The dead people looked so sad and pointless. Even the admiral woman, lying where I’d set her down… she wasn’t going to turn into a kiss-hungry demon who came slobbering at my door. She was just going to lie there and lie there and lie there, never getting up again.
"Interior view," I told the ship-soul, trying not to let my voice crack. "The hold with the Mandasar queen."
The image on the screen shifted to show the hold… and nothing had changed there either. The queen lay dead, her claws smashed bloody, her stingers dangling limp, her venom sacs…
Her venom sacs…
They weren’t bulging quite so full. They had a tiny sag to them now. And their grass green color had faded a bit.
That wasn’t right.
"Ship-soul," I said, walking up to the screen, "can you zoom in on this area here?" I pointed to the closest sac.
The image expanded, so big I had to step back from the screen to see it properly: a huge looming close-up of the sac, and even as I watched I could see the outer membrane deflate a bit more.
What was going on?
On Troyen, one of Verity’s attendants told me queens kept making venom for two days after death… like hair and fingernails growing on human corpses. The sacs on the screen should be swelling even larger, not shrinking. I guess one of the sacs might have built up so much pressure it sprang a leak; but both sacs? Anyway, the magnified view didn’t show any spills on the floor or the queen’s body.
For a second, I had another nudge of the cold creeps. Something was happening, something I didn’t understand… and whatever it was, I had to deal with it on my own. No one would warn me if I was about to do something so brainlessly stupid any normal person would laugh out loud.
"Just move," I said to myself. "Just get moving."
I forced my feet toward the door; and soon after that I was running for the hold.
There was no one there; of course there wasn’t. The hold had looked empty on the ship’s cameras, and it looked empty when I entered in person. But just in the time I took to sprint down from the captain’s quarters, the queen’s venom sacs had sagged another few millimeters.
I approached as cautious as a mouse, keeping my eyes on the floor — if venom was spilling down, I didn’t want to step in it. For all I knew, it might eat a hole straight through my boot. Not that venom is usually acidic, but you can never tell for sure.
It’s strange, dangerous stuff, queen’s venom, especially to humans. Sometimes a teeny droplet on your skin is enough to kill you… like when it contains nerve toxins that garble up signals going to and from your brain. Your heart stops beating because it isn’t getting the right instructions anymore. Other times, though, venom isn’t lethal after all; it just gives you hallucinations… or a rash… or a crusty patch on your wrist, at which point the doctors cut off your whole arm.
(That happened once to a human maid at the palace. Queen Verity said the spill was just a terrible accident.)
The thing about venom is it runs through a cycle, over a full Troyen year. Queens are milked every day, and each batch has slightly different properties. The local biochemists have filled up dozens of confidential databases, keeping track of what you get at each point in the cycle, not to mention what happens if you milk a few hours early or late. It’s all gigantically complicated, and the scientists were always struggling over the fine details; during my time as consort, they were constantly finding new trace chemicals that turned up for maybe half a day in the cycle, then vanished for the rest of year. But everyone on Troyen understood the basic principle of what venom did: it made queens.
If a Mandasar female of six years old started suckling on a queen during the right week in spring — and if she was allowed to suckle whenever she wanted, day or night, big sips or small, throughout the year — by the next spring the little girl lobster would be a junior queen. The constantly changing mix of chemicals mutated her body; one day’s feeding multiplied her brain cells, the next day stimulated a gland, the next made her muscles grow. Soon she’d be bigger, smarter, stronger, and lots more regal than other girls her age. (Provided she didn’t die or go mad. Things like that happened now and then. There’s a reason it’s called venom.)
So walking across Willow’s hold, where there might be venom on the floor, I watched my step real carefully. But even when I got close to the queen’s carcass, I couldn’t see any leaks — not a drop on her lobstery tail, no wetness on the sacs themselves, no dribbles down her carapace or puddles on the steel-plast beneath her. Still, the sacs kept shrinking: very very slowly, but over the course of a minute, I could definitely see the difference.
So where was the stuff going? Seeping back into her corpse? I guess she had to have ducts or tubes connecting the sacs to the inside part of her body. Maybe the tubes got damaged as the queen tried to bash her way through the hull. Or maybe, when the League of Peoples wanted the queen to die, they’d just broken open a valve and let the venom slop back into her insides. Maybe that was considered poetic justice, having the queen poisoned by her own juices.
The League folks were aliens. Who knew how their minds worked?
As gingerly as a feather, I reached toward the nearest sac… and just before my hand touched the surface tissue, I felt a funny sort of fuzzy sensation on my palm.
Fuzz? There shouldn’t be any fuzz. The outside of the sac was as smooth as a balloon.
Then the truth struck me. "Ship-soul," I yelled, "nano scan! Here, now, centered on my hand."
Two seconds later, a rackety choir of alarms started wailing their brains out.
Lucky for me I’d left the hatch open. I dived out the door just before the automatic computer defenses slammed it shut with a great whacking clang. That didn’t mean I was safe, but at least I wouldn’t be locked in the hold when a full-scale nanotech war broke out. I rolled to my feet and wondered if I had time to get back to the captain’s quarters. No — a black cloud was already roaring down the corridor toward me, like a dust devil whirling on the desert wind. I dropped to the deck again, squeezing my eyes shut, covering my mouth and nose with my left hand while holding my right far out from my body. That was the hand that had touched the venom sac; that was the hand that needed to be sanitized.
The cloud swept over me like a tornado. Each tiny black-dust particle was a microscopic robot, a hunter-killer built to destroy the equally small nanites that had been buzzing about the queen. Yes — the fuzz I’d felt had been little machines, the size of bacteria or maybe even viruses; and they’d been crowding around the venom sacs so thick I could actually detect them with my fingers.
There was only one thing the nanites could be doing: sneaking their microscopic way through the membrane of the venom sac, scooping up minidrops of venom like bees sipping nectar, then crawling out again. That’s why the venom sacs had been deflating — weeny little robots were draining them in a miniscule bucket brigade.
And now Willow had sent a cloud of its own nanites to wipe out the intruders.
I could feel the defense nano scouring my skin — not just the hand that had touched the enemy, but everywhere: my face, my scalp, all under my clothes. The defenders would rip apart everything they found… even natural skin bacteria, because the people who built nano invaders often tried to disguise the tiny little monsters as ordinary microbes. When something is the same shape and size as an everyday bread mold, it’s easier to sneak past an antinano scan.
Every ship in the navy was constantly running defense scans. When crew members came aboard, they all got the once-over. So did cargo and supplies and equipment. The ship-soul also took down-to-the-atom audits of selected cubic centimeters of air, checking out every microscopic thingy to make sure it wasn’t a nanite in paramecium’s clothing. Even so, with all those precautions, a camouflaged swarm of invaders could usually avoid being noticed unless the computerized detectors knew exactly where to look. Most times you didn’t know you’d been boarded till the nanites actually attacked.