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Johnny Winger and the Serengeti Factor

Johnny Winger and the Serengeti Factor

Leggi anteprima

Johnny Winger and the Serengeti Factor

Lunghezza:
505 pagine
7 ore
Pubblicato:
May 21, 2014
ISBN:
9781310285226
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Your buddy is a nanoscale robot named ANAD. Your enemy is a programmable virus named Serengeti. The Red Hammer cartel has created an addictive antidote to a man-made pandemic Looks like Quantum Corps has its hands full again. Lieutenant John Winger leads his beleaguered nanotroopers into combat, on battlefields across the globe and inside the world of atoms and molecules. First episode in the Tales of the Quantum Corps.

Pubblicato:
May 21, 2014
ISBN:
9781310285226
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses...just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for over 20 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3-4 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled Keeshond dog named Kelsey.For details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog at qcorpstimes.blogspot.com or his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt.

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Johnny Winger and the Serengeti Factor - Philip Bosshardt

Johnny Winger and the Serengeti Factor

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Smashwords

Copyright 2013 Philip Bosshardt

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Typical ANAD Detachment

(1st Nanospace Platoon)

Organization and Specialties

Prologue

August 2062

New York City

The back alley off East 20th was dimly lit, rat-infested and filled with trash and puddles of oily water from the night's drizzle. The night was hot and sultry, sticky and sweltering. Into the alley, a car pulled up, crunching over broken glass and gravel. Four men got out.

Three of the men were armed with black-muzzled magpulse guns. The fourth was bound at the wrists with polycuffs. His name was Moto. He was an addict.

Moto was thrown roughly to the ground, writhing in pain. One of the men, short and stocky with a black beard and a black beret, stood over Moto with a sneer, a palm-sized control pad in his hand. The driver, Leo, and Farouk, the enforcer, hung back, while Kent did the job.

Kent swore at Moto for a few minutes. You scamming us, tryin' to vulture us out, huh? Think we have no brains, is that it?

"No…man-- Moto forced out. --I mean…look, man, give me a--" Suddenly, he convulsed, rolling up into a fetal position, writhing in pain, while Leo and Farouk looked on sourly.

Kent was both judge and jury. Too late for excuses, pal. He flicked a switch on the pad and small eye-viewer swung out. A red button was thumbed. Moto convulsed like a fish, flopping and rolling across the broken glass of the pavement. He landed at Farouk's feet, got a boot in the gut for the effort. You shoulda taken out a loan--

Moto groaned, crying, whimpering, struggling with the polycuffs. Farouk used his boot to kick the poor sap over on his side. I…I ain't….I can get… get it--

Kent wasn't through. A man's gotta keep his word, ain't that right, boys?

Mm-hmmm, said Leo.

Kent did the red button again. Moto screamed, bit through his tongue and blood poured from both sides of his mouth. Farouk took the moment to find a rag and stuffed it in his mouth, earning another scream, this one muffled. Leo scanned the alley uneasily. A cat screeched in the distance.

A man don't pay for his hits-- Kent was saying, circling the prostrate form on the ground, --a man's not good for his word…well, we can't have that, can we? Sets a bad example and all. Trust is so important in this business. Can't ever get something for nothing…didn't your momma ever tell you that? Gonna have to terminate this contract for good. For emphasis, he stabbed the red button again.

Moto jerked into uncontrollable convulsions, back-snapping contortions. Leo winced at the sight. Serengeti was bad shit, no two ways about that. Get that bugger in your skull and sometimes, you weren't even yourself, more like a robot or a lab rat.

Kent motioned to the two. Stand him up. Prop him up--over there. He indicated a dingy wall, by a fire escape ladder.

Moto was hoisted up, and held, then tied by the neck to the ladder. The next convulsion would probably strangle the poor slob.

Let's see what we can see now… Kent worked the pad, dialing up a view on the tiny screen. Well, well…what have we got here? Leo and Farouk leaned a little closer.

The image fizzled, then settled down. It was an acoustic view, a snapshot of Moto's brain, the limbic system to be specific. Ventral tegmentum, just above the brain stem. As Kent fiddled with the gain, the image sharpened to a dense, hazy forest of neural tissue. Uncountable millions of neurons throbbed with pulses, while the Serengeti nanomechs pumped the gaps with dopamine, and sucked them dry just as fast. Each cycle sent Moto into shudders and spasms.

