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Nanotroopers Episode 21: Paryang Monastery

Nanotroopers

Episode 21: Paryang Monastery

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

State of Being”

 

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”

Buddha

 

 

Place: Unknown

Time: Unknown

 

As a young child, Johnny Winger had always loved taking a bath. Lots of words could describe the feeling: security, serenity, safety, warmth, cocoon. Not words a three-year old would use, but you get the idea.

Thoughts like these and others came to Johnny Winger. He was a little disoriented.

Where am I? What is this?

He remembered being disassembled by Doc II…Config Zero was there…the cave…the brilliant light….

He decided to open a coupler link to Doc II.

***We were inside Config Zero, Johnny…you have been de-constructed…I stored your identity and memory patterns in a small file called ‘Configuration Buffer Status Check.’ Just a few extra bytes***

Doc, is that really you? Is this really me?

***It is…the capture process was successful, although there may have been data dropouts…too early to tell. Johnny…we must keep this link closed…I don’t know if Config Zero can detect us, but it is best to be cautious***

Okay, Doc…just trying to make some sense of all this. Flashes of memory came trickling back…Mighty Mite Barnes…the cave…the flames….

Now the coupler link was dead and Doc II was probably right. Somebody else might be listening.

Maybe taking a warm bath as a three-year old wasn’t the best way to describe being a few atoms in a larger swarm. Try this: buried under the covers on a cold winter morning. No? How about stumbling about in a darkened bedroom trying to find your slippers? Or: getting separated from your Mom and Dad on the boardwalk at Daytona Beach for three hours, with all the panic and frantic worry. Or: locked in a closet by your big sister, fumbling around with jackets and coat hangers.

Johnny Winger decided to try a more logical approach to figuring this out.

I think, therefore I am. At least, he thought he was thinking. I have a mind. I have thoughts. But there was more. Something more than his thoughts. Was somebody else in here? That was ridiculous.

I have sensations. Hot, cold, hard, soft. Try to analyze this.

A snatch of memory came to him: Personal identity is the unique identity of a person existing through time. That is to say, the necessary and sufficient conditions under which a person at one time and a person at another time can be said to be the same person, persisting through time. In the modern philosophy of mind, this concept of personal identity is referred to as the diachronic problem of personal identity. The synchronic problem is grounded in the question of what features or traits characterize a given person at one time.

Where the hell did that come from? I must have read that.

Now, he was sure of it. There was someone else in here. Just a snatch of voice, a snippet—

***Do you recognize me?***

Recognize you? I can barely hear you. Yet, there was something—

An image came to mind. It was fuzzy at first, but with effort, it sharpened. It was a man, an elderly man with a fritz of white hair on the back of his head, rumpled and patched corduroy jacket, hardly-ever-washed jeans.

Doc Frost.

***Hello, Johnny…it’s nice to see you again…pardon me for saying so, but you seem a little confused***

Hey, Doc…am I? Am I…you know…?

Doc Frost smiled, that same avuncular smile. *** You’re wondering if this is what it feels like…to be an angel…to be part of something greater***

Actually, I was…well, yeah…I guess I was sort of wondering that. I thought it would be like being inside a cloud. Or maybe a tornado.

Again the smile, this time even wider.

***It’s a transition phase, that’s all. Meant to make the change easier. There are many reports about what it’s like to be an angel…we’ve archived all of them. And we use them for others, those who are new to the experience***

So, I’m actually an angel…wow…what do others say about all this?

***_Some reports describe feelings of a kind of warmth, or a closeness, affection, even a form of love, a family or sense of belonging, in a way or at a level they never experienced before, as humans, as Normals***_

Yeah, Doc, I do feel some of that. Are these normal feelings?

Doc Frost scrunched up his face, thinking. *** Well, to be honest, Johnny, feelings and emotions are different here. Feelings are programmed in and allotted processor capacity. You know the Central Entity runs all these routines, just as a way of keeping the mother swarm together. Social cohesion, just like a tribe or a clan, is just as important for an angel swarm of bots as for any family of Normals. Just like your family***

So, Doc, will I…always be like this? Can I go places, do things, be other people or things? I’ve heard—

Doc Frost held up a hand. ***You’ve got lots of questions, Johnny…I think I can answer most of them, but first I have some instructions for you***

Instructions? What kind of instructions?

Doc Frost seemed to fade slightly, as if a faint mist had drifted between them. The outline of the Doc was still there, just less distinct.

***You’re taking a little trip, Johnny. Back home. That’s why your patterns have been maintained. You’re going into the Net, you can do that now. You’ve got a special mission…a very important mission***

A mission…what kind of mission? Am I a trooper again?

***In a way…you’re going to help defend the Net…Johnny, bad things are happening there. The Central Entity needs the Net…think of it as a nursery, a breeding ground for your brothers and sisters…all angels. They’ve come from a long way and they need the Net to do their job***

But the Net is just a network of computers…links…software….

Now, the Doc Frost image turned stern, its eyes narrowing and the corners of its mouth turning down. *** Johnny, there are grave threats to the Prime Key, coming from the Net, coming from the node where you will be sent…you’re needed to defend this node…many of your brothers and sisters are themselves on a special mission…***

Johnny Winger listened carefully to what Doc Frost was saying. He knew the Prime Key was the master algorithm. It drove everything. He readily agreed to what Doc Frost…or what he imagined was Doc Frost…was saying. How could he not? That’s what it meant to be an angel…the greater good drove everything.

But this seemed different. Though he was compelled to follow Doc Frost’s directives…no angel could say no…he knew there was another mission, unspoken of by Doc Frost. He wanted to link up with Doc II but he was afraid the link would be discovered.

He was here to serve the mother swarm but a small part of him understood that the other mission was just as vital…to learn what he could about the Old Ones, gather intelligence and somehow get that intelligence to the Normals…so the blasted thing could be defeated.

It was a struggle between the two missions…serving the mother swarm and gathering intelligence needed to defeat that very same mother swarm. Espionage was like that. Mata Hari and all that. Serving two masters. Slicing yourself ever more finely to feed the appetites of two worlds, hoping and praying that the two worlds would never meet and annihilate each other, like particle and anti-particle.

Somehow, Doc II had been able to deconstruct him and allow him to be absorbed into the Config Zero, yet preserve the essence of what he was, his identity, his memories. Now it was coming back to him…maybe Doc II was letting him draw on that innocuous little file where his memory patterns had been stored.

The basic objective of defeating Config Zero and ultimately the Old Ones was still there, still intact, though he knew now it would be in constant danger from competing directives from the mother swarm. Directives inherent in the program that was now running in his head…in his body…in his everything.

Which side would win out? Even Johnny Winger couldn’t answer that. Execute the Prime Key. Smash the bejeezus out of the Prime Key. Those were his options. There was no middle ground. But somehow, he had to find a way.

He felt himself moving, moving physically. It brought back a memory…riding the Wicked Witch on the boardwalk at Daytona. Jerks and rolls and snap turns…his neck had been sore for hours. Or maybe it was like when he got to ride in a real race car at Talladega…some kind of Fans Day on the speedway and you just about threw up because the fences were flashing by so fast.

No, that wasn’t quite it either. This was different. But he decided to relax and let this odd sense of motion come to him…what else could you do? When a pitcher threw a baseball, the atoms that made up the baseball didn’t have a debate about where to go.

The entity that had once been known as Johnny Winger would soon be traveling around the Earth, as part of a greater swarm. When you were an angel, you could do things like that. More to the point, a new angel body would be replicated. Johnny Winger would take form again, looking almost like the original.

Almost.

 

 

 

Mesa de Oro

Yucatan State, Mexico

November 21, 2049

1430 hours (U.T.)

 

Mighty Mite Barnes was the sole survivor of the Quantum Shadow mission team and achieving that distinction hadn’t been easy. With General Kincade and Major Lofton of Q2 looking on, Barnes recounted what had happened at the Paryang Monastery and how she had gotten away.

“After I escaped from the monastery,” she related, “I used the biomorphing bots I still had left. I hid in a supply truck that went up to Llasa, Tibet…nearly froze my butt off. Then, with the bots, I was able to look like a PLA officer and get a rail pass to Beijing. From there, I became a Malaysian businesswoman and got a flight to Kuala Lumpur. After that, Mexico City…and here I am.”

General Kincade had sparse sandy hair and a sandy bush of a moustache. He glared back at Barnes. “Sergeant, I’m glad you made it back but what you and Major Winger and Corporal Singh did was dangerous, illegal, against regulations and really pretty stupid. You could have set off an international incident with the Chinese…or worse.”

Lofton was more intrigued with what had ostensibly happened to Johnny Winger. “Sergeant, can I see that capsule again?”

Barnes pulled out the containment capsule she had used to snag what was left of Winger at Paryang. “I don’t know what’s in there, Major. Major Winger was consumed by that big swarm…Configuration Zero, I guess. He let himself be swarmed…it was voluntary…I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I swiped that capsule through the edge of the swarm and hoped to hell I grabbed enough of what was left…” Barnes shuddered at the memory. “It was bad, General…”

Kincade growled, “Sergeant, you could have died…for nothing.”

Lofton said, “Maybe not, sir…the Sergeant should be extensively debriefed…maybe even memory traced. There must a lot of intel inside that head. Plus I’m curious to know just what’s inside this capsule.” He took the capsule from Barnes, examined it end for end, and handed it to the base commander.

Kincade scowled at the thing. “Major Winger…inside this thing? Preposterous.”

Lofton just shook his head. “All these years, we figured Red Hammer was just another Chinese criminal gang, growing up out of the tong or some other secret society. You know, they grow like weeds in the Pearl River delta. Now—the whole thing is nothing but a front. A façade. Think of it: a cartel running scope and twist and fab operations around the world and the whole organization is controlled by some kind of extraterrestrial race of Bugs. An advance team for these Old Folks.”

“Old Ones,” Barnes corrected him.

“Right. Config Zero is head of this advance team and Red Hammer is nothing but a tool to prepare the way.” Lofton half-smiled. “It boggles what’s left of my mind.”

Kincade put the capsule down on his desk with exaggerated care, as if it might explode in his face. “Barnes, you’ll be facing serious disciplinary action for this little adventure of yours.”

“Yes, sir—“ Barnes’ face was glum.

“And Major Winger, too. Corporal Singh…we’ll give him a decent memorial service. Now, let’s go over to Containment and see what this doodad really contains.”

The Containment center was a dome-shaped bunker-like structure at the south end of the base, tucked in between the Training/Sim complex and Kraft Field, the parade ground.

Kincade, Lofton and Barnes cycled through the locks and scanned in through five levels of biometrics before entering Containment Cell 1, where several techs were already waiting to discharge the capsule into secure containment. The senior tech was a Sergeant Givens, balding and bespectacled, with a pencil moustache and a nervous tic to his lips.

Givens screwed the capsule into the loading port and opened the seal. Whatever was inside the capsule was then pulled into the tank by low pressure air and firmly contained. Outside the tank, as a safety measure, the electron beam guns were initialized and primed. If anything went wrong, the guns would rake the containment tank with millions of electron volts in seconds.

Givens warmed up the quark imager and a grainy view soon materialized on the display. A trellis-like scaffolding dominated the center of the view. Closer resolution produced a small dark patch clinging to the scaffolding…”a few bots,” Givens murmured. “Let’s check ‘em out.”

Kincade scowled at the image. “That’s Major Winger? Sorry, I’m having a hard time with the idea.”

Givens had an associate tech whose nameplate read Yang. She had close-cropped black hair and a porcelain face. “Sergeant, there’s something else there…I’m reading high thermals and electromagnetics along one edge…there—“ she pointed to a thicker patch of dark. “Increasing resolution to four hundred—“

The image shifted again, grew fuzzy, then with startling clarity, a small cluster of nanobots came into sharper view. They bore the diamondoid casing and effector and propulsor layout of obvious ANAD clones.

Barnes snapped her fingers. “Doc II! That has to be what that is. I must have grabbed him too when I swiped my capsule through the swarm.”

Givens said, “I’ll try the coupler…see if we can get anything.”

Moments later, a thin, whiny synthetic voice issued from the console speaker.

***Base…please reduce imager resolution and shift your boresight off axis…I’m being hammered down here. Recommend resolution at two hundred maximum. And could you adjust state conditions, while you’re at it…it’s brutal in this tank***

Givens and Yang made adjustments to bring conditions inside containment to a stable state suitable for Doc II. They also learned that Doc was cradling a few bot fragments in his grabbers.

***Yes, Base, these fragments are Major Winger…the master bot I helped create when Config Zero overwhelmed us. Check my registers. You’ll find a file labeled Configuration Buffer Status Check. All bond geometries and energy state data for Major Winger is in this file***

Kincade was having a hard time with the idea. “You mean to tell me that Major John Winger has been reduced to a file and a few pieces of nanobotic debris?”

Mighty Mite Barnes related how Winger had voluntarily allowed himself to be deconstructed by Doc II, as a way of surviving Config Zero’s onslaught and finding new life as a saboteur inside the mother swarm. “He gave himself up, sir, for a greater mission in the future. If Doc says he’s got the Major inside that file, with bot fragments in his grabbers, that’s good enough for me. Now we just have to find out how to get the Major back.”

Lofton was skeptical. “You mean like grow a new one? Grow another Major Johnny Winger? Is that even possible? That’s insane.”

Givens spoke up. “It may be possible, sir. There’s an engineer…a Dr. Ryne Falkland at Northgate…who’s been working on reconstituting people who’ve gone through Assimilationist booths…been deconstructed into atoms. You know…so they could be taken up when the Mother Swarm arrives…all that baloney. He might have some ideas.”

Lofton looked at General Kincade. “Sir, I recommend we contact this Falkland and bring him to the Mesa immediately. If he could somehow re-grow…is that even the right word?—Johnny Winger and make him some kind of angel, able to change configurations like we do with ANAD now, we’d have the greatest spy and saboteur ever created.”

Kincade chewed on the idea, along with the ends of his moustache. “If it gives us a chance to destroy or neutralize Red Hammer and their benefactors, I think we don’t have a choice, do we? Get started.”

 

Dr. Ryne Falkland peered at the monitor, watching as Dr. Brad Winger shifted and situated himself to be more comfortable inside the Configuration Scanner.

“All comfy in there?” he asked.

Winger was dressed in a light gown, covered in wires and pads. “This is how I want to spend my vacation, Doc. All wired up and crammed in a tunnel. Hope you’re not planning on disassembling this creaky old body. Let’s get going.”

“Very well.” Falkland pressed a few keys and the medbot whirred up to Winger’s bed, a syringe extended and its effectors brought the needle into contact with an IV stent. “Here goes….” He pressed one button. The medbot responded by loading the IV tube with anesthetic. In seconds, Falkland could see Winger’s eyes flutter shut. EEG and EKG showed him deeply under in less than a minute. Now the fun begins, he told himself. Five hours of it.

Upon arriving at Mesa de Oro and going over the procedure with General Kincade and Major Lofton, Falkland had advised the officers that the procedure required a genetic and structural match, someone with the same DNA and phenotype. “The scanner works better if we can get as close a match as possible,” he had explained. Kincade had studied Johnny Winger’s file and his brother Brad, now an MD in Washington, DC seemed the best choice. Dr. Brad Winger was contacted by officers of Quantum Corps in his Bethesda home and, after some discussion as to why this was necessary, had agreed to fly down to the Mesa and be a genetic template for Dr. Falkland’s little experiment. For that’s what it really was…an experiment.

Falkland studied the readouts on Brad Winger closely. The subject needed to be well under and moving into Stage III sleep, completely immobilized, for some four to five hours, in order for the scan to be good. If all went well, the new Config Scanner would detect and build a detailed image of its subject’s atomic configuration, including atomic species, bond energies and bond geometry. This massive database, once populated, was the core of the config driver and engine, the device which would later grab atoms from feedstock to re-construct the original pattern. That pattern would then be loaded with the files Doc II had formed when Johnny Winger had been deconstructed.

That was the plan.

Falkland had tweaked and adjusted this scanner and config engine over the last few months to a point where he could now routinely disassemble small animals and more or less reconstruct them into a nearly exact likeness of the original. Not that there weren’t occasional hiccups, as had happened with his two dogs, Jiggs and Simon. But that’s how Science advanced, in fits and starts, three steps forward and two steps back.

To do this with organic matter or living creatures was in fact a stunning achievement, if not yet fully appreciated, due to UNIFORCE security restrictions. Never before, in the ten year history of nanobotic technology, had anyone been able to do this. Of course, since his earlier subjects had been animals, nobody knew if they really were like the originals…the principle of Continuity of Consciousness had clearly been violated and the reconstructed animals might have been just extremely realistic simulations, commonly called angels, and not the real thing.

That’s why a human subject was needed. That’s why this was really still an experiment.

Falkland was sure this technique, using an imposed memory field on raw atomic matter, would give him a good pattern on the original Johnny Winger. He’d recommended that close relatives, preferably more than one, let themselves be scanned. Then with some tweaks and adjustments to the database that he accumulated, he was sure he could get pretty close to the original pattern…blending genomic data from the original scans with the pattern data and sort of averaging out the data should, he theorized, provide a good foundation pattern to reconstruct Johnny Winger.

Of course, it would then be necessary to load Winger’s basic personality and memory, the very things Doc II had captured in the Configuration Buffer Status Check file. The patterns Mighty Mite Barnes had hopefully swiped when she’d fled the council chamber at Paryang.

Not even Ryne Falkland would hazard a guess as to what would happen then.

For the next four hours and forty two minutes, Falkland’s config scanner did its job, methodically scanning and recording the position of every atom and molecule that composed Dr. Brad Winger. Absolute immobility was critical. After Winger was fully under, the medbot secured the cardiologist tightly in his bed and closely monitored the snoring form for any sign of out- of-tolerance motions, intervening quickly whenever Winger tried to move or shift or fidget in the bed.

It was a tense, nerve-wracking time and Falkland was relieved when the chime sounded gently, signaling the end of the scan. He checked the database and found it populated with exabyte after exabyte of scan data. Routine integrity checks determined that the data was clean, within tolerances and fully useable.

It was time to wake Dr. Winger up.

 

“Both scans went extremely well,” Falkland reported to Kincade. A medbot accompanied Falkland into the recovery room and busied itself checking monitors, IV attachments, medicine quantities and the bedding. It clucked like a disapproving maid at the covers lying askew on Winger’s bed and proceeded to straighten them out. “The data look clean and well behaved. All I have now is two days of analysis and reformatting and I can load the pattern buffer. I’ll have a new, sort of composite memory field, and I’ll be ready to impose that on Major Winger’s structure.”

Brad Winger sat up and accepted a cup of something from the bot. It tasted brassy but went down smooth. “I’d like to see him. I haven’t seen Johnny since his nog days at the Academy.”

Falkland studied the medbot’s report screen, sucking at his lower lip as he went over their vitals. “In another hour or so. You need a little more recovery time…and more fluids. I’ll have Betty here bring in a tray for you.”

The bot followed Falkland out like a loyal pet and the door was shut. Winger finished off the liquid and decided he needed to lie down again.

 

 

 

Technicians brought ‘Johnny Winger’ into the chamber in a small pod, well secured with MOB capability and electron beam injectors, in case anything went wrong. Falkland looked over the pod, then fastened it to some scaffolding inside the containment chamber. He exited the chamber and dogged the hatch shut. Then he ran a sweep, just to make sure all security systems were armed and ready.

Falkland did a quick scan of his board. “I think we’re ready. Here goes—“he pressed a single red button, unsealing the pod inside the chamber.

