Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft. Continuing from Part 4, Storm, in which Shaltok, Batu and the Ma’Req are all hurt by a Shamasai Storm. Includes the espisodes previously published as Pyrrhic Success and Abominable Tech. More details are in the The Shamasai Saga overview.
Ceahray flexed her new hand. The fingers were sluggish, slower than her natural hand and the prosthetic felt …strange, numb with the occasional pins and needles.
“How long will it last?”
The medic sucked his teeth. “Normally I’d say a few months – it’s only a decompressed field prosthetic, after all. But with this biosphere and dust, I have no idea.”
He looked across to the preservation tank in which lay Ceahray’s amputated, grotesquely-deformed forearm and hand. “What do you want done with those, Ma’am? I don’t have the equipment or facilities to analyse anything in safety. I could compress it for storage”.
Ceahray considered her options, drummed her new fingers on the operating table. “Keep an eye on it. If the reactivated bionanospores show any signs of continuing their growth, then incinerate everything. No idea what compression will do to the things and I don’t want to send it up to the ship”.
“Contamination – I understand, Ma’am. It might be safe now, though”.
Across the darkened shelter came a shout from the sensor detail. “Movement. Hostiles”.
Ceahray jammed on her helmet, activated the sensor interlock. “Show me”. A map panned out in front of her centred on the ruins and shelters. Blips moved sluggishly across the landscape, the sensors’ intelligence tagging some as Ghar troopers, others as Outcasts, still others as local animals. She frowned. “What’s going on?”
“We don’t know, Ma’am. Looks like a small group of Ghar have rounded up local creatures and are herding them this way. It’s masking their numbers. Infiltrators say they’ve gone straight over the outlying mines but nothing happened”.
Ceahray glanced at her severed arm, shivered, looked away. “Probably buried or eaten by the dust”. She waved at the weather display.”Storm’s cleared. Do we have an uplink, yet?”
“Trying to patch one through the surviving satellites. Disruptor distortion is making things problematic”.
Ceahray sighed.”AI: Unpack the skimmers and targeters, set both infiltrator teams to harry the Ghar, slow them up until we arrive”. The compressed munitions for the skimmers weapons were stored separately, of course, but it would take moments for the magazines to be slotted into place. “Request reinforcements as soon as you can get through. The Ghar want this place”.
Ceahray turned to Batu Delhren. He was watching her, his face calm. “How are you injured?”
Batu gestured to an unconscious Vardanari, his skull already deforming with the bionanocyte growth. “We can’t replace his head. He’s unconscious. The other…” He pointed to another tank containing a warped arm. “Same state as you. We had a field prosthetic with us and your medic let us use his field surgery”.
“Good. Your plasma weapons may be the only weapons guaranteed to operate. Think you’re up to taking out some Ghar?” She was sure Batu paled.
Batu swallowed.”Well, we…” Over his shoulder Ceahray saw his squad leader nod.
Ceahray took the hint. “Good. Then set yourself up on the roof. Keep the troopers occupied and slow them down”. She gestured to Batu’s squad leader. “Listen to him”. She turned away so as not to give Batu any chance to reply and opened a broadcast channel. “All troopers test your weapons before committing yourselves. The dust is deadly”. She was proud to see even the researchers checking their weapons – not that they were as effective as her Vector AI, but whether Servile or Founder leger, they were still Algoryn to the core.
Acknowledgements came from each squad. She tagged assignments and locations for each team. “Let’s go, people. We only need to hold on ‘til the reinforcements come”. She led the way out of the dustlock in time to see the pair of skimmers speed across the valley floor towards the approaching Ghar.
* * *
“What’s that?” Shaltok’s lenses focused on the small, encrusted and pitted globe in the hand of the tectorist before him.
“A disabled solar charge, sir”.
“An old one? You disabled it?” Shaltok was impressed.
The tectorist sounded embarrassed.”No, sir. It’s new, corroded by the storm. We found others placed at paths into the valley”.
“Probably laid as a minefield. Algoryn Infiltrators. Keep a careful look out for their camo fields”.
“Yes, sir. We also picked up satellite transmissions”.