Kent snickered. Looks like the Indians have taken over the fort, boys. Take a peek. He showed them the image, as the Serengeti master replicant cruised through thickening dendrites, sounding ahead, and sending the pulses back to the imager. Moto was a twist addict, pure and simple. His brain was infested with uncountable gazillions of mechs, all working in unison, all stimulating and massaging the neural pleasure circuits, pretty much on command. Farouk chuckled at the sight.

Pusher's dream, huh?

Kent laughed. Right. Addiction on demand. Pay as you go. His laugh melted into a scowl. Or not-- He pressed the red button.

Moto jerked as if stung, pulled at the cord, nearly throttled himself. He hung limp for a few seconds, until Leo stood him up again. On the viewer, a froth churned in dopamine soup, as the mechs plied their trade, working the synaptic gaps like a musical instrument. A symphony of agony played out on Moto's contorted face.

See-- Kent bent down to come face to face with Moto. The addict's breath was sour, bloody. See--when you don't make a payment, the bosses get nervous. You know? They got bills to pay. You miss a payment and we gotta come collect. Kent stood up. You don't want us to do that, do you?

"Nuunnnhhh-- was all Moto could force out. I don't--"

I mean…it ain't like we can just pull the buggers out, now is it. We got an investment in you…you're kinda like stock. That means you gotta pay off. And when you can't pay anymore, well-- Kent half shrugged. Just like a stock--

Moto twisted at the end of his cord, banging his head on the bottom of the ladder. Kent fiddled with a few buttons, sending the mech fleet back in, stoking the dopamine, lighting a fire in the man's head. The back of his skull was bruised and bleeding, the new cranial port a gaping wound, half-finished now that Kent had interrupted the mech program.

All he had to do now was change the program running the Serengeti swarm. Instead of exciting waves of neural ecstasy and pleasure, the mechs would put the bite on Moto, slurping up enough dopamine to send the sucker into paroxysms of excruciating, unending pain.

Sorry, man, but a deal's a deal. Kent watched the mech frenzy feeding on Moto's synapses, pressed a few buttons to make it even more exquisite.

From somewhere in the distance, the cat's screech was drowned out by a siren. Tires squealed.

Leo ran back to the car to get it started. Farouk fidgeted. "Kent--come on, man--"

Kent waited until Moto's seizure had subsided. "Sayonara, my friend--"

He dialed in a new program, upping the output of the Serengeti swarm inside Moto's head to its theoretical maximum.

The jerk of his head snapped the rope, nearly decapitating the twist addict. Moto flopped on the ground like a dying fish, thrashing and banging his head repeatedly against the wall, screaming through bloody rags at the top of his lungs. As he died an agonizing, gruesome death, crawling through broken glass, rat shit and trash, Kent and his boys climbed quickly back into their car.

Leo gunned the engine and the car sped off into the drizzling, sultry New York night.

Briefing and Background

United Nations Quantum Corps Briefing Room

UNQC Base, Table Top Mountain, Idaho, USA

August 15, 2062

Morning

The skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations. With his forces intact, he disputes mastery of the empire and thus, without losing a man, his triumph is complete.

Sun Tzu

The Art of War

Major Jurgen Kraft was grim as he surveyed the assembled officers and staff. This wasn't going to be easy. CINCQUANT had contacted him at 0830 hours with a directive: get a briefing together, fast. UNIFORCE's taking on a new enemy. We just got tasking from Paris.

Kraft didn't have to ask who the enemy was. It was the plague, the pandemic that had been sweeping the world the last two years. HNRIV - Human Neuro-Receptor Inhibiting Virus, or a variant of it. The commanding officer, 1st Nanospace Battalion, had hastily put out the word: command briefing at 1200 hours…all senior staff bring your tablets. Quantum Corps had just been assigned a new mission.

The briefing got underway promptly at twelve. Lieutenant Johnny Winger, of 1st Platoon was there, with his counterparts, Lieutenant Dana Tallant and Lieutenant Nathan Caden, 2nd and 3rd Platoons, respectively. Major General Galland, United Nations Quantum Corps Western Command chief sat in the back, a scowl on his face. Galland was in charge of the Table Top Mountain base.

