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Nanotroopers Episode 16: ANAD on Ice

Nanotroopers

Episode 16: ANAD on Ice

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

The Mentor”

 

 

U.N. Quantum Corps Base

Table Top, Idaho, USA

July 5, 2049

0600 hours U.T.

 

Johnny Winger finished dressing himself in front of the mirror. It was early, light just leaking into his tiny O Quarters room around the curtains and he knew Major Kraft had called a briefing at Mission Ops for 0630 hours. He snapped the last buttons on his tunic and spied the shimmering veil of the angel drifting like smoke by the door.

“Doc, you’re just like a dog ready for his walk. Any scuttlebutt on what all this is about?”

The Doc II swarm brightened noticeably, an effect that Winger had noticed from the beginning. Like a dog wagging his tail, he figured. Only this wasn’t just any old ANAD swarm. This was something Doc Frost himself had concocted and left for others to discover after he’d been consumed in the Containment accident a few months before.

***Parsing interrogative from Config Winger, JI have been inspecting all available sensor logs, comm sessions, satlinks and vid footage that I can access…no clear patterns of activity, Johnny…there are some indications of Red Hammer activity in Greenland and Antarctica…this from Solnet reports in recent days…perhaps a new threat is arising***

Winger grabbed his wristpad and snapped it on. “No doubt you’re not even cleared for half that stuff. Doc, you can’t just drift around, diving into computers and grabbing bits left and right. We’ve got rules and regulations about that around here. General Kincade approved you to stand outside containment in loose config for awhile. Don’t blow it, okay? That’s what ANAD did and now he’s all cooped up in my shoulder capsule like a pet.”

This made the Doc II swarm brighten even more. It flickered and strobed by the door in what Winger had long thought was some kind of swarm equivalent of a thought.

***ANAD made mistakes, Johnny…I can see that now…his processor is too sensitive to upsets and glitches…my processor is more advanced, more reliable…I have self-healing algorithms and multiple logic paths for ninety-five point two percent of all operations***

“Yeah, and your coat is all shiny too. Come on…let’s go. We’re late as it is.”

They departed the O Quarters barracks and hustled along the graveled path that cut across the quadrangle in front of Ops. Other troopers from 1st and 2nd Nano were already up ahead, all of them heading straight for the Mission bunker at the north end of the mesa. It was just dawn on top of Table Top, but already stiff mountain breezes were blowing across the grounds. Overhead, a crescent moon shone hard and bright in a cloudless sky.

Winger felt a presence coming up from behind. It was Lieutenant Gabrielle Galland, c/o of 2nd Nano. The Doc II swarm trailed them both, drifting toward the bunker on its picowatt propulsors like a patch of morning fog.

“Taking your pet for an early morning stroll, Wings?” Gabrielle sprinted to catch up. “I don’t see any pooper scooper…you know how Ironpants is about messing up his grounds.”

“Very funny. Doc said he’s picked up a scent, by the way. Maybe something stirring down south, in the Antarctic. Could be that’s what Kraft’s briefing us about.”

“Brrr…” Galland gave a mock shiver. “Why is it nanotroopers can’t ever catch a break…like getting a mission in the south Pacific…some place warm and cozy?”

“Yeah, some place like an asteroid. I felt pretty warm and cozy when we’re plunging down through the atmosphere at seven kilometers a second.”

“I’m just glad none of those rocks landed on our heads.” Galland looked back at the approaching swarm that was Doc II. “I’ll have to admit I’m still having trouble getting used to clouds of bots floating around the mountain like smoke. It’s a big mistake, if you ask me. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like my swarms in containment, where they should be.”

They came finally to the security station at the front of the Mission bunker and were scanned inside, going through all the biometrics and checks for about the millionth time.

“Gabby, you’re just a troglodyte, that’s all. Loose configs…it’s all the rage. Plus this is no ordinary garden-variety ANAD. This is Doc II.”

They waited a few minutes for Doc II to catch up. At the security station, the swarm hovered patiently while it was quickly scanned and probed. Pronounced cleared, Doc II wafted forward into the vestibule outside the briefing theater. Two dozen nanotroopers had gathered in the small space, and a din of good-natured kidding, bad jokes and raucous laughs filled the air. When Doc II seeped in among them, though, the commotion died off to a few murmurs and mutterings. All eyes turned to Winger and Galland.

Sheila Reaves spoke first, a bit more correctly than was normal for the DPS tech. “Good morning, Lieutenant. Both of you. I see that Doc II will be with us today.”

Winger knew there was still a lot of skepticism and even a little anxiety among the platoon about allowing botswarms to wander around in loose config, outside of containment. “It’s okay, fellas. He won’t bite. He just came through full security screening, so he’s copacetic. Just treat him like ANAD, like another trooper.”

“Yes, sir, but you can’t normally see right through other troopers, sir.” That was Sergeant Hoyt Gibbs, one of the newbies. “Policy’s always been to keep the bugs in containment. Sir.”

“True enough,” Winger admitted. “But times change and policy better keep up. Look, I know what you’re all thinking. Your ANADs went berserk on Hicks-Newman. We nearly lost some good troopers. But it was bad quantum signals, Keeper signals according to Q2, that did that. The basic design’s sound. We’ve used ANAD for all kinds of missions over the last few months. And besides, Doc II here is not really an ANAD swarm. He’s got capabilities we’re just beginning to explore.”

“That’s what worries me, sir,” said Nicole Simonet.

Winger had long felt disappointed that his fellow troopers didn’t see the value of Doc II or even ANAD beyond their immediate mission needs. Major Kraft had once reminded him that being in command was like being in a fish bowl. You were isolated but every little burp and fart was scrutinized for meaning. There seemed to be a growing disconnect with the platoon and it had only gotten worse with the problems ANAD had given them on Hicks-Newman. To many in 1st Nano, ANAD was only one more piece of gear or another weapon. And it was worse with Doc II…he might as well have been a circus freak…or a curiosity.

Briefing time was at hand and the crowd filed into the briefing theater. Moments later, Major Kraft came in. As one, the troopers rose abruptly to attention.

Kraft waved everybody back down. “At ease, troopers. Make yourself comfortable. Word from Q2 is we’ve got a real clusterfuck brewing near the South Pole.”

 

For Major Jurgen Kraft, the commanding officer of 1st Nanospace Battalion, briefings at Table Top were always a royal pain in the ass. It wasn’t so much the formality and the time involved in ‘putting on a show’, as it was all the little things you had to do whenever the brass linked in from remote sites…the special details like side presentations to expand on certain points, enhanced video and animation, sim packages from SOFIE to help with decisions.

At least, nobody’s figured out how to do coffee and doughnuts over the WorldNet yet, he told himself.

If anything, today’s briefing would be worse…half the command leadership of UNIFORCE was vidlinked in to the briefing theater. Whatever it was, it was big.

CINCQUANT himself, in the person of General Wolfus Linx was on one screen, linked in from Paris. The Commander in Chief was a bearded, fierce-eyed Teutonic warrior whose name carried the merest hint of ferocity barely contained. Linx had a withering glare that no amount of distance could dissipate.

Kraft involuntarily shuddered every time he glanced over at the screen.

Also linked in from UNIFORCE Headquarters on the Rue du Montaigne was Rene Camois, an Assistant Deputy to the Director General. Mssr. Camois was to Kraft an unknown quantity, though he was highly enough placed to be obnoxious if he wanted to be. Camois was on hand to represent the office of the DG himself, and thus spoke with the absolute authority of the top commander. Even Linx had to defer to the DG.

One other vidlink completed the trio of screens that lined one wall of the briefing theater. His name was Hector Gallegos, and from what Kraft had read of the précis’, Gallegos was Argentine, said to be the chief inspector of the Ministry of Public Health in that South American country. Gallegos had data from some kind of environmental ‘disturbance’ in the Tierra del Fuego region that was the official impetus for the briefing.

Assembled in the briefing theater along with the vidlinked participants were several others.

Kraft acknowledged Lieutenant Johnny Winger, 1st Nanospace Platoon, the Battalion’s top code and stick man for nearly a year with a perfunctory nod. Winger had been Kraft’s personal project in building an effective commander for nanoscale combat operations. Winger was the wonder boy of the Corps, and Kraft took a perverse delight in both showing off his prize commander to the brass and then roughly reminding the kid who was really in charge.

Also on hand was Lieutenant Gabrielle Galland, 2nd Nanospace Platoon, and every bit the equal of Winger in raw ability, though she didn’t have Winger’s charisma or guts.

Kraft brought the briefing to order and acknowledged all the participants.

“Quantum Corps got tasking at 0430 hours this morning from UNSAC to convene a briefing for the purpose of determining what tripped BioShield yesterday. Take a look at this—“ Kraft racked up some footage from space.

The imagery came up, a series of increasingly high resolution pictures in visual and infrared wavelengths. Finally, the display settled down into one of an overhead view of massive ice cliffs calving off into the sea. Icebergs could be seen in the distance.

“Weathersats took these images yesterday. There’s a bubble of altered atmosphere expanding around the South Pole. It’s accelerating rapidly and, as a result, the ice cap’s melting faster than ever. With the sea level rising by six centimeters every week, UNIFORCE estimates half the world’s coastal cities will be flooded in a month. UNSAC has given us a new mission. General Linx has ordered us to conduct an operation against probable Red Hammer activity in the Antarctic. Have you got ANAD ready to engage the enemy?”

Winger explained some of the changes Doc II had helped them make to ANAD’s architecture and programming. “It worked well enough in the sims, Major. We’re ready to take ‘em on.”

“Then get your ass back to the ready room pronto, Lieutenant, when this briefing is over. I’ll work up a basic mission plan and squirt it to you. Antarctica’s the worst now, but there are bubbles growing all over the world: the Congo River basin, Tibet, the south Pacific, Patagonia and the Caucasus Mountains. Earth’s atmosphere is under assault and nothing UNIFORCE tries seems to be working. The politicos are frantic. ANAD’s our best hope.”

“ANAD’s ready to get back in the fight, Major.”

“Good.” Kraft’s face seemed relieved to finally hear some good news. “You’ll be engaging the enemy swarms at Lake Vostok.”

General Linx spoke up from Paris. “Lieutenant, this operation has to work…we have to find a way to slow down these bubbles, slow down the ice cap melting. If we can’t…millions of people are going to die and there isn’t a damned thing we can do about it. World Meteorological Organization will get you the latest intel.”

Gallegos, the Argentine scientist, pinged for attention from Buenos Aires. He said, “These bubbles of toxic air have already started to filter up from Antarctica into our territory. We’re taking measurements in real time, all around Tierra del Fuego, and points north from there, well into Patagonia. The aire toxico has already killed hundreds…there are villages full of nothing but corpses. Even the beaches smell of death. It’s like a demonio, I can tell you that much. We’ve been combing the area with inspection teams from the Ministry for the last few days.”

Gallegos was a compact, dark-haired man, with steel-rim glasses. He consulted some notes off-screen.

“The results of our inspections were surprising,” Gallegos noted. “I’m sending the compiled data now.” A new squirt off the satellite refreshed all screens and several plots and graphs materialized into view.

“BioShield data showed the center of this perturbation was in the vicinity of a small village called Iniquel. The territory is among the islands and archipelagos of lower Tierra del Fuego. This territory is home to a small tribe called Yemana…or, I should say, was. The Yemana were a protected tribe, basically Bronze Age indigenous people which our government was trying to protect from whalers and oil companies and all the tourists.”

General Linx cut in gruffly. “Doctor, BioShield has a mandate to search for airborne nanobotic mechanisms and that’s all. If BioShield was tripped, some kind of nanoscale mechanism was in play, replicating in the area.”

“I thought the same,” Gallegos admitted. “When we arrived at the site, our investigators noticed right away a sort of aires toxico, a kind of bubble or zone of toxic air had developed. In and around Iniquel, the Yemana tribe had all died, of asphyxiation. Scores of them. We did auto-autopsy on several and discovered the symptoms you see on your screens…hypercapnia, blue lips and cheeks, excessive concentrations of CO2 and other toxic gases in their blood and lungs.”

“Excuse me, Doctor…” It was Rene Camois. “You said the entire tribe had died?”

“We found no survivors. The air in and around the village and along the shores of the island for several kilometers up and downstream was composed of gases in the concentrations I have displayed here…as you can see, toxic levels of fluorine and chlorine, carbon dioxide and reduced levels of oxygen and nitrogen.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Kraft studied the data. “Normal air is seventy-eight percent nitrogen and twenty-one percent oxygen. This is all cock-eyed…are you sure your instruments are calibrated, Doctor?”

“Perfectly,” Gallegos said. “The air even affected me and my inspectors. We had to vacate the area…it was too dangerous for us there. No, the data are real, gentlemen. There is a bubble or zone of toxic air over dozens of square kilometers of lower Tierra del Fuego and the surrounding territory and it’s expanding outward. We’re not sure where the source is, though some evidence suggests it’s in or around a grotto of caves on an island further south, a place called Sepulveda. We tried to go there but we couldn’t—now I hear that the aire toxico may be in fact be coming from Antarctica.”

Linx raised a bushy eyebrow. “You suspect what, exactly, Doctor…an illegal nanobotic reservoir?”

“Possibly, General. Whatever it is, it’s changing the air in that whole area, and every living thing, Yemana Indians, island life, everything, is being affected. Mass casualties are piling up along the beaches. Several villages have already reported floating corpses in the ocean.”

Linx checked with someone behind him and returned to the screen. “UNIFORCE confirms that atmospheric perturbations were detected in the area you’re talking about, Doctor. Satellite and aerial ‘bot inspection have characterized the phenomena as a ‘toxic cloud’ spreading outward from near the South Pole, altering the composition of the atmosphere, breaking down ozone and other molecules. “So far, it’s said to be a relatively small scale event, but whatever it is, it’s resistant to nanobotic intervention to this point. BioShield has deployed enforcement nano into the area with no effect.”

“General,” asked Johnny Winger, “are we dealing with a natural outbreak or some kind of rogue ‘bots somebody let loose?”

“That’s unknown at this time, Lieutenant. Perhaps, Deputy Camois has something to add.”

The UNIFORCE official was a precise, almost effeminate bureaucrat. “UNIFORCE has been receiving reports for several days now, actually reports, data, even imagery from multiple locations around the world. We’re getting reports of similar atmospheric disturbances, in places like Tibet, the south Pacific, the Antarctic, the Congo basin in central Africa, just as the Major mentioned.”

“Similar disturbances?” Linx asked.

“Similar to what’s being reported here,” Camois consulted some background material, squirted it off the satellite to Table Top. The master display showed a map of the world, with the areas mentioned highlighted. “Constituent gas concentrations all mixed up, oxygen and ozone levels dropping, carbon dioxide levels rising, pressure fluctuations…BioShield is reporting nanobotic activity in or near all spots, so we think that’s the cause. Who or what’s behind it—“ Camois looked up and shrugged, visibly frustrated even on the screen. “The Director General’s meeting with UNSAC this evening, 1900 hours our time.”

Johnny Winger studied the displays, trying to make sense of it all. “There’s no obvious pattern. What makes all these places so special?”

“Unknown, Lieutenant,” said Camois. “We running routines now to try and match a pattern, possibly predict any further outbreaks. So far, the public’s unaware of the disturbances, except in the affected areas…the media haven’t sniffed this one out yet. But the problem seems to be growing.”

“It’s got to be Red Hammer again,” Major Kraft suggested, hoping someone had evidence to the contrary. Quantum Corps had had numerous run-ins with the world’s biggest criminal cartel in recent years and had the scars to show for it. The cartel had recently tried to threaten Earth was an asteroid impact, but UNISPACE had mostly blunted that. Still, the world was only slowly recovering from the remnants of Hicks-Newman that Quantum Corps hadn’t been able to stop.

Nobody had a better idea.

“A distinct possibility,” Camois agreed. “Although after that asteroid, the cartel hasn’t made as much trouble for us the last few months. I think we damaged them severely in that affair.” The Deputy looked slightly pained. “General, would Quantum Corps like the threat condition from UNIFORCE raised? Do we need to raise the alert level here? The Commissioner will undoubtedly ask the same question.”

Linx was reluctant to admit there was something the Corps couldn’t handle, especially when a mandated mission like atmospheric patrol was involved, but he agreed.

“It would be best,” he admitted. “I’m thinking we may need to go beyond BioShield and send in a special ops team…an ANAD unit. I’m not sure BioShield can handle this.”

Camois took that grimly. “Very well. I’ll recommend to the Director General that we go to UNICON Plus.”

Deputy Camois had heard enough. “This tells me we’ve got a crisis on our hands and it’s growing fast. If what happened at Iniquel was somehow created by Red Hammer…then what the hell is happening at all the other sites BioShield has detected?”

“This could explain why BioShield is detecting heightened nanobotic activity,” Johnny Winger said. “The cartel’s obviously got some new tricks up their sleeves.”

“I’ll get tasking from the DG and UNSAC, before the night is over,” Camois promised. The investigative mission will be assigned to Quantum Corps and your ANAD units.”

Linx was satisfied with that. “Thank you, Deputy. We won’t let UNIFORCE down. Major Kraft—?”

“Sir?”

Linx ticked off what he wanted done on his fingers. “Work up a tactical plan, every scenario you can think of, and what resources you’ll need. Work SOFIE until she’s smoking. Get it to me by 1200 hours today. I’ll see the orders are written and scoped to make it all work.”

Jurgen Kraft was already halfway out the door and Johnny Winger was right behind him. The Doc II swarm followed as fast as its propulsors could carry it, but the officers didn’t wait.

Table Top Mountain was situated on a high mesa in the Snake Mountains of southern Idaho, like the palm of a hand with ridges and valleys fanning out in all directions. Hunt Valley and Buffalo Valley swept away in a steep incline to the east and northeast, buttressed by snow-capped mountains. Desolate ravines folded over the land to the south and west. The mesa was an isolated, windswept escarpment kilometers from any town or settlement. The closest town was Haleyville, some thirty kilometers to the east along the twisting, turning Highway 7.

It was in all respects a perfect location for Quantum Corps’ Western Command base.

The Ops center was a glass and earth building half-buried along the mesa’s eastern limb, surrounded by a grassy quadrangle and connected by enclosed tube and walkway with A Barracks and the dome of the Containment Facility directly to the south.

Inside Ops, the sim tank was the center of activity as the new UNIFORCE tasking came through. The tank was a small theater run by SOFIE, the Special Operations Force Information Environment, where scenarios and missions could be simulated and rehearsed ahead of time.

Johnny Winger was there, along with Gabrielle Galland, Major Kraft and a select team of planners from 1st Nano.

They discussed possibilities, and how to put the tasking into effect.

“We’ve got to send a team into Antarctica,” Winger was saying. “That seems to be the source of all of this.”

Kraft was inclined to agree. “I think it’s significant that BioShield ‘bots have had no impact on what’s going on. Whatever’s modifying the atmosphere down there is tougher than BioShield can deal with.”

“And they’re using ANAD 3.0 as a base, aren’t they?” asked Galland.

“Three point two, to be exact,” Winger recalled. He felt a buzzing in the back of his head, it was the Doc II, on the neural circuit. The swarm had finally arrived at the Sim complex.

***Antique jalopy, if you ask me, Johnny. That version couldn’t break a hydrogen bond if its life depended on it***

Winger smiled. “Just got a raspberry from Doc II, guys. He doesn’t think much of ANAD 3.0 either. SOFIE, “he commanded the sim system, “display locations of all atmospheric perturbations detected by BioShield over the last forty eight hours.”

The concave displays of the sim tank flickered and a map projection of the world came up in pieces. Small whirlpools danced along the upper Amazon, among an island chain in the south Pacific, in the central Congo and in the highlands of Tibet.

“Isolated pockets,” Kraft observed. “Widely separated.”

“For now,” Winger said. “SOFIE…best prediction for disposition of these disturbances over the next seventy-two hours….”

The displays changed again, this time showing larger whirlpools and more of them.

“I was afraid of that,” Kraft said. “BioShield data says the disturbances will grow…maybe even link up.”

“We’ve got to find out what we’re up against,” Winger said. “Where’s that toxic gas really coming from…what’s modifying the air.”

“And is it a natural process,” Galland added. “…or something else?”

“Red Hammer,” Winger shook his head. ‘I’d bet money on it. “

***Analysis shows the pools of toxic air are being generated by nanobotic action, Johnny…the thermal and electromagnetic signatures correlate well…the question is what kind of nanobots are we dealing with…that gives me the creeps***

“Doc’s right,” Winger added. “We’ve got to find out what’s behind these bubbles of toxic air that Dr. Gallegos found.”

“Lieutenant Winger,” Kraft looked curiously at the atomgrabber, “I know we approved implanting ANAD into containment in your shoulder, and you’ve got some kind of special link with that the Doc swarm, but hang it, it’s friggin’ bizarre when you get involved in one-way conversations.”

“Yeah, Wings,” said Galland, “think you could clue us in once in awhile?”

Winger shrugged. “Doc was just saying these bubbles of bad air are giving off signatures that correlate well with nanobotic action. He said it’s kind of creepy to think that’s even possible.”

Kraft hmmpphhed and commanded SOFIE to put up the raw investigative files from the BioShield ‘bots that had detected the disturbances. “How can a device the size of a molecule get the creeps, for Chrissakes? It’s starting to act like my teen-aged daughter.”

Winger found himself defending the little assembler all the time. “Doc says ANAD’s processor is that powerful…he’s got the cognitive abilities of a small child.”

“And the temperament too, sounds like,” Galland said. “But what if you have to spank him?”

