Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  Military

Nanotroopers Episode 19: Mount Kipwezi

Nanotroopers

Episode 19: Mount Kipwezi

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 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

An Entangled Web”

 

 

Yucatan State

Mexico

October 10, 2049

2245 hours (U.T.)

 

Dr. Heinz Richter hopped down off the rope ladder and helped his assistant, Dr. Erika Volk, down. They were in an antechamber above the burial chamber, lit with small lanterns and surrounded by ornate friezes in remarkably good repair. Stucco friezes at Kokul-Gol were rare and fragile. Volk and Richter studied the ten-meter frieze for a moment, tracing the outlines with their fingers.

The image depicted three men, including a Holmul king, rising from the mouths of strange monsters flanked by underworld creatures, entwined by two giant, feathered serpents. The colors and the textures of the frieze seemed to make the figures vibrate with energy in the lantern light.

“Fabulous,” breathed Erika Volk. She probed with her fingers along a ribbon of Mayan text in glyphs at the base of the frieze. “As well-preserved as anything we’ve found. Look at these snake figures…”

Richter agreed. “Just what you’d expect from the tombs of the Snake Kings…marvelous to be sure…but Erika, you’ve got to see what we found yesterday down below, inside the burial chamber. It’ll blow you away. Come on—“

The two of them eased their way around a corner, teetered on a narrow crevice and came to a small opening in the stone floor. The floor was littered with broken pots and jars, all done up in late Holmul style.

“It’s barely big enough for one person, but you should be able to slip through okay…your shoulders are narrower. We just put this ladder in yesterday. I’ll go first—“

Richter dropped to his knees and eased himself down the rope ladder, through the narrow opening. Volk handed him another lantern as he descended. She heard his boots hit the floor.

“Okay, I’ve got all the lights up…easy does it…hold on to the edge…I’ll support you on the way down—“

Carefully, Erika Volk made her way down the ladder and stood in shadows while Richter moved the lanterns around for better illumination. The burial chamber was barely larger than a walk-in closet.

A portion of a skeleton lay on a stone bier, surrounded by tattered remnants of a shroud and piles of jade and shell beads. Bird feathers were heaped in a wreath around the skeleton’s head. The walls were adorned with more friezes, fantastic images of serpents, giant colorfully plumed birds, snakes and jaguars.

“Is it Yuknoom…the Snake King, you think?” Volk leaned over to examine the skeleton’s shattered skull and face.

“Possibly,” said Richter. “At the very least, an ahau…one of the high chiefs or priests. Hard to be sure until we examine it more closely. But that’s not what I wanted to show you. Here, take a look at this—“

Richter bent down below the bier, behind the skeleton’s head. There, amid a pile of broken ceramic figurines was a small sphere, perfectly round, glowing with an ethereal light, almost vibrating. The sphere showed no markings or texture at all.

“We found this late yesterday…I’m not sure what the hell it is. I’ve never seem a totem in Kokul-Gol…or anywhere around here like this. It doesn’t fit in with any of the imagery, the pots, the figurines. Have you seen anything like this elsewhere?”

Volk felt an electric chill go down her spine. She had seen spheres like this…at Engebbe Valley in east Africa. And at the Paryang monastery in Tibet.

My God, she said to herself…another Keeper device. But she said nothing to Richter. Richter didn’t need to know. Richter…nor anybody else, could ever know about this.

“No, I haven’t,” she lied. She bent down closer but didn’t touch the thing.

“Don’t touch it…yet,” Richter advised her. “Until we’re sure what it is. It seems to be under some kind of power…like a generator. I’m going to contact the Quantum Corps people at the base. They have engineers there…they may have an idea what this is.”

Volk stood up and leveled an even gaze. Quantum Corps had come to the Yucatan a few months ago and built a base called Mesa de Oro, less than five kilometers away. There was no way she could ever let Quantum Corps know about this sphere.

She felt a faint tingle in the back of her head and she knew what that was. Her halo, the neural implant the cartel stuck in all its operatives’ heads, was waking up. Probably responding to the aural signal of the words Richter had just spoken…’Quantum Corps.’ The cartel’s mortal enemy.

In a few seconds, Volk had already fashioned a plan but she said none of this to Richter. “Perhaps, you’re right, Heinz…but we should discuss this with the rest of the team.” She chose her words carefully, not wanting to trigger the halo into waking up.

They left the burial chamber of the Snake King and made their way back to camp, a kilometer outside the fenced perimeter of the Kokul-Gol temple. In the fading purple twilight, they could see spotlights through the jungle canopy, highlighting the upper façade of the great pyramid.

Richter and Volk had a quiet dinner with others of the dig team. Knowles, Radcliff, Montserrat and the rest were bubbling over with news of their day’s work, their finds and discoveries. Speculation and theories flew fast and thick around the mess tent, like the hordes of mosquitoes that flocked and swarmed just outside the netting all night long.

“The Holmul were doomed…only they didn’t know it…”

“Over farming and fishing…they used up all their resources…”

“Richter, can we get a scanner into that opening…we really need spectrographic data on the Snake King…”

After everyone had disappeared, wandering about the camp late into the night spinning theories in small knots of people and the lights outside the camp were guttering low and smoking, Erika Volk stole out of her own tent and made her way back to the great temple. She used a fingerprint ID scanner she’d filched from the main tent to let herself in through the barriers, shut down the bot swarms that protected all the entrances and found herself once again in the burial quarters of Yuknoom, the Snake King.

But she had no interest in the skeleton.

Below his head, situated in a bed of broken pottery, the sphere glowed as before, seeming almost to pulse and vibrate in the flickering shadows.

If the device worked as the others had, it functioned as a kind of portal. A gateway to other places and times. The cartel had used the other devices as a means of rummaging through the archives of their off-world benefactors—some called them the Old Ones—and grabbing what- ever secrets and schematics they could find in these short trips to bring back and reverse-engineer into weapons and comm gear and other gadgets that would give them a leg up on Quantum Corps and smash their adversary once and for all.

Erika Volk knew it was a risk but the only way you moved up in Red Hammer was to throw long and do something that gave the cartel a decisive advantage. Maybe today, just this once, she would be the one to make the short trip and bring back the decisive edge, the ultimate weapon, the one tool or device that the atomgrabbers couldn’t counter.

Cautiously, her heart racing, Volk dropped to her knees, brushed aside pieces of broken pottery and reached out to the sphere.

Her fingers had just barely brushed the surface when—

—there came a blinding flash of light and a roaring rush of deceleration….

Then nothing.

As Erika Volk’s last conscious thoughts drained away, she remembered feeling like this once when she and her Father were riding the Dragon’s Tail at Munich’s Spielgarten. The same whirling images: the mountains, the boardwalk, the faces of bystanders and riders still standing in line for their turn. A cyclone of sights and sounds and smells…snow cones, cotton candy, cold Alpine air and brats grilling…

But when she finished racing at breakneck speed down a long curving corridor now filled with polygons and cubes and pyramids and things she could never describe, and she came at last to a hard bump and things slowed down and finally stopped spinning….

She knew he wasn’t in Munich.

Or Paryang, Tibet.

Or even Kokul-Gol.

 

She had come through the entanglement to a swamp of some kind. Lightning veined in sharp bursts across purple and rose-colored clouds, thick and steaming overhead. The ground trembled and through the trees, she could see the red glow of a volcano, simmering and smoking. It seemed about to blow.

The swamp was extensive, filled with moss-covered trees, low-hanging branches and mossy patches on rocks surrounding the edge of the water. Cypress knees looked vaguely menacing in the twilight. A faint mist hovered over the water’s surface.

Nothing moved. No screeches, no howler monkeys. No birds cawing in the air. Steam and smoke and shuddering ground were all that gave movement to the swamp.

“I’d say I’m not in Yucatan anymore,” Erika muttered to herself.

She started scouting along the swamp banks for a few minutes. It was a vast wetland, thick with ropy vine and large, lobe and ear-shaped leaves, damp with moisture and humidity and hanging nearly to the soft spongy ground. She picked her way carefully through leaf piles and clinging vine, occasionally hacking and smacking her way through heavy underbrush, wary of slithering things underfoot, but she found none. Nothing living at all, not even flies or mosquitoes. Still, Erika nearly turned an ankle in a small sinkhole nearly hidden between two tree trunks.

After a time, she came upon a strange red hillock, a low mound in the path ahead. It was as tall as she was and several meters around.

An anthill, she surmised. Then as she looked more closely, she could see that the surface of the mound was alive, throbbing and writhing with motion. Flies, she thought and decided to keep her distance, hunting for a way around the mound. At that point, she noticed that the air around the small clearing was thick with the same flies.

One of them landed on her arm and she reacted without thinking, flicking it off. It returned and clung to her skin, but she felt no bite or sting. When she examined the creature more closely, she saw that it wasn’t a creature at all. It was a bot, a tiny mechanism with articulating wings and legs. Moreover, the air was thick with them. Clouds and swarms of bots drifted through the dense jungle growth, filling the air with strange, flickering mists.

That was when she realized that everything she was looking at: the mound, the trees, the vines and brush, it was all bots. The jungle exploded around her and instead of a jungle, she was suddenly in the middle of a dust storm, only it wasn’t dust. The bots flew at her and clung to her skin and clothes and she ran shrieking and flailing out into the swamp water and ducked under, trying to get rid of the things.

She stayed down as long as she could hold her breath but finally she had to come up, anxious at what she would find. She breached the surface, saw only humid, misty air and then she saw a form, a human-like form, moving along the shore of the swamp.

It was like a man, only it wasn’t. It had a head, at least two arms, two legs and it was skulking through the shallows. And it had seen her.

It came to Erika Volk that maybe she was still in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, but not in the same time as Kokul-Gol. Maybe this is some kind of prehistoric setting, she wondered. Maybe that sphere works like the others and can transport people through time and space to other places and periods.

The figure now stood still at the water’s edge and motioned her to come ashore. Hesitant, at first, Erika realized that she couldn’t stay in the middle of the swamp forever. Already, something had slithered into the water a few dozen meters away and was gliding just under the surface toward her.

She found she could stand in the bottom muck and eased her way shoreward as fast as she could.

The man seemed familiar and when she reached the shore, Erika realized it was Symborg, the robotic messiah, head of the Church of Assimilation. Or at least, a version of Symborg. He extended a hand and helped her up onto the banks. She staggered a bit, and he caught her and kept her upright, but she quickly pulled out of his grasp and shuddered. Symborg’s grasp was like being enveloped in a swarm of bees or mosquitoes.

“Where am I?” she asked. “What is this place?”

All around them, trees were forming and dissolving. Even the distant mountains seemed immaterial, wavering in the humid air, as mists lifted from the swamp and thickened around the clearing.

From the mouth of Symborg came a mix of voices and tones, all scrambled together, poorly synched but still audible.

***Single-configuration entity detected…module DISASSEMBLE invoked…mono-config are errors and must be detected…module 668 CORRECTION MATRIX initiated…bond disrupters priming…updating syntax algorithm for response…***

“…You are in the Beginning. The Time of the Seeding. You are a configuration unknown to me…transmit configuration status that I may locate your files…”

Erika realized at that moment that Symborg wasn’t talking with her or replying, but talking at her, executing a pre-programmed response to unfamiliar phenomena.

She began to move off, putting some distance between her and the creature—thing—swarm—whatever it was. As she headed into what had once been thick brush and was now a small-scale dust devil, she found herself quickly lost in the murk and unable to see in any direction. A high keening hum trilled in the air and grew louder. Bots or bees or mosquitoes, maybe all three, were flying at her, slapping her face, picking and poking and she flailed and swatted and thrashed about.

What the hell is this place? Some kind of alternate Earth?

She ran stumbling blindly through the mist and smelled swamp water again. She’d been safe from the bot swarms in the water, so she plunged headlong into the swamp and ducked under again. She stayed under as long as she could and only came up to catch a quick breath and duck back under. Each time she came up, the air was dark with bots, swarms of bots, trillions of bots, the air was almost solid with the things.

Then she ducked back under.

The cycle continued for quite a while and Erika lost track of time but she had a chance to think and consider her predicament more rationally.

I went through some kind of entanglement episode from that sphere at Kokul-Gol. Now I’m somewhere and sometime else. If I’m right, maybe I’m actually still in both places and I’ll stay entangled until I’m somehow observed here. But I don’t see anything or anyone who could observe me.

Erika rose again for another breath and lingered just long enough to scan her surroundings. The entire swamp shoreline and jungle beyond had changed again. Now all she saw was a level plain dotted with clumps of tall grass and wiry bushes.

Maybe this is still Kokul-Gol. But there doesn’t seem to be anything living around here. No birds screeching, no flies, that sort of thing. Maybe this is Kokul-Gol before the Maya, maybe even before life itself. Except maybe for that moss I saw growing on those rocks. Pre-biotic, maybe the Hadean era. Three to four billion years before our time.

The swamp water stirred with sudden tremors and the ground rumbled. Curious and cautious, Erika surfaced and now saw there were tall mountains in the distance. The summit of the nearest one glowed orange-red in the cathedral gloom of the forest, which was in the process of re-forming, as if it had never gone away.

“Looks like we might have a blow soon,” Erika said to herself. “I don’t like the looks of that.”

At that moment, she spied a fog bank roiling across the top of the swamp. Tendrils of steam drifted in patches.

Morphing steadily, the fog bank took on a more menacing look. As she looked more closely, she could see small flashes and pops of light within the fog, as if it were thick with fireflies.

“Those aren’t fireflies, girl.”

The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She debated staying in the swamp but a sixth sense told her to get out and she scrambled toward the opposite shore, figuring to

backtrack the way she had come but the swarm filled in behind her and she soon found herself trapped on a narrow spit of dry land, surrounded by cypress knees and piles of moss-covered rocks.

Though the swarm had nearly enveloped her, at least it hadn’t closed any further.

“My God!” Erika Volk watched several patches of swarm begin dropping down closer to the ground. As she watched, the light flickering inside changed pattern, becoming more intense, pulsing faster, almost like a strobe and the fingers of the swarm swept right across the moss covering on top of the rocks, pausing momentarily at each moss patch.

“Fantastic,” she breathed. “It’s writing genetic code, right into the cells of that moss. Injecting something directly into the cells. Maybe this is how life got started…at least in this place and time.”

Erika Volk knew that somehow, some way, she had to get back to her own time and let her handlers at Red Hammer know about this place. Surely, if she could grab a few bots and bring them back, the cartel’s scientists could reverse-engineer them and they would have an edge on Quantum Corps.

But how to get back?

She didn’t have long to think about that, for now the swarm was reconstituting and beginning to move in her direction.

Movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention. A foaming hydraulic had started on the far side of the swamp. With the swarm moving toward her, she knew she couldn’t stay on the small landing and eased back into the water. She stroked gently toward the hydraulic, keeping a wary eye on anything moving—there were swarms everywhere and the volcano in the distance was now cherry-red and spewing flames and molten lava down its sides. It was only a matter of time before the lava reached the swamp and already she imagined she could feel the water getting warmer.

The hydraulic turned out to be a small whirlpool. She stopped a dozen meters away, wary of the pull, and studied the thing, treading water as she watched it whirl and bubble and foam.

What’s causing that? she wondered.

Cautiously, she eased forward but before she could stop, she was caught in an undertow and was pulled steadily into the heart of the vortex.

Trapped, she screamed and flailed, trying to pull herself out of the strong current but it was useless. In and around she went, until her foot slammed into something on the swamp bed.

“Ouch!” She struggled hard, splashing and thrashing and floundering, until at last, dead with fatigue and her arms burning, she gave up and succumbed. “What’s the use—?”

