Bonds

“At least that’s one question answered,” Bach proclaimed, if only for his own benefit. The rogue strain of nanites were not recycling the sand, and that almost certainly meant that, back at whatever facility they had been created in, their containment material had been glass or crystal… rather, one form of silicon dioxide or another.

After not being able to reach either the cruiser’s wireless hub or Mitsuki via direct wetware-facilitated radio, Bach had set to pacing along the edge of his sandy ‘safe zone.’ He even thought about doubling back to see if he could find another sand-strewn path that extended all the way to the garden tower and the tower of billowing black smoke that rose between it and him. Why had the frigate overhead been shot? What was burning over by Mitsuki’s tower before that? Is she all right? It frustrated him that he could not know.

Still, a quick check of the nanites spreading across his glove dissuaded him of any further impulse to find another way around. Their prismatic reflections had spread quickly, and to not much more than an inch from the skin of his wrist. Bach decided it would be far better to abandon the not-inexpensive security briefcase right then and there — this act, itself, being a minor violation of regulatory law concerning nanite technologies — and proceed without risk of the illegal strain spreading to his arm.

Establishing a short-range radio connection with the governing intellect inside the latch, Bach averted his eyes as he pushed his proof of identity into the fragment it revealed to him. With the latch popped, Bach set the case down as softly upon the sand as he could, lest it snap shut again. He gingerly pushed open the top, revealing the large syringe-like template inside before batting his hand wildly and until the already loosened glove went flying a few feet off to land safely on the sand. Plucking the template from the foam in which it nested, Bach then put some distance between himself and the corrupted briefcase.

One way or another, he was going to be stuck here for the time being… that, and these nanites were not the innocent recyclers he’d told Mitsuki were running amok on too much spilt nano-soup fuels. No, they had to be dealt with here and now. Dropping the freed template, Bach recovered one of the medical nanite ampules from where it lay in the sand, twisting off its top.

A tiny governor hung down from the inside of the cap. Bach mentally reached out toward the coin-sized artificial intellect, emitting a very short range radio burst from his own personal wetware. It took a few tries before he finally managed to negotiate a direct network with the ampule’s limited governor. As soon as he did, though, a small figment interface appeared in air, arcing several symbols above the opened lip of the vial.

Even if it was oft a much frowned upon thing to do, Bach’s status as a registered nanite engineer allowed him access to ‘extra’ features… including one icon hued in a threatening orange. He quickly jabbed at it, feeling a false sense of pressure at the tip of his finger. All the arcing icons disappeared, quickly replaced by several more including one simply marked ‘code’. What replaced it, upon further prodding, was more or less a three-dimensional tree of lines intersecting at or branching away from small labelled bubbles.

Breathing out an exasperated sigh, Bach readjusted so as to sit rather than kneel. This might take a while, and his legs were starting to ache again. After wasting too much time searching directly, Bach grew even more impatient. “For God’s sake,” Bach cursed at the ethereal codeset, “please just show me the treatment settings… if any.”

Almost at once, much of the code tree vanished into thin air while two separate branches marked ‘diagnosis’ and ‘treatment’ enlarged to take over his view. “Gaw,” he grumped to himself. “Should have just done that to begin with.”

Setting the governor down in the sand, Bach turned back to the code with both hands. Prying apart the branch marked ‘diagnosis,’ he could see a blinding array of embedded subroutines inside. Not bothering to do another physical search again, Bach instead asked for “foreign nanites, please.”

Almost at once, the vast majority of listings muted to near invisibility while one blazed and wafted its way up toward the center of his vision. Bach again reached out for and grabbed at the brackets to either side of the words with both hands, and pulled them apart. ‘Foreign nanites’ disappeared, and instead a half dozen actual subroutines of code emerged.

“Finally getting somewhere,” Bach half-congratulated himself. From here, the examination required a bit more attention to detail but, in the end, he did not find what he was looking for. “Show me ‘treatment’ for ‘foreign nanites’ instead,” he commanded.

