Long Fall — Chapter 27

Tuesday is for lovers and incomplete science-fiction novels. Today’s installment of Biotech Legacy: Long Fall is the recently retitled Chapter 27: Intercellular, which continues Marcus Donovan’s mission to cure the alien city.

If you’re just joining Biotech Legacy: Long Fall, you can find all of the preceding chapters right here at the Oktopod Blog.

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

Let’s dive in…


Chapter 27
Intercellular

The small shuttle named Retriever dropped out of the sky. Marcus stood uneasily near its helm and watched the snowy Earth rush up at him through the viewport, and he marveled at the strange alien creature which sat like a brightly colored and misplaced seashell discarded in the frost-blanketed landscape.

Retriever slowed as it neared the ground, then angled sharply upward until its nose was level with the horizon. The shuttle then slipped into the city’s thick traffic, where a colorful menagerie of Yuon Kwon scuttled along toward Amiasha’s western ramp.

The pilot spoke into his headset. “Arkangel Compact Air Control, this is IPS Retriever, inbound from Legacy. Requesting permission to enter city limits?”

A moment later, he pulled the shuttle out of traffic and came to a halt in mid-air.

Marcus patched into the comm network through his link. “Arkangel Compact Air Control, this is Marcus Donovan aboard the shuttle, Retriever. We’re here on an aid mission and come completely unarmed.”

No reply came.

“We can help you if you let us,” Marcus said.

Yet more quiet followed.

A strange voice said, “You are provisionally cleared for entry, IPS Retriever. We’re sending an armed escort for your own protection.”

“How kind of them,” Rao grumbled sarcastically.

Seven Yuon Kwon fighters arrived within a minute. They were the ones called Heirath—what humans referred to as cuttlefish—the same as those that carried out the initial invasion of Earth, but now piloted by human volunteers. They seemed different in some subtle way that Marcus couldn’t put a finger on.

A scratchy transmission came, speaking English with a thick French accent. “Come along, Doctor Donovan. Your presence is required at the pavilion.”

Rao bristled. “We don’t have time for any bullshit, Marc. We should head straight for the lesion and get to work.”

Marcus silenced him with a gesture. “Bullshit or not, this isn’t our decision. Pilot, fall into formation.”

The seven cuttlefish came around Retriever and surrounded it on all sides. Then as a pack, the ships moved out and sped off toward the city.

They flew in under the massive dome, and what Marcus found inside surprised him. When he’d last visited Amiasha, the place looked less like a city and more like a sloppy concentration camp built inside a sports arena. Now under Amira Saladin’s care and guidance, Amiasha had become a major metropolis that elegantly combined both human and alien traits.

Sadly, all of her hard work was currently on fire.

Smoke exhaled from neighborhoods in every direction. Aerial traffic was patchy as pilots struggled to avoid the unrest below, and craft belonging to the Civil Protectors rocketed from one flashpoint to the next.

Retriever and its escorts came quickly to a strange building shaped like an axe-head resting on its spine, surrounded by sloped structures like sheds with slanted roofs. Beyond that lay an empty field whose outer border was ringed with blooming trees.

The cuttlefish came to a halt and waited above while Retriever set down lightly on the lawn. Its rear ramp came down, and Marcus’ team made their way to the ground dressed in their old GAF pressure-suits.

Clad from head to toe in white, Marcus had just a twinge of fear that his team looked like nerds.

He reached the ground last, leaning heavily as he went on a cane that seemed entirely insufficient to the task. His body felt stiff, awkward, unaccustomed to the crushing weight of a planet’s surface. It’d been nearly two years since he last set foot on Earth, and Hell had no fury like a gravity well scorned.

He already felt exhausted by the time his boots crunched in the shaggy alien grass. He wondered how he’d manage anything more strenuous, but he wasn’t ready to call his choice to join the expedition a mistake. Not yet.

As she so often did, St. Martin said, “Damn it Marc.” She stepped up beside him and pulled his arm over her shoulders.

He smiled and asked, “Aren’t you a bit dainty for that?”

“I outweigh you,” she replied with concern strumming her voice.

A motley assortment of lifeforms approached. A Sey Chen in a shimmering robe stood beside one of the slender civilian rhinos, while a jackrabbit behind them bounced excitedly on his toes. Another variety of Oikeyan stood to the side, vaguely resembling a featherless buzzard, and in front of the group stood a human woman, Sigrid Erikkson.

