Long Fall — Chapter 10

A post in the early evening? What the devil? Hard to believe, I know.

Today, we’re jumping into Chapter 10: Invasive Species.

If you’re not caught up, you can find all of the preceding chapters of Biotech Legacy: Long Fall right here at the Oktopod Blog.

The previous book, Biotech Legacy: Stars Rain Down, is currently available exclusively through Amazon.

Buckle up.


Chapter 10
Invasive Species

The workshop was dead quiet except for the simulated tapping of small stones striking the walls, and the faint crackle of a tool that looked much like a soldering iron. The device in Amira Saladin’s hand was a bio-circuitry printer, one of several hundred things she’d invented in the few years since the world had been violently reborn.

The idea for it first came to her when Legacy’s holographic chamber proved too slow for her purposes. That interface worked as a brilliant way to prototype and experiment with new designs, and she still used it for initial drafting, but the things it produced invariably came with subtle hardware bugs that needed to be patched away. Each minor revision had to be run off anew, which placed a significant speedbump in the path of progress, so she made a pen that allowed her to sketch fixes in place.

Internally, the device worked much like a spider’s spinneret, folding and combining proteins into complex tissues as she dragged it along a surface. It gave Amira the ability to draw a new tendon or nerve and correct any deficiency in a matter of seconds, and she began fielding new designs at what seemed like an incredible rate even to her.

This was her life now: she was building whenever she wasn’t fighting, and vice versa. One became a release valve whenever she grew tired of the other.

The components in front of her today belonged to something special. A pet project. The work on it had grown so complex and delicate that only fresh prints could possibly be viable, forcing her to work slowly much like when she began. Even a small error in her workmanship might prove catastrophic.

Instead, she used her pen to mark changes for the next run-off. In this case, her focus was a dense fabric of woven muscle threaded through with organic circuitry. A pair of mechanical arms held armor in a retracted position so she could work on the internals, while the component itself was held in place by another arm which gently pushed back whenever Amira applied pressure, preventing any shaking or instability.

Each new generation of Amira’s pet project was brought into being, examined, then melted down and recycled into the next. She sometimes went through a dozen iterations a day.

Staring at the fabric, she issued a simple mental command and her headset responded. It used an array of sensors to build a digital simulacrum of the surface in microscopic detail and displayed a live rendering on the connected glasses. At the same time, thin metallic strips on her wrists overrode her nerve impulses, giving her hands the precision necessary to work at such a fine scale.

Amira saw a red glare out of the corner of her eye which let her know someone was waiting at the door. As a matter of official policy, there was no knocking aboard The Pegasus.

She continued working at a steady pace and patched the last two loose myofibers into place, then set her pen and headset down. “Come,” she said.

The door opened silently, and Tom Greer waited on the other side. “We’re ten minutes out from the insertion point, Sal.”

Tom was older, Australian, bearded. He lost his wife and kids in a car accident shortly before the invasion, leaving him already grief stricken when the world around was torn asunder. Instead of breaking like so many others did, he became determined. He became unbreakable, and it made him a damned good executive officer.

“The team?” she asked.

“Prepped and ready to go.”

“Right,” she said. Amira gave her project a soft pat then spun in her chair to face the computer behind her. She typed out a string of commands in the terminal and hit enter, starting the build procedure.

Analyzing new topology…

Complete

Simulating protein fold sequence…

Building cache…

Computing…

Complete

Compiling gene code…

Compilation would take a few hours, after which machinery on the other end of her workshop would automatically fabricate and assemble the pieces. At this point, every part of her process had sprung from Eireki technology which she’d torn apart, examined, crudely rebuilt, then tweaked and modified into her own.

As for her special project, months of tweaks and fixes were finally coming to an end. This was the final draft; she could feel it in her gut.

“Alright, let’s suit up,” she said. She was already out of her chair when she spoke, had grabbed her jacket from the desk, and was striding toward the door. Tom had prepared for her sudden departure and kept pace.

The door closed behind them and sealed itself shut. The stakes were too high now for any lapse in security, even on her own ship and among her own people.

Amira and her XO walked the halls of The Pegasus at a brisk pace, down wide and bare tunnels that led from Amira’s workshop on the ship’s port side to the mission readiness bay in the forward section.

The bay was an octagonal chamber colored a dull mauve and lit by a single faintly blue light in imitation of evening on Mars, with a second level recessed a half-meter in the floor. The walls were lined with shallow stalls, some of which held MASPEC armors in hibernation. They were accentuated human forms with hard exoskeletons covered in subtly sharp edges, standing in a slightly hunched pose like a man trying to stay warm against heavy snowfall. Their backs were split open revealing the padded hollow within.