Winger reddened. “It’s not like that at all—“

“Never mind,” Kraft interrupted. He paced about the tank, studying the displays SOFIE had put up. Real-time feed from BioShield nanobots patrolling the Earth’s atmosphere showed up as undulating virtual cloud masses, as swarms of the mechanisms probed and sniffed for illegal nanobotic activity, biohazards and environmental outlaws, all part of UNIFORCE’s new mandate in the wake of the Serengeti Factor pandemic a year before. Isolated pockets of disturbances were highlighted, with the nature of threat attached as floating tags around dancing whirlpools. The whirlpools over southern Argentina and the other places Camois had mentioned had no descriptive tags at all…only blank fields hovering nearby, as if BioShield couldn’t figure out what was going on.

“We’ve got to get a handle on this before it spreads too far,” the Battalion commander said. “Winger—?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You sit down with Galland and put together a full ANAD team for insertion. People, equipment, tactics, the works. Pull from 1st Nano, 2nd Nano and 1st Bio as well. We might just be looking at a counter-twist mission here and I want to be ready.”

“Yes, sir,” Winger and Galland answered in unison.

Kraft’s stomach churned at the scenarios they’d already played out…none of them had a happy ending. “UNIFORCE has given this thing a UNICON Plus priority. That means we move fast. Lieutenant, I’m forming an ANAD detachment immediately. You’ll be in command but I’m pulling elements from anywhere I can. Get over to Mission Prep and get your gear ready for a little recon trip down to Antarctica. I’ll notify a hyperjet to stand by.”

“On my way,” Winger said. He and Galland hustled out of Ops to head over to the Ready Room at Mission Prep, across the quadrangle, to go over personnel and gear.

On the sprint across the grassy expanse of the quad, Winger and Galland ran headlong into Holt and Reinhart, from 1st Bio.

“Hey, Wings,” called Holt. “I hear you’re off to the South Pole, with half my people. Sure you don’t need some help with all those creepy-crawly things?”

Winger was deep in thought, listening to Doc chatter over his internal neural circuit. The loose swarm had finally caught up with them.

***Looks like the real creeps are here, Johnny. I guess virus-lickers can’t help it…what are they qualified for anyway…wiping cow’s asses? That’s all a virus is…a stupid cow…all bubble head of DNA and some lipids, grazing in a field of cells***

“I think we can manage it, Holt. Maybe your guys will learn some manners after a few missions with 1st Nano.”

They hustled along the pebbled path to Mission Prep, where expeditionary equipment for ANAD detachments was housed: hypersuits, HERF guns and coil-gun rounds by the thousands in the ordnance bunker, plus racks of Super-Fly entomopters for recon, MOB-net canisters for immobilizing the enemy, camou-fog and fully enabled interface controls ready to go.

Beyond the roof of the bunker lay the three liftjet hangars, A, B, and C, and beyond that, perfectly framed by the still snow-covered mountain backdrop of the Snake Range, lay the north liftpad, where a sleek black hyperjet was veetoling in for a vertical touchdown.

“There’s our ride now, Holt. Hope your guys don’t mind riding rear seat to the elite.”

Holt snorted. “Elite, my ass. I’m just waiting for a chance to show you nano guys what a real combat outfit does for a living. Why don’t you stand down and let the adults take over? No sense assigning kids to do what real men do better.”

Winger tapped the soft skinpatch where the ANAD capsule had been implanted in his shoulder a year ago. “You want me to show you what my little brother here does to real men? It takes about two and half minutes…then we have to call Facility Services to come clean up the puddle of protoplasm that’s left.”

Gabrielle Galland turned and faced the 1st Bio puke nose to nose. “Look, Holtzie, lay off, will ya? This deal’s UNICON Plus…and you’re not invited.” She brusquely shoved the taller man back down the steps as they went inside.

“What a creep!” Winger said as they wound their way through corridors to the Battalion Ready Room.

***Let ‘em have it, Johnny…ANAD eats scum like that for breakfast***

Winger smiled at that. “Maybe so, Doc, but right now, we’ve got some packing to do. You and me are taking a little trip across the Pond.”

Galland veered off to sign herself into the ordnance bunker and check out enough ammo to cover the mission. Winger headed for the hypersuit lockers…they’d need twelve at least, and the programming still had to be updated.

***Johnny, I’ve been thinking about what kind of bots could be altering the atmosphere over the South Pole. I’ve got a theory—***

“Shoot, Doc. I’m listening.” Winger pressed a few buttons on the wrist keypad of the first ‘suit and its servos whirred as it clamshelled open.

***The doctor said it may be a colony of nanobots, kind of like me. I’ve got a theory why maybe BioShield didn’t detect any such bots until it was too late***

“And what might your theory be, Doc?”

  • The latest intel from Q2 indicates that Red Hammer may have a new device from their alien friends…some kind of device that can transmit configs and create angels and swarms remotely…I’ve even scanned reports of strange ‘ice-beings’ and talking penguins around McMurdo Station…***

Johnny Winger paused in his checkout of the first hypersuit, dropping his head back out of the helmet and sitting on the bench seat that served as the control center of the suit.

“Maybe BioShield wouldn’t see anything unusual until it was too late. I don’t know, Doc…I hope that’s not true. From the very beginning, BioShield was installed to be able to detect and prevent illegal nano outside of containment, just to keep the world safe, you know. The whole thing’s predicated on being able to detect nanobot activity….all assemblers produce atomic debris, heat, that sort of stuff. If you’re right and we’re dealing with ‘bots that can go about their work and leave no detectable trace—“ Winger shook his head. “—that’s bad news. Really bad news.”

***Sorry to bring bad news, Johnny…but if I can think of it, somebody else can too***

 

Winger decided to grab a bite to eat at the mess hall before bedding down for a quick sleep. Once the Detachment departed Table Top, sleep would be a scarce commodity for all of them.

He ran into Gabrielle Galland at the end of the serving line.

“Late night snack, Lieutenant Winger? You do know where all those extra calories will wind up.”

Winger grabbed his burger and fries and headed for a table in the corner. “Sustenance for the journey, Lieutenant Galland. Join me…with that tray of rabbit’s food?”

Galland sat with her salad and picked at the lettuce. “Just one thing bothers me about Operation Quantum Ice. If it is Red Hammer melting the ice caps and poisoning the atmosphere, and they do have some new tricks like Q2 suggests, where the hell are they getting all this stuff? Are their techies better than ours? Nano is nano. Atoms and molecules work the same everywhere, last I checked.”

Winger stuffed a wad of fries in his mouth, slurped down his drink. He was hungrier than he realized. “Scuttlebutt I hear is that they’ve got well-heeled friends out there in the Great Beyond. Maybe it’s these Keeper pods we’ve run across, on the Moon, and here on Earth. Doc Frost told me these devices were like radios, or like the Net or Aladdin’s Lamp. Ask it a question, request something and if you do it right, out pops an answer. Alien tech. Not everybody believes that, but it is one theory.”

Galland crunched on croutons. “I just hope we’ve prepped and trained right for this mission. Especially, I hope ANAD’s up to snuff…after that asteroid, there’s a lot of muttering in the ranks about how much we can trust him. By the way, where’s your buddy Doc II? I thought you two were inseparable.”

“He’s with the equipment pods, getting staged on Charioteer for the trip south. Honestly, Gabby, you guys shouldn’t be so jealous of a swarm of bots. He’s just configged to resemble Doc Frost. Troopers seem to get hives every time he shows up.”

Galland shrugged. “What do you expect, Wings? He’s not one of us. I mean, he’s different. That’s the trouble with ANAD-grade nano. You can’t tell what’s what anymore. Nothing is solid. Fabs can make anything you can dream of. You can’t tell what is real anymore and that makes you suspicious of everything and everyone.”

Winger looked at Galland. She had a pert little dark brown almost-page boy cut under her cap. Blazing brown eyes, almost like onyx stones. She was athletic, you could tell she didn’t miss many reps in the gym from her broad shoulders. A slightly bemused smile. Winger found her intriguing.

I’m real,” he suggested.

“That remains to be seen, Lieutenant John Winger. I’ll withhold judgment on that.” The smile grew wider. “But I will say this much…if you’re an angel, somebody messed up the config real bad. Your ears are too big for your face. Your eyelids droop like you don’t get any sleep. Your lips are crooked…I mean, Jeez, what the hell kind of config is this?” Now the smile had become a grin, which she covered by sticking a fork full of salad into her mouth. “A first-week nog could do better than this.”

It wasn’t much of an opening, but Winger figured he’s somehow managed to open the slightest crack in what had long been an impenetrable stone façade. He wasn’t sure how he had done it, only that he wanted to keep trying.

Maybe ANAD’s got some ideas, he thought.

They finished their meals and headed out of the commissary. “Sweet dreams, Lieutenant,” Galland told him as they headed down the walkway to the O Quarters.

“Don’t spend too long primping yourself tomorrow morning, Lieutenant,” Winger said. “Nobody’ll see it when you’re in a hypersuit.”

“Hey, my hypersuit can run circles around your hypersuit,” she said back. “Any time, Wings, just say the word…any time.”

Winger went to his quarters, finished some last minute packing and brushed his teeth. He stripped down to its civvies and lay in the cool of the bunk for a few minutes, lights out.

On impulse, he decided to launch ANAD from his shoulder capsule. It was against all regs and wasn’t even a good idea the night before a mission but he didn’t care. He needed someone to talk to.

The discharge stung a little but the faint flicker of the building swarm soon hovered over the bed. Config One, he saw. Like a small cloud of fireflies, winking on and off, as ANAD grabbed atoms and built structure to maintain himself. He decided to leave ANAD loose, as the little guy always preferred.

“ANAD, I think Gabby Galland is kind of special. I like her. But I don’t know what to do about it…or even how to feel. She’s like so many of the troopers…she thinks you’re just a device. Or a weapon. A formation of robotic elements. But I don’t see you that way…does that make any sense?”

***Parsing interrogative, Config Winger, J….detecting increased galvanic skin conductance, elevated heart rate, sebaceous glands discharging extra matter…is Config Winger, J experiencing distress?***

Winger laughed. “No, ANAD and yes, I am a little sweaty. Maybe I should go take a shower, huh. It’s just feelings, that’s all. Feelings I don’t know what to do with.”

***_Perhaps Config Winger is experiencing stress related to the upcoming mission. To engage adversaries with unknown capabilities can lead to elevated cortisol levels and increased serotonin and dopamine uptake in your limbic system, with attendant surges in hypothalamic activity and associated cerebellar functions***_

“No, ANAD…I mean, yes, you’re probably right. I always have some jitters about any mission. But…it’s not really the mission. I have feelings for Lieutenant Galland…I don’t think you have any configs or programming to analyze that—and I don’t know what to do about them.”

***Stress reduction exercises can be performed that will reduce cortisol levels by measurable amounts…perhaps I could enumerate techniques for such exercises…I have programs for several dozen such protocols…the Doc II configuration does not maintain such inventory for trooper personal improvement therapies…I am programmed with multiple procedures and methods….***

It wasn’t the first time Winger had detected the slightest bit of—what could you call it?—jealousy? Competitive streak? Mistrust? Suspicion? Protectiveness? In recent sessions outside of containment, the nanoscale assembler had occasionally offered phrases and words that seemed to Winger to border on jealousy about Doc II. How could that be? Maybe there was something glitchy in the latest re-gen of the master bot.

How could a nanobot be jealous of another nanobot? It shouldn’t be possible. Or was he just imagining it…projecting feelings about Gabby Galland onto the tiny mech?

Was some kind of conflict developing between Doc II and ANAD? Would that affect ANAD’s performance on the mission? He decided to address the matter directly.

“I’m sure you’ve got lots of techniques, ANAD….not just now, thanks. And as far as Doc II goes, you and I have a different relationship than Doc and me. Doc’s like a teacher. Or a mentor. He teaches me things. ANAD, I think of you like a trooper. You’re one of us…that’s what you always wanted to be anyway…to be another nog like Gabby, or Sheila Reaves or Gibbs. Don’t get so snippy about Doc…there’s room for both of you.”

For a long moment, the ANAD swarm said nothing. The coupler link buzzed with static as the swarm roiled slightly and thinned out, almost like it was dispersing. Then…

***ANAD seeks to maintain self-config. Maximum dispersion is the highest state, consistent with energy demands. Retrieving declarative statement from Doc I original configuration dated 28 May, 2046…processing…processing…”Mary, assemblers like this ANAD will always have to be kept in strict containment…there are unknown factors and interactions in the code…I just can’t be sure yet…we’ll have to run more tests—“…Config Doc II maintains equivalent programming…over two thousand one hundred conflicts logged with current processor architecture***

So that was it. ANAD had in memory many instances of Doc Frost warning about unknown aspects of his original ANAD design. To be safe, he had always insisted on proper containment. Yet ANAD seemed to have evolved away from Doc’s earliest design parameters….into something else. Maybe the re-generation process was flawed. Now ANAD thought that Doc II was just the latest iteration of Doc Frost and wanted to cram him back into containment.

Winger took a deep breath. It was too late now to do anything about this little budding conflict. He would just have to be careful where and how he interacted with Doc II. Reaves and some of the other troopers had even said as much. The mission in Antarctica couldn’t be jeopardized.

Now I know how a parent feels with two kids arguing about everything….

He ordered ANAD back into the capsule and breathed a little easier when he felt the sting of the port snap shut. Then he closed his eyes but sleep just would not come. ANAD…Doc II…Gabrielle Galland…images came and went like a vid at high speed, a blur he could never resolve. To get his mind off the turmoil, he turned on a small bed lamp and dug out his wristpad, snapping it on his wrist in one smooth motion.

For the hundredth time, he scrolled uneasily through the mission parameters for Operation Quantum Ice, looking for something, anything, that he might be missing.

He couldn’t find anything.

 

Chapter 2

Phase Change”

 

 

McMurdo City, Ross Island

Antarctica

July 7, 2049

0600 hours U.T.

 

The role of the infinitely small is infinitely large”

Louis Pasteur

 

Alpha Detachment, newly equipped and re-armed, departed the north liftpad at Table Top Mountain shortly before sunup. The ten-thousand kilometer flight south, aboard hyperjet Charioteer, would take about two and a half hours. Their destination was McMurdo City, the research base at Ross Island. There, the Detachment would hook up with a platoon from UNIFORCE Security Corps, deployed to the Antarctic to engage the spreading swarms of Red Hammer bots.

Johnny Winger spent much of the flight across the top of the Earth’s atmosphere in the comm shack, following operations of other detachments as Quantum Corps engaged Red Hammer around the world.

When he wasn’t in the comm shack, Winger circulated through the cargo bay, checking on his troops, an encouraging word here, a pat on the head there. Got all your gear up to speed? Check those suit seals, trooper. Check your connections, suit boost, crewnet, check everything. We’ll load out for combat just before touchdown.

Everyone one of them came back: Yes, sir…all copacetic, sir…how’s ANAD doing, sir?

The truth was Johnny Winger didn’t know how the assembler was doing.

He spent the last hour before descent toward the Ross Ice Shelf in the C/O’s quarters up forward, going over his own gear. He felt lonely, uneasy, occasionally glancing out a small porthole. Ice-flecked ocean glittered in morning sunlight kilometers below them…the south Pacific and the Andean coast of South America might as well have been another planet. Despite warnings from Doc II, he cycled his containment capsule open and released ANAD into the air.

It was against all regulations but Johnny Winger didn’t care. He needed someone to talk to.

***Boss…..it’s good to be out…okay to rep a few million times?…nice to have some company, you know…it feels…kind of weird…maybe it’s my config…got all these new doodads and effectors…***

Winger was sitting on his bunk, feeling connections and ports in his suit helmet, mindlessly checking everything, the usual pre-ops drill.

“ANAD, you worry me, sometimes, you know that?”

***No reason to be worried about me…I’m having fun just figuring out what to do with all these new gadgets***

“I shouldn’t even be letting you out of containment here. It’s against all regs.”

***Why did you, then? Not that I don’t appreciate it. But still—***

It was a question that had many answers. Pick one: I’m lonesome and I need some company…I’m curious about what you’ll do and say next…Living and working with you is like having a little brother…I never know what’s going to happen next….

Winger completed his hypersuit checks and buttoned up the helmet. He checked his watch. Charioteer would begin her descent toward the runway at McMurdo in less than half an hour. Alpha Detachment would have to be ready for action the moment they touched down.

“I don’t know, ANAD…I guess I want to do the right thing…only, I don’t know what that is. Even Doc II said I shouldn’t let you out of containment unsupervised.”

***Am I that dangerous, Boss? You shouldn’t be listening to that cloud of bugs. You must have let me out because I asked you to. You know…it’s more natural for me to be outside…I learn more…I exercise my effectors and my processor…just interacting with the environment strengthens my core synaptic connections…I’m a nanoscale element of a larger colony, Boss…the best thing for me is to be part of a swarm…with my comrades and fellow nogs…that’s how you would put it…is that so hard to understand?***

“No, of course not.” Winger stared out the porthole. Reflected in the Perspex, he could see a faint shimmering blob in the air behind his head. He knew it was ANAD, replicating a swarm. It was like growing a family to order. Forming up a squad to keep him company.

Wouldn’t that be a neat trick for humans, he thought? Build your own family to spec, as easily as building a shed in the backyard.

***Boss…you and me…we’re a lot alike, aren’t we?***

Winger turned back to face the shimmering swarm. It was faceless, little more than a flickering light show. “You mean aside from the fact that I’m a billion times bigger and you don’t even have a face I can look at…sure, we’re almost twins, ANAD.”

For a few moments, there was no further communication. The swarm was changing though, the pinpricks of light swirling, coalescing, right before his eyes. As he watched, Johnny became dimly aware of a pattern in the shimmer, something there but not quite there, a shadow, maybe? No, it was more than that—

It was a face. The barest outline of a face, like a child’s stencil copy of a face, but recognizable nonetheless.

It was the face of his father. Jamison Winger.

Johnny Winger blinked hard. Jamison Winger had died in ’48, one of thousands of victims of the Serengeti plague. He quickly wiped off a tear. ANAD had been sniffing again. Sniffing memories…he’d have to quit letting the assembler have a free-for-all inside his brain. Doc II would be horrified.

“ANAD…that’s not funny. I see what you’re forming…I think it’s in bad taste. Very bad taste.”

***You said I didn’t have a face to look at, Boss…isn’t that what you wanted me to have? Something to look at…something familiar—?***

Winger got up and began putting on the hypersuit. “ANAD…reconfig for capture. We’ll be on the ground soon. We’ve got a mission—“

***Maybe we’re not so much alike after all…but, you’ve always said you think of me as a brother…as a fellow trooper***

“I do, ANAD…how can I say this…maybe you’re too much like me. Not the way you look….just the way you are. Like the Major’s always saying…loads of talent but it needs polish. Nobody understands us, ANAD…that’s what I mean. Now—get rid of that swarm and get inside—“ he tapped his left shoulder and the capsule port clicked open.

 

Charioteer made her descent and touched down on the icy ski-way outside McMurdo City less than an hour later. Snow-covered mountains ringed the complex. Beyond the edge of Ross Island, the ice-choked McMurdo Sound was thick with calving ice cliffs and bergs. Decades of global warming had shrunk the summertime icepack to frozen patches of floating ice amid the deep blue of the Sound. Charioteer taxied to a waiting assembly of trucks and tractors, all of them bearing the blue shield of UNIFORCE.

Quite a welcoming party, Winger thought, as he counted up the assembled troops. According to Major Kraft, Security Corps had deployed a full company to the Antarctic to battle Red Hammer. UNIFORCE troops wore white with blue piping, while scattered among the crowd were others, clad in varying shades of green and red. BioShield, Winger realized. They had engineers and technicians on hand as well, trying to contain the expanding enemy swarms.

Back in the cargo bay, Winger gave orders for Alpha Detachment to dismount and assemble in formation just off the hyperjet ramp.

“Full suits, Captain?” asked Gibbs.

“The works…but keep your helmets off,” Winger decided. “Inner caps only…it’s summer after all. The temperature’s a balmy 30 degrees out there.”

“Like a walk on the beach,” muttered Reaves, as she clanked toward the rampway.

Once outside, Johnny Winger introduced himself to the local UNIFORCE commander. He was a doughty Russian named Suvorov, heavy jowls and thick eyebrows and all. Suvorov saluted smartly.

“Welcome to the bottom of the world, Lieutenant. I’ve got trucks and lifters for all your gear. May I inspect your Detachment?”

“Of course,” Winger stood aside. It was a formality, he knew, since Quantum Corps was part of UNIFORCE as well, but it made for good relations with the locals. He could tell that Suvorov was a gruff, by-the-book commander. He strode down the hypersuited ranks of Quantum Corps troopers like a squat little field marshal, scrutinizing every face. Twice, he paused to take a closer look at some piece of the powered exo-skeleton suits, fiddling critically with Sergeant Ray Spivey’s wristpad.

“Most impressive,” Suvorov growled. A wind devil kicked up, blowing loose powdery snow about the formation, but Suvorov didn’t flinch. “My men will help your Detachment with their gear.”

Johnny Winger agreed, and in less than ten minutes, a convoy of trucks and airlifts was moving down the connector road toward the complex of huts and hangars and buildings that made up McMurdo City.

Mac Town had been around for nearly a hundred and thirty years and over that time period, had grown from a research base to a full-service city for ten thousand iceheads that called the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf home. The newest part of the compound had been domed over, giving the place an alien, otherwordly ambience. Beneath the dome, parks and bike paths and occasional springs and fountains, along with two and three-story buildings, cabins, and other structures made the place almost like a normal town—it had a vaguely Scandinavian look—with its contemporary furnishings and monuments to early polar explorers like Shackleton and Scott and Amundsen.

