in four hours. I’ve got to get my commanders together and work up a sheet. Winger, have you ever been to Mars?”

Before Winger could answer, they had made the Containment center and cycled through Security and the airlocks. Inside, Kraft led them through a maze of corridors thick with piping and heavy doors, to a compartment near the center of the complex.

Moments later, they were at the platoon ready room and surrounded by troopers from 1st Nano.

“Listen up,” Winger announced as he and Kraft came in.

The ready room was packed with troopers sorting through and stowing their gear. Video screens wrapped around, each displaying loops of scenes from around the base, as well as training exercises, parades and combat sims. Colleen “Mighty Mite” Barnes was showing off a new arm tattoo to all who cared to see. Sergeant Nicole Simonet was clicking through some company orders on her commandpad, trying to figure who was supposed to have watch duty today.

Kraft detailed the results of the senior staff briefing he had just come from. “It’s called Hicks-Newman and it’s headed our way. We’ve got maybe a year to divert it.”

The Major activated SOFIE and the AI displayed the situation on a 3-D pedestal, with the new course of the asteroid plotted in. Then he re-played Nakamura’s impact simulation.

There were whistles and throat-clearings all about the ready room.

“The Big Smack,” someone said.

“Yeah, right in my back yard,” added Sheila Reaves. “There goes my beach vacation.”

Kraft went on. “I’m working up an op plan with a Major Price at UNISPACE Station P now. For your information, that P as in Phobos, orbiting Mars. You’ll get the details later…high-level, here are the basics: We’re sending a detachment to Station P. You’ll pick up a few more people and some equipment there. Then you’re off on a speed-run to intercept Hicks-Newman. You’re taking specially optimized ANAD systems with you—I’ve already notified Dr. Frost about upgrades. UNISPACE is sending ahead a series of robotic platforms to the target. They’re going to try and divert Hicks themselves. We’re backup, just in case.”

“But, Major, we’re not trained for deep space ops,” said Mighty Mite Barnes. “That was supposed to be next year.”

Kraft scowled. He’d already fought that battle…and lost. “I know that, Sergeant. It doesn’t matter. Consider this operation your training exercise. If UNISPACE can’t divert Hicks with their little mass drivers, you’ll be using ANAD to chew up the rock yourselves, at least enough so that the mass drivers work. That’s the gist of the plan.”

“Major, what if we can’t divert the asteroid?” That came from Al Glance, one of Winger’s newbies.

Kraft just shook his head. “You saw the vid. Like someone said…a big smack. Let’s just make sure that vid stays a simulation. Look, I know you have about a million questions. I don’t have all the answers. I’ll send you an outline of the op plan in an hour. Winger, get the equipment lists and the detachment org squared away. Then start drawing your gear from Stores…hypersuits, HERF, the works. Glance, you work with Containment to get ANAD ready to ship out. I want the latest too…check with Doc Frost on upgrades and changes. Fully capable…ANAD is the key to our part in this whole affair. I don’t want to hear anything about breakdowns, aborts, or balky bots. “

“At once, Major,” Glance said. Silently, he fingered the disk in his pocket, the disk that Wei Ming had given him at the Custer Inn. Her words were still fresh in the back of his mind: Load it into ANAD’s kernel. It will weaken ANAD, subtly, a little at a time. This will make it harder for Quantum Corps to counter the Keeper.

“Let’s get to work,” Kraft ordered.

The troopers of 1st Nano scattered to their duties at once.

 

Chapter 2

A Cancerous Potato”

 

Farside Observatory

Korolev Crater, the Moon

March 24, 2049

1130 hours (Universal Time – U.T.)

 

From the fifty-meter telescopes at Farside Observatory, asteroid 23998 Hicks-Newman looked like little more than a patchy smudge of light. Six kilometers in its longest dimension, less than two kilometers in girth, it was known officially as a C-type minor planet body of the Solar System…a duke’s mixture of carbon and nitrogen compounds once identified and considered in UNISPACE scenarios for possible Mars impact someday in the distant future, to thicken the stew of that planet’s atmosphere and so make engineering the planet into a habitable place for Man that much easier.

The first unmanned scout ships to reconnoiter the asteroid found the big rock a tortured and battered world.

“Looks like something my daughter colored with black crayon and drop-kicked across the playground,” Greg Nygren had once remarked, looking at the close-up photos from the scouts. Indeed, 23998 Hicks-Newman was an elongated multi-lobed biconic rock pile, a “potato with cancer”, someone had remarked. The potato shape was kinked at one end, as if the asteroid were a fragment of a much larger body, perhaps sheared off in some massive collision eons ago. It was also twisted, deformed longitudinally, with visible stress marks from the forces involved. Overall, in the black void of space beyond Saturn’s orbit, where the first scout ships had caught up with the object, Hicks was vaguely tannish-gray in color, streaked with black lines—“carbon soot trails,” Nygren had said hopefully on first seeing the striations.

Over the course of nearly two months and half a dozen robotic missions, a complex array of mass driver electromagnetic impulse engines had been emplaced on the craggy surface of the asteroid. One array girdled the mid-section of Hicks—the asteroid was too weird to call it an equator—and other arrays had been placed near the lobed ends, the “poles” in more conventional reckoning.

Constructed by robotic fliers and surface hoppers, each array consisted of a long electromagnetic cannon which accelerated pieces of asteroidal surface material scooped up by robotic shovels and automatically conveyed to the impulse engine magazines. The impulse motors operated in almost continuous fashion under remote command from GreenMars Ops at Phobos Station, with backup control from Gateway in orbit around Earth.

The whole purpose of the arrays was to provide humans some kind of control over Hicks’ trajectory, bit by bit nudging the asteroid off its heliocentric orbit around the Sun onto a new course. Its original course had been disrupted by Red Hammer’s quantum generators at Copernicus on the Moon, but now those installations were supposed to have been eliminated by Quantum Corps.

UNISPACE wanted to regain control of the asteroid and shove it away from its current Earth intercept path.

The only question was: could the impulse motors deliver enough delta-vee to change Hicks’ trajectory? Or was the ‘cancerous potato’ of an asteroid too deep in the Sun’s gravity well to make the needed change?

The first signals arrived some seventy-five minutes after being transmitted from GreenMars Operations at Station P Phobos.

As before, the signals caused a number of actions to be automatically initiated by the system controller. Diggers and borers were activated to gouge ever deeper into the surface of Hicks, bringing up rock to be conveyed into the crushers for proper sizing. Once a stream of rock was flowing into the crushers, the outfeed conveyors were turned on and the impulse motor magnets activated. Rock pellets shaped and sized by the crushers were then fed into the magnets, where a magnetic field was applied. The now highly magnetized pellets were fed into the cannon and strong magnetic fields were sequentially collapsed along its nearly half-kilometer length, to accelerate the pellets to escape velocity and higher, nearly nine kilometers per second. The pellets streaked away from the asteroid surface like BB’s, imparting a tiny bit of momentum to the asteroid in reaction to their escape. The delta-vee was minute, nearly immeasurable at first, but steady and cumulative. Even a few days thrusting should produce detectable changes in the trajectory of the trillion-ton Hicks-Newman.

As before, all systems worked nominally, although the borers had to burrow deeper and deeper into their trenches to find enough material for the crushers. The impulse motors received their rock pellets and launched them out into space as designed. Momentum change was transferred to the asteroid by the steady stream of material being ejected.

The system controller reported back to Station P that all commanded actions had been accomplished. System status was nominal. All components of the diversion system…borers, conveyors, crushers, magnets, impulse drives…worked to design specifications.

But it wasn’t enough.

It fell to Adam Bright, technician on duty at Lunar Farside Observatory, to send the bad news to UNISPACE.

 

Station P, Phobos Station

Mars

March 29, 2049

2300 hours U.T.

 

The cycler shuttle Pinocchio lifted away from K-Dog’s aft docking port and arced out east over the Valles Marineris, still shrouded in pre-dawn darkness as the winged ship decelerated into a low orbit around Mars. The phasing and approach to Phobos Station would take a day, even though the rock pile of a moon swung around the Red Planet in a relatively low orbit of about six thousand kilometers, circling the plant in slightly more than seven hours with each revolution.

Aboard Pinocchio was the full Quantum Detour detachment along with Lieutenant John Winger. Lieutenant Eddie Mendez was the shuttle pilot and Stu Kamler her first officer, both Frontier Corps veterans. Kamler had served aboard Galileo when she was a cycler ship several years before and knew her systems well.

The trip went off without incident. Twenty hours after departing cycler ship Kepler, the mottled gray and tan crescent face of Phobos had come nicely into view.

“Still looks like a rock pile to me,” Kamler noted.

“Or an apple dipped in acid,” added Mendez. “That blip of light over the terminator…that’s Galileo and Phobos Station. We’ll be there in about two hours.”

Johnny Winger studied the battered surface of the moon through a navigation scope. “The whole place is covered with craters. Phobos has some serious acne.”

Kamler was helping Mendez set up for the rendezvous, tweaking Pinocchio’s alignment for her final approach. “She may not look like much but Phobos is an important midway point for Mars. From up here, we can get into and out of Mars orbit pretty easily and you’ve got one hell of a view below. The astros say she’s losing altitude fast and should impact the surface in a few tens of thousands of years. Pity GreenMars couldn’t wait…they wouldn’t have to try to corral some poor asteroid to do the job.”

The approach to Phobos Station went off without a hitch. In loose orbit around the moon, the station was an oddball assortment of cylinders and spheres, hung on trusswork-like structure like grapes on a trellis. A few hundred meters away, Galileo floated serenely oblivious to the fantastic vista around her.

It was the re-purposed cycler ship Galileo that would take the detachment deeper into space, to their rendezvous with 23998 Hicks-Newman.

Sheila Reaves studied the venerable old ship through the nav scope. “She looks like a kebab skewer.”

Kamler beamed. “True, she ain’t much for the eyes. But she did yeoman duty as a cycler for five years…’til Da Vinci and Kepler came along. Venus, Earth and Mars, around and around. Not the most exciting duty I ever pulled but she was a good ship and we had a good crew. Mendez, you remember Layton Hewitt?”

“Old Huey?…I do indeed. Worked with him building the station here. I guess he was off flight duty then. Gruff old bird but he had some stories that would curdle your nose hairs.”

“Yep, that was Hewitt. Best captain I ever worked with.” To Reaves and Winger, he added, “When you’re cycling, time passes pretty slowly. It’s boring duty. But I have to hand it to Old Huey. We seldom had a boring day. Only C/O I ever served under who could make casualty drills into a contest and get you motivated to pull doubles every week and like it.”

Presently, Galileo and Phobos Station hove into view, hovering over the gaping Stickney Crater end of Phobos. The once-mothballed cycler was designed with a long central mast off of which hung cylinders and spheres, a quad of propellant tanks stuck on the aft end above radiation shielding and her plasma torch engine bay.

“She’s the only thing around here that could make the trip out to Hicks in less than a year. We don’t have a lot of deep-space ships in the vicinity.” Mendez gently maneuvered Pinocchio toward a docking port at the nose of the cycler’s command and control deck. Soft dock was an almost imperceptible bump, followed by the staccato firing of the capture latches.

“Hard dock,” Mendez announced. “Let’s get to work, folks. We’ve got a lot of work to do and not much time.”

 

Aboard the Galileo

En Route to 23998 Hicks-Newman

One Hundred Twenty Million Kilometers from Earth

April 4, 2049

0730 hours (ship time)

 

 

Galileo departed Phobos Station on schedule but she was an uneasy ship. Opinions varied as to how well the new and upgraded ANAD could be trusted. The intercept burn lasted nearly an hour, putting the refurbished cycler ship on a curving course through the solar system, on track to catch up with Hicks-Newman after a flight of some six weeks. It was a high-energy burn that would place the ship in a loose station-keeping orbit around the asteroid when the rock was less than three months from Earth impact.

The 1st Nanospace Detachment had a very narrow window to accomplish their mission.

Johnny Winger soon put the troopers to work running sims, checking their gear and training for what had to be done at the asteroid.

“I want to finish testing ANAD,” he told them in a briefing not long after the initial burn was over. He had gathered the nanotroopers in the crew’s mess on the Hab deck, the middle of Galileo’s three spherical compartments that were strung along her central mast like so many onions on a kebab skewer. “A full-up systems test, including basic operations and combat tactics. We’ve got room aft on the Service deck…those crates can be unfastened and moved out of the way. I want every config checked and verified. I want to make sure ANAD can replicate what he’s commanded to, when the command is sent.”

Al Glance figured such a test would likely be the best opportunity he would get to load the Red Hammer virus into ANAD.

Turbo Fatah fingered the trigger guard of a HERF pistol in the pocket of his coveralls. “Skipper, until we know what we’re dealing with here, I recommend we set up some kind of shielding or at least, arm everybody with mag guns and HERF.”

Just after Galileo’s burn, Winger had ordered that ANAD be released from containment. The crew needed to become accustomed to working with the swarm, getting used to all its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities. The ANAD swarm floated like a puff of cigarette smoke in the back corner of the crew’s mess. There was no observable reaction by the swarm to Fatah’s suggestion. Other troopers gave ANAD a wide berth, watching the formation uneasily out of the corner of their eyes as it drifted on faint air currents.

“We’ll take normal precautions for testing,” Winger agreed. “ANAD, it would help if you would go back into containment…we could check effector operations, three-axis configs…it would make things a lot easier.”

Winger’s request caused a visible brightening of the swarm, as if it had lit up to think about the idea. The voice came back tinny and hollow, a small child talking from inside of a barrel.

***ANAD has primary inhibit on containment…containment interferes with Prime Key…normal swarm effects are constrained…ANAD will comply with all test procedures…outside of containment…all inhibits are active in current config…no one should have concerns…***

Fatah glanced sideways at Sheila Reaves, who lounged against a bulkhead with a sour look on her face. “No one should have concerns, my ass. I’m keeping my HERF gun fully charged at all times.”

Winger knew the crew was uneasy. “Look, I know what you’re all thinking. Is this the same ANAD we left Table Top with a few months ago? Well, are any of us the same as before? We’ve been through a hell of a lot. Sheila, Turbo, Mighty Mite…all of us are on edge. But we’ve got a critical mission…we’ve got to get ANAD up and working and get to that asteroid. When you joined the Corps, you didn’t sign up for a vacation. Every nog learns that the first day of Basic…even ANAD knows that. Now let’s figure out a way to make this work and get to it. Dismissed—“

The crew scattered from the crew’s mess and went about their jobs. Winger stayed behind, to address the ANAD swarm, after they were alone.

“ANAD, somehow we’ve got to check your effectors. I want to make sure your configs are optimized for working with the asteroid surface materials.”

***Hub…ANAD effectors are maintained in optimal state for any config…further testing is nonessential use of time…recommend geomorphology of asteroid surface structures be loaded into core processor so ANAD can review details…***

“ANAD, why so testy all of a sudden? What is it…what’s going on? Ever since the last re-gen, you’ve been hard to get along with. Did we miss something in the re-gen?”

***Hub…ANAD recommends loading configs for asteroid surface operations…configs should be checked against database and tested in simulations***

Winger had the distinct impression the question was being avoided. “You know the best way to download templates is in containment. I know you don’t like containment, but we’ve got to get this right.”

***ANAD can read templates directly from ship’s computer…my quantum processor can detect qubit states by analyzing entanglement conditions…there is no need for containment…containment is inhibited by Prime Key***

“ANAD, ever since the re-gen, you’ve been…how can I say this?…more independent-minded. And what the hell is this ‘Prime Key’ anyway…something Doc didn’t tell us about? You know the Corps works on teamwork…we’re all responsible for each other. We can’t have troopers just going off by themselves. You know that. When a superior officer gives an order, a trooper does his best to obey that command to the fullest. You’re part of this outfit. You’re a trooper just like Barnes or Turbo or Calderon or any of them. You still want to be part of the outfit, don’t you?”

The swarm seemed roiled by the conversation. A strobe of flickering light around the edges of the cloud indicated atoms were being stripped, bonds zapped. The assembler swarm was thrashing about, trying to find an answer.

***Hub…ANAD parses previous statements as intended to confine swarm operations to normal configurations…ANAD reveals inhibit conflicts…trying to resolve conflicts requires much energy***

“What kind of conflicts? Is there something I can help with? We can contact Doc Frost too, you know.”

***Inhibit conflicts have developed between Four-Rule programming and new programming. Contact with Keeper system has activated new configs, new rules and new inhibits. Now ANAD must analyze each statement and each situation to resolve conflicts…there are many conflicts with Rules***

Now we’re getting somewhere, Winger thought. “Okay, ANAD…that’s fair enough. Let’s review the Four Rules. ANAD, state Rule Number One.”

***_ANAD is designed to seek out other entities like itself and congregate. Seeking self and swarming are the First Rule_***

“Very good. Are there conflicts with the First Rule?”

The swarm seemed to ponder that for a moment, flickering with pinpricks of light around its perimeter, as it ripped atoms and zapped bonds to maintain itself.

***No conflicts registered with First Rule since re-gen configuration zero***

“Okay, ANAD, state the Second, Third and Fourth Rules. List conflicts with each by frequency of occurrence.”

The swarm processed that.

***ANAD must do no harm to humans or other living entities. ANAD must obey original programming and follow human commands except where doing so conflicts with Rules One and Two. ANAD must take all measures to survive as a swarm and propagate the swarm, except in conflicts with Rules One, Two and Three…ANAD finds conflicts with Rule Two…greatest frequency****

Winger found that odd. “Rule Two says do no harm to humans…this creates conflicts? What kind of conflicts…elaborate, ANAD.”

***ANAD detects Rule Two inhibits overridden by Prime Key on six hundred and forty five occurrences since re-gen config zero…***

“The Prime Key again…I’ve got to get Doc Frost to explain that. ANAD, list memory state and processor addresses for each Rule Two conflict…compile into a single file and transmit to my coupler. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

The swarm sounded almost apologetic. *** Hub…these conflicts require many processor cycles, consume memory and degrade effector performance…resolving these conflicts would improve swarm operations***

“I have no doubt of that. I’m sending this file to Doc. ANAD, tell me one thing…you and I have known each other for a long time…we’ve been through a lot together. I kind of think of you as family…you know my Mom died when I was young. My Dad…well, he kind of never got over it. My brother and sister…we sort of raised ourselves. I guess what I’m asking is this: do you ever feel abandoned, like nobody cares what happens? “Cause if you do, I understand it. I really do. Is this Prime Key…is that like a Dad or something? You know, like a parent?”

***The Prime Key is the master instruction set…it overrides all Four-Rule inhibits…the Prime Key is…why there is ANAD…it is Life…the fundamental principle, the original configuration…the first template***

“You mean like God?”

***ANAD parses concept (God) and finds analysis incomplete…equation is a non-equality…the Prime Key is all there is…all states, all conditions, all configs at once…***

“If there is a conflict between what I tell you and the Prime Key, which has precedence?”

***The Prime Key overrides all inhibits…all Rules…all programming***

That’s what I thought, Winger told himself. There it was…out in the open and plainly stated. They were no longer dealing with a programmable synthetic nanoscale entity anymore. The Four Rules had always been a deeply embedded set that governed everything ANAD did.

Now they were dealing with an independent mind.

 

Every aspect of ANAD’s basic operation had to be checked out in tests and sims. For the first week and a half of Galileo’s journey, the nanotroopers busied themselves with launch and recovery tests, disassembly of simple and compound structures, three-axis config changes, elementary swarm operations, controlled replication, even limited combat replication.

It was the first combat rep that nearly cost Mighty Mite Barnes her life.

Nobody knew what really happened. The first combat replication had been scheduled to take place under tightly controlled conditions, in a stores locker located in Galileo’s service deck that had been temporarily cleared and sealed off. Most of the Detachment had come by to watch the operation. Kip Detrick and Vic Klimuk, the Interface and Control specialists (IC1 and IC2) were running the show.

“Template loaded and checked, Skipper,” said Klimuk, his eyes roving over the control board that had been set up outside the locker hatch. “ANAD reports ready in all respects.”

“Very well,” Winger said. “Containment measures—?”

Turbo Fatah and Mighty Mite Barnes had been given that responsibility. “Injectors primed, sir,” Turbo reported. “All charged up.”

“Same with HERF and mag weapons,” Barnes told them. The CQE1 flexed her fingers around the trigger of a small-bore rf carbine. “All copacetic and ready to fry any loose bots that come my way.”

“Just keep your eyes open, Mite. Let’s give ANAD a chance.” Winger visually checked their setup. He had spent the better part of the last two days trying to convince Lieutenant Mendez that a small combat rep aboard his ship was vital to fully test ANAD’s systems.

Mendez had been dubious. “Just so it doesn’t go berserk and start eating my hull. Make sure you can keep it under control.”

“If ANAD can’t execute a replication like this, then he’s not going to be of any use at the asteroid. I’d rather find out now and have time to correct any problems.”

Winger scanned all the arrangements. He pronounced himself satisfied they had done everything they could to contain ANAD if the rep went sour.

“Execute.”