For a few moments, nothing changed. Then a faint mist-like smoke began to appear, issuing in a steady stream from the side of the pod. The mist sparkled like dust motes in strong sunlight. Winger knew the master assembler had been released and was executing its basic instruction set, replicating structure, slamming atoms like some mad brickmason, hopefully re-building Johnny Winger atom by atom, molecule by molecule, according to the scan pattern. One wag had called it like being conceived and born again, but at hyperspeed.

Johnny Winger gradually took shape before their eyes. First his head gained form, then his shoulders, with the blond buzzcut assembling right in front of them. Winger had always loved short hair.

Brad Winger shivered in spite of the pixelated creature taking shape before his eyes. Somehow this wasn’t right. It had never been right. And I’m not sure a hotshot whizbang new memory field will ever make it right.

The entire process took about five minutes. Brad Winger looked through the porthole, along with General Kincade. To all outward appearances, the thing inside was Johnny Winger. It had the buzzcut. It had the blue eyes. The crooked grin and the mole beside the nose. Dimples. High cheeks. Kincade felt a chill travel down his spine. An exact replica.

But still a replica.

Kincade found that Falkland had rigged up a system to communicate with the subject. “How do you feel, son?”

“Like I want out of here. Can I get out?”

Even the voice tugged at Kincade’s heartstrings. It had the same timber. The same huskiness. He told himself that he wasn’t real. Couldn’t be real. Yet Falkland had assured them he could make Winger more real than ever.

“Major, you’ve got to stay in there awhile longer. Dr. Falkland here—“ he stopped, unable to finish.

The Winger-thing twisted on its seat, rubbed at its eyes. Every motion seemed real. No edge effects. No blurring and smearing or translucence of the hands. Solid tracking everywhere…Johnny seemed more real than ever. Maybe it was hope. Maybe wishful thinking.

Dr. Brad Winger just stared at the scene, saying nothing. To see his own brother like this come back from the dead, after all the messages, after all the phone calls….

Johnny got up from the seat and came over to the porthole. He pressed a hand against the cover. Faint sparkles could be seen in his palm, almost as if you could look through it if you tried hard enough. Like stars in a nighttime sky, seen through your fingers. No veins, no palm lines, no blemishes. Just little sparkles.

“He looks so real,” Brad said. “I could just reach through and touch him.”

“Have you changed the config, Doc? Or is there something in the containment chamber?”

 

“This containment system has filters. That may be what you’re seeing…some filtering of the config as it executes. I haven’t run the pattern buffer at all.”

“How long is this going to take?” Brad Winger asked. He wanted to reach through the porthole too and hold his brother. That’s not Johnny in there, he told himself. That’s not Johnny.

Falkland gave that some thought. “The database is full. There’s a lot of data to massage. I’ve got to put all that data through some filtering of its own. Then I have some transformations and conversions to perform, to setup up things in the right format for the pattern buffer…the memory field. It’ll be a day or two. Then I load the pattern buffer with the revised configuration and see what happens.” Falkland gave them a brave smile. “I’m sure we can make your brother almost as good as new.”

“Almost,” Brad said back. He looked over at General Kincade.

“We have to try, Dr. Winger. We have to give it a try. It’s critical to UNIFORCE.”

It was the uncertainty of it all that bothered Brad most. Not knowing. No way to be sure. Was it even worth the effort?

“I suppose you’re right. But that’s not Johnny in there. That’s not my brother.”

Falkland wasn’t sure which would be harder: getting the new configuration right or getting the others to accept the new configuration. The memory field needed a human test…of that, he was sure. It couldn’t be proven to UNIFORCE standards without the data from a human test. There was no chance of defeating Red Hammer if he couldn’t prove he could re-assemble a deconstructed human being.

Jiggs and Simon had been a hell of a lot easier to deal with than this.

 

Dr. Ryne Falkland spent the next two days massaging config scan data, using multiple interview sessions with Brad Winger, to fill in gaps in the scan and make a more accurate representation of what brother Johnny had been like. The next step was to put the Config Engine to work with this digital model of Johnny and see what it could create.

He had warned General Kincade, along with Brad, that multiple iterations might be needed. Someone had mentioned Frankenstein as a crude analog of what they were trying to do.

 

The big day came and Brad Winger gathered with Kincade and Dr. Falkland outside the containment chamber. Inside the chamber, a small bed had been placed, for Johnny to lie on when ‘he’ was fully assembled and formed. Just in case, electron beam injectors were primed and ready.

“We can’t violate safety protocols, even in this situation,” Falkland explained.

Kincade rubbed his sandy moustache nervously. He glanced over at Brad Winger. “I’m not quite sure how to feel about all this.”

Brad Winger nodded. “A mixture, I think. Something between fear, anticipation, anxiety and hope. A cocktail. Shaken not stirred.”

Kincade was doubtful but said nothing, while Falkland scanned his board and made some adjustments. “I’ve got the Config Engine loaded now. From the scans we did of you before, we have lots of data. I had a quite a time massaging and tweaking and converting all that data, trying to get something clean. You don’t know it, but I’ve already run some tests…yesterday. Things looked promising.”

Kincade was curious. “What kind of tests, Doc?”

 

Falkland was reluctant to go into details now. Clients were sometimes sensitive about these matters. “Oh, just little tests. I extracted some of the data and ran it through the Config Engine…you know, assembling small things, simple structures.”

“Of Major Winger? What kind of simple structures?”

“It was just a test—“

“What kind of structures, Doc?” Kincade asked, a little more firmly.

Falkland shrugged, went back to his instruments. “A finger here, a hand there. Really, it went well.”

Kincade nearly choked. “A finger? You assembled one of the fingers? And a hand? What are—“

Brad Winger cut in. “What happened?”

“The test went fine. The Config Engine performed as expected. I examined the…er, the structures and found them well formed, molecularly correct, consistent with the templates from your data. It was…what can I say?…a finger.”

“And a hand.”

“Exactly.”

“What did you do with them?”

Falkland looked surprised. Sometimes, he figured it was better if the clients didn’t know all the details. People reacted differently. “I let it go. That is, the Config Engine broke them down, disassembled them. Back into feedstock.”

Winger swallowed hard. Maybe Kincade was right. Normal families shouldn’t be able to just conjure up limbs and fingers of their loved ones. But then again, since nanobotic assemblers had been invented, maybe they could. It was all very confusing.

“Okay, Doc…I guess we really didn’t need to hear about that. What’s next?”

Falkland turned back to his control station. “Next is releasing the feedstock into the chamber.” He pressed a few buttons and on the monitor, a faint mist began issuing from a row of ports. The chamber quickly filled with the mist. “Just raw stock. A bunch of atoms and molecules…standard stuff…oxygens, irons, phosphorous and nitrogens…you name it. Ingredients for the cook….” Immediately he wished he hadn’t said that. Every client reacted differently. And this one was base commander at Mesa de Oro.

The filling took about three minutes. “All the templates of Johnny are loaded in the Config Engine now. When the previous…uh, version of Brad was scanned and disassembled, I took a memory field map of all those atoms in structure, combined it with similar data scanned from you the second time, and created these templates. We should be able to put together a new Johnny, better than ever.”

Kincade just shook his head. “This is just creepy, Doc, hearing one of my troopers talked about like this. Get on with it—“

“Of course.” Falkland pressed a few more buttons.

Inside the containment chamber, the master assembler had just been released. The master was a nanobotic device that orchestrated assembly of feedstock atoms and molecules into whatever structures were contained in the template.

The monitor showed a mist filling the chamber, like an early morning fog, only this mist sparkled as if a billion fireflies were embedded. The mist thickened until the bed was lost to view. Minutes passed. Falkland followed his instruments, adjusting the Config Engine on the fly.

 

“Threshold density,” he announced. “Memory field steady….all parameters in the green.”

The first hint of structure emerged from the fog, in the form of a faint, translucent, almost ghostly hand, alongside the edge of the bed. Fluctuations in the fog caused more structure to become intermittently visible: several fingers, part of a forearm, a brief glimpse of a knee. From these structures, Kincade and Brad Winger both silently estimated where Johnny’s head and face should be. But nothing was visible yet.

More minutes passed. Then, Brad gasped softly. He pointed.

The barest outlines of a face materialized into view, slipping in and out of the fog like a wraith. There was the upturned nose, the same mole beside his nose. And the lips—

“It’s him!” Brad breathed.

“I see it, son…I see it.” Kincade watched in amazement as more and more structure came into view. From everything he could see, it was Johnny Winger. He knew how the technology worked. He understood how assemblers slammed atoms together according to a template. He’d designed and ran more configs than Falkland had ever dreamed about. But this…this was different.

The thing seemed as real as Brad Winger standing next to him.

Falkland watched the monitor and his instruments carefully, making some minor adjustments. “Config still stable. No alarms…no issues. He’s coming in beautifully. Everything within tolerances, right in the middle of the band. I’m adding more feedstock… we’re approaching minimum density….what do you think, Dr. Winger, General?”

Brad Winger let his eyes play across the prostrate form of his brother, inside the containment chamber. Part of his mind told him this couldn’t be Johnny…it was a sim, a near-perfect likeness, but still a likeness. But his own feelings and Kincade’s reactions overruled that hard logic and he felt a lump in the back of his throat. It couldn’t be Johnny.

But it was Johnny.

To keep control of himself, Brad focused on the instruments, on the swarm inside the vault, on critiquing the process, on config stability, anything to smother all those feelings that were bubbling up.

“How long, Doc?”

Falkland studied the board, watched as more and more of Johnny emerged from the mist into solid structure. “Well, scans are showing about sixty-five percent complete. This should be done in about two more hours. After we reach target density, I’ve got to run some tests. See how stable the config is. Make sure the pattern buffers are cleared out. And we’ll spot check the config against the original memory field. Plus there’s still loading from the file Doc II made…neural patterns of memory and personality. That’ll be another hour.”

“This is unreal,” Brad said. “He looks so lifelike. I just want to get in there and hug him to death.”

 

By mid-afternoon, Falkland pronounced himself satisfied. Looking through the portholes of the containment chamber, Johnny Winger was lying on his side on the bed, seemingly asleep. He seemed to be breathing; his chest rose and fell with a rhythmic pattern. Brad Winger knew full well that it was part of the config, in effect, a breathing simulation program was running on the main processor. But the physical impression was so real, it was so easy to imagine—

“I think it’s safe to let him out now,” Falkland decided. “The loading from Doc II’s file seems to have gone okay…I’m not detecting any anomalies so far.” He enjoyed the look of anticipation on Brad Winger’s face. He also took a quick peek at the electron beam injectors, just in case. Angels sometimes developed glitches and hiccups in their program during assembly. It happened. You couldn’t take too many chances. “I’m shutting down security systems. Latches coming un-done.” A few clicks, pops and squeaks sounded at the hatch. Then a hiss, as pressures equalized. Falkland went over and dogged the hatch open.

Winger pushed past him with Kincade right on his heels. Brad could hardly believe his eyes.

His brother was sitting up in the bed, looking around. It was Johnny, in every way he could tell…the same blond buzzcut, the same blue eyes, angular cheeks, the mole by his lips. Except….

When Johnny reached up to brush back a lock of hair, the tips of his fingers sparkled and flashed, as the bots didn’t quite track accurately. A faint trail of light swirled across his face.

Falkland cleared his throat, a bit embarrassed. “I can fix that…just some tweaks to the algorithms.”

Kincade came up. “How do you feel now, son?”

Johnny Winger shrugged, jammed his hands under the covers. “Maybe a bit spacey, General. Like I’m not all quite here.”

“Well said, son…well said. Dr. Falkland, is he up to a little walk? We’ve got a mission to lay out and I need his knowledge from Paryang.”

Falkland studied a portable scanner in his hands, probing the instrument up and down the length of the angel. “I don’t see why not. Give me five minutes to adjust some things and I’ll do a limited release…Sergeant Givens can go with him…just in case.”

Falkland spent the next five minutes, after shooing everyone else out of the room, modifying the replication routines in Johnny’s master processor. “It’ll smooth out some of the jerkiness, Major. Your core is solid, but some of your extremities aren’t tracking smoothly.”

Winger lay back on his pillow, trying to put into words what it felt like, to be an angel.

“It’s like floating in a warm bath, Doc. I really don’t feel anything.”

“It’s all in your basic algorithms, Johnny. We’ve spent weeks trying to get those right.”

Shortly after two in the afternoon, Falkland authorized the Johnny Winger angel for release. Sergeant Ed Givens, one of the containment techs, would accompany him. Givens carried a portal config generator to change and adjust Johnny on the fly. He also carried a concealed HERF side arm, just in case.

On his way out, Johnny met up with his brother Brad. Brad leaned forward as if to hug, then thought better of it.

“J, you look like a ghost, if you don’t mind my saying so. I can almost see right through you.”

“Where have I heard that before, Brad? But thanks for coming…I guess for once I can say you made me what I am today.”

“Yeah…half there and half not. J, I don’t really know what to say. I’m glad you got back. Glad you’re alive…you are alive, aren’t you? What are you, like a shadow of your former self?”

And so it went, banter and cuts and quips, until both brothers grabbed each other by the shoulders.

Brad said, “Never thought I’d have an angel for a bro.”

“Dr. Falkland says I can be anything I want. Betcha can’t say that, huh? Dad always used to say that to us.”

They gave each other a sort of half-hug, the way brothers do. Then Brad left.

Kincade met Johnny Winger in the lobby. Givens was right behind him.

“Walk with me up to Ops, Major. I’m meeting with Lofton at 1600 hours. We’ve got a mission to put together.”

They left and headed out into late afternoon clouds, boiling up from the southeast. There was a smell of rain in the air and lightning already veined gray-black clouds beyond the Mesa. The deluge wouldn’t be long in coming.

As they strolled up the pebbled walkway between Containment and the geoplane hangar, Kincade took note of how troopers and pedestrians inevitably saluted the General and then gave them a wide berth, trying to study the Winger angel without seeming too obvious about it. Occasional quips and mutters came on the breeze.

“—looks like a ghost—“

“Is that really the Major?”

“What the hell are they thinking in there—?”

A pair of troopers who had been jogging around the track at Kraft Field came up. It turned out to Mighty Mite Barnes and Taj Singh. They saluted Kincade, then fell in with the group.

“Major, how do you feel, sir?” Barnes asked. She wore a gray sweatsuit with a headband around her forehead. The headband twinkled with lights, recording all her bio readings as she jogged.

Winger walked on as if nothing had changed. “Actually, I feel fine, Mite.” What do you want me to say: that I’m half here? I just a fraction of what I used to be? I’m not the person I once was? Brad had been full of quips and Johnny Winger knew he’d hear a hundred more before the day was out. “Really, I do feel okay. Just treat me like normal, like any other nanotrooper.”

Taj studied Winger’s configuration control with a critical eye. “Skipper, you’re tracking pretty well, from what I can see. No latency I can detect. Does it feel solid to you, sir?”

Winger wanted to punch him. “As solid as you feel, Taj. Really, guys, give it a rest. The General says we’ve got a mission to put together. That’s what’s important.”

“Indeed,” Kincade cut in. “I want you two along as well. See me in my office at 1600 hours.”

“Yes, sir,” Barnes and Singh saluted in unison. They jogged off to resume their run around the Mesa, turning back from time to time to stare at Winger as he made his way up to Ops.

 

In Kincade’s office, Major Lofton was firm on what their goal should be.

“I don’t see any way to permanently sever the link between this Config Zero character and his offworld friends than to create some kind of malware, a virus of sorts, and find a way to insert it into his master processor. He is a swarm of Bugs, is he not?”

Winger agreed. The commanding officer of 1st Nano was seated across from Kincade and Lofton, along with Mighty Mite Barnes and Taj Singh. Reconsat views of Paryang danced in 3D on a pedestal on Kincade’s desk.

“Do we know where his master processor is?”

Lofton sniffed. “I was hoping that you could shed some light on that, Major. You were there, along with your troopers.”

“We were in some kind of space,” Barnes related. “Mostly projected, so I don’t know what was real and what wasn’t. Config Zero’s a swarm of bots, I’m sure of that. But it showed itself in a variety of disguises.”

“Sure,” added Singh. “One minute, it’s configged like a Hindu priest. Then, it turns into a Buddhist rinpoche. It stands to reason that the processor is somewhere in there. We might be able to locate it by triangulating decoherence wakes. If it even works that way—“

Kincade turned to Winger. “Major, what about your embeds? Doc II may have some ideas.”

Winger admitted that Sergeant Givens, now just outside Kincade’s office, had Doc II in a capsule he carried. “I no longer have a shoulder capsule that works, sir.”

Kincade ordered Givens inside. “Launch that bot, Sergeant.”

“At once, sir.” Givens extracted the containment capsule and thumbed a control stud on top. There was a faint hiss and the air around the sergeant was soon filled with a flickering mist. For the next few minutes, they watched as the embedded swarm formed up into a ghostly likeness of Doc Frost, head and shoulders, hovering overhead like a dream.

Johnny Winger was sobered at the sight. That’s what I am now. I can do that too. And then they can make me go into that capsule anytime they want.

Being an angel could be good and bad.

“Doc, display all files from time stamp 111049.000 to current time…highlight electromagnetic, thermal, acoustic and decoherence wake sources.”

***Retrieving selected files, Base…tabulating and sorting by relevance rank now***

Bit by bit, a series of windows opened in mid-air, Doc forming file headers and portals in 3D for them to view. Soon the air over Kincade’s desk was thick with cloud-like images, each one a separate file.

There!” pointed Taj Singh. He stood up to cup one cloud with his hands, which he drew down to the desk, using command gestures to expand the image. The cloud grew to form a neatly stacked deck of images, each laid out like a card deck ready to be cut by a dealer. “See the spike in deco wakes? I’d bet a month’s salary that’s where Config Zero’s main processor is.”

Kincade was impressed with the Bengali trooper’s analysis. “Okay, Sergeant, if that’s so, work us up a tactical algorithm to load into Major Winger here, so he can find the target.”

Winger spoke up. “It’s a valid approach, sir but just getting into Paryang is going to be a problem. We managed it before using deception and disguise.”

Kincade said, “So I heard and I’ll decide on any disciplinary actions later. For now, Major Lofton may have an answer to the problem.”

Lofton used his own wristpad to project an image, which he lifted up for all to see, waving aside Doc’s images. “The fact that Major Winger here is now an angel…as it were, gives us options we didn’t have before. I know from contacts at U.S. Cyber Command, up in the States, that Config Zero is plugged into the Net. In fact, intel supports the idea that Config Zero and his replicant buddies have been using the Net to get around, go places, bollix up networks, server farms, various nodes, even parts of the Cloud. Major Winger, in his new… er condition, can do the same thing. In fact, my contacts at Cyber Command have even worked up a new method for launching and controlling semi-sentient packet sweepers through the Net, to recon enemy bots and packets. Nanoscale robots are small enough to ride on the carrier waves that slosh back and forth around the Net. So could the Major here. With the General’s permission, while we work on a virus weapon we can use to infect Config Zero, I’d like to arrange for Winger and perhaps troopers Barnes and Singh to make a little trip up to Herndon, Virginia…talk with a man I know. His name is James Tsu. And he may just have the ideal way to send our assault teams right into the heart of Paryang.”

Kincade listen gravely to Lofton’s pitch. When he was done, the decision was made. Winger would travel to Cyber Command headquarters in the States, inside a containment capsule maintained by a real live trooper. Taj Singh would accompany and escort the Major. In the meantime, Mighty Mite Barnes was given another assignment.

“Find out what Tsu and Cyber Command have in mind, Major. I’ll put our own teams to work designing a virus to use against Config Zero. And take Doc II with you—“ he indicated the smoke-like wraith still hovering in the corner. “—in containment. Sergeant Barnes—?

