Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft
See The Shamasai Saga complete
Continuing from Part 3, Bait, in which Batu and the Ma’Req officer Ceahray transmat down to the dusty world of Shamasai…
The flitters and scouts returned. ‘Report,’ boomed Shaltok. His amplified voice echoed around the cave.
‘Sir, the tunnels are extensive, possibly artificial deeper in.’
‘Shelter? Entrances? Access?’
‘Yes, sir. The twists give protection from the storm but the caves are mostly large enough for battle armour, sir. We could find only two entrances: this one and another over the ridge.’
‘Good. Any other inhabitants?’
‘Possibly a large pack of local creatures but they were diffi—’
The scout was interrupted by a quickly curtailed shout from the sentries, snarls echoing along the tunnel. Into Shaltok’s enhanced vision poured dozens of rodent-like creatures, each as long as a Ghar was tall. Jaws snapped and teeth grated on his suit’s legs, clamped around the scout’s arm. Screams of pain reverberated around the cave as unarmoured troopers and Outcasts had flesh ripped from their limbs.
The creatures were difficult to see, the colouring of their thick, scaly plating and fur matching perfectly the stone, sand and dust. Natural camouflage. Near-perfect. Shaltok did not hesitate. ‘Assault squads!’ he boomed rom his suit’s aural amplificaiton units. He leapt forward, slammed a sandrat against the wall of the cave, snipped off its head with his claw. He pushed aside a pair of scouts embroiled in a melee, aimed his scourer at the rear of the pack. He dialled dispersed fire; plasma roiled and tore apart several of the creatures.
Then the assault troopers joined him. Shaltok waded forward. ‘Give space for the others to fight!’ Massive Ghar claws whined, snapped, bit easily through the animal armour. Shaltok fired again. Rocks tumbled down from the roof. ‘No disruptors!’ he ordered.
The tide was already turning. The sandrats fled, chased by two troopers firing focussed scourer bursts. Shaltok trudged back up the passage, stepped over bodies – sandrats and Outcasts. ‘All squads, report casualties.’
The Outcasts had suffered: half a dozen were dead or seriously injured. Battle-armour and the height of the crawlers had saved the rest. It could be worse.
‘See to the injuries. The dust-storm is too good a cover to waste – we must scout the humans. Double-seal the caves, make dust-airlocks. Keep comms to a minimum.’ The senior squad leader acknowledged.
Shaltok looked again at the sandrats, turned to the Outcast sub-commander. ‘Strip their scales and fur, make cloaks for the Outcasts. There’s no nanosphere on this world so the camouflage will come in useful.’
The Outcast bowed. ‘Certainly, sir. Can we roast them, sir? For protein substitute?’
‘Check for poison first.’
Shaltok led his personal squad back out into the storm.
* * *
The ship’s medic met Officer Ceahray in the transmat chamber. He quickly sprayed the damaged chitin with cleanser, antiseptic and finally a sealant spray. The medic drone accompanying him complained: ‘Particulates remain in wound.’
‘No time,’ growled Ceahray. ‘Got to get back down there.’ She held up a case in front of the drone. ‘Emergency medical supplies, okay? I’ll have it checked dirtside.’ She stepped around the drone.
The tramp of marching feet sounded in the corridor outside. Batu Delhren strode into the chamber, his squad of Vardanari bodyguards at his back. A pair of drones buzzed over their heads. Like the Algoryn, all the humans were dressed in armour; unlike their shipboard hosts, their dress was multihued: purple impact cloaks, sharp contrasts of red and bright blue on their armour.
Ceahray scowled; Batu grinned. ‘Caught you in time,’ he said.
‘You’re not going down,’ said Ceahray. She blocked his way. ‘There’s a storm coming. The lander’s leaving us down there.’
Batu gestured to his troops supplies. ‘We’re prepared. Contract says I can inspect relevant ruins whenever I wish.’
Ceahray shook her head. ‘It’s your skin.’ She slipped on her armoured gloves. ‘Keep wrapped up, softskin.’ She marched to the chamber’s focal point, faced the operator. ‘Eight to go down.’ The Delhren hurriedly joined her.