The tele-walls were live with two virtual attendees. One was Dr. Kip Keino, Director General of the World Health Organization. Keino had patched in from Geneva. Next to Keino's electronic image was Dr. Stuart Macalvey, from World Centers for Disease Control, on the Atlanta uplink.

Gentlemen, Kraft ran the briefing from his podium, letting SOFIE handle the visuals and support, let's get started. At 0830 hours this morning, Quantum Corps got official tasking from UNIFORCE Paris. You all know that WHO, WCDC and other public health authorities have been fighting this HNRIV virus for the better part of two years. I've asked Drs. Keino and Macalvey to be with us today…they've been on the front lines of the campaign to eradicate the virus. For awhile, the eradication and vaccination program seemed to be working pretty well. But something's happened…something unexpected. Dr. Keino--?

Keino's face was creased with worry. The Geneva link was good, good enough to see the throbbing vein above Keino's left eye. His high forehead crinkled, shone with perspiration.

The recent HNRIV epidemic has shaken the world's public health system. Fatalities at one point exceeded half a million, mostly concentrated in Africa and south Asia, but with significant effects on every continent. We have a vaccine now, as most of you know, developed by Vivonex and other drug companies that seemed to be working, at least up until about a month ago.

S-Factor? said General Galland.

That's correct, General. S Factor, or Serengeti Factor, was developed by Vivonex to combat the most virulent, fastest-mutating strain of this virus the world had ever seen. Indeed, so mutable was HNRIV that Vivonex had to attack the virus an entirely different way, with nanoscale, programmable devices, nano-robots, if you will, inserted into the infected victims.

Ay, and that's the problem, piped up Dr. Macalvey, from WCDC. The Scottish virologist had a full red beard and piercing green eyes. The cure…Vivonex's nanobotic antidote, seems worse than the disease.

Kraft waited a moment while SOFIE managed the data squirt from Atlanta. In seconds, the walls were covered with graphs, charts and maps, data overlaid with tiles of more data. As the squirt ended, splotches of red and green swept over the maps like a spreading stain. This background's going to need interpretation, gentlemen.

Macalvey obliged. What you're looking at is the epidemiology of HNRIV--that's the red areas--over the last two years. I've overlaid this with the results of administering Serengeti--that's the green.

Kraft and the assembled staff studied the animation for a few moments. At first, the red stain spread unopposed, covering wide swathes of Africa and the Indian Ocean littoral, spreading even north to Europe and beyond. Then, green splotches appeared and began to oppose the red, swelling and retreating like weather fronts. After a few moments, the red seemed to gain the upper hand. Renewing its advance, red completely pushed green out of east Africa and began advancing like a juggernaut eastward toward the Orient.

I don't get it, Kraft admitted. I thought Serengeti antidote was working.

It is, Macalvey said. Only too well, it seems. The colors are based on morbidity and mortality data. Red is HNRIV, green is Serengeti. What's happened now is that instead of millions of people dying from HNRIV, they seem to be dying or suffering permanent neural/brain impairment from the antidote itself. The red you see now, the latest wave spreading around the world, isn't HNRIV at all. It's the computer's projection of the spread of Serengeti.

Keino added, It seems that HNRIV, the viral epidemic that began two years ago, is under control, burning itself out, helped along - we believe - by the Serengeti antidote. But now, according to the mortality data, we've got a new pandemic

Galland stood up and came closer to study the advancing wave of red. You're saying the Serengeti Factor—the Vivonex antidote--is doing this? Killing all these people?

Macalvey stroked his beard, chewed thoughtfully on a pipe. We're not sure what's causing the increased mortality. Could be post-viral stress…the infected all suffer from weakened immune systems. Could be secondary infection, although Serengeti should be able to fight that with its current programming. Could be-- he shrugged--any number of things. We just don't know.

Keino said, Known symptoms are pretty consistent, from what we've seen: odd and accelerating episodes of neural impairment. Actually, overstimulation of certain critical neural pathways in the brain stem and limbic system. We think it's a malfunction of the Serengeti nanobot.

Vivonex knows about this?

Keino nodded. They've taken Serengeti off the market. Instituted a recall of affected batches. Problem is a black market has developed. A new epidemic is developing quickly, explosively. More and more addicts are turning up--Hong Kong, Tokyo, Nairobi, New York, London, all major cities, many in the East. And they're turning up dead.