Outside the dome, which had been completed in 2039, the older buildings of Mac Town were cruder and sometimes abandoned to the elements. Rows of silvery Quonset huts blackened over the decades ringed the site of the original settlements. Beyond the perimeter, on a slight rise in the ice shelf, lay Discovery Hut, where Amundsen himself had first set up camp early in the twentieth century…1902, Johnny Winger somehow dredged up from memory.

The convoy snaked through the suburbs of the abandoned cabins toward a port in the side of the dome. Once inside, Suvorov ordered the convoy stopped outside a gray slab-sided building fronting the circular road that circumscribed the dome…the Ring Road, a nearby sign indicated. Just above the snow piles banked up around the edge of the dome outside, the dim black cone of Mount Erebus was faintly visible in the distance, its summit encircled with mist and a shimmering ice haze. For the first time, Winger noticed unusual cloud formations around the peak of the mountain…then he saw a flickering seam of light across the clouds and understood.

Swarm activity, he realized. He swallowed hard. The atmosphere was convulsing outward, boiling like a pot of water on a stove.

“Operations,” the Russian announced. The Detachment went inside and powered down their hypersuits, falling out into a large open bullpen similar to the Ready Room at Table Top Mountain. Ordered to stand at ease, the Quantum Corps troopers and the rest of the UNIFORCE contingent mingled uneasily. Meanwhile, Winger and his CC2, Master Sergeant Hoyt Gibbs, followed Suvorov to a nearby circular room ringed with displays and consoles.

It was the UNIFORCE Ops command post. Technicians and engineers bustled around the facility, tracking the movements and damage done by the Red Hammer swarms. Ground, aerial and satellite imagery danced across the rings of screens, each tiled with rows of data.

Suvorov introduced Winger and Gibbs to a thin, harried man in a dark green uniform. A golden sunburst crest identified him as a BioShield tech.

“Leonard Stiles…” the Russian announced. “…in charge of the BioShield group here—“

Stiles nodded curtly. “Sorry to be so abrupt, Lieutenant…” he swept his hand toward the banks of screens, “but we have a bit of a crisis here—“

Winger’s eyes narrowed. “What’s going on?”

Stiles shrugged, and motioned Winger to follow. He went to a console up front, overlooking a three-D virtual diorama of the entire Antarctic continent and surrounding seas. Lights popped and flashed inside the display like lightning bolts. But this was no summer thunderstorm.

“Swarms are pushing outward again…it seems to come in cycles. About once a day, roughly every twenty five hours on average, both sources begin replicating and expanding again. As you can see—“ Stiles had a pointer to put a dot of light on the subject—“ we’ve got sources at Mount Erebus, here—and at Lake Vostok on the East Antarctic Sheet, here—“

“Two separate swarms?” Winger asked.

“That’s correct. We’re engaging them in both places—probably you saw some of that when you came in—Erebus is practically invisible from the density of the swarm there—and we’re trying to keep them contained, keep them from linking up.”

“Already,” Suvorov explained, “the swarms are affecting the weather and conditions on the continent and the surrounding seas. You noticed the winds outside when you landed?”

Winger had felt the wind rocking his hypersuit, its gyros struggling to keep him upright in the gale. “It was a bit breezy when we left the hyperjet.”

Stiles smiled grimly. “The swarms have been replicating and moving so aggressively, especially around the Lake Vostok, that they’ve generated vortices in the atmosphere. That plus chemical changes in the atmosphere have started up high winds all across the ice cap, winds that are feeding into the south circum-polar jet stream now. The winds are affecting general atmospheric circulation everywhere below sixty-five degrees south latitude.”

Suvorov confirmed what Stiles was saying. “Da, we’ve seen wind damage in Melbourne, Christchurch, New Zealand and parts of the Argentine pampas, even on isolated islands in the south Pacific. Sustained winds over a hundred forty kilometers an hour in places. It’s a disaster.”

Stiles went on. “Plus, swarm activity had generated significant quantities of local heat, accelerating melting at strategic points in the ice cap. You saw the bergs off McMurdo Sound?”

“Coming in, I saw them…yes,” Winger admitted. He watched one screen, an aerial display of the roiling clouds surrounding Mount Erebus.

The BioShield chief shook his head. “Ice cap melting is reaching critical levels. At the rate the swarms are generating heat, we’ll see melting fast enough to raise sea levels a meter a week…and so far, we haven’t even been able to slow it down. Every coastal city on Earth is at risk…hundreds of millions of people.

“And then there are the atmosphere changes themselves…spiking carbon dioxide—that doesn’t help ice cap melting either, spikes in hydrogen and nitrogen, oxygen levels dropping…it’s almost like evolution in reverse…like the Earth is relapsing to some primitive state, the way things were before life got started.”

Johnny Winger watched the virtual diorama of Antarctica. Flashes and pops of light went off like light bulbs. Frontal boundaries of swarms engaging, he knew. Real time data fed the diorama, causing it to shift and refresh every few seconds, a living, breathing simulacrum of a continent in agony. The entire display throbbed and writhed like a thing alive.

“What’s BioShield done so far?” he asked.

Stiles shrugged. “We’ve tried everything. Our swarms are ANAD clones…I’m sure you know that. We’ve engaged multiple times but we’re overrun each time. It’s numbers, Lieutenant. The buggers can replicate faster than us, grapple from further away, and they’ve got stuff I’ve never seen…weird bond disrupters, for instance. And swarms just pop up out of nowhere…it’s like Red Hammer can transmit them and operate them remotely in just a few seconds.”

“Don’t forget the propulsors,” Suvorov mentioned. “Each mech is covered over its entire surface with propulsors I’ve never seen before. The bastards can run circles around our mechs.”

Winger’s eyes met Hoyt Gibbs’. “We’ve got to work on tactics, gentlemen. I’ve just spent the last few days working with ANAD, trying to tweak him. We’ve simmed against known Red Hammer capabilities but that’s a long way from engaging in combat. How about UNIFORCE, Colonel Suvorov? What’s worked and what hasn’t?”

The Russian used the diorama to illustrate. “Our best results have been here at Mount Erebus. Yesterday, we engaged that swarm from a different bearing, from out of the Ross Sea at a very low angle. Mag cannon on lifters, coilgun bots, everything we had. BioShield engaged with mechs from the opposite bearing as a diversion.” The Russian shook his head slowly.

“What happened?”

Stiles answered. “They blunted BioShield’s mechs with no problem. It was like running into a wall. The swarms engaged and then we were swallowed whole, like we had no defenses at all. And we were the diversion—“

“The buggers can be shattered by mag impulses, just like any swarm,” Suvorov went on. “Slam them with a few pulses and they lose their formation, cohesion…the swarm seems to fall apart.”

“But they recover so damn fast it’s unbelievable,” Stiles added. “One minute, the swarm seems shattered and half an hour later, it’s back up to strength and pushing outward again. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do.”

“Current status?”

Suvorov indicated the diorama. “We engage around the clock…both swarms. BioShield replicates as fast as they can and engages…just trying to keep some pressure on them and interfere with them. We pulse them with sonic and magnetic weapons day and night…” the Russian shrugged in frustration, “it barely slows them down.”

Hoyt Gibbs asked, “You said you had better results with this swarm…the one at Mount Erebus. What’s different about the other one?”

Stiles gave that some thought. “The Vostok swarm has different characteristics. It’s bigger, for one…the thing averages over twenty square kilometers in extent at times. We’ve captured and analyzed pieces of some of the mechs…they’re configured differently, different effectors, somehow optimized for grabbing and altering oxygen molecules. This swarm has created a region near the South Pole that’s like conditions on Mars or Venus. It was centered at the South geomagnetic pole initially, but now it seems to be moving this way.”

“We think the swarms are trying to link up…form a superswarm over the continent. The same behavior has been seen in other targeted areas…the Congo River basin, for example. Multiple swarms forming, then coalescing into larger swarms.”

“And everywhere they operate,” Suvorov said, “the same effects: hurricane winds, atmospheric alterations, extremes of temperature. Whoever’s programmed them must have a death wish…for all of us.”

“It’s like they’re trying to alter the whole planet,” Glance said.

“Maybe they are,” Winger said. He remembered the imagery ANAD had detected inside the demonio’s brain at Via Verde months before…a world of nanobotic devices, a planet of mechs. “Quantum Corp intelligence is convinced that Red Hammer is behind this operation. But they also feel the cartel’s getting help.”

“Help? From where? From who?”

“Unknown at this time.” Winger turned to Gibbs. “Sergeant, we’d best get the Detachment deployed. I’d like to go after the Lake Vostok swarm first. You haven’t had as much success there.”

Suvorov concurred. “I’ll arrange a tactical briefing for 1600 hours. Just tell us what you want us to do to support you.”

“I will,” Winger said, as he headed out of the Ops center, “as soon as I figure it out myself.”

 

Alpha Detachment loaded all its gear on airskids and lifters, for the short hop east toward Lake Vostok. Suvorov dedicated a four-ship unit of lifters for air support and top cover, to keep anybody else from interfering while Quantum Corps engaged the Red Hammer swarm.

Winger huddled with the Detachment in the cavernous Ready Room.

“All your gear ready?”

A chorus of nods and affirmatives circled the group.

“Hey, Lieutenant,” Sheila Reaves called out. She was buttoning up the HERF gun enclosure, turning the skid over to a packbot to load aboard. “UNIFORCE has big guns like these too, don’t they?”

“Different freqs, different caliber…but basically the same, yes. Mag impulse stuff for short range.”

Reaves smirked. “Me and Taj here—“ she indicated Chandra Singh, the other DPS tech, “we been thinking. Kind of tinkering with the HERF. What if we messed around with the fluxtrons and sort of souped up the impulse carrier? Taj has figured out a way to put more power into the pulse, cover more frequencies. It might be more effective.”

Winger was crawling back into his hypersuit. It was like climbing into a small vehicle. Inside, he popped his head above the neck ring. “That true, Taj? You can put more punch into the primary?”

Singh’s white turban seemed incongruous bobbing above the shoulders of a hypersuit, but he nodded. “Yes, Lieutenant. We tried it out on the test range at Table Top. It worked pretty well.”

“Pretty well,” snorted Reaves. “Skipper, after Taj modified our HERF, we fired a few pulses and damned near fried the top off Buffalo Ridge. Started a rockslide, we did.”

Winger liked the idea. “We’re going to need every advantage we can get. Battalion engineering sign off on this little mod of yours?”

Taj looked sheepish. “No, sir…not exactly. We didn’t really tell anybody what we had done.”

Winger nodded. “I figured as much. But it works?”

“Oh, yes, sir…it works…works real well.”

“There are some, er… control issues, Lieutenant,” Reaves admitted.

“Really. Well, put the module in and make it work,” Winger ordered. “We’ll try it out at Vostok. Just be sure we don’t lose the HERF altogether. I got a feeling we’re going to need the whole arsenal against these buggers.”

Winger finished suiting up. Outside the Ops building, the lifters were waiting. He locked his helmet in place, fired up suit boost and got a ping in the back of his head from ANAD.

He clicked open the coupler circuit. “What’s up, ANAD?”

***Skipper…I’m pulsing that you’re pretty worried about this one***

Winger let his suit take him out of the Ready Room and aboard the nearest lifter, hovering off the dock at one end of the Ops center. He climbed aboard, stood aside while the rest of Alpha Detachment ingressed and quickly checked off their equipment…everything tied down, powered down and safed.

“Yeah, ANAD, I guess you could say that. Red Hammer’s nasty—hell, you know about that. I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

***You know I have the latest upgrades and mods from Doctor Frost. What could go wrong…the enemy’s just a herd of mechs, same as me…it’s just a matter of executing the mission***

If only that were true. “ANAD, I know perfectly well what Doc Frost did to you. I also know you’re a re-gen…you’re not the same master assembler I had before. You’re supposed to have the same programs and configs but still—“ He didn’t want to voice his real concern: that somehow, the relationship he’d developed with the last master had been lost in regenerating.

But ANAD seemed able to read his mind anyway.

 

The convoy of lifters left McMurdo City for Vostok Station, or what was left of it, a half-hour trip. The plan was to fly in low, from the south, crossing the vast Wilkes basin and the East Antarctic ice cap, a sea of ice frozen in white that stretched for nearly a thousand kilometers. Forward elements of UNIFORCE and BioShield were still in contact with the swarm at Vostok, latitude 78 degrees south, and had been for several weeks now. But theirs was a hopeless task, it seemed.

Suvorov had explained it: “The best we’ve been able to do is slow it down. The zone of disturbance grows by several square kilometers every day. We’ve been able to keep the two swarms from linking up, so far. But it’s only a matter of time.”

The formation of lifters took off and turned southeast, crossing the perimeter of the Ross Ice Shelf and paralleling the Transantarctic Range for half an hour, before turning back east toward the desolate polar cap.

Johnny Winger watched the terrain slide by a few thousand meters below them. Even from such a low altitude, it was apparent that the Transantarctic range was merely a vast rocky dike, holding back the ceaseless flow of the ice cap toward the sea. With the swarm so active, temperatures and winds had risen and the glacial tongues that had carved the valleys over millennia had sped up.

It was a Dutchman’s nightmare: against the south side of the range, pressed a sea of white ice, submerging the range nearly to its full height. Directly on the other side lay the Ross Sea itself, three thousand meters lower and at every dip in the range, the ice was pouring down to the sea, ripping away rock like water tearing open breaks in a levee, until some of the gaps in the range were huge floods of ice, rivers ten and twenty and thirty kilometers wide.

Winger knew that with the expansion of the Red Hammer swarms across the continent, the now-sluggish ice would flow more easily, making the rivers into torrents, raising sea levels around the world.

“Heading change, now turning to a zero one five degrees,” Winger heard in his earpiece. The lifter pilot was an Italian jockey with a lilting accent, a UNIFORCE lifer. Beside Winger in the crew compartment was a BioShield engineer named Wolf.

The formation wheeled back to the east and headed inland, over an endless snowy plain that stretched to the horizon in every direction.

Wolf mouthed, “The East Antarctic Ice Sheet…”

Winger was curious at the striations visible on the ice surface, scores and scores of small waves frozen in motion, as if time had stopped.

Wolf knew what he was going to ask before he asked it. “Sastrugi,” he pronounced carefully. Hundreds and hundreds of small undulations in the ice sheet, the spaces between them filled with chiseled sandlike snow banks.

“Hard going across that kind of surface,” he said.

Wolf agreed. “That’s why we have lifters.”

Half an hour later, the lifters descended even lower, leveling out some two hundred meters above the ice cap. Strong circumpolar winds buffeted the small formation.

“Final approach,” Wolf observed. Both he and Winger kept their eyes glued out the porthole.

On the horizon, dead ahead, an opaque white fog writhed and glowed, flickering with light. The opaque fog covered the entire horizon, thinning out as it rose in altitude. Inside the fog, light speckled and flashed, as if a summer thunderstorm were building across the ice cap.

It was the Red Hammer swarm.

Johnny Winger’s earpiece crackled. It was the lead pilot, up front.

“Lieutenant, this is as far as we can go. Have to set down on the ice here. Winds are too strong from here on in.”

As if to emphasize the point, a series of gusts slammed the lifter, skidding them sideways. The pilot drove them down through the wind shear and planted the lifter skids solidly on the ice, using the top jets to hold them in place.

“Guess we walk from here,” Winger decided. He got on the crewnet. “Detachment, fall out! Full hypersuits, suit boost at max. Try to stay together. I’ll get ANAD ready.”

The Quantum Corps troopers exited the lifter through the rear cargo doors. Immediately, it was apparent that staying together was going to be hard.

“Jesus…it’s a hurricane!” yelled Mighty Mite Barnes. She stepped onto the ice and the blast of air nearly knocked her over. Only quick response from the suit gyros kept her upright.

“Nah…just a gentle summer breeze!” said Reaves.

“Yeah,” added Gibbs. “A real walk in the park!”

All three of them were tilted forward at an impossible angle as their suits struggled to keep them upright.

With much grumbling and swearing, the air skids were removed and the Detachment’s gear offloaded and tied down.

“We gonna walk to war, Lieutenant?” asked Taj. He was eyeing the distance from where the lifters had put down to the roiling fog bank ahead. Distances were hard to figure here. But the lifter pilot had ranged the swarm as he descended. The closest edge was several kilometers off.

Winger knew their hypersuits had limited boost. Fully clad, the boost could lift a trooper a few meters off the ground, maybe fifty meters in an emergency, and propel him forward at something like fifteen or twenty kilometers an hour. But in this gale—

“We walk,” Winger decided.

So the Detachment set off across the undulating waves of sastrugi, into blinding snow and sleet. As they neared the edge of the swarm, the winds picked up, buffeting them left and right, a near whiteout blizzard roaring across the ice cap.

“Hold up!” Winger decided. The troopers stopped, hunkering down in the lee of a frozen wave of snow. It was time to put ANAD to work.

“Okay, ANAD, you’re up next. Stand by for launch.”

***ANAD ready in all respects…my effectors are safed, bond breakers and enzymatic knives primed and ready…let me at ‘em!***

“ANAD…when you’re deployed, I’m ordering config two…the one we simmed back at Table Top. In that config, you’ll resemble a Red Hammer assembler. Once you’ve replicated, I’m sending you around the perimeter of the swarm. When you’re in position, we’ll slam ‘em with HERF and mag weapons from this side. That ought to keep them occupied for a few minutes. While that’s happening, you infiltrate the swarm from your position. If this all works like it’s supposed to, once you’re inside, you can change to config one—“

[_ *** and that’s when I bust ‘em in the chops, right?*** _]

Winger had the impression he was talking with a five-year old. “Basically, yes. But you don’t go until I say…got that?”

***ANAD copies***

While Reaves and Barnes and the rest offloaded their weapons and set up the HERF guns, Winger launched ANAD.

A faint glow shimmered around the port in his left shoulder. There was a brief sting and his shoulder muscles grabbed like he’d been stung but the sting only lasted a moment. The glow subsided.

Another series of gusts blasted across the icecap, nearly scattering the Detachment to pieces.

***Whoa…baby…***

Just maintaining swarm integrity took every ounce of propulsor power ANAD had. Each time the assembler replicated a few trillion times, the gale-force winds scattered the swarm all over the place. ANAD did as his macro-scale buddies did and congregated in the lee of the sastrugi waves, trying to form up a combat-capable force. It was tough going.

“Maybe if he hugs the ground—” Gibby suggested. He had been watching acoustic images from ANAD as the assembler attempted to deploy. It was like being in a roller-coaster careening off its track.

“Yeah, Skipper…the wind doesn’t flow so smoothly close to the ice,” Taj offered. “Outside the laminar flow boundary and all that.”

Winger ordered ANAD to deploy as a thin sheet, a few nanometers thick, and slide forward across the ice.

***Skipper…this is better…much better…I can make my molecules conform to the boundary molecules of the ice, swinging from one lattice to another…it’s like climbing a ladder that never ends***

“Just do it,” Winger ordered. “And what’s your current heading?”

***I’m going zero two zero right now…sixty five microns per second…that’s about as fast as I can make it***

Unseen by all, the ANAD swarm oozed its way forward, sliding as a film a few molecules thick, along the surface of the ice. Hidden by the blowing snow and sleet, the ANAD swarm replicated as it eased forward.

An hour later, the swarm spanned half a square kilometer, a faint writhing patch of snow, somehow moving against the wind and sleet storm.

***I’m in position now, Skipper…latitude eighty degrees fifteen minutes south, longitude one five five degrees, forty five minutes east…winds are picking up…I’m burrowing into the ice lattice to hold position***

Winger acknowledged the report. “Understood, ANAD. Do whatever you have to but hold that position. We’re firing HERF in sixty seconds…first barrage.”

ANAD dug himself into the lattice of the surface ice and snow, hiding among the oxygen and hydrogen molecules, slowly but steadily squeezing his way forward, closer and closer to the storm. Hundreds of microns above his position, a maelstrom of Red Hammer bots churned with fury, tearing air molecules apart, creating the vacuum vortex that drove the surrounding air to hurricane fury.

For two solid hours, ANAD inched forward, hugging the surface of the ice, even penetrating into the upper layers of the lattice of molecules. It slowed down the approach but it also kept Red Hammer from detecting the assembler’s presence.

Half a kilometer inside the outer swarm boundary, ANAD signaled he was ready. Johnny Winger told the assembler to pulse his surroundings and return data on his position.

***It looks like a crystalline lattice, Skipper…a few scattered molecules of silicon and olivine embedded…I’m maneuvering forward without too much difficulty…just a matter of surfing the hydrogen bonds…I get a pretty good slingshot effect every time I stretch one***

Winger and Gibby were both listening in.

“Great, ANAD…prepare to surface and engage the swarm. I make your position at twelve hundred and two meters inside the swarm boundary. Prime all effectors…surface on my mark—“

ANAD acknowledged and began easing his way up through the rigid hexagonal lattice of crystals.

***Breaching the surface now…I am going to Config Two now***

“Acknowledged.”

Johnny Winger turned his viewer up to maximum resolution but all he could see ahead was a swirling, flickering fog. Somewhere inside the cyclone, a few thousand meters away, a swarm of ANAD assemblers had emerged from the ice cap and was now replicating furiously into assault configuration.

Their imagers swirled and throbbed for a few minutes as the swarms collided.

It was Gibby who spotted the enemy first. “Dead ahead, Skipper…see that line of dots ahead…ANAD’s detecting high thermals…lots of activity up ahead.”

“I see it,” Winger acknowledged. He checked ANAD’s config status. Bond disrupters ready, enzymatic knife ready, all effectors primed. For the time being, ANAD was maneuvering on auto and the rest of the Detachment were spectators. But at the right moment, Winger knew, Quantum Corps would spring the trap and slam Red Hammer from every direction.

