Standoff

Bach nearly had to jump aside as an obviously injured Rear Admiral burst from inside the makeshift tent. Though surprise flashed across her previously stony expression, it passed quickly enough. “Oh good,” she began, almost as if she’d meant the words as sarcastically as they sounded. Still, her tone softened somewhat as she hobbled off to one side of the entrance. “You’re still alive.”

Right behind her, two other figures appeared, and one Bach recognized as the same Commander Walker who’d intercepted the First August not once but twice.

At the sight of him… after the briefest of nods that followed… Bach glanced up toward the two aerofrigates still hovering near the garden tower. Sure enough, now that he stood closer, one of the two ships read Antrim in bright yellow along the side. Being the one that still sputtered out the occasional puff of black smoke from its sole injury, Bach could not help but wonder if that two-stripe Kavanagh woman was alright.

The other hovercraft was turned the wrong way for him to satisfy any further curiosity… such being interrupted by the emergence of a third man, anyway. He was another highly ranked officer who looked vaguely familiar to Bach. The two locked eyes for but a moment as the new man raised his arm to hold the tent flap at bay.

The only other person to emerge from the tent after the trio of officers was a nurse who immediately tried to reach out toward the Rear Admiral. She, in turn, immediately took to crutching away as fast as she could. “Your leg cast isn’t nearly thick enough yet,” the wizened white-haired woman called out after Anders. “You could do yourself permanent injury!”

“To hell with that,” the Rear Admiral yelled as she charged away from the tent and the fallen cruiser… rather, off toward the only visible entrance to the garden tower standing across the sand-covered intersection from them. Walker and the other officer, called Wright by his name-badge, both looked as if on the verge of expressing their own concern over the fleeing Rear Admiral. Neither did more than Bach had, though, shrugging their way past the apoplectic old nurse in trying to keep up.

“What’s going on?” Bach asked, perhaps out of turn, as he pulled up alongside Anders’ left flank. “What happened to these ships?”

The Rear Admiral gave him a sidelong and pained glance before resuming her course across the purified sand in the street. “Still not quite sure about that,” she grunted out by way of reply. “Had to shoot ‘er down.”

Shit, Bach thought as an ice-cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach. Was she on board? He choked on his next intake of air, and coughed a few times in rapid succession.

Though surprised expressions bloomed across the visages of both frigate commanders at her admission — and to a man neither really know anything about — Walker took the Rear Admiral’s unfettered answer as implicit permission to elaborate. “Turns out some city survivors found themselves a refuge in that tower,” he said. “And after a week of helping themselves to the crops inside, they thought it best to radio this fact to the near-starved masses out west of the picket line.”

When Anders only nodded… when the other commander seemed content to say nothing, Walker continued. “Anyhow, the El Paso was sent in to remove these people and evaluate how best to gather and distribute the food… but…”

“But,” Anders broke in to add, “right around the time that Sir Kavanagh here was on the ground picking up one of his precious company templates, we got a swarm of medical pings indicating nanite contamination.”

After a pause, she continued. “I don’t know if you are one fuzz-luck ess-oh-bee or not… but Narayan and I lost a number of good crew members after taking a couple direct railgun hits after ordering the El Paso back down.” She winced and grunted through her next forward swing supported by her crutches, as if adding herself to the list of casualties.

“Anyhow, some of the bastards who started all this are still inside that tower, and there’s only one entrance in that isn’t buried in sand.” Anders shot him another quick look before saying any more. “I’m guessing your lack of uniform is the reason you aren’t crawling with nanites,” she assessed in a flat voice, tossing her chin to indicate the nearby molten-looking buildings reflecting the afternoon’s sun in myriad undulating colors.

Uncertain as to what the other officers might know, Bach chose his words carefully. “Yeah, like I’d said back at the landing site, I’d gotten recyclers,” he stressed to his immediate half-paranoid regret, “on me while trying to retrieve my template. Had to abandon the suit.”

Anders nodded. “You noticed they aren’t on the sand, right? The recyclers?”