Smart enough to maintain the brackets he’d opened, the differing code sets simply swapped out… one disappearing only to be replaced by another. The list of routines here, though, were rather short… and every one of them detailed different ways of attacking and killing nano-devices not belonging to the host body.

“Two new routines,” he said both aloud and via the tiny wireless network tentatively connecting him to the tiny stop-cap governor laying on the sand. In response, two empty sets of brackets appeared. From there, Bach had to dive back into other parts of the extensive code set to find functions he needed… and this consumed more time than he liked. Still, in the end, he had a routine designed to capture and restrain another nanite, and another designed to invade the captured bugger’s tiny processing core and relay its contents to him via the wireless.

Reflecting on all that he had just done, Bach felt strangely at ease with himself. Though not quite a crime, given his certifications, tinkering with the code was certainly no small thing.

Bach stood, stretched, and wiped a thin coating of sweat from arms just starting to sunburn. Kneeling, he scooped up both the governor and the open ampule, and turned in search of the glove he’d thrown away earlier. He saw it probably twenty paces behind him, and set off to close the distance. Careful not to make direct contact with the thing now almost completely coated in prismatic colors, Bach sat down and crossed his legs. He eased out with the ampule, and allowed a few golden drops of the stuff inside to fall upon the glove.

Almost right away, figments blinked into being above the glove, albeit often times disappearing again so quickly that Bach couldn’t quite be sure that he’d seen them at all. Flickering his eyes back and forth from the virtual displays and the golden drops seemingly fizzling across the surface of the glove like butter across a hot frying pan, each time Bach saw less and less of the mediware.

“It’s like a microscopic war,” he commented out loud. The medical nanites were doing their job correctly, so far as he could tell, but their numbers were not sufficient to keep from being consumed by their opponents. “Should have known,” he added. Most nanites being made of biodegradable polymers or keratins, these seemed to be easy prey.

Seeing that this was going nowhere, Bach reclaimed the open ampule and squinted to get a good look inside. “Three quarters left.” Still… would upending the whole thing make any difference? That would still leave a whole second vial.

Considering the possibilities, Bach stood and went back for the second vial. He’d want to transfer the adjustments he made to the code of the first posse over to the second… rather than doing it all over again, that is. On his way back, though, he noticed that there was finally a steady result floating ethereally above the glove.

Bach jogged his way back for fear that it might disappear on him after all. Letting the second and still-sealed ampule drop back to the sand, Bach dove in for a closer look. Two figment brackets hovered in the air… one containing a miniaturized code tree like the one he’d first seen when tinkering with the mediware vial itself, and another detailing twin databases of materials these rogue nanites were allowed to reprocess.

Typically, legal recyclers had only one database with a built-in preset that toggled between ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive.’ Namely, any substance listed inside an inclusive list was all that was allowed to be reprocessed. Conversely, anything found in an exclusive list would be all that was disallowed from processing… as was the case of crystalline glass and a few other substances inside the guts of Overjordan. Bach wasn’t sure if he was in the least bit surprised, though, when the rogue military strain, its code laid bare, showed two separate lists.

From what Bach could read from these lists, given enough time, these buggers could easily take out everything that allows a city to function correctly… electrical and physical communication infrastructure, building structural supports… hell, even clean the place of bodies in the aftermath of battle. Given this particular realization, Bach could not help but look around and wonder.

Returning to his examinations, the second list read of so many of the same substances that it could have been identical, except for the somewhat self-descriptive header titled ‘feed.’ That almost certainly had to mean those materials that were allowed to propel the posse’s expansion… whether be it in fueling their operation or their growth.

“Medics,” Bach called out to the open ampule’s tiny governor.

“Ready,” it replied with an ethereal voice he could only hear via his wetware.

“What are the few most common substances used in the construction of the nano-machines you have captured?” Given the extensive list of allowed substances inside the military strain’s database, they couldn’t be made of standard stuff, lest they consume each other like they did the drops of mediware.