“Sir?”

“We’re going to assault Paryang from multiple axes. Winger here will use the Net and whatever Cyber Corps has for us. You work me up a TOE for a subterranean assault too…two geoplanes with full combat ANAD support. Pick your own crews. And get me a mission plan by 2200 hours tonight. This I have to put before UNSAC.”

“Yes, sir,” Barnes replied.

The troopers departed. And Thomas Kincade sat back in his seat, staring out at the pelting rain now lashing the windows of the Ops center.

“God help all of us,” he muttered, as he lit up a cigar. “Battlefields the size of a thimble. Troops the size of a molecule. An enemy who can be anywhere at any time, looking like anyone or anything.” Deep down inside, Kincade yearned for the certainty of a massive armored assault across a wide open countryside, cannons booming, tanks burning, explosions geysering dirt all around. Or maybe just a few thousand drones, swooping down on unsuspecting infantry.

“Nobody can see, hear or smell anything now. Warfare has come to this…a quantum affair, entangled here and not here at the same time. All smoke and ghosts. It would’ve been better if Schrodinger’s cat had just gone ahead and died.”

 

Chapter 2

Net Threats”

 

U.S. Cyber Corps Headquarters

National Threat and Intelligence Fusion Center

November 25, 2049

Herndon, Virginia

1230 hours

 

Captain Anson Leeds took the stairs down to NTIFC’s Watch Center three at a time. This better not be another false alarm, he told himself. There had been enough of those the last week to last a lifetime. He checked his wristpad and grunted as he nearly twisted an ankle on the stairs landing. Another Level 1 alert and more threatcons to follow. Something had stirred up WorldNet like a stick in a bees’ nest. The most recent alerts from Quantum Corps had called it Configuration Zero, or something like that.

The Watch Center was a semi-circular mission control room with screens and displays on every available surface. The Big Board showed an outline of North America, the eastern seaboard to be exact. Red, green, blue and white lights blinked on and off, strobing in synch with key node and server farm activity levels, as the Net breathed and pulsed zettabytes of data every second around the earth and into near-earth space.

Leeds spotted the Current Status desk and headed for it. He recognized the two duty officers right away: Lieutenant Linda Tracey and Sergeant Will Vogt.

Good techs, both of them. Leeds knew they’d be on top of anything that came up.

“What have you got for me guys?” Leeds landed next to their station and studied the Big Board. The entire east coast was flickering with lights and data blocks.

Tracey was harried, shaking her head, swearing under her breath. “It’s ECSO, sir…East Coast System Operator. We’ve got a Level 1 cascade going down right now…multiple flashovers in key junctions…transients up and down the network…race conditions at two control centers….”

“And threatcons coming in from WorldNet like a tsunami, sir,” added Vogt. “High risk gradients on all of them. Look at this—“he pointed to a display on his console, scrolling system status from multiple nodes. “Server firewalls breached at every location. Rootkit exploits popping up everywhere like mushrooms. Tricky stuff too, sir. Runtime environment’s contaminated at over a hundred nodes. They’re re-directing, but this baby’s spreading fast. Jamestown’s already down. I’ve got twenty others on the edge.” Vogt threw up his hands. “There goes Watkinsville and Cliff Valley…that whole sector’s toast. I haven’t seen anything like this in months, maybe years. We may be looking at kernel-level rootkits here…maybe even some zero-day stuff.”

Leeds could see it was serious. A growing power blackout was rippling up and down the U.S. eastern seaboard. Along with the blackout and its cascading effects radiating outward like cracks in a sidewalk, WorldNet alarms were going off, lending a circus-like atmosphere to the Watch Center. Techs scurried from one station to another. People gestured. Voices were raised. Fingers were pointed.

Something was attacking key nodes and server centers around the world, something big and coordinated. Was it a drill? Another exercise ordered by General Pacer? Leeds hadn’t seen anything on the boards lately about an upcoming exercise. The bi-annual Com-Ex games weren’t due for another four months. Not that the USCINCCYBER needed an excuse to run a drill…or an ORI visit. Operational Readiness Inspections made everyone‘s breakfast taste like brass fillings.

“What does COHEN have to say?” The AI that ran the Watch Center had been given the nickname months ago, coming online after years of testing and debugging. The Cyber Operations and Heuristic Algorithmic Network could digest yottabytes of data every second and spit out analyses and conclusions like a university professor on steroids. Plus some wise guy had adorned the voice response system with a faint Yiddish accent. Jokes, puns and wisecracks abounded in the weeks after COHEN went live.

“COHEN thinks this is a Sandstorm variant, Captain,” Tracey said. “It’s seeing some of the same kinds of exploits, some of the same techniques, digital certificates, grabbing protected memory and buffer-overflow tricks. This one may be an updated variant of earlier Russian or Chinese versions…Sandstorm with some new tools.”

Leeds bent down to study the code scrolling on Tracey’s screen. COHEN was filtering and comparing and running correlations at high speed, too fast for any human to follow. All you could do was trust the system and try to get out of the way.

“I’m seeing bits and pieces of Sandstorm here,” Leeds admitted. “Kernel-mode stuff. Lots of .dll calls. But something’s different…look, even COHEN thinks so.” Even as Leeds watched, the AI was flagging code blocks and lines that it didn’t understand, or couldn’t find any compares to list. “Analysis, guys? What about this Configuration Zero stuff we saw the other day? I’ve got to give something to CINCCYBER in about ten minutes. Anytime a Level One sounds, Pacer wants the gritty details on his desk immediately, if not sooner.”

“Sir, I think we should deal with this as an updated, maybe altered or souped-up version of Sandstorm, until we learn differently. There are differences and things COHEN can’t figure out. I’ve seen a few gotchas and Easter eggs myself, just in the last hour. But treating this like Sandstorm gives us a place to start.”

“How about attribution? Or are we dealing with a botnet here or a cutout network?”

“Unknown, sir. Even COHEN can’t keep up with all the proxies, Captain,” said Vogt. “They’re exploding like mushrooms.”

Or like nanobots in big bang overdrive, thought Leeds. But he didn’t say that. Only Quantum Corps pukes really believed that. “Okay, boys and girls, I’m headed upstairs. Give me the latest and I’ll put it before Pacer as a probable Sandstorm attack.”

Vogt synched COHEN’s emitter at their station and the analytics went straight to Leeds’ wristpad. The captain checked the results, pronounced himself satisfied and headed out of the Watch Center.

CINCYBER’s office suite was seven stories up, the penthouse view of snow-covered rolling hills and Virginia horse country. Leeds rode the secure lift and found himself face to face with General Wesley Pacer, who frowned and chewed the end of toothpick as he scowled at his own display.

“COHEN’s got his hands full today, Captain. Sit, sit. You’re saying this is Sandstorm we’re facing? What about the power outages?”

Leeds sat down. Pacer was mid-fifties, not enhanced, so far as anyone knew. Steel gray crew-cut, hard cheeks and facial planes, like a shovel blade with eyes. Big ears that stuck out and absolutely no one made any wisecracks about them, if they wanted to live. Pacer was a doer. He got things done.

“ECSO is at the center of this, General. It’s a cascading failure and all the telemetry shows the same thing. We’ve got multiple surges, overvolt and undervolt events and none of the system controllers can balance the load…it’s like something’s infected all of them. They’re sluggish, when they operate at all. There’s a two-hundred gigawatt load sloshing around out there like a runaway freight train…wreaking havoc everywhere it lands. None of the generators can account for it. It just appeared. This Sandstorm event’s caused server and alarm failures up and down the line. Multiple voltage and power spikes and we’re completely blind to what’s happening.”

Pacer snapped the toothpick clean in two with his clenched teeth. “I’ve already sent a PURPLE message to the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House. I’ve also activated CyberFence but all these countermeasures are like taking this toothpick here and poking an elephant. Net result has been zero. Hell, we may have actually made things worse. The friggin’ blackout’s spreading into Canada and west to the Great Lakes. Even places in western Europe are going offline. I expect POTUS will be making a call here any minute.”

“Sir, the consensus from COHEN is that Sandstorm’s responsible, but we don’t know who. Maybe the Russians. Maybe the Chinese. Maybe some Bulgarian teen-ager. Maybe this Configuration Zero or the Old Ones from outer space. But there are some significant differences, things we can’t ignore.”

“Like what, Leeds?”

“The rate this thing is spreading, for one thing, sir. Even in all the past exploits and assaults, even in the COM-EX exercises, no virus or worm or Trojan or logic bomb or any kind of malware has spread this far, this fast. It essentially erupted everywhere at once, like a global instantaneous assault at every WorldNet server center and node at the same time. It’s like there are ghosts inside the Net, inside PHAROAH itself. Something at the very heart of WorldNet’s operating system that mirrors every action, every command and link, and every execution, then when the right word or condition comes, pow!… it puts a hand over PHAROAH’s mouth and starts running the whole show. I’m wondering if we’ve got some kind of malware right in PHAROAH’S main memory, right in the very kernel of the system.”

Pacer was about to respond, but the Crystal vidcon chirped, indicating encrypted traffic coming in. The Seal of the Presidency flashed up on the screen.

“Here he is, Leeds…right on cue. Good day, Mr. President.”

On screen was Samuel L. Kenley, President of the United States. POTUS was white-haired, ruddy-cheeked from a recent ski trip to Vail, Colorado, where the Leader of the Free World had hung out for the last week in a borrowed mansion the size of a small country.

Leeds started to get up but Pacer waved him back to his seat. “Stick around,” he told Leeds. “I may need you. Sir, I just flashed the latest from COHEN to your inbox. We think it’s Sandstorm again, maybe a newer version.”

Kenley’s face was a map of conflicting emotions, all boundaries and crags and wrinkles, fighting each other. He blinked at the screen. “Attribution’s all I care about, General, at this point. Is this Russia? Is this China? I need somebody to blame. The public’ll have my head in a noose if I can’t blame somebody. This—“ he stopped when he realized they had a new participant on the line.

The vidcon had chirped and another window opened up on the screen. It was the UN Security Affairs Commissioner, Evelyn Lumumba. UNSAC was an ebony-black Cameroonian woman of striking beauty, with fierce warrior eyes and bristly conical hair, adorned by an ivory and bone hairpiece that rattled when she turned her head. She conned in from UNSAC’s offices at the Quartier-General in Paris.

“Good afternoon, Evelyn,” POTUS said. “I was just asking General Pacer here if it’s Russia or China again.’

CINCCYBER was unequivocal in his answer. “Without a doubt, Mr. President. Couldn’t be anybody else. The forensics all point that way.”

Not all of them, Leeds thought to himself. But he said nothing.

Lumumba sat back and thought. Her hairpiece rattled again. “I’d say maybe, Mr. President. We’ve seen the analyses your COHEN system has sent over. But our own people think there could be other explanations. Already, we’ve detected quantum state fluctuations around the perimeter of south Asia…indicating this Configuration Zero’s up to something again. We don’t know that much about him, so we don’t know what’s up, but a team has already been formed to track down these disturbances and make sure Config Zero stays quiet. Quantum Corps is working up a mission now.”

UNSAC words galvanized Leeds. The moment seemed opportune. He raised a hand to flag CINCCYBER’s attention. “General, if I may—?”

Pacer waved him on. “Go ahead, Major.”

“Sir, I guess I have something of a contrary view. There are network indicators we should be considering here…the speed of the infection, if that’s what it is. The nature of the assault…we’re looking at kernel-rootkit assault, right at the very core of PHAROAH, the Net operating system. The fact that there appears to be a series of very serious, very subtle zero-day backdoors going on here, even inside Russia and China. This thing has appeared out of nowhere and appeared everywhere almost instantly. That tells me this is a foundational attack, something fundamental to the very protocols that operate WorldNet and Solnet. Even Gateway Station and Farside are reporting malware on their systems. Quantum Corps Q2 has even theorized about some kind of semi-sentient dust falling from space.”

POTUS was unconvinced. “So the Russians and the Chinese are also infected…that means nothing. At the end of World War II, Stalin shot his own repatriated POWs and soldiers. Couldn’t let the Perfect Society be contaminated by exposure to the Nazis or the other Allies. This proves nothing.”

UNSAC and CINCCYBER nodded in unison. POTUS cleared his throat and ran a hand through an unruly lock of white hair. The man was starting to resemble Einstein on a bad hair day. “Major, your concerns and analysis are duly noted. However, I’m going with the preponderance of the evidence. I’ve seen enough. It’s Russia. Or China. It has to be. And once and for all, it’s high time for us to retaliate. I am going to authorize CyberSword. General, make all necessary preparations and load up your guns. Then come back to me for authority to proceed. I’ll clear it with our friends at the UN and with State and Defense.”

Pacer nodded. “At once, sir. Mr. President, you are fully aware of what authorizing CyberSword means…we did a run-through during the last Com-Ex.”

POTUS took a deep breath. “I do, General. A massive pre-planned offensive cyber response to this Sandstorm attack, taking out trunk lines and key nodes and major server installations inside Russia and China. I fully expect we’ll cripple large sectors of both nations’ economy and industry. It’s well past time to teach these jokers a lesson they won’t forget. We can play the same game as them.”

Anson Leeds swallowed hard. What President Kenley has just authorized was a massive ‘nuclear’ response. A killing response. He couldn’t help shake the feeling. CyberSword wasn’t what was needed. It would cause more problems than it solved. It was like taking a howitzer to a gnat. Not only that, Leeds was more and more convinced the gnat wasn’t the problem. While Kenley and Pacer and Lumumba were chasing gnats, other bugs had somehow crawled into the Net from a different direction. Leeds was sure of it.

He just couldn’t prove it yet.

The President and UNSAC discussed coordination between the U.S. and UNIFORCE for a few minutes.

“Well, I’ve got a press conference in an hour,” Kenley said. “I suppose I’ll get hammered by all the reporters over what we’re doing. But damn it…the Russians and the Chinese can’t just slam our infrastructure with viruses and worms and expect to get away with it. Sooner or later, somebody’s got to pay. And now’s the time.”

Lumumba agreed. “It’s past time to take the initiative, Mr. President. I’ll advise the Security Council and the SG of your plans. And we’ll need to make sure there are good communication links between Quantum Corps and your Cyber Corps people.”

Pacer chimed in. “I’ve got just the liaison in mind, Mr. President. Major Leeds here has worked with Table Top and other Quantum Corps sites for several years now. They participate in our Com-Ex exercises every year, sometime as a Red Force, sometimes with us as part of Blue. In fact, they have some people coming up here even as we speak.”

“Perfect,” Kenley decided. “Now if you’ll excuse me—“ The vidcon link to the White House went dark, to be replaced by the Presidential Seal.

“I’ll talk with CINCQUANT myself,” Lumumba was saying. “General Argo will want to keep his forces on full alert when CyberSword goes down. The Russians and the Chinese will surely respond in kind after we drop a few logic bombs on them. I’m authorizing ThreatCon One. Argo will have to keep his botshields humming at every site. There’s no telling where the enemy will strike.”

“Agreed,” Pacer said. UNSAC signed off and the vidcon was over. The General turned to Leeds.

“Leeds, have you lost your cotton-pickin’ mind? What’s all this crap about ‘shadows in the Net’ and men from Mars? This is full-scale cyberwar and we know who did it. I don’t want to hear any more fairy tales about space dust and alien invasions. These Quantum Corps jokers see shadows everywhere. We’ve got a war on. The President has just authorized CyberSword and we’ve got a job to do… you’ve got a job to do.”

Leeds was already wishing he had kept his big mouth shut. With POTUS’ orders, Pacer was like a retriever on the hunt…he smelled blood and nothing would dissuade him. “Sir, I just happen to think CyberSword is not necessary. It’ll do more harm than good, for all of us. It’s an over-response.”

“I suppose we should just let all these worms and viruses run wild around the Net, destroying our power plants and water supplies…Major Leeds, I know you better than that. You and I both took an oath of office. After Sandstorm or whatever the hell this is, if we didn’t respond and return fire, we should both be tried for treason and shot.”

Leeds shook his head. “That’s not it, sir. There’s more going on inside WorldNet than just Russian or Chinese cyber-mischief.”

Pacer scoffed. “What proof do you have, son?”

“Ever heard of the ADAM Project, General? James Tsu’s in charge of that effort.”

Pacer thought for a moment, then recognition came to him. “Isn’t he that egghead down at the Wizard Works?”

“CyberLab, sir…that’s the official name. The ADAM Project is a research effort that’s looking into whether or not the Net could be exhibiting evidence of sentience, even intelligence. It’s become complex enough and there’s a school of thought that says once a system becomes that complex, it can achieve something like intelligence. You personally approved the effort, sir.”

Pacer frowned. “I must have been out of my mind. It doesn’t matter anyway. The Commander-in-Chief has given us our orders. It’s our job to obey and carry them out. Keep monitoring and analyzing the situation…keep feeding stuff to COHEN and see what he comes up with. As for me, I’ve got a war to run.”

Major Anson Leeds was dismissed and returned to the Watch Center downstairs. Cyber-hell was about to be let loose across WorldNet and Leeds had a bad feeling about what would happen. If James Tsu was even half right, the Net or whatever had infected the Net was about to get a big kick in the pants. CyberSword would soon send insane quantities of worms, viruses, logic bombs, Trojans and other malware flying across the Net. The Russians and the Chinese would do the same.

A cat fight was a certainty and nobody could say who would get scratched worse after it got started.

 

Chapter 3

Packet Patrol”

 

U.S. Cyber Corps Headquarters

Herndon, Virginia

November 27, 2049

0020 hours

 

James Tsu watched Johnny Winger watching the infinitesimal device scurrying about inside Containment with barely concealed amusement.

“It’s called a packet sweeper, Major.”

Tsu handed Winger a tiny containment pod. “See that server rack in the corner? Insert this in the top port.”

Winger went over to the stack of computers and found the port. “Here?”

“There.”

He inserted the pod.

Tsu studied his console. “Reading system status now. Sweeper One reports ready in all respects. I’ve got effectors, propulsors, updated config drivers, the works. He’s a real hot rod, this one.”

Anson Leeds followed Tsu’s rundown of the packet mobile’s status. “Where are you sending him first?”

Tsu pointed to another graph on his display. “Place called Buckland Center. Server farm somewhere in Alaska. We got some threatcon alerts last night from that node; it’s a main trunk port and data center for the West Coast and connections to east Asia. Some of it’s probably the usual stuff: misrouted packets, damaged packets, signal dropouts. But the frequency and volume of the alert, that’s what got it flagged. It’s possible your Config Zero bots are infiltrating from there. It’s as good a place as any to start.” Tsu glanced up at Leeds with an expectant look. “Sweeper One’s ready to launch.”

Leeds didn’t hesitate. “Permission to launch.”

And with that, Operation Cyber Sweep was underway.

The trip to Buckland Center would only take a few seconds. “Land line all way,” Tsu explained. “High capacity optical fiber.”

Winger shook his head. “And this thing is riding the bitstream?”

“Like a surfer. Want to take a look?”

“Sure.”

Tsu fiddled with some buttons. The image careened and fritzed for a moment. “The imager’s creating a view from acoustic data, basically simulating what you’d see if you were aboard Sweeper One. We’re dealing with electromagnetic waves here…that’s what the carrier signal really is. The packets are just data units impressed on that signal. So what you’re seeing is the software’s best approximation of that reality. You could think of the carrier as an endless conveyor belt filled with envelopes. The envelopes are like the packets. But that’s just an analogy.”

Winger and Leeds both studied the image carefully.