“Mm,” Bach confirmed, both relieved and informed by her repeat of his terminology. Don’t say overmuch, then. “Leads me to believe glass was their containment material… that they probably recycled the mud and debris that came in with the sand when the tsunami hit the city.”

“At least this fact got you back to us,” Anders allowed even as she continued to struggle with the same sand that shifted beneath her one good leg and twin crutches. She was sweating up a storm after barely crossing a third of the way to the shadowed entrance to the glassy garden tower. “I suppose that’s why this building is still intact, then?”

“Yeah,” Bach answered the question he’d barely heard. What if Mitsuki’s still in there? Anders had seen her just last night. “What are you going to do about the people still inside?” He felt compelled to ask.

“They haven’t exactly made that decision easy for us,” the other somewhat familiar officer answered first… the one whose tag read Wright. Bach tried not to look as though he were studying the Rear Admiral’s face out of the corner of his eye as the other man continued.

“With the western plaza entrance the only one not buried under half a dozen meters of sand,” he elaborated as he pointed ahead to the darkened alcove of an entrance, “the funny-looking husk they’ve deployed has sent a few of our soldiers to the makeshift infirmary.” Wright tossed a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the tents they’d just come away from.

Oh, Bach thought to himself, suddenly warm with relief and yet still nervous. Still alive… and still in there, too. Good and bad news, both.

Commander Walker was next to interject. “And now they’ve just sent out another radio message and received a reply. Word is out about naval vessels firing on one another, though from what we overheard, those still inside don’t know any details beyond that.”

Of course, Bach realized, Anders must be at just about her wit’s end here. Feeling trapped, maybe, now that word is out that there are survivors… witnesses… inside the city? But what did she plan to do about it with only a half-casted leg and twin crutches against a two hundred kilogram husk?

As if to confirm his fears, Anders half grumbled out “ought to just drop the whole building down on top of the treacherous sour asses.” After another pace arced out over her crutches, she stopped. “Commanders Walker and Wright… call your ships in low. Make them look threatening and, if you can manage it, try to establish a clean line of fire with that damnable machine blocking our way in.”

Both Commanders looked half ill with surprise, but bobbed their heads and saluted in understanding. “Aye,” each acquiesced in stereo unison, likely already stretching out their awareness across the radio spectrum, trying to negotiate short range contact with their ships. The subsequent lack of focus in their eyes told Bach that much… and so he turned on the Rear Admiral herself.

“What’s the point of this?” He demanded of her.

The stationary Rear Admiral shot Bach a threatening look, though he couldn’t be sure if this came purely of her obvious frustration or out of presumption on her part that he’d show her proper military respect. I’m not your subordinate, he defended, if only to himself. Instead of answering him right away, Anders glanced at the two Commanders, apparently deciding it best to put some distance between them and her. Bach turned to follow.

“You know better than I do,” she squeezed out in hushed tones between painful pants, “how bad this situation will be for the homeland should news of it get out to the rest of the world… for you and me, no less.”

Bach only nodded, and grudgingly at that.

“Right… so what’ll you have me do? Let them walk out of here having seen all that they have seen? After they’ve called these other morons to come and see this?” she asked, deflecting blame, with the wave of a hand, to the deceased in or surrounding the still-smoldering frigate some ways off.

Her twisted logic at once both offended Bach deeply and presented him with the only way out he could see here… at least, the only way out that he could see himself living with. Damn you.

Opening his mouth to make his suggestion, Bach found the words dying in his mouth at the outstretched arm Anders stiffly shot out to her side. His eyes followed her arm to Commander Wright, some few paces away, who’d returned from his wetware enhanced communications with his ship well above them. The man nodded, taking the Rear Admiral’s hint. Still, there was something of speculation in the man’s eyes as he turned and walked away… and he’d been looking more at Bach than he had at Lady Anders.

“You were saying?” Prodded the Rear Admiral.

“Oh,” Bach regained himself. “I was going to suggest that those people in there,” he said while pointing, “can serve us better as witnesses.” His use of ‘us’ he knew to be necessary in negotiating with the obviously cornered Rear Admiral… but Bach sure as hell didn’t like it.

“How do you figure?”

