Sand

In all the confusion, Bach quickly dismissed himself from Mitsuki’s company within the husk’s mind, insisting that she get out of town as quickly as she could manage. He attempted to stress that she not allow the cetacean husk too long a mindless rest, lest it automatically sync with the navy and give her position away… that, and please don’t let the survivors send any more radio messages!

When asked why not, he could barely express his concern for her safety… not with the story he’d already told her about what seemed a relatively innocent disaster scenario, odd though the concept struck Bach in that momoment. Whether or not she chose to listen to him was very much out of his control, he well knew, and… well, having become somewhat familiar with the young woman, he rather doubted that she would. At the very least, he hoped she would prioritize and exercise caution of her own volition.

Still feeling pressed to rush back to his own living senses, Bach first revisited the false image of the still-intact city of Boston. Luckily, the template had finally established its connection with the aerocruiser, and responded almost instantly to his query. Its location blazed into being… and thank God. It lay somewhere not all that far from the relatively intact garden tower that Mitsuki had been led to by a gang of survivors. Perhaps only a third of a kilometer, if he was any judge of distance at all.

Bach pulled that beacon back with him as he resumed his bodily senses… and, when he saw the shorter of the two feminine forms as well as the figment Captain, he said “I have it!” One set of eyes and a helmed head turned to regard him.

“Took damn long enough,” came the Rear Admiral’s voice, half muffled from behind the not quite translucent helm visor. “That it?” she asked, as if the newly placed icon a couple kilometers away could have been anything else just then.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Bach answered.

“Here it is,” squeaked the other ‘Smith’ as she put herself between Bach and the Rear Admiral, leaning out across over the railing. His eyes following in the direction indicated by her pointed finger, Bach caught side of the bow of a smaller, if still large, ship slipping silently up from behind. As he watched, the aerofrigate caught up with them, coming so close that he could not catch its reflective name as it it first passed and then slowed to match pace with their ship.

As the differential in speed and positioning between the two hovercraft lessened, a soldier appeared on the far deck, approaching the same plank-ejector that they had themselves. A series of hand signals waved back and forth across the hundred meter drop between the two decks must have eventually established that the other ship would be the one to actively engage theirs.

With that much established, the helmed and unnamed guard stepped well away from the recess in the deck and waited, hands held together at the small of his back, while the frigate shot out its plank. Just as had occurred early that morning aboard the First August, prongs at the end of the stiff keratin walkway eventually found their way into and locked with indentations in the cruiser’s deck. Following that, a guideline was pulled taut along the plank’s length.

“There you are,” Rear Admiral Anders’ said, half bowing to the younger helmed woman. “Once you are across,” she added with a more serious tone, “we can get on with our business.”

In the end, the younger woman’s strange fear of the older one won out over her seeming reluctance to walk the bridge to the far ship. Though she clung to the guideline, she made it across in a scurry and was quickly guided out of sight by the individual waiting there to receive her.

“Don’t say I said so,” Anders surprised Bach in saying as she drew close to him, “but she’s almost certainly proxy for whomever is responsible for this mess.”

Bach could only blink, half watching the unnamed guard move to make sure the far ship’s plank dislodged cleanly from the holes in the deck. “Oh,” he breathed out after a moment.

Though he could feel the ship’s forward momentum building, its great weight still took some time to really build its speed… and it felt to Bach as though it had to spend just as much effort in slowing, and only after a couple minutes. With some trepidation, Bach watched as Mitsuki’s garden tower drew nearer.

What if some of the survivors have a mind to try to flag down the cruiser as it passed? How would Anders react to discovering surviving witnesses to the spreading nanite infection? It wouldn’t really matter if no one of them could discern the illegal behavior exhibited by the swarm… so long as they could accurately describe them to any nanodevice engineer such as himself. Perhaps he was simply being paranoid here, but Bach felt as though those people, Lady Hayato included, may be in no small amount of danger.

Though their passage past the tower occurred without incident… thank God… Bach could not help but burn a little inside. Why hadn’t the navy raided these structures for their stockpiles of food? Were they not equipped to carry so much cargo? He could understand their not wanting any more witnesses than they could get away with keeping away… but couldn’t they have requisitioned some kind of cargo cruiser?

Just as the anger was building too hot within him… just as he meant to tear his gaze away from the tower and all the questions it begged of deep within him… that was when he noticed that the frigate, which at first had shadowed them, had turned away and had slowed to a halt, almost hidden now behind the glassy edifice.