Addicts?

Macalvey shifted uneasily on the screen, while Keino looked down at some notes.

Keino spoke first. There's some controversy about this--

Horse malarkey. Macalvey blurted out. It's clear enough, Dr. Keino, if you use your eyes.

What's going on here? Kraft was intrigued. Even as he spoke, SOFIE was putting up epidemiology projections. In less than a month, from small patches of red on the coasts, all of North America would be covered in a sea of red.

Macalvey snorted. Keino's too much a diplomat. There's plenty of evidence, anecdotal some of it, but some is hard, pathology data--that the Serengeti device isn’t any longer what it was originally designed to be. Somehow, the device's programming has changed. The question is: has it changed by accident--some kind of unforeseen glitch. Or has it been altered intentionally, to assume this more virulent form after being administered.

The evidence is fragmentary-- Keino tried to say, but Macalvey cut him off.

--the evidence shows what it shows, the Scot was firm. We've taken cultures from dozens of deceased addicts. Done path and other analyses on the nanobotic remnants. Something's fishy.

How so? Gallant cut in.

Just this-- Macalvey squirted a new report, with text and graphics onto the uplink. Seconds later, SOFIE refreshed the walls and imagery from Atlanta bloomed into view. "See…I don't quite agree with Dr. Keino on this. WHO's in Geneva. They've got a lot of UN types breathing down their necks. They have to be careful what they say, don't offend anybody. Plus Vivonex is figuratively right next door. The main lab's a hundred kilometers west, in Basel. Me…I look at what the data says."

And what is that? asked General Galland, strolling along the walls full of new charts and graphs.

The path reports say that this new epidemic, is not entirely natural or accidental in origin.

You mentioned addicts. You're saying Serengeti's addictive?

I'm saying the mech's got capabilities I can't account for. And neither can Vivonex. Look…I've spent most of the last week studying Serengeti's structure. Mighty weird, if you ask me. All kinds of latent capabilities: odd looking effector mounts, odd looking molecule groupings…things that can't possibly be for binding to the HNRIV virus.

Kraft, Galland and the rest of the battalion staff congregated around imagery of the Serengeti mech taken from different addicts.

These views are from our Quantum Flux Imager. Look at the before and after, Macalvey said. After injection, somehow, the mech grows a whole armory of effectors it doesn't need. Defeating HNRIV requires certain molecule groups to be able to bind to its active sites, disable it, render it harmless, incapable of penetrating nerve cells.

Lieutenant Johnny Winger pointed to some effectors on the before image of Serengeti. This mech appears to have the kind of grapplers I would expect to defeat a virus.

"That one does, Macalvey said. But look at the after image…imagery taken from addicts. The virologist used SOFIE to highlight some suspect regions on the mech's surface. What on God's green earth are these doodads?" Macalvey's virtual pointer circled some polyhedral structures just visible above the base of the mechanism.

Weird, admitted Johnny Winger.

You done any tests? Kraft asked.

Macalvey smirked. Almost nonstop.

Keino cut in. These tests are inconclusive--

--and mighty damn suggestive, Macalvey wasn't going to be denied. You know what those doodads seem to be for…and it’s consistent with the path reports and observational evidence too?

I have no idea, Kraft squinted, measuring a fuzzy protuberance on the image using his fingers as a caliper.

They inhibit dopamine re-uptake in nerve cells, nerve cells in the limbic cortex and the mesoencephalic brain stem, specifically the ventral tegmentum.

In English, if you don't mind, doc, Kraft said.

That's the area of the brain that generates pleasurable stimuli…the same area that addictive substances work on. Cocaine, jazz, twist, whatever…they all work the same way. Keep neurochemicals like dopamine from being re-used after every nerve impulse and you flood the nerve tissue with good times. Keep the nerve cells stoked with dopamine and pretty soon you got one hell of a lot of happy customers. On the screen, Macalvey bent to his pipe, fussing to get the tobacco lit properly. He went on.

For my money, Serengeti's got extra tools that go way beyond bottling up HNRIV virus. It looks to me like this little bugger's got a snazzy way of supplementing your brain's monoamine supply. Probably can go both ways, if I'm reading the structures right. Pleasure or pain, whatever turns you on.