That’s when her foot hit something hard again and this time, she knew in an instant what it was…

There came a blinding flash of light and a roaring rush of deceleration….

Then nothing.

As Erika Volk’s last conscious thoughts drained away, she remembered feeling like this before… but when she finished racing at breakneck speed down the long curving corridor now filled with polygons and cubes and pyramids and things she could never describe, and she came at last to a hard bump and things slowed down and finally stopped spinning….

She knew he wasn’t in the swamp anymore.

She let the world stop spinning—that took a while—and tried to focus bleary, dizzy eyes on what was before her.

It was the burial chamber at Kokul-Gol. The Snake King’s skeleton lay before her, undisturbed, as if she had only been gone for a moment. She staggered up to a sitting position and realized she was right back where she had started. There was the Snake King. There were the jade beads and necklaces draped over the stone bier. There were the jaguar and parrot figurines she seen before…and the bas-relief of Holmul war scenes and the sacrifices and the green jade masks.

What had happened? Had she imagined the whole trip? Passed out and dreamed some kind of feverish nightmare?

Or had she been caught in the sphere’s entanglement web and been transported to another time and place?

More importantly, was there something Red Hammer could use here?

Erika Volk got up unsteadily, dusted herself off and squeezed her way up and out of the burial chamber. For all she could see, no time had passed.

The sphere she had touched was still there below the head of the Snake King, below the end of the stone bier. It was featureless and motionless, yet the air around the sphere shimmered with heat waves and the thing seemed to hum with barely contained energies.

Red Hammer had to know about this, she decided. This sphere, like the others, was somehow able to transport people back and forth between today—now—the present—and some kind of early or even alternate Earth. The question was how could the cartel make use of that? What could she obtain from such trips that would make her shine before the Ruling Council?

She left the temple and carefully made her way back, through faint early morning mists, to the dig camp. It was just before sunup and a few cooks and diggers were stirring about the encampment. She smelled the sharp tang of eggs cooking from a distant fire and made her way in that direction.

An hour later, she caught up with Dr. Richter, still in his own tent, carefully examining an engraved stone relic under a powerful fluxscope he had set up on a rickety table.

Richter motioned Erika inside the tent flap and went back to his study. “Marvelous piece, Erika…look at that detail. The Museum will pay handsomely for something like this. We bring back enough pieces like this and we can finance several expeditions. I want to—“

Erika interrupted him. “Dr. Richter, there’s been a family emergency. I have to get back to Munich…right away…I’m sorry.” She put on as serious a face as she could.

Richter looked up. “What is it, Erika? What’s happened?”

She made up a tale of her mother hurting herself in a horse-riding accident—in fact, her parents had died years before—embellishing the story with just enough detail and concern to bring out fatherly clucks and murmurs from the doctor.

“Of course, Erika, of course, we understand. Do you need any help…anything I can do? I can send a few porters over to help with your bags, your gear.”

“That would be great, Dr. Richter…really, I’m sorry, but I just have to be with her. Mama is—“ she shrugged, tried to look anguished.

Richter shooed her out of his tent and called for some porters to accompany her.

 

Three hours later, Erika Volk was inside the main terminal at Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City, studying the departure boards. Her flight was not back to Europe, to Munich as she had told Dr. Heinz Richter. Instead, she would be boarding a hyperjet to Kolkata, India…a two hour hop across the top of the atmosphere. She clutched her carry-on, checked her ID and travel documents on her wristpad and headed toward the security lines that led to the gate area.

The flight across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean passed by in a blur. Erika slept part of the trip, then stared out the porthole at clouds and waves a hundred kilometers below. She drifted in and out of wakefulness and filled her more lucid moments with snatches of the words she would use to describe to Red Hammer’s Ruling Council what she had found at Kokul-Gol.

They would have to listen, she decided. True there were two other Spheres that she knew of, but this one was a gateway to a time and place that seemed like early Earth. Not only that, but the place was swarming with all kinds of bots, bots that could be grabbed and reverse-engineered and put to use in this time, to give the cartel a decisive advantage against UNIFORCE and Quantum Corps. And she, Erika Volk, would bring this wonder right before the Ruling Council.

They would have to recognize what a find they had in Erika Volk. After that, she figured she could write her own ticket, all the way to the top.

 

The hyperjet burst out of the cloud bank on its descent to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport at Kolkata and Erika Volk stared out the porthole at the hazy Ganges delta below. Columns of smoke from thousands of cooking fires added to the thick haze. Rice paddies interspersed with the crude huts of the traditional Bengali mawzas stretched to the horizon, like an infinite chessboard.

Seen from the air, the great Indian metropolis was not particularly impressive. A sea of dun-colored low rise buildings was punctuated by TV towers and the occasional high-rise building, split by the muddy ribbon of the river. Several patches of green—city parks and the Maidan race track-- gave some color to an otherwise dreary urban landscape.

From the airport, Erika Volk knew the drill. An unmarked lifter had landed not long after the hyperjet had touched down and taxied to the end of a ramp seldom used by commercial flights. The lifter had come for her. Somewhere over the western Indian Ocean, Erika had activated the CONTACT feature of her halo and carefully, cryptically, described why she was coming to Kolkata.

I need to go to Paryang. I’ve made an important discovery.

She took a small van driven by a driverbot to the lifter, a black articulating craft that resembled an armored spider, with multiple legs, wings and rotors. She scanned inside the lifter and moments later, the autopilot lifted the vehicle into the air and turned about, heading north.

Erika was the only passenger.

An hour later, the lifter was approaching the foothills of the Himalayas. Flying nap-of-the earth and winding through snow-capped valley after valley, Erika watched the forbidding terrain rushing by outside her porthole. A sere wasteland that was Tibet’s high desert rolled by beneath them. The crumpled white peaks of the Himalayas lay off to their right…the roof of the world, some called the area. Soon enough, they crossed the Chinese frontier, with no challenge by any air defenses and settled down to an altitude of less than five hundred meters, speeding across the high desert of Tibet, heading for Paryang Valley hundreds of kilometers north.

Small villages and tent compounds flashed by below them, the villages always framed by curling columns of smoke from hundreds of cooking fires. Herds of yak and wild horses roamed the countryside and the lower slopes of the Gangdise Shan Mountains. Through it all, Erika tried out different words and phrases in her mind. She would have one shot to make a pitch to the Ruling Council and she didn’t want to blow it.

What she had found at Kokul-Gol was surely worthy of the cartel’s time and effort to exploit.

Paryang Valley came up quickly and the lifter circled the valley to gauge the tricky winds before setting down on a rubbly plateau half a kilometer down slope from the huge castle-like main complex.

The monastery was huge, multi-level compound, all columns and turrets and gables, resembling in the late afternoon sunlight more a bird about to take off than a building. Lion’s heads and gargoyles of fantastic beasts guarded the porticoed entrance of the main hall. There was a pebbled path lined with Buddha sculptures of every imaginable shape, size and color leading up the hall…jade Buddhas, ceramic Buddhas, stone and rock Buddhas, a few black coral Buddhas, even paper lanterns done up to resemble Buddhas glowing with Enlightenment near the stairs below the portico.

Wooden doors guarded the monastery entrance, which gave onto a vast, multi-storied hall, its perimeter lined with stone statuary and pediments. Above them, at the top of a broad curving staircase, a gray stone Buddha beamed down with an enigmatic smile, while the hall was surrounded by vats and pots and urns in dizzying variety, every size and shape imaginable. Some of the urns steamed and smoked with pungent incense, or scented candles, lending a smoky, acrid taste to the air.

Erika Volk was expected and when she came to the guard station, she scanned in quickly enough and was escorted by a saffron-robed staff aide to a small lift in the room behind the great hall. The aide was a frail, balding older man with a beatific smile that seemed pasted on. He pressed a combination of buttons and the lift opened. Ushered in with a wave of a hand, Erika boarded the lift and the aide reached in to press another button.

That’s when she saw the sparkle of lights drifting off the aide’s hand.

An angel, she realized…and not a very good one. This one couldn’t maintain structure on even such a simple thing as an arm.

The Ruling Council quarters were buried ten stories below the monastery main floor, deep inside the mountain on top of which it sat.

Her halo guided her unerringly through a labyrinth of corridors, up and down stairs to a small anteroom outside and above the quarters. There she met Dmitri Kulagin, her sponsor.

Kulagin was Russian mafia, one of the last to buy into the Council. He was tall for a Russian, possessed of a glorious black moustache and feral predator eyes. His face was pocked with a childhood disease, it was said, though Erika figured it was more disguise than disease, as melanomorph bots could easily alter anyone’s appearance and disguises were common throughout the cartel. Maybe it was just an image the Russian was trying project…seasoned warrior, Cossack partisan, something like that.

Kulagin bowed slightly, lifting Erika’s hand to his furry lips.

“You had a comfortable trip, Dr. Volk? No problems?”

Of course, Kulagin would have scanned her halo output about the whole trip so he could have easily known everything, even her most intimate thoughts from the time she had left Mexico City to now.

“Comfortable enough. I’ve made a major discovery at the Kokul-Gol dig in Mexico. The Council needs to know about this.”

Kulagin’s eyes narrowed. “Ah, yes…Kokul-Gol. The Mayans and their fantastic beasts. Another Sphere, I gather?”

“Indeed,” Erika said, “and this one is different, more powerful, possibly more useful to us if we can figure out how to exploit it.”

With that, Kulagin sized her up as a hunter would study his prey, and mumbled, “Come…we’ll meet with the others.”

They descended carpeted stairs to a lower level and came to a small room, just outside the Council chambers. Rattan curtains were drawn around the perimeter of the room. A round oak table dominated the center; the table supported a concave hood arching out from its center, arching out over the table to form a circular shroud.

“Sit,” Kulagin commanded. Erika sat.

Kulagin sat beside her. A recessed keypad slid out. Buttons were pushed. The black concavity brightened with streaks and squiggles of light, then its myriad pinpricks of light dissolved into an image, grainy at first, then clearer.

It was a three-D textured image of a stone wall, marbled with quartz and calcite. Animated icons and cartoonish creatures fluttered across the field of view. They were avatars. Symbolic representations of real people, jacked in to the tele-immersion image. It was the most vivid holo she’d ever seen.

One of the avatars turned face-on into the view and swept into the foreground, alighting on the rubbly ground of the image. It was an avatar of a Buddhist monk, draped in saffron robes and tao beads.

Kulagin spoke first. “Your Eminence, a visitor has come. She offers a new business venture…a new Keeper sphere has been discovered.”

The monk-avatar’s cherubic face changed expression, adapting a pixilated frown of vexation.

“Name this visitor. I will assign an identity.”

“She is called Dr. Erika Volk, Eminence.”

The monk-avatar gestured with its hand, a fluttery symbolic sequence of hand motions. The image of the stone wall flickered, then vanished, to be replaced by an image of a darkened cave, a dark vault of roughhewn walls, icy stalactites, with the blue flame of a fire casting animated shadows in a central fire pit.

The monk-avatar materialized out of a tongue of the flame and sat cross-legged beside the fire. He spread his hands for warmth, then spoke into the flame.

“I am the Portal-Keeper. I have assigned an identity to this visitor. During this session, the visitor will be displayed to all as a hawk, predator of the high desert. She is to be called Hawk.”

“As you wish, Eminence.”

The Portal-Keeper, still in monk-avatar robes, stared into the flame, continuing to warm his hands. His robe had turned blood red in the firelight.

“You propose a new venture, Hawk. Why?”

Erika explained her proposition briefly, outlining how an expedition through the portal of the newly discovered Sphere would give Red Hammer access to all kinds of new nanobotic designs. “It was some kind of early Earth, Eminence. Millions, maybe billions of years ago. In the past, trips through the Sphere portals have been short jaunts. Trips to some kind of archives, I’ve heard. My trip through this portal took me to a place and a time that strongly resembles a primitive Earth, at a time when Life was just beginning. Maybe even an alternate Earth. Everything there was a swarm: the trees, the underbrush, the mountains, even the swamp. A whole world of nothing but swarms of bots…Eminence, it’s an inexhaustible resource for us. We can mine it at our leisure, if we can harness this new Sphere. So, yes, I’m proposing an expedition back to the same place. Grab some bots and come back to our time and place. Study them. Reverse-engineer them. There is no possibility that Quantum Corps can have anything like these bots. This technology gives us an insurmountable edge.”

The Portal-Keeper’s image froze, seemingly paused, in thought. But the voice went on. “An apt description from a hawk. Prey and predator…the yin and yang of our world. He who is not predator must be prey.” The avatar levitated itself into the air, then hovered over the fire just beyond the flames’ reach. The avatar rotated so that its face was now fully in view. The Portal-Keeper’s eyes closed. “It is written that, when the mouse trusts the hawk, the end of the world is near. Hong Chui is a living creature, Hawk…born of pure minds, unencumbered with bodies or earthly concerns. We must survive. The Eight-fold Way lights our path. Persistence and patience are our bedrock. Deceit is our soil. Master of the First Level?”

“Yes, Eminence?” Kulagin replied. Even as the Portal-Keeper drifted across the view, another avatar blossomed out of a fissure in the rock wall. A pair of luminous blue eyes floated into the foreground, peeking around the point of a stalactite.

“Ah, General Zhang is here. Zhang….you’ve been listening?”

The Zhang avatar blinked, blood red corneal veins striating the eyes. “An odd proposition, Eminence. Why does Hawk want to mount this expedition anyway? Who’s to say Hawk won’t help herself to our other Spheres…or sell the bots she obtains to Quantum Corps or another bidder?”

“Or sabotage the whole works?” A third avatar had materialized in the background—a horse/centaur-like beast galloping up from the background shadows.

Kulagin nodded at the newest participant. “Good evening, Souvranamh.” To Erika, he turned and added, “Neuro traficante. Bangkok’s biggest, before he joined the Hammer. Souvranamh is third level.”

The Portal-Keeper acknowledged the virtual presence of the others. “A question for Hawk, then. A question of trust. And motives.”

Erika Volk had not known what to expect when she was allowed to come before the Ruling Council…a board room, white-haired old men in dark suits, slide shows and 3-d presentations, perhaps. She preferred direct visual; avatars could never capture the nuances of face…lines tightening at the mouth, eyes focused or evasive. But there was little she could do. Red Hammer preferred symbolic. She would have to speak carefully here, use words precisely.

“Motives are slippery. Only interests never change, Eminence. I am new to Red Hammer. I’m not that important. I came to our organization because—“why exactly had she come to the cartel?

Only a year and a half had passed since Erika had been sponsored into Red Hammer membership and allowed herself to be halo’ed. She’d signed on with Red Hammer, Americas division, only in the fall of ’47, sponsored by none other than Kulagin himself, the ex-Russian mafioso of the Ruling Council. She’d been put to work on something known only as the Project; with talents in archeology, environmental engineering, nanoswarm control algorithms and meteorological engineering, Erika figured she’d be a worthy addition to the effort.

Assigned duties at Mexico City station, Erika had plunged into the details of her work: generating and maintaining nanobotic master assemblers, improving their capabilities, initiating and maintaining swarm dispersion for atmosphere modification. She had no other life anyway. She was a rootless German. Born outside Munich (ca. 2020). Something of a child prodigy in school. Honors and letters from Tubingen in Chemistry and Environmental Sciences.

She had lived in Mexico for most of her adult life. Both parents had died in a lifter crash in 2040. For the last ten years, she had lived in a Mexico City apartamento, worked for the Interior Ministry in freshwater remediation, met engineering and nanobotic pollution abatement.

