Night of the Sun
by Douglas Van Hollen
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Meade’s arms jerked to the right and her rifle hammered into life. Wabbit’s cold fear washed over her as she tried to recalibrate her HUD to see the night from Wabbit’s perspective. Huge bubbles of threatening yellow washed across the plaza, not a threat to Meade, but Wabbit and the whole of Mike sector, which was at her back, was suddenly under siege.
Meade couldn’t see what she had been puppetted to fire at. She had still been in the process of relaxing her mind into her new oversensed world when the firing began. There were too many pictures flowing across her visual cortex for her to process, and for about a second after the first burst, Meade ignored her senses altogether and tried in vain to get the technology to show her the situation.
But the HUD could not tell her what the problem was, only that there was one, and that its HTIED number was very high. She didn’t need a textual description of the problem, she needed to know. Her lizard brain cried out for sensual information and promised to flood her with fear until it got it.
Meade knew better than to ask Wabbit. The sensematch was feeding Meade her panic and her choked screams, and the firing from Wabbit’s position was almost constant. Again, Meade’s arms involuntarily shouldered her weapon and fired, once high, and once low. Fire opened up from Choke’s position too.
Not slowing her pace, Meade closed her eyes and exhaled hard. Her visual cortex puckered as the nerve endings bled acid from overwork. But now when she felt compelled to sight along her rifle, it was a joint effort between all three consciousnesses.
She saw through all their eyes that the rocks had come alive with hungry mouths. Her world became her reticule, and despite Wabbit having a considerable head-start, the ad-hoc began to function as it was intended, as three fingers on the same hand.
As Meade’s targeting systems began to whine from the sudden demand, still laying down surgical fire, she opened a vox to Overwatch.
“Overwatch, have you activated the Werewolf Protocol, over?”
“Negative on Werewolf, Foxtrot. Please report on your hostiles, over.” No one had to say “over” anymore, of course, but rituals are important.
“Seven igneous multi-joint, ambulatory, ingestive. HOTT rounds somewhat effective, but my ad-hoc’s overrun, over.”
“Roger that, Foxtrot. I am preparing to fight fire with fire. Please report on the effectiveness of basso profundo, over.”
Choke had closed the distance between him and the hostiles. The ad-hoc formed an obtuse triangle against one of the sides of the plaza, optimizing their lines of fire to slow the things’ locomotion. The ball of silver light in Echo sector was a hundred meters high now, high enough and bright enough to rob the smaller buildings of their shadows, and the hostiles reflected the light along shiny, curvaceous edges.
But there was still not enough light to distinguish between the formless forms with the naked eye. All seven constantly exchanged places, feinting in two opposite directions in two successive moments, sometimes making straight for a fallen townie, then turning to step on a tiny bonfire while another form changed direction to eat the townie.
Meade’s HUD clocked the tallest at ten feet and was able, to some extent, to track the random, jerky movements of them all, color-coding them in the overlay. The bright cartoonish colors gave the threat definition and boundaries, and her fear began to ebb.
Meade stopped her forward march and fired a dozen rounds into a lower joint of a form moving toward her. The joint exploded into stony shrapnel and the thing was forced to rebalance itself using unseen other limbs. This bought her a little time.
The rifle sung as it snapped onto her back. The other minds linked with hers needed no explanation of the change in tactic. Their firing patterns immediately began to change, shorter covering bursts as Wabbit and Choke rotated to new positions, bursts so perfectly timed that it seemed a single tune alternating between two singers.
The basso profundo grenade looked like a simple metal rod stored in the side of Meade’s vest, about two feet long and slightly flexible due to its thinness. Meade moved closer to the creatures, into the shadow between them and the taller buildings at the edge of the plaza. The silver light still ascended, and all the shadows continued to shorten. She still did not quicken her pace.
Meade snapped the rod in two places, a third of the way from each end, the metal not breaking but bending on hidden joints, allowing the ends to touch. As soon as the metal connected, it began to vibrate in her hands, and she had to grip it tightly to twist the ends around each other.
She was very close now, the alien air taking on a hot tartness that she could not smell. The red lights that she assumed were eyes became aware of her and the shapes struggled to get closer to her, but they seemed constrained by their random patterns of movement. Their obsidian bodies began to spike out all over in some expression of frustration, and this seemed to give them traction and increased their speed. If Choke and Wabbit had not kept up their fire, flaking off bits of structures critical for movement, the forms would have eventually covered the distance between them.