Given that notion as well as the time the medical nanites were taking in their new task, Bach studied the glove out of curiosity… but when he saw no evidence of any remaining mediware, it was the golden glint on the sand below that finally caught his eye. “Oh,” he breathed in surprise. “God, but that explains all the sand,” he exclaimed with no small amount of revulsion at the idea. Any mud, silt, and all but the largest of seaweed dredged up from Boston Harbor had probably fuelled the illegal buggers’ first few day’s swarming expansion. Their tiny corpses probably intermingled with the sand itself… and he’d been standing on them the whole time!

“Ready with results,” the figment voice of the ampule returned, cutting off Bach’s alarmed introspection.

“Go ahead,” Bach spoke aloud as well as in radio-transmitted thought.

“Primary elements constituting subject operational frame include aluminum, silicon, iron, carbon, and nitrogen. Four percent of remaining constituents include thirteen other trace elements.”

“Complex little rogues,” Bach commented more to himself than to the ampule’s governor… “and not of standard make. What percentage of aluminum and silicon?”

“Subject operational frame consists of sixty eight percent aluminum and twenty one percent silicon.”

“That could be any number of common alloys,” Bach complained to no one in particular. “Or several different alloys making up different parts of the device. What of the percentage being iron?”

“Subject operational frame consists of three percent iron.”

“That’s not enough to suggest its use in their primary construction… doesn’t sound as though these would be biodegradable. But wouldn’t that leave behind long-term evidence of their existence?” After a few moments of fruitless internal conjecture, Bach brought his attention to bear once again upon the ampule’s figment interface. “Project for me an image of the nanite design in question, please.”

This request took an almost agonizing amount of time for the medical nanites to satisfy. Finally, though, a giant nano-machine materialized, floating motionless in the air before him. Not of any design he recognized, it sported a central hub — likely the transmitter and limited computational core for the nasty-looking thing — and three equally spaced two-jointed arms radiating equidistantly outward. “What the hell is that all about?” he wondered aloud. “I suppose this design allows for added mobility… but…” Again, Bach paused.

Reaching out, he batted at the figment with his hand, making it spin along its radial axis. This animation came to rest near enough to upside down. Seeing something in this, Bach reached out again and pulled the image apart, creating a duplicate. He then more deliberately rotated this new copy upright again and pulled it in close to the other such that the tips of their arms nearly met.

“Huh,” he breathed out as he repeated this and slowly turned yet another copy of the figment image. In the end, between three virtual giant nanites, he’d managed to form a hexagon between their outstretched appendages. “What the hell kind of purpose could that serve?”

Maybe he was just imagining that there’d be any purpose at all… and he certainly couldn’t see how this would help him provide the navy with a solution to this mess. Having been a while since he’d last heard a hovercraft pass by, much less seen one, Bach actually wished he’d be found already. Even that damn Rear Admiral would do right about now.

Overwhelmed with irritation and frustration both, Bach swatted at the trio of figments, sending them flying. Each disappeared into thin air after the first meter or so. Letting himself fall to the sand, Bach stretched out to stare at the perfect blue sky.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he shouted. The hoped-for echo did not return to him. Is there anything significant in their design? Is there meaning to their potential for interlocking into flexible sheets of hexagons? Or is it simply nothing more than coincidence? Why make them of substances that would remain behind indefinitely after their use? Wouldn’t the dead shell of a weaponized nanite be perfect proof of the worst sort of violation of the Dubai conventions imaginable? The very thought of it made Bach itch.

“Wait a second,” he exclaimed to himself as he sat bolt upright. Stretching forward, he grabbed at both figment databases he’d shoved aside earlier, looking through each intently in turn. The recyclables list went frighteningly on for ages, so he quickly resorted to a verbal search. “Are any aluminum and silicon alloys in this list?”

“There are twenty-four alloys in the table using both component aluminum and component silicon.” Along with the ampule governor’s figment voice reply, the ethereal list in his hand panned swiftly, restoring the list so that each alloy now highlighted in bright yellow toward the top. Most he recognized as high grade construction materials common in many vehicular and building frames. A couple he’d never even heard of. “Do any of these alloys match those in use in the nanite’s construction?”