She’d joined BioShield in 2047 after the Serengeti plague, worked on swarm communications and controls, and had been released in ’48 on suspicion of embezzlement and misuse of agency resources (even now, Erika could hear her own voice rising in anger at the hearing: “this charge of unauthorized tampering with core ANAD BioShield algorithms without approval is patently ridiculous…nothing but a witch hunt—“)

But she was out on the street, nonetheless, and she thirsted for a way to embarrass BioShield and get back at the pinheads who had thrown her out on some kind of technicality. That was when Erika learned through the Mexican underground of something called Hong Chui.

Her highest level contact inside Red Hammer had always been Kulagin’s deputy Kawati Chandrigarh, a musician turned gene designer whom Erika had taken an instant liking to. One day, curious and frustrated by the lack of detail about her job, Erika had asked Chandrigarh about the Project.

Chandrigarh had thick, bushy eyebrows that framed a cat’s face with ludicrous animation. He explained the Project was an effort to discredit UNIFORCE and the Quantum Corps by making BioShield ineffective, so UNIFORCE would have to use Red Hammer designs under license.

That was when Erika Volk knew for sure she wanted in.

“—-I came to Hong Chui to get justice.” She figured that was as close to the truth as she would admit to herself. “I study ancient ruins and peoples, try to figure out how they lived, how they thought and fought and loved and died…what kind of people were they? That’s what archeologists do. This new Sphere opens up another entirely new world for me to study. And when I realized that this world, whatever or wherever it was, was nothing but swarms and bots, I saw an opportunity, for me, for the organization, for all of us. My idea is to understand how this Sphere works, use it for science and use it also for the opportunity it gives us to gain a decisive edge over Quantum Corps and all their blasted atomgrabbers. We’ve used all the Spheres for the same purpose…defeat the atomgrabbers once and for all. This Sphere may just allow us to do that…to obliterate Quantum Corps for good and gain a global market unhindered by anybody else for our scope, fabs, anything we can sell.”

Her face darkened. “I seek advantage, that’s all…and perhaps even a little revenge. It was Quantum Corps that took my old life away two years ago. I am fifty generations descended from Charlemagne. To lead a great kreuzzug on a great quest…that is my destiny. Red Hammer can help. Only the Quantum Corps stands in my path. So—” Erika gestured at the avatars in front of her, “—our interests are parallel. They converge…on a common enemy. By helping you, I help myself. There can be no stronger bond of mutual interest than that.”

She could see from the responses of the avatars that her words carried some weight. She’d chosen them wisely.

Hawk speaks wisely,” Zhang’s eyeball said.

“Indeed,” said Souvranamh’s man-horse, “the Portal-Keeper has assigned this identity with wisdom, has he not? Who is more patient and persistent than the predator of the high desert? Who is swifter of flight?”

“Or keener of eye?” added Zhang.

The Portal-Keeper drifted, sitting cross-legged, away from the fire. Several minutes passed in silence. The monk avatar positioned itself in a craggy recess at the top of the cave.

“Then it is settled. Hawk, listen to me: the proposition is acceptable to the Ruling Council. I have consulted with the Old Ones. We will undertake this expedition. The archives of the Old Ones are filled with knowledge useful for this venture. I will see that it is provided. Hawk, you may walk in the garden of the Red Hammer. And…if your stratagem is successful…if this proposal increases our market share and the enemy is damaged, measures will be taken to make you a full partner. Be advised: to sit with the Masters of the Four Levels will be an arduous task. But our judgment is clear: Erika Volk, known as Hawk, must be given the chance. Trust must be given. Master of the First Level?”

“Yes, Eminence?” Kulagin replied.

“Render to Hawk all necessary assistance.”

“It will be done.”

The Portal-Keeper began to waver, pixelating at the edges of the avatar. “The Vispassana will be our guide, insightful meditation and trust our companion on this path. The Old Ones look down upon all of you with satisfaction. Soon enough, they will return. Go now…and end the scourge of this Quantum Corps.”

The monk-avatar winked out. Then, one by one, the others pixilated down to points, signed off and vanished.

Kulagin sat back with a thoughtful frown. A luminous glow gradually suffused the hood, ending the session.

“We have our orders,” the Russian said. “Come.”

The rest of the day was spent with Kulagin and cartel functionaries laying out the details of the expedition. Kulagin would accompany Erika. To foil UNIFORCE spybots and recognizers, he would be injected with biomorphing bots…his face and appearance would be altered substantially. A full team would be assembled to assist them: an engineer, a mechanic, a quantum systems specialist, a containment expert. There would be six in all, counting Volk and Kulagin. The team would travel to Mexico via commercial carriers, by separate routes, at random and staggered times and converge on the Kokul-Gol site under a variety of guises, so as not to trip any alarms.

The six of them would pass through the portal created by the Sphere—Erika had insisted that she understood the device well enough to use it reliably, though that was a bit of a boast—and appear in this primitive Earth she had described, with the goal of securing some sample bots from that time period, bringing them back to the present and reverse-engineering them into weaponized nanobotic devices that could engage and defeat Quantum Corps and UNIFORCE.

They departed for Mexico City two days later.

 

Assembling the team at Kokul-Gol took another week. Each day, the dig team would recruit, interview and hire new diggers, new porters, new cooks and custodial staff, research assistants. A constant flow of new arrivals kept the population at the dig site in perpetual motion. Hong Chui—Red Hammer—would use this staff turnover to mask the gathering of its operatives.

Dmitri Kulagin was the last to come. He landed at Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City, took a domestic lifter to Merida and came to Kokul-Gol by jeep taxi. At Intake in a small trailer outside the dig site fence, Kulagin presented his credentials. He would be a research assistant to Dr. Volk, specializing in Mayan and Toltec religious images and works…a post-doc on loan from Cambridge University, here in the Yucatan to gain field experience.

Kulagin put on his broadest smile for the interviewer: an American woman in her mid-fifties, with a short gray bun of hair and deeply weathered and tanned face.

“The Lab is my home but once in a while the directors think we post-docs should get out and see the world, no?”

The interviewer looked up at him and smiled humorlessly. “Sure.” She squirted an Approved signal to his credentials pad and waved him inside the compound, directing him toward the Commissary tent where he could get supplies, bedding, toiletries and other things needed for field work. Kulagin breathed easier and swore under his breath as he passed through the final security scans and looked about for the big tent.

Unknown to the Russian, however, the air inside and outside of Kokul-Gol was well populated with spybots, owing to its proximity to the Quantum Corps base at Mesa de Oro. Kulagin knew of this, of course, but the Ruling Council figured the slight chance of recognition was worth the risk and the biomorphing bots that had altered his face, voice and gait surely would fool even the most sophisticated recognizers. There had never been any evidence that full biomorphing, reserved exclusively for Ruling Council members, had ever been detected or sniffed out by any spybot anywhere.

What Kulagin didn’t know, however, was that twenty-five hundred kilometers northwest of the dig, deep in an underground alert center below the Bioshield Ops building in Los Angeles, something had triggered the duty tech’s watch board and sent a Level 1 alarm right to the Mesa de Oro base commander, in fact, directly to General Kincade’s wristpad.

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

Curious and somewhat started by the alarm—there hadn’t been a real alert in Central America in weeks—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.

Ten thousand meters over the western Gulf of Mexico, 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 a unique point source, very small, and fixed its real-time location and heading. Moments later, Sergeant Rivers had the same data.

Immediately, he opened a vidlink to Mesa de Oro.

 

Kincade had been in the senior staff head taking care of business when his wristpad chirped. Swearing silently, the general cleaned himself up and headed down five levels to the alert center.

Sergeant Roy Levins was the tech on duty. He had just received the alert from Bioshield LA.

“It’s LA, sir, some kind of point source of nano activity, near here. In fact, just a few kilometers. Kokul-Gol, sir. Recognizers didn’t get a proper authorized response back, so the alert piped up.”

“Show me,” Kincade growled.

The two of them studied the map of the Yucatan Peninsula, showing splotches of nano here and there, all tagged with IFF codes, properly authorized. One dot didn’t have a tag.

Levins enlarged the view. “Inside the dig site, sir and this is what’s odd: the recognizer’s been trying to get an IFF response back, but no dice. When that happens, it polls its library for signatures on record. Closest match was this one—“ Levins ported a file to the display.

The file opened to reveal the face and background of one Dmitri Kulagin.

Kincade hmmpphhed. “Kulagin, Dmitri I.…Russian mafia, wasn’t he? I read somewhere he was lost in a plane crash, then he turned up later in Hong Kong…and may be in tight with Red Hammer now.”

“Yes, sir.”

“This is your closest match to the signature Bioshield’s detecting?”

“It is, sir. This is what MAX came up with.”

Kincade rubbed his jaw uneasily. “Facial recognizers show nothing. Maybe, if Kulagin’s Red Hammer, he has a halo…a really powerful one. That might be what Bioshield is detecting. A halo is just a bunch of bots anyway…but for LA to pick up a halo, it must be slamming atoms like crazy. But that begs a greater question. “

“Sir?”

“Why does a Red Hammer Ruling Council member, with a halo sizzling like the Sun, turn up in biomorphed disguise at a place like Kokul-Gol? There has to be a reason. I guess we’d better let Paris know about this one.”

 

Chapter 2

Quantum Dawn”

 

 

Quantum Corps Base

Mesa de Oro

Yucatan State, Mexico

October 13, 2049

0350 hours (U.T.)

 

For Major James Lofton, Quantum Corps Q2 director, the Ops Center at the new base was a far cry from what he’d worked with at Table Top Mountain. Still grumbling, he squirted his files and presentations to the 3-d display on Major Johnny Winger’s desk.

“I hope SOFIE’s up and working soon,” he muttered. “Last time I did this on my own, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.”

“It’s good practice,” Winger said, mildly amused as Lofton fumbled with the buttons on his wristpad. “Reminds us to appreciate what we have…or had.”

The base at Mesa de Oro was still being completed and facilities still being furnished after the Corps had vacated its long-time home at Table Top Mountain. Geoplane ops and uncontrollable seismic tremors had made that place unstable and dangerous to occupy for something as critical as Quantum Corps’ Western Command base. Now they were ensconced in a new home, hard by the Kokul-Gol dig site in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Lofton pointed to some data blocks scrolling in mid-air. “That’s the Bioshield signature that LA center picked up two days ago. At first, LA thought they were just seeing some loose nano, basically some ‘leakage’ from loose fabs in the area…you know how those archeologists are. Nano barriers everywhere and they don’t really know what they’re doing. But one of the techs noticed some unusual spikes in the signature and decided to look closer. He came up with this…ninety percent probable match.”

A 3-d head appeared like a ghostly image in the middle of the display. It was the face of Dmitri Kulagin.

Winger sat up abruptly in his chair and stared at the image. “Is that who I think it is, Lofton?”

“It is…one Kulagin, Dmitri…Russian mafioso, Ruling Council of Red Hammer. He’s been lying low for years…we haven’t had a sighting or a signal anywhere. Notice, the difference in facial architecture too…biomorphing bots. He’s altered his appearance. But he couldn’t alter his halo…that’s hardwired in his brain. That’s what Bioshield LA picked up…faint, but you see the data. It’s a match.”

Winger hmmpphed. “So what’s a Red Hammer Ruling Council member doing hanging around the Kokul-Gol dig site? Spying on us? Or is there something at Kokul-Gol?”

Lofton shrugged. “We don’t really know. The Mexican Ministry of Antiquities runs the dig…they’re responsible for vetting all the diggers, technicians, cooks and bottle washers. We’ve spotted Kulagin at the dig; he seems to be masquerading either as an archeologist or some kind of graduate assistant. We’ve also hacked the Ministry’s files to see if any other known Red Hammer agents or operatives are on site.”

“And?”

Lofton shrugged again. “So far, nothing. Kulagin is officially attached to the research team of one Dr. Heinz Richter. Richter’s one of the big guys, right out of Oxford and Tubingen. Richter’s clean, so far as we can tell. And we can’t find any other obvious intel on his team members, though we have suspicions about one…Dr. Erika Volk. She used to be BioShield in fact, but had a bit of a falling out, several years ago. We’re keeping our eye on her but nothing’s come up that’s tripped any alarms.”

Winger studied the rotating head of Kulagin. “This joker’s not in town for a vacation, that’s for sure. The only thing I can think of that would bring a Ruling Council member out of his rat hole into broad daylight is something like another Sphere.”

Lofton grudgingly agreed with the Major’s assessment. “That had occurred to us. The cartel is known or suspected to possess a Sphere at Paryang and there was that one you found at Engebbe. Maybe there’s another one at Kokul-Gol.”

Winger made a decision. It was one of the qualities he’d always most admired about Jurgen Kraft, the previous Battalion c/o, who’d died in all the quakes that had hit Table Top. When a decision was staring you in the face, waiting to be made, make it.

“Lofton, a Ruling Council member so close to the base, poking around an obscure archeological dig site makes me nervous. Kulagin being here can’t be a coincidence. There’s only one way to find out what he…and maybe this Erika Volk, are up to. We need to put some people inside Kokul-Gol.”

Lofton said, “My thoughts exactly. I can work up some bona fides for your team…some backgrounds and bios and credentials that should pass close inspection. How big a team?”

Winger was already staring out the window at the Ordnance/Mission Prep building across the grounds, visualizing the details. The upper pediments of the main temple at Kokul-Gol were just visible over the canopy of jungle in the distance. “Small…maybe four or five. I don’t want to arouse too much suspicion. We’d better let the Ministry know too…I don’t want an international incident, even though we are UNIFORCE.”

“Who’ll be in command?”

Winger turned back from the window. “Me.”

Lofton said, “Is that such a good idea, Winger. I know you’re a field atomgrabber from way back but…you’re a battalion commander now. That’s a risk. Plus your face is known. Kulagin’s likely to mark you as soon as you show up at the dig.”

Winger had a mischievous grin. “Red Hammer’s not the only one who can biomorph a face, Lofton.”

A small recon team was quickly formed. The mission was to be known as Operation Quantum Dawn. Mulling over possibilities in the back of his mind, Winger dismissed Lofton and made his way across the quadrangle to the Mission Prep bunker. It was a hot, hazy, humid day in the tropics and Winger realized he missed the cool mountain air and long-range vistas of the Buffalo Range that had surrounded the base at Table Top.

This is like working in a sauna, he told himself. But there was one redeeming quality about the new base at Mesa de Oro. With geoplanes now a part of the Corps’ standard equipment and a new geoplane hangar being built on base, Mesa de Oro’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico was a strategic advantage. Even as he entered the Mission Prep bunker, Winger imagined he could feel the tunneling going on under his feet. A geoplane access corridor was being burned out of the limestone a hundred meters below the base, a tunnel from Mesa de Oro all the way to the Gulf. Geoplanes modified for subterranean and submarine ops would soon be able to enter and leave the Mesa with little or no chance of being noticed.

That could come in handy, he realized.

Inside the bunker, he went to the squad ready room. Several nanotroopers were inside, cleaning equipment and re-arranging web belts and field packs.

Mighty Mite Barnes was field-stripping and cleaning a mag carbine. She was a short, muscular brunette with a disarmingly pixie-like face but she could kick ass in any mag carbine or HERF sniper competition from here to Singapore and she’d proven herself many times over on missions all over the world and off world.

“Skipper, what brings the brass down here into the world of nuts and bolts? Scuttlebutt says there’s a new mission coming.”

Winger had known Barnes for years. The veteran nanotrooper had recently passed her quals in quantum systems and containment ops and was angling for a promotion to Sergeant.

