Antares Fiction by Tim Bancroft
See The Shamasai Saga complete
Continuing from Part 8, Deductions, in which Batu realises the extent of his contamination by the hostile, Shamasai bionanocytes
Shots echoed down the tunnels and a gabble of voices erupted from Ceahray’s commlink. She listened briefly, then jogged back through the tunnels to the small group of injured.
Batu Delhren was not looking good: already a crust of dust-like growth had spread over his torso from the wound on his leg. The only relief was that, strapped to the stretcher, he could not raise his head far enough to see so was unaware of what was happening to him. It helped, of course, that he was apparently intellectually unaffected by the local bionanospheres. The rest of her injured troopers and scientists had been placed into a coma to stop them alternately ranting about ‘existential threats’ to ‘Shamasai’ – whatever that meant – and screaming in pain.
Ceahray addressed his stretcher-bearers. ‘Verak, Baray, we’ve just shot down a pair of flitters. Whoever the Ghar commander is, he’s canny and has the whole place crawling with scouts. We’ve mapped out the tunnels in the direction we need but there’s still a hundred yan or so to go: we’ll have Ghar on us before we get there.’
Batu lifted his head. ‘Ceahray? Good to see you, too. You are talking about the escape pods?’
‘Yes, Sir Delhren, I am.’
‘I take it there’s a convenient transmat to the surface?’
‘No, and you can cut your sarcasm, Delhren. We’ll have to blow a hole to the surface. Luckily, these tunnels don’t run too deep.’
‘Almost by design…’ Batu trailed off, winced. ‘My apologies, Ceahray. I’m just struggling against the pain.’
And more besides. Ceahray tried to avoid looking at his encrusted waist. ‘The broadcast signatures are those of stealthed lifeboats, but we don’t know if they’re in one piece.’
‘Should I mention scouts? Or have you thought of that?’ He smiled.
‘Thank you, but of course I have.’ She found it difficult to remain annoyed with him. ‘Every time someone finds a chimney to the surface we have a look around. The Ghar are on us pretty quick – there’s at least one bomber out there making sure we stay pinned underground.’
‘That’s what I said.’ She glanced from Baray to Verak. ‘Suggest you take the last of your combat drugs: you’ll need the stamina.’ She checked the other six injured troopers and their bearers. All of the injured showed growth similar to that covering Batu. I hope we can do something about that. ‘We might have to go travois for protection. Dose the injured up; keep them under. Check your weapons – we’re getting misfires and I’m going to have to pull the rearguard to cover the flank tunnels. You guys will be our new rearguard.’ She jogged back into the darkness ahead.
* * *
Shaltok felt as if his right shoulder was giving him problems. It was not, of course, as it was just the suit’s feedback from his scavenged plasma claw but it did not bode well. The suits of his own bodyguards were limping, now totally reliant on the third leg that was normally just used for a stable firing platform. On other squads the disruptors on the scourer guns were seized and an Outcast squad had given up their disruptor cannon when it’s legs just seized. We’re not in top shape. Luckily, it seemed the Algoryn were not in any better shape: weapon fire was sporadic, at best, inaccurate and they fled whenever they sighted a Ghar unit.
They are in retreat, but where are they heading? Tectorists had not been able to get that far and a pair of flitters ordered to investigate had not found a way to the surface before they stopped functioning. What do they know that I do not? The lack of knowledge made him cautious; the inability to find out anything about that lack, more so. At least we have succeeded in defeating them.
He sent his bodyguards ahead and messaged his new Outcast Slavemaster. ‘Is there any way we can analyse the data we retrieved from the phantom projections?’ Moments later, the disguised techs appeared. Both carried maglashes in addition to their luggers. They hitched a ride on his suit so as not to slow him down and worked on the stumpy sensor mast as he lumbered through the tunnels. Though much of their work was covered by the dark and only dimly lit by the glow from his plasma reactor, they faked cleaning off the dust and corrosion whilst they fiddled with their jerry-rigged contraption.
