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Nanotroopers Episode 17: Lions Rock

Nanotroopers

Episode 17: Lions Rock

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 Barnes’ 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

Buried”

 

 

U.N. Quantum Corps Base

Table Top, Idaho, USA

July 20, 2049

1630 hours U.T.

 

Major Jurgen Kraft, with a glance toward Johnny Winger, spoke up. “General, we’ve engaged Red Hammer several times, with mixed results.” He pressed a few buttons on his control pad and SOFIE brought up 3-D imagery of the Red Hammer nanobot, at maximum resolution. “As you can see, the bugger’s studded with effectors. It’s big as a battleship and well armored. It’s able to maneuver surprisingly fast for its size and it can grow and swap effectors with great speed…Lieutenant Winger here has reported it’s hard for ANAD to keep up. And the enemy’s new pulser makes it even harder…especially to hold any battle configuration.”

“It has one known weak spot, General,” Winger added, taking his cue from the Major. “Amidships, there’s some kind of cavity or cleft that opens through some phosphate clusters right through the outer membrane groups to the bot’s innards. If you can get by the grabbers and carbenes and radicals around the site, you can do a lot of damage inside. But getting inside…that’s the trick.”

General Wolfus Linx was growing frustrated. “ANAD has recently been regenerated, has it not? You had to do a quantum collapse in your last engagement?”

“That’s correct, sir,” Kraft said. “At Lake Vostok, in the Antarctic. We were being jammed…quantum interference with the swarm made it a bitch to control. The pulser waves kept messing up ANAD’s config. The only way Winger could escape was to leave him behind. We lost that one completely. The regenerated master now has changes that should make it more effective at engaging the enemy.”

“Let’s hope so,” Linx said. “Now the biggest question is how to take down Lions Rock. I’ve studied your after-action reports. It’s a safe bet the place is thick with defenses, if not worse, now that we’ve already stirred them up. ”

Gabrielle Galland spoke up. “General, Lieutenant Winger and I have been studying that problem. We have a tactical plan we think might work.”

Linx nodded for her to proceed. With Kraft’s help, she hooked up to SOFIE to create a sim of her idea.

“A few months ago, at Kurabantu Island, sir, 1st Nano was faced with a similar problem: an underwater complex, where Dana Tallant was being held along with her CC2, Sergeant Collin, by Red Hammer. The complex was built into the side of an underwater escarpment and it was well defended from most approaches. Lieutenant Winger here used ANAD to bore a small tunnel from outside the swarm zone and assault the compound from inside the mountain, from a direction the enemy never expected. A small rescue force was able to achieve complete tactical surprise.”

Linx was intrigued. “Go on.”

“Well, sir, both Lieutenant Winger and myself believe the same tactic would be effective against the Lions Rock base. An assault from below ground, starting from a point well outside Chinese territory.”

Linx altered the map to show the area in greater detail. “I scanned your reports from the Kurabantu operation on the trip over from Paris. ANAD is capable of tunneling fast enough to create an assault route?”

“With some tweaking and adjusting,” Winger replied. “More than capable, sir. Doc II has helped us optimize his effectors and propulsors to make such operations work even better—“

“ANAD’s processor has been upgraded. Doc II here has been tinkering under the hood again.”

Linx glanced in the direction of the swarm, now gathered in a corner of Kraft’s office, its shadowy outline vaguely resembling Dr. Irwin Frost. The swarm brightened and drifted forward.

***I’ve taken steps to streamline the logic in ANAD’s central processor. After the Kurabantu mission, Lieutenant Winger asked me to speed up his molecular manipulation and sorting speeds…I’ve done that and tested it. ANAD now can break down solid phase structures at speeds orders of magnitude faster than before.***

“Sir, if I may—“Galland cut in. She laid out the tactical plan she and Winger had developed in the commissary that morning. “An underground assault offers several advantages. We gain tactical surprise…I doubt they’ll be expecting an assault force to pop up right at their front door, from below ground. And, as with the Kurabantu complex, it’s more likely that Red Hammer defenses will be minimal to nonexistent along this axis. So far as we know, they have no real knowledge that ANAD can do this kind of tunneling.”

Linx studied the maps. SOFIE annotated the views with additional data, depicting surface conditions, cities, topographic relief, even layering the diagrams with underground rock strata.

“It’s a long distance to go underground, Lieutenant. We’re looking at…what?…several kilometers of tunnel, through hard shale rock, if I’m reading the diagrams right. Can ANAD create a tunnel of that length, sturdy enough for an assault force to transit in a reasonable time?”

“General Linx, sir—“ it was Taj Singh. “Begging the General’s pardon, sir, but Sergeant Barnes and I have been working on that very detail.” He approached the console. “May I, sir?”

Linx relinquished control of SOFIE and 1st Nano’s CQE1 took over the sim tank, pressing buttons to bring up a 3-D image of a strange-looking cylindrical craft with a large parabolic horn at its nose. “Sergeant Barnes and I started working on this idea after the Detachment got back from Lions Rock. Let me assure you, sir, I don’t have any great desire to go climbing through narrow tunnels underground any more than necessary.”

Barnes picked up the story. “What you’re looking at is a new vehicle for transporting troops underground. We call it a geoplane. We’ve nicknamed this one Gopher.”

Gopher is designed to use ANAD boring and tunneling capabilities…” he put a laser pointer spot on the parabolic nose “…to create a path underground, to ferry troops and supplies covertly from one point to another. As you can see, the borer module up front uses ANAD swarms to create a path…a tunnel, if you like, using high-speed molecular disassembly. Gopher is propelled by her treads on these six ring tracks spaced around her circumference, through the tunnel created by the ANAD borer. She can carry a full squad of troopers, plus supplies, weapons, and munitions of any type.”

Kraft was both impressed and a bit skeptical that a pair of noncom CQEs could think up such an idea. “What drives it, Sergeant? What’s the power source?”

Singh cleared his throat while Barnes licked her lips. She knew they hadn’t brought the idea to Kraft for review before springing it at the staff meeting. The Major didn’t like surprises, especially when he couldn’t take some of the credit.

“We’re figuring a hybrid power source…fuel cells and batteries. Nuclear’s too heavy; the shielding alone would make Gopher too cumbersome. Fuel cells are light and compact now. Sergeant Barnes here has even figured out a way to capture some of the energy that ANAD releases when he breaks atomic bonds in disassembly.”

Linx nodded to Kraft. “Your people have done good work here, Major. Top notch work.”

Kraft smiled a hesitant smile. “Yes, sir. I always encourage initiative in my staff.”

“I assume this is just a design. How long before we can have an operational vehicle?”

Taj checked with Barnes.

“General…let me run the sim of Gopher in operation while the Sergeant and I do some figuring.”

“Proceed.”

Singh toggled some switches and the 3-D image of the tiny geoplane whirred to life. As the sim advanced, the geoplane approached a steep mountain and its front end borer grew white hot. The craft nosed down at the base of the mountain and plunged below ground. But below the mountain, the strata of rock had been stripped away to reveal Gopher busily at work, like a carpenter bee, pushing its way deeper and deeper into the simulated crust.

As the sim proceeded, Linx, Kraft and the rest watched Gopher chewing its way through a series of maneuvers…first descending, then climbing and turning, its circumferential treads propelling it steadily along tunnels created by its ANAD borer. Mounted on a parabolic horn at the nose of the craft, the borer was a white-hot ball, as trillions of nanomechs disassembled molecules of rock at high speed. Gopher plowed through varying layers of strata with ease, then began nosing its way upward, eventually breaching the surface in an eruption of dirt and rock. The sim came to an end and SOFIE darkened the Sim Tank.

“Impressive,” Linx admitted. “I assume this is only a conceptual design? How long would it take to field a prototype?”

Singh had worked out a preliminary schedule while Linx was watching the sim. “Based on availability of certain resources…time with SOFIE, designWeb, and so forth, we can be ready to cut metal in about two weeks. We’re proposing the geoplane project have priority access to Table Top’s fabs, priority on purchasing, expedited design reviews and all the engineering and machine shop people we need. Given that, Gopher could be underway on her shakedown runs in about four weeks.”

Kraft asked, “Have you got the molecular configuration detailed enough for the fabs to take it now?”

“Only a few sections have been detailed, Major,” said Singh. “The borer module, the tread system and the power plant and lockout spaces have been structurally detailed. With a little help from Doc II, we could load the configs into an ANAD processor in a day or so and have complete assemblies by the end of the week.”

“It’s a hell of a lot of nano,” Linx agreed, “but time is short.” He motioned to Kraft. “See that the geoplane project gets what it needs to expedite final assembly. Gentlemen, I’m approving this contraption right here and now. Have you worked out the tactics to use it for assaulting Lions Rock?”

“Working on it now, sir,” Winger replied. “That’s where the sim you just saw comes in. Tactically, we feel any assault force will need two of these vehicles. Each one can carry a squad of about six to eight troopers. That allows us to put a platoon-sized force on the enemy’s doorstep with no warning.”

“There is another aspect to this concept, sir” Singh added. “With an ANAD-driven borer mounted on her nose, our sims show that a geoplane also has the capacity to induce seismic shocks…earthquakes, if you will…at least over a limited area. Injecting streams of specially configured ANADs from the borer ring, a geoplane positioned properly can cause enough slippage or fracture in nearby tectonic structures to pretty much generate earthquakes on demand.” Singh started to switch SOFIE to a new sim. “Sir, we’ve done the initial analysis, if you’d like to—“

Linx held up a hand. “Later, Sergeant. I’m sure the physics is sound. Gentlemen, the geoplane project is approved, both of them. I’m forwarding my report to UNSAC tonight, along with recommendations that the assault on Lions Rock commence four weeks from today.” He consulted a calendar. “A-Day will be August 10th. A complete tactical plan should be on my screen by August 1. Is that understood?”

A chorus of Yes, sirs came back. Linx looked around the room at the assembled staff.

“Quantum Corps is the tip of the spear, gentlemen. UNSAC is counting on you to succeed. Hell, the whole planet’s counting on you. I don’t have to remind you of what’s at stake here. Major—“ he turned to Kraft, “we need to give this operation a name.”

Barnes spoke up. “Tectonic Sword, sir. Operation Tectonic Sword.”

Linx snorted. “Odd but damned appropriate, if you ask me. Tectonic Sword it is. I’ll see to it that UNIFORCE fully supports the assault in whatever way is necessary. You’ll have combat engineers, the latest intelligence, air, ground, and space support, diplomatic cover as needed. Tectonic Strike must be kept from the Chinese though. The whole thing is politically very touchy.”

Kraft had a determined cast to his face. “My people will have a geoplane design and assault plans ready in one week, General.”

That earned the Major a few raised eyebrows and sideways glances. Johnny Winger’s eyes met Gabrielle Galland’s.

The Major has an awfully big mouth, making promises like that.

Galland just nodded faintly.

“Very well, gentlemen…I’ll leave you to your work.” With that, Wolfus Linx and his two staff assistants left the Sim Tank.

Kraft glared at the rest of them. “Don’t just stand there, people. Let’s get to it!”

 

Two weeks of twenty-four hours days followed. Table Top Mountain was a beehive of activity as Ops, Engineering, Munitions, and other departments bent to the task of fleshing out the geoplane’s design and the details of the assault plan that would employ it. Johnny Winger himself routinely put in eighteen and twenty hour days, working at times in the Sim Tank wargaming every possible detail of the assault, studying topographic detail of the ground and subsurface structure around Lions Rock, arguing with engineers and machinists in the shops over Gopher’s design and fittings and working with Doc II at the Containment center to optimize ANAD for tunnel-boring and for final combat against the Red Hammer base at Lions Rock.

As July rolled into August, Major Kraft’s promised deadline evaporated as surely as the last winter snows on Table Top’s mesa but the Major made no further mention of his promise to CINCQUANT. Through daily briefings and unannounced strolls through the labs and shops, Kraft could see that the whole compound was mobilized to support 1st Nano’s mission.

They’re good kids, he told himself after one late afternoon inspection of the geoplane prototype, now encased in scaffolding and catwalks on the ground floor of Table Top’s Hangar C. They’ll get the mission accomplished, one way or another.

He thought grimly as he walked the grassy quadrangle back to the glass cube of the Ops building. They have to. There’s too much at stake to fail now.

Bit by bit, beams and spars and panels and struts and framing came together and Gopher gradually took shape inside the hangar. By the second week of August, she was powered up for the first time and Winger and a select crew tested her for fit and function, exercising her treads, grapplers and cycling the borer on and off.

The lead engineer was a ruddy-cheeked sunburned Texan named Murchison, with scarred hands and a booming voice. He climbed up onto the command deck and sat beside Winger in the cockpit, while a trio of electricians pulled wiring bundles through the forward consoles.

“She’ll be ready for maneuvering exercises next Monday, Lieutenant. We’re hauling her out to Hunt Valley over the weekend. You got a test crew ready?”

Winger was checking off switches and buttons against a diagram he had spread across his knees. “Me and Lieutenant Galland will be the test crew, Murch. I just have to clear it with the Major. Are you going to load live ANAD in the borer?”

Murchison nodded. “Soon as Containment okays a test batch, we’ll load her up and put her to work. The test range has already laid out a course for you…some above ground and some below.” He handed over a map of the range to Winger.

The atomgrabber studied the test course for a few moments, following the track through the still snow-covered hills with his finger. The route would take the geoplane prototype from a launch point at the eastern end of Hunt Valley, near the “Notch” along a serpentine path across central Idaho, eventually diving below ground south of Buffalo Ridge. The test then had Gopher circling the Table Top mesa below the surface, tunneling its way north across the Snake River canyon at a depth of two kilometers before circling back toward the war game range at Hunt Valley.

“This should put Gopher through her paces, Murch. How’s she coming along?”

Murchison shrugged, consulted his wristpad and checked files. “Power plant full-up test this afternoon, Lieutenant. We’re still tracking down a current leak in the batteries, but that should be fixable. Tomorrow, we hang her treads and motors on; they’re powered up in two days. It’s tight but we’re getting there.” The Texan shook his head ruefully, patted Gopher’s instrument panel and played with her controls like a child. “I don’t mind telling you, Lieutenant…up until a week ago, I never thought this contraption would work. I mean…look at her…it ain’t natural doing what she’s doing, going where she’s going.”

“You mean burrowing underground like a…gopher?” Winger chuckled. “Her name fits, doesn’t it?” He thought back to the tunnel at Kurabantu, how claustrophobic and hot that had been, like being trapped in a coffin that went on forever. And rescuing Buddha Nguyen from Lions Rock on their first ‘visit’ hadn’t been any easier.

“The way I look at it, maneuvering through solid rock is no different than maneuvering through air or water,” he lied. Or, for that matter, atoms and molecules. “It’s just another medium. First Nano has to stay focused on the mission, on the target.” He squeezed the control stick affectionately. “Gopher’s just our ride to the show.”

Murchison was already climbing down from the command deck, off to check on some parts in the shop.

“I’ll make sure she’s a good ride, Lieutenant. Don’t you and the guys worry none about that.”

 

Test day came a week later. It was a muggy, humid morning in Hunt Valley when Winger and Galland boarded the geoplane and strapped themselves in.

Winger looked over at Galland. “Let’s fire this jalopy up and see what she can do.”

Gopher was started up, her treads spinning as Winger throttled up the electric motors. With a jerk, the geoplane trundled off through foot-deep snow, a plume of powder making rooster tails behind her. She plowed ahead at a stately three kilometers an hour, while her crew tested controls and systems.

“A real race car,” Galland observed dryly. Gopher rocked back and forth as she clawed her way around the valley floor, following a pre-determined course that had been laid out at the test range.

“Yeah,” said Winger, as he steered left and right, getting a feel for Gopher’s handling. “Let’s enter her in the Indy 500.”

“We’ll be the first to cross the finish line…under the track. But we’ll never see the checkered flag.”

For the next half hour, Winger put the geoplane through her paces.

“Handles pretty well on the surface,” he noted. “Steering is stiff…not a lot of pickup.” He saw the snow-streaked lower flanks of Signal Mountain dead ahead on their monitor—Gopher had no windows or portholes—and steered in that direction. “Gabby, light up the borer. Let’s put Gopher in her real element.”

Pressing a few buttons, Galland activated the borer that formed a huge dish-shaped nose on the geoplane’s bow. Inside the borer, actuators fired to release the ANAD swarm contained there. In seconds, the outer surface of the dish was thick with nanoscale disassemblers, forming a shimmering half-globe around Gopher’s nose. Like a single huge blue-white headlamp, the dish and its halo of mechs formed the geoplane’s working surface for subterranean operations.

“Approaching the mountain…” Winger said. “Contact Test Ops and tell ‘em we’re going under.”

Galland complied.

“Good luck,” came back the voice of Murchison. “Don’t you be stopping at no bordellos down there,” he added.

“Borer coming on line,” Galland reported. She scanned her instrument panel, reading swarm density, alignment and other parameters. “ANAD’s ready to bite—“

Winger absent-mindedly patted his left shoulder, feeling the capsule port embedded there. He linked in and tried to raise ANAD, knowing full well the frustration the tiny assembler felt in containment inside the capsule while a distant cousin hummed with activity at the geoplane’s nose.

“ANAD, sorry for this…the borer swarm is optimized for disassembly in solid-phase structures. I need you here with me, up here on the command deck.”

***ANAD isn’t liking this, Boss. I should be in that borer…you know that…those mechs up there are just rubes…they barely have the brains to disassemble rock. Put me up front, Boss…I can do so much more. You and me, we’ve always been a team, haven’t we?***

Winger suppressed a smile. ANAD sounded like a teenager begging for the car keys. He was glad Galland couldn’t hear any of it. He stole a glance over at his co-pilot…she was preoccupied calibrating the borer, paying no attention to anything beyond her instruments.

You’re lucky, he thought. You don’t have whiny voices in the back of your head.

Gopher slowed down as the mountain approached, then a high keening wail could be heard through the hull, as the borer bit into the rock. The geoplane shuddered as it decelerated. Outside the command deck, unseen by Winger and Galland, Gopher’s nose buried itself in a shimmering blue-white fog as the borer revved up and uncountable trillions of mechs tore at the rock.

Galland licked her lips nervously, reading her instruments. “Coming back mostly quartz and pyroxenes, with some sandstone mixed in. ANAD should eat this stuff up.”

The geoplane plunged into the tunnel created by the ANAD borer, angling nose down as it bit deeper into the side of the mountain.

Gopher’s instrument panel showed the results of acoustic sounding, displaying rock layers on a graph, with temperature and pressure readings all around the graph. Borer status was displayed as well.

“Looking good,” Winger muttered. “Borer configured for quartz and pyroxenes…ANAD’s chewing through at a rate of two point five kilometers per hour. Treads are functioning fine.”

“Let’s try some basic maneuvers,” Galland suggested.

Winger turned the stick to port and Gopher initiated a shallow left-hand bank. The command deck listed slightly, then stabilized. For the next few minutes, first Winger, then Galland took turns putting the geoplane through a series of turns, dives and climbs.

Winger began to relax his grip on the stick slightly, trying to forget they were now hundreds of meters below ground.

“There’s a layer of basaltic rock a few kilometers north of here,” he remembered. “It’s nearly a kilometer down. We should see how Gopher handles there.”

Galland was cautious. “Remember what Murchison told us in the briefing: don’t push her too hard on this first test. Basaltic stuff is superhard and dense…all shale inclusions and quartzite. We’re not sure Gopher’s hull can take the pressure.”

“I know but we’re eventually taking her to Lions Rock. Most of the approach corridors into that place go through similar stuff. We have to find out how she’ll handle.”

Galland took a deep breath. “Just be careful. Stay above five hundred meters. If the borer goes on the fritz and something fails, the test crew can still dig us out.”

“Agreed.” Winger programmed a new heading into the tread control system and steered northwest on a heading of three ten degrees, roughly paralleling the Buffalo Ridge at the surface. Acoustic sounding soon showed the geoplane was entering harder, denser rock layers.

“Shales,” Winger muttered. From earlier briefings with Quantum Corps geologists, he knew the layer was sheeted with hard slate and mica, compacted over millions of years by glaciers and the overriding Buffalo mountain range. ANAD, he linked in, I hope to hell your cousins are up to this. If we get stuck down here….

***Not to worry, Boss, ANAD mechs can handle this stuff with ease…just relax and enjoy the view***

Winger snorted. The only view they had was of the inner pressure hull of the geoplane. Even as Winger watched, he imagined that he could see the compression of Gopher’s interior frame under the millions of tons pressing down on them.

“Sounding ahead…” Galland reported. “Your depth is now four eight eight meters. Signal distortion coming back…it’s probably the shale zone.”

Winger shoved the control stick forward. “I’m going a little deeper…see if we can plow through some of that quartzite.”

Galland was dubious. She studied the sounding profile. “Just don’t push Gopher too hard, okay? Let’s don’t press our luck on the first run. I’m showing discontinuities dead ahead…some kind of boundary layer, maybe.”

“Inclusion zone? Maybe it’s the quartzite.”

Galland shook her head. “It looks more like a fault, maybe a transform fault. The geos said there were fracture zones north of Hunt Valley.”

Gopher angled slightly downward and slowed, as the borer swarm bit into denser rock.

“Cabin temp going up,” Galland reported.

“Acknowledged. Those mechs are working overtime up front, making us a tunnel. I—“

Winger’s last words were cut off as Gopher shuddered violently. For a brief moment, there was an unmistakable sensation of sliding, sliding sideways and downward. Almost at the same moment, something hit Gopher’s nose with a sickening crunch and the geoplane shuddered again and ground violently to a halt. The cabin tilted to port and stayed tilted.