“It’s true,” he admitted. “It’s called Quantum Dawn…Mite, we’re going to make you into an archeologist. Put you to work digging ditches.”

Barnes rolled her eyes, as she slammed the mag carbine back together by feel alone. “Great, sir…anything for the Corps. Just as long as I can kick some atomic ass in the process.”

“Oh, I suspect you’ll be getting your chance at that.” Winger went looking for Taj Singh and Lucy Hiroshi. With Barnes and himself, the four of them would constitute the recon team that would enter Kokul-Gol and scope out what the cartel was doing there.

Winger gathered the others around him in front of Barnes’ table. She cleared off the rest of her gear and Winger used his wristpad to project a flat image of Kokul-Gol. He went over the details of the intel Lofton had just laid out.

“Red Hammer’s here in the Yucatan,” he explained. “In a big way…this guy—“ he indicated a projected face—“—is Dmitri Kulagin. Not your average Red Hammer drone. He’s Ruling Council. He’s here for a reason and it’s our job to find out what that is. It may be as simple as Red Hammer setting up a surveillance operation right on our doorstep. But there’s also intel that the cartel may have found another Keeper Sphere on site and that’s bad news…very bad news. Either way, it’s our job to find out and if it’s another Sphere, it’s our job to keep the nasties from getting their hands on it.”

Lucy Hiroshi was Japanese, but with red hair and deep set black eyes. She would be DPS tech for the mission, meaning she handled most of the defensive suite, the mags and HERFs that would fry the bad people. “Major, how are we getting in? Do we just walk in…won’t we sort of be recognized?”

Winger smiled a malevolent grin. “Actually, that’s exactly what we do…after we’ve all been biomorphed. Sorry, Lucy, but that charming little porcelain doll’s face of yours is going to have to change. The dermal bots’ll make you look like a Mexican ama de casa.”

Hiroshi made a face. “A housewife…ugh. What about these two?” She indicated Barnes and Singh.

“Don’t worry…we’ll make them just as ugly.” Winger went over the details of their cover. “We’re all from the University of Colorado. Doing research on Mayan and Toltec burial customs and funerary objects. That should give us access to just about everywhere. The site director is a fellow named Richter. He’ll be in on the mission generally, but not all the details. All he knows is that Quantum Corps is running a surveillance op on site. That’s all he needs to know.”

“Begging the Major’s pardon,” said Lucy Hiroshi, “but I don’t know a thing about Mayan burial customs. Can we pass muster with what little we know about this stuff?”

Winger gave them all a quick smirk. “That’s the least of our worries. The eggheads in Quantum Systems have been working with Doc II to modify your embedded ANADs. While you’re going through the biomorphing, your brains will be upgraded too. You’ll each get a shiny new ANAD system, reconfigured to alter long-term potentiation waves and glutamate concentrations, just enough to give you some knowledge and motor skills to make Quantum Dawn work. You’ll each have some knowledge of Mayan burial customs and dig site procedures, just enough to make your cover work.” Winger held out his hand and opened his palm. A tiny capsule lay there. “One pill is all it takes. This baby is mine. It’s got the biomorphing bots and my upgraded ANAD master. The docs put me under for an hour and when I wake up, I look different and think I’m a world-class archeologist. It’ll be the same for all of you.”

The team ran down the rules of engagement and their equipment, then reviewed the mission objectives.

“Surveillance is the objective,” Winger reminded them. “Kulagin is on site for a reason. It’s our job to find out what it is. All the intel points to another Sphere or something equally important at Kokul-Gol…otherwise why send a Ruling Council member? If there is such a thing here, we have orders from UNSAC to take whatever measures are needed to prevent it from falling into Red Hammer’s hands. Up to and including terminating the target…with extreme prejudice. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly, sir,” they all said in unison.

Winger knew he had a good team with him. “This mission is different, even a little ticklish. We’ll be around civilians all the time…civilians who have no idea what’s going on or what’s at stake. So act accordingly. ROE says we use whatever force is necessary to accomplish the mission…and no more. Discrimination and judgment are the keys here. Now—“ he checked the time, “you’ve all got a date in one hour at the Infirmary for your procedures. Questions?”

There were none. Singh, Barnes and Hiroshi were among the best nanotroopers in the whole Battalion. Winger knew he could count on each of them when the fat started frying.

“Very, well, dismissed!”

The nanotroopers gathered their gear and headed out.

 

When Johnny Winger awakened from the procedure, he didn’t at first feel any different. The nurse handed him a mirror and he almost dropped it, so startled was he at his new appearance. Once he’d been proud of a lean face, with high cheeks and deep set eyes. Now his face looked like cookie dough that had been next to the stove too long. His appearance was that of a man decades older, heavier, with sallow cheeks and age spots on his forehead and chin. His nose was flatter, wider and his lips were thinner, topped with a heavy moustache that kept tickling his nose.

General Kincade came by a few minutes later. “According to your cover, Winger, your name is Professor Gerhard Schroeder, University of Colorado-Boulder. How do you feel, son?”

Winger sat up and examined himself. Most of the morphing changes had been made to his face and neck, though there were more age spots on his arms and some unexpected wrinkles around his hands and wrists. “I feel okay, sir…it’s just that I look a hundred years old. I hope this can all be reversed when the mission is over.”

Kincade sniffed. “Says sixty-eight here. Winger, I don’t have to remind you how important this mission is. You’ve got to find out what Kulagin’s here for. I’ve arranged for a ground ride to Merida airport, then you’ll board the lifter shuttle to Kokul-Gol…that maintains your cover as an archeological team coming to the site. The Mexicans know what we’re doing. So does the project director, Dr. Richter. Get inside the dig and snoop around. You’ve got secure encrypted couplers to communicate back…I want reports every day. You know the ROE. No direct action unless Red Hammer makes a move.”

“Got it, sir.”

The medics at the Infirmary discharged Winger after a thorough exam and he gathered his gear and met the Quantum Dawn team at the Main Gate, just a few dozen meters from the parade ground at Kraft Field. The entire base at Mesa de Oro was surrounded by barriers and fences, chain link and nano, and the base had been built on dredged-up spoil to form a ten-meter berm around the entire compound.

He didn’t recognize any of them.

Taj Singh could barely stifle a few chuckles when he saw Mighty Mite Barnes. Where once she had been almost cute, with dark brown curls and perky freckled cheeks, now she was older, sadder, with dog ears and lips too big for her face.

“Looks like the bots went to town on those lips,” Singh said, still grinning. “Watch out you don’t hurt somebody when you turn around with those flappers.”

Mighty Mite glared back at the Bengali CEC, the team’s containerization specialist. “Oh yeah…my sister’s pet dachshund looks better than you. Where’d you get those ears anyway…planning on flying a kite today?”

And so it went. The detachment boarded a small utility trac and headed out of the gate. An hour later, after a bouncing, butt-numbing ride through the jungle on rutted, muddy roads, they pulled into the parking lot at Merida Airport. The Ministry’s lifter shuttle was already waiting for them.

Initial screening and Intake went off without incident and the lifter cruised at several thousand meters altitude over the dense green canopy of the Yucatan selva. Below the tree tops, a muddy river meandered back and forth across the land, sunlight glinting off the water as they descended toward the brown scar of the dig site. Kokul-Gol itself was dominated by a trio of stepped stone pyramids, known locally as Hombros grandes…Big Shoulders.

The lifter landed in a clearing just inside the fence.

The team went through more screening and intake, received their bedding, toiletries, netting and shots and were assigned a pair of tents near the outer perimeter of the dig, downstream of a leaky latrine tent. A truckload of trunks ostensibly with Winger’s ‘research equipment’ arrived that afternoon and the team spent several hours unpacking for the next day. Cameras, shovels, sieves, spectrometers…all of it had been carefully chosen to support the cover story that the nanotroopers were just a team of archeologists who had come to Kokul-Gol for research into Mayan burial customs. However, buried in the crates and boxes were some items that had nothing to do with archeology.

“I could slap this thing together in my sleep,” said Barnes, fondling the barrel and magnetron of her carbine lovingly. “What I wouldn’t give to set up on that fence out there and pluck a couple of those howler monkeys…jeez, they give me the creeps.”

“You probably give them the creeps too,” Singh came back. Buried in a roll of filters and sieves was his containment capsule and interface control pad. He removed everything from the box and made sure it was all there.

“Mess tent at 0600 hours tomorrow morning,” Winger reminded them. “We’ve got two hours in the main burial chamber, assaying ceramic figurines. Photographing, documenting and cataloguing…that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, to anyone watching.”

“Skipper, anything on the whereabouts of Jupiter?” Jupiter was the surveillance target Kulagin.

We’ve got spybots all around the camp. Configured to look like dust motes. Last report had him in his tent.” Winger checked his wristpad. “Logs say he’s been spending a lot of time in the burial chamber of the Snake King…likely tomorrow too. We’ll set our schedule by his…meet me in the mess tent at breakfast.”

The team retired to their tents for the night. Singh bunked with Winger while Barnes and Hiroshi shared a tent to themselves.

The next morning, as suspected, Winger waited until his ‘research assistants’ had filled their plates with bacon and eggs and come to his table. With a sketchy diagram of the burial chamber to cover their talk, he relayed the latest spybot feed.

Jupiter left ten minutes ago. Juno left earlier.” Juno was code for Dr. Erika Volk. “I’ve got the spybot feed up now—“ surreptitiously he checked the tiny display on his wrist. “Looks like the burial chamber again. Okay, we’ll bite on that. Grab your tools and kit and meet me at the entrance…it’s at the base of that big bird statue…it’s called Xbalanque, I think…something like that. Ten minutes.”

The Quantum Dawn detachment appeared at the entrance right on schedule, looking to all around like a research team from the States, intending to descend into the burial chamber of the Snake King Yuknoom and catalogue funerary objects for later study. Between Singh, Barnes and Hiroshi, they bore cameras, spectrometers, scales, shovels, sieves and filters, pans and all manner of gear on their web belts and backpacks.

They scanned through the security barrier, received a knowing nod from Dr. Heinz Richter, who was there pecking furiously on his own wristpad and entered the cathedral gloom of the chamber, cool, damp and well lit with spotlights and lamps.

The walls were thick with colorful images of serpents and birds and snakes and jaguars in a profusion of color—blue, red, yellow. Many of the images were cordoned off with laser light grids or nanobotic barriers to keep them from being damaged by traffic from the outside.

It was Singh who spotted Jupiter and Juno inside the tiny burial antechamber, kneeling together on the dirt, hovering over the single rope ladder that went down to the stone bier of the Snake King. He signaled Winger what he had found: J & J at chamber….

Winger was beside him in less than thirty seconds. Hiroshi and Barnes were still outside, setting up a camera to document an array of jade figurines laid out on a gridded cloth.

Winger and Singh hung back in the shadows of the anteroom entrance, hovering beside a lurid blood-red wall painting of serpents and monkeys.

“They just arrived,” Singh whispered. “Staring down into that hole.”

“The male is Kulagin,” Winger realized. He checked his wristpad. “Spybot says the female is Erika Volk. Both of them biomorphed.”

As the nanotroopers watched, first Kulagin, then Volk descended the rope ladder into the burial vault of the Snake King and disappeared. Cautiously, Winger and Singh edged forward.

Barnes and Hiroshi came up quickly, appearing right behind Singh. As Winger made hand gestures to describe what had happened, a flicker of light erupted out of the hole. It lasted only a second and was gone.

Curious, Winger eased his way toward the hole. Behind him, Barnes shooed off some nosy diggers and technicians, working their way along the wall painting, engaged in some kind of restoration work.

Above the hole, Winger peered down into the burial chamber. It was no bigger than a large closet. There was the stone bier, with the fractured skeletal remains of Yuknoom on top. Lamps cast long shadows across the bier.

Jupiter and Juno were nowhere to be seen.

Winger hand motioned Singh forward. The Bengali CEC crawled up.

“We did see them go down the ladder, didn’t we?” Winger asked.

Singh was puzzled. “Where the hell did they go?”

Then, Winger spotted the Sphere. “Taj, I know what that is…come on—“ He planted his boots on the rickety ladder and went down. Singh followed.

The two of them stood in the glare of the lamps, studying Yuknoom’s burial vault. The floor was littered with broken pieces of pottery, headless figurines, scores of jade and ceramic beads.

The Sphere glowed with some kind of inner radiance, though it had no visible source of power.

“Another one?” Singh asked. He reached out with the toe of his boot, but Winger kicked him back.

“Don’t touch it, Taj! If it works like the others, it’s some kind of entanglement device, a quantum system. You make contact with the surface and you wind up somewhere else, even some time else.”

Singh moved aside as first Barnes, then Hiroshi came down the ladder, squeezing in between Winger and Singh.

“What’s going on? What happened to our targets?”

Winger pointed to the Sphere. It was the size of a basketball, perfectly featureless, eggshell white and glowing with a faint sheen.

“I guess they made contact with the Sphere. It must be like the one Reaves and I encountered at Engebbe.” He looked around the cramped space, noting more painted figures on the walls…jaguars leaping, snakes snapping, strange hieroglyphics. The flicker of the lamps made the figures seem to move, even breathe. “Unless there’s an exit somewhere around here we didn’t see.”

Barnes felt around with her feet, easing figurines and pottery shards with the toe of her boot. “I see nothing. You mean, they just touched this—“

“Don’t!” Winger warned her. “These Spheres are bad news. We’ve got one at the base, in the Lab. The eggheads still can’t figure it out…what powers it, how it works. What it’s made of. If you touch the surface, you go on a roller-coaster ride for a few seconds and wind up some place else.”

Singh was serious. “If our targets did that and went someplace else, where did they go?”

Winger said,” As far as I know, there’s no way to tell from here. I’m not even sure Jupiter and Juno did touch this thing. But Taj and I both saw them come down here and now—“

Barnes said, “Major, is this part of the mission? Using this gadget to go God knows where and when? Is this within the rules of engagement…aren’t we supposed to be just surveillance and no direct action?”

Winger took a deep breath. “Officially, yes. But our orders are also to do whatever is necessary to keep this Sphere from falling into Red Hammer’s hands. I’d say that’s already happened.”

“Maybe they know how to control this device,” suggested Singh. He squatted down, keeping his distance, to study the Sphere from all angles. “Maybe they went hunting for something…something to bring back from wherever they went.”

“Well that’s just great,” said Barnes. “How the hell do you know that?”

“I don’t. It’s just a theory, okay?”

“Can it,” Winger ordered them. He knew a decision had to be made. What would Major Kraft have done? When a decision is staring you in the face, waiting to be made, make it. When you’re in command, command.

How many times had heard Jurgen Kraft say just that?

“Okay, troops, we’re taking a little trip.”

Now Barnes was really exercised. The squad was so close in the vault that her sweat was rolling down Hiroshi’s cheeks. “Skipper, let’s think about this for a minute. We touch that gizmo and we have no idea where it’ll send us. You’re always telling us follow your training. We haven’t trained on this. We don’t know what it’ll do. Shouldn’t we study the Sphere first? Take pictures? Grab emissions? Get back to UNIFORCE on what to do? What if we just remove the Sphere and take it back to the Mesa. Then we’ve fulfilled our orders…we’ve prevented Red Hammer from grabbing the Sphere…we’re in control of it.”

Winger admitted, “Mite, you’ve got a point, but you’re not in command. I’m not sure anyone is ever actually in control of one of these things. The only sure way to keep the nasties from using the Sphere is to find out what they want from it. And the only way I know to do that is to find out where our targets went and what they’re after.”