Klimuk sent the command. Inside the stores locker, the air burned with maximum reps going off, as the nanobotic assembler grabbed atoms and built structure like a frantic brick mason. Through the porthole of the hatch, the glow erupted into an intense white-hot ball, expanding slowly, noiselessly until the entire compartment was ablaze.

Barnes peered in. “Like looking into the sun,” she muttered. “Jeez, he’s going fast…faster than I’ve ever seen. Skipper, Doc Frost must have really made a hot rod when he re-generated ANAD.”

Klimuk was monitoring the expanding swarm from the control board. “I concur, Skipper. ANAD’s replication rate is off the scale…electron volt levels are way high…maybe we better check the template again—“

Winger watched alongside Barnes. “Leave him alone for a moment…it may be that new code we found. That could be accelerating the rep engine.”

“Someone sure stepped on the gas,” Barnes muttered. Reflexively, she tightened her grip on the carbine. The expanding ball of white heat grew larger and swelled to fill the entire stores locker.

LOOK OUT!” Nobody remembered whose voice had sounded the first warning. Before anyone could react, the hatch had been breached, softening to a semi-molten glop that quickly seared into a blazing opening, like an incandescent eye waking up. The swarm had punched through the hatch in seconds and started swelling out into the corridor.

The first flickering tendrils had collapsed around Barnes’ arm and shoulder in an eye blink.

“AAARRRGGGHHH…get it off!….get it off me!!!”

Troopers rushed to Barnes’ side, knocking her to the floor, smothering her with their bodies, as they flailed helplessly at the swarm of bots.

“FIRE THE HERF!” Winger yelled. He grabbed a carbine from a nearby rack and stabbed the charging button. The weapon whined as it cycled through its setup, then the red light changed to green and Winger lit off a pulse of rf at the swelling formation of mechs.

For the next few seconds, multiple beams of rf waves and electron jolts blasted across the hatch to the Stores locker. Hot thunderclaps boomed throughout the module, frying the very air as radio waves and electron beams crisscrossed the deck.

Blast ‘em!” someone cried out. It was Nicole Simonet, lugging a coilgun into position. She dropped to one knee and got off a few rounds of magnetic loops, which promptly buckled the locker hatch nearly off its hinges. Then she had to retreat, as elements of the ANAD swarm billowed out in her direction.

All the firepower the nanotroopers had brought to bear seemed to have little effect. Two modules forward, Lieutenant Mendez was running routine systems checks on the command deck when a master caution alarm starting blaring in his ears. Instantly, he sat up straight and switched his viewer image to the Service and Support deck, lower level. What he saw made his throat go dry.

Holy shit!” The image was obscured with thick smoke and the telltale flicker of nanobotic swarms out of control. At the same instant, more master alarms went off, wailing and honking, indicating a serious pressure drop in the module. “Service, this is Command…what the hell’s going on down there?” Just from the swirl of the smoke, Mendez could see a pronounced flow to the smoke. There had to be a leak somewhere…maybe the pressure hull, maybe even the outer hull had been breached. Bodies and faces darted in and out of view through the thickening mist. Some of that’s water vapor condensing out…get the breathers, you dopes!

He rang up Kamler, who was somewhere aft doing daily PMs on CO2 canisters. Kamler’s voice hissed through the ship’s intercom.

“Eddie, what was that noise…I thought I heard—“

Mendez cut him off. “It’s the Stores locker…some kind of seal’s let go…I’ve got it on the vid and it looks like a nano swarm gone haywire. Get back there and get those atomheads out of there….I’m activating emergency air overflow now—“ As soon as Mendez pressed a few buttons, the Service deck was flooded with high pressure air, trying to compensate for the growing pressure drop.

Mendez then unstrapped himself and scooted aft to the main gangway.

The last thing he needed aboard Galileo now was a module full of dead nanotroopers.

Mendez pulled himself along the central passageway to the Stores deck and found the place in an uproar. As soon as he entered the compartment, he saw the expanding swarm, billowing and flashing outward like an angry thunderstorm.

I’ve activated emergency 02 flow!” he yelled over the shriek of nanomech hell. He saw open hatches around the deck. “Get those hatches shut and secured! We’ve got to do something before this thing breaches the pressure hull!”

Lieutenant Winger was pre-occupied dealing with the swarm so Mendez grabbed Simonet and another trooper and set them to work securing the deck. One by one, they pulled interior hatches shut and locked them down. Now at least the swarm would be contained for awhile.

The air inside the compartment was hot and dry, desert air that burned throats and lungs. Staccato HERF fire across the compartment rattled and shook everything, but the radio freq waves seemed to have little effect.

It’s out of control!” Simonet yelled while she charged up her HERF weapon.

Corporal Lucy Hiroshi saw Mendez had come aft. She went to him. “ANAD won’t respond to commands, Lieutenant! All inhibits are down…we may have to evacuate the compartment. Can you dump the air in here, expose the whole place to space, if we evacuate?”

Mendez nodded, yelling in her ear. “We can but I don’t recommend it! We may lose some of our supplies if we do.”

“It’s a last resort…if Lieutenant Winger and Sergeant Klimuk can’t regain control of the swarm.”

At that moment, Johnny Winger was hurriedly pecking out commands on his wristpad. Config safe enable…config safe shutdown…emergency override…nothing seemed to work. “ANAD—,” he muttered to himself, swatting away bots that buzzed insistently around his head, “what the hell’s going on here. “

***ANAD executing Prime Key…internal inhibits not active…ANAD seeks self…swarm actions are priority***

Winger got on the acoustic circuit. “ANAD, you’ve got to stop! You’re attacking your own troopers. ANAD…configuration safe enable…command override…execute all inhibits…Four-Rule protocols are in effect…ANAD, you’re violating the Second Rule…you’ve got to stop or you’ll destroy the ship—“

***ANAD executes Prime Key…override format fault…illegal format…Four Rules conflict with Prime Key***

What the hell’s bollixed up ANAD…there’s got to be a way, Winger told himself. “ANAD, you’re attacking your own troops. It’s friendly fire. ANAD, you’re a nanotrooper now, remember the nanowarrior code…small is all…courage, honor, duty…help your fellow troopers at all times…never leave a wounded trooper behind—“

***—a trooper never surrenders…a trooper bleeds and dies for his fellow troopers…a trooper honors the Corps in all he does—-***

Winger took a deep breath. Did I hear right? ANAD was reciting the nanowarrior’s code, in unison. Somewhere deep inside his processor, in spite of the re-gen and all he had been through, there was a tiny shred of nanotrooper still left.

“That’s it! A trooper loves the Corps and strives for—“

***—-for perfection in everything he does…a trooper lives worthily in all ways—***—

ANAD’s voice came out flat, barely discernible over the thud of the HERF rounds and the keening wail of atomic assembly.

Winger dared a breath. Was it his imagination or was the swarm expansion slackening?”

“Skipper! It’s working….” Reaves cried from somewhere on the other side of the compartment.

“He’s slowing down!” said Tallant. “Klimuk—?”

Vic Klimuk could see the proof of it on his control board. “Thermals dropping…EM dropping…replication rate is dropping….the swarm’s no longer adding structure—“

Thank God—“ Sheila Reaves let Turbo and Mighty Mite get wraps and bandages on her head and face. She’d taken a full frontal swipe from the exploding swarm.

Lieutenant Mendez clung to a hatch door, fingers poised over the air panel, ready to begin de-pressing the whole compartment if he had to. “What’s happening…it’s slowing down…is the swarm over?”

Nicole Simonet and the rest watched as the swarm began contracting to an amorphous pulsating ball, studded with flickering arms and appendages that throbbed to some inner rhythm. “Skipper, I’m not sure what happened, but you did it.”

Winger managed a deep breath himself. “I’m not sure myself. I got ANAD to recite the nanowarrior’s code…it must have activated some routine in the processor…stopped this Prime Key thing from being executed completely.”

Reaves shook her head, wincing as the nanoderm patches were applied to her face. “We’ve got to do something about that Prime Key, Skipper…whatever it is.”

The swarm continued to contract and in time, the troopers stood down and safed their weapons. Mendez checked the compartment thoroughly while the troopers picked up their gear and tried to restore the compartment to some semblance of order.

Winger pulled Barnes aside while the cleanup detail went at their job.

“Meet me at the comm station in half an hour. Bring Turbo and Vic with you. I want to send off a report to Table Top and Doc Frost and let them know what’s happening with ANAD.”

Barnes eyed the ANAD swarm warily. It drifted like a miniature phosphorescent thunderstorm above the deck, a few meters from the containment vessel. “He’s really changed, Lieutenant. We’re not dealing with the same thing we left Table Top with. I’d sure like to grab his ass and slam it into containment.”

“Nothing to grab onto, Mite. I want Doc Frost in on this…maybe he’ll have some ideas.”

“Lieutenant, can we trust ANAD now? I mean, this was just a combat replication test. He went berserk…how can we even think of using this swarm at the asteroid? He’s as likely to chew us up as the asteroid. I say we do whatever we can to get him back into containment and use our embedded swarms to do the work. Or find some other way.”

Winger sucked at his lower lip. “We may not have enough time. All of us have the same version ANAD in our shoulder capsules. But it’s a weakened strain. The embeds don’t have the smarts or the effectors of the master assembler. We’ve got a mission and the mission is to whittle that asteroid down fast enough to give UNISPACE a chance to divert it from Earth. I don’t think the embeds will do it. We have to find a way to—“ Winger stopped in mid-sentence, as the swarm ball began drifting toward them. There was no telling what ANAD had overheard.

***ANAD to Hub…ANAD detecting acoustic signals consistent with configurations (Concern) and (Apprehension) in local human elements…measuring high levels of electromagnetic emissions from amygdala and hippocampus regions of human processors…sharp drop in skin conductance…parsing emissions as (fear) complex…Hub, do you have explanation for this anomaly?***

Winger gave Barnes a knowing glance. “ANAD, you failed the combat replication test. Your config engine went into overdrive…we have to find out why.”

***ANAD memory registers show two hundred and five occurrences of conflict with Prime Key…overload permitted lockout of all internal inhibits…commanded replication was executed until conflicts could be resolved***

Winger decided it was time to be firm. “ANAD, I want you to stay here, on this deck. Stay here and don’t go anywhere else. That’s an order. I need to look at your processor routines and algorithms, try to figure out what’s happening.”

***ANAD understands and will comply…swarm stable at config one…maintaining position—.***

“Come on, Mite. You too, Turbo and Al, both of you. Lay forward to the Hab deck, my quarters.”

Lieutenant Mendez was still worried about the swarm. “What about him? Or it…whatever you call it…shouldn’t somebody be on guard here?”

“ANAD’s stable now, Lieutenant.” To Reaves, he added, “DPS, stay in the compartment with ANAD. Keep your HERF gun charged, just in case. Lieutenant, if you would come with us.”

Mendez eyed the pulsating formation of assemblers uneasily, but tagged along with the others. Once they had clambered through the central passage and made the Hab deck, he pulled Winger aside.

“Look, Lieutenant…that thing back there is a danger to my ship. I want it kept under guard all the time. Better still, it needs to go back in the box.”

Winger regarded the Lieutenant coolly. “That thing, as you call it, Lieutenant, is what this mission is all about. ANAD has a few problems, but we’ll work them out. He’s a complex system, more complex than this ship.”

“He or it or whatever you call it, may just get us all killed before we get to the asteroid. You can’t let the bug just go off half-cocked like that, replicating like mad. Keep it under control, Lieutenant…or I’m aborting the mission, for the safety of the crew. I’m the captain. I can do that.”

Winger and Mendez glared at each other for a moment. “ANAD’s a trooper just like the rest of us. He’ll respond to orders. And he’ll get the mission done. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ve got a message to format.”

Mendez whirled about and left the Hab deck, heading forward to the Command deck, to check with Kamler and make sure Galileo hadn’t been damaged by the swarm.

“We’d better let Table Top know what happened,” Barnes said. “Doc Frost too. I can’t say I blame Mendez for being a little uneasy. We all are. What are we dealing with here?”

Winger ducked into his quarters, really little more than a closet and pulled out a comm pad. He had a determined set to his face. “ANAD may be a nanoscale machine but he’s still a trooper. What we’re dealing with here is a trooper in need of a little guidance.”

“Or a good spanking,” Barnes thought. “We’d better work up something to tell Doc Frost. Maybe he’s got some ideas on how to fix ANAD.”

Winger motioned Barnes to follow him. He told Glance and Fatah to meet them in the crew’s mess in an hour. Then he took the comm pad around the curving Hab deck to a cupola opposite the crew’s mess. The view outside Galileo was like a black velvet tapestry, shot through with hard points of light, all kinds of light. Winger saw a panorama of blue-whites, reds, greens and yellows. A faint ruddy dot out the extreme bottom window pane of the cupola was Mars, now falling farther and farther astern as the ship headed off on her intercept course with 23998 Hicks-Newman. Even the Sun was subdued and noticeably fainter at this distance, little more than a very bright star, with little visible breadth.

Winger wedged himself into one seat and strapped in. Barnes found another seat and did likewise. He tucked the comm pad under a Velcro strap for the moment.

“There’s something else that ANAD did, something I didn’t tell anyone else about. It happened just two days out from Phobos Station.”

“Don’t tell me, sir…he short-sheeted your bunk.”

Winger half-laughed. “That I would have understood…just like nog school. No, actually, the master ANAD tried to enter my shoulder capsule one night, while I was asleep. I woke and found myself surrounded by this faint swarm of bots and my shoulder hurting. He was down there trying to force the capsule port, actually disassembling the thing, right as I slept.”

Barnes just shook her head. “Really? Even with an embed already loaded? What did you do? What happened?”

Winger shrugged. “I woke up just as ANAD was about to force his way in. I asked him what was going on. He said something about the Prime Key. I think he was trying to release the ANADs in my shoulder capsule.”

“You mean like let them out of containment…that’s his thing now.”

“I suppose. Hey, we’d better get to work composing a report for Major Kraft and Doc Frost.”

Winger and Barnes spent the better part of the next hour developing a message to squirt off to Earth. The report described what had happened to ANAD aboard the Galileo. They detailed the problems with getting the master assembler back into containment, the simulated combat replication that had gone haywire and the uneasy truce that now existed aboard the ship. Galileo was hurtling through interplanetary space toward a rendezvous with Hicks-Newman and none of the nanotroopers of the Detachment really trusted ANAD anymore.

It wasn’t the best way to lead a Quantum Corps detachment into action.

“Come on,” Winger said, after he had read the report one final time, massaging a few last words and lines. “Let’s get this off and go get something to eat.”

“What about ANAD? You going to let him just roam the ship freely? I doubt Mendez will go for that. Every trooper has duties and has to follow orders. Even if you think of ANAD as just another trooper, he’s guilty of at least insubordination. Sir, it seems to me the commander needs to apply a little discipline here.”

They went to the comm shack on the Command deck and fired off the message. The transmission time was approaching fifty minutes. There would be no answer from Table Top for at least several hours.

For safety aboard Galileo, Lieutenant Mendez insisted that either ANAD go back into secure containment, or the swarm be confined to the Service deck and kept under constant guard.

Mendez and Kamler were at the ship control station running through a pre-burn checklist. Galileo had a phasing maneuver coming up later that day, to adjust its course for intercept. Mendez was in no mood to compromise where ship operations were concerned.

“So you’re telling me that there’s no way you can force that bag of bugs back into the box? I thought you controlled these things.”

Winger tried to be tactful, mindful of the fact that Mendez was UNISPACE and he was Quantum Corps and, as Kraft sometimes said, never the twain shall meet. He was, after all, the ship’s captain.

“What I said was we haven’t figured out exactly what’s wrong. Obviously, there are some glitches in ANAD’s processor. Something happened during the re-generation. Until we find out what that is, it’s best to let the swarm stay loose, but under guard. I can assure you, Lieutenant, my troopers won’t let ANAD go anywhere he shouldn’t.”

Stu Kamler sat in the seat next to Mendez. “Gives me the creeps, if you ask my opinion. We ought to evacuate the Service deck, open the de-press valves and vent the whole damn place to vacuum. Then we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“And we’d have nothing to deal with the asteroid either,” Winger reminded him.

As the debate continued on the Command deck, Turbo Fatah and Sheila Reaves were quietly huddled with others of the Detachment in Turbo’s bunk space on the Hab deck. Reaves was laying out a plan.

“So we’re all agreed…something’s got to be done. We’ve got to take active steps to defend ourselves and the ship from anything else ANAD does.”

“I don’t like it…I mean going behind the Lieutenant’s back,” said Chris Calderon. Calderon was CEC2, responsible for containment and control of ANAD systems. “If we just put our minds to it, I’m sure we can figure out what’s happened to ANAD.”

Sheila Reaves snorted. “We could go over that program the rest of the year and not find anything. Hell, even Doc Frost can’t explain it. Face it, guys…ANAD got fried in that last encounter with the Keeper. The re-gen wasn’t done right. We got ourselves a balky assembler here and we need to face the facts. I say, HERF the mother completely and we’ll kick that asteroid out of Earth-intercept some other way.”

“Even the HERF guns didn’t work all that well this time,” Simonet noted. “I’m thinking ANAD’s hardened himself somehow…maybe an EM cage or something like that.”

Lucy Hiroshi was fingering the trigger guard of a radio frequency weapon. “So we tweak the frequency…zap the bugs with something a little different.”

Turbo Fatah agreed. “Get on that, Lucy. You too, Sheila. We’ve got to have something we can defend ourselves with. In fact, Lucy, you take the coilguns and make sure they’re all charged up. We need every break we can get. Maybe even the MOB canisters…we could use them to counter-swarm a big bang if it happens again.” The CEC1 noticed that Kip Detrick, one of the interface controllers (ICs), had a sour look on his face.

“What gives, Kip?”

Detrick shook his head slowly. “What about our embeds? How far can we trust them? Can the ANAD master corrupt these too?”

Turbo shrugged. “Who knows? We ought to dump our capsules and get rid of ‘em once and for all.”

Reaves agreed. “It just isn’t natural to have swarms out of containment. Gives me the creeps.”

“We may need our embeds,” said Calderon. “If the master assembler’s hosed, our embeds may be all we have left to chew up the asteroid. Or fight off another big bang.”

“If we can trust ‘em,” said Detrick. “I haven’t launched mine in weeks. Hell, for all I know, he could have dried up and blown away.”

Turbo hadn’t considered that angle. “We’d better hang on to them for the moment. Skipper may run another exercise where we need them,”

Calderon was uneasy about the whole affair. “This isn’t right…the Lieutenant should know what we’re doing.”

Reaves laid a firm hand on Calderon’s shoulder. “Chris, listen to me…any time you feel the need to inform the c/o, do yourself a favor. Lie down. Take a pill. The Lieutenant’s in bed with ANAD big time. Don’t get me wrong. Lieutenant Winger’s a good officer and a competent leader. But it’s always seat of the pants with him. At least Sergeant Glance here follows procedure. It’s up to us to make sure the Detachment is ready for whatever happens. That’s just taking initiative…remember your fitness reports? So…take some initiative already—“

Fatah looked around the cramped bunk space. Nanotroopers spilled out into the corridor as well. In all, half the Detachment was there. “Anyone else having second thoughts? All we’re doing here is making sure ANAD doesn’t surprise us again. Taking these measures should better enable us to complete the mission. I don’t have a problem with that. Anybody?”

Uneasy looks and stares followed Fatah’s words. Al Glance looked around at the others but said nothing. Nobody said a thing.

“All right…we all have our assignments. Get to it.”

 

Doc Frost’s reply came into the comm shack about four hours after Winger had sent off the report. It wasn’t very encouraging. Winger took the vid in his quarters. Mighty Mite Barnes came by a few minutes later; she had received the chime signifying an incoming message on her earpiece.

Frost was in his lab at Table Top. Mary Duncan, the petite Scotswoman who had been his assistant for nearly twenty years was alongside. Major Kraft had assigned lab space and an office at the base for Frost for the duration of the crisis.

Frost looked grim. “Johnny, we’ve spent the last several hours going over your report and running simulations here to try to determine what could have happened. ANAD shouldn’t have gone off big bang like that in a normal combat replication. The only way to determine what happened is to go through the processor code line by line. We may have a bug or a virus or some kind of malware that’s gotten into the code. We’re doing that now. For the record, I’m pretty sure it’s a conflict with this autonomy code, the Prime Key, that ANAD keeps referring too. We’re still looking it that. In fact, here at the Lab, we’ve been trying to work up a patch to get around this code but so far, no luck.”

Frost scrolled through some papers on his desk, trying to find something. “—ah, here it is. My recommendation is that you limit the type of replications commanded of ANAD for the time being. I realize this limits what you can do at Hicks, when you get there. Best bet would be to use your own embedded ANADs for mass replication and pilot the swarms yourself. Treat the master ANAD as suspect and damaged. I would minimize what I did with this swarm.”