Gopher’s cabin was deathly still for a few moments, then the creaking and groaning of the hull under tremendous pressure started.

“What happened?” Winger asked, wincing as the tortured sounds of the hull being compressed grew louder.

Galland scanned her instruments nervously. “Borer is offline. I’m getting no responses from ANAD in the forward module…pressure drop in containment…we may have a breach.”

“Great,” Winger muttered. “Just friggin’ great. And it looks like we’ve got a breach in the pressure hull too.”

“I see it…cabin air pressure fluctuating…we’d better activate emergency flasks, just in case.” Galland toggled a few switches and immediately, high pressure air began flooding all compartments.

Winger was studying the acoustic sounder, replaying the last few moments before the—what had happened? An accident. “Gabby, I’m not sure but I think we may have created our own earthquake.”

“What? That can’t be…can it?”

Winger went over the soundings again. “We were approaching some kind of discontinuity—see right here?” He pointed to the display. “Like a layer or inclusion zone. Remember when the geos told us there were some transform faults and fracture zones around Hunt Valley?”

Galland said, “Vaguely.”

Winger was figuring out the scenario as he replayed in his mind what must have happened. “It was ANAD in the borer module. The swarm disassembled just enough shale and quartzite and other rock to loosen up the fault. It slipped, shifted around and we were caught in the slide.”

“So we did create our own earthquake.”

Winger took a deep breath. “So it would seem…now we’ve got to figure out a way of getting out of here. What do we have to work with?”

Galland went over her instruments again. “Borer’s offline, like I said, and it looks like containment was breached in the accident. I’ve got no response from the borer swarm, no configs, no data of any kind. That swarm’s gone and it’s not responding to commands.”

Winger tried a few tricks of his own but with no success. “Well, I do have a master in my shoulder capsule. We could jerry-rig a swarm for the borer if we had to.”

“If the module’s not too damaged. On top of that, the tread system’s not responding…so we have no mobility. And the pressure hull….”

Winger saw the oxygen level had been dropping significantly in the last few minutes. “We’ve got to stop that leak…here, let me contact ANAD.” He linked in. “ANAD, this is Winger…do you read me?”

***ANAD copies…reading you loud and clear…what has happened?…ANAD’s coupler indicates some kind of swarm break…is the borer functioning?***

How the hell did he know that?

“ANAD, Gopher’s had an accident. The pressure hull has been breached. Configure for launch and max replication. I need a local swarm to find and plug the leaks.”

***ANAD configuring now…systems initializing…ANAD reporting ready in all respects…***

Winger unstrapped himself and went aft through the tunnel to the power plant. “Launch, ANAD. Launch now….” As the atomgrabber went off to check on their power systems, a shimmering light blue fog emerged from the capsule in his left shoulder. Winger felt a brief sting as the assembler exited containment but the launch sequence seemed smoother than before.

***ANAD replicating…can I get a heading to the target?***

“I’m doing that now,” Winger reported, as he scrambled through the galley and berthing deck and the engineering deck. “Gabby, where’s the leak? Can you localize it?”

Still back at the command deck, Gabby Galland scanned her instruments. “I’m showing maximum pressure drop at frame ninety-six, starboard side…somewhere between E and F deck.”

Winger squirmed through the central access tube. He knew E deck was for Engineering, Shops and Utilities. Murchison had called it the ESU deck. Just aft was F deck, home to Gopher’s hybrid battery and fuel cell power plant.

“I feel it…there’s a whistle just off to my left—“ Winger paused, sniffing, letting his senses guide him. There. A utilities duct penetrating the bulkhead seemed to be the center of the leak. He saw a faint mist in the air swirling around the duct. “I found it….ANAD configure max propulsor. Home on my signal.” He pressed a button on his wristpad.

Several decks forward, the shimmering fog of the assembler swarm wheeled about and began transiting the access tube.

***ANAD is en route to your location…estimated time is twenty-two minutes***

Winger tried examining the source of the leak, where the inner pressure hull had been stove in. It was scalding hot with swirling steam and air and he couldn’t get any closer.

“Hurry, ANAD…this break is getting bigger by the minute.”

The ANAD swarm arrived at the site of the breach and promptly went to work. Configuring itself as a tightly interlinked mesh, ANAD sought out the pressure hull penetrations and quickly formed a nanoscale patch over the holes with its trillions of replicants. Gradually, the whistling subsided, then stopped altogether.

“I’m reading air pressure stabilizing in all compartments,” Galland reported from the command deck. “The patch seems to be working.”

Johnny Winger breathed a sigh of relief, feeling the cool oxygen of the geoplane’s emergency flasks wash over his face. “ANAD, you’re a lifesaver.”

***ANAD reporting swarm element in place and holding. No more air molecules can get in or out. I am configured in repeating tetrahedral with radicals at my outer barrier. Oxygens hate that. And yes…I did save the ship, didn’t I? Isn’t that what you learn in nog school…don’t leave your buddies behind?***

Winger decided to return to the command deck. “You’re right about that, ANAD…but who told you that? You were never a nog.”

***I could have been, Lieutenant. I’ve had a lot of the training already…Doctor Frost programmed my processor with all relevant operational routines, including standard search and rescue algorithms. Isn’t that the same thing?***

Winger gave the question some thought, as he hauled himself forward up the narrow access tunnel.

“ANAD, you can’t be a nog. You didn’t have the same experiences as the rest of us…like twenty kilometer runs in the snow around Hunt Valley. Or the SODS tank or all the hazing.”

Winger reached the command deck, while ANAD was silent for a few moments.

***So why is your experience any better than mine? You don’t know what it’s really like to snap a bond. Or park a carbon atom on the front porch of a benzene ring. Or surf van der Waals forces through a red blood cell***

Winger climbed into his commander’s seat. “Forget it, ANAD…we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to find a way out of here.”

“Did you say something?” Galland asked. Second Nano’s CC1 had been half buried inside an electrical cabinet, trying to troubleshoot Gopher’s tread drive.

“Just talking to ANAD…what’s our status up here?”

Galland sat back and wiped sweat off her face. “Tread drive’s shot. Something overloaded the controller. I’m getting no response anywhere…either we’re jammed or there’s a hard mechanical failure. I think I’ve got it isolated to somewhere between E and F decks. I got power up to that frame and zilch aft of that point.” She shook her head. “Either way, the tread drive’s offline. We have no mobility. You get the leaks stopped?”

Winger checked Gopher’s instrument panels. “For the moment. ANAD replicated a patch of dumb bots. It seems to be holding.”

Galland sighed. “Then it looks like we’re stuck here, Wings.”

Winger wasn’t one to accept defeat easily. “Maybe, maybe not. We don’t know what the problem is with the borer. I want to send ANAD out there to do a little recon, see if we can get the borer working again.”

“The master doesn’t have the same config as the borer bots. Have you got the right program?”

Winger was already pecking out commands on a nearby keypad. “I think I can gin up something from here…it’s really just a matter of optimizing his effector setup. I studied Doc’s work close enough to get a feel for the geometry.”

Winger hacked out a configuration and fired it off to the ANAD master. Above and behind the main console, the faint blue fog pulsated and flickered like a mist in the air…the assembler seemed to prefer to exist in small-scale swarms whenever it was left outside containment…like it was a natural state. As ANAD received and processed the commands, the fog roiled and billowed with unseen currents, a ghostly radiance barely visible but for the tiny bursts of light popping on and off embedded within.

***ANAD processing commands now…I will replicate a small formation, config for solid-phase disassembly and exit the vehicle***

“We need information, ANAD,” Winger explained. Sometimes you could say better in English things you couldn’t express in configuration commands. ANAD’s natural language processor made that possible but it was a two-sided sword. “Do a recon of the entire borer module. I want config status, visuals, EM, acoustics, everything. I want to know what condition the module is in. Is it functional at all? What happened to the swarm inside? And could you replicate a replacement if needed?”

***ANAD understands…now on eighty percent propulsor…en route to borer containment port***

Galland was apprehensive, as she watched the blue fog slowly pass over them and insinuate itself behind the main console. Forward of the command deck was Gopher’s containment vessel, swarm controls and loading ports. The borer itself was a horn-shaped dish outside the pressure hull, through which borer ANAD bots emerged into active formation for tunneling.

“Wings, what do we do if ANAD can’t fix the damage? What if he can’t operate the borer…maybe the fault damaged the horn.”

Winger stared at the last faint tendrils of the mist as it disappeared behind the console.

“We’ll figure that out when we have to, Gabby. Let’s just fight one problem at a time.”

A few minutes later, Winger got ANAD’s report.

***The borer swarm is gone, Boss…nowhere to be seen. They must have slipped containment…the whole front end of the horn is crushed. Swarm control is gone too***

And we don’t have the configs loaded for major ship repairs, Winger reminded himself. He explained what ANAD had found to Galland.

The CC2 shook her head. “Without a horn, the borer swarm can’t be focused, if we even had a swarm.”

“Maybe ANAD can disassemble enough material to unstuck us. If we could get the tread drive operating, we could reverse course and back our way out of this mess.”

Galland was skeptical but agreed it was worth a try.

Winger contacted the ANAD master. “ANAD, I’m sending a new config. I want you to detach a small element and exit Gopher completely to see if you can remove enough rock to free our treads. We’ll troubleshoot the system from inside and try to restart the tread drive.”

***ANAD acknowledges…transiting the hull layers now…approaching solid-phase rock structures…I’ll try to bore my way out…can you give me a new heading?***

Winger checked the latest soundings. “Steer right one five one degrees. That should put you into the largest pressure hull breach. And, ANAD…be careful. We don’t want to make anything worse.”

***ANAD acknowledges…now initiating disassembly…I am in full solid-phase now…looks like feldspar…lots of potassium molecules around here…aluminums and silicates…a real jumble***

Unseen by either Winger or Galland, ANAD replicated a small swarm and pushed out of the hull breach in a faint iridescent globe of blue flickering light. Sliding into the layered structures of feldspar sheet, the master assembler attacked silicon and aluminum bonds with a vengeance, severing the connections that held the rock layers together.

Now freed of its atomic constraints, the suddenly liberated feldspar molecules scattered and huge plates began to creep forward. Grinding past each other, the rock plates picked up speed as more and more atomic bonds were loosened and disassembled. For a time, further slippage was prevented by the forces of friction and intramolecular traction, but as ANAD swelled outward from the geoplane’s hull, a threshold was reached…and passed.

Gopher shuddered violently and pitched nose down and to the left, as thousands of tons of rock heaved and pushed toward the newly created void.

“Look out!” Galland yelled, as she hung on to the edge of her cockpit seat, quickly tightening her shoulder harness. “We’re shifting—“

Winger tried to contact the assembler. “ANAD! ANAD, cease operations! ANAD, stop now—Gopher’s being crushed!”

The tortured shriek of rending metal pierced the air. Gopher shuddered and shook and both felt the geoplane in motion once again, sliding…sliding…ever sliding and picking up speed…downward.

Deeper below the surface.

“We’re going lower!” Galland screamed.

Winger tried the treads, tried everything he could think of to resist the geoplane’s descent but it was hopeless. The void created by ANAD had loosened the fault again and massive plates were in motion, taking everything with them. The fractured seam in the earth’s crust split with a thunderous roar as the plates ground past each other. Gopher was caught in a subduction zone, forced downward at the very front of a plate boundary, rammed and slammed into denser rock below.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the grinding, shuddering vibrations died off and Gopher was still, the air inside her battered hull thick and heavy with choking dust.

Winger and Galland coughed in the swirl of hot dust. Both unstrapped themselves and crawled aft below buckled frames, scrambling through smoking debris and wreckage, toward light and cooler air in the stern of the geoplane. They managed to find a pocket of relatively dust-free air in a corner of D deck, the Stores and Supplies deck, among boxes and cans and other rations scattered during Gopher’s ride downward.

“Where the hell are we?” Winger gasped out. They should have boosted their bloodstreams with respirocytes before the test mission…he realized that now. But the whole project was in such a hurry-- “How deep did we slide?”

Galland coughed up some dust and croaked out, “I don’t know…for sure…but the densitometer was pegging a thousand meters before we bailed out.”

“Jesus,” Winger sank back against a buckled frame and closed his eyes. “We’ve got to get ANAD back aboard…it’s our only chance.”

“Wings, we got bigger problems than that.” She eyed some readings on a nearby instrument panel. “Look at the air pressure…it’s dropping like a brick. There’s a major hull breach somewhere.”

Johnny Winger tried for several minutes to reach ANAD. Finally, a faint signal over the quantum coupler could be heard.

“ANAD…ANAD, is that you? ANAD, this is Control—“

***ANAD responding…where are you, Boss? You’re signal is very weak…I’m trying to boost gain now***

“Apparently, when you started boring around the treads, you disassembled enough rock to loosen the fault again. We’ve been pushed downward, down to nearly a thousand meters. Where are you?”

The signal took a few moments to come back and Winger wondered if ANAD’s coupler were damaged.

***Exact coordinates unknown…I am reading densitometry levels consistent with the original shale layer. ANAD is probably not deeper than four to five hundred meters. Continue sending and I will home on your signal***

Winger explained Gopher’s precarious situation. “If you’re that far away, ANAD, it’ll take hours to get here. We don’t have that much time.” Already there had been a noticeable rise in cabin temperature, as hot crustal rock dust seeped in through the geoplane’s crushed hull.

***ANAD is on max propulsor, Control. Estimated time of arrival is two hours***

“Home on my signal, ANAD…I’ll try to keep this channel open.” And somehow, he thought to himself, I’ll have to config up any leftover mechs and see if I can patch those hull breaches.

Grimly, following Galland’s instrument readings, he set to work. Using his wristpad, he hacked out a config that seemed like it would work. Any atomgrabber worth his electrons could have done that. Then he pulsed out commands on Gopher’s acoustic circuit, still working even though there were no borer swarms to receive them, commanding any loose bots into replication formation. Got to have some mass now, he muttered to himself. Mass enough to form a mesh of nanoscale bots over any holes in the hull.

He prayed there was still enough of a hull left to patch.

It was tedious, mind-numbing work but inside half an hour, the pressure drop had essentially ceased, bringing a relieved smile to Gabby Galland’s dust-caked face. The cabin temperature was another matter however. Winger grew so warm that he eventually stripped down to his underwear.

“It’s nanobotic activity,” he told Galland. “All that replication and assembly work liberates a hell of a lot of heat.”

Galland mopped sweat from her forehead and face. ”That and the hot rock all around us. How long do you think it’ll take ANAD to get here?”

Winger shrugged. “Couple of hours, at least. He’s got to bore through several hundred meters of solid rock. I just hope we don’t shift anymore.”

Their eyes met. Galland swallowed hard. ”You think we can get out of here?”

“I don’t know,” Winger said. “I really don’t know—“ he stopped at the sound of more creaking and groaning echoing through the hull, as Gopher continued settling.

 

It was the familiar sound of a keening, high-pitched wail that finally awakened Winger from the restless dazed stupor he had sunk into.

“ANAD…you old fart. You made it back!” He pitched his left shoulder to open the containment capsule port. “Prepare to execute capture maneuver.”

Gabby Galland coughed and stirred groggily in the heavy dust as she came fully awake. She saw the faint blue mist of the ANAD swarm, as it issued like smoke from behind the main console.

“Thank God the fault didn’t slip anymore. I don’t think Gopher can take much more.”

***ANAD tried to be careful…ANAD slowed down to one-half propulsor and surfed my way through the lattice…the bonds were strong out there and intramolecular distances were short…it took awhile***

Winger tapped his shoulder port with his finger. “In you go, ANAD—“

The blue smoke continued filling the cockpit but there was no obvious movement of the swarm toward containment. Winger, preoccupied with the densitometer, trying to sound out a profile of Gopher’s position, didn’t notice at first. When, after a few minutes, he realized the swarm was forming up in one corner of the cabin, he became annoyed.

“Come on, ANAD, stop wasting time…in you go.”

***ANAD requires some room to re-assemble, Control. The swarm should remain outside containment for the time being***

It wasn’t the first time the nanoscale assembler had refused to be contained.

“ANAD, execute capture maneuver immediately.”

***ANAD cannot execute capture maneuver. Full cognitive processing requires swarm-scale operations. Containment inhibits cognitive processing…algorithm 1200445.1, sub-module B***

Johnny Winger looked at Gabby Galland. ANAD was refusing to return to containment. Like a petulant little boy, the master assembler wouldn’t go back to his room.

“Okay, ANAD,” Winger said warily. Was there a processor fault somewhere inside that miniscule polyhedral body? Had some qubit flipped the wrong way inside ANAD’s quantum brain? “Okay…we’ll do it your way…for the time being.”

Galland was equally wary. “Ask him about conditions outside the hull. Is there any hope for getting the borer back online?”

Winger eyed the shifting fog of the assembler swarm, now gathering itself into the faintest outlines of a face. Maybe it was a trick of the emergency lighting, maybe it was just his own dead tired imagination. ANAD’s face flickered like a ghostly apparition in a campfire, by turns resembling Doc Frost, Major Kraft, Jamison Winger and a host of people Winger had never seen.

He put Galland’s question to the swarm master.

***The horn is crushed completely…to re-build would take 62.5 × 10 EXP 25 seconds. The borer swarm has slipped containment and dispersed. It’s possible that the dispersal contributed to the fault slippage***

Winger relayed ANAD’s report.

Galland’s face sank. “Then we really are trapped here, Wings. You can read the densitometer as well as me.”

Winger nodded. “Over a thousand meters down, embedded in hard quartzite and basaltic rock plates. Too deep for the surface to dig us out.”

“Is there any way we could get a signal out?” Galland racked her brain for ideas. “Some kind of sound pulse…maybe invert the sounder to transmit a shock wave.”

Winger was still curious about ANAD’s behavior. “Maybe but it’ll take time to re-jigger it. The tread drive is—“

“Inoperable,” Galland told him.

***Forward treads are de-tracked, Control. ANAD detected alignment damage to one entire section of the 120-degree track***

“Fabulous,” Winger said. “Just fabulous. And a thousand meters over our head, Red Hammer’s chewing up the earth’s atmosphere and zapping everything in sight.”

Galland sank glumly back in her seat. “I’m not sure we can even do much to stop these changes in the earth’s atmosphere. Practically every time we’ve engaged, we’ve gotten our butts kicked.”

Winger agreed. “So many people affected…millions if the Corps can’t at least slow it down. A hell of a lot of people are going to die…and there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it.”

The shimmering mist of the ANAD swarm flared brighter momentarily.

***Sometimes, the changes you see as life-threatening could be life-giving to other forms of life***

Winger was startled by ANAD’s ‘opinion.’ He told Galland what the assembler had sent over the coupler circuit.

“It’s the clearest statement of opinion I’ve ever heard him say.”

Galland shook her head. “So what do you make of it? Processor noise generating a random output…or a real honest-to-God opinion? Is he even capable of such a thing?”

“I don’t know what to make of it. ANAD, what exactly do you mean by that?”

***ANAD makes observations. My processor evolves through observation and analysis. In the last eight point five microseconds of processor cycles, maturity weighting algorithms have output results stating that some forms of life thrive and grow under environmental conditions that other forms of life find deadly***

“You mean like Red Hammer? What kind of life form would thrive in conditions that kill millions of people?”

Even as he said it, the answer came to him. Viruses, plagues, epidemics. The 1918 Spanish flu virus had feasted on humanity for nearly two years and left twenty million dead.

Johnny Winger felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He remembered something Doc Frost had once told him at Northgate: Remember that ANAD’s processor kernel contains informational elements adapted from virus genomes. It may yet turn out to have unknown and emergent properties we haven’t accounted for.

“ANAD, are you saying that Red Hammer’s killing off people like some kind of virus…a mindless infection spreading, like an epidemic?”

ANAD seemed to think about that for a few moments.

***Unknown. Question requires information unavailable to my processor. Red Hammer does not exhibit properties of a mindless swarm. My observations indicate with high probability that enemy nanomachine swarms are operating under specified programmed control***

“Programmed control?” Winger repeated, explaining ANAD’s dialogue string to Galland. “Whose control?”

ANAD made no response to that.

“This is all fine and good,” Galland said, “but we’ve got to focus on getting out of here. I know the densitometer says we’re below a thousand meters down but I’ve been wondering if there isn’t some way the surface couldn’t drill down to us.”

Winger shrugged. “They probably could…if they knew where we were. We’ve got no comms and navigation is shot. The surface wouldn’t know where to drill. I could try a quantum channel but it would be a shot in the dark if anyone was tuned in.”

“I say we try to finagle the sounder to send out some kind of sonic pulse.”

“The shock waves may cause the fault zone to slip again. We could be crushed. For the moment, Gopher seems to be trapped in some kind of void. We don’t know how long it will last.”

***ANAD has an idea***

Winger kept forgetting that the translucent blue shimmering entity in the corner was also a thinking entity as well. The swarm had re-assembled itself into a vague resemblance of a human face. It was Johnny’s father, Jamison Winger, in outline.

“ANAD, I wish you wouldn’t do that—“

“It looks like a face, Wings. But I don’t recognize it. Anybody you know?”

“Yeah, sort of. I’ve let ANAD mess around inside my head way too much. What’s your idea, ANAD?”

***Analysis of surrounding rock formations indicates that there is a seam of extremely dense quartzite with inclusions of mica above and behind our current location…approximately on a bearing of one-five-five degrees relative***

“Superhard rock, to be sure. What about it?”

