Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft
See The Shamasai Saga complete
Continuing from Part 5, Shaltok’s Sheep, in which Shaltok fights an unorthodox battle and finds himself question the ways of the Ghar…
To Batu, the battle was a chaotic. His combat display was confused, alternately flickering between ‘aboriginal animals’ and ‘Ghar Outcast’ tags, from ‘neutral’ to ‘foe’ identifiers and back. Worse, his plasma pistol was useless at the ranges his bodyguard were engaging the oncoming waves of Ghar. Is there no end to these Ghar?
He backed away from the parapet behind which his bodyguards focused their fire on the oncoming battle troopers. ‘Sergeant, I’m going down to fetch Amalay’s carbine. This pistol is useless.’
A disruptor explosion momentarily scrambled their comms and the sergeant’s reply was a crackle of static. Batu jumped down the suspensor well into the interior of the shelter. In here, the sounds of the battle were muted and he felt safer, less exposed. Another explosion shook the walls and dust flaked from the ceiling. Be brave, he thought.
Amalay was still lying over to the side, his head grotesquely deformed as the planet’s bionanospores multiplied and spread across his skull. His face was pale, eyes closed. Batu picked up the plasma carbine and spares, knelt by the wounded guard, braced himself to look directly into Amalay’s eyes. ‘We’re working on stuff, trooper.’ He patted Amalay’s arm in a manner he hoped was reassuring. ‘We’ve just got to sort these Ghar out, don’t you worry.’
Amalay’s eyes flickered open; Batu jumped. Amalay’s gaze was unfocused, stared right past Batu. He muttered something, croaked. Batu reached for a water bottle, placed it to Amalay’s lips. The guard sipped, coughed, sipped again. ‘Existential threat,’ he said. His eyes remained unfocused.
Batu stared. ‘Just Ghar and disruptor weapons.’
‘N-dimensional spatial and temporal distortions predicted to affect planetary stability at probability approaching one.’
‘Amalay?’ Batu placed a hand on the guard’s shoulder. Another series of explosions and the interior lights flickered.
Amalay’s gaze focused for a moment, settled on Batu’s face. Panic appeared in his eyes. ‘Help me,’ he said. ‘They’re reintegrating. I’m being…’ His gaze unfocused. ‘Psycho-social details required on aggression factors display by hostiles.’ As Batu watched the dust-coloured growth visibly spread another centimetre across the guard’s face.
Batu jerked back his hand, stepped away and raised the carbine. ‘They’re Ghar. You know that. They just fight.’ He was distracted by reports flashed onto his headset.
‘Storm coming.’ It was Ceahray on a general broadcast. ‘D-6 Withdrawal pattern under cover when it hits. Reinforcements won’t arrive in time.’
What’s a D-6 Withdrawal? The Algoryn combat instruction meant nothing to Batu.
‘Reinforcements requested,’ said the thing that had been Amalay. ‘Emulation in progress. Models pulled from biological host and nanosphere interface.’ His eyes closed and dust swirled inside the darkened shelter: there was no breeze.
Batu’s headset was suddenly filled with tracks of arriving reinforcements, both Algoryn and Concord. ‘Where did they come from?’ His shard interface displayed ship tracks from low orbit: an Algoryn assault frigate and a C3 cruiser. He stared at Amalay, flinched as another series of explosions sounded overhead, too close.
Then a whistling roar of a heavy disruptor implosion. Batu winced, then the roof disintegrated, collapsing onto them both.
* * *
Batu came to. There was weight across his legs, beating pain, an insistent voice. ‘Sire, sire?’ He kept his eyes closed, groaned.
‘He’s coming round. Hold on, sire.’ There was a cool wash on his legs and the pain lessened. ‘Analgesic, sire. We’re just going to lift the roof from your legs. Lucky escape there.’
He groaned again, realised such a reaction might be seen as inappropriate. ‘Amalay?’ His voice came out a croak, dust settled into his throat and he coughed.
‘Hold on.’ His head was lifted, water held to his lips. ‘Sip.’ He drank, was lowered back to the ground. ‘The roof crushed Amalay’—an audible shudder—‘and by the looks of him, that was a relief, poor guy.’
‘Who are you?’
‘This is Corporal Baray, sir. I was blown clear. Trooper Vesten survived, but is injured. The rest of the squad, well…’
‘I’m sorry.’ Batu opened his eyes to find a female vardinarii looking down at him. Loyalty. ‘I guess you’re squad leader, now, Sergeant.’
‘Wish I wasn’t sir, sir, but thanks.’
Batu looked around. He was lying in piles of rubble, a slab of roof lying across his thighs. A few Ma’req AI stumbled around. The air was full of a swirling haze of dust, not a full storm. To one side the dust and ruins seemed to shift in and out of focus, sparks of crackling lightning shooting across a vaguely globular area that swarmed like an amoeba.
Baray saw his gaze. ‘That’s what heavy disruptors leave us with. Gross pollution.’ The disgust in her voice was plain to hear.
‘Okay,’ said Batu. ‘Where are the C3? The Algoryn reinforcements?’
‘There aren’t any, sir.’
‘How? None? But I saw… What about?’ He shut up. Even to himself he sounded stupid.
‘Ceahray thinks it was a sensor and visual illusion caused by the dust storm and the local bionanospores. Something we or Ghar did activated the local nanosphere.’
Events slotted into place. ‘Amalay.’
Baray’s eyes flickered to a point in the rubble. ‘Gone, sir.’
‘No, I mean it was Amalay. He was talking strange, worried about the disruptors. His brain was absorbed, must have created the illusions.’
Baray’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. ‘Ceahray will need to know.’
‘Sure. What about the Ma’req reinforcements?’
‘Gone, sir. The shuttles and landers were destroyed by disruptor missiles from a Ghar troopship. It’s a horrible mess up there.’
‘No idea. We’ve no contact with them. We’ve got to evacuate before the Ghar return.’
‘Where are we going?’
‘Down into the ruins, underground.’ She glanced up. ‘Hold on, sir.’
Uneven footsteps announced a pair of Ma’req techs working their way across the uneven rubble. They stepped into view. Both had their helmets off, carried digging tools and were dusty and dirty.
‘You’re next,’ said one. He looked down at Batu and the slab of bonded stone across his legs, winced. ‘Aah,’ he said, glanced at his co-worker.
‘Don’t you have a debonder?’ asked Baray.
The Algoryn shook its head. ‘Most equipment is gone, miss. Everything’s manual from here on in.’ He looked at Batu and it seemed that even in the Algoryn’s warbitten features was sympathy. ‘Delhren, sir, we’ve got to lift the roof off you. This may hurt. Sorry, will hurt.’ The trooper nodded to Baray.
‘It’s alright,’ began Batu. He glimpsed an injector stick in Baray’s hand as she held it over his arm. ‘I’m…’ There was another wave of coolness and he slipped back into unconsciousness.