Meade stood hooded in the darkness, no face staring up from the off-white color of her helmet. She was right-handed, and she held the grenade in her right hand as its frequency rose and the metal buzzed against her armored glove. Her feet were apart and she bobbed back and forth as if priming for a spring. She watched the colored shapes weave back and forth in her augmented view until her roving reticule flashed rapidly over a space opening up towards the center.
She took two steps and threw, overhand like a baseball player, and the tightly rotating triangle ascended, as if on a thermal, right into the space between the shapes. The helmet knew what her action meant and filled the world with cotton, but it could not completely deaden the deep, blaring note that rose like the dawn from the tiny spinning shape.
It sounded like a thousands-strong tuba choir, all on pitch with a terrifying accuracy. The sound waves beat outwards from the grenade, keeping it aloft from the ground and apart from the black forms that now shuddered and slowed their endless dance. The amplitude intensified, overtones compounding overtones, and Meade, who was watching this in her helmet’s rear-view as she fled, felt a great velvet force press at her back.
Water vapor in the air began to electrolysize, subatomic particles breaking free under the stress of the sound of hell, and for several seconds, this world doomed to darkness had a twin pair of suns, a large white one drifting away in the sky, and a small blue one near the ground, oblong like a cat’s eye, bouncing slowly on the collision of its unstoppable force with the planet’s immovable surface.
Layer after layer of black obsidian sheared away from the whirling forms who struggled against their unseen constraints to move away from this demon. But they could not separate from each other for any length of time. Meade’s placement of the device had been chosen to trap them close to it.
She ran with the others until her HUD turned from red to green. She zoomed all the views she had inward until she could make out the forms behind the dying cloud of dust.
“Overwatch, about a sixty percent effect on that B.P. Threat remains, over.”
“Thank you, Private Meade, nice pitching. Werewolf Protocol will be active in fifteen. Make a final sweep of the plaza with your ad-hoc and rejoin your patrol along the Mike border, over.” A box appeared in her HUD with a countdown from fifteen.
“Copy that—” and then there was beeping yellow all around her and she was airborne, pincered in a black, stony, two-fingered hand.
An eighth hostile had materialized, like the others but of a more refined quality, less erratic and more mobile. Meade yanked at the arms of her ad-hoc to open fire on it as she felt her own rifle scrape off her back. Through Wabbit’s eyes she followed its fall, and saw it catch on Choke’s magnet.
Through her own eyes she could only see color overlays against a reflective black surface, no contrast, no details. Her altimeter told her she was ascending, and from the others’ views she could see pseudopods forming and reforming around her, moving her up to some central killing floor.
She cleared her HUD as much as she could with subvoc commands as she tumbled, retaining only Stev’s graphical countdown. The beast was moving fast and she did not expect to be saved by Werewolf.
Only three or four soldiers in her company bothered to carry sidearms, especially on routine patrols like this one had started out to be. But Meade had been humiliated again and again in hand-to-hand combat training, even when power-assisted, and so she packed heavy, secreting this gear from her comrades but taking comfort from its presence.
The flat rectangular barrel of the Thompson PP9 Bearcat lay against her right kidney. The docker’s clutch recognized her panicked, grasping glove and released it. Meade was nearing the apex of her climb. An obsidian patch reflected silver light down at her around two burning red orbs.
The gun drew power from her suit and fired fiercely from her fist. The grasping arms turned her this way and that, but Meade twisted her body against them, trying to keep those eye-things in the range of her fire. The cheap pistol rounds, made for impact not penetration, could not hope to halt the beast, but they could distract it and stall it as Choke and Wabbit continued their assault upon its lower structures.
The pistol’s slider worked faster than the eye could follow, feeding round after round into the firing chamber. The gun’s rattling whir continued even into the mouth of the thing where the pincer’s hold still refused to weaken.
With sweaty desperation and a growl that her helmet attempted to translate, Meade pressed the blurring barrel of the gun against the inner surface of the obsidian face. Bullets continued to hammer out and ricochet around the echoing cavern, but the real damage was done by the violently repeating slider. Meade’s armored hand crushed the firing weapon against the stony mouth, and the surface began to wear away like wood on a lathe.
Like all great and terrible things of our brave new world, these stone beasts were nets of nanotomic machines, trained to clump together what raw materials they could find in the environment into fearsome, destructive shapes.
However, unlike the smooth death delivered by the Werewolves, these criminal knock-offs could not process rapid environmental changes. The purpose of such technology was to circumvent simple physical countermeasures like hand-held assault weapons, but if one did not invest in the logical training of the machines, as the builders of these had clearly not, then the infrastructure of the nets could easily be shaken loose.