Sigrid stepped up and harshly cuffed Marcus’ helmet. The blow nearly knocked him from his feet, and it was only Juliette St. Martin’s grip that kept him upright.

Erikkson’s eyes burned.

“We’re here to fix this,” Marcus said more coldly than he intended.

Erikkson craned forward and peered in at him through the helmet’s glass. “Did you give them this weapon, Donovan?”

“Stolen,” Marcus said. “Like every other damned thing these days. Look, we had no idea…”

Erikkson cut him off mid-sentence with a glare.

“If you’re quite done,” St. Martin said to her, “we have important work to do. Will you let us save Amiasha’s life?”

The Sey Chen delegate stepped forward, raised its four hands and held them apart. Lightning crackled between them, producing an unearthly voice. “What do you plan, exactly?”

“Slow the reaction then stop it,” Marcus said. “We intend to neutralize the omnibodies completely.”

Erikkson turned her back on Marcus and his people, and all of Amiasha’s councilmen had a quick but heated conversation.

Marcus felt dizzy, and as he struggled to keep his feet, he was now sure he looked like a nerd.

When the council broke, it was the rhino that stepped forward. He was so unlike the hulking warriors of his species that Marc was left dumbstruck. The others were a thousand kilos and looked like they could go toe-to-toe in a wrestling match with their Earth-born namesakes, but this one was slender and regal. His skin bore some kind of tribal marks in bright colors, and he wore several metal hoops on his face.

“You may go to the site,” he said. His voice had a low timbre and he spoke with an unusual sing-song quality. “You will remain under guard at all times, and the Civil Protector who meets you there will take command. Agreed?”

Fat chance, Marcus thought, but he said, “Agreed. Now, time is of the essence…”

Erikkson waved them off with a dismissive gesture. She was truly a politician’s politician.

With that, Marcus’ team rushed him aboard Retriever and the shuttle lifted back into the air. Surrounded now by more than a dozen of the cuttlefish—in addition to an assortment of other Yuon Kwon that Marcus had no names for—they blasted off toward ground zero.

Traffic gave the motorcade a wide berth, and they arrived on the scene quickly. The streets surrounding Amiasha’s central stalk were empty, having no doubt been fled in terror, and where Faulkland’s picture had shown a festering lesion, there was now a gaping wound with an oozing inner surface that sizzled and popped. Unlike the Legacy Fleet’s green goo, this was black as tar.

The pilot asked, “Where should I set her down, Commander?”

Marcus imagined the scene and drew a wide circle around the damage, then transmitted the picture through his link to the pilot’s display. “Anywhere outside of the line. I’ll leave the rest to you.”

Retriever came around and set down between the central stalk and the wound, forty meters off from its rotting edge. By the time the shuttle’s landing skids touched hard chitin, the ramp was already down and Marcus’ team moved out as quickly as they could with a 250 kilo block of machinery and a crippled astronomer in tow.

One of the Sey Chen aliens awaited them, wearing an odd four-armed coat with orange stripes at the shoulders and wrists. Marcus wasn’t familiar with the species’ body language, but something about this one reminded him of a grad student who’d been up for a week, running on nothing but coffee and cigarettes.

“Commander Donovan?” it asked. His voice carried a distinctly male tone.

“That’s me,” Marcus replied.

“I’m Protector Shazz, and I’ll be overseeing your operation.”

Marcus ducked his chin, and thought better of asking the spindly creature for help carrying gear. “Do you have some kind of protective garment?” he asked.

The alien said, “I’ve been exposed. The infection doesn’t seem interested in me, for one reason or another.”

Marcus nodded and then the combined team headed out to the crater. They stopped a few meters short, and Marcus fought the urge to collapse in a heap from the strain. Instead, he turned his head slowly and surveyed the area, linking the view to Legacy, whose presence loomed in the far distance. She wasn’t anymore help than he expected, but he liked to keep her informed.

Rao and St. Martin unpacked the immuno-pod and performed a quick check to make sure everything had survived the journey. These devices weren’t meant to be transported off ship, and when the two were done checking, it was a minor miracle that everything still worked.

Then came Marcus’ favorite part: his team knew what had to be done and they got to work. St. Martin began collecting samples at the edge while Rao prepared a gas grenade. When the doctor had filled her small glass tube, Rao pulled his pin and lobbed the device into the crater.