Shit, Bach swore inwardly to himself. This so-called wife mentioned a ‘commotion’ within the city, and the very ship she’s taken aboard then makes straight for the tower? Dammit all…

“This isn’t looking so promising,” the Rear Admiral observed, hardly distracting Bach at all from the sudden knot of turmoil he felt inside. She pointed ahead as the ship started to bank toward the still distant figment buoy marking the location of his template. The chromatic sheen of busy nanites coated much of the surroundings.

“No,” Bach admitted by way of reply, pushing down his angst. Worn or otherwise pockmarked structures told him that these billions of microscopic buggers had had their way with the area for a few solid days at the very least. There was so much more mass to recycle than they could quickly deal with even in such expanded numbers… but the signs were all bad, so far as his template was concerned. And, all of a sudden, it hardly seemed worth the time to retrieve… not with those people headed straight for Mitsuki!

Having slowed to a crawl, the cruiser took to a noticeable descent, cutting its altitude more swiftly than it moved forward. Simultaneously banking, it maneuvered to parallel the sandy trail that must once have been an avenue before the tsunami and the machinations of nanites that followed. The figment icon hovered over a pile of debris… what looked to be a fallen brick wall, really. Every inch of the spot looked as though it had been drenched in iridescence.

“But… it’s still broadcasting, right?” Bach caught Anders’ questioning turn toward him out of the corner of his eye. “How can that be?”

“Though light, the case the template is stored in is made of no cheap material,” Bach answered without really attempting to address the Rear Admiral face to face, “and may be partially buried. Besides,” he added, “in the guts of cities like this or Overjordan, the recyclers are doing their job in three dimensions. The waste materials being funneled through them are outweighed significantly. Out here, the nanites are spreading across flat surfaces. There’s only so many that can pack into a given area versus a given volume.”

“Anyhow,” Bach deflected, not particularly interested in handing Anders too in-depth an education on the powers and limitations of nanomachines, “the point being that it’s going to take them a while to really cut through the city and the debris within it. They’ve probably just not eaten their way through the briefcase’s outer shell yet.”

“Can it be saved?”

Bach had to think about that. “Possibly,” he answered. “But I don’t really know what the specs are on this strain of yours… uh… theirs. Still, as long as I leave these boots and gloves at the site when I leave… well… I have a hard time believing they spread so much faster than legal strains let loose upon a surface. It’ll only take me maybe twenty seconds to convince the security intellect that I’m authorized and then grab the template from inside.”

Anders bobbed the mechanic’s helm in understanding. “Alright. We can lower a ladder and… what? Just not touch the ground ourselves?”

“That should be fine,” Bach affirmed. He did not feel inclined to add that he really wasn’t sure that having the thing would do him any good… especially lacking for an interface to plug the sour thing into. Breaking its seal would constitute yet another violation of the strict conventions surrounding this form of technology… and would be his first such violation, if he had to do it. The idea sent a nauseous surge down to mix with the brooding mix of anger and concern that went on broiling within him.

“Right… Narayan?” Again, Anders called out with her voice as well as across the cruiser’s much-contricted wireless.

After what seemed a rather long pause, the figment of the Captain did eventually materialize and salute. “Lady Rear Admiral?”

“Sir Captain, if you would sidle us as close to that marker as you can get without crashing into something, I’ll have the guard drop the ladder.” Though she neither raised her voice nor declared her instructions to be a direct order, even Bach, with his civilian demeanor, would probably have saluted at having heard the tone behind her words.

In a complete change of tone after the Captain had saluted and disappeared, however, Anders drew close just long enough to apologize. “We’ll get you on the ground right away,” she added as the ship tilted and managed somehow to edge its way sideways. “This may take a moment.”

In fact, it took more than a few. The cruiser seems ill-designed to pull this kind of maneuver… but the alternative, Bach imagined, must be to leave and make a wide swing back, and all that just to cross the width of some sand-buried avenue. And for all his trying, thinking about such things did not distract him from his concern over what business that frigate had at the garden tower.

In fact, he couldn’t help but ask. “What do you think is going on back there?” He asked as he turned his head toward the aft and the distinct and glassy now some blocks behind them.

“What? Something about a commotion,” she stressed sarcastically. “I don’t know, and if they’re sending that woman along with them…” Anders sighed, seemingly unwilling to engage her own frustration with not having been included. “Come along,” she said instead as she beckoned with a widely swinging arm. “We’ll drop the ladder shortly.”