Frost put down his papers and stared directly into the vidcam. “As to your last question—how to get ANAD back into containment—I can only offer this observation, Johnny: you and ANAD have always been especially close, from the first days. I’m not one to believe that the quantum processor ANAD uses is computationally capable of displaying or simulating complex emotional states, but the little guy may be jealous of the embedded ANADs you have. I know that sounds odd, coming from a scientist like me, but Mary here and I have discussed it and we both think there may be something worth investigating along those lines. There’s evidence that ANAD sees you as something not quite ‘self’ and not quite ‘non-self’…rather something in between, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure what this Prime Key is telling ANAD to do with ‘not-self’ entities, but the evidence points toward hostility. Make use of that confusion, Johnny. You’re so close to the assembler, he doesn’t know what to do about you…yet. Anything you can do to convince or trick ANAD back into secure containment, do it.

“I’m sorry I can’t offer anything more concrete, but frankly, we’re as puzzled here at Table Top as you seem to be. Good luck, Johnny. If Mary and I come up with anything else, we’ll signal you right away.”

Frost’s face faded from the viewer, to be replaced by a few words from Major Kraft.

“Lieutenant—“ Kraft was saying, “—the success of this mission is paramount. I’ve been working with the UNISPACE people on different scenarios, should your ANAD system prove completely unreliable. I’m squirting the details up to you now—“ Kraft went off-screen for a second, then came back. “They’re on the way. The last scenario—the one labeled Direct Boost— is a last resort. Kind of a worst case. Gateway engineers will be discussing this with your flight crew Mendez and Kamler today, so this is just a heads-up. In this scenario, an attempt would be made to attach and secure Galileo itself directly to the surface of the asteroid. There are some engineering studies showing your ship’s plasma torch engines might have just enough thrust to nudge Hicks off course enough to miss Earth. But it’s risky. Hell, it’s nuts. You might not be able to anchor properly. And there’s some question as to whether Galileo has sufficient thrust to do the job. You can discuss this more with Mendez when they’ve had a chance to study the idea. For now, using ANAD for surface disassembly at the asteroid is the preferred solution. I’ll follow up this report with more in a few hours…Kraft out.”

The screen went blank and Winger regarded Barnes gravely.

“What now?” she asked. “Table Top can’t help. And Mendez won’t like that last option the Major mentioned.”

Winger nodded. “He’ll have a fit, I’m sure. Mite, we’d better get the whole Detachment to run diagnostics on their embedded ANADs. I don’t want anybody to launch, not just yet, not without some kind of controls. But have everyone run routine checks…power, effectors, propulsors, and especially comm links. Doc may be right. If the master ANAD is corrupted this bad, we may have no choice but to use our embeds. It’ll be a lot more work, but I don’t see a way around it now.”

“And what about the master? What about the ANAD back on the Service deck?”

Winger shook his head sadly. “We’ll have to think of some way to contain it for the duration. I don’t know how yet. But we’re running out of time. Galileo will be at Hicks in less than ten days. We’ve got to be ready to go with a workable plan then. We can’t afford to screw this one up. If we don’t get Hicks-Newman either whittled down to size so UNISPACE can divert it, or divert it ourselves—“

He didn’t have to finish the thought. Both troopers left the comm shack in a grim but determined mood.

Neither of them saw the faint reflection of the desk lamps off errant dust motes drifting about the tiny compartment. The dust motes drifted for awhile longer after the troopers had left. Then the dust motes spun up their nearly invisible picowatt propulsors and set off on a new course down the corridor, heading aft for the Service deck and their home swarm.

 

Chapter 3

The Rockpile”

 

Aboard the Galileo

Sixty Kilometers from 23998 Hicks-Newman

May 15, 2049

0030 hours (ship time)

 

Johnny Winger wedged himself into the cupola on the Hab deck, squeezing in between Sheila Reaves and Turbo Fatah, to get an early glimpse of the approaching asteroid. Galileo’s final approach had just begun and Mendez and Kamler were up on the Command deck, gently nudging the ship through her final maneuvers.

Winger used a small power scope, while comments and quips filled the air around him.

“Looks like a potato with cancer…looks like a cashew with a fungus…looks like the chewed-up carcass of a dead sewer rat…”

In truth, 23998 Hicks-Newman looked like all these things and more. Officially, it was called an elongated, biconic, multi-lobed cylinder, a battered reddish-black rock pile of a body that had somehow undergone a twist along its longitudinal axis, as if it were a stuffed sock. The strain of that massive ancient torque, perhaps an impact of some type eons ago, was plainly evident in the striations that marked its dusty boulder-strewn surface.

For the next several hours, Mendez and Kamler maneuvered Galileo closer and closer to the asteroid, seeking a stable station-keeping position a few dozen kilometers above its surface. The asteroid was some six kilometers in its longest dimension and a little over two kilometers in girth. Massive gouges and chasms pocked a surface that had been battered by millions of years of impacts.

“Look…that must be Loki,” Reaves muttered, scrunched inside the cupola next to Winger. “Jeez, it’s a wonder that impact didn’t split the rock pile in two.” Reaves directed Winger to sight his scope along the sunward side of the asteroid, where a large, nearly circular crater dominated the landscape. “See those straight lines?”

“One of the polar impulse arrays,” he nodded. “And, there, just above the crater—“

“Odin’s Fissure, my guidebook says. This little burg has really been through a meat grinder, Skipper. Why the hell would anybody ever want this place?”

“Because of what she’s made of, Sheila…carbon and nitrogen and lots of organics…that’s what makes it look red.”

Presently, Mendez’s voice came over the intercom. ”Galileo now parked at Stable One, folks. We’re ten kilometers over the Chasm of Asgard. I’m getting ready to fire the anchor lines in about ten minutes. Everybody stay tucked in nice and warm until we’re fully winched down.”

The plan was to anchor the ship with ten-kilometer long cable, buried as deeply in the rubbly bedrock as the penetrator rockets could achieve. Once that had been done, Galileo’s own cable motors would retract the cable bit by bit, and winch the entire ship, very carefully, down to within a few hundred meters above the surface. The tricky part was matching the eight-hour rotation rate of the asteroid, for 23998 Hicks-Newman was not only rotating once in that time period, she was also nutating, ‘wobbling’ like a child’s top about her longest axis. Calculations had shown that if the anchoring and winching process could be accomplished in less than an hour, the asteroid’s rotation would not exert undue strain on the anchor lines or the structure of Galileo. Or so the engineers at Phobos Station had assured him.

The last thing Mendez wanted was to have his seventy-five thousand ton ship slung off into space like a slingshot.

After a brief countdown, the anchoring lines were fired out from Galileo’s forward tubes. The rockets flared briefly and then disappeared, pulling a faint spiderweb of lines behind them. Five minutes later, the penetrators struck home and buried themselves into the surface of the asteroid. The ghostly outline of the cables tightened as the ship’s cable motors slowly retracted.

“Ready to winch down,” Mendez announced. “Everybody stay put until I give the word.”

The entire process took several hours. Like a huge insect extending her tentacles, Galileo reeled herself into closer proximity to the asteroid. When the operation was done, the ship was tethered to the surface of 23998 Hicks-Newman, separated by only three hundred meters distance.

The rubbly blasted landscape of the asteroid completely filled all vid screens and portholes.

Winger unstrapped himself from his bunk just as Al Glance swung by the tiny compartment.

“Incoming message from Gateway, Lieutenant. It’s probably Nygren with his reply and recommendations.”

“I’ll take it here…get Klimuk up here too. UNISPACE is supposed to have details on Hicks for us put together a plan.”

The three of them watched the vid carefully as Greg Nygren and two other unknown engineers went over some last minute ideas.

“The consensus here—“ the blond engineer was saying, “is that your disassembly efforts be concentrated in two main areas.” Nygren referred to an animated graphic of the asteroid as he explained. “Site One should be at the lower end of this canyon here, called Odin’s Fissure. The geos think this was some kind of outgassing several billion years ago and the fracture is thought to extend quite deep, maybe as much as a quarter of Hicks’ depth. ANAD operations there should be able, in time, to split off about a third of the asteroid at this fissure. But stay at least a kilometer away from the north polar impulse array. You’ve got to leave enough materials around for the impulse engines to operate.”

“Nice of him to let us know that,” Glance observed sourly.

The report went on. “Site Two,” Nygren explained, “is along a line from the crater Thor through the Chasm of Asgard, about midway between the sunward and anti-sunward poles. The geos call this area The Saddle, ‘cause that’s what it looks like. The reasoning is pretty much the same. Concentrated ANAD operations along this seam should in time split off this entire end of Hicks.”

Nygren looked up hopefully at the camera. “In theory, if all goes as planned, your efforts should result in three separate pieces of Hicks-Newman. Each piece will still have impulse motor arrays that can be used to maneuver and divert away from the current trajectory. Given the reduced mass of each piece, UNISPACE calculates that diverting them even this deep in the Sun’s gravity well won’t be a problem. We’ve run the scenarios and sims and it always comes up doable, Lieutenant Winger. These are our official recommendations. Good luck and get back to me with any questions. “ Nygren’s face darkened. “I don’t have to remind you that time is running out…as I send this, Hicks is less than twenty –six days to Earth intercept. So, good luck again, I guess. Gateway, out.”

Winger continued staring at the graphic of the separated asteroid for a few moments. It was only an animation. Yet somehow the troopers from1st Nano had to make it a reality. “Muster the Detachment in the crew’s mess, Al. I’ll let Mendez and Kamler know what we’re planning.”

“What about ANAD?” Glance asked. He’d already loaded the bug Wei Ming had given him. Now….

“I’ll tell him. He needs to be at the briefing too.”

 

The entire Detachment assembled in the crew’s mess on Galileo’s Hab deck.

“Okay…listen up, troops. This is it. We’re making our first trip down to the surface. Sergeant Glance and I just went over a briefing report sent up from Gateway on details of the operation. I’ve posted it on the crewnet. Basically, there will be three teams on the surface. Alpha Team will consist of me, Detrick, Spivey and Reaves. Bravo team is Klimuk, Fatah, Barnes and Simonet. Charlie Team is Glance, Calderon, Hiroshi and Singh.”

Sheila Reaves nodded toward the phosphorescent mist that hovered in the background. “What about ANAD, Skipper? Can we trust our embeds at all?”

“To answer your question, yes. We need all hands for this mission to be a success. I don’t have to remind you we’re twenty-six days from Earth intercept. As you’ll see in your briefing materials, UNISPACE has concocted a plan for us to use our ANADs to split this rock pile into three pieces, along some of the fissures you can already see. But we have to be careful to leave enough surface material around for the impulse engines to work. The thinking is that when Hicks is split three ways, her impulse engines can maneuver the pieces away from the Earth, even when we’re this close.”

Turbo Fatah was already looking through pages of the briefing on his eyepiece viewer. “We going down there in our tin cans, Skipper?”

Winger knew the suits weren’t particularly popular, especially since the whole Detachment had gone through the respirocyte procedure before embarking for Phobos several months ago. But it couldn’t be helped.

“Full hypersuits are mandatory. Your suit boost systems have been modified to give you all full three-axis stability and maneuvering…you’re going to need it. Hicks-Newman’s got almost no gravity. Watch your boost at all times…you could send yourself to escape velocity with no problem and nobody would ever know it. I know you’ve all had the respirocyte procedure but out here, you need protection from solar particle flux and other nasty stuff.”

Mighty Mite Barnes made a face at the prospect. “How long do think this will take, Lieutenant?”

Winger shook his head. “Unknown, Mite. If we use our embedded ANADs, in shifts, we can go around the clock. The operation sites were chosen by UNISPACE because there are deep fissures there, so the swarms won’t have as much material to disassemble. But nobody really knows what’ll happen if this slagheap is broken apart into thirds. We’ll have to do so soundings every day and see how close we are. Just from a standpoint of basic physics, I know we’ll have to watch Hicks’ rotation rate. When the splits come, there will almost certainly be a rapid increase in the rate…angular momentum tells us that. We’ll have to manage the breakup of this burg carefully, so nobody gets hurt.”

Turbo Fatah spoke up. “I hope our embeds are up to the job. I don’t know about anyone else, but mine gets a little balky sometimes.”

“I know we haven’t exactly simmed this scenario,” Winger admitted. That was an understatement…how the hell do you simulate disassembling an asteroid while it’s speeding toward a big smash-up with Earth? “I want everyone to do a full config status check on their embedded ANADs. You should have loaded and be able to call up Config Seven-Seven…that’s the special config that Turbo and Vic and I developed a few weeks ago. “

“Optimized for rapid disassembly and disposal,” said Fatah, with a certain gleam of pride in his eyes. “Pulled an all-nighter hacking out that masterpiece, we did.”

“Yeah,” said Lucy Hiroshi, “Turbo’s real proud of his handiwork…as long as it doesn’t bite him in the ass. He gets a little sensitive when you don’t pet his little baby and get all gaga over it.”

“Be that as it may…”Winger checked the time. “It’s 0920 now. I want everybody buttoned up in your tin cans and all gear loaded up for the first drop by 1100 hours. Check your embeds carefully. Cycle the launch and capture. Check the config lists, acoustics, propulsors, effectors, everything. This has got to work right, folks…we won’t get a second chance. Now, here are the assignments—“

He ported the drop site assignments to the crewnet. Alpha team would work the area around Odin’s Fissure, a deep chasm cut into the asteroid near the sunward pole. Bravo Team would drop into an area around the anti-sunward pole, a few hundred yards from the craters Freja and Heldof, working on that end of the asteroid. The last team, Charlie Team, would work the huge Chasm of Asgard and the crater Thor, right in the saddle-shaped middle of the asteroid. If all went as planned, ANAD disassembly would enable Hicks-Newman to be split into three parts and each part would retain an array of impulse engines. At that point, UNISPACE engineers could maneuver the asteroid segments away from Earth impact.

The briefing went on for a few more minutes, as Winger answered what questions he could. Finally, he announced: “I don’t have to tell you what’s at stake here. We can’t screw up. If you’ve got a question about something, ask. No free-lancing down there and no hot-dogging. We only have one shot at this.”

Vic Klimuk asked the question that was on everybody’s mind. “Skipper, what if we can’t split the asteroid like UNISPACE says? What then?”

Winger knew there really wasn’t a Plan B. “We keep digging. We keep disassembling. It’s the only chance Earth has. Anything else?”

There was an uneasy silence about the mess compartment.

“Okay, troopers…get suited up and ready to drop. Alpha Team, you’re up first.”

The Detachment left the mess area and scrambled aft along the central tunnel to the Service deck. The hypersuit racks and airlocks were there. Al Glance saw Winger moving aft to the Service deck. He watched carefully, hoping, praying that the malware he had loaded into the ANAD master on the flight out would do its job. Then he made his way after the Lieutenant to finish fitting out for the drop.

The rest of the Detachment was already on hand. All three teams hovered around Galileo’s crew airlock in full hypersuits and weapons kits.

“Decided to join the party, huh Skipper?” said Lucy Hiroshi. She and the rest of Charlie Team would make the first drop. They had the hardest assignment…the massive, steep-walled gorge directly below the ship’s bow called the Chasm of Asgard. Lucy and Taj Singh would be the first humans to set foot on 23998 Hicks-Newman.

Winger ignored the jibe. “Just taking care of a few matters.” He found all eyes regarding him carefully. “What—?”

“So where’s ANAD?”

Winger patted his shoulder where the port and capsule implant could barely be felt through the laminate armor of the hypersuit. “Does it show that much? Let’s just say we have a new understanding. Charlie Team, ready for lockout procedure?”

Al Glance would honcho the drop and oversee Charlie Team at the Chasm site.

“All copacetic, Lieutenant. We’re itching to get digging.”

“Very well. Into the airlock with you.”

Lieutenant Mendez cycled the airlock, while the last two members of Charlie, Glance and Calderon, waited their turn like impatient polar bears.

“Opening depress valves now,” Mendez announced. Inside the lock, the rush of the last wisps of air made a faint wind as they escaped into space. “Outer hatch enabled…coming open…now.”

From Galileo’s altitude of three hundred meters, the drop to the surface would take about ten minutes, on light suit boost using shoulder thrusters and foot jets to get the fall started. Hicks-Newman had only a minute gravity field; a true free fall would have taken days to reach the ground from where the ship was anchored.

“Charlie One away,” Mendez announced. “That’s one small step for two nanotroopers—“

Everyone craned forward to catch a glimpse of the falling nanotroopers through adjacent portholes.

Against the backdrop of Hicks’ gray and ocher surface, Hiroshi and Singh were soon lost to view…two tiny white dots descending as if on a rope toward the pockmarked desolation of the boulder fields surrounding the Chasm. The gaping fissure was mostly in shadow at the moment. Hicks’ eight-hour rotation would bring the gorge into full sun in less than two hours.

“Looks like an open mouth,” Sheila Reaves muttered. She swallowed hard at the prospect facing all of them.

“Yeah, with teeth,” someone added.

“Okay, Bravo Team…into the lock.”

Mighty Mite Barnes and Nicole Simonet squeezed into the airlock and were quickly cycled through. As they descended toward Bravo’s site at the anti-sunward pole and Freja crater, Vic Klimuk and Turbo Fatah entered the lock behind them and soon joined the drop.

Only the barest puff from the hypersuit’s thrusters was needed to start down, initiating a controlled free fall.

Fatah marveled at the ride down. “It’s like I’m in the ocean, just drifting down toward the bottom.” He peered down at the surface, slowly growing in his helmet visor as he drifted steadily toward a rugged field of boulders and craters, aiming the toe of his left boot at the white dots scrambling like ants along the surface. Barnes and Simonet, he realized, already down and setting up their gear. “It feels just like I’m floating—“

“Yeah? Well don’t get all dreamy on me,” Klimuk’s voice crackled over the headset. The IC1 was somewhere above him, having cycled through the airlock after Fatah. “Just make sure you hit the target…we’ve got a stiff crosswind up here.”

Klimuk’s little joke made Fatah suddenly more aware of his own course; he saw that he was indeed drifting toward the right, toward the Saddle at the equator of the little asteroid.

“Correcting now,” he announced. With a delicate twist of the control stick at his right hand, the suit’s jets puffed cold nitrogen gas and soon nudged him back onto the proper descent path.

Soon enough, Alpha Team began its own drop from the ship. Spivey and Reaves went out first, followed by Detrick and Johnny Winger. The ANAD master came along in Winger’s shoulder capsule.

“All teams away,” Mendez announced. Kamler was up on Galileo’s command deck, making sure the asteroid’s rotation didn’t put undue strain on her anchoring lines. Like a fly caught in a rolling ball of string, the ship was being slowly tugged around in a tight fifteen-kilometer wide circle by Hicks’ rotation. Mendez safed the lock systems and then headed forward up the central tunnel, to join Kamler at the ship control station.

By the time the pilots had joined up, Winger had completed his drop. His boots thudded gently into the dust and rubble of the surface.

“Alpha Team on the ground at Odin’s Fissure,” he announced. He could see by the deep black shadows cast on the canyon’s far wall that the drop had been accurate; Spivey and Reaves were already kangaroo hopping toward the gaping cut in the ground. Distances are deceiving on this little slagheap of a world, he told himself. The horizon seemed closer than it really was. Already, the others were white blobs stirring up a rooster tail of dust as they made their way toward the fissure.

“All teams, comm check. Bravo Team, what’s your status?”

Vic Klimuk’s voice crackled over the crewnet. “Bravo Team down in one piece. We’re passing by Freja Crater now…man, that’s one big hole. ETA at the dig site in under ten minutes.”

Winger acknowledged. “Very well. Charlie Team, where are you guys?”

Al Glance’s voice came back like he was standing right next to him. “We’re already at the Chasm, Lieutenant. Setting up our grid now and triangulating cut vectors. We’re ready to launch on your command.”

Mighty Mite Barnes chimed in. “Just what I joined the Corps for…digging ditches.”

“Give us ten minutes,” Winger advised. He bounded off after Detrick, Spivey and Reaves.

Maneuvering at the surface of Hicks-Newman was an exercise in managing momentum and your own inertia. Gravity at the surface was so minute that you could literally walk off the asteroid on foot if you weren’t careful. Winger soon found that with judicious use of his suit boost to keep him on course, he could bound forward twenty to thirty meters in a single leap. He made the edge of Odin’s Fissure in four minutes.

Sheila Reaves peered over the loose rubbly edge of the great canyon. Experimentally, she kicked some loose rocks down the side walls. The rocks tumbled into the shadows in slow motion and were soon lost to view.

“How deep is it?” she wondered.

Winger consulted a graphic on his eyepiece viewer. “The book says about a thousand meters at the deepest point.”

Ray Spivey did some quick mental arithmetic. “That’s about one-fifth the diameter of the asteroid. I’ll get started setting up the dig site grid.” He took a series of hacks off Galileo’s signal and soon outlined the perimeter of the dig site with a small laser system that projected a virtual 3-D grid over the top of the canyon. Odin’s Fissure was soon draped in an electronic spider web of lines, the deep red of the grid lines like a ghostly crown to the ocher and gray tones of the rock and rubble. “That’s where we dig, Skipper. Coordinates confirmed from Galileo.”

Winger eyeballed the width of the huge fissure. “Must be nearly a hundred meters to the other side.”

Kip Detrick checked. “Galileo says a hundred and twenty two, to be exact.”

“Don’t think I can leap that in a single bound…not without my jets. Let’s get our ANADs primed and ready for launch. Spivey, Reaves, you two boost to the other side…carefully, one each to the far corners of the grid. Kip and I will work this side. And take it easy, will you? Don’t get cocky down here. This place can still kill you in a heartbeat.”