***Rock of such density will support small-diameter boring better than most rock in this area. ANAD recommends a small pilot hole be bored through this seam, all the way to the surface. If ANAD can approach or reach the surface, it should be possible to use my own quantum coupler to signal for help. There are several stations that would be able to disentangle such a signal***

The idea had merit. Winger explained what ANAD had proposed to Galland. She mulled over the risks.

“The question is: can ANAD make it in time to get help before we lose the rest of our air…before the carbon dioxide gets too heavy.”

“Or we get crushed completely when the void collapses,” Winger added. “To do this means we release the master assembler to pilot the hole and leave the bots holding Gopher’s hull together uncontrolled and unmonitored.”

Galland nodded. She was huddled in her cockpit seat, bathed in sweat, yet trembling all the same. “I guess one of us could couple with the hull bots, keep an eye on configs. I sure don’t want any atomic bonds breaking without my command. They’re all that’s keeping Gopher from being crushed.”

“I don’t think we have much choice now.” Winger studied Gopher’s instruments and displays. “Oxygen’s down another five percent but the CO2 is the real worry. We’re already at three thousand ppm. We get above five thousand with no way to scrub the air and we’re finished.”

“Tell ANAD to get to work. I don’t want to spend any longer in this overgrown coffin than necessary.”

“ANAD…config for boring a small-diameter hole. But I want to stay linked in while the swarm ascends toward the surface.”

***Negative, Control…ANAD does not advise such a course of action. Too much distraction…too many processor cycles are expended to maintain the link. ANAD needs all available capacity for boring and sounding…have to stay within the seam of densest rock to keep the void from collapsing***

“Or the fault from shifting.” Winger reluctantly agreed. “You’re probably right. Get going then…I’ll link out.”

He cocked his head to shut down the coupler and felt momentarily disoriented, like he had just stumbled into a darkened room and had to feel around for something familiar.

Galland watched the blue shimmer begin to disperse. “He’s on his way, then?”

“Reconfiguring now, Gabby. It’ll take a few minutes.”

Galland saw how concerned the atomgrabber looked. “He’s just a machine, Wings. Come on…you know it’s the only way.”

“A few months ago, I would have agreed with you. But now…it’s almost like he’s become a fellow nog. A buddy. And he reminds me of that all the time. Troopers don’t leave anyone behind.”

“He just says that because he’s heard you say that. He’s parroting the words back to you, like a child. He doesn’t have any concept of loyalty or courage. It’s not part of his program…you heard what Doc Frost said.”

“He’s like a child, for now. But I think this child is starting to grow up.”

 

Several minutes later, the cabin was quiet, save for the sound of the air pumps laboring against thickening dust. The shimmering blue fog had exited the geoplane. Outside, somewhere above and behind them, a small swarm of nanoscale entities was burning a tiny tunnel upward through hard quartzite rock, laboriously disassembling molecules atom by atom, cautiously boring a pilot hole and sounding gently ahead, to keep the massive rock plates from shifting anymore and crushing Gopher and her two-man crew.

Inside the geoplane, Johnny Winger and Gabby Galland were now completely alone, with only remnant ANAD swarms holding their hull together, CO2 levels building, oxygen running out and cabin temperatures steadily rising inside.

Johnny Winger closed his eyes and wondered if he had done the right thing. They had no entrusted their very survival to an increasingly precocious, yet unpredictable teenager named ANAD.

It took nearly twenty hours for ANAD to complete the pilot hole and breach the surface. In a grass-covered valley seven kilometers north of Haleyville, a bright light suddenly emerged from the ground. A small gathering of elk scattered in alarm as the globe of light lifted away from the ground and hovered for a few moments like a shimmering radiant fog.

Then the fog began flowing southward, toward the distant mesa of Table Top Mountain.

ANAD activated its quantum coupler link and broadcast a repeating emergency message:

***This is ANAD on Q1…any station, any station, emergency code…troopers are down and need assistance…here are the coordinates—***

Flowing over the ground like a windblown mist, the ANAD swarm maneuvered on max propulsor toward the Quantum Corps base at Table Top, broadcasting the same message on all coupler channels. After analyzing probabilities, ANAD decided to take additional measures to ensure the alert was noticed.

Using configs already stored in memory, ANAD initiated a maximum rate replication, essentially the same Big Bang scenario it had simulated many times for its fellow nogs at the wargaming range at Hunt Valley. Hacking and cleaving atomic bonds at a furious pace, the nanoscale assembler copied its own structure over and over and over again, exponentially expanding across the face of the mountains like a slow-motion explosion of flickering light.

The assembler knew that such activity would be immediately detected by protective bots circulating high in the atmosphere, the BioShield system that alerted Quantum Corps to uncontrolled, unrestrained nanobotic activity.

Detection took only a few minutes.

 

It was First Sergeant Marty Rivers at BioShield Los Angeles Center who first noticed the blinking light on his board.

Curious and somewhat startled by the alarm—there hadn’t been a real alert in North America in months—Rivers sat up straight and his hands started flying over the keys, toggling the detectors to focus on the source of the disturbance, running routines to characterize the threat, sending alertgrams to a dozen different sections and also activating the Quantum Corps warning system.

Twenty-six thousand meters over southern Idaho, a small swarm of BioShield nanobots received instructions from LA Center and maneuvered into a tighter formation, probing earthward with pulses of sound and EM, trying to get a fix on the locus of the source. The returns fingered the swelling ANAD swarm and fixed its real-time location and heading. Moments later, Sergeant Rivers had the same data.

Immediately, he opened a vidlink to Table Top Mountain.

Mighty Mite Barnes was in the Containment center when the duty officer from Ops poked her head in. She was a big-boned blond six-footer and her name plate read Spinner.

“Sorry to interrupt, Sergeant, but there’s something you should see. Signals just got a feed from a nano-source and it’s close by, just a few kilometers from here. LA BioShield just routed the details to us.”

Barnes had been concentrating on some quark flux imagery from a probe of some odd molecules she’d scrounged up from the Lions Rock mission samples. She looked up.

“What is it?”

Corporal Spinner shrugged. “Not sure, ma’am. A nanobotic source and it’s growing fast, almost like a Big Bang. BioShield says it looks like some loose ANAD…maybe there’s been a breach here?”

“Not a chance,” Barnes insisted, as she powered down the imager. “But I’ll take a look.” In the back of her mind, she wondered. Was it possible…it had been hours since they’d lost contact with Gopher. He followed Spinner to the Ops Center to see what all the fuss was about.

 

Johnny Winger’s head snapped up. His eyes were dry and his head throbbed like it was being squeezed in a vise. He tried focusing his eyes on the instrument panel, dimly aware that the CO2 level was surely building toward toxic levels. His eyes found the dial and he studied it until it blurred into focus.

Nearly five thousand ppm. No wonder he felt so groggy. They had passed out, how many hours ago?

He shook himself awake, slapping his face, pinching his arms. Galland was still cuddled in his arms. He had tried to comfort her hours before and then instinct had taken over. It had been quick, almost violent, not very satisfying, but it had kept their minds off their predicament. Then they had both passed out. “Gabby. Gabby Galland, wake up!” He leaned over to jab at his fellow trooper. “Get up and move around, will you? The air’s bad—“

Up on the command deck, both of them stirred and groaned loudly.

“We’ve got to do something…anything…to get out of here.”

Galland rubbed her face, buttoned the front of her tunic. Winger noticed her lips were faintly blue…the first signs of hypercapnia were already visible. They had to move now…or they would die in the coffin that Gopher had now become.

“Mmmm…what is…what’s wrong…Wings—?” Her head dropped again and she nearly drifted back toward the bliss of unconsciousness. But Winger grabbed her chin and jerked her head up. Then he unbelted her and dragged her from the seat.

“Gabby…we can’t stay down here any longer. We’ve got to do something.”

The movement around the cramped and buckled, dimly lit cabin seemed to momentarily energize them. Galland leaned against the bulkhead, holding her head, while Winger force-fed her some water from a canteen. She swallowed hard and tried to breathe, but coughed violently when she tried, spewing water everywhere.

“Any word from ANAD?” she mumbled.

Winger shook his head. The dust in the cabin was now so thick it refracted the fading light of the emergency lamps into strange, menacing shadows.

“Nothing. And we can’t wait any longer.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Winger’s lips were set in a tight, determined line. “I’d rather try to bust out of here, even if we die in the process, than sit here and suffocate to death. I want to try the treads again…maybe we can ram ourselves a little higher, closer to the surface.”

“The void we’re in will collapse. The whole fault may give way, Wings. It would be suicide.”

Johnny Winger slammed a hand against the bulkhead. Dust swirled in sheets from the impact of his fist. “I’d rather go that way than be stuck here trapped like rats.”

Their eyes met for a moment. Galland nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right.”

“I’ve been thinking about ANAD. Something must have happened. I can’t raise him at all but I don’t think he would leave us here.”

“Maybe we should give him a little longer.”

“We don’t have much longer.”

“I know, but ANAD’s a trooper too. He wouldn’t leave his buddies behind. He’ll be back.”

It was the foundation creed of a Quantum Corps trooper and they both knew how badly ANAD wanted to be just like the other nogs.

“Two hours…that’s it,” Winger decided. “No ANAD by then…we’re busting out of here. Even if we die in the attempt.” He scrambled aft through the hatch heading toward E deck, just to be doing something, anything. “I’m going to check out the tread controller one more time.”

Gabby Galland’s eyes were growing heavy again and she sank to the floor of the command deck. Me too, she thought, but just let me rest here for a moment—

 

“It is ANAD,” Mighty Mite Barnes decided, studying the acoustic returns from BioShield. “I’d recognize that structure anywhere. ANAD, Version 3.0, to be exact…replicating like a madman. We’ve got to get that contained right away and bring the little guy in from the cold.”

Spinner stood behind Barnes, along with Murchison and several others. The alert center was crowded and stuffy.

“Sergeant how can ANAD replicate Big Bang like that without some kind of command? Doesn’t the master processor have inhibits to prevent that sort of thing?”

Before Barnes could answer, the coupler link in the back of her head chimed in and she knew immediately there was a message coming in, a quantum message.

***…is ANAD calling on any channel…Q1, Q1…emergency code…ANAD requesting all possible assistance…troopers are down and need assistance…ANAD transmitting on any channel—***

Barnes linked in. Spinner, Murchison and the rest looked on in bewilderment as Barnes seemed to be talking to herself.

“ANAD, this is Trooper Barnes…what’s the nature of the emergency? Why are you replicating Big Bang in violation of BioShield ordinances?”

***DPS1, is that you? It’s good to hear your voice again. Troopers Winger and Galland are trapped below ground…here are the coordinates—***

ANAD rattled off the latitude and longitude of Gopher’s location.

***ANAD requesting assistance to extract troopers. Situation is critical…geoplane hull breached in many places…treads not operable…oxygen low…troopers in danger of termination***

Barnes was furiously scribbling notes even as her own coupler received ANAD’s report. She showed her notes to Spinner. The duty officer’s eyes grew wide.

“I’ll contact Major Kraft right away. And the search and rescue squad.” Spinner hustled out of the alert center.

Barnes watched the video and acoustic feed from BioShield. From an altitude of several thousand meters, as the BioShield bots focused on the spreading swarm, ANAD’s Big Bang looked like an explosion in slow motion, a time-lapse supernova of light billowing out along snow-covered trails along the flanks of Signal Mountain.

“ANAD, you must terminate replication immediately. Maximum rate replication endangers the environment. Terminate at once. If you don’t, you’ll trigger a BioShield response.”

***Trooper Barnes, ANAD has a duty to help troopers in need of assistance. No nog ever leaves his buddies behind. Maximum replication permits ANAD to render necessary assistance. Algorithm 801556 Sub-Module E is cited***

“What the—“ Barnes shook her head. There was no such algorithm in ANAD’s memory, that she could think of. ANAD refusing to stop replication…that could only mean one thing: a logic fault somewhere in his CPU. A breakdown in code somewhere.

And several miles away, the assembler swarm was replicating out of control.

There was only one thing to do.

Barnes grimly dredged up the code of the back door cutoff from memory.

“ANAD…this is a command override. Authorization is Moses Level One. Override all executive modules. Transfer executive control to this node. ANAD…this is a command override—“

Though she could not see it, Barnes knew that somewhere several kilometers away in a snow-dusted valley west of Haleyville, Idaho, the shimmering blue-white ball of light that was an assembler swarm in exponential overdrive was fast fading into a dim gray fog, boiling over the rocky outcrops and gullies like a summer morning mist.

At least, that’s what she hoped was happening.

 

The Sim Tank at Table Top’s Ops Center was crowded with brass when Barnes came in. Major Kraft was there, his forehead veins taut with worry over the fate of Gopher’s crew. Murchison, the project engineer, was present, as was General Alexander Kincade, c/o of Quantum Corps’ Western Command and base commander at Table Top.

The assembled officers were studying a 3-D display of geologic strata created by SOFIE. A flashing red dot embedded in layers of rock indicated the geoplane’s estimated position.

Kincade stroked a bushy moustache. “This is where ANAD says Gopher is located?”

“That’s affirmative, sir,” Kraft told him. “We worked out the coordinates with Sergeant Barnes here, an hour ago. Best estimate puts them about a thousand meters down, some twenty-one kilometers northwest of here, past Hunt Valley and below Signal Mountain. We’ve confirmed some small-magnitude seismic vibration in the general area of this location…consistent with a source of that size. It’s probably pumps and valves in their power plant and environmental control system.”

“And the crew?”

“Alive when ANAD left the geoplane.”

Barnes explained how the assembler swarm had bored its way gingerly to the surface. “General, if what ANAD tells me is true, Gopher’s trapped and in critical condition. Time is very short. If we don’t begin rescue operations soon, the crew—Lieutenant Winger and Lieutenant Galland—won’t survive. They may have only a few hours left.”

Kincade mulled over the situation. “Suggestions, gentlemen. This is a tough one.”

Murchison pointed out the latest acoustic profile of the underground strata. “If we try to drill, we stand a good chance of loosening this fault enough to slip again. I’m not sure Gopher can survive that.”

Barnes interjected a point. “After interrogating ANAD, I learned that he bored a small tunnel to reach the surface. This path is microscopic, approximately ten microns in diameter. ANAD recommends using that hole, bored out to a larger diameter, to rescue the crew.”

Murchison was skeptical. “I don’t think the fault is stable enough to do that. We’re getting low-magnitude tremors all the time now. It’s just a matter of time before the crustal plates move again.”

“All the more reason to move now,” Kraft argued. He studied the three-dimensional diorama that SOFIE had projected. “Just how do we extract Winger and Galland through a small borehole?”

Barnes elaborated on ANAD’s idea. “Continue nanobotic swarm operations inside the hole, removing just enough material to make a passage wide enough to crawl through. ANAD can secure the boundaries of the opening with a massive enough swarm, kind of like forming a barrier to keep the tunnel open.”

“But how do we get them out?” Murchison asked.

Kraft saw a way. “Lower a couple of hypersuits. That’ll give them air to breathe and their boot thrusters can lift them out.”

Kincade paced around the sim tank, circling the floating projection of Signal Mountain and its buried geoplane. “Damned tricky, if you ask me. But time is short.” The base commander’s moustache seemed to straighten out when he had made a decision. “Let’s get going. Get ANAD reconfigured and programmed to widen that bore hole. And get the battalion medics out there too. There’s no telling what kind of condition those troopers will be in when we pull ‘em out.”

First Nano’s rescue squad lifted to the surface coordinates that ANAD had identified. The location turned out to be a small ravine still dusted with powdery snow in the middle of the summer, on the western flanks of Signal Mountain.

As the squad offloaded their gear from the lifters, Major Kraft stepped off the platform and looked around, spying a pair of staghorn elk studying them from a small ledge halfway up the side of the mountain.

Fellas, he muttered to himself, you’re about to see something you’ve never seen before. I just hope to God this cockamamie stunt works.

He wasn’t sure First Nano could survive without Winger and Galland on board.

The ANAD swarm emerged from the mobile TinyTown that had been lifted to the site. Mighty Mite Barnes linked in to give ANAD last minute instructions.

“Just make the hole wide enough to let a hypersuited trooper through, ANAD. Use the dimensions I gave you. I’ve loaded a new config, optimized for disassembly of basaltic molecular lattice. I don’t have to remind you that time is of the essence.”

Hovering like a backlit ground fog, the ANAD swarm flickered and pulsated with eerie radiance as it maneuvered to enter the ground. Already replicating quickly, the fog was swelling as it gained enough mass to attack the hard black volcanic rock that lay beneath the snow.

***ANAD estimates seven hours, sixteen minutes to reach the target. ANAD requests permission to re-config part of my swarm when near the target***

“Re-config? For what purpose, ANAD?”

***Below the nine hundred meter level, standard densitometer reading, ANAD is within an hour of reaching the geoplane. If ANAD had config data for respirocyte conversion, part of my swarm could continue on to the target through the existing hole and provide an oxygen boost to the crew. Analysis indicates oxygen levels will be at life-threatening minimums in six hours and forty-five minutes***

It was a tempting strategy but General Kincade nixed the idea. “Tell ANAD to concentrate all efforts on boring and shoring up a wider hole, so we get those troopers out of there.”

Barnes issued the final command string to ANAD’s processor and authorized the assembler master to begin operations.

The swarm sank toward light snow drifts as Barnes warned the rescue squad away from the injection point. Soon enough, the snow blazed with a fierce blue-white radiance as the assembler swarm filtered into the snow bank and attacked the hard still-frozen ground below. In minutes, the entire ravine was bathed in a white hot incandescence, laced with tendrils of steam, as the globe of light gradually subsided into the earth, like a miniature sun setting beside Signal Mountain.

Bit by bit, the snow bank melted and melt water ran in streams down the ravine’s gullies, revealing bare ground underneath. But the ground was no longer solid rock. Instead, it boiled and billowed like a mirage speckled with a billion tiny explosions going off all at once, as ANAD bots broke atomic bonds and burned their way into the molecular lattice of rock.

There was little the rescue squad could do now but wait. Wait and hope. Mighty Mite Barnes returned to a nearby lifter to monitor ANAD’s progress. Acoustic pulses came back to her on the coupler circuit, along with system status and overall borehole conditions. Barnes plotted the results on a vertical profile chart, to show ANAD’s current location.

Seven hours and sixteen minutes seemed to last an eternity.

 

It was Gabby Galland, curled up in a fetal position on the command deck floor, who first sensed a presence around her. She sat up, felt the increase in heat, shook herself into a groggy sort of consciousness and spotted the faint aura of a shimmering smoke billowing out from behind the main console.

She smelled it too. Something was burning. An electrical fire?

“Wings…Wings!—“ she yelled. Staggering to her knees, she peered under the console. “Wings…we got a fire! Get up here—“ She groped around in the failing light, breathing hard, sucking for air, feeling for a fire extinguisher. Any fire now could rapidly deplete their last remaining oxygen.

Johnny Winger stirred himself awake and saw Galland frantically rummaging about the cabin.

“What is it? What’s --?”

“There’s smoke…right there under the console! We must have an electrical fire!”

Before he could respond, a faint chime sounded in the back of Winger’s mind. It was ANAD…the tiny assembler had returned!

“ANAD!” Winger swung himself down from the seat, coughing in the stale, stagnant air. His head pounded and his ears rang from the CO2 buildup. “It’s ANAD!”

Galland sat down heavily as she realized Winger was right. Semi-conscious and exhausted, she had mistaken the faint blue mist for a fire.

***ANAD acknowledges…returning from the surface. I have brought a search and rescue squad. Trooper Barnes re-configged my processor to optimize my effectors. I have widened the original borehole to thirty centimeters diameter. Surface rescue is sending two hypersuits down the hole. My instructions are to assist you in any way possible***

Winger’s eyes widened. “You enlarged the hole? And hypersuits too? This is looking better all the time.”

***ANAD has config patterns for respirocyte bots. If you need additional oxygen boost, ANAD can replicate respirocytes***

Winger explained all that ANAD had told him. A huge wave of relief came over Galland’s face.

“Might be a good idea, Wings. At least until we get the tin cans on.”

Winger agreed. “ANAD, Mighty Mite gave you the config?”

There was a pause before the assembler responded.

***Trooper Barnes does not know ANAD loaded the respirocyte config. She said ANAD should focus all processor capacity on boring and supporting the hole…but ANAD loaded the config anyway. A trooper does not leave his buddies behind***

Winger mulled that bit of news over. Now, it seemed, the assembler was disregarding orders from its human handlers and initiating configurations on its own.

The less Major Kraft knows about this, the better.

“Okay, ANAD, give us some oxygen. When will the suits be here?”

“Maybe now,” Galland said. “Sounder says there’s something in motion right outside the hull…and it’s not the earth.”

“It’s probably them,” Winger decided. “How do we get the suits inside the cabin?”

***ANAD has opened a path through the borer module. The forward bulkhead and horn have been disassembled. Remove the main console and you will have access***

“Jesus,” Winger muttered. “ANAD has practically burned away the whole front of Gopher.”

ANAD detached a part of the swarm that had already replicated into respirocytes. He and Galland let the swarm enter orally, coughing as the dry fog filled their mouths.

“Ugh,” said Galland. “Tastes like dirt.”

“Or metal chips.” Winger added, though he was grateful for the oxygen boost. In a few minutes, his headaches subsided and his vision was no longer blurry. Deep inside his lungs and bloodstream, uncountable trillions of nanoscale respirocytes swapped oxygen molecules through his alveolar tissues, improving the molecule exchange a million-fold.

“Feels better,” he took a deep breath, looked over at Galland.

“Yeah, like I just swam the Pacific.”