Dissatisfied and worried, Bach reached and grabbed the Rear Admiral’s turning shoulder. In what increasingly seemed to be her manner, though, Anders pulled herself just far enough away to turn and chop that hand through the air, effectively cutting him off. “Hell if I know what’s going on,” she seethed, “and I’m not so stupid as to ask.”

When Bach simply stared back at the reflective visor obscuring all but the very outline of her features within, the Rear Admiral must have decided she’d had her way. “Let’s just get on with this,” she said, sounding half-defeated regardless.

Bach and the unnamed guard followed after her… and for probably a good thirty paces at that. Though about as wide and not much taller than the aerofrigate now out of sight behind them, Bach realized, with some disbelief, that the cruiser may well be half again as long.

To her credit, Anders did not order the guard to handle the unfurling of the ladder… not that there was all that much to it, really. Once unlocked the weights at the end pulled at and unfurled the keratin links that made up its length. The Rear Admiral had to relax her grip on the lever to slow the ladder’s descent before, as far as Bach could tell, she arbitrarily decided it was long enough, and let the thing lock into place. Almost at once, the keratin links stiffened solid. Sooner than Bach felt ready, he was being prompted to head on down.

“Gaww,” he complained nervously. He nodded and then knelt down to make sure that the latches on his boots were loosened as much as they could be without letting them fall off his feet altogether. Likewise, he loosened the cuffs of his gloves to similar fashion. “Okay,” he said, and then turned to stick his rear end out over the side of the ship. He took his first step, and then the next… and counted a good fifteen rungs before he reached the bottom. From there, he had only to hop down and take barely two steps to the base of the debris pile.

“How’s it look?” came Anders’ voice to him, as if she stood right behind him and leaning in to speak close to his ear. He resisted the urge to turn ‘round and look, knowing better.

Bach returned his answer by way of ethereal whisper. “There’s a glint,” he said. “The case is mostly buried… which could be a good thing. Past that, though, there’s not an inch of this pile that isn’t thick with the buggers.” He didn’t feel much like mentioning the fact that it looked like a bit of a precarious climb to the spot where the old aluminum briefcase lay. As nervous as he was about moving forward, some few million tiny machines had already clung to the thick soles of his mechanic’s boots. He could waste no time.

Careful as Bach tried to be, the fallen brickwork made for an unstable collection of debris… this made no less true by the fact that the bricks lay half dissolved into their baser constituents. They’d had no less than a couple day’s work at the hands of the microscopic warriors, or whatever the hell they were meant to be.

At first he managed to walk perhaps a third of the way up the pile. As the way steepened, however, Bach allowed himself to touch glove to brick so long as the contact was intermittent and absolutely necessary. But when he slipped and fell… when he ended up with legs and chest sprawled painfully across bits of brick not quite eaten away enough not to be sharp… well, things changed in one hell of a hurry.

“God damn,” Bach cursed with no small amount of volume, pushing himself back up. No point being shy about contact with the rogue strain of nanites any longer. A quick inspection showed him no breach of his clothing, which was a blessing at least… if one that would not last all that long. Bach shuffled up the remainder of the pile without a single neuron’s concern for how that might look from above where Anders almost certain watched. He even felt the briefest contacts with her mind… and shoved it away. Not the time… not the time… sour hell, now is not the time!

The old case itself only barely stuck out of the brick debris by its rounded corner. Though it gave him some trouble in trying to yank it out, the seal under the handle that contained its intellect bore, at the very least, no iridescent sheen as yet. Briefcase in hand, Bach let himself half slide down the steep debris and then ran when he thought he could manage it.

“I’ve got it,” he called up, too scattered of mind to think to use the wireless. Without so much as waiting for a reply, and knowing full well that he couldn’t safely bring the case itself aboard, Bach started his interactions with the security seal. He needn’t touch it, but it sure as hell wouldn’t unseal itself over any amount of wireless distance.

Looking away as he produced his eye-melting ten-dimensional signature, he got the case to pop before it had even occurred to him to ask what its contents were. It would be a boon to his Dad and him even if… hell, especially if he found no use for it here in the city ruins.

Now that he had the thing open, though, he realized that he couldn’t just grab it with gloves that were crawling with rogues. On further half-distracted consideration, he dispatched with the similarly infected jumpsuit with his bare hands. And hell… How am I going to get it off before these boots?

If their designers had abandoned all the global laws pertaining to them, this strain of nanomachine could exact incredible damage. He could not risk getting any on the ship where, in tiny enough population, they could go undetected long enough to be carried to all corners of the world.