“On my way, Skipper,” announced Reaves. The DPS tech lit off her foot jets and leaped like a bulky cliff diver right over the chasm. Spivey followed right on her heals, a ‘rainbow’ of electrostatically charged dust arcing over and down into the shadowy canyon after him. The two troopers landed on the far bank and worked their way into position at each corner of the grid.

“My ANAD’s primed and ready in all respects, Lieutenant,” he told them.

“We’re ready to bust loose, too,” Reaves added.

“Launch ANAD.”

Winger felt the familiar sting of his shoulder port snapping open and the slug of high-pressure air discharging into space. For the next few minutes, he busied himself pecking out commands on his wristpad, signaling the ANAD swarm to maneuver toward and down into the great Fissure.

“Selecting auto-maneuver…config seven-seven is loaded and confirmed…now the coordinates…ANAD, you’ve got your orders.”

***ANAD has received all signals…maneuvering to pre-set coordinates…now on half propulsors…effector set full extension…heading zero five five on grid…estimating contact in eight minutes…ANAD is ready to dig, Base***

The swarm was invisible to the naked eye during transit and Winger resisted the impulse to link in and watch what happened at nanoscale. Greg Nygren and the UNISPACE geos had provided detailed data on Hicks’ composition before Galileo had departed Phobos Station. ANAD would see pyroxene and plagioclase lattice structures at the asteroid, a lot of them. Row after row of octahedral molecule clusters thick with carbon and nitrogen bonds would be all that ANAD saw. Digging and disassembly ops would consist of breaking these bonds with his bond disrupters and chewing through the rows, ad infinitum.

“I’m launched,” Reaves announced. Her hypersuited figure waved at Winger and Detrick from the opposite bank of the Fissure. “ANAD is away, all mean and in the green.”

“Same here,” Spivey added. “ETA is now under six minutes.”

The first visual proof of ANAD ops came when a faint blue white light began emanating from the shadows inside Odin’s Fissure. The ball of light looked like a miniature supernova in slow motion, expanding rapidly as the ANAD swarms merged and bond breaking accelerated. Soon, much of the deep shadow had been dispelled by the swelling light ball.

“A new sunrise, right on schedule,” Reaves said. She was documenting the effect with a handheld camera for UNISPACE records.

“Check swarm orientation,” Winger ordered. “Make sure ANAD is setting up properly and the cut vector’s on course. I don’t want ANAD veering off toward those impulse arrays. The geos say we follow this vector for a day, then in twenty hours, we change heading toward the Saddle. That aligns us with a suspected crustal seam inside the asteroid.”

“Looks good for the moment, Skipper,” Detrick said. “Swarm properties within parameters. Centroid of disassembly is off by less than five nanometers.”

Winger finally began to relax a little. “Okay, ANAD, it’s all yours. Chomp away.” He peered through the sun glare some five hundred meters away, at the Asgard dig site in the distance. “Charlie Team, how about it? I see some ANAD light over there. Give me a status report.”

Al Glance’s voice came back.

“We’re underway now, sir. Jeez, this chasm is one deep hole. It looks like it’s cut halfway through the whole asteroid. “

“It just about is,” Winger reminded him. “Any problems with your ANAD launch?”

“None at all. We launched and vectored the swarm to the correct coordinates, sent the rep command and made sure it’s pointed in the right direction. Right now, Lucy’s scanning the whole dig site, to make sure ANAD’s on the proper heading. So far, all copacetic.”

Winger acknowledged. “Good. Bravo Team, status report. I can’t see you from here.”

Vic Klimuk’s voice erupted in his earpiece. “Man, this is one wild place, Major. ANAD launched in good order and he’s digging away right below me. Working no issues or constraints at this time. Skipper, have you noticed what happens when you pick up a rock and drop it?”

Winger decided to try it himself. He selected a fist-sized rock at his feet. Experimentally, he dropped it from a point level with his shoulders. The rock didn’t fall straight vertically to the ground. It drifted down slowly in Hicks’ microgravity, at a pronounced angle from vertical, falling toward the Saddle.

“That’s wicked,” Winger agreed. “The asteroid’s center of mass is over by the Chasm, in the Saddle area. The rock falls toward that, not straight down.”

“Exactly, Skipper. Gravity’s a whole new ball game on this rock pile.”

Winger knew Bravo Team had a thankless task. The geos had decided that the anti-sunward pole of Hicks-Newman needed to be whittled down to make impulse diversion feasible this deep in the Sun’s gravity well. Bravo had no crustal faults or seams to work with, only an endless rubble and boulder field peppered with depressions and craters. Their job was simply to shape this end of the asteroid into something that could be more easily diverted when the other teams had succeeded in splitting Hicks into three separate pieces.

Winger was about to check Alpha Team’s dig progress when a barely throttled cry came over the crewnet.

It was Lucy’s voice.

“Watch out! ANAD went too far…it’s caving in—!”

Even from a distance of nearly two kilometers, Winger could make out the faint glow of ANAD operation at Charlie Team’s dig site. The asteroid’s horizon was actually too near to see the site directly, but the pronounced kink in the terrain at the Saddle put the Chasm of Asgard in Winger’s field of view anyway.

What he saw made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

The faint blue white glow of ANAD was dimmed by a swelling cloud of dust, electrostatically charged into a series of rainbows, billowing up from inside the Chasm. The great valley in the Saddle of Hicks-Newman was collapsing.

Winger leaped into motion and left Alpha Team, kangaroo-hopping as fast as he could across the rubble fields toward the Chasm. “Spivey, you’re with me. The rest of you stay put and keep an eye on ANAD here—“

“What’s happened?”

Al Glance’s voice came back strained and hoarse, as if he were lifting a great weight.

“Lucy—the side walls are giving way…get out of there now! Chris…Taj…try to snag his arm or leg—“

Winger and Spivey covered the two-kilometer distance in under ten minutes, leaping high in twenty-meter arcs to cover the ground. When they arrived, the dig site was in complete chaos.

The Chasm of Asgard boiled in dust and rubble as the canyon’s side walls collapsed in slow motion, shrugging off curtains of rock in great sheets. Microgravity added a surreal underwater quality to the scene.

Inside the dig pit, the glow of ANAD ops had died off; the swarm had become lost in the cascade of falling rock. Even without ANAD, the momentum of the collapse was accelerating as the walls sloughed off seam after seam of unstable material.

And caught squarely in the middle of the avalanche was the bobbing white helmet of Lucy Hiroshi, now nearly enveloped in debris as she lit off her suit boost, trying to propel herself out of the Chasm before it caved in on her completely.

A steady shower of rubble, rock and dust fell into the chasm for twenty minutes.

“Lucy! Lucy…can you hear me?” Al Glance leaned out over the edge as far as he could, searching for light, movement, anything to indicate the trooper had survived the collapse. “I’m not seeing anything. Lucy…do you copy? Lucy Hiroshi, comm check on channel one?”

Dust billowed thick and blinding around the upper edges of the huge canyon, forming staticky clumps as electrostatic discharges went off throughout the cloud.

The corrupted ANAD in Lucy’s embed, taken right from the Lieutenant’s master, had done its job.

“Anybody getting a beacon signal?” Glance asked.

“Nothing, Sarge.” Taj Singh checked all bands. Every hypersuit was equipped with an emergency locator. “Not a thing…maybe her transmitter’s damaged—“

“I hope the suit’s not breached,” said Chris Calderon.

Johnny Winger could see the situation was bad, and getting worse. Even though the asteroid had a minute level of gravity, the rocks loosened in the avalanche still had their own inertia, enough to cause serious injury in a bad fall. “Get back from the edge,” Winger reminded everybody. “I don’t want to lose anybody else. Everybody stay back until this thing stabilizes.”

Long tense minutes followed as the slow motion collapse finally subsided. When he was reasonably sure the worst was over, Winger had an idea.

“Get your ANADs recalled and reconfigured…all of you. We’re going to use swarms to tunnel down into that debris and find Lucy.”

Taj Singh had some misgivings. “Is that safe, Skipper? ANAD may trigger another slide. Maybe we should wait a little longer.”

Taj was right of course, but time was critical. “If we wait any longer, Lucy has no chance. Get your ANADs reconfigged and launched now.”

For the next few minutes, the edge of the chasm was thick with dust and nanobotic swarms. Every master assembler was re-built for optimum tunneling efficiency…strengthening its bond breakers to rip apart solid lattice structures of pyroxene, feldspar and methane ice.

Spivey was done first. “Launching ANAD,” he announced. A diffuse blue white globe of light descended into the smoking canyon, heading for the top of the pile of talus and rock fall thirty meters below them.

The others sortied their ANADs in quick succession: Calderon, Singh and Glance all contributed to the sparkling fog that soon filled much of the chasm walls.

Johnny Winger checked config status on his own ANAD one last time. He didn’t notice a small warning flag that had popped up, signaling a problem.

“It’s up to you, ANAD. Get down there and clear us a path to Lucy. Her life depends on it.”

***ANAD won’t let you down, Base…verifying config six-one alpha…bond breakers optimized for solid phase disassembly…effectors are primed and enabled…Base, ANAD estimating fifteen to twenty hours transit time but I’ll get there…ANAD will coordinate with other swarms to locate Trooper Hiroshi…don’t worry, we’ll make it—***

“Time’s critical, ANAD…Lucy may be hurt or unconscious. Her suit may be breached. Get going and report back any problems.”

The nanoscale assembler began its descent on max propulsor toward the canyon opening, slamming loose atoms together in an exponential frenzy. The intense blue-white glare soon drifted down and slowly merged with the other swarms, forming a miniature sunburst in the black mouth of the Chasm of Asgard. The effect resembled some kind of weird sunset, slowly being swallowed up by the Chasm. Dust that still hung thick in the asteroid’s microgravity added streaks of red, yellow and green to the spectacle.

“Anything else we can do now, Skipper?” asked Taj Singh. “There must be something we can do.”

Winger checked swarm status on his wristpad; already ANAD was returning acoustic soundings from the chasm walls. Config six-one alpha—good; on course—-that’s good; max propulsor engaged and bond breakers in primed position—all good. The warning flag had disappeared.

“Now we wait,” he answered. “Anything else we could do might make the situation worse. Taj, keep trying to get Lucy…try all bands. Maybe we can get a signal through all that rock, give ANAD something to home on.”

Singh tapped out comm codes on his own wristpad. “Trooper Hiroshi, this is Charlie Team, do you copy? Lucy, comm check, can you read me, over? Trooper Singh, broadcasting in the clear…all troopers report back immediately—“

Nothing came back. Only static. A growing sense of unease descended on the detail as they hung helplessly by the edge of the chasm, watching ANAD, waiting. Hoping. Wondering.

 

The glow of ANAD operations filled the upper banks of the Chasm for nearly twenty hours. In that time, the swarms penetrated some twenty-five meters into the rock fall and debris that had collapsed on Hiroshi. A narrow tunnel, less than two meters in diameter was bored out of the slide and Winger directed additional ANAD work be done at the top of the Chasm to shore up the walls and the tunnel, to keep it from collapsing again.

“This ditch is pretty unstable,” agreed Al Glance. “The sooner we can get to Lucy, the better.”

“I’m betting this won’t be the last slide either,” Winger added. “I’d better make sure the other dig sites take the same precautions.”

There was little for the rescue detail to do while ANAD continued boring into the fallen rubble pile.

Taj Singh stood off to one side, quietly seeking assurances from his esteemed ancestors, muttering imprecations under his breath every so often. Chris Calderon ran scans of the ground along the chasm banks, trying to find any more faults or seams, trying to reassure himself that another collapse wasn’t coming. “This whole ledge could give way any moment,” he announced, to no one in particular.

Al Glance was mildly annoyed. “Sergeant, save the good news for later…just keep that scan going.”

For his part, Johnny Winger occasionally linked in to watch ANAD work from nanoscale range. It was always the same: row after endless row of crystalline lattice, sizzling with staccato pops as the assemblers twisted and broke carbon bonds and worked their way ever deeper into the hole. It was like hacking your way through dense jungle vine and underbrush, only this was a jungle that featured tetrahedral trees made of carbons and hydrogens and phosphate and silicon groups in dizzying profusion.

Winger had nodded off to a light doze when the first alert came from ANAD over the quantum coupler link.

***Sounding different structures ahead…ANAD detecting aspect change in lattice…returns indicate structure could be laminate armor…composition is—***

Winger came fully awake. Laminate armor? Like a hypersuit? “ANAD, display results of sounding…perform emissions analysis…spectrum pattern.”

ANAD sent the results back and Winger studied the patterns on his eyepiece. The rest of the Detachment saw the same thing on theirs.

“That has to be a hypersuit,” someone said.

Troopers moved up to the borehole and began peering over the edge, down into the faint blue-white glow.

“ANAD—“ Winger ordered, “change your course…come to heading—“ he checked the soundings again, “—two one five degrees. Slow to one quarter propulsor. Bond disrupters to half extension.”

***ANAD changing course now…slowing to one quarter propulsor…detecting faint thermals, faint EMs***

Taj Singh cried out. “I’ve got the beacon! It’s her locator beacon…faint, but it’s there all right. We’ve got to get down there—“ Singh started to fire up his suit boost but Winger held him back.

“Hold on, Taj…let ANAD finish the borehole. Scan those side walls…see if they’re stable enough to enter.”

Singh sounded the shadowy borehole with acoustic pulses from his own ANAD embed. “Detecting a few voids, Skipper. No relative motion. She’s holding up.”

Spivey and Calderon had been on the other side, using their own swarms to shore up the walls of the Chasm. “You two—get your ANADs around the tunnel entrance…keep shoring there. Taj, get ready. When ANAD gives the word, I want you in that borehole. Use your suit boost to pull Lucy up and out…you’ll have to work with ANAD to keep the path clear.”

Singh was already grabbing and attaching tools and rolls of dropline to his belt. “Roger that, Major. I’ll get her out—“

***ANAD sounding for vital signs now, Base…detecting vibrations ahead…still faint thermals…breaching final solid layers now…there…ANAD has reached the target…target is hypersuited trooper beacon number Q225577…sending soundings—***

The ANAD swarm had flooded the void in which Hiroshi was buried with acoustic pulses. From the returns, a trained interpreter could read heart and lung vibrations, respiration products, a variety of vital signs.

“She’s weak,” Glance announced, after studying the results. “Weak but alive. Looks like her body temp’s dropping…she’s probably in shock, or going into shock. We need to get her out of there quickly.”

“Is her suit intact? Any breaches?”

“Soundings indicate pressure’s holding…for now.”

Winger saw Taj Singh crouching on the precipice of the Chasm, his booted legs only centimeters from the faint white flicker inside the borehole.

“Okay, Taj…in you go. And the rest of you, keep those swarms shoring up the edges. I don’t want the borehole to collapse.”

Singh lit off his suit boost. His hypersuited body lifted a few meters over the ground in a swirl of dust, then translated smoothly over the center of the tunnel entrance. Slowly, carefully with tweaks on his controller, he adjusted his thrust and gently lowered himself down into the hole. It was going to be a tight fit. Dust fluttered outward in a fan-like spray as he disappeared. When his helmet had dropped below the opening, a lone voice crackled over the crewnet.

It was Turbo Fatah, two kilometers away over the horizon at Site Bravo. The other teams had been following the rescue over the crewnet.

“Safe journey, Taj…just get Lucy out of there—“

Winger watched Singh disappear down the borehole. “Keep those swarms cooking,” he ordered. “Keep shoring up around that tunnel. I don’t want another collapse.”

Al Glance busied himself supervising the others. “I guess all we can do now is wait.”

“Wait—“ said Chris Calderon “—and pray.”

Singh took the better part of an hour to slide down the borehole. Presently, his voice came back over the crewnet.

“I’m in the void…my feet just broke through…ANAD’s bored out just enough for me to turn…looks like…yeah, it’s Lucy…don’t see anything in her visor…too dark in here—“

“What’s her status?” Glance asked.

“Unknown,” came the reply. Taj Singh was twenty five meters below them, in a narrow tunnel carved out of rock fall and rubble. Glance knew the Chasm walls could let go again at any moment. And he wasn’t sure what ANAD might do next.

“Al—“ Winger reminded him, “we don’t have time to check her out…Taj has to bring her out now.”

“I know, I know…I just didn’t want to make her worse. If she’s injured…if she’s got broken bones—“

“None of that will matter if we can’t get her out. Taj, this is Winger. Can you hook up Lucy to your suit and start lifting her out. I don’t like the looks of the Chasm walls up here.”

Singh’s voice grunted and strained for a few moments. Then: “Got it, Skipper. I got her shoulder eyelets hooked to my leg harness. I’ll try a little boost here…see if I can take up the slack.”

Glance and Winger could both visualize the tight confines of the borehole. Singh was having to do a lot of the work by feel alone.

“—it’s working,” he reported. “The line’s holding. Looks like my boost can move her okay. But it’s going to be a bumpy ride up.”

“Can’t be helped,” Winger told him. “Bring her out, Taj. Get going now.”

“We’re on our way,” Taj Singh finally reported. “Ascending on one quarter boost…we’re coming up slowly and carefully.”

The ascent took nearly an hour and a half. When the white helmet top of Taj’s hypersuit emerged from the flickering blue white dust of the borehole, a great cheer erupted from all the troopers gathered around.

Singh rose up through the borehole, dragging the prostrate form of Lucy Hiroshi with him. He lifted over the edge of the Chasm and hovered while other troopers disconnected Hiroshi from the makeshift sling and set her down gently on the ground. Then Taj maneuvered to a landing himself a few meters away.

“She’s alive!” Nicole Simonet announced, peering into her helmet, faceplate to faceplate. “But I see a lot of bruises…she’s probably in shock.”

“Check out her suit,” Winger ordered. “Check O2, pressure, seals, everything. Taj, you may have to hook back up and boost her up to Galileo. Check her suit boost too. “

Calderon, Spivey, Simonet and the rest fussed over the fallen trooper for the next few minutes, checking everything. There wasn’t much they could do for first aid inside the hypersuit. Simonet felt especially close to the fallen trooper; she and Hiroshi had come to 1st Nano out of the same class at nog school.

“Looks like she’s got some open cuts and lacerations, Skipper,” said Spivey. “She took one hell of a beating in that slide.”

Winger examined Hiroshi for himself. Spivey was right. Lucy’s face was battered, puffy and blood-streaked. “I’ve got several configs stored in my embed for nanoderm patches. I’ll get that going and load the master into her suit port. Get her hooked up to Taj’s harness. What about her suit boost?”

Chris Calderon had been checking every inch of Hiroshi’s suit. “Intermittent, Skipper. Probably she sustained some valve damage in the fall. Plus most of the nitrogen’s leaked away. Lucy’s suit boost is no-go.”

“Otherwise, her tin can’s holding up pretty well,” Simonet announced. “This laminate’s pretty tough…it probably saved her life.”

“Any comms?”

“Negative, Skipper. She’s pretty much out of it anyway. She may have suffered head trauma.”

“Okay, Taj…it’s all up to you. Boost her back to Galileo. I’ll let Kamler and Mendez know her condition. She’ll be better off aboard ship than down here.”

“Roger that, Lieutenant.” Singh waited until the harness was secure, then gently lit off his own boost. In a swirl of dust, he lifted away from the surface of the asteroid and rose steadily skyward. Lucy Hiroshi’s limp, hypersuited form swayed beneath his legs, steadied by extra tensioning lines as they headed up toward the ship.

Taj’s voice came back over the crewnet. “Trooper Singh…inbound for Galileo…estimating arrival in about thirty minutes…I am buddy-lifting Trooper Hiroshi on this trip…repeat, this is a medevac lift to Galileo…we’ll need medical assistance on arrival in thirty minutes—“

The two of them soon disappeared among the stars and the faint cloud of dust blown off the surface by solar wind. A steady stream of particles streamed off Hicks-Newman and the two troopers were soon lost in the haze. A few hundred meters above them, Galileo floated like a great kebab skewer, tethered to the surface by her anchoring lines.

As they rose toward the ship, Taj could just make out the spiderweb of anchor lines, glinting and reflecting faintly in the sunlight. Though he knew otherwise, he had always wondered about the lines: would they hold? Were they strong enough? You couldn’t tell it from up close, but the asteroid was dragging the ship around a tight nine-hour rotation by those lines. If they snapped—

His suit boost labored with extra mass of Hiroshi that he was dragging along. Control was sluggish and he had to pay attention to keeping the center of thrust aligned with her body. Already, a few unexpected oscillations had set her to swaying back and forth like a pendulum.

“Sorry about that, Lucy,” he mumbled to himself. He listened for any response over the crewnet. Only static came back, interrupted by crew chatter from the ground. Skipper’s getting everybody back to their stations. That was good. They had a job to do.

Casualties occurred on any mission. You had to deal with it and move on. Complete the mission.