Again, the governor carried on at length with the miniscule posse of surviving nanites it had in that golden drop lying upon the sand. All the while, Bach’s mind churned with possibilities… idling away not a second of the time he waited. Finally, the governor’s figment voice came back, “three alloys match within ninety-five percent accuracy to those used in the subject’s operational frame.”

Huh? “How the hell are they not consuming one another, then?”

“Unknown,” the ampule replied.

“I wasn’t asking you,” he growled back in general frustration. All in all, none of this made any particular sense to him. Thinking of the potential pattern formed by three of these nanites combined, Bach felt compelled to ask “is there any sort of physical merger between the nanites currently being examined?”

“Subject operational frames are occasionally joined in sheets of porous nanofabric.”

“Ah,” Bach reacted aloud, “and I can’t really see how else they’d arrange themselves if not in hexagons.” Somehow, he thought, this must be related to the means by which they chose not to recycle one another. “Sorry,” he said, apologizing to a very limited artificial intellect that did not care, “but can you show me the nanite’s anatomy again?”

Having already done this once already, the tiny governor only had to resurrect the figment he’d dismissed earlier. Pulling the image close, Bach gave careful examination to the interfaces at the end of each appendage. “Each is the same, but…” Bach interrupted himself with a closer inspection. “I still don’t see how these could be interlocking.” Their grips were far too simple and inflexible.

After extensive and ineffectual poking and prodding at the virtual nanite, Bach wanted to tell it and the mediware ampule’s governor what they could go do with themselves. What good are two molecular lances per arm over the one that comes standard with legal nanites? Why do one of these prods, designed to disturb molecular bonds, turn out to be nonconductive? Wouldn’t that make it useless as a lance? Why was it tipped with ionic nitrogen?

Unless… “Mediware, can you show me a rough approximation and distribution of the carbon and hydrogen in the construction of the operational frame.” The earlier scan had said both had been used, but where?

Bach could feel time slipping away, having to ask the ampule to carry out so many different examinations that it was clearly too under-powered to do quickly and efficiently. Still, an answer did come by way of color-coding of the figment nanite. From green at the least concentrated to red at the most… well, for both carbon and hydrogen, there turned out to be very little in the construction of the nanite after all.

“If hydrogen and carbon are both more than trace elements in the operational frame, Medics, then where are they?”

“Concentrations of hydrogen and carbon exist between connected operational frames.”

This time Bach did pitch a quick fit. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this to begin with?”

“Unknown.”

Quelling his irritation, Bach asked for the interlocking component made of carbon and hydrogen to be examined and detailed for him.

After some time, the mediware governor returned, “Ready with results.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Interoperational frames are individual molecules that vary in hydrogen-to-carbon ratios.”

They vary? Then again, nitrogen is highly interactive with both of these elements. “What are the ratio extremes?”

“Two-to-one is the highest ratio. Five-to-six is the lowest.”

Having had to endure an extensive education in chemistry, hearing this result had Bach’s skin crawling. “Are the highest ratio interoperational frames joining three nanites?”

“Correct.”

“Shit,” Bach breathed out as he practically launched himself up off the sand. Wiping the stuff off his legs and shorts really couldn’t have accomplished anything more than making him feel incrementally better.

“Goddamn benzene,” he complained out loud. Of course, it made sense in a way… benzene being an easily reactive molecule that, itself, formed naturally into hexagons. “I guess when used as a weapon, whether or not the remnants are carcinogenic is not of primary concern.”

Knowing a few things about how nanites generally had to operate, though, this could be something. Trying to push concern over the hazardous chemical out of his mind, Bach knew he had another good hour’s more recoding of the mediware’s functionality ahead of him… and he wasn’t about to power his way through that while standing the whole time. All the while, he kept hoping he’d hear the whirring fans of a hovercraft and could not help but wonder about the goings on over by the garden tower.

Somewhere along the way, an increasing irritation on his wrist finally brought his attention to more than the occasional unconscious round of scratching. “Oh, sour hell… no, no, no” There, on his right arm, maybe four or five centimeters higher than the inner side of his wrist was the tiniest iridescent speck.