For a moment, the first impression was of a tiny raft riding a roaring river. Only the river had a regular pulsation to it, a sort of throbbing rhythm. It was like a water droplet’s eye view of life in a mountain river. Turbulence, something like foam, bubbles, cavities.

Tsu explained what they were seeing. “Even though the carrier wave is an electromagnetic wave, Sweeper One is a hard, physical object, nanometer in scale, but very real. Think of dropping a cork in a river and you get the idea. The images we’re seeing are the best idea that software can come up with.”

Leeds found himself swallowing a rising stream of nausea as the view bobbed and shook and rolled. “I didn’t know life at the level of bits and bytes was so turbulent. I’m glad I’m not aboard that thing.”

Tsu agreed. “Oh, this is nothing. Wait till we start getting into quantum effects. Those things that look like water droplets start merging into each other, tunneling through each other, dancing around like fireflies on steroids. It’s wicked. And this is just a simulated view.”

“What exactly are we looking for?” Leeds asked.

Winger said, “I can answer that. Those bots are like ANAD clones from the past, only souped up with gizmos and gadgets you wouldn’t believe: from the compound tetrahedral casing to the grabbers and disrupters, from the flagellar thrusters to the power cells, from picowatt propulsors to the actuator mast…it is an ANAD clone, to be sure, but more importantly, it’s a damn close match to what we have in archives. It’s like someone took our files and banged out an exact copy.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Tsu said. “Sweeper One’s on station at Rack five, node twenty five, Buckland Center and already I’m getting pings back…we’re interrogating sample packets to see what’s what.”

The imager view had slowed down and the river they had been riding was no more than a swift current. Leeds had the impression they were cruising in a canoe through a swamp at night; he could almost imagine trees thick with vines, alligators alongside, veils of mosquito swarms thick as cloth.

“Branch router coming up,” Tsu announced, as Sweeper One headed deeper into the server farm’s kilometers of wire and cable. “And that’s a firewall up ahead, if I’m not mistaken. Probably protecting core layer switches and more routers on the other side, if my map’s right.”

The imager showed what looked like the side of a steep mountain, with rugged flanks of rock dead ahead.

“How do we get through that?” Winger asked.

“We use the key Buckland gave us,” Tsu said. His fingers played over a nearby keyboard. “We’re being interrogated now, authenticated by the firewall. See the signal spikes?” He pointed to a graph. On closer examination, the mountain was not made of rock but was instead a huge pyramid of whirling cylinders, stacked together on their sides, all spinning at different rates. “The firewall’s asking us to ID ourselves. I’ll send the response—“ He pressed a few more buttons.

On the imager, one entire row of cylinders flashed for a moment, and spun down. After a moment’s hesitation, they began spinning again, this time in unison. Sweeper One drew closer and closer.

“Going to half propulsor,” Tsu announced. “That’s our way in.”

And as Leeds and Winger watched in amazement, the packet mobile penetrated the mountain of spinning cylinders and shot through. A moment later, they were back in the swamp.

Tsu’s forehead wrinkled with alarm. “Whoa, now that’s interesting—“

“What is it?”

“Picking up big spikes in thermals. EM spikes too. Something’s up ahead.”

“Config Zero?” Winger wondered.

“Could be. Similar signatures. I’m initializing grabbers and probes now.” Thousands of kilometers away, Sweeper One unsheathed its effectors and girded for battle. Just for good measure, Tsu also readied its bond disrupters and fired off a few discharges. The swamp seemed to crackle with lightning as the ‘guns check’ went off smoothly. “Slowing to one quarter…we’d better poke ahead with care. I don’t want to get ambushed. But it’s a bit surprising we may already have Config Zero inside the first ring of firewalls. Buckland’s outer defenses have already been breached.”

The battle, when it came, lasted only a few minutes. And the battlefield was no longer a swamp. Now, the imager showed an infinite plain, stretching in all directions, studded with polygons, tetrahedrals, cubes and dodecahedrons.

“Just like prairie country,” Tsu observed. “Only this is no prairie. Main memory arrays, inside the Node. And it looks like we’ve got company.”

In the distance, hovering over the dimpled plain of the memory arrays was a thin black line.

“Config Zero, I’m guessing,” said Tsu. “I’m reading rising thermals, EM spikes, sounding acoustics. Looks like the bad guys are here.”

Leeds and Winger watched the approaching enemy with growing unease. “Can you drive that thing?” Winger asked.

Tsu huffed. “Well, I’m no Quantum Corps trooper, if that’s what you’re asking. But yeah, I’m can drive. Priming bond disrupters. Initializing all effectors. Going to full propulsor.”

Winger eyed the size of the assault force they were nearing. “Looks like a small army. Maybe you ought to make some yourself some friends.”

“Good idea. Toggling max rate replication…now.”

Sweeper One began slamming atoms and building more copies of itself, filling the space with replicas of its basic structure.

The imager screen was at first murky, crowded with the spikes and cubes of myriad molecules. Lumpy, multi-lobed sodiums darted across their view like shadowy ping-pong balls. Tsu studied readouts from the sounder…something was there, hidden in the data traces on the scope. He fiddled with the gain on the imager, tweaking it, subtracting foreground clutter.

Something approximately sixty nanometers in one dimension, inverted pyramids joined at their apexes, with a globe structure at one end…and scores of probes, effectors, cilia, whatever. Incredible mobility…triple propulsors beat an idling rhythm as Sweeper One closed in….

Leeds let out a whoop. “Will you look at that? There must be a gazillion of them—“

They were all sobered by the thought of what they were seeing.

“It came from outer space,” Winger muttered. “Literally—“

“And I’m going to blow it to kingdom come,” Tsu said. “Hang on to your hats…less than ten thousand microns now….”

Gradually, the shape and size of the closest Config Zero device became clearer. Bristling with effectors and arms, it looked like a miniature Apollo Lunar Module. The head was a multi-lobed cluster of spheres and hexagons; inside the churning electron cloud dimmed out any detail.

Below the head was a cylindrical sheath, covered with pyramidal facets and undulating beads of proteins – the assembler’s probes and effectors. Tsu was frankly awed at the sight.

As Sweeper One sped forward, the Config Zero bots grew and retracted appendages and surface structure with blazing speeds. The outer membrane of the mechs seethed with motion, as atoms and clusters of atoms twisted, bonded, twisted again, rebonded, broke apart, recombined, straightened, undulated and whirled.

The gap between them vanished and Sweeper grappled with the nearest mech. Other mechs swarmed to the battlefield.

Tsu was stunned by the speed of the assault. A battalion of Config Zero soon engulfed Sweeper, enveloping the mech in flailing effectors. No time to replicate now…got to get free…signal daughters….Tsu fired off a burst of instructions to gather all the daughters Sweeper had replicated going in. It might be too late.

The imager screen shook with the collision, then careened sideways.

Several minutes passed. The imager view vibrated with the ferocity of the attack. Chains of oxygen molecules, pressed into service as makeshift weapons, whipped across the screen. The space above the dimpled memory arrays was soon choked with cellular debris. Config Zero replicated several times, adding new molecule strings. It stripped off electrons to make an armor shield of highly reactive chlorine atoms. In seconds, the Sweeper bots were immobilized by the chlorine sheath.

“I can’t hold structure!” Tsu yelled. “I’m reconfiguring…shutting down peripheral systems!”

“See if you can pinch a sample,” Winger said. “We need to get a sample…so we know what we’re dealing with.”

“I’ll try,” Tsu gritted out. He sent more commands to the Sweeper master bot, which squirmed and wriggled, trying to extricate itself from the grasp of the enemy. “Maybe I can sting him with this—“ He managed to free one of Sweeper’s bond disrupters and let go a charge.

Instantly, atom parts spun away as the Config Zero bots scattered, shedding effectors and parts in a swelling cloud of debris. Tsu discharged the disrupters again…and again and soon the space was choked with debris.

“Maybe I can grab some of this stuff,” he muttered. “I’ll try that mess there—“ he pointed to a small cloud of debris drifting away. “Looks like part of the main casing…maybe, if we’re lucky—“ He drove Sweeper forward and used its carbene effectors to seize a few pieces, shoving them into a small cage that Sweeper wore on its central mast like a backpack. “There…gotcha….” The pieces were held in a molecular bag. “Now, we need to disengage…before it’s too late.”

Winger was surprised. “You’re not going to leave all these bastards there? They’re wrecking the Net…we have to do something.”

Tsu was already backing away from further attacks. “I’m not configged for a big battle, Major. We need to bring these samples back and study them, see what we’re dealing with.”

“It’s Config Zero…Quantum Corps’ already done the work,” he said. “We know what we’re dealing with.”

“Then Sweeper needs some tweaking. I can’t handle all those effectors…jeez, look at the propulsors. The damn thing can run circles around me. It’s suicide to stay here.”

He had no choice but to disengage to save the Sweeper master. Extract before Sweeper was chopped to pieces.

“We’re losing signal strength!” Winger yelled.

“I see it! Bastard’s penetrated the matrix. Main processing functions in danger…I’m counterprogramming….” Tsu pecked madly at the keyboard.

Johnny Winger shook a fist at the imager screen, now a dark, swirling mass of shapes and forms. “Come on, damn it! Come on….” The bots comprising his fist blurred as he swung, but he ignored that.

Sweeper couldn’t hold. Every move was countered by the nanomech. Config Zero’s response was swift and sure. Tsu, Leeds and Winger watched in amazement and horror, as one by one, Sweeper’s capabilities—fine motor control, attitude and orientation, propulsors, sensors, molecule analysis, replication—were rendered inert, or completely excised.

Sweeper was soon helpless.

“Got to get the hell out of Dodge,” Tsu muttered. While I still can. “I hope to hell we can hang onto our samples.”

“Watch out, here they come again!” Winger realized Config Zero wasn’t going to let Sweeper get away so easily.

“Only one thing I can do now,” Tsu realized. “Executing quantum collapse…NOW!” Come on baby, get small for me…get real small….

Deep inside the memory array at Buckland Rack Five, Node Twenty-five, the Sweeper master collapsed what was left of its own structure in an explosive puff of atom fragments. Base, effectors, probes and grapplers, even the core shell surrounding its nanoprocessor, went hurtling into space in a big bang of spinning atom parts.

Instantly, Sweeper disappeared. To all intents and purposes, Sweeper had effectively vanished in a cloud of blurry quantum waves.

Less than four minutes later, making its way on quantum wave propulsors, Sweeper was finally extracted from Buckland’s server farm and made its way across thousands of kilometers of fiber and wire, its nanoprocessor still dogging electron states to bring the nearly invisible device back home to Herndon, Virginia.

Tsu took a deep breath, wiped a line of sweat from his forehead and sat back. He pointed to a nearby server in the corner. “I think our little friend is finally back home. Better get the containment pod ready. With any luck, he’s still got pieces of those bots we can look at.”

Leeds and Winger worked with the containment pod, carefully pulling what was left of Sweeper One into the device.

“Put him in Chamber One,” Tsu told them. The containment vessel was a small hemispherical tank on legs sitting opposite their consoles. It was draped in thick ganglia of cables and tubing. “I’ll get the imager fired up. I want to take a peek at what we’ve got.”

The view on the imager, when it came up and stabilized, was a sobering sight. Inverted pyramids connected at their apexes. A hemispherical belt around the apexes, studded with effectors. Propulsors at multiple locations. Gadgets and gizmos that none of them could explain.

“I’ll run a broad scan,” Tsu said. “I think this may be a piece of the same buggers we’ve seen elsewhere on the Net.” He pressed a few keys and the imager began the scan. While it was building up ‘slices’ of imagery for COHEN to analyze, Winger and Leeds talked about what they had seen.

“If this is Config Zero, or part of it,” Winger said, “we’ve got problems. Big problems. This would be proof that somehow these bots are getting into the Net.”

Leeds agreed. “It may be worse than that…I’d like to run a correlation of these results against some of these angels that are popping up everywhere.”

A chime sounded. COHEN had finished its analysis. Tsu studied the results on the display. It was a near perfect match. “Looks like Sweeper One did grab a piece of a Config Zero device. Correlation with the earlier samples is nearly ninety-nine percent. That’s not a coincidence.”

Winger raised a thought. “Yet Sweeper couldn’t handle those bots. They replicated too fast. Outmaneuvered us. Have you ever seen a device that could do what the bots at Buckland Center did?”

Tsu had to admit he hadn’t. “Never. What I really want to do is pick apart that segment of casing in there. With any luck, Sweeper was able to grab part of the processor. If we have that, or even part of it, we may learn the secret of how Config Zero can make such fast config changes.”

“And that’ll make our virus package all the more effective.” Winger ran his fingers over the screen outline of the device. “This is just an idea but bear with me. What would happen if a person was deconstructed, into an angel like me, and rode aboard that Sweeper? Like a passenger? Is something like that even possible?”

Leeds started to say something but Tsu held up a hand. “I guess it’s theoretically possible. Pretty dangerous, though. We know Assimilationists deconstruct living humans all the time. They claim to be storing them until they can be uploaded to the ‘mother swarm’, or something like that. Of course, nobody knows how to re-construct a disassembled person. Or even if such a thing is possible…there’s a few centuries of neural science that says it isn’t, that we’re more than just a pattern of atoms and molecules.”

“Pretty much a suicide mission,” Leeds decided. “Where is this coming from?”

Winger looked at him. “I might want to give it a try, that’s all. It would make getting into that Paryang complex a lot easier, if I could just ride your packet sweeper across the Net.”

“Are you just slightly nuts? CINCCYBER would never approve something like that. All we need to do is upgrade Sweeper…give him some more punch, a few more effectors, soup up things under the hood. Then he can run circles around those Config Zero bots.”

“I know all that. But I’m thinking that if Config Zero is growing something sentient inside the Net, we may need more than a Sweeper to deal with it. Quantum Corps has a mission to destroy Config Zero once and for all.”

“It’s academic, anyway…General Pacer will never approve such a crazy idea. Why do you want to do this anyway?”

Winger thought about his last encounter with Config Zero at the Paryang complex and the close call that had been. If not for Doc II….

“It’s an idea, okay? It gives us more options for dealing with Config Zero. That’s all I’m thinking. Do you think you could take it up with Pacer?”

Leeds had a pained look on his face, but it wasn’t indigestion, except maybe with some of this wacky angel trooper’s notions. “All right, I’ll put it to the Old Man. But I already know what he’ll say.”

“Spare me,” Winger said back.

Tsu was intrigued with the idea. “I can make some modifications to Sweeper One to be able to carry some of your angel bots …wouldn’t take that much. Some kind of containment device. And some tweaks to the controls and interface…you’d want the bots to have some kind of control.”

“Hey, don’t encourage him,” Leeds said.

Tsu ignored him. “Of course, we don’t really know how many bots it would take to fully embody a pilot’s personality and memory. I don’t think Sweeper could carry a full angel…too many bots. The big question is how many bots are needed? Nobody really knows…not even the Assimilationists, despite what they tell us.”

And I’m still trying to figure that out myself, Winger thought.

The three of them batted the idea around awhile longer, then Winger begged off more analysis. “I need a break. Time to think. I’m going back to the hotel.”

He left Cyber Corps headquarters and caught a lift back to the hotel a few kilometers away. Inside his room, he dropped the Winger config and let his bots just float loosely. For good measure, he launched Doc II as well.

Riding a packet sweeper across the Net, right into the very heart of Paryang with a virus that could make mashed potatoes of the cartel’s systems, would solve a lot of problems. But the big question remained: could he engage Config Zero as a swarm of bots himself with any real hope of winning? As the Doc swarm began forming up above the bed, the Winger swarm figured a little shop talk with Doc might help him focus his own thinking.

The barest hint of a tactical plan was even now emerging inside his main processor. He just had to convince General Kincade and UNSAC that the crazy idea was doable.

 

Chapter 4

Operation Himalaya Strike”

 

Puranpur, India

November 29, 2049

0530 hours

 

The Lama Zohar hadn’t seen such a gathering since the day the monastery opened twenty five years ago. He stood on the stone parapets of the ancient dun-colored building, originally built during the days of Alexander the Great and watched a flock of black lifters streak by overhead, then settle to earth by the entrance to the abandoned Pura River ruby mine. At the same time the lifters came, a convoy of military trucks and transports roared through the village on their way up the meandering gravel road to the same Pura River mine entrance two kilometers away.

All the trucks bore the blue earth logo of UNIFORCE. Decades after Pura River had been abandoned, the Army suddenly and without warning had acquired a keen interest in the old mine. Zohar wondered why.

As he watched the assembling of military men and equipment at the head of the rugged valley, Lama Zohar carefully poured a small pouch of black seeds into a bowl on the edge of the parapet. He made a swirling pattern in the seeds with his fingers, mumbled a soft incantation to the Enlightened One, then poured the seeds back into his pouch, repeating the process several times.

A nearby teacher, a rinpoche clad in saffron robes from a distant monastery, observed Zohar carefully. The Lama explained, over the racket of the lifters: “One must endure the boredom of repetition eight times, before the natural energy of the seeds will come forth. Only then will you free yourself from want.”

The rinpoche, a bespectacled and wrinkled old skeleton, nodded wisely. It was true. All things possessed their own life energy. One had but to still one’s mind to hear the rhythm of nature’s frequency. The teacher closed his eyes and willed himself to utter silence, slowing his breathing and heart rate with fierce concentration.

Only the distant hum of lifter jets and a growing sense of foreboding interrupted the rinpoche’s meditation.

 

For Mighty Mite Barnes, the assault force now gathering along the hard, pebbly banks of the Pura River was also quite a sight. First Nano had veetolled in on a squadron of lifters from Quantum Corps East at Singapore. All of their gear was now being offloaded by men and packbots, marshaled in neat rows outside the mine entrance.

The trucks and tracks were UNIFORCE motorized units, specifically UNIFORCE 1st South Asian Brigade, 2nd Company, or 2/1 UNIFORCE South, as it was known to the soldiers who manned the column. The commanding officer was a small-boned Indian officer with a high forehead, sunburned skin and a toothy smile, Captain Vanilu.

Vanilu loudly supervised the deployment of 2/1, spreading his men and their robot totes around the perimeter of the valley, cordoning off the Pura River at the monastery on the south end and at a narrow pass in the higher elevations to the north.

“We make you a secure perimeter,” Vanilu explained. “Keep the villagers out, while you set up.”

Villagers, yes, thought Barnes. But 2/1 UNIFORCE had no nanobot swarm defense embedded with it. For that mission, 1st Nano would be on its own.

Time to put ANAD to work.

“Fall out!” Barnes ordered and the three nearest lifters disgorged their crews into combat formation. Barnes counted them off, as the troopers scattered to their duties around the landing zone.

Operation Himalaya Strike was about to get underway.

“Full hypersuits!” Barnes yelled over the crewnet. “Get those tin cans on and zipped up! Get the gear staged forward to the mine entrance. Al, you and Gibby help with the geoplanes.” Barnes headed off from the landing zone to see about the offloading of Gopher and Mole from the cargo lifters. It was a ticklish operation, looking for all the world like huge black spiders hatching long, cylindrical eggs.

“Oh, boy,” muttered Nicole Simonet, as she snapped her helmet down and secured her own suit. Servos whirred as she flexed her limbs. “I just can’t wait to climb into my garbage can.”

“It’s for your own good,” said Mary Swanson, as she struggled with the HERF guns, rocking one back and forth until it could be hoisted onto a packbot for transfer. The HERF would be loaded into Mole’s tail pod, where most of their equipment and munitions were stored for the mission. “You want to crawl like a worm underground for two hundred kilometers without one?”