“Let’s get to work.” He squeezed himself below the main console and started to unfasten its mounts. “Help me get this bugger off its mounts—“

Between the two of them, they managed to push the console away from the bulkhead enough to get at the frame behind.

Winger pushed and pulled at the skin, until he had worked the panel loose. Rock dust and rubble poured into the cabin with a crashing roar.

Blinking and coughing through the dust, the two troopers pawed their way through the rock and rubble until Winger lost his balance and fell forward through a weak spot into a void. He wound up crawling through the debris into a narrow vertical shaft, buzzing with the high-freq whine of nanobots and backlit by a pale unearthly glow. It was the bore hole, guided by ANAD right into Gopher’s forward compartment and shored up with a barrier screen of bots.

It was like being inside of a kaleidoscope.

Winger raised his head up to look around and hit his head on something hard. Feeling with his hands, he realized he was squatting under the treaded boot of a hypersuit.

“I think I found our suits,” he called back to Galland. “I just hit my head on one.”

 

An hour later, Winger and Galland were grunting and panting, trying to contort themselves into ANAD’s tunnel. With effort and a lot of shoving, Winger was able to force Galland, now encased in full hypersuit, up into the shaft.

“What kind of clearance do you have?”

Galland bit her lip. She was not going to succumb to claustrophobia now.

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

“Can you see anything above you?”

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

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

“Yeah…like what? Like you naked on the beach. Wings, about what happened—“

“Later, Gabs. Just light off your suit boost and get going. It’s a long way to the surface.”

Amen to that, she thought. Maybe a little prayer would help too. She took a deep breath, counted to three and pressed a button on her wristpad with her other hand.

Then she started to move upward, smacking the side of her helmet on the hard rock walls.

 

She continued her painstaking ascent for what seemed like hours, maybe days. She soon lost all track of time and space.

Only the labored sound of her own breathing—her helmet visor was getting pretty fogged up—and the bang and crunch of her hypersuit scraping along the tunnel walls gave her any sense of motion.

She tried reducing the suit boost to see if it had any effect on the scraping but it didn’t.

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

It was enough to drive a girl to drink.

How long she had passed out, she didn’t know. But her mouth was bone dry and there wasn’t any liquid in the chin tube; she must have sucked it all dry. Her shoulders, neck and legs throbbed from the incessant banging and battering.

Maybe I’m not going anywhere, she thought. But that couldn’t be. How else to explain the steady thrummm at the soles of her feet—the liftjets pulsing on and off had made her feet go numb hours ago. They had never been designed for extended duty like this.

At least, ANAD’s tunnel seemed navigable, if a bit snug. She wondered where Wings was. Had he left right after her? Or was he still inside Gopher, trapped and suffocating, maybe dead?

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

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

Strong hands helped her upright and a blur of faces were just outside her helmet, but the visor was grimy and fogged and she couldn’t make out anything.

She was wobbly but all the hands and her own suit gyros kept her upright. She felt the helmet quick disconnect go, then a stream of cool mountain air leaked in around her neck dam and the helmet came off with a jerk.

The first face she saw was Major Jurgen Kraft, scowling in at her bruised, sweaty face.

“Well, well,” Kraft said, “aren’t you a sight? Lieutenant Galland, welcome back to the land of the living.”

With help from the rescue squad, her hypersuit was clamshelled open and Galland lifted carefully out. She was quickly placed into a life-support pod and taken to a nearby lifter.

Kraft pulled General Kincade aside. “We’ll give her a good look-over, General. She’s been through quite an ordeal.”

Kincade nodded. “And the geoplane? That’s the prototype down there. How long does this set us back? UNSAC has given us until August 10 to mount an operation against Red Hammer.”

“We’ve got to recover Gopher’s data recorders and find out what happened. I’ve already issued orders for Murchison and the engineers to triple-shift construction of the second geoplane. Mole will be ready to test by the end of the week. But after we recover the data recorders, there may be more changes.”

A commotion interrupted the two officers. Kraft went back to the borehole opening. There in the pile of loose snow and dirt, another hypersuit was emerging from the ground, a giant egg being hatched by the earth.

Johnny Winger was nearly unconscious when he was pulled from the hard shell and laid into a life pod. Mighty Mite Barnes and two Battalion medics scoped and examined him carefully.

“Dehydration…maybe a little hypercapnia,” Barnes pronounced. “A little oxygen boost and some fluids should do the trick.” She backed off while the pod was littered to the lifter.

Kincade came over and Kraft saw the frown of concern on the General’s face. “The medics say he’ll be okay. The kid’s dehydrated and a little short of breath…the techs are checking out his hypersuit now.”

“I want a debriefing on the geoplane test at 0600 hours tomorrow morning, Kraft. I want to know what happened and why. I’ve got to give UNSAC an update later in the day.”

“You’ll have it, sir.”

Kincade was thoughtful. “We’d better review the op plan for Tectonic Sword one more time…go over all the details. And bring Murchison and your tactical group. I want to know if an underground assault is still a viable option, in light of what’s happened.”

Kincade left to board the second lifter, while Kraft joined Barnes at Johnny Winger’s life pod. The transparent doors of the pod were already shut. Inside, already hooked up to a forest of tubes, the atomgrabber was grimy and bruised on his face, his cheeks swollen and pale.

What kind of hell did you and Galland go through, Lieutenant? the Major wondered. The life pod was hoisted aboard the lifter and secured. Kraft climbed aboard as well.

No one seemed to notice the faint dimly illuminated wisp of fog that seeped in with the rest of the rescue squad and nestled out of sight between some storage racks.

The two lifters took off together, in a tornado of snow and dirt, and turned southwest, heading back across Hunt Valley toward Table Top Mountain.

 

“It’s obvious the geoplane design needs more work,” Kraft was saying to the assembled briefing. “And equally obvious that coordinated subterranean operations with ANAD needs more practice.”

The briefing room at the underground Ops Center was packed. Kraft had the floor and SOFIE was running visuals. General Kincade was there, too, scowling and rubbing his moustache, along with Winger and Galland and the rest of the Battalion. Doc II drifted in the back like a faint veil of dust motes.

“We can’t afford to practice much more, Major,” Winger said. Red Hammer’s on the loose again. Just got the latest results from BioShield.”

Kraft recognized the commander from BioShield, granted temporary clearance to be at the classified meeting. His name was Major Meier.

Meier was grim. “The bubbles of modified air are expanding again, as swarms begin to link up. There’s a growing supercolony aggregating across the entire Southern Hemisphere, from South Africa, through the Indonesian archipelago, to the coast of Chile. Johannesburg and Djakarta have reported tens of thousands dead, probably millions are fleeing north, by boat, on foot, any way they can. Whole swaths of the southern Indian and Pacific Oceans—“ Meier ticked off the list and SOFIE highlighted the affected areas in red on a 3-D globe—“the Seychelles Islands, the Andamans, the Gilberts, the list goes on and on, showing areas now essentially uninhabitable. BioShield is reporting mass casualties on Borneo and Fiji, thousands of corpses offshore, floating like rafts in the ocean swells. With the changes in the atmosphere effected by Red Hammer, deaths from increased ultraviolet radiation, exposure, asphyxiation, hypercapnia and other related causes are soaring.”

“This may be the final push,” said Galland. “The last offensive.”

Kincade had heard enough. “Don’t forget the flooding, caused by icecap melting. Sat video has shown almost every berg off the Antarctic coast calving at two and three times the normal rate. Coastal cities will be underwater in several weeks…we’re talking New York, Miami, Buenos Aires, Tokyo, Mumbai.” Kincade abruptly stood up. “We can’t wait any longer. Murchison—?”

The project engineer replied, “Here, General—“

“What is the status on Mole, the second geoplane?”

Murchison consulted a wristpad he had clipped to his belt, scrolling down through the outstanding items. “Tread system and controllers have been installed this morning. The borer went on-line yesterday; we’ve tested it with a small denatured swarm but a full-up test isn’t scheduled for another three days. Power plant, controls, environmental systems are all operational and tested.”

Kincade prowled the briefing room like a caged animal. “UNSAC wants to know when Tectonic Sword can get underway. We’re behind—several weeks behind—and every hour’s delay—“he indicated SOFIE’s globe—“well, I don’t have to remind you of the cost. BioShield is engaging the enemy swarms at dozens of places around the Southern Hemisphere but it’s just a holding action. BioShield doesn’t have the nano we have. Unless we can put Red Hammer’s base out of action, this will continue to expand. In time, it may affect the Northern Hemisphere, then the whole planet. Casualty figures then become…who can say?”

“An extinction-level event,” said Meier, for him. “Given enough time. Another mass extinction. Earth has seen it a number of times.”

Murchison shook his head. “We’ve been selected for extinction. Evolution rolled the dice and the human race has come up snake eyes.”

“Not quite yet,” Kincade said. “The Red Hammer base must be put out of action. What’s the status on Gopher?”

Gopher is not recoverable, General,” Murchison admitted. “She’s too deep and too badly damaged. We’re building a second Gopher, but the frame’s just been laid down. We’re weeks from having a testable vehicle.”

“Listen to what I’m saying, gentlemen,” Kincade growled. “We don’t have weeks. At best, we have only days. If we allow these swarms to continue to coalesce, by the end of the year, the entire planet will be enveloped. We won’t be able to engage and defeat Red Hammer with anything we have, with any conceivable ANAD technology, if that happens. We’ve got to stop it now!”

“What are you suggesting, General?” Kraft asked.

Kincade consulted a calendar. “August 10 is only two weeks away. When this briefing is over, I’m sending UNSAC a reply to his question. Tectonic Sword will commence operations on August 10. That means you will engage Red Hammer at their base on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border with whatever you have in hand at the time. Geoplane transports, weapons, tactics, personnel, and training, ANAD swarms…Kraft, you and your people have two weeks to pull it all together. And as I indicated earlier to both Majors here, UNSAC has approved a new force to help out…a Boundary Patrol force, equipped with geoplanes as fast as they can be turned out, new crews, new tactics…all this has to be worked out…in the next two weeks. It’s the only way we can get around and avoid being incinerated by those killsats the cartel has seized.”

The small vein on the Major’s forehead was red and swollen, a sure sign Kraft was about to blow. He glared at Murchison, Winger, Galland and Barnes. Then, grimly, he acknowledged the General’s order.

“First Nano will be ready and in position, General. All we need is your H-hour signal to go.”

“I’ll get that to you as soon as UNSAC issues final approval and the operational orders are cut. There are still a few little diplomatic niceties to observe with the Chinese at the UN before that happens.”

“General, what about the underlying geology of the target area? The Pearl River delta and southeast China are similar to this area, from what the geos tell me. Basaltic rock crisscrossed with fault lines, not all of them mapped very well. There’s a good chance an underground assault may cause more slippage, more seismic shifting. Worst case…we could lose the assault team before the assault begins….or wind up leveling Hong Kong.”

Kincade’s lips tightened and his moustache bristled. “I’m well aware of that, Murchison. We’ll just have to take the chance…or find another way to get at that base.”

Winger swallowed hard and stole a glance at Galland. She kept her eyes focused on the 3-D globe, with its swelling splotches of red indicating the growth of the Red Hammer swarms. It was an infestation on a planetary scale, nearly half a world consumed and so far, they’d done little to even slow it down.

“We’ll make it work, General,” she said. “Look at the globe, sir. It’s like a cancer spreading.”

Like evolution speeded up, thought Barnes. Or evolution in reverse, re-creating the conditions of the primordial Earth. But she didn’t say any of that. They had no proof. Only faint traces from the core processors of a captured master bot from Lions Rock and a few theories to try and make sense of them.

“A pretty apt analogy, Sergeant. And we can no longer afford the luxury of half measures to deal with it. This is one disease that’s going to take radical surgery to root out.”

 

Standing up Boundary Patrol took every available minute of the next two weeks. At the north end of the Table Top mesa, Hangar C was converted into a geoplane assembly and test center. Three hulls were in varying stages of assembly by the end of the first week: Mole, Badger and Prairie Dog.

For the time being, U.N. Boundary Patrol would be co-located with Quantum Corps at Table Top, sharing command, tactical and logistics spaces with the nanotroopers. Lieutenant Oscar Mendez was appointed as liaison officer with Quantum Corps. Johnny Winger would work with Mendez to develop tactics and procedures for effective subterranean operations using the geoplanes.

Late in the afternoon, a week before the Tectonic Sword assault force was due to depart, Winger showed up at Hangar C and got to know Mendez a little better.

Mendez was short, stocky, olive-skinned with a trim black moustache. He was following a wireway along the outer hull of Prairie Dog. Winger walked up.

The two O-2s shook hands. Mendez patted hull plates with a rueful smile. “She looks like a big metal wiener, Winger. I volunteered for this TDY but I don’t know—maybe I should’ve stayed with BioShield.”

Winger could see that final assembly was essentially done on the geoplane. “Not too keen on burrowing underground, eh? I know the feeling. But the design works. I can vouch for that.”

“You and Galland were nearly killed on Gopher’s test ride. How can you say the design works?”

“It wasn’t the design. It was tactics. Down there, you do have to be careful. I envy you in a way, Mendez. You’re in on the ground floor of a new force. You’ll be developing your own tactics…your own procedures and customs. You’ll be making up your own traditions.”

Mendez agreed. “We’ve already started. Have you seen Boundary Patrol’s new org chart and crew complement?”

Winger hadn’t, so Mendez pulled it up on their wristpads. “Each ship will have a crew of six. There’ll be a commander, a driver/systems operator, a borer operator and a geo tech. Each crew also has a sensor and surveillance tech and a defense specialist, like your DPS ratings. Boundary Patrol plans to operate the geoplanes with two crews, just like the Navy’s boomers…a red and a gold crew. And they’re already drawing up plans for patrol stations around the world—five in all, to start with, all set up near tectonic plate boundaries. If Red Hammer or any other nasties use swarms or fluid hammers to set off quakes, we’ll be on ‘em like bad news on a politician. Any threats from below ground, well—“Mendez pointed to an engraved Latin inscription on the forward hull of Prairie Dog,” read it and weep.”

Winger scanned the words: Subterraneus defensores percutunt dure.

Mendez translated. “It means ‘subterranean defenders strike hard.’ UNIFORCE just approved the motto. Say, Winger—“ the two lieutenants stepped around some workers welding fittings to Prairie Dog’s borer module, “You’ve got some experience with this geoplane business. What was it really like…down there?”

“You mean other than being nearly crushed to death and having to burrow our way out like real gophers? Eerie, Oscar…damned spooky. You feel the weight of all that rock and earth pressing in on you…you can actually see the hull frames compress from the pressure. Like a submarine, I guess. You move slow…the borer chews a path and your treads propel you. You’re lucky to do two kilometers an hour….depending on the strata. You pay attention to voids and fault lines and gas pockets…everything you learned in 8th grade Netschool about the Earth’s crust and mantle…you can throw that out. In a lot of ways, it’s a helluva medium to try and conduct military ops in. But with Red Hammer in control of most of those killsats up there, we needed a way to assault Lions Rock. Swarms and geoplanes…it’s pretty much the only way. If we don’t take out Lions Rock, Red Hammer can dictate whatever terms they want and we’ll all have to pay up. I guess UNIFORCE is using this mission to stand up an all new force…and not a moment too soon.”

Mendez hoisted himself up through the hatch and made his way to the command deck, Winger right behind him. Electricians were on their backs, pulling wire below the control panels around the compartment. Mendez plopped himself down sat in the commander’s seat. Winger took the DSO position…driver/systems operator.

“I was a BioShield guy the last year,” Mendez admitted. “I got TDY’ed to Boundary Patrol but I would have volunteered anyway. I needed less patrolling and more action. Now, with UNBP, instead of sniffing out bad nano and alerting you guys at Quantum Corps, I’ll be working the sharp end of the stick. Now, I can do something about the problem. You’ve heard the latest intel?”

Winger ran his fingers over the twin tread control handles. “Swarms setting off quakes and tremors in half a dozen places…I heard it. They stole the configs from us. Now Red Hammer’s got bots that can chew through solid rock at unheard-of speeds. Boundary Patrol’s coming along at just the right time. But first, we’ve got the Tectonic Sword mission.”

“My crew’ll be ready,” Mendez told him. He recited the details of Prairie Dog’s support from memory: “Troop transport and logistics support. Additional firepower. Safety backup, in case you guys set off more quakes like you did with Gopher.”

“Hey that was an accident,” Winger retorted. “There was a fault line we didn’t know about…Gopher did fine. Her crew consisted of me and Galland. We just got a little—“

“Over-eager?” Mendez suggested. He snorked out a laugh. “Sorry, Winger, I couldn’t help it. I’m the same way. Still—“ his smile faded and his face became serious. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being a little nervous about next week’s check ride with Dog here. Seriously, any pointers or pearls of wisdom you’ve got, lay ‘em on me. We’ll need them.”

“Amen to that,” Winger said.

Mendez’ face suddenly brightened. “I’ve got an idea. My crew’s doing beer and burgers this afternoon at the Robbery—-“ that was trooper slang around the Hill for the commissary—“I’d be honored if you and Lieutenant Galland could make it.”

“It’s a deal,” Winger said. He left Hangar C to head over to Mission Prep. He wanted to review the Stores and Supplies list for the mission, probably for the hundredth time. Then he planned to swing by Hangar B, where his own geoplane, Mole, was going through her final form and fit checks. August 10 was less than a week away and both Mole and Prairie Dog were scheduled to be loaded onto a hyperjet for the flight out to Quantum Corps Eastern Command base at Singapore in five days.

By the time he got to the Robbery, the festivities were in full swing. Winger and Galland dived into the crowd, met each member of Mendez’ crew and toasted Prairie Dog’s check ride coming up in two days. But before the crowd could dig into their plates of burgers and fries, Mendez’ wristpad beeped…a beep he’d learned long ago to detest but one he couldn’t ignore. It was a Threatcon One alert…all hands to stations.

Mendez shook his head as he climbed up on a nearby chair to be heard over the commotion. The alert message was still scrolling on his wristpad and he nearly stumbled, climbing and reading at the same time. Somebody rapped on a bottle for attention. Mendez’ face was dead serious.

“What is it, Skipper?” came a voice from the back.

“Another drill…do we really have to have one every day?”

Mendez waved them all quiet. “Threatcon One, troops. And this is no drill. I’ll read it…text is from General Kincade and UNSAC: Magnitude eight tremors hitting northern Iran and southern Turkmenistan…suspected Red Hammer source or cause…tremors continue…swarm signatures detected in the area…Boundary Patrol commanded to mobilize all available geoplane crews…mission is surveillance and defense of known fault zones along Arabian and Indian Plate boundaries….” Here, Mendez looked up with a dead serious look. “That means us. Looks like our check ride will be a little more than we bargained for. Finish your plates and assemble in Hangar C at—“ he checked his pad once more, “1700 hours sharp. Full packs. And bring your game face. This one’s for real.”

 

Chapter 2

Subterranean Ops”

 

Tabriz, Iran

August 6, 2049

0500 hours

 

“It looks like a giant caterpillar,” said Dr. Christian Hayes. The UN Quantum Corps inspector circled the vehicle, studying its unusual hull shape, circumferential treads and bulbous nose. “Or maybe a big armored beetle.”

Lieutenant Oscar Mendez chuckled. “This beetle has quite a bite. Prairie Dog can burrow into the ground and be completely submerged in less than a minute. And she can dive to five kilometers depth, given her composite armor and thermal regulation system. That borer lens up front you’re looking at can penetrate the hardest shales and rock on earth, just like butter. She’s a true creature of the deep…the deep earth, that is.”

Geoplane Prairie Dog squatted among the rubble piles and smoking ruins of the Blue Mosque, while all around her, scores of fixbots scurried around removing debris from the

site, dumping broken glass, broken stone, mangled rebar and trash into loaders lined up along Emam Street for half a kilometer. A huge gaping fissure crossed the street in a jagged line, where the underlying faults had lifted the earth in the massive quake several days before. As a result, the toppled Martyrs’ statues across the street were several meters higher than the Mosque itself.

Prairie Dog’s crew, assigned from Boundary Patrol Detachment BP-4, explained her features to Hayes and to Reza Hokmar, the Teheran-based official from UNDERO, the UN Disaster and Emergency Relief Organization. It was Hokmar’s job to head up the recovery efforts in Tabriz, still reeling from a series of magnitude 8 and 9 tremors.

“You have the coordinates of that last swarm sighting?” Hayes asked. “Somewhere a few kilometers southeast of here.”

Mendez was Prairie Dog’s CC1, the senior command rating, in charge of the mission. “Got ‘em from Q2 on the trip over. I don’t have intel on any other sightings.”

“I haven’t heard of anything official,” Hayes admitted. “Just rumors. Reza—?”

Hokmar shrugged. “People here are frightened. They see all kinds of things. My office has reports of ghosts, three-headed tigers, the Prophet Mohammed, you name it. We’ve had a hard time distinguishing fact from superstition. Most people here lost family in the quake. And the tremors….you know they continue.”

Mendez went over the mission orders with both of them. “I’m going deep right here, right through that fissure across the street. After we descend to about two thousand meters, we’ll turn south and head for the coordinates of that last sighting. Quantum Corps has been scanning this area for days, looking for any kind of unique signature. But there’s so much noise down there, it’s hard to get a fix. Even the quantum detectors can’t grab anything solid.”

“I guess the real question we have,” said Hokmar, “is whether the quake and the tremors are natural phenomena. Tabriz is no stranger to earthquakes. The city was eighty per cent destroyed in the late 20th century, over a hundred and twenty years ago. It’s all the tremors following…and the swarm sightings…that have people on edge.”