Twisting his arm back and forth in the sunlight caused the tiny patch to reflect back varying and seemingly random hues. Shoving down a flaring panic, Bach stretched out to grab some of the sand with his other hand and went about rubbing the infected spot raw. What remained was red and painfully irritated raw skin, but no detectable rainbow reflections. “I suppose that had to happen,” he growled out. “As if I hadn’t incentives enough already.”

Refocusing his attentions upon the mediware’s figment codeset, he exercised his best caution in not hurrying through borrowing and tweaking already written subroutines of code. Make a mistake here and he could find himself without the means to fight off a military-designed artificial infection… maybe even hurt himself outright with badly coded medical nanites.

Once satisfied, but not willing to wait around for another hour and a half to see if the spot on his arm would return, Bach again let just two drops of what looked like molten gold fall upon the discarded glove. Had it not been covered in myriad undulating reflective colors, it would otherwise appear to have endured years of loving abuse from its owner… such was the pace they’d set in consuming the poor thing.

No sooner had the drops touched the glove than again did they skitter off, every bit as much like butter upon a hot frying pan as the last time. It wasn’t just the mediware posse that flashed into activity… no. In an ever expanding ring that wrapped itself around the glove’s periphery, a fizzling wave left little more than an impossibly fine grey dust in its wake.

Bach burst out in hysterics… if of the sort born of great relief. “First fuzzy try,” he proclaimed for no one but the surrounding ruins to hear. Whether the theory would prove out to be true in the end, his solution in attacking what he felt sure must be the nanite’s collective weak point had proven effective.

With the damn sour buggers capable of recycling one another’s basic alloy construction, there had to be some agreement by which they recognized each other as not being targets… that is to say, anything bonded to them by these similarly shaped benzene hydrocarbon molecules. Having recoded the medics to hack into and, themselves, insert new code into the military nanites, he got the illegal rogues to recycle their own benzene ‘clasps.’ Without those, they could no longer recognize each other, and so became fair game.

“This should satisfy Anders.”

Upending the last half of the contents of the first mediware vial into his mouth, he rubbed the stuff into his gums until the stuff integrated, disappearing entirely. This should offer me some half-decent protection from the illegal strain.

Unscrewing the top from and accessing the engineer-only submenus of the second ampule, Bach dragged the newly written codeset over from the first, duplicating its benefits. He then walked over to the edge of the sand, reclaimed his family’s assemblerware template, stepped to the edge of the rainbow-infected biocrete and stopped one last time, if just to give himself the chance to reconsider.

Moment of doubt endured, Bach took the now empty first vial and scooped up a sample of the sand and the dead nanites mixed in amongst it, then screwing the top back on. Though its hue was not all that much like the faux molten gold of mediware, it might pass for the same in front of untrained eyes.

Rubbing about a third of the second ampule’s contents onto the soles of his bare feet, Bach twisted the top back on, and took two decisive steps out upon the impossibly thin prismatic fabric encrusting the biocrete of what once had been a wide avenue. He took no small amount of satisfaction from the soft fizzling sound that spread away from each footprint he left in his wake.

After more than a couple hours stuck in one place, Bach could not help but wend energetically between piles of sharp-looking debris… though, for so long as he continued to hear the fizzing of dying nanites in his wake, he made a point to avoid wasting those coating his feet on otherwise inviting-looking patches of sand. All the same, there really had only been just a few obscured blocks separating him from his destination.

The distant crack of gunfire may quite literally have saved Bach from stepping out into plain view, at that last concealing corner before reaching the looming vertical farm. Unwilling to be mistaken for being on one side or the other of whatever this gunfight was about, he found a small patch of sand and crawled toward the building’s molten-looking brick corner for a look.

Bach pulled back again after another trio of gunshots. He rather doubted they were aimed his way, and so dared to look again… and longer this time. The furiously burning wreck of an aeroship lay directly between him and the base of the tower, its length consuming much of the sand-laden road upon which it had either set down upon… or crashed outright.

Closer still to the glassy tower, if largely occluded by the wreckage of the smaller ship, sat what he Bach had to guess was Captain Narayan’s cruiser. Bach could make out its crumpled bow, though the condition of the rest of the ship he could not be sure about. There could be no question that it hadn’t emerged unscathed from whatever had transpired between the two naval hovercraft.

