Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft. Continuing from Part 9, Underground, Overground, in which the injured Freeborn and Algoryn Ma’Req are chased through ancient tunnels by the triumphant Ghar. For more Batu & Shaltok fiction, see the Shamasai Saga complete page.
The plan had gone better than Shaltok could have hoped. On the surface, it seemed his ‘Sheep’ had remained in cover and reports suggested their primitive lugger guns were surviving the rigours of the dust remarkably well. Here, in the bewildering maze of tunnels, the humans had retreated before his meagre forces, firing a few shots and running as soon as a tectorist appeared.
Which is lucky, as few of our weapons are fully functional. Two suits had already exploded, bringing down some of the tunnel system, but the troopers had managed to escape. His own suit was now warning of numerous impending failures and even the warning systems on the plasma reactor had failed: he had a feeling that the reactor was giving off an uncomfortable amount of heat. Trouble is, I still need my combat array.
His display was updated with the latest transmissions. The overground force had engaged the humans as they tried to embark into their spacecraft. It seems they were hampered by their efforts to load unconscious survivors. Why not leave them? he puzzled. Saving half a dozen puts the rest at risk. But it was not his task to wonder, merely to carry out his orders to the best of his abilities.
Shaltok frowned as another transmission came in: the surviving bomber was failing, the Outcast Slavemaster had detailed two of his bodyguard to fix it. The bomb trooper was scathing in his criticism, regarding such meddling as futile. Shaltok despatched a quick reply: ‘Let them try – there’s nothing else you can do.’
One of the dismounted troopers gained his attention. ‘Sir, I think you ought to shed the suit.’
‘Understood, sir. However, I have information that might prove vital.’
‘Your battle armour is on fire.’
* * *
+++REBOOTING+++ Batu’s shard interface was trying one last time. He watched whilst Baray reached over the rock, fired pulses from her plasma carbine at the Ghar hiding in the entrance they had blasted to the tunnel system. ‘Grenades, Baray?’
‘Thought of that, sire. All inoperable.’ She continued firing, glanced towards the other lifeboat. ‘The injured are on; they’re closing up.’
Ceahray ran over, tapping at her mic. ‘Comms are gone. The other ship’s about to take off. Get on board.’ Her prosthetic arm was hanging uselessly by her side.
‘You first,’ said Batu. ‘Baray can cover us.’
‘I’ll take you, then.’
‘Only to the foot of the ramp. I’m not going onboard without Baray. In fact, let her take me.’
Ceahray stared at him quizzically, then saluted. ‘I had not expected such bravery.’ She ran towards the nearest craft, shouting at the few AI still able to fire.
‘Jolly good of you, sire.’ Baray continued firing.
‘I think she thought so, too. I’m curious – has this disruptor barrage been a little light?’
‘Yep. The big bomber gave up a few minutes ago. Scourer fire is pretty erratic, too. It’s just the luggers that are firing.’
‘Disruptors and luggers – both fairly primitive.’
‘Escaped from the ‘spores, you mean?’ She laid down a long pattern of suppression fire, grabbed his stretcher. ‘I wish you’d taken Ceahray’s offer.’
‘We’ll be fine. Give me the carbine: I’ll try and cover us.’
Baray dragged him across to the foot of the ramp as Batu tried to lay down some form of protective fire from his stretcher. He had no idea if he was being effective or not. From behind him came the bass rumble of heavy suspensors activating, then the whine of engines kicking in. ‘Is that the other ship?’
‘Yep. It’s taking fire.’ There was the flare of sickly blue light, an ear-splitting explosion and intense heat. ‘No!’ Baray stopped, held the sights of her carbine up to better see what had happened.
‘Baray, tell me.’
‘It looks like the Ghar bomber’s been partially dismantled. Outcasts have its weapon on the legs of a Ghar battle suit. They’ve built a heavy weapons tripod mount.’
‘Nasty little tikes. The ship?’
‘Down. They’re trying to reload. We’d better get moving. We’re the last and Ceahray’s on the ramp.’ She bent over, dragged him across the gravel and dust.
‘No one else is on the planet?’
‘No, sire.’ Baray was panting with effort.
‘Stop.’ He queried the shard interface. ’MyShard: Can you query the local ‘sphere?’
‘Yes. However, permanent alteration may result. Short questions will minimise risk.’
‘See if the name of the planet was Shamasai.’
‘MyShard, shut down. I’ll have your interfaces replaced.’
‘That is no longer possible. The bionanocytes have fused with synaptic system connectors.’
‘Damnit, Baray, stop. Right now!’
‘We’re almost at the ramp. Ceahray’s at the controls.’