The shiny metal cylinder dropped a meter or two away from the middle then popped, releasing a soapy white substance that fluttered down to the ground in flakes. Within a minute, the wound’s gooey surface had stopped bubbling and popping.

“That should buy us some time,” Rao said. “I imagine they’ll adapt within the hour, though.”

Marcus hobbled over and leaned on the workstation where St. Martin was already hard at work. The sample tube was now plugged into the immuno-pod, and she was carefully analyzing its contents.

Rao joined them a second later, eyes darting about the way they did when he was using his phone in full-screen mode.

Then came Marcus’ least favorite part: the long wait with nothing to do. He despised feeling useless, and he’d just about had his fill of it recently.

Protector Shazz turned to him. “How in the precise fuck did this happen, Donovan?”

The protector’s frank language and surprisingly human demeanor caught Marcus off guard. “We’re not sure yet,” he said. “Someone with resources and incredibly bright researchers must have modified Legacy’s immune system. The rest I just don’t know.”

Shazz made a movement like dry-heaving, and Marcus was delighted that nothing came out.

“You worked with Carlos Hernandez?” Marcus asked.

“Charlie,” Shazz said. “Good man. We were partners for the past few months. He died making sure your damned Eireki virus didn’t wipe the city out.”

“I’ve got their network topology mapped out,” Rao said at the perfect time, closing the can of worms Marcus had just clumsily opened.

Marcus turned. “Good,” he said. “Let’s get started on cracking the security layer.”

Now he finally had something to do. “You deserve a more thorough explanation, Protector. Can I give you one after we take care of this?”

Protector Shazz bowed and ducked back a few steps.

Then Marcus relaxed his body and tuned in. His eyes glazed over as he interfaced with the machinery through his link. The device wasn’t originally designed for this, but they’d managed to hack together an abstraction layer that allowed him to tunnel directly into suitably equipped machinery. Those hacks had been refined over time, and now the system was fairly robust.

It was a shame no one else in the fleet would accept a link. Marcus suspected the increase in productivity would be startling.

When he connected to the immuno-pod, it felt like being transported somewhere else entirely. He floated in pale green fog with a handful of screens hanging in the air around him. He selected the network scanner and it enveloped him, creating a three-dimensional space filled with symbolic representations of the omnibody network’s nodes.

Messages pulsed between them, currently unfathomable due to some form of encryption. These were measures that the Eireki never considered, never even dreamed of. Such oversights occasionally made Marcus think his predecessors hadn’t been particularly talented at making war, not that he was in any position to complain.

Once he had the rhythm of the pulses down, he could begin to look for patterns. If he could figure out what sorts of messages were being passed, it would bring them one step closer to infiltrating the network.

He slid a control panel over and instructed the system to add a small organic sample to the chamber. When the piece of blank flesh hit the tube, the network lit up and Marcus watched intently. The trick was in matching up different pulses with their resulting actions: movement, cell invasion, digestion, replication.

He was relieved to find a one-to-one relationship between pulses and reactions; each broadcast carried a single command that was carried out immediately. Anything more complex would’ve swiftly shifted his efforts into the slow lane.

Marcus catalogued the various types of message and the computer automatically sorted what it had already recorded. Then, with his part of the process complete, he severed the connection.

The feeling was unnerving, like rushing up toward air after diving deeper than expected. Reality overcame him with an inaudible pop.

“Got ’em,” he said while touching the sides of his head with the thumb and middle-finger of one hand. “You’re at bat, Veej.”

Vijay Rao looked nervous and Marcus knew why: this wasn’t his specialty. The man was a brilliant theorist and mathematician, but he’d never been particularly interested in cryptography. Sadly, neither had anyone else in the Fleet.

Four years earlier while planning his expedition, Marcus had never dreamed he’d need people trained in information warfare. Now he was paying for it in time and lives.

But nervous or no, Rao tapped his phone into the network and gave it his best. His best unfortunately stretched into ten, then twenty minutes, while the nearby crater began to once again bubble and snap.

Shazz watched Rao intently. “What kind of work’s he doing?” the alien asked.

“Decryption,” Marcus said. “Slowly.”

“I could help,” Shazz said, “Sey Chen break codes.”

Marcus regarded Shazz, and the emphatic tone of the alien’s statement caught him off guard. It had stated it as fact, just as simply as it might say that cats hunt mice, or birds fly.

And suddenly, Marcus realized why Shazz and its kind spoke human languages so eerily like natives: it was just another code for them to break.