Simonet wisecracked, “I don’t want to crawl underground for two hundred nanometers. And the only worm I want to see is in a tall cool glass of tequila.”

For the next several hours, 1st Nano deployed its equipment around the entrance to the mine and checked out the two geoplanes. Squatting on the river banks, Mole and the newest Gopher looked like huge caterpillars, their circumferential treads squealing in the crisp early morning air. Barnes was already on the command deck of Gopher, flexing its articulating grapple arms and wearing in the treads, readying the geoplane for its critical mission. General Kincade had chosen Hoyt Gibbs, the detachment’s CC2, to pilot Mole.

Barnes decided to launch ANAD before they got underway. It was against all regs, but she didn’t care. The tiny assembler seemed to behave better when it was allowed out of containment, congregating in flickering translucent swarms in odd corners of the geoplanes.

***it’s good to be out, Control…ANAD is currently in State 1 config, receiving signals on all channels…how do you read me?***

“I read you just fine, ANAD,” Barnes said, as she climbed up the ladder and into Gopher. “Just stay out of the way and don’t touch anything, okay?”

***ANAD is fully prepared to support the mission…all effectors are primed and ready…propulsors are at full charge…processor core initialized and set at zero state…just let me at ‘em***

As Barnes boarded the geoplane, the assembler swarm filtered and flowed right behind her, like a faithful pet following its master.

Barnes spent a few minutes checking the new Gopher’s outfitting and gear from bow to stern, then she consulted with Glance and the rest of the crew on mission details and comm protocols. After a last minute briefing on geological formations along the traverse route, Barnes received a message off the satlink from Mesa de Oro base. It was General Kincade. The General’s face appeared haggard and tired on the screen.

“UNSAC just squirted me the final orders, Sergeant,” Kincade was saying. “I’m sending them along…don’t go without a hard copy onboard. UNSAC has approved Himalaya Strike in full, all details and constraints as we discussed before. I’ve already talked with Major Leeds at Cyber Command to coordinate with their end of the mission. Major Winger…the Winger angel, that is, will be loaded aboard one of their packet sweepers within the hour. He’ll be cruising through the Net and hopefully be able to penetrate Paryang from that axis. Have you got your course set?”

“Plotted and laid in,” Barnes reported. She sat in the mission commander’s seat alongside Glance, who was still checking systems off a checklist. “We’re descending to five hundred meters a few kilometers north of the Pura River to get below the hardest basaltic layers…and to slip around a transverse fault the geos say is there. We head out north by northeast for about fifty kilometers, cross below the Nepalese border and rise to three hundred meters below the Namse Pass, where the shales are little better for boring. Fewer inclusions to deal with.”

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

“Don’t worry about that, General.” Barnes patted the main console. “Murchison says this Gopher should take real good care of us. From the Gangdise Shan, it should be a fairly straight shot into the Paryang Valley.”

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

“Understood, sir.”

Kincade looked up. His eyes narrowed on the screen. “Get in and get out, Barnes. Get up there and turn that base into rubble. Then get the hell out of there. With any luck, that’ll sever all the control links between Config Zero, the cartel and that alien race. Once they’re cut off from control and from each other, UNIFORCE thinks they can be engaged and defeated individually.”

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

“Good luck, Sergeant,” Kincade nodded. “And good hunting. Smash the bastards for good.”

Barnes signed off just as Glance poked his head up between the command deck consoles.

“Status report, Sergeant. The lifter loadmasters say we’ve got everything on board.” He handed over a thoughtpad with all the items checked off.

Barnes scrolled the pages. “Weapons…” she muttered, mouthing the gear the packbots had loaded aboard the geoplanes: HERF guns, mag weapons, coilgun bots and twenty-two thousand kinetic rounds. “That should be enough to blow up a small city. Hypersuit support gear…Mission support—“ She let the thoughtpad detail the location, status and quantity of every piece of gear they had aboard. Containment systems for borer and tactical ANAD, ANAD interface control boxes, SuperFly recon bots (two squads), Camou-fog generators (four canisters), MOBnet canisters (eight).

“Looks like it’s a wrap, Al. Everything squared away outside?”

The Borer Operator (BOP) nodded. “Crews are itching to get the hell out of here. Apparently, there’s a lot of townspeople and monastery folk gathering at the south end of the valley. That Indian officer—“

“Captain Vanilu, I believe.”

“Yes, sir…Captain Vanilu is having quite a time holding the perimeter.”

“Just as long as nobody sees what happens to Gopher and Mole. We don’t want any spies reporting two geoplanes disappearing inside the ruby mine. Get Reaves and Singh out there, to give Vanilu some backbone.”

“On my way, Sergeant.” Glance disappeared belowdecks.

 

Half an hour later, the lifters were ready for departure. Hoyt Gibbs was skippering Mole. At Gibbs’ suggestion, Barnes had agreed to coordinate the first movements of the geoplanes with the takeoff of the lifters. Both pilots had agreed to apply maximum power at takeoff, to stir up plenty of dust around the landing zone. Camouflaged by such a gale, Barnes then planned to push the geoplanes forward into the ruby mine. Once out of view, their borers would be activated and the vehicles would begin burrowing into the underside of the mountain, beginning their long descent below ground.

Nicole Simonet, Gopher’s Driver/Systems Operator (DSO) heard the go signal over her headset. All five lifters were churning up a small hurricane outside. All the crew could hear the staccato ping of pebbles and rocks against Gopher’s hull.

“Let’s go,” Barnes ordered. “That’s our cue to get out of here.”

“Engaging tread drive now,” Simonet reported. With a jerk, Gopher surged forward.

 

Aboard Sweeper One

November 29, 2049

1150 hours

 

Johnny Winger wasn’t sure where he was, only that he was dizzy and disoriented. He had a vague memory of riding the Mighty Cobra roller coaster at Daytona Beach as a child. It made him sick. He threw up when they stopped. Threw up all over himself and his Mom and Dad.

How embarrassing.

But this wasn’t quite like that, not exactly. It was more like riding the surf at Daytona. He often did that all day long, until he was sunburned to a deep red and his chest was chafed from the float and his eyes and ears stung with salt water.

Now he was…what, exactly? A collection of atoms. A swarm of molecules. An angel, deconstructed, now he remembered. And James Tsu had put him in a packet sweeper and sent him off flying around the Net just like that awful roller coaster years ago, with a virus named INDRA.

Now he was a whole new person, with no body and only the barest inkling of how to get around in this new world of deconstructed swarms.

He was an angel, cruising the WorldNet in a packet ship called Sweeper One, conducting an assault mission for Operation Himalaya Strike. It was all too much, overwhelming really, despite what Doc II had said. He wasn’t sure which part of the experience was the strangest: being an angel or riding packets inside the Net.

One moment, he was thrilled at what he could do now. Things he never imagined anybody could ever do. The next moment, he despaired, thinking he had died and this was some version of Heaven.

But he was still conscious. He was still Johnny Winger, in some form or another. And he still had a mission.

Focus on the mission. Focus. Focus….

So he was traveling around the Net at near-light speed, through cables, wirelessly into and out of routers, hubs, switches, servers and nodes too numerous to count. Somehow, Tsu and Anson Leeds could communicate with him. Messages came and went. He looked around and realized he was still in some kind of containment vessel. It was cramped. He didn’t see any controls. But the messages came and he heard them and he responded.

Tsu was saying something even now—”…some kind of rogue packets in your vicinity…I’m diverting you to that node…can you see anything, Major? Can you describe what you see?…”

Winger tried looking around. Now, he realized that the containment vessel that was Sweeper One had some sort of translucent, at times even transparent skin. When he squinted, when he focused, he could see outside. It made him even dizzier. But he gritted his teeth…or what he thought were his teeth, for the memory of how to do that was still there, and tried to describe what he was seeing.

It’s like riding a train, he decided. That was the best analogy. A train of fuzzy cotton balls. In fact, he realized there were trains of cotton balls everywhere, paralleling Sweeper One, and some at crazy angles too.

This is insane, he told himself.

Some of the cotton balls came alongside and began to stick. Soon, a great quilt had built up along the outside. That’s when he realized someone was talking. It was James Tsu.

“Major…Major Winger…can you hear me? Major…come in.”

Winger looked around. There were no buttons to push. No controls of any type that he could see. How you respond?

He just started forming words in his mind. “I hear you, James. I don’t know how, but I hear you.”

That did the trick. Somehow the cotton balls carried signals to and from the packet cruiser.

“Good. I’m sending you a link…it’s some news files from Solnet…you should view them.”

“Yeah? How do I do that? There aren’t any controls inside this thing.”

For awhile, Tsu said nothing. Nobody had any ideas how to make comms work when you were inside the signal wave. “You’ll just have to figure it out, Major. I’ll keep sending the link.”

Thanks. He watched the streams of cotton balls. The ones that clung to the outside of Sweeper One had to be Tsu’s link. But how to activate it?

Then he hit on an idea. Winger found he had all kinds of effectors. No longer limited to two arms and hands, he could manipulate atoms and molecules in a variety of ways. He was puzzled by this for awhile, but soon enough, found a way to cycle open a port on the side of the sweeper and crank some of the clinging cotton balls inside. Immediately, he saw and heard snatches of some kind of news vid…”—orting that some rogue software…stretches of the Net…shutting down critical systems…”

As he cranked in more and more cotton balls, the compartment became crowded but the imagery and sound became clearer. Winger was stunned at what he saw.

All over the Net, the news was the same. Rogue software, viruses, Trojans, worms, berserkers, zero-day exploits nobody had ever heard of…the Net seemed to be slammed with them. Everything was affected: water treatment and supply systems, fuel and gas transport, communications, finance-bank-credit transactions, air traffic control, even killsats in orbit, which had fired uncommanded bursts on unsuspecting ground targets. Cyber Corps was swamped, unable to keep up with all the infiltrations.

James Tsu had appended his own file to the link. Winger watched as Tsu’s disembodied head materialized inside Sweeper One, like a ghostly wraith from a bad nightmare.

“The reason Solnet and WorldNet can’t keep up is that there’s a steady infiltration of bots from Config Zero, or so UNIFORCE keeps telling us. Until that’s shut off, the Net will be overwhelmed. Look, Major, we’ve got a bigger problem here. Contact me with this link—“ Tsu’s head looked down. At that very moment, a small cylinder appeared in the sidewall of the sweeper. Instinctively, Winger reached out an effector and contacted the cylinder. Instantly, James Tsu’s head appeared right next to him, so suddenly, it startled him. Tsu nodded.

“I see you managed to work the link. Welcome to the Net. How does it feel…being a disembodied swarm riding a signal wave at near-light speed?”

Winger shrugged, at least he tried to. He didn’t have any shoulders. But some kind of embedded memory said he had shrugged. “It’s hard to put into words. I feel like I’m riding a roller coaster in a sleet storm of cotton balls. Is this what it’s like to be part of a signal?”

Tsu smiled. “I don’t know. You’re the one on the scene. You tell me. Look, there’s a serious problem at the Kings Gorge Dam in Colorado. Something’s infected the controls for the Discharge Control System…the threat center’s getting steady feedback of valve and pump malfunctions. It’s serious. If the Bugs take command of the discharge controls, they could open all the sluice gates, flood hundreds of kilometers of valley downstream. Millions could be affected…in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico. I’m diverting you there…it should only take a few seconds. Leeds wants you to scope it out, send back a report. Don’t try anything yet. You’re configured for offensive actions at Paryang. Just report. Still got that cylinder?”

Winger spotted the cylinder with the locking cap. He knew it contained the INDRA virus. “Don’t worry…I can’t even control my own effectors yet. How do you drive this thing anyway? I don’t see anything to control it.”

Tsu’s face was already fading. “You don’t. It’s just a containment device. Leave the driving to us.” Then his face and head were gone. Winger was alone.

And Sweeper One careened left, diving headlong into a maelstrom of cotton balls.

 

He knew he had arrived somewhere…Node 2133493, KG Discharge Control Primary Gate Circuit A…when the cotton balls began to thin out. Sweeper One shuddered and rattled a little bit and he found himself rocking back and forth, like a train clacking along some tracks. Suddenly, Sweeper One jerked right, onto a new course and the last of the cotton balls parted.

He caught a quick view of some kind of enclosure flitting by. The sweeper darted into a tunnel, then emerged again and he saw more clearly, as the ship orbited something like a small lagoon, that the enclosure was like a fence encompassing the small lagoon. Inside the fence, bobbing on the lagoon surface, more cotton balls, but these balls looked dirty, torn, misshapen and bedraggled. One end of the fence was open and a multi-lobed nanobotic device seemed to be herding more and more balls inside, sorting, stopping, checking each one as it approached.

Right away, Winger understood that the nanobot doing the herding didn’t belong there. James Tsu had talked of enemy bots. He realized he was looking at one, in fact, there were several, forming a gauntlet along the approaches to the fence opening. The bots were shepherding more and more cotton balls inside. It was like some kind of round-up.

And inside the enclosure, the balls were undergoing some kind of metamorphosis. They came into the enclosure looking like all the other balls. But once inside, they changed color and shape and began looking decidedly beaten down.

Johnny Winger hunted around the sweeper cabin for the comm link. The cylinder was still there, still turning slowly in its socket. He reached out with an effector and felt a connection. Tsu’s head returned, turning slowly in the air.

“Good. You’ve got the hang of it. See anything?”

Winger reported what he was seeing.

Tsu frowned. “That’s bad, Major. That’s what we were afraid of. Those bots you see are the enemy. Don’t do anything. Don’t try anything yet. I think what you’re seeing is the discharge control system software being changed. The bots are trying to take command of the pumps and valves. We’re working on a fix right now.”

“Something needs to be done now,” Winger told him. “I can’t just stand by and let them take control of the dam.”

“You’re not configured for action there, Major…don’t do anything stupid.”

But even as James Tsu’s head was streaming warnings and cautions, Johnny Winger wasn’t listening. Instead, he was learning fast how to use his effectors and propulsors. Maybe this is how I learned to walk, he surmised. Step here, put a foot there, shift and stride, fall down and bang my head on the coffee table. Scream bloody murder and get up and try again.

Bit by bit, little by little, he was able to get some of the basics down: okay…that’s extend, that’s retract, that’s manipulate, now rotate. Got the effectors. Now propulsors…how the hell do you turn these damn things on?

He decided to do a little exploring inside his cocoon, see just what this packet cruiser was like.

Winger found that he could just squeeze into another compartment. This one had some kind of airlock. Maybe a way out of the packet cruiser. He worked his effectors and by trial and error, found a way to open the airlock. He collapsed himself down and squeezed through. Then, cycling the outer hatch, he shoved himself outside.

Steaks of cotton balls raced by, multiple streams going in all directions. Jeez, it’s like standing next to a freeway. He reconnoitered the outside of his little ship for a moment, finding it a squat cylinder with hemispherical end caps at each end. Some kind of jets puttered front and aft and the aft jets were surrounded by flagellar propulsors as well. Sweeper One was well equipped for maneuvering in this strange new medium.

He dodged several streams of cotton balls and soon spied what looked like a mountain range in the distance, behind and above the small lagoon, where sorting and selecting was still going on. Atop the crest of the mountain, he saw what looked like the crenellated stone walls of a great citadel, perched on the very top. But it wasn’t the citadel that caught his attention. It was the swarm of bots attacking the citadel that he noticed…hundreds, maybe thousands of them, breaching the walls, clambering all over the parapets and towers of the great fortress.

He tried the link back to Cyber Corps, and found he could talk to Tsu, even outside Sweeper One.

He described the scene.

Tsu’s voice was concerned. He could tell in the strain of his voice. “That citadel you’re describing is Cyber Fence, Major. It’s something we built. The Kings Gorge discharge controls are inside. We installed that to keep the Bugs out. What you’re describing is a full-scale assault on the Fence. The Bugs are trying to get inside, and take over the dam operating controls.”

“I’ve got to do something, James. I can’t just stand here and watch.”

“Major, you don’t have the configurations to make an attack. Don’t even think about it. You’re configged to insert the INDRA virus at Paryang only. Just get in as close as you can and describe what you see….Major…Major, do you copy?”

But Winger had already gotten underway, figuring out how to operate his own propulsors as he jetted toward the steep escarpment of the mountain.

It’s like learning how to swim and walk at the same time, he told himself. I don’t know what half of these gadgets do…but , here goes….

He closed the distance to the slopes in a few minutes, and straight away found himself in a scrap with a small squadron of Bugs. They were nanobotic devices, of that he was sure. So am I, he snorted. I wonder what I look like to them.

Before he could react, he was already in the grasp of two bots, whose effectors lanced out and pinioned him against the flanks of the mountain before he could maneuver away.

Oh, yeah…let’s see what this thing does…he found all he had to do was think of a config and the right effector was enabled and powered up. Slammed sideways, he reacted with a few snaps from his own grabbers and managed to pinch off a few molecules of the attacking bots, atoms went spinning off in a puff of fragments as he scooted out from under them.

Take that, you snotty little worms.

Now Winger whirled and slashed with the same grabbers, a feint immediately parried by the bots, which butted him amidships and sent him spinning back down the slope. He managed to right himself and jetted back up into the melee.

It was like combat underwater in the swimming pool, like when he had tussled with his brother Brad as a kid, pulling hair, kicking, slapping, all in slow motion. The trouble was the slightest touch could set him spinning. Clearly there were forces here at this level he had never heard of. He’d have to be more careful.

Winger waded into another knot of Bugs and went to pinching and grabbing and slashing. He found he could use his propulsors to make kamikaze swooping attacks on a tangent to the mob, diving in for a slash, then pulling out just in time. That tactic worked pretty well.

Then, just by chance, he found how to operate his bond disrupters.

Using the same kamikaze dives, he found he could scatter knots of Bugs with liberal use of the disrupters. Each dive produced the same result: a big zap! and then atom fragments and pieces of effectors cartwheeling off in all directions.

This was starting to be fun.

Tsu’s voice muttered in the background but he paid little attention. “Major…you don’t have the right configs to attack…be sure to keep a safe distance…recon and intelligence, that’s all we need….”

Winger slashed and burned his way up the slope, encountering thicker and thicker knots of Bugs. It’s just me against millions. He knew there was a way to replicate additional copies of his own structure, but where was that control? Maybe that’s what James was talking about. Did he even have the right config to replicate?

But before he could consider the implications of that, he spied a different sort of Bug, higher up the slope, bigger, with more effectors, standing off from the others, directing breaching operations. Already, some of the Bugs had penetrated partway into the citadel walls. Others were clambering toward the parapets at the top, while disrupter fire from towers rained down on them. It could have been an illustration from a textbook on medieval history.

But it was all very real.

The larger Bug seemed to be in charge. Winger worked his way against the flow of bots, grabbing, pinching, slashing, where he had to, until he found himself at the same level as the large Bug.

It had multiple heads, globular and pyramidal, with a forest of effectors around its equator and it was spitting out copies of itself like some kind of whirling assembly plant…casings, effectors, grapples and propulsors…a queen bee of a bot growing drones and workers left and right.

Johnny Winger had never been one to turn down a challenge. His brother Brad often dared him to try things and he learned at an early age not to back down. He could outrun and outfight half the boys he had grown up with. Part of surviving in a family of boys was standing up to them, talking trash with them, roughing and wrestling with them. That’s how you got respect. Above all else, Johnny Winger wanted respect.

So he was moving toward the master bot before he even realized what he was doing, Tsu’s voice muttering and warning him in the background…you don’t have the configs to do this…your propulsors aren’t up to spec…you’re going to get hurt….

He waded right in, slashing and burning, and caught the master bot by complete surprise.