Kraft looked at Galland and frowned. You put this before the Vivonex people, I presume.

Keino cleared his throat. Several times, Major. They've been fairly evasive with their answers. Lately, they won't even let WHO into their Basel labs.

So you contacted UNIFORCE?

Frankly, Keino added, we need your help. We need an outside agent to investigate the entire matter. Determine if Vivonex is dealing straight with us.

Kraft and his staff discussed the possibilities.

Lieutenant Winger had a thought. Major, there is one scenario that we ought to consider.

Explain.

Vivonex may be working with an outside power here. An outside organization that's financing them to extend the reach of this Serengeti technology. In public, they work with and cooperate with WHO and WCDC to fight off HNRIV. Behind their backs, they put out this nanobotic antidote with extremely powerful and programmable addictive qualities. Hell of a campaign, if you ask me. Cure the world of HNRIV virus and gain a million addicts in the process.

Kraft nodded. Like a license to print money. And I can think of some likely suspects too.

The briefing went on for another half an hour, as the battalion staff examined Macalvey and Keino's data more closely. Major Kraft decided they had enough to get going.

We've got tasking and authority from UNIFORCE, so this mission's on, he explained. He turned to his platoon leaders. Options, gentlemen?

Maybe we ought to start at the beginning, Lieutenant Winger suggested. Where the index case was found.

That would be Ngongolo Hills, Kenya, Macalvey pointed out.

Exactly, Keino agreed. Where the virus first crossed over to infect human hosts. It's a well-documented case.

What have you got in mind, Lieutenant?"

Winger ran his hands through his blond crew cut. Well, sir, suppose we exhume the body of the index case--what was his name--?

Macalvey fumbled for some notes. Soweto, I believe--

We exhume this Soweto and let ANAD probe the body. With ANAD's abilities, we ought to be able to get super-high resolution, see what the virus did, maybe even find virion particles or molecule debris from the infected sites. Characterize the effects of HNRIV real carefully. The index case is the way to go, Major. This poor fellow died before Serengeti was fully proven. He should be the least contaminated with the treatment.

Same for most of the dead in that village, Keino added. HNRIV was most virulent there. They all died before anything could be done for them. He shook his head. Horrible…gruesome deaths….

With ANAD, Major, we should get a good idea of what it takes to really fight HNRIV. With that, we can backtrack, decide what's really needed to battle the bugger. With any luck, we'll pick up some Serengeti debris too, see how it matches up with HNRIV

Keino thought it was a good idea. Ngongolo Hills is the locus, the heart of HNRIV territory. The big question is why? What element or factor made the virus so potent that it leaped species barriers and infected human hosts?

Infected them so completely it killed them, Macalvey added. Doesn’t make evolutionary sense at all. Unless--

Lieutenant Tallant got his meaning. --Unless it wasn't a natural process at all. Maybe it was something else…someone else, helping the process along.

Winger agreed. We have to know what we're up against, before we know how to fight it. Are we fighting HNRIV? Or are we fighting Serengeti?

Kraft nodded, Understand the battlespace. A little reconnaissance is in order.

They discussed possibilities. Winger studied the maps SOFIE had put up. Waves of red and green were slugging it out across the Eurasian landmass. Splotches of red speckled the coasts of North America. There's another possibility, Major. What if Vivonex is working with an outside power. Cooperating with WHO and the public health authorities with one hand and with the other, doing everything they can to extend this addictive agent. I can think of several suspects.

So can I, Kraft said. Immediately, the Pine Bend Incident came to mind. Seven years before, agents of a foreign power had infested the municipal water supply of Washington, D.C. with a programmable virus similar to HNRIV.

It's got Mustafa Gaidar written all over it, Kraft admitted. But Quantum Corps chased him out of Balkistan during the Third Kurganian War.

True enough, Tallant said, but remember that intel we got a year ago. Somehow Gaidar had hooked up with Red Hammer.

The prospect of the former Balkistani dictator working for the most notorious criminal cartel on earth was unsettling.