Barnes looked sour. “I’m guessing there’s no way you’re going to change your mind, is there, Skipper?”

“You know me better than that. The way these Spheres seem to work is you make surface contact with the outer cover and whoosh…off you go. Only problem is I’m not sure we’ll go where Jupiter and Juno went.”

Singh had an idea. “Major, this is just speculation, but bear with me: if two Red Hammer agents, including a Ruling Council member, know enough about this device to use it and go off somewhere, doesn’t it stand to reason that they’ve figured some way to control it, to manage its settings? Would they use it to go somewhere if they couldn’t get back here? That alone tells me they’ve got some kind of basic understanding of how the Sphere works.”

Nobody could argue with that, though all understood it was just a guess.

When you’re in command, command.

“We’re wasting time,” Winger decided. “On my mark, put your hands on the outer surface of the Sphere. We’ve got to synchronize our contacts.”

The four nanotroopers shifted and squeezed and slid about the tiny chamber until all could reach the surface of the Sphere.

“Ready?”

Barnes took a deep breath. “And I thought I joined the Corps for the money—“

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” said Hiroshi. She closed her eyes, her fingers hovering just millimeters from the Sphere. It felt warm, even from a distance.

“One…two…three…NOW!”

Three years before he was catapulted into the Sphere, Johnny Winger had been riding his turbobike along the Denver Highway, coming back from a visit with his recovering Dad at Creekside Hospital, when the bike hit a pothole in the highway. Johnny lost control and somersaulted over the handlebars. When he thought about this later, he realized just how much time had slowed down in those few airborne seconds. Like his Dad always said: “It’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop at the end.”

So he had been airborne and basically weightless for a few seconds—not uncomfortably so—then his tumbling body had slammed into the ground inside a culvert adjoining the highway.

Days later, when he and Mighty Mite Barnes talked about the experience, Winger mentioned that going through the Sphere was like that: moments of peaceful weightlessness, almost a dreamlike quality, except for the bright strobing lights all around you and then the sudden stop.

It was like having a horse kick the crap out of you. Or maybe driving your bike headfirst into a brick wall at eighty miles an hour.

They had come through the entanglement to a swamp of some kind. Lightning veined in sharp bursts across purple and rose-colored clouds, thick and steaming overhead. The ground trembled and through the trees, Winger could see the red glow of a volcano, simmering and smoking. It seemed about to blow.

The swamp was extensive, filled with moss-covered trees, low-hanging branches and mossy patches on rocks surrounding the edge of the water. Cypress knees looked vaguely menacing in the twilight. A faint mist hovered over the water’s surface, which burbled and foamed from some kind of recent disturbance.

Nothing moved. No screeches, no howler monkeys. No birds cawing in the air. Steam and smoke and shuddering ground were all that gave movement to the swamp.

“I’d say we’re not in Kokul-Gol anymore,” Winger muttered to himself.

The other nanotroopers were there as well. Barnes was half in the swamp, just now trudging painfully up out of the muck, mud and silt clinging to her pants and shirt.

Hiroshi had come to upside down, wedged against the base of a cypress tree, flinging and clawing veils of moss and spider webs away from her face.

Singh was next to Winger, groggy but alive, his face half buried in the sand.

“Whew!” declared Barnes, dropping to her knees. “That’s was better than anything I ever did in Scouts.”

They gathered themselves together and took stock of their surroundings. Barnes scouted along the swamp banks for a few dozen meters in both directions. “I don’t see a way around this bog, Skipper. Where the hell are we?”

“Or when are we?” Singh said.

“Look!” Hiroshi pointed to a low-hanging branch of a nearby screw pine tree. Even as she pointed, the branch dissolved into a swarm of tiny bots, all buzzing and swirling around the surface of the swamp. Then the entire tree dissolved the same way.

“Jeez, the whole place is nothing but bots.”

Winger decided a little defense was in order. “Launch your embedded ANADs now. Let’s get a barrier up so we don’t get eaten alive here.”

All four troopers launched. The air around them was soon thick with flickering mist as the bots were discharged.

Winger commanded max rate reps and hacked out a config for his own embedded ANAD to form up a barrier around them.

“ANAD, go to config C-53, full effector spread, charge all disrupters and standby—“

***ANAD is reports ready in all respects…charging disrupters, carbene grabbers and pyridine probes at initial position…what is the nature of the threat, Base?***

Winger watched as a translucent dome of mist formed up over their heads, popping and flashing like a miniature thunderstorm.

“Unknown, ANAD, but we should—“

“Skipper! Watch out…that tree behind you—!”

Winger whirled at Singh’s warning, just in time to see a screw pine tree trunk that seemed as solid as rock before began to dissolve and break down. In seconds, the stump was surmounted by a cloud of bots, billowing up and out, moving toward him.

The ANAD swarm had barely begun to replicate when the first collision came. Like a lighted snake writhing in mid-air, the line of engagement twisted and corkscrewed over their heads.

“ANAD, configure Defense One now!”

***ANAD configuring, setting Defense One…all power shunted to disrupters—***

You could tell when the disrupters fired for a pinprick of light flared in mid-air as millions of volts were discharged. The flares popped and died off by the thousands like a herd of fireflies as the two bot swarms grappled.

Barnes swung her HERF gun around, but thought better of it, when Singh warned her off. “Send your ANAD, Mite…merge the swarms!”

She did just that, commanding her own small but growing army of bots to swell at max rate and steer toward Winger’s own swarm. Singh and Hiroshi did likewise and soon the swarm that had once been a tree was overwhelmed, pushed back, slammed again and again and soon crushed.

Winger decided to see what ANAD saw. “I’m going small!” he told them. Even as he did so, more trees and brush began dissolving all around them. The entire jungle seemed to be coming apart, as every bush and vine and tree exploded into darkening clouds of bots. “Keep me clear—“

The other troopers steered their own ANAD swarms to form a tight bubble around the squad, pushing back at the enveloping swarm that fell upon them. Protected at least for the moment, Winger went ‘over the waterfall’ and let the momentary wave of nausea pass as he tried to focus on the molecular sleet flashing by. Transitioning from macro to nano worlds always jarred your senses and it took a few moments for any atomgrabber to regain his senses.

Seeing what ANAD ‘saw,’ he seemed to be flying over a vast plane, with streaks of light passing by all around, as if he were a fly stuck on a car’s headlight speeding along at night. Gradually, he became more accustomed to the jerky motion and felt the buffeting of Brownian motion as if he were wading out into the ocean. He chopped propulsors to half, slowing a bit and then he saw the enemy…straight ahead, a wave of popping, flashing lights, already engaged with the forward edge of his own ANAD army.

Close-up, he was amazed at the crazy profusion of shapes before him: truncated globes, barbells with whiskers, inverted pyramids, things that looked like squashed child’s toys, spinning cylinders. “Jeez, it looks like a nanobot zoo. What the hell is all this?”

***Multiple configurations, Base…attempting to probe for common weaknesses…detecting a casing seam on many configs, located amidships…if my disrupters can reach it***

“Agreed,” Winger said. He rode into battle like a cavalry officer on a proud mount and flinched when all ANAD’s disrupters went off at the same time. The enemy bot dissolved in a spray of atom parts and loose molecular trash.

Soon, the same maneuver was replicated by trillions of ANAD daughter bots and the air was thick with carnage and boiling debris.

“ANAD, I’d like to try and capture one of those bots. Red Hammer’s trying to do the same thing…we should take a sample and bring it back. Pinch off ten percent of your mass and execute a Config Twelve.” C-12 was a secure enclosure configuration, a nanoscale cage that could surround and immobilize almost any nanobot.

***Separating containment element…now running C-12…Base, recommending approach to barbell config bots…unusual effector array on those…these bots may contain special processors or capabilities***

Winger had to admit that once in a while, the little guy had a good idea on his own. “Agreed, ANAD. Steer to engage nearest barbell and enable Capture One.”

ANAD sped toward the rendezvous and slowed to one-quarter propulsor when he was several thousand nanometers distant. Now C-12 had been engaged and he closed at a steady rate.

The target was a spinning barbell-shaped structure, festooned with effectors top and bottom. It maneuvered with an agility that belied its massive casing and forest of effectors.

“Holy crap, ANAD, how the hell does it move like that?”

***Base, I am detecting propulsor mounts on many effectors…that’s the secret…target has maneuvering propulsors on every effector…***

ANAD closed and the two bots grappled.

It was Lucy Hiroshi who first spotted movement in the jungle on the far side of the swamp. Still engaged in maintaining barrier configs with her own ANAD, the movement was quick and furtive, gone almost before it was there, and she just caught it out of the corner of her eye.

With a start, she realized it was their surveillance targets Jupiter and Juno…Kulagin and Volk.

“Hey…hey, look! It’s our targets!”

Barnes had seen it too. “Better tail ‘em, Lucy. Port your swarm to me and disengage. We need to maintain surveillance.”

Hiroshi needed no further encouragement. Major Winger had gone ‘small,’ engaged in trying to capture one of the local bots.

Skipper’s always harping on the need to take initiative, Hiroshi told herself. So I will. She transferred swarm control of her own ANAD to Barnes, slipped through the barrier nano and started jogging along the shore of the swamp, trying to keep Kulagin and Volk in sight. They had disappeared again beyond a low rise in the terrain and she found the pursuit tough going, kicking and hacking at thick vine around her feet, slurping and sliding through shallow pools of muddy water.

The jungle was thick with pandanus vine and heavy underbrush, all of it nothing but bots, she realized. Everywhere she planted her boots, clouds of bots poofed into the air. To an untrained eye, the poofs looked like dust, but Hiroshi knew better. Every tree, every stump, every vine…all of it bots and more bots.

Jeez, what the hell is this place?

She hung back to keep some distance between herself and the targets. Even from a quarter kilometer, with just brief snatches of Kulagin and Volk, she could make out what they were doing. Every few minutes, they would stop and grab samples of something, then move on again. A tree trunk, a mudpile, a bush, some vines.

They’re going to take all those samples back…but how do they get back?

How the hell do we get back?

Hacking and kicking her way through the brush, Hiroshi hadn’t initially noticed that her targets had doubled back and were now closing on her position. She heard some heavy thudding up ahead and turned to see what it was when a loud crack! lanced out and she felt a fist slam into her shoulder.

Kulagin had opened fire.

The mag loops had whacked her shoulder and chest and Lucy Hiroshi went down hard., faceplanting herself into a shallow bog. She rolled, feeling the sharp sting and the wet of blood oozing out. She’d been hit and hit bad.

Already the paralysis was setting in.

Kulagin fired again and leaves and branches shredded into a rain of debris right over her head.

So much for covert surveillance, she muttered. She winced rolling over, extracted her own mag pistol and returned fire, letting fly round after round of magnetic loops until her magazine was empty. She snapped it out, slammed another one in and listened, hearing only a slight rustle ahead.

Cautiously, her left arm and shoulder nearly useless, her digger’s jacket and tunic now dark red with blood, she strained up to one knee. Bodies flashed ahead and she figured it was her targets. She aimed as steadily as she could and fired again. Crap! Nothing. Too much cover between us.

Then they were gone. Lucy Hiroshi staggered to her feet. The whole left side of her body weighed a ton; already the mag loops had fried her nerves and she couldn’t feel anything over there. Worse, Jupiter and Juno were nowhere to be seen.

Hiroshi felt faint and dizzy and realized she’d better try to get back their erstwhile camp by the swamp…before I conk out completely.

It was a dizzying, circuitous, stumbling route she took and when she saw the faint flicker of the nano barrier ahead, she fell headlong into the swamp. The splash alerted the others and she felt strong hands pulling her free, then carrying her litter-style inside the barrier, which buzzed as it unzipped. They laid her down on a makeshift bed of leaves and brush, then eventually used their own ANADs to fashion some real bedding.

After that, Lucy Hiroshi saw nothing but black and passed out.

 

“She needs a med insert,” Mighty Mite Barnes said. Barnes sat back with her legs tucked under her, wet cloths sticky with blood in her hands. “That was probably a Level One burst, full-jacket mag primes, from the looks of that wound. The paralysis is spreading, Skipper. It’s only a matter of time before it gets into her head.”

Johnny Winger stooped down, felt Hiroshi’s forehead. It was hot. “She’s burning up now…infection spreading, I guess. Problem is, I don’t have anything special in configs…just the standard med templates. And I haven’t done an insert in ages.” He looked around at all the trees, now swaying gently as a wind fetched up, shedding bots like dust. The glow of that distant volcano made the tops of the trees seem on fire…all of it filtered by the barrier nano, which flickered and popped and flashed like a horde of summer fireflies.

“She can’t wait any longer,” Taj Singh said. “If we don’t insert and do some quick tissue repair, she won’t make it.” Singh checked something on his wristpad. “And I’m reading high thermals and EMs when I scan her. Those mag loops may have carried more than just magnetic energy when they hit her.”

Barnes squinted up at them. “Bots riding a magnetic beam…can that even be done?”

Winger nodded. “There was something on the boards in the squad room about intel to that effect…it was supposed to be hypothetical, according to Q2. Now, it looks like somebody’s put the theory into practice.” He made a decision. “Okay, we can’t discuss this any longer. Mite, you and Taj prep Lucy as well as you can. I’ll hack out a config that might work…and I’ll do the insert.”

While Barnes and Singh made Hiroshi as comfortable as possible, Winger retreated to a quiet spot next to a tree trunk…a real one, he was glad to find out, to work on his wristpad and modify existing ANAD config templates for a body insert mission.

Atomgrabbers had to be ready to fight anywhere, even inside a human body.

Half an hour later, they were ready. Hiroshi’s condition was steadily deteriorating and she was visibly in shock, her face and hands cold and pale.

“Set up there,” Winger ordered. He helped Hiroshi lie down on a makeshift litter Barnes’ ANAD had fabbed out of loose feedstock. She was already sleepy, her eyes heavy from sedation. She was fully unconscious a few moments later, unaware of the other nanotroopers gathered around her.

The oddity of doing an ANAD insertion beside a steamy swamp in a tropical jungle located who knew where wasn’t lost on Winger.

It was a whole new way of fighting a war and Johnny Winger knew that half the time, they were inventing tactics as they went along.

“Okay, Major,” Barnes patted down the incision she had just made in the side of Hiroshi’s skull. “She’s prepped and ready.”

Winger checked with Taj Singh, whose embedded ANAD would be the source of the medbots. “Your ANAD ready to fly?”

Singh came back, “Ready in all respects, Major.”

“Vascular grid?”

“Tracking now. We’ll be able to follow the master just fine. I’ll replicate once we’re through the blood-brain barrier.”

“Watch for capillary flow,” said Barnes. “When her capillaries narrow, your speed will increase. And viscosity will stay up.”

“Like slogging through molasses. ANAD’s inerted and stable…ready for insertion.”

The insertion went smoothly enough. A slug of plasma forced the replicant master into Hiroshi’s capillary network at high pressure. Winger got an acoustic pulse seconds later and selected Fly-by-Stick to navigate the system. A few minutes’ run on its propulsors brought the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler to a dense fibrous mat of capillary tissues. The image soon appeared on Winger’s wristpad panel.

“Ready for transit,” he told Singh. “Cytometric probing now. I can force these cell membranes open any time.”

Taj used ANAD’s acoustic coupler to sound the tissue dam ahead, probing for weak spots. “There, Major, right to starboard of those reticular lumps…that’s a lipid duct, I’d bet a hundred bucks. Try there.”