“No sign of any response yet,” Gibby noted. As ANAD closed the distance, they could see the enemy in frenetic motion…breaking down air molecules like a mad brickmason in reverse. Even as they watched, the enemy bots disassembled oxygens and nitrogens as fast as they could, snapping bonds and reassembling the pieces into new configs, their effectors moving with blurry and deadly efficiency as the swarm systematically broke down the atmosphere.

***ANAD holding on Config Two, Skipper…about seven thousand microns away…enemy has not changed course…or reacted***

“That’s our cue,” Winger said. He leaned back to look along the top line of the snowbank, squinting through the blizzard that was blasting along the crest of the ridge. “DPS…charge up the HERF!”

“Weapon is fully charged, Lieutenant.” Sheila Reaves and Chandra Singh sighted the radio frequency weapon on the nearest arm of the swarm, now boiling across the ice cap two kilometers away.

A few more seconds. The swarm had created a cyclonic blizzard dancing across the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, a massive throbbing whiteout spinning like a gyroscope and expanding with every minute.

“Fire the HERF!” Winger yelled into the crewnet. “Blow the bastards to hell and back!”

A thunderclap of hot radio waves boomed across the ice cap, echoing and reverberating off snow banks and crevasses for kilometers around.

Before he could react, Winger heard a high freq squeal and then the staccato clatter of nanomechs shattered by the pressure pulse.

“Go, ANAD!” he shouted over the coupler circuit. “GO…GO…GO…!”

Two kilometers away, the tiny assembler zoomed forward to engage the nearest Red Hammer mechs, revving up to max propulsor.

[_ *** Changing to Config One…NOW!...all effectors and weapons enabled…*** _]

A soft voice…Taj Singh’s voice…could be heard over the crewnet.

“Kick ass, little guy. Slam the bugs good this time!”

ANAD’s acoustic sounder sent back imagery but for many moments, the chaos of the battle made visuals useless. The imager was a grainy stretch of flashes and swirling color.

“HERF re-charging now,” Reaves announced. She and Taj had cycled the gun’s power supply.

“Standby,” Winger told them. He lifted his helmet over the top of the snowbank. Across the ice cap, the throbbing swarm had thinned out noticeably…the effect of the HERF gun, no doubt.

Won’t take long to re-build, he knew. “Mag weapons…open up…concentrate fire on config one coordinates!”

The two SDC’s—Mighty Mite Barnes and Sergeant Ray Spivey—let fly a volley of magnetized loops at the last reported position of the ANAD swarm. An ear-splitting shriek told them the mag bubbles had torn a gaping hole in the enemy swarm.

Finally, the imager view on Winger’s eyepiece settled down. Visible to the whole Detachment over the crewnet, a jittery scene of swarm combat materialized into view.

The picture careened sideways, jostling and shaking, as assemblers engaged in a running duel across the ice. Blurry, staticky pictures of the bristling icosahedral Red Hammer bots winked in and out of view, like battleships maneuvering in dense fog.

Over his coupler link, Johnny Winger caught fragments of ANAD’s ordeal.

***…get my pyridines unfolded fast enough…the bugger’s covered with propulsors…he can scoot just out of reach every time I…and those blasted carbenes…grabbers that long and sticky should be illegal…how can he bend like that…***

“Fire the HERF!” Winger decided. “And keep slamming ‘em, Mighty Mite…everything we got! ANAD’s in a battle and we’ve got to help him anyway we can!”

The rf gun boomed again, mixed with sporadic shrieks from the mag weapons and, for good measure, a few coilgun rounds as well. Alpha Detachment salvoed everything they had, trying to shock, stun, slam, and scatter the Red Hammer swarm as best they could…anything they could do give ANAD an edge.

Throughout the volley, the enemy force shrank a little and swelled back to size with uncanny resilience, as if it were a balloon being squeezed.

“He could try replicating more,” Gibby thought out loud. The IC2 was hunkered down in the lee of a snowbank, half-buried in blowing snow and sleet, looking like a beached whale. “Give him more mass…more effectors on the enemy.”

But Winger nixed that idea. “Tactically unsound…it diverts time and energy from the engagement…he’s got to win this battle at the point of contact.”

“What if you drove the master?”

Winger had already been considering that very idea. It had merit. “I could do the piloting while he concentrated on replication.”

“Take some of the load off his processor,” Gibby added.

Winger decided to do it. What atomgrabber could resist? Over the coupler link, he told ANAD what he was about to do.

***Be my guest, Skipper….it’s a real scrum in here…ouch!…I just can’t get my bond breakers into position to…***

The imager view flashed with light as ANAD managed to shred covalent bonds on a nearby bot. Liberating thousands of electron volts, the Red Hammer bot shuddered and heeled over like a torpedoed ship, then moved off to lick its wounds and reconfig.

Johnny Winger toggled buttons on his wristpad to take control of the assembler. He had to keep brushing snow off to finish the sequence: automaneuver off, Fly-by-Stick enabled, config generator initialized to zero. He sent the commands but control handoff was sluggish…already, ANAD’s processor was bogging down.

I’ve got to get closer, he realized. Closer and in the line of sight.

“Acoustics are bogging down,” he told Gibby, huddled a few meters away. “And my coupler’s on the blink too. I’ve got to move in….”

“Closer to that swarm, Skipper?” There was a note of concern in Mighty Mite Barnes’ voice.

“It’s the only way.” Winger lit off his suit boost and let the thrusters hoist him up out of the snowfall. In seconds, he was powering forward, half stepping and sliding, half-floating through blowing snow and sleet.

He eased forward, a wraith in the whiteout conditions, rocked and buffeted by wind gusts until he found himself only a few dozen meters from the flickering maelstrom of the enemy swarm. He let off the suit boost and dropped into heavy snow, and was immediately covered up to his faceplate.

“ANAD…let go, will you? I’m taking over piloting and configs—“ his fingers flew over his wristpad, now dim and hard to see in the driving blizzard. “You replicate…max rate. I’ll do the rest—“

ANAD’s response was weak and sluggish.

***Skipper—I’m losing…it…I can’t keep up…the buggers …there’s too many of them—***

Johnny Winger firmly took command of the ANAD force. He let his hypersuit lower him into a defilade position behind a small scattering of icy boulders. Quickly he was half buried. But it didn’t matter, as long as he could read his wristpad.

He clicked into the coupler link. In his earpiece, he heard voices…the Detachment, re-deploying to support him now that he was further forward and exposed.

“Charging HERF again—-“ Reaves was saying. She and Singh half-carried, half-dragged the weapon through the gale to another position, a bowl-shaped depression in the snow, closer to the enemy.

“Don’t fire ‘til I say,” Gibbs came back. Glance was doing double duty as CC2, nominally second in command to Winger. “Mag weapons, move left…let’s flank this arm of the swarm…slam ‘em from another bearing.”

Barnes and Spivey scrambled, half-boosted, half-stumbling on rubbly ice firn, to take up new positions, moving tangentially to the swelling perimeter of the swarm. Twice, errant gusts flew out of the vortex, knocking them down, driving them back. Eventually, they landed in the lee of another snow bank, working the mag guns up to take aim at the mouth of the beast.

Ahead of all of them, Johnny Winger’s eyepiece flickered, then winked out completely. Acoustics were gone…the swarm was now too dense to resolve structure.

From here on…it was the coupler link, or nothing.

He closed his eyes and concentrated on stilling his thoughts…dimly aware that his suit was being rocked and buffeted by gusts, his helmet pelted with sleet and mech debris.

Come on, ANAD…come on…where the hell are you? Come to me…come to Daddy…

Gradually, as if awakening from a deep sleep, the view seemed to clear, though his eyepiece was still completely dark. He found himself, as before, standing barefooted in a raging ocean surf, barely able to stay upright, slammed and broadsided by relentless thundering waves.

That’s when a ship appeared on the distant horizon, a low dark menacing hull silhouetted from beyond by a flickering thunderstorm…and he realized with a start that he’d seen the first enemy bot.

He tweaked propulsors and surged forward. It was like paddling a canoe upstream against a tsunami.

The Red Hammer bot was a vast battleship on the horizon, festooned with whirling, undulating projections.

By experiment and determination, he found that he could make a little forward progress by tacking at angles to the onrushing stream, which he knew wasn’t waves of water at all but a steady driving squall of molecules of every conceivable size and shape. Like some kind of ferocious dodge ball game, he careened and bounced from one impact to another.

There’s got to be a better way than this, he gritted. He tried retracting effectors halfway. That seemed to help.

***Just feel your way along, Skipper…let the waves talk to you…you can skate from one bump to the next…give yourself enough forward speed and you’ll eventually find the weak points. Slide and glide…that’s how it’s done. Remember this: the best path isn’t always the obvious path***

Gradually, he grew more accustomed to the bruising, battering course he had to follow. Jesus…the slightest movement is like a marathon. He always had a lot more respect for the assembler’s world when he had to move through it.

Sounding ahead, fighting torrents of van der Waals forces, he closed steadily on the enemy bot, now growing in size with each slide and glide….

Just a little closer…one more surge and a kick this way—

And then, without warning, he was swept forward into a churning whirlpool and felt himself firmly grappled by effectors that had flashed out of nowhere.

Nanoscale combat was all about leverage and balance and reach distance. You could practice boxing and tai kwon do and any number of martial arts disciplines all day long, but if you didn’t intuitively understand bond energies and van der Waals forces and Brownian motion and how to snap off a benzene ring so it wouldn’t come back to bite you in the ass, you didn’t really know nanocombat.

Johnny Winger had long been considered the top code and stick man in the whole battalion, with a natural talent for atomgrabbing and an uncanny sense of how to corral molecules and navigate the infinitesimal. He’d aced the SODs tests in nog school and won every major competition there was to be won in the Corps-wide games that were held every spring at Table Top Mountain.

So when the Red Hammer bot snared him and began reeling him in like some kind of stubborn flounder, he naturally reacted like any ace atomgrabber would have.

He went on the attack.

Pressing keys on his wristpad furiously, Winger spun left, then right, and managed to snap free of the trap.

“ANAD, keep replicating…max rate! Give me more mechs as fast as you can!”

Beyond the thrashing melee of the fight, uncounted trillions of ANAD assemblers received their orders: cleave and divide, multiply and engage.

Like an army of slaves, the growing horde of assemblers mimicked Winger’s actions and sped forth to do battle.

Got to get out of range of those grabbers, he realized.

The Red Hammer bot was a writhing mass of carbenes and hydrogen probes, undulating and grasping, snagging anything and everything that came near. Behind the mottled membrane of its outer walls, had to be some kind of quantum processor, able to coordinate its defenses and maneuver the bugger so smartly. It was startling how nimble the bot was for its size. Row upon row of slashing effectors, like oarsmen on a Roman slave ship, some maneuvering, some fighting…the thing was like a huge hand with a million fingers, all separately controlled.

Maybe not so huge after all, he thought. Still, its long axis was easily several thousand nanometers long, a Leviathan of the molecular world.

Winger rolled ANAD right, then left, keeping just out of reach of the snapping grabbers and reconnoitered the beast’s outer membrane, looking for a way in, anything he could use, a weakness of some kind.

Halfway aft, almost invisible among the rows of effectors, he saw a small cleft in the membrane, a cavity where groups of phosphate molecules made a wedge-shaped bond.

The cavity was relatively free of effectors, seemingly out of reach of any nearby grabbers. He hadn’t noticed the cleft in any encounters with Red Hammer before, certainly not at Mali or Lions Rock or Engebbe. Maybe this was a different kind of bot. The phosphate bonds flexed as the bot maneuvered, forming a small opening, almost like a mouth.

Instinctively, Johnny Winger steered ANAD toward the cleft. As he approached, he unsheathed his bond breakers and flexed the devices up and down.

With any luck—

ANAD sped forward and slashed hard at the phosphate arms with his bond breakers.

Just a little push here, a snap there…

Johnny Winger commanded ANAD’s bond breakers into action. He seized one end of a polypeptide chain and tugged hard. It stretched, resisted, then with a crackling flash, it broke. A puff of atoms went spinning off in every direction.

That’s more like it.

Winger now drove the assembler deeper into the cleft, unfolding every effector ANAD had: hydrogen abstractors, carbon manipulators, electrons lens, enzymatic knife. It was like chewing into the side of a mountain.

The Red Hammer bot lurched and shuddered but Winger had found a soft spot and bore in tenaciously…severing bonds, slashing through membrane lipids, just beyond the reach of the damn thing’s pesky effectors. Buried deep in the guts of the beast, ANAD cruised forward like a windmill out of control, hacking and cracking as he went.

Behind the assembler, a steady stream of ANAD replicants poured into the cavity, systematically expanding the zone of destruction.

“I’m in!” Winger exulted. “Found a soft spot, Gibby…about halfway aft, between the front and rear lobes. There’s some kind of cavity—looks like a mouth—where its effectors can’t reach and a phosphate group is there protecting it.”

“Got it, Skipper!” Gibby made sure the target coordinates went back to all replicants. En masse, the ANAD swarm converged on the same cavity in every nearby enemy bot, duplicating Winger’s discovery. “Should we kill the HERF…give ANAD some room?”

“Negative…keep hitting ‘em!” Winger ordered. “Each pulse stuns the swarm a little more, keeps ‘em from organizing. It gives ANAD a chance to catch up replicating.”

Sergeant Gibbs lay half buried in snow several meters away but inside his hypersuit, his fingers were flying. “All units…keep firing on the swarm! Fire for effect! It’s working—“

Now scores of microns deep into the cavity, Johnny Winger suddenly had an idea.

If he altered ANAD’s config just a little, he could grow a few more hydrogen abstractors around his forward shell and fill in with an extra grabber of two. That kind of config would make burrowing into the bot’s cavity even easier, cleaving phosphates like warm butter…maybe killing the thing even faster.

He mocked up the config, squinting as a bright flash erupted…must be more bonds snapping… and sent it to the processor but for some reason, ANAD now seemed sluggish, even a bit clumsy. Instead of the nearly instant response he was used to, ANAD seemed to take forever to begin grabbing atoms. On top of that, he noticed his effector control wasn’t so smooth, or accurate. Twice, he bounced off bonds he should have easily severed. That flash, he wondered—

Winger slowed down to half propulsor, puzzled, and tried to re-gain control of the situation.

“ANAD…what gives? Effectors are balky…I’m losing precision control here—“

***…I don’t know…feel sluggish, Skipper…***

There was some kind of staticky fritz in the coupler circuit, too. Johnny Winger blinked and concentrated on re-clicking in and out of contact. Interference of some kind, no doubt. But what could interfere with a quantum coupler?

“ANAD, you’re breaking up…I’m resetting the link—“ Doc Frost had once taught him how to click in and out of contact by shaking his head just so.

Sometimes, the quantum de-coupler doesn’t disentangle signals properly, Frost had explained. You get gibberish in the back of your head and have to reset.

He tried it again.

***…feeling kind of sick, actually…I can’t really describe it. Anxious…like there’s too much going on here…registers full…hard to handle all the traffic…***

Winger’s eyepiece suddenly lit up with red…warning flags all over the place:

 

Channels 6 through 9… effector fine control off line

Main memory overflow

State generator off line

Config buffer overflow

 

Johnny Winger swore.

What the hell?

Winger tried changing configs, changing back to baseline but it was no good. The assembler’s effectors vibrated and twisted erratically. He couldn’t even safe them into a fold. Couldn’t replicate…couldn’t execute anything now—

Something had corrupted ANAD’s processor. Something had changed ANAD’s config.

Best to stop here and back out of the Red Hammer bot while he still could. He commanded all-stop, but the propulsors wouldn’t respond. Instead, ANAD careened out of control, heading into a layer of oxygen molecules like a train wreck. Like a fly in a spider web, he seemed trapped, flailing helplessly, unable to go forward or backward.

***…so weak, Skip…what’s happening?…I’m losing structure…losing—***

Even Johnny Winger could now feel a tingling dizziness in his head. Was it the coupler? Was it some kind of weird virus, let loose by Red Hammer and now chewing up his processor? Q2 had intel about some kind of weird configuration pulser, something that could change configs remotely, from a great distance.

As intense feeling of despair, even regret, washed over him.

Old memories came bubbling up…Jamison Winger in the hospital, in a bioshield, stricken with Serengeti…and there was nothing he could do! It was hopeless, inoperable…you’ll kill him if you do an insert.

No. No. No.

It had to be something in the coupler link. Winger shook himself out of the funk. Resolutely, he clicked off the link.

Warning flags popped up on his eyepiece: quantum decoupler off line, buffer off

line, pattern amplifier off line.

We’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way. Just like they taught us back at nog school.

Winger cycled the controls on his wristpad, wondering just what sort of command he did have: config status, replication counter, launch and capture, sensors, effector control, one after another, he tried them all. Each time, the same warning flags came back.

No comms…

Off line…

System fault….

Bit by bit, he was losing ANAD.

“Skipper—“ It was Barnes, on the crewnet. “Skipper, the UNIFORCE commander wants to talk with you.”

Winger was still puzzling out why ANAD had suddenly gone bonkers. “Can it wait?”

“No, sir…he says it’s urgent.”

“It always is. Very well, put him through.”

It was the brigade commander who had flown with them from McMurdo. Most of the Security Corps troops were deployed east of their position…fighting the swarm with whatever dumb bots they could scrounge up.

The voice was scratchy, heavily accented over the crewnet.

“Lieutenant…it’s Hadid. I’m in contact with McMurdo right now…I thought you would want to know—“

Winger winced, realizing he was going to have to reverse ANAD back out of the cavity now or he’d lose the assembler.

“Know what, Hadid?”

“Colonel Suvorov just advised me not five minutes ago. UNIFORCE satellites have detected weak decoherence wakes coalescing on your position. Weak but definitely something there.”

Winger sat upright in his hypersuit, banging his helmet on the stony brow of a huge boulder. He fingered snow from his visor, straining to see anything in the blizzard.

“Decoherence wakes…you mean, like quantum decoherence wakes?”

“Affirmative, Captain. UNIFORCE is trying to pinpoint the source location now. But the wake effects are real…and all the field lines converge on your position…just at the perimeter of the storm.”

Decoherence wakes detectable by UNIFORCE satellite could only mean one thing: someone was attempting to communicate or interfere with something else locally by quantum coupler. Or maybe it was the config pulser Quantum Corps Intelligence thought existed.

Deco wakes were echoes of a sort—the remnant effect of entanglement signals sent by quantum state generators. And to be detectable at satellite distances…the entanglement signals would have had to come from great distances themselves.

Was that the source of ANAD’s problem?

Winger knew he had lost effective control of the ANAD master. Worse, he felt sick himself…anxious, a little pissed and sad at the whole matter. What was happening?

Sometimes, the coupler link bleeds a little, Doc Frost had once told him. Sometimes ANAD’s state generator triggers unexpected patterns in the receiver. It’s a form of leakage.

He felt unaccountably sad, seeing Jamison Winger like that. By late October of ’48, he had re-made the barn into some sort of lab workshop. Now he spent most of the day and half the night in there…drilling, pounding, tinkering…he’d ordered one of those early fabs from a catalog (BE THE FIRST ON YOUR BLOCK TO FAB A NEW PATIO FOR YOUR HOUSE!) and spent hours taking it apart, putting it back together, fiercely engaged in the project, just to get his mind off Ellen and the car accident. Johnny often watched him from the barn windows. He half expected his Dad to tinker long enough with the fab to make it somehow spit out a weird rendition of his Mom…like she could be brought back now, from the pile of blackened, scorched wreckage at the bottom of Pueblo Canyon.

Winger shook his head. That wasn’t real. Something in ANAD’s signal was setting off these memories. Something was inside ANAD’s core…eating away at the little assembler.

A sharp jolt brought Winger back to the moment. With a start, he realized something was happening…the Red Hammer bot was flexing, the duct into which he had driven ANAD was collapsing, shrinking.

ANAD had to get out fast.

“Gibby…I’m reversing! Something’s happened to ANAD…the link’s down…all my controls are sluggish. Effectors, sounding, replication…everything’s off line.”

“Get the hell out of there, Skipper!” Gibby was physically less than five meters away but his voice seemed a million kilometers distant. “UNIFORCE says the decoherence wake is strengthening. Quantum interference everywhere…it’s even affecting the crewnet.”

Sheila Reaves agreed, her voice choppy, staticky. “We’re being flooded with entanglement signals, Lieutenant…massive jamming…local scattering of Bioshield…nothing’s working right.”

“It’s got to be Red Hammer,” Winger decided. “The device that Q2 said couldn’t possibly exist—“ He could not risk losing this ANAD master. Regeneration was too painful…and time consuming.

Grimly, he set to work.

He punched out commands on his wristpad: fold effectors, safe all non-core systems, turn to new heading and rev propulsors to max. Power up acoustic sounding. Take a navigation hack and report.

Each command was sent but ANAD’s response was gibberish. Images of Doc Frost smiling down at him morphed into Jamison Winger’s face, contorted with Serengeti infection, morphed into the comforting winking of Bailey’s big red eye, as the microflyer floated serenely at the end of his bed, morphed into—

Damn it!

Angrily, Johnny Winger clicked again out of the quantum link. He couldn’t seem to turn the damn thing off now. The connection to ANAD was now fully severed…he hoped. He gritted his teeth, pressed buttons for acoustic command only and dialed in a new heading for the assembler to follow.

His eyepiece imager wasn’t much help. Colorful swirls and eddies were all he could make out, a pointillist landscape of violence and salmon-hued whorls. It might as well have been Jupiter.

Sheila Reaves’ strained voice crackled over the crewnet. “The swarm’s expanding…and HERF’s gone. We can’t hold ‘em…fall back! Fall back!”

Hoyt Gibbs waited for Winger to take command of the re-deployment, but the CC1 was preoccupied trying to navigate ANAD out of the crevice in the side of the Red Hammer bot.