The first thing he noticed, after he collected himself from the recoil, was how fast the bastard was. In the blink of eye, the bot flung him away and zapped him with its disrupters for good measure. It went back to slamming atoms, trying to replicate as fast as it could.

Okay, mister, if that’s the way you want it.

Winger backed off and played with his effectors for a few moments, trying to figure out what did what. Okay, that’s like a hand. That one’s like a knife. That zaps things. That one over there twists things. When he felt he had a little better mastery of the gizmos, he charged right back in.

Winger remembered grappling and wrestling with his brother Brad as a child. It was all about leverage. The best position was on top but there wasn’t any gravity here, just weird forces that had names he couldn’t pronounce…van der Waals and things like that.

By instinct, he closed on the master bot and went for the mid-section, an area that seemed to have fewer effectors. Using a clutch and grab combo, he managed to grapple something and hung on as the bot thrashed about. Disrupter fire zapped the air and he returned fire. Moments later, they had company as the bot master’s friends came zooming up. Winger felt himself pulled and punched in a hundred different directions. He zapped and pinched and twisted and slammed but it wasn’t doing any good.

He lost a couple of effectors—that should have hurt but then you could just grow more when you had the right config. Then he lost his hold and went spinning off in the distance.

Now the bot master was surrounded by a protective squad of daughter bots, replicants, Tsu had called them.

How did he do that? He wondered. I should have the same ability. But Tsu had warned him against attacking. He didn’t have the right configs.

Above them, the Bugs were busily assaulting the walls of the fortress. Winger could see it was only a matter of time before they got in, inside the Kings Gorge Dam Discharge Control System. If they got in, havoc would follow and millions would be affected. Lives could be lost.

Winger knew now he couldn’t do this himself. Wrestling his brother, he knew that sometimes you won and sometimes you lost. But Tsu and Leeds needed to get reinforcements here as fast as possible.

“I’m pulling out,” he announced, to no one in particular. He was startled when Tsu’s voice erupted in his ears.

“About time…we’ve got more Sweepers on the way. Just stand down, Major. Get back to your Sweeper. You’ve got a bigger mission ahead of you.”

Winger figured discretion was in order. “Better make it fast. That fortress is about to be overrun by Bugs…there must be a gazillion of them.”

“Probably two gazillion,” Tsu came back. “Sweepers Two and Three on the way. They should be on site in a few moments. Can you stay there and give us some battle damage assessment?”

“Roger that,” Winger said. He jetted on his own propulsors back toward Sweeper One. It was like trying to cross a ten-lane freeway; streams of cotton balls zipped by in a blur. He dodged and ducked and juked until he had made it across the signal flow and drifted up to Sweeper One’s airlock. He cycled the lock and was inside the lockout chamber moments later.

Winger wriggled through from the lockout bay into containment. When he was secure, he was about to inform Tsu to get the little ship going when he noticed a few stray cotton balls packed into one corner of the bay.

What the hell? He kicked at the balls and they quivered a little but didn’t move off.

Must have slid past me when I cycled the lock. He knew the balls were nothing more than packets of data and the thought came to him that they might be of some intelligence value. After a few more desultory kicks, he left them alone. They clumped and quivered in the lower level of the containment bay and didn’t otherwise respond. He soon forgot about them.

“Prepare for launch,” James Tsu told him. “I’m sending you on to Paryang. It should take about ten seconds…you’ve got several nodes to traverse and a few filters and buffers at the end. Maybe a little bumpy. How’d you like life as an angel?”

Johnny Winger was busy securing himself in containment, making sure all his parts were well fastened down to the scaffolding that served as an acceleration mount.

“It was wicked. Everything I am, or was, now in this little bot…it’s still hard to believe. And I still haven’t mastered the replication business.”

“Don’t sweat it…it’ll come. You’ve still got a lot of learning to do. Plus we’ve got more configs to add for the big show. We’re trying to coordinate with the geoplane assault too. Ready to fly?”

“More than ready.”

“Okay…here goes….”

 

Chapter 5

INDRA

 

Paryang Valley

Tibet, Peoples Republic of China

December 5, 2049

0130 hours

 

Now underway, Gopher surged forward, crawling along the riverbank and into the mine shaft opening. Right behind her, Mole followed like a huge caterpillar. The second geoplane was piloted by Hoyt Gibbs.

The two vehicles trundled out of view, their movements well concealed in the maelstrom of dust, heading deeper into the ruby mine, down a narrow side branch that had been widened just enough to accommodate them.

Outside, the squadron of lifters leaped into the sky and wheeled about in formation, heading up and away from Puranpur and its clear, cold, foaming mountain river and its ancient monastery, heading back to waiting hyperjets at Singapore base.

“Here’s the end of the mine shaft,” Nicole Simonet announced. She indicated the profile on Gopher’s acoustic sounder. “Solid rock dead ahead.”

“Borer on line?” Mighty Mite Barnes asked.

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

Barnes took a deep breath. The two geoplanes were about to commit to the underground phase of the assault. She glanced over at her co-pilot; both of them exchanged knowing looks. They both understood the risks they were about to take.

“Let’s do it,” Barnes ordered.

One compartment behind them, Sergeant Mary Swanson was nervously stroking a handful of amulets and talismans, clinking them in a staccato rhythm. The Sensors and Surveillance tech (SS1) mumbled incantations in her native Ibo dialect, imploring the spirits of earth to watch over the small assault force.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An unmistakable creaking could be heard as the borer bit into the hard rock and Gopher angled down into the earth.

 

The assault plan called for Gopher to take the lead position in boring and Mole to follow behind. The first twenty hours of boring took the two geoplanes down from the Puranpur ruby mine into hard basaltic rock layers, to an ultimate depth of one thousand meters below the surface. Seismic charts had indicated a broad layer of the black volcanic rock underlay most of India’s Uttar Pradesh state and gave the geoplanes a solid structure to tunnel through for nearly a hundred kilometers north.

Somewhere inside the Nepalese border, a few kilometers southwest of the Namse Pass, the geos had determined that the basaltic layer thinned out, abutting inclusions of quartzite and shale, with magma channels embedded in the rock.

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

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

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

Mighty Mite Barnes had no wish to tempt Fate again.

“Borer on line at nearly one hundred percent,” Sergeant Al Glance reported. Glance was BOP1, the borer operator. “We’re chewing through this rock like it was butter…a blistering three kilometers an hour.”

Barnes acknowledged the report. “Tread system status?”

Simonet checked the drive. “Tread drive engaged and operating fine…no anomalies.”

“Clear sailing from here,” Barnes said. Only the slightest vibration from the treads came through Gopher’s hull. “Anything from Mole?” Their sister geoplane was trundling along several hundred meters behind, following in the same tunnel already bored out by Gopher.

Mole reported all systems on line and nominal, at last check-in.” Mission rules required a comm check and status report every hour between the two geoplanes. “In fact, Gibby requested permission to max out their borer and speed up a little. He says his crew’s getting antsy.”

Barnes snorted. “Tell them to take some pills. I can’t exceed the recommended boring speed…the bots can’t remove debris any faster. We’d just wind up spinning our treads for no reason.”

They both fell silent for a few minutes. Barnes eyed the densitometer on the main panel. It read fourteen hundred meters, nearly a kilometer and a half below the surface. According to the profiler, Gopher was traversing layers of extremely hard igneous rock, richly veined with inclusions of iron and magnesium. The layers formed a dense mass of some of the hardest rock on earth, in a zone of tremendous pressure caused by the northward movement of the Indian Ocean plate against the Asian plate, a zone of grinding force and constant shifting and slipping.

It was also a zone of near constant seismic activity.

Gopher and Mole plowed ahead for hours, making steady progress along the first leg of their course. Four hours after the two geoplanes had entered the abandoned ruby mine, Barnes announced a new navigation hack off the quantum coupler signal coming from Singapore base.

“We’re across the border now,” she reported. “Or rather underneath it. Inside Nepal…and on course. Closest town is Silgarhi, fifteen kilometers ahead and fifteen hundred meters above us.”

Barnes yawned and stretched. To her driver/system operator Nicole Simonet, she said, “Take over, will you? I’m heading aft to see what’s in the Stores lockers. When’s our first turn?”

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” said Barnes, “but ANAD’s been just ornery enough lately to make me feel a little uneasy. And as we get closer to this Config Zero thing—“ She shrugged and headed aft for a little refreshment.

Half an hour later, Barnes was back on B deck. Jung announced their current position.

“Heading change at Namse Pass in one hour and twelve minutes. Course is plotted and laid in.”

It was a sobering realization that Barnes had next. “That means we’ll be in Chinese territory in about three hours…or rather, under it.”

“Injun country,” agreed Jung.

Their part of Operation Himalaya Strike was about to enter its final approach phase.

 

The heading change came off without a glitch. Gopher tunneled ahead on a course of zero seven five degrees, heading north by northeast through hard igneous rock layers, at an average depth of two thousand meters.

After the course change, the geoplanes would traverse a dense inclusion of extremely hard basaltic rock directly below the rugged Valley of Flowers, a region of steep ravines and snow-capped peaks dotted with monasteries, tent camps and goat herds, a land roamed by hardy Nepalese and Tibetan peasants for centuries. Once they crossed the sere and desolate borderland of Tibet, the approach course took them in a straight line across the foothills of the Gangdise Shan range directly under the Paryang valley, some ninety kilometers inside Chinese territory.

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

Forty hours after making the course change at Namse Pass, Nicole Simonet took a navigation hack off the quantum signal grid broadcast by Singapore base and announced her findings.

“Paryang valley dead ahead, Sergeant. Ten kilometers and some change.”

Mighty Mite Barnes had been drifting in and out of a light doze in her commander’s seat, sporadically field-stripping and cleaning a small coilgun on a drop cloth in her lap. She startled awake at Simonet’s announcement.

“Show me,” she said, wiping sleep from her eyes.

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

“We’re here—“she pointed with her finger. She scrolled the view more to the northeast. A dun-colored grid of low buildings came into view, their roofs bright with recent snowfall. “That’s the monastery at Paryang valley, dead center of all the entanglement waves that Q2 triangulated. Red Hammer Incorporated. I make the distance at about ten kilometers.”

Barnes nodded. “Alert the crew. Sound battle stations, too. Let’s start ascending. Take us up to about two hundred meters. Rock layers?”

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

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

The DSO complied and steered the geoplane upward toward the surface. B deck inclined ever so slightly, while Barnes made the announcement to the crew over the CMQ.

“This is CC1…listen up…we’re ten kilometers from our surface objective. We’re going to full battle stations on my command…button up your tin cans and load up your weapons. We’ll be at the jump-off point in two hours and ten minutes.” She sounded the alarm klaxon, which echoed through Gopher’s hull…three sharp blasts on the horn. Once in position, Barnes knew the two geoplanes would then await the go signal from Johnny Winger, who would hopefully have already penetrated the monastery compound from above.

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

“Come on!” yelled the DPS, Mike Bodle. “Get your fat asses in gear! We’ve got atomic butt to kick!”

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

“I can’t wait to get the hell out of this big friggin’ metal condom!” shouted Mary Swanson, the Sensors tech as she snapped down her hypersuit helmet.

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

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

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

The trick was to place Gopher, Mole and the assault teams where the seismic shock waves wouldn’t also destroy the geoplanes. If the network of fracture zones and the pilot holes worked as calculated, a series of tremors up to magnitude 8.5 could be expected to roll through the valley.

And all of this was contingent on signals from Johnny Winger inside Paryang that the INDRA virus was in place and ready to launch.

Barnes had no intention of letting Gopher be trapped in any sliding rock layers when that happened. In fact, contrary to the mission plan, she had already decided to order the surfacing of both geoplanes completely and try to ride out the tremors hunkered down somewhere in the snow-covered valley overnight.

“Approaching the surface now…” the DSO reported. Gopher’s deck had angled upward sharply. “Sixty meters…now, fifty meters—“

Barnes checked the time. “It’s just after midnight topside. According to the maps and sat views, we should be coming up in a ravine about ten kilometers southwest of Paryang valley.”

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

“Surfacing…!” Simonet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a good idea?”

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

Gopher squatted like a black metal armadillo in the lee of a snow bank, huddled against the steep flanks of a rugged mountain known to the locals as Zapog. It was dark and windy, snow swirling about the surfaced geoplane in gusts and squalls, as Barnes threw open the hatch and leaped to the ground. Right behind her, Simonet, Glance, Jung, Swanson and Bodle dropped to the snow and set up a quick defensive perimeter, quickly boresighting and registering HERF and mag weapons on nearby peaks barely visible in the blizzard.

Moments later, Mole breached the surface with a deep rumble and stopped alongside, huffing and clanking in the blowing snow. Her CC1, Hoyt Gibbs, emerged from the forward hatch and dropped to the ground.

The two CC1s compared notes.

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

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

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

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

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

“ANAD…launch now!”

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

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

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

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

“No nano threats?”

“Negative. The board is clean.”

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

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

“It’s a risk we’ll have to take. We’ve got about three hours before ANAD is in position. Timeline says Major Winger should be in position an hour after that. Bodle…let’s get SuperFly up and nosing about. Even in this weather, I’d like to keep a close eye on what’s happening.”

“Roger that, Skipper.” The DPS1 went over to the geoplane’s tail pod and withdrew three small suitcase-sized containers. He opened the first container and fiddled with the contraption inside. Seconds later, like a dormant bird, it sat up and began articulating its wings and rotors. Warmed up and synched with its base station, the entomopter whirred and lifted off, heading off into the snowy night sky. Bodle did this three times, powering up and launching each device skyward.

“SuperFly away, Skipper,” he reported. “As soon as they link up, we’ll be getting data back.”

The Himalaya Strike mission was four-fold: (1) to disable the comm links between Config Zero and its offworld benefactors, (2) destroy Config Zero itself using the INDRA virus that Winger would insert (3) render the base inoperable for future Red Hammer operations and (4) locate the source of Red Hammer’s archive, the master Sphere that some intel specialists at Q2 believed had to exist, an archive likely in contact with the alien race that had taken over the cartel years before and was now using it to achieve their own ends.

The plan was that, in the chaos of the artificial tremors ANAD would generate, 1st Nano would be able to get inside the compound and achieve these objectives with a minimum of defense and resistance from Red Hammer. Just to make sure, after the tremors began, the ANAD master would rendezvous with Gopher at coordinates just outside the base perimeter to form a protective screen around the nanotroopers against the likely Red Hammer defensive nanobots they would encounter.

For nearly three hours, Gopher and Mole sat alone and motionless in a fog-shrouded, snowy valley three kilometers from the central Red Hammer base. Aboard the surfaced geoplane, Barnes waited tensely for the big show to begin.

Finally, word came from the swarm of tiny assemblers.

***ANAD reporting swarm now in position at the following coordinates…*** the master rattled off a stream of numbers. Barnes watched as Sergeant Mary Swanson plotted the position of the swarm on the stratigraphic map displayed on the main console.

“Very well, ANAD,” Barnes reported back over the coupler circuit. She knew that nearly a kilometer of solid rock separated them from the swarm. “Stand by….” To her geotech Vance Jung, “what’s the verdict?”

The GET1 looked up. “Right on the button. He’s situated between these two faults, with a major fracture zone we plotted right below him. Red Hammer doesn’t know it but they’re sitting on a geological time bomb.”

Barnes smiled. “Then it’s time to light the fuse.” She ordered the detachments to return from their defensive positions and climb back aboard Gopher and Mole. “ANAD…commence the operation.”

***ANAD understands…commencing solid-phase destructive disassembly…hold on to your hats, folks***

Moments later, a vast, deeply felt rumbling could be heard and felt up and down Paryang valley. A great crashing roar occurred as landslides and avalanches pummeled the ground from the high slopes around the parked geoplanes.

For protection, Barnes decided it was best to submerge Gopher about fifty meters below ground. Gibby agreed.

The geoplane’s treads were engaged and her nose angled slightly down as the borer plowed through the snow and bit into the hard, frozen ground. In moments, they were below the surface, crawling forward toward the rendezvous coordinates.

The tremors had started, a continuous wave of tectonic plate motion and upheaval, shattering everything within kilometers of the Paryang valley and its ancient monastery.

Soon, the battle at Red Hammer’s central base would be joined.

 

Inside Paryang Monastery

December 7, 2049

0400 hours

 

Johnny Winger had a dilemma. The human being that had once been called Johnny Winger was now a dematerialized cloud of bots, what most people would call an angel. He was circulating around the Net, surfing bytes and packets and he knew he had a mission. His assigned mission was simple: to find Config Zero and insert the INDRA virus in its main processor.

It was just like a fist fight in a sleet storm, this combat down at the level of atoms. As an atomgrabber and a nanotrooper for years, Winger had worked with ANAD systems and driven bots through every kind of environment you could think of, including solid rock. Now he was one of them, living and fighting with the molecules that made up this crazy, roller-coaster world.

It was better than riding the Cyclone at Daytona Beach.

“Doc, maybe your ancestors were right…this is cool stuff. It’s a little bit like swimming uphill, or tacking against strong winds in a sailboat, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a real head trip.”

Doc II chimed through on the coupler circuit. ***Multi-config is the way to go, Major…we’ve always maintained there’s nothing like it…***

Winger found maneuvering through the packet stream inside the Net was something like fighting currents in the ocean. As a child, he remembered riding the waves on a board, tumbling end for end as the waves broke into a crescendo of foam and slammed him headfirst into the sand. You could fight the currents or you could flow with the currents. Just dodging the speedway of cotton balls was tricky enough, for that’s what the packet stream seemed like to him.

It was time to exit the Net.

Johnny Winger set his propulsors for the nearest node. Doc II had given him a vector and he made up the distance in a few minutes. From a tactical map in memory, he knew this node, Node 3371, was inside the Server Bank Eight room. He closed on the node and pushed through the connector grid, flowing out of the lines and into a smoking, wreckage-filled space crammed with toppled server racks, smashed cabinets, and loose pieces of cable and ceiling tile.

Well, I see the geoplanes have started their end of the assault.

Johnny Winger toggled configuration C-2 and began slamming atoms to gather himself into something more closely resembling a human being, what the bots had long called a Normal. You had to laugh at that. What was normal and what wasn’t now? Everything in existence was made up of atoms. Some configurations just had more atoms than others.

The process took about five minutes. When it was done, there stood alongside the rack containing server node 3371 an angel being that closely resembled Major Johnny Winger. In fact, it was Johnny Winger in all the ways that mattered…memory, identity, habits and thoughts. Doc II had seen to that.

Now it was time to see to his real mission…what he had come here for.

He sensed a dense form nearby…likely a Normal…and configged his photon lens to bring the form into clarity, probing ahead for thermal, electromagnetic and acoustic signatures.

It was a human.

Zhang Wutien had been an IT tech at the monastery for only a year and had spent much of that time buried in the server racks on the fifth subsurface level of the complex, troubleshooting disk problems, maintaining firewalls, building and allocating directories. The last thing he expected to see on the first anniversary of being hired was a small stream of sparkling smoke issuing from Node 3371 of the T-7 hub in the corner.

“Crap,” he muttered to himself. “Third disk failure this week—“ But when the stream of smoke began to solidify and form up a recognizably human shape, Zhang froze in his tracks and dropped his tablet clattering to the floor.

When Johnny Winger spoke gently to the young IT tech, suggesting it was time to leave, Zhang fled the server room in terror, knocking stacks of disks and other equipment from nearby shelves and racks. He left the door to the server room wide open and streaked off down the hall, shouting and waving about the ghost he had just seen.

“Well, Doc, that went well. Can you give me a bearing to our target?”