Winger steered ANAD into the vascular cleft of the membrane. He twisted his right hand controller, pulsing a carbene grabber to twist the cleft molecules just so, then released the membrane lipids and slingshot himself forward. Seconds later, ANAD was floating in a plasma bath, dark, viny shapes barely visible off in the distance. The plasma was a heavy viscous fluid. Winger tweaked up the propulsor to a higher power setting and took a navigation hack off the vascular grid.

“Ventral tegmentum, Major. Just past the mesoencephalic nucleus. Looks like we’re in.”

Winger navigated ANAD through the interstices of Hiroshi’s brain for the better part of an hour. It wasn’t hard to find evidence of tissue damage caused by the mag loops. Darkened patches, torn and free, were easy to spot.

“She’s got some damage in her lower cerebellar spindles…looks like a hurricane blew through here, Taj. Tissue trauma in what my system’s identifying as the flocculus and posterior fissure…I’ll send ANAD in for a close-up.”

Singh could see what ANAD saw on the acoustic sounder image of Winger’s wristpad. “Hurricane’s probably a good analogy…can you repair it?”

“I can try…ANAD, I’m sending config C-48A…need a few more grabbers and pyridine probes.”

***ANAD receiving C-48A, Base…replicating new effectors now…hydrogen abstractors at maximum angle now…I will have to re-configure***

Slowly, gradually, bit by bit, Winger and Singh hunted down every area of tissue damage ANAD could detect, suturing where they could, replicating new axonal fiber where they had to, joining and fusing dendritic branches that had been torn away or truncated by the mag loop fire.

Winger was making a last minute cruise around Hiroshi’s cerebellar nodes when a thunderous crashing sound blasted by overhead of the clearing.

Singh and Barnes looked up alarmed and saw a stream of meteors streaking low across the treetops, white and red contrails burning the air behind them. The sound was like heavy cloth being ripped apart.

Jesus!” Barnes cried. “Meteors…and they’re low—“

At that moment, something struck the earth a few kilometers away, and the ground shook and shimmied with a deafening impact. A strong gale of hot air blew through the trees, and small fires were quickly ignited in the heavy canopy overhead. In seconds, flames leaped from tree to tree, scorching and bursting into more flames. A wall of fire came streaking toward them from above.

Barnes cried out, “Look out…take cover—!” By instinct, she killed the barrier nano and helped wrestle the still-unconscious Hiroshi off her makeshift bed into the arms of Winger and Taj Singh. Ducking falling limbs and burning branches, they scattered along the swamp edge just as the flaming vegetation came crashing to the ground. Fiery leaves and embers exploded from the impact.

The squad struggled with Hiroshi’s limp body as they sought some kind of cover. By instinct, they dove deeper into the forest, stumbling blindly through acrid smoke, while beyond the hills ahead, more impacts jarred the ground. Trees and huge limbs came crashing to earth all around them, sounding like gunfire in the air as they snapped.

They ran into a shallow bog and lost control of Hiroshi who went flying right into the muddy water. She regained consciousness with the impact and sat up flailing and choking as the nanotroopers dove to pull her out.

Dragged up onto drier ground, Lucy Hiroshi spat dirt, mud and water and blinked at her surroundings. “Gaaa—! What is this place?”

“Hell on Earth!” Barnes answered, wiping Lucy’s face with a compress. “How do you feel, girl?”

Hiroshi’s face was cut and bleeding and her vision was blurred, but she managed to sit up. “Like I ran into a big saw blade. What happened?”

Barnes explained it as she helped the DPS tech to her feet. “You took fire from our targets…got clipped by mag. Skipper did a medbot insert to repair tissues…but we had to stop when those friggin’ meteors came down.”

Crouching nearby, Winger surveyed the area. The fires ignited by the meteor impact were growing. They couldn’t stay there much longer.

“Let’s circle the swamp…maybe the water’ll keep the fires from moving further.” He coughed, waved at the thickening smoke. “Lucy, can you move on your own? I left ANAD inside your head.”

Hiroshi staggered to her feet. Her digger’s tunic was half blown away in tatters by the mag loops, but she seemed stronger on her feet. “I think so…just give me a second. What about our embeds?”

Winger spent a few minutes recovering his own ANAD, patting his shoulder to massage the sting when the port slammed shut. “Leave ‘em. Now I’ve got mine. We’ve got to get away from that flame front.”

The squad gathered itself and moved out skirting the edge of the swamp, clawing through dense smoke, coughing, gagging and hacking their way blindly through the brush. Twice, Singh stepped into a sinkhole and lost his balance. Both times, it took the other three troopers to pull him out.

Twenty minutes later, they stopped for a few moments to catch their breath, heaving in great gulps of stale, smoky air. Winger briefly wondered if he should config and launch ANAD to replicate respirocytes. That would help their breathing. Normally, a nanotrooper on a mission would carry capsules of the ‘cytes for just this purpose, but the capsules hadn’t been included in their mission kit.

It was Barnes who saw them first. “Hey! Hey, isn’t that Jupiter and Juno over there?” She pointed through the dense growth and trees. Barely visible were two moving forms, clearly out of place.

It was Kulagin and Volk. They were returning to the swamp.

The Red Hammer agents spotted them first. In seconds, mag fire erupted through the trees, shredding leaves and bark, blasting sizzling holes in the trunk of a nearby screw pine.

“Get down!” someone yelled.

Both Singh and Barnes hit the dirt, rolled and came up firing back, pumping their own mag fire onto the enemy.

For the next few minutes, the nanotroopers fought a running series of skirmishes along the perimeter of the swamp. Ducking and firing, Winger and the squad returned fire, then plunged deeper into the jungle, trying to keep the cartel agents in sight, trying to flank them and force them out into the open, not easy to do in the jungle. It was Barnes who realized they were making a big circle. Half an hour later, they had come right back to the edge of the swamp.

“Look!” she cried out. ”There they are,” as Jupiter and Juno waded out into the water. Kulagin fired off more shots, making the nanotroopers duck for cover, then when they were waist deep, both agents ducked below the water’s surface.

Winger stopped short at the water’s edge, holding the others back. The barest hint of a suspicion came to mind. “Wait here,” he ordered. “They’ll have to come back up for air. And find some cover. They may be using the swamp to get behind us.”

Winger sent Taj in one direction, Barnes in the other, circling the edge of the swamp in case the Red Hammer agents surfaced somewhere else. He kept Lucy Hiroshi nearby; she was still recovering from her injuries and was none too steady on her feet.

“Where’d they go?” she asked. She checked her mag carbine, ejected a cartridge and slammed a fresh one in until it clicked.

“They went in, but I haven’t seen them since,” Winger said.

After a few minutes, it was evident that they had somehow lost Kulagin and Volk. A ripple disturbance in the center of the water caught Winger’s eye.

“Skipper, there must be a way out of here in that swamp. They haven’t come up.”

Winger’s dawning suspicion hit home. “There is, Lucy. The other Sphere…it must be in the swamp. Somehow, they found it…they may have already left this place.”

“You mean…where would they go?”

Winger shrugged, increasingly dejected. “Who knows…maybe back to Kokul-Gol.” He got on the crewnet and recalled Singh and Barnes, who returned moments later.

“Our mission is surveillance but we’ve lost the targets. I’m sure there’s another Sphere in that water. But I have to be sure…you stay here.”

“What’s in that feverish mind of yours, Skipper?” asked Barnes.

Winger had already launched his own embedded ANAD again, which issued from his shoulder capsule like a faint mist. “I’m going in the water…” He quickly hacked out a new config on his wristpad for the swelling mass of the swarm. “ANAD…assume config C-85—it’s a respiratory mask.”

***ANAD assuming C-85…molecule barrier at tightlink mesh…now forming structures…please provide bearing***

Winger commanded ANAD to form up the barrier surface of the mask right where he was. As the other nanotroopers watched, a small semi-spherical ‘helmet’ materialized in mid-air, and Winger inserted his head through the formation, until his face was completely obscured. When the config was done, Winger’s head was fully enveloped in a fine mesh of tightly linked nanobots. A small photon lens directed outside views straight to his eyes.

“I’m going in to see if I can find out what happened. Keep your eyes open in case our friends re-appear.” With that Winger waded out into the swamp until he was chest deep in the turbid water, then sank out of sight.

Barnes stood on the mud spit of a shore, shaking her head. “Sometimes I think the Major’s actually part ANAD himself.”

Singh had to admire Winger’s skill. “The best code and stick man in the whole Battalion. He can make ANAD do anything. Who knew there even was a config for a respiration mask?”

Beneath the surface of the swamp, Winger found he could ‘see’ nothing. The swamp was dark and turgid with the silt. He reached the bottom, kicked out and stumbled his way along for a moment, feeling with hands and feet for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. That’s a tree stump…that’s something that died…ugh…that’s some rocks…

He saw a faint glow even in the turbid fog and moved toward it. The glow became stronger, like car headlamps in fog. Now a pronounced swirl developed. There was a definite flow of current along the bottom here. Silt and sediment obscured the glow for a while, but when he nearly stumbled over the Sphere, he sucked in his breath and spun away to keep from coming into contact with the thing.

It’s another Sphere, all right, he told himself. He’d almost touched it too. But the glow from the bottom and the faint vortex of the water, made it clear where the device rested. Somehow, in ways he didn’t understand, the Red Hammer agents had known or found the Sphere and used to go someplace or some time else.

He knew the nanotroopers would have to do the same. And the prospect made him nervous for any attempt was fraught with risk. No one at Quantum Corps really understood how the Spheres worked.

Had Red Hammer figured them out? Could the cartel use the Sphere to visit other times and places, ransack them for useable gadgets and come back to their own time?

It made his head hurt just to think about it.

Winger surfaced and stroked his way to the shore. He described what he had found.

“The only way we’re going to be able to get back, or follow our targets is to go under water and contact the Sphere together, the way we did before.”

Barnes made a point. “We left our ANAD masters at the camp, Skipper. The barrier nano. We can’t configure masks like you did.”

“I’ll have to be your eyes. “Hold your breath when we go under, hold on to me and I’ll direct your hands to be near the Sphere. When I give the word, we all contact the surface together.” He looked around the dense steaming jungle. Reflections from nearby fires made a blood-red glow on the underside of the low clouds. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The four of them waded back out into the swamp, shoving rotted-out branches and logs away as they stroked toward the small eddies that marked the Sphere’s location.

At the spot, Winger commanded ANAD to button up his respirator mask. His face disappeared behind a shield of twinkling mist.

“On my mark, we submerge…ready….three…two…one…Now!”

The four nanotroopers dropped straight to the bottom and remained stationary, per Winger’s instructions. One by one, Winger grabbed a hand until he had solid contact with the other three. A few meters away, a strong pearlescent glow emanated from the Sphere, diffuse and scattered in the dark water, but still visible to Winger.

Hiroshi squinted through the turbid silt to judge their position for herself. This really is nuts, she told herself.

Winger carefully positioned each trooper around the perimeter of the Sphere, placing their legs and arms just so. Then he took each trooper’s hand, held them in his own, and lowered them carefully toward the Sphere’s surface.

Whether it was a stray current or it was the way they had made contact, the troopers soon found out they had done something terribly wrong…

…first came the dizzying carnival ride, like riding a roller coaster flipped on its side that never seemed to end…hurtling at breakneck speed down a curving corridor, flitting at insane speeds past a roaring river of polygons and cubes and tetrahedrals and dodecahedrons and things that had no name until at last, each trooper came to a hard landing right on their butt and sat still for a few moments, while the whirling tape reel of images gradually spun down and the world finally turned right side up.

It was Winger who realized, as soon as his head stopped spinning, that they had not returned to Kokul-Gol at all.

It took a minute for Winger to gather his senses. He heard shouts—clearly, there were people around this time. Guttural shouts, hoarse and angry, almost growls. Something flashed through the air by his head and he ducked involuntarily. Rolling away from the disturbance, he saw through bleary eyes a face…it was Mighty Mite Barnes. Singh was there too and Hiroshi behind him.

They’d all made it to—where exactly?

Winger lifted his head, opened his eyes and looked around, stunned at what he saw.

No longer a tropical forest, they had come to a place of open ground, on a slope. In fact, the Quantum Dawn team had ‘landed’ on the side of a hill. They clung precariously to a slope of loose rock and dirt.

Below them, voices shouted. Things flew through the air and with a start, Winger realized the things were missiles flying, spears and stones, in a furious onslaught. More voices came from another direction, upslope. More spears and stones came from that direction.

Barnes lifted her head. “Skipper, where the hell are we?”

“Right in the middle of a war, it looks like,” Winger told her.

The team had come to rest on the side of a mountain. Jeez, it looks like the mountains around Engebbe, he muttered to himself. And not just a mountain. A diffuse red glare lit the upper slopes of the hill. They had come to the flanks of an active volcano. A low rumble could be heard and felt through the ground. Streams of loose pebbles cascaded down the slope around them.

And they were right in the middle of some kind of dispute. As Winger hunkered down, he saw further downslope a small band of…what were they? Gorillas? Small furry hominids? They were slinging spears and rocks at another band of the same type of creatures further upslope. The two bands were in combat.

And the nanotroopers were caught in the middle.

“We need a barrier,” Winger thought. “Anybody got a gun?” he yelled out.

“Lost mine in that roller coaster ride,” Singh replied.

“I’ve got a mag pistol,” Barnes said, “if I can get it out and loaded.” She fiddled with a leg holster, wriggled the sidearm loose, enabled the charger and clicked it to life. “Working…and loaded!”

“I’m launching ANAD…maybe Doc II as well!’ Winger said. He cycled open his shoulder port and commanded ANAD to go.

“Launch now!” he told the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler. “Configure C-2…max rate. We need some kind of barrier up here!”

***Launching now, Base…I am in launch mode…configuring C-2…going to high rate replication…disrupters enabled***

The faint mist had just begun to issue from his shoulder when a band of creatures they hadn’t seen appeared just below them. Spears flew. One struck Singh in the shoulder. The Bengali trooper cried out, grabbing his arm in a spurt of blood and sank to the ground. Hiroshi was with him in an instant, ripping off a sleeve of Singh’s outer camou to twist into some kind of tourniquet. She tied off the wound above Singh’s elbow and cinched it up tight.

ANAD swelled rapidly into a thickening mist but the formation was invisible in the smoke of hot lava bubbling in the crags and recesses above them. Doc II never launched.

The small band quickly surrounded the troopers and brandished spears at each.

Winger told Barnes to put her pistol away. “Let’s don’t make this any worse,” he told them. “Maybe we can talk our way out of this.”

As one, the nanotroopers held up their hands. The creatures were less than two meters in height, clad in animal skin loincloths and vests of fur and feathers. They swooped down on the troopers and gathered them together, looping strong vines around the four of them, to make a more easily managed group.

One hominid, for that’s what Singh called them, gestured downslope, even as more spears and stones rained down on them from above. The other hominids returned fire and charged up the hill, slipping and sliding on loose rock and fell on their assaulters in hand-to-hand combat. A furious struggle ensued even as the troopers were escorted roughly down the hill to the original band below them.

The band growled and grunted and gestured at them as they approached, while their comrades finally succeeded in driving off the band up slope. The warriors who had charged then came whooping and hollering down the side of the mountain, waving their remaining spears and shields in triumph. The entire band then encircled the Quantum Dawn team and glared angrily at them, poking and prodding with spears and long poles.

“Where are we?” Barnes whispered out of the side of her mouth, eyes glued to the tip of a spear that waved right in front of her face. “When are we?”

“Yeah,” said Lucy Hiroshi. “What happened? This surely isn’t Kokul-Gol.”