Gibbs boosted himself high enough to check the surroundings. Across the snow-blasted icescape, the Red Hammer swarm had swollen in size, a monstrous cyclone of wind and sleet and furious mech activity, beating toward their position with relentless fury. It was clear the Detachment would soon be overwhelmed and fully enveloped. Steadied by his suit thrusters and gyros, Gibbs realized they had to get away now…something was wrong with ANAD. BioShield…UNIFORCE…nothing seemed able to block the swarm.

“Fall back to the lifters!” he yelled over the crewnet. He radioed their status to Hadid and Wolf, the BioShield engineer. “We’re being overrun…have to pull back and re-group…can you cover us…can you block or divert the swarm?”

Hadid’s scratchy voice crackled back. “Negative…we’re in a real scrum ourselves…my bots and weapons are no match…we’ve got to retreat ourselves!”

Gibbs watched the rest of the Detachment light off their suit boost and backpedal through the driving sleet to a low depression a quarter kilometer back. He counted them off one by one: Hiroshi and Singh, Barnes and Reaves, McReady (struggling with a balky gyro…Barnes stopped to help him get upright), Gibby and Spivey. Only the Skipper didn’t respond.

Gibbs steered himself toward Johnny Winger’s prostrate form. His hypersuit was motionless.

“Lieutenant…” he rapped on the side of the helmet. “Skipper…we’ve got to fall back—“

Winger’s suit shifted slightly. His weak voice hissed back over the crewnet.

“Gibby…I’ve lost it…I’ve lost ANAD…he won’t respond—“

Gibbs eyed the oncoming maelstrom swirling mere meters from the rock outcrop. Lightning flickered inside salmon-hued clouds, great ripples of flickering light as the Red Hammer bots tore into the air, into the snow, into the icecap, mindlessly disassembling everything.

The CC2 couldn’t wait any longer. He maneuvered his own suit into a kneeling position, ran his own servos to max power and, with motors whining and groaning, used every ounce of force the thing could give him. Using a nearby boulder as leverage, Gibbs levered Winger’s suit to an upright position. He peered in through the faceplate…saw a face at once pale and anxious in the orange glow of its interior lamps.

“Skipper…are you hurt? Can you move…can you maneuver on your own?”

Winger’s glum face nodded. “ANAD’s gone…I couldn’t link in…I tried acoustic…I tried everything I could think of.”

“I’m setting up your boost, Skipper…” Gibbs fingered the wristpad, stabbing at several buttons. “I’ll keep one arm on your arm just in case your gyros go.”

Winger tried to help but he seemed weak, unable to stand. He slumped in the suit…only Gibbs’ quick work kept the suit upright. The CC2 lit off Winger’s boost and, in a poof of snow and ice, the Lieutenant’s suit was hovering a meter off the ground, wobbling as its occupant struggled to keep his balance inside.

Winger’s voice was strained, choked with emotion. “Gibby…we can’t leave ANAD behind…we don’t leave anybody behind…no matter what.”

It was true and Hoyt Gibbs knew it.

It was the bedrock code of the nanowarrior: you didn’t leave your buddies behind, for the enemy to pick over like some vulture.

Gibbs hesitated. “CQE’s…any way we can jam those quantum signals?”

Ray Spivey was first to reply. “No way, Sarge. We can hardly detect them as it is.”

“And nobody can predict what frequency they have,” added Lucy Hiroshi. “Quantum signals are like that…there’s really no such thing as a frequency anyway and they’re transmitted as all possible states permissible. Only when the signal is received do those probabilities collapse to an actual signal. You can’t predict it.”

Gibbs steadied Winger in his suit. The two of them floated like huge metal cocoons through the driving sleet and snow. He quickly slaved the Lieutenant’s suit to his own…it was nearly impossible to keep physical contact under these conditions. With Gibbs’ hypersuit emitting a beacon, Winger’s suit thrust ahead on its own boost, following the signal…like a mama bear and her cub.

Scattered by the blizzard and the winds, the Detachment scrambled and floated across the choppy frozen waves of the sastrugi covering the icecap. The withdrawal was ragged and haphazard…Gibbs tried to maintain some semblance of formation but the swarm spun ever closer on their heels and all of them had to fight a running duel with the outer bands of bots converging on them.

Gibbs kept close to Winger has they slogged back toward the lifters. The Lieutenant’s suit gyrated and wobbled as it was buffeted by the wind but followed like an obedient dog. The CC2 called up the UNIFORCE commander.

“Hadid…detach an element of your mechs and give us control. We can block their advance along this bearing…give us all more time to get the hell out of here.”

Hadid came back. “Negative, 1st Nano…we’re fully engaged right now…I can’t spare a single atom to give you. We’re in a standoff two kilometers east of you…got one hell of an arm of the enemy pounding us. If I detach now, they’ll blow right through us.”

Gibbs found BioShield in the same predicament.

Wolf’s voice was harried. “We’re falling back ourselves, 1st Nano…I’ve got nothing to give you! My force is being chewed to pieces!”

Gibbs suspected as much but it had been worth a try. Whatever it was, whatever powered the swarm, it was a beast growing in intensity with every passing moment.

“Roger that…fall back as planned. Rendezvous at the lifters. We’ve got to get the hell out of here…before the damn thing eats us alive.”

A few moments later, the dim outlines of the lifters materialized in the distance, squatting on the icecap like huge gray birds of prey.

“Come on, Skipper…” Gibbs gritted through his teeth. He twisted around to check out Winger’s face. In the amber glow of his helmet lamps, Johnny Winger wore an expression blank and impassive, glassy-eyed. Was he all right? Was he even conscious?

“Help me get the Skipper aboard,” he waved at the nearest suits, two troopers settling down onto the ice after shutting off their boost. “…he’s not responding.”

The suits turned out to be Spivey and Taj Singh.

Gibbs commanded Winger’s suit boost off and he thumped down hard onto the ice, losing his balance until Gibby shouldered him upright.

“Open the lifter bay doors,” Gibbs commanded. At the rear of the main cargo pod, doors clamshelled open, revealing the protective cocoon of warmth and strong flood lights inside.

Laboriously, they worked Winger, still inside his suit, up the ramp and into one of the ingress harnesses along the bulkhead.

Gibbs commanded the suit to depressurize and open. A hiss of air escaped as the neck ring and helmet quick-disconnected. Gibby lifted the helmet off.

Johnny Winger’s face was deathly pale and haggard. Gibby, Spivey and the others crowded around.

“Skipper…you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Get him some water,” said Sheila Reaves. The DPS tech felt Winger’s forehead. It was cool to her touch. “No fever that I can see.”

“Check the suit,” Gibbs ordered. “It might have been penetrated. If he’s been swarmed—“

“There’s no evidence of that,” Spivey said. “I swept him as we came aboard.”

Winger’s hands were shaking as he accepted a cup of water from Reaves. He mumbled thanks.

“Skipper…” it was Taj Singh, his necklace and trinkets clinking as he rubbed them for good luck. “…your containment port is open.”

The port to the shoulder-implanted capsule where ANAD resided hadn’t snapped shut.

Winger nodded grimly, sipping gratefully at the water. “I never got…ANAD never got recovered…had to get out of there—“

“My God…ANAD’s lost?” Mighty Mite Barnes sucked in a hard breath. “He’s still out there—“

Winger nodded. “Quantum interference…signals jammed…I couldn’t control him, couldn’t maneuver…nothing worked.” The Lieutenant shook his head, winced at the flood lamps inside the lifter bay. He turned to Singh. “Taj, there’s something wrong with the coupler link. When we were jammed and I couldn’t run ANAD or communicate, I started to feel…I don’t know, funny. Weird. I kept hallucinating, snatches of old thoughts and memories…it’s like I could feel ANAD. He was in trouble, losing function and I could feel it somehow…like I was losing function too.”

Singh clucked and rubbed his spirit talismans even harder. “Leakage effects. Doc Frost warned us that might happen.”

Gibbs was skeptical. “What do you mean ‘leakage effects?’”

“Just this—“ Singh chose his words carefully. “—the quantum signals that ANAD sends aren’t always decoded in the Lieutenant’s coupler with perfect accuracy. Stray signals can cause neural firing wave patterns to occur unrelated to the original signal…that’s the nature of quantum effects. It’s all about probabilities and how they collapse when the signal is received.”

Winger shook his head. “All I know is that I left a buddy back there…Quantum troopers don’t do that. It leaves a bad taste…I’ve got to go back and get ANAD—“ He started to rise but Sheila Reaves pushed him firmly back in his seat.

“It’s not going to happen, Lieutenant…not today. Red Hammer’s got a bitch of a swarm out there and nothing we’ve tried even slows it down. UNIFORCE has ordered everyone to pull back, to McMurdo. Including us.”

Winger seethed but he didn’t resist. He glared out a nearby porthole. The view was a swirling whiteout…blowing snow and sleet whipped into a fury by the vortex powered by the swarm. Wind gusts rocked the lifter, while the incessant wail of tortured air shrieked below the groaning creaking of the lifter fuselage.

Doc Frost had once said this could happen. Me and ANAD…Jesus, we’re like brothers now. Read each other’s minds, think each other’s thoughts. Like one…

Winger shook himself out of the daze. He looked up at all the worried faces peering back at him. “Okay troops…the show’s over. Let’s get this jalopy airborne and get back to MacTown.”

Moments later, the tiny fleet of lifters was winging its way back toward McMurdo City. As the billowing white pall of the swarm receded in the porthole and the black peaks of the Transantarctic range poked above the horizon, Winger stared out at the desolate scene, lost in thought.

With ANAD lost, 1st Nano and UNIFORCE had no choice but to retreat. A new master assembler could be regenerated but that would take time. The dumb bots and micro-weapons that UNIFORCE had left—not to mention the patrol bots BioShield had brought in—were no match for the Red Hammer swarm.

Even worse, he realized, the cartel might now have a way to generate and affect swarms at a great distance, if the ‘pulser’ device Q2 had surmised was real.

A new way to fight the swarm and the pulser would have to be devised and fast. More worrisome than that, Winger realized as the outer dome settlements of McMurdo City materialized through a light ice fog and the lifter began its descent, was the quantum signal jamming that had interfered with ANAD.

Winger was certain the investigation would lead back to Red Hammer. According to the UNIFORCE commander, the decoherence wakes had been traced back to a source in China, near the Himalayas, after a great deal of effort and interpolating.

No surprise there, Winger thought grimly. Red Hammer’s main base of operation was known to be in the area. The Paryang Monastery…it was not a big secret. Something would have to be done about the interference…or ANAD would be useless in combating the spread of the Red Hammer swarms. The ice would continue to melt and sea levels would rise and the air would grow more toxic and millions could die.

A quick briefing was held in the UNIFORCE Ops command post. Suvorov was running the show. The Russian was harried and brusque.

“…that’s the best we can do…hold up the swarm for a few hours with a force of bots until the thing overwhelms us. Then, we fall back to a new position, re-group, inject a new force of bots and get chewed up all over again. The same process over and over again for the last week. At this rate—“ the Russian shrugged.

Stiles, the BioShield chief engineer, had already done the calculation. “…at this rate…McMurdo itself will be under assault in less than a week…less than a hundred hours if the swarm expands at a constant speed. So far, it hasn’t…but I can’t say we’re doing much to slow it down.”

Winger and Gibbs were attending the briefing for 1st Nano.

“Like flies tickling an elephant,” Gibbs observed. On displays surrounding the briefing theater, the whole of Antarctica was being consumed by spreading patches of red. Two isolated patches, representing separate swarms at Lake Vostok and Mount Erebus, strained toward each other across the map.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Stiles was saying, “before the two elements link up…then we’ll be facing a superswarm…this one capable of swallowing a whole continent.”

“And the atmosphere over the continent,” Winger added. “We’ve got to get back to Table Top…re-think our tactics. And regenerate another ANAD master.” The prospect of breaking in another assembler and re-establishing coupler links made him wince. He also wanted to spend some time with Doc II. He had about a million questions.

“And find some way to block that pulser interference,” Gibbs added. “We’ve become so dependent on quantum systems now that any disruption is a problem.”

“More than a problem,” Winger said, remembering the feelings of panic and helplessness. For a few moments, he had actually felt what ANAD himself must have felt. They had almost become one and the results had been a near catastrophe.

Suvorov promised that UNIFORCE would deploy whatever microbot or conventional force was needed to engage the swarm.

“It’s all we can do,” the Russian explained, frustrated. “Paris doesn’t understand what it’s like down here. With BioShield’s mechs, it seems the best defense we have are our own dumb bots…replicate simple mass and throw it into the fight. Cannon fodder the size of molecules. At best, we may be able to slow them down.”

Winger agreed. UNIFORCE nanobots were simple, non-programmable devices, with no real brains and minimal effectors. Easy to config, easy to replicate…they could be assembled into swarms at prodigious rates. Trouble was: the bots were easy prey for Red Hammer. The tactical plan was to overwhelm the enemy formations with mass but the enemy swarm was too quick to be stalled for long.

But until ANAD or something like it could engage and defeat the Red Hammer mechs in close combat, where it counted, there was little else UNIFORCE could do…here in the Antarctic or Greenland or anywhere else Red Hammer was engaged.

UNIFORCE Command in Paris and the Security Affairs Commissioner were rapidly running out of options.

Winger and Gibbs left the Ops building and rode out to the skyway at McMurdo Field. Hyperjet Charioteer had been fueled up and the rest of the Detachment had loaded aboard with their gear.

Within the hour, the sleek black ship had lifted off, accelerating through the stratosphere on its twelve-thousand kilometer suborbital hop to Table Top Mountain.

Johnny Winger holed up in the comm shack, glum and dispirited. Through the porthole, he could see kilometers below the ragged Pacific coastline of South America, lined with crumpled mountains of the Andes range. Though not visible from Charioteer’s near-space altitude, he knew that the ocean waves lapping the shorelines of Tierra del Fuego were rising steadily, as they were now all over the world. Red Hammer swarm activity was melting the south polar ice cap and seas were rising, by nearly a centimeter a day according to some measurements. Bubbles of modified atmosphere were expanding northward from Antarctica and threatening the entire southern hemisphere. The cartel was using its own bastardized ANAD designs, married to some kind of new pulser device, to bump up the CO2 and methane levels of the atmosphere, compounding what humans had already been doing for centuries. The fear was that the same thing would soon be happening at the North Pole and Greenland. Already, the cartel had issued ransom notes to cities and states being affected.

ANAD had failed. Yet he hadn’t…not really, Winger told himself. I’m the one who failed ANAD. The assembler had found a weakness inside the midline cavity of the Red Hammer bot, something that could be exploited. But Red Hammer’s interference had kept him from exploiting it.

And with the onslaught of the swarm, he hadn’t had time to properly recover the tiny assembler. That’s what the after-action report read anyway. The truth was rather more complicated.

Anyway you cut it, nanotroopers looked out for each other. When you wore the black and gold, you covered your buddy’s ass and you didn’t leave anyone behind. That was the code. They all knew it. They all lived by it. It didn’t matter if you were three meters tall or six nanometers tall.

And, deep down inside, Johnny Winger knew he had broken the code.

He got on the vidlink, anxious to talk, to explain, to do something and rang up Major Kraft at Table Top.

Kraft’s face was deeply furrowed in thought as the image came up. The Battalion commander had been reviewing the Detachment’s report. Gibbs had squirted it to Table Top off a satlink before they had lifted off from MacTown.

“Not very promising…this first engagement, Lieutenant,” Kraft was saying.

“No, sir,” Winger agreed. “1st Nano got its ass kicked. The swarm bots are huge buggers, highly maneuverable. They replicate like crazy too…it’s unnatural how fast they can move. It’s like they’re revved up somehow. I thought I found a weak point…ANAD was probing…maybe some kind of service port or something but—“ Winger broke off the explanation. He could see the look on Kraft’s face. A small vein on the Major’s forehead was throbbing red. The volcano was about to blow.

Kraft’s lips tightened. “Your report says quantum interference was detected…you lost ANAD because of that?”

Winger was embarrassed. He wanted to kill the vidlink, shrivel up and die.

“Yes, sir…UNIFORCE got intermittent bearings on decoherence wakes, triangulated back to a source in southwest China…Tibet, they said. Ten to one, it’s Paryang.”

Kraft seemed skeptical. “I didn’t know quantum signals could even be effectively jammed. We went quantum several years ago for more secure command and control, not less.” Kraft could see Winger squirming. Part of a commander’s toolkit was knowing when to chew the ass off a nog who had screwed up…and when not to.

“What happened to ANAD?”

Winger related the details as honestly as he could, even though the same details were in the report.

“Our CQEs say these waves interfered with the basic functions of ANAD’s processor. Somehow, if I’m understanding this right, the jamming waves keep the processor and my coupler from being able to read quantum signals when they collapse…like scattering them so they can’t collapse or be read properly.” Winger struggled to find the right words. “ANAD started feeling sluggish at first. I was piloting at that point and after awhile, I had no control…effectors, propulsors, replication, anything. Then we couldn’t even talk to each other. My coupler link went on the fritz. And acoustics weren’t much better.”

Kraft’s face was a picture of doubt. “I never liked all this hocus-pocus anyway. So you couldn’t control or talk to ANAD?”

“No, sir. I began to lose everything…just as the enemy swarm began expanding again. It caught us off guard.”

Kraft nodded brusquely. A good commander never got caught off guard. He scanned the report further, studying the embedded vidlinks. He could re-play 1st Nano’s desperate stand at the rock wall—coilguns and HERFs going off like firecrackers—then follow the Detachment’s withdrawal. “Lieutenant you violated basic tactical doctrine…you didn’t set up a defensive perimeter or recon the terrain enough to know your enemy. That’s why the swarm caught you off guard.”

“Yes, sir—“

Kraft took a deep breath. “I’ve got your Doc II on this link with me. Let me bring the good doctor in on this little discussion—“ The comm shack’s viewer went fuzzy for a few seconds, then split into two windows. Kraft’s dour face filled half the screen. The other half showed a flickering fog that resembled the face of Dr. Irwin Frost. Doc II was in the containment center. Winger recognized the piping in the background. It was containment vessel piping…ANAD’s ancestral home.

“Hello, Johnny,” Doc’s face split into an avuncular smile. “I’ve been studying your report too…the Major launched me awhile ago. Quite a battle you had down there.”

“Doc…” Winger shook his head, idly fingered the capsule port on his left shoulder…the now empty capsule. “…Doc, I’m having quite a problem, or was having a problem—“ he corrected, “coupling to ANAD. I felt…funny, weird…disconnected…lots of fragments, images that didn’t make any sense, some old memories…it’s really hard to describe—“

Kraft interjected. “Doctor…is this normal? Winger’s supposed to have a hard link to the assembler. Strictly a command and control link. He shouldn’t be having all this emotional, panty-waist crap in his head.”

Doc’s face turned grim, tight-lipped, the fog roiling a bit as it gathered more atoms. He nodded to the Major. “Quite right, Major. That is the intent of the design. However, remember this is still somewhat of an experimental setup. The nature of quantum links is such that, even now, we can’t always control or predict what final state a decoherence wave will collapse to. I’m sure we’re seeing that effect here. There’s leakage from Johnny’s coupler into the limbic circuits of his brain. It was an expected effect.”

“In English, if you don’t mind, Doctor.” Kraft was growing impatient. “I’ve got a war to fight here and I don’t have time for theories.”

“Simply put,” Doc tried to explain, “some of the decoherence waves sent out by ANAD are collapsing to a different state than planned and Johnny’s coupler doesn’t know how to interpret them. It’s overloaded. The enemy’s quantum jamming doesn’t help either…we’ll have to analyze the effects of this new pulser device. So Johnny’s coupler just dumps the raw decoherence waves out. They wind up collapsing to a final state inside his limbic system tissue—where emotional states are formed. There they trigger unpredictable and unrelated feelings, thoughts and memories. It’s a known side effect of using quantum systems for communications. We gain some things and lose some things.”

“That may be so,” Kraft growled, “but one of your ‘side effects’ is that I’ve lost another ANAD master and damn near my whole Detachment. Plus my tactical commander’s less than a hundred percent and that just won’t work. The Project isn’t supposed to produce this result. Something’s got to be done and soon.”

Winger was just as frustrated. “Major, ANAD was pretty effective against Red Hammer bots until quantum jamming interfered with his core functions.” He described the cavity into which ANAD had probed. “The bugger’s effectors couldn’t reach into the cavity and only a weak phosphate group screened off the area. I’m guessing it was a port of some kind, probably for service or access. Once we were inside, ANAD made quick work of the membrane molecules…if it hadn’t been for the pulser, I’m sure ANAD could have dismantled the thing from the inside. But something was fouling up ANAD’s config big time.”

Kraft just shook his head, peering down at something on his desk. “The source of that interference has got to be eliminated,” he said. “Whatever it takes…ANAD’s our best shot now, maybe our only shot to stop Red Hammer before it’s too late.”

Doc had an idea. “Major, I may be able to devise some countermeasures against the pulser interference. It’s a little trick we’ve been working on here at the Lab…a sort of ‘anti-phase’ entanglement wave. Experimentally, we’ve had decent results in the few trials we’ve made. But it will take time to perfect.”

Kraft rubbed his eyes wearily. Reports, staff briefings, decisions…long hours had been taking a toll on the battalion commander the last few days. “Time, Doctor, is one quantity that is unfortunately in short supply around here. Get working on it…and send the details to me. I’ve got a vidlink with UNSAC himself this afternoon, 1500 hours my time. Every option is on the table and I need as many as I can get…I’m running a bit low. The first thing I’m requesting is UNIFORCE approval to do something about that base in Tibet. If that’s where the interference is coming from, we’ve got to take it out, neutralize it.”