It's a lead we can't overlook, Kraft agreed. His stomach churned at the scenarios they were spinning. Dealing with Red Hammer had cost the Quantum Corps too many casualties in the past. UNIFORCE has given this crisis Level 1 priority. That means we've got to move fast. Lieutenant Winger, I'm forming an ANAD Detachment immediately. You'll command but I'm pulling elements from all three platoons. Get over to Ops and get your gear ready for a little recon trip to Kenya. I'll notify a hyperjet to standby.

Yes, sir, Winger said. We'll be ready to ship out in an hour. He and Tallant and Caden left and headed over to the Ready Room to go over personnel and equipment.

While the troops organized, Major Kraft used the Level 1 alert to pull rank on every battalion in Quantum Corps. 1st Nano was his baby and he didn't have time now to teach it to walk. They'd have to tango with the enemy from the first moment they hit the ground. HNRIV and Serengeti had seen to that.

1st Nano was the newest kid on the block, with a mission simple to state but damnably hard to execute: develop doctrine and wargame how to use the new ANAD technology. Kraft figured 1st Nanospace Battalion was in truth the bow wave of a revolution in combat but Quantum Corps had other elements as well. With a true Level 1 alert having jolted Table Top Mountain fully awake, Kraft had no trouble getting CINCQUANT to detach participants from other battalions to take part in the mission.

If Red Hammer truly was involved, they'd need all the help they could get.

On the sprint across the quadrangle of the Ops Center, Lieutenant Nathan Caden finally caught up with Winger and Tallant, hustling over to Ordnance/Mission Prep.

Winger and Tallant were trading insults with Reinhart and Holt from 1st Bio.

I hear you're off to Africa, Reinhart cracked. Sure you don't need any help with all those creepy-crawly things?

Winger was deep in thought. He’d had run-ins with Red Hammer before… Hong Kong most recently. 1st Nano had licked their wounds for a long time after that one.

The real creeps are here, Dana Tallant said. Although I would like to test-drive ANAD in a really sticky wargame against you jokers again. I bet I could lick any of those bugs you guys mess around with. Disassemble every last molecule before you ever knew what hit you.

That's the trouble with you IC's, Reinhart said. Always wanting to fiddle, modify and re-program. You got to have a real man to win a real fight.

Winger chuckled softly at that. Not when I can make a real man a puddle of protoplasm in ten minutes.

Hey, Wings Caden caught up with them. I'm stopping by Containment for a minute. I want to run a last test on ANAD's enzymatic knife. That sucker freezes up again and the whole operation's hosed.

Good idea, Winger said. For once….While you're at it, make sure ANAD's fully safed for transfer to mobile containment. I don't want any problems when he moves into TinyTown.

Sure thing. Caden ignored the dig and scooted off toward the Containment Facility, on the south side of the Mesa. He caught a glimpse of the rest of the team as they disappeared into Mission Prep. When he was sure they were out of sight, he changed heading and ducked into the Barracks instead. He checked to make sure no one had seen him.

In his quarters, Caden locked the door. He went to the workstation by the bunk and booted up the computer, copying a small, encrypted file he had finished last night over to the T-link, the transmit bucket. Then, he went to his locker and dug for a moment, eventually finding a small fist-sized device, with a wireless sender on one end. He placed the device within a foot of the T-link and activated a hidden button recessed in the back of the device.

Pity the Corps doesn't have anything like this, he thought. The quantum coupler could send burst messages instantaneously by a link made through entangled quantum states. No jamming, no intercept, no real need to encrypt it at all. Only a receiver with the same quantum state generator could receive the squirt.

Instantly, the file was zapped off into the ether, a short twenty nanosecond burst through the quantum-coupled link to his contacts in Hong Kong.

And Lieutenant Caden's contacts didn't work for Quantum Corps at all.

CHAPTER 1

Kinsman held aloof, brother was forsaken by brother, oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children to their fate, untended, unvisited as if they had been strangers.

Boccacio

Preface to the Decameron

Ngongolo Hills, Kenya

Near the village of Uliba

August 18, 2062

Midday

No question about it, Johnny Winger was the best code and stick man 1st Nanospace Battalion had ever seen. He was a natural about it, like he'd been born to the interface controls, able to see and anticipate things at indescribably tiny scales in a way that was almost eerie. As a platoon leader in 1st Nano, Lieutenant Winger was a short timer; he'd been in the billet less than six months. Which was probably just as well. With Major Kraft having named him to lead the ANAD Detachment on a recon of HNRIV's home territory in Kenya, Winger had enough to deal with.