Mendez understood. “Q2 has plenty of related intel that it’s Red Hammer. Prairie Dog’ll smoke ‘em out. If you’ve got swarms operating in the area, we’ll find them.” Mendez got on the crewnet through his lip mike and ordered the rest of the Detachment to mount up. “Let’s go, troops. Prairie Dog’s rolling and digging in two minutes.” He stepped through the forward hatch and disappeared inside the geoplane.

Hayes and Hokmar stepped back and gave the vehicle plenty of clearance. On the hull beside the forward hatch, Hayes saw the Boundary Patrol insignia and the Latin inscription: Subterraneus defensores percutant dure.

“’Subterranean defenders strike hard’”, he translated for Hokmar. Prairie Dog’s treads started up with a screeching clank and a blue-white glow soon enveloped the nose of the ship as the borer lens came fully online. The cylindrical geoplane huffed and shuddered as she motored forward on her treads, clambering over nearby rubble piles and across the three-meter ledge that marked the fissure in the ground. Fixbots stopped in their own tracks and police held up traffic as the ship rumbled across the street. Passing the recently re-erected statue of the poet Khaqani in a small park opposite the Mosque, Prairie Dog started her descent, angling nose-first toward the ground.

Inside the command deck, Mendez gave directions to Corporal Robles, the Detachment’s DSO1 (Driver/Systems Operator). Pressing a few buttons, Robles manipulated the borer that formed a huge dish-shaped nose on the geoplane’s bow. Inside the borer, actuators fired to release the ANAD swarm contained there. In seconds, the outer surface of the dish was thick with nanoscale disassemblers, forming a shimmering half-globe around Prairie Dog’s nose. Like a single huge blue-white headlamp, the dish and its halo of mechs formed the geoplane’s working surface for subterranean operations.

“Let’s go digging,” Mendez said. “Head for that fissure and contact Ops… tell ‘em we’re going under.”

Robles complied. “Turning left, heading now… one three five degrees. Depth is forty five meters, five degrees down angle.”

“Borer coming on line,” Sergeant Li Kejiang reported. Li was the Borer Operator, BOP1 for the Detachment. She scanned her instrument panel, reading swarm density, alignment and other parameters. “Bots are ready to bite—“

Prairie Dog slowed down as the fissure approached, then a high keening wail could be heard through the hull, as the borer bit into the rock. The geoplane shuddered as she decelerated. Outside the command deck, unseen by the six-person crew, Prairie Dog’s nose buried itself in a shimmering blue-white fog as the borer revved up and uncountable trillions of mechs tore at the rock.

Li licked her lips nervously, reading her instruments. “Coming back mostly quartz and pyroxenes, with some sandstone mixed in. Bots should eat this stuff up.”

The geoplane plunged into the tunnel created by the borer, angling nose down as she bit deeper into the side of the fissure.

Prairie Dog’s instrument panel showed the results of acoustic sounding, displaying rock layers on a graph, with temperature and pressure readings all around the graph. Borer status was displayed as well.

“Looking good,” Robles muttered. “Borer configured for quartz and pyroxenes…ANAD’s chewing through at a rate of two point five kilometers per hour. Treads are functioning fine.”

“She’s a real hot rod…let’s try some basic maneuvers,” Mendez suggested. “Prairie Dog’s never had a proper shakedown cruise.”

“Aye, sir—“ Robles turned the stick to port and Prairie Dog initiated a shallow left-hand bank. The command deck listed slightly, then stabilized. For the next few minutes, first Robles, then Mendez took turns putting the geoplane through a series of turns, dives and climbs.

Mendez began to relax his grip on the stick slightly, trying to forget they were now hundreds of meters below ground.

“There’s a layer of basaltic rock a few klicks south of here,” he remembered. “It’s nearly a kilometer down. We should see how Prairie Dog handles there.”

Robles was cautious. “Sir, remember what Captain Karst told us in the briefing: don’t push her too hard on this first test. Basaltic stuff is superhard and dense…all shale inclusions and quartzite. We’re not sure Prairie Dog’s hull can take the pressure.”

“I know but this is supposed to be a recon mission to find Red Hammer swarms. We have to find out how she’ll handle. Sergeant Rounds, anything yet?”

Sergeant Rounds was the SS1, Sensors and Surveillance Technician. “Nothing yet, Lieutenant. I’m scanning all bands…EM, thermal, acoustic, quantum….some plate shifting, crustal grinding…that’s about it.”

“Very well.” Mendez programmed a new heading into the tread control system and Robles steered them southeast on a heading of one two five degrees, roughly paralleling the volcanic cone of Sahand and the Eynali ridge at the surface. Acoustic sounding soon showed the geoplane was entering harder, denser rock layers.

“Shales,” Sergeant Rita Rono muttered. Rono was GET1 for the Detachment, the Geo Engineering Technician. From earlier briefings with Quantum Corps geologists, she knew the layer was sheeted with hard slate and mica, compacted over millions of years by glaciers and the overriding Eynali mountain range. “Nothing to worry about…just sit back and enjoy the view.”

Mendez snorted. The only view they had was of the inner pressure hull of the geoplane. Even as he watched, he imagined that he could see the compression of Prairie Dog’s interior frame under the millions of tons pressing down on them.

“Sounding ahead…” Rounds reported. “Your depth is now four eight eight meters. Signal distortion coming back…it’s probably the shale zone.”

Robles shoved the control stick forward. “I’m going a little deeper…see if we can plow through some of that quartzite.”

Mendez was dubious. He studied the sounding profile. “Just don’t push Prairie Dog too hard, okay? Let’s don’t press our luck on the first run. I’m showing discontinuities dead ahead…some kind of boundary layer, maybe.”

“Inclusion zone? Maybe it’s the quartzite.”

Rono shook her head. “It looks more like a fault, maybe a transform fault. The geos said there were fracture zones north of Tabriz.”

Prairie Dog angled slightly downward and slowed, as the borer swarm bit into denser rock.

“Cabin temps going up,” Robles reported.

“Acknowledged. Those mechs are working overtime up front, making us a tunnel. I—“

Mendez’ last words were cut off as Prairie Dog shuddered violently. For a brief moment, there was an unmistakable sensation of sliding, sliding sideways and downward. Almost at the same moment, something hit Prairie Dog’s nose with a sickening crunch and the geoplane shuddered again and ground violently to a halt. The cabin tilted to port and stayed tilted.

Prairie Dog’s cabin was deathly still for a few moments, then the creaking and groaning of the hull under tremendous pressure started.

“What happened?” Mendez asked, wincing as the tortured sounds of the hull being compressed grew louder.

Robles scanned his instruments nervously. “Borer is offline. I’m getting no responses from the forward module…pressure drop in containment…we may have a breach.”

“Great,” Mendez muttered. “Just friggin’ great. And it looks like we’ve got a breach in the pressure hull too.”

“I see it…cabin air pressure fluctuating…we’d better activate emergency flasks, just in case.” Robles toggled a few switches and immediately, high pressure air began flooding all compartments.

Rono was studying the acoustic sounder, replaying the last few moments before the—what exactly had happened? An accident? “Lieutenant, I’m not sure but I think we may have created our own earthquake.”

“What? That can’t be…can it?”

Rono went over the soundings again. “We were approaching some kind of discontinuity—see right here?” She pointed to the display. “Like a layer or inclusion zone. Remember when the geos told us there were some transform faults and fracture zones around this big volcanic ridge?”

Mendez said, “Vaguely.”

Rono was figuring out the scenario as she replayed in her mind what must have happened. “It was the bots in the borer module. The swarm disassembled just enough shale and quartzite and other rock to loosen up the fault. It slipped, shifted around and we were caught in the slide.”

So we did create our own earthquake.”

Rono took a deep breath. “So it would seem, sir…”

Mendez drummed fingers on the instrument panel. “Now we’ve got to figure out a way of getting out of here. What do we have to work with?”

Robles went over his instruments again. “Borer’s offline, like I said, and it looks like containment was breached in the accident. I’ve got no response from the borer swarm, no configs, no data of any kind. That swarm’s gone and it’s not responding to commands.”

Mendez tried a few tricks of his own but with no success. “Well, I do have a master in my shoulder capsule. We could jerry-rig a swarm for the borer if we had to.”

“If the module’s not too damaged. On top of that, the tread system’s not responding…so we have no mobility. And the pressure hull….”

Mendez saw the oxygen level had been dropping significantly in the last few minutes. “We’ve got to stop that leak…here, let me launch our secondary ANAD.” He started to link in.

“ANAD, this is Mendez…do you read me?”

***ANAD copies…reading you loud and clear…what has happened?…ANAD’s coupler indicates some kind of swarm break…is the borer functioning?***

“ANAD, Prairie Dog’s had an accident. The pressure hull has been breached. Configure for launch and max replication. I need a local swarm to find and plug the leaks.”

***ANAD configuring now…systems initializing…ANAD reporting ready in all respects…***

Mendez unstrapped himself and went aft through the tunnel to the power plant. “Launch, ANAD. Launch now….” As the CC1 went off to check on their power systems, a shimmering light blue fog emerged from the containment canister on the bulkhead.

***ANAD replicating…can I get a heading to the target?***

“I’m doing that now,” Mendez reported, as he scrambled through the galley and berthing deck and the engineering deck. “Robles, where’s the leak? Can you localize it?”

Still back at the command deck, Robles scanned his instruments. “I’m showing maximum pressure drop at frame ninety-six, starboard side…somewhere between E and F deck.”

Mendez squirmed through the central access tube. He knew E deck was for Engineering, Shops and Utilities. Just aft was F deck, home to Prairie Dog’s hybrid battery and fuel cell power plant.

“I feel it…there’s a whistle just off to my left—“ Mendez paused, sniffing, letting his senses guide him. There. A utilities duct penetrating the bulkhead seemed to be the center of the leak. He saw a faint mist in the air swirling around the duct. “I found it….ANAD configure max propulsor. Home on my signal.” He pressed a button on his wristpad.

Several decks forward, the shimmering fog of the assembler swarm wheeled about and began transiting the access tube.

***ANAD is en route to your location…estimated time is twenty-two minutes***

Mendez tried examining the source of the leak, where the inner pressure hull had been stove in. It was scalding hot with swirling steam and air and he couldn’t get any closer.

“Hurry, ANAD…this break is getting bigger by the minute.”

The ANAD swarm eventually arrived at the site of the breach and promptly went to work. Configuring itself as a tightly interlinked mesh, ANAD sought out the pressure hull penetrations and quickly formed a nanoscale patch over the holes with its trillions of replicants. Gradually, the whistling subsided, then stopped altogether.

“I’m reading air pressure stabilizing in all compartments,” Robles reported from the command deck. “The patch seems to be working.”

Oscar Mendez breathed a sigh of relief, feeling the cool oxygen of the geoplane’s emergency flasks wash over his face. “ANAD, you’re a lifesaver.”

***ANAD reporting swarm element in place and holding. No more air molecules can get in or out. I am configured in repeating tetrahedral with radicals at my outer barrier. Oxygens hate that. And yes…I did save the ship, didn’t I?***

An alarm sounded from the DPS console at the rear of the command deck. Corporal Ng was the Defense and Protective Systems tech (DPS1). He swallowed hard.

“Acoustic flag, sir…some kind of swarm, for sure. Not sure whose bots I’m seeing…” his fingers flew over the board. “…but it’s a large mass, headed this way, bearing two nine two…I make the range at just under four thousand meters.”

Mendez swore under his breath. “On my way…can you get any details, Corporal? Any structure?” The CC1 hurried forward to the command deck.

Ng scanned his panel. “Reading high thermals…I’m applying acoustic filtering…lots of seismic noise out there. Looks like it’s a bot swarm all right…”

Mendez sank into his seat at the main console. “What about the borer? Can we move?”

Sergeant Li, the BOP1, shook her head. “Negative, sir. Borer still offline. I’m getting nothing from up front. I think the bots are dispersed. We had a containment breach and the lens itself may be damaged.”

Time for ANAD again, Mendez thought. Combat at five hundred meters underground was definitely not for the slow-witted. “ANAD, listen up. I need configs for two elements and fast. First, I’m downloading a config for re-populating the borer. Basic stuff. Make reps to fill the borer so we can get the hell out of here.”

***ANAD will go to max rate replication for this config. Borer bots are simple things…what is the second element?

“Defensive shield…we need to be ready to meet this botswarm head on…Ng…Rounds, any structure on this swarm?”

“Negative, sir,” came both replies. Rounds scanned his sensor board. “Rock’s too dense…my filters are having a hard time distinguishing swarm signals from seismic noise. I’m getting acoustics that resemble swarms with Red Hammer signatures but it’s hard to be sure.”

“I get the picture,” Mendez said. “ANAD, I’m sending a config for basic defensive shield. Max rate on this as well.”

***ANAD understands…grabbing feedstock now…***

A shimmering blue-white fog emerged from Prairie Dog’s access tunnel as ANAD fissioned itself for the two configs. Overhead, the master bot slammed atoms and built structure, thickening even as it drifted toward the hatch to the borer module. Sergeant Li cycled the feedport to the borer and the fog drifted on, filling the port, expanding as it replicated into the borer lens itself.

Unseen from the command deck, a second tendril of fog worked its way aft to Prairie Dog’s lockout chamber on G deck. There, the defensive shieldbots would exit the ship and work their way through dense shale rock to confront the oncoming swarm.

Tense moments passed. Li watched her board, noting the pressure and temperature rise inside the borer compartment.

“Just a few more minutes, Lieutenant…borer coming up nicely, pressure now at sixty five percent…I’ve got some control already.”

Mendez checked his tread controls. “Robles, let’s get powered up. Once the borer’s online, I want to get Prairie Dog the hell out of here.”

“Roger that,” the DSO replied. He worked with several joysticks. “Treads working now…I’m feeling a little bite al—“

Prairie Dog shuddered and groaned as rock shifted outside. They felt the ship sliding forward, then to the left again, but the motion stopped almost as soon as it started.

“Okay—“ Mendez pulled his own hands away from the controls. “No more tread…wait till the borer’s up. Let’s not make things worse. DPS, where’s that swarm?”

“Best estimate is two thousand meters and still closing on our position. They can’t move any faster through this rock than we can.”

***ANAD Config Two exiting the ship now*** came ANAD’s voice over the commlink.

“Very well,” Mendez checked ship’s status one last time. “ANAD, maneuver to these coordinates—“ he sent the last reported bearing from Ng, “—and hold that position. Form up a frontal shield…assume Config Six Six.” Mendez had pulled that one from the ship’s archive…it would configure the ANAD nanobotic formation into a barrier that should in theory hold off any bots working their way through the shale rock that had Prairie Dog trapped.

“Borer at ninety percent,” Li called out.

Good enough, Mendez thought. “Engage the borer. Robles, get us out of here now! DPS, get your HERF weapon and magpulser spooled up. We may have to fight our way out of this—“

The DPS tech complied, quickly bringing the High-Energy Radio Freq system to power. The magpulser magnetrons were already humming as well. Prairie Dog had quite a bite for any bots that came too close.

The ship shifted, slid a little, then lurched forward with a vigorous shake, like a dog let off its leash.

“Borer operating at ninety-five percent,” said Li. She manipulated her controls, shaping the hemispherical globe of bots that were beginning to chew away at the rock layers surrounding them. “Pressure and temps nominal, configs look good, we’re digging out—“

“Best forward speed, DSO,” Mendez ordered.

Robles shifted his stick slightly and the ship leveled off, then lurched forward and settled into a steady humming vibration. A cheer erupted on the command deck.

“We’re moving!” said Li.

Prairie Dog moving out smartly,” Robles added. He steadied his stick, feeling the force of the rock pressing against the treads and the hull. “Setting cruise speed…now two point five kilometers per hour.”

“Steer toward that swarm. Ng, give us a bearing. ANAD, hold on, okay. We’re maneuvering to intercept.”

Now finally underway, Prairie Dog propelled herself on full tread and borer toward the enemy bots, less than a thousand meters to starboard.

“SS1, what are we dealing with here…got any structure on those bots?”

Sergeant Rounds licked his lips and scanned his board. “Acoustics look like Red Hammer-type bots, sir. I’ve been able to run the data through filtering, screen some of the seismic stuff. EMs and thermal…too soon to tell. Best guess, Lieutenant: we’re dealing with standard bots we’ve seen before from this source.”

“That’s good enough for me. ANAD, prepare for combat launch…assume Config C-7, opposed entry.”

Clinging to Prairie Dog’s outer hall as she squeezed through the layers of shale and slate nearly a thousand meters underground, the ANAD master responded.

***ANAD ready in all respects…assuming C-7, extending effectors now, priming bond disrupters…enzymatic knife in position…just give the word, Hub and I’ll tear ‘em to pieces***

Mendez had to smile, as did others on the command circuit. ANAD was like a little bulldog, straining at his leash. His personality algorithms needed work but there were some quirks that made the little bug kind of endearing, even to hardened nanotroopers.

“Less than two hundred meters, Skipper,” said Rounds. “Possible aspect change on swarm mass…he may be replicating…I’m seeing enhanced returns, mass changes—“

Mendez checked Prairie Dog’s status on his own panel. “Robles, slow to one-third. DPS, get HERF ready. I want to blast the sonofabitch first with rf, then send ANAD out.”

“HERF fully charged, Lieutenant. Pulse mode enabled.” Ng’s finger hovered over the FIRE button, ready to release a thunderclap of radio-frequency energy. With any luck, the bolt would fry enough enemy bots to make ANAD’s job a little easier.

“Very well. ANAD…you may launch when you’ve reached fifty percent mass.”

The master bot had already started replicating, grabbing atoms from local shale and slate layers, building billions and billions of daughter bots, building out the swarm.

***At fifty five percent now, Hub…ANAD is releasing now…launching from base…***

Aboard Prairie Dog’s command deck, Mendez toggled the quantum coupler circuit to show the view from ANAD’s nanometer scale. Troopers had long referred to this switch as “going over the waterfall.”

At first, nothing made any sense. It was disorienting in the extreme, like going over the top of a roller coaster ride and your head was spinning out of control. Like standing on the beach in a driving sleet storm, with triangles and polygons and tetrahedrals and nightmarish tangled shapes blasting by your head. Gradually, your mind somehow made sense of the scene and the image settled down and stabilized. In a few seconds, you had gone from the macro world of things and substances and 3-dimensional shapes to the nanometer world of atoms and molecules and Brownian motion. Mendez shook his head, focused and fiddled with the gain on the imager, trying to make some kind of sense of all the photons ANAD was sending back.

To Mendez’s eye, maneuvering through layers of black shale rock was like flying over a field of broken gravel at an altitude of one centimeter. Calcium, sodium and magnesium molecules flitted by like trees in a hurricane. ANAD navigated as best he could through the jungle, forcing his way through narrow crevices and corners, squeezing through tight defiles and shifting back and forth to make some kind of headway.

“EM spike dead ahead, Skipper,” called out the SS1, Sergeant Rounds. “Big mass, lots of acoustics too.”

Gradually, the imager settled down to a dark, staticky, grainy picture—of what? Mendez squinted, leaned forward. The view slowly materialized—a dense, regular lattice of throbbing, quivering spheres.

“Crystalline structures,” Sergeant Rono (GET1) reported. “Looks like calcium. Maybe carbons—
Mendez was mesmerized by the perfect geometry. “Oxygens too, Sergeant.” He pointed to long rows of tiny darkened blobs, marching off into the distance like a fence. “A cubical lattice, just like the micrographs. A crystalline solid—”

“Limestone’s mostly calcium anyway, with some oxygens and carbons mixed in. Interlocking crystals—it’s beautiful.”

“And damned hard to navigate. Like a jungle…this stuff’s so dense, ANAD’s speed is way down. Enable the voice link—”

Mendez strained to see anything and then…there it was. Shadows drifting in and among the structurally tight crystalline lattices of silicon and calcium and iron and half a dozen over things. “Slow to one quarter propulsor—“ he told ANAD.

Over the next few moments, the enemy swarm came into view, gradually materializing among the loose atoms and clusters that choked the lattice. It was like playing hide and seek in a dense forest.

The bots looked like a chorus line of squat cylinders, festooned with effectors and gizmos around their circumference.

“Looks like some kind of shaggy cat,” muttered Rounds. “What the hell are all those things?”

“I don’t know,” said Ng “but they’re all coming this way. HERF’s ready, Skipper.”

“Let ‘em have it!” Mendez said. “ANAD…hold on. And cover your ears!”

Fire in the hole!” said Ng. He stabbed the FIRE button.

The thunderclap of rf energy stabbed out into the rock and BOOMED! back in reverberation through Prairie Dog’s hull. The net effect of blasting waves of radio freq energy was to shatter the enemy formation. It also loosened some of the rock layers through which Prairie Dog was cruising.

The ship’s hull shuddered, creaked and groaned. Mendez felt a lurch and there was a momentary sensation of sliding, then a sudden jarring stop.

Rono, the geo tech, examined her instruments. “Side acceleration, Skipper. We’re slipping—“

“Losing traction in the treads,” Robles reported. He backed off a moment, until Prairie Dog’s tread bit again into the rock stratum.

“Okay,” Mendez said, “belay any more HERF. We’re shattering the rock around us. ANAD, prepare to engage.”

***ANAD ready in all respects, Skipper. Let me at ‘em!***

Rounds counted down the range. “Inside of fifty meters, Skipper. Big time EMs now, acoustics show massive swarm approaching, just off our starboard bow.”

“Go, ANAD! Launch now!”

Outside the ship’s hull, the bot master and its replicants jetted off.