Through a porthole, Winger watched the hard bright sun set in a molten pool of gold and crimson over the western horizon of the Pacific. In seconds, Charioteer was completely in darkness, arcing over the Amazon River basin itself. Jagged veins of lightning cascaded across the tropical skies eighty kilometers below them, creating a strobe effect on the cloud tops. Somewhere down there was the tiny river village of Via Verde or what was left of it.

“Major, do you think UNIFORCE can do anything?”

Kraft’s face darkened. “Unknown, Winger. It’s politically touchy, with the Chinese. There are elements of the People’s Liberation Army who protect Red Hammer…it’s widely known. But UNIFORCE has to act now…there’s already talk out of Paris of ordering mandatory evacuations across the Southern Hemisphere…Sydney and Melbourne, Singapore and Buenos Aires. The sea level’s rising faster than anyone ever expected. If UNIFORCE doesn’t or can’t act now to stop the swarms, they’ll be swept aside and politics be damned. Without UNIFORCE, it’ll be every nation and tribe for itself. Anarchy won’t begin to describe it.”

Doc II questioned Winger more closely about the effects of the coupler problem and the interference. As he did so, he created a small diagnostic, which he squirted to Kraft over a separate channel. Even as the Major detailed the steps UNIFORCE was taking to battle Red Hammer swarms around the world, he scanned the cryptic notes of the diagnostic from Doc II:

 

Evidence shows Johnny and ANAD growing closer together, forging new links across the coupler circuit.

Symbiotic life forms evolve greater dependency over time, even in areas of vital functions.

The nature of endosymbiosis is that a new organism originates from the fusion of two existing organisms, or more precisely, two independently evolved organisms become a tightly coupled system and eventually just one organism.

Such symbiotic mergers have been common in the evolutionary history of life on Earth; actually, it accounts for life as we know it today. The ancestors of all life are bacteria.

Life can be viewed as a plan for bacteria to exist forever: bodies are desirable as food sources for bacteria, so one could view the evolution of bacteria into such bodies as a plan by bacteria to create food for themselves. See my attachment: Hive Minds: On the Prospects for Autonomous, Quantum-Coupled, Nanoscale Assembler Swarms.

It’s the nature of symbiotic systems that they become ever more dependent on each other. It’s a process that we can’t really predict or control very well.

Major: For the Symbiosis Project to succeed, this development must continue…without hindrance.

 

Kraft angrily closed down the diagnostic. He fired back a response to Doc II over the same channel:

“Doc…this project is interfering with my mission. I need a fully functional Johnny Winger now…even if it means not implanting or coupling with ANAD…”

Kraft shut down the side channel to Doc II. I don’t need any more distractions.

“Winger, it’s going to take nearly two weeks to regenerate another ANAD master assembler. We don’t have the luxury of waiting that long to engage the enemy.”

Johnny had seen the displays at McMurdo City. “The BioShield people said the real problem comes when the smaller swarms converge into big ones.”

“UNIFORCE agrees. I saw the latest intel this morning: Red Hammer swarms are on the move around the globe, not just in Antarctica. In the Congo rain forest, the south Pacific, the Caucasus Mountains, swarms are forming and moving and coalescing, spinning off daughter swarms and linking up with them again. They’re wreaking havoc everywhere, relentlessly modifying the planet’s atmosphere. And frankly, right now there’s not much we can do to stop them.”

“Is anything working, Major?”

“Not much. Intel says the cartel’s success depends on the speed of replication and maneuver of these swarms. Now this new ‘pulser’ thing gives them the ability to generate swarms seemingly instantly at a great distance and create angel armies everywhere, almost like those Keeper devices. Q2 says the pulser may be an offshoot of the Keeper units. Winger, your mission in the Antarctic was the first time we’ve been able to penetrate the swarms to any degree and get data on their bots from inside. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Red Hammer supporting the swarms…direct evidence of this pulser projecting new swarms seemingly out of nothing. That’s a new factor.”

Johnny Winger recalled the interior of the Red Hammer bot cavity that ANAD had probed.

“We can beat the buggers, Major…I know we can. They may be big and fast, with propulsors and effectors like the dickens, but they’re still nanobotic mechanisms. When ANAD was inside that bot, I got the feeling the thing was nothing more than a big dumb brute…a dinosaur at nanoscale dimensions. Fast and maneuverable as hell, to be sure…he could rep like a madman, but brains—processor capability—I’m not so sure. The right tactics, Major…with no outside interference and I’m sure we can smash the bejeezus out of ‘em.”

Kraft found Winger’s attitude a refreshing change from the steady defeatism he’d been hearing all morning.

“You’ll have a chance to do exactly that soon enough, Lieutenant Winger. Get your ass back here to Table Top. I’ve got Q2, Doc II and all the labs working on new tactics twenty-four hours a day. If we don’t find a way to block this pulser and push these swarms back soon, we’re in for a time that’ll make the Black Death look like a picnic.”

 

Chapter 3

Northern Lights”

 

U.N. Quantum Corps Base

Table Top, Idaho, USA

July 10, 2049

2230 hours U.T.

 

Johnny Winger watched the 3-D sim dance on a pedestal atop Major Kraft’s desk. Kraft stroked his chin while the scenario played out. On the opposite side of the desk, Doc II hovered like a ghostly apparition, visibly resembling Dr. Irwin Frost, but translucent and filled with pops and flashes of light.

The sim showed a satellite in orbit, circling the globe, firing beams at a target on the ground. The target was a roiling cloud swelling out of the South Pole, an ersatz Antarctica smothered with lakes and rivers of melting ice while vast swarms engulfed the continent and spilled northward.

Lieutenant Gabrielle Galland was also there. She clucked at the sim as the beams steadily shrank the ersatz swarm rolling across the icescape. “Some kind of magic hocus-pocus, Major? Or is this just an engineer’s wet dream?”

Kraft smirked. “The idea came from Doc II over there. Why don’t you explain, Doc?”

The swarm brightened and thickened, as its constituent bots grabbed atoms to maintain structure. The voice, when it came, sounded as if it were coming out of a metal tunnel.

  • Quantum Sword. After detailed analysis of recent engagements—signature analysis and config study in the lab, we determined that the Red Hammer swarms are more vulnerable to large-scale effects rather than frontal engagement at the molecular level. Their new config pulser allows them to send a config remotely, and gather and template large swarm formations remotely, across thousands, potentially millions of kilometers. Almost like a quantum device. But with Quantum Sword, we can negate this advantage. Your own historical nanowarrior Sun Tzu once said: ‘Know yourself and know your enemy and you need not fear a hundred battles.’ “

Winger watched the sim play out. “The beams are coming from above? What kind of beams are these?”

Here, Kraft interjected. “Doc has developed a way of creating, collimating and focusing particle beams with a particularly nasty bite, tuned to certain wavelengths and frequencies, that can disrupt any Red Hammer swarm. He’s proposed putting the beam emitters on UNIFORCE killsats. Quantum Sword is a mission I’m proposing to take a detachment into space and equip all of our killsats with these emitters. Of course, we’ll have to coordinate with UNISPACE. And I don’t have approval yet from UNSAC, but that should be a formality. Winger, you’re CC1 on this mission. Galland’s your CC2.”

“And ANAD, sir? What about ANAD?”

Kraft’s face took on a darker look. “Doc II here will help you with the re-gen. ANAD will help assemble the emitters, assist in testing and calibrating and provide effective defense against enemy actions…you know, it’s just possible Red Hammer may be able to pulse an enemy swarm right onto one of these killsats. ANAD will be your defensive shield. And you’ll be leaving smaller ANAD swarms behind as a protective measure.”

Doc II added *** Currently UNIFORCE operates eighteen killsats, six in each of three orbital planes. One or more killsats can be over any point on Earth in less than half an hour. The beams we have developed are nearly one hundred percent effective against known Red Hammer botswarms and configurations. Combat simulations have shown swarm formations can be shrunk to fractions of their original dimensions in a matter of days. Once this effect becomes well advanced, BioShield can then go about restoring the atmosphere in affected areas***

Kraft checked the time. “In fact, there’s a small-scale test going on now right now up in Greenland. Toxic air bubbles and swarm damage has recently developed around the towns of Nuuk and Sisimuit, along the Stromfjord. We’re operating a hyperjet overhead, equipped with a prototype of Doc’s beam emitter…let’s see if we can get the signal—“ Kraft fiddled with some buttons on his deskpad. The 3-D pedestal, where the sim had just collapsed to dark, suddenly erupted into life again, sparkling and flashing as an image pixelated and filled out.

It was an aerial image from a pod mounted in the belly of the hyperjet. Data blocks of status information floated inside the image, fed from the jet’s instruments. Beyond, black mountains rimmed the horizon and waves of frozen sastrugi undulated across the blue-white tongue of a glacier, slowly meandering its way down to Baffin Bay. Mists and fogs rolled across the icescape, but a closer look revealed that the fog wasn’t fog at all…pinpricks of lights and roiling palettes of colors made an almost pointillist painting of the scene. The swarm was spreading, triggering streaks of lightning all around. Down slope from the glacier, a small fishing village lay directly in the path of the onrushing swarm.

Kraft checked a test sheet on his deskpad. “According to test protocol, Apollo should be engaging just about any moment now—“ he stopped abruptly when the icescape suddenly flared into sunlike brilliance, too bright to look at directly.

For a few seconds, the entire scene was washed out and devoid of contrast. Two more bursts of light erupted, each time washing out the image. When contrast returned and filters were lifted, the scene on the ground slowly materialized into view.

“The swarm looks different,” Galland noted. She got up to walk around the 3-d image, studying it from every angle. “More transparent…you can see right through to the ice. It’s all broken up too—“

“And smaller, looks like,” Winger added. “Before, it spanned both sides of that glacier. Now, it’s just one on side, and further up the slope. The beams have really slammed that swarm…it’s breaking down into smaller elements, even fading….”

Doc II drifted closer to see for himself. The swarm image of Doc Frost swelled and curled around a chair opposite Kraft, while grabbing photons from the projector pedestal to analyze the imagery.

***The Quantum Sword beam is tuned to the exact wavelength of the average size of the swarm elements. Analysis showed the bots were averaging a hundred and twenty nanometers in major dimension. Quantum Sword is putting two hundred million megajoules of particle beam energy into each cubic centimeter of the swarm. Few structures larger than a virus can withstand that impulse***

Quantum Sword really slammed ‘em,” Winger said. “And this same device is being put on every killsat?”

“That’ll be your job, Winger,” Kraft said. “And Galland’s. Get up to Mission Prep now and start drawing equipment. Pick a detachment that works. You’re going to be on a hyperjet to Kourou at 0600 hours tomorrow morning.”

 

The ride into space aboard spaceplane Archimede was a teeth-rattling journey for 1st Nano but the ship made it to orbit in good order and set sail for her first target, Killsat K-6. After a few phasing burns, Archimede began closing rapidly on the satellite and the ship’s captain, UNISPACE Commander Leland DeLong, soon made an announcement over the 1MC.

“Objective in sight…we’re tracking at a hundred kilometers range. Proximity ops begin in two hours.”

In the crew compartment, most of the Detachment was occupied with the novelty of weightlessness and the view out of the portholes.

“Hey, I can see my garage,” announced Taj Singh.

“No, you can’t, you dork,” said Mighty Mite Barnes. “That’s Italy down there…didn’t you ever study geography?”

“Watch me eat this candy bar right out of mid-air,” said Joe McReady, “…no hands.” The chocolate was soon smeared all over his lips and nose.

“Okay, kids,” Winger announced, “playtime’s over. Spivey, you and Hiroshi get ANAD checked out. I want full diagnostics on everything. Reaves and Barnes, get RUFUS checked out too…make sure all three of them are set to go. I don’t want any robots free-lancing around these killsats. Gibbs, Simonet, look after the rest of our gear, especially the suits. We’ll be holding class for RUFUS 1 in less than an hour.”

The nanotroopers set to work, hustling back and forth between the crew compartment and the lockout chambers aft, checking gear, testing seals and connections, powering up and following checklists. Winger wanted everything done by the book on this mission. The success of Quantum Sword depended on split-second timing and everybody being on the same page. Mistakes and oversights just couldn’t happen when you were working with UNIFORCE killsats. Nobody wanted a few cities vaporized because some clown skipped a step.

Quantum Sword had to work; there was no Plan B. The idea was simple enough to brief but damnably hard to execute. Archimede would take the detachment into orbit and would track down and rendezvous with three killsats initially, K-6, K-1 and K-2. At each sat, hypersuited nanotroopers trained in extravehicular ops would depart the spaceplane, accompanied by one of the RUFUS robotic servicers. Once they had translated over to the sat, they would install a new beam emitter module, download new control software and, as a final measure, deploy an ANAD master bot in its containment capsule. ANAD, once installed, would replicate a defensive shield that would protect the sat from any interference from Red Hammer including, it was hoped, any new pulser assaults. Nobody at Table Top or UNISPACE Paris wanted Red Hammer to be able to send remote configs to a critical satellite and bollix up the works, or take control of the thing.

Each RUFUS servicer was deployed with a strong AI processor. The nanotroopers had only to show RUFUS exactly what to do, step by step, in order and RUFUS would ‘learn’ the right sequence for later installations. The nanotroopers wouldn’t have to visit each of the eighteen killsats. After K-2, one of the three RUFUS servicers would know enough to take over completing the installation and checkout of all remaining killsats, with help from its buddies.

That was the plan. Major Kraft was initially dubious but had been convinced it was the best way. “You realize,” he had told his engineers in a final briefing before 1st Nano departed for the Kourou launch site, “that there are only about a million things that could go wrong with this stunt.”

“We think this is the best way, Major. Given the time constraints and the need to act quickly to push the Red Hammer swarms back and contain them, there aren’t too many other alternatives, sir.”

Kraft was forced to agree.

Winger had been reviewing the ANAD deployment sequence outside the starboard lockout when Lucy Hiroshi drifted up, bearing a small tablet. Hiroshi was one of two CQEs in the Detachment, along with Ray Spivey. She looked after ANAD and all its support systems.

“Lieutenant, I thought you should see this—“

“What is it?”

“Final status checks on the ANAD master bot, sir. Corporal Spivey and I were running down the checklist…propulsors, sensors, probes, actuators…and we were doing a line check on his basic rep cycle controller…and these anomalies got flagged. Neither of us knows what to make of them…ANAD checked out clean and green at Table Top but something in his core’s gone belly up since then.”

“Maybe the launch,” Winger suggested. “Let me take a look—“ He studied the screens and displays on Hiroshi’s tablet, running a finger down each line of the replication cycle code…sure enough, there were lines and commands he didn’t recognize at all. “What the hell is this crap? Did someone toggle off a rep while were underway?”

“I don’t know, sir…nothing like this showed up at Table Top. If the replication engine’s hosed, he won’t be able to—“

“I know, I know…” Winger didn’t need to hear Hiroshi’s concerns. No replication, no protective shield at the killsats. And with Red Hammer’s new pulser device, that could only mean trouble…big trouble. You just couldn’t have killsats in orbit operating outside of their normally very tight command and control systems. Sure, there were checks and checks of checks and all kinds of redundancies and backups. But only a wacko would want killsats loose in orbit.

Maybe I’ll ask Doc what he thinks. Winger cocked his head just so, opening the coupler link. He had his own embedded ANAD, still buried in the containment capsule in his shoulder. The Doc II swarm and master was in its own containment station, located in a small pod on his hypersuit web belt.

“Doc, what do you make of this? ANAD checked out fine at Table Top. Now he’s got all kinds of garbage in his replication code. Could you take a look for me?” Winger reached down with his hand and thumbed a control stud on the side of the pod. Instantly, a faint mist began issuing from a port on top of the pod.

Five minutes later, a reasonable facsimile of Doc Frost’s face and shoulders drifted on faint air currents over their heads. The likeness was crude; Doc had detected urgency harmonics in Winger’s voice and dispensed with the usual config details.

***Johnny, I’ve already detached a sub-element for analysis…open your capsule port and I’ll do a Level 3 inspection…***

Winger opened his shoulder port and Doc II’s sub-element cruised inside. It was like watching smoke issuing from an open fire…in reverse.

A few minutes later, Doc II offered an analysis.

***Detecting non-standard code blocks in replication module…recommend taking ANAD offline to perform step test…executing this code may result in unanticipated effects…cannot yet determine cause of bad code…Johnny, I am also detecting deviations in config pattern buffer, actuator control and propulsor modules***

Lucy Hiroshi looked puzzled. “Lieutenant, we did a full-up systems test at Table Top. I don’t understand it…none of this showed up then.”

Winger had already decided to safe ANAD and withdraw Doc II as fast as he could. “Doc, get out of there, right now. This may be a pulser effect from Red Hammer. Intel says they can transmit bad configs remotely, even replicate swarms from a great distance. I don’t want ANAD going off big bang-style without controls.”

***Understood, Johnny. I have detected that the config pattern memory is currently in an overflow state. We should investigate…***

“Negative, Doc. Just evacuate and recover to config one yourself. We’ll have to chance it with ANAD as he is. Quantum Sword can’t wait.”

He wasn’t sure that was the right decision to make but Major Kraft never gave him hell for trying to complete a mission. ANAD was programmed to be a protective shield for the modified killsats, a sort of security guard to keep out unwanted intruders. He wasn’t sure what they would do if the intruders were already inside.

Maybe Doc himself would have some ideas.

The K-6 killsat gradually came into view through Archimede’s forward windows. Winger had joined Commander DeLong on the flight deck as he maneuvered the spaceplane to begin proximity ops.

When the ship was station-keeping on K-6 at a distance of a hundred meters, DeLong announced, “We’re at station one, Lieutenant. That’s as close as we get to this bugger. She’s all yours now.”

Winger studied the killsat. She looked like a huge bird, with her solar panels spread wide for wings and an elongated hexagonal body in the middle. The business end of the center body was a trio of funnel shaped horns…the particle beam emitters. Tanks were slung along the sides, containing fuel, which was fed into the ionizer chambers, then accelerated through beam guides to the emitter array. K-6 was capable of delivering hundreds of gigajoules of bad news to any selected target on the ground.

“RUFUS One ready?” Winger asked as the first deploy team buttoned up their hypersuits. Taj Singh saluted, then patted the robotic servicer on its sensor-laden head. Sheila Reaves was already in the airlock.

“Quivering with anticipation, Skipper.”

RUFUS looked like a garbage can with a forest of arms, probes and actuators at the top and small propulsors at the bottom.

“Go,” Winger ordered.

Moments later, RUFUS, Reaves and Singh had emerged from Archimede’s forward airlock and began translating on cold-gas thrusters over to K-6. The trip took about ten minutes.

The swap-out of control modules in K-6’s processor core went smoothly enough. The new beam emitter array was next and Winger watched closely through Archimede’s scopes and via closed-circuit vid as Singh executed the removal of one emitter cone and the installation of the new system. RUFUS followed each step and movement closely and was soon able to perfectly mimic Singh’s motions. For good measure, Taj let the robot complete the close-out procedure and RUFUS buttoned up the emitter system with no significant deviations or errors.

Now it was time to deploy the protective ANAD shield. Winger had some last minute warnings for the deploy crew.

“Keep containment at FULL SEAL until the very end, Taj. We don’t have time to do a final config check. Just attach the capsule and set the de-containment timer to one hour. We should be well away from K-6 by then, if you and Sheila don’t dawdle around out there. I’m not quite sure what kind of shield ANAD will replicate when he’s triggered so I want some distance between us when he starts.”

“Aye, sir…” Taj made the capsule fast to the side of the killsat and motored back to Archimede in tandem with RUFUS, both of them right behind Reaves, who was carrying sacks of equipment and parts on her return trip. They made the airlock, cycled through and had their hats off in forty minutes.

Winger called up to the flight deck. “Commander, we’re all squared away down here. Put some distance between us and K-6.”

Up on the flight deck, DeLong had been observing the whole operation, feeling like they had tickled the dragon’s tail long enough. “Gladly, Lieutenant. Thrusting minus X now, one half meter per second. Hold on—“

The spaceplane backed off quickly and K-6 was completely lost to view moments later.

The mission plan for Quantum Sword called for Archimede and her crew to perform the swap-out on killsats K-6 and K-2 before turning all three RUFUS’ loose to finish the job. Once all sats were modified, UNISPACE would run a short test series with the new beam emitters and if everything checked out okay, the killsats would be declared operational and then be set to task, sweeping Red Hammer swarms from the Antarctic, Greenland and other affected areas.

Three days later, all eighteen sats had been successfully modified. Gateway Station ran quick checks of all systems, brushed off a few config anomalies like Lucy Hiroshi had seen and brought to Winger’s attention, and reported to UNISPACE that K-1 through K-18 were ready for business.

For Winger, it all seemed too hurried, too slipshod, as if declaring the killsats operational was more important than whether they worked or not.

It was like the Prussian general and strategist von Clausewitz had said “War was only politics by another name….”

Archimede made plans to return to Kourou base.

“Entry burn in two minutes,” DeLong’s voice crackled over the ship’s 1MC. Winger was up on the flight deck, though Archimede needed no second-in-command, not with ORVILLE and Commander DeLong running the show. Belowdecks, the rest of the detachment was firmly buckled in and ready for the 3-g corkscrewing ride down through the atmosphere that would take them home.

But literally seconds before Archimede’s engines fired to decelerate them out of orbit, a message came through, coded Priority Purple, from UNISPACE Paris. DeLong killed the burn as Winger scanned the message on the screen…

“I’m just reading it as it comes up, Commander…K-6 and K-12, K-13 and K-18 have just suffered Condition One faults…activation sequence scrammed, no sats are responding…may be losing control of the entire fleet…beams firing in uncontrolled bursts… max power…several towns in Greenland destroyed…targeting signals detected by Gateway, evacuations underway Tangier and Lagos…other targets may be at risk…what the hell?”