He didn't need any static from jealous colleagues like Dana Tallant and Nathan Caden.

Quantum Corps' hyperjet Charioteer touched down at Nairobi's airport a little after noon local time, kissing the tarmac with a hard bump after a grueling eight-thousand mile, three-hour flight from Table Top. From the top of the ramp, Winger found the capital of Kenya a sprawling, dun-colored metropolis perched on endless miles of grassland and scrub bush. Though the city was only a hundred and fifty miles south of the Equator, the air was surprisingly cool and dry. Through distant haze, snow-capped mountains rimmed the horizon.

Kilimanjaro is somewhere out there, Winger remembered from the maps. But there was no time for sightseeing.

Fall out! he yelled. Get the pallets unlocked and rolled out. Lifters'll be here at 1350 hours.

The ANAD Detachment was a bastard creation on anybody's organization chart, but Kraft had pulled all the talents and ratings a Level 1 mission would need and Winger was glad of it. As the team floated their pallets of equipment out of Charioteer and stacked them for loading on the lifters that Quantum Corps Central had staged down from Balzano, Italy, Winger silently inventoried the team and their gear.

First were the IC's, interface controllers to the uninformed. IC's were the Detachment's 'code and stick' men, responsible for programming the ANAD mechanisms, or 'driving' the master replicant if the situation called for it.

Next were the CEC's. That stood for Containerization and Environmental Control. The CEC's did service and support for the TinyTowns that ANADs traveled in, from one theater to another. And you couldn't forget the CQE's, Communications and Quantum Engineering. CQE's were the Mr. Fixits of the detachment. They had responsibility for the comm and data links, for computer setup and maintenance, even the hypersuits the unit sometimes wore into combat.

Rounding out the detachment were a pair of SDC's, whose main job was stealth and defensive countermeasures for the unit and another pair of DPS's, the Defense and Protective Systems specialists, who manned the coil-gun patrol bots and the group's HERF and magnetic weapon systems.

Overseeing all, the CC's were command and control ratings who did all the mission planning, all the tactical decisions, the sitreps and writeups and most of the ass-kicking needed in the field.

That was ANAD Detachment Alpha, twelve people in all. Only the two CC's were officers. Everybody else ate from the non-comms' mess.

Winger motioned the CC2 over. Lieutenant Dana Tallant had been helping the CEC's with stowing the containment pods for loading aboard the lifters when they arrived, when she saw Winger's hand signal. Tallant jogged over to see what was up.

Winger was shaking hands with a heavy-set ruddy-cheeked man in a khaki outfit.

Lieutenant, meet Dr. Stuart Macalvey…just flew in from Atlanta. Our WCDC contact and guide.

Macalvey bowed and offered his hand. Tallant snapped off a smart salute.

A bit dry and dusty, gents, Macalvey was saying. He lowered his cap, squinting off toward the west. A utility truck was speeding across the tarmac toward Charioteer, a rooster-tail of dust trailing behind it. The truck jerked to a stop ten feet away. A statuesque black man got out and came over.

Macalvey recognized the officer and made introductions. Ah, just in time…this is Colonel Udinka, Kenya Territorial Guard. He'll be our chaperon today.

Udinka saluted all. You have all your gear here, Lieutenant?

Winger nodded. Yes, sir…just waiting on the lifters.

Udinka squinted into the western sun. "Where we are going is kulwezi liwale…how do you say, most disturbing. The spirits are angry…much death…great suffering--"

Macalvey spied the pair of UNQC lifters overhead, circling Mombesi Field, ready to land near Charioteer. Here comes our ride, gents. The Colonel has generously detailed two infantry platoons to use…we've already worked out the details with the village chief. Rather obstreperous fellow. Shell-shocked you might say, over the plague and all. Name's Enkare.

We need to gather intelligence on the threat, Colonel, Winger said. Sampling the air, soil, some of the human remains, may give us some idea of what we're up against.

Macalvey cleared his throat. Mmm…that could present a slight problem. He managed a sideways glance at Colonel Udinka. You see, Chief Enkare is dead set against any more desecration of the dead. Restless spirits and all. Seems we may have to do a little cajoling to smooth things over. Chief Enkare won't take kindly to digging up corpses and launching your ANAD bugger inside them.