***ANAD underway on full propulsor. All effectors extended, bond disrupters fully charged. Working my way through solid-phase lattice now—***

It was like fighting an enemy through heavy vine and brush, hacking your way forward even as you did battle.

“I’ve got ANAD!” reported Rounds. “He’s closing fast…tell him to bear right ten degrees…I make the enemy mass centroid at ten degrees further to starboard!”

Mendez passed the vector along and ANAD adjusted. He decided to take a peek at the imager.

The scene was chaotic and confusing. The regular crystalline lattice was visible enough, ordered ranks of silicons and oxygens lined up like headstones in a graveyard. Something shadowy and formless moved steadily through the ranks…that was ANAD, the assembler bots twisting and squeezing and shimmying left and right to move through the rock strata. Further ahead, more shadows could just be made out.

The swarms collided twenty-two meters off Prairie Dog’s starboard quarter.

***ANAD engaging now…moving in!***

Even at nanoscale dimensions, close-quarters combat was still part momentum and part surprise and ANAD had both. The assembler swarm quickly enveloped the bots of Red Hammer. Mendez tweaked the imager, trying to get better resolution, but the view was like cats thrashing in a pool of water, all flying effectors and probes and quick flashes of disrupter fire as each side shot electron volt discharges and tore furiously at the other.

After a few minutes, the DPS1, Corporal Ng was bathed in sweat. His fingers whizzed over a keyboard as he sent config changes and effector commands, trying to counter what the enemy bots were doing. It quickly became evident that the enemy bots were weakest around their equatorial ring, where most of their effectors couldn’t reach. The cylindrical barbell bots had multi-lobed heads, top and bottom, each covered with all manner of effectors that could easily slash, tear and slice unwary ANAD bots that approached on the wrong vector.

“That’s the sweet spot—“ Ng muttered. “Right in the middle…but it takes timing. You have to catch ‘em when those effectors are engaged in another direction. Then, blam…you dive in and zap ‘em with everything!”

The battle was a seesaw affair for many minutes. Mendez checked with Rounds, the sensor tech.

“We’re slowly losing mass, Skipper. I can see it in the acoustics and EMs, thermals too. Enemy bots are out-replicating us. ANAD disables one, but two more show up right away…we’ve got to put some new configs in there.”

Mendez was hacking away at his own keyboard. “I’m trying, I’m trying…I don’t see anything in the archive that—“

Just then, Prairie Dog shuddered again and a loud groan could be heard forward of the command deck. The ship shuddered and slipped and then something slammed them from the starboard. Mendez grabbed a seat back just in time to keep from being thrown to the deck. Beside him, Robles wasn’t so fortunate. The DSO was flung to the floor grate and came up bleeding at the temple; his head had struck a stanchion nearby.

The geo tech shook her head. “We’re losing it, Skipper!” Rono said. “Seismic signals everywhere…strata shifting all around us! Hang on!”

Mendez didn’t need to hear anymore. “Robles, get cranked up…get us the hell out of here! ANAD, return to the ship…we’ll pick you up!”

***ANAD understands….attempting to withdraw…I am now fully engaged with the enemy…master bot coming about…I’ll have to sacrifice replicants…***

“Do it, ANAD! Hold your position…we’ll swing by.”

At Mendez’ command, Robles steered for ANAD’s position. The replicated daughter bots could be abandoned. By design, once the coupler link with the master was broken, a timer circuit ensured the replicants committed atomic seppuku and were disassembled so there was nothing for the enemy to capture.

“I’ve got the signal!” said Ng. “BOP, steer right and center on heading zero eight five.”

Robles complied and Prairie Dog was slammed again by another round of tremors. Creaks and groans echoed through the hull. “She’s sluggish…we may have lost some tread, Skipper.”

“Just keep going,” Mendez told him. “We’ve got to get out of this stratum before Prairie Dog’s crushed.”

The ship shimmied and shook like a wet dog as Robles drove them to ANAD’s position. Mendez had killed the coupler link. The last remnants of the swarm were quickly being overwhelmed by Red Hammer bots…no sense in following that.

“At least, the borer’s still operating,” Robles muttered to no one in particular. If Prairie Dog lost that, she’d be stuck but good, trapped two thousand meters below the Zagros Mountains of northern Iran.

“ANAD bot master signal less than ten meters away,” Rounds reported, fiddling with the acoustic and EM detectors. “He may have been damaged…I’m seeing some signal dropout, intermittent spikes and drops.”

“ANAD,” said Mendez, “do you read? Make your way to the capsule port…full propulsor. We can’t wait forever.”

Prairie Dog had several launch and capture ports spotted around her hull. ANAD masters and swarms could enter and exit quickly from the ship through their own dedicated lockouts.

But there was no reply over the coupler circuit. “Looks like we’ve lost comms, Sensor. What’s the little guy doing out there?”

“Hard to say with all the seismic noise,” Rounds replied. “Best guess: he seems to be in motion…I’m getting acoustic returns that read like propulsor operation. And the signal’s getting stronger.”

“Okay, as soon as he comes aboard, we’re out of here.”

Word came less than a minute later, as Prairie Dog rolled and porpoised and shook from more tremors and quakes.

“Got ‘em, Skipper!” said Rounds. “That’s the port cycling…positive ID on capture signal…and something else too…I’m getting EMs forward, looks like ANAD…maybe part of the swarm came back too.”

“What are they doing forward?”

The answer came seconds later. Robles saw an immediate drop in borer ops. “Borer swarm mass down ten per cent…I’m compensating, loading new config to make more bots—“

“Is the bot master aboard?”

“Affirmative, Skipper,” said Rounds. I’ve got positive signal from inside the port. It’s ANAD, all right.”

“Borer still losing mass!” Robles said. The BOP1’s fingers flew over his keyboard, countering the effect. “I’m trying another config—“

“Red Hammer…it has to be…” Ng muttered, checking weapons status: HERF was charged, magpulsers were ready. “Skipper, the enemy has somehow infected ANAD, rode back home with him. That has to be what happened. Remember ANAD said he was fully engaged with the enemy. We may have some onboard…maybe even inside the borer.”

Mendez didn’t want to believe it but his tactical sense told him the DPS was probably right. The question was: now what? If Red Hammer had infected their borer with his own bots, Prairie Dog was sunk. And if ANAD had brought enemy bots onboard—

He made the difficult decision. “Robles, shut down the borer. Shut it down. And isolate that capture port. We’ve got to scrub Prairie Dog from bow to stern…then we can re-boot the borer.”

“Sir, if I shut down—“

“Do it now!”

Robles managed the shutdown and Prairie Dog’s forward momentum died off.

“What about that capture port?”

Rounds didn’t like what he was seeing. “I’m getting mixed signals, like the port’s both open and closed. ANAD’s inside, I’m sure of that. But there’s something mixed in…I’d better go take a look—“

The SS1 unbuckled himself, steadied himself against more pitching and heaving of the command deck, and disappeared down the central tunnel. The capture port that ANAD had reached was aft, amidships on D Deck, Stores and Supplies. Rounds slipped into the tunnel and worked his way to D deck, holding on to anything he could as Prairie Dog slid and rolled and vibrated from the tremors. It was like being inside of a barrel going over a waterfall.

When he got to D deck, he spun the hatch wheel and shoved himself inside.

Stores and Supplies was filled with crates and boxes and pallets of gear. It was Prairie Dog’s pantry and attic closet. But that wasn’t what caught Rounds’ attention.

Drifting in among the crates was a glowing fog, slowly filling every vacant space on the deck. The fog was flecked with pinpricks of light, like a silent thunderstorm building overhead.

It wasn’t ANAD.

The SS1 was just able to get off a warning. “Attention from D deck…we’ve got—“ and then the swarm was upon him, enveloping him, smothering him. “—-arrrggghhh…I can’t—“

Complete disassembly took about seven minutes. Mendez left the command deck and was poking his head onto D deck in eight. He saw what had happened…what was left of Rounds and quickly slammed the hatch, dogging it shut. He hustled back to the command deck.

Before he could make it, Prairie Dog shuddered violently and began a slow clockwise roll, with a sickening screech coming from somewhere forward. Mendez crawled and staggered up to the command deck. Chaos and panic filled the space.

Rono, the geo tech, was barely clinging to her console. “—-P wave coming, high magnitude transverse waves, lots of ‘em, coming this way—“

The crew of Prairie Dog didn’t know it at the time but the Red Hammer swarms had somehow managed to lubricate the rock strata surrounding the geoplane. A punishing series of tremors radiated outward through the region, oblique convergent plate boundaries letting go as the rock underlying the Zagros Mountains gave way in a spreading fracture zone, propagating outward like a sheet of glass cracking.

The swarms of nanobots had insinuated themselves into multiple fault zones and disassembled enough rock to release the massive strain which had built up over the centuries. Massive seams of slate and feldspar, hundreds of kilometers long, suddenly wrenched forward with crushing force, sending shock waves and seismic energy halfway around the Earth, as crustal plates rebounded and jostled each other.

Geoplane Prairie Dog was caught like a bug in a vise. Mendez shouted over the din of the crushing force now slamming them downward.

“ANAD…ANAD, if you can hear me…ANAD, launch NOW! I’m sending a config to form up a shield…try to hold back this—“

But he never finished the sentence. Seconds later, the plates shifted again, twisting and crumpling Prairie Dog even further downward, wrenching off her nose and borer lens and crushing the ship into a twisted pile of wreckage.

Geoplane Prairie Dog was destroyed, smashed into oblivion, and all aboard her were lost.

 

Fifteen hundred meters above them, Teheran was on fire as killsat K-10 swept its particle beams through the outskirts of the capital city, flash-frying everything it touched.

 

Chapter 3

Tectonic Sword”

 

South China Sea

Two Hundred Meters below the Seabed

August 10, 2049

0000 hours

 

Geoplanes Mole and Badger both angled downward and squeezed through another dense layer of granite as the ships closed steadily on the eastern end of the Pearl River estuary.

“Just passing plate boundary, Lieutenant,” announced Sergeant Kruizenga, geotech for Mole’s crew. “Eurasian plate ahead, inclusion zone with hard granite… dead ahead.”

“Very well,” Johnny Winger replied from the command deck. “SS1, is Badger keeping up?”

The Sensors and Surveillance Tech (SS1) was Sergeant Balderis. The trim, mustachioed Russian adjusted knobs on his scopes and studied waveforms trickling across the screens. “Yes, sir…Badger shows off our starboard quarter, one thousand meters, maintaining depth and angle.”

Winger mused over the stratigraphic plot in front of him. “Granite’s hard stuff. We’d better slow down. DSO, chop speed to two kilometers per hour.”

“Aye, sir,” came back Corporal Rice, Mole’s Driver/Systems Operator. “Cutting tread speed to two k.”

“Make sure Badger does the same.”

Badger answers back…showing speed dropping to match.”

Geoplane Mole, accompanied by her sister ship Badger, was two hundred kilometers southeast of the Pearl River estuary, and the islands of the city of Hong Kong. Lions Rock was in Hong Kong. Both geoplanes were nosing through a zone of hard tonalitic granite, two hundred meters below the seabed of the South China Sea.

If all went well, the Tectonic Sword force would cross beneath the estuary opening in less than five hours, and begin angling up toward the volcanic peaks of Hong Kong. North and west of the old walled city of Kowloon, the geoplanes would penetrate the subsurface foundations of Lions Rock itself and begin a surprise assault on the Red Hammer base, from an unexpected direction…from below ground.

A slight tremor shook Mole and all on the command deck looked up with momentary alarm. They had just crossed over a plate boundary, cruising at a stately two kilometers per hour from the Philippine Plate into the mass of the vast Eurasian plate and fault zones were notorious for steady tremors.

Mole shimmied for a moment like a dog throwing off bathwater and then steadied down.

“Geo, any signs of stronger movements?”

Kruizenga shook his head. “Small-amplitude P waves, sir…nothing serious, yet. These fault zones shake, rattle and roll like creaking carousels sometimes.”

But this was no ordinary P-wave. The geoplane was suddenly slammed sideways and the screech of resisting metal sounded through her hull.

“Strike-slip fault, Lieutenant! Big P-waves all around…we’re gonna get hammered!”

Winger got on the 1MC. “All hands, brace for quake! Secure everything—“ He had barely gotten the words out of his mouth when a series of waves struck the geoplane broadsides.

Winger’s words were cut off as Mole shuddered violently. For a brief moment, there was an unmistakable sensation of sliding, sliding sideways and downward. Almost at the same moment, something hit Mole’s nose with a sickening crunch and the geoplane shuddered again and ground violently to a halt. The cabin tilted to port and stayed tilted.

Mole’s cabin was deathly still for a few moments, then the creaking and groaning of the hull under tremendous pressure started.

“What happened?” Winger asked, wincing as the tortured sounds of the hull being compressed grew louder.

“Borer offline, Skipper,” reported Corporal Erromango, the ship’s BOP1, Borer Operator. “I am reconstituting the bots, going max reps.”

“Treads? Do we still have treads?”

DSO Rice checked her traction controls, pulsed her sticks and offered a rueful smile. “Treads not damaged, sir. We can still maneuver. I’m showing increased friction on B tread…maybe something caught…but I can compensate.”

“Message coming in from Badger,” said Balderis. He silently mouthed the words as the coupler received and translated the pulses. “They reporting major damage, sir…borer offline, A and C treads de-tracked, possible hull breach…they’re dead in the water and requesting assistance, sir.”

Winger could visualize the chaos on the command deck of Badger. Gabrielle Galland was CC1…she would even now be popping the EAB air flasks to overpressure Badger’s hull, to keep air inside. Badger was critical to the mission. Tectonic Sword couldn’t go without Badger and her crew and her squad of nanotroopers.

“Swing us around to starboard, DSO,” Winger ordered. “Put us on a course that intercepts Badger and places us about fifty meters away…no closer. I don’t want to set anything else off.”

Even as he spoke, more tremors rattled through Mole’s creaking hull and the ship struggled to stay vertical, fighting the force of tons of rock all around her. All aboard felt the heading change as the deck angled slight to starboard and their speed dropped off. Moments later, Mole was on course to hunt down and intercept her stricken sister ship.

Mole had a crew of six, counting Winger as mission commander. She also bore a small squad of five nanotroopers, plus contained elements of ANAD 2.0. The assault force IC1, Sergeant Hoyt Gibbs, came forward onto the command deck from B deck, aft of them. Gibby clung to a bulkhead as more tremors rattled and shook the geoplane.

Badger’s hurt,” Winger told Gibby. “We’re heading that way now.”

Gibby winced at the news. “Didn’t see any damage aft, Skipper. Some pots and pans slung around the mess compartment but that’s about all. Mighty Mite’s cleaning up. What does this do to our timeline?”

“Nothing good. If Badger can’t go, we’ll have to offload their crew and troops. That’ll make things tight in here. But we need all of you to make the assault on Lions Rock.”

Gibbs stared at the stratigraphic plot. “That means more time…ANAD’ll have to bore an escape tunnel through this crap outside. Everybody gets into hypersuits, grabs weapons and supplies…that’ll take hours.”

“Can’t be helped. We can’t surface inside Lions Rock and bust out of the cave walls with half a force.”

Gibbs’ nightmare turned out to be true. Winger got the bad news as soon as Mole came to a stop. Gabrielle Galland came on the coupler circuit. Both geoplanes were at all stop, less than fifty meters away from each, but separated by tons and tons of Cenozoic granite and sandstone.

Badger’s hurt pretty bad, Wings. No serious casualties but we’re definitely no-go.” Her voice was strained. “Pretty thick dust in here too, but we got the hull breach patched. Our borer ANAD’s lost containment…we’re dead as dirt here.”

“I’ll get an ANAD tunnel started right away, Gabby. Get your troops together and give ‘em the word. Grab your weapons and anything else you can…you’re coming aboard Mole, as soon as ANAD makes a hole.”

“Understood…but doesn’t this make hash out of our timeline?”

“Can’t be helped. Get going now…all these tremors make me nervous. We need to get away from these plate boundary zones as quickly as we can.”

 

The escape tunnel from Mole to Badger took ANAD about two hours. It was less than a meter wide, barely wide enough for a well-fed nanotrooper to squeeze through. There was a good bit of grumbling and griping about living like gophers and moles, but the technique had been well-practiced and simmed over the last few days. One by one, weapons and supplies in tow, the entire crew and troop complement of Badger burrowed through the tunnel and came aboard Mole through her D Deck lockout.

It was going to be a tight squeeze for the rest of the trip.

Winger told the DSO to get the ship going. “We’re behind schedule. Can we make three kilometers an hour?”

“I’ll try, sir.” Rice cranked up the treads and Erromango commanded more replications out of the borer ANAD swarm. The blue-white half-globe at Mole’s bow soon grew white hot as she chewed her way through layer after layer of Cretaceous and Jurassic granites, Mesozoic sedimentary rock and Paleozoic quartzite.

Galland shuddered, watching the stratigraphic plot on Mole’s command deck, sipping a warm mug of coffee. “At least most of the tremors have subsided.”

They were now deep inside the Eurasian tectonic plate, still two hundred meters below the seabed. The Pearl River and Hong Kong were dead ahead, five hours away at the geoplane’s best cruise speed.

 

Five hours later, Winger had fallen into a dreamless daze when a voice roused him from the commander’s seat. It was Kruizenga.

“We’re directly under the Pearl River estuary, Skipper. Two hundred meters under the floor of the channel. Should I start the ascent?”

After a last minute briefing on geological formations along the traverse route, Winger had received a message off the satlink from Table Top base several hours before. It came to Mole on her ELF receiver. It was Major Kraft. The Major’s face had appeared haggard and tired on the screen.

“General Kincade just squirted me your final orders, Lieutenant,” Kraft was saying. “I’m sending them along…don’t go without a hard copy onboard. UNSAC has approved Tectonic Sword in full, all details and constraints as we discussed before. Have you got your course set?”

“Plotted and laid in,” Winger reported. He sat in the mission commander’s seat alongside Galland, who was busy checking systems off a checklist. “We’re descending to a thousand meters a few kilometers south of the Pearl River entrance to get below the hardest basaltic layers…and to slip around a transverse fault the geos say is there. We head out north by northwest for about twenty kilometers, cross below Hong Kong Island and rise to five hundred meters below the Kowloon Peninsula, where the shales are little better for boring. Fewer inclusions to deal with.”

Kraft was following his own copy of the assault course on a screen at his desk at Table Top. “Exactly…Then from there, you cross the bay at two hundred meters depth, roughly paralleling the southern coastline of the New Territories—should be some tougher boring there, from what the geos tell me…lots of igneous stuff, quartzite and so forth. You’ll have to slow down. And there are subduction zones all along that range. The base of the mountains is being driven northward by rotation of the Eurasian tectonic plate, so there are tremors and shifting all the time. Watch yourself.”

“Don’t worry about that, Major.” Winger patted the main console. “Murchison says this Mole should take real good care of us. From the Stonecutters Island escarpment, it should be a fairly straight shot up into Lions Rock.”

“Watch your densitometer closely, Lieutenant,” Kraft warned. “Follow the course profile as precisely as possible. UNIFORCE mapped these strata pretty well the last few weeks. With all that plate subduction going on east of the estuary, you could set off some seismic activity without meaning to. We don’t want to give Red Hammer—of the Chinese—any warning at all.”

“Understood, sir.”

Kraft looked up. His eyes narrowed on the screen. “Get in and get out, Winger. Get up there and turn that base into rubble. You’ve got the target list with the priorities checked off: destroy the pulser emitters and controls, destroy the scope works, any other control centers, the Keeper portal if you can get to it, then get the hell out of there. With any luck, that’ll sever all the control links to the killsats. Once they’re cut off from control and from each other, UNISPACE thinks they can be engaged and control regained individually. Once you exfiltrate, UNISEA will have a sub waiting to escort Mole at the coordinates we agreed on.” Rendezvous point is thirteen degrees north by one nineteen degrees west.”

“We’ll be nearly a day getting into position, Major. But we’ve got ELF and the quantum coupler circuits to stay in touch with the surface. I’ll check in once every four hours, give you an update.”

“Good luck, Lieutenant,” Kraft nodded. “And good hunting. Smash the bastards for good.”

“Sir, the escarpment is dead ahead. Should we start our ascent?” Kruizenga asked again. He indicated the profile on Mole’s acoustic sounder. “Solid rock dead ahead and above us.”

“Borer on line?” Winger asked.

“Up and swarming. All parameters normal. ANAD reports ready in all respects.”

Winger took a deep breath. The geoplane and her assault team were about to commit to the underground phase of the assault. He glanced over at Galland, her face still streaked from burrowing through the scape tunnel ANAD had carved; both of them exchanged knowing looks. They both understood the risks they were about to take.

“Let’s do it,” Winger ordered.

One compartment behind them, Corporal Lucy Hiroshi was nervously stroking a handful of amulets and talismans, clinking them in a staccato rhythm. The CQE1 mumbled incantations in her native Kyushu dialect, imploring the spirits of earth to watch over the small assault force.

Sheila Reaves was annoyed. “Lucy, you’re going to wear the finish right off those trinkets. Give it a rest, how about it? You’re driving us all nuts with all that witch doctor stuff.”

Hiroshi never opened her eyes, only muttering, “The spirits of earth are unhappy. Many rumblings…Fujiyama sends fire…I try to calm them.”

“Yeah? Well those spirits aren’t the only ones unhappy. Stuff those beads before I stuff them down your throat.”

Taj Singh was right behind them, scrolling a copy of the Bhagavad Gita on his wristpad monitor. “Lucy’s right…it can’t hurt to placate the spirits. We’re in their world now…Vishnu is angry…I sense it too. There are forces about us that we don’t understand.”