“Good”. Possibly requesting reinforcements already, which means I can claim success. The thought was relief. “Send the flitters forward”. An idea. “Stop – attach plasma grenades to a few, have them triggered when recognising humans”. The tectorist’s mouth gaped open; Shaltok could only imagine his expression in his face beneath the combat helmet. “Use the Outcast technicians. We must look like a far larger, more capable force”. He clashed his new claws together, relished the sound. “We may be few, but we are Ghar. To success!”
“To success” replied the tectorist. He sounded less than enthusiastic, saluted, ran back towards the Outcast commanders. Outcasts broke off from outlying squads, ran back to the flitters in the pair of cargo scutters Shaltok had been able to bring down. Flitters took to the air, zipped off, wings beating wildly.
Shaltok’s Ghar crept forward again, the cannon and suits sticking as close as they could to cover as they advanced, his Outcasts scurrying from dust-stripped scrub to rocky outcrop under their camouflaged skins. The Outcasts were difficult to pinpoint, his combat array picking them up as living creatures but unable to otherwise classify them. I wonder what they look like to the humans? A herd of sheep, perhaps? The thought appealed. Shaltok’s Sheep…
There was a satisfaction in noting the inbred discipline of his Ghar. He had little fear of human mag weapons, but he was irked by the plasma carbines and had a grudging respect for the Algoryn support teams and assault troopers. They will know their mines failed to go off, so what would I do in their place? Shaltok pulled up a map of the valley. Skimmers to distract and harry, perhaps. Heavier weapons from safety. He dispatched squads of Outcasts – Sheep – to the flanks to lay plasma mines. A whir distracted him: flitters passed overhead, heading for the humans’ shelters. Their bodies were swollen with plasma charges.
All his force had to do was inflict enough damage to ensure the humans requested all the reinforcements they had. Then we can regroup. If there are any of us left. He pushed the fear from his mind. I will survive. Once more he felt guilt about even thinking such a regard for his personal safety: a Ghar’s duty was in such service. Then he corrected himself. No. It’s guilt about not feeling such guilt.
Not for the first time he wondered if the renegade Fartok had a point, after all.
The rapid stuttering of distant lugger gun fire coincided with the tuneful roar of plasma grenades sending pillars of dust and rock into the air. Shaltok grunted in appreciation. The humans had been deceived, were struggling with identifying his camouflaged Outcasts. A pity there aren’t more of the local animals to drive towards them. His array flagged a team of skimmers making a sudden dash along the sides of the valley. On cue, his bombardiers opened up and the ground rocked when the charges exploded. More Outcasts opened up from their hiding places and a skimmer vanished from his display.
His Ghar were spread out over a wide area, so Shaltok turned up his transmission gain. ‘Assault teams, direct attack on the main compound. Cannon and Outcasts clear their way.’ His flanks would just have to hold. Shaltok led his own team to plug a possible gap in the wedge. Disruptor cannon scuttled forward to either side, loaders and ammunition bearers staggered under their heavy loads.
Humans appeared in his scopes, mag flechettes pinged off his armour. He took aim with his cannibalised scourer and fired, was pleased to feel the recoil. His two bodyguards followed suit. Even at this range he hit, saw a human’s reflex armour vapourised in an instant, the human fall. Other humans ducked back down behind their cover.
Perfect. Flitter-bombs were attracted by the noise, caromed towards the target. He sensed the signal from his Outcast techs and saw the explosions flare, plumes of dust roll out from the human’s hiding place. Beacons flickered out on his array and only two humans ran back towards their shelter.
The wedge of Ghar continued onwards.
Comms were deteriorating as interference from the disruptor explosions grew. It would be just as bad for the humans, but the Ghar were used to fighting with little co-ordination. Nonetheless, the advance had to continue. ‘Press forward,’ he ordered and lumbered into a run, skirted the crater that had been the rocks sheltering the humans. He felt alive, elated on seeing the bodies. Blood sung in his veins, pride swelled in his heart: this was the reason that Ghar were created.
A guilty thought came to mind. Why? He quickly suppressed such a treasonous thought.
There was no time for contemplation. A warning from one of his guards, warning lights blinked on his combat array: his suit’s outer armour layers were melting. He glimpsed a plasma beam and collapsed a leg to dodge sideways. He rolled, jumped forward and the beam passed overhead. He scanned for the source of the shot, such plasma weapons more dangerous than the mag weaponry most of the humans carried.