The other armors were in use. Among a seemingly random collection of large metal scraps, a team of eight MASPEC trooper stood in the middle of the floor. Their skin was muted and mottled, with a matte finish completely free of any stray glints that might betray their position. The material was a composite of chitin, titanium and several silicates, overlapped in radiating patterns that looked like a mix of art deco façades and shattered glass.

Her earlier armor layouts had aped human musculature, but that concept quickly revealed itself to be less than optimal. The pattern she developed to replace it was instead a natural complement to the muscles beneath, the many pieces sliding over one another, folding, and extending almost like origami. She called them dragon scales.

Amira nodded to her troops as she entered, and walked straight for her own armor. All of her troops had modified their personal armors to better suit their abilities and style, but Amira’s was something else entirely. It was called Kerberos, and it was her command armor.

As she stepped up to Kerberos, it leaned back into her and they combined in one smooth motion. Dragon scales rotated and slid into place, sealing themselves airtight as she turned and regarded her team.

“Time to destination?” she asked.

Tom checked his antique golden watch. “Forty-five seconds,” he said.

Sal gave him a wave and said, “Don’t scratch my damn ship while I’m gone.”

He left with a smile, and the heavy bulkhead ratcheted into place behind him.

The inside of her armor was quiet, warm, and comfortable, like the embrace of an old lover. Its nervous system was tied into her own which made the barrier separating them nearly invisible, and seamlessly transformed the engineer into a lethal predator.

Amira snapped her arms into a guard, then threw a couple jabs and a cross. The system felt good, save for a amall dead spot in the right shoulder. Probably a nerve bundle getting pinched by some of the superstructure. Easy to patch.

Tom’s voice came in over her speakers. “At the waypoint and holding, Sal.”

“Ready to drop,” she said, and flashed her team a thumbs up.

“Roger. Opening doors.”

When the last word came out, the floor beneath folded away, revealing clumpy clouds and a ground so distant that it looked faded and hazy.

The MASPEC troopers fell.

Hundreds of actuated panels on the outside of the armors invisibly controlled their descent, reading the pilots’ impulses and translating them into graceful movements. Troopers weaved in and around the falling metal scraps and turned to scan their surroundings, getting their bearings while plummeting through the sky at hundreds of kilometers an hour.

Amira already had her bearings, and instead watched her ship shrink into the otherwise unspoiled blue. The Pegasus was an asymmetrical and misshapen abomination that simply shouldn’t stay aloft. The sheer grotesque awkwardness of it was an intentional design feature, serving as a firm middle-finger to any potential enemy. She liked to imagine it said to them, “I can make this idiotic contraption float like a happy little party balloon. What do you think I can’t do?”

She originally intended to call it The Unicorn because it was a ridiculous thing that rightfully shouldn’t exist, but even unicorns don’t fly.

As she pierced the cloud cover, Amira finally got a good look at the raging firefight concentrated to the West. Blade Valkyries pirouetted in the air, dancing past screaming balls of plasma and larger projectiles that burst into clouds of glowing cobalt. The Yuon Kwon hunted hungrily after them like piranha eagerly snapping at a bucketful of fresh chum.

But neither group paid much attention to the falling shrapnel or the armored troopers hidden among it. Amira’s team slipped by unseen, finally slowing a few tens of meters off the ground. Purple jets erupted at their calves, hips, and shoulder-blades, and they gleamed like distant stars even in broad daylight.

They’d been given an extra boost thanks to overcharged batteries. The living cells in Amira’s newest armors could hold a charge beyond their technical limit, but the surplus decayed quickly. It was good for high speed insertions like this and very little else.

The nine sliced through the forest’s canopy and dropped to the soil as lightly as falling leaves, while piles of junk metal clattered noisily all around. By the time the last fluttering piece of scrap had hit, the troopers were already behind cover.

“We’re on the ground,” Amira said.

Tom’s voice came back. “Roger. Pegasus en route to holding position. Good luck, Chief.”

“Yeah, fucking thanks,” Amira said, and the armor was smart enough to keep the unnecessary barb to itself. Then Amira said to her team, “Weapons hot, but keep a low profile. Don’t let anything see you, and don’t let anything that sees you live.”

Without another word, the troop moved out. They crept through the dense forest, hugging trees as they crossed over softly rolling terrain, and marching as quiet as ghosts. They were practically invisible from more than a few paces in the dappled shade, and even thermal scans would fail to see them; the surface of the armors mimicked the background heat, adding subtle variations like shifting tiger-stripes. Any waste heat produced by the woven myofibers that drove them was recycled back into the batteries for later use.