“Shit shit shit,” Bach added to his previous outburst. At least some words have yet to go out of style. Wait… “Anders?” In his agitation, Bach didn’t bother with niceties.

“What is it, Smith?” Is she still on that?

“I’ve got the strain all over my suit… I’m going to have to leave it behind. Can this ladder be cut from the ship?”

“Let me ask,” returned her virtual whisper of a reply, following by several nerve-wracking seconds. He could still be spared skin contact with the nanites if she’d just hurry! “It can,” she finally came back.

“Damn good,” he sent back even as he started to kick off one loose boot. Already holding onto the side of the floating ladder, Bach didn’t have to hop around looking for cold metallic purchase on the lowest step. Bach ignored the unwelcome chill that set his already sweating skin to goosebumps. This is going to be tricky, he thought.

“Hold up,” Anders’ figment voice found him again even as he prepared to kick off the other boot.

Huh? “What?” I don’t have all day, what with these damn sour buggers all over my suit!

“I don’t know yet,” Anders’ whispered back. “Just a moment.”

And so a moment passed… and far too many more after that. He couldn’t risk losing the last boot yet and, though he knew on a rational level that the rogue nanites spreading upward from its soles could easily take hours to reach the skin above his ankles, he was far too upset for any iota of patience. Come on already!

That was when Bach felt more than heard the aerocruiser’s railgun—or guns, as far as he could tell—fire not just a first but a second and third time as well. Simultaneously, the ship swiveled on its axis, turning its bow toward toward the east… toward the looming garden tower some several blocks away.

Given the motion, the specially shaped interlocking keratin tubes making up the rigid ladder separated and began to swing more like a rope would, carrying him along with it. He just barely snapped the seal of his template case shut again before having his arm feeling half-torn loose of its socket.

Too startled to think, Bach simply watched as he was pulled away from the lone boot, left behind amidst a thin prismatic sea of ravenous nanites. All too soon, it passed out of sight, disappearing ‘round the corner of a building as the ship swung… and he even more wildly so at the dangly end of the prehensile ladder. Clenching his muscles—and nearly his eyes as well—Bach arced perilously close to another damaged ruin of what looked to have been a fairly typical three story commercial property.

There came another strange pop and an almost inaudible whistle. Must have been another shell fired from the cruiser’s railgun… but at what? He tried to call out across the wireless, but his wits simply would not collect long enough to form a complete thought, much less a cohesive message.

That’s when the lowest rung of the ladder hit something sticking up out of a sandy lane that once must have been yet another street. Finding himself hanging on with both hands while hopping one-booted across a sun-baked sandbar sporting various sharp-looking debris, it was the eaten-looking remains of an office chair, half buried in the sand, that caught his boot and pulled him free of his grip upon the swinging ladder. That he landed in and rolled along the sand was probably all that saved him from worse than scrapes and bruises.

Bach made no attempt to move for quite some time… not with the world spinning as violently as it was. Nothing hurt… yet. But, when he tried to sit up, the city ruins were more than happy to turn themselves upside down. Bach quickly let himself collapse once again. Meanwhile, a few more indistinct pops and even quieter whistles were all that joined the faint sounds of wind around him as he lay there in a daze.

“The hell… is going on?” he asked himself, not expecting the loud concussion and sound of shattering glass that came as an answer. Bach shot upright… and this time endured the spinning sensation that came with doing so. Placing a gloved hand to steady the helm protecting his head, he only then remembered the rogue nano-buggers coating parts of his jumpsuit… and now my helm as well!

Suddenly eager to test his legs, Bach found that he could stand… and took a few wobbly steps away from where he’d landed. First he removed his helm and flung it away, spinning as it arced through the air.

A quick scan of the sandy lane all around him showed no signs of the subtle rainbow hues that coated the nearby buildings… and though that seemed all too odd to the still-dizzy Bach, he took what luck he could get and next kicked off the last remaining boot.

Unzipping his jumpsuit as far as it would go, Bach then discarded one of his gloves. With the other he pried open the lip of his left-hand pocket and, as carefully as he could manage, twice pinched at and twice removed vials of the medic given him by the never-named guard.

Letting each drop to the seemingly clean sand in succession, Bach then distanced himself a step and went about trying to dislodge himself from the jumpsuit with the aid of only one gloved hand… all without touching it to skin.