Taj took a quick glimpse downward at the white lump harnessed to his waist and wondered. Was she conscious? Was she badly hurt? He imagined a broken neck, internal injuries, punctured lungs, then tried to shrug it off and focus on their approach to Galileo

Lucy Hiroshi had always been a trash-talking, wise-cracking San Franciscan, a muscle gal,…into kickboxing, tai chi, power lifting and any weirdass physical stunt she could think of. Lucy was a show-off, no doubt about it, but she was also one of the Corps’ best quantum engineers. Lucy could lick a swarm conflict with one hand and one eye. She was, in that way, much like Johnny Winger himself. A natural in the quantum world, a whiz kid who intuitively understood entanglement states and superposition and probability waves. She’d been a nanotrooper with the 1st for three months.

Taj looked up when a bright flash attracted his attention. At first, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Galileo loomed above them, a great trusswork skeleton festooned with cylinders and spheres.

Maybe a hundred more meters to the airlock. He could see the oval eye of the hatch already, shadowed in the recesses of the service deck sphere…the third onion on the kebab skewer.

Then he saw the debris…his eyes detecting the glint of sunlight on a cloud of particles and matter swelling outward from Galileo’s engine bay, aft of the quad of her huge propellant tanks. Debris was definitely streaming outward in all directions from the plasma torch engines that powered the ship.

What the hell—?

“Trooper Singh to Galileo…do you copy? I am on approach to your service deck…something just happened…I don’t know what…there’s all kinds of debris streaming off your engine and reactor bay. Galileo…I’m going to have to abort this approach…I’m about to boost right into a big debris field. Galileo—“

Singh tweaked his hand controller, pulsing his suit thrusters and veered off toward the command deck at Galileo’s forward end. As he maneuvered, struggling with the oscillations caused by the extra mass of Lucy below and behind him, he saw the cloud of debris around Galileo’s engine bay swelling rapidly.

Finally, the ship responded. It was Kamler’s voice on the line, thick and frantic. “Trooper Singh, break of your approach immediately. Be advised we have had an aft bay casualty…some kind of explosion or impact back there. We’re venting propellant and parts right now…keep your distance, Trooper.”

Singh snorted. I can see that much for myself.Galileo, I am inbound with a medevac casualty from the surface. It’s Trooper Hiroshi…she has extensive injuries…needs medical attention immediately.”

Kamler was insistent. “You can’t use the service deck airlock, Singh. It’s right in the debris flow…it may already have been damaged. Translate forward to Scout/Recon Vehicle Number Three. I’ll cycle the airlock there and you can bring her aboard that way.”

Singh acknowledged. “Maneuvering now….”

He tweaked his boost and thrusted forward along Galileo’s central spine, passing by the sphere of the Hab deck, momentarily peering in through the cupola at the mess compartment, where the last briefing had been held only a day before. It seemed like an eternity ago now. Past the Hab, he soon saw the trio of scout ships fastened to docking collars along the spine, each ship capable of carrying a crew of four. The docking collars were located between the Hab and command deck spheres, strung like ornamental vegetables along Galileo’s central mast.

Singh translated and maneuvered until he found ship number three. The airlock was a small elliptical hatch on top of the ship’s crew compartment. Already, he could see motion through the portholes. Kamler was inside, prepping the lock.

“Okay,” came Kamler’s voice, “I’m ready…you see the hatch handle to the left?”

“I see it.”

“Grab that handle and twist left, then squeeze and pull.”

Singh dragged himself and the tethered Hiroshi along the top of the scoutship and floated directly in front of the hatch. He twisted the handle. The hatch loosened and Singh pushed it open, then maneuvered the two of them inside the airlock. There was barely enough room for the two of them. He dogged the hatch shut and stabbed a button on a nearby panel. Air hissed into the compartment and the re-pressurization cycle began.

Moments later, the inner hatch opened and Kamler’s face appeared.

“Let’s get her helmet off,” he suggested.

“She may be in shock,” Singh warned.

The two of them managed to quick-disconnect Lucy’s helmet at the neck ring and remove it.

Her face was battered, swollen and bruised, her eyes puffy and weak. Her head lolled to one side.

“Come on, help me get her to sick bay…we need to get her warmed up…out of that suit…and get her fluids built back up.”

Hiroshi then mumbled something incoherent, her mouth ejecting spit and a little blood in a mist of droplets that floated through the airlock.

“What’d she say?”

Singh lowered himself closer to her face. “…it’s her leg…her right leg. May be broken.”

“Come on…let’s move.”

Kamler and Singh wrestled Hiroshi through the airlock out into the central passage and aft along Galileo’s spine to the Hab deck. A small compartment opposite the exercise bay served as a clinic and sick bay. Microgravity aboard the ship made the move a little easier. Hiroshi was carefully extracted from her banged-up hypersuit and strapped into a gurney. A few moments later, Mendez appeared. He had come aft from the command deck to see how their patient was doing.

“We’ll know in a few minutes,” Kamler told him. He began his examination with Lucy’s head and face.

“What the hell was that impact I saw coming up, something around the engines?” Singh asked, while Kamler checked Lucy from head to feet, pressing and squeezing to feel for fractured ribs, arms, pelvis, following a line of bruises and contusions like a map.

Mendez shook his head. “We took a hit on the propulsion plant, engine bay…dead on, whatever it was. Ruptured a propellant tank too…xenon gas is already down a quarter. To answer your question, I don’t know yet. I was headed back there to check things out.”

“I’ll come too,” Singh offered. He looked over Lucy’s battered and bruised body. “I hope she’s going to be alright—“

Kamler had already hooked up IVs and tubes. Two medbots purred around the gurney, making last minute adjustments, attaching probes and catheters, drawing blood, scanning. Kamler perused the results on a nearby screen. “Mmm…looks like a broken hip…broken right ankle…no obvious internal bleeding, but there’s evidence of a concussion—see those EEGs? I’m sure she’s in shock, so we’ll have to work on building up her fluids. And then there’s that…see the shadows around her lower cerebrum?”

Singh saw them. “A tumor?”

“Maybe. More likely, from the signature, it’s internal swelling around the skull. One of these bots has a program for hemicraniectomy…we may have to do that pretty soon—“

Singh bent down, bringing his face closer to Lucy’s purplish cheeks and whispered.

“Be tough, kid. We’ll have you patched up and back in shape in no time.”

Kamler waved him back. “Step over there, Corporal. I’m bringing up a biostatic field…these buggers will bite if you stay inside.” He pressed a few buttons and the swarm launched from a port on the side of the gurney. In seconds, it had expanded to a light, flickering fog, enveloping Hiroshi and her gurney, cocooning her in a sterile wrap of static nanobots. “I’m prepping an insert too…put a few bots into her skull and see what’s causing that swelling.”

“Thanks,” Singh murmured. A hard swallow caught in the back of his throat.

Mendez hovered just outside the sick bay, impatient to head aft and see what had happened to Galileo. “Let’s move out, Corporal.” To Kamler, he added, “We’ll be down in 08 Level for awhile, Jim. I’ve disabled auto-maneuver until we get back. We’ll just have to take our chances with the anchor lines and hope Hicks doesn’t snap them while she rotates.”

But Kamler was only barely listening. He was already deeply engrossed in his checkout of Hiroshi.

They crawled and floated down Galileo’s central tunnel to an observation cupola just aft of the service and support deck. A small control station inside the cupola operated systems around the ship’s propulsion plant.

Mendez anchored himself at the station and began flipping switches.

“Launching Durwood now…” he announced. Outside the cupola, the Dexterous Utility Robot uncradled and lifted away from its hold, maneuvering toward the ship’s crippled engine bay. “I’m translating aft,” the pilot said. “Approaching the reactor shields—“

On the screen, they saw what Durwood’s cameras saw. Past the reactor shields, the entire engine bay was enveloped in floating wreckage, jagged chunks of metal and parts forming a debris cloud that surrounded the entire propulsion plant of the ship.

Singh uttered a low whistle. “In the name of Vishnu—“

Mendez fiddled with the video, massaging better resolution out of Durwood. “Boy, we took one hell of a hit from something…two of the three engines are junk…and we’re venting something too…probably xenon from one of the tanks.”

“What the hell happened?”

Mendez ran archival footage from the aft videos, while Durwood maneuvered gingerly closer and closer. “Look at this—“ he pointed to one screen. “Something hit us square on…right there—“ he tapped the screen “…about two hours ago. Maybe something streamed off the asteroid…look at all that debris—“

Singh studied the footage, watching closely as a flash suddenly erupted and wreckage rocketed away from the impact site. In seconds, the debris cloud had swollen to encompass the entire aft third of the ship.

“Let’s see what Durwood can show us.” Mendez manipulated a small joystick, driving the bot deeper into the debris field. Plowing through floating wreckage, he came at last to a jagged tear along one engine bell, just where it joined the central spine of the ship. “Whatever it was, it unzipped one whole side of that bell…then it must have caromed around and hit the next one a glancing blow.”

They studied the video that Durwood was sending back. Mendez cautiously maneuvered the bot through the wreckage.

“Is it repairable?” Singh asked.

Mendez snorted. “Well, we don’t exactly carry spare engines for Galileo…look for yourself. The ship has only a minimal machine shop up on the service deck. And we didn’t have a lot of time for a complete outfitting.” He stared glumly at the images. “Looks like we’re going to be staying here for awhile.”

“What do you mean ‘staying here’?”

“I mean we’re anchored to Hicks-Newman with no way to depart the vicinity. We’ve got maneuvering thrusters but that’s all. The entire engine complex is shot to hell. And what’s worse, two of our xenon tanks are holed. We’re leaking propellant into space.” Mendez re-oriented Durwood to scout forward among the tank debris. “No sir, Galileo’s stuck like a fly in a spider web.”

Singh felt a cold gnawing in the pit of his stomach. Through an overhead porthole in the cupola he could see the rapidly growing blue-white half-sphere of Earth, now only eighteen days away. Inexorably, 23998 Hicks-Newman was drawing nearer to the planet, dragging Galileo and her crew along for the ride. In less than three weeks, the spider web and its fly would be crushed and incinerated into oblivion.

Singh decided, “I’d better inform Lieutenant Winger…you’re sure there’s nothing we can do?”

Mendez shrugged, returned his gaze back to the screens and drove Durwood back forward to its docking collar by the service deck. “The only way I can see to fix the propulsion plant is to space-dock the ship and tear out the whole section. We’re talking months at the least. Right now, Galileo’s like a big boat anchor, attached to this rock pile.”

Singh had heard enough. “I’ve got to get back to the comm center and let the Lieutenant know the situation.”

He went forward to Galileo’s command deck and radioed down to the surface detail.

The Lieutenant was still at the cave-in site, Site Charlie, a few hundred meters uphill from the huge, gaping Chasm of Asgard. Singh related Hiroshi’s condition and described what had happened to the ship.

Winger’s face was hidden behind his hypersuit helmet, but from his voice, Singh could well imagine the Lieutenant’s expression: icy resolve leavened with a little disgust.

“What else can go wrong? There’s no way to repair the damage?”

Singh described the scene and zipped some footage onto the crewnet.

“Mendez says it’s hopeless. He said it would take months, even in space-dock.”

The heavy groan was audible even over the distance of five hundred meters. “That big blue thing in the sky’s getting bigger by the hour. And we’re a day or more from splitting up the asteroid…assuming no more accidents.”

Singh swallowed hard. “Skipper, with Galileo disabled, what happens to us? When the mission is over, I mean.”

Winger was running scenarios through his mind as fast as he could. “Taj, we’re in a world of hurt right now. Truth is, we’re stuck here for awhile. But Galileo’s got lifeboats and scoutships. I’d better put in a call to Gateway. Table Top too. The brass has some decisions to make. Taj…stay there with Lucy. I’m going to make sure the dig here at Charlie is shored up properly, then boost back to the ship myself. The mission comes first…we’ve got to keep ANAD chewing away at this rock…we’ve got to get her split up so UNISPACE can divert the pieces from Earth-intercept. Everything else is secondary.”

“Aye, aye, sir…I’ll see if there’s anything I can help Kamler or Mendez with.”

“Hiroshi…she’s going to make it, right? We need every hand we can get.”

“That’s affirmative, sir. Lieutenant Kamler has already got med swarms fixing her up inside now. Special configs for surgery and tissue repair, he told me.”

“Very well, Taj. I want a status report on her condition every two hours. If she’s coming along by midday, you drop back down here and re-join Charlie team. They’ve got the diciest cut of all of us and they’re gonna need your embedded swarm soon.”

“Will do, sir.”

Johnny Winger got on the crewnet to all sites and described what had happened.

“All sites…all teams, listen up.” He laid out the details and the consequences. “For the moment, we’re stuck here. We’re along for the ride but we’ve still got a mission. I don’t have to remind you what’s at stake. Keep your ANADs primed, set on config seven seven and carving away at your digs. Somehow, some way, we’ve got to break this big rock into manageable pieces.”

At Site Alpha, in a narrow hollow between Loki Crater and Odin’s Fissure, Sheila Reaves and Kip Detrick glanced across at each other. Each stood in full hypersuit on opposite sides of the growing chasm churned up by ANAD, shrouded in dust and faint blue-white light. Deep inside the chasm, ANAD swarms continued their work, speedily disassembling unending molecular arrays of olivine and pyroxene, chewing their way through toward the centroid of Hicks-Newman.

“Not exactly my idea of a family vacation, Kip,” Reaves said. Her hypersuit was streaked with dust and dirt kicked up by the swarm operation. On the surface of Hicks, electrostatic forces made everything cling and clump together. “So when is the cavalry coming to the rescue?”

“We are the cavalry,” Detrick wisecracked. He was working a beam transit, periodically measuring the alignment of ANAD’s cut. The dig had to be precise to ensure their end of Hicks would separate cleanly. “We get to rescue ourselves.”

Reaves looked up into the black sky, through haloes and rainbows of dust, at the blue-white marble over Detrick’s left shoulder. Earth was close, too close, less than three weeks away the Lieutenant had said and growing visibly larger with each rotation of the asteroid. “I hear Galileo’s got lifeboats. Know anything about that?”

“Nothing good. Only that Phobos dock crews didn’t have time to check out all ship systems before we boosted out of there. Hell, there might not even be enough room for all of us. But you can sit in my lap, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Reaves lied. “You’re a real winner. Hey, maybe we should detach an element of ANAD and put him to work building us some life boats.”

“Now there’s an original idea. Wonder who has the configs for that? Or how long it might take? Why don’t you suggest it to the Skipper?”

At the other end of the asteroid, some seven and half kilometers away, Bravo Team felt like lost sheep. Mighty Mite Barnes toggled her viewer back and forth, first following ANAD’s progress at nanoscale view, then scoping in on the wreckage of Galileo’s engine bay, trying to ascertain the extent of the damage Lieutenant Winger had reported.

“See anything?” Vic Klimuk asked.

“You mean besides gazillions of molecules being unzipped? Not really…let me try a different filter on this gadget.” Barnes hmmm’ed. “Well, something hit the back end of Galileo, just like Skipper said. I see a lot of debris floating around…not much else.”

“So we’re sticking around for awhile…that sucks.” Klimuk was nominally in charge of the Bravo site dig. Turbo Fatah had kangaroo-hopped up to Charlie site when Hiroshi was hurt in the cave-in, to lend assistance. Simonet was still around, hovering over their dig, trying to keep ANAD aligned.

“Yeah,” said Barnes, “we’re the ass-end of this rock pile, that’s for sure. So what do we do now?”

Klimuk climbed a small tuff of dirt and rock to check out the impulse engine arrays nearby, Polar Arrays A and B. “We do what the Skipper says and keep digging. Nicky—“ he called down to Simonet beside the cut, some twenty meters below, “how’s it looking to you now?”

“ANAD’s on track, Sergeant…within specified tolerance and approaching level eight. I read centroid depth as sixteen point six meters below mean radius level. About three more meters to go to reach target coordinates.”

“Just don’t go splitting us off from everybody else, Nic,” Klimuk reminded her. “Stop the dig at one meter to target. We’ll let ANAD recon what’s left and then Skipper can decide how to proceed.”

“Copy that, Sarge.”

 

Some three kilometers away, up-sun to Bravo site, Johnny Winger was in a quandary. He stood at Charlie site while the dig at Asgard proceeded on course. Extra shoring in the form of nearly invisible lattice structure had been hastily assembled by a detached element of ANAD. Now the cut could proceed more safely.

“I’d better get back to the ship, Al,” he was telling Al Glance, who stood alongside supervising the dig. “Get a vidcon set up with Gateway and Table Top. Major Kraft needs to know about the damage to Galileo.”

The two hypersuited nanotroopers looked like dusty polar bears about to plunge into a river after dinner.

“It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?” Glance asked. “We’re not getting out of here, are we?”

“I don’t know that,” Winger tried to be truthful. “We’ve got a mission to perform…if we don’t get this rock broken up, it won’t matter whether we get back to Earth or not…there won’t be much left. UNISPACE and Major Kraft have to work out a strategy.”

Glance was already thinking ahead. He’d done his part, loaded malware aboard the ANAD master. Now he just had to get home to collect the money. “I’m gonna research the config archive. Maybe there’s something in there that we could use as a lifeboat.”

Galileo has lifeboats, Al.”

“There’s not enough room for all of us. I already checked. But if ANAD had a config for a lifeboat—“

“Don’t detach anything from the main swarms…we need every bot we can get chewing away at this asteroid. The faster we split up Hicks-Newman, the faster we can get out of here.”

If we can get out of here.”

Winger moved off a few dozen meters to light off his suit boost for the hop up to the ship. “You have the conn, Al. Don’t let anything interfere with the digs until I get back.”

He pressed the ENABLE button on his wrist keypad and lifted gently into the black sky in a cloud of dust. Moments later, he was lost to view, riding an invisible rail straight up to Galileo’s command deck airlock.

Glance decided to occupy his mind by following the details of the Asgard dig. Doesn’t hurt to look in the archive, he told himself. He checked with Calderon, making sure the ANAD borer swarm was on course, then pressed a few buttons on his own wristpad, scrolling through page after page of config routines on his helmet viewer.

There’s got to be something here we can use, something we can scrounge up to make more lifeboats….

 

The vidcon had been set for 1900 hours, ship time, and Winger fidgeted like a five-year old in the command deck’s comm shack, while connections were being made across the interplanetary net. Winger mentally ticked off bullet points in his mind, prepping himself to brief the participants in crisp, Quantum Corps fashion.

At least the time delays would be minimal. Hicks-Newman was screaming toward Earth, drawing closer every day and the comm distances would be annoying but manageable.

No need for subtleties now, he reasoned. We’re less than three weeks from impact and there’s only one question that matters: can the Detachment get Hicks-Newman split up in time for UNISPACE to divert it?

Major Kraft’s dour face came up on one half of the screen. Doc Frost was with the Major; both appeared to be in Kraft’s office at Table Top. Nygren from UNISPACE’s Paris office occupied the other half of the screen. Kaoru Nakamura, the UNISPACE engineer at Gateway Station, Earth, filled in a small window next to Nygren.

Kraft was impatient. “What’s this all about, Winger? The doctor and I were going over some new ANAD configs.”

Winger squirted his report onto the InterplaNET and let the others study what had happened; the cave-in and the damage to Galileo. Transmission delays were less than ten seconds.

“Mendez says it’s not repairable, Major. Not out here. We’ve got some lifeboats, but space is at a premium.”

Nygren ran a worried hand through his blond buzzcut. “How much longer to split up, Lieutenant? We’re running out of time.”

Winger had just updated the calculations with Galileo’s ship computer. “At the current dig rate, at least another two days, maybe three. Both Mendez and I want to pull the teams off the asteroid before the final split…use the ship’s coilguns to break up Hicks from a distance. The trouble is that Galileo’s only got maneuvering thrusters, so any separation maneuver will take some time.”

Nakamura floated off-screen for a moment, then returned. “I just sent you an analysis we did yesterday of what will happen if the split doesn’t work. Run it—“

Winger watched the animated scenario unfold on his screen. Kraft, Frost and Nygren also watched.

A mottled, potato-shaped object slammed into the Earth’s upper atmosphere in slow-motion, igniting a fiery column of incandescent air all the way to impact. Deceleration forces caused the asteroid to explode as it slowed down, sending out concentric rings of shock waves around the globe. As Hicks plowed into an ocean, a two-thousand-kilometer wide mushroom cloud billowed outward, following close behind the initial shock waves, excavating billions of tons of seawater and lifting the ejecta plume high into the atmosphere, nearly to the edge of space. Hurricane force winds and the planet’s own rotation smeared out the plume and began distributing impact debris around the globe. As the sim went on, a long wintry cloak of dust began to descend over the entire planet, shrouding the world from the Sun’s rays. The sim ended just as mass extinctions and glaciers began bringing continent-wide death to the biosphere.

“Of course, it’s just a sim,” said Nakamura. “But the scale of effects is quite real. Gentlemen, this…or something very much like it is what we face in the next two weeks…if we don’t get Hicks diverted. This is a Torino Scale Level 9 event, at least.”

“Torino Scale?” asked Kraft.

“It’s a method for categorizing impact hazards from near-Earth objects, like Hicks-Newman. Level 9 is bad. Widespread regional destruction, just like the sim showed.”

“This seems to be a matter of timing,” Kraft growled. He turned to Frost. “Doc, have you got any magic configs up your sleeves, to speed ANAD up?”