That’s when Delong received another priority message, on a different channel. “Looks like we’re not going home today, Lieutenant. Archimede’s been diverted…to Gateway Station.”

Winger’s heart sank as he read more of the initial message. “Red Hammer’s seized control of the killsats. It’s got to be that ANAD anomaly Doc detected. I figured it was just a small glitch from the re-gen…but now—?”

At that moment, Archimede was still in orbit, passing over the tawny brown coast of north Africa. Below them, the Sahara looked like a wrinkled and reddish brown quilt draped across the continent.

“Look, that must be Tunis on the coast… see the lights?” It was just dawn as Archimede sped eastward out of the terminator and the shadows of night into the blaze of sunlight.

They were both startled a moment later to see the lights of Tunis, near the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, flare briefly into brilliance, then just as quickly fade into nothing. Even from orbit, the two of them were fully aware of what they had just witnessed.

Tunis was now a smoking hole in the ground. And somewhere above and ahead of them, killsat K-12 moved on to its next target.

 

Chapter 4

Metastasis”

 

Gateway Station

Earth L2 Point

July 12, 2049

0230 hours U.T.

 

By the time Archimede had docked at Gateway’s G-5 Node, Doc II had already done a statistical analysis of the firing patterns of the rogue killsats. The Detachment egressed and set to work refitting the ship for her next mission…Reaves and Barnes were already laying bets it wouldn’t be twenty-four hours before they shoved off again.

Winger huddled in the wardroom with station commander Rene Lescaux and a three-way vidcon with Table Top and the Quartier-General at UNIFORCE’s Paris headquarters.

“We’ve essentially lost control of all killsats,” Col. Devon Falkland reported from Paris. Falkland was chief of ops for UNISPACE Guardian Centre, where the sats were managed. “Something’s seized the control systems…K-1 through K-18, none of them are responding to ground command. Intel’s looking into sabotage, multiple redundant system failure modes, signal interference, anything they can think of.”

Kraft had been in touch with Winger during Archimede’s approach to Gateway. “Gentlemen, our own Q2 people think we’ve got an ANAD failure on our hands. Not long after Archimede departed, the RUFUS servicers had just completed modifying K-14 and K-15, the last satellites. SpaceGuard detected faint decoherence wakes surrounding these two satellites. Deco wakes are a known signature of quantum systems and that includes Red Hammer’s new pulser device. They did some backtracking and found that after each visit by a RUFUS servicer, when ANAD was commanded to deploy and replicate a protective shield, the same deco wake halos appeared. It’s a common signature, something common to all the failures.”

UNSAC was online from his seventieth floor office at the Quartier-General. “So what are you saying, Kraft…is this an ANAD defect common to all installations?”

“Either that, sir, or a quantum signal, possibly a pulser command, has been sent to each killsat that triggered something unexpected in ANAD. We’ve tried sending up a boosted coup-ler signal to regain control of the ANAD systems, but no luck yet. It seems that all our installed ANADs are corrupted beyond repair. They’re not even responding to quantum collapse signals—-that’s a suicide command we use only in extreme situations.”

UNSAC said, “I’d call this pretty extreme. So intel says Red Hammer’s taken control of eighteen UNISPACE killsats…why did I even get out of bed this morning? I’m assuming these commands are coming from some place on the ground…Major Kraft, does your Q2 shop have any idea where?”

Here, Kraft went off-screen for a moment, consulting a report on another display in his Table Top office, then came back. “Sir, Lieutenant Winger tells me that his Doc II assistant has done some calculations, based on known deco wake tracks. Winger, what’s the latest?”

Winger had begged station commander Lescaux to allow Doc II full access to Gateway’s wardroom. Now, the Doc II swarm assembled itself next to Winger and Lescaux, pinching off a portion of its main swarm. “Doc II’s done some analysis, Major….I think he’s created this sim of the results….”

The pinched-off portion rapidly formed itself into a 3-d simulated globe of Earth. Winking lights surrounded the globe, showing killsat positions in orbit. Spider webs of lights crisscrossed the globe, symbolizing decoherence wakes. As the sim advanced, the light webs steadily collapsed into a single brighter strand, snaking down from several killsats toward a point on the revolving Earth. When the slightly pixelated, roughly-outlined coast of east Asia rotated into view, the final strand of light touched down, and the point of contact flared and flashed.

“Hong Kong,” said Kraft, proudly. “Our analysis triangulates all the deco wake traffic to a point of emanation at or near Hong Kong. My Q2 people believe it’s probable that the source is Lions Rock itself, a known cartel base of operations in the Pearl River Delta, just above Kowloon and downtown Hong Kong.”

Several whistles could be heard over the vidcon link. UNSAC spoke first.

“Good work, Major. How confident are your people about this? I’m assuming this is not just some AI’s analytical hocus-pocus and handwaving.”

Kraft indicated Winger should answer that.

Winger shook his head. “No, sir. Doc II’s done all the analysis. It’s based on known decoherence wake effects and what we know about quantum signal characteristics. Doc, could you give a confidence level on this?”

The Doc II swarm broke down the sim of Earth and the killsat network and formed itself up into a grainy likeness of Doc Frost’s avuncular head and shoulders. The process took only a minute. The outlines drifted toward the center of the table to be more visible to remote participants.

***My confidence level is ninety-five percent with Fourier and Delacroix techniques. I have embedded all stochastic waveforms in a wake analysis matrix and performed ten thousand iterative cycles of signal analysis, from onset to final state***

Kraft’s eyes rolled, though no one else saw it. Sometimes, Winger and Doc drifted off into outer space with all their explanations. “In plain English, Winger. Doc?”

“He has very high confidence, sir, that the triangulated point of emanation is Hong Kong. In fact, Doc…can you put up the precise coordinates?”

Seconds later, a floating longitude and latitude reading emerged from the side of the Doc outline.

“That has to be Lions Rock,” UNSAC decided. “This is good enough for me. Kraft, I’ll get tasking from the SG. Put together a mission to Hong Kong. Full ANAD ops…whatever you need. If the cartel’s main pulser emitter is there, we have to put it out of commission and fast. We can’t have Red Hammer in control of UNISPACE killsats…nobody will be safe. This is the only realistic way I can see of shutting down the commandeered killsats…or at least, allowing us to regain control.”

Kraft was already pecking away at his deskpad. “At once, sir. Winger, get your team together immediately. Vidcon me when you’re ready. We’ll work out the details.”

Winger signaled for Doc II to come along. He was already headed for the hatch to Gateway’s central gangway. Node G-5 was at the other end. The swarm broke itself apart, seemingly dispersed into invisibility, and tagged along after Winger as he left the wardroom.

Archimede’s crew mess compartment would do nicely for the vidcon with Major Kraft.

 

Four hours later, the spaceplane had undocked from Gateway Station and was backing off for her de-orbit burn. Archimede’s descent profile would take her blazing like a meteor across central Africa and the Indian Ocean. After a high-g, corkscrewing spiral into the lower atmosphere, the ship would make her final approach maneuvers and put down at nearly two hundred knots onto the runway at Chep Lak Kok Airport, just outside of Hong Kong City.

ANAD Detachment Alpha touched down at the airport just at sundown, after circling the harbor several times to set up a proper approach. The bejeweled panoply of night time Hong Kong lay before them…Victoria Peak lit up like a Christmas tree, the ancient Star Ferry plying the harbor like some glittering sea serpent.

Johnny Winger directed off-loading of their mission gear onto trucks supplied by Quantum Corps’ eastern base in Singapore, then the support unit headed out from the airport, eventually winding up in a maze of narrow streets outside the old walled confines of Kowloon City. An Eastern Command lifter shadowed them overhead, providing eyes and top cover in case any nasties showed up. The Detachment would approach the target from the air.

Q2 had done their homework in the preceding hours, using surveillance, signals analysis and paid informants to finally locate the nexus of the pulser signals emanating from the Lions Rock complex on a craggy hilltop overlooking the ancient City.

The final briefing was done on the liftjet’s flight up to Shih Ho Mountain. Lions Rock itself was an ancient Han Dynasty castle, a gabled and turreted monstrosity perched on a sheer rock precipice overlooking the walled maze of old Kowloon City. With a swooping roof of glazed tile, the castle perched on its ledge like a bird of prey, built on and into the mountain. Two hundred meters below, the city of walls and dark alleys seethed with noise and life, oblivious to the winged shadows above.

“What about defenses, Lieutenant?” Corporal Colleen Barnes—‘Mighty Mite’ to the rest of ANAD Detachment—interjected a question. “Scavengers, sentries, lookouts…any current intel on the environment?”

“Intel’s sparse,” Sheila Reaves admitted. “Defender mechs are circulating throughout the neighborhood—we know that much from their heat signature. Pretty much like the guard dog leukocytes UNIFORCE uses in its biowar nets. Same capabilities…they can grind an intruder to pulp in less than a minute. Beyond that, no specific threats known.”

“Which means we keep our eyes and sensors open all the time,” Winger said. “I’m sending Doc in since we can’t really trust our embeds in this environment.”

“Piece of cake,” said Mighty Mite. The rest of the Detachment chimed in their agreement. They were a tight unit, 1st Nano, and Winger wanted to keep it that way.

“Let’s review the basic plan,” Winger said. He took a quick peek at the outside video. The lifter had circled north of the harbor and was descending now, lights out, coming about for a covert veetol approach from the mainland. Ahead, Hong Kong harbor shone through light haze like a dazzling necklace of light, draped over the darkened shoulders and humps of the limestone cliffs.

Winger had SOFIE put up a timeline on everybody’s crewnet eyepiece. “We’ll do an airborne launch, after we sanitize the area, and then put the lifter down on top of the mountain.”

“Full ‘D’, Lieutenant?” asked Sheila Reaves.

Winger nodded. “We’re at Threat Con Purple now. Full-D is authorized. Superfly, decoys, the works.”

“Got it.” Reaves made a few notes. Full-D was Detachment slang for maximum countermeasures suite—the whole ballgame: HERF radio-frequency guns, mag weapons, coil-gun bots with full rounds, plus their usual mission gear. Superfly would help too…it was damned hard to do anything now without the micro-entomopters sending back imagery from beyond the front lines. Reaves made a mental note to check out the camou-fog generator. The nanomech dispenser hadn’t worked right in the last sim and 1st Nano had taken casualties meeting its objectives. The Lieutenant had taken a sizeable chunk out of her ass for that.

Winger stepped through the mission timeline, moment by moment. “We’ll be at the objective at 0100 hours local time. I’ve already had SOFIE download schematics to the crewnet. You can access any time after the briefing. Reaves, you have the latest on defenses?”

Corporal Reaves pressed a key on her wristpad. Instantly, everyone’s eyepiece was filled with details. “This place is a fortress.” She called up a layout of the complex and SOFIE ported it to all eyepiece viewers. “Red Hammer’s got their own form of Superfly, just hordes of little micro-air vehicles buzzing around the mountain and streets below, sniffing out unwelcome visitors like us. And that’s just the first layer. Tactically, as Lieutenant Winger has already indicated, our best approach is from above, down the northeast face of Shih Ho Mountain—” he let SOFIE highlight a path toward the top of the escarpment.

“After Doc’s launched, we’ll do a minimum rep…just enough to give us some mass. When Mighty Mite has the landing zone cleared, we fastcable down to the top of Shih Ho and secure a perimeter for our little camp there. Taj here will give us directions to the pulser…he’s working the deco wake detectors.”

“Hypersuits?” asked Lucy Hiroshi.

“Vests and helmets only. We need speed and flexibility. We’ll use camou-fog, let Doc set up a screen to keep the ‘flies’ and mechs away. With luck, the camou will make us look like part of the mountain.”

“I wonder how long that’ll last?” Reaves muttered.

“Till you feel about a trillion mouths chewing on your ass, girl,” said Mighty Mite Barnes.

They all leaned over as the lifter pilot swung them sharply toward the black hulk of Shih Ho Mountain. Ahead, in the video, Winger could see the dim outlines of the castle, crouching like a black vulture on top of the rock.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Winger told them. He tapped buttons on his wristpad. Instantly, the crewnet beeped and dragged down a tactical map of Lions Rock and the top of the mountain, flashing with symbols in everybody’s eyepiece. “See the cursor? I’ve put it on a service entrance…halfway down the front face. That’s our way in. DPS?”

Reaves was scanning the crew bay’s sensor bank. “I’m on it, sir. Just as expected…flies and mechs all over the place. Camou-fog generator already enabled. They’re swarming…not random, and I’m getting EM pulses…they know someone’s here…just not exactly where yet.” She looked up. “We’re good to go anytime, Lieutenant.”

“We’ll have company pretty soon if we don’t move out. Okay…same assault plan we simmed. Sergeant Gibbs, launch Doc. Minimum reps. I want a perimeter guard around the unit while we get our gear set up on top of the mountain.”

“Launching Doc II.” Gibby was already setting up the interface controls. There was a subtle whoosh from the tubes, as the tiny swarm discharged into the air over the mountaintop. “What kind of config, sir?”

“Full engagement. The works.”

The fastcabling ingress came off without incident. Even as the lifter settled onto the rocky escarpment beside them, 1st Nano was already setting out their gear, sighting in their weapons, dragging equipment to cover positions, while the faint keening hum of the camou-fog mechs swarmed less than thirty meters overhead. Even from the lifter cockpit, the outlines of the camp were only faintly visible, shimmering in a dark washed-out smear of light, blending in more and more with the shadowy crags and recesses of the mountaintop.

Below the cloak, the Detachment grimly set to work.

Ingress of the main swarm at the service entrance took less than a minute. Probing ahead for Doc, Reaves and Spivey ran a horde of Superflies down the mountainside for a last minute recon. Once the coast was clear, Gibby went to work, forming up the assembler group for quick and covert entrance through the door seals.

“No sign of any mechs,” he muttered, as Winger hovered over his shoulders. “DPS must have given them something to chase.” Seconds later, the first imagery fluttered into coherence on the viewer. Winger took a feed for his own eyepiece; he wanted to be able to move about the encampment as the situation dictated. “Seals are intact…just plain old garden variety polymer stuff. Big daddy molecules. I can squeeze through in a heartbeat, Lieutenant.”

“Do it,” Winger commanded. He swallowed hard, knowing full well they were in serious Indian country now.

Gibby did it. The Doc II assembler swarm dispersed and passed through the door seals like a faint breeze. Odd, he thought, that Red Hammer wouldn’t secure such an entrance with a mech barrier of some kind. Maybe they aren’t expecting company from this side. In less than five minutes, the entire formation was inside.

Winger checked his nanotroops’ deployment all around him. Reaves and McReady were manning the HERF and mag guns, positioned at the perimeter of the camou field, ready to fry anything that popped up. Gibby and Simonet were grouped around the IC panel, piloting elements of the Doc horde. Mighty Mite and Ray Spivey were managing the camou generator itself. They needed the cover to last long enough to get inside Lions Rock, locate the pulser and put the damn thing out of commission…before the rogue killsats flash-fried more cities.

And just exiting the liftjet, Taj Singh was casting hexes on all the bad guys in the neighborhood.

“We’re in,” Gibby exulted. “Forming up visual lens—”

Winger let his eyepiece highlight the path ahead. Hundreds of meters below them, a portion of the Doc swarm formed itself into a rudimentary lens, snagging stray photons and other EM from the cave, fashioning a crude, sparkly sort of image. Winger studied the view, overlaid with SOFIE’s schematic, trying to make some sense of where they were.

SOFIE laid in a red dotted line. Winger agreed. “That way, Gibby…move out! Squad order!”

The formation of autonomous nanoscale assemblers eased forward through darkened chambers, sliding past air molecules big as beach balls, pushed by picowatt propulsors, down and further down a spiraling path into the mountain.

In seconds, they came to a stone staircase hewn out of the rock walls.

“Main ingress route, looks like,” Gibby muttered. He was monitoring Doc’s status from his wristpad, ready to toggle to a new config at a moment’s notice.

“Same as the schematic…” Winger said. “SOFIE’s right on target, so far.”

According to the plans, the staircase tunneled down deep into the bowels of Lions Rock, connecting five levels with a vast open complex in the very heart of Shih Ho Mountain.

“Where is everybody?” Gibby asked. “I’d have figured Red Hammer would be shielding every possible entrance.”

“Maybe it’s a trap,” Reaves said, uneasily.

“Let’s go—” Winger gave the order. “Down the stairs.”

A moment later, Reaves saw an instrument twitch on her wristpad. “Uh oh—pressure pulse. Somebody…or something’s ahead.”

“I see it…“Winger steered the formation ahead cautiously. “Big spike…moving a lot of air molecules. People, most likely. More than one—”

“Disperse, sir?” Gibby asked.

Winger shook his head. “Guard detail, most likely.”

“They may have detected us…” Reaves suggested.

And they had, for at that very moment, the visual lens was disrupted and the view was lost. Four guards had swept up the stairs, mag guns drawn, scattering the formation for a moment, notified of a breach at the northwest service entrance. If they got there—if they saw the MOBnet—the whole place could be alerted—

“Execute a clampdown!” Winger yelled. “Smother ‘em so they can’t breathe!” He signaled DPS to get ready in case the camp came under fire. “Replicate max rate…carbenes and radicals at the ends…blanket the place!”

Gibbs was manning the config controls. He sent the command, silently praying this version of Doc would perform the clampdown properly. Doc II wasn’t really designed for combat; they’d slammed some configs together for the mission on the ride down from Gateway. In seconds, the air itself burned with the pressure of exponentially dividing replicants; a heavy, searing weight pressing down on everything in sight.

Deeper in the tunnel, a small force of Red Hammer guards tried to scream.

The defenders, unable to react, clawed at their lungs and faces and staggered back from the service entrance, pitching backward, ears and eyes bleeding from the pressure, suffocated by Doc.

It was all over in less than a minute.

Winger waited until the clampdown was lifted and, on command, Doc began to disperse. “Put the MOB on ‘em,” he told Mighty Mite. “Keep ‘em secure right there. I don’t want any more alarms going off.”

Corporal Barnes tapped the commands on her own wristpad. “Done, sir.”

“Form up again,” Winger told Gibby. The sergeant commanded trillions of assemblers to swarm into formation again, a faint coruscating iridescence pulsating through the air. “Let’s move on—”

“Transiting, sir…transiting in motion. I have the formation…visual element up…” he squinted at the grainy image on the viewer, tweaked it a bit—”…looks like big doors ahead…”

“Very well.” Winger checked his eyepiece. “SOFIE says it’s the growth complex. The scope works. If she’s right, we could be in for a scrum, right here. DPS, SDCs, front and center!” And here’s my chance to duke it out with enemy mechs. He had to remind himself they had come to scramble the pulser, not create general mayhem. “Where are my coil-guns?”

“On the way, sir,” Barnes said. She was running her own defense force behind and around the Doc group…a team of coil-gun microbots hovering all around the assembler swarm. “I’m bringing up a whole battery….”

On her hand signal, Winger commanded the bots to fire. Barnes crossed her fingers and prayed.

Deep below them, Shih Ho Mountain had a fire in its belly.

The riveted polysteel doors ahead cracked open, dissolving in a spray of flame and splinters. Inside the huge cavern, sporadic small arms fire erupted but Winger had done his tactical homework. The shooters had nothing material to shoot at.

Reaves pursed her lips. “So much for a covert entry. I guess the neighborhood is awake now.” She felt her neck hairs tingle. Combat did that to people, even when the enemy was a billion times smaller than a human being.

Doc poured into the cavern. Winger ordered a portion of the swarm detached for perimeter guard, securing all ways in and out. “Let’s you and me part company, Gibby.”

Gibby acknowledged. “Executing swarm division now, sir.” With a few commands, the bot horde divided itself into two groups, one piloted by Gibby, the other by Winger. The Lieutenant took a seat next to the sergeant, flexed his fingers, ready to joystick the troops into battle. He massaged the visual element a hair, taking a look around the complex.

The place was a vast cave, hewn right out of the bowels of the mountain. Rows of growth tanks lined the floor, wall to wall, with huge leafy plants suspended in each tank. It was the scope works, all right. The mother lode and Red Hammer’s main bank, all in one. At the far end of the cavern, a pocket of Red Hammer technicians struggled to get up, stunned and gasping for air from the clampdown.

Gibby saw them first. “Enemy ahead…three o’clock…I count four—”

“Weapons?”

“None that I can see, sir.”

Winger checked the time. Fifteen minutes. They’d made better progress than he’d hoped for. “Taj, give me a bearing to that pulser.”

Singh studied his instrument pack, trying to make sense of the ghostly decoherence waves. “Bearing zero five zero…that way, Skipper. Best I can do at the moment—“

“Mighty Mite, MOB all of ‘em. Secure the whole cave. Let’s go hunting.”

From her station behind the ICs, Barnes acknowledged the order. With her own wristpad, she took control of a small portion of the Doc force, accepting replicants as fast as the master could slam atoms together and churn them out. She detached the force and tapped out a command sequence…in seconds, the swarm under her control had reconfigured itself. A fine smoky mist formed overhead, oscillating in and out of view. Barnes took a fix on the Red Hammer techs and fed the coordinates to her brood. The smoke pulsed and throbbed like a thing alive, then floated over and descended on the enemy, forming a Mobility Obstruction Barrier around the helpless group. Doc assemblers interlocked into an amorphous gel, cordoning off the technicians in a flexible prison cell of tightly bound assemblers. Several techs clawed at the MOB, to no avail. They were steadily forced down to the cavern floor and immovably secured there by the Doc screen.

MOB in place, Lieutenant.”

“Very well…Taj, what’s up?”