And so Meade’s gambit to sand her way through biting death bore fruit. The pod that held her weakened as she forced the beast to devote more and more resources to keeping its face intact. The air was filled with wild bullets and shredded stone, and Meade’s helmet began to wear away.
The helmet was theoretically bulletproof, but only to a point, and with the introduction of nanotomic shrapnel, the rubbery fabric reached the boundaries of its intended function. Holes appeared in her cheeks and around her head, and these quickly multiplied as the integrity of the material degraded.
There was a little blood, but she could still see, and there was a strip of helmet still covering her left eye, giving her a surreal, cycloptic, static-filled version of augmented sight along with Stev’s digital countdown.
She leapt onto the new crags and footholds made by her ricochets, and as the countdown reached “1” along with her ammunition, she powered her left glove with a knuckle-popping fist and smashed her way out of the side.
She fell, only ten feet the cams later reported, but in the sudden blast of unnatural light, Meade was too disoriented to prevent her vertigo. She did not even have the presence of mind to ask the others to catch her. But since they were linked, they knew where to be all the same.
Just as Choke caught her falling form with his and Meade’s rifles sticking to his back, the Werewolf Protocol finished its start-up sequence, and the still recovering form towering above them and the seven others inching their way across the plaza were overcome by creatures whose matter was the same, but who had been engineered with the care and expertise in which the concept of nanotomic combat had found its fullest expression.
Meade’s helmet was almost completely non-functional, so she did not see the final extermination of the threat until her debriefing the following day. But as she fled, Meade could hear a rushing, rustling sound like a tornado in a dry cornfield and a guttural roar that rose and rose until she could feel it sucking air past her, and then it stopped.
* * *
The Option’s bots and the atoms they had commandeered sank inert back into the ground to await their next assignment. The substance of the black copycats also sifted down like common dust, to be broken into its component parts by passive engineered bacteria.
Nine’s burgeoning insurgency had been in possession of Werewolf-like technology for almost an entire cycle. But since they did not have the skills to effectively wield it, they had decided to sell it off-world, using their bastardized, abortive forms as distractions while they tried to spirit it away.
Option intel has never revealed what the ultimate destination was intended to be. But it made no difference to the men on the ground. The small and highly unstable interstellar craft that launched from Echo sector got no farther than elementary orbit before the Option’s gravity nets brought it down again, and by that time the hostiles had long since been disintegrated.
Replay from the cams shows most of the black forms simply being washed away by a brown breeze. In some sectors with high populations, forms similar to the hostiles were chosen by the Option’s computers to do more surgical damage, and the cams were treated to epic battles between them.
The black glossy texture of the copycats, Meade later learned, was due to unnecessary heat production from the friction of colliding particles. This is the hallmark of poor nanoengineering, and it made them brittle and vulnerable to conventional weapons.
The patrol in Golf sector was able to neutralize their threat almost a full minute before the Werewolf Protocol was active using only rifles and ceramic knives. The Golf patrol got service commendations and an invitation to teach a class in the type of combat they had invented, but they had preferred to get drunk instead.
The soldiers were told, when all the patrols had gathered at the muster point outside of town on the road to A-A-C, that they had lost only two soldiers that night. The civvie scientists responsible for the attacks and the attempted treason were sitting in a cluster of immoblobs by the general’s tank. Their heads had been left free, and they could hear the noise of their beasts being destroyed throughout the city and they could see their great white beacon being dragged back to the ground.
Choke tapped her on the shoulder and handed back her rifle. He had rolled his helmet up so that a thick, round band circled his head. “Wabbit’s out for six weeks.” He spoke low.
Meade turned to look at her lying in the medical tent. Wabbit’s chocolate face made no sound but her squinted eyes screamed as they unplugged her suit and cut open her pants.
Her leg had been severed below the knee in the first moments of the attack. The suit had managed to keep her mobile with the use of compressed air bladders and chemical stimulants.
Choke said, “Stev said the General wanted to meet you. Said that you and a couple others might be getting something besides combat pay.”
Meade pulled off her wrecked helmet and signaled with her external comm that she needed a replacement.
Then she squatted in the dirt, her rifle cradled in one arm. She took off her gloves and looked at her nails. After a minute, Choke put his cigar back in his mouth and walked away.
The medics would set a broken bone in Meade’s hand and would treat her bruised ribs for a week. But she would be back on patrol in six hours.
Copyright © 2012 by Douglas Van Hollen