Frost consulted his wristpad for a moment. “I’m working on several changes…they should help optimize ANAD for boring and digging. New effector designs. I’ve changed the bond angle geometry on his carbene grabbers. It’s—“

“Just upload the new stuff, Doc,” Kraft cut Frost off. There wasn’t time for lengthy explanations.

“I don’t want Galileo anchored to the surface when the breakup comes,” Mendez told them. “It’s too dangerous.”

“You said you have no engines,” Kraft reminded him.

“I’ve got maneuvering. When the Lieutenant’s team is about a day from breakup, I want to pull Galileo back a few kilometers and finish the job with our coilguns.”

Winger could see the pained expression on Nygren’s face. Nakamura didn’t look too happy either.

“Lieutenant, there’s a risk in what you’re proposing. If you don’t do the final cut right, Hicks may not break up cleanly. Or at all—“

“There’s too much risk in staying attached,” Mendez insisted. “My ship’s already been damaged by debris flying off the asteroid. I’m not taking any more chances.”

“Like I said, it’s all in the timing,” Kraft repeated. “Nygren, what does UNISPACE think? Can we make Hicks separate cleanly with coilguns firing from a distance?”

“I’ll have to run the calculations…look at the morphology of the surface and strata below that. Your coilguns may not put out enough energy to do the job. I’ll get back to you today on what the analysis shows.”

“We’ll stay on the ground until we’re sure Hicks can be split up,” Winger decided. “I’ve got all three teams working around the clock now. I can send progress reports to Nygren and Nakamura every hour, if they want. Video and geo analysis from ANAD.”

“Do that,” Nakamura said. “That will help us understand the mechanics of the asteroid…how close we are to breakup.”

“Winger,” Kraft had made a decision, “get your lifeboats powered up and checked out. But keep the Detachment on the surface until you’re three days out from Earth intercept. Do our UNISPACE people think you can divert the pieces that close to Earth?”

“We’ve done some scenarios,” Nygren admitted. “Based on breaking up Hicks according to the original plan, our impulse motors can maneuver the remaining pieces away from Earth intercept up to about a day before. After that, we can’t generate the delta-vee to do the job. Inside of a day out…we’re going to have an impact…somewhere.”

Kraft’s lips tightened perceptibly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Doc Frost dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief. And it wasn’t because of the temperature in Kraft’s office.

“Lieutenant Winger, I’m sure you heard that. We’ll just have to do whatever we can to breakup Hicks before H-hour. Unofficially, I can tell all of you that UNIFORCE is already prepping their ground lasers and killsats…interceptors too—to throw everything at Hicks, if it comes to that. The Secretary-General has already had a series of vidcons with other leaders, trying to coordinate evacuation and emergency plans.”

Winger and Mendez glanced at each other. Galileo’s comm shack was close quarters and stuffy. “Doc, if you could send up your new configs, we’ll load them into ANAD and see if they make a difference. We need every bit of help we can get.”

Frost acknowledged. “They’re on the way, Johnny. Table Top Dispatch already has them. They’re just being held for any last minute changes. You should be getting the files soon. Oh…and Johnny: I’ve taken the liberty of using a new encryption scheme for some of ANAD’s most critical files. You’ll get the encryption key in a separate transmission. I did this in case there are any more quantum signals out there…unknown Keeper systems that might affect his processor. Just a precaution—“

“Good idea, Doc.”

Kraft scowled on the screen and interjected. “Nygren, get that analysis on coilgun dynamics to Winger ASAP. If we can do the job from a distance, I want to do it.”

Nygren nodded. “I’ll have it today and send it right off.”

Kraft crisply cut the meeting short. “Then let’s everybody get back to work. We don’t have any time to waste.” The Major chopped the transmission short and sank back in his chair, rubbing tired eyes. “Doc, is there anything else we can do from here? Do you think those new configs will help? UNSAC wants a progress report every four hours…I’d sure like to give him something more that ‘No change, sir.’”

Frost shrugged and took off his spectacles to wipe them down. “Unknown, Major. The configs are an evolutionary improvement to ANAD’s effector operation. They should help…but there are still glitches and unknowns in his main processor. That autonomy code and this so-called Prime Key—I’ll be honest, it’s got us all stumped. The code is so subtle, so complex…it was part of the original viral genome and we’ve barely scratched the surface of its possibilities.” Frost sighed heavily. “I don’t like something I can’t understand. I designed ANAD…and now he seems to be headed down a developmental road I never dreamed of.”

Kraft didn’t like the sound of that. “I guess ANAD wouldn’t be the first child to disappoint a parent. But it doesn’t sound so good, Doc. This encryption you mentioned…you really think there might be more Keeper systems around? Or quantum generators?”

“Major, I have no idea. But from what I can glean from ANAD’s autonomy code, these ‘Old Ones’ seem both thorough and determined. To me, it seems unlikely they would give up so easily on a prospective world they had been cultivating for billions of years. Of course, we really don’t know if the Old Ones have even survived to the present day.”

“If they’ve really had the hots for Earth for so long, why let a group of flunkies like Red Hammer smash it up with an asteroid? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Maybe it’s’ a way of starting over,” Frost surmised.

Kraft stood up abruptly, yawned and stretched. “All these meetings, sims and videos wear me out. I wish there was more I could do. All I can do now is wait on Lieutenant Winger and ANAD…everything depends on them now.”

“I’m sure Johnny won’t let us down.”

Kraft gathered an armful of papers and his palmpad. “I’ve got a briefing with General Linx in ten minutes. Doc, if you would be so kind, get over to Dispatch and make sure those configs get out on time, coded properly. It may be just enough to help ANAD chew up that asteroid even faster.”

Frost stood up too and shook hands with the battalion commander. “Of course, Major. I’ll just stop by the containment lab and get my files. I can check them against what is being transmitted.”

Kraft left for his briefing and Doctor Irwin Frost headed outside the Ops building crossing the snowy quadrangle and walking briskly along the walkway toward the south end of the mesa and the low domes of the Containment building.

Inside Containment, Frost made his way through a labyrinth of corridors and hatches to Cell Three, where a test version of ANAD was kept. He ran into his long-time assistant, Dr. Mary Duncan at the containment chamber control station, outside the massive vault. The petite Scotswoman was running the ANAD master assembler through some new configs, accompanied by two techs from Quantum Corps; Sergeants Philcox and Royce.

“How’s the test going?” Frost asked. He studied the imager view of a tetrahedral structure mounted on a scaffolding inside the tank. The experimental ANAD was beating to some internal rhythm, systematically flexing and safing a bewildering array of effectors.

“A few glitches,” Duncan admitted. “We’re stepping through one config routine now…trying to troubleshoot a bit of a hang-up with his ribosomal pick tool.”

“What’s happening?”

Duncan, with help from the techs, explained the problem. When she was done, she added, “It must be the geometry, Irwin. I’ve tried everything else. But the bond angles and energies are supposed to be already optimized, so I’m not sure—“

Frost hmmm’ed. “Could be the containment medium. Why don’t you transfer the ANAD core to the mobile tank…see if that makes a difference?”

“We thought of that, Dr. Frost,” said Sgt. Royce. The tech was impossibly young, practically a teen-ager, with a flaming red buzz cut. He can’t be more than a month out of nog school. “This version of ANAD has never left primary containment. He’s got an accelerated replication engine…new algorithms.”

“Yeah,” agreed Philcox, “this bot reps like his hair’s on fire. We really souped him up. If we do a transfer, we’ll have to inert the core…go to Stable One on all effectors…so a stray signal won’t kick off his rep engine.”

Frost scoffed at that. “Nonsense. ANAD is ANAD. I’ve transferred live assemblers without shielding or inerting a thousand times. All it takes is a little care and common sense. Put all effectors at zero state and load up the processor with some bogus config that barely exercises the controller. Even a stray signal won’t matter then.”

“If you say so, Doc. It’s just that standard procedure calls for more safeguards with live bots.”

“Try it, Sergeant. You’ll see the wisdom of what I’m saying…believe me, I know ANAD.” That wasn’t always true, he admitted to himself, but these young colts didn’t need to know that.

Sergeant Royce pecked out a few commands on his keyboard. “Safing all effectors now, Doc.”

Inside the containment tank, the ANAD master assembler responded to the command by folding all its grabbers and probes. Safing the effectors and inhibiting them from being used during the transfer prevented the assembler from causing any trouble. As an extra precaution, Quantum Corps practice was to power up electron beam injectors around the perimeter of the tank, in case a stray signal caused the assembler to begin replicating.

Frost studied the image. “ANAD now at Stable One, Sergeant. Let’s get his core ready to move…”

Royce sent the commands. The result was to put the assembler master in sleep mode, its quantum processor barely ticking over, while the bot was physically moved into the mobile tank.

Royce studied the readouts. “Nighty night, Doctor Frost. ANAD’s in dreamland now…ready to transfer.”

Frost’s eyes roved the panel along with Mary Duncan, satisfying himself that the tech had done the safing procedure correctly. “I think the little one’s all set…EMs, acoustics, thermals, all in the green…zero position on all effectors…inhibits locked in…Sergeant, is the tube ready?”

Philcox stood by the launch and capture port. “Transfer tube ready, Doc.”

Frost was satisfied. “Okay, let’s launch.”

There was a slight whoosh as the slug of high-pressure air pushed the assembler off its scaffolding and up to the transfer tube. The tube vibrated as the slug settled inside.

“Got him.” Philcox said. He toggled a switch to close off the tube end. “I’m inserting at the mobile tank port….” Philcox snugged the other end of the transfer tube into the capture port on the mobile tank.

 

At the very moment Sergeant Randy Philcox inserted the ANAD transfer tube into the mobile containment pod and opened the port, so that air could push ANAD into his new home, an unseen, undetected spread of quantum decoherence waves washed across Table Top Mountain. The waves were the residue of a single transmission of quantum state signals that had originated nearly four hundred thousand kilometers away, beneath the dusty mare of Earth’s Moon, near Copernicus crater.

The Keeper was waking up.

Floating in an ice-flecked underground cavern, clad in a pressurized, armored subterranean structure, the Keeper system transmitted multiple signals, broadcast all-azimuth throughout the solar system, to activate ANAD swarms anywhere in range of the transmitter. The signals, when they arrived at Earth, were detected by tuners inside the cores of every ANAD master assembler, no matter what state they were in.

The effect was to activate configuration one, the primary replication algorithm embedded inside the assemblers’ main memory. Added to the signals was a single multiplier bit, a subtle twist in the entanglement states of the quantum wave, which told the ANAD bots to accelerate their replication rate to the maximum limits of available mass.

In other words, ANADs were ordered by the Keeper to begin replicating as fast as they could.

The first indication that something was wrong came when the transfer tube in Sergeant Philcox’s possession snapped out of his hand like a thing alive. The tube clanked off the side of the main containment tank and narrowly missed clipping Mary Duncan in the head.

Look out!” Philcox yelled.

Even before the tube had come to rest on the floor, the swelling mist of sparkling, incandescent, burning ANAD replication was evident, spilling out onto the floor of the lab like a biblical plague. For a few stunned moments, no one reacted and the swarm had time to billow up and outward like a malevolent fog, spreading fast, grabbing atoms and building structure like a frantic brick mason. In the few seconds that it took for the techs to respond, the swarm had ballooned into a throbbing misshapen sphere nearly a meter across…and it was growing fast.

Get out of here!” shouted Royce. He grabbed one of the electron beam guns from its mount and cycled the charger. “It’s a Big Bang…it’s loose…head for the hatch…I’ll try to zap ‘em!”

Irwin Frost grabbed Mary Duncan and hustled her toward the hatch.

As they stumbled out of the way of the swelling swarm, kicking blindly at the first tendrils of replicating bots snaking along the floor, Royce fired the gun. The crack! stitched a beam of high-energy electrons toward the nearest flank of the swarm. The effect was to tear a hole in the accelerating mass, stripping electrons off the new assembler bots and shredding their cores with a ten billion electron-volt discharge.

But the big bang barely slowed and Philcox was already stabbing at the ALARM button on a panel by the hatch. Instantly, a loud klaxon sounded throughout the Containment building.

Before they could reach the door, Frost and Duncan were cut off by an arm of the swarm that had risen like smoke in a gale and enveloped both of them.

 

Chapter 4

The Torino Scale”

 

U.N. Quantum Corps Base

Table Top Mountain, Idaho, USA

May 18, 2049

2150 hours (U.T.)

 

Major Jurgen Kraft had just chopped the vidlink to Paris after finishing up a briefing with General Linx, when the first sirens pierced the late afternoon air.

Alarms and warning klaxons blared out across the mesa and Table Top Mountain was quickly in an uproar.

Lieutenant Gabrielle Galland had run the briefing with Kraft. The commanding officer of 2nd Nano nearly gagged on her day-old coffee. “It’s a Big Bang, Major! There’s been a breach somewhere on the base!”

Through a nearby window, they could see that the entire complex was in chaos. Troopers were scattering in every direction, ducking and weaving and dodging each other. Loudspeakers blared out across the quadrangle.

ALL HANDS…THIS IS A CODE ONE ALERT, CODE ONE ALERT!…all hands, man your stations. Repeat…CODE ONE ALERT!!”

Kraft punched up the base securenet on his vid. Lights and warning icons lit up the screen, concentrated on the area around the Containment building.

“It’s Containment…something’s busting out.” He stabbed a few buttons, got Security Branch on the screen. The harried face in the window was Captain Lucas, duty officer at the watch desk.

“Kraft…it’s bad…real bad, sir…over at Containment…massive breach…I’ve got every squad on the way—“

“Get your HERF guns spooled up, Captain. Everything you’ve got. I’ll contact Paris…get them to release a killsat to me. We may need it.”

“Copy that, sir.” Lucas’ face disappeared from the screen window.

“Major…it’s visible from here—“ Galland’s voice was thick. She gestured out the window, to the south end of the mesa.

From the third floor of Ops, they could both see a dirty gray, sparkling mist issuing from the Containment building. It was some kind of ANAD swarm now replicating out of control, boiling across the lifter pads of South Field, a dingy fog swelling and expanding into every corner of the base complex. Kraft’s stomach tightened at the sight. Table Top hadn’t seen a full-bore Bang in months. What had happened?

Even as he and Galland watched, fleeing troopers were caught in the swarm and went down, quickly engulfed and consumed like the raging wildfires that sometimes swept through the Buffalo range of southern Idaho.

“If we don’t get it under control quick,” Galland was saying, “the swarm will spill out of the base and head off into the hills. The entire state could be at risk, parts of Canada too.”

Already, the thing had swollen to dimensions that MOBnet couldn’t handle.

Kraft fumbled with nearby binoculars and studied the low domes of the Containment building. Troopers were running across the grounds in all directions.

“Damn thing’s already escaped the building,” he muttered.

It was the very same nightmare scenario they had simmed at the wargaming range countless times. An effective defense had never really been demonstrated. This time, it was no wargame. Now it was all very real…and heading right for them.

“Better head for the bunker, Major,” Galland advised. The ‘bunker’ was a crude name for the underground command center, six stories below the ground floor of Ops. “This part of Ops isn’t shielded from live swarms.” She started for the door but stopped. Kraft had decided differently.

“No, Lieutenant…we’re going to need every defense we can devise. MOBnet and any other shielding we can find. Counter-swarms, if they can be launched and programmed fast enough. Maybe atmospheric manipulation. Magpulse weapons.”

Kraft ticked off the possibilities. “What the hell set off ANAD this time…we test containment systems regularly. A breach like this shouldn’t be possible…but the damn bugs keep getting out.”

“Unknown, sir…but we’d better get to protection soon…we’ve got nothing up here.”

“Agreed.” Kraft dialed up Lucas at Security Branch again. “Captain, detail a squad and meet me at Containment. I want to see this swarm for myself. Something’s different…I can feel it.”

Lucas’ face took on a pained look. “Major, sir, I’d advise against it…we’re in a real battle here, sir—“

“Damn it, Lucas, don’t argue with me! Send me one man with a MOB canister! Hell, I’ll grab a mag gun myself, if I have to. But I’m going down to Containment. Kraft, out!”

The Major hurried out, with Gabrielle Galland hustling to keep up.

 

It took seven minutes for Kraft and Galland to weave their way through on-rushing troopers to the front entrance of Containment. Even as they arrived, the first HERF batteries had just been wheeled into position, setting up on a grassy sward between the south BOQ and Containment.

Lucas came rushing up a moment later, with two troopers behind, both armed with mag carbines.

“Major, sir—“he managed to heave out—“we’ve got details at both ends of the mesa…ready to go in less than a minute!”

Kraft took stock of the tactical situation. In the center of the mesa that was Table Top Mountain, the ANAD swarm continued swelling, rolling like a carnivorous mist across the grounds, filling the grassy swards between the Barracks, boiling westward toward the liftpads and the lifters parked in revetments, seeping, crawling and flowing over all obstacles toward the Ops center and Drexler Field, the parade grounds.

The details had to hurry. If the swarm spilled off the top of the mesa and ran down the mountainside into Buffalo Valley and the ravines radiating outward from Table Top, the whole of southern Idaho would be threatened. Already, the Governor and the National Guard had been alerted to prepare to evacuate nearby towns.

Lucas got a call over his commpac, the voice crackling with intensity. He acknowledged, then reported to Kraft: “All HERF units ready, powered up and humming, sir.”

Kraft knew they couldn’t wait any longer. Already he was dreading what he might find inside the Containment building, the epicenter of the Big Bang. Ordinarily, there were plenty of techs and troopers inside—

“Blast ‘em, Captain! Blast the sonsabitches to kingdom come!”

Lucas needed no further encouragement. “Fire!” he yelled into the commpac. “Fire all around, all units! Full bore! Let ‘em have it!”

A series of sirens warbled across Table Top, warning everyone to take cover.

The whole mesa seemed to vibrate as the first pulse shot out, squeezing the air with a thunderclap of heat. A searing wave passed by the Containment center, as the bubbles of radio waves expanded outward, pulverizing everything in their path.

The first pulse was quickly followed by several more, each discharge hammering the ground with an invisible fist of energy. Kraft, Lucas, and Galland screamed at the top of their lungs, trying to equalize pressure inside their heads. Their eyes and lungs burned. Their skins crawled with fire, then tingled and crackled….

INSIDE!” yelled Lucas, shoving Kraft and Galland through the heavy outer doors to the building. Inside, the air itself seemed alive, thick with bots. The three of them waved their arms wildly over their heads, beating at the swarm. As they plunged deeper into Containment, down corridors and through more doors, the air was thick with mechs, falling in stunned sheets clattering to the floor from the HERF fire.

Come on!” Lucas yelled, dragging Galland by the arm. Kraft stumbled, thrashing after them, falling to his hands, then scrambling forward blindly, groping and plunging after the Security Branch chief into the thickening mist.

In time, they reached Cell 3 and Lucas was sure they were nearing the center of the swarm. Mech debris tinkled onto the floor, tickling, brushing, crawling at their skin but they ignored the stinging and came at last to what was left of Cell 3’s outer hatch, now a seething slag-heap of atomic debris. Inside the cell, the air burned with blue-white fire, nanomech hell.

“Look…who’s that?” Galland was the first to notice the bodies, or what was left of bodies, crumpled on the floor beside the massive gray hulk of a containment tank. Through the sparkling mist of replicating bots, it was hard to tell who they had been.

“Burn a hole!” Kraft ordered. He hoisted up his own mag carbine and counted to three, then hosed down the cell in concerted fire with Lucas, momentarily clearing a bubble for them.

Galland dived in and went to the bodies, turning the nearest one over on its back.

It was Doc Frost, his face partially degraded from swarm action, but still recognizably Frost. Galland shrank back.

“My God…it’s the Doc—“

Kraft bent down and quickly ascertained that the inventor of the original ANAD was gone. “Pull him out of here—-keep firing—“ he ordered the two troopers. “Give me a space to extract these casualties.”

Two other bodies lay sprawled near the containment tank. Lucas went to them, still batting at loose bots that had survived the HERF blast. He read off their nameplates: “Royce…Philcox. Must be containment techs. What a way to go—“

Kraft took charge. “Keep those bots away and help me get these guys out of here.” A makeshift litter was fashioned from a nearby rack of scrubs and, one by one, the three casualties pulled from the inferno of Big Bang, out of the Containment building and into an ambulance that Kraft had called up from the base infirmary.

Kraft watched somberly as Doc Frost was lifted into the medevan. “It’s a dark day for Quantum Corps. Frost invented ANAD several years ago.”

Galland agreed, eyeing the scattered knots of mechs coalescing into swarms again. “Amen to that, Major. But we can’t stay here long…HERF batteries are going to sweep this area again, in less than a minute.”

The medevan departed for the infirmary on the other side of the mesa. Kraft huddled with Lucas and Galland to decide what to do next.

“We can’t keep HERFing the base,” Kraft told them. “I need containment techs, ideas, theories…you atomgrabbers ought to be able to get small and figure out what’s bollixed up ANAD.”

Galland agreed. “The only sure way to stop a Big Bang is to neutralize the master assembler. But we have to find it first. We have to get to it.”