Bach retreated back ‘round the corner, stood, and stretched loose all the knots gathering in his muscles. “So what now?” he asked himself. Dusting himself of the sand and getting a good look at the simple and drab undergarments left to him after having lost his mechanic’s uniform, he knew he couldn’t look like much of a threat. Besides, the fallen frigate ought to block their view of his approach as much as it did his view of whatever was going on beyond. Then again… hell, there were those gunshots. Bach cursed to himself as he took his chances with a direct approach.

Hanging in the air well above the downed ships hovered two others, both similar sized to the smoldering hulk a good hundred yards ahead of him. One still belched out the occasional puff of black smoke, but otherwise seemed intact. Further away, they hung silently, the vector of their bows joining upon the tower itself. It seemed to be their concern… and that had him more than a little nervous about Mitsuki. Had she remained after his urging her to leave?

“Probably,” he admitted cynically to the ruins around him.

Wending his way past the first wreck brought Bach the unwelcome awareness of human bodies. Some were recognizable, having simply fallen too far to the sand, while others were not, barely more than smoking piles amidst barely muted flames.

And then there was another, nearest the bow of the slain hovercraft… a ragged looking blonde-haired woman, face down and unmoving. If not for the sand beneath her, Bach imagined there would have pooled no small amount of blood ‘round her body, given the obvious wound in her shoulder. Bach didn’t want to look, but couldn’t quite turn away either.

She must have been shot, and that had Bach fearing the worst. “Best I try again,” he muttered, unwilling to simply step out into the possible sights of someone’s rifle. Pulling back half a dozen paces or so, Bach called out once again through his wetware’s radio protocol. “Hello? Rear Admiral Anders?”

At first, his internal posse of nanites relayed to his hearing nothing by way of wireless reply… but, then, there was a voice. “Who is this?”

That wasn’t Anders… though the male voice that he heard, as if its speaker stood right before him, was somehow familiar. “Kavanagh,” Bach replied without a second moment’s hesitation. “I was brought on board the cruiser to diagnose the…”

The sound that cut him off sounded something like the hiss of a half-strangled cat. “You were ordered not to talk about the quarantine zone over any broadcast channels,” the voice returned, seemingly apoplectic.

“Uh… sorry, then,” Bach stumbled through his reply. “Anyhow, I was stranded at the the site we dropped the ladder for. Where’s the Rear Admiral? I’m near the other wrecked ship. Is it safe for me to return to the cruiser? What’s going on?” Bach really had no idea if there was some formal naval grammar more appropriate to all his questions, but at the moment he really only cared about being able to emerge from behind the frigate without getting shot like that poor woman.

“Yes yes,” the voice returned. “Return to the cruiser at once, but do not board.” At that, Bach could almost feel the man at the other end of their tentative radio connection break the link in irritation.

Still feeling all too uneasy about stepping out into the open, Bach did so anyways… eyes clenched shut not only to avoid having to look at the dead woman, but out of an added suspicion that he’d be next.

Letting his right eyelid open by just a slit, Bach paced forward, a pause between each experimental step. With each step that did not result in his getting shot, Bach squinted a little bit less while striding forward a little bit more. After crossing perhaps a third of the way between the two fallen ships, armed soldiers appeared, jogging ‘round the cruiser’s bow. While they did each sport a stunted and deadly-looking rifle, neither had theirs raised. Even so, Bach instinctively raised both arms… not quite above his head, but certainly splayed out to each side, showing that he was not armed in any way.

The guards intercepted him quickly and, after a quick inspection and more than a couple raised eyebrows over what Bach assumed must be his state of attire, led him back along the path they’d just followed. On the other side of the somewhat crumpled but otherwise intact-looking cruiser had been set up a handful of barricades, not to mention makeshift tents made of tan keratin fabrics. It was to one of these that Bach was escorted.

The guard to his left moved to open a flap so that Bach could enter but, instead and to everyone’s mutual surprise, Rear Admiral Anders crutched her way out.