“Vijay, set the protector up on the workstation.”

The alien waggled its fingers apprehensively. “Er, problem. I can’t see shit on your screens,” it said.

“Uh,” Marcus said. “Um,” he added after a moment. “Damn,” he said finally with a sigh.

“Could you read out a sample?”

“Rao?”

“Maybe if we had until until spring.”

“Uh,” Marcus said again. He reached up and touched the side of his head, where a patchwork of small symbiotic components threaded in and out of his flesh. It was a transmitter, and he realized he had plenty of others.

“Have you seen anything coming out of these devices?” he asked of Shazz.

“Yeah, I saw some burst communication. Similar to how the Yuon Kwon speak.”

“Can you read them?”

“Not without some work.”

Marcus swore in his mind, and he wondered if Shazz saw any of that being transmitted. “Alright, I guess we’ll see just how well you break codes. I’ll send a test signal, and you go ahead and do your thing.”

Shazz brought a spherical device out of its pocket and levitated it between its hands. “Go for it,” he said in a now buzzier voice.

Marcus used his link to command the nearby workstation, and instructed it to broadcast a printer test pattern.

The alien said, “You can stop.”

Then Marcus once again had no choice but to wait. It made him want to throttle something fleshy with his feeble hands.

“Think I’ve got it,” Shazz said a moment later. “Give me something else so I can be sure.”

Marcus grabbed a random video from the workstation’s storage and broadcast it. It was a team of ranch hands on horseback lassoing a bull.

In less than a minute, Shazz said, “A group of humans executing some kind of four-legged being?”

“Close enough. Try this,” Marcus said, and he piped out the omnibody recordings.

Shazz quickly said, “Good, good. Got it.” Then the alien closed its eyes and began to concentrate.

Marcus looked to the crater and watched the wet surface undulate as tissues beneath it crumbled away. He’d never foreseen a weapon like this, so voracious, implacable, and repulsively like the memories of Nefrem bouncing around in his skull. It was an atrocity, and an ill omen that he was about to run out of time while there was still so much left to be done.

It pissed him the hell off.

“Protector,” Marcus said testily.

“Almost there,” Shazz said. The surface of its metal sphere began to glow like it was sitting over a blowtorch, and a warbling hum filled the air.

On the far end of the crater, a large chunk of armored shell melted and fell away like an ice drift at the start of summer. The black goo surged and swallowed it whole.

Shazz dropped its molten ball and yelled, “Got it! I have the key.”

Marcus prepared an open port and said, “Good, send it over.”

St. Martin’s eyes were wide and she was glistening with sweat inside her pressure-suit. “They’re becoming more virulent, Marc. Hurry.”

Shazz pointed its hands in Marcus’ direction and the encryption key arrived a second later in well formed packets. He immediately turned it around and sent the key back out to the network.

Marcus asked, “How much time do we have?”

St. Martin worked madly at her station. “Not long. The omnibody colony’s going to start metastasizing soon. I’m spinning up the replicator now.”

It could take ten minutes or more to produce a viable population of omnibodies. As was becoming all too common recently, they simply didn’t have the time.

“How confident are you this will work, Juliette?”

“Seventy, maybe eighty percent.”

Marcus had gambled on less than eighty percent before. He tapped into the network and grabbed the counter-agent protocols St. Martin had designed and he quickly scanned over the files. He wasn’t intimately familiar with the language, but it all looked straight-forward enough. St. Martin’s omnibodies would infiltrate the network and send out a piece of code that instructed the rogue variants to redistribute it and then go dormant.

Text-book simple.

Thanks to his inherited memories, Marcus knew the Eireki could control the omnibodies inside them using their telepathic abilities. Could his link do the same?

He walked toward the edge and undid his helmet, dropped it by the wayside to tumble and roll. He slowly unbuckled his collar and released the suit’s seals, all the while transmitting St. Martin’s code throughout his body… he hoped.

Rao looked away from his work and noticed what his friend was doing. “Marc?!”

Marcus waved him off. He stepped out of his suit, hobbled over to the seething wound and stopped with toes hanging off the edge, then looked down at the plague that was eating the alien ship, reducing its flesh to raw slag. He took a final breath and jumped in.


In lieu of another chapter, I’ll be releasing something different (and meatier) on Thursday. I’ll be posting more details a little later today, so just sit tight.

~Chris

Copyright 2013. All rights (currently) reserved.

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