“Something must have gone wrong,” Winger decided. “We didn’t work the Sphere right…maybe we didn’t touch the surface right, or we were out of synch or something.”

“Skipper,” winced Singh, still massaging his wounded shoulder. “Do something…what happened to ANAD?”

Winger realized the formation had followed them down slope but was still dozens of meters away, only dimly visible in the steam and smoke clouds. “Up there—ANAD, can you hear me…ANAD, acknowledge on comm one immediately—“

But before he could check for a response, he got the tip of a spear right in his mouth. Winger gagged and coughed.

One of the hominids, the largest male, perhaps a chief with a necklace of shell beads jangling, came right up to Winger face to face. He grunted something, growled something else, then Winger was pushed and shoved roughly by another creature.

“Hey—!” Guess it’s no talking, he said to himself.

As one, the nanotroopers of Quantum Dawn, were herded further downslope onto level ground.

They were prodded and kicked along, prisoners now of this strange band of semi-humans in a land and a time they didn’t understand, nudged along toward the homeland of the creatures, deeper into a dense field of waist-high leafy plants and bushes. Thrashing their way through the brush, they could see and smell a single column of smoke ahead, perhaps a village or campground. Behind them, the volcano where they had landed rumbled and shook with steady tremors. Seething, hissing rivers of lava could be seen pouring down the far flanks of the hill. Geysers of blood-red steam curled skyward, lighting up the low-handing clouds, making fantastic, grotesque faces and forms in the sky.

Where were Kulagin and Volk? Had the cartel agents come to the same time? Why had he Sphere sent them here to this place? What had gone wrong?

Johnny Winger squirmed a bit as the hominids tightened the vine noose around the group. He had lost ANAD, left him on the side of the volcano. But he still had Doc II, still embedded in his shoulder capsule.

That could come in handy. But for now, the nanotroopers were prisoners of this warrior band of semi-humans. And even now, one of them was walking alongside the vine noose, tugging curiously at Winger’s wristpad…his only way to launch and control Doc. He couldn’t let them have the wristpad.

 

Chapter 3

Blood Sacrifice”

 

 

Place: Unknown

Date: Unknown

Time: Unknown

 

Johnny Winger quickly learned that their proto-human captors intended to sacrifice the troopers to their god Ngai. They had been roughly prodded into the village, a crude gathering of thatched huts and lean-to’s, surrounding a large central fire pit, where a fire smoked and guttered. One by one, to Winger’s surprise, the troopers were taken from the vine enclosure and forced into a small sack-like covering, which strangely hummed and sparkled as it was lowered over them.

“Major, they’ve got a MOBnet…it’s a-- !” Barnes said. Her words were throttled and her head was quickly stuffed inside the mesh and the thing auto-cinched up tight. Barnes squirmed and writhed, but it was no use and she fell in a shapeless heap to the dirt, where she was rudely scooped up by two hominids with long poles and carried like a butchered meat carcass off to one of the huts.

One after another, Hiroshi, Singh and Winger suffered the same fate, finding themselves lined up against one side of the hut like totems, spoils of war.

Being enmeshed in a Mobility Obstruction Barrier was like being stuffed into a pillow case, only in this case, the pillow case was composed of trillions of nanobots that could react to everything you did. The more you struggled, the tighter the mesh. Soon breathing itself would become difficult.

Winger felt the side of his net wiggling and realized he had been propped up against someone else. It was Taj Singh.

“Skipper—“ came a muffled voice, “how is it these freaks have MOBnets? This looks like something out of the Pleistocene era.”

“I don’t know,” Winger told him. “This is some kind of place and time that can’t exist…or shouldn’t exist. It’s that Sphere. Somehow, we ‘ve got to get out of here and find another Sphere…or we’ll never get back.”

“Atomgrabbers in hell…that’s what we are,” Singh decided. He winced as his shoulder continued to throb and ache from the spear impact. At least, the bleeding had stopped. The few remaining repair ‘cytes in his bloodstream had done the work.

Ten minutes later, the MOBnets were hoisted up again like grocery bags and carted out of the village.

A convoy of hominids chanting and brandishing torches paraded out of the village bearing four MOBnets on long poles, headed right back toward the huge volcano, which was even now belching fumes, hissing and bubbling, its summit wreathed in a red halo of clouds, barely visible through hot, boiling clouds of steam.

The parade was headed right into the middle of a cauldron of crimson hot lava which was surging through the field toward them.

The hominids skirted the worst of the lava pools and made a wide circle around the base of the mountain, hacking and scything their way through dense groves of leafy plants, which to Winger had seemed like corn stalks on steroids. Through the mesh of the MOBnet, he could hear some of the guttural talk of the creatures. One word stood out, almost like a chant: Kipwezi…Kipwezi…Kipwezi….

The sound chilled him to the bone. Kipwezi—if he was hearing the chant right—-was the name of the volcanic mountain overlooking the dig site at Engebbe, Kenya.

Had the Sphere brought them to some ancient time at the same place? And the volcano certainly wasn’t dormant. He could smell the sulfurous steam in the air and feel the ground rumbling and trembling beneath them.

On the far side of Kipwezi from the village, the convoy of hominids began their ascent up the side of the mountain. Here, the lava flows hadn’t started yet, though fumaroles occasionally burst from the ground in great steaming geysers. Up and up they slogged and crawled, still bearing four MOBnet sacks like grocery bags dangling from poles.

They finally found the cave on the steepest slopes of the northwest flanks of Kipwezi, nearly four thousand meters above the surrounding plain. The creatures were clearly exhausted by the climb; the effort had taken nearly half a day from the trailhead at the base of the mountain. They were cold even in the superheated scalding air of the volcano slopes, dirty, sore and tired, although the respirocytes in their bloodstream kept them both from the worst effects of pulmonary edema and other forms of altitude sickness.

The cave complex, when they located it, was well hidden in the folds and crevices of the upper slopes of the volcano, above a cloud deck and slick with patchy ice and snow drifts. The wind screamed and gusted at well over eighty knots at this altitude and the detail had to hunker down in the lee of a rocky barren to keep from being shredded with ice shards and rock chips scoured off the mountainside.

Carefully, one after the other, the slipped through the meter-wide crack in the side of the mountain and stood in the twilit dust confronting a nanobotic barrier shimmering before them, stretching from floor to ceiling.

Mighty Mite Barnes writhed and squirmed inside her MOB cocoon, hearing the familiar sound of nanobots in action.

Maybe a barrier of some kind. Where the hell are we? She had tried several times on their trip to signal or talk through the barrier but only earned a kick and a sharp, painful poke from her captors for her effort. Barnes remained silent, but alert to any sound or smell she could identify.

The hominid chief withdrew a small palm-shaped object and thumbed control studs on its side. Instantly, the barrier swarm fluoresced and flashed like a strobe. A shrill keening buzz echoed around the cave and the barrier went dark as the bots dispersed.

They were in.

The creatures moved deeper into the cave with their prisoners, following a drifting mist of bots that wavered in and out of view. They descended several levels, crossed a rock bridge across a deep chasm and maneuvered through more tunnels. Lighting was created by the mist, a pulsing, flickering light that cast deep shadows on the gnarled veins of rock lining the cave. The floor was slick, patches of ice everywhere. Soon enough, they came to a narrow opening, barely waist high. More light flickered from inside. The entire complex of caves shook and trembled with the movement of tons of magma below.

The mist of bots which had floated with them swirled like dust in a storm and gathered around the opening like a frame, coruscating and flashing as if lit from within. Bonds were broken and atoms slung together…in moments, the mist formed itself into a small ramp, extending over a sluggish pool of water. At least, the substance resembled water, even as tendrils of steam hovered over the surface like a fog.

Cautiously, first the chief, then the others edged out onto the newly formed ramp and walked ahead.

When it appeared, the master swarm materialized out of the rock ceiling of the cave. At first, the swarm resembled nothing more than trembling shadows, a pale flickering ghost seemingly contoured with the cave ceiling and walls. As it descended from above, the swarm gathered itself into a roughly spherical shape, still pulsing, still throbbing, backlit from within by the fires of atomic bonds being broken, new structures being slammed together, new bots being formed.

The swarm hung in the misty air like a swollen cloud, ready to dump torrential rain on a tropical forest. But they were a long way from any rain forests. The swarm unfurled itself and hung in the air like a great storm front, a trembling fist, flashing purple and orange and magenta all at the same time.

That’s when Barnes heard a voice that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.

>>Why are you here? Rule 225635 is violated. Single-swarm entities may not enter the Sanctuary at this time>>

“Jesus H. Christ!” she muttered to herself. It was Configuration Zero, Config Zero…she’d know that synthetic voice anywhere. It was Symborg’s voice as well. The voice sounded out of synch, like multiple tracks laid imperfectly over each other.

This is just too weird, she thought.

The hominid chief responded in some kind of rough, guttural dialect, words she didn’t understand.

Katanga…mwale…nortenga…novidi…novidi…”

The MOBnets were carried past the great Config Zero swarm to a side cavern and secured with stout vine to makeshift davits in the wall. All four sacks squirmed and thrashed at their imprisonment, but little could be done. The bots only meshed more tightly when they felt resistance from inside.

For a long time, Johnny Winger heard and smelled nothing. It seemed as if they had been taken to the side cavern and left there.

He found that by kicking and pushing hard enough, he could move his cocoon close to another one, leaning against it in physical contact. It turned out to contain Mighty Mite Barnes.

“Mite…Mite, is that you? Can you hear me?”

Her voice was muffled but understandable. “Yeah, Skipper…it’s me. Can you hear my voice?”

Together they reviewed the hard facts of their situation. Taj Singh was on the opposite side. By judicious kicking and pulling and shoving, he managed to make contact enough to join the conversation as well.

Barnes had an idea. “Major, do you still have Doc II? Or your ANAD embed?”

Winger replied, “I lost ANAD fighting off those creeps from Red Hammer. But Doc II’s still in my shoulder capsule.”

Barnes admitted the same. “Our ANADs were used to make a barrier around the camp we set up at that swamp. And my mag pistol’s been confiscated…somebody’ll have to pay for that. Skipper, couldn’t Doc II eat his way out of your MOBnet…and ours too?”

“In theory,” Winger told her, “if I had the right config and my wristpad works. One of the gorillas tried to take it from me but I stuffed it in my pants and he gave up.”

Barnes warmed to her idea. Winger, and Kraft before, had always said nanotroopers were supposed to show initiative and resourcefulness. “Skipper, what if you could hack out a config for Doc II? You could get us out of these grocery bags pretty easily and we could be on our way.”

“If we could find our way back out of these caves.”

Now Singh spoke up, his voice muffled and distant coming through the mesh. “Major, suppose we cut our way out of these bags in a way that doesn’t alarm anybody. “

“Yeah,” said Barnes, “then tunnel out of here right through the mountain. Those gorillas would never expect that.”

Winger thought the idea had merit. “I’m not sure these are gorillas, or that they’re really all that primitive. Somebody’s given them some pretty modern play toys. Plus Doc II’s not really optimized for solid-phase disassembly. Tunneling right out of the cave through the mountain could take days.”

“So what have we got to lose, Major? It’s something—“

Winger had no answer for that. “Mite, as always, you make sense, in your cock-eyed sort of way. I’ll see if I can startup my wristpad and contact Doc II.”

For the next hour, Winger worked the commlink with Doc II, still in his shoulder capsule, and hacked out a config for tunneling through the cave walls. It was clear that Doc II was somewhat reluctant.

***Base, this assembler is not programmed to be a digger…my functions correlate with research and analysis, my processor is optimized for generating and testing multiple hypotheses at the same time, running statistical—***

“Okay, Doc,” Winger said warily. Was there a processor fault somewhere inside that miniscule polyhedral body? Had some qubit flipped the wrong way inside Doc’s quantum brain?

“Doc, listen…I don’t have time to argue. I’m sending a new config to your processor. You don’t have the right grabbers and probes but it’s the best I can do. I know you’re no barebones ANAD but you’re all we’ve got right now…so shut up and execute this config—“

He sent the template. After a little more grumbling, Doc went to work storing and verifying the code.

***Reporting only minor errors in code…I have already fixed these…Base, I’m still not sure how well this will work…***

“Doc, launch now…launch immediately!”

A faint mist issued from his shoulder capsule and soon filled the interior of the net. Like a match lit to a burlap sack, the Mobility Obstruction Barrier soon began dissolving along a seam above Winger’s head. He waited until the seam had cooled down, then punched his way out of the bag, poking his head cautiously out to look around.

They were in a narrow low-ceilinged cavern with walls smoldering from nearby magma channels. The air inside was hot and steamy.

He let Doc do his work on the other MOBnets and helped each trooper claw their way out of their sacks, each one heaving in huge gulps of scalding hot but still fresh air.

“Okay, Doc, belay the MOBnets and get to work on these walls.” Winger watched the swarm maneuver itself into contact with the rock face and begin burning into the craggy folds and crevices of the stone, igniting a white-hot ball like a miniature sun slowly melting its way into the rock. In spite of himself, Winger felt a moment of pride, having hacked out a quick and dirty configuration for a bot that resisted like a stubborn five-year old when told to clean up his room.

“Doc, you’re amazing…just keep burning and slamming atoms like that. With any luck, we’ll have a navigable tunnel in several hours.”

“Yeah,” said Barnes “and then we can blow this place and get back to our own time.”

Singh did a quick recon and survey of their surroundings. “The cave entrance is sealed with those boulders, Major,” he reported. “We could probably move them but I’m sure that would be noticed. The other direction goes deeper into the bowels of this big volcano and the air and walls are too hot to touch. There are tremors too…we may not be too far from a magma channel. We can’t go that way…if the magma punches through the walls—“

He didn’t have to describe what would happen then.

Lucy Hiroshi waved at the gathering steam clouds that were making their prison almost unbearable. She coughed. “I sure hope Doc hurries up. I don’t think we can take much more of this steam bath.”

 

The tunneling took nearly six hours. By the time Doc reported back by commlink that solid-phase transition zones had been detected ahead—the rock density was dropping off and an outer surface was coming up—the nanotroopers were lying all over the floor of their cave cell, heaving in scalding hot air thick with carbon dioxide and sulfur fumes, gasping and languid in the steaming humidity of the cave.

“Come on,” Winger ordered. “Let’s go…Taj, you first, then you Mite. We’ll sandwich Lucy in the middle and I’ll bring up the rear. Move your asses, troopers!”

One after another, they scrambled head first into the still sizzling glassy tunnel that Doc had burned through the rock layers of the cave. It was like crawling through an endless coffin, head to toe, each trooper bumping his face right into the boots of the one before.

Barnes snorted once she was inside. “Just another day in the Corps…another beautiful day in the neighborhood…anyone for a song? How about ninety-nine ANAD capsules on the wall….”

For many minutes, Winger and his squad grunted and panting, trying to contort themselves into Doc’s tunnel. With effort and a lot of shoving, Winger was able to force Barnes up into the shaft.

“What kind of clearance do you have?”

Barnes 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?”

“The soles of Taj’s boots…and 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 fingers. 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.”

“Right. Just get going. It’s a long way to the outside surface.”

Amen to that, she thought. Maybe a little prayer would help too. She took a deep breath, counted to three and willed herself into motion.

Then she started to climb upward, smacking the side of her head 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 breathing—her eyes were getting pretty fogged up—and the bang and crunch of her head and shoulders scraping along the tunnel walls gave her any sense of motion.

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

Guess I’m going to be a battered old 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 they were. This was worse than that swamp and being underwater. 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 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 ache at the soles of her feet—the climbing, kicking clawing and scraping had made her feet and hands go numb hours ago. They had never been designed for extended action like this.