Bright light bathed them all…
* * *
Hidden by the wind-whipped dust and sand, Shaltok settled his suit into the cleft near the ruins. He overlooked the Freeborn’s transmit lander and the blocky shelters that had been built in the last hour. The walls were rougher than he expected, perhaps suggesting the human’s nano-builders had struggled to bond the dust and stone together.
They may be structurally unsound, temporary at best.
The dust storm was far more severe than his briefing had anticipated. Battle suits protected for a while but already his was issuing warnings of abrasion damage.
Visible only in his combat array, the bay doors opened on the lander. An Algoryn, judging by its angled armour, leant into the wind and staggered across to the buildings. A squad of normals followed, Freeborn by their colourful cloaks and armour. Several were blown off their feet, landed awkwardly, cracking limbs and heads against rocks and spiny plants. They struggled to rise. Probably injured. Serve them right, stupid humans.
To Shaltok’s surprise the lander lifted, suspensors driving dust away from beneath it. They’re being abandoned! The ship was caught by the wind as it rose, rocked, and he glimpsed where the fuselage was already damaged, much of the surface sheen already sand-blasted away. Perhaps they’re worried that it won’t survive the storm. That was a disconcerting thought: it meant the humans believed the storm would worsen.
As if in response, the wind picked up. Dust blanked all vision, obscured a broader range of sensory input. His combat array already had to compensate for the exterior lenses becoming fogged by too many scratches. Now, there were patches in the representation it fed him and it flashed a warning: ‘Sensory loss is exceeding compensation limits. Maintenance required.’
Seconds later one of his bodyguard flashed him a short-range message. ‘Sir, the dust is abrading our suit’s lenses. I suspect there may be more damage.’
Time to go. Shaltok levered himself up, careful to lean into the storm. The troopers rose with him, crunched forward. ‘Back to the caves. Out of the storm.’ He led the way down. ‘We’ll dig our way back in, rebuild the barricade behind us. Run repairs, check how badly the dust has scoured the armour. There are some former technicians amongst the Outcast.’
‘Could you confirm you want us to use Outcasts, sir?’ The distaste in the troopers tone was blatant.
‘Yes, trooper. Let them earn their food and upkeep. I have no intention of wasting their former skills.’
‘A Curious World’
‘Ma’am, this storm is ruining our scanners. And there’s no nanosphere to appropriate or hijack.’ The technician gestured helplessly at his signal amplifiers and booster systems. ‘These are useless, just amplifying random noise. We’re blind.’
Ceahray absently stripped off her gloves, scratched at the sealant over her injury. ‘So is everyone else, even Ghar.’ She kept one eye on Batu as he talked to the research team. The Freeborn’s own medics were seeing to the pair of bodyguard injured in the rush from the lander; her medic wanted a better look at her chitin-stripped hand and forearm. ‘What’s that.’ She pulled her hand away from the medic, pointed to a sudden blip on the research team’s holo-displays. A complex array of shapes flashed, sounds squealed, then both were gone almost as soon as they appeared.
The tech nodded towards the research team. ‘It’s what’s getting them so excited. Something from within the ruins. A regular signal. Faint. It only started operating when we made some deep scans.’
The medic shouldered the tech aside. ‘Ma’am, my last order from the ship was to dress that wound properly.’
Ceahray sighed, held out her hand. ‘Do it. Whilst we’ve time.’ Lights flickered, dimmed and she looked up, frowned. ‘What’s with the power?’
‘Don’t know yet, Ma’am,’ said the tech from over the medic’s shoulder. ‘The generators only work intermittently. We’re running on stored power but whenever anything becomes contaminated by the dust, it drains.’
‘That’s a problem. The plasma weapons are sealed units, so shouldn’t be affected.’
‘So the mag repeaters might be problematic.’ Ceahray looked round at her strike squad.
‘Weapon hygiene is going to be vital, but even then…’ the tech trailed off.
‘Understand.’ She looked thoughtfully at Batu’s Vardinari, their plasma weapons. They may have the edge on her own troopers on this planet. She started as the medic gasped and jumped back. ‘What?’
‘Your hand – the dust. It’s…’
She raised her hand. It seemed to be much more dirty than it had been on the ship. The few grains of dust had grown into rough scabs, almost like chitin regrowing. ‘What is it?’