Reaves was about to reply but all talk ceased aboard Mole’s C deck, as the high wail of nanobotic activity came through the hull. At the same moment, the geoplane slowed noticeably and a pronounced shudder rolled through the hull.

“That’s it, then,” said Mighty Mite Barnes. She forced herself to remain calm, eyeing the hull frames warily. “We’re headed up.” The whole of C deck suddenly fell quiet.

An unmistakable creaking could be heard as the borer bit into the hard rock and Mole angled up toward the surface.

 

The assault plan called for Mole to surface near the base of the mountain that was Lions Rock, in fact, near the entrance to the Lions Rock Country Park. The first hour of boring took the geoplane into hard basaltic rock layers, to an intermediate depth of a hundred meters below the surface. Seismic charts had indicated a broad layer of the black volcanic rock underlay most of the Pearl River area and gave the geoplane a solid structure to tunnel through for nearly ten kilometers north.

Somewhere below Hong Kong Island, a few kilometers northwest of Junk Bay, the geos had determined that the basaltic layer thinned out, abutting inclusions of quartzite and shale, with magma channels embedded in the rock.

It was this transition zone, a subduction zone according to the geos, that posed the greatest risk to transit by the geoplane. The entire region was crisscrossed with fragile lava tubes and fracture faults in the rock, evidence (said the analysis) of billions of years of strain brought on by the collision of the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates.

It was there that Mole would have to slow down and sound carefully ahead, taking extreme care not to let the borer loosen too much rock.

Even the slightest weakening could lead to a complete rupture and a cascade of rock plates shifting.

Johnny Winger had no wish to tempt Fate again.

“Borer on line at nearly one hundred percent,” Erromango reported. “We’re chewing through this rock like it was butter…a blistering three kilometers an hour.”

Winger acknowledged the report. “Tread system status?”

Rice, the DSO, checked the drive. “Tread drive engaged and operating fine, sir…no anomalies.”

“Clear sailing from here,” Winger said. He eyed the densitometer on the main panel. It read slightly more than a hundred meters below the surface. According to the profiler, Mole was traversing layers of extremely hard igneous rock, richly veined with inclusions of iron and magnesium. The layers formed a dense mass of some of the hardest rock on earth, in a zone of tremendous pressure caused by the northward movement of the Philippine plate against the Asian plate, a zone of grinding force and constant shifting and slipping.

It was also a zone of near constant seismic activity.

Mole plowed ahead for several hours, making steady progress along the first leg of their course. Four hours after the geoplane had entered the estuary, Anatoly Balderis announced a new navigation hack off the quantum coupler signal coming from Singapore base.

“We’re across New Territories now,” he reported. “Or rather underneath it. Inside target zone for final ascent…and on course.”

Winger yawned and stretched. He motioned to Galland, perusing on her wristpad a makeshift map of the Lions Rock complex from Quantum Corps Intelligence. “Take over, will you? I’m heading aft to see what’s in the Stores lockers. When’s our first turn?”

“At Tolo Harbor…two hours and twenty minutes away, if we stay on course at this speed. Profiler says we’ve got hard basalt all the way.”

“Good for tunneling,” Winger said as he ducked down through the access tube. “You want anything from the fridge?”

“Negative. Just get back up here as soon as you can, Wings. I like having extra eyes on the densitometer and the profiler. We may yet have to slam on the brakes before we get to the target… maybe alter course.”

“Maybe I’ve got more faith in ANAD than you. If there are any voids or faults out there, the borer bots are programmed to stop boring immediately. We’ve got fail-safe cutoffs this time.”

“Maybe,” said Galland, “but ANAD’s been just ornery enough lately to make me feel a little uneasy.”

Winger disappeared down the access tube. He decided to check out the rest of the detail, sacked out in varying stages of sleep and undress on C deck.

“Welcome to the nursery, Lieutenant.” Mighty Mite Barnes had a drop cloth out on the deck; she was oiling and cleaning a disassembled coilgun carbine while behind her, Sheila Reaves grunted through several hundred crunches. “Want to play with us?”

Winger surveyed the berthing deck. Half of Tectonic Sword’s assault force was here: Gibbs, McReady, Barnes, Hiroshi and Reaves. The Japanese CQE was potting a miniature bonsai plant below her bunk, lovingly tending its leaves and branches. The assault troops from the abandoned Badger had sacked out one deck further aft.

“Maybe later, kids. Your gear all checked out?”

Hiroshi sat in a semi-circle of wooden talismans and figurines, casting spells and hexes, when she was finished with her plants. “Fujiyama is not happy, Lieutenant. Spirits are troubled…see how the light falls on his face…see the shadows? Omens…very bad omens….”

“Hey, that’s why they issue us coilguns, Loos,” said Barnes. She held up the just-oiled barrel of the coilgun, its magnetic head gleaming. “This is what we do to bad omens.”

“Atomize the bastards…that’s all I got to say,” snarled Reaves, toweling off after her three hundredth rep. Sweat rolled down her cheeks. “Hey, LT…how long we gotta live in this bug coffin? Gives me the creeps. What are we, ants or something?”

Winger smiled. At least, his troopers were in good spirits. “Just Quantum Corps troopers on a mission, Sheila. Get as much shuteye as you can. In about—“ he checked the chronometer on his wristpad—“ an hour and thirty minutes, Mole will surface. That’s when the real fun begins.”

“Do you think we can really surprise ‘em?” asked McReady, the red-haired CEC tech. He had his hypersuit helmet off, trying to re-position the padding inside for a better fit.

Winger shrugged. “Intel says Red Hammer won’t be defending an approach from underground. Me…I’m not so sure. Q2 thinks they don’t know we’ve optimized ANAD for boring. But I’d be willing to bet they’ve got a few surprises in store for us. But they don’t have ANAD and they don’t know when or where we’re—“

Winger stopped in mid-sentence. A perceptible shudder had shaken the normally smooth thrummm of the geoplane’s treads. Before he could continue, the rolling shudders grew to a sudden jerk, as Mole ground to a halt. The treads went silent, but only for a few seconds.

“Oh, shit—“

“We’re moving…feel it? We’re sliding, left…left and downward—“

Just then, Mole’s hull was slammed hard as if they had hit something and the screech of tortured metal sounded from somewhere aft. The geoplane shook violently, knocking Winger to his knees.

“Cover yourselves…it’s a fault!” He crawled on hand and knees, back into the access tube, and scrambled forward to the command deck, as the pitching and shaking grew more violent, as if the geoplane were caught in an underground landslide. Hard bangs slammed the hull as the tremor amplitude increased. Mole was taking a hell of a beating and Winger hauled himself up the tube as fast as the pitching deck would allow. He burst onto B deck and was immediately thrown against the bulkhead.

“Secure the borer!” he yelled out.

“Already done!” Galland came back. “Treads are off line too—“

They both held on for a few seconds as Mole shimmied and shook like a wet dog. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the violent tremor stopped. The compartment was silent, the air thick with dust, as the geoplane hull creaked and groaned under renewed stress.

“Just your average strike-slip fault movement,” muttered Kruizenga, holding his breath and scanning his profiler.

“Damage report!” Winger got on the 1MC. “All decks, report!”

Bit by bit, the reports came back to B deck: no significant damage, a few cuts, bruises and lacerations but no casualties.

Galland checked her instruments. “No flags or anomalies. No cautions or warnings. Looks like Mole’s good to go.”

“Where are we now, Kurt?”

The geotech consulted his profiler and stratigraphic maps. “One hundred and six meters below the surface, Lieutenant. Directly below Lions Rock.”

“Injun Country,” said Galland softly.

“Start the ascent,” Winger ordered. On the 1MC, he made the announcement. “All hands to battle stations.”

Operation Tectonic Sword was about to enter its final approach phase.

The ascent came off without a glitch. Mole tunneled upward on a course of zero seven five degrees, through hard igneous rock layers, at an average speed of one kilometer per hour.

The stratigraphic and topo maps all indicated the same underground terrain for Mole’s borer to chew through: amorphous basaltic lava smashed northward and compressed over hundreds of millions of years along the margins of the great Philippine and Eurasian plates. Extremely hard and dense, composed of a geochemical stew of magnesium and calcium oxides, the rock layers made perfect tunneling material, save for the fault and fracture zones, which were unstable enough to try and avoid.

Gabrielle Galland took a navigation hack off the quantum signal grid broadcast by Singapore base and announced her findings.

“Sounding structures directly above us, Wings. Twenty meters and some change.”

“Show me,” he said.

Galland pointed to the profiler. It showed a simulated elevation view of the rock layers surrounding the geoplane, overlaid on a live, high-resolution sat image of the terrain seen from space. Mole’s position was indicated with a flashing star.

“We’re here—“she pointed with her finger. “That’s the bottom cavern of the complex, dead center of all the entanglement waves that Q2 triangulated. Red Hammer Incorporated. I make the distance at about twenty meters.”

Winger nodded. “Stop the ascent. Rock layers?”

Galland checked the stratigraphy maps. “Pyroxene and feldspar, mostly. Same stuff ANAD’s been boring though for the last six hours. There is a small fracture in one plate…looks harmless enough.”

“Give it a wide berth,” Winger ordered. “I don’t want any tremors now…at least, not until we’re in place and ready.”

Julie Rice, the DSO, complied and steered the geoplane level to the surface. B deck inclined ever so slightly, while Winger made the announcement to the crew over the 1MC.

“This is Winger…listen up…we’re directly below our surface objective. We’re going to full battle stations on my command…button up your tin cans and load up your weapons. We’ll be at the jump-off point in thirty minutes.” He sounded the alarm klaxon, which echoed through Mole’s hull…three sharp blasts on the horn.

Soon, bodies were stirring and scurrying through all seven decks.

“Come on!” yelled Mighty Mite Barnes. “Get your fat asses in gear! We’ve got atomic butt to kick!”

“Small is all!” someone yelled from inside the access tube.

“I can’t wait to get the hell out of this big friggin’ metal condom!” shouted Gibby, as he snapped down his hypersuit helmet.

“Yeah, Sarge…we’ll squirt you out like you know what—hey! Gimme another MOB canister…I’m going in with everything I can hang on this tin can.”

The next phase of the mission would be the riskiest. Once the geoplane had reached the jump-off point, near the surface, Winger would command the borer to cease operation. From this point, ANAD would be re-configged and commanded to exit the hull and form a protective barrier around Mole, in an attempt to shield the assault team from what would come next.

When everything was in readiness, the mission plan called for ANAD to bore a series of small pilot tunnels radiating out from the jump-off point, in an attempt to generate a severe earthquake at a tectonic focal point that had been identified below the base. If calculations made by SOFIE and the geos were correct, the energy from this artificially induced tremor would nearly destroy the Red Hammer installation and every other standing structure inside Lions Rock.

The trick was to place Mole and the assault team where the seismic shock waves wouldn’t also destroy the geoplane. If the network of fracture zones and the pilot holes worked as calculated, a series of tremors up to magnitude 8.5 could be expected to roll through the surrounding valley. Some damage was expected south among the islands of Hong Kong, but the geos estimated that proper focusing of the seismic energy would minimize that.

Winger had no intention of letting Mole be trapped in any sliding rock layers when that happened. In fact, contrary to the mission plan, he had already decided to surface the geoplane completely and try to ride out the tremors hunkered down somewhere in a nearby valley.

“Approaching the surface now…” the DSO reported. Mole’s deck now angled upward sharply. “Twenty meters…now, ten meters—“

Winger checked the time. “It’s just after midnight topside. According to the maps and sat views, we should be coming up in a ravine about half a klick southwest of the Rock.”

Moments later, the geoplane lurched forward and her forward speed suddenly dropped off.

“Surfacing…!” Tallant said.

“All stop…secure the borer, secure the tread drive. All ANAD to containment—“ he turned to the flickering swarm hovering in a corner of the command deck. “That means you, pal.”

***ANAD requests permission to remain outside of containment…the tactical situation requires rapid response—***

Winger had to admit the tiny assembler had a point. “Okay, ANAD, you win. But stay out of the way.”

***ANAD is a vital part of this mission…it’s my job to assist all team members with their duties…and to secure the perimeter of the detail***

Winger snorted, climbing out of his seat. “I don’t need regulations quoted back to me, ANAD…even if you are right.”

“What did you say?” Galland asked. She was unstrapping herself.

“It was ANAD…I’m leaving him outside containment…for the time being.”

“Is that a good idea?”

“Probably not. But there are some sound tactical reasons to keep the swarm nearby…just in case.”

Mole squatted like a black metal armadillo in the lee of a muddy cliff, huddled against the steep flanks of a rugged mountain known to the locals as Zapog. It was dark and windy, rain swirling about the surfaced geoplane in gusts and squalls, as Winger threw open the hatch and leaped to the ground. Right behind him, Barnes, Reaves, Gibby and Galland dropped to the mud and set up a quick defensive perimeter, quickly boresighting and registering HERF and mag weapons on nearby peaks barely visible in the storm.

Winger took a hack off the navsats and pinpointed their position, which he ported to the crewnet. The entire crew soon saw the coordinates on their helmet eyepieces.

“Okay, ANAD…I’m sending a new config. When it’s loaded, you’ll be optimized for solid-phase disassembly. You already have the coordinates of the fracture zone…where the ground is most sensitive to boring.”

***Affirmative, Control…from my position, the fracture zone centroid is three hours and twelve minutes away***

“Very well, ANAD…prepare to launch…all effectors primed and ready?”

***Effectors are enabled…let me at ‘em***

“ANAD…launch now!”

As Winger and the others huddled in the lee of Mole’s hull, the translucent and iridescent shimmering blue globe settled into a nearby mud bank. In moments, it had disappeared beneath the mud, leaving only a backlit glow, like fireflies frozen in time, steadily dissipating. In time, it was gone.

“What now, Skipper?” asked Mighty Mite Barnes. She was sighted in on her HERF gun, covering her assigned sector of the perimeter.

“We wait. Any contacts? Any evidence we’ve been detected?”

Galland checked with Mole’s systems. “Nothing. No EM, only background thermals, not even any quantum wake. Acoustics indicates the wind direction may be shifting…more to the southwest. Weathersats say there’s a front headed for the valley.”

“No nano threats?”

“Negative. The board is clean.”

Winger said, “Then we may have achieved what we wanted….complete tactical surprise.”

“Aren’t we kind of exposed up here?” asked Gibby.

“It’s a risk we’ll have to take. We’ve got about three hours before ANAD is in position. Reaves…let’s get SuperFly up and nosing about. Even in this weather, I’d like to keep a close eye on what’s happening.”

“Roger that, Skipper.” The DPS1 went over to the geoplane’s tail pod and withdrew three small suitcase-sized containers. She opened the first container and fiddled with the contraption inside. Seconds later, like a dormant bird, it sat up and began articulating its wings and rotors. Warmed up and synched with its base station, the entomopter whirred and lifted off, heading off into the rainy night sky. Reaves did this three times, powering up and launching each device skyward.

“SuperFly away, Skipper,” she reported. “As soon as they link up, we’ll be getting data back.”

The Tectonic Sword mission had numerous objectives: (1) infiltrate the Red Hammer compound and render inoperable any pulser emitters and controls, (2) destroy the scope works, (3) destroy any Keeper portals, (4) use ANAD to create focused seismic tremors that would collapse the remaining caverns, voids and spaces inside the mountain, (5) and exfiltrate the area, rendezvousing later with a UNISEA submarine southwest of the Philippines.

The plan was that, in the chaos of the artificial tremors ANAD would generate, 1st Nano would be able to get inside the compound and achieve these objectives with a minimum of defense and resistance from Red Hammer. Just to make sure, after the tremors began, the ANAD master would rendezvous with Mole at coordinates just outside the base perimeter to form a protective screen around the nanotroopers against the likely Red Hammer defensive nanobots they would encounter.

For nearly two hours, Mole sat alone and motionless in a fog-shrouded, rainy valley a kilometer from the Red Hammer base. Aboard the surfaced geoplane, Johnny Winger waited tensely for the big show to begin.

Finally, word came from the swarm of tiny assemblers.

***ANAD reporting swarm now in position at the following coordinates…*** the master rattled off a stream of numbers. Winger watched as Galland plotted the position of the swarm on the stratigraphic map displayed on the main console.

“Very well, ANAD,” Winger reported back over the coupler circuit. He knew that nearly a kilometer of solid rock separated them from the swarm. “Stand by….” To Galland, “what’s the verdict?”

The CC2 looked up. “Right on the button. He’s situated between these two faults, with a major fracture zone we plotted right below him. Red Hammer doesn’t know it but they’re sitting on a geological time bomb.”

Winger smiled. “Then it’s time to light the fuse.” He ordered the Detachment to return from their defensive positions and climb back aboard Mole. “ANAD…commence the operation.”

***ANAD understands…commencing solid-phase destructive disassembly…hold on to your hats, folks***

Moments later, a vast, deeply felt rumbling could be heard and felt up and down the valley. A great crashing roar occurred as landslides and avalanches pummeled the ground from the high slopes around the parked geoplane.

For protection, Winger decided it was best to submerge Mole about fifty meters below ground.

The geoplane’s treads were engaged and her nose angled slightly down as the borer plowed through the mud and bit into the hard, frozen ground. In moments, they were below the surface, crawling forward toward the rendezvous coordinates.

The tremors had started, a continuous wave of tectonic plate motion and upheaval, shattering everything within a few kilometers of Lions Rock and its ancient castle.

Soon, the battle at Red Hammer’s base would be joined.

After a few minutes of quakes and tremors, Winger gave the assault order. He told the DSO: “Julie, bring us up to the bottom of the first level. Maximum speed. I want to crash through with the borer cooking like mad.”

“Aye, sir,” Rice replied. She manipulated her controls and all aboard Mole felt the deck angled sharply upward.

The plan was to breach the bottom floor of the first cavern level, crashing right into the cavern and begin the assault that way.

“Ten meters, Skipper.”

Winger got on the 1MC. “All hands, brace for impact. Breaching in sixty seconds. Squad order on exit…make sure all fire lanes are covered.”

The impact, when it came, jarred the geoplane as if a giant fist had slammed into her nose. Loose gear was thrown violently about all the cabins. The ship’s hull creaked and groaned and Mole slowed nearly to a stop.

Inside Level One of the cartel’s compound, the floor of the cavern suddenly erupted in an explosion of dirt, tile and furniture. Bodies went flying and shouts and confusion and chaos enveloped the huge cave. The geoplane came to a halt with her nose and front decks jutting above the floor, like a giant mole had burrowed up from below and stopped to look around.

Hatches swung back and the nanotroopers of Tectonic Sword leapt out into the smoke and debris still raining down from above.

McReady was first to drop out. He swung his mag carbine around in an arc, letting its sensors display any likely targets. There were three crossing his sector. “Clearing left…I’ve got three!” he yelled. He cycled the carbine and let fly a controlled burst of magnetic loops. Two targets went down. The third scuttled away into the far recesses of the cave.

Hiroshi was next. She leaped out and came up scanning. “Clear center!’ she yelled.

Clear right!” came Reaves’ voice, next out of the geoplane.

The rest of the assault force quickly piled out and started probing through thick dust.

Mole had breached right through the ground floor of the Red Hammer complex, with a third of her hull showing in the gloom. It was apparent to all the troopers that the tremors and quakes generated by ANAD before ingress had done considerable damage. Wall partitions had crumpled into heaps. Furniture and shelves and platforms had collapsed. Equipment and cabling was strewn across the floor of the vast cavern at the very base of Lions Rock. Chunks of rock and rubble rained down on the troopers as they spread out and reconnoitered the floor.

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

“Main ingress route, looks like,” Gibby muttered. He was monitoring ANAD 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 Lion’s 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. “Up 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 was steering the ANAD 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 ANAD had created was disrupted and the view was lost. Four guards had swept down the stairs, mag guns drawn, scattering the formation for a moment, notified of a breach at Level 1. If they got there—if they saw the MOBnet—the whole place might come alive—

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

In seconds, the air itself burned with the pressure of exponentially dividing ANAD 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 stairs, pitching backward, ears and eyes bleeding from the pressure, suffocated by ANAD.

It was all over in less than a minute.

Winger waited until the clampdown was lifted and, on command, ANAD 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.” At that moment, as she approached the writhing guards, her recognizer chirped. Faces and data tags came up on her eyepiece. “Target match, sir! I’ve got a recog match….” She scooted over to a squirming form by the wall. “This one…recog says it’s R-6.”

Winger came up. “R-6? That’s Souvranamh… Theo Souvranamh. Member of the Ruling Council…we couldn’t be that lucky. Open it up.”

Barnes unzipped the top of the MOBnet. A haggard, pale face, framed with a black goatee and tousled black hair, glared up at them. It was Souvranamh.

Winger could hardly believe their good fortune. A member of Red Hammer’s Ruling Council would be an intelligence gold mine. “Okay…it’s a match. Somehow, we bagged R-6. Take him into custody and get this bag back to Mole.”

Two troopers hustled and dragged the protesting Thai neurotraficante aboard the geoplane.

ANAD chirped in Winger’s coupler.

***Boss…signals analysis indicates pulser controls are at this level, heading one five five…thirty meters***

Winger peered through the thick dust. The remnants of a small enclosure were barely visible. “Reaves, Hiroshi, Lukacs…come with me.”

They zigzagged their way across the vast cavern, dodging falling rock and boiling dust, even as the floor rumbled. Tremors continued to shake the complex as underlying rock plates settled and shifted.

Outside the control center…what was left of it, Winger halted their advance. “ANAD, is this it? Pulser control?”