Bach reached into the shallow left pocket of his navy-issue boxers and twirled the twin ampules around one another until he was certain that he was about to pull out the one that weighed less… the one that was only two-thirds full of medics rather than completely full of sand.

“This,” he said as he shoved it into the Rear Admiral’s hand, “carries the necessary custom code necessary to get these nanites to turn on and effectively erase one another. Get a few vats worth of medics, give them the code contained in this ampule’s governor, and disperse the stuff over the city as an aerosol. You’ll have your solution.”

Anders appeared dumbfounded as she raised the vial of what looked to be molten gold up to her face for close inspection. “How did you manage…” she began, too distracted to even finish her own thought.

“I was lucky,” Bach answered the question he heard coming, “but the overall design of your rogue strain left itself vulnerable to a hack job. The stuff wasn’t perfected either, as I found still intact nanites mixed in and amongst the sand. Too many starved all at once to complete their self-erasure.”

“They’re not my nanites,” Anders growled under her breath even as she eyed the sand beneath her.

“Alright,” Bach backed off, “but this’ll take them out nevertheless. Maybe dig up or spray the sandy areas with an application of silicon-aluminum ready recyclers.”

Anders gripped the ampule tight in her hands, seemingly accepting his explanation as gospel. “How, though, does this pertain to the people in that tower?”

“They,” Bach said, sounding to himself as if he were half pleading with the middle-aged Rear Admiral, “couldn’t possibly know anything more than that there’s a swarm of nanites chewing on the city’s ruins.”

“And that we just shot down a ship right in front of them,” Anders interjected. “Not to mention, carrying some of them.”

“I don’t know what to say about that,” Bach deflected, feeling a little ill about the subject, “but, when the time comes, it would serve you well to have civilians testifying that supposed recyclers were what got loose across the city. They’ll add credibility for those, like myself,” he admitted manipulatively, “who already have virtually no trust in the military’s word on anything.”

Never mind that I’ve had my worst fears confirmed, he thought to himself. “Can’t be worse than trying to explain why you’ve killed even more civilians, in there, after they communicated with an external party. As to these out here,” he added with a wave of the arm toward the burning hulk in the distance, “according to you, they shot first.”

“But that husk in there…” Anders began to object before Bach cut her off. Though anger flashed across her eyes, Bach still took what pleasure he could from having done this.

“Will probably balk at striking out against a guy walking around in his underwear,” he asserted, arms held out to each side as he indicated himself as example. “I’ll go in and talk them out, and you’ll have lots of pliant witnesses to corroborate the story of a simple infrastructural accident in the wake of a tsunami.”

The Rear Admiral adjusted her crutches before proceeding to lean wearily into them. She let her head fall… let her midlength hair — long since pulled mostly loose of a clasp at the back that reflected the afternoon’s sunlight off a very distinct navy sigil — fall forward off her shoulders to surround her sunken countenance. Though only a pair of long breaths measured the time she hung there, half-wilted amidst what Bach assumed must be a torrent of conflicting thoughts, it felt like forever before her eyes raised up to his again.

At least there was something of resolve within them. “Alright,” she said.

In that moment, Bach didn’t give a damn whether or not the relief he felt was painted across his face. “Good,” he breathed out. “Good. Then I’ll just…”

Anders cut him off. “Not so fast,” she said even as she pulled herself upright and barked the name of ‘Wright’ at the top of her lungs. At hearing his name, the dawdling Commander turned briskly about and jogged to join up with Bach and Anders.

“Lady Rear Admiral?” He asked after his summons.

“Commander Wright,” she began before a thoughtful pause, “Sir Kavanagh here has volunteered himself versus the wrath of the husk blocking the entrance to the tower. Says he thinks he can talk them out.”

At mention of this, the Commander took to his rather direct study of Bach once again, making him feel more than a little uncomfortable. And where have I seen him before? He could not help but wonder.

“He’s also produced a means by which,” Anders continued, hefting the one ampule Bach had handed her, “we can quickly subdue the nano-spillage from the city’s guts.” Already spreading Bach’s cover story amongst her own officers, the Rear Admiral spoke with a calm confidence she hadn’t had since she’d nearly crutched Bach down on her way out of the makeshift infirmary.