‘Just stop!’ Batu threw away the plasma carbine, reached down to touch the ground. The twisting caused screaming lances of pain up his back. ‘MyShard, record this. As the sole human representative of Doma Familia status on this abandoned planet I claim it for the Vardos Delhren. Preliminary local name is Delhren VI, formerly Shamasai.’ He grabbed a handful of pebbles, slipped them into the water bottle. ‘Sample proof collected and placed into distilled water. End Recording.’ He lay back, exhausted. ‘Now we can get onboard, Baray. And let’s hope that bomber doesn’t fire again.’
* * *
Shaltok clambered over the rocks at the entrance to the tunnel system. He watched as the human craft lifted and shot into the air. A single disruptor bomb burst in the air behind it but was too far away to do any damage. Across the valley another of the curious craft was in ruins, parts burning fiercely, dense black smoke pouring into the air.
There was nothing left but Ghar. Success. He allowed relief to flood his muscles and sat down, suddenly tired. ‘Tectorist, find a functioning communications relay. Signal the transport that humans have been driven from the planet. It is ours; we have achieved success.’
‘Sir.’ The tectorist made to move.
‘Wait. Make sure that the landers only drop down rappelling lines and do not land on the surface. The planet is unsuitable for long-term deployment of Ghar technology.’ He looked round at the world he had just claimed. In the distance dust swirled in the gentle wind, perhaps another storm brewing. ‘And demand they evacuate us before another storm comes.’
It was a desolate world, a Ghar world. One he could claim to have conquered himself. That it was useless in the Empire’s fight against the human scourge was a mere technicality.
His promotion to Force Commander was assured.
Soft light; gentle sounds of breakers on a nearby shore; a musty, slightly spicey smell. Batu opened his eyes to see a smile, dark eyes. ‘Baray.’
‘Welcome home, sire.’
‘Where are we?’
‘On board the Vard of Delhren, sir, amongst the Home Fleet. We’re in a hospital recovery room. You’ve been in intensive care for a few weeks.’
‘A few weeks?’
‘There was a lot of work to do – and not all of it was able to be done. How do you feel?’
‘Fine.’ Actually, he felt great, better than he had for months. He raised a hand, turned it over. It looked clean, a little paler than normal, but otherwise felt perfectly normal. He braced himself, raised his head and looked down his body. ‘My legs look good.’ He wriggled a toe. ‘And they work.’
‘Induced coma, sire. A fair bit of enhanced regrowth.’
‘Aah. I take it we were rescued?’
‘Apparently we were in stasis a month or so before a rescue ship came through the gate. The system is rife with Ghar but those Ma’req really know how to build stealth ships.’
‘I bet that caused a stir when it was discovered.’
‘Certainly did. House techs are swarming over it, now.’
‘Ceahray? Her scientists and AI?’
‘Most survived. Ceahray’s gone back already, the others will as soon as they’ve recovered. She gives her regards, says “Well played”. I think she likes you.’
‘Thanks. I think.’
Baray’s smile widened. ‘You’ve caused a stir.’
‘A new planet?’
‘A new, almost useless planet,’ she corrected him. ‘Even the Ghar aren’t landing anything or one for long. No, the real stir is the bionanocytes you brought back that integrated themselves with your shard interface and neural system.’
‘Really?’ He opened his internal link. ‘MyShard, are you there?’
‘Yes, Batu, as always.’
‘Are you back to normal?’
‘I have found a new equilibrium. I believe that you will find the changes disconcerting.’
‘I am more advanced, can use some of your brain’s pattern recognition power. My interfaces can be unreliable as my core module is partially fused with the Shamasai wetware and replacement Delhren interfaces.’
Batu refocused his gaze on Baray. ‘They can’t replace my shard interface.’
‘No. You’re stuck with it as it is. The good news is that it’s really capable, probably Vard-level or even approaching NuHu functionality, but still only has Doma-famlia security access. The House is worried, has built a lot of security algorithms to block the Shamasai ‘cytes doing anything to the Delhren IMTel hierarchies.’ She paused, her smile faded. ‘You have a permanent security detail, part bodyguard. I’m heading it up.’
‘Congratulations. So I’m under surveillance and you’re protecting and guarding against someone with a Senatex-like virus, an erratic shard interface and new legs.’ He drew himself up onto his elbows, swung his legs over the side of the hospital couch. They were skinny, pale. ‘Might as well give them a go.’
Baray hovered by his side, ready to take the weight when he tried to walk. ‘Take it easy, sire. Muscle training takes a bit of practice.’
Batu flapped his hands to shoo her away. ‘No, Sergeant. I’ll do this on my own, my way.’ He pushed himself away from the couch.
Baray gave a wry smile. ‘Just as you always do, sire.’
He took a step; she caught him before he toppled to the floor.
+++ IMTEL: End of Stream +++
This concludes the serial, ‘The Claiming of Shamasai’. More stories in the Saga of Batu and Baray can be found in the storyline index. Tim Bancroft has been longlisted for the James White SF Award 2015 and won the Orwell Dystopian Fiction Award 2014.
Follow Tim on his Blog at: timbancroft.me.uk.