At least, Doc’s tunnel seemed navigable, if a bit snug. She wondered where Wings was. He had climbed in right after her. Or was he still inside the cave, 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 pulled herself upward, through loose soil…then light…blindingly bright light and before she realized what had happened, she was at the surface, wallowing in deep dust and steaming flakes of ash.

That’s when she heard Lucy Hiroshi’s cry behind her, from somewhere still deep in the tunnel.

A bone-jarring rumble shook the entire mountain. Behind Barnes, a searing wave of heat billowed out of Doc’s tunnel.

“The tunnel…it’s collapsing!” she yelled, scrambling to get away from the blast.

“Magma!” cried Taj Singh. “It breached the tunnel—“

“Lucy—!” Winger yelled.

But there was nothing they could do. A magma tube had violently intruded on the escape tunnel and Hiroshi was trapped.

“Come on!” Winger shouted. Sick with worry over Hiroshi, he commanded the Doc II master bot back into containment, which took a few seconds. The small swarm had been hovering over the tunnel opening when they emerged. When the port on his shoulder capsule slammed shut, he added, “Let’s get out of here—!”

The remaining three troopers were soon caught in a dirt slide and fell cartwheeling down the side of the mountain. They slid hundreds of meters, battered and bruised and scalded by steam and hot, nearly liquid rock, until their slide was halted by a ledge further down. They rested a moment, got their breath, then resumed a more controlled descent, by turns sliding, crawling, rolling and tripping the rest of the way.

They made the ground intact, not without cuts and bruises.

Winger didn’t have to remind them that Kipwezi could blow at any moment.

“Head for the village,” he decided. “There’s nothing we can do for Lucy now.”

They ran for several minutes, slashing and kicking and clawing their way through the huge leafy plants until they were hundreds of meters from the base of the mountain, near the forest itself. Barnes collapsed in a pile at the foot of a wiry pandanus tree, entangling herself in its vines, heaving in great gulps of air. The rest sank to the dirt in exhaustion, staring back at the flanks of Kipwezi, now covered with blood-red rivers of lava.

“What…now…?” coughed Barnes, spitting up dust and ash, which flowed all around them in sizzling clouds of flakes.

Winger found his throat parched so dry he could barely talk. A fine patina of volcanic dust had coated everything, entombing the troopers in a gray residue.

“Yuck!” said Singh, flailing the ash away from his arms and face. He spat and coughed more dust.

Winger was about to suggest they continue on toward the village when a chime sounded in the back of his head. It was Doc, on the coupler link.

***Now detecting big decoherence wake signatures, Base…nearby…heading two one five degrees…large source of quantum disturbance nearby***

Winger told the others about Doc’s report. “Could be another Sphere in or around the village.”

Barnes shook her head. “Jeez, they’re spreading like kudzu, Major. Everywhere we wind up, there’s a Sphere.”

Singh had a theory. “They must have been planted by someone. Maybe another race, extraterrestrials. Maybe that’s how they get around…sort of a quantum railroad.”

Winger said, “We’ve seen intel about Red Hammer somehow being in contact with an off-world race. It’s rather incredible but it fits the facts. It would explain a lot of things. But why have Spheres in all these ancient times and places? I don’t understand that.”

Barnes didn’t care. “Just get me home…that’s all I ask. If there’s a Sphere in that village, I say we go there and use it…maybe we can work it correctly this time…get back to Mesa de Oro…” she eyed the rivers of lava cascading down the sides of Kipwezi. “…anywhere but here.”

Winger agreed. “Mite’s right. Our mission is surveillance but we’ve lost the targets. Protocol says we return to base and report what we’ve found.”

Singh knuckled ash and dust out of his eyes, shaking himself off like a dog. “If there is a Sphere in the village, I’m betting it’s in or around the shaman’s hut. That would make sense, wouldn’t it?”

“About as much sense as anything else around here. Let’s go.”

The three troopers staggered to their feet and pushed on deeper into the forest, finding the tree canopy welcome relief from the volcanic ash and heat. Presently, they could see the clearing ahead, its crude thatched huts veiled in smoke and dust, but the central fire pit drew them on like a homing beacon.

Winger called a halt a few hundred meters away. “I’ve got an idea. It’s a cinch we can’t just walk into the village. We don’t really have any weapons either. But we do have Doc. Suppose I hack out a config that would make the Doc swarm resemble their god Ngai, at least as best we can figure it. There were some emblems inside that hut where we were kept that could be symbols of that god.”

“Yeah, Skipper,” said Barnes, “send Doc in on a recon mission—they’ll never detect him in all this ash and soot—and then make up a swarm to resemble those images we saw. It could work. “

“What are we waiting for?” Singh asked.

Winger sent the commands to the Doc master bot. “Doc…set propulsors for max speed….here’s the heading—“he sent the data to Doc “—and form up a photon lens when you get there. I want to do a little visual recon once you’re inside the village.”

***Setting propulsors for max speed…initializing flagellar thrusters too…configuring for transit ops…maneuvering to commanded heading***

Although no one could see it, the small swarm set off on its mission, lost in the swirling ash and dust. The trip would take at least an hour, even at best speed.

Winger eyed the red glow emanating from atop Kipwezi. “I hope that monster doesn’t blow its top before we can get out of here.”

“Me too,” said Barnes. “If it does, we’ll be flash-fried.”

The Doc swarm sped on toward the village, flying over the top of the field in good order. The Quantum Dawn detachment hunkered down among the leafy plants and slammed down some Q rations as they waited.

Presently, Winger got a chime on his coupler link. Doc was approaching the perimeter of the village and had initiated his photon lens. Winger got a grainy image on his wristpad and studied the scene for a few moments. The other troopers gathered around to watch too.

The village seemed deserted. No one moved across their field of view, though it was clear that the ash fall had already taken a toll. Mounds of the gray flakes were already piling up next to many of the huts.

“That has to be it!’ Singh pointed to one hut near the central fire pit, now dark and barely glowing with blackened embers. “The shaman’s hut…the one with all the figures and statues arrayed around the front.”

“You’re probably right,” Winger said. “Let’s have a closer look at some of these figures.” He sent new maneuvering commands to Doc and the swarm bore in on several carved statues situated just outside the thatched hut.

Each one resembled a gargoyle’s face, half jaguar, half human, with tusks and claws and a spiked tail.

“Looks like a nightmare,” Barnes shivered. “Or like what I see after I eat tacos in the commissary at Mesa de Oro.”

Singh noted the similarities. “Each figure is similar…see? The same face, same claws…just variations on the same image. Maybe that’s their principal god Ngai.”

“Or their idea of what he looks like. I’ll have Doc scan the closest one and replicate from that.”

Scanning proved to be a tedious process, as the Doc swarm enveloped the figure and measured the positions of each and every atom in the top half of the statue. With this huge trove of data, Doc would be able to grab local atom feedstock and replicate at least a ghostly image of the figurine.

While the scanning proceeded, they saw shadowy images of villagers crossing their field of view. It seemed as though their proto-human captors were buttoning up their village, gathering belongings and preparing to evacuate the area.

“Makes sense,” Winger said. “Nobody wants to be around if Kipwezi blows its stack.”

“One thing bothers me about these cave men,” Barnes said. “Clearly, these are pretty primitive people. How is it that cave men like this have MOB nets and other nanobotic systems?”

The same question had bothered Winger. “Mite, the only way I see that could have happened is if somebody gave it to them, gave them the technology and taught them how to use it.”

“So who did that?”

Winger shrugged, keeping a close eye on feedback from Doc. Replicating an image of the god statue would take another hour, perhaps more. “I don‘t know. Maybe the same people who’ve been helping Red Hammer all along.”

“And who’s that?”

“Mite, I don’t have a clue. That’s what we have to find out.”

In time, Doc announced that the replication was done. Through the photon lens, Winger could see the faint outline of a jaguar-human face, glowing and winking as bots slammed final atoms together. Enveloped in the fog of ash, the image made a fearsome sight.

“Let’s go,” Winger ordered. “Grab some of these leaves and make yourselves look frightening.” Winger sent a command to Doc to rendezvous just outside the shaman’s hut.

As the detachment hacked and sliced their way through the dense foliage, coughing in the thickening ash, Singh heard a deep shrieking sound overhead. It wasn’t Kipwezi, though tremors shook the ground every few minutes. Above them, visible in the ash, bright streaks colored the sky.

Meteors!” Singh yelled. “They’re coming down! A meteor storm…and that one’s huge!”

Indeed, as the nanotroopers watched, they counted a handful of smaller objects streaking across the sky, followed by a much larger object, tumbling, shedding pieces of itself, burning bright red and white and hissing as it blazed down through the atmosphere. It was clear that many of them, including the largest fragment, would impact nearby…and soon.

“Come on!” yelled Winger. “To the village!”

They pushed on through the field and burst into the village, yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs. As commanded, Doc was ahead, hovering by the entrance to the shaman’s hut. Winger waved his troops to follow and they took up positions behind and around the grotesque swarm image Doc had replicated.

Two villagers emerged from the hut, one of them the shaman himself. He was dressed in a necklace of jaguar teeth which clicked and clanked as he moved. An ornate feathered headdress capped his head. Seeing the Doc swarm and the troopers decorated with leaves and branches, the shaman froze. His companion fled in terror, and was soon joined by other villagers, stumbling, falling, arms and hands flailing as they screamed and retreated outside the village. They were soon lost in the undergrowth.

“Inside the hut!” Winger motioned. One after another, the troopers ducked inside, while Doc hovered at the entrance, scaring off even more of the villagers.

As Doc had detected, there was a Sphere inside. It had been set on a small table opposite the entrance flaps, mounted in a small basket decorated with feathers and colored stones in an intricate pattern. The Sphere glowed with a faint pearlescent sheen.

“Doc, get in here…let’s analyze this thing before we try to use it!”

As commanded, the Doc master bot maneuvered from its guard position through the entrance flaps of animal hide and bore down on the table of the Sphere. A faintly coruscating mist drifted in and soon hovered beside them.

[_ ***Analyzing target now…this device is similar in appearance to previous devices, in general dimensions and shape...it is an oblate spheroid with outer surface of linked covalent groups showing gaps permeable to select wavelengths of --*** _]

“Doc, I don’t need a description. Can you operate it? Or tell us how to operate it?”

The first distant sonic booms of the meteors rattled the hut which swayed noticeably in the rolling shock waves.

“Hurry, Skipper—“said Barnes.

***Retrieving previous sensor and activity logs…it appears to be a contact quantum device as encountered before…subjects place themselves in physical proximity to the outer surface, which appears to be an entangler system, modifying spacetime so that objects in proximity here are quantum entangled with similar or identical objects remote in space and time…thus entangled, such objects are transferred by unknown means to the location of the remote objects***

“Can it get us home…back to our time and place…back to Mesa de Oro?” Winger asked.

Here, the Doc swarm flared noticeably, as if in considering the question, he had to slam more atoms together to form a thought.

***Unable to compute probability of specified transfer event…quantum systems are inherently unpredictable***

Winger gave up. “I guess we’ll just have to chance it.”

Singh cringed as the first impacts from the meteors slammed into the ground a few kilometers away. The floor of the hut trembled with the shock waves. Feathered masks and headdresses fell from the walls of the hut.

The nanotroopers gathered around the Sphere and glared at the thing with a mixture of dread and anticipation.

“We can’t stay here, Skipper,” said Barnes.

Just then, a terrific BOOM! overhead nearly flatted the hut with a shock wave. Singh chanced a look outside, saw the largest meteor now erupting into a red-white fireball, tumbling, roaring and hissing as it headed down, headed for Earth. Impact was only seconds away.

“In the name of Almighty Vishnu…this is the big one, Major! It’s going to hit in a few seconds…the village, the whole area may be—“

“And the volcano—look!” cried Barnes.

A massive explosion had just blown off the top of Kipwezi. Wreathed in reddened smoke and steam, rivers of white hot magma churned down its slopes, scalding and vaporizing trees, rocks, anything in its path. Through the clouds, it was clear that Kipwezi was no longer a semi-conical mountain, but was now sheared off at the top into a flattened boiling crater, vomiting spouts and geysers of magma as it crumbled down in all directions.

White-hot torrents of scalding magma were coursing through the fields and trees, heading straight for the village of Engebbe.

“Doc, prepare for containment…assume config C-1 immediately!”

The swarm sloughed off most of its replicants and the master bot homed on the shoulder capsule in Winger’s shoulder. Moments later, Doc II transited the open port and drifted down into secure containment. The capsule port snapped shut with a slight sting.

“We’ll need Doc, wherever we wind up.” Winger looked at Barnes and Singh. “We don’t have much choice. This place is done for.”

He mimed with his hands and fingers what they should do. Standing straight over the Sphere was a challenge, with rolling shock waves slamming into the village, flattening everything. Hurricane force winds were building outside and in a great crash, the mud walls and thatched roof of the shaman’s hut collapsed and were quickly blown away. Beyond them, the village had simply disappeared in the winds, leaving only smoldering stones where the central fire pit had once been.

“On my mark…and make sure we touch at the same time!” Winger yelled over the maelstrom.

The nanotroopers each took a breath, flexed their fingers and lowered them as close as they dared to the Sphere’s surface, poised scant millimeters above its glowing curve.

Inside Winger’s shoulder capsule, the Doc II master bot was still computing probabilities on likely transfer locations, given different types of physical contact they could make with the Sphere.

Doc chimed an alert on the coupler link in the back of Winger’s head.

***Base, I have finished one sequence of computations, correlating proximity ops with transfer probabilities…analysis shows that—***

“Three—-“

“Two—-“

“One—“

“Mark!”

As one, the nanotroopers of Quantum Dawn swiped their index fingers across the slightly warm, still glowing surface of the Sphere.

In an instant, they were transported…but to where?

Doc knew the most probable result but the comm link was broken and all of them went hurtling at breakneck speed down a long, curving corridor, flying through a sleet of polygons and triangles and pyramids and tetrahedrals and things they couldn’t name until at long last, they came to a teeth-rattling, bone-crunching stop right on their butts and the universe was still spinning for a long time afterward before it finally began to slow down…

They knew they weren’t at Kipwezi anymore.

Or at Engebbe village.

Or at the swamp….

Only Doc had the vaguest idea of where they had gone.

 

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 “Doc II.” Available on February 20, 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 19: Mount Kipwezi

Episode 19, Nanotroopers. The Red Hammer cartel has discovered another Sphere, a quantum device that can transport the user to other times and places, at a Mayan archeological dig site in Mexico. Cartel agent Erika Volk plans to present an idea to the cartel’s Ruling Council to equip an expedition to go wherever the Sphere takes them, grab alien nanobotic technology there and bring it back to be reverse-engineered, giving the cartel a potentially decisive advantage over Quantum Corps. But the Corps is aware of the plan and follows the cartel expedition to a time and place before Life began…a different early Earth in the process of being seeded with ancient virus-like nanobotic life. Through a series of adventures and near brushes with catastrophe, the nanotroopers attempt to prevent Red Hammer from seizing samples of the ancient bots, only to find themselves trapped in time, threatened by strange hominid creatures who wield spears and nanobots with equal ability. Only Major John Winger can stop the cartel, but to stop them, they have to keep up with their targets…and ultimately fight off menaces beyond even Red Hammer.

  • ISBN: 9781370583867
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2017-01-27 14:35:11
  • Words: 25418
Nanotroopers Episode 19: Mount Kipwezi Nanotroopers Episode 19: Mount Kipwezi