Singh had caught sight of something, a twitch in one of his sensors. “Sounding pressure change. Uh-oh…sounding heat pulse, big time heat pulse…looks like the cavalry’s coming—deco waves all over the place now, Skipper.”

Even on the grainy image of the visual element, the throbbing mass forming in one corner of the cavern was evident. It boiled out of the shadows like a thing alive and swept forward, closing fast to engage the Doc swarm, Gibby’s swarm.

“Stay with ‘em! Hold your position—”

Gibby’s force took the full brunt of the assault.

“Oh, Lieutenant….looks…like…I…GOT…MECHS!” The sergeant’s fingers flew over the keyboard and control sticks. “Making a cage…all effectors out max…I am in automaneuver…” He punched out commands, setting up his group of assemblers with full shields of fullerene arms, each one bristling with sticky molecules, juiced with torqued bonds, ready to zap all comers. Even as he configged the swarm, Winger piloted his own group away from the melee, trying to flank the enemy, pinch off the assault from both sides, a pincer movement at atomic scale.

The boiling swarm of Red Hammer mechs closed with Doc and flung themselves with fury against Gibby’s shield.

Gibby’s fingers flew over the controls, managing config, pulling more atoms to add shielding, all the while fighting off thrusts and slashes from the enemy mechs.

“Change config!” Winger yelled. “Do it now…Tactical Two—”

Gibbs sent the command, Doc trying to confuse the enemy swarm by shedding outer atoms in one big puff. They’d wargamed it before…it didn’t always work—

Ten meters in the air, trillions of Doc assemblers received the same instructions: alter configuration to this design…grab atoms…cleave this group…fold here…build lattice here…the air churned with furious activity. The cavern was suddenly bathed in an unearthly pale blue light as vast but unseen armies collided. The Gotterdammerung pulsed like a flickering aurora as the swarms clashed head-on.

“Big pulse coming through!” Taj Singh bellowed. “A series of tidal waves—!”

“What the hell?” Gibby frowned as he fought the controls, tickling propulsors, spinning Doc, managing effectors…“I can’t grapple the damn things!” Sweat broke out on his forehead, in spite of the cool night-time air rolling up the mountain side from Victoria harbor. “It’s like I’m too short! Sluggish. Lieutenant, check my config…what’s wrong with my effectors…what the hell am I doing wrong here! I’ve got no probes, grapples, it’s like my pyridines are minus a few atoms—!”

Instead of the Doc swarm speeding forward into engagement with the Red Hammer mechs, the swarm had bucked and shimmied like a baby colt.

“I can’t control it!” Gibby yelled. “I’ve lost all my configs…something’s—“

“Massive pulser blast,” Singh repeated. “We’re being hosed down—“

A voice behind them—“Lieutenant Winger, we got trouble.” Reaves had jogged back to the interface control station. “MOB net’s wearing off. DPS1 just has enough for one more discharge. I’m out.”

Winger looked at Reaves. “What the hell…those canisters were loaded full before we embarked. Spivey…get over there…see what’s going on?”

Spivey’s eyes met Winger’s. The Lieutenant seemed confused, perplexed. “Right away, sir.” He bounded off toward the edge of the camou field, and dived into the lifter, rummaging for fresh MOB charges.

“And we got company,” added Mighty Mite. Corporal Barnes was tweaking a grainy image on her eyepiece, taking a feed from the scout mechs circling the top of the mountain. “Superfly says enemy force is outside the Rock, on the mountain top, closing on our position.”

Just friggin’ wonderful. “How many?” Winger asked, swearing as he fought the stick to free Doc from entrapment.

“At least a platoon, sir. Moving across the top of Shih Ho from the southwest. Must be an exit we didn’t map.”

“Bots and HERF guns?”

“Already moving up, sir. We’re strengthening our behinds too, just in case.”

“Very well…stand by.” Winger glanced over at Gibby. “Sergeant, any replicants working?”

Gibbs threw up his hands. “I sent the right command. Enemy caught me right in the middle of a rep. It’s a friggin slaughter, sir…I’m losing signals everywhere—red across the board! Most of ‘em didn’t get fully assembled!”

Winger was growing more frustrated by the moment. Gibby needed help…but his swarm was falling apart faster than he could close the pincer. “I can’t explain it either. No electron lens…no enzymatic knife…hardly any effector control. It’s like Doc’s become crippled. Must be that pulser…it’s shredded all of Doc’s configs!”

“Lobotomized, sir. I can’t hold at all. I’m showing propulsor failure, major bond breaks, shielding’s gone…main structure being disassembled…we’ve got to withdraw now—”

“Not yet!” Winger was determined, his face set in grim concentration, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Gotta close the trap…got to get in and get data…probe the bugger, get some structure on him…if I can just get my own embed launched…I could go direct-mode—”

“Lieutenant, look out!”

Across the base camp, a squad of Red Hammer guards had breached the camou field, slicing through the mesh in a flurry of arms and legs and shouts. The muzzles of laser carbines flashed in the faint light. Beam fire erupted across the ground.

Winger and Gibbs ducked as the first volley narrowly missed the IC station, carving out a seam in a boulder field behind them. Rock and debris exploded, flying everywhere.

Sheila Reaves and Taj Singh dove for cover behind the boulders. Reaves rolled, found an opening between the rocks and squeezed off a few coil-gun rounds. The programmable kinetic slugs slammed into the lead Red Hammer guards before detonating. The concussion was deafening as smoke and body parts scattered.

“Keep ‘em pinned down!” Winger shouted. “I’m trying to help Gibby out—”

“Nothing left to pin down, Lieutenant,” Reaves called back. Her aim had been true, sighting in the rounds after slaving the slugs to her tracker.

“Superfly’s got nasties all over the place,” Taj Singh watched the remote infrared take on his own eyepiece. “All over the top of the mountain…they’ll be on our perimeter in no time, unless we get some help quick.”

“Doc’s toast, Corporal.” Winger told him. He slapped a button on his wristpad, opening the port of his shoulder capsule, launching his own embedded ANAD. “Come on, little guy, don’t go belly up on me now.” He knew the embeds weren’t that reliable. They didn’t have even minimal pulser protection but he had to do something…Doc had somehow been turned by the pulser and was coming at them now.

The first wisps of his embedded ANAD drifted out and Winger commanded max rate rep right away. The swarm boiled and throbbed like a miniature thunderstorm, gaining mass, building structure and forming a basic shield against the oncoming swarm.

Somehow, the pulser waves Taj had seen had bollixed up Doc real bad—

He brushed himself off, climbed back to the IC station and grabbed a joystick, maneuvering his minimal ANAD force closer to what was left of Gibby’s. The sergeant was still skirmishing with the remnants of the force. Good man…hang in just a few more seconds….”—got to map this sucker and fast, before he chews up ANAD for good. Just keep those Red Hammer scumbags off my back, will you?”

“Yes, sir…we’ll sanitize the area right now.” Singh and Reaves grabbed Mighty Mite and Sergeant McReady, the other SDC, to set up HERF guns covering every direction. With enough warning from Superfly, they could hold off a sizeable force for awhile using the radio frequency stun fields. But only for awhile.

Winger piloted his own swarm right into the heart of the melee.

“Whatever you are,” he muttered to himself, “you act a helluva lot like ANAD.” He worked the config controller, at the same time pulsing in and out of contact range with the main enemy group, slashing and weaving, scrunching up atoms and twisting bonds to zap the bastards with their own electron charge.

Doc, I hate to do this but you leave me no choice…keep coming, you atomic assholes…keep on coming…right into my hands—

He bored right into the heart of the Doc horde, slashing left and right.

Winger drove his own ANAD deep into the formation. He cruised in at flank speed, propulsors whining, and seized a phosphor group off the nearest mech, twisting atoms until the bonds broke. Liberating thousands of electron volts, ANAD’s disrupter zapped the Doc mech and shattered its outer shell, ripping off probes left and right. The enemy assemblers shuddered and spun with the pulse, then re-engaged to fight off another bond snap. Throughout the cavern, trillions of ANAD replicants duplicated the same tactic.

The air burned with furious combat.

Gibbs was exultant at the maneuver. “Eat my carbene effectors, you jerks!”

Winger grinned in spite of himself, deftly steering through the floating detritus of shredded assemblers. “Gotcha…” He changed config, realizing he had to grab one of the mechs before it was completely disassembled. “…right with your pants down.”

Like a backhoe scooping up dirt, he closed on the nearest Doc mech and extended his cage effectors to grapple. This command was not duplicated by the rest of ANAD; Winger wanted his army to finish off the enemy formation for good, while he grabbed a mech for analysis. He armed the ANAD master’s carbene fingers and set to work, folding and tucking the enemy device neatly into a scaffold nestled in its base.

Like a carpenter fitting a door frame, Winger pronounced himself satisfied. He heaved a sigh of relief. Gibby’s swarm was gone, nothing but atomic fluff now and his own force probably wouldn’t be able to fend off another determined assault. For the moment, the Red Hammer swarm—with the remnants of Doc—whatever they were—had been immobilized by the ferocity of ANAD’s attack. Working with Gibby, he’d managed to pinch off a small portion of the enemy force and isolate it, then smash it atom from atom. Somehow, he hoped to grab the master bot that ran the Doc swarm before they were all eaten alive.

But how long would it be before Red Hammer regrouped?

Behind him, he heard more voices echoing across the boulder fields on top of Shih Ho Mountain. Distant beamfire ripped the air, just over the edge, as bots engaged enemy making their way up through the crevices and folds of the hill. Red Hammer was moving in and remote coil guns were going off all over the place.

At that moment, Winger knew they couldn’t go any further. Their mission had been to locate the pulser and put it out commission. Nanotroopers always completed their mission. But with the Doc swarm now lost and enemy mechs advancing, it was just a matter of time before the Detachment would be consumed and the blasted pulser would still be operating. Winger hesitated a moment, but he had to make a decision now.

Time to get the hell out of Dodge. Nanotroopers couldn’t complete their mission if they were sliced and diced into atom fluff.

Winger sent final commands for all ANAD replicants but the master to commit seppuku, disassembling themselves into atomic fluff, and handmotioned Ray Spivey to get TinyTown ready for a combat extraction.

“Quantum collapse, Lieutenant?”

Winger shook his head. “No way. I’ve got precious cargo with me…the innards of one of the mechs and with any luck, I’ve got the Doc master too. We need it to study what happened. Soon as ANAD’s inerted, I’m pulling the plug.”

“Understood, sir.” Spivey was already off and running, hustling the TinyTown unit into position by the edge of the mountain. In a few minutes, Winger’s ANAD master would be exiting Shih Ho’s northwest service entrance in one hell of a hurry. It was his job to capture the master and secure it.

Spivey moved the containment pod into position while Winger readied the ANAD master assembler for the trip out. Speeding back up from the depths of the Lions Rock, a faint green phosphorescent glow boiled out of the side of the mountain. The green light became a fuzzy patch of fog and drifted upward toward the camp. As it came level with the camp, Ray Spivey readied the pod for insertion, signaling ANAD to configure itself for capture. The coruscating green fog intensified in glow, becoming a pearly white, as ANAD shut down systems and sloughed off unnecessary atoms. Deep inside the master’s carbene embrace, the kernel of the rogue Doc master bot was still imprisoned, still ticking over, ready to burst out at the slightest chance. ANAD would not give the mech the slightest opening to squeeze out.

There was a breeze around the pod as the pressure pulse cleaved the air. In an instant, ANAD had transited the capture tube and plunged into the soothing homewaters of the TinyTown container, still clinging to its prey.

Spivey capped and stowed the end of the tube and stabbed a button, sealing the tank. “Got ‘em, Lieutenant! Safing now…pressure coming up, temps okay, pH in the green. ANAD’s sealed in and safe.”

“How about our little guest, Ray?”

Spivey grinned. “Caught like a fly in a spider’s web.”

Winger was already snapping shut the IC panel, even as he powered down. He hung the control pack on a sturdy wire frame slung off Spivey’s back, buttoning down the catches. When he was done, he slapped Spivey on the shoulders, then got on the crewnet.

“Detachment listen up: we can’t get past these Red Hammer defenses with what we have. Doc got hosed…must have been those pulser signals. I managed to grab the master and a few enemy mechs with my own embedded ANAD, but the enemy’s regrouping. We’re outnumbered and outgunned today. We’ll have to go after that pulser with something bigger. DPS1, what are our options?”

Reaves’ voice was breathing hard. She had been sprinting from one weapon site to another around the mountain top, trying to keep the camou-fog up, the weapons trained, and the bad guys off the summit. “More company, Lieutenant. I’m down to a few charges left on the HERFs. Mags and coil guns are okay, but the camou’s giving out. Red Hammer’s pushing in a dozen places…some kind of mech attack…but so far, the barrier’s holding. It won’t last much longer.”

“We didn’t get to the pulser today but at least we gave ‘em a black eye,” Winger said. “We need something to shield us from that pulser…maybe Table Top can learn something from the mechs I grabbed. All hands…grab your gear…let’s exfiltrate like hell!”

Taj Singh took one last look at the deco wakes he was detecting, then stowed the instrument and began dismantling one of the HERF guns, to shrink the perimeter around the lifter, as the rest of the unit collected and stowed their equipment. The mission was done; now it was up to him and Reaves and their Superfly scouts to get 1st Nano out of harm’s way.

They scrambled across the rocky escarpment, even as Red Hammer mechs probed the barrier around them. Seconds later, the first breach occurred as the camou-fog generator ran out of steam. A thick black horde darkened the night sky and trillions of enemy mechs poured through the gap.

Fry ‘em!” Reaves yelled back to Singh. Singh re-sighted his HERF gun and lit off a charge. The thunderclap of the discharge sent searing waves of hot air roaring across the ground. Winger and the rest of the unit flattened themselves against the mountain top, letting the pulse pass. It was like riding out a tornado.

For the next few minutes, they fought a series of running duels with Red Hammer’s flying mechs, all the way to the very edge of Shih Ho Mountain. Below and behind them, night time Hong Kong lay liked a jeweled carpet, Victoria Peak festooned with lights as the din of midnight traffic from the streets below wafted skyward.

“Bots!” yelled Spivey as the first of the Detachment made the lifter with their gear. “Here they come…hit the deck!”

Johnny Winger swatted at the clouds of stinging mechs closing on their position. Red Hammer had discharged clouds of the mechs around the top of the mountain, hoping to penetrate the Quantum Corps barrier and snare the intruders before they could escape. ANAD had already been safed and inerted inside TinyTown. It was too late to launch countermeasures.

Fall back!” he shouted, running for cover. “Fall back to the lifter!” He got on the crewnet. “Helix One ," He yelled to the lifter pilot-- "get that jalopy spooled up fast! We're making a run for it!"

The Red Hammer horde of micron-sized bots fell on the Detachment with a fury.

“Arrrggghhh—my head—!” cried Nico Simonet. She stumbled across the rocky ground, slogging through the lifter’s downwash, as she flailed wildly at the swarm engulfing her. “—my eyes!—”

Winger dove for Simonet and flung her to the ground, covering her body with his. He heard the high keening whine of trillions of mechs buzzing at them. They were dumb bots, without the smarts or the assembler coding of an ANAD or a Doc, but dangerous all the same. Unprotected, a soldier had about ten minutes before his skin was flayed open and he was sucked dry by the little bastards.

“Reaves? Where’s Superfly?”

“Assembling now, sir!” DPS’s voice was shaking, as she pecked out commands on her wrist keypad, calling the unit’s own microfliers to the rescue. Superfly couldn’t match the Red Hammer mechs in numbers, but it could drive a wedge in the enemy swarm, carve out a bubble and let the troops make it the last few meters to the lifter.

Reaves swung and swatted at the buzzing cloud around her head, finally sending the command to the lead bot. From well down the slopes of Shih Ho Mountain, a mass formation of mite-sized fliers formed up and raced up the escarpment, homing on Reaves’ transmitter, seeking gaps in the camou barrier.

Deep in her bones, Reaves shuddered. Come on Fly, get…up…here…now….she could feel the mechs whirring away on her neck and forearms—“get the hell up here….”

Suddenly, the air thickened to a gelatinous mist and the shriek of the mechs became unbearable, tearing at their eardrums. The nighttime glitter of Kowloon dimmed momentarily as Superfly swarmed onto the mountaintop and enveloped the Detachment. The shriek of the attack screeched into inaudibility, a scream of rage no longer heard but felt in the interstices of every bone of her body.

“Attack config—” she squeezed out, nearly out of breath, burrowing as deep as she could against the cold rock of the mountaintop. “Give it to ‘em, Superfly! Right in the chops!”

The onslaught slackened just enough for the rest of the Detachment to make a final dash to the lifter. Reaves stumbled, crawling, pitching forward, pushing somebody along ahead of her. It was Simonet, bleeding badly from her forehead, dragging along her web belt of gear. Lucy, Barnes, Gibbs, and the rest raced the last few dozen meters, beating against the lifter’s downdraft. McReady and Gibbs helped Taj wrestle the TinyTown cylinder into its niche in the rear.

They fell one after another into the open deck of the lifter, rolling around like balls, as the pilot jerked the craft away from the landing zone. The lifter shuddered under full military power, fighting remnant clouds of mechs, as the craft careened and bucked and shot skyward. A hurricane of dust and sand and swarming mechs tore by, all blown to the wind, as the lifter spun and wobbled until the pilot could right her. Reaves wiped sweat and grit from her eyes and squinted up at the cockpit, seeing a familiar face. It was Angelo, the Cuban jockey who’d joined the Corps last year. Angelo, who’d veetolled them onto Shih Ho’s summit a few hours ago. A welcome face. Reaves laughed in spite of herself.

Angelo pitched them up and away from the mountain slope, hauling the stick back full. They screamed across the night sky of Hong Kong like a bird of prey at max thrust…scattering mechs everywhere.

Too bad about Superfly, Reaves thought, as she sat up and wiped streaks of grime from her face. He’d always been a kickass bot, her personal toy and a damned good scout for Detachment missions. They’d miss this model for sure. But Table Top could fabricate another one in no time.

One hundred, two hundred, five hundred meters. Reaves barely breathed until they’d put kilometers behind them and the only thing she could hear was the thrummmm of the liftjets and the cold wind whistling through the cockpit holes. She shook her head, startled at the sight. Mechs had burrowed into the lifter…the holes, she hadn’t seen them before. It had been that close.

A few meters away, Johnny Winger was feeling much the same. He sank back, sweaty and exhausted, and killed the crewnet. His eyepiece went dark and he shoved it away from his face, pleased they’d been able to grab one of the enemy assemblers inside Shih Ho Mountain, but dejected they’d failed to get to the pulser. Kraft would have his ass for that but the truth was they needed bigger guns to penetrate Lions Rock. But they had stung the cartel and it was a sure bet Red Hammer would be scrambling in the days ahead to recover from the smash and grab.

Even more important, they had a better idea of just what they were up against with the cartel’s pulser. The speed at which the device had corrupted Doc and turned that swarm against them was sobering. At least, Taj was now reporting the decoherence wakes had slackened a bit. Maybe the cartel had closed down the pulser and UNIFORCE could regain control of its killsats.

Winger and Reaves exchanged wry glances. DPS1 had been following a feed from the newssats and showed it to the Lieutenant. Winger read the crawl silently: Red Hammer issues ultimatums… Paris, New York, Tokyo and London…to pay ransom, allow cartel operations a free hand or risk destruction…bubbles of toxic, unbreathable air already penetrating Svalbard and Scandinavia…ice cap melting advances…flooding in Mumbai and Miami….

Quantum Sword had failed in its basic mission because no one understood how to deal with the pulser. New ideas were needed, not to mention new weapons. But all that would have to wait for another mission to Lions Rock. In the meantime, spaceplane Archimede had already left Chek Lap Kok, winging her way across the top of the atmosphere back to Kourou; she would be needed for further trips up to Gateway. The Detachment itself had a long haul to make Quantum Corps’ Eastern Command base at Singapore. There would be hours and hours of debriefings and after-action reviews and then would come all the ass-chewing and the head-banging. The thought of it made Winger’s head hurt. Best to get some shut-eye now, while he could.

Above their heads, massaging the controls like a master pianist, Angelo grinned back at the sight of Reaves and Winger, sacked out next to each other, then trimmed the lifter for cruise, settling in for a nighttime hop across the South China Sea.

 

END

 

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 “Lions Rock.” Available on December 19, 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 16: ANAD on Ice

Episode 16, Nanotroopers. The Red Hammer cartel is using their own nanobotic swarms to melt the ice caps and alter the atmosphere. They’re doing this at the behest of their alien benefactors so the cartel will continue to have access to the aliens’ archives. The nanotroopers are assigned a mission to confront the enemy swarms in the Antarctic. ANAD isn’t working right but Johnny Winger has developed a relationship with Doc II, the nanobotic essence of old Doc Frost. The mission fails when Doc II isn’t quite up to the task. Worse, the cartel has a new device, called a pulser, that can create swarms at great distances or corrupt existing swarms remotely. Doc II has an idea: use killsats in orbit around Earth to contain Red Hammer. But when the pulser is used to create swarms aboard several killsats and the cartel takes command of them, cities around the world are threatened with a new ultimatum: pay up and allow the cartel a free hand, or else. The source of the pulser waves is traced back to the Red Hammer base in Hong Kong. Now a desperate assault is mounted against the cartel base but the mission stalls when Doc II is nearly obliterated by the new weapon. Winger and his nanotroopers have to fall back on an unreliable ANAD in an attempt to locate and destroy this new weapon, before the cartel lays waste to scores of cities.

  • ISBN: 9781370393602
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2016-11-28 14:35:12
  • Words: 33029
Nanotroopers Episode 16: ANAD on Ice Nanotroopers Episode 16: ANAD on Ice