“Commander Walker will carry myself and this vial to whatever closest posse growth vats we can commandeer for the duration,” she told the Commander. “You will do whatever reasonable things Sir Kavanagh here asks for in the meantime. Is that clear?”

Wright straightened noticeably as he shot a hand to his temple by way of salute. “Aye, Lady Rear Admiral! How will I know if what he asks is reasonable?”

Anders rolled her eyes at the man, leaving Bach to wonder if that was allowable protocol. “Past getting everyone out of that tower and properly detained,” she answered, “use your best judgement.”

“Aye, Lady Rear Admiral!” Commander Wright repeated.

“Well enough,” she dithered, not bothering to salute him back before hobbling off toward where the other Commander waited. Only as he looked after her did Bach notice the two frigates having wafted in much closer and lower to the ground. At the wave of an arm from Commander Walker, the damaged Antrim changed course, diverting away rather than converging with the other. How they’d get the Rear Admiral aboard, Bach hadn’t the wherewithal to guess. He wanted to see to Mitsuki.

“So?”

Bach turned to look back at the still-familiar Commander who’d strode uncomfortably close. “So? Oh…” Yeah.

“Right. I’ll call in a landing party,” Wright began before Bach broke in.

“No,” he barked out before even realizing he’d said it. “I mean… best thing we can do is look non-threatening.” Bach bobbed his head backwards and to the side, indicating the smoldering wreck off which he could feel the heat even from this far away. “They will have seen that. Too many armed soldiers will be counter-productive.”

Facing his way, and thus also toward the wreck, the Commander studied both with barely perceptible flickers of the eyes. “One guard then,” he said, sounding as if he though he was giving away all his cards. “You first, since this was all your idea… then I and a guard.”

That was as good as Bach was probably going to get, so he nodded his agreement. “I meant to go in first, anyways.”

“Alright.” With that, the Commander turned to face his aerofrigate that, even then, wafted near-silently right over them, blocking out the sun for a good twenty seconds or more. Turning ever so slowly ‘round its center of gravity as it went, only now could Bach make out its name in reflective yellow… A-FFG 6 Weatherbee.

Another G type, Bach mused to himself as he shielded his eyes from the resurging afternoon sun after the ship’s passage overhead. The whole thing made him feel both very small… and very fragile. A new rush of heavy fans told of the ship’s deceleration as it neared a prime position for looking straight into the sole open entryway into the garden tower.

After a few minutes, an adjustable ladder was dropped from the side of a ship. No sooner had it locked stiff than did an armored looking fellow slide down its length… making it look easy at that. In full gear, including a helm that covered his face, the soldier jogged his way toward Commander Wright. Stopping no more than a pace from his superior, the guard saluted. “Sir Commander,” he said, completely neutral of tone.

Unable to fathom this rigmarole, Bach just waited for the two naval officers to get their ritual greetings out of the way. With Anders having left, Bach thought to himself, I should, at the very least, be able to get Lady Hayato out of there without much of a fuss.

At once both anxious to get on with things, and yet forestalled by the racing of various possibilities through the recesses of his mind, Bach wanted nothing more than to be out of this ruin… to be somewhere and going somewhere where he could forget any of the things he’d learned this day. “Can we go?” He finally asked, unable to mask the impatience in his voice.

As if to mock him in some way, the Commander arced an arm through a deep bow. “Let’s.”

Taking the lead, Bach walked toward the tower’s ornate western entryway, slowly brightening inside as the sharpening angle of light from the lowering sun found its way in. If anything, though, that made seeing what lay hidden inside all the harder… what with the contrast being so great. Still, it’s only important that Mitsuki can see me.

When Bach felt that the two officers had approached too close behind him, he held an open palm backwards and, after a few moments, glanced over his shoulder just to make sure that they’d both taken the hint. While they’d widened the gap somewhat, it wasn’t what Bach had hoped for.

Making a show of steeling himself… of pulling in too deep a breath… Bach stepped forward into the darkness where he thereupon slowed his pace, letting his eyes adjust. At first, he saw nothing but something of a glassy tunnel leading perhaps a good ten meters further on toward the much-refracted glow of late-day sunlight glowing from within.