Plasma beams struck out once more, focused to his right, flicked out. A cry over the comms, cut off as a plasma explosion rocked his suit. Reactor alarms rang, the suit’s interior became overbearingly hot. Plasma overload, he thought. I’ve lost a bodyguard.
Shaltok followed back the line of heated air from the plasma strike. A squad of colourfully cloaked humans were picking off his suited troops from the top of the largest shelter. Even as he watched they launched another co-ordinated burst of plasma that glanced off the rocks in front of him. He ducked. ‘Bombardiers, target priorities. Plasma weapons.’ He hoped the message would be received.
Moments later came the inverse-whoosh of disruptor bombs exploding. Waves of interference frazzled his comm-net and battlefield display. He chanced a peek over the top of the rock. The roof had been obliterated and fragments of cloth were fluttering to the ground. Far to his left, a lone skimmer was in retreat; on the other flank Outcasts and disruptor cannon had been wiped out and the humans were advancing. Assault troopers were embroiled in bitter, hand-to-hand fighting with heavily-clad humans, probably Algoryn assault squads.
He issued an order to his slave masters. ‘Outcast techs to the rear, lay covering plasma minefields, rendezvous in the cave system.’ He switched to maximum gain, broadcast general orders. ‘Central and left units follow me. All other units to the right flank. Total commitment. To Success!’
His orders were acknowledged, replies from squad leaders of the simple word: ‘Success.’ He charged forward beside the assault troopers, scourers blazing on dispersed fire, and the units to either side followed suit. The humans ran, though not without heavy loss. He flicked through squad statuses: much of his force had been destroyed.
A message was flashed on his combat array overriding normal output. He slipped in surprise, almost fell, and felt the backlash from a suspensor net knock his suit sideways. Close. The message was from the Outcast techs he had sent to the rear. ‘Imminent arrival of human Freeborn reinforcements. Second human spaceship in orbit, Concord styling. Transmat landers and drop troopers launched.’ A second message overlaid alarms onto the left flank: another dust-storm was sweeping over the valley wall.
I’ve done it. ‘Success, everyone. Withdraw. Break off. Strategic advance to our current rear, use the storm.’ He began backing his squad and supports away, kept firing as they did so. Above he could see transmit landers screaming through the sky, the pods of drop squads exploding, freeing their contents. His newly enhanced array flagged one ship as Freeborn Algoryn, the other as Concord Combined Command.
More Ghar died heroically, the loss of whom he felt keenly. Then the new dust-storm swept through the valley, enveloping them all in an impenetrable cloud of dust and sand. The visual and sensor gloom covered his retreat and hid the pitiful numbers of remaining Ghar.
Escape. Success. Such a Pyrrhic success did not fill him with elation.
The sheltering caves were sealed once more. What Ghar he had left were being treated, suits and weapons repaired. The success had come at a heavy price. Shaltok felt exhausted, bore a dressing on his side where the overheated suit had cooked his flesh. He could not yet allow himself to rest, still had work to do: replace a bodyguard with the best trooper he could find, determine who raised the critical alarm, consolidate his surviving Ghar into coherent squads.
Shaltok issued a demand to have the Slavemaster visit, was drifting off to sleep against the wall of the cave when the Slavemaster’s voice jerked him back to wakefulness. ‘Great and honourable, sir. You demanded our presence?’
Shaltok opened his eyes. The Slavemaster and a trio of Outcasts grovelled in front of him. ‘Initiative. Good. Are these the ones who overrode my comms, broadcast a message on battlefield channels?’
The Slavemaster sneered at the Outcasts. ‘Yes, sir. They are. I was going to punish them but brought them to you due to the seriousness of their crime.’ He spat, gestured towards a bizarre contraption they were carrying, a comms mast plugged into a flitter’s sensory array from which dangled human helmets. Shaltok thought he glimpsed human remains within each helmet. ‘They were using abominable human technology!’
They saved my life. ‘Thank you, Slavemaster. You are diligent. Dismissed.’
The Slavemaster twitched his whip, hesitated.
‘I said “Dismissed”, Subcommander. I will deal with them myself.’ Shaltok allowed an edge of annoyance to creep into his tone. The Slavemaster took the hint, scuttled away. Shaltok silently examined the jerry-rigged contraption from all angles, walked around it to see what had been done.