***Affirmative, Skipper…detecting residual decoherence wake signals emanating from sources inside***

“That’s good enough for me.” Winger swung his HERF carbine around. “Pulverize it to dust!”

Winger, Hirsohi, and Reaves lit off their HERF and mag weapons, hosing down the wreckage and anything inside with thunderclaps of rf and magnetic loops. The bursts boomed and reverberated off the cavern walls. In seconds, the pulser control room was a pile of smoking rubble.

“Let’s go!” Winger ordered. “We’ve got to get topside and kill the pulser arrays too. Q2 says they’re on top of the mountain…part of that castle.”

They headed cautiously up the rock stairs along the far side of the cavern and came to another cavern one level above.

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. “MOB ‘em. Secure the whole cave. Let’s go hunting.”

From her position behind the rest, Barnes acknowledged the order. With her own wristpad, she took control of a small portion of the ANAD 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. ANAD 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 ANAD screen.

MOB in place, Lieutenant.”

“Very well…Gibby, what’s up?”

Gibbs had caught sight of something, a twitch in one of ANAD’s sensors. “Sounding pressure change. Uh-oh…sounding heat pulse, big time heat pulse…looks like the cavalry’s coming—”

Even on the grainy image of ANAD’s visual element, the throbbing mass forming in one corner of the cavern was evident. It boiled out of the shadows and swept forward, closing fast to engage the ANAD 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 ANAD and flung themselves with fury against Gibby’s shield.

The battle lasted five minutes but ANAD was equal to the task. The assault swarm waded into the middle of the Red Hammer formation and, with Gibbs and Winger in command, slammed the enemy mechs with everything. Bond disrupters fizzed and crackled in the air and the troopers hunkered down to the floor while combat raged over their heads. It was like two stormfronts colliding, complete with flashes of lightning and thunder from the rumbling floor below them.

“Jeez,” muttered Reaves to Mighty Mite Barnes, nearby. “It’s like being inside a monster’s belly.”

“Yeah, girl…a monster with indigestion.”

When the assault had petered out, Winger got to his feet and the troopers worked their way methodically up the rock stairs, sanitizing one cavern level after another. The scope works and labs on Level 2 were followed by more scope works on Level 3 and finally, by a pile of rubble and rock on Level 1 that had once been the Security barracks.

Emerging onto the top level, beamfire suddenly erupted across the cavern.

“How many?” Winger yelled on the crewnet.

Barnes was defiladed beside him, both of them behind a rockpile. “’Fly says half a dozen, maybe more. Multiple thermals…some mechs ahead too, sir. We don’t want to get trapped here.”

“And the pulser emitters are above us. We’ve got to get to that castle on top of the mountain.”

Another series of violent tremors and quakes shook the mountain. That was all the opening the troopers needed.

Winger hand signaled several troopers from Galland’s force, the Badger crew that had come aboard Mole, to flank the ruins left and right. Suppressing fire on my mark, he whispered over the crewnet. Forms and shapes scurried off through the thick dust, dodging lances of light as the Red Hammer troops cut loose again with beamfire. Huge gouts of rock erupted from the walls behind them as the beams struck home, showering them with rubble and dust.

Winger worked with Gibbs to hack out a better config for ANAD. “Grabbers here—“ he pointed to a diagram on his wristpad, “—and here. Extra disrupters on top of the casing…he’s got a spot.” They got the config squared away, sent it to ANAD and moments later, the dust overhead glowed with the fires of atoms being stripped, bonds being broken and new structure being slammed together. When it was done, ANAD reported ready.

***New config laid in, Skipper…let me at ‘em***

“ANAD…go!”

The swarm eased forward on picowatt propulsors and swept across the ruins of the barracks, smothering the Red Hammer troops and quickly engaging a defensive shield of mechs. Flashes of light strobed through the dust, while more tremors jostled the cavern and rock rained down on everybody. Winger watched over top of their rockpile as a furball fight erupted. The troopers held off HERF fire but pumped round after round of magnetic loops into the melee, scattering debris everywhere.

Gibbs was exultant, pumping a fist behind the rockpile. “We slammed ‘em, Lieutenant! Nice work on that config…Q2 was right on the money.”

“Yeah,” added Galland from nearby. “Good intel’s even better than a fully charged mag carbine.”

“We’ve got to get upstairs to that pulser array,” Winger decided. “ANAD’s got the bastards pinned down here. Gabby, take a squad and get topside. My eyepiece is telling me the emitters are on the southwest face of the mountain, just at or around that old castle up there.”

“Will do,” Galland told him. She got on her crewnet. “Glance, Willows, Concepcion…you’re with me.”

The four of them scooted off and were lost in the dust.

After some hurried scouting and reconnoitering, Galland’s squad found a small tunnel that led to a service entrance. The tunnel opened on to the top of Shih Ho Mountain, near a broken billboard stand. The screen of the board was dark, but tatters of posted signs nearby indicated they were at the entrance of Lions Rock Country Park.

They crept forward, sensing motion in the bushes nearby. The park was famous for its wild macaque monkeys and one trooper claimed to have spotted one.

“Lieutenant, look out!”

From behind the ancient Han dynasty castle that perched atop the mountain, a squad of Red Hammer guards had breached the squad’s 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.

Galland ducked as the first volley narrowly missed her, carving out a seam in a boulder field behind her. Rock and debris exploded, flying everywhere.

Concepcion and Glance dove for cover behind the boulders. Glance 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!” Galland shouted. “I’m trying to help Glance out—”

“Nothing left to pin down, Lieutenant,” Concepcion 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,” Willows watched the remote infrared take on her own eyepiece. “All over the top of the mountain…they’ll be on our perimeter in no time, unless we get some help from ANAD.”

ANAD’s busy, Corporal.” Galland told him. She brushed herself off, climbed back to her feet and launched her own embedded ANAD from a shoulder capsule, piloting her own swarm right into the heart of the melee.

“Whatever you are,” she muttered to himself, “you act a helluva lot like ANAD.” She 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.

Keep coming, you atomic assholes…keep on coming…right into my hands—

She bored right into the heart of the enemy horde, slashing left and right.

Galland drove ANAD deep into the formation. She cruised in at flank speed, propulsors whining, and seized a phosphor group off the nearest mech, twisting atoms until the bond broke. Liberating thousands of electron volts, ANAD’s disrupter zapped the mech and shattered its outer shell, ripping off probes left and right. The Red Hammer 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.

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

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

The tiny squad beat back the Red Hammer assault and kept them pinned down with Galland’s ANAD re-configged into a defensive screen. Once a path was clear for them, Willows and Concepcion went probing around the other side of the castle and found the platform containing the pulser emitters soon enough, wedged into a small crevice below a steep gabled parapet on the castle’s west corner.

They scrambled across the rocky escarpment, even as Red Hammer mechs probed the ground around them. Seconds later, the first contact occurred as the ANAD barrier ran out of steam. A thick black horde darkened the night sky and trillions of enemy mechs poured through the gap.

Fry ‘em!” Willows yelled back to Concepcion. Willows re-sighted her HERF gun and lit off a charge. The thunderclap of the discharge sent searing waves of hot air roaring across the ground. The two troopers 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.

“More bots!” yelled Willows as Concepcion leveled her mag weapon at the pulser emitters. “Here they come…hit the deck!”

Wanda Willows 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 ANAD barrier and snare the intruders before they could escape.

“Fire now, girl!” she yelled. “Blast that thing so we can get the hell out of here!”

Concepcion pumped round after round into the emitter platform. The dishes, swivels and mounts exploded in a shower of debris and metal shards. But the Red Hammer mechs had already closed on their positions and Concepcion was quickly engulfed in the cloud of bugs.

AAARRRGGGHHH!! Get ‘em off…get ‘em off me—!” Concepcion dove to the ground, swatting and flailing as Willows scrambled to help her. She batted and swatted and fired off a few HERF bursts but the bugs were everywhere, replicating like crazy and she had to back off…there wasn’t anything she could do and it made her mad and crazy at the same time. She saw Concepcion go down, buried in an avalanche of bugs, then the mountain top shook again as more tremors hit and rock cascaded down on them from the cliffs behind, rock and pieces of glazed tile from the castle’s swooping roofs and turrets.

Shit!” Willows screamed at the top of her lungs. She hosed down the writhing form of Concepcion but it was too late, already half a leg had been disassembled and the rest wouldn’t be pretty. There was nothing she could do for the poor corporal and when Lieutenant Winger’s voice crackled over the crewnet, ordering all hands to assemble at the geoplane, she flung down her HERF rifle in disgust and dove for the tunnel they had come up.

Wanda Willows ran, stumbled blindly and practically fell through five levels of stone steps, nearly losing her balance once when a particularly violent tremor shook the whole mountain. She made Level 1 and saw the assault force humping it toward Mole, even as part of the cavern ceiling let go and seams of rock and boulders tumbled across the floor.

Winger and Galland counted off their troops one by one as they boarded the geoplane. “Two casualties,” Galland reported when all were inside. “Both mine: Shania Concepcion and Miros Lukasc. Shania was with Willows topside. They smoked the pulser emitter but enemy mechs swarmed them at the same time. Concepcion didn’t make it.”

Winger was grim. “Our prisoner just got hauled aboard. He’s secured on D Deck, still MOB’bed. Theo Souvranamh…can you believe it? Ruling Council. He won’t have a brain cell left once Q2 gets through with him.”

The tremors were coming faster now, and more violent. The ceiling had started to buckle and the last spasm of quakes had collapsed part of the cavern’s far wall.

“Wings, let’s get the hell out of here. We’ve done what we came for…this place may go any second.”

Winger and Galland were the last to board. They took positions on the command deck. Winger checked the instruments.

“Borer online?”

BOP1, Troy Erromango, replied “Online and cooking at full spread, Lieutenant.”

To Julie Rice, Winger gave the order to withdraw. “DSO, engage treads and back us the hell out of this place now.”

Mole shuddered and shook like a wet dog as her treads bit into the hard ground. Something heavy banged on the topside hull, just as the geoplane creaked and groaned into motion.

“Treads at fifty percent, Skipper. Backing now—“

Moments later, Mole had submerged into the borehole from which she had come and was gone. Huge boulders and seams of rock cascaded down and the ceiling of Level 1 started to slump.

It wouldn’t be long before Lions Rock collapsed in on itself completely.

The next two hours were a nerve-wracking and tortuous descent back into the subterranean world of rock plates and granite domes and feldspar seams and quartz inclusions. Mole hummed and shuddered and shimmied as all around her, tectonic forces shoved them sideways and down.

At the geotech Kruizenga’s recommendation, the geoplane descended only two hundred meters and began hunting for a smoother course to follow away from Tai Po Valley. After a harrowing two hours, Mole emerged into softer layers of sandstone and the shaking, rattling and rolling died off to a steady thrum.

“DSO, make turns for two kilometers an hour and steer heading one two five degrees. Geo, best estimate on time and distance to the rendezvous point?”

“Aye, sir,” came back Rice as she worked the controls to swing Mole’s nose around to the proper heading.

Kruizenga did the computations. “R point is six hours ten minutes at this speed, coordinates thirteen degrees north by one nineteen degrees east. Middle of the Sulu Sea, southwest of the Philippines…Mindanao to be exact. Recommending we surface at that point.”

“Very well,” Winger said. “DSO, best speed and rig the ship for cruise.” He leaned back in his seat, checked that his harnesses and belt were snug and let the fatigue wash over him. He felt like he had just swam the Pacific Ocean while tugging a few tons of bricks behind.

Galland saw Winger’s eyes droop down to slits and smiled. She felt the same way. She eased her way out of the command deck and went aft, to check on her troopers, to have a look at their prize catch and then to grab something from the mess compartment.

Six hours was a hell of a long time to spend burrowing through the Earth’s crust. As long as we keep moving and don’t go too deep, she told herself.

 

“R point dead ahead,” announced geotech Kruizenga. Mole had been cruising for hours, burrowing her way beneath the seabed of the South China Sea, through dense granitic rock layers.

Winger had been up on the command deck, in a light doze, when the word came. He shook himself awake.

“Take us up, DSO. Time to enter the world of the living. We’ve got a submarine escort waiting topside.”

“Aye, sir,” replied Rice. Mole’s deck angled upward and all aboard could feel the extra strain from the borer as the bots chewed harder into the surrounding rock.

Winger checked the stratigraphic display. “One hundred and ten meters. DSO, how long until she breaches?”

“At this speed, sir, about half an hour.”

Winger got on the 1MC and alerted all hands. “Attention! We’re ascending now. Breaching in half an hour. Stow all loose gear and strap yourselves in. We’ll be at eleven hundred meters sea depth when we come up. I’m expecting UNISEA will have our escort nearby.”

Mole continued her ascent. When the nose of the geoplane broke through the seafloor, the ship shuddered and wallowed for a moment.

“Kill the borer!” Winger ordered. Outside Mole’s bow, the white-hot half-globe of borer bots collapsed in a spray of light and bubbles, as the ship eased her way on tread power alone. Moments later, the geoplane was resting in a shallow valley surrounded by steep cliffs and a seamount, some one hundred kilometers southwest of the island of Mindanao.

Winger studied his board. “Sensors, anything around?”

The Sensors tech, Anatoly Balderis, checked his sonar display. “Twin contacts, close aboard, Skipper, high rpms…must be small craft.

That made Winger’s neck hairs stand up. “Two contacts…what the—?”

But before he could finish, Balderis had cut in. “High-speed screws, Lieutenant…torpedo in the water…make that two torpedoes, bearing two six two, estimated range less than a thousand meters—“

Winger froze at the tech’s words. “Two contacts…torpedoes…what’s going…” They’re best hope was to re-submerge into the seabed. “DSO, BOP, can we get below the seafloor…Sensors, how long to contact?”

Balderis’ voice had shifted to a high pitch. “Estimating time to contact one from blade count…I’d say forty seconds, Lieutenant…the second contact fifteen seconds after that.”

Troy Erromango was the borer operator. “Negative on the borer, Skipper. It’ll take several minutes to re-constitute.”

“We don’t have several minutes. DSO, get us moving…see if we can hide behind that seamount.”

“Aye, sir.”

Mole lurched forward on her treads, trundling along the smooth lava plain of the Sulu Sea, creeping forward at an agonizingly slow pace to sequester herself in the lee of the huge seamount. She had just made a slight turn, when a terrific explosion rocked the ship from directly above.

Contact one!’ Sensors cried out. “Less than ten meters above us—here comes contact two—!”

“All hands, rig for collision!”

A second explosion rocked Mole on her treads and whipped the geoplane nearly ninety degrees, lifting her hull right off the seafloor and spinning her slightly to port. She settled back on her side, then fought the list and re-stabilized in a slow-motion crash, skidding as her treads bit into the muck.

Debris and rock cascaded down on top of the geoplane.

“It’s a mudslide!” yelled Kruizenga. “Avalanche—“

A steady drumming sound beat down on them as tons of rock and mud slid downslope along the flanks of the seamount. Mole was partially buried up to her hatch seals, rocking and shuddering like a cold wet dog as the slide pounded her from above.

It was over in a minute, though the hull continued to take hits every few seconds. But Mole’s hull had mercifully held. Smoke and dust grew thick on all decks. Coughing and groans filled the air as Mole’s hull creaked and whined under the weight.

Winger dragged himself up to his seat, helping Gabrielle Galland off the deck as he did so. He tasted grit and dust in his mouth. “Damage report…now!”

All decks reported back over the next few moments. No casualties. A few bumps and bruises. One pretty severe facial laceration back on Stores deck…it was Jud Strakes, one of Badger’s crew, who had been cut by falling dishes from a shelf that had come loose. Their prisoner, Theo Souvranamh, had come through unhurt, still restrained in a MOB net.

“How about our friends outside?” Winger asked.

Balderis checked his scopes. “Skipper, I did a signature analysis on those two contacts. They’re unmanned drones…Manta-class. That’s where the torpedoes came from.”

Winger whistled. “Manta-class…that means Chinese. Somebody knew our rendezvous point. Any more contacts?”

Balderis studied the traces on his waterfall display. “Negative, Skipper. I’m not hearing the blade count of the Mantas now…they may have withdrawn. As for—“

He stopped in mid-sentence. They had all heard the thud of a distant explosion. Balderis’ fingers flicked buttons and switches on his scope, changing his display. He re-positioned his earphone headset, leaned forward to listen more intently. “Definitely an explosion, sir…several kilometers away, at least three thousand meters, bearing one nine oh degrees. That’s gotta be a submarine…I hear bulkheads collapsing, metal bending sounds…something big’s been hit.”

“The Mantas?” asked Galland. She was dabbing at a small cut on her forehead.

Winger shrugged. “Who knows? I just hope it’s theirs and not ours. But this neighborhood doesn’t seem like a good place for Mole to hang around. Let’s get out of here…BOP, get the borer back online. We’ll take her down fifty meters below the seabed and circle the R point, then listen again on the other side of this valley. Our escort must be somewhere around here.”

The borer operator came back, “Lieutenant, borer does not respond. We’ve lost containment…detecting compartment breach…no ANAD activity present inside the lens.”

Winger checked Erromango’s display over his shoulder. “Borer’s been damaged…must have been that avalanche.”

Galland shook her head. “We can’t ascend all the way to the surface. Mole’s got the buoyancy of a brick. And we can’t descend below the seabed. What can we do?”

Winger took a deep breath. “DSO, status of our treads.”

Julie Rice checked. “Treads online and operable, sir. Now at idle power—“

“Sensors, any signatures from those Mantas?”

Balderis checked. “I don’t think so, sir. Hard to tell with all the rocks and mud sliding and falling. But I don’t have any indications…SAP’s not flagging any previous contacts.”

Winger looked at Galland. “If we can burrow out of this mudpile, we can make like a turtle and crawl along the seabed”

“To where? We need an escort. We need that UNISEA sub.”

“She may not be here,” Winger said. “I just hope she wasn’t that sound we heard…the explosion. There may be more nasties around than we know about. DSO, engage treads. Let’s see if we can push our way out of this mudpile.”

The drone of the treads straining and whining against the tons of debris atop Mole could be heard throughout the ship. For a few moments, Winger held his breath. Come on, baby…come on…come on, you can do it.

Then, the ship lurched forward and a great cheer erupted on the command deck. Rice chopped the treads back to a steady rate and Mole wallowed and wiggled her way clear of the mudfall from the avalanche. Clouds of silt surrounded the ship but inside nobody could see that. Smiles and nervous chuckles broke out on the command deck.

“Speed and course, sir?”

Winger looked over at Balderis. “Any contacts now?”

Balderis held up a hand, indicating hold on, please. He fiddled with dials on his display, re-set his headset, listening intently. “Yes, sir…very faint, but definitely there. I make one contact, bearing three one eight degrees, best range more than eight thousand meters…astern of us, sir.”

“Mantas?”

“No, sir…heavier blade count…stronger return. Signature resembles a submarine…I’d say Chinese…probably Ming-class attack boat…heading this way.”

“DSO, pick up our speed. Maximum rate on the treads.” He frowned, rubbed his face. He was tired, dead tired, but they couldn’t relax now.

“We’re being stalked, “ Galland said what everybody was thinking. “We can’t outrun a sub, Wings. Where can we go?”

Winger had already decided. “We’ll try to play dead for awhile, play cat and mouse…all the way to Singapore base if we have to.”

Singapore! That’s hundreds of kilometers from here.”

“Have you got a better idea?”

Nobody did. And so, Mole began her journey across the seafloor of the South China Sea, heading south by southwest, away from Mindanao, across the northern shores of Borneo and Brunei, heading for the bottom of the Malay peninsula. Quantum Corp eastern base was at Singapore and there was still no sign of the UNISEA submarine that was to have been their escort at R point.

The geoplane had twelve hundred kilometers to cover…at a best speed of three kilometers an hour. Playing cat and mouse with a Chinese submarine, surging forward for a few minutes, then stopping and going quiet, zigging and zagging around hills and seamounts and ravines, Mole crept cautiously toward her destination, all the while hunkering down among coral beds and lava hillocks and pods of squid and whale, trying as best she could to disguise herself in the shadows and murk of the seabed.

Johnny Winger did the math in his head and knew it would take days for the geoplane to make it to Singapore, if they made it all. All he could hope for, all any of the Tectonic Sword detachment could hope for, was that their geoplane would hold out, that the treads and their air and water and supplies would hold out.

Mole was a tough little critter, he told himself. But another voice reminded him: there were a thousand and one things that could still go wrong and she had never been designed for duty like this.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

 

About the Author

 

Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses…just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for 25 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3-4 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled Keeshond dog named Kelsey.

For technical and background details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog at http://qcorpstimes.blogspot.com. For details on other books in this series, visit his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting www.Shakespir.com.

Download the next exciting episode of Nanotroopers from www.Shakespir.com. It’s called “Geoplanes.” Available on January 9, 2017.

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 17: Lions Rock

Episode 17, Nanotroopers. Red Hammer has seized control of several UNIFORCE killsats. Millions are threatened and nations scramble to comply with the cartel’s demands. Quantum Corps has to assault the base where the killsats are controlled and put it out of commission, but the only way to do this is from below ground, using a new vehicle called a geoplane. Tests show that the geoplane works but subterranean ops are risky. Follow Lieutenant John Winger and his nanotroopers in the Tectonic Sword mission, as they try to take back control of the killsats, from below ground.

  • ISBN: 9781370203994
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2016-12-16 14:50:10
  • Words: 33954
Nanotroopers Episode 17: Lions Rock Nanotroopers Episode 17: Lions Rock