***Detecting massive decoherence wakes, Johnny…strong quantum disturbance…bearing zero eight five degrees, below our level***

“Must be a floor below us. Doc, I know we were here before, but I don’t recognize anything.”

***Johnny, all structures inside this complex are nanobotic elements…reconfiguration is easily possible…home on the target bearing….that should be Configuration Zero…that source should be constant***

Winger, operating as a human-like angel, reconnoitered passageways and corridors for a few minutes, earning a few stares from other inhabitants but no alarms sounded. It was Doc who suggested he resume a loose, amorphous state.

***Recommending dispersal tactics, Johnny…loose config…this should allow us unhindered access without obvious resistance or setting off any alarms***

“Good idea,” Winger decided. It was one of many advantages of being an angel. You could easily disperse yourself into a cloud of smoke and drift like dust without triggering any reaction…assuming the place was accustomed to having such apparitions floating about. To Johnny Winger, clouds and knots of nanobotic forms were as common about the monastery as the ever-present incense candles.

After drifting about for an hour, homing on the strong deco wake signals detected by Doc II, they came at last to a massive vault-like structure on the lowest level.

“This must be where we were before, Doc,” Winger decided. It was clear from the shimmer of the vault surface that a nanobotic barrier was in place. “Looks like we’ve got a reception committee to deal with.”

***Recommending assume config C-9, Johnny…with extra bond disrupters. I think you can take these guys down***

“Glad you’re so confidant,” Winger said. He changed configs, each integral bot now growing extra disrupters, slamming structures together. “Let’s go—!”

The Winger swarm engaged the nanobotic barrier, wading right into their midst with carbenes grabbing, pyridines probing and disrupters disrupting. Doc’s estimate proved accurate and they were able to make quick work of the barrier bots. The shimmering flashed and pulsed, then went dark.

Only the vault itself remained.

***Recommend configure for solid-phase transit, Johnny. It will take too long to penetrate those seals around the hatch***

Winger knew what that meant: collapse all effectors, reconfig into a planar form and suck in your breath, squeezing through the atomic crystalline planes like sliding through a football crowd after the big game. It wasn’t one of his favorite tactics.

“You’re sure this is the target, Doc? There’s no other way?”

***Analysis indicates time to transit through the structure is forty five percent less than trying to breach the seals, with less chance of detection until we’re through, Johnny***

“Okay, you’re the Doc…you’re the expert on all this. Better check on our Christmas present, too. Once we’re inside, we’ll have to locate Config Zero’s main processor and figure out a way to get INDRA inserted. Then notify the geoplanes to begin their part of the assault.”

Reconfigging was done and the transit began. To Johnny Winger, it was like trying to squeeze through a narrow door…that went on seemingly forever. All around, the only thing visible was an endless plain of a crystalline lattice, row after unending row of atoms and molecules in rigid sheets, marching off in every direction. After what seemed like days, Doc announced the end was detectable.

***Aspect change ahead, Johnny…solid-phase coming to an end…zzhhzzhh…detecting format fault…shshzhzh***

“Doc, what’s happening…you’re cutting out…can you give me a final bearing to target?”

***—-arget bearing…strong quantum dis…zhzhzh***

The coupler link with Doc suddenly went silent. And Johnny Winger felt very alone. The infinite chessboard of the lattice came to an end and he found himself once more in the presence of something he never expected…something he had no defenses for….

 

The problem with being a swarm being, Johnny Winger figured, was that you couldn’t taste hot dogs being grilled on a campfire. And that sucked.

He really didn’t know how he had gotten here. He had a memory—did swarm beings even have memories?—there had been an endless field of waving, undulating plants, like a corn field, only it wasn’t corn. When he looked closer, he could see that the corn was actually composed of trillions of tiny bots, a whole field of bots. A whole planet of bots. When he walked through the field, the bot-plants parted like corn stalks, but little poofs of them drifted up and he soon saw he had a rooster tail of dust behind them, identifying the path he had taken through the field.

Then he had come to a small lake, barely a hundred meters across. There was a small white wooden footbridge across the center of the lake. And, not unexpectedly, he saw a small whirlpool churning alongside of the bridge piling, right in the middle of a lake.

What else was there to do but jump into the whirlpool? If this was a dream, that was the logical thing to do, wasn’t it? So he jumped…

And wound up here. ‘Here’ was actually a place of strong, good-feeling memories. ‘Here’ was one of the good places.

It was the old fishing camp and cabin at Ford’s Creek, Colorado. It had to be ’35, maybe ’36. His Dad, Jamison Winger, had often brought him here for long weekends in the summer and fall. Trout and bass and all that cold running water that burbled down out of the Rockies made Ford’s Creek a special place.

He knew this place.

Now he was inside the cabin. It was late, well after midnight. He was supposed to be in bed, in the top bunk, of course, with his brother Brad and neighbor Archie below. There were others in the bedroom too, but he didn’t know them and they were sound asleep anyway.

Somehow, like a well-rehearsed routine, he knew what he was going to do before he even did it. Trains ran on tracks and memories followed tracks too.

Johnny shimmied quietly down the ladder from the top bunk and padded across the hard wooden floor to the bedroom door. He cracked it open, crept out into a darkened hall and made his way toward the living room up front. There were voices there and some laughing and chuckling. Cards were being dealt. It was the grownups and their poker game again.

Johnny stopped at the end of the hall and peered around the corner.

A fire guttered in the chimney, mostly smoke, but no one paid any attention. A small rickety table was set up next to the fire. Chairs had been pushed aside to make room for the table. There were cans and paper sacks strewn across the floor.

Someone burped real loud and Johnny had to stifle his own laugh.

Grownups, really

Five men were playing poker around the table. One was his Dad, tall, fringe of gray hair around a mostly bald top, red flannel shirt not tucked in, his weathered, rough hands fanning out the cards to study his draw. There were others too: Hugh, Roy and Todd.

The fifth man sat with his back to Johnny. The low lights and the flickering flames of the fire cast deep shadows across a broad set of shoulders. He never turned around, and Johnny took to calling him the Shadow Man. He didn’t know the Shadow Man’s real name.

“Come on, Roy, you in or out?”

Roy was stocky, white-haired, ruddy-faced, in fact he had a pig’s face, Johnny had always thought. His lips tightened and he slapped a few cards down on the table.

“Yeah, I’m in. I’ll see your five and raise you five.”

Todd tossed a few chips into a growing pile. “I’ll call.”

Johnny’s Dad did the same, but added, with a mischievous wink, “I’ll see your five and raise you twenty.” He tossed a handful of chips in the pile, which had now become a small hill.

The Shadow Man said nothing at first. Then, with no words, he tossed his own chips in, all of them. In a low, almost inaudible voice, he said, “See…and raise fifty.”

That raised eyebrows around the table. It even gave Johnny a chill. Not what the Shadow Man said but the way he said it…like a hiss, almost, like a snarl. The Shadow Man talked like Johnny figured a talking grizzly bear would talk: guttural, menacing, hoarse and deep.

Who was this Shadow Man? Johnny wondered.

Then, almost as if he were answering Johnny’s question, the Shadow Man spoke again, just like a grizzly bear playing cards.

“I never bet less than the house.” It was a kind of an explanation. The Shadow Man must have had a winning hand; he’d bet everything on that hand. More raised eyebrows.

“Sure, whatever you say,” muttered Roy. He didn’t look up, but continued fiddling with his own cards.

Johnny had about a million questions. Was this fishing camp real? Did I actually jump into a lake on a planet of bots? Am I dreaming?

“You’re not dreaming,” the Shadow Man bent forward, toward Jamison Winger. “I saw the look on your face. You’re wondering how any hand could be that good. My hand is that good.”

No one argued with the Shadow Man and the game went on. As he hung by the corner of the hallway door, Johnny tried to take in everything he saw. He knew it all had some kind of meaning.

“Doc, I don’t really understand what all this is about—“

***Metaphoric simulation….*** came Doc’s reply, still intermittent, like it was being jammed by proximity to Config Zero. ***Johnny, they’re accessing your memory…somehow, in the file, the traces can be followed….this is a simulation constructed in part from your memory traces***

“But I don’t ever remember anything like this. Not exactly, anyway…maybe, pieces of it.”

***That’s what Config Zero detects…fragments. It’s pulling together fragments and trying to build some kind of narrative. Johnny, don’t forget the capsule***

The containment capsule maintained the INDRA virus. Winger figured the Shadow Man was actually Config Zero. Then, there came a clear opening.

The card players broke for a few minutes. Jamison Winger headed for the bathroom. Roy and Hugh puffed on cigars. Todd grabbed something to drink from the fridge. The Shadow Man remained seated. When the others returned, Jamison Winger wasn’t among them. Johnny had seen to that, following him into the bathroom, pinching off a small subset of his own swarm to keep him there. The remainder of the Johnny Winger swarm returned to the table, taking Jamison Winger’s place. Nobody seemed to notice anything different. And in that interval, while he was away from the table, Johnny Winger had grabbed enough atoms to fashion a new playing card, one with the INDRA capsule embedded in it. That was Doc’s suggestion.

“Deal,” said Roy.

The Shadow Man dealt the cards.

Johnny took his cards, quietly added the new card he had fabbed and studied his hand. Some threes, a four, a Jack and a King. He wasn’t sure what game was being played, but when his turn to show came up, he laid down a Jack, then hesitated just a moment—

***Play the card, Johnny….my analysis of this simulation protocol indicates that playing the card will execute the INDRA operation when you play it…play it now***

Roy looked over with a lifted eyebrow. “Well, Jamison…we’re waiting. You going to keep us in suspense?”

Johnny Winger played the INDRA card, laying it down on the table with exaggerated care….

…and in that instant, the entire room, the entire cabin at Ford’s Creek exploded in light.

Seconds later, a deep rumbling could be heard beneath the dissolving floorboards. The wooden walls dematerialized, in a stuttering flicker of light, like a strobe, to be replaced by hard granitic walls.

It was a cave, Johnny realized. It was the Cave. At that same moment, he sent an encrypted coupler signal to the geoplane force outside the monastery.

It was time to execute Himalaya Strike Phase Two.

And the roof of the cave began collapsing on all of them….

 

The shaking and shuddering was the worst Barnes had ever experienced aboard a geoplane. When the tremors came, the first shocks were deceivingly light. Gopher began a series of gentle, rolling motions, shuddering like a slow-motion dog shaking off water after a dip in the ocean. But she knew that wouldn’t last.

The first wave hit seconds later and Gopher rang like a bell from the impact, as hammering waves pounded them, a giant fist smashing and driving them down, deeper.

“We’re going deeper!” Simonet yelled, eyeing the densitometer. “We’re sliding…down and to the right!”

“I see it!” Barnes had seen the same thing. The profiler showed what had happened, even as ANAD continued loosening more rock, even as the huge tectonic plates and faults shifted and heaved.

The geoplane had parked less than fifty meters below the valley floor, to avoid damage from mudslides and avalanches cascading down the mountainsides all around them.

Now, as the ground buckled and indescribably powerful forces rammed rock into rock, crumpling kilometers of Tibetan plateau like so much tissue paper, Barnes knew they could never hope to ride out the tremors in their current position.

“DSO, take us back topside!” she announced. Simonet pulled back on the yoke and Gopher’s treads angled upward, driving them through the shifting maelstrom toward the surface. There, at least, the geoplanes and their assault teams could avoid being smashed completely.

Like riding a roller coaster or a raft in the middle of a hurricane, the geoplane made her way arduously upward, boring through hard granitic and basaltic layers, until after what seemed like an eternity, Barnes saw the densitometer reading fall off sharply.

“We’re breaching, Nicole…kill the treads!”

Gopher lurched forward and her treads spun in the air, grabbing for traction. The hull of the geoplane burrowed out of its hole and wallowed in snowdrifts and falling dirt and mud for a few seconds, before settling to a stop. Loose rock and rubble pelted the top of the hull in a steady clatter.

Barnes and Simonet looked at each other. Barnes wiped sweat from her eyes.

“That was close.”

“Amen to that…ANAD must have found one hell of a fault zone.”

Even as she spoke, the tremors seemed to be subsiding. Gopher rolled and bucked for a few more moments, but the amplitude of the shocks was definitely falling off.

“That’s our cue,” Barnes said. She got on the crewnet. “The quakes are just about over. Prepare to exit, full combat load.”

One deck behind them, 1st Nano’s assault force erupted in a flurry of activity.

“All right, boys and girls…get your gear together and let’s get those pretty little asses moving!” Sergeant Al Glance growled as he clanked down his hypersuit helmet.

All around him, hypersuited nanotroopers flexed their boosted arms and legs, and the whir of suit boosters going off stirred a small tornado of dust in the compartment.

One by one, the troopers wriggled into the access tube and boosted their way aft toward the lockout chamber, each one holding his weapon in front as the lift pushed them along.

From outside, geoplane Gopher looked like a fat metallic walrus half burrowed in a snow bank. Rock and snow continued to cascade down the mountainsides as the lockout doors unsealed and swung open.

Then, one after another, the nanotroopers of the United Nations Quantum Corps fell out into the deep snow and lit off their suit boost to right themselves. With a speed and deftness born of countless hours of training, the DPS tech Mike Bodle along with troopers Swanson and Jung formed themselves up into a three-point perimeter defense, sighting in their coilguns on nearby approach paths. While that was occurring, Simonet and Glance extracted their HERF guns and registered them along the assault vector that would lead the team to the Paryang monastery, now dimly visible in the swirling snow dead ahead.

The Red Hammer command post was a shadowy jumble of stone parapets and squat towers, a faint orange-yellow glow emanating from the windows facing them. ANAD had already breached the surface ahead of them and was approaching the monastery.

Bodle lasered the range. “I make the distance at about two kilometers, from here.”

Barnes checked the timing of Winger’s encrypted coupler alert. “The Major inserted and activated INDRA at 1632 hours. Config Zero should be pre-occupied now, if all went well.”

“Let’s hope,” said Bodle.

Barnes gave the command. “Light off your suit boost and move out now…squad order!”

Scant meters ahead of the defiladed assault team, the front courtyard of the Paryang monastery was a snowy lightshow, as auroras collided overhead and a pulsating cloud of tiny pops and flashes growing more intense by the moment, billowed outward. Furious combat erupted between ANAD and Red Hammer’s nanoscale barrier, a throbbing blue-white flickering fog caught like a strobe in the falling snow, with the gargoyled front columns of Paryang lending a grotesque air to the battle.

“How’s it looking now, Mike?” Barnes asked Bodle.

The DPS tech slithered forward a few more meters to get a better reading, scaling a snow bank scarcely a dozen meters from the monastery’s front steps. He let his suit burrow him into the snow for protection.

He never saw the shadows of the Red Hammer squad skulking along behind the nearby columns, settling into ambush position below the steps. The blizzard had picked up and with all sensors trained on the swarms, the enemy troops had infiltrated the grounds unseen.

Just a momentary thermal spike on Barnes’ viewer—

“Watch out!”

A volley of pulse rounds erupted from the columns. Bodle was caught in the middle of the fusillade.

As the Detachment came under fire, the DPS1 disappeared in a bright flash of rubble and fire, his hypersuited body pulverized in crisscrossing bolts of high-mag flux.

Corporal Mike Bodle never had a chance.

“Let ‘em have it!” Barnes yelled over the crewnet, but she didn’t have to. The Detachment opened up on the enemy squad with everything they had.

They were soon joined by troopers from geoplane Mole, just surfaced a half a klick to their west.

Suddenly, a big thermal spike attracted Sergeant Mary Swanson’s attention. “Uh oh…what is this?” She studied the imagery on her helmet head-up display, reading off figures. “Skipper, thermals dead ahead, all wavelengths, major source right in front of us. Electromagnetics too…something’s happening—“

Before she could finish her sentence, Barnes called a quick halt to their advance. “Hold up!” she ordered.

The assault teams hunkered down in rising snow drifts.

The entire monastery complex had begun to fade out in the driving snow. Flashes of light surged in waves across the face of the structure, followed by pops and sparkles of more light.

“The whole damn thing—“

Barnes couldn’t believe her eyes. The monastery was dissolving right in front of them. The monastery complex was itself a huge nanobotic structure. And it was reconfiguring right before their eyes, losing structure, almost melting.

“Jeez, will you look at that!” muttered Hoyt Gibbs, from the Mole.

The hairs on the back of Barnes’ neck stood up. “Get those HERF guns spooled up. All units, hold your position! And prep all ANAD systems for combat launch! We’ve got to get a barrier up quick!”

The crewmen of Gopher and Mole buried themselves against snow drifts, still feeling the tremors shaking the ground beneath them. Rock and snow cascaded down the sides of the steep hills surrounding Paryang Valley. One after another, the troopers cycled their shoulder capsules, initiating the launch sequence for their embedded ANADs. The reports came back rapid-fire to Barnes over the crewnet.

“My ANAD’s juiced and ready to go,” said Jung.

“Ditto me,” added Simonet.

“Just give the word, Skipper,” said Glance.

Barnes saw out of the corner of her eye that Nicole Simonet had slithered into better firing position with her HERF weapon, sighting into the centroid of the vast swarm along the top of an ice-flecked boulder. On the other side of their line of advance, just past a statue of Buddha that had already toppled to the ground, she saw two of Gibbs’ people from Mole do the same thing.

Barnes winced as more tremors hit, shaking the ground like a wet dog after a bath. “ANAD’s really doing a number down below,” she said to herself. Then she got on the crewnet to Gibbs, Mole’s commander.

“Gibby, we can’t stay here topside. It’s not safe.”

Gibbs agreed. “I’m not sending anyone into that. Jeez, I never saw anything like that.”

“The whole complex is one big swarm. Gibby, take your people and fall back to Mole. Get below and back off a few klicks.”

“What are you going to do, Mite?”

Barnes had an idea. “It’s a cinch Major Winger’s already inserted INDRA. Otherwise, I don’t think this monastery would be dissolving. Config Zero probably held the whole thing together.”

“There’s nothing more we can do here. We don’t have the firepower to take on a swarm this big, even if we ganged all our ANADs together.”

“I’m going after the Major.”

“What…in that hurricane? Mite, it’s a big bang. You’ll never make it through, even if you do locate him…Winger’s a dust flake in a tornado now…you can’t possibly detect any signatures in this.”

Barnes wasn’t so sure. Winger, the real Johnny Winger, had surprised people before. “Mary—“ she called up her Sensors and Surveillance tech, “can you get a fix on the Major’s coupler signal?”

Swanson crabwalked across snow and rock, stumbling and pitching forward as more tremors hit and came up to Barnes. “Very faint, Sergeant. Intermittent. Signal’s almost swamped in all this ruckus….Right now, I have something, but I couldn’t give you a bearing from it.”

“Try, Mary. We need a bearing. Gibby, get Mole out of here. I’m taking Gopher below ground. We’re going to maneuver as close to Winger’s location as Mary can put us, then surface, even if it’s inside that swarm, inside the monastery.”

Gibbs was incredulous. “Mite, are you insane? You’ll never survive inside that swarm…Gopher’ll be eaten alive, if you aren’t crushed first.”

“Gibby, stop arguing and get the hell out of here.”

For a long moment, the two mission commanders glared at each other, both thinking the same thing. It was the Code. Nanotroopers didn’t leave their buddies behind. Nobody got left behind.

Gibbs shrugged, accepting the finality of the decision. “I’ll put Mole a few hundred meters under you and back off one kilometer. I’m not leaving without you.”

“Agreed. Now, git—!”