The medic decompressed a scanner from the medkit she had brought down, held it over her hand. His expression turned grim. ‘Ma’am, look.’ He waved at the wall and a magnified projection appeared, her hand, the particulates. The projection zoomed in.
Particles moved in the projection and caught Ceahray’s attention. ‘What’s that?’
‘The problem.’ The medic stared at the readouts, avoided her gaze. ‘They’re bionanocytes.’
‘Nanocytes? Why is that a problem? We’ve all got them.’
‘They’re not ours, Ma’am. Nor Concord. They’re bionanocytes, closer to Isorian but…’ He adjusted the controls, shifted the image.
‘It could be they are the remains of this world’s bionanosphere.’
Ceahray pointed her free hand at the projection as several nanocytes clumped together, then moved apart. ‘Are they replicating?’
‘Yes, ma’am. I think their resource base is biological matter and neural impulses.’ Ceahray looked at him blankly; the medic looked away. ‘They’re converting your body mass.’ He gulped. ‘Ma’am, they’re eating you alive.’
* * *
The Outcast grovelled in front of Shaltok. ‘Sir, your scourer is almost unusable. And your team’s equipment is barely any better. Sorry, illustrious Force Leader.’
‘We’ve scavenged it, sir, and used some parts we brought down with us.’
Dare I ask where those parts came from? ‘And?’
‘We’ve built a functional assault claw and merged a bomber with the remains of your scourer.’
‘Have you tested it?’
‘The assault squads have cleared out as much of the cave-system as they can, sir, though they have not entered the regular tunnels. Your assault claw beheaded one of the local cave-rats. The scourer – you said not to fire disruptors in the caves. Sorry, sir.’
Shaltok grunted, pushed himself to his feet. ‘What word from the tectorists?’
One of his guards handed him his combat array. ‘The storm is waning, sir. A message, sir. Encrypted, your eyes only. Came down in an asteroid impact in the storm, impacted where we landed.’ He handed him a badly-scarred cylinder, molten sand and dust adhering to its external surfaces. ‘Tectorists retrieved the message block.’
Shaltok put the block on his array, enabled his encryption codes, quickly scanned the orders. ‘We act as soon as the storm abates. We attack to pressure the humans. We are to draw down reinforcements, sacrifice ourselves if needed to give the impression there are many more of us.’ His guard nodded, said nothing. ‘Then the main force will strike.’ That’s not in the orders, but it’s what I hope. Is it wrong to want to survive? He flagged a Slave-Commander. ‘We will make most effective use of the Outcasts if we have them utilise the available cover. Sub-Commander, I trust your slaves have all the skins they need?’
‘Yes, sir. Other than the disruptor cannons and a few loaders, of course, your most excellent…’
‘Stop snivelling. Any Outcast without camouflage skins goes with the cannon. All the others must use what cover they can, hide, use the skins, lay mines. We must beat the humans at their own game.’
‘Of course, your illustrious genious-ness.’
Shaltok growled and cut the transmission. Damned snivelling Outcasts. Probably only understands half of what I ask. But they may help. ‘Suit up!’ he barked and his amplified voice once more boomed around the caves. ‘We go hunting humans!’
There was a faint, orderly – even obligatory – cheer and the command was swiftly obeyed. Suits hummed into life, whips cracked, disruptor cannon and scutters clattered across the rocky floor as the Ghar fell into formation. They look efficient. But are we merely sacrificial bait? Within the comfortable confines of his suit Shaltok shrugged. Orders must be obeyed.
A safe light flashed on Shaltok’s overlay: the storm had abated. ‘Remove the seals!’ Assault suits made short work of the rocks making the dust-locks. His Ghar raiding party emerged from the caves to an eerie landscape, layers of dust softening outlines, hiding boulders and potholes alike. A light wind lazily shifted tiny drifts of dust but the sky was still hazy. Perhaps another storm threatens, he thought.
Whips cracked and Outcasts fanned out to either side, sticking to cover as they had been told. He was pleased to see the armour-plated skins were as effective a camouflage as he had hoped.
Shaltok waited for the last of his platoon to emerge. We have work to do.