A new item, ‘Historic Enemy Data’ appeared on his combat array. He stepped through it at high speed, focussing on the area ahead of him. ‘We cannot filter out the phantoms,’ whispered the techs, then they jumped off, ran back to their new assignments.
Now he knew where to look he could see past the phantoms of the fake reinforcements. Half-hidden amongst the debris that showered down from orbit were two signals that descended on a regular flight path, braked at a more sedate pace than might be expected from a military craft. The images were faint, suggesting small shuttles, possibly stealthed in some way. Rescue ships, perhaps?
He flicked back to a current display, checked his survivors. A lone bomb trooper on the surface harassed the enemy whenever they appeared above ground. Despite its suit’s deterioration it had managed to keep pace of the fleeing humans better than his force underground.
Shaltok made a decision, flicked through the squad strengths on his array, reassigned damaged troopers and less-effective Outcasts to a new conglomerate, tagged it the ‘Underground’; the still functional troopers and Outcast units were grouped into ‘Overground’. He transmitted the reorganisation. ‘All Underground to continue harassing pursuit of the humans; Overground to ascend to surface immediately, attack and destroy enemy craft at appended co-ordinates.’ The Overground would blast and dig their way out.
He assessed his own suit: the claw had stopped functioning, his jerry-rigged disruptor had seized but could still fire in scourer mode. I’m with the Underground. He reassigned one of his bodyguard to act as Overground Force Leader in his absence.
A suit leg seized up competely; Shaltok limped forward into the dark.
* * *
The emergency rescue ships – stealth lifeboats – had landed less than ten yan apart in the secluded valley. To Batu, their design spoke volumes of the Ma’req’s commitment to Algoryn principles, all angles and hard curves suggesting military practicality and function, even to the dull stealth coating overlaying their hull. Verak was already aboard the closest, checking out its systems with a surviving skimmer pilot; another scientist was overseeing pre-flight checks on the craft furthest away.
‘We’ve been lucky,’ said Ceahray. ‘The Ghar held back underground and it seems as if the dust hasn’t yet damaged the rescue craft. Stasis pods are all functional, too.’
‘How much independence do they have?’
‘The rescue craft? Minimal. They landed on automatic but there’s no point having an escape ship that can be taken over by an IMTel.’
‘Good point,’ said Batu. ‘That’s probably why they survived, though.’ He twisted his head. ‘Where are the other injured?’
‘Just inside the tunnel system. We’ll get you aboard and into a stasis pod first.’
Batu looked at her intently. There was something that bugged him about the way she refused to look at him. Or, at least, looks only at my face. I wonder…
An explosion and rattle of gunfire interrupted his thoughts. Ghar appeared over the nearest crest. Disruptor bombs erupted around them. Ceahray swore, shouted into her comm. ‘Get the injured out the tunnels, now. Get them aboard the ships. Pilots, get those pre-flights finished now! Light up and get ready to lift.’ She raised her mag repeater – one-handed, noted Batu – and aimed at the Ghar on the slopes. It clicked, dead. She threw it down, cursing. ‘Damn thing’s dead.’
Batu reached for his plasma pistol. ‘Take this. Better than nothing.’
Ceahray accepted it. ‘Sergeant, you’ll have to take him in to the ship.’
‘No, leave me to last. Baray’s carbine still works. We can cover the injured.’
Ceahray hesitated, made a decision. ‘Very well.’ She spoke into her mic. ‘I’ve reserved a pod for you both on the nearest rescue craft. Get in there as soon as you can – it will lift off last with my AI.’ She ran forward, waving nearby troopers to join her and strengthen the guards around the perimeter.
Serviles dragged the few survivors from the tunnels. Batu was horrified at the state they were in: all unconscious, all encrusted with the bionanospore growth. ‘Look at…’ He stopped as realisation dawned. ‘I’m like that, too, aren’t I Baray?’
She briefly glanced at the injured. ‘Not quite as bad, but yes.’
‘Up to your abdomen.’
‘Do I want to see?’
‘Thanks, I think. Okay, drag me over to that rock. You can shelter behind it and help protect the scientists as they drag the injured into the lifeboats.’