Gibbs disappeared into the swirling snow. Over her crewnet, she heard Gibbs ordering his crew to fall back to the geoplane. Moments later, a higher pitched squeal—Mole’s treads engaging—could be heard over the howl of the wind. The ground rumbled as the geoplane clanked and coughed, and moments later, her borer head disappeared below a snow bank in a glowing puff of steam and snow.

“Fall back to Gopher!” Barnes commanded her own troopers. “Mary, lock onto the Major’s signal the best you can. We’re going inside that swarm…and coming up from belowground. Put us right underneath the Major and we’ll grab him and get the hell out of here.”

At that very moment, the entire face of a cliff at the far end of the valley sloughed off and avalanched to the ground in a great crashing roar of snow and rock. It was a surreal scene they witnessed as, one after another, the troopers of Himalaya Strike boarded Gopher’s lockout and slipped inside.

“Button her up and let’s get to burrowing,” Barnes ordered as she scrambled down the rocking and rolling central gangway toward B deck. “Bring the borer online now…soon as she’s up, engage treads and get us out of here!”

Moments later, the geoplane rumbled and creaked as she sank below ground. Just beyond her parking spot, another large statue of Buddha toppled over, thudding into the snow and pitching head first into the crater left by the geoplane.

“Mary, give us your best bearing,” Barnes said.

Swanson pored over her S&S table, adjusting instruments, widening and focusing the scan. “Very faint, Skipper, but here goes…steer left zero five five degrees. I make the source as about two thousand meters on that bearing, slightly above our elevation….”

Barnes ordered the driver/systems operator (DSO) Nicole Simonet to steer that heading. She was about to command max rate borer so Gopher could speed up, when Swanson reported a message coming in.

“Flash traffic on the VLF, Sarge…it’s UNIFORCE.” She let the printer crank out a slip of paper, tore it off and handed it up to Barnes.

The CC1 scowled as she read. “It says the Chinese PLAAF are scrambling a squadron of J-27 fighter aircraft and half a dozen troop transports toward Paryang Valley. We are to exfiltrate with all possible speed….and don’t leave anything behind.”

Al Glance was the borer operator (BOP1). He snorted. “You mean like a pile of smoldering wreckage?”

“And one big ass swarm that’ll eat fighter jets like corn flakes,” added Vance Jung, the geotech.

Barnes just shook her head. “UNIFORCE needs to slam the whole Valley with beamfire from their killsats. If that swarm’s not contained, it could eat half of Tibet.”

“I guess the Chinese know that,” Glance observed. “They’ve been in cahoots with Red Hammer for a decade.”

“I’m not sure they know about Config Zero,” Barnes said. “Until now…Mary…still on course?”

“Maintain current heading. The Major’s coupler signal is actually getting stronger.”

Gopher shook and shimmied with more tremors and her hull plates creaked and groaned from the pressure of thousands of tons of rock squeezing them on all sides. “So’s the shaking. DSO, let’s make tracks. Al, go to max on the borer. Treads at full rpms. The ground around here’s unstable and I don’t want Gopher to get trapped.”

“Voids up ahead,” announced Jung, checking his densitometer profiles. “Don’t want to go there…steer right ten degrees…could be a temporary fault zone.”

Barnes gave the command and Gopher heeled hard right, her deck canting slightly as the DSO swung them to starboard. “If we slide into a void with all this rocking and rolling, Gopher could be smashed in an instant.”

The geoplane slowly maneuvered her way through fault zones and voids directly beneath the swelling swarm that had once been the huge Buddhist monastery. From above, the entire Paryang Valley seemed to be a seething, boiling mass of snow, rock, flickering light and roiling clouds. Gopher had settled onto a course several hundred meters below the valley floor, sliding and melting her way through hard granitic rock toward a very faint coupler signal that Barnes and her crew hoped and prayed was Major John Winger…or what Winger had become.

Presently, Swanson held up a hand. “Skipper, best bearing match puts our source almost directly overhead, about sixty meters, slightly to port. “

“All stop,” Barnes commanded. “DSO, take us up…slowly. Vance—“ she motioned for Jung to leave his geotech’s station. “Get a barebones ANAD ready to go out once we breach. Config C-55-“ she said from memory. “Put up a bubble around Gopher. We may have to go outside and hunt around for the Major…it’ll be like looking for a few leaves in a hurricane.”

“Got it, Skipper.” Jung slithered aft down Gopher’s central gangway to the lockout chamber on G deck. He unslung a containment capsule from the cabinet and sprang the capsule port, starting the initialization sequence for the master ANAD bot inside. As soon as Sergeant Barnes gave the word, Jung would slam the capsule into the lockout chamber, cycle the outer door and moments later, the capsule would be exposed to the outside world and big banging a C-55 swarm around the lockout door. If it worked, anybody unlucky enough to go outside would emerge from Gopher into a protected bubble of bots, while chaos swirled all around them.

That was the plan.

The crew soon felt the geoplane breaching the surface, as her treads spun up and the ship momentarily lurched forward.

“All stop,” Barnes said. “Simonet, you’re with me and Jung. Everybody else stays onboard. Mary, give me a final fix and prep that portable scanner. I’ll need it outside.”

At the lockout on G deck, Barnes gave her team last minute instructions.

“Stay close. Once the ANAD bubble’s up, we go out single file, weapons charged and ready. Mary has put us just a few meters below the strongest signal so I’m hoping the Major’s right here…or his swarm. I’m taking an empty containment capsule to grab him. Nicole, you and Vance have perimeter guard. I’ll hunt for the Major. Any questions?”

There were none.

To Jung, Barnes gave the order. “Okay, launch ANAD now.”

The geotech sprang the containment capsule and a small faintly sparkling mist issued forth, moving steadily toward a small lockout chamber. The mist penetrated the lockout and was cycled through, emerging into the maelstrom of the vast swarm that had once been the Paryang monastery.

“ANAD’s through,” Jung reported, studying the feed on his wristpad. “Configured C-55, reporting high thermals, off-scale high and electromagnetics the same.”

Mary Swanson added, “Decoherence wakes are out of sight, Skipper. Don’t touch anything out there…you could be yanked off to who knows where.”

Barnes agreed. “Let’s go.”

One after another, first Barnes, Simonet, then Jung cycled through the lockout.

Outside, they stood in what seemed like the middle of a hurricane. All around, the monastery had deconstructed into knots and gales of bots, swirling and swarming and pulsating and throbbing like a slow-motion thunderstorm. The swarm was so thick it was difficult even to move about.

“Like being underwater,” muttered Jung.

“Any read on Major Winger?” Barnes asked, though how they would ever locate and grab the Winger swarm was hard to imagine.

“Picking up faint coupler signals now,” Simonet announced. She turned first left, then right. “Three meters this way—“ she pointed “and below us…near the bottom layer—outside ANAD’s bubble.“

The trio punched through the protective shielding of ANAD bots and slogged through the swarm centimeter by centimeter, with Simonet trying her best to home on a very faint coupler signal.

“It’s there…then it’s not there,” she said in frustration. She bent down to her knees, then groped her way forward, probing ahead with her fingers, studying her wristpad. “I think…maybe there?”

“Grab it!” Barnes ordered. “”Swipe your capsules, both of you and let’s get out of here. ANAD won’t hold much longer.”

Simonet and Jung both unhooked empty containment capsules and, with Simonet’s guidance, made several sweeps through the thick swarm. Jung checked his capsule, already tuned to detect bots of likely configuration.

“I may have him!” he decided. “Reading C-22…snatches of other configs. Recognizable stuff here.”

“Sweep one more time,” Barnes ordered. She eyed an onrushing wall of bots, building like a slow-motion tsunami, surging down from above, ready to break right on top of them. They would soon be swept away themselves if they didn’t hurry. “Grab more and we’ll sort it out later. We’ve got to get out of here now!”

Simonet and Jung did one more sweep, then both secured their capsules and attached them to web belts.

“Come on!” Barnes hustled them both back inside the ANAD barrier and took one last look at the dust and debris of what had once been a huge Buddhist temple.

Hope to hell I never get back here, she decided. The entire monastery structure had disintegrated into a vast swarming cloud of bots, flecked with falling snow and surmounted by swirling dust and flickering light as uncountable gazillions of bots slammed atoms and built structure to maintain some kind of config. It was like being inside a huge bee hive.

The troopers ducked back into Gopher’s lockout and cycled through. Shedding her hypersuit helmet, Barnes got on the ship’s 1MC and ordered Al Glance to power up the borer.

“Max reps, Al. Nicole will be up there in a moment. Soon as the borer’s ready, pull us out of here and set depth for two hundred meters. I’ll signal Mole we’re underway.”

“Roger that, Skipper,” said Glance over the intercom.

As they scrambled forward, Barnes and Simonet felt the geoplane lurch into motion. Her treads squealed and clanked as she backed underneath the huge swarm and disappeared down her approach tunnel.

Simonet assumed her DSO station and strapped in, feeling the tread controls respond to her touch. “Gopher now underway at two knots, Sergeant. Recommend departure heading of two five two degrees, at this depth.”

Jung, now back in his geotech’s seat, concurred. “That’s softer stuff, Skipper. Quartzite with inclusions, according to the densitometer and profiler.”

“Do it,” Barnes ordered. “Let’s get the hell out of here. And hope the assault ANAD has timed out so we don’t get smashed by any more tremors.”

Gopher ducked below Paryang Valley, turned about and slowly bored her way south. Mole was several kilometers further south, beyond the valley, ‘orbiting’ at six hundred meters depth. Barnes smiled as she saw the coupler light up with a text message from Gibbs, commanding the other geoplane.

Welcome back to the land of gophers and moles, Barnes. You got the Major?

Barnes took a deep breath. We’ll soon find out, she messaged back. She closed her eyes and let the fatigue wash over her. Then she settled back in the command chair and tried to work up enough nerve to go aft and see what they had grabbed.

 

They were nearing the Nepalese border when Mary Swanson reported a message coming in. “Flash traffic on the VLF, Sergeant. UNIFORCE priority—“

Barnes startled herself awake. “Read it, Mary—“

Swanson read out loud. “It says two battalions of Chinese PLA troops were airlifted into Paryang Valley this morning, supported by a squadron of PLAAF fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships. The monastery had collapsed into rubble due to continuing tremors and earthquakes in the area. The Chinese are reporting that a massive dust and ice storm is hampering rescue efforts.”

Barnes had to laugh at that. “A massive ice storm…right. An ice storm with teeth and effectors and propulsors. I wonder how the Chinese will deal with Config Zero.”

The 1MC chirped from G deck. It was Vance Jung at the lockout chamber. “Skipper, I’ve been scanning the containment capsules we used inside the monastery. I think you’d better come back here and take a look.”

Barnes said, “On my way—Nicole, how long until we reach Puranpur?”

Simonet checked. “Three hours best speed. Vance has plotted a course through softer rock, so we’re maintaining our speed pretty well. Mole reports the same.”

“Maintain heading,” Barnes said. She disappeared down the gangway.

Jung had an imager powered up, showing the contents of the containment capsules, when Barnes arrived.

“What have you got?”

Jung indicated a scaffolding mounted in the center of the imager display. “I discharged the capsules into this small containment tank and took a look.” Mounted on the scaffold was a small dark mass, looking for all the world like a bunch of grapes hanging on a trellis. The grapes seemed to be beating to some inner rhythm. “This is all we got.”

“Major Winger…or what’s left of him?”

Jung shrugged. “Hard to say, Skipper. They’re fragments of ANAD clones…I can tell you that much. If you zoom in, you see recognizable casing fragments, pieces of effectors, a propulsor shaft, some flagellar fibers. There’s some other debris as well…I’ve got it quarantined in another chamber. Probably Config Zero fragments. But this—“ he pointed to a small knob on the side of one of the ‘grapes.’ “—this is what’s special.”

“A growth of some kind?”

Jung shook his head, tweaked some knobs to improve resolution. “Part of a processor core. I managed to extract some files…including one labeled…best I can tell…Configuration Buffer Status Check. That’s the file Doc II said he loaded with Major Winger’s basic memory and personality traces and engrams.”

Barnes studied the processor ‘button.’ “That’s all we got?”

“So it would seem.”

Barnes felt a cold chill down her spine. “Okay, save that. Protect it well, Vance. I’m not sure anything can be done with it. Any sign of Doc II…anything that looks or reacts like Doc II?”

“Nothing. Sorry, Skipper. That’s all we got.”

Barnes was about to make a decision, when the 1MC chirped again. It was Simonet, up on B deck.

“Just thought you’d like to know…we’re approaching the ruby mine at Puranpur, Sergeant. Mole has already started her ascent. We should be breaching in about an hour.”

“Continue the ascent, Nicole. Put us inside that mine. I’m coming up.”

 

It had been a two-day journey south, from the high country of Tibet and the snowy rubble of Paryang Valley, south paralleling the Gangdise Shan range, across the Nepalese border, then doglegging further south to the Indian frontier at Utter Pradesh state.

Just shy of 1750 hours, on a cold, cloudy, blustery day, geoplanes Mole and Gopher breached the surface inside the abandoned ruby mine at Puranpur and clanked to a halt at the end of a long curving side tunnel.

A UNIFORCE platoon from South Asian II Corps was on hand to greet them. The c/o was lean, sunburned Bengali Major named Jamshedpur, who smiled a toothy smile and shook hands with each geoplane crewman as they emerged blinking and squinting in the glare of flood lamps.

“Welcome to Utter Pradesh,” the Major said. “We’ve just now rolled up in a convoy of crewtracs from Agra. Your lifters are on the way from Singapore, as we speak.”

Mighty Mite Barnes jumped down to the rubbly ground, sliding on loose rock. She wondered briefly if any loose rubies might be down there. “My crews need food and water, Major…got any rations?”

“Of course,” Jamshedpur snapped a finger and two packbots rolled up, bearing Q-ration kits for all. “And a message from your General Kincade…on my coupler. He wants you to notify him when the lifters are loaded and ready to leave.”

The geoplane crews dove into their ration kits with gusto, while cargotracs appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, ready to winch the geoplanes out and load them on their transporters.

Outside the mine shaft entrance, Barnes met up with Hoyt Gibbs, Mole’s commander. They shook hands firmly, then hugged. A stiff wind was blowing across the mine front and both decided to shelter inside one of the crewtracs. Overhead, two black lifters circled to gauge the swirling winds, seeking a safe landing spot. One after another, the spidery craft descended carefully to the ground and spun down their rotors to idle, while packbots and crewmen loaded up gear from the geoplanes.

Kincade’s face was already beaming at them from a wristpad vid.

“Congratulations to both of you. Himalaya Strike was a smashing success. Paryang has been physically destroyed, according to sat images we’re seeing and the sigint from our Chinese sources corroborates that. There will be hell to pay for somebody in Beijing tonight.”

“The entire monastery was nothing but a shell,” Barnes said. “A nanobotic structure, maintained by Config Zero. When the structure started dematerializing, we figured Major Winger had been successful inserting INDRA. It bollixed up Config Zero but good.”

Kincade agreed. “We’re detecting only localized decoherence wake disturbances now, Sergeant. Looks like Config Zero’s been silenced, for the moment. Best evidence from Q2 is that the threat has been effectively neutralized. For how long, we don’t know. There is some evidence that the swarm’s trying to reconstitute itself. But the Chinese may have something to say about that. In any case, Red Hammer’s main base is rubble and the link to the Old Ones, whoever or whatever they are, has been severed. We’re seeing no detectable quantum activity at all. Again, congratulations. Were you able to retrieve Major Winger?”

Barnes looked at Gibbs. “Sir, we grabbed something that may be pieces or elements of the Major’s processor. We can’t be sure. My geotech’s got quantum systems training. He thinks we can re-build the Major with the right feedstock and algorithms. But we need better facilities.” She swallowed hard, trying to imagine what the days ahead would bring.

Would quantum specialists at Mesa de Oro ever be able to reconstruct Major Johnny Winger? It was like trying to create a statue from a shadow. Barnes had her doubts.

Kincade tried to be realistic about their chances. “Well, whatever happens, Himalaya Strike wouldn’t have worked if Winger hadn’t inserted INDRA. The world and the Corps owe a great debt of gratitude to the Major. I’ll see the reconstruction effort gets our best people.”

Gibbs spoke up. “General, I heard some scuttlebutt from one of the lifter pilots…some new kind of organization being spawned off UNIFORCE?”

Kincade’s face tightened. “Keep that to yourselves for now. But it’s true. It’s to be called UNISPACE. They’ll have a mission to search the skies for any evidence that the Old Ones are real…or that they’re approaching. Or that they may already have arrived. UNISPACE will be mandated to prepare to engage and defeat any such intruders, when and if they ever come. The org charts are being worked out now. We should be able to stand up this new force in a few months.”

Gibbs was impressed. Barnes smirked. She could already see the wheels turning in his head…he was already drooling over new missions, new gear, new adventures.

Kincade signed off and Barnes and Gibbs boarded the last of the lifters. Both geoplanes had already been slung beneath the huge craft, which took off in tandem in a swirl of snow and dust, then wheeled about and headed south, for Singapore. An hour later, the flotilla was winging its way across the Bay of Bengal.

Mighty Mite Barnes grabbed herself some coffee and doughnuts from the canteen in the aft compartment and perched on the side of a webseat to watch the moonlight glinting off the wave tops thousands of meters below them.

Reconstructing Major John Winger. A new force called UNISPACE. Paryang imploded into a pile of rubble and bots. Config Zero contained…they all hoped.

Barnes slurped and munched thoughtfully, thinking there was no way anything that the future might bring now could be anything more than a fitting Epilogue to what had already happened.

But then again, as Major Winger had often said, ‘Small is all.’ You didn’t join Quantum Corps and become a nanotrooper to live a quiet life.

Gibbs joined her outside the canteen. “Mite, I’ve seen that look before. I can’t imagine anything could surpass what we’ve been through lately, especially the last few weeks. What’s percolating in that feverish brain of yours now?”

Barnes smiled wanly. “I was just wondering about Major Winger. Can we bring him back? The quantum guys say it should be possible. But it’s dicey. And the hell of it is: is reconstructing a swarm of bots into something that looks like Major Winger even a good idea? We may have defeated Red Hammer and Config Zero, for now. But I’m afraid we’ve opened a new door that we’ll never be able to shut again.”

Gibbs slammed down about three doughnuts at once. “Thinking like that just gives me a headache. After this coffee, I’m bunking down. I need about five days shuteye to reconstruct myself.”

“Amen to that,” Barnes agreed. They both laughed, then lunged for the nearest webseat at the same time. “Last one in turns out the lights.”

 

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses…just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for 25 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3-4 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled Keeshond dog named Kelsey.

For technical and background details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog at http://qcorpstimes.blogspot.com. For details on other books in this series, visit his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting www.Shakespir.com.

Download the final exciting episode of Nanotroopers from www.Shakespir.com. It’s called “Epilogue.” Available on April 3, 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 21: Paryang Monastery

Episode 21, Nanotroopers. Johnny Winger has been reconstructed from original atoms, after encountering Config Zero at the Paryang monastery, but now there is a new mission called Himalaya Strike. The Red Hammer cartel is nothing but a shell and Config Zero is an advance scout for an alien race called the Old Ones. The only way to defeat this threat is to insert a virus into Config Zero and sever its link with its offworld benefactors. For good measure, the mission also involves geoplanes and underground ANAD swarms setting off tactical quakes to destroy the cartel base. If it works, Red Hammer and Config Zero will be neutralized but Johnny Winger may not survive the mission. And even if he does, will Winger ever be the same again?

  • ISBN: 9781370928491
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2017-03-10 15:05:14
  • Words: 32361
Nanotroopers Episode 21: Paryang Monastery Nanotroopers Episode 21: Paryang Monastery