Following this, and instead of batting off the last remaining glove, he checked it quickly. The prismatic sheen had coated much of its palm, but did not seem to be spreading all that fast… and there was still the matter of the similarly coated template briefcase handle.

Having discarded nearly all of the infected clothing without exposing himself to any obvious contact with the nanites covering them, Bach returned to snatch up the twin ampules with his bare hand, and then the template with the glove.

After a cursory few striding swivels along the sand, Bach had to wonder how long he’d lain back there where he’d fallen. He could not see the aerocruiser anywhere from so low a vantage point. Given the generally ruined state of the surrounding buildings, he couldn’t quite tell where the crash and shattering sounds had come from, either.

“Are you out there?” Bach called out across the wireless. “Hello?” Though he could probably still receive one-way satellite feeds without the ship, he would be effectively cut off if anything serious had happened. But… well, all that turret fire damn well suggests something serious, doesn’t it? When the first signs of blackened smoke rose above a nearer building, Bach started running… until he realized that he was headed straight toward the relatively intact looking garden tower some few ruinous blocks away.

Braking to a stop, Bach felt as though he’d been struck dumb. What the…? Far too many terrible scenarios competed over wracking his imagination. What of Mistuki? The smoke billowed forth from the general vicinity of where he’d last had contact with her!

Closing his eyes, Bach tried to reach out in search of the husk’s mind once again… and just to have his concentration wholly scattered by the sound of heavy fans and rushing air right over his head. Popping his eyes open, he looked up just in time to see the underbelly of some kind of hovercraft. Moving at quite a clip, it blocked the strong afternoon’s sun for barely more than two, maybe three seconds.

“What the…?” Bach half asked himself, this time out loud. Not the cruiser… too small… but it is heading toward all that smoke! “Hello?” He tried calling out ethereally once again.

“Bach!” Though he could see nothing, that sounded like Anders… if strangely flat.

“Lady Rear Admiral?”

“Ye… you? Can…”

Bach hadn’t heard enough to make any sense of what sounded like questions. “What?” When no answer came, he asked again, “What?”

Accompanied by another much louder concussive pop that Bach could feel as much as hear, the new ship visibly jolted in midair before it took to belching its own thin trail of black smoke. At first the frigate continued its forward momentum, and then banked with purpose as it veered out of sight.

Bach launched himself into another sprint, hoping to clear past the half-melted looking building that blocked his view. Still, he only caught a glimpse of the newly damaged hovercraft, and then only for a split second before it slipped behind yet another ruin of an even taller ediface.

Careful to watch where he stepped, especially given the lack of boots to protect his feet from either sharp debris or the devilishly attractive nanite sheen—which still seemed to be avoiding the streets, though he could not, in his haste, figure at why that might be—Bach turned ‘round another corner and followed after the diminishing trail of black smoke… smoke that turned back again toward the still distant garden tower.

“Hello?” He tried for the cruiser’s wireless again… though still without reply. Several more soft pops caught his attention as he ran, but he could see nothing of what went on. This time, though, he heard the powerful fans of a hovercraft under full thrust before he saw yet another frigate approaching from the north. It would pass well ahead of him… long before he could catch up with and be visible to anyone who might be on its deck. “What the hell… is… going on up there?” He asked of himself between panting breaths. Running had never been his kind of exercise.

Bach half ran and half danced onward, dodging malicious-looking debris as he turned ‘round the next fallen building and back toward the now less distant garden tower. It looked much smaller from the air, but now towered well above most of the rest of the surviving or otherwise slanted buildings clustered nearby… and immaculately so at that. Unlike the rest, it appeared unaffected by the surrounding and massive rogue posse.

Having looked upward far too long, Bach only just barely stopped himself from running out across cracked pavement… and the vibrant multi-color sheen that reflected the sun’s light off the uncountable masses of nanoscopic machines coating the old biocrete.

Wildly swinging arms were all that kept him from falling forward, face and palms first, into that terrible technological infection. Instead, he fell backwards and quite painfully met some unseen variety of hard object with the most sensitive part of his tailbone. After the first few seconds of his loud and many-cursed reaction, he bit off and swallowed the rest of his ebbing pain.

As he let the dull throb fade away and once again experimented with trying to stand… an act that took a second try… he distinctly saw where the sand ran out and the rainbow-slick biocrete roadway that lay beyond. “Why the difference?” He asked himself. As he looked up and saw a hell of a lot more black smoke wafting upwards from near the base of the now unreachable garden tower, the reason hit him! “Sand!”