Even expecting it, Bach still jumped half out of his skin when the sea-lion sized silhouette of his prototype ceti husk leapt through the loosened far doors… doors long since relieved of the heavy glass that now lay strewn across the floor before them. Probably not unlike the wild beast after which the artificial form at the end of the entry hall was, in part, modeled after, the thing pushed itself forward in bursts.

It raised itself up and fell back upon its thick polymer chest, noisily expelling what little air it had sucked in with each new lunge. The long wing-like arms slashed through the air whenever the thing lay prone… and, though he’d never really considered this before… Bach realized that those could do serious damage to a mere human being.

You’re really playing this up, Bach thought to himself as he raised both arms in mock surrender. Probably little better than a dark form against the sunlight at the far end of the alcove, he knew then that he should probably say something before the massive husk did break one of his arms with a fell swipe. First, though, he looked back… and, sure enough, twin silhouettes trailed too close behind him.

“Hey!” He shouted. “I’m unarmed and unarmored. We mean you no harm.” I sound like some b-movie idiot actor, he thought to himself. “My name is Bach Kavanagh,” he added, ensuring she didn’t beg too many questions by mentioning his name first.

“What do you want?” Came back a flat synthesis of Mitsuki’s voice. Though no one other than Mitsuki could have been piloting the thing — she hadn’t the authority to pass that ability on to anyone else, after all — Bach still felt yet another knot of tension leave him at hearing her voice.

Bach opened his mouth to answer, but Wright was the one to speak first. “We need everyone inside to come out peacefully,” he said.

“We saw what happened,” the massive husk replied with its less than fitting feminine and accented voice, “after the first time we allowed that.” Having said that, she pumped the artificial creature forward once again, expelling all the ballast bladders noisily. What she didn’t do, Bach noticed, was come any closer to him.

Bach sensed the approach of the other two somewhat more uniformed men behind him, and so tried again to wave them off. They pressed forward anyways, the guard even half-raising his stunted rifle.

“No no no,” Bach waved both his hands, turning fully around. “Come on,” he then began to say before his legs were out from under him. With a loud sandy sounding swipe, the wind was out of him as his forehead bounced off the briefest glimpse of polished stone. He couldn’t quite bark out an ‘ow’ before another force sent him sliding across the smooth flooring.

Louder than he’d imagined it might be, the crack of gunshot filled the enclosed hallway like something physical. Bach quite literally felt the reverberation in the pit of his stomach, if briefly. Conflicting instincts wanted him at once to both look up… and cover his head beneath his arms, smarting though his forehead might be.

“Stop,” Bach heard Commander Wright call out. “Don’t fire,” he added.

Bach pushed himself up upon his hands, but could see little of the other figures beyond the bulk of the ceti-style husk, massive as it was. To his surprise, he’d slid quite a ways back… perhaps ten or fifteen meters even. So you pushed me to safety, huh? Made it look like an attack…

“I’m alright,” Bach called out, trying to de-escalate the situation. “I’m okay.”

“You sure?” The muffled voice told Bach this question had come from the armed guard.

“Yeah. Bumped my head is all. You two stay there,” he then thought to add, even as he pushed himself up onto his feet. “Unarmed as I am, I may be able to talk them down from inside.”

Commander Wright risked pressing up against the hallway wall nearer the husk, putting himself into view. From here, Bach saw him as little more defined than a silhouette… and a nervous looking one at that, given the forward lunge Mitsuki’s husk made to forestall any further passage.

“Well enough,” he shouted. “But if you aren’t back here in ten minutes, I’ll have this sour thing shelled… have this hall caved in. You hear?”

“Right,” Bach called back, confirming “ten.” Not that he believed the Commander. How would they explain having trapped all those people inside, especially so shortly after they’d contacted the outside world? It’s a bluff, he knew.

Though few varieties of husk designed by American Telepresence were of military design or destination, they could still take a beating. The guard could empty every clip he might have brought with him and do little damage in the end… unless, perhaps, the bullets were of special design. Can’t count that out, he thought to himself as he turned to pad quickly down what remained of the hallway.