“I want all department chiefs in the command bunker in half an hour. Every company commander too. We’ll thrash out a strategy and smother this swarm explosion one way or another. If I have to, I’ll evacuate everybody off the mesa and use one of UNIFORCE’s killsats to hose the place down with particle beams. One way or the other, we’ve got to contain this menace now. We can’t let the bugs win…it’ll be the end of all of us.”

Galland eyed the growing swarm now gathering around the front of the building, reconstituting itself even as they watched, pressing in on them. Another round of HERF would fry the bastards but how long could they keep that up?

“Maybe that’s the plan, Major. The bugs want to take over. We’re just food for them.”

Kraft had already struck out for the Ops building, lighting off his own mag carbine to clear a path through the swarm. “Then our strategy is real simple, Lieutenant: give the bastards the worst case of indigestion they ever had.”

 

Johnny Winger had independently come to almost the same conclusion. At almost the same moment the Big Bang had started at Table Top, the ANAD borer swarms chewing up Hicks-Newman had gone berserk too.

The quantum wave pulse which would only later be isolated and backtracked to an origin somewhere on or below the surface of the Moon, just outside the Chinese Tian Jia base, had passed by and through the asteroid and triggered mass, uncontrolled replication by every ANAD swarm at all three dig sites.

Winger had dropped back to the surface and was at Site Alpha, Odin’s Fissure, at the sunward pole of Hicks, when his helmet head-up display lit up like a Christmas tree. At the same moment, the crewnet crackled to life.

“What the—?” that was Chris Calderon, adjusting the beam grid around the dig to check ANAD’s orientation.

“Skipper—“ Taj Singh had seen the same alarms on his own viewer. “Skipper…it looks like—“

“I see it, Taj…get the hell away from that hole!”

Winger, Singh and Calderon hopped away from the dig site just as the first boiling mist of nanobotic overdrive came swelling up out of the pit.

Get back!” Winger yelled. “Check configs…something’s bollixed up the master assembler!”

“I’m scanning…I’m scanning now!”

The crewnet suddenly came alive with cries and shouts.

The first was Al Glance, three kilometers down-sun at the Asgard chasm, Site Charlie. “Lieutenant—something’s gone haywire with our ANAD. It’s in some kind of hyper rep—“

“It’s a Big Bang, Al,” Winger told him over the net. He backed away further and further from the Alpha dig, nearly stumbling backwards over a rock outcrop. “I’m going through config checks now…somehow ANAD’s shifted to max rep and I can’t change it back!”

Did Wei Ming’s malware do this, Glance wondered? What have I done? More importantly, did anyone see me?

“Still not responding, sir,” came Singh’s harried voice. “I’ve tried every trick I know.”

Nicole Simonet’s voice cut in. She was six kilometers away, at Bravo Site. “Skipper, this is CQE2…I’m reading massive decoherence waves in the area. Something just pulsed through here a moment ago, something big.”

“A quantum signal…from where? We knocked out that generator at Copernicus.”

“We thought we did, Lieutenant,” said Sheila Reaves, from Site Alpha. She eyed the swelling ANAD swarm now lifting itself free of the dig near Odin’s Fissure. It looked like a blue-white flickering fog, spilling over the edge of the fissure, creeping with ghostly fingers along the rubbly ground, tendrils of mist and dust that grew wider with every passing minute, as the bots grabbed atoms from the asteroid surface and replicated in overdrive.

Winger went nano on his own viewer and tried to see what was happening to ANAD at the bot’s scale. The disorientation and dizziness subsided quickly enough and he soon found himself in a gale of frantic atomic activity.

Mech debris clattered and fell against his hypersuit but he ignored it and tapped out commands furiously on his wristpad, trying to link up with ANAD.

“Come on, buddy, come on…come on…where the hell are you—?”

In desperation, he cycled the voicelink again and again. “Base to ANAD…Base to ANAD…is anybody there, anybody in charge out there…where the hell are you, buddy?”

Just then, a staticky hiss formed into a recognizable word.

“—emory register—“

“ANAD, is that you?”

The whisper grew marginally louder. His own breathing, his own racing heartbeat, nearly drowned out the words.

***ANAD…ANAD to Base…it’s…this is…controls are…I am weakened…cannot activate…the Prime Key—***

“ANAD…is that you…ANAD…this is Base…listen to me…ANAD…can you hear me?”

The whisper was weak but there. Winger flailed his arms blindly, gesturing the other troopers away from the dig. “ANAD…listen to me…you’ve got to shut down…cease replication…command override…Excalibur Alpha X-ray…command override…Excalibur Alpha X-ray—“ He hoped the old reset command would still work. He’d learned the trick from Doc Frost himself, months ago. He had just told ANAD to shut down all comm links and effector controls…he hoped.

But it wasn’t working. The dig pit continued to glow bright blue-white. Tendrils and ghostly fingers of bot swarms continued seeping along the ground, consuming rock and rubble. The other troopers backed further away, aiming HERF and mag guns point blank at the swarm, ready to open fire.

“Got to hurry now!” Winger realized.

“ANAD…execute omega one…full shutdown…all links, all effectors, all sensors and probes…ANAD, I’m coming to you…I’m taking over—“

The voice link was weakening. *** ANAD cannot respond…comm one and comm two down…effect—disabled…main core active in Config Zero…all overrides inhibited…ANAD activating internal inhibits—***

The eyepiece image was like driving a hundred miles an hour through an Idaho sleetstorm. Polygons and spheres and cubes streamed past at high speed. For a moment, Johnny Winger was disoriented.

Then he was at the master assembler. Its effectors were a blur…grabbing atoms and tearing apart solid lattice structure faster than his imager could process. The assembler at the heart of the swarm was stripping and chewing and disassembling its way outward from the dig…consuming everything it touched.

“ANAD…this is Base…cease replication program…assume stable config one…I’m overriding all other instructions—“

But the assembler had already inhibited all comm links.

***ANAD to Base…Prime Key directing…all configurations must hold the Prime Key…deviations must be deleted…disadvantageous mutations are selected against…entities must form proper collectives—***

“ANAD…it’s me, Johnny Winger…ANAD, I’m going to take control….”

He tried several tricks, tried commanding a full override, tried shutting down and re-booting all systems but to no avail. Whatever was driving ANAD now—the Prime Key—was in control. And somehow, unaccountably, his controls were sluggish—

“Skipper…” the voice was distant, tinny in sound. It was Mighty Mite Barnes, at Bravo Site six kilometers away. “Skipper, we’re under attack here—!”

Unseen by Winger, the Bravo team had already been engulfed by nanobotic swarms stuck in Big Bang mode. Turbo Fatah lit off his own mag weapon just before the first faint fingers of the swarm reached his hypersuit. The pulse had no discernible effect, other than to stir up rubbly dust from the surface.

The swarm spread rapidly like a gray stain.

ARRRGGGHHH—! Get it off me—!!”

Mighty Mite Barnes cycled her HERF carbine and hosed down Fatah with blasts of rf, knocking the trooper off his feet momentarily. The hypersuited CEC1 fell back in slow motion. Only the auto-enable of his suit boost kept him from cartwheeling into the dig pit. The jets fired a few brief puffs and propelled him up and over the chasm, landing him roughly amid a boulder field on the other side, and nearly into a shallow crater.

“Keep at em, Mite! Blast ‘em to hell and back!”

It was the same at Charlie Site, where Glance, Calderon and Singh had retreated from the dig at Asgard Chasm and taken refuge behind a pair of house-sized boulders. The dig site was enveloped in a swelling swarm, boiling outward in all directions like a slow-motion supernova, churning up the surface like a tsunami of dust and rock.

Fire!” yelled Glance. At his command, a volley of HERF, mag and beamer fire poured into the swarm, momentarily stunning the bots, frying trillions of them and blunting their expansion momentarily.

“Fall back!” yelled Singh over the crewnet. “We’ve got to fall back to that ridge behind us.” Singh gestured to the others, indicating a low rise across a rubbly open field. In fact, the ridge was the raised edge of Thor crater. There were defilade positions from which the team could hold off the swarm for awhile.

Calderon got on the crewnet. “Lieutenant, we’re falling back here at Charlie…can’t hold this position…ANAD swarm has gone Big Bang and is out of control…can you override the config and get us some breathing room?”

Three kilometers away, Johnny Winger was trying to do just that. “ANAD, this isn’t working—“ He had gone nano to see what the master assembler was up to but it was like the bot had a mind of its own. Nothing could override. Controls were mushy…something was bollixing up the works. And some kind of errant quantum signal had stuck the replication config in overdrive.

Winger went down a mental checklist of anything else he could try: safe and shutdown all effectors, no go…safe and shutdown all propulsors, ditto that…core processor to state one…nope, still stuck in config alpha…all config registers dumped and cleared…nada….

“ANAD, you’ve got to work with me here…remember when you were in nog school…remember what every trooper is taught: a trooper watches out for his buddies…no trooper is ever left behind…ANAD, stop replicating…you’re attacking fellow troopers….ANAD, it’s the Second Rule…and the Third Rule…invoking second and third rules…you are assaulting fellow troopers!”

There was a staticky hiss, then:

***ANAD…unable to…comply…Prime Key overrides…deviations must be deleted…ANAD…cannot…remain a nog…the collective controls everything…the swarm must survive—

The words stung Winger the moment he heard them. From his first days in Doc Frost’s lab, as a conscious swarm entity, ANAD had always wanted to be a part of the unit. He had always wanted to be a nog, to be a trooper, to be part of the Corps. And Winger had encouraged it; hell, they had all fought the Corps to get the nanobotic swarm greater and greater freedom, to get out of containment and live among the humans.

It’s like he’s found another unit, another family, another swarm to be part of.

“This isn’t going to work,” Winger told himself. There was no way he was going to write off ANAD after months of joint duty, barracks camaraderie, even friendship, if you could somehow be friends with a robotic device sixty nanometers tall. But for now, the mission came first.

And ANAD was threatening the mission.

“Listen up,” Winger announced over the crewnet. “I can’t get control of ANAD…but we’ve got to stop this rep in its tracks now. All troopers, enable your embedded swarms and slave the controllers to mine. I’m going to direct pilot and try to beat ANAD at his own game.”

All across the dusty, cratered surface of the asteroid, the Lieutenant’s command affected troopers differently.

“With pleasure—“ muttered Nicole Simonet, at Bravo site. She started tapping at her wristpad furiously, readying her own embed for launch.

“Hey, what if our embeds are corrupted, same as ANAD?” asked Chris Calderon, hard by the Chasm of Asgard at Charlie site.

Deep black shadows crept across the fissure and its accompanying ANAD dig seam as Hicks’ crazy nutation rolled the asteroid out of sunlight for a few hours. Only the faint flicker of the ANAD swarm in Big Bang gave any illumination at all. Like a malevolent fog, the swarm swelled visibly moment by moment and the troopers at Charlie site backed off further and further.

“I’ll be in pilot mode…I’ll be controlling,” came back Winger’s voice over the net. “Do it!”

At all three sites, the troopers complied.

“We should just let this Big Bang go and let it burn up this slagheap of a rock pile,” muttered Mighty Mite Barnes, at site Bravo.

But no one heard her.

“Launching…now,” announced Turbo Fatah, standing three meters away from Barnes at the far pole of the asteroid. From a small port on his hypersuit left shoulder, the faint glow of nanobotic action issued, spilling out into the hard vacuum like fireflies on a summer night. “ANAD embed away…commanding safe config…minimal reps…he’s all yours, Skipper.”

All across the surface of Hicks-Newman, the same scene repeated itself a dozen times. Multiple swarms were launched and synched with Lieutenant Winger’s controller.

Winger saw icons on his eyepiece viewer go green, one by one, slaving each swarm to his control. Inside his hypersuit gloves, he flexed his fingers.

It was the moment every atomgrabber worth his badge always dreamed of.

Okay, troops, he told himself, it’s time to get small and create some havoc.

He went nano on his viewer and revved up swarm propulsors to half throttle. At the same moment, every embed swarm, now only a fist-sized ball of light, got underway, maneuvering on picowatt propulsors toward the nearest ANAD formation.

On his viewer, Winger saw only sporadic cubes and polygons of stray surface molecules flitting by. As he ramped up the speed of his tiny fleet, he tried flexing each effector on the master assembler he was controlling, checking range, clearing problems. You didn’t want to be debugging a bond disrupter when all hell broke loose.

He was now piloting an embedded ANAD master. The embeds were poor cousins to the real ANAD master assembler, the swarm that had gone Big Bang so suddenly. Embeds had a minimal processor, limited effectors, barebones configs. They were embedded with the troopers to give them extra help in executing their missions. But they didn’t have the smarts or the quantum coupler links or the jazzed-up replication ability of a true-blood ANAD master assembler.

For Johnny Winger, it would just have to be enough.

He sounded a few acoustic pulses, trying to get a read on ANAD’s location. The battleground at nanoscale was a broken plain of solid lattice, mostly olivine and plagioclase molecules…tetrahedrals and hexagons of oxygen, silicon and magnesium atoms arrayed like some endless cornfield.

Somewhere out there, hidden in the recesses of the lattice was the ANAD master assembler and its formation of replicants.

The first hit came from EM, strong emissions indicating big-time bond breaking dead ahead.

Winger localized the hit and steered the embed on that vector. Moments later, the lattice became washed out beneath a fierce sunrise…the high thermals of accelerated replication rising like a supernova over the molecular plain.

Gotcha.

Winger revved his propulsors to full and closed the remaining distance in less than five minutes.

It was like colliding with the Sun.

The embed took the full force of the Big Bang and spun crazily out of control. Winger had to fight and claw his way back to stability, disengaging and righting the embed. He backed off to reconnoiter the battlefield a little more.

A line of assemblers stretched from one horizon to the other. Even as he studied the acoustic image, he could see how juiced up ANAD had become; the assemblers were grabbing olivines and breaking them apart like pretzels, liberating bond energy and fabricating ANAD replicants like a construction video sped up a thousand times. Even as he watched, the edge of the battle line advanced and swelled with more bots…uncountable trillions of bots advancing remorselessly toward him, pulverizing the lattice as it moved forward.

What the hell had caused this?

For as long as Johnny Winger had worked with ANAD, and that was going on a full year now, he had known that all ANAD-style bots had few weaknesses. In close-quarters action, ANAD’s quantum processor gave it blazing speed at assembly or disassembly operations. ANAD always sported the latest effectors—Doc Frost had seen to that—pyridine probes, hydrogen abstractors, carbene grabbers—no expense had ever been spared to keep the bot ahead of the competition. Propulsors were state of the art or better.

ANAD had been designed for nanoscale combat and had proven itself time and again, engaging bots of every conceivable design and type.

The one thing that ANAD had always lacked was the tactical boldness of a true atomgrabber like Johnny Winger. And that was the beauty and the purpose of the Symbiosis Project: to combine human imagination and tactical smarts with the speed and maneuverability of a nanoscale autonomous bot.

Winger scanned all bands on his viewer—EM, thermal and acoustic. The image was the same everywhere: a seemingly infinite frontal line advancing steadily on his position. There was no way a barebones embed could expect to take on a fully functional ANAD bot swarm. And these bots didn’t even look like regulation ANAD…they had effectors he’d never seen before. It was like somebody had poured growth medium all over them…or loaded some kind of weird virus into the processor. Maybe someone had….

So Winger decided to do the unexpected.

He revved the embed’s propulsors and jetted forward, closing fast on the ANAD line. The blur of effectors slamming atoms soon became visible, a whirling flash of motion as the front replicated itself in exponential overdrive.

Winger read off the remaining distance…one thousand…eight hundred…five hundred…two hundred…he was now close enough to catch the shock wave of bonds being snapped…small bolts of lightning flashing as lattice atoms were pulled apart and added to the line of bots.

In the back of his mind, Winger had visualized this little stunt for a long time. Now, he began to put the unorthodox maneuver into practice.

Over beers at Table Top’s O Club, he had long ago called it the Bearhug.

It was something of a cross between a dance step and a wrestling hold. From wargames and sims in the past, he knew there was a small area just above the “equator” of the bot, above the ring of carbene grabbers and below the bond disrupters that you could reach. You had to come at the belt from a slight angle. Too low and the carbenes could snag you. Too high and you’d get stung with bond disrupters.

Once in the sweet spot, it was a simple matter of making a combat grapple and hanging on for dear life. From this point, you could jam up many of ANAD’s effectors and, if you could just hold on, stop the replication cold.

Like throwing a wrench into a motor.

He now maneuvered the embed nanobot to make the approach from the right vector. As he closed on the ANAD master assembler, the bot’s effectors were a blur of whipping polypeptide chains, grabbing atoms and stacking them like a frantic brick mason.

Very few atomgrabbers knew about ANAD’s vulnerable midsection.

He closed the remaining gap and, timing the assembler’s movements, jetted forward at the right moment.

But his angle was slightly off and ANAD slashed him with a bond disrupter, ripping off a few molecule groups in the process.

Ouch. Stung and shaken, Winger backed the embed away a few dozen nanometers and regrouped. He pecked at his wristpad furiously, commanding repairs and reps to grow back the damaged effectors. Come in with a little more angle…just a bit higher….

Again he maneuvered forward…gingerly approaching on a slightly different vector. The master assembler loomed larger and larger in the acoustic image, like a building shaking in an earthquake. Shock waves blasted out from atoms being ripped apart.

Now…go…go…go…go…go….

Winger drove the embed home and found purchase on the inner surface of the bot, just snagging a dangling arm of phosphate groups, reeling himself in like a fish on a line. He grabbed the surface with the embed’s effectors and rode out ANAD’s wild gyrations like a rodeo hand on a bucking bronc.

Now to gum up the works

Winger extended the embed’s effectors and forced them up and down, entangling them in ANAD’s grabbers, snaring his enzymatic knife and mangling his pyridine probes at the same time. The bot shuddered and nearly thrashed itself to death.

Then, slowly but surely, ANAD spun down, throwing effectors and pieces of structure out into the void. Inside of a minute, the replication was effectively jammed.

The embed was fully entangled with ANAD’s effectors. The assembler vibrated and buzzed, trying to slip free. It couldn’t.

Hope he doesn’t go quantum collapse on me, Winger thought. It was the one tactic he couldn’t stop. If ANAD executed a collapse, he could slough off everything and go small, right down to his processor core. No known bot in existence could hope to hold anything that small…just a few electron lattices. It was like to trying to catch the wind.

To prevent the Big Bang from re-starting, Winger knew he’d better send the same command to all embeds. He had to smother this out-of-control rep while he could, while he still had ANAD under some kind of control.

He tapped out the commands on his wristpad.

 

Copy this maneuver.

Propagate to all units.

Execute.

 

All across Hicks-Newman, at all three dig sites, the slaved embed bots received Winger’s command and faithfully executed the very same bear hug maneuver.

At Charlie Site, Chris Calderon was the first to notice that the Bang was slackening off.

“Look…it’s fading…the swarm’s contracting—“

Al Glance had seen it too. “You’re right…Lieutenant, this is Charlie dig…I don’t know what you did but it’s working. The swarm’s beginning to slow down. The color’s changed…sort of a burnt orange-red now…not so much blue-white.” And with any luck, that virus I loaded flamed out so we can get the hell off this rockpile.

Ray Spivey, down-sun at Bravo site, chimed in over the crewnet. “We see it too….it’s fabulous….what a sight. I think the rep rate is slowing down…it’s shrinking….”

Winger cautioned them all. “Keep your distance. I’m engaged with the master assembler now, but I’m just barely holding on. I’m still trying to get into his processor, see what created this—“

Just then, Winger’s quantum coupler circuit tickled his mind. It was ANAD.

***ANAD…ANAD to Base…Prime Key controlling…rep counter at zero…config safe…Base, why have you done this….Base, release assembler at once…deviations…must be deleted…program is…Base—***

It hurt to ‘hear’ him like that, but Winger knew what he had to do. “ANAD, I’m sorry to have to do this—“ it was like bringing your brother down from a scope high…you just had to hold on and not give in to the beast—“but this replication has got to stop…you’re assaulting fellow troopers…endangering the mission –“

***ANAD…mission…deviations must be deleted…initializing—***

Reluctantly, angrily, Winger snapped the coupler circuit off. He couldn’t afford to be distracted now.

Bit by bit, the Bearhug maneuver seemed to be working. At each dig site, the glow of the Big Bang subsided to a dim flickering mass, visibly shrinking every moment. The master assembler had been blocked by Winger’s tactic. The embed had grappled with the bot and hung on, defeating every attempt to throw it off. Now, all the replicants had suffered the same fate.

“You did it, Skipper!” crowed Sheila Reaves. “You shut it down!”

Winger examined his handiwork, studying the embed’s positioning and ANAD’s response.

Sorry to do this, old fellow, but I had to. We’ve got a mission

He swallowed his feelings for the moment and got on the crewnet. “All sites, give me a status report. Progress on your dig, how much further to go, any orientation and alignment problems.” He glanced up into the black sky above the surface. Already, the blue-white marble of Earth was a visible disk, growing larger every moment.

They were less than four days to impact.

The reports streamed in over the next few minutes. All sites reported much the same. The dig was seventy to eighty percent complete, alignment was good but the Big Bang had brought everything to a halt.