They covered several kilometers quickly with a roaring maelstrom chewing up the skies above them. The landscape became more and more tumultous as they progressed, riven and churned up as if a massive jackhammer had assaulted the Earth. Trees were uprooted and tossed over, tangled roots still clinging to clots of soil that faced the heavens.

“This place looks like hell,” one of her troopers said. It was Misha, a younger soldier, fresh faced but for the cold darkness that haunted his eyes. That wasn’t a rare feature these days.

Another of the troop, Tamsin said, “Either someone has a quite large new weapon,”

Amira finished the thought, “Or we’re not getting the whole story.”

None of this destruction had been apparent in the satellite scans provided by the fleet. Amira understood that an unspoiled jungle and a ruined one probably looked awfully similar from orbit, but Donovan knew a damn sight more than he was sharing. It was the same old tune playing out again and again, and she’d once again allowed the overgrown chip on her shoulder to influence her decision.

“Tracking motion ahead,” Tamsin said.

The armors shared sensor information fluidly, and everyone reacted at once. They put trees between themselves and the approaching signature, some hunkered down on one knee, while dozens of sharp and curving weapons trained on the transgressor.

“Hold,” Amira said quietly.

With all of their sensors working in tandem, the distributed network was able to refine the scan. The contact was small, slightly cooler than the surrounding environment, and moving at a deliberate pace. It was creeping, and might have gone unnoticed by less sophisticated equipment.

With a thought, Amira’s armor entered engagement mode. An array of electrodes dotting the inside of her helmet began to send small pulses through her skull and into her brain, while her air supply was simultaneously doped with a mixture of psychotropic compounds. Time slowed, became more fluid, more fascinating like high-speed film.

Her lungs filled and she felt her torso swell, while dragon scales shifted and slid to compensate. One interconnected system. The armor felt more awake, more connected to her. She felt more alive inside of it, integrated into a single closed circuit without beginning or end.

Their target approached the sundered ridge up ahead and Amira waited. She remained relaxed and still, free of tension or anxiety and simply ready to react.

The contact stopped. It held its position. It backtracked a few paces.

In a low voice, Misha said, “What’s it doing?”

The amorphous blob resolved into a humanoid figure leaning against something with an assault-rifle in its hands. Its breathing and heart-rate were steady.

Amira smiled for no one inside her helmet, and said “We’ve been made.” She waited a beat and added, “Hold here. Misha, Tamsin, you’re with me.”

The three of them headed off at an angle and circled the ridge. They came to a large and rounded boulder, and took cover behind it. It gave them decent protection, but it also blocked their thermal optics’ view.

“Fire-team, give me a distraction.”

Something snapped loudly back by her team and she advanced. Coupling leaps with small bursts of glowing jets, she and her teammates bounded forward and closed on the still obscured target. Broad-leafed plants parted around them, and they rushed forward.

A rifle barked. Its bullet ricocheted off a nearby tree with a queer echo.

Amira bent her knees, came back to the ground, and slid in the dirt and gravel, with her two teammates doing the same a few meters behind. Her eyes went wide.

A man stood in front of her in torn cargo pants and a tank top that might possibly have been white once upon a time. His skin was covered in mud and soot, revealing spots of a rich bronze beneath. One hand held an assault rifle down by his side, and the other, covered in ropy twisting scars, held a live grenade.

His hair was dark and curly, and his slim face was half covered in a ruddy beard. His eyes were bright, active, curious.

He waved the grenade. “Care to join me for a barbecue?” he asked.

That voice. With a start, Amira recognized the man under all the dirt and unkempt hair. Her brow furrowed, and a crooked grin tugged at the edge of her mouth. Her armor interpreted the physical cues, and strips of friendly blue lights lit up all over it.

In disbelief, she said, “Jack?”

Jack Hernandez cocked his head to the side and squinted. Then he put on that ridiculous smile of his and he chuckled awkwardly. “Sal? Small damn world, isn’t it?”

“Getting smaller all the time,” she replied with mirth in her voice.

She managed not to laugh somehow. Who else did she expect to find here in the middle of this mess? There was only one person on the planet stupid enough to kick two angry dogs in the jaw and think he could simply slink away.

“Stand down, team. We’ve found our VIP.”


Join me next time for Chapter 11: Turn It Up, coming your way in just a few days.

~Chris

Copyright 2013. All rights (currently) reserved.

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