Not to worry, Udinka boomed. I have authority from the Government to assist you in any way.

His voice was drowned out by two black lifters settling onto the ramp a few dozen yards away. Winger hand-signaled for the Detachment to start moving their gear out.

Before the dust had settled, the pallets were pressurized and hustled over on curtains of air, while the lifters squatted down to accommodate the loading process. They looked for all the world like fat mosquitoes, their articulating landing skids retracted to ground level for mission onloading.

Lieutenant Nathan Caden supervised the process. Ten minutes later, he jogged over to Winger. Another half hour and the pods will be secured. Then it’s just the DPS stuff...charges are being checked now--and we'll be ready to rumble.

Very well. Winger checked his watch. He wanted to be at the village of Uliba before sundown. Muster the detachment for a final briefing. We go airborne at 1400 hours.

Udinka waved his own troops to fall out and board the Quantum Corps lifters. It's an hour flight down to the border. Ngongolo Hills and the crater straddle the boundary. Uliba's just on our side, right next to the crater and Kipwezi…the volcano.

Lieutenant, you figuring Level One…opposed entry? Caden asked. Tactical doctrine called for proper protection any time 1st Nano troops went into unfriendly terrain.

Winger had other ideas. My read of the tactical situation is no…it'll take too long to suit up. But bring the hypersuits anyway. HNRIV or Serengeti may yet have some unpleasant surprises for us.

Caden snorted but obeyed. He was certain Major Kraft would regret having made Winger CC1 for the mission.

Caden and Tallant oversaw the final loadout of the lifters, then gave the CQE's a hand with the hypersuits. Hard-shelled, boosted exoskeletal frames, the H-suits were an infantryman's best friend, short of his assault weapon. It took the Detachment half an hour to suit up and check systems.

By midafternoon, in a stiff northwesterly breeze, the flotilla of lifters set off, bearing south by southwest on a direct vector to the Ngongolo Hills district and the Tanzanian border.

The hour went by quickly enough and Johnny Winger watched the pale blue oval of Lake Victoria slide by along the horizon, while he reviewed the tactical plan for Quantum Warrior in his mind, rehearsing scenarios and options over and over again. SOFIE was always a comforting voice at times like this. Rather like having your mother go over your homework with you, he thought.

A grassy escarpment rolled by twenty-thousand feet below them, as the lifter pilots maneuvered toward Ngongolo Hills. Acacia woodlands dotted an open grass range, with the shoreline of Lake Natron and the craggy faulted walls of Ngongoro crater making an impressive backdrop. As Winger and the rest of the Detachment looked on through scattered clouds, great herds of wildebeest and Thomson's gazelle undulated across the plain, kicking up dust for miles around.

Impressive, isn't it? Dr Macalvey observed. I've been coming here with the Epidemic Intelligence Service for the better part of two years and I never tire of the view. Over there'-- he pointed through a porthole at strings of smoke issuing skyward from an encampment on the steeply sloping ramparts of Kipwezi volcano. Cooking fires from the village. That's our destination…Uliba.

Moments later, the lifter pilots had circled the volcano several times to gauge the prevailing winds and set the small force down with a thump onto dark pebbly ground in a clearing southwest of the village. A quick infrared and EM scan of the surrounding rocks and black hills produced no obvious threat signatures.

As soon as the lifters touched down, Winger got on the tactical crewnet and issued dismount orders.

Step lively, fellows. And keep your eyes and antennas open. HNRIV may yet have something nasty in store for us.

The rest of the Detachment had been unloading gear for a few minutes when a small group of local Masai appeared at the edge of the clearing. They were tall, regal people, the men with colorful checked headbands, bearing spears, and the women wearing intricate beaded necklaces and cotton sarongs, called kangas. Many of them seemed weak, drawn, haggard, even sad.

The villagers moved into the clearing and surrounded the Detachment, not threateningly, but with purpose.

Colonel Udinka and the Territorial troops moved out and secured a perimeter to block any further approach. Udinka shouted out a few words in the local dialect.

"Kombasa ulithi lugguru mahenge!"

One man, weighted with ornate headbands and an especially large spear, came forward.

"Mahenge maua. Njombe!" He swept his arms around, palms out, circling the

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