Having to take some care with the shattered glass all over the floor in front of the swinging double doors, he stepped through the rightmost one and into the diffuse but strong light streaming down throughout the inside of the largely open building. Though dozens of porous floors stretched out above him, few shadows could be cast with light bent in all directions by the tower’s outer crystalline shell.

He’d never been in an agricultural tower before. The experience might have had him staring for even longer under any other circumstances. Still, as he went off in search of any human being at all, he could not help but wonder to himself if it didn’t look much the same under the glassy canopy topping the kilometers wide sea of gardens atop Overjordan’s central hub. Probably…

After a while, Bach grew nervous. Though he waded in amongst the ground floor’s field of corn… though he circled along the myriad washed out offices at the building’s lowest periphery, he neither saw nor heard sign of any other human beings. If this takes much longer…

“Hello?” He called out many times. Eventually, he caught sight of someone, up through the grated flooring, looking down and through at him from between solid beds of whatever it was they’d been growing up there. Sure enough, whoever it was stood and fled noisily, disturbing plants as he or she went.

“Stop,” he called out. “I’m unarmed… just need to talk to someone! Hello?”

“Up here,” called a feminine and familiar voice from above and a ways off to his left.

“Lady Hayato?”

“Yeah,” the distant sounding voice returned after a moment. “Third floor. Can hear you but not see you.”

Even as she replied, half a dozen ragged looking people, women and men both, emerged from the indoor field around him. Bach must have walked in amongst them without having noticed, and that gave him an eerie feeling. Still, the smallest among them… a girl probably not more than a young teenager at the oldest… she strode forward and reached out for Bach’s hand.

It was an odd feeling… and odd place to be, really… but Bach followed where she led and, two fights of stairs later, he found himself walking between lanes of even more corn. “Here,” was all the girl said before vanishing again in and amongst the stalks. Huddled between two of the same, and grasping on to both with an iron grip, Bach found Mitsuki looking little better than the others.

“Hey,” he said, making Mitsuki jump in slight surprise.

“Oh good,” she slurred. “I couldn’t see you come.”

“Still with the husk, then?”

“Aye,” she replied, sounding a bit like Haley and those officers outside. “They went so far as to stand in the entryway, just outside. Will they know if I let it go?”

“Hard to say,” Bach replied. “It might look to them just as if it was resting… maybe. They could still get experimental. At any rate,” he deflected, “something really did happen out there. The frigate with whomever had gone on board tripped some kind of warning… probably from someone’s wetware detecting a stray recycler,” he fibbed ever so slightly, “getting in through a pore or something.”

“So?”

Ugh. “Well, when ordered to land, the frigate was the first to fire. Everyone is confused as to why, but they had to sink it… or maybe didn’t think it’d go that far. I don’t know… they don’t know.”

“Hmm,” was all Mitsuki said to that, eyes still clenched shut with the remote operation of the ceti husk.

Come to think of it… “Who did you guys contact earlier?” Bach asked.

“Found an old radio,” Mitsuki said, answering a question he hadn’t asked. “Got a hold of some random person from New Hampshire from the sounds of it. Said he’d relay a request for assistance to Overjordan.”

“Really,” Bach breathed out. “And that was a few hours ago, now.”

The young Asian woman only nodded.

“Tell you what,” Bach began. “I can promise you that the Navy outside has no motivation to harm the people in here… and we, in here, are in more danger from the recycler spill than anything. The Rear Admiral has left, so you should be able to walk right out that front door. Just leave the husk.”

Mitsuki sucked in a breath, hesitating. “You are sure?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, gripping one of her arms. “Come on, and I’ll walk you down. You won’t have to let it go until you’re certain.”

Again, the young raven-haired woman hesitated… but in the end, she did release her grip upon the stalk of corn on her right, and took his hand instead. It felt very small to him. “Alright.”

As soon as Bach had Lady Hayato on her feet and turned in the right direction, he saw that he was in fact surrounded… by maybe a hundred people, maybe more. No one objected when he spoke out in a clear and even tone, “Let’s get out of here.”