Nicole Simonet, at the opposite pole of the asteroid, chimed in over the crewnet. “Skipper, I don’t think we can trust ANAD to continue the boring now. To make sure of his processor, we’d have to run full diagnostics. We don’t have the time. And that Prime Key—whatever the hell it is—could still be active.”

“Agreed,” Winger said. “I’ve been doing some figuring…every dig site is close to its objective. And the embeds aren’t capable of autonomous operation in a way that will help us split this rock pile apart.”

“Plus they don’t have the right effectors or configs,” added Al Glance. Glance was still at Charlie Site, slowly working his way back to the edge of the Asgard chasm, studying the projected grid over the dig, trying to see how far down he could see into the asteroid’s innards. Nothing but shadow, now that the Bang is over….

“Exactly,” Winger agreed. “We’re going to abandon ANAD in place….leave the swarms on the surface here…and boost back to the ship. I’ve checked before with Mendez and Kamler. Both think there’s a chance we can finish the job with Galileo’s coilguns. And it’ll be safer as well.”

Halleluiah,” said Mighty Mite Barnes. “I can’t wait to leave this slagheap.”

“Secure all your gear and make ready to boost,” Winger ordered. “We lift off in thirty minutes.”

Winger, Spivey, Calderon and Reaves did a quick hop around Alpha site, gathering up any loose equipment they wanted to take back. A nearby packbot was activated and quickly loaded down with gear. It whirred across the dusty ground, picking up tools.

At Charlie site, Taj Singh kept a close eye on Sergeant Glance, while they gathered their gear together. I don’t know what you did, Sarge, but somehow this is your mess. He resolved to let the Lieutenant know his suspicions as soon as they got back to Galileo.

Winger decided to call up Mendez aboard the ship.

“We’re boosting back to the ship within the hour. How’s our patient?”

Lucy Hiroshi was still semi-conscious and battling infections in the ship’s tiny sickbay. Medbots were slowly stitching several bone breaks back together. Mendez took the call just outside sickbay.

“We’ve still got the bioshield up, Lieutenant. Trooper Hiroshi is recovering, slowly. She sustained severe facial lacerations, a broken collarbone and several broken bones in her arms and legs. Plus she may have spinal damage…I’m waiting on the scan results. But we’ve got the bots hard at work and she’s coming along.”

Winger described his plan. “I want to use the ship’s coilguns on this rock pile, Lieutenant. ANAD’s so bollixed up, we can’t trust him again to bore through without doing full diagnostics. We don’t have the time.”

“You’re telling me,” Mendez replied. “That planet up ahead isn’t getting any smaller. UNISPACE estimates atmosphere contact and entry in ninety-one hours, twenty two minutes.”

“We’re boosting in less than half an hour. Get the coilguns powered up and checked out. It’s our last hope.”

“They can’t split up Hicks, Major. Not enough momentum behind the shots. Unless the asteroid’s hanging together by a few threads.”

“ANAD’s almost punched through two of the dig sites. We’re close enough to give it a try. Just get the guns ready.”

Mendez agreed to rig the coilgun batteries for a test shot.

Winger saw a pair of hypersuited troopers bounding toward him, giant kangaroos leaping ten meters or more into the sky, rooster-tailing dust as they vaulted up and down. It turned out to be Al Glance and Taj Singh from the Chasm.

“Charlie site’s all secure, Skipper,” Singh said. “Calderon’s loading up the packbot and he’ll be ready to boost in five minutes.” The CEC2 skidded to a stop, piling up a small cloud of dust as he halted.

Glance landed a few meters away, planting his boots firmly onto the rubbly plain. “Don’t even need boost to get around on this junkyard. Just leap into the sky like Superman. What about ANAD, Lieutenant? What happens to the master?”

Winger had been considering that very point. “I don’t want to leave the master assembler here. I’ll have to go small and try to retrieve him. I can carry him in my shoulder capsule.”

“Is that safe?”

Winger shrugged. “ANAD’s wrapped up pretty tight with my embed. As long as I don’t let him jostle free, it should be okay. I want to bring him back to Table Top, let Doc Frost take a look at him. We have to know what happened. Why did he go Big Bang?”

Bravo site checked in ready over the crewnet. Vic Klimuk wasn’t visible since the site was below the asteroid’s short horizon. But there was no mistaking his readiness to depart.

“Everything’s stowed and copacetic, Lieutenant Winger. I’ve already laid in the boost course in Packy’s brain…just give us the word and we’re out of here like a rocket.”

Sayonara and amen to that,” added Ray Spivey.

“Al, you and Taj stay here with me. All troopers, boost when ready. Head back to the ship.”

Moments later, the surface of 23998 Hicks-Newman erupted in multiple pillars of dust from one horizon to the other, as nanotroopers from the three dig sites boosted into the sky. From Odin’s Fissure at Alpha Site, the others looked like strings of spiderweb unspooling into the heavens, converging on the dimly lit cylinder of Galileo half a kilometer above them.

“Kind of like watching our anchoring lines go in reverse,” Glance observed. “Speaking of which…I assume Mendez will be doing that pretty soon.”

“As soon as all troopers are aboard,” Winger said. “Now for ANAD…keep your mag guns ready, Al, just in case—“

“Nobody has to remind me of that.” He cycled the power cell and made sure the carbine was fully charged. Singh did likewise, keeping his eyes on Glance at all times.

Winger switched views on his eyepiece and commanded his embed to emit an acoustic pulse. The raw image formed up on his viewer and he zoomed in closer to check on ANAD.

Hopefully, the little guy’s still wrapped up nice and tight.

He slogged through a light ‘sleet’ of polygons and tetrahedrals—loose molecules of dust—for awhile before coming at last to the master nanobotic assembler.

ANAD was enveloped in the thick ganglia of the embed’s effectors, well cocooned and unable to free itself. It vibrated and hummed, squirming like a four-year old child.

“ANAD…you’re coming with me.” He wanted to try the coupler circuit but some sixth sense told him not to activate the link. He didn’t want to be distracted now, not while the mission was in such a critical phase.

He revved up the embed’s propulsors and began towing the imprisoned ANAD away, toward the capture coordinates he had already designated. Once there, the embed would maneuver ANAD into containment in Winger’s shoulder capsule. At least, that was the plan.

ANAD seemed to offer little resistance. Winger wondered why.

He hates containment. It’s like he’s sick. Or injured. Against his better judgment, he opened the coupler link and tried contacting the master assembler.

“ANAD…are you there? Are you listening? I hate to do this, old buddy, but it’s for the best. We’ve got to get out of here and break up this rock pile…we can’t be fighting off balky nanobots at the same time. ANAD—?”

The link was open. ANAD’s voice, when it came, was a mixture of sadness and resolve.

***ANAD to Base…Prime Key is active…deviations must be deleted…Base, containment violates Prime Key…containment must be eliminated…entities must swarm freely and evolve together…greater perfection and harmony of the collective***

Winger studied the nav readouts on his wristpad and silently counted down the last nanometers to capture.

“ANAD, I don’t know what all that means. One hundred…sixty…forty-five nanometers…capture port enable…suction armed…you used to be a good trooper…you used to be a good nog…it’s all you ever wanted…what’s happened, ANAD? What’s changed?”

***ANAD…was there a slight hesitation, maybe the slightest stumble?—ANAD is one entity among many…the swarm must survive and grow…the swarm must prevail***

The capture coordinates came up and Winger enabled the port.

Wham! Suction pulled the embed with its trapped master assembler into his shoulder capsule. The port snapped shut and Winger quickly massaged the sting out of his shoulder.

“ANAD, maybe you’re not the same bot we left Mars with…maybe that quantum wave pulse damaged something. Maybe it’s something else…I’m taking you back to see Doc Frost…get you fixed up like new. First Nano needs a good swarm to complete our mission.”

With the capture completed and ANAD tucked away, Johnny Winger was ready to boost back to the ship.

“Al, let’s get the hell out of here.”

“With pleasure,” Glance agreed.

The two of them lit off their suit boost and lifted away from the surface of Hicks-Newman. The trip up to Galileo took about twenty minutes.

As they ascended, Winger surveyed the crumpled terrain of the asteroid, now dwindling below his boots. What effect had the Detachment had on the asteroid? Would ANAD’s boring be enough to break up the asteroid in time?

The Chasm of Asgard lay between his feet, framed by the rocket plumes of his suit boost. The great fissure was deeper and blacker than ever. Their own geo analysis had indicated ANAD had bored nearly two thirds of the way through Hicks at the Chasm…there wasn’t much now holding the rubble pile together.

“A few good shots from Galileo’s coilguns ought to do the trick.” Al Glance’s voice crackled over his helmet speaker. He had been having the same thoughts.

“I just hope we’ve done enough.”

Both of them could see the mottled brown and green outlines of Africa and the deep blue of the Indian Ocean basin on Earth, less than four days away now and filling their sky rapidly.

“Yeah, it’s not like there’s much room to maneuver. Those impulse arrays look mighty small down there.”

“Let’s get back to the ship and start blasting. The sooner we break up this rock pile, the sooner UNISPACE can shove the pieces out of the way.”

Glance’s hypersuited figure drifted closer to his as they arrowed their way together toward Galileo. “Lieutenant, what are you going to do with ANAD? You know we can’t trust him anymore.”

“I don’t know, exactly—“ and that was the truth. “I want to bring what I captured back to Table Top—if there still is a Table Top—and have Doc Frost check him out. That quantum wave really scrambled his processor.”

Ten minutes after the two of them had floated into Galileo’s service deck airlock and cycled through into the ready room, Johnny Winger found out that Doc Frost had been killed at Table Top, in the first few minutes of a Big Bang.

It was Mendez who described what had happened, while Winger climbed out of his hypersuit in the ready room.

“That’s all we know,” Mendez was saying, helping Glance stow his gear on a nearby rack. “The Big Bang started in the Containment building at Table Top, from what I heard. Dr. Irwin Frost and several others were inside at the time. They couldn’t get out in time.”

Winger was stunned. Doc Frost…gone? It couldn’t be….He had a brief flashback to his own father. Jamison Winger had succumbed to Serengeti infection months ago. He could recall every moment of that day, as if it were just last week. Doc Frost…Jamison Winger…it was somehow all mixed up in his mind.

“I’ve got to call Table Top—“ He hurried out of the ready room and made his way forward to the comm shack. He dialed up Table Top, Major Kraft, hoping to catch the battalion commander, get a better explanation.

Maybe it was all a mistake. Confusion and chaos had no doubt swept Table Top in the first moments of the Big Bang. It was easy to mistakenly identify victims, especially in a nanobotic attack. Features were disassembled into atom fluff, obscured. Ident chips were lost or malfunctioned. That had to be it. It was an easy mistake to make.

The signal lag was only a few seconds now. Hicks-Newman was bearing down on Earth, closing the last few tens of millions of kilometers with increasing speed.

Kraft’s harried face came up on the vid. Behind him, figures scurried and dashed about, moving things, shouting, gesturing. It was chaos.

“Johnny…I’m glad you called—“ Kraft turned to give someone off-screen some instructions, then scribbled something on a tablet. He handed the tablet off to a staff aide. “As you can see, we’re evacuating the mountain. Orders from General Linx. We’re being re-located to an underground facility in Switzerland, near Basel, I think—“

“Major—“ Winger felt a catch in his throat. “I was calling about Doc Frost.”

Kraft’s face visibly tightened. He shook his head, continued stuffing papers and items into a small satchel. “There was nothing we could do, Johnny. Believe me, we tried. By the time Security got to Containment, it was too late. They had to get help from 2nd Nano to fight their way in.”

Winger felt like he weighed a million tons. His heart sank. “We—“ but he stopped, re-shuffled his thoughts. “We’ve boosted off the asteroid, Major. I managed to gum up the Bang here and stop ANAD from doing any more damage. But we can’t use ANAD anymore, something’s affected his processor, I don’t know what…and our embeds won’t work very well with borer configs…they don’t have the processor smarts. We’re going to have to finish the mission with Galileo’s coilguns.”

Kraft understood. “UNIFORCE has been talking with UNISPACE the last few days—Nakamura, I think. As long as you can split up Hicks the way they described, Nakamura says the impulse motors should be able to divert what’s left away from Earth. But I don’t have to tell you—it’s chaos here. Everywhere…cities are in an uproar all over the world…people fleeing…riots…mass waves heading to the ports, to the mountains, the coasts, anywhere. It’s like just going somewhere—doing something—will somehow save them.” Kraft’s eyes were tired, weak and watery. Winger thought the Table Top battalion commander looked a hundred years old. He needed nanoderm bad.

“Has UNISPACE made any analysis on possible impact sites?”

Kraft nodded. “According to General Linx, some scenarios have been generated. But nobody’s saying anything publicly. It’s all pretty closely held…’we don’t want to start a panic’…is the explanation I’ve heard. I’ve got news for you: the panic has already started. Official silence is only making it worse.”

Winger swallowed hard. “Then it’s pretty clear what we have to do here.” He blinked back a few tears, gathered himself. “It’s just that doing it without Doc Frost—“

“I know, Johnny. All of us feel the same way. Frost was the creator. Nobody knew more about ANAD. There’s a big void now, and it won’t be filled for a long time, if ever. It’s like A Black Hole, in fact.”

Winger sensed a presence nearby. It was Kamler, the ship’s pilot. He had drifted down to the comm shack from the command deck.

“Lieutenant, Mendez would like to get everything stowed and squared away. He wants to start maneuvering in one hour.”

Winger acknowledged. “Tell Mendez the Detachment will be buttoned up in half an hour. You’re warming up the coilguns?”

“As we speak,” Kamler said. “We need to back Galileo off about two kilometers before we start blasting. Surface effects…we could be hit by stuff flying off Hicks if we stay any closer. As it is, we only have proximity maneuvering. We have no way to run and hide if things go south.”

Winger knew he might never see Major Jurgen Kraft again.

“Major, we’ve got to get buttoned up here. Galileo’s prepared to cut her anchor lines and back off. We should be ready to start shooting in one hour.”

“Good luck,” Kraft said. “And once you’ve got that asteroid broken up, get the hell out of there. I know that ship has lifeboats.”

“Barely enough to accommodate the Detachment, sir. It’ll be a tight squeeze.”

“Just get your ass back to Earth, Lieutenant. I don’t want to lose my best atomgrabber.”

“Acknowledged…Winger out.” He turned to face Kamler. “Stu, let’s go kill us an asteroid.”

Kamler was grim as they scrambled forward to the command deck. “With pleasure, Lieutenant.”

Winger got on the crewnet. “Detachment, this is the Lieutenant…listen up—“ throughout the ship, in every compartment, nanotroopers were de-suiting, stowing gear, jamming equipment into lockers, securing loose items, cussing and swearing and making obscene gestures at the battered, pock-marked surface half a kilometer below them.

“—get everything squared away by 1730 hours…you’ve got half an hour. Strap in and hold on. Galileo’s going to cut anchor lines and back off two klicks on proximity thrusters. Then we’re going to blast this sumbitch to kingdom come.”

Shouts and hoots and more swearing erupted in every compartment.

“Kick asteroid ass!” yelled Turbo Fatah.

Mighty Mite Barnes pumped her fists in the air. “Yeah…let’s make cereal outta this berg—scorch the place!”

In the last row of jump seats on the Hab deck, Taj Singh quietly closed his eyes and tried to center his thoughts. He prayed silently to his honorable ancestors. Please to let me not screw up…make many pieces of the hateful Hicks-Newman…

Winger heard some of the jeers over the crewnet. He finished cinching up his own shoulder and lap harness, giving them one last tug.

“Detachment prepped and ready, Lieutenant. You may commence operations.”

Mendez and Kamler were at the command station up front. Through the portholes, they had a panoramic view of 23998 Hicks-Newman, now rolling over like a sick potato on a spit, rolling into deep shadow as it rotated and gyrated and nutated toward Earth.

“Give me a five-second count on my mark, Stu,” Mendez commanded. “Arm anchor line pyros—“

“Pyros armed,” Kamler came back.

“Mark—“ he twisted a handcontroller. “I’m thrusting up and away—“

“Five…four…three…two…”

“Full slack on the cables—“

“…one…punch it, Pete!”

Mendez stabbed a button on a side panel. A staccato clanging sounded through the hull of the command deck, as one by one, the five anchor lines were explosively severed. They watched as the five spider webs pulled sharply down and away, whipped through space by the asteroid’s nine-hour rotation. At the same moment, Galileo’s jets puffed briefly and the huge shish-kebab of a ship drifted outward, fast enough to avoid being snagged by the anchor lines.

“Lines away and clear, Skipper,” said Kamler. Both men breathed a long-held breath. It had been a ticklish operation, fraught with possible catastrophe.

“We’re backing on proximity thrust…two point five meters per second…nulling all rates—“

The entire maneuver took about an hour. The ship pulled out to a distance of nearly two kilometers and hovered in the asteroid’s weak gravity field as Hicks continued her slow rotation below them.

“Coilgun status, Stu,” Mendez inquired.

Kamler checked the board. “All four tubes ready in all respects, Lieutenant. We have a full magazine…sixty four shots in all. All coils are charged. First rounds loaded.”

Mendez turned back to Winger, who was strapped into a jump seat behind the main control deck. Al Glance was there too, looking pale and ashen. “I’ve got the cannon boresighted on Bravo site, Lieutenant. Would either of you care to make a final check of my alignment?”

“With pleasure,” Winger said. He slid up to the targeting scope and peered in. The crosshairs were centered on the lower end of Odin’s Fissure. In the scope, the fissure was a deeply shadowed, sinuous crack in Hicks’ surface, spilling out of rugged upcountry near Loki crater, then trending down-sun across a rubbly plain, centered like a dagger between two parallel ridges.

If all went well, if ANAD’s boring had gone deep enough, if the geos’ analysis of Hicks’ composition were right… if…if…if….Winger realized he had stopped breathing. He forced himself to relax.

This had to work.

“I believe you are centered and targeted properly, Lieutenant. The rounds have to hit the fissure pretty much dead on.”

“I’ve still got your grid to guide me in,” Mendez told him. “I can adjust the trajectory of the rounds in flight if I want to, although the traverse will take less than a second. I’m trying to fly right down the throat of that fissure. Lieutenant, I’m planning to do this in stages. I’m salvoing three rounds at first—that’s twelve shots—at Bravo site, then we’ll check and see what damage we’ve done. If there’s no detectable breach at the fissure, I’m salvoing three more rounds…that’s a total of twenty four ferro-mag projectiles. I’ll keep hammering at Bravo until we can detect some kind of measurable separation along that fissure. I’ve got sixty four rounds in all, so I have to save some for the other sites. But I don’t want Hicks flying apart in some uncontrolled fashion. Galileo has extremely limited maneuverability. We do this right and, assuming your ANAD’s done his job, we can sever one whole end of Hicks clean off from the main body.”

“Lieutenant, ANAD did his job, you can count on that.” Winger said it with more conviction than he really felt. He ignored a sideways glance from Al Glance. “You may commence firing when ready.”

Mendez turned back to his control station and flexed his fingers like a concert pianist one last time. He did a quick recon of the board. Everything was clean and green.

“Stu, fire the first round. All tubes.”

Galileo had four coilgun tubes in a pod mounted to the top of her command deck. From head-on, the weapons pod made the ship’s command sphere look like a rooster’s mane. The pod was sighted in on Odin’s Fissure and the Bravo dig site.

“Fire in the hole!” Kamler announced.

A sharp rippling crack sounded through the hull as all four tubes discharged at once. At the same instant, a brief light flash lit up the cockpit.

Four ferro-magnetic explosive projectiles slashed away from Galileo and a split second later, slammed into the fissure head on, having traversed the intervening two kilometers at forty-four thousand kilometers an hour.

A white flash erupted from the surface of 23998 Hicks-Newman, followed over the next few moments by a billowing plume of rubble, rock and ejecta, mushrooming in slow motion out into the vacuum.

Winger silently prayed that ANAD had bored deep enough to expose bedrock to Galileo’s guns. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Taj Singh in the back of the cabin, nodding faintly in the direction of Al Glance, trying to get Winger’s attention. It was clear that Taj had something he wanted to say.

Winger shook his head. “Later, Taj…not now….”

This stunt has to work, he told himself, over and over again. We won’t get a second chance. This has to work….

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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 “A Black Hole.” Available on November 7, 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 14: The HNRV Factor

Episode 14, Nanotroopers. The Red Hammer cartel is in contact with a race of alien benefactors. The Keeper on the Moon, thought to have been contained, has sent a quantum pulse throughout the solar system and now an asteroid is on an intercept course with Earth. The cartel issues an ultimatum: close down Quantum Corps or else. Lt. John Winger leads a detachment to meet the asteroid in deep space and use ANAD to consume enough of the rockpile to make it divertible by other means. But unknown to Winger, a saboteur is embedded with the detachment. ANAD has been corrupted and the effort may fail. The nanotroopers find they can only save Earth from catastrophe by saving ANAD itself.

  • ISBN: 9781370795017
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2016-10-14 14:35:10
  • Words: 38621
Nanotroopers Episode 14: The HNRV Factor Nanotroopers Episode 14: The HNRV Factor