The only good news was that the League of Peoples killed bad nanotech the same way they killed bad humans: instant death as soon as the host ship crossed the line. So those of us in the Outward Fleet didn’t have to worry much about lethal attacks to ourselves or essential life-support systems. Microrobot invaders could be programmed for vandalism, like cracking ship security or gumming up fuel lines, but they were never allowed to out-and-out kill you.
They could, however, steal stuff. Valuable stuff. Like hive-queen venom.
Willow’s defense cloud chafed me hard for twenty seconds. Then it swept away, heading for the hold and the bigger battle. I was left on the deck, feeling as if a whole layer of my skin had been chewed clean off.
It had. My right hand was covered with stinging pinpricks of blood, like I’d scraped it full strength against rough concrete. As for my clothes… well, the little hunter-killers had ripped furiously into the fabric, chewing it to tatters wherever they found the least little microbe lurking in the weave. Natural microbes or otherwise. Considering how many microbes there are everywhere, I scarcely had an intact stitch left on my body.
Good thing there was no one on board to see me.
I hurried back to my cabin for new clothes. And to wash off my blood-specked hand. While I was dressing, I asked the ship-soul what was happening down in the hold.
"Our defenses are engaging the enemy," the ship-soul answered. "There is ongoing opposition."
"So the nanites are fighting back?"
"Some are providing cover while their fellows retreat. Our defenses have numerical superiority, but are encountering difficulties." "Show me."
The vidscreen in my cabin wasn’t nearly as big as the captain’s, but it still gave a decent view of the hold. Not that I had much to see: the black cloud of Willow’s defenders were bunched up close to the door and trying to push farther into the room. Something unseen was pushing back, bottling up the cloud in a pocket around the hatch.
Our forces and the enemy, fighting nano-a-nano.
"Can you magnify the shot?" I asked the ship-soul. "I want to see what they’re actually doing."
The picture switched to microscopic resolution: four black hunter-killers, each with a blobby body, a whiplike tail, and a jaggedy pincer claw, had surrounded a much smaller enemy. The enemy looked like it was made from jelly, and shaped like a ripped-out eyeball — a juice-filled balloon with a little bulge on the front and a stringy tail out the back. The tail was for propulsion, so the little beastie could swim through air like a tadpole through pond water; the bulgy bit up top probably held the nanite’s tiny brain. As for the main balloon body, it was full of grass green fluid… Mandasar venom, stolen from the dead queen.
The hunter-killers closed in fast, whipping their own tails and driving forward till the enemy was within pincer range. They all grabbed on at the same second: four claws scissoring into the enemy’s jelly body and slicing right through. The eyeball didn’t try to defend itself… and it didn’t have to. As soon as its body got cut open, venom splooged out onto all four attackers, beading up on their claws and slopping back onto their bodies. The hunter-killers suddenly started jerking their tails as if they were having fits, two of them flying right off the screen while the other pair jittered like crazy till their claws broke off.
That venom was wicked stuff. Especially against hunter-killers who weren’t built for chemical warfare.
I sat back from the vidscreen and chewed a bit on one of my knuckles. Our hunter-killers were programmed to attack four-on-one, I knew that much… so for each enemy eyeball destroyed, four of our guys would be taken out by the venom spill. Not such a great ratio for our side. We’d still win in the end, by sheer force of numbers — Willow carried at least three full defense clouds, and could manufacture more pretty quick — but by the time we fought through the nanites who were trying to delay us, the other invaders would have retreated to other parts of the ship. Finding them would be a real needle-in-the-haystack.
Of course, the computers would handle the search. Nothing for me but to sit back wondering what it all meant.
Who in the world could smuggle nano onto a navy ship? Who knew the queen would be on Willow? And who would ever want to steal queen’s venom?
Drug pirates? Supposedly the big crime lords were always looking for new chemicals that did strange things to people. So were legitimate drug companies. Those databases on Troyen, the ones that listed the ingredients of venom at each point in the cycle… they were locked up top-secret, passworded and encrypted. Samantha once called the databanks "the high queen’s golden trust fund" — formulas that could be sold for tons of money if Verity ever needed the cash.
Of course, Verity was dead now. Maybe all the people who knew the passwords were dead too. Troyen’s civil war had been going on for twenty years.
I wondered if one of the rebel factions on Troyen might want to steal venom to manufacture a whole bunch of new queens. But that was crazy — even if they milked this dead queen dry, they’d only get juice from one point in the yearlong cycle. You couldn’t use that on some poor little girl. Today’s venom might kick a gland into high gear, and tomorrow’s shut it off again. If you gave a girl one day’s dose without giving her the next day’s too, you’d completely throw off her body’s chemical balance. Like the gene treatments that were supposed to make Sam and me extra special, you might end up with someone better than average… but you might also make the little girl "a hopeless retarded idiot."
Would anyone take such an awful risk with a child? Well, yes — who knew that better than me? But it still didn’t make sense. Sending nano onto a navy ship would make the Admiralty as mad as a swarm of hornets. There had to be easier ways to get a sip of venom than taking on the entire Outward Fleet.
So why did someone do it?
For a second, I wished there was a special venom to make humans smarter. I knew I’d never be smart-smart; but I hated the way so many things went straight over my head.
If Samantha were here, she’d know what was going on.
SHIVERING A LOT
The pinpricks on my hand kept stinging. I soaked the sore parts in cold water and thought about going to sick bay for ointment… but the doctors were dead, and I wouldn’t know what to look for on my own. Instead, I headed for the captain’s quarters again, to keep tabs on the search for the nanites.
An hour later, the computer reported the hold was clean. That didn’t mean we’d killed the intruders — they’d just managed to get away to other parts of the ship. The ship-soul had found a teeny hole chewed through one of the lock hatches in the vent shafts between the hold and hydroponics next door. No surprise there; even if most of the nanites were miniature tankers loading up venom, they’d have an escort of sappers for digging in and out of wherever they wanted to go.
By now, the nanites might be spread like dust through the whole of Willow, or hiding in little bunches, tucked into crawl spaces where no one would notice them. The ship’s scans might trip over a few invaders, but a Security officer once told me such scans missed at least 95 percent of the bugs that were out there. It’s just monumentally difficult to search every particle of air for something the size of a virus, especially when the things you’re trying to find are programmed to avoid being caught.
The best I could do was tell the ship-soul to station a defense cloud around the queen’s venom sacs in case the invaders came back. I didn’t expect the cloud would have any luck — the rotten little thieves knew we were onto them. But you have to do something, don’t you?
I fell asleep in front of the captain’s vidscreen, just as ship’s day was dawning. When I woke again, my right hand really hurt — the pinprick marks were redder than before, and turning hot. So I went to sick bay after all, where I spent half an hour holding up one medicine after another and asking the ship-soul, "What does this do?" (It’s no good reading the packages; they’re all written in doctorese. Big complicated words that are intentionally invented so people can’t understand them.)