He settled back into his niche in the wall. ‘You are?’
‘Humble Outcasts, you honourableness. We are those who created the bomb-flitters.’
He regarded them quietly, noted they were the technicians he had saved. ‘What’s that?’ he asked, gesturing towards the comms mast.
The Outcasts trembled. ‘Noble sir, this is what we used to pick up the human signals and sense the new arrivals. We interfaced with the humans sensory implants and helmet tech to make a better comms and sensor unit.’
‘Abomination! And you claim it is “better”?’ Such a reply was expected. But why do I not really feel such disgust?
The Outcast techs quailed but stood their ground. ‘Yes, sir. Sorry, sir, we mean, extend its capabilities.’
Another took up the explanation. ‘Sir, great martial warrior-ness, we found it so effective that we thought you needed to know. It links with such abomination but our Ghar technology is in control.’
The third pitched in. ‘We are grateful, noble sir, for your actions today in carrying out such a difficult and dangerous assignment. We were hoping to present the new sensor mast as a gift, attach it to your suit, sir.’ He looked at the other two; they nodded. ‘We remain loyal Ghar, committed to success.’ All three held their heads high, not bowed like the other Outcasts. Shaltok was tempted to reject the gift, but their pride and ingenuity whilst Outcast caught his imagination, overrode the genetically programmed conflicts he felt rising in his gut.
Looking at their uncharacteristic behaviour, Shaltok had a suspicion, on impulse asked a question. ‘What hatchery are you from?’
‘Hatchery 12 sir, like you. And High Commander Karg and the renegade Fartok.’ The speaker spat, added, ‘May he be forever hunted by humans.’ The curse sounded false.
Shaltok regard the comms mast carefully, examined the flitter sensors, noted they were interfaced with a scavenged trooper’s sensor array. ‘You put this together today?’
Shaltok was shocked, covered up the emotion. They are good. I was right to preserve them. ‘Then fit it to my suit.’ They bowed, swarmed over his suit and rapidly affixed the mast with plasma torches and scavenged connectors. They stepped back; he put on his headset, attached the nerve connectors, activated the combat array.
The display was clear, extensive, able to reach high into the atmosphere even within the caverns, hijacked human sensory feeds as well as boosting his normal input. ‘It works well.’ He was astonished. ‘Should I ask how you made it work?’
The technicians looked at one another, shrugged. ‘‘Thank you, noble sir. We think it might have worked because‘—they turned to one another, chattered quickly in low tones. When the speaker finally looked up he seemed unsure of himself. ‘We believe the quantum frequencies in the, ah, conduction fields have altered. We think.’
‘But you’re unsure.’ A nod. ‘So, you mean whatever it is on this world has affected the human equipment’s operation?’ Emphatic nods. ‘Ingenious.’
The technicians looked relieved. ‘Our only concern, sir, is that on planets where the humans have full control over their conduction fields, human sensory data will be blocked. For security reasons.’
‘Theirs or ours?’ A squirming foot showed discomfort. ‘I see. But for now, the range and visual enhancements will function?’
‘Ah, we believe so sir.’ A whispered discussion took place. ‘For a while at least.’
He took off the helmet, considered the mast for a moment. It might make him a target but, on the other hand, the enhanced sensors could not be dismissed. The human heads, though… ‘I will keep it. But get rid of what’s left of that abominable human flesh.’ The trio nodded, set to eagerly with sand and burners, stepped back. What was left of the helmets were clean, connected into an oblate spheroid cage.
‘Good. Tell the Slavemaster you are to have extra rations and given free access to tools and materials. You are in my favour. Dismissed.’ The Outcasts retreated backwards, turned and hurried back to their station, jabbering between themselves in excitement.
Shaltok put on the helmet again, ran through the combat array’s functions. The input may have improved but it forced an unsettling reflection. Effective as it is, this integrates foul human technology with that of the right-thinking Ghar. If he were honest, he reflected, he felt no such disgust, just wonder. So useful, but no other Ghar has done this until now.
Such a thought brought another concern to the fore, one much more disturbing and that penetrated to the root of all that was integral to the Empire. Is there a problem with Hatchery 12?
It was a question to which he did not want to know the answer.